Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty

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This is a very cool locked room murder mystery in space. As such, anything I really want to say about it will be a spoiler.

Dagnabbit.

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I enjoyed Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York City earlier this year, but that in no way prepared me for Six Wakes, which is in a whole different league – tense, fast-paced and un-put-down-able. Whereas upon finishing Shambling Guide I was feeling both impressed and a little disappointed, after reading Six Wakes I am nothing but captivated.

The basic set up is as follows: The six clones that make up the crew of the generational starship Dormire (an Italian word meaning ‘to sleep’ – d’you see what she did there?) awake simultaneously in their vats to find their previous selves have all died in violent ways. The ships logs have been wiped and the clones have no memories beyond their initial launch, which they soon discover was twenty-five years ago. All that is really obvious to them is that one of them must be the killer. But who? And how? And what on earth for?

The story is then structured around six ‘awakenings’, as Maria, Katrina, Joanna, Hiro, Wolfgang and Paul try to piece together what has happened to them, both in their present situation and in their past lives. As you’d expect from any murder mystery lots of secrets are revealed and opinions and allegiances change as discoveries are made, but all the characters are brilliantly written and the plot is very satisfying. Cloning and how it has both divided and changed society is at the crux of the story, and I would have read this for Lafferty’s vision of that future alone even without its gooey mystery centre, (I’ve made a note-to-self to seek out more scifi dealing with cloning, so if anyone has any suggestions please let me know).

And having reached the limit of what I can say without giving any of the good stuff away, here, instead, is a blow-by-blow account of how reading this book went for me:

 

Pages 1 to 22 – dead bodies in zero-g     messy and gross, but I like Hiro from the get go

Page 59 – Maria keeps an old kettle, tea and honey for emergencies    now I like Maria too

Page 76 – Maria finds her video     uh-oh

Page 78 – Hiro finds his video     double uh-oh

Page 84 – Paul     I’m watching you Paul. I don’t like you Paul.

Page 112 – IAN     Hmmm, are you a HAL? Or a GERTY?

Page 151 – Aunt Lucia     WTF???

Page 179 – Hiro has some sort of mental break     No, no! I like Hiro! Also, it can’t be that simple can it? We’re not even halfway yet 

Page 228 – Paul     Boo! Hiss!

Page 240 – Wolfgang’s backstory     Oh man! That is f***ed up!

Page 271 to 287 – Maria     And it’s all starting to make sense now – this is bad bad bad *rocking back and forth* But also the Mrs Perkins thing is pretty AWESOME

Page 298     Oh crap!

Page 302     Oh double crap!

Page 314     crapcrapcrapcrapcrap…

Page 344    …crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap

Page 353 – Bebe      and breathe again *lying down on floor while heartrate returns to baseline* 

 

In conclusion, read this book. It’ll only take a couple of hours of your life. If you hate it, fine, that’s just a couple of hours lost and it’ll make you a better person (adversity is supposed to do that). But if you love it … well, then we can grab a cuppa and some cake and have a chat about cloning as a method of attaining immortality, and the limits of culpability. And you’re welcome!

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Alien Earth by Megan Lindholm

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I don’t know how long I’m going to manage coherency here, before this just becomes one long gush of everything I loved about this book, but I’ll give it a go.

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Megan Lindholm (A.K.A. Robin Hobb), writes characters and the tensions between them so, so well that I found myself gnawing at my knuckles and completely unable to disengage over the two days it took me to read this book. I got angry, I got frustrated, I chuckled, I nearly cried, I sighed a huge, heartfelt sigh of relief at one point … man, it was a great ride! For good or ill, I am now firmly aboard the Lindholm/Hobb train. (And not likely to run out of reading material anytime soon, therefore).

What it comes down to is that I really admire her skill with characters. In Alien Earth she focuses on a small cast of five, but they are five distinct personalities, three human, two alien, and they all experience their own full character arcs over the course of the book. John and Connie, Conservancy-era humans born and bred, are both quite difficult to like at the beginning (John gets described as a “prick” numerous times in the first few chapters, and Connie just hunches her shoulders whenever she’s spoken to), but they both improve upon further acquaintance. Raef, an Earth-born human deemed unworthy of a new life under the Conservancy, at first seems a bit redundant within the story except as a tool for comparison, but as his story unspooled I think I came to love him best of all the humans. Then there’s the hateful, spiteful, manipulative, patronising, self-important representative of the Arthroplana, Tug (I wasn’t fond of him – the first note I made about him while reading was “not sure I like Tug”), who sneers at humans while also being fascinated by them. And there is Evangeline the Beastship. Evangeline is … awesome … in the full sense of the word.

The basic outline of the story is that centuries ago humanity was rescued from a dying Earth by the Arthroplana in their Beastships and bought to the twin planets of Castor and Pollux. Having damaged its home planet so completely, humanity must now make amends by making as little impact as possible on their new worlds. Castor and Pollux both have cooperative ecologies very different to Earth’s competitive one, and humanity is becoming less and less recognisable as the Human Conservancy and the Arthroplana implement changes to keep the species “in harmony” with the world around it. Humans are smaller, have a much longer lifespan, remain in a prepubescent state for nearly the first hundred years of their lives, and can no longer reproduce without intervention. However, there are some who believe that Earth may not be as thoroughly dead as the Conservancy insists it is, and so John, captain of the Beastship Evangeline, is hired to return to Earth and find out how she’s doing.

The journey through space isn’t anywhere as near as important as the personal journey each character then embarks upon. And this is probably where I’m going to lose my shit, so be warned. (Also, SPOILERS).

For John and Connie, who have both been branded as “unadjusted” (that is having undesirable and inharmonious characteristics) in their pasts, Earth is both a potential refuge and a horror, a planet they are unequipped to survive on even if it is still habitable. But in going there they are given the opportunity to look at how they have been labelled and decide for themselves, outside of the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conservancy, how just or unjust those labels were. Connie’s healing is particularly poignant (and was incredibly personal for me). For Raef, rejected a place in the new world because of a physical weakness (he has cancer) and a stowaway in one of the Waitsleep wombs deep within Evangeline where he dreams his slowed-down life away, the journey doesn’t matter at all, but his developing relationship with Evangeline does, very much. And for Tug the journey involves a number of well-deserved rude awakenings and a lovely big comeuppance, although of all the characters he’s the least changed in heart and mind.

Evangeline’s journey is the most momentous though. The Arthroplana see Beastships much in the way that we perhaps see dogs. They’re individuals, they have some intelligence, they are eager to please and desirous of companionship – all of which makes them eminently trainable to our will. The Arthroplana are wrong. Evangeline has been cowed into a small and boring existence of servitude by her training. She is utterly charming from the get go, desperately trying to be a good Beast, greedily lapping up any small attention she receives from her owner Tug, taking his paltry offering of the game of Tic-Tac-Toe and rendering it “harmonious” by eliminating all the Os so that Xs win, always and forever. But Raef’s vivid dreams tickle her interest and she learns through him how to exercise her imagination. A dangerous thing, as she chooses to imagine her life without Tug’s control. Evangeline’s subsequent meteoric rise out of slavery is beautiful to behold. And her friendship with Raef is likewise beautiful. He gives her the language and images to become more fully what she should always have been, and in return she enables him to finally put his overwhelming anger in its rightful place. Labelled, bullied and belittled as a child Raef’s healing is as important as Evageline’s. As important as Connie’s. And they all come about through connection. Tug, physically connected to Evangeline, encysted within her, feeding via her, not a symbiont so much as a parasite, is the only character who proves unable to really connect or empathise with any other character, and because of that he cannot be saved.

Raef’s childhood friend Jeffrey says “the only real pain is when you can’t be who you really are”, which sort of sums up Alien Earth pretty neatly. Away from our home planet, undergoing more and more adaptations to try to fit into worlds we were not originally evolved for, humanity is becoming less and less viable. I loved the almost throwaway scene where Connie goes to the area of Delta Station where the elderly live. Here there is graffiti against the Conservancy and “Timely Terminations”, public benches are overturned and people have real barriers up at the entrances to their homes (a punishable offence). Later on in the book it’s mentioned that the number of Adjustments is on the rise. John loves his life as a Mariner for its long periods of Waitsleep, lost in dreams and well away from the society that has denied him the right to ever stand upon a planet’s surface. Waitsleep appeals just as much to Raef, who dreams his life over and over the way he’d have liked it to have gone. And Evangeline learns to dream, to “pretence”, as her first step towards becoming who she really is.

Being who we really are is something I think we all struggle with at some point in our lives. This is a wonderfully hopeful book about the benefits to be gained from being so.

 

P.S.

Oh man, there’s so much more to love that I haven’t mentioned!

The layers of descriptions of Tug throughout the book that slowly build up our mental picture of him, beginning with his foreshortened arms and his feelers, building with his “fluke-like” midsection, his scolex and his nematocysts, his back plates, recessive mandibles and gas bladders, before Raef finally sums him up as “a huge pink earwig”.

The descriptions of Evangeline in all her tendrilled, fanned glory, in comparison.

The Conservancy’s slow but sure eradication of all of humanity’s literature (horror of horrors), and the pirate trade in books and poetry.

John and Connie’s first reactions to Earth. Particularly Connie’s. How they revise their opinions. Lindholm’s beautiful descriptions of a truly alien Earth.

Tug’s obsession with and Great Study of Humanity’s Mysteries – that is our detective novels. Another Arthroplana is equally absorbed in a study of the “nok-nok joke”. These are the aliens denying Humanity access to space travel for goodness’ sake.

Raef’s room at the end of the book. All the feels.

Beholder’s Eye by Julie E Czerneda

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I bought Beholder’s Eye earlier this year, in April in fact, right after Little Red Reviewer had Julie E Czerneda as a guest on her blog to promote her latest Web Shifters book. (It’s a really good post, which you can read here if you’re interested).

Hmmm, you don’t seem as impressed as you should be. I’ll say that again with more emphasis: this book I’ve just read was bought this year. I just read something in the same year that I bought it! This never happens! Be impressed (you can pretend – I’ll not know)!! J It normally takes me a good five years, at least, to dig out and read something I was extremely excited about at the time of purchase. Heck, if you’re not impressed I am!

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And this book was just the kind of scifi I like most too. It had some great ideas, fabulous aliens, daring escapes, humour and a big, warm, beating heart. And there’s more where it came from, so right now I have that lovely feeling of anticipation for the next Web Shifters adventure as well as the satisfaction I got from reading this one. Mmmm …

Esen-alit-Quar is the 500-year-young shapeshifter heroine of Beholder’s Eye. She is impetuous and brave, affectionate and curious, and quite unlike the five other much, much older members of her Web (or biological family). On her very first assignment she breaks one of the Web’s cardinal rules by revealing her true nature to a human, a First Contact officer called Paul Ragem, and the book is as much about the calamitous consequences of this as it is about the beginnings of their extraordinary friendship. Both the book, and Esen, are an absolute blast.

Because being an extremely long-lived shapeshifter opens up the universe for you like nothing else, so what do you do with yourself? Esen’s Web, under the guidance of their oldest member/sort-of-mother Ersh, seeks out and preserves intelligence. They learn both the fundamental biological structure of (and how to shapeshift into) a species, and everything they can of its culture, primarily by living as one of the observed species for a loooong time. The Web is, in effect, a living library of species knowledge and everything learned by an individual is periodically shared between all members (by simultaneously eating and being eaten by each other – so cool! Who needs flash drives and clouds, eh? Hmm, or books for that matter … OK, I see a problem …). Reading a book from the point of view of a being that can perfectly become another species, and take on that species’ characteristics and instincts but still retain a core self was just the most fun. With a brilliant imagination and a background in biology Czerneda’s aliens are so much more than conveniently humanoid beings with extra appendages. Esen experiences life as a canine-like Lanivarian (able to comfortably walk on both four legs and two), an amorphous Ycl, a giant, furry and vocally-challenged Crougk, an extremely tactile, long-limbed Ket, and, my absolute favourite, a bovine Ganthor, with an incredibly strong herd instinct and a very smelly method of communication.

That’s perhaps what has left the most lasting impression on me after reading this, that each of the alien species Czerneda creates feels like the product of a completely different set of rules to those of humanity. They feel alien. They can be analogous to something on Earth – the Panacians, for example, are insect-like, and their culture and outlook reflects that quite vividly – or they can be utterly unrecognisable, like the Web itself, in all its blue teardrop-shaped glory. But either way, through Esen we get to see what it might be like to be something other than ourselves.

She casually remarks when in Ket form that there are parts of the spectrum she cannot see, and food is pretty tasteless, but the texture of a fabric seat cover beneath her extremely sensitive hands envelopes her almost entirely in sensual delight. As a tiny Quebit she is absorbed by the finest details, like loose panel fittings and badly laid carpet, and no longer feels fear or any kind of concern over the future. As a Ganthor that smelly, rowdy group of mercenaries over there becomes her herd, efficiently and eloquently reasoning via their language of chemical signals that she should rejoin them for safety and strength, occasionally punctuating their argument with pushing, shoving and stamping. It’s funny and clever and thought-provoking all at the same time.

It’s a book that also explores relationships – two in particular. Esen’s child-parent (for want of a better descriptor) relationship with Ersh is important to the whole movement of the story. Like a child, which she is to the others of her Web, she fears Ersh’s anger when she does something wrong, and yet still backchats her elder quite happily. She clearly looks up to and respects Ersh, and later in the story is discomforted to discover her elder is not as peerless as she had believed. She essentially moves from childhood (or rather her teenage years, I suppose) to adulthood over the course of the story, learning that even Ersh is fallible and coming to trust her own judgement. Without really giving anything away, I really liked Esen’s decision about her Web’s purpose at the end and how it reflected her nature, more active and curious (and outward-looking?) than her Web-sisters.

The other great relationship here is between Esen and Paul. Linguistics and Alien Culture Specialist Paul Ragem is just about as Star Trek as they come. He’s good-hearted, open-minded, brave, endlessly curious, respectful of other cultures and species (naturally), and a tenacious friend. His knack for recognising Esen no matter her exterior is pretty impressive, and a sure sign that he can be trusted, which is just as well since he already knows the one secret Esen’s not supposed to tell anyone. They make a great pair, mutually interested and interesting, both ready to step outside their comfort zones and make sacrifices to preserve their friendship. And, huge plus, this friendship doesn’t go romance-shaped at any point. They seem to be equally fascinated by each other, and certainly there is the beginnings of a real and abiding affection, but Czerneda neatly shuts down the possibility of that becoming anything more. For that alone I’d read books two and three, but I genuinely want to know how things will pan out for them. Will they remain friends (the blink of an eye – assuming she has one at the time – for her, a lifetime for him)? What scrapes could they possibly get into next that would top what they’ve already been through? And how might their dynamic change over Paul’s lifetime?

 

I can’t wait to find out.

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

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I did not intend to read this. I already have a healthy pile of books to fail spectacularly at reading for #RRSciFiMonth and this isn’t one of them. But you know how it is, sometimes you get caught without a book (emergency!) and you grab whatever’s to hand. Enter Places in the Darkness stage left …

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The Ciudad de Cielo, or ‘City in the sky’ (A.K.A. the CdC or SeeDee), is a space station orbiting Earth and dedicated to the building of humanity’s first colony ship. It is a city-sized station populated by the best scientists, doing all the research surrounding the problem of how to keep us alive and well during interstellar travel. It represents humanity’s hopes and dreams for a future in which we can step out of the dirty clothes of our past and in to the pristine white spacesuit of our future. SeeDee is funded by four mega-companies, the Quadriga, and is under no one government’s control, policed instead by a private force, Seguridad, which in turn is under the scrutiny of the Federation of National Governments (the FNG). The station boasts about its virtually non-existent crime-rate and there has never been a murder on Ciudad de Cielo.

Unfortunately, all the residents are human, so things aren’t as shiny-clean as advertised. (It’s no accident that the CdC’s nickname sounds a little seedy – *chuckle*).

The book is split between two POVs, that of Dr Alice Blake, the clever young newbie who will be stepping into the role of boss of the FNG Security Oversight Executive, and that of Nicola Freeman, more commonly known as ‘Nikki Fix’, a corrupt Seguridad cop. This narrative structure creates a lovely mirroring of Alice and Nikki’s experiences. Alice has her eyes opened to the dark and untidy things going on under the surface of SeeDee, while Nikki has her eyes opened to the possibility that she can still do good. They start off at the furthest ends of the moral scale from one another, and as the story unfolds so their relative positions do, until they exist in almost the same space. And I also changed my position as I read. My outlook at the beginning was naïve, I have always wanted to believe in the Star Trek future and the CdC sounded pretty darn awesome, and I got more and more upset and despondent as the various corruptions and nefarious goings-on were revealed. And yet, by the end of the book (and this change of heart was very very connected to the Big Bad plan that Alice and Nikki uncover in the story) Brookmyre had me feeling much more at ease with all the bootlegging, hacking, fight clubs and protection rackets, simply because these were recognizably human enterprises, evidence of our free will and (mis-applied) creativity. Evidence also of some serious inequalities aboard SeeDee, but at least this is something that can be addressed, unlike the rather scary alternative that Alice and Nikki discover at the end of their goose chase.

Maybe this makes it all sound a bit too by the numbers, and I guess it is, but in all the right ways. Brookmyre keeps the action ramped way up for most of the book and the murders are all suitably creepy. A third of the way through I was sure I had it all figured out, and again at about the two-thirds mark, before being thoroughly annoyed to discover that I had been nearly there, but had failed to pay attention to our Dad’s Rule Number One for whodunits: the culprit is invariably the person you least expect, (Dad has always taken great delight in being able to announce who the killer is about ten minutes into the watching of any crime drama … the annoying thing being that he’s right 99.9% of the time. Urgh). The ‘conspiracy’ that is uncovered is pretty awesome too, and there is some great discussion about free will and perspective and consciousness which I really loved, but if I go into any of that I’ll only give away the best bits of the story.

Without a doubt SeeDee is the star of the show, however. This station, where great minds gather to ponder humanity’s future, is the dry run for the colony ship it hopes to eventually birth, and the underbelly of all those good intentions is unavoidable. Nikki observes in one of her chapters that some people with painful memories attempt to escape to SeeDee only to find they have brought their troubles with them, and this is right at the heart of the book. No matter what our hopes for the future, it’ll be built on all our losses and heartbreaks and fear and pain, and there will be no escaping any of it. We’d do better not to try, but rather to make peace with our dark selves before we attempt the journey.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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One of my book bingo tasks this year was to read a book I previously DNF. Now before you start throwing stones at me, I was really sick when I first tried to read Assassin’s Apprentice. It took me at least an hour to read the first chapter and a little of the second before I put it down. At the time I blamed the book for not grabbing me, but it was far more my fault. I just wasn’t in the right headspace. And then I never gave it another go.

Until now.

What the heck was wrong with me?! I think I’m only now appreciating just how sick I must’ve been to not get drawn into Fitz’s story immediately and irrevocably. I’ve got to have been at death’s door, there’s no other explanation, because Assassin’s Apprentice is, without a shadow of doubt, the most breath-holding I’ve done this year. Close to the end, on a Friday night, I got in from work, dropped onto the sofa in my coat, and read with my heart in my mouth until the last page. Then took myself off to bed without realising I hadn’t eaten or showered.

I doff my hat to you, Robin Hobb.

So what was it I missed first time round? A delectably layered cake of a book. From the deceptively simple opening of a young boy, the bastard child to the King-in-Waiting, being delivered to his father’s family, the story opens out fold by fold to reveal schemes, double-crosses, assassinations, secrets, and magic. The world of the Six Duchies is fascinating, and that there’s the promise of so much more than just the little corner of it we spend most of our time in in this first book would have kept me reading even if I hadn’t ended up caring so much about the characters.

As it is, I need to know what’s going to happen to Fitz, to Chade, to Verity and to the Fool. I need to know what it is that the Red Ship Raiders want. I need to know how Kettricken and Verity are going to get on, and how she will feel about her new life in Buckkeep. I’d like to know more about the Lady Patience. I definitely need to see Regal die horribly, although I suspect that’s not going to happen as soon as I want it to, if at all. Hobb has a canny way of circumventing expectations. She pulls tricks with Fitz’s first-person narrative, for example, that we should see coming, but never quite do (well, I didn’t). I mean, crikey! That scene with Nosey! She tore out my heart with that scene. I cried. Only to cry long and loud all over again at the end of the book. (I am being deliberately vague – I won’t ruin this book for anyone if I can help it. Even though that means I can’t share with you the nickname Hobb has earned in our household as a result of Nosey and Smithy’s storylines).

Fitz is a really well-written character. His growth from boy to teen is believably rendered through his changing point of view, as he slowly becomes more aware of the precarious position he holds in society both because of his parentage and because of King Shrewd’s decision to have him become an assassin for the crown. He’s not a Chosen One, he has no outstanding qualities as such, although he’s smart and has the Wit, (an ability to share minds with animals). His odd upbringing leaves him very vulnerable with strange gaps in his knowledge and a frustrating lack of guile – I’ve never been so exasperated as when it was obvious that Galen was playing dirty and Fitz just … took it. Although I understood that this was in part due to the utter control Galen had gained over his trainees using abusive methods, I still felt that Fitz as the ‘hero’ should see through Galen’s tricks and smite him. This is on me. By the end of the book it’s pretty clear that Hobb is not playing by those well-worn rules (you know the ones: heroes go through trials, overcome them with their innate brilliance/cunning/magic, smite the bad guys and generally kick butt where butt needs kicking).

I’m starting to think, in fact, that Hobb has more in common with George R R Martin than I expected. As Assassin’s Apprentice went on what I thought of as the fairly straightforward threat posed by the Red Ship Raiders gets knottier and more problematic. The “Forging” for instance, does not (yet?) make sense. Why are they doing it? How are they doing it? I feel like they are playing a longer game that I can’t yet see. As Hobb introduces us to the Mountain Kingdom her world gains a dimension and I start to feel the sheer size of the lands beyond Buckkeep. And as Fitz grows and learns he seems to face bigger and bigger threats and complications. There is no feeling for me that he is growing into his powers, only that he is human and as prone to mistakes and misunderstandings as any of us. It’s great stuff!

So, what am I hoping for in the next two books? More beautiful, complex relationships (the relationship between Fitz and Burrich is a work of art). Much more about the Fool, I feel like Hobb hasn’t played her Ace yet, and I suspect it’s going to be him. I hope there will be a complete and thorough explanation of the Red Ship Raiders’ motives and methods. More dogs, (I don’t think I’ve ever before realised that there are not enough dogs in fantasy fiction. Bring on the dogs!) I’d like to know more about the Wit and the Skill. How has nobody realised that these are almost the same thing? What’s with Burrich’s threats that those who use the Wit can lose their humanity? Is that true? And will Fitz ever get his Skill fixed? And finally, Regal’s death, please. Please? I really don’t like him very much.

Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier

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Before I begin, can I just say that it’s a complete fluke that there are fairy-tale-retelling elements in Heart’s Blood, after last week’s Kingdom of Sleep, and that this parallel in my reading was in no way deliberate. Just one of those happy accidents.

I picked this up having been inspired by both Maddalena of Space and Sorcery and Karina of Karina Reads to try Juliet Marillier’s books (hearty thanks are due!). I have Daughter of the Forest on the book pile at home, but I got caught short at work without a book to read (drama!) and Heart’s Blood was very conveniently in my locker (where I keep all the library books I want to take out, but don’t yet have space for on my library ticket – yes, these are the trials and tribulations of my working life!).

And darn it! I loved this book! With all its fairy-tale romance tropes – grumpy male lead, mysterious castle cut off from the everyday world, beautiful young woman seeking refuge – I loved it. Despite it being a retelling of one of the suckiest fairy-tales ever, Beauty and the Beast (I’ll spare you the whole rant that goes with that) – I loved it. I’m officially aboard the Marillier train – woo woo!

The story is set in late 12th century Ireland, at the time of the Norman invasion. It’s told by (and is about) Caitrin, a rare female scribe who, at the opening of the book, has summoned up the courage to escape a less than ideal home situation, and found herself in Whistling Tor, a small settlement with plenty of creepy stories about their chieftain, who lives in the big spooky castle at the top of the local hill. Said chieftain is looking for a scribe to translate some family documents, and Caitrin, less afraid of stories than she is of what she’s left behind, decides to apply for the job. What follows is part reimagining of Beauty and the Beast (a library, a garden, a magic mirror), part mystery (what exactly is the curse on the people of Whistling Tor? And who keeps moving Roise the doll?), part ghost story (so so creepy in places – I am such a wimp when it comes to the scary stuff). And it’s brilliant.

Not least because of its well-written characters. Caitrin, unusually for the period, has been taught both to read and write, and the art of script illumination by her scribe father, and until his death she worked with him carrying out commissions for legal documents, private manuscripts and the like. She is a skilled craftswoman in her own right and takes pride in this. She has come from a warm and loving family, but the death of her father and the departure of her older sister left her alone with two distant relations who bullied and brutalised her, and while she has had the courage to escape them, she has become a nervous shadow of what she once was. Her coming back to her calm and confident self was one of my secret joys in reading Heart’s Blood. Caitrin is a determinedly hopeful character with enough affection for everyone, and her budding relationship with Anluan, the chieftain of Whistling Tor, was equally satisfying.

One of my big problems with romance is that it is often written to titillate, and that pisses me off. I don’t appreciate the feeling of being manipulated into finding something attractive just because all the ingredients are there. So the romantic male lead is assertive, has a ‘passionate’ temper and a deep voice? So? So does an overbearing prig. I want to know about characters’ thoughts and feelings, I want to know about their ideas and dreams, I want to see them grow, and, most importantly, I want to decide for myself whether they’re ‘attractive’ or not. Anluan has the temper of a boy too used to getting his own way, no manners at all, and because of a palsy he suffered as a child he is not the image of rugged Irish manliness he thinks he should be. I initially found him grating and slappable. But Caitrin, in an exceptional feat of empathy, is able to imagine what it must have been like for him to have grown up in the sad, cursed castle on the Tor, and to see past all his snarling and sniping to the self-doubt at his core. She works hard to help Anluan, first because it’s her job and she is an actively curious person, then because she becomes fond of everyone at Whistling Tor, and finally, yes, because she comes to love him, (which still gets an *eye-roll*). Thanks to Caitrin though, and to Marillier, I came to like and appreciate Anluan. I enjoyed all the growing up he does over the course of the story and I was even proud of his overcoming some seriously daunting obstacles. He ends up becoming a good chieftain, and I actually did a little cheer when he and Caitrin finally, finally realised they loved each other (although I’d still have been happier if we’d left that at the bedroom door … oh my … *blush*).

And Anluan’s home is almost a character in itself too. Marillier’s historical Ireland feels very real, but Whistling Tor practically crackles with the uncanny. From the unseen presences that Caitrin encounters on her first journey up the hill, to the benign scarecrow in the garden, to the things seen in the many mirrors made by one of his ancestors, Whistling Tor is wonderfully creepy and alive with its own private history because of the curse on Anluan’s family. There is so much more I want to say about this that I can’t without becoming incoherent or spoiling too much, so I will satisfy myself with: I didn’t see the nature of the host coming, I loved the discovery about the curse, and, wow! that final reveal!

Oh my goodness, all the awesome things I haven’t even mentioned yet: Caitrin’s work in the library (I’d have been happy with a book entirely about her sorting and cataloguing Anluan’s family documents); the mirrors; the warm and wonderful Magnus and his kitchen; Olcan and Fianchu (dear Fianchu! Best dog ever!), and Rioghan and Eichri, and Cathair, Gearrog and the little girl; the host (the awesome, otherworldly, read-this-book-because-of-them host); the lovely Donal and Maeve; the best Big Bad ever; the secret in the potting shed; Irial’s beautiful garden. There’s just too much to say. I really, really enjoyed this book.

Darn it. 🙂

Kingdom of Sleep by E K Johnston

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After really loving E K Johnston’s A Thousand Nights I shouldn’t be surprised that I was a little bit disappointed with her next offering. To be fair though, that’s on me more than on Johnston – I was never going to love a retelling of Sleeping Beauty (the title character does nothing/ heroic prince and damsel-in-distress princess/ true love’s kiss – bleurgh!) anywhere near as much as a retelling of Scheherazade’s story. And while Kingdom of Sleep lacks some of the cleverness and sheer beauty of A Thousand Nights, frankly, if all YA fiction was to this standard it would still be a vast improvement. One of my small gripes with this companion novel is that it reads YA in a way that the first book definitely did not. And the romance is both predictable, unavoidable (considering the source material) and … sorry … too squishy for me.

That said, I loved the way Johnston went about the romance. Yes, I could see it coming a mile away, but I liked the gentle humour involved (particularly Yashaa’s unbelievable ignorance of certain biological matters, which meant there was no … ahem … petty fingers, or worse), the rather tender way in which it unfolded, and the ending. I can’t say anything about that without utterly spoiling the book, but I’d recommend it because of the conclusion alone. I imagine poor young teen readers will find it heart-breaking *evil chuckle*, but I thought it was a pretty fresh approach to a story ending that’s been done to death. (And I might have felt just a little sympathy for Yashaa and Zahrah … maybe … but don’t tell anyone).

I liked, too, that this was a story with friendship at its heart. Yashaa, Saoud, Tariq and Arwa are friends who love and respect one another throughout the story. They have become family to one another through loss and necessity. There’s no rivalry, no love triangles, no ridiculous fallings-out to further the plot or to create tension. The silliest thing is Yashaa’s hatred for the Little Rose at the beginning of the book, and thankfully that didn’t last long enough for me to get cross with him.

On the flip side, I found that some things didn’t quite sit right with me. The curse, for example, is the work of a demon here, a part of its long game of manipulation and power-gathering, but in this context it didn’t ever quite make narrative sense. From the moment you know the curse’s full intent you know how it can be shut down, which means the reader can see the ending coming (not the absolute ending, just the ending for the demon), and that meant that I could never quite be as afraid of the demon’s threats as I might have been. Also, while I really loved the piskys and the gnomes, they felt a bit out of place in this mostly desert-fringe setting. A forensic archaeologist IRL who has worked in the Middle East, Johnston’s world feels authentic most of the time (one of the things I really enjoyed about A Thousand Nights) and I loved that she decided to keep writing within that setting, but the piskys and gnomes are, for me, so tied up with British mythology and therefore the British landscape, that I struggled to transpose them into her Eastern world. Again, that’s on me.

 

This may not make a whole lot of sense, but what really kept bothering me as I read this was the shape it was making in my mind. Once I’ve read a book it kind of solidifies into a particular shape, a set of images and colours, ideas and feelings that I then file away. So, A Thousand Nights is a perfect egg-shaped story, purple, orange and hot-pink, sprinkled all over with gold, that smells of incense and a cool building in summer. The images of an empty, rolling desert and a beautifully embroidered salwar kameez come to mind when I think of it, and I feel content and pleased. It is a ‘neat’ story, all ends tied off, plot well crafted and executed. (There’s so much more than this: a brown-gold horse, a bedside table, a garden, a plate of figs, the smells that go with these things …) Every book I read becomes a sensory package that’s difficult to unpack or explain, but all my favourites are shaped right. And sadly, while I enjoyed it and would still recommend it, Kingdom of Sleep isn’t quite the right shape. It’s like a piece of embroidery that’s untidy on the reverse.

Clearly I don’t know how to put this into words properly. As a matter of interest, please tell me how you think of books after you’ve read them? Do you categorise and file them in your mind? Do you come to a solid conclusion, or do you remain fluid in your thinking about a book? Are your other senses involved? Do you see images/snapshots when you think of a particular book? I’d love to know other people’s thoughts/feelings on this subject.