A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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Ahhhhh, this was fabulous. I don’t imagine there are many people out there who haven’t heard of the Lady Trent books by now, but in case you’re one of them they are a pentalogy set in a Victorian-esque alternate world in which dragons exist in abundance. The series is written in the style of the memoirs of one Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent, a woman who defies social expectations to become a renowned dragon naturalist. And they’re shaping up to be my favourite books this year.

And in a couple of days’ time Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light is going to be released, set in the same universe and telling the story of Isabella’s grand-daughter, Audrey Camherst. For the first time ever I am writing a timely and pertinent thing about a recent-ish thing that is related to a hot-off-the-press thing. Will wonders never cease?

Let’s start with the world-building, shall we? The world-building is my very favourite thing. So, yes, Brennan has chosen a Victorian-y social set up for her heroine to throw herself up against/ cut her teeth on/ break new ground in. Isabella is from a moderately wealthy family in Scirland (for Scirland read Britain) and faces the usual upbringing of ladylike pursuits and education in preparation for marriage and motherhood. From a young age however, Isabella is of a scientific persuasion (if I hadn’t fallen in love with Isabella’s voice right away the pigeon scene would have got me), and with the help of a sympathetic older brother and father she is able to satisfy her intellectual curiosity via her father’s library, it being the done thing for a gentleman of any means to be well informed on as many new scholarly developments as possible. And while she does her duty by her family when she reaches marriageable age, her father gives her the gentlest of nudges towards the most suitable candidates for her needs and she quite satisfactorily ends up married to Jacob Camherst (more on him in a moment). So far so run of the mill. What I really loved was that Brennan doesn’t make things too easy for her heroine as soon as she has a male protector. Yes, Jacob provides Isabella with a respectable gloss and goes into the marriage knowing that she has ‘unladylike’ passions, but that gloss only sticks as long as Isabella ‘behaves’ and those passions and interests cannot be denied.

And so Jacob and Isabella end up going on a scientific expedition to Vystrana (for Vystrana read Germany, or possibly Austria) to study dragons. And no, it’s not the done thing, and yes, there will be repercussions. Ostensibly, Isabella goes as a secretary and artist, thankfully she ends up getting to do far more than just file papers and draw dragon bits. But after the slow (delightful, but, yes, slow) introduction to the Camhersts’ world this is where the story really gets going and while I positively lingered over the first section the rest of the book was read in a breathless rush. Because nineteen-year-old Isabella’s first experiences of foreign travel and adventure are brilliantly written. There’s the culture clash between her and her Vystrani ‘maid’ Dagmira, the contention between the whole expedition group and the villagers of Drustanev where they’ve arranged to stay, the social practices and religious and superstitious differences, the politics of the region, and the possible impact that a certain scientific discovery could have on the wider world of Anthiope. I loved that this world felt so real, that I could not only visualise it, but that I could feel the consequences and difficulties as real too.

But enough about the world-building, let’s talk about the characters. The characters are my very favourite thing. Obviously, there’s Isabella, but I hope you don’t mind if I hold off talking about her for just a moment or two. Brennan has that wonderful, enviable skill of being able to write just a few lines that conjure up a character beautifully. Even though we meet Isabella’s mother, father and favourite brother Andrew for mere moments, they each feel nicely distinct and not just handy place holders. Jacob though, is very satisfying. A young man with no particular intention of marrying when he first meets Isabella, and not at all sure what to do with a wife once they are married (Brennan has written those first few months of marriage so well – the sudden intimacy with someone barely known, the change to routine and expectations, the making room for another person), he is quietly charming in his reactions to his new wife’s requests, and the development of their relationship (never in the foreground, but something comfortingly there where we need it to be) is quirky and personal and really quite lovely. I particularly enjoyed that he faces his own set of consequences for ‘allowing’ his wife to accompany him on their expedition and that he argues her case with Mr Wilker (and no doubt others) and that he is brave enough to do those things. It’s not sound and fury bravery, but it’s still bravery.

Lord Hilford, bluff and hearty leader of the expedition and the moneybags behind it is an interesting blend of enlightened and traditional who always travels with his own chair. His assistant Tom Wilker is a character I hope will be given chance for development in the later books. He clearly doesn’t like Isabella or her inclusion on the expedition, but his reasons for this make him much more interesting than he was at first when I thought he was just being a twit. A working-class man who has fought hard to get where he is, he doesn’t do anything particular to make me like him so much other than occasionally cross swords with Isabella, but as he proves just as able to put aside his dislike of her in the interests of studying dragons as she does of him, I like him and that’s all there is to it. And then there is the work of art that is Dagmira. Assigned to be Isabella’s maid during her stay in Drustanev, Dagmira is an eye-rolling, hand-kissing, heroic wonder. As the older, wiser Lady Trent points out, her younger self knew only a little Vystrani and was in no-way worldly-wise on this first adventure, which makes her every interaction with Dagmira painfully comical. But the local woman proves an invaluable ally and I defy anyone not to be fond of her, at the very least, by the end of the book.

But enough about that lot, let’s get to Isabella, Lady Trent, herself. Isabella is my very favourite thing. Her voice is flawless throughout as she records the doings of her younger self and reflects on the wisdom or foolishness of each. She interjects to laugh at herself (instantly endearing), or correct herself, and tantalizingly foreshadows her future adventures. It’s a clever, practical, arch voice belonging to someone who has definitely been there and done that, but hasn’t lost any of that spark, nor any of her love for dragons. The older Isabella frames the story of the younger without holding back or covering up her flaws. And this device is the one thing that takes this from being just an enjoyable book, to being an awesome one.

But enough about the humans, let’s talk about the dragons. The dragons are my … well, you get the idea by now, I hope. From tiny garden Sparklings to the local Wolf-Drake, from the Akhian Desert Drake in the king’s menagerie to the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, every time a dragon popped up I was squeaking with excitement. (Todd Lockwood’s illustrations within and his beautiful wraparound cover art produce the exact same response). There are some beautiful, awe-inspiring glimpses of dragons that just make me want to claw myself into Isabella’s world so I can see them with my own eyes. If this is only book one, I can’t wait to see what else there is to see. There are also the faintest beginnings of a suggestion that dragons may be much more than just another wild animal. And I am here for that.

 

Oh yeah, there’s also a couple of mysteries, a whole heap of adventure, and more feels than you can shake a stick at. And that’s all my very favourite thing too.

Just read it, ‘kay? You can thank me later.

“It’s — it’s as if there is a dragon inside me. I don’t know how big she is; she may still be growing. But she has wings, and strength, and — and I can’t keep her in a cage. She’ll die. I’ll die. I know it isn’t modest to say these things, but I know I’m capable of more than life in Scirland will allow. It’s all right for women to study theology, or literature, but nothing so rough and ready as this. And yet this is what I want. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s dangerous. I don’t care. I need to see where my wings can carry me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This was deeply satisfying read. It’s a flintlock fantasy that I first heard about from Karina of Karina Reads and that appeared on Dragons and Zombies’ list of Flintlock Fantasy recommendations. I first started reading it last year, then put it to one side for something else (so fickle!) before starting it again this year and binge reading it in a couple of days.

But you don’t really need to know any of that …

What you do need to know is that this is absolutely worth picking up. It’s got great characters, an involved and engaging plot and great writing. The story follows Emily Marshwic, a gentlewoman of good family whose country, Lascanne, is at war with its neighbour, Denland. And of course they’re winning the war, but after taking all the volunteers, and then the conscripts – first the healthy ones and then the slightly too young and the slightly too old – well, then the draft comes for the women. And after forty days’ training Emily goes to war.

The war is happening on two fronts: the Couchant, where the much lauded cavalry of Lascanne expects to decimate the enemy with traditional tactics; and the Levant, a swampland in which none of the usual rules of war seem to be effective. (Side note: couchant and levant are both heraldic terms that apply to animals, couchant meaning to lie down and levant meaning to rise up; this is Very Interesting). Emily goes to the Levant front, following both her brother-in-law and younger brother. This landscape is as much an enemy as the Denlanders are and Tchaikovsky’s writing makes the damp, sticky heat, the vicious wildlife and the rotting, stinking, clinging, muddy, foggy atmosphere palpable. He captures too the utter confusion of chasing one another through the undergrowth taking pot-shots and trying to keep in formation and not lose one’s bearings in a landscape in which none of these manoeuvres make any sense.

“It seems to me that we surely must have done more than simply travel to reach this place. We must have undertaken some more fundamental journey to some dreadful spirit world.

If all that separates this terrible place from home is mere distance, then we are lost.”

Which all sounds a bit bleak doesn’t it? Yet it’s also a story of strong friendships and camaraderie, of the need for peace, and of our ability to make light of ourselves and each other in the worst of situations. There’s a well struck balance between the dreadful realities of war and the humanity of those fighting it. And the story is driven inexorably onwards by two things: our need to find out the truth (in a number of ways), and Emily’s transformation.

A good third of the book is devoted to Emily’s everyday life and experiences before her arrival at the Levant front. We are introduced to her when she is still a gentlewoman for whom doors are opened and things are carried. She and her sisters Mary and Alice live in their much reduced ancestral pile, Grammaine, doing all the things that even impoverished gentlewomen do – taking food and medicine to tenants, running errands in town, doing the household accounts, dealing with correspondence, maybe even buying a new dress on occasion. Waiting for news from their menfolk away at war. And Mary has a baby to look after, Alice seems to live half-in/half-out of a fantasy world in which every man is potentially her tall, dark stranger, and Emily has only her absolute loathing for Mr Northway (beloved enemy and hated friend) to keep her going, which she exercises regularly. Cristan Northway is the evil Mayor-Governor of Chalcaster and she takes every opportunity to visit him in his office and harangue him about his latest injustices, whatever they may be. Until she takes the draft. Then all that energy gets redirected into learning how to fight and shoot a musket and not die. And Emily is good at it. Not superhumanly good at it or anything like that, she just knuckles down and does the job and manages to not die a lot and she listens and she thinks and her once black and white world becomes every shade of grey. But she survives. By the end of the book, her whole world has been overturned, and the reader’s too.

Now my biggest problem with books like this one, books I’ve really enjoyed, is that I want to give away all the good stuff because I’m excited and I want everyone to love the book as much as I have. And the only way I’ve found so far to enthuse without spoiling everything is to list all my favourite things, without explaining any of them. I realise this isn’t really any good for anybody reading this, and I am sorry, but it’s too much fun not to do it. So, my favourite things, in no particular order, are: The Survivor’s Club; Emily’s relationship with her brother-in-law Tubal; Mallen the tracker; Brocky and Angelline (oh my, all the hearts!!); the wizards’ duel; the Indigenes; the hide-and-seek solution; the Denlander’s ‘magic’ guns; the army humour (our father was army and we grew up with stories of this sort of thing); Doctor Carlingswife (ha!); and the Bad Rabbits, Dead Cats and Fat Squirrel.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

At six-hundred odd pages long, Guns of the Dawn is a brick of a book, but it’s gripping and there’s not too much dawdling. Maybe Emily could think a bit quicker on occasion, but that’s all. It’s a book chock full of great characters (with only one cartoon cut-out amongst them – yeah, looking at you Colonel Resnic, you knob), and because of that it’s warm and funny, heart-rending and numbing, and, above all, recognisable. It’s got a lot to say about national personalities, and the price of knowledge (because you can’t un-know a thing), and that moment in time when everything rests on a knife edge.

This was my first Tchaikovsky. The idea of starting on a ten-book series by an author I’d no experience of wasn’t very tempting, despite the good things I’d heard about The Shadows of the Apt. Now I’m a lot more willing. And I’m not super keen on looooooooong series – so I hope that gives you an idea how much I enjoyed this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

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Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those super-smart authors I’d previously figured wasn’t writing for someone like me. I’ll happily admit that sometimes the science-y bits of scifi can bounce off me because I’m not bright that way – if it can’t be demonstrated to me with some cardboard and a roll of sticky tape then I’m probably not going to get it – and one of my favourite things about reading scifi is finding authors who can explain things in a way that I do understand. So I wouldn’t have given KSR a go if it hadn’t been for bormgans over at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It who made it sound like something I would appreciate. Which, as it turns out, I did.

2312 is an interesting mix of future history, plotted mystery (ha! rhymes!) and a beautiful-scary vision of humanity making multiple new homes out in the solar system. Structurally you read one or two plot chapters then one or two chapters dedicated to extracts and lists that broaden the universe the author has created. This keeps the pace from speeding up as we’d perhaps expect in a straightforward mystery, but somehow it helps keep the sheer size of the story’s playing field in view. (An interesting re-read experiment might be to only read the plot chapters and see how that alters both the pacing and sense of scale … but that’s for another time). Because in this future we’ve settled on the moon, on Mars, Mercury and Venus, on Saturn’s moon Titan, Jupiter’s moons Callisto, Ganymede and Io, and Neptune’s moon Triton. We’ve created hundreds of different habitats out of asteroids and these are used to travel about the solar system just like spaceships. Thanks to longevity treatments we are commonly centenarians, (which is just as well with all this zipping about the system), we can regrow limbs, and augment ourselves in thousands of ways.

While Earth, poor, dear Earth, is at the bottom of the pile. To the people stuck on our home planet spacers are seen almost to be the spoiled rich kids living it large; to spacers Earth is seen as an embarrassment, a place that cannot be fixed despite all the technology and knowledge that has enabled them to make their homes away from it. On Earth the waters have risen dramatically due to climate change, the animals have died out, a lot of food comes from space, and despite post-scarcity a lot of people still live in poor conditions. Despite this, one of my favourite extracts is about Earth (and every bit of description about Earth in 2312 is beautiful):

“Simply to be outdoors in the open air, under the sky, in the wind – this was what she loved most about Earth. Today puffy clouds were massed overhead at about the thousand-foot level. Looked like a marine layer rolling in. She ran out into some kind of paved lot filled with trucks and buses and trolley cars, and jumped around screaming at the sky, then kneeled and kissed the ground, made wolf howls, and, after she had hyperventilated a bit, lay on her back on the pavement. No handstands – she had learned long before that handstands on Earth were really hard. And her rib still hurt.

Through gaps in the cloud layer she could see the light-but-dark blue of the Terran sky, subtle and full. It looked like a blue dome flattened at the centre, perhaps a few kilometres above the clouds – she reached up for it – although knowing too that is was just a kind of rainbow made it glorious. A rainbow that was blue everywhere and covered everything. The blue itself was complex, narrow in range but infinite within that range. It was an intoxicating sight, and you could breathe it – one was always breathing it, you had to. The wind shoved it into you! Breathe and get drunk, oh my, to be free of all restraint, minimally clothed, lying on the bare surface of a planet, sucking in its atmosphere as if it were an aqua vitae, feeling in your chest how it kept you alive! No Terran she had ever met properly appreciated their air, or saw their sky for what it was. In fact they very seldom looked at it.”

How can you read that and not look at your home world from a completely different slant, even if only for a moment?

There are some equally beautiful descriptions of both the sunrise and a Beethoven concert on Mercury; asteroid terrariums recreating savannah and ice-age environments; tracking wolves after a project to repopulate Earth with mammals; and a festival day on Mars where a vast number of simultaneous marriages take place on Olympus Mons. To name but a few.

And it’s a book jam-packed with ideas. I loved the hollowed-out asteroids used to create terrariums and aquariums and enjoyed both the plot chapters where I got to see more of some of these habitats, and the extracts that apparently come from a sort of how-to manual of habitat building and are almost comical to read: “the matrix will rise like yeasted dough as it becomes that most delicious and rare substance, soil” – how to cook yourself a habitat indeed! I loved the qubes and the debate about sentience (one of my favourite subjects in any case and interestingly done here) and everything to do with the unusual qubes. I loved the only lightly touched upon idea of people ingesting alien bacteria. I loved KSR’s future humanity – so altered that they are now possibly post-human – always experimenting, always curious, always pushing at their limits.

On the other hand, I struggled with the politics … because I struggle with politics, (I will never understand why it’s all so complicated); and I was frustrated by KSR’s portrayal of future Earth as a place where very little could be done to improve things because of disagreements and bickering over what should be done. Not that that’s not an accurate representation, but then I think that’s what was so frustrating. And I sometimes found the main character, Swan, difficult to understand. Or rather, difficult to be intimate with, in the way that a reader is able to see into the minds of the characters they are reading about. She’s interesting in many ways: she’s done more self-augmentation and experimentation than her family and friends feel is wise; she’s impulsive and emotional, she reacts rather than thinks; she often seems childish. The other main character, Wahram, is Swan’s polar opposite in a lot of ways. Sometimes I found him equally difficult to understand, but I felt a lot less annoyance with him than I did with Swan. Both were enigmatic to a degree I didn’t find comfortable however. I like my characters a bit more forthcoming, it would seem. And the romance between the two was, even on a second reading, odd. I found it hard to believe in … although this could be a flaw in me, as romance is always the thing I’ll nit-pick at if I don’t feel quite happy with something in a book. Ultimately though I feel that Swan and Wahram’s romance is supposed to be symbolic of KSR’s general optimism about our future. Yes, there will be disagreements and difficulties, but our curiosity and our desire to understand will be what gets us through.

So, gorgeously written, slow paced, packed to the gills with ideas that could spawn further books (I’d love a KSR book dedicated to the unusual qubes and that put-off-for-now reunion with the human race), and hopeful. This was an intriguing book that I haven’t quite done justice by. It’s made me think, and it’s definitely made me appreciate breathing a whole lot more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Girls’ Last Tour by Tsukumizu

 

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So as some of you know there’s this odd little sub-genre of manga called iyashikei or ‘healing’ manga, which I kind of stumbled across when I started reading the Flying Witch series by Chihiro Ishizuka about a year ago. This type of manga is characterised by an episodic structure, little to no drama or conflict and a general appreciation of the things in life that we often take for granted, like the natural world, good food and friendship. I can go on until the cows come home about how much I’m loving Flying Witch, but I have just finished reading another manga series in this vein called Girls’ Last Tour that I feel the need to gush about today.

And when I say I’ve finished it, I really have. It’s only six volumes long, (which is actually something of a relief; I haven’t got the stamina for, say, the seventy-four volumes of Bleach by Tite Kubo or even the thirty-two volumes of Shaman King by Hiroyuki Takei – although a deeply respectful bow is due here to Bookstooge for trudging through that series so I don’t have to! You can see his reviews for the whole series here). Every time I finished a volume of Girls’ Last Tour I wanted to post something about it, but in all honesty I could barely have typed more than a few words. It’s not that very little happens (although that is true), but more that I was still trying to work out where Tsukumizu was going with the story and what she was trying to convey. Now, having finished it, I can sort of see what colour and shape of story it has been.

GLT Montage

Girls’ Last Tour is about as different to Flying Witch as I could get while still bumbling about in my little SFF bubble. Chito and Yuuri are travelling through an empty future world of mega-structures on their faithful Kettenkrad, always aiming to get to the topmost stratum of the giant city-world. There has been a war of some kind, or an apocalyptic event, and the girls have only dim memories of a time when they lived with their Grandpa in a town patrolled by soldiers and subjected to rationing. It was he who instructed them to travel upwards before encouraging them to flee the camp when things took a turn for the worse. Early on they do meet a couple of fellow survivors: first, Kanazawa the map-maker, and a little later, Ishii the pilot, but most of their journey is made only in each other’s company. They scrounge for food and water and anything that may be useful. They travel over, under and through factories and power plants; towers, bridges and old apartment buildings; a colossal graveyard and an AI-run fish-farm; a nuclear submarine and an art-gallery; tunnels, staircases and a space rocket launch station. They encounter robots and artificial intelligences, and a life-form they call Ket who eats bullets and communicates via radio-signals. And finally, finally, they get to the top.

As far as plot goes, that’s it, but that doesn’t quite capture what Girls’ Last Tour is about. Through Chi-chan and Yuu we enjoy the luxury of an unexpected hot bath and the music that falling rain makes, we experience wonder and curiosity over the massive remains of a past civilization, we appreciate well-made and useful tools. While there is a melancholy undertone throughout (in a near-empty world where nothing is able to grow, how long can these girls truly survive?) there is also a strong sense of … I don’t know quite how to put it … gratitude, I guess. In reading their appreciation for such rare and unlikely treasures as a chocolate bar or a bottle of beer, we are perhaps being encouraged to reflect on all the small treasures we are surrounded by. Certainly in this interview over at Japanese Translation creator Tsukumizu has said:

“To the fans, whilst going about your day, I would like you to notice the virtues in everyday life. If this work could aid in getting people to live happily, I’d be very glad.”

 

And Chi-chan and Yuu are delightful companions. Chito is the more serious of the two. She loves books, which she collects when she can, she is the driver of the Kettenkrad and she keeps them on track. Yuuri is the more buoyant character. She is almost permanently hungry, a little goofy, a little lazy and she can’t read as Chito can, but her good-natured observations keep things light. As the story unfolds the two girls (sisters, I think, but I don’t remember it ever being stated outright) come to appreciate the comfort and support they each provide the other. The humour is gentle and often comes from their very different reactions to the situations they find themselves in or the items they come across. There’s also a lot of indirect comment on what the future holds for humanity – Chi-chan and Yuu wonder why the people from long ago made so many weapons and not enough non-perishable foods for them to find while wandering through a massive wasteland of broken down tanks, for example – and reflecting on the roles of memory and history, art and knowledge, and what life means. It’s really not like anything I’ve read before and now that’s it’s over, I think I’d benefit from reading it through from the beginning again to see what I missed first time round. The impressions I’m left with though, are of a thoughtful, hopeful story, despite it all.

 

(Not that the internet appears to agree, of course. In doing a bit of wider reading before writing this up I came across a fair amount of disagreement over the ending and a lot of concern for the author’s mental state, (they were worried that she was suffering from depression). This was mostly on reddit, so I didn’t pay huge amounts of attention, but I do think that some people were missing the point: There’s a pretty solid appreciation for the ephemeral in Japan, perhaps most famously expressed in Hanami or ‘flower-viewing’ during cherry blossom season, and Girls’ Last Tour is just another expression of this concept. The knowledge that something will end, whether it be a journey, a life, or a story, is an integral part of our enjoyment of that thing. That’s surely why it’s so important to focus on the little things, which is what these iyashikei manga are all about, which is why I’m loving them, so far).

 

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams (week 5)

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Banner by imyril from There’s Always Room for One More

Wow. Just … wow. These last few chapters have left me near speechless (ha! Not likely!!) and utterly gobsmacked. So without further ado, let’s tackle the most excellent imyril’s (There’s Always Room for One More) prompts. You know the drill by now, I think: SPOILERS alert!

 

Week 5 – Chapters 47 to the end

So many betrayals, Which one surprised you the most/least?

So many! I’m not even sure where to begin. I was least surprised by Tyranny’s betrayal, and yet there were quite a few details I’d not guessed, like her being a Winnowry agent (!!), Okaar being an assassin (kicking myself that I didn’t see that though, the whole skilled at healing/skilled at killing thing being a dead giveaway after the fact), and who she’d roped into helping her (!!!). Because I didn’t see Nanthema’s betrayal coming at all. Yeah, I was already thinking that she and Vintage weren’t going to remain a couple, but heck that was cold. Any tattered remnants of sympathy I had for her are now gone. And while Vintage hasn’t lingered over this betrayal (having other things on her mind, for sure) my heart bleeds for her.

Micanal and Arnia’s secrets on Origin were also surprising in places. I’d figured that Arnia was both feeding on the humans on the other side of the island and using them as a workforce, but the manner in which she was doing this (and had been doing it for centuries), and the … technicalities … of the feeding were way darker than I’d imagined, (oh, Poinsonless, right, now I get it). And that Micanal was feeding from them too, albeit less greedily, was a small cold little shock of its own. I thought he was just broken by his discovery that Eborans weren’t special.

 

The Jure’lia have been fended off… for now, at least. What do you think the future holds for Sarn? What do you think Bern’s action has done to the hive mind?

Future Sarn? Well, I don’t see any way in which Sarn can return to what it was. At best some will survive, but what will be left of their planet is anyone’s guess.

I’m not sure whether Bern’s actions have just temporarily confused the hive mind, or whether he has wrought some more profound and lasting damage. I still don’t truly understand exactly what the crystals mean to the Jure’lia. I get that they bind them together and that they kind of immortalise the last, best home they made for themselves, but I don’t know what that means. All respect to Williams for creating such an utterly alien race.

 

The war beasts have forged a bond and found unity in love and vengeance. Are you okay? Would you like to talk about it?

No. No I’m not OK. I may never be OK again. I cried so hard. I don’t know how it happened, with all the chopping and changing points of view and multiple storylines, but I came to care very much for Eri. He was so gentle and forlorn, and so innocent of all the history of his people, and he and Helcate had just the loveliest friendship, the sort that children form where they don’t need anyone else and almost live inside each other’s heads. He didn’t deserve to die. And he certainly didn’t deserve to die like that. It was horrific and heart-rending and I’m going to start crying all over again …

Yet I’m glad that the war-beasts have found something to unite them. I wish it could have been something, anything, else, but I can still rejoice that they can now all sense one another and feel that they are a family. And the battle at the end of the book shows just how far they have come since Chapter 3.

And it seems fitting that Vintage should ride Helcate. Having experienced her own loss (twice over) she has perhaps the most compassion. I was so sorry that she didn’t get her own war-beast and I hope that they will remain a unit. They can be a comfort to each other at the very least, surely?

Bring it all: what are your impressions overall? Favourite moments? Disappointments or quibbles?

Overall impression? The Bitter Twins has been a rollercoaster ride and I am beyond impressed that even amidst such a barrage of developments and discoveries Williams still found time to throw in little details that fleshed out her world and made me want to know more.

Favourite moments? Every moment we got to spend with Aldasair and Bern was awesome. Kirune’s excellent timing always gave me a chortle. Micanal concluding matters on Origin – is it wrong that I enjoyed this? – was … appropriate. The sense of cost that the author is always able to convey even as she’s dragging us from momentous thing to momentous thing without pause.

Disappointments or quibbles? There’s been way less Vintage than I’d have liked. I didn’t like her not being a part of most of the action and I missed her regular journal entries; and while her two letters to her nephew Marin and the one to her brother Ezion were touching, they didn’t give me even half as much Vintage as I wanted.

And Celaphon *shaking head sadly* I’m not sure I can feel much of anything for you right now. I had so much sympathy for you, and now … now … you are so much less than I thought you were going to be. I know it’s not your fault (in so so many ways), but I don’t think I can forgive you.

 

Finally, I’m left with a whole host of questions:

Big questions like: What about all the thinks Eeskar didn’t tell Tor? Why was he so afraid of Noon? He recognised her, but how is that possible? Why didn’t he answer Tor’s question about the green fire? And what of the “spirit of great energy and vitality” that enabled the Aborans to travel to other worlds and seemingly left them on Sarn? Is this where the Winnowry and fell-witches will re-enter the story?

And smaller questions like: Were the Yuran-Kai just a red herring in the pod-stealing episode, or will we see them again? What will become of the people of Firstlight and Origin – will we ever know? Will Noon and Tor get a happily-ever-after? (Is that even possible?) And why are Eborans in general such arseholes?

 

I have my copy of The Poison Song ready and a holiday fast approaching, so at least some of my questions will be answered soon, I hope. Now excuse me, I have to go breathe into a paper bag for a bit!

 

 

 

Addendum:

You can read the rest of my The Bitter Twins read-along posts by clicking on the links below:

Week 1 – Chapters 1 to 12 inclusive

Week 2 – Chapters 13 to 22 inclusive

Week 3 – Chapters 23 to 34 inclusive

Week 4 – Chapters 35 to 46 inclusive

 

Read-along: The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams (week 4)

 

bitter-twins
Banner by imyril from There’s Always Room for One More

Sorry I’m a bit late with this – had a family weekend, so have only just caught up on my reading. As always there are going to be SPOILERS in my responses to the prompts from imyril of There’s Always Room for One More, and … oh-my-goodness-why-aren’t-you-reading-this-book-already!!!

 

Week 4 – Chapters 35 to 46 inclusive

New connections: how do you feel about events aboard the Behemoth? How do you think her newly imposed alien empathy will affect Hest’s choices in future? #WhatWillHestDo

Holy cow! I thought things couldn’t get any worse than Bern, Sharrik, Aldasair and Jessen getting swallowed up by the Behemoth, but what do I know? I am more and more not happy about what’s happening to Celaphon, more and more bemused by Hest’s decisions – is it just an overwhelming desire to survive, to come out on top, that drives her decision-making? I’m blowed if I can see any proofs of loyalty or love in her, and her reaction to the love Bern feels for Aldasair seemed to … horrify? … her. Is Hest, in fact, a sociopath? She’s utterly fascinating and her motives seem to be fluid, often ambiguous, making her an almost perfect match for the Jure’lia Queen. If we don’t get to see some sort of final showdown between these two I’ll be sorely disappointed.

 

Allies or antagonists: as the Yuron-Kai challenge Vintage’s leadership and Tyranny Munk and Okaar make themselves indispensable, what do you think is going to happen in Ebora?

OK. I think the Yuron-Kai may end up being pretty awesome allies (is it wrong that I liked them immediately, even though they looked down their nose at Vintage?) people that badass have just got to deliver, even if they’re going to be snooty the whole time. Tyranny Munk, Okaar and Jhef are absolutely up to no good, and not in an adorable-rogue kind of way, I suspect. I think they’re going to do something very bad. Even though I kind of like all three of them: Okaar for his quiet healing ways (is this what he does for Tyranny? Is he some kind of on-hand healer? She does drink her tea scalding hot, remember …); Jhef for her slinking, sneaking, strange seriousness, and general poking about (I think that’s her role, she’s a sneak, an information-gatherer – because, really, how much attention do people pay to children? – and a useful little body for small windows and gaps); and Tyranny for her balls. I mean, she just walked up to Sen-Lord Takor and punched him flat out! It was fabulous!! But with the questions they’re asking and their general off-ness, I think maybe they intend to do something to the war-beasts, and I’m worried it’s going to be unforgivable. (If it is in any way forgivable, then I definitely want a spin off book about these three please Ms Williams).

 

Flawed mirrors: our Eboran contingent have over-indexed on arrogant self-regard recently – but this week we come face to face with their startling origins. Are we reading fantasy or scifi?

Oh man, this … this was fricking awesome!!! The existence of the alien Jure’lia on Sarn had already blown my mind, but that there has been another alien touchdown on Sarn, that Sarn has already undergone a transformation because of alien interference is just … well, it’s just staggering. I’m loving it! After all that talk of Eboran history and culture, to have their whole race reframed as an experiment was fascinating. I can’t even begin to imagine how Tor will handle the revelation (but I did enjoy his rankling over being called ‘child’, ‘lesser’ and ‘it’ – I don’t like the people in the mirrors, but that did make me chortle). I am hoping we’ll find out a bit more about Eeskar before the focus inevitably turns back towards war with the Jure’lia, s/he/it seems just a little different from the people in the mirrors, maybe a little less disdainful about what the ‘seedlings’ have become.

As to whether we are reading fantasy or scifi – I think we’re reading a scifi set in a fantasy world, and I am loving every minute of it! *Squeeeeeeeeeeeeee*

 

There’s so much going on! Any other thoughts to share about the Poisonless? The strengthening bond between Tor and Kirune? Our ship coming in? Eri’s new playmate?

OK, Eri’s new playmate Jhef? – covered above.

The Poisonless? I’m not sure I’m clear who the Poisonless are right now. That term was used by the humans in the settlement on the other side of the island, right? The ones Arnia visits (feeds from? Uses as slaves?) during the night. I couldn’t really get a handle on who they were speaking about: Arnia and Micanal? Themselves? Something else on the island? Am I being really dumb? Have I missed something?

The bond between Tor and Kirune? Awww, this made me so happy! I don’t know why it’s happening and I don’t really care, I’m just glad it is. Anything that helps heal Kirune’s dreadful feelings of inadequacy is fabulous.

And, oh … Aldasair and Bern … our ship come home, flag proudly flying. I couldn’t have asked for a better confession of love from these two. All. The. Feels. I’m just sorry they didn’t get to bask in it a little longer before being ripped from one another and tortured. I don’t know what will happen to them both once the queen is done with them, but I hope their love breaks her. Bitch didn’t even give them a chance to kiss once.

 

 

Addendum:

You can read the rest of my The Bitter Twins read-along posts by clicking on the links below:

Week 1 – Chapters 1 to 12 inclusive

Week 2 – Chapters 13 to 22 inclusive

Week 3 – Chapters 23 to 34 inclusive

Week 5 – Chapters 47 to the end

 

 

 

Read-along: The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams (week 3)

 

bitter-twins
Banner by imyril from There’s Always Room for One More

Oh boy, I think this book might just destroy me …

Prompts this week are from the inimitable imyril of There’s Always Room for One More and, as always, beware of SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS!!

 

Week 3 – Chapters 23 to 34 inclusive

This week is all broken hearts and unexpected developments.


What do you think the Jure’lian Queen is trying to achieve with Hest and Celaphon?
…speaking of Hest. We Need To Talk About Hest.

Hmmm, I think the queen is thinking of fighting fire with fire, so to speak. She has acknowledged that everything is different this time round, and has shown that she is experimenting with the new creepy flying human-shaped creatures, so that I imagine Hest and Celaphon are also experiments. But, man, poor Celaphon. Not only in pain all the time and paired with Hestilion, but also now able to see from his encounter with Bern and Sharrik and Aldasair and Jessen just how different he is from what a war-beast should be. He nearly broke my heart when he spoke of hearing the song, but not hearing it properly. And he is so alone. Hest hasn’t bonded with him the way, say Noon and Vostok and Aldasair and Jessen have, so that they can sense each other’s reactions and feelings. I feel like whatever is in store for Celaphon it’s going to break my heart. All our hearts.

And Hest. I still don’t know what to make of Hest. She has an utterly pitiless side that makes me hate her (you don’t care about Celaphon’s pain? What the heck are you, bitch?!), and yet she seems afraid and lonely and lost sometimes too. I get the feeling she just makes it up as she goes along, desperate to survive (desperate too for acknowledgement, for some sense of being special … her little rant about Ygseril having ignored her despite being alive suggested an ego as big as a house inside that beautiful, blonde-haired brainbox). I think she just wants to be on the winning team and if that means siding with an enemy that grosses her out then so be it. She and Aldasair were alone for a long time amidst the dying in Ebora … I wonder if it didn’t leave her nuttier than him in the end.
Finneral: a fine place for a visit – with a hint of romance? Time to flail about Bern taking his boy home!
Oh my goodness, this was just the loveliest thing at first with Bern’s parents being all welcoming and accepting and fabulous (all the love for Bern’s parents, Bern the Elder and Rainya – I do love such bluff and hearty older couples who don’t moon about, and who give each other stick, but clearly love one another nonetheless … both IRL and in books). Bern the Elder’s comment to Aldasair about family made me feel all warm and sparkly inside, and Bern the younger being all embarrassed by his parents was adorable.

And there were so many other things in Finneral I want to know more about: the ancient stone maidens all facing out to sea, Valous the Stone Talker and her two Wild-touched boars Peren and Nevin, the Sorrowing Woods and how the Wild has touched this part of Sarn, and the beliefs held by Bern’s people about the stones being sacred guardians and repositories for the will of the people. There is so much detail, even in these brief sketches, that I wonder how much work Williams put into the creation of Sarn that we will never see just to make it all appear so believably real.

 

That said, this week is not the week of romance running smoothly. Tor and Noon can’t get a moment; Vintage has some discouraging realisations about Nanthema; and Bern and Aldasair don’t end up in the honeymoon suite. Any thoughts to share about one or all almost-couples? Do you think we’ll get any happy ever afters?
Ha! Yeah, Tor and Noon aren’t getting much chance to get at it again are they? (Kirune’s comment about Vostok preventing Tor from “humping the witch” had me in stitches). I can’t say I mind that, but I am interested to see what will become of their relationship. They are clearly attracted to one another, and there’s some fondness there, but does that equate to love? And if it did, what then?

I was much more upset for Vintage in her little spat with Nanthema. I mean, that’s got to be pretty heart-wrenching, not only to know and feel you’ve aged while your partner hasn’t, but also to realise that you are not quite as important to them as they are to you … and after you worried over their disappearance for so long. Poor Vintage. She doesn’t deserve that, for all her faults. I feel that that’s maybe not a relationship that will survive the trilogy.

But for Bern and Aldasair, even though things seem pretty dire right now, I feel there is plenty of hope. No, war time is not the best of times to fall in love, but they’ve got each other’s backs and they’re the nicest people and Bern’s family were all ready to bring Aldasair into their family it seemed and surely that all has to count for something, even in Williams’ world?

 

Origin is home to more riddles than answers. What do you make of Micanal and Arnia? Do you believe the tablets are at the bottom of the gorge? Do you believe anything they’ve told us?
Oh boy. Bad, bad, bad. No, I don’t believe that the tablets are at the bottom of the gorge. No, I don’t believe a word of what Micanal and Arnia have said. Micanal seems to be an Eboran with a guilty conscience, and Arnia seems like another Hestilion, (Eboran females – are they all sinister secret-keepers? Do I need to be more worried for Vintage than I already am, and for a different reason?). She’s definitely not trustworthy. Well, neither of them are I don’t think, but for different reasons. I’m pretty sure Arnia is getting blood from somewhere to be so young looking while her brother is so aged. Did she *shudder* bring her own blood bank with her? Is that what’s on the other side of the island? And have these two lost their marbles? I mean, they have been alone together on Origin for centuries – and if there’s any conclusions we can draw from Williams’ story so far it’s that all quiet and no company make Eborans go doolally, (The Shining anyone? I’ waiting for the axe-wielding to begin!).

 

…and of course anything else you’d like to talk about!

What’s with the shimmering weather wall thingummy around Origin? It sounds very sci-fi, is this another alien artefact? Has more than one type of alien visited Sarn? Or was there some sort of ancient race that built it and we are just witnessing ruins like with the stone maidens?

When are the Winnowry going to turn up again? I don’t think we’re done with them and their lack of appearance so far in The Bitter Twins is starting to make me nervous.

And, maybe this is a pointless observation, but here it is anyway: book one was named for the Ninth Rain of Ygseril, but also for Tor’s sword, and book two is named for Bern’s twin axes, but also Micanal and Arnia are possibly the Bitter Twins; book three is The Poison Song which Celaphon has now mentioned (he can hear a song shared between the war-beasts, but his version is a poison song, something that separates him from them). So the Ninth Rain is a weapon, the Bitter Twins are weapons, is the Poison Song a weapon too? And is it Celaphon’s weapon, or the war-beasts’? Am I overthinking this whole thing?

 

 

Addendum:

You can read the rest of my The Bitter Twins read-along posts by clicking on the links below:

Week 1 – Chapters 1 to 12 inclusive

Week 2 – Chapters 13 to 22 inclusive

Week 4 – Chapters 35 to 46 inclusive

Week 5 – Chapters 47 to the end