Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds

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I am not a particularly up-to-date person. I make no special efforts to keep on top of new books and my to-read list rarely has anything on it that’s being published this year. I pick up new books that pass through my hands at work, and because of work I am more in the loop than I would otherwise be, but it’s not my aim in life to be in-touch with the new. I can walk into a bookstore any day of the week and be joyously surprised by a new book by some author or other that I love. Life is good.

There are a few exceptions. While Sir Terry Pratchett lived and wrote I watched and waited for his next book always. And I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I am a big fan of Jo Walton, so I’m usually pretty up to speed on what’s coming from her direction. And I’m always waiting for Alastair Reynolds’ next book. (I look at this list and realise there’s not much sense to it – what about Rothfuss? Carey? Scalzi? Griffin/North? … all authors I love, all authors I keep my eye out for, all authors I follow online, and yet … and yet I can’t explain how they often sneak books past me, while I’m doodling about in my own little world humming the Big Bang theme tune. Go figure).

Anyway, back to the point. I was introduced to Alastair Reynolds’ books by an old work friend, T, who I’ve since lost touch with. He was a fellow Pratchett devotee and the first person since school that I’d met who loved the same sort of reading that I did. He introduced me to loads of great stuff, but I will always remember him for Reynolds. I read Pushing Ice and never looked back. (T, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, may the sun smile upon you all the days of your life!) Fast forward to now, or rather four weeks ago, and Slow Bullets finally comes in at the library for me. That it’s a novella makes me a little sad – Reynolds’ books are usually great slabs of story that I can get lost in for a week or more (I am a painfully slow reader – ‘tis my curse, ah me!) – I read it in about three hours or so, but it was as interesting and fun as everything else he’s written, and it’s a pretty good place to start for anyone reading this (I still kid myself that there’s someone out there reading this – ha!) that hasn’t yet discovered the great A.R.

For something only 182 pages long there’s a lot packed into this story, and a lot that is touched on that I want to know everything else about. Briefly, Reynolds presents us with a universe that, like in a lot of his other books, humanity has thoroughly inhabited, only for a catastrophic event to occur that changes all the rules. His main character, Scur, and her fellow inhabitants on the Caprice (the ship’s name is a nice touch) awake after this event both devastatingly ignorant of what has happened and the time that has passed, and more technologically advanced than any other remaining pockets of humanity. In a crippled ship. The ship’s inhabitants also have a war criminal and a stowaway on board, a terrifyingly malfunctioning auto-surgeon (best scene!!!), some serious ideological differences to overcome, and a desperate race to save what they can of their cultural and technological knowledge as the Caprice loses its capacity to hold onto that information. It’s great stuff!

I have a final, not very relevant, thing to say. Something that I think Reynolds does wonderfully well is envision what alien races and our encounters with them might look like. While it’s not really the focus of this story, the alien race in Slow Bullets is as beyond understanding as any that have appeared in his other books. I love the worlds of Star Trek, Farscape and the like, choc-full of aliens that we have no real problems comprehending, interacting with and incorporating into our worldview, but I love that in Reynolds’ stories we don’t quite recognise what we’re looking at as another life form, we don’t quite get their attempts at communication. Reynolds’ aliens are as massive and unfathomable as, say, a whale is to us now. In the same way that humanity can’t yet meaningfully and successfully communicate with any of the myriad species we share the planet with, so, in his books does Reynold’s imagine our struggle to understand the alien. Only we’re the smaller species, lagging behind, time-bound and insignificant. And perversely, I find that very hopeful.

 

Oh-oh-oh, and Slow Bullets can count as a Book Bingo achievement because it was published this year! In the bag!!

The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham

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This week I finished The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham, the last book in his The Dagger and the Coin quintet (a series I first started reading way back in 2012 I just realized), and it was an awesome concluding volume. However, as it would be pretty pointless to talk about just this last book, I shall gush about the whole brilliant series instead.

Abraham is another author I wouldn’t have found without Jo Walton first writing about him over at Tor.com. The library didn’t have any of the Long Price books, but did have the first of The Dagger and The Coin series – so I read that and was pretty soon hooked. It was clear from the start that Abraham is a master world-builder and that, along with his characters and dialogue, grabbed me even though I wasn’t sure about the plot (which sounded a bit dry) going in. The first book in the series, The Dragon’s Path, introduces an eclectic cast of characters (all via POV, the chapters moving between the characters as necessary) from all walks of life, and a world peopled with the Thirteen Tribes of Humanity, a world where dragons were once the master race, but have been gone for hundreds of years at the start of the story. Everything that’s left – the great ruins, parts of the cities, the dragon jade roads, the thirteen races and so much more – are a part of the dragons’ legacy. This may sound typical Fantasy fare, but Abraham is in the Martin league of Fantasy writers and there are no prophecies to be fulfilled or chosen ones to be discovered, trained and set on the path to greatness. Instead he puts the Medean bank and its workings front and centre of the story. He takes something as seemingly uninteresting and mundane as the day-to-day life of a bank, and builds the rest of the plot up around it. It’s banking of a Renaissance-era sort and in Abraham’s hands it is a thrilling, gripping game, with the stakes getting ever higher as the series progresses and Cithrin Bel Sarcour increases in power. I didn’t think it was going to be my thing at all, instead I found myself completely caught up in the twists and turns and the clever deceptions Cithrin uses to set herself up as an underage banker after her guardian and household are killed. Cithrin has become one of my all-time favourite characters in SFF – she is so unlike what is thought of as a typical female fantasy character. She has a calculating intelligence and ambition that means she achieves some astonishing things, but she also has a gnawing self-doubt and a heroic drinking habit that sometimes undercut her. She is a young woman who first disguises herself as a boy wagoner (not all that successfully), and then, with the help of Master Kit and his troupe of actors, passes herself off as an older woman more suited to being the head of a bank. It is Cithrin that makes the bank’s story all that more involving – you worry with her when it looks like it’s all going to the dogs, and breathe a temporary sign of relief with her when she pulls it all off.

In fact, both of Abraham’s main female characters are written really well. Cithrin and Clara are enjoyable, realistic characters with unique powers (little ‘p’, not capital ‘P’ Powers), both go through some serious crap and come out stronger, but definitely changed. Clara, particularly, starts out as a typical respected lady of the court, loses almost everything she thought she valued, discovers she actually has some pretty serious cajones stashed under her skirts and builds herself a new and unconventional life, employing all the skills she has at her disposal to undermine the regime that took her husband – all without once touching a sword, axe or magic wand. Both women have believable story arcs and they’re not just in the story for sexual/romantic/throw-something-in-for-the-ladies purposes. They both feel like women in the way that I am a woman, it isn’t their only defining characteristic and isn’t something that they think about much of the time. The assumptions people make about them because they are women is something they use rather than something they suffer. I think Abraham should get a big fat gold star just for writing Cithrin and Clara so satisfyingly.

The rest of the characters are equally engaging, well-rounded people. They are charming, and funny, and flawed, and they’re all doing the best they can with what they’ve been dealt. I found something with which to identify in each of them and I care about the things they care about, which is perhaps the most impressive when one of those characters is a man responsible for some truly horrendous acts (done for some very petty reasons) across the span of the series (yeah, I’m looking at you Geder). In fact, one of my favourite quotes in book three The Tyrant’s Law is appropriate here (and kind of prescient of later events, which I cannot divulge, obviously):

“I have loved many, many people … and I’ve never meant the same thing by the word twice. Love is wonderful, but it doesn’t justify anything or make a bad choice wise. Everybody loves. Idiots love. Murderers love. Pick any atrocity you want, and someone will be able to justify it out of something they call love.”

It would be hard to pick a favourite character from the group Abraham writes about as they’re all sympathetic and interesting in their own ways … Marcus and his world-weary cynicism is perhaps the most trope character of the bunch but his relationship with Cithrin gives him more interest and depth; Yardem Hane, the other half of Marcus in some ways and always looking out for him, as well as providing some of the best double-act back-and-forth I’ve read in ages (I am ridiculously fond of Yardem Hane); Master Kit, the powerfully persuasive actor, troupe leader and former apostate of the Spider cult; the upright Dawson Kalliam in the earlier books; Inys, the last dragon, in the later ones; even Geder. Poor Geder. As the series has unfolded I haven’t known whether to pity him or fear him, hate him or love him. I still don’t. I think I feel a little of everything for him, and you really have to admire an author who can write someone like Geder and still have you care about him despite everything.

I enjoyed too that while there are full-scale things happening, Abraham tells it all from a smaller perspective, by dedicating chapters to different POVs he keeps everything feeling very real. There are no sweeping birds-eye-view descriptions to detach you from the story, it’s all happening at the reader’s eye level. Even when it comes to the war that soon dominates the story there is no Big Bad, no all-encompassing evil, just something that takes advantage of humanity’s flaws, a repercussion of the dragons own squabbles thousands of years before.

Finally, throughout the series there is an ongoing discussion about stories and their transmission. Geder loves to study ‘speculative essays’, (which seems to be the study of history as far as I can tell) but Basrahip scorns the written word as ‘dead’ and therefore beneath notice, claiming that only the spoken word is worth hearing. Master Kit and his troupe perform popular myths and legends and Kit talks about how stories can be used to comment on current events or used to inspire action. The Spider priests use their scary persuasiveness to make their version of a story true. All of Abraham’s characters tell themselves stories to justify their actions or to reinforce their sense of identity – like Marcus’ memory of the loss of his wife and child and how he weaves Cithrin into that tale, or Geder’s story of how he has been hard done by and misunderstood to justify the massacre of a city. Like the stories a court tells about someone who is in favour and holds power, and how those stories change when that person falls.

“The story of a person could never be as complex as they actually were because then it would take as much time to know someone as it did to be them Reputation, even when deserved, inevitably meant simplification, and every simplification deformed.”

It’s awesome stuff. They’re awesome books. Abrahams is an awesome author. Totally worth reading.

 

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe

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February was a hellish month so as this was my first weekend off in ages I went on a mini splurge to reward myself for surviving it. I’d like to say I felt guilty for spending so much money on so few books (new, shiny, good-smelling books … Mmmmm), but I just don’t.

 

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Splurge!

 

I’m too excited by everything I bought. Not only had I completely missed (how???) that Neil Gaiman had written a new Sandman last year, I also didn’t realise the next instalment of Rat Queens was available. These two things just made February a distant fuzzy memory … so, so exciting! Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The first volume of Rat Queens was on my wish list forever and when we finally got it it was so worth it. Hannah, Dee, Vi and Betty were an utterly badass blast. They were beautifully drawn, their banter was brilliant and the story was great. I loved too that it was really colourful (in every way) after having read through quite a pile of moody, dark, mostly apocalyptic comics from Thumb’s collection. I also enjoyed reading about four funny, sassy girlfriends who got all the best lines, and a cast of secondary characters like Lola and Sawyer, Tizzie, the four Daves, that are all distinctive and cool in their own right. So to spot a new Rat Queens in a bookstore when I was feeling poop was like being given a puppy to hold.

And Bilford Bogin! it’s good. The artwork in volume two is really pretty, Stjepan Sejic’s style is just gorgeous and there were so many pages I’d have happily mounted and framed. The story carries straight on from Sass and Sorcery and the energy doesn’t let up as the four friends bounce from a fight with mushroom people (with Betty naturally trying the goods and then trying to eat Vi’s head) straight into a battle to stop the end of the world. Weird alien beings that mess with reality give us glimpses into the pasts of Violet and Hannah, and Dee’s past literally comes to her front door. Considering there have only been two slim volumes of Rat Queens so far I feel like I’m much further along with these characters that I really am. I think maybe it’s because as soon as you start reading you catch up to where they’re at, you don’t start at the beginning with them meeting and becoming friends – the history’s there already. And everything you see just makes you want to see more.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to curl back up on the sofa and start again from the beginning …

 

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Like I said, all the best lines 🙂

 

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

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Last week I was home with the head-cold-from-hell and feeling very sorry for myself, none of my library books were looking friendly, and A College of Magics kind of winked at me from the middle of the tower of books at the bottom of our stairs. I bought it as a catch-and-release from a local charity shop when I was still panic-buying books like people do bread and milk when they think it’s going to snow. Suddenly it looked like exactly the right kind of bright and shiny that I needed, so I took it off to bed with me along with a very large mug of ginger tea and a box of tissues, and got lost in the world of Greenlaw and Galazan. I expected a kind of chipper tale of school girls learning magic and getting into high jinks. What I read instead was something far more marvellous and beautiful. Stevermer writes with a combination of humour and wit and utter loveliness. I’ve never read anything like her before, and I kind of hope I don’t find anyone else doing this, Stevermer should be the only person writing this sort of thing because she does it so wonderfully well.

On the surface A College of Magics reads light and fluffy: girl gets sent by evil uncle to school of magic where she meets her best friend; they proceed to travel around Europe having adventures and saving the world. And I would have been happy enough with that, if that’s all it’d been. But there were some beautifully written bits (often revolving around Faris’ strong connection with place) and some cracking dialogue and good meaty plotting, and the whole thing became more than a sum of its parts. I found the historical setting unusual for a fantasy, (it took me a while to work out when it was supposed to be with all the talk of stage coaches and Baedeker travel guides, but I settled on 1902-ish after a Minerva limousine was mentioned – thank you Google), and I wasn’t at all sure how magic was going to fit in (the magic’s a little slow in making its appearance, and the moment when Jane shows Faris magic for the first time I did a little one-person-Mexican-wave for the joy of it), but the magic system is one of the best things about this book. It’s magic the way Diana Wynne Jones writes magic: subtle and tricksy, with an underlying logic that reveals itself slowly. The snow in the quad, the not-a-hat, the jinxed coal, the labyrinth at Sevenfolds, the patterned rug – some of the most interesting bits of the story were all tied up with this magic like presents tied with sparkly ribbon. I loved every second of it.

The jacket blurb gives not a hint of any of the real story. It establishes only that Faris is sent away from her home in Galazan (somewhere in Europe) to Greenlaw College in Normandy by her Uncle Brinker, for vague, nefarious reasons, (it won’t fit in anywhere else, so I’ll say here that Uncle Brinker gave me the run around nearly the whole time I was reading this – is he evil? Or not evil? Maybe I was particularly dense because of germs, but I just couldn’t figure him out, such a frustrating character!). Greenlaw is a sort of finishing school but with magic. Only there are no practical magic lessons, and students are not permitted to practise magic. However, you cannot graduate from Greenlaw unless you have grasped the magic you couldn’t be taught. It’s like some sort of puzzle. When you do graduate, however, you can call yourself a witch of Greenlaw. And while Faris’ time at the college doesn’t even take up half of the book’s length, it’s nonetheless vital to the rest of the story. It is where we learn about this tricksy magic. It’s also where we meet most of the main players, the shining star among them being Jane. Jane is wonderful. Jane is going on my list of greatest characters ever. She is beautifully British, she is charming, she is intelligent, she is funny, (there are lovely on-going jokes about tea and three-volume novels that start with Jane). And it’s not that Faris isn’t a wonderful character in her own right – she’s brave, forthright, sensible and (I’m sorry, I just can’t think of another way to put it) has balls of steel – it’s just that without Jane Faris doesn’t have anyone else that shows her off to advantage. The dialogue practically crackles when the two of them get going – it’s fantastic stuff. Also, (and this only really occurred to me just now) I’ve not before read a SFF where the two lead characters were female. A male and a female yes, but two women driving the story/ saving the world? … off the top of my head I can’t think of another book that does that …

Anyhow, A College of Magics is tightly plotted and fast paced. While I’d have quite happily stayed in Greenlaw for rest of the book (and another couple after) Stevermer soon has Faris and Jane, Tyrian and Reed (bodyguard and henchman respectively), charging off to Paris and from there deeper into her Europe of Galazan and Aravis. While in Paris Faris is followed through the night-time streets by sinister unknowns before being rescued by that Minerva limo; there is an attempted bombing in her hotel, followed by an assassination attempt on the Orient Express; She meets with bandits on a coach trip through the wilds surrounding Galazan; she dances with the king of Aravis at a fancy-dress ball (of course!), finds the secret hideout of a pack of revolutionaries who attempt to hold her hostage, and is chased by the king’s guard. Her adventures come to a head in an actual lion’s den, with Faris trying to mend a hole in the world. You’d think that all the above would have been the biggest spoiler ever, but that’s not even the half of it – I haven’t mentioned the menacing Menary or the ghostly Hilarian or any of the political troubles in which Faris is tied up. And even if I had blabbed on and on about all of that too, it still wouldn’t really spoil the book. It’s the journey that matters here, and Stevermer is a master conductor.

And if that doesn’t make you want to read this book, nothing will!

 

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

womanontheedgeofbtimeI find them odd, these little serendipitous links that occur when I’m reading. When I first read the Wondla books by Tony DiTerlizzi I’d just finished Simon Barnes’ Ten Million Aliens which weirdly turned out to be the most perfect thing I could have read to prep for the Wondla trip, (I’m not telling you why, read Ten Million Aliens and then the Wondla books for yourself if you want to know what I’m on about!) Likewise, recently I enjoyed Robert Llewellyn’s vision of a beautiful supergreen future, News From Nowhere, and privately lamented that he didn’t go into as much detail as I’d have liked, only to start Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and find myself in a similar future with vastly more depth (no criticism of Llewellyn’s book intended – each book is a different thing, a world unto itself, and I’m no judge to set one up against the other; also, it’s only ever my opinion I’m giving, and who the heck am I anyway?).

I’m excited about Woman on the Edge of Time for so many reasons. Most trivially, it was first published in 1976 (before I was born, but also, more than ten years ago, which is the relevant thing), so it can count as the first of my Book Bingo 2017 goals and I love being able to tick something off a list – yay! Secondly, it was lent to me by my fabulous friend S, which makes me feel all warm and cuddly towards her because she’s someone I admire, and she said it was good, and it was good, and that makes me irrationally happy; (incidentally, S has an awesome blog about green and friendly things that I love, and you might love it too, she can be found here). Thirdly, this book stands the test of time – I’ve just read it forty-one years after it first hit the shelves and I found it believable, compelling, heart-wrenching, beautiful, stirring. And topical. Nothing felt out of date for me, and the two visions of the future that Piercy presents during the course of the story were both still plausible and fascinating. And most importantly/fourthly, this was one of those books that reminds me just why I love to read so much. I use the word awesome a lot, but with reason, I do feel in awe of authors who can create such complete, alternative worlds; can communicate them so perfectly that I can see and touch and taste that world. It is an awesome power that authors have, and an awesome thing that books can do.

I don’t think this book would be all those things if Connie weren’t such a great character. She is literally the beating heart of the story. Piercy reveals Connie to her audience in such a way that you could, if you chose, question her sanity throughout the book. I chose not to. I read a lot of SFF, and it just didn’t work for me to believe the whole thing a figment of her imagination. I could argue quite successfully that I’m right about this, but I won’t because there’s much more interesting stuff to talk about. Anyway, Connie is a wonderfully watchful and sensual character. Living in near-poverty, having lost pretty much everyone she’s ever loved and everything she ever had, a second-class citizen as much because of her sex as because of her heritage and her personal history, and having little education, she nonetheless appreciates beauty where she finds it. During her first interactions with Luciente, her visitor from the future, she pays attention to Luciente’s physical grace and beauty, as she does to that of fellow mental hospital inmates Sybil, Skip and Alice. And she is still open to love, despite the life she’s had. I think that’s what I liked most about her, what kept me reading on, was her capacity for love and connection, (and her smacking that snake Geraldo in the face with a wine bottle – gotta love her for that too).

Piercy’s main vision of the future, Mattapoisett, is all about connection: Humanity’s connection with the earth; our connection with our past; our connections to one another. The mind-body connection has transformed how we work and how we heal so that drugs play very little part in this future’s medicine; also, interestingly, women have given up that ultimate connection, childbirth, in the interests of balancing out the power between men and women. Nobody gives birth, children are born in a building. Everybody and anybody can be a mother (there are no fathers), and every child has three. Humanity has gone back to the land and life is as much about getting in the harvest as it is about connecting with ourselves, finding our happy and following our passions. And sleeping with whoever we want pansexually. I suppose it is very much a product of its time, when I type it all out like that it certainly sounds very Summer-of-Love-ish, but it reads way better than it sounds, I just can’t do it justice. All I can say is that this is a future I very much want to believe in and that I enjoyed immensely. We’ve even learned how to talk to animals – for real!

Connie’s struggles in her own time seem at first to have very little to do with this rather lovely future she can visit at will. As things progress, there are a couple of comments made about time and Luciente’s future not being a set thing but one of many possibilities, and then Piercy turns the knob on the microscope and things kind of slide into focus a bit, and you maybe feel a little chill as you start to put things together. In her own time, Connie is part of an experiment. Possibly as a result of that she visits a second future very different from Mattapoisett, where things have not gone so green. And partly as a result of that Connie sees how it may be up to her to ensure that the better future happens – she sees her own connection to the future of Luciente, and she sees too how she maybe has a little power when throughout the book she’s had none. Because that’s the other thread running through this whole story: power. Those who have it and those that don’t. And the two futures reflect the two extremes that humanity can take.

 

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME AND THINK YOU MIGHT, STOP HERE. IF YOU’VE ALREADY READ IT, OR DON’T PLAN TO, CARRY ON AS YOU LIKE …

I try not to spoil things. I try not to write anything that I think will ruin a good surprise or an excellent development for anyone thinking about reading a book I’ve decided to write about … on the off-chance that anyone is actually reading anything I have to say of course! But I’m not sure how I felt at the end of this book. Connie has taken a powerful action, something I applauded her for in the same way that I applauded her assault on Geraldo at the beginning, but she has also seemingly lost her way back to Mattaposiett – she can never go there again. She can never know the results of her actions. We leave her knowing that she no longer has even that temporary escape, and she will never be going home again. And then the final chapter gives us some of the clinical notes made about her, and they reduce her down to a nothing, a nobody. It’s going to sound melodramatic, but it broke my heart after getting to know Connie in all her love and humour and guilt and rage to see her reduced back down to, not a patient, not someone worthy of attention and support and help, but an inmate, little more than an animal. And I don’t quite know what Piercy intended, what I’m supposed to do with it. Am I supposed to be angry at the end? Scared? Is it supposed to incite me to riot?

All I felt was sad. I liked Connie so much. I hated how she was treated by Dolly, Geraldo, her brother Luis (I kept hoping she’d bottle him in the face too) and all those doctors and nurses; I felt her powerlessness. And after everything that happened to her I just wanted her to have some sort of happy ending, one where she was happy and able to rest.

Fasure.

The Wondla Trilogy by Tony DiTerlizzi

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I had to stay in today for a parcel for Thumbs and I’ve been in a funk. It’s been cold and overcast, raining on and off all day – a perfect day therefore for reading under a blanket or three by the window (rather than cleaning, hoovering, cooking, sorting, sewing or any other ‘–ing’ that sounds like work).

I read the Wondla books first a couple of years ago. They’re a children’s sci-fi trilogy, magically, wonderfully, beautifully illustrated by the author Tony DiTerlizzi, and I read them when I was feeling a bit blue – children’s books are a go-to when you feel that way, no? Must be something about the way they’re told, nothing can ever go so wrong that it can’t be fixed in a kid’s book. But please don’t dismiss Wondla because it’s primary audience is junior, this is a great scifi romp and in the same way that Hayao Miyasaki’s films have more to them than their animated exteriors might suggest, so too does Wondla have far more to offer. They are also the most successfully illustrated books I’ve ever read, the gorgeous two-colour artwork and the story being two halves of a whole – each enhances your enjoyment of the other.

 

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I’d upload every illustration if I could, but this gives a flavour … so, so pretty!

 

It’s difficult not to give all the good stuff away, but roughly speaking Wondla is the story of 12-year-old Eva Nine’s journey from her secluded underground Sanctuary into the wider world above of Orbona. It’s the story of Eva finding out who she is, and finding a place for herself in that world. It’s by no means as simple as all that, however. There are power-crazed bad guys, fantastical alien beasts, carnivorous plant life, giant insects, robots, clones, lost cities, an alien ark, walking trees, spaceships… oh, and tech to die for. Sanctuary, where Eva’s story begins, is awesome and the technology that has protected and sustained Eva as she’s grown up owes something to both Star Trek (the Omnipod, the holo-room and Rovender’s vocal transcoder) and Star Wars (mostly Muthr, but also the Boomrod and the Bijou and Goldfish later on in the books). When she emerges from Sanctuary after it’s ripped apart by an alien marauder (still not giving anything away – that’s right there in the blurb) we also learn about her oh-my-god-when-will-we-get-these??? smart clothes: the jackvest, utilitunic and sneakboots that keep her warm and dry and monitor her health, and have been designed to break down into medical aids, like when Eva uses the toe-cap of her boot and the cuff of her tunic to make a splint for her broken fingers … now see, isn’t that already the coolest thing ever?

As Eva discovers the world above so do we, and maybe we work some things out a bit quicker than she does (what are those mysterious ruins for instance? And what happened to Earth?), but that’s only because she’s been in a tech-cave her whole life, poor kid, prepared for a world she is no longer on. This new world is a masterpiece, fully-realised, splendid in its scale and variety, and completely satisfying. Eva encounters plants, giant insects and flocks of birds that all try to eat her, but she also meets with Rovender Kitt and with Otto who accompany her throughout most of the book and become a part of the family she’s never had. She learns to live within this challenging environment, and the planet’s character, its terrain, its ruins, its forests, are all as important to the story as any of the other protagonists.

I mentioned Miyasaki before and the Wondla books have a lot in common with his 1984 film Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind – an alien world, a planet trying to right itself, a brave female protagonist (who just maybe has a whiff of prophecy about her). The first book is all about Eva’s search for other humans, and she meets plenty of the planet’s other inhabitants while she travels. They’re a mixed bag, some trustworthy, some rather less so (I liked this, that if an individual turned out to be bad or misguided it was through personal choice, not just their nature as aliens), and all brilliantly drawn, both in words and pictures. As in Nausicaa the one thing that marks Eva Nine out as hero material is her desire to understand both the people and the creatures she meets and the situations she finds herself in. And she only fulfils her role of uniting the old world of humanity and the new alien world because of this understanding.

And then there is Time. Time is palpable throughout this trilogy. At the beginning of the story so much time has already passed, Eva is one of the last of her kind; the very reason for Eva’s existence is time and humanity’s struggle with, and fear of, it (now I really am giving things away). As Eva learns more about the world we (and she) discover just where her story sits in time thanks to the Royal Museum at Solas, and the epilogues at the very end of the trilogy take us onwards in time, far into the future. If a story is a pattern, some more pleasing than others, then the pattern made by this story pleased me greatly – I liked the feeling of drawing out from Eva at the end, and then out again, like a longshot at the end of a movie that says ‘there, we can leave them now, everything will be alright’.

After deciding I was going to write something about Wondla, R and I took a look the other day at scifi for children. Or rather, we searched for scifi for kids on the junior shelves and found only five books. Just five that met our scifi criteria (i.e. science is fundamental to the story, not applied as a coating; actual science, not chocolate aliens; and not time travel using a glowing *magic* rock rather than an actual time machine or something else that makes a bit more sense). Wondla feels pretty special to me, and after our search I’m not inclined to change my mind. There were quite a few books where aliens infiltrated schools for comedic shenanigans, and I’m not saying these don’t have their place, I’m really not, I just would like to see more adventures like Wondla, where there’s a bit of weight to the story, and … well … maybe, actually, I wouldn’t like to see more of that kind of thing, because then Wondla wouldn’t be quite as special as it is. But I do feel there’s a lack there. As soon as you move into the Teen area there’s a whole section dedicated to scifi (and distinct from the fantasy books too), so what happens to the brain between the ages of, say, ten and thirteen that suddenly scifi becomes a thing? Seriously, if anyone has any answers I’d love to know.

 

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

perdidostreetstation

China Miéville sits firmly at the top of my ever-changing list of super awesome writers on the strength of the only other book by him that I’ve read, Kraken – a book I borrowed from the library for Thumbs rather than myself because Thumbs has a fascination/obsession with Giant Squid (and all things deep sea) and I thought he’d like the cover art if nothing else. When he got halfway through and wouldn’t stop talking about it I started reading the darn thing just to shut him up. Neither of us has shut up about it since. Miéville blew me away with one book so completely that I’ve been almost scared to read anything else by him. He is both an intimidatingly intelligent gent and a game-changer. In fact, the thought of writing down, in black and white, what I (the only-a-reader-absolutely-not-a-writer ‘I’) think and feel about anything Miéville has written actually makes me feel physically sick.

Please bear that in mind as I continue.

Perdido Street Station is phenomenal. It opens with some brilliantly Dickensian descriptions of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants, the city as much a character as a location:

“The knot of architectural tissue where the fibres of the city congealed, where the skyrails of the militia radiated out from the Spike like a web and the five great trainlines of the city met, converging on the great variegated fortress of dark brick and scrubbed concrete and wood and steel and stone, the edifice that yawned hugely at the city’s vulgar hear, Perdido Street Station.” (page 28)

and some kick-ass place names: Canker Wedge, Aspic Hole, Brock Marsh, Griss Twist; and character names: Mayor Bentham Rudgutter, Mr Motley, Lemuel Pigeon, Montague Vermishank; which all have that fantastic sayableness that Dickens has. Just speaking the names out loud conjures up something of the character or the place named. A lot of my favourite books read aloud really well, and Perdido Street Station is up there with the best of them. I’ve been gleefully reading bits out to Thumbs as I’ve gone along, unable to contain myself, (seriously, how could I keep the summoning of the Abassador of Hell to myself? Or the Construct Council and its avatar? Or Derkhan Blueday’s visit to the communicatrix Umma Balsum? – gotta love those names – Or the Weaver?).

Reading this book was like being slowly sucked down into darker and darker waters, filled with beautiful, nightmarish things. At first I was just revelling in the world building as Miéville mapped out his vast city, and the larger world of Bas-Lag; then I became entranced by the sheer variety and seeming absurdity of the characters that moved in and out of the story; eventually I just gaped, in awe, as the various storylines were brought together and the book’s Big Bad raised its very scary head (and wings! And tentacles!) It’s the kind of book that – when first faced with its doorstep size and weight – you feel a small shiver of anticipation (and maybe just a tremor of fear) at the prospect of reading, but once it got going it really didn’t feel that long. Every single word felt necessary. New Crobuzon is a massive, complex, completely-realised city. There’s no sketching-in of details, it doesn’t feel like Miéville is saving anything for later, when you peer in you can see all the way to the back.

So, I think I’ve made it clear that I liked it, right? But I’m not done yet. You see, while it’s well-written and it’s got some very interesting lead characters (Isaac and Lin are particularly cool – talk about star-crossed lovers – damn), and great set pieces and an awesome Big Bad (or two, or more), it’s also very clever. I mentioned that Miéville was smart, right? So the theme of transformation runs through the whole book, sometimes obviously, as caterpillars transform into moths; sometimes more subtly as a machine burgeons into consciousness; and leading the charge is Yagharek, the mutilated bird-man who wants Isaac to help him regain flight. Yagharek begins the book, already transformed (from a flying man to a non-flying man), and it is from his POV that we first see New Crobuzon. As the book progresses we occasionally check in with him, first-person, to see how he is being changed by the city and the people he meets. We build up a picture of him as an exile from his race, out of his element, weakened and less than he was. We feel pity for him and his flightless plight. And as the book goes on, and larger problems take over, we still hope that Isaac will be able to help Yagharek achieve his goal. And the clever part is that Miéville lets you feel that way, and then at the end he releases just one more piece of information, nothing much, that recasts Yagharek – and your opinion is transformed, along with Isaac’s, about what the right thing to do might be. But you have to have read all about what happened to Isaac and Lin and the others to feel the way you do at the end. Of course, I could be barking up completely the wrong tree. Miéville could have intended none of what I’ve just read into his novel, but it felt clever at the time, and I’m going to attribute it to him until he tells me otherwise.

Whether the above is intentional or not, Miéville has still written a beautiful book. There’s magic (multiple types) and science, and a place in the middle where the two comingle. There are semi-mythical races like the Garuda bird people, Wyrmen and Vampires, and alien races like the Handlinger, and strange half-and-half races like the Khepri and the Cactacae. There are flintlock guns and gas lamps, and other planes of existence, and even a god “devoted to the collection, categorisation and dissemination of information” (p. 84). And there is the Weaver (I know I’ve already mentioned it, but it bears repeating in case you didn’t realise just how cool the Weaver really is): terrifying and wonderful; poetic and as mad as a bag of spanners, cutting peoples’ ears off and dressing them up in silly outfits because it makes the world web prettier; obsessed with the beauty of scissors, and a tad unpredictable; a tic-tac-toe playing, riddle-talking, world-crossing creature. And absolutely my favourite character in this book.

If you like a good adventure – read this book. If you like a bit of horror – read this book. If you like really well-drawn characters, good plotting, now knowing what’s coming next, anything out of the ordinary, then guess what? Read. This. Book.