Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

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Book Bingo – Dreadful cover? Give it a go! = Achieved!

Cordelia’s Honor is actually two books in one (a double whammy!): Shards of Honor (first published in 1986) and Barrayar (first published in 1991), that together tell the story of Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan, from their first meeting, to their getting hitched and having a child, Miles, who becomes the main protagonist in the rest of the Vorkosigan saga. If this sounds a bit humdrum and not quite your cup of tea, then that’s a pity (for you) because these two books are an absolute blast.

Before I go on to babble about how much I loved Cordelia’s Honor I do just have to say – dreadful cover! I mean, really?! … why? … with the green dress … and what the…? that red sash … and, erm, whose hands are they? … No. Sorry. Just no. I prefer the original covers way more, especially the one for Barrayar:

 

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I mean, wouldn’t you read Barrayar on the strength of that cover? Nobody’s gonna get that baby!

 

Anyway, all that aside, I’ve been hearing great things about the Vorkosigan saga for years, so finally bought Cordelia’s Honor second-hand with some birthday money. And then, naturally, didn’t read it for another six months or so. I only really picked it up now because I couldn’t think of another bad book cover off the top of my head. It’s a funny, thought-provoking and engaging story though, set in a universe where humanity has colonised other worlds. Cordelia comes from the egalitarian Beta Colony and Aral from the feudal-ish Barrayar. We see the story and the world from Cordelia’s POV and she’s a pretty cool character: easy to like, practical, and quick-witted; although I feel that she’s more interesting in and on Barrayar where her upbringing and beliefs are thrown into relief by Barrayaran society, and where she’s forced to fight for something desperately important to her. She’s one of those characters that shows to best advantage when fighting.

Characters are something McMaster Bujold does incredibly well. Aral Vorkosigan is as interesting in his way as Cordelia, he’s a military man and a Lord, definitely a fighter, but also rather vulnerable and incredibly lonely. Ensign (later Lieutenant) Koudelka is hilariously dim-witted in some respects, but also warm and loyal. Count Piotr is a product of his world, his time and his class. Droushnakovi is a sensitive but nevertheless kickass warrior woman. Vorrutyer and then Vordarian make beautifully chilling bad guys. And Bothari is … well, I had a sort of sick fascination with Bothari. He is a monster. But he’s always due some compassion as a deeply conflicted, used and abused individual with barely any sense of self. After Cordelia, he is my favourite character, and his deeply ambiguous relationship with her is brilliantly written. I really hope he continues to have a role to play in the following books.

The Beta-Colony-versus-Barrayar set up is inspired too. In these first two books McMaster Bujold has created an arena in which a huge range of issues can be explored, from motherhood, sexism, and prejudice against the differently-abled, to the right to an education, class conflict, and the “primitive culinary practice” of eating dead animals. I think one of the reasons I found this such an engrossing read is because I couldn’t help but have an opinion on every topic that arose, and there were so many characters that needed to be proved wrong and punched very hard in the nose. (Count Piotr climbed that list steadily as I came to the end of Barrayar, although there was the suggestion in the epilogue that young Miles may yet help him see sense – so maybe he’ll avoid a punched nose yet). Beta Colony stands in for Humanity’s better self and in many ways made me think of Star Trek’s Federation. Cordelia is genuinely horrified by the poverty and lack of education that she encounters on Barrayar, having never come across these things on Beta Colony. Barrayar then, stands in for Humanity’s more primitive side. There women are baby-makers and “frills”, and to be differently-abled is to be shunned, mocked and treated as a third-class citizen. All of this is cleverly foreshadowed in Shards of Honor where one of the first things we learn about these two peoples is that Betans carry stunners as their only weapon, and Barrayarans carry nerve disruptors (which are quite as nasty as they sound).

So here is an author who wants to explore identity and what it is to be human, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a laugh while we’re doing it. Another great thing about Cordelia’s Honor was just how much humour was packed in with all the action and thought-provoking-ness (not a word, I know … it’s late). There’s the affectionate, rather touching humour between Cordelia and Aral (considering I don’t really enjoy romance there’s been a fair bit of it in my reading material this year, and most of it’s been … ok, actually), some brilliant deadpan one-liners – “Why are you wearing slippers?” … “I’m – sorry, Pilot Officer Mayhew. That’s classified.” had me in stitches – and situations in which Cordelia accidentally kicks the Betan President (that no-one voted for it seems) in the nuts, encounters Barrayaran sexism while shopping for a sword-stick and plays at being an appallingly “friendly neighbourhood go-between” for a couple of hopeless lovers. it’s the kind of generous, inclusive humour that will entice me to reread these books, and that’s my favourite kind.

It’s a pretty impressive thing to write an interesting SF adventure about a gal and a guy, neither in the first bloom of youth, making a connection against the odds and seeing it through. It’s a downright awesome thing to then write a gripping SF adventure story that revolves around said gal and guy having a baby. For that alone Cordelia’s Honor would have made it onto my All-Time Greats list. Lois McMaster Bujold explores so many issues in this story, however, issues that are no less relevant now than when these two books were first written, that she promises to become one of my all-time favourite authors. I can’t wait to read more of the Vorkosigan saga. I can’t wait to meet Miles as a grown-up, and see what becomes of Count Piotr and Bothari, and Cordelia and Aral, and Beta Colony and Barrayar. And being as late as I am to this party, they’re all out there waiting for me (I think there’s another eighteen novels!) – which makes me feel like the cat that’s got the cream.

 

Additional:

I couldn’t find anywhere above to mention the beautiful short story that is tacked onto the end of Shards of Honor. It’s called Aftermaths and it makes a perfect epilogue to Shards, as well as an appropriate introduction to Barrayar with its motherhood theme. It’s lovely in its own right, however, in its telling of an Escobaran Medtech and a Pilot sent to retrieve the dead from space. It deals with seeing people as people and not just a rank, or a type, or a symbol of something. To say any more would ruin it for anyone who wants to read it, which I heartily recommend you do, even if you don’t want to delve into the Vorkosigan saga itself.

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War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

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Book Bingo – A Fantasy classic = Achieved!

I was all lined up to read The Chronicles of Amber for this Book Bingo category when I found a copy of War for the Oaks at the bookstore. Known for being one of the first urban fantasy novels ever written, Emma Bull’s debut has been on my wish list for too long for me to ignore it, especially when it has a brand-spanking-new cover, an introduction by Naomi Alderman, and is right there in front of me on the shelf. Zelazny will have to wait.

It also feels serendipitous that I read War for the Oaks now. This book reminded me so strongly of my best friend from school, M, who passed away this time last year. She would have loved this book. She would have loved Eddi, and the band, and the Seelie queen, and most especially the phouka. In fact, this is the kind of book she would have recommended to me with all her wonderful enthusiasm. She was a lot like Eddi – strong, generous, an incredibly talented musician, quick-witted and always able to laugh at herself (she had a motorbike for a time, too) – and my whole reading of War for the Oaks is inextricably linked up with remembering her. I’d like to think that she did find this book, and that we would have talked about it the next time we met up, because it saddens me more than I can say that I won’t get to talk to her about it now.

 

The song did kick off with only guitar. Then Carla dropped in after a few measures with a series of snare drum punches, and Dan’s synthesizer yowled across it all.

Then, in precisely the right place, the bass came in. It began as if the Rocky Mountains had begun to walk. It sounded like the voice of magma under the earth’s crust, and it picked up the whole song and rolled it forward like water exploding out of a breaking dam. They were suddenly tight, all four of them, as if they were a single animal and that monster heartbeat was their own.

So, Eddi McCandry is a guitarist and singer who gets drawn unwillingly into a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of faerie that is playing out in Minneapolis. She is drafted by the Seelie side, and her purpose is to lend mortality to those on the battlefield – by her being there those fighting, normally immortal, can die. She gains a faerie bodyguard, a phouka (shapeshifter), to protect her from Unseelie sabotage and through her relationship with him she comes to take a more active interest in the battle.

It’s hard not to like Eddi McCandry. From her opening scene playing a difficult gig with a band on the verge of splitting up and an idiot lead-singer boyfriend, right through to her and her band’s final performance, she is frank and warm and funny and brave. It’s hard not to like Carla and Dan, and Hedge and Willy, and the phouka too, and the forming of Eddi’s new band is written beautifully. It made me think of that adage that friends are the family you choose for yourself – the band play to each other’s strengths when they perform, and come to do the same in real life as they all become embroiled in Eddi’s struggle. And Emma Bull is a musician and singer herself, so War for the Oaks is all about the music. She writes about music with a mad poetic beauty. I don’t know anything about how a band works together, and I loved loved loved her descriptions of how Eddi and the others all bring their own personalities and magic to the music they are making. I was also fascinated by her descriptions of Eddi’s role as a sort of conductor of the performance; when I’ve watched live music I’ve always assumed that everyone’s just playing their parts and by some happy coincidence they’re all in time. I didn’t realise that they are all riffing off one another, following each other’s cues and leads to create something mercurial and magical and of-the-moment. Shows what I know.

Oh, and Eddi’s wardrobe! That’s something M would have waxed lyrical about. She had a fabulous, slightly theatrical style that I admired a lot, and Eddi’s outfits would have caught her imagination, I think. The Seelie queen’s outfits too. And most definitely the phouka’s. He would have appealed to her romantic streak with his brocade coats and ruffled shirts. I sort of imagined him as a cross between Morris Chestnut and Prince, with all that raking his hands through his hair and changing outfits every five minutes. Yeah, M would have loved him. And while the romance between Eddi and the phouka was not something that had me swooning or daydreaming, it’s well-written and I was rooting for them both. (That doesn’t mean I’ve gone mushy or anything!)

Perhaps my favourite thing was Bull’s representation of the creatures of faerie. Whether Seelie or Unseelie, they cannot be trusted and they don’t have Humanity’s best interests at heart. They are either stunningly beautiful or grotesque, always slightly alien, and never cute and fluffy. Their upper classes are vain and selfish and their lower classes little more than slaves, (actually, I’d have liked to read more about this class division. It’s hinted in the story that this is something the phouka wants to change, and that he’s using Eddi to do so, but we never really see or hear much more about it after that). As our main representative of the faerie race, the phouka is brilliantly enigmatic at times, and positively contrary at others. It’s a little thing, but I also liked that he introduces himself to Dan as ‘Robin Goode’ (i.e. Robin Goodfellow or Puck, the “shrewd and knavish sprite” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which gave me a little private chuckle. It is through him we learn of the weird workings of the faerie world and the customs and laws that Eddi has become caught up in, and it’s all beautifully, lovingly realised in HD detail.

In her introduction (which is just perfect), Naomi Alderman says “you could put together a pretty great playlist of the songs mentioned in the novel – in fact, I might!”. This prompted me to write down all the music mentioned as I read the book to kind of gain an extra dimension. A lot of it was stuff I hadn’t heard of, like the Replacements and Rue Nouveau; some of it stuff I listen to fairly regularly, like Kate Bush and David Bowie. It prompted a conversation between Thumbs and me (he’s much more knowledgeable about music than I am, having lived longer, ha ha), which eventually led to his mentioning a cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill that he heard on the radio recently. Which led to us looking it up on Youtube, naturally. Which brings me back to M. Kate Bush was something of an icon to us both when we were in school together. And this cover, by Jade Bird, feels very appropriate both to how I imagined Eddi McCandry sounding when she sings, and to my memories of M – you can listen to it here if you want to.

Jade Bird has also done a cover of Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere which I watched directly after with a new fascination, looking for all those little glances between the musicians as they perform together – you can listen to that one here, which I suggest because it’s much more cheerful.

And finally, without wanting to seem at all pretentious:

For M.

That you are gone is a massive, irredeemable blow for the forces of good in the world.

I miss you.

 

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

 

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Book Bingo – Aliens! = Achieved!

 

(Thanks to the worst night’s sleep I’ve had in, like, forever, this will be brief).

7 things to love about The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet:

  1. The pick-n-mix crew of lovable characters that live and work together aboard the Wayfarer, (think Farscape, Firefly and Star Trek: Voyager). Their job is to ‘punch’ holes through space, creating hyperspace tunnels between planets for space traffic, but this book is all about the soft and gooey centre: this crew is a family, with all the banter and squabbling and love that that entails. I am in love with them all: Sissix the super-affectionate pilot; kooky Kizzy the ‘mech tech’ and her best-friend and partner-in-crime Jenks the ‘comp tech’; Dr Chef the ship’s doctor and – you guessed it – chef; the big blue furry enigma that is Ohan; the OCD Corbin (Becky Chambers writes so well that I ended up loving Corbin just as much as the rest of the crew – no easy feat); noobie Rosemary; voice of reason and captain of the ship Ashby; and the adorable, sentient AI Lovelace. They all get good stories and some great lines and I defy you not to love them too.

 

  1. The dialogue. It’s well-written and never clunky, and sometimes it’s just downright hilarious.

 

  1. The universe of the Galactic Commons. Chambers’ world-building is elegantly done. She doesn’t bombard you with longwinded chunks of backstory, instead your knowledge of the GC sort of grows organically as you read a news feed here, an exchange between characters there. It’s also a wide, deep universe jam-packed with diverse alien cultures and complex political relations and history. It’s awesome to know that there’s another two books following this one because this is just such a great place to be.

 

  1. The optimism. This is a positive universe. Yes, bad things happen, but the message you take away with you is that friendship and family will get you through anything. I also loved that tolerance is championed here. Differences are for the most part acknowledged and respected, no matter whether relating to sexual, political, racial or physical variety, and those that pick on difference are called out on their attitude. For this alone The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet should be at the top of your TBR tower.

 

  1. Humanity is not at the top of the food chain. The human race has been accepted into the Galactic Commons, (although some members of the GC question this decision), but we’re nowhere near as smart or sophisticated as the three founding alien races, or anyone else for that matter. We nearly killed our home planet and ourselves, and have eaten a big-ass piece of humble pie as a result. Yes, we’re in the GC, but we still have a lot of evolving to do … and that’s rather refreshing to read.

 

  1. The food. Oh my goodness, the food. It all sounds sooooo good. Dr Chef’s exuberant culinary creativity is only rivalled by the crew’s enthusiasm for his dishes. Spring cakes and smoky buns, Boring Tea and Happy Tea, saab tesh and algae puffs – food is used to mark occasions, but eating together is also a daily ritual both on and off the Wayfarer. When food in space often means pills, packets and pastes, both here and now and in a lot of SF, it’s great to visit a science-fictional universe where the preparation and enjoyment of food is still a thing.

 

  1. Finally, the journey. Despite the small angry planet in the title, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is far more about the journey than it is about the destination. Everything that happened along the way was so involving and entertaining that I kind of forgot that the crew was heading somewhere at all. And really, that whole part of the plot was no more important than anything that went before it. The joy and charm of this book is all the meetings along the way, all the discoveries made and secrets uncovered, and all the things learned.

 

(P.S. Dentbots. Are. Awesome. No more brushing your teeth in this universe. You just squeeze some dentbot paste into your mouth and these little guys get to work cleaning your teeth and gums. How cool is that??)

The King’s Peace & The King’s Name by Jo Walton

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Book Bingo – First book by a favourite author = achieved!

Have I mentioned that Jo Walton is one of the most awesome authors ever? No?? Well let me do so now! Jo Walton is an amazing author. She is one of my absolute favourite authors of all time. There are writers who deliver the same kind of awesome every time (you know what you’re going to get, for example, from a Terry Pratchett book or an Alastair Reynolds, a Robin Hobb or a Mercedes Lackey), and there are those that like to change things up and shift between genres (often with an author name tweak or change). And then there’s Jo Walton. Her books are like nothing else I’ve read. Which could just mean that I’m not very well read, but I choose to believe it’s because I found the good stuff right off the bat. Every time I’ve picked up a book by Walton I’ve not know what to expect, I’ve only known that she’ll surprise and delight me, and that whatever she’s turned her attention to will be the only thing I’m interested in while I’m reading what she has to say about it. The two constants in the world of Walton are her smarts (she’s clearly way up there in the intelligence tree) and her beautiful, clear writing. I love her work. She’s the one author (living) that I’d like to meet, because while my general attitude to meeting writers is that there’s not much point since they’ve already written down everything I want to know, I imagine Jo Walton would just be so gosh darn interesting to talk to.

So, this isn’t going to be the most impartial thing I’ve ever written.

 

The King’s Peace and The King’s Name were published in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Walton has written thirteen novels so far, with another two due out in 2018, (plus a non-fiction book, An Informal History of the Hugos, which I am extremely excited to read). She has won a whole bunch of awards for her work, including a Nebula and a Hugo for Among Others (my favourite), the World Fantasy Award, the Locus and the Tiptree; but I still feel she is not as widely known as she should be. I mean, for a writer who was only first published in 2000 that’s a heap of top-quality, grade-A work right there.

I don’t feel that it’s obvious The King’s Peace and The King’s Name are first works. Together (and these two books do have to read together), they are a beautifully self-assured retelling of the Arthurian legend set in an alternate world. The existence of multiple worlds is touched on by a number of different characters who talk about both the patterns and the discrepancies in the lives that are lived across these many realities, and it is an intriguing thread that never dominates the story. What’s impressive is that alongside this the story also feels historically sound. There’s a brilliant introduction to The King’s Name that speaks about the two books as a recently unearthed historical text whose authenticity is still hotly debated. It’s a fantastic touch that kind of briefly opens up a window to the future of Sulien ap Gwien’s world. The two books are nicely balanced too, with book one about the fight against external and invading forces, and book two about internal, civil war between friends, family and comrades. To all intents and purposes Sulien’s world is 6th Century Britain with all the names changed (what I would have given for a map at the front of the book though, it’s hard work trying to puzzle out where everywhere is) and the infrastructure, landscape, and methods of fighting all suggest Walton did a lot of research to get the feel right.

What is more awesome is that the magic in this world is equally convincing. The gods are real, physical beings on the island of Tir Tinagiri, connected to the land and to the people through their lords and kings, and through Urdo (Arthur) as High King. People, the gods and the land are inextricably linked in this universe and most people use some small magic in an intuitive everyday way to cleanse water, light fires, and heal wounds. A king is a king at the permission of the gods and he or she stands between them and the people, as a sort of conduit and protector. It’s all so atmospheric and credible that I actually got goose bumps when the Lady of the Waters made her appearance; and again when one of the old guardians of the land, Turth, made a surprise cameo; and again when Urdo literally became a part of the land on his deathbed. Some things just feel like they should be true, and Walton’s beautiful magic is one of them.

Organised religion is another part of the story, however, as paganism and Christianity are both a part of the Arthurian legend. These two books chart the movement of a country from many small kingdoms to one united under a single king, and also the movement of a people away from the many small gods or home and hearth, towards the more organised religion of the White God (a thinly-veiled Jesus), who is god over all the gods. The whole story is a dialogue between these two ways of looking at the world, as the characters discuss and fight about their beliefs. Walton presents both sides as true. Sulien champions the old gods, but she still sees the White God at one point in the story, and accepts that he is real while also refusing his right to eclipse her own gods. And Urdo refuses to acknowledge either belief system as the one and only. He insists that freedom of faith remain a fundamental part of the kingdom he is creating, and continues to recognise all gods whenever he has to swear by them. The whole story can be seen as the story of a country merging from many in to one: faiths clash and merge, cultures do too, and eventually these many different factions are united.

But let’s talk about Sulien. Walton imagines this alternate Britain as one where women and men are equals. Sulien ap Gwien is seventeen years old at the beginning of the book, and she becomes one of King Urdo’s leading armigers, (which is a lovely word for a knight, and literally means someone who has the right to bear arms). She is called a lot of things (complimentary and not) through the story, but one thing everyone agrees on is that she is kickass. She is a refreshing leading lady in the world of fantasy where most female characters are languishing love interests, or a prize to be won by the hardworking and noble male lead; witches/sorceresses/mages, or some sort of sexy assassin-type, always popular if you’re hoping your book will become a video game or movie. Sulien is a woman completely uninterested in romantic and/or sexual relations (I cheered long and loud over this!). She follows Urdo, considers him her friend and nothing more, (seriously, not even a hint of attraction – it’s fantastic!), and only wants to be the best at what she does, which is fight as part of one of the cavalry units known as ala that Urdo has created. Importantly, her looks never come into the story either. She’s no flame-haired, or raven-haired, or golden-haired warrior woman, she is just a tall, strong woman who can fight, in a world where women can and do without anyone batting an eyelid. Women in this world are just as likely to be lords or war leaders as they are to be house-keepers and wives; and being a wife and mother does not preclude them from fighting. No one’s competence is ever questioned or challenged in the book because of their gender.

Sulien’s not the only one. There are some truly great characters – my favourites being Sulien’s cousin Rigga, and friends Angas and Osvran. And Conal Fishface. Hmm, and Ohtar the Bear. And Inis, self-styled Grandfather of Heroes and quite, quite mad. Oh, and Garah and dear Apple … OK. Yep. That’s about it – tons of whom die horribly. Within the larger story of Urdo and his kingdom there is plenty of room for other tales, and there’s a good variety: there’s a tragic love story (not the Guinevere and Lancelot thing – thankfully!), and blood feuds and vengeance; tales of incredible battles and daring strategies (some that pay off, some that don’t); gods and magic, and the story of families and friends brought together and torn apart by the changes going on around them. It’s awesome stuff and I really can’t recommend it enough. Jo Walton everybody. Tell your friends.

He told me then what Morwen had told me long before, that I was not in any of those futures, those other worlds he could see; there is only one of me. I find that comforting sometimes. It would be too painful to think that there are worlds somewhere where I got everything right.

“The King’s Name”

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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Book Bingo Category: Recommendation from a friend = Achieved!

My most awesome friend S recommended this to me. I’d seen it around and wondered about it, but when someone whose opinion you respect tells you that here is a book that everyone should read, you get on it right away.

The basic story is that young women all over the world suddenly begin to display an electrifying super-power that changes the dynamics between the sexes. It tells the story from a few different points of view: Roxy, the daughter of a British crime lord, and Allie an abused foster kid in America; Margot, also American, who works in politics and whose daughter has just come into her power, and Tunde, a young (male) Nigerian journalist. They’re all fairly likeable characters and are all made exceptional by the circumstances they find themselves in. The story is also bracketed by an exchange of letters between Naomi and Neil, the man who has supposedly written The Power as a kind of novelised history (complete with archaeological illustrations) of the time leading up to the ‘Cataclysm’, an event we initially know nothing about. These letters are brilliant in themselves because while we know nothing concrete about Naomi and Neil’s post-Cataclysm world, their exchange quite subtly demonstrates that women are the dominant sex in their future, with Naomi’s condescending, flirty tone (“you saucy boy” and “those feisty men”) contrasting nicely with Neil’s submissive gratitude.

My internal barometer swung through a complete 360 degrees during my reading of The Power. I was jubilant and triumphant as Alderman wrote of women the world over growing in confidence and clawing back possession of their own bodies and minds: women escaping from the international web of sex-trafficking, women turning on the men who beat and enslaved them, women zapping the men who harassed them. I was amused by the formation of all-male film clubs where men could watch movies with guns and explosions to reaffirm their masculinity; and by daytime TV presenter Kristen getting a pretty boy co-anchor, instead of being the eye-candy herself. I was disturbed by Tatiana’s humiliation of one of her decorative male escorts, and by the dead man marked a ‘slut’ on the side of the road. I was appalled by the rape scenes, and then by Roxy’s operation. I felt recognition for Tunde’s mantra of invisibility (“I’m not here, I’m nothing, don’t notice me, you can’t see me, there’s nothing to see here” – something that is very much a part of daily life for a lot of women) and for his growing fear. I felt horror and disgust and, eventually, nothing at all.  There came a point where I was just reading about the worst things humans can do to one another, male or female.

Some of my favourite bits were the little, mostly humorous details, entirely incidental to the story, but clever: Naomi’s thoughts on uniformed men; Margot’s use of the word “son”; adverts presenting strong girls as attractive; all the talk in the archaeology notes about the ‘Bitten Fruit’ motif (that cracked me up big time); Kristen being encouraged to wear glasses onscreen; women patting men’s thighs; the sardonic voice in Allie’s head; secret male masses; Tunde’s ‘flattering looking-glass’ approach to Roxy. And, of course, that amazing, kickass, deadpan last question that Naomi asks Neil, that just hangs in the air after you’ve closed the book, and brushed your teeth and gone to bed. None of these moments really lighten the utter darkness of other scenes, but they are a wry nod to the reader nonetheless.

Ultimately, this is a book that makes you rethink everything. It holds a mirror up to our society as it is now, and our history as it has been, women performing many of the acts that men are/have been responsible for in our reality. Femininity comes to represent strength and aggression as they become the dominant gender, and masculinity becomes associated with kinder, nurturing qualities. Because how much of our gender associations are really down to who has the upper hand? Are women perceived as gentler and more caring simply because we have less opportunities or need to display strength? Alderman’s answer here isn’t a clear-cut resounding yes or no, but rather an invitation to explore the idea. What I’ve taken away from The Power is that power always corrupts. There will always be wrongs to be righted, and whoever has the upper hand at any given moment will use their power against someone else to assert themselves, to correct or avenge a perceived wrong, or just for the hell of it. It doesn’t matter who’s got the power really, what matters is that it will always be abused. Women and men are no better than each other, and what one person calls righteous is to another an atrocity.

So now it’s my turn to say: this is a book that everyone should read. It’s clever. It’s funny. It’s provocative. It reads fast and hard. And it has a lot to say.

 

Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

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I have been enjoying myself so much this year reading whatever’s taken my fancy, writing about book covers and such things, that I didn’t realise I am super behind on my Book Bingo until last week when I added my “Achieved” banner to the ‘Scary Sci-Fi’ tile and counted only seven out of twenty tiles marked off. And only three and a half months left!! I’ve done the maths and it’s going to have to be Book Bingo all the way to New Year if I want to get my completion badge (yes, I’ve made myself a badge) … so, let’s get on this thing!

 

I had Blood of Elves pegged for my ‘Fantasy with a Green Cover’ category from the get go. I found it in a charity shop last year during my Great Stock-Piling of 2016 and was intrigued to see what Polish fantasy might be bringing to the game, so I made the Green Cover tile with this book in mind. I only found out last week, however, that Sapkowski’s series is the source material for the Witcher video games (I haven’t played them, but the trailers have always been pretty cool), so I guess that’s why I’ve picked it up now. I say “picked it up” but what I actually had to do was burrow into the mountain of books stacked in the corner of our living room and retrieve it after much cussing and book-balancing. Sweaty and dusty I brandished it aloft with a cry of glee when I finally dug it out. Thumbs just rolled his eyes and carried on killing skags (Borderlands 2). I truly am an under-appreciated heroine sometimes …

 

Blood of Elves is the first novel in the Witcher series, but there are two collections of short stories, The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny, that Sapkowski produced before this that I think I’d have benefitted from reading beforehand. I had the distinct feeling that I was coming into a series part way through and that I was missing significant knowledge that would help me understand what was going on. Having finished the book now it wasn’t as big a problem as it felt while I was reading, but I’m still going to find those first two collections before I go any further with Sapkowski’s saga. Which I really want to do because this was such an enjoyable read.

 

Geralt
Geralt. Professional badass.

 

Geralt of Rivia is a Witcher, a magically mutated human paid to kill the monsters of the world. He is in the book a fair bit, but he’s not really the main character. His story seems to have taken place offstage before the start of the book, (or perhaps in those two collections of short stories), and he has no real arc here. Instead he is a thread that binds the various characters and events together. He has taken in a young girl, Ciri, heir to the throne of Cintra, a country now under occupation by the enemy, Nilfgaard. Geralt believes Ciri to be his destiny and the subject of an elvish prophecy of which the reader doesn’t really learn many specifics. But there are a lot of different parties taking an interest in the girl’s whereabouts so Geralt and a number of old friends and colleagues work together to protect her. As far as there is a plot, that’s kind of it. There’s a lot of political stuff going on that is referred to here and there, but it’s all a bit difficult to follow as there are a phenomenal number of players, various rulers, wizards, countries, and races all being involved. And while it’s not a particularly long book at 315 pages, it feels very much like the start of something much bigger.

That’s not to say it’s not brilliant though. This is an awesome world. It’s peopled with fantasy-typical humans, elves and dwarves (and gnomes, but we don’t meet any in this first book), but it all feels really new. Sapkowski layers up this picture of a muddy difficult history where the various races have done violence to one another again and again, and every new act is coloured by what has gone before. It feels dirty and realistic, and it’s hard to root for any one group because everyone is as ambiguous as everyone else. What I really loved about the book though was that all this history and all these tensions aren’t explained in long prosy chapters, but through characters’ conversations. Sapkowski tells more of the story through these seemingly incidental pieces of dialogue than through straight description, and these exchanges are so alive with humour and feeling, that I positively zipped through Blood of Elves. There’s a fantastic discussion that Ciri eavesdrops on between a dwarf called Yarpen Zigrin (excellent name – Sapkowski gets full marks for all his character’s names) and Geralt about the impossibility of remaining neutral in the face of conflict, which is funny and eloquent. And maybe twenty pages later events make it desperately poignant too. Or the hilarious discussion between Geralt and Master Tutor Pitt while on board a barge about the (Pitt insists) impossible existence of a particular type of predatory water monster that then attacks their boat and kills several people. It’s all just so well done. The loose structure of the novel could have annoyed me a lot, but I enjoyed the way Sapkowski kind of pulls the reader over here to see this, then over there to see that, all the while threading the story with beautiful details and letting you draw it all together for yourself.

So, compelling writing, a deliciously grey and murky world, some fascinating characters (Yennefer the enchantress, Dandilion the bard-spy, and Ciri, to name my three favourites so far), and the promise that we’re only just scraping the surface – what’s not to love about this book? I thought it was a blast.

The Explorer by James Smythe

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Well this was a big ball of grim and chilly darkness.

Not being a huge fan (or, indeed, a fan at all) of the scary, I dedicated a day to reading, and got The Explorer done in one sitting (to achieve my ‘scary sci-fi’ Book Bingo category … naturally). I’m glad I did. Outside it was sunny and children were playing. Inside people were dying, some of them quite horribly. If it had taken me any longer to read this book I might have forgotten about things like hope, and smiling, and cake, and all that good stuff. Which is to say that James Smythe does his job well with The Explorer. It’s not outright scary, but it is tense, and puzzling, and interesting. I’m not sure I enjoyed it exactly, but I needed to know what happened next right the way to the end.

I have three small (ish) grievances with this book, so let’s get them out of the way first. One, the science bits were the least believable parts of the book. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know much about the science of space travel, but I do have a pretty good nonsense-detector, and it went off a couple of times while I was reading The Explorer. Just because you’ve got a new favourite word/concept (piezoelectric for Smythe) does not mean you should use it every chance you get unless it is illuminating or relevant to your story. Two, I found it difficult to care about any of the characters. The reader’s closest ‘relationship’ is with Cormac, as he’s narrating, but the rest of the crew never quite popped out into 3-D for me (and I had trouble with Cormac too). Three, and this is the biggy, not all women fall apart or start crying when the shit hits the fan, and yet the three main representatives of my sex in this book were weepers (… and not only that, but I don’t want to give anything more away).

OK, moving on to more interesting things. The story launches (see what I did there? It’s about the crew of a spaceship … spaceships launch … seriously, I crack myself up) with a very quick, almost comedic run through of each crew member’s death. By page 14 everyone but Cormac is dead. By page 63, he’s a goner too. I started to wonder if this was going to be some kind of Robinson Crusoe story, and whether I’d be able to put up with Cormac for the remaining 300 odd pages. All I can say without spoiling the rest of the book completely is that things get interesting right after page 63. Part Two moves about in time as it shows both the hopeful beginnings of the mission, and the inevitable strains on the crew’s relationships farther down the line. We find out what sort of people Arlen, Quinn, Guy, Wanda and Emmy were and how they became the Ishiguro’s crew. And we discover more about the events surrounding their deaths. This may all sound very straightforward, but because of a rather large happening that I can in no way reveal, it’s the best bit of the book.

Part Three slows the pace right back down and this is where Cormac started to grate on my nerves a bit. Where Part One was a detached, level-headed recounting of events, Part Three is the same events seen through a different lens. We see a much less composed Cormac dealing with his impending demise. It’s a pretty clever plot structure, and I appreciated how it was done, even if I got annoyed with Cormac’s grief-sorrow-guilt-remorse merry-go-round. (Thumbs has just pointed out that my real problem with this book was the lack of hope, and he’s absolutely right. I want my fiction to celebrate the overcoming of odds, and the coming together of people for a common cause, or a character’s belief in themselves and determination to achieve something. All my favourite books have hope and The Explorer has very little. Good call, Thumbs).

The book talks about exploration and death and time, and it talks a lot about points of view. Cormac is the journalist along for the ride on this mission and he’s there to chronicle this momentous journey both in words and images. He films his ship-mates, conducts interviews with them, writes blog posts and sends it all back to Earth knowing that their voyage is of global interest. He thinks about their mission as if it were a movie, thinks about where the long-shots and close-ups would be, and which actors would play him and his fellow explorers. When we start working through events the second time round, there are big changes in perspective that show things in a different light, and at one point the fourth wall gets rather wobbly, although it never quite comes down. This focus on POV was far and away the best thing about the book for me, and I enjoyed two of the three big reveals mostly because of how they fed back into this preoccupation with POV. (I know, I know, could I be any vaguer?!)

So, let’s wrap this up. Don’t read this book if you get irritated by shaky space-travel science, or if you get annoyed (like I do) by female characters being presented as less able to handle pressure than their male counterparts, (sorry Mr Smythe, points off for that). Do read it if you enjoyed any of the following films: Solaris (either version), Moon, ­The Martian, or Interstellar (my quick-fire reviews: Solaris – long. Moon – Rockwell rocks! The Martian – the book was better. And Interstellar – no no no Christopher Nolan. Just No). Or if you like that kind of story that shows you things one way, then looks at them from another (more revealing) angle, like Sixth Sense only … not. Or if you want a book that’ll keep you occupied for not much more than an afternoon.

It’s not a bad book. It’s (thankfully!) not full-on scary, but it’s pretty tense and interesting (OMG! I really can’t think of another word, can I?). OK. One more time … It’s a good book. It’s absorbing and nail-biting and will keep you chilled on a warm summer’s day. Give it a go …

… If you’ve nothing else to read.