Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

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Having decided to take a short break from reading about the Ketty Jay crew and their piratical dealings, blow me down if I don’t find myself reading about criminal types all over again. Fly by Night is the story of 12-year-old arsonist, thief and conman’s accomplice Mosca Mye (surely a criminal mastermind in the making? She even has an appropriately alliterative name … or is it only heroes who have those?), her mountebank companion, the brilliantly named Eponymous Clent, and her curmudgeonly goose, Saracen. The story follows them as they find themselves on the run from Mosca’s home town of Chough and quickly become embroiled in seditious plots and counter-plots and the schemes of the power-hungry in the 18th-Century-London-ish city of Mandelion.

Hardinge has created a richly textured world that feels historically authentic and familiar, and yet completely fantastical. On the one hand, there are link boys and rag-men and printing-presses, and the wealthy wear heeled shoes and powdered wigs and sack-backed gowns; on the other there are river-floating coffeehouses drawn along by kites, a mad duke intent on making the entire city perfectly symmetrical, and a riotous religion peopled with little gods known collectively as the Beloved. This last was my First Favourite Thing about the whole book. There is a god for everything in this world: Goodlady Cramflick is “She Who Keeps the Vegetables of the Garden Crisp” and Goodlady Agragap “She Who Frightens the Harelip Fairy from the Childbed”, Goodman Claspkin is “He Who Carries Our Words to Departed Kin” and Goodman Palpitattle “He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butter Churns”. Churches and cathedrals are crowded with thousands of statues and altars to the various Beloved, each with their own offerings, ritual words and actions to be performed. And each day a single hour is dedicated to the salute of all these gods, with every bell in the city being rung, that’s known as the Clamouring Hour. It’s just … perfect.

Mosca is a word-loving orphan taught to read by her now-dead father (and something of an oddity as a result – after all, her father “felt a brief qualm at the idea of turning his daughter into a freak by teaching her letters”), who falls in with Clent because she admires his way with words. Clent, plump and past his prime, but an extraordinary liar nonetheless, initially tries to shake her off, before they come to a working arrangement that sees them eventually develop a tentative affection for one another. They’re both out to save their own hides first and foremost, not above selling each other out when necessary, and are sly as cats, but they also both love words and language, and they recognise themselves in each other. Their odd relationship is definitely my Second Favourite Thing about the book, especially when they trade insults:

Mosca’s opening offer was a number of cant words she had heard pedlars use, words for the drool hanging from a dog’s jaw, words for the greenish sheen on a mouldering strip of bacon.

Eponymous Clent responded with some choice descriptions of ungrateful and treacherous women, culled from ballad and classic myth.

Mosca countered with some from her secret hoard of hidden words, the terms used by smugglers for tell-alls, and soldiers’ words for the worst kind of keyhole-stooping spy.

Clent answered with crushing and high-sounding examples from the best essays on the natural depravity of unguided youth.

Mosca lowered the bucket deep, and spat out long-winded aspersions which long ago she had discovered in her father’s books, before her uncle had over-zealously burned them all.

There are so many instances of Hardinge’s wicked humour too, from the numerous references to Mosca’s “unconvincing eyebrows”, to the Chinese-whispers spread of news after Clent’s arrest where his name gets more and more mangled and the details get quickly confused; from highwayman Black Captain Blythe’s irritation at having become a hero as a result of the ballad Clent wrote about him, to Mosca’s friend Dormalise (a.k.a. ‘the Cakes’) being very, very saved by Carmine the clothier’s apprentice. Not to mention the fearless Saracen’s many escapades and ability to instil fear in even the hardiest of men and women.

And, of course, after having mentioned my love of character and place names (and words in general) in my last post it should be no surprise that my Third Favourite Thing is the wonderfully sayable names that Hardinge gives her characters here. She is clearly a writer who loves words, and the whole book reads like a love letter to the beautiful multi-cultural patchwork that is language, (some of my favourite words that she uses: gonoph, besmulch, skithered and ghaisted). There are character names like Twence the Potter, whom we never meet, but I can picture clearly; Mabwick Toke and Celery Dunnock; Duplimore Gweed and Sop Snatchell; and Brackle and Grabspite the guard dogs of Chough. Then there’s Goodmen Happendabbit and Grenoble (who keeps knots out of moustaches); Goodladies Jobble and Prill, and Goodlady Mipsquall. And place names like Hummel, Kempe Teetering, Scurrey and Fainbless, (collecting place names is another of my peculiarities and I half-believe I could find all of these on a map if I looked; I mean, I live near places called The Bog, Ticklerton and Shelve, and there really is a place called Wall – as I’m sure Mr Gaiman knew – because we’ll call our home villages/towns pretty much anything).

This was a thick, moist, scrummy slice of cake of a book that I had a blast reading. Even better, there’s another book about Mosca Mye and Eponymous Clent, so while I savoured every word of this one, I have that wonderful feeling of anticipation knowing I can read another of their adventures, because as Mosca herself feels:

I don’t want a happy ending, I want more story.

Glee!

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The Black Lung Captain by Chris Wooding

 

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This is a good follow-on from Retribution Falls although it suffers a little for being the second book simply because of expectations set up by the first. I got a lot of what I wanted: more about Trinica Dracken, about Jez and Crake, a better understanding of the Manes and of daemonism, and plenty more piratey adventure and Bess bashing enemies (I lovelovelove Bess). But to get more something had to be sacrificed, and there was a lot less banter and general joviality than there was in Retribution. This was necessary: Crake’s guilt, Jez’s predicament and Trinica’s mental health can’t be dealt with too lightly, but I missed that lovely feeling of crew-ness that all the back-and-forth in the first book created.

Just to write more of the same would have been silly though when Wooding has created this big old world to be explored. This time round the crew of the Ketty Jay fall in with Captain Harvin Grist who has a job that, naturally, sounds too good to be true (Frey hasn’t gotten any smarter). We get a trip to the rainforests of Kurg, home to beast-men and monsters, plenty more chaotic zipping about chasing treasure and information to lead us to treasure, and we go beyond the Wrack to the home of the super-powered zombie-like Manes. The plot is as frenetic and unpredictable as the first time round, and just as much fun.

The stakes are getting higher though, and while he may be no smarter, Frey is starting to think about things outside of himself and his reflection in the mirror. Without spoilers, it becomes apparent that Grist isn’t telling the truth (a pirate not telling the truth?! Heavens, whatever next?) and that what he wants to achieve will have ramifications for far more people than just him and his crew. In a rare moment of altruism, Frey decides to be the one to stand in Grist’s way (no mean feat as Grist’s a scary individual with some serious anger management issues), and their cat-and-mouse chase makes up a good portion of the action. Along the way the crew of the Ketty Jay almost disintegrates when Crake leaves, their arch-enemy Trinica Dracken comes aboard to help in the hunt for Grist, Jez and Frey’s friendship suffers a blow and Pinn gets a letter from his beloved Lisinda that sees him abandon ship too (I silently rejoiced at this, but unfortunately he comes back… *sigh*). Crake’s journey is possibly the lowest point in the story as he desperately searches for a solution for Bess and there’s a scene between him and Jez when she comes to find him that is genuinely moving.

Then there’s Frey and Trinica. Their relationship, past and present, is explored a lot more in The Black Lung Captain and while we don’t get to deep dive into Trinica’s mind set, we do get to appreciate from Frey’s POV how much he is changing. Wooding does a good job with Frey’s character. I really didn’t like the captain at the outset (and I am confused by the comparison frequently drawn between Frey and Mal from Firefly in other interwebby places because while Mal is a fairly honourable scamp, Frey is just a lowlife A-hole … at the beginning), but by the end of this book I’m actually starting to think he’s not a bad guy. I mean, he’s trying. In both senses of the word. But if I were asked to predict where Wooding is going to go in the next two books I’d say Frey’s going to end up being an actual Good Guy, and that he and Trinica are going to get a second chance at happiness (… sorry, I threw up a little bit in my mouth there). I also predict that they’re gonna bring the Awakeners down.

Here endeth the prophesying of bkfrgr.

Anyhow, if you’ve read and enjoyed Redemption Falls you’re probably going to enjoy The Black Lung Captain just as much. It’s definitely worth reading, even if a little less fun and funny that the first Ketty Jay outing. If I were a drinker I could propose a pretty good drinking game to play when reading these books: take a drink every time one of the Ketty Jay crew avoid Certain Death (it’s very like Star Trek in this way, if you’ve got a whole name, first and last, then you’ll live through anything – perhaps I should say ‘continue’ rather than live, in respect to Jez – but woe betide those with only one name or, worse, no name at all, for doom shall befall you and it shall be gruesome).

Aside: I love great names and there’s plenty to go round in the Ketty Jay books so far. Character names like Samandra Bree and Colden Grudge, Rodley Hodd, Edwidge Crattle, Osric Smult are fabulously conjure-some, and place names too, like Tarlock Cove, the Hookhollows, Yortland, Scarwater, Kurg … I wonder if Wooding keeps lists of names as he thinks of them? I used to keep lists of my favourite words and names, so I like to think there’s someone else out there doing the same. Anyone?

Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

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Who doesn’t love a good pirate story? The adventure, the bad-assery, the derring-do, living outside of the normal day-to-day drudgery of the world – it’s quintessential escapism. And in Retribution Falls Chris Wooding has taken a fractured band of pirates, slam-a-jammed them onto his dieselpunk-ish world, Atalon, where airships rule the skies thanks to the lighter-than-air gas Aerium (leave physics at the door if you’re going to enjoy this), and woven around them a deliciously knotty conspiracy that will bring them together and reveal some of their darkest secrets as they attempt to extricate themselves. It’s marvellous fun (with occasional breaks for misogyny), from beginning to end!

Darian Frey is the captain of the Ketty Jay a battered but beloved airship that is home for him and his messed up crew. I can’t describe them any better than ship’s doctor Malvery when he says:

We’re not a crew! The cap’n’s only cap’n ’cause he owns the aircraft; I wouldn’t trust him to lead a bear to honey. None of us here signed on for adventure or riches, ’cause sure as spit there’s little enough of either … But mark me, ain’t one of us that’s not running from something, you included. I’ll bet my last swig of rum on that.

And that they’re all running from something is the only thing that keeps them together at the beginning of the book. That and that no one else will have them because they’re mostly not very nice people: Frey is a gambling, whining, womanising lowlife, his two fighter pilots Harkins and Pinn are a nervous wreck and a piece of idiot scum respectively, doctor Malvery is a raging drunk, and Slag the cat is a vicious, evil-tempered people-hater. These five are almost balanced out by the quiet, decent engineer, Silo, the not-quite-passenger-not-quite-crew daemonist Crake, utterly lovable/occasionally violent golem Bess and new-recruit navigator Jez. In fact, Jez was the only character I was wholly on board with (Ha! On board with! Funny!) from the get go. Not because she doesn’t have dark secrets like the rest of them, but because she hasn’t gone down the self-pity/-hatred route like the men, she’s just getting on with it and generally out-performing them at every opportunity. I think Jez and Crake’s characterisation was the thing that kept me reading long enough to get hooked on the action, and caring about them, and Bess (*all the hearts*), got me through some of the more irritating moments when either Frey or Pinn came out with something ridiculously sexist.

Because there is a truly annoying vein of misogyny running through the book. On a crew of nine (including the cat) there’s only two females, one a golem that can be put to sleep at the blow of a whistle (really?), the other only accepted by the crew because she’s not too attractive (REALLY?). Then there are only three other named female characters who take part in the action, all gorgeous naturally, two of whom were previous love-interests of Frey’s. And let’s not even go into how being in love with Frey has completely defined those two ladies’ lives. And yet. And yet … it is all kind of in keeping with the world that Wooding is introducing us to here (there are three further books about the Ketty Jay, so Retribution Falls is the tip of a small iceberg), and detestable or not, Frey and Pinn’s opinions about women are a part of their characters, not something assumed by every individual in the story. And the big theme in Retribution is this dysfunctional group becoming a crew, and Frey becoming something more closely resembling an adult, so he’s got to have something to grow out of, I guess.

I’m going to give Wooding kudos for his writing skills here because the changes he works on Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay are believable. He managed to elicit my begrudging sympathy for Harkins, my acceptance of Frey after spending two thirds of the book actively hating him for being such a whinge-bag, and my toleration (just about) of Pinn, who’s too stupid to grow and remains an absolute … insert expletive of choice here … right to the end. Maybe I should give myself a little kudos for continuing to read.

Which I did because, when all’s said and done, it’s a frigging awesome rollercoaster ride of an adventure story. In a fairly fragmented land only recently at peace with its neighbours and not quite at peace with itself there are many opportunities for ne’er-do-wells to make a profit, and Frey and crew take a so-obviously-a-set-up-it’s-blinding job to steal some jewels that quickly gets them, or more specifically him, framed for murder. They all bounce from one crisis to another narrowly avoiding arrest, death by sword, death by gunshot, death by explosion, hot lava-ish death, and death by execution, discovering a mythical pirate town and accidentally uncovering an evil plot to overthrow the Archduke, who heads the coalition in Vardia, along the way.

There is also magic. The brand of magic on Atalon is called daemonism, presented as a science, in which daemons drawn from the aether are bound to specific purposes within objects using harmonics to thrall the daemons, and Frankenstein-ish set ups to capture them. The daemonist bits of the story, which were mostly about Crake’s backstory, were some of my favourite parts and made for wonderfully spooky interludes amidst all the action. All the daemonist stuff in the story is really wicked too – earrings that can be used to eavesdrop, a ring and compass tracking device, a key that can open any door, and Frey’s cutlass (the coolest sword … ever). Crake is essentially Q to Frey’s less suave but equally misogynistic 007.

So, it’s good. It’s a fun ride and I’m definitely going to read the second book The Iron Lung Captain. This is what I want to see more of:

  • Character development – we’ve not even scratched the surface yet. Frey’s got a long way to go, Pinn is irredeemable (prove me wrong Wooding, I’m begging you), Crake’s got some stuff to work out, Silo is an almost untapped resource as yet, and more Jez, more Jez, more Jez!
  • Political shenanigans – the Awakeners are up to something and my conspiracy-theory-loving brain-compartment wants more. Is revolution on the way? Or something more sinister?
  • Daemonism – I want Crake to get back in the game!
  • Trinica Dracken – That can’t be the last we see of the dread pirate Dracken! The feminist in me needs her to get her own fully realised story (I’d like it to be Frey-free, but that’s not going to happen, this is just not that series).
  • Pirate adventure! – More back-stabbing, more camaraderie, more gun-fights and sword-fights and fisticuffs, more treasure and plunder and loot! Yay!

And if it could be less sexist and introduce of few more well-rounded, not just there to sleep with females, so much the better.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

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Last year I read an article in SciFiNow magazine (issue 85) about Shirley Jackson that piqued my interest both in her and her stories, and I scribbled down the following quote in my notebook:

I tell myself stories all day long. I have managed to weave a fairy tale of infinite complexity around the inanimate objects in my house, so much so that no one in my family is surprised to find me putting the waffle iron away on a different shelf because in my story it has quarrelled with the toaster.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle’s narrator Merricat has a similar relationship with the world around her to that described by Jackson and this, for me, is the most appealing thing about this spooky little book. It’s something I can identify with (having certain obsessive compulsive rituals of my own and a deep and abiding belief in the secret life of my things – the toys are definitely up to something when I’m not around), and it’s something that gives her ‘magic’ a solidity and familiarity that brings it into the everyday world. There’s no esoteric learning or preparation behind Merricat’s spell-casting, only a private logic and a deadly intention.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is not a story about magic. It is the story of three damaged people, Julian, Constance and Mary Katherine Blackwood, the only survivors of the deliberate poisoning of their family, unable to move beyond this defining event even after six years. Uncle Julian, sick and invalided ever since, relives the trauma over and again trying to solve the puzzle of it; Constance gives herself up completely to the care and feeding of the other two in guilt-ridden self-sacrifice; and Merricat creates a series of routines and rules of ever-increasing complexity to dictate her day-to-day life. All three have rejected the world beyond their house and garden and resist any change, Merricat most strongly of all. It could be read as a mystery – who poisoned the Blackwood family? – but you’d have to be pretty dense not to know the answer to that question by the end of chapter two at the very latest. It’s better read for the sheer, near-unbearable, claustrophobic tension that builds and boils over in just 146 pages (with never a ghost or machete-wielding maniac to be seen).

Despite their resistance to it, change comes for them anyway, in the shape of a cousin, Charles. It’s perhaps the greatest show of Jackson’s skill that Charles is more sinister and upsetting than Merricat with her dark imaginings and desire to see all the villagers dead. His insidious move into the house, into father’s chair and room, and into Constance’s regard (but never her affections, I don’t think), threatens to tip the little family’s perfectly ordered life into chaos and his obvious greed disgusts both Merricat and the reader. That he looks like father too, however, doesn’t bode well for him and when he taunts Merricat, you perhaps feel a little thrill of fear not for just her, but also for him, that he doesn’t realise quite what he’s getting himself into and that he, and we, have no idea where it will all end.

So, yeah, it’s not a book about magic. Nonetheless, Merricat’s witchcraft permeates the story. With an oddly childish logic she protects the Blackwood estate with buried totems and tree-hung talismans, she divines powerful words to ward off threats, and imagines her trips into the village as a giant board game where she must move in particular ways to avert disaster. She sees omens and signs. She talks to her cat Jonas, and listens to his stories which, she tells us, all begin in the same charming way: “My mother, who was the first cat, told me this”. She hears her dead family members in the night. When she is contemplating how to best get rid of Charles she thinks carefully about which ‘device’ to use, listing all the empowered objects in the house and weighing up their potential effectiveness for the task. Charles becomes a demon and a ghost in her mind and her logic when working her magic in his room is sublime as she removes anything he might find familiar so that “Charles would be lost, shut off from what he recognised, and would have to concede that this was not the house he had come to visit and so would go away”. The domestic world from Merricat’s point of view is full of meaning, portent and fetishization (not a word? it is now), and because she’s telling the story maybe the reader doesn’t ever fully appreciate that she is as mad as a bag of spanners.

I’m pretty sure Constance and Uncle Julian are mad too, of course. Six years alone together in a big old house having virtually no contact with the outside world isn’t conducive to mental health with or without the deaths of a large portion of your family to contend with. What’s interesting is that there are so few clues as to what’s going on in the minds of Uncle Julian and, more particularly, Constance. Merricat reports their words, but she spends almost no time at all noting their manner, mood, tone, or facial expression. We know that Uncle Julian is obsessed with the murders and spends his days chewing over every little detail of the fateful day. Constance, on the other hand, is an enigma. Does she resent having to look after her invalid Uncle? Does she chafe under his fretful watchfulness and Merricat’s strange devotion? Does she ever get angry, frustrated, sad? How does she feel about having been charged with the murders of her mother, father, brother, aunt, and then acquitted? Her days seem to be a never-ending cycle of work – caring, cooking, gardening, cleaning – without complaint, but with a definite weight of guilt. A number of times while reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle I imagined how much different Constance’s version of this story would be … perhaps it’s too sad to contemplate.

For such a short book We Have Always Lived in the Castle leaves an incredible impression. It’s a book I was both relieved and disappointed to finish – relieved to be able to breathe again, but disappointed that I could no longer see the world through Merricat’s eyes. Despite her dark and twisted imaginings she’s definitely a magnetic character, and her internal world has an attractive underlying sense with its unbreakable rules and secret meanings. Or maybe that’s Shirley Jackson’s magic at work.

 

PS – It’s been a long while since I read Iain Banks’ Wasp Factory, but I was reminded strongly of Frank from that book while reading about Merricat in this one.

 

PPS – The Penguin Modern Classics copy I borrowed had a very dull cover and while normally the picture I put with my post matches the cover of the copy I’ve read, I just couldn’t do that this time round. Thomas Ott’s 2006 cover for Penguin is the cover. It’s untouchable. No one should bother trying to repackage this book ever again. Ott nailed it.

ThomasOtt Merricat

What place would be better for us than this? Who wants us outside? The world is full of terrible people.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin

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There’s almost no reason for me to say anything about A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. It is, like everything George R R Martin’s name is attached to, awesome, (not a very original point of view, I know, but what’s a girl to do? The man has a magic brain-box), and it’s not like it’s an unsung treasure people haven’t heard of.

What’s great about A Knight is that even if you haven’t bothered with the behemoth that is Game of Thrones (…???!!!) this can still be enjoyed independently, and if you’re a massive fan then this just adds even more depth and texture to the world of Westeros. It’s pretty cool to see the kingdom before House Baratheon and the Lannisters get their sticky mits all over the kingship, but also to see that it was just as messed up under the rightful, albeit inbred, Targaryens. There’s as much intrigue, back-stabbing, casual misogyny, blood, guts and gore here as there is one hundred years later in GoT, and just because we’re sleeping under hedges with Dunk and Egg doesn’t mean we’re any further removed from it all. It is much more compact though. The book is made up of three fairly short stories, each complete in itself, episodes in the life of hedge knight Duncan the Tall and his squire (and Targaryen prince) Egg: ‘The Hedge Knight’, ‘The Sworn Sword’ and ‘The Mystery Knight’.

In ‘The Hedge Knight’ we meet Dunk as he starts his knighthood, burying the man who knighted him and for whom he was squire, Ser Arlan of Pennytree. Dunk is naïve, and brave, and honourable, and very easy to like. He’s a bit dim sometimes, and definitely out of his depth amidst all the intrigue and politics going on around him when he arrives at Ashford Meadow for a tourney. Egg, on the other hand, is bright, quick, and smart-mouthed, but just a lovable as Dunk. The story quickly escalates and Dunk finds himself having to fight for his life in a trial of seven, a to-become-legendary battle that reads like something out of the tales of King Arthur. It’s a wholly satisfying story and the best introduction these two characters could possibly have.

‘The Sworn Sword’ finds Dunk working for old Ser Eustace Osgrey, a pardoned rebel from the wrong side of the battle of the Redgrass Field, (where a Targaryen heir and a Targaryen bastard fought for the throne). Dunk is involved in the petty squabble between Ser Eustace and his neighbour the Spider Widow over a stream, and has to work alongside the thoroughly objectionable Ser Bennis the Brown. Through Ser Eustace and the Widow there’s a nice exploration of how history just keeps coming back around that I found interesting, but this was my least favourite of the three stories.

Finally, ‘The Mystery Knight’ treads even closer to the still simmering tensions left over from the Redgrass Field. Here Dunk and Egg become unwittingly embroiled in treasonous plottings at the wedding of Lord Butterwell’s daughter. Whereas in the first two stories the larger events of the kingdom felt a step away, here they’re right up in Dunk and Egg’s grills, and they’re lucky to escape with their lives.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a great book to satisfy Westeros cravings while we’re all waiting for Martin’s next instalment (or the next season of the TV series if that’s your preferred medium). It’s got some lovely humour, nail-biting combat, mystery and adventure. Martin’s writing never ceases to engage and fascinate me. What’s also really awesome about these stories collected together in this one volume is the gorgeous work of Gary Gianni throughout. A huge part of my enjoyment of A Knight was down to Gianni’s images (which took him eighteen months to do); he captures the weight and struggle of combat as beautifully as the hubbub of a banquet hall and the still, sticky heat of drought and his illustrations felt like an intrinsic part of the stories for me. The only thing that could possibly top that would be if Martin had promised to write more adventures for Dunk and Egg … which he did in his post script. Huzzah!

 

Gianni
Awwww … *hearts*

 

 

Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

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Since her death in January I have been planning to read/reread something by Le Guin as a kind of personal way to honour her passing, and when the opportunity presented itself last week Gifts was the first book on the book mountain to catch my eye. It was a random book grab, but I really couldn’t have picked a more appropriate book. Gifts is, among other things, about the discovery and the power of stories, and it made me feel that despite the loss of Le Guin in body, she has left the world a phenomenal gift in the form of her writings. Something that is both sad and comforting at the same time.

She writes in Gifts about the Uplands of the Western Shore, a barren, mountainous place peopled by small, proud and impoverished clans who eke out a living rearing sheep and cattle and fighting each other for every inch of land and every animal on it. Each clan has a hereditary magical ‘gift’ passed down either through the male or the female line. Some are useful gifts like the ability to create fire, move incredibly heavy things, or communicate with animals. Other gifts are more sinister: the ability to take over someone’s will, wipe a person’s mind of all memory and selfhood, twist a person’s body out of its true shape. And Orrec, the teller of the tale, is heir to one of the best and worst gifts of them all: the gift of Undoing – if the gift runs true in him he will be able to kill with a glance and a word, as his father can. With the threat and fear of these gifts, the use and abuse of them, the clans live and work alongside each other, often testing each other’s strength, sometimes at an impasse, all the while working to ensure that the next generation will carry the gift on through strategic marriages and careful alliances. It’s a harsh environment in which to grow up, even harsher for those who grow up different as both Orrec and his best friend Gry do.

Gry is heir to her mother’s gift of Calling, which shows itself early and runs true. She’s quiet and clever and stubborn, a thinker who cares deeply about both her animal and human friends. She is the calm anchor for Orrec (and for the reader) throughout the story. While Orrec struggles with his gift, with both the expectations laid on him by his father and the obligations he is to assume for his father’s domain, Gry is there for him. When he enters his enforced blindness, believing that his gift is ‘wild’ and uncontrollable, Gry chooses and trains Coaly to be his guide dog. And when he loses his mother and then learns of what his father did to him and finds that he has no place in the structure of Uplands society, Gry is still there for him, and goes with him into the outer world. Because while he has been struggling with his gift, she too has been struggling quietly with the expectations laid on her by her own. Those who can Call animals must Call them for the hunt to feed the clans, but Gry feels that this would be a betrayal of the trust she has with the animals she communicates with and refuses. She, like Orrec, is too different to fit into this limited, back-biting society.

Something I really loved about Gifts was the lack of black and white. There are good people and bad people in this story, but no-one is wholly one or the other. Or if they are – because it’s difficult to find anything nice to say about Brantor Ogge – the reader is still invited to understand why, (Ogge, like many bullies, lives in fear). Orrec’s father does something really quite dreadful, but he does it to protect his domain and the people that live on his lands. Orrec’s relationship with his father is complex and believable. As a boy he looks up to Canoc as a hero-figure, and his first story about his father and how he met and married Melle, Orrec’s mother, is like a fairy-tale. But as a teenager Orrec butts heads with his father, feels betrayed by him, and, when Melle dies, is all but abandoned by him as they both grieve separately. Gry’s relationship with her mother is virtually non-existent as her mother roams from place to place and rarely comes home to her husband and child. Much of the interest in this book comes from the morality Gry and Orrec perceive versus that generally accepted by their family and friends – Orrec cannot reconcile himself to being able to destroy life at a whim, which his father doesn’t seem to understand at all, and Gry can’t accept that it is right to establish a trust with an animal so that it will come willingly to its death, something her mother really doesn’t get. Neither of them accept the way things are, and both see that in order to live and grow they have to leave the Uplands.

The other stand-out theme in Gifts is that of stories and their power. The story of Orrec and Gry’s childhood is nested inside the story of the visitor, Emmon, and how he proves a catalyst for their decision to leave. The stories of Orrec’s grandfather and father are likewise nested inside this coming of age story. The stories about the clans and their gifts are used as much as the gifts themselves to warn enemies off and Canoc’s story about Orrec is powerful enough to keep his family and his people safe, but it is a story with a lie at the heart of it, and eventually it destroys everything it should have protected. Melle’s stories on the other hand, the ones she tells Orrec and Gry as children and writes down in a book for Orrec, is a way of remembering her own childhood and upbringing in the Lowlands. That book of stories leads on to Melle writing more stories for Orrec while she is sick and dying, and these writings prove a way for him to both grieve and remember his mother when she is gone. They also help him to heal. And Emmon gives Orrec and Gry a printed book (aptly called Transformations) which prompts Orrec’s decision to finally un-blindfold himself and, more indirectly, his and Gry’s decision to write their own story instead of keeping to the script laid out for them by their parents and society.

Gifts is a beautiful, elegantly written book. It is simply told, but it explores complex ideas about power and families and stories. Orrec and Gry are refreshing characters in a sea of teenage love-triangles and their small rebellion against expectation and obligation feels far worthier and more interesting than a lot of the usual unite-against-the-end-of-the-world stuff that gets trotted out under the YA banner. I really loved this book. It felt like a good way to remember and appreciate Le Guin and it’s made me want to read more of her work. And since I have the second book in the trilogy, Voices, ready and waiting to be read, I reckon I’ll start there.

 

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi

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I really hate not being able to gush unreservedly about something I’ve read. Especially something I was saving for a solid day of reading. I picked up Beasts Made of Night in the library before Christmas because of its gorgeous cover, and kept hold of it because of its great blurb. Then I saved it for a day off when I could curl up and get lost in it. And when that day came … I was disappointed. Sometimes a world is so enchanting, so beautifully rendered, that it almost doesn’t matter if the characters or the plot inside that world are flawed. Sometimes an idea is just so kick-ass-awesome that it doesn’t matter the story it’s a part of is lacking. Beasts Made of Night has a lot missing, but it has some really good ideas and some fantastic bits of world-building too. I keep thinking about all the work that’s gone into the writing of this book, and then the packaging and the marketing of it, and it almost breaks my heart to have to say I didn’t like it.

I didn’t loathe it either. There’s some great stuff in here. The whole concept of sin being something that can be removed and carried by another, the sin-beasts and the sin-eaters, was just awesome. I couldn’t get enough of it and Onyebuchi writes the sin-eating scenes so viscerally that I could almost taste the sins myself. I loved the idea that different types of sin take different animal forms – snakes for lies and small birds for thieving, for example – that become tattooed on the sin-eaters skin. And that in the city of Kos these tattoos are seen as marks of shame, even though the sin-eaters are carrying other people’s sins, and that they are children who rarely grow to adulthood because a person can only carry so much sin. It all had the ring of authenticity that is often missing from a lot of young adult fantasy.

The city of Kos felt alive with its richer and poorer districts, its markets, its smells and sounds, and the merchants, palace guards, brokers, street children, graffiti artists and mages that people its streets. I liked the little details that were worked in, like books being cylindrical and read held up to one eye like a telescope, and the different districts having their own variations of a dish like spicy chicken wings. The main character, Taj, felt very much a part of this world. He’s scrappy and cocky, always fiddling with his hair to keep it poofed the way he likes it and drooling in his sleep, turning his head at every pretty girl he sees, but also watching out for kids younger than himself. He knows his way around the streets of Kos with his eyes closed and he sends the little money he earns back to his parents. I liked him from the get-go.

Then it all got a little confused. The plot took a long time to really kick in and so it felt rushed at the end. Taj was left with very little to do for what felt like long periods of time. The sense of him as a character declined as the book moved forward. When he got to the palace he seemed to blur and by the time the strange romance with Princess Karima popped up I felt like Taj was gone. The romance felt forced and unbelievable because it had barely any time or space to develop. I saw the endgame coming. The evil mage didn’t have time to bulk up in my mind so he never really felt like a threat. All the stuff in the forest was confusing. The passage of time became unclear.

I would have liked to know so much more too. About the gearhead girls and people with auto-mail limbs, (seriously, don’t just drop that in there and then say nothing else about it!!). About the Scribes and why they tag the walls of the city with colourful depictions of sin-beasts. About the kingdom of Odo beyond the walls of Kos, particularly the nomads from the west with their very different beliefs about sin-eaters. I wanted to know more fully about Arzu and Aliya and Bo so that I could picture them and understand why they all acted in the ways that they did – especially Bo.

The book ends with a cliff-hanger. I imagine that a lot of what I want to know will be in the next book(s). But I am left with such a fuzzy and confused sense of the ending that I don’t plan to continue reading. I no longer feel able to care about Taj or the fate of Kos. I can’t tell you how sad this makes me feel (I keep wondering if teenaged-me would have felt the same way) … I really, really wanted to love this book.