The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

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This was nothing like I expected a scifi retelling of the story of Joan of Arc to be.

Let’s start with Christine de Pizan and Jean de Meun, because I like history and therefore so shall you: *deep breath in* In the 14th Century Jean de Meun wrote part of the whopping 21,780-line allegorical poem the Roman de la Rose begun by Guillaume de Lorris in the 13th Century. It became a European bestseller about courtly love and chivalry, with the Rose of the title being both the name of a lady in the poem and a reference to … ahem … femaleness in general. De Meun’s portions of the poem are decidedly misogynistic. His contemporary Christine de Pizan took exception to de Meun’s attitude towards women in the poem and countered with her own work the Epistre au dieu d’Amours (and a whole load more), before entering into a debate by letter with several influential male scholars and with de Meun himself. She is seen as the first professional female author in France. Her last work before her death (and before Joan’s too) was about Joan of Arc.

Yuknavitch gives the name Christine Pizan to her heroine aboard the space platform CIEL. This Christine is also a writer of sorts: she is a talented skin grafter (in this future the people of CIEL use electrocautery to burn texts into their skin, adding skin flaps and flounces to their bodies so that they can add more and more text, like some bizarre evolution of the art and practice of tattooing). The leader aboard CIEL is Jean de Men/John of Men, a self-help guru become celebrity become dictator. And to complete the set we have Joan of Dirt down on the dying planet Earth. Then there is Christine’s co-conspirator Trinculo, acting very much the part of the Shakespearean jester – fondly shouting “medieval obscenities and slurs” throughout – just to muddy the waters of allusion further; along with plenty of parallels and mirrorings of Greek mythology and Biblical stories, and probably a whole ton of other stuff I didn’t see. And yet it all works. It makes for an odd reading experience, which I’ll go into in a moment, but Yuknavitch uses these multi-coloured strands to braid a powerful, often angry, new myth about humanity’s future relationship with Earth.

It’s questionable whether the people aboard CIEL are really human anymore. Skin has become a translucent white, no one has hair and all sexual organs have become vestigial. Clothes are a thing of the past (bereft of sexual indicators and unable to procreate, what use are clothes?), now people are swathed in great pleats and constructions of delicately, intricately scarred skin, like layers and layers of lace. All of it text. People have become walking volumes of poetry, and Christine plans to inscribe her own body with the story of Joan of Dirt as a last act of protest against CIEL’s dictator. Below, on Earth, Joan and her comrade Leone perform their own small acts of war against CIEL, attacking the supply lines that the platform uses to leech the last resources from the dying planet. Occasionally they encounter sickening children, but otherwise the Earth is a vast, muddy, scarred landscape, (Ooo, I’ve just had a thought: the scarred bodies of the people aboard CIEL mimic the scarred body of the planet – both barren, marked now only by histories – that’s a satisfying parallel, isn’t it?). And yet, Joan and Leone shelter in cave systems where they find

” … a biodiversity so rich and secret it was nearly its own world. A jungle, a river, a lake; countless old and new species of plant and animal life; even some things in between that Joan was still studying. Fields of algae as large as foothills. Stalagmites as tall as old-grown redwoods. A whole verdant underworld defying the decay of the world above it.”

 

I found it jarring to move between these two stories. Christine’s world is both alienated and alienating: cold, sterile, white and peopled by an unrecognisable humanity isolated even from one another. In contrast, Joan’s world (our world) is earthy, smelly and, yes, badly damaged, but still recognisable, still beautiful. The Christine chapters were difficult to read also because … (I’m struggling for words here) … the writing feels theoretical, a little dry, or rather, removed. While the Joan chapters were far easier to slip into, bedded as they are in both a familiar myth-history (the story of Joan of Arc seems to sit between history and myth, something I think Yuknavitch is making good use of), and in a much more solid and recognisable world. The oddness I mentioned above came mostly from transitioning between the two types of language the author is using.

But it is a book about stories. How we use them. How they shape us. How we carry them around with us. And in this way the contrast between Christine’s and Joan’s sections made a lot of sense. Christine uses the story of Joan as an act of rebellion, to say things she cannot say aloud in her prohibitive world. And yes, that act of rebellion is fairly effective, but it is nowhere near as powerful as the real Joan. The physical reality of Joan and the incredible link she has not to God here, but to the Earth, is more important than any story told about her. And I feel like Yuknavitch is asking us to realise that the physical reality of the planet and what we’re doing to it is more important than any of the stories that we tell.

There are a lot of contradictory ideas here though. For example, the book seems to argue that love is the thing that makes humanity worthy of attention, something more than just another life form. On the other hand, it also emphatically argues that we are just another life form, no more or less than the dirt, trees and creatures around us and all made from the same substance. That our prioritising ourselves above all other life (seeing ourselves as overseers rather than members of Earth) is the reason for our home’s demise. Then again, it was Joan’s act of selfless compassion for the planet that destroyed it … Seriously, I don’t know if Yuknavitch is perhaps trying to open up this discussion within her readers, to provoke thought, or if she’s just throwing ideas around like confetti because they’re in her head, so why not in ours too?

So yeah, this is definitely a book of ideas rather than a science fiction novel (as in the science isn’t really as important as the ideas it’s being used to expound). I did enjoy some of the science-ish bits nonetheless. The caves rioting with life because all the larger predators were out of the picture was very cool; and people being turned into stuff to rejuvenate the Earth, becoming trees and water and blooms of new life was just awesome. I struggled with it only being the year 2049, I don’t believe that in thirty years we’re all going to lose our hair and become near genderless, that seems like a big evolutionary leap for us to be taking (it was still a satisfyingly creepy vision of our future selves); although I’m pretty sure that we will have damaged our planet irreparably in the same amount of time.

Things I haven’t mentioned: the female power conversation, because I didn’t feel terribly clear on what was being said. The queer love conversation, because there’s a much, much better discussion of that over at Electric Lit and anything I could have said would have been grabbed straight from there (and that’s plagiarism, folks!). The multiple mutilations that go on aboard CIEL, because trigger warning!! And finally, the sex stuff, because, honestly, all that just makes me uncomfortable, (a cup of prude tea? Why, thank you). I’m not terribly interested in reading about it anyway, but I was even more confused that pantomiming masturbation and sexual acts were used as a method of rebellion, and that the humans who had no equipment for it were the most obsessed with sex … like, the desire didn’t wither away along with their reproductive organs. I didn’t get it.

Wow. I’ve gone on a bit, haven’t I? Let’s conclude. This is a book that’s difficult to place on my reading map. It made me think of The Female Man by Joanna Russ more than anything else, and my reaction to it has been similar in that I don’t feel I’m smart enough to really understand everything the author is trying to say. It feels experimental, it’s definitely thought-provoking, and it is very, very angry in places, (hmmm, I didn’t talk about that either, did I? Never mind). I wonder what will happen to it in the future? Will it survive as a classic and get studied and picked apart in classrooms across the world? Or will it be forgotten?

“And yet earth was reborn. It was not a miracle that life was destroyed and then re-emerged. It was the raging stubbornness of living organisms that simply would not give in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Agyar by Steven Brust

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I read this after reading Little Red Reviewer’s intriguing and brilliant review, which you can read for yourselves here. And before I say anything more I will second her injunction: if you plan to read this DO NOT read any blurbs for it, not online, nor on the book’s jacket and definitely, definitely don’t Google it.

 

OK, with that out of the way …

I don’t understand how this book isn’t better known. At worst it should be on reading lists in colleges and universities to show how something can be really well done, not misdirection exactly, but the controlled use of words to present only parts of a picture in the interests of creating tension and curiosity and mystery. Brust writes so completely from his protagonist’s POV that information the reader would find important isn’t mentioned because it is of absolutely no importance to Jack Agyar.

At best this should be one of those books that everyone knows about via word of mouth, but which, by unspoken consensus, no-one knows fully about until they have read it for themselves. (I am very fond of this idea of a worldwide collusion of readers all keeping the secret so as to protect the experience of the first-time Agyar reader).

I followed all the rules: I didn’t read any blurbs (when did blurbs become a thing? I don’t imagine the books in 18th Century circulating libraries had blurbs … maybe the paperback brought with it the blurb – I shall have to investigate), I didn’t even so much as look at the cover of my copy when it arrived in the post. I went in blind and read the entire thing in a day. Despite all that I worked out the reveal before it was … ahem … revealed (although there isn’t any hard and fast reveal, more an accretion of details until there is only one conclusion to be drawn), but I think mostly because I was looking for something to be discovered, (and because I’m that annoying person who guesses who the murderer is before the end, or works out that the boy in that book is really a girl, because I can’t stand not knowing and my poor little brain goes into overdrive to work this stuff out). And that doesn’t even matter because I was too busy enjoying the skill with which Brust was delivering the story.

Jack Agyar is ambiguous. I can’t say I liked him immediately (we meet him at a party where he’s not being his best self), but I found him intriguing and, well, the book was a puzzle to be solved so I was going to read it no matter whether I liked him or not. It turns out he grows on you. His relationship with Jill doesn’t show him in a great light, but his relationship with Susan makes a better impression, as do his diary pages as he warms to the idea of writing:

“… I guess there isn’t much satisfaction in talking about how I shower, eat, read the newspaper, and sleep. It’s only when I meet someone and we affect each other that I feel I have anything to write down.”

How Jack is affected by his new relationships with Jill and Susan and his longer-standing relationship with Laura is the substance of this novel, and while that all sounds a bit pedestrian and ordinary, it’s anything but. One other relationship that has a bearing on the story is that between Jack and his housemate Jim. Jim is awesome. He is also Jack’s only anticipated reader (until the very end), and Jack occasionally addresses him directly:

“(I used to be very superstitious, but then I learned it was bad luck. A little joke there, Jim).”

Which cracked me up. As did Jack’s obsession with his “natty” coat and his insistence on calling the typewriter he uses to write his diary “the typewriting machine”.

In case you can’t tell, I’m being super careful about what I mention so that I don’t inadvertently spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read this yet. And there’s not a lot more I can say without getting dangerously close to letting something slip, but I’m not finishing up before I mention Jill again. When Jack first meets Jill I wasn’t terribly impressed. And when we meet her housemate Susan, who’s quite lovely, Jill seems even less impressive. However, she’s not the wet blanket I took her for, in fact she’s quite the opposite (I feel like I owe her an apology and feel quite bad that I can’t make one because she’s fictional, which is dumb, I know) and I’m more impressed with Jill than with any other character in Agyar’s small cast. Her final scene is touching, but I also made a silent ‘hurrah!’ for her when I read it. Brust did a good job with her.

This is definitely a book that needs to be read twice. The first time, not knowing what to expect, and the second time knowing what to look for, so you can appreciate everything that Brust achieves with it. It’s not, however, a book that will go on my re-read pile. It’s really clever and I enjoyed the skill with which Brust does what he does here, but it’s not a story I loved. Or rather, there were no characters I was able to love (except, perhaps, Jim). My re-reads are like friends I get to visit, comforting and inviting and great company. Agyar is a book to appreciate, and it’s a great introduction to Brust, but I wouldn’t say it’s a comforting read.

 

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams (weeks 3 & 4)

 

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You all get by now that I just can’t be on time for anything, right? It’s the 31st of May, the last day of Wyrd and Wonder month, and here are my thoughts for the week three and four questions as posed by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More and Lisa of Dear Geek Place … because I get there eventually.

Oh, and you can find my answers to the questions posed in weeks one and two here.

 

Now, more SPOILERS folks, be warned…

 

WEEK 3

An island prison. A religious leader. A witch-powered steam train. Giant bats. I think it’s time we talked about the Winnowry! What do you think creates a fell-witch? Where does their power come from? Why are they all women? Is the Winnowry a despicable organisation profiting from controlling women or keeping the world safe?

What creates a fell-witch? I’ll be blowed if I know. But that voice in Noon’s head did say “you were crafted for war, just as I was” and that makes me all kinds of interested to find out more about the history of the fell-witches. And the Winnowry. Even though she’s escaped I don’t feel like Noon is completely free of them just yet. And I wonder what secrets will be turned up about their beliefs later on.

I’m also intrigued by this sudden power and skill that Noon has developed after drawing energy from a parasite spirit. I’m thinking that maybe the parasite spirits are the ghosts of the war-beasts? (They only turned up after the Eighth Rain, which is when Ygseril ‘died’, so they’re cut adrift somehow?) Whatever they are, Noon is suddenly the absolute badass I was hoping she’d be (with none of the hard work and no training montage? Denied!) and her showdown with Agent Lin was fabulous!

 

“There’s a world in there.” Ravening insectile hordes, battle moons (or Death Stars, if you prefer), fertilizer to drive you Wild – and this week we venture inside a Behemoth. What do you make of the weird and creepy world of the Jure’lia?

Oh man! I am loving everything about the Jure’lia (when I’m not cringing in disgust)! They are so marvellously creepy and gross. The inside of the Behemoth was awesome, and the suggestion that it’s not as dead as everyone thinks is tantalising. I can’t wait to find out more about what the crystal thing is and what it’s used for and where the world inside it is – is it a real place? And why do the Jure’lia have this incredible fertiliser stuff when their weird maggot creatures consume all living material and ‘varnish’ the land in their wake? Where’s the sense in coming to a planet only to destroy everything? Is there more to their life-cycle that we’ve not been told about? I NEED to know.

 

Where do you think Vintage has gone? … And what do you think is going on with Noon?

I think Vintage has gone to find Nanthema. She’s worked out what happened to her somehow now that she’s seen inside a Behemoth.

And yeah, I think Noon is possessed by a war-beast. I don’t know how that’s going to play out though …

 

Two siblings determined to save their god. What do you think is going to happen in Ebora?

I have no idea. Something awful I guess, as this is only book one in the trilogy. I don’t feel like it’s a good idea of Tor’s to use the Jure’lia fertiliser fluid on Ygseril (not a scientist, is he?). I mean, this stuff sure makes stuff grow, but it also seems to warp things too and a warped god doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. If the thing Hestillion is talking to even is the Eboran god. I’m not so sure anymore …

Oh-ho, bad things are coming …

 

 

WEEK 4

The revival of Ygseril does not quite go according to anyone’s plan … were you surprised by what happened in the Hall of Roots? For that matter, what do you make of Hestillion’s chosen course of action?

I wasn’t totally surprised, no. I think Williams had already started to lay out clues that Hestillion was talking to something other than Ygseril. I can’t help but feel terribly, terribly sorry for the tree-god though, having laid himself on the line for his people and then to have those very people undo what he’d tried to achieve. And the hurried Ninth Rain, his last ditch attempt to give them something to defend themselves with, even after their spectacular cock-up … I really hope Ygseril comes back by the end. Not for the Eborans (ungrateful swine the lot of them), not for the humans, nor the war-beasts, but just for himself. A huge tree with consciousness is too awesome a thing. I don’t mind if everyone else dies (except Vintage) as long as Ygseril lives.

As for Hestillion, I don’t know what to make of her decision. I think that maybe she’s more whacked than I realised. You’ve got to have more than a few screws loose to choose the Big Bad over your own god (the god you were working so hard to revive) – it makes no sense to me.

 

We also learn Vintage’s reason for leaving so suddenly, and there’s a reunion in her cards! How do you feel about her departure now that she’s been reunited with Nanthema?

Hurrah for her reunion with Nanthema! I’m so glad that Nanthema wasn’t the trope dead lover whose memory drove Vintage on. While this is a pretty bleak world in many ways, (the last of Vintage’s journal entries in the book about Sarn being poisoned, and there being nowhere to put the poison without tainting more of Sarn was bleakly bleak) Vintage’s warmth and curiosity have been something to focus on and if she were to lose her motivation I think the story would fall apart. So I am very happy to see her reunited with Nanthema and I’m looking forward to finding out more about the Eboran and seeing the two of them puzzling things out together.

 

The Ninth Rain has fallen, and the truth about the parasite spirits is revealed. What’s your take on Noon having bonded with a war-beast?

It’s so cool!! Seriously, I have no words to describe how excited I am about Vostok and Noon.

It’s also quietly satisfying to find out that I was right about the parasite spirits, even if I didn’t know why it’d happened until it was all explained. And what a fascinating idea – there’s going to be all these beasts waking up soon not knowing who or what they are, how on earth is that going to play out?

 

Any other thoughts, reactions, theories about what follows?

What the hell, Hestillion?

Darn it! Tor and Noon are an item?! Already??! Disappointed. Although *hopeful half smile* now that Noon is bonded with a war-beast, maybe she won’t have time for any more hanky-panky? (I hate to admit that I actually find their relationship quite interesting … don’t tell anyone that though, OK?)

Mother Fast and Noon’s ‘reunion’ wasn’t anything like I imagined it would be.

Aldasair and Bern – more more more! I really like these two. (And just maybe they really like each other???) Please don’t let them die just yet, (because this is what George R R Martin has given to the world: a terrible uncertainty about the survival of our favourite characters!)

And why the heck didn’t I order the second book already? Idiot.

 

Finally, this read-along was an absolute blast. And Wyrd and Wonder month has just been the most fun. Thank you for having me along!

 

 

 

 

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

 

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

This has got to be the oddest thing I’ve read in a while. Utterly engrossing and absolutely brilliant (definitely a keeper), but … yeah … odd. It’s a story of a world with many of the priorities and interests of Victorian Britain, but in which all players are dragons. Winged, clawed, fire-breathing dragons. Yet it’s partly a comedy of manners (Austen-ish), partly a humanitarian novel (Dickens-ish), and it both echoes and parallels Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which Walton quotes at the beginning of the book and mentions in her ‘Dedication, Thanks, and Notes’.

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It’s not odd while you’re reading it. Walton manages to capture perfectly the everyday details of her dragons’ lives and flawlessly imagines the workings of their world. There’s no slip or falter in the consistency of her vision and while it took me a handful of pages to get a grip on things, once I did I was hooked. I’ve finished this in a matter of days (something extraordinary for me), reading late in bed and at every other opportunity because it was just so much fun. It’s only odd now that I step back from it and realise that I’ve been completely taken up with the romantic lives of a small handful of dragons, without once batting an eyelid.

As the wonderfully arch narrator keeps count, this story comprises eight proposals, seven confessions, three dinner parties and three deathbed scenes, two court hearings and one ball. In terms of action there are two brief fights and a hunt for a lost dragonette in a mountain cavern. On top of all this there’s a fascinating look at a society experiencing change as industrialisation takes hold (trains are in evidence and there is talk of factory workers and warehouses in the city of Irieth), the practice of keeping servants and the conditions in which they are kept is beginning to be questioned, and beliefs both about class and religion are challenged. As children of a self-made man … ahem … dragon, Dignified Bon Agornin’s children represent the new order and most of the drama of the book comes from their finding places for themselves in an old and well-established society. The worst of tradition is represented by the rich, elderly Exalt Benandi’s snobbery and the greedy self-importance of the Illustrious Daverak, and is gently poked fun at. Well, maybe a bit less gently in Daverak’s case because he’s such an arse.

Anyway, let’s talk about what I really loved about this book. So, yes, ha ha, it’s a book about dragons living like Victorian ladies and gentlemen – what larks! But this is just so well done. All the manners and social rules just serve to highlight the savagery of other dragonish practices, such as that of eating the dead, the weak and the elderly, or binding the wings of servants and the clergy so that flight is impossible for them. Other rules make more sense in the dragon world than they’ve ever done in the human one, for example, maiden females cannot go around unaccompanied with males because if aroused to sexual response they literally and irreversibly blush pink, and to be pink without being betrothed is to be cast out, (and/or eaten, I guess). At the same time, Walton doesn’t have her dragons dining with knives, forks and spoons, or dabbing at their mouths with serviettes. They dine in the dining room, sure, but it’s a bloody carnivorous affair after which they have to be sponged clean by servants. They sleep in caverns on beds of rock or gold (gold being more comfortable naturally), and they have kitchens and speaking rooms. They don’t wear clothes, nor jewellery particularly, but they do … wait for it … they do wear hats. This had me in stitches. Walton doesn’t reveal it straight away (it’s about a hundred pages in that this discovery is made) perhaps to establish her dragonish society firmly in our minds first, but the same attention is lavished upon hats that plenty of Regency novels slather over dresses. It’s fabulous! I mean, dragons in hats? I just didn’t see it coming, at all. *massive grin*

“She had never imagined hats in such profusion of shapes, colours, and textures. There were berets, tricorns, toques, cloches, sun-bonnets, and other styles whose names Selendra did not know.”

 

There are also wonderful hints and glimpses of the history of this world. There is plenty of references made to Yarges and to the Conquest, to weapons being used to overcome dragonkind, how they then used weapons to push back, and to the wars that continue along the borders of their country. Yarges also play some role in the religious split that we see evidence of. In fact, like some of the very best science-fiction, this novel has you so completely involved in the dragon world-view, so thoroughly seeing everything from their perspective, that by the end, when we oh-so-briefly encounter a Yarge, the experience is oddly disconcerting. And that can only attest to Walton’s brilliant writing.

Ultimately though, it’s the characters that make this story so much fun. Bon Agornin’s children: the married Berend and her maiden sisters Selendra and Haner, the parson Penn and the city-working Avan are all captivating in their own ways. Their nearest and dearest equally so: their childhood nanny Amer, Penn’s wife Felin and their dragonettes Wontas and Gerin; Sher and his mother the Exalt Benandi (who I actually really liked, although I suspect I wasn’t supposed to), Avan’s beautifully pink partner Sebeth, and the Dignified Londaver. And there’s plenty of characters to eye-roll at (I think this is the category into which the Exalt Benandi will go for most readers) and outright detest: it’s an absolute joy to hate the Illustrious Daverak and the Blessed Frelt.

But I really don’t want to give too many more of this little book’s delights away. Seriously, it’s, what? … *checking*… 310 pages long … most people could manage it in an afternoon even if I can’t, and you have no reason not to. This is a fabulous book that you absolutely won’t regret reading. It’s smart, funny, brilliantly told (omg, I haven’t even mentioned the narrator, have I? So cool!) and it’s about dragons!! Woo!!

On a scale (*snigger* scale … get it?) of one to ten – and I don’t usually score books because I find that a bit of a weird thing to do – but on such a scale this would score a very respectable (a Dignified even) 9.9. (0.1 points off for not being longer and having no sequels so that I could luxuriate in dragonishness for longer).

 

 

 

Buddy reading Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes with Little Red Reviewer

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So, Andrea of The Little Red Reviewer and I did this buddy read together (so much fun!!), which means you’ll find the first half of our discussion on her site, which is where I’d advise you to start. If you’ve found your way over here from there, then hello and welcome!

 

How would you categorise this book, if at all?

Mayri: So this is my question, because it bothered me all the way through the book. On one hand, it’s a police procedural. On the other, a sort of Clive Barker-ish supernatural horror. I don’t even know how to categorise Layla and Cass’ social media storyline – although as you said in one of your emails Andrea, that could definitely have been a book in itself. At work it is consistently returned to our Crime Fiction shelves, but I feel that readers who pick it up expecting that will be disappointed and, given our older demographic, confused. I know labels don’t really matter, and I really enjoyed the juxtaposition between the procedural stuff and the supernatural stuff, but I wondered if you had any thought on this?

 

Andrea: Great question!!! Like, it advertises itself as a police procedural/serial killer thriller, but it’s not that, at all.   I can totally see why someone who thought they were getting a crime novel would be confused and maybe angry. My dad enjoys thrillers, but this book would just piss him off – too many side plots, all the social media and tech stuff, too much supernatural. Labels are a pain in the butt, but bookstores and libraries need them. I guess if I had to categorize this, I’d call it a supernatural thriller with a hint of coming of age?  But “coming of age” also has connotations that might turn people off to this book.

With so many labels blurring, what are libraries and bookstores to do?

 

Mayri: Just heap all the books together without any care for genre and watch the ensuing chaos!! Ha ha! It’ll make shelf-checks difficult for us, but maybe people will find something they never thought they’d read and I’m all for that! (It will also amuse me greatly *chuckle*).

 

This is a very book report-ish sort of question – but who do you think are the Broken Monsters of the title?

Mayri: I think everyone is. In the book, and out here in the real world too. Clayton’s creations are certainly broken and monstrous, but they’re like an outward display of what we all carry around with us. Every character in the book has been through their own personal wringer, and no one is all good or all bad. My favourite quote in the book was this:

“Everyone lives three versions of themselves; a public life, a private life and a secret life … we are different things to different people in different contexts.”

And every character’s story plays this truth out. A lot of the complications that arise from the use of social media come about because the lines between these three lives blur out here in the digital world.

And Layla’s very last chapter is kind of an answer to the question of how to handle being a broken monster in a world of broken monsters: “you have to find a way to live with it”.

 

Andrea:  I agree with you, everyone.  And yes, that quote sums up this book perfectly.  Everyone has private secrets; everyone has things they don’t want people to learn.  Maybe Clayton is the only person who is able to (gruesomely) be comfortable in letting his private secrets and private wants be public.

The social media aspects hit me pretty hard. It’s so easy to send your boyfriend a sexy picture of yourself, without even thinking what might happen to that picture. It’s so easy to just hit “share” on facebook.  Social media (facebook mostly) has trained us to share everything. Share what you had for breakfast, share where you’re going on vacation, share the restaurant you’re at, share everything … but make everything look perfect for the internet. Share EVERYTHING except who you really are.   It’s also really, really easy to find easily influenceable people online, people who will immediately trust you if you say the right things, if you tell them what they want to hear. I’m really happy I came of age when the internet was barely a thing. I feel bad for teenagers who are trying to navigate it now, I don’t know how they do it.

“Living with it” – I guess that’s how you know you’re not a kid anymore.  You realize you can’t run from whatever it is, you can’t hide from it, so you better just learn to live with it. You better realize that these scary, weird, crappy experiences are what make you who you are.  What’s that fun song that’s on the radio “a hundred bad days make a hundred bad stories, a hundred bad stories make me interesting at parties”.  Layla just became the most interesting person in the world.

 

 

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

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artwork by kasana86 from 123RF.com

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Well, what can I say? Wyrd and Wonder month is turning out to be a kickass month for me! My third read has been great fun, a beautiful fairytale-ish story about two uncanny beings who find themselves in turn-of-the-century New York. It presents a gently rose-tinted view of immigration in the late 1800s as a backdrop for a number of glorious characters, including our protagonists, and a slow-building adventure. And a sort-of romance.

Wecker has got the touch when it comes to writing engaging characters and I really enjoyed the many smaller stories than ran in and out of the main plot of The Golem and the Jinni. I particularly loved Maryam Faddoul and her husband Sayeed, who run a coffeehouse in Little Syria, and the tragic Ice Cream Saleh, who was once a doctor; gentle old Rabbi Meyer and poor trapped heiress Sophia Winston; and the quiet Matthew Mounsef. Wecker lavishes care and attention on each of them and I’d have happily read endless tales of their smaller daily struggles to make lives for themselves in the melting pot of New York city. The larger story of the golem and the jinni draws all these characters in, however, and all paths cross eventually in interesting and mostly satisfying ways.

The golem Chava, and the jinni Ahmad, are equally fascinating. (Everything I know about golems comes from Terry Practhett’s Feet of Clay and Going Postal, although that seemed to do me no harm here). Chava is unusual in being a female golem, created to blend in with humanity having been commissioned as a wife by and for the unmarriageable (and quickly dead) Otto Rotfeld. Brand new to the world and having lost her master Chava can hear the wants and needs of all the people in close proximity to her and her life is dictated to a large degree by that. Ahmad stands as her direct opposite. He is freed from a copper flask by the tinsmith Boutros Arbeely, having been trapped there for thousands of years by a powerful wizard and unable to remember anything about how he was caught. While he is stuck in human form because of an iron bracelet, he is in all other ways free to follow his every desire and is as impetuous and passionate as Chava is cautious and controlled.

I foisted this book onto one of my favourite customers at the same time that I was reading it which resulted in us having a very interesting conversation about how the story would have gone if the male character had been a golem as is traditional and the female character a jinni. Mrs M had expected a male golem because of their association with great physical strength, but we decided that a biddable, careful male protagonist, strong or not, and an impulsive, fiery female one in a late 19th Century setting would have led very quickly down a different path. If I was disturbed by this novel in any way, it was because of this. Chava’s ability to hear the desires of others and her compulsion to satisfy them feels, for me, predictably and annoyingly feminine. What would a male character with the same abilities do with them? Chava works in a bakery and takes in sewing in the evenings (neither she nor Ahmad sleep at night). Propriety, a less obvious want that underlies many others, keeps her in check. But a male golem, less constrained by propriety could no doubt become a successful con-artist at the very least.

And yet Chava’s struggles are all the more real because of this aspect of her design. She and Ahmad complement one another in that they each teach the other something foreign. The centuries-old Ahmad learns something about the consequences his actions have for others over the course of the book, and newly-born Chava learns something about her own wants. They become deeper characters through their night-time walks and discussions together, their qualities changing and/or solidifying by being challenged by the other. And all the while they circle that very human question: can we choose who we are? Can Chava choose who she is?

“‘She’ll already be obedient,’ Schaalman said, impatient. ‘That’s what a golem is – a slave to your will. Whatever you command her, she’ll do. She won’t even wish otherwise.’

‘Good,’ Rotfeld said. … ‘Give her curiosity,’ he told Schaalman. ‘And intelligence. I can’t stand a silly woman. Oh,’ he said, inspiration warming him to his task, ‘and make her proper. Not … lascivious. A gentleman’s wife.'”

It’s not a question reserved only for these two, however. Each character in one way or another is having to decide who they are to be in this new country. Old traditions and religions rub up against new ideas, just as languages and neighbourhoods run alongside one another. The grandeur of Bethesda Terrace and the Washington Square arch is as much a part of this world as the tenements, the rooftops and the Bowery. Sophia Winston is as trapped by her wealth and the expectations of her family as Chava and Ahmad are by their need to blend into this city full of humans.

Loneliness and isolation also abound. Chava and Ahmad are isolated from their human friends by being something other than human, but even the many human characters suffer from loneliness, despite the crowded city in which they all live. Chava’s first guardian Rabbi Meyer is a lonely old man and Ahmad’s rescuer Arbeely feels the want of a wife or companion. Sophie Winston is lonely in her wealth; Michael Levy is lonely in his work at the Sheltering House. Chava’s friend from the bakery, Anna, is isolated by her unmarried pregnancy and poor Ice Cream Saleh by his madness. Surrounded as they are by friends, fellow countrymen, neighbours and lovers, still each person has to deal with some things unaided. It gives the novel a melancholy tinge that cuts the enchantment.

And yeah, sure, this book has its flaws. The dramatic ending is the weakest part after the slow build-up (the sense of foreboding that develops as we learn about Fadwa al-Hadid’s story is masterful), and apparently some of the details of practical Kabbalah in the book are not quite correct (not something I would have known, but this was mentioned in a couple of reviews I read), and it’s maybe a smidge romantic in its historical presentation, but heck, who cares? It’s great fun, thoroughly absorbing, and I hear there’s going to be a sequel – what’s not to love?

 

 

 

 

Read-along: The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams (weeks 1 & 2)

 

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Always late to the party? No kidding! I’m just about managing to keep up with the reading for this read-along, and I’m making notes, naturally, but posting as well? It’s just not happening. So, here are my thoughts on the questions set for both weeks one and two, posed by imyril of There’s Always Room for One More and Lisa of Dear Geek Place respectively.

Sorry I’m late!

Also, watch out – SPOILERS!

 

WEEK 1

“You travel with an Eboran, and you explore the Wild, and you’re looking for things that might kill you. None of it makes sense.” What are your first impressions of Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon?

She’s forty years old (as I will be this year, so immediate soft spot), she carries a crossbow, she’s a woman of colour, she’s a scientist and an adventurer, she’s utterly charming, she wears (what I can only imagine to be a kickass) hat, and her swear word of choice is “buggeration” *snigger* … what’s not to love about Vintage?! I have developed the biggest crush on her and she was initially the only thing keeping me reading when it seemed like this was going to be a much bleaker fantasy than I was expecting.

 

Not your traditional elves, eh. How do you feel about Ebora and the Eborans?

Creepy. Disturbing. Darkly fascinating. I’ve never come across blood-sucking elves before. Hestilion has that whole cold, beautiful, pitiless thing going on (kiddy-killer that she is), while Tor is a bit more relatable. I don’t know which of them is the unusual one: Is Hest mad as a bag of spiders, or is Tor oddly human-friendly?

Ebora itself, or rather the palace that Hest haunts, is lovely and spooky all at once. The image of this near-empty, dusty place built around the corpse (?) of their god Ygseril, inhabited only by a few dying Eborans and roaming wolves and Hestilion in her embroidered silks is gorgeous. I particularly loved the scene between Hest and the confused Aldasair – that gave me shivers.

 

Parasite spirits, mutant animals and really big grapes: Would you live safe behind city walls, or would you make your home in the Wild?

My imaginary self would be out there with Vintage and Tor kicking ass and cutting a swathe through the Wild. I am completely taken with the parasite spirits (did anyone else think of the Phantoms from the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie for a moment when they first encountered these spirits? No? Just me then), and I can’t wait to see some Behemoth remains (it took me a while to realise that the corpse moon was a partially destroyed Behemoth caught in Sarn’s orbit … at which point I completely lost my s*** because, OMG! A fantasy world that has been invaded by aliens??!! SO COOL!!! (!!!!!))

My real self would be cowering behind the thickest, highest walls with my eyes tight shut, rocking back and forth chanting “there’s no place like home … there’s no place like home”.

 

In a nightmarish world a few bad dreams are to be expected. Or are they? How much are you reading into them?

I’m reading everything into them. People who live in fantasy worlds never have meaningless dreams. Fact. I mean, come on! Fell-Noon and Novice Lusk (and Aldasair) just happen to have the same dream about the Jure’lia returning to Sarn? Oh boy!

 

Other first impressions, wild assumptions, or guesses about Where All This is Going:

I’m pretty sure Agent Lin is going to be a scary character. She makes me very, very nervous for Fell-Noon.

I lovelovelove Fell-Noon. And Fulcor! (Another first for me – an awesome bat sidekick! Please let there be more Fulcor!) I can’t wait to see where their story goes.

The whole Winnowry/ Drowned One/ Fell-witches/ akaris thing is fascinating – I’m interested to see where that’s going to go. How did it all begin? How did Fell-witches come about? Is this just an elaborate bit of scenery or will this all play a part as the larger story unfolds?

 

WEEK 2

Vintage’s journal entries at the start of each chapter seem to be filling in more backstory for our heroine, but what do you think of this approach to providing information about her? Are these entries fascinating, or distracting?

Definitely fascinating. I love that Vintage’s history is being filled in in this way because her tone is so wonderful and it feels like being able to see behind the curtain a little. I like that we’ve started to get tiny glimpses of what Marin must be like too, from her letters to him; I have a secret hope (not so secret anymore) that we’ll get to meet him at least once before the trilogy is done.

It’s of no consequence, but I keep thinking back to Vintage’s brother Ezion saying to her “You have got yourself all agitated” when we first met her at the beginning, and thinking how he can have had absolutely no idea who his sister really was. And wondering, if he read her letters and diaries like we’re doing, would he have been able to appreciate her more?

 

More details emerge about what happened at the end of the Eighth Rain … what do you think happened to (or between?) the Jure’lia queen and Ygseril?

Oh my goodness – I have no idea! I wonder if the two have become connected somehow, or if they cancelled each other out. Then again, the Jure’lia queen is speaking to people in dreams, which suggests a certain amount of strength, whereas Ygseril is, to all intents and purposes, dead, even if Hestillion has seen a glimmer of life. So maybe both were damaged by the confrontation (?) during the Eighth Rain, but Ygseril more so. I really don’t know. I’m along for the ride on that one.

 

And now it seems that the god-tree still lives. Or does it? What’s your take on what Hestillion is doing, and what do you think she’s going to do with her surprise guests?

She’s definitely biding her time, which doesn’t bode well for anyone in her vicinity, but I don’t know what for (because I don’t speak crazy-murderous-semi-immortal-bitch). She seriously creeped me out when she appeared to be all thankful that the plains people were offering to help the Eborans, and then was crowing that they’d “fallen for it” – fallen for what?

 

Make love, not war. Or, if your Tormalin the Oathless, do both. How do you feel about the particular mix of Tor’s skills, and what do you make of his interactions with Noon so far?

Yeah, Tor’s getting more interesting the deeper in we go. I just thought he was a bit of a philanderer at first, but now it’s clear that he has an arrangement with a chosen few, which sort of makes him a male courtesan. It’s a pretty interesting take on things. I’m not sure why he drinks so much. And I like him best when he’s crotchety, like when Vintage gives Noon some of his clothes, and when he gets blood on his shirtsleeve.

His interactions with Noon have been pretty light so far. I’m interested to see if they will gain understanding from each other, as members of two historically opposed peoples. I hope it doesn’t lead to a romance between them. That’ll piss me off. But I can envisage them becoming fighting partners of some sort (and let’s face it, with their skills that’d be badass!), and friends, I hope.

 

Other thoughts/speculations/theories:

What did I say about Agent Lin?! Scary, scary lady!! And you just know we haven’t seen the last of her, don’t you? I was really impressed with her winnowfire skills though. I like the idea of Noon learning to kick ass with her own winnowfire and there being a final showdown where she totally beasts Agent Lin … *all my fingers crossed*

Also, what happened to Noon before the Winnowry? She can’t become a badass angel of winnowfire vengeance until she’s made peace with her past, methinks.

Finally: The. Wild. Is. Awesome. The mutant bear that attacks them? (Annihilation anybody?) Awesome!!

 

You can read my answers to the questions posed for weeks three and four here.