Curtsies and Conspiracies

This is another hugely enjoyable book from Carriger. Once again our girl Sophronia is thrown into difficulties at her alleged finishing school. This time she has a lot more to do with the supernatural element of her world, especially the vampires. Of course there’s a lot of discussion of dresses and fashion and hats and reticules; she must figure out how to carry a knife without it being obvious, she must learn to bat her eyelids effectively, and how best to carry the implements required of a young lady in her position. I’m still surprised by how enjoyable I find yet another school focused book.

Most of this book is spent on the dirigible of Miss Geraldine’s finishing school. Some time is spent in classes, learning about domestic economy, poisoning, fainting and how to properly address vampires. But for Sophronia, much of her time is spent on the outside of the dirigible – climbing – as well as with the sooties down below and the dressing-as-a-boy Vieve. Interestingly the plot follows on from Etiquette and Espionage, in that the MacGuffin here is the same. Of course this time it’s not so much about finding the prototype as it is about figuring out what it can do,  how it will do it, and who will control it. There’s a surprising amount of politics for a book that seems at least on the outside as being solely can send with fashion. I guess that’s kind of the point; that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive and anyone who is thinks they are is likely to underestimates graduates of Miss Geraldine’s finishing school.

One of the big differences in this book compared to the original is that there’s a lot more boys. I’m not really sure what I think about this; on the one hand it’s obviously an important skill for girls like Sophronia and Dimity to learn – that is, how to deal with difficult yet handsome young man. And of course reappearing in this book is Soap, certainly one of my favorite characters although somewhat problematic given that he’s black and his nickname is Soap. On the other hand I really enjoyed the almost exclusively female cast of the first book; the fact that boys were not necessary for the book to proceed, the fact that the girls were perfectly capable of getting themselves into and out of scrapes generally without any male assistance (or hindrance) at all. While some of the ways that Sophronia dealt with her would-be suitors was entertaining, I did find myself enjoying the sections of the plot that solely involves the girls generally more enjoyable.

I continue to be fascinated by the development of this world that Carriger initially developed for the Alexia books. And of course I remain desperately keen to find out how this series will intersect with the earlier one. One of those intersections is quite obvious but I have no doubts that Carriger will provide some further surprises in the rest of the series.

Walk to the End of the World

As with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, if I had not known that this was highly regarded amongst feminist sf types I would have given this book up in the first couple of pages. Charnas is utterly devastating in her representation of men and their attitudes towards one another, and their attitudes towards women – “fems” – and towards history and power. While I don’t honestly think things would go this way, it still works as a horrifying critique and savage prophecy of the outcomes of patriarchy.
Charnas writes in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems that only a tiny proportion of white men, and fewer women, have survived to try and rebuild some sort of civilisation. And we know they are all white because there is specific mention of how excellent it is that one class of unmen – the Dirties – are gone, and in case the reader was really obtuse there’s a song enumerating just who the Dirties were. I cannot imagine reading this as a non-white person, given it was hard enough as a white woman. Anyway the destruction of the world has been blamed on the unmen – beasts, Dirties, and fems. The inclusion of beasts in this list is the most bizarre bit to me, because would men really have forgotten that animals were not human and had no connection to civilisation and therefore its destruction? I guess if there were no animals left and you were creating a story to apportion blame, you might. Anyway the Dirties apparently fought against the righteous actions of the true (white) men, and fems were witches who constantly fought against men because they’re agents of chaos and the void. 

Not content with this level of terrifying prediction, Charnas also suggests that patriarchy would (d)evolve into ruthless competition between, basically, sons and fathers. To the point of de-identifying familial ties so there can be no seeking out and killing progenitor/descendent; and to the point of reinterpreting Christianity as the Son defying the Father and being punished as a result. (Which is magnificent and disturbing and just whoa.) 

The story revolves around the quest of a son for his father – because he’s unique in knowing this information. At heart it’s a very simple and straightforward story but the world that Charnas has created for it is anything but. Through the quest the reader sees basically the entirety of the new civilisation, as well as how the various segments of society work and all the dangerous undercurrents that are at play. The four different points of view, giving very different perspectives, all work seamlessly to develop Charnas’ vision – which is really a warning. 

This book is brilliant and terrifying and not for the faint of heart not because of violence to persons but because of violence to notions of civility and humanity. Well, mine anyway; maybe I’m just a bleeding heart liberal. I can’t imagine what would happen if an MRA dude read it; I’d be rather scared they’d miss the irony.  

I actually read this as the first in the Radical Utopias omnibus. The next is The Female Man, and I’m not sure my brain can handle rereading that. The third is a Delany that I’m pretty sure I haven’t read, so I will certainly get to that soon. 

The Einstein Intersection

3629457.jpgOh Delany. You continue to impress and stagger me. And I don’t think I got some of the more subtle stuff that was going on here.

SLIGHT spoilers. I don’t think it would compromise your enjoyment of the book.

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s got such a clash of styles – sometimes the main character, Lobey, out-innocents Garion from the Eddings’ Belgariad series, and sometimes he participates in intense discussions of genetics. It’s got remarkable meta stuff going on, with excerpts at the start of each chapter from a really broad range of sources including, apparently, the author’s own diaries (are they real? were they really written in a diary but with the intention to include it in the novel? Just how meta and sneaky can Delany b- oh wait. Pretty sure the answer to that is obvious).

Delany is doing all sorts of sneaky things here with myth and legend. The AI whose acronym spells PHAEDRA, found at the end of a labyrinth… plus Christian stuff, plus American Old West stuff, plus I suspect some other stuff that I did not pick up on. And then there’s the meta-discussion ABOUT myth and legend and their place in society and 147 pages SERIOUSLY?

I ADORED the revelation that these are non-humans literally taking on the skins and myths of humans for some unrevealed purpose. It’s almost a cliche to talk about books where you’re just dropped into the middle of a much, much bigger story but by golly that’s true here. The level of opacity is breathtaking AND YET the story is still so very compelling.

Delany. Man.

Masks and Shadows

25893822.jpgThis book was provided by the publisher at no cost.

The important thing to know about this book before reading it is that it is influenced by opera – eighteenth century opera, no less. So if noble ladies with fair arms and negligees, dramatic love affairs, and sinister secret societies – with generous serves of lavish description – is not your cup of tea, then this novel is not for you. And that’s ok; just pass it by, or pass it on.

The novel is set on the real-life estate of the Esterhazys, which I had to look up to check its historical authenticity. The Prince really did employ Haydn to work there, as depicted in the story, so it’s intriguing to know that it’s based on, or at least using, some aspects of fact (and the ruler at the time was Marie Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother. Can’t get away from those revolutions.)

There’s lots of different narrators and a few different narrative threads that weave through this story. There’s the musico (indelicately, a castrato), the young widow, the cast-off husband, the singers, the alchemists… and ultimately everything comes together. I quite liked the young widow, who was really the focus overall; she was sympathetic and made sense. Some of the others were a bit more opera-character-ish: amusing but less believable. Also less believable was the central (although not completely overwhelming) love story; not that the two people involved were unlikely, just the way it played out.

Overall this is a well-paced, fairly light read with some charming, and some dastardly, characters. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it all only happens over a week or so, so it doesn’t have a chance to get bogged down.

The Oxford History of the French Revolution

2142776.jpgOverall this is a very readable book about the French Revolution. I’m not sure it would work for the complete novice – because I’m not, so I can’t judge that anymore. But it gives a generally thorough overview of the French Revolution and, interestingly, its impact on the wider world; Ireland and Poland both get mentions as being inspired by the Revolution itself during the Revolution, and the rest of Europe by virtue of conquest, with Latin America being mentioned in passing. Haiti also gets a few mentions in terms of the uprising there inspired by the Revolution.

I have two complaints; one stylistic, the other content. The first is that some of the writing is a bit obscure, in that sentences could definitely have been better formulated to avoid confusion. The second is Doyle’s attitude towards women. On the first page he mentions ‘an empty-headed queen’, and doesn’t really walkabout Marie Antoinette much except in terms of being anti-revolution. On one of the last pages he mentions that equality between men and women was never going to be a thing, despite women’s contributions to the revolution – which he’s mentioned about once, with the Women’s March to Versailles, which would be hard to avoid – but there he talks about women pushing matters to extremes, and Mme de Stael as ‘Necker’s busybody daughter’ (!!), and Theroigne de Mericourt and Olympe de Gouges and Claire Lacombe only once each. I found this very disappointing. Of course you can’t mention everyone in one book, but surely these women deserve more than just the one line dismissal of their contributions.

I would still recommend this a very good overview, keeping in mind that no single book is going to be perfect.

The Emperor’s Railroad

26883409I received this from the publisher at no cost.

I’m not a huge zombie-story fan, so this story wasn’t really aimed at me. That said, turns out I can be quite a fan of your post-apocalyptic, back-to-vaguely-old-west-America stories, so that aspect was quite enjoyable. I do like the image of human creations being subsumed into nature.

Quinn, the hero of the story, is intriguing, and through him we get glimpses into the rest of the world that the story is set in. There are angels and dragons – I kept wondering whether this would turn out to be a fantasy or a science fiction story, and it’s not entirely resolved – and Quinn is a knight, commissioned by an angel but now on his own sort of quest. It’s a long time since I’ve read them but I was put in mind of the Terry Brooks Word&Void series; the child narrator, Abney, is fully aware that his world has extraordinary things in it but is still something of an innocent of the realities, while Quinn has seen too much.

Despite my not loving zombies, I did read and enjoy the whole story, so that says something for the characters and for the fairly fast-paced style.

The Jewel and her Lapidary

This was provided to me by the publisher at no cost.

I haven’t read it in a very long time, but I was immediately put in my mind of Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer series, because part of the point of this story is that people can talk to, and be influenced by, gems. I seem to recall that things didn’t always go well for Killashandra and her friends, and of course this story only exists because things go wrong for the two main characters, and indeed their entire world (well, valley).

The good thing about this story is that it focuses on the relationship between two young women: a Jewel, youngest scion of the royal family, and her lapidary or bound servant. Their discussions about duty and oaths and what to do when faced with crisis were interesting enough.

However. There were a few things where the book just misses its mark.

For a start there’s no discussion about the morality or not of having a (literally) bound servant. Sima is not a slave, but it’s a near run thing. That made me uncomfortable.

Additionally, there were narrative aspects that could have worked but just didn’t quite get there. Firstly, there are some breaks in the narrative where a ‘modern’ travel guide apparently describes the area where the actual story is taking place – a tactic that can add unexpected depth or twists to stories, I’ve found – but these break-ins didn’t do that. They didn’t seem to match the story parts they were paired with, and they were too superficial to add much to the story. Secondly, while I’m not a reader who demands every part of a story be filled in, I felt like there were too many gaps in this story; too many times where I think the idea was that lucanae are alluring and tantalising but this was just frustrating and confusing.

Overall I didn’t mind the story but I didn’t feel that it had much substance to completely make up for the bits that frustrated.

The Golem and the Djinni

This post should be read in conjunction with Mondy’s review, because I read it when he first posted it which is, clearly, a long time before I read the book, and it influenced my reading of the Jewish (and by extension Muslim) bits quite a lot. Also, this is another book given to me by Katharine, because she is a great big book nerd.

And this post is pretty much spoiler-filled. You’ve been warned.

Unknown.jpegOver on Goodreads, I gave this four stars, because I rounded up; I would have given it 3.5 for preference.

On the good side, this is really nicely written – it wasn’t a chore to read it, I generally enjoyed the switches of narrative perspective, and the Golem and Djinni both provide interesting perspectives on humanity. In fact I think this is the strength of the book (… and this is interesting given I read it very soon after The Just City): these two characters give Wecker the opportunity to think about volition and control and desire through two creatures whose natures are intended to be opposites. The Golem is created to be obedient, and lacking a master means that she has to think through controlling herself, and how not to respond to every whim she encounters, and it’s really hard. When at liberty, the Djinni was accustomed to doing exactly what he wanted and when, indulging any whim he might feel without reference to any consequences. Now restricted by the iron cuff, he’s unable to take any form he wants – so there’s an external restriction – and living as a human means that at least to some extent, he needs to learn about consequence and responsibility. So it’s a bit like watching two toddlers learn about how to be responsible human beings, when those toddlers have superhuman strength or the ability to liquify metal, and who already look like adults and so are treated as such by those around them – no leeway like actual toddlers get. I really felt for the Golem as she wanted to restrict herself and not lash out; I sympathised with the Djinni for feeling imprisoned and also that he wanted to encourage the Golem to actually explore who she is.

I really liked the way that Wecker always referred to the Golem and the Djinni in those terms. As Mondy points out, this is a good way of showing that they’re outsiders. Although they have been given names by those around them, they do not fit in.

I don’t know why Wecker chose the end of the 19th century for her story; it could just be that it was a period that she liked. Post-WW1 could have worked, I think, because living in the Roaring 20s would have allowed all sorts of interesting discussions. (Clearly post-WW2 would have required too many other discussions that would get in the way of the story Wecker was trying to tell.) Anyway that aspect mostly worked; I’m no expert so I have no idea whether it was accurate or not.

On the more negative side, there were a couple of things that really bummed me. Sophia Winston is a big part of that. She gets seduced by the Djinni and doesn’t appear to regret it – fine. She gets pregnant to the Djinni and then loses it in a mystical manner and then her body doesn’t recover and then the Djinni is taken to her house to warm up post-suicide by cooling attempt (… because she’s got the closest fireplace or something? Saleh’s thinking was a bit of a stretch there). And then apparently this is a sign to her family that her reputation is ruined and so her engagement is called off and she goes off on a tour of Warmer Climes (the Mediterranean) aaaannddd… that feels like a really raw deal and I didn’t much like how she was basically just used as a toy by the Djinni and then kinda left, lost, by Wecker.

And the ending really didn’t work for me. Constant reincarnation because the nasty magician is bound to the Djinni? It was sprung on me too quickly, with no prior suggestion of spirits being reborn, so it felt really jarring. Although I did like the eventual taking of the copper flask back the djinnis to look after, getting the magician into the flask was also dubious. And finally, the suggestion at the end that the Golem actually Has Feelings for the Djinni? nonononono. I do not like this suggestion at all. Not because I don’t think she should be allowed to have feelings, but because a romantic relationship there destroys what I thought was interesting about their relationship. These are two completely opposite non-humans trying to live in human society. A romantic relationship just weirds things out.

I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

The Just City

I hadn’t even heard of this book until Katharine mischievously sent me a copy because she wanted to know how I would feel about it. And my initial feels are: omg THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL.

Is that what you were expecting, K?

JustCity_150-206x300.jpgThe premise: Athene (yes, she who sprang fully formed) wonders what would happen if humans attempted to put Plato’s Republic into action – with a little help from her, of course. So she gathers together a bunch of people from across time who have all prayed to her, perhaps inadvertently, after reading The Republic and wanting themselves to put it into practise. And they’re going to collect slave children, and they’re going to try out their city on a certain island that will eventually be destroyed by a volcano… (yes Athene is aware of how recursive this is I LOVE YOU JO WALTON).

Apollo, meanwhile, is confounded by Daphne wanting so much to get away from his tender advances that she was happy to be turned into a tree, so he decides to become mortal to explore ideas of volition and equal significance. And hanging out in the fledgling Republic of the philosopher-kings seems like an interesting and pragmatic way of doing so.

The book’s chapters switch between a few different characters. Apollo gets a few, but not most, which is good because I liked his perspective and seeing what life was like for a being with godly knowledge but human limitations, but it would have got old to have him as the focus. Instead, most of the chapters are from female perspectives. Lucia, renamed Simmea, is from what I take to be the early Christian period; she’s bought as a slave and taken to Thera, destined to be brought up in the first generation of true Republicans. Maia, originally Ethel, was born in Yorkshire in 1841. Well educated for a girl at the time she appears destined for the standard gloomy life of struggling middle class woman, until she happens to cry out to Athene… and she’s transported to Thera to act as one of the guardians, teaching the new generation how to be their best selves and eventually develop into Plato’s philosopher-kings (… well, some of them).

I’ve not read The Republic. In fact, I’ve never read anything of Plato’s in much depth or at much length (I’ve taken some Classics subjects so I must have read a bit… right?). This is not, however, a problem for reading this novel because Walton does a wonderful job of having her characters discuss the various issues and conundrums and ideas that Plato raises – all without it seeming like an info-dump. Just as setting up the city is an experiment for Athene, this book is a thought-experiment itself. This book reminded me in some ways of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, because so much of it is conversation- and ideas-driven. There is some action, but it is not the focus – and most of the action is connected to the ideas, showing them in action in some way. And I never once found it boring.

Issues confronted:

Slavery, good or bad? And can you have the perfect society as suggested by Plato without slaves to do at least some of the jobs?

Individuals as ‘fit for purpose’: should someone else get to determine what you do for your images.jpegentire life? Should your worth be entirely determined by the work that you do?

How to be one’s best self: I could not help but think of Bill and Ted, of course. But it is also a deeply intriguing question: how do we help ourselves and those around us be excellent?

Censorship: can it be a good thing?

Who can you trust? How do you know? Are there levels of trust, or areas in which someone is trustworthy and others in which they aren’t?

There is JUST SO MUCH in this book I have only scratched the surface IT IS EXCELLENT.

Slight spoiler

The one off-note that didn’t really work for me was the rape early on of one of the guardians. While it was occasionally referenced later on and certainly had some impact on the woman involved, I didn’t really see why it needed to be a part of the narrative. And it seems weird to say that this is a minor quibble, given the topic, but overall I think it’s dealt with mostly ok; it just didn’t quite sit right with me.

Aaaaand in finding the image for this post I’ve just discovered that the second book already exists in the world AAAAAAAH *buys*. (Also buys a hard copy of The Just City, for re-reading and shoving into people’s hands. My mother MUST read this.) You can get The Just City from Fishpond.

Deadman’s Hand and Pieces of Hate

I received these from the publisher at no cost; the first was a freebie with the second.

Deadman’s Hand

The scene: Deadwood. I have no idea whether this was actually a real town but it appears to have become That Place Where Westerns Happen. The plot: a bad man needs killin’. This bad man happens to be some sort of demon, or shapeshifter, or something, named Temple; the one to do the killing is Gabriel, who seems to have been hunting Temple for a long time.

My favourite part about this story is the narrator. He’s not an entirely convincing Watson, all naive and stuff, but he does provide a really interesting perspective on the clash of two basically inhuman forces. It means that we get to see Gabriel as genuinely hurt and and hurting, which emphasises his grit when he gets back up again to confront Temple. It also means that we see the consequences for this sort of clash happening in a relatively normal little town. It’s a town that’s seen its share of killings, but nonetheless their appearance has an impact; and it has an impact on our narrator on a personal level, too. All of that made the story that bit more approachable, where otherwise it would have felt quite divorced from possibilities of empathy.

Written well enough, fast paced.

Unknown.jpegPieces of Hate

I was expecting another with an uninvolved narrator. So when it turned out to be Gabriel himself, I was surprised and a little disappointed. I can see why Lebbon did this; this story, which certainly felt much longer than the first (not sure if it really was), gave Gabriel’s backstory and motivation for his quest to kill Temple. But I think that this could have been done in discussion with someone else, perhaps while on the voyage to Port Royal (the scene this time: en route to, and briefly in, Port Royal). That would have made it seem a bit less like Gabriel was moping around, and simultaneously wallowing in his fury and hate which were a little distasteful. I’m not saying he shouldn’t be angry for what happened, just that I got impatient and a little bored with all of the WOE FOR ME bits.

There was a lot going on in this story that didn’t involve the search for Temple. Some of it was showing Gabriel to be a bad-ass, which actually I didn’t need; it’s clear he is, and I think it would have been more impressive to have the clash between him and Temple show his chops, rather than killing maiming… well, not innocents, but not-Temple. Gabriel knows that he’s no saint and doesn’t claim to be, but it is hard to really be on the side of someone who is not-quite-as-bad-as the villain.

It wasn’t a bad story, although the pacing felt a bit off; I’m not sure I care enough to read the third in the series.

 

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