Merry Happy Valkyrie
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a Scrooge, although others might; I don’t put up Christmas decorations, I don’t wear baubles for earrings, I don’t watch Christmas movies (ok, Alisa made me watch Christmas Chronicles, but IT STARS KURT RUSSELL so it doesn’t count).
I don’t deliberately go and read Christmas stories. But this is a Tansy story, and I’d heard it played with some jokes about Tasmania and weather, so I figured I’d give it a go.
(I guess I should say that both Tansy and the publisher are friends of mine… but if I didn’t like it, I just wouldn’t say anything….)
Lief is a weather reporter, and lives in Hobart, but her hometown is Matilda – where it always snows at Christmas. Now, for the non-Australians, this is hilarious. Australian weather is always a bit unpredictable, especially in Tasmania, but the idea of guaranteed snow in December is outrageous. It has been known to snow in the hills near Melbourne, for instance, on Christmas Day… but the next year it was in the mid-30s C. Tasmania is more ridiculous (from 38C to snow in 5 days in January, and that’s just what I – as a visitor – have experienced)… but the idea of confidently predicting snow, in December? Uh, no.
Anyway, this is understandably intriguing, but less understandably hasn’t been closely reported on. Until now, when Lief is forced to go home for Christmas with a far-too-bubbly camerawoman in tow. Matilda doesn’t like visitors: there are far too many secrets that need to be kept. And when there’s not one but a whole truckload of strangers, and then weird things start happening – like earthquakes – clearly things are going to get real.
This is a very fun, and very enjoyable, and very intriguing, novella. It’s written in that Tansy style that means there’s a lot of banter and snark, some surprising description that really works, and at a brisk pace that means there’s no time for dawdling HURRY UP. Thoroughly enjoyable, and not just a Christmastime read.
Miranda in Milan
This novel (novella?) was sent to me to review by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be out on 26 March, 2019.
Aside from King Lear, which I loathe, I probably dislike The Tempest more than any other Shakespeare play. I don’t know why; there’s nothing particular I can pinpoint. But I really, really dislike it.
It turns out, though, that stories of Miranda after the play are stories I can really get behind. So maybe this is part of the problem: in the play, I think Miranda is just a bit nothing. But For Meadows’ Coral Bones made me swoon for joy, and now Katharine Duckett’s Miranda in Milan similarly plays with the aftermath of Miranda’s return from the island – in a very different way from Meadows, but equally dealing with some of the issues that a young woman with such an upbringing might need to confront.
Here, Miranda is returned to Milan, and basically confined to the room – she’s only allowed out when wearing a veil, which she loathes. Her father is off reestablishing himself as duke, Ferdinand is in Naples, and she has no friends. Until suddenly she does develop a friendship, and she begins to discover some of what’s gone on in Milan that led to Prospero’s banishment – and, by extension, her own.
Nicola Griffith’s blurb is (unsurprisingly) apt: “Love and lust, mothers and monsters, magicians and masked balls…”. That’s about it. What is love and how do you know it, what makes a monster, and can magicians be trusted… Duckett writes about these things, and does it quite beautifully.
Sorry you have to wait til March to read it.
The Fated Sky
Don’t be like me: if you think you might like to read The Calculating Stars, just buy this at the same time. Because otherwise you’ll get to the end of the first and you’ll be forced to cry NOOOO and shake your first at the sky because you can’t go immediately on to this.
Trust me on this. (Also I can’t believe I didn’t review Stars when I read it. Oops.)
Elma York is a scientist and a pilot. There’s a dreadful catastrophe on Earth in 1952, and from that point history is different from our history, because humanity’s attempts to get to space happen much, much faster, from necessity rather than hubris or curiosity.
York is female, and Jewish. It’s the female bit that leads to most of her personal difficulties; it seems to me that Kowal pulls no punches when it comes to laying out the sexism of the 1950s and 60s. I often found it distressing to read about. And it’s not only that which is distressing. There’s also the racism: York herself, while not actively racist, is complicit in the systemic racism of her time because so often she simply isn’t aware of the experiences of the not-white folks around her. And her attempts to ‘help’ are often blundering. I do like that Kowal shows York learning from her mistakes – sometimes because she is actively shown what she has done, or what society has done; sometimes she thinks her way there personally. She’s certainly never perfect, though – she’s a product of her times.
And then, in terms of things that can be hard to read about, York also suffers from anxiety. Although I do not myself suffer from it, it was reading about this that perhaps affected me most. The way it physically affects her, and the way those around her react, and the reasons for it existing or being exacerbated. Kowal writes about it exquisitely (said the person for whom it is largely unfamiliar, so take that into account).
I really feel like these books are perfect for 2018.
I don’t want to spoil either book, so I won’t go into much detail of the plot, but of course humanity’s efforts to reach space and work there are more successful in the books than in real life; otherwise there wouldn’t be two books (AND, so excite, at least two more planned!!) about it. But it’s fair to say that there is no plain sailing – which is as you would expect from Kowal, frankly, and indeed from any early-space-reaching novel attempting verisimilitude.
I love these books with a great passion. They tore at my heart, and made me angry for the way people are stupid for stupid reasons; they made me happy for the fact that there are good people, too, striving to do what is right and sometimes failing but also keeping on going, often in the face of terrible opposition. I love Kowal’s writing and I love the pacing of these stories and I cannot, cannot wait to read more set in this world.
Summer in Orcus
When I was looking through my ebooks and came across this one, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I acquired it. Looking at the cover I thought it might be connected to Kathleen Jennings, but turns out it’s not her art – just similar. Then eventually I realised that it came in the Hugo packet, and I had run out of time to read it before voting was complete.
T. Kingfisher is, I discovered, a nomme de plume of Ursula Vernon. I’ve read some of Vernon’s short stories, but not enough to really have a sense of what her work is like. So I had no idea what I was getting myself in for with this story.
The answer is: whimsy, and delight.
Firstly, Summer is the main character, and that’s delightful. Secondly, she has a painful childhood, because her mother is needy and overly protective. I find this quite fascinating as a way of thinking about a parent in a fairytale-is story. Not absent, not careless, not hardhearted; but the sort of parent who makes their child feel bad for wanting independence, who needs constant reassurance, and who peculiarly demand their child to be more like the adult, offering comfort. So that’s an intriguing aspect that’s introduced immediately. Which is also something I like – this is aimed, I guess, at what Americans call ‘middle grade’ readers; Summer is 12 – and so there is little beating about the bush. The story proceeds at what would be well called a brisk pace. Indeed, and thirdly, Summer has met Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house within three pages and is off on her adventure in Orcus in chapter 3, to find her heart’s desire. Summer’s not quite sure what her heart’s desire is, but assumes she’ll know it when she finds it.
Also, she has a talking weasel to accompany her.
I told you there was whimsy.
So there are talking animals and dryads and a land that’s kind of falling apart, dandy-ish birds and terrifying fortune-telling cheeses. People who are actively trying to destroy things and a wolf that’s not just a wolf, and Summer reflecting on whether her experience in Orcus will be like an experience in Narnia. And an antelope woman.
I loved it. A lot. Kingfisher’s prose is delightful, the characters are varied and only Reginald, the dandy bird, is faintly ridiculous. While it initially seems like it might be a relatively standard portal fantasy (which would have been fine), it reminded me more of Catherynne M Valente’s Fairyland books in their self-awareness than anything else. It’s also not completely standard in the way that Summer’s quest pans out, but no way am I spoiling that. Suffice to say it left me musing.
I really enjoyed the character interactions, and the places Summer visits. I liked that Summer wasn’t always sure what to do but that she was a resourceful and sensible girl – and sometimes that meant being quite scared, as was appropriate in some of the circumstances she found herself in. She deserves to have lots of people read about her adventures.
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
I have never read a Robin McKinley book before. I gather, from looking around, that this might be a slightly scandalous announcement? At any rate, that’s the case. I have a feeling that I got this, and The Hero and the Crown, from a Humble Bundle or similar. It’s not something I would have bought off my own bat.
This is fairly straightforward retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It goes into a substantial amount of background for Beauty’s family, which I really enjoyed – the discussion of the family, and their changing circumstances, was a perfectly delightful story all by itself. Because here’s the thing: even though it’s a standard retelling of the fairytale, insofar as that bit goes (and I recently read Angela Carter’s version, which WHOA), what makes this stand out is McKinley’s fabulous prose. Reading her work is utterly effortless, and a joy. I love her descriptions and I enjoy her dialogue and the characters are delightful. Beauty has two older sisters – and they’re distinct from one another, and although they’re not the centre of the story I still know them and care about them. Her father is a bit more distant, which makes sense as it’s Beauty’s perspective we get. And Beauty herself is wonderful: not entirely content with herself and her life, for various reasons, but also devoted to her family and doing what is necessary, generally happily. Her conflict in staying with the Beast is presented clearly, with duty meeting fear and so on…
This is not a fractured fairy tale nor a complete reimagining. It’s a story that takes a well known story and makes it more rounded, and presents it wrapped in lovely words.
Making the Monster
This was the second book in my birthday haul from my mother this year. The first was… not as good as I had hoped. Happily, this did not fall into the same trap.
The idea behind Harkup’s book is to look into the science that was happening around the time of Shelley writing Frankenstein, to explore what ideas influenced her. I was slightly concerned that this could go down the route that Russ identifies of suggesting Shelley was nothing but a conduit for the ideas of the time, but she does nothing of the sort. She does look into what sorts of things Shelley’s husband, father and friends were into, but only to suggest that this is how Shelley herself could have found out about these things: with Percy interested in electricity, for instance, it makes sense that they may have talked about some of the ideas being discussed by scientists, and so on. So I was relieved that this book is very much about how Mary Shelley herself knew what she did, and how she might have accessed knowledge of galvanism and resurrectionists and all of those other things that are so vital to the development of this story of the modern Prometheus.
As well as being an investigation into the science of the early 19th century, this almost inevitably also becomes a biography of Shelley – where she was when, who she encountered, how different places gave her access to ideas or inspiration, and so on. There’s also a discussion of how popular culture has dealt with the story, and the ways that film versions in particular have percolated through the popular Western mindset – and how these are often quite different from Shelley’s actual story.
Electricity, preservation of flesh after death, skin grafts, the circulatory system, evolutionary theory, blood transfusions, batteries… all of these things were being discussed in the early part of the 19th century and had an impact on Shelley’s writing. This is a fascinating introduction to the science of this period as well as being a fascinating way of thinking about Frankenstein. Harkup also does justice to Frankenstein as a way of interrogating science, and scientists.
I don’t adore Frankenstein – I’ve only read it once – but I really enjoyed this historical context.