The author sent me a copy of this book at no cost. It comes out on December 1.
I read City of Lies last year, but I didn’t review it because it was for the Norma K Hemming Award, and reviewing when judging feels wrong. It should be noted that this is definitely a sequel – don’t come to it without the first book – and honestly that’s no hardship, since the first book is excellent and I highly recommend it.
In one sense, you could describe these books in a way that makes them seem like well-written but run of the mill secondary world stories: small country beset with difficulties, strange magic system not entirely approved by the powers that be, fights enemies. That would, however, be to entirely miss what makes this series (trilogy, I assume) stand out. The dual-protagonist structure does that: brother and sister, connected to power but not really wielding it, sharing narrative duty. But again, multiple perspectives isn’t all that unusual. Aspects of these siblings, though, is still highly unusual: she has what seems to be something like chronic fatigue, while he has anxiety and the sometimes-awkward coping mechanisms to deal with it. They’re often in the public eye and people sometimes look on these ‘conditions’ with a dubious eye. And they are also both entirely competent at their jobs (diplomacy, and poison-tester) and at managing their health… issues? complications? The two of them are immensely real and relatable, not defined by what others see as (potentially) disability and also not ignoring it. These two, Jovan and Kalina, make Poison Wars unusual and excellent.
Also excellent is the writing; Hawke conjures a fascinating world, with political and commercial intrigue, malice, and cooperation interlaced throughout the different countries and their interactions. Different societies have different belief systems and social mores, and navigating those is a big part of this second book, in particular, as Silasta recovers from its civil war and the problems revealed by that. Silasta must confront its own history, and oppressed people, while also being wary of external threats. I feel that there’s a particular nuance to a story touching on colonialism and empire when it’s written by an Australia (maybe this can also be true of other colonial settings, too, but I find it easiest to see in Australians). Hawke deals with the lived reality of this sort of situation for colonised and colonisers, and I (as a white Australian) think she does so well.
There is excitement here, given its focus on intrigue and discovering whether someone is indeed trying to kill the Chancellor; but there’s not a whole lot of set-piece battles, so if that’s what you’re after, you need to go elsewhere. I really like that the focus is on the people trying to stop an assassination, rather than perpetrate it; in general, the reader gets to be on the morally right side (or at least, I assume we are…) rather than cheering for a person actively trying to kill another, as in those stories focussed on the assassin themself!
Highly enjoyable; read the first book first; definitely one worth throwing yourself into.
This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available from November 10; RRP $32.99 for trade PB, $15.99 for ebook.
An important thing to know about me is that I am a very big Hans Rosling fan. I think the first thing I ever saw from him was his TED talk about the Magic Washing Machine – an example of how to think about poverty, and the spread of people in terms of income across the globe, and the difference that a washing machine makes to everyday life. And then there’s the greatest four minutes of stats you’ll ever see: 200 countries, 200 years, in 4 minutes (and 1948 was a great year). It highlights one of Rosling’s key points that he wants people to know: overall, the world has improved dramatically over the last two centuries. (With the caveat that he acknowledged profoundly in his first book, that many part of the world are better but still bad – like a premature baby in a NICU, who is still ill but better than previously.) And if you want to know just how much of a badass he was, watch this interview with a Danish journalist.
… so as you can imagine, when I learned that Rosling had written a memoir (with journalist Fanny Hargestam) in the year before he died (too young), I was very, very excited. His first book, Factfulness, co-written with his son and daughter-in-law (who worked with him at Gapminder) was mostly about the sorts of preconceived notions that impact on the way people view the world (like the Generalisation Instinct that makes us believe everyone in ‘that’ category – race, religion, gender – is exactly the same). Within it, though, were also all sorts of stories about Rosling’s own life – which was a fascinating one.
This is not a standard (auto)biography or even memoir. Rosling wasn’t writing it just to talk about himself, or even just to reflect on his own life, as far as I can tell. His purpose was to use his life and his experiences to teach readers about the world – hence the title. The man who started as a doctor, became a researcher and then a statistician was, in the end, a teacher. You can see that in his TED talks, and get a clear sense of it when he despairs about the lack of knowledge people have about the world. (Many people who take the Ignorance Survey over at Gapminder do worse, in Rosling’s words, than chimps – they at least would choose at random, whereas most people seem to have overwhelmingly negative views about the world.)
This book is amazing. Rosling’s life was amazing, and the writing is beautifully simple. He starts in Sweden, becoming a doctor; spends time in Mozambique as a doctor; investigates a debilitating illness there, and later a similar problem in Cuba; gets into research, and eventually into teaching, and develops the way of presenting stats that – with the bubble charts his son and daughter-in-law created – really made him famous. Which gets him to Davos, and speaking to people like Melinda Gates. (When Factfulness came out, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave a copy to every US college grad that year.) Rosling doesn’t shy away from personal details – some tragic, some wonderful. And he also doesn’t shy away from sharing the difficult, and sometimes bad, decisions that he made over his life. Everything he talks about is aimed at helping the reader to understand him for the sake of understanding how he made his decisions – and what that says about the world. One of the most difficult sections is when he talks about working in an under-resourced, under-staffed, hospital in Mozambique, post-independence. He has to make incredibly difficult decisions. And sometimes they have poor outcomes. Rosling doesn’t attempt to cover that up; it’s all in the context of understanding the world.
One of the great revelations of this book is Agneta Rosling, Hans’ wife. She seems an amazing woman – definitely a match for him. And let’s be honest, you’d have to be, because Hans comes across as one of those people it’s incredible to watch and listen to but would actually be difficult to live with. Agneta had her own career, and actively worked with Hans in some stages of their lives, and supported him – and was supported back.
I read this book very quickly, because it’s an easy read and I really wanted to know everything. There were moments, though, where I had to put it down: occasionally to stare at nothing and consider the world, occasionally to shed a tear, and sometimes to just breathe and let new knowledge settle. I don’t tend to read modern biographies; they usually bore me. This one, though, I will be praising to everyone for a long time. Highly, highly recommended.