He Who Drowned the World, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Read courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tor Books. It’s out in August 2023.
Vicious, and savage; heart-wrenching, distressing, stunning, and shocking; twisty, and relentless, and deeply powerful.
Pretty much what you’d expect after She Who Became The Sun, although possibly More. Just… more.
Do not read this without She Who Became the Sun. You definitely want to read She Who Became; and this will make no sense without that first book.
Zhu appears to be on her way to becoming emperor. There are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her way, but she’s already overcome several of those in her life so why should these be any different? Of course, you should be expecting the unexpected when it comes to Parker-Chan’s treatment of her characters: so there are unexpected alliances and betrayals, unexpected deaths and survivals, and overall an utterly relentless and at time frightening drive from Zhu to claim her destiny. The question is frequently asked: is it worth it? And I’m not so sure of the answer.
Something I really appreciated about this as a sequel is the fact that all of the main characters were set up in the first book. They are greatly enhanced here – in particular, Madam Zhang and General Zhang are given much greater space and, fittingly, Madam Zhang becomes a point of view character. The other opponents who had more characterisation in the first, especially Ouyang and Baoxiang, continue to develop and have their motivations and experiences explored. Of Zhu’s allies, Xu and Ma get some more space, but honestly it’s really all about the enemies.
My one neg is that just occasionally, it did feel like there was too much time spent on the pain and existential crises of some of the characters. Of course part of the point of the story is questioning the lengths to which someone will go to for revenge / to get what they believe they’re owed / and so on, and sometimes that has required them to do truly dreadful things. But a couple of times it felt like there was too much focus on the pain felt by some characters, such that it became a bit repetitive and nearly undercut the rawness and enormity of the emotion – because it was overstated.
However, overall this is another truly amazing book from Parker-Chan. I hate to say it but I can’t wait to see what they do next… and I only hate to say it because it must feel really weird, and slightly distressing, to try and follow up this epic duology.
Viking Women: life and lore, by Lisa Hannett
This is not a standard “here’s what we know about Viking women” book. Those exist, and Hannett acknowledges them, and now I’m all keen to go buy them.
It’s also not a “here’s a reworked set of sagas”, which of course also exist. I’m less excited about those, to be honest, not least because most of the new variations just keep on focusing on the dudes (as far as I can tell).
Hannett is both an academic and a writer of fiction, so this book brings together both in an intriguing and fascinating way. Each chapter generally takes one woman from the sagas (there’s one chapter with two women, and another with three), whom Hannett both explores as a character in her own right, and also uses as a way of illuminating what we know about women in their positions more broadly. And in chapter, Hannett also tells the story of that woman, from her saga. So the history and the fiction are intertwined such that each reinforces the other. Also, Hannett wants you to be under no illusions about the lives of Viking women: while in some respects they did have advantages over the general perception of ancient and medieval European women, they were still absolutely second class citizens (or worse, as slaves).
Hannett describes the way she approached the fictional parts as “reasonably, carefully, colour[ing] them in” – which I think perfectly encapsulates what she’s done. There’s really so little about the women in the stories that a pencil outline just about covers it. Doing both the fiction AND the history means that the reader sees the research – archaeological, literary, intertextual and so on – that informs the fiction, and then how the saga also helps us understand the experiences and realities of life for Viking women. It brings together Hannett’s strengths in a truly glorious way.
I particularly liked that Hannett focuses on ‘ordinary’ women. There’s no royalty (well, not AS royalty), and there’s no goddesses or other, otherworldly women. They are all women who could, actually, have lived – and several of them are documented in less literary sources, so they probably actually DID exist. And so there are enslaved women; there are wives, to men of varying levels of honour, with a variety of experiences; there are mothers with varying experiences of child-bearing. Women who are witches and nuns, women who wield power in a variety of ways; those whose lives were (in context) fairly easy, and others who experienced trauma and exceptional difficulty. So, the whole gamut of life.
This is a fantastic look at the experiences of Viking women, and nicely situates the Icelandic sagas in history and literature. You do not need any background in Vikings to appreciate this.
Thornhedge, by T Kingfisher
Read courtesy of the publisher, Tor, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.
Sleeping Beauty, but make it WAY more complicated.
I pretty much love everything I’ve read by T Kingfisher, so it’s a no-brainer that I would want to read this novella; I don’t think I even read the blurb before requesting it. And I have no regrets, having just read it in a sitting (it’s under 100 pages, so not THAT extreme).
Toadling has been sitting behind, and sometimes within, a hedge of thorns and brambles for centuries. She’s despaired of knights and adventurous boys coming along with axes to try and cut down the hedge, because she really doesn’t want them to. One day, when it’s been a long time since anyone approached the hedge, Halim camps outside the wall… and she ends up speaking with him.
Toadling is not who you think she is, and this story is not what you might expect. It’s wondrous and twisty and a bit heart-wrenching, and all in all a really great story. I love Toadling and I will not look at Sleeping Beauty the same way again.
The Water Outlaws, SL Huang
I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom, and NetGalley. It’s out in August 2023.
I don’t know the original, Water Margin, of which this is a “genderspun retelling”, so I can’t say where Huang is riffing or inventing wholesale. But I can say that this is an epic, fabulous, fascinating and hugely enjoyable story.
Also, all you aspiring writers who look to Robert Jordan or GRRM? Look here instead. This could easily have been spun out as a trilogy. In terms of plot, it wouldn’t even have been that hard. (In terms of writing – that’s a different question.) Instead, Huang has written a concise story that doesn’t even FEEL concise – it feels sprawling in the best possible way. It’s well under 500 pages but has lazy, reflective moments; multiple points of view; a series of adventures; and an appropriately climactic conclusion.
The primary narrator is Lin Chong, a woman who has become a Master Arms Instructor of the Imperial Guard – an achievement that’s not quite unique, but certainly makes her notable. Through no fault of her own, things go wrong for her, and she is left to make choices that she really doesn’t want to.
Another narrator is Lu Junyi, described in the Dramatis Personae as a “wealthy socialite and intellectual” – she holds salons and owns a printing press, so you get the idea. She, too, experiences some unexpected events, and is also left with unsavoury choices.
And then there’s Cai Jing. Chancellor of the Secretariat, second only to the Emperor, and really deeply unpleasant. Having his point of view was a truly intriguing choice from Huang; maybe it was something from the original story she chose to keep. It certainly adds to the experience of the story, and problematises some aspects. At the same time, his attitudes and actions reinforced the conclusions I came to about the government of this society.
Finally, although they’re not given POVs, the majority of the cast are the bandits of Liangshin. Drawn together through adversity, luck, a lack of options, and sometimes deliberate action, they’re something of a Merry Men of Sherwood – but mostly women and genderqueer, with even more dubious backgrounds in the main. I loved almost every single one of them.
And the story? Revenge, the struggle against oppression, preventing bad things from happening, etc. Spikes of climax before the final denouement, challenges and resolution along the way – it’s well paced: not a cliff-hanging page-turner every chapter, but with a momentum that meant I always wanted to keep reading. There’s ghosts, and weird tech-or-is-it-magic, and oh-that’s-more-like-magic, thus sliding into the sf/fantasy genre – it’s not quite ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ but it’s very much not the focus of the narrative, although integral to it.
The Author’s Note reflects on the fact that this is “intentionally, gloriously violent”, and that’s true – but it’s not every page, and it’s not gratuitous in the “can I make a reader feel really ill” way.