Tag Archives: fantasy

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

Buried Memories, Simon R Green

I received this via NetGalley.

I have not read any of the previous Ishmael Jones books; the NetGalley description doesn’t make it clear that this is part of a series. However, I am a long-time fan of Simon R Green, and as with many of his other books he provided enough background – without it being a massive info-dump – that I was able to carry on my merry way and enjoy the book regardless.

Ishmael Jones arrived on Earth in 1963; his dying spaceship turned the sole survivor into a human and wiped his memory of what had come before. Over the next few decades – covered, I assume, in the books I haven’t read – Jones has both tried to hide his identity from nefarious groups who would like to exploit aliens/their technology, and also investigated mysteries himself – because Simon R Green never missed an opportunity to do clever things with mysteries and whodunnits. In this narrative, Jones has realised he was not, in fact, the only survivor of his crash, and he’s going back to where it all started to try and get some resolution.

There’s banter, a spooky rural English village, murders, twists and turns and double-crosses, and ultimately a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Also, any book that opens with “Call me Ishmael” (except for the original) is going to get an appreciative eye-roll from me.

This was fun. Fans of Simon R Green know what they’re getting. Possibly not the place for those new to Green to begin their adventures (I would say that’s the Nightside books; the Blue Moon stories are a different kettle again).

Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee

I received this to review via NetGalley.

I haven’t felt especially like reading big fantasy, or dragon fantasy, for quite a while now. Even when the author was Yoon Ha Lee, whose Machineries of Empire I love exorbitantly, I just thought… nah.

More fool me. Lucky that books don’t disappear forever, and that I have now been able to read this.

Jebi is an artist. All they want to do is make art. They apply for a position as an artist within the Ministry of Art, which will mean art but also working for the conquerors of their nation. When they fail to get that position, they must find an alternative option if they want to keep eating… and this leads to twists and turns they never expected, discovering friends and enemies and further difficulties of life in a conquered land.

This is set in a secondary world but it seems to me that Jebi’s home is analogous to Korea, with Japan as the conqueror, although it’s not a direct parallel. There’s magic, usually fairly low key and initially I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be ‘just’ superstition (later events show not). There’s also technology, sometimes working in tandem with the magic, as with the automata that seem like golems to my largely European trained eye; I don’t know if there’s a Korean or other Asian analogue. There’s tanks and guns but electricity is unevenly distributed – it’s a really interesting look at a world with unevenly distributed technology.… like our actual world. It’s also, as already implied, a deeply interesting take on the issue of colonialism and empire and collaboration and compromise and I really, really loved that aspect.

Brilliant. Hugely enjoyable.

A Master of Djinn

Fatma: an Egyptian woman dressing in smart (dapper, even) Englishman’s suits; a woman in the still male-dominated world of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities; someone with the tenacity, determination, and bull-headedness that characterises the best (fictional, I suspect) investigative types. I love her madly.

Fatma lives in an alternative Cairo: it’s 1912 and thanks to a man living several decades earlier, djinn and other such ‘supernatural entities’ walk the streets not only of Egypt but elsewhere in the world. They’ve added art and craft and technology, as well as opportunities for crime and political scheming to the world. Egypt has become the sort of world player that it didn’t manage until probably the 1950s in our world (thanks to imperialism etc). And I love this, too: I love Clark’s evocative descriptions of Cairo – by which I do not mean that it’s all “exotic” or whatever; I mean that his descriptions bring the streets and palaces and people to life in the ways that the best literature does.

Everything about this novel is marvellous. I love the characters; I love the setting. I love the exploration of how humans might interact with the supernatural when it becomes basically mundane, and I love the police investigation aspect (a lot). I love that it’s set in Egypt and deals sensibly, sometimes snarkily, with the imperialism issues that would still have been present despite the magical changes (the patronising ‘exotic’ comments from the white mouths are just… so on point). I love the language and the pacing and the revealing of important clues and… Look. Everyone should read this.

Wendy, Darling

I received this book via NetGalley.

Jean Rhys gave me the story of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, in Wide Sargasso Sea. Seanan McGuire made me consider what happens to children when they come home from their otherworld adventures. AC Wise gives me the story of Wendy, and what happens after Neverland, and the reality about Peter Pan.

Peter Pan is an awful person.

(I should note that it’s well more than 20 years since I read Peter Pan, so it’s possible that I’ve missed some of the more subtle and clever nuances that Wise brings to the story. (And to be honest when Hook was mentioned, my brain immediately went to Dustin Hoffman…). Clearly, though, this is not a problem for appreciating the novel, Whether it would be as thoroughly appreciated with zero knowledge of the original is unclear; I suspect it would be fine, given the depth of story about Wendy as a human, but some of the references might be a bit weird.)

Wendy, Darling presents its story over a few different timelines: Wendy in Neverland. Wendy after World War 1, when she is committed – by her brothers – to an asylum. Wendy married, and a mother. And the story of Jane, Wendy’s daughter… I think you can guess what happens to Jane.

This book is amazing. This book is compulsive reading (I read it in 24 hours, and it only took that long because ugh, life). This book is sharp and piercing and reflects on a whole lot of the issues that the (white, patriarchal) world has come aware of since Barrie wrote his original. (Uh, hi there Tiger Lily….) And this book balances being well-paced and driven by action in some parts, with being deeply reflective and thoughtful in other parts. You know how sometimes you get to a different timeline in a story and you’re all “get on with it! get back to the other bit!”? That never happened here.

It’s about memory, and family, and loss, and compromise, and fidelity. The pain and the joy of growing up, the complexity of relationships, how much we can hurt the ones we love and how we can make our own families. And the fierce, wonderful, difficulty of life.

I just love it. Everyone should read it. It should be nominated for all the awards.

In the Watchful City

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This… is a really hard book to write a review on.

I could just say it’s amazing, but that doesn’t give you much sense of, well, anything.

I could just say it’s a book you have to experience to appreciate but… that’s so deeply a cop-out I can’t even.

So. Let’s try this.

Characters? Varied and intriguing and even though you’re with most of them for such a short period of time, I felt emotionally connected to pretty much all of them. I’m pretty stony-hearted so that’s saying a lot. Gender diverse (two, I think, non-standard pronouns), very little physical description so imagine what you like of skin colour etc (aspects of Chinese-based world-building like references to foot binding had some impact on my imagination).

World-building? One of those instances where there are so many little moments where something is mentioned and I’m like “wait WAIT what? You need to explain that more!” and the author just ignores me (unsurprisingly) and although I don’t fully understand some idea (which might be my lack of cultural context or it might be deliberate), it turns out actually I don’t need those details to fully experience the world and the story. Having said that, by the end of the story I had a lot of tantalising detail that gave me a very full sense of the world – far more full than might be expected from a fairly short story, and especially one that’s not entirely linear.

Plot? There’s one main one – Anima lives in Ora, and works basically as part of a surveillance system, designed to keep citizens safe. Anima meets someone very unexpected, as well as experiencing tragedy. But along with that, there are additional stories, told to Anima via representative objects… and I loved Anima but maybe I loved the stories more? Some involve great loss and some involve victory and they all help to develop a sense of the world in which all of this is taking place.

It’s SF and it’s fantasy. The writing is gorgeous. It’s utterly absorbing. It’s going on my list of things to nominate for awards next year.

The Best Thing you can steal

I received this book from the publisher at no cost, via NetGalley.

If you have read any of Simon R Green’s Nightsider books, or his Hawk and Fisher, then you already have a sense of what this book is like. Whether you enjoy that or not is a different matter – Green has a definite style, and it’s on display here. (There’s a level to which it’s true of the Deathstalker books, too, although they have a whole other thing going on as well.)

Green’s style happens to work very well for me, as a rule, now that I know what to expect. Witty banter, cheerful playing with tropes, a courteous if shallow nod to the notion of substance, with a narrative that’s mostly flash and style in a “I’m fabulous and loving it” way. It’s not quite textual candy floss – there’s a bit more substance than that – but maybe it’s… candied peanuts. Tasty, some nutrition, pretty sweet, and even I can’t eat toooo many of them at a time. But I love it when I do have them. (And some people hate them.)

This book is a heist story and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Characters literally call it a heist and the section headings do too. So you know what you’re getting, and it delivers. The first part, therefore, is getting the team together, which is often my favourite part of such stories. Our narrator is now called Gideon Sable – we don’t know who he used to be. His first recruit is Annie Anybody, master of disguise (who, I now realise, is therefore much like Face in the A-Team) who is also Sable’s ex, which of course is going to lead to some tension. Then there’s a Ghost – who is actually a ghost; the Damned (… who, I now realise, is something like BA… in the A-Team…), who is damned for a dreadful misdeed but is spending his remaining time on earth killing bad people just to stick it to Hell; and Johnny Wilde (…who is… a lot… like Murdoch…), aka the Wild Card, who does terrifying things to reality.

(I’ll just stop here and think about the A-Team similarity. Sable doesn’t smoke a cigar and there’s no tanks; I don’t think this is actually deliberate. It’s just that those tropes – disguise, muscle, the spanner in the works – are exactly that; tropes, and useful ones at that.)

Team gets together, team plans heist, team attempts heist, hijinks ensue. The fun thing with a relatively standard narrative is knowing what to expect, AND the ways the author gets to spin expectations – and with Green, have fun and do ridiculous things along the way. Because, as this is Green, it is of course no ordinary setting: this is the magical side of London (a well-traveled path, I know), which means objects that defy reality and people with terrifying abilities and a ball point pen that can stop time (only briefly though).

This is a fun book. At times silly, always fast-paced, it’s also short at about 160 pages in my e-copy – so there’s no mucking around.

Across the Green Grass Fields

I have loved every book of the Wayward Children series to date. Some more (Down Among the Sticks and Bones), some a bit less (In An Absent Dream), but all together they’re just… a marvellous addition to my literary world.

Across the Green Grass Fields continues this. It’s not what I expected: it’s a standalone story, certainly fitting into the overall idea of the series but not into the narrative structure – there are no familiar characters or settings, although I hope they will recur. So that was a surprise, but also I shouldn’t have been that surprised at McGuire doing something different. It also means that a reader who hasn’t come across the series before can read it with no hesitation.

As a girl, I was convinced that the girl-world was largely divided between the horse-girls and the dolphin-girls. Neither was necessarily better, but it felt like they were distinct groups. (I was a dolphin-girl. Ask me how bitter I was to discover that marine biologists spend most of their time looking at plankton, not swimming with cetaceans.) Regan Lewis is a horse-girl, through and through. She loves horses more than she likes most people. She’s happy when she’s with them. Which is good, because like many girls she has to deal with unhappiness when she’s around so-called friends.

Reading that part of the story was a bit uncomfortable. I didn’t experience the total drama and tragedy that Regan does, but aspects were definitely familiar from my childhood, and I’m not at all interested in going back there thankyouverymuch. Anyone who says your school days are the best days is a liar or has a very bad memory. Or possibly a very lucky boy.

This is a Wayward Children story. I knew Regan would eventually find herself confronted with a door, and she would go through that door, and there would be an astonishing world on the other side. Given Regan’s passions, it’s unsurprising that her world is the Hooflands. Every mythological creature you can think of with variations of hooves: they live there. And everyone in Hooflands knows what humans are for…

One of the things that always makes McGuire’s writing powerful is the way she writes about “diverse characters”, and look I feel stupid even pointing to this because it should just be obvious that people with a variety of genders/ physical appearances/ sexualities/ etc etc etc should be represented in fiction, and presented as humans, but of course that’s still not the case. So knowing that McGuire does do that, and treats all of her protagonists the same, is refreshing.

This was not quite what I was expecting – I hadn’t realised it would be so standalone. I might have been a little less eager had I known that, to be honest. But it’s still a Wayward Children story: it’s beautifully written, it’s an engaging narrative, and the characters are ones I want to keep coming back to.

Hollow Empire

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.

The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more. In theory, the ideas are all great: mermaids as an extension of the Sea; the Sea as a larger-than-humans entity with real awareness; witches who tell stories; pirates; a feisty young noblewoman; genderfluid characters and multiple races and discussion of imperialism and colonialism!

Sadly, the execution does not quite match the ambition.

It felt like there were too many ellipses. Too many gaps where it seemed like the author skipped a step in the narrative – it was in her head but it didn’t make it to paper. I’m pretty sure there was at least one mention of the storm having passed, with no prior mention of the storm. And this applied to some of the characters and relationships, too. Evelyn and Flora are both pretty well-developed characters, but their relationship really isn’t. Mermaids are explained – how they exist – and this is probably my favourite part of the whole book; but witches aren’t, nor how their magic works (is it innate? can anyone learn? no idea).

Moving between Evelyn and Flora as POV characters was fine – it made the narrative much more interesting than just one perspective, given the context. But all of a sudden introducing new perspectives quite late in the story was just weird, and put me quite off balance; and not in a good way. One of them made sense, narratively; it could have been added much earlier and would have added interesting complexity to the whole thing. The other, though, felt utterly superfluous.

On a positive note, the issues brought up in the story are dealt with well, and that’s something I was impressed by. This is a world dominated by a Japanese-influenced culture (kimonos, etc); they have largely taken over the known world (this is another problem: there are these portentous ‘oooh, the Red Shore‘ comments, without much explanation of what that place is). The brutality of colonisation and imperialism are bluntly on display and are an essential part of the world – not gratuitously, but as reality.

Excellent ideas; I was engaged enough that I kept reading the whole thing; ultimately, not very satisfying.