Tag Archives: fantasy

Flyaway

Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.

Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.

All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.

Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.

There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.

Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.

And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…

I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.

The Space between Worlds

This book was sent to me by the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s due out on August 11; RRP $32.99 (trade paperback).

This is a debut novel – which doesn’t mean Johnson has never written a novel before, of course, just that this is the first one to be published. And it’s pretty great.

It is unclear to me exactly when this is set; some time in the future, but not unimaginably so. It’s also unclear where this is set – I just assume it’s meant to be America because as an Australian, I assume most novels are set in America unless they’re evidently in the UK somewhere. (Realising the setting is Australia, or somewhere other than the US or UK, is often a very surprising moment, unless I’ve gone in knowing the story is deliberately set in, say, Nigeria.)

Anyway. Both the when and the where are basically irrelevant to the story, because the most important where is that most of the action is on Earth Zero. This is a world where not only have parallel universes been discovered to be real, but someone has discovered how a person can travel between them.

These sorts of stories have happened before (says the fan of Fringe) but the particularly clever thing that Johnson does is the caveat that you can only survive traveling to a world where your dop (doppelgänger) is dead.

Barring unfortunate accidents, you know who makes the most valuable traversers, therefore? who are the people able to access the most worlds? It’s the people whose survival to adulthood is unlikely. For wealth, ethnic, gender, location, and other systemic reasons. Those who grow up in areas with a lot of violence. Those from families or suburbs or countries with widespread violence. Those who, in the general course of a capitalist world, are seen to have little real value.

This is a brilliant twist, and I love it. And I also love that Johnson doesn’t present this as meaning that those people suddenly get great lives. Instead, the protagonist – Cara – is always aware of the fact that she could be replaced by robots when that tech works; that the people who were born in the nice town, as opposed to where she grew up (very much not-the-nice town), look down on her or fear her. Her existence is precarious despite her value to the company.

So partly the narrative is about Cara and her navigation of the two worlds – the rich and the poor, in brutal essence – that she straddles. It’s also, of course, about literally moving between worlds, and seeing how different choices have led to different outcomes – on a societal level or an individual one. Unsurprisingly Cara ends up being more involved in one of these other worlds than is appropriate by company standards, and that has knock-on effects for that world as well as her own, which is the bulk of the story.

The novel has little interest in explaining how moving between the worlds works; the science and technology are irrelevant to the story. Instead, Johnson is interested in the people: what secrets are kept and why; how relationships work; why certain decisions are made, and how they change human interactions. I enjoyed this focus a lot.

One aspect didn’t quite work for me; there’s an undercurrent of science v religion, especially in the way that Cara talks about the experience of moving between worlds – as a goddess allowing her to do so. I didn’t feel like this really fit the rest of the story. However, this does not detract from the rest of the story; it just felt undeveloped, like there could have been a bit more discussion of the possible mysticism of moving between worlds; it’s just not there as much as I think I expected.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and I hope that Johnson is able to write many more in a similar vein.

Middlegame

Received as part of the Hugo packet for 2020; Middlegame is up for Best Novel.

When a book is written with just enough information that I get a sense of where the plot’s going, and/or when the book is written beautifully, and I trust the author: then I really love a non-linear tale. This is not as non-linear as something like Kameron Hurley’s Light Brigade but it’s not exactly straightforward. I had absolutely no idea what it was about before charging on in, and that was quite a fun way to do it actually.

Alchemy in the 20th century; attempts to make universal forces incarnate in human children; somewhat gruesome violence, because the people doing the former two things are immoral and ruthless. Our central evil alchemist wants particularly to incarnate the ‘Doctrine of Ethos’, in two people – twins: one will be language, and the other will be maths. Which… there’s a lot in that. And the idea is that essentially those people will BE those things… eventually. When they are fully embodied.

Some of the novel is about the alchemists and their dastardly actions and what they want to achieve. Much of the novel, though, is about Roger and Dodger (yes there’s a reason for the names), and them growing up and how they interact with each other – or not. McGuire has said that it’s like a superhero origin story, which I can see; it’s a bildungsroman. How do you cope when you’re solving impossible maths problems at 9? When there’s a voice in your head that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be there? And that’s on top of everything else about being a kid and being adopted and being a smart kid. Don’t even get me started about being a smart girl-kid whose smarts are in maths.

McGuire has said it took her a decade to get to the point where she felt capable of doing this story justice, and I can appreciate that. I’ve only read her InCryptid and Wayward Children series, which I adore – but they’re not as narratively complex as this, and I don’t get the sense that Toby Daye or the various Mira books are, either. To be able to hold all of what’s happening here in your head and make it actually make sense on paper would have to require a lot of work. And I think the prose is more wonderful, too. This is not to say that the other books are poorly written – not at all. This is more like Wayward Children than InCrytpid because that’s what the story calls for. There’s a… mythic? not-21st-century, perhaps more formal or timeless, feel to this story than the F1-paced InCrytpids.

The thing I really don’t get is why the Hand of Glory was chosen for the cover. Yes they make several appearances, but I wouldn’t have said that they are symbolic of the plot or even that they’re especially central to the narrative. It is, in fact, one reason why I hadn’t read the book before now; the cover really didn’t appeal – and when there are so many other books in the world, covers do actually make a difference sometimes.

I really enjoyed this. However, it’s up against Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire, and Light Brigade, and that’s just horrific competition.

By Force Alone

I have a long and increasingly cynical relationship with King Arthur, and all the stories around him. I read a fair bit of it as an adolescent – I even did subjects at uni about the mythology and so on. But as sometimes happens, I got cynical and impatient as I got old, and I haven’t read much new Arthur stuff in a long time.

I did re-read Susan Cooper recently, which was an excellent choice and is a bit more left-field than other Arthuriana so doesn’t really count. (Also, not new to me.)

UnknownAnd then a friend started raving about this book and while he’s not prone to hyperbole I was a bit like… really? That good? But I was intrigued and so I bought it and…

By golly.

I’m not sure I can read another Arthur book ever.

This is it. This is everything.

Tidhar knows Arthuriana intimately. He’s referencing medieval romances. I’m pretty sure there are Mists of Avalon references, and Sword in the Stone. There’s the grail, sure, and the Green Knight, which is obscure but not that obscure… but there’s also the Questing Beast, and… and… yeh. So this is in no way someone coming in and thinking they’re reinventing Arthur (which has been done, and oh so badly). This is someone who knows Arthuriana deeply.

The thing I kept thinking of when reading this was A Knight’s Tale, that Heath Ledger break-out film. It used modern(ish) rock music in order to make the point about how people in the 14th century (the time of Chaucer) would have perceived music that 20th century ears hear as weird and ‘old’, and it used utterly modern language. By Force Alone is simultaneously utterly set in the 5th or 6th century – the Romans are gone, Britain is a by-water and non-existent in political terms, the Anglo-Saxons are coming (ignore the historical reality here) – but feels in some ways very 21st century: Arthur screaming ‘Come at me if you’re hard enough!’ Bully boys in London who want to be knighted, talking about being ‘made men’. Picts on the northern border being vicious.

Everyone, actually, being vicious.

This is a vicious book. There is no gallantry. There is no courtly love – which is right because the notion wasn’t really a thing until at least the 12th century and then honestly becomes part of nostalgia basically the next day. There is no honour except for what you can get; kings hold power by force alone; Galahad gets him nickname for quite, um, different reasons from how it’s usually told.

This book left me dazed. It starts with Vortigern and ends where every Arthur story ends. It covers so much at a break-neck speed that honestly it’s all you can do to hold on and see where this beast is going to end up. But it’s all completely controlled and Tidhar knows exactly what he’s doing. And what he’s doing is amazing. He’s setting a monumental myth in context, and exposing some of the nasty underbelly of nationalism and the Matter of Britain, as well as writing intriguing characters out of characters who are just so well known (what he did with Lancelot was… unexpected, and I’m curious to chase up whether it was based on stories I don’t remember or know; the Green Knight was the most amusingly outrageous). And he keeps the fantastical nature of Merlin and Morgan and makes that part of Britain itself… but in such a way it almost feels realistic. Almost.

This book is incredible.

 

Gender Identity and Sexuality…

Unknown.jpegin Current Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I picked up this little anthology at Helsinki’s WorldCon, from Luna Press. I’d not heard of them before but I was and remain intrigued by their doing these non-fiction anthologies.

Yes, Helsinki was two years ago. Yes, I just got around to reading it.

As the name suggests, the essays deal with both issues of gender and of sexuality, primarily in fiction but also – and I loved it – in an analysis by Juliet E McKenna on the place of female-identifying authors across time in the publishing world. “The Myth of Meritocracy and the Reality of the Leaky Pipe and other obstacles in Science Fiction and Fantasy” made me think of Joanna Russ (as do so many of these sorts of conversations) and is well researched, persuasively argued, and did not – surprise! – leave me feeling completely hopeless. It’s a fascinating way to open the anthology.

Some of the essays meant more to me than others because in some I am familiar with the  material, and with others less so. Kim Lakin-Smith’s “Doll Parts: Reflections of the Feminine Grotesque in France Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline,” for instance, was truly fascinating but I couldn’t feel it as deeply as I might because I’ve not read either of the works (the Hardinge exactly because it’s billed as being horror). And it turns out I am even less up to date with fantasy than I thought, because AJ Dalton’s “Gender-identity and sexuality in current sub-genres of British fantasy literature: do we have a problem?” referenced sub-genres and authors I’ve not heard of. The essay itself was very interesting, don’t get me wrong, but I was unable to reflect on it meaningfully.

Of course, some essays I had little problem accessing. Both Jyrki Korea’s “What about Tauriel? From divine mothers to active heroines – the female roles in JRR Tolkien’s Legendarium and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations” and Alina Hadîmbu’s “Newly added female chapters to blockbuster franchises: gender balancing in otherwise male-dominated fictional worlds or a greater purpose?” hit on issues and franchises very dear to my heart, and I greatly enjoyed reading the explorations of Tauriel and Arwen and Rey.

Let us not forget that this anthology includes an essay about Magic: The Gathering! Which is not something I would have thought was very interesting a year ago, but now I do! Rostislav Kurka (their name is meant to have a circle above the ‘u’ but my symbols don’t seem to include that one…) has helped me realise just how much more is going on in the fiction about M:TG than I realised, and how the cards’ art reflects and helps that too. So I also love that Luna Press saw M:TG as a legitimate topic for inclusion here; the essay absolutely fits the theme, and of course both the game and the fiction are a part of the speculative fiction world.

Other essays, I should point out, are more interested in a broad summary, rather than focusing on one genre or set of texts. Cheryl Morgan’s “Tipping the Fantastic: How the Transgender Tipping Point has influenced Science Fiction” was (as expected) a throughout examination of how trans characters have been presented in various stories, and what that means both for trans and cis readers and general diversity/understanding. Anna Milon’s “Bikini armour: women characters, readers and writers in male narratives” also made me think of Joanna Russ, and made me cranky, as you may imagine some of what is discussed from the title (it’s a good essay; it’s a frustrating topic).

Overall I think this is a great little anthology – and it is little, at 236 pages in about an A5 package. Obviously there is plenty more to be said, and part of me hopes that Luna does another one… although of course there are lots of other topics to cover, and they’ve got one on Evil and one on African fantasy and science fiction, so those are both excellent topics, too.

Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Unknown.jpegThis is my first GGK and… I really don’t know what to make of it.

I mostly really liked it as I read, although there were some odd narrative quirks – like the omniscient narrator occasionally breaking in with prescient predictions about a character later reflecting on something as the end of childhood – that didn’t seem to have pay-off or point in the narrative. But those things aside I largely enjoyed the story as a whole… until the very end when something very weird and out of place happened that made me feel a bit ick about the whole thing.

Anyway, before that: Ned is in France with his photographer dad; meets another visiting American and has a weird encounter with a dude which then leads to more weird encounters and a progressively weirder journey around bits of France. There’s a love triangle ranging over enormous sweeps of time, eternal enmity, races against the clock, family secrets and family discoveries, and some slightly dubious mashing of history.

In general, I found the story generally enjoyable. I’ve no idea how accurate the geography of France is; apparently it was written while Kay was there, so hopefully there wasn’t too much licence taken? Overall the characters were interesting and plausible enough, and the pacing generally wasn’t too bad. It’s not a book to think too much about, though; the history aspect in particular is a bit silly and there are a few narrative holes that made me shake my head.

Also I hate the title. And I’m a bit bemused about it winning the 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. I don’t recognise the other nominees, but this … seems like an odd choice.

The big thing that irks me, though… (spoiler…)

Continue reading →

Robots vs Fairies

Unknown.jpegI am reminded, perhaps obviously, of Zombies vs Unicorns, the Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black anthology from several years ago. It’s the same sort of idea: which trope is better? Which sort of close-to-but-not-human species can authors have the most fun with, do most with, and so on? But more than zombies and unicorns, the authors in this anthology make powerful statements in their afterwords for why both robots and fairies can and do have such enduring power in our narratives. They are like us, but unlike. Robots are made by us; fairies live in parallel; both can be imagined to have legitimate grievances with humanity; both can potentially blend into humanity… and so on. Max Gladstone suggests robots are the future, and fairies are our roots.

So there’s a lot to explore in an anthology inviting authors to choose one of these archetypal features of our speculative fiction.

What surprised and amused me the most in this set of stories was the number of times authors decided to play with both. Seanan McGuire starts the ball rolling, and Catherynne M Valente finishes it; along the way, there are a couple of variations on Pinocchio that I didn’t always pick up – it’s not a significant story for me – as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and other ruminations on how robots and fairies might be seen to fade into one another, one way or another. I really, really liked this aspect.

In fact, I liked this anthology in general. The stories are generally very well written, and there’s a marvellous balance of fun and heart-wrenching or somewhat horrifying, as well as often having significant points to make about humanity and how we interact with our world. McGuire’s views on theme parks were great fun to read; Ken Liu’s story on automation was chilling and brilliantly written (unsurprisingly). Sarah Gailey also contributed a supremely chilling story that I really wasn’t prepared for, and Madeline Ashby’s was haunting and lovely, and Maria Dahvana Headley got me with a rocknroll and fairies story that was always going to push my buttons.

Themed anthologies can be a fraught business. This one gets it right.

The Raven Tower

images.jpegThings to keep in mind:

1. I’m a total Leckie fangirl

2. Like, seriously.

3. This is nothing like the Ancillary books at all.

4. Not even genre, let alone anything else.

I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now WHICH IS EXCELLENT NEWS FOR EVERYONE LET THERE BE REJOICING.

I’ll admit that when I heard Ann Leckie was doing a fantasy novel I was… discombobulated. I do like fantasy but I’ve read a lot less of it recently for various reasons, and when I thought of how the author of the Ancillary books might translate to fantasy I started thinking of lush epic fantasy which is fine but not what I’m enjoying at the moment.

HOW WRONG I WAS. I mean, seriously. What was I thinking.

For starters: this is a standalone book. That’s right folks, you can read this book and not have to wait for a sequel. Which is great.

Ok, look, I actually read this without reading the blurb or knowing anything about it, just going on trust. And I really truly believe that this was the best option – having now read the blurb, it kinda gives you an idea of what’s going on but as so often happens, I think it sets up the wrong ideas in the reader’s mind. So if you trust me, and you trust Ann Leckie, just go find this and read it without reading anything else about it.

But if not, you can keep reading.

Continue reading →

Tides of the Titans

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the author, at no cost. As were the previous books, Crossroads of Canopy and Echoes of UnderstoreyBecause I am very lucky indeed.

This trilogy isn’t quite your standard trilogy because it doesn’t follow the same main characters throughout. Although the focal character is in the next two, she moves to the background; and the same happens between the second and third books. I really like this as a tactic because it means Dyer gets to explore the world of Titan’s Forest in much more complexity than might otherwise be possible – the three characters have such different roles in the Forest societies, and different motivations and personalities and so on. They interact with other characters in utterly different ways. But I also like that the three characters are all connected to each other, so we get to see family dynamics at play, and understand people from multiple perspectives.

I also like that none of the three main characters are particularly likeable; certainly not all the time. Don’t get me wrong – they’re compelling characters, and I generally understand why they think they have to do what they’re doing. But I frequently got exasperated with them for being selfish, or narrow-minded, or blinded by anger, or… other reasons. And this is a good thing, because it really is a fine line to walk to make me have a reaction like that but still be enjoying the character and the story overall. Dyer walks that line beautifully.

If you haven’t read the series yet, stop right here and go and do so: you really want to if you like complex societies and gods who aren’t that great really and live among humans, and quandongs and Australian trees getting even bigger than we let them get here, quests and revenge and family drama. Spoilers ahead for the first two books!

Continue reading →

Merry Happy Valkyrie

42741994.jpgI 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.