Tag Archives: reviews

The Path of Thorns

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of June, 2022.

You know those authors where you know you love their work but somehow they’re not automatically at the top of your mind and then you see a new book by them and you think, oh yeah I should read that; and then you do read it (perhaps eventually) and you think WHY DO I FORGET HOW MUCH I LOVE THEM?

Maybe that’s just me.

Sorry, AG Slatter. I really do love your work.

This novel is set in the world of Slatter’s mosaic novels – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. You don’t have to know those stories to love and appreciate this one; they’re not about the same characters, or even necessarily the same places in the world. This is a world where magic is real, at least some of the time, but not everyone approves. Magic is mostly done (at least in these stories) by women, which feeds into the disapproval of that ‘not everyone’. It’s used for good and for ill and sometimes doing it for one reason ends up having the opposite consequences. In her Author’s Note, Slatter points that the world is a mishmash of the Victorian, Renaissance and Medieval – and asks readers not to go looking for historical accuracy. So there are moments that maybe kind of feel familiar from history, but they’re set with moments that really don’t.

What I particularly love about this and the other Sourdough stories is that they feel like fairytales, even though they’re definitely not tales that I know. There’s something about the ideas and themes – as Slatter suggests, “weird family dynamics, manipulation and lies, false faces, lost families and found, terrible acts and the potential for redemption”. There’s also something about the way Slatter writes, and here I am completely lost for words. I can’t tell you what words or phrases she uses to evoke a slightly eerie world, the sense that this is a world just slightly off from ours; that makes me a bit amazed that this is NEW work, rather than something that was told ages ago and has that patina of tradition, of being a well-worn and beloved story – of familiarity. And that last is particularly odd, frankly, because I really didn’t know what on earth was going to happen from page to page. She uses phrases and stories-within-stories that read like they SHOULD be as old and familiar as the wine-dark sea and Achilles’ rage, but … they’re not.

So: Asher goes to Morwood Grange, to be governess to three young children. She has a frightening experience on arrival, and brings with her some things that she immediately puts under a floorboard. And see, right from that, you just know things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so the story proceeds – making friends and enemies and figuring out how to do what she’s come to do; you already guessed that Asher didn’t come to Morwood accidentally, right? In some ways a bit claustrophobic – Asher mostly interacts with the family and few servants at Morwood – it’s saved from being TOO gothic the-house-is-trying-to-eat-me by occasional visits to the village and out into the grounds of the estate, and also through Asher’s occasional reminiscences, It’s an intense story, intensely inwards-focussed – and look, I read it in a day.

I loved it. A lot. It’s not always easy to read; the family is a deeply broken one, Asher’s not exactly perfect, and there are definitely actions that people regret (or should, but don’t). And yet, I loved it.

Aspects, by John M. Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in April 2022.

Glorious. Frustrating. Confusing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking…

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it’s unfinished. The author, John M Ford, died in 2006. He had been working on this novel, it seems, for many years – at least that’s what I get from the introduction, written by a friend of Ford’s, Neil Gaiman. And so… the book is incomplete. That is, there’s no conclusion; and I suspect there are bits that might have been edited for clarity if the author had, indeed finished.

And I nearly cried when I got to the end, because this book is just so amazing. Like, this could have been the start of one of The Great Series. I’ve read only one other Ford novel, and I think a few short stories; this makes me want to go back and read absolutely everything. Because if this is the standard, well – I’ve been missing out.

Aspects is set in an alternate world. It’s kind of Britain, I think, although it doesn’t seem to be an island. It’s kind of analogous to the nineteenth century – there are trains (the Ironways), for instance, and there’s a form of electricity but some people are suspicious. But chemistry doesn’t quite seem to work the way it does here. Religion is important, but it’s not a Christianity-analogue; there’s a goddess with several faces, and matching consorts. And there’s a Parliament, with Commons and Lords, but here’s the final difference to our world: the lords are lords of the land, of religion – and of sorcery, or Craft.

So it’s kind of steampunk, but it doesn’t really fit into what I know of that category, and it’s fantasy set in an industrial context. Honestly though it just defies categorisation. It’s a deeply political work – three of the main characters are in Parliament, and at least part of the narrative revolves around machinations there, like writing a new constitution. It’s a country struggling to figure itself out several decades after becoming a republic – and it seems that the previous monarchy had been imposed by a conquering race, although that’s one aspect (heh) that I never quite got my head around. Some of the characters have the ability to use magic, which is not without its difficulties, and it’s clear that was going to a significant thread if the book had continued. There’s a romance, with its own difficulties; and such a large array of characters, all with their quirks (and bringing diversity, too) that this should have – could have – provided many, many pages of just mesmerising story. And now I’m making myself sad all over again that I’ll never read them.

Ford’s writing can be profound: “Play keeps us happy and agile, in mind and muscle; sleep and good meals keep us alive. We can misspend time – hurting people, ourselves included, making the world worse – but to ‘waste’ time – to get no motion at all, good or bad – to do that one would have to be not at alive at all” (p172 of the e-version). While I was sometimes a bit confused about what was going on, I was always captivated by the writing itself and somehow convinced – even though I don’t know Ford’s work that well – that everything would eventually make sense. And I was largely right.

Persians: the Age of the Great Kings

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

I really, really wanted to love this book.

(That, children, is called ‘foreshadowing’. You can almost see the BUT looming behind those words.)

A book that’s basically the postcolonialist version of Persian history we’ve all been waiting for! A view on Persian history that’s not just repeating the Greek and Roman commentaries that were absolutely written with a very particular perspective! YES PLEASE. And even more when Llewellyn-Jones makes the acerbic comment in the introduction about how the concept of European superiority can be dated back to Herodotus etc and the way they presented the terrifying East. So yes, let’s have a version of Persian history that is largely based on Persian sources, or uses the Greek sources very carefully – to find the Persian reality behind the Greek propaganda.

And it starts so well. There’s a discussion about Persia vs Iran as a name – and I’m not sure whether his explanation of the political nuances there are accurate, so I defer to others on that, but it seemed to make sense within what I do know. There’s a discussion about the archaeological activities that give historians what they know from Persepolis etc, and a candid admission about the lack of sources. The Persian history proper starts with a discussion of the movement of different peoples into the area we know today as Iran, and some speculation about how they interacted etc. Then it moves into discussing the development of the Persian empire as empire, and interaction with the Medes. All of this section was intriguing and the use of inscriptions was well done. I did start to get a bit uncomfortable about the lack of reference to other sources – like other historians; I understand that getting the balance of what can seem to be most approachable, and what can seem too scholarly, may revolve around footnotes etc but… there’s just no way the author didn’t use other references.

I also started to get a bit uncomfortable when the author claimed that Cyrus’ mother “delighted in singing Median nursery rhymes to him” (p60 of the e-version), because that seems… weirdly specific? And then I got to the description of him as “lean and good-looking in that way that Persian men are uniquely handsome” (p63 of the e-version) and I had to stop and blink and decide whether to laugh or cry. What happened to treating the Persians as real people and not exoticising them, which I thought was part of the postcolonial agenda? I also have a problem with the statement that “A society that requires such codes of respectful behaviour” (obeisance before the monarch, etc) “is very likely to have autocratic political organisation, characterised by the coercive power of a king” (pp194-5). It just seems too blanket a statement.

And then! We have Darius’ half-sister and wife described as “a Lady Macbeth-like villainess, hellbent on power and ruthless in her bloody ambition” (p288) and I really started to wonder whether it was now a different author, or if he had been to sexy the book up. Next we have “years of adoration and unnaturally demonstrative mother love meant that [Darius] was self-centred, cruel, vindictive, and brutal” (p292); and that mothers experience “that particular twang of jealousy… when their sons give their hearts to other women” (p294). In case we worried that it was about misogyny, we then have a eunuch described as “a veritable creature of the court” (uh, eunuchs who are made eunuchs to BE at court are literally that??) who was “born to corruption, whose ambitions were for the very highest office of state” (p333) and I just can’t even. The author then has the temerity to accuse the Greeks of employing the “topos of the wicked eunuch” and I need to ask some questions about self-awareness.

So. I am ambivalent about this book. It’s a super necessary idea, and the use of Persian inscriptions and the way some of the Greek sources are handled is a really good example of how to read through sources to get more than they think they’re saying. On the other hand, some of the descriptions are clearly ridiculous (robes of “chiffon-like linen, gauzy cotton, and shimmering silk” (p293) – not to mention that nursery rhyme – really need some evidence!). And the bits quoted above are enough to make me despair. Did I learn something about the Persian empire and the kings who ruled, and the way it all worked? Absolutely. Is this the last word in Persian imperial history? I sure hope not.

Would not recommend to someone who is completely new to the history of this area and time, or to someone who is naive in reading historical books. For those looking to deepen their knowledge, it’s useful – with the caveats above.

Atlas of Forgotten Places

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out now.

These are beautiful books, even in electronic copy – this Atlas of Forgotten Places, and the Atlas of Improbable Places; I’m sure they’re even more lovely in paper. That’s definitely a key thing to note. The photography of each place is generally very good, and evocative of whatever idea is being presented; and the maps are also intriguing. They show where the place is in context – near other towns or within a country or whatever is relevant – and also shows the layout of the particular area. Because with this Atlas in particular, I think, many of the places featured aren’t just individual buildings (although there are plenty of those); they’re also entire towns, or bits of towns. And the maps show what still exists, what’s crumbling, what’s changed over time. They’re really well produced.

Chapters includes Vacant Properties, Unsettled Situations (abandoned towns, largely), Dilapidated Destinations (tourist spots and hotels), Journeys Ended (airports etc), and Obsolete Institutions. Sometimes the categorising is a bit of a stretch, but I’m happy enough to go along with it. It closes with Alcatraz, which I thought both amusing and fitting; there’s a town called Santa Claus, a lighthouse, several hotels, and a Bangkok mall, as well.

I have two quibbles. One is an admittedly minor irritant: the book needed slightly better editing (ashes are interred, not interned, surely). The other is that sometimes most of the entry for a location is a digression – about Napoleon, when the entry is about something on Corsica, or about why an indigenous group where bowler hats when it’s about a railway in Bolivia, or how both cardigans and balaclavas were named for military things (a man and a place) associated with the Crimean War, when it’s a submarine base in Balaklava. If you’re going to feature a place, surely you should spend your two-ish pages talking just about that place? Expanding more on what it was like and what led to its being forgotten? It made me wonder whether Elborough was padding for the sake of making each entry about equal, and pointless words really, really annoy me.

I should also note that the list of places mentioned in the blurb on Goodreads is wrong – three of the places mentioned there do not actually feature in the book that I read (I doublechecked the index and everything). So if you want to read about the abandoned Peter’s Ice Cream Factory, it’s not in this book.

Those quibbles aside, though, I have no trouble recommending this for the armchair traveller, or the lover of quirky facts.

Rosebud, by Paul Cornell

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2022.

Well that was… a ride.

Cornell’s novella follows in a trend from the last few years of exploring issues of humanity through the lens of AIs. I mean, I know that authors have pretty much always been exploring what it means to be human through the medium of the robot, right back to Metropolis; but I feel like it’s somehow become more pointed, or nuanced, or something, in the last 5 or so years. Maybe I’m just being shortsighted; maybe I can blame Murderbot for this perception.

Anyway, Rosebud is a spacecraft orbiting Saturn – a spacecraft about 1mm in diameter, crewed by five AIs of varying (and really very varying) provenance. They encounter an anomaly, and they investigate. In doing so, they are confronted both by their own identities, as memories are brought to the fore, and by the consequences of the anomaly – what it’s doing to them and what it might mean for the humans back on Earth. To investigate, the AIs are forced to be embodied – and as is generally the case, bodies have consequences.

I can’t quite describe the style this is written in. It’s present tense; it’s third person, but the POV favours one character, Haunt, in particular. It also feels more spoken, I think, than written; perhaps formalised internal monologue? For instance: “That’s how this is supposed to do. Doing it on their own is above their pay grades. Not that they’re paid. This is big people stuff” (p14). It’s certainly very readable – I powered through it in a sitting, despite some of their narrative weirdness that occurs thanks to the anomaly. There’s some amusing banter between the five characters – they are very different, with wildly different expectations and desires and perspectives, and they’re not always interested in cooperating with each other.

If you’re a fan of Paul Cornell, this will probably work very well for you. It’s not my favourite Cornell (that would be the Lychford series), but I’m certainly glad I got a chance to read it.

Kundo Wakes Up

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in March 2022.

Firstly, for those who have read The Ghurka and the Lord of Tuesday, this is set in the same universe but is not a sequel; so there’s no pistachio-cracking Gurung, no Melek Ahmar getting furious about the world. One blurb describes it as a “companion”; it is still a world in which the climate crisis has reached epic proportions; in which some cities are run by an AI called Karma (a different version in each city, it seems); and humans can basically only survive when they’re in sufficient numbers that the nanites they create are at such density that they can make the climate liveable. In Karma cities, there is no money; there’s just points for good deeds, which you can ‘spend’ to get what you want. And when there’s points, there’s always going to be people who have none – who are zeroes… Oh, and also there are djinn.

This time, the focus is Chittagong, Bangladesh. And things are not going particularly well – either for the city, or for Kundo, once a famous-enough artist, now a man whose wife has left and whose life is such a stretch of nothing that he easily loses track of days. The focus of the story is on Kundo looking for his wife; I have to admit that I was a bit worried about where the story would go – there are good reasons for wives to leave, and Kundo admits he was never a great husband – but I shouldn’t have been concerned; Hossain dealt with that aspect of the story skilfully. In the course of trying to find his wife, Kundo gets a team together – a struggling mum, a has-been underworld figure, and a junky coder. Together they try and figure out the world, and get enough to eat, and maybe some basic human dignity as well.

It’s another really great story from Hossain. He explores the variety of humanity: what they need – and what they want; frustrations and desires and ways of relating; what’s good for one but not for another… all in the context of quite a frightening view of the future, actually, that still manages to have some redemption and goodness in it.

I’m hoping that we get more stories from this world.

Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

As someone more au fait with anthologies than me pointed out, this anthology doesn’t have a introduction. So there’s no discussion of what speculative fiction is, let alone what African speculative fiction is. Which means that the answer to both of those questions is: These stories. All of them. These authors write that.

A few of these names – Sheree Renee Thomas, Tobias S Buckell – were familiar to me, but most were not. Part of this is that I don’t read a whole heap of short fiction these days, especially not the online magazines – it’s too hard – but it’s also partly about the speculative fiction scene that gets a lot of notice still being really white (I am not very wired into the whole scene these days anyway). Which makes an anthology like this excellent… because we’re a long way away from not needing such a thing, so don’t bring me the “but everyone’s work should be judged on merit” nonsense.

Anyway: the stories! This is a truly diverse set of fiction. There’s magic and there’s robots and there’s myths and there’s so-close-to-reality, and there’s horror (sometimes akin to the close-to-reality); there’s stories set in recognisable places and future places and past places and nowhere-places. Women and men and ungendered and who cares, families and not, hope and not,

I didn’t love every story, but I never do, with an anthology. And some of those were horror, which I pretty much always don’t enjoy. There was only one story that I got impatient with and skimmed over, which is a pretty good hit-rate in 360 pages.

This is great. I hope it’s the first in a long line of such volumes, as the cover page suggests.

Redshirts

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

I am very late to this Scalzi party, clearly.

I remember when Redshirts first came out and a lot of the discussion about it. But although I’d seen all the Star Trek movies to that point, I’d never watched any of the tv, and I didn’t feel that much affinity for the show – and given all the talk was of this book being a riff on that, I didn’t feel compelled to read it.

Now, though, I have watched all of Voyager; and all of Discovery and Picard to date; and even, perhaps most relevantly, most of Lower Decks. So really, for me, this is the right time to read this book.

I also, at the original publication, had read zero Scalzi. I know, this is kind of amazing for someone so into the genre. But he just never really came across my radar. And then I finally came across the Interdependency trilogy, and gave it ago, and fell very heavily in love with those books. So, now I can say that I like what I’ve read of his work. Again, this timing was good for me.

So, what of Redshirts? Having read Mary Robinette Kowal’s introduction, I was expecting this to be hilarious. And… it wasn’t. At least, not for me. That is, there were some funny bits, mostly in dealing with expectations and stereotypes, sometimes in the language, and such things. But I didn’t laugh out loud. So in that way I was a bit disappointed. As a narrative, though, it really is very clever and very well done; as Kowal also said, it takes an idea at the start – the lowly types of Star Trek etc who never get much screen time – and develops them into characters, and THEN completely turns what you’re expecting not only on its head, but sideways and inside out and into configurations I couldn’t imagine. So all of that was surprising, intriguing, and enjoyable. I will admit that the very end I found … not disappointing, exactly, but perhaps bewildering? That is, I didn’t feel like it added much, if anything, so I was left feeling blinking and a bit confused – there was a lack of resolution, because too much had been added on (perhaps this is the complaint about the “too many endings” of Return of the King…).

Is this a fun book to read? yes. Did I actually have to watch a lot of Star Trek to enjoy it? No; but I think a bit of knowledge does deepen the appreciation of what Scalzi is doing. Does my slight disappointment mean I’ll never read another Scalzi? Oh heck no. I don’t think he’ll ever be a “must buy now” author for me, but I will always be keeping an eye out for his work.

Inhibitor Phase

*high pitched keening noise*

New Alastair Reynolds. Set in the Revelation Space universe.

*high pitched keening noise*

I received this book from the publisher at no cost. Trade paperback available August 31, $32.99.

In case the above reaction wasn’t enough to give it away, I am a verrrry big fan of Alastair Reynolds. Which isn’t to say I love everything he’s written; I haven’t. However, Revelation Space continues to be one of my very favourite sequences of books, ever, so the idea of another in that universe… well. /fans self.

The preface suggests you could read this cold, and I guess you could – certainly enough other books ask you to work pretty hard, with random names like Conjoiner thrown at you with little explanation. There’s a joy in discovering what it’s all about! For me, though, a huge part of the joy came from remembering all the details of the Revelation Space universe, so I really have no idea what it would be like to go in with no knowledge.

This story is set later than almost all of the other Revelation Space stories. Humanity is on the brink thanks to an external threat – and there’s an interesting connection here to the Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past stories, with the idea of profligate species spewing out radio and other signals and just letting everyone who might be out there hear you… and that maybe that’s not a good idea.

Miguel de Ruyter is sheltering with a small band of humans on a very inhospitable rock. As always happens, a stranger comes to town… and things go very wrong very quickly.

People aren’t who you expect, mistakes are made, epic crises are experienced and occasionally averted, light years are travelled, planets are visited. Discoveries, chases, explosions; courage is found and choices are made.

I loved it. I loved it a lot. I love the way it talks about humanity (very broadly interpreted) in all its messy, confusing, loving, courageous, selfish and impossible character. I love the grand scope and the narrow detail and the insistence that there must be room for both. I love the writing and the characters and I’m so excited that it exists.

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).