Review: The Palace of Glass (The Forbidden Library #3), by Django Wexler

The Palace of GlassAlice and Ending have been working on a plan to exact vengeance against Geryon for the careless killing of Alice’s father. Under Ending’s tutelage, Alice has been learning to Write, to start to construct her own spells. It’s going to take a very long time for Alice to muster the kind of power she’ll need to confront a Reader of Geryon’s age and experience, though, and when Geryon leaves Alice alone in charge of the Library for a week, she and the labyrinthine see a narrow window of opportunity to get the upper hand. Alice must travel through two worlds to retrieve The Infinite Prison, a spell that ought to be strong enough to hold Geryon. But the Palace of Glass, where the Prison can be found, is a place said to drive mad all who visit it, and Alice must be there and back before the clock runs out…

Each book in this series has been better than the last. Once again, I feel like some of my complaints from the previous volume have been addressed and that The Palace of Glass is the most enjoyable of the books so far. In the previous novels, I’ve been bothered by the fact that for a series that talks a lot about the other worlds to be found in books, we don’t actually get to see them very much, and when we do they’re kind of lacking in vitality. But the lion’s share of The Palace of Glass is spent on Alice’s otherworldly adventure, and the worlds she visits are not just places to be fascinated by, but places worth caring about. I could read an entire spin-off about the fire-sprites and their home, their preservation of memory, their coping with the tributes and the fading of their world… Wexler does a wonderful job with the little evocative touches too, describing the sprites’ hair, voices, laughter, and deaths in ways that perfectly capture their nature as living flame.

The Palace of Glass also introduces some wonderful new allied characters. To date the only really interesting non-human ones have been the labyrinthines and their offspring, which is a bit of missed potential when you consider the possibilities of all the different kinds of beings that can exist in the worlds beyond the portal-books, but Alice’s companions in this book include an angry young fire-sprite who carries some of the oldest memories of his people, and a teenage ice giant who just wants to be an artist and exasperates her mother with her lack of fighting spirit. I took to them more than the gang of apprentices from The Mad Apprentice (except the delightful Dex, of course); with these additions, the series is growing quite a cast of characters I care about.

As far as characters go, Alice has been the weak link for me up until now, but while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this entry in the series addresses my problems with her, it certainly minimises them. The story is structured in such a way that it doesn’t over-rely on her (lacking) emotional responses to things. The aspect of the story that is built on her personal growth is primarily about consequences. Alice has known from the start that the Readers’ power is based on subjugation and death, but here is where she really has to face up to what that means, and not just in the context of what Geryon has done but in how the Readers’ society and their magic is affecting all of the worlds they touch. It’s a narrative that kind of works with her weaknesses, because this is precisely the kind of situation that requires decisiveness without getting mired in depth of feeling. That said, it is sort of hilarious that there’s another death here, and ‘You’ll take care of the body, then? Righto, good’ seems to be the sum total of emotional reaction that Alice or anyone else can be bothered to conjure.

There have been funny moments throughout the last two books, but The Palace of Glass has some truly hilarious ones. I liked the helpful fire-sprite who couldn’t quite understand why setting humans on fire is not a healing experience, and the book definitely wins my prize for Best Fictional Turtles Ever. (No cash value. UK only. Expires 31 June 2016.)

At the time of writing, I’m seeing that this is going to be a four-book series. I’m a bit concerned that the series is almost over when it feels to me like it’s finally coming into its own, and the potentially rather epic setup we’re left with at the end seems like something that would need more than one book to satisfactorily resolve. Unless the fourth book is twice the size of this one, I fear the story is going to get short shrift. Nonetheless, I’ll be looking forward to it, and I hope it’s one of those tales that might grow in the writing — there’s a lot more here to be mined.

4 stars

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Review: The Mad Apprentice (The Forbidden Library #2), by Django Wexler

The Mad ApprenticeIt’s been six months since Alice moved to the Library and began her training as a Reader, and in that time she’s acquired more powers, but little information on her father’s fate. Geryon doesn’t seem especially motivated to look into the matter for her, but she receives an opportunity to investigate for herself when he sends her to the fortress of Esau-of-the-Waters, the Reader who hired Vespidian to negotiate with (and threaten) her father. Esau has purportedly been murdered by his apprentice, Jacob, and Alice and a group of other Readers’ apprentices are going to be sent to retrieve the apprentice, even if it involves lethal force. If Alice can get Jacob to speak to her, perhaps she can start to find the answers she’s looking for.

Right off the bat, The Mad Apprentice is both pacier and more fantastical than The Forbidden Library. Esau’s fortress is like a living Escher print, impossible geometry ever-shifting like the labyrinth of the Library, only less contained, and navigating it takes Alice and us further into the nature of the creatures, like Ending, who dominate such places. We still don’t really get to see a lot of other worlds, though. The fact that most of the book is focused on a fairly straightforward (in theory if not in execution) quest — find Jacob — keeps the narrative from hitting some of the first book’s slower ruts.

The other apprentices also contribute greatly to the more fantastical feel of this second volume. Their powers are diverse and impressive, and the fact that there’s an entire team of mini-Readers whose abilities have been handpicked by their masters lets more potent threats be unleashed against them without ruining the suspension of disbelief when they find ways to overcome those trials. Some of the apprentices are also pretty charming characters in and of themselves — it’s hard not to laugh along with the joy of the group’s eternal optimist when she gets to ride a carpet of swarmers — and the knowledge that they don’t necessarily enjoy the same protected status as our main character raises the stakes for some of those encounters.

This addresses one of the main complaints I had about Alice in book one, her lack of friends, of people with whom she can be more or less an equal. Not all of these apprentices will really become friends, but some certainly do, and Alice’s likeability is improved by her interactions with them. There’s still something missing, though. There’s a certain emotional dimension that the books just fail to develop, which in the first book felt like it was a problem solely with Alice, but the more time we get to spend with other characters, the more it feels like it’s not an issue restricted to her. Two other characters go through what should’ve been incredibly emotional moments in this book and after a matter of pages, they feel like they’re just sort of over it. It’s nice that Alice inspires courage in others, but those moments too would be more poignant if we could actually feel Alice’s fear. Courage is feeling terrified and overcoming it to do the right thing anyway, it’s not feeling sort of hum drum in the face of danger, and Alice’s bravery reads a little too much like the latter.

Ultimately, The Mad Apprentice doesn’t really progress the overall plot very much, but it does contribute a lot to our understanding of how things came to be the way they are now. It also makes the isolated, paranoid nature of Reader society a much more visceral thing, and by the end of the book it left me with a sort of repulsed but intrigued feeling towards them that builds nicely on the doubts sown by Ending in the first book. I was really pleased with where the book finished up; if Wexler can pull it off, there’s a fabulous set up for the next book in place at the end here.

Another thing I have to compliment is that the author does not pull his punches, even if the emotional follow-through from the big moments is a bit lacking. People die, children die, and their deaths aren’t necessarily grand and heroic. At least one is kind of ugly and meaningless. That’s a realistic outgrowth of the society the Readers have created and their antagonistic relationships with some incredibly powerful beings, but it’s also a matter some children’s authors would have softened or shied away from, so I’m glad Wexler doesn’t.

Despite some continued issues I would rank this book as an improvement on the first, and I hope for continued growth in the promising-sounding third volume.

3.5 stars

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Review: The Forbidden Library (The Forbidden Library #1), by Django Wexler

The Forbidden LibraryTwelve-year-old Alice is a stickler for the rules. She certainly wasn’t trying to eavesdrop when, late one night, she overheard her father’s heated conversation with a fairy, and about her, of all things. Nor could she find it in her heart to speak up about her innocent trespass when her obviously troubled father announced a sudden lengthy voyage at sea. Now his ship is sunk with all hands drowned, and Alice is shooed off to the estate of a supposed uncle she’s never met — an estate called the Library, and dominated by a labyrinthine example of its namesake. Within its walls Alice has to set the rules aside, because she’s surrounded by creatures that will manipulate her powers as a Reader for their own agendas, and she’ll need to play their game to find the truth about her father.

The creatures of The Forbidden Library are probably my favourite thing about the book. They avoid the simplicity of some fairy tales where everything beautiful is good, and everything ugly is rotten to the core; here, even the downright adorable is bloody dangerous. The waspish fairy Vespidian might broadcast his nature from the very first, but you also have hordes of sweet, comical kiwi-like birds that are so murderously dangerous they have to be imprisoned in their own realm, and giant talking cats who are playing the long game in which Alice might be their ally or merely their pawn.

Everything and everyone here has its own agenda, and there are no exceptions for family or the presumably future love interest. The closest thing Alice has to a friend is a self-centred talking half-cat. This very agenda-driven magical world is one of the story’s greatest strengths, but in a roundabout way it also contributes to one of its greatest weaknesses, which is the character of Alice.

I really wanted to like Alice, because she’s fabulous on paper — she’s intelligent, resourceful, and self-reliant. But I couldn’t connect to her, and I think the main reason for that is because she has no one she can be a true equal with, no one she can be herself with and thereby give me a hook into her emotions. She doesn’t have any friends. The people we choose as friends and how we choose to be with them are a significant part of who we are at any age, but at Alice’s age, it’s all the more defining. We don’t just love other plucky young lasses of fantasy like Hermione Granger because of her intellect and ingenuity, we love her because of her loyalty and her compassion and her ability to balance emotional vulnerability with great strength, and all of those dimensions that come out of a person in the way they relate to the ones they love. Without those, Alice feels sort of flat.

For a bibliophile like myself, book-based magic is an easy sell, but I really do like the magic system presented here. Alice is a Reader, which gives her the ability to read books that would be incomprehensible to an average person. Some of those books are portals to other worlds. Some of them lead into prison realms which hold nasty critters captive, and the only way out is to kill them or force them to submit, at which point they and their powers become the Reader’s to manifest. There’s a good ethical quandary here too — due to the nature of their acquisition, the Readers’ powers are rooted in death or slavery, which does get called out by at least one character, and it’s not a quandary that Alice can resolve in one book.

This is where the book’s other weakness lies, though. This is a library full of magical books that can take you to other worlds. That’s basically everything I ever fantasised about as a kid. I am the target audience for this book (well, okay, the me of twenty years ago is), so I should’ve been really excited. But the other worlds just aren’t really that fantastical. We don’t get to see all that much, and those we do get to see feel like fairly mundane set-pieces rather than wondrous pocket worlds. Even Alice never seemed to have any emotional reaction or sense of wonder about what she was experiencing, when, as someone passionate about books, shouldn’t she be pretty blown away by the fact that they contain worlds and she’s one of the chosen few who can traverse them? Ten-year-old me is off hyperventilating somewhere at the very idea.

I like the book enough to continue with the series, for sure. Wexler’s writing is really enjoyable to sink into. He doesn’t talk down to his audience and he has an evocative but not overwrought way of describing things that makes me think I would enjoy his adult books very much. But I’m hoping that this book’s sequels can deliver a little more depth and a little more wonder. All of the ingredients are here, they just need to gel.

3 stars

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Review: Europe at Midnight (Fractured Europe #2), by Dave Hutchinson

Europe at MidnightSeparate from the Community, but overlapping the geography of our world’s Europe in the same fashion, is a pocket universe called the Campus, which, true to its name, is made up of a giant university. Unlike the citizens of the Community, those of the Campus don’t know about their world’s nature, or about Europe and the Community at all. Over generations, families make the gradual rise from Student to loftier positions like Research Assistant or Doctor. When a coup replaces and imprisons the Old Board, Rupert — not his real name, but the only one we will know him by — makes a sudden jump to Professor of Intelligence, and among the many duties he struggles to complete with limited resources is to track down a missing group who might just have escaped the Campus… and to figure out how, before one harsh winter robs the already severely impoverished new regime of the last of its food.

Rupert’s narrative connects, in a decidedly non-linear fashion, with that of Jim, a London detective whose investigation of a seemingly mundane bus stabbing leads him into the secret of Europe’s parallel worlds. After the pacing issues that Europe in Autumn suffered from, I thought that the last thing this book needed would be more hopping and jumping around in the timeline, but actually, Europe at Midnight’s non-linearity serves it very well. Where the first entry in the series bafflingly skipped over many of the moments that ought to have provided the greatest suspense, this second novel uses the gaps in its timeline to heighten them, often introducing the resolution of startling and curious events in one character’s storyline only to backtrack and explore them in the other’s.

Of the two lead characters, Rupert is by far the more developed and interesting, although the deck is stacked in his favour by both his exotic origins and the fact that his perspective is delivered in first person, whereas we experience Jim’s through the remove of third person. He’s also a bit more engaging to read about than Rudi, because of the more accomplished presentation of his tradecraft; the years pass by fast, as they did in Europe in Autumn, but here the ones we miss are the ones in which the great amount of mundane groundwork required by any plausible spy story is laid, rather than the ones dealing with a number of Situations that sounded like interesting plots and character development in their own right.

Europe at Midnight also improves upon something that didn’t bother me too much about the first book, but probably would’ve become a serious irritant if the series had continued in the same vein: The lack of women. Although none of them are POV characters, this story is populated by a number of female characters who stand out quite impressively as individuals given the limited page count.

One of my frustrations with Europe in Autumn was that when Rudi was introduced to the Community, we weren’t, another fascinating and defining moment that was skipped over. I wanted to explore the Community on the page and experience it as a culture, not just as a plot device. I was therefore thrilled that this book juggles the settings of the Campus, the Community, and the series’ futuristic, Balkanised version of our Europe such that they each feel like living, breathing places with their own distinct aesthetic. Both the Campus and the Community are versions of an England that never was, but where the Campus feels like a post-war England still finding its footing after the harsh rationing and the loss of substantial parts of a generation — if, you know, such an England had actually been a Prisoner-style experiment with complementary higher education — the Community is a Tory’s wet dream, a genteel and stultifying Merrie England in which the wheel of social advancement has stopped turning, providing an idyllic existence for those fortunate enough to be on the top at the time, and a static nightmare for those on whose shoulders they stand.

For the most part, the tale runs tandem to Rudi’s from the first book, not really touching it until the end. It does finally connect, though, and it finishes in a place that looks promising for both sides. This really was a marked improvement over Europe in Autumn, and if Hutchinson can deliver a third book that’s as clever and polished, I can entirely forgive the first book’s flaws for setting up such a promising work of geopolitical fiction.

4 stars

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Review: Europe in Autumn (Fractured Europe #1), by Dave Hutchinson

Europe in AutumnFrom the moment his childhood television first blinked on to the sight of a cooking show, all Rudi ever wanted was to be a chef. Abusive bosses and sabotaging family members weren’t enough to stop him from working his way up and achieving his place at the head of a Polish restaurant’s kitchen. It’s somewhat puzzling why a man who’s always been so certain of his life’s direction, and worked so hard to achieve it, would step into a world of danger and espionage, but perhaps the dogged pursuit of something more is a hard trait to let go of.

So in a Europe that is no longer a union, but an ever-shifting array of nation-states and polities, Rudi ends up becoming one of the Coureurs, a carefully apolitical association of messengers, smugglers, and traffickers (with a rather overwrought sense of tradecraft) who will run almost anything or anyone across the increasingly complex borders in the spirit of keeping the failed Schengen agreement alive. It’s hardly a danger-free life — but when the danger arrives, it comes from unexpected sources, and Rudi might be the only one without the faintest idea why he’s in so much hot water.

Europe in Autumn is divided into two parts, and part one reads like a fairly solid, dryly humorous spy novel, in which the only discernible science fiction element is the near future setting. And what a strange and compelling setting it is, on the one hand an exaggerated and yet disturbingly relevant look at a futurist post-EU Europe in which the petty nationalism of the Daily Mail-reading, UKIP-voting Brexit types and their half-baked fearmongering about immigrants have gained enough sway to Balkanise the continent into irrelevance, on the other hand strangely mired in a very eastern European post-Communist sensibility that feels straight out of the 90s. Frankly it might have made a brilliant stage for a series of fairly straight espionage stories a la John le Carré, especially since those aspects are the strongest part of the novel.

In this part we’re more intimately connected to Rudi as a protagonist, and mostly watching the setting’s mysteries begin to unravel themselves at the same pace as he is. Rudi is kind of an empty inside everyman, not unlikeable, sometimes annoyingly passive in that he keeps coming back to the Coureurs like a kicked dog without giving us any insight into why he’s drawn to this whole mess, aside from the money, which in the face of actual torture seems less than adequate a motivation considering his situation beforehand didn’t seem like rough living. He’s at his most human when we get to see him with his not-quite-estranged family and he shows a realistic side of love, anger, distance, and nostalgia.

Part two is a beast of a different nature, though. The narrative breaks down into a series of vignettes, some of which take quite a while to show how they loop back into Rudi’s story, and the fantastical premise underlying the novel finally appears. And it’s a really good premise, but horribly executed — instead of getting to explore the whole new side to the setting, the plot skips and stutters ahead to when Rudi’s already so familiar with it that he barely bothers to introduce us to it at all.

I wonder if this book suffered from the pressure to make first books shorter, as some of the other debuts I’ve read lately seemed to. I know a lot of readers have levelled backlash against door-stopping tomes that could’ve used a firmer hand with the editing, and certainly the SF/F market has plenty of novels about which that criticism is entirely fair, but the result seems to have led to publishers being wary of letting unknown (or relatively so) authors loose with a large debut novel, even in situations where it would really serve the story so much better. If this had been a 500-600 page book in which the second part had as much room to breathe as the first, I expect I would’ve rated it much higher. From a technical standpoint, it’s definitely a well-written book — Hutchinson’s prose is clean and precise, and I love the very English dry wit that’s sprinkled liberally through the book.

Despite the significant pacing issues I would cautiously recommend it on the basis of its fascinating and topical setting, with the hope that the rest of the series will develop upon it in a less haphazard fashion.

3 stars

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Review: The Killing Jar, by Jennifer Bosworth

The Killing Jar17-year-old Kenna has been living with a secret for years, the secret of a life she took, the secret of the dark and blissful power with which she took it. She’s grown up keeping everyone at arm’s length for their safety and her own, taking refuge in her music rather than the people around her. Despite her burden, she’s finally started to carve out some happiness for herself when a face from the past returns to take it all away, and forces her to awaken the piece of herself she’d fought so hard to hide. She’s spirited away to the nearby commune at Eclipse, to learn the nature of her power and the means of its control, but her first days among the reclusive Kalyptra yield more questions than answers.

To be honest, I signed up to read this with one of my book clubs almost solely on the basis of the cover. That is one astonishingly effective and beautiful piece of cover art. Young adult supernatural thrillers aren’t really what I’d think of as my forte, but I ended up very glad that I was motivated to pick up The Killing Jar, which is pacy and engaging.

Kenna is a likeable protagonist with an authentic teenage voice, and the majority of the secondary characters are well fleshed out too. There is romance here, but family relationships are what take centre stage. Kenna has a twin sister who is terminally ill, and has been extremely frail throughout their lives, and the guilt of a healthy twin faced by a dying one is exacerbated by the nature of Kenna’s powers. While I would have liked to see that explored in greater depth on the page, it probably would have impacted the already ideal pacing, and as it stands it doesn’t get short shrift. Kenna’s relationship with her mother, Anya, doesn’t lack for complexity either; her mum is the only one who knows the terrible thing she did as a child, and Kenna’s first lesson in keeping the world at arm’s length comes from the distance between the two of them after that first killing. In a way it skirts close to the annoying trope of building a story around complications that wouldn’t exist if the people involved just had a simple conversation, but in this case I think it’s earned because of the totally different relationship that Anya has to Kenna’s power due to its origins and her own.

I mentioned romance, and this novel features a rare and surprising thing for the YA fiction I’ve experienced: A love triangle that isn’t annoying. The main reason why it works is because it’s not really about Kenna choosing between two guys, it’s primarily about her choosing between the two incompatible ways of life that they each represent. Given that one of the central points of the story is Kenna’s need to stop sitting on the fence and make a choice about where, and what, home is, it actually serves the narrative quite well. I do wish, though, that the resolution of the triangle had involved a more active choice on Kenna’s part, in keeping with that theme.

I also really liked the way that Kenna’s power is described. Bosworth captures the feel of being high on life, an almost synaesthetic experience to which I can relate. Her writing flows nicely, it’s descriptive without being overwrought, with evocative imagery used throughout, especially of the moths. Kenna’s experience of the Mother is genuinely chilling.

Overall, the story runs in an easily predictable direction, but that doesn’t detract from the experience. It’s a pleasure just to see the hows and whys of its unfolding.

4 stars

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Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

FledglingA young girl awakens in a cave, blind, aware only of pain and the need for fresh meat, fresh blood. As her sight returns and she begins to heal, she also begins to discover her own nature, that beneath the exterior of a prepubescent child lies a 53-year-old predator. In the absence of any memories of who she is, how her kind function, or what damaged her so badly and caused her amnesia, she has to begin to piece together a new identity and find her way back to her own kind.

I don’t usually enjoy amnesia plots very much. Going into Fledgling, I expected I’d be impatiently awaiting the resolution of the memory loss and the beginning of the ‘real’ story. It was to my surprise that Shori’s amnesia was actually my favourite part of the book. Butler does a really great job with the slow emergence of self from an animalistic state, the hints of recognition in the unfamiliar that never quite pay off, the discomfort of encountering people who knew and maybe loved who you were before and knowing that you have to disappoint them with your inability to be that person right now, and maybe ever again. I also appreciated the fact that she really committed to that aspect of the story and didn’t bring in some magical mojo to fix it, which is an unfortunate cliche that must surely be even more tempting in a story where the sort-of-supernatural could be used to explain things away.

Shori’s initial explorations of self take place within a relationship that is on some levels deeply repellant to read about, and it’s an interesting way to bring home the otherness of what she is. On the surface, you have a ‘child’ who looks to be about ten or eleven years of age entering into an intimate relationship with a grown man, which if the child were human would be a despicable thing. When the child is actually a decades-old blood-drinking inhuman in a childlike shell, actually older than the man she’s involved with, that changes the dynamic considerably… But then we find out that despite her age in human terms, Shori is a child by her people’s standards, and I’m back to feeling ambiguous and icked out by the whole thing.

It’s not the only way in which the book messes with issues of consent, either, and again, that’s one of its most interesting layers. Shori’s kind enter into symbiotic relationships with humans, rather than existing off of them solely as parasites, and the humans do get a really good deal out of it, including great health and incredible longevity. But it comes with a price, part of which is that the symbionts, once bonded, can never leave, and can never really disobey. It’s a compulsion built into the blood. When that relationship is entered into with informed consent on the symbiont’s side, maybe that’s fine and dandy — but when the vampire creating this relationship doesn’t remember that fact about herself until it’s almost too late, until the choice she’s offering you to flee is barely still a choice at all, it’s pretty damn awful, in my view. I think it’s some very good character work on Butler’s part that I went back and forth between being horrified by Wright, and horrified for him.

Shori’s narrative has a kind of formal and detached tone to it, which keeps the reader at arm’s length, but it worked for me because I dislike reading about vampires who all sound like disaffected 21st century hipsters. I enjoy vampire stories in which the vampires have, to some degree, an alien mindset, and one of the best ways to capture that feeling is with their use of language.

It was after the midway point where things started to fall apart. I was expecting it to remain more of a character study, but when the murder mystery takes centre stage, a lot of the good character work falls by the wayside. I was interested in delving deeper into what it was like for the symbionts who weren’t offered informed consent before entering into the symbiosis. I was interested in a deeper exploration of the racial component to the story, in Shori’s identity as a woman of colour since it was set up to play a pivotal role in why she and those around her were targeted, but that component ended up being very surface-level: It basically just amounts to ‘Yes, vampires can be racist too’. I wasn’t expecting social commentary on the level of Kindred, but when I know what Butler can do, it seemed like a wasted opportunity.

But we don’t get those things. Instead we get a vampiric episode of Law & Order, in which the proceedings are about as repetitious and dull as most courts where the defendants don’t have fangs. It seems an odd thing to say about a story whose issues include too much repetition, but I think it would have benefitted from being a longer book. The need for the court case to be the denouement, thereby forcing it to take the spotlight, would have been eliminated if we had gone beyond it to see Shori’s challenges in setting up a new community with no eldermothers to guide her path.

Perhaps another part of the issue is that the closure we get isn’t really for Shori or her story, it’s for the lives of people we never met and that the main character doesn’t remember. It’s hard to feel passionate about an aspect of the story in which the protagonist we’ve come to care for is sidelined by ghosts.

From that midway point on the pacing just isn’t there, and it’s the main reason why, despite Butler’s lovely writing and the fascinating premise, I can only say that I liked it, not that I loved it.

3 stars

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Review: The Complete Lyonesse, by Jack Vance

The Complete LyonesseThe Lyonesse trilogy shares a commonality with The Lord of the Rings in that it forms one novel which is commonly divided into three to its detriment. It’s a book that is much greater than the sum of its parts; when taken into consideration as a whole, its interweaving of Celtic-inspired legendry, Grimm- and Perrault-style didactic fairytales, and feudal politicking makes for a defining work of fantasy.

The story begins with Suldrun, the young daughter of King Casmir of Lyonesse and his Queen, Sollace. There is no love lost between Suldrun and her parents, who wished for a boy of more robust character, and as with so many young women of her time, to her family she is primarily of use to cement an alliance in marriage. She rejects her fate, though, and is sentenced to live out her days confined in her garden, a peaceful, neglected part of the castle grounds that leads down to the sea, until she comes to her senses. Or, as it happens, until the lost prince of an enemy nation washes up onto her garden’s lonely shore.

Suldrun’s story is a gentle first step into a wider world in which she ultimately plays little part, so although the star-crossed lovers plot is rather tedious, it paves the way. From there the narrative expands into three main layers. At its simplest, you have the adventures of one or two isolated characters, like the children Dhrun and Glyneth, or later Glyneth’s time in Tanjecterly; these stories feel the most traditionally fairytale-like, with the world itself the primary threat as each new hamlet or spot of wilderness unveils some new strangeness. The middle layer is the political, with the Elder Isles forming a large game of chess between Casmir and Aillas, and it’s here that Lyonesse feels most connected to the real world and the narrative to that of a typical epic fantasy. The final layer belongs to the wizards, who operate on a mythological scale, and the prohibition of their Merlin-like lead figure prevents the scale of their power from diminishing the importance of the other conflicts, while subtle breaches of that ban keep their machinations connected to the other threads of the story. And it’s on this layer that the trilogy derives its sense of the melancholy, because they serve as a reminder of the futility of these other struggles. Lyonesse will pass into legend, will eventually be remembered only as an echo in the stories of the Round Table or the sinking of Atlantis.

These are difficult characters to connect to at times, because they aren’t really creatures of multiple dimensions. They are very archetypal, relatable for what they represent rather than for who they are. Perhaps the most compelling as people are the wizards, for their fascinating practice of splitting aspects of their own personalities off into separate individuals, their scions, so that they might live and operate on multiple levels. I would have liked to spend more time exploring the relationship between some of the wizards and their scions, but it’s an understandable choice on the author’s part to avoid doing so, since it would likely have diminished the mystique of people whose narrative power is, after all, sometimes most effective by their absence.

If sometimes the one-note characters render the story a little flat, it’s easily compensated for by Vance’s droll humour, which is in fine form throughout. It’s not the kind of humour where I stop to read side-splitting passages aloud to my family, but rather the kind that so subtly permeates the page that it grows larger in hindsight. His language is arch and lovely, but I expect he remains undervalued as a comedian, certainly in this work.

Initially I was a little disappointed with the transition from The Green Pearl, the second part of the trilogy, to the third, Madouc, as the middle book is very political, whereas the setup of the third is so reminiscent of Suldrun’s Garden as to seem a step backwards. By the end of the book, I’d revised my estimation: While the pacing is frustrating to deal with, it’s an incredibly fitting full-circle ending, as Madouc gets to be what Suldrun never was: Capable of her own self-rescue. In that respect, it’s not a repetition, but an evolution.

I heartily recommend The Complete Lyonesse to fantasy lovers, with the caveat that reading the three volumes back to back is as essential for proper appreciation as it is with The Lord of the Rings. The black book all-in-one edition of the trilogy by Gollancz makes for a lovely way to appreciate this work, albeit a wrist-breakingly heavy one.

4 stars

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Review: Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, by Mary Gentle

Ilario: The Lion's EyeSet in the same world as Ash: A Secret History, a few decades earlier, Ilario follows the exploits of a young intersex painter as their voyage to learn from an artist pioneering the adoption of perspective to replace the old iconography is rapidly complicated by their family’s desire to eliminate the political complications they represent.

I was really looking forward to Ilario for a multitude of reasons. I loved the alternate history that Mary Gentle presented in Ash, and was excited to uncover more of the world-building here. One of my favourite historical periods is that of the Italian city-states during the early Renaissance, so I was particularly keen to see Gentle’s take on what they would have looked like in her alt history where the papal throne has been empty for centuries, something which Ilario’s desire to study under Masaccio would, I hoped, give a great view into. And intersex protagonists are all too rare, so the perspective of an intersex person living in a time of massive social change, written by an author who is very adept with different takes on gender roles and stepping outside of the gender binary… It should’ve been a fantastic book.

To be fair, it is still a decent page-turner, and perhaps a better book than my review might otherwise suggest, which is why I’ve gone a little easy on it in the rating. But compared to the standard set by Ash and the weight of my expectations, it was definitely a disappointment.

Ilario themself is not an enjoyable person to follow around. They are spectacularly petulant, stubborn, and impetuous, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, it just doesn’t jive with their background at all. They’ve essentially lived most of their life in slavery and talk many times about what it’s like for a slave to live with all of the cautions they need to take of their master, but the Ilario we see on the page hasn’t got the common sense with which the gods blessed an infant.

It would also be fine if they ever actually faced any consequences for their constant stream of temper tantrums and rash decisions, but Mary Gentle here is like the anti-Robin Hobb, blessing her character with every fortuitous circumstance she can throw their way. Their background is awful, but relative to the times and circumstances of their life, Ilario actually lives a really charmed existence from shortly after the story actually picks up. They’re sheltered from their family’s machinations by a wealthy parent who accepts them unconditionally, and is also a military commander with troops who also accept Ilario with little more than the odd blush or uncomfortable fidget, and are willing to throw down their lives for them. The Egyptian spy who rescues them from slavery in a roundabout way uses their political clout to shield them all the time and never expects any kind of repayment, along with remaining unswervingly devoted no matter what Ilario throws at them. Which is quite a lot, literally as well as figuratively.

I did really want to like the relationship between Ilario and Rekhmire’. (No, I’m not mistyping Rekhmire or Rekhmiré. It’s really Rekhmire’ in the book. Does that bug anyone else as much as it bugs me?) From his side, it’s lovely. His love for the totality of who Ilario is seems less demonstrative but more authentic than Honorius’s, who can be so blindingly paternalistic that he sometimes comes off as loving the idea of fatherhood more than knowing and loving who his child really is. But Rekhmire’ respects Ilario, gives as good as he gets when Ilario disrespects him, but is still always there for them. I don’t really think Ilario gave enough back in return for me to truly root for them, though.

It also bothered me that as an intersex person who has faced massive prejudice — admittedly, most of it in the past rather than in the actual story — Ilario is not only quite prejudiced themself, but there isn’t really any come to Jesus moment where they have to stop and confront that prejudice, or be confronted by the effects of it. One of Rekhmire’s colleagues was born male and castrated as a child, Egypt preferring eunuchs for scholars and spies, but she identifies and presents as a woman. Ilario is quite scornful and misgenders her frequently, and then she just fades out of the story without Ilario’s prejudice ever being addressed, which makes me wonder why it was included in the first place.

There are two areas of Ilario’s character which I think were handled well, even if they weren’t really enough to redeem Ilario to me. One is the artist’s eye through which they view the world. There are some very evocative descriptions of the way Ilario will stop to imagine the colours with which they would paint a scene, to appreciate the lines and shadows of a person. And I really loved the way that the author captured how huge a shift in mindset the introduction of linear perspective was. The other was the very non-didactic way in which parenthood for an intersex person in a very strictly gendered society was explored, with some unusually mature reflection from Ilario on how they felt about maternal or paternal instinct.

Given the book is something of a tour de force through many different locations, including the Italian city-states, Carthage, and Egypt, I anticipated some really lush world-building, but compared to Ash it was quite flat. It actually relied on the details already established in Ash such that I think anyone who hadn’t read that book first would be quite confused by some of the things that didn’t get explained, which, given this is neither prequel nor sequel but an unrelated story set in the same world, may be off-putting to some readers. I think the main reason why the world as depicted here feels so shallow despite the characters being well-travelled is because of how sheltered Ilario is in most of the locations. The narrative seemed to get stuck in a holding pattern for a while: Ilario is stuck indoors until both they and the reader are going stir crazy, Ilario throws a tantrum (and some vases) about it, they get to go out under armed guard, something promptly goes wrong, and we go back to the beginning of the cycle.

I am glad I read the book. Mary Gentle is a very talented writer, though this is not the best showcase of those talents. The setting Ash and Ilario share is one of the most interesting alternative histories out there, and I’m happy that she chose to return to it. There are some very loveable secondary characters here, like the cutest Pharaoh in the history of Egypt. The book will linger in my memory for some time. I would, however, only recommend it to fans of Ash who are keen to see more of its world and willing to adjust their expectations regarding the more limited scope of the story. I recommend that everyone else read Ash instead.

3 stars

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Review: Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle

AshAsh is the story of the last year of the life of a female mercenary captain who leads her company into the conflict between France and Burgundy in the mid-15th century, only… this Burgundy is a little bit different than ours. It lies at the heart of an alternate history in which Carthage still stands, the centre of an expansionist Visigothic empire cursed to live under eternal twilight; the Throne of Saint Peter has stood empty for centuries; and the last of the Valois Dukes of Burgundy may be all that stand between a worse fate than merely a Visigothic Europe and the blotting out of the sun.

This history is framed by letters between an author translating a new edition of Ash’s story and his prospective publisher, both of whom are initially under the impression that this is a history that corresponds with our own. The letters begin to form a narrative of their own as it becomes apparent that this is a past too fantastical to be ours, and strange things happen in the modern day to the evidence that supports it.

Ash herself is like an inverted Joan of Arc figure. After an early life religious experience, she hears a voice inside her head that she believes belongs to a saint, and which guides her in all of her battlefield tactical decisions. She’s also thoroughly earthy, roughened and toughened — where not broken — by an orphan upbringing short on love and full of abuse, violence, and loss, even by the standards of the time. She is far from the virginal figure of Joan, an impression cemented by the translator’s decision to use modern language, and a coarse take on it at that, in his version of her story.

Though her smart mouth and quick wit are a little too handy to ring true, even taking into account the deliberate modernisation of her speech, Ash is, for the most part, compelling and brimming with life enough to warrant the vast amount of pages we spend in her head. During her lengthy (admittedly sometimes a little too lengthy) solitary escapades the narrative delves deeply into her flaws and insecurities, but the best moments are when she rallies her company around her and slaps on competence and bravado like armour, contrasting her humanity with her legend, and painting a vivid picture of the high personal cost to any woman of the era who achieves the latter. She’s an amalgamation of many of the women who have risen to the apex of history, at the cost of being torn apart by it — or, as the narrative would suggest, many of them are fragments of her.

There is one serious flaw in her characterisation, though, and it’s Fernando del Guiz. Every time he appears on the page, she promptly becomes too stupid to live. While their history explains some of her initial reaction, I would have expected the adult commander of hundreds of men that she is by then to have snapped out of it as soon as it became apparent that she would never have his respect. It’s difficult to believe that someone who turned into a teenage girl blinded by her hormones every time she saw a pretty face would have continued to hold her prestigious and, given her gender and the prejudices of the time, precarious position in charge of so many hardened mercenaries.

Despite this very much being Ash’s story, the vast supporting cast features a wealth of vivid personalities. Ash is at her best, both personally and in terms of how well she’s written, when she’s with her company, and they in turn are highlighted as distinct and complex personalities in their varied relationships with her. I felt there was a little touch of similarity to Erikson’s Malazan series here in regards both to the excellent feel both authors have for the morbid and deadpan military humour of soldiers alleviating the tedium of waiting to see if they’re going to die, and to Angelotti’s demented gunners reminding me more than a little of the Bridgeburners’ sappers.

By far my favourite secondary character is Florian, the company doctor who illustrates a completely different way from Ash of being a capable woman in a largely forbidden profession in this man’s world. That she is at times maddening and unlikeable didn’t detract from my enjoyment of her; I rather like the fact that she’s allowed to be, and that at the same time she’s so driven to do good, probably more so than Ash who is more inclined to arrive at the greater good by accident on the way to protecting herself and her own.

Burgundy itself is something of a character in this novel, and it made me a little sad for this history that never was, to imagine a present in which Dijon is still a centre of European culture… I’ve read a number of alternative histories but struggle to think of any with a setting as creative as Ash. Mary Gentle obviously has an elegant grasp of both the actual history of the region and its personalities, and the nuances of the changes she wrought upon that canvas, and the result is a fantastical Europe that feels far more alive than the flat, underdeveloped what-ifs of most alt history. I spent a while in the first half of the book trying to decide if it felt more like historical fiction with elements of fantasy or fantasy with a veneer of historical fiction, before reaching the point where I was so immersed that I realised it didn’t feel like either — it simply felt like nothing else out there.

There are two areas in which it didn’t quite hold up for me. One is in the framing device, the letters and e-mails between the author Pierce Ratcliff and his editor. I actually loved the idea, it was the execution that didn’t work for me. Pierce comes off shady as hell, and the editor extremely erratic — weirdly hostile at times when it seemed she should have been more open to communication, and yet very gullible when she frankly should have been filing his letters in the recycling and considering a restraining order. I would have enjoyed the way the secret history unfolded in the modern day (which was such an appealing concept!) a whole lot more if this way of delivering exposition about it hadn’t been so awkward.

The other is the ending. This was a book that took its time. Sometimes almost too much so, but never enough to push over into tedium. I probably wouldn’t have complained if the whole book were faster paced; but I also liked the pacing just fine as it was up until the end, so the thing that really bothered me was the lack of consistency when all that gradual buildup leads to a climax that’s over so fast I had whiplash. I can appreciate the need not to make an already immense book even longer, but this was not the area in which to stint on page count. It felt a little unsatisfactory.

Still, one could argue it’s fitting in its own way. This is not so much a story as it is a piece of a biography, a slice of a life, and life doesn’t always conclude in a satisfactory or timely manner. The journey is still worth it — I’m talking about the book now, although that works as a bit of trite philosophy to conclude the analogy as well — and what a hell of a journey Ash was.

4.5 stars

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