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

November 25, 2015

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

Review: Ash: A Secret History, by Mary Gentle

November 23, 2015

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

Review: Owl and the Japanese Circus (Adventures of Owl #1), by Kristi Charish

November 16, 2015

Owl and the Japanese CircusAlix, (un)popularly known as Owl, used to be an archaeology student. After getting kicked out of her PhD programme, she turned antiquities thief. It would have been a lucrative gig, had it not brought her into contact with the wrong kinds of supernatural (though as far as Owl’s concerned, any kind is the wrong kind); now, with vampires chasing her ever further from her home and wealth, she’s reduced to living out of a Winnebago, running on cheap junk food and wifi for her gaming addiction. Her luck looks set to change when the proprietor of the Japanese Circus casino in Las Vegas offers her a job retrieving an artifact for him, and agrees to solve her vampire problem for her. Of course, the proprietor is a red dragon, and if she lets him down, vampires might be the least of her problems…

The main thing that drew me to this book is the ‘Indiana Jane’ angle. Books that marry the trappings of urban fantasy with the detective novel are a dime a dozen, but noir and pulp fiction are like two sides of the same coin, and it’s refreshing to see an urban fantasy author tackle the genre from a different angle. On the whole, the novel does a good job of balancing the adventures at archaeological sites with the city settings necessary to provide the urban flavour; the scenes at the Japanese Circus, however, ran a little long.

Despite her unusual calling, Owl is the sort of generic plucky twenty-something who are also a dime a dozen in these types of novels, more a bundle of tics and snark than a character with any depth. And man, did some of those tics get repetitive. If she popped one more can of Corona, I’d have wanted to drown her in it. In a genre where many of these characters are profoundly annoying, however, she is blandly inoffensive and sometimes quite humorous.

One of the things about Owl which was kind of presented as a defining quality at the beginning of the book, but got short shrift as the story progressed, was her supposed gaming habit. It was made to sound like a full-blown addiction, and her primary social substitute, and I thought that was a really interesting quality to give to a main character because it’s just such a normal, relatable thing for people in urban fantasy’s target audience, or at least a certain subset of it. As someone who spent part of her twenties on a 100 hour/week Guild Wars habit, and nearly did the same with World of Warcraft, I would have enjoyed seeing how Owl balanced that side of her life and how her gaming world and her supernatural world could have leaked into each other, but there’s only a bit of that. Mostly it just seems to fit too conveniently around her other stuff going on. Also, the game she plays sounds like a theme park MMO written about by someone who never played one, which to a reader very familiar with the genre feels a bit cringe-inducing, like being a teenager and watching someone over thirty trying to talk your language. I don’t know if the author has played MMOs, and maybe she has, but if so it doesn’t come across the way that, say, Felicia Day’s familiarity with them infuses her work on The Guild.

The supporting cast are a bit more colourful than Owl herself. I was doubtful about the obligatory love interest when he was first introduced, but I actually ended up quite liking both him, and them together. It’s neither insta-love nor an irritatingly slow burn, they feel like two people who are awkward about relationships but do genuinely like each other. There’s good banter here, but also warmth. He’s not an overly cocky alpha male; he treats Owl as competent, and when he gets exasperated with her, it’s understandable — she is pretty exasperating. There’s a little bit too much one-sided rescuing going on, and I’d appreciate it if in the second book she gets a few opportunities to pull his ass out of the fire, but I wouldn’t say that in any of them she is damselled. Most importantly, the romance doesn’t overshadow the rest of the book, and for the recluse she appears to be at the beginning of the novel, her friendships get a fair bit of page count — probably more so than many UF protagonists who theoretically have social lives. I like that her best friend is allowed to get annoyed with her over the imbalance of give and take in their relationship, but still has her back.

I also liked that the book goes beyond the usual roll call of supernaturals, and included some things that were both interesting and genuinely unusual. I mean, there’s a dragon, obviously, and if you can include dragons in your urban fantasy story without it feeling hokey then you have my thumbs-up, but even more flavourful were Oricho, and the naga, and the creepy corpse-eating nymphs. (Speaking of which, I have played enough video games that I was yelling ‘NAGA!’ when it was taking Owl too long to catch on. Well, I was thinking it very loudly, anyway. Come on woman, you’re supposed to be a game addict too.)

One thing that really didn’t work for me was her feline sidekick. I don’t like to hate on a cat. I’m a cat person. I’m actively trying to turn into the crazy cat lady over here, but people won’t let me. However, this was not a cat in any way recognisable to me. It couldn’t have been less catlike if it ran around barking. I wouldn’t have minded if the cat was obviously meant to be a bit Other, if it was a talking cat or a magical cat familiar or something, but other than being toxic to vampires it’s presented as really just a cat. And she lugs it around everywhere in a carrier like it’s a handbag, with no apparent difficulty, which kept taking me out of the story. Have you ever tried going places with a cat? The noises range from pitiful to making people think you’re killing it because surely nothing could generate those sounds unless it was being murdered. This is not conducive to swanning around an airport or a night club with one like Owl does. Apparently the author based it on her own cat. I’m… I’m not sure that what she has is a cat.

Despite the fact that it’s forced me to break some kind of record for how many times I can fit the word ‘cat’ into one paragraph, I enjoyed the book’s pluses more than I disliked its minuses, and I’m pleased to hear that the second volume in the series is already available. A lot of urban fantasy series start off a bit rough, and this is a better start than that enjoyed by many I’ve come to love, so fingers crossed that Owl and her story will grow from here.

3 stars

Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

November 9, 2015

The Goblin EmperorMaia is the fourth son of the Emperor of the Elflands, and as a half-goblin conceived of a political marriage his father never wanted to make, he is reviled and exiled from the heart of elven society. It comes as a shock to none more than him when his father and half-brothers are killed in an airship accident, and he is suddenly propelled onto the throne. Maia is kind, shy, the victim of abuse at the hands of his guardian after his mother’s death, and utterly uneducated in politics or courtly manners. Choosing the right allies, forging a new path for his kingdom, and keeping his head around those who would happily remove it from his shoulders are skills he has only days to master.

The Goblin Emperor is not at all a plot-driven novel. It starts with a pivotal event in Maia’s life, but from there it proceeds at a leisurely pace through a tangled skein of courtly relationships to arrive at a denouement less concerned with wrapping up the story in a neat bow than with highlighting the change in Maia himself. For a novel based entirely in the ruling court of the land, the seat of politics, it’s strangely apolitical as well — almost everyone is exactly who you’ll peg them to be when they’re first introduced, and there aren’t any surprises or schemes that can’t be seen coming a mile off. What it is is a character study centered on a rich subject. Maia is a deeply endearing person to get to know, a genuinely good heart who exudes compassion without straying into the saccharine, and whose fears, flaws, and wounds are laid bare. He’s a remedy to the notion that ‘good’ must equal ‘bland’.

I really like the fact that in so many ways, for much of the novel, he’s clueless, and scrambling to cover it with mixed results. He doesn’t know how to be appropriate with his household staff, to be their emperor when he’d rather be their friend, or just not be around them at all. He doesn’t know how to make small talk with lords and ladies. He doesn’t have the first clue about women. And being intelligent doesn’t compensate for lack of education about how the realm is run, and the parts he’ll need to take in running it. His advisors’ conversations often go over his head while he struggles to come up with ways to patch the holes in his knowledge without betraying more vulnerabilities to those waiting to use them against him. Fantasy has a lot of stories about boys who never expected to be kings or emperors unexpectedly landing on the seat of power, and it beggars belief a little when, all too often, Farmboy Joe suddenly revolutionises the running of the kingdom out of the power of goodness of heart, as though political acumen and the vast and complex array of knowledge imparted to royal heirs over decades of preparing to take the throne can be picked up by osmosis faster than most of us could learn to say ‘Can you pass the salt?’ in the local lingo. It’s far more interesting to watch the fish out of water learn to fly.

I appreciate the use of fantasy for creating analogies that subtly tackle real-world social issues, which is attempted on a couple of levels here, but with mixed success. The pale-skinned elves and their supposed contempt for dark-skinned goblins, and Maia’s mixed ancestry, making for a comparison to racial prejudices isn’t exactly a score on the subtlety front, but it could’ve worked well enough had it not been kind of half-heartedly abandoned; we’re supposed to believe that Maia’s goblin ancestry is kind of a big deal, but it’s really only painted as such in the opening pages, being largely set aside by the middle of the book. I think the author did a better job with the role of women in elven society, which has mostly a typical pseudo-medieval outlook on women’s places as baby-makers and tradeable commodities to secure politically convenient marriages, but shows a number of women choosing different paths to try to move beyond that. One of the most heart-warming moments in the book is Maia’s choice to help his half-sister with the freedom to pursue scientific education instead of marriage; she is an astronomer, and he gives her the stars, because as he put it, ‘We were not considered worth educating, either.’ Aww. The women are not all that fully characterised on the whole, though.

Addison’s use of language threw me to begin with, but turned out to be proficient and contributed greatly to the feel of the novel. ‘Thee/thou’ is used in informal speech; the majestic plural ‘we’ is used to refer to oneself in all formal speech; dropping it and referring to oneself as ‘I’ is an almost intimate act. It immediately established a very structured elven society, and Maia’s growth is reflected in his transition from awkwardly botching it to very deliberately using it to erode some of the traditions of his society while upholding others.

Even though the novel doesn’t really wrap all that much up story-wise, I’m comfortable with where it leaves Maia as a person, and don’t really feel the need to revisit him, but if Katherine Addison were to write another set in the same world I’d be keen to pick it up — I would like to see more of the goblins’ own society, which we glimpse in brief when Maia gets to meet some of his mother’s side of the family. In the meantime, I look forward to checking out her work under her other name of Sarah Monette.

4 stars

Review: Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta

November 6, 2015

Memory of WaterIn a future of our world where the polar ice caps have melted, and the maps have been redrawn as nations disappear under salt waves, potable water has become a scarce resource, and the citizens of the New Qian-ruled Scandinavian Union thrive — barely — on desalinated water rationed by the government. The penalties for water crimes are harsh; for concealing and tapping a fresh spring, they are deadly. Noria Kaitio’s family have guarded the spring for generations, and when Noria turns 17, her father, the village tea master, brings her into the secret of its maintenance as he prepares to inaugurate her as the next tea master.

Memory of Water is one of my favourite things: A novel in which the setting is, if not yet apocalyptic, certainly trending that way, but the tale told is an intimate one. This is not about humanity’s grand escape from the brink of annihilation. It’s about a young woman and her family and how they preserve civility in a culture where it is constantly threatened by desperation. The secret of the spring and the decisions that have to be taken to preserve it are important, but equally important is the role of tea master, of the elaborate rituals preserving peace and politeness, of providing the luxury and companionship of the tea house. This is a world where every cup is precious, and the tea masters elevate the partaking of it into something precious as well.

We don’t get to see a lot of how this world came to be, because much of that story is lost to the people living in it as well, so the world beyond the village is painted in broad strokes. The fusion of Chinese and Finnish culture, along with the preoccupation with water brought about by the times, would be fascinating to see more of, but a more detailed approach might have cost the novel some of the ethereality which contrasts so movingly with the desperation of the circumstances it describes. When it is showcased, though, it leads to such striking imagery as the Moonfeast and the Ocean-Dragons.

I didn’t find the message at all heavy-handed. It’s obvious that you cannot write a novel about a water-starved future without the consequences of global warming becoming starkly clear, but the author doesn’t bang the drum, the tone being mournful rather than urgent. This is a future where the battle is lost, and the people of that future give us about as much consideration as we’re giving them. Certainly compared to novels like The Windup Girl or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Capitol trilogy, the didacticism is light.

I found Noria most interesting in her relationships with others. We’re treated to a lot of her inner self, but internally I found her difficult to relate to until the end drew near, as she has an emotional distance that’s not unfitting. She’s like one of those people who, even in the peak of health, seems to be in the process of dying, and whose life is primarily a sequence of letting go. In this, she’s the ideal representative of the humanity of her time. One of the reasons I really liked her friendship with Sanja is because Sanja seemed to spark moments of life back into her, despite her own troubles, just by being present. At the Moonfeast, for a moment, they get to lay aside this ruined world and just be girls, and it’s as beautiful as Ocean-Dragons. Another is the way they encompassed the realistic strain of a friendship involving poverty and comparative wealth, which here is the illicit wealth of water, but didn’t let it tear them apart even though the world around them might.

Emmi Itäranta’s prose alone makes the book a treat to read. It’s delicate and sublime, and the whole work feels laced with sorrow. It’s all the more impressive that Itäranta wrote the manuscript in two languages — she penned both the Finnish and English editions of the novel. That this is also her debut novel in both languages makes it a stunning accomplishment.

Memory of Water has earned its place on my favourites shelf, and I’ll be awaiting the author’s next work with great interest.

5 stars

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