The English Student

So...I read a lot. I mean, a LOT. And my family and friends are, generally, bored of listening to me witter on about books. So here I am, Internet. Lucky you.


My Wordpress blog, my Other Internet Home, is here.

The Complete Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi

The Complete Persepolis - which I think actually compiles two novels, Persepolis and its sequel Persepolis 2 - is an autobiographical graphic novel telling the story of Marjane, a girl who grows up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. The story, as Satrapi mentions in her preface, is in part a corrective to the West's impression of Iran as a place of terrorism and extremism.


I'm not sure it corrects that view so much as complicates it. Certainly it's critical of the oppressive Islamic regime that took power in 1979, and especially its effect on the rights of women. It makes clear in heart-wrenching detail some of the sacrifices and the tragedies that ordinary Iranian people faced during the revolution and during the wars. But it also paints a picture of a nation that's more liberal and more modern - at least behind closed doors, in the cities - than the one we commonly imagine: a middle class that throws clandestine alcoholic parties and buys black-market music quite easily. Marjane and her family are very much people on whom a near-dystopic regime is imposed; they love their country and its history, but aren't made extensions of it.


One of the interesting things about the book, which I didn't think about until halfway through, is that it's drawn in black and white, which means that none of the characters look Iranian; or, rather, their Iranian-ness isn't made obvious. That, particularly, comes into play in the middle section of the book, when Marjane is sent to Europe by her parents to continue her education outside the regime's influence. Her difference is marked to the European characters by her looks; but to the reader (an extension of Marjane's consciousness) she (and her family) is no different. We shouldn't have to be told this, of course, but knowing something intellectually is different to being confronted with it visually, and I think this de-othering is part of the book's project.


This raises all sorts of questions about Westernisation, though, something which the book's doing deliberately. It's worth saying again: we shouldn't need a book like this to explain a country and a culture to us (though I'm not debating that we do need it). It feels like it's both aligning with Western-centrism and indicting it at the same time.

Ancillary Mercy - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Mercy is the third in Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy following the quest of Breq, who used to be the AI of the warship Justice of Toren and has now been reduced to a single body, to inconvenience Anaander Mianaai, the tyrannical ruler of the Radch, whose multiple bodies have turned against each other and split the Radch empire up into chaos.


Perhaps I just wasn't concentrating very hard, but Ancillary Mercy felt kind of...shapeless? It's centred on the fact that Anaander, the part of her hostile to Breq, has entered the Athoek system, where Breq's new ship, Mercy of Kalr, is stationed, and is vaguely threatening both the planet of Athoek and, more urgently, the station in orbit around it. Meanwhile, on the station itself, some of the richer residents of Athoek station are stalling the refit of an area that was flooded during the second book, which was inhabited mainly by Ychana, an ethnic minority seen as undesirable; and the dangerous alien Presger have sent a translator to Athoek to find out what happened to their last one.


There's a lot of politics, as there was in the second book, and the varying strands of the novel - the racism of Athoek station's upper class, the threat from Anaander Mianaai, the interference of the Presger - all tie up nicely in its conclusion. It's a book about various kinds of oppression - oppression which hardly ever stems from actual bad faith but from carelessness and thoughtlessness and a blindness to the way things are. In particular, the discussion about AI rights, which has been bubbling under for the first two books, surfaces properly (and satisfyingly) here.


For a book about someone who used to be a hive mind, it's also very singular. By which I mean that it takes place almost entirely in a single system, focusing solely on Athoek's concerns; Breq, in fact, firmly rejects offers of help from captains stationed in nearby systems. It focuses on making just this one corner of the empire a bit safer, a bit more just; no promises are made for the rest of it, there are no universe-saving grand political gestures. It's realistic about the political reach of Breq and her crew.


Stylistically, and this I think is why my mind finds it hard to remember specifics about it, it's quite oblique: as in, its characters will discuss something without being specific, and I think we as readers are supposed to pick up what theyre talking about. Which means you sort of have to work at reading it, to go back and pay attention to inflection and implication - just as its characters do, I suppose, in their various political maneouverings.


I liked it, as much as I liked the previous books, but I don't think I was quite in the right mood for it. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff going on here; it just hasn't made that much of an impression on me.


Embassytown - China Mieville

Embassytown - China MiƩville

A good Mieville is always a treat, and Embassytown is very good Mieville.


(Not quite as good as Perdido Street Station, alas, but then hardly anything is.)


It's science fiction, and reasonably hard SF at that. The eponymous Embassytown is a colony on the edge of known space, cut off from its imperial power by years of travel through the immer, the always to our fragile universe's now. Embassytown is enveloped, on sufferance, in a larger city, which is populated by the Hosts, alien beings with two mouths who speak a language that's unique in the universe because it's impossible to lie using it. Because so-called Language is spoken with two mouths at once, and because the meaning of Language doesn't lie in the sounds but in the mind that creates them, the only humans who can speak to the Hosts are the Ambassadors, clones whose minds are linked by training and technology.


Our Heroine is Avice, a traveller on the immer who's returned to her home planet with her new husband Scile, a linguist who's avid to study the Hosts' language. (Avice and Scile, incidentally, have a relationship that's by choice non-sexual, which was a nice surprise.) Avice isn't really a primary mover for most of the book - mainly she's trying to find out things, work out Embassytown politics - but she's always centrally placed by her minor celebrity as a traveller who's returned home to observe the turmoil that comes to Embassytown when a new Ambassador, sent by the imperial power, basically fucks up the Hosts' minds by speaking Language not quite right.


What Embassytown is, basically, is an SF novel with a classic pulp structure whose plot turns on linguistic theory: the idea that language signifies but doesn't refer, that it's the sound of language that's important not the intent behind it.


That's really impressive. Because Mieville makes this readable: not just readable but compelling. We don't get too much characterisation, which would be my one complaint, but honestly I think that's a function of the kind of book Mieville's trying to write rather than a specific failing, and the worldbuilding and the ideas behind it are so well-developed that I can give him a pass on that.


Add to that Mieville's usual hallmarks - the neologisms, the moral ambiguity, the carefully calculated brutality, the deflation of narrative expectation - and you get something that's bizarre and fascinating and layered and clever.


Like I said, a treat.

Goldenhand - Garth Nix

Goldenhand - Garth Nix

Goldenhand is the fifth book in the Old Kingdom series (well, the fifth-and-a-half if you count The Creature in the Case, which has some bearing on the events of Goldenhand). Set some time after Abhorsen, it follows two main characters as they head for the Clayr's Glacier, where a community of women focus their hereditary gift of Seeing the future through the ice of the Glacier: Ferin, a young woman from an analogue of a Native American culture to the north of the Old Kingdom who's delivering a vital message to the Clayr; and Lirael, now Abhorsen-in-Waiting, who's flying north to the Glacier with Nicholas Sayre, concerned about the potent and unprecedented mixture of Charter and Free Magic within him and wanting to consult the Library of the Clayr where she once worked.


I love the original Old Kingdom trilogy, Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen: I read them when I was younger and they've kind of insinuated themselves into my worldview quietly and unobtrusively. So there was always going to be a high bar for Goldenhand, as there was for Clariel, which came out a year or so ago.


And, as expected, I have mixed feelings about it.


I think the big issue with Goldenhand is really the pacing, which is frankly bizarre. For a good half of the book very little actually happens: it's just travelling, and, yes, Ferin is running from some Free Magic creatures, but, honestly, we don't know why or why we should care. Meanwhile, Lirael and Nick are having embarrassed misunderstandings, which is adorable but plotless, marking time until Ferin gets to the Glacier.


And then...they do reach the Glacier, and everything kicks up a gear. They find out, suddenly, that a host of the Dead and of the nomads in the north are marching on the Old Kingdom, and that the necromancer Chlorr of the Mask is behind it all. They find out that, for contrived reasons, someone is going to have to go to the Empty Lands north of the Great Rift, where there isn't even air to breathe. I mean, all of this is a pretty big deal, and there were only a hundred or so pages left, and I started wondering if (and hoping) there was going to be another book to cover it all.


Nope. The main action of the book takes place in the last seventy pages. It's good action, mind you, as fast-paced as Sabriel, but the weirdly-spaced pacing leaves it feeling rushed and underwhelming - if only Nix had cut some of the filler earlier in the book and expanded those seventy pages.


I also think, perhaps, that Goldenhand is overshadowed by the events of Abhorsen: the binding of Orannis and the Southerling emergency. After all, how the fuck do you follow up what's essentially the aversion of a devastating nuclear war, a long-laid plan to destroy everything that is? How do you pick up with the characters who survived that and not have it be an anti-climax?


Not like this, anyway.


The other thing I really don't like about Goldenhand is its use of a culture that's obviously thinly modelled on a Native American one (in that Ferin's people live in tribes named after wild animals, have shamans and spend their days attacking other tribes) without any attempt to depict it accurately. I'm emphatically not claiming any kind of knowledge of Native American culture, but this just feels like a lazy attempt to introduce some cultural diversity into the Old Kingdom books without doing the necessary research, or taking the time to create a backstory and a rich culture for this new land. It's neither a fully-realised fantasy culture nor a properly-researched analogue of a real-world one, which is a crappy and problematic place to be.


OK. Despite all appearances, I didn't actually hate Goldenhand. Lirael is one of my very favourite characters in fiction, so that was probably impossible. Particularly, I loved Lirael and Nick's romance: fraught, as I said before, with misunderstandings and awkwardness and uncertainty - we feel Lirael's social awkwardness almost painfully. If there's one thing Nix is great at, it's rendering teenage experience - particularly female experience - into fantasy without making either teenagerhood or fantasy feel underserved. I love that Lirael and Nick literally want to snog all the time, and that that intensity of feeling (which is very teenage) isn't treated as frivolous; that it's balanced out by Lirael's dedication to her duty as Abhorsen-in-Waiting, and she doesn't lose sight of that duty.


The ending made me cry, a little bit. Goddammit, Lirael deserves this romance.


Goldenhand's really a very mixed bag, but that's not going to stop me picking up the next one. (If there is one.)

A Gathering of Shadows - V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows - V.E. Schwab

A Gathering of Shadows is the sequel to Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic; it picks up four months or so after the end of the first book, when Kell bound Rhy's life to his to save it and Lila danced off into the distance of Red London. Now, the thrice-yearly Element Games are approaching, a Triwizard-ish tournament in which thirty-six magicians from the three great empires of Red London's world compete for honour, glory and a large amount of cash. It's a significant political event as well as a sporting one, which means that Red London's royal family (including Kell and Rhy) is under unusual pressure to perform their parts.


And Lila is returning to London with her flamboyant privateer captain Alucard. Needless to say, Lila, Kell and Rhy get embroiled in the Games pretty quickly.


A Gathering of Shadows is deeper, I think, than its predecessor: whereas Darker Shade concentrated mainly on Lila and Kell, Gathering hops through the heads of a number of characters as they collide in various ways, although Schwab is always careful to introduce new characters properly to us before we see things from their viewpoint. This wider focus is one of the great strengths of the book, I think: Schwab releases information to us in bits and pieces, at exactly the right time to keep the tension up. Which is good, because this also gives the book the illusion of pacing. As in Darker Shade, not much actually happens here, and the book's quite happy to wander down random tangents; but it's always in the service of character, and so it serves to enrich the world of the novel without putting in pace-killing infodumps.


The characters, of course, are the book's other great strength: Kell and Lila especially escape the typical fantasy labels of "good" and "evil" and manage just to be "people", who sometimes make good decisions and sometimes questionable ones, and make them for all kinds of reasons, selfish and unselfish. I desperately wanted more of Lila, the cross-dressing piratical woman from Grey London; not that we didn't get plenty of her, but she is so fantastic that I did sort of want the whole book narrated by her. Alucard, too, a new character for this book, is larger than life and fascinating.


This is very much a Middle Book, setting up plot for the series finale; but it never felt that way when I was reading it, and I'd be quite happy to stay in the world for twice the time I got in it.

The Return of the King - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Return of the King  - J.R.R. Tolkien

Like the early chapters of Towers, the first couple of chapters of Return are easily my least favourite, dealing as they do with the extremely un-hobbitty affairs of Rohan and Gondor.


I always love the Field of Cormallen: Tolkien writes joy very well, and despite the sadness that comes after it I think this is the chapter that shows best of all just how significant an evil Sauron was to the people of Middle-earth.


And I even loved the Scouring of the Shire towards the end, even if the book does trickle on for rather a long time after its actual climax.


Ups and downs, ups and downs. The books are different every time I read them. And some of the bits in The Two Towers were very comforting to read in the aftermath of the US election especially.

The Two Towers - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Two Towers - J.R.R. Tolkien

Lord, the first half of this book is long: not in the sense of number of pages but in the fact that it takes a significant injection of willpower to get through it all. It's by far my least favourite stretch of Tolkien: I'm just not that interested in all the politicking and the epic battles in Rohan - possibly because my favourite parts of The Lord of the Rings are the bits about the weak changing the fate of the world when the wise falter, and Aragorn and Gandalf are pretty much the definition of the wise.


The Treebeard sections are quite fun, though.


The second half is much better (although I know there are fans who find the Dead Marshes a bit of a slog): the relationship between Sam and Frodo is perennially touching, Faramir is quite simply awesome and wonderful (he's the one thing the films got drastically wrong, in my opinion), and Gollum is probably my favourite character in the trilogy - tragic and reasonably psychologically complex.


On to Return of the King!

The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring - J.R.R. Tolkien

This remains my favourite of the three LOTR books: I love the magical early chapters in the Shire and the Old Forest and Bree when the tone is still slightly whimsical and the world wild and wide and magical - before the Fellowship heads on out into the Wild and the book becomes much more dour. After those early chapters the world feels like mainly landscape, with lots of orcs and a couple of Lovecraftian monsters (the Watcher in the Water particularly feels...unTolkien-y?).


I mean, I like landscape, it's just a different feel to the book.


Particularly feeling the plight of the Elves, too, their inevitable loss of the land they love - either to Sauron or to the rise of Men.

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien

Continuing my Tolkien re-read.


The Hobbit sees the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins scooped up by a pack of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf to go on a Quest to rescue the dwarves' gold from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Along the way they meet goblins, giant spiders, hungry trolls and more.


Most of it I found absolutely charming: there's a lovely fairytale vibe to the quest parts, a sense that there are all kinds of magics lurking just around the corner, and actually I wish we had more of this Middle-earth as well as the very different Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings, which is wonderful in its own way but much less mysterious and much heavier.


I got bogged down in all the politics when the party actually get to the Lonely Mountain where the treasure is hidden, but then I think I always do. The ending chapters are specially lovely, though:


"So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending."

The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien

The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien, Ted Nasmith,  Christopher Tolkien

A reread. I have no idea what number I'm on now; the nearest guess I can make is "umpteenth".


My response to it continues to shift every time I read it. I nearly cried at Beren and Luthien (but then this is not an unusual occurrence) and the Downfall of Numenor got me a bit too.


This time around I read it in quite short bursts, which suits it well, I think: one of the things that really struck me was how profoundly un-novelistic it is. It's hard to say anything about authorial intent here, because The Silmarillion as a whole, consistent text is so much a creation of Christopher Tolkien's; but it really is a history, a myth-cycle, interested in representing a truth through symbol and literalised metaphor rather than, e.g., psychological realism. What it definitely isn't is entry-level Tolkien.


I also love the rhythms of its language, the profoundly Old English cadences Tolkien's philological background lends to its Homeric rise-and-fall narrative. Every now and then I'll discover a new reference back to those Old English sources and it will make my geeky heart sing and immediately start analysing.

The King - Kader Abdolah

The King - Nancy Forest Flier, Kader Abdolah

I failed utterly to get into this at all.


I know this is entirely my fault: the book, which is translated from the Dutch and tells a story about the modernisation of Persia (modern-day Iran) through the eyes of a weak shah, clearly draws on a literary tradition that I have no experience of. It's told as a fairytale of sorts - simple language, rare dialogue, events often summarised rather than experienced. Historical characters are fictionalised, and I think a century or so of history is collapsed into the reign of one shah, which makes the historical era hard to place.


In other words, the novel seems to be going for a certain kind of fictionalisation of history - making it, almost, into legend.


Which is interesting, in its way. I think it's probably doing some interesting thinking somewhere in there. But I just couldn't get emotionally invested.

The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas

The End of Mr. Y - Scarlett Thomas

There are some books that just swallow you up, aren't there? You just want to inhale as much of them as possible as fast as you can, and they kind of take over your life for a few days, and it's sad but also sort of a relief that you can go back to normal sane reading for a while.


That was The End of Mr. Y for me.


Which is kind of appropriate, because it' can I put this? It's a very trippy book. It starts out as a novel about a cynical and rather lonely PhD student, Ariel (and I am a sucker for novels about cynical and lonely academics), who finds by chance an extremely rare Victorian novel by an author she happens to be studying in a second-hand bookshop. The book, however, turns out to contain a secret: a recipe that will allow the reader to enter a dimension made of pure thought. Travellers in this dimension can read others' memories and even travel into the past. Of course, there are those trying to get hold of the book, and Ariel, for nefarious and murderous ends; Ariel needs to escape them not only for her own sake but for the sake of the world.


Oh, and if you stay in the thought-dimension for too long, you die.


Summed up like that, it sounds like the misbegotten lovechild of The Da Vinci Code and The Matrix, and, yes, in some places it does read...a little over the top, especially during the more action-packed sequences within the thought-dimension. But there are a couple of things that, for me, raise it above pulpiness: its ideas and its characters.


It's an extremely philosophical book, playing with ideas about quantum physics and semiotics, namechecking Einstein and Darwin and, gods save us, Heidegger and Derrida. At some points, its exposition of things like special relativity, while informative, become a bit info-dumpy and dense; but as a whole I think it's doing something quite clever with all of this, something to do with the sucking void between the signifier and the signified (also a topic for which I am an absolute sucker).


And then there is Ariel: damaged by a string of bad experiences, so crushingly disappointed with her life that she won't admit it to herself. I haven't rooted so hard for a character for a long while: for her to stop making self-destructive decisions, to find some self-worth and let herself reach out to people. She's a fascinating character, and I would quite happily read another book about her.


Overall, The End of Mr. Y is a novel about losing yourself, and maybe finding the courage to find yourself again, which is what makes its hypnotic, hyperreal qualities so apposite. It's not for everyone: if you like your fiction terse and fast-paced, give this one a miss. But if this is your kind of thing: go for it.



Truthwitch - Susan Dennard

Truthwitch - Susan Dennard

So I quite enjoyed Truthwitch.


It's YA, a fairly typical fantasy story about two young women, Iseult and Safi, who are Threadsisters - essentially very good friends. Iseult is a Threadwitch - she can see people's emotions as "Threads" hovering around their bodies - and Safi is a rare Truthwitch, who can determine truth from lies. The fantasyland they inhabit is on the verge of war - a truce that has kept them at peace for twenty years is about to expire, and negotiations for another look to be, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, short. The various warring kingdoms will, apparently, stop at nothing to get their hands on the Truthwitch, for various reasons, and Safi and Iseult have to navigate the various political factions as best they can.


The real strong point of Truthwitch is the friendship between Safi and Iseult: we see events from both of their POVs, so they're equally important in the book; they're not played off against each other; their relationship isn't made secondary to a romantic one (although there is a romantic interest in the book); and they're actually allowed to love each other as friends. It's rare to see female friendships like this one in YA or in fantasy, where romance is so often more important.


In other respects, though, it's fairly conventional, and that's part of the reason why I enjoyed it: it's comfortingly cod-medieval without coming with the unexamined racism, sexism and classism that comes with most medieval high fantasy (although racism and sexism do exist in this world). The world-building isn't fantastic - we never really get a good sense of what is so valuable about Safi or why magic-users Cleave (their magic goes bad and they explode? I'm not sure) - and there were a number of irritating typos in my hardback copy. I'm not grabbed by the idea of continuing with the series, but it was a nicely comforting read to sink into in the mornings over breakfast.

Rags & Bones - eds. Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt

Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales - Holly Black, Kelley Armstrong, Rick Yancey, Neil Gaiman, Carrie Ryan, Saladin Ahmed, Melissa Marr, Margaret Stohl, Kami Garcia, Tim Pratt, Gene Wolfe, Garth Nix, Charles Vess

Rags & Bones is billed as a book of "New Twists on Timeless Tales", which, silly me, I thought would mean a book of fairytale retellings. (I love fairytale retellings, especially because I'm on a Once Upon A Time kick at the moment.) Although there are a couple of fairytales covered - "Sleeping Beauty" and "Rumpelstiltskin" - most are riffs on Stories that the Writers Happened to Like, which ends up being a rather broad range of inspiration, from Spenser's Faerie Queene through to Kate Chopin's The Awakening. All the stories, however, are somehow fantastical or science fictional, so it's not entirely random. I guess.


The thing with Rags & Bones is that I'm just not sure what the point of the book is. As is admittedly the case with most anthologies, the quality of the stories ranges from highly mediocre to excellent; and most of them, even the more engaging ones, don't feel like they add anything to the original text. Do we really need a retelling of "The Monkey's Paw" set in a post-zombie-apocalypse America? Why?


Without a coherent theme, the book just feels a bit like a vanity project for the editors, with Neil Gaiman's name stuck on the front to help it sell.


Reviews for the individual stories:


That the Machine May Progress Eternally - Carrie Ryan (after E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops"). I haven't read the original, but this felt like one of the more pointless stories; an addendum to Forster's story rather than a tale in its own right. A boy wanders into a vast underground city and...that's it. It also has a rather unpleasant anti-technology slant to it.


Losing Her Divinity - Garth Nix (after Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King"). Again, I haven't read the original. I enjoyed this one, though (in fact, I think it was probably my favourite), mainly because Nix has a real gift for worldbuilding; the story of a man who comes across a goddess on a train, there's a sense of an entire functional world sitting beyond the margins of the pages, waiting to spring into life. The ending is wonderfully creepy, too.


The Sleeper and the Spindle - Neil Gaiman (after "Sleeping Beauty"). As far as I can tell, Rags & Bones is where this story first appeared before being published as a book in its own right. A queen goes to investigate a sleeping plague that threatens her land. I was annoyed by it for the same reason I get annoyed with all of Neil Gaiman's writing: it turns female bodies into creepy decoration while doing feminist lip service. Did we really need the detail about the cobwebs between the serving girl's ample breasts? No, we did not.


The Cold Corner - Tim Pratt (after Henry James' "The Jolly Corner"). A man returns to his small home town in the American South; weird shit starts happening. I felt like it took a long time to set up its premise, and then ended where it should have begun.


Millcara - Holly Black (after J. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla). That title. Why. It's a retelling of Carmilla from the vampire's point of view, only set in modern-day America. Another one that felt just a bit pointless without its original.


When First We Were Gods - Rick Yancey (after Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark"). In a future in which the rich can live forever by transferring between bodies, a married man falls in love with his mortal housemaid. I quite enjoyed this - as in, I wanted to keep reading for the love story - but, like "That The Machine May Progress Eternally", it felt like one of those 70s SF short stories which exist solely to point out the evils of technology. Also, "death makes life meaningful" is one of those truisms that hardly ever gets questioned. It may be true, but it's been an SF crutch for time immemorial and it's not enough nowadays to pin a story on.


Sirocco - Margaret Stohl (after Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto). On the set of a film adaptation of The Castle of Otranto, one of the star's caravans plunges over a cliff and two teenagers fall in love. Tedious.


Awakened - Melissa Marr (after Kate Chopin's The Awakening). A selkie story, and another story which kept me reading even if I didn't love it. I think it's a nicely redemptive take on Chopin's story, even if it's not as powerful; one that offers freedom as an alternative to death.


New Chicago - Kelley Armstrong (after W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw"). The aforesaid zombie-apocalypse retelling of the story about a monkey's paw which grants three cursed wishes. There are probably interesting things you could do with this story to subvert it; Armstrong doesn't.


The Soul Collector - Kami Garcia (after "Rumpelstiltskin"). A policewoman with a troubled past has to go undercover with the criminal organisation she escaped years previously. A mysterious figure helps her infiltrate the group - for a price, dearie. It doesn't feel like a retelling in the traditional sense, but it is one of the handful of stories here that feels like it's doing something useful with the original.


Without Faith, Without Love, Without Joy - Saladin Ahmed (after Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene). One of the best stories in the book, because, again, it does something useful with the original: reimagining Book 1 of The Faerie Queene (mercifully without the rhyme) through the eyes of the Saracen knight Sansfoy, it's a story about the injustice of coopting someone into a narrative that they have no voice in.


Uncaged - Gene Wolfe (after William B. Seabrook's "The Caged White Werewolf of the Saraban"). A man rescues the wife of a dead plantation owner somewhere in Africa - but what is her secret? It's very Kipling-ish and slightly colonial and not very interesting.

Radiance - Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance - Catherynne M. Valente

Radiance is the story - or a story, or many stories - of Severin Unck, the daughter of celebrated filmmaker Percival Unck, who disappeared while she working on a documentary about the unexplained destruction of a small diving village on Venus.


Because the book is set in a solar system very different to our own: in which we reached space in 1858 and found not eight barren rocks but worlds teeming with strange indigenous life - though none approaching sentience, save perhaps for the mysterious Venusian callowhales, whose milk (which may not be really milk) is essential to sustain human life on the planets of the solar system, protecting human bone density in the different planets' gravities. The present day of the book - although it's spread out over several decades - resembles the early years of film in our world: Edison has patented the use of colour and sound in film, meaning that both are prohibitively expensive to use, so most films are still shot in black-and-white, and are silent.


So Radiance is a sort of post facto reconstruction of the story of Severin's disappearance, as her father struggles to make a film of the disaster and come to some sort of closure. It's told in bits and scraps of evidence: the little film that remains from the Venus expedition, interviews with the crew who were there, the stories Percival tells to himself to try to make sense of it all. It reminds me a little of Night Film, and a little of House of Leaves, only mashed together with Valente's lushly hypnotic prose and world-building. I've seen it called decopunk, which is probably as close to a decent description of its aesthetic as I can think of.


It's a book that weaves together several storylines, and doesn't come up with any hard-and-fast answers; it's partly about the human attempt to make lives seem story-shaped even when they aren't.


Whatever else it is, it also feels very glamorous in its evocation of early Hollywood. It pays a lot of attention (unsurprisingly) to the visual aspects of Valente's bizarre world, especially to colour, or the lack of it. I just wanted to inhale it and then live in it forever; it's a world that feels utterly real and rich and exciting and also tragic and sinister.


If I could read Valente all the time I would.

The Gracekeepers - Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers: A Novel - Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers is set in a flooded world divided into landlockers and damplings. The landlockers cling to what little land is left, controlling the food supplies which give them their power and their privilege; the damplings sail the seas endlessly, trading whatever they can find, whatever services they can offer, for the meagre supply of landlocker food (supplemented by fish and seaweed, which, of course, the landlockers won't touch).


Into this dystopia sails the circus boat the Excalibur, and so we meet the first of Our Heroines: North, the circus' bear-girl, who is inseparable from and constantly worried about her half-tame bear. The ringmaster wants her to marry his son Ainsel and restore his line to the land; North doesn't want to, but risks being thrown off the boat if she doesn't. She's also pregnant, and trying desperately to hide it as long as she can.


The book's second heroine is Callanish, who lives a lonely life in the graceyards at the equator, burying dead damplings at sea. Their graves are marked by graces, tiny caged birds left on the sea without food or water; when the birds die, the friends and families of the dead person know they can stop mourning.


The book is, essentially, about how North and Callanish meet, briefly, and how they try to find each other again to repair their broken lives.


Firstly, despite the SF trappings, I think The Gracekeepers actually leans more towards magical realism; in that I never got the sense that it really cared about how its setting works that much. (There are references to oppressive laws, a brutal military; but who sets these laws, and why? Why is it illegal to bury damplings anywhere other than a graceyard? What's the point of starving the birds alive?) In that way it reminded me a bit of Station Eleven: in that it's more about - or wants to be more about - what it means to be human than its post-apocalyptic setting.


Personally, this doesn't bother me that much if it's deliberate. But I don't think I have a good sense of what the book's trying to say. It's a novel that relies very much on its ending to deliver the appropriate punch, ravel up the various threads, reveal its message; but the ending felt to me unsatisfying and weak and somehow too easy.


I enjoyed reading the book, in the sense that I kept wanting to read on and see how Callanish and North would unravel their various life problems.


I was also pleasantly surprised by the complete non-fanfare it gave to the romantic relationship between the two women; it was wonderful that their gender was presented as utterly unworthy of comment.

(show spoiler)



I just felt like it didn't exactly live up to its promise.