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 Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden - Tasha Tudor, Frances Hodgson Burnett

It's amazing how seriously flawed so-called children's classics can be.


The Secret Garden, which seems fairly universally beloved in Britain, sees the spoiled and listless Mary Lennox orphaned in India by cholera, and brought to her uncle's rambling Victorian manor on the Yorkshire moors. She hears Jane Eyre-like crying in the endless corridors at night, and is intrigued by the mystery of the secret garden, a walled garden shut up by her uncle Mr Craven when his wife died (from falling off the branch she was sitting on? seriously? how high was this branch?).


I mean, the book is basically about how much better Yorkshire is than India for the emotional and physical growth of children, which is pretty fucking rich when English children wouldn't even be in India if the British hadn't gone and invaded it. The amazing, hearty, British Yorkshire air essentially transforms the petty and constantly ill Mary (the heat in India, apparently, was really bad for her) into a considerate and healthy person through the Power of Nature (which, they don't have Nature in India? really?).


Oh, and the crying Mary hears turns out to be Mr Craven's son, who has been hidden away in the depths of the house because Mr Craven can't bear to be reminded of his dead wife. He's pale and unhealthy because he refuses to go outside or even to get up, his weakness pathologised by the family doctor who wants him to die so he can inherit the family estate. But from the point Mary finds him onwards, the book slowly begins edging her out of the picture to concentrate on him; she's important only as a way of saving the male line from degeneracy, because Colin Craven isn't worth anything as an invalid. And the book has a horrible, horrible attitude towards mental illness: Mr Craven has been in the grip of something that looks very much like depression ever since his wife died, but Hodgson Burnett puts this down to his not trying hard enough to have happy thoughts.


Gods I hate turn-of-the-century children's authors.

The Dice Man - Luke Rhinehart

The Dice Man - Luke Rhinehart

Luke Rhinehart, psychiatrist, bored and unhappy with his life, hits on the idea of using dice to live his life, writing out lists of options and rolling a die to find out which one he'll go with. Sometimes the decision is as trivial as what to eat for breakfast; sometimes the die dictates what role he'll play at a party; sometimes it directs the whole course of his life.


It's utter crap, but occasionally quite enjoyable utter crap, watching as the dice get ever more out of control and Luke's old life spirals ever further down the drain. Rhinehart (a pen name for George Cockroft) cooks up a psychiatric theory for the dicelife based on the idea that it frees multiple repressed selves; I actually found this mildly intriguing and conveniently difficult to argue against, as it effectively sidelines any conventional idea of what truth and morality and personhood is. The apparently arbitrary nature of the decisions the dice make for Luke also lead to some genuinely suspenseful moments.


The one major beef I have with the book - the reason I wouldn't recommend it - is its frankly misogynistic outlook, especially with regards to rape and consent. The first dice decision Luke makes is to go downstairs and rape his neighbour Arlene. Which he does. And Arlene enjoys it, because she's a bored and unsatisfied housewife who needs some excitement in her life. And this is presented as completely OK. And what the fuck, book, have you not heard the words "rape culture"? (Probably not, actually, as this was published in 1969, but it's still shitty.)


There are several other instances where Luke coerces and manipulates women, often vulnerable women, patients and experimental subjects, into sex, and again, this is all completely OK on the basis that they're expressing repressed minority selves.


No. Noooo. Please go away, dice man.

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland - Catherynne M. Valente

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland - Ana Juan, Catherynne M. Valente

So this is the fourth in Valente's Fairyland series, and the story turns away from the adventures of September and her companions (the Marid Saturday and the Wyvern A-through-L) to take in Hawthorn, an infant troll swapped for a human child in order to, ha, troll humanity. The first half of the book, which sees Hawthorn (known in the human world as Thomas) navigating Chicago, a land as strange and wonderful to him as Fairyland's capital Pandemonium is to us, and dealing with his human father's disappointment in him as Not Normal, is clever and delightful and whimsical.


But it all goes a bit pear-shaped when he and his fellow Changeling Tamburlaine find their way back into Fairyland and meet an old autumnally-named friend of ours.


There are two reasons for this, I think.


The first is that the Fairyland half feels horribly rushed. On their arrival in Fairyland, round about page 200, Hawthorn and Tamburlaine are sent on a Quest by the King of the Fairies: Fairyland is falling apart because the Fairies (freed from their imprisonment by September at the end of the previous book) are all fucking horrible bastards not unlike Terry Pratchett's elves. We're told that Bad Things are happening to pretty much everyone, but no time is spent convincing the reader of this, and as a result it's difficult to invest in the fate of Fairyland. And, again, because there's simply no time to build up a decent storyline in the last half of the book, the many random and bizarre events which fill the other Fairyland books are all packed together and become not wonderfully whimsical and imaginative but annoyingly arbitrary and lacking any wider significance (which is decidedly not how fairy tales should work).


The second reason points to what I think is a wider problem with the series: the fact that it's a series at all. Much as I loved (genuinely loved) the world of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, I think much of that love was invested in a Fairyland which genuinely felt like the Fairyland that lives in my head: one that is wild and wonderful and full of the essence of all the fairy tales from childhood; one that can't be pinned down, where there are strange dark corners we never get to see. As the series goes on, though, we have to keep seeing more and more of Fairyland, and more and more rules for how it works have to get introduced so that the stories will work, and it becomes more and more described and suddenly it's no longer Archetypal Fairyland, the Childhood Fairyland that's familiar to everyone, but Just Another Fantasy World with passing reference to that shared cultural childhood. And I think the series reached that point two books ago, if not before. And that's a crying shame.

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne M. Valente

This is actually the second book I've read this year which retells "Snow White" as a story about race (the first being Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird). In Valente's version, the story's heroine is the daughter of a Native American woman, Gun That Sings, forcibly married to a white man, Mr H. She's given the name Snow White by Mr H.'s beautiful second wife in mockery, because it's the one thing she can never be.


The book roughly follows the story's familiar beats (the stepmother's cruelty, Snow White's escape, the huntsman's chase, sanctuary in the forest, the stepmother's three attempts at murder) with Wild West twists, which I won't spoil because watching Valente reimagine this familiar tale is the book's great and terrible joy. Suffice it to say that this story is hard, and there is no easy path for this Snow White, or for any of the characters who cross pages with her. Told in a kind of Wild West twang which draws out the tale's unrelenting harshness (in this it reminds me strongly of an album by one of my favourite bands, The Mechanisms' High Noon Over Camelot), it becomes a story not only about racism, but about sexism, and ableism, and the toxic effects of privilege in all of its forms, and none of these characters, good or bad, are free from it.


The cover makes this look like an MG novel, like Valente's Fairyland series; it really doesn't feel like one, and in some ways couldn't be further from the Fairyland books. (In some ways; even those younger novels feel like they're always aware of how blind privilege can be worse than any monster.) It's a retelling that depends for its power on the reader's knowledge of the original tale, which is exactly the kind of fairy tale I want to be reading.

Mr Fox - Helen Oyeyemi

Mr. Fox - Helen Oyeyemi

I read five books over the weekend (yay Bank Holidays!), which is a huge number for me at the moment, so I'm doing a review catch-up today. Starting with Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox.


Mr Fox is...tricky. It begins with Mary Foxe, a fictional character, dropping in on her author, St. John Fox (who is, of course, madly in love with her) to complain that all of his female characters die. "You're a serial killer," she says, "can you understand that?"


They begin to play a game: telling each other stories which all revolve around the charged relationship between the sexes. Intercut between their stories (and it's often hard to tell who's telling which story, and the stories are all richly felt and yet difficult to interpret) are sections following their "real-world" relations, the strain Mary's presence has on St. John's relationship with his wife Daphne. It's never exactly clear who we should be rooting for in this triangle of shifting power, partly because Oyeyemi is careful to show us every side of the story, and rights and wrongs are difficult to determine. (For my money, St. John comes off pretty badly.)


The thing about Mr Fox is that about halfway through what seems like it might be a one-note message repeated with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (male characters killing off female characters is Sexism, and Very Bad, which, yes, it is, but this is not exactly news) suddenly morphs into something that's a lot richer and deeper and, yes, subtler. And I haven't worked it all out yet; but Oyeyemi is undoubtedly doing something very clever and very emotionally satisfying.


Be warned: it is a decidedly Literary book, telling a meta-narrative through form and metaphor rather than through plot (the blurb suggested, to me at least, a less outrageous version of Jasper Fforde's Eyre Affair, which it isn't at all). I enjoyed it, and I'd like to read it again one day, but it is the kind of thing you have to be in the right mood for.




Ten Bookish Questions

(From Bookloving Writer's original post, and because there's nothing quite like jumping on the bandwagon late.)


What book is on your nightstand now?


My TBR pile lives on my nightstand, so: Catherynne Valente's Six-Gun Snow White and The Boy Who Lost Fairyland; The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; John Dies at the End by David Wong; Lev Grossman's Codex; and Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks.


What was the last truly great book you read?


This is a tricky one, but I loved and admired Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird, which I read in one day in March. The twist at the end is problematic, but I just loved the novel's magic realist fairytale vice.


If you could meet any writer - dead or alive - who would it be? And what would you want to know?


The late Terry Pratchett, definitely. I don't know that I'd ask anything specific; if anything, I'd just want to thank him for the well of humanity and acceptance which is Discworld.


What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?


I've got a couple of humour books which stick out from the rest of my books - Bridget Jones (hilarious and awesome), Bill Bryson, a Shopaholic book which I occasionally like to visit as a low-effort fluff read.


How do you organise your personal library?


Alphabetically by author.


What book have you always meant to read and haven’t got around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?


I keep meaning to read some more Dickens; I love the sentimental sprawl of his fatter books, but they always seem a daunting prospect during the working week. So we'll see. Generally, I don't feel embarrassed not to have read something.


Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didnt? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?


I read the third volume of Saga on Sunday and was strangely disappointed - the first two were fantastic, and this one just seemed to tie everything up into a neat bow without leaving the messiness and the complexity that the others had.


What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of?


Science fiction and fantasy, generally; anything that makes me rethink or reimagine my cultural assumptions.


I avoid high fantasy; even when it's objectively good stuff, it bores and irritates me.


If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be?


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: a study in what happens when you forget the needs of the unprivileged, when you lose empathy for the shunned.


What do you plan to read next?


Catherynne Valente's Six-Gun Snow White.

Saga Volume 3 - Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 3 - Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples

A bit disappointed.


I don't know if I'm just in the wrong mood for Saga at the moment, but this third volume, in which pretty much All the Characters converge on Quietus, where author D. Oswald Heist live, felt kind of perfunctory, missing the emotional awesomeness of the first two.


Hoping we find out more about the gay newspaper reporters who crop up here, though.

Ancillary Sword - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword - Ann Leckie

Hmm. Hmm. Hmm.


Ancillary Sword is the sequel to the multi-award-winning Ancillary Justice, as the cover of my copy helpfully points out. In it, Breq, the ancillary who was formerly the ship Justice of Toren but who is now newly-made Fleet Captain of her own ship, Mercy of Kalr, is sent to protect the system of Athoek from the upheavals caused by the rift of the multi-bodied ruler of the Radchaai empire Anaander Mianaai. A concatenation of events which boil down to "politics" sees Breq and her small retinue visit a tea grower on the planet of Athoek itself, where Radchaai privilege and the horrors of the expansion of the Radchaai empire are making themselves felt.


Now. I think slavery is an extraordinarily difficult subject to deal with unproblematically, and Ancillary Sword unfortunately falls into the trap of a number of well-meaning narratives told from the point of view of privilege (I'm also thinking of Naomi Novik's Empire of Ivory here). The slavery plot concerns

a slave who tries to bomb her employer/owner's daughter for coercing sexual favours from her sibling.

(show spoiler)


Breq rocks up on a planet where (officially-sanctioned) slavery is happening, realises that This Is Bad, dispenses appropriate justice and flies away again having sowed the seeds of something better, in the space of about two weeks. To the novel's credit, there is a certain amount of complexity to the issues at hand: Breq just can't make everything better for everyone immediately, the slave in question is at fault even if she was coerced into the situation, Breq does have to confront the fact that she, among thousands of others, made this situation possible as Justice of Toren. But the slave owners are more or less universally unsympathetic, which tends to make the slavery actually practiced all over the Radch look like it's restricted to a few unpleasant individuals abusing the system (which is clearly not true). It makes solving slavery look easy, the result of one super-powered individual being in the right place at the right time, which is in this cultural climate not helpful.


But. I'm giving this four stars because it does at least aim for complexity, because Breq is not uncomplicatedly "good" or sympathetic in any way, and because the characters are strong enough that I want to keep reading them. I am enjoying the world that Leckie's built - I love how alien it is culturally, despite the fact that it's populated by humans, and I love that the book is driven by politics instead of explosions - and I think the questions she continues to ask about personhood are pertinent and interesting.


I still don't think it's mind-blowing, as a lot of people do, which probably speaks more to the quality of my reading this year than to anything intrinsic to the book; last year, when I was utterly failing at finding anything I really enjoyed, this would almost certainly be at the top of my list. I think Sword is solid, with my reservations about its treatment of slavery taken into account, and I'm looking forward to the third book in the trilogy.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  - J.K. Rowling

This book is seriously in need of an edit.


I re-read the first four Harry Potter books endlessly when I was younger, but as far as I remember I've only read the last three once each. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that Order of the Phoenix suddenly gets extremely dour (which is not the same as serious). The earlier books are actually quite slyly funny; Order gives up those textual games to present us with a Real Teenager: Harry here is perennially grumpy, constantly shouting at his friends and generally just rubbish in every way.


Of course, he has good reasons to be grumpy: Order is the book where Hogwarts is effectively taken over by Umbridge, the representative of a hostile Ministry for Magic, which is desperate to suppress talk of Voldemort's return. But it's not really much fun to read about, partly because Rowling just goes on and on and the taut plotting of the earlier books is lost in all that padding. There's a lot here which feels like it should be more significant than it ends up being: the Quibbler interview, Harry's romantic experimentation, Firenze's stint at Hogwarts. In the early books, all of this would have been satisfyingly and surprisingly tied to the ending. Here, it's just - stuff, self-indulgent and not really interesting enough to justify the page time spent on it (Order is 700+ pages).


I know there are thematic reasons for the eruption of teenage angst here - as Voldemort returns, the power of children to defeat the evils in the world fades - but Rowling isn't a good enough stylist to let thematic reasons carry her book.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

This book.


I just wanted to curl up inside this book and never come out.


The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship, creating wormholes through space to allow ships human and alien to zip around the galaxy without spending years on the journey. Its multi-species crew accepts a prestigious new project from the Galactic Commons: building a tunnel from Hedra Ka, a small angry planet under the control of the unpredictable and warlike Toremi, to connect it back to GC space (think the EU, but galactic). The catch is that, to set up the tunnel, they have to go the long way round: slow, through ordinary space.


This is not a plot-driven book. Despite the space opera trappings, it's actually rather a quiet thing, revelling more in its rich world-building, its slow and careful journey through the galaxy, than in the warlike mission at its end.


What makes the book so delightful, then, is its characters. Think Firefly without the guns and the bravado: this is an ensemble cast made up of a range of species and orientations and genders. There's Kizzy, a bubbly, scatty tech (very like Firefly's Kaylee, in fact) without any interest in a relationship; Jenks, another tech, who's in a romantic relationship with the ship's AI, Lovey (be still, my heart); Ohan, the ship's Navigator, an alien who thinks of themselves as plural; Rosemary, a clerk with a slightly murky past; Sissix, a cold-blooded alien whose people live in effectively polyamorous family groups; Dr Chef, medic and cook, another alien whose people are dying out; Corbin, the speciesist algaeist whom everybody hates; and Ashby, the ship's Human captain.


The relationships between the members of this motley crew are complex and multifarious, but what's so nice about the book is the way tensions and crises are worked out: through communication, through teamwork, through diplomacy; often through paperwork and complex bureaucracy; never through violence. This is a meandering and incredibly rich book, one that accepts the difficulties of life and states, firmly, that they can be worked through if not always solved by talking to each other: by accepting everyone as individuals with concerns and fears and experiences and working together to get the very best result for everyone.


You know what? I needed this book. It's just wonderful, like a warm and fluffy blanket that you never want to leave.


The sequel isn't coming out until October. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO.


Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Philip Gabriel, Haruki Murakami

So...pretty much everything about this book made me really uncomfortable.


The premise is this: a decade or so ago, Tsukuru Tazaki's four closest friends all decided that they didn't want to know him any more. Now, after moping about all this time, Tsukuru has met a girl, Sara, who helps him find out why they dumped him so that he can Move On.


OK, I'm just going to say it: the way this book treats women is crap. The way it treats gay people is skeevy at best. The way it treats asexual people is downright offensive. (Pathologising non-heteronormativity is not the way to go, authors.)


But the women thing is the main thing in the book, thematically speaking. The novel, uncomfortably, revolves around a woman who ruins Tsukuru's life by falsely accusing him of raping her. Which, in a world where something in excess of 80% of rape cases don't even get reported, already feels a bit egregious.


Women only ever appear here as objects: they're described in terms of breasts, skin colour, sex. Much of the not-very-interesting plot revolves around the erotic dreams the main character keeps having. Sara, the woman Tsukuru pours out his woes to, doesn't get any characterisation: she's just a receptacle with a handy penchant for travel planning. (Seriously? Can Tsukuru really not book his own damn flights?)


I'm not entirely sure what Marukami's point was here, and I think I probably need more time to figure it out - in some ways, this is a powerful story. But it also made me feel completely and utterly shit in a week that was already shit enough, so, you know, I'm probably not going to try too hard.

Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Proxima - Stephen Baxter

Not worth it.


Proxima is set in the 22nd century, when population pressures and an overheating, dying Earth have sent vast waves of humanity out to live in domes on the Moon, Mercury, Mars and the larger asteroids. Yuri Eden, a man from Mars, is swept together with a bunch of other ne'er-do-wells and flown out on a three-year voyage to Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to the Sun, which happens to have a handy Earth-like planet for humans to colonise. Yuri and his companions are dumped there and told, essentially, to get on with pioneering or die forgotten on an alien planet.


Proxima just feels like a very male book, which, OK, I don't always have a problem with, but these fourteen colonists are dumped on this alien planet, with no hope of survival unless they all work together and start farming, but actually the main priority of all the men is (you guessed it) SEX.


They literally kill each other over who gets the women.


I'm bored already.


Also, the book uses rape early on to establish just how Violent and Nasty things are in this environment, and please male authors just stop doing this.


I think Baxter probably thinks he's being feminist and progressive, but actually he's just reinforcing the stereotype of women being weak and in the power of/needing to be looked after by men. "But look! Women shouldn't have to have babies if they don't want to!" Yeah...but the woman you're saying this about GOES ON TO HAVE A BABY. WITH THE PROTAGONIST. Fairly quickly.


Also, here be infodumps.

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I enjoyed Ancillary Justice quite a lot, although not as much as the hype made me think I would (which is, obviously, not the book's fault).


The book follows Breq, a character who used to be the Justice of Toren, an enormous space warship with thousands of ancillaries, human bodies robbed of personality and turned into avatars for the ship AI. Some calamitous event has stripped Breq of her thousands of extra bodies, the ship she embodies and the crew she once looked after, and left her stranded in a single ancillary body. Part of the book, told in flashback, concerns how Justice of Toren became Breq; part of it, told in the present, concerns her quest for revenge.


I think what I enjoyed about Ancillary Justice was the fact that Leckie takes pains to imagine a human culture that is sufficiently alien. Justice of Toren was a ship serving the Imperial Radch, a society based on expansion and annexation, conquering inhabited planets, with all the suffering and appropriation that entails. The book never shies away from the unpleasantness of its main characters, the murder they make possible in the name of "civilisation". But Ancillary Justice is not, as a novel such as, say, Isaac Asimov's similarly imperial Foundation is, a story in which humans are the same in space as they are on Earth, today. The Radchaai language, for example, doesn't differentiate between genders; the default for all Radch citizens is female (even if they're biologically male). It's interesting that the internet (read: the Puppies) has made such a fuss about this, because it's not really the point of the book; it's a detail, a reminder that we are exploring alien skies. The meat of the book really lies in its exploration of Radch politics, its conversations about the nature of power and consciousness and the interfaces between cultures.


The irony about Ancillary Justice and the Puppies, really, is that this is essentially exactly the kind of book they claim the Hugos exclude: military SF full of blood and violence and upheaval and even some slightly skeevy science. I wouldn't call it groundbreaking - or, at least, I wouldn't if sexism weren't so deeply ground into us all that we're surprised when a novel treats all its characters as female until proven otherwise. I enjoyed reading it, but it didn't make my head explode with awesomeness as apparently it did to the rest of the internet.


I will probably read the next one, though.



Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirlees

Lud-In-The-Mist - Hope Mirrlees

Lud-in-the-Mist is a recently "rediscovered" work of fantasy first published in 1926. The titular town, Lud-in-the-Mist, is a stolid, Shire-like merchant town at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dawl flows down to the sea, and is the source of much of the town's wealth through its trade; the Dapple, on the other hand, flows out of Fairyland, the undiscovered country behind the Debatable Hills to the West from whose bourn no traveller returns. The novel sees the townsfolk, chief among them Lud's mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer, trying to deal with smugglers of fairy fruit down the Dapple; for Fairyland and everything associated with it is held in deep mistrust by Lud's merchants (much, in fact, as the hobbit's of Tolkien's Shire fear and mistrust the outsiders crossing their lands to the Sea).


It is (like Fairyland itself) very strange, and very difficult to describe. Tolkien's work, especially The Hobbit, feels like an accurate comparator in some respects, in that on the surface Lud-in-the-Mist is a simple and rustic little tale, but below its surface are currents of deep meaning, echoes of a magic that cannot be named.


It handles its atmosphere very well: its fairies are not, of course, the fairies of the Cottingley photographs, or Cicely Mary Barker's flower fairies, all romance and sugar; they are English fairies, the strange and wild fairies of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, or even Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies. For the most part it keeps its Fairyland intangible, present only as a rumour, as strange oaths and half-forgotten tunes; my least favourite part of the book is when we actually see a little of Fairyland, which cannot deliver on the half-hinted otherness built up through the novel. This is, fortunately, only a minor slip.


I did find it slightly heavy going - it uses that facetious, slightly self-aware tone that fairytale fantasy of the period tends to use (The Hobbit I've already mentioned; see also Narnia), and the diction is, yes, old-fashioned. But I think this is going to be a tale that grows on me: wide and deep and beautiful and utterly unlike anything I've read before.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  - J.K. Rowling

I actually love most of this book, in which Our Hero Harry is entered into a dangerous international magical contest. I love that Rowling's world is given some space to breathe here - it's not as tightly constructed as the first three, but that's made up for in part by the inventiveness of the worldbuilding.


I do have a couple of reservations, though. First, there's SPEW, the society Hermione sets up to save house-elves from slavery. Everyone else treats it as a joke ("the house-elves like working for no pay!") and I'm not sure where Rowling sits on the issue; certainly nothing comes of it by the end.


Secondly, the ending, which is where it all falls apart. Harry's final confrontation with Voldemort is frankly and unfortunately snoozeworthy, and Voldemort's reasons for putting in place his extremely elaborate and laborious plan are very sketchy indeed. (He doesn't actually need Harry, and revenge may be a dish best served cold but a whole year is just really fucking stupid.)


So, yeah. Enjoyed it until the last, oh, fifty pages.

The Mirror Empire - Kameron Hurley

The Mirror Empire - Kameron Hurley

I struggled with rating this.


On the one hand, I really didn't enjoy it very much. As in, every time I picked it up to read it I had the urge to go and do something else.


On the other hand, I think this is more of an issue with my thoughts on epic fantasy than with the book.


Because, let's be clear, The Mirror Empire is not a lazy work of epic fantasy. By which I mean: Hurley takes the trouble to imagine societies, worlds, which are culturally very different from our own, as opposed to recycling sanitised medieval societies in which women are more or less optional (*cough*Magician*cough*). The first in a trilogy (I think?), The Mirror Empire is set in a world where plants are carnivorous, and where magic-users (I like that Hurley uses the word "gifted" for these - because if you grew up with magic you wouldn't think of it as "magic") are dependent on the movement of the stars for the strength of their power. The dark star Oma is rising, meaning that hundreds of parallel worlds are coming together, which has always signalled cataclysm in the past. Three enemy countries (Dorinah, Saiduan and Dhai) with very different social mores find themselves having to cooperate (sort of) to save their own world.


Very different social mores, did I say? Yes - and this is where Hurley is particularly awesome. In Dorinah, women are the default just as men are the default in our world (and this isn't necessarily a good thing, note - Dorinah's women enslave and sexually abuse "their" men); in Saiduan, the language allows for three genders, male, female and ataisa; in Dhai, polygamy is normal, with adults of either gender commonly marrying into already polygamous family units, and having lovers as well. In both Saiduan and Dhai, gender is separate from biological sex, and the Dhai can choose their own gender identity. There's a Saiduan character who feels that they don't fit into any of the three gender options, "neat little boxes" as they describe them. Hurley's work with gender and sexuality, and the various power relations involved (I'm thinking also of God's War, which I loved) is spot-on and much-needed and if only The Mirror Empire were a different story.


I think what the issue was, for me, that there was simply too much going on. Hurley doesn't do infodump, which is great, but it's also exhausting if you're going into a 500-page novel covering three countries, about a million different characters, an unfamiliar magic system and a highly complex and involved political situation.


I also thought Hurley's prose was (I'm sorry) turgid: it was an effort to wade through, and I found some phrasing occasionally clumsy.


Which all, essentially, boils down to: I just don't think epic fantasy is my bag, and that's OK. But, if you are an epic fantasy reader, definitely, definitely, read this, just for the gender politics.