raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2017-08-26 12:26 am
Entry tags:

Provenance, Ann Leckie

I am in the Lake District, after a five-hour drive became a thirteen-hour drive. It was great. (It wasn't great.) Rather than a blow-by-blow account of how this immensely tedious thing happened, this is a book review.

Provenance is Ann Leckie’s latest: a follow up to Ancillary Justice, Sword and Mercy. It’s in the same universe – and, from what I gather, set not long after Mercy – but at a different end of the universe. Ingray, our main character, is not Radchaai, neither are her friends and family, and there are no sentient AIs, either.

I have some criticisms, but I really, really like this book. spoilers, but they are minor )

In conclusion: it's good. I liked it. I read it in uncorrected proof in which pages 35-40 were in the wrong order; it comes out on 26 September.
raven: subway sign in black and white, text: "Times Square / 42 Street station" (stock - times square)
2017-05-25 04:48 pm

Insomniac City

I'm reading Insomniac City, the Bill Hayes memoir about life in New York with his partner, the neurologist Oliver Sacks. After I reread Awakenings a while ago, [personal profile] happydork directed me to this lovely excerpt in the Observer, and then [personal profile] soupytwist gave me the book with the note that "it's like you would write, only if you were a gay man in New York".

I am not a gay man in New York but I see the resemblance:

"Worse, really, was the L, which I'd take home from Oliver's on the West Side. Not the train itself, which was fast and frequent, but what it represented. In that direction, the L is packed with people on their way to Brooklyn, whether going home or out partying. They always seemed hip and gay (in the original sense of the word) and young, whereas I felt like an old man being taken away from where he really wanted to be.

I feel guilty now that I projected my unhappiness on the subways. The L, and the 4/5? They did right by me, getting me home and to work on time and safely, and each brought its share of discoveries."

Hayes loves cities, the anomie and connection of them, and also the way they hold their own microcosm in mass transit. (He says, mass transit, and I think: golden age SF, that magic gilded modernity. When people say public transport I think of quiet country stations and Yes, I remember Adlestrop. Different, but the same human topology.) And it's a beautiful, beautiful book. Textured by grief, but full of defiance, a willingness to see beautiful things. I think I see queerness in that, the theoretical version? The notion that queerness is some vanguard avant-garde, so we approach it through anti-capitalism and rejecting the sexual status quo, but it advances beyond us, so we are never truly queer. I'm not sure if I could uncritically subscribe to queer theory, or even critically understand it - my mind and/or education never feel like they're up to it - but this I like: that it is queer to reject the mainstream pessimism of the left. You queer the text by daring to find some reason not to give up and die.

And then of course it's a straightforwardly queer book, too. A queer writer, a queer life, a queer city, set out in bitesize vignettes and photography. Everything in it is something Hayes has noticed, something he's chosen to notice, about Sacks and about New York: a smokestack, a fisherman on the subway, a conversation with a stranger waiting for a moving truck, an army of skateboarders on Fourth Avenue. I have been unmedicated for two weeks now and settled to a scratchy, dimmed, distractible baseline. Everyone - GP and therapist and friends - says, one day at a time, rather than rage against the light; which for me doesn't come easily. But I happen to be reading this book as London shifts to summer, which isn't right, because London isn't New York. You don't buy air conditioners in London, or wait until next time for the favourite outfit. I always think it's like a kid playing dress up - look at us, constitutionally raincoated, looking for the window keys, in the dresses we never wear, with the little self-conscious bottles of water on the Tube. It's twenty-six degrees today but it might not be ever again. Some of my colleagues have dug out salwar kameez; a girl I know wore a paisley hijab and tried to put her face in a frappuccino. Meds withdrawal has dialled my hypersensitivity up to eleven but there's something in noticing every small sensory thing: passing perfume, a girl humming, with two different decorated Converse and a Wonder Woman t-shirt; the scent of rotting rubbish (which - I'm sorry - takes me to New York again, the Lower East Side when I lived upstate, and last summer - Hamilton, Pride, and gelato). You may as well notice these things whether or not the world is burning. You might as well live. Also from Insomniac City:

"I once said to someone that one doesn't come to New York for beauty.

I said that's what Paris, or Iceland, is for.

I said one comes to New York to live in New York, with all its noise and trash and rats in the subway and taxicabs stuck in crosstown traffic jams.

I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.

If there could be a chip implemented to track one's vocabulary, as miles logged are counted with those fitness bands people go around wearing, I'm sure
beautiful would be in my top-ten most-used words. I am always saying that that's beautiful or this is beautiful. The thing is, beauty comes in unbeautiful ways here."

Last week in post next week; also, an intake appointment for psychiatric care; and my departmental privilege day. Not sure if I can write on it, or at all. But we shall see.
raven: TOS McCoy and Kirk frowning, text: "Well that's just maddeningly unhelpful" (st - MADDENINGLY UNHELPFUL)
2017-04-24 10:09 pm

this post turned into a morose diatribe about racism, I am the worst

Friends, I am so tired, jet-lag is the worst. (I do not always like William Gibson, but he is spot-on about jet-lag: ".... her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanished wake of the plane that brought her here, hundreds of thousands of feet above the Atlantic. Souls can't move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”)

(On this basis, my soul left Singapore four days ago and is currently slouching towards Bethlehem. Onwards, onwards.)

Australia was wonderful, I really enjoyed it. I (mostly) enjoyed New Zealand; I was in Christchurch, Wellington (briefly), Lake Tekapo and Hanmer Springs. I do tend to feel uneasy in NZ though. The first time I went to Hanmer, a pack of white teenagers stared at me with hostile fascination until I cracked and left. It wasn't particularly pleasant and was replicated elsewhere in the rural South Island. So partly it was that, and partly it was the place in itself, but I really enjoyed Singapore. It's not my favourite place for various reasons - not least, I was travelling without my drugs because they're controlled substances there - but, well. I went on about this elsewhere but in Singapore people look like me. People on the street, popstars on TV. Adverts for make-up, adverts for wedding venues, adverts for law school - they all had girls like me in them. I wonder how much less utterly neurotic I'd be if I lived in an environment like that all the time, because there is a psychological pressure you don't notice until it's gone - until you spend a day thinking, oh, hey, I look pretty today, oh, hey, I said something funny and people laughed, and all those casual quotidian thoughts aren't followed with "Despite..." and a giant asterisk.

I read a fair bit while I was away, which is what I originally opened this tab to talk about I've been meaning to read the Moore graphic novels for years, and finally got around to it on the long flights. Watchmen - I wanted to like it more than I did. It's a critical darling, yep, I get it, and even on a visceral level, I get it, it's rich and complex and fascinating, I was swept up in it. But in the end I just found it distasteful and unsatisfying, which is a bit tragic. The women in the story exist to be raped or denied agency. And I loathe Rorschach - I loathe being placed in the mind of misogynist, homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic, tragic-childhood-waaaah men, and I particularly loathe ~narrative ambivalence~ in respect of them. Rorschach is not an anti-hero. I do not admire his integrity. It's a virtue in itself, but I don't admire it in bricks. And ultimately I don't know what the text is trying to tell me. Is it that being a superhero is possible, that being a hero is possible? Or is it 300 pages of nihilism? Either way, by the end I didn't care.

I liked V for Vendetta much better. I thought it was interesting and clever and hit a lot of the narrative tropes I adore. And then I had this thought, which I share with you because it's a sad, pathetic little thought and I'm sort of ashamed of it. Here it is. V for Vendetta is set in a near-future dystopian Britain, where the fascists are in charge and totalitarianism has seeped into the public's skin. It's richly and devastatingly imagined. It's a world in which there are explicitly no brown people and no queers - they've been destroyed by the regime. And I - the brown queer reader - am being placed in the position, as reader, of feeling empathy and concern for those who are left. For a now wholly white and non-queer society. For the story to work, I must be invested in what becomes of it. And I'm capable of it - this is the task of the brown queer reader, to find empathy and commonality of self, in that distant human for whom existence and interiority is permitted - and capable of it to the deeply ingrained, deeply socialised extent that it took me 200 pages to have this thought at all.

But I had it. And then I didn't enjoy the rest so much - but I did enjoy it a bit. Because, as I said, I've had the practice. In some ways, I'm wondering why I participate less and less in media fandom, and in other ways I know the answer: it's that I no longer want to encourage this tendency in myself. To queer the text, or run the fic challenge focusing on the browns, or whatever, is work. Unpaid female labour, in fact, which in my non-fannish life I yell about all the time. And I know I'm missing the point deliberately - fandom was never about the labour-for-capital economy, quite the reverse - but it's also emotional labour, isn't it. It's emotional labour to centre the brown or queer experience in stories that were not written about those things. It's emotional labour to just write or consume the white dude pairing du jour while carefully Not Thinking about the other thing - and as I get older I get crankier and less willing to do this. For me, the way through the Gordian knot is to write my own stories. It'd be different for someone else, perhaps, but that's it for me.

I also read Marbles, by Ellen Forney, which is a graphic memoir about living as a writer and artist with badly medicated bipolar disorder. I was both interested and nervous about this book, because it focuses on something I'm worrying about a lot lately: the relationship between creativity, medication and mental illness. It's a lovely book, actually. It's all grounded in a single experience, melodramatic and abrasive, without purporting to generalise. Forney decides that to be medicated is better for her, even if she does worry about its effect on her creativity, and makes significant effort to emphasise it wouldn't be the same for every mentally ill creator. It wasn't reassuring, but it wasn't meant to be. I liked it.

I read other things, but they'll have to wait for the next post. The drive-by rec though is for Tansy Rayner Roberts' Castle Charming novellas, which are sweet and colourful and queer fairy tale parodies. And the first one is free!

(Urgh. My soul is still plodding across the Middle East. It's taking in the sights. It's ordering olives and shakshuka. HURRY THE FUCK UP oh my god.)
raven: (misc - inside the box)
2017-03-27 09:25 pm


I am rereading Awakenings, the Oliver Sacks book about encephalitis lethargica and L-DOPA. I first came across the story as a teenager and predictably found it completely fascinating. But I bounced off the book a bit the first time, probably because I was too young for it and also it has a lot of quite boring prefaces. But this time I found it entirely compelling, prefaces and all, and have been talking about it quite a bit, so here we are.

The story in brief, for those who don't know it (and also to give me an excuse to tell it again): after the First World War, there was a worldwide outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed more people than the war did, but has mostly been forgotten. And following that - and yet more forgotten - was an epidemic of an illness later called encephalitis lethargica, also called sleepy-sickness. It was prevalent between about 1918 and 1928, and has never really been seen since (beyond isolated cases). People who got it tended to fall asleep - for weeks or months. And then, when they woke up, they were changed in some deep, indefinable way: neither asleep nor awake, but something in between. They sat motionless in chairs and stared into space. They could be "posed", their arms outstretched, like living statues. They couldn't be woken, and some of them didn't appear even to age - so forty years later some had been frozen in place for decades, still looking largely as they had in the late 1920s when initially struck down by the disease.

In 1969, the neurologist Oliver Sacks - who was one of the few clinicians with responsibility for a large number of post-encephalitic patients, about forty of them, in a hospital in New York - hit upon the idea of giving them L-DOPA, which at the time was a brand-new drug. (It's a chemical precursor to dopamine that can pass through the blood-brain barrier.) So without a great deal of knowledge of what would happen, but that something would, he started giving L-DOPA to these patients who had been out of the world for four decades.

And they woke up. This is the amazing part of the story, and Sacks writes about it like a dream: this glorious New York summer, in which these people not only woke up, and spoke, and moved, but became the people they had been. Sacks mentions one patient who had been a flapper, and the nurses going to the NYPL to look up the people and places she spoke about. He mentions another who had been a young Jewish emigrée from Vienna in the 1920s, and startled the staff because they had never known it until she spoke with an Austrian accent, and asked for a rabbi. It's just incredible to read about. And heartbreaking too, because L-DOPA turns out not to be quite the miracle that it promises. There's a honeymoon period, where Sacks and his colleagues are convinced it's just teething problems and they'll figure it out - and then the realisation that they can't stop the effect of the drug wearing off with time, or giving the patients side-effects that are too much to bear. So while some of the patients stay "awakened", others slip back into their pre-L-DOPA state, or into a coma this time. It's tragic and has an awful inevitable feel but it doesn't take on the feel of a Greek tragedy - you never lose sight of these people as real, individual human beings, not archetypes or fairy tales. I am not always convinced by Sacks' theoretical approaches, which draw a lot more from straight philosophy than I'm accustomed to seeing in a book that also purports to examine the scientific method. And it's also a book of its time and place, and a medicalised book - it doesn't always shine in a good light when considered through the lens of disability activism and theory - but Sacks is always interesting, always humane, and always interested in individuals and their stories.

The coda to this is that I hadn't really gathered, the first time I read this book, that Sacks was queer (although I was reminded of his lifelong friendship with WH Auden, which is the kind of historical congruence I love). And then [personal profile] happydork linked me to this beautiful article: My Life With Oliver Sacks, by Bill Hayes, who was Sacks' partner at the time of his death. It's one of the loveliest things I've read in ages - a snapshot of queer work, a queer life, as well as a love letter and obituary. I adore it. i've been rereading a lot of formative things just recently - all the best-beloveds of teenage crazies, so The Bell Jar and Prozac Nation - but also Slaughterhouse Five, Gender Outlaws, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and Wild Dreams of a New Beginning. (The last of which because I read a poem: Lawrence Ferlinghetti Is Still Alive.)

I feel like there ought to be some sort of conclusion to this thought, something about my foundering mental health, but actually I think it's just, there are always books, and that precious kinship of inquiring queers.
raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
2017-01-16 11:01 pm

Kushiel's Dart

So a few of you asked me to write up my thoughts on Kushiel's Dart, once I'd finished it! (It took a while. It had somehow escaped me that the print edition is NINE HUNDRED PAGES, wow.) My thoughts are - complicated. I liked it! I really did. But I probably won't read any more in the series.

Okay, so. Kushiel's Dart is set in the mythical land (actually Renaissance France) of Terre d'Ange. It's not high fantasy with magic, at least not really: it's a little like Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief books, in that this is a world with a polytheistic pantheon that actually exists. Phedre, the narrator and main character, is an "anguisette" - it's all there in the etymology. She feels pain as pleasure. Kind of. It's complicated. Phedre's parents sell her off into indentured servitude when she's very young. She's raised in the Night Court, the complex arrangement of high-status brothels that form part an institutional component of Terre d'Ange. At the age of ten, her bond-price is bought by a dissembling aristocrat called Anafiel Delaunay, who already has another bond-slave, but chooses to take her when he realises what she is.

This story did not go where I thought it would.

Well, it did, but not how I thought. In broad sweeps, it's the story of how Phedre becomes a high-status sex worker (which, in her world, can be a form of religious service, and is so for her) who's also uniquely well-placed to gather intelligence from her patrons. Slowly, it becomes a story about shifting court and national alliances, and about revolution and war. It's about power, of course. I think if I'd read this at fifteen, I would have adored it. Firstly, so much consensual kink in a mainstream fantasy book! And not not-remarked-upon, but not secret; acknowledged as an ordinary thing for people to want. And secondly, it does the thing I still love, which is to take the power dynamics between individuals, and use them as a lens to look at power generally, political and personal. I don't think it does it particularly well, for reasons to come; I'm hampered here by not being fifteen and having read the Captive Prince trilogy relatively recently. But it does try to do it, and I like that.

And you know, I'd probably have read it and liked it fine. I like Phedre (not so much as a child, but I do like the trope of the adult narrator speaking fondly but despairingly of her younger self). But then it turns out IT'S A FOUND FAMILY STORY. It really is! I love to itty bitty bits how much Delaunay loves Phedre and how much she loves him, and how much they both love Alcuin. Delaunay chooses to give them his name and they both choose to carry it for themselves. They choose to be what they are to each other. Ah. My heart, my id.

And speaking of which, Anafiel Delaunay, poet, scholar, spy, Gaelic speaker (!! what! what even!), literally no one is surprised that he is my favourite character in this book. If I'd read it at fifteen, I'd have found it completely vital. Not only is Delaunay unremarkably and unapologetically queer (bisexual, even, be still my heart), it's his SPOILER, IT'S AN ENIGMATIC PAST )

So I liked it a lot! The reason I don't want to read any more of the books is partly because I'm just not cut out for 900-page doorstoppers, seriously, you could have told that story using half the trees, and partly because, well, the elephant in the room. I find Carey's worldbuilding really rich and interesting, for the most part. And I do like the quasi-real pantheon, and I even like the idea of a nation who are a little bit preternaturally beautiful because they're descended from a god. What I do not like is that of course it's white people are descended from a god. I like fantasy worldbuilding that draws heavily on real people and cultures. But I'm so not into petty criminal Roma people, and charming but "uncultured" Gaels; I don't really want to know what happens when Phedre meets brown people elsewhere, because I'm not thinking it will be good. And as a brown person, I'm used to fantasy that equates beauty with whiteness. It's another thing in this book, though; never, ever is it deconstructed that the people of Terre d'Ange may not be exactly their own account of themselves, perfect, beautiful, God's chosen people, and white.

So there we are. And it kind of sucks, because I liked a lot about this book, and I'd nominate Delaunay and Phedre for Yuletide in a heartbeat.

(Also, the Diana Gabaldon school of literary Gaelic lives on! Dear Ms Carey, "goirm" means blue. Sometimes it means green. Mostly blue. It's a real language, with living speakers. If you weren't such a white lady I would have given you the benefit of the doubt.)
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2016-09-25 12:27 pm

The Arrival; some other things

I am weepy and tired and verklempt. I spent yesterday afternoon "reading" The Arrival, by Shaun Tan; [livejournal.com profile] troyswann recommended it to me when we were up in Scotland and I saw it in Housman's bookshop at King's Cross and bought it on impulse. (And had a weird encounter at the counter, where the clearly-very-new person behind the counter asked me if I were a student or a trade union member, for reasons of discount, because it's that sort of bookshop. "You don't look like you're in a trade union," she said, which made me huff a bit, because what does a trade union member look like? I am in two, for the record, depending on how you count: both on the roll and as a civil servant. Hmph.)

Anyway, The Arrival - it's a fantasy graphic novel told without words, depicting the story of an immigrant family's journey to a strange new place. And I find I don't want to use words to describe how powerful and beautiful it is as a piece of art. I just cried wordlessly at it. This is an unqualified recommendation but it's not something where a brief snippet will give any sense of the enormity of the whole.

So there's that. Here are some other things:

-I've had the flu all week, and am still feeling insubstantial; I went to work on Friday and realised in the middle of the afternoon that September 23rd represents the halfway mark of this posting that is killing me. (I will be glad to have done it I've learned a lot everyone pays their dues etc, you've heard it.) I look back on the last eighteen months and I'm not proud, exactly, because that's not a word that means much in these circumstances, but I have made it this far and I'm glad of it.

-Gaelic restarted this week, and I trundled down to the class on Wednesday and enjoyed it moderately. It's the beginners' class, and the teacher kindly suggested afterwards that gratifying as it may be for one's ego to be the best in the class, it's much better for me to be remedial. So I've been bumped across to the second-year class, which is scary because I really will be the worst in it. Tha mi ag ionnsachadh an-dràsda, etc. After a couple of months away, I still love the language inarticulably outwith its own terms.

-A. and I are going out tonight to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We have been married for three years, together for nine. I ran out of things to say about this years ago. We are what we are; we go on.

-I have several batches of beta comments on the novel, and keep crying at these also; not because they're sad - they're helpful and heartening - but because I've been working on this thing alone for a long time and the externalisation has been a process. (And also because I've now got to pick it up again, in a while, and go on with the work. The first six months I was writing it I never backed it up, because of a secret hope that I'd knock my laptop off a table and bam, I wouldn't have to write it any more.)

But: in a while. The next book on my to-be-read pile is Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century. Right now I'm going to sit on the couch and watch Star Trek on Netflix.
raven: black and white street sign: "Hobbs Lane" (quatermass - hobbs end)
2016-03-15 09:07 pm

A Seditious Affair

A week post-move and we still don't have internet at home. I'm reading a lot! It's rather nice. But apologies to all the people to whom I'm being a terrible correspondent, which at this point is just about everyone. Apparently we have internet from Friday, I live in (moderate) hope.

So I've recently been reading a lot of KJ Charles - I liked A Charm of Magpies, her historical fantasy about an aristocrat-former-smuggler and his magical practitioner partner, but didn't read any of the sequels because her magical system is very close to mine - and I really liked Think of England, a standalone historical romance which is this delightful queer King's Solomon's Mines pastiche. Then to get me through the move I idly bought A Seditious Affair, on the basis that it looked sort of fun and it had the sort of cover I could troll A. with. (Also in this category: Mélusine and all the Vorkosigans!)

Anyway, so. A Seditious Affair is a novel which is, technically, a Regency romance - two people fall in love; it's England in 1819 - but does not, ah, bear much resemblance to books that normally carry that descriptor. It's 1819, and Silas - I keep wanting to write Silas Marner, but that is not in fact his last name - is a seditionist pamphleteer and bookshop owner. He's a well-read if not a formally-educated man; a radical and a latent revolutionary. One fine day in the middle of the night, he's asked by a couple of brothel-keeping friends of his (who think they are, and are in fact, hilarious) if he fancies a well-paid side-gig - does he, they ask, want to rough up an enemy of the people. A well-spoken, well-educated, casually privileged, Tory.

This does not go to plan.

Well, kind of not. It turns into a weekly arrangement, maintained on their determination to remain nameless to each other.

Obviously, they fall in love.

And everything that happens next could have been written just for me, my goodness. Quoth [personal profile] happydork, who had to listen to all my thoughts and feelings on this book while sitting on a van tailgate in a bus lane on the A1, I love how much you love your Tory - but I do, oh my goodness. Silas falls for his "precious, peculiar Tory" mostly through arguing with him - through lending him books and borrowing his books - and through their very careful exploration of the Tory's willingness to be hurt. ("Whatever is wrong with me," he says, "that I want this" - but he's not broken, and he's not wrong.)

And everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, at least not non-consenusally, until Dominic Frey (Tory; principled; cynical; driven, to the point of self-destruction; anti-seditionist) walks into Silas' bookshop with the whole might of the Secretary of State for the Home Department behind him.

I love this book. I love it so much. I love that love makes nothing easy; that it won't save them; that they will not try and change each other; that they change each other regardless. That Dominic (who is my favourite fictional character of the year so far, probably) says at one point, with a soft, amazed, loving wonderment: "My friend called me a Whig!", while his internal monologue is telling him to shut the hell up, that's the worst sweet nothing ever oh god. I love Dominic's hilariously ironic name - yes, he does use Dom for short - and characters who are trans for no immediately plot-relevant reasons and most of all, that they argue with the best versions of each other. Is it right that the common man should be ground under the paternalism of his alleged betters? How do you account for the worst as well as the best of human nature? Is an unjust law a law at all? And what happens after the revolution? I'm here for that, layered and organic, a part of a story that is an examination of power and control as well as a hard-edged and lovely romance. The juxtaposition of those themes in the private and the public spheres reminds me of the Captive Prince trilogy, in a strange way - it's the same double-edged sword of personal and political.

Generally speaking, I think the novel suffers a little from having shifted out of its genre but not quite into another slot. The pacing feels a little off to me; if I’d written it, I’d have lingered more lovingly on the delicious identity porn stuff and rather less on the political resolution - which we know can't be happy or easy, so the tension is rather lost from the narrative. I wasn't completely convinced by the ending. But – nota bene – this is not the sort of analytical criticism I usually think to level at a romance novel I bought for £1.50. I'm not sure if anyone who doesn't happen to be me would enjoy it quite as giddily much, but it's a very good book and I really recommend it to the people who like the sort of thing I like. It's actually the second in a series, but I didn't suffer from not reading the first one first.

Also, a content note for this book in respect of consent )
raven: black and white street sign: "Hobbs Lane" (quatermass - hobbs end)
2016-02-16 07:16 pm

Captive Prince

Oh, friends, I am discouraged and mostly broken. Writing is terrible. I'm stuck right in the middle of a slough of despond about the stupid novel - it's a terrible book, even if it's not a terrible book it's a book about things literally only I care about, no actually it's a terrible book, it will never be finished and I will be writing it forever, and it will still be TERRIBLE - and the house move is, well, not. It's not off. But it's not on. It's glorious limbo. It's not glorious. I have a death-rattle cough and am miserably ill inna head but I have not been able to not work, which has not been excellent. (As ever, the job is a little more important than - well, me.)

Enough of that. About the only thing that has cheered me this week is Kings Rising, the last Captive Prince book.

books one and two, minor spoilers )

I feel like this is a lot more about me, and my id and kinks, than it is the book? But I suppose that's the risk with something like this.

book three )
raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
2015-12-29 08:59 pm

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. (Who is - to save y'all my strained thought processes - the same person as Sarah Monette! She's the same person who wrote Mélusine, the tortured terrifying idfic of my inner teenager's heart!) But The Goblin Emperor is not like that at all. Well, it's a secondary world fantasy of elves and - surprise! - goblins, with a very little magic and also airships. It is not at all the sort of thing I like, except I loved it, it made me happier than any book has in a long time.

Here is the non-spoilery premise: Maia, who is half-goblin half-elf and the despised exiled last son of the emperor, is woken up one evening by a messenger who tells him that his father and all his brothers have died in a freak airship accident and he needs to come home and be crowned. The court is complex and full of warring factions; no one there knows him and many people already hate him; his merest courtier has had about ten years' more education than he has; also his abusive guardian is coming with. He is eighteen years old and terrified. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

I didn't think I would like this. I loved it. Without spoiling it too much, but spoiling it a little )

I've seen criticism of this book that suggests it's too nice, it's too lovely, it's just too damn delightful. I'm not unsympathetic to that criticism in general - I've levelled it at other books, most recently Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen - but on the one hand, I think the narrative does earn it for the most part, and on the other, I don't care. Here at the dying end of the old year I am glad to have read something so sustaining. I don't think it's a coincidence that I was recommended this book by one of my colleagues, who has been seen reading it with one hand outstretched loosely over a sandwich. Having had a great deal of my faith in human nature eroded this year, it has been so nice to sit here and read five hundred pages of people being people: kind, decent, moral people, as much as they can be, in troubling circumstances, which is more than a little. Such a gift.
raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
2015-09-28 10:45 pm

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley

I read this novel on [personal profile] happydork's advice because it sounded amazingly relevant to my interests! And it was; but quite apart from all the parts where it seemed to have been written for me personally (historical fantasy! beleaguered civil servants! shy queers!) it's a beautiful, affecting, melancholy book that I really loved a whole lot, and this is an unqualified recommendation.

So it's 1884 in a steampunk-inflected London, and Nathaniel Steepleton is a Home Office telegraphist who despises his employer the same way I despise his employer. Thaniel (his father was Nat; it's a choice he makes) works the night shift and his life is small and dark, haunted by poverty and the sulphurous fumes on the Underground; soon after the novel begins he turns twenty-five, and is frozen by the knowledge that this is not where he wanted his life to be.

But - there are flashes of something else. There's Thaniel's prodigious musical talent, which he can never quite put away, though he tries; there's his ritualistic insistence on good tea, which he carves space for out of the night shift; and with it, there's the interesting fact that although it's 1884 and he doesn't know the word, he has synaesthesia. And then one day he lives through a terrorist bombing and meets a watchmaker called Keita Mori, who is such an accomplished craftsman that his clockwork trees grow and his clockwork octopus steals Thaniel's ties, and the rest - is not history, exactly. It's complicated.

In the background of those two, there's also Ito, who is an even more beleaguered civil servant than Thaniel is, and Grace, an Oxford physicist, who is busy sneaking into libraries dressed as a man while trying to experimentally prove the existence of luminiferous ether - which you wouldn't think was very relevant to clockwork or telegraphy, but it is.

And, having said all of that, it's hard to explain anything else about the novel without major spoilers, so but I think it's not revealing too much to say Thaniel's life fills with light after he meets Mori; that their friendship and eventual romance is beautifully realised but comes on soft feet, so you don't know what's happening until it's happened around you. One thing that is absolutely vital to this novel is that you read every word. Which is fine! I shouldn't skim-read novels, but I do, we all do, and I had to consciously stop myself and slow down for this. (There's a point, quite late on in the book, where one character hits another character on the head, and if you only half-read that sentence, you would have no idea.) Once I realised that, the whole thing transformed in my hands into something with all the filigree-delicacy the title suggests; it's really all there, in the details, this lovely story and lovely romance.

spoilery commentary )

It's beautiful. I wish I'd written it.
raven: black and white street sign: "Hobbs Lane" (quatermass - hobbs end)
2015-08-14 10:19 pm

on her majesty's obvious service

I wrote a long post here about my job and then deleted it because - well, horrible indiscretion. Here, have some gallows humour )

I am not sure right now if I am feeling a little depressed or just sick at heart.

Er, things and stuff, in no particular order. I went to Nine Worlds! I helped run a track and I moderated a panel on worldbuilding in Star Trek ("All These Worlds Are Ours" - it was beautiful.) The convention was not as enjoyable as previous years for various reasons, but what was good about it was very good about it and I should make a proper post about that. Sometime.

Writing is a plague on me. I can't not. And when I try, I am completely overtaken by the feeling that my ability has long ago been outstripped by my ambition. I am trying to write 300 words a day of my novel and worrying that it's being infected by my state of mind. (It has a body count it didn't have six months ago.)

I have read a lot of good books recently. Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho (which I lliked); The Ghost Network by Catie Disabo (which I also liked, and which was so ridiculously relevant to my interests that it's possible it was written just for me); Space Hostages by Sophia McDougall (more delightful YA in space); nearly the entire series of Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters (love, love, love, though I have stopped after reading nine of them in a row because my prose is taking on a mediaeval quality); the four Hilary Tamar books, by Sarah Caudwell, which are convoluted murder mysteries related by a gender non-specific narrator and investigated by a group of queer, beautiful and hapless members of the Chancery Bar. They are probably among the most perfect things I have ever read. Here is a bit from the second book, The Shortest Way To Hades:

“You will be interested to hear, Hilary, that it [the drug] had a most remarkable effect — even on Selena after a very modest quantity. She cast off all conventional restraints and devoted herself without shame to the pleasure of the moment.“

I asked for particulars of this uncharacteristic conduct.

"She took from her handbag a paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice and sat on the sofa reading it, declining all offers of conversation.”

Now I am reading The Sparrow, on [personal profile] happydork's recommendation, and feeling rather comforted by it so far. Such elegance in despair.

There is a love meme, friends. Here is my thread. I can't blush in asking for love at this time.
raven: (vorkosigan - creepy planetary conquest)
2015-03-16 11:53 am

books and tv

So after some time of not, I am reading and watching TV again! Hurrah. I asked around for recs and [personal profile] shinyjenni told me to read Mars Evacuees, by Sophia McDougall, which I completely adored. (Charismatic teenager and her super-cool BFF are evacuated from an alien war, to Mars! Have adventures! Save the world from an alien threat, almost incidentally! It’s great. Actually, it reminds me of The True Meaning of Smekday, both because of the joie de vivre and because it has a thoughtful approach to race. Our protagonist, Alice, thinks she can hang around, join one or another of the factions, when the adults disappear and it’s just the child evacuees, in their base camp on Mars; her best friend, Josephine, wants to get out immediately. She’s black. She knows that whatever happens, when the white kids start re-enacting Lord of the Flies, it’ll be her they’ll come for first. I actually found this whole little section very upsetting.) I’m reading quite a bit of YA at the moment, mostly because of [personal profile] cosmic_llin, who loves it, and I used to know much more about it when I worked at the bookshop and it turns out there’s tons of amazing YA been published since 2008, who even knew.

Relatedly, I am also reading Frances Hardinge for the first time, because many of you love her and the teeny Cambs branch library down the road surprisingly had most of her books. So I’m working my way through, and, hmm. I liked but didn’t love Cuckoo Song - I thought it was very good, very well done, so interesting in the way it engages with tropes of psychological horror and women being branded as hysterics, as well as more traditional fairy-tales about women. I loved the way it grounds itself in the literature of the world immediately following the First World War (I am sort of doing this myself, in the novella that I occasionally refer to here as the Immensely Aggravating Fantasy Historical, so it was a bit urrrgh in the good way to see the same thing done so much better, so precisely and neatly!). But I think it’s too far out of my usual genres, just personally speaking – I’m not into horror as a general thing and I was too thoroughly creeped out to enjoy myself while reading it.

That was not true for Gullstruck Island, which I loved - it’s my favourite book of the year so far and maybe of the last few years. I think it was called The Lost Conspiracy in the US? Anyway, a proper review of it is forthcoming, I think, but in the meantime, aaaah, what a good book. It’s a secondary-world fantasy, set on an island of living volcanoes and magical creatures and people who can send their awareness aloft like birds, but also colonialism. Also people being complex and intricately political, like they are, but not for the sake of it. (I really hate books that are all about “intrigue”, whatever the hell that is.) It’s also joyously imaginative and funny and wonderful. My favourite thing about it is a spoiler )

The next Hardinge on my list is A Face Like Glass, I think. I’m looking forward to it.

Um, what else? I tried The Raven Boys, but sadly couldn’t really get into it, thus adding it to the list of Things Everyone Else Is Into But I Am Not. (A list that now includes Community – I tried it yet AGAIN, still no dice – Avatar: The Last Airbender, the entire Marvel films-and-TV universe, the Hunger Games, RPF of all stripes, and Frozen! And I wonder why I feel like my involvement with fandom drops year on year! I’ve no idea what to do about this, actually, except let it happen. I’m not going to suddenly discover a passion for superheroes, am I. Or figure out how to use Tumblr. Time to go gently into that good night.)

Urgh, that’s depressing. What else? Shim and I finished off Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and it was great and I loved it and there’s no more for a while, so we picked up Parks and Recreation again and oh, oh, oh my show. We’re in the middle of season 6 right now, and the show has seen better days, I think – it’s pretty well mined its seam of small-town comedy - but there is so much I love about it even at this stage. April is my favourite. I love grown-up April SO MUCH: April who’s learned so much about how to live from Leslie and Andy and Ron (and Donna and Ben!), but has never lost her essential Aprilness. She and Leslie teaming up to do stuff is my favourite thing.

I am massively behind on Brooklyn Nine-Nine but I know rather a lot about one of the upcoming guest stars! Definitely the next thing to catch up on. And despite my thing about Marvel, I am reading Ms Marvel and enjoying it. Maybe more on that at some point - it's a super-sweet comic about a brown girl with adorably quotidian brown girl problems, and I like it.
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2015-03-13 10:31 pm

On Sir Terry Pratchett

I don't have a lot to say about Terry Pratchett's death that hasn't been said already, because of course he was important to so many people, and for so many reasons that are basically the same reason, which is: he was kind, in an unkind world. But here is a bit from The Wee Free Men:

"'Tis the First Sight and Second Thoughts ye have, and 'tis a wee gift an' a big curse to ye. You see and hear what others canna', the world opens up its secrets to ye, but ye're always like the person at the party with the wee drink in the corner who cannae join in. There's a little bitty bit inside ye that willnae melt and flow."

Whether I can see what others can't, I don't know, and I doubt it, in a world so large and unknowable, with so many others - and the rest isn't always true, these days, even. I have learnt the trick of it, with the right people at the right times - but long ago when I was fourteen and fifteen and twenty-three and had always the other self within watching, and thinking, that would not melt and flow, well, this was a kindness beyond kindness, and I carried it.

Along with Tiffany Aching, the girl who was a witch, who was so brave, so pragmatic, so inhabited by place and people, and whose name meant land under wave; and the angels who rose up, they rose feet up, they rose heads up, they rose tits up, all the little angels, they rise up high.
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2014-12-04 10:11 pm

Meme #3 - books I read and re-read

[personal profile] riverlight asked: I'd love to hear about some of your favorite books, the kind you read over and over again!

I have a lot of favourite books! But limiting the list to ones I actually do re-read regularly made narrowing it down easier. Here they are, and I've probably forgotten a half-dozen:

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
I’ve written at length about this elsewhere, but in brief: it’s Seth’s monster 1400-page novel that’s sort of about Lata Mehra, and her mother’s struggle to find her a suitable boy for a husband, and sort of about the 1950 general election, India’s first, and about India: India the unreachable idea, the enormous concept, so shown to us through the lens of fifty or sixty Indian people leading their lives. It is engaging and funny and warm and vast and infinitely human and humane; I re-read it every few years and I adore it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
I’ve written about this one elsewhere as well! It’s 1806, England is in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and bit by bit, magic is returning to England. It's a novel about magic and wartime and the way white, and male, power works; it's also silly and funny and happy and delightful and replete with worldbuilding and footnotes. And it's also about England: about places, and placeness. There's a line in it I come back to and come back to: The land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky. The book is more than a thousand pages but I have read it thrice in three years. I love it very much.

Kalpa Imperial, Angelica Gorodischer (trans. Ursula Le Guin)
I love this book so, so much I kind of want to learn Spanish just to read it in the original (this, and Borges). But given I don’t speak Spanish, the Le Guin translation is a blessing. This is a a collection of short stories that are connected, in that together they form a history of an empire that never existed – and they are beautiful, interesting, witty and grounded, and they speak to me on a very basic level. It's hard to say what they're about, but mostly, about history: about education, about humanity, about kindness and the way on. [livejournal.com profile] hathy_col gave me a Christmas present – I mean Christmas this year, because she's the most organised person I know – of Lord Dunsany’s collected stories, and the resemblance is quite noticeable, actually; Dunsany also writes like this, with a clear-eyed sparse style that nevertheless suggests the great history of empires.

This is Kalpa Imperial:

The storyteller said: )

Isn't that perfect? That's how it starts. I guess what it is, is this: I have never liked fairy tales, and they are not fairy tales. They’re not stories about the private sphere – not about evil stepmothers or princesses spinning or even subversions of that – but about the public sphere, about great cities and governments and republics and wars, but with the humanity of the small and the precious. I’ve read them many, many times and I’ve never got sick of them. And although I’m reading Dunsany mostly for the first time right now, I think his stories are going to be like Kalpa Imperial, that I come back to and come back to.

(Actually, let's give Dunsany a minute, even though he's not quite in the spirit of the question being asked. He writes exactly the sort of myffic fantasy I can't stand, except in his hands the great beauty is in the details: he tells you, for example, of swords and sorcery and great quests and battles, along the banks of the River Yann in the Land of Dreams; and he also tells you that among the river sailors, it's the custom to pray one at a time, so the gods don't get confused. All this, and shatteringly crystalline prose. (e.g., "It is vey difficult to draw away from the face of God—it is like a warm fire, it is like dear sleep, it is like a great anthem, yet there is a stillness all about it, a stillness full of lights.” (!!)) He seems to have been this huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ type, living in mildly aristocratic Anglo-Irish splendour in the early twentieth century; he’s the last person in the world you would have expected to write like this. I suppose we all do contain multitudes. I talk too much.)

Voices, Ursula K. Le Guin
This is one of Le Guin’s later books, nominally YA and kind of overlooked generally, I think – the series is the Annals of the Western Shore, and there are two others, Powers and Gifts, but they each stand alone – and it’s… well. It’s the story of Ansul, which was a university city full of libraries and books. When it was invaded and taken over, the books were destroyed as sinful, and the city’s Waylord – its elected leader – kidnapped and tortured. All of this happens before the story begins. It’s actually the story of a girl called Memer, born during the siege, who is taught by the Waylord in secret to read. And that’s it, in a way – it’s a coming-of-age story set against a revolution, but it’s also small, and human and meaningful. That’s why I love Le Guin (and why I think she was such a good choice to translate Kalpa Imperial): because she writes things like this:

housekeeping and cooking )

Reading over this, I’m noticing that word “human” a lot. I don’t really do epics or grimdarkness or sword and sorcery or middle-class alienation or anything like that. I think I return to books that are about people, doing what they can, doing small things that matter, in worlds that are politically and fantastically complex. So, like real life, in fact.
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2014-04-23 10:19 pm

Toby Daye

I’ve just finished the October Daye books by Seanan McGuire, and enjoyed them very much - thanks to [personal profile] silly_cleo, who evangelised till I listened! Seriously, thank you. They’re kind of popcorn-candy books – one comes out every year – about a fairy private investigator in San Francisco. Really. It’s an original genre-smush, I’ll give it that, and McGuire’s got a passion for Irish fairy tales and myth that shines through clearly. Which is, you know, not my thing – I’m usually very resistant to Euro-centric depictions of fairies, and not at all interested in fairy tale retellings – and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed these.

long, minorly spoilery review )
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2014-04-20 07:42 pm

The Oversight, and some other things

So if you know my real name, you (may?) know I have a grown-up blog elsewhere. This is not, by the way, intended to imply that fannish/DW blogs in general are not grown-up - just that mine joyously, unrepentantly isn't. Anyway, thanks to a kind friend who sent me a review copy, I carried a heavy proof of Charlie Fletcher's The Oversight all the way to Seattle and back, and didn't actually get past the first chapter; then I got home and resolved to give it the good old try and read it far into the night and screwed myself where jet-lag is concerned, but again with the unrepentance because I loved it. I wanted to write it about somewhere that's easy to link to publicly, so there's a nice long chewy review on my other blog, but sadly, I have no one to flail about it to because it doesn't come out till the beginning of May. Not to reiterate the whole review here, but gothic, macabre, lady-driven (pirate ladies! magic-using ladies! ladies rescuing ladies!) fiction that is objectively good and also hits about a thousand of my fantasy kinks (mysterious other London, check! Mysterious society of guardians and watchers, check! People carrying their lost cause banners to the bitter end, check!) - aaaaah. I like it a lot. I like it a whole whole lot, and if you like the sort of things I like, it comes out very soon, please read it and come talk about it with me, I am a fandom of one.

Since I started writing for myself again, rather than just fannish writing, I've had more than a passing interest in science fiction fandom more generally, and while I don't want to put too much weight on it and things like in terms of what is good and what isn't, I am pleased Ancillary Justice got a best novel Hugo nomination and I do hope it wins. It's lady-driven SF that does interesting things with gender, and while it's not the very best thing I've ever read, or anything, I enjoyed it very much as a novel of ideas. I feel like I came to fandom in the first place to find women in SFF - creating, consuming, politicising - and I'm emerging a little after ten years and finding that women in "mainstream" SFF are much more of an organised force than they were. Mainstream is in quotation marks because respectability isn't majority. For one thing, why do we want to be respectable, as fannish fans - we are queer, we are brown, we are women, we are intentionally and politically disruptive - and someone told me recently that more people participate in [livejournal.com profile] yuletide than vote for the Hugos, which is the sort of statistic that lingers in your mind.

Urgh I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, I meant to just write, please read this book, you guys, it's great. Tomorrow I am spending an entire day in my house for the first time in several months, it's gonna be awesome.
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
2014-02-02 10:45 pm

more on A Suitable Boy

I have finished my re-read of A Suitable Boy and don't have much to add to what I said about it originally. (Hey, [personal profile] silly_cleo! Don't click that link and don't click this cut that's coming up. At least, not yet!)

cut for spoilers )

I feel like this was more a burst of feelings than any kind of review? But it's that sort of book.
raven: black and white street sign: "Hobbs Lane" (quatermass - hobbs end)
2013-07-06 01:57 pm

The General Danced At Dawn

In absence of anything else cheerful to talk about, then. On Shim's recommendation I have spent the last few days reading through George MacDonald Fraser's McAuslan books, The General Danced At Dawn, McAuslan in the Rough and The Sheikh and the Dustbin. They're short stories, together an account of life in a Highland regiment in the immediate post-war period, set in Scotland and North Africa. For some reason they're largely billed as the adventures of Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, but the protagonist and first-person narrator is a very young Scottish officer, Dand MacNeill (who on at least one occasion refers to himself as "that idiot MacNeill, Lieutenant, D."), who is responsible for McAuslan but also thirty-five other Gordon Highlanders, and the whole thing is both magnificently evocative and funny as all-get-out. There's no overarching plot, beyond MacNeill becoming an officer - which, spoilers, he does in the first few pages - they're all vignettes and reflections from a distance of decades.

Some could very easily be episodes of M*A*S*H - especially one where MacNeill is told at eleven pm, just seconds before he was finally about to roast the regimental chaplain at snooker, that his thirty-six Highlanders, all out in the souks and brothels spending their pay packets, have recently unwittingly come into contact with smallpox, and what is he going to do about it; also the delightful story where MacNeill, after upbraiding McAuslan for being the dirtiest and least-well-turned-out soldier alive, finds himself in front of royalty in front of Edinburgh Castle fully aware his kilt buckle is about to give way.

(It's 1946. I wonder very much what would have happened should MacNeill and McAuslan somehow find themselves in Korea four years later.)

The thing is, Fraser's an ass of the worst kind, indubitably, and MacNeill is almost certainly entirely Fraser. (Even the name is arch - the stories are bylined "by Dand MacNeill"; the regimental motto is "Bydand".) And there is a lot of casual racism in the stories, and some not-so-casual - if you wish to miss eighty percent of it, don't read "Johnnie Cope in the Morning". And even that upsets me rather, because the bits of "Johnnie Cope..." that don't make me sick are stupidly, screamingly funny. (The regimental pipe band have decided it's their sworn duty as Highlanders to wake up the officers every Friday at six am by playing "Johnnie Cope" two feet from their window. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.)

It makes me unhappy in the worst way, but somehow ... somehow. What can you say. The best of the stories, in my opinion, is the haunting "Night Run to Palestine", in which MacNeill, through a sequence of incompetencies, winds up commanding a troop train from Cairo to Jerusalem and everything, throughout that long, frightening night, goes wrong. (At one point he ends up helping a young woman with two babies. "And so we worked away, myself the brutal soldier singing a Gaelic lullaby, and the gentle mother opposite rebuking her daughter in terms that would have made a Marine corporal join the Free Kirk.") There really is something haunting about it - something inarticulate under the surface, lacking resolution in the way that means it must be true.

It all comes down to the fact that in the end, MacNeill, who is Fraser, who is who Fraser was, aged twenty-one and a long way from home, has a kindness and humanity that isn't what you immediately think of, when you read an army memoir. I was oddly touched by "His Majesty Says Goodbye", the story in which MacNeill and McAuslan are demobbed on the same day, and MacNeill is watching from across the street outside Waverley as McAuslan gets into his first trouble with a policeman in civilian life. "It's nothing to do with me," he says aloud to himself, startling passers-by, and crosses the street to sort it out. And at the very end, Fraser recounts a Flashman book-signing where someone turned up with battered copies, not of his latest Flashman book, but of the first two McAuslan books. It's the Colonel, Dand MacNeill's commanding officer, the man that at one point, he thinks, he's sure he described as a "crafty vulture", which is fine, it's all fine, everything is absolutely fine, he is entirely not panicking, he signs the next woman's book "George MacDonald Vulture".

I have no idea if this is a recommendation or not; do with it what you will, but it's kind, which is something.
raven: (middleman - sleepy wendy)
2013-03-31 09:03 pm

NK Jemisin - The Killing Moon

I've previously read NK Jemisin only a little - two short stories, Non Zero Probabilities and L'Alchimista, both very, very good - and I'd tried to read her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but given up. Not from any disgust, nor dislike, just of lack of inclination - I could see what she was trying to do and it was interesting, but didn't keep my attention. And her two books after that are in the same series, so I let them alone.

And after that, I picked up The Killing Moon for the flight to Boston for Muskrat Jamboree because I'd read in passing on io9 that it had different worldbuilding - and, notably, had a lot to say about dreams and lucid dreams, which is a major narrative kink for me. So I bought it and have read it piecemeal over the last week - piecemeal, although I had a transatlantic flight and two train journeys when felt more able to face reading, because it turned into one of those odd, immersive books where the story is all very well but you don't really want to get to the end of it. Having finished it now, I'm unsure whether it's a very, very good book, or just one that hits all my kinks; I'm thinking a bit of both.

So. The Killing Moon is a stand-alone novel (it really is! it's published as "the first of a duology" - okaaay, but the two novels are in the same universe without being directly related, and why does all SFF have to come in installments, anyway) set in a fantasy world distantly akin to ancient Egypt. It's got an edge of SF in that the world it's set in does seem to be a moon travelling around a gas giant, but in practice, it's magic and spells all the way. In the city-state of Gujaareh, which is presided over by the Hetawa, the rather fundamentalist church of the goddess Hananja, peace is the only law. What this means in practice is the goddess's servants, the Gatherers, keep this peace: they travel the city by night, taking people's dreams (which are used for healing magics), and in the process and almost incidentally, their lives. They are not killers in their own eyes: whosoever lives in Hananja's City, they say, lives by Hananja's Law. With this rather interesting viewpoint comes the Gatherer Ehiru, a man who, in the first few pages of the novel, does something unforgivable according to his own lights. He imposes penance on himself, locks himself in his room and resolves never to talk to anyone ever again. He's an unlikely man to then start a war. He does: but a lot of things happen on the way there.

The thing is, the novel has a lot of things I hate about fantasy. Far too many made-up words (there's a actual glossary which is actually helpful, sigh), and the style isn't always terribly fluid - sometimes characters stand there and think about their feelings - but oddly I think that's one of the novel's strengths. It is an old-fashioned fantasy novel, with the building of a whole world. It fully intends to bring you in to the lives of these people and their large-canvas feelings, and not let you go.

And it works very well for the most part. There is a plot of some sort, but the important parts are the characters. Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri are the centre of it, and the relationship between them is so beautifully and lovingly realised that it alone is worth the price of admission: they are mentor and apprentice, but Nijiri becomes Ehiru's apprentice soon after aforementioned unforgivable sin, and the balance between them is never quite right; and then there's the small fact that Nijiri is in love with Ehiru, who has resolved not to take advantage of this, but accept it, and how well this is written floors me. There is also Sunandi, who is a foreigner and a spy and thinks of them as killers. How can you do this for your living, she asks; how can you lie, they return.

The point of it all is that neither and none of them are right: Ehiru, if anyone, is the moral compass of the novel, and yet we never see him as the happy and sane Gatherer he presumably once was; we hear about it rather than see it. Doing the right thing is something that causes a great deal of pain to him, and it's still not black and white that he does what's right or just what he's always known. (Which is, by the way, not to imply manpain - in a lot of interesting ways, Ehiru subverts that trope. Pretty much his raison d'etre is that no one dies to give him character development.)

Now here's the thing about the Gatherer Ehiru that in another world, perhaps wouldn't need to be stated outright: he is a brown person. So is his apprentice. So is their antagonist spy, although they are all different types of brown people. It's a whole world of brown people. It does my heart good.

There is also Jemisin's short story, The Narcomancer, which again, I recommend unreservedly: it's a stand alone story, set in the same universe many hundreds of years earlier, mostly concerned with another Gatherer. It's thoughtful and passionate and has stuff to say about sex, gender and power, but it can usefully be summarised as "the Gatherer Cet's terrible, horrible, no good very bad day". Cet is another interesting protagonist, but I'm not going to spoil that story at all when you can just go and read it.

(His being named Cet makes my mind conflate him with Cat Chant, which... no, because, hell, Diana Wynne Jones is the sort of thing you need this sort of antidote to, if that hasn't ceased to make any sense. Brown people fantasy which does not make the brown people themselves the fantastic - yes.)

There is a second novel, The Shadowed Sun, which I haven't read, but would have bought today if it hadn't been Easter Sunday. As it is Easter Sunday, I think I will just have to go into town and buy it tomorrow. Yes, she's that good.
raven: (misc - inside the box)
2013-02-02 11:10 pm

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Trying to review this book is going to be difficult.

Okay. First of all, I bought it when it first came out in paperback. I did. I'm sorry. I was eighteen, I used to spend my evenings in the Oxford Borders - partly because it was about twenty metres from Balliol's back gate, and partly because it opened till eleven - studying, drinking filter coffee and accidentally buying books. I took it home to that beautiful college attic room I had then, the one with the portholes looking out on the Ashmolean, yes, really, and put it in on the shelf fully meaning to read it when the essay crisis was over.

I turned twenty-six the Sunday before last.

Yeah. The worst thing is, from now on when I have carried books, unread, from room to house to flat to room to country to continent and back again, over eight years, I'm not going to think, oh I should give it to Oxfam, I'm going to think but what if it's like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?

Yeah. I finished Whispers Under Ground last week, was struck by the glossed-over backstory in that - Nightingale's past, the magical battles at Ettersburg - and decided I was in the mood for some kind of epic magic. So I picked it up again, and got off to a rocky start - I've read the first hundred pages at least three times - and then read it all through, all 1000+ words of it, in six days. It is a very, very good book, and I wish I hadn't taken eight years to get around to reading it.

In brief, then: this is a novel set in an alternate past where England is at war with France and Napoleon is marching across Europe, but has another history, of magic and magicians and fairies and fairy roads. In the year of our Lord 1806 magic has been gone from England for three hundred years, but it is right there, beneath the surface of the present. The novel is about Mr Norrell, a fussy, miserable, misterly (with education rather than money) man, who is the first practical English magician in centuries, and his young, brilliant, arrogant pupil, Jonathan Strange. And it's also about the Raven King, a magician-king who ruled over northern England and the fairy lands through the Middle Ages, whose influence is a living thing. (The King, George III (who is mad, yes) is king of southern England and steward of the north - pending the day the Raven King shall return.)

Which is to say: it's about a lot more than that. It is a beautifully realised alternate history, textured and real (I particularly like the turns of speech: things that are being kept safe are said to be "in the Raven King's pocket"!); it's a ripping yarn, full of adventures, excitement and magic; it's very funny (the interlude featuring the tumultuous friendship of Jonathan Strange and Lord Byron is hilarious and could do with a comic opera all to itself); and it's written with such an engaging style that once you get used to the particularly arch, dry wit, you happily read the hundreds of pages before Strange comes along that just have Norrell as a protagonist despite the total unlikeability of the man. And the themes explored are as grand as you might expect in a novel of this scope but they're not what you might expect: it's not good and evil, it's not love or hate. It's about the lines between rationality and madness (and why "madness" for brown people and women is not an uncontested definition); it's about who takes responsibility for actions; it's about England. This is a very peculiarly English novel. It's about how the people are the land and the land is the people, about how the land itself no longer exists apart, is no longer rocks and stone and water because of the layers and layers of history of people tilling and building upon and tending and living on and in and with the land. Magic makes it much easier to explore that theme, but I'm certainly not a magician and what I do in my day job is centred on just that strange duality: on how people bring the land into existence, and vice versa. The land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky.. Yes.

(The next part is going to feature specifics about the ending, so if you haven't read the book and intend to - without spoilers! - then please look away now.)

spoilers )

Next up, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, the short stories set in the same universe.