No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, June 09, 2018

2018/30: The Girl Next Door -- Ruth Rendell

‘I just asked if you thought we’d led a dull life.’
‘Well, I don’t think so. I’d have said we’ve had a happy life, not very adventurous, but those sort of lives are full of trouble. We haven’t committed adultery or gone in for domestic violence or anything like that. We’ve brought up our children decently. What’s wrong with that?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, but he thought, ‘Everything.’ [p. 35]
The skeletal remains of two hands, one a man's and one a woman's, are found in a buried tin box. They date from the Second World War, and news of their discovery stir childhood memories in the people who grew up playing in the tunnels beneath the leafy suburb of Theydon Bois. The protagonists, friends and playmates during the war, are in their seventies or eighties now. Their relationships have grown and changed with them -- but the distant world in which they grew up comes vividly to life as memories resurface.

There's little mystery to the murder (it is described in the opening chapter of the novel). What only gradually unfurls is the web of relationships -- friendships, feuds, romances and betrayals -- between the children, and the ways in which their childhood experiences have shaped them. There's an underlying continuo of the difference between the world then and the world now: house prices, knowing the names of flowers, not telephoning after 9pm, having hobbies. And yet not everything has changed: people have always been driven by physical desire, jealousy, love and hate. And those urges don't necessarily vanish in old age.

What I liked most about this novel was that nearly all of the protagonists are past retirement age: Alan and Rosemary, married for nearly half a century; Daphne, Alan's old flame from before he went to university; Lewis, still wondering about his Uncle James' fate; Michael, who still fears and resents his emotionally distant father. Some of them are physically or mentally frail, but they are all strongly characterised individuals whose age doesn't define them. Some find themselves less emotional as they pass seventy: others ... not so much. I hadn't expected to find The Girl Next Door hopeful or life-affirming: I was charmed, surprised and interested.

Friday, June 08, 2018

2018/29: Lost Things -- Melissa Scott and Jo Graham

Jerry tilted the tablet. The surface was blurred, worn, almost as though it had been exposed to wind or water. Or to something that rubbed constantly against it, trying slowly and without patience but with infinite time to wear away its bonds. [loc. 762]
America in the late 1920s: Alma Gilchrist runs the small aviation company founded by her late husband. Her fellow pilots, Lewis Segura and Mitch Sorley, are both veterans of the Great War, as is their friend Jerry Ballard, an archaeologist and academic who was gravely injured in the line of duty. None of them are quite ... ordinary. Lewis is prone to oracular dreaming: Alma, Mitch and Jerry are what's left of the Aedificatorii Templi, an occult lodge of magical practitioners. And some acquaintances from the old days have become involved with an ancient entity originating at Lake Nemi, where Caligula conceived a monstrous affront to the Temple of Diana ...

Lost Things, the first in the 'Order of the Air' series, is as much about the relationships between Alma, Lewis, Jerry and Mitch (and the late lamented Gil) as it's about the supernatural threat released by the excavations at Lake Nemi, or the arcane methodologies that the splintered lodge musters against that threat. The setting -- the early air transport industry of the USA, back when airships were still the luxurious way to cross the Atlantic and planes were unable to fly high enough to cross mountain ranges -- is fascinating and well-researched. And above all, this is a novel about team; about families of choice, found families, and the ways in which the protagonists, lost and drifting in different ways, find or make a place where they can be true to themselves.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

2018/28: Swansong -- Vale Aida

This new blond Savonn was overlaid on the old one, two paintings ghosting through each other on reused canvas: one looked at him and saw, discomfitingly, both entities at once. The effect was cumulative. “He bleached his hair,” said Iyone. “Alas, he could not bleach his heart.” [p. 133]
Having read Elegy, I went straight on to the conclusion of the duology, which does not disappoint. All the charm of the previous book, with some truly astonishing reversals and betrayals. (Or are they?) There is more explicit magic, or perhaps simply the presence of the divine: there is outright war as well as the spying and subterfuge that underlay Elegy.

Iyone Safin comes into her own in this novel -- she's the heroine of half the book -- but there is also more of Savonn's viewpoint -- especially in flashback chapters set in Astorre. More, too, of the Empath, who was last seen gleefully hurling Savonn's silver knives at the city guard of Cassarah, and who turns out to have a plethora of weapons at his disposal. (Like many weapons, these are double-edged.)

The character who I felt developed and matured most in this volume, though, was Emaris, Savonn's squire. He discovers the identity of his father's murderer, and remains true to himself; he acknowledges love, and sets it aside. He is a delight, and humanly fallible: unlike Savonn, who is always wearing some mask or other, Emaris is affected by what happens to him.

Swansong kept surprising me until the final chapter, which is another refreshing aspect of these novels. And there is a sense of balance, of debts repaid and deaths avenged, of freedom and barter, trust and treason, victory and defeat. Though all the major characters' plot-lines are tied off (some more satisfactorily, and some more permanently, than others), I would happily read more about them: more by this author.

Today's mild niggle, to band-aid the gushing, is 'brigantine' in place of 'brigandine'. One is a ship, one is armour.

Friday, June 01, 2018

2018/27: Elegy -- Vale Aida

"Whatever shall we do? You wish to kill me, and I return your ardour most fervently. Yet here we are, dancing together in a city under truce.” [p. 144]
Kedris Andalle, Governor of Cassarah, has been murdered: ostensibly by brigands, but the consensus is that it was actually at the behest of the Queen of Sarei. The members of the Cassaran Council are squabbling over who gets to be Governor next: consensus here is that it had probably better not be Kedris' only son, Savonn, known as Silvertongue.

Savonn's unsuitability is evident from the first chapter, in which he transforms his father's funeral into a theatrical production. The next time we encounter him, he's masquerading as a gardener in order to infiltrate the Council's deliberations, to which he has not been invited. A former actor who became a soldier at his father's behest, it's his responsibility to avenge the death: he may have other motivations for leaving Cassarah before old secrets can be laid bare.

Meanwhile, his all-but-sister Iyone is investigating a series of murders, and falling in love; and Savonn's squire Emaris is learning a great deal about his commander's past. Though not, obviously, from Savonn himself.

This novel was an absolute delight. I find myself nitpicking at small worldbuilding details (it's a fantasy world, so why is there a planet Venus and a month July when gods and vengeful spirits get new names?) just to stop myself, briefly, from gushing. Item: our dashing hero is not especially good-looking. Item: there are major characters who have no apparent romantic or sexual interests at all. Item: all sexualities and genders seem to be equally accepted (there's at least one trans character; Savonn was (is?) in love with another man; there are hints at a polyamorous relationship). Item: multiple strong female characters. (Item: nemeses in love.)

What I liked best, I think, was the emotional complexity, which makes up for any over-simplification in worldbuilding, and which reminded me strongly of Dunnett. As did the witty dialogue, the fondness for disguise and stratagem, the rumours of children with questionable parentage, the baffled viewpoint characters ...

I wish this book and its sequel (Swansong) were as popular as C. S. Pacat's Captive Prince trilogy. Personally, I find Vale Aida's duology more enjoyable: there's no explicit sex or torture, the characters are more diverse, and the plot somewhat twistier. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

2018/26: Drowned Ammet -- Diana Wynne Jones

"You don’t understand – can’t you think how it feels when everyone you know is scared sick all the time? You couldn’t trust people. They’d turn round and tell on you, anytime, even if it weren’t you done it, because they didn’t want to get marched off in the night themselves. That’s not how people should be.” [p. 179]
My paper copy of this novel came to me via a friend who noticed a heap of withdrawn library books in a skip and thought I might like it. Coincidentally, I had just read The Spellcoats for the first time ...

There are two plot threads in Drowned Ammet: one protagonist is Mitt, born in a poor but happy household but getting involved in revolutionary terrorism after his father's departure; the other is Hildrida (Hildy for short), the somewhat spoilt daughter of Earl Hadd's second son, Navis. Hildy has been betrothed to the Lord of the Isles against her will, and is spitting mad about it. Mitt, meanwhile, has had 'his life's work' ruined by the betrayal of a plot to assassinate Earl Hadd.

So when Mitt and Hildy, and Hildy's younger brother Ynen, all end up on the same boat, heading north in stormy weather, it's not exactly a pleasure cruise -- even before they pick up a passenger who repulses them all.

There's magic here too, and the Undying: the passage north is aided by the mystical figures of Old Ammet and Libby Beer (both of whom feel like gods with the corners worn off, made comfortable and traditional with use but still capable of being dangerous).

Like Dogsbody, this novel features terrorists who aren't wholly reprehensible: it was published at the height of the IRA bombings on the UK mainland, and I wonder what contemporary audiences made of Mitt with his bombs and conspiracies. (The conflict is fairly clear-cut: Earl Hadd and most of his sons are tyrants, oppressing the poor, assassinating enemies and raising taxes. But still.)

Afterthought: having reread three out of the four Dalemark novels, I have no desire to reread Cart and Cwidder. I wonder why?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

2018/25: The Crown of Dalemark -- Diana Wynne Jones

Six people set out wandering the old roads – one of those six accused of theft by a voice in the air too! – in search of a crown buried in a city that did not exist any more, with no provisions and almost no baggage, and this was supposed to prove that the wrong girl was Queen. [p. 116]
Reread after The Spellcoats because I knew that some of the same characters were mentioned. This fourth volume of the quartet was published quite a while after the others: I'm glad I wasn't following the series at that stage. (I think I might have bounced off one of the Dalemark books during my first eager exploration in the early Eighties.) It would have been a long wait, and this is quite a different book from the others, though I think it ties everything together very well. Like Drowned Ammet, it's darker than many of Diana Wynne Jones' novels (a teenager is asked to assassinate someone, for instance, and there are actual battles where people die) but Jones paces the story well, and leavens it with plenty of humour.

There are two main plot strands. The focal figure of one is Maewen, a girl from 'contemporary' Dalemark (they have cars, trains, phones etc) who is transplanted -- possibly courtesy of the weird dude in the University library -- to a time centuries before her own. There she encounters the other focal character, Mitt, who is thoroughly disillusioned with life in the North. Maewen finds herself at the centre of an uprising, and it becomes apparent that more than mere political supremacy is at stake.

But if Maewen, masquerading as Noreth, is so important, how come she's never seen her (assumed) name mentioned in history books?

The Undying feature strongly in this volume, but the character I like best is Navis, who appeals strongly to my competence kink. Also, he behaves like an actual, flawed adult, which is always refreshing. His daughter has become quite vile though. And Mitt is charming (though, unsurprisingly, feels old for his age).

Note to potential buyers: the Kindle edition is missing 'A Guide to Dalemark', the occasionally tongue-in-cheek and often pedantic in-universe guide to the quartet. I had to locate my paperback! (If I'd remembered the actual title of this section, I'd have Googled ...)

Ah, Navis. So then I had to reread Drowned Ammet ...

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

2018/24: The Spellcoats -- Diana Wynne Jones

I need understanding. When I have woven my understanding, then Kankredin will have cause to fear. This is what I must understand. Why is Gull’s soul of such special value? Why is Robin so ill? And what is the One? These questions are all bound to lesser ones, such as what have Hern, Duck and I sworn to the Undying that we will do? [p. 186]

Reread whilst ill: it's been a long time, and as usual with deliberate rereads I remembered some aspects very vividly and others not at all.
The Spellcoats is the first-person narrative of Tanaqui, a girl living in what's effectively the prehistory of the other Dalemark books. She is weaving her narrative into the eponymous spellcoats -- and she understands much more about what she is doing by the end of the novel than she does at the beginning, when events are set in motion by the King's recruitment of Tanaqui's father, and her elder brother Gull, to fight the Heathens.

Tanaqui and her siblings (their mother is dead) are ostracised by the villagers (they look nothing like their neighbours, and they worship different gods) and are eventually forced to flee downriver. They meet a young man, Tanamil, who teaches each of them something important; they reach the river's mouth and encounter a great evil; most importantly, they find out something of their own origins.

This is a novel which demanded immediate rereading way back when I first read it, because the revelations of the latter half shed a different light on earlier chapters. I'm pleased to see that the slow build still works for me. And now, of course, I see that it is also a story about xenophobia, about being driven from one's home, about trying to tell the story of your life when you don't have a firm foundation on which to stand and look back on the events that shaped (and are still shaping) you.