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

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

2015/10: Meadowland -- Tom Holt

Home’s such a bloody delicate thing, one slight change or one thing missing and it’s screwed up for ever; and a man’s better off blind or missing a hand or a leg than being away from his home. Greeks I’ve talked to since I’ve been here, they think we Icelanders are soft because the most a court of law can do to you back home is make you an outlaw, so you’ve got to leave your house and move away to another part of the country, or overseas. Soft; I don’t think so. I think it’s the cruellest thing you can do. I mean, everybody dies sooner or later, but having to live in the wrong place, in a place that’s not meant for you to be in - that’s cruel. And I never even did anything wrong. [loc.5957]

It's 1037, and John Stethatus, an elderly Byzantine civil servant, finds himself stranded in the mountains with a great deal of gold and a trio of Varangian guards: Kari, Eyvind and young Harald. Kari and Eyvind are veterans, and they regale the company with their stories of the Viking colonisation of Vinland. ("It’s not Wineland, it’s Meadowland.’ Easy mistake to make, of course, specially for an Easterner, with an accent. See, in our language, it’s almost the same word: vinland. Only, if it means ‘wine’ it’s pronounced vin, but if it’s ‘meadow’ it’s more like veen." [loc.3494])

Readers of K. J. Parker will recognise some tropes here: grumbling veterans, the minutiae of everyday life (hey, now I know how to clean a chainmail shirt), strong but shrewish women, unreliable -- or possibly just misguided / thick-skinned -- narrators, the general air of neglect and brokenness around failing settlements, the odd hint that something vaguely weird, or fated, is going on ...

Holt's version of the two surviving Vinland sagas (Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga) is a tale beset by ill chance, poor judgement and internecine conflict. Both Kari and Eyvind -- who tell the same story, more or less, but from very different points of view -- sailed on all the voyages recounted in the sagas: Kari may have been the first person to set foot in Vinland. They describe the meeting with the skraelings and Freydis Ericksdottir's reaction to same; the feuds back in Iceland, the navigational errors, the tension between Christianity and 'the old ways': and their story convinces Stethatus that Vinland is 'a place that takes your strengths and turns them into weaknesses'. Armed with this insight, he dispenses some good advice to young Harald ...

I like Holt's writing a lot, though I dislike his treatment of female characters: still, with Freydis he does have a point, and he doesn't have much to say about the rather more likeable Gudrid (see my review of Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, a novel which covers similar territory from a very different perspective). Holt's depiction of the easy discomfort of Eyvind and Kari's codependency produces some of the novel's most entertaining moments: and his knack for crafting apt similes ('asking a tricky question’s just like splitting timber. You tap the nose of your wedge into a little thin shake in the wood') is impressive. That said, Meadowland is really just a novelisation of the sagas, wrapped in a comic frame. I think I prefer Holt's historical work when it's prefixed pseudo-.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

2015/09: Dogsbody --Diana Wynne Jones

Glimmering, frantic, frosty, the cold hounds came pouring into the open. Everything was helter-skelter gleaming eyes, gleaming coats and the wild pattering of feet, as hundreds of white dogs raced after the dim shape. [loc.2913]

A reread, latest but not first: I think this may have been the first Diana Wynne Jones novel I ever read, back at secondary school. I loved it then and love it still.

There are two 'dogsbodies' here: Sirius, the Dog Star, who is incarnated in the body of a puppy as punishment and atonement for a crime; and Kathleen, a young girl who has been taken in by her aunt while her father is in prison, and who ends up doing almost all of the housework. Kathleen adopts Sirius, who eventually remembers that he is searching for the weapon with which the alleged crime was committed: with the help of humans and others -- including the Wild Hunt and its Master -- all is finally made right.

I am amazed at just how much is packed into this novel. Jones' trademark humour (Sirius' interactions with the household cats), Kathleen's isolation (her interactions with her two male cousins are a darker, unhappier mirror of Sirius and the cats), the beauty of Earth, the chilling Wild Hunt and its mysterious Master. He is a fascinating figure, and I suspect he's a synthesis of a number of mythic hunters and lords of the underworld:

The Master said uneasily, “Don’t look too closely. The truth has no particular shape.”
“I know that,” Kathleen sad, rather impatiently. Her eyes stayed watching the space above the Master’s head for all that. “But you’re not Arawn, are you?” she said.
The boys had seen the Master for the first time. They were both terrified. Robin’s teeth chattered and he said, “But he could be Orion or Actaeon, couldn’t he?”
“Or John Peel,” Basil said, very derisively because he was so scared.
Sirius wondered what the three humans had understood about the Master that he had not. It was clear that the Master knew they had understood it, by the way he changed the subject.

I found myself more intrigued by the Hunt, this time around, than by the galactic society (not that sort of galactic society) of luminaries and effulgents that's only lightly sketched. The Master's dual nature as hunter and hunted; the 'tender terror', 'savage sorrow', 'fierce pity' that Sirius feels towards him; most of all, perhaps, Jones' refusal to explain him, in a way that's all too rare these days in children's and YA fiction.

[just found an interesting blog post about the Master, https://onceonatyme.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/hunting-the-hunter/]

“No, darkness is not movement,” he said sombrely. “Nor is the other part of my power, which comes from things as they must be. I’m stronger than you are, luminary..." [loc.3091]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

2015/08: The Invisible Library -- Genevieve Cogman

Her life was more than just airship chases, cyborg alligator attacks, and hanging out with this alternate universe’s nearest analogue to Sherlock Holmes. She was a Librarian, and the deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, and have nothing to worry about, except the next page of whatever she was reading. [loc. 3694]

Irene works for the Library, a vast mysterious place outside time and space from which any alternate world can be reached. Her job is to retrieve specific books for the Library: texts vary from alternate to alternate, and some books are inextricably bound to the alternates in which they were written.

We first encounter Irene as she burgles a School of Magic ("ANY KIDNAPPERS WILL BE TORN TO BLOODY RAGS BY OUR PROFESSIONALLY MAINTAINED HISTORICAL ARTEFACTS!") for a memoir about necromancy. On returning to the Library, she is swiftly assigned another mission -- and a new assistant, the mysterious and aesthetically pleasing Kai.

Their new quest takes them to an alternate London in search of a unique edition of Grimm, which turns out to contain a couple of extra stories that are important to the Library. This London is a smoggy, steampunky variant, with Leichtensteinian zeppelins, cyborg alligators, vampires and werewolves ('the Whitechapel Roaring Boys'), an infestation of chaotic Fae, a Great Detective ... and a rogue Librarian, whose outrages are the stuff of legend and whom Irene is very definitely not qualified to deal with. Her new apprentice turns out to have some secrets of his own, and to cap it all her own former mentor, the sleek and snide Bradamant, seems to be after the very same book as Irene and Kai.

The Invisible Library is an absolute delight. It's very fast-paced -- something is always happening, and Irene is always in the thick of it -- and full of literary allusion and warped versions of familiar London landmarks. It is also very funny in parts, and quite philosophical to boot: and it sets up admirably for a sequel or three. Irene is a likeable, intelligent and competent protagonist, and most of the supporting cast are pleasingly characterised.

I enjoyed this novel immensely and have pre-ordered the next volume: my only qualm is that the author may end up focussing on the alternates to the exclusion of the Library itself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2015/07: The Girl With All The Gifts -- M. R. Carey

Yesterday she thought that the hungries were like houses that people used to live in. Now she thinks that every one of those houses is haunted. She’s not just surrounded by the hungries. She’s surrounded by the ghosts of the men and women they used to be. [loc.3177]

Melanie is top of her class. She's ten years old. She lives on a military base and is studied by scientists. She has a crush on her teacher, Miss Justineau, who reads Greek myths to the children, and shows some affection for Melanie. Sergeant Parks, on the other hand, dislikes and fears her. Melanie doesn't know why.

This is post-apocalypse Britain, variant zombie: the 'hungries' infest the cities, mindlessly devouring any living beings. If the victims survive, they too become infected. Ophiocordyceps, a parasitic fungus, alters their behaviour to propagate more effectively, but it only does so in blood. Otherwise there'd be nothing at all, instead of a few remnants, left of global civilisation.

The Girl with all the Gifts reminded me of old-school science fiction, H. G. Wells and Jack London and so on, though I suspect they wouldn't have considered a little girl an engaging protagonist. I think the novel works because of Melanie's initial ignorance, and subsequently her determination to live and to soak up the new-found world outside the base:
The world pours in through her eyes and ears, her nose, her tongue, her skin. There’s too much of it, and it never stops coming. She’s like the drain in the corner of the shower room. [loc.1245]

Melanie isn't quite like a normal ten-year-old girl. She certainly has different interests, and different life experience. But her upbringing enables her to confront some unpleasant facts courageously and inventively -- and, in doing so, she changes the people around her. A really resonant moment for me was Parks' epiphany: "He has a sense, for the first time in his soldiering career, of what a war crime might look like from the inside." [loc.4534]

I still can't decide if I liked this novel, but I found it compelling and provocative reading.

NB: a friend and I were discussing whether this is a feminist novel. It's true that it has a female protagonist; that the three most important characters are all female; that none of these are defined by their relationships with men. (Indeed, the resolution is pretty much a denial of sexual relationships!) But K argues that there is a lack of embodiment, and I think I agree.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

2015/06: The Ghost Fields -- Elly Griffiths

"If there's something buried there, it'll come to the surface one day," says Ruth. "That's one thing I've learnt in my job. Nothing stays buried for ever." [loc.6107]

The Blackstock family has lived in rural Norfolk since time immemorial -- Ruth Galloway's done some DNA testing on Bronze Age remains, and the living Blackstocks share the genes of those who inhabited the area more than two millennia ago. In recent decades the family has become somewhat diminished: Lewis was a POW, 'never the same again', and vanished around 1950; Frederick emigrated to America and died during the Second World War; the surviving brother, George, inherited Blackstock Hall. An American TV crew wants to make a programme about Norfolk's myriad WW2 airfields -- the eponymous 'ghost fields' -- and would like to film at George's son's pig farm. But their plans are thrown into disarray by the fact that there are human bones where human bones shouldn't be ...

Enter forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway.

It's the mark of a good series that one can read each novel as a standalone: I realised only after finishing this that I'd missed the previous novel in the series! But there's a whole other layer separate from the murder mystery: the evolving relationships between Ruth and her friends and loved ones. Cathbad the Druid and some of his friends make an appearance here, as does taciturn DC Nelson and his immaculate, civilised wife Michelle -- and of course Ruth's daughter Kate, just starting school. (They grow up so fast.)

Griffiths describes the sun-baked Norfolk countryside in terms that resonate with me, and I'm fascinated by the archaeological aspects of the story. The crime elements were sufficiently twisty to hold my attention too -- and there were some interesting developments on the interpersonal front. A good, well-paced read.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

2015/05: Son of Destruction -- Kit Reed

Around here we drag our pasts around like Marley's ghost, because whatever you do, if even one person finds out, everybody knows it. You'd have to move to Alaska to escape it! In Fort Jude people forgive, God knows we all do it every single day, but nobody ever, ever forgets... [loc. 3173]
When journalist Dan Carteret discovered that the man he called 'dad' was actually his stepfather, he promised his mother Lucy that he wouldn't look for his real father 'as long as we both shall live'. Now Lucy is dead, and in her jewellery box Dan finds a snapshot of five guys in a Jeep, and a newspaper cutting about a case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC).

Turns out that Fort Jude, Florida -- the small town where Lucy grew up -- is the world capital of SHC. Under the pretext of investigating the phenomenon, Dan heads south and starts talking to whoever'll give him the time of day. He's quickly identified by the locals as Lucy Carteret's son, and the sleepy town stirs to frenetic life with gossip, confrontation and scandal as decades-old secrets are unearthed, turned over and reignited. Oh, there's fire here still, and not just in people's memories: the past inhabits the present, and the embers are still hot.

I found Dan one of the less memorable characters in the novel: he's almost a cipher, a chameleon, adopting new roles to nudge old truths out of those he encounters. And Reed is complicit in this, dropping sly authorial hints ("There are, however, things he can't possibly know ... too preoccupied to know that he isnt the only one looking for vestiges of Lucy here, or that the most important item pertaining to Lucy Carteret is not in this hall ...") so that the reader fancies themself ahead of Dan in his quest, yet is still constantly surprised by fragments that fall into place. There are many narrators, some in the first person, some in the third: teenaged Steffy and her faded mother, MIT graduate and professional loner Walker Pike, Bobby Chaplin who's constantly looking for someone to blame, Lorna Archambault who ... isn't at her best.

Reed's writing is precise and vivid, and she has an eye for cruel detail (the women rushing out when a house catches fire in the middle of the night: "lipstick, of course, but no makeup, we barely had time to comb our hair") and for the uncanny. The sense of humid, oppressive summer nights, something unseen in a derelict house, another accidental fire ... Son of Destruction is a claustrophobic novel, immensely evocative of a kind of Southern Gothic that is primarily urban, and concerned more with class than with race. (Or am I missing subtle cues about the characters? Definitely a possibility here.) It's about Dan's quest to find his father and see "How he will age. Whether he can be happy. What he will become." [loc. 880] It's about what happened to Lucy, and what happened to her grandmother, and how revenge rebounds.

Monday, April 20, 2015

2015/04: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers

"Do you have any idea what this song is?"
Kizzy blinked. "'Socks Match My Hat'," she said. She went back up into the ceiling, tightening something with her gloved hands.
"Soskh Matsh Maeha. It's banned in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"We're not in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"Do you know what this song's about?"
"You know I don't speak Hanto."
"Banging the Harmagian royal family. In glorious detail."
"Ha! Oh, I like this song so much more now."
"It's credited with setting off the riots on Sosh'ka last year."
"Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they'll care about me making up my own lyrics. They can't oppress me with their 'correct lyrics'. Fuck the system."[loc 995]

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is immense fun. It reminded me, while I was reading, of Delany's early space opera (for instance Nova) and of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Space is (a) big (b) full of strange new worlds (c) rather grubby.

Rosemary Harper, a woman with a Dark Secret, signs on as a clerk on the Wayfarer, which is a wormhole builder: their latest mission is to travel to the homeworld of the bellicose Toremi and install a wormhole there. It's a standard year's journey out to where the wormhole will be constructed: plenty of time for interpersonal relations to evolve like whoa.

The Wayfarer has a small but diverse crew, including several humans, a clone, an AI, and assorted aliens. Chambers does characterisation very well, and brings out both the otherness and the similarities of both humans and aliens. (Sissix, lizard-lady, on humans: "I'm tired of their fleshy faces. I'm tired of their smooth fingertips ... of their inability to smell anything .. of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their -- their everything." [loc 2855]) There are some stunningly effective scenes in this novel: an interspecies seduction attempt, a human/AI relationship, the loneliness of an individual whose race is almost dead.

And I think that's what makes this a successful novel. To be honest, the plot of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet faded quickly from my mind: not that there's anything wrong with it, and it highlights some interesting issues of comprehension and assumption, but it is an unexceptional SF plot. (Maybe the key's in the title: it's not about the small angry planet, it's about the journey.)

It's Chambers' characters who have stayed with me. Tolerance, compassion, affection, pragmatism, and humour: love, oh, definitely love, in several forms. Chambers presents an interesting future history of humanity and its diplomatic and personal relations with the alien species of the galaxy. But all that is background: what matters is the people, and they are all people.