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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2013/10: Marco and the Blade of Night -- Phil Rickman (writing as Thom Madley)

"...she was given a GLASBO.’
Marco blinked. ‘Glasbo?’
‘Glastonbury’s version of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order,’ Woolly said. ‘They hung one on Eleri for disturbing the peace by making prophesies of doom late at night down by the Abbey gatehouse. She ain’t allowed to stand there after 6 p.m. for the next year.’ [loc 1204]

Occult thriller for children set in contemporary Glastonbury. No, really. And it's ace.

Marco is spending the summer with his grandparents, Woolly and Nancy, who are firmly of the Avalonian persuasion: ageing alternative types who believe in mystery and magic, and are in a perpetual detente with the Glasties (the more, er, conservative townsfolk). Marco has already encountered the true magic at the heart of Glastonbury, and his friend Rosa has an 'understanding' with the ghost of the last abbot. (Marco's friend Josh, psychoanalyst-in-training, is another matter.)

But now the Glasties are reporting marvels and visions, and are very put out about it all. ("How do you think this feels for me?" Mr. Cotton howled. "Having to come to a notorious crackpot like you and admit to having seen something one simply can’t explain?" [loc 123]) There's a distinctly Arthurian tone to the portents, especially Rosa's discovery of a rusty old blade that could date back to the Dark Age. And the makers of the best-selling computer game Arturus Rex are looking for a site for their new factory ...

The plot's fine, but what really makes Marco and the Blade of Night worth reading is Rickman's wicked, witty depiction of Glastonbury and its inhabitants. I kept recognising places, and expecting to recognise specific people (rather than just types). Marco, Rosa and Josh are likeable enough teenagers with rounded characters: but Woolly, Nancy, Eleri and Granny Goldman feel comfortably, affectionately familiar.

Marco and the Blade of Night is the sequel to Marco's Pendulum. It does stand alone, but I'm now very tempted to read the first book.

2013/09: Witch Eyes -- Scott Tracey

Most kids took Math, English, American History. Mine was more Demons 101, AP Magical Defense, and Advanced Sorcery for Slackers. [location 87]
Braden was born with the ability to see through illusion and lies to the truth. At seventeen, he's naive and inexperienced: home-schooled by the uncle who raised him, he is totally unprepared for modern American high school culture. Fleeing a vision that warns of terrible danger for his uncle, he winds up alone in Belle Dam, a small town which is ruled by two rival families. The Lansings and the Thorpes -- "two of the most powerful magical dynasties to cross over into the New World" [loc 1222] -- are both keen to get their hands on Braden and his untapped power, hoping that he'll prove the key to unlocking Belle Dam's secrets.

His loyalties, it turns out, are already divided. He's attracted to a (male) member of one family; he's related to a member of the other. (Unlike the blurb, I won't reveal which is which.) Braden's going to have to choose a side, and his new friends -- possibly the first friends he's ever made -- can't make that choice for him.

Witch Eyes is a YA novel with a fairly straightforward (though not predictable) plot: what I liked about it was the characterisation. Braden's sense of being out of his depth in social matters, but expert in magical ones, is an interesting balancing act. Because the book's told from his point of view, it's easy to understand the ways in which his first impressions of people are tempered by subsequent events.

I especially liked that, though Braden is gay, it's not a big deal. He isn't a stereotype or a symbol: he's a teenager who can't afford to be distracted by his attraction to another boy, but would really like to have a chance at said distraction. Once he's mastered his own magical gifts and used them to solve the mystery at the heart of Belle Dam, anyway.

2013/08: New Amsterdam -- Elizabeth Bear

The blood was only a metaphor. It was that strength—and the lightness of body of the dead, freed of the weight of the grave by having passed through it—that gave Sebastien the ability to thrust his fingertips into the mortared cracks between the bricks, flex and press until fingertip ridges caught, and rise effortlessly along the hotel’s soot-stained facade. He felt, for the moment, a right bastard of a cliché. [loc. 3829]

Six linked novellas concerning the affairs of Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress and dedicated officer of the Crown. Though not quite the Crown as we know it: this is an alternate fin de siecle where North America is still governed by the British; where New Amsterdam was only ceded to the British during the Napoleonic Wars; where vampires -- well, Dom Sebastien de Ulloa -- travel by dirigible; where Nikola Tesla has illuminated Paris with broadcast energy.

Abby Irene is at the centre of these stories. She refuses to fade quietly into the background as society hints that a lady of advancing years should do: instead she drinks, takes lovers, associates with criminals and doesn't give a fig for the opinions of her intellectual inferiors, i.e. pretty much everybody else. Dom Sebestian -- more than a thousand years old, fighting furiously to remain detached from the mayfly mortals who surround him -- fascinates her. And her association with the vampire opens up a whole new set of supernatural crimes requiring solutions.

There are a number of striking characters in New Amsterdam (Jack, the fearless young revolutionary who is Dom Sebastien's dinner-and-date, is especially likeable). Elizabeth Bear's evident enjoyment of plot, world and cast is infectious, too: so much so that it's easy to overlook the moral complexity, and emotional depth, of the stories.

But there's a great deal more to these stories than the superficial love triangle, or the tangles of sorcery. The whole of New Amsterdam is threaded with meditations on loyalty and treachery, independence (both personal and political) and the many flavours of love. When (not if) I return to this book, it'll be for the shifting allegiances and emotional ties between the characters.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

2013/07: Dotter of her Father's Eyes -- Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot

Early in Dotter of her Father's Eyes, Mary explains her fascination with Lucia Joyce to a fellow student:
"When I discovered [James] Joyce had a daughter I was curious. My parents were named Norah and Jim too!"
"So you're finding parallels?"
"I bloody hope not! She spent most of her life in mental institutions..." [p. 15]

There are parallels, though. Mary's 'cold mad feary father' -- a noted Joycean scholar -- is distant, sarcastic, emotionally abusive: Lucia's father is wound up in his own genius, thinking it sufficient that his daughter knows 'how to walk into a room', brushing aside her burgeoning career as a dancer in 1920s Paris. Both fathers love, but do not respect, their daughters. Both are blind to their daughter's individuality, to Mary's intellect and Lucia's talent for dance.

Dotter of her Father's Eyes, which won the Costa Prize for Best Biography in 2012, is a graphic novel which uses different palettes (blue for Lucia's life, sepia for Mary's memories, with colour creeping in as Mary escapes her claustrophobic adolescence) to distinguish two closely-entwined stories. It's beautifully drawn, with some very striking pages: I found the text equally beautiful, and I laughed out loud at the occasional authorial aside ('NB Bryan's wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, girls on the other.' [p.18])

Lucia's story is certainly a tragedy. Depressed, ashamed and angry at the discovery that her parents aren't even married to one another, she lashes out, and is confined to a clinic. Mary, by contrast, escapes. But it's clear that her father's influence extends beyond childhood. There's a panel of Sylvia Plath introducing her poem 'Daddy' on the radio "It's about a girl with an Electra complex. He died while she thought he was God." Mary observes 'mine came down from that pedestal while he was very much alive'. [p. 36] And even after Mary's father dies, she has to attempt to reconcile his public persona with her own experience.

Beautiful, moving and intimate: I will return to this, I think.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

2013/06: Dark Places -- Jon Evans

Another notch on their travel belt, that they had walked with a murdered man. Another story for their friends when they returned to their safe European homes. He wasn't really a dead man to them; he was another element in their life-enriching trip, just another Travel Experience, like an animatron on a Disney ride. [location 200]

Paul Wood is a self-confessed 'mild-mannered computer programmer' who doesn't know how to be happy in his comfortable Californian life, so spends four months a year travelling. Trekking in the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, he discovers the body of a murder victim, another backpacker. This is more than usually unnerving for two reasons: one, the murderer can't have got far, because the corpse is still warm; two, there's a Swiss army knife in each of the corpse's eyes, which is exactly what was done to Paul's girlfriend, murdered two years before in Cameroon.

Since the local authorities aren't interested in solving 'white men's murders' (and indeed would rather suppress any news that might put future tourists off visiting the region), Paul takes it upon himself to investigate the murders, and to find out if there have been others with a similar modus operandi. It's a way of coming to terms with Laura's death, but it exposes Paul to more danger than he expects.

Jon Evans is very good at evoking a sense of place: a shabby internet cafe in Bali, a desert road in central Africa, the empty heights of the Himalayas. He's not quite as good at characterisation: Paul, as narrator, is a complex and interesting (if often exasperating) individual, but most of the other characters are one-dimensional. That might be as much to do with Paul's egocentric world view as with the author's skill, though! Evans certainly captures Paul's sense of being lost and alienated, as well as his arrogance and privilege.

Dark Places is also very much a book set in the past: in this case around the turn of the millennium, when the DotCom bubble hadn't yet burst and the internet was all about Yahoo, web cafes and cable modems. It's interesting to think about how differently the events of the novel might play out now, in a more connected decade.

2013/05: Seraphina -- Rachel Hartman

Music is one thing dragons can't do better than us. They wish they could; they're fascinated; they've tried and tried again. They achieve technical perfection, perhaps, but there's always something missing. [location 957]

One of the most enjoyable novels I've read in a while: so far I've bought two copies for friends, and am wondering if I should stock up for the year ...

Seraphina is set in the kingdom of Goredd, a society reminiscent of eighteenth-century Europe. It's forty years since humans and dragons brokered an uneasy peace: now dragons are permitted to live amongst humans, as long as they (mostly) keep themselves folded into their human forms, known as saarantrai. The dragons pride themselves on logic, objectivity, clarity: they are excellent mathematicians, and the core of their society is ard, a philosophy of order and correctness that informs every aspect of their long lives.

Dragons dismiss most human culture, but are absolutely fascinated by music. Enter Seraphina Dombegh, the gifted young musician and would-be Court Composer, whose uncle is a dragon.

You do the maths.

Seraphina's father has spent a lot of time and effort reinventing his dead wife, Seraphina's mother. Truth will out, though, and Seraphina is desperate to keep her secrets from those to whom she's closest -- her student and friend, the Princess Glisselda, and Glisselda's fiance, the personable and intelligent Kiggs. Unfortunately, secrets spawn more secrets, and Seraphina finds herself amidst court intrigue, religious unrest, imaginary friends, interspecies tension (“The treaty forbids us biting off human heads ... but I won’t pretend I’ve forgotten what they taste like” [loc. 382]) and a plethora of those inconvenient emotions that the dragons so despise.

Never mind the plot (which occasionally -- this is a compliment -- reminded me of one of Georgette Heyer's more swashbuckling romances); Seraphina is a delightful narrator, with a dry wit and a depth of compassion and empathy that's remarkable in one so young. Orma, her dragon uncle, is distinctly non-human: the dragons are as alien as anything in SF. Hartman's Goredd is an interesting -- though as yet sparsely-detailed -- setting, perhaps most notable for its religion. There are various saints, on whom the populace call in prayer and blasphemy: St. Ogdo (fervently anti-dragon); St. Capiti (patron of learning, usually depicted with her severed head); St. Yrtrudis, the heretic whose motto is "No Heaven but this". There is, however, no God, no omniscient being to whom mortals must answer. I found this refreshing, and it certainly added to the Enlightenment ambience of the novel.

Seraphina is marketed as YA, but apart from the single-strand first-person narrative (and the youth of the narrator) I didn't find it in any way juvenile. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but there's plenty of trouble ahead for our heroine, and another novel due in 2013.

Note to publisher: please profrede the index as well as the text when converting to Kindle.