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

Friday, December 30, 2016

2016/81: The Three -- Sarah Lotz

He also expressed concern that Jess could be an alien being, but I assured him that aliens don’t exist and he was more than likely dealing with a bad energy influx.[loc. 4863]

On a single December day, four planes crash in different parts of the world, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people. There are just three survivors -- all children aged around six -- and The Three takes the form of a collection of interviews, news cuttings and transcripts of the coverage of those children (Bobby Small, Hiro Yanagida and Jessica Craddock) after the crash.

Evangelists claim they are three of the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, heralding the end of the world. Paul Craddock, Jessica's uncle, believes they are something ... strange. One man believes that Bobby has cured a neighbour's Alzheimer's. And the children themselves? We don't get a great deal of insight into their experience, their perception, their memories.

I can't say I enjoyed this. The writing occasionally felt lazy, and it was sometimes hard to distinguish the characters. While The Three was an interesting take on the gradual alienation of the adults closest to each child, it didn't really deliver on its initial premise, and the hints of the supernatural (3am, the Japanese 'ghost hour'; ghosts with no feet; the suicide forest) remained mere hints.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016/80: Golden Hill -- Francis Spufford

It had been his study to fit whatever part of the honeycomb housed him. But here – though it would suit him now... to fall in with the merchants’ preferences, whatever they might be, or at least not to flout them too scornfully – he must study not to fit. He must remain the mercurial, the unreckonable stranger.[loc. 619]

New York, 1746: the mysterious Mr Smith arrives from London, with a bill of exchange for a thousand pounds and a smiling disinclination to reveal anything whatsoever about himself, his purposes, or the purchases he hopes to make.

Smith -- handsome, competent, eloquent and amiable -- is taken up by New York society, and makes a number of friends and acquaintances. He attracts the attention of the Governor; of banker's daughter Tabitha Lovell; of Septimus Oakeshott, who knows more about a recent theft than he admits; of Mrs Terpsichore Tomlinson, a former actress who is now an officer's wife. And meanwhile the sixty days between the bill of exchange being presented and its falling due are ticking past.

In the best traditions of the picaresque novel, Smith finds himself duelling; escaping over the rooftops; wooing a difficult woman; seduced in a bathhouse; gambling for high stakes, feasting, appearing in a play; observing, at every moment, the social mores and institutionalised iniquities of New York life. Golden Hill, indulging these traditions, also plays with their conventions. There are three passages -- a card game, a duel and the bathhouse seduction -- where we're shown the novelist's exasperation at trying to describe their character experiencing something of which they, narrating, have no first-hand knowledge. There are also occasional observations on Smith's naivete and impetuous behaviour: hints, perhaps, that the author of this picaresque has mixed emotions about Mr Richard Smith.

I was, I think, expecting something along the lines of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle: certainly, at least for the first few chapters, Smith is very much concerned with matters of economics, currency and trade. But it gradually became clear that this was an altogether different kind of novel: and though Spufford gives us all the information necessary to contextualise Smith's behaviour, I confess I didn't foresee the denouement. Nor -- because of my ignorance of this period of history -- did I realise just how catastrophic a certain revelation would be.

Golden Hill is clever, witty, compassionate and splendidly written. There are a lot of likeable characters (I think I actually cried at the fate of one of them), and plenty of complex motivations. Smith, in particular, is most interesting when he's at his lowest: his miserable anger at losing his right to chose, his self-flagellation for making the wrong decisions. (" – It will be observed that these realisations were coming rather late," remarks the novelist dryly.) The immediacy of Spufford's descriptions of eighteenth-century New York is breathtaking, and I seldom felt that he was including anything merely for the sake of including it. Delicious.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016/79: More Than This --Patrick Ness

Isn’t dying once enough? he thinks. Am I going to have to keep doing it? But then he thinks, No. Because you can die before you’re dead, too.[loc. 1132]

The book opens with a detailed description of Seth's death, drowning in an ice-cold sea. Then he wakes up, and is, as far as he can tell, in Hell.

It looks a lot like England, where he grew up. His family moved to Washington state after the bad thing that happened to his little brother Owen: but now he's back in his childhood home, and the town is deserted, and he is, he must be, in hell.

He's not entirely alone. He meets Regine and Tomacz, who warn him about some of the hazards of the place, and help him make sense of some of his memories. There was a boy he loved, who he thinks betrayed him: there was his difficult relationship with his parents, who neglected him in favour of Owen.

Or did they?

After a certain point in this novel, I was unable not to think of it as a variant on a well-known SF film of the 1990s: however, given that it's a YA novel, it's possible that the target audience won't make that association. And anyway, there are different issues being addressed here: teen suicide, relationships, sex and race and immigration, the nature of reality, the fallibility of memory, and why you should be careful about taking intimate photos on your phone.

Ness is an excellent writer, and his prose and the deceptive simplicity of Seth's experience carried me through the passages that I found less credible or less engaging. Seth's Hell may be in his own mind, but it's harrowing: Regina and Tomacz' experiences are just as grim, and just as grittily real.

I'd like to know which book Seth was reading, though:
he takes a book from the bookcase. It’s one of his father’s, one Seth has already read part of years ago, sneaking it from the shelf in America when his father wasn’t looking. It was far too old for him at the time and, he smiles wryly, is probably too old for him now. There’s large quantities of good-spirited sex, metaphors that run on just for the hell of it, and plenty of philosophical musing about immortality. There’s also a satyr who features heavily... He looks at the cover again. A satyr playing pan pipes, far more innocent-looking than what it got up to in the story. [loc 1457

This is bugging me! Any suggestions? John Fowles?

2016/78: The Age of Miracles -- Karen Thompson Walker

After the slowing, every action required a little more force than it used to. The physics had changed. Take, for example, the slightly increased drag of a hand on a knife or a finger on a trigger. From then on, we all had a little more time to decide what not to do. And who knows how fast a second-guess can travel? Who has ever measured the exact speed of regret?[loc. 525]

The Earth's rotation slows, making days longer: ecological and sociological disaster ensue, as crops fail, the magnetosphere thins, and the US Government decrees that America will run on 'clock time' -- meaning that noon might be the middle of the dark hours.

This is not the plot, though: this is the background. The plot revolves around Julia, an eleven-year-old girl living in California, who observes the world changing from the self-absorbed perspective of an adolescent. Her best friend is taken away by her family, who believe that the slowing is a sign of God's wrath; Julia's mother starts hoarding food and showing signs of 'the syndrome'; their neighbour Sylvia rejects clock time and asserts that humans can adapt to the new rhythms of nature; and Julia's grandfather restocks his nuclear-proof bunker.

Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story, set in a world that is slowly disintegrating: nothing can be trusted to remain the same, a sound metaphor for adolescence. It's a beautifully-written book, and Walker's choice of narrator means that any flaws or fallacies in the science can be glossed over as a product of the character's ignorance. (I did get annoyed when she referred to astronauts on the space station -- stranded because all the equations have changed -- as being 'ten thousand miles higher' than hot air balloons. Nope, two hundred and fifty miles higher, give or take. Or is this poetic hyperbole?)

Julia witnesses the breakdown of the modern world -- a kind of slow apocalypse -- with the same fascinated semi-comprehension that she turns on the people around her. Her father may be having an affair; her own budding relationship with Seth Moreno has more, and more surreal, hurdles to overcome than the typical pre-teen romance. Julia is (though she doesn't admit it) painfully lonely: her first-person narrative, looking back from the vantage point of her late teens, is focussed more on the relationships around her than on the invisible catastrophe that is changing everything.

The Age of Miracles is a compelling read. I didn't know, when I read it, that it had been sold for a record-breaking advance ($1m). I'm not sure that it's that good: but the juxtaposition of slow catastrophe and adolescent angst worked for me.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016/77: Company of Liars -- Karen Maitland

Once, half-submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of St Florian, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him and cast him out to face the elements. Many of the cottagers were no longer begging God for mercy, they were angry with him. They felt betrayed...[loc. 2898]

Set in 1348, just after the Black Death has reached England: 'Camelot', a hawker of relics, decides to head north to avoid the plague. Camelot is joined by Cygnus, a swan-winged story-teller; Zophiel, a travelling magician with a wagonful of heavy boxes; Venetian musician Rodrigo and his pupil Jofre; painter Osmond and his wife Adela, who is expecting their first child; Pleasance, a midwife; and a strange white-haired child, Narigorm, who reads runes and is given to doom-laden pronouncements.

As Doctor House says, 'everybody lies'. All of these travellers are lying, concealing their individual, desperately important, secrets: and many of them are doomed by their lies.

Around them the fabric of society is falling apart. The weather is abominable, the harvest has failed; the people feel betrayed by God and take refuge in superstition and xenophobia; there are outlaws roaming the roads, and wolves in the forests, and the pestilence lays waste to whole villages. Somebody -- or something -- is following the little company of nine. And then the deaths begin...

Company of Liars is not a cheerful read, but it's a strangely compelling one: I found myself eager to unravel the lies and deceptions of each member of the company, and knotting together hints and allusions to stay one step ahead of the narrator. There is definitely something uncanny going on, and it seems to centre on Narigorm -- the only character whose motivation ('because I can') I found less than convincing. The other characters felt familiar to me from medieval literature, and novels set in the period: you could read this as a modern variation on The Canterbury Tales (where, remember, not everyone is wholly honest about their past), or as a critique of those Decameron-esque works where aristocrats retire to a secluded villa to eat and drink and tell stories to one another. But the stories in Company of Liars are rather more brutal.

I see why people have an issue with the ending of this novel: it feels ... unnecessary. Cheap, even. But it does indicate that even Camelot's lie has been unravelled.

Monday, December 26, 2016

2016/75: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet -- David Mitchell

"Doctor, do you believe in the Soul’s existence?"
Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply.
"Yes."
"Then where . . ." Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton ". . . is it?"
"The soul is a verb," he impales a lit candle on a spike, "not a noun."[loc. 3042]

The year is 1799. Jacob de Zoet has been packed off by his prospective father-in-law to Dejima, the manmade island in Nagasaki Bay that is the sole point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world. Jacob is there to make something of himself: the Dutch East India Company is there to make a vast profit, ideally without letting on just how precarious its own position is. Tensions run high on Dejima, both between the various European factions and between the Europeans and the Japanese. De Zoet does his bit to make himself unpopular by uncovering evidence of past corruption and dishonesty. He is also in possession of an illegal book -- and befriends the translator, Uzaemon, who helps him conceal this crime.

Meanwhile, a young midwife named Orito Aibagawa has (by saving the lives of baby and a mother in a difficult birth) been granted the exclusive, extraordinary privilege of studying with one Doctor Marinus, Dejima's resident physician and a thoroughly Enlightenment fellow. De Zoet encounters Miss Aibagawa a couple of times, and falls recklessly in love with her. But their love is (of course) doomed: she is sent, against her will, to be a Sister in the remote temple-compound of Abbot Enomoto. There, she discovers a horrific cult and a fragile calm that's built on lies.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has a large cast and a sprawling plot, though all (or most) of the elements do come together in the end. There is romance and swashbuckling, in both Japanese and European modes, and plenty of intrigue and double-dealing from all concerned. Themes of imprisonment and sacrifice -- literal and metaphorical in both cases -- permeate the novel, and Mitchell uses that large cast to demonstrate many and varied ways in which human beings can be captive, free and both at once.

It's also immensely readable. I love Mitchell's writing here, full of jewel-like phrases ('Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting' [loc. 1162]), profound discussions and humour that ranges from earthy to refined. I admire the transition from the Dutch / European chapters to the Japanese, and back. The characters, whatever their moral alignments, are generally interesting (though Mitchell doesn't always flesh them out as much as I'd like) and their interactions credible.

Reading this after The Bone Clocks is ... a weird kind of tantalisation. Would I have picked up all those little hints?

2016/76: Rebel of the Sands -- Alwyn Hamilton

"How long had it been since you’d seen a First Being before the Buraqi came into town? Magic and metal don’t mix well. We’re killing it. But it’s fighting back." [loc. 993]

Amani Al’Hiza is sixteen, good with a gun, and being lined up as her uncle's next bride. She is unenthusiastic about the idea, and disguises herself as a boy to enter a sharpshooting contest. The prize money will be enough to help her escape Deadshot (a backwater, deadend desert town which has accreted around a munitions factory) and make for the city, where she believes a better life can be had.

Then Amani meets an enigmatic stranger, Jin, who is up to no good. He sees through her disguise, and offers to help her if she'll help him. Boom! goes the munitions factory. Amani and Jin flee by train ... and Jin offers her the opportunity to be part of the rebellion against the Sultan and his allies.

The rebellion's motto is 'a new dawn, a new desert,' and Amani is intrigued. Especially when Jin explains to her about the First Beings, the magical creatures such as Buraqi and Djinni that are being driven away by iron and gunpowder but are fighting back ... and the Demdji, the offspring of human and Djinn.

I'd have been happier with this novel if I'd stopped reading after the first half. The world-building is excellent -- Wild West meets Arabian Nights, to summarise in cliche -- and Amani and Jin are fairly interesting while they're getting to know one another. But the second half of the novel (the rebellion, and the evaporation of Jin's mystique) didn't appeal as much: though plenty was happening, it felt much less immediate and interesting than that first flight from Deadshot. And though I was pretty much expecting the romantic subplot -- Amani and Jin having been snarking and bantering since pretty much the moment they met -- its development was curiously flat and unsatisfying.

There are a lot of aspects of Rebel of the Sands that I like: grimly determined feminist heroine with wit and courage; non-European roots (there are no white people in this novel); intriguing world-building (for instance, the stars and moon 'going out' at midnight, a phenomenon which has been embedded into religious belief); the shadowy hints of the First Beings and the possibility that humans colonised a world which already had sentient inhabitants; and, of course, Amani's heritage. I'm interested enough in those aspects that I'll probably read the rest of the trilogy at some point.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

2016/74: Medicus -- Ruth Downie

Ruso closed his eyes briefly and dreamed of a world where women stayed quietly at home and sewed things and understood the value of Modesty and Obedience–not to mention Not Turning Up Dead Under Suspicious Circumstances. When he opened them again, he was still in Britannia.[loc. 2317]

Gaius Petreius Ruso has family obligations, debts, an ex-wife about whom he's still bitter, and a new posting as an army doctor at the fort of Deva, in north-west Britannia.

He's hoping that his move to Britain will signal a change in his fortune: and so it does, though perhaps not quite in the way he hopes. Rescuing an injured slave-girl, Tilla, from her abusive owner is the first step on a path that leads Ruso to investigate a number of deaths in, or connected to, the local brothel. (Also a nasty case of food poisoning.)

I didn't enjoy this as much as I'd hoped: I didn't especially like any of the characters (though Tilla and Chloe have potential), and wasn't entirely convinced by the changing relationship between Ruso and Tilla. Medicus does explore the less-heroic aspects of colonial Roman life, and there are some interesting interactions between Romans and locals. And it's well-written. But for all its merits as a historical novel, I just wasn't in the mood to enjoy reading a story about multiple women being murdered.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

2016/73: Inflight Science: A Guide to the World from Your Airplane Window -- Brian Clegg

We aren’t entirely sure why Newton came up with the number seven, including those obscure shades indigo and violet, but there’s a strong feeling that he was drawing a parallel with music. In the musical ‘spectrum’ there are seven notes, A to G, before completing the octave and returning to the next A up. Newton, it’s thought, felt that there also ought to be seven colours in the visible spectrum.[loc. 1323]

Entertaining pop-science, just the right length for a 4-hour flight: Clegg explores cloud formation, fractal coastlines, the physics of flight, airport security technologies, volcanoes, oxbow lakes ... It's a light read, with plenty of anecdotes and examples: possibly I was not the target audience, but it passed the time and some of the information was new to me.

Friday, December 23, 2016

2016/69: Jackdaw -- KJ Charles

"He's not an evil man, unfortunately ... That makes him all the more harmful. If he as evil, we'd kill him. No, he's ... chaotic."

Ben Spenser has come to London for one purpose: to track down Jonah Pastern, windwalker and thief, and punch him in the face. Ben loved Jonah, and Jonah betrayed him and wrecked his life. Ben's career in the police force is over, his parents have disowned him, his landlord evicted him, he's done ten weeks' hard labour for gross indecency. He has nothing left except the desire for vengeance.

Except, of course, that it's never that simple. And Jonah Pastern, once caught and roundly punched (after which he saves Ben from a police raid), claims that he loved Ben too, and wants to explain his poor life choices. Ben is determined not to be fooled again, but then he discovers that at least some of Jonah's crimes were perpetrated in order to protect Ben himself. Maybe it was all lies, but Ben can't help wondering if Jonah -- illiterate Jonah, whose first instinct when trouble looms is to run -- might be worth saving from police forces magical and ordinary, and even from himself.

Another good, thoughtful fantasy with M/M romance from KJ Charles, who writes about poverty, destitution and gaol and about windwalking (levitation), fluence (mind control) and how to have a conscience. Jackdaw (which is set during and after The Magpie Lord) is a good read, though somehow darker -- and more focussed on the protagonists' relationship -- than others in the series.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

2016/67: A Queer Trade -- KJ Charles

also 2016/68: Rag and Bone -- KJ Charles
"You act by writing. That is not a crime, and you are not a criminal. It is extraordinarily rare... What's wrong with you is that you've been taught to draw your power down the wrong way. Blood writing is impractical if you use your own blood, and illegal if you don't." [Rag and one, loc. 615]

Ned Hall, purveyor of waste paper to the markets of London, is visited one afternoon by a frantic Crispin Tredarloe, whose late master's house has been cleared. Crispin desperately needs to track down some of the papers that Ned might have bought: they're scripti, spells written down, and they could be dangerous. Ned, though initially suspicious of this madman raving about magic, decides to help: after all, there's that noise he can't quite hear, from somewhere in the paper store, and he wishes it would shut up. (It also doesn't hurt that Crispin is attractive, in a fey sort of way.)

Crispin has been apprenticed to Mr Marleigh for years, and Marleigh's taught him how to write his own spells, with a rather unusual pen. He knows his dead master thought that the laws restricting blood magic were fussy and old-fashioned, so he can't exactly go to the justiciary (magical police) for help. Ned, though: Ned is strong, practical and handsome, and seems inclined to believe Crispin when he says it's a matter of life and death. Also, Crispin has never spoken to a man of colour before ...

A Queer Trade sets up Crispin and Ned's relationship: Rag and Bone threatens it, and presents a truly nasty plot. Again, KJ Charles combines a plotty (and really quite scary) fantasy novel with a credible M/M romance. She doesn't shy away from the mundane moralities of probably-Victorian London: homosexuality is still illegal, Ned is still the victim of casual and institutional racism -- and she explores some of the ethical and practical issues of having an understaffed magical justiciary attempting to control magical practice. The books are very firmly grounded in London (nobody here is turning west on Leadenhall Street to get to Aldgate) and there's a good sense of lower-class London life. And we catch glimpses of the characters from other books in the same world: Stephen Day, Jenny Saint, Esther Gold. Competent writing, fun pacy plots, and likeable characters: recommended.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

2016/72: The Soldier's Scoundrel -- Cat Sebastian

Everywhere he looked there were women trying to help one another in dubious ways when there didn’t seem to be any other solution. [loc. 3585]
Jack Turner, formerly a valet and something of a ruffian, makes a living helping aristocratic ladies resolve personal matters. (He won't work for noblemen.) Oliver Rivington, invalided from the army, is curious as to why his sister has paid Jack Turner a large sum of money. Visiting Turner's office at an inconvenient time, he finds himself embroiled in Jack's latest case: the theft of some potentially-incriminating correspondence from Lydia Wraxhall's jewel box.

They are both good men who don't necessarily think of themselves in positive terms, and who have a great many misconceptions about the other's social class. Jack, having seen how badly the aristocracy treat their servants (much is made of a kitchen maid having a spare pair of shoes for church on Sunday), is something of a reformer: he perceives that well-born ladies often have no more real power than their maids. Oliver, who's drifting through life aimlessly as a member of the monied classes, is innately decent with a strong sense of honour and nobless oblige, and nowhere to put it.

Neither is inclined to marry.

The period detail is good, though the language occasionally anachronistic: there is a developing relationship between the two protagonists, but there's plenty of other plot to buttress that. Excellent characterisation, of minor characters as well as Jack and Oliver. Most notably, this was published with a typical romance-novel cover -- handsome chap standing behind love interest who's baring a lot of chest, each engrossed in the other -- which is quite an achievement for an M/M romance.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

2016/71: Widdershins -- Jordan L. Hawk

I lied all the time. My life had been nothing but a fable, told to keep society happy, or at least keep it from noticing me. I'd lied about my feelings for Leander, I'd hidden away any spark or sign of passion after coming to manhood, and now I pretended Griffin was merely a good friend. What did one more lie matter? [loc. 3284]

First in a series (eight books so far) featuring Percival Endicott Whyborne (reclusive, repressed scholar) and Griffin Flaherty (handsome, angst-ridden detective). Together, they fight Lovecraftian horrors.

Widdershins is set in the eponymous town, which was founded by Theron Blackbyrne after he fled Salem 'one step ahead of the witch hunters'. Now Blackbyrne's descendants are up to no good, and their secret cult has grown to embrace many of the town's most prominent figures -- including members of Whyborne's own family. Whyborne's ability to decrypt an ancient text, and to use the information he translates, is an exemplary geek-makes-good narrative: his growing regard for Griffin, and their initially prickly working (and extracurricular) relationship, brings to mind Holmes and Watson. Though Hawk does take things rather further than Conan Doyle did.

I was greatly taken with Christine, lady Egyptologist and Whyborne's one true friend, and with the Lovecraftian setting. However, I didn't engage with this novel as much as I'd hoped, and I wonder if that might be due to the first-person narrative. (Again, very Holmesian.) I don't have a problem with this in general, but I'm considering whether I find it offputting in romances ... Or perhaps it's because Whyborne doesn't like himself very much... But I shall persevere with the series, because the setting and the dialogue and the prose style work very well.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

2016/70: The Haunting of Hill House -- Shirley Jackson

"When I am afraid, I can see perfectly the sensible, beautiful not-afraid side of the world, I can see chairs and tables and windows staying the same, not affected in the least, and I can see things like the careful woven texture of the carpet, not even moving. But when I am afraid I no longer exist in any relation to these things. I suppose because things are not afraid." [loc. 1984]

Eleanor Vance is invited by Doctor Montague, an investigator of the supernatural, to stay for the summer in Hill House, an allegedly-haunted country mansion. She becomes friends with Theodora, an extrovert and empathetic artist with a decidedly bohemian bent. Both of them, as well as Dr Montague and Luke Sanderson (the latter being heir to the house), are amused by the refusal of the caretakers, Mr and Mrs Dudley, to stay overnight at Hill House.

And yes, there is definitely something strange going on. There are sounds at night; there is writing on the walls, in bright red; Eleanor holds Theodora's hand for comfort, only to find that Theodora is nowhere near her. Even more strangely, when Montague's wife and her friend Mr Parker arrive with their spirit-writing and seances, they experience nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Eleanor is being shaped by the house -- or perhaps she's shaping it. Perhaps the house recognises lawful prey. Perhaps Eleanor is just very impressionable: she is haunted, in the usual natural sense, by the memory of her invalid mother banging on the wall to summon her. She has led a sheltered life: no wonder she turns towards Theodora's friendship like a flower towards the sun. Perhaps Hill House's oddities are a product of Eleanor's imagination.

Perhaps they are not.

The Haunting of Hill House is chilling precisely because so little happens: and the person to whom it does not happen is Eleanor, who is the focus of the book. Only gradually do we realise that her viewpoint may not be entirely reliable: that she is not necessarily experiencing the same events as the other guests.

Shirley Jackson's writing is restrained, almost claustrophobic, and deceptively plain. I suspect this is another novel which will reward rereading. For one thing, I want to see how that sense of building horror is done.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

2016/64-66: A Charm of Magpies (trilogy) -- KJ Charles

"There’s power in the Magpie Lord’s bloodline. It’s in the blood, bone and birdspit, as they say, and yes, birdspit is a euphemism." [loc 2160]

Lucien, Lord Crane, returns to England after two decades' exile in China. He is accompanied by his manservant Merrick (whose past is as lurid as his lordship's) and harbours a strong distaste for the dull weather and repressive laws of the land of his birth. His father and brother, whom he does not mourn -- they were responsible for his exile -- both committed suicide: and Crane finds himself overtaken by fits of inexplicable despair in which he attempts the same act.

Enter Stephen Day, justiciar: 'a kind of magical policeman'. Stephen, in the first book, is recovering from a magical draining, and blames Crane's family for the destruction of his own: the late Lord Crane destroyed Stephen's father's law practice and drove his mother to an early grave. Nevertheless, he agrees to track down the source of the curse that's been placed on Crane and on his ancestral home.

And then Day discovers that Crane is the descendant of one of the most powerful magicians ever to have lived: and that the power of that bloodline, inaccessible to Crane himself, may be accessed by others ...

The Magpie Lord is a well-plotted fantasy novel, a magical whodunnit, with an appealing and credible romance between two dangerous and strong-willed men. The setting is nineteenth century, though there's little to narrow down the period: no mention of king or queen or current affairs. I'm tempted to say Victorian, but it may be earlier. Social class is an issue, both in mundane terms and in the elitism of some of the magical practitioners: Crane and Day are both very aware of the damage their relationship might do to their social standing.

A Case of Possession deals with an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (yes, there's a Sumatran connection) and is, unlike the first novel, set primarily in London. Charles is to be commended for writing about the Limehouse Chinese community without resorting to period-typical racism or xenophobia: the cast of this novel, somewhat expanded from the last, also includes a Jewish couple (both magical practitioners), and a number of people from all walks of life. Crane and Day's relationship is more settled in this novel, and there's more of Merrick, whose rough (and irreverent) friendship with his nominal lord and master is a delight.

Flight of Magpies shows the strain setting into the core relationship -- Crane would love to return to Shanghai, while Stephen's overdeveloped sense of responsibility makes him unable to quit his job as one of London's few justiciars -- and introduces more new characters, including a levitating thief with something of a conscience, and a love interest for the redoubtable Merrick. The magic really gets going in this one, with spectacular results.

This series is definitely a light read, but it's effervescent with wit and well-observed characterisation. The relationship between Stephen Day and Lucien Crane is complex, adult and constantly evolving: the 'magical crime' plots are intricate and interesting in their own rights. Charles writes nineteenth-century London with competence, liveliness and accurate geography, and her characters (or most of them) have depth and history, whether or not we get to see any of it. (I'd love to read more about Esther Gold's past. Or Leo Hart's future.) And her protagonists are competent, dangerous and equal: that last is a quality I rate very highly in M/M romance.

Monday, December 05, 2016

2016/63: Think of England -- KJ Charles

The actual life of a gentleman spy, it seemed to him, consisted of sneaking about, breaking the rules of hospitality and generally being anything but a gentleman, and the only mysterious foreigner around was da Silva. He was probably the closest thing Peakholme had to offer to a sultry seductress, come to that.[loc. 556]
The year is 1904, and Boer War veteran Archie Curtis (nephew of Sir Henry Curtis, who appears in King Solomon's Mines) is attending a country house party in search of answers about the disaster that ended his military career and killed his friends. Was it bad luck, or sabotage?

His dislike of fellow guest Daniel da Silva -- foreign, dark-eyed, flamboyant and a poet -- is immediate and apparently mutual. But this is a romance, and while it eschews many of the more annoying tropes, opposites definitely do attract.

Think of England is utterly charming. The growing respect and friendship (as well as attraction) between Archie and Daniel is nicely paced, and Charles doesn't shy away from the difficult issues of same-sex attraction in Edwardian England. Archie doesn't identify as queer, and struggles with his urge to treat Daniel as more than just a furtive liaison.

Meanwhile, the two become embroiled in a dastardly plot that involves blackmail, hidden cameras (it's a very modern country house), the defense of the realm, corruption in high places. Daniel's frivolous exterior turns out to conceal nerves of steel, and Archie discovers new purpose in life.

Also there are canonical lesbians.

I read this on a friend's recommendation, and was impressed enough to read several more novels by the same author in quick succession. I have to say I like Think of England, with its discussions of poetry and lockpicking and psychotherapy and Boys' Own adventures, more than the others: I think it's because I like Daniel and Archie as characters.

Friday, December 02, 2016

2016/62: Fencing with Death: A Vintage Mystery -- Elizabeth Edmondson

'You did brilliantly in the written papers, I have to tell you, but the interviews let you down.'
'Why?'
'Chip on your shoulder a yard high and ridiculous left-wing fancies sprouting out all over you.'[loc. 317]

It is not to my credit that it took me about half the book to work out that I'd read it before, albeit under a different title: Losing Larry. Yep, pretty much everything I wrote back then still stands. I liked Larry a bit more this time around (possibly because I'm six years further removed from my own youthful idealism?), and I still think Edmondson is* a warm and witty writer. The ending of Fencing with Death is not wholly satisfactory, but it does grant a kind of freedom to the novel's protagonist.

* or was: I was sad to read of her death in 2016.

2016/61: Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder -- Evelyn Waugh

'...It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.'
'It's arguable,' said Brideshead. 'Do you think he will need this elephant's foot again?'[loc. 2198]

Incredibly, I had never actually read this: having been deterred at an early age by the 'classic' label (for which I blame an education system that inflicts 'classics' on adolescents before they are mentally or emotionally ready to appreciate them), and never having seen the classic BBC adaptation (beloved of many of my university friends) I just ... didn't. After all, there were so many other books to read.

Sebastian Flyte was born into privilege and acts, on occasion, like a spoilt child. Middle-class Charles Ryder is drawn to his company, but can't help (and possibly isn't aware of, at the time) judging him. It's an affair as intense as any grand romance, whether or not it is actually a sexual liaison. Charles sets himself (again, perhaps not consciously) against the Flyte family, and loses. Later in life -- though before the framing narrative of Brideshead in wartime -- he begins to appreciate just how profoundly Sebastian's Catholicism has shaped his life.

If I'd read this sooner, I might not have appreciated the growth of Charles Ryder as a character: I might have been too fascinated by the golden youths basking in the idyllic Twenties [yes, I know they weren't actually idyllic] and dismissed the more sober and mature reflections of Charles the husband, Charles the soldier, Charles the convert as a fading or lessening of the person he had been. Instead, I found myself thinking about Brideshead Revisited for quite a while after I'd finished reading. Perhaps I'm still thinking about it.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

2016/60: Wicked Gentlemen -- Ginn Hale

When I had been very young, I had snuck up from Hells Below to drift up into the open night. I had thought that it was my kingdom. For a few weeks I had thought that perhaps I was the secret child of an angel. I had floated up into the frigid mists of clouds and imagined that the moon, shining above me, was my promised halo.

It's three hundred years since the Covenant of Redemption, which pardoned Lucifer's angels and gave them the promise of salvation for themselves and their descendants. Belimai Sykes is one such descendant -- 'Prodigal', those with demon blood are termed -- and has achieved an uneasy equilibrium between his second-class status as a Prodigal and his (intermittent) career as an investigator. Mostly, he spends his time alone in his room, high on ophorium and regret. He is a person with a past.

Into his present comes Captain William Harper of the Inquisition, a quasi-religious order responsible for policing the city of Crowncross. He, and his brother-in-law Dr Talbott, have a case for Sykes: but Sykes' help does not come cheap.

Wicked Gentlemen comprises two linked novellas, one from Sykes' point of view and one from Harper's. Sykes' voice is the more appealing, because he has a richer sensorium and a darker past, but Harper's perception of him is intriguing.

Class, religion, the thin veneer of respectability: Ginn Hale has created a very interesting setting for this M/M romance. The characters are three-dimensional, and though the plot is full of romance tropes -- not least 'opposites attract!' -- the setting confers novelty on them.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

2016/59: Europe in Winter -- Dave Hutchinson

"Europe is inherently unstable. It's been in flux for centuries; countries have risen and fallen, borders have ebbed and flowed, governments have come and gone. The Schengen era was just an historical blip, an affectation."[loc. 5535]

Third in the series -- trilogy? or will there be more? -- that began with Europe in Autumn and continued with Europe at Midnight. I liked Europe in Winter a great deal though suspect I need to reread the entire sequence before I can make sense of the ways in which the various plot threads weave and tangle together.

The Community has ended decades of isolationism and has laid a transcontinental railway line -- 'not so much a mode of transport, more a lifestyle choice' -- from Spain to Siberia. There are problems with bringing down borders, though. Some people would much rather keep the outsiders outside. And other people might make their living from facilitating illicit crossing of said borders. Thus, a terrorist attack on the Paris-Novosibirsk Express.

Meanwhile Rudi, erstwhile chef and Coureur du Bois, has managed to infiltrate Dresden-Neustadt, and has made a number of disconcerting discoveries -- about the Community, about the Patrons, about the Line and about himself. It's a complex and incomprehensible reality, so of course Mr Hutchinson throws further spanners (or, more likely, kitchen implements) into the works. Characters from the previous two novels (or people very like them) reappear: rival powers exchange hostages: old-skool spies do old-skool spy stuff straight out of Le Carre: a man with amnesia is travelling on forged papers, carrying a photograph from the 1919 Versailles peace conference: and Rudi begins to uncover the identity of the Coureur mastermind who's turned his life upside down and inside out.

With hilarious consequences.

I've struggled to write this review because there is simply so much plot: an unfolding fractal landscape of connections, identities, loyalties, topography. Then I happened across the perfect description of this novel: the bastard son of The Third Man and Inception (from The Eloquent Page). Yep, that sounds about right.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

2016/58: Fool's Run -- Patricia A. McKillip

"I learned something strange. When you run, you run backwards, you never reach the future. The past runs faster than you and waits for you to reach it. You have to walk out of danger, out of the past. Because you look back when you run, but you look to the future when you walk."[loc. 1737]

Reread: I absolutely adored this novel when I first read it, but haven't revisited it for years. Having recently read Kingfisher -- which reminded me of Fool's Run in its mythic resonance and its relatively sparse imagery -- I wanted to reread this and see if my memory had become rose-tinted.

As usual with rereads, it was interesting to see what I remembered and what I didn't. Last time around, I think I was more focussed on the band and the romance: this time, I found the story of Jase -- unwilling King of an Underworld which is actually an orbitting penal colony -- fascinating. The echoes and distortions of the Orpheus myth are still impressively intricate, and critical of the source: the future, with its First World Government and its Sectors and music from all eras, seems much further away than it did in the Eighties.

Irritatingly, this ebook publication has a problem with typos: specifically, the word 'colour'. We have 'the brilliant colourcoloured lights'[loc. 807], 'a pair of colourrose-coloured cube-sticks' [loc. 1316], the 'colourcolourless or of all colours' [loc. 2198]. And this is, as usual with McKillip, a book full of colour: gold, rose, amethyst ... even Viridian, the surname of the woman whose quest for more light affected so many of the characters.

I wish McKillip wrote SF more often.

Friday, November 04, 2016

2016/57: A Little Familiar -- R. Cooper

That was one of the problems with dating ordinary humans; eventually it became necessary to either tell them the truth or break up with them. Relationships with them could be done, of course, with the right sort of person, the kind already inclined to gaze longingly at full moons, the ones who searched for fairies when they saw a circle of mushrooms, or ran toward breaking waves instead of away from them.[loc. 44]

Piotr Russell is a powerful witch, but his very power makes him lonely: he can't face a relationship with an outsider, and all the witches and magic-users he knows are paired up or otherwise ineligible. Instead, Piotr keeps to himself and channels his energy into providing for his coven: he's an excellent cook and gardener, and he bestows blessings liberally.

Piotr's ancestors have sought solace in the companionship of their familiars -- yet when Piotr is approached by Bartleby, a 'human familiar' who has no magic of his own and yet is capable of augmenting another witch's power, Piotr rejects him, because he is old-fashioned enough to hope for love as well as expedience. And surely Bartleby, gorgeous and gregarious, can never love him ...

Okay, you can probably see where this story is going: it doesn't surprise, but it is sweet and warm and often funny. Also quite short. It wasn't quite the 'pairing of equals' that I prefer in my M/M romances: Bartleby is described in terms that, while not feminising, do present him as more fragile, fey and lacking in agency than Piotr. I did like the setting, though, complete with the ghost of Piotr's great-aunt in the parlour.

Monday, October 31, 2016

2016/56: The Villa in Italy -- Elizabeth Edmondson

It was odd how English people had reverted to their old habits of reserve and suspicion after the war. Conversations with strangers at bus stops and on trains, being invited in for a cup of tea by neighbours you had never spoken to before, the very unEnglish sense of camaraderie -- all of that had vanished. While queues and saving string and old envelopes had stayed.[loc. 698]

The mid-Fifties: long enough after the Second World War for wartime tragedies to lose their bite, and for a semblance of normality to return, but not long enough to heal every wound. Four people are summoned to the Villa Dante in Italy for the reading of Beatrice Malaspina's will. None of them knew Beatrice Malaspina: none of them have very much to lose. So five travellers -- Delia's best friend Jessica accompanies her -- make their way across post-war Europe to the beautiful, sunny Italian coast.

They are four very different people. Marjorie was a successful author, but hasn't written for years. She hears voices, possibly as a result of an accident. Lucius, an American, is a former officer, haunted by a wartime killing. Delia is an opera singer who hates singing tragedy, and whose true love Theo is married to her sister. (Her friend Jessica is Theo's sister.) And George is a nuclear physicist who worked at Los Alamos.

Beatrice Malaspina, it turns out, had a connection to each of these people, though they didn't know it. And each of them is, in turn, connected to the others. The Villa Dante is full of surprises and clues (apparently there's a codicil to the will, concealed somewhere on the premises) and as the guests get to know one another, they also come to understand themselves -- and their roles in Beatrice Malaspina's posthumous production -- rather better.

This is a delightful novel. Elizabeth Edmondson -- who also wrote as Elizabeth Pewsey and Elizabeth Aston -- has the gift of peppering her stories with well-paced, and well-placed, scraps of information. There is never too little information, and very seldom too much (though in The Villa in Italy, the unexpected arrival of one character's father does presage a certain amount of expository dialogue).

I think what I liked about this novel is the way that the author writes about people, and their interactions. Her characters are all well-rounded, and mostly unhappy at the beginning of the novel, and mostly happy at the end: and they evolve through the course of the novel, and through their interactions with and acceptance of one another. Also, there is a canonically queer character: and those 'happy endings' are not simple romantic HEA.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

2016/55: Daughter of Smoke and Bone -- Laini Taylor

In all the world, there was only one place humans could get wishes: Brimstone's shop. And there was only one currency he accepted. It wasn't gold, or riddles, or kindness, or any other fairy-tale nonsense, and no, it wasn't souls, either. It was weirder than any of that. It was teeth.[loc. 460]

Karou is a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague, smarting over the treachery of her ex-boyfriend Kaz and enjoying city life in the company of her friends. She is also errand-girl to Brimstone, a kindly monster who collects teeth -- or, rather, has Karou collect them for him -- and creates wishes out of them. Wishes aren't exactly magic, but they bestow powers: the more powerful the wish, the greater the chance that it might go awry. Brimstone, meanwhile, won't tell Karou anything about her origins, or about his own purpose: but he does give her a new language, wish-granted, every birthday.

Karou has more or less resigned herself to happy ignorance when she encounters Akiva, a beautiful and dangerous young man who has been sent to destroy Brimstone's workshop.

As Akiva and Karou get to know one another, they both learn of the ancient war between the seraphim and the chimaera -- and of their own roles in that war. For Karou's name means 'hope' in the chimaera language: and Akiva's hands bear the tally-marks of all the chimaera he has slain.

There are rather too many explanations and infodumps in this novel, the first of a trilogy: but that is a reflection of the complexity of the world-building and the characters' backstories. Karou's adoptive family of 'devils' -- and the questions she's never thought to ask about them -- contrast sharply with the beautiful, terrible seraphs and the centuries-old war that consumes them all.

The rules of magic in this universe are harsh: power comes from pain, and it need not be one's own pain. (The most powerful of the wishes that are crafted in Brimstone's workshop are those which are paid for with one's own teeth, self-extracted.) And when one individual can gain from another's pain, the result is slavery.

I'm looking forward to reading the other two volumes in this trilogy, though I am faintly disquieted by the relationship between Akiva and Karou: perhaps when Karou is more fully herself, and has assimilated her own past, things will feel more balanced.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

2016/54: We Have Always Lived in the Castle -- Shirley Jackson

... all during those days when the change was coming Jonas stayed restless. From a deep sleep he would start suddenly, lifting his head as though listening, and then, on his feet and moving in one quick ripple, he ran up the stairs and across the beds and around through the doors in and out and then down the stairs and across the hall and over the chair in the dining room and around the table and through the kitchen and out into the garden where he would slow, sauntering, and then pause to lick a paw and flick an ear and take a look at the day.[loc. 679]

Mary Katherine Blackwood -- Merricat -- is eighteen. She lives with her cat Jonas and her elder sister Constance in a grand old house. All the rest of her family are dead, except for enfeebled Uncle Julian, confined to his wheelchair and obsessed with the events of the night when the rest of the family died. To Merricat falls the task of going to the village to buy food: the villagers hate her, and it's mutual. Merricat has also assumed responsibility for protecting the house: her methodology includes burying teeth and jewellery, nailing a book to a tree, establishing magic words, et cetera.

But one day her efforts fail, and Cousin Charles shows up. He has their best interests at heart, but he and Merricat take a more or less instant dislike to one another. Cousin Charles is an agent of change, and Merricat does not want anything to change: so Cousin Charles will have to go.

I have never really understood why We Have Always Lived in the Castle is described as a horror novel. There's certainly that sense of claustrophobia, of being trapped, that I associate with the genre. It is true, too, that an act of mass murder looms large in the background of the novel: but that is not the focus of the story. Nor is magic: Merricat, for all her rituals and observances, is probably not really a witch (though I could make a case for a degree of solipsism). She is not a reliable narrator, either: the slow unfolding of this novel is especially intriguing because of the things that Merricat never thinks to tell her audience.

This was a reread after many years: I was (as usual) surprised by what I remembered -- Jonas' stories, the spider in the sugar bowl, the house on the moon -- and what I'd forgotten. I think when I first read this novel, I felt as though I might have a certain amount in common with Merricat. Those familiar with the novel will be pleased to hear that I no longer feel that way.

Friday, October 07, 2016

2016/53: Kingfisher -- Patricia A. McKillip

Rituals with letters, rituals with cauldrons, a bloody gaff, a missing knife, everyone in a time warp, looking back at the past, wishing for the good old days, hinting of portents, speaking in riddles, knowing things but never saying, never explaining — [loc. 760]

Pierce Oliver is sorting crabs on the pier, for his mother's restaurant Haricot. Along come three knights in a black limo. Their shadows reveal their ancestry, though they seem surprised that he can see those shadows. They're somewhat bemused, too, about where it is they've ended up. Cape Mistbegotten, says Pierce. If it's not on the map it's because my mother hid it.

This encounter, and the knights' invitation -- "Look for us if you come to Severluna. You might find a place for yourself in King Arden's court" -- prompts Pierce to go home and announce to his mother, the sorceress Heloise, that he is leaving home to seek his fortune. Heloise is not happy, but tells him enough about his father (also a knight at King Arden's court) to whet his appetite. Pierce charges his phone, gets in his car and drives south.

On the way to Severluna he stays the night at the Kingfisher Inn, whose owner is crippled and estranged from his wife, but who hosts the famous Friday Nite All-U-Can-Eat Fish Fry. There is something very odd about the Kingfisher Inn, its staff and its clientele. And something odd about the kitchen knife that Pierce feels compelled to steal as he leaves.

Pan out to Severluna, a cosmopolitan city where the younger royals are frequently in the headlines, and the king's bastard son is enamoured of a mysterious young woman who may have a hidden agenda. Skim sideways to the quest announced by King Arden (which pretty much boils down to 'go and look for something special -- you'll know it when you see it') and the ensuing adventures of the motorcycle-riding Knights of the Rising God.

Kingfisher has a large cast and a complex plot -- or, rather, a complex layering of plots plural, from Pierce's search for his father to the knights' quest for a bowl which may belong to their god or to a goddess; from the legendary Friday Nite Fish Fry to Stillwater's legendary restaurant where exquisite morsels leave the customers as hungry as before; from Dame Scotia Malory, intellectual and warrior, to Carrie Teague, exasperated daughter of the rather shamanic Merle; from plush limos to ancient shrines ...

It's easy to tease out threads of Arthurian and Greek myth, but the blend of Americana and arcane, all laced with McKillip's rich prose (not quite a lush as in some of her work, but though the lyricism may be sparser it still glows) and some images that reminded me of her earlier works, especially the Riddlemaster books. I liked the ways in which the characters accepted and worked around the occasional incursions of the magical, the mythic and / or the antique into their lives: the ways in which the material and spiritual worlds interwove. At times the novel feels overfull, with too many strands and characters and levels: at others, I'm delighted by that same complexity. I don't think I've enjoyed one of McKillip's novels this much since Fool's Run.

Friday, September 23, 2016

2016/52: The Trespasser -- Tana French

I was doing exactly the same thing as Aislinn: getting lost so deep inside the story in my head, I couldn’t see past its walls to the outside world. I feel those walls shift and start to waver, with a rumble that shakes my bones from the inside out. I feel my face naked to the ice-flavoured air that pours through the cracks and keeps coming. A great shiver is building in my back. [loc. 7950]

Detective Antoinette Conway: young, female, mixed race and single. She takes no shit about any of this, especially the last ('if you don’t exist without someone else, you don’t exist at all') but is the target of practical jokes and insidious gossip from her colleagues on Dublin's Murder Squad. Even her partner, Stephen Moran (first encountered in Broken Harbour) may be part of the problem. There's definitely something going on behind Conway's back, something she's not privy to, and she doesn't like the feel of it.

Conway has exactly two things in common with the victim in their latest case: she is female, and her father abandoned her and her mother. In every other respect, they are apparently worlds apart. Aislinn Murray writes and reads fanfic, 'the sappy kind, not the sexy kind' -- the kind that tries to fix things (Jo March marries Laurie, Juliet wakes up to marry Romeo). Aislinn reinvented herself as Dream Date Barbie: the man she'd invited for dinner on the night she died -- who of course claims he's innocent -- is besotted with her. Aislinn had a best friend, Lucy, who thinks there might have been someone else on the scene. And one of Ash's stories might hold the clue.

I was disappointed with The Trespasser at first: it didn't, for me, have the charm or the weirdness of most of French's previous novels, and I didn't especially like Antoinette Conway. (I have been the woman who doesn't fit in, with a chip on my shoulder.) But I found myself thinking about it for days after I'd finished reading, and that's usually a sign of a good book. The murder mystery is just one strand of the plot, and there's nothing supernatural or inexplicable about it. Deeper in the text lies the story of Antoinette and her father, and perhaps a story about men deciding what is best for women. And at the novel's core there is a theme of vengeance, of fixing the past.

The Trespasser is a novel about the stories we tell and the stories told about us: who writes the scripts, who rescues and is rescued: (If someone rescues you, they own you. Not because you owe them [but] because you’re not the lead in your story any more.[loc. 4749])

Monday, September 12, 2016

2016/51: A Darker Shade of Magic -- V.E Schwab

Kell wore a very peculiar coat. It had neither one side, which would be conventional, nor two, which would be unexpected, but several, which was, of course, impossible. The first thing he did whenever he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed. [loc. 66]

There are several Londons, in different worlds: the one we might think of as 'ours' is Grey London. Kell, an Antari blood-magician raised as a prince's foster-brother in Red London, is one of the few who has travelled to Grey London (where mad King George III reigns) and White London (the latter a starving post-apocalyptic wasteland) and knows the stories of Black London, destroyed by the magic it embraced. Kell is a courier between the rules of the different cities: he's also a collector and smuggler of the unique, from Grey London music-boxes to thaumaturgical texts.

On one of his expeditions to Grey London Kell meets Lila, a pickpocket who's convinced she was born to be a pirate. The two of them are thrown together when Kell is set up by an enemy and finds himself in possession of a dark artifact -- one which threatens the boundaries between the worlds, and the nature of reality itself.

I very much enjoyed V. E. Schwab's Vicious, a tale of superhero origins and friendship betrayed. I'm not as interested by this fantasy novel, though the characterisation is good and the world-building fascinating. It's a good read -- Schwab is good at dialogue and pacing, and her prose flows nicely -- but feels less innovative. That said, I will probably read the sequel, A Gathering of Shadows, even though -- thankfully -- there are no cliffhangers in this first volume baiting me to do so.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016/50: The Obelisk Gate -- N. K. Jemisin

It shouldn’t work at all, that willpower and concentration and perception should shift mountains. Nothing else in the world works this way. People cannot stop avalanches by dancing well, or make storms happen by refining their hearing. And on some level, you’ve always known that this was there, making your will manifest. This … whatever it is. [loc. 1543]

The Obelisk Gate starts where The Fifth Season stopped: Jemisin doesn't provide a recap, so it is worth reminding oneself of what happened in that novel. This middle volume of the trilogy introduces Nassun, Essun's daughter, but the focus is still very much Essun and her various emotional commitments: to Nassun, to her former mentor Alabaster, to the people of the hidden sanctuary Castrima.

We learn a great deal more about the nature of orogeny, the ways in which it manifests in the young, and the consequences if it's not controlled. Jemisin also reveals the nature of Alabaster's great plan, and the motivations of those ranged against him. Vast, planet-shaking events are in train. Yet, though the plot advancement was gripping, I found I wasn't as emotionally engaged as by The Fifth Season, and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps the wider focus, perhaps just 'middle book' syndrome. I did feel that some fairly major acts by various characters (for instance, someone being accidentally turned to stone) were inconsequential: that those affected, and those who witnessed the events, didn't react as much as I would have expected. On the other hand, this is not our world. Many of the characters have grown up being treated as non-human: others have rebelled against the established order, and have lived with the hard decisions, life and death, that that implies.

There are a few instances of inaccurate word choice: 'ostensibly administers the syringe’s contents' [loc. 911] for instance, when 'conspicuously' or 'deliberately' might have worked better. And I'm still not entirely sure about the second-person voice: it can draw the reader in, but also alienate when the character's views, reactions, individuality don't make sense to that reader. I did enjoy The Obelisk Gate, but I think I'll enjoy it more when I reread it immediately before the third volume of the trilogy.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

2016/49: The Essex Serpent -- Sarah Perry

'It’s a sort of blindness, or a choice to be mad – to turn your back on everything new and wonderful – not to see that there’s no fewer miracles in the microscope than in the gospels!’
‘You think – you really think – that it is one or the other: your faith or your reason?’
‘Not only my reason – there’s not enough of that to set against my soul! – but my liberty.' [loc. 1604]

Strange news out of Essex in the last years of the nineteenth century ... Recently widowed -- her husband's death something of a relief -- Cora Seaborne is swept up by wealthy friends and taken off to the Essex coast, where it is hoped the sea air and the change of scenery will prove uplifting for Cora, her son Francis, and her companion Martha. In the small village of Aldwinter, Cora meets and befriends the vicar, Will Ransome, and his amiable, ethereal wife Stella.

Cora is a keen amateur naturalist, and when she hears stories about a mythical monster (the eponymous Serpent) which may have been released from some muddy abyss by the recent Colchester earthquake, she's excited by the prospect of discovering a living fossil. Her love of science clashes with Will's bone-deep faith, though not at the expense of their growing friendship.

I find it hard to summarise the plot of this novel, and I think that's because it is so much more about the changing relationships between the protagonists than it is about the events which befall them. Luke Garrett, brilliant surgeon, in love with Cora; Martha, stalwart freethinker and admirer of Eleanor Marx; Stella, increasingly obsessed with the colour blue; Francis, whose obsessive curiosity we might now term 'autistic'. Perry writes evocatively of the landscape and light of the Essex coast (where I grew up) and she has a knack for imbuing even minor characters with backstory in a few lines of prose. Cora's and Will's letters, with their descriptions of the natural world (the colour of a hare's fur 'like almonds just out of the shell') are a delight.

I heard Sarah Perry, interviewed with Frances Hardinge (whose The Lie Tree is also set in the Victorian era, and also deals with the friction between religion and science, and the treatment of women) at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was fascinated by her comparisons of the Victorian urban life with our own: work, home, leisure ... Perhaps the tragedy at the core of The Essex Serpent is that Cora is too modern for the time in which she's born.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

2016/48: The Many Selves of Katherine North -- Emma Geen

The shiver of my cheeks is slowly becoming more pronounced. When I turn my head from side to side, it’s as if the water varies in excitement. And there – my whiskers fizzle, hitting the zenith of a gradient but what that means, I don’t know. Understanding a new sense can take hours, sometimes days; in the end all you can do is get on with the work. I push along the line of agitation. About me, water dances in a lime glow; the disturbed silt a cascade of stars. [loc. 1948]

Kit is nineteen, and has been a phenomenaut for nearly seven years. None of her colleagues have lasted as long. Phenomenauts use technology to project their consciousness into animals (well, ResExtendas: vat-grown copies of animals, without a consciousness of their own, 'nothing higher than a thalamus'), hoping to understand their interactions with the human world.

But Kit's employers, ShenCorp, have some exciting new initiatives on the table -- and Kit, as the most experienced and resilient of their staff, is the obvious choice of figurehead and trailblazer.

Kit is suspicious, though. She's uncomfortable with the notion of the technology -- and the ResExtendas -- becoming a money-making leisure product. When she discovers that ShenCorp are growing human ResExtendas, she's determined not to be involved: but her neuroengineer, Buckley -- the guy who watches over her when she's being other than human -- seems much more enthusiastic.

The Many Selves of Katherine North is a fascinating read. Geen's at her best when describing Kit's varied non-human experiences -- as a fox, an octopus, a spider, a whale, et cetera -- and the alienation she feels amongst other humans. The near-future British setting (flooding, refugees, spineless politicians) is sketched in broad strokes, but they're sufficient: ditto the vague descriptions of the technology behind Kit's phenomenautism. This is not, at heart, a techno-thriller or a dystopia, but a novel about being -- or trying to be -- human.

Kit's personality (and probably her neurology) make her a somewhat unreliable narrator, and she doesn't always notice things that are apparent to the reader. Though she's in her late teens, she is a child in some important respects (which is why I find one aspect of the novel weak and ethically uncomfortable). She is, however, in the habit of thinking a great deal about her inner experience, and Geen gives her a powerful and often poetic narrative voice.

A minor quibble re proofreading: why so many sentences with missing capitalisation?

I very much enjoyed this, and will be looking out for Geen's next novel -- this is her first, and an impressive debut.

Monday, August 15, 2016

2016/47: It -- Stephen King

Home is the place where when you go there, you have to finally face the thing in the dark. [loc. 1605]

In 1958, at the peak of one of the twenty-seven-year cycles of violence in the small Maine town of Derry, seven young children (aged ten to twelve, though some are more mature than others) realise that the violence is caused by something terrible lurking beneath the town -- something that sometimes takes the form of a macabre clown, but can assume the shape of whatever scares you most. They are determined to stop it before there are any more deaths.

In 1985, the adults who those children became are called back to Derry to finish what they started. They are all childless, wealthy, and successful. And they are all haunted by nagging scraps of memories from that summer long ago. Gradually, the haze clears, and they recall the events of the Bad Year.

These two threads alternate throughout the novel, and are enriched by scenes and asides giving the history, sociology and community of Derry. Those cycles of violence have plagued the town since it was founded: a lynching, a racially-motivated arson attack, an explosion at the ironworks ... Derry has six times as many murders as comparable towns; forty to sixty children disappear each year; the townsfolk, seeing a violent act, will look away.

King is astonishingly good at atmosphere, at evoking the cameraderie between pre-pubescent gang members and the shared joys of father-son relationships; he's also horribly good at depicting abusive behaviour, from a mother's over-protective insistence that her son needs his medicine, to a father beating his child. The rough wasteland of the Barrens, where the gang make their (well-constructed and astutely-planned) den, is familiar to me though I grew up decades later in another country. Familiar, too, are the feuds and fears that loom large in a child's mind: bullies, misheard scraps of conversation, shadows where there shouldn't be.

This was truly an epic read (it's over 1100 pages in print, so ideal for the Kindle!) and for 90% of it I was completely engaged by the story (or stories) and the setting. The final tenth of the book, however, seemed to collapse into a more standard and formulaic horror novel. I firmly believe that the power of this novel is in the telling and not the plot, in the characters and King's slow-build exploration of how those children became those adults. But it was the telling that felt drained and faded in those final chapters. One character (in the 1958 strand) did something I found disagreeable and improbable: several characters (in the 1985 strand) seemed to behave in out-of-character ways.

I did, however, like the epilogue a lot, even though I couldn't at first work out how it fitted. It closed the circle, though, in a way that the Grand Denouement(s) did not.

Monday, July 25, 2016

2016/46: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street -- Natasha Pulley

‘Well, I know that light is fascinating and full of scientific mystery, but mostly I use it for not walking into objects, and mostly I use ether for not walking into events. It’s there, it’s useful, it’s … not something I can study for more than ten minutes at once without falling asleep. I like mechanics. I’m not the right person to ask for mathematics.’ [loc. 4163]

Victorian London: Thaniel Steepleton is a humble telegraph clerk (capable of transcribing with one hand and sending messages with the other) who's given up his dream of being a pianist to support his widowed sister and her children. He hangs on in quiet desperation, until a reverse-burglary leaves him with a mysterious gold pocket watch, found on his pillow after a break-in. Attempts to sell or return the watch are fruitless: Thaniel thinks nothing more of it until, some months later, the watch turns out to have an alarm function that saves him from a Fenian bomb.

The watch, it turns out, is a miracle of mechanics, which has tracked Thaniel's precise location. Thaniel, in turn, tracks down the watch's maker: reclusive Japanese craftsman Keita Mori, the eponymous Watchmaker. His growing friendship with Mori, and his gradual courtship of Grace Carrow -- an Oxford physics student who is attempting to prove the existence of ether (the substance once thought to conduct light and magnetism) -- transform Thaniel's life. But Grace is wary of Mori, around whom coincidences seem to cluster, and who seems to know what other people will do before they do it.

Though The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is marketed as steampunk, it didn't match my notion of that subgenre. To be honest, it's not that firmly grounded in Victorian London either: there is little mention of religion or royalty, and (Fenians, Gilbert and Sullivan and the Japanese Village at Knightsbridge aside) the setting could have been any time, any where. That said, I was impressed by the minutae through which Mori unfolds London's attitude towards the Japanese. The bigger picture may be out of focus, but the details are clear.

I didn't read this novel for the sense of place: I read it for the characters, and the tensions between them, and the plot -- which did not go at all the way I expected. The blossoming friendship between Mori and Thaniel is fragile and lovely: Grace's esoteric studies, and her resolution to avoid marriage, demonstrate a steely determination which is tempered by her humour: and Mori's clockwork octopus is a delight. I smiled a lot and almost wept at certain points: that, for me, is a success.
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016/43-45: All For the Game [trilogy] -- Nora Sakavic

The Foxhole Court
The Raven King
The King's Men
Neil realized he was happy. It was such an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling he lost track of the conversation for a minute. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this included or safe. It was nice but dangerous. Someone with a past like his, whose very survival depended on secrecy and lies, couldn't afford to let his guard down. [The Raven King, loc. 1050]

Neil Josten is eighteen. His mother is dead: he hasn't seen his crime-lord father for years. Through multiple countries and as many identities, he's fled his past, moving from school to school. His luck's about to change, though: he's been recruited to Palmetto State University's Exy team, the Foxes -- a bunch of misfits and delinquents which happens to include a friend from his former life.

Exy (if you were wondering) is a fictional team game, 'an evolved sort of lacrosse on a soccer-sized court with the violence of ice hockey'. It's the one part of Neil's childhood that he hasn't been able to give up, and he's very good at it. So are the other members of his team. They're just not very good at being people.

There are three major story arcs in this trilogy: the rise to glory of the Foxes; a conflict between rival crime families (some of who are involved in sponsoring and funding Exy teams); and the relationships between the team members, and especially between Neil and the 'sociopathic' Andrew. Pretty much all of these relationships are more or less dysfunctional: the trilogy features rape, murder, torture, characters being drugged against their will, characters not being drugged despite a court mandate, bullying, theft, hatred ...

And yet, there is a hopefulness, a sense of something greater than the sum of its parts: the relationships between characters aren't always nice, but they are heartfelt and vivid. Sakavic's writing is fast, staccato and well-paced, which I think is what kept me reading (the first book was free!) despite my dislike of several characters and my disinterest in the game of Exy. She doesn't make the mistake of infodumping: the characters know more than the readers about their world, and this sense of secrets waiting to unfold was also a powerful motivator.

There were plot elements that I didn't find convincing, and others that made no sense from the viewpoint of one or more participants. I do think the third novel was weaker than the others. It was interesting, though, to read a YA work with no supernatural or fantastical elements, and a distinct lack of heteronormativity.

Final note: I read this trilogy because it was being recommended by people who'd read Maggie Stiefvater's Raven Chronicle (see here for reviews) and who found similarities in characterisation and relationships. My mileage varied: I found All for the Game considerably darker and less humorous, and I didn't like the characters as much.

Monday, July 18, 2016

2016/42: The Silence of the Sea -- Yrsa Sigurdardottir

 
Ægir had become fired up by the idea; this might be their only chance to sail the ocean in a luxury yacht, and the voyage would also solve a specific problem that had been troubling him. [loc. 373]

A repossessed luxury yacht crashes into the harbour wall at Reykjavik. It turns out that there's nobody on board at all. So what has happened to the crew of three, and to the family of four -- banker Ægir, his wife Lára, and their twin four-year-old daughters Arna and Bylgja -- who have sailed from Lisbon to Iceland? Thora Gudmundsdottir, engaged by Ægir's parents, is determined to find out: not just because it's an intriguing case, but because she wants to secure the future of the third daughter, Sigga Dögg.

It's a classic locked-room mystery and Sigurdardottir unravels it in two parallel strands: the events on board the yacht, and the investigations of Thora and her team in Iceland. Is the yacht cursed, as some believe? Is there some supernatural force at work? Why did nobody radio for help? And where are the missing persons?

The mystery unravels slowly and in a generally satisfactory way (though I have to say I found Ægir, in particular, annoyingly stupid). I was less interested in Thora and her domestic, social and professional relationships: perhaps if I'd read other novels in the series I'd be keener to see how these evolved. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016/41: Arcadia -- Iain Pears

The English were a different matter. As their lives were so dreary and constrained, the fanciful exuberance of the human spirit was forced to take refuge in the imagination, which was the only place it could exist without attracting disapproval. [loc. 2553]

The novel begins with a young boy in a simple farming community. He is known as Jay. He goes to fetch water, and sees a vision of a fairy or a spirit. 

Zoom out: Jay's experience is an episode from a fantasy novel that Henry Lytten is reading out to his writing group. (‘Where are the dragons? A whole chapter, and not a single dragon?' Lytten scowled. ‘There are no dragons.' ‘No dragons?' said the other in mock astonishment. ‘What about wizards?' ‘No.' ‘Trolls?' ‘No. Nothing of the sort.' ‘Thank God for that. Go on.' [loc. 100]) It's Oxford, 1960, and Professor Lytten is still tangentially involved in espionage. So, perhaps, is his friend and erstwhile lover, the mysterious Angela Meersum, who has left some of her effects in his cellar, including something that resembles a battered garden pergola. Rosie, who feeds Lytten's bad-tempered cat, discovers that beyond Angela's 'pergola' there is a different world ...

Pan left to Angela, whose narrative is first-person and altogether delightful ("That was my opinion and I admit that others thought differently. But they were idiots." [loc. 382]) is actually a visitor from a technocratic dystopia, several hundred years in the future. But is it 'the' future, or simply 'a' future? And why does it bear such a resemblance to the SF novel being workshopped by Lytten's colleague Persimmon?

I found Arcadia an engaging and provocative read. It plays with various fantasy and science fiction tropes; offers a critique of Tolkien and Lewis, and sly nods to other authors, including Le Carré, who makes an anonymous appearance, and Shakespeare, whose As You Like It proves to be one of Lytten's major influences. There are a number of interesting female characters, none of them defined by their romantic or sexual behaviour; there are echoes and foreshadowings aplenty. And at heart, Arcadia is a novel about story-telling: about the role of the Storyteller, the power he or she wields, and the perils of inconsistency.

Apparently there is also an Apple App for this novel. It has more words in it than the book (hmph), and it allows the reader to follow each thread -- the bucolic, non-magical fantasy of Anterworld, the quiet life with occasional subterfuge of Oxford, and the dystopian world which Angela has fled. Frankly, I'd rather read the novel as Pears intended it, and let the author control the shape and pacing -- both of which I feel worked very well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

2016/40: Carry On -- Rainbow Rowell

"I thought it was a myth."
"One would think, after seven years, you'd stop saying that out loud."
"Well, how am I supposed to know? There isn't a book, is there? All the Magickal Things that Are Actually True and All the Ones that Are Bollocks, Just Like You Thought."
"You're the only magician who wasn't raised with magic. You're the only one who would read a book like that." [loc. 834]

In Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell wrote about fanfiction, and a girl named Cath who was obsessed by the fictional world of a best-selling series, featuring tyro wizard Simon Snow, evil-seeming Baz Pitch, and their doomed, swoony romance. (The romance, of course, does not feature in the original series, but it is the focus of Cath's fanfic.) Cath was writing a novel-length fic called 'Carry on, Simon', which she was desperate to publish before the final book of the canonical series came out.

So: Carry On. I'm pretty sure it's not intended to be the fanfic that Cath wrote: the style is more that of Cath's favourite author, Gemma T Leslie, than of Cath herself. It is not much like J K Rowling's style, either, though Rowell would be the first to admit that Fangirl is largely based on the phenomenon that is Harry Potter fandom. Carry On's hero, Simon Snow, is definitely a Chosen One: the Mage, who never seems to tell him what he wants to know, has been guiding and shaping Simon's life since he was eleven, moving him from one children's home to the next during summer holidays. Simon's arch-enemy, Baz Pitch, is sophisticated and sneery and very probably a vampire. Penny, Simon's best friend, is Anglo-Indian. ("I didn't know someone like you could be named Penelope", Simon recalls saying to her, 'stupidly', when they first met). Agatha, Simon's girlfriend (or is she Baz's?), is gorgeous and very girly.

Rowell's variation on the theme doesn't make as much of the politics of the magical-mundane divide as Rowling's: she does, however, address some of the issues that Rowling doesn't focus on. For instance, the Mage's treatment of Simon is depicted as more problematic than Dumbledore's behaviour towards Harry; the elitism of the wizarding world is questioned by several characters; Agatha is less of a cipher than Ginny Weasley, and more of an independent character with agency of her own. Perhaps most tellingly, Simon's nemesis -- the Humdrum, a force that leaves holes in the intrinsic magic of the land -- is intimately connected to Simon himself. Correlation or causality?

Instead of focussing on one character's narrative, with reportage of events at which he's not present, Rowell tells her story from several different first-person viewpoints: Simon, Penny, Agatha, Baz, the Mage, the mysterious Lucy. And though there is plenty of backstory -- Carry On is framed as the final novel in an eight-book series -- it's sketched in lightly, by allusion rather than flashback or laboured 'do you remember' exchanges.

I did enjoy Carry On: it's astutely observed, often very funny and has a fascinating system of magic based on catchphrases and cliche. I'd probably have enjoyed it more, and in different ways, if I were a bigger fan of the Harry Potter franchise. However, it did prompt me to read some HP fanfic!

Monday, July 11, 2016

2016/39: The Good, The Bad and The Furry: Life with the World's Most Melancholy Cat and Other Whiskery Friends -- Tom Cox

Nobody ever asked the question ‘Who Let the Cats Out?’ in a pop song because the answer is obvious: it was the same person who let them in again two minutes later, and out again two minutes after that. Doors are a classic example of that ‘I hate this – it’s fucking great!’ mantra that seems to be part of the permanent internal monologue of all cats. [loc. 1350]

Occasionally very moving, frequently very funny, and capable of bestowing a warming sense of schadenfreude on any reader who lives in a household where cats do not outnumber humans. Also, several instances of 'thank god it's not just me / my cat'.

What can one say about a book of cat observations, interspersed with anecdotes about the author's (delightful) parents? Reminds me of the best fan writing. This is a compliment.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

2016/38: The Outcast Dead -- Elly Griffiths

... bodies and treasure are often found buried in marshes, to mark that boundary. Was Liz stuck in her own liminal zone, dazed from sadness and lack of sleep, unable to distinguish between dreams and reality? [loc. 1405]

Ruth Galloway is excavating the remains of executed prisoners at Norwich Castle when she discovers a skeleton with a hook for a hand. Could it be the notorious child-killer Jemima Green, who was known as Mother Hook? Her boss Phil would certainly like to think so: he's excited at the prospect of appearing on television, and by the attention of the documentary team working on 'Women Who Kill'. Meanwhile, DC Nelson is investigating the death of a child. He suspects the mother, not least because her other two children died -- apparently of natural causes.

The Outcast Dead is about children and mothers, childcare and neglect and the lengths to which some will go to in defence of their beliefs, or when driven by maternal love. It's not the most enthralling of Griffiths' forensic archaeology novels -- I missed the archaeology, of which there's very little -- but it's a well-paced read with some interesting character development and a hint of the supernatural.

Norwich has changed a great deal since I was at university there and I confess I didn't recognise many of the locations. I really should go back for a visit some time.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

2016/37: The Raven King -- Maggie Stiefvater

It was a far more terrifying idea to imagine how much control he really had over how his life turned out. Easier to believe that he was a gallant ship tossed by fate than to captain it himself.[loc. 4176]

I don't think I can write an interesting and critical review of this final novel in the Raven Cycle without spoilers. Ye be warned.

In The Raven King, all -- most -- of the threads of the story come together. The quest for Glendower; the predictions made by Blue's family, and by the plethora of psychics that Gansey has consulted over the years; the magical community's interest in the Lynch family; the waking of the third sleeper; various flavours of sizzling romantic tension. There are frightened monsters, a toga party, sticky minutes*, ancient tree-spirits, racist jokes (the protagonists are teenaged and thus imperfect), and an explanation for the appalling Latin of the local magical forest. There are some deaths -- just as when reading the previous novel, I was surprised and shocked -- and some possessions, and a quantity of blood is (or appears to be) shed.

There's a scene where Henry Cheng is explaining the rapidity of his friendship with Gansey: "Not just pals. Friends. Blood brothers. You just feel it. We instead of you and me. That's jeong." [loc. 4420] There's a lot of it around: it defines Gansey's existing relationships with Adam, Noah, Ronan and Blue. They're learning to act together, to be greater than the sum of their parts: in the process, they're beginning to define -- and thus to change -- the relationships they have with one another. Stiefvater has done an exemplary job of differentiating the characters, and demonstrating the unique nature of each relationship in the web. For instance, Blue and Ronan react to one another in an almost fraternal way (and I use the term deliberately, because Ronan treats her as one of the boys). Ronan and Gansey have a quite different, but just as fraternal, bond: maybe Gansey's the older brother Ronan wishes he has instead of Declan. (Declan, neither dream nor dreamer, gets a raw deal, I think: he starts to become rather more interesting in this volume.) Blue and Gansey are in (doomed, storied, tentative) love.

Each of the protagonists, in this novel, is becoming more self-aware. In a previous review I suggested that they all want to be known: in The Raven King, they come to know themselves better. (Actually, this isn't restricted to the teenagers: Mr Gray finds love a transformative force. I suppose you might say the same for Colin Greenmantle.)

A lot of threads are not tied off. Is Noah's circle closed to such an extent that he is no longer remembered? Will Mr Gray ever return to Henrietta? How did the climax of the novel affect various off-stage characters? What are Maura's and Calla's jobs? But there is a satisfactory closure to the main cycle, and to the individual arcs of the protagonists.

The books are not flawless, and neither are the characters, and nor is the plot. Doesn't matter. I was captivated. These are books I will return to at some future date, when my life may be quite different: I hope I will adore them even half as much as I do now.

* in the sense of minutes that stick. 6:21, 6:21, 6:21 ...

Saturday, June 11, 2016

2016/36: Blue Lily, Lily Blue -- Maggie Stiefvater

...what she didn't realize about Blue and her boys was that they were all in love with one another. She was no less obsessed with them than they were with her, or one another, analysing every conversation and gesture... spending each moment either with one another or thinking about when next they would be with one another. Blue was perfectly aware that it was possible to have a friendship that wasn't all-encompassing, that wasn't blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening. It was just that now that she'd had this kind, she didn't want the other.[loc. 1288]

The third novel in the Raven quartet focuses on the women: on Blue Sargent, who is coming to terms with her power as a 'mirror', amplifying others' psychic or magical powers; on her mother Maura, who left a laconic note about going underground and spends much of the book absent; on Calla and, particularly, Persephone; and on two new characters, Gwenllian (prone to mad songs and bad hair) and Piper Greenmantle (prone to narcissism and megalomania). 

Piper, to be honest, is probably having (and being) more fun than anyone else here. Her husband Colin -- who employed Mr Gray for murky purposes, and has come to Henrietta to find out why Mr Gray hasn't done his job -- adores her and appreciates her talents. "It was just that she didn't normally use her powers for good, and when she did, they usually weren't pointed at him. It was just, he hadn't thought she really liked him."[loc. 2090] It rapidly becomes evident that she is far better at being an evil genius than he is. Whatever, as Piper would say. The Greenmantles are a welcome, if cynical, injection of humour into an increasingly dark and dangerous story.

Meanwhile Gansey's aged friend, Professor Malory, has turned up with his service dog to help Gansey and company locate the leyline, Glendower et cetera. Persephone has cautioned them that there are three sleepers on the line: one to wake, one to definitely not wake, one in-between. Mr Gray has picked a side and is busily bonding with Blue. Noah is becoming increasingly unpredictable. Ronan and Adam decide it's up to them to deal with Colin Greenmantle, in a way that only the pair of them can. 

This is the darkest of the four books. There are deaths, some more shocking than others. There are adults with guns (though they are not the most dangerous characters). There are glimpses of the international trade in supernatural objects, a topic I find oddly fascinating. And I am very glad that I had the fourth and final novel waiting for me when I read the last words of Blue Lily, Lily Blue

Thursday, June 09, 2016

2016/35: The Dream Thieves -- Maggie Stiefvater

Gansey was polite in a way that squashed the other party smaller. Adam was polite to reassure. And this man was polite in a keen, questioning sort of way. He was polite the way tentacles were polite, testing the surface carefully, checking to see how it reacted to his presence.[loc. 2937]

Second in the Raven Quartet: this one is very much Ronan's story, and Adam's. Ronan is trying to make sense of the abilities he confessed to at the end of The Raven Boys, and attempting to decode the final phrase of his murdered father's last will and testament. Adam is learning to be a magician (his interactions with Persephone, one of the witchy women of Fox Way, are delightful) and wondering just what he has sacrificed to the forest. Gansey and Noah and Blue are all still searching for Glendower, among other things. And Mr Gray comes to town, searching for an object that can take things out of dreams and make them real.

I like Mr Gray very much. He is an academic turned hitman who can quote Anglo-Saxon poetry in the original, and whose favourite weapon is opportunity. He is terrifyingly efficient. He has a tragic past. He admires Alfred the Great. And he carries around a folder of his greatest hits -- in the sense of the college reading lists on which his 'not-unsuccessful' book, Fraternity in Anglo-Saxon Verse, is featured.

The most fascinating character in this book, though, is Ronan Lynch. Ronan didn't get any viewpoint narrative in The Raven Boys, perhaps because it would have given too much away too soon. Ronan's scenes are masterpieces of restraint, of showing rather than telling, an effect that's heightened by his inarticulacy and his tendency to express most emotions as anger. He is is a hurt, angry, grieving young man (and he does seem younger -- or perhaps more vulnerable -- than the others in some ways) who is negotiating several complex interactions with friends, family and rivals, and who's starting to know himself a little better than before. That's what all the Raven Boys want, after all: to be known.

The Dream Thieves also features some unsettling remarks from Calla (who can pick up psychic impressions from objects, as well as from people), a vanishing forest, and a discussion of the fact that there's no word for blue in Ancient Greek. (Given the female protagonist's name, plenty could have been done with that.) And there are many secrets, some of which aren't known to the people they most concern. Plenty of character development -- not just for the teenaged protagonists, and not just for the characters introduced in The Raven Boys -- and plenty of plot. This is a novel of the fantastic that's very firmly rooted in the mundane world, even if its characters occasionally seem detached from that world.

With hindsight, I think this may be my favourite of the four novels.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

2016/34: The Raven Boys -- Maggie Stiefvater

With the words 'ley line' spoken aloud, a memory was conjured: [he was] in a dense wood, sweat collected on his upper lip. He was seventeen and shivering. Every time his heart beat, red lines streaked in the corners of his vision, the trees darkening with his pulse. It made the leaves seem like they were all moving, though there was no wind. [His friend] was on the ground. Not dead, but dying.[loc. 907]

The Raven Quartet is built on a bed of fairytale tropes ('once upon a time there was a girl who would kill her true love if she kissed him'; 'once upon a time there was a boy who was given a second chance') but it's far from a fairytale aesthetic.

Blue Sargent is the daughter of the town psychic, and has grown up knowing that she'll kill her true love if / when she kisses him. For this reason she has abjured love and boys, especially 'raven boys' -- pupils at the exclusive Aglionby Academy. Blue herself has no psychic powers, but the women she grew up with (her mother Maura, plus Calla and Persephone) most definitely do have power, and Blue acts as an amplifier. This brings her to a ruined church and a vigil for the spirits of those who will die in the year ahead -- and Blue sees her first spirit.

Turns out it's a Raven Boy: the couth and handsome Richard Gansey III (known as just Gansey). He and his friends, Adam and Ronan and Noah, at first seem like typical Aglionby pupils: rich, privileged, arrogant and loud. But as Blue gets to know them better (and vice versa) their personalities emerge. Adam is far from rich, working three jobs to pay his tuition and struggling with a difficult home life. Ronan has a taste for road racing and bad language -- he's got worse, apparently, since his father was murdered -- but he also has a pet fledgling (a raven, of course). Noah ... well, Noah's a bit vague. (Actually this is not true. Noah is perfectly truthful and open. It's just that nobody listens.) And Gansey -- who survived, or was brought back after, a lethal hornet attack seven years before -- is convinced that somewhere in the lush Virginia countryside lies the tomb of Owen Glendower, who will grant a favour to the person who finds and wakes him.

I think the charm of this book, for me, was in the way that the relationships between the characters (teenaged and adult) were developed. I liked Maura and Calla's no-nonsense approach to their predictions; the various systems of magic in play; the slow revelation of the characters' pasts ... It's also a really interesting angle on class in America, a phenomenon about which I know little except that it's different to class in the UK.

I should note that I read all four books in the series in rapid succession. This first volume feels like Gansey's story, and Noah's. And with hindsight I wonder if Gansey is a kind of father figure to the others. He's mature for his age: he's been surprisingly independent for the last few years, travelling the world in search of the mystical and hidden. The others have absent fathers (emotionally rather than literally in Adam's case): they look to Gansey as their leader, though he knows he needs them as much as they need him.

I'd bounced off the sample chapters, for some reason, but once I engaged with The Raven Boys I read it in one sitting, and promptly ordered the next one. Review soon!