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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

2016/17: The Lie Tree -- Frances Hardinge

He had been enjoying his explanation, and now she had spoilt things by knowing too much. ‘Is ... is that the right word?’ She knew it was, but swallowed hard and made her voice hesitant. ‘I ... think I heard it somewhere.’ ‘Yes.’ The doctor’s confidence slowly returned in the face of her timidity. ‘That is exactly the right word, my dear. Well done.’ [loc. 690]

Faith Sunderly is fourteen years old in 1868, and already resigned to the knowledge that -- despite her fascination with the sciences -- she will never be as important as her younger brother Howard, especially in her father's eyes.

The Sunderlys travel to Vane (a fictional Channel Island) to escape 'the barbs and trials of scandal' in Victorian Kent. Her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly has been accused of scientific fraud: Faith is indignant, her mother Myrtle stoically determined to make the best of things, her uncle Miles hoping that his brother-in-law's good name will be redeemed. Howard, luckily, is too young to mind much.

Faith believes that her father has been invited to Vane to examine some fossils, but nobody on the island seems pleased by their presence. The servants are obstructive and unhelpful; the townsfolk snub the Sunderlys; even the scientists at the 'important caves' are less than impressed by the arrival of so eminent a scientist. Indeed, there's an accident the very first time Faith visits the cave.

Increasingly paranoid, Erasmus Sunderly sets mantraps around the house, and locks himself away in his study, rebuffing Faith's offers of help and companionship. Except, one night, he enlists her help on a dangerous mission to another cave, where he's concealed a rare plant, or Tree, that he believes could be of immense importance.

The next day he is found dead.

The Lie Tree is a damning exposition, albeit in fictional form, of the insignificance of women in Victorian society and especially in scientific circles. It's a novel jammed with angry, impotent women: Myrtle who has only ever had social standing as Mrs Sunderly, Faith whose aptitude for learning has been dismissed by her family, Agatha and her gin habit, Miss Hunter the spinster. Faith befriends Paul, the curate's son: he helps her as she attempts to make sense of her father's death. Only Faith, though, has access to her father's journal: she unravels his accounts of the Tree, and of the scientific fraud he was accused of perpetrating, and eventually realises that she has made the same error of judgement as everybody else.

The novel contrasts science and religion in a number of ways: the Reverend's most famous find is a fossil nicknamed 'The New Falton Nephilim', which he believed proved the existence of angels, and his interpretation of the Tree fits into his very Christian cosmology. Yet he, like many others in the novel, is lacking in 'Christian' virtues.

Hardinge's pacing is delicate, her characterisation excellent, her ability to tug on heartstrings spot-on for a novel in which sentiment is set against Faith's angry energy and her grief. The Lie Tree is a compelling read, and an all-too-credible portrayal of the treatment of women in nineteenth-century Britain.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

2016/16: Red Mars -- Kim Stanley Robinson

... she had been enjoying her life as if it were a Siberia made right, living in a huge analogy, understanding everything in terms of her past. But now she stood under a tall violet sky on the surface of a petrified black ocean, all new, all strange: it was absolutely impossible to compare it to anything she had seen before.[loc. 2154]

2026: the first hundred colonists set off for Mars. Space elevator cable! Complex interpersonal dynamics! Landscapes! Areography! Areophany!

Reread, after reading Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, to see how well my memories reflect the reality of the first novel in Robinson's Mars trilogy. Pretty well, is the answer. It must be nearly twenty years since I first read Red Mars, and Mars has come a long way since then. [pause for astronomical pedantry regarding orbits.] A couple of years back I sat in a dark room at the Maritime Museum and watched rover footage of the Martian landscape unroll in front of me, like a rather dusty travelogue. At home, I can put on a pair of 3D goggles, download an app on my phone,and 'wander around Mars', except without the hypothermia, oxygen starvation or lander-related trip hazards. (Or Matt Damon and his former commander's catalogue of classic disco tunes.) Mars has been mapped by Google, putting my late-90s SimEarth experiments to shame. Private enterprise (the Mars One project) has proposed a Mars colony by 2027. Mars is very much closer now than it was in 1995.

On the whole I have to say I find Robinson's novel more likeable than Seveneves. He waxes poetic without sentimentality (though some of his characters are prone to the latter), and he's considerably more compassionate. His characters -- or perhaps just his depictions of them -- seem more diverse, more distinctive than those in Seveneves. (More diverse as individual characters, that is: 70% of the First Hundred are American or Russian, with hilarious Cold-War-in-space rivalries.) Few, if any, of the Mars colonists are reliable narrators: while Stephenson's lot pride themselves on their level-headed scientific perspectives and behaviour, Robinson's characters are flawed, biased, selectively blind to those aspects of their situation that don't suit them.

There is perhaps more humour in Stephenson's novel than in Red Mars, and there is more physics. Robinson makes up for that with long discursions on political theory. (I confess I skipped those this time around.)

Another thing about Red Mars: it's about the destination, not the journey. The voyage to Mars is an interlude, while Seveneves is, for most of the novel, about being in transit. Seveneves made me appreciate life on a planet by describing life in space: Red Mars makes me want to go to Mars and see a different planet.

Rereading Red Mars reminded me of how much I like Robinson's prose. So, stay tuned for another KSR review soon!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

2016/15: Seveneves -- Neal Stephenson

...none of the traditional legacy-passing schemes was going to survive the Hard Rain. There was no point in drawing up a last will and testament, because all of your possessions were going to be destroyed along with you, and there would be no survivors to receive them. [loc.729]

A book of two halves, unequal in many respects. Though it is always much easier to read Stephenson's novels in ebook form, I did wish for a physical artifact which I could cut and splice into a shorter, more balanced novel. Or, to put it another way: I was heartened when I clicked 'forward' after an especially loaded conversation between the protagonists of the first half and read the words 'five thousand years later'.

The first part of the book deals with the extinction of all life on Earth, due to the breakup of the Moon. It's a gripping tale of immutable physics and clashing personalities: very readable, well-explained, highly educational, occasionally witty. It does few of the things I've enjoyed in Stephenson's previous work, but it does some new things that I am in favour of. There are plenty of interesting, rounded female characters who exercise power and agency. There are some interesting speculations about the possible reactions of Earth's doomed population. (A revolution in education: what's the point of studying for exams that'll never happen?) There is definitely some swashbuckling behaviour, and some moving heroism. Also a population bottleneck.

The second part of the book is about what happens when the survivors -- there are survivors -- return to Earth. Despite some misgivings about the traditions and stereotypes which have grown up around the different bloodlines, and the sense of predetermination, I enjoyed this part of the book a great deal more, even though it doesn't have the same narrative drive as the first part of the novel. The worldbuilding, the social dynamics, and a sense of joie de vivre reminded me of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy -- though Stephenson's characters are somewhat less prone to political theorising.

In that second part of the novel, the Epic -- a narrative composed of recordings from the events of the first part -- is omnipresent. Seveneves might have been a more balanced read if it'd started 'five thousand years later' and flashed back via the mechanism of the Epic.

Stephenson may well have foreseen this kind of criticism. At any rate, there is a line that sums up the novel's structure very nicely: "a nail-biter of an opening, followed by endless grinding tedium, slowly building to a dramatic final reel." [loc.7338] Your mileage may vary: the hard SF of the first two-thirds of the novel may be much more your thing than the social, philosophical and ecological speculations of the final third. And, to be honest, the final reel isn't that dramatic. (Where are the Martians, eh?) But Stephenson's afterword brought into focus what I liked about the last third of Seveneves: it's the realisation of SFnal tropes, the profound appreciation of planetary life, and above all the positivity.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

2016/14: The Shining Girls -- Lauren Beukes

The objects are always here, even when he takes them away. The names of the girls have been traced over again and again until the letters have started to fray. He remembers doing it. He has no recollection of doing it. One of these things must be true. It tightens something in his chest, like a gear in a watch that’s been wound up too far. [loc.3011]

The novel opens in 1974, when a stranger named Curtis pulls the wings off a bumblebee and ruining six-year-old Kirby Mazrachi's circus. As if to make up for this, he gives her a My Little Pony and promises to come back when she's older.

Anyone who grew up in the Seventies will spot a problem here. But it is not an error: the anachronism is meant. Harper Curtis lives in a very odd House, and when the door opens he can step out into anywhen. Well, there are limits: he hasn't ventured back before 1929, and he can't go further into the future than 1993.

Past, present, future are nebulous concepts when it comes to time-travel: Harper's notion of 'the present' is likely Depression-era Chicago, when he stole the key to the House from a blind woman and opened the door to discover a corpse, a collection of oddments including a baseball card and a plastic horse, and -- scrawled on the walls -- women's names.

The handwriting is his own.

The Shining Girls is not a novel about Harper Curtis: indeed, we learn very little about him. Down on his luck in the 1930s; walks with a limp; still capable of being amazed and joyful about the future; obsessively tracking down and killing his 'shining girls'. Until one of them, not quite dead when he abandons her, decides to bring her almost-murderer to justice.

All the women in the novel -- all the shining girls -- are well-rounded characters. And many of them, as well as being successful in their chosen paths, achieve some kind of triumph over Harper, one way or another. Zora, the black welder, breaks his jaw; heroin-addicted artist Catherine welcomes him; Alice, who isn't Alice, beats him at his own game. But the heroine is Kirby, who guilts a semi-retired crime reporter into accepting her as his intern (he covered the attack that nearly killed her, but didn't realise she'd survived) so that she can trawl the archives of the Chicago Sun-Times for evidence that might help her find Curtis before he kills again. Because the next victim might be Kirby herself, once Curtis realises he didn't finish the job last time ...

This is a fairly spoilery review, because Curtis' habits, habitation and history are revealed only gradually. I suspect that the novel wouldn't work as well on a reread: the suspense, the growing realisation that something very odd is going on, is what made it such a good -- if occasionally distressing -- read. And the finale, though it has a justice to it that has nothing to do with legal process, feels like a trick. (He's here because he's here because he's here because he's here.)

That said, I did enjoy The Shining Girls, not least because of Beukes' strong spare language, and her eye for the details that bring the past -- several pasts -- to life. This is a novel as much about the breadth of womens' lives in 20th-century America as it's about the man who is drawn to destroy those strong, talented, successful women.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

2016/13: The Limits of Enchantment -- Graham Joyce

‘Have you Asked?’

‘Mammy said I should know when it was right. But I don’t like to think of it. She told me stories and they scared me. I’m not going to invite it in. I’m too scared and I don’t mind who knows it. There’s a lot of it I just don’t care for.’ [loc.1386]

Just after the second world war, Mammy Cullen -- local midwife, illegal abortionist and probable witch -- took in a baby girl. By 1966 Fern has grown to adulthood, and Mammy has taught her everything she knows. But it's the Sixties, times are changing, and Fern faces the collision of two worlds: the old hedge-witchery and folklore of her upbringing against the tawdry glamour of hippies and the formal training of the NHS. She's fascinated by the existence of cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova: she's haunted by hares.

Then one of Mammy's 'patients' dies, and Mammy herself falls ill and is admitted -- confined -- to hospital, leaving Fern alone in the cottage they shared. She begins to realise that Mammy, with her comprehensive knowledge of local scandals ("the names of the fathers ... the names of fathers of illegitimate children whose mothers had come too late, or without firm intention; the names of fathers who weren’t, because of Mammy’s intervention, to be; the names of fathers who did not know their sons and daughters; and the names of fathers who could not father. [loc.641]), is seen as a threat by many in the community. Suddenly Fern has no protection: rent on the cottage is in arrears, there's a Doctor from Cambridge keen to talk to her, and her friend Judith is concocting schemes that Fern isn't at all comfortable with.

Joyce makes interesting juxtapositions: the carefree randomness with which the hippies get stoned contrasts with Fern's careful measuring of the ingredients for her various potions; Fern's knowledge of childbirth and pregnancy does nothing to prepare her for sexual intimacy with the dashing Arthur.

It's hard at times to work out what is really ('really') happening. Some of Fern's experiences seem to take place in a different world. Yet what she learns there helps her overcome the pettiness and corruption of the community: by the end of the book, Fern is a different person, one more suited to living in the changing world which has intimidated and confused her for so long.

I'm not sure I liked this book. I didn't especially like Fern, and the claustrophobia of village life was far too familiar from my own childhood. (There were people who said my mother was a witch. They were probably joking. Probably.) But The Limits of Enchantment has more depth, more humanity and more realism to it than most of the fantasy novels I've read in the last few years.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

2016/12: The Devil's Apprentice -- Jan Siegel

There are few situations when you find yourself wishing for a velociraptor, but this was one of them. [loc.5811]

Pen is a sensible and truthful thirteen-year-old, not at all interested in adventure, fantasy et cetera. Unfortunately, she's the sole survivor of her branch of the family tree, which means that she's the executor of Andrew Pyewackett's will. (Why yes, he has been dead for some time: but now he's getting impatient.) Pen ends up with the job of caretaker, looking after an old house in Temporal Crescent, Hampstead. The house, it turns out, has no doors -- at least on the outside. Inside, however, there are many doors, and they lead to many realities, some of which are considerably more Real than others.

Aided only by Quorum (a butler), Gavin (a keen chef who's also a dab hand with a taser) and Jinx (a teenaged Goth witch) -- not to mention a goblin nicknamed Stiltz -- Pen finds herself up against the house's Owner, whose immortality is finite and who needs an apprentice. And the house offers many trials for candidates.

In the other major plot thread, Ghost is the leader of a gang of boys in plague-ridden seventeenth-century London. Ghost knows he doesn't belong there, but he doesn't remember much about his past. He's determined, though, to protect the rest of the gang -- especially young Cherub -- from the manifold threats of their existence, and he's not afraid to enact violent vengeance on those who hurt his friends.

The Devil's Apprentice is sometimes scary, sometimes hilarious, occasionally very gory. Jan Siegel (who also writes as Amanda Hemingway) constructs a complex (and occasionally, temporarily, confusing) plot, with interesting characters and excellent pacing. This feels very much like the first instalment of a new series: where o where is the next?

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

2016/11: Kings Rising -- C. S. Pacat

Laurent, just turned twenty, and possessing an elaborate mind with a gift for planning, detached it from the petty intrigues of the court and set it loose on the broader canvas of this, his first command. [Prince's Gambit

I read the first two volumes of this trilogy (Captive Prince and Prince's Gambit) last summer, but wanted to read this final installment before reviewing.

Captive Prince starts with Damianos (known as Damen), heir to the throne of Akielos, betrayed by his half-brother and sold into slavery. A very particular kind of slavery: he's sold as a 'pleasure slave' to Laurent, the prince of Vere, whose own brother Damen killed in battle some years before. Does Laurent know the identity of his new slave, or is he just being cruel for the sake of cruelty?

I confess I nearly gave up on Captive Prince after the first few chapters: sexual abuse, whippings etc.(I have no problem with the same-sex erotica: it's the BDSM and slavery I objected to.) But a friend had recommended the books on the basis of Laurent's characterisation*, and I persevered. And as the relationship between the two protagonists became somewhat less imbalanced, and Damen (the viewpoint character) began to understand a bit more about Laurent, I grew more interested in the story.

Because there is a story: it's not just a fantasy romance. The world of Akielos (Greek-influenced) and Vere (European Renaissance) is that rare thing, a fantasy world without apparent magic. It has plenty of the usual power-plays, wars for territory and resources, interpersonal conflicts played out like chess games, etc. And there is a palpable sense of history, of cultures diverging, of distinctive social norms.

Damen is not always the most observant of viewpoint characters, but he has heart: Laurent, who is impossibly twisty and complex, is generally several steps ahead, which makes his befuddlement at Damen's insights all the more compelling. Their dialogue is delightful: they strike sparks off one another, and there's a strong sense of friendship as well as all the other stuff (rivalry, misunderstandings, differing agendas, lingering grievances, sexual tension) that informs their relationship.

This third volume resolves a great many plot threads from the previous books; introduces some new obstacles; and lets both men finally break free from the Gordian knots of their respective families. The series started out as a LiveJournal serial, and Pacat has an active online presence and a lively fan community: it's interesting to read her posts on the progress of the series, and on her writing process. To me, this trilogy feels like an intersection of mainstream fiction and fanfiction: it's not, and never has been, fanfic, but it has the same 'open source', online-community feel to it, and the same joy in sharing creation.

* G is also a Dunnett fan: and so, it turns out, is C S Pacat. "My favorite writer is a writer called Dorothy Dunnett. I’m ridiculously fannish about her Lymond series and it also was a big influence on Captive Prince." [source].

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

2016/10: Cold Earth -- Sarah Moss

"Thinking the winters seemed worse and the summers shorter and not knowing if that was just how memory works....The change was slow. Slower than now. And they wouldn’t have known if or when it was going to change back. People are pretty conservative, you know. They don’t change until they don’t have a choice.’ [loc. 3106]

Six young people are on an archaeological dig in western Greenland, searching for evidence that might explain why the Norse settlements vanished or were abandoned. They are increasingly isolated from the outside world, where an epidemic is raging: Yianni, the leader of the group, is keen that they not waste power or time on attempting to contact friends and family. Instead, they write letters and journals: these form the bulk of Cold Earth.

Nina, the sole non-archaeologist in the group (she's a literature student with a preference for Victorian novels, invited by Yianni) believes that the site is haunted. At first the others are impatient with her. Later, each becomes a little less certain that she's imagining the sounds, the thrown rocks, the shadows. American Ruth, lately widowed, writes to her therapist. She maintains her manicure, and a brittle sanity, despite the odd occurrences. Catriona is more attuned to the natural life of the land; Jim takes refuge in his faith; Ben is the least fleshed-out of the six. Yianni is single-minded, determined not to waste his grant, obsessed by the prospect of a major discovery. He is not, in my opinion, a good leader: and it turns out that his preparations and plans are woefully inadequate.

Several of the characters reflect on whether the settlers would have noticed the gradual change in climate, as the Northern Hemisphere entered the Little Ice Age: colder weather and failing crops would explain the abandonment of the settlement. But then, so would raiders from the sea... Fearing that (as in Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead) their isolation has left them the last survivors of some global catastrophe, the six have to face their own fears as well as dealing with the fears of their companions.

I've studied the Norse settlements of Iceland and Greenland, and it was fascinating to read a novel so firmly rooted in fact. ("...this is the site Norman MacDonald identified with the farm owned by Bjorn Bardarson in Bjornsaga. Late thirteenth century. The saga says his brother burnt down the byre. This byre was burnt and doesn’t seem to have been rebuilt ..." [loc. 337]) Moss evokes the treeless, desolate landscape, the oppressive silence, the changeless sea without romantic indulgence. The sense of impending menace -- both on the site and in the wider, absent world -- is tremendous. And yet the finale felt like a sudden deflation.

Still: atmospheric, gripping, recommended.