Jul 31

Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

What’s It About

[The back cover blurb is long so I’m just cutting and pasting the last paragraph]

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Representative Paragraph

Two realities co-existing

[Patricia] had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn’t remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn’t remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn’t doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.

Should I Read It?

 No.

Commentary

I know.  I’m as surprised as you are to find myself recommending that you not bother with a Jo Walton novel.  After reading Among Others and enjoying Walton’s fantastic criticism (especially her look back at the Hugo awards on tor.com) she’s become a writer who engenders a level of expectation and excitement.

I had no issue with the novel’s premise.  It’s an oldie but a goodie.  Take a pivotal moment in a person’s life and explore what might have been if they’d made a different decision.  In the case of Patricia Cowan that turning point is the day her boyfriend, Mark, asks her over the phone (not very romantic) for her hand in marriage.  Her response splits her life in two and from that point onward the novel alternates between the Patricia that said yes and the Patricia (or Pat) that said no.

However, as the lives of Patricia and Pat grew wider apart I found myself growing increasingly annoyed.  I appreciate that Walton wanted Patricia to experience two very different lives based on the answer she gave Mark.  My issue is that the path we see both Patricia’s take is so lacking in subtlety or nuance that the wonderful premise and set-up is totally undermined.

In the reality where Patricia said yes to Mark’s proposal, she lives a life of misery as he sets about emotionally abusing her, and putting down any dreams she might of have of being an academic or writer.  Sex for the two of them is a mechanical, loveless, awful process:

He turned back and lay on top of her again, battering away between her legs again, clearly trying to force a way inside. She tried to keep completely still to help. At last he managed it—she bit her lip to stop herself whimpering, but it was no good, as the battering went on and on she could not stop herself crying or later from begging him to stop. There was no dignity left to her. This couldn’t be it, the thing all the poetry was about, this painful bestial thrusting? At last he climbed off her and got out of bed, leaving her to cry alone in the dark.

Because this is fiction, and not the real world where conception is a crapshoot, Patricia falls pregnant immediately, and miscarries, only to have to go through the same harrowing process again.  In the end she and Mark have four children and aside from their youngest daughter, he is as aloof and emotionally detached from them as he is with his wife.  Patricia does eventually leave Mark, and things do get somewhat better, but the scars of their relationship linger.

While Patricia is going through this living hell, at a the global level things are moving along quite nicely.  Around Patricia’s awful marriage a science fictional utopia emerges, where people are accepted for who they are (gay marriage is legalised without too much fuss) and humanity travels to the moon and sets up a base, the eventual destination for one of her children.

As for the Patricia who said no to Mark, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Walton’s intention is to flip things around on a micro and macro level.  Pat meets Bee and enjoys a wonderful relationship of love and support.  However, at the global level the shit hits the fan as Russia and America end up nuking each other and a cloud of radioactive matter drifts across the world with cancer rates skyrocketing.  While it never reaches the height of a dystopia, it’s the sort of future history where you be constantly looking over your shoulder ready for the next nuke to fall on your head.

And that, frankly, is the be all and end all of this novel.   A good relationship taking place in terrible international circumstances and a horrible marriage taking place in a world where everything comes up Milhouse.  It’s about as nuanced as an episode of Dora the Explorer.

The shame of it is that I thought Walton’s handling of a same-sex relationship was wonderful.  She highlights the issues that gay couples face on a daily basis, issues that heterosexuals never need consider.  Most harrowing is not being allowed to visit your partner outside of hours at a hospital because you’re not recognised as a family member or a significant other.  And yet in spite of this, and in spite of a world where dropping a nuclear bomb on your enemy is de rigueur, Pat is still thankful that she met her lovely Bee.

[Pat:] “I am bringing you my joy, Jesus, as I was taught as a child. Thank you for Bee. Thank you for making her, thank you for letting me find her, thank you for making me worthy of her. Thank you for our house in Florence, for her fellowship, for my teaching. Thank you for our lives, our love. And if this is all there is, if she decides she wants a man later, wants to marry and have children, then so be it. Thank you for giving us this time to be together and be happy.”

Sadly, the goodness of Pat and Bee’s relationship is somewhat undercut by the revelation that Patricia’s husband, Mark, is a gay man who, due to his religious observance, never came to terms with his sexuality.  Because the story is told from Patricia’s perspective, Mark’s confusion in regard to his sexual tendencies is never explored.  Instead we’re given an awful stereotype of the closeted gay man who is an abusive arsehole with zero redemptive qualities.

The final chapter makes a clunky attempt to flesh out the main theme of the novel. In her dotage and suffering from dementia, Patricia recalls a fractured life that blends together her experiences as Patricia and Pat. At the heart of this chapter is partly the question of why couldn’t Patricia have experienced the best of both worlds, the love of Bee coupled with Walton’s utopia? With that question comes the guilt, how could Patricia choose that perfect life knowing that her beautiful children (even if they were a result of an abusive marriage) would cease to exist. Who are my real children? It’s an interesting point for discussion but it’s explored far too late in the novel and requires the reader to see Patricia and her children as “real” as more than just a thought experiment. Because ultimately I couldn’t get passed the artifice of this novel. Once Patricia makes that pivotal decision, I couldn’t help but see Walton, in the background, forcing her characters down two specific paths. Like one of those on-rails games where your choices are limited and pre-defined. And it’s this lack of real choice, of the freedom to do something unexpected, even to the author, that made this novel such a disappointing reading experience.

Jul 27

Who Should Have Won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel

Because I’ve completely forgotten who was nominated (announced so long ago) here is a reminder of the finalists and links to my reviews:

This is going to annoy some (or most) people but I think the least interesting, ambitious and inventive novel on this ballot, Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, won the award.  Let’s be crystal here, I did not hate Ancillary Sword.  As I said in my review, the writing was an improvement on Ancillary Justice and I appreciated Leckie’s exploration of the effects of colonialism.  But in terms of story-telling, in terms of invention, in terms of pushing the boundaries, Ancillary Sword doesn’t bat as high as the other finalists, and I include The Moon King on this list.

But while the winner may not have been to my tastes, we needs to applaud the membership of the British Science Fiction Association for choosing such an outstanding bunch of nominees.  Add the Goblin Emperor, the Three Body Problem and the Southern Reach trilogy to this list and you essentially have the must read “core” science fiction and fantasy novels of 2014.  The Allan, the Hardinge, the North, the Hutchinson and the Okorafor are all fantastic books, all doing something interesting with their genre of choice, all finding that balance between telling a compelling story, creating an atmosphere and delivering a message or a theme.  They are books that give you hope about the SF/F moving forward.  And in an environment where the moans and groans of the Rabid Puppy campaign dominate the discussion it’s heartening to know that you can cut through the crap and read a shortlist, chosen by readers, not judges, that’s actually worthy of discussion.

As for who I would have award the prize too – that would be Europe in Autumn, but seriously it’s a toss up between that and Lagoon.

Jul 25

Book Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

What’s It About

[I’ve gone back to relying on back cover copy.  I apologise for my laziness]

All is not well in Glassholm. Life under the moon has always been so predictable: day follows night, wax phases to wane and, after the despair of every Darkday, a person’s mood soars to euphoria at Full. So it has been for five hundred years, ever since the Lunane captured the moon and tethered it to the city.

Now, all that has changed. Amidst rumours of unsettling dreams and strange whispering children, society is disintegrating into unrest and violence. The very sea has turned against Glassholm and the island’s luck monkeys have gone wild, distributing new fates to all and sundry. Turmoil is coming.

Three people find themselves at the eye of the storm: a former policeman investigating a series of macabre murders, an outsider artist embroiled in the murky intrigues of revolution, and a renegade engineer tasked with fixing the ancient machine at the city’s heart. Each must fulfil their role or see Glassholm shaken apart, while all are subject to the machinations of their inscrutable and eternal monarch, The Moon King

Representative Paragraph

Anton has just discovered that he’s the ruler of Glassholm.

“You say I am the Lunane,” Anton said, leaning against the desk.

Hogarth inclined his head, clearly nervous. “Of course, sir.”

“And you are my biographer?” He had been mistaken in his first assumption that the lad collected the goings on of the Palace for the newspaper scuttlebutt. They really meant the Lunane’s biographer. “You write down everything that I do?”

“Yes, sir.” This was more solid ground for the young man. He knew his own business at least. “Everything.”

Anton sneaked a look at the ledger. Hogarth’s pen was poised, having just completed a line of cramped script. It read, The Lunane questioned the biographer, Hogarth, about his work.

“Why?” Anton said.

The biographer swallowed. “Because you told me to, sir. The unbroken record of your continuity is the story of Glassholm. It’s one of the greatest symbols of our city’s magnificent constancy.”

“I don’t remember telling you to do any such thing.” Anton felt only a little ashamed to watch the boy squirm.

Should I Read It?

No.

Commentary

Neil Williamson’s The Moon King is a frustrating novel.  While I really enjoyed the set-up and ideas on display, the actual execution was sadly lacking.

In relation to the world-building I acknowledge the effort Williamson invests into making the island of Glassholm a layered, believable and unique secondary world.  In particular I loved the idea that the phase of the moon has a direct impact on the emotional state of the populace.  Whereas the full moon brings overwhelming joy and drunken frivolity, when the moon ebbs dark thoughts emerge and everyone stays indoors.  And while I did wonder whether such a bipolar society could actually function for an extended period, it was a passing thought.

I also got a kick out of the machine hidden in the dungeons of the Palace, a device that literally anchors the moon to Glassholm.  (It’s the break down of this machine, and the resultant effect on the moon and the citizens of Glassholm, that fuels the novel’s plot).  The scene where it’s first revealed is suitably grandiose and exciting:

It was an elegant behemoth of a device, a baroque construction of gleaming steel beam, arcane gearings and powerful electricals that produced a low-frequency vibration discernible through the soles of the feet. At first sight, he [Anton] thought there were some parts that might be recognisable, but making such assumptions based on guesswork was dangerous. The central portion of the construct was balanced on a framework of gimbals in such a way that the spherical body and long limb running through it that extended to the very top of the chamber could move freely in two axes. It resembled nothing so much as a brass apple that had been violently but precisely cored with an iron bar capped on each end by a smaller sphere.

But what I appreciated the most about Williamson’s world-building was that he never stopped supplying the narrative with ideas.  As the novel progresses, and more is revealed about Glassholm and its mysteries, Williamson introduces a range of exciting and wild concepts including a disembodied ruler who manipulates and possesses his citizens, creatures made entirely out of the water and a very, very large fish who holds the future of Glassholm in its belly.

Given how excited I was by the ideas and Williamson’s imagination, it’s a crushing shame that I wasn’t overwhelmed by his prose or characters.  The first quarter of the novel does a decent enough job establishing the world, the main protagonists and the overarching mystery, but it wasn’t enough to sustain my interest.  Part of this is Williamson’s earnest writing style that distinctly lacked a sense of humour.  Not that I was reading The Moon King  for a laugh, but considering the book doesn’t short shrift the reader on crazy ideas (that very, very large fish in particular) a semblance of wit might have made for a more engaging read.

Then there’s our cast of characters, in particular Anton, Lottie and John Mortlock.  Anton is an inventor, Lottie is an artist and John is a cop and I struggled to see them as anything but words on a page.  After the initial mystery surrounding the Palace staff perceiving Anton as the Lunane, his character essentially gets dragged from plot point to plot point.  Lottie has the potential to be the star of the novel but her storyline gets subsumed by the machinations of her mother’s cultish religion that believes Lottie will give birth to the Moon Queen.  Her passivity isn’t helped by her constant state of denial – she refuses to see her morning sickness and her weight gain as symptoms of pregnancy, even though it’s obvious – and her inability to stop her insane mother from taking over the pregnancy.  And then there’s John Mortlock, the clichéd embittered cop with the clichéd dark past.  He’s saddled with an awful serial killer subplot that’s seems to be there to highlight (a) the unrest in Glassholm toward the Lunane and (b) how memories of violence among the populace have been suppressed, so much so that a police officer might investigate a murder he committed and not be aware of it.   Tonally, Mortlock’s story adds a grimness to the novel that it definitely did not need.

I also had an issue with the revelation, toward the end of The Moon King, as to what the machine in the Palace actually does.  The big reveal, [SPOILERS], is that the moon is controlled and influenced by the very, very large fish I note above, called the Moon Fish.  The device has the ability to subdue the fish, keep it swimming in circles in a water catchment under the Palace, thereby anchoring the moon to Glassholm.  The problem, and why the machine has lost functionality, is that the Moon Fish is pregnant and the device hasn’t been calibrated to take this into account.  Once Anton discovers both the existence and state of the Moon Fish he realises that the fix is straightforward, modify the machine so it can accommodate the pregnancy.  Given that the solution is so simple, it wasn’t clear to me why the Lunane didn’t reveal the existence of the Moon Fish earlier in the novel?  If the answer is that the Lunane thought Anton might rebel, might let his morals about the slavery of an innocent fish stay his hand, then how did he expect the inventor to fix the machine?  Yes, I know the Lunane is mad and paranoid and incapable of trust, still holding back this critical information, considering the desperate need to fix the machine, doesn’t make sense, even for the Lunane.  It feels more like the author has intruded into the narrative rather than a choice made by the character.

While I read The Moon King I wanted to like to more.  But at the end I feel like I was admiring the ideas from a distance rather than emotionally engaging with the characters or the story.

Jul 23

So Who Should Have Won This Year’s Golden Tentacle Award?

Here is a much needed reminder of the nominees with links to my wordy and yet delightful reviews:

I’m going to assume that after reading my ecstatic review of Viper Wine you rushed straight to your local independent bookstore or online repository of digital stuff and purchased a copy.  I’m also going to assume that you’ve read it, that you loved it, and that like the judges of the Golden Tentacle you’ve decided to send Hermione Eye an award of your own devising.

Because in this instance the Kitschie judges got it spot on.  Yes, the Byrne and the Itaranta are good books – both doing interesting things and dealing with crunchy themes, but Viper Wine is like nothing I’ve read before.  Historical fiction written with postmodern flair.  Fiction that’s both extremely self aware of its own artifice and also able to say insightful stuff about vanity and science, the rational and the irrational.  The judges noted the novel’s audacity.  An excellent single word description for this fine book.

I wasn’t blown away by the Chamber and had real issues with the Yanagihara, but overall this is a good list of debut novels.  Any shortlist that introduces you to a novel you’ve never heard of, a book that subsequently blows your mind, is a shortlist worth applauding.

By the way, we people in the genre should be making more of the début author category.  We’ve got the Golden Tentacle, we’ve got the Locus Awards and the Crawford Award also looks at début authors (not a shortlist I read, but I may change that next year).  Is there any others in the genre space?  As I see it, the Nebula Award, in particular, is missing a trick by not promoting début genre authors.  I don’t know much about SFWA and its operations, well other than the controversies of recent years, but I would have thought that a best début category would be a fine fit for them.

I’d also add the Hugos… but, no.

Jul 22

Book Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

What’s It About

When Meena wakes one morning with snake bites across her chest she decides, in a panic, to leave Mumbai and travel to Ethiopia, the place where her parents met.  Her intention is to traverse The Trail a massive energy harvesting bridge that links India and Africa.  Thirty years previously, Mariama makes the decision to escape her violent slave master.  She stows away on a convoy of trucks heading across Africa – her destination, Ethiopia.

These journeys will converge in ways that are revelatory and unexpected.

Representative Paragraph

Meena’s story is set in the future.  Here’s a bit of background:

Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt. I’ve watched the African youth uprisings against land grabs or “colonization by invitation.” Mohini and I used to lie side by side and watch the reports roll in to the cloud. Addis Ababa, the city where my parents were murdered, is now the flagship city of Africa. Lagos is too big, Joburg is too white, Cairo is not really African, and so on. No one expected Addis to emerge as Africa’s sweetheart city. But it has.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Trigger warning:  The violence, when depicted, is graphic.  There’s also a scene of child abuse.

Commentary

The Girl In The Road is a confronting novel written with an intensity and passion and visceral beauty that compels you to keep reading.  As the novel alternates between Meena and Mariama’s journey – both heading to Ethiopia but thirty years apart – Byrne with great care and deliberation reveals how both her protagonists are connected.  What’s brilliant is how she constantly wrong foots the reader (or at least me) with hints and suggestions as to what links these two women, only to introduce a moment, sometimes shocking in its impact, that undercuts all your assumptions.  And when the bond between Meena and Mariama is finally unveiled it makes perfect sense, even if it was never obvious while reading the book.

When I dashed out my thoughts about the novel on Facebook, I said I had conflicted feelings toward the book.  I noted my love of Byrne’s refreshing use of the unreliable narrator, a narrative cliché that she makes works.  But I also found the novel’s treatment of sex to be confusing.  In particular sex seems to be the trigger for violence in the novel.  The sex itself wasn’t violent, but after the act something brutal and savage occurs.  This happens on two occasions, both pivotal turning points for Meena and Mariama.  Given their importance, I couldn’t help but get this impression that Byrne was punishing her characters for discovering sexual intimacy and love.  But on reflection, and with help from a discussion I had on Facebook with someone else who read (and loved) the novel, I began to understand that Byrne wasn’t so much focussing on the sex and violence, but rather the idea of love and betrayal.  Not to spoil the novel, but it’s this sense of betrayal, and the guilt associated with it, that fuels Meena and Mariama’s journey.

And it’s not the books only theme.  This is very much a story about mothers and daughters.  Both Meena and Mariama lose their mothers at an early age – in fact in the case of Meena her mother was murdered when she was pregnant with Meena – and a good deal of the The Girl In The Road, in particular Meena’s story, is trying to discover and create some sort of bond, no matter how small, with a mother or mother figure.

Then there’s the religious symbolism.  I’ll be honest, much of this went over my head, it’s only something I became aware of once I read reviews on the interwebs which noted how all the characters were named after Saints and Prophets and Angels.  I should have picked this up.  Francis, Mohammed, Gabriel, Yemaya.  But I think I became so caught up in Meena and Mariama’s stories (and trying to second guess their connection) that the religious stuff became one theme too many.  Having said that, there is a definite spiritual feel to the novel, and on reflection Meena’s journey across The Trail has a station of the cross vibe to it.  The ending is also an almost mystical experience, especially for Meena as she goes through a sort of rebirth as she attempts to detox her soul with sea-water.  But while it might have passed me by, it does indicate a book that has several layers, the sort of novel where you can discuss a single theme, a single scene and feel you’ve only smudged the surface.

Themes aside, it’s important to note the Sfnal aspects of The Girl In The Road, because in all this talk about sex, daughters, mothers and religion, it’s easy to forget that this is a story that takes a stab at a near future that deliberately ignores the west and sees Africa in the ascendancy.  Byrne doesn’t encumber us with a future history mapped out with dates and important events, but she explains enough, provides enough back-story to give her future a sense of realism.  Critical to this is The Trail, a wonderful piece of hard SF engineering.  It’s a massive floating bridge that links India with Africa.  The Trail crosses the Arabian sea and was built to harvest energy from the sun and from the ocean.  Because I failed Year 10 Science I have no idea whether something like The Trail is possible or whether a concept like this has been the subject of New Scientist articles and the like.  But as with her future history, the Trail felt like something possible, like something that could be built a decade or so from now.  And some of the more gripping moments of the novel involve Meena’s attempts to survive on The Trail as she attempts to cross it – akin to climbing Everest, just heading in a straight (though unstable) line.

It could be argued that The Girl in The Road is trying to do too much.  Develop complex characters, deal with complex themes, and respect both African and South Asian culture.  Personally I think it’s a powerful and provocative novel, the sort that that sparks conservation and, like The Trail, wends and weaves its way through a variety of themes and issues.

Jul 22

The Shortlists for the British Fantasy Awards has been announced…

… I wasn’t planning to read the Horror and Fantasy novel categories for the British Fantasy Awards.  And then I saw the shortlist and noted that of the 12 nominees across the two categories, I’d already read 6 of the books, which would mean only 6 to read.  Added to that, the appearance of the Tidhar (which I’ve been waiting to see feature on a shortlist) and the Nevill (an author I’ve been meaning to read for a number of years) tipped me over the edge.

Here are the nominees:

Best fantasy novel (the Robert Holdstock Award)

Breed, KT Davies (Fox Spirit Books)
City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett (Jo Fletcher Books)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan Children’s Books)
A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)
The Relic Guild, Edward Cox (Gollancz)

Best horror novel (the August Derleth Award)

The End, Gary McMahon (NewCon Press)
The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Last Plague, Rich Hawkins (Crowded Quarantine Publications)
No One Gets Out Alive, Adam Nevill (Macmillan)
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (Knopf)
The Unquiet House, Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Jul 14

Book Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

What’s It About

Join the multi-specie crew of the Wayfarer as they travel the galaxy punching wormholes into the fabric of space and time.

Representative Paragraph

The ship’s Doctor and Chef is fascinated with Rosemary’s name (she’s the new addition to the crew).

“Rosemary, Rosemary,” said Dr. Chef, taking her hand. “Herbs are my very favorite thing. They combine both the medicinal and the gastronomical, which, as you may have guessed, are my two best subjects. I am an avid collector of herbs. I pick up new specimens wherever I go.” He paused, grumbling and whistling to himself. “I don’t think I’ve heard of your namesake herb. Is it for eating or healing?”

“Eating,” said Rosemary. “I think it goes in soups. Breads, too, I guess.”

“Soups! Oh, I like soups,” said Dr. Chef. His solid black eyes shifted to Sissix. “We’re making a stop at Port Coriol soon, right?”

“Yep,” said Sissix. “Someone there will have it for sure. I’ll send a message to my old friend Drave, he’ll know where to look. He’s good at finding food-related things.” His mouth curved up as he looked back to Rosemary.

“See? You’ve got a proper name after all. Now, you finish those crackers, I’m going to check on the bugs.” He bustled back into the kitchen, growling and sighing as he bent over the grill. Rosemary wondered if he might be humming.

Should I Read It?

No.

My “no” is likely to be a minority position given Goodreads has awarded The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet an average of 4.25 stars based on over 300 votes.  I can appreciate the book’s attraction: a diverse cast of engaging characters travelling to strange places and facing a variety of threats and challenges.

However, the first third of the novel is weighed down by so much exposition that I nearly stopped reading.  I persevered and came to appreciate what the novel was trying to achieve, but my God, that first third is a killer and given that this is a 500 page book, I’m not sure it’s worth trudging through 150 pages of info-dump and explanation to reach the good bits.

Commentary

I came close to putting this book down after the first twenty pages.  Here is a good example why:

“I’ve always lived planetside,” Rosemary said. “We don’t eat many bugs on Mars.”

She felt guilty just saying it. Insects were cheap, rich in protein, and easy to cultivate in cramped rooms, which made them an ideal food for spacers. Bugs had been part of the Exodus Fleet’s diet for so long that even extrasolar colonies still used them as a main staple. Rosemary had, of course, at least heard of red coast bugs. The old story went that a short while after the Exodus Fleet had been granted refugee status within the Galactic Commons, a few Human representatives had been brought to some Aeluon colony to discuss their needs. One of the more entrepreneurial Humans had noticed clusters of large insects skittering over the red sand dunes near the coastline. The insects were a mild nuisance to the Aeluons, but the Humans saw food, and lots of it. Red coast bugs were swiftly adopted into the Exodans’ diet, and nowadays, you could find plenty of Aeluons and extrasolar Humans who had become wealthy from their trade. Rosemary’s admission that she’d never eaten red coast bugs meant that she was not only poorly traveled, but that she belonged to a separate chapter of Human history. She was a descendant of the wealthy meat-eaters who had first settled Mars, the cowards who had shipped livestock through space while nations starved back on Earth. Even though Exodans and Solans had long ago put their old grudges behind them (mostly), her privileged ancestry was something she had become ashamed of. It reminded her all too well of why she had left home.

The level of info-dump here is extraordinary and delivered in a clumsy, confused way – in particular Rosemary’s feelings about the bug are smooshed together with the omniscient narrator’s explanation of why the bugs are important.  But even if there was clarity to the prose, it’s not clear to me why, at this point of the novel, we need to know all this stuff about the Exodus Fleet or a history of the bugs.  I know genre authors feel this overwhelming urge to show off their shiny new Universe, but sometimes, not explaining every single thing will make for a better and more intriguing reading experience.

The thing is, Becky Chambers isn’t alone.  If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my reading this year, it’s this compulsion for authors to over-explain (take William Gibson’s The Peripheral as an example).  It’s got to the point where not elucidating every last concept has become a reason to praise a novel (see my thoughts on Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn).  The irony is that science fiction has always been sold as a genre of discovery where the reader is thrown into the deep end and is required to figure out what’s going on based entirely on context.  In contrast, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet can’t help but spoon-feed the reader – which apparently has gone over well with the general public because not only has the book been lauded by readers online but it has (a) received a Kitschie nomination and (b) been picked up by Hodder to be published (the novel was originally self published through a Kickstarter campaign).

The book does eventually settle down as Chambers throttles back on the exposition.  What soon becomes evident is how this is a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.  Diversity is front and centre – whether that be in terms of gender or culture or race – and on that level Chambers does a fine job in populating her universe with a range of interesting alien races.  If the The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet has a message, it’s that no matter our differences, no matter our strange customs and attitudes, there’s no reason why people from different tribes can’t get along, can’t see eye to eye, can’t become a family.

In light of this, I particularly liked Rosemary’s developing relationship with the Wayfarers reptilian pilot Sissix.  While it’s not the only example in the book of inter species intimacy and coupling, it does highlight the primary themes:

Rosemary continued to speak. “Sissix, I don’t have any feathers I can give you. I wish I did. You made me feel welcome when I first set foot on this ship. And since then, the kindness you’ve shown — not just to me, but to everyone — has meant more than I can say. You go out of your way to make everybody aboard this ship comfortable, to show us affection in the way that we expect it. I don’t pretend to know Aandrisks as well as you know Humans, but there are some things I understand. I understand that we’re your family, and that for you, not being able to touch us means there’s a vital piece missing. I think that feeling hurts you, and I think you’ve buried it deep. I saw the look on your face when your family held you. You may love the Wayfarer, but life here is incomplete.” She pressed her lips together. They came back wet. “I don’t know how you see me, but — but I want you to know that if you should want something more…I’d like to give it to you.”

So, yes, the last half of The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet is genuinely engaging and I grew to like the characters.  They all start off as broad caricatures – the innocent one, the flighty one, the grumpy one, the endlessly fascinated by everything one, the practical one, the sexual one – but are given depth as the book progresses.

The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet could be compared to one of those TV shows that has a shitty pilot and opening bunch of episodes but gets good halfway through the season.  Lots of people will have turned off before the penny drops, but for those who stay around, there’s some fun to be had.  Is it worth sticking around, though?  It is worth grinding your way through endless exposition and info-dumping?  On balance, probably not.  It’s a shame because the novel’s heart is certainly in the right place.

Jul 13

And the winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for best novel is…

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

While I’ve still only read two of the nominees on the ballot (I’ll be reading the other four sometime in August) I’m going to take a punt and say that this is was the correct choice from the judges.  The entire Southern Reach trilogy is fantastic, but Annihilation is a masterpiece of atmosphere, paranoia and creeping, unknowable horror.  And it’s a great character study as well.

The full list of nominees and winners can be found here.  A special shout out goes to the wonderful Helen Marshall for winning the best author single collection category with Gifts For The One Who Comes After.  If you haven’t read Helen’s short fiction before now, then this is a perfect opportunity to order this amazing collection from Chizine, or her first brilliant collection Hair Side, Flesh Side from the same publisher.

Jul 10

Book Review: Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre

What’s It About

This is the story of Sir Kenelm Digby and his wife Venetia.  They were the IT couple of the 17th Century and their story is one of beauty potions, vanity, religion, scientific discovery based on rational deduction rather than mysticism and, sadly, tragedy.

Representative Paragraph

Yesterday she [Venetia] was in her knot garden at the front of the house, clipping the box-hedges using her dainty silver shears – play-gardening, as Kenelm called it – when a youth in the livery of the Earl of Dorset arrived. She put down her basket and smiled her famous smile at the livery boy, the smile Ben Jonson had written a sonnet about, and Peter Oliver painted; the smile that was so much in demand that a royal writ was put out to send any unlicensed copyist to prison, and still copies came. She stood there, her hip askew, so confident, the breeze in her flowing hair, her loose country dress full and soft. ‘Madam,’ said the boy, bowing like a silly sapling, then looking her full in the face. ‘Could you tell me where to find her most gracious beauty Venetia, Lady Digby?’

Should I Read It?

Absolutely.

I would like to thank the Kitschie judges for pointing me in the direction of this marvellous book, a novel I wasn’t aware of until I saw it appear on the Golden Tentacle shortlist.  While Viper Wine may be a tad overlong and at times a little too self aware for its own good, it is a fascinating, insightful portrait of a time and place that was slowly but surely transitioning between mysticism and quackery to rationalism and evidence based science.  And, I fell in love with Venetia and Kenelm, which makes their historically accurate but tragic end to their story (revealed in the novel’s opening pages) all the more sad and powerful.

Commentary

Viper Wine is a novel of contradictions.  Set in the 17th Century and starring the Brad and Angelina of their time – Kenelm and Venetia Digby – the novel critiques today’s beauty industry while also illustrating the transition from science based on mysticism to science based on rationality and evidence.  The contradiction is that while the desire to be beautiful at whatever cost still plagues Western society, that same society now takes a very rational and methodical approach to scientific discovery.  And one wonder how a society that still pushes woman (and men) toward the quackery of revitalising creams and salves can also be the same society that’s cured any number of diseases, put men on the moon and invented the internet.

Hermione Eyre’s intent is not to answer that question or to resolve the contradiction, but to highlight its existence.  Venetia and Kenelm, famous in their time, though I had never heard of them prior to reading Viper Wine, provide Eyre with the perfect case study.

In Venetia Digby we have a woman whose youthful beauty captured the imagination of poet Ben Johnson.  A woman who is desperate to maintain her looks, who refuses to accept that she is getting older, that she might be losing the ability to turn the heads of men.  And Venetia will go to any lengths to keep those wrinkles at bay:

[Venetia]  ‘I have been peeled weekly with sulphur mithridate, and then every night I apply butter of antimony. It is said to counteract all the lead that has embedded in my cheeks from too much painting, which is the reason for my runckles . . .’  She started to cry a little, at the unfairness of it. No one warned her that painting with lead would be so injurious – it was what every beauty used. ‘The mithridate burns, to be sure, and sometimes welts a little, but I have grown to love its whip upon my cheek. I miss it dreadfully now I have run out. But my poor apothecary tried to cure his hot gout with drinking lily-water, and it did not work, and now his shop is shut up and he is quite dead.’

She giggled again, while wiping a tear.

In the end she is compelled to use Viper Wine, “an addictive mixture of tongues, hearts and innards of vipers baked overnight, and combined with rare aloes and balsams.”  While the physicians of the time were less than clear as to what led to Venetia’s death at such a young age – many believed Kenelm murdered her – Eyre proposes that it was Venetia’s fruitless search for the fountain of youth and her ingestion of Viper Wine that ultimately sent her to an early grave.

And then we have Kenelm Digby, a natural philosopher and alchemist, whose interest in science drew him closer to a rational understanding of the world around us.  He’s a man fascinated by scientific discovery, epitomised by a brilliant scene, set on the Thames, where he watches the voyage of one of the first submersible vessels.  It’s a moment of steampunk that also happens to be historically accurate.

That’s not to say that Kenelm was the one rationalist in a world of mystics and spiritualists.  Like most natural philosophers and thinkers of his time, Kenelm had a number of wacky theories – such as the ability to use “sympathetic magic” to cure people over great distances – but he also believed there were such thing as atoms (based on the Aristotelian concept).  It was a view that put him at odds with the Catholic church*:

Plenty of men found him Overreaching, or Heretical, because he believed the air was full of thousands of tiny invisible particles, darting about in the void, giving life and breath, without divine direction. This was clearly heresy, and the Jesuits even made a prayer to deny it: ‘Nothing comes of Atomes . . .’ Kenelm had doubted it himself, at first – who could easily believe that the air was not empty, but vastly manifest and substantial?

Acknowledging his foresight, Eyre provides Kenelm with glimpses of the future.  These hallucinatory moments, which Kenelm takes in his stride, frame him as a modern man who, with some minor modifications to his worldview, would have been very much at home in the 20th and 21st Century.

But even as a man transitioning from spiritualism to evidence-based science, when it comes to gender and the role of woman, Kenelm’s attitudes are very much of his time.  He does warn Ventia away from dangerous ointments and potions inspite of her protestations that he’s not doing enough to help her:

[Venetia]  ‘I cannot bear it. I do not know why you persist in this nonsense of moonlight – this, ha, lunacy – when there are other, better cures available, which you well know.’

[Kenelm] ‘Other cures? What do you mean? Have I not provided you with every safe cure I know of? Have I not imported snails into our grounds from distant climes, at some cost? And yet you will not have them for healing purposes, neither taking their slime to drink nor submitting to have them crawl upon your face.’

She turned to look at him, and her skin was blotchy with tears. ‘I will not speak of those snails! I would have thought that you, a man of Physick, schooled in chemistry, would know better than to chase after village remedies.’

Sir Kenelm leaned forward, very serious. ‘It is because I know the power of Physick that I caution you against it.’

‘Other ladies drink preparations.’

‘You have no need of other ladies’ cures. You barely have any need of a cure at all.’ ‘You do not understand.’ ‘I do, my love.’

And yet, he expects her to remain beautiful:

Kenelm, on his side of the bed, was fighting to stop himself feeling cross with her. He had come home in triumph; it was the very least she could do to stay beautiful for him. She was only five years older than him – many wives were older than their husbands. And if she could not keep her beauty, she should at least maintain her faith in her beauty, since that was the chiefest thing, was it not?

While Venetia desire to remain gorgeous can’t entirely be laid at the feet of Kenelm and his want for a beautiful wife, it’s interesting that he sees her beauty as a reward that he has earned.  A possession that he owns.  And this idea that women pretty themselves for the sake of men continues to fuel and fill the coffers of the beauty industry.  Philosophers and thinkers, like Kenelm, may have allowed humanity to make leaps and bounds in significant areas of science, however our backward attitudes toward gender has given the beauty industry the permission to peddle the same non scientific rubbish they were hawking more than three hundred years ago.

As depressing as all that sounds, there’s a cheekiness to Eyre’s prose that results in a number of funny scenes – such as Venetia and her friends outdoing each other in terms of the beauty treatments they’re undergoing – and memorable characters such as Chater the priest.  Yes, he has the stereotypical aspect of the closeted gay, but his love for Venetia is a highlight of the novel.

However, Viper Wine does have some structural issues, other being a little overlong.  Mary’s story, that wends its way through the narrative (she’s hoping that Kenelm can help her mortally wounded friend with his ability to cure disease from a distance) adds very little to the overall story.  And some of the glimpses into the future are just a tad too pretentious and self aware, including a cringe-worthy scene where Michael Parkinson, Jonathan Ross and Hermione Eyre (though she’s not named) interview Kenelm about his recent journey and his wife.

Still, this is a historical fiction that not only pushes the boundaries as to what historical fiction should look like (and mostly succeeds) but has something fascinating to say about our current attitude to science and beauty and vanity.  I might not have heard of Venetia and Kenelm Digby before I read this good, but I won’t soon forget them.

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* Eyre also deals with Kenelm’s struggle to reconcile his Catholic upbringing with the political need to convert to Anglicanism.

Jul 09

The World Fantasy Award shortlist for Best Novel has been announced…

… and it includes the following five books.

  • Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor (Tor Books)
  • Robert Jackson Bennett, City of Stairs (Broadway Books/Jo Fletcher Books)
  • David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (Random House/Sceptre UK)
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals)
  • Jo Walton, My Real Children (Tor Books US/Corsair UK)

I’ve read four of the five finalists (though I’ve only reviewed one of them on this blog of mine.  Yes, my reviews are about 10 books behind the novel I’m currently reading*).  Of the four I loved the Addison, the VanderMeer and the Bennett and was less keen on the Walton.  I haven’t read the Mitchell, and while I know reviews have been mixed, I’m still looking forward to reading The Bone Clocks.

Still, even if the Bone Clocks doesn’t float my boat I can say without hesitation that this is an excellent shortlist – definitely representative of the best fantasy written last year.

The full list of nominees featuring the other categories can be found here.

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* Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land for those who care

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