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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

2017/99: The Will to Battle -- Ada Palmer

Grounded by conscience, the Utopians are not brave enough to let billions die while they hide away to safeguard everything. They won't abandon this world to destruction, not even to protect all better ones. They bind their fate to Earth's. No second chance. [p. 309]
This third novel in the Terra Ignota series (preceded by Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders) will make little sense to anyone not familiar with the first two books. It does suffer somewhat from 'middle book' syndrome: the bridging section between wrongness and resolution. Yet it's not the larger plot that enthralls me: it's the small-scale interactions between the characters (some of whom are more real than others.)

The world is on its way to war, a war that will be shaped by Homer's Iliad. Global peace, it turns out, has been maintained by a programme of assassination, and underpinned by the machinations of Madame and her lovers, wards, and (self-termed) gender perverts. Meanwhile, several interesting theological issues, usually the domain of philosophers and sensayers, have become matters of fact.

And it is, anyway, an age of wonders: the fantastical U-beasts, fireworks on Mars, Olympic Games in Antarctica -- oh, but all those wonders have been birthed by the Utopian Hive, and all signs point to the Utopians (whose mission statement is "to redirect the path of human life away from death and towards the stars") being the focus of the fourth novel.

The labyrinthine intricacies of inter- and intraHive conflicts are painstakingly thought out, and delightfully complex (which is to say there is a lot of world-building and society-building), but I'm more interested in Mycroft and his decline. It becomes clear in this volume that Mycroft -- who asserts his own suitability as chronicler thus: 'My great merit as an historian is that I am known to be insane' (p. 14) -- is an even less reliable narrator than had previously seemed the case. Increasingly prone to vagueness and conflation, he converses with dead philosophers and friends, and two versions of his hypothetical Reader. To further muddy the plot, it becomes apparent that several incidents recounted in the previous books did not occur as described. Or perhaps they did, but with a dramatically different context. Or perhaps -- for this volume's Reader is not the same as the Reader we encountered at second hand before -- the audience has changed, and they require a different dimension of the truth.

Mycroft is a self-confessed monster, a sadistic parricide whose defining moment is the 'beautiful rampage' of murder he committed aged seventeen. One can't condone his crimes, and his servile manner sometimes grates. But I ached for him in The Will to Battle: his desperate hope of atonement, his grief, his disintegrating sense of self, his weariness. I would love to read more about his youth, before his 'beautiful rampage': I think a lot of answers might lie there, at Alba Longa. Though Thisbe may have a lot to answer for, too: Mycroft's visit to her, and a couple of remarks by Martin Guildbreaker, intrigue me mightily, because of what they imply about Mycroft's personality.

Palmer sets up, then sidesteps, a massive cliffhanger (well, it's still a cliffhanger, just not such a harrowing one). I'm not sure how I feel about this. It is definitely a kindness to this reader, who would have found the wait for Perhaps the Stars (scheduled for summer 2019) interminable. The novel might have ended on a stronger note, though, if the uncertainty had remained.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017/98: Artificial Condition -- Martha Wells

What does it want?
To kill all the humans, I answered.
... That is irrational.
I know, I said. If the humans were dead, who would make the media? [p. 132]
[review placeholder -- ARC, publication date 7th May 2018]

Sunday, December 10, 2017

2017/97: The Convenient Marriage -- Georgette Heyer

Mr Walpole's face wore an approving smile, though he regretted that his god-daughter should be marrying a Tory. [p. 32]
Another Heyer Georgian novel, reread: when I first read The Convenient Marriage I was mostly interested in the heroine's feckless brother Pelham, but this time I found myself appreciating the Earl of Rule rather more than before.

The heroine of this novel, Horatia (named after her godfather Mr Walpole, and known as Horry) is a delight, too. She is the youngest of three sisters. The eldest, Elizabeth, is in love with another but resigns herself to marrying Rule to save the family's fortunes: Horry has the bright idea of offering herself in Elizabeth's place. And does so ('the Indelicacy, the Impropriety, the – the Forwardness ...!' (p. 27) with the promise that she will not interfere with her husband's, er, affairs. (Especially his long-standing association with Lady Caroline Massey.) Rule, amused and charmed by Horry's Forwardness, accepts her offer.

Lady Caroline is initially unimpressed, and vents her feelings to her old friend Lethbridge, a dyed-in-the-wool rake who has previously attempted to elope with Rule's sister. Lethbridge befriends Horry, and even stages a hold-up so that he can 'rescue' her: Horry, who is doing her best to sail through her loveless marriage serenely, welcomes his attentions. Matters escalate: there are masked balls, disguises, duels, abductions, and some thoroughly farcical 'assistance' from Horry's brother Pelham (who proves to be quite ruthless when sober) and his friend Mr Pommeroy.

Deliciously frothy, witty and featuring some very well-researched scenes of the London aristocracy at play in the 1770s.

Friday, December 08, 2017

2017/96: Clockwork Boys - T Kingfisher

"Oh, come on, if your friends aren't willing to strangle you, what kind of friends are they?" [p. 123]
A forger, an assassin, a paladin and a scholar ride through a war zone in search of a solution to the secret of the Clockwork Boys -- an unstoppable army of centaur-like soldiers whose very nature is a conundrum.

So far, so RPG. Kingfisher (a pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, award-winning childrens' author) fleshes out her characters interestingly, and with more depth and variety than the standard gaming stereotypes. The paladin, Sir Caliban, is a holy knight who's been deserted by his god, and who committed horrendous crimes while possessed by a demon. (The demon is dead, mostly.) The scholar, Edmund, is very young and very misogynistic, at least to start with. Slate, the forger, has a cannibalistic tattoo which ensures her loyalty to what's effectively a suicide mission: she doesn't expect to survive once they reach Anuket City, because her past will come back to bite her much harder than that tattoo. And Brennan, her former lover ... is a bit of a blank thus far, though his jealousy of Caliban provides some comic relief.

There is also a gnole named Grimehug, who may know a great deal about the Clockwork Boys. I am not quite clear as to why none of the others have asked him about this.

Which is my main problem with the book: too many unanswered questions, all of which I'm sure will be resolved in the second volume (coming soon) but some of which really should have been resolved in this, the first half of the story. Why is Grimehug so amenable, and why has nobody asked him about the Clockwork Boys? Where did the shaman's demon end up? And what exactly happened when Caliban fell prey to his own demon?

Quibbles aside, I found this an enjoyable and amusing read, though the pacing is occasionally uneven. I'll definitely read the second half of the story.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

2017/95: The Black Moth: A Romance of the 18th Century -- Georgette Heyer

"It suited you that Jack should be disgraced? You thought I should seize his money. You— you—"
"Rogue? But you will admit that I at least am an honest rogue. You are — er — a dishonest saint. I would sooner be what I am." [p. 163]
The Black Moth, set in England in the 1750s, is Georgette Heyer's very first novel, which I reread after becoming aware that it was effectively a prequel to These Old Shades and Devil's Cub -- albeit a prequel in which the characters had different names and rather less rounded characters. Tracy 'Devil' Belmanoir, Duke of Andover, shares many of the Duke of Avon's less savoury habits, not least a taste for abducting innocent young women. The lovely Diana Beauleigh is his latest victim, but is saved by the sudden appearance of highwayman 'Sir Anthony Ferndale' who is, of course, a disgraced aristocrat in disguise. He is, in fact, Lord Jack Carstares, who chose exile rather than expose his brother Richard for cheating at cards: and he and Diana fall in love. Richard, meanwhile, has just inherited the family title and fortune, but is increasingly crippled by guilt, and his wife Lavinia is thoroughly fed up with him. And Lavinia's brother is ... Tracy 'Devil' Belmanoir, probably the most intelligent of the characters and certainly the wittiest.

Unlike Heyer's later novels, this focusses on the relationships between the male characters: poor Diana is little more than a Quest Object, and while Lavinia has a more central role she is far from a romantic heroine. There's a great deal more swashbuckling than in the Regency novels -- duels, dramatic gestures, ridiculous behaviour and passionate declarations abound. Great fun, amusing and well-paced, with typically sardonic dialogue and plenty of arch observations. Even at this point, Heyer is subverting the tropes of the genre: see, for instance, the title of chapter 28, 'In Which What Threatened to be Tragedy Turns to Comedy'.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017/94: A Sword, a Star, a Flame -- Helen Lerewth

"...he is a doughty warrior."
She gave me a hard, piercing look. "I thought you were such a great warrior," she said, "and he’s womaned you." [loc 1076]
Alternate-world fantasy, set in a medieval Europe analogue where the Teutonic-flavoured Order of the Star fights against the Mongol-flavoured pagan Shee. Oglive, an heiress of the Shee, is brought up in the Order, disguised as a boy: the Order is somewhat misogynist, and also would very much like to get their hands on Oglive's inheritance. She watches the dashing Adal, the best of the knights, trounce his fellow Brothers, and falls in love. Luckily it is mutual and they plan to elope. Amidst popular revolt, they escape to the Shee, where everything becomes rather less predictable: polyamory, matriarchy, same-sex relationships, and maybe magic.

Much of the fun of this novel comes from the framing narrative: Oglive, Adal and some of the other characters are writing 'a proper record' of events that are in their pasts, and their friends and associates are transcribing and commenting on the original accounts. Those editorial conversations are delightful, and their complicity in obfuscating the steamier aspects of the story ('that would certainly make the bishop have fifty fits') adds an extra dimension to the story.

A warning, though, for several instances of dubious or absent consent to sexual intercourse between male characters. ("I dealt with my captive as the men of the Shee always treat their male prisoners.") As per the standard bodice-ripper trope, these relationships end up happily and romantically -- and the characters joke with one another about how much of a fight they actually put up -- but they are based on rape.

There are several more novels in this sequence, with (I believe) rather more explicitly fantastical content: I did enjoy this one, and will likely read the sequels at some stage -- not least because the framing narrative gives some intriguing hints of how things have changed between the events of A Sword, a Star, a Flame and the time at which the characters are writing and editing their accounts.

Monday, November 13, 2017

2017/93: The House at the End of Hope Street -- Menna van Praag

"The eyes of others are our prisons; their thoughts our cages."
Alba frowns. "Really?"
"Dismiss that warning at your peril," Dorothy says. "Literature is strewn with the wreckage of writers who have minded the opinions of others." [p. 176]
Alba Ashby is (was?) a PhD student whose world is falling apart. She ends up on the doorstep of a house on Hope Street that she's never noticed before, and is invited in by the mysterious Peggy, who tells her that -- like every other woman who's come to the house at a moment of desperation -- Alba can stay for 99 nights, and the house (and its current and former inhabitants) will help her to change her life.

Alba has plenty of problems to resolve. She's the child of an adulterous affair, has never met her father, and is estranged from the rest of her family; her PhD supervisor, on whom Alba has a crush, has plagiarised Alba's notes; and Carmen and Greer, the other residents of the house, seem intent on drawing her into their own lives, even though Alba would vastly prefer to be left alone to read. (I empathised.) Also, the pictures on the walls of the house are talking to her ...

This was a sweet and charming novel with a magical-realist flavour. The underlying philosophy (do what you love; be true to yourself; romantic love conquers all) is occasionally cloying, but within the frame of the story it works nicely: this is not a gritty documentary, but a book about achieving happiness.

The author, in an afterword, notes that despite having lived in Cambridge for thirty-five years, she didn't know there was an actual Hope Street. Me, I used to walk down it most days. I've never noticed that house, either.