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

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])