Category: Reviews

Review – The Lions of Al-Rassan

Posted 18 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel KayThe Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s books are almost always worth a second read, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is no exception. (Sorry, but Ysabel remains the outlier. I’m sure somebody likes that one, but not me.) The Lions of Al-Rassan is based on the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, with all the clashes between religions you’d expect. The Jaddites are pretty plainly Christians, the Kindath are Jewish, and the Asharites are Muslims — more or less. There are some variations.

As you’d expect from Guy Gavriel Kay, nothing is that simple. It’s not just about the clash of cultures, but what they can give to each other and how, perhaps, they could live alongside each other… except of course for the folly of humans, which means it never works out for long. But while nothing works on the grand level, the various characters find ways to learn from each other and live with each other on the individual level — and therein lies the tragedy, as their loyalties conflict and they are ultimately and unwillingly forced to choose.

I love all three of the main characters, and many of the side characters too. Jehane is particularly awesome, especially the fact that she’s not just a serious female physician with dignity to stand upon. She’s also funny, daring, sexual, warm… and self-controlled to her own detriment. Then there’s Ammar, who loves his country despite his faults, who will not abandon his people despite everything — and who also finds room to love those outside his experience. And Rodrigo, so faithful to his wife, to his king…

And then, of course, there are characters like Miranda, and her determined defence of her home and family — and of her right not to be jerked around by her spouse, who honestly better watch himself.

And then… As my wife just said: “Imagine the most loving meat-grinder, and then put all your emotions into it.” That’s pretty much this book.

It’s beautiful and painful and if you get emotionally involved with it, you will be ripped to shreds. And you’ll like it. Sort of.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Collapsing Empire

Posted 17 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Collapsing Empire by John ScalziThe Collapsing Empire, John Scalzi

I originally received this to review, but then I also grabbed it the minute I saw it in the shop. I’m pretty busy at the moment with ridiculous amounts of class work, which seemed like the perfect time to read something by John Scalzi. His work is pretty much universally compelling, readable and fun — often with a great deal of humour as well. The Collapsing Empire delivered more or less what I expected: I could have done with less of Lady Kiva and her foul mouth and more of Cardenia and Naffa. Or indeed, Cardenia and Marce, when he reaches her; that’s a relationship I’m going to be happy to cheer on in future books, in whatever form it takes.

(Kiva herself is fun, all the same, particularly in her indiscriminate approach to sleeping with whoever she can. Hurrah for a female character who can do that with such abandon, and a world which accepts that. Too many people port over all our society’s hangups to a world removed from ours by vast distances or even dimensions. Scalzi dispenses with that. Good.)

The set up of the Interdependency works well, though the fact that it’s a scam is obvious from the beginning — at least to a sceptical-minded Leftist like me who distrusts Empire and anything that looks like it, just on principle. I don’t know how the science holds up, if it does at all, since relativity and quantum physics all sound like wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey to me — but in-universe, it held together and seemed convincing, which is what matters. (To me, anyway, and when it comes to physics. If you fudge biology, you might lose me, admittedly.)

It’s a quick and enjoyable read; I’ll be interested to read more. Just what I wanted from a Scalzi novel.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In Calabria

Posted 16 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of In Calabria by Peter S. BeagleIn Calabria, Peter S. Beagle

Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017

In Calabria is a quiet sort of story. It has dramatic moments, certainly, but those weren’t what will stick in my mind in the slightest. What will stick in my mind is Claudio’s quiet care for the unicorn, his moments of inspiration, and his love for Giovanna. He opens up, going from old curmudgeon with a heart of gold to a man who loves, who is brave, who will put himself on the line — and it’s because of the unicorn.

It’s easy to read that as a kind of commentary on the humanising nature of stories. Why do myths like unicorns endure? Because they inspire us, they teach us to open up; from stories we can learn to love.

In Calabria is more like that, a fable or fairy story, though I wouldn’t say it has something as simple as a moral. What’s nice is that, along with the serious moments and the warmth and tenderness, there’s a lot of humour as well. Like Claudio being grateful that Giovanna bought him pyjamas during a critical and dramatic moment…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Touch

Posted 15 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Touch by David J. LindenTouch: The Science of The Hand, Heart, and Mind, David J. Linden

Touch is a pretty fascinating book, delving into the importance of the sense of touch for us and what it would mean to lose that sense. It’s not just losing the sensation of your skin touching something, after all: touch receptors also play a part in interpreting pain, heat, etc. In a way, the book as a whole tells you about more than just touch, since it also gives a solid background in the nervous system and the brain.

It’s also pretty focused on stuff like orgasms and sensual touching, sometimes with fairly explicit (and somewhat unnecessary) examples, e.g. a description of a couple having sex. You may or may not find that helps your understanding; I found it intrusive to be told to imagine these things in which I have no interest! Particularly as some of these descriptions are addressed to you, the reader.

I felt that it got a bit scatterbrained at times — sometimes I felt that it wandered away from touch onto other aspects of our sensory experiences, though that’s almost to be expected. We divvy up our senses into some rather artificial boxes at times; just think of how linked scent and taste are. But mostly I found it interesting and easy to read.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Lay of Aotrou & Itroun

Posted 14 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun by J.R.R. TolkienThe Lay of Aotrou & Itroun, J.R.R. Tolkien

I still have a whole rant about the way the Tolkien estate is putting out these books, padded out with excerpts from Tolkien’s drafts, and yet marketing them to a general rather than scholarly audience. If you’re here for Gollums and hobbitses, you’ll be disappointed, though you can see some seeds for and parallels with Tolkien’s later, greater work.

Personally, I was glad to get to read this and the extra material, because Tolkien’s work and scholarship fascinates me. Where he edited his own work, which he did obsessively and meticulously, he rarely puts a foot wrong; in his drafts and rough copies there’s still a lot of beauty and interest. But I’m also interested because this was inspired by a Breton lai, and attempts to keep some of the same atmosphere while dealing with the Breton folklore — though also creating something distinctly Tolkien’s own.

I think it’s a fine piece of work — if you know what you’re going into. Not Mordor, nor Lothlorien (though you might glimpse Galadriel), but perhaps a little bit of Mirkwood.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – On the Origin of Species

Posted 13 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 11 Comments

Cover of On the Origin of Species by Charles DarwinOn the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

I’m doing a biology degree, and I’ve always been an admirer of (and a believer in) the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it seemed high time I finally went to hear it from the horse’s mouth. Not that Darwin came up with the idea out of nothing, of course; it was “in the air” at the time, and other scientists were thinking along similar lines — Lamarck and Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, to name just two. Not to mention, of course, Alfred Wallace, who could’ve beaten Darwin to publication.

But Charles Darwin was the first to publish a theory which really made sense, which hung together and was testable. He may not have known about genetics or had a clear idea of how heritability occurs, yet it’s startling to read this and realise how close he was to right at times. He may not always have backed the right theories, but he considered everything he could imagine, and carefully related it to his own theory. It’s remarkable just how willing he was to consider where his theory might be wrong, and discuss those weaknesses. It’s also remarkable how often he tested what he could, whether it be the germination of seeds soaked in sea water or how pollination works; he may not have had the equipment that we have now, but his attitude is surely a lesson that every aspiring scientist should take to heart.

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can read this and come away without understanding Darwin’s theory. He’s painstakingly clear, at length, with examples. If you’re reading this and coming to the conclusion that he didn’t support the idea of one species evolving into another, “macroevolution”, your reading comprehension is at fault. He makes it quite clear that “microevolution”, small changes in existing species, can and will lead to new species.

Darwin was not right about everything, but he was right in many key ways — and he would be the first to admit that he could be wrong. He gave us a working, testable theory, one which has ample proof both in his work and in the world around us. Creationists have far too much to explain, by comparison.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – After Atlas

Posted 12 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas, Emma Newman

It’s been far too long since this came out, and I have no excuse — especially since I originally had an ARC. It’s a follow-up/companion to Planetfallbut it doesn’t rely on it too much and can be read alone. Personally, I think I’d prefer to read it after Planetfall, though. That novel gives a lot of context for this one, even though it doesn’t share any characters or anything beyond the idea of the Atlas mission. It doesn’t even feel like the same genre, even though they fit perfectly together; this is more of a detective story, with a whole mystery that needs to be unravelled.

This one didn’t connect with me on the visceral level that Planetfall did, because one of the reasons that book got to me was the description of the main character’s anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s something I’m familiar with, much more so than with Carlos’ circumscribed existence — even though that is evocatively written too.

All in all, I wish I’d got to this sooner, and I’d love to read more in this world and find out what happens, particularly to Dee, Carlos and Travis, but to all of them. My only criticism is that the end felt like it happened so fast — that last chapter covers so much time!

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Summer in Orcus

Posted 11 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Summer in Orcus by T. KingfisherSummer in Orcus, T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus is just lovely; a portal fantasy with something of the whimsy and warmth of Valente’s Fairyland, and likely to appeal to a similar audience. Some of the characters could’ve come straight from Fairyland, in the best possible way: Reginald the society hoopoe, with his Regency slang; Glorious the were-house, who is a wolf during the day and a house by night; Boarskin, Deerskin and Bearskin, who warn Summer of the cancer at the heart of the world; even the Frog Tree and its dryad.

That isn’t to say it feels derivative, because it doesn’t: it feels very much like itself. But it has something of the same whimsy and imagination, and I enjoyed it heartily. There is something a little darker than Fairyland, I think; perhaps from the very fact that the quest is initiated by the capricious and sometimes cruel Baba Yaga.

It’s a fairly typical quest story, in a way, except that the great confrontation at the end turns out to be uniquely suited to Summer’s talents and experience. There’s a fair dose of bittersweetness, heroism aplenty — and, to my relief, a hope that Summer will see her friends again someday.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Wicked Wonders

Posted 10 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Wicked Wonders by Ellen KlagesWicked Wonders, Ellen Klages

Received to review via Tachyon

I was really interested to read more of Klages’ work after reading Passing Strange. I think I’ve read one or two short stories before — one of the stories in here was definitely familiar — but I hadn’t consciously connected the author to them, if that makes any sense. Klages is a careful writer, as her afterword shows: she moves the words around until they’re just right, pays attention to pace and rhythm and all of that. It works: her stories are all readable and all seem to fit perfectly within the form.

There’s something eerie and wistful and tender in almost all of these stories, bar one or two that are more mischievous than anything. I was pleased to meet some of the characters from Passing Strange again, particularly, and get some more detail on the paper-folding magic which is alluded to there. But my favourite of the stories was probably the least speculative: ‘Woodsmoke’, which features two girls on the cusp of adolescence, at a summer camp. I won’t say too much about it, but it felt real and wistful, and the ending avoided any kind of saccharine sweetness, touching something real instead.

It’s a good collection of stories, and I also enjoy the fact that there’s a section included on where each story came from and giving more details. There were one or two bits I hadn’t noticed about the stories, which is always fun to learn.

If you enjoy short stories, this is definitely a good collection; if you enjoy Ellen Klages’ work, doubtless you know what you’re in for. Either way, Passing Strange is also worth a look…

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Britain AD

Posted 9 April, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Britain AD by Francis PryorBritain AD, Francis Pryor

From my perspective, speaking as an English Lit postgrad who concentrated heavily on Arthurian and medieval literature, Britain AD has two main weaknesses. The first is the fact that Pryor doesn’t understand or attempt to engage with the shift in language to form English. He suggests there is no reason to suspect mass migration of Angles and Saxons into the UK, regardless of accepted work by people like Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza into the way population genetics tends to show that language, identity and genetics move together.

Secondly, he doesn’t know the subjects he’s talking about nearly well enough. I’d be happy to defer to him on the archaeology of King Arthur, but when it comes to the textual history, I know my stuff — and Pryor has enormous gaps. For example, he speaks of Sir Thomas Malory introducing the ‘Holy Blood’ aspect of the Grail legends… heedless of the fact that Robert de Boron pre-empted Malory by two centuries. (And possibly the Vulgate cycle did too — I don’t have my copies handy to check and I don’t trust online sources to steer me right!) He also utterly ignores the existence of the Saint’s Lives that mention Arthur and the Welsh folk tales.

These might not be important to the way Pryor views Arthur, but I think it’s always been clear that the Arthurian legends are more fiction than fact — so if you’re going to talk about them, you really need to understand the fictional aspects and how the legends developed. Pryor simply does not, and that puts all the rest of the book on shaky footing for me.

The same applies when it comes to understanding whether or not there was an Anglo-Saxon invasion or settlement or anything of the kind. He never manages to account for the rise of the Anglo-Saxon language. He talks about the spread of ideas instead, yet if that were the case, we’d expect to see much more influence from the Celtic languages on English in names for basic, everyday things. Why do we say “bread”, then, from Germanic brood, instead of bara? Why is it a “church”, from cirice, and not eglwys?

I’m not an expert on linguistics, but Pryor’s theories don’t accommodate the way languages work at all — and to be convincing, they must.

Then there’s the fact that he picks which genetic study he proves because, and I quote, “It also supports my own theories — which is an enormous point in its favour.” This may be intended as flippant, but still, that is not the way to critique studies, especially ones which are outside your area of expertise. You can’t pick which theories you like based on which one agrees with your own theory, or it becomes horrifyingly circular.

Where he speaks about archaeology, I don’t have the tools to criticise — and he is well known and well thought of, so I’m sure he’s at least along the right lines. But where it crosses things I do understand — genetics, linguistics, and most of all literature — I find Pryor’s grounding very shaky. I enjoy his writing, but can’t give him more stars than this because his thesis is just too questionable. And it really makes me question whether Britain BC was all that, although it was more deeply grounded in archaeology.

Rating: 2/5

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