The Prince of the Moon, Megan Derr
Received to review via Netgalley
The Prince of the Moon is a fairytale-like story of princes, queens and curses, along with true love, a pure heart, and other such trappings of the genre. The difference being that the witch burning may not be entirely justified — certainly there are at least two good witches in the story — and the people who have been cursed may just deserve it somewhat. Oh, and the romantic couple are both men, but that’s becoming more common lately and honestly didn’t feel like the point of the story. Which is kind of exciting, actually! M/M fairytales which aren’t just about changing genders, but also about interrogating other aspects of the story, like the wicked witch and her son.
It’s pretty short and mostly sweet, and the romance feels a little bit rushed… but on the other hand, of course it does: this is coming out of fairytales, after all. The only thing I honestly don’t get is why Solae keeps trying to help his family, when it’s fairly clear no one has ever stretched out a hand to him. He’s a good person, and yet he’s learned that goodness all out of nowhere.
Then again: it’s a fairytale. Who taught Rapunzel to be good?
The sex scenes are, well, not terrible or laughable or awkward, but neither were they necessary to the story. I just skipped past them, given lack of interest. But there is sex in this book, if that matters to you.
Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates, Kerry Greenwood
This is my third read of this book, which is kinda surprising given I loathed it the first time. I’m not even sure why anymore. I love Phryne, her self-assurance and her kindness and the fact that Greenwood never gives in to the urge to soften her edges and make her conventional — not as a woman, not as a detective. This first book introduces the reader to Phryne and the beginnings of her found family, while also tackling pretty serious issues like back street abortions and the sexual assault that often accompanied them.
Okay, part of the background is directly from Sayers — the arsenical poisoning plot — but it’s what Greenwood does with it. It’s Phryne’s sexuality and femininity, her strength and poise… It’s fun, and I suspect this won’t be the last time I revisit this series. And, o, what joy! So many more books ahead in this reread, and those only for the second time ever. I look forward to the journey… but if you didn’t find Phryne enchanting in this book, you won’t enjoy the others. She remains the same sort of figure — perhaps a little too perfect for some tastes, a little too ready for anything.
It’s okay; I’ll forgive you if you don’t love her too. She might be a bit of an acquired taste, after all. It took me some time.
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
What to say about this one? I don’t really like it. It’s not just the fact that Narnia comes to an end — though there’s that — but it’s also that I don’t really like any of the characters. I don’t have that same hook to make me care about what’s happening as I did in the earlier books. And it’s so preachy and obvious. There is some beauty in it — the universalism, for example, when those who do good deeds are really serving Aslan after all.
But. There’s also a ton of xenophobia and stereotypes, and let’s not even talk about the sexism as regards Susan. (Though, she’s not dead, so there’s always a chance for her. Small comfort.)
It’s hard to feel the joy of the ending after the rubbish that comes before it. I think in future, I’ll just skip this book if I reread the series again. Possibly The Silver Chair, too. It lacks the warmth and energy of the chronologically earlier books.
Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, Joyce Tyldesley
The problem with Hatchepsut, compared with the subject of another of Tyldesley’s biographies, Cleopatra, is that there just isn’t enough to go on. While Tyldesley does a good job at presenting the information we have about Hatchepsut, there just isn’t enough of it. Given the way the female pharaoh’s reign was hidden deliberately and by the misunderstanding of scholars and the pillaging of Egypt’s antiquities, I’m not sure if anyone can write a satisfying biography of Hatchepsut. Even where Tyldesley tries to look for the personality of Egypt’s female pharaoh, it seems so thin and speculative that it doesn’t work very well.
The benefit of all this, of course, is that this isn’t sensationalised. There’s no absurd speculations about Hatchepsut’s gender and sexuality — an approach I could really imagine from some less source-based biographies, in this world where such things are endlessly fascinating to many. It sticks to the facts, presenting something as close to authenticity and truth as we can get from this distance.
It’s just, even if you don’t want something sensational, that can be less than satisfying. This book is enjoyable if you’re into Egypt and Egyptology, but perhaps less so if you’re looking for an inspirational story about a woman overcoming patriarchy. Personally, I enjoyed it, but I can understand those who have found it dry.
The Masked City, Genevieve Cogman
With The Burning Page coming out, I decided to reread these two books. Just, you know, to refresh my memory… and because they’re a lot of fun. The Masked City was similarly fun this time round, giving the reader more of the fae and the dragons, more of the background. We get to know a little more about the importance of the Library… and we get adventures and hijinks with Vale and Irene. (Mostly. Kai gets captured early in the book, so we don’t see as much of him.) There’s a nicely high-stakes plot, and everything rattles along at an incredible rate, as you’d expect. And satisfyingly, for a reader, words — Language — give Irene one of her most powerful tools.
The books play in a fun way with tropes, and the concept of the library is bound to appeal to any bookworm.
Now let me hurry up and unearth the third book from my box of books.
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta
Memory of Water is a slow story, a story which takes all the time it needs to unfold. Although it’s post-apocalyptic and dystopian, the focus is more on the emotional journey of the protagonist, who comes to understand her world and her place in it. The background is really fascinating, amalgamating a Finnish setting with Asian tea ceremonies. The prose and the pacing all echo those tea ceremonies: deliberate, considered, every movement relevant and part of the whole.
It’s not about dramatic clashes between armies and civilians, sudden revolutions or dramatic government takeovers. Instead, it’s about surviving day to day, about choosing who you betray, about making your own path despite the constraints around you. It’s a slow dying of thirst, not a brutal death at the hands of strangers. It’s about seeing the world change around you, but so slowly you’re almost lulled into not reacting.
It’s about humans wrecking the world, and then making it hard for other humans to live with the consequences. It’s introspective, slow. The main character might well annoy most readers because of that slow narration and its philosophical bent.
I thought it was gorgeous — and I’m extremely impressed that Itäranta wrote it in both Finnish and English. In English, at least, it’s lyrical and beautiful and carefully crafted in a way that, yes, recalls that theme of the tea ceremony.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, Seanan McGuire
The title is a bit of a mouthful, but once you think about the rhythm of it, it does work. I don’t get it wrong much anymore. Anyway…
I think this novella is the sort of story which actually works perfectly well as a novella. I seem to recall feeling more or less the same about Every Heart A Doorway; it fits within the shape and size of the novella, delivering a resolution at the right time. It’s not so sprawling that it doesn’t fit, but there’s lore and background which keeps you aware that there’s a world outside the story. Which is, of course, just the way I like it.
The central idea, of a ghost being able to give or take time from people as a way of working towards their own originally destined time of death is an interesting one. Then McGuire complicates it with all kinds of witches and a whole interconnected world which makes it into a story, instead of a neat concept. Ghosts can do this — someone can exploit it. Some people will exploit it — some people oppose doing that. Nobody’s quite sure on the ethics of any of it, but everyone stumbles along doing the best they can. Taking years from tired people on the street to revitalise them, for example, and then bleeding them off onto a criminal who took someone’s life, pushing him that bit closer to death.
For a novella, the characters are pretty distinct too. The main character has a moral code, has a purpose, has regrets and wishes. All of this plays into how she deals with the situation she finds herself in. And while she’s not that great at making connections with those around her (keeping the cast list down), there’s enough that she feels like a person. Obviously, we don’t get a huge amount of depth. But what we do have is enough.
The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
One of the least magical Narnia books, for my money. Puddleglum is a delight, but Jill and Eustace aren’t the best of the protagonists, particularly in their continued selfishness and quarrelsomeness. And Rillian never really gets over his terrible first impression, for all that you know he’s enchanted. And the antagonist, well. She’s more of the same type as Jadis, if more the seductress type. Actually, that point is what makes her less pleasant — her power is in seduction and sensuality, and there’s a kind of Christian horror of that which definitely hasn’t aged well, if it ever worked.
I do wish we’d had more of the gnomes and their land of Bism, though! That bit of magic and adventure might have been enough to elevate the book, if it had actually been followed through.
One Plus One Equals One, John Archibald
The origin of complex life is endlessly fascinating, and various evolutionary innovations made it possible. This book covers an extraordinarily important moment: symbiosis between existing cells which produced the organelles on which most cells rely. We wouldn’t get far without mitochondria producing ATP for us. And yet it’s been clear to me for a long time that mitochondria had a separate origin. Some of the DNA in our cells exists solely within our mitochondria. That DNA doesn’t even obey the same rules as the rest of our DNA when it comes to producing gametes.
For me, then, this book took something incredibly obvious and broke it down into more steps than I needed. It works to convince you that symbiosis could have occurred. But to me, that’s immediately apparent from the fact that some of our organelles have clear extra-cellular origins. So that aspect of the book was quite slow for me. It’s interesting to read about the research and the people who proposed the theory anyway, though. If you’re into biology and you don’t already know/accept that mitochondria were once free-living bacteria, this is interesting and illuminating!
On a related note (not addressed within the book), it makes me wonder… How do people who don’t believe in evolution handle the existence of mitochondria? They pretty clearly show evolution and co-evolution occurred in the genesis of complex life. If mitochondria weren’t free-living bacteria that adapted to living within simple cells, why do they have their own genetic material? Did God leave it in by accident?
Don’t answer that.
A History of the World in Twelve Maps, Jerry Brotton
I was fascinated by the idea of this: of course maps are a huge part of how we understand our world, and the way we format our maps is a big giveaway to the way we feel about the world. A map covered in clearly-marked borders marks separations and national boundaries; different maps with disputed borders show areas of conflict. Maps can reveal belonging and isolation and the limits of the human imagination.
Unfortunately, Brotton’s writing is really dry, from my perspective, and I wasn’t always convinced about his choice of maps. Or rather, he would pick maps and then talk about almost everything but the map: the context the map came from, yes, the politics of those that made it, yes. But the map itself, less so. Now, context is a great thing — hello, I was pretty much exclusively a new historicist as a literature postgrad — but I wanted more about the maps. More images would probably have helped, too.
If you’re more interested in the history of cartography and geography than I am, this is probably a great book. It just didn’t quite take the angle I was looking for.