Passing Strange, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Netgalley; released 24th January 2017
Passing Strange is a lovely novella which takes its own sweet time. As it opens, you expect one story, one protagonist… as it continues to unfold, you see that you were wrong. In my case, I didn’t mind that bait-and-switch at all, but I imagine some people will find that shift in POV a little jarring. Though I didn’t mind, I did find myself briefly wrong-footed by it.
The novella is set in San Fransisco, 1940, among a community of queer women whose lives intersect. I’ve seen a review where someone felt that the takeaway from this book was “yeah, yeah, we know gays back then had a hard time”. There’s that, of course, but there’s also that community, and that’s what I really enjoyed. I don’t really want to say too much about it; I think it’s best if the story unfolds itself for the reader in its own time.
I’ve also read a complaint that the speculative aspect isn’t integral. It is, but it’s subtle; the fact that it’s there, quietly but throughout, allows the ending that otherwise couldn’t be mysterious or touching or bittersweet. It’s an ordinary sort of magic, in the way that the women use it — it’s a tool that happens to be to hand.
I enjoyed the story a lot. And it’s another of the Tor.com novellas that feels like it was meant to be exactly this length, no longer, no shorter.
Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 14th February 2017
I’ll probably give anything by Jacqueline Carey a chance. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan, and I wasn’t really sure if I’d like something retelling The Tempest. But it’s Jacqueline Carey’s work, so I requested it anyway. And… I loved it quite a bit. I wasn’t sure about the narration: honestly, Miranda sounded rather like Phèdre in many ways, and far too mature considering the narration is present tense, even when she’s a small child. I wasn’t sure about Caliban’s narration either, because I’m not a fan of broken English portrayed in fiction — it quite often comes out sounding like mockery.
But all the same, the writing has grace to it, and it’s certainly easy to read and absorb, despite the tendency to thee and thou. (I wish Ariel didn’t say “Oh, la!” like he was from Pride and Prejudice or something, though. It always sounds far too comical for me.)
The relationship between Miranda and Caliban, their tenderness for each other as each helps the other, is well done. The portrayal of Prospero as a somewhat abusive father who sometimes nonetheless shows tenderness for his daughter makes perfect sense, and so does the way his behaviour pushes the two together. Ariel’s capriciousness and ambivalence works, too.
The only problem, really, is that you know how it’s going to end. I found myself hoping all the same that it would end differently — it’s a retelling, after all. But at the same time, there’s always that sense of inevitability: you know what’s going to happen. I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary about this telling, but it humanises Caliban and makes of him much less of a monster, and more of a lover. The ending gave me a lump in my throat: his hope, despite Ariel’s warnings, despite Miranda’s doubts. It’s so tender and naive.
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.
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.
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.
The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
And so another reread came to an end — somewhat painfully. The first half of The Return of the King is just as epic and well-written as the rest. Aragorn shows his nobility and saves the day, epic battles are fought, the hobbits surprise themselves with their own valour, and the creeping dread of the Nazgul can be felt by characters and reader alike. The battles and the nobility of all the characters are clear, there’s tension and excitement, and some truly vivid images — like Denethor’s hands, holding the palantir, withering in flame.
Even the start of the second part works well: Sam and Frodo practically crawling through Mordor. The despair and the trudging and the dirt and defilement are as vivid as anything written before.
Even their triumph works reasonably well. But it’s as though Tolkien just didn’t know how to end the book. It ends on the Field of Cormallen, then again in Gondor. Then again at Orthanc, and Rivendell, and in Bree, and again in the Shire, and then yet again at the Grey Havens. Each scene makes sense, but it feels like it’s wrapping up… and then it’s as if Tolkien takes a deep breath and plunges on.
It feels a little untidy, even while it ties up all the loose ends. And when you get to the Scouring of the Shire, you just want to yell at him to give Frodo a break already. Thematically, it makes sense. It’s been hinted at from the beginning, and the plot is ready for it. But I don’t feel like the story is. It just doesn’t draw to a close gracefully. ‘And then another thing. And another thing.’ Like being told an anecdote that never seems to end.
I do love The Lord of the Rings passionately, in spite of all its faults… But I skimmed the Scouring of the Shire, this time round.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I picked up The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet after much urging, expecting to read a chapter or two and then find time to do something else. Then I read the whole thing through. People who liken it to Firefly are right (only with more diversity). People who mention the loveable characters and LGBT relationships are also right. People who say it’s a feel-good sci-fi are right. And yeah, people who complain that it’s definitely soft SF are also right: this is about people who happen to be in space, not about people in space, if that makes sense.
It depends what you’re looking for. For me, all of that is exactly my cup of tea. Not that I drink tea. My cup of hot chocolate, perhaps.
Not all the characters are loveable, or faultless: that would be the wrong impression to take from this. Instead, they’re all understandable, and even the alien ones have, well, you can’t call it humanity… but compassion, decency. Sissix and Rosemary’s relationship is just lovely: negotiating around the fact of their differences, while finding common ground. The same goes for Jenks and Lovelace. I love the differences of the aliens, the fact that they do have different sensibilities to the humans. I’d happily read more of the adventures of almost every single character here (long may they fly together).
The only complaint I have about this book is that all the tensions, all the plot entanglements, seem to dissolve very easily. Things turn out more or less how you’d hope, every single time, and with barely time to get worried about it. It reads more like a serial in that sense — a burst of tension to make you read the next installment, with the overall arc being somewhat backgrounded for most of it. It makes things seem a little too easy at times.
All the same, I found it very enjoyable, and I’m eager to pick up A Closed and Common Orbit. Thankfully, I did get it on one of my trips through London, since the bookshop I usually go to in Belgium has no plans to stock or even order it.