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.
Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas
I find Sarah J. Maas’ work solidly enjoyable in the way I used to find fanfiction enjoyable (or still would, if I read much of it). It’s wish fulfilment — the beautiful, utterly capable assassin who has her pick of love interests; the decadent surroundings; even the books she has access to and the friends she makes. Let’s not forget that she’s also an accomplished musician, dancer, etc, etc. And that’s great. I enjoy reading this series, and I enjoy the whole idea of Celaena and the fact that she exists.
I’ve never really understood people who expected great literary merit from these books, or even a consistent approach to who Celaena wants to date, sleep with or throw off a cliff. I was alerted to that pretty early on in the instant switches between Chaol and Dorian, and from knowing that neither of those appears to be her ultimate love interest. (Sorry, Chaol fans. But it’s true.)
It’s fairly typical fantasy, with a kickass heroine, magic, Fae, a bit of mystery, a wicked king… It’s fun because it’s pretty unashamed about being that. I know people didn’t enjoy the latest book as much as they hoped, but me… I’m not getting my hopes up. I’ll just enjoy whatever Maas serves up — and stop if it takes a turn I dislike. Same as I would a fanfic.
Before anyone protests, this isn’t about disparaging Maas’ writing. There are some amazingly well-written fanfics and some amazingly badly written original novels. But the feeling of energy and creativity and fun I get is one I associate more with writing for fandom.
Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
If this book is a blatant Christian allegory, I don’t know enough to notice — well, okay, there are some bits which are, but that’s always the case when Aslan is involved. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this is one of my favourites. I love Caspian and his rapid rise to maturity and understanding, and his determination to do right by his people. Even if those people happen to be talking badgers. The supporting cast, like Trumpkin and Trufflehunter, are fun, and of course, it also features the Pevensies. What’s not to love?
This one probably gave Tolkien the most heart palpitations as regards mixing-and-matching of mythologies (suddenly the Maenads appear following Jesus!), but in a way, I like that too because it’s quite a universalist spirit. Take what’s good and uplifting and illuminating from all kinds of mythologies, and live by that — that’s not my motto, but it could be.
It doesn’t feel quite as warm as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does — to me, anyway — but it’s fun.
Armada, Ernest Cline
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date was 16th July 2015
I thought this was going to be amazing. As you can see from the fact that I didn’t get round to finishing and reviewing it until now, it definitely fell short of my expectations. It felt like it tried to take the plot of Ender’s Game and tie in the nostalgia of Ready Player One, but it just… didn’t read as authentically geeky in quite the same way. Where I found Ready Player One charming, I ended up rolling my eyes. And I didn’t find any of the characters particularly interesting.
And while I may not be a big fan of Orson Scott Card as a person for his stated opinions about various topics, I think Ender’s Game was better structured and had more to say.
But now I want to reread Ready Player One and see if I still enjoy that as much.
Slade House, David Mitchell
I want to enjoy Mitchell’s books, but it annoys me that they’re all connected. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s how I feel all the same; it seems so consciously literary and over clever, in many of the cases. Granted, I’ve only read this and Cloud Atlas, but I’ve seen a chart. A chart, for goodness’ sake. So I was a bit annoyed when reading this, because I came to the phrase ‘the bone clocks’, a reference to the title of another of Mitchell’s books. I don’t want to have to read all your supposedly stand-alone books to understand all your characters!
Pet peeves aside, the different voices were interesting, though not always as distinct as I’d like. I figured out the “mystery” of it pretty fast, and thus wasn’t surprised by things which rather surprised the characters themselves — the trouble of having seen it happen to another character before them, I guess. There’s a creepy atmosphere about the book, though that works best in the earlier sections: later, I’ve got too good an idea of where things are going.
It was fairly absorbing, but if it had been much longer I might have got bored. There’s only so many cycles you can go through before it all becomes rather obvious, and repetitive to boot.
The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
This was one of my favourites of the Narnia books as a child, and reading it now, I’m not sure why. The story is okay, though it’s mostly set outside of Narnia. I suppose it’s the setting that really lets it down: the Calormenes are blatant stereotypes, and Calormen itself is an obvious exoticisation of a Muslim country. I do give it some credit for having a female lead in Aravis — a female lead who can ride and hunt better than the male lead, who is brave and clever, though not perfect. (She’s self-centered and selfish, as well, without giving thought to the consequences of her actions.) It’s even better that she is a Calormene, even though she’s presented as rather an exception.
(For example, Lasaraleen is Aravis’ friend, but Lewis doesn’t have nearly as much time for her. It’s just the same as the way he later dismisses Susan: Lasaraleen is feminine, interested in clothes and makeup and men, and so he dismisses her. I’m not sure it was narratively necessary to make her seem so silly. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Aravis was tempted to stay with her because she’s sensible and smart and reminds Aravis of the enjoyable aspects of her life in Calormen?)
Anyway, it’s still fairly fun, and one of the least openly allegorical books. So, a rather lukewarm three stars.
The Litany of Earth, Ruthanna Emrys
You can read this novella online here, and it’s good background to have if you’re interested in reading Emrys’ novel, Winter Tide. It helps orientate you and figure out the characters, how they’re related, what they care about, where they’ve been. I paused in reading Winter Tide to read this, and it definitely clarified things. In fact, I liked it more than Winter Tide: it felt better paced, perhaps because it does have to have a beginning, middle and end in a fairly short stretch of words.
It’s beautifully written, as well; both this and Winter Tide are excellent reworkings of Lovecraft’s ideas concerning the Deep Ones, taking away a lot of the horror he held and expressed about anything Other. It stands alone well, even though it serves as a good introduction for Winter Tide. It’s definitely a good way to dip into Emrys’ work to see if you like her style and ideas.