Received to review; publication date 7th October 2021
Well, this was a heckuva ride! This is a world protected against an invading force by pilots in giant mecha suits which transform according to their particular mental capabilities. Two pilots are required, yin and yang: the stronger male pilot, and the balancing female pilot… who often ends up a sacrifice, drained of her life force by her fellow pilot to power the suit in battle. Wu Zetian has volunteered as a pilot in order to kill the pilot who killed her sister, not in battle but somehow outside of it. Now she’s expected to become his concubine…
Think you know where it’s going? Well, the book has some surprises coming for you, about which I shouldn’t say too much for fear of spoiling them! However, I think it’s worth mentioning the fact that this features not a love triangle but a poly relationship: Zetian ends up with two boyfriends, and her boyfriends are boyfriends, too.
It is worth noting as well that this isn’t a nice world, and Zetian isn’t a nice girl. It’s a world loosely based on ancient China, meaning that Zetian has had her feet bound to become “lotus feet”, and the effects of that aren’t shied away from. And of course, our heroine starts the book planning a murder, and has few hesitations throughout the book about making life and death decisions for other people. We root for her because we also see the helpless position she’s put into, but we also know she’s not someone we want to know. There’s a line in one of Thea Gilmore’s live albums where she describes the personality of someone she wrote a song about: “She has the kind of personality that’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.”
Well, Zetian’s personality is an entertaining place to visit, but you definitely, definitely don’t want to live there. That you can root for her at all works because you can sympathise with her motives and reasons.
On a final note, oof! That ending! I’m guessing there’s more to come from Wu Zetian, and I intend to read it if so.
I remember quite enjoying one of Berkeley’s other books, but in this one he got the weirdest bee in his bonnet about a particular young female character needing to be spanked, because she tried to act cool and sophisticated in front of a somewhat-famous author. I’m talking a girl old enough to be socialising with grown women and giving them an introduction, so probably an adult or almost an adult… and Berkeley has her older, married male cousin give her a spanking once, and empower his author-friend to give her a second spanking as well.
I was mildly interested in the mystery, and there’s some witty chat between various characters that sometimes reminded me a bit of Lord Peter, but it just isn’t worth the sheer weirdness of the male characters continually being ready to spank a female character. It’s just… weird. So yeah, DNF.
I always forget how many books it takes for this series to really become a romance — I expect it straight away, somehow, and yet it’s really taking its time in that regard. Instead, this book’s emotional heart centres around Julie, a young girl whose mother is missing and who comes under Kate’s protection. Having read the later books, there’s also more information about Kate and foreshadowing for things in books to come — but you don’t know it yet!
Really, the books are an amazing mishmash of all sorts of mythology, and that would normally bother me, but it feels natural in the chaotic world of oscillating magic and technology that the characters inhabit. The chaos is the rule that means it’s not weird that you’ve got the Morrigan right beside birds with metal feathers from Greek legend.
There are also more glimpses into the workings of the Pack and the Order, which is fun. But the best parts are Kate and her interactions with Andrea, Curran, Julie and Bran; we get to see more of her heart, more of her hurt, and more of what she needs, wants, and thinks she needs and wants.
Unusually for the British Library Crime Classics series, this is a book that was never published before, lightly edited and prepared for publication now given the popularity of Lorac’s books within the series of reissues. It features not one of her usual detectives, but a new group of characters — and on the detection side of things, I have to say I prefer her actually-published books. This felt like it was missing a bit of the warmth and humanity that you feel (however muted) from her usual solid and decent detectives.
I do wonder if I’d have preferred it if Lorac had actually prepared it for publication herself, rather than it being pulled out of the archives and published for the first time. I think she’s likely to have had some changes to make, at least.
That said, it works as a story, shuffling the puzzle pieces around until — click! You’ve completed the puzzle. You have most of the info you need to solve it, but there are a few surprises lurking. I suspect I was partially surprised because this is Lorac, and I’d expected certain things of her characters, too.
I can’t say it’s one of my favourites, but it was enjoyable, and features her usual attention to place and how a place can affect a crime and those all around it.
It’s Wednesday again already! How does that keep happening? And do I make the same joke too often? It’s too warm to think of a new one.
What are you currently reading?
A couple of things at once, as usual! I’m most of the way through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, which is more autobiographical than I had been led to expect, and which just doesn’t quite work for me in its outlook. I’m also still working on Behave, by Robert Sapolsky; he seems to be taking an awful long time to say nothing new.
In fiction news, I finally started Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, which I’m enjoying but not getting super into — partly because I haven’t had much brain for reading with how warm it is.
What have you recently finished reading?
Virginia Postrel’s The Fabric of Civilization, which I enjoyed quite a lot. I think I’d have got more out of it if I had a visual imagination, though: when she described how to weave, for instance, it just meant nothing to me.
What will you be reading next?
Don’t know! I really need to get to Slippery Creatures (K.J. Charles), but who knows?
Yaaaay, a stand-alone Regency romance with attempted cunning scams, falling in love with the wrong people, and improbably yanking at the tangle and sorting it all out at the end. It’s funny, the communication between the characters is as sexy as I ever find anything (ace, remember), and it’s good for the happy wriggle and toe-curls of “yaaay, a proper romance-novel happy ending”. And of course, it’s K.J. Charles, so you count on the fact that the sex advances character and plot, consent is properly obtained, and she knows the contract with the reader when it comes to happy ends.
I don’t understand how allegedly intelligent people don’t figure Robin out waaaay sooner than they do, given the abundant clues, but I do love the slow reveal of Robin’s past and motives, and the way the plot builds up toward the pairing.
And the funniness. And the heart.
Band Sinister is still my favourite, but this one is definitely on my ‘reread when things are shit’ list, too.
Never Greater Slaughter: Brunanburh and the Birth of England, Michael Livingston
I studied ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, a poem included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as a piece of literature, back when I was an undergrad. I knew a little of the real history, of course, because I do think it’s important to understand the context that literary works come from — but I’d never dug into the detail, and this book was a great opportunity to do just that, and one I really enjoyed.
Livingston does a great job not only of making his case for the location of Brunanburh (though I’m sure I’d find other accounts persuasive, and don’t particularly have a horse in the race) but of providing the context for what made the battle so important, so crucial, that it ended up being remembered in verse recorded in a chronicle. He avoids fictionalising too much, apart from in one of the final chapters during which he tries to reconstruct the battlefield somewhat — and he manages to write engagingly, so that I read this almost in one go. (Okay, I had to stop for work, but I happily would have sat and read it straight through.)
I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of the book, but I note that he does include footnotes and sources to help support his argument, and he also responds to some of the counterarguments to his ideas, which is usually a good sign. It’s popular history, in the end, but I feel like it matched up pretty well with what I do know, and his quoted translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem match my own pretty well (so I trust either his knowledge of the language or the translation he’s working with, for that part).
For me, this was part nostalgic delight (but how good is my Anglo-Saxon now? ah, not so hot), part genuinely good read, and partly, yeah, curiosity about where he’d nail down as the site of the battle. I think he has me convinced, though I’d be interested to read rebuttals.
This was, I must admit, not quite what I’d expected from the author of Ninefox Gambit et al; it’s a more straightforward story, and one whose audience I found a little hard to place. I think a lot of my reaction to the book is because of that clash between expectation and reality, rather than a comment on the book. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but I ended up having difficulty putting together what I think and feel about it because of that difference.
There was a lot I loved immediately, of course: a book where the protagonist shares my preferred pronouns is always a thrill, and the fact that it mostly goes unremarked on in the story was nice too. (It’s not quite ignored; there are a few references to Jebi’s gender and presentation. What we don’t get — as far as I remember anyway — is any clear description that marks out what sex Jebi “really” is, which was a huge relief to me.) Vei is great as well — I loved her! Arazi, the giant dragon automaton, is also pretty awesome and has some cool abilities.
Howeeeever, I didn’t really understand the relationship Jebi forms with Vei, and the level of loyalty the two of them have for each other. It feels slightly out of nowhere, and I felt like some threads weren’t super well dealt with. (The fact that Vei killed Jebi’s sister’s wife, for instance.)
I guess in the end the whole thing didn’t quite come together for me, and the ending left me with a rather melancholy, trailing-off feeling. It was an enjoyable read, and yet it didn’t quite work out for me. I’m positive part of that is because I found Ninefox Gambit et al a challenge in a way I really enjoyed, and this is not that kind of book instead. It takes a long hard look at colonialism, so it’s not that it’s an easy book… but I guess it just didn’t spark with me in the same way.
I picked this up somewhat on a whim, and then was hesitant to actually get round to it — I couldn’t quite say why. Which was silly, because once I picked it up, it immediately sucked me in: Haynes discusses the original portrayals of ten women from Greek mythology, what they meant to their original audiences and what they’ve come to mean. It’s not solely about rehabilitating them, but about looking again at them and everything they’ve meant — it doesn’t lionise Clytemnestra, even though it points out that her vengeance has some preeeetty solid reasoning behind it, for example.
I enjoyed the close reading of various texts, including some I knew from studying classics. I’d never viewed Phaedra so sympathetically, I must admit, even though I read the same version of Hippolytus (though I, too, found Hippolytus himself absolutely unbearable, ugh). Haynes often discusses the subtleties of translation, displaying an easy knowledge of the texts in their original form which frankly makes me jealous. (Not for nothing did I consider studying Classics next.)
I think of all them, I found the chapters on Medusa and Medea the most interesting — Haynes digs into the heart of their stories and displays it all, the good and the bad, and some of it may surprise you. Some of it is sadly unsurprising (surprise, patriarchy!). I found pretty much all of it fascinating, and it makes me a lot more interested to read Haynes’ fiction.