I didn’t know Frances Hardinge had a new book out soon, so when I saw someone else talking about it in the Stacking the Shelves meme among book bloggers, I had to try. And lo and behold, I was approved for it on Netgalley. Thanks, guys!
So today I had a long train journey — four to five hours. I loaded Cuckoo Song onto my reader before I left, and had it finished before I even reached halfway. It’s a compulsive read without naked demands for attention; the tension is, for the most part, in uneasiness and anxiety, in a nagging feeling that things aren’t right. It’s done incredibly well, to my mind. Mild spoilers lie ahead!
Hardinge has chosen a really interesting perspective here in the changeling-child story. Normally the changeling would be the enemy, or nothing more than a doll. But Trista has a heart and a mind, and she makes everything work out differently — in a way that I think, actually, is better for all involved. Without being wish fulfilment: not everyone came home safe.
Really, knowing this is a changeling story doesn’t affect what Hardinge does with the story. The story itself is, in a way, a cuckoo child, a changeling.
I liked the ambivalent portrayal of the central family. The narrative upends things several times: there are no simple answers, no unequivocal good family/bad family. It’s the more real for that, even in the midst of a fantasy story. I liked the way Trista had to earn Pen’s trust, I like the big/little sister dynamic. I liked that neither version of even our heroine is unequivocally good. Flawed human beings, all — though of course, not all of these characters are human…
I think this might have been a stronger issue if I was up to date on some of the other New 52 stuff that I’m… not that interested in. Or maybe more of Barbara’s past, since this volume features the (re)introduction of her brother James, who I know nothing about. It all just about hangs together, and some parts of this felt much more satisfying in terms of Batgirl getting some decent villains to kick around, but other parts were… well, a villain called Grotesque who wears a mask and kills a man to try and get a bottle of — vintage wine?!
The art is strong, as with the first book, and I liked the cameos by Black Canary (must hunt up some of Gail Simone’s run on Birds of Prey) and Batwoman. Still not totally sure about that whole decision to bring Barbara back to being Batgirl as opposed to Oracle via a miracle cure, but overall, I’m still ready to follow more of Batgirl’s adventures.
Spider-girl: Family Values, Paul Tobin, Clayton Henry, Matthew Southworth
This was fun, a good place to jump in on Spider-girl. It seems that as this volume opens, she’s lost her powers, but she’s still doing her best to fight crime — and maintain an impressive presence on social media. I enjoyed her wise-cracking, apparently a Spider-people necessity, and the emotional side of her development in this story.
Anya’s normal life is pretty solid, with friends and eventually a roommate, contacts outside the superhero world (unlike, say, Captain America). I liked Spider-man’s parts too, and I was intrigued by Red Hulk — I haven’t read anything including him so far.
The art is pretty good — there are couple of patchier issues that I wasn’t so fond of, but it’s reasonably consistent, and I liked that they portray Anya as a lithe, athletic sixteen year old girl. She’s not sexualised or anything in her fights the way, say, Black Widow often is. I’ll probably pick up some more Spider-girl given a chance — earlier or later, I don’t mind which.
I was really interested to read this, since it’s set in Constantinople, and I think in the same period as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Constantinople-analogue, Sarantium, in the Sarantine Mosaic books. Even in other fiction I’ve come across Theodora, both as a great and powerful woman and as a scheming whore. This version is a somewhat ambivalent one, seen through the eyes of her bastard son whom she cannot acknowledge but nonetheless loves and schemes for. I liked the way she was portrayed: her drives and ambitions made sense, came out of the real history we know Theodora had.
The story is more about her son, though, based on a rumour about Theodora from Procopius’ Secret History — a very Rosemary Sutcliff-like touch, to take a half-known story and expand it and develop it into something that could have been, like The Eagle of the Ninth. Her books are aimed more at adults, I think, but there’s still that same flavour to them from the ones I’ve read so far, and they touch on similar periods and topics.
I got really involved in this, gradually, drawn into the world of Constantinople and of the people Bradshaw gives us — I loved Narses and Anastasios, and though I didn’t think I would come to love her, Euphemia as well. Theodora, of course, and this version of Justinian, worked very well for me. There are some really powerful scenes, and while there’s a constraint and dryness to it in a way — it doesn’t step severely away from what we do know of the period — it still caught me up in a spell while I was reading.
When you read the blurb, it does sound as if it’s going to be somewhat sensational — bastard sons usually are a pretty dramatic complication, after all. But actually, it tries to steer a path between an interesting story and realism, and I really enjoyed watching that balancing act.
I’m pretty willing to pick up any of the books Michael Wood has written. They’re obviously more popular history than anything, pitched at BBC documentary level, but that is the level of knowledge I have for a lot of historical subjects. Conquistadors is in the usual format familiar from Wood’s book on Alexander: he retraces the steps of the conquistadors, in some cases clarifying their routes where they weren’t completely known before.
This is a period of history that’s not entirely new to me, but pretty nearly — we were taught a bit about the Aztecs and Cortes back in primary school, but that was about the extent of it. Wood evokes all this pretty clearly, though some colour photographs may have helped — my edition only has a small section of black and white ones. He uses sources from both sides of the conflict, and I think he kept a balance reasonably well. He obviously admired some of the conquistadors, but he kept in mind that even those of a more exploratory bent still thought and acted as conquistadors, save perhaps Cabeza de Vaca.
I think it interesting that one review complains of a completely one-sided view of the conquistadors “ethnically cleansing” the lands they conquered, while another complains about the British self-loathing. I think actually, there’s a pretty good balance between the two: Wood rightfully points out the excesses of the Spanish, but he also explains some of their reactions and doesn’t gloss over the issues of human sacrifice, etc.
Ehhh, definitely not for me. Maze is really, really bizarre, not a little disgusting, it can be pretty violent, and it made no sense at all to me. I won it from LibraryThing’s First Reads program, since I’ve been meaning to try this author for a while, but just… nope. It’s creative, sure. Weird, if that’s what you like to read. It’s not even badly written — maybe indifferently, from my point of view, but not badly.
It’s not like I necessarily mind weird, disgusting, violence — I read China Miéville with glee, after all. It’s just… I had nothing to get a grip on here, not even the kind of verve that characterises Miéville’s work.
I have another of this guy’s books to read, I think retelling Greek myths? I hope I enjoy that more.
I wasn’t sure what to hope for from The Dragon Griaule. I mean, obviously it’s received some critical acclaim to be considered a “Fantasy Masterwork” by Gollancz, but it purports to treat dragons in a very different way to traditional fantasy, and Lucius Shepard professes to hating the usual run of fantasy with elves, dwarves and halflings. I rather like my elves, dwarves and halflings, so I wasn’t sure if I would get on with Shepard — particularly as I like my dragons to be real and active, not any kind of allegory of human nature or morality as some commentary on this implied it would be.
But it’s okay: I loved the world of Griaule. I couldn’t point to one of the stories I liked best, really: I just loved the overall style and setting, the way Shepard set up his world. If I had to pick, it’d be ‘The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter’: the world of exploration there fascinated me. In general, though, I enjoyed this more for the unique take on dragons than for characters, most of whom were unpleasant or otherwise hard to root for.
I can see Griaule’s influence on more recent books with dragons, I think. At least, something of Griaule seems to touch Robin Hobb’s work, with her amoral, self-centered dragons.
What I wasn’t entirely sure about: Shepard’s portrayal of pretty much all the women in the book, while often sympathetic, generally cast them all in very similar roles with similar attributes. Even while the narrative didn’t seem that judgemental about their antics — sexual promiscuity, dissipation — it seemed to consider them universal. I don’t think there was an actual “virtuous” woman in the book. It seemed very one-note in that sense. Not that the male characters are much better, thinking about it.
Spider-woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D., Brian Michael Bendis, Alex Maleev
It would probably have helped if I’d read the Skrull invasion stuff which figures highly into Jessica’s emotional state here, or other stuff that explains Madame Hydra’s obsession with her, but this was better than the Spider-woman: Origin TPB. The art felt more alive; I liked a lot of it, though in some places the colour palate was so limited it was hard to make sense of what I was seeing.
Again, though, this isn’t the Jessica I’m used to seeing from Captain Marvel and the recent Avengers: The Enemy Within. It’s dark and she’s tortured and not sure where the hell she fits in the world. I did like the brief glimpse of the team caring about her, particularly Carol.
And let’s be honest, I spent half this book wondering if they were counting Teddy Altman as a Skrull and if someone would try to kill him.
Spider-woman: Origin, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Reed, Luna Brothers
I’ve loved what I’ve seen of Jess in Captain Marvel, but this is a long way from that cheerful character. This is Jessica’s dark past, her birth and her training as a member of Hydra. We see a couple of flashes of her later humour — when told her costume doesn’t count as a uniform, she retorts that she’ll just go and break that to Captain America — but mostly this feels a bit flat, despite the emotional content. It just goes too fast: one minute she’s a seven year old in an adult body, the next she’s an adult who’s willing to sleep with her enemy to get what she needs, using her body consciously and purposefully.
The art is okay, but nothing special — people kept talking about the Luna brothers when I was looking up this comic and raving about them, but the art here felt kinda flat here, too.
Still, it’s good to have more backstory on Jessica Drew.
I thought I must’ve rated the first volume higher than I actually did (only three stars!), because I really enjoyed this one. I still like the art, and Fiona Staples does a wonderful job at the expressions that make the characters come to life.
It’s been a while since I read the first volume, so I couldn’t remember all the subplots properly, but it came back as I was reading and while you’re missing a bit of backstory here and there, it seems to work anyway. The Will intrigues me, and Lying Cat makes me laugh: Brian Vaughan has pretty good comic timing, and he tends to ping my sense of humour just right. Not just with Lying Cat, but with the dialogue and just this feeling that these characters are people.
I like that it’s (alien) life in all its complexity: weird obsessions, babies, procreation, death both natural and violent, love, hate, and everyday concerns like clothing and food don’t get forgotten.