In the second book of this series, Breq is sent by one version of Anaander Mianaai to secure a system. Before she even arrives at Athoek Station, of course, Breq sets out to change things, defend the system, and serve only her own notions of what is best. Which sounds pretty disloyal, but another version of Anaander Mianaai destroyed the other parts of Breq, and a lieutenant that Justice of Toren loved…
Okay, it’s all very complicated to explain if you haven’t read the first book, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to jump in with Ancillary Sword. It’s in some ways a quieter story than Ancillary Justice: the problems faced are all very local, problems with the crew and with the staff on Station, with only hints of the larger conflict intruding.
In that sense it might feel rather middle bookish, but I think that would be a mistake — seen as a whole, the second book is very much the point of this trilogy. Not epic space battles and daring escapes, but drinking tea, talking to people, changing things with a refusal to accept that things must be right as they are simply because they are that way when you find them. Breq has a journey in these books, but it isn’t to become leader of the whole Radch, to overthrow a whole regime, and this book reflects that: Breq simply wants to make a place for herself, and to take care of those she has become responsible for.
The first time I read it, I definitely didn’t enjoy it as much as the first book; the second time, I think I enjoyed it more. It’s one of those books where I find more to appreciate each time, not in a whirlwind of plot but in people making connections, in people doing what they believe to be right.
In Any Old Diamonds, Alec has a score to settle with his family, and to do so, he enlists the help of a notorious pair of jewel thieves: the Lilywhite Boys. To get them into his father’s home in order to steal his mother-in-law’s jewellery, Alec must put aside all pride and grovel to his father, and then pass Jerry off as a friend who can be invited as a guest to a fancy party, giving him the opportunity to complete the theft. In the meantime, he must work closely with Jerry, taking his advice on how to ingratiate himself with his father, and create the impression of intimacy between the two of them.
Alec and Jerry quickly discover that they’re attracted to one another, and their tastes align in particular ways; it’s worth noting for any potential readers that Alec’s submissive side, and Jerry’s eagerness to exploit that in a consensual way, are rather key to the plot. There are several sex scenes which are important both to the overall plot and to the relationship between the two characters, and if that’s something you can’t even stand to skim through, this will not be the book for you. Nonetheless, I thought the romance was beautifully handled: they communicate with one another (with one notable plot-specific exception which is not to do with sex), they’re clear about their desires, needs and intentions, and despite Jerry being a criminal and fully capable of awful violence, the relationship between the two of them is always completely frank and consensual.
I did wring my hands rather about a certain development partway through the book — I was sure it was going to put paid to any easy resolution between them — but everything turned out beautifully. Alec and Jerry might not have quite a conventional romance, but I adored their dynamic and how everything turned out. There are some very difficult parts of the story to do with Alec’s family, but I promise, there’s a happy ever after and excellent payoff.
This has somehow become a comfort read for me, and it’s hard to explain why. It’s clever, of course: it’s so very clever, with the slow unfolding of the dual-timeline narrative, with the pronouns, with the various bits of worldbuilding that make up a whole lived-in universe. It’s a beautiful exploration of how you might shackle powerful AIs, and also of how identity might fracture and change when you spread yourself through hundreds of bodies across an empire so large you can’t keep them all in immediate contact with one another, and also of various moral decisions to do with colonialism and empire, but also the right thing to do step by step and day by day.
I think this time in particular I noticed how quickly I began to care about Seivarden, despite the fact that nothing about her behaviour is sugar-coated. She’s selfish, inconsiderate, fragile in her refusal to accept her new circumstances — and yet in Breq’s company she begins to change, and even before that change has really had any effect you begin to care. To feel betrayed along with Breq when Seivarden does the wrong thing; to be anguished when you see Seivarden’s misunderstandings of Breq, and the trouble that comes despite it… Seivarden is a walking Problematic Favourite, and made for the purpose: it’s a masterclass in how a character (a person) can be awful and yet redeemable, and worth the effort of doing it too.
The first time I read Ancillary Justice I liked it, but I wasn’t in love. But it haunts me and keeps coming back to me, and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to it, again and again.
This novella went wholly different places than I expected, though not in a way that could really be foreshadowed. It was okay, but I wasn’t in love with it; I did enjoy that it is clearly, unapologetically queer, with Latinx main characters. It opens on a prison planet, in a mysterious maze of tunnels which Bee and her lover Chela navigate blindly. They must explore the caves, seeking for supplies which are left for them at intervals, and ensure they arrive there before the bugs that infest the place and seem to hunt them — their punishment for the crime of being telepathic terrorists. However, despite the block on her telepathic powers, Bee feels someone trying to contact her… a woman she realises is in fact her wife.
Things take quite the turn from there, in a way that wasn’t really foreshadowed — too much detail would have made it far too obvious. It’s hard to discuss the rest of the novel without spoilers because of that: suffice it to say that this is a character-focused book, and Bee has to face certain facts and her own trauma in order to win through. The sci-fi plot turns out to be a vehicle for a story about trauma and healing.
In the end, it didn’t bowl me over, but I don’t regret giving it a try. I’d probably try something else by Vylar Kaftan to see whether it was just this story or if it’s her whole style.
Weekend at Thrackley is a country house mystery of a sort, but not exactly the cosy comfortable sort. It’s clear fairly early on that the host of the party is a crook, and up to no good, and there’s something very sinister about all the proceedings. I have no idea why the editor of the series refers to this as being like The Red House Mystery, because the tone is utterly different — there might be a couple of points where the style is similar, but really I don’t see much similarity between the two books at all. It’s also an odd duck among the British Library Crime Classics: there’s no murder case per se.
Our Hero is Captain Jim Henderson, who seems chronically underemployed and lodges in a boarding house. One morning he receives a mysterious letter from someone he’s never even heard of who claims to be a friend of his father’s. Intrigued, and definitely up for free food and drink and entertainment for a weekend, he accepts the invitation. Turns out one of his buddies is going too, so they head down there together. The house is odd and secluded, but full of all kinds of comforts, so they settle in. And then… things start to happen, of course. It’s an intriguing set up, and though I had a guess about one of the enduring mysteries, I wasn’t positive until the end.
There’s a love story, of course, and in true Golden Age style it proceeds at a massive pace and doesn’t really reflect much on how real relationships work. There’s some fun dialogue, and like I said, it’s far from a cosy: there’s a genuine sense that people might be murdered any minute, and it’s surprising that the body count ends as low as it does. The story is rife with useful coincidence, but all in all it’s entertaining and a fun read.
This book professes to explain the importance of the Irish border, and to delve into its importance in the Brexit negotiations. I thought this was something worth informing myself about, because my knowledge of Irish history of any era is fairly limited, and I want to be better informed. This… is not a good place to start, I think: it throws names of politicians and political parties at you rapid-fire, and expects you to already have much of the context in mind. That makes some sense in a book focused on the border, but I’d still start with a bit of context to help orient people who are picking the book up for the reasons I did.
In the end, I couldn’t finish it. I found the style too dry and it just wasn’t calibrated for the level of knowledge I went in with. I’m sure it’s fine if you’re interested in the topic already, but then, a primer on the topic is why I thought the book would be useful, so it’s a little misleading in terms of the jacket copy.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
I seem to be in a bit of a rut that means I’m reading half a dozen things at once. Let’s see…
A Mourning Wedding, which is the next for me in the Daisy Dalrymple series;
The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley, which is probably giving me pause because even though I admire her work, I never seem to actually get along with it;
Banewreaker, by Jacqueline Carey, and I honestly don’t know why I’m stalled on this one, because it’s a reread and I know I love it;
The Story of Wales, by Jon Gower, probably the one I am actually reading most actively right now;
Ivory Vikings, by Nancy Marie Brown, which is interesting but digresses all over the place to give a simply enormous amount of historical context, rather than focusing on the Lewis chessmen which it is allegedly about;
Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie, which is a reread and… honestly, I could be tearing through this but I keep saying other books are more important;
The Traitor God, by Cameron Johnston, due back at the library but felt just a little too grim;
A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland, which I was enjoying but just suddenly stopped with…
So yeah, I’m more than a little grasshopper-minded right now. I’m trying not to be mad at myself for it — what does it matter as long as I enjoy whatever I do read?
What have you recently finished reading?
Oooof, it feels so hard to remember… but it was actually not that long ago: I finished rereading Vivian Shaw’s Dreadful Company, which I enjoyed the first time and definitely enjoyed just as much the second time. I continue to adore the way Greta is unironically devoted to her chosen vocation, and practices it even for people who have wronged her, even for people who are awful, because you cannot pick and choose to whom you will give medical care.
What will you be reading next?
As you can guess from the list above, it’s a bit of a fool’s game, trying to guess. I’d say there’s a good chance I’m going to pick up Grave Importance soon, but otherwise I’d like to try and avoid starting anything new until I’ve read some of what’s already on my plate! I won’t be too strict about that, of course: I think one could do worse than adopting Lord Peter’s family motto: “As my Whimsy takes me.” That may include rereading The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, next in my reread of the Wimsey books…
Gina Rippon and other writers like Cordelia Fine between them attempt to totally rip to shreds the idea that there are such things as “male brains” and “female brains”, writing convincing critiques of studies which are then just as convincingly critiqued in their turn. It’s difficult for someone outside the field (even someone with a biology degree that included modules on human biology and on “the science of the mind”) to know how to pick this apart, and I worry that a lot of the time we go looking for someone who supports our view, and then believe them because they sound most convincing. (And of course they do! It’s easy to convince someone of something they already believe.)
In terms of the book itself, Rippon’s not as engaging as Cordelia Fine; I actually got a little bored and bogged down at some points. It definitely wouldn’t be my first choice as a primer for a pop-sci book that’s sceptical of the pink-brain-blue-brain debate. There are some interesting sections: the discussion of attitudes toward menstruation is particularly interesting, as it suggests many of our negative ideas about menstruation (including PMS) are culturally received. (Then again, Rippon doesn’t engage with the genuine issues of people with conditions like PCOS or endometriosis, which very clearly make periods exactly the misery people fear.)
In terms of the evidence presented, I think some of the debunking is useful for sure, and the reminders that some of these differences are actually vanishingly small. However, Rippon uses examples of women with high testosterone, and possibly other intersex characteristics as well, without bothering to think about whether it’s the binary that’s serving us poorly. We know that biologically, sex is a spectrum with groupings around two points, not two separate and wholly discrete categories. I’d love to see more work dealing with that and what that might mean; this book ain’t it, because it tacitly accepts from the start that there are men and women, and that everyone can be sorted into one of those two boxes.
Reread this in preparation for the (sob) last book! In Dreadful Company, Greta goes to Paris for a medical conference and finds herself caught up in a conflict of Ruthven’s (although Ruthven is not actually conscious of anyone holding such a vendetta against him) as she’s kidnapped by a vampire coven. There are also weird things going on in Paris — hauntings that should be long-settled, strange timeslips, and the appearance of surprisingly large numbers of summoned monsters. Naturally, Greta ends up in the thick of all of it, since she’s our protagonist.
The book features more of the burgeoning relationship between Greta and Varney, and it’s adorable. Even though that’s the case, Greta’s hardly a damsel in distress; in fact, it’s fairly clear from the beginning that she isn’t going to just sit around and wait for Ruthven to rescue her, however much she misses him and longs to see her friends again. She continues to be a wonderful character: a doctor with a genuine calling, someone who loves what they do and also believes in it. She saves the lives of several of the vampires imprisoning her, because she’s a doctor and that’s what she must do, and I love it.
We do also get to see a good amount of Ruthven being badass, Varney pulling himself together and genuinely participating in society and having friends and generally not slipping back into the depressive funk we see him indulge in a couple of times in the first book. There are also several new characters, while other characters from the first book (Cranswell, for one) are more in the background. There are also new creatures and new supernatural lore, all of which adds very satisfyingly to the world.
I don’t know much about what the last book is going to cover and how things are going to wrap up, but I’m so ready for it. And while we’re at it, I adore the way Greta constantly refers to Corvin as an edgelord, because it’s a bloody perfect description.
Making Eden: How Plants Transformed a Barren Planet, David Beerling
I picked this up on the strength of The Green Planet: in that book, Beerling’s fascination with and passion for everything to do with plants was palpable. It was a really good book, and he wrote clearly for any audience. Making Eden is perhaps a little more technical, or just a little less polished: I honestly found it a little dry, overall, and I can’t say I loved it nearly as much. Obviously I’m a bad judge of what works for people without a scientific background, but once or twice I found myself getting lost, so my feeling is that it probably misses the target a bit.
It is fascinating to think about how plants made that step from the oceans to the land, though, and it was a worthwhile read to understand a bit more about that. The importance of fungi doesn’t surprise me, though I was pleased to get a chance to read a bit about the experiments that more or less proved it. That leads neatly into Beerling’s final chapter, which… discusses the impact of humanity on plant diversity.
I get it, it’s an important subject, but at this point with me you’re not just preaching to the choir, you’re trying to teach them a song they already know — and it’s not even a more specialist look than perhaps I might read elsewhere, because it’s just 20 pages at the end of a book on its own topic. It’s boring. I know why it’s there; perhaps it’s even irresponsible not to put it in there somehow. But… none of it is new to me, and this book didn’t excite me enough in general to really get over that.
So, overall a bit disappointing. It’s still readable, but I didn’t find it compulsive reading like The Emerald Planet, and it didn’t get me excited.