Category: Reviews


Review – The Undefeated

Posted 30 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Undefeated by Una McCormackThe Undefeated, Una McCormack

Received to review via Netgalley

The Undefeated follows Monica, an adventurer who made part of her fame and fortune by marrying a famous writer and part of it by becoming a journalist, as she goes back to the planet where she was born. The story is partially told through flashbacks to Monica’s childhood, which illuminate just why she was so interested in documenting the situation in conflict-torn areas. The Commonwealth was determined to annex other planets, forcing them into instability and then swooping in to “assist”, taking control and absorbing them into the Commonwealth. Monica’s home suffered just such an annexation, and in the process — well, I won’t give spoilers!

In addition to the theme of the Commonwealth’s aggressive annexations, there’s the issue of the jenjer: genetically modified people whose expensive modifications are paid for by people who then own them. Monica’s been surrounded by jenjer all her privileged life, and even travels with one now, but there’s something unsettling going on. Something coming.

I found the story a little slow, in that at times it was just a précis of Monica’s life — not so much showing us what happened as describing it at a remove. It would have had to be a whole novel to cover all the interesting stuff in Monica’s life, yes, but it did feel a little like we were skimming past stuff without really getting a chance to absorb it. ‘This happened, it meant this to Monica, then another thing happened.’

There are some great bits — the parts about Monica’s childhood work well, and her slow dawning of comprehension re: the jenjer. It was certainly an interesting read — I was never bored, or even frustrated exactly, but I felt like it could’ve been a lot more immediate and thus impactful.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – King Arthur

Posted 26 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of King Arthur: The Making of the Legend by Nicholas J HighamKing Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham

*clapping*

*clapping intensifies*

*standing ovation*

Much as I’m tempted to leave my review at that, I’ll be a little more rigorous. Higham’s book methodically examines every claimant for the original model for King Arthur, from Lucius Artorius Castus to the myths about the Narts, mostly focusing on the theories about a specifically historical Arthur. He examines each claim thoroughly, discussing its merits… and where each and every one falls down. The vaunted similarities between myths are barely similarities, the alleged likelihood of transmission to Britain is shaky, and so on and so forth. History isn’t my beat, but wherever Higham touched on the fiction that built the Arthurian mythology, he’s correct (as far as my knowledge and memory goes; it has been some years for me, admittedly).

It helps, of course, that his arguments come out strongly in favour of the common-sense conclusion that Arthur is a legend, as many legends are, with many sources and very little agreement between those sources about the kind of man/king he allegedly was. He’s also using some good common sense when he points out that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean any crazy theory could possibly be true. And he doesn’t just state why this is so: he goes through it, explaining why one translation should be favoured over another or how likely an interpretation is.

For my money, this is an excellent analysis of the ideas about a historical Arthur and in many ways of the claims for various fictional sources as well. Ultimately, if you long for Arthur to be real, this book won’t satisfy. If (like me) you’ve long understood that Arthur works best as an ideal, a chimera, a changeling who can be all things to all people, then you’ll be well satisfied that there seems to be no evidence that will pull the Welsh Arthur from my clutches or the Roman auxilliary from Sarmatia from anybody else’s.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt

Posted 25 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt by Chris NauntonSearching for the Lost Tombs of Eygpt, Chris Naunton

When someone talks about looking for the tombs of people like Imhotep, Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, I think there’s always a chance that it could go the wrong way and turn out to be weird fabrications and confabulations piled on top of wishful thinking. Fortunately, Naunton’s book isn’t that at all, despite discussing the chances of finding those graves (and several others). Instead, he lays out the facts very clearly, describes the differing interpretations of the existing facts and the theories about where to look, and then — as far as I can tell, not being an Egyptologist — weighs them up in a down to earth, matter-of-fact analysis. The fabulous potential riches of Herihor’s tomb are cut down to size, and hopes of finding Imhotep’s tomb undisturbed are gently dissuaded.

Which sounds unfun, perhaps, but Naunton’s discussion of the past work and current findings are pretty fascinating to me, even if the conclusion is that we’ve probably already found as much as we’re going to find in one case or another. He doesn’t totally dismiss things that genuinely remain possible, but he’s pragmatic about it, and rightfully sceptical of things like refusal to reveal methods of analysis (for example in the case of the scanning done in Tutankhamen’s tomb that allegedly clearly showed another room, which can’t be replicated by other teams).

Fascinating stuff to me — I ate it up.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Hacking the Code of Life

Posted 24 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hacking the Code of Life by Nessa CareyHacking the Code of Life, Nessa Carey

This is a pretty slim volume which introduces the latest in gene editing technology, mostly but not exclusively referring to CRISPR, and its potential uses and implications. I was a little surprised there isn’t more to say about it, but Carey’s explanation of how CRISPR works is beautifully easy to comprehend (enough to make me update my own mental way of explaining it) and her analysis of the state of the art is pretty well on point as far as it goes.

Despite the boundless optimism I’ve seen around CRISPR, for all its potential it hasn’t changed the biomedical world yet (though labwork has already been transformed, as I understand it), and Carey is rightly cautious-but-optimistic in tone. My main complaint is just that I wanted more.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Bull of Minos

Posted 23 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Bull of Minos by Leonard CottrellThe Bull of Minos, Leonard Cottrell

This is really out of date; practically a period piece in itself, full to the brim of fanboying over Heinrich Schliemann and Arthur Evans. It does raise some interesting points about Arthur Evans’ work, at the very least, suggesting that some of his restorations — like the use of concrete — were entirely necessary. I’ve read a lot of later work implying that his restorations were rather unsupported by the evidence, but the explanations here for at least some of them seem sound.

It was kind of an interesting experience to read about those two archaeologists in a positive and approving light. And kind of funny, too, that I was recommended this as a book about the Minoans and really it was rather more about Mycenaeans, of the two, and overwhelmingly more about fanboying Schliemann and Evans.

In search of a more informative book actually about the Minoans…

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Catullus’ Bedspread

Posted 22 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Catullus' Bedspread by Daisy DunnCatullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, Daisy Dunn

If this were sold as a novel, I probably wouldn’t have been so annoyed with it. However, it’s sold as non-fiction, despite doing the most amazing reaching to try and describe authentic episodes of Catullus’ life — nothing you could argue with as obviously untrue, but who knows where he ever walked up towards the Forum cursing the heat, or whatever anecdote like that first caught my eye? Dunn writes as if partially fictionalising the subject matter, while disarmingly taking the non-fictional stance of “perhaps” and “surely he felt that” and so on outside of the weird fiction scenes.

It’s a mixed approach and it’s probably true that that keeps some people more engaged, and that some people even prefer it. I don’t like being told that Catullus did this and did that part of the time, and then “maybe” and “perhaps” and “probably” the rest, when the things the writer says did happen are completely unknowable, and the maybes and perhapses are things Catullus actually wrote about.

Also, I know people have praised the close-reading of the poetry in this book, but I did better close-reading that some of this in the first year of undergrad alone. Most of it struck me as completely obvious — even facile. I’d take that with a pinch of salt, given I disliked the book, but… still.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Ninefox Gambit

Posted 21 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha LeeNinefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee

When I first read this, I was initially put off by the discussion of math. It took me probably too long to get past the fact that my enemy numbers was being discussed, and to understand that this is math-enabled magic, at heart. (This may bother people looking for hard SF, but as far as I know it’s true: the math, which is discussed in relatively little detail, causes effects in the physical worldthrough unspecified physics. It’s magic.)

So start again: this is magic in space. Kel Cheris, an officer in the Kel army, is fighting to uphold the Calendar; the Calendar governs what magic will function, and is founded on math and various “remembrances”, aka ritual tortures. Cheris is a little odd for a Kel: where most of her fellow soldiers can only use canonical formations and are not very adaptable, she has the ability to think outside the box. She can make the magic work in different, heretical calendars… which is why she’s first somewhat disgraced (because what she did was itself heretical) and then tapped to answer a serious problem with calendrical warfare. Her solution is an old, old weapon: what amounts to the ghost of a Kel general who, once upon a time, went mad and slaughtered countless people.

It turns out that to use the general, Jedao, you have to “anchor” him, and Cheris is chosen as the anchor — the only person who can hear what he has to say, relay his advice, and also put him back in the box if he shows any signs of going mad again.

What could possibly go wrong.

Reading this again was delightful, because I can see more of the machinations and more of people’s motivations. Jedao remains a delight to me, and a perfect combination with Cheris’ skills — and as someone who can’t read a simple number without stumbling, I can definitely cheer for a dyscalculic general who is a splendid tactician. (I did love the distinction between a strategist and tactician, as far as long-term thinking goes. That comment comes fairly early, and then — well, judge for yourself whether Jedao is a tactician, a strategist, or both.)

I think Yoon Ha Lee has done an amazing job at creating characters who are deeply, fatally flawed, partially due to the situation they’ve found themselves in — the Hexarchate is also deeply, fatally flawed — and who are also very conscious of it, very conscious of the shortcomings of the system they’re embedded in. There’s so much I could talk about in these books, about the Hexarchate, about the Kel specifically, about the way the characters interact… I haven’t touched on nearly everything I love.

Suffice it to say, I loved this book all over again and more.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Ragged Alice

Posted 20 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Ragged Alice by Gareth L. PowellRagged Alice, Gareth L. Powell

Received to review via Netgalley

I really enjoyed the setting of Ragged Alice: Powell captures certain Welsh phrases perfectly, and I couldn’t help but smile at the phrasing “Owen the meat” — and wonder how other readers will feel about that and whether they’ll “get it”. Maybe if you’re not raised knowing that the undertaker named Dafydd (David) should be known as “Dai the death” (pronounced “Die”), this world is a little too foreign, for all that it’s just Wales.

There’s a lot of familiarity, though. It’s basically a police procedural, really, except with a supernatural element: DCI Holly Craig can see people’s souls, and she knows when they’re carrying guilt around with them. She’s come home to Pontyrhudd through her work in the police, to investigate a simple-seeming hit and run accident. But one murder turns into two, and there’s some connection to the horrible death of Holly’s own mother…

It’s more or less predictable in plot, to my mind, and I’m not sure I really quite understand why the ritualistic deaths were required. The ending felt a little sudden/contrived, as well. It’s an enjoyable novella and I wouldn’t mind more in the same world, but apart from enjoying the setting a lot (more Welsh books, please!), it didn’t stick out for me especially.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Life in a Medieval Castle

Posted 19 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Life in a Medieval Castle by Francis Gies and Joseph GiesLife in a Medieval Castle, Frances Gies, Joseph Gies

This book is pretty much what it says on the tin: an exploration of what life was like in a medieval castle, mostly drawing from the case of Chepstow Castle, but mentioning other castles when variations and other points needed to be made. It covers the life inside the castle — what the Lord and Lady of the castle would do, how they would entertain themselves — but also how the castle was supported by the lord’s people. There’s some space given to warfare and surviving siege conditions, as you’d expect, and the exact social circumstances that promoted the building and use of castles.

It’s an easy enough read, though there wasn’t much that surprised me in terms of being new information. For a more engaging read, I’d probably turn to Marc Morris’ book: Castles, which covers some similar ground. Probably makes a good reference read (no surprises there — the cover mentions that George R.R. Martin used it as such, which is probably why it and the other related books are having a nice little lease of life in bookshops)!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Enchanted Glass

Posted 18 April, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne JonesEnchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

I think that Enchanted Glass was one of the very first books I got on my ereader, and I couldn’t remember much from it beyond the general enjoyment and the immortal line — wait for it: “I seem to have excalibured this knife.” I’m not sure why that stuck with me in particular, though I suppose given my other interests it makes sense. So a lot of the plot was almost new to me, and it was surprising how long it took me to catch on. The book opens with the death of Andrew Hope’s grandfather, leaving him with the house — and his grandfather’s “field of care”. The magic system is revealed rather slowly and organically, and to be honest there are never clear rules, as such. Instead, you have to sort of intuit what’s going on, figuring things out rather like a child learning to talk.

(I use that metaphor because I remember Diana Wynne Jones as having written that children intuitively understand magic, and it’s adults that always need to ask too many questions. There’s something true in that, and it reminds me of how children learn languages. If Diana Wynne Jones didn’t write that observation, she should’ve, because I always find her books like that!)

In any case, into Andrew’s beginnings of a quiet life wrangling his computer, his gardener and his housekeeper comes Aidan Cain, pursued by who-knows-what and vulnerable after the death of his own grandmother. Andrew’s not even quite sure how to take over his grandfather’s field of care, and there seems to be something awry with an odd neighbour…

The book barrels along at a good clip, with endearing side characters (“I got zips!”) and entertaining scenes, heading toward an inevitable conclusion: a struggle between the land of Faerie, and Andrew Hope’s own ordinary townspeople. (Sometimes not so ordinary.) It’s solidly entertaining, sometimes funny, and basically everything you’d expect from a Diana Wynne Jones novel. I still enjoyed it greatly.

Rating: 4/5

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