Snowspelled is a short read, so be prepared for that going in. It opens on an invitation: Cassandra Harwood, her brother, and his wife Amy have been invited to a house party, which Cassandra’s ex-fiancé is due to attend. The story unfolds from there: it’s not quite a direct flip of the gender/power dynamics of British history, because though women rule Britain (as a body called the Boudiccate), men wield magical power… traditionally, at least. Cassandra is one of the few women who has ever mastered magic, and despite her successes at school, has failed to really make her way in the magical world. Which makes it doubly bitter that she tried to work a spell too strong for her, and nearly died in the attempt, leaving her unable to use the least magic for fear of her life.
Her ex-fiancé is naturally still a brilliant magician — and still deeply in love with her. It’s inevitable, then, that their paths immediately cross as soon as she arrives at the party, and he becomes sucked into her conundrums. And naturally she immediately gets herself into trouble through a rash promise… and this is a world where Faerie and the Boudiccate are (sometimes uneasy) allies.
I really wanted certain things to happen in this book, and they didn’t. Which is probably for the best, because the solution you want isn’t always the best story, but gaaah. I’m looking forward to reading the second book: in many ways, the novella format makes the worldbuilding rather sketched-in, so another book exploring that will be nice. And knowing it’s about Cassandra and her efforts to help other people like her find their places in the Boudiccate… well. I’m intrigued!
In a peaceful valley in Polnya, Agnieszka has grown up with her best friend Kasia, knowing that all girls their age will be lined up for the magician who rules the valley, the Dragon, to choose one of them. It seems obvious that the choice will be Kasia: she’s brave, beautiful, and somehow everyone has known all along that it will be her. Needless to say, things turn out rather differently, and Agnieszka finds herself dragged off to the Dragon’s tower, there to cook, clean, and… learn magic?
Nothing goes smoothly at first: Agnieszka’s main talent in life has been getting dirty and running wild, and the Dragon’s rather rough on anything that isn’t perfect. The magic exhausts her, and the lack of freedom wearies her. And then the Dragon has to leave, and just as he does, a call for help comes from the village she was born in.
It’s Beauty and the Beast, but not as we know it, Jim.
I love the way this draws from Polish folktales, creating a setting that is a bit sideways from the usual European medieval fantasy. I enjoy Agnieszka, and the way she keeps her hope alive throughout, keeps trying. I’m not entirely sold on the Dragon, nor Agnieszka’s relationship with Sarkan. There’s almost enough to show that behind it all, he’s awkward and hindbound but still able to grow, still able to be reached by Agnieszka… but it’s just not quite enough for me to believe in him. That he’s on the right side is undoubted, that he wants to do right for right’s sake also, but whether he’s a likeable person beneath the stiff attitude… there’s only a few glimpses, and that’s not enough for me to jump right into “zomg I ship it”.
The story itself works for me, as a whole, though. Even Agnieszka’s attraction to Sarkan works for me — I’m just not quite ready to believe it’s a thing that will work. Even though I’ve read the book before, though, it pulled me right in, seduced me into the flow of the story; even though I remembered what happened, I still needed to keep reading, needed to see what the next thing would be.
I’m still not quite ready to give it five stars, but it’s close.
In this installment from the Wayward Children universe, we learn more about Lundy’s past, only briefly glimpsed before. We see her finding her door as a child, and we watch her learning the rules of the world she stumbles into: a world strongly based on fairness and trading. A Goblin Market, of sorts (though it’s not quite a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s poem, in quite a few ways). There’s something rather distant and fairytale-ish about the tone in this one, something that reminds me more of Cat Valente’s knowing narrator from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland than the other Wayward Children novellas. I’m not certain I liked that; I felt like I never really got to know Lundy, as herself, because I was always being told what to think about her.
The world is fascinating, of course; I found myself pondering whether I’m giving fair value or not in all sorts of ways, which is a rather interesting way to think. But… not quite sold on Lundy’s world or her story. The ending, leading up to her decision, felt a little rushed, and was one of the parts where it felt most like we were being told about things rather than shown them (which is not always bad writing, there’s definitely a place for it, but didn’t work for me here). That happens at the end of each section of the book, really, and it feels like being cheated of half the story (although I know the adventure parts aren’t the point).
It’s not a bad story, but definitely not my favourite.
First up, let’s talk about the setting/worldbuilding. What are your first impressions of where/when the story begins?
On to the cast of characters! We get a fairly no-holds-barred introduction to Maggie Hoskie, and some interesting interactions between her and other key characters (or so they seem). What do you think of her, and of Kai and Grandpa Tah?
The plot’s afoot … Perhaps just barely, but still. Any thoughts/suspicions/predictions? Or are you content to be taken along for the ride?
First impressions: I knew about the setting already, and I’ve already read on beyond the eight chapters, so the setting is pretty clear to me. We’re a few years post-inundation, caused by anthropogenic climate change, and in Dinétah, formerly the Navajo reservation. Here people survive — exclusively or at least largely Native American people — and so do their gods and legends, now walking abroad in the same world. On a scientific level, not sure if the speed of the inundation sounds right — or on a geographical/meteorological level, not sure about the fact that Dinétah is now in drought* — but we’re in a world of magic anyway, so I’m not gonna worry about that.
*It sounds ironic, but even in a world with a huge rise in water level, there can definitely be arid areas. One way would be if there’s mountains all around. Clouds would form over the water and any waterlogged land, but the clouds would get pushed up on reaching the mountains. The air at altitude is less able to hold moisture, so the water would condense as the clouds got pushed up, and rain would fall over the mountains. Get you some mountains high enough and all the rain will be lost on the water-ward side, leaving none for the land beyond the mountains, and potentially none to even run down on that side of the mountain range. Mountains on one side, long stretches of flat dry land on the other, and you can see how somewhere can end up with few clouds and little water, post-inundation. I’ve no idea if that works, geographically, because I suck at understanding maps, but I have seen a review complaining that the drought conditions in Dinétah aren’t possible post-inundation, and I think they are, so you get my thought dump about that!
Maggie Hoskie: She’s the sort of tough urban fantasy protagonist you’d expect; shades of Kate Daniels and October Daye and a dozen other leading ladies in fantasy. Oh no, she has a dark side. Oh no, she has a killing rage. It’s kind of typical — which is not necessarily a turn-off, but neither is she striking me as particularly special. Except of course in being Diné, which is pretty cool in this world of fairly homogenous white heroines, and because the story and her skills are based on Native American traditions and stories.
Kai Arviso: Has obvious secrets, probably clan-powers, or he’s not quite human. I don’t feel like we know anything about him yet, and we’re supposed to be misjudging/underestimating him, so. As a reader I find that set-up somewhat annoying and refuse to be drawn into speculating; I’ll see when it happens.
Grandpa Tah: Old man with a love of gossip and meddling, and a twinkle in his eye; also fairly non-surprising as a character type.
That sounds like I’m not enjoying it, re: the characters being fairly typical, but that’s not it. There’s plenty to enjoy about a tough bloodthirsty female protagonist, a mysterious dandy and an old man with a twinkle in his eye, it’s just not surprising.
Thoughts/suspicions/predictions: I predict I’m… going to read ahead of the readalong, knowing myself, but hopefully I’ll be able to keep participating in the discussions sensibly and without spoilering anyone. Obviously we’re going to have more encounters with Neizghání, either actual encounters or we could just as well be strung along the whole book in his footsteps without seeing him. I think a knowledge of Diné stories and mythology might make a lot of this more obvious; makes me wonder if it’s more fun if you do know the mythology or if you don’t.
Inheritors of the Earth is a shockingly optimistic book given the premise: it’s a discussion of the impact of the Anthropocene — of the impact of humans on the world. It’s a huge impact, from pollution to changing the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth to fossil fuels to climate change to global travel… We’ve imported new organisms to every continent, mixed formerly separate species, annihilated species… There is no doubting that, whatever you think of that, humans have irrevocably stamped our mark on the Earth. Chris Thomas doesn’t shy away from that in the least, but he does have a new and more optimistic outlook on it.
The premise of this optimism is basically this: in many ways, globalisation and change have created more diversity, not less. We’ve created niche environments and species have changed to exploit them. While there have been extinctions, there has actually been a net gain in number of species. And as Thomas points out, the world has never been static. We’ve counted up species as they were in 1970 (to take one arbitrary date) and forgotten that that is arbitrary, that it’s a still from a very long movie in which everything, absolutely everything, is in motion. Avengers: Endgame has got nothing on Earth.
To me, the optimism is well-grounded as far as it goes. We can safeguard diversity by moving animals to habitats they can survive in; we can make space for species to survive alongside us. We can limit our impact on the world from now on, we can use technology to safeguard species… as long as we don’t feel too beholden to one static idea of how the world’s ecosystems should work, there’s still plenty to work with. Thomas also reminds us, as readers, that humans are natural. Everything we do is part of Earth’s ecosystem, and as with all other changes to the Earth, we can be adapted to.
I think he’s probably more optimistic than a lot of people, and more optimistic perhaps than I feel, but I agree with Thomas that there is a world to save, and that trying to slam on the brakes now isn’t the way. More change is inevitable, and we have to work within that. I do recommend this book as a way to get a change in perspective — one that reminds us there are ways forward, even as we pass the points of no return.
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City follows the exploits of Orhan, an engineer in the Robur army. He’s a bit of coward, not always a very nice guy, and when he realises there’s a massive invasion of some sort coming, he’s very tempted to go in the exact opposite direction. But it turns out he’s kind of fond of the Robur, at least some of them, despite the treatment he gets from a lot of them due to his unfortunate skin condition (by which he means his race), and somehow he ends up back in the city, which is about to be besieged, and it’s entirely possible the place won’t last an hour.
Well, Orhan’s got the skills for that, right? So he sets about tricking the enemy, fortifying the city, shaking things up and getting things in place so the city can survive. The book goes on like that, from crisis to crisis — how does he find defenders? How does he ensure a supply of water? How does he deal with sappers? How does he deal with a riot? Tick, tick, tick, tick: Orhan survives each encounter, outwits the enemy, and saves the city, at every step.
I found some aspects of the book deeply frustrating at the same time as enjoying them. I liked the conceit at the end about the manuscript provenance — the story is told directly by Orhan, and then there’s a tiny bit of framing story at the end explaining why he told the story, and how people come to read it. It also drove me crazy because the end is so abrupt, and everything about it is unclear. I liked the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator, that despite his frank tone and easy admittance of his faults, he also admits to making himself look better in the narrative. It also drives me crazy because I’m not entirely sure which bits he’s lying about. I like the fact that the story doesn’t follow a traditional trajectory and then that also drives me crazy because argh, I thought the ending would be different.
I’m really unsure about the decision to have the darker-skinned people (“blueskins”, in Orhan’s parlance) as the dominant race and the clearly white people (“milkfaces”) as the oppressed people, as a direct copy/paste of real events. At one point, Orhan uses a drinking fountain in a garden and is scolded by a keeper who doesn’t recognise him; the tap is for Robur only. I feel like this direct flip can cause some cognitive dissonance in a good way, pointing out the ridiculousness of the discrimination, and that’s probably how it was intended. At the same time, putting the crimes of white people on people of colour, just flipping history to make people of colour everything that’s wrong with the Empire… I’m fairly sure that people of colour have had a lot to say about people doing that; I’ve certainly denounced it when people flipped it so gay people were oppressing straight people. That kind of one-to-one flip, the copy-and-paste, just feels like laziness more than commentary. At the same time, the book does make it clear how okay people can be complicit in terrible things: there are several characters who are friends to Orhan, basically likeable people, who just don’t see the situation and how Orhan is treated, and don’t see it as a problem when they are forced to see it.
I kept saying I’d figure out how I felt about this book by writing the review, but it isn’t really helping. I think in the end, I wish the book were a little less ambiguous and ambivalent; I feel unsatisfied because the frame story is so slight, because the ending didn’t build up to anything in the way I’d expected. There’s a lot of things I liked about the book, and I wouldn’t say the things I didn’t like are or should be a total dealbreaker. But overall, I feel pretty dissatisfied — I don’t think this is a book that’s built to have a satisfying ending that isn’t totally cliché, and that dissatisfying end is totally baked into it… but even as I recognise that and the way it was all put together, it annoyed the heck out of me.
I think I’ll go for three stars here, which is normally “liked it”, but in this case should be read as “ambivalent in a way that doesn’t mean I don’t care, I just really can’t decide”. I wouldn’t rate it lower than a 2, and I wouldn’t rate it higher than a 4, and 3 is the median, so… there.
This book is very definitely intended for a middle-grade audience, which made it not really my thing. It’s fun enough as an idea: Cassidy is the daughter of two professional ghost hunters. Her dad takes an intellectual approach, sceptical that ghosts could exist and focusing on the stories and records that surround paranormal phenomena. Her mother is a believer. Together they write books and now they’re filming a TV show, and Cassidy’s going along, to Edinburgh — the most haunted place in Britain. The thing is, Cassidy’s had a near-death experience herself, and come out changed — and with a ghost sidekick.
Naturally, it turns out that there really are hauntings in Edinburgh, and Cassidy finds herself nastily entangled in them, while also finding other people like herself who can pass through the Veil and experience the world of the ghosts. There’s plenty of room for more stories about Cassidy, her pet ghost, and her parents, and possibly room for some of the people she meets along the way. It’s in no way a bad book, but I found it less enjoyable because it is rather simplistic and short. I’m not the intended audience, so perhaps I shouldn’t be judging it at all — but then there are children’s books which are still completely enthralling to me, so it’s not impossible to make it work.
I probably won’t follow the further adventures of Cassidy, but I bet a kid of the right mentality would enjoy the heck out of it.
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.
King Arthur: The Making of the Legend, Nicholas J. Higham
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.
Searching 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).