Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances, Aliette de Bodard
Received to review via Netgalley
Of Charms, Ghosts and Grievances picks up on Thuan and Asmodeus from Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen world once more, and once more they’re in the world of Thuan’s birth rather than safe (well, relatively safe) in Asmodeus’ particular domain. As ever, they love each other very much, but Asmodeus is a stabby creature of revenge, while Thuan believes himself saner and more just… though it does become clear that Asmodeus is capable of love, self-sacrifice and reaching for justice, while Thuan is more hide-bound than he’d like to admit.
It’s not quite “together, they fight crime”, but it’s not far off either. While babysitting, they quickly stumble upon a mystery and a ghost, and following that to where it leads promptly exposes all the stress-fractures in their relationship, and all the flaws of both of them.
For fans of the characters, it’s lovely; it’s being billed as a one-shot, which I wouldn’t say is entirely true. I think it works on its own, probably, but there’s more to it when you can see it against the backdrop of the Dominion of the Fallen books, and the last of Asmodeus and Thuan’s relationship. That said, you don’t need to have read them recently (I haven’t), because it gives a lot of cues about their background to help make things clear.
It was a fun read, for sure, and I’ll pick up anything else that happens to come out about Asmodeus and Thuan.
This is blurbed as The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle… and it’s really not like either of those, to my mind, so I really wouldn’t recommend it as such. There’s a touch of politics, yes, but Thanh isn’t much like Maia and nor is her position very similar except in that they’re both in a precarious position in a court (though Maia’s risks feel quite different to Thanh’s)… though now, a few weeks after reading the story, I suppose I do recognise Maia’s road to taking control of some of his power echoed in Thanh’s story. It might be more alike than it seemed on the surface, now it’s settled.
When it comes to its other big comparison point, for me it lacks the humour of Howl’s Moving Castle. It is also obviously completely devoid of any Welsh influence, and is not aimed at the same age group. It shares one central plot element, sort of. I’m a little confused about these comparisons, to be honest; I always suck at comparing books to one another, but I still don’t see the comparison here.
In any case, it’s a queer story set in a Vietnamese-influenced court. Thanh is a princess, but she’s most definitely a spare: originally sent away as a hostage, now returned and asked to negotiate with those who previously held her hostage. She has two main memories of her time at the other court: her affair with another princess, and a massive fire that overtook the palace and nearly left her stranded.
Both of these things are, obviously, relevant.
I found the way the plot played out fairly obvious; as a novella, it paints in pretty broad strokes. There are some hints of nuance in Thanh’s mother’s characterisation and motivations, which helps, but mostly it’s fairly straight-forward and works out the way I expected. (I’m very surprised by people who don’t recognise the abusive relationship for what it is, though, and think that’s intended to be the romance — so maybe it’s more subtle than I thought and I just trust Aliette de Bodard a bit too much!) For a story of this length, I don’t usually expect to be surprised, though, and I did very much enjoy the queer relationships and the glimpses of a different kind of court life and attitude to that more familiar to me from history and Western-inspired fantasy.
In the end, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped or expected — which is partly, I think, due to those comparisons to two books that mean a lot to me. It was enjoyable to read, but not like The Goblin Emperor in the ways I hoped for, and even less like Howl’s Moving Castle. We all take different things away from stories, and it’s clear that my version of The Goblin Emperor and Howl’s Moving Castle don’t overlap with the understanding of them taken away by those who made these comparisons. It’s worth keeping that caution in mind when comparison titles make something sound like it’s going to be completely up your alley, I guess!
Greetings, everyone! My wife has now fixed the issue where I wasn’t getting notification emails, and I got inbox zero again for the first time in a few months, so I’m back!
What are you currently reading?
Fiction: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin, which is of course a reread for me. But it’s the first time I’m reading the beautiful version illustrated by Charles Vess. Funnily enough, I’m finding that I know it so well, I can identity individual words that have been changed/corrected (some for the better, others for the worst) in the new text.
Non-fiction: A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkinson, which is a history of Egyptologists rather a history of Egypt itself, although of course the two are inevitably interlinked. I’m not far into it yet. I’m also reading A Life in Miniature, by Nicola Lisle, which is about dolls’ houses. It’s… very descriptive, delving into the exact furnishings of specific dolls’ houses. Not sure if I will stick with it.
What have you recently finished reading?
A reread of Blood and Circuses, by Kerry Greenwood — I felt like spending some time with Phryne Fisher, though this is kind of unrepresentative given it follows a case where she joins a circus to figure out what’s happening!
I also finished The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, by Aliette de Bodard, which reminded me that I really want to track down more of the Xuya stories and read more in that universe.
What will you be reading next?
Big shrug, as ever. I’m tempted by A Lady’s Guide to Murder and Mayhem, by Manda Collins; sounds like it should be fluffy fun.
I really need to read more of the Xuya stories and novellas all at once, because I like the world but it always takes me some adjustment time. The Citadel of Weeping Pearls stands alone, though, and once you get your head around the fact that it’s based on Vietnamese culture and customs (but in a space empire), it flows along smoothly. Bright Princess Ngoc Minh has been missing for years, along with her Citadel, after her mother the Empress sent armies against her. Grand Master Bach Cuc has been searching for her, and seemed to be close to a breakthrough, but now she’s missing — and Diem Huong, a commoner who lost her mother on the Citadel, is also about to conduct an experiment that may send her to the Citadel.
I found that the only thing that bothered me was the number of POVs, and that was mostly while I was settling into the story. It was obvious why we needed the various POVs by the end; without them, the Empress seems just horrible (instead of a woman who makes horrible decisions believing they are for everyone’s good, which is a different sort of horrible), Ngoc Ha seems too wishy-washy… but together they all work out and show a sad story, examining the bonds between families, and the terrible things an Empress might do for the good of everyone (or not).
It works really well as a novella; I think it’s perfect at this length.
This week’s theme from That Artsy Reader Girl is books you love and haven’t reviewed, but I’ve been reviewing every book I’ve read for fifteen years now. So I’m going off-piste with a retrospective on my “book club”. I run it on Habitica, with a book each month, and I pick all the books based on my whim in that moment. I don’t guarantee the books’ quality or literary value or anything like that; it’s literally just a book I want to read, probably one I already own. It’s been a nice way to get some accountability for reading books from my shelves, and read alongside other people… without having to put up with anyone else’s taste in books. 😂
So here’s a shortlist of ones I’ve enjoyed discussing with the group…
The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon. I’ve actually not finished this one yet, since I’m also reading it with my Beeminder coworkers at a nice conservative rate everyone can stick to. We’re near the end now! I’ve really enjoyed it, and even enjoyed reading it in this really slow drip-wise fashion, because it was something I could always manage, no matter how crappy I was feeling about reading (or how daunted by the size of the book).
Seeds of Science, by Mark Lynas. This is by someone who was previously really anti-GM, and came to change his mind. He picks away at some of the myths and lies around genetically modified food, and makes an excellent case for a rethink.
Pale Rider, by Laura Spinney. I’ve read two books on the 1918 flu pandemic, and I honestly couldn’t choose one over the other; both looked at it from slightly different angles, though I think perhaps Spinney dug a bit further on the social and cultural effects.
The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard. I kept thinking this wouldn’t be my thing, and then picked it for the book club to encourage me to give it a try. Lo and behold, I inhaled it! Such a fascinating mixture of mythologies, and a fantastic setting.
Murder by Matchlight, by E.C.R. Lorac. I’m not sure if this was the first book I read by E.C.R. Lorac… it might have been. Either way, it was the one that switched her work from the “it’s a British Library Crime Classic, so I’ll probably get it and try it” to “I’ll pick up anything I find by her”. Her mysteries are often deeply rooted in a place, so that you can almost smell the farms or the fires of the Blitz.
The Bell at Sealey Head, by Patricia McKillip. Pretty much anything by McKillip is going to be interesting, though I sometimes find the conclusions to her stories a bit difficult to follow. The Bell at Sealey Head was one I tore through, though.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie. I’d have read this one anyway, and the Habitica challenge might actually have been for a reread for me. I love Provenance a lot; it’s not doing the same things as the Imperial Radch books, and it doesn’t feel the same in terms of narration or characters or plot. I think that led some people to be disappointed in it, but I wasn’t.
Hild, by Nicola Griffith. Confession: I still haven’t actually finished this. But some of the descriptions are just perfect and beautiful, and I still mean to come back and finish it.
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. I probably wouldn’t have read this one without a book club, because YA with a contemporary setting isn’t normally my thing. I’m really glad I did, though; this book deserves all the hype.
Girl Waits With Gun, by Amy Stewart. I should really read the second book in this series, because I read the first book sooo fast. As I recall, it wasn’t a universal win in the book club… but I really enjoyed the story, and appreciated learning about the real Constance Kopp as well.
One thing I want to do going forward is diversify the picks a bit — there have been authors of various marginalisations in the lineup, but I can do better. Luckily I’ve been picking up plenty of books that will qualify for that, in the past year!
It’s Wednesday again! So here’s the usual check-in. You can go to Taking On A World Of Words to chat with everyone else who has posted what they’re reading right now!
What are you currently reading?
Actively, I think it’s pretty much just Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch — my loan got renewed from the library even though there were people in the queue, which is weird but I’m not arguing, because it lets me take my time and let it sink in a bit more — and Invasive Aliens, by Dan Eatherley, which I will probably sit down and finish as soon as I get done with this post.
Invasive Aliens is okay, but it feels a bit scattered; there are themes to the chapters, but it starts becoming a bit “and ANOTHER thing” after a while.
What have you recently finished reading?
I read Aliette de Bodard’s Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders yesterday in a hot bath, and narrowly resisted the urge to arise dripping and covered in bubbles to read bits to my wife, since Asmodeus is definitely her sort of thing. Instead I took photos of the relevant pages and sent them to her via chat, circling the good bits in red. It was rather nice.
(And yes, she’s convinced and plans to read it.)
What will you be reading next?
Book club reads this month are Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo and The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and I’ve been meaning to read both more or less since they came out, so that’s probably something I’ll do soon. I’m probably in the mood for a palate-cleansing murder mystery from the British Library Crime Classics series first, and maybe an installment of the Whyborne & Griffin series by Jordan L. Hawk as well. I also have a wicked bad urge to reread John Scalzi’s Lock In, and I might just listen to it.
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 7th July 2020
Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders is set in Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen universe, but it’s really apart from the main plot (at least as far as the first two books go — I haven’t read the third, yet). It’s a standalone, so you don’t need to have read the series, but it may enhance things a little bit and crack open the motivations of the main characters a little more. It follows Thuan and Asmodeus, rulers of Hawthorn House, on a visit to Thuan’s family — a dragon court in a Vietnamese style, rather than the post-apocalyptic Paris that the main series focuses on. Thuan is a bookish sweetie; Asmodeus is a sadistic murderer. They love each other very much. Do they trust each other? Rather less.
It’s a rather fascinating pairing, as it happens: they have very different outlooks, and different motivations — their interests and their aims don’t always align. It makes for an interesting tension between the two and within the story, which involves a murder at court which Thuan must unravel, to prevent his dynasty from being unseated from the throne.
I found it all really enjoyable, particularly in the exploration of the balance and tension between them. For me, as someone who has read part of the main series, it’s also an opportunity to see a bit more of the world, but I don’t think that’s a requirement. The traditional mystery of the dead body itself isn’t much of one, really; the question is not so much whodunnit, or even howdunnit or whydunnit, but a question of how Thuan will use it to unpick the greater issue of the attack on his family.
And let’s face it, there are just some really great lines. I love Asmodeus as a “sweet, murderous delight”, in particular.
I kept not picking this up for the longest time because I had a vague memory of reading it and not ‘getting’ it, and thus I also avoided other books in the same world. Wrong! I’ve no idea what book I was thinking of, but it wasn’t this one: some aspects of the culture are a little bit opaque to me, like the significance of the poem that is a key moment for the characters, but it was a fascinating read. The characters are complex: not necessarily likeable, in fact most of them aren’t, but human. You can see why they do the things they do; it’s complicated, and there’s no easy answer to who is right and who is wrong.
I think I was most intrigued by the Honoured Ancestress, and her place in the story. Of course I thought of Iain M. Bank’s Culture novels first, and the Minds, but clearly this isn’t just like that. I found the AI’s distress at falling apart and failing one of the most affecting parts of the story: feeling your mind crumble from within…
Definitely interested in reading more in this world. Not sure what book steered me wrongly away from this through resemblance in title or cover, but it was lying.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 4th April 2017
I know this review is terribly late; I salved my conscience by buying a copy as well. Aliette de Bodard has built a fascinating world in this post-apocalyptic Paris, and it’s so refreshing to get Vietnamese influences running through a story like this — it might be set in France and involve angels of a rather Western bent, but it also features dragons of a rather more Eastern variety.
I don’t think you can really read this without The House of Shattered Wings; you need the background for Madeleine and Philippe. I was surprised, though, at how interesting I found Asmodeus. I wasn’t too taken with him before, but this book does show another side to him. There’s also a lesbian couple, Françoise and Berith, and their story is new here, but adds more to the world.
If The House of Shattered Wings didn’t work for you, I suspect that The House of Binding Thorns won’t, either. I found it bleakly beautiful, and really enjoyed the additions to the world-building and the way the characters grew and changed, or at least revealed other aspects of themselves. It also won’t work for you if you’re not a fan of something that falls squarely into moral grey areas: you could have believed Silverspires were the good guys, in the previous book, but now the house is Asmodeus’, and for all that you kind of find yourself rooting for him, he’s still not a pleasant person.
It’s hard to pull together my feelings and thoughts on this book, for some reason. I remember not being sure about the first 100 pages — particularly with the brutal butchery at the beginning, and I’m being pretty literal about the butchery — but then I got really into it, ended up reading obliviously until my dinner was stone cold, and finished it off in one great gulp. And promptly started recommending it to people. And yet right now, it’s hard to put my finger on it: part of it is the Paris of the setting, degraded and dark and magical; the feeling of House Silverspires, the history and weight of it; the allure of the Fallen, especially Morningstar, and wanting to know what their stories are. And the Vietnamese legends that get drawn in are also fascinating, and leave me very curious about a culture I know shockingly little about.
At the same time, I see reviews complaining about the unlikeableness and distance of most of the characters, and if I stop to think about it, it’s true. Selene? Well, she’s not cruel, though she’s not entirely merciful, and occasionally you can have a moment of pity for her in the way she has to lead her House. But sympathy? Not really. Madeleine? Well. Some sympathy, perhaps, but in a very pitiful sort of way, because of her addiction. Philippe? Difficult, given his ambivalence, his willingness to betray, and the fact that he participated in the butchery of a Fallen angel at the very start of the book… Isabelle? She’s more of a blank slate, honestly; it’s hard to know what she’s going to become, what’s going on in her head. That’s almost the point of her character, given that Fallen don’t retain full memories of why they fell.
And yet. I know that I did get drawn in — partly by the prose, I think, which breathed that sense of a decaying Paris, of tarnished pride, and by the world de Bodard built. Even if I can’t put my finger on it, I have to give this four stars because, well, what else can you do when something makes you forget all about your dinner for hours?