The Cobbler’s Boy, Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear
This novella is basically the story of how Kit Marlowe (think “Come live with me and be my love” if you know poetry!) and how he became a spy, as the rumour about his life and death goes. In this story, he’s a teenage boy, just awakening to his sexuality (with a local lad named Ginger) and forced to be quick-witted to help his mother and keep his lout of a father from being accused of the murder of one of his own friends.
It’s a quick read, and it almost doesn’t matter if you know about Marlowe or not: you quickly orientate yourself with the time period and the circumstances of young Marlowe’s life. The authors chose to go with fairly period-authentic language for the dialogue: thees and thous abound, which I know would turn some people off (but it is, I promise you, all grammatically correct and appropriate, to the best of my knowledge).
It’s not quite a rip-roaring thriller, but it does go along at a fair clip, and it’s a fun adventure whether you know Marlowe or not. If you do, and are aware of some of the facts about him, it has a little extra depth and savour.
As always with Charles’ work, this book is entertaining, sometimes funny, and an almost distressingly quick read. I wanted more! Not that the story isn’t complete: that isn’t it. It’s just that I ended up wanting to spend more time with the characters: not just Crane and Stephen, though the tension between them and their back-and-forth is undeniably fun, but Crane’s man Merrick as well. Crane is the remaining scion of a dissolute family; Merrick has been with him since he was banished to China, and is as faithful to him as a hound. They’ve been through all kinds of adventures before Crane is ever cursed, so he trusts Crane and wants to save him from the curse. Stephen Day, a magician who says he can help Crane, hates him on principle due to the depredations of his father and brother.
Of course, Stephen quickly finds out he’s wrong to assume the present Lord Crane is the same as his family, and he finds himself drawn into Crane’s orbit as he struggles to figure out the magic that surrounds him and unwind the hatred and dark magic that seems to be choking Crane and his estate. As an additional draw, Crane turns out to be the descendant of a powerful magician, one all English practitioners know of. Also, surprise surprise, he’s physically attracted to Crane. (If you know Charles’ work, this shouldn’t be a surprise at all — nor is it a spoiler that they get together.)
The background story is pretty dark and icky, and there’s one awful scene — well-written, but horrible to read — in which another magician forces Crane to choke on his own cut hair. All’s well that ends well, though, with plenty of room for more stories. Which I know exist, so I’ll be off in search of those now.
Obviously not one for people who aren’t into LGBT romances, but a fun fantasy-mystery for those who are. There are sex scenes, which didn’t seem to be absolutely necessary for the plot, but did add to character development.
It took me ages to get round to reading this, but it turned out to be pretty delightful once I finally did, and I want to read more set in the same world. (Good thing there is more!) It’s basically around (I think) 18th century Europe, only with magic, and it’s set in a Ruritania-like fictional European country, with mixed European elements to the language and culture. The two main characters are two rather different girls: one girl from a well-off but not noble family, and one girl with no family name who serves the nobility as a swordswoman. The general cultural attitude toward women is somewhat straitlaced, and Margerit is headed for a dancing season and then marriage as quickly as possible, despite her scholarly tendencies — while Barbara is an oddity and not exactly socially acceptable, though protected by the patronage of the baron she serves.
Of course, the Baron has it in mind to meddle, and the two girls are quickly thrown together after he dies, leaving his title to an annoying relative but all the non-ancestral lands — and his wealth — to Margerit, his goddaughter… along with Barbara, who remains in service and thus can be more or less given to Margerit through the terms of the will.
As the story unfolds, it slowly becomes apparent that there’s a deeper game going on, with political implications — and also that Margerit is more remarkable than those around her thing, as she’s able to see and manipulate the ‘mysteries’ by petitioning the saints. There’s a solid and satisfying story there even without the relationship that develops between Margerit and Barbara. In itself, the romance is a fairly slight story, with the standard impossibilities and misunderstandings and lack of communication: it kept my attention because of the larger story within which it plays out.
It’s a fascinating take on the usual ‘medieval European fantasy’ type setting (although not quite medieval, I know), and I enjoyed it. It mostly steers clear of tarring any character with too black a brush, though I found it weird that Margerit’s cousin is quickly forgiven by her for attempting to sexually assault her, and I wasn’t entirely keen on how often the threat of rape and abduction arose (often just to explain why Barbara would need to stay so close to Margerit, I think). Some of the side characters are fascinating, and I’ll be glad to see more of them in the other books, particularly Antuniet.
Overall, as a fantasy novel alone it’s not groundbreaking, and as a romance alone it’s probably too focused on the other plot. Taken together, and with the fact that it’s a lesbian romance, it turns into something quite absorbing.
I wanted and expected to love this story. It’s a queer retelling of Beauty and the Beast, based on Vietnamese folklore with sci-fi elements as well, and dragons. There’s even a sci-fi library that I really want to exist. I pre-ordered it, requested it on Netgalley, and generally waited on tenterhooks. How did I find it? Well.
It opens promisingly enough: Yên, the daughter of a healer, is traded to a dragon in exchange for her healing powers. It’s clear they live in a post-apocalyptic universe, with viruses wracking the human population and contagion spreading from person to person. As a failed scholar, she’s just not valuable to her village, and so she’s traded away in order to save one of the leaders’ daughters. Off she goes to live with Vu Côn, the dragon, to look after her children — and it turns out that Vu Côn lives in a palace made by those who wrecked the world and disappeared, and the children aren’t any ordinary dragons.
After the start, though, I rarely felt like I understood what was happening or why. Or rather, I could give you a running summary for the whole story, but I felt all adrift; I didn’t know why things were happening, I didn’t catch the undercurrents, and the relationship between Vu Côn and Yên came completely out of nowhere from my point of view. I do like a story where I have to work for it, where I have to figure out where I stand and how this world is different to ours, but I don’t think that was the problem. It was more the characters and their motivations that never worked for me (or when they did, it was only for a few pages). The setting itself was fascinating, but. But.
I seem to be fairly alone in that, looking around at bloggers I trust, which makes me almost reluctant to admit that I just really did not get it. And it makes me reluctant to give this a poor rating, but… my ratings have to be my ratings, not how I think I ought to rate a book.
It’s clear there’s plenty here that’s enchanting other people, and in many ways I’m an aberration. I’ll be passing on my copy to my sister and seeing if it ticks her boxes!
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
I decided to reread this (and the second book) before I read Record of a Spaceborn Few, because they’re lovely books and why not? So I sank back into this one gratefully. I think I liked it more this time (not that I disliked it before), and I really got to appreciate the characters and the way they interact, the found family they make, warts and all. (Sorry, Corbin, but you kind of are.) It helped to be really invested in the crew right from the start, instead of feeling my way with them, and it also lessens the feeling that it’s leaning a bit too hard on Firefly (Kizzy = Kaylee in many, many ways).
Even so, there’s still a part about 60% of the way through the book where it went from “mildly fun” to “completely hooked and rooting for these people and oh goodness please let nothing bad happen to them”. This time, I actually cried through several parts near the end, because it really works — we’re not just told these people are close, but you feel it too.
I do also enjoy all the aliens, and the way they actually feel both like aliens and like plausible friends, in many cases. Sissix is undeniably not human, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine anyone as a better friend for Ashby — to me, that’s a difficult road to walk, making aliens alien enough while also making a crew that fit together as well as this. And Dr Chef might’ve been my favourite, this time, with the way he cares for everybody, but again… definitely alien. There’s attention to detail in setting up several rather different alien cultures, and even different cultures within humanity.
All in all, a very fun time was had by all, as I fully expected. I do kinda wish the second (and third) books followed the Wayfarer as well. I don’t want to be done with Ashby and company.
Oh man, what to make of this? I love so many things about it: the casually queer main character, the fact that it’s a Sherlock Holmes retelling/homage with female Holmes and Watson, the fact that they’re also black, all the references to the books they’re reading (Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Martha Wells — all names I know, treated as classics). I enjoyed the characterisation of Janet, her sense of duty and honour, her dedication to finding the truth, her unwillingness to be jerked around.
At other times, though, I felt like I didn’t quite know what was happening. A little too much was held back from the reader, so I didn’t follow the leaps to understand exactly what Sara was up to. Janet’s a heck of a smart cookie too, and she left me behind in her understanding of Sara, who is just — man, I’d just want to kick her all the time for being insufferable, and I can’t quite understand the closeness that grows up between the two. Mind you, that goes for the original Sherlock and Watson too, in many ways.
In terms of being a Sherlock Holmes retelling, it isn’t quite. There’s a lot else going on, and a lot more focus on the war-time issues that are affecting their society. It’s more inspired by and referencing Conan Doyle than really using his characters or situations. Janet isn’t John; Sara isn’t Sherlock. They’re their own people, and very much so.
I wasn’t always convinced by the political background. It references recent events like Trump becoming president, and then talks about them being quite a ways in the past and things having been better again… only to describe a situation that sounds very much like current politics, only with more technology (but not quite enough technology to make me believe that it had been a long time). It was very relevant and topical, but I couldn’t fit it all together in my head.
That might very well be a case of it being me and not the book, and even with my quibbles above, I tore through the book and enjoyed it. Janet’s a good person, struggling with various issues but trying to do her best — not only for her own sake, but to do her best ethically, which makes her exactly the kind of character that attracts me. I’d read more of Janet and Sara’s adventures, for sure. My rating feels a little unfair, if it was a case of it’s-me-not-you, but this is another of those rare cases where I kind of wish I used half-stars, just to denote my on-the-fence-ness. I enjoyed the book a lot, but I’m not sure how it’ll stick with me and whether it’ll improve or fall apart as I turn it over in my brain.
This took me a long time to finish, and I’m not entirely sure why. There’s a lot I love about it — the diversity, the bonds between the characters, the fact that it’s so driven by female characters (in both positive and negative ways), the way things aren’t just simple right and wrong. I mean, Kadeja and Leoden are undeniably pretty evil, which does undermine me saying that somewhat, but Yasha raises doubts at times as well. She’s on the side of the “good” characters, but I’m not convinced she’s always acting for the good of everyone — for interesting character reasons. I love what the book says about grief and healing and love.
On the surface, the intrigue and adventure and the friendships and alliances between the characters should’ve been enough to keep me hooked, and the writing doesn’t throw up some huge barrier or anything. I can’t put my finger on what kept me equivocating about the book, or what kept me from loving it enough that I just consumed it in a rush as I’m completely capable of doing. Something just didn’t work for me.
Which leaves me somewhat surprised that the ending leaves me curious and interested enough that I might just have to pick up the next book right away. Partly that’s because I want a bad thing not to have happened (and it’s a world with magic, so surely there’s a chance), and partly it’s because that ending is pretty interesting in terms of what it sets up (though I find myself largely unsurprised by it).
It’s been a long time since I read this — longer than I thought, in fact, and I’ve come to the conclusion I must have read it originally as a very young teen. I’m not sure how well I really took it on board, then: I wasn’t as much into the kind of cerebral, considering, anthropological fiction that Ursula Le Guin did so beautifully. Granted, I was excited about Sutty being a lesbian, and I found aspects of the world interesting, but I really wasn’t ready to enter into the spirit of the teaching. I was more worried about the man who walked up into thin air than about the tradition he was part of — which fortunately, the POV character never does lose sight of.
Now, well, the love of books and the desire to save a lost language and lost ways of being hits a lot closer to home. (Partially through knowing, for example, about the Welsh Not and the Treachery of the Blue Books — knowing that Welsh history, language and culture have been lost through the feeling that they were not civilised, not focused toward advancement.) I’d completely forgotten the ending and what Yara does to reconcile his conflicting loyalties, but now I’m not sure I can get the image out of my head.
It’s beautifully written — of course, it’s Le Guin — and though Sutty as a character is a bit passive at times, when you know what you’re in for there’s a lot of beauty in Le Guin’s work, in the quiet spaces around her words (“to hear, one must be silent”, after all) that let the imagination breathe.
This one sounds pretty exciting: queer retelling of The Little Mermaid, with Ursula as the heroine, including a Norse warrior girl and visits from the god Loki. There was a lot to like about this: I enjoyed the strength of Ersel’s relationship with her mother, and the complicatedness of her relationship with her friend. Loki’s character is also rather enjoyable: they’re genderfluid, and a true trickster: you’re never quite sure what they want and why.
Ultimately, it did feel a little thin to me at times, though, and the general background of misogyny and nastiness toward the female merpeople was a little unbearable to read. Not that I’d expected pure sunshine and puppies, but I wasn’t quite ready for the torture and enforced pregnancies, etc, etc. I could’ve done with more development of the relationship between Ersel and Ragna, too: it started well, but I found myself wondering how well they really knew each other at all, how likely it would be for their bond to actually be stable and lasting, given all the differences between them and the slenderness of their acquaintance.
So, an interesting retelling, but not in the end my thing.
In the end, this seemed to be rather more about Emmett chasing the tragedy of Ben and Tom than about Ben and Tom themselves. A queer time travelling couple as the mover for another dude’s life angst, yay? Also, Bury Your Gays. If I think about it in terms of rep, it isn’t great: Ben and Tom’s love might be strong and they might work at it to find each other across all the different times, but a lot goes unexplained (like how they get separated, and why they always end up in war zones), but it isn’t really about them. It’s about Emmett, and the twist at the end did not surprise me (or indeed feel like a twist) — but nor did it quite feel like it followed on logically.
It’s well-enough written (though the chapters in Tom’s point of view could do with being slightly more different in order to distinguish the narrative voices), and there are some very poignant moments between Tom and Ben, but… they’re mostly the backdrop to another dude’s story, including featuring his pointless and unfulfilling relationship with a woman, who he meets because he’s looking for evidence about Tom and Ben.
I was kind of excited about this one, but it sucks that Tom and Ben were the sideshow in a love story ostensibly about them.