These books could really each be a trilogy on their own, in someone else’s hands. Book one would be up to Phèdre in La Dolorosa, book two would be… maybe up to her time in Kriti, and then book three would be the return to Terre D’Ange. There are so many cinematic glorious moments, though Ysandre’s stunt near the end is the most glorious of the lot.
Kushiel’s Chosen follows Phèdre as she strikes out on her own, playing the game against Melisande in much the same way that her mentor Delaunay (unknowingly) did in the first book. She is, of course, rather too perfect in herself (apart from her drama with Joscelin, which sometimes gets frustrating) — too capable of carrying the day, through sex or divine mandate, but I always just settle down to enjoy it: the purple-tinged prose, the dramatic narration, the exoticisation of literally everything. It’s like a really, really rich banquet, and when I view it like that then I quickly sink into the story and characters.
What I can’t believe, really, is how quickly I used to read these books. I’ve slowed down in my old age. But there was also much enjoyment in spinning this out, episode by episode of Phèdre’s adventure, and building up slowly to the crescendo. I think this series has lasted well, for me.
I finally read Going Postal because I need to write a review of it for Postcrossing, in the not too distant future, and also because I needed a book I could borrow from Libby so I could read on my Kindle while on the treadmill. I expected to take some time over it and have a daily date with it while walking; I’m stranded somewhere partway through Monstrous Regiment because I kept stalling for no apparent reason. I didn’t have the same experience with Going Postal at all: it just seemed to smoothly hook me and draw me in and just keep on dragging me with it.
I’ve had a somewhat rocky relationship with Discworld in general, I guess. I remember reading the first few books (in publication order), and getting a bit tired of the humour; I got a bit tired of the running gags of Monstrous Regiment, too. Going Postal clicked with me, though; I was glad to finally meet the origin of some of the regular fan references for myself (GNU, for instance) and I found Pratchett’s humour to be, in general, less juvenile here than in Monstrous Regiment. There a few bits where I rolled my eyes a bit and wished he’d get on with it; the initiation bit was one of those. Yes, yes, postmen fall over rollerskates and get chased by dogs, I get it!
But for the most part, it really worked for me. And you can’t help but like Moist van Lipwig, really. He’s not a good man, except he accidentally kind of becomes one while playing the part. He has a kind of dedication to it — admittedly in fear of his life — and a wild enthusiasm, and the quirks of the postal service he organises are a joy.
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!
I really wanted to read this as soon as it came out, but I’m a mood-reader and it kept not being the time. Whoops. Anyway, now I have: it’s the story of a trans brujo, someone who can summon the souls of the dead and lay them to rest. Yadriel is a part of the brujx community, but somewhat kept apart because they’re handling the fact that he’s trans quite badly. In his desperation to prove himself, he summons a spirit… and it turns out to be the ghost of Julian, a boy from school who is rather wayward and not at all like Yadriel himself.
I wasn’t entirely sure how Yadriel and Julian could work together, knowing that this also featured a romance between them, but even as Julian annoys the heck out of Yadriel… the attraction and connection between them also makes sense. It’s somewhat forced on them by circumstance, but Julian’s unexpected kindnesses — and Yadriel’s desperateness to prove himself — speak volumes, and they become quite close. With the help of Yadriel’s cousin Maritza, a bruja also somewhat ostracised for her refusal to use blood to channel her healing powers (she’s a vegan), they try to figure out why Yadriel’s brother is missing, and what the heck is going on.
There was a certain aspect of the plot which I saw coming from a bit too far away, and I really wish it hadn’t worked out that way because I liked the character, and I was more in the mood for a different kind of story there. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, because it does, but it wasn’t how I’d hoped things would turn out.
I adore how fiercely protective of Yadriel Julian becomes; the ending is a smile a minute, honestly. The overall feel of the book is rather young, but that rather suited my need for something that felt easy to read (even as it deals with some difficult topics, like being trans and fitting into your very gendered community properly). Definitely one I’m happy to recommend!
Again, I read this in the version illustrated by Charles Vess, this time. I noticed fewer corrections/changes in the text for this one, but perhaps I know it a little less well — though the opening chapter with the ceremony where Arha is ‘eaten’ has always stuck in my head (the drum beating at heart-pace, the ritual word that has lost all meaning) and the descriptions of the Labyrinth, the treasures of the temple… these have made a really big impression on me. As a kid, I think it was my favourite.
And that impression pretty much stayed with me. I love learning more about this part of Earthsea, seeing a whole other perspective. Though she didn’t know it yet, according to her own discussions of her writing process, so many foundations for the later books were laid here, asking new questions of what was established in the first book.
The only thing disappointing about this reread was reading Ursula Le Guin’s afterword, which feels like such an odd thing to say — but I so often agree with Ursula Le Guin that it really pulls me up short when something strikes such a discordant note for me. Here it is:
When I was writing the story in 1969, I knew of no women heroes of heroic fantasy since those in the works of Ariosto and Tasso in the Renaissance. These days there are plenty, though I wonder about some of them. The women warriors of current fantasy epics — ruthless swordswomen with no domestic or sexual responsibility who gallop about slaughtering baddies — to me they look less like women than boys in women’s bodies in men’s armor.
It sort of depends exactly what heroines Le Guin had in mind with that, but “no domestic or sexual responsibility” rings horribly to me. I enjoy the attention to domestic tasks in Le Guin’s work (Yarrow making the wheat cakes in A Wizard of Earthsea; the endless work of spinning and weaving at the Place in The Tombs of Atuan…) — and I certainly wouldn’t want Tenar to run around in armour with a sword. I think it’s important that Tenar, with those skills and her later trajectory, is a heroine… but she’s not the only kind of heroine there can be. (And a woman who wants to have “no domestic and sexual responsibility” is no less of a woman for it.)
Bit odd to end on that note, given that I dearly love The Tombs of Atuan. Still a great read.
I loved The Golden Mean maybe a little bit less than the other books, even though the plot definitely advances here. It’s the end of the original trilogy, and there’s just so much that we don’t know because of the frustrating format. It makes sense that we can’t know it, but it’s still infuriating to get to the end and be left with so many questions about the story and what exactly happened. I’m very curious about that last postcard, don’t get me wrong! I’d love to read more!
But… this particular volume felt a little bit thinner, and the fact that the later books are all available second-hand only (and expensive) is really sad.
It’s still absolutely beautiful, with letters each in their own envelopes (though the envelopes are a little less well stuck to the page in this than in my copies of the first two books). It’s a lovely, tactile, multimedia experience, and I thoroughly recommend it even with its frustrations. I’ll continue reading the series when I can, though sadly it won’t be soon, unless I have a Fairy Godmother somewhere!
Sabine’s Notebook more or less immediately follows Griffin & Sabine, and has the same format. Though they were so close to meeting in the first book, Griffin gets scared at the last minute: can he have imagined Sabine? Is it possible that he’s invented her somehow? So he runs, and his letters to Sabine come from all over the world as he tries to figure things out, travelling to Florence, to Greece, to Japan… and attempts to visit Sabine’s home island.
Sabine, meanwhile, stays in Griffin’s flat in London, giving him the time to get things figured out. And then — well, I’ll let you discover it for yourselves, but suffice it to say that I loved this one as well. The ending is another kick in the gut, same as the ending of the first, and the letters between the two of them are tender and hopeful amidst the fear. And of course, the illustrations are beautiful, and the format with the envelopes and postcards remains really engaging.
I’m keen to see what the last book will do. In a way, the plot of this book is kind of demanded by the format. Once they meet, the conceit kind of falls away. So I’ll be interested to see how that gets resolved…
I’ve read this I don’t know how many times, and it always charms. This time, I read it in the edition illustrated by Charles Vess, which is just gorgeous — and includes both an introduction by Le Guin and an afterword, which shed a little light on the book and what she thought of it, where it came from, and where it went. If you’ve never read it, A Wizard of Earthsea is a hero’s journey, a fantasy tale with dragons and sea-voyages and magic, but also an inward one.
I still maintain that Ged’s journey makes an excellent metaphor for (how I experience) mental illness. Sometimes the descriptions of the Shadow and the way it haunts Ged are just far too familiar; they fill me with my own anxious dread. But then it’s good to be reminded that when you turn and face it, and hunt it down, and accept it as a part of you… to some degree, things can be overcome.
All that said, I still appreciate that Le Guin came back to Earthsea, and found herself looking at how it came to be such a man’s world, and how it could be fixed, things which her introduction discusses a little.
On a non-story note, I did notice some changes in the illustrated edition. Some were obviously good corrections (my old Penguin had plain-sailing as a “sacred” skill on Roke, while this version has it as “scanted”, which is much more likely)… and others I have arguments with, like changing “in wizardly fashion” to “in wizardry fashion”. I think it was right the first time! And my other comment is that I wish there was an illustration of the otak. My visual imagination is non-existent, though I’ve muzzily over the years somehow come to the conclusion that it’s basically a carnivorous guinea pig.
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 20th April 2021
I didn’t love Finna, though I liked it; it felt it leaned a bit too much on being angry about soul-sucking capitalism (which, same, but the choir can get tired of being preached to). Defekt is set in the same world, and briefly crosses over with Finna (we see Jules right before the events of that book), but for whatever reason it worked a bit better for me — it felt a little less preachy, and I loved the idea of all those sentient furnishings. The toilet is a highlight (seriously).
I was a little bit put off by the “self-cest” thing, though: Derek is the main character, and after he takes an uncharacteristic sick day, he has to do a special inventory shift. During the shift, he meets four of his clones, and finds himself particularly drawn to one of them. Sure, that one is quite different to him in many ways, but the potential romance between them was a bit of an odd note for me.
Still, a fun novella, and I suspect those who already enjoyed Finna will enjoy this at least as much.
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.