Received to review via Netgalley; book due out 4th Feb 2020
A Western, but set in the future, in the American Southwest during war and oppressive government. The main character flees her home after the execution of her secret lover, Beatrice, for the possession of seditious literature. She runs away by hiding in the wagon of a group of Librarians — people who travel around distributing approved literature.
Naturally, the group turn out to be not-so-law-abiding, and Esther finds herself facing the law and learning all kinds of things she never thought she could. She also finds herself attracted to the trainee librarian of the group, who considers themself to be non-binary and just pretends to be female in towns, where it’s necessary. In some ways, it’s a fairly typical narrative and hits more or less the beats I expected, with Esther slowly growing in confidence and competence as the story rolls along. The ending comes along briskly and leaves the way open for plenty more in this world.
It’s a pleasant read, and I’m still pleased to see a non-binary character casually included in a place of prominence. The relationship between Esther and Cye seems a little fast for me, and I’d honestly have liked to learn more about Bet and Leda — and Amity, come to that — whose stories might perhaps have stood out a bit more. I enjoyed it, but as it’s settled in my mind, I realised that I hoped for more.
Flight of Magpies rounds this trilogy off beautifully. Of course, as it opens, the two are struggling: Stephen’s work-life balance is dreadful, while Crane has too much time on his hands. They’ve come a ways from the start of the last book, but they haven’t really resolved their priorities and their future intentions. That has to play out against the background of even more work issues for Stephen, something going on with Saint, and mysterious deaths that are clearly magical in some way, but hard to trace back.
That’s really just the start of the problems, but I shan’t spoil it. Suffice it to say that everything comes together beautifully, and Stephen and Crane get the ending they deserve. I’ll confess to wandering through the flat with my hands flailing saying “aaaaa” and refusing to spoiler it for my wife, having started and finished the book in one evening.
I’m intrigued by the glimpses of Pastern and his story — which is good, since I have Jackdaw lined up to read soon. None of the revelations in that part of the plot were particularly surprising, but the climax was nail-biting all the same. I’ll admit I was surprised about Merrick, and still don’t quite understand how that relationship developed, as such — like Crane, I was blindsided by it.
There were several sex scenes, some of them including plot-relevant information, for those who might be averse to reading them or might prefer to skip.
Sisters of the Vast Black follows the journey of a group of nuns travelling on a living spaceship (derived from sea slugs), Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. They’re wandering about the universe on missions of mercy, baptising babies in colonies, celebrating marriages in young colonies… The universe has barely recovered from a civil war, and hints of that unease wrap the story around, while everyone on board has their secrets, their doubts and their worries. The Mother Superior of the little order is suffering with dementia, Sister Gemma has fallen in love, and Sister Faustina is keeping everybody’s secrets as she watches their correspondence come and go. Worse, their ship wants to mate, and they’re struggling with whether to allow it, or whether it — as a mobile convent, essentially — should be forced to remain celibate as well.
Oh, and there are disturbing hints that a new war might be brewing…
It feels fairly small-scale and insular at first, but it quickly opens out. The Mother Superior’s secrets can shake everything, and the Sisters have been using the ship’s immune system to make vaccines for dreadful diseases. Earth influence is expanding again, including with the arrival of a new priest with new orders from Rome to bring the Sisters into line. It all comes together in a final rush, and you see what it’s all for — there’s a reason for all the choices it makes. It works beautifully; I worked out where it was going ahead of time, but was still glad to see it happen, and there were some beautiful lines about the importance of helping people.
It boils down to: it’s a big world, and we’re just lonely little specks, but we can make ourselves something more. It’s very hopepunk in that sense, and I enjoyed that it was not super cynical about everything. The faith (or lack thereof, in the case of one character) of the Sisters is treated sympathetically, but without elevating them above other people. We’re all human, and can all shine our lights in the vast black, and create our own impossible constellations.
My wife was planning to try reading some K.J. Charles, and I suggested these books… and then as she started reading, realised I couldn’t remember the first book well enough to go on the second myself. So, obviously, I had to do a reread! Right up front, the book itself contains triggers for quite detailed attempts at suicide, sexual (and incestuous) assault off-screen, and some mind-manipulation stuff that really isn’t cool (mostly by villains). There are also some scenes where enthusiastic consent is absent, though it isn’t assault.
It starts with Lord Crane being overcome by seemingly outside impulses to harm himself after a return from Shanghai where he made a living for himself after being kicked out and sent away by his father. His father and brother killed themselves too, the only reason he’s inherited, and his manservant reckons there must be something going on — they’ve seen magic before and know it’s real, so he persuades Crane to ask for the help of a local equivalent. Enter the Justiciar Stephen Day, with a family grudge against Crane’s family and an unbending need to do the right thing. Naturally, Crane’s not as bad as his family, and sparks fly between the two of them as they get to grips with the rather sordid details of the curse.
There are a couple of scenes I’m less than comfortable with between Lucien Crane and Stephen Day. I read an older version of the book, so it’s possible the 2017 version softens this somewhat — I don’t know if it was edited. But Crane’s tendency to push Stephen around is less than attractive for me, even if Stephen is actually enjoying it — and the scene where he does explicitly consent but only out of a sort of spite isn’t so great. It isn’t that I don’t love the characters together, because I do, and these kinds of stumbles and miscommunications are entirely human, but it is best to go into them forewarned if it’s something that might trip your wires.
Despite that caveat, I do love the way they come together, and especially the epilogue/added bit in the re-issue (which I did read as well after realising I somehow had the old version). Their relationship is genuinely exciting, and I love Crane and Merrick’s protection of each other, and the hints about Stephen’s life elsewhere. I hope to see something of Esther in the second or third book!
It stood up to a reread, and I’m looking forward to the second book.
Saw this described on Twitter and thought, hey, I’ll give that a go! So I signed up to Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon, and snagged a copy. It’s set in a place called the Teacup Isles, with a vaguely Regency-ish mindset and morality, except there’s magic too. All the ladies at the fashionable parties are trying to snare a duke — except Mnemosyne, who grew up with said duke, doesn’t think that much of him, and would really rather be reading a book. This endears her to the spellcracker tasked with protecting the duke from matrimony, who is run ragged trying to stop everyone using charms to make themselves irresistible.
Naturally, hijinks ensue. I’d have loved a little more time spent developing Mnemo and Mr Thornberry’s relationship; it’s obvious where it’s going, but sometimes one wants to enjoy the ride. I did enjoy that the relationships between the women are largely friendly, even when they’re rivals; Mnemo and Letty are rather fun, and I like that nobody is a stereotype and the women work together.
Overall, cute and enjoyable! It’s quite short and not particularly surprising or substantial, but that makes it feel very much like a cupcake — sweet and indulgent, and not too fattening (to the TBR).
Oof, I was always so sure I’d love Watchtower, and yet when it comes to it I don’t know what to say. It felt like there was meant to be a lot going on under the surface, but I couldn’t see through it to what I was supposed to be connecting to and understanding. It opens with the aftermath of a battle: Ryke has survived, though the lord of the Keep has not, and he’s offered a chance to live and serve… and if he does, his prince will be kept safe. He agrees in order to save Errel, and ultimately contrives his escape after Errel has been thoroughly humiliated by being forced to be essentially a court jester. So far, so heard it all before.
And then he and Errel end up in a sort of… commune, where everybody pitches in and everybody learns to fight, only there’s also dancing, which Errel learns and Ryke won’t learn. Some things turn out the way you expect — actually, none of the actual plot surprised me, per se — but the relationships are what I think are what’s really being explored. Sorren and Norres (their names aren’t alike for any particular reason I can see) help Ryke and Errel escape, and the four become entangled in a weird web of trust, jealousy and confusion.
It doesn’t help that Ryke is obtuse and stubborn all along. At the end, I was left with a pretty powerful sense of melancholy: that aspect of the regret and confusion Ryke feels comes through solidly, but what anyone else feels and why is rather beyond me. Why Ryke’s so stubborn and stupid (except learned prejudice, which he displays fairly frequently) doesn’t really come through for me.
In the end, I’m not really intending to bother with the other Tornor books, on the strength of this; it’s interesting how casually queer it is (Sorren and Norres are women and in a committed relationship; there are people of non-binary gender presentation in the world, though it seems that’s by birth rather than choice), given the age of the book. That part of it hasn’t aged it at all.
It all feels deceptively simple, in a way that I think is intended and meant to create something with that melancholy regretful feeling. But it’s like trying to hold a handful of snow in the palm of a warm hand; it doesn’t last long, and it doesn’t stand up to any pressure — it won’t last in my mind, I don’t think. I’m glad I gave it a try, though.
In this instalment of the series, Curran and Kate head to Georgia to arbitrate an argument between the European shapeshifter packs. It’s a trap and they know it, but they badly need the payment they will receive if they pull it off: ten drums of panacea, the medicine that helps shapeshifters who are at risk of becoming monsters, a risk that most shapeshifters face during adolescence. It’s not clear where the trap is, and Kate’s going to be a lone human among hundreds of shapeshifters who don’t respect her and think they can easily crush her… but it’s got to be done.
As ever, the book barrels along at an enormous clip. I don’t enjoy the relationship aspect of this book very much at all; after what they’ve been through so far, both Kate and Curran should know better than to behave like idiots and ignore the trust they’ve built between them. I know it’s part of the drama of the series, but ugh, Kate, you know he’d face down an army for you, why are you letting yourself be played?
(Not that Kate’s emotional intelligence has ever been a highly vaunted point in this series, admittedly.)
The escalation of the plot as far as Kate’s origins goes, though, is pretty great. Now she finds herself in a confrontation with one of her father’s closest lieutenants, and though the Pack are at her side, there are a limited number of them with her. She has to walk the line, protect the person she’s there to protect and win the panacea, and try to prevent her father’s lackey learning too much about her capabilities. Every secret she can keep now is one more weapon later. And fittingly for stakes this high, there are serious casualties…
As always, the drama and action are balanced with exquisitely timed snarky humour, and quite honestly I reread this in about three sittings and just plain gulped it down. I might not love the relationship drama in this particular instalment, but I’m Team Kate and Curran all the way.
Things have fallen apart between Elspeth and her long-term partner, so she heads home to her mother, only to find a murder investigation ongoing practically in the back garden. Haunted by what she saw when she checked it out, she looks through her books to discover why it’s so familiar, and finds that it’s a recreation of scenes associated with the local mythology of the Carrion King. She teams up with a childhood friend (now a police officer with a rather slack notion of what should be kept from the public) to dig into it, writing articles for the local paper along the way, and stumbling across more than her fair share of the bodies.
Overall, I found the plot kind of predictable; the mystery side was obvious pretty early on, and it didn’t make much of the tension between ordinary everyday policing and the actually supernatural events. That’s kind of left hanging at the end: the characters agree that there seem to be more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in their philosophy, and then… end of book! I’ve got the second book, and I’m curious enough to dig in, but I’m not overly enthused. I wonder if this might work better for someone who isn’t as steeped in crime fiction as I am? (Because okay, I like my Golden Age crime fiction, and you won’t have anything of this sort in Dorothy L. Sayers, but I did do a module on Crime Fiction during my BA, and I read a lot of Ian Rankin growing up.) For me, the marriage between genres was a rather distant one, tilted toward the crime fiction end, where it wasn’t exactly the freshest doughnut in the box.
Oddly enough, I also found the emphasis on Elspeth’s music choices rather disruptive as well. I don’t know most of the singers/bands mentioned (except Bowie), so if it’s meant to set the mood, it’s totally lost on me. I’m not going to put the book down to spin up Youtube to glean whatever clues to the character’s mental state or the tone of the chapter might be in the music choices.
Peter’s a bit of a non-entity so far, to be honest; Elspeth likes him, but I’m weirded out by the lack of professionalism in giving evidence — interview tapes from people being accused of serious crimes! — to a reporter, childhood friend or not. Elspeth herself… I have no objections to her, but nor am I wildly enthused.
The thing is, although this is all very lukewarm, I read this book in about four sittings tops over the course of 24 hours. It went down easily and I never considered putting it down. That’s worth something, with my current mood (around me lie at least 14 unfinished books, and I haven’t been reading regularly for several weeks now). It’s not that it’s a bad book, but I wanted more from it to be really enthusiastic. I’ll be interested to see what the second book does for me!
I’m unfortunately a little behind on writing reviews after I had some issues with posting last week, so let’s get caught up! I felt like romping back through this world, especially with the new installment released; it’s always such a fun read, and it didn’t disappoint on this occasion either. It feels like an excuse to have a Great Detective, a fog-shrouded steampunk London, dragons, and books all in one package — and that’s no bad thing. The stuff that happens is all a bit madcap, and it’s very meta-fictional at times: Fae tend to work according to internalised narratives, and worlds with more inherent Chaos tend to create storylines, so that the thing you need to find to continue your quest is right there when you accidentally stumble into a labyrinth, and so on.
I enjoy Kai and Vale very much — Vale more so, I think, because Kai is arrogant without cause, because he believes himself inherently above others. Vale is arrogant as well, but in a way that derives from his capabilities more than from his position in society. I’m glad that though they are both attracted to Irene, it’s not a conventional love triangle: they’re also connected to each other with respect (starting in this book) and affection (from the end of this book onward), and you get the distinct sense that Kai at least wouldn’t mind an arrangement involving all three of them in some combination. It’s definitely refreshing.
Ever since a friend read this and mentioned that it has inconsistencies, I keep thinking about that fact… and then quickly forgetting it as Irene dashes onto the next place. Perfect? No, it’s definitely not that. But highly enjoyable, for sure, and in a way that matters a lot more to me than perfection, as long as it can keep me hooked. And so far it has, multiple times and through the multiple volumes. It’s the kind of fun reading I want to experience more often, and the kind of unashamedly, riotously fun rollercoaster (which has its ups and downs, there’s no mistaking that — it’s not all sunshine and roses) that I needed to remind me of that.
So it’s SciFi Month on some blogs, and okay, I’m not really properly participating, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to pick The Sparrow back up and read it again. I’ve only reread about 8 chapters at this point, and technically this post is for the first week of the schedule (up to chapter 11), but ssshh. Go read other people’s thoughts on week one here!
So, right, where are we. When I first read this, it was the first ebook I ever owned, and I read it more or less in one go (yes, all 500 pages of it) on my computer screen, so hooked was I. I didn’t even own an ereader yet. The site I bought it from no longer exists and the format is obsolete. I must’ve been 16, 17? 18 at the most, because I certainly read it before I went to university. I am wondering if I will get more out of it now from this perspective — though I got plenty out of it back then, and though I haven’t reread it before now, I have consistently recommended it as an excellent sci-fi novel.
Here goes, let’s see if it’s just as good now. Suck Fairy, stay away.
“They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” What was your initial/gut response to the Prologue?
“Oh god, it’s gonna kill me all over again, isn’t it.”
That’s really it. I’ve read this book before and I remember what a glorious horrible amazing gut punch it all is, and it starts it right there.
How are you getting on with the split timeline and the many points of view? How about Mary Doria Russell’s predictions for 2019?
I had totally forgotten that it was set in 2019. I did just read one bit that made me laugh, given the whole “ok boomer” meme: “The whole damned baby boom is retiring. Sixty-nine million old farts playing golf and complaining about their haemorrhoids.”
There are definitely disturbing parallels with things I see in the real 2019. It feels like a parallel universe where things just happened a little differently; not like she guessed terribly, laughably wrong. Her technology is a bit too far ahead in some ways, while other things are absent (the ubiquity of mobile phones, for instance), but all in all, it doesn’t feel too strange.
What are your first impressions of the characters? Any favourites so far?
I feel odd about how little I remember! Of course, I’m not really having first impressions, since I’ve read this before. I’d forgotten how little we get to see inside Sandoz — okay, obviously it preserves some of the mystery, but the memory of the book was that it was mostly about him, and so far, well. It does revolve around him, but right now we’re still seeing him entirely from the outside, with pity (in some sections) and with curiosity (how is he going to end up that broken from here?) in others.
It does feel rather like we don’t get inside the characters often in general, though, beyond one or two scenes for Jimmy and Anne, where we get to know what they’re thinking (mostly about Sandoz).
From what we learn of Emilio’s training and what we see in the ‘present’ day (2050s), what do you make of the Society of Jesus as portrayed here?
Like most things, it’s both the best and worst of humanity. Behr and Candotti, the best; Voelker and (in a more complex way) Giuliani, the worst. At times, it shows the irony of that they meant no harm line; clearly, harm is meant (for example during Sandoz’s training, just for starters) and committed in hope of a later, greater good.
Any other thoughts you’d like to share so far?
Edward Behr being nicknamed “Teddy Bear” is the best thing. Over and out.