Tag: SF/F


Review – The Fellowship of the Ring

Posted 9 December, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Fellowship of the Ring by TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

Sorry, J.R.R.: I am going to review the three volumes separately, but it’s really more of a running commentary of what’s on my mind. I don’t actually see The Lord of the Rings as three separate books; the volumes just provide a good place to pause and take stock. And there’s always a lot to take stock of, when you’re reading these books: Tolkien made sure of that. This isn’t the first time I’ve read them for pleasure since my Tolkien module during my MA, but that aspect of my reading is maybe a bit further behind me right now. Still, I can’t not appreciate the extra richness that reading gave me, the breadth of Middle-earth. There’s so much I want to know more about — the Barrow Downs, the world Tom Bombadil first walked in… and not as glimpses, but the way we see them through the eyes of the hobbits or other members of the Company.

One thing that’s easy to forget is the sheer scale of the landscape they cross. People complain that it takes whole pages to get anywhere, but rarely the opposite: that the whole journey between Rivendell and Hollin is done in a page, that Hollin is just a stop on the way to Caradhras and Moria, when again, there’s so much more we could know about Hollin. Two things contributed to me thinking about that this time: one, I play LOTRO. Now thankfully, Lath has a war steed now, so I can cover a lot of ground, but the first fetch quests in the Shire drove me nuts. So much running! And even that is necessarily scaled down, else you’d have to sit back and take literally a day to run across the Shire. Not ideal for an MMORPG. Secondly, I’m part of a Walk to Mordor challenge, and wow. The miles it takes us to get anywhere — we’re barely progressing faster than the Company did, despite the fact that we’re adding everyone’s miles together.

One thing I do feel is the lack of a real Welsh influence here. This is “a mythology for England” (or is it “of England”? I’ve forgotten the exact quote now), not Britain, and all the focus is on the Anglo-Saxon kind of world. You can tell me about the Welsh influences until you’re blue in the face, but what gets me about Tolkien’s world is that absence. The troubled Welsh background is pushed aside — perhaps there in the Dunlendings’ struggle with the Rohirrim, but it’s not like that is a major theme, or that they’re treated with much sympathy.

Which is fair enough, but it does make me sad that Tolkien didn’t fold those issues into his mythology. I would’ve liked to see more of those tensions, that complex history, echoing through Middle-earth as it still does through modern Britain.

Rating: 5/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 6 December, 2014 by in General / 29 Comments

I’m doing really well and not buying books at the moment! But that doesn’t stop me going to the library (dun dun dunnn) or picking up comics. Though honestly, I picked these issues up a couple of weeks ago and forgot to include them then, so I thought I’d drop them into this post.

Review copies

Cover of The Very Best of Kate Elliott Cover of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I haven’t actually read anything by Kate Elliott yet, so this seems like a good place to start! As for H is for Hawk, I keep getting curious about it, but not curious enough to buy it… and then lo and behold, I get it on Netgalley. I’m quite interested to get round to reading it ASAP.

Library fiction

Cover of The Spirit Thief by Rachel Aaron Cover of The Spirit Rebellion by Rachel Aaron Cover of The Spirit Eater by Rachel Aaron

Cover of 7 Wonders by Adam Christopher Cover of The Iron King by Maurice Druon Cover of Starfish by Peter Watts

Cover of Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery Cover of Still Life by Louise Penny

Rachel Aaron and Adam Christopher have actually been on my TBR for ages, but that’s in ebook form, and sometimes I’m not in the mood for that. So I thought maybe getting from the library would kickstart me. As for the others, they come recommended by various people, and Emily of New Moon by my love of Anne of Green Gables, though I gather Emily’s a bit more saccharine than Anne.

Library non-fiction

Cover of Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan Cover of The Galapagos by Henry Nicholls

I think a friend read Ladies of the Grand Tour recently, and The Galápagos has an obvious draw for me…

Comics (single issues)

DIG029097_2 DIG031290_3

Jessica Drew is awesome.

That’s it for me, and you may well add that that’s plenty for one person. What’s anyone else been getting their hands on?

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Review – Chime

Posted 5 December, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Chime by Franny BillingsleyChime, Franny Billingsley
Review from March 3rd, 2013

Where do I begin to talk about Chime? It’s a magical story and it’s not: the plot revolves around magical beings, around what are essentially soul-sucking vampires, around a girl who is a witch. The plot revolves around a stepmother, and illness, around a girl who is made to believe that she’s a bitch. Sorry: Chime makes me want to play with words, makes me think a little like Briony (which was, by chance, almost my own name).

I can quite see why some people don’t like it. It requires thought, patience, and a willingness to tread out new brain-paths. Briony isn’t an easy narrator, and she isn’t reliable either, as she constantly tells us. The narrative isn’t a straightforward quest, it’s a maze, it’s full of funhouse mirrors.

I loved this. I found the culmination of it all satisfying, and I happily followed the maze through to the end. I loved the friendship that turned into love and also remained friendship, so much more solid-feeling than the kind of romances that fiction is enamoured of where there’s a spark and then a flame without any time in between. I loved the characters, and I would prefer to read them again.

But if you read fifty pages and you’re not intrigued, if you read fifty pages and you would like to kick Briony, if you’d like to stop reading, then stop. It probably isn’t going to magically turn out to be the book for you.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Into the Green

Posted 3 December, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

1062774Into the Green, Charles de Lint

I’m not entirely sure what I thought of Into the Green. I read it in one go, which normally indicates a pretty good book, but I’m not overwhelmed by it, thinking back. I liked the imagery and the idea of ‘going into the green’, the set up, the world… but I tend to be most strongly drawn by characters, and none of the characters here really got me. I finished it yesterday and I actually just struggled to remember the protagonist’s name (Angharad — I’m a little doubtful about taking someone who is clearly Romani-based and giving her a very Welsh name, but then I don’t know much about the Romani and maybe that fits in just fine); she’s not a very strong character. She’s described as naive at some points, and honestly, the way she blunders about, I’d rather say “stupid”.

There were aspects that I liked, though — some of the people she meets, and the way everything came together at the end. I’d have liked to hear more about the silver puzzle box, really, and how it came to be, the culture and world it came from.

Overall, I’ve got to give it points for keeping me interested, but I’m not going to keep the book around and I hope de Lint’s other books are stronger.

Rating; 3/5

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Review – The Goblin Emperor

Posted 1 December, 2014 by in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine AddisonThe Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison

When I finished The Goblin Emperor, I was sad there wasn’t more of it. Is there higher praise?

The things other people have critiqued do make sense: the fact that is very much character-driven rather than plot driven; the plethora of names and titles to get used to; the language stuff which may superficially appear just gimmicky and faux-archaic; the fact that Maia is often reacting rather than being proactive. Me, though, I loved it, for all of those things and more. For example, the thee/thou stuff was annoying me until someone pointed out to look closer: normally people who use thee/thou don’t get that it’s an informal form of address (presumably at least partly because of the ubiquity of the Lord’s Prayer, which uses that address for God) and so for someone who is familiar with Old and Middle English and French like me, it becomes very annoying to have people addressing their king as if he were their equal or inferior. Here, however, the pronouns are all intentional. If a character uses the first person plural, most often they are actually being formal; if they then drop into using ‘I’, then they are speaking as a private person, among friends. It’s worth watching what Addison does with pronouns, because when they change, you know something’s up. In a way, the conflict between I/we is a central part of Maia’s character and his relationships.

When it comes to the invented language, it’s a little more difficult. You end up with various forms of address depending on marital status and rank, and there are suffixes which alter names according to number and gender. This is something we’re just not used to dealing with in English these days, and it can make it very difficult to keep track of a character as they switch spheres and are referred to in different ways. There is actually a helpful section in the back, which is probably easier to refer to if you’re reading it in dead tree, which explains all of these things if it’s something you’re interested in. For me, I liked puzzling it out, and context often helped.

(From this point in the review, there are some minor spoilers!)

But all that could be there and interesting and it wouldn’t have made me care about the book like the central character did. People are right to talk about the massive contrast with “grimdark” fantasy; Maia is pretty unambiguously good, and though he may sometimes feel angry, or vengeful, he tries to be fair and not to use his newfound rank to punish those who have done him wrong. He has plenty of opportunity, he has the right, but he holds himself back. He cares about his social inferiors and servants, and though he was never trained to be emperor, never expected to be emperor, he gives himself to the role without reserve. I loved him and the characters around him, loved the moments when he pushed the boundary by apologising to them or showing concern, and the moments in return where they took a more personal interest in him. I wanted to see more of his closest guards, especially Cala, but the public/private formal/informal boundaries prevent that; we just get glimpses. I loved the moment where Cala buttons up Maia’s sleeve for him to hide the marks of abuse, the way Beshelar reacts.

I enjoyed that Addison evaded some things that would’ve spoilt my enjoyment. For example, Maia gets a crush on an opera singer, and yet there’s no seduction, no abuse of his power over her or vice versa. When she offers to have a ‘closer relationship’ with him, in a personal sense you want Maia to say yes, because it may make him happy — but because of the situation, you want Maia to remain the person he is, reluctant to abuse his role, and it’s a relief when he does. Addison shows Maia struggling with the role, but never betraying it or himself. I love that, I love that we’re not expected to forgive him a betrayal of his self because shiny happy love or something.

In terms of female characters, it’s interesting, because it’s set in a proto-medieval type world (though the religion implied at is somewhat Buddhist, with meditation taking a key role for Maia) and women are marginalised, but they’re not happy with it, and nor are all the men around them. There are educated women, women who pursue their skills and interests, women who are not afraid to defend their rights, their children, and in Maia’s fiancée’s case, her husband! Even one of Maia’s guards is, in the end, a woman. While I think the proto-medieval-Europe thing can be overdone, and there are shades of it here, Addison goes further than others in showing that world changing. For example, Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne is ostensibly set in the world where women are given freedoms, educated, political, etc, and yet not one of them chooses to take an unambiguously unfeminine role — we don’t see female warriors, there remains a definite line between the roles of the sexes. Addison blurs that, shows it in the process of blurring, which I enjoyed very much.

When I say that I’m sad there isn’t more of this, it’s not because the story is incomplete. Of course, Maia’s life goes on afterwards, but I don’t want more because I need to know what happens next, or because there’s anything unsatisfying about it. I want more because I love the world, love engaging with Addison’s characters and figuring out her world, and I think there’s plenty more there for her to play with if she chooses. This is a book I’m sure I’m going to reread — I could almost just start it again right now, which is very rare for me. There are few fiction books I engage with on this level of looking for language, history, figuring out customs and conventions. It’s not on the same level as Tolkien, who spent a lifetime refining his world, but there is a complexity here which I really love.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Hero and the Crown

Posted 28 November, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinleyThe Hero and the Crown, Robin McKinley

Wow, I don’t know why I didn’t really like The Hero and the Crown very much on the first go round. It’s full of all the kinds of things I love: love stories that aren’t just simple love-at-first-sight or we-grew-up-together-and-now-we’re-in-love, but something more complicated that that; a world with a history and a future, outside of what we’ve got; a heroine who works through flaws and barriers to become a hero. And the last sentences — ach! Lovely.

It’s not some straightforward children’s story in which a heroine goes forth and slays a dragon. That happens, but it happens as part of a longer journey: the dragon isn’t the end, but only really the beginning of Aerin’s journey. It doesn’t solve all her issues and let her go home unscathed, unchanged, to a court that’s suddenly ready to accept her. Aerin’s story is harder than that.

Looking at my old review/notes on this, I was disappointed by the worldbuilding — which I think is funny, because though it’s subtle, there’s plenty here. The surka, the crown, old heroes, Luthe’s background, why the animals follow Aerin: there’s so much that doesn’t get elucidated, but remains there for you to turn over and wonder at. McKinley doesn’t give you all the answers about her world in one go, and I doubt that The Blue Sword will answer all of it either. Maybe you have to do a little more work to really appreciate the history of the world, because McKinley does nothing so clumsy as sit you in a history lesson with Aerin to learn about it.

Overall, given the subtlety of parts of this and the wistfulness of the love stories, I’m not entirely sure how I’d have taken this as a child. It may be a prime example of a story that works on two levels: Aerin waving her sword around for younger readers, winning the day with her prowess, while the older readers might taste more of the bittersweetness of her immortality and her twin-nature.

Rating; 4/5

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Review – The Atrocity Archive

Posted 26 November, 2014 by in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Atrocity Archives by Charles StrossThe Atrocity Archive, Charles Stross

I keep trying Stross’ work, because I’ve read other novels of his and I know that there are some elements which interest me, some things which I do keep turning the pages for. I was actually more interested in The Atrocity Archive and “The Concrete Jungle” than I have been in most of his other books, which is a start, but I’m afraid a lot of it went over my head (not geeky enough) and some of it went under (fart jokes).

All in all, the alternate history conjured up here is interesting, though I can’t really talk about the mathematics, geometry, etc, because I can’t write down my own phone number without transposing a digit or two. That somewhat hobbles the story, because I think there’s humour and worldbuilding there that I just. don’t. get. Which is unfortunately how Stross has made me feel before.

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series, though I quest on in my attempt to find a Stross book I genuinely enjoy. It seems like he has cool ideas, and it’s not like it’s his writing style that throws me off — I just don’t feel like enough of a nerd!

Rating: 2/5

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Review – Tooth and Claw

Posted 24 November, 2014 by in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Tooth & Claw by Jo WaltonTooth and Claw, Jo Walton

I had a vague recollection of not really liking this book as much as Jo Walton’s other work. Then I reread it in approximately five seconds flat (well, a little more than that, maybe). As people have noted, my original review called this Austen-esque, whereas Jo makes it clear in the book itself that no, the influence is much more from Trollope. Not that I’ve read anything by Trollope, and there are aspects here reminiscent of Austen.

Before I write any more about this, let me just pause to be very amused that often the same people complaining the dragons are too human-like (wearing hats) complain that the dragons aren’t (modern Western) human-like enough for their taste (socially acceptable cannibalism after someone dies).

The thing I really enjoyed about Tooth and Claw, this time round as much as last time, was the complex history and social background there is to this story, which you don’t have to know about, but which is there. The world isn’t just a paper thin homage to Trollope; there’s a lot more going on, a whole geography and history and philosophy which shapes the story and gives the dragons life. The homage to Trollope is there, sure, but Jo also looked at it and changed what needed to be changed to make the dragon society feel real — lacy hats or no.

This time, I finished the book feeling glad that it’s a self-contained story which concludes within one book, because fantasy trilogies are getting out of hand these days, but also wondering very much about the background of the world, about events before and after the only somewhat personally significant events of this story. That’s something I love to leave a book wondering, because it means that the world wasn’t just created for the story, but the story takes place within the world.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Votan

Posted 20 November, 2014 by in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Votan & Other Stories by John JamesVotan, John James

I found Votan a really interesting read; I’m not entirely sure I liked it, but it was mesmerising anyway. There’s something compulsive about it: I just needed to know what the heck Photinus did next, what trouble he got into and how he got out of it, and how that all works into the conceit that he’s at the back of a whole lot of Norse mythology. Sometimes I felt I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on — that I’d missed a reference or something: there’s a lot of playing around with the material, pulling from different stories and sources.

It’s been published as both a fantasy and a historical novel, and I’m not honestly sure where I’d classify it. It’s almost febrile, somehow — all the things Photinus does, all the places he goes; reading it felt like a fever-dream. I lost track of people, places; somehow it didn’t really matter.

I did enjoy it, I think, but I’m not so enamoured of it that I’m going to read Not For All The Gold In Ireland or Men Went to Cattreath. Not entirely sure I want to see John James ride roughshod over Y Gododdin, so I’ll skip it.

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Darwin's Radio

Posted 24 October, 2014 by in Reviews / 8 Comments

Cover of Darwin's Radio by Greg BearDarwin’s Radio, Greg Bear

As warned by a friend, the ideas here are pretty fascinating — the book might be fifteen years behind in terms of science, but there’s nothing inherently ridiculous about the idea based on the scientific knowledge of the time — but the actual narrative is pretty deadly boring. Some of the writing is just… why would you let that slip past, editor? Hard SF isn’t just about the cool ideas: there has to be some element of execution there as well, or there’s no point in writing it as a novel — there’d be a non-fiction audience for speculation about the future too, undoubtedly.

It’s pretty unfortunate, since Bear did the work here in setting up the world, figuring out the details, making A lead to B without a gap in logic. Unfortunately, the prose is flat, most of the characters likewise, and isn’t there a song with lyrics that go I don’t care a lot? Because it’s in my head right now.

Rating: 1/5

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