All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

51AQy9+uVPL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve never had any time for io9.com, or any of the former Gawker media websites, even under their new ownership, so I’d never heard of Charlie Jane Anders, author of the 2017 Nebula Award winning novel All the Birds in the Sky, before I picked it up to read.

This paperback edition had a cover that communicated nothing to me, apart, perhaps, the publisher’s desire to conceal its genre. Substitute “girls” for “birds” and it looks like a typical front-table-at-Waterstones title. Still, Milton Keynes Library had undermined that game by placing a silly “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” sticker, featuring a dragon, on its spine.

For once, the melding of those two genres is apposite, because this novel is a bold attempt to have it both ways: to write about technology and a fucked climate in a recognisably realistic version of the near future; and to write about magic and witchcraft at the same time. I suppose this is what you might expect from a generation raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter. But I wasn’t, and while I can see the appeal of this, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was an easy read, but at the same time I didn’t find myself lost in it and responding to it in the same way I did for the novels of Becky Winters or Anne Leckie.

Anders’ style is something like Douglas Coupland meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this had the tone of a YA novel, but with some age-inappropriate content. Depending on your mood and taste, you might find this an engaging read. But parts of it felt to me like Harry Potter fan fiction, and there was an overall glibness that struck me as smug.

The plot* concerns a pair of misfits (one a witch, one a scientist) who are both trying to save the world from an anthropocentric apocalypse. Both witchcraft and science are left without detail, in a hand-wavy way, so I never really felt that this world was built with depth.

*In fact, the plot is so barely-there that I’d say that this was yet another example of Menippean Satire rather than novel. As a Menippean Satire, I can forgive its lack of narrative drive, but its lack of interesting ideas is more of a problem.

Which leaves me puzzling as to why this won the Nebula award. A cursory check reveals that this has had mixed reviews at best, though a lot of support from within the SF community. My conclusion is that this was seen as an “accessible” genre novel, one that wears its genre clothes lightly and might achieve some cross-over success, like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’m trying to imagine a person who doesn’t really like Fantasy and Science Fiction but who might like this: I guess? As part of a larger picture, there’s a whole generation of adults who were raised on Harry Potter, and I suppose the publishers are trying to draw them in. I’m not one of them.

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Some book reviews

616aYU-j2ML._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Eleven books so far, in this summer of reading, including Tim Powers’ Declare, which I’ve read before and will read many times more. Here’s something of a test, then. Can I remember much about the others? Excuse the lack of cover images: on borrowed French wifi, which is painfully, rurally, slow.

Borderline – Mishell Baker

The Borderline of the title refers both to a person with borderline personality disorder and the idea that there’s a world beyond this one, peopled by creatures who come to visit our world in the guise of beautiful people who act as muses for people in the creative industries. Protagonist is a survivor of a recent suicide attempt, who has lost her legs and gets around using prosthetics and/or a wheelchair. She’s also has BPD and is approached by an organisation that manages the relationship between humans and the otherworldly creatures. Why do they approach patients in psychiatric hospitals in particular? Because nobody will believe them if they talk, of course. An interesting premise and protagonist, this award-nominated book is worth a look.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Hard to say what age group this book is aimed at. Slightly younger than YA, probably, but it was knocking around at work and so I added it to the pile. Is this Gaiman’s best book, as the blurb suggests? Probably not, though it was an entertaining enough read about an orphaned child who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Read to me, however, like a collection of scenes rather than a novel. Telling, to me, that Gaiman says he started with the fourth chapter and then went and back-filled. This is not the only novel I’ve read this summer that isn’t really a novel. To be fair, though, it is in the title: it’s not called The Graveyard Novel.

Quite Ugly One Morning – Christopher Brookmyre

I could tell this was supposed to be funny in the vein of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiasen, but I didn’t crack a smile. An unpleasant story of unpleasant people, with some deeply unpleasant descriptions: avoid reading this while eating. Brookmyre’s an ex-journo, so of course his hero is a journo who is not above a little breaking and entering and is somehow attractive to the opposite sex.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate – N K Jemisin

This was the big one. I knew this was an award winning slice of fantasy fiction, and I’d read something else by Jemisin, and I’d heard nothing but good things about this series but I deliberately waited till this summer to get The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, knowing that the final part of the trilogy (The Stone Sky) would be published in the middle of August.

It’s so hard to describe what this is. The cover illustrations tell you nothing. You could almost say this was science fiction, since it seems to be set in a far future version of Earth which has become (for reasons) seismically unstable — so much so that no civilisation survives long enough to leave much of a mark when it is inevitably destroyed following a cataclysmic event involving volcanic activity, earthquakes, ashfall, pyroclastic flow, poisonous gases etc. But it probably shades into being fantasy because there are people here with abilities which aren’t really explained except in a hand-wavy way. I’d even allow this as science fiction, because we’ve all read about star drives and time machines which aren’t explained. But then I ask myself, why is it so important to you that this could be science fiction rather than “just” fantasy? I don’t know. Fantasy has uncomfortable associations with those terrible Lord of the Rings movies, but then the best fantasy often gives you great female leads (as here and in Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series) and it’s clearly more popular than science fiction, so.

The Fifth Season has an extraordinary three-stranded narrative which when it resolves makes clear that the rest of the series can continue the plot but not this tour de force of storytelling, which is a shame. In that sense, it reminds me of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series, which has a similarly innovative first volume.

So. An unstable planet. A civilisation that barely remembers its past incarnations. People with special abilities who are treated as less-than-human and feared and hated by most people. On one level, this is clearly a racial allegory, which asks questions about why some people need to consider others as less than human? But it’s also a fascinating puzzle and a story of survival and loss. How did the world get this way? Can it be fixed? Is humanity doomed? Do we even deserve to survive?

The Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Speaking of which. A mysterious stranger arrives in a small Irish community and seduces the inhabitants with his spiritualism and alternative therapies. Turns out, he’s definitely not who he pretends to be, and the consequences of his unmasking are grim. The book is really a series of encounters and meditations and doesn’t have much of a narrative plot. So I’d describe this as a Menippean Satire rather than a novel. I didn’t enjoy it, but then it would have been weird to.

Magpie Murders – Anthony Horovitz

This was more of a blast. I picked this up after noticing that it was a novel about a novel, and included the complete manuscript of the novel-within-the-novel. So it’s a whodunnit about a whodunnit, and it’s entertaining enough, though a long way from being a realistic crime novel, if that’s your thing. It’s more of a pastiche of Agatha Christie hiding inside something that wants to be a modern crime novel, something more like the Cormoran Strike series. Anyway. It’s okay. I’d have liked both stories to be more interesting, darker perhaps, but it was entertaining enough and a relatively quick read. Certainly a palate clearer after The Little Red Chairs.

The Other Side of Silence – Philip Kerr

Ted Allbeury wrote a novel with a similar title – a fictionalised account of Kim Philby’s activities. And Philby’s something of an element in this, which is one of a series about anti-hero Bernie Gunther, a German former cop and intelligence officer, who’s trying to leave his past behind. This is set on the Côte d’Azure in 1956, and features Someret Maugham dealing with a blackmail plot involving the KGB and a tape recording of Guy Burgess. It was okay to read. I didn’t like the hero and the outcome was clearly telegraphed. The whole  thing was a little static, not making much use of the location and a bit disappointing after the extraordinary treatment of spying in Declare.

The Hanging Girl* – Jussi Adler Olsen

Easily the worst book I’ve read this summer, I picked this up because it had a lot of pages. *The original (correct) title in Danish is The Boundless, which in itself doesn’t make for a better title, given the contents, but I feel the English title with its use of the noun “girl” is cynical and exploitative – typical of a publishing industry I have little respect for.

I’m not sure if it was the translation or what, but I didn’t like the dialogue in this, nor the exposition, and I didn’t understand who the characters were supposed to be. This is from a series and is obviously not the first, but that’s not always a problem. It wasn’t with Bernie Gunther, for example. The author usually puts enough in to get you up to speed (even copying and pasting expository sections), but not here. I didn’t like or care about the protagonist, and his colleagues were cyphers. At times this seemed both sexist and racist, and there were confusing moments, too, as when a character is called Assad in one sentence and then suddenly becomes Curly in the next. And I couldn’t believe the British publisher didn’t make some corrections to the bizarre explanation of a cricket match.

So this was a cold case story. A cop who’d been obsessed with a hit and run kills himself and the case falls to Department Q, whoever they are. Cold case unit? It’s not explained. Anyway, maverick cop, at loggerheads with his boss, dealing with broken relationships, blah blah blah. Just because it’s Danish it doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd. So it was long, and not very interesting, and as soon as they looked in the garage (early on) and decided not to search it because it looked dusty, you knew it was Chekov’s garage.

The Stone Sky – N K Jemisin 

No sooner had I ploughed despondently to the end of The Girl with the Hanging Girl than the yellow post van showed up with this. This brings the trilogy to a somewhat tragic conclusion, continuing its barely veiled discussion about race, exploitation, the legacy of slavery, justice, and how to go forward with a society when there is barely anything worth saving or preserving. This makes it extremely topical in this current news cycle context of job-lot el cheapo racist statuary erected at the behest of the Ku Klux Klan or anti civil rights elements: sometimes the only solution is to burn everything down and start again.

My one criticism of this trilogy concerns the map at the beginning, and the other repeated elements (glossary, appendix). The map was useful in the first book, because it showed the locations of the main places visited therein. But the same map then appeared in the second and third volumes, when two different maps would have made more sense, since the action does move around somewhat. As it is, you find yourself staring at the map and wondering where the characters you’re reading about are at the moment.

Aside

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Two book reviews

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This Nebula award winning novel was published in 2015 and has the benefit of being (so far at least) a standalone book and not part of a series. I’m on record as not being the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, though I clearly like it more than, say, someone who never reads any. But I picked this up because it won the award an I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t keen on the cover on the edition I had. Of the three above, I think I prefer the one on the left. What I mean by this is that I wouldn’t have even picked this up or shown any interest in it if I hadn’t heard it mentioned on The Incomparable. Which means this book had to overcome a lot of prejudice to win me over.

It achieved this fairly quickly. If I had to blurb this, I’d say it starts out a bit like Beauty and the Beast meets The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and a little bit of A Wizard of Earthsea. Which means it involves a young girl dragged from the bosom of her family/village to serve a monstrous local wizard (known as The Dragon) who then learns just enough magic to get her into trouble. It moves on from there, though, and the pacy story takes you into a fully realised world in which a malevolent entity in a forest wages war on human settlements.

I’ve seen a few online complaints from people who “don’t get it” and object to it winning the Nebula. I guess some of these people simply object to the female author and female protagonist. In another sense, you could say that this is a fairly standard fantasy with no surprises, but I think that would be to miss the point about what this book brings to the genre. It’s fresh, lively, well-paced, and although it’s a mashup of various fantasy and fairy story ingredients, it takes enough unexpected turns to keep you interested. The writing is excellent, too, and as someone who doesn’t enjoy most fantasy, I welcomed the skilled handling of the story elements.

alex-marshall-a-crown-for-cold-silver-193x300A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

In terms of writing style, I’ve complained before about George R R Martin’s writing in A Song of Ice and Fire because I find it lacking in terms of authorial voice. The books in that series read to me as if they’re written by a machine or a committee. And just as Naomi Novik brings a much fresher voice to her work, Alex Marshall (pseudonym of Jesse Bullington) brings a lively style to this first in a Game of Thrones-like series.

The comparison is apt for several reasons. The first is that Crown is set in a fantasy world and there’s (of course) a map of the star-shaped continent upon which the action takes place. The second is that there is and has been a competition between different claimants to be ruler of an empire. The third is that there is an extremist religious group that tries to act as the power behind the throne. The fourth is that the narrative has multiple points of view.

I could go on, but the point is that this is a fantasy novel along very similar lines to A Song of Ice and Fire. The key difference, of course, is in the telling, and I found this to be enjoyable, funny, human, and (crucially) far less prone to the longeurs of ASoIaF (which we need to distinguish from the far better TV adaptation). Pacy seems to be my word of the day. This tale fairly motors along – at least until all our characters meet up for the decisive battle.

Another key difference between this and ASoIaF is in the sexual politics, and the reason A Crown for Cold Silver was honoured by the Tiptree Award committee. We have several female protagonists (of various ages, including the normally invisible ones); we have women and men fighting, drinking and adventuring alongside each other; we have gay marriage; we have people sexually attracted to each other regardless of gender. And all of this is mere backdrop to the story, deftly handled and sustained, without feeling forced, awkward, or artificial. It’s so normal that it makes all those other books, including the ones in  which feisty female protagonists fight to be taken seriously as warriors, or magicians, or healers, seem silly. And, you know, there are no rape scenes.

Your heart sinks after 700 pages of anything and the knowledge that there’s a sequel, which of course there is. But, aside from that, this is a confident, entertaining, stonking good read.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

goblinemperorIt’s not what you think it’s going to be.

Those are the words you’ll hear frequently in connection with the Nebula/Hugo-nominated The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison’s novel of court intrigue against the steampunk backdrop of a fantasy kingdom of goblins and elves. (Which immediately puts me in mind of Woody Allen’s ‘The Ransom Note‘ routine, in which he is ushered into the back of a van by kidnappers who promise to take him away to a land where ‘everybody is fairies and elves.’)

Why the fantasy backdrop? It’s a novel of emperors and princes and court intrigue, but it’s not historical, and the use of fantastic beings allows Addison to write about race and gender, prejudice and oppression, whilst maintaining some critical distance.

If I were to criticise The Goblin Emperor, I’d have to admit to some confusion about names. Too many characters who appear briefly, or once or twice, are referred to by complicated names following the arcane rules set out in the appendix, and I struggled to keep track of them all. There’s a list in the back of the novel, but it’s not all that useful, given the variations in names given for the same people, and given that the terse descriptions of who they are don’t really tell you much.

But that naming problem is all part of the world building, and of course allows you to empathise with the titular character, a half-goblin child of a political marriage, who has been living in exile with a bullying relative, and who is plucked from obscurity when his father and all of his older brothers die in an airship disaster. His confusion and bewilderment at court manners and politics are mirrored by your own difficulty in keeping track of all the strange names.

Maia is a sympathetic hero, and as he comes to terms with his new exalted position, he soon realises that the airship disaster was no accident, and doesn’t truly know who he can trust. It’s a fascinating story, offering the political manoeuvrings of Game of Thrones without quite so much visceral violence, and it genuinely becomes quite moving at times.

Yes, I too, was offput by the title and the very notion of reading something about goblins and elves – but it’s not what you think it’s going to be. Recommended.

The Game of Thrones

gameofthronesI wasn’t sure about Game of Thrones when I first saw a few episodes on Pick TV (they showed the first three as a taster, before withdrawing it behind the Sky paywall). I’m not even going to try to defend the show’s nudity, though there is one way in which I get it (see below).

I confess that I’d been put off the whole fantasy genre by the disastrous Lord of the Rings films. I appreciate I’m probably in the minority when it comes to those extended exercises in CGI and silliness, but allow me to attempt to explain.

  1. If a so-called “live action” film over-relies on CGI, I lose interest. It’s just a cartoon. I appreciate that CGI is everywhere, and this is an arbitrary category problem, but call me old-fashioned. I like the story to be told in the camera. Anyway, you might forgive (1) if not for
  2. Over-long. Hey, maybe I might not have hated it so much if it had been a TV series. I quite enjoyed the radio version, back in 1981. At 11 hours 22 minutes for the three extended films, it adds up to about a season of Game of Thrones. Then again, much of the bulk of the book is taken up with lore and poetry and begats, and if you cut down to the bit you’d actually want to see, maybe it’s not even a season’s worth of plot.
  3. Too many endings.
  4. Overblown, over-budget. Like James Cameron, Peter Jackson throws money at every problem, but I don’t believe in his stories.

Anyway, Game of Thrones. There was the prejudice. Then there’s the fact that I prefer reading Sci Fiction to fantasy. I’ve enjoyed much of Katherine Kerr‘s output over the years, read a lot of Anne McCaffrey when younger, and love Tim Powers‘ take on urban fantasy. That was abut my limit.

I’d never read any George  R R Martin, and though I’ve now got the first volume of this on my Kindle, I’ve barely dipped into it. If I’m honest, I’m just a bit jealous that when TV finally did something like this, it wasn’t one of my beloved books got adapted, but some other set of people’s beloved books. Then again, maybe I’m glad that I wasn’t a fan of the books, so I can just enjoy the TV series on its own merits and not sit complaining that they missed out the important bit.

And it has merits. There are too many characters, and it takes a long time for anything much to happen, and the gratuitous nudity is somewhat one-sided, but it’s delightfully uncompromising and true to itself. Where it wins as a fantasy is that it doesn’t feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc., and it cleverly, oh so cleverly, wears its fantasy very lightly for the whole of the first season. By Season 3, we’ve seen walking dead, dragons, sorcery and resurrection, but by then the audience has been sucked into the story by the human characters, and we’ve never been allowed to forget that these are sweaty, dirty, shitting, pissing, fucking and bleeding human characters.

As to all the fucking, I get it. In a genre that has been ill-served by television, it was essential to send a message that this wasn’t for kids. How do you do that? You could try to tell an adult story with compelling characters, brilliant plotting, and superb dialogue. Joss Whedon did that with Buffy, and still the BBC took one look at it and put it on at 6pm, opposite The Simpsons. They even edited some of the scarier bits, considered too much for the early evening family audience.

So you (the producers of the show) need to send a message, not necessarily to the audience, but to the suits who run TV production companies and channels and networks. You need to say, this genre isn’t just for kiddies. Just like cops, docs, and lawyers, adults like this stuff. Smart scripts, interesting plot lines and well-drawn characters are, historically, not enough to do this. So you need in-your-face blood, guts, swearing, dead babies, nude bodies, fucking, homosexuality, beheadings, and anything else you can think of in order to make the thick-as-shit pen pushers understand. Now they get it, I think.