A love letter to books: Fav Re-reads – The Book of Lost Things by John Connelly

the-book-of-lost-thingsIt’s been about 8 or so years since I first read The Book of Lost Things. What this re-read has nicely demonstrated is that memory plays tricks on you. I remember this book as being a sad story which incorporated fairy tales and aspects of World War II. In fact, it is a heart-breaking, beautiful and brutal love letter to books that subverts fairy tales to show how complex humans are.

When I was reading Connelly, I was struck by how beautiful his writing is (“She was night without the promise of dawn, darkness without hope of light” – has the Big Bad ever been described thus?) and how there is so much packed into the 348 pages of my edition. Almost every other page there was something I wanted to make note of. Either a phrase or a passage or idea. The story begins with the horrible premise of a young boy, David, trying to save his terminally ill mother from leaving him by modifying his behaviour; making sure he does everything in even numbers, for example. Connelly shows how the strong their relationship is during the early pages through both their love of books. “…although both were lost in their own individual worlds, they shared the same space and time”. Of course, when she dies David’s father finds love elsewhere. Before long, a grieving and guilt-ridden David has a half-brother getting all the attention. He finds solace in whispering books. (I love the way the books mock David’s doctor when he’s wrong. And Connelly’s description of how a child feels on dealing with a academic is awesome). When he’s transported into a world of fairy tales, he must battle some familiar foes and makes some interesting alliances in order to get back home.

What I especially liked is Connelly’s subversions. In the magical kingdom, a new breed of half-wolves half-men are the result of Red Riding Hood’s sexual perversions (“’Lovely wolf’, she whispered. ‘You have nothing to fear from me.”). Meanwhile, ‘Hansel’ is a little boy who cries while his sister provides – and they punish the woman in the candy house, before ‘Gretel’ abandons her brother. However, these subversions also bring about Connelly’s only real misstep. After the heart-break of David’s real life, he meets a Woodsman. It appears that the adult is torn apart by wolves. David then meets a collective of dwarves and a mean, obese Snow White. The novel descends into a darkly comic treatise on the oppression of the worker. But David is soon back on his journey and witnesses a Huntress slay a deer-girl. The Huntress then gets her comeuppance in the creepiest manner imaginable. The tonal shift from brutal horror and back again for the diversion into Snow White’s world sits uncomfortably with me. But maybe the horrors throughout the book were a bit too much and some levity was required.

I’d also mis-remembered Connelly’s novel as being more of a young adult story. So while it features the emotional growth of a 12 year old boy, this is no book for kids or even young adults. This is an adult book with adult themes and some nasty scenes.

When I first read this book, I hadn’t read all of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. I have now, and I hadn’t equated the character of Roland here with King’s tale. Both are a tribute in a way to Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning. Which I’ve not read. In this story, Roland is almost unbearably lonely and has little faith in humanity. Maybe he’s right…There is a theme of the nastiness of war that runs through The Book of Lost Things: in our world it is WWII, while in the magical world, it is the gathering of the wolves (“So you left behind one war, only to find yourself in the midst of another”). Death is unbelievably horrendous in all its forms here. Even the bad guy – the Crooked Man – is only trying to stay alive (although is also incredibly evil). Only the death of a missing girl, Anna, has any real positivity.

I felt the end was a little rushed. The Book of Lost Things isn’t a long novel, but when brave David defeats his enemies and his lessons are learned, the Woodsman unexpectedly reappears and before we know, David is back in ‘our’ world. It was also fairly obvious who the king was and how it reign came to pass. The end of the magical journey happens to quickly without the weight it earned from the rest of the novel.

There is real melancholy and depth and sorrow here. Pain is real and is felt, demonstrably, by the characters here. When David finds Roland’s body, he bends over in agony. Heart-wrenching. Much more than I recalled. However, the title should give it away. The things lost as a child when we finally must grow up. Life is almost unbearably tough at times, and not at all fair. When David’s story concluded, pretty much as the Crooked Man had foresaw, I had a lump in my throat.

I’m very happy that I re-read The Book of Lost Things and I hope that my memory of it remains true. Life is hard. Death is horrible. But Connelly loves books and stories and maybe they are what we need. This ain’t no kids book of fairy tales, but a brilliant, beautiful and brutal work of magic.

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Reflections on what I liked in the 31,536,001 seconds of 2016

Time for the annual reflection on all things geekery that occurred to me in the previous 31,536,001 seconds. 2016 was a bleak year for sure, but there was much joy to be had from the creation of fiction. As ever, I’m always on the look out for something a tad different and unusual, so before the top books, honourable mentions should go to: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (looking forward to reading Rosewater soon), Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Race by Nina Allen.

In total I read 39 fiction novels, listened to 10 audio books, read 6 nonfiction books and 3 novellas and half a book of short fiction (The Weird – my Winter of Weird shall continue). Plus some graphic novels. According to GoodReads, my year looked like this: https://www.goodreads.com/user/year_in_books/2016/6304958

Thusly, in order:

The Thing Itself (2105) by Adam Roberts. I thought that this was smart and funny and creatively unique. It had me gripped and interested in both the characters and story from the outset.

the-thing-itself

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014) by A S King. How can I relate to a teenage girl in the USA? King’s genius characterisation and story telling! Bonkers and brilliant and heart-warming and bleak and reaffirming.

glory-obriens-history-of-the-future

All the Birds in the Sky (2016) by Charlie Jane Anders. A refreshing mash up of science fiction and fantasy that was engaging and funny and I can’t wait to read what Anders comes up with next.

all-the-birds-in-the-sky

Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. See Glory re: Meche; only in Mexico in the 1980s. Mix tapes! Magic. Complex teenagers being wonderful and difficult.

signal-to-noise

A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) by Becky Chambers. There is more humanity in Chambers’ pages than in most other science fiction and the mind-body dualism is a great story-telling device.

a-closed-and-common-orbit

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry (1973) by B S Johnson. Metafiction. Raging against the machine. Why this isn’t a classic along the lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four I have no idea.

christie-malrys-own-double-entry

Europe in Autumn (2014) by Dave Hutchinson. A prescient look at politics and people dressed up as a science fiction spy thriller. What’s not to love about Hutchinson’s wit and verve! (Also, currently reading the final book in the series.)

europe-in-autumn

I think there’s some pretty damn fine books there!

My history of science fiction challenge continued. Slowly. As usual. What? There are lots of books to read. I spent a while trying and failing to get a hold of an English translation of Ravages (1943) by René Barjavel but my favourite wot I read was Swastika Night (1937) by Murray Constantine. I also finished reading all of Vonnugut’s novels in order too. I might try that again. I’ve been thinking about Philip K Dick, but that’s a lot of books…

Moving on.

I saw 31 films for the first time. My favourites in no particular order were: Midnight Special, Doctor Strange, Captain America: Civil War, The Lobster, Tale of Tales, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story, Crimson Peak, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Meanwhile, the absolute stinkers were: Batman V Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence and Jurassic World.

And some TV I’ve enjoyed: Stranger Things, Luke Cage, Black Mirror, Daredevil, Agent Carter, Better Call Saul, Penny Dreadful, iZombie, House of Cards, Preacher. Yes, I like things bleak and funny and nostalgic when I’m chilling in front of the telebox.

Finally, some comic series I’ve enjoyed are: The Wicked and the Divine (although I’m getting a bit bored of it now – why can’t these things just have shorter runs? – I’m looking at you, Saga), Injection, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Scarlett Witch, Kill or Be Killed, Monstress, Paper Girls, Negative Space, Deadpool Max and Ms Marvel.

Shout out to a couple of podcasts too, that mean my to-read list is ever expanding: Robin and Josie’s Bookshambles (must read some Steve Aylett) and Backlisted (where I heard about the Johnson).

So there. Thank you to all the creatives, artists, writers, directors and others whose vision and talent have brightened by life while the world crumbled.

You get out what you put in – Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garica

signal-to-noiseIt is often said that when you read a book or watch a film whatever you bring to that medium is what you get out of it. Nothing could be more true for me than reading the wonderful Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

What is interesting to me, however, is how other people in other age ranges feel about this book. And then I wonder about other books I’ve read with similar themes and how do I relate to them? You can’t talk about fantasy or science fiction, but only about books set in an approximation of the real world. No-one knows what an apocalypse feels like, or what it’s like to go to a magician’s school, but other elements of the story-telling can be relatable of course. I went to university so I understand some of the trials and tribulations undertaken by the characters in Lev Grossman’s Magiacians books. Last year I read Atomised by Michel Houellebecq and I enjoyed it. I took very little into that book other than a reasonable understanding of the world of science, but I still enjoyed the tale of the French half-brothers. Turns out I’ve not read that many books set in the 1980s, but I felt a lot of empathy with Graham Joyce’s The Year of the Ladybird and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Which is weird. I recently listened to A S King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future and I loved the character of Glory, who is a teenage photographer who can see the future but is still coming to terms with her mother’s suicide when she was 4. I take photographs.

So can only someone who was a teenager in the 1980s truly ‘get’ Signal to Noise? Of course not, but others will have a different perspective. Moreno-Garcia is a Mexican who now lives in Canada. I wondering if this was a translated text or whether she wrote it in English. It is so well written. However, a quick piece of research and I see that English language is not an issue here. What about the plot and why is it so appealing to me? I’ve never been to Mexico, and I lived in a village in the north-east of England with fields at the end of my street. Wheat some years, horses others.

Meche lives in Norway, but returns to Mexico City in 2009 for her estranged father’s funeral. She thinks back to her life at the end of 1988 and early 1989 and the magic she created with her friends Sebastian and Daniela. Literally magic. By playing records. Which is key. Playing vinyl in the 1980s felt like magic to me. Saving up, and then the trip to the record shop. Getting it home and unleashing that 12 inches of sleeve from its plastic prison. The sounds escaping from the stereo and the worlds of music that opened up before me were wondrous. I formed many of my life viewpoints from listening to music. But I was a geeky and awkward child, as is the teenage Meche. She starts off as that kind of anti-cool, loner-type but as the magic kicks in, she becomes more selfish. Power and responsibility and all that. Of course, the finale reveals that Meche’s heart is in the right place all along.

What Moreno-Garcia does spectacularly well with this book is the relationships and crushes we all experience as teenagers. How close we come to that perfect moment before messing it because, well, we’re teenagers. What I especially liked, was that the kids in the story didn’t only rely on music of the time, but older music too. A Whiter Shade of Pale is a key piece of music. I know a fair few younger folks, and they seem to have little interest in the music of the past. But when I was a teenager, all music was important. New music such as that by Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana was given equal import to Led Zeppelin, Miles Davies, Marc Bolan and Nina Simone. Music is the one thing I can take from my Dad, as Meche does too.

And another thing. Mixtapes. We all did it back in the day. Mixtapes for our crushes and our girlfriends and even our best friends. It was important to spend time thinking about what music to put on, and then spending the time compiling the tape. And then to share it with those who were important. There’s no effort in compiling a digital playlist in the modern age. Just a click. A C90 (a 90-minute tape) might take 3 or 4 hours to make.

glory-obriens-history-of-the-futureThe coda to Signal to Noise, back in 2009, was a little too neat and tidy for my personal taste. It almost worked but then it seemed like Moreno-Garcia decided to give the reader a happy ending. That aside, I really enjoyed this book. It was fresh and fun and several days after finishing, I miss the characters – always the sign of a triumph in my opinion. I miss Glory too… But I do wonder. Did I enjoy it so much because it’s an excellent book; well written, great characters, interesting plot? Or was it because I was a teenager in the 1980s too? We’ll never know of course, but I’m glad I took my life into this book because it resonated with me. And that’s important, some of the time.

Top 10 women in modern fantasy worlds

I like my fantasy not so much swords and sorcery and a tad more modern, but I do like magic and mystery, monsters and mirth. For me, fantasy is not some wish fulfilment or quest to obtain the all-problem solving doodad or girl’s (or boy’s) heart. Which is odd, as I grew up with the Hobbit and Greek myths. Maybe it was my love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory… The magical in the mundane, the unreal in the real. Fantasy is an exploration of those things outside of science and reason (although not always, clearly). Fantasy doesn’t always need magic but it definitely needs spirit and soul. It needs something that can’t easily be explained by rationality and evidence.

Books explain personalities that I don’t readily have access to. Books are my windows on how other people think. However, I’ve been alone in London, as Kalis is. I’ve been lost in a good book – see Thursday next. Of course I haven’t been trapped a mansion with a vampire or battling my ex-friend the mad scientist as the end-of-the-world approaches, but these are all women I’ve learned something from.

As I am who I am, I find myself drawn to these characters, written mostly by men, which probably says something, although I’m not sure what.

So, not in any particular order here are my top 10 female characters in modern fantasy fiction (I’ve taken modern to be any time since I’ve been alive).

Bellis Coldwine from The Scar (2002, China Miéville)

TheScar(1stEd)

Defining quality: Fortitude, plus she’s a librarian (albeit reluctantly, and she destroys a book…hang on…)

Kalix MacRinnalch from Lonely Werewolf Girl and sequels (2007, 2010, 2013, Martin Millar)

Kalix

Defining quality: Independence (and reluctant tolerance) but oh so much more. I love Kalix!

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials (1995–2000, Philip Pullman)

Amber Spyglass

Defining quality: Moral compass (and curiosity and loyalty and…and…everything)

Tara Martin from Some Kind of Fairy Tale (2012, Graham Joyce)

Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Defining quality: Faith in the magical.

Thursday Next from The Eyre Affair and sequels (2001-2012, Jasper Fforde)

EyreAffair

Defining quality: Love (of books, of her family, etc)

Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y (2006, Scarlett Thomas)

The End of Mr. Y

Defining quality: Scholarly fascination.

Sunshine from Sunshine (2003, Robin McKinley)

Sunshine

Defining quality: Bravery (and loyalty and magic…)I love Sunshine as much as Kalix.

Zinzi December from Zoo City (2010, Lauren Beukes)

ZooCity

Defining quality: Determination

Nao from A Tale for the Time Being (2013, Ruth Ozeki)

Tale for the Time Being

Defining quality: Beautiful solitude.

Patricia Delfine from All the Birds in the Sky (2016, Charlie Jane Anders)

All the birds in the sky

Defining quality: Empathy with the natural.

All these women bring something to my table. Who else should I seek out?

All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the birds in the skyThere are two ways, in fiction, to introduce something new and different to a reader; in style or in content. A creator, someone with a story to tell, and who wants to be the difference to everything else out there in a crowded speculative fiction market, must make a choice. The most accessible way to introduce something new and different is to write a traditional prose story, but with new and engaging content.

There’s nothing particularly new about a clash of ideologies within a narrative, but mash up some genres and critique binary thinking and you have All the birds in the sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Books and stories that defy labelling and mess with traditional boundaries of genre are becoming, thankfully, a lot more common. Which is probably an issue for booksellers, but for me, I can’t get enough. Over recent years I’ve praised the likes of Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson (science fiction and Arabic mythology), the Dog-Faced Gods series by Sarah Pinborough (noir crime fantasy) and The Shining Girls and Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (fantasy crime time travel and magical science fiction respectively). Into this mix comes the glorious All the birds in the sky.

Charlie Jane Anders is the editor-in-chief of popular science fiction and all-things-geeky website i09. All the birds in the sky is her debut novel, having previously had short fiction published on Tor.com and Strange Horizon. She has also been a juror for awards panels including the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and for the Lambda Literary Awards. She is known to identify as a trans woman. All the birds in the sky is essentially a story about binary concepts and at first glance is pretty much black and white within its tropes: the protagonists are Patricia, a witch who as an affiliation with nature, and Laurence, a scientist who doesn’t. Woman, man, magic, science. If this was all the book was – a traditional science versus nature, man versus woman tale, it wouldn’t have the emotional wallop and interesting genre-blending insights that it does. It would have also descended, possibly, into a saviour or ‘the one’ theme, which it thankfully avoids.

Patricia is introduced to the reader when she is six years old. She is suffering a little from younger sister syndrome. An experience with a wounded bird brings her to a Parliament of Birds and a Tree. There is a mysterious question that she must answer in order to become a witch: Is a tree red? This question comes up at significant periods in the book. Ignorantly, I kept imagining it would be something to do with perception and it should be read, and therefore when it is dead and made into a book. I was delighted at the reveal. Meanwhile Laurence is a child-genius who builds a two-second time machine which helps avoids his bullies but has little else of merit. He is stifled by his parents, so runs off to a rocket launch where he meets Isobel and Milton, both of whom would play important roles in his life. Patricia and Laurence meet during adolescence at school. They are both having a rough time of it. They become friends, almost through necessity. They find out each other’s secrets, but Laurence especially, has a problem dealing with Patricia’s magic. Laurence, on the other hand, has been building a potential AI and it is Patricia who has a significant part to play. School days, in the book, aren’t given too many pages here, which I thought was a clever move. This is no Harry Potter, after all. Our protagonists are estranged and in their early adult life now.

Patricia is coming to terms with her powers and helping people, while being chided by her peers for being too aggrandising. Laurence has cast aside the AI project and is working with a group of equally genius scientists in a think tank. Meanwhile, the world is heading for oblivion. It is with this backdrop that most of the narrative unfolds. The magician and the scientist exist in different worlds, but they keep clashing and drifting apart, like waves on a beach. There are misunderstandings and reconciliations, relationships with other people and with each other. A forgotten plot point comes back to the fore, and you realise it was always there, just skilfully hidden. Patricia and Laurence are both outsiders who are drawn together through the pull of something much bigger than defined boundaries. They are mistrustful of each other’s natures but their feelings outweigh that mistrust. They both make plenty of mistakes and turn one way when they should have kept going straight on. And all the while, the birds are telling Patricia that it’s too late.

There are binary ideas throughout the book. For example, within the opposing camps, there are divides into two. In the magic camp, there are the Tricksters and the Healers – even to the point of having their own versions of Hogworts. The science types are less polarised, although the factions move between saving humanity or destroying it. There is no good versus evil or right versus wrong here. Females aren’t better than males – Patricia and her clan don’t think to ask an important question which as devastating consequences on Laurence. Males aren’t better than females. Laurence messes up a perfectly fine relationship due to his own insecurities. Both magic and science have flaws. And so they should. There is never an easy solution, never a clear route to success.

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing makes this book so very accessible. It is often said that it is very difficult to make something look easy. Anders’ previous experience in writing and living as transgender in a geek work might be the effort that makes this book a joy to read. My only real criticism is that this is very much a book of the moment. It does read, sometimes, as an ‘issue-of-the-day’ book, exemplified by the use of terms such as mansplaining. If some words and ideas fail to establish themselves beyond the zeitgeist, it could date the book quickly. The dialogue occasionally straddles the faddish and the genius. When it works, it is very naturalistic and honest, especially in the relationship scenes. Other times it is witty, which kinds of covers up some clunky exposition about wormholes and doomsday machines and such like. Which brings me to the world building. Considering that the world is going to an environmental and political hell-in-a-handbasket and considering that there are numerous complex muddy characters, there’s a significant lack of exposition. Characters don’t explain everything, either. When Patricia and Laurence are talking about dimensions, they both agree it is like the concept of Plato’s Cave. Anders doesn’t feel the need to explain that to the reader. She has faith in them that the either know, or they’ll go and look it up. This is common throughout. Certainly, there are hardly any info-dumps. Another one of the reasons why this book works. The superstorm (the main subtext is climate change) has devastating effects, for example, but Anders doesn’t tell us from a distance. It impacts characters’ lives, not just at the moment, but later in the book too.

Laurence makes a sacrifice that reminded me a little of Will and Lyra make at the conclusion of His Dark Materials. This passage elevates All the birds in the sky beyond just an interesting and successful endeavour in genre-busting speculative fiction, and into the realms of simply great storytelling. It’s what tugs on the heartstrings and moves the story beyond a clever entertainment. This book, it turns out then, isn’t about boy meets girl or magic versus science. It is not a fantasy; not a science fiction. It is a genre label-free zone. And it’s about all the messy, muddy colours that human lives actually are, and the natural if not vital conflicts within relationships.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Sorcerer to the CrownImagine a world where women don’t have the same rights as men, and Regency England’s foreign policy is built on bigotry. Imagine that world having sorcerers, fairies, vampires and dragons. Welcome to the world of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

Zacharias is the son of African slaves, bought and raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen. When the latter passes away, Zacharias takes both the mantel and the staff that the position demands. But not all is well. England’s magic is fading. Relationships with the Fairy Court are strained, as are relations with France and further afield. And there are grumblings that the body that oversees magic and thaumaturges, the Committee, want to wrestle the power from Zacharias.

Into this rich world created by Cho comes Prunella Gentleman. She seems to be gifted in the ways of magic. Shame, then, that women aren’t allowed to be magicians or greater. Country witches are the best they can hope for. Prunella is an orphan, and when exploring her father’s inheritance, comes across something that could perhaps save English magic. Meanwhile, there are precarious foreign affairs to address, with a Sultan and his wife, and a witch from the Malaysian island of Janda Baik (Cho is from Malaysia). So, not easy times for Zacharias. Prunella however worms her way into Zacharias’ affections, and once he sees her power and potential, determines to reform English magic and repair the ties with Fairy.

There is a lot of complex plotting in Sorcerer to the Crown, much of which is to be admired. This is not just a story of an apprentice magician finding her feet. This is not just the story of an outsider who has risen to the top, struggling to justify his place in society. This is a story of institutional sexism and racism: the idea being that foreigners are beneath the English. The idea that women can’t be equals or betters than men. It features political duplicity, class warfare and a critique of English Imperialism. Which is a lot to get through in what is written in the style of a Regency magical romance. The ladies are all proper and magic has rules. Tradition is everything.

Cho’s writing is confident and effective, considering this is a debut. She relishes in her vision. The language she uses is appropriately formal, both in dialogue and narrative prose. There is occasional wit, too. Wherever you look there are capital schemes or murmured courtesies. The mostly-formal tone won’t be to everyone’s taste – it lends a certain distance between the reader and the characters which may make empathy challenging. There’s nothing wrong with the accomplishment, but it won’t be to every fan of fantasy fiction’s taste. The characters are great, and are all multi-dimensional. Prunella, as heroine and the main driver of plot, is wilful and annoying at times, but rightly so, for the world she lives in is challenging for her. She is discriminated against for no good reason. Zacharias is a little wet at times, and a little too bullish at others. One of the main plot points regarding his ascension to his position concerns the death of his mentor. At times, Sir Stephen comes to the fore, and then seems to be side-lined for a while, before popping up again. No real explanation for this waxing and waning of behaviour is forthcoming.

The fantasy is solid and has depth, as do the characters. The writing is as fine as it could be. Cho’s world is interesting and richly populated with magical creatures and real human monsters. And dragons, of course. It packs a fair punch. The pertinent themes and complex plotting could unravel at lesser hands, but rather than wade through treacle, the reader is more likely to find a delight, if the style suits.

Originally published: http://www.nudge-book.com/blog/2015/11/sorcerer-to-the-crown-by-zen-cho/ 

Telling stories: Favourite re-reads – Ammonite by Nicola Griffith, or What’s life without magic?

AmmoniteI could have come up with a dozen titles for this remembrance, but all of these seem most appropriate, because while yes, this book is a favourite of mine, it is about the very nature of stories and it is about magic, despite being science fiction. In hindsight, this book was the start of a fiction reading journey that now means I read books across and that defy genre.

First published in 1992, Ammonite by award-winning Nicola Griffith, is the story of Marghe, an anthropologist on Gershom’s Planet, or when shortened to GP, pronounced ‘Jeep’. She is employed by the Company, an organisation we learn little about. Jeep has a virus that kills all men, so all Company employees use a vaccine against potential threat. We’re in the far-future. Jeep is inhabited by tribes and townships of women, with only vague stories of their origin off-world, and the mysterious goths who may be the origin of both the virus and the mysterious standing stones – too ancient to have been erected by the human population.

I remember being blown away when I first read Ammonite, probably about 1993. I picked it up for two reasons: I was a geology student and was therefore attracted to the title and the cover of my copy; and I’d read a short story by Griffith in an Interzone anthology, and was intrigued to read more. I’d not read much science fiction by women at the time, I’m sorry to say. I’d not read anything that contained a cast of female-only characters. It was this political stance that the book takes combined with Griffith’s beautifully descriptive prose that drew me in. Today, I’m much more familiar with female authors and fiction featuring female protagonists with their own agency. If I read Ammonite for the first time now, I doubt the content would be so affecting. That’s not to say it’s not a terrific book, just not so impactful today. Which is a good thing.

I love speculative fiction that defies genre. Ammonite might have been the first book I read that falls into that category. It begins in science fiction – all space ships, distance planets, viruses and the nefarious Company. Great stuff. Once Marghe has left the Company’s planet-side base, however, the narrative feels more like a questing fantasy, more in common with Tolkien than Clarke. There are potential magics and mysteries, but are they to be explained with science? I think Griffith pushes the reader in that direction, rather than anything supernatural. But the feel of the novel is certainly less science fiction in most of Marghe’s narrative. Only when it follows Danner, the Company commander on the base, does it feel like a first-contact science fiction story. And so it is tough to label Ammonite, despite a clear science fiction premise.

Griffith’s style aids to the magical feel. Her attention to detail, both in Marghe’s narrative and her actual journey, is stunning. You can flick through the pages of this book and stop at almost any page to get a wonderful description of the planet’s geography, biology or history; human myths or human emotions. And also because it is about stories and their power. Marghe, and her eventual partner, become journeywomen, trading their stories for goods and services. The women of Jeep value stories above most things – as should we all.

“What’s life without magic? Turn your magic into a song – share it with others”

Ammonite follows a fairly typical science fiction narrative, in which a character travels to a far off planet only to find herself and what she needs. I wish I could travel as far. Thankfully, I have Griffith’s imagination in print as compensation. As with Le Guin’s more famous but similarly themed The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), this is classed as feminist science fiction. However, to me, it is so much more than that – it is a proper story (which you might not be able to say about The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ for example) about proper stories with proper characters fulfilling satisfying character arcs. It might be said that Marghe’s journey is an obvious one, but it is thorough. Sadly, however, there is very little palaeontology, although the ammonite metaphor is a success. Marghe becomes complete, as does the story.

CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123
CC BY-SA 2.0 by craiglea123

The cross-genre style and the female-only cast have had a big impact on my subsequent reading. I don’t think I would be as enamoured with the likes of Sarah Pinborough, Ruth Ozeki, Claire North, Tricia Sullivan, Frances Hardinge, Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes and more if I’d not read Ammonite. Despite all that praise, and the admission that I really enjoyed reading this book for a second time, it lacked a certain emotional wallop that would have elevated this to an all-time classic for me. But then I tend to enjoy pizza more than a fine cut of meat.

 

 

Image credit: Some rights reserved by craiglea123

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Magician's LandSomething nags at me with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, and it’s not whether or not you’d class them as traditional fantasy in the vein of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books, or as more adult-based urban fantasy (say of the Dresden Files for example). I think the problem is the magic itself. Not that it exists, but the way Grossman describes it.

The Magician’s Land is and entertaining and enjoyable conclusion to the trilogy which began as a lot of sweary teenage Harry Potter types (The Magicians, 2009) and morphed into a darker kings and queens of the magic lands adventure (The Magician King, 2011). There is a lot to admire in Grossman’s writing, and his ideas. We left off the story with our hero, Quentin Coldwater, back on Earth trying to make a life for himself after his expulsion from the magical land of Fillory. Julia is out of the story, while Elliot and Janet were left ruling Fillory with Josh and Poppy. Quentin is now in a bookstore with a bunch of other magicians, being tested for a potential quest. Suddenly, however, Quentin is back at Brakebills, his former magical school, and is a new professor. One student, Plum, is trapped by Quentin’s old love, Alice (who is now a niffin) when a prank goes wrong. Quentin rescues Plum, but he’s sacked and Plum is expelled. Quentin again it seems, goes from hero to zero. We’re now back to the bookstore thread and Quentin and Plum have been recruited by a bird to find and steal a magical object. Meanwhile, Elliot and Janet discover that Fillory’s days are numbered.

Grossman plays with time in the early narrative of the book, so it takes a while to settle into a coherent plot. This is a good thing! It makes the story intriguing and asks the reader to pay attention. The early chapters feel cold and distant, as if Grossman is deliberately making it clear that this is an adult novel with adult themes. But then on our first trip to visit Elliot, we’re back on profane but amusing magician territory again. There’s some deft touches and pleasing nods to other genre pieces (the talking horse sighing in exasperation at the end of the world, again!). There are some nice touches throughout the book which respect the fans of the series but I suspect someone picking this up without the back story might be a tad confused.

There are a few rare passages, such as when Quentin and Plum become whales, that are truly magical; full of wonder and imagination. And I think that is the problem with The Magician’s Land. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of magic, such as when the ‘land’ is created, which are just dull. He tries to portray magic as natural; scientific. More like chemistry than a thing of beauty and wonder: “all very theoretical, and Quentin wasn’t that into theory” – me neither. Grossman throws a great deal of imagination into these descriptions, but they don’t feel like magic. They feel like the narrative treading water. Which is a shame.

The story is quite episodic in nature. I enjoyed Grossman’s storytelling. Whenever I thought I’d found the point of the tale, I soon discovered another direction was soon upon me. Even the title of the book can be taken a number of ways. Subtexts? Several. Connections to the past; friends and family. What it means to love someone. What it means to love magic. What it means to grow up into a different sort of person. Quentin isn’t the typical hero; he doesn’t always win the girl and save the day. It is brave of Grossman to make is main character someone who has more than a few negative traits, and mix him up with other characters in ways you wouldn’t expect. Like everyone in the book, I expected more from Quentin’s relationship with Plum, although by the conclusion, it was more real that those expectations never came to pass. Unfortunately, Alice’s reaction to her new condition was more than predictable.

In Grossman’s world, magic is imperfect and the hero’s don’t live happily ever after, which is a good thing. He tries to make it as real as he can, given the genre conventions and deconstructions. Aside from the occasional magical drift; the skilled narrative, complex character relationships, imaginative world-building and back story all add up to a decent diversion into a magician’s land.

This review is courtesy of NetGalley

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

There will never be a great superhero novel: More ponderings after reading Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher.

Seven WondersAfter reading Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, which features noir-ish superheroes dealing with the real wars of the 20th Century, I voiced concern that the superhero genre wasn’t fit for prose fiction. I argued that comic book superheroes are by definition a visual creation. I thought that even though the characters are described and the authors of such works have a clear vision of their characters, “all fictional characters are drawn by the reader in their heads, no matter how they are described by the author”. There can be great fiction or great superhero comics, but not a great superhero novel. For more, read it here.

Author Adam Christopher (here for my review of his Hang Wire) read the post and said to me that he pretty much wrote Seven Wonder in response to this very question. He very kindly sent me a copy. Having read it, my opinion still stands.

I enjoyed Christopher’s novel. In terms of the subject matter, it almost strengthens my argument. It begins as a story of Tony, who appears to be developing superpowers not long after getting a new girlfriend. Meanwhile, Detective Sam is trying to bring supervillain the Cowl (who I pictured as an evil Batman) to justice while being unhappy that the city’s guardians, the Seven Wonders, don’t seem to be doing much about the last true supervillain. This all takes place in the city of San Ventura, California. The Seven Wonders are Aurora’s Light (leader and Superman figure), Bluebell (a psychic, think Jean Grey with added Storm), Sand Cat (magical warrior who is also a mystical cat), Linear (a little like the Flash but who can also fly), Greek God Hephaestus (cf. Thor), super robot SMART and The Dragon Star (an alien inhabiting a human body).

The plot and the action are appropriate to any major comic book epic story. There are ideas that seem to come from Justice League, Avengers, Watchmen, X–Men and others. As with all superhero groups, some characters get short changed. Some of the characters are barely thumbnails. As with all grand science fiction, the scope is epic but the story focuses on the ordinary – in this case, Tony and Sam. Except it doesn’t always. The focus does change. The Cowl gets his own point of view, as does his sidekick, Blackbird. We have glimpses of origin story, the expected betrayals and double-crosses. Of course there is good versus evil. There is also redemption. Christopher certainly knows what he is doing. He is clearly well versed in comic-book lore. The structure is neat and tidy and it would feel right as a comic arc or even a superhero film. The dialogue and even the narrative is corny at times, but that is more than appropriate (The night belonged to the Cowl; he owned it). Many chapters end on a mini-cliff hanger, as if the end of a comic book issue. I like how he twists the Batman mythos with the Cowl. On page 84 of my edition, the author even tips a nod to the dynamic duo. I found the Cowls POV to be most interesting, as he was the flawed character, but also the least colourful, least visual (dressed as he is in black armour). When Christopher describes Blackbird, he uses the expected clichés, which is fine (Black boots over shiny, skintight leather pants topped with a matte-black utility belt…). This paragraph is like a description of a comic book panel featuring Catwoman. When the likes of The Dragon Star, Aurora and Tony’s new character the Justiciar, are described, it’s harder to get a fix in exactly who they are and what they look like. Despite the descriptions, I kept seeing Aurora as a cross between Superman and Apollo from The Authority.

When the ‘big moment’ happens about half way through and the POV changes focus, necessarily, the novel loses its edge. The character perspective becomes less interesting as the story becomes broader. This doesn’t matter so much in superhero comics, but by their very nature, novels have more depth and there is more time (and words) to describe characters, motivations and their actions. While the descriptions are fine in Seven Wonders, I was suddenly less interested in the characters than I had been earlier in the book.

This is a book about what it means to be a superhero. It’s a thinly veiled (deliberately so, I believe) love letter to classic comic book superheroes. It is almost the black and white (bad v good) alongside the bright art of the golden age of comic books (Superheroes are supposed to be stoic, epitomes of fair justice). It reflects a simpler time when comic books weren’t shades of grey and imbued with so many moral conflicts. If it was turned into a proper graphic novel, I suspect it would be a huge success.bam

When considering both a great work of fiction and the idea of a great superhero novel I suspect Seven Wonders vindicates my thesis. There is nothing wrong with it in terms of superhero characters (there is a scene towards the climax when all of Earth’s superheroes are gathered, preparing for battle – Christopher has a lot of fun inventing superhero names and personas here), structure, plot, narrative, dialogue and execution, but it falls short. It is impossible to take it for what it is, but instead see other characters has they’ve appeared in comics on in films. Or wondering how it would look in a 24 page comic book. Maybe someone who has never read a superhero comic or watched superhero film might appreciate Seven Wonders differently. Writing a superhero novel is like taking the ingredients of your favourite pizza and trying to turn it into something like a Michelin star fine dining experience. What Christopher has done, is taken those pizza ingredients and made a different kind of pizza. Which I enjoyed.