Reading: The Star of the Sea

Jul. 25th, 2017 06:27 pm
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The Star of the Sea is Una McCormack's sequel to The Baba Yaga (which I read last autumn). Both novels are set in a universe originally created by Eric Brown, though I haven't read Brown's books in the series, and take place in a far-future universe where both humanity and their traditional enemies the Vetch are threatened by the mysterious and massively deadly Weird. In this book, following the events of The Baba Yaga, the human Expansion mounts an expedition to Stella Maris, where humans, Vetch and Weird had been living in harmony, ostensibly to study the Weird but perhaps with more sinister motives. At the same time, Yale, one of the residents of Stella Maris, agrees to transport a mysterious human girl and a Vetch boy back to the Expansion for purposes that, at least initially, aren't clear to any of them, while information analyst Maxine Lee, working in the Expansion's capital, starts to suspect that some of the conspiracy theories she's meant to be monitoring may have more truth than she has been led to believe.

Like the first book, it's a plotty, compelling sf thriller with a strong cast of mostly-female characters. Also like the first book, this isn't a utopian Star Trek-type space opera; it's an examination of what it means to live in a society that's far more authoritarian than any of its citizens would care to admit, and of how an authoritarian regime can exploit the small (and not so small) differences between people to bring discord and division to a previously-harmonious society; and if I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I enjoyed The Baba Yaga, I think it's simply that the world I live in has shifted between last September, when I read that, and now, and I found it so dark that in places it was quite difficult to read, knowing what's going on in the world around me.
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Europe at Midnight is the second in Dave Hutchinson's Fractured Europe series; although it isn't quite a sequel to Europe in Autumn and could reasonably easily be read as a standalone novel, reading Europe in Autumn first fills in some of the background, and reading Europe at Midnight first would take away the impact of one of the major plot twists in Europe in Autumn.

Like Europe in Autumn, Europe at Midnight is basically a Le Carre-esque spy thriller which replaces the Cold War with the complicated politics of a fragmented near-future Europe. Its events take place on the same timeline as those of Europe in Autumn, with limited points of intersection. It's clever and plotty and interesting and I enjoyed it a great deal. I did, however, have one reservation, which was that I counted no fewer than three separate incidents where female characters who were important to the two male protagonists died violently in order to advance the men's plots (and a fourth where a woman was only seriously injured). It's true that the novel belongs to the gritty spy thriller genre and that comes with a lot of violence, death and general unpleasantness, and it gets points for having a reasonably wide range of female characters who are as likely to be dishing out the violence and general unpleasantness as on the receiving end of it, but by the third death I couldn't help feeling that this was starting to feel a bit like a pattern, especially as none of the deaths of men had the same emotional resonance for the two protagonists.

***

Rivers of London: Black Mould is the third Rivers of London graphic novel. I pre-ordered this in February when the release date was, I think, May; it was eventually released this week. Like the first two, it's a short standalone casefic which doesn't add to the wider arc of the series; fairly slight, but it was nice to see more of DC Guleed in particular, and it was entertaining enough.

Reading: Every Heart A Doorway

Jul. 20th, 2017 07:40 pm
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Seanan McGuire's Hugo-nominated novella Every Heart a Doorway is a school story with a twist: it's set in a boarding school specifically catering to young people who have visited the kind of other worlds familiar to readers of portal fantasy novels and who are struggling to adapt to real life on their return (most of the students at the school in this book long to return to their fantasy worlds, though we are told that there is a sister institution catering for those who need help to forget their more traumatic travels). Disbelieving parents send their children to the school hoping that they will receive therapy and recover from their breakdowns, but instead the school supports its students in understanding and integrating their experiences while still allowing them to hope that they will find their doors again one day.

The story mainly follows Nancy, who has returned from a sojourn in the Halls of the Dead with a preternaturally developed ability to stand still and a penchant for dressing in gauzy black and white clothing, to the distress of her parents who want their old daughter back. Shortly after Nancy's arrival at the school the first in a series of gruesome murders occurs; suspicion falls on Nancy, as a new girl and one whose world was a underworld, and she and a small group of other students have to work together to discover who the real murderer is. The murder mystery plot is really only a Macguffin, though (and I thought it was quite obvious from very early on who the murderer was); the book is really an exploration of identity and belonging, as the students try to deal with having found and lost worlds where they felt that they belonged much more than they ever had at home (each student went to a different world, uniquely suited to that individual). It's easy to see Nancy's parents' rejection of the changes in their daughter as parallelling more conventional rejections by parents' of their children's developing tastes and views. Identity politics writ larger also feature; Nancy explicitly identifies as asexual, while one of the friends she makes is a trans boy who was expelled from the fairyland he travelled to when he was discovered to be a prince and not the princess they thought he was.

Some of the reviews I'd read online had made me worry that this was going to be preachy, or at least a bit cringily identity-politics-by-numbers, but in fact I didn't find it that way at all; it was interesting, sensitive and thoughtful. I wasn't completely convinced by the way the murder plot was resolved, which seemed to owe rather more to the conventions of the students' fantasy worlds than to the real world in which the story takes place, but generally I really enjoyed the book and can absolutely see why it has won and been nominated for so many awards.

Reading: The Saltmarsh Murders

Jul. 19th, 2017 07:41 pm
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I picked up Gladys Mitchell's The Saltmarsh Murders in the Oxfam bookshop, because I'm always interested to try new-to-me 1930s detective stories, and grabbed it off the top of my to-read pile last week when I was looking for an easy read to follow To Lie With Lions.

The Saltmarsh Murders is the fourth of 66 detective novels featuring Mrs Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, psychiatrist and amateur sleuth. In this novel, she turns her attention to the death of a young woman who has recently given birth to an illegitimate baby (and the disappearance of the baby) in the South Coast village of Saltmarsh, where she was paying a visit when the murder was discovered. She is aided in this by Noel Wells, the slightly dim curate of the village. Noel also narrates the novel in a first-person style which clearly owes a lot to Wodehouse, who he mentions being a fan of.

I wasn't sure the Bertie Wooster-esque narrative was a natural choice for a detective novel, and Noel is a very sloppy narrator, with events coming out of sequence in a way that made it quite hard to follow the plot at times. The book also features a black character and contains the kind of period-typical attitudes to and language about race that are pretty hard for a modern reader to stomach, as well as some period-typical attitudes to class and a couple of incidences of painfully rendered yokel accents. Most of the characters felt very two-dimensional, with the only one who really took on any life at all being the village madwoman, Mrs Gatty, and I didn't actually find the mystery plot particularly compelling. I don't think I'll be seeking out any more of Mitchell's books (although I think I might have at least one more that I bought as a Kindle bargain years ago...).

(no subject)

Jul. 16th, 2017 11:41 am
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I am assuming, from the amount of anxiety I'm currently feeling about who the new Doctor will be, that I am generally not as OK as I would like to think I am.

Wibbleage )

Reading: To Lie With Lions

Jul. 15th, 2017 11:09 am
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The sixth of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò books brings to a conclusion the phase of Nicholas's life sparked by the devastating events of the ending of Scales of Gold. In many ways it felt as though this and The Unicorn Hunt were two halves of one very long book rather than two separate instalments of the series, which I think probably partly explains why I felt that The Unicorn Hunt's plot seemed to meander rather if it was mainly setup for the next book. I feel similarly about The Disorderly Knights and Pawn in Frankincense in the Lymond series, and although the ending of To Lie With Lions isn't quite as cataclysmic as the end of Pawn in Frankincense, or indeed Scales of Gold, it leaves Nicholas in a similar place to Lymond at the end of that book; isolated, friendless and being taken to an unknown destination.

The centrepiece of this book is Nicholas's voyage to Iceland, culminating in a haunting, nightmarish winter journey across country in the face of an imminent volcanic eruption, and a subsequent description of the eruption itself, which are definitely up with the Sahara journey in Scales of Gold and the winter journey in Russia in The Ringed Castle among the most amazing of Dunnett's descriptive passages. The novel then gathers pace and ramps up the tension towards the dénouement, which does the typical Dunnett thing of shining a new light on so many things and radically changing the reader's understanding of both Nicholas's and other characters' natures and motivations, and even if I had guessed the identity of "Egidius", the third Vatachino partner (mostly because Pat McIntosh's Gilbert Cunningham mysteries include a character with the same first name and nickname as the "Egidius" in Dunnett's books, almost certainly as a tribute to Dunnett) there were still plenty of surprises among the revelations.

Only two more to go, although then I'm sure that both the Lymond and Niccolò books would benefit from a re-read; there's so much in them that only makes sense once you have got to the end. Also, I have just bought a secondhand copy of King Hereafter, as it isn't available for Kindle. Though right now I think I need to read something a lot less emotionally demanding for a while.

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