Top Ten Books I Read in the Last Three Years

I’m…slightly surprised by the list I’ve ended up with for this. I’m not even sure why.

These are books I read for the first time in the last three years. Otherwise you’d end up with a list full of Tolkien, and that would be boring.

  1. Railsea – China Mieville. Why is Railsea my favourite book of the last three years? Trains, storytelling, late capitalism, salvagepunk, ginormous flesh-eating desert moles, and a transcendent, revelatory ending that’s as sharply funny as it is perfect. And the sense, so rare in fantasy, that Mieville knows exactly what he’s doing with every single frickin’ word he puts on the page.
  2. The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherynne Valente. I read pretty much all of this on a train. I still remember how I felt when I got off that train: utterly entranced, like all the world had turned to Fairyland when I wasn’t looking. I still think it’s kind of problematic that this is a collection of stories about Japan by a white American author. But what stories they are.
  3. Palimpsest – Catherynne Valente. Oh, there’s gonna be a lot of Valente in this list. Palimpsest is gorgeous, baroque, labyrinthine, heavy with meaning and Valente’s honey-dripping prose. And really fucking weird to describe to other people: “Well, it’s about a sexually-transmitted city…” I’m planning a Palimpsest cosplay for Nine Worlds this year. That’ll be a fun day.
  4. Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas. Like. I think I fell for Our Tragic Universe as hard and completely as I did because it was the right book at just exactly the right time: in this case, a break-up. Or the beginning of one. I read this on a train, too. Its quiet and somehow wholesome hope caught hold of me, and didn’t let go.
  5. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. This is still one of my comfort reads. It’s just so full of people being nice to each other and looking out for each other’s emotional needs and generally rubbing along together. It’s another one that gives me hope – for our future as a species.
  6. Radiance – Catherynne Valente. ALL THE VALENTE. I actually think Radiance is a bit…self-indulgent? All that postmodernism that doesn’t quite go anywhere new. But I’m very prepared to ignore that for Valente’s lush Art Deco worldbuilding, her brilliant, crazy version of Hollywood-in-space, her prose like gleaming treasure you want to hug to your heart and never let go.
  7. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. I read this so quickly I almost don’t remember it; I only have impressions left. The stories in this collection are welcoming, inclusive, fairy-tale tinged as all of Oyeyemi’s work is, laden with a potent, elegiac mixture of hope and sadness.
  8. The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin. This. Is. Astonishing. And devastating. The reason it’s this low on my list is because it’s such a tough read: it has a lot to say about trauma, and oppression, and institutional abuse. But it’s a big deal in genre at the moment because it’s smart and inclusive and formally tricksy.
  9. God’s War – Kameron Hurley. “Nyx sold her womb between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” That’s all.
  10. Saga Volume 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I haven’t read any Saga for a while because of my local library’s terrible graphic novel section and I always feel unreasonably twitchy about paying £12.99 for 120 pages, but the art and the world and the characters. I’m going to have to get back into it, aren’t I.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Book-Related Problems I Have

  1. An obsessive TBR habit. I don’t mood-read. My everyday life is, I suspect like many people’s, deliberately constructed so I have to make as few decisions as humanly possible (because decisions are exhausting). Calling me a creature of habit would be an understatement. So, I have to read my physical TBR in a certain way: library books take priority because they have to be returned in three weeks; books I borrow from other people go next; and, finally, books I’ve bought or have been given go next, with new books added to the top of the pile. And I always read from the top of the pile. All this means that the books at the bottom of the pile can be there for years. I DIDN’T SAY IT MADE SENSE.
  2. My local library has virtually no SFF by POCs. For example: they have Adam Roberts’ latest book, The Real-Town Murders, which was published last year, in hardback. But they don’t have N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo award-winning, Nebula-nominated The Fifth Season, which was published way back in 2015. Roberts is an excellent author, but The Fifth Season is a big deal in genre circles right now. Why doesn’t my (large) local library have it?
  3. Not enough book space. My mother is currently on a campaign to get me to give away some of the children’s books I’m keeping at my parents’ house, because “there isn’t enough space”. But, really, who has enough book space? Didn’t Terry Pratchett once say never to trust anyone who does? Also, I live in a room with a big window, which is nice except it makes the pages of all my books go orange and their spines all faded.
  4. I find lending books difficult because I tend to lend out my favourites and they’re my friends and what if someone drops them in the bath or leaves them gathering dust in the corner or loses them or something and I never see them again?
  5. People trying to talk to me when I’m reading. The office where I work has a central kitchen area with tables to eat at, and I tend to spend half an hour of my lunch break reading there. At least once a week someone – and it’s always a man – will walk up to me and say something like, “Good book?” a) GO AWAY I’M READING BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO TALK TO ANYONE ON MY LUNCH BREAK and b) why are you even asking, I’m reasonably sure you’re not actually interested in what I’m reading. Pro tip: don’t do this.
  6. The Lord of the Rings is important to me even though it is incredibly problematic and large stretches of it are, to put it irreverently, boring. (Yes, hello The Two Towers, I am looking at you.) But it’s so thoroughly a part of who I am that I actually can’t not read it once a year.
  7. I am inadvertently clumsy with my books. I always have a book with me, which inevitably means many of my books, once so lovely and shiny, get bumped and scuffed and occasionally rained on. The other week I fell on top of my bag and squashed an orange in there, which meant poor old Bridget Jones went back to the library a little more citrussy than it came out. I eat and drink while I’m reading, too, so they get crumbs in and bits of sauce and occasionally splashes of Earl Grey. On the one hand, it means my books record what I was doing when I read them. On the other hand…they start off so shiny!
  8. Running out of books on holiday. I actually did this recently, in Bologna, having drastically underestimated how much reading I would end up doing. Luckily, Bologna has a bookshop selling English-language books – although I did have to rearrange my luggage quite drastically. I am well aware this problem would be solved by using a Kindle. I don’t want to.
  9. I don’t really like literary fiction. This is a huge generalisation, I know; maybe a more accurate way of putting that would be, “I don’t really like realism” (I’ve read some lovely literary fiction recently by authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Zadie Smith, Ruth Ozeki and others, mainly as a result of the dearth of SFF by POCs in my local library.) Unfortunately, the vast majority of intelligent book conversation in the West is about literary, and principally realist, fiction. I love following the Tournament of Books every March, but I almost never read along, because I’m underwhelmed by so much litfic that gets praised in the course of the ToB. (Everyone said Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was the most harrowing thing they’d ever read. As an SFF reader, I’ve read bleaker apocalypses.) I wish we had more accessible criticism about non-realist and popular genres.
  10. My local library has a worse graphic novel section than my old local library did, which is fucking stupid when you consider how much bigger it is. It also means that I haven’t been able to read any Saga for the last year or so. *sob*

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  3. Adora Belle Dearheart – Going Postal, Terry Pratchett. THE ADVENTURES OF A STEAMPUNK BUSINESSWOMAN WHO AIN’T TAKING YOUR SHIT.
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Top Ten Places Books Have Made Me Want to Visit

  1. Istanbul. This was a by-product of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which is about a literary treasure hunt across Europe and makes Istanbul sound absolutely fascinating, a mix of ancient and modern. Sadly it’s not the safest place to visit at the moment.
  2. Exeter College, Oxford. I remember vividly, the first time I visited Oxford, using the map in Philip Pullman’s Lyra’s Oxford to find Jordan College. Which is Exeter. Yes, I am a nerd.
  3. The Discworld Emporium, Wincanton, Somerset. Do I really need to explain this? My parents now live within touching distance of Wincanton, anyway, so I’m hoping to visit very soon!
  4. The Shambles, York. The Shambles are the original of the Shades in Ankh-Morpork, the sprawling, smelly city-state in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Fortunately you are approximately a hundred per cent less likely to get murdered in the Shambles than you are in the Shades. Although the prices in the shops there do amount to daylight robbery (some of them, anyway).
  5. Tolkien’s grave, Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford. Tolkien’s buried with his wife Edith, and carved below their names are the names Beren and Luthien: the species-transcending lovers of The Silmarillion. When I went in February, there were fresh flowers there, but it wasn’t a shrine or anything; just solemn and sad and I had a moment.
  6. King’s Cross Station, London. YES I AM A VERY SAD PERSON AND I WAS EXCITED TO GO TO KING’S CROSS FOR THE FIRST TIME BECAUSE HARRY POTTER. I AM VERY SORRY.
  7. The Pump Room, Bath. This is a restaurant now; but wouldn’t be cool to go there and pretend to be a Jane Austen character? Yes. Yes it would.
  8. New Zealand. Actually I’m not a huge fan of the whole getting-on-a-plane-for-a-zillion-hours thing, but if I had to it would be New Zealand I’d go to – for, yes, Hobbiton and Mount Doom and Edoras and all the wonderful corners of Middle-earth. Actually, doing the Simple Walk into Mordor would be quite fun, for a given value of “fun”.
  9. The Whalebone Arch, Isle of Harris. The actual arch is less impressively Mievillean than I hoped it would be (I was thinking the Ribs from Perdido Street Station, which, not so much), but it’s still pretty cool: an arch made of the jawbones of a whale.
  10. East Coker, Somerset. Yes, because of that poem by T.S. Eliot. (Which I read part of at my granddad’s funeral in January, so it’s kind of important to me.) I don’t think there’s actually very much at East Coker, just one of a thousand tiny villages you’ll find in the hollows of the Somerset hills, but. But.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Summer Tree

This review contains spoilers. TW: rape, suicide.

I am finally out of the woods of NaNoWriMo, and what a luxury it is to have as many words as I want to ramble about books in.

I mean, it’s a pity that my first post-NaNo review had to be about Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, which manages to be simultaneously enraging and utterly uninteresting, but the Spreadsheet of Books is merciless, and so here we are.

So. The Summer Tree is the first novel in Kay’s Fionavar trilogy (also called, with irritating preciousness, the Fionavar Tapestry), and feels like an unholy cross between Narnia, Tolkien and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. Five university students from our own world are taken, by a mysterious and not at all suspicious wizardy figure named Loren Silvercloak, to a fantasyland named (yes, you guessed it!) Fionavar. More specifically, they end up in the kingdom of Brennin, which is in the midst of a terrible drought because the High King has selfishly refused to sacrifice himself to the gods on the titular Summer Tree. There are also rumblings of a deeper evil at large in the kingdom: the orcs svart alfar are abroad, killing indiscriminately in the manner of evil fantasy races. Does this perchance have anything to do with the dark god Rakoth Maugrim, chained under a mountain for a thousand years?

Guess.

Like Stephen Donaldson, I think what Kay’s trying to do here is put psychologically modern characters into a Tolkienian fantasy world. (And, incidentally, I think both writers are doing so out of an urge to improve Tolkien: Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge informs me that Kay worked for Christopher Tolkien on editing The Silmarillion, which is suggestive at the very least.) But where Donaldson’s characters react believably and productively – Thomas Covenant’s refusal to believe that the Land is real may be frustrating, but it’s at least part of what helps him save it – Kay’s, um, don’t. They become part of the (forgive me) fabric of Fionavar, of Middle-earth, unquestioningly and thus problematically.

It almost goes without saying (though it shouldn’t) that Fionavar is a typically cod-medieval place: a land where women are wives and priestesses and seers while the men are fighters and drinkers and counsellors; where the dark-skinned people away south are decadent and evil; where the nomadic tribe in the north is a thinly-disguised, stereotyped Native American analogue; where criticising the king is punishable by death.

What rings really false about The Summer Tree is that the five bright university students from our own world – even a 1980s version of our own world – don’t question any of this. There are two women in the group: one of them, Jennifer, attracts the (unwanted) attention of Brennin’s crown prince, Diarmund, and though she pushes back on it the narrative fails to read Diarmund’s continued pursuit of her as actual harassment. And though one of the students criticises Diarmund’s execution of a peasant who spoke treason against the king, he gets over it pretty quickly, and in fact becomes Diarmund’s friend. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that two of the students enable Diarmund’s rape of a princess from that decadent southern country.)

There’s a particularly egregious and harmful moment when the real-world characters actually participate in Fionavar’s regressive social roles. One of the students, Paul, is severely depressed after the death of his girlfriend in a car accident. When he goes off to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree and so end the drought, his best friend Kevin reacts to the news thusly:

Let him die for you, if he can’t live for himself…Let him go.

Kevin knows Paul is ill: earlier in the novel he’s said something like “he’s been sick for a long time” (I don’t have the novel to hand, thank goodness). Heroic self-sacrifice, in medieval-inflected contexts, is a performance of bravery and chivalry. Key to that performance, key to the value of the sacrifice in a chivalric culture is that the hero chooses to do it, cold-bloodedly, rationally. Whereas what Paul’s doing is suicide – he’s dying from the often terminal disease that is depression, and, crucially, he is not in a state to choose rationally to sacrifice himself. Equating suicide with self-sacrifice is fucking dangerous. “Letting” a depressed person “go” is an abdication of responsibility, not (as Kay sees it) a recognition of the depressed person’s right to choose.

For me, this is sort of the crux of what’s wrong with The Summer Tree: Kay’s blending incompatible sets of social mores (a medieval shame culture and a modern guilt culture), and in doing so ends up utterly misrepresenting both. It might have been interesting to see the five students learn the rules of this new fantasyland and start following them; or to see them critiquing Fionavar’s regressiveness (although that approach has its own problems). Kay’s gone for an unholy blend of both, and it’s deeply problematic, as well as just plain tedious.

TL; DR: Don’t try to fix Tolkien. No, really don’t. Unless you are literally a medieval scholar, you don’t know enough.

Also, don’t read this book.

Top Ten Underrated Fantasy Novels

  1. Palimpsest – Catherynne M. Valente. Nobody talks very much about Palimpsest, but it might actually be my favourite of Valente’s novels. The city of Palimpsest is at once beautiful and magical and painful and terrible; reading the novel makes the world seem wide and wonderful again.
  2. Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake. Hardly anyone outside academic circles has heard of Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which seems ridiculous, because it’s had the most enormous impact on fantasy as a genre. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste: it is dense, baroque, Gothically overwritten. I love it.
  3. A Face Like Glass – Frances Hardinge. Hardinge actually seems to be getting more press since The Lie Tree won the Costa; at least her new novel A Skinful of Shadows is being advertised on the Tube, which, surely, must be an Author Goal? A Face Like Glass is wonderful in ways that are similar to Palimpsest: the world where it’s set is horrifying and dystopic, but also lush and full of wonders.
  4. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi. The few reviews I’ve read of Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories have been vaguely critical of its unfocused nature; but to me that’s a feature, not a bug. I love the messiness of the book: again like Palimpsest, its inconclusiveness leaves doors open for wonder to creep in.
  5. Starbook – Ben Okri. Ben Okri is hardly underrated; nor is he a fantasy author, strictly speaking. But I’d never heard of Starbook before I stumbled across it in the library, which is a shame, because, although it has problems, it’s also very beautiful. It’s rare that anything I read really makes me see the world differently, and Starbook did.
  6. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirlees. Lud-in-the-Mist is a novel from a genre completely overshadowed by Tolkien and his literary descendants. Published in the 1920s, it’s a story of Fairyland – where Fairyland is at once alluring and perilous, sitting just out of reach over the horizon. It does wonder very well indeed, maintaining Fairyland’s mystique and magic right through to the end.
  7. Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho. This is a fun, diverse Regency romance that draws on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Like Clarke’s novel, it also scrutinises the self-defeating nature of institutional oppression.
  8. The Book of Taltos – Steven Brust. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more about Brust’s novels: The Book of Taltos is one of the very few epic fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed recently, precisely because it doesn’t take itself very seriously. And because, I suspect, of its moral ambiguity: its protagonist, after all, is a wisecracking assassin.
  9. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula Le Guin. The Lathe of Heaven feels more like fantasy than SF: it’s about dreams becoming reality, and nothing is more fantastical, probably, than dreams. I also get the impression that it’s one of Le Guin’s minor works – which still makes it better than whole swathes of SFF by other authors.
  10. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I reread this first book in Reeve’s MG series about mobile cities preying on each other recently, and was seriously impressed by a) how steampunk it is, and b) how aware it is of institutional oppression. It’s a very sophisticated work of MG, and I want to get round to reading the sequels again soon.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Wolf in the Attic

I don’t think there are words to express just how much I do not care about Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic.

The signs were, it has to be said, inauspicious. I got an uncorrected proof copy of the book in my Nine Worlds goodie bag this year; it was actually published last year. I would submit that if you are giving away uncorrected proof copies of your book for free a year after it was published then something has gone very wrong with your marketing strategy.

Notwithstanding this, the novel itself starts promisingly enough. Anna Francis is a young Greek refugee from the 1922 Great Fire of Smyrna; she and her father have fled to Oxford, a city where Anna meets Lewis and Tolkien briefly and randomly. Lonely and unhappy and dreaming of adventure, Anna runs into the woods, where she stumbles upon a group of Romany people, and…well, that’s where it all starts going a little bit wrong.

Now, by setting this story specifically in Oxford, and, further, name-dropping Lewis and Tolkien (I will admit to a little fangirl thrill when “Tollers” arrived on stage, as it were), Kearney’s obviously evoking a particular kind of story. They’re stories heavily based on folklore, on magic that’s tied very specifically to British landscapes; stories that feel true because they encode traditions we in Britain have been familiar with all our lives. And, sure enough, Anna’s travels with the Romany people sees her trekking across the landscapes of Oxfordshire, experiencing the terror of what might as well be one of Tolkien’s barrow-wights, taking shelter from mysterious shadowy figures called the Roadmen in stone circles. Putting Anna, a refugee, an immigrant, into this profoundly British narrative landscape is a really interesting thing to do; it makes a point about whose stories get told, and it has the potential to generate interference within these traditional narratives.

Unfortunately, Kearney doesn’t seem all that interested in actually scrutinising any of the chauvinistic bullshittery that often underlies those stories. The presentation of the Romany people in particular is hugely problematic. Kearney does give us a disclaimer of sorts which is presumably aimed at deflecting such criticism:

We’m of an old and wandering folk girl, a tribe as ancient as you Greeks – or the Jew-folk too, comes to that. The ignorant calls us Romani, but we ain’t the same as the travellin’ people, though we has dealings with ’em. Egypt is where our kind hails from, in the old, old part o’ the world.

Let’s unpack some of the problems in that passage, shall we? I’m sure we have nothing better to do with our Monday evening.

Firstly: it doesn’t matter that Kearney tells us that his “old and wandering folk” aren’t Romany people; we’re still going to read and remember them as Romany people, because all the traditional fictional markers that say to us “these are Romany people” are there – their existence in the woods and fields, on the edge of civilisation; their nomadic lifestyle; their exoticised mysticism. It goes without saying that these markers are othering and harmful. Secondly, there is just no excuse for that cod-dialect: not only is it deeply irritating to read, it’s, similarly, a constant and patronising reminder of otherness. Thirdly, that description of Egypt as “an old, old part o’ the world” (what does that even mean?) is massively exoticising, drawing as it does on the tired trope of mystical Egypt, Egypt as repository of ancient wisdom which is now to be trotted out for the benefit of the West. It is racism under a veneer of false respect.

To cap it all off, this “old and wandering folk” turn out, in a bizarre and totally unforeshadowed twist, to be the villains of the piece – predatory werewolves who’ve spent the whole novel deceiving Anna. I mean, really? Isn’t this one of the most obvious racist tropes there is? Surely someone should have spotted it before this went to print? Maybe in an uncorrected proof copy?

I also want to talk (briefly) about how Kearney treats femininity here. A fairly significant plot point in the novel is Anna getting her first period, while she’s on the run from the Roadmen, accompanied only by – how hilariously awkward! – A Boy. This is how he reacts (after handing her a woollen sock to soak it up with, which sounds like the most uncomfortable thing):

Don’t be looking at me to tell you more. It’s not a man’s business…T’ain’t my place.

That’s it? This girl is cold and in pain and scared of this new thing that’s happening to her and you give her a sock and that’s it?

And then, the Romany women explain to her later on:

We is all daughters o’ the moon Anna. We feel the waxing and waning of it in our bodies the way no man ever can. ‘Tis our gift and our curse. We brings forth life, but must bleed for it. Blood must be paid for everything.

This has quite clearly been written by someone who has no fucking idea what menstruating is actually like, and moreover has not bothered to ask anyone who does know. Menstruation is not a mystical or powerful thing (I promise!): it is uncomfortable, inconvenient and deeply unpleasant. Pretty much every woman in the world (and I’m generalising about gender roles here, I know, but this is a point that I feel needs to be made) is surrounded by men who don’t want to engage with the actual lived truth of what they experience each and every month of their lives; they’d rather ignore it altogether, or, as here, romanticise it in imagery that casts women as other, unknowable, participants in some secret and threatening mystery of life and death. As with Kearney’s presentation of the Romany people, this is discrimination masquerading as respect. We do need more women who menstruate in fantasy; we don’t need it like this.

I just…don’t understand how any of this book is supposed to hang together. Kearney doesn’t seem to know what story he’s trying to tell: a heavily symbolic tale about femininity? A realist story about being a refugee in Britain? A fantasy about a magical Oxford? The only way to describe the result is: “a mess”.

I’m reading Tolkien again

…because it’s October, and that means Tolkien Reading Marathon time. Because the days are shortening slowly but inexorably. And the leaves are turning to gold. And this failing season of autumn, when the world – at least this northern part of it – turns towards the long cold quiet of winter, when the year is old but not yet dead; this season of nostalgia when the blue dawn smells of woodsmoke and mists under the soft golden sun lull the earth to sleep; this is the season of the Elves, sailing, sailing, sailing over the sea, and leaving us.

For we are old now, and wise. And the Straight Road is lost to us.

Top Ten Books I’m Not Sure I Want to Read

  1. Our Lady of the Streets – Tom Pollock. I think the first two books had a lot of good things about them, representationally, but I didn’t like them very much. And do I want to waste a week of my reading life on the last one? Not particularly.
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert. This is an SF classic and everyone talks about it and I feel like I should read it. But every time I think about picking it up there are always newer and shinier and probably less sexist books looking accusingly at me.
  3. The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest – Mark Z. Danielewski. I’ve been thinking about Volume 1, One Rainy Day in May, today, for review on Friday, and I’m not sure that it’s actually doing that much interesting work. I’m not that interested in postmodern ergodic literature that has nothing to say beyond gesturing to the falseness of narrative; I want something human to care about, godsdammit.
  4. Beren and Luthien – J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve never been hugely interested in reading the Legendarium, beyond The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: most of it is a blatant money grab by the Tolkien Estate, and frankly I think the Professor would be appalled at how much of his unfinished work has made it out into the public domain. But I had a look at Beren and Luthien in my local library, and the illustrations by Alan Lee may be worth the cover price all by themselves.
  5. The Runes of the Earth – Stephen Donaldson. I enjoyed the Thomas Covenant books, especially the Second Chronicles, which was really a case of right book, right time. But, honestly, my heart sank when I found out there was a whole nother trilogy to plough through. Donaldson’s writing is not easy, and, really, how much more can there possibly be to write about the Land?
  6. Bete – Adam Roberts. I really like Roberts’ non-fiction: his SFF criticism is impressively erudite, and also funny. And I also enjoyed Jack Glass, a lot. But the other novels of his I’ve read – On and By Light Alone – both felt a little…joyless, if clever.
  7. The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home – Catherynne M. Valente. Well, firstly, this is the last Fairyland book, and that’s ridiculously sad. Secondly, though, I’ve been disappointed by the last couple of Fairyland books, so I’m not sure if it isn’t better just to leave this one alone.
  8. The Long Cosmos – Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Again, I liked the early books in the series, but they’ve just seemed to get increasingly pointless. I’m not sure I can be bothered.
  9. The Mabinogion – Evangeline Walton. I keep seeing this in the library and thinking it might be fun to read; I’m a sucker for myths and legends and I don’t know much of The Mabinogion. But then, it’s also a massive book, and what if I find it really dull?
  10. The Causal Angel – Hannu Rajaniemi. Rajaniemi’s books are very clever, intricate things chock-full of future-speak. I can see that they’re technically good without being hugely invested in the story. In fact, I had absolutely no idea what was going on in The Fractal Prince, so I’m not actually invested in the story at all. I think I’ve probably had enough of his post-Singularity world, but who knows? If I can’t find anything else to read…

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Book of Taltos

I enjoyed this! It’s exactly the kind of book I always imagine when diving into a new fantasy series but never actually get. Which is excellent, because Brust is apparently a prolific writer, so there’s plenty more enjoyment waiting for me.

The Book of Taltos is actually two books in one: Taltos and Phoenix, both entries in Brust’s Vlad Taltos series. As the Author’s Note tells us, this is the kind of series – designedly so – that you can read in pretty much any order. Taltos is chronologically first, and this was the only volume they had in Forbidden Planet when I was there, so here we are.

Vlad Taltos is an assassin in Adrilankha, a key city of the Dragaeran Empire. The Dragaerans are, broadly speaking, not unadjacent to Tolkien’s Elves: they can live for centuries, they seem to be physically stronger than we are, and they practice sorcery. They’re organised into Houses, each named after an animal; each House gets a period of time in power (this period of time seems to run into the hundreds or perhaps thousands of years) before the cycle turns and the next House rises.

But Vlad isn’t a Dragaeran: he’s a human, an “Easterner”, a despised ethnic minority. That identity informs his character deeply – which makes for a really interesting read from a perspective we rarely see in fantasy.

Surprisingly, Taltos and Phoenix are very different books. Taltos is a light-hearted, self-conscious quest story: Vlad is contacted by a couple of powerful Dragaerans who half-blackmail, half-convince him to join them on a rescue mission to the land of the dead. Phoenix is an interesting companion to Taltos: more serious in tone, weightier in content, and set at least a decade later, it tells the story of one of the consequences of that rescue mission – murder, bloody revolt, and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the absolute best things about these novels is Vlad’s first-person narrative voice, which is ironic, irreverent, and utterly unexpected in what feels like such a quintessential high fantasy setting:

“Welcome,” she said in a voice that rolled from her tongue, as smooth as glass and as soft as satin. “I am Sethra.”

No shit.

I’m not saying this is high literature: it’s not. But, and this is important, it also knows it’s not, and it’s not taking itself seriously. What it is is well-structured, with highly relatable characters (Vlad’s failing relationship with his wife in Phoenix feels just right, and exactly real – no romance of sugar here), and subtle, significant subversion of fantasy tropes. I do think there’s probably more to be said about why we value stories about criminals – Vlad’s a stereotype in that he’s an assassin, a person who kills people for money and who basically runs a mafia, but that he also has an inbuilt moral code so the reader doesn’t hate him too much. That could have done with more interrogation.

But The Book of Taltos is really solid fantasy, which is something I don’t say very much, and which is therefore higher praise than it sounds. I will definitely be reading more in this world.