Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 12.24.2018
Book from: Personal collection

Kakaner & I still make the occasional foray back into YA fantasy; last year we achieved the particular landmark of her first introduction to the worlds of Tamora Pierce, author of much-beloved if not critically acclaimed YA fantasy. Pierce’s numerous four-book series, populated with tough heroines and colorful magic, were a staple in both my and my brother’s childhoods. Even at the time I knew this wasn’t great writing, but oh, was it great reading.

Tempests & Slaughter is a prequel to my favorite of her series, The Immortals Quartet. In it, we get to witness the childhood of one of the most powerful “present-day” characters in the land of Tortall: the mage Numair Salmalín, né Arram Draper. The novel follows Arram’s schooling at the University of Carthak as an uncommonly powerful boy mage of 11 to 14.

I love magical apprenticeship narratives, but despite its title (which Pierce admits she generated with every expectation of her editor rejecting it), Tempests & Slaughter is mainly boring in a soothing way. It’s hard not to take away the impression that there’s little plot other than “and then Arram grew older and took different, harder classes and boy did he like learning because he sure liked learning, and being the learning of things, and look how all nice almost all of his masters are.” However, Pierce does work to build the impression of conspiracy manipulating the line of succession to the Carthaki throne, as well as exploring Arram’s discomfort with the Carthaki institution of slavery; both of these threads introduce more darkness and tension.

Continue reading Tempests & Slaughter, by Tamora Pierce (2018) E

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik (2006) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: May 27, 2018
Book from: Personal collection

Capt. Will Laurence is serving with honor in the British Navy when his ship captures a French frigate harboring most a unusual cargo–an incalculably valuable dragon egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence unexpectedly becomes the master of the young dragon Temeraire and finds himself on an extraordinary journey that will shatter his orderly, respectable life and alter the course of his nation’s history.

Thrust into England’s Aerial Corps, Laurence and Temeraire undergo rigorous training while staving off French forces intent on breaching British soil. But the pair has more than France to contend with when China learns that an imperial dragon intended for Napoleon–Temeraire himself– has fallen into British hands. The emperor summons the new pilot and his dragon to the Far East, a long voyage fraught with peril and intrigue. From England’s shores to China’s palaces, from the Silk Road’s outer limits to the embattled borders of Prussia and Poland, Laurence and Temeraire must defend their partnership and their country from powerful adversaries around the globe. But can they succeed against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?

I’d been meaning to read Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragon (!) series since it came out, couldn’t believe it took me so long, and felt more than well rewarded for finally breaking into the series, especially as a summer read. (Though I admit my interest slowly tapered while reading the second volume, a few weeks after this one.) His Majesty’s Dragon is an utterly delightful read, and one I expect to revisit many times. The methodical, economical precision of the historical detail and characterization is both engrossing and comforting, especially as punctuated by occasional leaps of quiet wit or irreverence. And the “stranger in a strange land” narrative, with staunch, conservative, thoroughly honorable Capt. Lawrence being thrust into the rough company of dragon aviators, is just so well executed. Lawrence is my favorite part of the series: I love his acuity, his brusque yet cultivated style of masculinity, his carefulness of observation, and his unbending sense of duty toward his country and fellow military men and women. On a personal level, I honestly aspire to be as capable and honorable as him; on a craft level, I loved the narrative execution of his uncomfortable yet determined entry into the world of the dragon aviators, and all of their upturnings of British class and gender conventions.

Surprisingly, Temeraire, Lawrence’s unlooked-for dragon, is a bit too charmingly idealized for my taste; I felt my interest played upon in a rather automatic way whenever the book detailed how endlessly graceful, intelligent, ingenious, etc. he is. Yes, his youthful impetuousness is intended to offset his many virtues, but he’s still too perfect to be really interesting. It’s far more amusing and engaging, for example, to watch Lawrence reach the limits of his own intelligence and have throw up his hands in bafflement at having to “parent” a hyperintelligent dragon. (And, more broadly, to watch Lawrence unconsciously adjusting the boundaries of his masculinity to accommodate the deeply solicitous, tender relationship he has with Temeraire.)

Regardless – highly recommended if you love fantasy that’s deeply grounded in a convincing sense of practical reality, if you love alternate history or historical fantasy that plays on gender and class tensions, or if you’ve ever wondered just how the Battle of Trafalgar would have worked out if the European powers had aerial dragon corps.

Related reading:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990): review by Emera
Flight of the Dragon Kyn, by Susan Fletcher (1993): review by Emera

Agents of Dreamland, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2017) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.21.2018 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection (you can read an excerpt online at Tor.com)

The word for this Lovecraftian novella is not exactly luscious, but somehow that’s always what comes to mind when I think about it. Kiernan just does something exceptional with style and tone here: the prose is implacably menacing, cuttingly witty, and both those tones run together with a free-floating, sinuous, sometimes psychedelically inflected quality that is what I want to call luscious. This is also the work that made me realize that while I tend to think of Kiernan as a Gothic writer, she’s also tremendous at noir.

Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.

That’s the first paragraph; it makes me want to read the whole thing all over again. The sense of place throughout Agents of Dreamland is extraordinary: a smoked-out, hard-baked, rusty-blood-stained West, even featuring the Salton Sea, which I’ve been fascinated by for a while. (Inland seas = automatically uncanny?) There’s also a lot of Lovecraftian and UFO-theory allusion that I think pulls together into a compellingly sticky web (this universe of UFO-intercepting spooks feels real, and worn), even if one happens to be foggy on the particular referents. Namely, I had no idea that Dreamland and Paradise Ranch were nicknames for Area 51, and I had forgotten that Lovecraft’s Mi-Go were fungoid in nature – a feature that makes logical the nature of the extraterrestrial pathogen with which the Signalman comes face-to-face.

Darkly lovely also are the jangly, free-associating chapters from the point of view of the wonderfully/sadly named Chloe Stringfellow, a heroin addict turned Lovecraftian cult victim. (If some of her cult leader’s apocalyptic babble sounds a bit silly, callow, I think that that makes sense, in the same way that, say, Beat Poets sound silly once one starts to feel external to the experience of disillusioned adolescence.) I especially appreciated Kiernan’s evocation of Chloe’s longing for belonging – simultaneously diffuse and fire-hot – because right after my first read of Agents of Dreamland, I read John Darnielle‘s Universal Harvester (one of my top three reads of 2017), in which a ragtag Western cult also ends up playing a major role – but we never get to see it from the inside. I always find it strangely moving when accidental echoes run between books I’m reading.

Oddly, even though the future that Agents of Dreamland looks forward to is Grim with a capital G, the novella leaves me in a dreamy, appreciative mood, and one that approaches humorous. There’s a sense that our fates are ruled by a cosmic wink-and-shrug, that we’ve come near to disaster a hundred-hundred times, but chance (or human nature, in Chloe’s case) conspires to deflect us away at the last moment. The Signalman sets the tone here: he tempers fear and resignation with a very hard-bitten humanism, and with a sardonicism that feels beautifully human in direct proportion to the magnitude of horror that he faces.

Related reading:

“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003)

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2009)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012)

 


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An Obedient Father, by Akhil Sharma (2017) K

Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 12.31.2017

Book from: Bookstore browse session

An Obedient Father is a harrowing story of a rather run-of-the-mill moneyman Ram, a middle rung manager within a governmental structure, corrupt and unambitious, who repeatedly molested and raped his daughter when she was pre-pubescent, and now finds circumstances forcing her and his granddaughter to live with him again.

Generally, I thought this was a rather successful first novel– the premise and backstory felt kind of contrived and heavy-handed but the emotional exploration was well done. However, I hesitate to ever label any story of sexual wrongdoing as heavy-handed or unrealistic because I only have reason to believe that fiction has happened many times over, and reality is worse than fiction. I feel it is my duty to consider these kinds of stories seriously.

I was immediately overcome with the horror of seeing the emotional journey of a family ripped apart by this kind of tragedy from the perpetrator’s perspective. Ram is very much simply a product of his culture and context, and I think one takeaway from the novel is that it’s very hard to engineer and live by your own moral compass when there is no external impetus for doing so. Of course, a lot of this lack of impetus is entrenched in the darker aspects of Indian culture and the patriarchy. I was struck by the helplessness of both sides of the act– the daughter Anita and the father Ram, but especially how weak Ram was, fixating on his inability to control himself despite hating himself for what he was doing. Sharma manages to immediately elicit sympathy for Ram without ever being apologetic for him, a tricky act to pull off. The whole journey was just this incredibly strange crumbling and dismantling of the health of a family while the distributions of love, privilege, progressiveness, greed, and justice shifted within the family. Finally, it’s a painful, cautionary highlighting of the belief that no one is going to look out for you, that stigma and society can be thicker than blood.

The Young Bride, by Alessandro Baricco (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

A scintillating and sensual novel about a young woman’s ingress into a fantastically strange family.

The hand of the young woman in question has been promised to the scion of a noble family. She is to make her preparations for marriage at the family’s villa, whose inhabitants have a fear of the night, books, sadness, and anything that smacks of disorder. There the unnamed young bride will be initiated into the art of seduction and will learn, one by one, each of the family secrets.

In this erotically charged and magical novel, Alessandro Baricco portrays a cast of mysterious characters who exist outside of the rules of causation as he tells a story, an adult fable, about fate, sex, family, love and the difficult job of being together.

This short novel is exquisite but arguably vacuous, depending on your tolerance/appetite for flighty, languid aristocratic types afflicted by mysterious ailments of the heart. Said type, plus dreamy surrealism, plus etc. is normally so much my thiiiing in fiction that Kakaner laughed at me, deservedly, when I picked this up at the bookstore and showed her the cover-flap copy. If you like Anaïs Nin, if you like Rikki Ducornet, this book has a seaside villa near their work. Also, actually, Wes Anderson, in the dwelling on rich people’s [over]subtle troubles and the interest in simultaneously lavish and fussy ritual.

But gawd, this book tried even my patience for featherily virtuosic writing and languorous sorrows. The glowy feeling of mystery is appealing – including that drifting obscuringly around the novel’s metafictional narrator, a nameless writer who is diverting him/herself with the work of writing this novel, while ruminating on the aftermath of some kind of immense (we’re told) sorrow and being snippy at a psychoanalyst. The Young Bride – plucky, down on her luck, a quiet survivor – is a likable-by-default protagonist, sharp and genuine enough to provide ballast for the rest of the cast, about whom one must ask repeatedly, “Are any of your problems even real?”

What ultimately tipped me over from mild skepticism into outright objection was the baffling pose that the book adopts towards women and prostitution. I tried for a while not to judge it purely along that axis, in the hopes that Baricco was going to do something more nuanced with it, but in the end I did find just stupid and piggish his narrative device of delivering nearly all of his female characters into prostitution (or discovering them there to begin with) as a sort of ultimate formative experience. Excuse me, but fuck that.

I would read this again just for the luxuriant sensations of the prose, and for the writing about writing, but the narrative content is a big ??? for me.

On the plus side, here’s my favorite passage from the narrator-writer:

I’ve noticed that, more than in the past, I like letting [my book] glide off the main road, roll down unexpected slopes. Naturally I never lose sight of it, but, whereas working on other stories I prohibited any evasion of this type, because my intention was to construct perfect clocks, and the closer I could get them to an absolute purity the more satisfied I was, now I like to let what I write sag in the current, with an apparent effect of drifting that the Doctor, in his wise ignorance, wouldn’t hesitate to connect to the uncontrolled collapse of my personal life, by means of a deduction whose boundless stupidity would be painful for me to listen to. I could never explain to him that it’s an exquisitely technical matter, or at most aesthetic… It’s a question of mastering a movement similar to that of the tides: if you know them well you can happily let the boat run aground and go barefoot along the beach picking up mollusks or otherwise invisible creatures. You just have to know enough not to be surprised by the return of the tide, to get back on board and simply let the sea gently raise the keel, carrying it out to sea again. With the same ease, I, having lingered collecting all those verses of Baretti’s and other mollusks of that type, feel the return, for example, of an old man and a girl, and I see them become an old man standing stiffly in front of a row of herbs, with a young Bride facing him, while she tries to understand what is so grave about simply knocking on the Mother’s door. I distinctly feel the water raising the keel of my book and I see everything setting sail again in the voice of the old man, who says…

– E

Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan (2017) K

Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 1.26.2017

Book from: Personal collection, recommended by Marbiru (thanks!)

Weaving back in forth in time, moving from character to character, the author tells the story of Indonesia from its Dutch colonial days, through the Japanese occupation during World War II, and into independence as a modern state. Kurniawan’s characters are broadly drawn, but they aren’t one-dimensional. Dewi Ayu, the most sought-after prostitute in the seaside city of Halimunda, is a shrewd, fearless, and resourceful woman but an ambivalent mother. Her lover, Maman Gendeng, is a romantic thug. The soldier Sodancho is both an illustrious revolutionary and a self-serving racketeer; he’s also a rapist. 

Reading this novel was like eating ice cream, or cake, or your favorite food, and just shoveling every bite in before you finished chewing (much less swallowing) your last bite. Every sentence, every paragraph, every story swelled and crescendoed and flowered and blossomed it seemed until impossible infinity. Just a rich luscious reading experience overall.

Maybe it’s obvious from the title and blurb, but the motifs are women drawing power from their physical beauty and wiles and men drawing power from brute force and violence. The novel is composed of intertwining stories featuring a constant interplay of beauty vs strength, one force always trying to subdue the other and the actors being driven mad trying to achieve dominance. It’s a cautionary and desperate tale of the futility of drawing upon beauty for true strength, especially if for ill-intentioned ends, and that the lust for and reliance on beauty ultimately devastates. At the same time, so many of the characters are unable to comprehend why anyone would love an ugly being, and that confusion and cognitive dissonance becomes a fixation towards the end. Even though this sounds heavy handedly black and white, it works because it is commentary that is delivered in this unabashedly absurd and dreamlike way.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith (2016) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

The Grotesque, by Patrick McGrath (1989) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion. Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, provide fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” That is, the grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral. Described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown a drapery of lichen due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – but internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline:

“In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…”

This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.

The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2.23.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Cover art by the wonderfully named Gray Morrow

“Some seventeen notable empires rose in the Middle Period of Earth. These were the Afternoon Cultures. All but one are unimportant to this narrative, and there is little need to speak of them save to say that none of them lasted for less than a millennium, none for more than ten; that each extracted such secrets and obtained such comforts as its nature (and the nature of the Universe) enabled it to find; and that each fell back from the Universe in confusion, dwindled, and died …

tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand-dunes that lay between his tall home and the gray line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.”

Such mixed feelings I have about this direst and 70’s-est of fantasy novels! On the one hand, who am I to say no to prose that is that dire, and that arch. (see: my obsession with Tanith Lee) Also on that hand, M. John Harrison’s blog is one of my favorites; I’m fascinated by his intellect and sensibilities. On the other hand, this is almost 50 years distant, the plot and characters are so silly and derivative (battles for the fate of an empire, the reassembly of a band of elite warriors in order to defend a beloved queen), and there are giant sloths that are meant to be taken seriously as noble and tragic creatures. I’m not sure even 12-year-old me could have managed that sentiment successfully.

Politically, this has a provocative flavor: anti-capitalist, anti-industrialist. The conceit of the setting is that numerous high-technological societies have ravaged the earth’s resources, and fallen, leaving crumbling medieval cities that harvest glowing, deadly technology from wastelands to wage intermittent wars. Remaining civilizations, namely Viriconium, are burdened by a sense of their own impending failure; entropy is the order of the day. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth is an obvious influence, and I assume there’s a lot of Moorcock in there too, but I still have yet to read any of his work. There’s also a lot of T. S. Eliot, sometimes pastiched very directly via the not-great poetry of tegeus-Cromis. (Sorry, Cromis.)

Aesthetically, let’s just say it: this book is fucking nuts. The main appeal of the book for me is really just Harrison’s visionary, desolate, cavernous nature-writing, which could so easily be translated to some kind of 2-hour-long Pink Floyd music video, and I wish somebody would. Here’s tegeus-Cromis, he of the nameless sword, traversing the rocky hills:

“In a day, he came to the bleak hills of Monar that lay between Viriconium and Duirinish, where the wind lamented considerably some gigantic sorrow it was unable to put into words. He trembled the high paths that wound over slopes of shale and between cold still lochans in empty corries. No birds lived there. Once he saw a crystal launch drift overhead, a dark smoke seeping from its hull.”

Continue reading The Pastel City, by M. John Harrison (1971) E

Revisiting the Old Kingdom

Reviewer: Emera

As might have been suggested over the past couple months, I (and Kakaner too) was engaged in a full reread of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series in order to prepare for the arrival of Goldenhand, the latest book. Some thoughts , mostly high-level, somewhat scattered –

I.

Of the Old Kingdom series, I think Sabriel is the most formally perfect – it’s effortlessly swift and lean; not a single page feels narratively wasted. (There’s an undeniable parallel there to Sabriel’s own character, whereas the later books stretch in proportion to their protagonists’ adolescent angst.) Sabriel also benefits from first-in-the-series effect, where the world, magic, and tone feel most fresh and mysterious. Sabriel is a tiny, dark explosion in my heart; I feel I could read it three times in a row in one week and not get tired of it.

The endlessly oncoming thunderstorm that is the final few chapters is still one of the most spectacular and atmospheric climaxes I’ve read. Though I still remembered much of it with almost paragraph-by-paragraph clarity, this reread still left me wide-eyed and prickling with goosebumps.

Out of context, this probably isn’t as striking, but I’ve always loved this bit of scene-setting when they’re struggling to recover Kerrigor’s coffin – darkness and the Dead are coming –

Sunshine poured down between the trees, rich and golden, but already losing its warmth, like a butter-coloured wine that was all taste and no potency.

II.

Lirael is probably the fan favorite. When I saw Garth Nix speak last winter on the release tour for Goldenhand, he mentioned that he actually first wrote that book starting from the halfway point of its current form; his editor read it, and told him that he had to go back and tell more of Lirael’s younger years. Thank the Charter: Lirael without more Lirael is unimaginable. The book’s opening half is a paean to the sorrow of the out-of-place teenage woman. It was wrenching when I was that age, and I still think it’s sensitive, loving, and engrossing. It is also an unmissable exploration of one of my most most most favorite fictional settings, the Library of the Clayr, in which it makes perfect sense that all librarians ought to be steely women with swords, combat magic, and emergency clockwork mice.

I also really, really appreciate Sameth as the secondary protagonist (be it noted that in the Old Kingdom series, the male characters are always secondary), thanks to many years of struggling with a sense of myself as a useless person. Younger Emera found the women in the Old Kingdom almost deifically aspirational, and inspirational, while identifying with nervous, striving Sam. Thanks, Sam.

III.

Abhorsen is a slog. Is grim slogging a formal prerequisite of books involving an approaching cataclysm? Arguable, but I think the book also suffers from a general shapelessness, in addition to generically motivated villains (though I enjoy the necromancer Hedge purely on the basis of picturesqueness – he looks a lot like Peter Cushing in my head) and (this is Kakaner’s biggest gripe) an overabundance of nearly deus-ex-machina-level magical solutions. Nevertheless, the ending still makes me cry like a baby.

IV.

I talked about Clariel here, and the novellas here.

Goldenhand next!

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014) E

Undercover: Clariel

Two novellas of the Old Kingdom