Category Archives: things other people have written

Provenance, Ann Leckie

I am in the Lake District, after a five-hour drive became a thirteen-hour drive. It was great. (It wasn’t great.) Rather than a blow-by-blow account of how this immensely tedious thing happened, this is a book review.

Provenance is Ann Leckie’s latest: a follow up to Ancillary JusticeSword and Mercy. It’s in the same universe – and, from what I gather, set not long after Mercy – but at a different end of the universe. Ingray, our main character, is not Radchaai, neither are her friends and family, and there are no sentient AIs, either.

I have some criticisms, but I really, really like this book. Minor spoilers follow:



Continue reading Provenance, Ann Leckie

Book review: Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie

[This review has minor spoilers for Ancillary Sword and major ones for Ancillary Justice.]

About a year ago, I read a review copy of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and did a positive but measured write-up of it, guardedly talking about how much I’d enjoyed the ideas explored in it and why those ideas should win it the Hugo. Not quite a year later, Ancillary Justice is the only novel in history to have won the Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, and I’ve just read the newly-published sequel. The series is now called Imperial Raadch, and the new book picks up right where the last one left off, with Breq, now working for (one half of) Anaander Mianaai, on a mission to a place called Athoek Station to protect the sister of Lieutenant Awn.

The thing is, I enjoyed Ancillary Justice and very much respected its projects, and my review at the time reflected that, talking about all the stuff I and everyone have written about already: about the worldbuilding, the fascinating themes of identity, bodies and difference; the way the Radchaai inhabit an entirely female linguistic universe. And all those things are still in evidence, especially the last, which, aaah, is still as remarkable as it was and maybe even more so for being the second book that does it. It is psychologically warming in a way I can’t even articulate to read a whole novel that doesn’t use “he”; to have everything, every plot, every romance, every good deed and bad deed and minor detail be a thing that a woman does, or could be doing.

But Ancillary Sword is different. To me it reads as though two things have happened: that Leckie has become more comfortable in this universe, and that Breq has, too. This is the middle book in the series and Leckie has the time and space to play, and while I enjoyed Ancillary Justice, I loved Ancillary Sword and want to make everyone read it immediately, which is a slightly different thing. Possibly, though, this may be more because of me and my taste for small-scale worldbuilding than the novel, but let’s see. As above, Ancillary Sword picks up right where Ancillary Justice left off, on the way to Athoek Station – Breq heads out there with Seivarden, her former drug-addict companion and now loyal lieutenant, on board Mercy of Kalr, a ship just like Breq used to be when she was Justice of Toren. One of Breq’s soldiers, Kalr Five, is nervous about expressing it but still adamant: if they’re heading out into space, they need good china. This very rapidly transforms into a running gag about Breq wondering who actually gets to eat off said good china. In the meantime, Seivarden is ineptly-but-charmingly flirting with Breq; the rest of the crew have discovered Breq sings when she’s happy and have, themselves, begun singing when they’re happy; and seventeen-year-old Lieutenant Tisarwat, Breq’s youngest officer, is nervous as hell and wants to throw up a lot. And Mercy of Kalr, the ship, watches over the whole thing with a somewhat ironic eye. Of course, typically of Leckie, there’s a lot more to all of this than meets the eye – the good china is a mark of social status; seen from without, the crew are the agents of a terrifying imperial force; there are many more reasons than the obvious why Lieutenant Tisarwat is a nervous baby lieutenant. But at the same time, there doesn’t have to be more to this than meets the eye, and I was reminded very incongruously of George McDonald Fraser’s McAuslan books, in which a young officer gets used to his rank and file soldiers (who treat him exactly as Tisarwat’s treat hers) and starts figuring out some stuff about the world he lives in, as well. It’s a small-scale story against a giant space opera backdrop.

And, obviously, that’s my favourite thing: small-scale stories in an SFF setting is totally my jam, and this novel delivers beautifully. Breq’s quest in this novel is to make amends to Basnaaid, Awn’s sister, a very little human story, compared to her quest for revenge in the last book. Tisarwat’s growing up. Seivarden is learning how to be a good officer. In treating them with the same care and attention that she treats epic, galaxy-spanning battles for dominance, Leckie is telling us that these things matter. I think that’s a powerful idea in itself, but even more so for a story with a protagonist like this. Breq is Justice of Toren. She was a ship; she was a warship; she was responsible for the deaths of millions. As we know from the first novel, the thing that broke her was her being ordered to kill Lieutenant Awn in cold blood and carrying out that order; Breq has come by who she is the hard, hard, hard way. Which is why Breq’s kindness is a hard thing, too: Breq’s kindness to Tisarwat starts out so hard you don’t even know that it’s kindness. Her compassion for Basnaaid is terrifying. And there is another character in the novel, Queter, who points this out – who tells Breq that she was an imperialist and a warmonger, that she can only bring violence. That kindness is no longer something she can offer. Breq neither accepts nor denies this; she is who she is, because she can’t be anything else. She is who she is, she is what she’s done, and this is all she can do, now.

In the same way, I think the most powerful moment in the novel is close to the end, a last moment of connection between Kalr Twelve, Lieutenant Tisarwat and Breq. To explain it would be to spoil it, but again, the themes are evident: because unlike in the first novel, Breq can admit to the fact that she loved Lieutenant Awn, that she saved Seivarden from the snow because she felt sorry for her; and that she desperately misses the ship she used to be. In this novel, such small stories have the same power as the big ones. And so, Mercy of Kalr and its crew can do their best to help. The new ship isn’t like Justice of Toren – Breq isn’t one intelligence, encompassing all these people. But Mercy of Kalr and its crew, who sing their songs with her, who share what they are with her – they’ll do.

The Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance (or, my career in the oldest profession)

Emergency sasquatch ordinanceThe Emergency Sasquatch Ordinance is a collection of legal oddities collated by Kevin Underhill, the (very funny and usually spot-on) guy who runs Lowering The Bar. It is a very fun book, and, full disclosure, my partner Andrew Gray is namechecked in the acknowledgements for having provided his own favourite bit of legal trivia, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspection) Act. (Which makes it illegal to detonate a nuclear weapon in the United Kingdom. Just in case you managed to do it without coming any other crime).

I got a bit snippy at page 293, however, which deals with the Statute of Marlborough. It suggests, in fact, that ipso facto, refusing to repeal a 747-year old statute that forbids a tenant from laying waste to their landlord’s land is ridiculous.

Well, in my non-SFF-writing existence I am a lawyer with a specialty in rural land litigation and I have cited the Statute of Marlborough as part of my working life. The statute is 747 years old because it is entirely fit for purpose. We still have tenants; we still have the doctrine of waste; it’s still decent public policy to protect co-terminous estate owners against each other. And it’s not like the law I deal with is usually much less august. This week I wrote about the Prior’s Case, the bit of fourteenth-century common law setting out how restrictive covenants run with the land. Friday’s reading featured a little about the Law of Property Act 1925 and quite a lot more about how it relates to the whole body of pre-existing artefacts of title back to the Norman Conquest, because the doctrines of tenure are that old and they do still matter.

I got upset, is what I’m saying.

Then came the horrible realization. I am a rational human being and usually a good lawyer, and I am willing to go right down to the wire for this statute. The Statute of Marlborough is important! Let me tell you about my STRONG FEELINGS ON THE SUBJECT! Etc.

Now imagine. Somewhere in the world, there is perhaps someone like me for every page of that book. Someone out there feels just as strongly about the emergency sasquatch ordinance passed by Skamania County, Washington, in the 1960s; a sequence of enactments concerning how to pronounce “Arkansas”; and various state butterflies, crustacea, microbes, etc. At the time of Hammurabi there were scribes sitting there waving their hands about going, no, guys, this is super-important, we need this.

Oddly, I don’t think I feel that bad about it.

Book review: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August[Note: this review has major spoilers. It also has some minor discussion of suicide and self-harm. The novel has a great deal of discussion of suicide and self-harm; I wouldn’t recommend it if you have triggers concerning those things.]

Harry August dies in the early nineteen-eighties, aged nearly seventy or thereabouts, and is born again. Not in the sense of being reincarnated, at least not conventionally: for he is born again in exactly the same place as last time, in 1919 in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in a station waiting room. He’s a kalachakra: one of a group of people who are always born again, as themselves, with their memories of their previous lives returning to them in early childhood.

This is the powerful idea that sustains The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and about the first half of the novel is devoted to exploring it fully, which is as it should be, because it’s a richer seam than you might think.Harry lives the same life over and over: that’s understood. It makes all his childhoods apart from the first an exercise in tedium, which isn’t something I had thought of, and then of course with a basic amount of the intelligence and all the time in the world, you can become an expert in anything. So Harry in his later lives is a polyglot polymath, having studied medicine, physics and history knowing he can become an expert in each. (I don’t know what it says that it takes him fourteen lives to come to my particular profession, but he even does become a lawyer at one point.) And right from the start, of course the novel engages with the classic SF premise of whether, armed with foreknowledge, we can change history – does this universe work this way, and if it does, should we? I’m told that Claire North is a pseudonym for an established author who normally writes very different books, which might explain why this novel takes such an unusual stab at an idea that’s kind of an SF old chestnut. Harry is trying to save the world from some future cataclysm – which is a conceit I last encountered in, of all places, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books – and it’s interesting to see this trope played entirely straight, Harry journeying through the twentieth century on his mission to save the world. (He’s visited by another of his kind, from the future, carrying the message back in time – the end of the world is coming sooner and sooner. It’s that kind of thing that makes this novel, probably before anything else, a proper, compelling, thrilling page-turner.)

And in some ways, this is the other great strength of the novel, the life and colour that Harry’s sometimes very dispassionate narration can bring to the history of the modern world: Harry lives through the Second World War many, many times; he lives through the Cold War; he journeys through 1950s China and the 1960s USSR; he sees the Great Leap Forward, the Soviet closed cities, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. He gets kidnapped by Argentinian bandits and he’s around in the early days of Israel. The chapters are short and often serve as short snapshots of a greater story, like all history.

Against that colour, there’s the contrast of a lack of colour: Harry’s childhood in the north of England as the illegitimate child of an impoverished aristocrat, spent on the Northumberland moors, with little parental love or ambition. Sometimes the narrative seems to be saying that that sense of alienation stays with him throughout his lives, which I actually don’t buy, but it’s complex. One thing the novel does spectacularly and chillingly well is to depict Harry’s increasing ruthlessness and increasing willingness to treat people as things, including, at times, himself. In his first life, we see him traumatised by his experiences killing enemy soldiers in the Second World War; in his third life, we see him tortured by an American intelligence agent who has (correctly) surmised that he can tell him how the Cold War turns out. It’s a turning point for him, Harry writes, because, “I learned that there is a black pit inside my soul with no limit to its falling”. Not being Harry, the reader can think instead that to want to die, to escape, is to be human. But in later lives, torture and death become strange, dark inconveniences, as does the childhood that follows; they are all as nothing in the face of his quest to save the world, that becomes, as he admits himself, a quest for vengeance. As above, I don’t buy that Harry’s childhood can be the cause of his increasing alienation, not when there’s also the simple fact that he lives over and over, without much companionship and a resultant tendency to regard ordinary people as “linears”, nothing to do with him – but the narrative occasionally doesn’t seem to know what to do with that idea, giving us a meandering daddy issues subplot that skirts the edge of it but never quite comes out and says it. Harry gets less and less human as his lives progress and eventually even the family subplot lapses, so perhaps it’s a wash. And at the very end, we get to the climax of the vengeance plan and it’s nothing to do with Harry’s early life: it’s just Harry August, his nemesis, and possibly the ending of the world.

What the novel is about, then, is about how a life can have meaning. How Harry’s life, which will be as long as he could possibly want, gradually reduces to one quest for vengeance; how in rejecting everything else, including love, faith, work, selfhood, it comes to mean very little to him, because those are the things that give life meaning. Which is a noble theme and a powerful one, as powerful as the starting premise, for those of us reading who don’t live the same life over and over. And for that reason, it’s a good book. And I don’t read literary fiction, for the most part – I’m not well-versed in its tropes, so perhaps this is a category-error criticism and if so I apologise. But perhaps, coming to this from the SF and not the literary standpoint, there could have been a little more redemption for Harry, a little sacrifice of theme to character rather than vice versa. Having spent four hundred pages on the first fifteen lives of Harry August, I think I wanted a glimmer of a happy ending for him, too.

Book review: October Daye series, Seanan McGuire

Chimes At Midnight

I’ve just finished the October Daye books by Seanan McGuire, and enjoyed them very much. They’re kind of popcorn-candy books – one comes out every year – about a fairy private investigator in San Francisco. Really. It’s an original genre-smush, I’ll give it that, and McGuire’s got a passion for Irish fairy tales and myth that shines through clearky. Which is, you know, not my thing – I’m usually very resistant to Euro-centric depictions of fairies, and not at all interested in fairy tale retellings – and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed these.

What I like about the series is October, or Toby, herself. Oh, Toby! She is such the hard-boiled PI – grim narration, unwise caffeine and doughnut choices, prone to making sweeping generalisations about Just How Crappy Everything Is. I would find this terribly annoying, were it not for a number of major, game-changing factors. Firstly, there’s the faerie setting. (Much as it pains me, I will adopt McGuire’s spelling of that word for the rest of this post.) McGuire has done her research and her worldbuilding, and is very aware of how those aren’t the same thing. She gives us a slew of interesting races of people and cultures that sound like real cultures, complex and silly by turns: and with them, she gives us a genuinely fresh setting for what might be otherwise quite pedestrian murder-solving and missing-child plots. Actually, she makes a strength out of them. Nothing to make you look at both genres with fresh eyes than seeing how interestingly they can be made to fit together. So we have Toby, who is a “changeling” – in this universe, person with part human blood, part faerie, with a particular set of abilities and inabilities, and well-realised complex social status – and can do magic that mostly involves blood; but we also have shapeshifters, teleporters, people who can turn technology into magic and back again, hedonistic magic healers, people who are part goat, people who can change the world through their dreams, it’s a long and creative list.

Secondly, McGuire’s doing something interesting with gender in both her genres (or alternatively, a refreshing lack of interesting? I’m not sure which). I had no idea how much I needed the pop-culture staple, the hard-edged cynic private investigator, to be a woman until I saw it done. Toby lurks in alleyways and acts casually self-destructive and it’s great. It’s great. What’s notable about the Philip Marlowes of this world is that while their personal lives leave much to be desired, their abilities as investigators are never questioned, and similarly, neither are Toby’s. She is what she is, without apology for womanhood (or motherhood). On the flipside, it’s nice to just have casually non-sexist fantasy. Toby’s other hat is Sir October Daye, Knight – not with jousting, but with swordfighting, and a squire – and it’s nice to have that story lurking in the background, neither the focus nor ignored. Toby’s not the first woman to be a knight and there’s nothing in this story about proving herself. All that’s done, and taken for granted. Relatedly, there’s casual, unremarkable queerness in this universe, which I approve of thoroughly. A half-dozen recurring characters are queer, and the narrative takes them again as read.

And thirdly! Like the best characters, Toby grows and learns. From being a self-confessed loner with self-destructive tendencies, who trusts no one but herself, slowly, slowly, Toby gains friends and allies, a partner, a household, a life. The first few books are uneven – partly, in my view, because Toby’s friendlessness makes them heavy on clunky interior monologue – but I liked them better when I realised it was meant to be a deliberate slow burn towards a specific goal. It’s a slow transition but it’s worth the wait: it comes together, finally, in Ashes of Honor, the sixth book in the series, and the best from where I’m sitting. Oh, Toby! I love her: she’s a hero for our age. Her liege lord, Sylvester Torquill, was a fairy tale hero for an earlier age, taking a sword upon the battlefields; Toby is one for now, taking her squashed VW Bug onto the mean, no-parking streets of San Francisco, and saving it from all manner of things while also doing laundry and dating and spending a lot of time at Starbucks. And as Sylvester mentored Toby, she does the same for her own squire, Quentin, which I love. Oh, I love Toby! Even after her arc of learning to love and be loved, she’s still what a friend calls a space toaster. She’s impulsive and ridiculous and takes herself far too seriously. She’s flawed and passionate and, for certain values, human.

The books are not perfect, by any means. They take a while to get going, several of them are weirdly-paced, and sometimes I wonder how Toby is not in therapy right now and forever more. (And on that note, I wonder what, if anything, the books are trying to say about mental illness. People don’t have mental illness in these stories, they go mad. And while “mad” isn’t necessarily correlated with evil – Sylvester has a dark time or two, even – I’m not sure it works even so. Toby drives her car, uses her cellphone, goes to her friends’ children’s birthday parties. There might be faerie folk abroad, but this is the modern world: I am surprised by madness without therapy, madness without medication, especially when Toby eats Tylenol like candy.) Similarly, I’m not very sure about what’s being done with all the  talk of blood. The faerie characters in the novels are either pureblooded, with no human parentage, or changelings, with some percentage human. Without spoiling the plot too much, the balance of Toby’s changeling blood changes over time and has major plot consequences; of the other characters, it’s often the first thing we learn about them. It’s not like, for example, in Harry Potter’s magical worldbuilding, where magical ability is linked with blood but it isn’t all important: here, it is all important. I don’t believe that this is a metaphor for race – there are non-white faerie characters, for one thing – but I wish the novels engaged more closely with the risk of it.

But! Taken as a whole, the books are lovely. Warm and moreish like popcorn, and full of fun and memorable characters. (Some of my favourites other than Toby, in no particular order: Sylvester, the brave man with a sword; Etienne, the brave man with a stick up his arse, and a sword; Quentin, brave with a sword, really likes eating, often exactly what Toby needs; the Luidaeg, the queer sea witch who’s getting less and less good at pretending she’s chaotic evil; May, the indestructible death omen with a taste for crap TV). Just lovely.

[The eighth book in the series, The Winter Long, comes out in September.]

Book review: The Oversight, Charlie Fletcher

The Oversight, cover

[This review has minor, but not major spoilers: not ones I think would ruin your enjoyment of the novel.]

I’ve actually been pretty excited by this one – I loved the io9 excerpt, and as a general thing I don’t do fantasy in totally fantasy worlds. (If it’s got a map inside the front cover, I put it back.) So a London-based fantasy is always a draw for me, and then I realised it was playing with a trope I love, a secret group of guardians and watchers – so I caved and begged for the review copy. And having read it in two days, I have reached the following conclusion: The Oversight is a children’s book. For adults. Bear with me.

So it’s never stated outright when the novel is set, but my guess is round about 1850. It’s a London that contains all kinds of supernatural haunts and hauntings, but hidden from the population (this isn’t Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, though the comparison is apt enough I guess), and the ordinary citizens are protected by the eponymous Oversight, a Free Company of the city of London whose responsibility it is to keep them safe. (I went to a school formerly run by one of the Worshipful Companies. I am charmed by this.) The Oversight, who must exist in multiples of five for their own safety, were once far greater in number and influence than they are now: they’re down to the last five, what they call the Last Hand. The quiet threat that runs through the book is what will happen, and what begins to happen, when the number drops below five.

The novel opens with a girl called Lucy Harker, a strange girl with covered hands, making her strange way into the Safe House of the Oversight, and being partly responsible for a sequence of chaotic events that threatens to overwhelm them completely. On the way from A to B we have all the elements of a certain kind of gothic fantasy, so mysterious creatures of evil who can’t cross running water, check; manus gloriae, the hand of glory, check; strange breath-stealing creatures and glamours and spells and people who can talk to animals, check! Occasionally it goes slightly off-piste and gives us travelling circuses and pirate battles, also! And that’s fine. That’s just fine: it rollicks along cheerfully and it takes you along with it. And, you know, it does have a lot of the textual artefacts you more often see in children’s books – very short chapters, a list of dramatis personae in the front cover – and I wondered for a while if that was it: that it was a short, slight, cheerful story, with lots of imagination but not quite the macabre depth the original backstory of the Oversight promised. (Not to imply that children’s books must only be slight! As I said: bear with me.)

The five members of the Last Hand are Cook, Sara Falk, Mr Sharp, Hodge and the Smith. To say more about some of them would be to ruin the story. But my favourites by a hair are Sara Falk and Mr Sharp, the two members of the Oversight with backstories that are tied together in some intriguingly non-specific way. Mr Sharp – and why is he Mr Sharp, though Sara Falk gets both her names and Hodge gets his last, as is more conventional? That’s just how it is, as with Miss Honey and Mister Tibbs, elsewhere – presents an interesting conundrum. He’s perhaps the most powerful of the five, and with it, most susceptible to being destroyed by that power; he has an understated compassion for humanity, including the Oversight’s golem, Emmet, whom he resists treating as a thing rather than as a person, but in that power he has a capacity for violence. It also interests me that one aspect of Sharp’s power is his ability to make anyone fall for him. (It’s the first thing we see him do: a passing sot named Bill Ketch falls “confusingly and irrevocably” in love at first sight.) There’s a nascent queerness in that idea that I like a lot – later, the novel does explicitly draw together queerness and magical ability – and it’s wound up, somehow, in difference, and vulnerability.

Because Mr Sharp, whose capacity for damage scares even him, is possibly in love, possibly unrequited, with Sara Falk, who is known in the neighbourhood as “the Jew”, or the granddaughter of the rabbi, also “the Jew”. Sara, too, is mostly contradictions – she came to the Oversight as a young, frightened girl, and is now the strongest in personality of all of them – and they both linger at the fringes of the society they live in, held apart from it by the fact of their membership of the Oversight but also by the fact of who they are. And perhaps they ought to be tied together by that bond, and perhaps they are, or were, before the chaotic opening to the novel: but we never know, not really. The narration is omniscient but also kind of enigmatic, distancing – so the motivations and relationships between the characters remain obscure most of the way through in the way adults’ motivations and relationships often do, in children’s books. They’re a mystery. But we know they can get hurt, and that, probably, is it: because what the five very different members of the Oversight have in common is just that vulnerability. They have property and secrets and power, but it’s individual power, not systemic: there are only five of them, they’re fundamentally different from the world around them, and they can be hurt.

And so, the stated theme of the book is that love conquers all, and that brings us around to children’s novels again, because that’s a fairy-tale thought, isn’t it, that the prince falls in love with Cinderella and they live happily ever after, amor vincit omnia. And maybe that’s true and it isn’t. But it took me a time to get to it, because this isn’t a book about the heart but the hand: the Last Hand, Sara’s hand of glory, Lucy Harker, the girl with the covered hands. It’s about doing things, rather than wishing them; things that are hopeless, often, things that are desperate, but must be done, because Lucy is a survivor; because the Oversight vowed to uphold their responsibilities, though they are themselves diminished; because, in the end, it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. And that’s where the adulthood comes in. Because what is growing up, but realising that: that sometimes you have to do what you have to do. It’s a simple theme, and it’s beautifully executed; I recommend this one.

Stray thoughts (a conceit I am stealing gratefully from the AV Club):

-There’s a dead prostitute scene. Why, why, why. For the most part this annoys me because there are no damsels in distress in this book, otherwise! Ladies save ladies, or ladies save themselves, here.

-It’s the first of a trilogy. Until page 100 I dared to hope, then lost all hope thereafter. But unlike some, the novel does cohere and resolve neatly as a single novel, so there’s that. I will wait with bated breath for the next installment. (No title as yet? Though “Polydactyly” springs facetiously to mind.)

-And, lastly, if reading aloud, find a Scot or similar. The Oversight have oversight of “the Law and the Lore”, and trying to make those two words sound even the tiniest bit different in my non-rhotic accent has been hilarity for all the family. Law and lore. Law and lore. Ah, shut up.

[My review copy of this book was provided by Jenni Hill at Orbit. Thanks again!]

Book review: Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

ancilliaryjusticeThis review contains minor spoilers, though nothing that I think would ruin your enjoyment of this novel.

I have to admit, I was not originally impressed by Ancillary Justice. I read it piecemeal, which didn’t help: I got the vague impression of some large space operatic plot, with doppelgangers and space battles that ends, as all speculative fiction first novels must do these days, in the set-up for the sequel and thence the trilogy. But then it lingered and lingered, full of imagery and ideas, until I picked it back up: hence this slightly delayed review.

The protagonist of this novel – and heroine, though she would undoubtedly disdain the descriptor – is Breq, who is perhaps a woman who lives in what is undoubtedly a space opera world. Although she is not one of them, she is allied to the Radch – a galaxy-spanning civilisation whose raison d’etre is to conquer new worlds. They absorb new territories by means of officers on sentient ships, whose manpower is provided by officers, and “ancillaries” – the corpses of the dead, reanimated with the ship’s own consciousness. (So far, so kind of creepy.) Whether Breq is a woman is debatable for a number of reasons: she certainly refers to herself as “she”, but in the Radchaai linguistic universe, everyone is “she”. And even if it weren’t for that, Breq is an ancillary – the last one – for a ship that was once named Justice of Toren. She is the ship, all that is left of it.  Whether the ship has gender, or humanity, is a question – but not a question Breq is interested in answering. She has a job to do. The novel is split between two different threads, one covering the story of what happened years ago to transform Justice of Toren into Breq, which in turn provides illumination for the “current” story, of what Breq’s mission is.

And that in itself would be interesting: a non-human sentience who is utterly uninterested in humanity. Breq is not Pinocchio or Commander Data: she is who she is. But then in the first pages of the novel, Breq, on the edge of completing her mission, spends time and money she doesn’t have on saving a drug-addicted former officer of hers named Seivarden, literally dragging her out of the snow. (Seivarden is, perhaps, male: the novel indicates she might be, but this is Breq’s story, so she remains she.) Why she does this, she does not understand – as she complains bitterly to herself, she didn’t even like Seivarden – and why she continues to look after Seivaarden, healing her, getting her clothes and food, seeing her through her addiction, remains a mystery to Breq. It shouldn’t remain too much of a mystery to the reader, not for long. In the past, when Breq belonged to Justice of Toren’s first rank of ancillaries, One Esk, she was attached to a human officer, Lieutenant Awn; in the past, One Esk was known for its love of music and singing. Breq has no interest in humanity, but humanity is changing her;  Breq is not human, but to be a ship is not to be nothing. Breq, in her loyalty to Seivarden, inspires Seivarden’s loyalty to her. On the flipside, Breq’s quest is for revenge – a human desire with the single-mindedness of a ship’s intelligence. What Ancillary Justice is doing is telling us about the ways that exist, not even to be human, but to be a person. Justice of Toren was a multiple intelligence, divided between the many ancillaries and the ship; Breq is a ship’s intelligence in a single human body; Seivaarden is a washed-up former aristocrat re-learning to be who she is; long ago, Justice of Toren did something for Lieutenant Awn that it could not not do, and continue to be what it was. There is a beautiful, telling moment late in the novel, that underlines it all: Breq is addressed, for the first time in years, as “Justice of Toren”, and she cries: because she is not human, but who she is is still who she is, and was, and will be.

And many things have been said about gender in this novel – about how everyone from Breq’s point of view is marked female whether they are or not, about “he” as a default is tiresome non-SFF reality but how interesting it becomes that Breq’s default pronouns are always she, her, hers – but I would argue that it’s the same thing writ on a different canvas. How to be a person is also how to occupy space, how to occupy a body. Breq’s point of view gives us a universe where to be female, to be a woman, is the default state of being. All people occupy female bodies, no matter the shape and size of those bodies are. To occupy space itself is to be female. For Breq, that’s not a political act – let us not forget that Breq, as she was, was an imperialist on the vanguard of invasion; she had power beyond imagining – but for the SFF reader and writer, of course it is. Breq is a character archetype so often coded male in speculative fiction – the revenge-driven, stoic lone wolf – and for her to live in this female universe is a subversion and a celebration of the trope. It’s beautifully done.

Oh, and it’s beautifully done in general, of course: the ice-covered worlds, the great ravines, the green marshlands and ancient temples and the dead things singing children’s songs! All immaculately and crisply imagined. It becomes an action novel towards the end, which surprised me somewhat – in many ways, the style and worldbuilding reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s meandering novels of ideas – and I almost think that’s the weakest part of the novel, the action plot which is perfectly serviceable but perhaps contributed to my initial impression that the novel was nothing special, because the ideas were obscured by keeping track of everything that happens and who everyone is (and in a world where people can be more than one person, this is more complex than it sounds). But despite that, I hope very much that the novel wins the Best Novel Hugo, because I want more stories like this: kind and mind-expanding, all at once, with diversity of identity built into the stuff of them.

[My review copy of this novel was provided by Jenni Hill from Orbit – thank you kindly!]

Book review: The Killing Moon, NK Jemisin

I’ve previously read NK Jemisin only a little – two short stories, Non Zero Probabilities and L’Alchimista, both very, very good – and I’d tried to read her novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms but given up. Not from any disgust, nor dislike, just of lack of inclination – I could see what she was trying to do and it was interesting, but didn’t keep my attention. And her two books after that are in the same series, so I let them alone.

And after that, I picked up The Killing Moon because I’d read in passing on io9 that it had different worldbuilding – and, notably, had a lot to say about dreams and lucid dreams, which is a major narrative kink for me. So I bought it and have read it piecemeal over the last week – piecemeal, although I had a transatlantic flight and two train journeys when felt more able to face reading, because it turned into one of those odd, immersive books where the story is all very well but you don’t really want to get to the end of it. Having finished it now, I’m unsure whether it’s a very, very good book, or just one that hits all my kinks; I’m thinking a bit of both.

So. The Killing Moon is a stand-alone novel (it really is! it’s published as “the first of a duology” – okaaay, but the two novels are in the same universe without being directly related, and why does all SFF have to come in installments, anyway) set in a fantasy world distantly akin to ancient Egypt. It’s got an edge of SF in that the world it’s set in does seem to be a moon travelling around a gas giant, but in practice, it’s magic and spells all the way. In the city-state of Gujaareh, which is presided over by the Hetawa, the rather fundamentalist church of the goddess Hananja, peace is the only law. What this means in practice is the goddess’s servants, the Gatherers, keep this peace: they travel the city by night, taking people’s dreams (which are used for healing magics), and in the process and almost incidentally, their lives. They are not killers in their own eyes: whosoever lives in Hananja’s City, they say, lives by Hananja’s Law. With this rather interesting viewpoint comes the Gatherer Ehiru, a man who, in the first few pages of the novel, does something unforgivable according to his own lights. He imposes penance on himself, locks himself in his room and resolves never to talk to anyone ever again. He’s an unlikely man to then start a war. He does: but a lot of things happen on the way there.

The thing is, the novel has a lot of things I hate about fantasy. Far too many made-up words (there’s a actual glossary which is actually helpful, sigh), and the style isn’t always terribly fluid – sometimes characters stand there and think about their feelings – but oddly I think that’s one of the novel’s strengths. It is an old-fashioned fantasy novel, with the building of a whole world. It fully intends to bring you in to the lives of these people and their large-canvas feelings, and not let you go.

And it works very well for the most part. There is a plot of some sort, but the important parts are the characters. Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri are the centre of it, and the relationship between them is so beautifully and lovingly realised that it alone is worth the price of admission: they are mentor and apprentice, but Nijiri becomes Ehiru’s apprentice soon after aforementioned unforgivable sin, and the balance between them is never quite right; and then there’s the small fact that Nijiri is in love with Ehiru, who has resolved not to take advantage of this, but accept it, and how well this is written floors me. There is also Sunandi, who is a foreigner and a spy and thinks of them as killers. How can you do this for your living, she asks; how can you lie, they return.

The point of it all is that neither and none of them are right: Ehiru, if anyone, is the moral compass of the novel, and yet we never see him as the happy and sane Gatherer he presumably once was; we hear about it rather than see it. Doing the right thing is something that causes a great deal of pain to him, and it’s still not black and white that he does what’s right or just what he’s always known. (Which is, by the way, not to imply manpain – in a lot of interesting ways, Ehiru subverts that trope. Pretty much his raison d’etre is that no one dies to give him character development.)

Now here’s the thing about the Gatherer Ehiru that in another world, perhaps wouldn’t need to be stated outright: he is a brown person. So is his apprentice. So is their antagonist spy, although they are all different types of brown people. It’s a whole world of brown people. It does my heart good.

There is also Jemisin’s short story, The Narcomancer, which again, I recommend unreservedly: it’s a stand alone story, set in the same universe many hundreds of years earlier, mostly concerned with another Gatherer. It’s thoughtful and passionate and has stuff to say about sex, gender and power, but it can usefully be summarised as “the Gatherer Cet’s terrible, horrible, no good very bad day”. Cet is another interesting protagonist, but I’m not going to spoil that story at all when you can just go and read it.

(His being named Cet makes my mind conflate him with Cat Chant, which… no, because, hell, Diana Wynne Jones is the sort of thing you need this sort of antidote to, if that hasn’t ceased to make any sense. Brown people fantasy which does not make the brown people themselves the fantastic – yes.)

There is a second novel, The Shadowed Sun, which I haven’t read, but would have bought today if it hadn’t been Easter Sunday. As it is Easter Sunday, I think I will just have to go into town and buy it tomorrow. Yes, she’s that good.

Luna Station Quarterly: Issue 13

I am an assistant editor on Luna Station Quarterly, an online magazine devoted to the vast and varied talents of female speculative fiction writers. Issue 13, the first issue I’ve been involved with, has just gone online, and I’m very pleased to be a part of it. The stories are all worth reading, but the stand-out is “The Warrior’s Dance” by Sandi Leibowitz, a warm, engaging, compelling window into another world. It shows off, with grace and assurance, what great truths you can unfold in the genre. I liked it very, very much.

Another one I liked particularly was the short, sweet, delightful, “Entry #92” by Tara Abrahams, and “The Colours of Apple“, which is a perfectly little fairy tale.

Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke

US cover of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Trying to review this book is going to be difficult.

Okay. First of all, I bought it when it first came out in paperback. I did. I’m sorry. I was eighteen, I used to spend my evenings in the Oxford Borders – partly because it was about twenty metres from Balliol’s back gate, and partly because it opened till eleven – studying, drinking filter coffee and accidentally buying books. I took it home to that beautiful college attic room I had then, the one with the portholes looking out on the Ashmolean, yes, really, and put it in on the shelf fully meaning to read it when the essay crisis was over.

I turned twenty-six the Sunday before last.

Yeah. The worst thing is, from now on when I have carried books, unread, from room to house to flat to room to country to continent and back again, over eight years, I’m not going to think, oh I should give it to Oxfam, I’m going to think but what if it’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell?

Yeah. I finished Whispers Under Ground last week, was struck by the glossed-over backstory in that – Nightingale’s past, the magical battles at Ettersburg – and decided I was in the mood for some kind of epic magic. So I picked it up again, and got off to a rocky start – I’ve read the first hundred pages at least three times – and then read it all through, all 1000+ words of it, in six days. It is a very, very good book, and I wish I hadn’t taken eight years to get around to reading it.

In brief, then: this is a novel set in an alternate past where England is at war with France and Napoleon is marching across Europe, but has another history, of magic and magicians and fairies and fairy roads. In the year of our Lord 1806 magic has been gone from England for three hundred years, but it is right there, beneath the surface of the present. The novel is about Mr Norrell, a fussy, miserable, misterly (with education rather than money) man, who is the first practical English magician in centuries, and his young, brilliant, arrogant pupil, Jonathan Strange. And it’s also about the Raven King, a magician-king who ruled over northern England and the fairy lands through the Middle Ages, whose influence is a living thing. (The King, George III (who is mad, yes) is king of southern England and steward of the north – pending the day the Raven King shall return.)

Which is to say: it’s about a lot more than that. It is a beautifully realised alternate history, textured and real (I particularly like the turns of speech: things that are being kept safe are said to be “in the Raven King’s pocket”!); it’s a ripping yarn, full of adventures, excitement and magic; it’s very funny (the interlude featuring the tumultuous friendship of Jonathan Strange and Lord Byron is hilarious and could do with a comic opera all to itself); and it’s written with such an engaging style that once you get used to the particularly arch, dry wit, you happily read the hundreds of pages before Strange comes along that just have Norrell as a protagonist despite the total unlikeability of the man. And the themes explored are as grand as you might expect in a novel of this scope but they’re not what you might expect: it’s not good and evil, it’s not love or hate. It’s about the lines between rationality and madness (and why “madness” for brown people and women is not an uncontested definition); it’s about who takes responsibility for actions; it’s about England. This is a very peculiarly English novel. It’s about how the people are the land and the land is the people, about how the land itself no longer exists apart, is no longer rocks and stone and water because of the layers and layers of history of people tilling and building upon and tending and living on and in and with the land. Magic makes it much easier to explore that theme, but I’m certainly not a magician and what I do in my day job is centred on just that strange duality: on how people bring the land into existence, and vice versa. The land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky. Yes.

(The next part is going to feature specifics about the ending, so if you haven’t read the book and intend to – without spoilers! – then please look away now.)

Continue reading Book review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke