Book reviews in brief September 10, 2015Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
Tags: aliette de bodard, elizabeth bear, genevieve valentine, karen memory, the girls at the kingfisher club, the house of shattered wings
I read many fabulous books over the past (northern) summer. These three were probably my favourites.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
I feel like the word ‘romp’ is sometimes overused, but in this case, it’s entirely appropriate. Karen Memory is a standalone novel following the adventures of its titular heroine, who works in a brothel in a fictional, steampunk city in nineteenth-century America. It’s a cheerfully anarchic place, where people’s relationship with the law is complicated, and where compromise, barter, and exchange are necessary in order to survive. Karen, along with the other sex workers at her brothel and various friends, lovers and allies, become caught up in the political intrigue of their town, eventually uncovering a conspiracy of much wider implications. This book was an absolute joy to read. I loved everything about it, from its steampunk setting, to its cast of characters. Karen herself was an enthralling narrator, her perspective a mixture of shrewd cynicism and empathetic kindness. A word of warning: the descriptions of food in this book are many and detailed, so it’s probably wise to read on a full stomach, or with a plate of food to hand!
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
This was one of my most anticipated books of 2015. Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know that I’m an absolute sucker for books about fallen angels, particularly if those books focus on the angels’ relationship with, and perception of, human beings, and vice versa. Set in a ruin-filled, post-apocalyptic Paris, House of Shattered Wings didn’t disappoint. De Bodard has created a world in which fallen angels band together in aristocratic Houses, battling for control over the city and its inhabitants, while humans attach themselves to the Houses, exchanging their freedom for patronage and a measure of safety. Conspiracies and intrigue ensue.
One potential weakness in stories that draw on Christian eschatological traditions is that they end up either ignoring or dismissing other religious beliefs altogether, or inadvertently implying that these are secondary to, or superseded by, Christian beliefs. De Bodard avoids falling into this trap, and other religious beliefs, and supernatural figures from non-Christian spiritual traditions site beside those of Christianity and interact with them in various ways. Likewise, France’s colonial legacy, and the dehumanising effect it has on colonised people plays a major role in the story.
Although I would’ve liked to have spent just a bit more time with some characters we only meet briefly (Ninon is a character whose story I would really like to know), The House of Shattered Wings definitely lived up to my expectations, and I’m looking forward to de Bodard’s next works set in this fictional world.
The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
This is a retelling of the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, set in Prohibition-era New York. The original twelve princesses are reimagined as twelve spirited sisters, who are barred from leaving the house by their abusive, status-obsessed, miserly father, and sneak out to dance the night away in speakeasies. The network of underground clubs and secret bars – and the people who run it – become a refuge from the oppressive confines of the sisters’ miserable home life, a place where they can dance in joy and freedom.
Having a cast of twelve sisters to juggle could have been difficult to handle, but Valentine manages it deftly, with each sister’s personality sharply realised and vividly distinct. My favourite was Jo, the oldest, nicknamed ‘The General’ by her siblings for her tendency to run their illicit outings like military campaigns, always aware of her sisters’ locations and able to swoop in to protect them or hustle them out of dangerous situations at a minute’s notice.
Fairytale retellings are tricky to do well, but Valentine has created something rich and beautiful out of the bare bones of the original tale, a story that celebrates the strength of sisters and the power of the bonds between them.