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Dreamtrails paved with bones November 15, 2013

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl, reviews.
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I write fairly frequently about the fact that reading habits change over time, and that I feel things differently as an adult (by which I mean from about the age of 25 onwards) to how I did as a child. I seem to keep coming back to this issue again and again in my writing, worrying away at it. Because when I say I feel things differently, I suspect I mean that I feel things less. It’s as if every book, every show, every song is an attempt to regain a sort of childlike or adolescent intensity. And when I feel it, I am loquaciously grateful.

I sit here, having just finished Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season and I am quite literally exhausted with feeling. My mouth is dry, my breathing is shallow and my heart hurts with how much I loved the book. I am astonished by it. It is as if Shannon made a list of everything I personally want in a story and then went away and wrote it for me. As you can imagine, therefore, this review will not even attempt to be objective. I will, however, attempt to explain why The Bone Season hit me in the id quite so hard.

It’s getting to the point where I should have a tag or list named ‘the rubbish I will put up with in order to get stories about humans interacting with angels, demons, or other terrifying supernatural beings’. It will be a long list. I should have a second list, named ‘Things I wish authors of stories about angels, demons and other terrifying supernatural beings would include in their stories’. It would include: a realistic dystopian setting, an extensive criminal underclass which resists passively, a heroine who hates The Oppressive System but also possesses a healthy degree of fear for it that prevents her from fighting it directly, a heroine who has a support network and preferably other female friends, and a recognition that rebellions are likely to be messy and will involve moral greyness.

In other words, the second list would describe The Bone Season. From here on, assume spoilers.

The book is the story of nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney, who lives in an alternate version of our own world in which humans possess a variety of paranormal abilities, all of which have been outlawed by an oppressive totalitarian government. The only legal way to exist as a ‘voyant’ (short for ‘clairvoyant’) is to do the government’s dirty work and hunt other voyants, a deal which provides security at the expense of longevity. However, as would be realistic in such a setting, an extensive underground network of criminal voyant gangs has sprung up, each operating in its own patch and forming a dual function as a grey market in less than ethical commerce and a community in which fugitive voyants can attain a sense of family and acceptance. Unbeknownst to her father, who works for the government as a scientist, Paige leads a double life in one of the gangs, based in Seven Dials in London. (And can I just go off on a slightly gushing tangent and say that another reason why I adore this book so much is that all the cool people hang out in my favourite parts of London, namely Soho and Covent Garden?)

The inevitable eventually happens, and Paige is captured. Rather than being executed, as she feared, she’s brought to Sheol I, a vast, secret penal community built over the ruins of Oxford. There, Paige learns the truth about her powers and her world. She and the other voyants captured are assigned to Rephaim, extraordinarily powerful supernatural beings who reveal that the totalitarian government under which the voyants have been suffering is the puppet of the Rephaim, and that the voyants have been recruited as foot soldiers in a terrible, otherworldly battle. In Sheol I, voyants are safe to reveal their identities and hone their clairvoyant powers under the tutelage of their assigned Rephaite guard. The only catch? The voyants are prisoners, and completely at the mercy of their Rephaim captors in a profoundly unbalanced arrangement. They are expected to become ruthless soldiers, betraying their fellow voyants if necessary, and treated with utter contempt by the Rephaim, even though the latter rely on them for their existence (the Rephaim feed of the auras of voyant humans). Paige is assigned to a captor called Arcturus, whom she addresses as ‘Warden’ (as this is his position in the Rephaim hierarchy), and who begins to train her in using her abilities. He is a confusing and enigmatic force in her life, both terrifying her and on occasion betraying extraordinary vulnerability and secrets in her presence.

One thing that I really appreciate about The Bone Season is the fact that Paige is understandably wary about her safety, both in London and in Sheol I. She is not reckless, but instead makes all sorts of compromises and sacrifices in order to carve out a space for herself in two extremely dangerous situations. Far too often in stories of this kind, the heroine is overly principled and uncompromising. Paige remains an appealing, but realistically terrified individual. She is very slow to trust Warden, and makes him earn her empathy through openness, genuine and concrete support and the recognition that she possesses power and agency in her own right.

By the same token, I really dislike dystopian novels in which the heroine is completely without a support network and all other characters (especially other female characters) are indistinguishable minor jealous antagonists. Shannon avoids this pitfall admirably in The Bone Season. Paige already has her friends in the criminal voyant underworld, who, while looking out for their own interest, seem to genuinely like her and care about her and provide a space where she is accepted and valued for her abilities. Once she gets to Sheol I, she finds friends and allies among its human and Rephaite inhabitants, all of whom are three-dimensional characters in their own right. And there is no love triangle!

But the best thing about The Bone Season? It’s the first of a seven-book series.

First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up December 18, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, reviews.
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Wow.  Just, wow.  It’s been a while since I finished a book and then sat in stunned silence, but that’s what happened today after I read Jo Walton’s book Farthing, which is the first in a trilogy. I’ve loved Walton since her alternate-universe Arthurian series, The Tir Tanagiri Saga, which I regard as the best Arthurian retelling I’ve ever read. While a lot of other Arthurian stories manage to take the familiar plot and make it say something about their own times, very few manage to get right to the heart of what the Matter of Britain really means. In Farthing, Walton takes another set of well-known genres (in this case, the country-house murder mystery, and the ‘what if the Nazis had won’ alternate-history) and gets straight to the heart of them. However, she is clearly using them to say something about our own times, too.

This makes her the most recent in a chain of authors who use (and subvert) the conventions of historical crime novels to make important points about the times in which we live. If you pick your crimes carefully, you can make them stand as metonyms for the crimes and iniquities of a whole society.

Steven Saylor has been doing this for years with his Roma Sub Rosa series. These are pretty much my favourite crime novels. They’re set over about 30 years (and counting), from the last days of Sulla’s dictatorship to the end of the Republic and Caesar’s rise to power. I expect (or at least hope) that they’ll continue on after Caesar’s assassination, since the last few books seem to have been building up to that point. Each book follows the narrator, an Everyman called Gordianus the Finder, who acts as a detective (if such a thing had existed in ancient Rome) to Rome’s rich and powerful. Each book takes place at a turning point on the road from Republic to Empire (the brief rise to power of the demagogue Catalina, the murder of Clodius, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, to name a few examples), with Gordianus become more and more cynical, more and more privately outraged at the slow erosion of everything that made him proud to be a Roman. Saylor’s point is hard to miss: in sacrificing democracy (or at least the semi-democracy that existed in Rome) for security, we end up with a society neither democratic nor secure, and a society not worth saving. By the time we get to the latest book, The Triumph of Caesar, published in late 2007, Saylor’s outrage spills over into his Author’s Note:

Erich Gruen has speculated that the statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus Genetrix was placed there not by Julius Caesar (as Appian explicitly states), but later, by Augustus, as a trophy after the queen’s defeat and death.  This is an eminently sensible idea; nevertheless, I prefer to take Appian at his word.  Caesar’s installation of the statue presents us with a puzzle, to be sure, but so do many actions taken by our own leaders.  Because an act by, say, a president of the United States did not make sense to a reasonable person does not mean that the act did not take place.  I would suggest that the type of man who thinks he can rule the world is not, by definition, a reasonable man, and the actions of such men inevitably leave us with vexed questions that defy explanation by sensible historians.

-Steven Saylor, Author’s Note to The Triumph of Caesar, pp. 270-1.

So, yes, Caesar is Bush, Rome is the United States and Egypt can be made to stand in for the modern Middle. East.  And all the time we have poor, decent, outraged Gordianus, an old-fashioned Roman who just wants to live in his lovely new Palatine house and endure his beautiful wife’s appalling cooking and watch his grandchildren grow up, constantly dragged out into an increasingly cruel, heartless world of political manouvring that the word ‘intrigues’ is too tame to describe.

Jo Walton appears to be doing a similar thing with Farthing.  The book is set in a subtly different Britain, one which did a peace-deal with Hitler that kept the carnage (and the genocide of the Jews) out of sight across the Channel.  In 200 beautifully written pages, she attempts to answer the question that has been plaguing us for over sixty years: how did decent people allow this to happen?

The answer, as usual, is a combination of indifference and self-interest.  Remember that little parable (if that’s the right word) that you’d often see stuck up in school counsellors’ offices as a warning against being a bystander to bullying? ‘First they came for the Jews, but I did not speak up, because I was not a Jew…etc.’  That is half of the answer.  The other half of the answer is provided by Carmichael, the police detective charged with investigating the country-house murder of a rising political star (the negotiator of the ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler).  I can’t say much more here without revealing major spoilers, but anyone who reads the final chapter without their heart breaking for the man clearly didn’t have a heart to begin with.

Philip Pullman did a similar thing in the final of his Sally Lockhart Mysteries, The Tiger in the Well. This is certainly the best of the series, and it, like Walton’s book, uses persecution of the Jews (in this case in late 19th-century Europe) as an analogy for the contemporary indifference that allows for cruelty to the contemporary avatars of the persecuted Jews.

I’m thinking here of one particular moment. Poison-tongued agitators have whipped up the poor of the East End into an anti-Semitic fury, and Daniel Goldberg, a Jewish socialist and journalist, confronts the mob. He’s been awake all night, he’s been running around London trying to find his ally Sally’s kidnapped daughter, he’s been shot, and yet he calmly walks up to the mob and gives one of the greatest political speeches ever found in a work of fiction. I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t quote it word for word, but in it he manages to address the reasonable fears of the mob, show them how those fears have been manipulated by those who caused them, into hatred of the Jews, who did not, and redirect their anger back at the casual, indifferent cruelty of the rich. In a few glorious lines, he turns the blood libel, the ancient anti-Jewish slur, into an attack on the rapacious cruelty of 19th-century capitalism. “Of course we should hate people who sacrifice children,” he says, “but ask yourselves, who sacrificed your children?” (or words to that effect). I still cry every time I read it.

It’s indifference, then, and fear. We care too much about ourselves, and not enough about others. And for every Carmichael, every Dan Goldberg and Sally Lockhart, and every Gordianus the Finder, outraged every time that man’s inhumanity to man confirms his suspicions about human nature, there are millions of us, indifferent and terrified, to push our society that much closer to repression.

‘ “Are you Asterion?” “You flatter me, child, if you think me that malevolent” ‘ April 29, 2008

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, fangirl.
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That quote, from Hades Daughter by Sara Douglass is a fairly representative sample of Douglass’s favourite themes and plotlines. Basically, her books are about frankly despicable, almost pathologically violent men learning how to love, and brutalised women learning how to be brave. (Stern-man-meets-damaged-girl, essentially.) Of course there’s always some kind of Grave Threat To All Humanity lurking in the background; in some of her books, such threats can linger menacingly in the background for thousands of years while her mentally screwed up characters work through their various psychoses over the course of several reincarnations.

In her best series, such as the Troy Game books (from one of which the above quote is taken) and the Crucible books, Douglass works within recognisable history (she’s a former early English history lecturer, and it shows), so that her characters are people like Henry Bolingbroke, Dick Wittington, Harold Godwinson, Edith Swanneck and William the Conquerer. (Of course, they’re also the children of angels and mortal women, or the reincarnation of refugees fleeing the Trojan War or whatever.)

You might’ve noticed that I’m a fantasy-reading tragic, and I have been for some time. However, over the years, I’ve narrowed down my fantasy-reading tastes to more specific sub-genres. Philip Pullman aside, I prefer my fantasy tall, dark and immortal…er, make that dark (such as stuff by Jacqueline Carey), urban (such as China Miéville) or alt-historical (Jo Walton and Sophia McDougall are good examples of this sub-genre). Otherwise, anything with vampires.

Well, I’m not sure about the vampires, but Sara Douglass usually comes through with the goods in relation to my other three fantasy sub-genres. Her books are historically rich, set in the seedy underbellies of an urban landscape (usually London) and dark dark dark. Everything I could wish for in a book. I’ve been nervous to stray from her alt-history series, though, since I was worried my respect for her would wane if I read anything of hers approaching epic fantasy.

But today I decided to bite the bullet and try her Axis trilogy. I’m only about 200 pages into the first book, and I’m pleased to report that I’m loving it. It might be high fantasy, swords-and-sorcery stuff, but it’s got the Sara Douglass touch. I think I shall enjoy reading the next two books, and then the follow-up trilogy (and then the first book in the follow-up, follow-up trilogy). So that’s me set for the next…four or five days.

In other news, I’ve finally bought Once Upon A Time In The North and will endeavour to get a review up here at some point.

And in case you’re wondering, Asterion was another name for the Minotaur. Here’s the Wiki entry if you’re interested.