BooksOfTheMoon

Everfair: A Novel

By Nisi Shawl

Rating: 3 stars

This (very busy) novel came to my attention after it was mentioned on the Imaginary Worlds podcast, in their post-colonial worlds episode. The central what-if is: what if Fabian socialists from Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, (Everfair), is set aside as a safe haven for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

As I said above, there’s a lot going on in this novel. There’s a large cast of characters, and it spans about thirty years, covering the creation of Everfair, and its early years. Each chapter jumps around in time and place, jumping into little scenes from the country’s history. Especially once we leave Britain for Everfair, I often found it difficult to keep track of what was going on. You’re left to infer a lot through context, and I sometimes wished for a more traditional omniscient narrator who could pause for a moment to give you a larger scale overview of what was going on.

Into the alt history, we also add steampunk, as the melting pot that is Everfair brings forth airships, powered by some sort of mystic power source that’s lighter than coal, giving them the edge over Europeans. And then there’s the magical element, with the missionary Thomas Wilson being turned, somewhat against his will, into a priest of a god called Loango, and the exiled king whose spirit-father advises him. These aren’t just metaphorical – Loango actually gives Thomas the power to influence battles, amongst other things. So we have alt-history, steampunk, and magic all mashed together, with a narrative that stays very close to the people it’s following, without zooming out. This makes it feel quite claustrophobic at times, and quite choppy.

The technology isn’t really described (I do like a bit of tech porn!) and even the big idea – that of new ideas coming out of the melting pot that is Everfair – was hinted at rather than spelled out. I still have no idea what the “Bah-Sangah” earths, that were core to the airships, were (or, what Bah-Sangah itself was, come to that – was it a religion? A magical creature? A god?), and large swathes of the politics are, similarly, only lightly touched upon. There’s a lot to like here, but the book did leave me a bit frustrated. 3.5 stars, rounded down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765338068
Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2017

Timeless (Parasol Protectorate, #5)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

There’s a lot going on in the fifth and final book of the Parasol Protectorate series. We have a bit of a time jump since the last one, so that Alexia’s daughter, Prudence, is now a toddler, with the ability to strip a supernatural of their powers and take them for herself, at a touch. Something that plays havoc in a household with a vampire adopted father and a werewolf biological father, and can only be undone by her mother’s preternatural touch. Into this chaotic domesticity comes a summons from Queen Matakara of the Alexandria hive, and reputed to be the oldest living vampire. But before they can set off, a werewolf is attacked and murdered, leaving Alexia to sort it all out.

As I say, there’s a lot going on here. We have two major parallel strands: the investigation into the murder in London, carried out by Professor Lyall and new pack member Biffy, while Alexia’s version of travelling incognito is to take an entire acting troupe with her, led by her best friend Ivy Tunstall! There’s a lot going on in Egypt, and I wish we’d had more time to spend with the Alexandria hive. The intrigue here was all swept up and dealt with far too quickly. I sort of wish that the whole London plot had been abandoned in favour of more here – the idea of the Alexandrian queen being over five thousand years old and the sort of thoughts that such a creature might have deserved to be given more time.

Alas, we didn’t get any of that, in favour of a balloon ride down the Nile, and a bunch of politics going on in London with the Kingair pack (although I did like the quietly blooming romance that went on there). And, of course, in between all the supernatural shenanigans, we’re reminded that the true monster is Man, as Alexia’s sister, Felicity, causes unwarranted mischief, fuelled purely by jealousy. I would have been happier if she’d got what was due to her, although for someone with her mentality, maybe her punishment is just.

I don’t think this is quite the banging end to the series that I’d hoped for, but then I also don’t think the series entirely recovered from the misstep at the end of the second book. Ivy’s ending just left me shaking my head a bit, although I did appreciate Conall’s proposal for saving him from alpha madness towards the end of his life.

All in all, I think I preferred Carriger’s Finishing School series over this one, although that might be because I read them first. Still fun, and I’d still read other work set in the same world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499871
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2012

Heartless (Parasol Protectorate, #4)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

After a wobbly couple of middle books, this fourth volume of Alexia’s adventures is back on firmer ground. This time, a ghost warns the Maccons of a threat to the queen, which sends Alexia off investigating (including into her husband’s past), while avoiding multiple attempts on her life, due to an ongoing vampiric fear over her baby, and dealing with the tribulations of being eight months pregnant.

The incident where Conall had thrown his wife out has been papered over and quietly forgotten and the two are as much in love as they ever were. I still don’t entirely believe that such a major breach of trust could have been forgiven and forgotten so thoroughly, but I guess that’s love.

This book keeps the sharper Ivy Tunstall that we had in the last one, and we finally have the formal creation of the Parasol Protectorate, even if it’s only as a sort of joke. We also deal with the fallout of Lord Maccon having to have made former drone Biffy into a werewolf and have a somewhat ill and distracted Genevieve, which causes Alexia more than a degree of worry.

There’s a lot of plot to juggle here, which Carriger manages well. Jokes at the expense of the Scots are limited to references to visible knees, although there’s a lot of waddling and other references to Alexia’s infant-inconvenience, as she calls it. Not that it seems to stop her, she gets into an awful physical situations for someone so pregnant.

This was a lot of fun and has set up some interesting changes in the in-world status quo. I look forward to the next, and final, book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356500096
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2011

Spotlight (Miss Silver, #12)

By Patricia Wentworth

Rating: 4 stars

I was recommended Patricia Wentworth after reading an Ngaio Marsh book a few months ago. Having had various issues with that one, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Wentworth.

Gregory Porlock is a blackmailer, who invites the various people he’s got stuff on to his home for a dinner party. He obviously goads someone too far, and he is murdered during the course of the evening. Miss Silver gets involved through a set of unlikely events and, in between bouts of knitting, soon sets things to rights.

I enjoyed this an awful lot. Wentworth sets the stage carefully, introducing us to Porlock and each of his guests and making us dislike the man intensely. The murder doesn’t happen until over a hundred pages in, and then the police investigation is the focus for quite some time. It’s not until well over half way through the book that Miss Silver makes her main entrance (although she’d had a cameo earlier).

I loved the interplay between her and police sergeant Frank Abbott. By this point in the series, Miss Silver is a known feature at Scotland Yard and the young Frank has taken a great shine to her, calling her his “revered preceptress”. His boss, chief inspector Lamb is less affectionate, but still respects her abilities a lot.

It was a great story, with good characterisation, and I’m impressed with how deftly Wentworth handled a large cast. I wasn’t wild about the very paternalistic relationship between Dorinda Brown and her cousin, Justin Leigh, but it’s very much of the period. Anyway, I shall definitely be looking out for more of Miss Silver’s handiwork.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340178331

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries #1)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This novella introduces us to Sub-Inspector Ferron, a detective whose latest case involves a person who has been literally turned inside out. And the only witness is a genetically engineered cat who’s been wiped (and ends up re-imprinting on Ferron). Set in a future India, we get brief, tantalising glimpses of a fractured world as Ferron and her lieutenant, constable Indrapramit, try to find out who could have killed the victim, and what their motive could have been. At the same time, she has to deal with her overbearing mother, and there are rumours of unusual activity in the region of the Andromeda galaxy.

There’ a lot packed into this novella. The world-building of the future that it’s set in is impeccable and very deftly handled. Throwing in parrot-cats, breakdown of nation states, immersive virtual reality and much more, while keeping us grounded with Ferron and Indrapramit. In amongst all this, the actual murder actually gets a little lost. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t figure out who did it (I never do), but I still don’t really think I understand the why of it and what actually happened. But then, does it really matter, with such a wonderful world, and the intrigue of a signal from the stars?

Book details

A Narrow Door

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 3 stars

Rebecca Buckfast (and living in Scotland, I’m sorry, but I can’t take her seriously with a name like “Buckfast”) has finally made it to the top – she’s now head teacher at St Oswald’s, formerly a boys-only grammar school, she introduces girls to the school, hoping that they will come to stride through the wide arches, not have to quietly enter through a “narrow door”, the way she did. Becky has secrets in her past, and when confronted, she settles down to tell elderly Latin master Roy Straitly her story, as she rediscovered it herself.

I found this book very readable, which is interesting, given how much I disliked most of the characters. Most of the book is in the form of Becky telling the story of what happened 17 years previously, when she was a young teacher at a different, nearby private school, King Henry’s. Becky’s brother, a student at King Henry’s, disappeared when she was a young child, something which affected her parents dreadfully, and which Becky herself found so traumatic that she buried the memory so deeply, that it’s only twenty-odd years later that they start to re-emerge.

Between her own trauma, her overbearing boyfriend, Dominic, and the missing brother, there are layers upon layers of secrets and lies, which get peeled back, one at a time, all being told the ailing Straitly, who was, I felt, the most relatable character in the whole book. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll end up like him – a ghost haunting the halls of my University, mumbling about people and departments long gone, yet tolerated, even treated fondly by the new guard.

Apparently there are other books about St Oswald’s, featuring Straitly, but this is perfectly standalone and I hadn’t read any of them before reading this one, and I was able to follow what was going on, although some events were mentioned in passing that I assume were expanded upon in the other books.

It’s a very well done thriller, which kept me turning the page to find out what happens next. All the twists and turns were unexpected (to me) and all believable. As I say, I didn’t like many of the characters, but it was a well told tale. Recommending for breaking the glass ceiling, by whatever means necessary.

Book details

Blameless (Parasol Protectorate, #3)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 3 stars

Picking up from where Changeless left off, this volume starts with Alexia having basically lost it all – she’s left her husband’s house, after being rejected by him upon finding out she’s pregnant; lost her royal appointment; and is forced to move back in with her family. Said family are all awful human beings (other than her stepfather who has no personality at all, other than hiding behind a newspaper) and she eventually resolves to leave and travel to Italy to find the mysterious Templars, who may be able to prove her innocent. Oh, and the vampires now also want her dead, and her friend Lord Akeldama has disappeared.

There’s a lot going on here, but the core is the relationship between Alexia and Conall. The former pulls together what’s left of her life and relationships, while the latter gets drunk for several weeks to get over himself. Is that supposed to be an attractive quality? And while Alexia starts to forgive him almost immediately, I can’t see how they can possibly go back to having the same relationship as they did before. Surely a vital trust has been breached now? The end of this book would suggest not, and I’m not sure if that makes me think less of Alexia. Or maybe that’s just love; I don’t know.

Beyond the confines of that relationship, we have a travelogue across Europe, in a variety of means of transport, in the company of the delightful Genevieve Lefoux and the mysterious Floote, who first appeared as butler to Alexia’s family, and who appears to be very much more than that. I love the character of Genevieve, so am delighted to spend more time with her, also being one of the few characters who have remained fairly steady throughout the series (so far, at least). Speaking of which, Ivy has a fairly small part here, having eloped at the end of the last book, but she appears to have had yet another personality transplant. She’s much less silly and frivolous than she was in the last book, having been put in charge of Genevieve’s hat shop, while the erstwhile inventor accompanies Alexia. I like this version of Ivy much more than the one in the previous book but don’t want to get too attached in case she changes again in the next one.

All in all, I’m not really sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the adventure romp, and the world-building, but I’m honestly not sure I believe in the central relationship of the series any more. That’s not going to stop me from reading the next book, of course.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499734
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Changeless (Parasol Protectorate, #2)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 3 stars

The second book of the Parasol Protectorate series sees Alexia, now Lady Macoon, have to investigate a plague of humanity that affects London’s supernatural population. A quest that sees her follow her husband north to Scotland, and the pack of werewolves he once abandoned.

This was mostly fun, but I did have some issues with it that I didn’t have with the first book. Firstly, the whole Scot-bashing thing is wearing a bit thin. It was bad enough in the last book with just Lord Macoon in London, but much of this is set in the Highlands and I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes.

Secondly, Alexia’s relationship with her best friend Ivy is just weird. This was something that I’d seen mentioned in a review of the last book, but which I didn’t really agree with at the time (I put the whole “ugly hat” thing down to being an in-joke between old friends). Here, I honestly can’t see much of the way of affection between the two women, and their friendship is stated to only be four years old. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt since Alexia does go from crisis to crisis throughout the book, but it’s still odd, and doesn’t leave me thinking well of either woman.

And then there’s the treatment of empire. It’s an interesting and clever notion to use werewolves as the shock troops of the British empire, enabling it to conquer a quarter of the world. Here, a major plot driver is the return of the Kingair pack from active duty in India. There’s nobody here that even suggests that the imperial project is a bad thing, or acknowledges that atrocities that must have been carried out in its name. This might be something that I wouldn’t have noticed when I was younger, but I’ve become much more sensitive to it as I’ve got older, and although yes, the upper classes of the period especially would have had their wealth based on empire, I feel the author should have acknowledged the pain that it caused to the colonised nations.

On the plus side, it was fantastic to see Genevieve Lefoux and Sidheag Kingair make appearances, since they were characters I was very fond of in the Finishing School books. And it looks like Genevieve may well have a role to play in future books in the series.

The relationship between Alexia and Conall Macoon is genuinely wonderful, having a strong bond, and very healthy respect for each other that isn’t overly sentimental. Which makes the ending all the more shocking. I will be very disappointed if the next book turns into one of my least favourite tropes: that of misunderstandings caused by wilful lack of communication, but I’m going to get to it as soon as possible.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841499741
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate, #1)

By Gail Carriger

Rating: 4 stars

I came to this series after reading Carriger’s Finishing School series which I enjoyed a lot. This is set in the same universe, maybe a generation later. You can tell it was written earlier as some of the world that was fleshed out by the time of Finishing School was still a bit vague in this one, but Carriger already has a good sense of world-building, and her prose is a pleasure to read.

Our protagonist is Alexia Tarabotti, a young woman with the ability to cancel out the powers of supernatural creatures, such as vampires and werewolves, by touching them. The polite term of this is preternatural, but the less polite call her soulless (as opposed to the supernatural, who have a surfeit of soul). At the start of the book, she’s attacked by a vampire (without even introducing himself!) and she’s forced to kill him. This leads her into contact with Lord Maccon of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and himself a powerful werewolf, who has to investigate. As Alexia investigates further, she gets sucked into a plot that could shake the Empire to its core.

That sounds quite dense, but the book is really readable and a lot of fun to read. It’s as much comedy of manners as it is investigative thriller. And it’s also really rather sensual, and quite sexy too, which I wasn’t expecting, after the very chaste Finishing School books. Alexia and Lord Maccon share a mutual attraction and there’s quite detailed descriptions of Alexia discovering the joys of kissing. And the thing about attraction to a werewolf is, that when he changes back from wolf to human, he’s naked. And, oh, Alexia has to hold on to him to use her powers to keep him in human form. How awful. Let’s just say she doesn’t stop her hands from roving.

There’s a lot of scope to explore the world that Carriger has constructed here, and I’m looking forward to following Alexia as she steps into that wider world. I just hope that, after a lot of Scots-bashing in the first book (Lord Maccon is Scottish and there’s a lot of jokes about how uncouth the Scots are), there’s less of that in future.

Book details

Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2010

Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940

By Melissa Edmundson

Rating: 3 stars

I picked this anthology up mostly off the back of the idea of stories from unappreciated women. I didn’t think too hard on the kind of stories, or really what “weird” fiction is. And what it is is darker and more horror-tinged than I usually like. Many of the stories definitely descend into the sort of creepy, psychological horror that I really feel uncomfortable with. These include Let Loose by Mary Cholmondeley, about an architect who delves into a country church crypt and lets something out; Kerfol by Edith Wharton, about a young woman and the lengths to which her husband went to keep her isolated; and particularly Where Their Fire is not Quenched about a woman who has an affair and is doomed to spend eternity repeating it.

These are all great examples of the genre, and I tip my hat to the editor for finding all these stories and airing these examples of women writing in what could often be considered purely a man’s world, but the genre isn’t one that I particularly enjoy, even if I appreciated the form of the the stories. Of all the collection, I think The Haunted Saucepan by Margery Lawrence is probably the one I enjoyed the most. I liked the way it took an everyday object and made it scary, but also the scientific way that the protagonist and his friend went about deducing the cause of the mischief.

So an interesting collection, and certainly of note, but not one for me, personally.

Book details

ISBN: 9781912766246
Publisher: Handheld Press
Year of publication: 2019

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