BooksOfTheMoon

Nation

By Terry Pratchett

Rating: 4 stars

In my head, this and Dodger are sort of a set, since they were written at roughly the same time and are both YA books. But while I read the latter years ago, I’ve never quite got around to Nation, until now. But goodness me, I’m glad I did! Mau is on his way back from the Boys’ Island, having completed the task that will make him a man, when a tidal wave destroys his island Nation and everyone he knew, leaving him alone. But it also wrecked a ship, leaving a single survivor: a teenage girl who was voyaging to join her father who is governor of a British colony in the “Great Southern Pegalic Ocean”. Together, they welcome other survivors from the seas and try to build something good.

There’s a lot to unpack in this novel, and I think it will need reread at some point. At this point in his life, Pratchett had a lot on his mind, and some of those themes find their way into the book: what it feels like when your expected future has been taken away from you; religion and its purpose in the world; what it means to be a nation. Mau and Daphne are great protagonists, very different from each other, but complementary to what the other needs at this moment. I am reminded of Granny and Tiffany in Daphne, while Mau has shades of Vimes’ anger and determination.

The book is set in a sort of alt-hist Victorian era, with a British Empire, but other aspects of the world are different. And the shades of the past elders talk (although whether they have anything worth listening to is another matter).

Sometimes there’s not a huge amount of subtlety in the metaphors, such as when the British mutineers show up. They’re there pretty much to bang you over the head with the idea that that “civilised” and “savage” are defined by actions, not in dress or technology.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and appreciated a lot of its themes. While I wasn’t hugely fond of most of the Discworld novels written in his later life, between this, Dodger, and the Tiffany Aching books, his YA work sparkled.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552557795
Publisher: Corgi Childrens
Year of publication: 2009

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I was wondering as I was reading this, how I was going to review it. Even as I’m typing this, I have no idea. Quicksilver is a meandering labyrinth of a novel, covering the early years of the Royal Society, the aftermath of the English civil war and turmoil in Europe.

It took me a long time to get into it. I really only persevered because I had read and enjoyed Cryponomicon (albeit many years ago) and wanted to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt. It was really only after the end of the first “book” when Eliza turned up, that I finally sat up and found a character that I cared about, which is nearly four hundred pages in!

The first book covers the early years of the Royal Society, with our (fictional) protagonist Daniel Waterhouse hanging around such luminaries as Newton (with whom he shares an apartment), Hooke, Wilkins, Leibniz and Oldenburg. We see the Society grow along with Daniel, but we also have a separate timeline that sees an older Daniel being persuaded back to England from the New World (where he appears to be working on something like a difference engine, or possibly analytical engine). We see Daniel get on the boat and have a few adventures, but never see the end of that voyage (presumably being held back for later volumes?).

Book two follows the Vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, the young woman he rescues from Turkish slavery (who’s from an imaginary set of islands near Scotland). Jack isn’t very interesting to me, but Eliza is. She soon discovers the concept of money markets and investment, and establishes herself, first in Amsterdam, then in France as what we could call an investment banker. Oh, and she’s spying for William of Orange.

There’s a lot here about the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Daniel is a puritan and after admitting to himself that he’s never going to shine in the Royal Society alongside Newton, Hooke et al, he dives into court politics and ousting the Catholic Stuarts. William of Orange is a major player, as is Louis XIV, and their manoeuvring decimates Europe. As a non-believer and someone not brought up in the Christian tradition, I find all the energy spent over that split to be wasteful and tedious. The intrigue can be interesting in its own right (and Stephenson is good at writing that intrigue), but knowing its driving force just makes me sigh.

Stephenson calls the Baroque Cycle (of which this is the first volume) science fiction, but if it is, it’s incredibly subtle. Yes, the book has a lot of (proto-) science, maybe a prototype computing engine of some kind, and (if you read other, related works) possibly an immortal, but just reading this on its own, it’s pretty solid historical fiction.

For most of the way through, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pick up the sequels, but, gods help me, I got sucked in towards the end, and it’s pretty likely now that I will read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410683
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2014

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

The Revisionists

By Thomas Mullen

Rating: 2 stars

Zed, going by the alias Troy Jones, is a time traveller, sent back to ensure that dissidents from his own time don’t save civilisation now, thereby preventing his own “Perfect Present” from being formed. But what is Zed keeping from himself, and how are a corporate lawyer, a washed-out spook and a foreign diplomat’s maid involved?

While the book zipped along at a reasonable pace, I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy reading it very much. I didn’t like either Zed or Leo, the former spy. The former doesn’t question either his society or his mission until very late in the book, and the later seems to just get off on leveraging what little power he has left against people who are just trying to make a stand against corruption.

Neither the lawyer, Tasha, nor the maid, Sari, have much in the way of power, and they’re manipulated, threatened and attacked by others, primarily men. It’s ugly but the book seems to just shrug its shoulders and say that that’s the way of things. It made me pretty angry at times, it wasn’t hugely subtle, well, about anything, really. The parallels between the present and the (really obviously dystopian) future were pretty clear from the get-go.

Towards the end of the book, when the book really starts pushing the idea of Zed as an unreliable narrator it gets a bit more interesting, especially as the threads start to come together a bit, but for me it wasn’t worth the effort.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444727654
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2011

Refined: Supervillain Rehabilitation Project

By H.L. Burke

Rating: 3 stars

The fourth, and final, book in the Supervillain Rehabilitation Project series takes place some months after the last – with Prism still unable to properly access her light-based powers, and Aidan still struggling to adapt to having returned from effectively being dead. A villain has found out that Fade is the son of a long-disappeared sable hitman named Syphon, and repercussions for Prism, Fade and the whole team follow. And they’re not helped by a new SVR recruit foisted upon them by the powers that be.

It felt like there was more melodrama in this book than in previous ones – a long-lost father; someone struggling to admit their feelings for a colleague; someone keeping a secret that could put others in danger – but it was still an enjoyable read. The new recruit – Voidling – was initially someone I thought who wasn’t going to be hugely interesting, but her story arc surprised me by not going where I thought it would at all.

The main arc of the story is about redemption and forgiveness, as Syphon tries to atone for his past. He’s also not the character that I was expecting from a supervillain hitman, but that’s for the best. If anything, I think he was maybe too sympathetic and his past whitewashed a bit.

I was surprised by the lack of consequences from some of Fade’s actions from the last book. They were briefly mentioned at the start but then disappear from the story. That’s a bit disappointing, but Fade’s over-protectiveness/controlling thing from the last book has also been toned down, which is something.

There was more Tanvi in the book than the last one, which is always cheering, as she’s such a fun character, if a bit angsty here. There was less Bob, alas, but we can’t have everything.

It’s been a fun series, steeped in superhero tropes but happily playing around with them. The end of the book (and the series) sees a lot of change, and it felt like a good ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 2021

The Aliens Among Us

By James White

Rating: 3 stars

I’m very fond of James White’s Sector General stories, but I’ve not read much of his wider work. This collection contains one story set on Sector General itself, another that might be in the same universe and a selection of others.

The Sector General Story, Countercharm is, to my mind, one of the weaker stories in the collection, as it feels a bit dated in terms of sexism and there’s a throwaway homophobic joke which doesn’t sit well. But also, the setup – in which Conway has to cope with an alien “educator tape” in his mind with no help whatsoever from the station’s psychological team, even when it could possibly be a danger to others – doesn’t really make any sense to me.

Of the other stories, To Kill or Cure was a fun story set in Ireland, where a military search and rescue crew stationed in ‘Derry finds a crashed flying saucer; Red Alert is a tense thriller where we follow an alien invasion as they enter Earth’s solar system; and Tableau is a story story about the horror of war and how it should be memorialised.

The Conspirators was fun heist/escape story and it’s almost a shame that The Scavengers was in the this collection because it was similar enough to one of the other stories that I guessed the twist early. The final story, Occupation: Warrior introduces us to Colonel Dermod, a familiar name from Sector General, but in a very different circumstance, as he tries to win a staged war.

The overarching theme of the collection is humanist and peaceful, telling stories about disparate groups working together for the greater good and the horrors of when dialogue breaks down and war and conflict break out. It’s a message that resonates with me, and one that is still too rare, especially in the speculative fiction genres. These stories feel very much of their time, but the genuine warmth of the author shines through them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780708882580

Snapshots from a Black Hole and Other Oddities

By K.C. Ball

Rating: 3 stars

K. C. Ball is an author I’m unfamiliar with, but I got this collection as part of a Humble Bundle and it’s a good one. It’s a very heterogeneous collection: the author is happy to turn her hand to pretty much any genre and she makes a good go of it. As always, some stories work better for me than others (for a start, I’m not a horror fan, so those weren’t generally fun for me) but there are some gems in the collection.

The title story is interestingly told from an AI perspective and leaves a haunting image in the mind. There are (attempted) alien abduction stories, zombie stories, ghost stories, (kind of) time travel stories and more. My favourite in the collection is probably Flotsam about a disaster in low Earth orbit that happens to a small crew, trying to clean up orbital waste. I like the characters, the believable actions of the corporation and the solution.

There are author’s notes at the end of the book (although I might have liked to have these after each story, while the story is still fresh in my mind, rather than all collected at the end) which are an insight into the author’s mind while she was writing.

The collection shows a talented and versatile author who passed away too young. I will look out for other of her work.

Book details

ISBN: 9780984830114
Publisher: Hydra House Books
Year of publication: 2012

Monkey King: Journey to the West

By Wu Cheng'en

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike others around my age, I never encountered the Monkey TV show, when it was shown on British TV. My only knowledge of Journey to the West before reading this was the Netflix TV show The New Legends of Monkey, but it intrigued me enough to look for some of the source material. Serendipitously, at around this same time, something about this new translation scrolled past my Twitter feed, so I grabbed it.

It’s obvious that it’s something that was part of the oral tradition, with the over-arching quest narrative, and lots of individual adventures in between, so that the storyteller/bard could pick and choose what to tell on any given evening, depending on their audience’s taste or mood. I think it was probably wise of the translator to cut some of those out – she says in the introduction that she tried to ensure that the stories that she kept retained the essence of the characters and how they develop throughout.

The style is interesting, as it’s pretty irreverent, with religion(s), rulers and bureaucracy all being lampooned at different times. Given that, it surprised me that the book has made it through the various purges and political changes that have taken place in China over the centuries since its publication.

The translation is very clear and easy to read. I’ve not read any other versions, but this has a very modern feel to it. Maybe too modern for my tastes. While I don’t want language to be difficult for the sake of it, this is an epic quest, and I would have liked to see that reflected a little in the language. Mostly it’s fine, but there was one joke riffing on “Human Resources” that made me raise an eyebrow. But then I love the language in Lord of the Rings and its ilk, so that sort of slightly old-fashioned “epic” language just fits this sort of story for me.

It’s an interesting and fun book though, and one that made me laugh out loud several times. I’m glad that I’ve read it, since I know so little of Chinese literature, especially classic Chinese literature.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141393445
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 2021

A Tale Of Time City

By Diana Wynne Jones

Rating: 4 stars

This is a book I first read and loved as an early teenager, or maybe slightly younger. I got it out of the library and read it several times, but this is the first I’ve read it as an adult. I was fairly confident that it would still hold up, though, as Diana Wynne Jones rarely lets me down. And I was right, this is an enjoyable time travel tale that’s still very readable as an adult. It tells the story of Vivian Smith, who is kidnapped as she gets off the train after being evacuated to the country during WW2 and taken to Time City – which exists outside of time and space. She finds her kidnappers are kids, of ages with herself and ends up taking part in an adventure to save Time City from destruction.

The plot here is pretty twisty and certainly doesn’t talk down to its audience. Jones sometimes isn’t great at pulling all her threads together at the end of a story, but this one ties together neatly. It might have been nice if there had been clues scattered throughout about the identity of the villain, so that it didn’t come entirely out of the blue, but that’s a minor quibble.

The worldbuilding is well done, and Time City feels very real, as does the way it uses its status to become wealthy and powerful. Vivian is an intelligent protagonist and it’s fun to explore Time City with her. Her kidnappers, Jonathan (who’s around the same age as her, but with an attitude) and Sam (a few years younger, and a bit of a brat) also feel real, as their half-term boredom drives them on the adventure to “save Time City.”

So this is a fun story that still holds up, over a quarter of a century after I first read it. The action and characters are strong, and, for me, there’s a strong element of nostalgia, but I think that even without that, I would have enjoyed this.

Book details

ISBN: 9780749704407
Publisher: Teens
Year of publication: 1990

Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women

By Kate Forsyth

Rating: 4 stars

This is a lovely retelling of lesser-known fairy- and folk-tales, with a feminist slant. It tells stories that aren’t necessarily romantic love stories and stories where the heroine has to rescue herself (and maybe her true love). The stories are lavishly illustrated by Lorena Carrington, in a silhouetted, photographic style that suits the tales themselves perfectly.

There are stories from Russian, Scottish and European folklore, although none from Asia or Africa. I think my favourite was probably The Stolen Child, a tale of pure maternal love and what a mother would do to recover her child.

Whilst I’m slightly disappointed in the lack of stories from further afield, this is still a great antidote to the Disney-fied fairy tales prevalent in modern media.

Book details

ISBN: 9780648103066
Publisher: Serenity Press Pty.Ltd
Year of publication: 2017

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