The Witness for the Dead (The Goblin Emperor, #2)

By Katherine Addison

Rating: 4 stars

I loved The Goblin Emperor but wasn’t sure where was left for the story to go. Thankfully, for the sequel, Addison has chosen to leave the emperor’s court behind and, instead, follow a minor character from the first book – Thara Celehar, the Witness for the Dead who solved the murder of the former emperor. He’s now living in the city of Amalo and practising his calling, when he’s called to witness for a young woman found drowned in the canal. He’s got to solve the mystery of her murder while avoiding getting bogged down in clerical politics and offending too many important people.

After the courtly intrigue of the first book, having a whodunnit as the follow-up is just the right change of pace to keep it fresh. Calehar is a sympathetic protagonist, still ridden with guilt over his dead lover, but content in his own way. The world feels established in that of The Goblin Emperor and it’s not as difficult to keep track of people and locations (although a glossary would still have been welcome). There are only the most tenuous links to the first book, so someone could easily read this without having read the first, although you would miss out on some of Celehar’s character, as his background isn’t (re-)explained here. This book also deepens the world, and adds a larger pinch of fantasy than the first one had, with Celehar’s communication with the dead, and his having to deal with risen ghouls.

The world-building is unobtrusive and well done. Of the new characters who populate this book, my favourite was IƤna Pel-Thenhior, the composer and director of the local opera, who almost becomes a Watson to Celehar’s Holmes. I love the easy working relationship that they develop together, with tentative hopes (on both sides?) that it could be more.

I’m not sure that this counts as a proper “whodunnit”, in that the reader (like Celehar) doesn’t have enough information to solve the mystery until right at the end. I don’t think there’s clues spread throughout the book to point you in the right direction. I look forward to a re-read at some point to see if that is the case.

It’s a great book, with good characterisation and world-building and a lot of heart. When it comes down to it, Celehar is a kind person, and that’s uncommon enough to be worth something, both in fiction and the real world.

Book details

ISBN: 9781781089514
Publisher: Solaris
Year of publication: 2021

New Horizons: The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction

By Tarun K. Saint

Rating: 2 stars

I kind of wish I’d enjoyed this collection of short speculative fiction from the Indian subcontinent more than I did. The omens weren’t good when then footnotes for the introduction were almost longer than the introduction itself. And it was long and dry, feeling very much like someone wanted to be able to repurpose it at some point into an academic paper.

There was a mix of old and new stories, with some historical ones, although most were modern. It would have been nice to have some clue as to to the age of each story, actually, since the copyright page listing the stories was incomplete, and some of the ones that were present lacked dates.

The stories themselves were a mixed bag. The editor notes in the introduction that SF isn’t a genre that’s been historically popular in south Asia, but he includes some in here anyway. The opening story, Planet of Terror feels very “Golden Age”, and that’s followed by a satire in which a police inspector goes to the moon, to teach the people of the moon the ways of a modern, efficient police force (i.e. corruption and bribery). A lot of the stories are quite dystopian, which isn’t really my cup of tea, and many of the others feel quite experimental, and what can I say, I prefer more traditional styling in my fiction.

It’s a mixed bag, of course, and I did enjoy some of the stories. These included The Man Who Turned Into Gandhi, a diary of a man who, er, turns into Gandhi, and how he tries to continue living his life; Flexi-time is a gently humorous story about the perils of living your life too regimented and a paean to “Indian time”; and the last story Reunion is a cli-fi piece about the importance of change and adaptability. My favourite story is probably S. B. Divya’s Look Up, about a broken family, one of whom is trying to put her past life behind her with a new start on Mars.

So, an uneven collection, not to my taste, but I still think it’s important and that there should be more like it. I’ll certainly keep looking out for them, hoping that a different editor has tastes closer to mine.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228689
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

Vet in Harness

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this fourth volume of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs even more than the preceding volumes. This volume spends less time on farms with Jim elbow-deep in a cow’s vagina, and more time with some of the smaller animals that a vet sometimes has to deal with, particularly dogs. There’s also a slightly melancholy air to it, as although it’s hardly mentioned, the War is looming. And indeed, this volume ends with Jim being called up to serve, along with his partner Siegfried and the newly qualified Tristan (Siegfried’s brother), leaving the practice in the care of strangers.

Speaking of those two characters, another change to previous volumes is that they barely show up. There’s an amusing story of Siegfried judging a Christmas cake and Tristan pranking a drunk who mistakes their surgery for the GP practice next door, but other than that, it’s very much just Jim trudging through the Yorkshire hills and the characters he meets in his practice.

To make up for it to some degree, we’re introduced to a new regular – the specialist small animal surgeon Granville Bennett, a larger than life character with whom Jim inexplicably tries to match drink for drink every time they meet up, and ends up consistently making a fool of himself, in an endearing way.

Like the other Herriot memoirs, this is a very gentle and readable book, where Herriot’s love of the Yorkshire countryside is often to the fore. I look forward to the next one soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443562
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2006

The Five Brothers (Krishnavatara, #3)

By K.M. Munshi

Rating: 3 stars

The third volume of the Krishnanavatara deals mostly with the five Pandava brothers, with Krishna relegated to political mover and shaker, rather than taking part in the adventures himself. Duryodhana, the son of the blind king Dhritarashtra* hates his cousins, the five brothers, and plots to have them killed. Through “shenanigans”, they are believed dead, but go into hiding, only to be miraculously “brought back to life” by Krishna when it’s politically convenient.

In the course of the book, we encounter cannibalistic rakshasas, ridiculously overblown senses of entitlement, and a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trans man. Through it all Krishna goes from crisis to crisis, exerting his (supernatural?) charisma, making people trust him and making unwise promises. But he somehow pulls it all together and comes out smelling of roses.

It does feel like most of the problems in the book (not counting cannibalistic rakshasas, who can be dealt with in the old-fashioned way of killing the existing chief and becoming their king) were mostly down to vastly inflated egos. Both Duryodhana and the brahmin master of warfare Dronacharya are idiots who who can’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

I did know about the polyandry of Draupadi marrying all five of the Pandava brothers, but I hadn’t known how that came about. She was “won” by Arjuna, but through a ridiculous misunderstanding, his mother tells him to share “his alms” with his brothers. And the boys always do what their mother tells them… Even though she admits that she made a mistake. It’s just silly.

We also finally get some “real” magic in this book, with both a Brahmin who heals the lame, and a Yaksha who magically turns Shikhandin from a girl into a boy. I’m still surprised how sympathetically that was handled, by the way (although I suspect it wouldn’t have been so understanding if the case had been that of a trans woman).

I will continue to read these, as I get a chance, but I can’t help feeling that so much could have been defused by people talking about their feelings, and going to therapy.

* it’s commented several times in the book that Dhritarashtra couldn’t be a king, because he’s blind (um, sure), and so his son couldn’t either (eh?), and yet Dhritarashtra is very definitely a king, and Duryodhana becomes crown prince, so I don’t know what that’s about

Book details

ISBN: 8172763786
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan
Year of publication: 2006

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