BooksOfTheMoon

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities, #1)

By Robert Jackson Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

The Holy Lands of the Continent were protected by their Divinities; invincible, world-conquering, until one man rises up in the land of Saypur and kills the gods, ending the rule of the Continentals. Generations later, the consequences of this are still being played out, and when there’s a murder in Bulikov, the former city of the Divinities, it sets off a chain of events that threaten the fragile equilibrium.

I loved this book. It’s complex, with no black and white tale of oppressed and oppressors. The history of the Continent’s long and bloody rule of Saypur is remembered as fiercely as the current Continentals see their own poverty and desolation. There’s a spiral of hatred that feeds on itself, something that feels very real and is deftly portrayed by Bennett.

I got to thoroughly like Shara, our protagonist (not to mention Sigrud, her, er, secretary, who doesn’t say much, but his actions speak volumes). Shara is quiet, small, very intelligent, with a passion for history. Something that comes in useful in a city that is practically nothing but history.

The worldbuilding is neatly done as well, with a drip-feed of information early on filling us in on the fact that the Continentals aren’t allowed to talk about their dead gods and aren’t allowed to know much about their own history. There’s a chapter later on that fills in a lot of history about the gods and how they were killed, which on the one hand feels like an infodump, but it’s filling in information for the other characters too, rather than an “As you know, Bob…” sort of thing, so I’ll let the author away with it.

The Divinities loom large in this book, despite being (mostly) absent from it. The god of Order, Kolkan is particularly interesting, with his many edicts and hatred of any kind of pleasure. I’m not sure if it’s intended as a criticism of the sterner sects of real-world religions, but that’s certainly my reading of it.

A nice idea in the book is that now that the Divinities are dead, real world physics can assert itself. The world is moving out of a period where everyone (on the Continent, at least) lived through the miraculous intervention of the gods, and now they’re developing motor cars, the telegraph and photography. It’s not quite steampunk, but is definitely a society that’s moving towards industrialisation.

A very interesting, complex book with a lot of ideas. And one that can be pretty much read standalone as well (although I certainly intend to look out the sequels). Definitely recommended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781848667983
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Year of publication: 2015

City

By Clifford D. Simak

Rating: 3 stars

This is a collection of eight short stories in the same setting, connected with a framing story that describes the stories themselves as legends that Dogs have passed down throughout the years about the decline and fall of the mythical species known as Man.

Simak sees a future where first humanity abandons the cities in favour of small, rural communities and later flees Earth for new forms on Jupiter, leaving only a small remnant behind, that is too intimidated by their forebears to create anything new, content to pass on their legacy to the Dogs.

There is continuity in the stories through the Webster family that recurs at pivotal moments, and of the robot Jenkins who serves the Websters. It’s a melancholic sort of book, dealing as it does with the end of humanity, but one with hope that our successors, the Dogs that a Webster uplifted, will be better than us.

The idea of the rugged individual or small community rather than the close living of cities feel decidedly American to me, especially the America of the middle of the 20th century. Having read other of Simak’s works, this love of country life above that of the city is a hallmark of his work. Personally, I really enjoy city life, which made the premise of the first story (which sees the end of the cities) difficult to accept, but once I got past that, the decline of humanity was easier to accept.

The stories are very Golden Age SF, with hardly a woman in sight and, apart from one that was set on Jupiter, all very much rooted on Earth. Simak contrasts Man’s desire to look outward and reliance on technology with Dog’s more introspective intelligence and finds us wanting.

A quietly retrospective book, tinged with melancholy, whose ideas will linger in mind after you put the book down.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575105232
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2011

Travel Light

By Naomi Mitchison

Rating: 4 stars

Baby Halla’s stepmother, the new queen, wants her gotten rid of. Her nurse takes a bear’s form and escapes to the forest with her, where young Halla is first raised by bears and later by dragons. When she loses her dragon benefactor she must choose between dragon-ish hoarding and travelling light. She makes her choice and travels to human lands where she has many adventures.

I’ve not read much Naomi Mitchison, although I very much enjoyed her Memoirs of a Spacewoman. This is a very different book, but it has the same somewhat gentle, and slow-paced feel to it. I enjoyed it quite a lot reading it now, I think I would have enjoyed it more reading it in my youth, and I think I would enjoy it even more if I were a young woman.

Despite the suggested interference in her fate by the Norns and by the All-Father, Halla is still a spirited young woman who is active in controlling her own life. This is a lovely, if short, fantasy novel, with an active female protagonist that deserves to be better-known.

Book details

ISBN: 9781931520140
Publisher: Peapod Classics
Year of publication: 2005

Noumenon Infinity

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

This follow up to Noumenon follows two different plot streams: on the one hand, it follows the fortunes of convoy seven (Noumenon) back to the Web and onwards after its completion; and on the other, it follows the smallest of the convoys, convoy twelve, which was never even supposed to leave the solar system, but a malfunctioning SD drive in an experiment sends it far from home.

This book covers a lot of ideas, and a lot of time. From multiple alien megastructures to a new religion amongst the convey seven crew. Even with a generous page count of over 500 pages, there’s a lot to pack in, with our time being split between the two conveys. The time jumps when we’re following Noumenon also become huge, although we don’t see the major sociological disruptions that we saw in the first book. The changes here are more driven by outside events.

In the first book, I wasn’t convinced by the treatment of genetics as being the overriding factor in personality. This book doesn’t really change that, but doesn’t lean into much either (other than through the new religion, but that’s religion so it gets a free pass in not needing to make sense).

The chapters following convoy twelve occur on a much shorter timespan (months and years, rather than centuries) and start off with an intriguing mystery surrounding Dr Vahni Kapoor, who has a bad habit of disappearing and reappearing sometime later, always near a sundial that contains her AI assistant C.

There are a lot of mysteries that surround both convoys and eventually draw them together, in unexpected ways. One thing that I found disappointing was the lack of resolution on the alien megastructures that both seven and twelve encounter. There’s a throwaway comment/explanation towards the end of the book, but it doesn’t feel appropriate for Big Dumb Objects as impressive as these.

The old-fashioned SF “sensawunda” is here in spades. If you’ve been wanting very large scale space opera, covering huge swathes of time, including Dyson spheres, clones, mysterious missing aliens, mysterious present aliens and more, this is your series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223403

Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

By John Cleland

Rating: 3 stars

I must confess that when I picked this up (on the basis purely of a positive review I’d read), I knew it was supposed to be risqué but I was convinced that a book written in the middle 1700s couldn’t be that risqué. I was wrong. Fanny has a homosexual experience within the first dozen pages and goes on to meet and enjoy men in pretty graphic fashion fairly soon afterwards.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, it’s not that people haven’t been having, thinking, drawing, talking and writing about sex since the start of our species, I just wasn’t expecting it in written and published form in this period.

The book is in epistolary format and can be quite frustrating at times, with lots of long, run-on sentences and nested clauses (not helped by the Gutenberg text I was reading having quite a lot of typos). I sometimes found it difficult to tease out meaning from them. But if you can work through that, it’s enjoyable enough. While not explicitly naming genitals or acts, your euphemism vocabulary will certainly grow, and it can be quite fun spotting the more outrageous metaphors.

I also like that although there’s a moral at the end where Fanny disclaims her past, it’s not a moralistic book in that nothing bad happens to her. She’s allowed to enjoy sex and still get her happy ending.

Book details

Year of publication: 1748

Dogs of War

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rating: 4 stars

Rex just wants to be a good dog. He wants to please his Master. If that involves using his seven-foot frame, razor-sharp teeth and attached machine guns to intimidate, maim and kill then that’s what he’ll do, leading his multi-form squad of Dragon (lizard), Honey (bear) and Bees (er, bees) in battle. Unfortunately, it turns out that Master is a war-criminal. What happens when Rex and his squad slip their leash and escape?

This book packs a huge number of ideas into a relatively small size. From the culpability of the enhanced animals, to slavery, to artificial and distributed intelligence, Tchaikovsky keeps the pace going, the ideas coming and the characters sympathetic. Not Master (aka Jonas Murry). He’s possibly the fictional character I’ve most wanted to see dead within a page of meeting. But Rex and his colleagues are just wonderful creations. Honey is over-engineered and gains far more intelligence that she was expected to. Rex comes to rely upon and trust her. The distributed intelligence that is Bees is a fascinating idea. And as for Rex himself, he’s absolutely adorable. All he ever wants to be is a Good Dog. Even when you realise that he’s killing civilians at the orders of Master, he retains your sympathy.

And a definite tip of the hat to Tchaikovsky here, as much of the book is first person from Rex’s perspective, and seeing Rex’s voice evolve over the course of the book is fantastic. When we first meet him, he’s got little vocabulary and limited cognitive capacity, which is reflected in his writing style. As the book goes on, and Rex is forced into more leadership decisions and has to evolve his thinking, his narrative and vocabulary become correspondingly more complex as well. It’s very well written.

Spoiler
I think the idea towards the end of the book of humans getting hierarchy chips was not entirely unexpected, but the horror for came in those who were arguing that they weren’t a bad idea; in effect arguing for the return of slavery. And the idea of the top of the hierarchy being the corporation, and not a single individual was inspired (and terrifying).

Don’t let anyone tell you any differently, Rex, you are the best boy!

Book details

ISBN: 9781786693907

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, #3)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Picking up pretty much directly from where Ancilliary Sword left off, the conclusion to Breq’s trilogy again changes the direction of the series a bit, with things that have been rumbling a little in the background coming more to the fore. Breq is now publicly known as the last remaining piece of Justice of Toren and she must move quickly to protect Athoek system from the inevitable attack by Anaander Mianaai.

There’s a lot to love in this book and I pretty much want to just pick up the first book again and read the whole trilogy in one go, although I think I’m going to resist doing that until I make more of a dent in my to-read pile.

I think this book brings Breq’s involvement in the wider story of the Radch to an end. There’s lots more that she could do, of course, but I suspect that she’ll be quite tied up in the aftermath of what happened in Atheok, and its fallout, to take any further part in wider events. And I can’t imagine that there won’t be further events. The story of the Radch and its ruler at war with herself is rich pickings for further storytelling and I look forward to reading it.

As for this one, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Not just Breq, but those around her got decent character development and all got a chance to do something cool.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502427
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2015

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

Breq is the last body remaining to an AI that used to be Justice of Toren, a starship with hundreds of ‘ancillary’ human bodies. All that was destroyed and Breq vowed to kill Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch, but has instead found herself made a Fleet Captain, put in command of the Mercy of Kalr and sent to secure a star system as part of an outbreak of civil war.

I loved this book as much as, or possibly more than, its predecessor, Ancillary Justice. That was, in essence, a fairly straightforward military space opera/revenge story. This book keeps the military flavour, but adds deeper political overtones, as Breq has to navigate local system politics, use but not abuse her new power and try and keep an eye on the greater civil war breaking out in the Empire.

One thing that I loved about this book was the fact that the heroine is working for the Emperor. It’s clear that, like all empires, really terrible things have been done in forging it (not least the creation of ancillaries themselves) and Breq is seriously questioning it (something that she couldn’t do as Justice of Toren) and growing as a person at the same time.

The supporting cast are mostly in shadow here. Seivarden returns from the previous book, but spends most of it on the Mercy of Kalr, away from the action. In her place is Lieutenant Tisarwat, a young officer foist upon Breq before the start of her mission.

The convention of being gender-blind continues here, with all characters referred to as ‘she’. I like this because it forces you to confront your own prejudices; for example, in my head the magistrate and tea grower (both positions of power) were male. No reason for this, but they were, before I realised what I was doing. But the gender politics are very much in the background. This is a solid space opera, with a lot of depth to it, and I really look forward to the next (final?) book in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502410
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)

By Ann Leckie

Rating: 5 stars

The soldier who goes by the name of Breq is in the final stages of plotting revenge when she comes across Seivarden Vendaai, lying naked and dying in the snow. Why she stops to help him is something even she doesn’t know, but he becomes entangled in her own life and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

I really rather loved this book. Breq is something more and something less than human. Her body was once human, but killed and reanimated. Her intelligence is artificial, being the last remaining component of the starship Justice of Toren, trying to make sense of and work with a single body rather than the resources of thousands of its ‘ancillaries’.

Although Breq (or Justice of Toren) is very much the hero of the piece, the book never shies away from the fact that it was a military ship involved in the invasion and subjugation of many civilisations and planets. It’s done terrible things in its time, but in some ways this is a redemption story as well, with Breq trying, in her own way, to make up for her own past actions.

Breq is also a fascinating protagonist. Being part of an AI with multiple bodies, we get a first person narrative, but from multiple points of view, which gives us both the intimacy of a first person narrator, but also the traditional omniscient narrative, as Justice of Toren is seeing all these things at the same time.

At first in the book, I felt a bit thrown off-balance and it took a while to work out why. It was because all the characters that Breq met seemed to be female. It took a while for this to sink in. If they had been male I wouldn’t have even noticed. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing – it makes me aware that despite my best efforts, I still have in-built preconceptions, and helps me to try and break through them. In fact, in the story, it’s more interesting than that. The language that Breq thinks in doesn’t make distinction between genders, and the pronoun that she uses is ‘she’ for everyone (and finds it difficult to tell the difference between genders, as the outward signs vary so much between cultures).

Come to think of it, I have no idea if Breq is male or female. She’s referred to as ‘she’ by other characters, but I, think, always in the Radch language, so it’s entirely possible that she’s actually male.

The world-building in the story is really good as well. The civilisation of the Radch, to which JoT belongs, has been expanding for a millennium and eventually met its match with an alien species, and is forced to sue for peace. The Lord of the Radch has, like the ancillaries, thousands of bodies, spread through many star systems, so can always be personally present as the ultimate form of law and justice, meaning that the ‘centre of power’ is always fairly near by, rather than being some distant Rome, and that mind across multiple bodies is played in interesting ways.

So an awful lot in there to think about and digest, but also a really fun space opera with a twist. One of the reasons that I read this book when I did is that it was published in 2013 and I get to nominate and vote in the 2014 Hugo awards. From all I heard, this might be a contender for nomination. From my point of view, it most definitely is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356502403
Publisher: Orbit UK (Little, Brown Book Group)
Year of publication: 2013

The Folk Tales of Scotland: The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories

By Norah Montgomerie, William Montgomerie

Rating: 3 stars

This was an interesting collection of folk- and fairy-tales from across Scotland. Most of them are very short, only a few pages each, which hardly leaves any space for characterisation or plot development. There’s a lot of repetition within stories as well – the power of three crops up again and again where the hero must do things three times to get the effect. I imagine this works better in the oral tradition than written down. There are also variations on well-known stories (including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin) and lots of very traditional roles (princess offered in marriage as a prize for the hero recurs often).

But it’s interesting to read older versions of some of these traditional stories to see how they’ve evolved over time and where there are seeds for other stories. It’s also nice (if somewhat surprising) to see several stories featuring Finn McCool, who’s more closely associated with Irish mythology.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841586946
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 1956

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