BooksOfTheMoon

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

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan, #1)

By Arkady Martine

Rating: 4 stars

It took me an embarrassingly long time to really get into this book, but that’s my fault, not the book’s. I was reading it at the same time as Ted Chiang’s truly astonishing Exhalation and I couldn’t stop thinking about that. And the new Becky Chambers novel had just turned up as well, and I was itching to read that too. But I eventually put those out of my mind and focussed on this, and I’m really glad that I gave it the attention that it deserved.

Mahit Dzmare is the new ambassador from a small, independent system to the mighty Teizcalaan empire. The problem is that nobody will admit that her predecessor was murdered and that she might be next. All this while keeping her own secrets and trying to protect her home from the ravenous jaws of the empire.

By the end, I really enjoyed this book. It’s not the story I was expecting, and it’s not one that I hear discussed very often. A major theme is the draw of the foreign, the empire next door. Teizcalaan is a cultural giant and all the young people from her station absorb its media and culture. Mahit especially so – it’s what makes her a good ambassador. This cultural imperialism and the seduction of the oh-so-civilised Teizcalaanli draw her like a moth to a flame.

This aspect of empire – the cultural imperialism that extends beyond the territorial borders – is a great thread, in amongst the intrigue and politics of palace life. There’s also a larger looming threat beyond the borders that threatens everyone, Teizcalaan and Lsel alike. That one is mostly kept to the background here, but I assume will come to the fore in the next book.

I really like Mahit as a character here. She’s a fish out of water, trying desperately to fit in while knowing that she can’t, but she’s not naive and when she’s given a chance to stop and think, which isn’t nearly as often as she’d like, she’s sharp as a tack. Her Teizcalaanli cultural liaison, Three Seagrass (the names within the empire are all like this, with a number and a random noun. I found it quite disconcerting to start with, but it just serves to be another reminder that the Teizcalaanli are alien) is also great. She’s clever, with a dry wit and is genuinely trying to help Mahit.

I’m struggling to place the influences on the Teizcalaan empire. The imperial bureaucracy and obsession with poetry and literature suggest a Chinese influence, but some of the names (“Teizcalaan”, for a start) suggest Aztec, as do some of the ceremonies, but that’s not a culture I know very much about.

Either way, there’s a compelling story here, that was a great read. A worth Hugo-winner.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529001594
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Paperbacks
Year of publication: 2019

Lumberjanes: To the Max Edition, Vol. 6

By Shannon Watters

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth volume of the rather marvellous Lumberjanes starts with Molly feeling like she wants the summer to last longer. So much so that she makes a deal with a mysterious voice in a waterfall. Inevitably, it goes horribly wrong and the Roanoke girls end up in the thick of it, ably assisted by councillor Jen and the usual supporting cast. Although is nobody going to say anything about what happened when Rosie got magically aged up?

I feel really sorry for Molly, she seems so happy at camp, but her home life is obviously difficult. I expect we’ll be seeing more of that, as well as whatever seems to live in the waterfall and has it in for the Lumberjanes.

The second arc in the book consists of the Roanoke girls in a bit of a funk after their last adventure and Jen leading them on a search for the mythical jackalope. They encounter a traveller with her own set of fantastic beasts, and learn about her her history. Emmy seems like a fun character and I hope we meet her again. The final story in the volume is a single issue story of Zodiac cabin starting up a camp newsletter and the trouble caused by people reading their horoscopes. It’s a light, fun little story to round off the volume.

I think this is a well-balanced volume, with the quieter, more character-focused back half balancing out the action-heavy first arc. I love all the characters by now and I look forward to see where the story goes. At some point, I’m going to need to binge-read the story-so-far in order to remind myself of the wider goings-on though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781684154944

Fables: The Deluxe Edition, Book Six

By Bill Willingham

Rating: 4 stars

The sixth hardback collection of Fables collects three story arcs (maybe four, but the middle two are linked). The first takes us into the occupied Homelands, and tells the story of two of Geppetto’s wooden people who fall in love and petition him to make them flesh, and the price that is extracted from them. This is interesting as it’s the first time we’ve had a story from the point of view of the occupying forces of the Homelands. It’s nominally tangential to everything else that’s going on, but the end suggests that plans are being laid.

The second story sees Mowgli’s search for Bigby through Asia and North America, and his eventual return to Fabletown, where Prince Charming makes him an offer he can’t refuse. The third story starts out with Bigby’s mission (and the trip to the cloud kingdoms is really fun) and ends with him and Snow White finally getting their Happily Ever After.

The final story is a really fun adventure with Cinderella as she tries to sign a treaty with the cloud kingdoms to get their cooperation against the Adversary. It shows her in full badass mode, chewing gum and prodding buttock. I don’t think we’ve got to see much of Cinderella thus far, and showing her spy skills and getting to do cool action stuff is really good fun.

I enjoyed this volume a lot. With the Bigby/Snow White plot winding down, it feels like a good place to pause the series. Regular artist Mark Buckingham shares duties with guest artists for the first and last arcs. All the artists are excellent at their work and make reading the book a pleasure. Now, I just need a bit more of Flycatcher and Red Riding Hood…

Book details

ISBN: 9781401237240
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 2013

Machine (White Space, #2)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

Dr Brookllyn Jens is a rescue specialist on an ambulance ship operating out of Core General – the biggest and best equipped hospital in the Synarche. She’s currently got a mystery on her hands regarding an ancient generation ship off course and with a missing crew, and a modern ship attached to it, with its crew in hibernation. Bringing them back to Core General sets her investigating a bigger mystery that could crack open everything she’s worked her life for.

The first book in this series involved space pirates and the philosophy of government and social order. This one involves space rescues and a deep dive into the nature of faith, especially faith outwith religion. This series shows that Bear is a master at packing in big ideas in entertaining ways.

I’ve been a big fan of James White’s Sector General stories for years, so a book so obviously inspired by them was an obvious choice for me (Bear talked about this in an article about it, and again in the author’s note at the end of the book). I loved all the little callbacks to Sector General (from the giant but oh-so-polite flying bug as the protagonist’s best buddy [he even liked spaghetti!], to the name of the administrator of Core General’s oxygen sector). One of the things that I really love about White’s work was that it was non-violent. The heroes were medics, working to save lives, not shooting blasters indiscriminately. We see that here too, as Llyn and her team work selflessly to save the crew of the generation ship – including the badly damaged shipmind.

Of course, there’s a dark secret lurking in the heart of Core General, and when Llyn eventually discovers it, it shakes her to her core. It makes her question the thing that she’s dedicated her life to and, indeed, the only thing that she’s ever had faith in. This was nicely built up, through Llyn’s PoV over the course of the novel, and the inevitable reveal is as heartbreaking for the reader as it is for Llyn.

Goodlaw Cheeirilaq, the giant preying mantis of a police officer from the previous book, is the only character from that book to have a major appearance in this one, although Singer does turn up as well. I was sort of disappointed not to see Haimey (although I can see that it might have been difficult to get her in), but Connla ended the last book working as an ambulance pilot for Core General, so I was disappointed that he didn’t show up, even as a cameo.

The mystery in the book held my attention well. I really liked Llyn as the protagonist and Core General is a wonderful setting, a worthy successor to Sector General. I’m sure there are more stories to be told in the Synarche, and I hope that we get to see them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473208773
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2020

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

Ned Henry is suffering from time lag from too many drops into the past too quickly. Taking pity on him, his supervisor offers him a couple of weeks in the nineteenth century, just as long as he does one simple task first. It’s just a shame that Ned’s too time-lagged to remember what that was. And if he doesn’t, the whole of history could unravel.

I’m really glad I read Doomsday Book before I read this. Not because it needs it – there’s almost no connection between the two books other than the setting and the character of Mr Dunworthy – but because if I’d read them the other way around, I would probably get shellshock at the drastically different tones the two books have. The former is a serious, quite dark at times, tome about survival and plague, while this is a jaunty romantic comedy. And while, the former was good, this is good and enjoyable to read too.

Three Men in a Boat is explicitly referenced, as Ned spends time in a boat on the Thames (yes, with a dog) but it reminded me more of P. G. Wodehouse‘s farces. There’s definitely something of the Awful Aunt about Lady Schrapnell and the star-crossed lovers really need Jeeves to sort them out.

Detective fiction of the era (Christie, Sayers etc) are referenced as well, and the trope of the first crime actually turning out to be the second crime. This is something that resonates at the end, when resident boffin TJ drops something that could change how we view the whole set of what’s just happened. It’s a nice little coda to the story, to suggest that the universe is not only weirder than we think, but weirder than we can believe.

Once I got past the awful Lady Schrapnell and Ned was safely in the Victorian era, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was fairly gentle, and although the stakes were theoretically quite high, it never felt like history was in any real danger – and this isn’t a bad thing, it let me enjoy Ned and Verity’s adventures in the Victorian era, complete with eccentric professor, ex-colonel, domineering matriarch, scatterbrained friend and highly competent butlers. A rocking great read that never felt nearly long as its actual 500+ pages.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575113121
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2013

Nevertheless, She Persisted: Flash Fiction Project

By Diana M. Pho (editor)

Rating: 4 stars

This is a good little collection of fiction where a number of authors write a flash piece around the quote “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” It’s an unsettling quote and all the authors take a good stab at “persisting”. Obviously, some stories work better for any individual than others, and for me the contributions by Maria Dahvana Headley about the first American non-human astronauts, and Charlie Jane Anders’ story about a woman who creates an unauthorised AI stand out in the “fun” mode.

Alyssa Wong and Seanan McGuire’s stories are hard-hitting and brutal, while Nisi Shawl and Amal El-Mohtar provide melancholy and eerie stories.

The collection won’t take long to read, each story being only a few pages long, but it’s thought-provoking and definitely worth your time.

Book details

Gideon the Ninth

By Tamsyn Muir

Rating: 4 stars

There’s been some positive buzz around this book on social media which intrigued me, but I was wary that it was the first part of a trilogy, until someone I trust said that it was (mostly) readable as a standalone. I’m glad I did pick it up, as it’s very enjoyable. I especially like the narrative voice of the protagonist, Gideon. She’s fairly young at just eighteen, and something of this immaturity comes across in her voice, in a good way (I laughed much more than I should have done at the “that’s what she said” jokes).

Gideon is an indentured servant of the Ninth House – owing them for her upbringing. She’s been trained as a swordswoman, and when the head of the house, the necromancer Harrowhark, is called to service by the Emperor, she reluctantly follows Harrow as her cavalier. They find themselves along with pairs from the other Houses in a race to unlock the secret of immortality.

There’s something a little And Then There Were None about the way that the groups are taken to an isolated location with a mystery to be unlocked in a race against time, which I enjoyed quite a lot. The necromancer/cavalier pairs from the other houses were distinctive and interesting, from the jovial married couple of the Fifth House to the “terrible teens” of the Fourth to the creepy, sanctimonious Eighth. Maybe the military Second House didn’t get much beyond being uptight military types, but they were probably the exception.

I loved the relationship between Gideon and Harrow, how these two girls who have known and hated each other their entire lives have to start to rely on each other to survive the challenges they’re thrown and how that eventually turns into trust. It’s an old trope, but carried off with aplomb.

The world is classic science fantasy. Although there’s a thin veneer of SF in the form of space travel and genetics, most of the action involves magic and the fights are all sword fights. I’ll handwave it away via Clarke’s Third Law though. There’s enough worldbuilding to keep us interested without drowning us in exposition (although there are more hints in the glossary at the end).

Spoiler
From the moment we find out what Ianthe had to do to achieve Lyctor-hood, we sense that Gideon’s days are numbered. This is a shame, but what a way to go out. There’s scope for her to come back in some form (they never found the body!) and there’s still a number of mysteries around her. As I said above, I enjoyed her narrative voice a lot. I’ll miss her if she’s gone permanently. I mean, I’ll read a book about Harrow, but I’ll be thinking about Gideon.

The epilogue sets up the next book and I’ll be intrigued to see where it goes – it seems to be getting ready to widen the scope an awful lot, from a single isolated mansion to the whole galaxy. I can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Book details

ISBN: 9781250313188
Year of publication: 2020

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