BooksOfTheMoon

Turning Darkness Into Light

By Marie Brennan

Rating: 4 stars

I’m always a little wary of sequels to books that don’t necessarily seem to need them, but I loved this. Audrey Camhurst is Isabella’s granddaughter and is struggling to overcome her famous family name and make her own mark on the world of philology, so she jumps at the chance to translate some recently uncovered ancient Draconean texts. Of course, it’s not as straightforward as that, and soon she, and her fellow scholar Kudshayn, are drawn into a conspiracy that could incite war.

We’ve jumped forward in time by a couple of generations, (maybe now the equivalent of our inter-war period?) and the technology and social mores have moved accordingly. There are now motor cars and telephones, and people willing to address each other by their first names!

The book is written in an epistolary format, with diary entries, newspaper articles and letters from a variety of different people, although Audrey is our main PoV, with the Draconean Kudshayn the secondary. What they find as they translate the tablets is the founding myth of the ancient Draconean people, and seeing how this shapes the thinking of these two individuals, especially the priest-scholar Kudshayn is fascinating, given that what he learns impacts on his faith.

The characters are all great. I had a soft spot for Cora, Audrey’s assistant, as being someone we would recognise as being on the spectrum. Even Audrey’s one-time beau, Aaron Mornett has depth, and both Audrey and Kudshayn are painted in some depth. Audrey is driven by her famous family. Unlike her sister, she doesn’t want to be involved with Society, she wants to be an academic, in a field which her family have basically created out of whole cloth. She especially worships her grandmother, although she doesn’t always take the right moral from her adventures. What Would Grandmama Do is often on her lips.

The keystone of the plot really lies along the lines of attempts to resist the changing of the world, and the ways in which “moderate” bigots can be as dangerous, if not moreso, than the sort who shout their opinions to the world. Very much a lesson for our time. But also a reminder that there will always be people willing to stand up to the bigots and show how we can, together, turn darkness into light.

Book details

ISBN: 9781789092516
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2019

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)

By S.A. Chakraborty

Rating: 4 stars

I’d heard some good buzz about this book but had known nothing about it when I picked it up. Nahri is a young woman who doesn’t believe in magic and makes a living conning the rich in 18th century Cairo. All she wants is to make enough money to get out of Cairo. Well, be careful what you wish for, because when she accidentally summons a djinn warrior to her side, she starts a journey that ends in the eponymous city of the title, and she learns about her family’s past and that her conning ways haven’t necessarily prepared her for court intrigues.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel of magic, politics and good old-fashioned trickery. Nahri thinks she’s world-wise, but she’s lost amongst the djinn of Daevabad, relying on her warrior Dara, and later on prince Ali who befriends her. She’s an interesting character, strong on the outside, but with the vulnerability of someone who’s never been able to rely on anyone or allow themselves to love.

Ali is interesting in a different way. He is sympathetic to those without pure djinn blood in Daevabad (the shafit), who are treated as second class citizens at best, and this sympathy leads him down paths that his more politically astute brother would never sanction. He’s also the most religiously devout character in the book, which can sometimes have him seeming like a wet blanket, as he refuses the wine and women that surround the rest of the nobility. This rigidity can sometimes make him difficult, especially in his dealings with the religion of Nahri’s people, but his actions, to both the shafit and to Nahri, keep him sympathetic.

The warrior, Dara, is probably the least developed character, falling into the cliche of the mysterious warrior with a troubled past. He is devoted to Nahri from early in their relationship but inflexible in his thinking.

There’s a lot going on here, and keeping tribes, races and the various politics clear in my head wasn’t always easy. It’s going to be some time before the next book is out in paperback, so I imagine I’ll have forgotten most of it by the time that comes around, and the same for the final book in the series. This is very much the end of an act though, and not a fully contained story in itself. It’s a great story though, and with plenty to hold interest and many hooks for future books.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008239428
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2017

Noumenon

By Marina J. Lostetter

Rating: 4 stars

A macguffin is discovered in space at just the right time: the world is increasingly united and peaceful. So with resources to spare, a convoy of nine ships, collectively known as Noumenon, is launched to investigate. Even with FTL, this mission will take several generations to complete, so the crew is carefully chosen and then cloned for the duration of the mission to preserve skills and abilities over the duration.

I really enjoyed this story. We start on Earth, after the discovery of the macguffin (a weird star) and the planning phase of the mission. From then on, we revisit the convoy at various points in its history, as the the society changes in ways both envisioned by its designers and ways that weren’t. Throughout, the Inter Convoy Computer (ICC) watches over the crew, and several of the segments in the book are from ICC’s point of view.

One thing that I think the book never fully addressed was the idea that we are defined by our genes. This is patently untrue: two identical twins can have very different personalities. The idea that a clone of a person will have their aptitudes and skills, even with education and training being bent in a specific direction, seems dodgy to me. And then we get to a point where several gene lines are discontinued entirely, because one of the clones of the line has done something that the convoy society disapproves of (whether that’s mental health issues or attempted mutiny). This seems an odd decision given that there’s a closed gene pool to start with, with specifically defined roles, and, as I say, an individual is more than their genes. I do wish the book had addressed this more.

But that’s one issue in an otherwise excellent book that spans many human lifespans but still spends enough time at each stop to make us care about each individual, as well as the society of the convoy as a whole.

Book details

ISBN: 9780008223397
Publisher: HarperVoyager
Year of publication: 2017

Goblin Quest (Jig the Goblin, Book 1)

By Jim C. Hines

Rating: 4 stars

This a fun wee story about a Goblin just minding his own business, doing his Goblin-y things (mostly involving being picked on by other Goblins) when a group of adventurers come into his mountain, kill the other members of the scouting party and capture him to be their guide further into the mountain.

As other reviewers have noted, there’s a strong influence from D&D-style roleplaying involved here (it was, actually, one of the reasons I picked it up – in one of my group’s RPGs, we encountered a stray Goblin child and adopted him as our mascot for the party). Jig here is a fun character, a Goblin who is actually competent and refuses to just barge in and try and kill things, while also stabbing his own colleagues in the back (something his fellows despise him for). He grows as a character a lot during his time with his captives and even bonds with one of them. Not being particularly strong or fast, he has to think his way out of situations, and he does so with flair.

A fun wee fantasy story, with a heavy D&D influence that’s easy to read, with a sympathetic protagonist. It certainly makes me re-evaluate my actions as a PC in our D&D campaign!

Book details

Year of publication: 2004

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel, #1)

By Connie Willis

Rating: 4 stars

In 2050s Oxford, time travel is used to send historians back to observe the past first-hand, confident that they can’t alter history. Kivrin is to be sent further back than ever before, to the Medieval period. But a combination of bad luck and disease means that she’s stranded there for longer than she had intended, and she’s not in the 1320s, as she expected, but in Black Death-ridden 1348.

In a quirk of coincidence, I had just finished Philip Ziegler’s The Black Death just before starting this, which gave me some background and understanding of the disease and made me appreciate Willis’ research.

This is a big book. It’s nearly 600 pages long, and it runs at a sedate pace for most of that. Split into three parts internally, the first two are really all about getting to know the characters, from Kivrin in the past, along with the villagers that she comes to live amongst, to Dunworthy in the future, as he runs himself ragged trying to sort out the mistake that stranded her. This slow build up is worth it as in the final part, Willis carefully and clinically starts to use the threads that she’s painstakingly created in the previous four hundred odd pages to take a hatchet to your heart.

The future Oxford that Willis imagines feels closer to the Oxford of the 1950s, not the 2050s, with quaint independent colleges, fussy secretaries and political bickering and point-scoring that sometimes extends into full-blown warfare. It’s also interesting to see how self-absorbed everyone in Oxford is, with Gilchrist’s ambition, the Americans’ bell-ringing, Finch’s obsession with lavatory paper and even Dunworthy’s attempts to get someone to read the time travel machine logs after his tech, Badri, fell ill. They all feel myopic, which is ironic, given the nature of what they’re doing: travelling in time to understand the broad sweep of history.

Kivrin’s adventures are of the small-scale, domestic variety, as she comes to live amongst a family who have been sent away from the city. We get to know them as she does and we get to care for them as she does. And through it all, you’ve got in the back of your mind where and when she is and you hope, as she does, once she finds out the truth, that the plague will pass her village by and spare those whom she cares about.

And as the plague does hit her village, each death is a blow. We find ourselves counting them along with Kivrin, relying on the statistics, that each death is “enough”. And as they keep falling, towards the inevitable, we find ourselves as ragged as Kivrin becomes, raging against fate and any deity that would allow this to happen. The clinical description of Agnes’ death and the final blow of Father Roche in particular are heartbreaking.

A slow but powerful novel that draws out its characters and doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the era.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575131095
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1992

The Black Death

By Philip Ziegler

Rating: 4 stars

This book charts the arrival and spread of the black death of the 14th century in Europe, and particularly England. This isn’t a subject I really knew anything about, so I was coming in with a pretty blank slate. The book doesn’t really cover the plague’s origins in Asia other than to note that it probably arrived in Europe along trade routes into Italy, and spread throughout the continent from there.

It’s a good overview book, pulling together academic research from multiple different sources, and synthesising an overview, pitched at the interested layman, rather than the academic world.

Possibly the most interesting notion that came out of the book for me was the psychological state of the population into which the plague spread. The idea that medieval man was conditioned to just accept what was happening as a punishment from God, and so didn’t make any serious efforts to learning what caused it and steps to mitigate it. This is fascinating, and alien. Another reminder that the past really is another country.

Beyond that, I learned something about the Flagellants (who I’d never heard of) and the persecution of the Jews (not that Christian Europe needed any additional excuse for that) as well as the state of medicine during the period.

The least interesting part, for me, was the region by region description of how the plague spread across England (and, as I said, it is mostly England, with Wales, Ireland and Scotland getting one chapter between them – and even that is shared with the Welsh border counties in England). As Ziegler himself says, the pattern was fairly similar across the country, as it spread from county to county and region to region.

More interesting was the analysis towards the end, regarding the long-term consequences of the plague and the arguments for and against it being the catalyst for long-term political and economic changes across Europe.

I’ve come away feeling more informed about the period, which is the best case after reading a history book aimed at a general audience. Recommended as an historical overview of a grisly period.

Book details

ISBN: 9780750932028
Publisher: Sutton
Year of publication: 1969

Monstress, Vol. 3: Haven

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

In the third volume of the incredibly pretty Monstress, Maika and her pals enter yet another city while looking for answers. This time, Zinn, the monster living inside her, pretty much manifests itself whole and remains connected to her only by tendrils. By now it feels like the whole world is looking for Maika, and the constant running is getting a bit exhausting (and I’m just reading).

There’s a focus on Kippa that hasn’t been there before, as she continues to prove that she’s the best, sweetest and kindest character in the whole series. I fear that even if she doesn’t die, her innocence will. The cat, Ren, here is quite interesting. I’m conflicted by him. He’s betrayed Maika in the past, but it’s hinted here that he’s not entirely acting of his own volition and I’ll be interested to see where that goes.

Once again, Maika continues to make poor decisions, and sometimes it feels like she’s a sulky teenager. She’s got the attitude and the manners, although she does also have the strength to rip you limb from limb (quite literally). This, tied to anger management issues, causes a problem. I don’t find her hugely sympathetic, to be honest.

I’m glad that I read the whole three volumes in pretty quick succession, since otherwise I think I would really have struggled with all the different factions, who’s currently betraying whom and who or what is currently possessed by tentacled horrors with too many eyes.

The storytelling and panel layout sometimes felt a little muddled and it took a few reads of a few pages to figure out the structure and what was going on. Despite this, the art remains absolutely stunning and the little comic drawing of Seizi cuddling a young Maika at the back is worth the price alone.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534306912
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2018

Monstress, Vol. 2: The Blood

By Marjorie M. Liu, Sana Takeda

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of Monstress is just as lushly illustrated as the first. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of art. It can also be incredibly violent and grotesque at times as well, so beware, if you have problems with that.

Maika Halfwolf, the fox cub that she rescued in volume one and the cat, Master Ren, have travelled to the pirate city of Thyria in search of answers about Maika’s past and her mother, as well as of the mask fragment that she carries and the monster living inside her. Their search takes them to the Isle of Bones and yet more questions.

I find Maika both inspiringly strong-willed and frustratingly stubborn. She makes poor decisions and fails to make sure of those around her who might offer her aid. And yet, we still feel for her. We learn more about the creature inside her in this volume and we get more of Kippa, who is the innocent caught in the centre of all this. The way things are going, I fear for her, before the series is over. There’s machinations between different political factions and war grows ever closer.

For all its unyielding hardness and its violence, the core story here is intriguing, and the world-building remains excellent. Combined with Sana Takeda’s incredible art, I look forward to the next volume.

Book details

ISBN: 9781534300415
Publisher: Image Comics
Year of publication: 2017

Spinning Silver

By Naomi Novik

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this book a lot, but it did take me longer to get through than I expected, since I kept stopping throughout it, especially early on. It took me a while to figure out why, but I eventually realised that the two main protagonists, Miryem and Irena both end up married against their will (or at least, not actively wanting it) fairly early on, and this is something that touches a nerve with me. It was delicately handled and both women are able to think on their feet and deal with their respective situations. But still.

The blurb on the cover talks only about Irena (the duke’s daughter, who he schemes to marry to the tsar) and Miryem (the moneylender’s daughter, who’s much better at his job than he is, and attracts unwelcome attention because of it), but there are several other PoV characters as well and Novik does an excellent job of differentiating them and making them feel distinct.

Through one of these characters, the peasant girl Wanda, we discover a different kind of magic to that encountered by Miryem or Irena. We discover again the power of literacy and numeracy. Miryem brings Wanda into her household as a servant to help pay off her father’s debt and she teaches her the meanings of the scratches on the paper and how they create credit and debt. We see the magic of literacy through fresh eyes, which reminds us of the immense power that each and every one of us has and barely even realises it. The power to verify the truth, to travel to impossible times and places, to understand and appreciate how long a debt will last. That is magic indeed.

An excellent story, drawing on Novik’s own heritage to create a wonderfully believable setting and all too believable fears of the Jewish residents of the country.

Book details

ISBN: 9781509899043
Publisher: Pan
Year of publication: 2018

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this collection up after reading the Athena Club books by the same author, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This collection has a very different feel to it. While the Athena Club is set in Victorian London, these are retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, bringing the women in them to the fore.

Some worked better than others for me, and there were some that I enjoyed, but don’t know the underlying story. Goss is originally from Hungary, and I think several Eastern European tales or variants made their way in to the collection (for example, there were several stories referring to the bear’s wife, but my google-fu failed me on that one).

I often have trouble with poetry, but I’m pleased that the poetry presented here isn’t as dense as some and was often quite prose-like, so I was able to read it almost like a prose story. Of the stories, I think I enjoyed Blanchefleur the best. Again, I’m not sure I recognise the specific story that it came from, but it had the structure and feel of a fairy tale. And it was a love story, which I’m always a sucker for. The Other Thea is a lovely story about wholeness and belonging; while A Country Called Winter about a refugee who makes startling discoveries about her family and her home.

I enjoyed this collection a lot and will certainly look out for more of Goss’s short fiction (as well, of course, as the next ‘Athena Club’ book!)

Book details

Publisher: Mythic Delirium Books
Year of publication: 2017

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