Tag: book reviews

Review: The Hallowed Hunt

TW: animal death.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt, a prequel of sorts to The Curse of Chalion (the two novels share a universe, but are set in different times and places and have no character overlap), is another example of that too-rare beast, a fantasy novel deeply interested in religion. This isn’t a surprise: Chalion, which I read a couple of months before The Hallowed Hunt, is a deeply-argued look at free will and the nature of sainthood, cathartic and revelatory. The Hallowed Hunt, I would say, is less ecstatically structured and less piercing, but it’s still carefully observed and intellectually engaged.

Lord Ingrey of the Weald is sent to investigate the murder of the king’s son Prince Boleso, seemingly at the hands of Ijada, a lady-in-waiting who Boleso intended to rape. But the murder scene is unsettling: for one thing, a leopard has been hanged from the ceiling; for another, the prince’s body is covered in strange painted symbols. It seems the prince has been dabbling in ancient shamanic practices which were virtually wiped out when the Weald was invaded by the civilisation featured in The Curse of Chalion, who imposed their own five-god system on the Weald’s inhabitants. As a result, Ijada has been possessed by the spirit of the sacrificed leopard. Unbeknownst to almost anybody else, Ingrey also carries an animal spirit within his soul, having been the subject of a similarly botched ritual as a child. Ingrey and Ijada’s immediate concern is to prevent Ijada being executed for murdering Boleso, and, in the longer term, to work out how Boleso learned about the ritual in the first place and why. What emerges is a tragedy about the death of a culture and a love story about trying to redress that loss.

In fact looking at The Hallowed Hunt as a romance, although not necessarily the most immediately obvious approach, turns out to be a productive way of framing it: because this is a novel whose chief characters are wrestling with the question of how to reconcile two different theological systems, two different cultures and systems of thought. (It’s relevant to note here that Ijada is not only a spiritual heir to the people of the Old Weald – thanks to the leopard – but also an heir in the more traditional sense, being the owner of the Wounded Woods, where they fought their last battle.) That’s exactly how romances function: they’re texts that seek to bring together warring ideas or principles in order to restore order and harmony.

I think what makes this different from The Curse of Chalion is partly that the focus is not so much on the personal experience of religion as on the restoration of a nation’s identity and culture through the rejuvenation of its religion – a theme that’s very relevant to post-colonial discourse, although this isn’t a text that’s actively participating in the modern version of that discourse (in the way that novels like, say, Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire are). I’m a little anxious, though, about Bujold’s choice to render the religion of the Old Weald as a specifically shamanic one (and a violent one at that): it plays into the racist idea that shamanic religions are primitive, and simultaneously into the appropriative line of thought prevalent in overwhelmingly white neopagan communities that there is a “core” version of shamanism that is culturally non-specific and thus up for grabs by anyone who fancies it. (Bujold’s setting is distinctly European; she’s actually said that the Weald is an alternative version of Germany.) It’s a pity that the novel undermines its anticolonial themes in this way.

With that in mind, it did still work for me (and of course your mileage may vary). Bujold’s religious systems are both elegant and vital – unlike many such systems in fantasy, which tend to be over-codified and lacking in that crucial element of mysticism, of ineffableness, that makes religion meaningful in the first place, they feel like evolving traditions, like something real people could believe in. Bujold, I think, properly understands why we are drawn to religion, and it’s refreshing that she makes that understanding the starting point for her novels rather than the be-all and end-all of them. The Hallowed Hunt is a flawed novel, but it’s tackling themes and ideas that not many SFF novels do; and doing so with attention to detail, careful characterisation and satisfying plotting.

Review: Lent

This review contains spoilers.

There’s an uncomfortable moment early on in Jo Walton’s most-recent-but-one novel Lent when its protagonist, the Dominican monk Girolamo Savanorola (a real figure in Italian Renaissance politics), administers the last rites to Angelo, tutor to the children of a local member of the Medici family. Girolamo is “disgusted” to hear Angelo confess that he’s had sex with men; disgusted, the scene implies, in a way he wouldn’t have been had Angelo confessed multiple affairs with women. As a queer reader, that disgust is a visceral shock; it’s profoundly uncomfortable to encounter such views in a character generally portrayed as sympathetic, kind and liberal (for a monk).

The sense of discomfort this scene engenders illustrates what I was talking about earlier this week about anachronistic mindsets in historical fantasy (and non-speculative historical fiction too). One of the great strengths of Lent is that it enters wholeheartedly into the Renaissance mindset. Girolamo, head of his monastery and passionate ascetic, has the unique ability to see and banish demons, a fact everyone around him treats as largely unremarkable; because, from a Renaissance standpoint, demons are a fact of life, as indisputably real as Newtonian physics are today. It’s telling that I thought of the first half of Lent as basically a realist Renaissance novel; that’s how unremarkable the demons are.

Girolamo’s homophobia, discomfiting though it is, is part of this realism; it’s a sign of the novel’s willingness to commit fully to its premise. You can’t have the demons without the period’s concomitant horror of sensuality and sexuality; in fact it’s pretty clear that Walton’s demons, which all have huge genitalia or are covered in breasts, that sort of thing, are manifestations of that horror. Girolamo’s attitude towards queer sex isn’t one that Walton shares, but it’s key to understanding what kind of person he is and what sort of cultural context he operates in; in short it’s key to the effect the novel’s trying to achieve. It’s an indication that Walton isn’t afraid to make the reader uncomfortable, to encounter the past as another country; Lent is not a warm cosy bath of materialist historical fantasy we’re going to be allowed to sink into.

(I’m not saying here that all historical narratives about queer characters, real or imagined, need to be relentless rosters of homophobia, nor that queer-friendly attitudes are always unrealistic when projected into the past; I’m simply trying to illustrate here how this specific choice works in this specific text.)

Why is this moral and cultural realism important? About halfway through the novel the text becomes significantly more metaphysical than we’ve been led to expect (even given we are reading about a deeply learned monk in a world full of demons): after a brief time running Florence as a godly republic, Girolamo is executed and ends up not in heaven but in hell. He is himself a demon, doomed to return over and over again to Earth for his torture. From that point on we might expect the text to ask us whether he can be redeemed, and how; and it does, to an extent. But a more pressing concern for Girolamo – who is the only person who realises that his life is looping again and again – is often how he can best help his friends and serve God, given the incontrovertible fact of his damnation. The philosophical argument Walton embarks upon in this second half of the book – an argument that touches on questions of responsibility, duty and sacrifice – is profoundly rooted in Renaissance mores and understandings of the world; it relies on our acceptance, even if only hypothetically, of truths about the world that were seen as incontrovertible in the Renaissance period. It’s an argument that would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to make in its current form without that framing.

It’s clear that Walton’s main interest here lies in structure and theme, not prose; the novel isn’t badly written, but nor is the writing particularly revelatory, and in fact it’s occasionally downright clumsy. Being someone who reads for structure and theme rather than prose, I can forgive that for the novel’s genuine, and mostly successful, attempts at estrangement; it’s a serious piece of work that’s doing things not many SFF novels will even try (and here I bemoan once again the lack of speculative novels that look seriously at religion and faith). I don’t think I would like everything I read to be like Lent; but I am glad to have read it.

Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend A Walled City

I find myself thinking quite often about this essay by Adam Roberts quite a lot when I’m reading contemporary fantasy. Its central thesis is that style and language are crucial to worldbuilding: that “a bourgeois discursive style [typical to 20th and 21st century literature] constructs a bourgeois world”; and that, therefore, evoking a pre-industrial setting is not just a question of set-dressing, it’s about recognising that pre-industrial mindsets and habits of thought were radically different to those that modern Western societies currently possess. It’s precisely the mismatch between style and content which Roberts identifies in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind that bothered me about K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

The novel’s protagonist is Orhan, colonel-in-chief of an engineering regiment belonging to what is essentially the Byzantine Empire except with all the names changed. One of life’s natural con artists (he has strong Moist von Lipwig energy), Orhan finds himself, through a series of calamitous events, the highest-ranking military officer in a not-Constantinople besieged by a mysterious barbarian army. The situation looks dire: the entire chain of command has fled, the emperor is in a coma and the closest thing there is to a military force in the city is three thousand carpenters with blunt swords. Orhan must come up with a string of increasingly unlikely and desperate schemes to keep the city’s remaining population alive and stave off the barbarians’ inevitable assault a few hours more.

It ought to be entertaining, even thought-provoking, touching on such weighty themes as institutional racism, the fall of civilisation and the ingenuity of ordinary people. Its lack of meaningful engagement with the actual sociocultural and moral dynamics of the period, though, means that it ends up just being slight. The novel is meticulously researched, the world carefully built; Parker can, and does, tell you all about how military supplies are distributed, about the workings of the city’s criminal underworld, even about its sewage disposal systems. None of it changes the fact that Orhan expresses himself in a jarringly 21st century idiom.

He stabbed me. I hadn’t seen the sword in his hand. I thought; what the devil are you playing at? He pulled the sword out and swung it at my head. I may not be the most perceptive man you’ll ever meet, but I can read between the lines; he didn’t like me.

More egregiously modern are the novel’s racial dynamics: Parker trots out that old faux-profound chestnut, “What If White People Were The Oppressed Ones???” (The besieging barbarian army are all white, as is Orhan, whereas the civilised people in the city are called, derogatorily, “blueskins”.) I will admit I don’t know much about the racial dynamics of the period, but it seems unlikely to me that they would have so closely mirrored our own constructs of whiteness and Blackness only conveniently flipped (the flipping in itself a misunderstanding of how modern Western culture treats race).

There’s a sense, possibly, in which I’m being unfair to the text. Orhan’s modernity is after all deliberate: his irreverent, working-class voice is meant to contrast jarringly, or at least surprisingly, with the antique setting, just as his lack of social status and proper respect for authority make him an extremely unlikely commander-in-chief of the empire’s forces. For me, though, this isn’t a productive contrast; it doesn’t make me revisit my understanding of the classical period the text is set in, it doesn’t force me to confront genuine strangeness. In fact the novel’s prioritisation of a Western 21st-century perspective feels pretty egotistical: the assumption that we in this corner of the globe in this particular historical moment, have somehow stumbled upon the best, the only way to understand the world around us. If I’m reading about the past, and especially if I’m reading alt-history, I want to read something that can only be set in that past; where the cultural specifics of that past are key to the author’s thesis. That’s something I don’t get from Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City.

Review: Narbonic: The Perfect Collection Volume 2

So, here we are: the second half of Shaenon K. Garrity’s webcomic Narbonic, which ran daily between 2000 and 2006, recounting the adventures of mad scientist Helen Beta Narbon, IT guy Dave, intern Mell and superintelligent gerbil Artie.

Like I guess many comic strips, it’s as much a character-led thing as it is anything. Lots of plotty stuff happens – time travel, visits to the afterlife, gerbils scheming to destroy the human race – but viewed at the level of the book (as opposed to at the level of each strip, or each subplot) it’s all monster of the week type stuff: we probably vaguely want to know what happens but it’s not why we’re reading. Broadly speaking, we’re reading because we want to know whether Dave and Helen will end up together. So: character-led.

It’s a pleasant enough read: the characters are likable if broadly defined; some of the jokes are quite funny. I do think it reinforces gendered stereotypes as part of its humour; not mean-spiritedly, but identifiably. It’s also not pushing anywhere, by which I mean that it stays firmly within the bounds of its genre. But it’s fun, and non-taxing, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

Review: In the Vanishers’ Palace

This review contains spoilers.

It can be fairly difficult to get a handle on what’s actually happening at any particular point in Aliette de Bodard’s 2018 novella In the Vanishers’ Palace. Her prose is so rooted in her protagonist’s head, and her far-future world so wrong-footingly unfamiliar, that we frequently end up reading passages like this, where it’s hard to visualise what’s really going on:

Up close, the pillar was nothing like stone, more like polished metal given a slightly different sheen. Odd rectangular patterns were carved within it, parallel lines splitting around darker islands of pooled silver, converging towards squat nexuses in haphazard fashion. It looked like a child’s drawing, random lines and circles, but nevertheless it didn’t feel random, more like something that had its own logic…

The pillar in question is in the titular Vanishers’ palace, whence our protagonist Yȇn is taken after her mother summons the dragon-spirit Vu Côn to heal the daughter of a village elder. There is always a price for miracles, after all. Initially believing she’ll be eaten, or tortured then eaten, Yȇn is in fact tasked with looking after Vu Côn’s children Liên and Thông, to teach them ethics and etiquette and duty, for reasons that will become clear later in the narrative.

It’s a slantwise retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”, although I didn’t actually realise this until I’d finished reading it. Thematically, the two stories share an interest in morality – “Beauty and the Beast” is explicitly a didactic moral tale about what women should look for in a husband, whereas part of Yȇn’s job is to teach her charges morality through literature – and in filial piety: you’ll remember that the whole reason Beauty ends up in the Beast’s palace is because she loves her father too much to let him die, and the same is pretty much true of Yȇn, albeit her concern is for her elderly mother. The science-fictional Vanishers’ palace in which Vu Côn lives is every bit as fantastical as the Beast’s palace, capable of producing perfect fruit and other delicious foods from scratch (or, rather, from molecules, one assumes) and equipped with a vast and miraculous library.

But of course de Bodard somewhat complicates, interrogates, her original’s simplistic morality. “Beauty and the Beast” is pretty nakedly a bourgeois-capitalist fantasy: Beauty, daughter of a family down on their luck (although not so down on their luck that they cannot keep servants, apparently), attains wealth, comfort and rank by recognising her husband’s virtue. The magical palace is a manifestation of that wealth, able to provide Beauty with rich food without expending any visible effort. De Bodard’s Vanishers’ palace, meanwhile, is a different proposition altogether: the Vanishers being a godlike race who took the world apart, poisoning the land, bequeathing horrible gene-altering viruses to humanity and bending the laws of physics before, as their name suggests, disappearing somewhere nobody can reach them. The price of the untainted food their palace can produce, then, is precisely the price all but the richest of us are currently paying under capitalism: ruined fields, deadly disease, and – the central theme of In the Vanishers’ Palace, this – a cultural system that values humans according to their usefulness.

This last is where the theme of filial piety ties in. Vu Côn’s idea of responsible parenthood – of responsible guardianship not only of Liên, Thông and Yȇn but also of the hundreds of sick people occupying the makeshift hospital she’s set up in the palace – is to make decisions for her charges instead of telling them what’s up and allowing them to choose what they want. It’s this that drives much of the interpersonal tension in the novel; which is to say, the tension between Vu Côn and Yȇn, who are immediately attracted to each other despite the power differential. It’s also a complication of the original text’s straightforward view on parental relationships and traditional authority: that straightforward view, de Bodard posits, leads to the infantilisation of children and ultimately to their dehumanisation.

Back, then, to that labyrinthine prose; which I think is echoing on a technical level de Bodard’s thematic complication of “Beauty and the Beast” – that is to say, disturbing our expectations of what fairy tales are supposed to do, viz., work as clear, readable, didactic texts. In the Vanishers’ Palace does, I think, have a clear message – “don’t treat people as things” – and its disease-riddled post-apocalyptic setting obviously has clear, almost uncanny parallels with our own climate-changed, coronavirus-haunted reality. But, unlike its source text, it’s also more than its message and its relevance: in the impossible spaces of the Vanishers’ palace and inside Yȇn’s own head there are Gothic enormities. This is one of those books that feels larger than its actual page count (198, if you’re interested) would suggest. It’s messy and a little inelegant and sometimes you have to read back a few pages to work out what’s happening. But also? Those imperfections are what makes it fascinating.

Review: Children of Time

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s generation-ship-cum-insect-horror novel Children of Time won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2016 – not bad for a first SF novel (although Tchaikovsky had already written a slew of high fantasy novels) up against books like Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix and Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Midnight. It’s classic hard science fiction with an important point to make, but I’m not sure I’d consider it award-worthy.

The novel begins aboard a space station orbiting a terraformed planet where polymath genius Dr Avrana Kern is about to see an ambitious project come to fruition: the planet is to play host to a population of monkeys infected with a virus that will, over thirty generations or so, give them near-human intelligence. However, the station’s sabotaged by an extremist agent protesting this evolutionary uplift, and so the monkeys never make it to the planet – but the virus does. Kern herself is the only survivor of the station’s destruction, as she commandeers the small satellite designed to watch over the monkeys during the long ages, leaving her colleagues to die in the blast.

Several thousand years later, the generation ship the Gilgamesh approaches the terraformed planet, fleeing an Earth irretrievably poisoned by Kern’s generation. Carrying five hundred thousand humans in cold sleep, it might be the last hope for humanity’s future. Our point of view character aboard the Gilgamesh is Holsten Mason, a scholar of the Old Empire – that’s us and our future, the civilisation that destroyed the Earth – who’s woken to puzzle out the messages being broadcast by the satellite still circling Kern’s planet, where Avrana still lies in cold sleep, her mind merging with the satellite’s computer and with an uploaded version of herself she created to decide when to wake her. She’s determined not to let the Gilgamesh and its crew onto the planet below; they, and particularly their authoritarian commander Guyen, are determined to land.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to pretty much everyone, the virus has done its work not on the monkeys who never arrived, but on a humble species of spider, Portia labiata, now grown to monstrous size. Tchaikovsky alternates chapters set on the Gilgamesh with chapters following the cultural development of spider society, each told from the point of view of an individual named Portia; different spiders all with the same goal of learning more about their world and protecting their colonies from other uncannily intelligent insect species. The spiders work out how to manipulate ant colonies to produce various goods; they sequence their own genomes in order to develop vaccinations; they develop weapons and public transport systems. Their civilisation, although similar in function to human society, is very different technologically: they have no use for any form of combustion engine, for example, and spider-speech has more to do with vibration and gesture than with sound per se.

What’s common to both the rapidly-deteriorating society aboard the Gilgamesh and the rapidly-developing culture of the spiders is that both are working under the shadow of the Old Empire. Early on in their technological development the spiders intercept a radio message being broadcast by the satellite in their skies, which they see as a fast-moving star: the message contains a series of maths problems which impress the spiders with their geometrical neatness, and the spiders consequently dub the star the Messenger and worship it as a deity. When they finally develop the means to broadcast a message back and thus communicate with the satellite, Avrana Kern, still believing that she is speaking to uplifted monkeys, attempts to mould their society in humanity’s image – the image of the Old Empire. The spiders, who conceive of the world in very different ways, are thrown into confusion and strife by their deity’s odd demands; their cities begin to compete for resources where once they’d cooperated.

The crew of the Gilgamesh, too, are haunted by the Old Empire’s legacy. They come from a culture in which it’s impossible to achieve anything that the Empire hasn’t done before, and better. During the novel, they pillage an abandoned Old Empire terraforming station, where Guyen finds a machine of the sort that allowed Avrana Kern to upload her mind into the satellite’s computer, with imperfect results. Guyen, whose power as de facto leader of the human race is rapidly going to his head, hatches a plan to install his mind into the Gilgamesh’s computers, securing his own immortality and dooming the rest of the Gilgamesh’s crew and cargo to death as the ship and its computer fall apart. Mason, who in the course of the voyage has become increasingly disillusioned with the ancients, who he now sees as “clumsy, bickering, short-sighted monsters”, muses on humanity’s infinite capability for repeating its own mistakes:

the shining example of the Old Empire had tricked Holsten’s entire civilization into the error of mimicry. In trying to be the ancients, they had sealed their own fate – neither to reach those heights, nor any others, doomed instead to a history of mediocrity and envy.

This might be taken as a thesis statement for the novel as a whole, which repeatedly impresses on us the importance of resisting orthodoxy and established patterns of thought. The spiders’ great advantage, the reason they thrive, is curiosity: time and again we see new voices rise in spider society to challenge embedded social and religious tenets. Sources of authority in the novel are almost all suspicious and corrupt: Guyen’s ambitions, as we’ve seen, threaten the wellbeing of the Gilgamesh and its population; Avrana Kern is deranged by her long confinement in the satellite, as well as blinkered by her own ambitions; an attempted rebellion on the Gilgamesh goes badly wrong when its leader refuses to listen to people like Mason and the ship’s chief engineer Lain. The ending of the novel, finally, epitomises an ideal approach: human and spider intelligence combined to solve the intractable problem of coexistence, to create something new and better. “Sometimes all it takes, to crack a problem, is a new perspective,” Tchaikovsky writes in a triumphant closing chapter.

It’s a thesis that is of course pointed directly at our society, predecessor of Tchaikovsky’s Old Empire: if we’re to solve climate change and our intractable social problems, we need to challenge established orthodoxies and discard old modes of thought. As such it’s an unusually optimistic example of that old science fiction stalwart, the cautionary tale – optimistic in that it’s able to conjure a convincing alternative to human modes of thought and existence in the form of spider society.

And yet I found myself wanting more from the book: more complexity, more originality. The Gilgamesh chapters are thoroughly conventional. The breakdown of society aboard a generation ship; the Earth destroyed by weapons of mass destruction; the mad computer – none of these are unusual ideas, and nor is the characterisation particularly revelatory or inspired. More to the point, not a lot actually happens in these chapters; or, at least, nothing that moves the plot on very far. As a result, the Gilgamesh chapters are a lot less interesting than the spider ones; it’s difficult to care very much about the unpleasant, amoral people who surround Mason.

This is partly intentional: we’re supposed, I think, to root more for the dynamic spider society than for the dregs of humanity. But Tchaikovsky’s approach to spider society is also over-conventional: it’s stereotypically hard-SFnal in that it is entirely descriptive rather than illustrative. The various Portias featured in the spider chapters are eyes through which to experience their culture, not characters in themselves. These chapters are, in other words, exercises in worldbuilding. And although it’s clear that the spiders experience the world very differently from humans, we never viscerally encounter that alienness. The Portias are too readily understandable. In a novel that espouses the benefits of looking at the world through new eyes, this strikes me as a fatal flaw: form and content are not well-matched.

The Clarke award is, per its website, given to the best science fiction novel published in the UK each year. Even granting that the notion of there being one, singular, SF novel in any given year that can be objectively identified as the “best” is valid, and passing over whether an award jury accepting submissions from publishers is best-placed to identify that novel, it’s hard to see how anyone could have thought Children of Time was the best SF novel of 2016 – especially anyone who had also read The Book of Phoenix. While I think the novel is basically competent and has some interesting things to say, I don’t think that it’s pushing the boundaries of the genre or that it’s even a particularly unusual read. There’s much better stuff out there.

Review: The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss’ 2007 novel The Name of the Wind is frequently, in my experience, held up as a high fantasy classic: it won a handful of readers’ choice awards when it was first published; there’s a TV series stuck in development hell; the novel winds up on “Best Fantasy Novels of All Time” lists, well, all the time. “Have you read The Name of the Wind?” goes the cry at geek meetups all over the Western world.

Well, I have read it now, and I Did Not Like It.

The story’s narrated by one Kvothe, a legendary hero living secretly as an innkeeper in an unassuming two-horse town. A passing scribe named Chronicler finds him and persuades him to tell his story, of which this novel, all 662 pages of it, is only the first part. It narrates Kvothe’s childhood with a troupe of travelling players, of years spent begging in the city of Tarbean and of his admission to the University at the unprecedented age of 15.

One of Rothfuss’ central interests here is storytelling. Kvothe’s father, the leader of the travelling players with whom he grew up, has been collecting stories about some mythical bogeymen called the Chandrian, intending to weave his disparate sources into a single authoritative narrative. This is an ambition that influences Kvothe’s life profoundly: never having had a chance to hear his father’s finished song, he seeks out stories of the Chandrian himself, and considers studying them at the University (where they’re considered to be little more than nursery-tales). So there are several stories embedded in the narrative; and, as well, Kvothe regularly draws attention to how his supposedly real story differs from a fictional one:

If I seem to wander, if I seem to stray, remember that true stories seldom take the straightest way.

There are problems, though, with how Rothfuss handles the difference between story and reality; the main one being that he is, truly, not doing anything innovative with narrative expectation. I’ve been reading a fair amount of Guy Gavriel Kay recently: his work has a lot to say about chance and fortune, and that’s reflected in the structures and plots of his novels, in sudden, arbitrary character deaths, in the way journeys are amplified and destinations compressed, in his prioritising of the perspectives of ordinary people over those who hold the power in any given situation. Kay, in other words, deliberately deflates readerly expectation in order to make a point about the ways in which life is not like story. Rothfuss, who seemingly would like to make the same point, does nothing of the sort.

Because here is the second problem with his approach to the difference between life and art: in rejecting the artifice of story Rothfuss also rejects compelling structure. The narrative is wandering, unfocused, episodic, and then it just – stops, awaiting a sequel, despite having promised us (through Kvothe’s opening boasts) great and terrible deeds and possibly the death of a king. Life may indeed be aimless and roundabout, one thing leading to another in strange and whimsical ways, but it doesn’t, of course, follow that a story must be so in order to be truthful. Quite the opposite, in fact: I think if you’re going to fuck about with narrative structure and readerly expectation, you need to have a strong grasp of how those structures work in the first place and an alternative structure to take their place; otherwise, you don’t have a story at all, you have a rambling mess. As it is, the further readerly expectation is deferred in Rothfuss’ text the less we actually care about Kvothe or the Chandrian or any of it.

Sometimes you can get away with weak structure if you have a very distinctive prose style, a very strong setting or a very magnetic protagonist; if, in other words, you have something else to capture the reader’s attention. But Rothfuss’ prose is never better than workmanlike; his setting is a generic medieval-ish fantasyland any remotely savvy reader will have encountered many times before; and Kvothe is a classic Mary Sue, an intellectual prodigy, preternaturally musically talented and gifted with immense powers of persuasion.

There are a very few things to like about The Name of the Wind, and chief among them is the University, once we finally get there: it’s relatively unusual to read a school story set in a high fantasy world, and I would have liked more of that. (An academic year is, incidentally, a great way to structure a story – and that way we could have learned much more about the Chandrian, who, I feel are really at the heart of this tale.) But, overall, I actively found it a chore to read. I don’t know what its presence on all those “best of” lists says about the genre and its readership, but it’s surely nothing good.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Nghi Vo’s novella The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a brief, bittersweet story about power, misogyny and the weight of history. Shortly after the death of the Empress In-yo, the cleric Chih, on their way to the capital to welcome the new empress, learns that the sites she had put under imperial lock have now been declassified. On a whim, they decide to turn aside to Lake Scarlet, the place where In-yo once lived in exile; there, they find Rabbit, In-yo’s old servant. While Chih works to index and record the contents of the house at Lake Scarlet (assisted by their assistant, the neixan Almost Brilliant), Rabbit tells them tales of the empress in her exile, a young bride from a neighbouring country discarded as soon as she had given the emperor a son. How does that lost castaway become the powerful and venerable Empress of Salt and Fortune?

Vo’s novella reminds me in some respects of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor: both texts are about young people, exiles, climbing to ultimate power in foreign courts. I think Vo’s book has more teeth, however, and more to say: whereas Addison’s novel is mostly concerned with the ways in which its protagonist strives to be a kind ruler – thereby obscuring the inherent cruelty of monarchical rule – Vo’s is fully aware of the ruthlessness In-yo must show to survive and thrive in her position, and of the sacrifices she must demand of her servants. In-yo says to Rabbit at a pivotal moment:

“I have taken everything from you. It is the nature of royalty, I am afraid, what we are bred for and what we are taught.”

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is also more formally ambitious than Addison’s novel: Rabbit is not a reliable narrator (unlike Addison’s third-person omniscient voice), she misdirects, leaves things unspoken and implied. This is, I think, a form of resistance to the sweep of history and thus of patriarchal power: by keeping parts of her relationship with In-yo hidden from Chih, the empire’s official archivist, Rabbit chooses to leave the historical record incomplete, troubling history’s claim to accuracy and authority.

Needless to say, this kind of thing is very much My Jam, and if it sounds like yours you should probably pick up The Empress of Salt and Fortune. It’s sharp enough and icy enough and of-the-moment enough that I’ll be surprised if it’s not on at least one awards ballot next year.

Review: The Return of Heroic Failures

Stephen Pile’s The Return of Heroic Failures is a bathroom book. You know the type: collections of vaguely humorous anecdotes, for a certain value of “humour”, with which to while away a rainy Sunday afternoon or a visit to a relative whose taste in reading material is very different to yours. A successor to The Book of Heroic Failures, it contains stories of general human incompetence, neglect and plain foolishness. Categories include “The Least Successful Shipbuilding”, in which an Italian firm builds four ships for the Malaysian navy before discovering that the only way to the sea lies past a bridge none of them can fit underneath; “The Least Successful Attempt to Murder A Spouse”, concerning a man who makes seven unsuccessful attempts on his wife’s life without her even noticing; and “The Least Appropriate Speech”, in which a member of the House of Lords speaks for five minutes on entirely the wrong subject.

Having been published in 1988, some of the book’s humour is a little off-colour, shall we say, although I don’t remember anything particularly egregious, just the general background assumption that you the reader are a straight white male Westerner that you often get in this kind of book. As for the quality of its humour: I laughed a couple of times, but it’s more “mildly amusing” than “side-splittingly hilarious”. (But see my previous posts re my sense of humour, which is not highly developed.) Basically, it’s fine for a few hours’ entertainment, but I wouldn’t recommend shelling out more than a couple of quid for it in a charity shop.

Review: The Starless Sea

Published almost exactly a year ago, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea appeared on shelves eight years after her rapturously received debut The Night Circus. It’s an altogether more complex and grown-up novel than its predecessor, and yet ultimately I think the two books share a certain stasis, an escapist bent that stops them saying anything truly important.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of The Starless Sea is Zachary, a gay Black grad student studying psychology and gender in video game design – although, when the novel opens just before the start of term, he’s busy procrastinating his studies by spending days in the library’s fiction section, rereading childhood classics. That’s where he discovers Sweet Sorrows, a wine-coloured volume that lists no author or publication information, but which does narrate a significant episode in Zachary’s own childhood – a moment when he found a door leading to wonders and walked away. We have just read this story: it appears at the beginning of the novel, alongside two other short tales that are also included in Sweet Sorrows, one of which tells of a magical underground library and a strange initiation ceremony. We conclude, correctly, that this library is what lay behind the door Our Protagonist did not open.

Zachary is understandably a little freaked out by an episode from his own life that he’s never told anyone about appearing in a library book, and after some research into where the book may have come from he chases a tenuous lead to a literary party in New York. There, a handsome storyteller named Dorian convinces him to steal another book from a powerful organisation, before sending him through another painted door into that underground library: a Harbor on the Starless Sea, stuffed with cats and a miraculous kitchen and, of course, more stories than you could ever count. But the Harbor’s closed for business; its heyday past; the Starless Sea is rising; and someone is shutting all the doors.

The Starless Sea is a lot more formally ambitious than The Night Circus: various fairytales and stories of the Harbor’s past weave themselves around the main narrative, and many of those tales are artefacts within the main narrative, creating an impression of endlessly recursive Story. The prose, similarly, is intensely descriptive, focusing on details of what things look and smell and taste and sound like to build a beguiling sense of place. The overall effect of structure and prose combined is to immerse you, the reader, in a kind of warm bath of story-symbology, to draw you into the heart of its metafictional world. In a sense the novel is what it describes: a cosy space to curl in, a seemingly-endless repository of story, a place composed of layer upon layer of half-familiar symbols.

It’s an enormously comforting read; particularly, I found, the first half, in which Zachary gets to explore the Harbor, accompanied by an apparently limitless supply of cats and fuelled by perfectly-baked treats available on demand. By the same token, though, I’m not sure there’s much going on beneath the novel’s obsession with material comforts. The symbols that recur throughout the narrative – hearts, bees, keys, swords, crowns and feathers – lead to nothing but themselves; as do the fairytales that loop endlessly back on themselves, weaving in and out of the main narrative. Stuff goes on, of course: Zachary and Dorian fall in love (an improvement on the white het romance at the centre of The Night Circus); a man out of time searches for his lover on the shores of the Starless Sea; the Harbor changes irrevocably. But all of this is coded as part of a great cycle; we get the sense that these are just stories repeating themselves. There is nothing truly, startlingly new in this story-world; it’s a recycled composite of childhood portal fantasies, of bookish fantasies like Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, of fabulous fictional libraries like the one in Garth Nix’s Lirael, of fairy tales and stories and songs. “Arch” is the word that occurred to me while I was reading it: it feels precisely calculated to appeal to book-lovers without necessarily having anything truly urgent to say.

In that sense, it is, perhaps, the ideal pandemic read. Tapped out on real life? Sink into The Starless Sea and imagine you’re curled up in a fancy old-fashioned bedroom beside a roaring fire, no chores to do, no outside world to worry about. It is escapism in the most literal sense of the word. At the same time, though, I am uneasy with the novel’s conception of what reading is for and what readers are like. The Starless Sea above all conceptualises reading as a comfortable pursuit: the Harbor is a place where all your material needs are seen to apparently magically; and, as I’ve said, the novel’s form, structure and content creates a sense of intellectual comfort, telling us familiar narratives over and over again. But reading at its best should be anything but comfortable. We should be critical readers, examining the biases of the texts we’re given; new understanding should make us uncomfortable; as readers we should be pushing the boundaries of our engagement with the world. Above all reading should not be about retreating to an ivory tower – or an ivory cavern, as the case may be – and relinquishing our duty to the world outside. To be a good reader is to take what we have learned in books and use it in our lives to build new and better things. The vision The Starless Sea offers of readers and reading is beguiling and dangerous; it is not one we should take with us into our real lives.