Book Review: The Book of Dust Volume One: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

la belle sauvage book of dust one philip pullman

Three miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges of Jordan, Gabriel, Balliol, and two dozen others contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadows, there stood the priory of Godstow, where the gentle nuns went about their holy business; and on the opposite bank from the priory there was an inn called the Trout.

I absolutely loved this. It has been a long time since I read His Dark Materials, which consists of some of my favourite books of all time. I briefly considered re-reading them before diving into The Book of Dust: volume one. In the end I was far too excited to wait.

It took a while for me to settle into this book – I was, I think, a bit too excited about it and couldn’t quite enjoy what was happening now because I wanted to know what would happen next. I became absorbed quite quickly, to the point where I cannot actually pinpoint when I stopped jittering about. Malcolm was, at first, a bit difficult for me to relate to. He grew on me as the story went on, and I think it helped that the point of view moved occasionally.

One of the things I’ve always really loved about His Dark Materials is the worldbuilding (especially in the first book, Northern Lights), so I was absolutely delighted to be returning to the same world. I had forgotten how much I enjoy Philip Pullman’s writing, the long lyrical sentences; the specificity of his dialogue and the richness of feeling. The story is set when Lyra is a baby, and it was exciting to get a sense of Brytain ten years before Northern Lights. Marisa Coulter turns up, which made me yell a bit – I’ve always counted her as one of my favourite villains.

There were some things that were tricky for me – I liked that His Dark Materials had a female central character, so I kept having to adjust for Malcolm being in the middle of it all. There were women in the story, quite a lot of them, but it’s just not quite the same. Of course, Malcolm’s Daemon is female, so there is that.

As for the plot – oh I was just swept away. I read this in two settings over one day, and I could probably read it again next week. It was, in instances, very fairytale-esque. And relevant to current events in a somewhat scary manner.

I’m well aware that I’m not being particularly objective – it’s all very fresh in my mind and I sort of want to think about it all, re-read it, think about it all again and then re-read the original three books. I’d say it’s definitely a brilliant addition to the world, and I’m interested to see what happens with the other Book of Dust volumes.

Rating: read this book. Do your best to keep your head above the rising water.

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The Life and Times of Angel Evans: Behind the Scenes

Welcome to the third in the Behind the Scenes posts! Apologies for the delay – I was unwell over the weekend.

This month, chatting about Yumiko; the ghostly girlfriend of Angel Evans.

Yumiko from The Life and Times of Angel Evans. By Meredith Debonnaire

Yumiko original character sketch, with colour.

Yumiko was one of those characters who developed as I wrote. I did not plan her out, and when I first started writing I knew next to nothing about her. She was a very gentle presence who was simply there. I have different ways of working with characters: some characters I sit and figure out their entire backstory, all their likes and dislikes, defining memories. With others, I think I’ve figured out those things, and then I have to go back and poke them, and then the story changes them and they end up as patchworks. And other characters are just there. Present where they need to be. Yumiko was one of those.

I’m a little ashamed to say that I did not pay lots of attention to her in her own right: Angel Evans, as a character, is really quite attention hungry (see how she’s sneaking into this post that is meant to be all about Yumiko?). Writing Yumiko mostly came easy, but it very much felt like writing from the outside rather than the inside. It’s hard for me to say what’s going through Yumiko’s mind.

So, rather than going on about the mysteriousness and elusiveness of Yumiko, here are some things I do know.

  • Yumiko was newly dead when she met Angel. The exorcists in Yumiko’s world are very very good at their jobs, so Yumiko was putting a great deal of effort into hiding. She was also dealing with the trauma of being, well, dead.
  • Her family hired the exorcists. She doesn’t like talking about that.
  • Her death was under investigation as suspicious. She doesn’t like talking about that either.
  • Really don’t ask her why she’s a ghost rather than having moved on – depending on her mood she will either start talking about bright lights and tunnels and/or islands covered in glowing mist, or she will lecture you on the importance of recognising different forms of existence. Whether or not any of this is genuine is anyone’s guess.
  • She had no idea who Angel was when she met her: it was about two months in before Yumiko realised that the hopeless junkie she was involuntarily haunting and whom she kept trying to sneakily feed was the Angel Evans, savioiur of the multiverse.
  • Yumiko was not impressed by the saviour of the multiverse thing. She’d had way too much first-hand experience of Angel as a person by then.
Yumiko and Angel Evans meet

Yumiko and Angel meeting.

  • Cranberries, or something rather like it, were Yumiko’s favourite food. She misses them a lot. Sometimes, if she’s sad, she will “acquire” cranberries and leave them all over the flat.
  • Most ghosts cannot do as much physical interaction as Yumiko does. She’s unusual in that respect.
  • Yumiko has a rich and varied online life – the internet, although extremely haunted, is just so much fun.
  • Yumiko’s pre-death memories are hazy – this is quite ordinary for a ghost.
Yumiko, Angel Evans

black fog day

And that’s it for now – I do hope to be able to write more stories in this universe at some point, and one of the ideas I’ve toyed with is using Yumiko’s point of view….

Please join me again next month – I don’t yet know what I’ll be writing about so if you have anything you’d particularly like to see on Behind the Scenes, let me know and I’ll take it into consideration.

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The Tearling Trilogy: a rambly and disorganised discussion

So, I recently finished reviewing this series. And it made me think a lot about stuff, so I wanted to do a very rambly discussion post. It’s gonna have spoilers, and may be a little bit incoherent if you’ve not read the books (I’ll try to make it understandable).

This series does a lot of things that I found really interesting. It also had its flaws (among other things, most of the cast are white, and although there are a few non-straight characters they have pretty small parts).

One of the things it did that made me go “yeeeees!” was that it created a realistic, brutal fantasy world in which things are kinda shit for women (“noooooooo!”) but it absolutely refused to sideline its female characters. And this for me was important. I get super sick of people building fantasy worlds with magic and dragons and freaking goblins and then being like “yeah but sexism is still totally a thing”. Aside from everything else, I think it speaks of a lack of imagination. So although the culture is rather similar to some kind of medieval Europe, including the church being not great, the main character is a woman. The main baddie is a woman. Some of the other baddies are women, and a lot of the important side-characters are women. This means that the patriarchal norms of the world get questioned and poked and prodded and challenged. And as a reader, you start thinking ‘well this is ridiculous’ when the most powerful woman in the country has to sneak about to get her hands on contraception.

It also had a culture based in medieval/feudalistic type reality, and did not flinch away from how awful that system was for most people. Which I tip my hat to, because again I get sick of fantasy where it’s assumed that having a monarchic system is going to be great – you’ve only got to read some history to figure out that no, for most people, that meant working your whole life for someone else who might take your entire livelihood away from you at any moment and nobody cared. I liked seeing that trope challenged.

And then there’s the long running theme of utopia and dystopia. This one will take a bit of background info, so beware the SPOILERS. The Tearling was founded by William Tear, who used magic sapphires to Cross time with a group of idealists trying to leave what is heavily implied to be a version of our world. The people who Crossed wanted to build, effectively, a Utopia. In the books they call it the Better World. And they try really hard, but they fail. William Tear failed to take into account human nature, and also, very importantly, history. None of the adults who Crossed could bear to talk about their history, about exactly what they escaped and what the price was. So the next generation grow up with no history, with no knowledge of the world that their parents fought so hard to escape from. And when things get hard in the Tearling, none of them know the dangers of handing over responsibility in return for safety…

Which leads to the Tearling in the present day: feudalistic, illiterate, with a barely functioning economy, a pretty awful monarchy that rarely cares about its people, a church that cares even less, and a monthly tithe to Mortmesne of slaves taken from its own population by lottery. Effectively, a dystopia. One that, somehow, Kelsea Glynn has to reforge. And she knows her damn history, which is pretty awesome. I really liked the way that it was made clear how important that can be, and that she was trying so hard to create something good with the odds stacked against her.

The ending SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS is really interesting in that Kelsea basically travels in time (and this is going to sound pretty deus ex machina when I describe it, but I promise it was actually foreshadowed really well) to the point in history when Jonathan Tear, William Tear’s son (one of them ooooooh) is assassinated. She does not stop the assassination, but kills the ringleader of the assassins leaving Katie (Jonathan’s bodyguard and lover) in a position to rebuild; originally, Katie fled. It’s actually an intensely terrifying sequence; one of the bits where the imagery has stuck in my mind and won’t leave.

And then Kelsea wakes up, in a new timeline, in the new version of the Tearling that she has created. And it is, if not a proper utopia, at least utopian.

Now originally I sorta felt cheated by this: even though it made absolute sense within the logic of the world, and it was made clear how much this was hurting Kelsea. Here she was in this incredible world that she had sacrificed everything for, and not only did nobody know what she had done, nobody knew full stop. Her memories are confused, none of her friends recall her. And it hurts and hurts and hurts. And part of me was going: “hang on, isn’t this a bit of a cop out? Almost like it all being a dream?”

And then I really thought about it. Why would it be more satisfying to have a harsher ending? Why, exactly, did I think I’d prefer something else? And I thought about how we’re trained to believe that utopia is impossible whereas dystopia is only ever just under the surface, so that even in a fantasy trilogy there was part of me that was reluctant to believe this ending. That was interesting, I thought, because I knew when I was reading it that utopia/dystopia was a massive theme of the entire trilogy, and although I always wanted Kelsea to succeed, somehow in winning as completely as she did I instinctively felt a bit disbelieving. Like, it’s not the time-travelling sapphires that tripped me up, it’s the ending well…So it gave me a lot to think about. Dystopian fiction is pretty popular, whereas trying to find anything utopian is a bit of a challenge. It’s like we simply can’t imagine it. It’s like how people can believe that there are dragons but not that women can have a functional role, or will read a fantasy novel a quarter of which is in a made-up language but throw a hissy fit if there’s some Spanish in there. We can believe that things can get worse, and we can believe that things can get better, but the best is somewhere hazy and beyond. And that, well, that’s interesting because if we can’t imagine something better, nobody’s going to try to build it are they?

Anyway, I have a hell of a lot more thoughts so please do come chat 🙂

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Book Review: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The FAte of the Tearling book cover

Long before the Red Queen of Mortmesne came to power, the Glace-Vert was already a lost cause.

I finally finished this incredible trilogy, and oooooh do I have a lot to say! If you want to catch up, you can find my reviews of the previous books here and here. I am going to try to avoid spoilers, but there will definitely be some for the previous two books.

So, The Fate of the Tearling. Where to even start? It’s hard to review without describing the whole plot of this and the previous two books, because a lot of things get followed up and pulled together, some of which I had not even noticed being foreshadowed. Kelsea Glynn, now a prisoner, is being taken to Mortmesne; the Mace is trying to run the Tearling (he has the entire damn church to contend with); the Red Queen (we know who she is now!!!!) has an enemy other than Kelsea. And frankly, it looks like everything might go to hell in a handcart. The flashbacks from the past are increasingly important, relating to the present and possibly the future. We get to see the Tearling in its infancy, and watch as it inexorably seems to rip itself apart.

There were a lot of things I loved: this book has strong imagery, much of which has stayed with me. Kelsea and the Red Queen actually being in the same room and having conversations was fantastically tense. And I’m always going to enjoy a fantasy book with this many awesome and interesting women: Kelsea, the Red Queen, Andalie (a seer on the run), Aisa (Andalie’s daughter, learning how to use knives and swords both), Glee (Andalie’s other daughter, also a seer), Brenna (the witch), Emily (a slave in Mortmesne, spying for the Mace), Allie (barely in it, still liked her), Katie (from the past, bodyguard), Lily (part of the original Crossing)…..

The resolution, well, I’m trying to avoid spoilers but I did not see it coming. Honestly, I am going to have to splash out and buy this series, because I need to re-read the entire thing. I recommend it highly.

For those of you who are interested, there is going to be a rambly discussion post about this series in a day or so. It will be RIFE WITH SPOILERS, so be wary of that.

Rating: read this book, cling on for dear life!

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Book review catch-up: part two

Part two of the book review catch up – another four slightly random books for you all to enjoy.

The Just City

by Jo Walton

The Just City by Jo Walton

She turned into a tree.

Another one by Jo Walton – this something else entirely again. Apollo and Athena decide, as an experiment, to provide support for humans trying to build Plato’s Republic. It is, as you can imagine, chaos. This book is well written. It is funny as well as thoughtful, exploring the consequences of not only trying to create a utopia but of trying to create that particular utopia. There were multiple POV characters, and the plot was spread out over numerous years as the city developed.

I wasn’t all that invested in the characters, emotionally, but I really enjoyed the challenge of making ideas fit into my brain, and thinking about all the different ways that things might happen and when I finished reading it I felt that my mind had had quite the workout.

Rating: read this, and see if you can come up with a utopia that survives contact with ten-year-olds!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel meets world

by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Dean Hale SHannon Hale

Doreen Green liked her name.

EEEEEEEEEEE! I LOVED THIS BOOK! I stayed up all night reading it, and laughing, and thinking “I should go to bed now” and then reading another few chapters and then it was ONE IN THE MORNING. This is a novel tie-in to the comic series, taking place when Doreen Green A.K.A Squirrel Girl is fourteen. And it is, in a word, delightful. It’s warm, funny, and fantastic. I love Doreen Green, that rare superhero with no tragic past who just wants to help. She’s great. And I love the format – there are little footnotes and text messages throughout. Her parents are wonderful and supportive. Her best friend Ana Sofia is deaf and brilliant. We meet Tippy Toe the squirrel for the first time. There are LARPers and robot parents and hysterical interactions with the Avengers (Doreen Green texts the Winter Soldier under the impression that he is probably a yeti who works with them).

There is just SO MUCH LOVE AND JOY TO BE HAD HERE!

Rating: READ IT READ IT READ IT *calms down* and then, yanno, imagine that you’re a squirrel…

 

Letters Between Gentlemen

by Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown, illustrated by Tom Brown

Letters Between Gentlemen

This was another “stay-up-all-night, just one more chapter okay make that two woops it’s one in the morning” read. I laughed on pretty much every page. At first, I wasn’t sure how the story was going to happen – the entire thing is told in correspondence between various characters and the letters seemed so completely random that I could not see how they were going to fit together. But happen it did, and somehow, against all logic, a brilliant narrative emerged. I bloody loved it! The characters were outrageous and brilliant. There were secret occult societies (with very similar names but quite different functions), rather intelligent mice, opium, explosions, deaths, some rather fun playing with gender and a hilarious detective story.  And tea. Quite a lot of tea. Altogether wonderful.

Rating: Read it, and avoid mixing the opium with the tea…

Of Sorrow and Such

by Angela Slatter

Of Sorrow and Such ANgela Slatter

Edda’s Meadow is a town like any other, smaller than some, larger than many.

And now for something completely different; this is the only Angela Slatter book I’ve read, and I’m reasonably sure that it fits into her other works (though I don’t know where, and I have yet to get my hands on them). It is an odd gem. Witchy books are my kryptonite (along with dragony books, queer fantasy books, free books, books with magic in…), and this was an especially interesting one. Part of what stood out for me was that we were in this tiny setting – Edda’s Meadow – which at first appeared calm. But then there were faultlines hidden everywhere, movement beneath the surface and things just waiting. It was remarkably atmospheric.

As witchy books go, this is a challenging one due to a) things being shit for women and b) things being shit for witches. However, I enjoyed the writing and the worldbuilding, the ways in which magic worked here, and SPOILER the ending was not terribly terribly tragic. END SPOILER. There’s a lot that feels unique in here, though it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what…

Rating: read it. Do not make dolls from bread.

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Book review catch-up: part one

Hello! Oddly enough, I am reading less than usual at the moment, but have managed nevertheless to get quite behind on reviews. How these two things have managed to occur at the same time, I’m not entirely sure :s So here is a slightly random group of catch-up reviews, for your delight and delectation. Another round of catch-ups will be published next week, and then some more normal reviews and ephemera.

Tooth and Claw

by Jo Walton

tooth and claw front cover jo walton

Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he could fly to his new life in his old body.

This was an odd read. It took me a little while to get into, and then suddenly it clicked that it was really quite funny. Because, essentially, this is a send up/tribute to Austen, with dragons. Yes, you heard me, dragons. Very proper, very polite dragons who are bound by tradition and propriety and an odd host of biological strangeness as well as cultural norms. It was unlike anything I’ve read before, and on those merits alone I’d recommend it. Not the most brilliant thing out there, certainly, but with charm and wit. And dragons who wear hats.

Rating: read this, and then visit your milliner.

The Bone Dragon

by Alexia Casale

the bone dragon alexia casale

I rise up, towards the surface.

I did not realise quite what this book was about when I picked it up. It is not fantasy, not really. I’d give this one quite strong trigger warnings for abusive family situations, which are in the past and now escaped, but impact hugely on the story and on the characters. It may be that it shook me as hard as it did because I was not expecting it, but I would warn anyway. If that’s something you can read, then this is a very good book indeed. Strong imagery, very well imagined characters, and a reality that’s just a little bit malleable. Our narrator is a teenage girl, who has just had an operation to remove a dead bit of bone from her ribs. She is one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in a good while. It’s harrowing and brilliant and disturbing, all in one innocent looking book.

Rating: go out into the night, to the bleached moon, and face the things you fear.

The Murdstone Trilogy (a novel)

by Mal Peet

The Murdstone Trilogy Mal Peet

The sun sinks, leaving tatty furbelows of crimson cloud in the Dartmoor sky.

Hah! This book! I loved it – a hilariously mocking love-letter to fantasy, to authors, and the industry as a whole. Philip Murdstone is a writer who made a niche writing fiction about slightly odd boys finding their place in the world. But his work is not selling, and he lives in a cottage in Dartmoor and feels miserable about having no money. He also really quite fancies his agent, who persuades him that the only thing to do is to write a swords and sorcery style book. Which he has no idea how to even start.

Cue a visitation from a rather rude and grubby being from a different world, who will give him a story in return for finding an amulet. And, well, everything snowballs from there. Fantastically. As readers, we’re really kept guessing about what’s real, what’s not, and what the hell is going to happen next. Incisively observed characters, very funny descriptions and a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that I really appreciated. You won’t get all the jokes unless you’ve actually read some swords and sorcery fantasy, but I think it would still be pretty entertaining regardless.

Rating: read this,  and perhaps refrain from making agreements with grubby beings from other worlds.

The Palace of Curiosities

by Rosie Garland

The Palace of curiosities by Rosie Garland

Before I am born, my mother goes to the circus.

A while ago, I started reading The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, and failed to finish it. Part of this is my personal difficulty with collections of short stories. This novel reminded me of many of the things I enjoyed in that collection – in fact I would have said that this novel is perhaps what I wanted The Bloody Chamber to be. It was weird, and definitely happening in the realm of fairytale. It was a love story, sort of, between monsters. The Palace of Curiosities had a sharp descriptive style that I liked, and alternated POV between two characters. I was completely immersed in this odd underworld of Victorian London, with the lion woman and the undying man. It was luscious and sensual and dark and odd, and I very much enjoyed it. In fact, my only complaint was that the last sentence was really awkward, and having enjoyed the rest of the book so much, I found that annoying. Still, this is something of a feast.

Rating: read this, and be wary of the circus…

And that’s all for now – until next time, keep well.

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Reblog and shoutout to my sister!

This is a reblog from my sister’s blog, yogaruby. She’s starting a Women’s Circle in Stroud, and blogs about wellness, yoga, and her personal journey through circus, movement and learning to be a facilitator. Take a look, I hope you enjoy!

Reviews from me tomorrow or Tuesday at the latest 🙂

Before I tell you about the women’s circle, I want to share a little bit about the journey which led me to start it… I began this year training at Circomedia, planning to be there for the next two years at least, but more and more I felt a yearning for something else. Eventually I […]

via A new venture – Women’s Circle — YogaRuby

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