Book review: Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman

brother's ruin by emma newman

Charlotte guided her brother to the right position on the pavement, ignoring the glares from other Londoners as they stopped the flow of people hurrying about their business.

I have just read this little book, and it was a delight. Very much the beginning of something (it’s okay, there are more books!), yet compelling in its own right. Brother’s Ruin is set in a Victorian London with magic, which seems to be the theme of several books I’ve bought recently. It is a well imagined world, with just the right amount of nitty-gritty detail.

The story follows Charlotte, or Charlie as she is nicknamed, a young woman of middling class with several secrets and a fiance whom I personally thought was a bit useless. The question is, can she actually keep any of her secrets secret?

There were lots of things that Brother’s Ruin did that were fun. I liked how industrial the magical colleges sounded, and the fact that the industrial revolution is effectively being powered by magic. I loved the trope inversion of Charlie’s brother being the one with non-specific ill health. Charlie herself was a loveable character. There was always this sense of a stubborn, naturally hotheaded person struggling in a system where she can’t be those things. It’s a fantastic read, and I’m looking forward to the second in the series.

Rating: read this book, dismantle the patriarchy!

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Book review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death by Nnedi okorafor image contains a desert and a black woman standing with her back to us, sprouting vulture wings.

My life fell apart when I was sixteen.

Phew! This book was like a good kick in the teeth, stress on the good. I feel ill-equipped to review it – so much of this book falls so far outside my knowledge base, and although it is a post-apocalyptic fantasy, I still feel like there are going to be nuances that I have missed because of lack of real-world knowledge. So, I am going to do my best, but if I make some horrible mistake please let me know. Please also note trigger warning for rape – it’s a pretty big theme in this book so you may just want to completely skip the whole thing if that’s going to be hard, or at least proceed with caution.

Who Fears Death is an epic, if not in length then in structure. It covers years – an entire lifetime (at least). There is a prophecy and a quest and a great evil to be overcome, but these things are introduced slowly, and the main themes are personal. Onyesonwu is  a child of rape in a post-apocalyptic Africa. She is also Eshu; a magical shapeshifter (among other things). She has to fight stubbornly to be taught, because nobody wants to teach a woman. As a visually recognisable child of rape, she has to struggle for many things, including basic acceptance. And she is angry, with many and reasonable causes. There is a lot of visceral anger in this book; about slavery and genocide and fighting for survival. There is also hope. And love. And humour. And wonder. All of which are essential, because it would be almost impossible to read without those. Nnedi Okorafor has achieved an incredible balancing act here, pulling no punches with the pain of the story she is telling, and being similarly straightforward about the joys that her characters manage to find.

Onyesonwu’s story is, primarily, about justice. All kinds of justice. I’m trying not to spoil the plot here, but the amount that Nnedi Okorafor manages to cover in 419 pages is impressive. And her characters are sinewy and real and seem to breathe, her writing is clear and incredible, and the world she has built is a brilliant and fantastic thing. And damnit, I am so here for angry women hunting down the people who hurt them. I am here for that unmitigated and unreasonable fury, for the fight for ownership of one’s own body. I am here for non-European worlds and magic systems. I mentioned when I reviewed Book of Phoenix that reading it made me think about the things we are willing to be complicit in as long as we don’t have to look at them: Who Fears Death did that all over again. It’s a scorching, incredible book that makes me feel certain that I am not doing enough. And it looks fearlessly at the nitty-gritty reality of structural patterns impacting on individual lives and bodies. It’s also a compelling story, it’s just that I’m a little preoccupied with the rage…

Rating: read this book -remember that hope is a dangerous thing…

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Book Review: Provenance by Ann Leckie

Provenance Ann Leckie

“There were unexpected difficulties,” said the dark grey blur.

I have briefly mentioned the Imperial Radch trilogy before, in a slightly incoherent, oh-my-goddess-I-love-this-so-much way. In order to for this book to make any sense, you need to have read those three books (Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy) first. They are very very good, so off you go and read them. I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, on to the review. Provenance is set in the same world as the Imperial Radch trilogy, but outside the Radch Empire and with a new point-of-view character. It is set shortly after the events of Ancillary Mercy, although it is not a direct sequel. Ingray Aughskold is a very different person from Breq/Justice of Toren One Esk. She is entirely human, for a start, and she comes from one of the many civilisations living outside the Radch Empire (the Radch do not make for good neighbours). She is young, she is a bit inexperienced, and she is desperate. Or at least, she feels that way.

Ingray is in many ways a very privileged young woman, fostered by a prominent family on Hwae. Her family is also rather cutthroat, and when we meet her Ingray has just sunk all of her money into a mad scheme designed to set her above her fosterbrother and secure her place in the household. Safe to say, it does not go as planned at all. Events spiral out of her control, there are other agendas at work, and by the end of the book her original aims are almost forgotten. It is fantastic.

I love the things that Ann Leckie does with worldbuilding, especially in the way that she creates social and cultural norms and then puts them next to another culture with different ones. Hwae, for example, has a three-gender system, with children considered agender. People declare their gender when they become adults, and take on an adult name. She has done this after writing an entire trilogy with a culturally Radchaai point of view character, who thought of everyone as ‘she’ because the Radchaai only have one gender. There are people from a different system (the name escapes me), who cannot speak to family members or even acknowledge their existence. There are aliens, there are humans from different places with very different ideas about how things should work, and there are humans who are legally considered aliens. It is also great that a lot of her spacefaring cultures feel distinctly non-European, and are mostly not white.

Provenance is big and fun and complicated. It is about where people are from, and how much that matters. It’s about the stories that people tell about themselves; the personal ones and the historical ones, and what happens when one person or group’s stories are told louder than others, or when those stories turn out to be not entirely true. It is about Ingray Aughskold figuring out that she doesn’t need to be anyone except herself, and in the background huge things are happening as the Presger and the Geck and the Rrrrr come to meet and discuss whether or not AI can be part of the non-interference treaty.

I strongly recommend Provenance, as well as the Imperial Radch trilogy. Ann Leckie’s world is a big exciting place with lots to say about personhood and Empire and society, and she says it well in the form of compelling stories.

Rating: read this book; question everything…

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Book Review: A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan

A portable shelter kirsty logan book cover

I’m going to tell you a story.

This was a spiderweb of a book: a collection of short stories deftly threaded together. Ruth and Liska are expecting their first child, and have retreated to a tiny cottage on the north coast of Scotland. They have agreed to only tell their child truths, however both are telling it stories; Ruth in the day while Liska is at work, and Liska at night while Ruth sleeps. The collection is made of the stories they tell.

And what stories! Selkies and circuses and dragons and bicycles. The ordinary and the magical; the ordinary as magical, and vice-versa. Stories of love and loss and hard lessons and hope. Through these tales, we catch glimpses of the women doing the telling. Of who they are and where they’ve beena and how they see the world. It is wonderful and weird – reading it felt a little like catching a werewolf mid-change: scary, magical, and impossible to look away from. I found myself intrigued by the layers; the stories and the people behind them. I admire Kirsty Logan’s skill in telling us a big story by telling lots of little ones (though of course this is not a new technique). This book is a gem, and one which I think will stand-up well to re-reading.

Rating: read this book, and dive down into the salt.

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Book Review: Avi Cantor Has Six Months To Live by Sacha Lamb

Avi Cantor has six months to live by Sacha Lamb

Avi Cantor has six months to live.

So I finally got around to reading this short story, from the Booksmugglers, and it was absolutely wonderful. Just, heartwarming and gorgeous on all the right levels. Trans boys in love! Demons! Magic! Maybe a curse! Idiot school kids, interesting family dynamics, and a wonderfully growly protagonist. I really enjoyed the style, and I found Avi Cantor’s internal dialogue fascinating and relateable. If you are looking for a snuggly, feelsy story with trans characters, I recommend this. The tone hits just the right note between angry and touching, and felt very accurate to the age that was being written. Oh and it was funny. Did I mention it was funny? It’s funny, in a slightly sharp way.

It’s just really really good, and you shall all have to put up with my slightly lazy reviewing today (I’ve just had lurgy, and have only just wrested control of my brain back from the headcold). You can buy this as an ebook or read it for free on the Booksmugglers website here.

Rating: Read this story, light candles at the crossroads.

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Book Review: White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

White is for witching by Helen Oyeyemi

ore: Miranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her mother’s house.

This has to be the most unsettling book that I have ever read, with the possible exception of Let the Right One In although that is a completely different kind of unsettling. I have never read anything like it: Helen Oyeyemi’s writing is unique, and the sort of thing that one probably loves or hates without an inbetween. It is a story told by unreliable narrators: several of them, who are not always who they say they are. It is a story that crept up inside my head and squeezed my heart and promised not to let me go. It was not the story that it started out as, either. There are forms in which I have read this story before, and in which I am tired of reading it. I am tired, more than I can say, of the pretty thin fragile girl going mad while holding up all the things that nobody else can see and breaking breaking breaking while always looking beautiful – most girls are not fragile. Most women are not mad, but spitting furious (in my experience) and living with things that are not easily spoken of. I am tired of this narrative which has no space for the fury.

(And Miranda was not the only girl there: Ore was there, holding a whole different set of things, and Tijana and SPOILER I was glad that Ore left, that she did not stay to pick up pieces in a fight that wasn’t hers that would have tried to destroy her. Not glad that, again, the queer romance ended in tragedy and separation, but glad that Ore left and survived END SPOILER.)

White is for Witching was not quite this narrative. It went somewhere else. It was that story, told differently and compulsively and with layers and layers that I will probably be peeling back compulsively over the next week, month… It was about an angry house full of rattling histories and bigotry, and a family haunting and haunted. It was about keeping people out or letting them in and all of the ugly ugly things that get swept out of sight. It was about nationality and legacy and the things that get carried and the the things that are devoured and who belongs. Who really belongs, and what that means, and who gets to decide that and what right they have to do so. It was about all the things that Miranda Silver tries to devour or keep at bay; all the history bearing down on her and bearing down on Ore.

It was complex. I don’t think I can unravel it in just one review but it is worth reading, and worth reading again, and marking notes in the margins with pencils and listening to and thinking about the things that nobody wants to look at and why and the messy patchwork that makes up this country and all the everyday violence therein. And the ghosts, standing behind everyone.

Rating: read this book. Do not eat the damn apples.

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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 sittings 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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