Book Review: Hopeless Maine by Tom and Nimue Brown (this review originally written for Pagan Dawn

Hopeless Maine by Tom and NImue Brown

Procession somber; pageant walked, shuffled, lurching to uncertainty.

This review first appeared in Pagan Dawn magazine.

Hopeless is an island that nobody can leave. Let that sink in; it’s a deeply layered bit of worldbuilding, and it’s reflective of the style of this book. Simple on the surface, yet with leviathans beneath.

On the surface, the story is of an orphan trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs: a common enough tale. Except the orphan is Salamandra, who’s not even sure what she is; she has magic, but she’s not witch material and the most likely option after that in Hopeless is monster. The strange and unfriendly world that she’s trying to navigate is full of mist and seabeasts and ghosts and ancient weirdness. She’s also quite happy to be an orphan, thanks.

With Hopeless, Maine Tom and Nimue Brown have created a world with a deep well of mythology, eerie and beautiful. It has a resonance similar to a fairytale or a legend (there is many a reference to spot). The artwork is exquisite – you could take any page, hang it on a wall and still find new things to look at weeks later – and the interplay between words and image and theme is incredible. I noticed that the book begins in plain black and white, fades into almost sepia with colour washes and bleeds into muted colour by the end. It gave me the impression of a fog gradually lifting.

There’s a sweet and biting sense of humour that runs through the entire book. There are invisible friends and demons and unhappy reverends and normal people trying to live their lives in truly extraordinary circumstances, and sometimes you can tell which is which. There is, against all logic, hope.

I could say a great deal about this book, but I do not have the space so what I will tell you is that I cried both times I read it and that I am planning to read it again. Because sometimes the world feels like a hopeless and inescapable place without sunlight, and how wonderful to see on page such an honest and imaginative tale of working through that. And one that made me laugh too!

I want to know more about every single character because they all seem to live very full lives beyond the pages. I want to puzzle over every odd end of myth that I picked up and laugh at the cooking classes. And I want more of Salamandra, persistently carving out a space for herself with charm and stubbornness.

Rating: read this book. Don’t make eye contact with the beasties.

Get more Hopeless on the blog here.

Book Review: Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb (book one of the Rain Wilds Chronicles)

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb art by Jackie Morris

Day the 2nd of the Plough Moon

This is the first book by Robin Hobb that I’ve ever read, and it was a treat! I am always a little suspicious of “high” fantasy (although we could be here all day trying to define exactly what counts), which is probably why it’s taken me so long to read anything by this author. However, I’m really enjoying her writing and she has a backlog of about thirty books! Hooray!

Now, as far as I can tell nearly all of Robin Hobb’s books are set in the same world, but they are handily grouped into quartets and trilogies so that it is possible to jump in as I have done. The advantage of this is that the world in this book felt very established. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the basics: geography, economy, politics and history. This is evident without being something that sidelines the plot: the world is just ticking over in the background, as worlds do. There are cities in the trees, political upheaval abroad, merchant towns and riverpeople, and they all merge and fit without having to try to be convincing. It’s also nice when fantasy writers have clearly thought about practicalities like, for instance, contraception. It makes me happy. And also, I like reading fantasy worlds that aren’t thinly-veiled Europe.

The point-of-view changes quite often, and was done in a way that was exciting rather than confusing. The characters themselves I found a bit tricky at times, but mostly I warmed to them. They’re all very much products of their world, which is again something that I like in fantasy. One of the point-of-view characters is actually a dragon, which was really fun! I did spend quite a bit of time yelling at some of the characters (cough Alise and Sedric cough), but only because I cared about them and I want them to be happy damnit! The cast was too big to mention everyone, so a quick favourites list: Thymara, a Rain Wilds girl who should have been killed at birth due to her scaly deformities, fiercely independent; Alise Kincarron, a scholar of dragons trapped in a loveless marriage; Rapskal, an endlessly cheerful Rain Wilds boy; Erik and Detozi, pigeon keepers of Bingtown and Cassarick respectively, who we only meet in letters; Tarman, a liveship; Sedric Meldar, something of a dandy…

The plot itself is rather slow moving, and it does not speed up. Indeed, this book finished just as I was really getting my teeth into it! That’s not to say that it was unenjoyable, just that it was steady and built over time. The writing is really lovely, and there are three more books in The Rain Wild Chronicles so I’m interested to see what Robin Hobb does with the foundation she’s built here.

Rating: Read this book, and imagine you are a great jeweled serpent gliding beneath the sea…

Book Review: Ganymede by Cherie Priest

“Croggon Hainey sends his regards, but he isn’t up for hire,” Josephine Early declared grimly as she crumpled the telegram in her fist.

This is the third book in the Clockwork Century series, following Boneshaker and Dreadnought (although I think there’s a standalone called Clementine that technically fits between those two, but is designed to be a standalone – this series is a bit confusing that way). Ganymede, I thought, was a cracker. I love this series for its down-to-earth, usually women, protagonists, for the dry humour, and for the absolute fun of alternate history American Civil War with zombies and automatons.

Josephine Early is a mixed-race brothel owner in New Orleans, who spends a deal of time sneaking information in and out of the bayou where her brother (and many others) hides. It’s actually the first book in the series that uses the word ‘zombi’, as a random aside. The plot revolves around Ganymede, a ship supposedly capable of travelling underwater: who has it? Does anyone know how to use it? And can more be made… Josephine has some very strong opinions about all of those things!

Ganymede‘s plot is fast-paced in the same way as Boneshaker and Dreadnought, although there is rather more spying and intrigue and people on the same side lying to each other than in those two. I loved the complex relationships that were built between the characters, some of whom I know from previous books. I had a lot of fun trying to figure out what everyone’s motives were, and did a bit of yelping out loud at surprising moments. I really hope that we get more of Josephine Early, because she was an interesting character and no mistake!

Also SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER points for the massive notation at the end pointing out that her trans character was historically accurate, thank you very much, people didn’t suddenly start being trans in the seventies. END SPOILER END SPOILER END

Rating: read this book, beware flesh-eaters and submarines.

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton

The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.

Sometimes, there are books that stare straight into my heart and soul and reflect them back. For me, this was one of those. There is probably no such thing as a perfect book; Among Others, however, was exactly the right book at the right time, and that is not something to be underestimated. It rekindled my appreciation and love for libraries, it spoke a lot of my truths, and it allowed me to remember my sixteen and seventeen year old self with more compassion and understanding than I’ve ever managed. So, obviously, this review is enormously biased and I am well aware that this book may not be for everyone.

It’s 1979. Mor, who has lived her whole life in the Welsh Valleys surrounded by a varied and sprawling family, among fairies and wilderness and magic, has been forced to live with her (somewhat useless) English father whom she has never met and who promptly sends her to boarding school. Her twin sister is dead, her mother is mad and possibly evil, and she is alone. Among Others is written as a diary, as Mor turns to books and journalling, observing the world around her with sharp eyes and a certain dry humour while trying to make sense of what happened, what is happening, and how to move on. The fairy/magic aspect of the world is some of the most convincingly real that I have ever come across; odd and earthy and tied to the landscape, relating to the “real world” in strange ways. Mor is an unreliable narrator in the way that most grieving people are, and the story just… unfolds. Slow, unhurried, and yet still at times shocking, heartrending and heartwarming. If I was told tomorrow that I was only allowed one book for the rest of my life, it would be a close call between Among Others, Unquenchable Fire, and the dictionary (but which dictionary?!).

Rating: Read this book. Go to the library.

Book Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

The Queen of the Tearling

Kelsea Glynn sat very still, watching the troop approach her homestead.

I picked this up thinking “Oh this seems like a reasonably straightforward, returning sovereign type fantasy thing”. I was very happy to be proved wrong! It begins much in the ‘returning-sovereign-will-save-the-land’ vein, in a seemingly high fantasy world with the rightful heir to the throne (Kelsea Glynn) having been raised in a cottage in a wood somewhere by Carlin and Barty Glynn. A troop of soldiers arrive to take her to New London to be crowned, and then… Well, then everything flies wonderfully off the hook. Not so abruptly that it’s jarring; but we slowly realise that no, this is not a typical high fantasy story. It doesn’t actually look as though Kelsea is even going to make it as far as New London, let alone get crowned, because the Regent (her uncle) has formed an alliance with the Tearling’s scary neighbour (Mortmesne) and is sending assassins after her. There are killer hawks! There are guild assassins and bits of magic and a sort of highwayman bandit type who might be helpful.

Kelsea is also realising that she has been consistently lied to about, well, something… She does not know what. And that she is lacking a lot of experience and knowledge. And that her guards are lying to her as well. She’s a fantastically tenacious protagonist, who starts out with a good knowledge base but little experience and then learns really fast because it’s learn or die and Kelsea has decided that she’s not going to die before she even gets to her throne. The scene when she does finally get crowned is exhilarating and the story doesn’t end there!

The worldbuilding is also excellent – I could babble about it for hours. I’m going to avoid that though (because spoilers) and just say that it’s one of the most interesting fantasy set-ups I’ve seen in a while. The politics all weave together with the history and the brutality of feudal-ish lifestyles and the tension between the state and the church. Excellent, so excellent. A fantastic story about a new ruler coming into power, set against a brilliantly conceived world – I am eagerly waiting for the sequel to come back to the library.

Rating: read this book. Aim to be half as hardcore as Kelsea Glynn.

Book Review: The Second Mango by Shira Glassman

The second Mango by shira glassman

Once upon a time, in a lush tropical land of agricultural riches and shining white buildings, there was a young queen who spent the night tied up in a tent, panicking.

Note: the visual above is not the cover, but as I couldn’t find an image for the cover my copy has, I’m using it as the closest thing.

I LOVE this book! It’s warm, a bit silly and full of goodness. There are some proofreading blips, and a few layout problems, but honestly I am forgiving those completely because this book this book this book! It’s basically the book I dreamed of reading when I was about eight and started realising that, in the fantasy books I enjoyed so much, there were an awful lot of women who needed rescuing (I found Tamora Pierce shortly after this). Although there are bits in this book that my eight-year-old self would have thought were gross and that would not have been appropriate at that age (read – sex happens).

Anyway, Queen Shulamit is a lesbian and also severely gluten intolerant. She goes on a quest to find love with Rivka and Rivka’s dragon-horse. Rivka is not the love interest; she is an epic mercenary and they become best friends. I just love it! There’s wonderful friendship, there’s silliness, there’s epic battling and positive queer representation and a fantasy world with Jewish roots and dragons and wizards. It’s so clear that the author really, really enjoyed herself when writing this, which lead to me really enjoying reading it. The characters were really clear, and I liked how their different strengths worked together.

It’s not the most polished book out there, but personally I thought it worked that way. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is absolutely mine.

Rating: read this book, dance with glee!

Book Review: The Good, The Bad and The Smug by Tom Holt

the good the bad and the smug by tom holt

The good guys are good and their hats are white as snow.

This book deserves a laugh track. I’m not sure how to review it: I wish I had recorded myself reading it and you could just have a video of me laughing a lot. It’s wonderful. A bit Pratchett-esque in terms of humour, but very different in other ways. It’s also apparently part of a series…? I just googled and I’m now confused, but I read this as a standalone and it worked for me. I really hate when books are not labelled as being in a series *grumble grumble grumble*

Anyway, there is: Mordak, king of the Goblins, who is trying so hard to get the goblins to understand the idea of New Evil (it’s like Old Evil, but a bit sneakier and with better PR); there’s a man who might be Rumplestiltskin really messing up the human economy (because he spins straw into gold, and then the price of straw goes up, the soldiers want paying in silver and the princes start plotting to set fire to each others’ straw); there’s an elf who just wants to be the editor of The Horrible Yellow Face (formerly The Beautiful Golden Face), which everyone agrees is the best paper around on account of how it never prints facts (journalists don’t). Unfortunately, Mordak now owns all the newspapers so they can only print what he wants (an act of warfare against the Elves, obviously). And there’s a quest to find the truth, if only anyone could figure out what that meant. And where the goblins are disappearing to. And why the Dark Lord is crying about curtains and trying to design a logo for evil (his choices are a rose or an oak in a field. For those who don’t know, the rose is the Labour party symbol, the oak in a field in the Tory party symbol. This kind of stuff happens all the time and I loved it).

Bits of it fell flat, and there’s a whole portal thing going on that I don’t quite have time to explain but which I enjoyed. Overall, this was a decent read. Nothing mind-blowing, but good for a quiet night in.

Rating: read this book. Finally understand the financial crash! (I’m not joking)