Book review: Under The Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeanette Ng

My brother and I grew up dreaming of new worlds.

This is a stunning, incredible, difficult book. Or at least, there were aspects of it that I found very difficult. And there was also a huge and incredible imagination at work, doing things that I hadn’t precisely seen before. There is also MAJOR SPOILER MAJOR SPOILER MAJOR SPOILER a pretty big trigger warning for incest that I think is worth putting out there. It’s not rape, and there are some identity things going on in the book, but incest happens. END SPOILER END SPOILER END SPOILER.

So, the premise is that we are in an alternate Victorian era, and Catherine Helstone’s brother has gone on a mission to Arcadia, also known as Elphane or Faeryland. And she has not heard from him in long enough that she organises to follow him.

To be bluntly honest, I am enormously conflicted about this book. On the one hand, the writing is exquisite. The imagination of the world, the claustrophobia of the castle in Arcadia, the relentless feeling of creeping insanity, is all incredible. I loved the layering of the world, the little reveals, the attention to detail. In Arcadia, the sun is a lantern swinging across the sky and the moon is a fish. The weather is bought in from other places. The housekeeper is a Salamander, who prefers not to talk to anyone. The gardener is the only convert that has been made since missionaries reached the land of the fae, a gnome called Benjamin Goodfellow. And there is a changeling called Ariel Davenport, though she is clear that that was never her name precisely. Each chapter starts with an extract from a publication in the world that this is set in, and it is full of theology and strange and bizarre things. I could have spent happy hours just exploring the faeryland of Jeanette Ng’s imagination, and a lot of the characters in it.

And I enjoyed Catherine, mostly. She was an interesting, intelligent, and unreliable narrator. But the story… Well, it was very compelling, and I really wanted to know what would happen. What the Pale Queen, a cruel faery who looked perhaps like an owl or a moth, was planning and what she wanted. What was she planning for Laon (Catherine’s missionary brother). I wanted to know and then… Then I really really did not like where it went. Again, this part is going to be ENORMOUSLY SPOILER-FILLED. But incest. uuugggggghhhhhhhhhhhh yeuck. There was a sort of sense to it, and as a way of the Pale Queen constructing Laon’s downfall it made a sort of sense, especially with the identity issue that was going on at the time: the reveal that Catherine was a changeling (or thought she was). But but but but but there were way more interesting things going on in the plot: like, well, everything: What happened to the previous missionary? Who is the person writing in his journal? Why is there a second chapel in the garden? What did Catherine’s sister die of? What do the moths know and who is the woman in black and why does the tower door refuse to lock? I wanted to know these things. I really, really didn’t want Laon and Cathering to have sex. I wanted her to run away with the faeries covered in Enochian writing. I wanted her to find her own life and interests and not shag her brother. I just felt that there could have been a way out. Like, maybe that could have been a temptation or a possibility of it, but that something else could have happened?

And it sort of ties into this trend I have noticed in certain genres where women are only allowed to enjoy bad sex. Bad guilty sinful bad sex where everyone ends up feeling awful and terrible or maybe one of them is a creature of the evil bad night or someone is mute or it’s all just tragic and terrible and the rest of their life is going to be terrible and full of guilt and repentance and it would just be really nice to have some characters in a book have sex and enjoy it and not feel dreadful afterwards or find out that they are related.

Aside from that plot thing, I really loved the world and the writing, and I think I would cautiously read further writing by Jeanette Ng. I just really hope there’s no incest.

Rating: read this book. Feel terribly conflicted.

For anyone looking for fantasy with, yanno, a sex-positive attitude to women, I would personally recommend The Song of the Lionness Quartet by Tamora Pierce (Alanna: The First AdventureIn the Hands of the GoddessThe Woman Who Rides Like a Man and Lionness Rampant). Very different genre from this book, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind!

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Book review: A Natural History of Dragons – A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan wraparound cover

Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.

This was a surprising book. I didn’t really know what I was expecting from it, if much. It is written in the style of a memoir, so the narrative voice is that of an older woman (fifty?) recalling her youth, and it worked very well. Lady Trent is now known as the foremost expert on dragons, but this story is of her origins, back when she was merely Isabella. It charts her early interest in dragons (which was a source of great distress to her mother), and how she came to go on her first ever expedition to study them (having persuaded her husband).

What was striking about it was how solid the world felt. It was a fantasy world on the cusp of the industrial revolution, unusual in itself. There were many things that contributed to how real it felt – the fact that there were different interpretations of the imaginary religions, the precision of the descriptions, the absoluteness of the social mores, the presence of sciences and archaeology and differing cultures. And the dragons, which were rare and glorious creatures, being described through the eyes of a scientist in terms of bone structure and preserving their bodies. I liked Isabella, especially as the voice was that of her older self who was occasionally terribly embarrassed by her younger self but luckily had a good sense of humour. I grew very fond of her.

This was not a book that was quick in terms of plot. It didn’t grab me and pull me along. Rather, it grew on me and snuck up on me and then suddenly I realised I was absolutely invested in everything. Likewise, the emotions of the characters are at a remove caused by the narrative style; I found that they also snuck up on me until I was invested. A Natural History of Dragons proved to be a surprisingly unique treasure, and I intend to go to the library and dig out the rest of the series.

Rating: read this book, and preserve your dragon samples carefully!

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Book Review: Hopeless, Maine: Sinners by Tom and Nimue Brown

hopeless maine sinners cover shows woman standing in flying boatHello, traveller.

This review will contain spoilers for Hopeless, Maine: The Gathering which I have reviewed here. You have been warned! This is your final warning! Don’t go below this line unless you are okay with major spoilers for The Gathering!

We return to the island of Hopeless. Some time has passed. And Owen, who left the island at the end of The Gathering, returns. In the nature of these stories, he is now expected to have all the answers. Which he doesn’t, although he does have a nice earring and better hair.

This time around, there is something in the air of Hopeless. Perhaps it is getting into people’s heads, or perhaps people are simply very good at building their own hells. One of the wonderful things about the worldbuilding here is that it could be either, or both, and the story would still work. There is an inexplicable illness going round, and there are, maybe, vampires. There are things in the mist.

And there is Salamandra, living in her granfather’s lighthouse, stubbornly trying to figure out what to do now. She is still not a witch. There are still not a lot of options available. And things thought buried keep bubbling to the surface in a way that is both fantastical and wholly believable, while her and Owen struggle with, well, everything.

The art, as ever, is exquisite. All of the chapter title pages are plays on famous art pieces, and there is a series of pencil-coloured spreads in which a whole other story is taking place. I’ve read Sinners twice now, and re-read The Gathering, and I can say that it is always worth looking at the art for a while – there are generally things hidden in it.

Sinners has the same sense of bittersweet humour that was in The Gathering, and I found it very touching. I particularly enjoyed the sense that, although we are on a strange island in bizarre circumstances, the people are all very much people with hopes and dreams and fears (lots of those), who have histories, and who make terrible mistakes. And I had a great deal of fun picking up all the strings that ran through The Gathering and continue into Sinners. My only complaint is that, if you have eyesight that isn’t brilliant, the text is all a bit small.

Read this book: remember the sun…

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Also, for anybody confused about reading Hopeless Maine – there are multiple copies out and about. My understanding is that the series was published with Archaia, and that they published Personal Demons and Inheritance. The series then moved to Sloth Comics. Sloth comics published The Gathering, which includes the main story parts of Personal Demons and Inheritance as well as the Blind Fisherman prelude (which is really rather vital!), although it does not have the same extra tentacles as Personal Demons and Inheritance (information on the island’s famous families, for example). There are still copies of the Archaia versions floating around, but the writers don’t get any money from those any moreSinners (now published by Sloth) is technically volume two.

Also, a disclaimer, I know the authors. But I’m still reviewing honestly, because that’s my jam.

Book review: Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti The Night MAsquerade by Nnedi Okorafor

It started with a nightmare.

This book is so good! This whole trilogy is so good! You should definitely read all of them! Nnedi Okorafor is a genius. Because of the way in which this trilogy is structured, it is really very hard to review this book without dropping big spoilers for books one and two (reviewed by me here and here). So this is going to be a vague and excitable review, done partially in bulletpoints.

Things in this book:

  • Really interesting thoughts about aliens.
  • Binti. I love Binti.
  • What is home? Where is home?
  • Okwu. I also love Okwu.
  • Incredible narrative. Somehow sprawling despite being in this little little book, and covering so so much – historical narratives, war, prejudice, family, home, humanity, growing up, life, death…
  • Spaceship fish!
  • PTSD and coping with it.
  • Lots of maths, but in a good way (I struggle with maths).
  • Thoughts on peacemaking.
  • Read it!

Binti: The Night Masquerade was the perfect finale, and it took me by surprise! Had I made guesses at where this book was going to go, I would have been wrong. The Binti trilogy is a stunning piece of science-fiction/afrofuturism that has reshaped my expectations of science fiction writing.

Read this book: look out at the stars, and ask if they are looking back.

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Book review: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

I try not to think of her.

This is an incredible book. It is like diving into a fire. I have definitely walked away from it singed. Children of Blood and Bone tells the story of the kingdom of Orïsha; a land that was once filled with magic, but where magic has been killed and suppressed. It tells the story of the oppressed rising up and fighting back. It is fantasy, and it is also extremely relevant to our times. I would recommend it to everyone.

All of the characters are compelling, particularly Zélie, Amari and Inan; the point-of-view characters. They are all coming from very different places, with very different views, and it was only made the story more powerful to have their perspectives intermingling.

I have, for many years, been upset and at times angry about the way that so much fantasy writing seems content to wallow around in Tolkien’s shadow. It frustrates me that so many people seem so stuck on writing the same fantasy world over and over again without even subverting it, when surely the whole point of fantasy, the reason that I love it, is that the only limits are your imagination and what you can convince the reader of.  I, who am white and European, have been bored with it. I can only imagine how people who are not white and European feel. I spend a lot of time hunting through fantasy stories, trying to find something that reflects my experience as a queer woman. I can only imagine how it feels trying to find, for example, a queer Black reflection in fantasy writing. Or a Black experience at all. This is a fantasy that is about Black experience. It’s a bloody amazing book, written extremely well, and it blew me out of the water. It made me sit up and pay attention and I lost sleep reading it. Children of Blood and Bone is not only fantastic, it is needed. And I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say that you should definitely, absolutely read it. And then read it again, and tell all your friends.

Also, if you have recommendations for non-European based fantasy, or fantasy with queers in, (or sci-fi of either of those) do drop me a comment because I love finding new authors and I am keen to expand my reading. Or if you have read this book and want to talk about it!

Rating: read this book. Rise up.

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Book Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve always been fascinated by candles.

This book is also published under the title What Sunny Saw in the Flames, which has a few textual differences mainly related to dialogue (or so I’ve heard).

I devoured this book. I picked it up and did not want to put it down until it was done, continually asking “What happens next?”. And yet, I find it (along with a lot of Nnedi Okorafor’s work) hard to review: I know that, as a white English person, there are going to be things that I miss. And there are places where I know I am missing things, and probably things that I am missing that I don’t notice I am missing. I really, really love Nnedi Okorafor’s work, but I am scared of somehow, without meaning, doing her a disservice by being ignorant in my reviews.

So, here is what I think I can confidently say; Sunny Nwazue is a wonderful, engaging protagonist with a clear and unique voice. The imagery is stunning, and the plot is carefully done. I loved the writing style, and the magic system is fascinating. There is a whole hidden magical world that Sunny is drawn into, which (I think) has a basis in a real secret society, and the rules of the magical world were brilliantly thought out. I enjoyed the friendships, and the way that they grew and changed. I like reading things that are not set in Europe or America, especially fantasy. Overall, I strongly recommend this book: it’s gripping and fun, although the danger is very real…

Rating: read this book, look deeply into candles.

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Book review: Red Witch by Anna McKerrow

red witch by anna mckerrow

Writing this while I remember it.

This is the sequel to Crow Moon. I will try to avoid spoilers for Red Witch, but there may be some for Crow Moon.

Red Witch is a fantastic read. It does a lot of really exciting, unexpected things. Firstly, it has a different point-of-view character from Crow Moon‘s, which is a bold move considering they are both first person books. Crow Moon was from the point-of-view of Danny Prentice; Red Witch is from the point-of-view of Demelza “Melz” Hawthorne. As a reader, I was instantly given a new perspective on things that I thought I was familiar with; events from Crow Moon are given a new sheen, and a whole layer is added to the worldbuilding. I made a lot of “Ooooh” noises.

On top of this, Melz has left the Greenworld following the murder of the lad she was in love with (who was her sister’s boyfriend, so her grief is a complicated beast)(Her sister is Saba, and I am still a little unhappy with how she is presented? I want more insight into her motives). The Redworld and the fuel wars have been mentioned, but now Melz is stumbling around in the middle of it and it is never quite what we have been led to believe. A lot of the beginning struck close to home for me because I have been the awkward teenager wearing a handknitted jumper trying to figure out how the rest of the world works (Steiner education!)(I still wear handknitted jumpers though) and it was baffling and hard. Then there are the stories that Redworld tells about Greenworld, and that was very interesting indeed.

A lot of the narrative is about Melz grieving, and it was an amazing narrative because Melz is a powerful kickarse witch who is nevertheless in pain. And she’s a bit lost, trying to figure out who to trust out here: Bran Crowley, the enigmatic charmer living in the White Well in Glastonbury? His bodyguard? Ceri, Catie and Demi, who are playing at magic? Herself? But this is a narrative where she is allowed to be in pain and angry and vindictive and powerful without being punished by the narrative. She’s allowed to go on a journey which does not diminish any of her power – her goddess is the Morrigan which really tells you a lot. I loved that Anna McKerrow did this.

I also love that Anna McKerrow does such interesting things with plot and worldbuilding; the story never quite went where I thought it would, insignificant characters from Crow Moon become suddenly important and then I thought back and realised it had been foreshadowed, and similarly small plotpoints were expanded on in really pleasing ways. Goddesses intervene. People make mistakes. There are curses. The land fights back. It’s bloody brilliant.

Rating: read this book. Be wary of the crows…

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