The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

Last year’s The Bear and the Nightingale was one of my favourite reads of the year: a feel-good adventure story about a young girl overcoming a threat to her village with the help of the fairies and other mythical beings that live near her Russian home.  The Girl in the Tower (review copy from Penguin Random House) is the sequel, and second book in the trilogy.

The Girl in the Tower picks up straight after the events of the first book.  Mourning her family and lacking a place in the world, Vasya decides to try her luck in the world, riding out dressed as a boy and with a pocket full of silver.  She finds herself on the trail of bandits burning villages, before accidentally meeting up with her brother Sasha, travelling to Moscow and finding herself pitted against another of Morozko the frost demon’s bitter enemies.  

This is a classic – and winning – formula.  A tomboyish girl fighting against the gendered conventions of her time, a magical horse, adventure, peril and a happy ending.  Arden ups the stakes in this sequel, with Vasya also fighting to save her niece from a cloistered life as a Russian noblewoman within the even more constrained environment of the Moscow court.  Vasya continues to be impulsive, wilful and an utter delight.

Tremendous fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*


The Feed – Nick Clark Windo

2018 is already shaping up to be a fantastic year for fiction.  The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (review copy from Headline) is a thought-provoking post-apocalyptic tale about social media, climate change and identity.  It masterfully blends themes with a lightness of touch and real emotional punch.

In Clark Windo’s near-future, we are all permanently connected to each other through brain implants and the Feed: a lightning fast social media link that connects us all at the speed of thought.  Privacy is no more as people increasingly live their lives digitally, storing their knowledge, memories and experiences on servers and backing themselves up each day.  But that safe, complex world collapses suddenly when the Feed goes down, shortly after the assassination of the President.  The shock kills many, leaving only a few left, trying to eke out life in the ruins. 

Tom, Kate and their young daughter Bea are among their number, living in a small community on a farm. Relying on the Feed has left them with little or no knowledge of how to survive.  They don’t know how to grow food, cook, build or repair things.  But with the help of a couple of older people who remember life pre-Feed, they are trying to rebuild knowledge and a life.  Until Bea is kidnapped one day, triggering Tom and Kate to search for her.  A search that inevitably takes them on a journey of understanding that reveals the real cause of the collapse.  

Clark Windo plays with some of the tropes of genre fiction, giving them a contemporary update.  This is a novel that nods towards classic horror staples with a Survivors-style post-apocalyptic vibe and a distinctly literary fiction interiority.  The immediate aftermath of the Feed collapsing creates zombies unable to function and unused to having to speak.  And pervasive throughout the novel is a body-snatchers horror of a person’s implant being used to have them taken over by an alien consciousness.  In a post-collapse world without the intimacy of directly-shared thoughts and where the ability to read body language and facial expressions is a skill that has ossified, people are forced to ask themselves how they know who a person close to them really is.

Tom is particularly well-drawn.  As a son of the family responsible for the creation of the Feed technology, he has chosen to reject his place.  He is characterised by the desire to forget the past, to find ways to live on and to be self-sufficient.  The oblivion of forgetting and being forgotten is his first response to any trauma.  Yet he cherishes his memories of his relationship with Kate, clinging on to them through adversity.  
There is a climate change undertone to all this too.  The Feed consumes huge amounts of energy.  Our social media habits are putting increasing pressures on power supplies.  (All so we can share cat videos and photos of our lunch.)  Clark Windo asks if this is really worth the eventual price.  

Goodreads rating: 5*

On Blakes 7, 40 years on

40 years ago marked the first transmission of the first episode of a television show that has shaped my life in a whole host of ways.  

img_2389I was 9 months old when Blakes 7 started, and 4 when it finished.  It’s one of my earliest memories of television, and is something that has been a part of my life throughout.  Lots has ben written about the significance of this bit of 1970s BBC science fiction: its place in a world shaped by Thatcher and IRA terrorism, its gritty aesthetic compared to the other new kid on the block in Star Wars, its ground-breaking attempts to tell whole-series story arcs, its low budget character focused story lines, and its famously down-beat ending.  I won’t attempt to replicate any of that.  Go and read one of the excellent histories or essays about the show if you need to.  This one on Strange Horizons, which was nominated for a BSFA Award, is particularly good.  

As well as being one of my earliest television memories, Blakes 7 has cropped up at two other key moments in my life.  

img_2393Imagine if you will, impressionable, hormonal, teenage me, finding repeats of Blakes 7 on UK Gold.  Dimly remembered, but not seen since early childhood, watching it again felt like rediscovering something strange-yet-familiar.  Week after week, I’d sit there on a Saturday lunchtime, to the bemusement of my family, watching an old tv show play out.  Week after week it got more and more familiar.  People joke about Servalan being my first female role model, and shaping my career choices; about my fondness for bad boys dressed  head to toe in leather, preferably ones with razor-sharp cheekbones and a good line in cutting remarks.  (Little did hormonal teenage me realise that her dreams of one day having Avon in her bedroom would one day be fulfilled.  Albeit with seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.) More significantly though, Blakes 7 has shaped my tastes in fiction and drama towards the dark, complex, tragic and political, starring adult characters with histories that complicate their present lives.  I look at my book and DVD shelves and see those stories reflected back at me.  (Seriously – the gut-punch of ‘Rumours of Death’ and the tragedy of ‘Blake’ are positively Shakesperean, and I’m a sucker for UST wherever I can find it.)

img_2172Imagine if you also will, a time around six years ago.  I was coming out of a rough patch, and one of the signs that I was coming back to myself was an unprecedented appetite for story.  I was consuming it like it was going out of fashion, desperately craving box sets to binge on.  This was the moment when long-form story-telling was beginning to hit its stride of being the place where really interesting things were happening.  In a very short space of time I’d gone through Battlestar Galactica (having missed it when it first aired for some reason), Mad Men, Sherlock and Borgen.  I needed something to tide me over until the 6 Nations rugby started again that February.  A kind friend loaned me her Blakes 7 DVDs and once again I’d found what I needed to fill that story-shaped hole.  

img_2394One of the other things I was doing at that time was mixing up my social life a bit.  I’d got stuck in a rut, and frankly it was getting pretty boring.  Id used to have adventures and done exciting things, but for some reason that had all slipped away.  One of the things I did was adopt a rule of saying yes to everything unless I had a very good reason to say no to it.  That combined with some idle Googling found me taking a day off work to go to Hastings for a charity lunch.  One thing led to another and Blakes 7 fandom opened the door to an amazing group of wonderful people that I am proud to call friends, and some fantastic experiences.  

img_2390Tonight I will sit down and watch ‘The Way Back’.  I haven’t watched Blakes 7 all the way through since that last rewatch six years ago.  Who knows what it will bring for me this time?


Dogs of War РAdrian Tchaikovsky 

Fresh from Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky gives us yet another fresh take on a classic.  Dogs of War (review copy from Head of Zeus) is a glorious updating of H G Wells classic The Island of Dr Moreau.  Told entirely from the viewpoint of bioengineered animal soldiers, this is a story of choices, ethics and overcoming our collecive limitations.

Rex is a dog soldier, and the leader of an experimental squad of similar bioengineered beings.  His squad-mates are Bees, an artificial intelligence distributed across a swarm of insects, Honey, a bear who is a heavy weapons specialist, and Dragon, a sniper lizard with chameleon-like powers to blend into the background.  The squad are under the direct control of their creator, Murray, with the control mechanisms plaing on Rex’s canine instincts to serve his human master, reinforced with a feedback chip that rewards and punishes.  

Rex’s squad are being trialled in a guerilla conflict in South America.  The use of bioengineered soldiers opens up new combat options, and the distance between commanding officer and battlefield changes judgements about risk and tactics.  It quickly becomes apparent that Murray has become involved in war crimes, including the illegal use of chemical weapons.  Rex’s squad are being used to cover up the evidence.  The issue is finally exposed when Rex’s unit become cut off from Murray’s command, and come to the aid of a village Murray is targeting to cover up a previous chemical attack.  Rex’s actions open up the question of Bioform autonomy, leading to a change in their legal status.
Dogs of War is a story of growth, change and evolution, as Rex and the other Bioforms transcend their limited beginnings.  Tchaikovsky’s strength as a writer shines through in the way he brings forward so much depth in a story told for the most part by a first person narrator with a very limited perspective.  Rex grows and changes over the novel, in large part as a result of his friendship with Honey, who forces him to stretch his thinking and understanding, first through making his own choices about right and wrong, and then as a leader of his Bioform people.  

For the most part this is an optimistic story about growth, change and the evolution of sentient beings.  But it is tempered with caution about the impact technological change canhave if not subject to proper regulation and control.  There is an element of body horror to Dogs of War, as Tchaikovsky shows us the potential of mis-using this technology in the novel’s climactic finale.

Most of all, it’s impossible not to warm to Rex and his squad-mates.  Good dog, Rex.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Of Women – Shami Chakrabarti

I suppose it was inevitable that at some point renowned human rights campaigner Shami Chakrabarti would want to say her piece on gender issues.  Of Women (review copy from Penguin) is that book: a take on modern, intersectional feminism, grounded in the language of human rights.  

Of Women is a classic articulation of the principles of third-wave feminism, allowing for and embracing the ideals of diversity and individuality, in a way that accommodates differences of emphasis and culture.  As you would expect, this is a book that is very strong on the interaction between gender issues and other protected characteristics, and with a strong global focus.  The whole is backed up with a strong evidence base and good argument.  Although each chapter is focused on a particular theme (home, work etc), Chakrabarti draws out the inter-connections between these issues well.  

Where Of Women is weaker, though, is in its solution to many of these issues.  Chakrabarti identifies the way gender issues harm men as much as they do women, but offers little in the way of solution.  And apart from some brief reflections about her own family history of migration and her mother, there is little here that is personal.  And at times Chakrabarti descends into the party political in a way that serves to undermine the arguments that she is making.  

This is a book that articulates the arguments and evidence for third-wave feminism well, but adds little that is new to the public discourse.  

Goodreads rating: 3*

Austral – Paul McAuley

There’s a trend at the moment for ‘cli-fi’ – fiction dealing with climate change, its impact on the world and its consequences.  Paul McAuley is the latest to join the trend with Austral, (review copy from Gollancz).  

The titular Austral is a husky – genetically altered to thrive in the harsh environment of a settled and terraformed Antarctic that has been made habitable by climate change.  Huskies were created by the ecopoets – a radical sect of environmentalists committed to creating a new, biologically diverse Antactica.  But their vision for ecodiversity and sustainable slow change is not one that meshes with the need for immediate profit form the corporate entities exploiting Antarctica.  The genetic modifications that huskies have undergone are viewed with suspicion by unmodified humans, and they are treated as second class citizens, subject to travel restrictions and with limited rights.  Orphaned at a young age, Austral has grown up with bigotry and exploitation, struggling to find a place for herself in a world that will not let her fill the niche her parents envisaged.

The novel opens with Austral working as a prison guard, and the lover of a human organised criminal.  He continues to run his crime gang from within prison, relying on corrupt prison guards.  Through his abusive and exploitative relationship with Austral, he persuades her to take a key role in his plan to kidnap the daughter of a prominent politician, who is a distant cousin of Austral’s.  When the plan inevitably goes wrong, Austral finds herself on the run with her cousin across the frozen wastes of Antarctica.  As they are chased, Austral’s story is shown to us through a series of flashbacks.

I confess to being underwhelmed by Austral.  The main story is little more than an extended chase sequence.  While the novel has some interesting things to say about human modification, bigotry and the choices that face us about how we use and safeguard our natural environment, these issues were underexplored, with a fairly superficial treatment.  While entertaining and competently written, Austral is not a book that delivers much to excite or engage the reader.

Goodreads rating: 3*

FO: Thirteen

I hadn’t expected to be as moved as I was by the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor.  I thought it would be just another announcement when it happened.  We’d all debate it furiously for a few days, speculate wildly, and then move on to the next thing.  

But all around me I saw legions of women profoundly affected by a simple casting choice.  Finally we would get to be the heroes of our own stories, rather than just the Companion along for the ride.  We could save the world, be brave and courageous, kind and clever too.  In a year where our childhood princesses had become Generals, all those playground games where we’d centred ourselves, all that female-led fan-fiction, was finally validated.  
Representation matters.

Over the summer there was a glorious flurry of cosplay, from the TARDIS full of bras to people urgently trying to find grey hoodies to replicate that first, precious sight of the 13th Doctor.  But the moment that hit me was in early November when the first image of Whittaker’s Doctor in her new costume were released to the press.

I saw that and my knitterly heart skipped a beat.  Cosplay and craft has always been one of my favourite ways of engaging with story, and all of a sudden I wanted that sweater and to be wearing it in a way I haven’t felt for a long time.  I needed to be putting my own mark on the 13th Doctor, and this was my way of doing it.

I immediately started searching on Ravelry for top down sweater patterns I could adapt.  And I found myself near a branch of John Lewis with time to kill the following day.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool to have a sweater finished in time to wear for the Christmas special?  I’ve done NaKniSweMo before, so this should be possible, especially as most of it is plain.  

Cue 6 and a half weeks of furious knitting.  I finally finished this afternoon, just in time for the Christmas special.  

The pattern is Take It Easy by Annamaria Otvos, which is a simple seamless top-down sweater with set-in sleeves.  I used Rowan Felted Tweed DK.  It’s lovely to work with, has a good range of colours and the stripes mostly came out of leftovers from other projects.  You can find the details fo the colours I used and in what order on my project page on Ravelry.  Suffice to say, it took a degree of angsting over that single, very over-processed picture, and quite a bit of swatching to get colours and a sequence I was happy with.  

If it turns out the sleeves are striped as well I’ll scream.