Borne – Jeff VanderMeer

Borne is quintessential VanderMeer (review copy from 4th Estate).  It is a subtle, slippery, tricksy novel, expertly telling a small story against the backdrop of a big world.

Rachel is a scavenger, living in a post-apocalyptic world blighted by mutated, out of control products of bio-engineering from The Company.  Chief among them is Mord, a giant psychotic flying bear that terrorises the residents of the city.  Rachel picks out a living at the margins of society, finding enough recoverable materials to eke out an existence, or to trade for food, water and other goods.  She lives with her lover, Wick, a former Company bio-engineer who spends his time making and fixing products, trading on his expertise and skills.

One day Rachel finds a strange creature entangled in Mord’s fur.  It’s an amorphous lump resembling a sea anemone.  Rachel brings it home, and names it Borne.  As Borne consumes he learns and grows, becoming an integral part of Rachel and Wick’s family, as well as the cause of tension between them.  But Borne is also the key and the catalyst for Rachel and Wick to get to the heart of the Company’s secrets with a view to finding a way out of their marginal existence.

VanderMeer’s regular themes of environmental change and the indifference of nature to humanity are highly prevalent in Borne.  The landscape in which Rachel and Wick live is a product of humanity’s actions and the damage caused by industry and uncontrolled bio-engineering.  Humanity is no longer the apex predator, and the natural world is not something for it exploit in pursuit of a comfortable standard of living and convenience.  Humanity must instead scratch a living in amongst the pollution and scarcity that its actions have created.  Ultimately, it must learn to live in harmony with this changing world, rather than seeking to change it further or escape it.

But Borne is also a story about memory and communication and our relationships with one another.  The novel is characterised by moments of misunderstanding, and the gulfs created between people by their unique histories and the difference of meaning and interpretation those lead to.  Our memories are fallible and we conceal as much about ourselves as we reveal to one another, even those we are closest to.  But the way we relate to one another can have profound effects.  Rachel’s parenting and raising of Borne shapes his world-view.  The ultimate blank canvas, he absorbs his values and view of the world from her and those ultimately come to guide his actions.

Jeff VanderMeer is one of my favourite writers of speculative fiction and I’ve been following his career with interest, ever since I picked up City of Saints and Madmen many years ago.  Always with a literary touch, he reveals deep truths about people and our relationships with each other and the world we live in.  Borne is another jewel he has added to the crown of genre fiction.

Goodreads rating: 5*

FO: Pavone

Time for a quick FO.  This is Pavone.

Lola from Third Vault Yarns had been looking for some volunteers to try out new yarn bases for her.  She’s had to replace her fabulous Echo DK because the mill no longer make the base.  This is Crazy 8 – one of the two possible replacements.  It’s similar to Echo, with the same bouncy feel and producing well-defined stitches for textured knitting.  But it’s not a DK.  This is very definitely a sportweight yarn.

As soon as I saw this colourway (it’s called Black Rose) I fell in love with it.  The subtle shading and variegation over the pink base gives it a very grown up feel.  I immediately knew it wanted to be a hat.  I don’t have nearly enough hand-knitted hats, but I went immediately to the undisputed champion hat designer for this slouchy beanie pattern.  Woolly Wormhead’s hats are very contemporary in feel and design, always with interesting construction (though I wimped on the recommended cast on, going instead for a standard long tail).

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (review copy from Jo Fletcher) is a glorious tale of historical mystery, peopled with compelling eccentrics and drawing on a rich heritage of English folk tales.  It’s a compelling page-turner from start to finish.

Rotherweird is an isolated place.  Cut off from the rest of England since Tudor times, it exists under its own laws and rules under the custodianship of hereditary office-holders.  With his career in tatters, Jonah Oblong takes a job as history teacher at Rotherweird school, but under the stricture that all the history taught must be modern – nothing older than 1800.  Another outsider – Sir Veronal Slickstone – has bought the local manor house, which has been closed up since time immemorial.  He moves to the town with his wife (an actress) and his son (an urchin pulled off the street) and seeks to make big changes in the town.  The timing of Sir Veronal’s arrival is no accident.  Unbeknownst to the townspeople, Rotherweird’s past is about to come to the fore, putting all their lives at risk.  It’s up to Jonah Oblong and a band of Rotherweird inhabitants to solve the mystery and save the world by piecing together the past.

Rotherweird is unmistakably English as a novel.  It is steeped in a certain type of English folk tale, like the Lambton Worm, and draws on iconography around the Green Man and English folk rituals such as festivals and passion plays.  The Rotherweird raft race is straight out of a school of British local customs that bring you cheese rolling, bog snorkelling and Straw Bear Day.  And it is peopled by Great British Eccentrics throughout, all of whom are written with a delightful lightness of touch, while never falling into the trap of becoming simplistic or two-dimensional.

But Rotherweird is also a fantastically rewarding and convoluted mystery story.  Along with Jonah Oblong and friends the reader pieces together the history of Rotherweird and the Lost Acre, a place of fantasical flora and fauna that can only be reached through a special portal.  Although the story wraps up satisfyingly well, there are just enough loose ends left to keep the reader guessing.  Caldecott has a sequel planned: Wyntertide.  I for one, can’t wait.

Goodreads rating: 4*

All The Birds In The Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

There’s been a lot of buzz about the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky.  This seems to be largely driven by the author’s status as a recognisable ‘name’ in online pop culture journalism: she is one of the co-founders of io9.  The book has been nominated for the 2017 Best Novel award at the Hugos, and won the 2017 Nebula, so I was particularly interested to read it.

This is a charming novel about the relationship between Patricia and Laurence.  We first meet them both at school, where they band together as outsiders from the normal school culture.  He is a maths and science geek, she is a bookish and rather fey girl with a love of the outdoors who discovers a talent for magic.  The casual cruelties of school bullying and the expectations of their parents push Patricia and Laurence together, but their friendship suffers the tensions of a science v magic divide and they go their separate ways.  Of course, life throws them into one another’s paths once more as adults, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about how to save the world from a global crisis induced by climate change and scarce resources.

Where this novel is strongest is in the exploration of Patricia and Laurence’s friendship.  The shared experience of growing up weird and misunderstood is a tough one.  It throws the two together and has lasting effects on their friendships and relationships throughout their lives.  To that extent it’s reminiscent of books like Jo Walton’s Among Others.  But the novel suffers from a thinly drawn supporting cast, and the doomsday device v magical apocalypse plotline is resolved unsatisfactorily, with a rather predictable ‘you need both’ conclusion.

All The Birds In The Sky is zeitgeisty, but ultimately pretty forgettable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The House of Binding Thorns – Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel, The House of Shattered WingsBinding Thorns (review copy from Gollancz) picks up immediately after the cataclysmic events of Shattered Wings.

In de Bodard’s post-apocalyptic Paris, wealthy Houses are ruled by the Fallen, angels ejected from Heaven, but with no memory of why they were cast out, or their former lives.  The major houses provide a measure of protection for them, and a way of using their magical talents.  But as Shattered Wings showed, there are dark forces at play seeking to undermine the House structures.

But Binding Thorns takes a different tack to its predecessor, focusing on the much story of a strategic alliance House Hawthorn is seeking to make with the Annamite dragon kingdom under the Seine.  The existence of the dragons is known to very few and the product of France’s colonial past.  Paris has a substantial Annamite minority, living on the margins of society, many of them migrants or the descendants of migrants unable to return home.  It is natural that they would have brought their beliefs and supernatural beings to their new home.

It’s always exciting to find a work of speculative fiction that deals with post-colonialism, let alone one that does it so well.  As de Bodard makes clear in her Afterword, this is a novel that draws on the experience of colonial control through things like the Opium Wars.  Except the drug of choice that is slowly destroying the Paris dragon kingdom is angel essence, not opium.  And just like China, the trade in angel essence is a deliberate attempt to weaken and undermine the kingdom, making it ripe for a takeover.  The dissonance between Fallen and Annamite culture is portrayed incredibly well throughout the novel, whether through the starkest incompatibilities in the two magic systems, or the subtleties of cultural constructs.

The chance to explore another House is an exciting one.  House Hawthorn is an interesting contrast to Silverspires in the first novel.  We learn much more about its enigmatic leader Asmodeus.  Cruel and self-serving he may be, but he turns out to be much more complex than the pantomime villain of the first novel, and an incredibly sympathetic character.

The overall cast of characters remains strong and diverse.  It’s good to see motherhood portrayed, along with older women in positions of power and influence.  There are gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, as well as the obvious racial diversity of the Annamite and Fallen characters.

With the groundwork laid in its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns is a much more interesting and powerful novel.  de Bodard’s series is shaping up to be extremely interesting indeed.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Dancing Butterflies

I’ve been really remiss lately about posting knitting and craft content, but that means I have a pile of FOs to tell you about.

First up is D in my A-Z of shawls.  This is Dancing Butterflies.  The pattern is by Carfield Ma.

I’ve been trying to get a bit more adventurous with my colour choices when I knit.  In particular, I’ve been trying to experiment with more variegated yarns.  This is another amazing colourway from Lola of Third Vault Yarns.  It’s called Deep Space, and is a lovely rich mix of purple, turquoise and blue, on her heavy laceweight base Tesseract.  I’ve matched the yarn with some rainbow coated beads in the same colour mix – they look like the refraction of colours you get on spilled oil.

I was careful to pick a pattern for this yarn where the stitch count is constantly changing, to try to avoid pooling.  I was really paranoid about some patches of pooling that were appearing as I was making it, but they don’t show up nearly as much in the finished shawl as I thought they would.

I think the semi-circular shape helps avoid too much pooling.  And semi-circular shawls are just so wearable, aren’t they?!  This one is another that’s loosely inspired by the German lace designs of Niebling, giving those lovely complex designs.  The heavy laceweight means it’s quite a bit more open and less delicate than some other shawls I’ve made, but the bold design and colour choice mean it goes with so much.

Onto E.  If all goes well, she should be a real stunner of a shawl …

Want You Gone – Chris Brookmyre

Want You Gone is a pitch-perfect thriller from Chris Broomyre (review copy from Little Brown).  In this latest instalment of Brookmyre’s Parlabane novels, Jack is forced to address the twin challenges of cyber crime and online journalism, teaming up with a teenage hacker to uncover a plot to steal a new invention from a major biotechnology company.  Parlabane, increasingly feeling like a dinosaur in the digital age, is under pressure to deliver a big scoop for his new employers, but finds himself an unwitting victim when his hacker collaborator blackmails him into assisting them to break into that company and steal a prototype and plans for an unknown person.

The first thing to say is that this is an impeccably researched novel  Brookmyre really knows his stuff – or has some great research contacts – when it comes to writing about the threat and opportunity posed by the online world.  This is not a Stross or Doctorow style polemic.  It’s an authentic depiction of what is possible and the opportunities created by human folly and social engineering.

There is something wonderful about the odd couple team of Parlabane and Sam Morpeth coming together to solve the case.  Different generations, but both operating on the margins of the law.  Parlabane is more used to physically breaking into buildings to search for evidence for his stories, but Sam is a whizz at breaking into systems to achieve the same thing, without ever needing to pick a lock.  She is an incredibly convincing character: the shy, bullied teenager who escapes from a life of poverty into an online world where her alter ego is a renowned and super-confident hacker.  There are some lovely moments of humour in the novel where one has a solution to a problem the other has been wrestling with for ages.

The plot is full of twists and turns that will completely blindside you, and there are moments of real page-turning peril.  Want You Gone is one of Brookmyre’s best recent works.

Goodreads rating: 4*