Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

Imagine if you will, a low-peril version of Harry Potter.  That is Tamora Pierce‘s Tempests and Slaughter (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a middle-grade story following three young friends at Carthak’s university for magicians.  Arram Draper is young and powerful, but lacks control over his magic.  He is fiercely intelligent, but naive and from a distant island.  Varice is a young woman with a bit more knowledge of how the world works.  Ozorne is a spare heir of the Emperor, being trained in war magic.  I understand that these are characters that play a significant part in the author’s other novels.  But as someone who hasn’t read any of the other books the beats here are predictable – Arram and Varice will end up together, and Ozorne will end up as Emperor.

The book follows the schooling of this trio.  There are lots of details of their lessons (Arram’s timetable for each term is set out in painstaking detail) and trips out, and some rivalries and fallings out with fellow students.  But it’s all pretty … bland.  All the teachers are sympathetic, including the grumpy ones.  There is little sense of peril or conflict in the book.  Even the ending was underwhelming, and I was left surprised that the book had finished.  Surely there was meant to be something more climactic.

Underwhelming, inoffensive fluff.

Goodreads rating: 2*

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FOs: Wowligan, Wabbit and Whales

There was an outbreak of babies in the office late last year.  So true to form I pulled out my stash of Baby Cashmerino and got knitting some baby cardigans.  Because there were three babies on the way it gave me the chance to make a few things and give the parents a choice from multiple things for their new arrivals.

By accident or design, all three projects have ended up with a wildlife theme to them.

Wowligan is a baby sized version of Kate Davies’s iconic O w l s sweater.  Here I’ve made it in a cheerful toffee coloured yarn.  I left off buttons for the owl eyes on this version, to avoid choking hazards.

I fell in love with The Wabbit as soon as I saw the pattern, so I was really glad to have the excuse to make it.  Who wouldn’t love a parade of cute colourwork bunnies round the yoke of a cardigan?  This was a great project for using up scraps and leftovers from earlier projects.  (You may recognise some of the colours here from my previous baby projects – yes, that is the toffee from Wowligan for the bunnies.)

Finally, we have Save the Baby Whales.   This has a very cute set of colourwork whales running round the lower body.  They mirror, which makes it pleasingly symmetrical.

Much as I love knitting for babies, I’m hoping there won’t be another run of work pregnancies, as it’s been really great to be able to get back to knitting things for me.

Rejoice – Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my favourite fantasy series.  It has rich, deep worldbuilding; strong emotional power; subtle interiority to a strong ensemble cast; world-shattering epic impact; and an emotional punch that regularly reduced me to tears.  I was really excited to see what Erikson could do with Rejoice (review copy from Gollancz) – a  first contact science fiction novel.

Oh dear, was I disappointed.

There is nothing in Rejoice of the Erikson I know and love from the Malazan books.  What he’s given us is painfully obvious polemic with thinly disguised self-insertion.

The main character in Rejoice is Samantha August, a reasonably famous science fiction writer who is kidnapped by aliens to be their interlocutor to humanity.  August is chosen because the aliens like her work.  She is well-known and her vlogging about climate change and associated issues has led the aliens to believe she will be sympathetic to their plans to save Earth’s biome from environmental collapse by taking drastic interventionist action.

What follows is a sequence of crudely written interventions by the aliens.  They render weapons ineffective, protect habitats and restore migratory routes, and tackle food and energy scarcity.  These are written with an aliens-know-best sensibility that minimises the impact of imposing solutions like these on the Earth’s population.  And interspersed with bits of woo-woo philosophy about Earth’s diverse biome containing all the solutions to humanity’s problems.  There is no subtlety here whatsoever.  At least not in the 20% I read before giving up.

Rejoice is a poor shadow of other books dealing with the same issues.  Instead of this, read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which relates similar alien intervention designed to heal the Earth with the experience of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.  Or Sherri S Tepper’s The Fresco, which writes the same scenario as a Swiftean satire.

Goodreads rating: 1*

Killer T – Robert Muchamore

Killer T by Robert Muchamore (review copy from Bonnier Zaffre) was a frustrating read. It promised much, but failed to deliver.

The novel opens with us meeting the teenaged Harry and Charlie in the wake of a bombing at Harry’s school.  Charlie is framed for the bombing by a local crime boss.  Harry is an aspiring journalist who sees the bombing as the chance to cover a major story.  The two become friends, with Harry nurturing a major crush on Charlie.  The novel jumps through various episodes in their lives as they grow up.  Harry runs a successful local news website.  Charlie works in illegal gene-editing. Running in the background of the story is the growth of gene-editing technologies, and the way they are used to create viruses that wipe out large proportions of the population, leaving Harry and Charlie trying to make a living in the aftermath.

The book is a bit of a mess.  It’s never clear what the story is, beyond following Harry and Charlie.  And just as we reach anything resembling an exciting event or development where we could see the role Harry and Charlie play and how they respond to the world-shaping events going on around them, the author jumps us forward in time.  At best we get a bit of restrospective recall from them about how the events played out.  This distances the reader from the events of the book, with the bulk of the narrative focusing on slice-of-life type interactions.

And the characters are horribly written, particularly the women.  Charlie is written as over-sexualised jailbait at the age of 13, and as an older teenager will sleep with the first boy to buy her booze.  Her sister is unrealistically selfish, narcissistic and evil.  Charlie’s employer is a stereotype of a counter-culture person who becomes a boringly mainstream business owner and suburban mom.  Harry’s aunt is a distant workaholic.  All of them are shallow and not very well formed.  It’s a real shame.

Disappointing.

Goodreads rating: 1* 

Foundryside – Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s always really exciting to see a fresh take on the fantasy genre that gets away from tired tropes and recycled plotlines.  Foundryside from Robert Jackson Bennett (review copy from Jo Fletcher books) does exactly that.  This is the story of Sancia, a talented thief with a very special set of skills, who is hired to steal a box.  She makes the mistake of looking inside, and what she finds inside – a sentient gold key that speaks to her telepathically – turns her life and world upside down, thrusting her into the midst of a conflict between the big artisan houses that control the city of Tevanne.

Each House jealously guards its intellectual property: a language that lets it build and sell magical artifacts.  But the Houses are desperate to track down ancient artifacts that might enable a step change in what they can design and build.  There are rumours of a secret language known by the ancients that would let them change the world, not just create localised effects that bend its rules.  An archaelogical dig on a remote island on the far side of the world has created rumours that ancient artifacts could be found, prompting a bidding war between the Houses desperate to lay their hands on any item that can be found.  Clef – the gold key that Sancia steals – is one of those items, with the ability to open any lock, however complicated.  Sancia finds herself pursued by people wanting to recover Clef, and Gregor, a police officer who wants to catch her for the original break in where she stole the box.

Sancia is a brilliantly written character.  A metal plate in her head has gifted with a talent that enables her to feel and understand the shape and size of anything she touches physically.  She can put her hand on the wall of a building and understand its full layout.  This makes breaking into buildings and stealing things remarkably easy for her.  But the talent comes with a price.  She can’t touch another human being and finds contact with people, clothes and objects overwhelming and painful.  She is saving up to have the plate removed, believing she has found a surgeon willing to do it.  The traumatic past that resulted in her acquiring the metal plate and living in the margins of Tevanne is slowly revealed as the book goes on.

The setting of Tevanne and its magic system is particularly fresh and interesting.  It imports concepts from computer programming into a fantasy magic system in a fascinating way.  The Houses control giant Lexicons defining detailed strings of magical instructions that can then be combined to make artifacts.  Each House has its own specialists responsible for maintaining and expanding the Lexicons and using the instructions to create new magical items.  Those specialists are fiercely intelligent and extremely protective of their work.  But each House’s language is also pirated by artisans living outside House walls, where there are no rules and no law to be enforced.  The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and the writer has a lot to say about the exploitation of people, and those who treat them as just one more asset.

This is a fun and pacy adventure with a rewarding reveal as the book progresses.  It sets up well for a sequel, which I will look forward to.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Ishneich

Time for another FO.

This is Ishneich.  Pattern by Lucy Hague, part of her Celtic Cable Shawls collection.

This is another project that continues to push my knitting boundaries.  I’ve tried once again to be a bit bolder with use of colour.  This is a two-colour shawl, but this time it mixes two colours – one semi-solid, one variegated – rather than a colour with a neutral.

This is also a project with a new technique for me – closed loop cables.  This is a technique perfect for creating Celtic-inspired knotwork like in this pattern.  It’s definitely the trickiest set of charts I’ve ever worked with.  Long chart repeats combined with cabling on both sides and a garter stitch background required a lot of concentration and faith in the pattern.  Particuarly as to deliver the elegant sweeps in the cabling there is little predictability in the charts.

But I’m really delighted with how it’s come out.  It’s a grown up shawl, big on texture rather than fussiness of lace.  And the 4 ply yarn means it will eb snuggly and relatively robust.

The yarn is Qing Fibre Merino Single in Okinami (the semi-solid teal) and Elderwood (the variegated).  Definitely a dyer worth looking at if you like super-saturated and sophisticated dyeing.

One of Us – Craig diLouie

Who are the monsters?  That is the question Craig diLouie asks us in his staggeringly powerful novel One of Us (review copy from Orbit).  Set in the 1980s, this is a novel that examines how society reacts to the Other.  In this case, a group of children who have suffered mutations as a result of an incurable sexually transmitted disease carried by their parents.  Ostracised and raised in special homes separate from polite society, these children are beginning to manifest special powers and as they approach adulthood that sparks questions about the future role they will play in society.

One of Us mixes up the moral panic of the 1980s AIDS epidemic with a healthy dose of racism and the consequences of the thalidomide scandal. People infected with the virus are ostracised, often hiding their infection and denying the mutated children they’ve borne.  Infection is associated with sexual promiscuity and immorality.  A new Puritanism has struck the country, with abstinence taught to young people in order to prevent the further spread of the virus and the creation of more mutated children.

Children who suffer from teratogenesis are kept apart in special institutions where they are fed, educated and used as slave labour in local businesses.  They are subjected to cruelty and poor conditions from staff who work there because they are not able to get jobs anywhere else.  Abuse and torture lead to injuries and death, with the authorities turning a blind eye.  The children are seen as a burden on society, and a drain on taxpayers, rather than as people deserving of life and respect.  They are taught that they are undeserving, with information strictly controlled and only the most basic education provided.  But when some of the children start to manifest interesting abilities the Government sees opportunity, and starts to look at how the children can be exploited for the good of the nation.

One of Us is a brilliant study of how people are Othered, and how prejudice manifests and perpetuates itself within communities through fear and peer pressure.  Focusing on a group of young people – both with and without teratogenesis – it shows how similar we all are.  The desire for a better, more compassionate, future can unite us.  diLouie also shows us how prejudice and mistreatment carries within it the seeds of revolution and rebellion.  If every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction, then we should not be surprised that systemic prejudice and abuse will eventually lead those who are marginalised to push back.

This is a powerful and disturbing morality tale about humanity’s capacity for darkness, but also its fortitude, compassion and willingness to push for change.

Goodreads rating: 5*