Ravencry – Ed McDonald

One of my favourite debuts last year was Ed McDonald‘s Blackwing.  This dark and brooding tale of Ryhalt Galharrow, his lost lady love, and the horrible menace of the Deep Kings was fresh and compelling.  McDonald returns that world with the second book in his Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry (review copy from Gollancz).

In Ravencry, we pick up Galharrow’s story four years later.  The Deep Kings were driven back from Valengrad, but at huge cost.  Galharrow is now a hero, with his Blackwings well funded and resourced by a grateful city.  He uses his knowledge and skill to root out threats to the city, including spies and creatures of the Deep Kings.  The cult of the Bright Lady is taking root in the city, with people having visions of a beautiful woman they believe will save the city from its enemies, offering hope rather than the dark pragmatism of the city’s normal rulers.  One of Galharrow’s childhood friends has come to Valengrad, and he is thick with the leaders of the Bright Lady’s cult.

Second books are always tricky.  They need to advance the story, provide enough self-contained pay off in their own right without over-topping the series finale, and help to set up the final book.  McDonald pulls off that tricky second book in style.  We learn more about Galharrow and his world, with a trip to the Misery that shows us the measure of the Blackwing Captain.  The ending has real peril and high stakes.  We see how the hope offered by the Bright Lady’s cult is so attractive that it supplants all rational logic and sense.  And we see how the unscrupulous are willing to exploit situations for their own self-interest.

Fabulous.  I can’t wait for the series finale.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there.  You know the drill: a mysterious happening brings civilisation to its knees.  People living in the aftermath scrabble around living on tinned food.  Our protagonist is the one who gets to the heart of what happens and (in the more optimistic ones) is able to fix it. See The Feed, Station Eleven and The Space Between The Stars – all of which are really excellent examples of the genre.

Where Peng Shepherd‘s The Book of M (review copy from Harper Voyager) differs is that the cause of the apocalypse is not a mysterious virus or act of terrorism.  This is a fantasy take on the apocalypse, rather than a science fictional one.  Starting in India, people start losing their shadows.  And the shadowless start to gain the ability to change reality, but at the price of losing their memories.  As the problem begins to spread, society starts to break down.

Our protagonists are Max and Ory.  They were at the wedding of two friends in a remote location when the Forgetting starts to hit the USA.  Slowly the community at the wedding hotel starts to disperse, until only Max and Ory are left.  Max loses her shadow, and her husband Ory looks after her, in the knowledge that eventually she will forget even him.  Unable to bear it, Max eventually leaves, following mysterious graffiti and rumours that someone in the deep South may hold a cure for the Forgetting.

Unfortunately, The Book of M fails to add anything fresh to the post-apocalyptic genre beyond its new, fantastical premise.  The novel dwells on the importance of memories in how they shape and form the essence of a person.  But the Forgetting is never adequately explained and – although the story is competently told and Shepherd writes with a beautiful prose style – the novel lacks some of the deep insight into the human condition and how we cope with chaos and crisis that other sister books offer.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

FO: Carry On Fingerless Mitts

I love fingerless mitts.  They keep your hands warm, particularly in those in-between days of spring and autumn.  You can still use your touchscreen phone, eat snacks, and root in your bag for keys/tissue/money etc but you still have toasty hands.  And you can curl the tips of your fingers up inside to keep them warm on the chillier days.

I love them, but I never seem to have enough pairs.  At minimum I want a pair in the pocket of every coat that co-ordinates.  But I’m not there yet.

So when I was in France on holiday earlier this year, sitting in 30+ degree heat, what I decided I wanted to do was make some fingerless mitts for the cooler autumn to come.  I finished the first of this pair while I was there, but in typical style didn’t get round to the second until quite a bit after getting home.

These are Carry On Fingerless Mitts, the pattern by a designer Cheryl Chow.  It’s an incredibly clever design, with the stranded colourwork flowing brilliantly from one round into the next.

The yarn is Navia Duo, a wonderful sportweight blend of Faroese and Shetland wool.  It’s gloriously sheepy, and its stickiness makes it perfect for colourwork.  Although it feels rough in the hand it knits up into a beautifully soft fabric. I love the contrast of the beautifully bright and sunny yellow with the marled charcoal grey.  Guaranteed to bright up a dull day.

The slightly heavier weight was also a good test bed for stranded colourwork in the round on small diameter projects.  In the past I’ve made my floats far too tight and ended up with some odd results.  In this case I made extra efforts to get them loose and it’s worked well.

And – seriously – if people see you knitting stranded colourwork in the round on DPNs, with a colour held in each hand, they will think you are working Actual Witchcraft.

 

Life, Honestly – The Pool

I’ve loved The Pool‘s journalism right from the start.  Funny, honest, intelligent writing about life, relationships, careers, family, beauty and fashion from some fantastic women writers, much of it with a strong feminist perspective. And an interesting business model too – founded by Sam Baker (journalist) and Lauren Laverne (broadcaster) and tapping into a lot of freelance writing talent.  This is a model that has supported women fitting their writing around family and other commitments, and has provided a brilliant platform for emerging voices.

To celebrate their third anniversary, the website has published Life, Honestly (review copy from Bluebird), a collection of some of their best writing.  If you’re a regular reader of The Pool you will recognise most of these pieces, and there won’t be much here for you.  But Life, Honestly stands well as a snapshot and collection of contemporary women’s writing.  Freed from some of the commercial constraints of women’s print journalism, which relies on puff pieces, advertorials, and pernicious body-shaming, The Pool has given us a better insight into what it’s like to be a modern, professional woman in the 21st century.

Witty, authentic and passionate in turns, reading Life, Honestly is like talking to your girlfriends over a glass of wine.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley

Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be Harry.  Harimad-sol – laprun minta and damalur-sol.  With a chestnut warhorse, a pet leopard, a magic sword and the ability to make desert kings fall hopelessly in love with me while I saved the world.

Robin McKinley‘s The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favourite novels, and a comfort book  that I pull out for regular re-reading.  First published in 1982 it tells the story of Harry Crewe, an orphan sent to the farthest reaches of the British Empire, where her brother, Richard, is serving in the military.  The tomboyish Harry slowly falls in love with the wilds of Daria (as the Empire calls it) and learns that she is not the only Homelander who feels that way.  She is kidnapped by Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, after his magic Gift prompts him to do it, trains as a warrior and ultimately saves the day by defeating the Northern demon-king.

So far, so typical for a YA novel: heroic young woman comes of age and saves the day when none of the adults will listen to her.  But there is much to lift The Blue Sword above the pack, despite its flaws.

This is a novel about colonialism.  It falls prey to Orientalism in the way that it romanticises Daria.  And Harry is a bit of a White Saviour (we learn Harry has mixed race ancestry late in the book, but culturally she is wholly British).  We see very little from or about the viewpoints of those living under colonial rule – they are nameless, faceless servants and tradespeople.

But McKinley shows us the fragility of colonial rule at the edges of Empire.  Authority is notional at best, based on lines drawn on maps and the presence of a small number of Empire administrators, diplomats and military, who live in a self-contained immigrant bubble.  There is little investment or interest in the place beyond the amount of the map that can be coloured pink, and the availability of natural resources (profitable mines in the area).

Language and miscommunication are key themes in The Blue Sword.  The colonial habit of renaming things and places out of arrogance or the inability to pronounce indigenous words.  Corlath is king of Damar, not of the Hillfolk.  The main town has been renamed Istan by the Empire in place of its real name Ihistan, and the pass known as Ritger’s Gap by the colonisers is the Madamer Gate to the people of Damar.  Miscommunication extends to cultural concepts and rituals: “those funny patched sashes the Hillfolk wear”.  The few translators struggle, emphasising the separation between Damarian and Homelander.

Harry is the bridge between Damar and Empire – an uncomfortable place to be, caught between two worlds.  And McKinley’s message is one that success happens when these cultures work together in a spirit of shared endeavour and mutual respect for different perspectives and traditions.  Diplomacy rather than colonisation is the right approach – but it is one that requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Quantum Magician – Derek Kunsken

Don’t be fooled by the title – Derek Kunsken‘s The Quantum Magician (review copy from Solaris) isn’t a rip off of Hannu Rajaniemi’s bonkers space opera The Quantum Thief.  It may feature a similarly charming con-man protagonist, but instead is a delightfully engaging heist story.  This is Ocean’s 11 in space.

Belisarius (Bel) Arjona is the titular Quantum Magician – genetically engineered to be able to enter various altered mental states in order to examine the fabric of the universe.  One of those states involves complete suppression of identity, in order to avoid the phenomenon of the observer collapsing quantum states.  But something has gone wrong in Bel’s breeding – entering these states is likely to lead to his death, and he spends his life as a con-man because the challenge is the only thing that will distract him from the addictive pull of his training.  Living in a complex, multi-cultural society dealing with the mix of messy emotions and complexity that make up most sentient beings is a much greater intellectual challenge than studying physics in a laboratory.

Bel is approached with the job of a lifetime – smuggle some military spaceships through a wormhole.  The wormhole is the main route from one part of the galaxy to another, and access is tightly controlled.  These military ships belong to a colony civilisation desperate to make a strike for independence.  Moving the warships will put them in the right place to make a surprise military strike.  Bel’s fee for this work is two small ships equipped with a brand new drive technology that will be worth a fortune.  But the real prize for him is the chance to observe wormhole physics from the inside – data he would never have been able to gather if he’d stayed on his home planet.

What lifts The Quantum Magician above the usual run of heist stories is the characterisation and world-building.  Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Bel is using this job as a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues – including his old lover Cassandra; Saint Matthew, the most advanced AI ever created; an explosives expert; Bel’s former con-man mentor; and a genetically engineered sea creature who is an expert pilot able to operate a high pressure and high g.  Bel has personal debts to pay to some of these people, and wants to work with people he trusts, but this for him is mostly about the chance to connect with people he knows as part of a team in order to address his fundamental loneliness.  Much of the early part of the book is Bel pulling his team together and planning the elaborate heist.  The actual heist itself delivers on tension and unexpected developments, bringing an exciting climax to the story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

FO: Decca

After the lovely, but interminable browns of my Imperator Curiosa socks, I wanted something much more cheerful – and a bit faster to knit.

This is Decca.  As per the rules of this A-Z challenge, it’s my D pattern, designed by Rachel Coopey.  The pattern is very simple, with a repeated lace panel on the front and back of the foot/leg, and plain panels of stocking stitch in between.  Very quick to knit, and very easy to memorise.

The yarn is Hedgehog Fibres Sock, a 90% merino and 10% nylon blend.  This is a brand that is highly sought after for colourful saturated dyeing, often with lots of speckles.  This is one of the Potluck colourways – with some lovely spring pinks and greens, with flashes of orange along the way.  It was the perfect antidote to all that brown. My one gripe is that it was quite a splitty yarn – and untwisted significantly during a long-tail cast on.

The plainer pattern for these socks means that it isn’t drowned out too much by the colour, or vice versa.  It’s certainly making me feel much bolder about using colour in projects.