Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence – Michael Marshall Smith

Michael Marshall Smith gives the familiar subject of marital breakdown a new twist in his novel Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence (review copy from Harper Voyager).  The titular Hannah Green is a young girl dealing with the break up of her parents’ marriage.  Her mother has left her father for a work colleague, and has moved from the West Coast of the USA to London.

The marriage break up is the unfeasibly mundane part of Hannah’s life.  So common a set of experiences and so frequently covered in fiction as to be unremarkable.  This is a well-trodden emotional journey for all the participants in it.

Hannah’s family story becomes interwoven with that of the Devil, when she is sent to stay with her grandfather for a while.  The Devil is trying to deal with a coup aimed at unseating him, and enlists the assistance of that same grandfather.  This allows Marshall Smith to take the domestic story on an abrupt jink to the side.  Introducing these supernatural elements lets him explore the family’s crisis in an allegorical manner, focusing on humanity’s ability to cause harm to family and friends.  It lacks no less of the emotional punch and impact of a traditional literary fiction treatment of these issues, but is delivered with a wry, sideways smile.

This is a heart-warming book that uses traditional genre tools to tackle a traditional literary fiction topic.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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Godsgrave – Jay Kristoff

Second novels can be difficult things, particularly the middle novel of a trilogy, which can never provide the resolution the reader is seeking.  So, how do you follow up a smash like NevernightJay Kristoff‘s  Godsgrave (review copy from Harper Voyager) takes Mia Corvere away from assassin school to pursue her mission of revenge against the people who unseated her father and executed him.

Godsgrave picked up after the cataclysmic event of the first novel – the Red Church is diminished, with many of its top echelons dead and its branch offices destroyed.  Now a fully fledged assassin, Mia is plying her trade, killing the great and the good to order, when she spots an opportunity to progress her revenge.  But it is one that may mean she must breach some of the most fundamental tenets of the Red Church, and will take her down a path that involves working with former enemies.

Mia Corvere engineers her way into gladiator school to earn a place at the biggest tournament of the year.  If she wins, she will have the opportunity to target her father’s killers.  But it is a life or death gamble – the survival rates from being a gladiator are low, and Mia rapidly finds out that her Red Church training will only take her so far.

In Godsgrave Mia’s single-minded focus on revenge begins to come under some pressure.  Time as a gladiator slave forces her to grow a social conscience about social and economic inequality.  But it also forces her to learn about the value of community and companionship, as she grows closer to her fellow gladiators.  There is not quite the same competitive culture that she experienced during her assassin training.

This greater social conscience adds depth to the novel, but takes away some of the sparkle of the first book.  Add that to some of those difficult middle novel issues, and Godsgrave doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Nevernight, but it’s still a great read.

Goodreads rating: 4*

On the lived experience of being a woman

Every year in October my employer does a survey of all staff to do a healthcheck of the team’s experience.  Every year I pause over two questions: in the last year have you personally experienced discrimination/bullying or harrassment?  I pause not because I’m trying to decide whether to click yes, but because I ask myself how many instances of discrimination and harrassment I would report if I had the chance.  And each year my employer clutches its pearls in horror when it sees the survey resuls on these two questions, without ever doing anything to address the underlying causes.

My dilemma is particularly acute this year, as the survey rolls out against the backdrop of the allegations and revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  It’s sadly still all too common that so many of us are experiencing discrimination and harassment.  But what is truly shocking is that it has become so normalised for so many of us that we often just treat it as part of the background noise of life that we have to deal with, while the rest seem genuinely surprised that it’s still an issue.  After all, we have equality now, don’t we?

To give you just one example of something that happened to me within the last year –

I was attending a work event with some key stakeholders.  There was an evening dinner.  I found myself sat next to a senior person in that organisation that I’d not met before that day.  He tried to get me drunk, asked intrusively personal questions, ‘admired my necklace’ (code for staring at my breasts) and then propositioned me.  I made my excuses and left.

Some will no doubt suggest I should be flattered by the attention.  That I’ve ‘still got it’, whatever that means.  Others will laugh if off as just one of those things that happens.  Or, worse, deny it ever happened.  Surely I must be imagining it or making too much of a fuss about it?

But this is a failure of basic, respectful treatment of others.  I have to have a working relationship with this person, but they’ve added an uncomfortable sexual dimension to it.  I’m now left having to manage that dynamic, trying to keep things professional and make sure to avoid circumstances where I could find myself facing the same situation again.  I now have a whole plan to make sure I never have to sit next to him at dinner again.  And instead of focusing all my energy on work, when we are in the same place I will need to expend a good proportion of it managing the interpersonal dynamic, shutting down further overtures from him (yes, there have been some).

It also exposes the shocking sense of entitlement that some people feel.  They see nothing wrong in behaving this way.  In part that is because it is so rarely challenged.  We let it play out as if there’s nothing wrong with it.  Or else it takes place away from the public gaze, so that those in a position to act never see what is really happening.

[I’m not saying it’s never possible to make an intimate connection with someone you meet professionally.  But it’s tricky territory and I’d urge you to get to know the person first and be damn sure there’s mutual attraction before raising the prospect of anything else.  If you make a habit of propositioning people you’ve just met  or who are patently not interested, you’re a creeper, and it’s not my job to educate you about how not to be one.]

In many ways, this kind of obvious and overt harassment is easy to deal with because it’s so obviously beyond the pale.  What is much harder to deal with is the insidious kind of discrimination.  The differential treatment. The mansplaining.  The being talked over, marginalised and ignored.  The unconscious bias that creates a culture of Great Men doing Great Things, while the women do the office housework that will never make their careers.

In all those cases there’s plausible deniability.  You are left wondering whether you are imagining that you’re being treated differently or whether there’s some other cause, like that you’re just not good enough.  And while each incident may be a mix of complex cause and consequence, it’s highly likely that there’s something gendered going on under the surface, whether those responsible realise it or not.  But the net result is that you are left doubting yourself or fighting a system stacked against you.

Of course, I’m relatively lucky.  I’m a woman, but I’m also white, heterosexual and without disabilities.  So I don’t have the multiple, intersecting areas of difference that enable a much more multi-faceted experience of harassment and discrimination.

I hope that if some good is to come out of the current debate it is a greater awareness of the need for respectful and inclusive spaces that are free of this kind of harassment and discrimination, and the need to tackle the power structures and institutions that have enabled permissive environments to thrive.

Tarnished City – Vic James

Regular readers of this blog will know that I loved The Gilded Cage, the debut novel from Vic James.  So I was delighted to get a review copy of its sequel, Tarnished City from Pan Macmillan.  Go read my earlier review if you want the backdrop to this trilogy.

You will be relieved to hear that Tarnished City picks up immediately after the cliffhanger ending of the previous book, and continues with the same, unrelenting pace.  Without spoiling the plot of either this book or the first in the series I can say that the events of The Gilded Cage have irreversible changed the lives of all those caught up in them.  Both Abi and Luke find themselves set on very different – but equally dangerous – paths.

One of the things I loved about The Gilded Cage was its commentary on English history and class issues.  This continues in Tarnished City, and James’s writing if anything has got even more political.  This book exposes in some detail the culture of the super-rich and powerful, exploring whether they should be seeking to preserve that position of power, or using it to help the less privileged.  In a searing look at contemporary celebrity culture, James looks at the way the public are at times complicit in perpetuating those power structures by lionising the very people who do the least to help them.  And where the last book fictionalised the Peterloo massacre, Tarnished City gives us both the Gunpowder Plot and the Stanford Prison Experiment.

This is incredibly high-grade writing from Vic James – Tarnished City is insightful and thought-provoking while delivering a thoroughly ripping yarn.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Blackwing – Ed McDonald and Godblind – Anna Stephens

It was fascinating reading Godblind (Anna Stephens, review copy from Harper Voyager) and Blackwing (Ed McDonald, Gollancz) closely together.  There are a lot of similiarities between both novels, but quite a few differences too.

Godblind features two warring civilisations.  Rilpor, a largely peaceful, but still militarised kingdom is bordered to the West by the Mireces, a blood-thirsty alliance of tribes.  Each worships two gods (one male, one female), but while one is peaceful and preaches redemption, the other thrives on violence and human sacrifice.  Centuries before, the gods were thrust behind the veil, but the red cultists are plotting to tear the veil through the blood-shed of war, enabling the Red Gods to walk the world again.

In Blackwing, the existential terror lies to the East.  The Misery is a warped and shifting landscape filled with mutated creatures and monsters that has been occupied by twelve evil immortals.  Set against it is a city-state that controls the Engine, the only weapon capable of damaging the Deep Kings and their twisted troops.  A weapon built by one of the twelve immortals set against them.  Although stalemate has reigned for many years, there are concerning signs that the Deep Kings are mustering for invasion.

Ryhalt Galharrow is the titular Blackwing, a soldier marked by one of his gods and regularly tasked to undertake mysterious quests for little reward.  As the novel progresses, his background as a battle-scarred noble who has turned his back on his heritage begins to emerge.  Godblind features Dom  Templeson, a warrior who is also a seer, with a portal in his head that he uses to communicate with his gods.  He works as a Watcher, guarding Rilpor’s Western border.  Galharrow is cynical and self-reflective, where Dom mostly reacts, perpetually seeking to escape his role as seer.

Chance encounters prompted by their gods are the jumping off points for both novels.  Galharrow is sent to one of the forts in the edge of the Misery which is shortly going to come under attack.  His job is to save a particular person, who turns out to be his former fiancee, now a powerful magic-wielder key to repelling the forthcoming invasion.  Dom receives a vision telling him to go to a particular place.  There he finds Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, and saves her from her pursuers.  She turns out to be the killer of the last Mireces king and the brother of the new one.

Both books are classic grimdark, featuring a high body count and lots of violence.  Both use it to illustrate the horror of the enemy, but where Blackwing uses it to show the horror and darkness of war, Godblind veers close to torture-porn at times, glorying in showing the full horrors of Mireces rites.

I would also give Blackwing the edge in its world-building.  The magic-system built on the use of light is fresh, but has a realistic industry supporting it.  An industry that is subject to corruption, relies on the exploitation of workers and ties the kingdom together in its focus on battling the Deep Kings.  McDonald’s gods are clearly playing a long game.  They are frequently absent and use humans as pawns in their centuries-long battles.  By contrast, it’s unclear to me how the largely agrarian country of Rilpor can manage to support a large standing army that doesn’t appear to do much most of the time, or why its small towns and cities remain loyal to the throne, beyond that it’s there.

While both are very enjoyable books, Blackwing just feels as if it has a bit more depth, more nuance and and greater maturity to it than Godblind.

Blackwing: 4*

Godblind: 3*

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead‘s novel The Underground Railroad (review copy from Little, Brown) has achieved an interesting double: winning the Pulitzer and the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2017.  It’s also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  The Pulitzer, the Clarke and the Booker are unlikely bedfellows, but they show the impact this book has had.  Whitehead has written a magical realism novel about slavery in America, following escaped slave Cora on her journey to freedom.

Whitehead literalises the underground railroad of the book’s title, using it as the engine that drives Cora from state to state on her escape, experiencing different aspects of the slave experience.  Whitehead moves Cora through time as well as space, enabling him to fictionalise real events that took place over American history.  This is an analogue of Pilgrim’s Progress, or the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Cora finds in the library: a journey that is enabled and hindered by people she encounters, and tempting her to end her travelling and settle at various points on her way.

Cora’s journey is one from a closeted, pastoral existence to increasing social and political awareness, and growing personal agency.  Each step on her journey broadens her understanding of the world and increases her dissatisfaction, showing a different aspect of the discrimination and exploitation suffered by black people, both enslaved and free.  Some of that is obvious: the cruel plantation owners or the weekly lynchings of escaped slaves.  But some of it is much more subtle and insidious, including the benevolent white people seeking to instil their own values and practices, a thin veneer of tolerance concealing medical experimentation and other forms of control.

Most of all, The Underground Railroad shows how people are active and complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression.  The system sets people against each other, even those that might appear at first blush to be natural allies.  Poor Irish immigrants like the maid Rose are keen to separate themselves from those at the bottom of the heap; others find it an outlet for their saviour complexes; still others live in fear of setting themselves against their neighbours by standing up against poor treatment.

Ultimately, Cora’s choice is one to pursue and shape her own destiny, rather than to fall into the choices and structures of others.  Freedom comes in many forms, but that is the only one that truly counts.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Archie, The Little Suitcase Who Could

Archie,

Eight and a half years ago, one December day in Cape Town, I welcomed you into my life.  Since then, you and I have had many wonderful adventures together.  We have been on many work trips away, but lots of fun times too.  We have travelled all over the country, and across the world.  Always you have been happy and eager to see what was waiting round the next corner, and excited for the next adventure.  You have been my constant, reliable, and cheerful companion, rattling along next to me with reassuring solidity and the promise of adventure.

Archie, with his happy smiling face

There was the time we got snowed into Belfast and I had to leave you there over Christmas because I wasn’t confident I could get you home in the snow.  I felt so guilty leaving you, but your happy, smiling face was waiting for me in January and I was so pleased to see you.

We have had so many fantastic nights away with friends.  I would pack you with excitement, and you’d carry pretty dresses, shoes and make up with ease.  For a while, when my life was different, we only did fun stuff together, but recently there have been more work trips.

You have been practically perfect in every way.  Your Mary Poppins-like interior holds a huge amount.  Your inner pockets are just so.  The secret space in your lid has held many emergency books and sets of work papers.  You nestle into overhead lockers like a pea in a pod, with your smiling face waiting to greet me the moment I open the door.  I can push or pull you with equal ease.  You helped me smuggle knitting projects  on flights before the security rules were relaxed and it was allowed again.

But you are showing your age, every scuff on your exterior a mark of the time we have spent together.  I’ve had to reluctantly make the decision to retire you.

A few weeks ago, the mechanism for your telescoping handle jammed.  It had been sticking increasingly frequently, but every time previously a determined jiggle would free it up.  Not this time.  I had to carry you back from Leicester, cradled in my arms like a child.  No amount of WD40 has been able to fix you.

Last week I went shopping for a new suitcase.  It felt like I was being unfaithful to you, walking around the shop looking at all the other suitcases and assessing what they had to offer.   Trying to imagine spending time with them in the way that I have done with you.  None of them were right, either.  Too flimsy, too ugly, and the wrong arrangement of pockets inside.  I came to the crushing realisation that I will never be able to replace you.  You are unique.

This week I go away on business, and I will take my new suitcase with me.  But every time I look at it I will feed sad.  Because it’s not you.