On why Michelle West is the answer to most book recommendation questions

A while ago a friend suggested I should write a post about what I liked about particular books in order to help readers of this blog better understand my taste and therefore where my reviews come from.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the best example of pretty much every single thing I love about fantasy fiction is in Michelle West‘s Sun Sword series.

Yet, Michelle West (a Japanese-Canadian writer, who also writes as Michelle Sagara) is almost criminally unknown here in the UK because she’s never been published here.  I stumbled across her books almost 20 years ago, in one of the few shops in London that used to get imports of US-published fiction.  I was browsing and looking for long series by writers I hadn’t heard of, and found her work.  I was hooked straight away, and when I raved about her to friends in the States I found out she was relatively well-known across the Atlantic.

I was lucky enough to meet Michelle West during LonCon 4 in 2014.  When I saw she was coming over for WorldCon I was super-excited.  I skipped programme items to make sure I was at the front of the queue to sign up for her Kaffeeklatsch.  I can say without a doubt that she is one of the loveliest authors I have ever had the privilege to meet.  She gave me a hard copy of Battle as a gift because I confessed to loving these books so much.  It’s one of my most treasured signed copies.

The premise of the Sun Sword is that demons from the hells are seeking to take over the world.  They can only be defeated by a magic sword that can only be wielded by a son of one particular lineage (anyone else who tries to pick it up is likely to burst into flames).  So the demons engineer a coup to massacre the entire ruling family and then attempt to kill the other son who has been held as a hostage in a neighbouring country since he was a child.  Shenanigans ensure.

But rather than tell this very traditional fantasy narrative, West’s story follows the Serra Diora di Marano – an angry 16 year old girl who had been married into that ruling family and is now seeking revenge for the murder of her ‘sister wives’ in the coup.  What unfolds is a complex story of history, power, politics, gods, monsters and heroes that spans multiple countries.

This is a series that hits every single one of my buttons.  Every.  Single.  One.

Female protagonists who don’t fall into the “Strong Female Character” trope.  This is a set of books that are chock full of interesting and incredibly well-realised women of all ages that don’t fall into the usual fantasy fiction stereotypes.  Most importantly, all these women have agency and drive their stories forward themselves.  They are women of power in their own right – they are not reward or character motivation for a man.  There are no Sexy Lamps and the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests are passed very early on.  Some examples –

  • Serra Diora di Marano.  A 16-year old widow who turns herself into the pinnacle of femininity and a political symbol.  She is a masterclass in the use of soft power to achieve her goals.
  • Jewel ‘Jay’ Markess a’Terafin.  A mixed race woman who grew up as an orphan on the streets but is the only person born in her generation who can see the future.  Adopted into a powerful merchant house, she is being groomed for power.
  • Margret.  Matriarch of one of the travelling Voyani clans, and with absolute power over her clan, she is protecting an ancient secret.
  • Amarais Handernesse a’Terafin.  Ruler of the largest merchant house in the Essalieyan Empire, which gives it special rights and privileges.  And it is the rule of this wise, thoughtful Terafin in particular that has kept the House pre-eminent.

Deep worldbuilding.  Each of the societies covered is well-realised and different, with complex systems of governance and economies that are believable.  But there is a lot of layered history in these books too, with the boundaries between history and myth uncertain.  Hidden cities full of powerful relics are just under your feet, and ancient races and parallel worlds can be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.  Gods, ghosts, magic and elder races abound, and the present reality is but a shadow of the power of the past..

A strong ensemble cast.  There are a lot of people in these books.  But every single one of them is a believable individual on their own life-journey.  Sometimes that crosses through these books as part of a larger story (Jay), but each person has their own motives, reasons and histories.  Some of those only become clear as the books progress (I’m looking at you, Meralonne a’Phaniel …) but every single character is rich and fully realised.

Realistic politics.  With that depth of world-building and characterisation – many of whom are people of power of all kinds – you get very realistic politics.  This is not a series where there is easy consensus about the need to take on the Dark Lord.  We share Jay’s frustration as the Empire debates and discusses the need for intervention.  And even the demons themselves are rife with rivalry as individuals seek to win favour, undermine rivals and advance their own private agendas.

Sexist settings without sexist writing.  The Dominion of Annagar, where the Serra Diora is from, is a hugely sexist (racist, and classist) society.  Aristocratic women live in seclusion, with beauty and skill at art, dance and music prized.  But Michelle West shows the significant soft power women wield in this society, within their households and as brokers of alliances between families.  And she doesn’t shy away from showing the negative impact of these patriarchal norms on men too.  Hyper-masculinity is the ideal for men, with skilled warriors given status and respect, and scholars and intellectuals looked down on.  Serra Diora’s father Sendari di Marano takes an alternate path as a wizard and scholar, but even then falls into a hyper-competitive organisation of wizards within the Dominion.  And there is no easy place for Serra Teresa, Diora’s aunt and Sendari’s sister.  A lesbian with a bard’s ability to compel with her voice, she is unmarriageable and has no role in Dominion society.

Redemption stories.  I love a bad boy.  It’s a secret shame of mine, as it‘s a very problematic trope – usually it’s a man who behaves abominably but is somehow redeemed by the love of a fairly ordinary girl next door type.  But I find myself making excuses for why Avandar Gallais is different.  Crucially, West places him with Jay, as her domicis (kind of a Private Secretary in UK civil service speak, but one who is clearly an experienced man of power in his own right, and a powerful battle mage to boot). Jay is no girl next door – she is a woman of power and consequence in her own right.  And West pulls no punches about just how messed up Avandar is.  Fiercely capable, very protective and frighteningly intelligent, yes, but also deeply flawed in a way that is shown with a level of unstinting brutalism that is unusual in fantasy fiction.

Have I convinced you yet?

Where should I start reading?

Michelle West’s Essalieyan Empire books span three series.

  • The Hunter’s Duology.  Two books (Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death) that act as a taster and introduce Jay and the Essalieyan Empire.  But they focus on characters from Breodanir, a land to the West, and you can enjoy the other books without reading these – I jumped straight into Sun Sword without realising they were connected, and only read them afterwards.
  • The Sun Sword.  The six books I’ve focused on above (The Broken Crown, The Uncrowned King, The Shining Court, Sea of Sorrows, The Riven Shield, The Sun Sword).  They focus on the events of the coup, Serra Diora’s revenge and civil war in the Dominion of Annagar.
  • The House War.  Six books and counting.  This is Jay’s story, with the first three books (The Hidden City, City of Night and House Name) acting as a prequel to The Sun Sword, running partly in parallel to the events of the Hunter’s Duology.  The other books (Skirmish, Battle, Oracle and War (forthcoming)) pick up Jay’s story after Sun Sword finishes.

As always, publication order is best.

I would strongly recommend against reading the first three House War books before starting Sun Sword.  They contain significant spoilers for things that occur during Sun Sword, and definitely offer more reward to the reader if you’re familiar with the subsequent story.

And don’t even attempt to read House War without Sun Sword.  If you try, you’ll find a massive gap of story in the middle and wonder why Jay has acquired a talking stag called the Winter King, three winged cats, and an Elf, among others, as part of her den.  There is a summary of the events of Sun Sword on the author’s website, but you’d be missing a lot doing that.

You may struggle to find Sun Sword though.  The books are now – sadly – out of print, but ebooks are available.

UPDATE: A quick check of Michelle West’s website reveals that Sun Sword has been republished in trade paperback, so should now be available again.  Woohoo!

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FO: Holyrood

For H in my A to Z of shawls I’ve opted for Holyrood by Justyna Lorkowska.  It’s a great casual shawl to throw on at the weekend for a bit of warmth and a pop of colour.

The pattern is a lovely mix of lace and texture, with multiple techniques on the go.  It includes mosaic knitting, stripes, garter stitch, chevrons, lace and a wonderful textured rib.  That gives it a lot of interest when you’re knitting, engaging you as you work and making you keen to get to the next section.

The yarn I used was Companion 4 ply from Third Vault Yarns.  The purple is called Inara, and is one of the first skeins I ever bought from Lola.  It’s a much more variegated finish than later skeins of Inara.  The grey is Dragon Scales, which has subtle shadings of green and purple within it.  The two work really well together.

I’m trying to get bolder with my colour pairings.  Both of the two-colour shawls I’ve made as part of this project have included a neutral (grey) as one of the colours.  The next step will be to use non-neutrals, and maybe more variegated skeins.

 

The Illumination of Ursula Flight – Anna-Marie Crowhurst

Sometimes what you need is a bawdy, picaresque set in the 17th century.  Anna-Marie Crowhurst‘s The Illumination of Ursula Flight (review copy from Corvus) gives just that.

This is the story of the titular Ursula Flight.  An intelligent young woman, she grows up with a father who indulges her interest in history, literature and astronomy.  She yearns to be a playwright, but finds herself married off to a much older man in the expectation she will bear his children.  Shut away in his country house with a domineering mother and a dull sister in law, Ursula sinks into depression.  Eventually her husband takes her to court, where she embarks on a tempestuous affair and leaves her husband.

There is a wonderful light humour to this novel that makes it a very easy read.  It is populated with wonderful caricatures of Ursula’s friends, family and the people she encounters.  Ursula herself is a quixotic mix.  On the surface she has a superficial obsession with with dresses and hairstyles, and a naivety that comes from her rural upbringing.  But that conceals a bright and deep intelligence, and a love of literature.  In telling her story to the reader, Ursula distances herself from the most difficult and shocking parts of her life by presenting them as the scripts for little vignettes.  This adds real poignancy to the story, while showcasing Ursula’s wit and resilience in the face of adversity.

The focus on Ursula as a writer is also welcome.  The happy ending for her is not love and marriage or wealth, but success as a writer and recognition for her talents.  That makes this a remarkably uplifting, feminist work.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Queens of Innis Lear – Tessa Gratton

The world needs more books like Tessa Gratton‘s The Queens of Innis Lear (review copy from Harper Voyager).  It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, but updated with a very 21st Century take on the story.

All the elements you would expect are here – the mad king (in this case, suffering from dementia as he grows older), three very different daughters competing to inherit the crown, treachery and true love.  You know the basic plot, right down to the test of which daughter loves the old king best.  But Tessa Gratton takes it in some very interesting directions.

The thing I loved most about this book was its treatment of the three daughters.  They are mixed-race.  It is heavily implied that one of them is actually a transgender man (Gaela styles herself ‘King’, dresses in a masculine fashion and suffers extreme gender dysphoria).  The book is sex-positive.  But crucially, the book places a strong emphasis on the agency of the daughters.  Elia (the youngest daughter) goes on a journey that is about becoming an independent woman of power in her own right.  She rejects the easy and safe options when they are presented to her.  Exiled from Innis Lear, she is offered marriage by the King of Aremoria, but turns him down because of the power imbalance between them and because she knows it would be used as an excuse to invade her homeland.

There is also a strong theme about the relationship between parents and children.  Whether it is the central relationship between Lear and his three daughters, or Ban the Fox’s feeling of rejection by his father for being illegitimate and the way he has found acceptance and a place overseas by his own deeds rather than his heredity.  The novel shows how easy it is for family relationships to be soured, and how the professions of love and affection can sometimes be only so much lip service.

And the novel also places great weight on the need for balance in all things.  Only in Elia does that come together, and only when she learns to balance the astronomy of her father with the Earth-magic of Innis Lear.  And Innis Lear will not thrive without both being in balance in their ruler – under Lear himself the land has been slowly fading.  Gaela rejects all forms of magic and prophecy, focusing only on the power that military prowess gives her.  Regan focuses on Earth-magic, but hers is a selfish focus, and she is in too  co-dependent a relationship with her husband to survive.

All of this is wrapped up in lush prose from Gratton that provides a strong sense of place, whether it is the wind-swept cliffs or deep forest of Innis Lear.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee finishes off his Machineries of Empire trilogy in triumphant style with Revenant Gun (review copy from Rebellion Publishing).  Picking up shortly after the events of Raven Strategem, the novel plays out the endgame of Kel Cheris (carrying the memories and skills of maverick outcast General Shuos Jedao) and her rebellion against the Hexarchate as she uncovers the secrets at the heart of the Hexarchate.  But Nirai Kujen has a plan up his sleeve – reviving another instance of Shuos Jedao in a clone body to take on Kel Cheris.  Except this Shuos Jedao has the memories of only 17 years – and no recollection of the atrocities he committed in later life.

For those of you jumping onto this trilogy for the first time, it’s a brilliant piece of space opera, full of plotting, space battles and exotic weapons.  The Hexarchate is a galaxy-spanning Empire ruled by six houses, each built around a set of skills or professions, such as spying, mathematics and technology, diplomacy and the military.  The Hexarchate provides stability and prosperity for its citizens, but the exotic technologies that underpin  society depend on a particular set of exotic physics (known as the ‘high calendar’) that are maintained by strict observance of ritual, including the ritualised torture and murder of Hexarchate citizens.  For the Hexarchate, this is a price worth paying to avoid the poverty and instability of the past.

It is this system that Kel Cheris is seeking to overthrow.  It is responsible for the obliteration of her planetary culture as the expanding Hexarchate assimilated her home and obscured its customs and language.  A soldier with a strong talent for the mathematics that the Hexarchate is founded upon – as well as being possessed by the greatest general of all time – Cheris has the skills, creativity and vision to imagine an alternative future and put it in place.  She is consistently underestimated by the Hexarchate, yet exploits their prejudices and weaknesses, particularly the way that an entire sub-culture of robot servitors with its own priorities lives among and supports the human Hexarchate.

Lee is a transgender man, and the whole trilogy is notable for its strong inclusion of transgender, agender, non-binary and genderfluid characters.  The dysphoria Shuos Jedao and Kel Cheris feel from sharing a body must come from Lee’s own experience.

But most of all this is an extremely cleverly plotted trilogy of books stuffed full of ideas.  Fresh, exciting and an utter joy to read.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Adventures in Dyeing

On Saturday I spent the day learning how to dye yarn from Lola of Third Vault Yarns.  When Lola took her new studio, she offered a small number of dyeing classes to help cover some of the fixed costs of expanding into a studio.

Of course I was going to snap one up.

This was a brilliant day playing with colour, learning a new skill and seeing how the magic of hand-dyed yarn comes together.  I’ve left with a new respect for Lola and every single yarnie out there.  This is one of those bits of craft that is the perfect mix of technical skill and creativity.

We started with a health and safety briefing (very important!) before Lola ran through the different kinds of dyes and how they work on different kinds of fibres.

The first exercise was applying the same dyes to three different fibre blends to see the differences in how they turn out.  The centre mini-skein here is a pure, superwash merino, where there is good colour definition and crispness.  On the right, a merino/cashmere/nylon blend gives a softer result, with more blending of the colours.  On the left, a 50/50 silk/merino blend has a lighter colour pick up, but the silk makes the colour glow.

We then explored three different dyeing techniqes, and I got to have a go at all of them.

First up was handpainting.

This was definitely the messiest of the three, with the need for clingfilm on the table surface to capture the excess dye and water.  But it has the scope for greater control about the overall result, even if as the dye sets you get to see the colours blend and play together.

Here I aimed for subtlety.  On the left is the test skein, with the final result on the right (with a lower concentration of dye than the test skein giving a paler result).  I was trying to see how subtle you could get, with this mix of sand, baby blue, shell pink, silver grey and brown.

If I’m honest, this was the most labour intensive of the three techniques, and probably my least favourite.  Though I do like this skein – even if it’s less bold than the other two that followed.

Next up was low-water immersion dyeing, where I went for the exact opposite – bold, bright contrasting colours.

Here you lay the skein of yarn out, apply dye powder to the surface, and then add water.  The effect you get depends on how you arrange the yarn and where you apply the dye.  There is much more scope for the colours to break, bleed into one another and generally play around.

This is definitely the way to go if you like bold, variegated yarns with lots of contrast.  It was insanely satisfying to do – from sprinkling the dye powder onto the yarn to poking and prodding it to get the dye into the right nooks and crannies of the skein.  But it takes a lot more dye than the other methods did.

Finally, we did kettle-dyeing, with resist techniques.

This was probably my favourite of the three skeins, both for the end result and for the technique.  This used some resist techniques (twisting the yarn with varying degress of tightness, and then immersing it in successive dye baths.  This colour was built up with a base of sand, followed by blue and then two shades of turquoise on top.  Each colour shows through to varying extents by itself, as well as blending with the other colours.

I had an amazing day, and learned loads.  I loved playing with the dyes and yarns, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do again in the future.  But Lola and fellow yarnies need not fear – I don’t think I will be setting up in competition any time soon.

Bright Ruin – Vic James

It’s been a long time since the end of a book has had me so gripped I’ve nearly missed my stop on the train, and had to sit on a bench at the station to finish those last few climactic pages.  (Probably the last one was Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God, which had me walking into the office in floods of tears one morning.)  But Bright Ruin (review copy from Pan Macmillan), the triumphant finale to Vic James‘s Dark Gifts trilogy, did exactly that.

A writer friend of mine has the motto that Misery Builds Character.  And Bright Ruin, with its twisty-turny shocks and a body count George R R Martin would be proud of, delivers a thrilling finale to this series.  It has everything you would expect and hope for, with a hefty dose of comment about bread-and-circuses contemporary British politics to go along with the roller-coaster plot.

You can’t help but admire the ruthless Bouda Matravers as she plots her way to power and the destruction of her rivals.  You can’t help but root for Abi, shorn of the naive romaticism of the first book, as she seeks to topple the Equals.  And Luke, trying to unravel the mysteries of the Equals historic rule of Britain.  And Daisy, steadfast in her loyalty to Gavar Jardine.

And then there’s Silyen.  A mess of contradictions.  So amoral and self-interested, but oh, so interesting, intoxicating and compelling.  Oh, Silyen …

If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, then this review isn’t going to persuade you.  Not least as it’s impossible to write one without massively spoilering the earlier books.  Go and read my reviews of The Gilded Cage and Tarnished City, both available elsewhere on this site.  Then go and buy all three books, lock yourself away for the weekend and read them all in one sitting.  You can thank me later.

Goodreads rating: 5*