The Space Between The Stars – Anne Corlett

Every now and then a book comes along that confirms to you that it’s not that you’re struggling to get excited about reading.  It’s just that the books you’ve been reading recently, while perfectly competently written, have just been a bit meh.  Anne Corlett‘s The Space Between The Stars (review copy from Pan Macmillan) is one of those astonishing, game-changing books that reminds you what reading should be about.

Corlett’s novel is the story of a universe after a highly contagious virus has wiped out most of humanity.  A tiny number of survivors – each of them one in a million – are scattered across colony worlds across the universe.  They must deal with what has happened and find a way of moving forward. The story focuses on Jamie Allenby, who had fled to a remote outpost from the breakdown of her relationshp following a miscarriage. She wakes alone after the virus has burned itself out, and sets out on a journey home to the Northumberland coast.  Along the way she meets a failed priest, a religoius scientist, a ship’s captain and his gruff engineer, a prostitute and a boy with autism.  These become her unlikely travelling companions on her journey to Earth and a hoped-for reconciliation with her partner Daniel – if he has survived the virus.

So far so Station Eleven.  But what sets The Space Between The Stars apart is its focus on the personal.  The small stories of the survivors and how they deal with the consequences of what has happened: grief and anger are real and there are no easy ways forward.  Let me be clear: this is not a big, galaxy spanning story of rebuilding civilisation or a Survivors-style tale of people banding together for protection against feral raiders in the ruins of our world.  Civilisation has ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

This is a story about humanity in all its chaotic glory.  Don’t expect the relentlessly saccharine positivity of The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet.  And that makes it a much better piece.  This is a book about how imperfectly we live together with one another.  It’s about the tension between our striving for privacy and independence, and our basic need for community and contact with one another.  It’s about the imperfect communications between us all.  It’s about the messy business of life and survival, and the way it does not fit neatly into the stories we tell one another, with their clarity of purpose and happy ever after endings.  Like the sea glass that Jamie collects on the beach, we are all unique: shaped and made beautiful by the pounding tides that rub us up against one another and the grit between us.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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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*

Birds Art Life Death – Kyo Maclear

This is probably going to be a pretty short review, because it’s hard to encapsulate the spare beauty of Kyo Maclear’s Birds Art Life Death (review copy from Harper 4th Estate).  But the striking insightfulness of this memoir is utterly joyous.

Birds Art Life Death is a memoir about a year spent birdwatching, as Maclear learns about birds and birding from a musician.  It follows the rhythm of the year, from chicks in spring to seasonal migrations.  But Maclear’s genius is the way she draws out those moments of connection and deep insight from the smallest of incidents.  This is a book packed full of those moments when one will want to pause and reflect on a particular insight.  My Kindle copy is stuffed full of sentences I’ve highlighted for their power and insight.  To an extent, birding feels almost irrelevant.  One cannot but be left with the sense that Maclear would draw deep insight from almost any subject.

Let me be clear.  This is not a book full of trite Hallmark Card-type aphorisms, or the kinds of phrases to be put across a photograph of a beach at sunset and shared onFacebook.  There is a deep truthiness to Maclear’s work and Birds Art Life Death is all the more powerful for it.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon – Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald’s new series, Luna (review copies from Gollancz), has all the red-in-tooth-and-claw politics and excitement of I Claudius, the Borgias and the Medicis rolled into one glorious bundle of politics, wealth and violence.  Both of the first two books, Luna: New Moon, and Luna: Wolf Moon (just published) are fabulous.

In McDonald’s world, the Moon has been colonised, and it is controlled by five powerful families, known as the Dragons.  These families control resources that an increasingly fragile Earth is dependent on, but they are bitter rivals, jockeying for position.  Many of those families are now on their third generation, with the physical changes wrought by the Moon meaning that individuals are trapped within its environment.  After two years someone from Earth is no longer able to return, but those born there are unable to survive elsewhere.  The Dragons are fabulously wealthy, but the gap between rich and poor is wide, with other individuals eking out an existence, competing for contracts to make a life.  This is a place run by contract, where there is no other civil or criminal law and disputes can be settled by trial by combat.

Both books follow the fortunes of the Corta family.  Founded by Brazilian matriarch Adriana Corta, the family has a monopoly on the production of helium, essential to power a failing Earth’s fusion reactors.  But the Corta family are seen as upstarts by their chief rivals, the Mackenzie family, which dominates the mining of rare metals, but is jealous of the more profitable helium industry.  The rivalries between the five Dragons are kept in careful balance by the Eagle, the representative of the Lunar Development Corporation, the governing entity in charge of the Moon, but the collapse of a planned dynastic marriage between Corta and Mackenzie triggers a chain reaction of events and reprisals that threatens to destroy the fragile lunar society.  It’s difficult to say more without spoiling a complex plot that is a roller-coaster ride of violence, destruction, adventure and heroism.

In McDonald’s hands, the Luna books are a powerful exploration of frontier life.  There are chances for great wealth and opportunity for those with the wisdom and determination to spot an opportunity and take advantage of it.  But existence is fragile, and small events can wreak drastic changes in the circumstances of an individual.  The Moon does not discriminate in who it offers opportunities to, or how it punishes them for their missteps.

McDonald’s Moon is a real melting pot of Earth culture and nations, all interwoven and viewed through a lunar lens.  The five Dragons represent Australia, Russia, Ghana and China as well as the Cortas’ native Brazil.  Sexuality is free and fluid within lunar society, and diversity is embedded in society.  That leads to a broad range of fantastic characters, from powerful matriarchs, to playboy heirs straight from Made In Chelsea, to roughnecks out on the lunar surface.

Chief among that cast of characters is the fabulous Ariel Corta.  High-flying divorce lawyer and society darling, she is charismatic, arrogant, vain and an alcoholic with a Martini habit.  From her vintage Dior to her vertiginous heels she exudes sophistication, but underneath she is fragile.  Her attention-grabbing professional persona conceals emotional neediness underneath it all.  It’s wonderful to see such a fully-realised and flawed character taking such a leading role in a novel.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

I am an unashamed fan of Grayson Perry and his work as an artist and cultural commentator, so I was delighted to receive a copy of his latest book, The Descent of Man, from the publishers Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.

Gender politics is a very live and current issue.  Many of us who are passionate about equality are fearful of a mood in the world that seems determined to row back on much of the progress that has been made by successive waves of feminism.  For some the battle appears to be won, and the struggles necessary to secure what has been achieved are forgotten and the results taken for granted.  Those who continue to agitate for further progress to tackle the remaining hidden and cultural barriers can often be perceived as extremists, our accounts of the lived experience of being on the receiving end of sexism (personal or institutional) discounted or seen as hysterical exaggeration.

Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man looks at the impact of this changing social dynamic on men.  He rightly points out that men have been as much the victim of narrow gender stereotypes as women have.  A macho culture that prizes men as dominant bread winners, sexually promiscuous but emotionally repressed is just as damaging as the one that limits to domestic caring roles as wives and mothers, denies them career opportunities and judges them primarily by their sexual attractiveness.  That impact is there if you look for it, present in indicators such as the high rates of suicide among men.  But it is not widely talked about, particularly by men themselves.  Instead, perversely, a small group of men seek to cling on to those outdated and narrow roles, railing against the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes from a rebalancing and opening up of gender roles.  As always, for a rebalancing to occur, some of those who have historically had power and privilege will lose it in favour of others, so it is in many ways unsurprising that so much anger can be directed against women and other groups seen to be benefitting.

Perry’s central premise is that rather than engaging in blaming others, men should acknowledge the problems of the past and articulate a new, more inclusive identity that embraces contemporary society and exploits the opportunities of the contemporary world.  It’s a laudable aim, but Perry himself never quite manages to lay down the essentials of what that identity might be, or how to persuade people to buy into a more positive view of masculinity.  Regardless, this is a powerful and timely book, excoriating in its criticism of aspects of contemporary masculinity and the damage that a narrow patriarchal view has on us all, men and women.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Fair Rebel – Steph Swainston

I’ve been a huge fan of Steph Swainston ever since her first Castle novel.  She’s one of the freshest and most interesting voices in contemporary fantasy fiction.  So I was hugely excited to receive a review copy of her newest novel, Fair Rebel from Gollancz.  And it exceeded all of my expectations, speaking to me in the way only a small and rare number of books do.  .

Fair Rebel is the fifth Castle novel, building on the stories told in the previous novels.  For all that it stands alone as a self-contained piece, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having read the others.  For those of you not familiar with Swainston’s Castle novels, she’s created a multi-racial place called the Fourlands, peopled by diverse races.  The world faces a significant threat, from invading giant Insects.  For millenia they have been mindlessly eating and destroying, slowly expanding their territory.  But the Insects are just the backdrop  Swainston uses to explore what are normally much smaller stories , focused around a group of immortals: the Eszai.  Chosen by the Emperor San, they are each the best in their fifty fields, brought together to lead the battle against the Insects that has become the driving force and agenda for the Fourlands ever since the Insects first arrived.  An individual Eszai can be replaced if killed, or if beaten in a fair Challenge by another individual.  Swainston’s first person protagonist is Jant, who holds the title of Comet, the Emperor’s messenger.  He is not your traditional fantasy hero: he is a drug addict and an outsider.  The child of rape, his father was one of the privileged, winged (but flightless) Awians, his mother was one of the Rhydanne, a mountain people designed to live at high altitude.  That makes Jant the only person who can fly.

In Fair Rebel, terrorism comes to the Fourlands.  Swainston’s portrayal draws on a very British experience of terrorism (the terrorists use a cell structure and tactics familiar to anyone who has lived through the UK’s experience of Northern Ireland-related terrorism).  But the terrorism in this book is also startlingly contemporary, playing on the narrative of privilege, prejudice and inequality that Swainston has built into the Fourlands.  The bombers are drawn from a disenfranchised group who have suffered from social exclusion and poverty.  Fourlands society relies on the systematic exploitation of their labour, and there is significant prejudice against them.

Swainston’s depiction of terrorism feels real and authentic.  The violence is terrifying, horrific and arbitrary.  It is aimed at toppling the Castle and the structures that support it.  But it is a self-destructive backlash.  In its anger at the exploitative structures in society it risks destroying the only mechanisms in place to keep at bay the existential threat of the Insects, with their society-destroying potential.  In doing so, Fair Rebel asks whether those doing the right thing can ever do so with legitimacy if it is done without listening to or engaging with the concerns of the disenfranchised at the margins of society.

But Fair Rebel also asks us to reflect on the role of art and culture in society.  They can be used to inspire the best and the worst in people, showing the impact of the rejection of talented musician Swallow’s repeated requests to join the Eszai.  If we set aside the very things we are fighting to protect, is our struggle worthwhile at all?

Goodreads rating: 5*