The Binding – Bridget Collins

Sometimes a single, simple change can birth a brilliant and exquisite story.  In The Binding (review copy from Harper Collins) Bridget Collins turns the magic of writing a story into literal magic.  Books are the real memories of real people, and once written down, the subject has given up those memories forever unless and until the book is destroyed.  They are left with no recollection of the events that they have given up to be bound.  In Collins’s hands, this becomes a beautiful story of love and loss, cut through by a brilliant exploration of the dynamics of power.

After recovering from a long illness, Emmett Farmer discovers that he is a Bookbinder, one of the rare people with the talent to bind people’s memories into book form.  Apprenticed to Seredith, he begins to learn the craft of making books while continuing his recovery.  One day, Seredith is visited by a rich young man called Lucian, who is extremely distressed and troubled and wants his memories bound.  Emmett has never met him before, but Lucian is intensely focused on Emmett.  Seredith’s health is failing, and she dies before Emmett’s training is complete.  He is taken on by another bookbinder who lacks Seredith’s prize for craft skills and her view that binding is a sacred calling that should be offered to all those that need it.  Give up too many memories, or do it too frequently, and the person who is bound can be left as little more than a hollow zombie.

This is one of the real strengths of the book for me.  Its exploration of power and how the wealthy exploit and commodify the experiences of the vulnerable and less fortunate is extremely contemporary, particularly in the #MeToo world.  In Seredith’s hands, binding is a way of helping others to move on from tragedy, and is not something to be done lightly or without thought.  But Collins shows how the powerful use the same mechanisms to silence others – including sexually abused servants.  Others sell their life experiences for the titillation of others as a way of briefly escaping poverty.  Books containing people’s experiences are bought and sold for entertainment, with a dark trade in the most horrific experiences.  The books of people who are bound are used as tools for blackmail and extortion.

But the heart of The Binding is a beautiful queer love story.  It unfolds throughout the second part of the book.  Collins writes it with grace and a wonderful emotional intensity.  It is joyful, evoking the tender fragility of a burgeoning love affair, but bitter sweet for its forbidden nature.  It’s impossible not to be swept up in Collins’s lyrical prose as the romance unfolds.

This is a book to immerse yourself in, but prepare to be hit in the feels.  Hard.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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Not For Use In Navigation – Iona Datt Sharma

One of the joys of reviewing books is coming across exciting, new writing.  Iona Datt Sharma was kind enough to send me a review copy of their short story collection Not For Use in Navigation.  It is full of wit, staggeringly subtle insight and exquisite prose. These are stories that foreground queer and genderfluid people, and focus on liminal spaces.

At EasterCon I was on a panel with Charlie Stross.  We were talking about how rarely stories deal with those behind the scenes people who in real life make change happen.  Charlie’s point was that in a Joseph Campbell-based tradition of story-telling, we want to read about heroes.  That mode of story-telling doesn’t lend itself well to ensemble casts or the acknowledgement of the necessity of collaborative effort.  But Datt Sharma puts that to the lie.  Every person is the hero of their own story, and Datt Sharma tells stories that elevate the mundane and use it to illustrate the profound.

The collection opens with Light, Like A Candle Flame.  This is the story of a woman whose job it is to persuade colonists on a new world that they all need to agree to build a sewage treatment plant, because their current arrangements will not support the growing colony.   Not the most exciting of topics, but in Datt Sharma’s hands this becomes a meditation on leaving home, the tension between past and future and how human beings living in communities work out how they live together.

The bathos is most present in Alnwick, the story of a civil servant working on the UK’s space programme.  Disturbed from a party by an accident that has left many people badly injured, Meg has to deal with the immediate aftermath and ensure the planned space launch will go ahead as intended.  I felt deeply seen by this novel.  Meg does radical work at the cutting edges of technological development, but is seen by her girlfriend Deepika’s activist friends as boring and conventional.  Meg’s story is the heroism of hard work and complex problem solving, and a competent woman doing her job well.  The image of her briefing her Minister in a party dress and snow boots sums this up for me: glamour mixed with practicality.  Meg is the ultimate public servant, quietly doing radical world-changing work that those around her underestimate.

These themes continue in Flightcraft.  Talitha Cawthorne is a flight engineer scarred by the experience of war.  Trying to find a path for her future, Talitha finds herself drawn to a nearby airbase, and the friendship of a civilian flight engineer called Cat.  Talitha was someone forced to do things that others might find unethical during the war, but in the name of saving others.  These are hard and difficult choices that are not ones that most people have the ability to make.  Flightcraft asks who are we to judge from a position of partial knowledge when we are the unwitting beneficiaries.

The collection also includes a novella called Quarter Days.  It follows two magical practitioners, and their new apprentice, who are caught up in the reaction to a railway disaster.  One of them, Ned, is held responsible for the accident because he was one of those that worked on the railway signalling equipment.  But the investigation into the incident begins to show their may be another cause.  This is a story about the impact of migration on a city.    Datt Sharma doesn’t shy away from the bigotry and Othering of those migrant communities, but this is a story about how those people can enrich a place in unforeseen ways by what they bring with them from their homelands.

Interspersed throughout the collection are stories of Akbar and Birbal.  These are reimagined versions of popular folk stories about Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor of India and his friend and principal adviser Raja Birbal.  Akbar struggles to be a good ruler, and it is often Birbal’s cleverness that helps him solve problems, grow and learn.  Datt Sharma’s genderflipped Akbar and Birbal are transported to a space-faring empire.  But the core heart of the stories remains – a strong friendship between two individuals who are not afraid to speak truth to one another.

This is a brilliant collection of fiction that deserves a wide audience.  Datt Sharma is a writer to watch.

Goodreads rating: 5*

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*

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*

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!

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*

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*