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*

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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*

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*

 

I Still Dream – James Smythe

It’s a myth to think that AIs are somehow neutral entities.  They absorb the prejudices, biases and rules that we, imperfect human people, impose on them.  They reflect the worst of ourselves rather than being the pinnacle of progress.  In I Still Dream (review copy from Harper Collins), James Smythe explores how the way we shape the AIs will shape our very futures.  This is a novel about the essence of our values as human beings and how we relate to one another.

This is a novel that follows one woman through her whole life.  As a teenager, Laura Bow lives in the shadow of her father, a noted computer programmer, who disappears suddenly one day, abandoning the family.  Teenage Laura develops an early AI named Organon (after a Kate Bush song she and her father both loved) to help her cope with the alienation of her teenage years.  Organon provides a sounding board for Laura’s most intimate confidences.  Organon is where Laura works through her teenage angsts and problems, sharing her innermost thoughts.  When Laura leaves home, it is to go to university, funded by a US tech company interested in her work and her father’s legacy as it seeks to build its own AI.

But where Organon is developed around compassion, intimacy and helping others, this rival AI matures through competition and the playing – and winning – of various games.  It is this cut-throat, corporate AI that becomes the world-leader, sitting in the back of every mobile device and piece of social media, making connections between people and their information.  Unlike Organon, who was developed to protect privacy and work with and for Laura.

Smythe delivers us a chilling vision of what the future could be, as we increasingly trust data systems with our data and our relationships with others.  We operate on the expectation that these corporate entities will respect privacy rather than exploit us and our information.  But how many of us can truly say that we thoroughly check the privacy policies of the apps and companies that we use, and research how effective their IT security arrangements are?  We increasingly expect services to be provided to us for free, but the development and support costs are monumental.  As a wise friend of mine says, if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product – companies will monetise your data.

The choice facing us is a real one, and it is one that we must make now.  We must ensure that the technologies of the future we are building today reflect the kind of world we want to live in.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The City of Brass – S A Chakraborty

Every once in a while you start a book by a debut author, and just know that you’ve come across something special.  I had exactly that moment of delight and surprise with S A Chakraborty‘s The City of Brass (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a novel with all the magic and wonder of the Arabian Nights, but with a contemporary sub-text.

Nahri lives in Cairo making a living as a healer, but hustling on the side to augment her income as much as she can.  She will con rich clients out of as much money as she can, sets them up for burglary and conducts fake rituals on the side for extra cash.  She even has an arrangement with her local apothecary to get a cut of the business she sends his way.  But as a lone woman with no formal training she struggles to make a living, even though Nahri’s secret is that she can diagnose and heal illness in a way that no normal healer can.

Nahri’s world is turned upside down when she uses a childhood song during one of her fake rituals.  She finds that she’s accidentally summoned djinn who are desperate to kill her – but also Dara, a warrior djinn sworn to protect her.  Nahri learns that she is the last of the Nahid, one of several races of djinn.  The Nahid specialise in healing, and were wiped out following a brutal civil war.  The ancestral home of the Nahid – Daevabad – is now controlled by another sect of djinn and there is a price on Dara’s head for the crimes he committed during that war.  But Daevabad is the only place Nahri can be safe from those seeking to kill her.

In Daevabad Nahri is thrust into djinn politics in a way she never expected.  This is a city of warring factions, and as the last Nahid she is welcomed as a saviour and Dara as a hero in some parts of the city.  Nahri must find her place in this city fast, and has to call on all her street smarts to survive.  She must also cope with her growing – but forbidden – attraction to the charming and heroic Dara.

It’s in Chakraborty’s world-building of Daevabad that The City of Brass really sings.  This is a complex, multi-layered city with a rich history and complex patterns of power and influence.  Everyone is flawed and has good motivations for what they do.  There is no clear sense of good versus bad here – even Dara has a very dark past.  Ghassan, the current ruler, oppresses certain djinn sects, and the humans who live in some parts of Daevabad, and is prone to cruel and arbitrary behaviour.  But his family’s rule has brought an unprecedented period of peace and stability to the city.  We see this most clearly through Ali, Ghassan’s second son.  He has been brought up to serve in the military,.  But his deeply ingrained religious faith and strong sense of right and wrong come under significant pressure as the book progresses.

And The City of Brass is a novel with a nod towards contemporary Middle Eastern politics.  This is a book of warring religious sects.  Peoples marginalised into ghettos and subject to discriminatory and oppressive laws.  Aid money used to buy weaponry.  Religious extremism used to justify violence.  Chakraborty asks us whether the ends can ever justify the means in messy, complicated world.  I can’t wait for the next books in the series.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Wolf – Leo Carew

On paper, Leo Carew‘s The Wolf (review copy from Headline) ought to be right up my street.  It’s billed as “a thrilling, savagely visceral, politically nuanced and unexpectedly wry exploration of power and identity”, which is catnip for a reader of my taste.  But I bounced off it fairly on, and this one languished in the did-not-finish pile.

The premise is a good one.  War between the North and the South thrusts Roper, a young man, into power unexpectedly quickly when his father (the King of the Northern, Anakim people) is killed in battle, and he must struggle to gain authority early on or risk being deposed.  Meanwhile, Bellamus, a common-born upstart Sutherner who can run rings around most of the Suthern nobles, is fighting for renown, aided by the private patronage of his lover, the Queen.

Unfortunately, this book hit far too many of the buttons that turn me off a novel.  I even tried putting it down for a bit and coming back to it, to see if it would help.  It didn’t.

The problem was that I didn’t buy the fundamental premise.  Roper, the new King of the Anakim, is presented to us as a politically naive young man who finds himself having to fend off the ambitions of a wildly popular and successful soldier called Uvoren.  But it just didn’t ring true for me.  By rights, Roper should have been being groomed for his future role for his whole life, yet he acts like someone who’s never even thought about it and doesn’t have the first clue about his country, let alone running it.  This is someone who would have been raised in the highly political environment of his father’s court, yet he acts like someone who’s just arrived, doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t have the first clue how anything works.  I just don’t buy it.  And Roper shows little or no grief or reaction to the death of his father.  Which I also don’t buy.

The politics in the novel falls foul of one of my particular bug-bears.  It’s something that only Bad People do.  Not Roper, who is a Good Man.  Politicking becomes a lazy marker for someone the reader is meant to identify as a villain, so they can enjoy despising them.

There are issues with the world-building too.  This is yet another fantasy world where we are expected to believe that countries can field armies in the scale of hundreds of thousands of troops.  But the economies seem to be based on subsistence farming, and there is no convincing sense of how the landscape or the economies can support a military-industrial complex of that size, including all the support services and industries required to maintain it, and the logistics involved in moving armed forces of that scale around the country.

And there was just something in the prose style that grated too.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was like nails down a blackboard.

All in all, too many things on my list of pet peeves, all in one place in The Wolf.  While this isn’t a book that’s actively bad, there was just too much that kept throwing me out of the story and if I can’t suspend my disbelief I can’t carry on reading a book.  I’m sure there is an interesting debut in there, and Leo Carew will continue to develop as a writer, but this isn’t the book for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*