Life, Honestly – The Pool

I’ve loved The Pool‘s journalism right from the start.  Funny, honest, intelligent writing about life, relationships, careers, family, beauty and fashion from some fantastic women writers, much of it with a strong feminist perspective. And an interesting business model too – founded by Sam Baker (journalist) and Lauren Laverne (broadcaster) and tapping into a lot of freelance writing talent.  This is a model that has supported women fitting their writing around family and other commitments, and has provided a brilliant platform for emerging voices.

To celebrate their third anniversary, the website has published Life, Honestly (review copy from Bluebird), a collection of some of their best writing.  If you’re a regular reader of The Pool you will recognise most of these pieces, and there won’t be much here for you.  But Life, Honestly stands well as a snapshot and collection of contemporary women’s writing.  Freed from some of the commercial constraints of women’s print journalism, which relies on puff pieces, advertorials, and pernicious body-shaming, The Pool has given us a better insight into what it’s like to be a modern, professional woman in the 21st century.

Witty, authentic and passionate in turns, reading Life, Honestly is like talking to your girlfriends over a glass of wine.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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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*

The Quantum Magician – Derek Kunsken

Don’t be fooled by the title – Derek Kunsken‘s The Quantum Magician (review copy from Solaris) isn’t a rip off of Hannu Rajaniemi’s bonkers space opera The Quantum Thief.  It may feature a similarly charming con-man protagonist, but instead is a delightfully engaging heist story.  This is Ocean’s 11 in space.

Belisarius (Bel) Arjona is the titular Quantum Magician – genetically engineered to be able to enter various altered mental states in order to examine the fabric of the universe.  One of those states involves complete suppression of identity, in order to avoid the phenomenon of the observer collapsing quantum states.  But something has gone wrong in Bel’s breeding – entering these states is likely to lead to his death, and he spends his life as a con-man because the challenge is the only thing that will distract him from the addictive pull of his training.  Living in a complex, multi-cultural society dealing with the mix of messy emotions and complexity that make up most sentient beings is a much greater intellectual challenge than studying physics in a laboratory.

Bel is approached with the job of a lifetime – smuggle some military spaceships through a wormhole.  The wormhole is the main route from one part of the galaxy to another, and access is tightly controlled.  These military ships belong to a colony civilisation desperate to make a strike for independence.  Moving the warships will put them in the right place to make a surprise military strike.  Bel’s fee for this work is two small ships equipped with a brand new drive technology that will be worth a fortune.  But the real prize for him is the chance to observe wormhole physics from the inside – data he would never have been able to gather if he’d stayed on his home planet.

What lifts The Quantum Magician above the usual run of heist stories is the characterisation and world-building.  Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Bel is using this job as a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues – including his old lover Cassandra; Saint Matthew, the most advanced AI ever created; an explosives expert; Bel’s former con-man mentor; and a genetically engineered sea creature who is an expert pilot able to operate a high pressure and high g.  Bel has personal debts to pay to some of these people, and wants to work with people he trusts, but this for him is mostly about the chance to connect with people he knows as part of a team in order to address his fundamental loneliness.  Much of the early part of the book is Bel pulling his team together and planning the elaborate heist.  The actual heist itself delivers on tension and unexpected developments, bringing an exciting climax to the story.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Redemption’s Blade – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky has knocked it out the park once again with Redemption’s Blade (review copy from Solaris).  This is the post-Dark Lord novel I have been waiting for all my life.

Celestaine is one of a group of heroes who managed to defeat the evil demigod known as the Kinslayer, at the end of a Lord of the Rings-style titanic conflict that managed to – briefly – unite humanity in common cause.  But with the war now over, Celestaine is struggling to find purpose and meaning.  Adventuring and demigod-killing skills aren’t really much in demand these days, and all the heroic ballads in the world won’t help someone who is feeling out of place in the world.  So she takes a commission to help undo some of the damage caused by the Kinslayer – to find a magic item that might be able to heal a race of winged people who literally had their wings pulled off by the Kinslayer.

Redemption’s Blade is the first in a series of novels set in a shared world.  As the first one released, Tchaikovsky gets to set much of the world-building, which he has clearly relished doing.  This is a world filled with races, places, gods and monsters – and an awful lot of magical relics about the place.  It’s a great set-up for other writers to explore, and Tchaikovsky uses Celestaine’s quest to help set the scene.

It’s a novel written with great wit, by someone with a deep knowledge of fantasy tropes.  For example, Celestaine owns a magic sword of infinite sharpness, that she was given by another demigod and used to kill the Kinslayer.  But it’s a pain to carry around, because of the risk you might accidentally cut your own leg off, wears through scabbards incredibly quickly (even ones made from dragon skin) and needs a whole different fighting style (parries don’t really work if your sword cuts through everything).

But it’s also refreshingly believable about what happens next after an epic fantasy conflict.  There are refugees, attempts to rebuild in the rubble, famine and shortages, polluted land and people seeking to profit from the misfortune of others.  The human races have fallen back into their usual suspicion and bickering.  And Tchaikovsky addresses the problem of what you do with the orcs after the Battle of the Black Gate.  Prejudice is rife, but even the Yorughan exploited by the Kinslayer deserve the chance to move on and find a way to live productive lives.

Brilliant fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Empire of Silence – Christopher Ruocchio

There’s a gloriously 80’s science fantasy vibe about Empire of Silence from Christopher Ruocchio (review copy from Gollancz), the first in his Sun Eater series.  This a Galactic Empire ruled by aristocratic houses genetically engineered so that their breeding is literally superior. They profit from indentured labour and are equipped with special swords. And there is an ongoing war against the alien Cielcin, who are slowly but surely encroaching on Empire space.

Hadrian Marlowe is the eldest son of one of those Houses – and one that feels very House Harkonnen – but succession to his father’s holdings is not guaranteed.  Marlowe is a sensitive son, more interested in art than warfare, and concerned about workers’ rights.  But Empire of Silence is told from the older Marlowe’s perspective, and we know that he turns into a famed leader who defeats the Cielcin but also commits genocide.  Presumably actions driven by his desire to understand the alien Cielcin and his conflicted feelings about the cruel Empire he has been born into.

This is a riches to rags and back to riches again intergalactic romp.  The impetuous young Marlowe runs away from home after a disagreement with his father, who wants him to enter into the Church where he might be able to use his power and influence for the sake of the family.  But Marlowe does not want to become a Church torturer.  During his escape, Marlowe gets robbed and ends up fighting as a gladiator on a backwater world, where he dreams of saving up enough money to buy a starship of his own.

Empire of Silence is tremendous fun, and a very promising start to an interesting new series.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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!

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*