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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The Ice – Laline Paull

Laline Paull spung to fame with her novel The Bees.  Her follow up, The Ice (review copy from 4th Estate) is an interesting but ultimately flawed near-future story about friendship and betrayal, set in the harsh environment of the Arctic.

Sean Cawson is a businessman who has had a life-long fascination with the Arctic and with the great explorers of the past.  Together with his oldest friend, a famous environmentalist called Tom Harding, he purchases an old whaling station in the Arctic Circle and converts it into a boutique hotel and retreat for the super-rich.  But tragedy occurs almost as soon as the project is finished and open for businss: Harding is killed in a freak accident.  Cawson is seriously injured, but survives.  Three years on, Harding’s body is recovered, and the ensuing inquest is the frame for the novel to explore Cawson and Harding’s friendship and the circumstances that led to the accident.

There is a strong thread running through the book of climate change and its impacts.  The melting of the Arctic sea ice has opened up new trade routes and opportunities for tourism, but at an ecological price.  The tensions between Cawson and Harding come from the right way to respond to that.  To Harding, the need to protect the environment and prevent further damage is paramount.  To Cawson it is an inevitability that society must change and adapt to, albeit in a sensitive way.  There was the scope here for an interesting and nuanced exploration of this dilemma in the book, but unfortunately Paull dodges this, choosing a fairly simplistic environmental message.

Paull’s novel is a story of Great Men doing Great Things.  She is trying to draw linkages between the big beasts of the corporate world and the explorers of the past (and Paull’s research into the history of Arctic exploration is one of the real strengths of the book, shining through strongly).  In both cases ambition, resolve and resilience are required in order to thrive and prosper.  To Paull, the world of business is no less harsh and unforgiving than the Arctic.  One mis-step or poor judgement can lead to ruin, and only the boldest will succeed.

But this approach makes the novel feel tired.  Ulitmately, The Ice is the story of Cawson’s mid-life crisis, as he comes to question his assumptions and path in life.  The female characters in the novel are particularly poorly served, fulfilling little more than stereotypical set dressing: the hysterical ex-wife, the rebellious teenage daughter, the femme fatale, the kooky Chinese business partner.  Much of this is down to Paull’s close narrative focus on Cawson.  We see the world and the people in it through his eyes.  While some of those judgements change as Cawson changes, Paull doesn’t (as some other writers might) clearly show us that these are his perceptions of more sophisticated and fully-formed characters.

The Ice is interesting and ambitious, but just doesn’t quite succeed for me.

Goodreads rating: 3*

All The Birds In The Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

There’s been a lot of buzz about the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky.  This seems to be largely driven by the author’s status as a recognisable ‘name’ in online pop culture journalism: she is one of the co-founders of io9.  The book has been nominated for the 2017 Best Novel award at the Hugos, and won the 2017 Nebula, so I was particularly interested to read it.

This is a charming novel about the relationship between Patricia and Laurence.  We first meet them both at school, where they band together as outsiders from the normal school culture.  He is a maths and science geek, she is a bookish and rather fey girl with a love of the outdoors who discovers a talent for magic.  The casual cruelties of school bullying and the expectations of their parents push Patricia and Laurence together, but their friendship suffers the tensions of a science v magic divide and they go their separate ways.  Of course, life throws them into one another’s paths once more as adults, where they find themselves on opposite sides of a debate about how to save the world from a global crisis induced by climate change and scarce resources.

Where this novel is strongest is in the exploration of Patricia and Laurence’s friendship.  The shared experience of growing up weird and misunderstood is a tough one.  It throws the two together and has lasting effects on their friendships and relationships throughout their lives.  To that extent it’s reminiscent of books like Jo Walton’s Among Others.  But the novel suffers from a thinly drawn supporting cast, and the doomsday device v magical apocalypse plotline is resolved unsatisfactorily, with a rather predictable ‘you need both’ conclusion.

All The Birds In The Sky is zeitgeisty, but ultimately pretty forgettable.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The House of Binding Thorns – Aliette de Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel, The House of Shattered WingsBinding Thorns (review copy from Gollancz) picks up immediately after the cataclysmic events of Shattered Wings.

In de Bodard’s post-apocalyptic Paris, wealthy Houses are ruled by the Fallen, angels ejected from Heaven, but with no memory of why they were cast out, or their former lives.  The major houses provide a measure of protection for them, and a way of using their magical talents.  But as Shattered Wings showed, there are dark forces at play seeking to undermine the House structures.

But Binding Thorns takes a different tack to its predecessor, focusing on the much story of a strategic alliance House Hawthorn is seeking to make with the Annamite dragon kingdom under the Seine.  The existence of the dragons is known to very few and the product of France’s colonial past.  Paris has a substantial Annamite minority, living on the margins of society, many of them migrants or the descendants of migrants unable to return home.  It is natural that they would have brought their beliefs and supernatural beings to their new home.

It’s always exciting to find a work of speculative fiction that deals with post-colonialism, let alone one that does it so well.  As de Bodard makes clear in her Afterword, this is a novel that draws on the experience of colonial control through things like the Opium Wars.  Except the drug of choice that is slowly destroying the Paris dragon kingdom is angel essence, not opium.  And just like China, the trade in angel essence is a deliberate attempt to weaken and undermine the kingdom, making it ripe for a takeover.  The dissonance between Fallen and Annamite culture is portrayed incredibly well throughout the novel, whether through the starkest incompatibilities in the two magic systems, or the subtleties of cultural constructs.

The chance to explore another House is an exciting one.  House Hawthorn is an interesting contrast to Silverspires in the first novel.  We learn much more about its enigmatic leader Asmodeus.  Cruel and self-serving he may be, but he turns out to be much more complex than the pantomime villain of the first novel, and an incredibly sympathetic character.

The overall cast of characters remains strong and diverse.  It’s good to see motherhood portrayed, along with older women in positions of power and influence.  There are gay, lesbian and bisexual characters, as well as the obvious racial diversity of the Annamite and Fallen characters.

With the groundwork laid in its predecessor, The House of Binding Thorns is a much more interesting and powerful novel.  de Bodard’s series is shaping up to be extremely interesting indeed.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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*

Miranda and Caliban – Jacqueline Carey

In Miranda and Caliban (review copy from Tor, through NetGalley), Jacqueline Carey gives us a thoughtful exploration of the backstory to one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, The Tempest.  It’s a short book, but one packed with thoughtful insight and commentary on the source material.

Miranda and Caliban focuses on Miranda’s childhood, with the events of the play only covered briefly towards the end of the book.  For all that it’s a close rendering of the play it gives a radically different and fresh perspective on the story.  Carey’s retelling draws out the toxic impact of Prospero’s desire for revenge and the abusive relationship that has created with his daughter.  Miranda is a tool for his revenge, a person he controls and exploits to enable that revenge and return to power.  She is infantilised and denied information, but expected to perform services in pursuit of her father’s revenge agenda.  This is a Prospero who cares little of her wishes or feelings, playing his daughter as a card to engage the interest of those shipwrecked on the island.

Carey’s Caliban is a misunderstood creature.  Judged for his physical appearance and isolated upbringing he is seen by Prospero as ignorant and fit only for menial labour.  It is under Miranda’s help and care that he grows and blossoms and learns.  Caliban is as exploited by Prospero as Miranda, his potential and skills overlooked except where they can be used to advance Prospero’s agenda.  But unlike Miranda, Caliban isn’t family.  And his status as the child of a witch means he will never be able to transcend the strict class boundaries of that society.

Goodreads rating: 3* 

Crossroads of Canopy – Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer’s  debut novel, Crossroads of Canopy (review copy from Tor) is a fresh take on the fantasy genre.  Set in a lush rainforest, Unar runs away from her parents, who want to sell her into slavery, and becomes a junior priestess to Audblayin, goddess of growth and fertility.  After Audblayin’s death, the ambitious and rebellious Unar is passed over for promotion, and leaves the temple, vowing to be the person to find the reincarnated Audblayin and become the god’s Bodyguard.  Unar leaves Canopy, the part of the forest protected by the gods and goddesses and descends to Understorey, where she discovers a new way of living and uncovers a plot to destroy Canopy.

There’s a lot to like about Crossroads of Canopy.  Unar’s growing realisation of the unfairness of the society that she lives in shows us the dark underbelly of privilege.  It depends on the exploitation of others.  In this case, the slaves sold into servitude and the outcasts living outside Canopy who don’t benefit from the protection of the gods and goddesses above.  This is a society of strict hierarchy where the privileged live close to the sun and the rest scrape a living on the edges of society.  Unar’s compassion for the slaves is what ultimately leads to her being cast out of her temple and ostracised.  Socialism and class awareness are still rare enough things in contemporary fantasy writing, that to see them is always a delight.

The treatment of female friendship and family loyalty is also a particular strength of the book.  Unar is close to her fellow initiate Oos, though the two come from widely different backgrounds.  Oos is a noblewoman, all grace and elegance next to the tomboyish Unar.  Their friendship suffers trials and is repeatedly tested, but it endures and strengthens.  But the real joy of the book is Unar’s relationship with her younger sister.  Lost as a baby, Unar’s life is shaped by the desire to find her and make restitution.  That guilt and drive is shamelessly exploited to Unar’s downfall.

Unfortunately, though, I struggled with Unar herself.  She is an angry and rebellious teenager who repeatedly does exceptionally stupid things.  That makes her a difficult protagonist to identify with for the whole of the narrative.  She does have a lot of growing up to do – and matures significantly over the course of the novel – but it disrupted the flow for me and frequently threw me out of the novel.

Goodreads rating: 3*