The Kingdom of Copper – S A Chakraborty

I absolutely loved The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty (read that review before this one), so I was extremely excited to get a review copy (from Harper Voyager) of its sequel, The Kingdom of Copper.  And I was not disappointed!

The Kingdom of Copper picks up Nahri’s story about five years after the climactic events that end The City of Brass.  She is living in Daevabad, married to Prince Muntadhir and the effective prisoner of the king as a hostage for her people’s good behaviour.  She is grieving the loss of her Afshin, Dara, and the betrayal of Prince Ali, a man she thought was a friend.  But the king’s repressive policies are starting to have inevitable consequences, and rebellion is brewing, fomented by the mother Nahri believed to be dead.

Everything I loved about the first book is here in its sequel.  But it has a much darker tone than the adventure/romance of the first book.  Nahri is tougher and more cynical as she learns to operate effectively within the constraints of her role at court.  Dara has fallen in with rebels and is being driven down a dark and violent path.  The moral Prince Ali only wants to live in quiet peace, helping the people of his adopted community, but he finds himself dragged back into Daevabad politics against his will, and at risk of becoming a rallying point for those wanting to overthrow the king’s rule.  Allegiances shift, and hidden agendas come to the surface.

This is a great book, and a worthy sequel.  I can’t wait to see what the final volume has in store!

Goodreads rating: 4*

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*

Green Jay and Crow – D J Daniels

I’m always excited when people try to push the boundaries of SFF story-telling.  Ambitious approaches are good, and we should encourage them.  But they don’t always work.  And Green Jay and Crow by D J Daniels (review copy from Rebellion) was a fail for me.  It just doesn’t quite work.

There’s an interesting puzzle box story in there.  Brom is hired by the local crime boss to collect a box and deliver it to a location.  The box is “time-locked”, reflecting the value of its contents.  Inevitably, the box goes astray and shenanigans ensue.  The box contains mysterious medication that can help Eva.  Eva is a 3D printed copy of a person that was designed to only live for a few days.  But Eva is a girl on the run, desperate to live a separate life.  As the story unfolds, Brom, Eva and his best friend Mac travel between parallel versions of the place they live in, meeting strange characters and trying to find a way to save Eva.  That premise is incredibly engaging, but Daniels fails to deliver on it.

I was most frustrated by the characterisation of Brom, the point of view character for most of the book.  Despite Mac being his best friend, Daniels writes Brom as having little or no knowledge of his friend’s past, motivations or their shared life in the place they live.  Within the novel it is a technique to hide Mac’s motivations to enable a reveal later in the book.  But it’s a lazy way of creating suspense that undermines the reader’s confidence in the writer and the work.

There are a lot of extremely intriguing things about the setting of the novel – particularly the alien Tenties that have arrived in the world; the 3D printing technology; the sentient robots; the parallel versions of the same place; the technology around travel between the parallel worlds; and strange cult-like figures.  But the whole is put together in a way that feels chaotic and difficult to navigate.  And Daniels doesn’t help you to find a coherent path through it.

It’s definitely an interesting work, but I don’t think it ultimately succeeds.  I’ll keep an eye on Daniels as I suspect any future work – as she matures as a writer – has the potential to be extremely interesting.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

Imagine if you will, a low-peril version of Harry Potter.  That is Tamora Pierce‘s Tempests and Slaughter (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a middle-grade story following three young friends at Carthak’s university for magicians.  Arram Draper is young and powerful, but lacks control over his magic.  He is fiercely intelligent, but naive and from a distant island.  Varice is a young woman with a bit more knowledge of how the world works.  Ozorne is a spare heir of the Emperor, being trained in war magic.  I understand that these are characters that play a significant part in the author’s other novels.  But as someone who hasn’t read any of the other books the beats here are predictable – Arram and Varice will end up together, and Ozorne will end up as Emperor.

The book follows the schooling of this trio.  There are lots of details of their lessons (Arram’s timetable for each term is set out in painstaking detail) and trips out, and some rivalries and fallings out with fellow students.  But it’s all pretty … bland.  All the teachers are sympathetic, including the grumpy ones.  There is little sense of peril or conflict in the book.  Even the ending was underwhelming, and I was left surprised that the book had finished.  Surely there was meant to be something more climactic.

Underwhelming, inoffensive fluff.

Goodreads rating: 2*

The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there.  You know the drill: a mysterious happening brings civilisation to its knees.  People living in the aftermath scrabble around living on tinned food.  Our protagonist is the one who gets to the heart of what happens and (in the more optimistic ones) is able to fix it. See The Feed, Station Eleven and The Space Between The Stars – all of which are really excellent examples of the genre.

Where Peng Shepherd‘s The Book of M (review copy from Harper Voyager) differs is that the cause of the apocalypse is not a mysterious virus or act of terrorism.  This is a fantasy take on the apocalypse, rather than a science fictional one.  Starting in India, people start losing their shadows.  And the shadowless start to gain the ability to change reality, but at the price of losing their memories.  As the problem begins to spread, society starts to break down.

Our protagonists are Max and Ory.  They were at the wedding of two friends in a remote location when the Forgetting starts to hit the USA.  Slowly the community at the wedding hotel starts to disperse, until only Max and Ory are left.  Max loses her shadow, and her husband Ory looks after her, in the knowledge that eventually she will forget even him.  Unable to bear it, Max eventually leaves, following mysterious graffiti and rumours that someone in the deep South may hold a cure for the Forgetting.

Unfortunately, The Book of M fails to add anything fresh to the post-apocalyptic genre beyond its new, fantastical premise.  The novel dwells on the importance of memories in how they shape and form the essence of a person.  But the Forgetting is never adequately explained and – although the story is competently told and Shepherd writes with a beautiful prose style – the novel lacks some of the deep insight into the human condition and how we cope with chaos and crisis that other sister books offer.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

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*