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*

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition.  And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).

Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside.  A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife.  Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity.  The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.

Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage.  In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally  rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute.  She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself.  Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery.  Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community.  Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community.  Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style.  This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave.  Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.

The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune.  All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs.  She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature.  Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills.  Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.

As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad.  Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser.  There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh.  Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while.  Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator.  We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it.  When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world.  Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser.  There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way).  Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.

Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.

Goodreads rating: 4*