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*

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*

 

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 Poppy War – R F Kuang

The Poppy War by R F Kuang (review copy from Harper Voyager) is a stunning and gut-wrenching debut.  Kuang mixes up real historical events (such as the Rape of Nanjing) with bigotry and violence to tell a complex story of betrayal and revenge.

The novel opens as Fang Runin (Rin) – a war orphan – is studying for the entrance exam to earn a scholarship place at Sinegard, the foremost military academy in Nikara.  Education is Rin’s escape from her abusive foster parents and the prospect of an unwanted marriage.  It offers her the chance of independence and a career.  Successful, she finds herself one of a group of new students at Sinegard.  But her education is interrupted when the always strained relations with neighbouring country Mugen erupt into war.  Mugen and Nikara have a history of tit-for-tat conflict, with peace always uneasy and never lasting long.  Both countries have long memories and lists of the war crimes committed by the other.

The early parts of The Poppy War have the feel of Pat Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind – student from the wrong side of the tracks enrols in school, makes enemies among the students and tutors, but catches the attention of the most eccentric and elusive of the school’s tutors, the Lore tutor Jiang. Rin learns that the stories of her childhood about gods and men able to summon them and their magic have truth in them.  Under Jiang’s supervision she begins to learn how to access her spiritual side and the Pantheon of the gods.  This is in sharp contrast to the rest of her training on military medicine, strategy and history.

The latter parts of the book are pure military fantasy, with shades of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen.  Rin’s loyalty to her command structure and her patriotism to the Empress and Nikara is tested to the limits as the novel progresses.  This is a novel that asks us to choose between conflicting loyalties at every turn.

The Poppy War is strong on the horrors of war (particularly the sequence based on the Rape of Nanjing, where the invading Japanese army massacred the civilian population of the city) and the camaraderie between unit members.  It draws heavily on the contested history between China and Japan, particularly the Second Sino-Japanese War.  (Kuang’s academic background is in this period of history.) The military incidents in the book are modelled on that war, right down to the use of chemical and biological weapons.

This is a novel with a fantastic level of class-consciousness and awareness of inequality and prejudice.  Although the national examinations are supposed to be meritocratic, they inevitably favour the rich and privileged who can afford the classical education tested for.  Sinegard is the only college that offers a full scholarship – for all the others the student’s family must meet the costs of their education.  So, while superficially meritocratic, this education system acts as a tool to reinforce and embed the privilege and stratification in Nikara society.  Although Rin’s fellow Sinegard student Altan Trengsin, the last of the Speerlies (a nation of fearsome warriors with the reputation of being able to summon fire, who were wiped out in a brutal act of genocide in the last war), is idolised for his fighting skills, he is treated as a curiosity and freak: mocked for his dark skin and the target of all the other students.

Rin is the inevitable product of this society.  Abused and exploited as a child and the victim of racist and classist bullying at Sinegard, she is used to mistreatment.  That for her is normal.  She blackmails her childhood tutor to help her prepare for the exam.  She gets through her studying by self-harming.  Anger at her mistreatment and the fragility of her life and future are what keep her going and focused on her education.  When she does encounter kindness, from Jiang, she doesn’t quite know how to respond to it.  Ironically she ends up most comfortable in the strict hierarchy of the Militia, where she can rail against orders and authority, but within the familiar context of abusive and controlling power structures.

To that extent it is no wonder that The Poppy War ends where it does.  This is a book about what happens when you dehumanise people and push them to their limits of pain and endurance.  That this is a story rooted in real history makes this all the more chilling.  Anger and the desire for revenge are powerful motives, but they are inherently destructive ones.  Almost inevitably, the abuse victim lashes out in revenge, but the price is a terrible one.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Planetfall – Emma Newman

Emma Newman‘s Planetfall (newly republished by Gollancz, who provided a review copy) is a brilliant SF psychological thriller.  Renata Ghali is an engineer on a high-tech extra-terrestrial colony founded by the visionary Lee Suh-Mi who brought together a group of colonists to flee Earth and travel to a new planet.  The colony is small, but stable, living around the base of an alien structure part plant, part animal and part city.  Suh-Mi is inside, communing with an alien civilisation, and the colonists have been awaiting her return for more than 20 years.  But the colony’s peace is over-turned when Suh-Mi’s grandson walks out of the grassland and into their lives, claiming to be the only survivor of a group of colonists believed to have crashed on landing.

Renata is a troubled protagonist, and the novel slowly reveals both her mental illness and the likely cause of it.  She suffers from anxiety, struggles to connect with other people and hoards goods.  She fell for Suh-Mi, her former flatmate, and followed her across the stars to escape a troubled relationship with her parents, and an increasingly dystopian Europe of scarcity, diminishing opportunity and encroachment on freedom.  The colony project is a grand vision of escape she can throw herself behind, running away from the challenges of Earth.  Newman’s depiction of Renata famously draws on some of her own personal history of anxiety, and is one of the best and most sympathetic portrayals of a complex and flawed character I’ve come across recently.

The reader quickly realises that all is not as it seems within the colony.  The Machiavellian and manipulative figure of Mack looms large within the novel.  Known as the Ringmaster, his job was to bring the colonists together and help broker their departure from Earth, using his charisma and influencing skills to create a shared vision and manage the people dynamics.  After landing, he has turned those skills to keeping the colony going while it awaits Suh-Mi’s return.  Superficially jovial, charming and caring, the reader soon realises there is a much more sinister undercurrent.

Newman is an accomplished novelist, though Planetfall is her first foray into SF.  The plot unravels with a beautiful balance of twists, reveals and insights that never once feels like Newman is artificially witholding information from the reader for plot purposes.  We travel with Renata as she revisits traumatic events of the past that she has tried to bury and forget.  And Newman gives us a brilliantly diverse cast of all races, genders and sexualities.

I am delighted that Gollancz has picked up this series of books, enabling Newman to finish writing and publishing the sequels.  This is exciting and fresh fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Between The Blade And The Heart – Amanda Hocking

There are a whole bunch of cliches about urban fantasy.  About ‘strong’ female protagonists with the ability to kick demon butt and a taste for form-fitting black leather, tattoos, piercings and edgy haircuts.  About irresistibly sexy Fae creatures that capture the hearts of said strong female protagonists, often after stories involving love triangles.  And plots centring on conspiracies, world-threatening catastrophe and hidden pasts.  So much so that when I picked up Amanda Hocking‘s Between the Blade and the Heart (review copy from Pan Macmillan) I took it for parody to begin with.  But apparently it’s meant to be serious, and Hocking’s popularity suggests her writing is the source for a lot of these tropes and cliches.

This was a book I didn’t finish.  There are holes in the plot and the world-building you could drive the main character Malin’s luft-bike through.  And the prose was so eye-rollingly facile and over-sexualised that I struggled.  This is pure chick-lit – romance with the slight gloss of a supernatural mystery to solve as Malin gets involved in correcting a mistake her mother once made that arguably puts the world at risk.  It aspires to being ‘edgy’ with Malin’s bisexuality, strained relationship with her mother, references to drink and drugs, and her status as a professional slayer of immortals, but this is as derivative a work of fiction as they come.

The characters are unlikeable stereotypes, yet with Hocking making a point of telling us exactly how attractive they all are.  Malin is a standard issue strong-female-protagonist, who aspires to being a rebellious outsider (by not taking her college classes seriously, by ignoring instructions and advice, and partying hard).  Her flatmate Oona is a put-upon doormat.  And there is a classic Mean Girl at college, who is no doubt destined to become Malin’s BFF.  Add to that mix a Sexy Ex, a hot Friend With Benefits, and a Sexy Yet Mysterious Stranger and I noped my way out fast.

Hocking’s popularity and sales suggest she has a devoted readership and following of fans.  I am glad they are reading work they enjoy.  But this is not my cup of tea.  I prefer books with a bit more substance.

Goodreads rating: 1*