Review – Rat Queens: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth

Cover of Rat Queens vol 2Rat Queens: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth, Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch, Stjepan Sejic

I liked this more than the first volume, I think, but it’s weakened by the fact that while Dee is the centre of the plot, we still don’t really get to know her. In fact, we get flashbacks for Hannah and Violet. I’m actually getting more into the characters now, and especially the on/off thing with Sawyer and Hannah, but still… I don’t know, it’s not quite working for me. I completely forgot several side characters, and had a moment of confusion when they reappeared.

Fortunately, I do love the art — even the transition between artists (and props to Wiebe for putting his money where his mouth is and firing Upchurch over the domestic violence) was okay, and I like Sejic’s work as much or maybe more than I did Upchurch’s. It’s all pretty fun, and at least it’s sex-positive and the girls are in charge of their own destinies. I loved the moment between Violet and her mother particularly, for that. It’s not the cliché you’re no daughter of mine! moment, and that makes it more interesting.

Also, um, referring to Dee as a “chocolate princess”? Presumably because of the colour of her skin? Hm.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Clariel

Cover of Clariel by Garth NixClariel, Garth Nix

It’s a bit surprising to me to see the disappointed reviews of this, because I quite enjoyed it. Of course, it’s a different world to the one Sabriel enters, and different even from the world that Lirael and Sameth have to navigate as Sabriel and Touchstone work on restoring the Old Kingdom. This one doesn’t feature any contact with Ancelstierre, and is set before even Touchstone/Torrigan’s time. So naturally, the concerns of its people, the politics, are all quite different. It’s interesting to see an Abhorsen clan which is much larger than that of Sabriel’s time, but which is decidedly weaker; it’s interesting to see in Sameth the diffidence of earlier Abhorsens.

But in fact, I like Clariel herself rather more than Lirael or Sameth. She has goals and she pursues them, and she doesn’t have to take on responsibility, but she does. Of course, all her choices go wrong, unlike Sabriel or Lirael’s. If you think about the guiding words of these books, “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” — you could almost say that Sabriel, knowing her choices, chooses her path. Clariel’s path chooses her, because she’s not given the information she needs to make her own choice. In neither case is there really an alternate way, but Sabriel’s path is knowing and Clariel’s is forced.

It’s interesting to get a look at the bloodlines in the land and how they work out in a time of peace. Because of the strength of Sabriel and her father, and Touchstone and Sabriel’s rule, it’s easy in the trilogy to think that when the bloodlines are in the right place, everything will be alright. Clariel shows us that it isn’t, and gives us a picture of the other troubles of the Old Kingdom. There are no Dead creatures here in this book; instead we see the Abhorsens and Charter mages needing to deal with the other threat, of Free Magic.

One thing I really loved, on a character-level, is that Clariel is explicitly asexual. She’s not interested, she’s not going to change her mind for the right person or something, and like many ace people, she’s even experimented a bit to try and figure out how that all works. It’s awesome that she doesn’t really have conflict about this, and while people think she may be mistaken, nobody’s pushing her to “fix” it, or guilting her because she doesn’t want that.

In a way, the story feels very incomplete, because it’s just a fragment of a life, a tiny piece of the history of the Old Kingdom, and it doesn’t connect up the dots between this book and the original trilogy. There is plenty of room for many, many more stories, even ones featuring the same characters, should Nix choose. But we do have the shape of Clariel’s life sketched out for us, between this book and the original trilogy; I think it may be more satisfying seen that way, rather than read as a stand-alone.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Things Fall Apart

Cover of Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeThings Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe

This has always been on a vague list of ‘I should read this sometime’ books. I knew it as a classic, and I knew a very little about the setting, but mostly I just knew that it was famous as a post-colonial novel from the African continent. Well, there was a challenge on Habitica related to John Green’s Crash Course videos, I spotted it while browsing the Kobo store, and… decided it was about time I fixed my ignorance on this front.

Reading reviews of this book on sites like Goodreads may be rage inducing, by the way. Just a warning. Of course it’s not perfect, but I can’t think of a book that everyone would agree is perfect. It’s important, which is different; it means a lot to a lot of people, and it reflects on things which happened in Nigeria both at the time the book was set, and at the time the book was written. It’s a hybrid of Nigerian and “Western” storytelling; even the title alludes to Western literature, so if you didn’t get that clue, you might be a little puzzled.

I don’t think it’s even trying to be authentically an Igbo story, a kind of non-fiction novel. The story is based in real events, but of course the literary flourishes are here — hubris, hamartia, heck, even ‘daddy issues’. It’s a reflection on a lost world, a world that’s being lost even during the story; it’s not looking back with rose-tinted regret or forward with optimism, but placing the two societies side by side and watching them affect one another. Watching how they critique each other, their incompatibilities, the appeal for people from each side to cross over.

The simple, sometimes colloquial storytelling style is a purposeful, literary device; it’s a simplified version, almost a fable, of a complex history.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is… a freebie! So I’ve decided to tell you about my ten weird bookish habits/facts.

  1. If I’m going to stop reading mid chapter, it has to be at a scene break, or the end of the first paragraph on a page.
  2. The first paragraph on the page is not the right place to stop if it fills more than half the page.
  3. I don’t like stopping on odd-numbered chapters.
  4. I mark two chapters ahead with a bookmark. Sometimes there are five or six bookmarks in the book, all of them for points I haven’t reached yet.
  5. I like to whisper the words to myself. I’m synaesthetic, so it adds an extra layer for me. The mouth-feel/taste of some words is just great — like “steps” and “stepped” and “crept” and “slipped” and…
  6. I like reading statistics. But if I can’t have ’em accurate, I get sulky and won’t collect them anymore. So if I’m reading a book that I have in dead tree and ebook, I have to read one copy or the other. For the statistics.
  7. I have the Kobo Reading Life badges for literally every time of day, which requires reading five times in each time period. I have literally read around the clock five times minimum with my Kobo.
  8. I fidget while I read. Favourite fidget point, ever since I was tiny, has always been my stuffed hippo’s ears. She is on her second or third set of replacement ears… And she is a very well-read hippo.
  9. I read standing up sometimes. I have a standing desk, and I’m also allowed to read during my volunteering shift, sooooo…
  10. My teddies have a hammock above my bunk bed, at my parents’ house. They share it with books every night, just in case I wake up and need to read.

Anyone? Just me?

What Should Diversity Mean?

Last weekend, I was following posts and tweets about Maggie Stiefvater (a white writer) being on a panel called “Writing the Other”. You can get some background here, but it’s not necessary for my post. The gist of many of the posts was that Stiefvater, a white writer, had no place on such a panel. There is a certain argument for that — that whatever else she is, Stiefvater still has a certain amount of privilege that means her voice doesn’t need promoting as much. And her definition of “Other” was fairly loose and included “writing about places you haven’t visited” and examples like that, which is not usually what we mean when we’re talking about “the Other”.

To pause and briefly define terms, when we’re talking about “Otherness”, it’s usually (in my understanding) about other identities, rather than other experiences. So gay people, people of colour, people with disabilities, Jewish people — groups of people who are “Othered”, who are treated as a distinct group with common traits.

But I did like something Stiefvater said in her original post, which I’ll quote here:

I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write [sic] about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.

To me, this definitely has a place on a diversity panel. I can tell you that as someone with an anxiety disorder, I’ve definitely been Othered. Even just as a Welsh person, I’ve had experiences that sometimes echo those of people of colour — for instance, when I read Catrin Collier’s introduction to Margiad Evans’ book, Country Dance:

I grew up in Wales in the 1950s and 60s, yet [Margiad Evans’] work was never mentioned at my school or local library. Whenever I asked the eternal question ‘What should I read next?’ I was directed towards Russian, English, American, German and French novelists. I discovered a few — a precious few — Welsh authors for myself, which only added weight to my teachers’s pronouncement that ‘people like you (translate as South Wales valley born) don’t write’.

Sound at all familiar? It did to me — both from the experiences of post-colonial people (which arguably, includes the Welsh) and from my own experiences. I didn’t know there was any Welsh literature. Raised in England, I was vaguely under the impression that writing was not a thing Welsh people did, that we didn’t have a written culture. Or not one worth exploring, at any rate.

Imagine my surprise at university, at the age of 21, when I signed up for a ‘Welsh Fiction in English’ class, and discovered a whole world of Welsh writing!

So what should diversity mean? The assumption seemed to be that Maggie Stiefvater could not be Other, could not represent diversity, because she’s visibly white.

Diversity should mean we remember to look for the invisible stuff, too. The very fact that people immediately assumed that Stiefvater couldn’t be Other is a little worrying — there are invisible illnesses and disabilities, there are people who aren’t out, there are people whose racial/cultural background isn’t obvious. Diversity panels obviously shouldn’t be made up solely of white people, but let’s make an effort to think about the non-obvious forms of diversity, too. Just because you can look at someone and see white skin, a majority culture and a boyfriend, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything about diversity.

I haven’t read any of Stiefvater’s work yet, nor do I know anything about her mental health; the fact that she wanted to talk about it, though — and that the person who criticised her involvement in a panel didn’t even seem to consider that angle — struck a chord. If Stiefvater has things to say about OCD and suicide from personal experience, then we need to make space for that. If not in a panel about ‘Writing the Other’, then where? What is more Other than a group of people who’ve been literally demonised throughout history?

Now, if there’s a panel made up entirely of white people, we should definitely criticise it. And we should criticise any sign of homogeneity in such panels, if we end up at a point where a panel is all white gay men, or all white women with mental illnesses. But perhaps not by targeting an individual and saying, essentially, ‘you have no right to talk about being Other‘. Maybe, instead, we could ask, ‘Why do you feel you’re qualified to talk about being Other? What do you bring to the table?’ Let’s make a space for people to say, “I have an anxiety disorder, and I wanted to talk about how ‘crazy’ people are represented in fiction.” Or, “Well, I’m a woman dating a guy, but I’m actually bisexual and I’d like to talk about bi-erasure and problems specific to bisexual people.”

And if the answer is, “Well, actually, I’m not from a minority group at all, but I have thoughts about how they should be portrayed in fiction,” then we can say, “Maybe you should step down from the panel in favour of people who’ve lived those experiences.”

Mind you, I don’t know if that’ll work, because some people will always think they have something worthwhile to say, whether they do or not. Some people will always privilege their voices above others. But I’d like it if people would just stop to think about what diversity really looks like — whether it looks like anything at all, or whether we need to hold back on some of our assumptions.

Maybe it does need to look diverse. I just read Justina Ireland‘s post about diversity panels, and the fact that her experiences show that having a person of colour on the panel — just one! — already means a lot to other people of colour. Maybe we need to make sure that the people we have to speak on diversity panels are not just diverse, but intersectionally so. Black and mentally ill. Gay and Jewish. Genderqueer and Islamic.

For damn sure, diversity panels right now are sending a message, and it’s not the right one.

Review – Blood Bound

Cover of Blood Bound by Patricia BriggsBlood Bound, Patricia Briggs

Okay, this review on Goodreads kind of sums up some of the problems I’m having. All the super-werewolf-dominance stuff is getting on my nerves, partly because these dynamics are not true of actual wolves in the wild (it’s based on an understanding of wolf social behaviour in captivity), and I am noticing that Mercy’s not a fan of other female characters (at least ones that might be rivals; Jesse, as the daughter of her love interest, is okay) because they’re all submissive or concerned with their appearance or whatever. (Though to be fair, this book does have a few moments of understanding between Mercy and Honey.)

But… it’s still kind of fun anyway, if you keep in mind that yeah, it’s heavy on the tropes. The mystery pulls us deeper into vampire lore and politics, for this book, which is quite fun. I have had enough of the love triangle… quadrilateral… thing, but I sort of knew I was signing on for it with these books. I will be quite interested to see how Mercy and Adam negotiate the issue of dominance between them; it could end up being quite an interesting dynamic, and I like that Adam is conscious of it and willing to work on it. We’ll see how that goes in the next book or two, I guess.

We’re also getting more development of what Mercy is capable of, and she does start being more active and less inclined to let the wolves tell her what to do. It is cool that she works within a team, but I wish they didn’t hold her back so much.

Oh, and I love Warren and Kyle, and there needs to be 100% more of them.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Cover of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, Catherynne M. Valente

The whimsical nature of this is classically Valente; you can tell it was written by her, if you’re at all used to her style, but the style is less pronounced — it requires less concentration to be rewarding, to be enchanting. Which, given that it’s essentially a young adult book, makes sense. It’s still gorgeous, but more like cream and less like treacle.

It’s exactly as charming as the cover copy suggests. There’s a Wyvern who may or may not be the son of a library, there’s wild herds of bicycles, there’s witchery and magic and strange transformations. It’s Fairyland, as dangerous and bewitching as it should be, and not saccharine-sweet at all. It has a bit of the same tone as The Hobbit, with a definite narrator who has a personality and is telling the story direct to you, with the same lightness of touch (and much less moralising than, say, C.S. Lewis). I really like it when people are clever with their narrators, and this definitely worked for me.

There are, of course, deliberate parallels to folklore, but also to classic fantasy fiction — Narnia in particular, and it’s interesting that the main character of Fairyland has a father who is away at war, and so has that war background. Shades of the Pevensies, a little. And the antagonist’s issues, well, they seemed to me a direct commentary on the disappointments of leaving Narnia, never to return.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Philosopher Kings

Cover of The Philosopher Kings by Jo WaltonThe Philosopher Kings, Jo Walton
Received to review via Netgalley

I should probably additionally note before I write this review that I consider Jo a friend, but I was a fan of her writing first. Actually, surprisingly, I have pretty mixed feelings about this one. It’s surprising to me, anyway — but everyone seems to connect to different books even just among Jo’s bibliography, because she’s written such a range of things. Only a little while ago I was talking about how strongly I connected with The King’s Peace/The King’s Name, which my friend Bun wasn’t nearly as enthused about.

I do like this trilogy, and I’m curious to see what the final book does with this set-up. I love the whole idea of it, and it makes me want to have Sokratic debates with everyone (in which case my mother would probably dearly wish to be able to turn me into a gadfly). I’d love to know my metal, I’d love to get the education that they have in the Just City. And I love the characters, the way everyone is learning, the way nearly everyone has subtleties and can surprise you.

My main problems with this book were to do with the pacing and one particular character. As the book starts, there’s a major drive to do a particular thing. That’s resolved by 70% of the way through, maybe even a little before, and so the rest of the book had the curious feel of being an epilogue. The emotional drive of the story, the whole tone of it, just changes — and yet then there was another climactic moment in the last 10%, after I was expecting it to end, and this one really was a gamechanger.

As for the character, I felt like I didn’t understand him anymore. Up to that point, I had understood him, and even half-sympathised, but there was a sudden moment when he felt less like the character I ‘knew’ from reading The Just City, and simply made up of the worst parts of that person, magnified. And I didn’t really see where the change came in — the problem being, of course, that none of the narrators saw him for years between The Just City and this book. It just didn’t quite ring true, for me, like there was a step missing.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading The Philosopher Kings very much, and will deeply enjoy talking about it and debating about it with my partner and anyone else who wants to.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Scar

Cover of The Scar by China MiévilleThe Scar, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st May, 2009

I’m glad I was already familiar with China Miéville’s work before I read The Scar. I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t known, to some extent, what to expect. The Scar is set in the same universe as Perdido Street Station, and has links with it, although it is not set in the same city. The prose is similar, very rich and dense, and the world-building is just as intense. It can be a little hard to get into: I remember with the first book that I found myself wondering what the main plot was going to be because what was there didn’t seem big enough. I was less dubious about The Scar, and wasn’t exactly surprised by the way the plot unfolded and unfolded and got bigger and bigger.

Which isn’t to say I knew where it was going, because while there were some things I expected and some things other people mentioned helped connect some dots, the end was still a shock to me. A good kind of shock, the “oh, that’s what’s going on, now everything suddenly makes sense” kind of shock, but still a shock. It’s hard to articulate what I felt about it because when I got to the end, I sat down to try and talk in a discussion thread about it and couldn’t summon up the words. I loved it, really, the way everything comes together, and the way everyone takes their place in the scheme of things and all the characters’ purposes make sense.

Overall, I loved the descriptions of the city. Miéville is really damn good at building up pictures like that, making you see it vividly, making you know how it works. I think I remarked in my review of Perdido Street Station that the city itself seems like a character, and the plot more like a vehicle to explore it — or if I didn’t, I should’ve. I felt this less in The Scar, but Armada is still a sort of character of its own.

Speaking of characters, The Scar has a lot of interesting ones. I’m really pleased that some Remade, who were more on the outskirts of Perdido Street Station, were closer to the heart of this book. Tanner Sack is an awesome character, I think — not too complicated in his thinking, but good and loyal. His slow transformation to become more of a sea-creature is really, really interesting to read about, and he was one of the few characters I wasn’t ambivalent about. Shekel was another, of course. I ended up liking the Brucolac more than I expected to, given that he’s a vampire and quite scary. Uther Doul is another fascinating character, and it’s amazing how much of a part he plays in the end. I didn’t like Silas at any point, so I was quite unsurprised by what he was doing, but Doul was more of a surprise. There’s a lot of manipulating going on in this book, and it amazes me how intricate it gets while still making sense.

Bellis herself, I didn’t feel much about either way. She’s rather unremarkable, really, except in being at the right (or wrong) place at the right time.

The Lovers were one of my favourite things about the book. The story surrounding them, about the scars, is intense and intriguing, and I was very drawn to the concept. Not so much to the characters, but definitely to the concept. I was actually sad when they parted because they were such a strong symbol.

I feel like I haven’t even managed to touch on the things that fascinate me about this book. It’s rich and dense, the characters are for the most part interesting and powerful. The ending is a wonderful culmination of all the threads, all the little details, and I love it. The world-building is wonderful. One of the things I like best about it is that there isn’t even any attempt to explain their science and make it like our science. It just is, but it’s not magic, it’s still science.

There are some amazing quotes, too. The ones that stuck out to me most are both related to Tanner:

-“A scar is not an injury, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After an injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

-“In time, in time they tell me, I’ll not feel so bad. I don’t want time to heal me. There’s a reason I’m like this.
I want time to set me ugly and knotted with loss of you, marking me. I won’t smooth you away.
I can’t say goodbye.”

I think those are amazing and lovely, too.

In conclusion, I think The Scar is well worth reading. If you can’t get into it because of all the denseness, persevere. I definitely found it worth it. I liked The Scar better than Perdido Street Station, but that might also have been because I was more prepared for it.

Rating: 5/5