Review – A Kiss Before the Apocalypse

Cover of A Kiss Before the Apocalypse by Thomas SniegoskiA Kiss Before the Apocalypse, Thomas E. Sniegoski
Originally reviewed 10th April, 2011

Eighth book for the readathon in 2011. I was having to force myself to read the seventh book, but this was fun and absorbing, so I had no problems with falling asleep.

As might be predicted for me, I loved the references to Raymond Chandler (the detective is called Remy Chandler; his dog is Marlowe). I also loved the fact that in my head, Remy totally looked like Castiel from Supernatural, as portrayed by Misha Collins.

A Kiss Before the Apocalypse is basically the story of a sort-of-fallen angel who works as a private investigator, and who then finds himself caught up in investigating where the Angel of Death has got to and who wants to start the apocalypse. His closest sidekick is his dog, and not his cop friend, which was not what I expected — I wish supporting characters had been used better, actually. Francis and Lazarus were amazing. He should’ve used ’em and abused ’em.

The thing that I liked most was the relationship between him and his aged wife — given that, being an angel, he can’t age — and the tenderness between them, even when to outsiders she appears old enough to be his mother. I love Remy’s devotion to her.

Nothing amazingly special, but a fun (and quick) read.

Rating: 3/5

Review – War of the Flowers

Cover of War of the Flowers by Tad WilliamsWar of the Flowers, Tad Williams
Originally reviewed 1st June, 2009

I read this book a long time ago — it was the first book by Tad Williams that I read — but never wrote a proper review for it. Both times I’ve read it I ate it up in about two days. The writing was pretty good — or it tasted good, anyway, from a synaesthete’s point of view — and the plot was interesting enough to draw me on and make me read it in great big chunks. There was something unmemorable about it, though. I have a pretty good memory, like my dad, and my dad is one of those guys who can tell you what happened in an obscure episode of the old series of Doctor Who that hardly anyone even remembers seeing. But I just didn’t really remember what happened in this book, so reading it again was actually mostly discovering things all over again.

One of the things I like a lot about the book is that it isn’t some great multi-volume epic with hundreds of characters. You stay focused on one main character throughout and don’t go off on too many tangents. Speculative fiction seems to, by default, come in trilogies, which drives me a little mad when I want a relatively simple/quick read. Unfortunately, this can be a bit of a pitfall, too. The War of the Flowers is pretty dense, and the main character, Theo Vilmos, is a bit slow and a bit of a jerk. He seems to sort of mean well, but he keeps saying and doing the wrong things.

There are some pretty awesome supporting characters — particularly Applecore, who is a little sprite with a foul mouth and a temper and, despite an odd soft spot for Theo, she calls him on his behaviour a lot. There’s a lot of other interesting characters, both good and bad, although some of them are more concepts than fully realised characters — for example, the Terrible Child.

There is also a lot of world-building packed into the book. Because parts of it rely on political machinations, there’s a lot of social/historical background packed in. It’s also complicated by the fact that Williams uses the old stories about Faerie, but his Faerie society is what we would consider to be more advanced: out of the medieval era into the world of “electricity”, etc. I liked the world he built quite a lot, although the obvious parallels with our modern world were somewhat intrusive. I don’t know how much it was intended to be a commentary on our world, but some parts felt rather pointed.

Overall, I think it could have been a shorter, slicker read, but I kind of liked the slow build. I’d say it’s just good summer holiday reading, but I know the first time I read it I read in the gaps between classes and so on, so it’s not something you can only stand if you settle down with it in the evenings or whatever. Depends how you read, I guess.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Six-Gun Snow White

Cover of Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. ValenteSix-Gun Snow White, Catherynne M. Valente
Originally reviewed 29th July, 2013

This is quite different to Valente’s other work in some ways, and very much of a piece with it in others. All good ways, I think. Her talent with words is very much apparent, but in some ways this is moderated a bit from the super-rich, super-intense poetic language in her other work. Every bit of it feels targeted: bang, bang, bang. The narrative voice is, to me, similar to that in Charles Portis’ True Grit: how well it compares in general with the rest of that genre, I wouldn’t know.

For me, this version of the story works surprisingly well. I’m not especially precious about retellings (aside from King Arthur retellings, and only then when I think someone is completely ignoring the cultural background), so I wasn’t bothered by the changes, and I loved what Valente did with this. It’s both something new and something truer to the “original” story than a lot of other versions I’ve seen.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Night Circus

Cover of The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Originally reviewed 16th September, 2012

This book is an enchantment. From the very start it slowly catches you up in the circus itself. You can never imagine every inch of it, never know it, but you feel like a rêveur yourself, as if you’ve walked through the tents and tried the food and smelt the popcorn and chocolate mice and fire and all the strange perfumes of the circus. I think it’s that, more than anything, that made me love this book so much: I was interested in the fate of Celia and Marco, but mostly because it impacted the circus, and I couldn’t stand the idea of anything bad happening to the circus.

I did get caught up in the other parts of the plot too, don’t get me wrong: I loved the references to Merlin, which sort of clued me in on where certain things were going; I liked a lot of the characters, especially the ones with secrets; I loved all the details, and how they all came together.

Possibly this is not quite a five star book, compared to some of the other books I’ve rated five stars, but it swept me off my feet, so I’m giving it five stars anyway. I found it magical — and I’m keeping a copy around, because I think I’ll reread it someday.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Fingersmith

Cover of Fingersmith by Sarah WatersFingersmith, Sarah Waters
Originally reviewed 1st July, 2009

It’s hard to see this book as primarily a work of historical fiction when everybody considers Sarah Waters to be a lesbian writer. Have to confess, I have a tendency to turn my nose up at books that are toted as “modern feminist writing” or whatever, which is bad of me. Never judge a book by its cover, etc. But I remembered reading a few passages from it in a seminar, early in the spring semester, and wanting to see how it fit into a longer novel. Also, Sarah Waters is Welsh, which helps.

I don’t think it’s the best book that was ever written. I can’t speak for the quality of the research, but the settings are quite well described and vivid, and the language is lively enough to make my synaesthesia spark. It “tasted nice”, as I say, but at the same time, it wasn’t the best overall taste ever. There are some gorgeous passages and there are indifferent sections — I couldn’t put my finger on why, but that was my impression. It just “tasted” blander. I always wonder if maybe those points are when the writer lost focus or got bored for a moment.

The plot is twisty and turny. I actually read spoilers in advance, which was silly, because I didn’t really get the full benefit of the surprises or any moments where everything clicked into place. I think that feeling might have been nice, with this book — but at the same time I wonder if it was probably led up to… I suppose Susan does constantly drop hints that Maud is not what she seems, in the end. Sometimes I did feel that big surprises were thrown into the readers’ faces just for the shock value. I don’t really mind that so much when I’m reading, but for a book that is relatively slow paced and detailed, it seems… somehow inappropriate. Then, at the same time, how else would one keep it interesting? It felt like breaking character, though… reading actual Victorian books, like Charles Dickens, the writing is as slow — slower! — but it still keeps me interested, and even the plot twists don’t seem quite so sharp.

The format, with the Susan POV followed by the Maud POV recounting the same events, was irritating. It was nice to get both sides of the story, on the one hand, but the intricacies of the Gentleman’s plot could have come out without it, and Maud’s POV didn’t bring anything really new to it. The transition wasn’t bad — at least it didn’t say in block capitals, “You are too stupid to understand this, but there is a POV change here”! But it wasn’t great, either, it wasn’t entirely necessary, and the book could have been tighter and neater without it.

Character-wise… I don’t know. I guess nobody struck me that sharply. I ended up being in it more to see exactly how the plot unfolded, rather than for the characters, which is unusual for me. I thought some of the interactions between Maud and Sue were good, and liked the ending; I had a strange fondness for Dainty throughout. But I didn’t get wildly caught up in it as I would if I really, really cared about the characters.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Lifelode

Cover of Lifelode by Jo WaltonLifelode, Jo Walton
Originally reviewed 16th March, 2011

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Jo Walton, but it’s so hard to rate them in relation to each other, because they’re each so different. I enjoyed Lifelode more than Tooth and Claw, but perhaps less than Farthing — yet I rated both four stars. I loved Among Others most of all her work so far, and I’m not sure Lifelode matches up… Maybe I should be rating all her work that I’ve read so far five stars, except Tooth and Claw.

Her range of work is fascinating. Her books are not like each other, and yet all of them are well-written and ambitious, and succeed very well with their ambitions. The narration of Lifelode, for example, is done in both past and present tense, because for one of the main characters, time is like that: all things happening at once. I expected to see more of the more distant past, through Taveth, but it was very much about that generation, the people she knew. It’s a very warm book, full of family bonds and love.

It’s also interesting in that polyamory seems to be the default, and Jo Walton treats that sensitively. There’s a sense of great strength in the relationships, but also an acknowledgement of the problems they’ll succeed. There’s also LGBT people, and one who seems pretty much asexual. She always writes about all kinds of people, and that’s another thing I really appreciate about her writing.

It’s also nice that the gendering of roles isn’t a really big thing here. Taveth is a housewife, but she chooses that, and her role is central to the functioning of her home. But even a female priest is still just called a priest, not a priestess.

I’ve managed to say all that and say nothing about the plot. It’s a domestic fantasy, although there is also a level on which it is about gods. I think the homelife is as important to the story as the bursts of fighting, and the magic — the bonds between people are, I think, more important, as they are what is under threat. Don’t go into it expecting a big showdown at the end, or something like that.

Rating: 5/5

Review – Embassytown

Cover of Embassytown by China MiévilleEmbassytown, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 26th October, 2012

Miéville’s work is never easy for me — I always have to work for it — so I get a little contemptuous of people who just read fifty pages and give up, even though I do that plenty with other books. I always have to give Miéville plenty of leeway: he gets to a place where he blows my mind in the end, but it might take half the book before I’m starting to see it.

So it was with Embassytown, and not helped by the fact that I’m in a bit of a depressed phase at the moment and everything is Too Much Effort. But I got there eventually, and when I did, I didn’t want to put the book down for a second. I stayed up to finish it, last night, and felt breathlessly excited at the twists and turns.

I can understand the criticisms that there aren’t really any well-defined/sympathetic/unique characters (maybe if there’d been more of Spanish Dancer?), but in Miéville’s work there’s always plenty that makes up for it, for me. His cities are pretty much characters, both a collection of separate organisms and an organism in themselves, and his world-building is second to very, very few. I loved the concept of Language, and the way it became language. I just. Flail.

Rating: 4/5