Review – Iron Council

Cover of Iron Council by China MiévilleIron Council, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st May, 2009

I didn’t enjoy Iron Council anywhere near as much as I did Miéville’s other books. I’m not sure quite why, to be honest. Parts of it irritated me stylistically — the large section which follows Judah in the middle, mainly — but that wouldn’t automatically lower my enjoyment of the whole book. I didn’t find the writing as descriptive, although there were some very interesting descriptions, mostly the parts where the train goes through the stain. Whyever it was, I just didn’t get into this book that much. I did enjoy it, and if you enjoy the other Bas-Lag books and know what to expect from Miéville’s writing, then I’m sure you’d get a lot out of it. I just didn’t.

Part of it is that it isn’t as focused. It’s not just one city, but two. The train-city is built up and described, but I don’t feel as strongly connected and rooted to it as I do to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station and Armada in The Scar. If the cities are characters, Iron Council falls a little flat. There are interesting characters, mostly Cutter and Judah, who I think I got more attached to than other characters of similar importance in the other two Bas-Lag books. I think Cutter was the character I got most attached to. Judah being all saint-like all the time kind of made me want to hit him sometimes, but Cutter’s feelings were so honest and open in the narrative.

In terms of plot, I spent a lot of time wondering where it was actually going. It never came together as strongly as I expected it to, and the climax wasn’t much of a climax. The end is appropriate, and makes sense, but I think the book could have been edited/reordered for better effect.

Rating: 3/5

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

Review – Perdido Street Station

Cover of Perdido Street Station by China MiévillePerdido Street Station, China Miéville
Originally reviewed 1st June, 2008

The description in this book is very good, in terms of the fact that it creates a very vivid picture. Of course, it also grossed me out, and maybe went a little bit overboard with that. Just two chapters in, though, I was ready to say that his world building was excellent. Sentence building? Maybe not so much. At one point I stopped and counted how many words were in one sentence, which took up half a page just by itself. One hundred and nineteen words without a single full stop! Although, admittedly, there was other punctuation — thankfully, or I’d have gotten even more lost in the sentence than I did. People can write stories in fewer words than that! I suppose you can make a case for it being a deliberate choice. The last three words of the sentence are, after all, apparently central to the book: Perdido Street Station.

One hundred pages in, I was very much intrigued by the world, by how things came to be that way, by whether there was any connection to our world, despite its strangeness, or whether it was just something entirely different. I wasn’t so hooked by the characters, about whom I knew little than the fact that one was a scientist obsessed with his work and the other was an artist, his somewhat illicit lover.

By one hundred and fifty pages in, I was getting tired of all the description of the city. And I still didn’t really care about the characters. I was intrigued by Mr. Motley, but only because I wanted to know what had happened to him, and I was curious about the garuda, but I didn’t really care. If anything, the main character in this book is the city itself, and the plot designed to take you on a tour of every corner of it. That’s interesting enough, but not really my thing. When the slake moths came in and the story became more focused on that, it began to be more interesting. The little glimpses into Yagherek’s mind and crimes made me somewhat more interested in him as a character, and the strangeness of the Weaver made it interesting too.

Jack Half-A-Prayer came out of nowhere. I can see foreshadowing for him coming in, but his presence wasn’t necessary to the plot — it was just another little detail about the city-character, really.

This book didn’t care about being ruthless to the characters. In some ways that’s good, but in actuality I didn’t care enough about the characters to be really hurt by the ruthlessness.

I wasn’t disappointed, per se, and I did find it an interesting, absorbing and, in places, exciting read. I just don’t quite know if all the raving I’ve been reading about it is entirely justified.

Note: I think I’ve now read just about everything by Miéville, and I think it is justified. But his books are weird.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Darkest Road

Cover of The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel KayThe Darkest Road, Guy Gavriel Kay
Originally reviewed 26th January, 2012

No matter how many times I read them, these books still make me cry, and more, they still have me reading late into the night, breathless and stunned. I know what’s going to happen, but that doesn’t take any of the poignancy out of it. Of the three books, this is the strongest: the best prose, the best action, the best images, the best in all the characters. He draws everything together do well, and puts the readers’ hearts through a blender without caring how much they’re undoubtedly cursing him.

(I seem to recall calling him a ‘magnificent, glorious bastard’ the last time I read it, and my other half agrees. No one can accuse Kay of being too gentle with his characters. He’s one of the few writers who can be ruthless. Tolkien’s work, dark as it can be, holds back from killing off the characters we love, and thus makes them less mortal, less fragile, and less dear.)

I still think that Kay sucks at building romance stories up. I believe in the established love of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere — and fresh from reading The Mists of Avalon, I find myself thinking that Kay wasn’t simply talking of loyalty to a lord when he wrote of Lancelot’s love for Arthur — and in that of Sharra and Diarmuid. Kim and Dave, Jaelle and Paul, though…

I’m pretty sure I’ll return to these books again, and find the same shining delight again.

Rating: 5/5

Review – The Wandering Fire

Cover of The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel KayThe Wandering Fire, Guy Gavriel Kay
Put together from reviews written in 2010 and 2012

By this point in reading the trilogy, you’ve probably decided whether you can bear with Guy Gavriel Kay’s style or not — whether you can be invested in his characters or not. If the answer is yes, then carry on: he won’t disappoint you. If not, then… I don’t think he will get your attention at all.

The second book of the Fionavar Tapestry feels by far the shortest, to me. That isn’t to say not much happens — a lot does happen, so much that it makes my head spin a little but it mostly seems to happen at the end: for the characters and for the plot, this is a time of waiting, of things coming together. If you’re invested in the characters, though, there’s plenty to worry about: Kim’s dilemmas, whether she has a right to do what she’s doing; Paul’s separation from humanity; and Kevin’s initial helplessness, and then his journey to the Goddess… And there’s Arthur, of course, and the Wild Hunt, and Darien…

The Wandering Fire really introduces the Arthurian thread, which is the newest thing. It’s been hinted at and set up already in The Summer Tree, but it’s in The Wandering Fire that that’s finally articulated. I’m interested as to how much Guy Gavriel Kay has drawn on existing Arthurian legend and how much he has built himself. I haven’t read anything about Arthur being punished over and over again — he’s generally portrayed as fairly virtuous — and I’ve never read anything about Lancelot raising the dead. I do like the way the legend is constructed here — differences to the usual main themes and stories, but using them and showing that the stories we have are supposed to be reflections and echoes of this ‘reality’.

I love the fact that the gods aren’t supposed to act and there are penalties for this… and actually more of the lore about the gods in this world, like Dana working in threes and her gifts being two-edged swords.

The death in this book makes me cry… not the actual death, at least not until the very last line of that section, but the reactions, and particularly Paul’s. This isn’t really surprising, but it highlights once again how much these books make me care.

It’s amazing to me how much I can love almost every word of this book and yet find a small scene was horribly jarring — it’s the same in The Summer Tree, just one scene sticks in my throat and won’t go down. It’s the scene with Kim and Loren, at Maidaladan. It just doesn’t make sense. There’s no build to it. I always thought she should go to Aileron instead… now there’s a build-up that makes at least some sense.

Nonetheless, wow. This book breaks me more every time.

Rating: 5/5

Review – The Summer Tree

Cover of The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel KayThe Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay
Originally reviewed 22nd January, 2012

Fresh from reading most of Tolkien’s work, and writing a gigantic essay on it too, I have a different perspective on Kay’s work. Especially when reminded that Kay worked on The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. He has a lot in common with Tolkien, really: the synthesis of a new mythology (though not done as history, and therefore lacking all the little authenticating details that Tolkien put in) using elements of an old one (though Kay used Celtic and Norse mythology, and goodness knows what else). The comparisons can’t help but be made, though Kay sees his world as a tapestry and Tolkien as a song being sung.

I don’t think he makes his world as well as Tolkien does. I feel info-dumped, at times, rather than as if I’m just touching on the tip of a giant submerged mass of lore and wonder that even the inhabitants of his world only half-know. His gods are much more touchable, and more concerned with the individual fates of mortal men, and so less distant and thus less awe-inspiring. I think, perhaps more like C.S. Lewis, he tries to handle more than he can really weave together.

But, that’s not to say it’s totally unsuccessful. A book that can have me laughing at one moment and weeping not three pages later can’t exactly be classed as unsuccessful. His style is distancing at first — perhaps too much of a high tone, which Tolkien avoided with his hobbits — but there are some lovely lines and turns of phrase, and undoubtedly he makes me care about the characters.

Another hint that he’s doing quite well is that this is at least my fourth reread of this trilogy, though I could well have read it more than that.

Not perfect, but beloved all the same.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Dark Wife

Cover of The Dark Wife by Sarah DiemerThe Dark Wife, Sarah Diemer
Originally reviewed 19th June, 2011

I don’t exactly remember how I came upon The Dark Wife the first time. I don’t think it was in the usual way — I seem to remember that someone posted a to do list, and they were going to buy this book if they completed it. Something like that. Anyway, I was enchanted by the whole idea: a lesbian retelling of the Rape of Persephone, consensual and with a genderflipped Hades. A reclamation of a horrible story, in both a feminist sense and an LGBT sense. Apparently, it’s based on older versions of the myth, where Persephone chooses to go down into the Underworld.

Sarah Diemer’s blog has several interesting links about it: These Are Not Your Stories impressed me when I found it, in particular. It reminded me of a conversation in reviews here on GR, about how horrible it was for Malinda Lo to ‘steal’ Cinderella and write an LGBT version. I argued then as now: that it’s a powerful thing for LGBT people to take these stories and write ourselves into them, make a place for ourselves. Straight people can look to these stories as a dream of theirs: while fairytales remain exclusively heterosexual, gay people are shut out of ‘happily ever after’ dreams. It’s no use to tell us to go and make up our own, because going to make up our own shuts us out of the tradition that we may well have adored and loved as children, the old familiar stories that we never get tired of.

Sarah Diemer recognises the power of the old familiar stories. She even offers The Dark Wife free, as a PDF, here, for anyone who needs it — which is exactly why I bought her book, personally, because I can afford to and I want her to write more. At fourteen, fifteen, I needed it, and it wasn’t there yet.

I enjoyed the story itself a lot. I read it in about an hour, just a bit more than that, and in one go (aside from when I had to stop a moment to look up concert times — ugh, how dare people interrupt my reading?). I’m a little unsure whether I think it deserves three or four stars: I love the idea, and it was a good read, but I didn’t sink as deeply into it as I’d have liked to. It was, well, fairytale like, which meant I already believed it would turn out okay in the end, and which kept me from really feeling the tension.

I thought it was clever, though, the use of the pomegranate, the parts about the Elysian Fields… And I thought Cerberus was cute.

I was a less wowed by the ‘After’ section, which didn’t quite seem to fit.

Definitely not worth a five star “it was amazing”, but it’s enjoyable, fun to read, and necessary.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Huntress

Cover of Huntress by Malinda LoHuntress, Malinda Lo
Review from 10th October, 2010

Huntress is a sort of prequel to Ash, but it is set a long time before it. If I remember rightly, this story is mentioned in Ash. Anyway, this story is about the journey of six people: Con, the son of the king; Taisin, a young woman who wants to be a celibate sage; Kaede, a classmate of Taisin’s with no talent for the magic; and Shae, Pol and Tali, their guards. They have to see the Fairy Queen, during a period when nature has gone out of balance.

The story of the journey itself isn’t really unique, but the love between Kaede and Taisin is. I loved the fact that the book treats them in pretty much the same way as a male-female couple is usually treated in fantasy stories — I mean, that it seems natural and inevitable that they should be drawn together, and that their desire for each other is palpable and not treated euphemistically. Okay, there’s nothing explicit, but the physicality of their relationship is there.

It’s also easy to read, a quick read, and the situations and emotions ring reasonably true. The emotional involvement that was lacking in Ash was definitely there, for me, which made it that much more enjoyable.

I really wish books like this had existed when I was younger. I hope the arrival on the market of books like Ash and Huntress isn’t just a one off.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Ash

Cover of Ash by Malinda LoAsh, Malinda Lo
Review from 8th June, 2010

This is a lovely retelling of the Cinderella fairytale. It keeps a very fairytale-like tone, so at times it doesn’t go as deeply into what happens or people’s feelings as I would like, but there are beautiful descriptions and it’s very easy to read. It’s exciting to read a version of the story in which part of the love story is between two women.

I liked the changes to the story as I knew it — Sidhean as the fairy godmother, and the element of actually having to pay for what you get from the fairies. I loved that the prince wasn’t all that important. I liked that the young stepsister, Clara, is kind of likeable.

I wish the story spent more time on the love story, on really making the reader feel it — both the strange attraction between Aisling and Sidhean, and the relationship between Aisling and Kaisa. I think this book would have really bowled me over if it had been like that.

As it is, it’s fun, and often lovely.

Later edit: So, the homophobic reviews of this book irritate the hell out of me, and upset me, too. I think it’s important that people write books like this, taking back traditionally heterosexual stories and finding places for ourselves within them.

Rating: 3/5

Review – Song for a Dark Queen

Cover of Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary SutcliffSong for a Dark Queen, Rosemary Sutcliff
Review from 10th November, 2011

I found, in a corner of my university library I’d never seen before, a couple of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books I hadn’t read. This was one of them — the story of Boudicca, as told by her harper, interspersed with extracts from the letters of a Roman soldier to his mother. I think this is maybe the most female-centric of Sutcliff’s books that I can think of, and yet it’s told in the voice of a man, so there’s that. As with all Sutcliff’s books, it was readable and well-paced, and well-researched: there’s a poetry to it, too. The end made me choke up a little, even.

I don’t know why I didn’t like it more. I think there was just something eroticised about Boudicca’s war-making, something discomforting — which is appropriate, in a way, for a dark queen… But why does her power come most when she’s eroticised and her children violated?

In that sense, too, I found it more violent than most of Sutcliff’s work — more adult, I guess. There’s references to rape, seemingly on both sides, and there’s a lot of blood and guts.

I rarely give advice to parents in my reviews, but this time I feel it’s warranted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say prevent your children from reading it, but I do think you should read this one first and assess whether your child would be alright with reading it. It discomforts me, as an adult woman; as a child, I don’t know whether the references would have gone over my head or not, but I think I would have caught the horror of it anyway.

Rating: 3/5