Review – The Hollow Hills

Cover of The Hollow Hills by Mary StewartThe Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books are certainly very different to her romance/mystery ones. It’s much more the world of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset than the sort of world her heroines inhabit in the modern stories: one of uncertain magic and prophecy, of blood and hatred and death. And it comes out much less positive about female characters. There are few prominent ones, and even mentions of women tend to be dark portents and shadows on the future Merlin foresees. But I do love the Welsh background, the Welsh names, the way that the different races of Britain are all represented here and are all Arthur’s subjects.

It’s doubly difficult to read this with any sense of suspense, though. First, Merlin knows what’s going to happen, at least broadly, and secondly, it’s the Arthurian legend. You can do surprising things with it, but Stewart sticks fairly close to the sources, which leaves very little room for surprising anyone who knows the source texts well. She plays the tropes relatively straight, too, and telegraphs all the usual causes of strife in Camelot well in advance. Arthur isn’t even acclaimed as king yet until the very end of the book, and already there’s foreshadowing for various betrayals. I really must look up Bedwyr’s involvement with Gwenhwyfar more — several modern tellings align him with her, and I can’t remember what might spark that.

Still, Stewart’s writing is good, and the sense of atmosphere she brings to the more far-flung settings for her romance/mystery stories is equally strong here, in the cold and damp corners of Britain. Her writing in this book reminds me a lot of Sutcliff, which can only be a compliment.

I do hope she’s more subtle with Morgause, Morgian and Gwenhwyfar, when they appear properly, though.

Rating: 4/5

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

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is top ten characters you want to check in on after the story is done. This is an awesome one — there are so many characters I wonder about!

  1. Anyone from The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison). Don’t make me choose (obviously I’d choose Maia and his wife if I had to). I know she’s not going to write a sequel (as such), so I feel free to wonder about aaaaall of the characters. And I love them all, and even those who aren’t nice… I want to know how things end up.
  2. Faramir from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien). Total literary crush, ’nuff said. Plus, he’s with Eowyn, so you get a twofer there.
  3. Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Middle-earth becomes our Europe, after all. What happens to the Ents? Where are they hiding?
  4. Caspian from Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis). All of the books could’ve been about Caspian and Lucy having adventures and I’d have been happy.
  5. The Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman). He’s so awesome, and we know so little about him. Need to knooooowwww.
  6. Vetch from A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin). He was so faithful to Ged, and yet we don’t really know what happened to him.
  7. Esca from The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff). We get a little bit of an idea what’s going to happen, but I want to know eveeerything.
  8. Mori from Among Others (Jo Walton). I know a certain amount of this is autobiographical, and I know Jo a little. But I want to know about Mori, where she goes, what she does. It could be anything.
  9. Peter Carmichael from the Small Change trilogy (Jo Walton). We don’t end the trilogy with him in a good place. At all. I want to see him heal. Or not. I want to see what happens to him and to society.
  10. Con from Sunshine (Robin McKinley). I love the vampire lore in this book, love the awkward alliance/bond that forms between Con and Sunshine. Give me moooore.

I wonder how weird my choices are compared to everyone else’s… Drop by and let me know!

My Cup of Tea

I think this would be a nice one to go viral: a post in which we celebrate the tropes we love instead of griping about the ones we don’t (which are, no doubt, someone else’s favourites). So thanks to Kaja from Of Dragons and Hearts, here is a post about tropes which are, so to speak, my cup of tea.*

  • The loveable rogue. Locke Lamora, I am looking at you right now, but also looking further back into my reading past: Jimmy the Hand, Crowley from Good Omens, Gaiman’s Marquis de Carabas… And perhaps best of all, though not from books: Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
  • The paladin. Joscelin Verreuil. Captain America.
  • The second son. Faramir. Arutha. Verity Farseer. Josua from The Dragonbone Chair. I don’t know what it is, but I tend to prefer the younger brother.
  • Heists. You have a really clever plan, you say? Morally dubious, you say? As long as it’s fiction, I’m along for the ride.
  • Superheroes. Uh. I’m not sure this even needed to be said. But not just guys like Steve Rogers, who have been altered for it, but the people who make themselves into heroes, too, like Hawkeye.
  • Moral ambiguity. Nobody’s perfect, and while a character who is a total bastard just isn’t fun for me, it’s nice when a character isn’t a total angel.
  • Guilty conscience. Perhaps especially when it’s not really that person’s fault. Like, say Steve Rogers blames himself for Bucky’s death — it’s not really his fault, he’s in no way a bad guy, but the fact that he can believe this makes him that bit more human and believable.
  • Dragons/elves/aliens are nothing like humans. Capricious, commanding, nothing like the regal/wise/enlightened creatures we expect? Interesting!
  • Friends like brothers. “I’m with you till the end of the line.” Gaaah. Gaaaaaah. Or Marcus and Esca, Locke and Jean, Fitz and Nighteyes, Dean and Castiel…
  • Secretly in love. Shut up, I am not a ginormous softie. I’m not!

*I may be British, but I don’t actually like tea. Chamomile tea or fruit teas, maybe. Mostly not.

Top Ten Tuesday

I haven’t done the Top Ten Tuesday thing for a while, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I like this topic — top ten books about friendship.

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin. The friendship between Ged and Vetch, the quiet solid thereness of it… you know for sure that Vetch would never let you down if he could help it.
  2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. I actually thought of this because they’ve got it in their list, but it’s still true. Frodo and Sam, Legolas and Gimli… even, in a way, Frodo and Gollum, because Frodo manages to reach out with pity and sympathy to Smeagol.
  3. The Prize in the Game,Jo Walton. Ferdia and Darag. “Your name in my heart,” indeed. (Okay, there’s romantic aspects to that, but I think first and foremost they’re friends.)
  4. The Grey King, Susan Cooper. Bran and Will. The way they fit together, understand each other better than anyone else, and the way they still hurt each other because neither of them is perfect.
  5. Captain Marvel, Kelly Sue DeConnick. Carol and Steve! Carol and Jessica! Carol and Monica!
  6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker. Steve and Bucky. Just, Steve and Bucky. I know this is a movie quote but, “I’m with you till the end of the line.”
  7. The Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay. Paul and Kevin, primarily, although all the bonds between the group are great. Kim and Jennifer, particularly. Just the way there are these deep loves that come entirely out of friendship. Guy Gavriel Kay is also pretty good at this in other books, too, like Tigana.
  8. The Universe Versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence. Alex and Mr. Peterson. So unlikely, and yet Extence made me believe in it.
  9. Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff. Arthur and Bedwyr. Ouch, ouch. “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”
  10. Good Omens, Neil Gaiman. Crowley and Aziraphale. Because of course.

I am a little bothered by the fact that almost all of those are male friendships. It’s partly a function of the books I’ve loved since I was a kid, before I was really choosy in any way about what I read, but still. Rec me your books with female friendship!

Review – The Bearkeeper’s Daughter

Cover of The Bearkeeper's Daughter, by Gillian BradshawThe Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Gillian Bradshaw

I was really interested to read this, since it’s set in Constantinople, and I think in the same period as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Constantinople-analogue, Sarantium, in the Sarantine Mosaic books. Even in other fiction I’ve come across Theodora, both as a great and powerful woman and as a scheming whore. This version is a somewhat ambivalent one, seen through the eyes of her bastard son whom she cannot acknowledge but nonetheless loves and schemes for. I liked the way she was portrayed: her drives and ambitions made sense, came out of the real history we know Theodora had.

The story is more about her son, though, based on a rumour about Theodora from Procopius’ Secret History — a very Rosemary Sutcliff-like touch, to take a half-known story and expand it and develop it into something that could have been, like The Eagle of the Ninth. Her books are aimed more at adults, I think, but there’s still that same flavour to them from the ones I’ve read so far, and they touch on similar periods and topics.

I got really involved in this, gradually, drawn into the world of Constantinople and of the people Bradshaw gives us — I loved Narses and Anastasios, and though I didn’t think I would come to love her, Euphemia as well. Theodora, of course, and this version of Justinian, worked very well for me. There are some really powerful scenes, and while there’s a constraint and dryness to it in a way — it doesn’t step severely away from what we do know of the period — it still caught me up in a spell while I was reading.

When you read the blurb, it does sound as if it’s going to be somewhat sensational — bastard sons usually are a pretty dramatic complication, after all. But actually, it tries to steer a path between an interesting story and realism, and I really enjoyed watching that balancing act.

What are you reading Wednesday

What did you recently finish reading?
Volume two of Saga! I really love the comic timing this series has. I need to get my hands on volume 3 now.

Before that, I think it was Identically Different, which is a book on epigenetics, which I already enthused about at some length.

What are you currently reading?
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, still. I stalled on it because I was busy with work and then I get distracted by non-fiction, so, oops. I do want to get back to it, it’s atmospheric and interesting even though I’ve just realised I have no idea when it’s set. It has that sort of heavy gothic novel type atmosphere. Maybe a bit like the feel of some of Sarah Waters’ work, and Shirley Jackson.

The other thing I’m reading is The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, by Gillian Bradshaw. I really enjoy her historical fiction, there’s something very satisfying about it, and this one is set in Constantinople. It reminds me both of Rosemary Sutcliff’s work (though I think it helps that in my edition, it’s even set in the same font) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic.

I’ve also read the first story in The Dragon Griaule, so presumably that’s up next. I’m intrigued by this version of dragon lore.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, the plan to read Retribution Falls (Chris Wooding) and Augustus (John Williams) came to nothing, so maybe those next? I do need to get working on reading stuff that I can’t drag back to Cardiff with me, so maybe Bear Daughter (Judith Berman).

Review – Travel Light

Cover of Travel Light, by Naomi MitchisonTravel Light, Naomi Mitchison

I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)

And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.

Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.

It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.

Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…

Books that define me

I’ve talked about books I reread, and authors for whom I will read anything they produce, which must go some way towards helping even the casual reader get to know me. But when I was thinking about possible posts for this blog, I wandered off into thinking about books that I’d give people to help them understand me — not non-fiction books, which would be too easy, but the fiction books which have shaped me or given a voice to something in me.

So I’ve come up with a little list of five and some explanations; you may also see these as recommendations.

  • There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, Hazel Edwards. If there’s a book that defines my whole childhood, I guess this is it. As far as I was concerned, there was a hippo on my roof too, and if there wasn’t, there should be. (And a giraffe in the garden.) My life is still filled with teddies, many of them hippos, and I keep a copy of this book in sight of my desk. And there’s still a hippopotamus on my roof, although sometimes now he worries about his weight, and trades in the cake for a diet of mushrooms. (Why mushrooms? That’s another story.)
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I probably love The Lord of the Rings more than The Hobbit, but this is the book that enchanted me when I was a bit too old for Cat and Mouse or hippos on the roof. I could’ve read this endlessly, and often did. I remember one night when my parents were particularly determined to make me go to sleep, and I was equally determined not to, I read this book by the light of the streetlights down past the end of our garden, shining in just a little through my window. My imagination became full of dragons and trolls, and dwarves and gold, and wizards. And they’ve never left me either.
  • The Positronic Man, Isaac Asimov. Once upon a time, my mother got me some Asimov books out of the library on her account, because they wouldn’t let me into that section and I’d read everything they didn’t drag out of my clutching little hands. I have no idea what the library fine was when I finally allowed her to take this one back, but it’s fair to say it was probably the most epic fine I’ve ever wracked up — and I did manage some epic ones in university. I loved Andrew and his struggle to become human, and still do, even if I’d happily move the other way. Also, Andrew’s struggle for his rights, for the respect of the people around him, certainly speak to me now on a level I wasn’t aware of back then. I had no idea at that age that civil rights would become an issue for me, or that they were an issue for people like me.
  • The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper. I didn’t read this until I was about fifteen, sixteen, despite what everyone expects when they see my battered to death copy. I reread it just about every year, around this time; it seriously got under my skin. It’s magic with consequences: Will is an adult and more than an adult in a child’s body; Bran is isolated, motherless, starving for love; the Drews grow up over the course of the books; John Rowlands loses the love of his life, learning that she’s not the woman he thought she was… Things don’t really come alright at the end. And, of course, it draws on some of my heritage, Welsh legends, and deals with some of the tensions between Welsh and English. And there are themes about racism and bigotry, and some amazing passages about all sorts of things from justice to Englishness to responsibility.
  • Among Others, Jo Walton. I read this and thought, this is me. Of all these books, if you want to get to know me, this is the most important. Sure, there are ways in which I’m very unlike Mori, but her love affair with books, her thirst for them, some of the Welsh/English issues going on, many of the things she’s dealing with… I recognise them. For Christmas, I gave each of my ex-housemates a copy of this book. On reading the back, they all mentioned the immediate parallels between me and Mori…

Honourable mentions go to Enid Blyton’s Tales of Brave Adventure (I owned two much-loved, faded copies: one my father’s, one my mother’s), C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth.

And, perhaps surprisingly even to my mother, the old chapter-a-day retelling of the Bible for children which I had. I’m not a Christian, but I still think that a lot of the goodness in me, I learnt there.

Auto-read list

A friend, Lynn, posted a link to and her version of an interesting question at SF Signal a few days ago, and I thought I’d join in as well.

We all have authors whose work, for whatever reason, inspire us more than the rest, whose books standout and can always be counted on to entertain, and even to comfort. These are the ones that we’ll instantly forgive a misstep or two (maybe even three), because we love them that much, and will buy, and read, anything that they write. So, we asked our panel…

Q: What authors are on your autoread list, and why?
I’m going to discount deceased authors, for this, otherwise you’d just get it filled up with Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliff, and Raymond Chandler. Which in itself probably tells you a lot about me, but hey. To stick to the rules, I will also put Iain M. Banks in this group, although I haven’t read all of his work yet and haven’t quite adjusted to the idea that there will be no more.

  • Ursula Le Guin: I haven’t found all of her work memorable, and some of it I wouldn’t find worth rereading. Some of it I liked better on a reread than I did the first time. The thing with Ursula Le Guin is she’s willing to critique her own work in a way that inspires me: both in essays and by developing her themes further. The whole Earthsea sequence can be seen as a dialogue with fantasy tropes of male power which she first just accepts and then begins to work against. Or in some of her non-fiction collections, she’s critiqued some of the decisions she made in The Left Hand of Darkness to do with portraying gender and sexuality. She’s already prone to writing about diversity, and she’s willing to look back at her work and say, “Nope, screwed that up.” Except much more elegantly. What’s not to love?
  • Gillian Bradshaw: I haven’t read all or even most of her work yet, but Island of Ghosts told me all I needed to know about her attention to detail, her ability to make the historical engaging. I guess she’s comparable to Rosemary Sutcliff in some ways, though her novels are aimed at an adult audience and therefore perhaps less accessible. I should actually buy Island of Ghosts for my mother sometime, if there’s an ebook or larger print edition, because I think she’d like it too. (1)
  • N.K. Jemisin: This is precisely no surprise for anyone who knows me. Jemisin’s work is glorious, with diverse characters, exciting plots and strong world-building. I actually have a recurring dream element where somewhere in a dream about something else entirely, I will see a new N.K. Jemisin book on the shelves and have to read it. I can never remember when I wake up what the plot was about, but even my dreaming brain knows it’s gonna be good.
  • Michael Wood: Yep, this is non-fiction. All of his books are accessible, but detailed and as far as I’ve ever heard, accurate. I remember reading two of his books about medieval England while recuperating from my cholecystectomy, and I could concentrate on them even then, yet they didn’t feel dumbed down.
  • Scott Lynch: I suppose really he needs to write a bit more before I can tell whether it’s the world he’s created that I adore, or his writing alone. But on the strength of The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequels, I’m willing to try anything he writes, and I’ve enjoyed a short story or two as well.
  • Jacqueline Carey: Okay, so I have Dark Currents on my shelf and haven’t got round to it yet, but regardless, I will eventually get round to everything Carey writes. There are many and varied problems I could point to with her work, particularly with how she deals with races other than the D’Angelines in the Kushiel books, but her work is satisfying in so many other ways. In the Kushiel books, there’s that push-pull relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin, there’s all that delicious loyalty stuff going on with Joscelin, there’s the permissiveness of their world, there’s politics and intrigue… And though many people don’t like them, I love Banewreaker and Godslayer for taking Tolkien’s pretty morally strict world and spinning it so we can see another side. (2)
  • Robin McKinley: I love what she does with retelling fairytales, I love her female protagonists, I love her writing style. Sunshine and Chalice are my favourites, but I’ve found something to enjoy in nearly all her work. Exception: Deerskin. It’s incredibly well written and all the emotions are wonderfully evoked, but it’s not a fictional space I was at all comfortable in. In a way it treats sexual violence much more seriously than, say, Jacqueline Carey. (3)
  • Joanne Harris: I started out life as a Joanne Harris reader with snobbery about Chocolat, only to discover that actually it was very readable, well written, and I fell in love with the characters. Harris actually has a genius for narrators, but also for making everything she writes a very easy read. Which she wouldn’t like me saying, if I recall conversations from Twitter correctly, but ’tis true nonetheless: I find that her books don’t throw up resistance to reading, but are easy to immerse myself in and just read. Which is, at least to me, a compliment.
  • Neil Gaiman: Periodically I come across people complaining about his privilege, or his wife, or his attitude toward women. Often I think these people have some good points to make. Regardless, his books have a similar quality to Harris’ in that I’ve rarely come across a roadblock. Anansi Boys being an exception, firstly because it made me wonder if my dad was secretly Anansi, and secondly because I got far too embarrassed for the characters. (4)
  • Ed Brubaker: At least if it has the words “Captain America” on the cover.
  • Guy Gavriel Kay: His prose is beautiful, and he’s one of the few authors who can frequently move me to tears.
  • [Previously omitted] Jo Walton: She wrote a book that felt just perfect for me, like she’d written it for me — I’m speaking, of course, of her Among Others. She’s written in a lot of different genres: dystopian alternate history with a detective story in the Small Change books; dragons in an Austenesque society in Tooth & Claw; fantasy based around the home and relationships in Lifelode; alternate Arthuriana in The King’s Peace/The King’s Name… She’s a versatile author who has yet to write a book that I didn’t enjoy, and The Prize in the Game is one of those few books that moved me to tears.
(1) I have several measures of admiration for books: do I want to give them to my mother, my sister, my partner, or all three? Island of Ghosts is probably more a Mum book than anything.

(2) Carey’s Kushiel books would be a I will give this to everyone in the world recommendation if it weren’t for the overabundance of kinky, often violent, sex which can’t be skipped because sometimes it’s plot relevant and it’s usually emotionally relevant for Phèdre in some way. Mum, if you read these books, a) no you cannot borrow my copies, you’d damage their spines, b) for the love of god, I don’t want to know if you read them, c) yes I am a prude, d) I’m twenty-four, I really need to stop addressing parts of my blog posts to you like you get to approve or disapprove! I think you gave up trying to regulate my reading material by the time I’d chewed my way through two libraries at the age of twelve anyway.

(3) Mum — and Lisa, if you haven’t read it — Chalice.

(4) Thing about Anansi in Gaiman’s work: if he names something, that name sticks. This can be observed with my dad and the local wildlife, teddy bears, people, or whatever else you can think of. These names somehow spread beyond the immediate circle who should know about it, so that by some alchemy I am Squeak to people who’ve never met my dad and who I don’t recall telling that story to.