Stories link together. What is done in one time and place spreads out across the world to shape the future: there is never a single beginning, never a simple end. But, since this tale must have a beginning, let it be when a potter carves a creature from dreams and driftwood. It carries him to a place where fair faces conceal foul intent, where two kings guard the firstborn tree by night and day, where only a living man’s love can undo a dead man’s hatred. And where, if he does not go carefully, the choices made in other times and places will cost him his life.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve not been writing much lately. I have been reading. It passes the time and expands the mind. Making lists of best books is a fool’s game. Reading is such a subjective experience that any definition of best must depend on the reader, their mood and inclination, and likely enough the place and time of reading. I’m not claiming these are the best fantasy novels ever written but they are all books I’ve reread more than once. If they are part of a series or trilogy then I’ve read the others too but, for some reason, the one I’ve listed has something that causes it to stand out from its comrades in my memory. Oh, and I’m defining fantasy loosely. If the protagonist thinks there’s magic, that’s good enough for me.
The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
The second book of the original Earthsea trilogy is an interesting counterpart to the first. It’s darker and deeper than A Wizard of Earthsea. There’s a quest backdrop to the story but that’s not what’s important: what matters is finding one’s way, becoming oneself, choosing an identity. Its atmosphere is claustrophobic, its society stultifying and oppressive, its evil systematic and mundane. Although some underlying assumptions of the original trilogy have been revisited, and to some extent revised, in the later books of Earthsea, I still prefer those first three stories, and Atuan above the rest. The prose is simple and elegant, pared to the bone and beautiful because of this bareness. Read it for its images: the first sight of the Undertomb, the thudding of Arha’s bare feet as she dances before the empty throne.
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan (or Richard K. Morgan, if you’re reading this in the USA)
This is a story set after people have come together, regardless of creed, race and orientation, to fight together against the monsters. The battle won, old interests reassert themselves and society reverts to comfortable complacency founded on filth. The fantasy tropes – the elves, the dwarfs, the magician, and the dark lord – are there, and all are twisted about into new forms. All novels reflect something of the time and place in which they’re written, and Morgan’s more than most. This book isn’t comfort reading; it’s cynical and angry, deploying violence to make its point – the complete opposite of gratuitous, in fact. Read it for its fury, and for the best named Significant Sword ever: I am Welcomed in the Home of Ravens and Other Scavengers in the Wake of Warriors, I am Friend to Carrion Crows and Wolves, I am Carry Me, and Kill with Me, and Die with Me where the Road Ends; I am not the Honeyed Promise of Length of Life in Years to Come, I am the Iron Promise of Never Being a Slave.
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Published as four volumes but, as with The Lord of the Rings, this is one story and I’m treating it as such. It’s complicated, non-linear, probably not fantasy at all, and has a completely unreliable, unsympathetic narrator who doesn’t know what’s going on and lies about things anyway. Read it for the language and symbolism, the challenge of puzzling out what’s happening and who people are, the rich tapestry woven by its words, not one of which is made up but many of which are not found in other fictions. Not many books have me reaching for a dictionary, but this, on occasion, did. I also spent ages going down the various rabbit holes of the Urth Net archives…
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
A whimsical novel, an alternative history of England chronicling the return of English magic. It’s a bit like Jane Austen, a bit like Tales of Robin Hood, a bit like The Madness of George III, and entirely like itself. This is one of those books where the story is not the most important thing: it’s a slow build, a delicious unwinding of characters and a drawing together of threads, and everything comes together beautifully at the end; a fine embroidery of a novel. Despite its length and early nineteenth century pastiche, it is a quick, very easy read. Read it for the footnotes and for the narrator’s amused, ironic tone.
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones
Not a novel at all but a deconstruction of a genre with a great deal of affection and a scalpel. It’s hilarious and very, very accurate. Read it for the entries on horses or stew or inns or… Well, open it at random and just read it. Whenever you start, you’ll find it’s spot on. Between readings, have a go at her Charmed Life, which would (should) have been on this list too, had I not limited it to five books.
I’ve not been able to write much this month. I won’t bore you with explanations; suffice it to say I’m a bit down and at such times things spiral. Anyway, here’s a poem about trying to write poems.
Poems and cats, alas, cannot be coaxed.
They come not at your will but at their own.
To attract either, you must find a way
To show you have dismissed them from your mind.
They come, not at your will but at their own.
The trick is to have other tasks on hand
To show you have dismissed them from your mind
Since they are curious and contrary.
The trick is to have other tasks on hand
(Paint the wall; bake a cake; dig the garden);
Since they are curious and contrary
They come when it is least convenient.
Paint the wall, bake a cake, dig the garden…
Poems and cats, alas, cannot be coaxed
They come when it is least convenient.
Would you wish either to be otherwise?
Poems and cats, alas, cannot be coaxed.
But when they come – such sinuous delight –
Would you wish either to be otherwise,
A lesser creature, summoned on demand?
Whenever I’m over in the west – as I am now – I walk the beach nearby the village and pick up shells. I am incapable of walking on any beach, anywhere, and not picking up shells. Being the west coast, the local shells are mostly winkles, limpets, whelks and the like. My particular favourite is the yellow morph of the flat periwinkle (the wee ones above, with a much larger common periwinkle, Littorina littorea); I have hundreds of these by now (certainly enough to fill three bittermint boxes). When I’m in the city, I keep them to hand, like worry-beads. They rattle around in a most satisfying manner, and remind me of better places.
Butter-bright against the shingle
Shining in the salt-wet sunlight
Beneath a periwinkle sky.
A precise match, name to nature,
Beneath a periwinkle sky:
Liminal; literal; littoral.
A precise match, name to nature,
Marking the line of division –
Liminal, literal, littoral –
Between opposing elements.
These yellow shells, those perfect whorls,
Between opposing elements,
Butter-bright against the shingle.
From the beginning
To the end
Blind fate sits spinning.
From the beginning,
Foe and friend,
From the beginning
To the end.
Cas Russell, antisocial mercenary, has decided to Fight Crime. With capital letters, like in one of her friend’s comic books.
After all, she has a real-life superpower: with her instantaneous mathematical ability, she can neuter bombs or out-shoot an army. And it’s Cas’s own fault violence has been spiking in the world’s cities lately — she’s the one who crushed the organization of telepaths that had been keeping the world’s worst offenders under control. Now every drive-by or gang shooting reminds Cas how she’s failed, and taking out these scumbags one at a time is never going to be enough.
She needs to find a way to stop all the violence. At once.
But Cas’s own power has a history, one she can’t remember — or control. A history that’s creeping into the cracks in her mind and fracturing her sanity . . . just when she’s gotten herself on the hit list of every crime lord on the West Coast.
Cas isn’t going to be able to save the world. She might not even be able to save herself.
A wee while ago I reviewed books for Heroines of Fantasy (a site now sadly mothballed). One of my most pleasing finds was SL Huang’s Zero Sum Game, a furiously paced, near-SF thriller featuring the mathematically superpowered Cas Russell. Now Huang is about to release the fourth book in the series, and I was able to read it ahead of publication (for which many, many thanks).
I enjoyed it, too. Very much.
Cas is falling apart. Flashes of a past she does not remember – outside her dreams – are breaking into her conscious mind and she’s losing her grip on who she is. A stranger, Simon, might be able to help, but he is likely part of the problem, and Cas resists his offer. And, both in her resistance and in her solution to the building violence in the city, she comes into direct conflict with Rio, a very, very dangerous thing to do. Yup, that’s right. After being offstage for a couple of books, Rio is back, as formal of speech, literal of understanding, and psychopathic of behaviour as ever. With friends like him, Cas’s enemies look a lot less dangerous.
It’s no secret that I have been a fan of this series from the beginning. It’s high octane, escapist fantasy, full of explosions and car chases and secret desert hideouts. The protagonist is probably – no, certainly – not one of the good guys. Forget morally compromised – Cas didn’t have any morals to start with. Oh, she’s acquired some friends, Arthur, Checker and Pilar, along the way who are nudging her in the direction of a conscience but they are seldom too concerned by the body count that follows in her wake. Maybe Pilar is. A little.
Plastic Smile builds out of events in its predecessors and the long-term plot arc that has been building from the beginning gathers pace. Everything you’ve come to expect in Huang’s writing is present: a diverse cast; flawed characters; taut, snappy prose; a twisting, snaking plot; lots and lots of gunfire. The pace starts fast and gets faster. Gang warfare on the streets of Los Angeles is interwoven with Cas’s personal struggle to retain her identity and each plot thread pulls to tighten and tangle the other.
For me, the superpower/all guns blazing nature of these stories is window dressing for the intellectual positions they present, ones that have nothing to do with mathematics. Plastic Smile is, in large part, about free will and coercion, the right to make choices and whether – and when – it is right to constrain choices. What is the common good? And who gets to decide? People who are certain they know what is best should always be mistrusted, even in fiction, so I can’t but think Cas’s faith in Rio is misplaced. I’m also pretty sure it’s something she has no real control over: from Zero Sum Game onwards it’s been clear her relationship with him operates within limits that he knows well and she knows not at all. In fact, given her fractured mental state, is she competent to reject Simon’s help?
These are big questions and Huang deals with them reasonably deftly. Free-will and autonomy are underlying themes of the series and there are frequent philosophical undertones (Rio as justified sinner, for example). It’s violent stuff, but far from mindless violence. Moreover, despite the (always somatic) violence, I feel very little in face of the carnage littering the pages of these books. Sometimes I’d like to feel more, but the deaths dealt out in Plastic Smile are mostly to anonymous thugs or else to traffickers in children. No need to regret such deaths. We don’t, by the way, ever meet those children. Doing so would complicate the book, unbalance it, take it down into a deeper darkness. There’s nothing truly visceral about these stories. For all their action and adrenalin they are set to appeal to the head rather than the gut, and I’d have no reservations offering them to mid-teen readers.
The short version of this review is very much If you liked the earlier books, you’ll enjoy this too. If you’ve not read Huang before, do give this series a try. (There are a couple of fairy–tales that show off Huang’s range as an author.) If that’s all you want to know, stop reading here.
I’ve said I’m a fan of the Russell’s Attic series, and that’s certainly true. And yet, stepping back to look at the big picture, there is an aspect of this type of story-telling I find dissatisfying. These books are the equivalent of multi-season TV programming. Taken separately, each novel is very enjoyable indeed as a few hours of fast action, high body count, low consequences escapism. Nevertheless, four books in, I’m finding the make a bad situation worse style of plotting providing diminishing returns: because the ante needs to be constantly upped, one becomes inured to action and the fast pace becomes less, rather than more, exhilarating. As one becomes accustomed to the setting and better acquainted with the characters, the long-term story arc becomes more important. The long game of Russell’s Attic concerns Cas’s background, identity and abilities. Her questions require answers. Readers want answers, a return on their investment. Drip-feeding information is less of an option and the tap needs to be turned to a faster flow, as it is in Plastic Smile. Answers, however, close down possibilities, thus, in this form of story-telling, every answer must lead to another question. It’s a balancing act between resolution and onward travel, and a very, very delicate one.
It’s a general problem with open-ended, multi-instalment story-telling. The story can’t end with the end of a book/season, so catharsis is never achieved and the reader/viewer is eternally teased but ultimately unsatisfied. It’s rather unfair of me to pick out Huang’s work in this regard since the books are well-plotted, well-written and highly enjoyable. In fact, I’ve been thinking about this rather vaguely for a while and reading Plastic Smile, and writing this review, has crystallised my thoughts. Of course, serial story-telling has been with us for a long time: Huang is working with the modern form of a tried and tested method of presentation. Nevertheless, Dickens or Gaskell knew they had a set number of instalments to complete their story and shaped their work within that constraint. It’s unclear at this point whether such a constraint exists for Russell’s Attic. I hope it does.
I posted a good while ago about songs. This post is about books (not mine, though do go and have a look at it!). These aren’t my favourite books (I’d be hardpressed to name those, and my list would change with mood and weather) nor those I decided to take to a desert island but they are ones I return to over and over when I’m a bit low or just need to revisit old, familiar friends.
I must have read this for the first time when I was thirteen or thereabouts. A couple of years later I had to study it at school for an English Literature exam. and it’s a tribute to Charlotte Bronte that not even two years of essay writing and character studies spoilt it for me. It’s easy to pick holes in the plot (She didn’t see through his disguise? Really? In the attic? Of all the people in all of Yorkshire she bumps into her cousins?) but doing so misses the point of what makes it a great book. Passion carries it, author sublimated into character, and the certainty of equal worth and equal feeling make it one of the few truly feminist novels.
The third novel in Byatt’s Frederica Quartet is long and complicated and, I think, immensely satisfying. Something to wallow in; of the books on this list this is the one which offers the most complete immersion in a fictional world. It’s the real world, but the world before I knew it, Britain in the Sixties. It’s a book about books and about ideas. About being a woman, about motherhood, and mind, and sex. About retaining one’s integrity as a person. Two trials feature, a fictional obscenity trial about a book (Babble Tower, the novel within the novel) and a real trial (the moors murders), and a divorce, and a custody battle. The running theme is the difference between what happened and what is accepted to have happened, story set in opposition to truth.
A later, rather atypical novel by Agatha Christie. Very dark and twisted. It displays her range, as a writer and creator of characters (often underestimated), and skill at plotting (often acknowledged, and with good reason) but it’s a surprisingly delicate and effective lovestory too. It also served as my gateway to William Blake, so many thanks are due for that too.
A Mirror for Princes
A fantasy kingdom, not entirely unlike mediaeval Europe. A generation ago a usurper seized the throne, killed the rightful heirs and forced the surviving princess into marriage. On his death, the struggle to succeed him is compounded by betrayal, intrigue and incest. I came across de Haan’s novel in Morningside library when I was a graduate student and since then it’s been the fantasy novel I’ve read and reread more than any other (thank you, ECL!). It predates A Game of Thrones by the best part of a decade and is infinitely more subtle and engaging. I’m always surprised by how few other people have heard of it, and saddened by how long it’s been out of print. There’s a companion novel too, if, like me, it leaves you wanting more.
Austen at her most autumnal. Anne Elliot is the most Cinderella-like of her heroines, with the ugly sisters to prove it, but, unlike most Cinderellas, Anne had her chance of happiness and with a satisfyingly sensible, unByronic man too, and cast it away. On the advice of her fairy step-mother analogue no less. There’s none of the dazzle of Pride and Prejudice or the narrative slight of hand of Emma but a quiet tale of second chances and love returning, after hope of love’s return is lost. And Oh the joy when I finally got to the steps of the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Years it took before I got there, and, reader, I jumped down them. Didn’t slip, either.