Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “reading”

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.

The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.

I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.

I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.

I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.

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Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was a wonderfully sinister bit of sci-fi horror and managed to get under my skin with almost surgical precision. It seemed quite stand alone and the sequel Authority ends up answering a few questions I’m not sure needed answers. Authority is a good book in its own right, but when compared to the haunting majesty of Annihilation it can’t help but feel a little lacking.

Authority shifts from the eerie first person narrative of the Biologist, to a third person narrative following John, the son of a senior intelligence operative, who chooses to go by the name Control. Control is sent to become the director of Southern Reach, the organisation which studies the mysterious and dangerous Area X, as well as manages the expeditions, such as the one we saw in Annihilation. Southern Reach is in a state of relative disrepair, underfunded and hounded by rumours and hearsay. Control must find out the secrets of Southern Reach, as well as perhaps Area X itself.

This is a very different book to its predecessor in almost every way. Where Annihilation horrified in a Lovecraftian sense, with a sense of the terrible and unknowable alien, Authority borrows more from Kafka, in bureaucracy and an odd feeling of people pursuing mundanity fervently despite the strangeness of their surroundings. The psychological impact of working near Area X is the main focus as we see several characters fundamentally damaged in a variety of ways. Authority is a fair bit longer than Annihilation and does have a little flab towards the middle. That said, Southern Reach is an interesting setting and VanderMeer conjures it well.

I have to say I missed the intimacy of the Biologist’s narration. We’re held at a remove from Control and he’s difficult to warm to or even become particularly interested by. Control is our audience cipher, so is perhaps not a particularly complex character in his own right. The characters surrounding him are brilliantly and vividly drawn, such as the hostile interim director who Control replaces, or a nervy scientist who has been far more affected by the omnipresent horror of Area X than he lets on. VanderMeer seems to have a knack for strong development of a small group of characters; the cast is slightly larger than Annihilation’s four, but not by much and they are given the same level of attention and detail.

Authority is a weird book and an odd direction to take for the series. I mostly liked it, but it felt slightly overlong. It does establish the final book to go to an interesting place however, and I look forward to reading the final of the trilogy, Acceptance.

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The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski

I wasn’t in love with the previous book in the Witcher series, Baptism of Fire, feeling that it felt too interstitial and didn’t do enough to further the plot. The Tower of the Swallow is not dissimilar, with the plot once again focusing on Geralt’s journey to find Ciri, but is improved for a number of reasons; an interesting playing around with time and narration and the increased role of the wonderful Ciri herself.

Geralt and company are continuing their journey to find Ciri, after their run in with the Lyrian forces at the end of Baptism by Fire. Along with Dandelion, Milva, Regis and Cahir, Geralt must head towards the Nilfgaardian Duchy of Toussaint. Yennefer has arrived in Skellige, as she seeks Ciri’s location, becoming drawn into the machinations of the sinister Vilgefortz. The heart of the story lies with Ciri, who we find terribly injured in the home of a hermit. Still being hunted by Nilfgaard, Ciri relates to him her time with The Rats, how they came to separate and her run in with the terrifying bounty hunter Leo Bonhart.

In terms of Geralt, The Tower of the Swallow does not move the plot forward much further than Baptism of Fire did. Ciri is absolutely the protagonist of this one though, with her story mostly related through flashback as we see the trials and tribulations she has been through. We regularly dip into several layers of narration, as present day Ciri in the hermit’s house flashes back to middle of the story Ciri who flashes back to earlier Ciri. This happens with other characters too, such as a mercenary who relates her role in events through court testimony. It can be confusing to put together the chronology of everything; this playing around with structure of the Ciri storyline feeling a bit clever for its own sake, but it is interesting and I’m always up for genre authors pushing out of their comfort zones and doing something a bit different with the form.

The Tower of the Swallow is very much ­Baptism of Fire Part 2, but it does leave things in a good place for an exciting finale. I’m going to be sad to finish this series, although hopefully it won’t be too long until The Witcher Netflix series manifests itself.

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Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

I’m eagerly anticipating China Miéville’s next full length novel, but a new short story collection is a more than adequate way to bridge the gap. The collection contains 28 stories, some of which are lengthy and involved and some are simply a couple of pages long. It’s hit and miss as most collections are, but the misses are never too egregious and the hits hit hard.

The titular opening story Three Moments of an Explosion is more of a tone setter than anything else; brief, unnerving and intriguing, but not much to talk about in of itself. The subsequent Polynia is much meatier, taking place in a London whose skies have been invaded by inexplicable floating icebergs and the story of a boy who becomes obsessed with them. Its environmentalist message isn’t exactly subtle, but its unsettling and awe inspiring nonetheless. Miéville does a brilliant job depicting the strangeness of the new world the Londoners find themselves in; at eye level all is the same, but a quick glance up and you can see that something is very wrong indeed. The Condition of New Death is another shorter piece, but one of my favourite of the collection; you’re given just enough for the bizarre premise to lodge in your mind for days. I adored the next story¸ The Dowager of Bees, where mysterious and arcane suits occasionally appear in the hands of those playing high stake card games. Again, a sense of unsettling and alienation is what Miéville goes for here. There’s a palpable sense of danger whenever one of these cards appears. It isn’t necessarily layered with meaning, but it’s easily one of the most fun stories in the collection. The following story is another long one, In the Slopes. This tale of two warring archaeologists as they uncover a strange civilisation and culture beneath the earth is generally quite popular, but it didn’t quite land for me. This story is pure Lovecraft, a writer Miéville owes a lot to in content if not in style. The story is told from the point of view of a bystander, which simply left me feeling remote from the events and struggling to care. Still, the image of what lurks beneath the earth is highly compelling.

The Crawl is a weird one, describing scene for scene a trailer for a fictional movie about a civil war between two types of zombie. Stripped of context, it’s largely just a series of powerful imagery. I’m not really sure what Miéville is trying to say with The Crawl, whether it is meant as a comment on films and their marketing or simply a nugget of an idea he finds interesting. It’s odd but I liked it. Watching God is about an island where strange ships come and go and is surrounded by giant strange words. I suspect there was more to this one than I picked up, but it ends up as quite a compelling look at ritual and tradition and the way minor changes can throw a community into disarray. The brilliant The 9th Technique follows; it concerns a magical artefact created from the pain of a real life torture victim of Guantanamo Bay. The combination of the relatively familiar and fantastical world of dark magic and totems with the very real horror inflicted by those who many in the West consider to be ‘the good guys’ is deeply chilling. The Rope is the World could easily be stretched to an entire novel, and is written in the style of non-fiction, describing giant space elevators which have fallen into disrepair. Only a couple of pages long, Miéville asks a couple of fascinating questions and leaves it to the reader to answer them for themselves. The Buzzard’s Egg is one of the most overtly fantastical and is narrated by the elderly guard for totems of Gods taken by some kind of controlling empire. The nature of God, as well as how many may have been forgotten in the march of empires throughout history, is the order of the day here, with the rambling unreliable narrator putting everything through am intriguingly foggy lens.

Säcken is the most straightforward horror story of the collection, and is genuinely terrifying. It may lack the edge of satire seen elsewhere, but this story of a young woman and her older academic lover travelling to a lake in Germany is a huge amount of grisly fun. It was one of my favourites. Syllabus is just that for a strange university course. I’m ignorant enough of academia that I suspect any satire here flew over my head. Dreaded Outcome is probably the most straightforward story in the collection, but so much fun, following a psychologist and her unorthodox way of helping her patients. It’s silly, darkly funny and pretty broad, but coming around the middle of a collection it offers a nice bit of breathing space from the heavier stories that sandwich it. You need that breather because the next story, After the Festival, is the most grotesque of the collection, set in a London where a mainstream festival sees select Londoners place a severed and hollowed out animal head on theirs and parade through the city. As a comment on our culture’s attitude towards meat and animals it was uncomfortable and effective, particularly as a non-vegetarian like myself. This story is held back by a weak ending which aims for ambiguous but lands on unsatisfying, but that image of the grisly parade won’t be leaving my mind anytime soon. The Dusty Hat was a weird one; at first it appears to be a satire on the inability of the hard left to work together without splitting into warring factions, something which frustrates me as a proud Lefty myself, but it takes a strange turn into the fantastical which didn’t quite work for me.

Escapee is another entertaining fake trailer, although I think I enjoyed The Crawl more. The Bastard Prompt is a brilliant little thriller about actors who take work as fake patients for doctors to train on, who begin to name bizarre and alien symptoms. It’s chilling, sinister, fun and the symptoms themselves are gloriously inventive. I’d read an entire fake medical book if Miéville was behind it. Rules briefly describes a strange children’s game, interesting enough but not particularly memorable. Estate is another story set in London involving a strange ritual, a clear fascination of Miéville’s, where a burning stag is released through the city. I couldn’t work out what the point of this one was, but the imagery is very effective and powerful. Keep was another story with a great premise and an irritatingly obtuse ending, about a contagious illness where people sink into depressions in the ground if they are still for too long. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t really come to much.

A Second Slice Manifesto is similar to Syllabus, following a strange new artistic method, but is a bit creepier and more atmospheric. I think it may be a bit of an examination on post-modernism, but I’m pretty ignorant about art so I may have missed something. Covehithe is awesome in the original sense of the word, where derelict oil rigs have picked themselves up from the ocean floor and begun to march on land. Similarly, to ­Polynia, the environmentalist message is pretty clear. It’s a cool story with some brilliant imagery in the vast, loping grace of the oil rigs. The Junket is the funniest story in the collection, about the murder of a screenwriter known for courting excessive controversy in his deeply offensive writing. It’s a brilliant take on an outrage addicted media, as well as the vapidity of offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake. Four Final Orpheuses briefly offers four alternative endings to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; they’re mildly interesting but little beyond that. The Rabbet is a creepy little ghost story about a sinister animation, but I found it a little bit too straightforward. I really enjoyed most of the more straightforward stories in the collection, but I found this one a bit irritating, even if this one had an actual ending.

Listen the Birds is the third and final fake movie script, acting as the others do as a palate cleanser of sorts before the final two stories. A Mount isn’t a story so much as a prose description of porcelain animals. I enjoy Miéville’s writing enough that even something like this has a strange majesty. The collection ends strongly with The Design, the story of a 19th century doctor who discovers beautiful scrimshawing on the bones of a body he has dissected and becomes obsessed with their mystery. Lovecraft rears his head again, with a similar sense of cosmic dread and human irrelevance. Are the bones a message from an alien or magical creature, or was God simply doodling? Answers are less important than the nagging discomfort of just not knowing.

Three Moments of an Explosion is a brilliant example of Miéville’s range. Some are a lot of fun, some truly horrific, some satirical and clever and, yes, a few are obnoxiously obtuse. Still, I’d take a self-consciously intellectual approach of Miéville over something that’s, well, stupid.

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey

When M R Carey announced that he was writing a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts, I was a bit sceptical. My tolerance for prequels is generally low, as they inevitably face a pressing issue of having to justify their own existence. There have been some great prequels, but I think more that have felt pointless. The Boy on the Bridge doesn’t quite succeed in justifying its own existence and it never feels anywhere near as strong as The Girl with All the Gifts, but particularly towards the end it comes together with certain moments of power held back by an oddly arch and impersonal tone.

Readers of The Girl with all the Gifts will remember the Rosalind Franklin, a tank/lab sent out by the remaining seat of UK government of Beacon after the arrival of the cordyceps plague of hungries/zombies. Melanie and her group took refuge in the abandoned tank and it played a vital role in the closing sections of the book and

The Boy on the Bridge is the story of the Rosalind Franklin and the crew of scientists and military who populate it. The Boy on the Bridge jumps into the heads of most of the crew of the tank, sent from Beacon to try to find a cure. Dr Samrina Khan is a scientist who discovers that she is pregnant shortly into their journey. She has a strange bond with Steven Greaves, a sort of autistic-savant young man who is considered by some to be the best hope for formulating a cure. Whilst in the highlands of Sctoland, Greaves discovers a group of child hungries who act like no other hungries they’ve seen before. This discovery kicks off the events which eventually culminate with an abandoned Rosalind Franklin, somewhere in London.

Although there’s a lot that is interesting in The Boy on the Bridge, for much of my time reading I found myself wondering why this story needed to be told. Revelations, such as the cognisant child hungries, will be of no surprise to those who have read The Girl with all the Gifts and it’s difficult to say what more this adds to our understanding of the setting. Carey uses the enclosed and claustrophobic space of the Rosalind Franklin well and I enjoyed the details of the strange life they’re all having to live together. It suffers somewhat from the horror movie problems of much of the plot being based entirely around people doing very stupid, illogical things. Obviously I would rather read characters driven by emotion than logic as I’m not a robot, but too often I just found myself exasperated, when I think I was meant to be horrified.

The lack of a clear main character hurts the book; there’s no one that can rival Melanie in terms of sympathy and engagement. There are some intense moments which should hit harder than they really do, because perhaps with the exception of Greaves I never really felt like I got a grip on any of these people. Greaves is a good character and I think the novel would have worked better if structured more clearly around him, as The Girl with all the Gifts was with Melanie.

The Boy on the Bridge is perfectly readable and I wasn’t bored, but I can’t imagine it making anywhere near the splash of The Girl with all the Gifts. That said, an intriguing epilogue sets the stage for a potentially great follow up. I’d be all for this, moving the series forward rather than returning to the past.

 

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Caine’s Law by Matthew Stover

The Acts of Caine series seems to follow a cycle of something contained and disciplined followed by something more grand and ambitious. The first cycle of this technique, Heroes Die followed by Blade of Tyshalle, didn’t really work for me. This second cycle, with the focused Caine Black Knife followed by the unhinged and bizarre Caine’s Law, works much better. The sense of having bit off a bit more than he can chew persists from Blade of Tyshalle, but by keeping the focus firmly on the titular protagonist it avoids its worst missteps. Caine’s Law is ambitious, dazzling and genuinely unique and a memorable ending to one of the strangest fantasy series around.

Caine Black Knife ended on a series of cliffhangers; Orbek’s upcoming trial-by-combat with Angvasse Khaylock, the nature of the Smoke Hunt and, most significantly, Caine’s final arrest and removal, crippled once again, to Earth. To give any significant plot summary for this book without spoiling it feels like an impossible challenge. Caine’s Law takes place in a variety of times and places, some before the events of Heroes Die, as well as between Blade of Tyshalle and Caine Black Knife. The core theme of the novel is deity and religion; considering that at least three figures throughout the series can be said to have ascended to becoming demi-Gods, it’s a theme worth exploring and closes out the series in suitably epic fashion.

Whilst I appreciate the ambition, as with Blade of Tyshalle things fall apart a bit in the execution. I really love what Stover is going for here, but it’s a bit too opaque, a bit too dense. It’s well aware of its own confusing nature, but being aware of your own flaws don’t necessarily stop them from being flaws. The book feels like a dense weave of subplots, rather than having a core strong plot in itself. Some of these subplots work better than others, with a little bit of overindulgence in some areas. A very interesting new character known as the Horse-Witch plays a vital role, but I think perhaps a bit too much time is spent with this storyline, as well as a lot of mediation about horses in general. Still, I ultimately had a better time with Caine’s Law than Blade of Tyshalle because it continues the wise trend from Caine Black Knife in focusing entirely on its titular protagonist.

There have been a lot of unstoppable, ridiculous fantasy badasses, but Caine may be the best I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this book breaks down exactly who, and what, Caine is, to the very core. Supposedly Stover is writing another book in the setting focusing on Raithe, and despite what I’ve said earlier, I think keeping Caine out of future books, or as a supporting character, is for the best. We know him now, intimately, inside and out. A lot of the time badass characters achieve that through mystery, but we now know pretty much all we could ever want to know about this character, which makes his unique perspective and strength somehow even more compelling. Caine is to fantasy what Batman is to comics, or John Wick to cinema.

Caine’s Law is an ambitious and bizarre way to end the series. Stover doesn’t quite stick the landing, but there’s a lot to be said for shooting for the stars, even if you ever so slightly miss. I look forward to delving into some of his other works, although I think I might skip the novelisation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.

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Touch by Claire North

Touch is the third Claire North book I’ve read and, whilst it is very good, it bears more than a little resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the book which followed Touch but I read first. This similarity undermined it slightly for me, but nonetheless this is another exciting sci-fi tinged thriller from someone who seems to be a master of them.

Claire North’s books are about people with strange abilities, which are both a blessing and a curse, hidden within our world. Where The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August covered reincarnation, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope the idea of being forgotten, Touch is about a being (known as a ghost) that possesses different bodies but has no form left of its own, transferring through touch. The protagonist is known as Kepler and is around 300 years old, hopping from host to host, usually with the host’s consent in exchange for a large pay-out at the end of the possession. When Kepler, in her host Josephine, is gunned down in a Turkish train station, Kepler manages to escape before her host dies and goes on the run in the body of her would be assassin, pursued by the mysterious organisation to which he belongs.

Touch, similarly to her other books, is a globetrotting conspiracy story, as the protagonist moves through a vast range of locations, exploring what it means to be human. It does this very well, but by this point the three books have begun to blur into one. She’s chosen a particular thing that she is going to do and she does it really well, but an element of fatigue begun to slip in. I probably should have left a bigger gap between The Sudden Appearance of Hope and this. Where Harry August posits that humanity is tied to mortality, and Hope Arden suggests it is tied to connections we make to each other, Touch is about the physical body itself. The horror inherent in the concept is not shied away from; although Kepler herself is sympathetic, North never suggests that the experience of having your body stolen against your will is anything but terrible. One plot thread involving a body taken for decades is particularly harrowing. The flashback stuff is generally very good, with some great scenes set in the Ottoman Empire and 1950s Hollywood. The present day storyline stumbles slightly, with lots of scenes of Kepler travelling places and investigating things and generally moving the plot forward, but in a rambling and vague fashion. Touch, and to an extent all of North’s books I’ve read, seems to be at their best when simply wallowing in its own concept, with the core narrative holding it all together being somewhat less compelling.

You may have noticed that I’ve gendered Kepler as female when I refer to the character; her biological sex naturally varies depending on her host, but the voice that came through all of these I couldn’t help read as female. I could go through everything I’ve written and alter the pronouns to ‘it’ and I almost did exactly that, but I actually think it’s interesting how Touch ended up making me project gender onto a genderless entity. I wonder what in my own personal biases made me read Kepler as female, because I’ve read that many people have read the character as male. In Kepler, North provides an interesting cipher to examine our own thought processes and assumptions. An area I wish North had touched more upon was the racial element; Kepler refers to having marched as an African-American with Dr. King in the 1960s, but at the end she could jump into the skin of a white person and avoid any of the consequences of being black in America. North prods at the idea of appropriation, but never really jumps into it. Since the big conceptual stuff worked more for me than the core thriller narrative, I’d have liked to see Touch go further down this path.

All said however, Touch is a very good book. If you’ve read any of her other books recently, maybe give it a little break to keep things feeling a bit fresher, but it was nonetheless thought-provoking and intriguing. I don’t know what angle of humanity North is going to pursue next, but I do know it will be interesting.

 

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

I haven’t read a China Miéville book in ages, so this slim little novella seemed as good a place as any to jump back in. It’s a strange, unsettling story, with a tighter focus than Miéville normally shows. This is still a political book, everything Miéville writes is, but it perhaps has a greater focus on the personal.

This Census-Taker has a strange setting, a sort of desolate fantasy dystopia. There are hints that this world is not our own, but Miéville isn’t interested in world building here, with the setting being used primarily to create mood and atmosphere. There are a couple of hints that it may take place in the Bas-Lag setting seen in Perdido Street Station, but if that is the case it isn’t particularly important to the story. The protagonist is an unnamed young boy, who runs into his village screaming that his mother has killed his father. Lacking evidence, he is forced to return home to his terrifying and homicidal parent, living in constant fear, with his only allies being a group of street urchins.

It’s a relatively straightforward story by Miéville standards, but thoroughly unsettling. Miéville has flirted with many different strands of horror, most effectively with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but domestic horror may be some of the scariest, the fear of what lurks within your own home. Very few characters are named and they are generally thinly drawn, but this is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else. Hints to wider events are welcome and suggest that this is a world gone very wrong, expanding into the broader social commentary Miéville is so well regarded for. The titular census-taker doesn’t show up until close to the end, but he’s an intriguing figure with hints to complex motivations. Some have suggested that This Census-Taker could almost be a prologue to a larger work and I wouldn’t mind if that were the case. The novella asks some interesting questions I wouldn’t mind seeing answered.

This Census-Taker is a clever, unsettling slice of fiction I’d recommend to any Miéville fan. He hasn’t published a full novel since 2012s Railsea, so I hope there’s another one not too far away.

 

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