April was a travelling month: I spent all of five days at home, and the rest of the time I moved between Berlin, Copenhagen, Vienna, and Berlin again. While this was fairly stressful, it gave me plenty of time to read on the various trains and ferries I travelled on.
Reading list length: 475
And yet again, Ursula K. Le Guin makes me happy. In The Telling she explores a society changing following first
contact with a wider galactical (pan-human) civilisation. Part of her Hainish Cycle, we see a world desperate to catch
up with other civilisation in the galaxy, and to this end abandons all of its culture in favor of a bureaucracy,
ruthlessly suppression its previous religion for its culturally dangerous superstition and conservative love for the
past. It's clear from the get-go that this isn't a good thing, but through the eyes of our protagonist, who escaped an
Earth dominated by religious fanatics, the story explains the motivations of all parties concerned, and humanises this
decision (all the while building on glimpses into the previous/repressed culture).
As always with Ursula K. Le Guin, this book felt very philosophical and deep, while never arrogantly hiding its message (as some authors are wont to do – really, we get it, you're being clever), but also never forgetting about practical reality. This combination works really well for me: Practicalities without arc or meaning are boring (slice-of-life gets old fast, for me), but philosophy without being firmly grounded in life just feels weird (Dune, looking at you!).
Elanus by Ursula Poznanski is an alright YA thriller/mystery. (Keep in mind that I'm not the intended audience anymore, though). She writes a very good unreliable/unsympathetic protagonist – a way too smart 17-year old boy, who by way of his self-built illicit drone stumbles into a dangerous secret at his new school. Very solid writing. It's very clear from the start that the protagonist is kind of an asshole, but I guess with YA you'd want to make this clear, to encourage engagement with the book (and to prevent any kids from finding him too much of a role model). Well-researched in terms of technical capacity, well-written, and while the twist is a bit predictable, the book is still pretty solid.
I liked Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. Grey Sister was an appropriate second volume – It was a good-ish second
part to Red Sister, but I felt it lacked a sense of cohesiveness. For a long time it just moved from one action after
the other, switching to a bit heavy-handed character development from time to time. The protagonist is also too
successful with most things she does, and then there's some torture/pain/loss thrown in for balance. Language felt a bit
inconsistent, too: mostly very good standard storytelling (think Sanderson), then suddenly flowery.
Don't get me wrong, though: the book is lots of fun if you like action and tension, and it's not stupid action either. It's well-written, solid action-focused fantasy – no more, no less.
Walking to Aldebaran
Walking to Aldebaran was my first book by Adrian Tchaikovsky, and it certainly was a good book. The story itself was a bit on the shallow side, I felt, but the writing, and the protagonist exploring weird alien catacombs, both were well done, so it was a good read. I think all things considered, the protagonist's narration voice was the best part of the book – without it, it would've been kind of generic grim scifi, but this way it was quite a bit better than that. (A review copy was provided in exchange for an honest review by the publisher, via NetGalley.)
The Library at Mount Char
It's always fun finding out that everything you assumed about a book is wrong – I had this pleasure with The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. It was beyond not what I expected (shame on me for having preconceived notions of what a library is), and it was a lot of fun at that. The middle parts felt a bit drab, what with the gore and blood and war, but everything came together for a really satisfying endgame, which I liked a lot. Seeing the protagonist Carolyn grow (via flashbacks and other narrative devices, but also due to the plot) from a regular girl, to a traumatised girl, to … here lie spoilers, to experiencing true character growth was wonderful. Side characters feel fleshed out instead of being reduced to a single character trait, or just propping up the protagonist. If you're not terribly touchy about violence in your books, Library of Mount Char is a great read.
Tournament of Losers
Tournament of Losers by Megan Derr was surprisingly good for a fantasy romance novel, but it was still utterly predictable (and kind of fairytale sounding in the ritual situations that lead to its predictability, actually). A nice enough read, especially since semi-realistic fantasy with m/m relationships isn't common, but definitely more of a guilty pleasure than anything else.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is a fantasy novel from 1926, which means it reads a bit aged – but not only
that, it also subverts all kinds of implicit genre expectations, having been published before Tolkien and his
larger-than-life influence started and defined half a century of a new literary genre. For instance, I found it
delightful to see how much inspiration of the fantastic comes more from the general voice and pattern of European
fairytales compared to the general Fantasy tendency to go with myths instead. Her combination of fairytale antics with
good, solid, stout (and pretty British) real life has a lot of similarities to Tolkien's hobbits, but I liked how the
explicit contrast between the fantastic and the Law (and everything related to it) was a focal point in the story.
While side characters may be a bit flat, and the pacing is noticeably uneven, Mirrlees not only shines a great light on how the fantastic and the real world can relate, she also demonstrates a great insight into humans, and their psyche. I found descriptions of the characters' tics and peculiarities (along with the hints where they come from/how they relate to everything else this person is doing) very insightful and amusing. Very recommended if you want to see fantasy that is different.
The Wolf in the Whale
The Wolf in the Whale is delightful fantasy, centered around a small group of Inuit during the phase of Christianisation of the Vikings. Jordanna Max Brodsky, the author, is a dedicated historian, and it shows – the book is never dry or boring, but the amount of research makes for a very solid base on which the book builds wonderfully (for the nerds, there are appendices that are highly interesting, too!)
The book explores gender roles in different societies (and fluidity of gender, etc.), the roles of religion and tradition, cross-cultural interaction, personal growth when clashing with one's society. But it also is about magic wolves, Inuit and viking gods, war, and surviving the cold, and so much more. I enjoyed this book a lot.
The Stars My Destination
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester is a scifi classic, and most of those don't work for me. This one was better than average, but I still felt like I was in a weird dream. Maybe it's just that my tolerance for people behaving horribly and/or stupidly is pretty low at the moment. I enjoyed the exploration of what the power of personal teleportation at a whim would do to society, and I laughed at the outrageously absurd parts of the novel, but the middle part felt like a drag, not due to lack of action, but due to the characters being weird/horrible/stupid or alternating between those three in rapid succession.
Blackwing by Ed McDonald is classed as grimdark fantasy. I'm usually careful about those – much of the genre strikes me as ~edgy~ woe-is-me drivel that just delights in being as cynical as possible. Looking at the facts, Blackwing seems similar: middle-aged first-person character with a hard, depressing life, competent but always in difficulties, drinks too much, brutality all around, now the world (which is already pretty gruesome) seems to be ending. Add in higher beings using humans as playthings in their ineffable games, and … yeah.
But Blackwing works against this setting: The protagonist is a cynical hardass, but also unreliable, and still cares about humanity (and specific humans). Having positive motivations, and emotions, in a story like this made all the difference. It was a good read, and I'm looking forward to tackling the second volume (third one is scheduled to be published this summer).
The Traitor Baru Cormorant
I loved The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. I don't even know where to start. Our protagonist is a young girl in a fairly "primitive" country when the story starts. Her country is annexed by the big empire next door by economic and cultural means. The Masquerade promptly sets about destroying local culture (which involves polyamory and homosexuality, which doesn't go well with the Masquerade's straight repressive culture and eugenic views). The protagonist is educated in the school, recognized as a genius, and on fast track to rise high in the professed meritocracy. Her talents are mostly in economy and related areas, and the book follows her first posting, complete with intrigue (well, mostly that), love (both homo- and heteroromantic), hate, betrayal, loyalty, some fighting, all that. The book moves very fast, which was a delight to me. Every sentence counts, and years can pass in one page, while still hinting at the important things left out. The ending is a very brutal payoff, and I was happy that I had the second book at hand.
- How to Move Spheres and Influence People by Marko Kloos is a superhero origin story, I guess. It's about a teenager who discovers that she can move any spherical object with her mind. Very slice-of-life, not really going anywhere.
- Rating anthologies is always hard. The Unicorn Anthology, fittingly edited by Peter S. Beagle contained stories that touched me, and stories that just passed some time. Different strokes for different folks, and all that. Most stories tended to be dark and tragic, unsurprisingly enough. There are a couple of very good stories in there, so if the whole mythical realism thing interests you, check it out. (An ARC in exchange for a review was provided by the publisher via NetGalley.)
- Bridesicle by Will McIntosh is not as good as its title – cryo facilities where people can be revived by prospective partners. He tries to capture the horror of it all, but (maybe due to it being so short) it fell flat for me.
- Beware of the Dog is a short story by Roald Dahl about a WW2 pilot who loses his leg – it was alright, but (at least for me), the timing for the reveal and ending felt way off.
Do not recommend
- I'm a Greek mythology geek, and Song of Sacrifice by Janell Rhiannon (as an ARC via NetGalley) should've been right up my alley. Alas, it wasn't – while it showed human perspectives on all the big players in the myths leading up to the Trojan war, the stories were as fragmented as the real myths, even if ordered by history. The novel thing I'd hope to see from a book such as this would be fleshed out characters and story arcs, but sadly, both the characters and the story stayed flat. The final annoyance was that roughly every time any couple had any type of sex, it had to be discussed and described in-depth, and not in great quality, either. While I like the frankness of the Greek myths, these scenes often served no reason. Sadly, I cannot recommend this book.