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"A Trump Christmas Carol," by Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, John Scalzi and Jo Walton; Uncanny, December 25, 2016
http://uncannymagazine.com/article/trump-christmas-carol/

A brilliant piece of political fiction, a solid reworking of the ideas of Dickens' classic as the ghosts of 2016 teach the President-elect the true meaning and proper use of political power.



"The Orangery," Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam; Beneath Ceasless Skies, Issue #214, December 8, 2016
http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com/stories/the-orangery/

Using the myths of Apollo and Daphne and Apollo and Dryope as central images, Stufflebeam gives us a powerful look at the responses evoked in women when confronted with men's desire and sense of entitlement to women's labour, bodies and love. When confronted with all the women, including Daphne and Dryope, who have chosen transformation into trees, Apollo asks “Why do you women fear men so much that you would rather be tree than give a kiss?” It's a question answered by this novelette, though perhaps not in any way that one who must ask can understand.



"The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt," N. K. Jemisin; Wired, December 13, 2016
https://www.wired.com/2016/12/nk-jemisin-the-evaluators/

A brilliant and truly terrifying cautionary tale told in modern epistolary style (excerpts from emails, reports and other documents) about the dangers of making assumptions and rushing first contact.



"Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0," Caroline M. Yoachim; Lightspeed, March 2016
http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/welcome-to-the-medical-clinic-at-the-interplanetary-relay-station/

Having spent way too much time dealing with medical personnel and institutions lately, this grim little story about the futility of getting any real healthcare from a bureaucratic and underfunded system hit close to home.



"My Grandmother's Bones," S. L. Huang; Daily Science Fiction, August 22, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/s-l-huang/my-grandmothers-bones

A short and moving story about generational relationships and cultural changes, seen through a series of funerary behaviours.


"17 Amazing Plot Elements... When You See #11, You'll Be Astounded!," James Beamon; Daily Science Fiction, May 3, 2016
http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/religious/james-beamon/17-amazing-plot-elements-when-you-see-11-youll-be-astounded

An interesting approach to the retelling of a very old tale. Short, but worth reading for the way it's told.



"The Right Sort of Monsters," Kelly Sandoval; Strange Horizons, April 4, 2016
http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-right-sort-of-monsters/
Powerful story about need, sacrifice and how humans deal with difference. A strange and alien grove - the Godswalk - appears mysteriously beside a village, leaving most of the inhabitants unable to have children of their own. In the forest are the blood trees, whose flowers produce children in return for human blood, children that are not quite human, but human enough. But when Viette enters the forest to seek a child to fill the void left by a series of miscarriages, she learns that the Godswalk hides deeper secrets than she realised.

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One might not think that a trilogy of science fiction books about the various ways one might go about creating a society based on Plato's Republic, and what the outcomes of those societies might look like, is going to be engaging, at times exciting, and hard to put down. And maybe it isn't, if you have little interest about such ideas as justice, the good life, excellence, the nature of conscious self-awareness and the soul, the origin of the universe and the meaning of time.

But since I have a strong interest in these things, and since Jo Walton has, in her Thessaly trilogy, written an amazing set of characters you can't help caring about who take part in explorations of these ideas through debate, daily living, and various travels and adventures, it was probably inevitable that I would fall in love with these somewhat unusual novels.

I've already talked about the first two novels in the trilogy, The Just City and The Philosopher Kings. In the third novel, Necessity, Walton continues her explorations of the deep philosophical questions that have troubled humanity for millennia.

Necessity begins 40 years after Zeus, in order to save Athene's experiment in building a true Platonic society and continue its isolation from human history, has moved all the existing cities to a distant planet and to a time in the 26th century. Survival on Plato, as its new inhabitants have named it, is not as easy as it was on the island of Thera - the climate is colder, and the planet has no indigenous land-based animal life (though it has fish in abundance). But the people of Pluto have prospered, and their cities occupy the planet in peace. Living with them and taking part in Plato's society are two sentient Worker robots that were transported with them, and some members of an alien space-faring race, the Saeli, who find their Platonic ideals appealing.

The narrative that drives the further philosophical explorations Walton engages us in involves the disappearance of the goddess Athene from not only time and space, but the dimensions out of time. When Apollo, returned to his divinity by the death of his human incarnation, Pythias, discovers that he cannot sense Athene anywhere, his decision to search for her becomes a quest to understand the underpinnings of existence and the meaning of life.

This quest is interwoven with the lives of several inhabitants of Plato, key among them: Jason, who operates a fishing boat; Marsilia, one of the consuls of the City - the first Platonic community settled by Athene on Earth - who also works with Jason; Thetis, her sister, who works with the City's children; Hilfa, a young Saeli who is also part of Jason's crew; and Crocus, the first sentient Worker.

The death of Pythias and Apollo's discovery that Athene is lost take place place against the backdrop of an event the Platonians have long anticipated - the arrival of the first spaceship from another planet of humans. The planet's inhabitants must decide whether to follow the advice of Zeus, and present the story of their arrival on Plato as a kind of origin myth, all the while leading the space-faring humans to believe Plato was settled just as any other human colony - or just to tell the truth and let the other humans make of it what they will.

Rounding out this mix of events, Sokrates is returned to the Platonic cities, having been found by Apollo on his quest to find Athene. Not at all changed by having spent time in the Jurassic period, living as the gadfly Athene transformed him into, Sokrates becomes an essential part of the continuing philosophical dialogue that is Plato, and of the lives of the Platonians involved in Apollo's quest.

In Necessity, Walton proposes some possible answers to the questions being asked in these three novels, but also leaves much still to be considered by the reader, just as she gives her characters some degree of closure in their daily lives, while leaving the future open-ended.

The entire trilogy is a kind of experiment, the success of which the reader must judge for themselves. For me, it succeeds gloriously.

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The second book in Jo Walton's Thessaly trilogy, The Philosopher Kings, is in many ways an inversion of The Just City. Instead of asking questions, it proposes answers. Instead of trying to build the just society of Plato's Republic, it details the shattering of that singleminded goal into a multitude of separate factions, each imagining itself to be the proper way to bring about justice and excellence. Instead of hope and progress, it deals with loss and discord.

Apollo and Maia continue to be key narrative voices, but the death of Simmea brings to the forefront a new character, Arete, the semi-divine daughter of Apollo and Simmea.

The core questions are still the same - what is just, what is the good life, what is excellence, what is personal responsibility, and what is purpose of life. But where in the previous novel, the characters sought their answers to these questions within the framework of Plato's ideal, here they find personal answers in their interrogation, re-examination and alteration of the ideal. The Just City was idealistic theory, The Philosopher Kings is personal praxis.

And just as The Just City ended in a debate that prompted the action of a god and the changing of everything that had gone before, The Philosopher Kings ends much the same way, promising a conclusion as different and original as the two volumes that preceded it.

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Jo Walton is a fearless writer, which is part of what I love about her work. She's willing to experiment, to explore new themes and subjects and styles, to reinvent herself almost every time she begins a new project.

In The Just City - the first volume of the Thessaly trilogy - Walton combines Greek gods, robots, some judicious time travel, a thought experiment that brings together some of the greatest philosophers in the history of European civilisation and an extensive critique of Plato's The Republic to create a novel that is as narratively compelling as it is thought provoking.

The story begins with Apollo and Athena. Apollo is confused because his latest sexual adventure has ended, not in the enthusiastic compliance he believes all his previous advances have evokes, but in the desperate prayer of his quarry to be transformed into a tree rather than submit to his embrace. Unable to fathom why Daphne would rather give up her life as a nereid than give in to his desires, he seeks out his sister Athena, who tells him: "But she hadn’t chosen you in return. It wasn’t mutual. You decided to pursue her. You didn’t ask, and she certainly didn’t agree. It wasn’t consensual. And, as it happens, she didn’t want you. So she turned into a tree.”

Apollo grasps this at an intellectual level, but fails to fully comprehend the concepts of volition and equal significance behind Athena's explanation. He considers incarnating as human in order to explore the matter as a human. Athena suggests that he take part in her experiment - she is in the middle of creating a city based on Plato's The Republic. He agrees.

It turns out that Athena has drawn together around 300 scholars from many time periods, all of whom have at one point in their lives prayed in her name for the realisation of The Republic. Assisted by highly developed worker robots Athena has brought from the future, these "masters" have worked for five years to plan and build a city, situated well in the past on the volcanic island of Kallisti (and later, after the explosion that destroyed half of it, Thera), that would operate on the principles laid out by Plato. When all is ready, the masters are sent out into various time periods to purchase 10,000 ten-year old slaves to be the experimental population. Apollo arranges to be born as human at a tine and place where he will be one of these children.

As the experiment proceeds, we see what works - and what does not - through the eyes of three people: Apollo, now known as Pytheas; Simmea, another of the children who becomes a friend of Pytheas; and Maia, a master from the 18th century who was drawn to The Republic because of Plato's inclusion of women as full participants in his imagined society, capable of being philosopher-kings.

Indeed, as Walton explores the importance of volition and equal significant in the quest to create a truly just society, the issue of gendered justice and free choice in sex and reproduction becomes an important part of the conversation that runs through the novel. Slavery, misogyny, sexual violence, exploitation, the essence of sentience - all these are a part of the examination of freedom and justice that is the heart of The Just City.

I know it has had some mixed reviews, but for me The Just City was one of those books I couldn't put down until I finished it.

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Sometimes I find myself wondering what my life would have been like had I made different choices at one point or another. Of course, I'll never know. This one life is all I have, and all my choices represent roads not simply not taken, but never to be known.

But In My Real Children, Jo Walton tells the story of a woman who does know, who stands, in her final years, on the cusp of two worlds, knowing exactly what will come from a crucial decision, and armed with that knowledge, prepares to chose which life she has lived - who are her real children (literal and metaphorical) and who are the phantoms drifting along the road not taken.

Patricia Cowan is, at the beginning of the novel, a woman of nearly 80, with advanced dementia, living in a senior's facility. Her medical chart notes that she is frequently "very confused" - which is to be expected from her diagnosis. But as we listen in on her interior monologue, we realise that not all of her confusion is due to her mental state. Patricia is remembering two lives, and living in two slightly different worlds. As she begins to understand this herself, the novel flashes back to when she was a child, and moves forward to the moment her life split in two - the day when, as a young schoolteacher with a degree in literature from Oxford, the somewhat odd yet insistent young man with whom she has carried on a romance via letter for two years gives her an ultimatum, to marry him now, or never.

From that point on, we see in alternating chapters her two lives unfolding. In one, where she is called Trish, she is unhappily married and personally frustrated for many years, but slowly finds ways to put her talents to use in a variety of causes from peace work to local politics to teaching adult education classes.

In the other, where she is called Pat, she finds a career and a passion in writing guidebooks to the great cities of the Italian renaissance, meets and forms a long lasting and loving relationship with another woman, living a life that holds greater personal and professional satisfaction and fulfillment, but is less oriented to public service.

The larger world also splits on that day, and both Trish's and Pat's worlds vary from our own. In Trish's world, the great powers move further back from the brink than in our own, and humanity reaches the moon, civil liberties are acquired sooner, the world seems more likely to find peace. In Pat's, human beings still reach the moon, but there are limited nuclear wars and a heightened response to terrorism that seems to go beyond what has happened in our world.

By the time the doubled lives of Pat and Trish have been told and we are again in the facility with Patricia, we understand that this twinned existence cannot continue, that Patricia must make a choice between her pasts - and decide which world her real children will live in.

Walton leaves us to decide for ourselves what Patricia's choice is, and invites us to consider what choice we might make.

It's a book that made me cry, and made me think. Walton does that a lot.

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i seem to no longer have time, strength or energy to write the kind of commentary I used to on the books I've read, but I still want to keep a record. So I guess I'll use this journal now to just list them, and perhaps write a thing or two when I can.

So, the last books from 2012 are:


Nnedi Okorafor, African Sunrise (novella)
Nnedi Okorafor, The Shadow Speaker
Diane Duane, A Wind from the South
Nalo Hopkinson, New Moon’s Arms 
Jo Walton, Lifelode
Kathy Acker, Pussycat Fever

Okorafor's visions enchanted and enlighted me.

Hopkinson's magical realities are wise and deep and true and I can't get enough of her.

Duane's fantasy novel set around the history of the birth of Swiss independance is new ground for this reader - so much European-set fantasy is modelled after places and situations in England, France, and to a lesser extent, Germany, Spain and Italy. A strong and interesting heroine. This is the first novel in a projected series, I hope Duane finds the time and reader support to write more.

Jo Walton is a magical writer. In Lifelode, as in her multiple award-winning novel Among Others, the magic is a mostly subtle thing in the beginning, but it builds and builds until you can feel its power despite its seemingly simple roots.

I'm not quite sure what to say about Kathy Acker. Read it and see what you think.

Thomas King, Medicine River
Mary Stewart, Airs Above the Ground
Wayson Choy, All that Matters
Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset

The Thomas King novel is a must-read. His work is a gift.

I was similarly struck by Wayson Choy's novel, his second. I must now go find and read his first, which is about the same characters - a family of Chinese immigrants living in pre-WWII Vancouver.

The Stewart and the Sutcliff are re-reads from my youth, and were enjoyed as much now as they were then. Stewart's Airs Above the Ground was a tight adventure/romance, and the relationship between the main character and her husband as they deal with danger and mystery was as egalitarian as much of whay's written today. Makes me want to go back and reaquaint myself with Stewart's other heroines to see how they meet the test of time.

I remember Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset in particular as a relatively early approach to a more realistic retelling of the Arthurian mythos. Also for Sutcliff's casual and completely non-judgemental mention of same-sex relationships between a few of Arthur's companions.
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Karin Lowachee, The Gaslight Dogs

This is a powerful story about a young woman, Sjenn, who bears a gift that is intended to be used for the protection of her people. She is stolen away from her own culture and forced to make her gift serve the ends of her people's enemies. Her confusion, alienation, and struggle to survive, maintain her identity and return to her people are all part of an engrossing personal story.

This is also a brilliant examination of colonialism and forced assimilation. Heavily influenced by Lowachee's experiences living in the Canadian North, and clearly based in part on the history of Canada's indigenous northern peoples with white imperialist nations, it shows hard truths about the processes and impacts of the colonial project.

As in her earlier works, which exposed the horrifying effects of war on children, including those forced to become child soldiers, without being in any way didactic or sacrificing the art of storytelling, Lowachee has given us a reading experience par excellence - fully realised and compelling characters, a well-developed and intriguing secondary world, and a riveting story. At the same time she makes us think about the questions of power inequities between peoples, and about what history looks like from the perspective of those who have been deprived of their voice by a dominant culture.

One warning - this is the first volume of an intended trilogy, and so Sjenn's story is incomplete and many questions about the workings of the worlds she lives in remain to be answered. I am hoping that Sjenn's people will escape the fate so many indigenous peoples have faced.

for those interested, there is a good review by Jaymee Goh on tor.com.


Jo Walton, Among Others

I suspect that anyone who reads heavily in the science fiction and fantasy genres who has not heard of this amazing book has been living under a rock at the bottom of the sea on Europa for the past year.

Among Others is told in the format of a personal narrative, the diary of a young girl who has survived traumatic events and has now been taken away from the places and people she knows among her mother's relatives, and placed in the custody of her long-absent father, who promptly sends her to boarding school. The personal, cultural and social gaps between a working class Welsh girl and her mostly upper class English schoolmates, between a withdrawn and bookish girl in love with science fiction and fantasy and the "mundanes" around her, are part of why Mori is constantly "among others." But Mori is also the daughter of a power-mad witch, and she and her twin sister have the power to see the magic and the otherworldly beings that are invisible to most humans - here again Mori is and has long been living among others. (Even further, because the world of humans and the old dwelling places of the fairies are intertwined, it can also be said that human society itself is unknowing conducted among others.)

This book is so rich on so many levels - it's the story of a young girl growing up, dealing with disability and grief and the consequences of a dysfunctional family. It's about the battle between light and dark, the drive for power-over vs the nurturing of power-together. It's about the nature of perception and the power of belief. About finding one's identity and one's own inner power. About the loss of connection and intention in modern society, about the hollowness of work done without emotional investment. About the callous destruction of nature in the service of yet more sterile progress. About the necessity of magic. It is also, in a marvelously self-referential way, about how alternative fiction feeds the minds and souls of people who want to think about and explore all these things, and more.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Kirill Yeskov, The Last Ringbearer (translated by Yisroel Markov)

And speaking of those who have been deprived of their voice by a dominant culture, this very interesting work turns The Lord of the Rings on its head and tells the story of how a society seeking to move toward scientific enlightenment and democratic rule is almost destroyed by a hidebound culture in which power is limited to the few and progress has been stifled, keeping the people in ignorance and thralldom. Following the maxim that history is told - and usually distorted greatly - by the victors, Yeskov takes as his fulcrum the themes of nature vs, industry and magic vs, science that are woven through The Lord of the Rings and valorises the side that Tolkien demonised. A fascinating look at how changing perspective changes everything.

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I read some science fiction novels that weren't re-reads in 2010, too, and found all of them quite enjoyable. New (to me) authors Sarah Zettel, John Scalzi, and Helen S. Wright were all discoveries to be savoured - Wright's book A Matter of Oaths in particular, as it is the only book she has published, and is a very good read, with an original setting,strong worldbuilding, and interesting characters. I have heard rumours that she is working on a new book - I hope it's true.

The most eagerly anticipated SF novels I read in 2010 were Jo Walton'sHalf a Crown - the excellent ending to a brilliant and chilling examination of how easily a people can be led into embracing a fascist and hate-mongering state - and Lois McMaster Bujold's Cryoburn, the latest volume in the highly entertaining saga of Miles Vokosigan.

Rounding out the year's new reading in science fiction were a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Moon, a John Wyndham novel I had somehow missed before now, another of Todd McCaffrey's books expanding on the world and history of Pern created by his mother, the late and sadly missed Anne McCaffrey, and one of Sharon Shinn's Samaria novels.



Elizabeth Moon, Moon Flights

John Wyndham, Web

Todd McCaffey, Dragonheart

Jo Walton, Half a Crown

Sharon Shinn, The Alleluia Files

Sarah Zettel, Fools’ War

John Scalzi, Old Man’s War
John Scalzi, The Ghost Brigades
John Scalzi, The Last Colony

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cyroburn

Helen S. Wright, A Matter of Oaths


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Ha’Penny, Jo Walton

This, the second volume in Walton’s Small Change trilogy – an alternate history of a fascist post-WWII Britain – continues its brilliant and merciless examination of a society that has come to accept the unacceptable, tolerate the intolerable, and keep on smiling as if nothing could ever be wrong.

The first novel in the series, Farthing, made use of the literary conventions of the English country house murder mystery to show the cumulative effect of every individual decision, every petty threat, ever minor compromise, every small change that results in the creation of a fascist regime in which people voluntarily accept the curtailment of freedom and condone murder and state terrorism to gain an illusory security.

Ha’penny takes the form of yet another well-established genre, the suspense thriller, to explore the moral issues at the core of life under an unjust and illegitimate government. Walton uses the same structure she adopted in the first novel, alternating the narrative point of view between two characters. The first, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard would seem, by his centrality to the action of both volumes to day, to be the central figure of the trilogy. The second viewpoint character in the novel is new to us, although she has some connection to some of the events of the first novel - actress Viola Lark, estranged daughter of a well-placed and wealthy family (based, it would seem, on the Mitfords), and about to begin rehearsals for the leading role in a gender-reversed Hamlet.

Carmichael, blackmailed into silence about his knowledge of the crimes at the heart of the new regime by his superiors, who are aware of his relationship with another man, finds himself in the position of acting against his own deepest beliefs to preserve the government that he, more than most, knows to be the result of a murderous coup. His only hope is that he can at least, by serving honestly in an unjust world, save some of the innocent who might otherwise be caught up in the wheels of an increasingly uncaring machine.

As Carmichael threads his way through the complexities of investigating a terrorist conspiracy, Viola’s narrative traces the path of seduction and compromise that leads an unconcerned and apolitical innocent into the heart of violent resistance. Through both narrative threads, the ethics and motivations of those who condone state terrorism and those who would commit terrorist acts in the name of freedom are explored with equal honesty, showing the effects of compromised ethical positions on all sides.

It’s an uncomfortable portrait of human nature, and poses a number of questions about the methods and ethics of resistance to an unjust government – leaving the answers up to the reader.

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I have really wanted to write detailed responses to the last two books still un-reviewed from 2007, but life hasn't been accommodating in that respect. So gentle reader will have to settle for summaries, along with my hearty, if somewhat qualified, recommendations for both of these books.

Maul, Tricia Sullivan

This is a very thought-provoking, but also somewhat challenging book. Sullivan gives us two very different story lines: one set in a future where disease has almost wiped out the male population, and a medical researcher is trying to develop a diagnostic game that is intended to help bolster the immune system - and possibly make men more viable; and one dealing with a gang of more-or-less modern teenage girls caught up in a turf for pride and honour in the perfume aisle of a mall department store which turns violent and deadly. The two plotlines are linked thematically, and perhaps even literally - is what happens to the young women fighting to survive against a rival girl gang and the mall security and police simply a parallel set of events to what happens in the body of the researcher's male lab specimen, or is it the record of an RPG-style medical program?

As one might expect, the near-extinction of males in the future world plotline gives the author a great deal of scope for an examination of gender issues, and what Sullivan does with the by-now classic situation of how to organise a society of many women and a few sperm-producers necessary to continue the species is original, satirical and not to be missed.

You will find a more in-depth review at Infinity Plus, where the reviewer appears to have enjoyed this fast-paced and rewarding book as much as I did.


The Rebirth of Pan, Jo Walton

This book is available online here. Jo Walton posted it online last year in honour of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. It is an early, unpublished work, and it is evident that Walton wrote it before she developed the impressive technical chops she demonstrates today.

But you know, that really doesn't matter. Yes, it defies a great many conventions - there is no main protagonist, a large cast of characters, multiple plotlines, far too many POVs and perspectives, and because it's not a polished and finished work, one has to pay attention so as not to get lost. A lot is left to the imagination.

But what it says about the eternal, ever-renewing condition of the human soul - or spirit, or any other similar word you might prefer - is timeless, and more than enough to carry this reader through the technical flaws. The rebirth of Pan is the rebirth of the spirit, of life itself, breaking out of confinements and boundaries and starting things fresh and new again.

Reading it made me feel hopeful, optimistic, made me believe that there is something in the human experience that can transcend all the pettiness and divisiveness and greed and scrabbling for power over each other and all that we do that makes us less than we can be. And that's a good way to feel.


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Farthing, Jo Walton

One of the most brilliant books I’ve read this year is Jo Walton’s Farthing.

I’m not ordinarily an enthusiast of historical or alternate history novels set in or folllowing World War II, but I’d heard so much about this book, and enjoyed Walton’s other works so much, that I set aside my silly prejudices and read it. And I am very glad that I did, because despite being very fully situated in time, place and culture, this isn’t really about post WWII England at all. It’s about everywhere and every time.

You might not notice this at first, however. It begins with the murder of Lord Thirkie, part of Britain’s social and political elite, at the Farthing country estate during that most classic of muder mystery settings, the English society house party. The London police are called in, the family and house guests are interviewed, various theories of the murder are examined – on the surface, this could be an Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers novel. But right from the beginning there are some things that don’t read as a traditional country house murder mystery. First, the daughter of the house is married, considerably beneath her social status, to a war hero who is also a Jew. Second, this is an alternate history, where Britain negotiated a “peace with honour” with Nazi Germany, thus ending the war on the Western Front and forestalling the entry of the US into the war – and it’s the so-called “Farthing set” who were the driving force behind this capitulation, with Lord Thirkie the chief negotiator. Third, the London inspector has a secret to hide - he is a closeted gay man, in a culture where being gay is illegal. As the investigation proceeds, the truths about who committed the murder and why unfold, but the conclusion is far from what one expects from a country house mystery.

This is a book that shows us, with remorseless honesty, how a society takes the first steps toward 1984. It shows us why it is so true that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

It is also an unflinching picture of how the prejudices of a society – in this case, against Jews and homosexuals – can influence perceptions and can be used both to manipulate the truth and enforce compliance. Fear and distrust of the outsider, fear of exposure and reprisal, fear of speaking truth to power, fear of risking comfort in order to champion what is right, fear of upsetting the status quo and social norms – it’s all here, and as the people who know or guess the unspeakable are, one by one, driven out or silenced, the freedoms of individuals and the obligations of a just and democratic society to its citizens are undermined.

It’s also a beautiful love story, which is part of what gives the outcome its extraordinary impact. How can such a loving and devoted couple not win out over the forces threatening them. How can such sympathetic characters not find a way to foil the plot? How can everything go so very wrong?

The answers to these questions are things that we all need to keep in mind, today more than ever.

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The Prize in the Game, Jo Walton

In her novels The King’s Peace and The King’s Name, Walton took the sense and feel and themes of Arthurian tradition and made from them something that is quite enthralling and very much her own. In The Prize in the Game, she works the same marvellous alchemy on the Ireland of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

The main characters in the story are young princes from several of the five Isarnagan kingdoms - Darag, Ferdia, Atha ap Gren, Elenn, Conal and Emer (the latter two appear as secondary but memorable figures in Walton’s above-mentioned Sulien novels), and the brief years of their coming-of-age time are the book’s focus. The foregrounded prize is the kingdom of Oriel, to which both Darag and Conal, nephews of the ruling King Conary, have a claim, kingship in Tir Isarnagiri being determined according to tanistry rather than primogeniture. Other prizes the youths compete for are the respect of the adults around them, and the friendship and love of their favoured companions among their own agegroup. At the same time, the young princes are pawns in the greater game of power and precedence being played by the current ruling kings of the realms of Tir Isarnagiri. As the princes learn their craft and compete among themselves, they are manipulated, pledged in marriage and used as threats or prizes themselves in the political manoeuvrings of others, their parents and elders, the most determined and ruthless being Maga, King of Connat and mother of Elenn and Emer.

In many of the Celtic-Gaelic legends from which this tale draws its inspiration, every victory carries within it the shape and source of the limitations that will be laid upon the victor; there is always darkness woven into the light and every hero’s deeds led ultimately to her or his doom. Walton has built this element of her source material into her story as well – and indeed, readers of the Sulien books know some of what will happen to these proud young princes. Also, as in her previous books set in this universe, there is a true equality between men and women, which in this novel echoes the Irish legends of the great warrior women of Ireland such as Medb, Aoife and Scáthach.

While this is a stand-alone novel, readers of The King’s Peace and The King’s Name will appreciate the links between the two works, and readers of Irish myth cycles will be delighted by Walton’s skilful invocation of their heart and soul.

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Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw is a Victorian-style family drama, complete with dark secrets, stolen inheritances, and impoverished young members of the gentry struggling to regain – or improve on – their social standing in a world where even the most skillful veneer of manners can’t conceal the vicious competition for place and status, and where even the slightest misstep can mean catastrophe for one’s self and one’s family.

The plot is quite traditional for such novels. To quote my partner [personal profile] glaurung_quena (from an email discussion list):
… two brothers and three sisters gather for the premature death of their father. The elder brother has become a parson, and the elder sister is married with a generous dowry, but the younger brother is trying to build up his wealth in the civil service, and there isn't enough wealth left to properly dower the two younger sisters. There's a dispute over an ambiguity in the will, with the selfish brother-in-law bullying a full share for himself and his wife, leaving the younger siblings even more impoverished than they had thought they would be. One unmarried sister goes to live with the her brother the parson, and the other is forced to live with her overbearing brother-in-law and her sister, whose character has sadly changed since marriage to resemble her husband's. Against all the odds, all three younger siblings find someone who wishes to marry them, who is of a higher station than their own, and who, coincidentally, they happen to love as well.
And it’s all about dragons.

As Walton says in her prefatory notes to the novel:
It has to be admitted that a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.
As it was for humans in the Victorian novel which Walton takes as her starting point, social status is everything for the propertied class. The gentry live off the peasant class, while those who make their fortunes through trade life off the working class. Males achieve their ambitions through careful management of their estates and businesses, through political and social alliances, through schemes and deals and application of power and status. Females take their social place from their fathers, then their husbands; making a good marriage is the only respectable way to gain status, and only a respectable – that is to say chaste and uncompromised – female can rise in society.

Walton’s dragons literally improve their social standing by consuming the flesh of other dragons – the only way they can grow larger and become stronger. A dragon’s greatest inheritance is the flesh of his or her parents. A dragon of property grows powerful off the flesh of his tenants’ and workers’ offspring. A dragon who wins in a battle of law, business or honour may advance to greater heights by consuming the flesh of his opponent. Female dragons must follow the rules of respectability without exception, because a female dragon, once made aware of passion, changes colour – appropriate, even required, in a bride or matron, but forever damaging to an unmarried female of whom unsullied maidenhood is demanded. All the “axioms of the Victorian novel” regarding human behaviour are literalised in the bodies of Walton’s dragons.

The title of Walton’s novel is from Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., with the crucial lines quoted at the beginning of the novel itself: “Nature, red in tooth and claw/ With ravine.” Appropriately enough, not two stanzas further on, one finds the lines “Dragons of the prime,/ That tare each other in their slime.” These dragons, red in tooth and claw, make for excellent reading.

Each book of Walton’s that I read, impresses me more and more, with her originality, her versatility, her wealth of literary and historical knowledge that serves to deepen and enrich everything she writes, and her stunning talent in creating characters that live in one’s mind for a very long time after one turns the last page.

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The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde

The second of Fforde’s Nursery Crimes novels, it’s just as strange and just as funny as his other books. What’s particularly interesting is that in this book, the Nursery Crimes detectives, and the other characters in the book, have become more conscious of their nature as characters in a book, making reference to plot devices and literary tropes as they go about their entirely fictional lives. Within the story line, the protagonist, Jack Spratt, is revealed as a Person of Dubious Reality himself – a nursery rhyme character working among “real people.”

These developments may in part result from the writing chronology – Fforde’s first novel was The Big Over Easy, which did not, however, see publication until after he had begun writing his Tuesday Next series, in which the independent existence of literary characters outside of their books is established. In fact, we meet, as minor characters in the Tuesday Next books, some of the main characters of the Nursery Crimes novels, as they wait in the Well of Lost Plots to see if the book they are in will ever be published. But whatever it is that Fforde is doing, he’s doing it right, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next Fforde novel.


Califia’s Daughters, Leigh Richards

A new author to me, Leigh Richards (who primarily writes as Laurie R. King, the author of various detective series, including the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books that I’ve always meant to read but never had the time) has written a strong post-apocalyptic novel set along the West coast of the US following a period of not-fully explained catastrophes including wars, ecological disasters and a viral epidemic that kills up to 90 percent of male children before they’re 10.

There are a lot of things I like about Richard’s ravaged new world. It may be dominated by women, but it’s no utopia – Richards shows us a world in which all the flaws and virtues of humanity still exist, where there are beneficent overlords and ruthless tyrants and idealistic hermits hiding out in the woods, where there’s courage and corruption, love and violence. There’s no “let women rule and the world will be paradise” here. Also, unlike many novels that start with the premise of a world in which women are both the dominant and the more numerous sex, there is no attempt to ignore the reality that many women who seek sexual intimacy are going to be finding it with other women – even if their preference is for men. Depending on how one’s society is organised – and Richards provides several possible models – not every heterosexual woman who wants an ongoing intimate relationship that is both emotional and sexual is going to be able to find a man to have it with.

The created world is fascinating, the story is interesting, the characters have an integrity that comes from being written as whole people, and I’m sad to hear that Richards/King has such a fully committed writing schedule that it could be five years or more before we see another novel in this universe.


The King’s Name, Jo Walton

In this novel, the brilliant conclusion to the Tale of the High King Urdo and his boldest knight, the Lord Sulien begun in The King’s Peace, Walton’s intentions in giving us an Arthurian-themed novel in which the strong sword-arm of the king is a woman become clear.

In Arthurian legend, the bright age of the King fails because no one man can hold back the dark forever, and Arthur has no successor. His only child, Mordred, is tainted by birth and upbringing, and after Arthur spends his strength over the long years defeating all others who would destroy his vision of unity and peace, he has not the strength to survive his defeat of his own son, and is instead taken back to the place where heroes come from, leaving behind only the memory of what he created, but which others could not hold.

In Walton’s land of Tir Tanagiri, Urdo has only one son – but he has two heirs, thanks to a general belief that Sulien’s child – officially fatherless, actually the child of rape – is also Urdo’s child. The existence of two heirs, one brought up to cherish Urdo’s vision, the other to despise it, changes the final dynamic and means that the story need not end in the loss of the peace. Urdo need not be the countervailing force against two generations of attack, he needs only to fight for his own time, and leave the next to another hero – and that makes all the difference.

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And now for Part 2 of the omnibus thumbnail reviews of recently-read sff.


The Temple and the Crown - Katherine Kurtz & Deborah Turner Harris

Kurtz and Harris write wonderful alternate history occult fantasies, drawing to some degree on Templar mythology with (in the Adept series) a large splash of Blavatsky et al. The is actually the second of two alternate history books they’ve written in which survivors of the discredited Templar Order place their abilities in battle, both mundane and arcane, at the service of Robert the Bruce in his struggle to free Scotland. I’ve not read the first book, but this one was lots of good fun, assuming you enjoy reading about Templar occultists fighting for the Scottish throne against the villainous Sassenach.


Swordspoint - Ellen Kushner

I am kicking myself for only now having read my first book by Ellen Kushner. Swordfights, politics, intrigues, long-lost heirs to ancient noble houses, and wonderfully gay heroes – good reading and wildly entertaining.


Crossroads - Mercedes Lackey
The Valdemar Companion
Sanctuary

I have discussed my weakness for Mercedes Lackey’s books in other entries. Crossroads is another Valdemar anthology, and includes stories written by a number of authors including Judith Tarr, Tanya Huff and Lackey herself. Much fun. The Valdemar Companion is of course a reference work for those whose memories can’t keep track of all of the characters of all of the Velgarth stories, but it also has some fun articles and new material written by Lackey herself. Definitely for fen.

Sanctuary is the third book in Lackey’s new series about dragon-riding pseudo-Egyptians, and it continues the series well. The evil magicians are now in control of both Upper and Lower Egypt, er, the lands of Tia and Alta, and the remaining dragon riders, er, Jousters, of both countries are hiding out in the desert protected by Bedouins, er, whatever she’s calling them instead. We’re all set up for the fourth and final book of the series, in which young Kiron, the dragon-boy with a Great Destiny, leads his valiant army of free dragon-riders to the rescue and restores truth, justice and goodness to the Two Lands. And I’ll just lap it up once it’s out in paperback. ;-)


A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L’Engle
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet

I confess, I had never read Madeleine L’Engle’s oft-recommended Time quartet until this year. Now I’ve read the first three books and have been properly charmed by her writing, which, while somewhat quaint and perhaps just a shade too overtly religious at times (much like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, which one loves, if one does, perhaps as much because of as in spite of these things), are indeed delightful. I fully intend to read at least the rest of the Murray-O’Keefe (Kairos) books, which continue the adventures of the family from Wrinkle in Time and I may try the Austin (Chronos) books as well, although since they are generally described as being more realistic than the Kairos books, I may not enjoy them as much.


The Dragon Prince Trilogy - Melanie Rawn
Dragon Prince
The Star Scroll

I read Rawn’s two interlocking trilogies, The Dragon Prince and Dragon Star, when they were first written back in the late 80s and early 90s, so these two books go in the list of re-reads. I deeply enjoyed both trilogies, at least in part because of the complicated and interwoven political manoeuvrings of both secular and esoteric power bases. Like many others, I regret that real-life difficulties have so far prevented her from completing her Exiles trilogy, and continue to hope that someday The Captal’s Tower will appear. In the meantime, I can always re-read the Dragon trilogies again.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J K Rowling

Well, I’m ready for the final book now. I surely hope that Rowling has a finale that’s big enough and strong enough to carry the weight of all these years of building expectations. But whatever happens to Harry, Snape has to be one of the great literary love to hate, hate to love characters.


The Last Enchantment - Mary Stewart
The Wicked Day

More re-reads! I was going to wait until I had the full set in hand again, but there I was one afternoon, really craving some good old Arthurian historical fantasy, and there the two books were, and I said to myself, “I know what’s in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, I can re-read them separately once I pick them up.” So I read what I had to hand, and it was indeed fun to relive some of the earlier books of the popular Arthurian lit explosion of the 20th century.


The King’s Peace - Jo Walton

This is the first volume of Walton’s alternate history based on the Arthurian legend, and it looks to be the beginning of a worthy addition to the genre. I am, of course, delighted with the fact that the tale is set in a world where there is a good deal of gender equity and that the POV character (who appears to be fulfilling the Lancelot/Bedwyr function, at least so far) is a woman. A good historical fantasy read in general, and a treat for fans of the Arthurian material.


Empire of Bones - Liz Williams

Another new author (to me, anyway) and another novel I enjoyed very much. An original take on the classic star-seeding idea, with a well-realised alien culture, a non-Anglo protagonist and earth-based setting, and (minor but enjoyable to me) an honest look at issues of teleporter technology. I also liked the fact that the story line dealt with issues of disability and medical care. Worth reading.


Consider Her Ways and Others - John Wyndham

Another of my classic re-reads. Some thought-provoking stories, including the dystopic title story. I’ve always had problems with “Consider her Ways,” and the years haven’t changed that. The analysis of the role of romantic love in the social control of women remains solid after all these years, but Wyndham’s insectoid vision of sexless worker drones and brainless mothers in an all-female future makes for a terrifying alternative. I don’t believe that Wyndham lacked the ability to imagine a third alternative, so I must assume that this is some kind of cautionary tale to feminists, to be careful not to (in a deliberately maternalist image) throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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