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It's taken me several years to track down a copy of A Sudden Wild Magic, one of only two novels for adults written by Diana Wynne Jones (the other, Deep Secret, appears to have been repackaged as Young Adult to go with The Merlin Conspiracy, which is set in the same universe and features at least one recurring character, but is clearly aimed at a younger audience). Given how hard it was to get, and how little it seemed to be rated by reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, I was a bit worried that it was actually going to turn out to be dreadful, particularly as the blurb on the back said "It is up to the Ring, a secret society of witches and warlocks dedicated to the continuance and well-being of mankind, to fight the virtuous, unbendingly traditional stronghold of Arth with an arsenal of psychological sabotage, internal dissension -- and kamikaze sex..." and I wasn't at all sure I wanted to read about kamikaze sex. (Spoiler: there is not actually any kamikaze sex in the book, although there are enough references to non-kamikaze sex that I can't see this being repackaged as YA any time soon. Someone makes a throwaway comment about it at one point, and the blurbers clearly felt that it would sell more copies. If you did want to read about kamikaze sex, this is not the book to do it in.)

Essentially, this is classic DWJ, full of witches and wizards, overlapping plots and interlinked multiple universes. Several of the plot threads reminded me of her other books, particularly Fire and Hemlock, but the familiar elements were combined in a different enough order that I didn't feel that was a problem. The main difference between it and the rest of her books is that while some of the central characters are young adults in their late teens/early 20s, most of them are older adults (including one wonderful witch of a certain age who reminded me a lot of Granny Weatherwax). I thought it was great fun, if a bit silly, with engaging characters, and while I don't think it's her best book I rather liked reading a DWJ about adults for once.
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A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Having got almost as far as I'm planning to go with my City Watch re-read (I might re-read Thud!, I probably won't re-read Snuff), I decided to take a diversion into the subset of books branching off it which could loosely be described as "Ankh-Morpork's Industrial Revolution", beginning with The Truth and then continuing with the Moist Von Lipwig books. (Some people seem to include Moving Pictures in this subset, but I don't, because in Moving Pictures it's basically all eldritch forces and things return to "normal" at the end, whereas the changes which happen in The Truth and the Moist Von Lipwig books are permanent and influence the Ankh-Morpork shown in later books.) In this one, movable type printing comes to Ankh-Morpork, and leads in short order to the launch of the Discworld's first newspaper. Meanwhile, there's yet another conspiracy among the rich and influential to bring down Lord Vetinari and replace him with a Patrician who is more to their taste, but while Vimes and the other members of the Watch are certainly on the case, this time the focus is on William de Worde, an underemployed intellectual with an unwavering dedication to truth and fairness who is estranged from his wealthy and bigoted father and who suddenly finds himself editor and lead writer of the Ankh-Morpork Times.

I remember enjoying The Truth a lot when I first read it; on re-reading I still think it's one of the best Discworld books, and it is also the perfect Pratchett for the era of fake news and alternative facts, because it's all about how the news media shapes people's understanding of the world around them, the way people are more likely to believe stories which confirm their existing biases even if they're lies, and the difference between the public interest and what the public is interested in. (It also features a character saying that they can't instruct the assembly of Guild leaders to reverse a legitimate decision, even if it turns out to be based on erroneous information, which hit fairly hard given recent and ongoing events.) It's also about the immigrant experience, the reasons why people move to another country, the difficulties they face, and how hard it is even for the more open-minded native-born citizens to appreciate the true extent of cultural difference. It's definitely one of my favourites.
white_hart: (Matilda)
I thought Martha Wells' The Element of Fire was a competent if slightly lacklustre fantasy in the swashbuckling, basically early modern Europe with added magic vein; I didn't dislike it, but I never really warmed to it either. There were some interesting characters, including a rather older hero than one normally finds, and some well-drawn and complex female characers, but it got rather infodumpy in places (a lot of "as X was only too well aware..." followed by a chunk of the history, geography or politics of the world of the novel), and the romance plot felt a bit tacked on and left me feeling that I would actually have much preferred the two main characters to develop a friendship rather than a romance.

I know this was the author's first book, and in the preface she mentions making revisions for this edition, so I suspect that she has developed and improved her writing since this was first published, and I may well try one of her later books one day.
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I liked the first of Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels, Case Histories, and was less keen on the second, One Good Turn, finding it very bleak and rather disturbingly violent in places and without the uplifting qualities I'd found in Atkinson's earlier books. Coming back to the third in the series after reading Life After Life and A God in Ruins, I found it both bleak and disturbingly violent in places, and also wonderful and uplifting and very funny.

When Will There Be Good News isn't really a detective novel; it's a novel about a former detective and a police officer, and while there is a missing-person case at the centre of the plot it's much more about the effects of violent crime, and violent death more generally, on people: on Jackson Brodie, whose life is lived in the shadow of his sister's murder; on 16-year-old Reggie, whose soldier father was killed before she was born and whose mother recently died in an accident; and on Joanna, who is the sole survivor of a horrific attack. It's a novel about how quickly and suddenly we can lose the people we care about, how fragile life is, and how the bonds between people (and their pets) make life worth living despite that. It is, like most of Atkinson's work, a cheerful book about terrible things, and I could barely put it down.
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I remember picking up and putting down Steph Swainston's debut novel, The Year of Our War, several times when browsing the SF section in Borders back when it first came out and was being talked about and reviewed; I thought it looked interesting, and I wanted to read more SFF by women, but I wasn't quite sure if I would actually enjoy it enough to give it shelf space. I eventually bought it on Kindle last year, and having now read it I agree that it was interesting, and it's good to read more SFF by women, but I'm still not quite sure if I actually enjoyed it. It's a very, very strange book; mostly set in a fantasy world with mainly-medieval levels of tech and weaponry (but where the narrator wears jeans and t-shirts) where a small group of people have been granted immortality to support the (also immortal) Emperor in leading the two-thousand-year-long war between the people of the Fourlands (human and humanlike) and the giant, rapacious Insects, but partly set in what is either a weirdly surreal parallel universe or the narrator's drug-induced hallucination (the narrative supports the theory that it's the first, but given the narrator's drug habit I'm not sure how reliable he is). The immortals (who are chosen as the best in their various fields, and can be displaced by challengers) are an interesting if deeply dysunctional bunch. It felt a bit like a very trippy version of a comic-book superhero movie. I think I'm glad I read it, but not sure I will read the sequels.
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I bought Dave Hutchinson's Europe in Autumn a while ago when it was highly recommended by a friend. The friend actually said "read it now!", but as at that precise moment in time I was in a hotel in Copenhagen the morning after having a disrupted train journey from Hamburg because the Danish police were taking everyone off the trains, detaining any passengers who appeared to be refugees and putting everyone else on buses to another station where they could get a local train, and the only English-language news source we could find suggested they were about to close the border completely leaving us unsure how we were actually going to get home again, somehow the last thing I wanted to read right then was a thriller set in a disintegrating post-Schengen Europe. In fact, it took me eighteen months to actually get around to reading it, because I was worried that it would make me even more scared and depressed about the future than I already am, but actually I needn't have been worried; it's not really particularly grimdark at all.

Although it's classed as SF, and set in around 2050, Europe in Autumn owes as much to the spy thriller genre as it does to SF; Rudi, a cook in a Krakow restaurant, is recruited into the shadowy "Coureurs de Bois", a clandestine underground network dedicated to "keeping the spirit of Schengen alive" by moving "packages" (which can be data or documents, but can also be people) across borders in a Europe which has not only abandoned Schengen but where the countries we know are fracturing into smaller polities, city-states or even smaller entities, some no more than a few city blocks, one - the Trans-European Republic - based around a railway spanning the continent from Spain to the Urals, but never more than a few kilometres wide. It's a very entertaining read, with a lot more humour than I was expecting; Rudi is a likeable, cynical protagonist, deeply Genre Savvy about the spy thriller genre he finds himself in (although he appears to have no idea that he's in an SF novel). I liked it a lot, and bought the two sequels as soon as I'd finished it.

***

Having been put off Europe in Autumn for a long time because I was worried it would be too dark, it's ironic that I then ended up noping out of V E Schwab's A Darker Shade of Magic about 80 pages in. I'd bought this ages ago in an Amazon sale, because it sounded like an interesting parallel-world fantasy. To start with, I found it entertaining enough, though badly in need of better proofreading (one "sewn and reaped", one "spurned to action" and a character wearing a silver "broach" set my teeth on edge rather), but when the villains were introduced with not one but two extended sequences of sadistic violence which only appeared to be included to show just how villainous they really were I decided that actually, it probably really wasn't my kind of thing.
white_hart: (Matilda)
It's probably 35 years since I first read what was, at the time, Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy. Although I've counted the first three books among my favourites ever since, and Le Guin as one of my favourite writers, somehow even though I bought copies of the updated "quartet", Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind when the last two were published in the early 2000s I had never got round to reading any of the later books until now (I did try, about 14 years ago, and hit a bad patch of reader's block halfway through The Tombs of Atuan which put me off trying again in case it was just that I couldn't read Le Guin any more, though I think now it was stress and depression and tiredness and this time I certainly didn't have any problems reading all four of the "quartet" in a week).

A Wizard of Earthsea was much as I remembered it from multiple re-readings, though I was suprised at how short it was, how few words Le Guin used to evoke the world of Earthsea, and how vividly she did it. My sensitivity to setting, rather than plot, and my visual imagination have both developed a lot over the years since I first read Le Guin, and even though it's always been such a favourite I still found myself amazed at just how good it is.

I think The Tombs of Atuan was my favourite as a child, because although Ged, the wizard of the first book, reappears it's as a supporting character, and the central character is a young woman, and I liked that it was a book about a girl. It's a bleaker book, set in a harsh desert landscape and the darkness of the Labyrinth beneath it. I was struck once again, re-reading, by how atmospheric the writing is; there were elements of the plot and nuances of character I hadn't necessarily understood as a child, but overall it was still the book I loved when I was eight years old.

On the other hand, I had very little memory of The Farthest Shore, apart from a sense that I hadn't liked it much. In fact, I had so little memory of it that I felt as if I was reading some bits for the first time, although others were familiar. It's a beautiful, sad, complicated book; not really a book for children, though I suppose that in 1972 when it was first published books with wizards and dragons in them were just automatically assumed to be for children, and it is partly a coming-of-age story like the first two, although it's also (and, I think, more) a story about aging and accepting the inevitability of death. It felt very much like a critique of modern consumerism in places, as well as a wider exploration of the societies and cultures of Earthsea (Le Guin's fantasy world is not the usual one based heavily on medieval Europe; most of the people of Earthsea are dark-skinned and seem rather to have their roots in a variety of non-European cultures, and to set a direct challenge to the perception of those cultures, or any culture that doesn't share the same "values" and desire for "progress" as "primitive"*). It's not a comforting book; although on one level the ending is one of the traditional happy endings of fantasy, it also shows very clearly the huge cost of victory. I can see why I didn't like it as a child, but now I think it may be the best of the original trilogy.

And then Tehanu, which didn't exist when I first read the trilogy. Tehanu is a much more inward-looking novel; where the others, beyond their personal narratives, were concerned with high deeds, quests, bringing peace to a troubled world, Tehanu is concerned with the small thing, with domestic life, and with the position of women in Earthsea. It feels as though Le Guin, looking back with the hindsight of a decade and a half of the women's movement, realised that for all Earthsea's racial diversity and non-violence, for all its emphasis on balance and wholeness and acceptance, realised that she had created a world that ran along patriarchal lines, where high magic belonged to men, where there were kings and all the leaders were male, and where women were wives and mothers and village witches only capable of working minor charms, or priestesses serving the powers of darkness; and instead of shrugging and saying "that was a different time", she set out to deconstruct it, to re-examine Earthsea from a female, and explicitly feminist, perspective. And it's brilliant. It's done with care and subtlety; the language is simpler, more everyday, but no less beautiful or carefully chosen, than in the earlier books, and I loved the way this gave me the opportunity to understand what it might be like to live within the society of Earthsea, rather than simply passing through, aloof and untouchable, as the wizards do. Even though it's a story of small things, it's still just as much a story of big ideas as the earlier books were. And a fantasy novel about a middle-aged woman is a rare delight, and much to be treasured.

*I felt that Dorothy Dunnett did a similar thing with her portrayal of Timbuktu in Scales of Gold.
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House of Many Ways is the third of Diana Wynne Jones's loose trilogy of novels that began with Howl's Moving Castle. Like the second, Castle in the Air, it's set in a different part of the series universe and has its own main characters, but Sophie, Howl and Calcifer also feature (and at least one minor character from Castle in the Air makes it into this one).

I don't think either of the sequels is a patch on Howl's Moving Castle, really, and I thought this was the weakest of the three (the villains seemed particulary ill-developed), but even a less-good DWJ is still pretty good; it was a fun read and a nice bit of light relief after Dorothy Dunnett's plot twists and tendency to make her heroes suffer.
white_hart: (Matilda)
The fourth of Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo books takes the eponymous hero to Africa after the security of his business is threatened by a run on his capital instigated partly by his long-standing enemy Simon and partly by the shadowy Vatachino company. In search of the legendary gold-mines of Guinea and an overland route to the perhaps equally legendary Christian kingdom of Prester John in Ethiopia, after a difficult and dangerous journey he comes instead to Timbuktu*, ancient capital of learning and trade in a prosperous, mainly peaceful pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

This was my favourite of the Niccolo books so far, and the first one I loved as much as I loved the Lymond series. Having recently read HMS Surprise, I really enjoyed the description of the voyage from Portugal to the Gambia in an age when Europeans had only recently discovered that Africa extended further south than Cape Bojador, slightly south of the latitude of the Canaries and for many years assumed to be the literal end of the world. I loved the depiction of fifteenth-century Africa as no less civilised than Europe, just different (and with surprisingly good communication links for the era), and Nicholas's perilous and uncertain journeys were utterly compelling reading. I found myself reading while walking down the street because I couldn't bear to put my Kindle down on more than one occasion.

Slightly spoilery for the end of the book. )

* I may have found myself at one point pondering whether it was possible to cast the party who make it to Timbuktu with the cast of Cabin Pressure, who of course never do get to Timbuktu. The description of Nicholas does make him sound rather like John Finnemore, and he certainly affects an Arthur Shappey-esque innocence on occasion.
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The Ready-Made Family was the last of Antonia Forest's books about the Marlows I hadn't ever read, and having read it now I think it may well be my favourite. In this one (set between The Thuggery Affair, which was the only one of the "holiday" books I read as a child, and The Cricket Term), Karen, the eldest Marlow sister, returns from her second term at Oxford to announce that she's getting married in three weeks to a widower twice her age with three children (the oldest only three years younger than Nicola and Lawrie), and the plot is driven by the tension and conflicts of the two very different families coming together.

Obviously, I was particularly interested in the Oxford-set section of the book. While things have clearly changed in the last 50 years (I didn't realise the library used to be in the Town Hall, just for starters), it's recognisably Oxford and walking past Carfax on my way to M&S at lunchtime today I suddenly found myself looking down St Aldate's and up at the figures on the clock (I'm not sure I'd ever noticed them before) in a slightly different way than I would have done yesterday*. Given how much Nicola Marlow's experience of Oxford (like her experience of everything; I am not at all like Nicola in most ways, but when I first read the books that was the thing which drew me to her, even if I don't think I would have been able to articulate it then) is influenced by the Oxford of literature, it seems very fitting that her Oxford has now become part of mine**. (Also, the Oxford section is crying out for an Endeavour crossover. Seriously, it practically writes itself.)

Apart from the Oxford bit, I enjoyed the human drama, and was particularly struck, somehow, by the opening with its catalogue of reported disasters piling one on the other and the family's reaction to them; I also liked the depiction of the way the younger Marlows, or Peter and Nicola at least, begin to grow up a bit when they suddenly find themselves responsible for the younger Dodd children.

Having now read all the books at least once (and having managed to complete my collection with the purchase of a very expensive copy of Run Away Home), I must do a full readthrough sometime...


* It reminds me of the time I walked through Lamb and Flag Passage while halfway through Gaudy Night and recognised that chestnut tree, which had always seemed like just any tree until then.

** I think I'm glad that I didn't read so much of the classic literature of Oxford until after I'd moved here as an adult. Not getting into Oxford was devastating enough to me at 17 without losing the Oxford of Peter Wimsey and Nicola Marlow (among others) as well as the one of my dreams.
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In the third of Patrick O'Brian's series, Jack Aubrey has to rescue his friend Stephen Maturin from torture and imprisonment at the hands of the dastardly French before they embark on the eponymous ship, Jack's first actual command as a post-captain, for a voyage to the East Indies and back, with halts in Brazil, Bombay and Calcutta as well as a harrowing voyage far to the south of Cape Horn. Jack's fiancee, Sophie, is left behind in England, waiting for him to earn enough to clear his debts and gain her mother's consent to their marriage, while the object of Stephen's affections has decamped to India as the mistress of a businessman and he hopes to meet her and win her back.

O'Brian is terrific comfort reading; he has a wonderfully dry wit and Aubrey and Maturin (and their relationship) are delightful. I love the complexity of Stephen's character*; spy, tetchy medical man, thwarted lover, duellist, both a man of the world and also, when given the chance to set foot on a strange shore, full of innocent wonder. During this book he acquires, at various times, a sloth (my favourite line in the book may well be the wonderful "Jack, you have debauched my sloth") and a giant tortoise; he and the much placider Jack quarrel and make up and Jack nurses him back to health not once but twice (hurt/comfort is very definitely a theme of this series).

I still don't know my stuns'ls from my royals, and I am somewhat hazy on the difference between wearing and tacking, but that doesn't really seem to matter. I did think that I could have done with a list of the crew of the Surprise, as well as the rigging diagram at the start of the book, as I struggled a bit to remember who was a lieutenant or a midshipman or the bosun or the purser, but that didn't really seem to matter either. It was relaxing, and fun, and perfect reading for a person who wasn't feeling 100% on a gloomy winter day.

* We watched the 2003 film with Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany on Saturday, and while I thought the actors looked the part, the film's Maturin was a much less complex character, really only managing to reflect one aspect of his original.
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I wanted something entertaining and easy to occupy an afternoon of lying on the sofa feeling grotty (ready to be over this lurgy any time it likes, really), so I decided to download Body Work, the first of the graphic novels linked to Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, and read it on my iPad. 45 minutes later, I downloaded the second, Night Witch, and have preordered the third, which isn't due out as a collected volume until May.

Each graphic novel is basically a short piece of casefic; Body Work is set between Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer, and Night Witch comes between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. They're adjacent to the main canon, rather than advancing the overall plot, although I recognised things in both that were referred to in The Hanging Tree and although Peter doesn't realise it, as readers we are shown a connection between the events of Night Witch and the series arc plot. (One thing that the graphic novel format allows is the opportunity to escape the confines of Peter's first-person narrative and see things from other people's points of view for once, or even scenes where he isn't present.)

I found both easy, fun reads; I think I slightly preferred Body Work, but only because it features Guleed and Stephanopoulos, two of my favourite minor characters, and neither is in Night Witch. I was worried that the format would completely lose Peter's snarky, geeky narrative voice, which is one of my favourite things about the books, but it managed to retain enough of it, and it was interesting to see a visual interpretation of the characters. There are also some entertaining "extras": vignettes of life at the Folly and Peter's notes on various areas of London and magical techniques. Graphic novels aren't my preferred format, but if you enjoyed the novels I'd say these are wortha try, especially if you're feeling under the weather.
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This weekend has been hard. I've spent far too much time tweeting and retweeting and signing and emailing and now I'm suffering from news overload again. And it's Sunday evening, and I'm still fighting off a cold, and I need to unwind so I can get a decent night's sleep before I go and tackle another week at work.

We're in this for the long haul, and we need to look after ourselves. And sometimes that means looking away from the big awful things and trying to find the joy in small things. On which note, and without trying to deny that the awfulness is still going on, I'm declaring this a Good Things Post. Tell me something that cheers you up, even a little bit. Tell another commenter something nice about themself. You could even tell me something nice about myself, if you wanted. Or, if you ask, I'll tell you something nice about you, or just offer a virtual hug.

I don't know if it'll work, but it seems worth a try.
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Casting Off is the fourth of the Cazalet Chronicles, and for almost two decades it was also the final book. This one picks up the family after the end of World War 2, as they try to adjust to peacetime life again in a world which hasn't magically got better just because the war is over; there is still rationing, food is awful, there are strikes and fuel shortages and smog, tensions between supporters of the new Labour government and the Conservatives and concerns about the impending break-up of the Empire. The old social order, where upper-middle-class families like the Cazalets were supported by a staff of servants, has gone, and when the family decamp from Home Place to return to a dingy post-Blitz London, returning to life as separate nuclear families rather than the whole extended family living together, many of them struggle to deal with the sudden absence of the support they've taken for granted all their lives, while the smaller children, who barely remember life as separate families, miss their relatives. Louise, Polly and Clary are young women now, dealing with the mistakes of early adulthood and the pains of first love.

Like the earlier novels, this isn't about events, but about emotions; the viewpoint shifts between members of the family and their connections, each moment including a lot of flashbacks and introspection (and a certain amount of the "she, X" construction that people complain about so much in Hilary Mantel's writing). We get to see both the good and bad in everyone, and this time round, Howard even manages what I thought was impossible and makes me feel some sympathy for Edward. Because this was the end of the series, she does draw the threads together towards the end and manages to produce happy (or at least happyish) endings for what feels like a somewhat implausibly high number of the characters. (Maybe I'm just cynical. But while I would like to think that most people are reasonably happy in their day-to-day lives, having so many members of one family's lives work out into something good in the space of about six months feels statistically improbable.) It also all gets a bit meta towards the very end, as Clary reflects on finishing her novel and saying goodbye to characters she's come to know so well, which I couldn't help feeling was really Howard using Clary as her mouthpiece.

Somehow I didn't enjoy this quite as much as the earlier books; I think maybe I liked Louise, Polly and Clary better as teenagers than as young women, and despite the many happy resolutions, there was a sense of previously-solid relationships breaking down, or at least shaking. Or maybe it was just that I was feeling a bit off-colour and struggling to concentrate sometimes. I certainly liked it a lot, and I found myself liking it more as I got towards the end (so maybe it was the shakiness of relationships after all?).
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Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's contribution to the Hogarth Press's series of contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare. It's a Russian doll of a book, a retelling of The Tempest which is also a novel about a production of The Tempest which is derailed, for at least some of the audience, by an act of revenge based upon The Tempest. The central character is Felix Phillips, a somewhat experimental theatre director (his productions include Pericles with spaceships and The Winter's Tale with Hermione as a vampire) who is dismissed from his post as Artistic Director of a theatre festival due to the manipulations of the scheming, ambitious Tony. He disappears from public view, living like a hermit in a tumbledown shack and dreaming of revenge. His opportunity arises after he takes a job running an adult literacy programme in a prison, teaching medium-security prisoners (hackers, fraudsters, pickpockets) to perform Shakespeare, when he discovers that his enemies will be attending the performance, and sees his chance to act.

It's beautifully written, as you'd expect from Atwood; sparkling, witty, compassionate, moving. The structure enables her to explore the original play and characters both through the retelling and more directly, as Felix and his class prepare for their production. I think it was particularly good to read this the week after seeing the live streaming of the RSC's current production of The Tempest, as that meant that the plot was fresh in my mind (I found while watching the RSC production that I'd forgotten quite a lot of the plot), though I think the book would still have been enjoyable if I hadn't remembered it so clearly or even if I didn't know the play at all.
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It must be very nearly thirty years since I found a copy of Margaret Elphinstone's The Incomer in the local library. I was a science-fiction loving teenager who was passionate about feminism, and the Women's Press's SF imprint was a sure sign that a book would be relevant to my interests, so of course I snapped it up. Somewhat unexpectedly, it ended up having a profound influence on me; among other things, it was the book that first introduced me to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and I also remember it as being the first time I realised that it was actually possible for someone to be attracted to both men and women, and to act on that*. I think I read it a few times over the next couple of years, but I hadn't really even thought about it in years before I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop a couple of years ago**; it took me a while to get round to re-reading it, partly because I was worried about how it would stand up, but I found myself thinking of it recently and decided to take the plunge.

The Incomer is, basically, a classic 80s postapocalyptic feminist utopia***, set in Galloway a distant future where, following the destruction of "our" society by an unspecified cataclysm, people have returned to subsistence farming, living in small, close-knit communities, working in harmony with nature. The patriarcy has been replaced by a matriarchy, with women as "householders", leading extended family groups of children, siblings, aunts, nieces and nephews, but not fathers and partners; the nuclear family is no more, and whatever romantic relationships may be formed in adult life blood relationships and the family of origin remain the most important thing, while children belong to their mothers and only know their fathers as friends and neighbours. It's a peaceful, contented vision of the future, and if adult-me is perhaps less enamoured of the idea than my younger self was (there's a lot to be said for modern technology) I could imagine a lot worse. The novel follows the villagers through a winter when a stranger, a travelling musician, is staying with them; it's not particularly plotty, more a gentle exploration of their society, and the way in which the women of the village safeguard it from the dangers that lurk in the past and threaten to emerge into the present.

It's beautifully written, full of lovely, lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the forest. It's scattered with quotes from Four Quartets (the characters find two books from the old world, a romance novel which they find incomprehensible, and Four Quartets which seems to them the most straightforward and logical thing in the world), but reading it now I'm so much more familiar with the poems I can also see their echoes throughout the book, in the language and imagery and the way the characters experience the world around them and its relationship to the past. Even some of the structure of the novel seems to owe something to Eliot; there were times when I felt that I was reading, if not quite a feminist reworking of Four Quartets, certainly a feminist response. It's a quiet, thoughtful book, and I did enjoy revisiting it; it certainly hasn't lost everything that I found it it years ago.

One thing that hasn't stood up well, though, is the depiction of gender. It's telling that, in the 80s, the only alternative to the patriarchy seems to have been a matriarchy; it's clear, in the world of The Incomer, that the women are in charge, and the men are seen as a bit useless, not party to the deep mysteries of the world. The women are the keepers of the new peace, and are ruthless in the extent to which they will go to preserve it; an act of violence sees them transformed into Furies, pursuing the wrongdoer and exacting justice. Women are nurturing and keep their society together, while even in this brave new world the men struggle to express their emotions, to talk between themselves about what matters or to behave with tenderness and compassion to each other. Almost all of the femal characters are seen in sexual relationships with men, and although one mentions the possibility that she may have had female lovers and this is accepted as perfectly normal, it still seems to be a largely heterosexual society. Really, it's a sign of how far the dialogue around gender has moved in the last thirty years; not that it was completely impossible to imagine a post-gender future in 1987 (Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time managed it a good ten years earlier, after all), but it was clearly still possible for a radical green utopia to feature very traditional gender roles and heterosexuality-by-default in a way I don't think it would be now.

And as for my bisexual epiphany? Well, on re-reading, I do wonder if the scene were two female characters, both of whom have prevously been seen in sexual relationships with men, declare their love for each other and get into bed together was really just intended to be platonic bed-sharing, companionship and friendship and mutual support; it's certainly not spelled out that this is a sexual scene, if it's supposed to be one. (The heterosexual sex scenes are not remotely explicit, but it is pretty obvious what's going on.) Still, I don't suppose it really matters what the actual intention was; what matters is the realisation it brought me to.

* I was about 13, and it was the 80s; there was no Internet and Clause 28 was a thing, so this wasn't necessarily an easy thing to find out, but I'm very glad I did as I'm sure I was at least marginally less confused because of it.

** Although I appear to have subconsciously plagiarised it, or at least produced something very derivative of it, in my 2009 Yuletide fic. It's just as well I don't do Yuletide any more.

*** Interesting that that really was a thing; more modern postapocalyptic visions tend to be dystopias, but there was certainly a pervading view in the 80s that the end of our civilisation (which was probably just around the corner) might herald the birth of a better one. Even Star Trek got in on the act, while in more recent books, Station Eleven seems to be part of the same tradition.
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I bought a copy of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint last year because lots of people I knew seemed to be reading something called Tremontaine, which I gathered was a prequel of some kind, and also because I read a post somewhere about writers who were influenced by Dorothy Dunnett and Kushner was mentioned there.

I originally tried reading the book in the autumn, shortly after the US election; everything I'd heard about it suggested it would be just the kind of entertaining swashbuckling romp that would be perfect escapist reading when the world was going to hell in a handbasket. In fact, though, I didn't find it comforting at all. It's set in an unnamed, decaying city, with lawless areas where the poor and undocumented live in the ruins of grand houses; the ruling class are corrupt and decadent while the poor exist in a world of casual violence, and yet the tone of the narrative is so detached as to be almost whimsical, and it really wasn't what I wanted. So I put it to one side and read something else (Sense and Sensibility, I think).

I don't like giving up on books after only one try, though, so I picked it up again this week, and was obviously in a better place as I was able to appreciate the atmosphere of corruption and decay and enjoy the political maneuvering, while the detachment of the narrative didn't jar as it had done when I tried before. I found the central characters engaging and sympathetic, and I liked the relationship between Richard and Alec a lot. I suspect I will end up reading the later books set in the same universe sooner or later (especially as they now seem to be available for Kindle, which they weren't when I bought my copy of Swordspoint).
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After Foxglove Summer's venture into rural Herefordshire (which I really enjoyed, though a lot of people seem to have disliked it) and a long wait for publication (the book was originally scheduled for autumn 2015 but wasn't actually published until this November*), it's back to business as usual for Peter Grant in the sixth instalment in Ben Aaronovitch's series of urban fantasy police procedurals; running liaison between supernatural entities and his colleagues in the more normal branches of the Metropolitan Police, fighting crimes, causing significant collateral property damage and trying hard to avoid people who want him out of the way.

I think this series is getting better and better; Peter's voice and character have got surer and more consistent since the first couple of books, and if his transformation into a geek isn't quite consistent with his characterisation in the first book the frequent SF references are fun enough for me to accept the inconsistency (though it is what kept throwing me out of Moon Over Soho, where I really wasn't expecting it). It's funny and the plot zips along with occasional episodes of relatively mild peril, and I enjoyed how The Hanging Tree pulled together loose threads from throughout the earlier books rather than just concentrating on the main plot points. And if it didn't actually seem to do that much with them, or move the plot on all that far, well, I kind of get the feeling that Ben Aaronovitch is having too much fun writing about Peter to be particularly interested in winding things up any time soon.

*and I think they skimped on the proofreading to get it out then; the Kindle edition had quite a lot of missed or extra words, plus someone had obviously done a find-and-replace to hyphenate "back-up" without realising that there are also a number of occasions when characters go back up stairs, or driveways, and all of those got hyphenated as well...
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I think I liked Sherlock better when the clients and cases were central to the plot, and not just thrown in as asides to make people familiar enough with ACD canon (of whom I am not one, having only read most of the stories once) feel smug when they can recognise the updates.

Also, wtf does John Watson think he's bloody playing at?

Oh well. Next Sunday Endeavour is back and on at the same time. I'll take Douglas Richardson in a trilby over Martin Crieff being a clever-clogs any day.

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