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As I recall, I borrowed Ellen Galford's The Fires of Bride from the local library more than once when I was a teenager. I borrowed it the first time because teenage feminist me would borrow anything with the Women's Press's black and white striped spine, and then I borrowed it again (and again) because I loved it; it was funny and feminist and fuelled a burning ambition to live in artistic solitude somewhere remote and spectacularly beautiful when I grew up. (Alas, I turned out not really to be the artistic type, and I don't think solitude would be good for my mental health, so it's probably better that I ended up living in suburbia and having a prosaic career in finance and administration, but at fourteen the prospect would definitely have horrified me.)

I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading it, but I needn't have worried; it's still very funny, and very feminist. It's the story of an artist, Maria, who accepts an invitation to visit lady of the manor, local doctor and probable witch Catriona on the remote Hebridean island of Cailleach, and ends up staying. On the one hand, it's the story of a woman finding her confidence and her identity as an artist and a person, fairly typical of feminist novels of the 80s; on another, it's a humorous portrait of a rural community which owes something to Ealing comedies (it's a bit like Local Hero, which I think I discovered shortly after reading the book, and which is one of my favourite films, though it would have been even better with more lesbians); on a third, it's a quasi-fantasy about communities of women facing up to the patriarchy throughout history, and about the survival of pagan goddess-worship throughout centuries of Christianity. I still liked it a lot; maybe I'll see if I can track down copies of Ellen Galford's other novels as well.
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I hadn't heard of Ada Palmer's debut novel Too Like The Lightning until I saw it in the list of nominations for this year's Best Novel Hugo. Because I'm trying to read more SFF by women writers I looked it up, and the idea of an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454 was so irresistible I ordered a copy straight away.

As "an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454" suggests, it is a mindbogglingly strange read in places, but I also found it wonderful and exhilarating. One of the things I love most about reading SF is the way it can plunge you into a completely different world, trying to work out the rules from context, and this book does that in spades; the first few chapters made me feel quite dizzy.

Once I'd got into it a bit, I got a better handle on the world and could concentrate instead on the huge cast of characters and the twisty plot, though in fact, despite the twistiness, there isn't really that much plot; I knew there was a sequel but it really feels like one book that's been published in two volumes and I was left feeling that this one was mostly setup. Annoyingly, although the second book has been published it's not out in paperback until November, and I really dislike hardbacks on grounds of portability (though the paperback of the first one was a massive trade paperback and not a normal-sized book, so was a pain to squeeze into my bag as it was); it doesn't have a UK publisher so unfortunately an ebook isn't an option.

In keeping with the eighteenth-century style, this is definitely a novel of ideas. Obviously, I was particularly interested by the way gender is treated. The twenty-fifth century society Palmer imagines is basically post-gender, so the only acceptable pronouns are they/their; gendered pronouns and behaviours are seen as intensely sexual and definitely kinky, if not perverted. However, the narrator uses "archaic" gendered language, and gives enough physical description to indicate most characters' biological sex (which doesn't always align with their assigned gender); this makes it clear that the elimination of gendered language hasn't actually eliminated the tendency for people who are biologically male to be in positions of power and people who are biologically female to be seen as nurturing and caring. Other interesting threads address the position of religion in a society which has banned organised religion in order to end religiously-motivated violence and crime, punishment and atonement. There are frequent references to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and the plot seems to be driving towards a depiction of a similarly radical shift in Palmer's future society.

I'd say the Hugo nomination was definitely deserved here, and I look forward to reading the next book (and note that a third is shown as due out in hardback this autumn, too).
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This collection of five short stories, published eleven years after Tehanu, continues that novel's further exploration of the world of Earthsea and in particular of questions of magic and gender. The stories span several hundred years of Earthsea's history, from the founding of the School on Roke in 'The Finder' to shortly after the events of The Farthest Shore and Tehanu in 'Dragonfly', which Le Guin describes in her introduction as a "bridge" between that novel and The Other Wind. As always with Le Guin, they're beautifully written and convey a strong sense of place(the evocation of a bleak, wintery landscape in 'On The High Marsh' was particularly notable for this) as well as having interesting, complex characters and taking a thoughtful approach to complex questions.
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[personal profile] sillymouse mentioned that she'd been reading Peter Davidson's The Idea of North, and as Davidson (a) was my personal tutor at university, (b) is a member of my current faculty and (c) is genuinely one of the loveliest people I know I was interested to read it myself and very happy to take her up on the offer of borrowing her copy.

The Idea of North is an odd mixture of things; a scholarly examination of the conception of northness through historical, cultural (primarily literature and the visual arts, but there are also reference to cinema and music), social and geographical prisms. The perspective is global, with sections devoted to the north in Canada, China and Japan as well as the more obvious Scandinavia and northern Britain. I found it a fascinating read, full of interesting ideas, and also beautifully written, although, despite mentions of Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Tove Jansson the "cultural" strand did leave me with a sense of northness as overwhelmingly male - lots of Nabokov, Auden, Bergman and Simon Armitage, to name but a few. As the book was first published in 2005, it predates "Scandi Noir" which I'm sure would have been an interesting addition, though some of the discussion of Scandinavian interiors and pushing back the darkness of the long winter nights anticipates the recent flood of articles and books about hygge.
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The fifth in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolo series see Nicholas travelling to Scotland, the Tyrol and Egypt, dealing with the fallout from the events of the last few pages of Scales of Gold and pursuing feuds old and new. Like all of Dunnett's books, this is full of wonderful evocations of travel; it made me long to see the eastern Mediterrean and the Middle East for myself (and also reflect on the parallels between the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the late fifteenth century and the risk of Isis now). Plot-wise, it seemed to meander rather, with Nicholas and his companions pursuing an ill-defined quest, or possibly one only really understood by Nicholas and which, as readers, we haven't yet been given enough information to understand; I rather suspect that this book will make a lot more sense in the light of the last three books which I have yet to read. Character-wise, it's a delight; Nicholas himself is closed off and forbidding for at least the first half of the book (I think one difference between him and Lymond is that when Lymond appears to be behaving like a complete arse it's normally because he is following a complicated plan but still trying to do the right thing really. Nicholas is often doing it because he is actually not a nice person and doesn't want to do the right thing), but his colleagues and companions continue to grow and develop their personalities, and I particularly liked how many strong and powerful female characters there were.

I'm still not sure I really understand where Nicholas's story is going, but I'm definitely enjoying the ride.
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T has been away for a couple of weekends recently, leaving me at a loose end, and I've discovered that when I'm on my own on a Saturday going to a lunchtime showing at the Picturehouse is rather a pleasant way to pass the time, especially when preceded by cake at the Jericho Cafe and followed by a walk to Summertown along the canal.

By coincidence, both times I've done this the films have been about the lives of women born in the nineteenth century. A couple of weeks ago I went to see A Quiet Passion, which about Emily Dickinson. I'm not generally a big fan of biopics, and to be honest, this reminded me why; you can't really compress a real life, with all its messiness and lack of narrative coherence, into an hour and a half and make much of a film, so it felt oddly episodic and didn't really seem to know what it was trying to say. I also felt that it didn't really manage to convey the passing of time; the opening scenes feature a younger Emily, and then there's a sequence where the younger versions of the characters are gradually morphed into the older versions, but once that has happened the film spans a period of 25 to 30 years with no sense of any real change or aging. As I often do with films purporting to depict real people or events, I also spent a lot of time wondering whether the filmed sequences actually bore any resemblence to the real life of Emily Dickinson, or were simply Terence Davies' imaginings. (Mainly the latter, I think; he has been quoted as saying he was seeking 'narrative truth' rather than factual accuracy.) It felt rather lacklustre (despite fabulous costumes) and certainly didn't leave me feeling I know any more about Emily Dickinson than I did when I went in.

By contrast, yesterday I went to see Letters from Baghdad, which is about Gertrude Bell. This takes a very different approach; it mainly consists of Bell's own letters, read by Tilda Swinton, over a montage of photographs of and by Bell and old film clips. The only fictionalised element is the inclusion of various 'talking heads' of Bell's family, friends and colleagues, though even in these cases it's clear that least some of the comments are based on letters and diaries. It's clearly the result of painstaking and dedicated archive research; it's a beautiful and interesting film, but it's very definitely a documentary rather than a drama, and I think I much prefer that to films which attempt to dramatise actual events, which always ends up fictionalising them. I'd recommend it highly.
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Very happy birthdays to [personal profile] ankaret and [personal profile] lexin!
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All Change is the fifth and final volume in Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles. Published nearly 20 years after the previous book, and shortly before Howard's death in 2014, it picks up the family's story in 1956. The younger generation of the previous books are now young adults and parents; there's a new generation of children and Hugh, Edward, Rachel, Rupert and their partners have become the older generation, trying to come to grips with a very different world from the one they grew up in.

I'm not quite sure why Howard felt the need to revisit the Cazalets after such a long break, and although I actually prefer the more bittersweet ending to the series All Change provides to Casting Off's neat conjunction of happy endings, I'm not sure the book lives up to the earlier ones. It feels less subtle, the characters much less three-dimensional than before. There's a lot of infodumping about the events of previous books, but the "new" story feels rather thin; some characters hardly appear, while others have stories which are compressed into onto a handful of chapters, and a lot of time is devoted to the children born since the end of All Change, who I wasn't particularly interested in. There are also quite a few continuity glitches (a character reflecting that she's sick of breastfeeding in one chapter, only to still be clinging on to feeding the same baby over a year later; a parent inexplicably only addressing an issue discovered in a "January/February" section in the "November/December" of the same year). It isn't dreadful, but it's my least favourite by a long way.
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The third of Robin Stevens' Wells and Wong mysteries is set on the Orient Express, where Hazel's father has taken Hazel and Daisy in the summer holidays, hoping to take their minds off detecting. However, they quickly discover that there is a spy on board, and then, shortly after crossing the border into Yugoslavia, one of their fellow-passengers is murdered. Despite Mr Wong's attempts to prevent them, the girls are determined to discover who the murderer was. (It's very obviously and explicitly a tribute to Murder on the Orient Express, of course, although the actual plot isn't particularly similar.)

Like the others in the series, it's a lot less cosy than you'd expect it to be: the racism encountered by Hazel (and, this time, her father) is still present, and there's some very unpleasant period-typical antisemitism as well. To be honest, this one didn't grab me as much as the others, possibly because I worked out the identity of the murderer straight away (though I was wrong about how the murder was actually committed) and also worked out one of the subplots a long way ahead of the girls. Also, one of the things I really liked about the first two was the way they showed the effects of murder on a close-knit community, and made it clear that it wasn't just a case of solving a puzzle, unmasking the culprit and making everything alright again; although the train setting provides a similar closed environment, the connection between the passengers is only a temporary one and the emotional impact of the crime is therefore a lot less. It was still an enjoyable read, but I liked the first two a lot more.
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The Warrior's Apprentice is the third of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, following Shards of Honour and Barrayar which I read in the autumn. It's set seventeen years after the events of Barrayar and the focus shifts from Cordelia and Aral to their son Miles, whose physical disabilities (the result of a teratogenic antidote to an attack on his parents with poison gas while Cordelia was pregnant with him) prevent him from following his dream (and the normal path for a young man of his class) of gaining admission to the Barrayaran military academy. Instead, he goes to visit his grandmother on Beta Colony, where he ends up buying an obsolete spaceship, triggering a sequence of events which ends up with him accidentally becoming commander of a mercenary fleet.

Given that one of the things I really liked about the first two books was that they were about adults, I wasn't entirely sure I was going to find a novel with a seventeen-year-old protagonist as enjoyable, but Miles is basically a less-whumped and slightly less infuriating Francis Crawford of Lymond in space and the story is great fun, and also very funny (there was one scene which reminded me irresistably of The Million Pound Radio Show's Pirate Training Day sketch, and was just as funny). There's also quite a lot about the nature of leadership, which I found particularly interesting given some of the discussions on the management development programme I'm currently on at work (not that I think Miles Vorkosigan is a particularly good role model, but there's one bit where Miles is reflecting on how he's the one person who doesn't do anything and yet without him there the organisation falls apart which particularly struck me). It felt like comfort reading without beign fluff, which I think is probably a very good thing.

(Also, I was startled to realise that I had somehow misosmosed Bel Thorne as a disembodied entity, possibly an AI, from other people's mentions of the character...)
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The Merchant's Mark is the third of Pat McIntosh's Gil Cunningham mysteries, set in late fifteenth-century Glasgow. In this one, a barrel that was supposed to contain books turns out, instead, to contain a severed head in brine, and Gil, aided by his fiancée Alys, her father Pierre Mason and his sister Kate, sets out to find out who the dead man was and what happened to him.

I like these books; I first started reading them because I know the author a little (she's one of the Glasgow knitting crowd), but they're enjoyable light reading with occasional scenes of mild peril, and sympathetic characters who I'm enjoying seeing grow and change over the course of the series. There are also nods to both Sayers and Dunnett; the female characters, who are tough and independent without stretching my credulity of what would be possible for women in medieval times, reminded me particularly of the women in Dunnett. In this book I particularly liked Gil's sister Kate, who I hope will also reappear in later books, and the developing friendship between her and Alys.

PSA: LJ

Apr. 5th, 2017 05:11 pm
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Like many of you, I am not entirely happy about LJ's new ToS, though I'm not sure they're objectively any worse than the ToS of, say, Facebook. I mean, yes, there's the "subject to Russian law" thing, but I am not in Russia, and I suspect that I have at least as much to worry about with my online content being subject to US law under the current regime, because my country is a lot more likely to co-operate with the US government. Realistically, I suspect the biggest worry is that LJ will delete stuff without warning, so, while I'm not going to delete my account and haven't completely made up my mind to stop crossposting, I am going to disable comments on posts from now on, so there won't be any LJ-only content that I might lose. If you're reading on LJ, you should be able to log in and comment on the DW versions of posts using your LJ account as an OpenID, or you can sign up for a DW account and use that to comment. (If you have a DW account and I haven't given you access there please comment on the DW version of this post and let me know who you are on LJ if it's not obvious.)

You can also find me on Facebook under my passport name, sporadically on Instagram as @sadie_whitehart and increasingly infrequently on Twitter as @white_hart.
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The Turl Street Oxfam bookshop has had a lot of SF and fantasy by women lately, including several novels by Suzy McKee Charnas published in the Women's Press SF imprint; given that SF and fantasy by women, especially feminist SF and fantasy, is what I'm reading most at the moment, I obviously bought them (they all originally belonged to the same woman, as she wrote her name in them. I do wonder why so much of her collection has been donated).


Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, published in one volume by the Women's Press, are two separate novels, though they're set in the same post-apocalyptic world and share a central character. (The Internet tells me there are two more in the series, The Furies, which I also bought, and The Conqueror's Child, which wasn't there. Walk to the End of the World is a classic of feminist dystopian fiction, set in a society made up of the descendants of powerful white men who retreated into underground bunkers as civilisation collapsed. Emerging from the bunkers to scratch out an existence in a world stripped of other animals and natural resources (with the exception of edible seaweeds that flourish in the polluted ocean), they blame those who were different from them for the collapse of the world of the Ancients - women, hippies, other races - and have created the Holdfast, a rigidly hierarchical society where age brings power and where women are retained as a slave class for breeding and heavy labour, considered to be bestial and subhuman. The social setup, where the only acceptable romantic relationships are between men and heterosexual intercouse is limited to breeding, seemed to me to be partly inspired by Ancient Greek society, although the experience of women as slaves probably owes a lot more to the experience of black slaves in the US. The novel focuses sequentially on three men who are, for various reasons, outsiders in their society to some extent, and then finally on Alldera, the woman who is sent to travel with them to the city of 'Troi, at the farthest western extent of the Holdfast. It's an interesting if rather grim read; fortunately, it's short enough to push through the grimness, and some of the characters are surprisingly sympathetic.

Motherlines picks up Alldera's story after she has escaped from the Holdfast and travelled to the Grassland, which are occupied by two different all-female societies: the Riding Women, who have been genetically engineered to breed without men and who live a semi-nomadic existence alongside their horses; they have a complex structure of kinship and a strong adherence to their traditions. Set against them are the free fems, women who have escaped from the Holdfast, who have no children of their own but who cannot be integrated in the women's society. Alldera finds herself both participating in and excluded from both societies, and the changes her arrival brings drive the plot of the novel, such as it is; mostly, it's an exploration of cultural differences and how people react to change. While much less grim than Walk to the End of the World, I wouldn't describe Motherlines as utopian: the Riding Women's society might see utopian at first glance, but it has its own tensions and darkness; the women's solution to the problem of breeding without men is fairly unsettling and their attitude to the free fems is far from admirable, while the fems are escaped slaves struggling to break free of their slave mindset. I liked this a lot; it's thoughtful and complex with interesting characters.
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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.
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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.
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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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