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2017-10-19 07:27 pm

Reading: The Comfortable Courtesan, Volume 1

I suspect everyone reading this review here is already familiar with this, but for anyone who hasn't come across it before, The Comfortable Courtesan is a serial story set in Regency London, mostly narrated by Madame C-, a very exclusive courtesan, in which we hear of her exploits and those of her circle of friends and acquaintances, which includes artists, actors, political radicals and her upper-class clients. It began as a one-off response to a "post three sentences from a nonexistent novel" challenge in May 2015 and has now grown to more than 700 individual posts, with twelve ebook compendiums of the main story (which is now complete) as well as a number of side-pieces and two novella-length stories taking place some years after the majority of the action. I've been following the blog from the start, but I was browsing through my Kindle in search of comfort reading and when I came across the ebooks I decided it was time to revisit the very early days.

It's an absolutely delightful read. It's written in a pastiche of the style of the period, and as the author is a historian of gender and sexuality it's historically accurate although the subject-matter would never have seen the light of day then. Unsurprisingly, given Madame C-'s profession, it's unabashedly sex-positive, and features numerous LGBTQ+ characters, both male and female, as well as multiple characters of colour. The first volume features intrigue, scandal, matchmaking, female solidarity, epistolary mathematical flirtations and a wombatt, and it really is one of the most charming things I've ever read.
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2017-10-15 05:31 pm

Reading: Small Gods

I find it impossible to pick a favourite Discworld novel, but Small Gods is definitely in my top five*. It's primarily a wonderfully sharp critique of organised religion, and the way that belief in the structures of a religion can take over from belief in the gods, until the church just becomes another way for unscrupulous people to gain power over others; along the way it also has time to parody Ancient Greece and the Greek philosophers and nail why arms races don't ensure peace. It's also genuinely very moving in places, and I love the way that both Brutha and his god grow and develop as a result of knowing each other; religion, to Pratchett, definitely isn't a one-way exchange.

* Despite the fact that I skipped it when I read the series through for the first time, because I thought it sounded rather like Pyramids, which I hadn't much enjoyed, and the next one was another book about the Witches (to be fair, that was Lords and Ladies which is probably also in my top five), and didn't come back to it until ten years later.
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2017-10-11 08:54 pm

Reading: Cetaganda

The next in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan saga after The Vor Game, Cetaganda sees Miles and his slightly dim but affable cousin Ivan sent to Cetaganda, Barrayar's fairly recent enemy, to represent their world at the funeral ceremonies for the Dowager Empress of Cetaganda. Miles being Miles, things don't go as smoothly as the people who sent him would have hoped, and he finds himself investigating a murder and possible treason while getting to know the women of Cetaganda's aristocratic haut class, who are normally hidden from the eyes of strangers behind opaque force shields.

Miles is entertaining as always, though absolutely deserving of his superiors' evident disapproval, and it's hard not to like Ivan. I also enjoyed the depiction of Cetagandan society, and particularly liked the way Bujold confounds readers' expectations of what their gender politics will be like, based on initial descriptions. I didn't love this quite as much as I loved Barrayar or The Warrior's Apprentice, but I'm still enjoying the series a great deal.
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2017-10-07 06:10 pm

Reading: A Sparrow's Flight

When I posted about re-reading Margaret Elphinstone's The Incomer earlier this year, someone mentioned that she'd written a second book featuring the fiddle player Naomi, so I sought out a copy.

A Sparrow's Flight sees Naomi setting out on a journey from an unnamed island which is clearly Lindisfarne to the "empty lands" of the Lake District (it's never spelt out what the crisis that changed the world hundreds of years ago was, but this book strongly implies that meltdown at Sellafield was part of it, rendering the area uninhabitable for centuries, so that people have only just started to return), in the company of Thomas, who is returning there to take part in a traditional dance and has persuaded her to come with him to play the music for the dance. In return, Thomas promises her music from before the world changed, preserved in his home during all the years since then.

I loved the description of Naomi and Thomas's walk from Lindisfarne to the Lakes; on her website, Elphinstone talks about following their path with her dog, and I think her familiarity with and love of the landscape really shines through. I also enjoyed seeing more of her future world than The Incomer, with its focus on a single village, offered. I did find my interest waning once the travellers reached Thomas's home, though; the story develops slowly and I found many of the characters and their motivations almost impenetrably opaque. I also found it, ultimately, quite depressing; where The Incomer depicted a future which had lost many of the comforts of the modern world but which had gained a co-operative, supportive communal way of living instead, A Sparrow's Flight shows a community turning on a member suffering from mental ill-health and driving them out rather than supporting them, while the chance friendship of two strangers proves to be stronger and more supportive than the community structures the society is built on. It feels like a much bleaker existence than the almost utopian world of the earlier book.

It's beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of the scenery of the Scottish Borders, whether present-day or in an imagined future which looks a lot like the past, but I felt that as a novel it didn't quite work for me and I didn't like it nearly as much as I liked The Incomer.
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2017-10-01 11:00 am

Reading: The Furthest Station

The Furthest Station is the latest instalment in Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant/Rivers of London series. It's a novella which is set between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree; like the comics, it's a fill-in piece of casefic rather than advancing the series' arc plot. In this one, Grant investigates a rash of ghost sightings on rush hour trains on the Metropolitan Line, assisted by Sergeant Jaget Kumar of the British Transport Police and his cousin Abigail Kamara (both last seen in Whispers Underground). It's entertaining enough but fairly slight.
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2017-09-30 12:45 pm

Reading: China Mountain Zhang

Maureen F McHugh's China Mountain Zhang is probably the least science fictiony science fiction novel I've ever read; in terms of plot, it's much closer to most literary fiction, being solely concerned with ordinary people living their ordinary lives and what this says about the world they live in. The title character, Zhang, is a young gay Chinese-American man, and the novel consists of five vignettes of episodes from his life as he goes through the process of growing up and working out who he is and what he wants to do with his life, interspersed with vignettes of the lives of people who interact with him. However, Zhang lives in a twenty-second century America which has undergone a proletarian revolution following a global depression and which is now a satellite of the only remaining global superpower, China. Direct neural interfacing with technology is normal, and there are colonies on Mars, but climate change has left a swathe of the continental US uninhabitable.

Zhang's journey of self-discovery takes him from a precarious life aas a construction technician in his native New York to an Arctic research station (the description of the frozen darkness of the Arctic night is stunning) to a prestigious university in China and back to New York as a qualified engineer with a bright future ahead of him. Interwoven with his story are the stories of Angel, one of the fliers in the popular sport of kite-racing; Martine and Alexi, colonists on Mars; and San-Xiang, a young woman Zhang takes on a couple of dates in the first story. Between them, they build up a picture of a future society that 25 years after the book was first published still seems plausible (apart from the fact that in this future, people still use fax machines - a sure sign of early 90s sf), including some of the historical background that led to it. It's not a dystopian future, although it's very far from utopian either: life for Zhang as a gay man in the US is difficult, while in China homosexual acts are illegal; women are still judged by their looks and vulnerable to assault by men, but there's no active repression, political discussion is allowed, and most people seem to have an adequate standard of living. It feels very real.

China Mountain Zhang is a quiet book, but I thought it was brilliant; it feels like a purely character-driven novel, but actually the world-building is fantastic as well, and the writing is just beautiful.
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2017-09-24 06:19 pm

Reading: Autumn

I bought a copy of Ali Smith's Autumn in the Oxfam bookshop in York last week, because they were playing Leonard Cohen and I ended up browsing the contemporary fiction section much more closely than I often do because I wanted to keep listening to it. It was the day the Booker shortlist had been announced so someone had been talking about the book on the radio as I was driving up; it sounded interesting so I thought I might as well buy it when I saw a copy there.

It's a strange book. Essentially, it's the story of a friendship between an elderly man and little girl, growing and developing across the space of years, but it's also a complicated web of allusions through which Smith considers questions of time, memory, love and art; key influences are Dickens (the opening sentence is "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times") and Ovid's Metamorphoses although there are many others. Its time-hopping, non-linear format jumps between the aftermath of the Brexit vote (the novel was published last October and it was clearly written, fast, after the referendum), the 1990s, the Profumo scandal of the 1960s and World War 2 and the years immediately preceding it. It's funny and thought-provoking, melancholy and angry and also somehow hopeful. And the prose is beautiful and poetic. It's a short book, and a quick read, but I think it will stay with me.
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2017-09-24 10:23 am

Reading: St Mungo's Robin

I wasn't quite ready to get my head out of fifteenth-century Scotland after finishing Gemini, so I thought I'd read the fourth of Pat McIntosh's Gil Cunningham mysteries. Set in Glasgow, about ten years after the end of Gemini, these books feel a bit like a extension of the world of the Niccolò series; some of the same historical characters appear in both and I like to imagine Dunnett's characters living their lives just off-screen. (Accidentally or on purpose, there are also a couple of cases where character names and nicknames end up being minor spoilers for points in Dunnett where knowing a character's full name rather than just their nickname would have given too much away, so if you're reading your way through Dunnett and care about remaining unspoilered I'd recommend leaving McIntosh until afterwards; I also enjoy McIntosh more for having read all of the Niccolò books now and understanding the historical background.)

In this book, Gil (now officially charged with investigating murders, after his earlier successes on an amateur basis) is called to a Glasgow almshouse where the unpopular Deacon has been found stabbed with no shortage of people who might have had a motive to kill him. He's also due to be married in a week's time and his investigations are both helped and hindered by family and friends arriving in town for the wedding, while he and his fiancée, Alys, are both suffering from pre-wedding nerves.

I enjoyed this a lot - the series really seems to be hitting its stride by this stage, with the core characters established enough to feel like old friends now; Gil's investigations manage not to feel out of place in the historical setting while still allowing him to do things like estimate times of death from the condition of a corpse. I did spot a couple of clues well ahead of Gil, and had worked out the identity of the murderer by about two-thirds of the way through the book, but then it's always nice to feel cleverer than the detective!
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2017-09-20 09:18 pm

Reading: Gemini

In the final book in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series, Nicholas de Fleury returns to Scotland to try to make amends for the damage caused by his earlier actions and to safeguard his family from the enemies who have tried to kill both him and them so many times. For a while, I thought that Gemini was going to be a bit of an anticlimax to the series; several plot threads were resolved at the end of Caprice and Rondo, and Gemini is almost entirely set in Scotland, lacking the exotic locations of the earlier books. Nicholas has also changed and grown, and in Gemini is tackling the task of learning to care for people, and not just for the outcomes of his schemes. However, after a slow start, the novel gathers pace and the psychological drama is more than a match for the drama of any of Dunnett's other novels; there were just as many twists and edge-of-the-seat moments, and I found it just as hard to put down. It's a fitting end to the series, and like the ending of Checkmate leaves me wanting to go back and re-read key moments from earlier in the series in the light of the final revelations.

Fittingly, having started reading The Game of Kings on my 40th-birthday trip to Scotland, because I wanted to read something set in Scotland while I was there, I read Gemini while on holiday in Scotland once again. Three and a bit years, 14 books, at least 7,000 pages and an amazing sweep of European and Middle Eastern history in the early modern and late Middle Ages later, I can safely say that it has been one of the most intense reading experiences I've ever had. I can't actually remember who it was who made Dunnett sound intriguing enough for me to give her a try (I suspect it may have been a gestalt entity of friends and acquaintances), but it's been incredible, and in many ways I'm sorry to have come to the end. (I do still have King Hereafter to read, and will probably give the Johnson Johnson novels a try at least, but neither is going to be the same.)
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2017-09-16 10:08 am

Reading: The Shortest Way to Hades

The Shortest Way to Hades is the second of Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar novels, and is very similar to the first; Hilary, Professor of Legal History at Oxford, is called in by the junior members of the barristers' chambers at 62 New Square to investigate the death of a young woman who was recently involved in a variation of trusts case in which all of them represented various parties, and which they feel was suspicious. Like the first novel, it's entertaining and contains some lovely comic scenes; I particularly enjoyed the account of how Selena, on finding herself present at an orgy, decides that her preferred pleasure is in fact reading the copy of Pride and Prejudice she happened to have in her bag (a woman after my own heart!), and, having an Oxford background, I also very much liked Hilary's justification for not taking part in examining, which was an absolutely pitch-perfect example of the Oxford don's refusal to carry out a disagreeable task couched as a favour to absolutely everyone else. Meanwhile, the mystery was well enough plotted that I didn't come anywhere close to suspecting the real murderer until the final reveal, which is all you can really ask of a mystery, after all.

I think I enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered more, but I'm not sure whether that's because the second book is so similar that I knew exactly what I was going to be getting and there wasn't the pleasure of discovering something new, or if I simply wasn't quite in the right mood for it; I certainly think it's just as good a book.
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2017-09-12 07:07 pm

Reading: The Mark of the Horse Lord

Reading Gwyneth Jones put me in mind of Rosemary Sutcliff, and as I'm off to Argyll on holiday soon I thought I would re-read The Mark of the Horse Lord, which is set in Argyll. Unlike most of Sutcliff's novels set in Roman Britain, Phaedrus, the protagonist of The Mark of the Horse Lord, isn't a Roman soldier; instead, he's a half-British ex-gladiator, son of a Greek wine merchant and a slave woman, who lived his whole life as a slave until being freed after winning a fight in the arena. By coincidence, he discovers that he is the exact double of Midir, the exiled prince of the Dalriad tribe, and is persuaded to impersonate Midir and travel beyond the northern boundary of the Empire to lead a rebellion and win back the kingdom of the Dalriads from Queen Liadhan, who has seized the throne and imposed the old matrilineal rule of the Earth-Mother in place of the patrilineal worship of the Sun-God. The plot is not dissimilar to The Prisoner of Zenda, really, as Phaedrus tries to take over another man's life and relationships and learn how to be a king.

This isn't my favorite Sutcliff; Phaedrus is a less sympathetic protagonist than the various members of the family in the Dolphin Ring saga, hardened by the years in the arena as he is, although he does become more sympathetic as the story goes on. I also don't find the society of the Dalriads, beyond the frontiers of the Empire, as interesting as the Roman society depicted in the books set inside the Empire, and, revisiting it now, I also feel that the conflict between the matrilineal and patrilineal societies is probably more nuanced than the book really suggests, and I wish we had got to see Liadhan's point of view as well as Phaedrus's.
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2017-09-10 05:16 pm

Reading: Rainbow Bridge

Rainbow Bridge is the fifth and more or less final novel in the sequence Gwyneth Jones began with Bold As Love (there is a sixth book set in the same universe, published several years later, but that appears to be a YA novel with a different main character, rather than part of the main continuity). It begins more or less where the fourth left off, in a near-future, post-oil England which has just been invaded and is under military occupation, and sees Ax, Fiorinda and Sage (Jones's near-future rockstar Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot) playing a complicated game, having to work with the invaders to try to prevent further loss of life and manipulate the global political civilisation to give the world the best possible chance of surviving the coming Dark Age.

It's taken me over a decade to finish this series, despite loving the first two; it took me a while to get round to obtaining a copy of the third, and then I wasn't reading much, because citalopram killed my ability to become absorbed in a narrative, and in any case I was scared to try to face the darkness of Jones's post-catastrophe near-future. I only returned to it after re-reading The Once and Future King left me thinking that the tragedy of the Arthur story could have been avoided if only someone had told them about poly, and I remembered that that's exactly what Jones does here.

Despite reading it so slowly, I have liked the series a lot; the narrative is odd, disjointed in places, and the structure of the novels is somewhat unconventional, veering between affairs of state and the trio's polywobbles, with parts of the political action taking place offstage and merely reported in a way that would drive the advocates of show-don't-tell as an unbreakable rule of writing round the bend, but somehow it works for me. I like the characters, too, even if I have found myself wanting to smack all of the central trio with codfish at multiple points throughout the series. And actually, like Rosemary Sutcliff's novels of post-Roman Britain, which are an obvious influence on Jones (there is a chapter in Rainbow Bridge entitled 'The Lantern Bearers', and a section called 'The Shield Ring'), while the future of these novels is dark and scary and beset with difficulties, it's not a hopeless future; what matters, mostly, is love and loyalty and being able to be flexible in some things while absolutely inflexible in others, and ultimately, it's quite a hopeful book, and ends with Jones's three heroes finally able to settle down in peaceful obscurity, away from the public eye.
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2017-09-09 11:10 am

Reading: Desolation Island

After finding The Mauritius Command rather sombre and focused more on the mechanics of the campaign than on the characters, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed Desolation Island much more. After some time working for the Navy ashore, Jack Aubrey is given command of the Leopard with orders to take her to Botany Bay and a cargo of convicts, including a spy who Stephen Maturin has been given the task of covertly obtaining information from. As neither Jack nor Stephen has been entirely thriving on land (Jack's fair and trusting nature makes him an easy mark for dodgy tradesmen and card-sharps, while Stephen has been taking more and more laundanam in an attempt to ease his broken heart) this voyage is a good thing for both of them, but after a promising start they are beset with difficulties; an outbreak of gaol-fever (typhus) kills a third of the crew, while several others are left too weak to travel and have to be put ashore in Recife to convalesce. Undermanned and unable to fight his ship effectively, Jack makes for Cape Town where he hopes to be able to recruit more sailors, but encountering a larger Dutch ship in the South Atlantic he is forced to change course and flee far south of the Cape to try to outrun her. The chase through the stormy Southern Ocean is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, as is the Leopard's subsequent desperate limping journey to make landfall at Kerguelen Island (the 'Desolation Island' of the title), while after The Mauritius Command's focus on plot the emphasis is firmly back on character. If I had one gripe, it would be that the mention of Australia as a destination had made me hope to see Stephen encountering a wombatt, but even wombatt-free it's a terrific read.
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2017-09-03 02:36 pm

Reading: Persepolis

I picked up the omnibus edition of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel autobiography, Persepolis, in the Oxfam bookshop the other week, where it was shelved under science fiction, presumably by someone who couldn't get their head around graphic novels tackling "serious" subjects. I am not a great reader of graphic novels; I tend to skim through them far too quickly, concentrating on the text and not paying enough attention to the pictures, and never feel I've read them "properly", but with that caveat I did very much enjoy Persepolis and am glad I bought it.

Persepolis is a memoir of Satrapi's life, from her childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran to her final departure for France in 1994; as a determined and outspoken girl and young woman, the novel depicts her struggles to continue to live a "normal" life under the increasingly repressive regime in her country, as well as the years she spent living by herself in Austria, where her parents sent her after her forthrightness led to trouble at her school in Tehran, and her struggle to readjust to life in Iran after spending time in Europe. I found it fascinating to read about the everyday reality of life in a country that is normally only a name on the news, especially when that's combined with the universal relability of Marjane's experiences of growing up; rebellion alternating with clinging to family, feelings of isolation and being misunderstood, failed relationships and lost friendships, all provide a reminder that people are not so very different wherever they are.
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2017-09-02 07:12 pm

Reading: Ninefox Gambit

I hadn't heard of Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit until it was shortlisted for the Hugos this year; I wasn't quite sure it sounded like my kind of thing, but so many people were praising it I thought I'd try it. And actually, I'm very glad I did, because it's an amazing book.

Essentially, the plot is standard military SF. Captain Kel Cheris is removed from command of her unit after suffering serious losses in battle and placed in command of an expeditionary force charged with putting down a rebellion on a distant outpost, taking with her a secret weapon; the mad but brilliant general Shuos Jedao. Who just happens to have been dead for 400 years. There are battles and subterfuges and a staggeringly high body count. So far, so standard. The worldbuilding is stunning, though: the civilisation Lee creates is complex and believable, based on a complicated system that's part religion and part mathematics and which enables the use of weapons of mass destruction whose functions are somehow tied to the structures of belief and which can be rendered ineffective by alternative, heretical, belief systems. The characters are well-drawn, believable and mostly likeable even when they are committing acts of terrible devastation; Lee certainly doesn't shy away from showing the horror and futility of war, and I particularly liked his use of vignettes of the ordinary soldiers fighting the battles, contrasted with Cheris and Jedao in the command centre, away from the action. And the prose is incredible, with some stunning descriptive passages. I can't recommend this too highly, and obviously I've already downloaded the sequel.
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2017-08-29 07:17 pm

Reading: Mixed Magics

Mixed Magics contains four short stories set in the universe of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci novels. The first, 'Warlock at the Wheel' catalogues the misadventures of the Willing Warlock (one of the minor antagonists from Charmed Life) when he tries to escape to a parallel universe and steal a car, which unfortunately turns out to be occupied by a small girl and a large dog. There wasn't a lot to this one; I know that the Chrestomanci novels are generally written for younger readers than some of DWJ's other books, but this felt as though it was aimed at very young children.

I liked 'Stealer of Souls'a lot more. This story recounts an episode in the lives of Cat Chant (Charmed Life) and Tonino Montana (The Magicians of Caprona), and also gives readers another sight of several of the supporting characters from The Lives of Christopher Chant, many years later. I liked this much more than the first story; it was nice to revisit the characters and it provided some interesting character development for Cat in particular.

The third story, 'Carol Oneir's Hundredth Dream' is about what happens when Carol (the world's youngest best-selling dreamer) is taken to consult Chrestomanci about the difficulties she is experiencing in recording her hundredth dream. It's a slyly witty look at the creative process, writer's block and the differences between producing genuine art and simply churning out the same things again and again.

The final story, 'The Sage of Theare' is set in the world of Theare, where the gods are highly organised and are thrown into a panic at the prophecy that a Sage of Dissolution has been born. Unfortunately, their attempts to thwart the prophecy cause further problems, which require Chrestomanci's intervention to resolve. I think this was my favourite of the stories, mostly because I enjoyed the philosophical aspects.

It's quite a slight book, both literally (only 160-odd pages in the edition I have) and in terms of the stories themselves; not DWJ's best, but enjoyable nonetheless and perfect when I wanted something undemanding.
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2017-08-28 06:42 pm

Reading: Unquenchable Fire

Rachel Pollack's Unquenchable Fire is the story of Jennie Mazdan, a divorced woman in her late 20s who lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, and what happens when she unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, incurring the disapproval of the conservative, middle-class community she lives in.

Except it sort of isn't, because it's also a fantasy novel, set in an America 87 years after a religious revolution, when the whole country (maybe the whole world) has become converted to a kind of neopagan spirituality; people make blood offerings, follow a calendar of ritual, believe in the guardian spirits who watch over their homes and businesses, and gather together to hear "Tellers" retelling the stories and parables first told by the Founders. It's a world where miracles and wonders are everyday occurences, where dreams are prophetic and lives are regularly influenced by malignant or benign supernatural beings, but where people also watch TV and eat pizza and live ordinary lives. Although the story of Jennie's pregnancy and her relationships with her ex-husband, her neighbours, her colleagues and her mother are, on one level, absolutely normal and mundane, on the other they're about as far from mundane as you can get; she becomes pregnant via a dream, despite being legally a virgin due to the form the annulment of her marriage took, and it becomes clear very early on that the cild she is carrying is destined to be a prophet and leader, born to restore the magic which has dwindled in the time since the revolution, with too many people seeing their religion as a comforting form rather than real magic.

This is a stunning and unique book. I remember reading a review of it (probably in the Guardian when it was first published in 1989, and thinking it sounded like something I would like to read, but I lived in a small town and didn't have access to either a bookshop or a library with a good SF section, and I forgot about it until a few months ago when I found a copy in a charity shop. I suspect I got more out of it now than I would have done at 14, and I'm really glad to have had the chance to read it at last.
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2017-08-26 11:28 am

Reading: Monstrous Regiment

I'll always have a soft spot for Monstrous Regiment, because after the period in the late 90s and early 2000s where I didn't quite get what Pterry was trying to do with the series and found myself struggling to read the new books as they came out, this was the first one I really, genuinely loved and which pulled me back on board for the rest of the series and showed me how to approach the ones I'd had trouble with. Also, I think it's one of the best examples of the later, more-satire-than-parody Pratchett there is.

Monstrous Regiment is about as close to a standlone Discworld novel as you get; there are no witches or wizards, no magic at all in fact, and Ankh-Morpork is very far away. Sam Vimes, Angua, William de Worde and Otto Chriek all make brief appearances, but the setting is the remote and rather Mitteleuropean Grand Duchy of Borogravia, and the main characters are Polly Perks, who disguises herself as a boy to join the army, and the other members of her squad of recruits, gradually revealed (in a twist that won't surprise anyone who automatically completes John Knox's quote whenever they read the title) also to be women. Unsurprisingly, the novel makes a lot of points about war and gender roles; it also takes on organised religion (and religion's role in propping up the patriarchy), and while the final scenes are clearly a defence of women's right to serve in the army, or do anything else, rather than being constricted by narrow ideas of gender, they also felt like a fairly obvious swipe at Don't Ask, Don't Tell*.

I'm not sure I could pick a favourite Discworld book, but this is definitely one of my favourites.

* I also note that this novel, published in the same year that Section 28 was repealed in England and Wales, features a canonical lesbian couple, which I find interesting given that I have seen far too much criticism of Pterry's lack of queer characters from people who appear to be unable to comprehend that up until this book was published including such characters would have been quite likely to see them removed from school libraries and taken out of the "teenage" sections of public libraries.
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2017-08-22 06:44 pm

Reading: Caprice and Rondo

I spent my weekend staving off depression by immersing myself Caprice and Rondo, the seventh of Dorothy Dunnett's eight House of Niccolò novels, and only took until today to finish it because Scales of Gold scared me off sitting up late to finish Dorothy Dunnett novels and I forced myself to put it down at 81% complete on Sunday and 90% yesterday. I'm not completely sure that Dunnett-immersion is really a good long-term antidepressant, but in the short term it seems to have worked and I am feeling a bit better now anyway.

This volume takes Nicholas from Poland to Persia, via the Crimea, and then finally back to Bruges via a sojourn in Russia which echoes The Ringed Castle. Cut off from his friends and colleagues by the revelations that ended To Lie With Lions, he originally seems bent on self-destruction, but the events of this book build on his experiences in the desert and Iceland until, by the end, it truly feels as though he has grown up and is ready to begin building a life with roots, rather than seeing everything as a game to be played and won. The plot is typically twisty and compelling, the characters flawed and human and so very real, and I think I'm finally starting to understand why some people prefer the Niccolò books to the Lymond Chronicles. (I may even end up that way myself, although I might also just start re-reading Lymond and fall for him all over again.)

Caprice and Rondo resolves enough of the series' many subplots that I had a definite feel of approaching the end of the series; although it leaves some major plot threads unresolved, it felt as if enough had been tied up that the series could almost have ended there, and I do wonder if that was deliberate - Dunnett was 74 when it was published, and although she did manage to complete Gemini and publish it the year before she died, if this had been the last book it wouldn't have been an entirely unsatisfactory ending in the way ending with any of the previous three books would have.
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2017-08-19 09:12 am

Reading: The Vor Game

In The Vor Game, Miles Vorkosigan has graduated from the the Imperial Military Academy and is taking - or trying to take - the first steps in his military career, steps which are seriously hampered by Miles's tendency to be the best strategic mind in the room and to know it. Instead of managing to fit in to life as a junior officer, Miles solves a mystery, joins a mutiny and ends up stopping an interstellar invasion fleet.

Having taken several tries to actually get into Bujold, I'm now very much enjoying working my way through the Vorkosigan saga; so far, they've all been enjoyable and entertaining and comforting without being fluffy. They may have many of the trappings of standard military SF, but they're really character-driven novels whose military setting is almost incidental. Bujold's characters are delightful and well-rounded, likeable but realistically flawed and sometimes exasperating; in this novel, Miles is continuing to grow and learn from his experience and his fairly frequent mistakes and misjudgements (despite an amazing talent for turning every situation to his advantage he is clearly very young, very inexperienced, and far from perfect), and I particularly loved Gregor, the young Emperor of Barrayar, resenting the weight of the crown he has worn since early childhood and trying to work out who he is and how to be his own person within the limitations of his role. The exploration of what makes a leader, and what it means to be Vor - a member of Barrayar's hereditary military/aristocratic class - is a big part of what makes these books not-fluff for me; they may be fun, but they're also interesting and thought-provoking.

I note that The Vor Game won the Best Novel Hugo*, which surprised me a little, as although I enjoyed it a lot the plotting isn't terribly tight and it doesn't have the "doing something new and interesting" feel I tend to expect from Hugo winners (even if "new and interesting" in 1990 was rather different from "new and interesting" now, it isn't doing anything very different from The Warrior's Apprentice). It's still great fun, though, and probably more enjoyable than many "new and interesting" but more serious books.

*"at the time when good writing and plot were more important than political leaning", says one Goodreaders reviewer, who has clearly failed to spot that the novel has a disabled protagonist, at least two prominent LGBT characters (to be fair, Aral's bisexuality is pretty much blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but Bel Thorne isn't) and more than one woman in typically male command roles.