The Goblin Emperor

With New Zealand in lockdown while the pandemic rages and our Prime Minister reminding us to be kind to one another, it seems appropriate to turn to hopepunk. What is hopepunk? I’m quoting here from a longer post by Alexandra Rowland, who defined the term:

Hopepunk says that kindness and softness doesn’t equal weakness, and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion

Hopepunk says that genuinely and sincerely caring about something, anything, requires bravery and strength. Hopepunk isn’t ever about submission or acceptance: It’s about standing up and fighting for what you believe in. It’s about standing up for other people. It’s about DEMANDING a better, kinder world, and truly believing that we can get there.

The Goblin Emperor, by American author Katherine Addison, is an exemplar of hopepunk, a story with heart. It is also one of the more enjoyable books I have read recently. Eighteen-year-old Maia is the only child of a loveless political marriage between the Emperor of the Elflands and the daughter of the neighbouring goblins’ ruler. As the emperor’s unwanted fourth son, he is never expected to figure in the succession and is raised in exile. But when an ‘accident’ kills his father and three older half-brothers, the ill-prepared Maia is as shocked as the emperor’s court to find himself on the throne. In short order he has to deal with hostile relatives, contemptuous government officials, and the rigid rules of expected behaviour for the individual at the centre of a several-thousand-year-old Byzantine society. And if that isn’t enough, the crash that killed his father and half-brothers was not an accident. Now that he is emperor, is his own life in danger?

Yes, of course his life is in danger, but the mystery simmers on the back burner for most of the book, only coming to the fore close to the end. This is a character-driven novel, not a plot-driven one. The story is rather episodic, showing Maia learning on the job to be emperor. His guiding principle throughout is to be what his cold, arrogant father was not: kind. His kindness is not mere politeness; it is the active, stubborn determination to treat everyone he comes in contact with or has authority over with respect and dignity. He offends his conservative, rigidly hierarchical housekeeper by requiring her to introduce all the household staff to him by name, confounds his secretary and personal attendants by apologising when he makes extra work for them, and upsets schedules by attending the funeral of the crew who died along with his father. And that’s just in the opening chapters.

The setting is not the bog-standard medieval fantasy world peopled with Tolkien-esque elves. There is little apparent magic and the technology level is basically steampunk. (The late emperor and his sons died in an airship crash.) The elves and goblins are almost human, with the only obviously non-human characteristic being ears that express emotion. They twitch in irritation, flatten in embarrassment, and perk up in interest. Maia’s admonition to himself at the beginning, on going to meet the messenger bringing the news, is chin and ears up.

Being almost human, the primary difference between elves and goblins is skin colour: white and black respectively. The implicit moralising about racism is pretty obvious. The two races intermix, and characters of mixed blood are accepted among the lower classes, but many of the full-blooded elvish aristocracy despise Maia for being a halfbreed.

I don’t care for stories about courtly intrigue that are heavy on betrayals and unpleasant people clawing for advantage. There is treachery here, but not by the viewpoint character. Maia is such an appealing person that I dropped all the other books I was reading (I usually have three or four going at a time) to read this one straight through. There’s not a lot of action, other than people talking, but there is plenty of conflict, and I was eager to see how Maia handled the various problems. Unfortunately, some of his successes were due more to his opponents’ stupidity rather than his or his adherents’ intelligence or devotion. Sigh. Usually that bothers me a lot, but here it’s a minor complaint.

The biggest complaint I have about The Goblin Emperor is that the author went seriously overboard in creating a vocabulary and nomenclature for her world, resulting in a word salad of characters names. Names like Pazhiro Drazharan and Varenechibal. There are dozens of named characters, and it gets confusing. The book includes a pronunciation guide and a twelve-page(!) listing of “Persons, Places, Things, and Gods.” You’ll need them. (The first printing in 2014, I believe, had them at the back of the book. My copy, from 2019, has them at the front.)

Even with the pronunciation guide, I’m not confidant I’m getting any of them right. How does one pronounce Csevet? KEVet? KeVET? Or…? And he’s one of the main characters. Reading this out loud to the rest of the family is going to be a challenge!

On the other hand, the author did a terrific job of indicating the imagined language’s distinctions in speech between first person informal (I), first person formal (we), and first person plural (we). A neat trick, given the limitations of representing that in English. After an immersion in this, you’ll be speaking in first person formal, too. Don’t believe us? Give it try; we dare you.

Audience: anyone old enough to read it. Nothing offensive.

Posted in Fantasy, Hopepunk | 1 Comment

The Night Circus

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards… It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

London, October 1873. The flamboyant illusionist Prospero the Enchanter proposes a contest to his restrained counterpart, the resolutely inconspicuous Mr A. H-. The contestants are to be Prospero’s talented five-year-old daughter, Celia, and a boy, Marco, that Mr A. H- plucks from an orphanage. Neither magician exhibits any affection or concern for his student, instead turning their childhoods into ghastly ordeals intended to prepare them for their roles in their mentors’ game. Celia’s father slices the tips of her fingers open again and again until she can perform the magic to heal all ten at once. Marco is immersed in arcane studies, isolated from all normal human contact.

Prospero selects a theatrical producer to create a public venue for the contest, although no one other than the two magicians and the contestants are aware of the sinister purpose behind the show. The producer gathers a team of artists and visionaries to create a magnificent circus: the Night Circus, or Circus of Dreams. No one in that team realises how tightly their lives will be intertwined with the circus, a circus whose performers never grow old, and who can never leave.

The circus opens in 1886 with the adult Celia as the circus’s illusionist and Marco the producer’s assistant, and the game begins. The circus is an immediate success, and attracts a dedicated community of fans who follow the circus as it travels from city to city. Years pass, and all seems well, but the strain begins to tell on the contestants, who have never been told the rules or the winning conditions. All they know is that they cannot quit the game…

Book blurbs are often a bit misleading, but the blurb for The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is further off target than most. Among other dubious statements, it says:

Behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco…

There is no duel. There is, instead, a subtle love story as the two protagonists create ever more fanciful entertainments that over time transform from competitive displays into collaborative love letters, in the face of their mentors’ disapproval. It will come as a terrible shock to them to learn that the game isn’t over until the weaker player dies.

The circus itself is a feast of the imagination, scintillating and hallucinatory. Illuminated by bonfire and starlight, we don’t see the dinginess and forced gaiety that plague real circuses and fairs. Readers can conjure in their own mind’s eyes a circus tent containing a vast and shimmering white desert under a sparkling night sky, or dream of riding living, breathing creatures on a carousel that travels further than the typical small circle.

Celia’s real magic is purportedly hidden behind a screen of sleight of hand to avoid confusing and alarming the customers, but the magic underpinning the entire circus, from the performers who don’t age to the lack of a crew noisily setting up the tents at each stop, is blatant and pervasive. This is more magical realism, with the inhabitants simply accepting the inexplicable, than urban fantasy, with the Knowing hiding the supernatural from the Unaware.

I don’t normally care for fantasies where the world building gets more attention than plot or character development, but here it seems to work. Story-telling is not ignored, but the circus itself is centre-stage. The narrative is non-linear, weaving back and forth between several threads years apart. With the contest playing out over a decade and a half, it doesn’t develop any urgency until the very end, when Celia, driven to the end of her endurance from supporting the weight of magic for the entire circus, discovers a way out. Expect a leisurely stroll through a maze of captivating, sensory-laden spectacles rather than a plot-driven gallop, and you won’t be disappointed.

Audience: adults and teens.

Trigger warning: a small amount of child abuse (non-sexual).

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The Murderbot Diaries

If I were to make a movie of All Systems Red by Martha Wells, I would open with this voiceover:

I murdered 57 humans. And then I went rogue.

Murderbot, as the part-organic android security unit (SecUnit) privately calls itself, is apathetic, cynical, introverted, and anxiety-ridden. It probably suffers from PTSD. It doesn’t remember quite what happened; the company that owns it wiped its non-organic memory. (SecUnits are expensive equipment to toss on the rubbish heap, and the company is cheap. With a new governor module installed, they assumed it would be safe to re-use.) But Murderbot’s organic neutrons still serve up distressing memories of its original governor module malfunctioning—so distressing that it hacks its new governor module to avoid ever again being in that situation.

At least, that’s what it thinks happened. It may be wrong.

Its corporate owners know how dangerous a rogue SecUnit can be. They would have no choice but to write off their investment and melt it down for scrap if they knew it was a free agent. So Murderbot carries on with its boring job, protecting its silly, stupid human clients—usually from themselves—while pretending to have a functioning governor module. It isn’t inclined to commit mass murder anyway; it would really rather numb its mind watching endless hours of downloaded entertainment serials.

Its pretence works for several years, but a few weeks into a new contract—protecting a planetary survey team that it actually respects, for a change—its clients are attacked, and Murderbot gets pissed off. As the danger mounts and the bodies pile up, Murderbot’s true nature is exposed. And when its human clients treat it like a person, the painfully shy Murderbot doesn’t know how to deal with the attention. SecUnits don’t have friends, not even other SecUnits. (Especially not other SecUnits.) Let’s just say it has trust issues: serious, justified trust issues.

Over the course of the four novellas in the Murderbot Diaries—the Hugo and Nebulla award-winning All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy—Murderbot goes from pretending to be a standard-issue command-driven killing machine to being a fully autonomous agent, taking responsibility and earning respect for its decisions. It learns to pass for human, too, but don’t be mistaken—it isn’t human, and doesn’t want to be. It is, however, a person, and it learns that once it starts caring, it’s hard to stop…

This action-packed space opera bounces along at a breakneck pace between pitched battles and narrow escapes, interspersed with snarky humour and touching scenes of relationship building. It also has the feel of a movie deliberately paced so fast that you’re not given time to notice how absurd it all is. With technology as advanced as artificial gravity and AI-driven spaceships, you’d think they would have computer security that wasn’t quite so vulnerable to Murderbot’s hacking. And as someone who has worked in Software Engineering for decades, that on-the-fly, dead-on-accurate hacking just wasn’t believable, nor was its ability to do the hacking while simultaneously controlling its own actions, rescuing unpredictable humans, and monitoring multiple input streams. Just how much processing power does this beast have? And how does it recharge whatever its power source is once it leaves the corporation’s repair cubicles behind?

Yeah, the old wilful suspension of disbelief got a good workout.

Despite that and a few other flaws, I enjoyed the stories immensely, because they are really more about character than plot or sci-fi tech. As with most of the best speculative fiction, the author uses a non-human to explore what it means to be human—well, maybe not human, but certainly a person—touching on issues of free will, autonomy, self-knowledge, and fear of intimacy. The protagonist is one of the more endearing and relatable constructs I can remember encountering. It constantly criticises its own actions, focusing on its mistakes and underestimating its resourcefulness, and regularly being surprised when the humans it protects react warmly towards it. Imagine: an AI suffering from imposter syndrome.

And that’s another thing I like about this series. In this imagined future, like the universe in Ancillary Justice, there’s no question about AIs having emotions. That’s simply assumed. Even the fully inorganic AI that serves as Murderbot’s unwanted mentor in Artificial Condition, the second novella, has emotions; its initial interactions with Murderbot are driven by sheer boredom. Murderbot itself is an emotional wreck at the beginning of the series. The questions about emotions here are more around how the AIs deal with them when their human owners still view them as subhuman.

A full-length novel, Network Effect, is due out soon. I’m looking forward to it.

Audience: adults and teens. Contains violence and obscenities, but no trace of sex.

Posted in Space Opera | Leave a comment

2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards

Are you aware of the Sir Julius Vogel awards? Sir Julius Vogel was a prominent early immigrant to New Zealand. Besides being New Zealand’s Premier in the 1870s, he wrote New Zealand’s first science fiction novel, published in 1889. The awards named after him celebrate excellence in science fiction, fantasy, and horror created by New Zealand citizens and residents. The awards (these futuristic little trophies) are handed out at the annual New Zealand National Science Fiction Convention.

This year, however, is special. The Vogel awards will be handed out this year at the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, being held right here in Wellington, New Zealand. The publicity boost that will give the winners—and even the short-listed finalists—will be terrific.

So, since you’re here, reading my blog post, I’m asking you to nominate my novel The Blacksmith for Best Novel, if you’ve read and enjoyed it. Anyone can make a nomination. Literally anyone: all you need is an email address. You don’t have to be a New Zealand citizen. You don’t even have to be a New Zealand resident. If you can read this post, you can make a nomination. This is a fan-based award, and if there are too many nominations for the short list, the ones with the fewest nominations are dropped. So every nomination counts!

Making a nomination is quick, easy, and free. The form is here

This is all you have to enter to nominate The Blacksmith:

  • Your email address
  • Your name
  • Whether or not you are an SFFANZ member (If you don’t know what this is, then “No”)
  • Title of Work: The Blacksmith
  • Author/Artist: Barbara Howe
  • Category: Best Novel
  • Publisher: IFWG Australia

That’s it! See, easy.

If you’ve read anything else by a New Zealand author that excited you and that was published in 2019, please consider making a nomination for them, too. There’s a (not necessarily complete) list of eligible works here.

Nominations close on 31 March 2020, but if you wait you’ll forget. Do it now!

Posted in New Zealand | 2 Comments

From a Shadow Grave

Seventeen-year-old Phyllis Symons was murdered in 1931, struck on the head and then buried alive in fill from the excavation of Wellington’s Mount Victoria tunnel*. That historical fact is the springboard for From a Shadow Grave, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan. This novella is divided into four chapters, with the first imagining what Phyllis’s life might have been like in a sequence of events leading up to her murder, and her shadow existence afterwards as a ghost. Our sympathy is drawn for a poor, not well-educated, probably dyslexic girl struggling to find her way among the constrained economics of the Great Depression. The author evokes sympathy for the ghost, too, a lonely spirit stuck forever on Mount Victoria:

Your mother visits the Karori Cemetery every Sunday after church for a year, but she never visits Mount Victoria. She visits your body, but she never visits you.

But this isn’t simply a ghost story. It’s more about what-ifs and possibilities. The first chapter is the starting point for the other three, each one a different direction the story could have gone after Symons’s burial.

In the first alternative, it is eighty years later, and a young Maori woman named Aroha Brooke climbs Mt Vic, looking for Phyllis. She promises to break the bond tying the ghost to her death site, in exchange for Phyllis’s help in fighting something much more menacing than a ghost.

In the second alternative, Aroha travels back in time, hoping to find Phyllis before she suffocates.

The speculative fiction elements are less significant in the third alternative, which is more about ordinary human determination and acceptance. Aroha reappears, but only as a minor character. The focus is on Phyllis, who grows into a more active player in her own story.

From a Shadow Grave is poignant and beautifully written, enough so to overcome my dislike of second-person narration. (You do this, you feel that, …) I wish we had learned more about what drives Aroha, but that’s a minor quibble. It’s a lovely story as is.


*Paying tribute to her ghost is the explanation often given for the annoying tradition of drivers tooting their car horns in the tunnel.

Posted in Kiwi author | Leave a comment

Snow Falling on Cedars

The time: December 1954. The place: a courtroom in a small town on an island in Puget Sound. Kabuo Miaymoto, the American-born son of Japanese immigrants, is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, an American of European descent. Both men, along with the community’s other salmon gill-netters, had spent the night of 15 September in their boats out in the fog-bound sound. One of them had a problem with his boat, and the other came by to help. In the morning, Carl’s boat was found drifting. In the water, his body is trapped in his own net. The medical examiner’s verdict: he went into the water and drowned after receiving a serious blow to the head.

Carl and Kabuo were World War II veterans who reluctantly became fishermen to make a living, but both wanted to retire from fishing and grow strawberries, the local cash crop. The two men had been friends while growing up in the 1930s, but—according to the prosecutor—had recently come into conflict when a tract of land came up for sale, and both men tried to buy it. Carl wanted it because it had been his family’s farm—his widowed mother sold it against his wishes while he was away at war. Kabuo wanted a subsection, seven acres (out of thirty-five), that his father had been buying from Carl’s father. It had been almost paid off, but the forced relocation of Japanese immigrants to internment camps derailed their ability to pay. When Carl’s father died, his mother returned the Miaymoto’s money and sold the whole tract to another farmer, for a higher per-acre price. Kabuo, understandably, felt they had been cheated.

The local newspaperman, Ishmael Chambers, watches the trial closely. Another veteran, he lost an arm in the Battle of Tarawa against the Japanese. He is basically a decent, honourable man who has become embittered by the war and unrequited love for Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue. It is his conscience that becomes the linchpin on which this story turns.

Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson, is a mix of mystery, courtroom drama, police procedural, and exploration of the hidden passions of the human heart. The courtroom scenes are the weakest part, as there are no courtroom fireworks; the trial serves mainly as a framework on which Guterson hangs extended flashbacks showing the police work and the history of the relationships among the four major characters (the three men plus Hatsue).

The mystery is well-done, and more satisfying—both in terms of the mechanics of how Carl’s death came about and in the believability of the characters’ actions—than most genre efforts I’ve read recently, but it is much more than a simple mystery. It is a deep dive into a number of things, including rural island life mid-century and the hardships Japanese-American experienced, particularly after Pearl Harbour.

Prejudice plays a part in the story, specifically in the way Carl’s mother treats the Miaymotos, and more generally in random ugly behaviour by small-town louts, but the tone of the book overall is rather more optimistic. Not everyone in the community is equally culpable. Carl’s father deals fairly with Kabuo’s father, Ishmael’s father keeps printing opinion columns in the paper urging tolerance and fair play despite threats and cancelations, and the president of the local Gill-Netters Association won’t let the prosecutor bully him into making prejudicial statements on the witness stand.

This is a splendid book, but if you are looking for a fast-paced mystery, look elsewhere. This is a dense, slow-paced, non-linear story, weaving back and forth between past and present. At several points I got tired of the masses of seemingly irrelevant detail. Do we really need to know about the defence attorney’s sex life, or lack thereof? Several times I put the book aside, thinking it would end up in the Did Not Finish pile, but I kept coming back to it because I wanted to know what happened. I’m glad now I did. Yes, there is a lot of detail here, and some of it could have been trimmed, but I don’t remember any other book I’ve read in the past year that has left me with as strong a sense of place, or with mental images that are as vivid. From the fog on the sound to drizzle dripping through the cedars, from fruit pickers squatting beside strawberry plants to windshield wipers fighting a losing battle with snow and ice, this book is full of sensory detail. A slow reading pays off.

Audience: adult. Explicit sex, swearing, and carnage on the beach at Tarawa.

Posted in Mysteries | Leave a comment

Rose in Bloom

The flurry of news articles about the latest movie adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s Little Women prompted me to pull one of her less well-known novels off my bookshelf. I’ve read Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, but it’s my copy of Rose in Bloom that’s falling apart from overuse. Maybe it was because I read Rose in Bloom first, or I was just at the right age to be captivated when I read it, but it was the pairing in that novel that thrilled my young teen heart, and became the gold standard for what I look for in a satisfying romance.

WARNING: if the idea of cousins marrying disturbs you, skip this one. It’s not for you.

The main character, Rose Campbell, lives in Boston amidst a close-knit extended family of aunts and uncles, great-aunts, and cousins. Good-natured and good-looking, and in possession of a fortune inherited from her late parents, she is naturally surrounded by suitors, but some of her aunts and uncles would like her to marry one of her cousins to keep her money in the family. Her cousin Charlie is happy to oblige, and for a while it seems as if he has the upper hand over his rivals. He is, after all, the cousin generally considered to be the most promising—the one the other boys, only partly in jest, call Prince Charlie. But this Prince Charming has little going for him other than charm, and Rose soon realises that although she likes him, she doesn’t respect him.

When trouble comes, as of course it does, Rose turns for help to a cousin with more substance and strength of character, and it is this relationship, based on childhood friendship, trust, and mutual respect, that grows and deepens over the course of the book, and in the end, catches fire. Best of all, this model of integrity and quiet optimism is a bookworm. A bona fide, certifiable nerd.

Alcott goes a bit overboard towards the end, turning her Ugly Duckling character into a swan, I suppose to prove that he’s worthy of Rose. I never thought he needed the polishing. (What can I say? I married a nerd. I’m one myself. Some other readers have cried over the more elegant Charlie, but he didn’t interest me.)

Rose in Bloom is the sequel to the novel Eight Cousins, but it isn’t necessary to have read that one first. Eight Cousins is the story of Rose’s early teen years, after she was newly orphaned. She had spent most of her young life in the restrictive world of upper-class girls’ boarding schools, and wasn’t prepared for her introduction to her seven boisterous male cousins and their more active life style. Uncle Alec, her new guardian, is a forward-thinking physician who encourages her to exercise and think for herself, and she blossoms under his care. Eight Cousins is an episodic story about a girl dealing with universal challenges girls still deal with: peer pressure, healthy self-esteem, etc. It’s a decent story on its own, it just doesn’t stir the same emotional response in me that Rose in Bloom does.

I love the feminist slant of Alcott’s work, but like many of her stories for young readers, both Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom suffer from occasionally being syrupy sweet and preachy. Taken individually, most of the points she makes have good sense to them—Why spend money on clothes in the latest fashion if the style doesn’t look good on  you?—but taken together they can add up to an uncomfortable dose of Puritanism. You know, that haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having fun. (By the way, even though upright characters and good moral examples were apparently what parents in the 1870s expected of books for their children, those expectations annoyed Alcott herself. She called her own books “moral pap for the young”, and preferred her “blood and thunder” pulp fiction. I’m going to have to read one of those someday to satisfy my curiosity about what she really found entertaining.)

As a teen, I devoured Alcott’s books, despite their flaws, and as an adult I still find them appealing.

Audience: teen girls, primarily, but fun for us older folk too. When I read it to my daughter some years ago my husband, rather surprisingly, got caught up in the romance as much as she did.

Posted in Chick Lit, Children's Fiction | 2 Comments

The End of a Long Journey is in Sight

The end of my nearly ten-year trek through Frankland—the setting of the Reforging series—is finally in sight. I wrote the first scene in the first book, The Locksmith, in October 2010. The first scenes of the fifth and final book (current working title: The Forge) began to take shape on an ‘artist’s retreat’ with my sister (she painted, I wrote) in October 2016 at Barnwell State Park in South Carolina. (She had quite an experience when Hurricane Matthew roared through later that week.)

By New Year’s Eve 2016, I had nearly a third of the fifth book written, and there the momentum stalled. Over the next two-plus years it slowly accreted the next third in fits and starts. Part of the slow pace was due to other things taking priority—notably finishing off the earlier books in the series!—but it was also due to problems with the plot. I had worked out a detailed outline, but the characters refused to go along. They insisted on taking the story in different directions than I had intended, and it wasn’t until I dropped part of the outline and listened to what they wanted that the rest of it took shape.

And now, after a solid two weeks of writing—thanks to an end-of-the-year break from my day job and repeated requests to my family to not bother me, I’m busy—the rough draft of the fifth book is done. Woohoo!

I haven’t finished reading it to my alpha testers—husband and daughter—but they are happy with it so far, three-quarters of the way through. There is still lots of work needed, of course: fixing plot holes and inconsistencies, smoothing out bumpy transitions, trimming the bloated boring bits, and all the other fixups and polishing needed to turn a draft into a publishable story. I will soon have to deal with editing The Wordsmith (book 4), so I will put The Forge aside and come back to it with fresh eyes after that.

In the meantime, before I get the editor’s comments on The Wordsmith, I’m going to enjoy a few days of a real holiday, eating chocolate and binge-reading British mysteries and Regency romances. Nom nom nom.

Posted in A Writer's Life | 2 Comments

2019 Recap

The Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve, and spending the rest of the evening reading and eating chocolate, sounds to me like a great tradition. My family knows they’ll be getting books from me—I generally do at least half my holiday shopping in the bookstore—and books are always on my wish lists.

If you’re looking for gift ideas, here are the books—some old, some new—that I read or reviewed this year that most excited me, either because they made me think, or they were just plain fun. (Of course, if you’d rather read them yourself than give them away, that’s OK too!)

In no particular order:

  • The Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie: Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy: space opera at its best. An AI embarks on a quest for justice in a highly stratified, militaristic society.
  • Weaveworld by Clive Barker: hope, heroism, and devotion amid horrors and attempted genocide. What can be imagined is never entirely lost.
  • Shards of Honour by Lois McMaster Bujold: another space opera, this is a wild rollercoaster ride with a terrific female protagonist juggling demands of the heart with wartime duty.
  • This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin by Emma Darwin: a non-fiction deep dive into one writer’s creative process, and what happened when that process failed.
  • Restoration Day by Deborah Makarios: a clean, noble bright fairytale with a heroine who has to grow up fast and a hero who is definitely not Prince Charming.
  • Sorcery and Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer: a Regency romance with magic.
  • The Molenstraat Music Festival by Sean Mongahan: a lovely novella about loss, discovery, hard choices, and the depth of feeling in a student/teacher relationship.
  • The Kingfisher’s Debt by Kura Carpenter: an urban fantasy including a mystery and a sweet romance, and featuring the Fair Folk, Elementals, and police in Dunedin, New Zealand.
  • The Case of the Missing Kitchen by Barbara Else: part family drama, part madcap farce, this murder mystery with an endearing nutcase protagonist starts at a run and never slows down.
  • The Lord of Stariel by A J Lancaster: a fairytale combining family drama, mystery, and sweet romance, with a competent, likeable female protagonist.
  • Temeraire (or His Majesty’s Dragon) by Naomi Novik: the Napoleonic wars with dragons.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: six interconnected stories ranging from the 19th-century South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic future.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman: Holocaust memoir as graphic novel.
  • The 13 Clocks by James Thurber: this old favourite is a fairytale full of wordplay, begging to be read aloud.
  • Where We Land by Tim Jones: a novella exploring the human costs of the worsening climate crisis.
  • Moonheart by Charles de Lint: the setting—semi-sentient, world-straddling Tamson House—makes this Canadian urban fantasy unique.
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Cloud Atlas

The most notable feature of David Mitchell’s award-winning—and challenging—novel Cloud Atlas is the book’s structure. Made up of six loosely-connected novellas, each in a radically different style and time period, this novel nests the six stories like Russian dolls. The book opens with the story set in the oldest time period, then forty pages later, that story is interrupted to start the next. We work from past to present then future with the uninterrupted sixth story in the middle, and then work our way back out in reverse order, picking up each interrupted story where it left off. (Thankfully only one story is interrupted in the middle of a sentence.)

The six stories by themselves range from not bad to excellent; together they complement each other and add up to something that feels a bit more than the sum of its parts. The critics who call this a masterpiece are right; I’m amazed by the stylistic virtuosity on display.

The overall theme, as I understand it, is the immutability of human nature, with the strong preying on the weak. That sounds like a downer—some of the individual stories are, with one suicide, one threatened execution, and several murders, attempted or succesful—but some of them have positive endings, some human connections are made and trust established, and the first/final story ends on a hopeful note, with the narrator pledging his life to a noble cause.

The connections between the stories are rather tenuous, but each story plays some role in the next: the journal in the first story is read by the second story’s letter writer, his letters are passed on to the journalist in the third, and so on. There are also hints of reincarnation, with a recurring birthmark (a device I found more silly than helpful).

The six stories are:

  • The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing: In the opening story the prey is Ewing himself. An American lawyer traveling from Australia back to the United States in the mid 19th-century, Ewing records his encounter with an abused slave in the Chatham Islands, and his burgeoning friendship with another passenger, Henry Goose. The slave, Autua, stows away aboard ship, and Ewing talks the captain out of tossing the man overboard, a decision that turns out to have been a wise move.
  • Letters from Zedelghem: Young bisexual musician Robert Frobisher writes frantic letters to his English lover, Rufus Sixsmith. It’s 1931, in the Netherlands, and Frobisher is working as amanuensis (secretary/copyist) to an established, and dying, older musician, Vyvyan Ayrs. While there, Frobisher begins work on his own magnum opus, Cloud Atlas Sextet. Ayrs and Frobisher prey on each other, with Frobisher having an affair with Ayrs’s wife, and the exhausted Ayrs taking credit for Frobisher’s work.
  • Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery: This mystery/thriller, set in 1975, follows journalist Luisa Rey’s attempt to expose corporate malfeasance. A nuclear power plant is not safe, and potential whistleblowers are found dead.
  • The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish: This comedy, set in the present day, is both funny and cringe-inducing. Cavendish, in his 60’s, keeps asking his brother for money. His exasperated brother sends him to what Cavendish thinks is a hotel, but turns out to be a nightmare of a nursing home for the demented. Unable to leave or get a message to anyone outside, he teams up with other disgruntled residents to escape.
  • An Orison of Sonmi~451: An archivist interviews a ‘fabricant’, a cloned woman named Sonmi~451. Set in a futuristic dystopian Korea, society is completely controlled by corporations. Sonmis and clones of other named models are cheap labour for the ‘purebloods,’ their mental abilities deliberately restricted by chemical manipulation. They are promised that after twelve years of labour, they can retire to a fabricant paradise in Honolulu, but that promise is a lie. Sonmi falls into the hands of a group of pureblood university students and faculty, and they free her from the mental constraints imposed on fabricants so that she can tell her story and help them foment rebellion.
  • Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After: An old man, Zachry, tells a story from his youth. His world is post-apocalyptic, devolved into primitive tribalism. Zachry’s people are peaceful farmers, preyed on by a tribe of cannibalistic slavers. They also have limited contact with a group called the Prescients, who still have some education and technology. When a Prescient woman comes to study Zachry’s people, he finds it difficult to trust her. By the end of the story he must, as his life is upended and the two of them are left with only each other to rely on.

The first story (the journal) may be difficult for some readers to get through, given its rather languid 19th-century style. The rest have a more brisk pace, with the middle stories being fairly easy reads. The fifth story, in projecting a corporation-dominated future, plays with branding to give a sense of future-speak. Sonmi’s world is filled with disneys (videos), sonys (cell phones), and rolexes (clocks), etc., and some spellings are a bit different, too, but the language is still very accessible. The sixth story, however… This is the opening sentence:

Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no saying’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me.

This is still clearly English, but an English distorted to give a sense of a significant passage of time and social upheaval. It was, for me, a difficult read, and I started it feeling more irritated than engaged. I was surprised, then, that by the end, this story was the most moving, leaving me filled with an aching sense of loss.

Audience: Adult. Violence, sex—pretty much the whole human condition.

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