28 February 2011


A friend with similar tastes to my own recently lent me a couple of books she thought I would appreciate. She was quite right.

Soulless by Gail Carriger

This first book in the Parasol Protectorate series is a funny, romantic and supernatural steampunk novel that only made me want to read more. It is witty and somehow irreverent despite the very Victorian focus on manners, style, social niceties and not wearing awful hats.

The setting is well constructed, creating a world in which vampires and werewolves (and ghosts, oh my!) live in the open as part of society, without it being a horror setting. There is a system in place for those of the supernatural set (as immortals/undead are known) and they are for the most part respectable - although where would pseudo-Victorian society be without social stratification.

The main character, one Miss Alexia Tarabotti, is a wonderfully witty heroine. A 26 year old spinster whose unfortunate marital state starts with obvious Italian heritage, continues with a silly mother and proceeds with intelligence, an inquiring mind and an acerbic conversational manner. The author lists P. G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen as influences, and you can see these plainly enough. However I wish that there had been a character like Alexia in Pride and Prejudice, that book could have done with someone who wasn't afraid to whack people upside the head with a parasol.*

The mystery plotline is intriguing and well-done, although there's limited focus on the investigation work, the ploy relies more and things happening and matters coming to light. However I suspect that this is likely to change in subsequent books as the heroine is put in a better position for sleuthing and field work. Despite a very different tone it reminded somewhat of George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes series (which I also recommend - it's also steampunk but has a more restrained attitude and a sinister supernatural feel to it).

The romance is interesting and the reader can feel the emotions involved, which in my opinion is what makes literary romance work. The romantic scenes are handled in an interesting and fairly novel fashion that manages to be amusing as well as odd. As someone who is not fond of sexual scenes I felt that the author was smart to make me amused and bemused while describing what the characters were doing. It makes a nice change from reading romantic scenes that are presumably supposed to be sexy and erotic, but actually just leave me waiting for the plot to begin again. In this case it did very much feel like a part of the plot.

All in all a pretty good book. I look forward to reading more.

* Pride and Prejudice can be made more interesting by the addition of almost anything. The fact that the most popular mash-up involved zombies, the blandest type of undead, was just fitting really.

27 February 2011

Life intervened

I had every intention of blogging before now, but I've had a very knackering week at work. Combined with less sleep than usual this has led to a distinct lack of creative output.
You would think that, as an avid reader, boxes of new books would be an enjoyable sight for me -especially as I suggested some of them. However the problem with working with what you love is that sometimes it is just work.
New books rather lose their appeal when you know that every one of them needs processing, on top of what you're already supposed to be doing. Especially when certain high street book chains have incredibly unhelpful and hard to use invoices.

That said, all this has not dulled my desire to read one bit, after all it's not the fault of the books that this happened. In fact my desire for escapism meant I put down the non-fiction and picked up a fantasy novel loaned to me by a friend whose taste is fairly similar to my own.

I expect normal service (such as it exists after 4 months -one of which was blighted by technical problems) to resume in a matter of days.

20 February 2011

Return of the History Mug - Early Normans

I'm reading David Starkey's Crown and Country. A history of England told through the monarchy.

So far I've read from the departure of the Romans through the Anglo-Saxon period, the Vikings and the Norman Conquest to Henry II.
Thomas Becket's just been made Archbishop of Canterbury and I have a bad feeling about it. Funnily enough, so did he.

I don't know much about the Anglo-Saxon period, most king lists start at 1066 so it tends to get overlooked. Turns out it involved a lot of people called Æthel-something, ruling mostly by consent of the people. The Staffordshire Hoard was mentioned as one of the most important finds in the last 50 years. I didn't see the Hoard when it was first in my local museum, mostly due to the massive queue. It was nice to see that so many people were interested in it though.

Earlier (20th November 2010) I mentioned my History Mug, which has pictures of the Kings and Queens of England since 1066. The pictures generally show something about each monarch, but sometimes I'd like more info. It occurred to me today that this book could give me some answers.

Early Norman Kings
William the Conqueror was known as William the Bastard. Partly because his parents never married each other and partly because he trashed the north of England sowing death and destruction as he went.

William II is shown being shot through the lung while hunting in the New Forest. His companions ran off, so a peasant had to clear his body away. The exact circumstances aren't known, but his brother Henry rushed off and became king ever so quickly.

Henry I made himself a popular king, rather than just being some French bloke who ruled the country. He linked himself with earlier kings, like Edward the Confessor, and set up an effective administration, including many Anglo-Saxon traditions. As King of England he took Normandy from yet another older brother and rebalanced his father's previous conquest. The book probably indicates his reputation as an intelligent, scholarly king.

16 February 2011

The Windup Girl

This is probably the best science fiction book I've read since The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper.
Admittedly I don't read all that much science fiction. I consider myself an SF fan, I like sci-fi TV and film, but when it comes to reading matter fantasy is my main love and I don't tend to read outside that genre as much as perhaps I should. I like soft science fiction* and although I have read hard SF I tend to find that if I do I also read something else at the same time, so I can feel like I understand something I'm reading.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The book is set in Bangkok in the future. There are no dates, which is probably a shrewd move on the part of Bacigalupi, as anything with a date can become dated, and those with a historical frame of mind (like myself) are likely to find fault with whatever date is given. As far as I can tell it is set about three generations after the fuel ran out. Our time is referred to as the Expansion, a golden-age when people and goods and all sorts of food were transported all over the globe. A time of plenty and decadence before plagues and genetic tinkering ravaged eco-systems and wiped out so many species of flora and fauna. There is a sense of dystopia to the setting, of mass starvation, of diminished population, of corporate greed and political factioning. However it doesn't feel like a regular dystopia, in fact I've never come across one like it. My view of a dystopia is something cold and industrial (which is probably a cultural, if not personal, thing), the future Bangkok of the book is definitely un-industrial, it's squalid and crowded and mostly it's hot.

The heat and humidity are very palpable in the book. Whilst several of the characters are Thai or Chinese, there is a farang (foreigner) from America who is obviously uncomfortable in the tropic climate. There is also the eponymous windup girl, one of the genetically-engineered beings who are created by the Japanese. They are prone to over-heating in any high temperatures and are designed to be kept by the rich who can afford climate control, being in Bangkok is agony for her most of the time. The setting seemed exotic and different to other settings I've read about. I don't know much about modern Thailand- and the author does warn that this work of fiction is not to be taken as a reflection of it- but it was interesting to learn random Thai words and see how the Kingdom was viewed by both the native and foreigner characters.

The world is revealed through the events of the story, info-dumping is kept to a minimum. The plot starts out fairly slowly, but as the reader is invested in the characters and finding out more about the setting this doesn't matter. Getting information and building a picture of what's happening early on is just as interesting as the fast paced action and sudden changes of fortune that come later in the book. The plot is basically a political thriller, seen through the eyes of non-politicians. The story features factions and trade disputes and dwells on the conflict between entrepreneurship and traditionalism, but it doesn't feel like you're reading about these things because it's all so absorbing and fascinating. The author makes us care about these things because the characters do, and the characters are in most cases so invested in these things that they become matters of life or death.

Anderson Lake is an American factory owner in Bangkok, or at least that's what he seems to be. He's on a mission and is desperate to accomplish it. Despite having an American character (with a name like that, there's few other places he could be from) there is very little about America in the book. I'm not even certain that it's what we would recognise as the US anymore. The main references are made about the Midwest calorie companies, global corporations that control the world's food supply, or try to.

Hock Seng is a Chinese refugee from Malaysia (known as a yellowcard). Once a rich man he's survived a sudden reversal of fortune which has made him paranoid and opportunistic. You can't help but feel sorry for the old man who is simply trying to perpare for the next time his world gets swept out from underneath him.

Emiko is New People, otherwise known as a windup -created and trained by the Japanese to be a pleasing servant. Like Hock Seng she has sunk low and realises that despite the luxury in which she used to exist, she has never had any say in her own fate. Classed as illegal goods in Thailand she lives in discomfort and survives by being abused and degraded for others' entertainment.

Jaidee is a passionate man. A Captain in the Environment Ministery he sees it as his job to protect the Kingdom from disease and famine which are so rife in the outside world. Resolute and incorruptible, it's surprising how good-humored and swashbuckling Jaidee is. Certainly from early on he is one of the more dynamic characters.

Kanya is Jaidee's Lieutenant. Dour and serious she is initially overshadowed by Jaidee's exuberance, but soon comes into her own. Kanya is not perhaps the most likeable character but it's hard not to sympathise with the position she's in, even if it is of her own making.

This book won a Nebula, (joint)Hugo and Locus award. I can see why. I definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good adventure story and doesn't mind being made to think too.

6 February 2011

Raised by Wolves

Raised by Wolves by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

I quite like werewolves as a type of supernatural creature. I especially like the kind that shift into full wolves, rather than the scary, vaguely-wolflike monsters that come out exclusively during full moons. I definitely like werewolves more than vampires, I may blog about that at a later date.

This book is not that romantic. Despite appearance and marketing the focus isn’t on a relationship but on solving a mystery and tackling danger. However paranormal romance is the bread and butter of teen/young adult publishing at the moment, so I can see where the marketing decision came from.
The plot, after initially giving the reader space to understand the rules of werewolf society, is a good one, going quickly in unexpected directions. Once you realise that it isn’t going to turn into a romance you have a decent intrigue and action story. The heroine’s viewpoint defines the entire thing, and it’s necessarily very teenage in tone, but that’s the target audience so fair enough. Long held secrets are revealed and a change of scenery leads to investigation and danger. The ending is not at all what I’d imagined it would be, and it’s good when a book pleasantly surprises you.

The story is told in first-person point of view by Bronwyn, usually known as Bryn. Bryn is a 15 year old human who has been raised by werewolves ever since she was 4, when she lost her family in a rogue attack. The author has created a separate werewolf society which exists alongside, but hidden from, our own. The idea of the Pack –involving loyalty, hierarchy and psychic bonds- isn’t unusual, but Barnes has made the idea her own. For example female werewolves are very, very rare; most werewolves take human mates, who will most likely die in childbirth as werewolf babies are tough on human bodies. The alpha of a Pack is undisputed leader with a form of psychic control over all members, and punishments for disobedience are brutal.
So far so patriarchal, one might think.
However this world is seen through the eyes of a teenage girl who seems mostly normal and remarkably confident and self-assured. Though Bryn is officially adopted by iron-willed, centuries-old alpha Callum, she is raised by Ali, a young human woman. This allowed Bryn to grow up with human ideas and modern thinking. Though bonded to the Pack, Bryn keeps her end of the psychic link closed tight. She is her own person with her own mind, and she wants to keep it that way. She doesn’t get involved in dominance games or hierarchy, even though these things are the fabric of her world. It’s easy to like Bryn for her determination and ability to remain so independent. Her headstrong stubbornness gets her in to trouble, but it also makes her interesting and means that she is very much her own person. This is something which I think is important in teenage female leads.

Then Chase enters the scene, a lad who survived an attack and has inexplicably become a werewolf himself. I kept expecting that the relationship would become romantic, it never really did. There’s psychic bond which isn’t really explained and the whole thing gets odd quite quickly. The two teens psychically claim each other “but in a non-freaky, non-ownership, we-both-retain-our-independence kind of way”. Chase wants to think of Bryn as his mate, but Bryn is thoroughly freaked out by the idea, and that’s that. There’s hugging, comforting, shared dreams and the useful ability to see into each others minds, but anything sexual is incredibly understated, and certainly isn’t seen that way by Bryn. This is good as it plays with reader expectations, but it does leave one without a convenient word or label for what’s going on. Perhaps that’s the point.

Chase is not a very distinct character. He starts out as a mystery then becomes Bryn’s and though the reader sees through his eyes and into his memories you don’t get much sense of who he was when he was human. The main supporting cast are caring adoptive-mother Ali and Bryn's two best friends. Devon is a strapping but flamboyant teenwolf who likes drama far more than basketball. This makes him a little unusual in werewolf circles, which is probably why he and Bryn (the token human) are friends. Bryn’s other friend Lake is unusual because she’s a female werewolf. She’s uncomplicated and forthright and loves weaponry, a hobby that comes in useful as the action ramps up. Devon and Lake have known Bryn all their lives which is probably why their personalities shine through much stronger than newcomer Chase.

Altogether I thought this book was intriguing. The author has created a male-dominated society with its own rules and customs, but was also able to feasibly create a confident and interesting female lead within that context. As it had been pitched as romantic I was initially confused by the lack of relationship stuff, but once the mystery and investigation elements got going I was sucked into that plotline. The werewolves and supernatural elements are treated as normal, there isn’t much sensawunder but the plot doesn’t need it. In general I think this book would appeal to readers of both genders – but I suspect the way its been marketed would put most boys off.