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House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008) 473 p.

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I was lukewarm about Alastair Reynolds’ debut novel Revelation Space but recently found myself going down a Wikipedia wormhole of his fictional universe while I was bored at work, remembered that in terms of sheer creativity and ideas I actually quite liked him, and figured he was worth another crack. The Revelation Space sequels are exactly the kind of books I was happier to read the Wikipedia synopses of rather than slog through hundreds of pages of more padding and thinly drawn characters, so I thought I’d jump ten years further into his career and read House of Suns.

I’m glad I did, because it’s really quite good. Revelation Space took place in a universe a few thousand years into human colonisation of the galaxy: a cold, bleak and frightening place full of extinct alien civilisations, decaying cities and autocratic governments, where humanity is clinging to life rather than prospering. House of Suns takes a rather different tack: humans are still the only intelligent life to arise in the galaxy, but after six million years we’ve splintered, evolved and gene-tweaked our way into a million daughter species who have flourished in every corner of the galaxy – a steady tide of thousands of different stellar empires rising and falling. The novel is built around the concept of “shatterlings,” the thousands clones of wealthy industrialists who – back in the solar system, six million years ago – sent them forth to explore the galaxy. Thanks to the time-dilating effects of near-light travel, cryogenic freezing and generally advanced medicine, these clones operate on an entirely different timescale than other human civilisations; at one point a different kind of near-immortal describes the protagonist as “a bookworm who has tunnelled through the pages of history.” The shatterlings have powerful starships, conduct engineering feats on grand scales, trade with other civilisations for their immense amount of accumulated knowledge, and are generally perceived by lesser human civilisations as something like angels or gods.

Plotwise, House of Suns revolves around the shatterlings Campion and Purslane of the Gentian Line, i.e they are both clones of a woman named Gentian. They’re engaged in a taboo love affair and are on their way to one of the regular reunions held by the Gentian Line  every few hundred thousand years. Upon their late arrival at the designated system they discover their Line has been ambushed and nearly wiped out. Most of the book is a mystery, as Campion, Purslane and the other surviving Gentians try to figure out who tried to annihilate their Line, and why.

House of Suns grabbed me right from the beginning. Over ten years of his writing career Reynolds has really improved: there’s far less bloat, the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and information is never brazenly withheld from the reader (a repeated sin in Revelation Space). The characters are still a bit flat, but I found it nice to read about people who are friendly and helpful to each other, rather than the cast of Revelation Space, who were bafflingly hostile and suspicious of each other even when they were natural allies. The plot gets a bit complex towards the end, but most of the loose ends are tied up and the conclusion is really quite nice. Highly recommended for sci-fi fans.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2015) 404 p.

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This was one of the critical darlings of the past few years, garnering rave reviews everywhere from Strange Horizons to the Guardian. I was surprised by how much I disliked it, even though in the case of Becky Chambers that’s a bit like kicking a puppy.

The story, such as it is, revolves around the multi-species crew of the wormhole-building ship the Wayfarer: a gang of Super Best Friends who zip around the galaxy in their cosy spaceship drinking tea, talking about their feelings and braiding their hair. (Yes, there is actually a hair braiding scene.) I could tell within the first 100 pages that this was absolutely not the book for me, but stuck with it partly to see if it improved and partly to rubberneck. Calling it “girlish” feels sexist, but the problem I have with it is specifically that it’s girlish rather than feminine, which is to say, it’s juvenile. It’s not YA, it’s not juvenile in a good way – it’s juvenile in the sense that it appeals to a child’s cosy fantasies rather than genuinely grappling with the world.

The conflict and drama in this book, while theoretically there, is anodyne. Crises arrive, are quickly solved, and then everybody talks about how it made them feel for the next fifty pages in passages that feel more like exercises from a self-help book than dialogue in a novel, let alone an actual conversation. Everybody is super courteous and incredibly understanding of each other’s feelings at all times… except for Corbin the fuel specialist, a character deliberately written to act like a needless jerk merely so he can serve as a whipping boy for the rest of the crew, who talk about how they wish they could push him out the airlock. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Corbin is the only white male in the book.

I’m sure that fans of the book – and there are a lot of them, apparently – would disagree that the novel is without conflict. Sure, a couple of bad things happen; sure, there are nasty things in this galaxy. But rather than have her characters face up to them, Chambers opts every single time for a predictable homily about the importance of respecting differences or the value of friendship.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has all the usual problems of a debut sci-fi novel – brazen exposition, flat characters, insipid writing – but it was really that cloying, all-pervasive niceness that drove me up the wall. This is not a grown-up novel. This is Enid Blyton meets Tumblr. This is the Babysitter’s Club in space. This is a paper version of chamomile tea and a hot bath. If that sounds like your thing, go nuts. If you want something less insufferably twee, there are far more challenging and well-written space opera series out there.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987) 208 p.

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This one was a bit of a slow burn (appropriately enough – a moon tiger is a mosquito coil), narrated by an old woman dying of cancer in hospital and looking back on her life. Important notes struck include her incestuous relationship with her brother, her adoption of a Hungarian student marooned in London after the 1956 revolution, her lukewarm relationship with her daughter, and most importantly of all, her tragically short romance with a tank commander in Egypt during World War II.

Sometimes I finish a book but don’t get around to reviewing it until later, and realise that only a week has passed and I’ve forgotten the main character’s name. Moon Tiger is one of those. I warmed to it as it went on, and enjoyed the second half more than the first. I liked Lively’s evocative description of WWII-era Cairo and its bustling population of millions of Arabs living in the shadow of a vanished civilisation, putting up with the occupying British waging a war the Arabs don’t care about. But that’s the kind of book Moon Tiger is – a good one, a well-written one, but one where I know a year from now I’ll remember very little from it except a handful of scenes and impressions.

 

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (1991) 286 p.
Discworld #12 (Witches #3)

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In the tiny hilltop kindom of Lancre, the witch Desiderata Hollow passes away – and passes on her magic wand and responsibilities as a Fairy Godmother to Magrat, the youngest of Granny Weatherwax’s coven. The three witches must set out for the distant city of Genua to find Magrat’s young charge Ella (as in Cinderella) and free her from the manipulations of her other, evil Fairy Godmother, Lilith – who also happens to be the de facto ruler of Genua, having deposed the old Baron.

Witches Abroad, as the title suggests, is a road story. The witches don’t actually arrive in Genua until halfway through the book. The first half is a sequence of comedic setpieces as a pair of old biddies and their exasperated younger friend bumble their way through Foreign Parts. (“Abroad” is such a classically English word.) At first – the dwarves, the vampire village, the running of the bulls – this is a reason for Pratchett to exercise his overactive imagination in amusing vignettes. As the witches approach Genua, however, their encounters are lifted straight out of fairytales – not just because Pratchett wants an excuse to satirise them, as would have been the case in previous Discworld novels, but because Lilith is deliberately engineering her local world to resemble a world of fairytales, regardless of the implications. This comes out most strongly in the Red Riding Hood analogue, as the witches save an old woman, only to find that the Big Bad Wolf is a victim as well – an ordinary wolf given human predatory instincts, slowly going insane:

She stared at the wolf, wondering what she could do for it. A normal wolf wouldn’t enter a cottage, even if it could open the door. Wolves didn’t come near humans at all, except if there were a lot of them and it was the end of a very hard winter. And they didn’t do that because they were big and bad and wicked, but because they were wolves.
This wolf was trying to be human.
There was probably no cure.

“Someone made this wolf think it was a person,” she said. “They made it think it was a person and then they didn’t think any more about it. It happened a few years ago.”

Lilith’s autocratic wonderland is on full display as the witches eventually reach Genua: a swamp town, a party town, a very clear New Orleans analogue. It seems a strange place to set your novel about fairytales and princesses, but Pratchett is deliberately contrasting it with another city in the same part of the real world – Orlando, and specifically Disneyworld. In an interview he said:

[Witches Abroad] had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.

The old Genua – the swampy shanty town – still clusters around the outskirts of the new Genua, a pristine, polished wonderland which is utterly soulless, and which reminded me of Lord Farquaad’s castle in Shrek (which is, of course, another paordy of Disneyworld). The witches go about finding Ella, encountering a voodoo swamp woman who is neither quite ally or enemy, and and attempting to disrupt the threads of narrative power that will enable Lilith to cement her hold on the people of Genua.

I remember liking Witches Abroad quite a lot when I first read it, and I still do. The plot hums along very nicely considering it’s a book of two halves, treading a good balance between comedy and gravitas, much like Wyrd Sisters and Guards! Guards! (In fact, it’s strange to me that Pratchett clearly hit upon excellent characters in Weatherwax and Vimes, yet waited so long to write their follow-up stories – six and seven books respectively, if you consider the Granny Weatherwax of Equal Rites to be a sort of proto-character.)

What works best of all is the dynamic between the three characters: Granny, the iron-willed leader of the group, a cranky and contemptuous woman who was “born to be good” and doesn’t like it; Nanny Ogg, the rambunctious, cheerful, drunken old hen, the kind of woman you wish you had as a crazy aunt, who’s nevertheless sharper and more powerful than she first seems; and Magrat, the youngest of them, a hippie-dippie New Age wet hen. Granny and Magrat in particular clash a lot over the use (or non-use) of magic and Granny’s scornful attitude towards Magrat’s idealism, which culminates in a very nice scene at the climax of the book in which Granny overcomes a voodoo practitioner by doing something she repeatedly told Magrat is impossible. (“When Esme uses words like ‘everyone’ and ‘no-one,’” Nanny Ogg notes, “she doesn’t include herself.”)

An excellent entry in the series, and I again have to say how puzzling it is, in retrospect, that Pratchett waited so long before reintroducing some of his best characters. He must have realised he was on to something after this one; after Small Gods, which is next (and possibly the only totally stand-alone book in the series) he went straight back to the witches with Lords and Ladies, which I recall being the high point of their arc. The City Watch books will start coming thick and fast soon as well.

Rereading Discworld Index

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (2006) 310 p.

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Told in the manner of a fireside fairytale, it becomes apparent early on that The Book of Lost Things – despite having a child for a main character and a strong Narnia influence – is something more of a dark urban fantasy for adults. David is a 12-year-old boy in London during World War II, struggling to adjust to the aftermath of his mother’s death, not getting along with his father’s new wife, and filling his spare time with reading. As one would expect, he eventually finds himself sucked into a fantasy world in which he encounters a series of traditional fairytale adventures while attempting to find his way home.

This makes The Book of Lost Things sound fairly predictable, and it is, but that doesn’t stop it from being enjoyable. Connolly has a pitch perfect narrative voice, capturing the tone of a mid-20th century fantasy writer telling a straightforward fairytale with hints at a darker narrative. (I could have done without the Pratchettesque communist Seven Dwarves, though, which completely jarred with the tone of the rest of the book).

It don’t think it’s a book which left a lasting impression on me, but it is one which I think was well-written, which I enjoyed a lot while I was reading it, and which I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend.

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve (2016) 303 p.

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Railhead ended with interstellar thief Zen Starling and his robotic friend and lover Nova escaping the encroaching forces of the Network Empire by riding their train through a newly-built teleportation gateway to an entirely alien railway network. That sentence sounds completely bonkers if you haven’t read Railhead, but the general gist is that it’s a space opera set in a far-future universe where people travel on intelligent trains, moving between different star systems by virtue of a network of mysterious gateways; there’s some confusion as to whether they were built by a long-vanished alien race, or by the Guardians, the pantheon of god-like AIs who have exercised benevolent rule over the human race for centuries now.

Black Light Express is a fast-paced, enjoyable sequel to Railhead. Reeve has a lot of fun in Stark Trek mode during the first half, inventing all kinds of bizarre alien species for Zen and Nova to encounter as they travel upon what turns out to be the original interstellar network. As always, he shows a great flair for creating morally grey characters, and for expanding upon characters who were seemingly introduced to serve purely as villains – like Kobi Chen-Tulsi, a spoilt rich jerk in Railhead but somebody a bit older and wiser now. I also enjoyed seeing more of the Guardians, which were brushed upon in Railhead but are explored more thoroughly here.

Reeve also explores the concept of unconventional love, whether it’s Zen and Nova or the even stranger relationship between Malik (one of those morally grey antagonists from Railhead) and the human “interface” of the Guardian Mordaunt 90. This is a particularly interesting thing to see in the YA genre, in which authors these days are very cognisant of the fact that their target audience includes what you might call at-risk teenagers. The obvious example I’m thinking of is the need for closeted gay kids to see valid, celebrated gay relationships on the page and on the screen – but it’s quite easy to just throw in a couple of gay characters. Instead, by depicting unconventional relationships with a sci-fi slant that will never apply at all in the real world, Reeve has come up with a creative and thoughtful metaphor that young readers can interpret more broadly: a statement that love knows no boundaries, is not necessarily linked to sex, and can manifest in surprising and unexpected ways.

But that’s just a small part of it, one which I thought was particularly original and worth noting – Reeve’s not writing some manifesto on love. Black Light Express is still mostly adventures and explosions and all-powerful AIs and alien ruins and snarky trains. I don’t love the Railhead series quite as much as I loved the Mortal Engines series, but I’m pretty sure that’s just the nostalgia factor. These books are brilliant examples of YA sci-fi which deserve a place in every school library, and Reeve remains of Britain’s most criminally underrated authors. I hope we get a third entry in the series next year.

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