The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long EarthTitle: The Long Earth
Series: The Long Earth #1
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
Published: 2012
Publisher: Doubleday
Source: own copy
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 8/10

‘The Long Earth’ refers not to one planet but millions, perhaps infinite Earths, in universes parallel to our own. Throughout the ages, a few people have been able to “step” from one world to the next, but the Long Earth remained a secret. Then, in 2015, the plans for a simple stepping device went viral, and on a day later known as Step Day, people all over the world found themselves in pristine parallel Earths where humans never evolved.

Fifteen years before, Joshua Valiente’s mother accidentally stepped while giving birth to him, and for a few moments he was alone on another Earth. In those moments alone, Joshua developed an affinity for what he eventually called the Silence – the calm feeling of being far away from other humans. On Step Day, Joshua found out that he was a natural Stepper (he can step without using a device or getting nauseous like most people do), and he became famous for rescuing a bunch of kids who lost their way in the other worlds. Afterwards, he did a lot of stepping on his own, escaping the Datum (our Earth) for the Silence.

At the start of the novel, Joshua gets recruited by Lobsang, a godlike AI who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. Lobsang is working with the very powerful Black Corporation and has discovered a way to step very quickly across worlds. Lobsang wants to explore the “High Meggers” – Earths millions of steps away from ours – and he wants Joshua to join him because of his ability to step without getting sick and because of his tendency to live without much human company.

What follows does not have much of a plot (this is not a criticism). Rather, it’s a meandering exploration of the idea of the Long Earth, while also relating Lobsang and Joshua’s actual journey across those Earths. There is just a touch of intrigue to give the novel some pace – although humans only evolved on the Datum, there are other humanoid species across the Long Earth, who are all natural Steppers like Joshua. Some are friendly, others are not, but they all seem to be migrating, running away from something in the High Meggers. Lobsang believes they need to find out what it is.

What I liked most about The Long Earth is its speculation – the possibilities of the other Earths, and the ways in which they’ve changed human society. The Long Earth represents all the ways Earth may have turned out given major or minor changes in evolution, geological events, astronomical events, climate, etc. Joshua and Lobsang come across lots of unfamiliar plants and animal species, some of which are just slightly different from the Datum versions, and some that are completely new to them.

And, of course, the Long Earth also shows what the Earth could have been like if humans had not evolved. What this means for almost all of the Earths (barring those that suffered catastrophic natural disasters, for example), is that they remained lush paradises, overflowing with life. And humanity, having nearly exhausted the resources of the Datum, has suddenly been saved from the threat of ecological collapse. For those that can step, there are millions – perhaps an infinite number – of untouched Earths to spread out on. Scarcity of resources ceases to be a problem, and human life starts to change in myriad ways. For example:

‘Consider this. If the Long earth really is effectively endless, as it is beginning to look, then all mankind could afford to live for ever in hunter-gatherer societies, fishing, digging clams, and simply moving right along whenever you run out of clams, or if you just feel like it. Without agriculture, Earth could support perhaps a million people in such a way. There are ten billion of us, we need ten thousand Earths – but, suddenly, we have them, and more. We have no need of agriculture, to sustain our mighty numbers. Do we have need of cities, then? Of literacy and numeracy, even?’ (236)

You can’t carry iron across when you step, which means that most modern technology is limited to the Datum so people have to start almost from scratch, but many are willing to do that. Practical, archaic skills become immensely valuable, while money becomes useless. What value does gold have if every person can have their own gold mine? How do you pay people when they can take all the food they will ever need from trees and rivers? The Long Earth settlements are all interesting thought experiments in themselves.

Naturally, this also affects society on the Datum. Some societies are shrinking as people leave the old world for new ones, escaping debt, poverty, unhappy lives, or just looking for a new way to live. And there is a minority of people who can’t step at all, even with a device, and they’re being left behind. There’s a subplot about a family who leaves to live in a little village over a hundred thousand Earths away, and they leave their teenage son behind because he can’t step. This story could have used more page time, but it’s still an interesting thing to ponder.

I was disappointed that the novel focuses mostly on the United States, although I had to say that it’s not too bad in this case. The authors admit in the acknowledgements that most of the Datum parts of the novel are set in Madison, Wisconsin, simply because the second North American Discworld convention was going to be held there, and it gave them the opportunity to “get a hell of a lot of research done, as we authors say, on the cheap”.

And it works well enough. The Long Earth, and the possibilities it poses for humanity, fit in very nicely with the American Dream, and in fact there are groups of American pioneers who head out “looking for a place to spread out, a place you where could trust your neighbours, in a world where the air was clean and you could start over in search of a better future” (104). Out on the Long Earth, the whole concept of countries becomes obsolete anyway, and Joshua and Lobsang’s travels take them all over the globe. The idea of the Long Earth also has so many implications that it’s hard to explore them all without the book turning into an unfocused sprawl. We do at least get some idea of what’s happening in other countries, and I hope it’s explored in more detail in other books.

I want to make a few comments on the characters. I love quirky AI characters like Lobsang, who reminded me of the drones in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. His vast intelligence is a very useful narrative device, while also holding a lot of potential for the plot of the series, both exciting and sinister.

I wasn’t all that keen on the other characters though. Joshua is bland, although intentionally so, because he’s so antisocial. He’s at his most interesting when he tells stories about the eccentric nuns who raised him at the orphanage (Pratchett’s wonderful humour, I think). He’s always questioning the artificiality of Lobsang – his consciousness, his personality, his ‘humanity’ – but in fact Lobsang has so much more life and individuality than Joshua. In fact one of the other characters describes Joshua as “the great loner who’s barely human himself”.

This might explain why Joshua’s behaviour doesn’t always make sense. There’s a lot of telling in place of showing with him, and it was often at odds with my expectations. For example, it’s stated that Joshua is amused by Lobsang, when I thought he was annoyed. Or he’d be annoyed when it seemed like he was being friendly. Or Joshua would get angry, and that would make perfect sense in context, but it doesn’t quite show in his behaviour. This could be the authors’ way of presenting Joshua as a very distant person, but I found it a bit irritating.

Niggles aside though, I really enjoyed reading this. It’s the kind of sf novel that appeals to me purely because of the way it keeps saying “what if?” and then wandering along that thought. I think it’ll be one of the few series I make an effort to finish.

Taking an unexpected break

A while ago I was having internet problems because of the government-owned Ethiopian telecoms, and I posted a quick notice about how it might affect my blogging. I felt a bit daft about it because the problems cleared up around the same time.

But now Ethiotel has royally fucked something up and local internet problems are much, much worse than before. I basically get about 1 minute of internet every 10-15 minutes. It’s just enough to check my email, facebook and reply to a few messages.

Blogging, however, has become such a tedious task that I decided to just take a break until the problem is fixed. I’ll post something if I get the chance (I’m online now thanks to a friend with a different kind of connection) or if something important comes up, but for the most part I’ll just retreat into the real world and focus on other projects.

Hopefully I’ll be able to return soon.

The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String DiariesTitle: The String Diaries
Author: Stephen Lloyd Jones
Published: 4 July 2013; my edition published 1 July 2014
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, thriller
Rating: 4/10

The story of The String Diaries is set across three time periods. In the present, Hannah Wilde drives frantically through the night to a remote safehouse in Snowdonia, Wales. Her husband Nate is bleeding to death on the seat beside her, and their daughter Leah is asleep in the back. It’s now Hannah’s responsibility to keep them safe from Jakab, a monstrous man who has hunted her family for over a century.

In 1979 in Oxford, Professor Charles Meredith meets a beautiful young woman studying Hungarian history. He finds himself inexplicably captivated by her, only to find that she’s spent her life running from an old enemy described in a collection of diaries bound up in string.

In 1873 in Hungary, an awkward boy from a wealthy family resists the demands of his birthright. He is “hosszú életek”, one of a race of aristocratic shape-shifters blessed with longevity and other supernatural skills. For some reason, he’s always struggled to use his powers, and he knows that he will be disgraced in front of his peers at their coming-out ceremony. He chooses to break away from the path laid out for him, with brutal consequences.

At the start, The String Diaries is a tense thriller. We’re given lots of intriguing little hints about the underlying mystery, and the villain Jakab has a terrifying power – he can take the form of any person. Hannah and her family have learned to ask questions to verify people’s identities, but it’s hard to keep your guard up all the time. If a friend goes out of sight for even a few minutes, it might be Jakab who comes back, wearing their face. He could do all sorts of terrible things by posing as an ally, and one of the scariest possibilities involves him killing a loved one and taking their place. There’s also a bit of plot in the backstory that I quite liked, about how Jakab’s actions turned Hungarian society against the hosszú életek, leaving a trail of dark stories in the folklore.

The hosszú életek is a great idea for a thriller and the novel works pretty well with it for a while, but the more we learn, the less exciting it becomes. When Jakab’s motives are revealed about halfway through the book, the tension starts to dissipate until there’s nothing left. By the end, I was thoroughly bored.

I had a lots of problems with the story. Firstly, Jakab’s motives are unconvincing. The entire thing started with the loss of his first love and somehow develops into a crazy attempt to reclaim the happy life he had for just a couple of months. It’s hard to believe that this was enough to drive Jakab to torment a family for over a century, because another problem is that he doesn’t get much time on the page, and we don’t have a proper understanding of his psychology. He does some terrible things and then feels bad about them, but the boy who commits the acts and the one who feels guilty don’t seem like quite the same character. He goes from being a troubled boy to an obsessive psychopath, and exactly how this happened is left to your imagination. It’s one thing to go a little loopy after losing your first love and another to stalk, torture, murder and rape people because of it. As a reader you just have to accept that Jakab is a nutjob and get on with the book. Personally, I find villains who are just generically crazy to be pretty boring. I prefer to get inside their heads and get intimately acquainted with their madness.

But Jakab’s backstory ends far earlier than I expected it to and we’re left only with the vague and insipidly evil modern version. He’s scary at first, but gets increasingly dull. His powers should make him terrifying, the way he uses them is not as impressive as I thought it could be. One of the characters says she thinks Jakab is getting better at what he does, but on the contrary I think he’s crap. Even if he spends ages studying someone well enough to imitate them, he almost never manages to keep up the persona for more than a few hours. Usually he gives himself away with a stupid mistake. I was expecting some brilliant and unnerving twist where it’s revealed that Jakab has been hiding in plain sight for ages or something, but he’s not nearly that clever. It’s more like Jakab’s greatest power is his insane capacity for relentless pursuit, with his abilities to shift and heal himself as added extras.

As a result, the story degenerates into a more mundane thriller. It’s also bogged down by an excess of personal drama and unnecessary detail. I got tired of hearing how difficult it is for Hannah to keep her husband and daughter safe, how much she loves them and will do anything for them, how much she wants to kill Jakab, etc.

Towards the end, Jones incorporates this totally pointless subplot that adds nothing to the story but a few more guns. Then, at the climax, he starts pulling all sorts of silly tricks out of a hat to achieved the desired outcome. Which, I probably don’t need to say, was disappointing. To add to that I’ve got lots of little niggles, like sloppy writing, contrivances, flat characters and cheesy expressions of emotion. Overall, it didn’t come close to being the thriller I was expecting.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The HumansTitle: The Humans
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 9 May 2013
Publisher: Canongate Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

This book, this actual book, is set right here, on Earth. It is about the meaning of life and nothing at all. It is about what it takes to kill somebody, and save them. It is about love and dead poets and wholenut peanut butter. It’s about matter and antimatter, everything and nothing, hope and hate. It’s about a forty-one-year-old female historian called Isobel and her fifteen-year-old son called Gulliver and the cleverest mathematician in the world. It is, in short, about how to become a human.

An unnamed alien is sent to earth in the guise of a forty-three-year-old mathematician named Andrew Martin. The aliens kidnapped and killed the real Andrew Martin shortly beforehand, after he proved the Riemann hypothesis – “the most significant mathematical puzzle the humans had ever faced”. It’s a breakthrough that would have “advanced the human race beyond anyone’s imagining”.

But the aliens – Vonnadorians – don’t want such a greedy, violent, narrow-minded species to achieve space travel and go around exploiting other planets and killing other beings. So they’ve sent an unpopular underling to do the unpleasant task of destroying all knowledge of the proof – wiping it from any computer, and killing anyone who might even know that it was solved. LIke Andrew’s wife Isobel and his son Gulliver.

Despite the Vonnadorians’ sophisticated technology however, they can only turn themselves into clones of humans, not replicate their memories. And their understanding of humanity is actually very unsophisticated and deeply, deeply cynical.

Thus, the new Andrew Martin is essentially a “forty-three-year-old newborn on planet Earth”. Or rather, a weirdly rational and extremely pessimistic newborn. He arrives naked and utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk around Cambridge without any clothes on. He stops at a petrol station and reads a copy of Cosmopolitan at the shop to educate himself, giving him a very skewed idea of humanity that focuses rather heavily on orgasms.

The new Andrew’s clumsy attempts to be human are often funny, but it gets a lot more serious when it comes to his wife and son. The original Andrew was a distant and uncaring father who always chose his work over his family, and as a result the alien Andrew’s extremely odd behaviour is not just baffling but hurtful to them.

Not that alien Andrew is happy to be on Earth. At first the only creature he can get along with is the family dog, Newton. He finds everything about humans repulsive and ridiculous, from their protruding noses to their feelings to their clothes. He’s shocked that they actually have spend parts of their short little lives reading instead of just instantly consuming books in capsules – “No wonder they were a species of primitives. By the time they had read enough books to actually reach a state of knowledge where they can do anything with it they are dead”. He criticises the news for being only news about humans (and not one of the other millions of species on the planet) and generally only about war and money rather than “new mathematical observations or still undiscovered polygons”. He can’t believe that the buildings and cars are all dead and stuck to the ground.

His home planet is, of course, completely different. They have no names because they never prioritise the individual over the collective. Their mastery of mathematics has given them immortality, telekinesis and many other gifts. The cars and buildings are living beings in beautiful, complex shapes. They have no weather, no fear, no war, no suffering etc. And they can’t just let the universe do what it wants to do, because [they] will be inside it for eternity”. Hence halting the progress of dangerous species like humans (and probably many others, from the sound of it).

The interesting thing is that the Vonnadorians have achieved many things that humanity desires, like highly advanced technology and immortality, but the novels forces us to look askance at these things when juxtaposed with primitive humanity and all its terrible flaws.

Because, of course, Andrew slowly becomes more and more human, and learns to appreciate humanity. It’s illogical and chaotic, but there’s a beauty in that craziness. As Andrew sees that, he reveals the darker side of his supposedly utopian home – that the Vonnadorians never enjoy anything, never feel anything, don’t care about each other. Despite their vast understanding of mathematics and everything that comes with it, they are stagnant in their understanding of other species and cultures. Andrew’s masters, who are constantly watching his progress, are unable to understand his growing empathy for humans, particularly his ‘wife’ Isobel and ‘son’ Gulliver. He doesn’t want to murder them for the greater good, but his masters won’t give him any choice in the matter.

This novel has frequently been lauded as inspiring and heartwarming, and it’s easy to see why. It wholeheartedly affirms the wonders of human life, despite all its shortcomings and failures. It’s sf aspects are not particularly impressive, but it’s got a feel-good aspect to it that I don’t often encounter in the genre, and it’s the kind of well-written, emotionally charged book that you can give to people who scoff at sff to show them that it’s not whatever cliche they assume it to be.

I’m not a particularly sentimental person though, and there were times when I felt like I was reading the literary equivalent of a Disney movie, particularly in the way alien Andrew becomes a far better father and husband than the original ever was. There’s also a very soft fluffiness in that his growing appreciation for humanity is made so easy by the privileges of Andrew Martin’s life. He’s extremely intelligent, well-educated, has meaningful work as a professor at Cambridge University, lives in a large, comfortable home, enjoys good food and wine. He doesn’t live in an impoverished country, doesn’t have to worry about food, shelter, medical care, political unrest, or a high crime rate. He doesn’t have to deal with the prejudices or other difficulties that might arise from being black, gay, female, poor, disabled, etc. Andrew Martin is a straight white male from an intellectual elite living a cushy life in a first-world country. The only way you could make it easier for him to appreciate being human would be to make him young, gorgeous and athletic too

So, Andrew’s supposedly inspiring insights into the beauty of humanity can sometimes be rather trite or narrow-minded. As a result, It wasn’t a profound and meaningful read for me, as it seems to have been for some people.

That said, it has an optimism that I find charming and perhaps even important. Whether or not your life is anything like Andrew Martin’s it helps to be reminded to appreciate the little things or the way the bad things in life can be good for you. Haig also does some really beautiful things with his story, by entwining mathematics and poetry with Andrew’s awakening. One of the reasons he learns to love humans is the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which is frequently quoted amidst other lovely bits of literature.

And, overall, The Humans is just a nice book to read. That might sound bland, but amidst the horror, grimdark, and dark fantasy, the dystopian and (post)apocalyptic fiction, it helps to be reminded that the world isn’t always as bleak as the Vonnadorians assume.

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

Parasites Like UsTitle: Parasites Like Us
Author: Adam Johnson
Published: originally published 2003; this edition published 19 June 2014
Publisher: Black Swan
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 2/10

As a rule, blurbs typically include some degree of bullshit. It can be difficult to sum up the plot in just a few words, and make it sound enticing at the same time, so you tweak it. You throw in words like “haunting”, “thrilling”, “hilarious” because people will pay for those kinds of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the book can deliver them.

I’m totally fine with that. You don’t put time, effort and money into getting a book on the shelf and then tell people that it’s just ok, that it’s definitely not the next Harry Potter but hopefully the same market will buy it. As a reader, I know you need to tell me these things. I can see through them and make my own decisions.

But don’t fucking lie to me about the entire fucking plot because it’s going to piss me the fuck off.

Much like the blurb of Parasites Like Us. It is, perhaps, the most egregious example of a misleading blurb that I have ever come across. Here it is:

After trashing his cherry ’72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse. Hank, a professor of anthropology back in the days when there were still co-eds to ogle and now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth, decides to record the last days of human civilization for whomever – or whatever – might replace us.

This is what’s wrong with it:

 - The blurb describes events that occur so late in the novel that it’s basically a spoiler. However, I can understand why these things are in the blurb because almost nothing else interesting happens.

 - Hank trashes his car over a third of the way into the novel rather than near the beginning as the blurb implies.

 - The car is yellow, not cherry-red. This is of no consequence whatsoever, but seriously, could the blurb writer not even get that right? Did he or she even read the book? [Thanks H. Anthe Davis for pointing out in the comments that "cherry" in this context actually means "pristine" not "red" so I was unfair to criticise the blurb on this point. A pity it's such a minor point that has no power to help matters at all.]

 - “snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn”: Actually, what they find is 12 000-year old maize. And Hank’s grad student Eggers, for god knows what reason, decides to make popcorn with some of it. So the maize is old, but not the popcorn per se. Also, the blurb makes it sound like Hank is the only one to eat it, but he isn’t.

 - “Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse”. It’s not fair to say that Hank unleashed the apocalypse. The skeleton holds something that unleashes the apocalypse, but Hank and his grad students can’t be blamed for finding and excavating what would have been a famous, groundbreaking piece of evidence. Their methods are unbelievably shoddy and, given more time, they might have unleashed the apocalypse, but instead someone else does it by thoughtlessly smashing an object found on the skeleton.

 - “now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth”. “Now”? This suggests that most of this book takes place after the apocalypse. But while Hank indeed is writing it after the apocalypse, the actual event only begins in the final quarter of the book, and it’s a bit longer before everyone dies off leaving the final few. Also, there is no confirmation that everyone else on the planet is dead, or even that everyone in the country is dead. Admittedly, the fact that Hank thinks he’s one of only twelve remaining humans might be an indication of what an arrogant and stupid person he is.

Personally, I would describe the book as a story about an academic in mid-life crisis. He had five minutes of fame from a book that no one reads anymore. He pines for his absent mother and dead stepmother. He lusts after his grad student, Trudy. He’s uncomfortable with his father’s hedonistic nature. It just so happens that he’s writing about all this after surviving the apocalypse, but aside from a few comments on the way life has changed, this is not particularly important until the apocalypse actually arrives much later.

Hank and his grad students, Eggers and Trudy, specialise in the Clovis, a people who inhabited North America 12 000 years ago and consumed everything in sight, destroying themselves and driving 35 animal species to extinction. When Eggers finds a Clovis burial site, the three of them decide to excavate it illegally, hoping to keep the glory for themselves and protect the skeleton from being bulldozed by a local construction project before they can acquire the proper permits.

However, for his thesis, Eggers is spending a year living like a Clovis man. So he walks around in filthy stinking animal skins from the abbatoir, eats squirrels and bugs, never brushes his teeth, etc. Basically, he tries to live using only what a Clovis man would have had. So when he finds the Clovis skeleton, he insists on excavating it WITHOUT MODERN TECHNOLOGY. They scrape at the bones with bits of antler and Eggers makes up his own system of measurement because he can’t use the metric system. Trudy and Hank play along, but then sneak away a few bones when Eggers goes to pee. I am no archaeologist, but this makes me cringe.

However, it gives you an idea of the absurdity of this book. All the characters behave in weird, inexplicable ways. It’s intentionally absurd (I assume) but not in a funny/entertaining/illuminating kind of way, like you’d expect from comedy or satire. More like a “what the fuck is wrong with these stupid people and why am I reading about them” kind of way.

I would say this of Hank more than anyone else. Hank is an insufferably ridiculous, self-important little shit. He believes he is writing this story for the future generations of human beings, and he says stuff like:

“I am the past. “

“A new day had dawned in science, and though I didn’t understand it yet, I was the Adam of anthropology.”

“forget not that you are all descended from me, that I myself am the source of your laws”

He calls women’s breasts “num-nums” and chases after a busty Russian botanist trying desperately to prove to her that he’s not “a buffoon of a man, a scientific huckleberry”. But he really is just so unbelievably lame, as the author keeps emphasising this to the point where it becomes utter torture to read. Hank doesn’t tell a story so much as blather on about all his personal crap. Half the time I don’t know why this moron does the things he does but I can’t say that I ever cared.

The only remotely interesting thing he brings to the text is a comparison between the Clovis and contemporary humanity – both destroyers of their environments, with the implication that humanity will end up as dead as the Clovis, thanks to their own stupidity. On the other hand – criticising humanity’s over-consumption in apocalyptic fiction? Not exactly a fresh perspective.

It needs to be stated that I didn’t hate this book just because of the blurb. It’s just terribly boring. And very very silly, but not in the way I expected. I’d say that the blurb is written to attract one kind of audience while the book caters to a completely different one. If you like absurd novels about academics in mid-life crisis, this might be a great book for you, spiced up with a bit of spec fic. If you wanted a quirky book about the apocalypse, you might be left wondering why you’re reading about an absurd academic and his stupid mid-life crisis instead. Obviously, I’m in the latter group. Worst book I’ve read this year.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Girls at the Kingfisher ClubTitle: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Author: Genevieve Valentine
Published: 3 June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 9/10

For years the twelve Hamilton sisters have been prisoners in their own home. They are the shameful evidence of their wealthy father’s inability to have a son, so he keeps them hidden from the world. No one except his staff knows how many daughters he has. He hasn’t even met some of them.

But although they never get to go out in the daylight, the sisters go out dancing in New York’s jazz clubs every night, from the Salon Renaud and the Swan, to the Kingfisher club they eventually call home. Jo, the eldest, the “General”, is the one in charge of every outing. She calls the cabs, watches over her sisters and decides when to leave. She’s the only one who speaks to their father, so she’s the one who has to break the news when he decides to marry them off, basically selling them to men of his choosing.

The girls might not know much about the daylight world, but they know a lot about men, and they know exactly what kind of men would marry a girl who’s been locked up in the house all her life – men like their father. As their leader, Jo needs to figure out a way to save her sisters, and for once it seems she can’t do it all by herself. She’ll have to turn to a bootlegger she met ten years ago for help. She’ll also have be extra careful to keep their dancing a secret, after a newspaper report about dancing girls and gin makes their father suspicious. Not only are their outings a defiance of his will, but their behaviour will spoil his plans “to sell them off one at a time as untouched goods who had never been so wild as to go out dancing”.

In case you haven’t realised it yet, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is based on the fairytale of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And was exactly what I wanted it to be – a relatively quick light read but with an in-depth psychological portrait of Jo and her sisters, and a close look at the whole idea of these trapped girls and women who escape into a vibrant world every night. It perfectly balances introspective character studies and the relationships between the sisters with the excitement of the dancing in jazz clubs and the tension of the threats posed by their father. It’s the kind of novel that makes me feel an intense and varied mixture of emotions, and I absolutely loved reading it.

I’m also glad that it eschewed the use of sexual violence. I kind of assumed that it would be an inevitable and discomforting part of the story, given that it’s about twelve beautiful girls and women who go dancing and drinking every night, but Valentine does not victimise them in this way. On the contrary, the Hamilton sisters are pretty street smart. They could drink most men under the table, and you don’t see them flopping around drunk and helpless. They learn how to read people and handle them, so they can spot trouble or soothe a tense situation. We don’t know the full extent of their sexual experiences (there are only references to little flings and heartbreaks) but whatever they do, you never get the sense that they’re not in control.

The girls’ strengths actually go a long way in making this a pleasant read. It could be really depressing, but the way the girls handle themselves, whether they’re having fun, being sold to men like property or alone and terrified, makes it satisfying rather than disturbing. You tense up and worry at the challenges they have to face, but every little triumph makes you smile.

This is particularly true with Jo, whose character we get to know in the greatest detail. Jo is in the incredibly difficult position of being the girls’ guardian. The blurb suggests that she’s the closest thing to a mother that they have, but the novel specifically says otherwise. It’s Ella with her kind, nurturing nature, who is more like the mother figure. Jo on the other hand is strict and commanding. Jo snaps her fingers and her sisters obey. She speaks to their father and enforces his commands. After a failed affair with a young bootlegger, Jo stopped dancing, deciding that it was too dangerous for her, no matter how much she wanted to. The result is that her sisters think she’s heartless. It’s even suggested that she’s just as much their jailer as their father is. Jo finds this deeply hurtful, especially since it’s already occurred to her.

As the reader however, you see how much Jo’s ‘heartlessness’ has done for her sisters. She describes her nickname “General” as ” the mortar that let her stand in both places at once and not fall”. She can only be the amazing sister they need by also being an authoritarian leader. It’s only because she’s so strict and careful that her sisters are able to go out every night and not get caught. She protects from their father, and it’s only when some of the girls actually have to be in Mr Hamilton’s presence as he starts trying to marry them off that they realise what a monster Jo has been fighting with on their behalf. She was the first one to learn to dance and start teaching her sisters. She initiated the first trip to a jazz club (imagine doing this when you almost never go outside), but everyone remembers it being Lou, the second eldest’s idea, because it’s hard to imagine Jo being so spontaneous.

You also see Jo trying too hard, sacrificing too much, wanting her sisters to need her because she’s become so wrapped up in her identity as the General. So part of the story involves her giving in to the things she wants, and being a sister rather than a General. It can be quite sad, but it makes for great reading. I also like the way Valentine wrote Mr Hamilton’s character. Again, she exercises restraint by not making him grossly monstrous. He’s quietly evil, with a very calm, polite manner that makes his cruelty stand out like an unexpected slap.

Overall, the book is also just beautifully written, and I highlighted many quotes on my Kindle. It’s one of the few that leaves me satisfied but also sad to leave behind because I’m not going to find another book like this any time soon. However, that does give me good reason to re-read it a few times :)

Short Story Review: The Screams of Dragons by Kelley Armstrong

STPSpring2014-425x561I never paid much attention to Kelley Armstrong because it looked like her books are mostly of the paranormal romance variety, but I’ve just started reading Subterranean Press Magazine, and she has the leading story for the Spring 2014 edition (you can download the whole edition for free in epub or mobi format, or read the story on the Subterranean Press website). I now have to take another look at her books, because “The Screams of Dragons” is fantastic.

Bobby is a strange, unsettling little boy. He’s cold and distant. He never laughs, never plays, never feels happiness, except in his dreams of golden castles and green meadows. He also dreams of screaming dragons, after he hears a story about a king who suffers three plagues, one of which is the screams of fighting dragons.

The dragons start keeping him awake, but he thinks it best not to tell anyone about them. Instead, he tells his grandmother about the good gold and green dreams of castles and meadows, which are beautiful but leave him sad and frustrated when he wakes up. This turns out to be a dire mistake. His grandmother decides that Bobby is a changeling, and she uses cruel, folkloric methods to prove it. The evidence seems perfectly clear to her, but makes no sense to anyone else because Bobby reacts to the tests like any other child would.

You feel a brief sense of relief that the grandmother is dismissed as a superstitious fool, but things only get worse for Bobby. His family comes from some unnamed ethnic group, and his parents – who try to portray themselves as modern and educated – are ashamed when people start to see them as ignorant peasants. His grandmother starts abusing him, making up reasons to beat him or send him to bed hungry. His irritating little sister Natalie (he calls her the Gnat and she really is a horrible little thing) delights in his grandmother’s abuse and sometimes tries to make it worse. His parents don’t want any more trouble so they just ignore it all.

Rather than get angry, Bobby just tries to bear it, and even feels sorry for how fearful and desperate his grandmother can seem. But the abuse takes its toll. He is different, and starts to feel like he doesn’t belong in the family. The only place he does feel, if not happy then at least content, is in the town of Cainsville, where his mother’s family comes from. In Cainsville, people appreciate difference. The adults there take Bobby seriously, talk to him like an adult, and treat him as special. The residents seem particularly unusual themselves and either have supernatural powers or treat such things as the norm. Hannah, a little girl that Bobby likes to play with, can communicate with animals. Her friend Rose has some kind of prophetic sight. Bobby isn’t that unusual – he doesn’t have any powers as far as he can tell – but he fits in in Cainsville in the way he can never fit in at home or at school.

However, Bobby does get increasingly strange and undoubtedly sinister, if only in self-defence. It’s understandable, based on the way he’s treated by his grandmother and his sister, the bullying at school, his parents’ refusal to help him or even acknowledge that anything is wrong. At the same time, you have to admit that his dreams are strange and is connection with the mysterious town of Cainsville seems important. You have to wonder if there’s something seriously (supernaturally?) wrong with Bobby, or if he’s just an odd kid corrupted by people who torment him or ignore his suffering?

I could never answer that question and that’s one of the things I like most about that story. You can’t unravel the mystery of Bobby’s psychology and you’re left to wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t told his grandmother about the dreams, if she hadn’t abused him, if his parents tried to help him, if the people of Cainsville had taken a more active role in his life instead of just asking if everything was alright at home (he always says yes), if Bobby made different choices, if, if if.

The way things turn out makes for a great story in itself though, and there are lots of things I loved about it. Firstly, a creepy child, one of my favourite horror tropes. And this is a horror story – a psychological one. That’s another thing I like about it. Armstrong uses just the right amount of restraint, achieving the ideal balance (for me, at least) between revealing information and hinting at underlying terrors. It produces tension throughout the story, making it an excellent read.

Omens“The Screams of Dragons” is a prequel story to Kelley Armstrong’s novel Omens, a paranormal mystery. It’s the first in her Cainsville series and the second book, Visions, is due to be published in August this year. While I’m still not keen on her paranormal romance titles, Armstrong obviously knows how to tell a good story, so Omens immediately went onto my tbr list.

One last thing before I go – I’m really excited about Subterranean Press Magazine. How did I not notice it earlier?! I’ve been following Subterranean Press for a while because they publish collector’s editions, which I’ve recently started investing in. So far, I’ve only bought Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente, but I kicked myself for missing out on the trade edition of her collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams, (although there’s still a limited edition for $60) and I’ve got my eye on Equoid by Charles Stross.

Anyway, I knew Subterranean has free fiction available on their site, but I never got around to reading any because I prefer reading on my Kindle than a computer. But they have a quarterly magazine that you can download for free, in either epub or mobi format. They amount of talent they’re showcasing is just incredible, with stories from some of the best authors in the field – Catherynne M. Valente, Ted Chiang, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, and loads more that I can’t wait to discover.