November was a great reading month, although a little slack in terms of reviews.
My first three review books for the month took me beyond mainstream cultural settings. Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the second book in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, set on the planet Umayma, where two vastly different Islamic nations have been fighting a religious war for two centuries. The series follows Nyx, an emotionally dysfunctional hard-ass who was once a bel dame (government assassin) but now scrapes by as a bounty hunter. Nyx is one of the most memorable female sci fi characters I’ve come across, although she becomes increasingly brutish and unlikeable in Infidel. Still, it’s a good book.
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht is a historical urban fantasy set in 1970s Ireland, in the midst of The Troubles. Running parallel to the British/Irish conflict is a mythical war between the Fey and the fallen angels. Liam Kelly is an illiterate teenager who is unlucky enough to get beaten and jailed by the British Army for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twice. He’s also half human and half fey, giving him shape-shifting powers that he doesn’t understand because the people close to him decided that it was best to keep his mythical heritage a secret. The novel has many flaws, but for the most part I liked the combination of politics, mythology and personal drama. It’s something a bit different for urban fantasy fans.
I’m still struggling to write my review of The White Shadow by Andrea Eames. It’s a story told by Tinashe, a young Shona boy who grows up in a rural village in 1970s Zimbabwe. Tinashe’s younger sister Hazvinei is gifted with the ability to communicate with the spirits of Shona folklore, but her brother fears that she will be labelled a witch if she doesn’t keep silent about her abilities. The novel offers a portrait of village life and the misogynistic culture that Hazvinei is trapped in, while also giving us a child’s limited view of the political conflict in Zimbabwe at the time. It’s a mostly plotless novel, and I’m debating whether or not it succeeds as one. Review to follow this week.
Then back to the US. Terminal Island by Walter Greatshell is a horror novel about a man who returns to his childhood home on an island paradise called Santa Catalina to find his mother and come to terms with the terrifying experiences he had there. Instead of finding rational explanations and closure, the inexplicable horrors of the past continue to play out, and he finds himself trapped in the nightmare he’d managed to escape. I liked the ideas behind Terminal Island and it had some enjoyably creepy moments, but I found the reveals and the ending to be too clunky and chaotic.
I’d planned to review vN by Madeline Ashby when it came out, but I went home for a few weeks around that time and only read half of the novel before setting it aside. It was probably better that I did so, because I hadn’t been giving it my full attention, which the novel undoubtedly deserved. Besides being an exciting action-adventure story, it’s also a great bit of musing on AI, free will, gender, and a whole bunch of other debates that come up when intelligent robots are created for the purpose of serving human needs. Recommended. Hopefully I can finish the this week too.
I squeezed in three leisure reads for the month as well. The Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte became an instant favourite when I first read it about two years ago. It’s a metafictional detective story about a manuscript of a chapter from The Three Musketeers and a book for summoning the devil. I still love its ideas, characters and adventure, although there were some inconsistencies that bugged me in the second reading, such as the way the main character (an expert in antique books) frequently drinks and smokes while handling ancient manuscripts. Hmm.
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I should have just left it there. It appears more exciting than it actually is. After a good start, it became tedious and the ending was thoroughly disappointing. The worst part is that you never learn anything about The Somnambulist – an eight-foot tall hairless mute who can be stabbed with multiple swords without bleeding or being injured. I don’t know how the author could have fathomed not answering the who/what/why/how questions of this character.
I read the YA dystopia Uglies by Scott Westerfeld for a reading challenge. In a far-future post-scarcity society, all citizens are made ‘pretty’ with extensive cosmetic surgery based on evolutionary ideals – a symmetrical face, clear skin, big eyes, full lips, etc. The aim is not simply to create beauty, but to create peace and equality through a society where there can be no discrimination based on physical characteristics. Of course, the argument against this is that the natural human form is considered ugly, and the supposed utopia comes at the cost of freedom and individuality. Despite some interesting ideas and lots of adventure, I found the book a bit boring, although I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly why. Part of the problem was the rather daffy main character, who I could empathise with but didn’t care about. I wasn’t planning on reviewing this, but I’m thinking about it.
If I stick to my plans, December will be a busy reading and reviewing month. I want to read some of the books in my backlog, including The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (also known as Tim Pratt) and Kraken by China Miéville, which I’m reading now. I also hope to get back on schedule with future publications – ie. reading and reviewing them before they’re released – so my December reading list is full of January publications, including the Book Prize nominee Umbrella by Will Self (I got the US edition). I know this is supposed to be the festive season where everyone winds down and relaxes, but since there’s absolutely no Christmas spirit in Addis Ababa and there’s no beach to bum around on, I might as well keep reading!