Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

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Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Two Serpents Rise read-along: part three

Two Serpents RiseHey everyone! It’s week 3 of the Two Serpents Rise read-along, and I’m glad I happen to be the host for this week because “Part Three” has been the most interesting part of the book for me so far. The relationship between the two main characters finally starts to develop and together they grapple with the core ethical issues of the plot. There’s some more incredible worldbuilding, and another cliffhanger to whet your appetite for the final section.

Please feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments, and I’ll add it to the blog hop list at the end of this post.

For those who haven’t been reading along, be warned that there are plenty of SPOILERS ahead!

____________________________

1. After the fight at Seven Leaf, Caleb apologises to Mal and they finally start dating. What do you think of the way their relationship has developed? Do you agree with Mal that Caleb chased her because he needs gods in his life?

I’m so glad that something finally happened between these two. I really wasn’t feeling their chemistry, but when they started having some actual dates and in-depth conversations (without any blood or death) I could imagine them as a couple.

I don’t quite agree with Mal’s idea about Caleb’s motives; I wouldn’t say he longs for gods per se, but everyone needs a sense of purpose for which they’re willing to make sacrifices. It just so happens that religion fills that role for some people. Caleb was in a rut, as evidenced by his recent tendency to play it safe when playing cards. Gambling probably offered a temporary solution to the need for purpose and risk, but I don’t think it’s sustainable. His work clearly isn’t all that fulfiling either. So when he met Mal, he found something (someone) to bleed for.

One last thing: Gladstone totally wins the award for most original sex scene – lying on a magical ocean, half-devoured by a shark, with fireworks going off in the background. Definitely haven’t come across that before. Don’t know if it’s cool or just absurd.

2. This section has been quite philosophical. Where do you stand on the debate – gods, no gods, or some kind of compromise? Do you agree with Caleb’s idea of sacrificing your morality because the religious alternative is even worse?

I think this, more than anything else so far, has got me invested in the novel.

Clearly the current system isn’t sustainable. It’s going to wreck the environment and then, as Mal speculates, Dresediel Lex will cannabilise other cities in order to survive. Caleb’s argument about sacrificing morality is a particularly interesting one. I think Qet was an extreme example, and doesn’t apply to the general populace since most don’t know about him, but most citizens probably do see – and ignore – all the terrible things that have to happen to allow them to go one with their lives. And that applies to the real world too – we all know that our environment is being ruined, species are being driven to extinction, people work hard only to live in poverty, etc., but we generally just ignore it so we can go on living the way we want to. Caleb seems to think this kind of moral bankruptcy is the only choice for Dresediel Lex.

And yes, I have to agree with him that they shouldn’t go back to the old system of human sacrifice. Maybe the sacrifices are willing, but what happens to the loved ones they leave behind? And what happens when the priests don’t have enough volunteers?

So I guess Mal’s idea is the only viable option:

“We should bring [the gods] back, on our terms. We form a society with sacrifice, but without death.”

I don’t know how that would work, but I certainly agree with her principle in general. For any society. I think most of us live too easily without knowing what it takes to make our lives possible. Paying money for things isn’t the same as knowing what they cost. The price of my food tells me nothing about the environmental effects of producing it. The price of a t-shirt would reveal nothing about whether or not the person who sewed it gets a decent wage.

So yeah, I like the idea that there should be some system of sacrifice so that people can engage with the way the world works on a personal level, but the sacrifices shouldn’t have to be fatal. Death surely makes the system unfair – some die, others live off those deaths. Rather, you should be able to enjoy the benefits of your sacrifice.

3. Gladstone is still unveiling amazing things in his world, like a sport based on myth, the eclipse festival, walking on water, and a half-dead sea god whose heart is being used for desalination. What interested you the most? 

“Meh” tends to be my reaction to almost any sport, but I thought the scarred ocean was quite a cool idea. And I really want to walk on the ocean! Terrifying and amazing, not to mention a great thing to show your date, assuming at least one of you has the power to chase away sharks and other nasties from the depths. Caleb made a good bet when he packed that condom.

Qet was the most awe-inspiring thing for me though – the scale of his body and the horror of his undead state and the way it’s been appropriated.

4. Mal has noted twice that they don’t have much time, and she apologises to Caleb while he sleeps on the ocean. Then Alaxic kills himself and tries to kill Temoc – the last two priests of the old Quechal. What do you think is going on here? Any speculation about how it might turn out?

Wow, I didn’t see that coming. This seems to confirm that Temoc hasn’t been involved. Instead, he’s in the way. Alaxic’s suicide and assassination attempt suggests that he’s much more progressive than I assumed him to be, if he’s trying to make way for a new way of thinking and doing things. So I’m a bit worried that Temoc got away.

I only have vague ideas of how this will turn out. It sounds to me like Mal knows exactly what’s coming, and she and Alaxic both seem to believe in a new way of doing things (sacrifice without death). Based on the title I still think the serpents will awaken, unless the title has some alternative meaning.

Randoms
– I like how you pay small amounts of soul for everything you use, like hot water. It would certainly make people more conscious of their usage!

Check out what others had to say:
Lynn – Lynn’s Book Blog
Heather – The Bastard Title
Ria – Bibliotropic
Susan – Dab of Darkness

Two Serpents Rise read-along: part two

Two Serpents RiseIt’s week two of the Two Serpents Rise read-along and we’ve already had a boss fight! Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow is our host this week, and has us working through all the drama, so lets get into it.

SPOILERS, of course 🙂

________________________

1)  So we’re halfway in, and we seem to have uncovered the culprit already… What did you make of the confrontation at Seven Leaf?

I highly doubt that Allesandre is the culprit; the boss fight never happens in the middle. My mind has leapt to conspiracy theories. Was this set up so that Allesandre would attack and then be defeated? In “Interlude: Flame”, Alaxic describes Allesandre as his “sacrifice”, so I’m guessing that her death is part of the plan.

And who would stand to gain from that? Mal, perhaps, because by killing Allesandre she proves her loyalty to Kopil and RKC. Is she Alaxic’s agent for a scheme involving the serpents? Now that we know something about her religious beliefs and we’ve heard some criticisms of the environmental impact of RKC’s systems, it seems to be the most likely option.

By the way, did anyone else feel like this fight escalated unexpectedly? At first it just seemed like an investigation with a few guard for safety’s sake, and then suddenly Mal is talking about going to war and the whole thing gets dire fast. I thought the pacing was a bit off there.

2)  Temoc is still turning up at random, and still protesting his innocence. Doth he protest too much…?

Now that you’ve mentioned it, I guess it’s a possibility, but I’m still inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth.

Also, while I’m unlikely to side with a religious terrorist, fantatic, Temoc has made some thought-provoking comments to Caleb about RKC:

you are part of a system that will one day destroy our city and our planet

 

Your system kills, too. You’ve not eliminated sacrifices, you’ve democratized them—everyone dies a little every day, and the poor and desperate are the worst injured.

 

In Three Parts Dead, we saw a compromise between religious and secular perspectives. Part of the debate manifested in the relationship between Tara and Abelard. Will we see something similar in this plot and in Caleb’s relationship with his father? The plight of the zombies does seem rather dire, if people choose to be undead workers to pay off their debts. Choosing to be a willing sacrifice to a god doesn’t seem much better; is there a middle ground?

3)  The Red King. Discuss.

First and foremost: HOW DOES A SKELETON DRINK COFFEE? Caleb specifically states that Kopil doesn’t have an oesophagus. I’m not even sure if he has dried-out flesh draped over his bones, like a mummy, to contain anything he eats or drinks. I’m reminded of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, when Captain Barbosa first reveals his undead skeleton form, and drinks some wine that just splashes out between his ribs.

Why would Kopil even need coffee? Surely, at this stage in his “life” he has better pick-me-ups?

I kind of like Kopil though. He’s a bit scary and possibly evil, but he feels real somehow. I sympathise with the heavy burden he’s clearly bearing – replacing the gods he defeated. He seems lonely too. He lost his lover, and in the process of avenging him he became a creature that’s basically doomed to be alone.

And, he’s funny, in a dry sort of way:

This room isn’t large, but the whole building belongs to me, so I don’t feel cramped.

 

“This room doesn’t have any doors.”

“Who needs them?”
“Most people.”
Kopil shrugged, and sipped tequila.

 

By the way, do people drink tequila neat, on the rocks? I thought you drank it in shots with lemon and salt to get hammered. It doesn’t seem like a drink so refined as to be sipped. Or is this just Deathless King sort of habit?

4)  And let’s not forget Mal! I confess, I did not see any of those surprises coming. What do you think of Caleb’s ‘sweetheart’ now?

I’m suspicious. Very suspicious. She’s very secretive and I don’t think she’s on the same side Caleb is fighting for even if she just helped restore the supply of clean drinking water to the city.

Which is not to say that I think badly of her. Given the issues that have been raised about zombies and environmental damage, it’s quite possible that Caleb is fighting for the “wrong side” and we will come to sympathise with Mal’s point of view. She could be the villain who becomes our hero.

On a related note, I’m not feeling the chemistry between these two at all. I understand the mutual attraction, but that’s about it. I didn’t feel excited seeing them finally get a bit closer. Perhaps this is intentional though, with the point being that Caleb is a fool who fell for a pretty face.

 

Randoms

– Loved Sam’s snake art as a metaphor for the city.

– How fucking big are those magisterium trees if several of the Couatl – the larger, battle-bred Couatl – can sit on one stump? Would love to see one of those.

– That Heartstone contract! If I was a lawyer I would cry. And negotiate a suitably monstrous raise.

The thing is seventy thousand pages long. They folded space to fit it in one conference room for the signing. It’s not even all on paper: some paragraphs are carved on stone plinths, some on the pyramid itself. Nothing that complex is safe.

 

 

Two Serpents Rise read-along: Part one

Two Serpents RiseHey everyone and welcome to Part One of the Two Serpents Rise read-along! After having such a good time with Three Parts Dead, the first in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, we decided to jump into a read-along of book two. Our host is Susan from Dab of Darkness, so be sure to hop over to her blog for links to everyone else’s posts. I might also post a list of links once they’re available. And er, if I remember…

But nevermind that, on with the questions. This discussion covers Part One of the novel, and I think it’s suitably spoiler-free for you to read even if you haven’t read this content or book one.

Poison in the Bright Mirror reservoir! What are your thoughts on the infestation? Then an explosion later on! Any ideas of who is the culprit yet? Are the two events related?

I assume they must be related, and I’m pretty sure that Temoc is telling the truth when he says he’s not responsible. I’m suspicious of Alaxic and The Red King, although that’s partly because there just aren’t that many suspects to choose from, and I don’t understand the situation well enough yet to figure out who stands to gain and sketch out a suspect we haven’t met yet.

What I can glean is that the culprit plans to sabotage the city’s basic infrastructure, given that they’re targeted the water and electricity supply. This will hit the general public hard, so I would guess that whever they want to achieve involves the masses being scared and desperate. With both events, they used something from the old, mythological world (a demon, a god). So perhaps someone is trying to demonstrate the anger and power of the gods and reinstate the old order? Or use that as a ruse to take power by purging the old gods and their creatures once and for all?

Let’s talk about Mal and the sport of cliff running. Care to compare this sport to one here in our real world? What do you think Mal gets out of the sport?

Cliffrunning reminds me of parkour. I would guess that Mal loves the adrenaline, and the freedom of not being restricted to moving on the ground. I often look at my cat and wonder how different the world might look if I were so agile that every surface presented itself as a place to jump from or to, if I could move around at any level between the ground and the rooftops, and simply leap over obstacles. It must feel quite rebellious and liberating. It’s even more so in this case, since cliffrunning is illegal. The cliffrunners personify defiance. As such, they’re an interesting contrast to the very strict way the city is structured and maintained – the contracts binding everything, the frightening Wardens keeping the peace.

Are you enjoying the deities and culture this book is infused with? Has any of the architecture wowed or frightened you? 

Definitely! I mean, when we’re talking gods and mythology I’m already there like a bear, and it’s nice to mix it up with some Aztec mythology for a change. It’s so bloody and dramatic with all the sacrifices and fascinating creatures. I might sign up as a Warden if it means I get to ride a Couatl!

I love the way everything is bound by contracts of Craft and that Caleb could use that to chase Mal. I also thought Kopil’s obsidian pyramid was very cool, although I’m inclined to be wowed rather than frightened since I get to enjoy it all at a distance. I’m fairly certain I’ll never have to attend a meeting where the table is a massive stone altar drenched in the blood of countless victims, so I’m free to appreciate how incredibly badass that is. My desk just used to be a dining table.

The Red King is a pretty serious guy. Will he make the deal with Alaxic concerning the powerhouses known as Achel & Aquel? 

I’m not sure what the environmental consequences of this would be (but it probably starts with killing a lot of ocean life), but aside from that it sounds like an excellent idea. Unlimited energy and a new supply of fresh water? Life in the city might improve drastically, so it seems that The Red King would be inclined to make this deal. Of course the downside is that you need to keep the serpents asleep so they don’t rise up and kill everyone… And based on the title, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, unless there’s a twist somewhere.

Is this perhaps an analogy for nuclear power? Some argue that it’s clean and sustainable, others argue that it’s too dangerous and destructive.

Finally, Caleb has a wealth of scars, linguistic skills, and a complex relationship with his father. Discuss!

Caleb reminds me of Tara in several ways – he’s rebelling against his origins, he’s very good at what he does, he has a tendency to be reckless, and he notes that his employers have given him “a wonderful opportunity to fail”. His scars also remind me of Tara’s sigils, although it seems that Caleb’s are frowned upon. Tara was also at the beginning of her career, whereas Caleb’s been in the game for a while and people are worrying that he’s lost his edge as a result. Now it seems that he’s about to undergo a period of re-self-discovery, thanks to Mal and his determination to help her.

In book one we saw religious and non-religious characters working together and challenging each other’s points of view. It’s an interesting clash of minds, and I think it might be the same here, with Caleb and his father. Although it seems that their relationship has made Caleb very hostile to religion: human sacrifices and scars aren’t quite as appealing as Christmas and Easter eggs for convincing children to be faithful, I’m sure. That said, Caleb’s background does have some benefits: I love the way he can speak fluent High Quechal to the religious fanatics who stumble through the language.

 

Randoms:

– I don’t think I mentioned this in the previous read-along, but I find it quite strange that you can pay animals like rats and horses for providing a service. Do the animals then exchange that for food and shelter? Are they smarter than the animals of our world

– Another oddity in both books is the fashion. It’s very modern – jeans, business suits – while the setting is sort of steampunk Victorian. It’s a strange combination that I can’t quite imagine, although I would guess that neither looks exactly like we know it to be; the designs would be a mixture of old and new, so that the jeans don’t look quite like our jeans, and the carriages aren’t quite like traditional carriages. Frankly, I’m not sure if this combination really works, but I’d love to see an artist’s rendition of it.

– I love that valuable items can be cursed so that terrible things happen to the thief until the item is returned! Way better than insurance.

– When the Wardens pitch up at his apartment, Caleb hopes that there’s “[n]othing incriminating about a woman spending the night at a single man’s house.” Interesting bit of worldbuilding here – suggests that society has only recently become more liberal. Caleb doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Mal being there, but it still occurs to him that there could be.

– Kopil’s reveal about his lover was surprisingly touching, considering that he’s a frightening, six-foot-tall skeleton. I wonder how that will play into the story.

Three Parts Dead read-along part 2

Three Parts Dead

Hey everyone! It’s week 2 of the Three Parts Dead read-along, and this part covers everything from Chapter 8 to the end of chapter 14.

Our host is Susan from Dab of Darknessso you can head over to her place for links to the blog hop (although I will also add them to the bottom of my post, once I have them all).

Exciting things are happening in Alt Coulumb, so let me get into these questions:

SPOILERS BELOW!

1) Throughout this section, we learn little tidbits about our main characters: Tara and her time at the Secret Universities, Kevarian and her past works, Abelard and his childhood. What fascinated you the most? 

Tough one… I certainly want to know more about Raz’s relationship with Ms Kevarian, and her role in turning Seril into Justice. It’s ironic how the Blacksuits and the Guardians/gargoyles worship the same entity, and are mortal enemies for the same reason.

I liked the depiction of Abelard’s childhood; I find the mixture of engineering, faith and religion very interesting.

However, I’m glad we finally have Tara’s backstory. I had it a bit wrong, assuming she was the one doing something ingenious but unethical, when in fact she was a victim of Denovo’s brain-drain scheme. Which of course explains her aversion to mind-control techniques and the way Justice can bend people like Cat to its will and insert info in her mind whenever it feels the need. I can’t believe Denovo’s tactics are allowed in Court though; surely that’s against the rules somehow?

 

2) So many conspiracies! Someone tried to burn out some of Raz’s memories, there were super secret contracts between the dead Cabot and Kos and some unknown third party, and Abelard found a hidden altar in the heart of Kos’s church! Do you think they are connected? 

I assume so! Unless Gladstone is throwing out red herrings. I’ve read a few stories where major plotlines turned out to be unconnected, playing on the characters’ and readers’ expectations that they would be connected. Which is interesting in a way, but I do love to see everything come together.

 

3) This question is just for fun & came about from discussion over at Violin in a Void last week. Abelard is a chain smoker and his worship of Kos keeps him safe from any ill effects of said smoking. If there were multiple deities who could protect you from ill effects of different vices (alcohol, illicit drugs, gluttony, etc.), which vice, if any, would you pick? 

My first instinct was GLUTTONY! I will eat ALL THE CHEESE! But being able to indulge myself all the time might actually spoil the pleasure of eating, which, as far as I’m concerned, is one of life greatest pleasures.

Alcohol… no. Where’s the fun in not being able to get tipsy or drunk sometimes? Not interested in drugs or smoking. I enjoy being active, so not sloth.

Ah well, I guess it’ll just have to be lust then. Assuming that “drama” is one of the ill effects I’d be protected from 😀

 

4) Stonemen! Will Tara be able to win over Shale and gain his assistance? Will Justice’s Black Suits face off against them, potentially destroying the city? Discuss!

Stupid Shale! Can’t he see that Tara could help him? I think Tara can handle him, but she’s been fairly successful in her endeavours so far, despite ending up in hospital, so I worry that this time she’s not going to get through the fight without getting hurt.

A Blacksuit-Guardian throwdown certainly seems likely, but at this stage I have no idea how this will all play out. I’m more curious about the THING that Abelard released at the hidden altar, whether Kos will be resurrected, and what Kos will be like if he’s resurrected. Seril became the Stone Men’s mortal enemy when she was resurrected/remade, and that doesn’t bode well for Abelard and his religion.

 

5) The Courthouse of Crafts is a strange place. Feel free to comment on it. Ms. Kevarian tells Tara, last minute, that she will be the one to face Denovo. Calculated way to boost Tara’s confidence? Or a cruel way to test her?

A test, I think, but not necessarily a cruel one. Ms Kevarian is demanding, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call her cruel (yet) and I think she’s too much of a professional to torment Tara for the sake of it. Rather, I think she understands how much of an issue Tara’s history with Denovo is, and she wanted her to face him head on, not giving her a chance to overthink it and maybe cower later. If Ms Kevarian had gone up against Denovo, it may have also have set a precedent of her taking on the bigger battles, and Tara needs to prove that she can handle this sort of thing on her own, not rely on her boss to protect her. And it’s possible that Ms Kevarian simply had more faith in Tara’s skills than her own; Tara nearly took down Denovo before, and she understands how he works.

The Courthouse of Craft – well, as someone who is terrible with direction, I quite like the idea of a building that takes you straight where you need to go!

 

Randoms
 – I love the way Tara keeps psyching herself up for the job at hand, controlling her fear and insecurities. She knows what she needs to do, and she knows how she could fail, so she’s preparing herself for battle. Which, apparently, means reading a lot 🙂 Who said lawyers can’t be cool?

– I’ve wondered a bit about the gender dynamics of this society. It seems pretty egalitarian, but I find it a wee bit odd that they use the terms “Craftsmen” and “Craftswomen” instead of a gender-neutral term like “Craftspeople” or “Crafters”. And there’s a moment when Denovo says “Put not your trust in things, but in men,” then adds “And women” (p.167). So perhaps an egalitarian world that’s only recently evolved from a more sexist society? Enough that we don’t see any discrimination, but the language hasn’t quite caught up yet. Which I find a bit incongruent, but it’s nice to be able to read a fantasy world where it isn’t assumed that women must somehow be considered inferior.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyTitle: The Rabbit Back Literature Society
Author: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen
Translator: Lola M. Rogers
Published: first published in Finnish in 2006; English translation published in 2014; this edition published 20 January 2015
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, mystery
Rating: 7/10

The little Finnish town of Rabbit Back is famous for being the home of world-reknowned author Laura White, who penned the Creatureville series of children’s books. Laura White is also famous for having started the Rabbit Back Literature Society – a small group whose members she personally selected in childhood and trained to be writers. The Society was meant to have ten members, but as far as anyone knows it never had more than nine. Now, three decades later, all the members are all well-known authors themselves, but the search for a tenth member continues.

Ella Milana is shocked when she is offered this prestigious position. Having just returned to her home town, she works as a substitute teacher of Finnish Language and Literature at a local high school. She wrote her PhD thesis on the Creatureville books, but has only one piece of published fiction – a short story in Rabbit Back’s literary journal, inspired by her recent experience of finding out that she can’t have children. Apparently Laura White was so impressed by the story that she offered Ella the tenth membership, which includes a stipend to support her during the training.

However, the whole thing turns out to be decidedly odd and more than a little bit disappointing. At the party where Ella is supposed to meet Laura White, the author is only seen for a few brief moments before she falls and disappears in a whirl of snow. With no one around to give her the training she expected, Ella turns to her first love – research – to uncover the hidden truths of the Society. No one knows what Laura White’s methods were. Although the members were once close, they no longer seem to talk to each other. Ella quickly realises that there was once a tenth member whom no one outside the society has ever heard of. She also notices that there are books from the Rabbit Back Library whose words are changing (thereby altering their plots) and one of the society’s authors seems to know about it. So, while the town searches for Laura White’s body, Ella uses her new membership solve the mystery of the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Ella seldom finds what she expects, and you, the reader, probably won’t either. Rabbit Back is quite a strange place thanks to the influence of Laura White and her books. There are also lots of otherwordly phenomena – lapses in memory, disturbing sightings, inexplicable animal behaviour, and of course the altered books in the library and the manner of Laura White’s disappearance. These things set the novel firmly in the realm of fantasy, but it’s not the kind of book where one or two knowledgable characters eventually reveal all. None of the characters know what’s really going on; the best they can do is try to speak truthfully about the things they’ve seen and experienced and it’s up to Ella – and the reader – to piece that information together.

This sort of thing can be frustrating, but I think Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen hits the right balance, revealing just enough to keep the reader satisfied, while keeping a few secrets that you continue thinking about the story once its over. For me, it also helps that the story is wrapped in folklore and mythology; that sort of thing always piques my interest. It seems that myth and folklore formed an important part of Rabbit Back’s heritage, and the Creatureville books tapped into that, ensuring that it remained a major part of the culture. If you were familiar with Finnish folklore you might get more out this novel; I often felt that the plot and characters drew from tales I, unfortunately, hadn’t heard of.

Overall though, I thought the novel wasn’t just about the various mysteries at play in the plot and but also about the mystery of literature itself, which can never be unravelled. It frequently portrays authors, fiction and the creative process as something alien and enigmatic. People desperately want to understand it, but understanding remains elusive.

One of the first things you’ll notice is the cult that’s grown up around Laura White. She’s like the god of Rabbit Back: people treat her with a sense of awe and reverence, and being chosen for the Society is considered the greatest of honours. The culture and businesses of the town have all been heavily influenced by Laura and her books, often to a bizarre degree. For example, residents can pay €80 for “mythological mapping”, which involves getting a detailed explanation of all the mythological creatures occupying your property. Early in the novel, Ella notices a news story about a farmer who found a potato shaped like one of Laura White’s characters. This is crazy enough, but it gets creepy after the author disappears: people start having nightmares about Laura White’s body climbing into their bedrooms and reading their Creatureville books aloud.

Notably, we never “see” the author herself in the narrative, except for the few moments before she disappears. We only hear about her through other people, so she remains remote, obscure. Mythical, you could say, especially since many of the town’s unexplained phenomena are related to her.

Some of the other writers have large roles in the narrative, but thanks to Laura White they all share an elevated status. They joke about being demigods, and on several occasions, non-members are referred to as “ordinary people”. Those “ordinary people”, of course, buy into this idea as well.

Jääskeläinen, I think, is taking a playful dig at the celebrity and mystique surrounding famous authors. The worship of Laura White becomes almost laughable, while the Society authors tend to have a sardonic attitude toward their own fame.

Of course, there’s also a darker side to this, not only because of the nightmares about Laura White, but because of what all this implies about her life, and what being in the Society meant for its members. It seems unlikely that Laura White had any friends; she was intensely loved and admired in a way that also left her completely alienated. No one seems particularly upset about her disappearance and possible death; this incredible mystery isn’t even a major subject in the novel and Ella actually gets tired of the whole thing because it has nothing to do with her research.

I agreed that her disappearance didn’t feel all that important; the past is far more interesting than the present, with all its murky secrets. Here Jääskeläinen explores some of the more questionable aspects of crafting literature, particulary the way authors use the lives of others to create fictional ones. To help them write, the Society has a secret practice known as The Game. Invented by Laura White, it has strict rules and regulations, and basically involves forcing other members to answer any question as truthfully as they possibly can, even if that means taking drugs to help them overcome any inihibitions. For Ella, this presents the perfect opportunity to gather material for her research paper, but for the rest of the Society it has been a way of mining human experience to find material for their books.

It’s a brilliant idea, and probably taught the authors far more about humanity than they would ever have learned otherwise. However, it also raises quite a few ethical issues and has had serious consequences for the members’ relationships with each other. How much can you take from other people? What happens when life and fiction start to intersect? The book plays around with that question throughout, and I’ll leave you to discover the many ways in which it does that. It’s certainly not a conventional mystery novel, but if you like a bit of fantasy, folklore, mythology and metafiction in the mix, then check it out 🙂