Books: Provenance

25353286Provenance by Ann Leckie
Published September 26, 2017
star-4-half
Set in the same universe as her critically acclaimed Imperial Radch trilogy, Ann Leckie’s standalone novel Provenance is hard to classify. Part political thriller, part mystery, and part coming-of-age story, Provenance shifts from the tea-drinking, glove-wearing Radchaai to the Hwae, a people who place enormous importance on “vestiges”, documents and artifacts that commemorate a specific event of personal or historical importance.

As a librarian who considered becoming an archivist seriously enough that I concentrated in archives courses, I’m a little embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to consider the significance of the title. “Provenance” is a fundamental principle in archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. However other definitions of the word refer to 1) the record of ownership of an antique, used as a guide to authenticity, and 2) the beginning or origin of something’s existence. How exceedingly clever that Leckie’s novel encompasses all of these meanings. Initially “provenance” refers to the vestiges that are so highly valued on Hwae, but it later becomes clear that “provenance” can also refer to a people’s desire to document where they came from and how it shapes their civilization.

When the narrative reveals that many of the vestiges that the Hwae hold dear are actually fakes, Leckie’s novel asks questions about the way we document historical events. Does a document need to be genuine to be important? Or can it gain significance through what it represents, even if it is based on a lie?

As is the case with her Imperial Radch trilogy, Provenance demands the reader’s attention. This is not the kind of book that you can read half-asleep on autopilot. For one thing, you’ll want to be fully alert to take in the complexity of Leckie’s astounding world building. I loved the Radch Empire, where androgyny is the norm and spoken language uses only one set of gender pronouns – she/hers. Here, Leckie gives us the Hwae, who use she/hers, he/his and gender neutral e/eirs pronouns. It’s a world where individuals come of age by choosing their adult name and the pronouns they wish to use, when they feel they have reached adulthood (although there is some social stigma attached to taking too long to decide).

The politically-charged society revolves around important families who periodically run for election. Each mistake made in the public eye or heroic action taken is viewed in terms of political gain or loss of face in the near-constant campaign for office. The head of each family names their successor, an heir who will, in time, take their name and duties. Protagonist Ingray Aughskold is an aristocratic young woman, adopted by one of society’s leading families as a young child. Seeking her foster mother’s approval, Ingray invests the last of her savings into a desperate gamble to show up her elder brother Danach and be named Netano Aughskold’s heir.

Ingray bribes a broker to smuggle Pahlad Budrakim out of “compassionate removal” in hopes that e will reveal where e hid valuable family antiques, known as the ” Garseddai vestiges”, that e stole from eir family. However, the criminal arrives in stasis and Captain Tic Uisine, the ship captain Ingray’s hired to transport her and her passenger home, refuses to take a person who isn’t awake anywhere without eir consent. Unfortunately, the person who emerges from the suspension box denies being Pahlad Budrakim, the thief central to Ingray’s plan.

These are just the first complications Ingray encounters, as she’s soon caught up in a murder investigation, allegations of fraud, and being stalked by the Geck Ambassador, who believes she knows where to find a stolen Geck ship.

Without meaning to, I’ve read a few books this month that revolve around a heroine’s journey to understand her place, both within her politically important family, and within society as a whole. Provenance is certainly the most successful book I’ve read on this theme.

Ingray Aughskold is an immensely likable character. Certain that her elder brother will be named their mother’s heir, she seeks initially a way to best him, and then a place for herself in the universe. Ingray often sells herself short, but she’s a resourceful protagonist, capable of getting herself out of any mess that she gets into. Ingray is also immensely human. I identified with and rooted for this young adult woman. Although she remains focused on the task at hand, and ultimately comes up with some daring plots, she also experiences realistic emotional reactions to extreme stress, including crying. The supporting characters are also rendered with care, from enigmatic Garal Ket and the forceful Geck Ambassador, to thief and pilot extraordinaire Tic and sweet Taucris.

As ever, Ann Leckie’s social commentary is subtle, but adept. Garal Ket’s biting criticism of “compassionate removal”, a euphemistic term for a prison where the exiled prisoners are declared legally dead, hits home amid news articles on the mistreatment of prisoners in North American jails.

Additionally, Ingray, who was adopted from a public crèche but has grown up in privilege as a daughter of one of the planet’s aristocratic families, says at one point, “I had never really thought about it that way before. Who are we if our vestiges aren’t real?” and the Deputy Chief she’s speaking with, who belongs to an ethnic minority, responds, “You never really thought of it before because nobody has ever really questioned your being who you say you are. No one has ever told you your own vestiges are false, or that they mean you’re not really entirely Hwaean.”

There’s a great deal that’s refreshing about the way Provenance depicts gender, identity, and relationships. From the Hwaean custom of choosing your adult name and pronouns at a time when an individual feels comfortable doing so, to the acceptance of all three sets of pronouns (including the gender neutral e/eirs), to the inclusion of same-sex relationships.

Ultimately, Provenance is a deeply satisfying coming of age story about finding your place and your family, and about recognizing that the road everyone expects you to take is not always the right one.

 

Advertisements

Where do my books come from?

AKA. A Love Letter to My Public Library. I came across this post by way of Rachel @ pace, amore, libri and thought that it was a really interesting way to look at my reads so far. The idea is to go through everything you’ve read this year and make a note about where you got them. Here are my 2017 reads to date from most recent to oldest:

  1. That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston: Library
  2. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Library
  3. Elegy by Vale Aida: Purchased from Book Depository
  4. The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo: Library
  5. One Dark Throne by Kendare Blake: Library
  6. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: Library
  7. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne: Library
  8. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin: Library
  9. Our Dark Duet by V.E. Schwab: Library
  10. American War by Omar El Akkad: Library
  11. Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie: Purchased from BMV (used bookstore)
  12. Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: Borrowed from my mom
  13. Now I Rise by Kiersten White: Library
  14. All The Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders: Library
  15. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee: Library
  16. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer: Library
  17. The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente: Library
  18. Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee: Library
  19. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: Borrowed from another library
  20. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rios: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  21. The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu: Library
  22. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich: Library
  23. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See: Library
  24. Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray: Library
  25. The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli: Library
  26. Giant Days Vol.1 by John Allison: Library
  27. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee: Library
  28. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Library
  29. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston: Library
  30. Saga Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  31. Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde: Library
  32. City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  33. Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie: Library
  34. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose: Library
  35. Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi: Library
  36. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: Library
  37. Villains by V.E Schwab: Library
  38. Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Library
  39. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: Library
  40. When The Sea Is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen: Library
  41. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers: Library
  42. The Chosen Maiden by Eva Stachniak: Library
  43. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera: Library
  44. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab: Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
  45. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: Library
  46. Everfair by Nisi Shawl: Library
  47. A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: Library
  48. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote: Library
  49. The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon: Library
  50. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab: Library
  51. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman: Library
  52. More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera: Library
  53. Fear the Drowning Deep by Sarah Glenn Marsh: Library
  54. Saga Vol. 4 by Brian K. Vaughan: Borrowed from a co-worker
  55. An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay: Library
  56. Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen: Library
  57. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst: Library
  58. Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie: Library

Of the 58 books I’ve read to date in 2017:

50 – Borrowed from the Toronto Public Library
3 – Purchased from Indigo-Chapters online
2 – Borrowed from a co-worker
1 – Borrowed from a neighbouring Public Library System
1 – Purchased from Book Depository
1 – Bought from a used bookstore (BMV)

As expected, I am a heavy library user. A whooping 86% of books I read this year were borrowed from the local library system! There are a few reasons for this:

1. As a Librarian (I work in a corporate library and my job is primarily research-based), I strongly believe in supporting libraries whenever you can. Stats MATTER. Public libraries constantly have to justify their existence, and circulation stats, visits, etc. are all important and concrete ways in which they can demonstrate to politicians, etc. that libraries are useful.

2. I’m fortunate enough to live in the City of Toronto, which has a huge and well-used library system. The City has 102 (I think?) library branches and Toronto Public Library (TPL) ranked first in North America in circulation, visits, and electronic visits per capita among libraries serving populations of two million or more in 2015! I also live within a five minute walk of a library branch, it’s quite literally on my way to and from work, which makes it easy to borrow and return items. I am so privileged to have this fabulous library at my fingertips, and its size means that the library gets almost everything I want to read. The few times that they don’t have something, or its not available in print, it’s frustrating because I’ve become so accustomed to being able to borrow anything I want!

3. I don’t have an e-reader or tablet. Not having an eReader definitely holds me back from being able to receive ARCs from NetGalley and from taking advantage of sales on eBooks. I’d like to take the plunge, but the eBooks provider used by Canadian library systems, OverDrive, isn’t compatible with Kindles in this country, and I’d like the option of borrowing eBooks from the library as well as borrowing/receiving from NetGalley. If anyone has any insight on dedicated eReaders or on tablets, especially Canadians who use their library to borrow, please comment and let me know what you think!

4. Cost/Space. For a Toronto-apartment I have a lot of space. It’s still a city apartment though, so I try to be very careful about what I buy. Generally I buy the latest in a series that I can’t wait to own, or keeper copies of books I’ve read and loved that I know I will want to re-read. Definitely cost is also a factor, especially when it comes to hardcovers, so I tend to borrow from the library and decide whether to buy later.

I’ve also been really bad about buying items and not reading them this year, so I think I’m going to do a few months of reading only what’s on my shelves already at some point in 2018.

If you want to do a post like this, pingback to me here so I can check it out, I’d love to know, where do your books come from?

Books: That Inevitable Victorian Thing

25528808That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
Published October 3, 2017
star-3-half
That Inevitable Victorian Thing is based on one of the best alternate history concepts I’ve ever ever seen. The young Princess Victoria grows up, as in our world, under the Kensington System, a strict set of rules designed to render her dependent on her mother, and her mother’s attendant, for everything. She could not even walk down a flight of stairs in her own home without holding the hand of an adult guardian. The system backfires spectacularly and, upon becoming Queen, Victoria fiercely asserts her independence, pushing parliament to consider progressive ideas. In the world of That Inevitable Victorian Thing, she pushed for her eldest child, a daughter, to become her heir, not her eldest son, and sought out a stronger Empire by marrying her children and grandchildren not to their cousins in the royal houses of Europe, but farther afield in Hong Kong and elsewhere across the world. This creates a present-day Empire that combines traditions, religions, and genetics from across the world.

The story itself focuses on three protagonists, each with their own secrets. The Princess Victoria-Margaret, posing as the common Margaret Sandwich while abroad, is beginning a summer of freedom in Canada, before she seeks a genetically appropriate match and takes on duties as heir to the throne. In disguise, she makes friends with August Callaghan, heir to a lumber shipping firm that has been besieged by American pirates, and his longtime friend and likely match, Helena Marcus, the daughter of prominent geneticists. Although I liked all of the characters, I found August underdeveloped in comparison to the female characters, and wish we had seen more of his perspective. Pragmatic, but spirited Helena, and the reserved but game-for-anything Margaret are both very likable though and I loved watching their friendship develop.

As a proud Torontonian, I loved seeing my city as a major setting for this book. Places like Union Station, The Royal York, and the Princess of Wales Theatre are all locales that I pass frequently and it gave me a tiny thrill to see their names in print. My family have never been cottage people, so Northern Ontario was less familiar, but obviously rendered with love by the author.

The blending of the old and the new is a welcome bit of world building. The largely teenage cast of characters prepare for the ‘season’ of social events, beginning with their debut into society. They fuss about dresses that include crinolines and corsets, and about knowing the steps to dances (amusingly including “The Log Driver’s Waltz“). Yet at the end of their debut, they receive their personal chip to the genetic internet, or ‘g-net’, which contains their genetic code and the ability to search for and chat with genetic matches in a sort of high-tech dating portal that determines the health of any potential offspring. Characters also compose letters to family members, but these are sent via tablets.

Speaking in vague terms to avoid spoilers, the representation in this book is also fantastic. In this world’s Empire, the Royal Family is ethnically diverse, with both Princess Margaret and her mother, Queen Victoria-Elizabeth, exhibiting brown skin, natural hair, and epicanthal folds. Similarly, August is from an Irish-Hong Kong Chinese background. Passing mentions to Sikh men in turbans and Muslim hijabi during the balls are also made. That Inevitable Victorian Thing treats diversity as a strength that keeps the Empire healthy, and there is seemingly no discrimination based on physical traits. The book also contains queer characters, and makes mention of the fact that one member of the Royal Family (an aunt, not in the direct line of succession), with the full blessing of the church, marries a woman.

It sounds fantastic, right? But the book falls flat in the world building and plot departments. On the surface the world building is great, this unique multicultural world of technology and Victorian-era tradition, but there’s little in the way of depth here. I wanted to know so much more about how the eldest child instead of just the eldest son inheriting changes things. I wanted to know more about this genetic search for matches all across the globe, and most of all I wanted some deeper insight on the acceptance of LGBT couples, couples who don’t want to have children, and asexuals, in a world where the entire matchmaking system is based on the prospective health of offspring.

The plot is also very thin. There’s the opportunity for conflict, with each character holding secrets that should, when they come to a head, result in some fireworks, but dramatic tension isn’t maintained throughout. It’s almost as if the characters forget they have these problems when convenient, and then pick their woes back up again when needed to drive the story. That Inevitable Victorian Thing definitely reads on the younger end of YA, which isn’t something that appeals to me personally. POVs change constantly, sometimes within a few pages, so it feels like we don’t delve too deeply into any one character’s thoughts.

My biggest disappointment though was the ending. Everything wraps up a little too quickly and tidily, resulting in an ending that’s neatly tied off with a bow. I get the impression that this is intended to be a happy ending, but it reads as bittersweet at best and at worst as entering into a situation that cannot possibly work or be happy for all parties involved in the long-term.

I still think a lot of people will be absolutely over the moon for this book, and I recommend it as a very original work of YA fantasy based on a unique concept, but personally it didn’t hit all the right notes for me.

T5T: Books on my TBR the longest

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the wonderful Bionic Book Worm.  This week’s topic:

NOVEMBER 14TH – Top 5 books that have been on my TBR the longest

Like most book bloggers, my TBR list is miles long and seems to get longer by the day. Looking through my goodreads ‘to read’ list I picked out some of the earliest entries that I still intend to read in the next few years. Without further ado, here are some of the oldest entries on my TBR:

110161. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Jane Eyre is one of those classics that I’ve been meaning to read for probably a decade. I can’t believe I got through an English major, including a Victorian Lit class, without reading this one! Sure I’ve seen the most recent film, and the BBC miniseries (which I really enjoyed), but as we all know, the book is usually better, and I just know this is one classic I’m going to enjoy!

40145002. Falls The Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman
I read the first book of her Welsh Princes trilogy, Here be Dragons, in 2012 and really enjoyed it. Set in thirteenth century Wales, the characters were great, the historical aspects were well researched, and the plot engaging. I’ve been meaning to get back to this series for awhile, but it fell victim to timing. See Here be Dragons was the last book I read before I started The Lymond Chronicles, the dense six-book historical fiction epic that ate my life for six months, and then continued to do so while I re-read, and fought the urge to re-read, and re-read. At this point it’s been five years, so I’ll probably have to re-read Here be Dragons, before I can finish the trilogy, but it’s definitely on my list!

3. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
2054I was introduced to Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective Phillip Marlowe in a Detective Fiction class during my undergrad. The Big Sleep immediately captured my attention with its unusual and evocative metaphors and similes, its depiction of seedy Los Angeles, and the atmospheric noir style. I’ve been meaning to read more of Chandler’s work for awhile now, and The Long Goodbye seems to be one of his better known works, so I thought I’d start there.


4. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
7126Along with Rebecca and Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo completes my trilogy of classics I actually want to read and fully believe that I will enjoy. Dumas is often held up as a pillar of adventure/historical fiction and I know he was a favourite author of Dorothy Dunnett’s, which is enough to put him on my to-read list on its own! Wrongful imprisonment, betrayal, and revenge, what’s not to like?! After War and Peace I think I need a break from doorstopper books for a few months, but hopefully I will get to this at some point next year!

5. The Last Great Dance on Earth by Sandra Gulland
651908I really need to finish the historical fiction series I start! Like Sharon Kay Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, this is a series where I read the first book (and I think the second?) in 2010 but never finished, despite really enjoying this story, which focuses on the life of Napoleon’s wife Josephine Bonaparte. A friend of mine recently read the series and loved it, which reminded me of how I need to get on this. Again, I think it’s been so long that I’ll have to re-read the entire series first, but I’d like to read more historical fiction next year anyway.

How about you? What books have been on your TBR the longest?

 

Books: War and Peace

635222War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
originally published in 1868
translated by Anthony Briggs
star-2
Reviewing a book as celebrated as War and Peace is no easy feat, especially when you’re going against the crowd, so let me emphasis that this is not an objective review of War and Peace or where it stands in the annals of literature, but a summary of what I thought of the book. In short, as much as I wanted to like War and Peace, and even thought that I would based on the first 700 or so pages, I found the second half to be a tedious slog that focused increasingly on detailed descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars while the characters took a backseat.

I decided to tackle War and Peace for a few reasons. One, a few friends (Hadeer and Rachel, who both finished before me and have posted reviews on their blogs) were doing a group read and it seemed like the kind of project book that could use a support system. Two, I had recently seen and loved Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on the 70-page excerpt of War and Peace that focuses on Natasha’s affair with Anatole Kuragin. Since the excerpt is drawn from the middle of the book, I was left with questions about how these characters came to be in their situations, and what happened to them after the musical ended. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that the characters in the book only ever felt surface-deep.

Part of my frustration stems from the fact that the novel is extremely unbalanced. The first half of the book is undoubtedly stronger as Tolstoy’s early war passages contain both a wry sense of humour and commentary on how young men romanticize the war and the emperor. These are balanced with engaging peace scenes that develop the characters, from poor bewildered Pierre to selfless Sonya and spirited Natasha. By the time Tolstoy hits the midpoint he seems to abandon all pretense that he’s writing a novel though and focus decidedly on the war.

As the only other nineteenth-century, brick-sized epic I’ve read, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Unfortunately, War and Peace comes out poorer for the comparison in every way.

Although the characters in Les Misérables are archetypal (Fantine as The Fallen Woman, for example), they’re given such depth and empathy that you can’t help but feel for them. I liked Tolstoy’s characters initially, but it’s difficult to form a connection or to feel like you know people who barely seem to know themselves. As a commentary on society, creating characters who are so mutable that their minds, romantic attachments, and entire worldviews shift in an instant if someone voices a dissenting opinion, is interesting. In practice it makes for characters who are hard to understand and care about.

You’ll hear no argument from me that both of these books could have used a more disciplined editor, but Hugo’s digressions, tangents on The Battle of Waterloo, the Paris sewer system, and argot, among others, are somewhat interesting and, much like a distracted university professor, he gets back to his original thought. In War and Peace, it feels like the characters and any semblance of plot are the digression. Tolstoy rhapsodizes about the war and presents his detailed thoughts on the Great Man Theory and every hundred pages or so someone reminds him that there are characters besides Napoleon and the soldiers and Tolstoy grudgingly gives the reader a hasty interlude before he returns to writing passionately about the war. Sadly, this is true even of the epilogue. Tolstoy presents twenty or so pages of domesticity to sum up the characters’ lives, but the remainder of the hundred pages reads more like the conclusion to a dissertation than an epilogue. For those with a keen interest in military history I imagine this makes for a fascinating read. As someone who reads for characters above all else, I found this immensely frustrating.

At the end of Les Misérables I felt a great swell of emotion and love for these characters who had become so dear. When I finished War and Peace I mostly just felt relieved that it was over.

For all my negativity, I’m not sorry I read War and Peace and it hasn’t entirely put me off Tolstoy. At some point (many moons from now, I need a break!) I’ll probably still read Anna Karenina, and hope that it touches me more than War and Peace. However, I can’t imagine ever wanting to read War and Peace again and I think it offers more from a military history perspective than it does from a story standpoint.

Should you attempt the behemoth and read War and Peace? If you have a great love of military history then yes, this might just be the book for you. If not, do yourself a favour and choose another nineteenth century epic, I’d suggest Hugo’s Les Miserables, instead.

 

T5W: Problematic Faves

I have to preface this week’s awesome topic – Characters you don’t want to love but you can’t help liking – with a bit of a disclaimer. You see, I hate the word ‘problematic’ about as much as I love this topic. It’s one of those words that I would be quite happy to see disappear from the English language forever.

I find ‘problematic’ is far too quickly and casually thrown around these days, often without a deeper exploration of why something or someone presents a problem. There’s also sometimes a lack of thought about the difference between ‘problematic’ when applied to celebrities or real life people versus fictional characters. I accept behaviour and traits in fictional characters, because I know they’re not real, that I would never accept from a real person. For example, since I just saw Thor: Ragnarok yesterday, I find the Marvel Universe Loki fascinating and fun, but I would drop-kick (or at least try!) anyone in real life who betrayed, killed, and generally caused chaos as he does. Ultimately, when it comes to fictional characters, I tend to prefer the term ‘flawed’ to ‘problematic’, and boy are these five characters flawed!

1. Gerald Tarrant (The Coldfire Trilogy by C.S. Friedman)
gerald-tarrant-1452851243-74687Gerald Tarrant is the most problematic of problematic faves. Although he was a great tactician and learned man, who crafted The Church of the One God, The Coldfire Trilogy opens with him quite literally murdering his wife and two children in order to strike a deal with the Fae, a powerful, magical, energy force that surrounds the planet. The Fae can be influenced by the human psyche, but working with the Fae often requires a great sacrifice, in Tarrant’s case, his humanity. Let’s just say that if you don’t like your characters morally grey, this is probably not the series for you!

900 years later, Gerald Tarrant lives, but as a force that feeds on fear itself. Yet when his life’s work, the Church, is threatened, he is drawn into a quest to destroy this new force of evil. It makes a lot more sense when you realize that Gerald is more or less a vampire – the most original twist on vampires (an overdone subject I’m not particularly interested in) I’ve seen in ages, but still basically a vampire (he’s allergic to sunlight and feeds on fear instead of blood). Gerald Tarrant’s relationship with traveling companion Damien Vryce, a warrior priest, develops from a mutual hatred but shared purpose, to a grudging respect, to a deeply felt friendship over the course of the series. They also rub off on one another, at least enough for Gerald to start doing the right thing and begin atoning for his past. All in all, he’s a snarky, good-looking, intelligent creature and there might just be heart buried under all that.

2. Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Watchmen by Alan Moore)
rorAlan Moore’s acclaimed 1980s graphic novel turned the superhero genre on its head with a grim take on costumed vigilantes. Intending to show “that even the worst of them had something going for them, and even the best of them had their flaws” the pages are full of ‘problematic’ characters, but my favourite has always been Rorschach.

Objectively, Rorschach is a pretty awful person. Childhood experiences involving his abusive prostitute mother have stoked his misogyny, and he also appears to be homophobic. Sure he dresses up in a trademark trenchcoat and shifting inkblot mask and fights crime, but his belief in moral absolutism -an ethical view that actions are intrinsically right or wrong and there are no shades of grey – and inability to compromise make Rorschach a ruthless opponent.

Despite all this, there is something admirable in Rorschach’s devotion to his principles, in his friendship with fellow former vigilante Nite Owl, and in the sheer badass approach to fighting crime. The moment where an incarcerated Walter Kovacs yells at a crowd of inmates, many of whom he helped put away, “None of you seem to understand. I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.” is epic. Perhaps my favoritism comes from the fact that Rorschach’s narration of events, in the form of a journal, puts us inside his head, or perhaps it’s influenced by Jackie Earle Haley’s brilliant performance as the character in the 2009 movie. Then again it might just be the sympathy I feel for a man who tries to do good, leaving criminals bloodied but alive for police to deal with until he sees the very worst that humanity has to offer and is irrevocably changed by the experience.

3. Inspector Javert (Les Miserables by Victor Hugo)
javertWhile I’m firmly in the camp that will fight anyone who calls Javert, the nineteenth century policeman who doggedly chases escaped convict Jean Valjean, a villain, he is the main antagonist of the story. Javert is not evil. Rather, like Rorschach, he is an absolutist. Javert believes that the law is infallible and lives with the utmost respect for authority, and hatred for rebellion (which encompasses committing any crime, regardless of the reason for doing so). As Hugo writes, “He would have arrested his own father, if the latter had escaped from the galleys, and would have denounced his mother, if she had broken her ban. And he would have done it with that sort of inward satisfaction which is conferred by virtue.”

This binary worldview leaves no room for ambiguity, and Javert is so shaken by the realization that the law is not infallible that he sees no way in which he can continue to exist in the world.

Javert is a fascinating character though, one of my favourites in both the book and musical adaptation of Les Miserables. He’s persistent, ultimately does the right thing by showing Valjean mercy, and even has an excellent sense of humour! Sure he’s misguided and it leads to his downfall, but Javert’s really not a bad guy.

4. Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo)
Fanart by Merwild (https://merwild.deviantart.com/art/Kaz-Brekker-648574110)Shaped by the tragic circumstances of his childhood, and driven by revenge, Kaz Brekker reinvents himself as a criminal mastermind and leader of a prominent Ketterdam gang, The Dregs. Ruthless, particularly in his pursuit of a prize, Kaz has cultivated a reputation for doing monstrous things, which conveniently means he doesn’t have to carry out every bluff.

Kaz definitely falls into a morally grey area. He’s someone that I would never want to meet in real life, but on the page I find morally ambiguous characters like him fascinating. As a reader, I can’t help but admire his obvious brilliance and the machinations of his mind. Even as obstacles come between him and his goals Kaz changes plans on the fly to accommodate, often with success. And then, of course, there’s Inej. In Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, Inej functions partially as Kaz’s conscience. His deep regard for her and developing romantic feelings allow him to let down his guard around Inej, revealing a softer side to the reader.

5. Cyril Avery (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
33253215In the interest of getting through at least a few weekly memes without answering LYMOND (although he definitely qualifies as a problematic character!), I’m taking a different route this time and saying Cyril from The Heart’s Invisible Furies. More than anyone else on this list Cyril is not a bad person, he’s just a very flawed human being who consistently makes poor choices. It’s easily to sympathise with Cyril and to understand where he’s coming from. I can only imagine the toll that being a gay man in Catholic Ireland during the twentieth century would take on a person, but Cyril’s choices are often enough to make the reader bang their head against a desk, culminating on his wedding night as he (SPOILERS) reveals to his best friend, who is also the brother of the woman he’s marrying, that he has been in love with him since they were young, and then takes off during the reception and never comes back!
Top Five Wednesday is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Want to join in the fun? Check out the goodreads group!

I realized I have a lot of morally dubious fictional character faves (and even more if you move out of books and into the realm of TV!) but these are some of the characters who have really made an impression on me. Who are some of your ‘problematic’ faves? And how do you feel about the term ‘problematic’?

Books: Elegy

32322796Elegy by Vale Aida
Published September 28, 2016
star-4-half
Sometimes you come across books that feel like they were written for you. They include tropes or plot points you love, characters who are definitely your “type”, and prose so rich that it that fills you with jealousy. That was my experience with Vale Aida’s debut novel Elegy when I read it last year. The conclusion to her Magpie Ballads duology, Swansong, was released a few months ago, and although my print copy seems to be stuck in Canada Post Hell (seven weeks and counting since I ordered from Book Depository) I can’t wait to see how it all ends! Re-reading Elegy, I was pleased to find that my admiration and delight for this queer fantasy novel remain intact. It’s a lushly-written book with multi-faceted, unique characters and an abundance of political machinations. In other words, it’s exactly the type of book I love to read.

Set in the realm of Cassarah, where peace rests on the edge of a knife, Elegy opens with the death and funeral of the beloved Governor Kedris. All signs point towards foul play by an old enemy, Queen Marguerit of Sarei. With the Council in chaos, the burden of revenge falls on the Governor’s son, trickster actor- turned-soldier Savonn Silvertongue. However, Savonn harbours secrets from a mischievous past, and his one-time lover and current adversary, known only as The Empath, threatens to bring them to light. Meanwhile, Savonn’s closest friend Iyone Safin wages a dangerous battle of wits in order to stop a string of unexplained incidents, protect the woman she’s falling in love with, and save Cassarah from the Saraians.

The character work in this novel is exceptional. It’s hard to feel apathetic about any of these multi-faceted, flawed characters. There are characters I dislike, characters I adore, but there’s no Matthias situation here – no major character that I feel meh about.

Savonn Silvertongue belongs to that category of sharp-tongued, mutable, and intensely capable protagonist comprised of Francis Crawford of Lymond and successor Laurent of Vere. He’s every bit as frustrating as he is intriguing, and his motives at any given time can be difficult to ascertain. A fellow Lymond Chronicles fan, author Vale Aida employs the Dorothy Dunnett method of primarily showing us her protagonist through the eyes of other characters, most of whom don’t have the full story.

This viewpoint character is most commonly Savonn’s squire, Emaris. A precious cinnamon roll of a character, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to love Emaris. Not yet eighteen, blond, and a soldier prone to accidently forgetting his sword, he’s also kind and fiercely loyal. The not-so-merry band of soldiers is rounded out by Hiraen, a close friend of Savonn’s since childhood and keeper of some of his darkest secrets. Although they often disagree, their regard for one another is clear and Savonn and Hiraen have the kind of brotherly bond that means they would do anything to protect the other.

The female characters are just as well-written, as they engage in a game of wits. Calm and inquisitive Iyone might just be my favourite, but I also loved Shandei, the impulsive daughter of a soldier who has more skill with weaponry than most, including her little brother Emaris. Josit, mistress to the murdered Governor and chessmaster extraordinaire is also fascinating to watch. My one criticism is that The Empath remains an ambiguous, though dangerous, figure who we know little about, and I would have liked to see more of his dynamic with Savonn. However, I’m certain there will be more of him in the second volume.

The relationships in this book too are beautifully depicted. There’s the beginning of a slow-burn connection between Iyone and Shandei, depicted subtly as Iyone sentimentally keeps a flower the other girl gives her, and seeks to return the favour by protecting the brave young woman. There is the deep bond of friendship between Savonn and Hiraen, the kind that make your heart hurt when they are at odds. There are parent-child relationships, mentor-mentee relationships, and adversarial relationships. All are messy, complicated, and ring true. The LGBT representation is also wonderful to see, as sexual orientation never hinders or results in discrimination, and Vale Aida clearly lays the groundwork for same-sex relationships.

My personal preference is definitely towards political-intrigue fantasy (see Seth Dickinson’s fabulous The Traitor Baru Cormorant, C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, Katherine Addison’s standalone The Goblin Emperor, and Lois Mcmaster Bujold’s space opera The Vorkosigan Saga for some great examples) and Elegy delivers. The game of wits between Josit and Iyone is rich in twists and turns, and the author maintains tension by revealing information with subtlety. I’d love to see more complex world-building, but Elegy lays a solid foundation, particularly in its depiction of Cassarah, with its many bridges.

The wit and complexity of the writing style is also impressive, especially considering this is the author’s debut novel! Dorothy Dunnett’s influence is keenly felt, and I feel confident in saying that if you loved Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and/or C.S. Pacat’s Captive Prince saga, you will undoubtedly enjoy this duology as well. Certainly Dunnett’s influence is a major part of why I fell in love with this book, so I don’t expect every reader will be quite as enthused as I am, but Elegy is a firm 4 or 4+ star book that should definitely be added to your TBR if you enjoy snarky intelligent characters, witty and evocative prose, and a plot that twist in delighted and unexpected ways.

Stage: Life After

LifeAfter

Life After is a poignant exploration of one family coming to terms with grief in the wake of tragedy. When her self-help guru father is killed in a car crash on her birthday, sixteen-year-old Alice’s life shifts. Plagued by questions about the circumstances of his sudden death, and by regret at the angry last words they ever exchanged, Alice searches for answers. This coming of age story coloured by loss is anchored by moving performances from a talented cast, and by a soaring, complicated score by young Canadian composer and lyricist Britta Johnson.

There are a lot of unique elements about this show, most notably the inclusion of a three-person Greek Chorus (played by Neema Bickersteth, Barbara Fulton, and Anika Johnson). The chorus voices Alice’s inner fears about her role in her father’s death, and play other minor parts, such as the kids at school drawn to tragedy, and fans of her father’s self-help books, who attend the funeral service. In a refreshing change from most musicals, the cast is overwhelmingly female (eight of the nine actors are women), although the lone male, Dan Chameroy as Alice’s deceased father Frank, casts a long shadow over the show.

I have also never seen a show use silence as well as Life After does. In the moments following a powerful climactic breakdown song (more on that later), you could have heard a pin drop.

Employing a  naturalistic style in its dialogue and lyrics, Life After incorporates current speech trends. Lyrics such as, “she was just, like, around” and “you are a literal warrior”, set the show firmly in the present day. Lyrics often repeat, but never in a way that feels tired. In fact, for me, Life After accomplishes what a previous CanStage show, London Road, tried and failed to do, with lyrics that follow natural speech patterns and could just as easily be spoken as sung.

The soaring score, by composer and lyricist Britta Johnson, has been compared to Sondheim for its harmonic complexity. Like Sondheim, Johnson’s music makes demands of the actors who perform it, with songs that are quick-paced and emotionally taxing.

Seeing Life After on the weekend after my whirlwind trip to New England, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons to the shows I had just seen. In its taut seventy-five minutes, Life After contains more heart and authenticity than I experienced in the entire two-and-a-half hours of the current US tour of Les Miserables. This production of Les Miserables suffers from miscast actors who often seem to be just going through the motions. Not so Life After, which had me teary-eyed by the end. You would expect an exploration of grief to feel almost manipulative, yet Life After never does. This is largely due to the anchoring presence of a cast who make you believe every word.

Ellen Denny is stunning as Alice, showcasing a sweet, strong voice and a powerful belt. One of the most passive heroines I’ve encountered, Alice spends the first half of the show observing and reflecting, paralyzed by grief and the fear that she bears responsibility for her father’s death. Yet Life After uses this to its advantage. The moments where Alice takes action and gains momentum as she begins to accept and move through her grief are all the more powerful for her earlier inactivity.

A much touted Toronto theatre scene actor who I’ve never had strong feelings about, Dan Chameroy is excellent here. His performance as Alice’s self-help guru father, Frank, is appropriately understated, comic and sweet by turns. His presence lingers, even when he’s not on stage, and Chameroy switches effortlessly between playing the always busy but well-intentioned father of Alice’s memories, and the more ambiguous creation her imagination comes up with as she searches for answers.

The highlight of the show is the mental breakdown of Alice’s mother Beth. In Tracy Michailidis’ rendition of “Wallpaper”, repressed emotion comes to the fore after an argument with her daughter over painting Frank’s office. Seeing the Huntingdon Theatre Company’s stunning production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in such close proximity, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between “Wallpaper” and Damian Humbley’s tour-de-force performance of patter song “Franklin Shepard Inc”. How I wish I could witness these two powerful breakdown songs back-to-back!

Musicals with serious themes often feel the need to include comic relief characters and/or songs (such as “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” in Les Miserables), often with cringe worthy results,  but Life After integrates humour incredibly well. As someone with a sometimes exasperating preachy vegan friend, I probably enjoyed the running joke about sister Kate’s veganism more than the average theatre-goer, but Kate (Rielle Braid) isn’t reduced to a punchline, nor is Alice’s best friend Hannah (a believably teenage Kelsey Verzotti). Both characters provide humourous moments, but also enable Alice to make breakthroughs in her journey to acceptance.

Unfortunately the Berkeley Street Theatre continues to be a blight on the otherwise sunny development of new Canadian musicals. Its location near the downtown core and smaller size make this theatre a popular choice for independent shows, but the exposed brick walls  swallow sound, making any musical with an open set difficult to hear. This is especially disappointing when the score is A) new, so you don’t know the lyrics already, and B) as quick and wordy as Life After is. I would love to see this show again in a space where the glorious score doesn’t come up against the obstacle of the Berkeley walls.

Life After is an excellent show, but there’s room to grow. Running a tidy seventy-five minutes with no intermission gives Britta Johnson room to expand on her engaging minor characters, such as sister Kate and mother Beth. I especially wanted more from Kate, who is explored purely as a peace making character in the musical, but has her own issues about Frank’s clear favoritism of Alice. Johnson likely wants to avoid unnecessarily bloating the musical, but I’d love a song or two more from their perspectives.

Life After also falters a little as it winds down, with the final few songs all sounding like they could serve as an ending. Still, this is a beautiful show about flawed people coping, in their own ways, with the death of another flawed, and utterly human, individual. The melodies stick with you, as does the emotional heft of this show, which I’m sure will have a life after the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Life After ran from September 23rd to October 29th at the Berkeley Street Theatre. Watch the show trailer here.

Photo of Ellen Denny (Alice) by Michael Cooper.