Books: Amberlough

35018890Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly
February 7, 2017
star-5
There are some books that imprint on you so deeply that you know you’ll be re-reading them for the rest of your life. Amberlough is one of those books for me. When I finished reading it for the first time last summer I needed three things: a stiff drink, a massage, and the next book in the series A.S.A.P! Never before have I been so tense while reading a book! Like most of my all-time favourites, I found it nearly impossible to put down and when I hit the last page I desperately wanted to start all over again, already missing the adrenaline high that came from being so caught up in and deeply moved by a story.

Set against the rise to power of the fascist One State Party (nicknamed the “Ospies”), Amberlough is deeply relevant in our troubled political times. Like our own cosmopolitans, the glittering, but corrupt, Amberlough City is home to a diverse group of people, including spy Cyril DePaul and his lover Aristide Makricosta, smuggler and emcee at the popular Bumble Bee Cabaret. After his cover is blown on a mission, the emotionally and physically scarred Cyril becomes a turncoat in order to preserve his life. A feeling of danger pervades Amberlough, but there’s also art, beauty, and love. While its undoubtedly an espionage thriller, at its heart Amberlough is a story about people and the choices, and sacrifices, they make under pressure.

All three of the viewpoint characters are vivid, realistic, and flawed. Cyril, who has been so shaped by a near-death experience that it influences every choice he makes. Cordelia Lehane, a dancer at the Bee, has clawed her way out of the city slums and is clever, underestimated, and unashamed. And Ari, who has rebuilt himself from the ground up complete with affected stutter, city accent, and luxurious tastes. The relationships between characters were a highlight of the book for me as well. All of these connections are fully realized, but it’s the dance of a relationship between Ari and Cyril, as both compartmentalize and turn a blind eye to certain aspects of each other’s business, that I loved most.

I’m a sucker for moral ambiguity and it’s here in spades. The first novel in the Amberlough Dossier trilogy is the kind of book that makes you examine your own morals and wonder: How far would you go? Would you fight rising fascism, even if the conclusion seems foregone? Would you flee if you could save the people you cared most about in the world?

Donnelly’s prose is exquisite; atmospheric and sensual it creates a richly imagined sense of place. I especially admire her gift for describing the regional accents and affectations of her characters, from Cordelia’s slum whine to Tory’s northern burr, in a fantasy world where general knowledge of each country’s accent can’t be relied upon. For all that I loved the language and dialogue between characters, so much in Amberlough is unsaid; It’s communicated through a glance, a gesture, an action that convey the significance of a relationship more than a declaration of love.

Although I can’t imagine it was intentional, Amberlough‘s release, just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, is timely. It’s chilling to watch how easily the fascist One State Party rises to power as it fixes an election and bribes the police force, particularly in a diverse world where characters of colour, characters who are homosexual, and women in leadership roles are able to thrive.

Exploring themes of nationalism, fascism, and hatred, Amberlough is, at times, a dark and depressing read, but it also embraces diversity, the power of art, and love in a story that is thought-provoking, sensual, and deeply engrossing. I cannot wait to see how the trilogy wraps up later this month!

 

Books: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

36187158Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Published March 13, 2018
star-4
I’m iffy about novellas. Iffy enough that I was hesitant to commit publicly to reading the full list of Nebula and Hugo nominated novellas alongside the Best Novel nominees, but you know what? I’ve finished two of the novellas now and loved both of them – clearly I’ve been too quick to judge! I devoured Kelly Robson’s delightful ecological time travel adventure Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach with its subtle, yet thorough world building, innovative imagining of how time travel technology could be used for profit, and exploration of generational differences. Fortunately the author is currently working on a sequel and I, for one, cannot wait to read it!

In the year 2267, Earth is just beginning to recover from widespread ecological disasters that have driven most of the population underground. Minh, a river rehabilitation specialist, and her team eke out a living in the Calgary habilitation center on the surface trying to repair the damage done to the Earth, but the recent invention of time travel by a shadowy organization known as TERN has made it more difficult to find financing for long-term restoration projects. When a Request-for-Proposal to restore the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization by traveling into the past crosses Minh’s radar, she puts aside her dislike of TERN and assembles a rag-tag crew to secure the job.

Part of what I loved about this novella is that it all feels so grounded. Robson uses connective technologies in a way that feels like a logical progression of the way we use technology in the present. Characters are constantly stimulated by a stream of information, they access and control medical information about themselves through their biom, and carry on multiple screen-to-screen conversations at the same time. Yet for all the advances in technology, the mundane is still present. Scientists draft proposals, write grant applications, and secure funding. Technologies that could be used for the greater good, like time travel, are proprietary and used primarily to turn a profit through tourism.

The use of language only cements Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach as a triumph of world building. Characters use terms like “fakes” to refer to the artificial protocol that handles their day-to-day meetings and message queues, “hells” for the underground habitats containing most of the Earth’s population, and even have generational nicknames like “Plague Babies”, for a generation that faced scarcity and illness, and “Fat Babies”, for the healthy generation that followed. When Minh dismisses Kiki early on as a “Fat Baby” I could almost picture think pieces using the term in the same infuriating way that “Millennial” is used today.

Sometimes I find that science-fiction is focused on the big ideas and the exploration of technology and how everything works to the detriment of its characters. Happily that’s not at all the case here. First of all, I adored Minh. She’s practical, an expert in her field who has no patience for bullshit, and oh yes, she’s an octogenarian with prosthetic legs. I am so here for older women in STEM getting shit done! Cleverly Robson balances Minh’s experience with the youthful Kiki’s bright enthusiasm and compassion. The dynamic between these two characters, as Minh initially dismisses Kiki and comes to see her as committed and valuable really worked for me. Especially as it tears down generational stereotypes and builds a friendship between an older and a younger woman.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the ace representation! Asexual and/or Aromantic characters are so rare in fiction that I nearly always seek out and read these books. To just come across an asexual main character, especially in genre fiction, on the page was so meaningful to me.

Depending on how invested in grant proposals and logistics you are, the plot may drag a little in the middle, but it all comes to a head in an ending that is both sudden and satisfying. I can’t wait to see what Kelly Robson does next, and I will definitely be reading the sequel to this book, especially since asexual Kiki will be the protagonist!

 

Books: The Raven Tower

39395857The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie
Published February 26, 2019
star-2
Ann Leckie’s fantasy debut is bound to be divisive. Those who write glowing five-star reviews will wax poetic about it’s experimental form, how unique it is in the genre, and the risks it takes. Those who are less enamored of The Raven Tower will critique its glacial pace and distracting second person tense that keep the reader at arm’s length from the characters. I belong to the latter group.

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. Not only are they among my favourite books of all-time, I believe they are modern science-fiction classics that every lover of genre fiction should read. As someone who tends to prefer fantasy to sci-fi, I expected to be gushing about Leckie’s first foray into fantasy so The Raven Tower was a bitter disappointment. Glowing critical reviews and a 4.06 rating on goodreads indicate that I may just have been the wrong reader for this book, but I found it to be a dull slog with minimal pay-off.

The Raven Tower is narrated by a passive and largely apathetic ancient god, known as The Strength and Patience of the Hill, content to live out the rest of its days without fame, friends, or even a change of scenery. Sticking to its first form – literally a large rock on a hill – it’s pretty much the most boring god ever. Here’s where it gets really frustrating (or maybe not if you like this sort of thing); the narration is often in second person, with the “you” addressing not the reader but the only likable character in the entire novel, Eolo. The most boring of rock gods observes and reports on Eolo, who has his hands full acting as Aide to whiny Prince Marwan (think Hamlet, only instead of emo and kind of a dick, Marwan is filled with rage and kind of a dick). Eventually Eolo meets The Strength and Patience of the Hill and things pick up, but by this point, lacking the patience of an ancient god, I just didn’t care anymore.

Part of the problem here is the form that the narration takes. Theoretically the idea of telling a story of human civilization over time from the perspective of a passive observer is intriguing. Letting the narration digress into philosophical musings and pacing the story to fit the narrator’s patient disregard for the passage of time sounds genius, but it just doesn’t make for an enjoyable read.

For one thing, humans have much shorter attention spans, especially in this age of constant stimulation, than an ancient god and, quite frankly, many of us have TBRs we’d have to be immortal to get through. There is very little incentive to read a book that moves about as quickly and with as many plot developments as paint drying.

The other major issue with choosing a narrator who rarely interacts with the characters is that it keeps the reader at arm’s length and prevents us from connecting with anyone in the story. The second person tense places the reader in Eolo’s shoes, but in doing so we don’t actually get much of a glimpse into his thoughts and feelings and where he’s coming from. There’s also a lot more telling than showing. Eolo tells us that the Prince he serves so faithfully, Marwan, is a good person, but there’s never any evidence of that presented on the page so how can we trust this statement?

The plot of The Raven Tower is largely politicking – a usurper has taken over the position of Lease (sort of like a King, but the position requires a blood sacrifice to a Raven god) and the old Lease has disappeared. But politicking only works if we have a vested interest in one side. I didn’t care about any of the characters enough to care about who wins and loses, or if the civilization remains or is defeated.

There are some things about this book that I appreciated. Eolo is an interesting, though sadly under-developed, character and the fact that he is transgendered is terrific representation to see in a medieval-era inspired fantasy novel. As someone interested in both mythology and anthropology, I found some of the passages exploring a civilization’s growth and change over time and its relationship with gods intriguing. I also have a certain amount of respect for an author who tries something completely new and breaks away from her previous work, as Leckie has done here. It just didn’t work for me personally.

Ultimately The Raven Tower is an experimental, meandering look at human civilizations over time and their relationship with religion. It’s an interesting premise, but one that would have been better served by a novella or work of short fiction than a poorly-paced 400 page novel.

March Wrap-Up

Well, no one can say my March reading list lacked variety! A non-fiction professional development book, a buzzworthy literary novel, a fantasy debut from a respected science-fiction author, a narrative non-fiction true crime book, an indigenous YA urban fantasy, and a queer second-world fantasy about the rise of facism. March was a mostly positive month of reading for me, with all but one book scoring 4 stars or higher, and I’ve found a new favourite in Patrick Radden Keefe’s brilliant Say Nothing. Unfortunately The Raven Tower, which was one of my most-anticipated books of 2019, fell flat, but 5/6 ain’t bad!

The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness by Ryan Dowd  small 4 stars
The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie  small-2-stars + RTC
Normal People by Sally Rooney  small 4 stars + RTC
Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe  small 5 stars + RTC
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse  small 4 stars + Review
Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly (re-read)  small 5 stars + RTC

Book of the Month: Say Nothing is the only book I’ve read so far this year that I am certain will wind up on my year-end list of favourites. I’m interested in Irish history and have visited Belfast before so I had an abstract knowledge of the conflict in Northern Ireland known as “the Troubles”, but Say Nothing sets out clearly the day-to-day existence of living through this period, contextualizes the events of the Troubles, and relates the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville, widowed mother of ten. It’s not always an easy book to read, but it’s deeply compelling and will haunt me for a long time.

Least Favourite: Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and Provenance, her standalone story set in the same universe, are among my all-time favourites, but I was bitterly disappointed by the author’s first foray into fantasy. The Raven Tower is an experiment that just did not work for me at all. The characters are kept at arm’s length so I never connected with them, the pace can only be described as glacial, and although I stubbornly kept reading, I should have DNF-ed this because the pay-off is just not there.

***
Seen on Stage: The Toronto theatre scene is traditionally strongest in the Fall and Winter, and this was no exception!

My March highlight was undoubtedly the immersive, site-specific production of Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Don Jail. The Don Jail, a former prison and the site of a number of hangings before capital punishment was abolished in Canada, provided an appropriately atmospheric and creepy venue. Despite the uncomfortable seating, I was blown away by the cast, whose voices were accentuated by the fabulous acoustics of the jail. Fingers crossed for a remount because the short run was sold out before it even opened and I would brave the discomfort of tall metal bar stools again for a second opportunity to see this brilliant production!

I had been looking forward to Schools Girls ever since the season announcement thanks to glowing reviews of the off-Broadway production, and sure enough I loved this hilarious and yet poignant show that deals with issues like shadeism, racism, and classicism in a nuanced way.

I also loved getting to see two National Ballet casts dance Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s the perfect ballet to introduce young audiences to dance and I loved seeing two up-and-coming ballerinas tackle the lead role with completely different, yet valid, interpretations. I wasn’t as thrilled with the mixed program, finding Balanchine’s Apollo a little dull for my liking (although there’s some intricate partnering there). Night was a welcome company debut for Canadian choreographer Julia Adam though, and I enjoyed the very classical flourish of Paquita.

Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Don Jail by Eclipse Theatre Company
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by The National Ballet of Canada (x2)
School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play by Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre
Apollo; The Sea Above, The Sky Below; Night; and Paquita by The National Ballet of Canada

***

Coming up in April: I’ll be continuing my read of the Nebula nominees for Best Novel with Witchmark and Blackfish City. I’m also anxious/excited about the release of Amnesty, the final book in the Amberlough Dossier series, on April 16th! The most exciting news though is that I’ll be visiting Rachel for an extended weekend vacation in April. I look forward to showering her beautiful cats with affection, reading and chatting books, and enjoying the beauty of Vermont!

What was the best book you read this month?