Books: Alice Payne Arrives

39332603Alice Payne Arrives by Kate Heartfield
Published November 6, 2018
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The titular Alice Payne, a thirty-something woman in Georgian England, moonlights as notorious highway robber The Holy Ghost and gets swept into an adventure that will have far-reaching consequences in this quick-paced and utterly delightful timey wimey novella.

With two of this year’s Nebula-nominated novellas telling stories about time travel and imagining humans in a distant devastated future, it invites comparison. Kelly Robson’s Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, which I reviewed here last month, has the edge; Its characters are given greater depth and its world-building is more comprehensive, but Alice Payne Arrives is clever, queer, and a whole lot of fun! While Robson takes a “Google Street view of the remote past” approach to time travel, in which trips back in time do not alter or change the future, Heartfield does the opposite, focusing on the consequences that individual decisions can have on the future.

In Alice Payne Arrives, time travel is largely restricted to two militaristic sects: the Farmers and the Guides (short for Misguideds) who work endlessly to change turning points in the timeline, including the Mayerling incident and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and so change the world. Major Prudence Zuniga is no closer to achieving her goal though, so she looks for something, or someone, new and finds it in 1788. Enter Alice Payne and her darling Jane.

I love reading science-fiction where women feature prominently and this was no exception. Alice is an independent, resourceful protagonist used to taking matters into her own hands. She’s also a mixed-race, bisexual woman living in Georgian England with her companion/lover, the more pragmatic and scientifically-minded Jane. I was less taken with Major Prudence, but I did find her concern for her family and the choices she ultimately makes to secure her future sympathetic.

Alice Payne Arrives can be confusing at times, but that’s only because keeping track of a story that not only covers multiple points in time and the wide-ranging consequences on the timeline of an individual choice, but also the smaller-scale changes that impact characters’ backstories is a challenge! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to plot this novella and Heartfield does it brilliantly. I wished there had been more exploration of the Farmers and Guides and their conflict throughout the story, but nonetheless this was an enjoyable and intelligent read and I look forward to picking up the sequel, Alice Payne Rides, soon!

Books: The Calculating Stars

33080122The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published July 3, 2018
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Building on her Hugo award winning novelette “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”, Mary Robinette Kowal reverses course to provide readers with this prequel novel exploring how Dr. Elma York became an astronaut. The Calculating Stars is rarely fast-paced or tense, but it does present a plausible and, most importantly, hopeful alternate history of spaceflight while parsing the underlying social issues of the period, from race relations to gender equality.

1952: A meteorite has obliterated much of the eastern United States, including Washington D.C. As the country reels from this shocking loss, physicist Elma York realizes that the ensuing cataclysmic climate change will soon render the earth uninhabitable for humanity, as the last meteorite did for the dinosaurs. The looming threat calls for a radically accelerated international effort to colonize space. Elma’s experience as a Women Airforce Service Pilot during the war and her gift for mathematics qualify her to be a computer, working for the International Aerospace Coalition as it attempts to put a man on the moon. Yet as the program advances, Elma begins to wonder why she, and the other qualified women pilots, can’t go into space too.

It’s easy to see why The Calculating Stars has been nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula award this year – as a feminist take on space exploration, it’s a timely read. As Elma attempts to become one of the first female astronauts, she’s thwarted by the men in charge of the space colonization program, who insist that women are too hysterical in temperament to succeed in outer space. Even when confronted with the logic that any colony will require women in order to thrive and procreate, the International Aerospace Coalition applies double standards to its application prerequisites, disqualifying many female candidates from even applying. It’s a practice that is still too familiar to women today.

As much as I liked the treatment of gender equality in The Calculating Stars, the look at race relations left something to be desired. Certainly Elma acknowledges the privilege she has as a white (albeit explicitly Jewish), educated daughter of a General, and she makes genuine efforts to learn from her mistakes when she underestimates or unintentionally ignores the struggles of African-American women. Yes, the novel is set in the ’50s and ’60s, with all of the prejudices inherent in those decades, but I couldn’t help wishing that the novel had taken a more inter-sectional approach to feminism.

As much as I hoped that readers would hear from multiple perspectives, such as Helen, a Taiwanese computer, or Black pilots Ida and Imogene, Elma herself is a balanced and engaging protagonist who Kowal allows to make mistakes and to confront her imperfections and learn from them. I loved the marriage of equals Elma has with her husband, respected rocket scientist Nathaniel, and Elma’s friendships with the other women who aspire to be astronauts.

I also have to take a moment to applaud the treatment of anxiety in this book. It’s so refreshing to read a speculative fiction novel targeted at adults that features a protagonist with an anxiety disorder! Elma is a brilliant mathematician and pilot, but she studiously avoids public speaking and the spotlight… until her drive and desire to become an astronaut place her firmly in the public eye. I was honestly pretty skeptical about a 1950’s era medication being an effective treatment for symptoms of anxiety, but it turns out the prescribed drug at the time, Miltown, actually paved the way for the treatment of anxiety today! Elma’s fears about being on medication mirror a lot of people’s apprehensions, but The Calculating Stars wisely shows that needing Miltown and a therapist doesn’t make Elma any less capable of being a kickass astronaut.

Obviously I enjoyed The Calculating Stars and intend to pick up the sequel at some point, but I went from feeling early in the book that it had the potential to be a five-star new favourite of mine, to being less engaged by the end. There are definitely some pacing issues here as the plot loses momentum in the last third of the book. I was also turned off by the beyond corny shop talk dialogue between Elma and her husband in their fade-to-black sex scenes. One more ‘rocket launch’ innuendo and I might have thrown the book across the room. Still, The Calculating Stars is worth reading for the hopeful messages it conveys about our future, its relatable characters, and its deft handling of both systemic sexism and mental illness.

Books: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

36187158Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson
Published March 13, 2018
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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: Trail of Lightning

36373298Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published June 26, 2018
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I’ve been meaning to read Trail of Lightning for almost a year. Although I listed it in a Reader’s Guide to Diverse Science-Fiction & Fantasy that I created for my local library branch last fall, it was one of the few titles that I hadn’t actually read. So when the Nebula Award nominees for Best Novel were announced, I jumped at the chance to bump Trail of Lightning up my list. Happily the first novel in my Reading the Nebulas challenge did not disappoint. Trail of Lightning is a fast-paced urban fantasy that doesn’t shy away from depicting the lasting effects of trauma, while also delivering fantastic worldbuilding and a prickly, but likable protagonist.

Set in a post-apocalyptic near future where the United States has been ravaged by flooding and ‘energy wars’ between multinational oil and gas companies, the Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) survives, but gods and monsters from Navajo mythology walk the land. Supernaturally gifted monster hunter Maggie Hoskie may be the only person capable of stopping the spread of the monsters, but she’s haunted by her past and unsure of her abilities.

Urban fantasy isn’t a genre that usually appeals to me – I like my plots with more complexity and overarching elements than the genre tends to provide – but I was intrigued by the premise of a Native American heroine and the incorporation of Navajo mythology. Sure enough, it’s the worldbuilding that sets Trail of Lightning apart from the rest. With its long stretches of desert, lack of material goods and luxuries (coffee is a rarity and new clothes are hard to come by), and the possibility that a Native American trickster god will stop in for dinner and matchmaking, Dinétah is an atmospheric setting. I loved the way Roanhorse incorporated Navajo culture and mythology into the story organically. She also gives us tidbits about the broader world outside the reservation that will hopefully be expanded upon in the sequel, Storm of Locusts.

I suspect tough, badass but broken protagonist Maggie Hoskie is far from an outlier in the urban fantasy genre, but there’s something so very human about her that drew me in. Although Maggie bears the physical and psychological scars of her past, she does gradually begin to heal and to show vulnerability. I enjoyed her dynamic with Kai, the charismatic, boyband-good-looking, medicine man who accompanies her, and the banter and spark between them had me rooting for their inevitable relationship. The secondary characters are similarly three-dimensional, although I found Maggie’s ‘monsterslayer’ mentor underwritten after all the build-up.

Straddling the YA/adult line, Trail of Lightning is a quick read that can definitely be finished in a sitting or two. The pace is brisk, and when there’s a rare breather, the banter between characters keeps the story moving. As much as I enjoyed the pacing, I suspect it may also have hurt the book. The plot isn’t the strongest and it feels like the characters are acting for the sake of movement instead of with a clear purpose at all times. The climactic battle, while appropriately large-scale, also feels messy with resolution unclear.

The worldbuilding and likable characters are what kept me invested in the novel though and I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes next!

Books: The Ravenmaster

37877606The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London by Christopher Skaife
Published October 2, 2018
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One of my bookish resolutions this year was to read more non-fiction and what better place to start than with a book that lies at the intersection of two of my interests: English history and birds. The Ravenmaster was the rare biography that I not only wanted to read, but eagerly placed on hold at the library. Fortunately it lived up to its promise. Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife’s passion for his job and the ravens in his care shines through in this conversational and engaging book, aptly subtitled ‘My life with the ravens at the tower of London’.

An old legend states that should the ravens from the Tower of London ever leave, the Crown will fall and Britain with it, so the first thing Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife does every morning is make sure the ravens are still there. Like all Yeoman Warders (less formally known as Beefeaters), Skaife is a retired member of the Armed Forces and now lives at the Tower of London in a largely ceremonial role that involves giving guided tours for the public. His autobiography discusses his previous life in the army and daily life at the Tower, but the focus is on his added duties as the Ravenmaster. Skaife states at the beginning that he is not a trained scientist or ornithologist, just someone who has worked a lot with ravens and therefore knows a great deal about them. In The Ravenmaster, he takes us through the process of ensuring that the Tower’s seven corvids remain happy and healthy, from preparing their meals of raw meat and dog biscuits soaked in blood to the bedtime routine of ensuring that each raven pair is returned to their nighttime cage in the correct order (no mean feat because the Tower’s ravens are flighted!).

Skaife takes a conversational approach to his autobiography that immediately put me at ease. The casual nature of his narration means that this isn’t a book you read for the prose, but Skaife is an affable presence and his passion for both the Tower and his job are infectious. While I thought the book could have used a final round of edits (I really didn’t need the Latin named list of every place in the world ravens call home, or the full list of places named after ravens for example), part of The Ravenmaster‘s charm is that Yeoman Warder Skaife has put so much of himself into the book. I suspect that if I ever met the author, I would already feel like I know him because his sense of humour, work ethic, and chatty, affable style are all on display in The Ravenmaster.

Of course the highlight of the book is the ravens themselves. No bird lover will be surprised to learn that each of the Tower’s feathered residents has its own personality: free-spirited loner Merlina, clever frenemy Munin, knight in shining feathers Jubilee, boisterous bully Erin, her softy partner Rocky, small and shy Gripp, and juvenile Harris. I loved reading about these intelligent creatures and their antics, from Merlina’s ability to spot a Pringles can from far away and claim it as her own to Munin’s great escape from the Tower. Of course Skaife has his favourites. His relationship with Merlina, who will even let him ruffle her feathers, is particularly touching, and readers who want to know more are encouraged to check out the author’s instagram account, where Merlina is a frequent guest star.

Like good biographies and autobiographies should be, The Ravenmaster is personal, informative, and yet entertaining. This is a quick and enjoyable read sure to convert even the most reluctant non-fiction reader.

Books: The Marrow Thieves

34649348The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Published September 1, 2017
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The market is saturated with dystopian YA novels these days and, like many readers, I’m a little fatigued by the genre, yet Cherie Dimaline’s award-winning The Marrow Thieves is an important and engaging addition to the canon. A rare example of an #ownvoices indigenous author writing speculative fiction, The Marrow Thieves details the hardships faced by characters as they are hunted further and further north with limited resources and fewer people they can trust. This poignant exploration of the struggle to retain culture, oral storytelling tradition, and language against all odds should be read and studied by all young Canadians

Sadly the premise behind this dystopia is not so out there considering Canada’s treatment of indigenous people over the years. In the wake of a world decimated by global warming, where the surviving people have lost the ability to dream, the government turns to its shameful past and revives the residential school system that stripped First Nations members of their language, culture, and families. In a darker twist, white people known as Recruiters capture Indigenous peoples, transport them to these schools, and then harvest their bone marrow, which is used as a remedy for dreams. First Nations members are literally and horrifically reduced to a commodity.

‘Story’, a nightly oral storytelling ritual in which older kids and adults in Frenchie’s found family band gather to hear and remember aspects of their culture and history, fleshes out how the world came to be this way. It’s an ingenious way for Dimaline to both preserve preserve indigenous culture in-story and to deliver exposition in a way that feels organic.

Dimaline’s writing style is lyrical at times, befitting oral storytelling tradition, but also realistic about the way the novel’s largely teenage cast interact with one another. Stray words of The Language (indigenous languages that the younger generation don’t speak) dropped in-text are hoarded and repeated by Frenchie, who views them with an awed regard.

Unlike many YA dystopias, this is a character-driven book where the emphasis is on found family and survival rather than trying to change the world. I loved that the oldest and youngest characters, who could be viewed as a burden on the band’s survival, are actually the beating heart of French’s group. I was invested in the characters, interested in their backstories, and I loved most of the relationships, familial, platonic, and romantic.

Protagonist French (given name Francis), a 16-year-old Métis boy, is believably teenage. Even when there are bigger things at stake he experiences petty jealousy, comparing himself physically to other First Nations characters who he thinks may have caught the eye of Rose, the girl he’s falling in love with. Big-hearted and concerned with the survival of everyone in his band, from the youngest Ri to not-all-there Elder Minerva, he holds a certain survivor’s guilt about being the only member of his immediate family to not be taken by the Recruiters.

Because this is YA, there’s a love interest. Rose does at least get some depth; she’s a dissenting voice who questions the band’s path and wants to take immediate action, but mostly we see her through French’s eyes. A lot is made of her physical beauty, her curls, and round cheeks, and dark skin, and I wound up wishing she’d been fleshed out more.

My favourite character though, was Miigwans. Middle-aged and the leader of the band, he grieves the traumatic loss of his husband, Isaac, to the schools. I love that The Marrow Thieves is not only diverse in terms of representing different First Nations cultures, but that it also features a gay character!

The Marrow Thieves definitely works on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Dimaline handwaves explanations for things in a way that feels more appropriate for a work of magic realism, but nothing in the book lends itself to that genre. It’s a little disconcerting in a book that is otherwise to grounded. The author also has a bad habit of overusing end of chapter foreshadowing in a clunky, unsubtle way that I found irritating:

“neither of us could imagine that everything would change in just a few hours”
“I had no way of knowing that things would shift again”
“we didn’t know that he was an animal we had yet to imagine could exist”

You’ve hooked us, just tell the story!

Besides these minor complaints though, I found The Marrow Thieves to be a thought-provoking book about storytelling, language, and how the loss of it removes us from our roots, and love of all kinds. It also has one of the better endings out there. Beautifully rendered through thoughtful, lyrical prose, The Marrow Thieves ends on a hopeful note that lets us know that all is not lost.

 

 

Books: The Black God’s Drums

38118138The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark
Published August 21, 2018
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Novellas aren’t usually my thing. I like my books brick-sized, the kind of tome that will do a number on your shoulders if you carry it around too much. I can’t say that The Black God’s Drums single-handedly converted me, but it’s certainly a well-paced, enjoyable argument in favour of reading shorter fiction.

Set in 1884 in an alternate United States, where there is an uneasy armistice in the ongoing civil war between the North and South, The Black God’s Drums tells the story of Creeper, a teenage pickpocket with a secret – the Nigerian deity Oya, a goddess of wind and storms, speaks in her head and gifts her certain powers.

The biggest draw here is the worldbuilding. Clark draws us into his alternate steampunk New Orleans with tantalizing morsels about the city and the broader world it exists within (an allusion to ‘General Tubman’ carrying out a guerrilla war on the Confederacy made my eyes light up). This New Orleans is one of few non-aligned territories, so it serves as a transnational port city with ties to both the American mainland and the broader Caribbean. It’s both a place where people from opposing sides mingle, do business, and, mostly, mind their manners, and a place where the African diaspora converges. That ol’ steampunk standby, the airship, is of course present, but a more nefarious steampunk element is seen in drapeto gas, a chemical agent administered through gas masks fitted onto the faces of those still in bondage, which leaves them susceptible to suggestion and unable to resist.

The dialect style of writing Clark employs will not appeal to everyone, but I thought it worked within the multinational context to highlight the diversity of this alternate New Orleans.

Most importantly, this is a novella about resourceful, intelligent, and independent black women saving their sanctuary. Although I wish The Black God’s Drums provided more insight into the gods and goddesses, who are glazed over in the text, I loved the human characters. Fourteen-year-old Creeper reminded me of Sancia in Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, which I read earlier this month. They’re both smart, young thieves with a dream… and with a secret. Creeper teams up with airship captain Ann-Marie, a brash Trinidadian smuggler, and a pair of enterprising nuns act as the Q to Creeper and Ann-Marie’s Bond. It’s hard NOT to root for this motley all-female crew!

As much as I loved the glimpses we got of this world, and of the gods, and wanted more, I also recognize that The Black God’s Drums is perfectly paced as it is and doesn’t have enough plot to support a full-sized novel. I still can’t claim to be a great fan of short fiction, but I found the novella, which clocks in at a slim 110 pages, to be a quick and compelling read. Hopefully the author will consider writing additional novellas set in this world and/or following some of the characters, as I believe there is a lot there to explore.

 

Books: From a Low and Quiet Sea

36906103From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Published March 22, 2018
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are some books you can read at the right or wrong time in your life and enjoy that much more or less as a result. I’m convinced that there are also books you can read in a correct and incorrect way. Some books are meant to be devoured; to be absorbed over just a day or two of intense reading, after which you come up for air. From a Low and Quiet Sea is one of those books and I foolishly read it in exactly the wrong way.

From a Low and Quiet Sea reads more like a series of short stories than it does a novel. In order, we’re introduced to Farouk, a man who makes the difficult choice to flee Syria with his wife and daughter in hopes of a better, safer life for his family, Lampy, a young bus driver from a rural Irish town who has recently had his heart broken, and John, an older man who has lived his life in the shadow of his beloved brother’s premature death. Although thematically the stories are connected through a feeling of absence, of loss of something, or someone, dear, they seem to have little in common until the stories cleverly converge in an ending that is both unexpected and rewarding.

The problem with multiple perspectives is that one part is often stronger than the others. Such is the case here, where Farouk’s story is by far the most compelling part of From a Low and Quiet Sea. I was hooked from the first page and read voraciously. While John’s perspective, the only one told in first person (to be more specific, in the style of a confession given to a priest) is also interesting, the stakes and tension are so much lower in Lampy’s rural town that it’s difficult to feel as strongly about the story. Ultimately John and Lampy’s stories never quite measured up to the promise of those early chapters.

The biggest reason to read and love From a Low and Quiet Sea though is the prose. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for a well-crafted sentence, and this book offers some of the best examples of craftsmanship I’ve read. There’s a melodic, flowing quality to Ryan’s prose which I imagine would lend itself well to an audiobook, yet there’s also, especially in the Lampy sections, that black comedy that I’ve come to expect and adore from Irish writers. Ryan has the rare gift of always seeming to choose exactly the right word to express a thought or emotion, which makes for a really lovely reading experience.

Reading this short (it clocks in at a slim 181 pgs) book over three or four days, it took me longer to make the connections between the stories and to garner meaning from the text.  Like when I foolishly tried to read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo on a heavily scheduled vacation, I wasn’t as absorbed in or affected by the book as I hoped I would be. I’d consider my reading experience to be more of a 3.5 star one, but I’m 90% sure I would have gotten more out of From a Low and Quiet Sea if I had read it in one sitting, so I’ve rounded up to the 4 stars it most likely deserves. Planning to pick this up? Give it the attention it deserves and settle in for an evening. You won’t regret it.