Books: The Tea Master and the Detective

36686547The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard
Published March 31, 2018
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In the 125+ years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes there have been countless adaptations, but I’ve never encountered a re-imagining quite as unique as The Tea Master and the Detective.

Set in a galactic empire inspired by Vietnamese culture, consulting detective Long Chau must team up with The Shadow’s Child, a sentient transport warship (known as a mindship) with PTSD, to solve a mystery. As a science-fiction novella it works; de Bodard’s world-building is detailed and refreshingly free from Western military conventions, and The Shadow’s Child is an engaging and sympathetic narrator. As a Holmes pastiche though, the execution falls flat. The mystery is, well, not much of a mystery at all, and the understanding between Long Chau and the mindship doesn’t feel earned.

Here’s where I make a confession. When it comes to Hugo or Nebula nominated books or novellas that are part of a broader world, I usually try to read the preceding works in order to contextualize the nominee. Reader, I ran out of time. I went into The Tea Master and the Detective without reading any of the author’s other Universe of Xuya novellas and I definitely felt the lack. The Tea Master and the Detective is technically a standalone, but to fully grasp the nuance of the world-building I’d recommend at least skimming the author’s page about the series here before diving into the novella.

I did love each of the characters individually. De Bodard may not be the first to gender swap Holmes and Watson, but what a joy to see two female characters team up to solve crime! Long Chau is an enigmatic and compelling presence as the abrasive consulting detective, although I wished her intelligence and deducing were shown more than told. The Shadow’s Child stole my heart though as a battle-scarred, compassionate ship eking out a living not as a transport ship but as a mixer of personalized tea blends that grant the drinker special properties. I wish the relationship between these two characters had undergone a more gradual transition from dislike/reluctant partners to mutual respect, but I enjoyed the journey anyway and would love to read another adventure that builds on this understanding.

The Tea Master and the Detective didn’t quite come together for me. I loved the premise of a Vietnamese-inspired empire and a female Sherlock Holmes in space, but found the pacing uneven and the plotting too simplistic for a detective story. I’m intrigued by de Bodard’s Universe of Xuya though and will be checking out more of her works in the future.

Books: Blackfish City

35068768Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller
Published April 17, 2018
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Of all this year’s Nebula nominated novels, I was most apprehensive about reading Blackfish City. It sounded very much like a book of big ideas, and while that’s important to the genre, too often it comes at the cost of character development. As it turns out, I was partly right. An ambitious work, Blackfish City features some of the most imaginative and thorough world-building I’ve ever seen, a diverse cast of characters, and thoughtful exploration of social issues that range from wealth inequality and xenophobia to climate change. As I feared though, I never connected with the characters deeply enough for the emotional arcs of their journeys to move me, and I was jarred by the book’s uneven pacing.

Like many of this year’s Nebula nominated works, Blackfish City belongs to the climate fiction, or “cli-fi” subgenre. Set in the floating city of Qaanaaq in the Arctic Circle, the book follows four PoV characters: genderqueer messenger Soq, disillusioned political fixer Ankit, aging fighter Kaev who struggles with a mental impairment, and Fill, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal sexually transmitted disease called ‘The Breaks’. When a strange woman arrives in town riding an orca with a caged polar bear in tow, the lives of these four people intersect in unexpected ways.

Blackfish City is not a case of a book that didn’t work, it’s a case of a book that didn’t work for me. As strongly as I love the Found Family trope of characters choosing each other as family, I absolutely hate the One Degree of Separation trope where characters turn out to have shared some unexpected connection to each other all along (think Lost or Once Upon a Time). Without spoiling anything, Blackfish City plays upon this trope pretty heavily, which I found disappointing. While I liked each of the characters enough individually and appreciated the inclusion of queer and non-binary characters, I was never fully invested in their stories or their developing relationships with one another and it prevented the book from having a lasting or profound impact on me.

The floating city of Qaanaaq though is a fascinating setting full of character. For readers who prefer their sci-fi hard there’s detail about the geothermic energy that powers the city and the advanced technology used by its citizens. Miller also parallels Qaanaaq to our own world, where the wealthy and those who arrived in the floating city during its earliest waves of immigration live in spacious apartments and own property that sits empty, while the majority of the city’s inhabitants, many of them recent refugees of climate disasters and war, are forced to choose between sleeping in a shipping container and going hungry or in a cardboard box with a full stomach. As someone who lives in a city where supply and demand for rental units is a huge problem – where rental prices are spiking and the vacancy rate is low even as units sit empty, held as investments by overseas owners, I really enjoyed seeing this discussed on page.

There are definitely some pacing problems here. Blackfish City starts out slowly as it takes time to develop the world but the climax towards the end is so sudden and rushed that it mutes any impact the ending might have had. I also skimmed most of the City Without A Map sections, which I suspect were intended to be profound and mostly wound up dully philosophical.

Blackfish City has a great premise, some big ideas, and top-notch world-building, but it’s overambitious; It tries to do everything and only winds up succeeding at some of what it attempts. Points for the glow-in-the-dark cover though!

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 Wildlands

36711026The Wildlands by Abby Geni
Published September 4, 2018
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Following her evocative literary debut The Lightkeepers, Abby Geni returns with a contemporary, competent novel that explores many of the same themes. Exchanging the exotic Farallon Islands for rural Oklahoma and the southwest, The Wildlands is an interesting, and at times uncomfortable novel. I enjoyed it, but after wholeheartedly loving her glittering debut, I’d hoped for more from the author’s second novel than I actually got.

Geni returns to the theme of nature and our relationship to it, skillfully depicting the beauty and the danger inherent in the natural world. Like her debut, which paralleled the ways that animal species instinctively survive their harsh environment with the human ability to tell the mind what it needs to hear in order to cope, The Wildlands deals with the aftermath of traumatic events.

After a category 5 tornado decimates their Oklahoma farm and kills their father, orphaned siblings Darlene, Tucker, Jane, and Cora McCloud cope in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Faced with seeing her siblings divided up and placed in foster care, eldest sister Darlene sacrifices her college ambitions to step into a parental role. She takes a job at the local grocery store so she can provide for the family. Three months later, second eldest sibling Tucker walks out after a fight with Darlene and disappears.

The novel is told from two perspectives; an adult Cora looking back on the summer that her nine-year-old self, under the thrall of stories told by a charismatic brother she desperately missed, agrees to accompany Tucker on a cross-country mission she doesn’t really understand, and Darlene’s efforts to rescue her missing sister before it’s too late. Cora’s narration does serve as a softening lens through which to view the erratic temperament and actions of her eco-terrorist older brother. But as his love for animals in their natural wild state and hatred for the human race’s destruction of nature drives him to become more and more radical over the course of the novel it’s difficult to feel anything for Tucker besides discomforted by the power he has over Cora and a searing resentment. Tucker is certainly a realistic character, but we’ve reached the point as a society where it’s downright depressing to read about yet another (admittedly likely mentally unstable) resentful young white man who responds to trauma by committing violent acts while an elder sister, experiencing the same trauma, abandons her dreams to provide for her family.

Like in her previous novel, the author explores themes of storytelling and truth. Tucker ends all of the stories he uses to maintain a hold over Cora with “this is all true you know. This really happened”, and Cora herself is an unreliable narrator because what nine-year-old remembers events and conversations exactly as they happened? Particularly if a part of her is trying to protect the brother she loves. Geni also explores the idea of being in transition between different states of being. Darlene waits for news that her sister is either dead or has been found alive, animals exist on Tucker’s scale between Wild and Tame, and Cora herself, who has two identities over the course of the book.

After the eloquent prose of The Lightkeepers, this was a bit of a letdown. The simpler prose certainly serves the story Geni is telling, but I missed the evocative depictions of nature, the throwback feeling of a novel set in the present but so clearly influenced by Agatha Christie, and the overwhelming feeling of atmosphere achieved in her debut. The Wildlands is a solidly good read with an ending that will satisfy, but will I remember it six months down the road? Probably not.

 

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.

Books: The Court Dancer

36327117The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
(translated by Anton Hur)
Published August 7, 2018
star-2-half
I wish that I could recommend my only themed read for Women in Translation Month, but while the idea behind the novel is terrific, the execution just isn’t there. Suffering from pacing issues and a writing style that keeps the reader at arm’s length so we never truly connect with the characters, The Court Dancer fails to live up to its promising premise.

Set during the late Joseon Dynasty of the 1880/90s, when isolationist Korea began to open its doors to the west, a novice French diplomat arrives for an audience. He is enraptured by the beauty and dancing of Yi Jin, an orphaned girl who has grown into a skilled court dancer and favourite of the Queen, and gains permission for her to accompany him to France. In Belle Epoque Paris, Jin lives away from the gilded cage of court, translating literature and attending salons, but she’s overcome with grief and homesickness and returns to Korea in a final tragic homecoming.

This should have been right up my alley. I don’t know much about East Asian history, but books like Min Jin Lee’s brilliant Pachinko have sparked an interest to learn more, and the transitional period of the late nineteenth century provides an interesting backdrop for the story.

Unfortunately it’s paced at a crawl. We spend quite literally half of The Court Dancer on Victor, the French diplomat, waiting to receive permission to marry Yi Jin and for her to agree to the match. Yi Jin is reticent and we receive little in the way of emotion from her about anything, but especially her feelings, or lack thereof, for Victor. Indeed, she has little choice in the matter once the Queen decides that Jin’s beauty poses a threat to her relationship with the King and keeps Jin away from court. Victor is enraptured with Jin from first sight for entirely superficial reasons – she speaks French, her beauty reminds him of an ex-lover he’s lost, and she dances well. Neither is truly in love with the other, so it’s difficult to care about them as a couple.

I was far more interested in the complicated dynamics between Yi Jin and the Queen, who acts as both mother and rival to Jin. I also think that Kyung-Sook Shin could have solved both some of the pacing issues and characterization problems I had with her novel by choosing to begin The Court Dancer with scenes of Yi Jin and the Queen on the run instead of using these scenes only in brief flashbacks later on.

My main frustration with The Court Dancer is the writing style. Rarely have I been kept at such a distance by an author! I never connected with Kyung-Sook Shin’s characters, and as a result I found the climactic tragedy unaffecting. The Court Dancer manages to be both lethargic and melodramatic, with high drama that happens to characters we care little for. As a result, what should be a crushing, soul destroying tragedy is instead merely bittersweet and forgettable. Kyung-Sook Shin squanders the story’s potential by keeping the reader at a distance and employing a tell, don’t show, style of writing that keeps us from connecting with any of the characters on the page.

Despite this negativity, there are some things worth praising about the novel. There’s some poignant commentary on imperialism, particularly in Yi Jin’s dismay at art and artifacts being taken from the lands where they were created to be displayed without context in a French museum or library. ‘What right do the French have to loot these treasures merely to collect them?’ she wonders, and when Victor takes her to see a painting by Delacroix (a French artist) she comments that finally a piece of art is where it’s meant to be.

The Court Dancer also deals with themes of identity and being ‘other’. Jin is caught between two worlds but belongs to neither. In Paris she is a novelty as the only Korean woman, saying to Victor, “People here look at me like the things you have collected.” She becomes homesick for Korea, but upon her return finds that she no longer belongs.

I can certainly see The Court Dancer being tweaked and adapted into other mediums with success – I especially think it would make a stunning ballet – but the novel just didn’t work for me. I know Kyung-Sook Shin is a popular South Korean author and I’ve heard great things about her bestseller Please Look After Mom, but considering my great book-blogging friend Rachel made similar critiques of the author’s work in her review of another Kyung-Sook Shin novel, I’ll Be Right There, it will be some time before I consider reading another book by this author.