Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mount Toberead 18 Small Change by Jo Walton


I first encountered Jo Walton as a writer when Among Others was nominated for the 2011 Best Novel Hugo. Up until reading it, I had been intending to vote for A Dance with Dragons by George R. R Martin, but after reading Among Others, voted for it, instead. It wound up winning the Hugo that year. My next Jo Walton experience was What Makes This Book So Great? A collection of essays she wrote for the website Tor.com about reading and rereading some of her favourite SFF works and authors. My wife then drew my attention to Tooth and Claw. Tooth and Claw actually won the World Fantasy Award in 2004. I absolutely loved Tooth and Claw. It’s not the easiest book to describe, but the best way to do it from my point of view is if Jane Austen were a dragon in a dragon dominated society then she would have written Tooth and Claw. I’ve read other authors who have attempted to write in an Austenish style, but Jo Walton has done it the best and with dragons, no less!

My wife read Jo Walton’s Small Change series a few years ago, but it sat in my tbr pile for a while, until undertaking this project gave me the time to actually read it.

It’s a trilogy, although the books could be read separately, although as there’s a fairly major spoiler in Half A Crown (the 3rd book) for something that happens in Ha’penny (the 2nd book), it wouldn’t be wise to read those 2 out of order. I found the title of the trilogy and each book itself quite clever. Small Change has a double meaning. It can refer to small denominations of British currency, which farthings and ha’pennies definitely are, but in the case of the books, which are alternate history, it also refers to what may have appeared to be a small change in history at the time it happened, but had much wider reaching implications for the future.

In this case the ‘small change’ was that Rudolf Hess’ 1941 ‘peace’ mission actually succeeded and brought Britain’s war with the Third Reich to a peaceful end 4 years earlier than in our reality (in our reality Hess’ plane crashed, he was taken into custody and spent the rest of his life in prison).

Farthing picks up 8 years later in 1949 and we see a post war Britain that in some ways is similar to the one we know, but in other ways vastly different. Politically in particular. The aristocracy used the peace and their part in it to keep themselves at the top of the tree and the country appears to be at the start of a slide into a Nazi style fascist government. The book itself centres around the murder of a powerful and influential man, what this means politically and how it gets blamed on an innocent party. The book is told from two points of view. One is that of Inspector Peter Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and Jo Walton elected to use tight 3rd person for his story and investigation into the homicide of James Thirkie. The second is from Lucy Kahn (nee Eversley), and it is told in 1st person. Although Carmichael is her major character (his 3rd person pov is consistent across the trilogy), I found Lucy more engaging and was actually more taken in by her story than Carmichael’s. The author admitted drawing inspiration from the ‘cosy’ mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers, and there is definitely a sense of that in Carmichael’s story, although the deeper he and Lucy dig into the murder, the darker things become and the entire book has this sinister undertone, which was actually very effective. The incidents in the book will forever alter the lives of the two narrators.

Ha’penny takes place mere weeks after the events of Farthing and Carmichael is once again called into service on a major case, this time involving a terrorist plot to assassinate both the visiting Hitler and the British PM. The first person POV in Ha’penny is Viola Lark, an actress, and one of the famous (in this world) Larkins sisters. The Larkins’ girls are loosely based on the Mitford sisters (they were a fascinating bunch, kind of like the 30’s equivalent of the Kardashians. To find out more about them I highly recommend The Sisters by Mary S. Lovell). Jo Walton obviously had to change a few things (the time for one) I couldn’t really work out which of the sisters Viola was meant to be, it was either Nancy or Diana, it was more obvious who Unity, Decca, Deborah and Pamela were. I liked Viola and found her relationship with Devlin quite interesting, however I never warmed to her in the same way I did Lucy. I think knowing a bit about the Mitfords worked against me on that score, as I think individually the actual Mitford girls were more interesting in real life than any fictional counterpart could be. Whereas Farthing was a ‘cosy’ mystery, Ha’penny had more of a political thriller feel about it. Owed more to Len Deighton than it did to Dorothy Sayers.

The final book in the trilogy; Half A Crown pis set in 1960, and Britain is looking more and more like the Third Reich all the time. The small change known as half a crown does feature, but the title refers to Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor (Jo Walton’s afterword leaves the reader in no doubt about her feelings on the man, I feel largely the same from what I’ve read about him, and I haven’t even read his autobiography, which Jo Walton has). Again Carmichael has to foil and uncover a sinister plot to save himself and the country to which he has devoted his life. The fate of his ward; Elvira Royston; a young debutant, through which the 1st person narration is handled is also at stake. I liked Elvira more than Viola and I had her up there with Lucy. In some ways Half A Crown was the least satisfying of the trilogy, this is largely because the happy ending felt a bit tacked on and contrived. I felt my believability bone creaking a bit. Maybe I’m getting old and cynical, but in many ways I would have preferred a bleaker ‘rocks fall, everyone dies’ ending, or even an ambiguous one.

Overall, though, the trilogy was excellent. Although I know the books were written over 10 years ago now (Half A Crown came out in 2008) I’m surprised that they don’t get more attention (in fact Jo Walton as an author does not get the attention that she deserves, not just from the SFF community, but from the reading public in general). She said she wrote them because of the world political situation at the time, but I think they’re even more apt now, particularly with the current US administration, and it’s attempts to shift everything further right. There is a Fatherland and SS-GB feel to them, because the result of WWII was significantly altered, and if they’d been set in the US, they probably could have felt rather like The Man in the High Castle. There is also more than a hint of Orwell’s 1984 (and that is in fact referenced in the trilogy a couple of times as the ‘scientifiction’ novel 1974), which Orwell was prompted to write by events he saw happening around him in Britain in 1948 (the title is the last 2 numbers of the year inverted, Orwell saw Britain getting there in approximately 40 years). Because of the gentle way its presented and the way the menace just lays there in the background for the most part I think that it’s a little better than either Harris’ or Deighton’s efforts and more believable (the end to Half A Crown aside).

Wonderful, under appreciated trilogy, and a great way to end the Mount Toberead project. I don’t have anything for X, Y or Z. After this I’ll be attempting to reread, and in some cases, read, series. I’ll endeavour to cover mostly completed series, but a few ongoing ones may also slip in there. I’ll also try and cover things that may not be as well known. For instance, I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get to M, but I can promise you that it will not be A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve read all the books multiple times and quite like them, but the internet doesn’t need another review of it, by the same token T won’t be Lord of the Rings.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Mount Toebread 17 Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente


It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time that I am a massive fan of Catherynne M. Valente (I think at least 2 of her books have made it into my best books of the year list, and this year's marvelous Space Opera is looking good to do that again this year). I picked Deathless up at Worldcon in 2011. So being a fan and seeming to read most of what she writes as she writes and publishes it why did it take me until now to read Deathless when I already had it in my possession?

I'm going to plead lack of time. My wife and I bought a massive amount of books at the 2011 Worldcon. Down here is Australia books are pretty heavily taxed and they cost way more than they do elsewhere, especially in the US. Back in 2011 the Australian dollar was at parity with the US dollar, this meant that we were effectively paying half price. It's fair to say that we went a little bit nuts (we had to buy another suitcase to fit all the books into!). Deathless was probably a casualty of that. We arrived home with a suitcase full of books to read through (we may not have read them all even now), and Deathless got a bit lost into the black hole that is our personal library until I embarked on this quest.

I was predisposed to like Deathless for a few reasons. Chief among them being that it was a Valente. In my opinion this woman's shopping list would make fascinating reading. I think she's actually an even better writer now than she was in 2011, though. Another was that I'd come off reading a Michael Sullivan, which I had not liked, and this would be a great refresher to that less than pleasant task.

It is a great book and so incredibly well written. It's more than one book, though. It's not long or big, but it tells such a massive story. The tone changes as the events around the book, do.

It's the story of Russia, pre and post Revolution, how it dealt with the fall of the monarchy, the rise of Communism, the Civil War, Stalinism and the tragedy that was Russia in WWII.

It's mostly seen through the eyes of Marya Morevna, who marries Koschei the Deathless and observes the events around her and how they transform both the mythical world that Koschei inhabits and the real world that she walks out of and into throughout the book.

As well as featuring Valente's marvelous facility with language and concept there are also things like the communist collective of domovoi, who were at once amusing and whimsical as well as being sinister and ultimately tragic. There was more than a bit of Animal Farm in them.

It was really quite an achievement by Valente and I honestly don't think any other writer currently working in the field would have thought of doing this, and if they had I doubt they'd have the skill to pull it off as successfully as Valente does almost effortlessly.

The W's too are looking promising. I've got a Jo Walton trilogy lined up.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Mount Toberead 16 - Rise of Empire by Michael Sullivan


Michael Sullivan didn't take the usual route to publishing success. His Ryria Revelations epic fantasy series was originally self published as 6 novels. When he was successful in that endeavour, a big publisher (Orbit) picked him up and reissued the books as 3 omnibuses.

The easiest way to describe The Riyria Revelations is to call them old fashioned epic fantasy, because that's exactly what they are. Sullivan's writing style or ability falls somewhere between David Eddings and Raymond Feist, he's probably closer to Eddings than Feist, although unlike Eddings he will allow bad things to happen to some of his characters, whereas Eddings was reluctant to let them get so much as a cut finger.

I read the first omnibus (Theft of Swords) some years ago and found it pleasant enough. Enough that I wanted to continue on at the time, hence Rise of Empire being on Mount Toberead. For various reasons I kept finding other things to read and this one kept being overlooked.

Remember how I said The Riyria Revelations is old fashioned epic fantasy? Boy, is it ever! To the point that this the middle part of the series is filled with the characters doing some of that pointless wandering about while the author gets all their ducks in a row (someone, somewhere must have told writers of epic fantasy that readers really love this, I don't know who it was, but they didn't do literature any services), the result being that Rise of Empire is incredibly boring and pointless.

It doesn't help that Sullivan prefers to write characters that are either clearly delineated as either good or bad, with very little in between. While this can be preferable to the multitude of morally ambiguous anti heroes that seem to populate epic fantasy these days, in the hands of some writers it can serve to create some very two dimensional characters that lack any depth whatsoever, and it's rather hard to develop much empathy or be particularly interested in them.

The only one I really liked much was the minor character of Amilia, unfortunately by the 2nd book of Rise of Empire, she too had lost much of her original interest.

I found this a real chore to get through, and while Sullivan is an adequate writer that's about as far as it goes. It may pick up in the next book and rise to a triumphant end, but I won't be seeing it.

Next up, I can't find a T or a U, so it will be straight to V.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Mount Toberead 15 - Ice Station by Matthew Reilly


I promised something different and I think I have delivered. The vast majority of the works I cover here are either fantasy or science fiction. Matthew Reilly's Ice Station is neither (I guess an argument could be made for science fiction), it's a straight forward, white knuckled, high adrenalin, military action novel.

The book has been around for 20 years, and it was the author's first traditionally published work, his first novel was a self published effort. My wife rereads it regularly and had recommended it to me a number of times, but I'd read another book by the same author and came away distinctly unimpressed, so I always held off on Ice Station until now.

I have to say that I loved the book. I started it late on a Thursday night and finished it that Sunday afternoon, and it's a 600 page book.

Occasionally as a reader I'll encounter a book that grabs me right from page one and won't let me go until I complete it. Ice Station is such a book.

Matthew Reilly is an unashamed fan of Michael Crichton, and while he covers different material, he has the knack of knowing how to control his audience.

The premise of Ice Station is fairly preposterous: the scientists manning an American ice station in Antarctica discover what they think is a spacecraft under their facility and a number of them promptly wind up dead. The US reconnaissance unit that come to their rescue are in turn attacked by covert French and British forces, plus there's a killer loose on the base and the reconnaissance lead by the badass Shane 'Scarecrow' Schofield has infiltrators amongst it's make up. Oh, I didn't mention the pod of orcas that hang around the base, either.

Somehow Reilly makes this all hang together. Like any good action movie, it moves quickly and doesn't give the reader a lot of time to get their breath or realise how some of it really doesn't make a lot of sense when given some time to think about it.

Reilly writes really good action sequences and there are two massive ones in Ice Station; a firefight on the base early on and a hovercraft chase, where every section ends on a cliff and drags the reader through to see what happens next.

The characters are fairly strong with decent shades of grey, although there is the occasional white hat and black hat. The author took the time to give them proper back stories and built up some decent chemistry between them, I particularly liked sequences featuring the pre teen science/math geek Kirsty and Scarecrow interacting.

There's been talk about making this into a film and how it hasn't already happened I do not know. Modern audiences would absolutely lap it up.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Mount Toberead 14 - Boneshaker by Cherie Priest


On the face of it Cherie Priest's Boneshaker should be a cracking read: steampunk, alternate history, sky pirates, zombies, honestly what is there not to like?

Unfortunately it sounds a little better than it actually is. It's set in an alternate 19th century US in Seattle and a US that is beset by a seemingly endless Civil War that has gone on a lot longer than the one in our world did.

Seattle isn't involved in the war that much, but they have bigger problems, ever since Dr. Leviticus Blue's Boneshaker machine destroyed much of the city and unleashed a noxious gas that turns those exposed to it into mindless shambling undead creatures with a desperate need to feed.

In most cases I don't really want to read zombie books where we see the zombocalypse take place. In the case of Boneshaker I'm willing to make an exception. Had I read a book where we saw the Boneshaker being built and causing a massive disaster, and actually met the mysterious and brilliant Leviticus Blue, I think I would have liked it more.

Having said all that I didn't actually dislike Boneshaker. I just found it a bit frustrating. I liked the character of Briar, but she was inconsistent. I did not like the character of Zeke (the son of Briar and Leviticus), he was 15, but acted 12 and was written as if he were younger than he actually was. He behaved much like many pre teen characters in fiction these days, and I find many of them to be suffering from TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) syndrome. Zeke was no exception.

Often the book itself read as if it were a steampunk extravaganza for the young adult reader, rather than the dark more epic thing it was meant to be.

Possibly the reason it sat on the shelf for as long as it did was because somewhere I knew the book probably wasn't going to ultimately be for me. Shame, because I generally tend to like Cherie Priest's work.

R is up next (can't find a Q) and I have something completely different planned.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Mount Toberead 13 - Emperpr Mollusk Versus The Sinister Brain by A. Lee Martinez


That title is a mouthful even for the mind that brought readers Gil's All-Fright Diner.

Gil's All-Fright Diner was A. Lee Martinez's debut novel, it was also the first one I read, and in my mind easily remains his best work.

Martinez is an interesting author in this day of multi volume series and trilogies, he writes standalone novels. To date he has not written a sequel to any of his books, including Gil's All-Fright Diner, which just screams for a sequel. He also likes to jump genres and sub genres. In some cases they're a mix up of things which makes classification next to impossible, Personally, I think Martinez just likes doing it to annoy people who want to put everything in a neat little box.

Over time, though, even the most fertile of minds can run a bit low on inspiration, and I think Martinez hit that wall with Emperor Mollusk Versus The Sinister Brain.

It's not a bad idea at the heart of it. It's a sort of pulp science fiction riff (something that seems to be enjoying a new rush of popularity at present) about the Neptunon self proclaimed Emperor of Earth (or Terra as our planet seems to be known) and the greatest threat he's even faced.

I'm sure Mollusk was meant to be both entertaining and amusing, but he somehow managed to be neither and became one of the most unlikable heroes I can remember encountering. One of the big problems was that he was too perfect and had the desire to try and turn everything into a joke. This made him look like a try hard. The perfection thing also worked against the story, because it very soon became clear that no matter how dire the situation, nothing would happen to Mollusk.

I felt that had Mollusk's much put upon bodyguard the Venusian warrior Zala been the central character and narrator that the whole thing would have worked a lot better.

While I've read a few A. Lee Martinez books that I wish had sequels, this isn't one of them.

I'll be skipping the letter N, because I just don't have anything that fits for this particular idea, and going straight to P.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mount Toberead 12 - The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey


Quite some time ago, I was a big fan of Mercedes Lackey/ I read one of her Valdemar books (from memory it the was first of The Last Herald Mage trilogy) and I was hooked. I gathered as much of her Valdemar stuff as I could and then moved onto other things, Amongst them was a wonderful urban fantasy series about a witch called Diana Tregarde. Unfortunately at the time urban fantasy hadn't boomed as a genre and for a number of reasons (sales amongst them) Lackey gave up writing Diana Tregarde books after 3 entries. I still think they're amongst the best things she's written.

This one sat on Mount Toebread for a while. My wife had read it and other entries into her reimagined fairy tales. The Fairy Godmother is a fun book and some of her alterations to fairy tales are quite clever. In this one Cinderella (known as Elena) becomes the fairy godmother and has to find her own prince. He starts out not very good at all, but after spending a period of time as a donkey, appreciates the advantages he's been given and comes to fall in love with Elena.

I felt the book could have been a good deal shorter and an easier and better read for it. There was a lot of info dumping around the tales she was telling and involving the magic system she'd invented for this. There was also a fair bit of repetition. Overall it was a solid story, but it did drag through the middle before ramping up the action and ending up as a reader would expect with a fairy tale, happily ever after.

M looks like fun with A. Lee Martinez on my radar,