Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt

The Wings of a Falcon (Tales of the Kingdom, #3)The Wings of a Falcon by Cynthia Voigt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantasy books get a lot of flack from “established” literature. Children or young adult fantasy books get ignored by adult fantasy readers. So between the two, I guess it’s not surprising to find that this book is an undiscovered gem. But I urge anyone who has a few hours and spare 99p or whatever ridiculously cheap cost it is on amazon, to pick this book up and give it a try.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it so good, possibly because it conveys different things to different people. To me, I see a lot of is as an analogy for morality – moral codes, justice, love, selfishness; about growing up and understanding these things, about making the right decisions and becoming a good person in the face of a corrupt and terrible world. I guess that really appeals to me. Other people I know whom I’ve made to read it all had different interpretations or things they focused on, although they all enjoyed it just as much.

Ostensibly, WoaF is about a couple of kids who grow up in what is basically slavery and cruelty, escape, and keep going. There is no magic, all sword and no sorcery so to speak; there is no epic quest, save that of survival and endurance; there is nothing you will expect, and an ending that will surprise and touch you. But despite that, it IS magical, and it IS epic in its own right.

The supposed hero, Oriel, is a (somewhat ironic) example of the perfect hero; a force of nature who succeeds at everything he touches, who inspires everyone he meets. But to be honest, I actually think the hero of the book is Griff, his quiet companion/follower, who also escapes with Oriel and follows him from one adventure and conquest to the next. Griff is no leader among men, but he has an unshakable sense of morality, and never once makes the ‘wrong’ decision about anything. But for Griff, Oriel could easily have become a villian; his only interest is in being the best in a given situation, and he often aims towards that irrespective of the people who get hurt in the process. From Griff, Oriel learns to be a good person; from Oriel, Griff learns to be a strong person; and from Beryl, the third (and lately introduced) protagonist, both boys learn about love and sacrifice.

There are actually a lot of themes which some adults find upsetting, particularly the relationships between Oriel, Griff, and the two women characters. Rather than go into details or spoil things, I would remind readers that Cynthia Voigt is an avid feminist, and (in my opinion) her portrayal of Beryl and Merlis is designed to provoke and challenge (both the fantasy world she has made as well as the reader’s assumptions about Oriel’s character) rather than to blandly offend. As I’ve said before… (SPOILER ALERT)… Oriel isn’t truly heroic, and his actions in regards to both women underscore that more than anything else in the book. Whether or not he gets redeemed – well, you’ll have to read to find out.

A lot of so-called “children’s books” are books designed to ‘trick’ kids who don’t want to read, into reading. This book is NOT that. This book is for children who DO want to read, and for that reason I suspect it probably isn’t very popular among a lot of younger readers, certainly when compared to the other 3 books in the series, which are comparatively a lot simpler, and definitely more kid-like. It is also likely to get missed over by adults, who will just see “a kid’s book” and not give it a try, but actually it has a LOT going for adult readers.

 

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Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I originally started this novel awhile back, and gave up about a third of the way in because I wasn’t enjoying it. However, I restarted it once more on the recommendation of a friend.

My overall experience of the novel was one of suffocation, on which I will say more in a minute; and while I appreciated various aspects of it, I became aware that some of its attributes–namely, many of those for which it has rightly accrued praise–were ones which didn’t appeal to me as a reader. There’s not a lot to do about that, nor is that Ishiguro’s fault. Such preferences are subjective and insurmountable.

Let’s start from a place that makes sense to unpick. Rereading the novel, I found the set up as disorienting the second time round as I had the first. The opening chapters spend a lot of time moving from one small life event to the next, usually told outside of chronological order. Ishiguro likes, at least with this book (I’ve not read others), to begin or end each scene by intimating significance. ‘I remember this event, and it was significant… [story section]’, or ‘Let me tell you about this event… [story section]… and you see now why that was significant although it didn’t seem so at the time.’ The meat of the narrative focuses heavily on the minutiae of the characters’ lives, their intricate relationships and day to day, and this is told in a back-and-forth arc which moves across the years, with occasional references to the present day.

Perplexity I don’t mind, but NLMG verged into shamelessly coy in places. It felt as if the narrator was determined to obfuscate events for as long as possible. I suppose that’s the aim of authors in many novels, but in this particular case I wanted a clearer understanding of what was driving these kids, and their motivations. This style of narration does, to a large extent, mirror the way in which the children of Hailsham were educated: subtly, everything obfuscated, pieces dropped in here and there; nonetheless my preference would be for slightly more context. However, I felt the way in which revelations were made also lessened their dramatic impact significantly, much as they were for the students—an artistic echo at the expense of tension.

Even once the purpose behind Hailsham gradually came to light, the logistics frustrated me. Why let them be carers? It seems a terrible idea to let donors take that role; surely it’ll just upset them to see how they’ll end up. Why raise humans at such cost and with such difficulty to do what animals could more easily offer? We’re closer to breeding pigs for organs than we are clones. I commented recently to a friend that you cannot write clones seriously in science fiction these days; while this is certainly a serious novel about clones, I won’t be eating my hat in its entirety, either, because NLMG suffers from the same suspension of disbelief problems which often plague this concept. (Just about the only setting in which I’d swallow clones without choking is far-futuristic transhumanist novels.) It would, imo, make more sense to just breed normal people for harvesting, but then of course there would not be any discussion over whether or not clones have souls (which, btw, seemed to me a foregone conclusion—I personally needed more convincing that anyone could think otherwise, and was indifferent to that particular revelation.)

I’d have liked to see more interaction with non-clones; I would have thought that living among real people, without some kind of stigma or marking, meant that people would be much more likely to side with the children, and to see them as human. Setting them apart as different is surely a necessity for maintaining the system. Instead, they fit more or less into human society, if somewhat on the fringes.

That sense of suffocation I mentioned at the start, came from the same carefully-constructed claustrophobia, which refused to discuss said logistics, and the tiny, fake world to which the characters were confined for long periods. Kathy’s friends exasperated me to no end; with the exception of Tommy they were almost uniformly false, living in strange fantasy worlds of their own concoctions. Ruth I found particularly irritating, and didn’t see what she offered to Kathy, especially since Kathy herself seemed far more grounded than the rest. Perhaps Kathy enjoyed the lies because she couldn’t tell them herself, I don’t know. Either way, there was little sense of the world outside their school, their cottages, their carer dormitories; the characters felt stacked atop each other, oppressively so much of the time. Their existence was almost wholly interior, yet they spent huge swathes of time avoiding internal reflection.

Finally, I was surprised that Kathy et al made no attempts to leave. Not necessarily from Hailsham, which was a closed environment (and certainly the guardians seemed concerned this would happen, hence security), but later on in the Cottages, and especially as carers. Kathy could drive, was often (one presumes) gone for hours at a time for her job. Why not runaway, flee, go somewhere else? One could concoct simple reasons for this without authorial prompt… although personally I prefer to have some authorial input into how the world works on a point I see as plot relevant… but my bigger beef was Kathy’s lack of reflection on it. Did it simply not occur to her to try and leave? She didn’t think of asking for a deferral—that being entirely Ruth’s idea—and never seemed to consider in any capacity the idea of leaving. That she should treat her own situation with such alarming resignation stretched belief for me.

But on reflection, perhaps that was part of Ishiguro’s point—that most of us don’t examine as closely as we should the inertia present in our own lives. We do, as a species, seem willing to settle for unpleasant circumstances, undeserved fates, wholly avoidable heartache and hardship. CS Lewis once wrote that we are like children making mud pies in a slum, unwilling to accept a holiday by the sea because we cannot fathom an existence better than what we have, and so have learned to be content with misery. Perhaps the same principle could be applied here (though I’d argue it’s still somewhat extreme).

The novel is billed as an examination of friendship through the years (among other things), but to me the stand-out issues and themes centred on what the characters were willing to live with, accept, and refuse to change. In relation to my earlier comment that Kathy’s friends seemed to exist in their own fantasy universe, it could also be argued that this is not dissimilar to how ordinary people live. While I may not have enjoyed as much as most people seem to, it certainly inspired a reasonable amount of speculation, as evidenced by this unusually long review.

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Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota, #1)Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could define Too Like the Lightning in a word, it would probably be “overwhelming”.

That perhaps seems at odds given my rating, but it is fully immersive, carefully thought out and planned, densely written, complex, layered, intelligent, powerful. There aren’t a lot of books where I need to stop every few chapters and review my mental notes; this is one of them.

It’s certainly not for everyone, but nothing is, and what is (probably) lacks in pulp appeal it makes up for with lively discussion and intellectual engagement. The plot is surprisingly tight, but it takes awhile to emerge from the heaving morass of humanity as depicted.

It is something of a setting junkie book, and the plot takes awhile to get going. I was also dubious about the pacing–there’s always something jarring to me about a book which takes longer to read than it does to “happen”, by which I mean events occur in a matter of days during the novel. Meanwhile it took me weeks to read it.

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The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

The Philosopher KingsThe Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Clever and detailed, not to mention elegantly written, but ultimately the narrative is constrained by the very strictures it sets out to explore and (I felt) a little lacking in emotional depth, despite being in first person.

I have a pretty high tolerance for musing, thoughtful, character novels which ramble gently without heavy plot, and of course the promise of Socratic dialogue in spades was a huge draw.

However, the book did drag in places even for me; I found myself skimming Maia’s sections but avidly reading Simmea’s and Apollo’s.

What definitively knocked the last star off for me was Sokrates. Any story which includes him as a character is always going to be taking a risk, since he is a phenomenally influential character for whom readers will have high expectations.

Matt Hilliard once said that authors should be careful about writing messianic messages or sermons unless they are themselves Messiahs. A similar comparison springs to mind re authors and philosophers. The didactic rhetoric and Socratic dialogue often fell flat for me, with logical disconnects between arguments. I would also argue that Socratic dialogue isn’t really debate; it’s artificial and constructed to prove the main speaker’s point. Walton seems to have aimed for a halfway point between true rhetoric and group discussion, but didn’t quite nail either in many instances. Sokrates versus Athena carried well (the Final Debate) but not so much Sokrates and Simmea/Apollo.

The novel did offer a robust defense of the Republic which often gets much flack, although in the end it did come down firmly on the side of Plato’s ideas being too unworkable in many cases.

I think its other strong point (I don’t usually say this) is the thoughtful and scintillating examination of feminism in this context, with full nuance and no easy answers.

I would happily recommend to any fans of Jo Walton’s other works, or fans of literary and/or philosophical science fantasy.

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Getting Published

Two full requests out with two different publishers.

Not quite a year since I decided to start writing and Finish That Book–this is amazing progress, and I’m really happy.

I have yet to hear back from Cornerstones–they may also provide me with more options.

I am pretty confident at least one of these three routes will take me somewhere, but even if none of them do, I feel (perhaps optimistically) that publishing is just a matter of time, now.

First full request

Situation as stands: I submitted pages + synopsis to a small but well-known publisher back in April. In May they contacted me to say they liked the writing but had no space for anything new, however they had forwarded me on to another small (but very good) indie press with a recommendation.

Second press said they’d read in “a month or so” but I’m not expecting to hear back really! However, they didn’t flat out turn me down.

This past week a second small publisher have requested full MS.  Response in 4-8 weeks.

So far I’ve only had interest from actual publishers, and not agents, making me think I should be submitting to slush piles.

Children of TimeChildren of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this surprisingly good. Surprising because I tend towards the soft and literary end of SFF, and also because I bloody hate spiders. So much hate.

I looked up the author and was not at all surprised to see his roleplay interests. This would be a fantastic roleplay setting (and hey, the spider story is good too). He does a good job connecting you to characters who change (as in live, die, and are replaced by new ones) through the centuries.

I found some of the human portions slow but the whole thing pulls together nicely at the end, with subtle moments of profundity and quirky, interesting observations and insights.

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