An Unkindness of Ghosts (4*)

Book: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body. Do you think my body couldn’t decide what it wanted to be?

AUOGThis is the book we did for our January meeting of the London Science-Fiction and Fantasy book club. That meeting was done on a theme of LGBTQIA+ authors and this was the book that won, which I was pleased about as it had been something I had heard about before and had been wanting to read for a while.

The story follows Aster, one of the residents of a generation starship called the HSS Matilda. Aster lives on the lower decks which are populated with those who work the field decks, or other tasks vital to the running of the ship which are less glamorous and considered above those who live on the upper decks.

When the sovereign of the ship gets sick, his symptoms are similar to those recorded in Aster’s mother’s diaries before her death twenty-five years earlier. The link sends Aster investigating what happened to her mother and how it relates to what is happening on the ship currently.

There’d be no forgiveness this time. It was one thing to destroy a person, but to destroy their work was a sacrilege Aster couldn’t easily forget. All that was left of a person’s life was recorded on paper, in annals, in almanacs, in the physical items they produced. To end that was to end their history, their present, their future.

First off I would say that this is overall not exactly what you would call a fun read. The lower decks and the treatment of the people who live there is a clear analogue for slavery and how people were treated during it. As a result there are a number of very challenging scenes to read involving torture and abuse, though sexual trauma is talked about and implied in the text, there are no graphic scenes of such (which I am very thankful for).

One of the things I loved most about this book was the portrayal of Aster who is coded as what seems to be to be someone on the Autistic spectrum, she takes things very literally and struggles with information that is coded or unclear. When people ask her questions or talk in certain ways, she gets very confused or annoyed when her being direct does not resolve the issues or causes more, things I found pretty relatable even if she operates on a more extreme end of being literal than I do.

Her struggles against the restrictions of her world are very relatable and I also really enjoyed the relationship between her and the Surgeon (Theo) which I thought was done really well. I really love it when an author manages to convey complexity in relationships of all sorts and that really comes across here. What is between them is far from simple and it is also something that is still evolving and changing throughout the course of the book as well.

It’s not a perfect book, there are some definite pacing issues, especially towards the end and the ending is definitely a little abrupt. I don’t think I disliked it in the same way that some people in my book club did, but I could see why it would be problematic for some people as well, who were left wanting to know more about what would happen next.

There is also not a lot of description or detail about how the layout of the ship works and there were a couple of places where I got confused and couldn’t quite picture how the travel times that seemed to be the case didn’t seem to be consistent. Now, it’s not a massively important thing to the story so if you are swept along in the narrative then it’s a fairly minor issue, but for someone struggling to connect with what is going on it is definitely something that will throw them further out of the book and cause more issues.

Truth was messy. The natural order of an entropic universe was to tend toward it.

The writer of the book is non-binary and they do some interesting things with gender and gender presentation as part of this book. Early on there is a reference to a larger proportion of the population of the lower decks are more ambiguous in regards to gender, it’s not entirely clear what this means, it could perhaps be suggesting that they are more likely to be intersex. Aster herself is certainly described in ways that suggests her gender presentation does not skew towards solely feminine. I really liked the way that this was handled and it was clearly something that personally mattered a great deal to the author as well.

Overall it was a good book and I am very pleased that I read it. It’s very well written and I can certainly see why the author was shortlisted for the Astounding award for best new writer. This is also certainly someone I will look at reading future works by as well.

The Raven Tower (5*)

Book: The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

(In Vastai this is usually part of a petition for the God of the Silent to send one a good husband and a happy marriage. These three, however, were asking for the forest to preserve their friendship so long as they lived, and keep undesirable complications like husbands far from their doors.)

Raven TowerBit late getting this one up, though in my defence it’s because I have been ill with flu for the last week, rather than any particular failure of mine, so that’s something at least. I am mostly recovered now (other than a persistent cough) so back to review writing I go!

This is another book I was pretty excited to read, when I realised the paperback had come out I pretty much squealed in delight and ran to buy it (I should have pre-ordered it, but apparently I forgot to sort that out).

I fell in love with Ann Leckie’s writing, characters and world-building in the Ancillary series (I am currently finally getting around to reading the last one, I kept putting it off because I didn’t want it to end) so the fact that she had written a fantasy book definitely got my attention!

The book itself is written in the second person perspective, which is an unusual choice but Ann pulls it off with her usual talent. At first we don’t really see or perhaps entirely understand what is telling the story, it seems to be being told to the character of Eolo, a companion to Mawat, the Heir to the Lease. It’s made pretty clear early on that Eolo is a trans man, which made me pretty pleased to see, we definitely need more representation of trans people in SF&F.

Mawat has returned to take over the reins of Lease (a position that seems to be half King and half Priest) from his father who is due to make the required sacrifice of himself when the avatar of the Raven god of Vastai dies so that the sacrifice can power the rebirth of a new avatar and allow the god to continue his duties to the land.

The two of them return to find that Mawat’s uncle is now Lease and his father is nowhere to be found, vanished without a trace from a tower that there is supposed to be only way out of. Mawat and Eolo must now try and work out what happened and what is going on in the Kingdom.

We also slowly learn more about the gods and their origins through the tale of a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who tells us about the origins of Vastai as well until both stories eventually tie together in an absolutely beautiful way that left me really wanting to read more in this world because it’s done so wonderfully well.

There’s something very Shakespearean in part of the story. The events surrounding what happens with Mawat/Eolo in Vastai definitely contain elements of Hamlet if you look for them, though obviously it’s not exactly the same, nor done in the same way. This is a book with lots of different levels and meanings to it and I look forward to finding out more of them next time I read it.

I cannot comment much on how well the trans male character is done. From a cis perspective, he seemed to be handled sensitively and well, but I am not trans so I cannot claim to be an expert on the trans experience. I have heard much praise from my trans friends who have read it, so generally seems to be good overall.

The worldbuilding is very original, I have never seen a take on gods like the one that Ann Leckie presents here and she takes us on a masterful tour of how it all works very well. We learn the rules, what can and cannot be done and how the magic of the gods seems to work and how their interactions with humans also work. There are some gaps in our knowledge, even by the end, but that didn’t feel like a bad thing, I quite like having more questions than I had answers to by the end of a book unless those questions are fundamental issues that leave whole chunks of the plot unresolved in an infuriating way and that was not the case for me here.

But yes, I highly recommend this one, it’s brilliant. Also, if you haven’t read the Ancillary series starting with Ancillary Justice, I recommend those as well. Not sure what she has coming out next, but whatever it is you can guarantee I will be buying and reading it. She’s definitely made my list of must read authors.

Atlas Alone (5*)

Book: Atlas Alone by Emma Newman

But I hold him tight and I pretend that I have forgiven him for being nothing more than I am: a cold collection of trained responses, pretending to be a person.

atlas aloneI am continuing to catch up on reviews of books I should have done last year, this one is my number 2 book of 2019, Atlas Alone.

It’s a book that meant a lot to me personally, for reasons I will go into in more detail as we go along. As you may have seen from my earlier reviews of this series (you can read it here if you want).

As can likely be gathered, I am a big fan of these  books and when I heard that the newest one had an asexual protagonist I think I may have made a loud squealing noise. I even bought it in the large paperback format so I could read it earlier (which is one reason the fact it’s taken me so long to write this review is super embarrassing).

This story follows on from the events in After Atlas, taking place what seems to be a very short time after that book ends. It follows Dee, who appears in After Atlas, and is a fellow survivor of the serial abuse and horror that is being indentured in a corporate future. She’s an avid game player and gets invited to join an elite server. When someone she kills in a game dies for real it sets of a chain of events that shows that something awful is definitely going on as the ship travels towards its destination.

The book is the blend of mental health and psychological thriller that characterise a lot of the series and it is done with her usual style and knack for drawing you into the story and not letting you go until it’s over.

For me, this story also took a very personal hold over me. The combination of someone who was an abuse survivor and asexual (and the story is clear that the second is not a product of the first) meant that Dee’s story felt incredibly real to me, I understood her on a level I don’t always manage with characters in books and there were places where I felt that had I been more unlucky in my life, without the love and support of my friends and family, I could see myself being a lot like her.

I have heard some criticism of the book for having an asexual protagonist who is at times cold, distant and struggles to get close to people and I do understand where people are coming from. There is still a lot of use of asexual coded characters who are presented as aliens, robots, or people who are cold and distant and “not quite human”. The lack of good representation means that any representation tends to be interrogated in more detail for anything that can make us look in a bad light.

But for me the reason this was important is that I am someone who went through child sexual abuse and for years I thought it was the abuse that gave me my issues with sex, that I was broken because of that. It took a long time to realise that no, I hadn’t been particularly interested before then and that this was just a part of me and I wasn’t broken at all.

Dee made me feel seen, like I was understood and shown in a way that I had never really had before and that matters a great deal to me. We’re not exactly the same and she makes choices in the book that I would not do, not without my life having gone in a very different direction, but I understand why she is who she is and what makes her take every step she takes on that road.

It’s a hard story to read, harrowing in places and uncomfortable in others, but I am very glad that she told it and I absolutely adored it.

Realm of Ash (5*)

Book: Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri

Right, time for me to kick off the reviews for this year, by reviewing the book I choose as the best new book I read last year… Yeah, I know I am behind, I didn’t get much of anything other than work done towards the end of last year. Still, things are calmer now so I am hoping to get back into this properly this year. Going to aim to have two blog posts going up a week, so let’s see how I get on!

RoAEver since I read Empire of Sand – 5*, Tasha’s debut novel, I have been pretty excited about the follow-up (they are both in the same universe and each follow a sister’s story, but they are mostly separate with the second having some spoilers for the events of the first one).

A second novel is often described as a tricky beast by many authors, you are expected to produce something better than the first one in a lot less time and that’s quite a bit of pressure to be under. So I was extremely pleased to find out that this book more than lived up to my expectations of it.

As I mentioned above, the plot follows the sister of the main character from the first book, she’s a young widow, the survivor of a massacre that took the life of her husband and she’s trying to deal with all that she has been through whilst finding how to cope with her changed circumstances and what they mean because of the restrictions of the society (widows are not permitted to marry again).

She finds herself working closely with the Emperor’s illegitimate son to try and find a way to break the curse on the Empire, to do so they must explore the Realm of Ash, uncovering secrets about both of their heritages on the way.

So without spoilering anything, a lot of what I loved about the book is how well it portrays a lot of things. The main character, Arwa, is a pent up ball of rage from all that has happened to her and it just made so much sense to me. Between having to pretend to be someone she wasn’t during her marriage, to being at a massacre and surviving it alone to now being trapped in a life of prayer when you are barely 20 and are not ever meant to have anything else other than that… I mean, the lack of choice and agency she has over her own life is certainly something that would turn me into a ball of rage.

It may not be a feeling that everyone who reads it has experienced, but there is a claustrophobic sense of being trapped. Not physically, but by societal expectations, by trying to fit yourself into who you are told you are supposed to be. It’s not an uncommon thing to experience when you present as female and it is absolutely horrible. That feeling came across really strongly to me, so strongly that at points the book makes it difficult for you to breathe. I don’t say this as criticism, I found the fact that the book conjured it to be really powerful.

There are other themes in the book it’s harder for me to talk about, because I am coming at them from a position of someone they are not going to affect. For example, Arwa is the product of two cultures, she’s been brought up and taught to supress the heritage she got from her mother, to regard it as bad, as inferior, and that plays an important part in her story as she has to come to terms with what she has been taught and what that means in her life now.

The Realm of Ash that the book is named for is also an amazing concept which she describes impeccably. It’s a way of travelling into people’s memories and the descriptions are beautiful, eerie and incredibly evocative. The whole thing is not particularly like anything I have come across before. I had thought the dance magic in the first book was amazing, this is even better. It also works wonderfully as a way to not only advance the plot, but also the character development of the two main characters and their blossoming romance (and don’t scream spoilers at me for mentioning the romance, it’s a fantasy romance novel and they are the main characters so I mean, it pretty much goes without saying).

Talking about the romance, I loved that as well. I am a big fan of slow burn romances, I get fed up with people who seem to fall in love at the drop of a hat despite knowing nothing at all about the other person. Honestly, if I haven’t stayed up till 3am bearing my soul to someone then they don’t really have much of a chance with me, so I struggle to relate to how it could be possible to love someone you don’t really know. I am sure physical attraction at first sight is a thing for some people, but I struggle to accept that it could honestly be love without a deeper understanding.

But I do love reading about that learning process as people get to know each other, find common ground and you can see where and how they fall for each other. This was done really well in this case and I love seeing the connections form, even through difficult circumstances and the whole thing melts your heart quite nicely.

I adore Tasha’s work and I am not sure what is coming next from her or when, but you better believe I will be buying it, reading it and hopefully recommending it to everyone I know!

2019 Round-up

Books 2019

Hi guys! Happy New Year for those it is the New Year for. I know, I know, I haven’t posted in an age. Been struggling to get myself in the right headspace and the end of the year really took it out of me for a few reasons I shan’t go into.

Anyway, going to do a bit of a round-up of things I read in 2019 and then hope to do much better on the blogging front this year. The round-up with be some stats breakdown on what I read before doing a top 5 books to finish.

I read a little over 60 things last year, but some were short stories. I have done my stats based on what my Goodreads has told me. Note that some of the stats in regards to the sexuality/disability status of authors will be wrong because many of them do not state such on their bios (which is entirely reasonable) but it means that I assume that the numbers for those may be higher than I know.

Genre 2019This chart shows a breakdown of the genres I have read over 2019. It’s a mostly even split between Fantasy and Science-Fiction with a sneaky Horror book creeping in there.

A few of the books I read could also be classed as literary fiction, but I personally prefer to stick them in a genre one as I am strongly of the opinion that literary does not have to mean they are worthier as a result.

 

Rating 2019Next we have my ratings, this uses the blog rating where possible but otherwise takes my Goodreads one (since I failed to write full reviews for everything I wrote, I shall try and do some catching up, we shall see how we go).

I read a lot of excellent books last year it must be said and this is shown by 4* being my most common rating, which a whole 15 managing to make it to 5! Seriously though, I read some damn good stuff.

Have a large TBR pile so we shall see how well these hold up this year in comparison!

Gender 2019Right, then a brief look at gender breakdown. I was very pleased to see that books written by women vastly outnumbered books written by men in my read list for the year. I am a bit disappointed that no non-binary or genderqueer people seem to be present,  but again, it may be that there are some but the information I could find on the web did not make that clear.

This year I shall definitely have at least one since I am currently reading a book by a non-binary author and I shall see what else I can hunt down to read too.

Ethnicity 2019I want to be clear in regards to this next one, mixed stands for mixed non-white ethnicity, I think some of the authors on my list may be mixed with white, but I am not entirely sure and again, not all of that information is easy to find online.

Whilst the majority of the authors I read last year are unsurprisingly white, I have managed to get a decent amount of others in there as well and honestly, it’s enriched my reading no end. I am going to continue this trend this year as well where I can manage it.

LGBTQIA 2019Now we get to the probably pretty inaccurate stats categories. I am pretty sure that this next one is under representing the stuff I have read, if there are not more queer authors amongst my read pile for last year I would be deeply, deeply surprised.

As a queer woman myself I actively seek out books with this representation in them and a lot more of the books I read had it than I could be sure of the authors sexualities. So I would imagine that the number is higher, I am going to continue to seek out queer authors of SF&F for this year and see if I can’t get this higher.

Disability 2019Last, but not least, disability. Again, this is really hard to be remotely sure of. Weirdly enough most people aren’t comfortable sharing this sort of thing in their bio so there are only a handful I am sure of and that’s because they have spoken fairly openly about it.

I am also disabled and representation on this front in fiction is still dire. Would definitely love to see more of it and see it done better, but there is still a long way to go for the moment.

Still, I shall be keeping my eyes open for anything with good representation in it and believe me, you will know when I find it!

Top Five Books

I am going to do this solely for books that came out in 2019 (in either hardback or paperback, since I don’t read hardbacks and I want to have some choice in what I choose)

  1. Realm of Ash by Tasha Suri (review soon) – Honestly given how much I loved her first book there was always a chance that the sequel wouldn’t quite live up to it. Instead, it surpassed it. The book made me cry, it was beautiful and lovely and ugh, just all the feelings. Read it (and Empire of Sand)!
  2. Atlas Alone by Emma Newman (hopefully also a review at some point) – I adore this series, Emma manages to blend near future Science-Fiction with explorations of trauma, mental health and the human condition in a breathtakingly amazing way. This book, featuring an asexual protagonist, went through my emotions like a hurricane and I loved every minute.
  3. The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie (yeah, yeah, still to review I know) – I adored the Ancillary series and was desperate to read this since I first heard she was doing fantasy and it definitely lived up to my expectations. Shakespearean in scope, perfection in execution, I adored it and found it almost impossible to put down in places.
  4. Rosewater: Insurrection by Tade Thomson – Probably a little weird to put the middle book in a trilogy on a top 5 list, but this one is actually my favourite of the three. The way the story twists and turns, never quite going in the direction you thought it would is done superbly and the trilogy as a whole is still the most unique and breathtaking alien invasion story I have ever read.
  5. Walking to Aldebaran by Adrian Tchaikovsky – I have no idea where he got the idea to basically write a Dungeons and Dragons style dungeon crawl as a Science-Fiction horror story but hot damn does it work to perfection. If you are thinking that this story is silly, not remotely, it’s creepy and powerful and I honestly fell in love with it pretty quickly.

Well, that’s pretty much it for the round-up. I hope to have my review of Tasha Suri’s Realm of Ash up over the weekend so please keep an eye out for that!