Abaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3)

abaddons gateAbaddon’s Gate (The Expanse #3) by James S.A. Corey (Website, Twitter, Expanse Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 539 pp

Published by: Orbit

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this third Expanse instalment, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are freelance contractors now, parted way somewhat acrimoniously with Fred Johnson and the Outer Planetary Alliance. When one of their clients, a rather shady bunch, suddenly back out of their contract with Holden, the crew discover that they are being sued by the Martian government to get the Roci, formerly a Martian Marines battle ship, back. Coming to their rescue is Monica Stuart, a journalist from the UN Public Broadcasting, who contracts Holden on an exclusive if he takes her and her team out to a mysterious ring. The ring was constructed by the protomoluecule creature that launched itself off Venus at the end of the previous book, and it is weird. It appears to be a simple ring construct, and yet ships that go through it do not come out on the other side as expected. It’s like it’s a…stargate… 

A flotilla of ships from Earth, Mars, and the OPA is on the way to the ring to investigate, each government hoping to gain the upper hand. When a person from Holden’s past sabotages his reputation, he is forced to flee with his crew and ship through the ring. What they discover on the other side is not at all what they expected. 

The thing about book series, for me, is that if they are longer than a trilogy, I tend to lose interest. Usually around book three or four. However, that isn’t close to being the case with this series. Yes, it follows the same core of characters. Yes, it has an overarching plot revolving around a weird protomolecule. But each novel has a large and diverse cast of secondary characters and a new basic plot, each different from the previous book. It isn’t a cliffhanger from one book to the next where you have to keep reading about the exact same goddamn characters over and over. Corey’s style works wonders for me.

Holden is evolving as a character in a good way. He can still be a sanctimonious bastard, but he is self-aware enough now to know it. He is making a concerted effort to be a better person, not only for himself, but for his crew, and especially his lover, Naomi. We know a bit more about Holden’s past than the other main characters, possibly because he is the captain. But we get tidbits of information about Naomi, Amos, and Alex as well. I hope we get to learn more about their past lives as the novels progress. What drove them to be on the Canterbury way back in book one? Why did they end up on a bottom-of-the-barrel ship when they all clearly have crazy skills and can do what they want in much better positions? These things, I want to know. 

The secondary cast this go round is Carlos Baca, called Bull, a security officer for the OPA. He is assigned as the security chief to the Behemoth when it heads out to the ring. He’s kind of bitter about his position since he should really have been the captain, and Fred Johnson knows it. But he’s not, because politics! Instead, some jackoff called Ashton is captain, and he seems like a skinny Trump, all ego and narcissism and demands of loyalty. We hate Ashton. But we love Bull.

Joining the Behemoth is Sam, the engineer from Tycho Station and Naomi’s best friend; Clarissa Mao, in disguise as someone called Melba Koh, who is on a private mission of vengeance against Holden for his perceived harm to her family’s good standing; and Pastor Anna, a Russian, well, pastor who is on the Behemoth because she believes God called her there to help in some way. And of course a colorful variety of various others ranging from Martian Marines to news reporters to a neurotic socialite. Each one is there for their own reasons, and each one ends up playing parts they hadn’t anticipated. 

Also, Joe Miller is a recurring presence, despite having ridden Eros on its collision course with Venus at the end of book one. So there’s that. 

The biblical and religious allusions are inescapable. I mean, it’s built right into the title. Abaddon is the Hebrew word for “place of destruction,” or hell, or the realm of the dead. Pastor Anna has a lot of things to say about the place of religion in human society, about forgiveness, and about the ways in which humans must fit in with the greater universe. It was not a “beat you over the head” sort of religious discussion. It was interesting and in the background. I’m sure others who are more inclined could find a lot more to say about it. I can, too, but find that I can’t be bothered with religion today. Suffice to say, the title is a perfect highlighting of the plot in this one. 

Themes of loyalty and bravery are front and center as well, which I’m coming to expect from this series. There are so many ways in which these characters, and those in the previous books, have displayed these concepts. I think one of the most important discussion on bravery in this instalment is when Holden figures out how scared he really is by anything to do with the protomolecule. And yet, he does whatever has to be done, despite his fear. I guess Ned Stark was right – when you’re scared, that’s the only time you can truly be brave. 

I have to take a forced break in the series to read a couple books I promised to a friend for a review, and that’s cool, but I can’t wait to get back into this series!

Interdependency

The Collapsing Empire, The Consuming Fire, The Last Emperox (The Interdependency) by John Scalzi (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaace! And various habitats, space stations, and occasional planets

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection 

Length: 9:24:00, 8:19:00, and 8:07:00, respectively

Published by: Audible Studios

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars, both for each book and for the series as a whole

In Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, humans have managed to colonize a lot of the galaxy. They do not do this, however, through the use of any sort of FTL or warp drive. The laws of physics prevent that. They do, however, have something called the Flow, which sounds a little like wormholes through which a ship can travel and arrive at a location in a matter of days, weeks, or months, depending on distance. Ships can only enter or exit at Flow shoals, and the Flow streams only go one direction. So if a Flow stream goes from Hub, the Capital of the Interdependency, to End, the one planet that supports human life and which is at the farthest reach of the Flow streams, then they need to use a different stream from End to get back to Hub. 

Oh, and the streams are beginning to collapse.

This is a problem because, as the title implies, every human habitat is interdependent upon each other for survival. The places where humans settled are all, with the exception of End, not compatible with human life. They’re either on tidally locked moons and planets, too hot or too cold to survive, or on space habitats in orbit somewhere. The Interdependency is organized around Guild Houses, each of which have a monopoly on a certain aspect of manufacturing things needed to sustain life. Once the Flow streams collapse, everyone will be well and truly fucked. 

Enter an inexperienced Emperox, Cardenia Wu Patrick (Imperial name Greyland II), a young woman who was never supposed to be Emperox and only became so when her half brother the Imperial heir died in an “accident.” The various noble Houses think this will be a good thing because they expect to be able to manipulate her. The main houses of Wu (the hereditary Imperial house as well), Lagos, and Nohamapetan, are the political powerhouses and are out for blood and profit. Also, I listened to these, so I may be WAY off on how the names are spelled. Just saying.

The Houses of Lagos and Nohamapetan are particular enemies. On one run between Hub and End, Kiva, the Lagos representative to the Guilds, learns that her House’s entire crop on End had been sabotaged and she naturally suspects the Nohamapetans. Having just spent 9 months in the Flow traveling to End, Kiva is righteously pissed because now she will have spent the best part of 2 years on a trip that is profitless. Kiva soon learns, however, that there is something wrong with the Flow and she ferries a young noble and Flow physicist, Marce Claremont, back to End to meet with the Emperox and come up with a plan to save the billions of people dependent on the Flow for survival. She also comes up with a way to make money on an otherwise failed venture, as one does. 

There’s a lot of politics in this story, but Scalzi makes it fun! Kiva is definitely my favorite character. She’s so thoroughly outspoken and rude and it’s just delightful. She’s also crazy skilled at strategy and politics and is the best person the Emperox could possibly have in her corner. Cardenia is sweet – on the outside. Then she manages to deflate the machinations of everyone conspiring against her, which is especially fun when she hamstrings the Nohamapetans. Really, the characters in this series are the best thing about it. Yes, the overarching story is bomb, and is very Scalzi-ish. But, as Renay Williams wrote, the central characters are all women, and they’re all truly awesome in their own ways. 

Also, the trilogy covers a lot of ground that lovers of sci-fi space operas will appreciate seeing, happily updated with a lot of modern thought, because actual colonialism is gross. There’s far-flung human colonization, empire, the ways in which all these things are connected and, like, interdependent on each other. It is really a good commentary on a lot of our actual current events and politics. I have screamed for years that sci-fi is the ideal medium in which to discuss and analyse current events; Scalzi’s trilogy is further proof. 

As I mentioned above, I listened to The Interdependency trilogy on audiobook. Wil Wheaton did a phenomenal job narrating. I honestly think it is one of his best performances. His timing and tone were spot on and turned elements of the book that were already amusing into laugh out loud hilarity. I loved listening to these books so much that when the third one ended, I wanted to start the series all over again. I didn’t, only because I have so very many audiobooks to listen to that I haven’t even touched yet. But I did go and buy the trilogy in paperback, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy any more books until I get through more of my TBR and cull ones I know I’m not going to read ever again. 

I can’t wait to read these again, and I can’t wait to see what Scalzi publishes in the future. If you haven’t read, or even better, listened to, this series yet, you are really missing out!

Star Trek Discovery: Wonderlands

Disco WonderlandsWonderlands by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 333 pp. It’s only half evil.

Published by: Gallery Books (18 May 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Remember in the first episode of Discovery’s third season? When Burnham came plummeting out of the sky and figured out she made it nearly 1000 years into the future and her mission to stop Control from annihilating sentient life was successful? And she landed practically on Book? Then there was that year-long jump between the first and second episodes? Remember that? This is the story of that year in between. 

Michael Burnham is lost and alone in more ways than one at the beginning of this book. She’s almost a thousand years into the future from her point of view, the Federation is shattered, and Starfleet is more a figment of the imagination than a real institution. The economy is money-based and everyone is looking out only for themselves. Philanthropy on any appreciable scale is nonexistent and there are violent wannabe kings of local regions, plotting and betraying and backstabbing their way to the top of the pile. In other words, the polar opposite of the society Burnham is accustomed to. And the Discovery is nowhere to be found.

Circumstances naturally dictate that Burnham adapt to her new environment, and she does, though reluctantly. She convinces Book to help her get on her feet and get the lay of the land. She gets herself a tiny, tiny little ship of her own. She finds a Starfleet holdout in the form of one Aditya Sahil, the de facto commander of Starbase Devaloka. Burnham, being who she is, manages to browbeat everyone into at least trying things her way sometimes, just for kicks, and usually they are pleasantly surprised. It is a nice little lesson in playing nicely with others. 

This was also a rather sad book. Not sad as in pathetic. Sad as in fucking sad. She misses her chosen family, her friends, her society where everything really was better despite the Klingon War. She misses knowing the basics of technology, even though she’s the quickest study ever and gets up to speed in a flash. She misses her ship. It is an interesting commentary on how we contemplate the future. Star Trek is known for its optimism. Discovery has, from the start, turned that optimism on its head; that very darkness is why I love this series so much. Utopia doesn’t happen overnight. It isn’t without its struggles. Without that darkness, how would we ever know the light or the good? To me, that is what this series is good at – showing the good that is possible even if it isn’t there yet. 

I even wrote about this very thing about a year and a half ago for StarTrek.com. See? This Is Why Starfleet Needs Gabriel Lorca. *I* wrote it first, not that individual from Den of Geek who apparently read MY article, nicked my idea, and rewrote it a couple months ago. Fuck her.

Anyway.

There were several smaller missions, or side quests if you like, throughout the novel. Burnham (and usually Book as well) go off on various aid missions to give help to various groups. Very much in line with Star Trek ethics. I wish these could have been longer, or had a standalone book devoted to them like in the good old days of numbered Trek novels. But I suppose, because this was only one book, those side quests had to be truncated for the sake of expediency.

It is ok, though, since the novel’s true strength is in its character development. So far, all the Disco books, actually, have done a brilliant job at giving us the character development and back stories we know and love from other Trek series. I loved getting to see how Michael grew and changed in her new time, and how she tries to change it as well. I loved getting to know Book a little better. And Grudge is certainly the best character in the whole thing. 

I think the overarching theme in this story is that, when you can’t go home or have no home to go to, then you make a home as best you can, with the best people you can find to gather round you. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

“They’re not doing anyone any harm.”

“Mostly harmless.” He laughed. “There are worse epitaphs, I suppose.” 

[High five to McCormack for that nod to The Hitchhiker’s Guide…! 😀 ]

Concrete Rose

Concrete RoseConcrete Rose by Angie Thomas (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: YA

Setting: Garden Heights

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Dion Graham

Source: my own collection

Length: 8:17:00

Published by: Harper Audio (12 Jan 2021)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Concrete Rose is the sequel story to Thomas’s The Hate U Give. This tells the story of Maverick Carter when he was a teenager struggling to find his place in the world. Maverick always expected that he would grow up to be in a gang like his dad. His future as a gang member seemed cemented when he learns that the baby of one of his classmates is also his. Selling drugs seems to him to be the only way to make enough money to make ends meet, support his son, and help his mother with their bills. When his girlfriend Lisa also becomes pregnant, Maverick understandably freaks out. He assumes he will never amount to anything and so why NOT join a gang and sell drugs? His part time job working for Mr Wyatt’s store has shown him that “honest work” doesn’t pay anything. When Maverick suffers a catastrophic loss, he finds that life takes you in directions you never expected and that the help we might need is right there with us if we can open our eyes enough to see it.

So, I loved this book. I have loved all of Angie Thomas’s books so far, which is a record not even Neil Gaiman holds with me. This is a sequel to THUG but you don’t have to have read that one to get this one. I love how she weaves in bits of her other novels throughout the narrative. For example, when Lisa’s mom kicks her out of the house, she goes to stay with Miss Rosalie and takes her friend Brenda’s bedroom. When Brenda comes to visit with her new baby, they all get a kick out of meeting baby Khalil. That hit me right in the feels when I realized it is Khalil from THUG. Little tidbits like that really bring the story to life and serve as sort of an insider’s view for those of us who have read the other books, but it isn’t necessary to get the story. It is fully standalone. 

The power of names is a strong theme throughout the story as well. Maverick names his son Seven because it is the number of perfection, and to him, his son is perfect. Maverick says his father named him so because he wanted him to be a freethinker and independent. The course of the narrative leads Maverick all over but he does eventually live up to his name, though not at all in the way he expects. 

I how Mr Wyatt was a father figure to Maverick, teaching him some transferable skills and encouraging him with tough love. Mr Wyatt talks a lot about his garden, especially his roses, which are stronger than they seem and can grow anywhere, even through concrete. I assume the title, and the theme of hidden strength, is inspired by the poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” by Tupac. Maverick has that strength and his life could easily have been ceaseless heartbreak and danger. But he chooses to do what he thinks is best for his family, and his losses to date have shown him what he DOESN’T want for them or for himself. He is brave enough to try something that is out of his realm of experience, and like the rose, he learns that he can bloom. “Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.” 

I could really go on about this book all day but I will just stop before I actually do so. If you haven’t read any of Angie Thomas’s books, you are really missing out. This would be a good place to start, but honestly I think you should read THUG first. This one will have more of an emotional impact if you know Starr’s story already. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • The apple don’t fall far from the tree, but it can roll away from it. It simply need a little push.
  • We left the roses untouched. I expected them to be dead by now, but they got blooms as big as my palm. … “What I tell you? Roses can bloom in the hardest conditions.”

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope

The Last Best Hope (Star Trek: Picard #1)

Star Trek Picard: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack (Website, Twitter)

Genre: sci-fi

Setting: spaaaaaaace!

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 322 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (11 Feb 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Last Best Hope is the story of the mission Jean-Luc Picard led to evacuate Romulans from their home world and nearby planets when their sun went supernova. It is the prequel that forms the foundations of the Star Trek: Picard series. On its surface, it is the story of how one of the most beloved figures in all of science fiction ended his career. Digging deeper, it examines some of the darker aspects of humanity that we all carry.

I confess that I didn’t like the first season of STP very much. I only watched the season once and didn’t care at all for, well, most of it. Not because it wasn’t just TNG rebooted. I neither wanted nor expected that. I think it’s mostly that I didn’t recognize the characters in it. They were too changed, too damaged. I went into this book hoping it would help me like the show better, especially since McCormack is one of my favorite Trek authors.

I suppose it did that. I can understand how it would completely fuck with you to be put in command of THE biggest humanitarian mission in history, only for it to fail. And to fail largely because of politics? Adding insult to injury. Star Trek has always been political. It’s one of the many things I love about it. The Picard series, and this book, are no exceptions. The difference this time is that the politicians here are truly awful, with not the remotest veneer of idealism that they portray in the series. The political leaders of the Federation in this book are concerned with optics, with PR, with the cost to themselves. Councilor Quest is repugnant. She represents, to me, the worst of certain American political parties. I won’t say which but it starts with an R and ends with -epublican. Nationalism and only looking after one’s own interests is such bullshit and yet it’s on the rise. This book takes a look at the potential impact of nationalism, distanced through the lens of sci-fi. There were lots of oblique references to the Trump administration, trumpism, and nationalism. I’m so fucking glad he’s out of office and fuck anyone who gave this book a lower review just because it rightly was critical of those kinds of politics. We should take care of everyone, not just those in our immediate circle.

Picard, in TNG, is an idealist and a compassionate man. But he’s tempered with logic and pragmatism as well. Picard here gets so involved in the mission to save the Romulans that he becomes pretty myopic in his determination to fulfill the mission. If millions and millions of lives were in my hands, I probably would be myopic about my job, too (Actually, no, you could just put me in a padded room and have done with it if that task fell to me). I know some readers felt this Picard was a bit too starry-eyed, almost naive especially with regards to political machinations, but I felt that he was throwing himself headlong into the ideals of what Starfleet stood for. His doing so is the only way I can see to really explain his utter disenchantment with the fleet when the Romulan star blows and he fails in his mission. If he hadn’t been so involved, maybe more of his pragmatism would have prevailed and he would have been able to remain in the service. He still would have been horrified and grief-stricken at the loss of life, but he could have taken that extra distance to realize it was a futile effort from the start and to celebrate the lives they WERE able to save. But he wasn’t, and didn’t, and so railroaded his career, thus setting up the premise for the TV series. 

I do wish there had been more detail from the planets. We got some, but it would have made the story more visceral if we had seen more scenes from Romulus, the effect the supernova had on the citizens. What scenes we do get felt rushed a bit, more told than shown. Not that I want vivid descriptions of dying and suffering people. But it would have been just that much more depth to the story. 

And, maybe not super relevant to the story, but I thought Maddox/Jurati was gross. I can’t remember how her character was in the show so maybe McCormack picked up on something from that and ran with it. But Jurati in this novel was like everything I wouldn’t want to be as a woman. Yes, it’s rad she has a doctorate in robotics and is whip smart. I love that part about her. But she acts like a submissive, insecure little mouse who is desperate for Maddox’s approval, which makes her come off as pathetic. It’s such a big dichotomy, and unlike most of the other women in Star Trek that McCormack has written, and I haven’t figured out why it exists. 

Rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a negative review. It absolutely is not. I loved this book, but I hated a lot of the people in it. I think that’s a sign of good writing, to make me hate a thing about a figure I’ve loved for the majority of my life, or to hate elements of the society I grew up watching and hoping to achieve in reality. I unreservedly recommend this book, especially if you haven’t yet seen the Picard series. It fills in a lot of gaps in the Picard series. I think it will be a good book to help build the Picard series canon. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • He turned to the helm. 

“Lieutenant Miller…”

“Go on,” Raffi whispered. “They’re dying for you to say it.”

And why not?

“Engage!” (p 55)

  • The admiral shrugged. He had never seemed so French. “Better to ask forgiveness than permission, Raffi.”

“I’ll look forward to using that on you one day,” she said.

“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.” (p 115)

  • “Who knows. An encounter with Beethoven might be the making of the man.”

“It might do something to him. Jeez, though, this might backfire. He might make us listen to Romulan indeterminate polyphony.” (p 130)

  • Mistakes are, after all, how we learn. (p 143)
  • “Warrior nuns. Romulan warrior nuns. You know, Raffi, I am grateful.”

“Grateful?”

“That the universe can still delight me.” (p 154)

  • “Story?”

“A fiction. A tale. Something made up.”

“A lie?” The boy looked puzzled.

“No,” said Picard gently. “A human way of telling certain truths.” (p 158)

  • “Tell a lie often enough, someone will believe it.”

“It’s worse than that, Kirsten. Tell a lie often enough, and it stands a good chance of becoming the truth.” (p 214)

  • Just a general comment that I thoroughly approve of Star Trek finally embracing the word fuck, as well as many others. To quote Tilly, this is so fucking cool.

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended! 

The Land Beyond the Sea

31568110The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss+

Length: 688 pp

Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)

Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school. 

Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery. 

The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it. 

Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles. 

Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness. 

All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages. 
  • William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise. 
  • “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer. 
  • He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
  • Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
  • [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
  • He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend. 

 

 

 

Enigma Tales (Deep Space Nine)

Enigma Tales DS9Enigma Tales (Deep Space Nine) by Una McCormack (TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a: mass market paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 350 pp

Published by: Pocket Books (27 June 2017)

Fan favorite Elim Garak is now castellan of the Cardassian Union. Part of his plan is to open enquiries into Cardassia’s war crimes against the Bajoran people, which may well turn the military against him and is making for some very awkward and tense situations. Enter Katherine Pulaski, who can, and does, make already tense matters into an interstellar incident. She is on Cardassia to accept an award on behalf of her and the team of doctors who solved the crisis of the Andorians’ fertility. The team had included Julian Bashir, who now lives on Cardassia under Garak’s supervision, trapped in his own mind from his previous encounters with Section 31. At the same time, a new head of academics at the University of the Union is to be appointed and the frontrunner is Natima Lang, a darling of the public eye and one of the rare genuinely innocent Cardassians. However, a document uncovered by a researcher may expose that Lang is hiding some of the worst crimes of all.

So, Una McCormak now ranks right up there for me with authors like Peter David for favorite Trek authors. I’m not always a fan of DS9 but McCormack’s books are always really fun and the writing is at an actual adult level. I loved seeing more of the inner life of Garak. He was my favorite recurring character in DS9, as I think he was for many people, so it was great to see lots of him and get inside his head a bit. Really, I think I am not out of line to suggest that ONLY Una McCormack be allowed to write Garak. 

I never liked Pulaski – I was too much a P/C shipper to welcome her onto the show – but in this book, she was a lot of fun. Salty and utterly unrepentant, Pulaski had plenty of moments to shine here, both in diplomatic situations (oh hai, let’s make a diplomatic incident!) to quick thinking and bravery when kidnapped (if she hadn’t been a fraction of a second too slow, she would have totally kicked that guy’s ass), to helping rescue someone else (she WILL hunt you down and find you). She was really a fun element to the story, and for me, it was a very pleasant surprise.

I loved the somewhat more minor but vital plot with Natima Lang. I loved seeing how she stuck to her guns and fought for what she wanted, even going toe to toe with Garak, even though it made her shake to do so. I think his plans for her are putting her talents to much better use than her previous ideas. I hope to see more of Lang and Garak in future books. 

Beyond just the delight of getting to know Garak and Pulaski better, the overarching theme was how societies can recover from the ills of their past and set to rights the wrongs they had done previously. The message rang through strong and clear that no one is above the law, not castellans, not presidents, no one. All the quotes scattered throughout about how literature reflects a society and can lead the way to the cure is really spot on. They reflected the Cardassian Union here, but of course reflect the problems plaguing modern society as well. I thought all those quotes were perfectly timed.

Highly recommended!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

    • There is nothing quite to compare with arriving on a new world. … Questions form in the mind: What will I see that is new? Will I learn something? Will I be surprised? Will my visit here change me in some small but significant way? 
    • “Popular culture,” said Garak portentously, “can tell us a great deal about a society.”
    • Monstrous behavior speaks for itself.
    • “They’re [genre fiction stories] more interesting than that,” Lang said. “They offer a microcosm for society and, I think, the means to diagnose its ills – and, perhaps, the method to bring about its cure.” “I think you see more deeply than the average reader,” said Parmak. “But I have come to believe that this is what literature always does – reflects back some part of the reader. You see a means to reform society.”
    • “A free and open society,” he said. “It’s the ideal toward which we aim, isn’t it? Even if we don’t always manage it.” “Hey, mister,” said Pulaski. “I think we do pretty damn well.” She looked around the room. “And you know what? I think these folks are doing pretty damn well too.” Parmak raised his glass and clinked it against Pulaski’s. “I’ll drink to that,” he said. Land and Alden raised their glasses. “To the ideal,” said Lang. “Elusive, and perhaps ultimately unattainable. But always worth the effort.”
    • T’Rena tasted the tea. “Not unpleasant.” “Mostly harmless,” said Garak. She looked up at him calmly. “I beg your pardon?” “It’s a quotation from a human classic,” said Garak. Rather a flippant one. He tried to get a grip on himself. 
    • Don’t assume cleverness when a cock-up is the more likely explanation.
    • Newscasts, broadsheets, channel upon channel – there is too much. It keeps a lot of people very busy. Still, I foresee some difficulties ahead. The proliferation of material means that people might start to become selective about what they consume and, if my instincts are correct, they are likely to read only that which confirms what they already know. This means they will never have their ideas tested. I worry that as a result, people will form tight groups around those who confirm their biases, mistrusting those whom they encounter who think differently. 
    • She found that she completely admired [the Cardassians]. They had guts, grit, and determination. To come through this hell, to keep on digging deeper into themselves to find the place where hope lived and to keep drawing from that well, to keep on trying and building and healing. That, she thought, was worthy of her respect.
    • [H]e thinks that “on balance you add greatly to the gaiety of life.”

 

  • Do no harm was a good rule to live by, but Do good with everything you have? That was a great deal better…

 

  • “I admire them [humans] for how far they’ve come. But in one respect they fail. They continue to be convinced of their superiority. But not us.” Garak shook his head. “We will never – I hope – tell ourselves such lies again. And perhaps that is what we have to offer.” 
  • Sometimes, Garak thought, one did not need a confessor. One simply needed to sit and examine one’s conscience alone.

 

 

History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.