Legions of Angels

EAA22AD9-21E5-4F57-8DED-2F4B1792DF12The House of Shattered Wings (Dominion of the Fallen) by Aliette de Bodard is a dark and intriguing speculative fiction book which won the BSFA (British Science Fiction Association)award for best novel in 2015.

Paris is in ruins because of a war that happened between the Houses of the Fallen but a tenuous peace is now maintained. Because rivalry cannot be entirely forgotten, the Houses continue to work against each other in more subtle ways. Other than the Houses, the city is overrun by gangs scavenging amongst the destruction and debris and occupied by magicians, witches and alchemists. In this backdrop comes Isabelle, a newly fallen angel who forms an inadvertent bond with Philippe, a former immortal from an eastern colony.
The angels all lose their wings as a consequence of the fall from, presumably Heaven, but is referred to as the City. None of them remember why they fell, only that they no longer exist in a state of grace. Isabelle and Phillipe are taken in by Silver Spires, the oldest house, set up by the original fallen, Morningstar, who had disappeared 20 years back.

Bodard interestingly juxtaposes aspects of eastern belief systems against western beliefs and background. On the one hand there are the Fallen, the City, references to God but there is also the Court of the Jade Emperor, the Dragon Kingdoms, including the one below the polluted Seine, which all hint at the existence of numerous spiritual heavens. The reader is required to be open to multiple philosophies to truly appreciate the book.

The magic works differently for the adherents of each system; Philippe draws his from nature while the Fallen come with magical powers that dwindle as they age.
Not surprisingly, despite a number of characters, the reader comes away with the impression that the story revolves around the one character who is missing, and that is Morningstar whose aura and personality loom over everyone and each event in the book.

The unknowns are what make the book a compelling read. Most of the questions are not answered but it is a series so there is more to come. The Fallen of Silver Spires live around the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral but it is not deconsecrated, some even attend mass. So there is no clear animosity as far as God is concerned. Hell is a devastated Paris and perhaps evil is not the causing of pain but the indifference to it and the lack of empathy. Despite the existence of magic and magical beings, the one truly powerful force in the book is a human’s desire for revenge.

De Bodard’s book is not like your typical dystopian, post apocalyptic fiction which revolves around one person or a group’s struggle to stay alive or create some order out of the chaos. Instead it is a re-imagining of faith, belief and politics, leaving the readers conflicted between their own conditioning and concepts of what define right and wrong and good and evil.

(The second book in the Dominion of the Fallen series is The House of Binding Thorns) 

 

 

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Magical

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We had been hearing about the The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for sometime but somehow never managed to get around to reading it till now. For this we have to blame the blurb by Knopf Doubleday which showed up on the library site and which makes the book sound something like a racy thriller. The reviews which were mostly positive also somehow never managed to convey the brilliant atmospheric quality and lyrical nature of the book.

Two powerful magician/sorcerers have had a long and on going battle for centuries in which they pit their current protégés against each other in a contest to prove their capabilities and the superiority of the training imparted to them. Each contest has a different setting as agreed by the masters and this time around the venue is a mystical, nocturnal circus known as Le Cirque des Reves, which magically appears for an unannounced number of days at an unannounced venue. The contestants Marco and Celia are the essence of the circus and power the entire setup. Their expertise and talent displayed in the wondrous and magical exhibitions that are from time to time added to the circus. Erin Morgenstern describes these exhibits in poetic detail as she does the development of the relationship between the two contestants.

This is a book about a competition yet there is no rapid succession of bangs and bursts but a enchanting progression through the creativity of the protagonists. The detailed descriptions suck the reader into the magical black and white world of the circus with its maze of tents housing various exhibits and performances but the most spectacular are those created by the two contestants pitted against each other in a display of magical skill : an ice garden, a wishing tree, a labyrinth, a carousel of magical creatures and a pool of tears. Erin Morgenstern’s writing transports one to the extent that the reader can almost smell the smoke and caramel and palpably feel the excitement of the Reveurs, the group of people in black and white with a hint of red, passionately following the circus around the world.

Like the black and white of the circus, the book veers between the light of the main characters whose discovery of each other and the beauty of their creations are juxtaposed against the darkness of the respective masters with their obsessive self absorption hinting at an unsavoury outcome. The story moves gradually along with the contestants as they move from place to place and move on from competing with each other to creating for each other and finally to collaborating. Almost like two competing gardeners who fall in love with each other’s gardens and cannot help themselves from adding to the other’s creations. And the story unfolds like a slow wait for flowers to bloom as the sun rises as opposed to a time lapse bloom which passes by in a moment.

Some books defy description and no matter what one says, the feeling of reading the book, like the circus, can only be experienced.

Two way scary

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C. S. Lewis famously said ‘A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.

Not many authors writing for children manage to reach the balance required for universal popularity but Jonathan Stroud does so outstandingly. The fifth and final instalment of the Lockwood & Co. series, ‘The Empty Grave‘, has been eagerly awaited by persons of all ages and subsequent to its release, day before yesterday, led to acrimonious situations in a household (known to us) where only one book was available. 

The last book in any fantasy series is always frightening  because you just don’t know which of the characters the author is going to kill off, particularly since it seems to have become de rigueur for authors to do so nowadays. A readers’s sense of doom is further compounded if the author has gone out of his way to drop audacious hints about the impending demise of the main character; the trepidation that follows the reader through the book can be nerve wrackingly, nail bitingly scary. There is then a double whammy of fear when the book happens to be populated by ghosts, poltergeists, spectres, et al. 

The team of Lockwood & Co. is back, eating doughnuts, drinking tea, arguing with each other, making smart comments and filling in their ‘working tablecloth’ with notes, rude comments and even worse drawings. All of this while fighting various ghostly apparitions, getting close to solving the mystery behind the ‘Problem’ infesting the world and fearlessly dealing with large and ruthless corporations. All this while also growing up. 

(The following conversation may contain spoilers.) 

LL: I guess that is the sad part of it. There couldn’t be books of them as grown ups, so it’s probably best to wind up the series now. Although as a reader, I loved it all so much, I would definitely want more.

PS: The only thing that bothered me through the book was the fear that something could happen to either one of the main characters but especially Lockwood and especially after Chapter 6. It’s amazing how as readers we become so emotionally invested in the characters. 

LL: But at the same time I felt all those hints were red herrings. 

PS: This is probably the first book we have read in parallel, instead of, as we usually do, borrowing the other person’s copy. It was fun to text each other our progress, trepidations and reactions through the reading. 

LL: I know! And we both managed to finish the book in a day, having been completely engrossed by it.

PS: So much so that we decided to do the review today instead of waiting until Monday

LL: Stroud’s descriptions of each of the characters is increasingly engaging. Even after four books he finds new ways of depicting Lockwood, George, Lucy, Holly, Kipps and the skull in the jar (who talks to Lucy), describing their idiosyncrasies as well as their distinctive reactions to each situation.

PS: The main characters all work well together as a team. Which is surprising considering that they are all fairly rude to each other. And Lockwood is such a ‘hero’! Which could have made him irritating to the reader but in spite of that it is only the skull, with his dubious morality, who is irritated by him.

LL: We have always felt that Lockwood is in the league of Diana Wynn Jones’s characters like Howl and Chrestomancy; a peacock (with his swirling coat and slightly too tight suits) who is inherently a decent human being, outrageously brave, as well as being a good leader who inspires confidence.

PS: The best part, I think, is that very frightening and tense situations are lightened by the humorous conversations and quips of the characters, not to mention the chocolate eating and tea drinking.

We would like to thank Jonathan Stroud for: 

  1. Publishing regular installments over the years, including the concluding book. Which is no small feat in light of the tardy manner in which popular writers behave these days. 
  2. For providing us with such a wonderfully scary and fun bunch of ghost stories. 
  3. For leaving us with no quibbles regarding the ending except perhaps the lack of clarity re the identity of the skull. 

In light of what we had mentioned in an earlier blog post, we feel Jonathan Stroud is definitely entitled to awards.

Everyone pretends it’s not happening

IMG_2677Donna Leon’s novel ‘Earthly Remains‘ is the 25th installment featuring her Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. More than her earlier novels it concerns itself with crimes committed against the environment, its repercussions on the perpetrators and colluders as well as wide spread impact on the general populace. 

A feigned breakdown to save the career of a colleague is attributed to stress and Guido Brunetti finds himself on a forced dream holiday, all on his own, in a relative’s villa. He spends his time on the small island in the Venetian Lagoon, rowing with the caretaker, reading in the evenings and sleeping soundly at night. This idyllic situation becomes a busman’s holiday when the caretaker disappears in a storm and is subsequently found dead. 

The story lacks the usual ingredients of Brunetti’s life which add to the charm of Donna Leon’s books.  There are very few family interactions and no descriptions of the fabulous meals that Brunetti’s wife seemingly effortlessly places on the table. We always wondered about that one until we concluded that if we were making the dishes she does and the amount of wine consumed and manage to walk off all the calories, we wouldn’t grumble either about the daily cooking.

Earthly Remains is basically a book which takes a meandering route through an assortment of crimes, though not all from the present day. And the different powers which people hold, whether money, information or influence that can so easily help them in remaining unpunished. As with any book concerned with crime, it is also about the short sighted and selfish nature of human beings vis a vis their personal gains.

As murder mysteries go, the book is not a very satisfying one but Donna Leon has become progressively more environmental with each Brunetti book. And we appreciate that. It is so very important that at least someone is talking about the rapacious harm being caused, even if it is within the pages of fiction. . The apathy of the general populace and the need to ignore what is happening around in the name of development and industrialisation, is prevalent across the world. After all it is easier to concentrate on the jobs being created and money being made rather than thinking of the cancerous substances in the air, soil and water. If we start thinking about all of that then what do we breathe and what do we eat and what do we drink?

The appeal of grumpiness

a man called OveA book that apparently began with a blog about the writer’s pet peeves was then turned into a surprisingly successful novel about a cantankerous old man whose attempts to commit suicide are constantly being interrupted by his neighbours. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, is about the transformation that can be brought about by social interactions.

Although it would be easy to attribute all the peeves that Ove has in the book – with the younger generation, the local council, people working in IT, hospitals, parking lots, foreign brands of cars etc.- to normal old age behaviour, we realised that we identified with most of Ove’s complaints and obviously so does the author who is so much younger than us. Which is a relief because it just goes to prove that one is allowed to be cranky at any age. Particularly when it comes to the opinions about IT professionals! Leaving all that aside, the gradual change of a reclusive and curmudgeonly man through forced association and socialising with those much younger than him including his adoption by a stray cat, is not very new and distinctly Silas Marnerish. But the book is touching and humorous despite the underlying theme of loneliness and despair.

As with the earlier book of Fredrick Backman that we had reviewed (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises) A Man Called Ove is translated from the Swedish. But if, as they say, something is always lost in translation we can only wonder at how well the original must read. 

The book is incredibly funny and readable despite being totally politically incorrect. Or perhaps because of it, since political incorrectness is now fashionable across the world. ‘Covefe’? 

Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

Found in translation

my-grandmother-sends-her-regardsSweden is in the news. So not surprisingly, being readers, our conversation soon veered from supposed attacks, to horses rescued from wells, to an English translation of a Swedish book we had read recently. Fredrik  BackmansMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises‘ (American title ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She Is Sorry’) translated by Henning Koch, was delightful, quirky, poignant, full of humour and throughly enjoyable. 

Seven year old Elsa is precocious to the hilt and  her Grandmother is her superhero because to her ‘a grandmother is both a sword and a shield’. Her school and her mother think Elsa needs to learn to ‘fit in’ but her grandmother knows that she is perfect and introduces her to an entire land of the imagination where currency is not coins but good stories. Elsa and her grandmother are not just inhabitants of this land together but friends in real life. When her grandmother dies she entrusts Elsa with the task of delivering a series of letters, personally, to various people that takes her on a journey of discovery. 

PS: Often stories get lost in translation.No matter how good the translation is, it is not possible to bring out the nuances of one language in another. But strangely we didn’t even realise that this was a translation. 

LL: I think I was initially too absorbed by the craziness of the grandmother who fires paintballs from her balcony and breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and assaults beleaguered police officers with animal poop. 

PS: Any child who has read ‘superior literature’ would want a Grandmother who can argue the merits of Spider-Man vis a vis Harry Potter. 

LL: The book is full of blurring of lines between being a child and being an adult, reality and fantasy, goodness and evil and death and life and all of this somehow combines to make a story that sharpens the focus on life. 

This is a book about accepting people and their eccentricities. And about how the circumstances of life can effect people differently: “Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.” It is also about finding unlikely companionship in a journey dealing with loss. Ultimately we were a little envious that Fredrik  Backman, being so young (in his early thirties when he wrote this book), can write so insightfully.