The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

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A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

In the coils of a myth

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is not only a Victorian story but in many ways feels like it was written in that time. That is how authentic it is. Set mainly in an Essex village, the story itself is like the slow flowing waters of the Thames estuary and is based on an old rumour terrifying the local populace of a monstrous serpent with wings that preyed on the surrounding villages.

Cora Seaborne, recently widowed and finding herself free of an oppressive husband, has moved from London to indulge in her larger interest in fossils and in particular the recent finds in the Blackwater marshes of Essex. Intrigued by stories of the serpent in newspapers, she dreams of the glory of finding a living fossil and is convinced the serpent is not a monster but a creature that has survived from another time. She moves to the village of Aldwinter where the recent sightings have taken place, hoping to spot the serpent.

In the village, Cora, now delightfully independent, having thrown away her corsets, comes up against the superstition that is swamping it. The local parson, William Ransome, who is surprisingly a rationalist believes that science and faith can coexist and refuses to accept the possibility of there being a serpent in any form. He is left dealing with not just his panicking parishioners but also his own feelings for Cora despite the divergence in their thinking and beliefs. There are a whole host of characters, all revolving around Cora and William and their families. Perry describes each one so completely and from various points of view that the reader is able to understand their perspective of the Essex Serpent sightings without being judgmental of their responses.

Ultimately this is novel about the clash between rationality and the kind of superstition that is capable of engulfing and rampaging through societies. The serpent symbolises different things for different people and each character sees in it what they want to; a scientific curiosity, a demon sent for the retribution of the villagers, a  story inciting doubt. derision and contempt, or a symbol of the fall from Eden or even that of the serpent of healing entwining the sceptre of Aeschylus. Whether or not the serpent was real is left to the reader to believe whatever it is that they want to believe.

Set over a period of one year, the novel describes the seasons in lush detail. Through Cora, a compulsive rambler and walker, Perry gives the reader a sensory experience of the sights, sounds and smells of the area. Somehow just the visuals of  Cora striding across the marshes on her own feels emancipating. This is a book to be savoured, mulled over and enjoyed slowly. We were planning to review it earlier but took a long time to read it because of the need to go back and re read some of the paragraphs just for their expression and language. Through the backdrop of an almost gothic story, the reader is lulled into a quiet sort of beauty. Though it won a whole bunch of awards, we are puzzled as to why the book was not longlisted for the Booker prize.

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) 

 

 

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?