Piranesi by Susanna Clarke — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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Piranesi was a Christmas gift from Rebecca, and being picked for Fantasy Book Club means I’m actually ‘allowed’ to read it, even though this blog still has more fantasy reviews than any other single genre. I went into it knowing nothing, except that I’d liked what I’d read of Susanna Clarke’s last book, but hadn’t even come close to finishing it. Piranesi is much shorter, but both novels have been written in a metafictional way which foregrounds the process of writing.

Like Beatrice Belladonna Eastwood (The Once and Future Witches), Piranesi is another character who values notebooks and journal-keeping. His journals even have a separate notebook which serves as an index, which will surely excite any bullet journal fans reading! Writing advice often insists that every character needs a goal, but for most of the novel, it’s hard to tell what, exactly, Piranesi is looking for. Despite this, and the fact that he spends much of the book alone, Susanna Clarke keeps his story interesting.

Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you wold rather not.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s thought-process is refreshingly different. Like The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Susanna Clarke includes thought-provoking insights which invite the reader to think about how they see their own world. The capitalising of some nouns could be a tad distracting, but the prose is otherwise nicely transparent. Though the mystery of the world inclines the reader to question character’s motives, Piranesi has a much more relaxed atmosphere than The Loneliest Girl in the Universe.

There should be plenty to talk about in book club, though it remains to be seen whether Piranesi will raise as many questions as The Bone Shard Daughter. Either way, it should be interesting!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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When A Deadly Education was introduced as ‘a nasty magic school’, I was worried it would be another Witchsign; I couldn’t have been more wrong. The tone and the characters are completely different, and while both books have similar themes, A Deadly Education delivers friendship overcoming the odds far more effectively.

She charges almost nothing, and that little mostly because if you offer to do professional massage for free, people will look at you sideways, as well they should.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

The Scholomance is a dangerous place which thrives on inequality, but nothing about A Deadly Education is delivered to grind the reader down. Instead, El’s savviness, self-knowledge and pragmatism are immediately captivating. Naomi Novik creates an amazing contrast between El and her non-privileged peers who have to be smart to survive versus the ‘enclave kids’ who can coast on generations of magical alliance.

But hope is good strong drink, especially when you can get someone else to buy it for you.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

El’s character development is awesome, and ties seamlessly in to an action-packed plot. It’s rare that a moment of intense self-discovery will also be an attempted murder, but Naomi Novik manages it. Against the background of self-interest and betrayal, El’s developing friendships shine particularly brightly. While there is a romance, it doesn’t overshadow the platonic relationships.

Mum does magic by dancing up mana with a group of willing volunteers — I’ve told her she ought to charge people, but no — and then she spreads it out again freely in sparkles ad happiness, tra la.

A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik

Even though El’s mother never appears ‘on stage’, their relationship is beautifully portrayed. Gwen Higgins is the goodest of good witches, but the mother-daughter bond isn’t all unconditional love and endless support; it’s complicated and realistic and oh, so fantastic to read about.

It’s always a good sign when there’s enough plot going on that the reader can make guesses about a situation and be wrong. No detail of the plot felt wasted or cumbersome, and Naomi Novik manages to set-up such a brilliant cliffhanger that even if you know there is one, you probably won’t guess what it’s going to be.

A Deadly Education was a complete joy to read, despite the darkness of the world and setting, and I can hardly wait to move on to the next book in the series!

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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In addition to being a book club book, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was recommended on a list of queer heist novels. I’m glad I read it for book club, and not as a fan of heists, because it’s really not what I want from that description. There are bandits, yes, and (debatably) stolen treasure and negotiations, but little of this is the result of forethought or organisation.

If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho

Putting aside heist-y expectations, Zen Cho’s world-building is lovely. The religious Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water has a great name, and the details about the goddess and her followers are spread through the story, building up a background which feels significant and convincing. Without giving anything away, the religion-specific compliments and treasures were a really nice touch.

Zen Cho’s pacing worked well, until the very end, which felt a little abrupt. While there had been hints about the relationships between different characters, these didn’t really have enough time to build before they were suddenly impacting the plot in surprisingly big ways. To a reader used to enjoying novellas, this might not be a problem, but in comparison to a full-length novel it felt somewhat light. While the prose of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water didn’t stand out, it was pleasant enough, and a longer novel would be enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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The Starless Sea reads like a book for book-lovers. Erin Morgenstern presents a secondary fantasy world, accessed through magical doors, full of stories and the people who protect them. More than one character explicitly references going through the wardrobe to reach Narnia, and the early sections of The Starless Sea filled me with that same longing to escape into a magical idyll. Of course, these other worlds are rarely perfectly peaceful, otherwise there’d be no conflict and no story. Erin Morgenstern does a good job of balancing the appeal with the danger. The Starless Sea has more bite than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but doesn’t tip over into brutal cynicism like The Magicians.

Endings are what give stories meaning.
I don’t know if I believe that. I think the whole story has meaning but I also think to have a whole story-shaped story it needs some sort of resolution. Not even a resolution, she appropriate place to leave it. A goodbye.
I think the best stories feel like they’re still going, somewhere, on in story space.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

As befits a book about a magical world full of books, The Starless Sea also delves interestingly into metafictional discussions about what makes a story, and what makes a good story. The characters of The Starless Sea would make an interesting book club. Within Erin Morgenstern’s narrative, there are smaller stories-within-stories, none of which were recognisable as retellings, but most of which had an effective archetypal fairytale vibe. Unfortunately, the overarching plot doesn’t hang together quite as well. The story was hazy, never quite coming into focus, which made it difficult to build up (or understand) the stakes. Erin Morgenstern’s prose is so lovely that The Starless Sea was still enjoyable, but it didn’t have as much impact as it might have done if the narrative had set things up on a slightly firmer ground.

The guard sits in a chair by the door and reads crime serials on faded paper, wishing he were an idealised, fictional version of himself. Wondering if the true difference between pirates and thieves is a matter of boats and hats.

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

A reread of The Starless Sea would be interesting, to see whether the stories-within-stories knit together with the main narrative to make the whole thing feel more grounded and immediate. If you like reading about reading (presumably you do, since you’ve read this…) it’s definitely one to add to your TBR!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett — New Review

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It’s always exciting to make another inroad into the vast universe of Discworld, especially one which falls into a new subcategory, as Going Postal did for me. The name Moist von Lipwig was familiar, but everything else about the character and his history came as a delightful surprise. As goals go, ‘rejuvenate the postal system’ doesn’t sound as though it will be all that absorbing and yet, as Moist applies his skills as a conman to the business of civil service, the story sweeps you along nicely. Had Going Postalbeen nothing but a series of escalating problems successfully solved, it would have been enjoyable. 

He felt the tingle he always felt when the game was afoot. Life should be made up of moments like this, he decided.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

Of course, things can’t be that simple: the conflict is well-paced, reminding me a little of The Once and Future Witches, though with a less dramatic emotional punch. Everything that Terry Pratchett sets up pays off, or else seems like fertile ground for future novels to explore. Going Postal’s prose is of the clear, unassuming kind that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the plot. The only rough part was a portion of dramatic irony, which I have an incredibly low tolerance for.

But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse; used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal round it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett

While it seems necessary to mention social commentary in any Discworld review, it’s not something which jumps out to me as a reviewer. This may be why I find Terry Pratchett’s novels enjoyable but not sparklingly magical. For any readers in a similar position: Going Postal is perfectly enjoyable without engaging with the deeper meaning! 

While I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to reading every Discworld novel, I do hope to eventually make the acquaintance of Samuel Vimes and Granny Weatherwax, so this won’t be the last time I read Terry Pratchett.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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When I reviewed Red Seas Under Red Skies, I said that fantasy heist meets pirate adventure was tailor-made to my interests. Senlin Ascends proves that even when a book has one’s favourite elements, there’s no guarantee it will become a favourite. Senlin Ascends has an art heist!, piracy!, a group of misfits struggling against society! and yet I’m not at all sure I’ll ever read the next book in the series.

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvellous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends gets off to a bad start. The first two thirds of the book consist of Senlin’s episodic encounters with a world and a cast of characters that unrelentingly want to screw him over. The Tower of Babel was such a disappointing, chaotic place that I found myself wondering why I was supposed to want to read about it. To give full credit to Josiah Bancroft, that’s not entirely his fault: I made an early assumption about Senlin’s relationship with Marya which coloured his rescue mission as more cynically hopeless than intended.

Even an art heist wasn’t enough to get me on board, because although Senlin had to work with others to pull it off, there was no sense of connection to any of the characters. Tarrou gave the impression of being too superficial to ever be relied upon, and Senlin had left everyone else he’d encountered worse off than when he found them, which didn’t encourage much sympathy.

It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were.

Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Fortunately, there was a turning point when almost everything I disliked about the book changed at once: Senlin took responsibility for the consequences of his actions, he started connecting with other characters who had stories of their own and I was finally able to hope that his quest might not be as doomed as I’d first assumed. The leaps of personality taken by Senlin came a little too quickly, but I was so relieved not to be miserable reading about this unpleasant place that I didn’t really mind.

The ending of Senlin Ascends is promising, which is a weird thing to say about the ending of a book. It left me torn about whether or not to continue the series; does the potential of a group of misfits attempting piracy on an airship outweigh the fact that I really didn’t enjoy most of the book? Fortunately, my TBR is long enough that I can put the decision off for several months….

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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I wasn’t expecting much from The Once and Future Witches; I only gave The Factory Witches of Lowell three stars, and this seemed like such a similar idea that I was surprised book club would add it to our list when we’d already experienced exactly this subgenre. I was absolutely wrong, The Once and Future Witches is up there with The Goblin Emperor and An Accident of Stars as one of the best books we’ve read.

Despite being a lover of fantasy novels, magic systems aren’t that important to me. The distinctions between hard and soft, rules-light and rules-heavy rarely influence how I feel about a book. But I absolutely loved what Alix E Harrow did with the magic in The Once and Future Witches, because it’s all based in reality, but given a clever and literary twist. Spells are hidden in nursery rhymes and stories, and so many of them begin with familiar words. Similarly, Alix E Harrow takes familiar concepts and weaves them into her world in a way that delighted and surprised me every time.

(Sometimes she can still see the walls of her room at St Hale’s: perfect ivory, closing like teeth around her. She keeps such things locked safe inside parentheses, like her mother taught her.)

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

In a similar way, the prose was full of clever twists and references and beautiful sentences that I loved. While the style seems simple, it’s also very clever, building in references and allusions that will become more important later. I’m sure The Once and Future Witches would be a joy to reread!

While the magic reminded me of Chocolat, the world-building shows a greater divergence from reality, something more akin to Dread Nation. I loved that so many of the significant historical and mythological figures were female versions of those found in our world: Alexandra Pope, Queen Midas, to name just two. It made me wonder if reading this feels a little like being a man in our world, where so many important figures affirm your gender. The Once and Future Witches is an explicitly feminist book, though Alix E Harrow does flesh out positive male characters just as well.

Beatrice rubs her thumb along the spine of her notebook, stuffed full of her most private thoughts and theories, her wildest suppositions and most dangerous inquiries. Her own heart, sewn and bound.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

Which brings me on to the characters, who I adored. Even though the Eastwood Sisters, and many of the others, were built on archetypes, they were incredibly well-drawn and developed. Of course, as a reader and reviewer of books, not to mention a notebook enthusiast, I loved (Beatrice) Bella the librarian and note-keeper, but Agnes’ story was just as compelling, maybe even more so. To round out the three witches, I should also say that I cried harder in Juniper’s chapters than I think I have in any book I’ve read for book club. The ending of The Once and Future Witches is powerful and deeply sad, but not a total tragedy.

Or maybe they won’t tell our story at all, because it isn’t finished yet. Maybe we’re just the very beginning, and all the fuss and mess we made was nothing but the first strike of the flint, the first shower of sparks.
There’s still no such things as witches.
But there will be.

The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow

I have absolutely nothing bad to say, which doesn’t happen often. And for once, I haven’t struggled to articulate all the things I loved about The Once and Future Witches. Fingers crossed I’m just as able to string my thoughts together at book club.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee — New Review, Bookclub Edition

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One of the things I like about Fantasy Book Club is how many different types of fantasy book we read. I don’t think I’ve ever run across one where the main character was an artist before, and I probably wouldn’t have picked up Phoenix Extravagant just from the blurb if I didn’t have the extra incentive of a discussion to look forward to.

You don’t know? Jebi almost asked, then thought better of it, remembering the fact that they were a prisoner and some questions were better left locked behind their teeth.

Phoenix Extravagant, Yoon Ha Lee

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel Yoon Ha Lee completely delivered on the promise of Jebi as an artist. Painting was certainly an activity that they did on multiple occasions, and once or twice it was mentioned that they doodled even when they weren’t ‘on the clock’, but I never really felt that Jebi had any great passion for art, even though they went to some lengths to make it their profession. This was a symptom of a larger problem with Phoenix Extravagant in that there was too much telling and not enough showing. As a reader, I was told that Jebi loved art, or that they were sad or afraid or passionate, but I was never really made to feel it.

What Phoenix Extravagant did do well, however, was world building. Ironically, this isn’t something I’m usually as interested in as other book club members, but I really liked the detail Yoon Ha Lee worked into this novel. His take on dragons was particularly cool, fusing elements that I’ve previously encountered in The Bone Shard Daughter and Witchsign into something new and different. That said, the more celestial side of things didn’t gel with me to the same degree.

Getting drunk was difficult when one didn’t like alcohol. But if they kept at it long enough, inebriation would ensue.

Phoenix Extravagant, Yoon Ha Lee

Although it was only okay, I’m still glad that I read Phoenix Extravagant, especially because Arazi might be my favourite individual fantasy dragon in recent years!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart — New Review, Bookclub Edition

After a run of book club books I was immediately excited about (‘muggle goes to dark Hogwarts’, ‘the navy with dragons‘), we’ve now hit a few books where the premise doesn’t particularly hook me. Which isn’t to say that the books themselves won’t be good! Only that they can’t be summed up in a catchy elevator pitch.

The beginning of The Bone Shard Daughter left me a little dubious. In good news, it came out of the gate at a good, quick pace, with things immediately happening. In somewhat less good news, it seemed to centre around an amnesia plot. When I took a creative writing module at university, it seemed that everyone wanted to be write about either being in a coma or having amnesia, so my history involves having read it handled pretty amateurishly.

Fortunately, Andrea Stewart was anything but amateurish. She managed perspective shifts in a way I haven’t seen before, and yet they immediately felt right. I didn’t even notice until the end that some perspectives are written in the first person while others are in the third, and that’s the kind of thing that jarred me out of The Light Between Oceans pretty badly!

The Bone Shard Daughter is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy novel, in large part thanks to that amnesia plot I mentioned. I was always trying to work out who characters really were, how they were related to one another, why they were acting in the way they did. I’m not a reader who constantly tries to guess where books are going, but The Bone Shard Daughter really caught me up in the way a murder mystery does. It even has what you might call ‘a second body’ partway through. My notes are full of questions: ‘Is X causing the memory loss?’, ‘Is Y related to Z?’. Many of them get answered, but there are enough left over that I really want to read the next book in the series.

Always, always at the end of these fights, Ranami would say that Phalue just didn’t understand, and Phalue would say “Well, then make me understand!” And then Ranami would look at her as though she’d asked a dog to sail a boat. It was like they stood on two different islands when they argued, and neither of them could find a way across.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Because there was so much else going on, the character development didn’t stand out to me immediately. It was only towards the end that I really realised just how integral it was to the novel. I can’t talk about the intensity of Lin’s character arc without spoiling a huge chunk of her plot, so I won’t, but Phalue’s reluctance to come to terms with her privilege is something I haven’t seen before in a fantasy novel. The Bone Shard Daughter compares favourably with Witchsign because I’m supposed to dislike the bad parent, rather than being expected to sympathise with him. I found that much more effective.

He kept a veneer of politeness over his commands, but it was thin, and easily scratched away by disobedience.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter was a very different kind of fantasy novel, so much so that it feels weird to compare it to other book club books that I’ve enjoyed. That said, this is only the third time I’ve immediately added the next book in a series to my ‘want to read’ list, which has to say something!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton — New Review, Bookclub Edition

The Queens of Innis Lear is the second retelling of King Lear that I’ve read, and because I still haven’t read the original play, I enjoyed trying to reverse engineer the plot from the similarities between this and A Thousand Acres. It’s particularly interesting to see which of Lear’s three daughters are treated most sympathetically. While Tessa Gratton really made me feel for Regan, The Queens of Innis Lear was definitely the story of Elia (our Cordelia stand-in).

He suspected most of his memories were sweetened by time and brightened with longing, not accurate to what their relationship had truly been.

The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton

Caroline warned us that The Queens of Innis Lear was long, but I was glad it was, because it allowed the political and emotional situation to spin out slowly, details piling up one after the other so that I always felt I understood what was at stake without long passages of exposition. The only place this didn’t entirely work was in the relationship between Elia and Ban, which I felt quite impatient with at first — though I forgot that as soon as they could actually speak to one another rather than being in separate countries.

Given the tensions that mount up throughout the story, Tessa Gratton pulled off an impressive feat by making me feel for almost every character — with the notable exception of Ullo, whose perspective we are never given. I particularly loved Aefa, whose power to manipulate the plot is far more limited and who therefore has to think very differently from everyone else. Character motives were always understandable, without the reader being hit over the head with them. The one exception was Rory’s realisation and return to Innis Lear, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

“That’s what comes of choosing to love something above all others, instead of widening your heart. If he’d loved stars and Dalat and my sisters and everything, maybe he wouldn’t have broken without her.” Elia touched her lips to Ban’s shoulder and whispered against his skin, “I won’t love anyone so much more than everything else that I lose it all if that person is lost. If it makes your world smaller, it isn’t love.”

The Queens of Innis Lear, Tessa Gratton

Elia’s journey and philosophy were definitely the most absorbing, and I wanted to see her succeed. Without spoilers, I can say I was a little disappointed in the ending. From certain things Elia said, as well as Regan and Conley’s relationship with Ban, I thought she was hinting at a way The Queens of Lear could end to (nearly) everyone’s satisfaction. Maybe it was naive of me to think that would happen in a book based on a tragedy, but nonetheless, I felt as if the actual ending was one of relief rather than satisfaction.

Despite the ending, I want to read the rest of the Innis Lear series, and have added Tessa Gratton to my list of authors to follow.

Rating: 4 out of 5.