Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman introduces us to a bold alternate world flavored by Western literature. I lost count of all the literary references in this tale about an orphan (called Orphan, for clarity) who suddenly becomes very interesting to the government and several revolutionary groups. On top of the literary references, there are giant, sentient lizards; automatons; pirated; and aliens. This book has everything.
Orphan has a good life at the beginning of The Bookman. He has a job and the woman he loves, Lucy, has just agreed to marry him. But then Lucy is killed at a celebration for the new Mars probe and Orphan is tempted into skullduggery by a promise from the mysterious Bookman to resurrect her. From then on, Orphan never has a chance to rest as he is variously chased, shanghaied, and trying to escape from whatever shenanigans he lands in.
Orphan knows he is a pawn in the middle of everyone’s games. (Even if he couldn’t work this out for himself, one of the characters literally tells Orphan that he is a pawn.) Our erstwhile protagonist is really more a vehicle that takes us into the weird, alternate history of this world. We follow Orphan as he travels from revolutionary-infested London to Paris to the Caribbean as various players move him around the imaginary chess board.
To summarize the plot further is futile; so much happens in The Bookman! Besides the real fun of reading this book is seeing what Tidhar does when he plays around with fiction. I got a kick out of Scotland Yard Detective Irene Adler and Prime Minister James Moriarty. There are more books in the series and I am very tempted to track them down, just to see what Tidhar comes up with next.
Eddie Izzard explains colonization in such a way that it highlights the absurdity of people just showing up on a coast and claiming it in spite of the fact that people already lived in that area. As I read Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, I was reminded of Izzard remarking on British colonists’ “cunning use of flags.” In the opening chapters of this alternate history, the same plot of land in what is, in our reality, southern Congo is claimed by three different groups: King Mwenda and his tribe, the Belgians, and the Everfair colonists. Mwenda’s people have been in that part of the world for as long as they can remember but, in the world’s eyes, the land belongs to the Belgians, who can sell it off to the Everfair colonists through the cunning use of paper. By telling us the story of the people who live on this contested land, Shawl raises the matter of flags to a high-stakes human drama.
At first, Everfair is bewildering. Shawl introduces us to character after character. Some are trying to get Everfair off the ground (Everfair is the name the colonists choose for their new “country.”) Others are trying to get rid of the Belgians. Still other characters are just trying to find a place for themselves in the world. Until the plot really gets rolling, when everyone goes to war with everyone else, it’s hard to tell who to pay attention to. Some characters, like Lisette Toutournier or Tink, were more interesting to me, but they aren’t always the movers and shakers in Shawl’s world.
Everfair covers the history of the colony from the 1880s through the end of World War I. The cast never really gets winnowed down but, as I spent more time with each character, I felt like I started to get a handle on the story. That said, I think Everfair would have been more effective if the cast had been smaller or if Shawl hadn’t been trying to cram so many sub-genres into the setting. As it is, there are times when the book feels like it’s trying to be a history text with dialogue and steampunk elements.
The fact that Everfair takes place in a completely different location from most alternate histories and steampunk novels was my favorite thing about the book. In spite of its unwieldiness, this book felt very true to Congo and the Scramble for Africa. The crimes of King Leopold’s government towards the Congolese tribes is emphasized throughout the book, as is the misguidedness of Christian missionaries and the arrogance of the utopians who also claim the territory. Shawl has created a fascinating, unsolvable political and social snarl for her characters based on real history.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.
I read dark books. I know my tastes are not for everyone, and I am capable of recommending fun, lighthearted books to readers who request them. But I like to read gritty books, books about harrowing experiences, and especially books about the crimes of the past. I like these books not because I enjoy reading about other people’s misery; I gravitate to these books because they help keep alive in my memory events that should never be forgotten. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a book that reminds us of the horrors of American slavery, a centuries’ long crime against humanity with a legacy that still haunts my country.
Cora was born on the Randall plantation and has known only hardship, violence, isolation, and misery. The fact that her mother successfully escape just makes her bondage worse. She doesn’t hope for freedom because hope would make it harder for her to bear her daily life. When Caesar, another enslaved man, asks her to run away north with him, Cora dismisses him at first. There’s not guarantee that they’ll make it and she knows full well what will happen to a runaway. But after her the man who enslaves her dies (I can’t bring myself to call him an owner, because you can’t own a human being) and his much more violent brother inherits the estate and chattel, she takes Caesar up on his offer.
The rest of The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora’s flight north along an actual railroad system that runs underground from slave states to free. (The real Underground Railroad was never that technologically advanced.) As I read, I found that I was not so much interested in how Cora made her way north as I was in what she found at the places she stopped for any length of time. I was tempted to read the stops allegorically, as representations of various periods in African American history or as explorations of prejudices white America still has about black America. For example, at Cora’s first stop, in South Carolina, she learns that the white people still look down on black people—they’re just more subtle about it. The whites in South Carolina offer education, clothes, food, shelter, work, and a smiling face, but the doctors are eugenicists and pressure Cora to undergo a procedure that sounds a lot like a tubal ligation.
The other thing that struck me as I read The Underground Railroad was the tone Whitehead used while describing the atrocities and violence of the antebellum south. Whitehead is chillingly matter of fact about rape, mutilation, whippings, and murder. I confess I didn’t understand the full effect of the deadpan tone until I read Brit Bennett’s essay on the novel and the history of the slave narrative, “Ripping the Veil” (The New Republic). Bennett writes:
In a moment of extreme trauma, the narrator almost politely looks away. Here is a proceeding too terrible to relate, Whitehead announces, and in his silence, the proceeding becomes even more terrible. The gaps in the narrative force the reader to fill in the blanks on her own. We not only imagine the horror but become active participants in its construction.
Bennett goes on to explain that early slave narrative writers often had to omit the worst parts of their stories in order to gain an audience for the rest of the biography; if things were too gruesome, readers would stop reading. Whitehead doesn’t omit much. Instead, he gives us just enough details that it’s impossible not to “fill in the blanks,” as Bennett describes. For me, the tone also reminded me that all of this inhumanity was so common that, for a woman like Cora, nothing about these atrocities was particularly out of the ordinary or worthy of more than a comment. It is a surprisingly effective technique.
I hope The Underground Railroad is widely read. Seeing anti-black prejudices and crimes against black people at the height of slavery serves to remind us that some of those ideas are still very much with us. In the era of Black Lives Matter (or really, at any time between 1865 and 2016), this book is a powerful reminder of America’s shadow history, the history we don’t talk much about because it gets the way of the story of America as “best country on earth.” We are still awaiting a full reckoning with our past.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.
Time has been out of joint for a long time in Sir Richard Francis Burton’s life. Ever since Edward Oxford went back in time to stop his ancestor from attempting to assassinate Queen Victoria, history has been running amok. Burton and his friends and allies have been trying for centuries (and five previous books) to get history back on track. In Mark Hodder’s The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats, Burton has yet one more mission to fix the pernicious effects of Oxford’s interference.
There is far too much plot to summarize and, cleverly, Hodder doesn’t really try. Other books in the series are much more closely tied together. While The Rise of the Automated Aristocrats follows directly after the events of The Return of the Discontinued Man, the narrative takes a step to the side and a slightly different reality. In this reality, Burton’s life followed its original course. He is now dying in Trieste in 1890. As he dies, he sees a bright, white light and inexplicably finds himself in Bath in 1864. Not only has he been seemingly resurrected, so have his friends, Algernon Swinburne and William Trounce.
All three are suitably confused. They grow more so when they are summoned by another version of Burton who charges them to follow their instincts while he finishes closing off a bunch of time paradoxes. The other Burton also gives the protagonist Burton the job of impersonating himself to the government. (The plot is also too bizarre to effectively summarize.)
There are two plots in The Rise of the Automated Man. The apparent plot involves Burton, Swinburne, and Trounce working to stop an insane Benjamin Disraeli and Charles Babbage from becoming immortal dictators. The plot going on in the background is more complex and, often, more philosophical. The surface plot is highly entertaining and full of action. The underground plot asks readers to think about the purpose of government, the nature of time, and the meaning of life.
The entire Burton and Swinburne series (which I very much hope is not over) has been an amazing ride. They are books that I hand off to new readers with the warning that these books will mess with their heads and the promise that they will enjoy it.
Being a literature major and librarian has given me a more-than-healthy skepticism about what I read and hear. It also means that I read a lot, from nearly every time period and as many places on earth as I can find good books for. Both of these circumstances stood me in good stead as I read Aaron Thier’s Mr. Eternity. This novel is one of the most demented accounts of American history and climate fiction that I’ve ever read. At the heart of this story is Daniel Defoe (not that one), a man who claims to have lived for 1,000 years, accompanied a Spanish expedition to El Dorado, survived 29 shipwrecks, stolen and lost countless fortunes, poisoned people back to health, and more.
Daniel—known variously as old Dan, Daniel de Fo, or the ancient mariner—does not tell his story to us directly. Instead, we learn about him via a slave turned prostitute turned translator who lived in a city she claims as El Dorado in 1560, a biracial “bookkeeper” in 1750, a documentary maker in 2016, a hapless sailor in 2200, and the daughter of a president in 2500. The narrators try to make sense of Daniel’s tales through what they know of history. A few, the slave, the sailor, and the president’s daughter, roll with Daniel’s preposterous stories. The bookkeeper recognizes Daniel as a fellow con artist and the documentary maker and his partner just think he’s a crazy old man.
Daniel’s stories are packed with historical figures and half-remembered details. I knew just enough to know how much of it was wrong. But I could also see where Daniel arrived at his version of events. Facts are just a little bit off or mispronounced or incomplete. Daniel’s tales are thrown even further off-kilter when he adds medical or biological trivia. He includes things like the headless man mentioned in Herodotus or lambs that grow from flowers. Before long, I recognized Daniel’s ramblings as a blend of everything he’d done, everything he’d read, and everything he claimed to have done. The president’s daughter, Yasmine, is perhaps the most forgiving of Daniel’s version of events:
I also understood that an equivalent logic extended to his accounts of history. I had the revelation that history was only the rabblehouse of facts and details from which human beings confabulated a sentimental truth. At the best-case scenario, at its truest and most illustrative, history was an effort of imagination, mostly fictive, mostly allegorical, like a story of unrecanted love. (n.p.*)
When Yasmine said this, at almost the halfway point of the book, I stopped fighting with Daniel. I stopped trying to remember what really happened and just went with it, even though I think Daniel is the most frustrating immortal I’ve ever encountered in fiction. His memory is shite.
Summarizing this book is almost impossible because so much happens and doesn’t happen and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. There are similarities between the five narrators’ plot arcs. They all include quests into inhospitable hot, humid places. Most include searching for treasure. All feature disillusionment with governments and institutions. Many of the narrators know secondary characters who go mad to a certain extent from heat, isolation, and/or drugs. Everything is always a bit hazy.
Mr. Eternity is a book to float through. Imposing order will only lead to frustration and, possibly, insanity. Readers who don’t enjoy being lied to and working out what the lies conceal should stay away. Readers who love a puzzle may enjoy the many enigmas littered throughout this story. Just be prepared for an Imperial load of weirdness.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 9 August 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend this book to readers who are too sure of their own opinions.
* Quote is from the publisher’s advanced reader copy. It was not paginated.
I had a conversation earlier this week with a fellow reader about how young adult dystopias, for the most part, fall flat and fail to convince. The “governments” are often bizarre social experiments that couldn’t last. The economics don’t work. The politics don’t work. Occasionally, books like Mark Dunn’s Under the Harrow come along to show other authors how it’s done. There is a social experiment at the heart of this book. In valley somewhere along the 41st parallel, there are 11,000 people living in a curious Victorian flavored society. Somehow, they have been passed over by 121 years of history. As the novel develops, we learn that there was a conspiracy inside and outside of the valley working to keep the experiment going. Under the Harrow opens just a few weeks before the wheels come off the whole enterprise.
Dingley Dell was founded in 1882 by a group of orphans who were abandoned by their parents and caretakers after being told that the adults had caught a deadly disease. Their only knowledge of the outside world comes from a ninth edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a complete set of the works of Charles Dickens, and a King James Bible. By 2003, when Under the Harrow Opens, the valley and its people are living a lot like the characters in Dickens’s novels. The difference is that they are able to trade with the remaining outsiders (or so the Dinglians believe) for a few goods and commodities they aren’t able to get from their environs. Most people are content. A few, like our narrator, Frederick Trimmers, and his friends, have suspicions and questions that they can’t just let go.
As the novel opens, a woman has just been pushed to get death after arguing with her husband and Trimmers’s nephew has disappeared into the Outworld. The two unconnected events are just the start of the unraveling of the Dinglian conspiracy. What begins as a slow exploration of a curiously anachronistic society becomes a tense thriller as Trimmers and his friends learn more and more about the truth of Dingley Dell. By the end of the book, I was inhaling whole chapters just to find out what would happen next.
By the end of the novel, it is clear just how many people were involved and just how many resources were needed to keep Dingley Dell isolated for over a century. I loved this. Instead of being asked (as some authors of the more outrageous dystopian novels ask us) to just swallow weird factions, overly complicated methods of messing with the love lives of teenagers, and all the rest, Dunn brings a whopping dose of verisimilitude to the Dinglian experiment. Shortly into Under the Harrow, our protagonists learn that the whole thing is going to be shut down because it is no longer returning on the investment their controllers have put into it. I found the conflict between shadowy business concern and the Dinglians incredibly believable.
The best part of Under the Harrow, however, is the language. Dunn has mastered the Dickensian pastiche. Trimmers, the narrator, has pithy and pointed observations just like Dickens did. The sentences meander and the vocabulary is deliciously varied. Many of the characters in the book took their names from Dickens’s cast of characters, so it’s a delight to see heroes with the names of villains and vice versa running around this book. I had a very good time reading this book.
What if. What if. What if. This question drives to much fiction, but we rarely see it overtly addressed. Books like Kate Atkinson’s stunning Life After Life are few and far between, unfortunately for me. Jo Walton’s My Real Children, while not as wildly experimental as Life After Life, gave me another chance to wonder what if along with a character.
When we meet Patricia, she is very confused. She would know this even if her caretakers weren’t writing this phrase over and over again in her patient notes. It’s clear that Patricia is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She can remember her childhood fairly clearly. When she follows the thread of her life further, however, she has memories of two completely different existences. In one life, she is miserable in love, but has a large family and lives in a peaceful world. In the other, she has a lifelong love, but lives in an increasingly violent and radioactive world.
Each chapter in My Real Children alternates between Patricia’s two lives, never revealing which one is “real.” Both lives are entirely plausible, diverging at the moment in which Patricia decided to marry Mark or decided not to. For a good half of the book, I thought Walton was heavy-handed in preferring Patricia’s life with her female lover, Bee, over her life of domestic mystery with Mark. Mark is relentlessly awful and Bee is so charming and that other life is so blissful. It isn’t until near the end of the book that Walton balances the scales a bit by placing Patricia in world in which the great powers frequently lob nuclear missiles at each other.
I pitched this book to my book group, but they passed. It’s kind of a pity because there’s so much to talk about here: sexuality, chaos theory, feminism and women’s liberation, parenting. The first half of the book is clunky, I’ll admit, but when things balance out, My Real Children ends on a particularly thought-provoking note.
Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book is hypnotic and disturbing. Wright pairs the long history of injustice to Australian Aborigines with a complete break down in the world’s climate to create a desolate, dying landscape, populated by people who have lost their roots. Throughout the book, we watch two kinds of people. The first kind wait for things to happen to them, who passively survive their circumstances. The second kind, the kind who try to change their circumstances, are rarer. But The Swan Book is not a simple story of active versus passive people; it also explores how interference cane make things so much worse.
Oblivia Ethyl(ene) lives at the heart of this book. As a child, she was raped by a gang of boys and has never completely come back from that experience. Instead, she lives in a universe of her own making, disconnected from most of the other people who live in the Swan Lake refugee camp. The camp is named for the hundreds of black swans that have migrated there after losing their habitat. Oblivia, who does not speak, is raised by the woman who found her after she went missing. Bella Donna is a climate refugee from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Bella Donna does her best for Oblivia, teaching her about the swans that once guided her to a new home, as well as all the other stories she knows about swans. Oblivia is also raised by the Harbour Master, an angry old man who is supposed to remove the giant sand mountain in the camp.
Swan Lake is polluted and, because it’s an old refugee camp, mostly for Aborigines, it has been mismanaged for years. Oblivia is mostly ignored by the other people, except when she’s mocked. Mostly, Oblivia drifts through life, her head full of swans and swan stories. All this changes when Warren Finch arrives. Warren, raised to be the great hope of the Aboriginal peoples, once had a dream of a swan maiden. He promised to marry this girl who was damaged before becoming that swan maiden. When he arrives at Swan Lake, it turns Oblivia’s life completely on its head.
Be warned, however. The Swan Book is not a romance. It does not follow any of the expected plot paths for a love story. Oblivia is terrified of her new fiancé and has now idea what he wants from her. Instead, the story of Warren and Oblivia is another example of what happens when outsiders who think they know best interfere before knowing all the facts. Life in Swan Lake is not good, but at least Oblivia can function there. Outside of the camp, which Warren promptly has destroyed, sets Oblivia even further adrift from the world.
The best descriptor for The Swan Book, apart from disturbing, is hypnotic. Because we are in Oblivia’s head so much, we drift with her as she follows the swans and thinks about swan lore. Because our protagonists and antagonists are Aboriginal, we are also pulled into age-old stories and laws about the land. And, because all of the world is in upheaval, there is little familiar to hang on to. This is a very unusual book. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to make it past the first few pages, at least until I got pulled into Oblivia’s story and world.
I could also classify The Swan Book as an idea book, more than a plot or a character book. The narrative rambles so much that almost every paragraph contains a lesson or a theme to ponder on. I read The Swan Book in one day, but I don’t recommend that. This is definitely one of the books Sir Francis Bacon would recommend that we chew and digest.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 28 June 2016.
No one knows were the Smoke came from or how to get rid of it, but most people in Dan Vyleta’s alternate turn of the twentieth century England have a fairly clear idea of what the smoke means: sin. In Smoke, the rich are taught to control their emotions and live according to a strict moral code so that they don’t smoke. The poor are dismissed as naturally sinful and left to carry on with life as best they can. The smoke and the soot just reinforce the old boundary lines in England. After all, how can one argue with that someone who doesn’t smoke has the right to lead those who do, if one has been told since infancy that smoke is evil?
Not everyone is content to leave smoke alone, as Thomas Argyle, Charlie Cooper, and Livia Naylor learn. Thomas and Charlie, friends at a school for the privileged that teaches children to control their emotions and, thus, their smoke, travel to the home of Baroness Naylor for the Christmas holidays. Their plan is to lay low at Thomas’s aunt’s house after Thomas got into a fight with the favorite at the school. The plan is almost immediately disrupted when Thomas learns of the Baroness’s investigations about smoke. He has been told all his life that he’s tainted by smoke and his parents’ sins; it’s easy to see how a potential cure would appeal to him. But when that favorite pupil, Julius Spencer, shows up at Baroness Naylor’s home, too, it isn’t long before the plan to lay low goes all to hell.
Smoke is full of ideas and themes that I feel I could write a paper about how it deals with class divisions and comments on actual history and religion. After Thomas and Charlie flee with the Baroness’s daughter, Livia, they see what life is like for the lower classes. They seek shelter with coal miners and the poor in London. They meet unionists and curiosities and demented scientists. I’ve heard the word Dickensian thrown around about Smoke. Dickensian is not quite the right word, though Vyleta does give us more than a few slices of life in this book. Rather, Smoke is a twisted look at the dirty, rigid, unethical Victorian life if its worst qualities and values had clung to power longer than they actually did in our history.
In addition to the sheer number of ideas presented in Smoke, I was struck by the dark, ominous atmosphere. I felt a pervasive sense of dread as I read about our trio of protagonists. It seems that everyone is out to get them and they don’t know who to trust. Julius, in particular, is a sinister character. At the beginning of the novel, Julius is the golden child at his school—on the surface that is. Underneath his seeming lack of sin, Julius has been using trickery to take advantage of sin and emotion. He surrenders his control, and eventually his humanity, over the course of the novel as he literally succumbs to the dark side.
I think I need to read Smoke again. The story is so densely layered with alternate history and the atmosphere so tense that I know I missed things as I raced to the end. I’m glad I bought a copy so that I don’t have to return Smoke to the library.
Once upon a time, there was a Jewish kingdom in the Caucasus mountains. No, really. Emily Barton takes the actual history of the Khazar khanate, pairs it with the Biblical story of Queen Esther, and runs with them in The Book of Esther. Barton imagines a world in which Khazaria was never conquered and survived until the twentieth century. As the book opens, the German Reich (yes, Nazis) have invaded Poland and Ukraine. They’re closing in on Khazaria’s borders and it seems like the kingdom might finally fall. The blend of history, the Bible, and Jewish folklore created an action-filled alternate history and fantasy that had me hooked from the first chapter. This book is packed with golemim, Kabbalists, mechanical horses, and on-the-fly religious reformation.
Esther is not the kind of girl who meekly accepts what she is told. She secretly takes food and supplies to European refugees who’ve gathered outside Atil, the capital of Khazaria. She listens in on her father’s meetings with members of the kagan’s (kind of a king/emperor figure) government. And when she hears that the Germans are about to invade, she refuses to let everyone else handle things because she thinks they are overcautious or overconfident or just bunglers. Like her Biblical namesake, Esther sets off to raise an army to save her country.
Esther’s first plan, however, is to have the Kabbalists turn her into a boy. If she’s a boy, Esther reasons, people will listen to her. She’s not wrong. Being discounted because of one’s gender is a theme throughout The Book of Esther. In the very traditional form of Judaism practiced in Khazaria, women and men inhabit very different, very separate spheres. Women taking on men’s roles is strictly prohibited. Esther’s first plan fails when she finds the Kabbalists. They tell her it isn’t possible. It would be interfering too much with god’s will—even though these are the guys who’ve created golems and golem horses to do manual labor.
Esther’s Plan B is to raise an army however she can. She begs. She orders. She promises. Most of the middle section of the book is a long build up as Esther musters her forces as the front moves closer and closer to Atil. Meanwhile, she also has to argue with people about what Jewish law does and does not allow and try not to get killed or shunted aside by the men who are supposed to be in charge.
It might not sound like it here, but I found the plot of this book enthralling. I read this long book in just a few sittings because I was completely hooked. Even if the plot were a little slow (which it isn’t), I would have stuck around for all the world-building. My rough knowledge of Yiddish and all the Jewish-based literature I’ve read over the years really came in handy as I read this one. (For example, the characters are really fond of accusing each other of telling bubbemeitze.) Barton steals from everywhere. While some readers might be miffed at the cultural and religious appropriation, I think she does a good job of being respectful while still criticizing people who follow the letter of the law too rigidly for their own good.
I usually don’t say too much about the endings of the books I review. That said, I feel the need to point out that this book is clearly not a stand alone. The ending of The Book of Esther does resolve the most immediate plot issues, but it definitely sets readers up for another book in the series. The war is not over yet.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 14 June 2016.