Madeline Miller – The Song of Achilles

Like a lot of people, I’ve never read the Iliad. I know the basic story from school and those Greek Myths CDs I had as a kid, but I’ve always lacked the gumption to actually pick up a copy and read the whole damn thing. But you don’t really need to know anything about the Iliad to enjoy The Song of Achilles – in fact, this made me want to go straight back to those Greek stories and I may just pick up Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe García McCall soon, which retells the Odyssey.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES
by Madeline Miller

Published by: Harper Collins, 2011
Ebook: 416 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: My father was a king and the son of kings. He was a short man, as most of us were, and built like a bull, all shoulders.

The legend begins…

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.
When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece, bound by blood and oath, must lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause, and torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows. Little do they know that the Fates will test them both as never before and demand a terrible sacrifice.

The Song of Achilles is told by Patroclus and follows him from childhood to the battle of Troy. Patroclus is a prince who is exiled after an accident that kills another boy, so he loses his name and princedom, and he also has trouble coming to terms with the other boy’s death. He also meets Achilles, famed to become aristos achaion, the Best of the Greeks, a hero and the son of a goddess. A connection starts blooming between these unlikely friends that soon turns into more.

This is definitely one of those slow burning books, where for long stretches at a time, nothing much seems to happen, especially if you expect epic battles. But the way it focuses on characters and the relationship between Achilles and Patroculs kept me entertained for the full 400 pages without a problem. Madeline Miller writes beautifully, letting her characters’ actions speak for them. I loved it so very much when Patroclus looked at Achilles and described him in his mind – without getting cheesy or overly descriptive of his body parts, he paints the picture of a god and makes it all the easier to understand why he loves him.

I can smell him. The oils that he uses on his feet, pomegranate and sandawood; the salt of clean sweat; the hyacinths we had walked thorugh, their scent crushed against our ankles. Beneath it all his own smell, the one I go to sleep with, the one I wake up to.

Apart from the wonderfully done romance, I was also intrigued by the setting and society in this book. Having next to no experience with stories of Ancient Greece that aren’t specifically about the gods, I was quite surprised at certain aspects. There are a ton of princes, bringing shame to your family is the worst, gods can be appeased with sacrifice… While I expected all of this to some degree, the way Miller incorporated these things into the story felt organic and natural, like it’s just part of these guys’ lives.

Another highlight was definitely Odysseus, the sly man. He may only show up a couple of times before he joins in the war on Troy, but I swear he steals every scene he is in. Despite being a side character in this particular story, he has the air of a protagonist and you can tell – even if you don’t know about the Odyssey – that this guy is going to go down in history as a legend. Whenever he showed up, I started smiling and waiting to see what he would come up with next.
Similarly interesting was Achilles’ relationship to his mother, Thetis, and her as a character in general. She never makes a secret of her dislike for Patroclus, and Achilles stands between them, silently but certain of his choices. See, this is what I meant when I said it’s a slow-moving book. The interesting bits aren’t so much in the action scenes (although there are some of those at the end in the battle of Troy) but in the little moments between characters, in what they don’t say, but what their body language conveys. Making body language come to life in a novel is no small feat but I saw every scene so vividly before me that I caught myself speculating on why somebody’s shoulders slumped at a particular moment, or why Achilles stands so tall and proud.

I did feel that the last part of the book dragged a bit with the Trojan war going on what felt like forever. Since Patroclus is not much of a fighter, he spends the days at camp and develops a beautiful relationship with Briseis, a woman taken as spoils of war (yeah… that was a punch in the face, women being handed around literally as prizes). It’s not that stuff doesn’t happen, it’s just that Patroclus is best when Achilles is around, and Achilles is kept grounded by Patroclus. They are such a beautiful couple, in every way imaginable, that I already felt sad long before Achilles’ prophecied death.

The very end held a few surprises in store, which is all I’m going to say on that matter. But after following these two men through most of their childhood into adulthood, I closed the book with a feeling of deep satisfaction and some warm fuzzies in my stomach. This is a beautiful story and I see why it has won all sorts of acclaim when it came out. I will not soon forget Achilles and Patroclus, and no matter how many retellings of the Iliad I read or see, they will always be a couple in my mind.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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I love Murderbot: Martha Wells – All Systems Red

Let me talk to you about Murderbot, the delightful protagonist in Martha Wells’ novella All Systems Red. If you’ve been reading a surprising amount of tweets professing their undying love for something called Murderbot, and asked yourself what the hell was wrong with people, I can assure you everything’s fine. We are simply all completely enchanted by a fictional character, who is also a robot with human parts and feels awkward in social situations. You see, it all makes sense.

ALL SYSTEMS RED
by Martha Wells

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites.

A murderous android discovers itself in All Systems Red, a tense science fiction adventure by Martha Wells that blends HBO’s Westworld with Iain M. Banks’ Culture books.
In a corporate-dominated spacefaring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by Company-supplied security androids, for their own safety.
But in a society where contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, safety isn’t a primary concern.
On a distant planet, a team of scientists are conducting surface tests, shadowed by their Company-supplied ‘droid — a self-aware SecUnit that has hacked its own governor module, and refers to itself (though never out loud) as “Murderbot.” Scornful of humans, all it really wants is to be left alone long enough to figure out who it is.
But when a neighboring mission goes dark, it’s up to the scientists and their Murderbot to get to the truth.

If you manage to read that opening line and not continue, you have more willpower than me. You are also about to miss out on a great story with a stand-out protagonist. I haven’t read a lot of books narrated by an artificial intelligence (if any), but if I had to pick a favorite AI, Murderbot is definitely it. The moment it realizes it is no longer bound by its usual restrictive software – which basically forces it to do its job and nothing else – it uses this newfound freedom not to go on a rampage, but to download thousands of hours worth of soap operas. Because why not?

After the lovely introduction to my new favorite robot hero, it’s time to learn a bit more about the science fiction world of this story and the mystery that kicks off the plot. Murderbot is a security unit, there to protect a group of scientists on a mission to check out a new planet. Murderbot has all sorts of opinions about its humans, and the mix of fondness and awkwardness makes it all the more relatable. Sure, it’s a machine, but there is definitely something human there as well. I can’t really describe it, you simply have to read it yourself, but Murderbot felt so very real to me. If you’ve ever been at a party where you only knew one person and suddenly you had to make small talk with complete strangers but aren’t very good in social situations, you know what Murderbot feels like. Never mind the fact that it’s got weapons that could kill the entire room in a matter of seconds.

The mission is interrupted by an unexpected attack by… something. As the scientists try to scout out new areas, they find out that their maps aren’t complete and maybe even false. Something is definitely not right and Murderbot is doing its best to help figure out the mystery. The pacing of the plot is spot-on, going effortlessly from Murderbot’s introspection (and its hope for a few quiet hours to continue watching its entertainment) to action scenes. I also loved that the world building was done so well. No info dumps, just some tidbits here or there, leaving the reader to put the pieces together for themselves.

While Murderbot is the heart and soul of this novella, the human cast was pretty interesting as well. It’s not just about figuring out why things are going wrong with the mapping system, it also asks questions about free will, trust, and what makes a human human. Murderbot is mostly machine but capable of human emotions, of preferring some people over others, because it finds them more likable. And the people it’s assigned to become aware of that, they see that it’s not just a machine and have to make decisions accordingly. You wouldn’t feel any emotional attachment to your coffee machine (unless you’re as dependent on caffeine as I am) but a walking, talking machine that watches TV shows and protects human lives of its own free will, that’s a different story.

Since this is a very short book, the mystery is solved quickly and I wondered what kind of ending Martha Wells had chosen for this story. As lighthearted as it feels, this is a complex read that asks many questions and lets the readers reach their own answers. The ending could have messed it all up (spoiler: it didn’t). I am already giddy with excitement for the next instalment of this series and I hope we’ll get many more adventures with Murderbot. Because I love Murderbot!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Brain-breaking… in a good way: Yoon Ha Lee – Ninefox Gambit

I’m going to tell you what everybody says and that’s the reason I stuck with this book at all. Stick with it! The first few chapters are confusing as hell and you may break your brain trying to understand what the hell is going on. But if you push through, it will all make sense and the book will teach you how to read it as you go along. Seriously! Stick with it!

NINEFOX GAMBIT
by Yoon Ha Lee

Published by: Solaris Books, 2016
Ebook: 384 pages
Series: The Machineries of Empire #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris’s class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations.

To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
Captain Kel Cheris of the hexarchate is disgraced for using unconventional methods in a battle against heretics. Kel Command gives her the opportunity to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. Cheris’s career isn’t the only thing at stake. If the fortress falls, the hexarchate itself might be next.
Cheris’s best hope is to ally with the undead tactician Shuos Jedao. The good news is that Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one who can figure out how to successfully besiege the fortress.
The bad news is that Jedao went mad in his first life and massacred two armies, one of them his own. As the siege wears on, Cheris must decide how far she can trust Jedao–because she might be his next victim.

I must admit to you guys that I did a thing. I had read about half of this book when Hugo nominations were about to close and… well, I nominated it. Without having finished the book! But as much as I felt I was doing something wrong (although, who was gonna stop me?), I can now happily report that I don’t regret it a bit. This book’s second half turned out to be, if possible, even more amazing than its beginning.

As mentioned above, don’t let the first two or three chapters put you off. It’s fine if nothing makes sense, it’s okay not to get what the hell that whole formation thing is about and what people mean when they say calendrical rot. These things are vital parts of the world building, but you don’t have to understand them right away. Just think of it as magic and go along until everything becomes clearer.

What carried me through the rather steep learning curve of this incredibly original story was the relationship between the protagonist, Kel Cheris, and the personality of prisoner/mass-murderer/potential psychopath Shuos Jedao that is implanted in her brain. Cheris is an object of her own education and while none of the things that baffle us as readers are new to her, it’s still intriguing to discover this world through her eyes. Plus, her conversations with Jedao help a little in making sense of the world, as he has been in prison torture hibernation for centuries and doesn’t know everything about the state of affairs.

So Cheris is in charge of a quest to win back the Fortress of Scattered Needles which has fallen to rebels. The calendrical rot that has gripped the Fortress threatens to take it out of control of the Hexarchate. I could tell you so many little details about the world, but learning them by yourself, bit by bit, putting puzzle pieces together in your head and getting that aha moment, is such a big part of why this novel is fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s violent and tragic and mysterious, but the reading experience as such can only be described as utter fun. Cheris and Jedao make an excellent team, even though Cheris can never be sure if Jedao is manipulating her for his own purposes – whatever those might be. And this constant dance on the sword egde, in addition to the potential conspiracies going on outside of Cheris’ head, make this book very hard to put down.

Of the many things that are fascinating, Jedao was probably my number one reason to keep turning the pages. I love characters whose motives and secret plans are never quite clear, who could be either good or evil or a bit of both. Paired with Cheris, who is – to put it in very simple terms – really good at maths, who tries to do the right thing, but who is guided by her programming as much as the next Kel, a dynamic is created that is stunning to watch. Cheris knows she can’t trust Jedao, but what if he gives great advice? What if that advice only appears to serve Cheris’ plans while actually furthering his?

It took me quite a while to read this book, although it is relatively short. But this isn’t something you can read on a train during your morning commute. This story demands your full attention, and not just because the world feels so utterly crazy, so far into the future that the functionality of weapons is dependent on a calendrical system. So I recommend you savor it, you give every chapter the attention it requires, and you read it as a mystery on many levels. Between figuring out how this world works, how society works, and what Jedao’s motives are, there is still the main plot to follow, which is military science fiction at its finest.

I am beyond happy that this book is a Hugo Award finalist, although it makes my choice on how to vote that much harder. Whether it wins or not, I am looking forward to the sequel (which will come out in June) and to anything else Yoon Ha Lee writes. And thank you to the interwebs for telling me over and over to stick with the book despite those first chapters. Without these assurances, I wouldn’t have discovered this book which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Heidi Heilig – The Girl From Everywhere

If you want a really nice YA time travel novel with complex characters and beautiful relationships, look no further than this. I still have not completely healed my relationship to YA fiction with girl protagonists and inevitable love triangles, but that makes me all the happier when I find a good one among all the crap. And Heidi Heilig is definitely and author to watch!

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE
by Heidi Heilig

Published by: Hot Key Books, 2016
Ebook: 469 pages
Series: The Girl From Everywhere #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: It was the kind of August day that hinted at monsoons, and the year was 1774, though not for very much longer.

Sixteen-year-old Nix Song is a time-traveller. She, her father and their crew of time refugees travel the world aboard the Temptation, a glorious pirate ship stuffed with treasures both typical and mythical. Old maps allow Nix and her father to navigate not just to distant lands, but distant times – although a map will only take you somewhere once. And Nix’s father is only interested in one time, and one place: Honolulu 1868. A time before Nix was born, and her mother was alive. Something that puts Nix’s existence rather dangerously in question…

Nix has grown used to her father’s obsession, but only because she’s convinced it can’t work. But then a map falls into her father’s lap that changes everything. And when Nix refuses to help, her father threatens to maroon Kashmir, her only friend (and perhaps, only love) in a time where Nix will never be able to find him. And if Nix has learned one thing, it’s that losing the person you love is a torment that no one can withstand. Nix must work out what she wants, who she is, and where she really belongs before time runs out on her forever.

When you life your life aboard a time-travelling pirate ship where your father can Navigate to (almost) any time and place if only he has the right map, things get pretty exciting. And Nix’s story starts off pretty exciting as well, in India, on a sort of side quest to complete the bigger mission of rescuing Nix’s mother from dying. In the past. 17 years in the past…

Right from the start, Heidi Heilig shows that she didn’t just have one neat idea and kind of wrote a novel around that. The characters are complex and their relationships not as simple as they may first appear. Nix and her father, Slate, have an especially difficult relationship. On the one hand, they are father and daughter and they love each other. On the other hand, Slate is absolutely obsessed with saving his love – without knowing what will happen to Nix if he changes the past that drastically. Will this Nix, the one we’re reading about, still exist, alongside a second baby-Nix? Will one Nix just disappear, having never existed? Will Nix be stuck in time somehow? And most importantly: Will Slate sacrifice his only daughter to save his wife?

You see, there’s a lot going on right from the start, and that’s just in addition to the action-packed, fast plot. Me being me, I am mostly drawn in by characters and language, and Heilig did an excellent job with that. Apart from Nix and Slate, I immediately fell in love with Kashmir, Nix’s crew mate and friend (and possibly more). There is tension between these two, there is flirting, a constant back and forth of bantering and sweet gestures. Needless to say, I was hooked and rooting for these two the entire time.

I’ll leave the morality for those that like the taste of it. I always preferred bread.

But please don’t think this is merely a romance set on a ship. Once the first missions are done, the crew sets course for Hawaii and most of the plot takes place there. And this is where both romance and politics comes into play. I loved how Heilig managed to convey the beauty of the islands and the brewing political tension without ever slowing down the plot or sacrificing character development. She effortlessly paints a picture of paradise, but a paradise that cannot possibly stay that idyllic forever.

We were sailing toward the edge of the map of Calcutta under a sky so starry it looked sugared; the night would never be as beautiful after the Industrial Revolution.

Time travel stories are always filled with problems because… well, time travel. Putting a new twist on it is important and I really enjoyed the idea of having to use maps – and very specific ones – to be able to travel through time at all. Some maps just don’t work, some maps aren’t authentic, and even when the map is fine, you still need a Navigator like Slate. The whole Navigation thing felt a little cheap once it is explained, but I had not trouble just rolling with it because by that time, I was so taken in by the characters that this was just a little detail that didn’t detract from an overall enjoyable novel.

It’s also refreshing to see a diverse cast of characters as the center of a story. Nix is biracial, her crew mate Bee is a lesbian who talks to her departed spouse and it’s the most heart-breaking and hopeful and lovely little detail in the book. Kashmir is Persian (and did I mention AMAZING?) and Slate is wonderful because he is so very flawed. I didn’t really connect with Rotgut but there’s always the sequel, and final novel in the duology, to look forward to.

This was such an enjoyable book. It feels like a light read and the pages just fly by. Without noticing, suddenly you’re done and you have that satisfying feeling of having just read a wonderful story. If you don’t like series, this book is pretty self-contained so don’t have to read the sequel. But seeing as how much I fell in love with the characters and how comforting this book was, I will totally get my hands on The Ship Beyond Time.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Really good!

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Surprisingly wonderful: Laini Taylor – Lips Touch: Three Times

This was a second-chance read for me. Unlike everyone else in the world, I didn’t like Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone and it made me not want to read more books written by her. But I always give authors a second chance, especially if the book sounds intriguing enough. And now I am really confused because I loved this collection to pieces! I must give Daughter of Smoke and Bone another try, I guess. And pick up Strange the Dreamer of course.

LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES
by Laini Taylor

Published by: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009
Hardcover: 266 pages
Story collection
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave.

Three tales of supernatural love, each pivoting on a kiss that is no mere kiss, but an action with profound consequences for the kissers’ souls:

Goblin Fruit
In Victorian times, goblin men had only to offer young girls sumptuous fruits to tempt them to sell their souls. But what does it take to tempt today’s savvy girls?

Spicy Little Curses
A demon and the ambassador to Hell tussle over the soul of a beautiful English girl in India. Matters become complicated when she falls in love and decides to test her curse.

Hatchling
Six days before Esme’s fourteenth birthday, her left eye turns from brown to blue. She little suspects what the change heralds, but her small safe life begins to unravel at once. What does the beautiful, fanged man want with her, and how is her fate connected to a mysterious race of demons?

Oh, how I loved everything about this collection! Each story sets its own tone, weaves its own type of magic, and crushes the heart as only a true fairy tale can. The connecting theme of kisses – or at least lips touching – runs through these tales, and it shows that a kiss isn’t always the same thing.

In Goblin Fruit, Laini Taylor revisits Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem Goblin Market (of which I have a gorgeous edition here with an Arthur Rackham cover). The story begins with a sort of introduction into the tale we’re about to devour. And devour is the right word to describe what reading this felt like. The writing is beautiful – both like a fairy tale and very contemporary, but fusing the two effortlessly.

There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert, lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
Them.
The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.

Kizzy is just one such girl. Never the prettiest, living outside of town with her weird family, and definitely not on the school’s hottest boy’s radar. But Kizzy wants. And then Jack shows up and sweeps her off her feet, into the sort of fairy tale romance young girls dream of.

I adored this story for many reasons, and the writing is only one of them. But the way Laini Taylor managed to put teenage hopes and dreams into one character so realistically, it made me want to scream. YES! Yes, I felt like that. I’d hazard a guess that most girls reading this book weren’t the prettiest girl in their school/university/social circle, and that, yes, sometimes we resent ourselves for not being as (seemingly) perfect as that one girl who attracts all the men. In Kizzy, all of these feelings are present, but she never appears like a special snowflake kind of YA heroine. She doesn’t magically turn into a gorgeous babe, but – very naturally and understandable – she falls completely and utterly for the one (super handsome) boy who seems interested in her, who doesn’t even notice other girls. It’s a sort of teenage wish fulfillment story but, unlike some crap YA novels, it doesn’t end in a fairy tale wedding or some other bullshit.

Spicy Little Curses is set in India, where an English widow takes tea with a demon. If that wasn’t already cool enough, they have tea to discuss and trade souls. Estella wishes to save children from death by natural disaster, and Vasudev the demon just wants as many souls as he can get. So they discuss and they barter. And a curse is born.

At the British parties in Jaipur, gossip swirled wild on eddies of whiskeyed breath.

The story then focuses on the cursed child, a girl who was given the most beautiful voice in the world but anyone who hears it immediately falls down dead. Because Estella is no fool, she made sure the little girl wouldn’t kill everyone around her by crying. And Anamique grows up silent. There is a romance, there is more beautiful language, but most of all, there is a tortured young girl whose entire life is based on belief! Anamique restrains herself, she refuses her greatest pleasure – music – and grows up almost as an outcast. People think of her as a simpleton because she never speaks. The descriptions of her life were incredibly hard to read, because her desire to sing, to enjoy music through her voice, not just the piano, broke my heart.

But framing Anamique’s story is still the tale of Estella, by far the coolest and most bad-ass widow I’ve ever read about. There is a surprising amount of world building and great side characters, considering the story isn’t very long. There’s magic and demons, longing and love, and playing tricks on the devil, which is always fun.

Hatchling is the longest of the three tales in this collection, and while not my favorite still excellent. It’s about Mab and her daughter Esmé who are more than they appear at first glance. Teading this is a lot like a dream, or like following the White Rabbit into its burrow where you fall deeper and deeper into this other world, without really noticing the borders. The tale begins with with little Esmé’s eye turning from brown to blue, her mother panicking because of that, and fleeing from London with her daughter. But they are being followed by mysterious beings, one of whom may not be the enemy.

We later learn Mab’s story, why she is running away, why she is so fiercely protective of her daughter. And it’s a tale of terror, let me assure you. Mab grew up, we find out slowly and with much horror, among a group of immortal demons, the Druj. They are fascinated by children, not being able to reproduce themselves or, indeed, age. So the way Mab grew from a baby into a child into a young woman entertained the Druj queen for a while. And then, after an already terrifying childhood, things get worse.

Apart from Mab’s story, we also learn more about the Druj and their rituals, their magic, their shape-shifting from one of their own, Mihai. It is pretty clear from the start that Mihai is not quite like the others, but the way his story unfolds, bit by bit, sometimes hidden away, was just fascinating. While Esmé and Mab’s running away from the Druj hunters is a framing story, it also ends up bringing the three sub-plots together and making a beautiful whole.

I took a while to warm to this story, especially because the other two had set the bar so high, but when I did, I felt fully at home in the cold world of stone spires where the Druj live. The characters were fantastic, even the ones you would normally see as a villain in a fairy tale. Nobody is only what they seem, everyone has at least one more layer that we get to discover, and probably many more layers we don’t see. But they all felt like real people, even the Druj. My favorite part of this story was how Laini Taylor played with imagery and colors. The Druj’s icy blue eyes, Mab and Esmés red hair, the monsters’ pale arms… wolves, eyes, ravens, and cages. I absolutely loved this.

So, all things (and stories) considered, I have nothing to complain about. This book is beautifully written, with a nice design and lovely art, and a way of weaving myth and fairy tale into three very different settings and eras. All the while, Taylor offered up a riveting plot wrapped in exquisite language. Send more of this, and send tons of it!

MY RATING: 8,5 – Excellent!

Look at more gorgeous art by Jim di Bartolo;

 

 

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Nnedi Okorafor – Binti: Home

I was far from the only one who fell in love with Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti two years ago. Now, the long-awaited sequel has finally arrived and almost lives up to its predecessor. When I started reading it, I thought it would be a sort of standalone novella, but it’s not. In fact, it ends in the middle of the plot, which is the main reason why I didn’t love it as fiercely as I did the first book.

HOME
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2017
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Binti #2
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: “Five, five, five, five, five, five,” I whispered.

The thrilling sequel to the Nebula and Hugo winning Binti.
It’s been a year since Binti and Okwu enrolled at Oomza University. A year since Binti was declared a hero for uniting two warring planets. A year since she left her family to pursue her dream.
And now she must return home to her people, with her friend Okwu by her side, to face her family and face her elders.
But Okwu will be the first of his race to set foot on Earth in over a hundred years, and the first ever to come in peace.
After generations of conflict can human and Meduse ever learn to truly live in harmony?

As the title suggests, this is the story of Binti coming home after spending a year at Oomza University. This homecoming is fraught with emotion, not only for Binti herself, but for her family, her hometown, and her entire planet.

Binti and Okwu may have found a way to live together in peace, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is quite as open to change. Seeing Binti in her new life as a student was pure joy. Seeing her come home, accompanied by Okwu as the first Meduse allowed on Earth, less so. On the one hand, Binti is still dealing with PTSD from the events that led to her friendship with Okwu and the end of an age-long war. On the other hand, Binti is now confronted with her clashing wishes – being part of her culture, making her family proud, being a Himba, but also wanting to continue her studies, see more of the world, find her own place.

I was a bit surprised that the tension left by Binti’s disappearance took so long to break. At first, her family are simply happy to see their daughter again. And then the shitstorm breaks loose and all the pent-up resentment, jealousy, and condescension rain down upon Binti. And that doesn’t even take into account her new “hair” which seems to have a mind of its own because of her bond with Okwu. In fact, I both loved and hated reading about the reactions to Okwu. You can tell that most people try to be civil, keep an open mind, but that in their hearts, they are either afraid, mistrustful, or straight up hateful toward the Meduse. It made the difference between Binti’s university life and her home town all the more stark.

Home was again filled with beautiful writing, especially when it comes to descriptions of Binti experiencing her home. Whether it’s walking through the desert, showing Okwu the lake, or using maths for meditation – Okorafor makes the most use of her words and manages to build an entire world in less than 200 pages. Skill like that always impresses me in writers. Conjuring up pictures in your readers’ minds is one thing, but doing it in short stories or novellas is quite another and Okorafor got that skill down!

Over the course of this story, Binti has a lot on her plate. At times, I felt like she was being torn apart trying to please everyone but not losing herself in the process. She also learns new things about herself, her family, where she comes from, and where she might want to go. Her travels with her grandmother were lovely to read and expanded the world Okorafor has created for these novellas. I don’t want to give anything away here because discovering these things with Binti was so much fun and you should all experience it for yourselves.

The ending is the one thing that I didn’t love unreservedly because, unlike the first instalment, this book ends on a cliffhanger. Sure, a part of the story is told and there is a definite arc, but just as something really exciting and dangerous happens, the book is over. Had I known this before, I would have waited for the third book to come out, so I could continue reading. But considering that my only gripe with this story is that it ended too soon and that I now have to wait for the sequel, that still leaves an amazing book which tackles big themes without sacrificing story or character. If you haven’t guessed it, I am now eagerly waiting for the third book, The Night Masquerade.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good!

Second opinions:

My First Favorite of the Year: Katherine Arden – The Bear and the Nightingale

I was incredibly worried I wouldn’t like this book. Everything about it seemed to scream my name and I was excited for it months before its publication. The cover was gorgeous (I have the US cover, although I like the UK version as well), the description sounded perfect, the early reviews and blurbs made me expect a magical realist tale of medieval Russia, with a strong-minded protagonist, Russian folklore, and beautiful prose. And – for once – the hype was completely justified and I got exactly what I wanted.

bear-and-the-nightingaleTHE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Del Rey, 2017
Hardback: 322 pages
Series: The Bear and the Nightingale #1
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: It was late winter in northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that was neither rain nor snow.

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.
After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.
And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.
As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

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Bees and Books and Keys and Trains: Catherynne M. Valente – Palimpsest

A sexually transmitted city. Four protagonists, each hurt and broken in their own way, and a ton of gorgeous imagery, lush descriptions of an amazing city, and Valente’s trademark poetic prose. Yes, I am about to tell you again why Cat Valente is one of the best writers out there and why I love her so, so much!

palimpsest-origPALIMPSEST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Bantam, 2009
Paperback: 367 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: On the corner of 16th street and Hieratica a factory sings and sighs.

Between life and death, dreaming and waking, at the train stop beyond the end of the world is the city of Palimpsest. To get there is a miracle, a mystery, a gift, and a curse—a voyage permitted only to those who’ve always believed there’s another world than the one that meets the eye. Those fated to make the passage are marked forever by a map of that wondrous city tattooed on their flesh after a single orgasmic night. To this kingdom of ghost trains, lion-priests, living kanji, and cream-filled canals come four travelers: Oleg, a New York locksmith; the beekeeper November; Ludovico, a binder of rare books; and a young Japanese woman named Sei. They’ve each lost something important—a wife, a lover, a sister, a direction in life—and what they will find in Palimpsest is more than they could ever imagine.

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S. L. Huang – The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist

This week, a little special edition from Book Smugglers Publishing arrived at my house and made lying in bed all day a bit more bearable. I know it was a limited print run, but I still find it so charming that the Book Smugglers included a personalised thank you note and a bookmark. The story itself was also wonderful, although it took me a while to get into it.

little-homo-sapiens-scientistTHE LITTLE HOMO SAPIENS SCIENTIST
by S. L. Huang

Published by: Book Smugglers Publishing, 2016
Paperback: 70 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Dr. Alan Zanga is to blame for this.

A dark retelling of The Little Mermaid from the author of HUNTING MONSTERS

I suppose if this is going to be recorded somewhere for posterity, I should set the record straight. The ghostwriter will probably cut it all, but hey, it’s the principle of the thing.

Dr. Cadence Mbella is the world’s most celebrated scholar of the atargati: sentient, intelligent deep-water beings who are most definitely not mermaids. When Cadence decides to release a captive atargati from scientific experimentation and interrogation, she knows her career and her life is forfeit. But she still yearns for the atargati–there is still so much to know about their physiology, their society, their culture. And Cadence would do anything to more fully understand the atargati… no matter what the cost.

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If you’re remotely interested in fairy tales, you know that Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t exactly end the Disney way. Most of us know that and expect retellings of this story to be just as sad. But knowing that going in can also make us blunt to retellings of this melancholy tale because… well, we know the mermaid won’t be happily married to her prince, so why even get emotionally invested, right? S. L. Huang found the perfect way to bring back all the horror and gravity of what the protagonist does to become someone else, as well as twist the knife she puts in your gut right at the end. I can’t say it was a happy experience but it was damn well done!

Caddie Mbella has one passion in life: the study of the atargati (don’t call them mermaids!), a deep-sea species that baffles scientists all around the world. Caddie happens to be very good at what she does. In fact, she is the only one who can sing the way the atargati sing and is thus able to communicate with the “mermaids”. But of course, the government sticks their fingers in what could otherwise be beautiful science, kidnaps an atargati and keeps her in captivity for further study (and who knows what else). Caddie can’t bear the thought o fit and frees the atargati, knowing that from now on she has to live the rest of her life on the run. She takes that risk gladly, except without her studies, without the atargati, she has nothing left. A quick visit to a witch doctor, some DNA-manipulation, and you can see where this flipped Little Mermaid tale is going.

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There were several things that made me absolutely adore this retelling and one thing that bothered me a bit. I loved that Caddie is a lesbian kick-ass scientist (in case any Puppies are reading this: although there absolutely doesn’t need to be a reason for Caddie to be gay, it is truly important for the story!) whose passion for her job shines through in her entire narration. At first, it may feel a tiny bit like a lecture, but then again Huang is introducing a whole new species to her readers, and a bit of background knowledge is totally appreciated. The fact that Caddie delivered it only helped to flesh out her character while doing that crucial bit of initial world building. And the atargati are fascinating! They resemble human females just enough to have earned the name “mermaid” in the wider world, but they are sight-less, genderfluid species who communicate through underwater song. I found learning about them as interesting as Caddie.

However, that introduction was also my one issue with the novella (or novelette?). Because we have to learn all this information at the beginning, I didn’t really connect with the plot that much. My interest was there, but there was no emotional connection to either Caddie or the atargati yet and that made the book feel somewhat slow at first.

That all changes, however, when Caddie frees the captive atargati, has to go on the run, and eventually finds that witch doctor who can turn her into a sort of mutated atargati – with an expected life span of a few months, at best. That was where the emotional hooks finally took hold of me and it was also the first time since I was a kid that I truly felt how gigantic the decision Caddie makes really is – and how equally big the original little mermaid’s decision was (I mean, giving up your species is pretty heavy shit). As it becomes clear that Caddie has lost her purpose in life she pretty much agrees to go on a suicide mission, paved with pain and loss, for one chance to see the creatures she loves so much, live with them and learn from them. Remember when the sea witch tells the little mermaid how every step will hurt like she’s walking on knives? Oh, and how she loses her voice? Those bits are brilliantly incorporated into “The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist” and the loss of the voice especially becomes one of the most painful things for Caddie to endure.

S. L. Huang does a wonderful job of describing the underwater world of the atargati. Considering that Caddie is now missing both her sight and her ability to speak/sing, you’d think there wasn’t much left to tell. But I found the descriptions of atargati society fascinating! It was also the part of the story that let Caddie shine as a character and even offered a sort of romance. And then the ending came and it absolutely broke my heart! Even though I knew it wouldn’t end well – at least if it was a faithful retelling –  it still hit me really hard, like a knife being turned in a wound. I may or may not have cursed out loud while reading it…

All things considered, I really loved this version of The Little Mermaid, how it is both simple and clever in the way it translates the old fairy tale to a near future world. Iliked the author’s Hunting Monsters stories but I loved The Little Homo Sapiens Scientist, and I am hoping very much she’ll give us more fairy tale retellings. So here’s my plea to the Book Smugglers and S. L. Huang: Please, can I have some more?

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Leigh Bardugo – Six of Crows

Okay, okay, so I planned on reading the original Grisha trilogy before the Six of Crows duology but I just couldn’t stop myself. These two books are so beloved by the entire internet that I had to see what the fuss was about. While it’s not necessarily a great heist novel (for that, go try some Scott Lynch), it was actually a great story about wonderful characters, set in a lavish world. I was positively surprised.

six-of-crowsSIX OF CROWS
by Leigh Bardugo

Published by: Henry Holt & Co., 2015
Hardcover: 462 pages
Series: Six of Crows #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Joost had two problems: the moon and his moustache.

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager
A runaway with a privileged past
A spy known as the Wraith
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

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Oh boy, did I fall in love with that line-up of criminals! Leigh Bardugo introduces her six main players at the beginning of the book and although that takes quite a lot of time, not a single chapter could be considered boring, because the introductions happen right in the middle of the story. And at the same time, she gets a whole lot of world building done, without any info dumps or long explanations. Granted, I’ve only read Siege and Storm by Bardugo so far, but there is a definite improvement in character development, world building and pacing to be noticed between these two novels.

So the story begins with Kaz Brekker assembling a thieving crew to do one big job, and only the best of the best will do. His friend and thieving colleague Inej, known as The Wraith because she is basically a super cool badass ninja spy, is the first to be recruited. Shortly thereafter follow Nina, a Grisha Heartrender, Matthias, a drüskelle mountain of muscle, Jesper, the sharpshooter, and Wylan, a young man gifted with the building of explosives. It sounds like your basic fantasy Ocean’s Eleven but the huge difference is the focus on character.

Every character gets a proper introduction, showing us who they are, what their reasons for joining Kaz are, and why they do what they do. By no means do we learn everything about any of them right away, but we learn enough to be hooked and to get a clear image of their personalities. I cannot state enough how refreshing this is in a YA novel! Where you usually only get the main romantic interests to have any sort of distinguishing characteristics, with the other characters just standing in and saying their lines, here we have a whole cast of individuals. And they are beautiful in their diversity.

And it is also their diversity that helps flesh out the world Bardugo has created with almost no effort at all. Inej has a pretty dark past but she longs to return to Ravka and find her family, so in her chapters we see parts of Ketterdam that one would rather not, but that help make the place feel real nonetheless. Nina is also from Ravka, but she has her own reasons to remain in Ketterdam. Kaz is probably the centerpiece and it is his backstory that holds the most secrets and twists, and his knowledge of the Barrel lets us glimpse a side of the city that makes it feel like a real, vibrant place, filled with gangs and crime and gambling. Matthias also really grew on me because he’s got a pretty big internal conflict going on and his coming from Fjerda brings in a whole different culture that can clash with the others’. The only characters who remained a bit pale until the end were Jesper and Wylan, but they too got to shine eventually.

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Another thing I absolutely loved was the friendship between Inej and Nina. They don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other but whenever they get thrown together, you can just tell that they care about each other, that they share a true friendship. There is no jealousy, no forced love triangle where they fall for the same guy, and again – it’s just such a relief that YA novels dare to go without that old trope. That said, there is a fair bit of romance in Six of Crows and I am backing all of it. This is spoiler-free, so I won’t say who’s involved but maaaaaaan, some of those scenes were beautiful and sad and heartbreaking and lovely and all the things I want from a YA romance.

But even without the romantic aspects, it was just fun to watch the crew interact with each other. They banter, they bicker, they sometimes get along and sometimes not so much. They make plans, they stick together, they questions each other and are generally a chaotic bunch of criminals. But when one of them is in trouble, the others will move heaven and earth to help them and that’s what made it such a joy to read.

So I loved the characters and the way they interacted, I completely loved the world of Ketterdam and all the rest of the map I got to explore. Only the plot has some room for improvement. As someone who loves a good heist story, I do expect the heist to be clever and complex. And sure, I expect things to go wrong because where’s the fun otherwise. Here the characters showed great talent for improvisation but sometimes it felt a little too convenient, too much like handwaving a problem away. And the initial plans didn’t feel all that clever and relied quite a bit on coincidences. It was still great fun to read and mostly, I was pretty happy with the plot, as well as the balance between action and more character-focused chapters.

The ending was only partly satisfying, but I kind of expected that from the first part of a duology. But with the plots and sub-plots set up in Six of Crows I am now more than curious to see how it all ends in Crooked Kingdom. And I want to see my favorite couples get together because the author has totally wrapped me around her little finger and can play evil games with my heart. So everybody better survive and end up exactly the way I want them to… just sayin.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

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