Terry Pratchett – Nation

So… the blog is a bit Pratchett-heavy lately. The simple explanation is that I have finally discovered the man’s genius and my mood demands his particular mix of hilarious humor, social satire, and seriously clever, thought-provoking themes. There you have it! At this point, I’d read Pratchett’s shopping list, but because it is summer and I have a lot of his novels here (and unread), I went for the one with the prettiest and summeriest cover.

by Terry Pratchett

Published by: Doubleday, 2008
ISBN: 9780385613712
Hardcover: 410 pages

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Imo set out one day to catch some fish, but there was no sea.

Finding himself alone on a desert island when everything and everyone he knows and loved has been washed away in a huge storm, Mau is the last surviving member of his nation. He’s also completely alone – or so he thinks until he finds the ghost girl. She has no toes, wears strange lacy trousers like the grandfather bird and gives him a stick which can make fire.
Daphne, sole survivor of the wreck of the Sweet Judy, almost immediately regrets trying to shoot the native boy. Thank goodness the powder was wet and the gun only produced a spark. She’s certain her father, distant cousin of the Royal family, will come and rescue her but it seems, for now, all she has for company is the boy and the foul-mouthed ship’s parrot.
As it happens, they are not alone for long. Other survivors start to arrive to take refuge on the island they all call the Nation and then raiders accompanied by murderous mutineers from the Sweet Judy. Together, Mau and Daphne discover some remarkable things – including how to milk a pig and why spitting in beer is a good thing – and start to forge a new Nation.
As can be expected from Terry Pratchett, the master story-teller, this new children’s novel is both witty and wise, encompassing themes of death and nationhood, while being extremely funny. Mau’s ancestors have something to teach us all. Mau just wishes they would shut up about it and let him get on with saving everyone’s lives!


When Terry Pratchett says in interviews that he gets better with every book, he is not lying. He seems to pour his heart and soul into his fiction, and while the writing has always been good, it became nothing short of remarkable in these last few books I’ve read. Whatever else you may think of Sir Terry and his sense of humor, nobody can dispute that he is a master storyteller who truly understands people and translates real humans onto the page.

This book starts with a tragedy. Mau is in the middle of his manhood ritual – getting safely back home from the Boy’s Island – when the wave strikes. It is the biggest wave he has ever seen and he only survives because he is in a canoe when it hits him. The Boy’s Island? Gone. Mau returns to his home to find his entire tribe – the Nation – gone. The last survivor of his people, he sends their dead bodies to the sea and grieves. But there is another human on the island. Daphne, whose true name is Ermintrude (but who’d want to be called that?), survived the wave aboard the Sweet Judy, a ship now stranded on the island, and mostly in pieces. Mau and this strange, white ghost girl have to try and build up a new Nation, and new lives for themselves.

The culture clash is expected but deftly handled. Neither Mau’s gods nor Daphne’s prim manners are portrayed in a way that makes them seem superior. They have each grown up in their own culture and now they have to find a way to understand each other and question what they’ve been taught all their lives. For Daphne, it may begin with not wearing 7 layers of clothing and actually showing her naked toes to strangers (gasp), for Mau – ever since the wave wiped out his family – it is the Big Question. Do the gods really exist? And if they do, how could they have let this happen?
As they both struggle to come to terms with their beliefs and their loss, more survivors appear on the island and a new, albeit small, Nation comes alive.

nation pratchett

There is so much beauty on these pages and I am not sure where to begin. Daphne and Mau are wonderful protagonists. Mau’s self-doubt – for he is not a boy but never went through the proper manhood ritual, so he believes himself to have no soul – and Daphne’s keen scientific mind are not really all that different. The themes in this book may be obvious, but the characters are still at the center of the story, and I continued reading as much for Mau and Daphne as I did for the valuable life lessons. Pratchett doesn’t hit you over the head with a hammer of science. In this alternate Pacific Ocean nation (and it is alternate), neither Daphne nor the author find Mau’s culture and belief to be ridiculous or primitive. Yes, Daphne likes proof for the supposed miracles she sees – such as poison turning into beer – but she takes Mau’s gods seriously. This is a wonderful story that shows that different isn’t inferior – and to wrap this message in a wonderful, emotional, and funny story is the best way to deliver it.

The characters are vivid and real, they have gone through something terrible and deal with the aftermath in their own way. Mau thinks about giving himself to the darkness, Daphne tries to act the brave, proper lady. But inside – and the reader knows this – they are hurting and wondering about the future. As they slowly build their lives on the island, ideas start popping up. I loved the protagonists most of all because they enjoy thinking and through that learn more about the world and about themselves.

Someone had to eat the first oyster, you know.
Someone looked at a half shell full of snot and was brave.

Little asides like this may at first strike you as comic relief, a little fun to lighten the serious tone. But the thing that struck me over and over was that, despite being funny, there is so much truth in it as well. That is how people evolve, that is how inventions are made – by somebody doing something seemingly stupid or crazy, being brave, and discovering something new about the world. And in working together, amazing things can be achieved – such as the construction of a new Nation, even if it is different from the one before.

Take one strip of the vine lengthwise and yes, it needs the strength of two men to pull it apart. But weave five strands of it into a rope and a hundred men can’t break it. The more they pull, the more it binds together and the stronger it becomes. That is the Nation

Any book, for me, is carried by its characters and their growth. Both Mau and Daphne go through immense changes, not only because of the wave but out of sheer necessity. Daphne’s courage in the face of tragedy goes to show just how much she has grown. When this young girl with a passion for science performs an amputation, even Mau is surprised.

“[…] Those captives were treated very badly.”
“And you’ve been sawing the bad bits off them?”
“It’s called surgery, thank you so very much! It’s not hard if I can find someone to hold the instruction manual open at the right page.”
“No! No, I don’t think it’s wrong!” said Mau quickly. “It’s just that… it’s you doing it. I thought you hated the sight of blood.”
“That’s why I try to stop it. […]”

I have a fondness for pratical people and maybe that is why Tiffany Aching speaks to me so much. One thing I’ll definitely take away from this is that Terry Pratchett is made of Magic. I hope he will continue to write for many, many years and share his wisdom about humanity with us, in the shape of fantastic stories, peopled by lovable, wonderful characters.

Nation has also been adapted for the stage and while I’ll probably never get to see it, the pictures look beautiful. Of course the actors look much older than I picture the characters but I love how small details have been taken into account. On the right, Daphne – still rather proper in her dress – is wearing the grass skirt the Unknown Woman made for her. And Mau is trying out trousers in order to understand what makes trousermen so excited about them (turns out he’s quite fond of the pockets, if nothing much else).

Terry Pratchett's Nation (stage play)

This is marketed as one of Pratchett’s books for young people and while it definitely can be read by children and young adults, I believe it is even more suited to an adult readership. I remember, as a child, I read books for the pure pleasure of story. I didn’t care about messages, or the exploration of themes, or even world-building. I watched characters I liked do things that were interesting, and on that level, Nation succeeds. But it is the message that form the heart of this novel, it is the encouragement to think for yourself, and to go through the world with open eyes and an open mind.

THE GOOD: Wonderful characters who live through a sad but beautiful story. Brilliant exploration of serious themes with just a pinch of Pratchett’s trademark humor.
THE BAD: Takes a while to get into, some story elements (the Navy plotline) could have been left out.
BONUS: The filthy-mouthed parrot.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended to Pratchett lovers or newcomers, to scientists and religious people, to those who have suffered through loss and pain, and those who are simply interested in a good story.

RATING:  9/10  – Beautiful. Close to perfection.divider1

Second opinions:

Catherynne M. Valente – In the Cities of Coin and Spice

You know the deal by now. Whatever Cat Valente puts on paper (or a computer screen) I am bound to love. After the amazing Deathless I didn’t think another of her books could get me this emotionally riled up. But The Orphan’s Tales took it to a whole new level. I didn’t just get one heartbreaking story, I got dozens! In this second part of the duology, we get more of the same – brilliant writing, fantastic characters, a structure that makes your brain smoke – but also a little bit more…

cities of coin and spiceIN THE CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Spectra, 2007
ISBN: 9780553384048
Paperback: 516 pages
Series: The Orphan’s Tales #2

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The paths of the garden were wet with fallen apples and red with their ruptured skin.

Her name and origins are unknown, but the endless tales inked upon this orphan’s eyelids weave a spell over all who listen to her read her secret history. And who can resist the stories she tells? From the Lake of the Dead and the City of Marrow to the artists who remain behind in a ghost city of spice, here are stories of hedgehog warriors and winged skeletons, loyal leopards and sparrow calligraphers. Nothing is too fantastic, anything can happen, but you’ll never guess what comes next in these intimately linked adventures of firebirds and djinn, singing manticores, mutilated unicorns, and women made entirely of glass and gears. Graced with the magical illustrations of Michael Kaluta, In the Cities of Coins and Spice is a book of dreams and wonders unlike any you’ve ever encountered. Open it anywhere and you will fall under its spell. For here the story never ends and the magic is only beginning….

When In the Night Garden took me onto its long, winding journey, I didn’t think I would fall in love with it as hard as I did. The nameless girl with stories tattooed on her eyelids continues to tell her tales and they, in turn, continue to go deeper and deeper until a tapestry of mythology evolves, and not a single character remains nameless or faceless. Getting into this part was easier because, first of all, I knew what was waiting for me, structurally. I knew that whenever a character would meet another, I would get to hear their story and the stories contained in that story. Secondly, by now I was familiar with a lot of the settings – we return to cities we visited in the first volume, and meeet known characters, much to my delight. In the Night Garden wrapped up its stories neatly, for the most part, but I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to the firebird or the goose. Well, we find out here.

If I talk any more about Valente’s gift with words, my readers will run away screaming. But it is true that she magically paints pictures that are so vivid they followed me into my dreams. Within a short paragraph, she breathes so much life into her characters that you feel like you know them, you can understand them, and – most of all – you come to love them. Whether it’s a unicorn (they’re not white, by the way), a spider looking for her vocation, a djinn who is made queen, a girl born from a tea-leaf or a Gaselli who is friends with a manticore, I feel like I’ve met a whole cast of unforgettable characters who each follow their own path. And when their paths intertwine, something beautiful happens.

Saturated with mythology and fairytales, Valente puts a new spin on what we expect. Creatures that we would consider ugly or evil turn out to be the gentlest, kindest characters, unicorns – pure and white and lovely – are drawn to innocence for a very different reason that one may think. My knowledge of mythology is not wide enough to know if all the characters are inspired by folklore or myth, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The monsters represented here feel entirely original and it was a pleasure to find out an ostensibly evil character’s reasons for doing what they do. There are at least two sides to every story and they all seem to lead back to the Stars, expelled from their home, walking among humans (and monsters), yearning for a place that is lost to them.

What makes this second volume so interesting is not just that Valente delivers more of the brilliance we’ve come to know. It’s that the story is pushed forward, that in the real world, where a girl tells a prince her stories, the story progresses. I will admit I have suspected the twist at the end, but that didn’t make it any less beautiful. What I didn’t expect was how much the prince’s sister Dinarzad grew on me, but then, Valente does that to her readers. Introduce characters that are merely interesting but will steal your heart within a chapter or two.

I cannot recommend these two books enough. Anyone who enjoys stories based around mythology, who likes a wide, diverse range of characters, or someone who has a soft spot in their heart for monsters and outcasts, will find nothing but joy within these many pages. Sure, personal taste dictates that somebody will prefer certain stories to others (Saint Sigrid is still my favorite, although the Gaselli and the Manticore are close seconds) but the overall quality of these tales can’t be disputed. I wish more writers would dare something this intricate, would give their characters so much life. And by now, I have started hoping that Cat Valente will write a lot more – and fast.


THE GOOD: Vivid settings, beautiful language, full-depth characters, and a magic that connects them all.
THE BAD: If you’ve come this far, the structure probably doesn’t bother you. I wasn’t a huge fan of the hedgehog story but that’s the only “bad” thing I can think of.
THE VERDICT: I have sung with manticores, danced with the Gaselli, opened cages that held vibrant creatures, lost something in the city of Marrow, met a spider seamstress, a firebird’s child, and a girl made of tea. These two little books have sent my head spinning with imagination and wonder. And I never want to let it go.

RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection

BONUS: Michael Kaluta’s illustrations (while they could be more numerous) were even more gorgeous than in the first part.

SECOND BONUS: I have talked about S.J. Tucker before. After enjoying her album for the first novel in The Orphan’s Tales duology, there was no way I was missing out on the second. This time, the songs offer a wider range of styles and themes, but they fit perfectly with their corresponding stories in the book. Again, we get snippets of text read by S.J. Tucker (that I skipped until I had finished the book – my fear of spoilers was unfounded). Most of all, this music created an added layer of atmosphere. Valente certainly doesn’t need help with that, but listening to the sad, beautiful, wild songs on this album made this a wholly immersive experience.

The Orphan’s Tales:

  1. In the Night Garden
  2. In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Nalo Hopkinson – Midnight Robber

It is entirely thanks to the book blogging community that I have discovered Nalo Hopkinson. I have spent the last few months actively looking for female SFF writers that I didn’t know yet (thanks again to the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge) as well as writers of color, stories about people of color and LBTQ characters. Because, as much as I read, there are very few non-American or non-European writers to be found on my reading lists and I wanted to remedy that. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech also served as an eye-opener and I found it extremely inspiring. There is so much diversity out there and I want to experience it. Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia E. Butler’s names kept coming up and all of their books sounded so good that there was no reason for me to wait any longer discovering them. Thank You, Internet!

midnight robber1MIDNIGHT ROBBER
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published by: Warner Aspect, 2000
ISBN: 0446675601
Paperback: 336 pages

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: Oho. Like it starting, oui? Don’t be frightened, sweetness; is for the best.

It’s Carnival time, and the Carribean-colonized planet of Toussaint is celebrating with music, dance and pageantry. Masked “Midnight Robbers” waylay revelers with brandished weapons and spellbinding words. But to young Tan-Tan, the Robber Queen is simply a favourite costume to wear at the festival–until her power-corrupted father commits an unforgivable crime.

Suddenly, both father and daughter are thrust into the brutal world of New Half-Way Tree. Here monstrous creatures from folklore are real, and the humans are violent outcasts in the wilds. Here Tan-Tan must reach into the heart of myth–and become the Robber Queen herself. For only the Robber Queen’s legendary powers can save her life…and set her free.

Seven-year old Tan-Tan lives on Toussaint, a Caribbean-colonized planet, where she – like everybody else – is connected to the Granny Nanny Web through the nanomites in her blood. Being the daughter of the mayor of Cockpit County, she leads a happy life and wants, more than anything, to play the Robber Queen at the upcoming carnival. But the story doesn’t open with Tan-Tan. We first get to know her father, Antonio, who has his own troubles to deal with. A cheating wife, the constant surveillance of Granny Nanny, the lust for more power. When he catches his wife cheating on him and challenges her lover to a duel, his and Tan-Tan’s lives are about to change forever.

As soon as they arrive on the parallel planet of New Half-Way Tree which is used as a prison colony, the story really starts to kick off. Tan-Tan and Antonio have to learn how to survive in the bush of this new world. The local species, the douen, help them survive their first days and lead them to a human village where they try to make a new life. But as Tan-Tan grows older and starts looking more and more like her mother, Antonio commits a terrible crime that will haunt his daughter and turn her into the real Robber Queen of New Half-Way Tree…

midnight robberaWhen I picked up this book, the first thing I noticed was the language. I had never read anything written in Anglopatwa before and I admit it took a few pages to get used to. But after these few pages, the prose had a beautiful flow to it and told Tan-Tan’s story very organically. If the beginning puts you off, I urge you to keep reading. The style adds a layer of atmosphere to what is already a fantastic story, part science-fiction, part mythological fantasy. Personally, I loved every page and even caught myself thinking in patwa every once in a while. There are French words strewn among the English, the grammar is simplified, but there was never a moment where the language didn’t make perfect sense. It felt so natural that I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

quotes greyOne of oonuh tell me about junjuh mould. It does grow where nothing else can’t catch. When no soil not there, it put roots down in the rock, and all rainwater and river water pound down on it, it does thrive. No matter what you do, it does grow back.

Characterization and world-building are done phenomenally, not through info-dumps, but through action. We are never told how the ‘Nansi Web works but it becomes clear from the context and the interactions between characters and their earbuds. New Half-Way Tree is a whole new world to discover and because it is as new to Tan-Tan as it is to the readers, we are introduced slowly to its secrets. From the human settlements and their basic governments, to the flora and fauna of the place, to the culture of the natives, the douen, everything felt utterly vibrant and alive. It was a pleasure to discover this place! I particularly enjoyed the myth-like stories the narrator tells every once in a while. The origin story of New Half-Way Tree in particular got to me.

It ain’t no magic in do-feh-do,
If you take one, you mus’ give back two

After all this praise, I must say this was a strange reading experience. I would pick up the book, devour page after page, put it away and suddenly lose all urge to continue reading. I would pick it up again, wonder what was wrong with me, how I couldn’t want to read this fantastic book anymore. And so it went for a while. I really can’t tell you why that was. In retrospect, some passages feel a little slow or drawn-out, but while I was reading I couldn’t find fault with the pacing at all. Not a single part of the plot was boring and I did want to know how Tan-Tan’s story continued – so my conclusion is that it is just me. The reason I’m telling you this is simply because, if you feel the same about the book, don’t let it put you off. Continue reading, it really pays off.

Needless to say, I am incredibly happy to have disocvered Nalo Hopkinson. I can see why she is hailed as one of SFF’s best young authors. One thing is certain: This will only be the first of Nalo Hopkinson’s books I read, not only because the language showed me a completely new aspect of SFF fiction but because this book tickled all my soft spots. The mixture of science fiction and fantasy, mythology and survival story, a fantastic female protagonist and a fascinating alien species… I mean, what more can I want? That’s right, a good ending. Until it happened, I had no idea whether this would end well or terribly, and either way would have worked for this story. I found the ending satisfying in its half-open, half-resolved way. In fact, I could not have imagined a better way to end this book.

If you like original, fresh fantasy or science fiction, do yourself a favor and pick this one up.

THE GOOD: Great use of language, fantastic characters, beautiful world-building, and a fascinating alien culture.
THE BAD: Said great language may not be for everyone.
THE VERDICT: A highly-recommended book by an incredibly talented writer whose work I’ll certainly continue devouring.

RATING: 8,5/10  –  Absolutely excellent


Karen Lord – Redemption in Indigo

Originally, I had planned to read Lord’s new book The Best of All Possible Worlds first but couldn’t really get into the right mood. I loved the writing style, but the time wasn’t right for a science fiction travelogue/love story, and so I thought, why not read her debut novel first? While very different in style and premise, it intrigued me in a similar way. The novel stands out for its originality and its freshness, not for its plot. I had a lot of fun for a couple of hours and Lord is a talented writer that I’ll be following.

redemption in indigoREDEMPTION IN INDIGO
by Karen Lord

Published by: Small Beer Press, 2010
ISBN: 0043339158
ebook: 200 pages

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily.

Paama’s husband is a fool and a glutton. Bad enough that he followed her to her parents’ home in the village of Makendha—now he’s disgraced himself by murdering livestock and stealing corn. When Paama leaves him for good, she attracts the attention of the undying ones—the djombi— who present her with a gift: the Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. Unfortunately, a wrathful djombi with indigo skin believes this power should be his and his alone.

Bursting with humor and rich in fantastic detail, Redemption in Indigo is a clever, contemporary fairy tale that introduces readers to a dynamic new voice in Caribbean literature. Lord’s world of spider tricksters and indigo immortals is inspired in part by a Senegalese folk tale—but Paama’s adventures are fresh, surprising, and utterly original.


When you start reading Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, you will not be able to say just where the story begins. It is narrated in such a way that makes you believe another person is telling you the story, frequently breaking the fourth wall, jumping ahead in time or space, explaining to you that a character might not be all bad, despite what you’ve seen him do. Redemption in Indigo is almost like a conversation between reader and storyteller.

The first few chapters are a retelling of the Senegalese folktale “Ansige Karamba, the glutton” but Lord decided that the story shouldn’t end there. Paama is a magnificent cook, famed throughout the land for her culinary creations. Her husband is a glutton – a match made in heaven, one might think. If it weren’t for Ansige’s foolishness when it comes to food. He will eat anything, especially if he suspects somebody else so much as looks at his food. And Ansige considers all food his food. When he embarrasses himself and Paama in her own hometown, she decides to leave him, once and for all.

Ansige’s escapades in search of more food may be troubling and mortifying for Paama, but they were delightfully funny to read. Karen Lord takes on a fairy tale-esque narrative style, infused with a subtle sense of humor. In this very slim novel, she manages fantastic characterization that rivals many bigger books. She features strong women, several djombi, and to my particular delight – Anansi, the trickster god. And every single one of them is drawn with precision and love for humanity. In all their flaws and ugliness, their beauty and virtues, these characters jump from the page, and take residency in your head for a while.

Lord juxtaposes the magical with the mundane without effort and in case the reader is worried about the physics of it all, the narrator preemts any concerns.

quotes greyI know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase “I am a pawnbroker” in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting. (page 20)

redemption in indigo1My favorite part was easily Ansige’s tribulations but the story really starts when Paama is given the Chaos Stick, a wooden stick holding the power of making the possible probable, and so changing the course of the world, butterfly effect style. This idea really spoke to me and wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it. Being the central McGuffin of this tale, the Chaos Stick actually takes a place in the background when we are introduced to the Indigo Lord, a djombi fallen from grace. All I’m going to say is that Karen Lord kept more than one surprise up her sleeve when it came to him.

As you’ve probably guessed, I absolutely loved the beginning of the book and I enjoyed the rest of it. But at times I felt that it tried to encompass too much for such a limited amount of pages. I can’t say that any of the characters wasn’t fleshed out enough, even Paama’s sister felt real to me (not necessarily likable, but real). I can’t complain about the story arc, or Paama’s development. But there were side characters whose fate interested me and I never got to read about anymore. The narrative voice, while being utterly enchanting, also kept some distance between me and the characters, making it harder to fully engage with them.

Overall, this was a charming fairytale, retold and continued by a writer well worth following. Karen Lord brings something fresh and new into fantasy, not just because she used an African folktale as inspiration but because she breaks the rules and boundaries of what much of the genre is doing at the moment. And I just love trying new things.

THE GOOD: A funny, light tale with every word in its place, great characters and a wonderful ending.
THE BAD: The characters were somewhat distant, some side characters deserved more screen time. Plotwise a bit forgettable in the end.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for everyone who wants something different than you average epic fantasy. This is a perfect book for a cozy afternoon, spent with trickster gods, objects controlling chaos, creatures with indigo skin, and one woman in the middle of it all.

RATING: 7/10 –  Very good

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

It is shocking that it took me well into my twenties to finally pick up and read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Not only do I consider it required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a fan of SF literature, but it also features on pretty much every single reading list I’ve ever followed. I now see why and feel quite smug about finally being in the club of Atwood-readers. I intend to stay.

handmaids taleTHE HANDMAID’S TALE
by Margaret Atwood

Published by: Vintage Digital, 2012 (1985)
ISBN: 9781446485477
ebook: 336 pages

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

It is the world of the near future, and Offred is a Handmaid in the home of the Commander and his wife. She is allowed out once a day to the food market, she is not permitted to read, and she is hoping the Commander makes her pregnant, because she is only valued if her ovaries are viable. Offred can remember the years before, when she was an independent woman, had a job of her own, a husband and child. But all of that is gone now…everything has changed.


How does one go about reviewing a book that is not only considered one of the best ever written but was published a full year before one’s own birth? I suppose one doesn’t. Then again, what I do here in my little bloggeress haven is really only putting my impressions into writing, not fully reviewing books (I believe that’s only possible with spoilers and I avoid them so you guys can enjoy the books I recommend in full). It took  me a long time to finally read Margaret Atwood’s probably  most well-known book and I’m happy to say that, again, the WWE Women of Genre Fiction Challenge gave me that last push.

The story throws us into a world not too far in the future where women are separated into castes with specific purposes. There are Wives, whose job is fairly obvious – they are married to important men – there are Marthas and, because humanity has a lot of trouble procreating, there are the Handmaids. Offred, the first person narrator, is one such Handmaid and as such is given to a childless family in order to give them a baby. I won’t go into detail of how this is done but you will get to see the “ceremony” in the book.

Margaret Atwood leaves it, I believe intentionally, vague for a long time what happened in the past that has led to such a sinister society. We get only glimpses of how the system works but slowly, the narrator fills in the blanks to create a full picture of horror. Offred, whose real name we never find out (she is just that, the Handmaid “of Fred”), supplies us with flashbacks of her time Before. What impressed me the most is probably how the author managed to make me feel so strongly for the character, almost missing her past with her, even though all we get are little snippets of that happy family life.

The narrative has a beautiful flow to it and certain sentences completely hit home. They don’t even have to be about important dramatic issues, they just happen to be a string of words, tied together in a way that is both poetic and meaningful. These sentences come up at random and without warning, they struck a chord with me on so many levels that I have to be impressed, if not by the plot or characters, at least by Margaret Atwood’s prose. That said, both the plot and the characters were also brilliant.

copyright @ Erin McGuire

copyright @ Erin McGuire

Many people I’ve talked to find Offred too passive. She is integrated into this new society and just tries to do her job and stay alive, dreaming about what her husband and her child might be doing – if they’re still alive, that is. There is an underground movement and Offred is aware of it, yet she never joins them. Personally, I completely understood her. Fear makes you numb, it keeps you even from trying to break out of a life you loathe with all your heart. The will to survive eclipses any hope for a better society you may have. So Offred is happy about the small victories she is allowed in her structured, anonymous life. Until the Commander, the man who is supposed to plant a baby inside of her (there’s nothing romantic or sexually arousing about it, trust me) invites her to visit his room alone…

This book may be older than I am but, oh God, has it impressed me. It is clearly as relevant today as it was when it was first published. Apart from telling a gripping story of one woman’s struggle to survive and keep her sanity, it deals with issues that, in our society, haven’t been resolved. It is about gender and sexuality, about equality (not just of men and women but of religion as well). It never whacks you over the head with a hammer, just gives you enough to make you think for yourself. That is what a great dystopia is supposed to do. Hold a mirror up to current society and say: Look, if we keep going this way, we may end up like this.

There are parts of the book that felt a bit long or drawn-out, but in the end, I wouldn’t change anything about it. People have expressed different opinions about the ending. I loved it. It doesn’t really give us an answer or a resolution to Offred’s story, but it gives us something better. Hope.

THE GOOD: Fantastic writing, characters and a world that are fully fleshed out, that terrify and make you think. All in just a few pages.
THE BAD: One slow part just around the middle. If you got that far, however, you will no doubt push through it.
THE VERDICT: With the current craze of YA dystopian novels, it is refreshing to remember what a dystopia is all about. Margaret Atwood is a magnificent writer who only whet my appetite with this little novel. That teaches me: The classics, even the recent classics, are worth picking up when fed up with what’s currently published. Most highly recommended!

RATING: 8,5/10  Truly excellent


China Miéville – Un Lun Dun

I got interested in China Miéville first, not because of his fiction, but because of his public speaking. Interviews or panels – whatever he said fascinated me and made me want to get to know him as an author. When Perdido Street Station blew me away, I knew I wouldn’t stop there. I picked Un Lun Dun next because I wanted to see how somebody as wordy as Miéville would write a novel for young adults. He pulled it off beautifully – then again, I don’t know what else I expected.

un lun dunUN LUN DUN
by China Miéville

Published: Pan Books, 2011 (2007)
ISBN: 0330536680
Paperback: 521 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: In an unremarkable room, in a nondescript building, a man sat working on very non-nondescript theories.

Stumbling through a secret entrance, Zanna and Deeba enter the strange wonderland of UnLondon. here all the lost and broken things of London end up, and some of its people, too – including Brokkenbroll, boss of the broken umbrellas, and Hemi the half-ghost boy.
But the two girls have arrived at a dangerous time. UnLondon is a place where worlds are alive, where a jungle lurks behind the door of an ordinary house, where carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets… and a sinister cloud called Smog is bent on destruction. It’s a frightened city in need of a hero…


Zanna and Deeba are best friends so it is not unusual that they stumble into a huge adventure together. As it becomes clear that Zanna is the Chosen One and the prophecies say she will save UnLondon from the threatening Smog, this book becomes more than just a wanky portal fantasy. Any girl who has ever been the designatet ugly and/or fat friend will easily sympathise with Deeba. She is a loyal friend who tries to be accepting of her friend’s important role. But constantly standing on the sidelines is no fun. Which is why I rooted for her from the word go.

What makes this book readable for younger people is that the language is tuned down quite a bit. There are still big and sometimes difficult words but their meaning is usually clear from the context or explained in the text. That is a huge bonus right there, because that is how children learn new words. Or if they’re as swept up in the adventure as I was, they’ll probably just read over them. Either way, the big words do not distract from the flow of the story.

un lun dun binjaChina Miéville must have a vast imagination. The things he came up with in this book, the creatures and people that live in the abcity, range from hilariously original to absolutely bonkers. There are binja (bins that are ninjas), smombies, and unbrellas. UnLondon is what happens when all the trash and things people throw away in London congregates and creates an entirely new city and culture. Any moil – which is anything mildly obsolete in London – helps make up the stuff UnLondon is made off and there is something fun and new to discover on every page. I also would never have exptected to grow quite so fond of an empty milk carton. But yeah, that little thing totally grew on me.

quotes grey“My dad hates umbrellas,” said Deeba, swinging her own. “When it rains he always says the same thing. ‘I do not believe the presence of moisture in the air is sufficient reason to overturn society’s usual sensible taboo against wielding spiked clubs at eye level.'”

The themes explored and issues raised are fairly obvious but I loved how Miéville managed to show the complexities of politics in a manner that every child can understand. People who seem to be good aren’t always really good. But they’re not automatically bad either. Some are being lied to, some are doing the lying, others are double-crossing or plain greedy. By putting all of this into the context of the UnLondon society with an obvious and easy-to-identify main antagonist, I believe this shows kids that a little conviction can go a long way. And that not everything is necessarily as it first seems.

That said, Miéville takes on tropes of fantasy books and turns them on their head. We learn how the adventure is supposed to go, throw caution and rules into the wind, and do it our own way. To which I can only say: This is awesome!

Of course, un lun dun illustration china mievilleUnLondon is not only made of cool stuff. There are dangers galore which make for great action scenes. But there at least as many great characters with their own lives and back stories that offer us some moments of rest and good old fun. Because this is a YA book, we are introduced to them quickly and don’t necessarily spend a lot of time seeing their character development but they are all sympathetic and lovable. Some of them even get their own illustrations, all of which I found wonderful and adding to the atmosphere of the abcity. Deeba is an engaging and clever heroine-by-accident who makes mistakes but learns from them, as all good rolemodels should. I find myself wanting to read about all the other abcities as well. After all, there is Parisn’t, Lost Angeles, and – my personal favorite – Sans Francisco.

THE GOOD: A fantastic, fun world to discover by following great characters. Quick, short chapters, a fast-moving plot, language that is easy enough for children to read but not talking down to them.
THE BAD: As an adult, I would have liked more depth – basically I would have read the grown-up version of this. But this is a YA book and as such it was superbly done.
BONUS: Curdle, the milk carton.
THE VERDICT: Highly recommended, clever fiction for young people that raises issues without lecturing, wraps them into an adventure and makes the imagination soar.

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Review: China Miéville – Perdido Street Station

HOW did I wait this long to discover China Miéville? Can anybody tell me why of all the recommendations I’ve been given, none ever enticed me enough to pick up this book? Well, I found my way in the end, and I have a lot more Miéville to discover.  This was an odyssey of a book and I admit, I dragged it out a lot, simply because I wasn’t quite ready to leave that world yet.

China Miéville - Perdido Street Station

by China Miéville

Published by: Pan Macmillan, 2011 (2000)
ISBN: 9780330534239
Paperback: 880
Series: New Crobuzon #1

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: Veldt to scrub to fields to farms to these first tumbling houses that rise from the earth.

The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of its own bewildering world. Humans and mutants and arcane races throng the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the rivers are sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years, the parliament and its brutal militia have ruled over a vast array of workers and artists, spies, magicians, junkies and whores.

Now a stranger has come, with a pocketful of gold and an impossible demand, and inadvertently something unthinkable is released. As the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions depends on a clutch of outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of bizarre buildings. And a reckoning is due at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station.


I find myself in an exceedingly difficult situation. Trying to review this book without giving too much away but still being able to mention all the awesome things and ideas, seems unfeasible. Perdido Street Station is a trip into the teeming, filthy city of New Crobuzon. A place full of drugs and crime and slums and starving artists and even starving scientists. Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin is one such and the project of his life – building a Crisis engine – is going nowhere. When a stranger turns up with a seemingly impossible request, Isaac finds a new project to persue. But then, as things do in fiction, everything goes wrong and shit just won’t stop hitting the fan.

perdido 2

When China Miéville eases his readers into this word. the plot moves slowly, and he takes his time showing us around the city of New Crobuzon. But don’t worry. This is not just a tour around the city where we’re told that on our right hand side, we can see this species and on the left we see that species. But honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if that’s all it was. There are so many things to discover in New Crobuzon and while I think I got a general feel for the city, I haven’t seen nearly enough. We get some great insight into the khepri – people with human bodies but a bug as a head – as well as the garuda – winged humanoids with a bird’s head. But there is so much more. I could gush and gush about the many ideas but that would take away the fun of discovering them for yourself. And you should.

One idea in particular that caught my interest was the Remade, criminals who have metal or animal body parts attached to them to represent their crimes. How awesome is that! I also loved that every idea gets its proper time to be explored. As weird as it sounds, having just finished a book of 900 pages, I could have read about the Remade or the khepri, the vodyanoi, the currupt politicians, the drug lords and the criminal masterminds, for another 1000 pages.

The longer I read, the more I got the feeling that the author just put a whole lot of ideas into a pot, stirred, and out came an incredible city, densely populated by wonders upon wonders. As if that weren’t enough, Miéville also tells a gripping and terrifying story. The path of this 900-page-book is littered with plot-twists, ideas upon ideas, and not least, great writing. He had me fooled more than once and until it was over, I wasn’t sure how exactly this story would end.

China Miéville has his narrative down to perfection. And to add the cherry on top, I loved the writing style. It is flowery and (I think that goes without saying) vivid in detail but never, ever, boring. He switches perspectives frequently, showing us different sides of the same story, letting us enter the minds of several characters.

I understand why every single of his books is nominated for numerous awards and why people are so impressed with him. A word of caution is necessary, however, because I believe the style can very much be hit and miss. Before you buy this, read the first chapter to make sure you like it. If you do, you’re in for an epic adventure. China Miéville proves that fantasy does not have to be tropes and traditions only, that his imagination is endless and his skill phenomenal.

THE GOOD: If I start here, I’ll never stop. Characters, plot, style, monsters, world building…
THE BAD: It’s hard to find fault with this. If I have to pick something, I’d say the last third could have been shortened. Maybe.
THE VERDICT: An excellent book full of original ideas, great writing, and a well thought-out, fascinating city.

RATING: 9/10 Nearly perfect


The Bas Lag Cycle:

  1. Perdido Street Station
  2. The Scar
  3. The Iron Council

Review: Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day

Being my first Ishiguro novel, I knew nothing going into this. People had warned me of its slow pace, its quiet prose, but I honestly didn’t expect a book barely 300 pages thick to take me this long to read. Still, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. I might even be tempted to pick up other books by this author.

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Published: Faber & Faber, 2005 (1989)
ISBN: 0571225381
Pages: 258
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

Fans of a good period drama will surely love this. If you’re at all interested in the downstairs part of Downton Abbey, this is a book that, in exquisite prose, gives you an insight into a servant’s life that you simply can’t get from TV. This is a very slow-paced, quite book, that comes alive not through action or even “things happening” but has a flow to it that I find hard to describe. I had a hard time getting into the story at first but once I relaxed into the style, it was a revel from then onwards.

Stevens is a fascinating protagonist. Every aspect of his private life is secondary to his being a great butler. His own family, the chance for love, his health, and his opinions – nothing matters if they obstruct, in any way, his master’s comfort. He goes into some detail describing what makes a butler great and it is in his memories and musings that we see not only how deep his devotion is but we find out why he chose to live a life of truly passionate service. Stevens believes that, in being a great butler and providing an important gentlemen with as many comforts as he can, he helps a little bit in shaping the course of the world. Realising how small the part he plays is only makes him prouder to be part of it at all.

There are a few side characters here, and they all feel very fleshed-out and real. But the focus lies clearly on Stevens – and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. While reading, my inner psychoanalyst was rejoicing at such an interesting subject. Reading about and understanding Stevens’ subtlety was a pleasure that I didn’t expect.  His peculiar relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, is described in even quieter tones but gives more room for thought.

Perhaps it is indeed time I begin to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it, it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.

In short, this is the story of a man who has devoted his life to his vocation and, looking back at it, ponders about the remains of the day – and whether it was all worth it.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, an insight into an old school butler’s life, and one of the most intriguing protagonists I’ve ever read about.
THE BAD: Takes a long time to get going and stays very subdued. Nothing for impatient readers or fans of lots of action.
THE VERDICT: A touching and magnificently written work of literature that will stay with me for quite some time.

RATING: 8,5/10  Quite excellent

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

I waited a long time to pick this novel up. As a long-time Gaiman fan and a (mostly) fan of Hugo winners, I honestly can’t say why. When I did pick it up, it delivered exactly what I expected from a good Gaiman book. But it was also so much more. No wonder, he was showered with rave reviews about this particular novel. No wonder, everyone wanted to give him awards. It is a truly great novel with such a dense atmosphere that I felt as if I were crawling into another world whenever I opened its pages…

by Neil Gaiman

Published: Headline Review, 2005 (2001)
Pages: 632
Copy: paperback

My rating: 8/10
Goodreads rating: 4,09/5

First sentence: Shadow had done three years in prison.

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in apparently adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr. Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Rougly put, this book is a road trip through a world inhabited by gods, carried to America by immigrants, many years ago. In detail, Neil Gaiman offers his readers much more and as any fans of his writing will know, he delivers his own particular brand of weird. Our very Gaimanianly named protagonist Shadow agrees to accept the job that strange Mr. Wednesday offers him. He realizes very soon that his old man is more than meets the eye. Together, the travel through America (the US, that is), meet all sorts of strange creatures and, yes, gods, solve mysteries along the way and, by the way, save the world.

For readers who are comfortable with a bit of mythology, and not only Greek, mind you, this book is a cavalcade of fun. There are hints and remarks and references to all sorts of gods, demi-gods, godlings and allegorical deity-like creatures. I’m sure I missed a ton of references but the ones I got made this a lot of fun to read, just on that first level. We get Greek, Norse, Indian gods, African legends, Irish deities and everything else that could have come to America with the people believing in these gods. It is fascinating enough that mixing all these worlds, these complex systems of belief, works so well and it just shows one more time Neil Gaiman’s talent as a writer.

You see, I was already taken with the book. And I haven’t even talked about the plot or characters yet. It took a long time for the story to become somewhat more linear and to form a clear path. We are thrown into a story that meets us with confusion and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Discovering some of that sense through the plot, was another fun andventure. While certain bits felt episodic, I was never bored. Something always happens and usually, that something is profoundly weird. There are flashbacks (these “Coming to America” bits were a highlight in and of themselves), side plots, recurring characters and even some humor.

I enjoyed this read immensely. I wouldn’t have wanted to read it in one sitting because taking breaks, letting it all sink in, and mulling it over a little, turned this book into my own private little TV-series-inside-my-head. Over time, I grew to like the characters a lot, especially Shadow, despite his not saying very much. Gaiman has written a fantastic book, filled to the brim with mythology, amazing characters and surprisingly good descriptions of gods and landscapes. He breathed life into this fictional America and took his readers on this roadtrip from his brilliant mind.

An appropriately climactic and well-rounded ending with some revelations waiting for me, turned this from a very good into an excellent book. And even the acknowledgmenet section made me giggle a couple of times.

THE GOOD: The coolest kind of mythology, a convoluted but killer plot and characters that feel intensely alive – even the dead ones.
THE BAD: The confusing start may put readers off, as might Gaiman’s brand of weird (if you’re new to him).
THE VERDICT: Another masterwork by Neil Gaiman that deserves its Hugo and its Nebula awards and that I can’t wait to re-read before the HBO series gets made.

RATING: 8/10 Excellent

Read an excerpt on Neil Gaiman’s homepage.


The book is being adapted into a 6-season HBO TV series by the author himself. Having been a huge HBO fan for years and years (remember Rome? *sigh*), I trust them and Neil Gaiman fully with the job of turning this awesome book into an awesome TV show. As there have been no announcements concerning a cast or actual shooting of the first season, I guess we’ll have to be patient for a few more years.

So tell me: How excited are you about the series?

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Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land

Granted, this is only my second “grown-up” Heinlein but just like Starship Troopers, it overwhelmed me with its depth, engaging (though somewhat sexist) characters and a range of ideas that feel as outlandish now as they must have when the novel was first published. Heinlein is utterly readable and I am getting quite infatuated with him as a gateway into science fiction.

by Robert A. Heinlein

published: Putnam, 1961
ISBN: 0441790348
Pages: 438
format: paperback

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.

Stranger in a Strange Landis the epic saga of an earthling, Valentine Michael Smith, born and educated on Mars, who arrives on our planet with psi powers—telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, telekinesis, teleportation, pyrolysis, and the ability to take control of the minds of others—and complete innocence regarding the mores of man. After his tutelage under a surrogate-father figure, Valentine begins his transformation into a messiah figure. His introduction into Earth society, together with his exceptional abilities, lead Valentine to become many things to many people: freak, scam artist, media commodity, searcher, free-love pioneer, neon evangelist, and martyr.Heinlein won his second Hugo award for this novel, sometimes called Heinlein’s earthly “divine comedy.”
Where to start? The arrival of Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, brings changes to Earth as we knew it. What starts almost like a thriller, with a handful of good guys trying to keep the clueless Martian out of the government’s hands (or worse, the hands of religious leaders) turns into a political and religous discussion of values. I would even go so far as to say that part one deals solely with introducing Mike and saving him from corrupt people, part two shows us his (to us) amazing abilities and how different he really is from Earth humans, parts three and four then deal with hiw own teachings and a whole new lifestyle. I won’t go into any details here, because if you want to know, you should really read the book. It’s worth it.
I absolutely loved some of the ideas in this book, not only the big ones that Mike teaches, but also little ones like Witnesses. These are specially trained people who when putting on their white coat, witness what they see – and only what they see. This struck me as particularly cool in a scene where Jubal Harshaw asks a Witness what color a house on a hill is painted. She answers – truthfully – that this side of the house is white. She can’t vouch for the rest of the house also being painted white because she can’t see it. Maybe that makes me weird but that was one of my favorite ideas in the entire book.
As characters go, my mind is split. Smith is lovable and annoying at once, starting out almost like a child – the ultimate stranger in a strange land, knowing nothing of our customs, of human behaviour that our children learn as babies. That said, Jubal Harshaw is awesome. That guy has so much cool in him, it’s unbelievable he doesn’t have his own novel. And he totally stole the show. For a long part of the novel, it is him who carries the plot with his discussions of politics and religion, of sex and relationships. He has an opinion on everything and while i may not agree with everything he (or Heinlein) thinks, it was an incredible pleasure to read.

I loved this book as a collection of ideas and almost a manifesto of the Martian lifestyle. Purely as a novel, as a story, I have to say that it wasn’t as gripping as Starship Troopers, which also served as a vessel for Heinlein’s world view but equally gave us a damn good story line. I found myself putting this book aside and almost forgetting about it. Whenever I picked it up again, I was hooked by the great (male) characters – let’s not start talking about the women here – and the amazing dialogue. Whenever it was time to put the book down again, the circle started all over. I was missing that story element, the plot that would keep me guessing what would happen to the characters, instead of watching them just do their thing. It was interesting and fun to read, absolutely, but more so for its ideas than its plot.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this classic of science fiction, especially to those who prefer the anthropological or political aspects of the genre.

THE GOOD: Some great dialogue that really just discusses certain aspects of politics, religion, and human interactions.
THE BAD: It felt like several stories, randomly stitched together. The female characters were not to my liking.
THE VERDICT: I see why this has won a Hugo and is still widely read today. It may have been written a while ago but humanity still doesn’t quite seem to grok how to be happy.

RATING: 7/10  A very good book.

Other reviews: