We’re in the slow, cold part of the winter now. Christmas and my birthday have both passed, so now I’m ready for spring, although I wouldn’t mind a bit of snow accumulation first (on a weekend, so I don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do but look at how pretty snow is). Unfortunately, months to go before spring and sunshine yet, but on the bright side, I can spend these months reading. I’ve started 2015 with three books I loved and one book I didn’t. My thoughts below.
The Farseer Trilogy, Robin Hobb
I’m lumping these all together because I can’t split them particularly well in my head. This trilogy is the beginning of the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, the bastard son of Prince-in-Waiting Chivalry Farseer of the Six Duchies and fated to be the Catalyst that changes the course of his country’s history. These books are set in a fantasy medieval world and mostly consist of Fitz growing to manhood in a very uncertain, dangerous situation, after his father’s abdication and death and his country’s coasts threatened by war with soulless raiders. He is trained as an assassin for his king, a dangerous and controversial role amongst people who would be all too happy to see him dead.
I loved reading these books again. I read them first in high school and honestly am not quite sure when, as I mentioned last week. I am so pleased that I loved them again, even though I remembered virtually nothing about them. I got so attached to Fitz all over again, even though Robin Hobb is very, very hard on him – harder than I’d thought she would be, as part of the ending of the trilogy was different than I thought I’d remembered. That was a strange experience, but I think I might have actually mixed this up in my head with the Tawny Man trilogy that picks up Fitz’s story a few years later. I knew that the author wasn’t done with Fitz quite yet, so I wasn’t disappointed with the ending, which isn’t exactly a satisfying wrap-up in some ways. I’m instead pleased that there’s more to come.
I loved Fitz himself, but I also so loved the women surrounding him; Kettricken, Molly, and Patience, each of whom represents something completely different to him. Kettricken I think is my favorite in this trilogy (how did I manage to forget Kettricken?), with her inner strength and natural generosity but all too human failings of jealousy and gullibility. Hobb’s characterization has always set her books apart for me and I love how well she shows us so many types of people. I read reviews of these books after I’d finished – not something I normally do much, but I was curious – and I was surprised to see people complaining that the books were slow. I never got bored and I loved every page, just like I did when I was younger. The world that Hobb creates is so fascinating to me. I like different, unusual settings, but in all honesty I just love the traditional pseudo-medieval world she’s portraying, with the edge of mysterious magic that’s now very lost to history.
I was so pleased I chose to start 2015 off with this re-read and I know I’m going to be reading the rest of Hobb’s books set in this world this year for sure now. If there was any doubt, I’ve already started Ship of Magic, the first of the Liveship Traders series, which I actually recall as my favorite of all of her trilogies. I am so excited to reread these (Althea!), but I’m also looking forward to getting back to Fitz. I know I have plenty of books waiting for me, but these are all I want to read at the moment. Best of all, there are some at the end I haven’t read yet, not least my beautiful, signed edition of Fool’s Assassin.
Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
One of my generally ongoing goals is to read my older books. I have a lot of books from 2008 and 2009 in particular when I went a little crazy about charity shops and bought a lot of books I’d heard of or had recommended for very low prices. I don’t really frequent charity shops for books any more; I tend to instead donate my books to them and donate money to causes I care about, while spending my money in physical bookshops to do my little bit to keep them going. But in any case, Arlington Park is one of these books and I thought it would be a quick and easy one to tick off the list before I let myself read more Robin Hobb.
Unfortunately, I can’t really say I enjoyed it. The book takes place over a single day set in the upper middle class suburb of Arlington Park, told by a rotating group of women who are extremely dissatisfied with their lives. The women are generally well-off housewives with young children, who feel out of control. One, Juliet, feels that her life and potential has been sucked out of her by her husband and children; another keeps a meticulously tidy house to ward off death and views her children as obstacles; a third, Christine, has spent most of her life escaping her lower-class childhood and seems to insist she’s “solving the world’s problems” in the midst of shopping and casual disregard for her children.
This book I felt had edges of something powerful, as there is certainly a case for discontent in the boundaries of a woman’s life when it’s ruled by other people, but it bothered me. It goes too far and it’s too easy to look at these women and think, first world problems. Things happen to them, rather than any of them taking control, and the women who did try to seize the agency in their lives were still universally unhappy. This is namely Maisie who chose to leave London and is now busily unhappily unmoored in Arlington Park. Everyone and everything is at a distance to these women. I think the author was trying to get across that material and surface wealth – having a good looking, working husband and children, a nice big house, lots of free time – doesn’t equal happiness, but I just wanted them to take control of their lives. Christine I felt was the one who epitomised the whole sentiment of the book; she is the one who says she’s solving the world’s problems, but all she’s doing is complaining about her own, feeling afraid of people “below” her because she doesn’t want to be one of those people, and virtually ignoring her children in the meantime. All of these women complain, but I wanted them to do what I would do (or at least what I feel I would do); get a babysitter and go to work, or volunteer, or do something different to stop the endless round of complaining about children and husbands. Maybe I missed the point. Have you read this? Did I?
Anyway, not particularly recommended. This is one that will be going back to a charity shop (albeit five years later).
How have you started off your reading year?
Anna Oliphant’s sudden-millionaire author father has decided that his settled American daughter needs to finish high school in France. So, for her senior year of high school, and mostly against her will, Anna is sent to an American school in the centre of Paris. She’s ready for a year of hiding in her room, longing for her American life back, but then she meets Etienne St Clair, a ridiculously gorgeous boy with an English accent, incredible personality, and a girlfriend. Anna soon fits in with his crowd, but she can’t help her feelings for him, and suspects that they might just be mutual.
I thought I didn’t really like YA, but books like this one just keep on winning me over. I have known so many book bloggers who have read and adored this book, but I still thought – not for me. I’m not even entirely sure why, now; I know I don’t particularly like contemporary books, sometimes I find YA romance a little too overwhelming, but neither of those are justifications. I bought it, based on all the rave reviews out in the world, but I didn’t pick it up until last week, when to be perfectly honest I needed something that was light, stress-relieving, and not a huge chunkster like the other two books I found myself reading.
I didn’t expect much, but this book is so sweet and wonderful. It is a romance which grows from a friendship, even if attraction is always there. I love books that do this – completely portray the underpinnings to the love story, not just oh-look-I’ve-seen-you-I-love-you-now. Etienne and Anna are friends. They grow together. They learn how to talk to each other, and they learn how to deal with the myriad concerns that compose their lives. They really turn into best friends. And it’s not actually to the exclusion of all of their other friends, either. It’s easy to believe that a couple like them could genuinely stay together in the real world because they’ve had to learn so much to get to the point where the book ends.
Anna’s confusion and homesickness at the beginning of the book completely and totally won me over. Her embarrassment at her foreignness, her terror of embodying stereotypes, her complete block against even trying to speak French – these are things I could relate to, even though I have always consciously chosen to live away from my own country. I’ve actually read reviews that criticize Anna for this, which baffles me. Perhaps they’ve never quite experienced the combined paralysis of shyness and unfamiliar culture. The fact that Etienne is experienced in more cultures than Anna is but still understands then in turn made me love him (also, the English accent, never gets old even when you live in England and are married to an English man), and the rest of the book I spent luxuriating in the slow burn of their growing romance.
Although, seriously, sometimes people in books need to talk to each other.
Plus, Paris itself. I will be completely honest, I didn’t like it that much in person, but in this book I loved it. I could connect my memories to Anna’s experiences and think, yes, actually; this could have been magical. For her it is as she gets used to it and the city becomes a place of wonder and discovery. I loved the way their love story was woven into the fabric of the city, that their major landmarks in discovering each other are mirrored by shared experiences within such a romantic place. If a book could make me want to go back to Paris and try it all over again, this is the book.
I finished it in one day with a happy sigh, and then bought Lola and the Boy Next Door and Isla and the Happily Ever After. If you, like me, have been waiting to read this book because you’re not sure, I would encourage you to give it a try anyway. It might surprise you.
Books I have read recently that I would like to write some thoughts about:
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I loved this. I loved how Ifemelu found her way back to herself, to her roots; that she needed her childhood and her identity to remember who she was, rather than giving it all away to be someone else. And even though my own immigration is really different, and came about for far different reasons, and resulted in different things, I could still identify with that clash of cultures in a way that spoke to me but also made me think about how this must be for others who don’t share my advantage of the same skin color as the native population (and a wider culture gap). I should have written a review for this book, but instead I’ll say you should go read it and leave it at that.
The Suffragette Scandal, Courtney Milan – I will continue to auto buy each and every book Milan writes. Such different topics, incredible characters, beautiful love stories. No exceptions here.
Skin Game, Jim Butcher – This book FINALLY went in a direction I’ve been waiting for since very early on and I was so pleased. It’s also got capers, and fantastic bad guys, and lots of Harry’s signature humor along with those answers. It was great fun to read. If you enjoy urban fantasy and haven’t read the Dresden Files, you should (along with my lengthy list of other favorite urban fantasy reads like October Daye and Kate Daniels).
A Darkling Sea, James Cambias – This sat on my wishlist for a good few months before I fortuitously grabbed it at Forbidden Planet. Sci-fi is still a genre I’m not as familiar with, much as I’m coming to love it, and for the first few chapters I struggled to get into this book. You’d think I could assimilate other worlds easily enough due to my years of reading fantasy, but not so much. Eventually, though, I started to understand the characters and the culture clash and I found the book really interesting. It’s a first contact novel and the world that Cambias creates is truly bizarre but fascinating. It’s not first contact for humans, it’s first contact for the Ilmatarans, complete with their dissection of a human; it’s so cool to see this flipped and a human as a “victim” of a completely innocent group of Ilmatarans. Very well done.
Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts?
Cather Avery would have been perfectly content to stay at home with her dad and twin sister, Wren, and write fanfiction about Simon Snow for the foreseeable future. If she has to go to college, which of course she does, she’d at least have preferred to live with her sister, as she has for the first eighteen years of her life. But instead, both twins go to college, and Wren chooses to live with someone else – leaving Cath to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life. Cath can’t deal with her roommate or her roommate’s adorable boyfriend, Levi; she can’t seem to find enough time to write the fanfiction that she loves so much and she’s afraid to leave it behind to write fiction separate from that world; she can’t stop worrying about her dad, coping alone in the world without his two daughters for the first time. Can she find a place for herself in the world outside the bubble she’s created for herself?
Rainbow Rowell’s books make me want to write about them immediately. I loved Eleanor and Park late last year (how has it been that long?) and it was only a matter of time before I found myself starting Fangirl. Of course, I am a “fangirl” myself, which explains part of the attraction. I spent most of my teenage years hanging out on Final Fantasy forums and have tried my hand at writing fanfiction more than once. I have had plenty of friends who have done the exact same thing. Like Cath, too, I’m shy and socially inept (at least in my own head). Starting college with literally no one I knew anywhere was hard and scary, and while I didn’t hide in my room like Cath, I certainly wanted to until I found my eventual, amazing friends who made that time incredible.
What I’m trying to say with the above paragraph is that I massively related to this book, to Cath, and I felt like I could get more inside her head than with most other fictional characters. I normally don’t like books that are too close to my own possible life experience, but I related and I wanted better for her. And I loved Levi, the boy who gives smiles away like it doesn’t cost him anything. I loved them together, I loved that everything was behind closed doors but so, so charged with tension. Rowell is absolutely brilliant at this – who can forget how emotional she makes hand-holding in Eleanor and Park – and she puts her talents to good use in this book, too.
On top of the wonderful relationship she’s got starting with Levi, Cath relates to everyone and cares so much. Her conversations with Reagan had me laughing, frequently, and her constant care for and worry about her father and sister make her a good person. It doesn’t matter what else is happening at any given moment, if someone she loves needs her, Cath will go there and be with them. Everyone has lessons to learn in this book, but Cath doesn’t need to learn how to love. She’s so good at loving that it’s no wonder she worries people will take advantage of her, and she’s damaged from having that love essentially spurned. But even though she categorizes herself as broken, she’s not. She just needs to learn how to be whole again and this book is her wobbling and then learning to do just that.
I could quote so many passages that I loved, but instead I’ll link to this goodreads page. Every quote on there is golden. So often there would be a passage and I would think yes that it’s impossible to summarize all of them. I’d have to quote the entire book.
I read this book in the space of a single evening, forgoing sleep in favor of getting to the end; although there is no real suspense here, it’s hard to tear yourself away from a page that is so full of beautiful words and emotions and living. Rainbow Rowell is brilliant. I’m glad I already bought all of her books, because I’m certainly going to be reading all of them.
I had a high and lofty goal of writing about everything I read this year, even if only a sentence, at the beginning of the year. I’ve failed at that, but here are a few thoughts on books I have read and think are worth talking about this year so far.
Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress by Marissa Meyer
I loved these books. I went on a work trip to London and had to stay overnight back in February and I managed to read Cinder and Scarlet back-to-back on the evening (in between a trip to Forbidden Planet and a curry for dinner). I didn’t sleep much, needless to say, but I loved them. I got completely and totally absorbed in Cinder’s world. By a small stretch of time I managed to wait to read Cress - about a month – but my resistance wore down absurdly quickly and I devoured that one, too, although so far I think Cinder is my favorite. And now I have to wait all the way until 2015 for Winter, which seems pretty unendurable whenever I think about it!
It’s difficult to pin down why I loved them so very much. I really liked the way they reflected fairy tales, how they’re burdened by expectations and each girl has to make her own way, and because each book has a great romance going on (although I think Cress’s is probably the weakest) without being just about that romance. There is so much packed into each book, so much emotion and story. I even like how they reflect a wider scope of the world within fantasy and each girl comes from a different place and different walk of life. I so hope Winter is just as good as the first three books in this series.
Germania, Simon Winder
I didn’t really love Germania, but I appreciated it a lot, and it reminded me of why Germany is so interesting. Winder basically goes off on a long, rambling, nostalgic and affectionate rant about Germany and takes his readers along for the ride. So while it isn’t an organized history of much of anything, it has a whole lot of charm. Just the subject of Germany is complicated now, still, in the shadow of both World Wars. They fundamentally changed the way that Germany was perceived by the rest of the world, especially Europe, and Germany’s reputation hasn’t recovered in the way. Anecdotally, I’ve never met anyone obsessed with German culture, like people so frequently are with France or Italy, and German friends I have had do say that there is still shame pervading Germany because of what happened. But Germany was regarded completely differently before those wars in ways that it’s now difficult to imagine.
Winder agrees with this interpretation. Germany is kind of disregarded now, certainly compared to its European neighbors, but it’s an enchanting country with a bizarre history, so fractured into tiny little pieces that still hold on to their own eclectic pasts. I felt a fragment of this when I went to Munich almost two years ago; I had never really heard of any of the people or places around Munich, but there are royal palaces and paintings and little bits of history all over the place. I wanted to know more, but it feels like learning more about Germany is unravelling a massive swath of history that has the potential to be overwhelming. I’ve picked up little bits and pieces, like in Vanished Kingdoms and Noble Endeavours and I have Christopher Clark’s history of Prussia for when I get some time, but this book in part reminded me how much I don’t know and how much I’d like to find out. It also made me really, really want to visit Germany again. I haven’t been anywhere else where history smacked me in the face quite so vividly in so many different ways. That history is complicated and has a traumatic relationship with the rest of the world, but it’s important to remember the good right along with the bad.
Anyway, if you are at all interested in Germany, I would recommend picking this up. Like I’ve said, it isn’t a straight history and didn’t really satisfy my cravings to know more, but if anything it made those cravings much stronger.
A Dance with Dragons: Dreams and Dust, George R.R. Martin
I’ve been re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire for months mostly so I could get to book five finally (and so I could know what was going to happen on the show, as I’d forgotten a lot). Unfortunately, I remember A Feast for Crows as a disappointment, and I was pretty bummed that I didn’t much like this first installment of A Dance with Dragons, either. In the UK, they split it into these two books, and the first half just didn’t grab me although I slogged through. I guess I’d forgotten in my head how sexist, brutal, and depressing Martin’s world is. I was primarily disturbed by the excessive and unnecessary sexism, in this particular book; it just felt relentless and I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading the book as much as I thought I would. Plus, I think at this point, the series is just too long. A new minor character seems to pop up every other page, distracting me from the characters who are actually interesting to read about, but everything just gets worse for them too, with no actual break. It’s too dark, too long, too frustrating to read. I used to like this a whole lot more than I do now and discovering that has been disappointing. I haven’t been in a rush to pick up the second half and I’m not sure when I will.
King Edward III of England is a pretty fascinating guy – especially if, like me, you have a deep and abiding interest in the Middle Ages. This surprisingly successful king, although that’s quite a simplified interpretation, managed to overthrow the rule of his mother and her lover as a teenager, laid claim to France, which started the Hundred Years’ War, and founded the Company of the Garter, a chivalric order which still survives unlike so many of its contemporaries. He was also the father of Edward the Black Prince (a name which is too awesome not to use, even though he was not called this during his lifetime), one of the most intriguing historical figures in England for me. In this work of history, Richard Barber not only looks at Edward and his reign, but those who surrounded him, inspired him, and succeeded him.
Of course, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, particularly because I was already familiar with the historian who wrote it. It was right on par with my expectations. I appreciated so much the approach that Barber took – this isn’t a biography of Edward. It’s a complete view of everything happening around Edward, putting him firmly in the context of the period. This, for me, far more than historical fiction these days, gives me a feel for the period. It’s about the battles and tournaments, the personalities that filled the court, the literature that these people read and which inspired and taught them about their world. It’s really difficult to separate Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his queen, from the obsession that the Victorians had with the Middle Ages, but Barber does his best and pulls out as much history away from that as he can manage.
Among this is the surprising discovery of how little we actually know about the founding of the Order of the Garter, or its history in the early days. Chivalric orders sprang up in this period in a number of countries, and Barber looks at each of these and tries to find out where Edward got the idea from, who might have been in that order, and why – ultimately, drawing the conclusion that it sprang in some form from the battle of Crecy, which we learn about in as much detail as we can manage. Barber goes so far as to research the layout of the battle and the tactics that might have been used by the English to gain the spectacular victories that they did, which was really fascinating and something I hadn’t read about before. There are a lot of primary sources here and Barber doesn’t hesitate to quote directly, with often large portions of pages taken up with excerpts giving us a huge amount of insight.
In addition, the book isn’t particularly dry, although as with every bit of history I’m obsessed with, your opinion on this may vary. I’d think it would be perfectly readable and enjoyable for someone who might be looking to move on from historical fiction to something based more on primary sources and fact. I loved it, and if you are interested in tournaments, battles, and the high middle ages, this book is definitely for you.
On a cold winter day in 1910, Ursula is born. Again. And again. And again. Every time Ursula dies, she is born again, and given the chance to live her life anew. But Ursula has no way of knowing this, only a vague recollection of events that have previously happened and a dread of what she did or didn’t do in previous lives. As she lives her life over and over, experiencing the lead-up to World War II and a whole range of different outcomes to her life, we start to wonder: can Ursula change history?
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge fan of so-called “quiet” books and though some of the events in this one are more explosive, this is at its heart a book about chances. The smallest actions of Ursula’s change the entire trajectory of her life. As we go back to that February day in 1910, we start to see the entire picture of what was happening that day, for instance; while some readers might get bored by the fact that we go through that day each and every time Ursula dies, I loved how it let Kate Atkinson build up the entire scene, through all the supporting characters, and finally leave us with something still to think about at the end of the book.
It also has the advantage of being set in a fascinating period of British history, spanning both World Wars over the course of its length. While it’s tethered to the world we know, the reincarnation aspect allows Atkinson to explore what might have happened if – and this is at the heart of the book. What happens when Ursula stands up for herself is completely different to what happens when Ursula is simply unable to do that. One of the most heartbreaking episodes in the book, when Ursula’s life turns out to be devastating, is through something that is not her fault in the slightest but completely destroys her self-worth and confidence. And, of course, she blames herself, and the guilt and blame imposed by that sole event change the course of her life. It’s also one of the most problematic, because she manages to subvert and avoid that very event next time, but as ordinary women without her sense of foreboding, we can’t hope for the same.
I also loved the World War II sections; I think many readers will agree that there’s just something about the London blitz which, horrifying as it was, is almost guaranteed fascinating reading. In Ursula’s situation there are simply so many different outcomes and the book’s structure allows Atkinson to explore each and every one. Regardless if Ursula dies or Ursula lives, anything could happen to anyone she loves. It’s not a wonderful situation, but it made for wonderful reading, and Atkinson pulls off the reincarnation trick over and over.
When I purchased this book, I read it almost immediately; I’d heard a lot of hype and I simply wanted to read it for myself. After doing so, I’m pleased that it lived up to all of that and more. I’d happily recommend – and will be recommending – this book, and I’ll certainly be going straight for the rest of the Kate Atkinson on my TBR pile.
So far I’ve managed to read 6 books in 2014, greatly aided by the fact that I was off work until the 6th (how I wish I could have another break just like that one now …). I really want to at least record a few thoughts for what I’m reading this year and draw a line under most of last year’s reads, except for a couple of review books, so here goes.
Ironskin, Tina Connolly
This is a fantastical re-telling of Jane Eyre, one of my favourite books, and while I wanted to read it, I put it off for a little while because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the fact that it is blatantly the same story. I’ve avoided a lot of joke re-tellings and sequels to classics because I love the originals too much to want those worlds changed. But this – this is a serious effort at creating something that pays homage to a classic but doesn’t take away from the original. I needn’t have worried. Connolly’s story can stand on its own two feet. While it’s clear that the basic story is the same, and many of the characters’ personalities match, Connolly’s magic usage, and the very real symbolism of the iron skin / iron mask Jane wears, adds something else to the story. I really liked the fantasy element and the way that the iron’s usage develops and I’m intrigued particularly to see where Connolly goes next in the sequel, now that she no longer has Charlotte Bronte’s brilliance to guide her.
Demon Angel, Meljean Brook
As I mentioned in my Long-Awaited Reads post, I’ve had this book for ages and had no real reason for *not* reading it. I didn’t love the only other book I read by Meljean Brook, so I think I was worried I wouldn’t like it. I’m pleased to say that I finally did get to it and I even liked it. A lot.
I wasn’t really that enthused by it at the beginning. The book takes us throughout centuries of history, in which the two characters get to know each other and we learn more about the background of the world, but once the story got to modern-day California everything changed. We moved into the permanent part of the story rather than the bit that felt like background. I think the book definitely suffers from first-book-in-a-series syndrome; there is almost too much world-building and not enough characters at the start. By the time the story kicks off, though, I began to actually feel for these two characters and the way they felt about each other. It’s longer than a typical paranormal romance (or any romance for that matter) but after that slightly rough start, I never felt like it was too long. Instead I felt anxious for Hugh and Lilith because I so badly wanted them to be together but wasn’t quite sure how it would happen.
I am definitely going to continue with this series.
Clean Sweep, Ilona Andrews
I think I’m destined to love literally everything by this husband-wife writing team. This little novel was no exception at all. I didn’t read Clean Sweep in free installments, as it was initially promoted on the website. I decided to wait until it was all available as an ebook, because I’m essentially impatient and didn’t mind paying the small amount for the privilege of reading convenience. I was immediately drawn to Dina the Innkeeper’s story and the bizarre way that Andrews set up the world. It’s short, so it’s easy to read quickly, and it’s a great example of the writing style these two produce. They’re also fantastic at building relationships between characters – and characterization in general I suppose – even within the confines of a short novel. Highly recommended, as usual, and I’m looking forward to further installments.
The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan knows how to pull *all* the heartstrings. In this, her latest novel in the Brothers Sinister series, Violet, Countess of Cambury, is a female scientist in a nineteenth-century England without female scientists. But, rather than keep her work quiet, she enlists her long-time best friend Sebastian Malheur as scientist. He becomes her public face. But after years of living a lie, he can’t take it any more – and slowly, gradually, neither can she.
I love romances where the main characters have known each other for ages. I don’t know why, they just work really well for me. This worked really well, too. I don’t think I loved it as hard as I loved some of her earlier romances, maybe because it’s not as different as the others, but I got really wrapped up in this story and I adored Sebastian and Violet. The main characters from the other books in the series appear, too, a little bonus for those of us who have read them all. Courtney Milan will continue to be an auto-buy author for me.
I’ve read a couple of other books this year – Life after Life by Kate Atkinson and Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber – but I’d like to try and actually give them full reviews. We’ll see how that goes!
Has your 2014 started well on the reading front?
I originally bought Huntress for A More Diverse Universe before I decided not to blog in November. I also didn’t manage to read it in November. But I loved Ash and I still wanted to support the initiative, even a full month late, so I recently picked it up and found myself devouring it in just a couple of days.
Set centuries before Ash but in the same world, two girls and a prince are tasked with making a journey to the Fairy Queen, across deadly lands with no maps, to find out why the kingdom exists in a permanent state of gray. The girls are students: Kaede, the Chancellor’s daughter who rejects her life as a proper lady, political marriage and all, and Taisin, a gifted future sage whose dreams are true visions. With them go the heir to the kingdom and three guards to the first summons to the Fay in a generation.
This book opens with a vision; Taisin sees an element of the future, but she doesn’t understand it or how she will get there. As the book unfolds, the mystery of that vision unwinds, and it’s only towards the end of the book that she, and we, understand exactly what she saw and how she needs to use it to ensure that she and those she love survive.
In Huntress, women (and girls) take on all the primary roles; Kaede and Taisin are the main characters, who go to visit a Fairy Queen, while their enemy similarly turns out to be a woman. As in Ash, the love story is between women, in a world where all love is freely accepted (although it seems political marriages still need to be between men and women in order to produce children). The change is perspective is not radical, it’s just enough to subvert expectations slightly and produces a much richer book for it.
The core of the story is an adventure into unknown lands, where mysterious perils await and some of the small band may not survive. As with all such stories, this makes it easier for us to get involved in the world as we discover new elements of the universe right along with the characters. And two diverse main characters make it easier; Taisin is destined to be a nun, or so she thinks, and acts accordingly, while Kaede wants nothing more than to live an unconventional life. Yet these two very different girls bond truly, through shared experiences and deep emotion, and their journey is one that is worth following and loving.
A quick and engaging read, Huntress is definitely recommended for other fantasy readers.
I purchased this book. All external book links are affiliate links.
History is written by the victors. It’s a common phrase that nearly everyone has said or heard. Our history books and our world views are shaped by the people who won wars. Europe’s states, particularly those of western Europe, seem fixed in place. Italy, Germany, Spain; these are definite countries, aren’t they?
Well, as it turns out, and as those who study European history might know, not really. The borders, names, and actual existences of states in Europe have shifted dramatically over the course of the last 2,000 years, with many states completely and totally forgotten except by those who once lived in them. There were seven kingdoms and duchies called “Burgundy”, none of which exist now. Spain was historically fragmented into different countries in the middle ages and exists in an uneasy state now with Catalans seeking independence (and simultaneously forgetting states of their own). The united states of Italy and Germany are fairly new and the destruction of Prussia happened in the twentieth century. And Poland? Poland was completely absorbed into other countries for a time, while the Kingdom of Montenegro not only failed to exist after World War I, no one actually seemed to care. The country only gained independence again in 2006.
Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this book. It took me a month to read (during which time I read plenty of fiction) but I found it absolutely fascinating. The book is arranged in roughly chronological order from around the dissolution of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Soviet Union, with 15 states that have either vanished or had huge parts of their history forgotten by the popular consciousness. There’s no real connection between the choices except that they’re all in Europe. Each chapter is broken into three parts. The first part looks at what is happening in the region today, to give us context for the history which follows in the second part. The third part then looks at how well the history has been remembered (or misremembered). This structure worked really well for me; I always like having some sort of context to understand history, and I know enough about the bits and pieces around most of the “vanished” kingdoms to understand the history pretty well too. He goes into more detail with some countries than others, which according to some other reviews makes the book a bit dry, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.
Naturally this is only a surface glance at each of the 15 “kingdoms” – which can also be empires, duchies, republics, etc. – but it’s a starting point to go out and explore more. Unfortunately a few of the places have been forgotten so thoroughly that the remaining documentation is slight or non-existent, or in another language, but Davies has copious notes at the back of the book, although I’d have loved a suggested reading list of sorts for each.
I really enjoyed the way Davies looked at how history is remembered, too. Each country is different, of course, but it’s fascinating to see how countries treat their own pasts. One of the most extensive was, unsurprisingly, at the end of the chapter on Ireland. Ireland is hardly a forgotten country, but its relationship with England and eventually the United Kingdom is very complicated. Davies ruminates at length on the future of the UK, which he doesn’t think is going to last very long.
All in all, Vanished Kingdoms was completely and totally fascinating. I only wished there were more kingdoms to read about! Very highly recommended.
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.