Book 1: Ann Leckie’s Provenance.
An award-winning author, and glowing reviews for the book. But I’m 116 pages in and nothing much has happened, nothing interesting has been said, no interesting places have been described, and there are no signs that the next chapter will be any better.

Worst of all, the main character is neither interesting nor believable. She’s supposed to be the adopted child of a brilliant, powerful politician – her mother’s competent helper, experienced in organizing events and knowledgeable in politics. She is supposed to be coming up with something clever to gain her mother’s attention and approval. And yet she is as naive and gullible as an adult can possibly be. She believes everything that others tell her, and tells them nearly all she thinks. Which isn’t much. She never thinks two steps ahead, barely one in fact. She dithers and hesitates, then acts impulsively; she cannot control her emotions and starts crying in public. She is annoying and not the least bit impressive.

Book 2: Sylvain Neuvel’s Waking Gods.
This is part two of a trilogy that was kicked off by Sleeping Giants.

Sleeping Giants was pretty good. It had an interesting premise – a giant metal hand is found, buried underground, and then more body parts, and they were clearly not made by humans. The story was told in an interesting way, mostly as transcripts of meetings, interviews, radio traffic etc.

On the surface, the second book is similar, but somehow it’s lacking something. Maybe the novelty of the transcript format wore off. Perhaps it’s because we hear less of and about the key characters, whom I quite enjoyed. Perhaps it’s because the story delivers much more death and much less discovery.

There are so many books that I could read. An unknown book by an unknown author really needs to stand out in some way to get onto my reading list. Sometimes it’s the cover design that catches my eye, or maybe the book has an intriguing title. Occasionally the back cover blurb sucks me in, although many of those do more harm than good.

The Silvered had none of that. In fact it has an atrocious back cover blurb that tells too much of the story while making it sound cliched and dull. But when I read an excerpt, and it had werewolf lords at an opera house being attracted to young ladies because of how the lady smells – even though the lady’s eyes have no colour – then I just had to know more.

The people of this book live in a country where the nobility are werewolves or mages. Their presence affects all aspects of society, from governance to fashion. It also leads to interesting dynamics between people.

Human patriarchal family structures coexist with the werewolf pack’s “alpha and followers” structure. Werewolves, more influenced by instinct and physical stimuli, have to fit inside human social conventions. As an example, werewolves are strongly affected by smell and touch, while humans in polite society do not go sniffing each other too closely. Interactions between two persons vary depending on which form the werewolf is in: you can pat a friendly wolf but you wouldn’t pat a naked man.

The book also has a reasonably interesting plot: a werewolf and a mage go off to rescue a group of mages captured by the enemy army, and necessity pushes the mage to achieve more than she or anyone else would have thought was possible.

Most of the story is pretty good, but some elements are way too predictable, such as the psychopathic bad guy, and the mage girl’s inevitable triumph. Key parts of the final confrontation and escape are signalled so far ahead that they almost become anti-climactic. On the other hand, some events that at first glance seem like plot holes (“yeah right, how likely is that to happen”) turn out to fit beautifully into the story. And it was most refreshing to see the couple get through the whole adventure without falling in love.

But the plot was not what sucked me in and kept me hooked. (Which it really did: at one point I put the book down to go to bed, then spent about an hour thinking about and revisiting the best scenes, and in the end I had to go down and finish it even though that took me until 3 in the morning, because I simply couldn’t think of anything else.) The plot was kind of just there to give the young mage and werewolf couple something challenging to do, so that they can circle around each other, sniffing and nuzzling, and occasionally save each others’ lives.

On the one hand I am glad this was a standalone book so it runs no risk of contracting the “dramatic overload” disease of some fantasy series. On the other hand, I sure wish there was more of it!

Modern Swedish society is very un-tactile. Most of the time we only touch each other in formalized patterns like handshakes and shoulder pats and semi-formal hugs. Physical contact has somehow gotten all tangled up with sexual contact, and spontaneous, informal touching between adults is limited to a narrow range of situations – within the family, or a romantic relationship.

This touchlessness it doesn’t sit well with me at all. I am more tactile than most people, like the wolves in the book. I could live the rest of my life without sex, but I cannot imagine sleeping alone for the rest of my life. I wish we all had more werewolf blood in us and that we touched each other more, spontaneously and for real.

After Uprooted, I immediately looked for more books by Naomi Novik. I found and read Spinning Silver, and it is just as engrossing, graceful and brilliant as Uprooted.

The books are like sisters – similar in some ways, different in other. In structure, this one is less straightforward and more messy and sprawling. In content, Spinning Silver is also a melding of fairy tales: spinning silver into gold like in Rumpelstiltskin, a fairy king who steals a human girl away, a fire demon who eats souls, etc. The enemy this time isn’t intent on devouring the land, but on bringing on a never-ending winter.

The heroines in this book are more ordinary but at the same time more heroic. They have no magical powers, but they work harder at protecting and saving those they love.

That is what much of this book is about: hard, painful work for the sake of your loved ones. It’s about the heroism of quiet strength rather than spectacular magic. About the pain of being unloved, and the growth that love can bring about. Not romantic love, mind you, but love for one’s family and people.

I wish she had written more like these two, but instead the rest of her work is “Napoleonic wars with dragons”. Too bad.

Replay is another riff on the theme of reliving your life with all your memories from the previous life still intact. It’s a close cousin of Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (henceforth FFLoHA) and a more distant relation of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.

Jeff, replaying his life, comes to the same conclusion and takes a different path the next time around. On the third replay, he’s not quite as enthusiastic about the whole thing any more. Still he keeps trying new ways of finding a meaning for his life.

I liked this book and yet I was a bit disappointed with it. Jeff generally only changes tack when he starts over (or when he meets another replayer), as if he was incapable of evaluating his life until he dies and starts again. After so many years of living, I would expect a man to know and understand himself better than that.

Jeff is also rather lacking in fantasy. A life of riches, and one of sex and drugs, and one of “back to basics” pastoralism – surely he should be able come up with more ideas than that, especially with potentially nearly unlimited resources! He could travel, learn things,

I was also expecting more depth of feeling. The book is written in a very matter-of-fact, almost bland tone, when Jeff is anything but dispassionate about what’s going on. The book never quite manages to convey any real emotion. The first, least interesting replay, feels like it takes forever. But Jeff’s supposed despair and rage against whoever or whatever is causing him to be reborn yet again merits three lines of attention.

The ending is a bit too pat, and the moral of the story too obviously served on a plate. We are so obviously supposed to wonder, what would I do differently if I got the chance to live again? And then told to live our life the best we can, not to waste it, because it’s the only one we have. Well, thanks for telling me.

Replay and FFLoHA have a lot in common, including the inevitability of ending up in the government’s hands, drugged and imprisoned, if one has the unfortunate idea of letting the public know that one knows the “future”. Replay is the “original”, published almost thirty years before FFLoHA, but I read FFLoHA before Replay so in my mind it’s the other way round, and that’s the direction I inevitably compare them.

Replay is less grand and more personal in scope. FFLoHA has an entire network of immortals, and a plot that involves a possibly-impending end of the world. Replay simply focuses on the effect that repeatedly reliving your life would have on you. It’s easy to get filthy rich when you know exactly which horse will win which race, and what stocks to pick, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying life. It’s hard to invest a life in family and caring for others, when in the end it’s all taken away from you.

In a way, FFLoHA is Replay replayed. It does some things better and some things worse. Can someone write a third replay, please?

Uprooted is the best book I’ve read this year. I was torn between trying to make it last, and devouring it as fast as possible because I just could not put it down. The former won, barely; this book was such a pleasure to read that it would have been a shame to wolf it down. (And when I finished, and saw there was nothing in my to-read pile that could possibly compare, I started over and read the best parts again.)

Uprooted is a fantasy novel with a fairy-tale feel. Once every ten years, the local wizard picks a girl and takes her to his tower. This time, to everyone’s great surprise, Agnieszka is picked, instead of the beautiful, brave, kind, smart girl that everybody was sure would be picked – because the wizard sees that Agnieszka has the power to learn magic. The book is about Agnieszka’s growth as a person and a witch, and her and the wizard’s struggle against the corrupting powers of the nearby Wood.

Agnieszka’s magic turns out to be very different from the wizard’s. His is disciplined and beautifully ordered; hers is intuitive and organically growing. I was glad to see that those differences were not because she was doing explained by her gender but by her background. She wasn’t doing “girl magic” but “country magic” – the city witches are as appalled by her magic as the wizard. He is not the least bit happy when they discover that they can achieve the most by combining their magic. I loved the beautiful, fascinating descriptions of their magic spells and their battles with the Wood.

I was also glad to see that this story was driven forward by a deep and surprisingly complex friendship between two young women, rather than a love relationship (although there is one of those as well). The love relationship is the one problematic part of the book – thoughts of Stockholm syndrome come to mind.

But the entire book is such a pure joy to read so I blinded myself to that problematic aspect of it and kept going. Every word, every phrase is perfect and fits just so, and no other word could possibly take its place. I found myself trying those words in my mouth, or reading some phrase again just for the feeling of it.

Some events you see coming a mile away. Of course it is obvious from page one that the wizard will pick Agnieszka. For me, that predictability was part of the fairy-tale charm of the book. Just like when reading a fairy tale you simply know that the heroine will survive all the challenges on her way, and that knowing doesn’t take away any part of the pleasure of reading the tale. You know that she will find a way to do exactly the thing that the oh-so-wise say is impossible, and that she will find a way to put an end to evil not by killing and destroying it but by turning it around.

Summary: loved The Fifth Season, disappointed with Obelisk Gate.

When I first read The Fifth Season, I was blown away and immediately started looking forward to the sequel. The sequel didn’t live up to my hopes and expectations at all.

The story takes place on a planet of extreme tectonic and volcanic activity. “The fifth season” of the title is a natural climate-related disaster on a continental or planetary scale. These happen frequently enough (seven within the last 2500 years of recorded history) that there is need for a term like this, and much of civilization revolves around storing and handing down knowledge about how to survive a Season. The book starts at the cusp of a Season:

Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?

Some people on this planet have magical powers of a special kind (called orogeny) that allow them to shift energy around so as to quell micro-quakes and soothe magma bubbles before they can cause a catastrophe. Untrained, orogenes are immensely dangerous. Trained, they are essential for society’s survival. So the lucky ones are sent to the imperial capital for training; the unlucky ones are lynched and killed.

There are three threads to the story. One continues from where the book took off and describes the beginning of the Season, from the point of view of a “closet” orogene whose neighbours don’t know she is one. The second describes a newly-discovered orogene child’s journey to the capital and her training there. The third shows what life can be like for a fully-trained adult orogene.

I liked this way to tell this story. It’s a great way to explain, for example, why an orogene would behave in a certain way in a certain situation (by telling us about their training) without having to explicitly explain it. And in the end the threads come together naturally and smoothly.

Two things made this book stand out. One was the world, with its tectonic instability and societal focus on surviving it, and its special kind of magic, so suited to this world. The other was the complex emotional tone: poetic, yet bleak and angry, and always torn between hope and hopelessness. Orogenes are immensely powerful, and so needed by the world, yet feared and shunned. The people on this planet have more power over it than we do here, and yet they are more likely to be killed by a disaster caused by the planet.

Obelisk Gate takes up the story right where the first book stopped. I was hoping that the parts I liked best would still be there, that the book would have a similar tone and structure, but it didn’t. And it adds some parts that I frankly quite disliked.

The unique kind of magic turns out to be just a special case or sub-form of more normal, general-purpose magic, which in one turn of the page makes it ordinary instead of unique.

The story-telling in the second book is bog-standard. There are two parallel threads for two main characters. Unlike the first book, the threads’ relationship to each other is both obvious and much weaker: I don’t think they ever actually affect each other, that’s probably left for the third book.

The writing adds detail but loses depth and energy. The first book covered decades; the events in the second book span a year or two – and yet somehow nothing much happens. There is more immediate action, but less substance and tension.

This book also has the abominable habit of letting characters hide essential information for no good reason. Person A knows something, and knows that person B needs this information. Person B likewise knows that the person A knows this thing, and that person B really needs this. And yet A never tells, and B never asks – for no apparent reason at all – until I’m ready to scream at them. Why?! And when they finally decide to talk, we get an info dump – instead of the natural, organic flow that we had the first book.

The first book was among the best I’ve ever read. And while I’m complaining about the second one, it was still better than most – and I am looking forward to reading the third one.

Here’s an interesting review with plenty of spoilers.

Let me quote the back cover blurb for you:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in a constant, overwhelming, never-ending Noise. There is no privacy. There are no secrets.

Then, just one month away from the birthday that will make Todd Hewitt a man, he unexpectedly stumbles on a spot of complete silence. Which is impossible.

(Not only do people hear each other’s thoughts – they also hear those of animals, and some animals even talk. Turns out dogs don’t have anything interesting to say. Mostly their talk revolves around poo and squirrels.)

Todd immediately realizes that the spot of silence is something special that needs to be kept a secret. But – secrets being nearly impossible in Prentisstown – others become suspicious, so he flees the town.

The story then becomes a thriller/adventure/escape story, where Todd of course discovers that not much in the world is the way he believed it was. And, as it is a coming-of-age story, he himself is not like he believed.

The first two thirds of the book I devoured with hardly a break: it’s fast-paced and action-filled and has some interesting ideas. But after a while the author runs out of story, and the plot becomes repetitive. Bad guys chase Todd, Todd flees, Todd is even more tired and hurt. Rinse and repeat. The bad guys are generally over-the-top evil and don’t even seem to have particularly good reasons for chasing him, they just seem to do so because Todd needs someone to fear and flee from.

Todd also keeps struggling with the question of whether or not he can kill someone who is trying to kill him. Which is a deep and worthy question to struggle with, but it never gets any more depth, it just gets asked the same way over and over again, which gets tiresome.

And when, at the very end of the book, Todd’s situation is essentially unchanged, with still the same bad guys to flee from, I knew I had had enough and was not interested in the next book in the series.

Becky Chambers writes such nice books. Not nice like well-behaved children and polite cocktail parties, but nice like heartfelt hugs and handmade gifts. Nice in a way that makes me feel good about life.

The setup of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet reminds me of Firefly: small, scrappy, tightly-knit crew of a spaceship goes on a journey. Much of the book is spent on getting to know the crew members, their species, and the relationships between them. The details of all the difficulties and dangers they inevitably face are not that important – all focus is on what happens to the people. They live together, struggle with their problems together, and ultimately come out better at the other end of the process.

I like the way Becky Chambers imagines the future. It has futuristic technology and inventions that we don’t, from spaceships to stasis fields. But it’s like today in that things are sometimes made on the cheap, wear out, may need a kick to work, etc.

This actually characterises much of this book’s worldview. It’s homey and down to earth. Technological advances are balanced out by porridge and piles of unsorted bolts.

The plot is a bit thin and the book doesn’t explore any deep or novel ideas, so it’s not a book that will make an enduring mark on the world. But universe and the characters in it are colourful and vividly described, and it’s all simply good fun, so this is a book to read and re-read with genuine pleasure.

A Closed and Common Orbit ups the game a bit. The themes in the first book were very PC: racism/speciesism, “live and let live”. This one explores the question of what it means to be human, and to be family. There are two parallel plot threads. In current time, an AI called Lovey (short for Lovelace) is put into a human body and tries to adapt and learn, and fit in with the humans she lives with. In past time, a girl escapes from a slave planet with the help of another AI, who is more of a parent to her than any human has ever been.

Superficially there is not much the two lives have in common. But both characters start from a confined, deprived background (in the case of Lovey, all she has ever experienced is the inside of one spaceship) and suddenly burst into freedom. Both now have to make sense of a whole wide confusing universe. Both have to learn what it means to be human and have relationships with other humans – and how to be free and set their own direction in life. (Less profoundly but very enjoyably, both revel in previously unknown pleasurable sensations of touch, smell and taste.)

Fundamentally this book, like the first one, is a warm, intimate story about friendship and love. I hope Becky Chambers goes on to write many more in the same vein.

1. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries. Booker prize winner, rave reviews everywhere, and I just gave up when I was about halfway. What good is a clever, intricate structure and skilfully imitated Victorian plot and Victorian style, when I just cannot bring myself to care about any of the characters or what happens to them? Despite all the detailed descriptions, none of it felt real. Too much cleverness and too many characters for my taste. Had I decided to continue, I would have needed to go through the first half again and take notes. The final straw for me were the grating introductions of each character’s character (so to say), possibly intended to be incisive, but to me they just made the narrator come across as conceited and supercilious.

2. Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests. Every part of the plot was obvious and unsurprising, and it all felt plodding and boring. I found myself thinking that maybe I could skip a few pages without really losing out on much. While I don’t need my books to have likeable characters, I do expect them to be interesting in some way. When rather boring people do rather boring things and spend a lot of time having rather boring thoughts, the result is not very captivating.

3. Maja Lunde, The History of Bees. Three intertwined stories about beekeeping – one from the mid-1800s about a wannabe scientist who invents a new kind of beehive, one from around the current time about colony collapse, and one from a future where there are no bees and fruit trees are pollinated by hand by endless ranks of manual labourer. None of the individual stories is particularly strong, and since there isn’t much to hold the stories together – other than the shared themes of bees and relationships between parents and children – they also don’t make a strong whole. There is no shared idea or insight. The English translation is kind of clunky in places – several times I found myself jarred by some clumsy phrase, thinking that I could have done better.

The god Apollo chases a nymph. Rather than submit to his amorous advances, she prays to Athene to be turned into a tree, and her wish is granted. Apollo is baffled. After a discussion with Athene, trying to understand what happened, he decides to try living as a mortal for a while, to understand this whole thing about “volition” and the “equal significance” of people.

At the same time, Athene is setting up a city where she and a bunch of people can experiment with living after the principles of Plato’s Republic, so that’s where Apollo-as-mortal goes as well. The city is populated – following Plato’s instructions – with elders and children. For elders, Athene brings people from various points throughout history who have read Republic and prayed to Athene to be taken there. For children, they purchase slaves. And then follows the experiment of actually putting Plato’s ideas about a Just City into practice.

I haven’t read anything of Plato, but neither have the children of the Just City, so it’s not a prerequisite in any way. We learn the principles along with them.

The results are mixed, and not surprisingly, in the end it turns out that some ideas look good on paper but when you get into the nitty-gritty details, life is not that simple.

This may sound altogether dry and philosophical, but it isn’t. There is plenty of interesting detail about everyday life in the growing, developing city, as well as actual story lines, interesting characters, relationships between them etc. Foremost among them is Simmea, one of the children brought to the city to grow up there. We see her traumatic arrival, her bright-eyed earnest efforts to become her best self, but also her doubts about some aspects of life in the city.

For some reason, Athene doesn’t bring Plato himself to the city, but she does bring Sokrates, after a while. He does what he always does in books and starts asking difficult questions, throwing everything into disarray. What seemed so clear and righteous and just now becomes uncertain, unpredictable and questionable.

This was a fascinating read. Thought-provoking, unlike anything else, but also very readable and interesting as a work of fiction, not at all heavy or dry as you might expect a philosophical thought experiment to be.

If you’re hesitating, here are two reviews that I liked, from The Globe and Mail and Russ Walton.