Category: reviews

Books books books

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From the book log (crossposted to amazon and goodreads, because reviews are important to authors and I reckon I should start making an effort to review consistently):

The Scar, Sergey and Marina Dyachenko: I came to this cold, more or less (it came heavily recommended by a couple of friends, and I’d enjoyed Sergey and Marina Dyachenko’s fantastic Vita Nostra”, but I had no idea what to expect).
This is the story of Ergert Soll, a braggart and bully who goes one step too far and accidentally kills Dinar, the fiancé of student Toria. Egert finds himself cursed by the Wanderer to be a coward–so swamped by fear he’s totally unable to function. Meanwhile, Toria struggles with the loss of her fiancé; and with the appearance in Egert in her life when the latter comes to the city where her father is the Dean of the University. But all is not well: in the background, fanatics known as the Order of Lash seek to bring about the end of the world; and are ready to do anything for this..
This is a tight, character-driven study of two people and how they cope with loss and fear and the rising madness brought by the Order of Lash. I loved the intimate scenes at the university and how they opened up on a larger world, while remaining intimately focused on Toria/Egert. The theme of redemption is one I’m personally always happy to read, and here I thought it was well done if not 100% surprising (but the catharsis at the climax is wonderful done and had me on the edge of my seat). I expected this to be larger-scale and to deal with the brotherhood of Lash; but I’m really it didn’t–part of why it works is the tight focus, and Egert and Toria both having to make stands. I wish we’d seen more from Toria at the climax; the narrative ends up feeling a little unbalanced. But it’s well worth a read, and it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Recommended.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik: Agnieszka lives on the edge of the Wood, a dark and angry power that always seeks to expand, and twists and corrupts everything it touches. Her village (and others) survive because they are protected but the Dragon, a long-lived wizard who has dedicated his life to fighting the Wood. Every ten years the Dragon chooses a girl to serve him; and the girls he picks come back fey, unwilling to settle down in their home villages again. Agnieszka has always thought that her best friend Kasia would be the chosen girl, the one picked by the Dragon to serve him; but she hasn’t counted with her innate talent for magic…

I loved this–easily and effortlessly my favorite read of 2015. I gobbled it up in a day and found myself rereading choice passages. I love the budding relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon, but also the fact that her friendship with Kasia remains the anchor of the story–and the Wood is such a creepy creation, the stuff of nightmares! I was only 99% sold on the ending (trying not to be spoilery there–I get the idea and love it, but wasn’t quite convinced that Agnieszka could turn aside centuries of hatred). But that doesn’t deter much from the fantastic-ness of this book. Awesome

Books books books

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Now that my life is no longer about edits, a few books:

-Zen Cho, Sorcerer to the Crown (ARC obtained from publisher). Zacharias Whyte is the newest sorcerer to the Crown, and he’s got his work cut out for him: he’s black in a society that has no liking for people of colour, suspected of murdering his predecessor and guardian; and to top it all, the magic that England was relying on is steadily draining away. As he travels to Fairyland to determine the cause of the magical penury, Zacharias picks up Prudence, an impoverished gentlewoman who is determined to make her own way in the world–and who has a decidedly peculiar inheritance. Magic, mayhem (and interfering aunties) in a Regency setting: it’s a hilarious book, but also one that pokes sly fun at the social conventions of the time and the place of women and POCs. Sort of a cross between Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and PG Wodehouse, with a postcolonial slant. Also, it’s got Malaysian vampires, and they’re awesome.

-Pat Cadigan, Tea from an Empty Cup (book bought). I first read this ten years ago, and it hasn’t lost its power. It’s short and punchy–a double tale of a murder investigation in an immersive artificial reality and a woman looking for her friend and getting caught in some shady dealings involving stolen virtual artefacts, and access to a special level in said artificial reality). I loved the world building (in a dystopic future where Japan has disappeared and the survivors struggle to find a sense of national identity, something that really resonated to me as a second-gen whose maternal country was lost to war for a while); and the artificial reality is amazing–I’m sceptical of SF’s ability to predict the future, but Pat Cadigan was square on, on both the saturation of the AR by ads, and the gaming culture that develops around it, with its accompanied mysticism, its prizing of avatars and things found online and its search for hacks, new levels and new sensations (which reminded me of MMORPGs and Second Life).

(a few minor quibbles: I wasn’t quite sold on the idea of racial memory, or on the idea you could tell someone’s racial mark-up just by looking at them–as a diasporan, the elevated mysticism and mythology that develops around the lost land of Japan feels very accurate, though sometimes a little too forced and forceful for my personal taste. And sometimes the world building rang a little hollow–I wasn’t sure what Yuki did for a living or how she was able to drop everything to follow Joy Flower. But that’s very much a function of this being a short and to-the-point novel).

-Nghia M Vo, Legends of Vietnam: An Analysis and Retelling of 88 Tales (book bought): I’m really conflicted about this book. On the one hand, it’s a reasonably good book of fairytales and Vietnamese folklore, with legends from the North, the South and some (all too few) from ethnic minorities. It provides context, both cultural and historical (and it’s got all the proper diacritics, which is awesome for following up on stuff), and there are lots of tales and tidbits that I’ve heard but not seen elsewhere, so I think it’s fair to call it the most complete compilation I’ve seen yet. On the other hand… the commentary sometimes grates. There’s the odd swipe at passive Vietnamese, incapable of banding together or of understanding progress, unlike Western nations (which is just wtf); and a lot of sallies against the Northerners  (and I know there was a war; I know unforgivable things were done and I’m not minimising the pain people went through; heck, I live in its shadow. But I really don’t think a book of fairy tales is the place for this kind of stuff). Of note, there’s a bunch of tales in the post-war years, but I can’t comment on these because I found them triggering, and had to skip this section.

-Kari Sperring, The Grass King’s Concubine (book bought)  This is a book with several narrative strands: one in the present, where Aude, born to wealth, runs away and seeks to understand where her family’s fortune came from; and one in the past, where a man called Marcellan enters the Rice Palace, domain of the Grass King, the mythical being who embodies the earth and the harvest. In the present, Aude gets kidnapped by the Grass King’s bannermen, and taken to a deserted, devastated Rice Palace, where she is told she must fix what her ancestors broke…

This is slow, intimate and quite wonderful. I love the contrast between the Brass and Silver Cities and their endless hunger for wealth (and one of Kari’s strengths, I think–in addition to lush prose–is that she nails social class, social oppression and the way the progress of the Industrial Revolution was built on the misery of the many), and the Rice Palace and its fairytale logic; and the driving mystery of what exactly happened in the past is very well done (and going to an unexpected conclusion). It seems at first that the two halves (the Industrial Revolution cities and the Rice Palace) belong to two wildly different books, but on finishing the book you realise that the unifying theme is the devastation of greed and hunger for power–and that, in that respect, the present is not so different from the past–it’s a very clever and subtle juxtaposition, and it works all the better for never being outright said.

I have a couple quibbles, the first is that you should avoid reading the cover copy before you start the book, because it has the worst spoilers I’ve seen in quite a while; the second is that the ending feels a teensy bit rushed–and by far the most major one is that this begs for a sequel, and there is none yet! (I have a plan which involves pestering Kari until she gives in ^^).

Next up: Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings!

Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy

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Composed of Cold Magic, Cold Fire and Cold Steel. Set in an alternate version of Europe where Carthage never fell; where a sheet of ice covers everything north of England and Belgium; and where the Taino Empire still rules in the Caribbean, Kate Elliott’s most recent trilogy is a thing of beauty. It’s a very tightly focused fantasy: the narrator if Catherine (Cat) Hassi Barahal, born into a family of Phoenicians couriers and spies–who finds herself, quite unexpectedly, married to a cold mage from one of the most powerful Houses in Europe, and thurst in the midst of intrigues both political and supernatural.

In the world of Spiritwalker, magic comes in two flavours: cold mages can spread a cold strong enough to douse fires and shatter steel; whereas fire mages channel flames and conflagrations, often to disastrous results. But magic users must take care not to become too powerful; for once a night on Hallow’s Eve, the Wild Hunt comes from the spirit world, and kills and dismembers a powerful magic user. The cold mages are thus powerful, but not overly so; and they govern Europe in a loose alliance with the princes who wield temporal power. But radicals are agitating for equal rights, and the infamous general Camjiata (this storyline’s version of Napoleon), has recently come back from his exile and is busy raising another army to conquer Europe… Cat and her beloved cousin Beatrice (Bee), who both find they have more abilities than they suspect, flee as every faction attempts to lay hands on them and use them for their own purposes.

It’s hard to do justice to the worldbuilding in this: one of Kate Elliott’s great strengths is her ability to create a universe that truly feels lived in–that gives you the impression that it doesn’t solely exist for the plot, and that everyone and everything has an existence that goes beyond the narration of the trilogy. The magical system is also fantastic (magic based on thermodynamics! Entropy between the spirit world and the mortal world!). And the characters really shine: from impulsive and kind-hearted Cat to theatrical and pragmatic Bee; from the arrogant and magnificent cold mage Andevai to the canny and manipulative Camjiata, they all leap off the page–you might not always agree with what they do, but they’re all thoughtfully depicted; and I really loved that the story went unexpected places, and explored issues of consent, equality and power, and how revolutions might or might not be the best way to grant these. And special props to the Master of the Wild Hunt, who’s in a class of his own for manipulative bastard.  Also, the salt plague is one of the awesomest, most refreshing ways of doing zombies in speculative fiction ever (and I say this as someone who’s a bit burnt on the subject of zombies).

There’s a few extras, too: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal features Bee’s POV, and lovely art by Hugo Award winner Julie Dillon; and “The Courtship” takes up the story a few days after the end of Cold Steel from the POV of another character.

Highly recommended, in case you had doubts.

Vita Nostra, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

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Vita Nostra, Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Sasha is a normal, straight-A high-school student; until, on a holiday with her mother, a strange man with dark glasses approaches her, and asks her to get up at 4am every morning and swim to a buoy on the beach. She tries to ignore him, but when she does so, time stops passing: the same day loops over and over, trapping her in a morass of impending dread. When she finally takes the man’s advice and swims, she finds herself vomitting gold coins on the beach–and, before she knows it, onboard a train to a university in the middle of nowhere, where she will learn Specialty. The nature of Specialty is unclear, the textbook abstruse; but the penalty for failure is all too clear, ranging from the death of the students’ families to the impairment and death of the students themselves. Specialty is a book filled with incomprehensible sentences; but as the students read it, they find themselves changing in mind and body–and Sasha, who is ahead of her peers, is destined for something both huge and frightening…

The parallels between this and Harry Potter are hard to ignore (magical school, specially picked students), but you should probably put them out of your mind. Vita Nostra is a different, darker book: the students are university-age, with more adult preoccupations; and the magic, far from cookie-cutter spells, is impredictable, incomprehensible, and wildly dangerous; and Sasha’s position as a special student is far from enviable. There’s a palpable, oppressive sense of doom and dread throughout the entire novel, building to a very satisfying climax (which nevertheless leaves a lot of questions dangling in the air: this isn’t a book which will do a point-by-point explanation of its worldbuilding, but it’s a book that works as it is). I read this cover to cover in an evening (which should tell you something, as any free time those days is generally against my better judgment): the book draws you in, and, especially in the last quarter or so, an accelerating build-up towards the placement exam that is meant to seal the students’ fate, is darn hard to put down. Recommended.

This is my first book from the Dyachenkos, a Ukrainian husband-and-wife team, but it certainly won’t be my last: Tor published their epic fantasy The Scar, and I have every intention of trying it…

The book itself is a bit fiddly to find: it’s available in the US and UK only (I was lucky to get a copy from the translator in the hopes I’d signal boost if I liked it), and only via amazon. It also, for some reason, doesn’t show up in search results if you try by author/title, so the direct link is your best bet. This limited distribution (as well as the somewhat bland cover) probably do it no favours; but it certainly deserves wider recognition.

Recent anime watch: My-Hime and Mawaru Penguindrum

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Two very different animes:

My-Hime is set in an academy on an island, and follows the trajectory of Himes, girls who discover themselves to have special powers (namely, bonding to a Child, a creature whose power they’re then able to call on–but only on condition they wager the life of the person dearest to them). The main character, Mai, takes care of her sick little brother Takumi, but soon gets embroiled in the business of Himes, and the sinister purpose behind them… I really like the relationships between the girls, and the fact that the person dearest to them isn’t necessarily a romantic attachment; but rewatching it, it’s hard to ignore the ginormous amount of fan service (the anime focuses on breast to the extent it becomes frankly creepy, and don’t get me started on the mini episodes at the end of each big episode, which feature way too much nudity, implied or otherwise). Also hard to ignore the fact that the one lesbian turns into a raging psychopath (to be fair, a lot of people aren’t shown at their best, but since she’s the only lesbian it becomes problematic). Still, I quite like the anime. It’s soapy as heck, and has a big tendency to the melodramatic, but that ending always has me in tears.

Meanwhile, all you need to know about Mawaru Penguindrum is that it was written by Ikuhara Kunihiko, aka the man who brought you Revolutionary Girl Utena. So if you don’t like symbolism-heavy anime, or anime where things fail to be tied together with a little bow… best to give Mawaru a pass, really. It’s kind of hard to summarise, but it deals with the relationships between the three teenage members of the Takakura family, who live on their own following an unspecified tragedy. The youngest sibling, Himari, is seriously ill; and when she dies (in episode 1, so no spoilers) and is revived, her two brothers Kanba and Shouma find themselves hunting for the mysterious penguindrum.

OK, that’s making it sound way more serious than it is. It’s an anime with penguins and in which people actually utter the sentence “the dark bunnies of fate” quite seriously. For about half its length, it’s also overly concerned with the really creepy obsession of a teenage character for an adult teacher, and I really could have done without the implied rape scene in episode 14 (and the psychotic bixesual. Sigh). But then, about halfway through, you earn exactly what the Takakura parents did, and it shifts gears–into a meditation on fate, loss and whether guilt can be passed on from person to person (and you understand why the anime itself is so focused on the subway system. In retrospect, had I been a little more cognisant of Japanese culture, I probably would have understood much earlier). Like Utena, it sort of doesn’t quite make sense but ends with a strong punch that’s enough to make you forget that it doesn’t. Definitely worth a watch; though it’s a bit of a shame the female characters have a tendency to get sidelined, especially towards the end.

Books books books

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-Sybil Kathigasu, No Dram of Mercy: an account of Kathigasu’s life under Japanese occupation in Malaysia, her arrest and subsequent imprisonment. Got this book via Zen Cho; and it’s intense–not in the way of gory details, of which there are very few, but truly emotionally intense (and the fact that Kathigasu provides almost nothing leaves the reader plenty of room to imagine…). It’s obvious that the author had a very strong character (I doubt other people would have held out that long); you can feel it from the page even though she doesn’t make a great deal of it; and the horrors she lived through are also quite obvious. Also full of little details–like the armband on Eurasians and the hints that they lived in a very particular world, not quite colonist but not quite “local” anymore–that are really interesting. I don’t much like using phrases like “duty of memory”, but here I think it’s very apt; especially since in the West we barely learn anything about the Japanese occupation (whereas most of Asia had to deal with it in one way or another).

The book also reminded me of why I dislike the current trend of explicit torture and rape used as voyeurism and a way to up the stakes–it’s hard to articulate, but there’s a deadly seriousness and a sense of wracking pain emanating from every page of this book that fantasy fiction about similar topics just never achieves. Maybe it’s about truth vs. fiction or something similar? Or maybe just a question of intent? I’m not sure, but I’m uncomfortable with a lot of grimdark because it never even comes close to that level of intensity, while recognising that this kind of intensity in a book is something I couldn’t bear for very long (fortunately it’s a very slim book).

-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings. More a comment than a review, since I’m still working my way through this one. Lots of things to chew on; it’s a whirlwind tour of the basic concepts of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism (I know he’s a Vietnamese Zen buddhist, but the precise name of his school escapes me at the moment). One of the things that spoke most to me was the discussion on the sutras, and how you need to think on them and work out which bits are appropriate; because like all sutras they’ve been written by human beings with an imperfect comprehension.

Disjointed thoughts on Sources of Vietnamese Tradition

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On paper, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition  has a laudable goal: “[to] provide an essential guide to two thousand years of Vietnamese history and a comprehensive overview of the society and state of Vietnam. Strategic selections illuminate key figures, issues, and events while building a thematic portrait of the country’s developing territory, politics, culture, and relations with neighbors. The volume showcases Vietnam’s remarkable independence in the face of Chinese and other external pressures and respects the complexity of the Vietnamese experience both past and present”. The book’s hefty 600+-page contents promise a wealth of information and insight into Vietnamese society.

(warning: family-history bias)

Thing is… I guess they do provide that wealth of information, but due to a number of factors it ends up being a bit biased–first off, I appreciate the exclusion of any text they couldn’t find a primary (untranslated) source for, but that means that they spend most of the period of Chinese domination (roughly the first ten centuries, though it’s more complicated than that) presenting… the point of view of the Chinese on the Vietnamese, which is well and good but a tad worrisome. Also, the “famous” texts of Vietnamese literature (like The Tale of Kiều) end up excluded, on the basis that anyone interested in those can track them down; again, I understand why they did that, but that means you have to buy extra books if you want those texts. You also get  a very curious view of “tradition”, since the emphasis on existing transcribed texts with an attribution means any folk renditions or anything not from the (literate, scholarly) aristocracy is excluded; which produces a definitely skewed view of history, and ends up with a very different “feel” from what I know (which is handed down mostly from family). To be fair, it’s hardly specific to this book, but is a problem I have with the series of “Sources of Asian tradition” in general.

Due to the coverage, you have entire periods where things happen in a bit of a puzzling fashion, for instance Lê Lợi‘s rebellion and his relationship to Nguyễn Trãi; again, possible family bias showing there, but I felt you never really got a sense of either of those men and the turmoil of the court of Lê Lợi ‘s successors, and it’s a bit hard to imagine Vietnamese history and modern Vietnamese perception of that history (at least in that bit of a the diaspora I’m familiar with) without them. And, uh, do yourself a favour and go read someone else’s account of modern Vietnamese history (from the independence onwards), because I felt the book didn’t really capture the ins and outs of what was happening in Vietnam in that time period. Again, this might all be my personal feeling, and it is also because, to some extent, I was expecting from a book that size something fairly comprehensive, which, in all fairness to them, clearly is not what the authors were out to produce (and they make that clear at the onset, from the preface).

Would I recommend this book? Mostly, yes, because there are plenty of great texts here that you won’t find anywhere else, and I learn tons of things about Vietnam I didn’t know. However, if you’re just looking for an entry point into Vietnamese history and culture, I’d recommend with reservations.

 

Books books books

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Spirit by Gwyneth Jones: basically a gender-flipped retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo in space, Spirit follows Bibi, an orphan taken into the household of Lady Nef and General Yu. As the years pass, Bibi rises into the hierarchy of the new order on Earth–until a terrible betrayal shatters her life and the lives of those she loves. Honestly, the book had me at gender-flipped Monte Cristo, but there’s actually quite a bit more to it than that! Set in Jones’ Aleutian continuity, this is a rich, dense book with an unusual plot and great examination of gender roles. It’s also very striking, as Zen Cho pointed out to me, that this is one of the few books that depicts a Chinese-dominated society in a plausible and no-fuss manner that is miles above Joss Whedon’s attempts in Firefly (don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff about Firefly that I love, but realistic depiction of Asians isn’t really one of them). I missed it on the first reading because I was struggling a bit with the universe, but it does get a lot of little details right (the immortals, the festivals, the ranks in the household). As Zen points out, it also falters in places (where are the Classics and the Confucian influences, for instance), but still, pretty good. The other reason I loved the book was the strong emphasis it placed on family and family bonds–Bibi’s vengeance is centred on what happened to her mistress rather than on the loss of her own love, which is in the end a small part of the story.

Witcher Saga and Witcher short stories, by Andrzej Sapkowski (read in French translation, though you can find volumes 1, 3 and 4 on amazon, respectively The Last Wish, Blood of Elves and The Time of Contempt–volume 2, Sword of Providence, is another series of short stories like The Last Wish). Those were massively successful Polish books (giving rise to a number of derived products including a rather well-known series of video games). It’s… well, Tolkienesque. There’s a bad-ass sorcerer who beats everyone at sword fights and his very powerful lady love, and a lot of times this skirts perilously close to wish-fulfillment from the author. There are elves who like nature, and dwarves who love mining, and humans who are slowly replacing them on the world stage. But what saves this is the totally cynical and black outlook on the setting: elves and dwarves are persecuted by humans in successive pogroms, all sides can act like selfish bastards as it suits them, and it’s very hard to see who would be the good guy, as everyone is busy playing politics and making sure their kingdom comes out on top; and even the horrible monsters the hero is meant to slay pale in comparison with the monstrous behaviour of humans acting in their own self-interest. I’m not saying it’s got very deep messages, but it’s a reasonably entertaining read if you don’t mind violence (there’s a lot of graphic wounds and battlefield scenes which don’t shy on the hours of suffering for the wounded), or sex (lots of explicit sex and ribald jokes, also I think some rapey content–there’s very little fetishisation of it, but it’s… explicit, as said before). It’s also not a monument of feminism, but it was rather a breath of fresh air to see several female main characters with their own storylines (and their own kick-ass moments) rather than the shrieking damsels-in-distress I’ve been seeing in far too many genre books lately.

Books books books

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From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra. A history of Asia (*very* loosely Asia since it includes the Ottoman Empire and bits of Egypt), colonialism and the rise of nationalism/pan-Islamism/pan-Asianism, seen through the eyes of three 19th/20th-Century intellectuals (al-Afghani, Ling Qichao and Rabidranath Tagore) . I am… conflicted about this book.

On the one hand, it’s a welcome and refreshing account of the colonisation/decolonisation of Asia through the eyes of Asians–for people raised in the West and unfamiliar with the blood and greed-drenched history of colonisation, it’s definitely a worthy read, if only because it lays bare the sheer destructive scale of what the Western powers did to Asia (and it’s also worth seeing the repetitions of colonisation patterns in today’s globalisation), and the frustrated, powerless soul-searching of Asians seeking to conciliate the Industrial Revolution ideologies with their own traditions.

On the other hand… I can’t speak for the Indian parts of the accounts (though this article can and isn’t overly pleased about them), but I also found it a very frustrating book, because Mishra distorts facts to suit his theory of unified Asian resistance to the West (to cite just one of them, he cites the invasion of Vietnam by France in 1854 as a sign that China was besieged by Western powers eating into its hegemony–whereas in fact Vietnam had been independent of China for a while and the power balance in the region was a little bit more complicated), and I had no means of judging which bits were accurate. Mishra also quite obviously does not understand how Chinese society worked–to suggest that Confucianism is an alien and artificial ideology (that he grants was deeply embedded in Chinese minds, but in a tone that suggests recent embedding more than millenia-old beliefs) misses the point by a rather wide margin. On the whole, I think it makes for interesting reading, but definitely more for the quotes than for the arguments raised by Mishra.

A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin: those were the first fantasy books in English I ever read, and so I’m coming back to them loaded with memories. They’re good–they’re very chewy and tackling weighty subject matters while maintaining the outward guise of epic fantasies, and the language is deceptively simple and gorgeous (though looking back at them, the vocabulary is definitely more elaborate than I remembered. I pity my younger self, parsing them through with a dictionary…).

It’s also an interesting reread: I’d never noticed when I first read them, but the role of women in them is appalling. A Wizard of Earthsea is particularly spectacular, its women being either evil sorceresses or smiling domestic goddesses, and most certainly not fit to go adventuring; but The Tombs of Atuan also has disquieting overtones of women’s proper place being in the home rather than wielding political power (Kossil being the embodiment of womanly power, and Arha/Tenar rather a powerless figure when it comes down to it). I can see why Le Guin felt motivated to write Tehanu, but again that takes the approach of making women’s work valuable in and of itself–don’t get me wrong, that’s also rather valuable and not recognised enough, but there’s no reason to forbid women to take up men’s work either…

Book reviews

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Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap. A collection of short stories set in contemporary Thailand, by turns cynical and sharp, sad and uplifting. The opening one, “Farangs”, set on a tourist island and from the point of view of a mixed-race Thai/American local boy, is a very biting look at the industry of tourism and how it distorts local life (and you gotta love the pet pig named Clint Eastwood). There’s a wide range of narrators and experiences, and it all adds up to a lovely atmosphere. It was a very refreshing book for me on two accounts: the first is that those are literary stories, and it’s nice to be reminded once in a while that short stories don’t have to follow the SFF genre conventions to work (few of those stories feature character change, but they still depict poignant and meaningful moments); and the second, of course, is that this is Thailand written by an insider, and a refreshing antidote to White Western writers depicting Thailand as a hellhole of prostitution where Thais abuse and/or sell each other.
The Unicorn Banquet (Le Banquet de la Licorne), Tran-Nhut. Another episode in the ongoing adventure of the Vietnamese sleuth Mandarin Tân, and his sidekicks Scholar Dinh and Doctor Pig. The structure is unusual in that it’s a series of linked short stories told at a banquet held in the midst of a storm–and that the link turns out to be the lynchpin and decision point for the main character. There are mild fantastical elements (underwater naga kingdoms, for instance), but first and foremost, it remains an excellent crime novel, and a sharp look at all the layers of 15th-Century Vietnamese society, on the eve of the Trịnh–Nguyễn war. Also, OMG food porn. I was so hungry reading about the wonderful dishes of the banquet.