The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Kij Johnson)

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Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College. When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.

But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.

4 stars

So, when I first picked up a copy of this book I, somehow, neglected to notice that it was based on the Lovecraft mythos (more, specifically, ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’) and, once I realised this, I spent a while torn between continuing as I was and reading up around the base concept. In the end I sort of did a bit of both.

I can happily say that this book is accessible to any and all, you don’t have to know anything about Lovecraft’s work to enjoy it. I’d read a little of Lovecraft’s work but found it very difficult to overlook the racism and sexism that is prevalent in it. Beautiful ideas utterly mired by disgusting prejudice. Johnson’s book almost reads as a commentary on that, a bit of a ‘what we could have had’ if the Lovecraft stories weren’t so hostile to women. Vellitt Boe acts as foil throughout the book, correcting some of the more troubling assumptions of the original books and gently critiquing the misogyny of Lovecraft’s male protagonists, namely Randolph Carter, the protagonist of the original ‘Dream-Quest’.

‘He loved who he was: Randolph Carter, master dreamer, adventurer. To him, she has been landscape, an articulate crag he could ascend, a face to put to this place. When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?’

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book is the voice of the protagonist. Vellitt Boe is an elderly woman, a character who has settled down to a life of quiet academia after decades of adventure, before being pulled into it once more. It’s so rare to read about older women in fantasy, especially not elderly women who are the heroes of the story.

Even without focusing on the important social commentary aspects, this is a beautiful book. It is entirely possible to get lost in the Dreamlands with Vellitt Boe. It has all the haunting beauty of the Mythos’ original ideas, but written in a more accessible, less rambling manner. The author mentioned in the afterword that she can remember the first time she read ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’ at the age of 10, and that, even though being troubled by the racism, the ideas of the Dreamlands had stuck with her. You can see the nostalgia in this book, that of Vellitt Boe travelling the roads she travelled as a young woman, and that of Johnson giving voice to the worlds she had adored and devoured as a child.

Whether it be the wild landscapes and creatures of the Dreamlands, or the well trodden paths of our own modern world,  Johnson finds beauty in both the extravagant and the mundane. Throughout the story you feel you are taking the journey with Vellitt, through places both bizarre and somehow familiar, and into the memories of a life fully lived.

Thank you very much to Macmillan-Tor/Forge for a copy in return for an honest review.

For those who are wondering, the beautiful cover art is by the wonderful Victo Ngai 

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Gilded Cage (Vic James)

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☆☆☆☆☆

I have a bit of a thing for dark and despicable books.

You only have to look at my favourites shelf to know that much. From the pseudo Roman, genetically-augmented Golds of Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’; the sin and smoke devoured pages of Dan Vyleta’s ‘Smoke’; to the wicked and wasteful young Aristocrat of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, there is a bit of a trend. So the moment I opened the first pages of ‘Gilded Cage’ and met a moonlit night and a young woman fleeing across a dark country estate, I knew I was onto something good.


NOT ALL ARE FREE.

NOT ALL ARE EQUAL.

NOT ALL WILL BE SAVED. 

 

Our world belongs to the Equalsaristocrats with magical giftsand all commoners must serve them for ten years. But behind the gates of England’s grandest estate lies a power that could break the world. 

 

A girl thirsts for love and knowledge.

 

Abi is a servant to England’s most powerful family, but her spirit is free. So when she falls for one of the noble-born sons, Abi faces a terrible choice. Uncovering the family’s secrets might win her liberty, but will her heart pay the price? 

 

A boy dreams of revolution.

 

Abi’s brother, Luke, is enslaved in a brutal factory town. Far from his family and cruelly oppressed, he makes friends whose ideals could cost him everything. Now Luke has discovered there may be a power even greater than magic: revolution. 

 

And an aristocrat will remake the world with his dark gifts.

 

He is a shadow in the glittering world of the Equals, with mysterious powers no one else understands. But will he liberateor destroy?”

 

(Del Rey)


 

If someone forced me to put my feelings for this book into two words I’d probably go with ‘contemporary Dickens’. Despite its modern setting you really do get the sense of smog and chimney sweeps. Indeed, we have children as young as ten put to work and a smug parliament filled with extortionately wealthy families all jostling for power.


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(‘Scene of Huddersfield’ by LS Lowry)


The factory towns put me in mind of LS Lowry’s landscapes, the great belching chimneys and faceless, stick figure workers. Juxtaposed with the joyless lives of the indentured worker are the cold, elegant, horrible, and yet strangely fascinating overclass of aristocrats who wield the ‘Skill’. Chapters alternate between workers surviving day by day on the factory line and the gleaming, manicured world of the ‘Equals’, toxic with nepotism, narcissism and family secrets.


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(Chatsworth House, the closest I could find to how I imagined the great House of Kyneston)


‘Gilded Cage’ has broad swathes of that wild British darkness that I’ve come to love so much. Think of the iron sharp, back stabbing society of Bronte and Thackeray, but left to grow obese and wasteful on its own power. An upperclass that has begun to take its place in society for granted, a once strong muscle that has not had to work and has grown atrophied, leaving space for dissension and discontent.

Then add onto that the glittering, scintillating imagery of the skill, the strange ‘post Revolutionary’ glass buildings that seem to show shadows of another world.

It is utterly breathtaking, I can’t really say more than that. I adored it. It has taken me a good few weeks to mull and decide what exactly I want to write because, for a while, my thoughts were meandering all over the shop. How to decide whether to focus on character, world building, environment, the political wrangling, eugh…almost impossible. I loved it all.

So my one piece of advice would be to pick up a copy as quick as you possible can. The UK Paperback edition comes out on the 26th of January 2017, but the Kindle version comes out on the 1st of December this year…I will allow you to mull over that one.

 (I received an ARC from the Author and Pan Macmillan in exchange for an honest review)

Down Station (Simon Morden)

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DNF @ 52% after a good old slog of an effort…

I started reading this book a while ago, and at first the premise seemed really interesting. A ragtag group of survivors flee Armageddon through a door in the London tube network to a strange new world. But very quickly it lost its magic, mostly due to just being a little bit predictable.

The new world just wasn’t that interesting…which still baffles me because how can a world filled with strange monsters be boring? Yet somehow it was. For a book that spent so much time supposedly describing the world I still didn’t really feel as if I was in it.

I wanted to like the characters mainly because I was excited to see a POC protagonist, but they felt like cardboard cutouts and were often weird cultural stereotypes (mouthy girl whose been in care, the older black woman who mothered them all…yeah).

What frustrated me most, however, was reaching 50% and there still being no real discernible plot. Why put characters in an interesting new world and inflict upon them the same boring social hierarchy that we see in everyday life?

I went and read some reviews to try and get myself back into the mindset for continuing to read it but I just felt as if I was reading a different book entirely. Sadly, there was nothing that made me want to continue other than a lingering interest in how it ended. But not even that could keep me going. It’s a pretty rare thing for me to not finish a book but it felt as if the more effort I put into trying to finish, the more I began to hate the book. 52% seems a fair attempt to get into a book and it took me a month to get there. I think, for someone who usually reads books in a couple of days, that it’s time to jump ship.

I’m giving it 2 stars because I don’t think it’s a horrific book and I thought that it was well written but that it was just very much not for more. It’s pretty rare for a book to be ‘too slow’ for me, but I think I’ve found one.

Many thanks to Gollancz and Netgalley for a copy in return for an honest review. I’m sorry that I didn’t enjoy it more!

And I Darken (Kiersten White)

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“No one expects a princess to be brutal. And Lada Dragwyla likes it that way.

Ever since she and her brother were abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman sultan’s courts, Lada has known that ruthlessness is the key to survival. For the lineage that makes her and her brother special also makes them targets.

Lada hones her skills as a warrior as she nurtures plans to wreak revenge on the empire that holds her captive. Then she and Radu meet the sultan’s son, Mehmed, and everything changes. Now Mehmed unwittingly stands between Lada and Radu as they transform from siblings to rivals, and the ties of love and loyalty that bind them together are stretched to breaking point.

The first of an epic new trilogy starring the ultimate anti-princess who does not have a gentle heart. Lada knows how to wield a sword, and she’ll stop at nothing to keep herself and her brother alive.”

I really wanted to adore this book, I mean, what’s not to like, a brutal, fierce female lead, a gory and underexplored part of history, that sounds like it ought to be great. I did enjoy this book but I didn’t adore it as I’d wished.

Positives first, I thought the decision to make Vlad the Impaler a woman was great, I mean, having a female character that was largely amoral and brutal is exciting. I have some qualms with how this decision affected some of the historical elements of the book, especially the relationship between Radu and Sultan Mehmed, but, who knows, that could be addressed in book two.

I also really loved a) that it’s set in a period of history that’s been largely overlooked by fiction and b) that it portrays Islam in a positive light for once, rather than the stereotypical war mongering rubbish of many books set in the Islamic world.

The machinations within the Court and the political wrangles with the vassal states within the Empire were my favorite parts of the book. The struggles of a young Sultan and Lada’s battle to assert her control over soldiers who automatically assumed her unfit to lead simple because of her gender are the stand out parts of the novel. The personal and political implications of age, ethnicity and gender were explored in a way that never made you bored. I would perhaps have liked to witness more of the political struggles within the Sultan’s Harem, since having a female lead made that much more possible. I cross my fingers and hope we see a little more of the lives of the women in the Harem in the next book. I think their stories are just as important and potentially even more interesting.

I suppose one of the problems was that it lacked ‘richness’. I wanted to be regaled by the opulence of the Ottoman Empire, to experience the vast buildings, the rich silks and heady scents but instead I found myself feeling a little distant from it all. Sometimes I lost track of where exactly I was supposed to be.

I had a similar problem with the characters. Lada and Radu are interesting characters but they’re lacking the little something that would make them ‘fascinating’. I found Lada’s internal monologue a little ‘one track’ and repetitive, and whilst I generally enjoyed her character I wasn’t sure it was as fully realised as it could have been. I would have liked to have gone a bit deeper into her motivations and maybe focused a little less on her preoccupation with Mehmed.

I found Radu’s motivations clearer, I liked his quiet, intense internal dialogue and the way he worked around the problems he faced. I was less interested in the tortured LGBT plotline…I wondered why we couldn’t have a Radu confident in his sexuality, after all, in history Radu and Mehmed were supposedly lovers.

I also felt that Lada wasn’t entirely the ‘feminist’ lead she was touted to be…or, at least, she wasn’t given a chance to be. She struggled with a lot of internalized misogyny, seemed to, at times, openly despise Radu’s more ‘feminine’ attributes and just generally seemed to dislike every single female character she met in the book (not that there were many…). I’m hoping it’s part of her character arc, that she realizes the strength in being a women, not simply in trying to emulate the behaviour of the men around her, but I think we’ll just have to wait and see.

Objectively, this was good book. However, it didn’t give me that sensation of mindless love I get after reading some books, where just thinking about it makes my heart leap. It gets 3.5 stars because, despite my problems with it, it’s fresh, interesting and generally well executed.

I will be really curious to see where the next book takes us.

Many thanks to Penguin Random House Books who gave me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

Wolf by Wolf (Ryan Graudin)

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Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them-made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same. Her story begins on a train.

Germania, 1956. Over ten years since the Nazis won the war. 17-year-old Yael is part of the resistance, and she has just one mission: to kill Hitler.

But first she’s got to get close enough to him to do it.

Experimented on during her time at Auschwitz, Yael has the unique ability to change her appearance at will. The only part of her which always remains are the five tattooed wolves on her arm; one for each of the people she’s lost. Using her abilities, she must transform into Adele Wolfe, Germany’s most famous female rider and winner of the legendary Axis Tour; an epic long distance motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, where only the strongest (and wiliest) riders survive. If she can win this, she will be able to get close enough to kill the Fuhrer and change history forever.

But with other riders sabotaging her chances at every turn, Yael’s mission won’t be easy. . .”

 

The first thing that really struck me about this book was the visuals. We join our protagonist, Yael, staggering from a packed death camp train into the gaze of a Nazi Death Doctor.

 

‘A floodlight bathed him. The pure white fabric of his lab coat glowed and his arms were stretched wide, like wings. He looked like an angel.’

 

Tell me that didn’t make you shudder?

 

We have the beautiful, deliberate motif of Yael’s tattoo, five wolves with five stories, interspersed among her journeys across the world. The deliberate affront to Yael’s very identity of having to wear the face of this blue eyed, blonde haired Aryan ideal. The heart breaking brutality of the Axis tour and its fragile alliances, kids that should be enjoying their adolescence, not fighting and dying for the honour of an Iron Cross.

 

This novel is deeply, deeply sad. Beautiful but sad. Even the landscapes are bleak and desolate. The darkness of a pine forest, the wide sandstorm wracked expanses of the Sahara, the lonely high mountains of Central Asia.

 

I’ve actually found it a very difficult book to review. Part of me wants to just go ‘it’s REALLY good, go read it! Which part is my favourite? ALL OF IT’ though that feels a little like cheating. So I’m going to try and be a bit more methodical about it.

 

Plot

Graudin said that the Axis Tour was partly inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s ‘Long Way Round’ (which I geeked out about for quite a while because I loved that series) and you can really feel that. It’s hard and dusty and lonely and you end up craving the company of other characters as much as Yael. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the tour and the relationships of the young competitors with the stories of Yael’s wolves. It imbued the story with a sense of hope, that even in the darkness and depravity of this world there are still brave and good people. I wasn’t actually sure what to expect with the ending. Would her plan work, would it not? All I will say is that I can not wait for  ‘Blood for Blood’ and I want to know what happened between Luka and Adele in the last Axis tour!!

 

Characters

I fell in love with all the young characters in this book…even those who were antagonists. Every single character had a motivation that maybe wasn’t immediately obvious but mattered to them. Each character was the hero of their own story. The fleeting glimpses into their thoughts and feelings, and Yael’s realisation that many of them are bound by responsibility and fears of their own is so humbling.

 

Yael’s relationship with Felix, Adele’s real life twin, and Luka, the perfect frenemy, was just so interesting that I could have very happily read another four hundred pages of just them out on the road. The tension between the three main characters had me reading through the night, wondering how it would be defused. I just want to know what happened between Luka and Adele, ok! There’s a novella (Iron to Iron) from Luka’s POV, about that tour, but it isn’t available in the UK and it’s breaking me.

 

A Note of Warning

It takes a very brave and talented author to write this era of history well. It’s very easy to fall into insensitive pit traps, and even though Graudin avoids this very well, I still feel I ought to warn people that this is a book about Nazis. It is a book that humanises kids that grew up through Hitler’s Youth (or the fictional continuation of Hitler’s Youth) and if you’re not in the right place for that, for whatever reason, then maybe give it a miss.  I’m going to say that, for some, this may be an uncomfortable read.

 

Overall

I just want to read ‘Blood for Blood’ (and find a way to read ‘Iron to Iron’). I would like it now, I don’t know how I’ll wait til October to see how this ends! This was a really hard book to review because I loved it down to its bare bones and it’s damn hard to talk about how the very words feel like a song that you want to go on and on.

 

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, many thanks to Orion Children’s Books for giving me a copy in return for an honest review.