Rereads – The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere by John Chu

Water drops splashing I first read The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere last year when it was announced as a nominee for the Hugo Awards.

It floored me with its simple and elegant telling of a man trying to come out to his family. The SF-nal twist is that, at an unspecified point in the past, water began falling from nowhere onto the heads of those who told lies. The concept is strange and somehwat unsettling on first meeting – why, you want to know, has this happened? I don’t know, my sweets, it’s never explained and I never thought to ask. Because soon enough the thing you care about isn’t the fantastical but the human. The sweet, sad, achingly familiar dilemma of having to reveal a part of yourself to people whose judgement has the power to hurt you very deeply.

Add to this the problems of crossing cultures and generations, of (mis)translation and (mis)understanding and you can probably see why I fell in love with this story, put it at the top of my ballot, and cried actual tears watching John Chu’s acceptance speech when he won.

I decided to re-read it recently because I wanted to introduce my lovely friend Jason to the wonders of SFF. And so I read the entire thing out loud over the phone and fell in love all over again (and Jason did too). It’s amazing what just a few months distance can do to your memory of things – I’d completely forgotten the heart-achingly familiar ending, my own mind had inflated the amount of time I thought was spent on scenes I saw as important, and the added layer of misunderstanding provided by untranslated Chinese characters – gone.

The story I’d been remembering was good but I’d changed it somehow, perhaps to be something more similar to my own experiences, perhaps to cut out the quivering uncertainty I felt as I reread the ending and came close to tears. I don’t know. But it’s made me wonder about just about every other book I’ve read – what have I forgotten, what have I rewritten to suit my own narrative, and what should I reread next?

 

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Review – Uncanny Magazine #1

Issue 1

Issue 1


[This post was edited as I wrongly stated that Michael was editor of QDSF. He contributed an essay but is not editing. He did co-edit Queers Dig Time Lords though which is very shiny.]

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I helped to kickstart a new SFF magazine called Uncanny. The first issue shipped way back in early November and I FINALLY got around to finishing it just the other day. My bad.

Because, obviously, Uncanny Magazine is a shiny jewel of wonderousness. There was no way it wasn’t going to be because it’s edited by Lynne M. Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas who have an amazing history of editorship (Is that even a word? Am I just making shit up now?!) and who, from their twitter feeds, appear to be two of the nicest humans on earth. Incidentally Michael has contributed an essay as part of Queers Destroy Science Fiction, a Lightspeed special edition issue that is kickstarting RIGHT NOW. I highly recommend backing it and also reading Michael’s essay in the updates section which had me in tears yesterday.

The magazine they’ve put together is something rather special and most certainly lives up to its name. Each story and poem was pleasantly odd – definitely science fiction and fantasy, but strange and slippery like they don’t want to be held to those definitions too tightly, their shapes shifting and blurred at the edges. Interviews and non-fiction also provided lots of a food for thought. I’m intrigued to see how this style is carried over into another issue and if it continues to shape the magazine’s content in the future.

Individual stories get mini-reviews below. Overall rating: 5 stars.

If You Were a Tiger I’d Have to Wear White by Maria Dahvana Headley 
Weirdly dark tale set in Jungleland, a Hollywood retirement complex for the celebrity animals like Leo the MGM lion. Think of the song The Piano Has Been Drinking by Tom Waits, add in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas darkness and sleaze, some faded and chipped Hollywood glamour, and then let the animals start talking. Grimy and beautiful and heart-wrenching. 3.5 stars. 

Presence by Ken Liu 
A son cares for his dying mother through the means of a remotely-operated care robot – allowing him to be present, yet absent. In such a short piece Liu manages to cover so much that I wonder how to get it all into a review let alone how he turned it into a beautiful story. The benefits of technology and their amazing ability to connect us across the world whilst simultaneously failing to do exactly that. It is also the story of emigration, of families divided by distance, by culture, and generations. It is beautiful. 4.5 stars. 

Late Nights at the Cape and Cane by Max Gladstone
Supervillains in their off-hours congregate at the Cape and Cane for few beers and commiserations between colleagues. Except this time it’s a bit too real, and one villain has to face up to the consequences of his actions and his emotions. A wonderful bit of superhero life that you don’t usually get to see. 4 stars. 

Celia and the Conservation of Entropy by Amelia Beamer
At first just a cute little story about a girl who manages to time travel back to see her Grandfather when he was writing a book about time travel. The style stays sweet and simplistic but the concepts start making your head loop. But the concepts start making your head loop. pool daeh rouy gnikam trats stpecnoc eht tuB. 3.5 stars

Migration by Kat Howard
A strange and beautiful tale of two dying women in a world where souls are carried to the afterlife and then back to their reincarnated bodies by different birds. The plot is simple but the telling is elegant. 4 stars

The Boy Who Grew Up by Christopher Barzak
A strange little tale about a teenage boy who runs away from problems at home only to find Peter Pan who takes him away in a boat to Neverland. A story of growing-up and the tragedies of children’s lives that make them want to never do that. 3.5 stars

Her Fingers Like Whips, Her Eyes Like Razors by Jay Lake
A stunning piece from the late Jay Lake that tells of the guardians of the door of death, of cancer, and loss, and is filled with so much anger and joy and passion for the world that I just don’t know how to tell you about it. 5 stars

Additionally I totally recommend Tansy Raynor Roberts’ piece Does Sex Make Science Fiction Soft?. A wonderful look at some of the things SFF could (and should) learn from the romance genre.

Go forth and get it for yourselves – Uncanny Magazine is available for free and for subscribers (subscribers get content earlier – yay!).

On my parents’ shelves

This week’s video over on my YouTube channel is me pondering about what I’ve rather grandly called my “bookish inheritance”. You can watch the video here or read the text version below (or do both because shiny).

Last week I put out a video I’d filmed whilst visiting my parents at the weekend. They recently moved into a new house and were putting together their bookshelves – what better thing to do than ‘help’ them by pointing cameras at the process. But whilst we were heaving stacks of books out of boxes and on to the shelves I, inevitably, kept getting distracted by the books themselves.

Other people’s books are fascinating – they can tell us a lot about their interests, enthusiasms, and background. Even the placement of the books can be telling – an interesting juxtaposition may be random or it may throw light onto a never before seen connection between certain titles. My mother, for instance, has many books on textile arts (spinning, knitting, crochet, etc) and they’re sitting happily with The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine by Rozsika Palmer, and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. May your knitting ever strike fear in the hearts of your enemies!

(If you’ve never read Tale of Two Cities and encountered the terrifying tricoteuse Madame Defarge then this might not make any sense – read it!)

The revolution will be knitted

The revolution will be knitted – from Thread for Thought.

I actually started reading The Subversive Stitch and it looks AMAZING. I’m fascinated by the idea of subversive crafts and the blogs Thread for Thought and Kate Davies Designs have been distracting me a lot since then.

But to return to the shelves of my parents – another thing that became clear to me was how much their shelves were a reflection of my own reading history. There was the copy of The Hobbit that was read to me as my bedtime story, the classics I tentatively picked up and adored, the compendium of Orwell novels I read just because it was there and promptly had mind blown, those first science fiction books that opened a door into a new world. I read widely and with an open mind because I had a wide selection of things to read from and no judgement put on me about what I chose. And so Greek myths were intermingled with Sweet Valley Twins, pony stories with the history of the Coelacanth. As well as leaving me with a preponderance of strange facts that can be brought out at (in)opportune moments this wide variety of subjects and stories has left me with an unshakeable belief that just about everything is really quite interesting and wouldn’t it be nice to try and understand more of it? Quite the inheritance.

All those books were my first steps into a reading journey that has shaped my life and will continue to do so. In a way those bookshelves reflect me as much as they do my parents and it makes me look assessingly at my own shelves as I write this. Certainly there are already echoes of my parents’ shelves in my own – classics rub shoulders with crime thrillers, cookbooks live with art and history in perfectly muddled harmony. I inherited my dad’s love of The Saint books by Leslie Charteris, and of classic science fiction, though not of Tolkien. My mum’s degree in English literature inspired my love of the subject and we share many of the same theory books and classics as our interests overlapped. What will the books I have surrounded myself with pass on to my children (if/when I have any), how might they be shaped by them, which reading experiences do I want to pass on to the future?

—-

So what was your literary inheritance and what would you like to pass on to the future? And it also got me thinking about the books that aren’t on my shelves. Not because I haven’t bought them or didn’t like them but because they’re electronic. How are we passing on our ebooks – do you keep a digital family library as well as or instead of a physical one?

Habits, and the lack thereof

This one’s got nothing to do with books, just FYI.

Towards the end of 2014 I was in a near constant state of stress thanks to trying to juggle a job, a masters degree programme, a youtube channel, and a life. But much to my constant amazement I kept all the plates spinning (to a greater or lesser degree) until the my holiday leave was upon me. But, come the winter break, I was ready for some proper time off – a chance to relax and recharge, to give my poor brain a break and get fresh for the coming year. And I think all those things were true – you can only stay wound to that level of tension for a finite amount of time before you need to let it spring back to relaxation – but my plan was also rather flawed.

What I failed to take into account was that my ability to get things done was somewhat dependent on a set of habits that I also abandoned in my quest for total relaxation. I floated, pretty much brainless and useless for a good couple of weeks, until my calendar forcibly reminded me that I had a host of deadlines looming and I’d done precisely nothing towards them. I stared at the list in a state of general horror for a while before deciding that it was all a bit too stressful and I’d best start by cheering myself up a bit by looking at tumblr for a while.

Tumblr is evil

Tumblr is evil [from unknown source – let me know attribution if you know]

Nine million hours later….

Yeah, I’d kind of forgotten how to be productive and all my bad habits were back. So here’s the list of good habits I’m trying to get back into (mostly because if I don’t I’m going to fail horribly) that are mostly real productivity things that have boring names I hate so I present them to you complete with the names with which I refer to them).

The dad jokes are strong with this one.

Getting Back in the Habit 

1. The Giant List of Awful Awesomeness – List everything to be done in one giant list of terror and then start processing it into things to be done now (do them now), soon, somewhere else, and sometime/whenever. Keep adding things and crossing them off. If you’re familair with GTD then, well, that.

2. Fucking well start it now – Pick something to be done and just start it. Even if finishing it seems like impossible or overwhelming just pick one aspect or piece of the whole and do it for a little bit. I’m always amazed at how often I’ll just keep going because once you’ve started your brain gets in the zone and suddenly it’s not overwhelming any more. This works for loads of stuff from writing essays to doing exercise (just do five crunches..).

3. Just do 20-fucking minutes that’s like no time at all (AKA: Pavlov’s Human) – Just do whatever it is you’re trying to do for 20 minutes with no getting distracted. Whatever else you’ve gotta do can wait that long. Then you get a tiny treat and a break as a reward. 3×20 = longer break. (It’s basically the Pomodoro method with treats thrown in because I respond well to rewards).

4. Priorities, bitch –  Any time I’m about to procrastinate I say: “THIS THING is not a priority in my life” (e.g. ‘I’m not going to write this essay because my education is not a priority.’) And then you gotta ask, is it? Sometimes other things really are more important than working on that essay/article/video right then. But often it just makes me look at whatever I was going to do instead and realise that I’m just procrastinating for no apparent reason. The Oatmeal’s cartoon about running and the Blerch tells this better.

5. What the fuck are you doing with your time? – I use the Passion Planner printable weekly spread to keep track of appointments, goals, and to-dos for my week. But I also try and track what I’m spending my time on. So if I’ve spent 90 minutes messing about aimlessly on social media then I can see that on paper. Eventually it starts scaring your brain into being productive.

Friday Reads – 23rd Jan 2015

What you reading there reader? I love the promise of a good book over the weekend and lucky for me I’ve got two!


Ammonite I’ve just started Ammonite by Nicola Griffiths – I’m two chapters in and already totally intrigued. It follows an anthropologist called Marghe Taishan who has volunteered to study the people living on the planet of Jeep whilst testing a vaccine against a virus that infects all who land there. Intriguingly the virus only kills males so the population of Jeep is entirely female yet they manage to flourish. As she risks death to uncover the women’s biological secret, she finds that she, too, is changing – and realizes that not only has she found a home on Jeep, but that she alone carries the seeds of its destruction.

 

DUN DUN DUUUUUUN.

Dramatic chipmunk

I mean, seriously, that’s one dramatic sounding premise! So far the writing has been excellent and I’m fascinated by the background of our protaganist and how it’s going to play into her experiences on the planet. Plus any book that gives a shout out to a Welsh town deserves bonus points.


The Female FactorySometimes if I’ve only got ten minutes to read something I like to read single short story rather than not having time to really get back into a novel. This means I’ve usually got one or more collections of short stories going on. And so my other book is this very beautiful collection of shorts, The Female Factory by Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter. I was sent this for free by the lovely Alisa who runs Twelfth PlanetPress because she is very kind and knows how much I love the Twelve Planets collection. I was particularly excited to get my hands on this one because it sounds right up my street.

Hopeful mothers-to-be try everything. Fertility clinics. Pills. Wombs for hire. Babies are no longer made in bedrooms, but engineered in boardrooms. A quirk of genetics allows lucky surrogates to carry multiple eggs, to control when they are fertilised, and by whom—but corporations market and sell the offspring. The souls of lost embryos are never wasted; captured in software, they give electronics their voice. Spirits born into the wrong bodies can brave the charged waters of a hidden billabong, and change their fate. Industrious orphans learn to manipulate scientific advances, creating mothers of their own choosing. From Australia’s near-future all the way back in time to its convict past, these stories spin and sever the ties between parents and children.

There’s just so much that interests me here – the grotesque and the uncanny are rife in concepts of reproduction and that combination of the familial, the scientific, and the gothic just calls to me. And actually it all fits with the concepts in Ammonite as well. Look at me theming like a boss.

Me and Frankenstein have issues


It’s going to be a very creepy life-death-science-nature-Frankenstein sorta weekend. Hells yeah.

Review – Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

coverThe first part of the 10-book Malazan Book of the Fallen series this novel is pretty notorious among fantasy fans for being a complex world to get into. I was warned multiple times that it would “baffling” and “crazy” but to keep going and trust the author because all would become clear. I mean,with warnings like that I was expecting the damned Voynich manuscript (seriously, look it up, it’s amazing). So I put on my big girl socks and prepared myself for an intense reading experience…….

…….……. Seriously you guys, WTF? This isn’t weird or crazy or difficult or complicated. It’s standard drill, dragons and assassins, taken to pieces by Terry Pratchett,  epic fantasy. That’s it. All those warnings about complexity are because the author doesn’t really do much in the way of info-dumping, instead relying on you to pick up information through dialogue and descriptions of things that characters see. And without meaning huge amounts of offence to my fellow readers – was that really so difficult for you?

What, like it's hard?

All this should not suggest that I hated the book, I didn’t. I just don’t understand the hype. But let’s move on to a discussion of what the book is rather than what it is is not. Gardens of the Moon is based around the vast Malazan Empire whose massive armies are conquering neighbouring cities and states in a seemingly never-ending reign of terror. We follow a host of different characters who come together in Darujihstan, next on the Empire’s list for destruction. There’s grizzled soldiers, possessed teenage killers, gods, monsters and demons galore. It is, to be fair to all those aforementioned fans, pretty damned epic in scale. And this one book is just a tiny slice of what’s to come. So much is hinted at, so much is set up ready for a vast unraveling plot of wonder, that you can practically feel this giant world unfolding in front of you.

But, my sweet darlings, this promise of things to come is not an entirely good thing. 700+ pages is not a length I find acceptable for a setup. There was action, there were story arcs that arc in a fairly satisfying manner but goddamn there was a whole mess of unanswered questions just left in a big tangled heap. I’ve been promised by those who have read the entire series that many of these things will be answered but too many of them were introduced far too late for me to be satisfied with that as my answer. One particularly grating example came at the denouement when the big bad is (of course) defeated by the appearance of a never before seen or mentioned god tree thing. Fucking deus ex machina. Well, deus ex abore really. You get my point. I have been assured that it is explained in later books but my dissatisfaction remains. Long plot arcs rock, clunky individual parts do not.

I think that the characters and world that have were begun in this book are wonderful in their detail but I’m not sure that the detail can make up for what was essentially a pretty standard fantasy world with some boilerplate characters and settings – assassins guild, night-watchmen, master spy in plain sight, mysterious dark anti-hero, grizzled soldier with true honour and a tight knit crew – did you read Discworld? Yes, it’s likely better written and more complex than metric fuckton of fantasy out there. But writing the same damn fantasy novel in more detail does not a perfect read make.

Maybe I’m being overly harsh, maybe I need to read more of the series to give it a fair go, but this one book didn’t do it for me.

But everybody likes me

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Crafting a different TBR

If you’ve read/seen my 2015 Goals, then you’ll know I’m trying to broaden my reading habits by reading more SFF by women, authors of non-binary genders, queer authors, authors of colour, and works in translation. Unfortunately, whenever I go wandering around my local library or bookshop, or browsing ebooks, I don’t find very many of these things. Or, at least, I’m not noticing them.

And that was something I wanted to examine because that’s a problem. It’s my problem that I’m not noticing things.  So that’s what the video is about. Obviously, this being my website and all, I suggest you watch the video but you can also read the (suuuuuper) shortened version below and check out some of the authors and titles I’ve been learning about below.

So often I pick up a particular book because of some previous knowledge of it; somebody mentioned it in a booktube video, it was featured in a blog post or a tweet, it caught my eye on goodreads. That pre-exisiting knowledge is a key factor in whether I’ll buy or read something and I think it is for so many of us. Once something has wormed its way into your consciousness you’re so much more likely to notice it or think of it again because our brains love patterns. There’s even a name for when you learn/see something new and then suddenly you notice it everywhere – the Baader Meinhof phenomenon.

What I’m doing, therefore, is trying to actively look for new authors or books to read and then learning a bit about them so they really sink into my brain. I want to keep seeing these interesting names so that these are the ones that pop into my head, that keep tempting me to read them next, and so that they’re as easy for me to recall as the big name authors that I hear mentioned every day. To that end I’ve started making the list that you can see below. It’s not a complete list and it’s a not a definite TBR. I’m not aiming to read all these things by any set date, I just want to keep noticing them and then I’ll probably pick them up at some point. So goes than plan anyway. I guess we’ll see at the end of the year when I review my year in reading.

A few notes on the list:

  • Where an author is listed for one book but they have others you think are cool, please let me know because even if I already know about their others books the repetition helps my quest (and I might not know!).
  • If you have any amazing recommendations then please, please, please let me know either in blog comments, YouTube comments or on twitter.
  • The links are mostly affiliate links because I need pennies to buy tickets to SF conventions. Feel free to avoid clicking on them if you don’t like that kind of thing.

The list: 

Dawn (Lilith’s Brood – Book One) by Octavia Butler
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
The Bees Her Heart, the Hive Her Belly by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
The Stars Change by Mary Anne Mohanraj
The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias
Orleans by Sherri L. Smith
Salt Fish Girl by Larissa Lai
The Lost Girl by Sangu Mandanna
Valor’s Choice by Tanya Huff
Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (The World of Riverside) by Brit Mandelo (ed.)
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr
Any short stories by John Chu (like this one)
Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal
Through a Brazen Mirror by Delia Sherman
Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
Yukikaze by Chohei Kambayashi
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World by Haruki Murakami
The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu
The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord

Review – The Just City by Jo Walton

Just City coverAuthor: Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 13 January 2015

Length: Novel (368 pages)

Format I read: eBook

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


The Just City was created as an experiment by the goddess Pallas Athene to see if Plato’s thought experiment, as set out in The Republic, could work in real life. How would the idealistic but strange rules he sets out work when they come up against imperfect humans? A few hundred adults, one thousand ten-year olds, a bunch of futuristic robot helpers, and two gods in human form. It’s the recipe for some fascinating times.

The story is told by three characters: Pytheas, who is secretly the god Apollo trapped in a child’s body and vulnerable to the emotions and imperfections of mortal life; Maia, formerly a Victorian lady trapped by her social position and now fighting to impose equality in the Just City, and Simmea, an intelligent child eager for knowledge who embraces the Platonic ideal and befriends Pytheas.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives to ask all the troublesome questions that both Plato and Athene would really rather you just wouldn’t.

Jo Walton is one of those writers that you can happily recommend to people who love SFF and people who think they don’t. Her novels are always something different (she’s a  genre blurring genius) , something special and something that will leave you with a lot of thinking to do.

If you’ve ever read any of Jostein Gaarder’s philosophical novels (The Solitaire Mystery, The Christmas Mystery, Sophie’s World) then this book will feel somewhat familiar. Obviously the gods and their divine intervention put this in the fantasy field but the real meat of the novel is in the philosophical exploration. It pulls apart Plato’s ideas and examines the problems within it – How would you correct for people’s preexisting ideas? How would the proportions of children to adults work? How do you deal with the necessity of work? How do you populate the city? It’s full of intriguing questions and also explores, through the actions of the characters, things like equality of work, slavery, misogyny, rape, political power, and the importance of individual agency versus the importance of the state. That’s some big things to cope with.

But it does so well. Jo Walton has this effortless-seeming light touch to her writing. You’re just swept along, happily enjoying the story before suddenly realising that you’ve learned significant amounts about philosophy, engaged in socratic dialogues about the ethical basis for society, and had a thoroughly good time doing it. Her characters are, as ever, wonderful: witty, intriguing, flawed and wonderful. And I loved being able to see how the society both helped and held back our three protagonists with their very different viewpoints. And the robots. You’re going to love the robots.

All I can say is that I’m glad there’s more to come. The adventure continues with THE PHILOSOPHER KINGS in July 2015 and NECESSITY soon after that.

Rating: 4 .5 out of 5 stars

Friday Reads – 9th Jan 2015

I’ve just finished reading Jo Walton’s new book THE JUST CITY and about to get back into GARDENS OF THE MOON by Steven Erikson (as part of a booktube group read) but between the two there’s just enough time to fit in some short fiction. So here’s what I’ll be reading this weekend.


Issue 1

Issue 1

I helped to Kickstart the wonderful Uncanny Magazine back last year. Issue 1 came out in November and I started it but totally forgot to finish it and I’m missing out on so much. Even better Issue 2 arrived this week and OOOOOOOOOMG such a good contents page.

There’s a classic short by Ann Leckie (I LOVE HER), a translated piece from Hao Jingfang, poetry from Isabel Yap (whose short story A Cup of Salt Tears was one of my favourites of 2014), essays on nerd-rock & cosplay, and interviews with both Hao Jingfang and Ann Leckie. And that’s just a SAMPLE. This is an epic magazine people. You can get all the content for free over at their website though you’ll get it earlier if you’re a subscriber!


Issue 100

Issue 100

Another my recent Kickstarter funds has also borne fruit! Clarkesworld’s campaign to fund the publication of more Chinese SFF stories in translation caught my eye. Especially when they added the stretch goal for an additional fund for translating works in all kinds of other language as well!

I just received my first issue (#100) and it’s already amazing. The first story, Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight, is from Aliette de Bodard’s Mindships universe and was beyond beautiful. There’s also a story from Catherine M. Valente and, of course, a translated piece; ETHER by Zhang Ran.

You can get the whole issue over on their website for free. Or you can get an esubscription in all kinds of formats for a small fee.

Review – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsAuthor: Robert Jackson Bennett

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date: 02 October 2014

Length: Novel (420 pages)

Format I read: Library Hardback


A compelling and action-packed novel that manages to make you think about some serious issues at the same time. Part murder-mystery, part fantasy, this is pure fun. It’s set in the city of Bulikov, previously the centre of magic and divine powers, now a wrecked shell of a land. When the mysterious divinities that ruled Bulikov and the surround provinces were destroyed large parts of it disappeared with them and the city folded in itself.

Now staircases to nowhere and strange merged buildings linger and the once powerful land is ruled by its former empire. We’re following a spy sent to investigate a murder who finds herself stumbling into far more secrets about the past of this divine city, and her own family history, than might be healthy. Oh and there’s an old love interest, a naked Norse bodyguard wrestling with a giant squid, and enough tea to float a small navy.

The story largely revolves around Shara Komayd who arrives in the city as a lowly diplomat, but is in reality a highly trained spy and descendant of the man who killed Bulikov’s divinities a few generations back. Her old friend Dr Efrem Pangyui has been murdered and as she looks into the mystery she begins to find that it’s all twisted up with the death of the divinities, a political campaign to rebuild the city, and the political power, of Bulikov, and maybe, just maybe, some hints that those gods aren’t quite as dead as previously thought.

This is one of those books that just drags you into the action and gets you hooked immediately. There was so much intrigue, political machinations, and interesting personal histories to find out about that I really didn’t want to put this book down. The world that was drawn got me thinking a lot about imperialism, conquest and devolution – it felt something like a twist on the British Raj era but with more magic and a reversal of fortunes. There’s a lot of tough ideas to get your teeth into, but Jackson really doesn’t make it feel like heavy going. Sure, it’s a simplified idea of a real world so it won’t have the same weight but that doesn’t mean that the difficult thoughts are skipped over. Shara and various other characters spend a considerable amount of time discusssing and thinking about imperialism and empire, the responsibilities and problems of political power, and the ethics of religion.

And the characters, oh, how I loved them. The book features not one but at least three significant female characters who are all over thirty (or fourty maybe?) and in positions of power and responsibility. Fantastic. Plenty of guys too, don’t you worry. And all of them felt well developed, with interesting back stories and character traits.

Rating: 4 out 5 stars. A thrilling romp of a read but without that certain something.