Saturday, March 30, 2013

Emilie and the Hollow World, Martha Wells

Vintage, £7.99
   It's been a really eventful few weeks. One bookselling job ended abruptly last week; another stretches out in front of me (after a couple of weeks off, yay!). I've had more time than usual to read, but circumstances have conspired to make me want to enjoy the comfort of some re-reading. I re-loved Jasper Fforde's 'One of Our Thursdays is Missing', and of course my ultimate comfort-reading - some Harry Potter. I got hold of a couple of Fred Vargas titles, and picked 'The Three Evangelists' to read first. I've unfortunately since discovered that this title is the first in another series of novels the French author has written around the main characters of the titular 'evangelists' - Matthieu, Marc, and Lucien - as opposed to one featuring her most famous character - Parisian detective Commissaire Adamsberg. I enjoyed it despite its Adamsberglessness, and luckily didn't find it as disturbing as I often find her novels (they usually disturb me because the slightest hint of menace or freakishness in her clear prose cuts straight to the most terrified part of my cautious soul).
   My main read during this past week has been another advance copy I received from the
Strange Chemistry, £7.99
generous folk at Strange Chemistry - 'Emilie and the Hollow World' by Martha Wells, released on Tuesday April 2nd. Look how pretty the cover is!
   Emilie is a smart, brave teenage girl with ambitions beyond the small provincial town in which she has been brought up by relations after her mother ran away The story opens as Emilie attempts to stow away on a ship on its way to the city, where she hopes to attend school. Her plan quickly goes awry, and Emilie ends up on a mysterious round vessel called The Sovereign, where she gets caught up in the adventure of a lifetime. You can read Chapter One on the author's website here
   Emilie could have been a very clich├ęd 'plucky teenage girl' character, but Wells deftly avoids that pitfall and has created a really likeable girl - inexperienced, but brave, intelligent, and resourceful. Her relationships with a female mentor and new friends of various species in the course of her adventures are believable and affecting. I'd certainly recommend this one. It's a fantastical adventure in the spirit of Verne and (my favourite) Stephen Hunt, author of 'The Court of the Air' and 'The Kingdom Beyond the Waves' (while perhaps not rising to the heights of that modern-day master). If you enjoy this one, you should definitely try Hunt next. 
HarperCollins, £12.99
    Another book I'd been eagerly anticipating and finally read recently is 'The Daylight War', the third book in Peter V. Brett's acclaimed Demon Cycle series. For some reason, I had the impression (I think from early publicity around the preceding books) that this book was to be the conclusion of a trilogy. As I read, I was confused as to the lack of resolution and the pace, which didn't seem to suit a dramatic finale of epic proportions. Of course, when I reached the end of the book, I realised that this was in fact not a conclusion at all. It made for a strange reading experience, and I've resolved to do more research in future before diving into any book. Given that there shouldn't have been any change in pace or any appearance of full resolution, 'The Daylight War' was an entirely satisfying read. While I feel that neither this book nor 'The Desert Spear' (book 2) reached the potential hinted at in 'The Painted Man', the amazing first instalment of the Demon Cycle, it once again delves deeply into the backstory of one of the most intriguing characters of the series, as well as bringing the story to new and exciting places with information on the corelings 'hive' at the Core. If you haven't already read one or all of these books... I just don't know what kind of rock you must have been hiding under for the last few years, but it's time to come out now!
   The next few reads I have lined up are 'The Lives of Tao' by Wesley Chu (released May 2nd by Angry Robot), 'Reviver' by Seth Patrick (released June 20th by Pan MacMillan), and 'The Dragons of Ordinary Farm' by Tad Williams and Deborah Beale (one from my 'Books About Dragons' list!). 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Deathless

Constable & Robinson, £14.99
   When 'Deathless' arrived into the shop in November, I bought it immediately. It's one book that I may well have bought purely for it's attractiveness, but as it happens I'd read Valente's 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' - one of the best books I read last year (you can read my review here). I read 'Deathless' over the last few weeks, and can now officially announce that Catherynne M. Valente is my new favourite author. 
   This novel is a retelling of the classic Russian myth of Marya Morevna, Ivan Tsarevitch, and Koschei the Deathless, which I admit to only having read after finishing this book. Even without being familiar with the main characters of the myth, enough familiar characters, settings, and tropes appear in the novel that it seems like a more universal myth, albeit with a strongly Eastern European feel. 
   'Deathless' opens with the story of Marya Morevna, a young girl growing up in the earliest years of the 20th century in St. Petersburg (Leningrad, as Marya keeps forgetting to call it). She sits in her window sewing, observing the street outside. When she is six, she witnesses an extraordinary event: she sees a rook fall from a tree onto the pavement - when he gets up again he is a handsome young man in a black uniform. He knocks on the door of Marya's house, and announces that he has come for the girl in the window. Marya's mother presents Marya's eldest sister, and the bird-man agrees to marry her, having realised that Marya is not meant for him. Three times this happens - when Marya is nine her next sister marries a plover, and when she is twelve her third sister marries a shrike. So Marya continues to sit at the window, and while she sews she daydreams of the bird who will fall to the pavement and come to take her away to be his wife. 
'Kashchey the Immortal' by Viktor Vasnetsov
   In the long space of time that elapses, Marya meets the domovoi, spirits of the house. Marya has been brought to report her finding that the house has grown larger and to find out whether the house will impede on the neighbouring ones -
   '"Child", said Comrade Zvonok in a patient tone, "we are not architects. We are imps. We are goblins. If we could not make a little room on the inside without budging the outside, we would not be worth our tails. After all, we have been making our little homes in the walls for centuries."'
Fan art by fuckyeahdeathless on Tumblr
   One day when Marya's eyes are closed, an owl falls to the pavement, springs back up as a darkly handsome young man, and comes to the door to announce himself as Koschei Bessmertny. Marya packs her bag and leaves with him without a backwards glance. In the car, Koschei kisses her:
   "Koschei turned, gripped Marya’s chin, and kissed her—not on the cheek, not chastely or unchastely, but greedily, with his whole, hard mouth, cold, biting, knowing. He ate up her breath in the kiss. Marya felt he would swallow her whole.
   As the story goes on, many mythical characters appear - firebirds, a leshy, wizards, and the inimitable Baba Yaga, her house on chicken legs transformed into a car with chicken legs for her entrance. She and Marya clash - 
   '"Comrade Yaga - "
   Baba Yaga whirled on her, the tails of her fur coat whipping around. "Don't you call me comrade, little girl. We aren't equals and we aren't friends. Chairman Yaga. That comrade nonsense is just a hook by which the low pull down the high. And then what do you get? Everyone rolling around in the same shit, like pigs." 
Ivan Bilibin illustration, 1900
   The characters feast on caviar and vodka, beets, pirozhki, and black tea. Marya goes to war on her consort's behalf - Koschei is Tsar of Life and is locked in permanent war with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death. Marya is told that this "war is always going badly". The relationship between Marya and her kidnapper/lover/tsar Koschei is an extremely complex one, full of strange savage passion and deep feeling:
   "I do not tolerate a world emptied of you. I have tried. For a year I have called every black tree Marya Morevna; I have looked for your face in the patterns of the ice. In the dark, I have pored over the loss of you like pale gold.” 
   This is a miracle of a novel - universal myths of love, war, and death told in prose that is sharp, clear, and as burning cold as the Russia it describes. Valente's writing will give you goosebumps.