flying_monkey's reviews
499 reviews

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

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challenging dark funny mysterious medium-paced
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? No
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.0

I'm still catching up on the best SFF lists of last year (2019), this was one that I didn't think I would enjoy, and it's pretty much lived up to that first impression. It is certainly an original premise. The setting is a decrepit solar system populated by dead and dying necromancers seved by reanimated skeletons, each planet (or House) having a slightly different specialism in the service of the deathless (and unseen) Emperor. In the creepiest, least populous House, the Ninth, whose occupants guard a locked tomb that contains some hideous secret, an orphaned girl has grown up to be the protector of the grim young necromancer, Harrowhark, the only other girl on the planet. She is foul-mouthed and well-muscled, and wields a big sword, and her only reading is girlie magazines (yes, that type) in complete contrast to the aescetic, stick-thin, black-cloaked nuns with skull-painted faces who populate the deep dark chasm that holds the tomb. The pair, along with a similar couple from each of the other planets is called to a competition on the first House to see who will become a new 'lyctor' (a sort of praetorian for the Emperor). We meet a cast of characters from the prissy to the intellectual to the outright sexy (this, if you haven't guessed is a very LGBTQ+ book, although it's not at all explicit, in fact it's all sighing and longing like some mid-century novel about girl-school crushes...). From here on in the book becomes essentially a haunted house mystery, and gets increasingly and disgustingly grand guignol, with a lot of murder, bones, more murder and bodily fluids. So what's not to like? Well, the writing is horribly, and I mean horribly off-puttingly uneven, as if this was written as the private project of a precocious teenager. It veers between fluid description, overly portentous exposition, and stupidly camp / Buffy or Mean Girls-style 'repartée', often in the space of a page. It's jarring and sometimes the intrusion of some ridiculous contemporary cultural reference from our own world completely undermines the job of world- and atmosphere-building that the author has done up to that point. For some people this is no doubt hilarious, but it made me want to hurl the book at the wall (which I couldn't do since I was reading this on an e-reader) and give up. I'm sure this is all entirely deliberate (at least I hope so or Muir is just a bad writer), but for me at least, it's grating and does not work. In conclusion, if you like reading a dark, atmospheric and very violent science fantasy populated by bitchy goth teenagers (or adult characters who still behave and sound like bitchy goth teenagers) whose idea of a witty comeback is 'that's what she said!' or 'Eat a dick!' then you'll like this book. Clearly, from the reviews, a lot of people do like this, it has won awards, and it clearly has a target audience. That target audience is not me.

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Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

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challenging dark emotional mysterious medium-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

I'd been waiting for another novel from Susanna Clarke for years. Unlike Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this is not by any means a massive book, but it is just as compelling and I found myself more than half way through it after a leisurely lunch and the ferry ride back. And I couldn't stop there.
Piranesi is one of those stories that used to be called 'slipstream,' 'the new weird' or 'urban fantasy'; at first it appears to be a surrealist fantasy, with a young man named (not by himself) after the Italian painter of endless dungeons, living apparently almost entirely alone in an world composed of seemingly infinite palatial rooms filled lined with statues of every kind of person and scene imaginable. The rooms themselves seem to contain worlds, oceans, clouds... but no other people, save for a few skeletal remains. Piranesi scribbles down his thoughts, records his quest to understand this place, and minutes his regular meetings with 'the other', a researcher who seems to come from elsewhere - but where could that be if these rooms are all there is to the world? Gradually more is revealed but Piranesi at first can't face the reality of these revelations, which simply don't accord with the worldview that gives his life meaning.
I think this brightly written and almost completely satisfying short novel will bring Susanna Clarke new fans. With its off-centre but very European magical anthropology, it has things in common with someone like Italo Calvino, or John Crowley's Aegypt series or even M. John's Harrison's sensibility, but is also wonderfully fresh. Definitely one of the best things I've read in 2020, or as Piranesi might term it, "the year the plague came to the world."

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Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo

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challenging emotional funny hopeful inspiring reflective medium-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

Bernadine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other, the 2019 Booker Prize winner, jointly with Margaret Atwood, which was ridiculous not least because Atwood hasn't written anything as good as this for some time. The novel consists of a series of life stories of black British women, immigrants and second and third generations, writers and shop assistants, actors and bus drivers, all of whom are in some way connected to the first character we're introduced to, Amma, a dramatist whose new play is about to enjoy its premiere at the National Theatre in London. I don't think I can praise this novel too highly. The characters live and breathe, the settings are alive whether they are in Britain or the USA or the Caribbean (and certainly the descriptions of life in a radical squat in London brough back some unpleasant memories!), and the politics are pointed and should embarass anyone who thinks that things are basically alright, aren't they? But above all, I admired this book's prose style. It's written in poetic run-on sentences and in particularly I loved the way that Evaristo will sometimes break the rhythm 
 
 to write in a list
 to make a point
 to create an effect
 to... (you get it).
 
SpoilerI do have to say something about the ending too. Too often literary novelists dismiss the genuinely happy ending as trite, but this novel has a beautiful, unexpected happy ending that you really cannot see coming, involving the characters you would least expect. It made me cry, and made me love this book even more.


Read this book.