Book Reviews (5)

The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

This book complements Reni Eddo-Lodge’s (review here) well, reinforcing some of what she said about race in British society while providing some more perspectives, and addressing issues specific to a wider range of ethnic groups.

Vera Chok’s ‘Yellow’ addresses orientalist tropes and the concept of ‘yellow fever’; Wei Ming Kam’s ‘Beyond “Good” Immigrants’ questions the rhetoric of ‘the model minority’. Riz Ahmed discusses constantly getting stopped at airports with wry dry humour. Sarah Sahim’s ‘Perpetuating Casteism’ reveals the significant role of the British Empire in exacerbating the ongoing issues of the caste system in Indian diaspora – British-imposed censuses consciously using divide-and-rule tactics with ongoing impact. There are many other valuable entries.

Vinay Patel’s exploration of his beliefs and fear of death would have been a good essay for a different book, and not all the writers managed quite the analytical slam-dunk Eddo-Lodge’s book pulled off – but a world where everyone engaged with what’s said here, and gained a better understanding of these issues, would certainly be a better one.

The Vorrh – B. Catling

Not entirely sure what happened, to be honest. Something to do with a magic forest. There were various plot threads which didn’t necessarily connect together, and made some sense in their own right but didn’t give you much of a hint what it all meant. Why is that guy trying to cross the forest? Who knows! It sort of works, because he doesn’t seem to either.

This was insanely imaginative, evocative, with an image-dense writing style (which does trip over into purple prose imo). Part of me appreciates the dreamlike, mystic approach, the way characters and readers are both confused, at the mercy of mysterious forces. Another part of me wishes there was more reason to care about the characters, to be invested in whether or not they succeed, have a bit of narrative tension. The dark, peculiar, meandering literary atmosphere has its a e s t h e t i c panache, but don’t go in expecting a standard plot-driven novel.

Catling has some weird unresolved issues, frankly. No normal person writes a long stream-of-consciousness paragraph of a dog’s violent wet dream for literally no reason, or describes what a woman made from Bakelite’s vagina is like in obsessive detail, or… sigh. Dude. Take a cold shower, maybe see a therapist, definitely stay away from kennels.

Some really fantastic ideas, in a highly unique work of fantasy. The experimental approach has its pros and cons.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This is really good. The worldbuilding. The magic system. The sympathetic characters, the nasty ones. The interplay between Kvothe telling his story and the ‘present’ interludes. Rothfuss has written an immersive and suitably epic work of epic fantasy, with humour, pathos, darkness, and excellent magic.

I just struggled with the protagonist, Kvothe. Is he a Gary Stu? It’s fine to have a character be a genius, but figuring out Chronicler’s writing system in a few minutes and learning things in days instead of months gets a bit much. Let him struggle a little bit first. Sheesh. I can buy him being a great musician, too, but not THAT great.

He’s probably exaggerating in places – but the narration doesn’t give a clear sign that he’s an unreliable narrator, and some of his feats definitely happen, in the present interludes. I’d like him more if Rothfuss either made him less over-proficient, or made him a more blatant unreliable narrator.

He isn’t a complete Gary Stu though. He has flaws which cause him real problems – he’s petty, impulsive, and really dumb in certain areas. There are places where he does reveal that he made himself seem more amazing than he actually was through trickery, and they were points I warmed to him much more.

Great story, great world, great supporting cast, mixed feelings for the protagonist.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

A human, Genly Ai, has been sent to the planet Gethen as ambassador of the Ekumen, an alliance of worlds. He struggles with the knotty politics and freezing climate, trying to properly understand the Gethenian’s unique gender status. The natives are neither male nor female, only taking on a sex during a short monthly period of ‘kemmer’. He instinctively applies human gender roles to the ambisexual natives, while they see him as a pervert in permanent kemmer.

Often fictional species are all humans with cosmetic differences, or with some heavy-handed cultural difference leaving little room for them to have divergent personalities. Le Guin managed to write Gethenians as socially and psychologically distinct from humans, and as individuals distinct from each other. The countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn have different political systems and cultures from each other, but both are clearly of Gethen.

The environment, political structures, religions, and particularly the gender element of Gethen’s inhabitants ties deeply and logically into every detail: the various words for snow, the code of hospitality, the lack of aircraft, the rules of prestige. Le Guin crafts an engaging story with rich characters, at the same time as ‘making strange’ aspects of the real world to expose insights into gender, politics, and life.

An excellent work of sci-fi for its imagination, setting, characters, story, and insight. Deserves its acclaim.

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