Book Reviews (26)


Time of Contempt – Andrzej Sapkowski
Witcher #4

A bunch of pieces are pushed forwards – Nilfgaard and the four northern realms, Ciri and Yennefer, Geralt and Yennefer, the sorcerer’s council, the desert onwards. It feels a book of separate parts, a little disjointed even though it all fits together.

The world and character are just very enjoyable. Yennefer’s gaslight/gatekeep/girlboss energy, Geralt the spooky dude who #lifts but is lowkey an awkward sensitive himbo, Dandelion continuing to be much better than in the stories. Ciri’s note at the inn. The whole banquet sequence with its high-class sophisticated bitchy wit and my G trying to get some damn shrimp.

The world in general is strongly built, with the political machinations and detailed economic consequences and so on. There’s a good balance of defined facts and a sense of history to a sense of mystery and possibility. One weakness/strength, depending on perspective: how specific some of the terminology for armour, ranks, etc can be. It can be a good thing to send the reader to a dictionary, but it’s gotta be necessary.

The desert: I was not at all expecting that, a real shift. Intense.

The one translation issue I notice here might be ‘contempt’ – the original Polish must’ve been snappier, because it feels a bit too wet a term for people to be using all the time when they’re talking about literal razing armies and pogroms.

Worth mentioning – c/w sexual violence. Brought up a fair bit, depicted non-explicitly in one grim scene. Won’t debate the whole ‘it’s realistic’ vs ‘this is fantasy, the middle ages didn’t have elves either, you didn’t have to include that’ thing here, or the merits of that particular scene, but c/w.

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #3

Mantel’s trilogy about the tumultuous career of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII comes to a close. Anne Boleyn beheaded, Jane Seymour queen, and Cromwell risen to unprecedented heights – a height before a fall.

As with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – stellar, rich prose; historical detail, intrigue, and character depth. The trilogy is an incredible window to a particular time and a key figure within it.

This took me a hella long time to read. I’ve got to say that this trilogy – and maybe this book particularly – would benefit from some tightening. I definitely enjoy its sprawl, its atmospheric prose, its reflection. If the narrative were told in the manner I’d normally expect, it would miss much of what makes it special. But by the Mass is it long. It’s simply difficult to hold tension over that span, keep a grasp on all the players and their games. The big events can lose some impact from being cushioned between all the careful manoeuvrers, adjoining stories, and mythic atmosphere.

Still, though – a beautiful account of court intrigue in all its brutal and farcical elegance, growing success bringing with it growing threats and resentments, and a suite of engaging figures trading rumors, banter, and threats. Delightful, weird details and startling twists make the familiar story of Henry and his wives a thoroughly fresh account, an immersive, heartfelt exploration of power through the lens of one man who rose dangerously close to a king.

Book Reviews (25)

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Iain Banks – Transition

A great central concept – a power struggle in the Concern, an organisation working across parallel worlds whose operatives can shift their consciousness into other people in other versions of Earth – shines through more mixed execution.

I struggled to get into it at first. Maybe my own vibes were off, but it certainly can feel a bit disjointed. The story shifts rapidly between various characters, and it takes a while for a plot to start emerging.

The best character is Adrian, a London finance dickhead and former coke dealer with a very strong voice, a manipulative self-absorbed tour de force. The others tend to suffer a little from having similar, stilted voices, like they’re giving a presentation – although the Philosopher’s eerie professionalism as a torturer, and the hints at the fascistic security state of his home world, make him gripping in his own way.

Another issue with some characters is a forced preoccupation with sexuality, especially with Tem’s parts. Not to be prudish – Adrian is always evaluating/manipulating birds and it works for the character! With the others, though, I was rolling my eyes a bit. Did a discussion about the secretive agendas at the top of the Concern need to happen during a footjob?

There’s one rather forced section where it feels like Banks is trying to leaven what he must realise is very heavy exposition – ‘quanta where reality itself seethes with a continual effervescence of sub-microscopic creation and destruction’, I mean, jfc – with very detailed accounts of what the two speakers are doing with their hands. It’s like a dry lecture if the lecturer has a few strippers come on to spice it up as they drone on. Why not make the lecture less dry?

And there’s the men-writing-women meme used irl, when Tem transitions into a female body and ‘Breasts move very slightly with each pace, but constrained. Sports bra.’ PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU TEM.

Having complained a lot, I’ll repeat that the ideas are great. There are very thoughtful and disturbing sequences. The central plot is good too. This might be stronger if it lectured less and had more of the parallel-world chase sequence stuff.

Banks makes a big deal of the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, though the text itself rarely directly addresses the period’s specific significance. I don’t remember that time, so I’m not getting what he’s trying to say about that, although it probably involves that nonsense about ‘the end of history’. If you’ve read this too and you’re a bit older, any thoughts?

Bunny – Mona Awad

(h/t Sprinkled With Words)

Samantha, an outsider in a prestigious MFA program, gets pulled between her friend (ahem?) Ava and her writing cohort: a creepily saccharine clique of privileged women who call each other Bunny, hug way too much, and do an unbelievable ritual where [redacted].

It’s hard to summarise what this is without spilling all the madness of it – but it’s not a self-absorbed story about ~being a writer~ at ~university~. It’s wild and sardonic; pokes at the pretensions of that world in a way anyone who’s been there will chuckle at and anyone who hasn’t will enjoy the ride of anyway; a vulnerable account of being on the margins, levied with plenty of wit, bitterness, glimmers of warmth, and surreal brain-splatter violence.

The narration is just *salt bae gif*:

“Can I take your coat?” Cupcake offers. I turn to her. She’s looking at me so hopefully. So willing to take a coat I’m not wearing, I almost want to give her my skin.
[…]
I think she should apologize to trees. Spend a whole day on her knees in the forest, looking up at the trembling aspens and oaks and whatever other trees paper is made of with tears in her languid eyes and say, I’m fucking sorry. I’m sorry that I think I’m so goddamned interesting when it is clear that I am not interesting. Here’s what I am: I’m a boring tree murderess.
[…]
Our mothers always said to look hard at the things of this world that are owies on the eyes because they will put more colors in your inner rainbow.

The ominous shift from part 1 to part 2 is really impressive: the flip in tone, voice, names. The use of cutesy cupcakes-and-unicorns stuff to be so deeply eerie throughout Bunny feels very unique and speaks to powerful ideas. And the ending finds hope, without undercutting the book’s rejection of false positivity.

Spoiler warning: Monstrous Cute, a good interview with Awad.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #2

Amazing stuff! This takes everything I liked about Wolf Hall and does it better.

Mantel’s account of Anne Boleyn’s fall and Jane Seymour’s unexpected rise captures the dangerous game of the Tudor court, the turbulence and absurdity of absolute monarchy. Cromwell’s character combines a touch of impishness and deep sentimentality with ruthless ambition and corruption.

Across a wide range of figures, all are memorable with strong motivations and quirks. Jane Seymour had been so unassuming in Wolf Hall that I’d barely remembered she’d have to become #3. Now she’s still humble, unobtrusive, but portrayed with dashes of character in gestures and rare words – even the way she enters through that door is so telling. How do you surprise someone with major plot points so well known they have a rhyme mnemonic? Like this.

The writing in general is stellar. Rich, without as much of the meandering that bogged me a little in Wolf Hall – dialogue, imagery, humour, threat. A perfect balance of style, implications, clarity, and period detail.

Perhaps I’m more used to Mantel’s using ‘he’ – meaning Cromwell – as the subject of sentences, but I got less mixed up with other male characters this time. She often avoids that with a slightly awkward ‘he says: he, Cromwell’ which made me wonder why not simply ‘Cromwell says’, but at least that’s clearer.

Looking forward to The Mirror and the Light.

Book Reviews (23)

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I first read Wolf Hall choking it down as part of a reading list. Trying again on my own time, I could much better appreciate Mantel’s account of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII, as Katherine of Aragon falls and Anne Boleyn takes her place. The sly manoeuvring of power, sharp dialogue, period detail, and introspective prose make for a compelling experience.

There are segments where it’s tricky to see how things are moving forwards – no doubt that reflects the uncertainties of the time, and Mantel’s writing kept my interest, but some of those periods could’ve been summarised more strongly. One small issue I had with the prose is Mantel’s use of ‘he’ as the subject of sentences, usually referring to Cromwell, being unclear in some places with other men involved.

However, any scene of court drama, business, violence, wrangling tricky people and situations – the majority of the book – shows off a balance of historical fact and strong characterisation, drawing on wit, sensitivity, and brash corruption.

The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn #3

A great conclusion to a great trilogy.

Some of the world-building is a bit top-heavy, but it’s masterful world-building – you get to figure things out yourself and realize they were dangled from book one, and the action sparkles as always. The Big Bad is a bit of a generic destructive bastard, despite the notes of complexity Sanderson did fit in there, but is still a fun enemy. And the story as a whole pulls right along, with the best fast, consistent pacing so far, tying up mysteries and closing long-waiting loops with revelation.

Sazed’s philosophical struggle comes off a little one-note, but it’s impossible to dislike the character, and the arc is staggering. Spook – that guy has really stepped up! Through TenSoon, we get more nice kandra lore. Vin is Vin. Elend is Elend. The two together can feel a touch wooden sometimes, but mostly not – overall it’s good old Brando Sando.

And the ending – the scope and payoff over these three chonky tomes, the sacrifice and reward – crikey. Read these books, people.

The Dawn of Everything – David Graeber & David Wengrow

The standard framing of zoomed-out human history runs something like this: start with small hunter-gatherer bands living in either egalitarian harmony (if you believe Rousseau) or a brutish war of all against all (if you believe Hobbes); then progress through a sequence of evolutionary stages – tribes, chiefs, farming, cities: at which point the scale of people who need organising requires a level of top-down hierarchy which leads inexorably to the modern nation-state.

It’s a tale in which modern civilisation required either sacrificing the childlike equality of hunter-gatherer bands, or taming our brutish instincts through the rule of law. In either case, inequality is an unavoidable price.

This incredible work blows all that up. Looking at the evidence in anthropology and archaeology, Graeber and Wengrow overturn every step of the narrative of progress we take for granted.

Humans didn’t spend hundreds of thousands of years in tiny bands with no further political complexity at play – in a State of Nature taken as either good or evil. Our ancient ancestors, they insist, were conscious of how they organised themselves and made decisions about it. Stone Age people could gather in thousands for meaningful portions of the year, building large structures of their own, and consciously shifted between smaller and larger groups with different forms of organisation at different times of year. Far from simple isolated bands, networks of culture formed across thousands of miles.

Agriculture didn’t force a development towards aristocracies, as many thinkers have claimed; and nor did the scale of cities require a loss of egalitarian organisation. At every point a range of possibilities were open, because people debated how to organise themselves. For millennia, people farmed in such a way as to deliberately prevent crops becoming fully domesticated; and once they were it didn’t force any particular mode of social organisation. Various ancient cities were ran by local assemblies for centuries at a time, running complex projects (irrigation, housing, etc) without kings – while the smaller groups in the hills turned towards monarchy. Some cities turned to rulers. Others overthrew them.

Graeber and Wengrow put aside the usual question of the ‘origin of inequality’, which they point out assumes in its framing a primordial Garden of Eden. Instead of asking ‘are we fundamentally good or bad?’, they look deeper to ask how we really function in light of the evidence, how we got here, and what new possibilities this all raises for our future. The course of history isn’t a set of inexorable stages, but one where human agency has always played a role (not, of course, the only one).

Where, then, did the story of stages come from? They trace it to the encounter between Native America and Europe, in which the indigenous critiques of Europe stimulated Enlightenment thought as well as a conservative backlash. This is the context in which Rousseau, Hobbes, and their contemporaries tackled the questions raised by the clash of culture and ideology, in which many European intellectuals came to conclude that equality was possible at a ‘lower stage of development’ but not in commercial or industrial society. The assumptions they made about the past on this basis are all wrong, so why assume they’re right about the future?

The tone of writing is informed yet informal, nicely wry – on ‘savagely violent’ Yanomami sharing beds, ‘This requires a degree of good-natured mutual accommodation of which few contemporary social theorists would be capable.’

I did get frustrated with the endnotes. Many could be better placed within the main text or as footnotes, because flipping back and forth gets tiring. The writers cover as much evidence as they plausibly can without the nature of the task making things ridiculous, but some minor points are brushed though a little suddenly. A stronger look at patriarchy is also missing, the conclusion’s look at warfare a bit quick.

The scale of the task here means they have to set limits somewhere – they can’t analyse every bone fragment in the world’s museums! – but they are very clear when they’re referring to fact, interpretation, or just a possibility to consider. As ‘radical’ a reimagining of history we might call this, the writers were also very sober with it. Wengrow mentions in his Foreword and dedication to the sadly late Graeber that they wanted to write sequels: ‘no less than three’. Heck.

Whatever happens with that, this book is certainly profound.