The Bear and the Serpent

The Bear and the Serpent is book 2 of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Echoes of the Fall series. Maniye now has three shapes she can step into and, with the aid of her champion form, has learned to work with all of them. The power structures in the north are shifting and re-aligning and Maniye finds herself the leader of a warband of misfits and outcasts, amongst them her natural father Takes Iron. She doesn’t really know how to handle this or where she fits in, so she takes her band south with Asmander so he can fight in the civil war.

Meanwhile, Loud Thunder is trying to draw together all the peoples of the North to meet the threat that the world faces: the plague people, who have no animal souls, and the strange capacity to destroy the human side of person. Anyone who meets them or is struck by their bullets finds themselves trapped in their animal soul, unable to step and unable to communicate. There are more clues that the plague people are the peoples from the Shadows of the Apt series and I am fascinated to see how the two connect. Loud Thunder’s struggles with the representatives of all the tribes he has gathered together are undermined by his unrequited romantic obsession and his lack of confidence in himself. Eventually he overcomes his insecurities and leads the tribes in an attack that pushes the plague people back into the sea. It is done at great cost and with the sense that they will come back stronger and the tribes will not win next time.

There is a real danger that this blog is going to become an Adrian Tchaikovsky fansite. Once again, I found myself completely absorbed. This is a middle book in a series of three and often middle books don’t resolve anything in the story as they are busy setting up book three. In The Bear and the Serpent Asmander’s story is resolved. He finds a way between the twins at war that ends the conflict and faces up to his manipulative father. But the plague people are in the south too. The Bear and the Serpent is brilliantly balanced between telling a complete story within the novel and forming the middle act in a trilogy. It is very accomplished. I can’t wait to read book three.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is about a crew of space tunnellers who are offered the biggest job they’ve ever had: to travel to the edge of civilized space to a small, uninhabited planet that is pretty much entirely made up of the fuel used to power spacecraft and tunnel their way back. The trip to the planet takes about a year and creating the tunnel will reduce that trip to a day.

This is very much a character driven novel and the bulk of it is spent on the year travelling to the small angry planet and using that as a vehicle to explore ideas about relationships. Those relationships are personal, cultural and societal. The crew is multi-species and the relationships are multi-dimensional; interspecies, same-sex, human-AI, friendship, sexual and romantic. There are a lot of ideas in the book about gender, sexuality, sentience and love. Mostly they are handled well, creatively and vividly realised, and it is refreshing to read sci-fi that is actually addressing the possibilities of connection rather than just treating contemporary norms around relationships as though they are biologically determined (and therefore unchangeable) rather than cultural.

On the larger scale, there are ideas about how people fit into societies and the tension between collectivism and individualism. This is in the background and provides context for the personal relationships. There are themes about conflicts between and within cultural groups and when the crew reach the small angry plant, we see big politics at play that reflect colonial histories and current world dynamics. Some of this is less well handled than the personal relationships.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was a little slow for my tastes. There’s a bit of action at the end when the crew are attacked when they start to tunnel but most of the book is about people relating to each other. It’s worth a read for the ideas explored in it and those who prefer more character-driven fiction may well enjoy it more than I did.

Blue Moon

There have been twenty four Jack Reacher books. Amazingly, I’m still not bored. Amazing because I have a fairly low tolerance for this kind of character-based series and usually give up after three or four.

In Blue Moon, Jack Reacher gets himself in the middle of a territorial war between two organized crime gangs on behalf of an elderly couple who are in debt paying for their daughter’s medical bills. The daughter has cancer and was screwed out of her insurance by her feckless entrepreneur boss who ran off with millions and left his employees with nothing.

Blue Moon is darker than previous Jack Reacher books, with a level of violence and a body count some way in excess of the norm. Other reviewers on Goodreads have said that the plot is inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a plot that’s been used many times over, most notably in A Fistful of Dollars. Which maybe drives the perceived change in Reacher’s character, but I think there’s something else going on which gives a bit more credit to Lee Child. In the last installment, Past Tense (which I read last year but didn’t review), Reacher went back to the town his father was from and decides to research his family history. He discovers his father, who he thought was called Stan, was William Reacher, who stole the identity of his cousin Stan Reacher and joined the marines after beating someone to death. Everything Jack Reacher thought he knew about who his father was is called into question. The style of the Reacher books doesn’t allow for a lot of internal monologue and the character of Jack Reacher is one given more to action than emotional processing. It makes sense to me that the next Reacher adventure might see him in a darker place: less all-American hero saving the little people from bad guys and more using violence as an expression of his emotional state. I’m interested to see where it goes in book twenty five.

Eye of the Tiger

The Eye of the Tiger is an account of the trips of the wildlife artist and environmentalist Pollyanna Pickering and her photographer and business partner Anna-Louise Pickering to India in search of tigers. There were two trips, one in the late 1980s and the next ten years later. The first expedition was to Nagarahole National Park and Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Wildlife Park to look for wild tigers and then to visit tigers rescued from a UK circus and rehomed in India. The second expedition was to visit a Project Tiger reserve and included trips to Rajasthan and the foothills of the Himalayas.

The book is based on the journals of Anna-Louise Pickering and includes sketches, photographs and paintings from both authors. There are a few recipes. The trips are described in a very natural way. Not every day is covered and there are many days when there are no tigers to be seen anywhere. But there are several moments when tigers are close and visible. The final sighting is very dramatic and vividly expressed.

Tigers are beautiful creatures. There conservation doesn’t just preserve the existence of these incredible beings; when an apex predator is flourishing it indicates that the habitat and food chain is in good health. Ensuring the survival of the tiger ensures the success of many other species. The book provides a lot of information about the work of the Born Free Foundation and Project Tiger and the challenges faced from poaching and habitat loss.

Pollyanna Pickering’s art is stunning and books are lovely in themselves. The photos and art are gorgeously presented in a well designed book that is easy to read and easy to just look at for hours.

Pandas next, I think.

Peterloo 200: The Path to Proportional Representation

Published by Make Votes Matter and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, Peterloo 200: The Path to Proportional Representation is a short report making the case for adopting PR in the UK.

The 200 year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre was in 2019. This report was published to highlight that the fight for democracy in the UK has a long history and is far from over.

The report covers the democratic deficit inherent in First Past the Post (FPTP) systems. Your vote may not count at all in a safe seat and the system incentivizes parties to spend nothing on many voters but loads on swing voters in marginal seats. What I didn’t quite realise was how few marginal seats there are, and therefore how few voters are really of interest to parties.

In addition to the democratic case for PR, the report covers a number of other reasons why PR is a better system for most people. Countries with proportional representation have greater economic equality, tend to elect governments that act in the interests of the majority (the real majority, not just a small section of the largest minority), are able to invest in longer term solutions to societal problems because there is much less policy reversal, are more stable societies, and less likely to go to war.

Lastly Peterloo 200 addresses some of the myths about PR, like that countries with coalitions have more elections and are unstable (they don’t, they aren’t) and that the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system means that UK voters don’t want PR (AV is not a form of proportional representation).

It’s aimed squarely at Labour members and voters but is packed full of research and facts and is very digestible. Before I read it, I thought that PR was a good idea but didn’t feel that strongly about it. Now, I am convinced this is the way forward.

 

The Balkans 1804-1999 Nationalism, War and the Great Powers

Misha Glenny’s The Balkans has been my breakfast book for the last year. Breakfast books are the many large, heavy books I have on my shelf that I can’t commute with so they get read in twenty minutes stints while I have breakfast. Sometimes twenty minutes is enough time to read a reasonable chunk. Other times, when a book is densely packed with facts and ideas, then twenty minutes gets me about five pages. If I’m lucky and really paying attention. The Balkans was very much the latter.

The book is very insightful. Glenny has spent much of his career as a journalist working in the Balkans and is most knowledgeable. The structure of the book is chronological, taking a span of years and addressing what is happening in each of the areas of the Balkans. I hesitate to say countries because, although nationalism has been a driving force behind much of the conflict in this part of the world, the experience of colonialism over this period has meant that the areas known as Bulgaria or Greece or Albania or Serbia (or others) have grown larger and smaller at various times. What becomes evident because of the structure of the book is the near constant experience of war for people living in the Balkans between the mid-19th century and the 1950s. The social and psychological legacy of that is appalling.

Glenny’s lens is one of imperialism. The start of the period he covers is the wane of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. The ways in which they sought to undermine each other or to retain power at the edges of their influence had a destructive effect on the peoples of the Balkans. Interference from the other great powers, Britain, France and Russia, made things generally worse. The great powers only sought to extract the wealth of the area as they did all around the world. Nazi Germany’s interest in the region was marginally more positive in that it had an economically beneficial impact, but following classic colonial policy agriculture was encouraged and manufacturing denied. When the Balkans (mostly) become part of the Soviet Union, it looks much like more imperialism to Glenny. The Balkan countries are treated as bread baskets for Russia and state terror follows a similar pattern to that of earlier empires.

Only a handful of pages at the end are devoted to the events in Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, which was a little disappointing (but it seems Glenny has written more elsewhere on the subject) but the threads of history and the interference of the great powers (preferring to call themselves the international community now but still playing the same game of putting their strategic interests over the lives of ordinary people) are visible.

This was a compelling and often disturbing read that inspires me to learn more about the Balkans. I remain convinced that nationalism is one of the stupidest ideas humanity has ever had. And there’s some stiff competition.

 

The Tiger and the Wolf

Adrian Tchaikovsky is fast becoming my favourite author. In The Tiger and the Wolf, the first book of the Echoes of the Fall series, Maniye is a child born to two tribes and beloved of neither of them. In this world, all humans have a totem animal and can shift into that shape whenever they like. Some people are born to parents of different tribes and when they hit puberty have to choose one shape over the other. Maniye can’t choose. She tries to choose the Wolf because that is the tribe she was raised in, and she nearly succeeds, but when she passes the trial she learns her father sees her as his pawn in his war against the Tiger. Maniye flees. She finds the Tiger people, and her mother, whom she believed dead, but realises they are as cruel as the Wolf and she is no more accepted there than she had been in the Wolf tribe.

Most of the novel is a chase, with both the Tiger and the Wolf seeking to capture Maniye and her learning to use both shapes to evade them. Over time the souls within her war with each other and her ability to shift shapes becomes unstable. The wolf and the tiger cannot co-exist. In escaping, Maniye has met people from other tribes, some of which have Champion forms as well as their tribe totem. With the help of a priest of the Serpent, Maniye goes in search of a totem strong enough to hold the tiger and the wolf in check.

Over and above the chase story and Maniye’s coming of age story, The Tiger and the Wolf is a story of a world under threat from a great peril. In the legends of the tribes there are tales of the Plague People and how the tribes fled from one land to this one to avoid destruction. Maniye meets many people on her travels because the priests of the tribes are gathering to share their portents. All understand that something terrible is coming. None know what it is.

I loved this. The writing is great and the worldbuilding is exceptional. It is pretty dark. Few of the characters have redeeming features, many of them are at the mercy of their family and tribe and not free to choose how to act. There are betrayals and reversals and deaths of characters that shouldn’t die. And there is an enormous world-destroying threat coming but the tribes are caught up in their local rivalries and politics to lift their heads up and take notice. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.

Death of Kings

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is back on form. After the somewhat padded and disappointing The Burning Lands, Death of Kings is a welcome return to the storytelling that this series has mostly offered. King Alfred is dying, for real this time, and his dream of England hangs in the balance. The Danish Jarls who rule the north and much of the midlands are waiting for Wessex, Mercia and Kent to become leaderless and undirected without Alfred’s guiding hand.

Having spent most of his life fighting for Alfred, Uhtred is broke. He can barely maintain his household and a single crew of warriors. He certainly doesn’t have the money to raise the army he needs to capture the fortress at Bebbanburg, his childhood home. Disheartened at the lack of generosity from his king, Uhtred considers going Viking. Then, on his deathbed, Alfred makes up for it by giving Uhtred rich estates in Mercia. Even this is a manipulation as Alfred uses this final gift to extract a promise Uhtred doesn’t want to make: an oath to fight for Alfred’s son Edward. When Alfred dies, Uhtred is convinced that there will be an invasion by the Danes. It takes three years to come, in which the Danish Jarls Sigurd and Cnut lay traps for Uhtred and allegiances in Mercia and Cent are fluid.

It culminates in the Saxon and Danish armies chasing each other across Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. The Danish army has too many leaders, Jarls and Kings, to act coherently, an aversion to laying siege to the fortified towns of Wessex, and many small lords just out for plunder. The Wessex army has an inexperienced young King surrounded by priests and cautious lords unwilling to take the fight to the Danes. When the battle is finally forced Edward’s army is victorious.

The historical note at the back of the book gives the archaeological evidence for the final battle and the historical evidence for the events, but much is conjecture to put Uhtred at the heart of events. In the background is the story of the Christianisation of England and a sadness for what was lost in the process.

Will Uhtred ever get to Bebbanburg?

The Goblin Emperor

I picked up The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison after EasterCon 2019. I attended a session called Build your Utopia looking for a discussion about creating worlds where humanity’s best traits are foregrounded. I’m kind of sick of the narrative that people are awful and there’s no way to change that. The Goblin Emperor was given as an example of hopepunk, a genre recently emergent as a reaction to grimdark fantasy.

It’s not as if nobody behaves badly in The Goblin Emperor. Maia, the half-goblin fourth son of the Emperor of the Elf kingdom expects only to live out his life in isolated exile. Then his father and three elder brothers are assassinated and his world is turned upside down. Not everyone is thrilled about his ascension to the throne and he faces treachery and an assassination attempt on his own life as well as courtiers seeking to take advantage of his naivety. Maia has to adapt to a complex society that nothing in his life has prepared him for and learn who he can trust. Eventually, he finds his way to identify and remove most of his enemies, to decide what kind of ruler he wants to be (a good one, obvs), and set himself on a hopeful path. Some of the characters are venal, violent and prejudiced. Others are generous, progressive and trustworthy.

Part of the discussion in the session at EasterCon was whether the idea that conflict is story is in itself a form of cultural hegemony. That there are other story traditions that are devalued and ignored because they don’t follow the structure we’re most familiar with. It’s an interesting debate. The hero’s journey structure that so much storytelling in books, tv and film is based on makes it hard to explore some kinds of ideas and concepts.

I enjoyed The Goblin Emperor overall but I found it a bit slow. Also, I never really believed Maia was in peril. There was no point in the book where I doubted that Maia would succeed. I enjoy those moments in a book where you suddenly think it’s not all going to work out okay for your favourite characters. I’m not sure The Goblin Emperor has given me a taste for hopepunk. I love grimdark and, more broadly, I am a sucker for tragedy, but perhaps I should stretch myself and get out of my reading comfort zone.

The Gayer Anderson Cat

The Gayer Anderson Cat by Neal Spencer is part of the British Museum’s Objects in Focus series. So far, I’m enjoying the series immensely. There’s something very satisfying about a short book packed full of stuff I didn’t know before.

The Gayer Anderson Cat is the familiar, well-known cat statue from Ancient Egypt. I was surprised just how much isn’t known about the statue. It was acquired by Gayer Anderson, an art and antiquities collector in the early 20th century, who purchased objects from dealers on a regular basis but no information about where it came from or what it was for came with it. Thousands of cat statues were created in Ancient Egypt: there is evidence of workshops churning these things out and the book covers the excavations of some of these workshops. How they were used and who by is more mysterious. The Gayer Anderson Cat is the finest example of the type in existence so an assumption is made that it was paid for by someone wealthy and dedicated in a temple, but that is still conjecture.

New technology can tell us a lot about how it was made from the casting technique to the effects of the chemical composition of the metal. It can also reveal more detail on the surface of the object than is visible to the naked eye. The book goes into this in some detail. X-rays have revealed that there are repairs around the head and show how they were made.

These books are delightful. I like the intense focus on one small thing and what it tells us (or what we have projected on to it) about the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.