The Burning Land

Book 5 of Bernard Cornwell’s 11 book series The Warrior Chronicles (made for TV as The Last Kingdom), is The Burning Land.

It is late in the reign of King Alfred, around the end of the 9th century. The fictional Saxon lord Uhtred once more defeats a Viking invasion of Wessex, then is provoked into breaking his oath and leaving Alfred’s service. He goes in search of silver to raise an army so that he can capture his childhood home Bebbanburg from his uncle, but fails to get enough, so then he goes to Dane-ruled Northumbria where the Danes plan an invasion of Mercia and Wessex. Just as that starts, Uhtred is called back by Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, to whom he has also made an oath, and ends up fighting for Mercia. His ancestral home feels as far out of reach as it did at the beginning of the series.

This isn’t the best of Cornwell’s books, or even of this series, so this is probably only one to read if you’re already committed. It felt a little padded, especially in the first half of the book, and is mainly battle scenes with very little in between. Still, I like Vikings, I quite like an action story, and I have the rest of the series on my shelf already, so on we go.

The best bit is the historical note at the end that describes the archaeological evidence for the story’s events.

Natives

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala is about how the intersection of race and class affect black working class people living in Britain today. It combines academic research with personal experience and biography in a way that makes the statistics accessible and relatable. As well as deeply upsetting. We have nothing to be complacent about. Hate crimes are on the rise in the UK and social mobility is less easy than it was a few decades ago. Racism has a powerfully detrimental affect on people’s life chances and if we don’t act to tackle those affects they will get worse.

Natives covers a lot of ground, focusing on the impact of experiences in education, with the police, and with representation in the media. I particularly enjoyed the chapter contrasting the UK mainstream media’s treatment of Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro as this was a new lens for me. It highlights how curated our news is and how much the way events are reported, the way people are talked about influences our understanding. Our understanding of recent history is distorted in many respects.

I enjoyed this book very much. It is funny and erudite and moving. Highly recommend.

Fire and Blood

Fire and Blood by G. R. R. Martin is the first of a two-part history of the Targaryen rulers of Westeros before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire. It starts with the conquest of Westeros by the first DragonLord and ends with the war between members of the Targaryen family which results in the deaths of most of their dragons. Written in the style of a non-fiction historical account, the book provides context and depth to the stories hinted at in A Song of Ice and Fire.

It is 700 pages and I have it in hardback which is why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it. With the opportunity to take some time off work and needing to rest to recover from a series of crappy colds and viruses, I read it in nearly a single sitting. It is engaging and well-written and it was quite hard to put down. Having said that, I think this is very much one for the fans. If you’re not already familiar with the books of A Song of Ice and Fire or the tv series Game of Thrones then I’m not sure you’d get much out of this. If you are a fan, then I would definitely recommend this. The only downside is there is a part two and it is unlikely to be published for some years so I finished Fire and Blood wanting more and not able to get it.  I am seriously considering re-reading all the books now.

Redemption’s Blade and Salvation’s Fire

Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson is a duology written by two different authors. It works way better than you might think.

Redemption’s Blade is about what people do in the aftermath of war. Particularly, it’s about what heroes do when the world no longer needs them. The main character is Celestaine the Slayer, who killed the evil demigod trying to destroy the world, but feels guilty about how far he got before she stopped him. I especially enjoyed the treatment of her magic sword which has a blade that can cut through anything and that’s actually really inconvenient. Scabbards don’t last, she had to learn how to fight completely differently, if she accidentally grazes someone they lose a limb. A sword that can carve through basalt makes mincemeat of people.

Celestaine believes if she can find a magical object of sufficient power she can restore one of the peoples who were broken by the evil demigod. Mostly it feels like she won’t, and Celestaine grapples with whether she’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or because she thinks it will make her feel better. Complicating things, the evil demigod was one of several demigods who were supposed to protect the world until he went rogue, and the rest of them are acting strangely now. In the end, though, she finds the magical macguffin, kills another demigod to get it, and her magic sword gets broken. Then there’s nothing for it but to go home and face the boredom.

Salvation’s Fire picks up a few weeks later just as Celestaine is finding home life constricting. One of the demigods pitches up to ask her and her companions to come on another quest. The evil demigod severed the world’s connection with the gods and one of the others has an idea about how to restore it. Meanwhile, loose in the world is a magical creature who was made by necromancers to be the bride of the evil demigod, and the person she’s bonded with is small girl whose entire people were slaughtered in the war. When Celestaine finds these two, it somehow seems that they have a role in what is to come, but what that role will be remains unclear. This journey takes them to the far north and then into other dimensions to find the gods, by way of some soul searching and some facing up to what was done in the war.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is quite prolific so there was a lot to choose from when I wanted something to follow the amazing Shadows of the Apt series. Redemption’s Blade is the first I picked up and it doesn’t disappoint. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and was left wanting more. I was a bit apprehensive about how Salvation’s Fire would match up. Justina Robson’s Living Next Door to the God of Love was incredible and is one of my favourite books. Then I read a couple of her Quantum Gravity series, which are sci-fi/fantasy/spy/cyberpunk mash-ups. They’re good, but not my cup of tea. But there was nothing to worry about. Salvation’s Fire was just as good as Redemption’s Blade. It took the story and made it deeper and more complex. I highly recommend them. I wish there were more.

Non-fiction round up 2019

I have been a bit sporadic with posting to this blog for a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. What I have now is a backlog. An evergrowing backlog that induces procrastination. Because I am lazy, I am doing a round up post of the non-fiction books I read this year that I enjoyed enough to want to talk about.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman: This book presents the case for imagining a better world for all the people who live in it and a way out of the trap of consumption. There are a few key ideas such as a universal basic income, paying well for jobs that contribute to wellbeing (like rubbish collection and caring jobs), and reducing the working week to two or three days. It was cogently argued, well-evidenced and easy reading. Just what you need to re-inspire you about the possibility of positive change.

London, the biography by Peter Ackroyd: Well, this was just lovely. Spanning from the origins of human settlement in the London area to the end of the 20th century it covers the development of London thematically. There are chapters on theatre, crime and punishment, rivers, food and drink, disease, and many other ways of seeing. It’s a big book and packed full of stories and connections. It perfectly captures the romance of London in all its corrupted beauty and compelling horror.

The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes: When I visited Berlin earlier this year, I was keen to learn more of the history of Germany beyond the world wars. Must be more to Germany than that, right? This book spends some time on the early history of the peoples of the land that would eventually comprise modern Germany, and some time on the relationship between catholic Prussia in the East and the protestant cities and states in the West. Most of the book though, at least half, is actually about the world wars and the eventual rise of the Nazis. Maybe this is because Germany as a country hasn’t existed for that long. It was interesting to see a longer perspective on the forces at play. It’s a perspective that goes some way to illuminating the same currents in evidence today.

The Rise of the Green Left by Derek Wall: A fascinating book on the relationship between socialism and environmentalism and the history of eco-socialism. This was really educational and gave me a much better understanding of eco-socialist movements across the world. One small element that was particularly enlightening was the discussion of eco-fascism. It seemed self-evident to me that environmentalism and socialism are naturally compatible, but there has also been a tradition of environmentalism allied with right-wing ideology and so the link should not be taken for granted.

Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber: Bullshit jobs are jobs where no one actually benefits from what you do. So, jobs like being a carer, or a nurse, or teacher, or road sweeper, are not bullshit. We need to do those jobs and we’d all be a lot worse off if they weren’t getting done. Graeber identifies five types of bullshit job: flunkies, whose job it is to make someone else look or feel important; goons, whose jobs have an aggressive element, like lobbyists and corporate lawyers; duct tapers, whose job is to fix problems that shouldn’t really exist; box tickers, allowing a company to claim it’s doing something it isn’t; and taskmasters, assigning work to people and creating more bullshit jobs. It is full of anecdotes about the crappy jobs people have held and is a very entertaining read.

The Art of the Good Life by Ralf Dobelli: Sequel to The Art of Thinking Clearly, this is another collection of short essays on cognitive fallacies and the ways in which our thinking gets distorted. Always useful to have a reminder.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo: I love Marie Kondo. It’s not about decluttering or only having six books or whatever other nonsense has been said about the book and the tv series. Marie Kondo is about appreciating what you have and arranging your house so you get the most enjoyment from it. Her folding method is brilliant – I have found I can get lots more clothes in my drawers and still be able to see more clearly what I’ve got. Magic, indeed. I’m also a big fan of talking to my house, because I love my house. I think anything that encourages appreciation is a good thing.

The Inflamed Mind by Edward Bullmore: New science around the understanding of depression shows a link between physical inflammation and mental depression. This is a dense book, but really interesting and worth the effort. The research outlined in this book challenges conventional understanding of the links between physical and mental health, and challenges the categorisation of symptoms. I’ve long thought that depression is a catch-all term for very different experiences that don’t respond to the same treatment.

The Devil’s Doctor, Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science by Philip Ball: This is not the sort of thing I would normally buy. As it happens, I found it on a train. Paracelsus lived from 1493 to 1541, when magic and demons and gods were still very real in people’s lives, yet the scientific discoveries that would drive the Enlightenment were coming thick and fast. It is an insight into a period of great change, through the biography of a man that was both scientist and magician. Considered a key figure in the development of chemistry and medicine, he was also a charlatan and got run out of town several times. I’m glad I picked it up.

Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky: This is a must-read for anyone who consumes news. What happens and how it is reported is very important. This book highlights the disparity between the stories we tell about events depending on who the actor is and the values that actor wants us to believe they hold. If you’ve ever had the sense that how you’re being told to interpret world events is distorted and confusing, this book will explain why that is.

History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: I’m not sure it’s true to say that I enjoyed this book. It’s certainly not true to say I understood very much of it, although I now have a much better understanding of what philosophy actually is. But I felt very clever and pleased with myself for having read it.

Schrodinger’s Kittens

I read Schrödinger’s Cat by John Gribbins quite a long time ago now and enjoyed it so much I immediately bought the sequel, Schrödinger’s Kittens. It has spent much of the intervening time sitting on my bookshelf looking tricky.

Schrödinger’s Kittens brings the progress of quantum physics up to the mid-nineties. I was very conscious while reading it that it was twenty years old and the field has moved on considerably since it was written. Recommendations for recent books on the subject would be most welcome – preferably written for someone who barely passed GCSE physics.

The book takes the cat in a box thought experiment and pursues its implications through logical extension. It discusses what that means for what we know about our world. Which is basically not nearly as much as we’d like to think. I found that Schrödinger’s Kittens was not quite as accessible or engaging as Schrödinger’s Cat. It may be worth a read, depending on just how thorough your reading in the subject is, but there are probably more up-to-date books out there.

Shadows of the Apt

Last autumn I binge-read a ten book series, Shadows of the Apt, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is highly unusual for me. I tend to prefer to read something different in between titles in the same series because otherwise I get fed up. In fact, the only other time I read books in a series consecutively is re-reads of A Song of Ice and Fire.

What I’m trying to say is, these books are good. Really, really good. To start with I loved the concept of the world. Humans are evolved from insects and retain characteristics of their parent insect. Some of these species are Apt, which means proficient with technology but insensitive to magic, and others are Inapt, not able to mentally grasp technology but possessed of magical power. A few species have a little of both. Each has an ability from their insect ancestor, perhaps flight, night-vision or a weapon. Within each species individuals are different. Some societies are more monolithic than others, but all have internal tensions.

Beyond that, it is a war story. A great sweeping tale encompassing many nations and peoples. It starts with Stenwold Maker, a college professor beetle in a Lowland city trying to convince his complacent compatriots that the Wasp Empire is not the profitable trading partner it appears but rather is bent on military conquest. He uses his student as a spy network, and it is through those characters that the story unfolds. Naturally, the wasps are evil. I was never sure if it was based on Nazi Germany, the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, and I expect elements of all three were present.

I enjoyed the exploration of the arms race in the books. The war swings back and forth. At first the wasps seem irresistible, then the clever beetles develop weapons that put the wasps on the back foot, but then the wasps come back with something even worse. The wasps are apt, but not especially mechanically-minded, but they have colonised peoples within their empire who are and they use those talents ruthlessly. In the later books, there is a thread of rebellion from within the empire and, rather realistically, some of the conquered people side with the oppressor. There are characters who develop weapons purely for the creative joy of it and sell them to all sides. I liked how there were many moments in the books when it felt impossible for the beetle cities of the Lowlands to survive, yet somehow they did.

The books also explore what people are willing to do in times of extremis. Some species use torture and others don’t, but all are confronted with the need to deal with traitors and spies and forced to face the consequences of their actions. Characters are complex and painted in shades of grey. No one is wholly noble and good, no one is one-dimensionally evil. Some people are swept along by their circumstances and others manage to steer their own courses at least a little.

There’s even room for a few love stories. You know, tragic ones where everyone dies. Well, almost everyone.

I couldn’t put them down while I was reading them. Compelling, thought-provoking stories. I highly recommend them. I fully intend to read everything Tchaikovsky writes which, given that he’s quite prolific, is already a substantial reading list.

The Power

You must read this book. This is the best book I’ve read in a very long time.

The Power by Naomi Alderman explores the nature and dynamics of power. Women have evolved the power to deliver excruciating and fatal pain through their hands, and men have not. Using four different characters whose lives eventually intersect, Alderman explores what it means when the tables turn. When I started reading the book, I thought I knew what Alderman was saying with her story. Women start waking up to their power and the women whose stories Alderman tells are all victims of the ones who previously had the power: trafficked women; women in relationships with violent men; girls growing up with fathers that rape them; successful career women undermined by sexist bosses and co-workers. Examples of things that happen to women everyday.

It’s a relatively short book and it is impressive in the number of ways it explores its theme. It contrasts how different political systems react to the emergence of the power and the way men try to fight it – repressive regimes using violence and democratic regimes using manipulation and psychological control. The book looks at religious power and how it is used, and also personal power and what it means.

It was not long before I realised that the point being made is actually much more complex than it appears on the surface, and I realised I didn’t know what the message was. The women in power do unspeakable things to men without power; again, things done by the powerful to the powerless on a daily basis. The point is not that the status quo is fine, because if you just gender-flipped it then everything would essentially be the same. It is that we need to think much more carefully about power and who has it, and what they can do with it. Because most of us do things, even awful things, just because we can. I finished the book thinking that while Alderman had made me think very deeply about power she has done so without taking a didactic position herself. The story always remains paramount.

I enjoyed the gender-flipping of historical objects scattered throughout. I especially loved the epilogue. I won’t spoil it, but I have had that conversation so many frustrating times and I loved what she did with it. I would have liked a bit more exploration of queerness in the book. Alderman touches on girls born without the power and what that means for them, and on boys who have it, and there are illusions to same-sex relationships, and I would have liked to see that more fully developed. On the whole, this is an awesome and important book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Dig

I read the first scene of The Dig by Cynan Jones in a workshop on the Arvon course I did in August. The exercise was to look at how the author sets up the story, word choice, rhythm, mood, that sort of thing. I was intrigued by the subject matter and attracted by the visceral writing.

It’s about hunting, about man’s domination over nature, the cruelty of blood sports, the physicality of farming life, and mostly about the overwhelming nature of grief. Which is a great deal to explore in a very short book.

It’s not a pleasant read. I can’t say I enjoyed it. It is very physical and I liked how that could be conveyed. Reading and writing are quite intellectual pursuits and the skill to be able to create an embodied sense of connection to the land is considerable. It was compelling.

In some ways it’s an unsatisfying read. The ending didn’t resolve the story and, actually, I’m not quite sure what happened. The Dig stops rather than ends but on reflection perhaps that right for this particular story. I found myself wanting to know why. That question is never answered. I suppose it’s not the author’s intention to give meaning or understanding. It’s a book about sensation and elemental forces and being caught in the tide of your circumstances. If you enjoy being unsettled by what you read, then this one’s for you.

After Atlas

This book was given to me by the author. This summer I went on an Arvon course on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing led by Emma Newman and Peter Newman. The week is mornings of workshops, afternoons of working on your project, and evenings of readings. On the first evening the tutors read from their own work and then generously gave us each a copy of one of their novels.

After Atlas by Emma Newman is set in an frighteningly plausible future dominated by corporations where advertising is omnipresent and indentured servitude has made a return. Carlos Moreno is a detective, but he is indentured. He has a contract which he has to work off before he can be free. In this story, Carlos is asked to investigate the murder of the leader of a cult called the Circle, from which Carlos escaped when he was 18. It was this escape that led to his capture and slavery. Returning to the Circle to solve the case stirs up a lot of memories, and the cult is not what he thought it was.

The future imagined in this book is an extrapolation of neo-liberal economics and its impact on democracy and any parts of life that are not economic. It is extremely unequal and highly surveilled. Almost nothing a person does goes unnoticed and privacy is reserved for the very rich. I liked the way it was handled and found it believable. I think the question of the balance of convenience and privacy is interesting. The concept of privacy is really a quite modern one. Centuries ago when people lived and worked in the same place all their lives everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Living in cities has given us a sense of anonymity that we’ve grown used to and are reluctant to give up.

The other thing I liked about this book is that it is a diverse cast of characters at all levels. A lot of this was done in a quite subtle way and I was a good way through the book before I realised it.

After Atlas is a science-fiction crime thriller, a genre of which I’m fond. It’s fun, and while it touches on some quite serious and weighty topics, it does so with a very light hand. Emma Newman is a good writer and this is an easy and engaging read. I liked it a lot.