A Murmuration of Gods – City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsIf I was writing the tagline for City of Stairs, I’d be tempted to go with ‘China Mieville meets Alif the Unseen‘. In the SFF world this is a pretty potent combination. The only problem is I didn’t wholly enjoy Alif and I seem to be the only person in the science fiction community who doesn’t like Mieville. After reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s accomplished and thought-provoking novel, I can’t help wondering whether perhaps I have a problem with the new and interesting…

The themes and concepts here are manifold and have great depth. The end of the book left me reeling with its examination of the fluidity of history and the power of fable, but at times I found reading CoS something of a chore. It didn’t really pull me along. The novel is essentially a political whodunnit set in a complex secondary universe. There seemed to be a lot of information dumped on the reader. The complexity of the world and its systems overwhelmed the story set inside it. Just processing the political aspects of the book took up a great deal of my attention, so I struggled to find a sense of story. Things happened, but I didn’t feel it compelled to read. There is little driving force to the narrative and, at times, I felt things happened to the characters rather than them being the architects of the novel’s events.

And yet…

The complex artifice of the city of Bulikov is essential for the novel’s wider themes. Such is the strength of the allegory in City of Stairs, I had a peculiar sense that it was a reworked The Master and Margarita. Using a world similar yet wholly different from ours Jackson Bennett tells a fascinating fable of modern attitudes and beliefs. By subverting traditional genre ideas of race and gender (i.e. not viewing everything from the perspective of white males), the author wipes the slate clean, erasing his readers’ preconceptions (well this one’s anyway). I think it’s the rebuilding process that made the novel a bumpy read for me. Nothing is certain, everything is new and open to interpretation. There’s work to be done by the reader and that’s tiring. I found reading Bulgakov hard work too…

City of Stairs is a novel better than my enjoyment levels give it credit for. It reveals the perils of accepting religious dogma as truth, but also the importance of attempting to understand why a group believe the things they believe. With layers of story built up over centuries and mixed agendas by those writing those stories, the true intention of a religious practice may have been lost. City of Stairs stresses how vital it is to understand those who are different to us. Knowledge may be power, but it can also be used to set us free. The real-world parallels are abundant. Whilst I didn’t fully enjoy City of Stairs it is a book that has resonated deeper than almost any other than I have read during 2014. Its splendours may be subtle but they burrow in, refusing to be dislodged. An important, thought-making work of speculative fiction.

Many Thanks to Andrew at Jo Fletcher Books for sending me a copy of this book. 


How to Make an American Quilt – Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven proof.inddTake one large nation. Kill 99% of the population. Leave for twenty years. See what happens.

That’s essentially the premise of Station Eleven. As the fear factor surrounding the Ebola outbreak in Africa increases this may be the perfect time to read this book. Or perhaps the absolute worst time. Either way, the possibility of a global pandemic has never seemed more terrifying than it does now that I’ve finished this understated and emotive novel.

Emily St. John Mandel clearly subscribes to the ‘less is more’ approach to her storytelling. It’s hard to imagine a gentler, less sensational apocalypse. This is just about the quietest way possible to deal with the end of the world and it makes it terrifying, real and deeply moving.

Humanity is destroyed by Georgia Flu, a highly virulent strain that rushes through the world’s population killing all but 1% of it. We follow several survivors in a patchwork of stories that flit through time and location. Many of the narratives are linked. Some directly, some more oblique but they all offer up more information about the downfall of civilisation and humanity’s stuttering attempts to rise from the ashes. The whole time, as we read there is a nagging question – what is the significance of the graphic novel Station Eleven?

The book reminded me of Stephen Amsterdam’s Things we Didn’t See Coming, another quiet apocalypse tale. These books deal with the human side of things; the difficulty of living a normal life when no such thing exists. Realistic travails of survival, rather than overblown zombie attacks or crushing overlords setting up implausible living conditions. There were passages in this book, that made me weep. This is partly due to be being a parent. Nobody with children likes to imagine the destruction of humanity (well maybe just at bedtime), but the simplicity in which St John Mandel, describes the gradual decline and isolation is gut-wrenching.

If I have a small gripe about the novel, it’s I’m not sure that the backward state of the new America is realistic. But then what do I know? I just feel that whilst everybody may have been dead, the survivors would have lots of practical information accessible; how to generate electricity for example. If Faraday could do it in the early 1800s, I think some of the more upwardly mobile characters in the novel could have managed too. To be honest this was just a small question at the back of my mind, and is largely irrelevant to the quality of the story told. Whilst I might be able to argue that the rate of recovery would have been greater, it easy to see counter arguments to say that Station Eleven pitches it just right.

All in all this is very good read. There are few resolutions, which may frustrate some readers. Instead we have a snapshot of humanity in a state of flux. A disaster like this could feasibly be around the corner. Many of us will die, but humanity will find a way. Life often does. I imagine Emily St John Mandel’s depiction of how we made it would prove to be scarily prescient. This is a understated and beautiful study of humanity in crisis and a valuable addition to the genre.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Program 

Small is beautiful – The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

the-miniaturist-978144725089001I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Miniaturist. Now I’ve read it, I’m still not quite sure what I got. It’s part gothic horror, part historical novel, part feminist treatise and all fragile beauty. Every page of the Miniaturist shimmers, its sparkling prose gently evoking seventeenth century Amsterdam. It’s a period and setting I know little about, and was fascinated by the male dominated society ruled equally by the tyranny of a puritanical God and the slavish pursuit of the Guilder. I’m used to seeing Amsterdam as the banner of permissive society, yet in the seventeenth century, oppression was its watchword. Even the baking of gingerbread men was banned to prevent idolatry.

The novel opens (more or less) with Nella Oortman arriving on the doorstep of her husband’s house. Married in haste in the countryside, she has travelled alone to Amsterdam to take up residence in her marital home. Things don’t start well. Eighteen year old Nella sees little of her husband and is instead treated to the hostile disdain of her shrewish sister-in-law, Marin. The house is also occupied by two servants. Cornelia, a maid and orphan, bold and contemptuous, and Otto, a black man, not a slave, yet not free; purchased by Nella’s husband in Suriname. The husband, Johannes, is older; a wealthy business man, almost above the law. He has little time for Nella, and far from home, she feels isolated and alone. Johannes’s one gesture to his wife is to buy her an expensive replica of the house in which they live. Bored, with little to do, Nella sets about furnishing her new present. And that’s how she discovers the miniaturist.

The novel then switches into gothic horror mode. The miniaturist seems to have deep knowledge of Nella’s home, yet Nella knows nothing about the model builder other than that she is a woman.  The miniaturist seems to be able to preternaturally predict events that are yet to happen, making Nella paranoid she is being watched and observed. Things start to go wrong, tensions in the house gradually simmer towards boiling point and we are left to wonder if the miniaturist is predicting or causing the family’s problems.

All this time, secrets come tumbling from every wall. Nella is faced with problem after problem but she gains strength through every setback, gradually growing into the role as woman of the house. Her relationships with the other members of the house ebb and flow. Alliances are forged, broken and remade and with each pitfall Nella becomes stronger. The story plays out across the beautifully described back-drop of Amsterdam, a city of commerce and religious diffidence, ruled over by the powerful and feared Burgomeisters.

Amsterdam may be a city ruled by men, but The Miniaturist is centred around its women. There are five at the heart of the plot, and they are women out of time; progressive and independent. Questions of equality in marriage and in business permeate the story. The book may be set in the seventeenth century, but many of its attitudes survive today. The women here fight battles that should have been left behind centuries ago, but sadly still go on. Much of the novel is devoted to the idea of forging your own path, something women of the time were almost never able to do. Nearly every character is impeded by the social mores of the time. Nobody can truly be themselves.

The book also asks interesting questions about whether we are defined by our expectations.  Much mileage is gained in the plot by having people make assumptions about others. The whole question about whether the miniaturist is clairvoyant boils down to whether humans see what they want to see, rather than what is there. Is the miniaturist a wielder of magic or simply a closer observer of human nature? We all telegraph our aspirations and attitudes on to others, and Burton illustrates this with mesmerising effect.

My initial reaction to reading the Miniaturist was one of slight disappointment, mainly because the novel didn’t go where I expected it to. Instead Burton constructed an altogether more subtle tale than the macabre gothic horror I’d anticipated. She has a created a story that lingers in the mind.  One of fractured connections and shattered dreams. The Miniaturist is a very interesting début, that should appeal to many readers. With memorable characters and evocative settings, it is a book that demands you keep reading. If you’re looking something fresh, without being too out there, The Miniaturist should appeal, no matter what your usual fare.

(Kim Stanley) Robinson Crusoe – The Martian by Andy Weir

the martianIt’s about twenty years since I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. Three detail heavy, science rich, political novels about the colonising of Mars. Since then nothing, and now two Mars novel in a week. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising was a grown-up Hunger Games clone set on the red planet. The Martian by Andy Weir is pure Robinson Crusoe.

During a manned mission to Mars something goes wrong and Mark Watney is left behind. His fellow astronauts thought he was dead, but due to a complicated (unlikely) set of circumstances, he survived. Now he’s on his own. It’s not all bad. He has food and equipment meant for six and NASA will lead another mission to Mars, eventually. All he has to do is survive for four years in a habitat designed to work for a month. What could possibly go wrong?

I must confess to being rather late to the Martian party. There are already over 1000 almost all superlative reviews on Amazon, so this review is just another drop in an ocean of praise.

A lot of this book is about the science. It is, in the truest sense of the word, science fiction. If you didn’t enjoy physics and chemistry at school, you might struggle with The Martian as it is detail heavy on chemistry, botany, electronics, astrophysics and much more besides. But there is a very human element to the novel too. There has to be or it wouldn’t work.

The novel essentially breaks down into a set of challenges that Watney has to solve. Andy Weir’s depth of knowledge and research is staggering. Not only can he write convincingly about the technology and processes required to support life on Mars, he details how they may fail and be repaired, or reverse engineered to be used to maintain life in an entirely different way. Beyond that there is a rich vein of humour running through the book. This lightens the potential science overload and makes Watney an intensely likeable character. You absolutely want him to survive this. Well I did anyway. By the end of the book I was quite emotional.

To say more would give stuff away that is best left to the author to reveal. I was slow to pick the Martian up, but I’m so glad I did. It’s an almost perfect piece of tense science fiction. Lo-octane thrills, but utterly breathtaking. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.

Many thanks to the team at Del Ray for sending me a copy of this book. 

Strife on Mars – Red Rising by Pierce Brown

redrisingAny dystopian novel that involves children killing one another is inevitably going to be compared to the Hunger Games. This is probably not a terribly useful thing to do, as the popularity of the Hunger Games far outstrips its quality. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the travails of Katniss when I read them, but the themes and ideas in the Hunger Games have been explored better elsewhere, before and since.

Red Rising does have the pace and excitement of HG, but it also has a better handle on human psychology, making it more reminiscent of Julianna Baggot’s Pure series. Unlike the regime Katniss is subjected to, the striated dystopia that exists in Red Rising is credible. You might actually set up a society that way if you were hell-bent on enslaving sections of the population. It might even work. In this respect the book is far more like Koushun Takami’s masterwork, Battle Royale.

The novel opens with Darrow drilling at the bottom of a very deep mine shaft. Darrow is a ‘Red’, the lowest strata of Mars society. Red’s are manual workers terraforming Mars for the rest of humanity. It’s not an easy life. The Reds sit at the bottom the rainbow. Society is made up of a full spectrum of colours, with each one having its own specific function, most of which are designed to ensure the Reds keep digging.  Sitting atop the chromatic pile are the Golds. To Darrow they are almost living gods. Cruel, impersonal and ruthless.

After Darrow and his wife are sentenced to a brutal whipping, for a minor misdemeanour, events quickly spiral out of control. Before he knows it Darrow is wrenched from his old life to become a cog in the machine of a clandestine group of freedom fighters. A cog maybe, but a vital one. Darrow has been chosen to infiltrate the Golds.

That summary offers little more than the blurb, and it’s hard to review much further without spoiling things. In order to become a Gold and then work his way to the very top, Darrow must enrol in their most deadly games.  What follows is a brutal capture the flag type game that echoes the titles mentioned above. It’s compelling stuff, particularly in the early stages. Darrow must face test after test and even tests within tests. There are several factions, each mirroring aspects of a particular god. The rivalry between factions gives the book and additional dimension, as does the in-fighting within Darrow’s faction. With a group of alphas all vying for control the result is pure Lord of the Flies.

Further tension is added by the need for Darrow to keep his identity secret.  He must trust and be trusted by Golds, the people he hates most in his life. Leaving aside whether it makes sense to run a recruitment process that kills over half of your golden generation and mutilates most of the survivors (though you might wish it when watching the Apprentice), this is an exciting read. I would imagine post traumatic stress disorder most be very common amongst Mars’s upper echelons. The book does require some suspension of belief and the final stages of the trial didn’t really work for me. Having managed so well to keep his story on a human emotional level, Pierce’s final chapters descend into an amorphous melee, which is a shame.

So the book didn’t quite deliver on the promise shown. I’d probably give it silver rather than gold, but there is lots of great stuff here. It’s moving in places, exciting and keeps you guessing as to what’s going on. The final chapters set up nicely for book 2. Unlike the Hunger Games, Red Rising feels like it was always conceived as a multi-part story. Based on the strength of Red Rising, I’m very much looking forward to finding out what Darrow does next.

Many Thanks to Hodder and the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of the book.