Monday, 26 November 2018

Review: The Log House, Baylea Hart

The Log House is a very strange novel. Set in a dark dystopia where humanity lives in worn thin communes, huddled away from the forest where monstrous children prey, murdering anyone they can catch, we follow Penny on her quest for revenge after she is cast out for a crime which becomes clear only as the story unfurls.

Warped by her past, Penny is a unsettling and repulsive protagonist, and her dogged, shambolic traipse through the forest has a nightmarish intensity that frames the grotesqueries of the plot excellently. There is a horror of birth and parenthood that runs through every word of the narrative, a profound body horror realised both by the hairy, murderous creatures hunting her, and the almost bloodless quietness of both the child she has left behind.

Because Penny - the fertile - inhabits a dystopia where childbirth creates monsters, and is surrounded by older, worn-down, people, living limited lives in dark houses splinter-filled houses, people who clutch after her and her son with the same uncomfortable intensity.

This is a book of madness, of suddenness, of hatred that seethes, and children that bring death. The cataclysm that brought about the dystopia is ill-defined, and the books main flaws come about when that aspect of the story is discussed. From a personal perspective, I would either say it need more space and depth to be expanded - to give us a relatable normality against which to play the nightmare - or to be glossed over with only the most general sense of a society slowly withering away. Dystopias breed questions, both as to their sustainability and their scope, and what little we learned of this one didn't give a clear picture of either.

But despite this, The Log House is a deeply creepy tale of threat and revenge, guaranteed to give you a landscape for your bad dreams for quiet some time.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Review: Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce

Beautiful cover though!

Oh, GAWD, someone give Varice Kingsford a hug from me!

To those not familiar with Pierce's work, Tempests and Slaughter is a prequel to The Immortals series, and takes us deep in to the backstory of one Numair Salmalín as we watch his struggles at the Imperial University in the years before he became known as the most powerful mage alive. An occassionally awkward cross between school/college narrative and... political thriller with magic? Tempests and Slaughter is an incredibly compelling read full of wonderful characters, deep intrigue, and powerful worldbuilding. While the wonderfully foreboding ending either leans quite heavily on the rest of the series, or an eventual sequel, it also stands alone surprisingly well.

Pierce shows both the glory and the cruelty of Empire, and the subtlties of class and race relationships. One of it's treasures - the Imperial University is a wonderfully realised: a study in petty ambitions and academic genorisity, whose seclusion from the world is thematically and narratively engaged with throughout the book, even while it provides a much needed refuge to the young Numair.   

It is often difficult to categorise Pierce's novels by age group - despite inhabiting the same world, The Protector of the Small often reads like the upper end of middle grade fiction, while parts of The Song of the Lioness are clearly young or new adult.  While this novel follows Numair from mid childhood, it has the feel of something pitched slightly older - a more jaded and slightly colder worldview that is reminiscent of Battlemagic, or The Will of the Empress rather than the other Tortall books. There was also a lot more focus on the practicalities of society - taxation, disease management, exploitation - rather than the simpler morality of her early work. A cynical reader would say was influences by A Song of Ice and Fire but Pierce was already engaging with these themes in both The Circle of Magic and The Protector of the Small, and it was lovely to see these developed unflinchingly without her characters ever being shown as less kind, or humanity as less redeemable.

However, Pierce does attempt to show the same run of crushes, dating, and physcial developments of adolescene that her other protagonists go through - which, perhaps understandably - represent one of the weakest aspects of the novel. It made sense for Kel and Alanna - surrounded by cis boys - to be hyperaware of menarchy and the development of their breasts - but hearing, however briefly, about Numair's involuntary erections felt a little superfluous.

What is remarkable about Numair is not that he is a boy (Pierce has written Briar, after all) but that he is Gifted - in both senses of the word. Pierce's stories find their strength when they hit upon what it is that stands at their character's heart - Daine's was her trauma and her recovery, Alanna's was that she was Chosen, and Kel's was her hardworking normalness. Numair is Gifted, and Pierce provides a touching portrait of the privileged insularity attendent upon that as Numair's social and political naïveté is contrasted with his already formiddable magical Gift, as well as the loneliness and rejection he faces as both someone both markedly different, and so much younger than his peers. 

At the heart of Tempests and Slaughter, is survival - from the gladiator Musenda's battles for his life, to Orzone, the "leftover Prince"and his struggle to survive the turbulent politics of court, and win acclaim. Which brings us to Varice and the hug. Because while he might be isolated, Numair is not alone in these years - Varice and Orzone are shown as two other highly gifted young people, and provide him both with friendship and comradery as the three of them grow. But whilst Numair gradually learns to focus on the realities of world around him, and Orzone is drawn in to court intrigues, Varice goes from the forthright ringleader of their little group, to a careful peacemaker, agonised by the way her intelligence is mocked and belittled by their academic circle.

This is quite a bold move for Pierce, who is most famous for stories of how young women come in to their strengths, gaining the acclaim of recognition. Varice is clearly and explicitly diminished by the narrative, her survival strategies (and the social judgements placed on her skill sets) gradually locking her in to a more and more constrained role - in which part we meet her in The Emperor Mage. Heartbreaking as this was as a reader, it provided a welcome aspect of realism on the way female brilliance is often forced to diminish itself, and was done with such sympathy and gentleness that it felt almost an apology for Varice's implied vapidity in the earlier novel.

Yeah, I got a signed one

I really enjoyed this book - but that was pretty much a given. Numair is one of my favourite Pierce characters, and while I will admit that I came to this book with both unrealistically high expectations, and a couple of dearly held headcanons that - alas - remained unfulfilled, it still gave me more than I needed. Also, while Pierce is not interested in providing fanservice, she does seem to have made a real commitment to representation in her books, and it is nice to see a handful of LGB characters. (Although since when has Orzone been white?) It was nice to see a couple of nods to faces we recognise from the other books, although potentially these were a little overdone in places.