Tag Archives: Books

I want to talk about Borne

22 Jun

This book! I find all of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction deeply affecting, and I’m still trying to process his latest novel, Borne. It simultaneously broke my heart and lifted me up. I can’t think of another book I’ve found so moving and disturbing and yet also so beautiful and, eventually, positive. Warning: this splurge of thoughts may contain spoilerage. 

All of the stuff I love about Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction is here: corrupted nature; body horror; a decaying metropolis. Explorations of power and who wields it permeate (is it the Magician, who sells lies like a priestess sells religion- to comfort but also to control? Or Mord who, king-like, terrorises to rule? Or the Company, who ingest and spew out, a faceless, thoughtless consumerist nightmare that, unchecked, will destroy worlds?) And monsters! Such monsters, in every sense of the word. What makes a monster and what makes the opposite, a “person” – as Borne is so fond of saying and is so desperate to be – is another question that lurks behind much of the story. 

I loved Borne’s upbringing with Rachel. What parent hasn’t heard many of Borne’s myriad, impossible-to-answer questions from their own offspring? And the way in which Rachel questions herself, doubts herself, blames herself… Well, I have definitely been there as a parent, many a time. Ultimately, it’s nature, not nurture, that wins out for Borne – or is it? Rachel comments, more than once, that Borne appeared to her the way he thought she wanted him to be. And Rachel surely wanted nothing so much as a weapon with which to rid the city of the blight of Mord. 

There was a lot in this novel that for me echoed other fiction by VanderMeer, and not just the environmental themes or the beautiful, haunting descriptions of nature twisted. A big reveal towards the end, in particular, is reminiscent of a similar big reveal at the end of Finch. Rachel is a delightfully and self-consciously unreliable narrator, although not quite in the category of the narrators of Shriek: An Afterword, another of my favourites. 

I loved the cyclical nature of much of what happened. Rachel salvaged Borne, Wick had once salvaged Rachel, Rachel salvaged Borne again. I felt it most strongly through the cycles of creation and destruction we see. The Company creates monstrosities, destroying worlds in the process, but ultimately these creations will remake the world. The magician (and Wick) create memories, but the magician destroys children to do so. The magician, and Rachel in her way, create monsters, as did Wick, and Wick and Rachel’s creations destroy each other, and in so doing, create a new world. Even Mord, who destroys so much, creates his proxies (who then go on to destroy.) Have I tied myself in enough of a knot yet?

I should probably stop here. I just loved loved loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Oh, and I want a swimming pool just like Wick’s. 

The Power by Naomi Alderman… READ IT!

20 Mar

A friend told me that I had to read The Power by Naomi Alderman. It wasn’t really on my radar until that point but man oh man am I glad I read it. (And I’m suddenly self-conscious about my choice of phrase there.) It’s one of those books that stays with you long after you stop reading. I think I read something that said it “will change the way you look at everything.” This isn’t hyperbole, although I’d probably describe it as bringing everything into sharp (and terrible) focus. More than once had to stop reading on the Tube because I realised I had started crying. That’s power, that is. 

Here’s a description of the book from the author’s website. In short, women suddenly acquire the ability to be physically dominant over men, and this changes the power dynamics between the sexes in ways that highlight the awful things we take for granted in our own patriarchal society. 

I rode the wave of the writing. I found the style taut and urgent and perfect for the story being told. I felt the book had as much to say about the societal pressures on men as it has to say about the way women are treated, and as well as being about gender, it is definitely also about power itself and the subtle way in which it is expressed (and the way in which the presence or absence of it permeates everything.) One character, a politician, ceases to give a shit about or be intimidated by a rival once she knows she has the ability to hurt him physically (even though he doesn’t know.) It reminded me of when I started to practise martial arts as a child: up until that point, I got picked on, and got into quite a lot of fights trying to defend myself. After a few months, I didn’t have any more fights, and I’m sure it was just down to the way I carried myself: I just wasn’t scared of getting hit any more.

I particularly liked the exchanges between Kristen and Tom (and later Matt), and the creeping way they were integrated into the main text, just as such frothy, reductive journalism does seem to creep into everything at the moment. I also loved the framing exchanges between the fictional author and his mentor, thousands of years in the future. I’d say it’s implied, rather than stated, that religion lies at the root of our own existing patriarchies, just as religion is wielded as a conscious weapon for control by Mother Eve in this book. I found the description of male genital mutilation, and of women as being naturally aggressive because they “have babies to protect” particularly thought-provoking. 

One might be tempted to think the book is suggesting that it is inevitable that those in power will abuse it. However, I think that’s missing the point of the story. The point is to shine a light on aspects of our existing cultures by completely reversing the balance of gender power. It is deliberately shocking (haha, no pun intended) but never sensationalist, and it deliberately takes things to their most extreme conclusion, but none of it is worse than what is happening to women right now.

Anyway: read it. Everyone should. 

[And now the weather on the ones… Sorry, couldn’t resist!]

Slightly Spoilery Ramblings About Ice and Fire

30 Aug

I count George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books among my favourite fantasy novels. I don’t think many fantasy series can match them for drama, plot twists, and the sheer size of the world, its history and its kaleidoscope of characters. As anyone who indulges in any form of geekery probably knows, this has been a good year for readers of Martin’s books, with the delayed fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons, and the first season of the TV adaptation, Game of Thrones, being released. Here are my (mildly spoilery) thoughts on both.

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Recommended Reading: The Other Lands

18 May

“Develop legends. Heroes on horseback and such things…. Find stories that include horses. If you can’t find them, insert the horses. Plant the seeds. Add another layer to the lore and let it be spoken of in taverns and halls and told to children at night, that sort of thing. Get the people dreaming horses.”

So says Queen Corinn Akaran in the second part of David Anthony Durham’s Acacia series, The Other Lands, which I have recently finished reading. I love this book. There’s absolutely no padding – rare for epic fantasy – although there are enough fresh ideas in this one volume to fill an entire series. In the quote above, Queen Corinn is explaining how she intends to start using horses to inspire awe in others, and create a divide between the royal family and the rest of the populace. This idea, of how history is manipulated by those in power, runs strongly through the book, as does the theme of slavery:

“Some even forget that they are not free, forget that their individual desires could be any different from the orders given to them.”

I found the writing itself to be quite beautiful, particularly Durham’s descriptions of the “foulthings” monsters (you know me… I loves me monsters) and the heartwarming passages about Elya, the non-foul foulthing. It’s a long time since I’ve been so caught up in a book that I’ve had to skip to the end of a chapter to see if things turn out OK. I was pleased to learn more about the League – boat-faring traders who thrive on greed, consumerism, and exploitation. As with the first book in the series, The War With The Mein, Durham’s world is wonderfully multicultural – again, refreshing in a genre over-populated by quasi-Medieval Europes.

I have to admit that the characters I enjoyed reading the most were the less savoury types: the weak and perpetually terrified Leagueman, Rialus; vain, ambitious Delivegu; and Queen Corinn Akaran, so sympathetically written that, despite disliking her intensely, I can’t help but also feel sorry for her. Not an easy trick to pull off, I’d say.

I look forward to the next volume in the series, and in the meantime, I may well read some of Durham’s other, non-fantasy novels.

Finch: Recommended Reading

3 Feb

I’ve just finished Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch. Wow. What a truly amazing book; there really is nothing else like it out there. I’m a big fan of the Ambergris cycle, and the Gray Caps are absolutely my favourite aliens, mostly because they actually are completely alien. Everything about them is unfathomable, and I am so glad that the mystique surrounding them remains in this book, despite us also finding out a lot more about them. This novel is gloriously claustrophobic, and the relentless plot is reflected in the clipped language. The story can kind of be summed up in one line that appears towards the end of the book:

“You’re a man who did the best he could in impossible circumstances.”

I particularly liked the character of Wyte, and Finch’s relationship with him, and I think my favourite point in the book comes when Wyte attacks a group of Partials – the Gray Caps’ human servants, who have been transformed into fungal mutants.

The bullets. Wyte kept taking them like gifts. They tore through limbs, lodged in his torso. Leaving holes, Leaving daylight. That closed up. And running in the shadow of that magnificence…he felt as if he were following some sort of god, his own gun like a toy…

The theme of colonisation is at the heart of the novel. Ambergris, and the land on which it stands, is a land that has been repeatedly invaded and occupied, first by the Gray Caps, then by human settlers, and then again by the Gray Caps in the Rising. But an indigenous populations remains, and the idea of colonisation being not just to do with the land but to do with how people are transformed by invasion and occupation, is explored beautifully. Wyte secretly wants to join the rebels, but he has been infected by a Gray Cap fungus. Finch says, when referring to his infections, “…you’ve been colonized . And it’s gone too far. And they’ll never take you.” The land and its people are changing and transforming and there is no going back.

Highly recommended.