Tag Archives: strong heroine

Review of Embassytown by China Miéville

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EmbassytownI read The Scar when it first came out and couldn’t get through it. But when I saw this offering on the shelves and realised it was a stand-alone book, I scooped it up and decided to give it a go.

Embassytown, a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe. Avice is an immerse, a traveller on the immer, the sea of space and time below the everyday, now returned to her birth planet. Here on Arieka, Humans are not the only intelligent life, and Avice has a rare bond with the natives, the enigmatic Hosts – who cannot lie. Only a tiny cadre of unique human Ambassadors can speak Language, and connect the two communities. But an unimaginable new arrival has come to Embassytown. And when this Ambassador speaks, everything changes.

By coincidence, I’ve recently read a number of books where aliens feature, so I was intrigued to see how Miéville would go about depicting ‘other’. It is a huge challenge, both imaginatively and technically to write convincingly about another species that has never been seen on our home planet. No problem for Miéville, though. He nails it.

The book is written in first person viewpoint and early on it is apparent that Avice is posthuman in many ways. While there are enough differences that mark her apart from you and me, she still retains sufficient humanity that I cared about her all the way through. Which is a tricky balancing act to pull off. I have enjoyed the worlds created by the likes of Iain M. Banks and Alastair Reynolds, however their protagonists are so altered by the span of time and technology that I find it difficult to really care about them. Not so Avice.

But Miéville’s feat in producing a sympathetic far-future human becomes a sideshow when we encounter the Hosts, the planet’s indigenous intelligent species. Humans perch in a small enclave – Embassytown, which has been biorigged to produce a breathable atmosphere for its inhabitants. Avice was born and raised in Embassytown and is only one of a handful who manage to leave the planet, due to her talents as an immerse.

The Hosts speak a Language where emotion and meaning are inextricably linked. Therefore they cannot lie, and when they communicate with humans, it takes a fully bonded pair, mostly identical twins, who are raised to be able to think and talk in tandem. These pairs are the Ambassadors, who interact with the Hosts to keep Embassytown supplied with food and resources, as well as administering the industrial links between both species. Despite being a small, far-flung outpost, the planet Arieka has a thriving trade exporting some of the vital biomes manufactured by the Hosts.

Avice also has another claim to fame – as a small child, she gets involved in an incident with the Hosts where she becomes part of their elaborate Language rituals as a simile. She narrates this event with the same affectionate impatience she displays towards Embassytown, a relatively small community that she cannot wait to leave. And the only reason she returns is as a favour to her husband, Scile, who is a linguist and desperate to make his career publishing the definitive work on the Host’s Language system.

One of the main themes of the book is communication, which is explored on all sorts of levels. Obviously, given there is an alien species at the heart of the narrative with a very unusual approach to language, there are questions about why you’d communicate in the first place, how you create sufficient mutual understanding so that a particular words represents the same meaning by both species. What is language, anyway? But Avice also finds it a challenge to sustain the initially close relationship she has with her husband and her lovers. Miéville also examines the issue of power throughout the story. Who has it, who wants it and what lengths they’ll go to get it.

I’m conscious that I’ve managed to make this sound like some dry, rather worthy tome – and it’s nothing of the sort. While being brain-achingly clever and leaving me buzzing about all sorts of concepts around communication and language that hadn’t occurred to me before, it is also a cracking good read. The twists and turns in the story had me exclaiming aloud and I have no hesitation whatsoever in announcing that Embassytown isn’t just one of my outstanding reads of the year, it is one of those books that has both entertained and entranced me.

If you’re a science fiction fan on any level, go and track down this remarkable book. It’s an exciting, wonderful read and demonstrates why this is my very favourite genre. What about you – have you read anything recently that blew you away with its stunning excellence and quality?
10/10

Review of The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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A good friend lent me this book with the comment, ‘I’d love to know what you think about this…’

signatureofallthingsFrom the moment Alma Whittaker steps into the world, everything about life intrigues her. Instilled with an unquenchable sense of wonder by her father, a botanical explorer and the richest man in the New World, Alma is raised in a house of luxury and curiosity. It is not long before she becomes a gifted botanist in her own right. But as she flourishes and her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine and the magical.

And the brief blurb does this book as much credit as the phrase, ‘a potted history of Thomas Cromwell’s early life,’ adequately describes Wolf Hall. To be fair, The Signature of All Things is a beast of a book – coming in at 580 pages of fine print, so trying to sum it up an a short paragraph was always going to be a challenge.

It charts Alma’s life from the day she is born, 5th January 1800, right up until her very old age. And it is a life full of contradictions – brought up in a fabulously wealthy household, she nevertheless is taught strict obedience, frugality, attention to detail and rigorously schooled by her Dutch mother. An only child, she is suddenly presented with an adopted sister when she is 10 years old – a dainty, beautiful girl who is everything Alma is not… Despite being the daughter of a wealthy man, she is not besieged by suitors as a young girl – although there is one man who she has fallen in love with. And I’m not going further because to do so would be to lurch into spoiler territory. Suffice to say that it would be all too easy to turn this book into a heartbreaking melodrama – there is certainly the material to do so.

But Gilbert turns this book into so much more than that. In amongst her duties as her father’s secretary and administrator, Alma is a bryologist, which means she studies mosses. And her work brings her into contact with other naturalists and lithographers – including Ambrose…

As well as becoming engrossed in Alma’s life, I was also fascinated by Prudence, her adopted sister. Though neither girl bonded with the other, their paths cross in ways that profoundly affected each of them, and indirectly, leads to Alma’s restless travelling at an age when most of her contemporaries are settling down to a life of placid routine. The wealth of historical detail; the state of Tahiti at the time, when the native people are still reeling from the epidemics that ripped through the population; Gilbert’s iron grip on the pacing and narrative tension that ensured that the story pinged off the page… This is a masterpiece.

If you enjoy historical fiction and strong, intelligent heroines, then track down this book. It is, undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year.
10/10

Review of Heaven’s Queen – Book 3 of the Paradox series by Rachel Bach

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I was hooked the moment I picked up the first book, Fortune’s Pawn – read my review here. I immediately burned through the second book Honour’s Knight, but would I enjoy the third offering as much? I generally don’t read a series straight through as it is much easier to spot an author’s quirks that way. However this third volume was due back at the library, so I had no choice…

Government conspiracies. Two alien races out for her blood. An incurable virus that’s eating her alive. Now, with the captain missing and everyone – even Devi’s own government – determined to hunt her down, things are going from bad to impossible. The sensible plan would be to hide and wait for things to blow over, but Devi’s never been one to shy away from a fight, and she’s getting mighty sick of running. It’s time to put this crisis on her terms and do what she knows is right. But with all human life hanging on her actions, the price of taking a stand might be more than she can pay.

heaven's queenIf you like your action fast-paced, with plenty of twists along the way, then this series ticks the boxes. There is no shortage of fights, with a satisfying variety of different backdrops providing a whole range of challenges. And while it seems that Devi will prevail because she always had – there was always a sense that this time around, she may not manage it.

Bach really knows how to keep cranking up the stakes – and the overall narrative pace throughout the series is perfectly judged. This trilogy really hangs together well, with each book taking a slice of the storyline and overall action. I think if I had read them spaced out, I would have lost more than I gained by reading them together.

Devi is a wonderful protagonist – vulnerable enough to make us care, especially as she is battling for her very survival – but also amazingly gung-ho about Life in general and hers in particular. The first person viewpoint really helped me bond with her and Bach managed to make me entirely sympathetic to her and her ideals, while profoundly thankful I’ve never run into her on the High Street after she’d had a few at the local pub… Devi is different – a product of her Time and upbringing. Bach is too good a writer to tell us this – but she manages to show that difference in action repeatedly.

The love story between her and Rupert is complicated – just because she cares for him, doesn’t stop her blasting him in the chest at pointblank range when he gets in her way. I liked her worries that her feelings for him make her weaker and less effective as a soldier. It is also interesting that she finds for the first time in her life, the rage she uses to hone her battle instincts also accelerates the symptoms of the disease ravaging her. So she has to exercise self control – not one of Devi’s strengths…

In addition to producing an outstanding protagonist that will live long in my memory – I was also interested to note the theme running through the book. Bach raises the question whether the interests of the greater good should ever allow us to trample on the rights of a few individuals. She comes down fairly emphatically on the side of the individual versus the greater good – a classic American theme that runs through many films and books produced on the other side of the pond. The ending is entirely satisfactory and I was relieved and heartened to see a couple of plotlines that could be expanded on for yet more Devi fun in the future. I profoundly hope so – she is a great character and I’m already missing her.
10/10