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Non-fiction

Map Addict: a tale of obsession, fudge and the Ordnance Survey by Mike Parker.

Last month, a few chapters into this, I said it was engaging and interesting. Sadly, I found it growing more annoying and less interesting as it went on, full of unnecessary sneering and mockery. I didn't dislike it, but it didn't fulfil its early promise. I can't remember the fudge.

Aeons: the search for the beginning of time by Martin Gorst

Re-read. A very readable account of the quest to discover the age of the Earth and, after that, the universe, starting with Bishop Ussher and ending with the Hubble Space Telescope and beyond. Again and again, we have people dismissing – or being forced to recant - the evidence of their own research because it contradicted the "fact" that God created the Earth 6000 years ago, or else tying themselves up in complicated knots in their attempt to reconcile the two. It's all very interesting, hence my reread.

Fiction

The King Must Die by Mary Renault

A book chosen by random die roll. I think I might have started to read this when I was young. At least, some of the early chapters seemed very faintly familiar, and I know my Mum had the book when I was young. This is the story of Theseus from childhood to the death of his father, told in the first person. Although the characters believe in gods and portents, there is no actual magic or monsters in the story; rather it’s like the "real" historical events that might have spawned legends. It's full of Golden Bough style sacrificial kings, which is what I think bogged me down as a child. I started off liking it, but seemed to get less inspired by it as it went on, partly because I kept getting all the minor characters confused. I borrowed the sequel from the library, and intended to read it, but somehow never seem to pick it up.


The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I saw a recommendation for the TV series, but since the book came more readily to hand, I thought I’d start with that. This is often described as "Harry Potter meets Narnia." Normally I dislike this "X meets Y" way of summing up a book, but in this case, it's entirely just. It's the story of a 17 year old boy who is obsessed with a series of Narnia-like children's books. After he's recruited to enrol in a secret College of magic, he learns magic himself, and eventually discovers that the world of the books is real and very dangerous.

I thought that the premise had potential, but I found the execution very dull. The characters never came to life, the writing was flat, and there was just no spark at all. The pacing was strange, too, with the revelation about the magical world coming very late in the book, after five years of magical training. I stuck with it for a long time, but ended up skimming the last 100 pages or so. There are more books in the series, but I won't read on.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Re-read. I don't need to summarise this one, surely? I was surprised by how well I remembered it, given that I don't think I've reread it as an adult. (I first read it at 9 or so, and loved it. Predictably, the rabbit I obtained shortly afterwards was called Hazel.) I'd forgotten some of the details, but remembered a lot more about it than I remember about some books I read only a few years ago. Maybe it’s because it's ultimately quite a simple story, with strong echoes of myth? Anyway, I was also surprised at how much I go into it. We really must go for a walk on the real Watership Down one day.

Tales from Watership Down by Richard Adams

Richard Adams does fanfic of his own book. Two thirds of the book consists of stories of El-ahrairah (one of them quite brutal), and the rest of linked episodes in the life of the Watership Down rabbits in the year or two after their return from Efrafa. As well as the existing characters, some new characters are introduced, and there is a much stronger role for the does – passive breeding machines/quest objects in the original book. I don't think that reading this added much to my appreciation of the first book, but at least I didn't end up regretting reading it – something that sometimes happens with belated sequels.

Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith
Hostage by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

Books 1 and 2 in The Change series, which will run to 4 books. Post-apocalyptic (but not particularly dystopian) YA with a Wild West vibe. Hundreds of years ago, civilisation was destroyed, probably by a natural disaster – perhaps a solar and magnetic storm, although there has clearly been considerable tectonic activity, too. Ruined cities lie buried or surrounded by forests of lethal crystal trees. Much of the flora and fauna has mutated into deadly forms. Some people are Changed, too, with special powers. The book starts with Ross, a young prospector – i.e. someone who explores ruined cities – arriving badly wounded at the town of Las Anclas (near what was LA), with a priceless book in his backpack and a bounty hunter on his trail. Voske, the empire-building tyrant "king" of a nearby town, wants the book, and has always wanted Las Anclas, too. As Ross tries to come to terms with living under a roof, surrounded by other people, the people of the close-knit town have to decide whether to embrace the stranger, when his arrival might bring Voske to their gates with an army.

The story is told in the third person by 5 viewpoint characters, all of them aged around 18. This, along with the large cast of minor characters, caused me a little trouble at the start, since no sooner was I beginning to get to know one character and their circle, the story moved on to someone else. However, very soon all these viewpoint characters started interacting with each other, so the multi-viewpoint narrative really worked for me. I love seeing people and events through a variety of different eyes, especially when they have a very different take on things.

Post-apocalyptic YA is ten a penny, but this one's different from the norm. There's no super-special teenage girl who alone can save the world. There isn't even any world-saving to be done; the stakes are the future of one small town, and the personal happiness of its inhabitants. Most importantly, to me, it's not a grim dystopia. This is not to say that it's all sweetness and light. Life is tough. There are battles, and some people die. There is emotional pain, too – PTSD following the death of a comrade in battle, for example. But most people, although not without their flaws, are fundamentally decent, just trying to get by and make the best of things. Even the PTSD is not a major wallowing angst-fest, preceded the sort of hideous trauma that the characters in YA dystopias often endure without noticeable effect. One of the authors is a PTSD therapist, so I feel confident that it's depicted accurately. It certainly felt believable.

I also liked how it keeps shying away from the usual YA tropes. Romantic relationships happen, but they aren't grand, all-consuming, melodramatic passions, and they don't have to be the single most defining aspect of the participants' existence. Two friends are attracted to the same boy, but there is no love triangle, no angst, no grand falling-out. Some characters are gay, some have near-black skin, some have white, some (most) have various shades of brown, but these characteristics are just mentioned in passing, and nobody is defined by them. Some people in Las Anclas are prejudiced against the Changed, so for a while I thought we were heading towards a witch hunt sort of story, but it didn't go that way, either. In most such books, one of these people – a powerful town leader – would have been an out-and-out villain, but even this character demonstrated many good points.

I really liked these two books, and am very eager for more. Fortunately, it seems as if book 3 might be out in a few weeks, so that's good.

Saint's Blood by Sebastien de Castell

Book 3 of the Greatcoats series, the first two books of which I read in December and reviewed here. Once again, I am amazed at my ability to forget books within just a few months of reading them. Although some of it came back to me once there were reminders in the text, I started this book with very little memory of what had happened in book 2, although it was less than 4 months since I read it. What is happening to me?

Anyway, I found this is all rather grimmer and more unrelenting than I remember the first book as being. When I read that, I had fairly recently read a long, dark series, so I remember finding the banter and swashbuckling quite refreshing. This time, I came to the series straight after finishing the Change series books, and I think this affected my enjoyment. As is common in fantasy series, the stakes keep getting raised, the enemies get more invincible and the Bad Stuff is, er, badder. This is really quite a corrupt, bleak world with few redeeming features. There are a lot of fights in this book, and the main character really should have fallen over long ago and died from his injuries or collapsed from the emotional trauma. Instead he just keeps on going like the battery bunny, hurtling from fight to fight. This sort of thing is normal in novels, of course, which increases my admiration for the Changes series, where witnessing a single death has lasting emotional consequences.

But much of my reaction comes from comparing it with what I read before. It did still keep my attention, and I'm going to move straight on to the final book in the series. I just wish the world of the books wasn't quite so dark.
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