E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

Author: E. J. Beaton

Title: The Councillor

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: ?

Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue (and not the “feminist Machiavellian political fantasy” it’s marketed as, at least for me)

I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Now that’s done I can start with the proper introductions 😉. The Councillor is E.J. Beaton’s debut novel, published today by DAW. It takes place in a fictional world bearing strong resemblance to our world’s Italy in Renaissance times and all this time and place entailed: separate city-states, feudalism, a ruling caste of cutthroat nobles, condottieri and the constant warring they made their fortunes in, and even something of an Italian League (not the football one, this one). The main character, Lysande Prior, is an orphan foundling who through sheer talent (she translated an ancient poetry artifact, Silver Songs, at the age of twelve) became a protégé of Elira’s Iron Queen, Sarelin. When the queen is murdered, our poor scholar must take the position of a Councillor – a sort of an interrex, responsible for choosing a new ruler from among the four remaining city-state rulers. The decision is urgent, for the person responsible for Sarelin’s murder is no other than Elira’s nemesis, The White Queen: Mea Tacitus (more on that masculine suffix later) who over two decades earlier set the realm aflame (quite literally, being an elemental able to control fire). The White Queen wants to conquer Elira for good this time, and won’t take “no” for an answer. So it falls to our hapless and seemingly mousy protagonist to make the right decisions under mounting pressure and successfully defend the realm. Lengthy discussions, banquets, balls, tournaments, and sightseeing trips abound, and there’s even one short battle.

The book is written in an assured, flowing style, imaginative and lush, bordering on purplish – all the more remarkable considering this is a debut novel for the poet Beaton. The exposition is done deftly, the intricacies of the world explained in small bits and pieces, allowing the plot to flow naturally. The cast of characters is sizeable but managed effectively by the author: while their characteristics are mostly limited to the bare minimum allowing the reader to recognize each without trouble and focused mainly on physical traits – with the exception of the dead queen and the main protagonist, who were given a bit more depth and much needed ambivalence – the characterization seemed adequate for the task of differentiating the various persons of interest. Beaton’s writing holds a promise, and her broad literary knowledge can be glimpsed in the myriad of references to various texts, from Machiavelli to Marx. The introduction of magic as a discriminatory trait in a feudal post-war society was an interesting decision and resulted in the lion’s share of my enjoyment of the book. I wish the novel lived up to the marketing description and actually focused on politics of the realm; however, after a promising start it shifted its attention toward romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues – and left me feeling increasingly disgruntled.

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Going Kindle…

I know it does not make me an early adopter in 2021, but I decided to buy a Kindle this month. It was a decision long time coming, so I decided to make use of a special offer on Amazon.de – one that we need to use in Poland, to get our stuff quickly, cheap and duty free. Curse you, Brexit…

Why an e-reader? Why Kindle? Why now?

I’ve been observed to loudly preach the superiority of paper books. The feel, the smell, the look of these physical objects are unmatched by anything the devices might offer. The books that are really important to me, I will always want to have on my shelves. My library is more than a source of reading material. It’s the extension of my self, my identity, a statement you can’t fail to notice when you enter my flat.

And I don’t even need e-reader on my vacation, I happily carry huge volumes to the beach.

But lets face it, I’ve read an occasional epub on my phone and it wasn’t super-comfortable, but I still had fun. That’s how I read a few Warhammer novels in 2020. And, full disclosure, I actually was a relatively early adopter, buying a Barnes & Noble Nook almost exactly 10 years ago. There weren’t many e-readers in Poland back then. I read a couple dozen books, buying some from Kobo, and receiving a disc with free e-books from Baen, with my first Honor Harrington hardcover.

In the long run, it did not take. Most of the e-books were not priced significantly lower than the proper versions, not all were available to me. I could not buy them from Barnes & Noble, my device’s producers, as they did not sell to my country. Kobo was the only option back then, and they were ok, but I preferred to pay for physical object, not files..

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Cixin Liu, To Hold Up The Sky (2020)

Author: Cixin Liu

Title: To Hold Up The Sky

Format: E-book

Pages: 336

Series: –

Liu’s short story collection comes in the wake of his breakthrough success with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Translated by several translators (none of which was Ken Liu, who translated The Three-Body Problem, and Ican’t help but wonder if politics wasn’t the reasond for that) To Hold Up the Sky offers 11 diverse stories spanning near and far future of our own reality; their main common point seems to be their prominent focus on China and a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism. As usual with short stories collections, I’ll review each story separately and give a composite score at the end.

The Village Teacher 0/10

I’d give it 0/10 if I could. Oh, wait, you know what? I can.

Over a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR I never expected to read such a prime example of soc-realist fiction fresh off the publishing press. The primitivity of this story is simply staggering on every level: from the utterly two-dimensional character of the martyr to knowledge – the selfless village teacher bravely giving his life in the heroic quest to teach little kids the Newton’s laws of motion on his death bed in the mountain shed serving as a classroom – to the cosmic conflict between the good carbon-based life-forms who live peacefully in a Federation and the bad silicone-based life-forms who formed a bloodthirsty Empire… Having read both the Polish positivist literature (Orzeszkowa’s ABC vividly comes to mind, and that’s a horrific memory of sickly good intentions married to a total inability to write) and the USSR bestseller and soc-realist opus magnum Story of the Real Man by the Hero of Socialist Labor Boris Polevoy I’ve been scarred for life already. But this… This was even worse. Much, much worse. Polevoy’s book was actually interesting, if you stripped it of the Soviet propaganda – maybe because it was based on a true story. Here? Nothing makes sense.

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Adrian Tchaikovsky, Bear Head (2021)

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Bear Head

Format: E-book

Pages: 400

Series: Dogs of War #2

Tchaikovsky became one of my favourite authors of fantasy after I read his amazing, and still not well-known enough (read it if you haven’t yet!) Shadows of the Apt. His Children of Time proved that he can easily deliver interesting, thought-provoking, emotional SF as well, and I’ve read enough of his short stories to know he can be a pro at writing these, too. In short, he’s a very well-rounded, very talented author, with unwavering focus on emotional development and a firm if understated ethical foundation. He has a knack for tackling difficult, often traumatic topics with tact and sensitivity, never going for cheap thrills or gratuitous exploitation. All in all, he’s one of the very few authors I keep constantly on my radar. Granted, there were a few a bit concerning reviews of his couple of books along the way that I haven’t gotten around to read, and I’m not certain I will – the sequel of Children of Time, Children of Ruin, springs to mind. But generally, with Tchaikovsky, I knew what to expect. Now, after reading Bear Head, I’m not so sure anymore. If anything, I’d venture an opinion that he had become the victim of his own success: writing too many books in too short a time, and none of the projects getting enough attention and polish and love to become a truly outstanding work, on par with Shadows of the Apt.

Because Bear Head is the worst of Tchaikovsky’s books I’ve read so far. It’s by no means bad; it’s still very engaging, well-written, fast-paced page-turner tackling ambitious problems in an interesting, thought-provoking way. Yet it also feels underdeveloped, rushed, and – surprisingly for Tchaikovsky – not entirely thought through. It has a more “paint-by-the-numbers” feel than the usual impression of a thoughtful creative work. It’s also, maybe most importantly, more of a political statement than a SF novel. Ah, all SF novels are political statements of one kind or another, I think we’d all agree on this. It’s just that in this case Bear Head veils itself in a very thin layer of science, indeed – and whatever there is, serves as a focus for the very concrete, very clearly defined “now,” in contrast to the previous concerns with more abstract ideas like “human nature” or “future,” which used to be the crux of his Children of Time, for example.

Lots of big words here, I know, and lots of harsh accusations. Let’s get down to the tangibles, then.

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Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country (2016)

Author: Matt Ruff

Title: Lovecraft Country

Format: Paperback

When Atticus Turner, a Black ex-soldier fresh from the Korean war, gets a mysterious letter from his father, he goes back to Chicago, and later to a small town of Ardham, Massachusetts. Along with him goes his childhood friend Letitia and his uncle, George, publisher, writer and researcher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and they have to fight both the cosmic horrors straight from the Cthulhu Mythos and the no less real horrors of their fellow human’s prejudices. It’s a bit like a crossover of Call of Cthulhu and Green Book.

Ok – it’s political. My next post after Ministry for the Future, and another unashamedly political novel. Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is a subversive pulp horror, just as Guardian quote on its cover claims, and I’ll try to say a few words on whether it’s smart further in the review 😉 I would also like to emphasize it’s solely about the book, I’ve seen only the first episode of the TV show, liked it enough to stop and order the novel, and I’m yet to go back and watch the rest of it.

Let me start with some praise for the cover – I just it. Pulpy, lovecraftian, with some KKK undertones – fits its contents perfectly, even the “now a major HBO series” sign does not make me angry. I’m happy I own a physical copy!

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