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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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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The Worst of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… And here we’ll focus on the worst 😉 Or, to be more fair, just on the most disappointing for us personally, for as you will see, most of the works mentioned below enjoyed quite a lot of acclaim and following.

To be true to our title, we should probably start and stop this post at COVID-19, the wellspring of our woes (though there are a few hopeful signs along the way, from the evidence of effective and efficient trust-based cooperation above the national level to the human-caused limitation of greenhouse gases emissions). But as this is predominantly a book blog, with a small but significant addition of comics, TV series and movies, we feel we need to elaborate a bit and avoid easy finger-pointing.

As in the previous summary post, we wanted to divide our choices into a few categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Comics, TV Series; but as Non-fiction this year proved to be a major hit without any misses (YAY!), we’ll omit this category.

Ola’s Worst of 2020 in Fiction

Here the choices are easy, at least for me – though for many might seem quite controversial, as some of these books seem to have become fan favorites ;). But what can I say? By now you really shouldn’t be surprised by any of this 😛 So without further ado, here it is:

R. F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

That’s the only book on this list that I wrote a review of; I felt this instant favorite of the bookish community deserved a critique, and whether I achieved the goal of making it measured and not just scathing, it’s for you to judge. So let me just quote the crux of my review here:

Nanking Massacre was a truly horrible event, an atrocity for which there can be no excuse. The world should learn more about it, so that it stops being a footnote in history books. But using it in a fantasy book as a plot device designed to further the main character’s evolution into a vessel for a demonic/demigod entity and as a rationale for her own acts of genocide seems beyond bad taste.

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Patricia Briggs, Smoke Bitten (2020)

Author: Patricia Briggs

Title: Smoke Bitten

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 352

Series: Mercy Thompson #12

Were I in the habit of creating titles for my reviews, this one would be Smoke Bitter or The Too Long Goodbye with Mercy Thompson. At 12 books the series has long outlived its merit – at least for me. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear to me that Briggs’s flagship series should have ended with Fire Touched, book #9, or even Night Broken, book #8. To be honest, the last one I really enjoyed was number 7, Frost Burned, and afterwards the series became a slippery slope of ever less imaginative plots and lamer jokes. And more fawning over oh-so-beautiful Adam. Well, whatever else I can say about Smoke Bitten, it had these three elements in spades.

If you know Mercy Thompson series, you know it’s an urban fantasy set in the more rural part of Washington (the state), and the main protagonist is a young woman with complicated parentage – her father is the Coyote, Native American spirit of mischievousness (which by book 12 has been elevated to “chaos”) and she’d been raised by a werewolf pack in a remote part of Montana. But even if you don’t know anything about it, you can easily pick up book #12 and start reading, because about a half of the novel is a detailed rehash of what had happened before. I realize that authors of long series are always faced with the dilemma of keeping their books streamlined and focused on the new plot lines while keeping the readers in the loop. I’ve seen many solutions to the problem, all slightly imperfect – from not making it easy and believing that by book N-th the readers are already invested enough to know what’s going on, to a short synopsis at the beginning, to a list of characters with descriptions, to info-dumping at every opportunity.

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Rebecca F. Kuang, The Poppy War (2018)

The Poppy War

Author: Rebecca F. Kuang

Title: The Poppy War

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 544

Series: The Poppy War #1

This turned out to be one of the more difficult reviews to write for me. Everybody and their uncle seems awed by Kuang’s debut novel, which reimagined the history of 20th century China into a vengeful fantasy of violence. The Poppy War was one of the rare books bound to become a bestseller, with publishers outbidding each other for the rights to the book. The enthusiasm was not without merit: for the reader from Western sphere of influence, Kuang’s novel presents an undeniably attractive image of China, fueled in equal measures by the elements of Chinese mythos already popularized in Western pop-culture and by the impression of mystery surrounding China as a fabled, distant land. The mythos, and stereotypes, are fairly easy to enumerate: martial arts’ prowess, Chinese zodiac and a large pantheon of demigods and demons, feng shui rooted in a belief of holistic spirituality, snippets of a heroic age long gone, when emperors ruled and Great Wall and Silk Road were built, and a vague concept of a collective social outlook, linked to Confucius. Add to it Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda series and Disney’s Mulan, and maybe some bits and pieces of more contemporary information regarding Chinese communism coupled with the evidence of the irrefutable economic success, and the vision of China in popular culture is more or less complete.

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