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Friday, 26 January 2018

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Finally, we come to Acceptance, the last part of the Southern Reach trilogy, and it has quite a lot to live up to and possibly explain. I was really looking forward to finding out how everything would be tied up, and tucked into this with cautious enthusiasm. Spoilers will follow for Annihilation and Authority.


Following the collapse of Southern Reach when the border of Area X suddenly expanded, Control and the clone of the biologist, answering only to Ghost Bird, travel to the as-yet-uncharted island. Together they hope to find answers about how to get back home and what happened to the original biologist. The narrative also flashes back to the perspectives of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper who will eventually become the Crawler, and the former director as she prepares herself for being part of the first and final twelfth expedition into Area X.
I had a quick look over the reviews for Acceptance before starting my writing again, and I have just one thing to say about the main criticism that I saw levelled at this last installment. To those who have read Acceptance and were disappointed that everything wasn't explained in minute detail: were we reading the same series? I mentioned in my review of Authority that I didn't have more of an idea what was happening, I had a firmer grip on how the world and the people in it worked, and I'm quite happy to say the same for Acceptance. And honestly, I'm okay with that as an ending. For me, the Southern Reach series was never about explaining Area X, it was about how humans fare when they inevitably try and make it into something tame and conquerable. A novel, at it's best, is about documenting how people react to unusual, challenging settings or situations. And honestly, it would have been more disappointing if VanderMeer had just shoved in a load of last minute, bullshit answers just to placate readers who can't handle a bit of uncertainty. The Southern Reach series has never been super-detailed science-fiction, so why anyone would think that it would suddenly turn into that in the final installment is beyond me. For me, it was always about the journey of the biologist/Ghost Bird and Control. It was about how they both adapt to their new situation in their own separate ways. And in that sense, Acceptance more than succeeded.

For those people looking for concrete answers, look elsewhere. That wasn't the style of Annihilation or Authority, so to expect details at this stage is just baffling. The character arcs are the most important aspect of Acceptance by far, and they are handled perfectly. This conclusion is about as open-ended as you can get, but that is just fine with me. 5/5

Next review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Having finished Annihilation, I was really excited to see where the Southern Reach series would go. From what I could gather from the blurb, Authority would focus more on the actual facility that sent out the expeditions, as they try and wrap their heads around whatever is going on in Area X, which I thought had a lot of potential. As a warning, there will be spoilers for Annihilation in the following review, so if you're still in the middle of it, I would advise skipping this until you're finished.


Authority follows John "Control" Rodriguez, a secret service agent who has taken over as the new director at Southern Reach, following Annihilation's disastrous twelfth expedition. Three of the expedition members have returned home without triggering any alarms at the border of Area X, only the psychologist, now revealed to be the former director, still missing. Having been charged by his mysterious handler, known only as "the Voice", to put Southern Reach back into some kind of order, Control must try and navigate deliberately obstructive staff who are certain that the former director will return, the unnerving and circuitous notes left behind by the former director, and the disturbing notion that his superiors are keeping secrets from him.
When I finish a book, what I usually do is write my review, submit it, and then take a look at other people's reviews to see where we differ. As I wanted to organise my thoughts a little before discussing Authority, I looked at the reviews first. The number of one star reviews that I found in surprisingly quick succession gave me a bit of a shock. But taking a look at the content of those criticisms, I could see where they were all coming from, despite personally quite liking it. So, the main criticisms seemed to be with regards to the comparatively slow pace and more mundane focus on what is essentially office politics, especially after the weirdness that was Annihilation. They seem like decent enough points to discuss, and I can avoid the majority of spoilers. Looking at Authority having finished it, I can say that the slow pace and the focus on office politics, while admittedly frustrating at times, does seem to have its place in the grand scheme of the Southern Reach series. The pace and focus serve to develop what could be considered the status quo of two elements: Control, and the Southern Reach facility.
I'll start with Southern Reach itself. While initially appearing rather normal for a facility dealing with Area X, the mundane routine of a 9-5 working week means that each day reveals layer after layer of weirdness and misdirection between all the different people working there. Control's return to his rented home in the nearby town provides a much more straightforward example of normality, so you can really see how Area X is starting to bleed out and affect its surroundings. And once you get to the part of Authority where the plot goes from 0 to 60, it is way more of a shock to the system. Having created a pocket of comparative normality, the uninhibited weirdness of Area X that turns up in the final third is stark and feels so much more threatening for it.
Then there is Control. He decides at the beginning of his term as the director that he won't let himself get emotionally involved in anything that he finds out, and that he will stay firmly in control of whatever he needs to do in order to clean up after his predecessor, meaning that he sets out with a hyper-vigilant mind-set. The set-backs that he encounters pretty much immediately, like the strange obsession that he has with interviewing the biologist and the deliberate withholding of information from both his employees and superiors, aren't necessarily big when he is first confronted with them. But with his hyper-vigilance, he picks up on every little detail, both legitimate cause for concern and irrelevant tidbit, and soon everything is being seen as part of a mass of competing conspiracies, leading him on a downward spiral to anxiety and paranoia. I think you can probably guess what a mindset that defensive and fragile will do when confronted with anything from Area X, right?

If you've started reading Authority with the intent of getting concrete answers for questions you had from Annihilation, then you will be disappointed. It does give some more details about the Southern Reach facility though, so while I won't admit to knowing much more than I did at the end of the last book, I think I have a firmer feel on how the world works. I have seen some criticism that Authority focuses too much on the office politics, but I think that the slow pace and (comparatively) mundane setting are very cleverly pulled off. The focus on seemingly unimportant details both develops how the normal world is affected by Area X even with containment, and allows Control to move from being stoic and hyper-vigilant to someone who is barely coping with his own anxiety and paranoia. You just have to be patient with it. 4.5/5

Next review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I’ve been a bit naughty with regards to my reading list. So my husband has been telling me how good the Southern Reach series was since shortly after it came out, but with my reading list as over-full as it is, I couldn't quite justify bringing the series forward. Cut to the New Year, and we found out that the series has been adapted into a film. My husband was utterly bewildered by this turn of events, and is determined to see it to find out just how they’ve gone about adapting what is apparently a very weird series. So now I have until late February to finish the series in time to see the movie adaptation.



Annihilation follows a nameless biologist as she enters a strange place known as Area X as part of a scientific expedition. Little is known about the area beyond that there was an apparent environmental disaster, despite the apparent lushness of the ecosystems there. The members of the all-female expedition have been given the seemingly simple task of charting the land and taking samples of anything unusual. But it soon starts falling apart, starting with the discovery of an unmapped tunnel right near their base camp.
Having just read Annihilation, I can kind of see why my husband was so confused about the trailer. While there is a lot that comes up that could be seen as scary, both with regards to the secrets that are revealed about the authorities behind the expeditions and the weird creatures that call Area X home, I think it's the kind of scary that is very difficult to translate to film. It's the kind of slow burn that most directors avoid, and it wasn't in evidence in the trailer that I've seen.
As to the actual book itself, I absolutely loved it, but it's a bit of a shock to the system after a lot of fairly standard novels. There's surprisingly little character interaction, and what there is is very detached and clinical due to the introverted nature of the biologist. It ends up being strangely claustrophobic in tone, as there is no secondary viewpoint to balance her out and her clear disinterest and difficulties regarding social interactions only makes her more isolated as a narrator. She's an intriguing voice to follow if nothing else. As for the plot, I probably couldn't say if I actually know what's going on in Area X, but I am hoping that the next installments of the series will be a bit more illuminating.



x

Seriously weird and claustrophobic, I would heartily recommend this if you're happy with a slow burn and not much in the way of answers for now. The narrator is refreshingly introverted, although I appreciate it might not be everyone's cup of tea. 5/5

Next review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

It's been a while since I read a classic, but of the many classics out there, why pick up Lady Audley's Secret, a book by an author that I had never heard of in my life? Well, the blurb promised all sorts of scandalous acts that shouldn't come anywhere near the neutered Victorian ideal, so of course my interest was peaked.


After three years spent gold prospecting in Australia, George Talboys is keen to return home to his beautiful wife and young child. Upon his return, he finds that she has just died and, utterly bereft at this turn of events, he stays with an old friend to try and recover. His friend, Robert Audley, suggests a visit to his wealthy uncle in the Essex countryside as a form of distraction and as an excuse to meet his new aunt, a woman renowned in the local area as a great beauty. When the trip ends with George's disappearance, Robert finds himself driven to discovering what happened. The more he investigates though, the more suspicious his new aunt becomes, and he risks miring his family in scandal.
You probably noticed that I didn't mention any of the scandalous things that the blurb tempted me in with. Because knowing them in advance kind of ruins any surprise that Lady Audley's Secret has. Lady Audley, in my read-through, had no real secrets because with a couple of exceptions the twists are pretty clearly signposted if you've already been told the spoilers. Despite this though, I found this thoroughly enjoyable. The writing is a bit on the flowery side, but considering the focus on Victorian domestic arrangements it does work quite well. The only thing that truly bothered me was the ending. If you're interested in actually reading Lady Audley's Secret, which I really would recommend, then you might want to skip the next paragraph.
So, the ending. Lady Audley has been revealed to be a murderous bigamist who pushed her first husband, George Talboys, down a well after he discovered that she wasn't dead as he had first believed. In order to save his family's honour, Robert Audley spirits her away to a madhouse to quietly expire at a safe distance, but can never honour his departed friend by giving him a proper burial for fear that it would go to a criminal court. All well and good so far, and I could have accepted that as an ending. Then it turned out that George Talboys was alive all this time and just doesn't have any understanding of how this "keeping in contact" thing works. And everyone who isn't the eponymous Lady Audley has a happy ending. The book ends with a reference to a Bible quote where the righteous shall not be forsaken, and honestly it's so bloody saccharine after a plot that has been gratifyingly scandalous and treacherous. It was such a disappointment. Not enough to entirely ruin the book, but enough to leave a bad taste in the mouth.

Even having had the majority of the secrets spoiled by the blurb of my edition, I found myself really enjoying myself. That's probably why I was so disappointed by the abrupt turn into happy ending territory in the last couple of chapters. Still worth a read though. 4/5

Next review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 11 December 2017

A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

I hadn't heard of Dalglish's Shadowdance series before I picked up the first in the series, but at the time I had a hankering for fantasy, and A Dance of Cloaks sounded like it would contain all I could want with regards to fantasy thieves and assassins.


A Dance of Cloaks is set in the city of Veldaren at the peak of a war between the city's thieves' guilds and a group of high-ranking merchants known as the Trifect. After five years of constant conflict, both sides are more than ready for the conflict to finish, but neither are they willing to let the other side win. Thren Felhorn, the de facto leader of the guilds and the man responsible for starting the war in the first place, is now moving his forces to destroy the Trifect once and for all. But there are other plots hatching at the same time, and the reaction of them all colliding may make ending the war a lot deadlier.
For some reason the blurb wants the reader to think that the main character is Aaron, Thren's son. While his personal storyline does make up a fair chunk of the narrative, it does oversimplify things somewhat. So instead of my usual tactic of looking at plot and character separately, here's a basic run-down of the main threads followed in A Dance of Cloaks' narrative, with some commentary.
Firstly, there is the aforementioned character arc for Aaron. As Thren's son and heir, he has a lot to live up to, and his father is determined that Aaron be the most feared and respected assassin in Veldaren, even more than Thren currently is. But the means that Thren uses, disallowing any kind of human contact that isn't furthering his education as a killer, leaves Aaron unfulfilled, leading to his adopting an alternate identity by the name of Haern. This arc was quite nicely fleshed-out, with Aaron's desire to diverge from Thren's brutal and merciless means of ruling emerging gradually and organically. The prologue at the beginning does jar a little, as it seems a bit off that as an eight-year-old he has no problem with the assassin's life, but as a thirteen-year-old he has suddenly grown a conscience of sorts. It's not a huge problem though, and I would be more than happy to continue the series to see how his development continues.
Secondly, there is the character arc for Alyssa Gemcroft, the daughter and heir to one of the Trifect houses. After being convinced by her lover that she would be a far better head of the household than her father, she finds herself caught up in a failed coup and running for her life. Confined to the camp of her lover and his father, she soon realises that they only want to get ahold of her family fortune and so she schemes with the faceless assassin priestesses of Karak to get back into her father's good graces. While I do love the political intrigue with this arc, I did have a couple of issues with the whole Karak part of it. First, and I can't believe I'm about to say this, but there's too much backstabbing within this priesthood for it to be wholly believable. A single bungled mission leads to two separate deals being made with the same person/people with the same land in the balance but slightly different aims, the priesthood having no less than three contracts on at once with both sides in the thieves/Trifect conflict, and at one point a big old purge of the priesthood is added to the mix. It's something of a mess to keep track of at times. Second, the priestesses are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they're powerful magic assassins and are utterly awesome. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to have been much of an effort to characterise them enough to tell them apart. The fact that they're covered head to toe in cloaks makes this even harder, because you can't even fall back on the tried and trusted "distinguish by physical appearance" method. Not as tightly written as Aaron's arc, but not bad either.
Thirdly, is the character arc for Veliana. As the second-in-command of the Ash Guild, a minor thieves' guild that is unsure of the viability of Thren's plan to attack with Trifect. As the pressure from Thren and his Spider Guild grows, however, she finds it increasingly difficult to keep the people that she loves safe. This was somewhat shorter than the previous arcs, but is all the more intense for it. It's an interesting look at the divisions within the thieves' guilds. It is the source of quite a few scenes of misogynistic violence, so if you have a particular issue with scenes of that nature, then you might want to keep that in mind if considering reading this book. Otherwise, her arc is told quite competently, if not with quite the same emotional engagement as the previously mentioned arcs.
Finally, there are a selection of minor arcs that cover how all the various schemes are started up, involving groups like the churches of Karak and Ashhur, and the monarchy. The sections involving the king are especially memorable, even if it does go for the classic "incompetent king and scheming advisor" trope. It is entertaining to see just how vacuous the king, especially when it comes to his opinion of his own effectiveness as a ruler. I'm hoping that the monarchy gets a bigger part in subsequent parts, if only to see how much worse this king can get.

A Dance of Cloaks doesn't necessarily do much that can be considered ground-breaking. For the most part, the characters are the sort that wouldn't be out of place in most other Dungeons & Dragons style fantasy worlds. But there is an intricacy at work that is impressive, if occasionally a bit over-the-top in the layers upon layers of conspiracy. Not necessarily new, but well-written and entertaining enough that it doesn't really matter. 4.5/5

Next review: Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Signing off,
Nisa.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

If feels like forever since the last Dresden Files book that I read, and as the last few books that I've read have left me feeling somewhat wanting, I figured going back to a series that I've had great luck with to get me back in a more positive reading groove.


Blood Rites follows Dresden as he looks into an unusual series of deaths occurring on the set of an adult film, as a favour to his White Court vampire acquaintance Thomas Raith. The director is convinced that he is cursed, as the women around him keep dying in unusual and ridiculously over-the-top fashion. It soon transpires that other members of the Raith family may be involved in some way. On top of that, Mavra, a powerful Black Court vampire, has returned to Chicago, and Dresden needs to find a trustworthy crew to help him clear out her lair before she can spread further chaos.
I definitely needed a break, and the return to the Dresden Files was just what I needed. While I didn't love Blood Rites as much as Death Masks, it was definitely still a great entry in the series. For one thing, it delves into a group that hasn't really had much time for development, the White Court vampires. Thomas has appeared a couple of times now, and there's been a bit of explanation that White vampires feed on emotional energy, but not much beyond that. Now that the main plot is centred around someone that Thomas has a need to protect, there's a lot more focus on how he and his family manage to hold their own against stronger types of vampire.
Blood Rites also provides an intriguing hint about Kincaid's true nature. While I figured that he probably wasn't human, considering that his day job seems to be looking after the living Archive of all human knowledge, this book seems to hint that he may be far more powerful than the audience had been led to believe. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for him, as there's currently not enough information given for me to try and make an educated guess.

Overall, this feels like Blood Rites is the Dresden Files book of small progressions. While it's very well-written and entertaining, it doesn't feel like this is quite the same level of challenge as previous installments. While admittedly there's a lot in the way of character progression for Harry, but after the threat of the Denarians, vampires are starting to feel a bit less scary. 4/5

Next review: A Dance of Cloaks by David Dalglish

Signing off,
Nisa.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls was a book that I stole from my mum after she had finished reading it, although she seems to have forgotten it entirely by the time that I actually got round to reading it. I took it partly because I was intrigued by the premise, and partly because I had heard good things about the author Lauren Beukes.


The Shining Girls focuses on two main characters, Kirby and Harper. Kirby is a young woman who is trying to put her life back together after a brutal attack that nearly killed her. Attempting to track down the man who tried to kill her, she starts finding evidence that she isn't the first woman who he has attacked, but some of the evidence is just impossible. Meanwhile Harper, having found a house that inexplicably allows him to travel anywhere within the years 1929 and 1993, is compelled to kill a set of girls whose names he has found written on the walls of one of the rooms upstairs, leaving a memento from one of his other kills at the scene of her death.
So I really wanted the whole time travelling serial killer premise to work for me, but it just doesn't. It's quite disappointing, especially as the writing itself is solid and engaging. But for me, the time travel just wasn't implemented well, leading to two main problems.
Firstly, it's really tough to make a thriller tense when you know that most of the awful stuff that the serial killer is going to do has, in another character's timeline, already happened. Sure, the murder scenes are really well-written and horrifying in and of themselves, but it's tough to maintain the tension when the reaction to each new female perspective chapter is "well, here's the next sacrificial lamb". The time and attention spent fleshing them out and giving them engaging problems seems kind of wasted since the reader knows that the next time their name crops up, they'll be dead by the end of the chapter.
Secondly, it uses my most despised type of time travel, the ontological paradox, also known as a causal loop. If you're not familiar with that, essentially it's if person A is given an item by the elderly person B, then goes back in time to give that item to a younger version of person B. At which point you sit there and wonder how the item came into being in the first place if it's constantly looping between two points in time. It drives me up the wall, and the aggravating part is that Beukes spends so much time setting up this closed loop. Spoiler alert, it turns out at the end that the reason the House makes Harper want to kill people is because the House is Harper's spirit. Which is just infuriating, because it wants to be so clever and thematic, but it just brings up questions. How are the girls picked out as victims? Harper keeps mentioning that they shine, but the narrative never elaborates on what that is exactly. The only way that Harper knows about who he needs to kill and when he needs to go to kill them is via the House, so there's never any thought process about why or how his victims are selected. It unwittingly leads to Harper being a more or less flat character, as he has no real motivations other than follow the House's lead, for reasons that are never explained.

The Shining Girls is a prime example of an interesting premise that is its own worst enemy. What interest there could be from the impossible serial killer storyline is sabotaged by its own use of dated time travel tropes. There's little tension because all the killings have already happened in one timeline or another, and the painstakingly constructed causal loop only brings up questions of how this all comes about as well as depriving the main villain of any meaningful motivation. The only saving grace is the writing itself, but there's only so much that can be saved from this plot. 2.5/5

Next review: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.