Rosemary Kirstein, The Steerswoman

I think what I love the most about this story is the way it takes for granted that there’s no inherent power imbalance between men and women simply because of their respective genders. The women of this story are soldiers, innkeepers, sailors, warriors, farmers, poets, and have the freedom to do as they please sexually. In a delightful twist, the eponymous steerswomen of the story derive their “power” from observation, deduction, logic, and knowledge of mathematics.

The protagonist, Rowan, is a steerswoman too (with an impressive spatial sense!). Her companion on the journey, Bel, is a woman as well. In this, it reminded me of Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy which also features two women as its main POV characters. That’s the only similarity between these stories though. One of the biggest divergences is the way Kirstein treats magic (at least in this first book)—it’s shrouded in mystery given that it’s the domain of wizards who just don’t share their secrets with anyone. There are gnomes, and goblins, and dragons in the story and yet the few glimpses we get of magic definitely made me wonder about its source and brought to mind Arthur C. Clarke’s postulation that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

the steerswomanOne of the most fun aspects of the story is watching Rowan piece things together. She does this again, and again, putting her mind to the situation at hand, thinking, deducing, and arriving at the best possible options. In a way it’s watching the “scientific process” at work, and it’s extremely satisfying! There’s also some thoughtful and thought-provoking philosophical bits scattered throughout the story and the amazing thing is that they are so tightly interwoven with the actual plot that it took me a while to notice the depth of what the characters were thinking.

The Steerswoman is a story that has BOTH page-turning AND  quiet, subtle moments of storytelling. My only quibble is a minor character that appeared in the beginning, and was part of some scenes that led me to think that he’s going to be instrumental later on but wasn’t. My quibble isn’t that he did not appear again—but that he seemed to have been used to simply extend a few pages. However, this is a VERY MINOR QUIBBLE!

This, again, is an example of a book that does the whole magic-science (magic vs. science?) thing SO MUCH BETTER than Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky. The series is available in e-book format for a very reasonable price (apparently the rights reverted to the author, and she chose to self-publish), and I’d definitely urge you to give the first one a try!

Kirstein has two more books planned for the series but really the first book is so self-contained, albeit with some bigger questions left unanswered, that I don’t at all mind having started it! I’ve only read the first book so far but the structure seems similar to the Harry Potter books in that there are two parallel narratives arcs at any given point of time—one is the series wide unfolding with each successive book, and the other a book-length story that is resolved within the book itself. I could be wrong but I’m definitely going ahead with this series!

To end—

“I’m sorry, Bel, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily respect other people’s religions, or any religion. But the people—I respect them, and I give them the honor they deserve, whatever they believe.”

Super Mini Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I loved the first half, and while on-the-edge-of-my-seat for the second half, didn’t really enjoy it that much.

All my favorite bits were in the first half, especially the magic, the description and workings of which I loved! I’m referring to Agnieszka’s brand of magic here by the way. I just loved, loved the way she “feels” her way to magic—and how the instructions that make sense to her seem to be vague, kind-of, sort-of pointing towards the destination, but letting the way to that destination to be one of her own making. If I were a witch, this is EXACTLY how I would go about it too! Just sayin’!

I also very much enjoyed how Agnieszka’s intuitive approach when combined with the Dragon’s more logical approach leads to more! Yes! I wish All The Birds in the Sky had done something like this right from the start rather than making a message out of it at the end!

As for the second half, I quote LizMc2 whose thoughts about this book have an eerie similarity to mine! “It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored.” Yep, the second half was one mad rush of action, and while not bad, wasn’t as good as the first half. Plus, I found the story ended on a note of whimper for me. The whole “evil wood queen” genesis story felt weak, and unconvincing.

On the whole, I have to agree with LizMc2, The Princess Curse was just more satisfying!

Mini Review: All The Birds In the Sky

This is a weird book. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. Anders’s writing, and the things she imagines. . . I couldn’t stop this sense of being an outsider looking into a totally different, alien-ish world.

Patricia is a witch, and Laurence is a super-genius engineer. She can turn herself into a bird and he can build super computers. They’re both interesting kids who face some REALLY ugly bullying and cruelty in school.

The trouble begins when we meet them ten years later.

Patricia’s desire to save everyone, and everyone admonishing her not to become an “aggrandizer” soon became tiresome. The weirdness had stopped being interesting, and all the details had started boring me enough to make me skim and skip paragraphs. The only reason I persevered was because I wanted to know how the “vision” that a sort-of-villain had early on in the book was going to play out. By the way, this sort-of-villain was probably my favorite character in the book. He is an assassin who becomes a counsellor and his ongoings had just the right hint of buffoonery in them for me to stop believing that he was really a villain.

The last one-third of the book would have been much better except that Patricia and Laurence have a Big Misunderstanding. Romance readers, you know what that means. Non-romance readers, that’s basically when an author uses miscommunication between the protagonists to further the plot. (or is there a better way to say that, romance readers?) It drives me nuts. Patricia becomes this cold bitchy person and Laurence a sad, sad man. It did not help that the post-apocalyptic world that Anders describes is. .  . meh. The misunderstanding IS cleared up a little later but by that time we were nearing the end and I just did not have the patience for it.

Then comes the end. Which was a little too. . . twee for me. Don’t get me wrong, I actually DON’T think that rationale/logic and intuition/perception are incompatible but I just did NOT like having this particular ending to the journey that Anders had been promising all along. To be fair, if I’d enjoyed the book more I can see how I would have totally argued FOR such a “simple” solution but it is what it is, reader!

Ok, rant over! I definitely want to hear from those who enjoyed the book!

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is the kind of book that I want to read more of. While big conflicts are quite possible at some point of our lives or the other, isn’t it the day to day, moment-to-moment choices that really make up the bulk of our lives?

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is what I call a quiet story for all that it’s set in space and is a science-fiction. It doesn’t really have any main protagonists but instead is about a whole ensemble of characters, namely the crew of the ship Wayfarer. The captain and the crew have, what I guess must be, one of the most boring jobs in the galaxy.

The story starts with the induction of a new crew member, a human, into the Wayfarer’s crew. Rosemary has never been out in the vast openness before and this nicely sets things up for the reader, alongside Rosemary, to get to know about the space that this story is set in, the history of this space, and the species that populate this space.

the long way to a small angry planetThe structure is episodic with each chapter focusing on a specific crew member. I’ve got to say that I really enjoyed Chambers’ imagining of each of the species, and their particular quirks. Funnily enough, reading this story I’ve somehow ended up expanding my zone of comfort about unexpected appearances. I mean really, some of the species she describes are TRULY bizarre, and yet, it’s weird only when you look at it from a human perspective; it’s weird because it’s different from what I’m used to! I really love this visceral sense that started stealing over me, of being ok with all these STRANGE looking creatures who despite, what I think of as, their peculiar-appearance are SAPIENT! This is a Universe populated by variety—where one species beauty is another species ugly, where one kind’s highest joy is another’s absolute and utter squirmy mortification. All this to say that the world-building is absolutely fantastic!

Which brings me to a favorite story line. And this is spoilery, so I’m putting it in white. Highlight, if you want to read! So, Rosemary and Sissix!! I really thought for quite a while that it’s going to be Ashby and Rosemary, since, well, they are both humans—yes! Bias much?! But turns out Chambers had BETTER things in mind! Their coming together romantically, while being of different species, with different cultural cues, and rules, and definitions about love and sex and family is just such a pleasure to watch unfold!

The peeps in this story are NICE. Yes, even the resident curmudgeon has a sort of reason to be curmudgeony—not that that EXCUSES his behavior, but you know what? The reason does make me look at him with more understanding! And I LIKE this. I would RATHER cultivate a kinder world-view than its opposite, and stories like The Long Way to a Small Angry definitely do their bit in forwarding that.

There is no guns-blazing, seize the evil villain by his horn action in this story. Heck, even the conflicts that the crew runs into are dealt with in a pretty ordinary fashion. I give you evidence. Conflict One becomes steerable because of one of the crew members’ ability to communicate in a different language. Conflict two is handled by figuring out a loophole in the law. Conflict three is about each of the members doing the best they can in that moment. Don’t you love that? I mean isn’t this “ordinariness” how we generally deal with the crap of our lives? It’s so good to see this channelled into an actual story.

I can go on and on about more things I liked—the ending, for instance. It’s ambiguous, talks about BOTH sides of the equation, and is the sort of political question that the story touches upon again, and again, often eschewing a neat, clean answer in favor of highlighting the merit in each of the arguments.

Let me leave you with this.

GC space had plenty of neutral markets that welcomed spacers of all species, but the Port was something special. Even if you didn’t need to stock up, the spectacle of it was well worth the trip. Sprawling streets stuffed with open-air shopfronts, overflowing with clothes and kitsch and sundries. Grounded ships, gutted and transformed into warehouses and eateries. Towering junk heaps lorded over by odd tinkers who could always find exactly the part you were looking for, so long as you had the patience to listen to them talk about their latest engine mod. Cold underground bunkers full of bots and chips, swarming at all hours with giddy techs and modders sporting every implant imaginable. Food stalls offering everything from greasy street snacks to curious delicacies, some with rambling menus of daily specials, others with offerings so specific that the only acceptable thing to say at the counter was ‘one, please.’ A menagerie of sapients speaking in a dizzy array of languages, shaking hands and clasping paws and brushing tendrils.

And also this.

The memories reached out to Dr Chef, trying to pull him away from his safe observation point. They tugged, begging for him to give in. But he would not. He was not a prisoner of those memories. He was their warden.

. . .

Rosemary started to nod, then shook her head. “That’s not the same. What happened to you, to your species, it’s . . . it doesn’t even compare.”

“Why? Because it’s worse?”

She nodded.

“But it still compares. If you have a fractured bone, and I’ve broken every bone in my body, does that make your fracture go away? Does it hurt you any less, knowing that I am more in pain?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“Yes, it is. Feelings are relative. And at the root, they’re all the same, even if they grow from different experiences and exist on different scales.”

Hello!

I’ve been AWOL for a while, and that state of affairs might very well continue for some time—and yes, this is happening while we’re in the middle of a Middlemarch readalong which I am supposed to be hosting! A proper hostess, I shall not make, it appears. BUT I am so, so SO appreciative of both Laila and Valancy who have continued to read and post their reviews despite my AWOL-ness! I love thinking that maybe that’s because they’re both enjoying the book too much to let anything interfere with it! THANK YOU BOTH SO MUCH!

You can read their reviews of Book 4, Three Love Problems and Book 5, The Dead Hand at the following links:

Valancy
Book 4
Book 5

Laila
Book 4
Book 5

As for me, things have been really busy offline. Happily so, I might add! I’ve hosted family and friends, visited the west coast (I live on the east), driven to Niagara Falls and back, attended a friend’s wedding in another state, discussed some big life changes with husband, and all of these since just my last post! To be honest, I’m just not feeling like reading/writing that much these days.

I’m still continuing with Middlemarch and hope to write a little bit about that even though I am way behind the schedule. I’m just about to finish book 4 even though by this time I was supposed to be nearing the end of book 6! The funny thing is that I kind of don’t mind this “falling behind-ness,” you know? This break feels right.

I also finished a category romance that I LOVED, Shanon Kendrick’s The Greek’s Marriage Bargain (thanks Sunita for the recommendation!), a historical romance that I didn’t (Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince—I had such high hopes for it but it felt. . . too. . . over-the-top-ish to me), and that’s about it.

I have returned most of the library books, and put all my holds on freeze for the near future. Basically, I don’t have any reading plans for the next few weeks, and I’m quite ok with that! I LIKE this ebb and flow!

What about you guys? I’m sure you must have had/have your phases too, don’t you? What phase are you in right now? Do you have any specific plans in the offing? I’d love to know!

Middlemarch Book Three: Waiting for Death

Laila’s review: Middlemarch, Book Three: Waiting for Death
Vacancy’s review: Middlemarch, Book III, Waiting for Death (or knee deep in the provincial life…)

What an ending! My heart’s thumping! Turns out it was Fred Vincy, Papa Vincy, and Mama Vincy who were waiting for Mr. Featherstone’s death, who dies just about at the end of Book 3.

Of all the characters we’ve met so far, the one that I have the least patience for is Fred Vincy. He’s sweet natured, selfish to the utmost degree, and completely oblivious of his selfish nature. He’s surprised when Mary Garth calls him out as one. His chief occupation in life is to wile away his time in schemes of utter foolishness while he waits to inherit all of Mr. Featherstone’s wealth and property. That his schemes are idiotic, and that he might want to re-think them, doesn’t occur to him even once, despite one spectacular failure after another. All his problems would be solved were he to come into money, is what Fred Vincy thinks. While he waits for Mr. Featherstone’s death he chooses to borrow money from Caleb Garth, “the poorest and the kindest” of his friends (and Mary’s father), thus marking himself out as a coward as well. His only redeeming quality is that he loves Mary Garth who seems to have a sound head on her shoulder. In fact, the whole lot of Garths is like that—kind, loving, and with a sensibility that does not blind them to the faults of the persons they love. Mrs. Garth for instance,

never committed herself by over-hasty speech; having, as she said, borne the yoke in her youth, and learned self-control. She had that rare sense which discerns what is unalterable, and submits to it without murmuring. Adoring her husband’s virtues, she had very early made up her mind to his incapacity of minding his own interests, and had met the consequences cheerfully.

The Garths, unlike the Vincys, lack in money and connections, but are just SO MUCH better off.

Which brings me to the Vincys. Specifically, Rosamond Vincy. All along, I’ve been thinking of her as an ensnarer but reading Book 3, I realized, that Lydgate is as much of an ensnarer as Rosamond. If anything, he’s an idiot, and deserves whatever is coming his way, for thinking:

The preposterousness of the notion that he could at once set up a satisfactory establishment as a married man was a sufficient guarantee against danger. This play at being a little in love was agreeable, and did not interfere with graver pursuits. Filtration, after all, was not necessarily a singeing process.

What an ass! I can’t help wondering whether all his flirting aside, Rosamond is going to be as lonely in her marriage as Dorothea is in hers. Yep, I feel a little more sympathetic towards Rosamond even though she does have a streak of manipulation running right through her.

Eliot keeps shifting POVs to give the reader a sense of the place from where each character is coming. And this understanding in turn makes one a little less harsh on the said character than one would otherwise be.

And so, even though Casaubon continues to be a git of the first order, Eliot’s insertion that “Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind” in response to Dorothea’s, and perhaps his own expectations, makes one view him a little more charitably than one would otherwise be inclined to. Then there’s this bit that made me both understand Casaubon and also laugh at him:

To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.

This following piece too jumped out at me. Eliot mentions this in relation to Casaubon but it’s true for all of us, isn’t it? (Eliot is SUCH A PRO at inserting these sort of universal truths throughout her story!) (Also, it made me feel a little sorry for Casaubon!):

It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transform into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

The way the latter half of this paragraph is framed reminds me forcefully of Will Ladislaw, and his “attitude of receptivity towards all sublime chances.” What a contrast!

And what of Dorothea in all this? Celia’s nickname for her, Dodo, becomes more applicable than ever. There’s this sense of Dorothea “shrinking,” and sliding more and more into a state of stasis, and lethargy, as a prisoner would. She hasn’t given up yet—her moral core will not allow her to give up on either her marriage OR on Casaubon despite the latter’s efforts to quell her at each and every turn. And yet, I have hope for her, simply because it feels to me as if Casaubon’s actions stem from a fear of Dorothea’s energy and spirit, more than anything else.

Other things that I loved in book 3:

  • There’s this scene in book 3—just two pages long—between Mrs. Bulstrode, and a friend of hers, that reminded of the ways small town busybodies impart so much information without really alluding to the subject that they’re imparting information about.
  • Caleb Garth’s philosophy that he arrives at through “the sights of his youth [that] had acted on him as poetry without the aid of poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology.” Also, his “unconquerable indifference to money.”
  • That Mr. Garth advises Mary against Fred as a marriage prospect even though he likes him
  • That a character called Mr. Borthrop Trumbull makes an appearance towards the end, and that I kept reading his name as Mr. Borthrop Turnbull
  • Mrs. Garth! What a woman! Though her strictness towards her own sex while being lenient about those same things with that of the opposite one do make me wonder how much of that is colored by Eliot’s own view of the two genders
  • All the epigraphs! They are such good foreshadowers of what is to come in the given chapter!
  • Mrs. Farebrother—she’s unstoppable! Rumors abound that Lydgate is a natural son of Bulstrode’s, given the way he is pushing Lydgate forward. When her son reminds Mrs. Farebrother that “Lydgate is of a good family in the North. He never heard of Bulstrode before he came here” she replies, “‘That is satisfactory so far as Mr. Lydgate is concerned, Camden,’ said the old lady, with an air of precision. ‘But as to Bulstrode—the report may be true of some other son.’”
  • And this, that had me grinning:

    There are answers which, in turning away wrath, only send it to the other end of the room, and to have a discussion coolly waived when you feel that justice is all on your own side is even more exasperating in marriage than in philosophy.

So at the end of Book 3 it looks like we have three main story arcs to follow—Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s, Fred Vincy’s and Mary Garth’s, and Rosamond Vincy’s and Lydgate’s. Interspersed through the saga of these three couples are the goings-on of Celia and Sir James Chetham (they become engaged! that makes me so happy!), Mr. Bulstrode, Mr. Farebrother, and Mr. Vincy. Oh, and Mr. Brooke—now that he’s invited Will Ladislaw to reside with him, I think? That ought to be VERY interesting. I wonder how Casaubon and Dodo are going to react to that! Also, what will happen to Fred Vincy? Mary Garth doesn’t think he is going to inherit and I trust her opinion of the now dead Featherstone. So much to find out!

Middlemarch & other updates

I’m still trying to put into words everything that I want to talk about with respect to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. All sorts of things are being brought up to the surface in the process, and I don’t yet know if/when I’ll be done writing it!

In the meanwhile, I’m in the middle of Middlemarch, as I shall continue to be, till about mid-July! This book is the perfect mixture of plot, and ideas, and characters whom I love and characters whom I want to smack some sense into, and a place that feels as if it’s straight out of real life. Basically, I WAS RIGHT TO BUY THE BEAUTIFUL PENGUIN EDITION OF THIS BOOK WHEN I CAME ACROSS IT! Thank you Valancy & Laila, for reading along with me!! I hope you guys are enjoying Book 3! Oh, and anyone who’s on the fence about joining us—please do! There’s still time for you to catch up—as  you can see, we are a very leisurely sort of a readalong!

I’m also half-way through The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and I think part of the reason that I am enjoying it so much is because the story that this book is telling ties in very well with some of the things that I’ve been thinking about in relation to The Argonauts. I love what Becky Chambers is doing here.

Additionally, I started Ismat Chughtai’s The Crooked Line. She’s an Indian-Pakistani author who’s supposed to be the doyenne of Urdu literature. To be honest, I’m not sure if/when I’m going to finish this because I began this one to get a feel for her, and to tide me over, till her collection of short stories arrives at my doorstep.

These are all the books currently in the house. (Hubs had a fit of spring cleaning.)

I’ve read only a few pages so far but Reader, SHE IS CRAZY. No, SERIOUSLY. There’s this INSANE current of energy underlaying her words that is like nothing I’ve read before. The best approximation I can think of is Diana Wynne Jones. Her stories crackle with a similar energy, but Chughtai’s do so even more! She’s just weird. I can’t help feeling that she was cackling the entire time she was writing! Here, see for yourself:

No sooner did she appear all dressed up and clean than everything around her seemed poised to attack her spotless clothes. The red mud in the fields and the whispering sand on the edge of the pond tantalized her, the moist, fragrant grass in the stables pursued her with open arms, the dirty, foul-smelling chicken coop drew her to itself as if it were a bride’s flowery bed.

And another one:

The two girls went behind the cow’s stall and strolled with their arms wrapped around each other. Sometimes they tossed about in the sand like rolling pins. Then they pitched fistfuls of sand as if it was water they were scooping up in their hands, until finally the two of them began to resemble grotesque mud statues. Sand penetrated their very beings, but still they had not had enough of sand and mud. Making spoons out of dried leaves, they scooped up sand and swallowed mouthfuls; they devoured it as if it were delicious caudle. Like pregnant women, they relished the aroma of mud.

What do you think? (That second quote makes me think of magical realism for some reason.)

Sarah Morgan’s Some Kind Of Wonderful is what I picked up for my romance fix. I’d lapped up her O’Neill brothers’ trilogy and Some Kind Of Wonderful has a trope that’s one of my favorites—second chances! I don’t dig much of the contemporary romance out there but Morgan is always an exception. I REALLY like how Zach, the hero, has some heft to him. Yes, he walks out on his marriage of ten days, but Morgan is in the process of showing why he did that (I’m still reading it!). I can’t wait to see how the two leads work their way through to their happy-ever-after. (And speaking of romance, I have Dixie Browning’s Cinderella’s Midnight Kiss on hold—I HAD to read it after Valancy’s epic post).

Then there’s Alok Jha’s The Water Book that I simply MUST get around to given that that too is an ILL that I’ve already got extended once. Plus, I don’t know if it’s really come from there but on the front page it says it’s FROM THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND! ZOMG!!! NEW ZEALAND! A BOOK CAME TO ME ALL THE WAY FROM NEW ZEALAND?!! :O

If you think I’m being too ambitious WITH SO MANY IN-BETWEENIES, YOU ARE RIGHT. Because, this is just the TIP of the ice-berg!! There are eleventy-one other books checked out as well with very little hope of any of them being completed before they need to be returned! My in-laws’ visit begins tomorrow and continues for the next few weeks and I have no idea how much reading and reviewing I’ll be able to manage while they’re around. So expect a slowdown here on the blog. The only thing I’m certain to follow-through on is Middlemarch. (I do feel a sense of obligation on that one given that I was the one to put the whole readalong into motion!) I’m also hoping to make inroads into my omnibus edition of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days for Deepika’s readalong in the first two weeks of May but we’ll see how it goes!

So that’s me! What’s up with you guys? What’s on your reader radar for the next couple of weeks?