Monthly Archives: May 2019

A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay

brightnesslongagoYet another book by one of my favourite authors, and once again a beautifully-realized story from a fantasy world parallel to our own that Kay has been crafting in painstaking detail throughout several novels. This story takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic — the world with two moons, where the dominant Jaddites worship Jad the sun-god, the marginalized Kindath worship the sister moons, and the star-worshipping Asharites from the desert threaten the Jaddite world with their rising power. (So, basically, Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Europe and the Middle East … kinda).

This novel takes place hundreds of years after Al-Rassan and Sarantine, and there are many echoes and callbacks to the The Sarantine Mosaic and a few to Al-Rassan, but its closest links are to Kay’s last novel in this world, Children of Earth and Sky. Interestingly, Brightness is not a sequel but kind of a prequel to Earth and Sky — it takes place about 25 years earlier and sets up some of the events we see happening in that book.

So, that’s where it stands in the canon of Kay’s work, all of which I’ve read. This novel is the story of Guidanio Cerra, a tailor’s son given an education above his station, finding his place as a young man in a land which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty much Renaissance Italy, a land of warring city-states and larger-than-life leaders. Two of those leaders — Folco Cino d’Acorsi and Teobaldo Monticola di Remigio — are rivals whose paths both cross Guidanio’s at various points in his journey, and we see the world from both their perspectives as well. There are also two extraordinary women at the centre of this novel: Adria Ripoli, a Duke’s daughter who doesn’t want the life expected of a noblewoman, and Jelena, a pagan healer who lives on the margins of society. How the great events of the day intersect with these individual lives — especially how they shape Guidanio’s life into an unexpected path — is the meat of this book.

It’s almost misleading, at this point, to categorize Kay’s work as “fantasy,” even though the world in which this book is set has two moons instead of one, and different place names. He kicked off his career with a trilogy (The Fionavar Tapestry) that was very much classic high fantasy, but in his more recent novels he seems to be trying to see how little magic you can put into a novel and still have it shelved in the fantasy section. This isn’t a criticism: I love how good writers play around with the boundaries of genre. In Kay’s later novels, any fantastical elements are mostly contained within the religion and folklore of the characters’ worlds — things that they believe are miracles, or mystical experiences, or magic, just as people might do in a historical novel set in our world. Only two marginally “magical” things happen in this novel: one, a miracle that happens to an extremely minor character, and the second the appearance of a ghost to a major character that has no significant impact on the plot. Fantasy readers who are mainly interest in complex magical systems might find this disappointing, but the vividly detailed world-building is more than enough to draw me in and keep me reading.

I can divide Guy Gavriel Kay novels into those I’ve liked, and those I love passionately and would re-read over and over. While Brightness is beautifully written and I inhaled it in a couple of days, I think it might end up falling into the “liked” rather than “loved” category, simply because it’s not as plot-driven as some of his other books — I didn’t find myself breathless at the end, unable to rest till I knew how it ended. This is more a slice-of-life than a plot-driven book, and while it has great, richly realized characters, a key event three-quarters of the way through the novel made me far less invested in how the characters’ lives turned out. But a different reader might find this resonates differently. It is a beautiful addition to his canon of books.

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Of Falafels and Following Jesus, by Nathan Brown with Michelle Villis and Brenton Stacey

falafelsIt’s refreshing to read an account of travel to “the Holy Land” by someone who approaches the journey admitting to a level of skepticism — not about the holiness of the events that happened there, but about whether modern would-be pilgrims can access that holiness in a region torn by conflict and commercialized by the religo-tourism industry.

Nathan Brown approaches his trip to holy and historical places in Israel and Jordan with a reverent but questioning mind. The book tells the story of a fairly typical Holy Land tour, with Brown’s reflections on the day-by-day site-seeing interspersed with shorter reflections from Villis and Stacey, two other members of the same tour group. Each of them reflect on the places where they did (and sometimes, didn’t) find God in these historic places, and on what following in the literal footsteps of Jesus might mean for those of us trying to follow His metaphorical footsteps 2000 years later.

This was an honest, refreshing, and thought-provoking book about travelling in holy places.

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Charlotte and Leopold, by James Chambers

charlotteandleopoldFor anyone, like me, who watched the series Victoria and wondered if there was a reason why Uncle Leopold (king of Belgium, and uncle to both Victoria and her husband Albert) was so over-invested in Victoria’s life and her marriage, this nonfiction book provides the backstory you may not have known. (Of course, if you’re a hardcore 19th-century European history buff, you already knew this story, but I’ll freely admit I didn’t).

20 years before Victoria ascended the throne, there was another young princess who was far more directly in line for the throne, who was the most popular member of the then-quite-unpopular British royal family, and whose sensible arranged marriage to a Coburg prince turned into a deep romance. The princess was Charlotte, daughter of the Prince Regent (later George IV), and in the large family of King George III which produced many illegitimate grandchildren but hardly any legitimate ones, she was the daughter of the heir and herself the heir apparent. Her marriage to the Coburg prince Leopold quickly led to a pregnancy, and everything seemed to be going smoothly until Charlotte died in childbirth bearing a stillborn son. The subsequent scramble to see which of the heirs to the throne could produce a viable heir led quite directly to the birth of Victoria, and the grieving Leopold spent much of the rest of his eventful life guiding the education and career of his niece.

This book tells of Charlotte’s childhood, her parents’ famously unhappy marriage and how she was used as a political pawn, her own marriage, and then Leopold’s life after her death. It was very informative and interesting, but I do have to add that it is the only audiobook I almost gave up on because the narrator’s voice annoyed me so much. It wasn’t so much Jilly Bond’s regular narrating voice, which was sort of crisp-English-RP and fairly unobjectionable — it was the voice she used when quoting any of Charlotte’s words or writing, which was this awful high-pitched simper with a very obvious lisp. I’m glad I stuck with the book, but the Charlotte-voice irritated me throughout, and I really wish the narrator had made a different choice, since it made the character I was supposed to be most invested in the most annoying to listen to.

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Empire of Sand, by Tasha Suri

empireofsandThis is another lovely fantasy novel set in a world well outside the usual medieval-Europe-knockoff of many fantasy worlds (that can be very well done, but it’s done so often that it sometimes feels lazy and default). Based on the Mughal Empire in India, the Ambham Empire of Suri’s Empire of Sand offers peace and stability to the people under its rule — but at the cost of suppressing some of those citizens and the powers they hold.

The main character, Mehr, is the illegitimate daughter of an Ambhan nobleman and an Amrithi mother. The Amrithi are exiles and outcasts, but they also wield an ancestral power that the empire unknowingly depends on. Mehr faces challenges in her father’s palace — her mother is long gone; her stepmother hates her; her little sister relies on her but their stepmother is trying to sever Mehr’s influence over her sister. But all these problems pale in comparison to what happens on the night of the dreamfire, when Mehr’s Amrithi abilities attract the attention of the Maha, a shadowy, godlike figure whose power undergirds the entire Ambhan empire.

A proposal of marriage arrives for Mehr — but there’s nothing straightforward about it. Accepting the proposal means leaving behind everything she’s known — but what might be the risks of refusing it?

This was an engaging, well-realized fantasy world with an appealing heroine it was easy to root for. It’s the first of a series, but it also works well as a stand-alone novel.

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The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

7deathsThis book has looked intriguing to me for awhile. I love stories where people are trapped in loops living their lives over and over again for some reason. This book is not quite like that, but it’s similarly high-concept.  A nameless man finds himself in the woods outside what appears to be an upper-class party at an English country estate. A woman may have just been murdered in front of him — but he has no recollection of who or where he is. And just as he’s starting to figure it out — he falls asleep and wakes up on the same day, at the same party, but as a different person.

It turns out that our main character has eight (I think? I lost track) chances to experience this day, each as a different person, with the ultimate goal of solving the mystery of who killed a woman named Evelyn Hardcastle. This is a fiendishly complicated puzzle-type of book, and it’s the sort of thing that’s only going to be worthwhile if the author can pull it off in a satisfactory way. I think Stuart Turton pretty much did — but what didn’t work for me was any deep sense of emotional engagement. I wanted to solve the puzzle but I never got really pulled into the characters or caring what happened to them, which I think is an important missing piece in a novel like this — it can’t be just about the puzzle.

 

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The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner

marsroomSo many people have recommended this novel to me that I finally had to pick it up. It’s a very well-written, unflinching look at Romy Hall, a woman condemned to life imprisonment for a brutal crime, the life that led her to that crime, and her experience in prison. While Romy’s is the main point of view, we also get glimpses into the perspective of other characters — fellow prisoners, guards, and Gordon, an English teacher in the prison’s education program, who Romy tries to establish a sympathetic relationship with in hopes that he can help her contact her young son who may be lost in the foster care system.

This book is bleak, believable, and highly readable. It’s like an early-season episode of Orange is the New Black without most of the humour: a reminder that everyone caught up in the penal system, those who run it as much as those imprisoned in it, are complicit and deeply flawed. Frankly, I did not find this book as groundbreaking or astonishing as many of the people I know who loved it did, but it certainly was an engaging and troubling picture of life on the inside, and the outside.

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Never Caught, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

nevercaughtI’ve been intrigued by the story of Ona Judge ever since I first heard of this enslaved woman who escaped from George and Martha Washington and was hunted down by them for the rest of their lives (she long outlived them). The book’s title makes it clear there’s no real suspense about how the story ended: they never recaptured her, and while Ona Judge’s life was hard, she lived decades as a free woman.

I listened to this audiobook during a long day of driving from Memphis, Tennessee to Williamsburg, Virginia. It was an interested setting to be listening to this while driving through the American South, an area where the scars of slavery are by no means healed and where slave-owners like the Washingtons are still honoured for their accomplishments while the enslaved people who built their plantations and their fortunes are largely forgotten. I was listening to this while I drove past a sign for a hotel named after Martha Washington, and I thought, “Where is anything named after Ona Judge? Why don’t we celebrate the people who fought so hard for their own and others’ freedom?”

Ona Judge lived a life of poverty and hardship after her escape — in fact, it would be possible for someone to argue that her relatives who remained in captivity to the Washingtons had objectively “easier” lives in some ways, in terms of access to food and shelter. But it’s telling that Judge never once considered returning to slavery — nor did, to my knowledge, any of the thousands who escaped slavery, despite the hardship of their free lives. It reminded me very much of a scene from the movie Gandhi where one of the British officials warns the Indian independence leaders that they face “chaos” post-independence and Gandhi says:”There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power.” (I don’t know if this is based on an actual Gandhi quote, but it certainly sounds like a sentiment he would have agreed with). Likewise, the people who escaped chattel slavery preferred the hardships and uncertainties of freedom to being someone else’s property — and more of their names should be known and celebrated for this.

This was a very enlightening and important book.

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