Book Review: Simple Passion

 

“I do not wish to explain my passion – that would imply that it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify – but simply to describe it”

In 1989 Annie Ernaux embarked on an affair with a married man, one that would consume her entire existence for well over a year. Simple Passion is an examination of how a passionate love creates a vortex around which all other life events swirl, granted scant attention. The author grew indifferent to anything not related to her lover. She awaited his phone calls announcing intention to visit imminently – always accepted. Their afternoons together were spent indulging in sex accompanied by carefully selected wine and food – kept at the ready, just in case. She would purchase new clothes and lingerie for him to remove. She existed in a state of anticipation for the few hours they would spend together, although only when he chose.

It may be considered that Ernaux suffered from this treatment, yet it was accepted by unblinkered choice. The intense nature of passionate love pushes all else aside. Even her children – students who would occasionally stay with her – were required to be absent should this man deem to visit. She did not expect her boys to understand their mother’s sexual desires.

“From the very beginning, and throughout the whole of our affair, I had the privilege of knowing what we all find out in the end: the man we love is a complete stranger”

When not with her lover, Ernaux cultivated fantasies about their days apart. She had no wish to know anything about his wife lest this affect how she depicted the woman in her head. Ernaux did what she could to avoid running into him outside of their assignations, fearing he would not acknowledge her, or that her treatment of him give away to others how she felt. The affair was contained within the walls of her apartment. She knew it would end and this gave each visit a frisson – that he may never call her again.

“I haven’t written a book about him, neither have I written a book about myself. All I have done is translate into words – words he will probably never read, which are not intended for him – the way in which his existence has affected my life”

At under fifty pages this short work provides insight into emotions that are rarely acknowledged. Ernaux writes that she had no wish to discuss her affair with friends lest they assume their own experiences were similar – thereby diluting the intensity of feelings she valued highly. There was hurt and jealousy to deal with, all swept away by the glorious moments spent together when she would give herself over entirely to the pleasures of sex. As the months passed, her obsession only grew as his attentions waned.

The writing is forensic and measured yet charged with physical sensation – all credit to the translator, Tanya Leslie, for capturing meaning beyond what straightforward words can express. It is not told as a story in any sort of linear fashion. Rather it is a sharing of the depth of Ernaux’s capitulation to the pleasure of desire and sexual gratification.

This is not a book requiring judgement but rather one that shares the intensity of love when it is rationed and must end. Perhaps not for the prurient as, despite explicit descriptions, what it explores is feelings engendered.

A remarkable work that opens a window on the most personal of relationships and what goes on within. The structure and style of the text allow for pauses to savour. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Robyn Reviews: The Night Circus

Many years after first reading it, ‘The Night Circus’ remains my favourite book of all time. It’s a gorgeous feat of imagination, packed with evocative imagery and characters you have to love. Like the circus itself, this is less a book than an experience – it eschews traditional narrative structure, instead weaving a tapestry that engulfs the senses and lingers long beyond the final page.

“You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift.”

The story spans the late 1800s and early 1900s. Across the world, a mysterious circus keeps arriving – preceded by no announcements, and only open at night. Named ‘Les Cirque des Reves’ – the circus of dreams – it’s a circus like no other: a feast for the senses, an amalgamation of experiences which border on the fantastical, and all in black and white and shades of grey. But behind the scenes, the circus is not merely a circus: it is a battlefield. Two young magicians, Marco and Celia, have been pitted against each other as part of a rivalry spanning centuries. However, as their rivalry turns to love, the fate of the entire circus is put in jeopardy. Will the circus remain the circus of dreams, or will it unravel into the circus of nightmares?

Celia is a brilliant character. Aged five, she’s sent to her father – the famous magician Prospero the Enchanter – with her mother’s suicide note pinned to her coat. Prospero has no interest in a daughter – but Celia has inherited her father’s magic, and he sees an opportunity. Prospero grooms Celia to be the next player in a battle he has waged with a rival for centuries. As a result, Celia has a very different childhood to most, and becomes a very different woman. She’s quietly intelligent, using words sparingly but with an unerring ability to pick the right ones. She’s always composed – beautifully put together and fully in control of her emotions – and survives only by keeping complete control. Her entire life’s purpose is the game – the circus – and thus she’s always innovating, seeking out new ways to be the best. Secretly, Celia loves to entertain and show off – but she maintains decorum, only stepping beyond her bounds in a limited way she hopes she can get away with. Anyone who has ever felt trapped will relate to Celia and her story.

Marco, on the other hand, is plucked out of an orphanage to be Celia’s opponent. He’s naturally reserved – an introvert, happy to spend his time surrounded by books and accounts. The life he has is better than any life he could have expected, so he’s content to do as he’s told – until it starts to get in the way of his heart. Celia is a firecracker wrapped in layers of decorum; Marco is more a gentle fire on a winter’s night, but even a small fire can become ablaze with the right kindling. Their chemistry is electric – every scene they are together is charged and poignant, and even apart their connection shines through every page. ‘The Night Circus’ is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a love story.

The writing is the highlight of the novel. Erin’s prose is rich and evocative, conjuring up incredible imagery that hits every sense. The reader doesn’t simply read about the circus – they’re transported to it, traveling between the tents and spying on the characters through gaps in the canvas. The scenes are painted with exquisite attention to detail, and the characters are crafted in the same way – each feels fully fleshed-out and real. This is the sort of book that makes the reader believe in magic.

“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon, or a wolf and a scarlet-clad little girl. And is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

‘The Night Circus’ isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, and the main reason for that is the narrative structure. Rather than tell a story in any conventional way, it jumps across time and space, crafting the tale far more slowly. It requires patience for the payoff, trusting that all will make sense in the end. Interspersed throughout the narrative are scenes which simply invite the reader to experience the circus – descriptions of tents, interludes of other experiences the circus has to offer. The reader is made as much a part of the story as any other character. The way the tale is told makes the plot almost unimportant. Those who like action and drama will find little to enjoy here – but for those who want to be swept away into a world that’s almost like a dream, there’s no better example.

Overall, ‘The Night Circus’ is a gorgeous example of literary fantasy, blurring the lines of poetry and prose to produce something so beautiful it’s hard to believe it’s only made up of words. Recommended for fans of beautiful writing, timeless romance, and anyone who dreams for a little more magic in the world.

“You think, as you walk away from Les Cirque des Reves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.”

My review of Erin’s other book, The Starless Sea, can be found here. Jackie’s review of The Night Circus can be found here.

Published by Vintage
Hardback: September 15th 2011
Paperback: May 24th 2021

Book Review: The Silent Letter

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“we’re this, we are a moment”

The Silent Letter is a collection of poems written as the author, Jaume Subirana, is reaching his sixties. They harbour an appreciation of the now – of everyday life’s vistas and minutiae. The language used is measured yet piercing, avoiding the guttural and the crude in favour of more gentle observations. This does not remove vivid emotion but rather exudes a personal, internal understanding of wonders to be found in any time or place.

The poems bring to life the beauty of nature and its ability to calm inner turbulence. Time is given over to watching raindrops catching light on a windowpane. Snow blankets the ground, bringing with it a feeling of peace.

“A silent pause next. Winter’s silent letter.”

Such visual pleasures are presented succinctly, avoiding the garish, leaving a contrail of enchantment in what many will fail to notice as they chatter and look forward to their next experience. The poems offer a cessation in the rush and noise – the fear of missing some opportunity that blinds to what is here already.

The words conjure an intimacy – gentle beauty. The images evoked are discrete while still touching the senses.

Settings are various, each valued for aspects that all could enjoy if they took the time to observe and absorb ambience alongside fixtures. Art is stepped into. Empty space offers relief between the impressive scenes depicted on the walls of a castle-cathedral.

The poems are presented in the original Catalan and then the English translation. Even those that cover only a few lines are given a full page. This spacing encourages the reader to pause and absorb each choice of word and stanza fully.

The collection is followed by a Vita Nova by Jordi Galves in which he describes Subrirana’s work, ‘as disconnected as possible from the blind gregariousness of mere sheep.’

It is a refreshing pleasure to read such carefully constructed and moving poems that remain accessible while avoiding both bland and fruitied phrasing.

“We sip a sacrament
of light and silence”

Any Cop?: In achieving balance and perspective – cultural resonance drawn from life, nature and simple observation – the author provides inspiration to pay quiet attention and live well.

 

Jackie Law

Robyn Reviews: All the Birds in the Sky

‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a profoundly strange book. It’s extremely ambitious, bending genres and written in a very particular style, but it doesn’t quite manage to carry it off. It’s also quite different to what you might picture from the blurb, which can lead to confusion as the story unravels.

The novel follows two individuals – Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a technology-obsessed scientist – from childhood. Both are social outcasts, and thus thrown together. They’re too weird for school – nerdy before being nerdy was almost cool – and too obsessed in their own interests to be friends. Neither truly understands the other or believes they would be friends by choice. As they grow older, they lose touch – partially by choice, and partially through outside forces – but in adulthood, unusual circumstances force them to reconnect. Together, they could bring about the end of the world – or stop it.

The style of writing means there’s no connection between the reader and either Patricia or Laurence. It isn’t clear if this is a deliberate plot device – the reader failing to relate to them in the same way as their peers – or simply an accident, but either way it doesn’t work for me. They feel distant and two-dimensional, definitely stereotypes rather than people, and it makes it difficult to care what happens to them. It also makes them very forgettable – as soon as the novel is finished, its hard to remember any details you’ve just read.

The plot is the strongest part. The events of the novel are bizarre – Charlie Jane Anders has clearly done her research, because the science has a vague basis in reality, but coupled with witchcraft it becomes completely chaotic. The blend of science-fiction and fantasy is clever and intricately done. In many ways this boils down to simply magic vs science, but it feels ridiculous to dilute such a complex and confusing novel down to such a trivial description.

Unfortunately, what could be a strong and engaging novel is derailed by the writing. The entire novel is written in a detached and superficial manner – a bit like a newsreader telling an entire narrative in monotone without going into any details or justification. It reminds me of a poorly-written middle grade novel – not in content, which is definitely adult, but in the way it avoids explaining anything as if the reader won’t understand it. If the writing style is ignored it becomes an enjoyable, creative piece of literature, but without the connection with either the characters or the plot it becomes a bit of a slog to get through.

Overall, ‘All the Birds in the Sky’ is a creative attempt at fusion between science fiction and fantasy, with an intriguing premise and ambitious plot, but one which is let down by the writing. It may be enjoyed more by fans of experimental fiction than conventional science fiction and fantasy fans.

Published by Titan Books
Paperback: 26th January 2016

Book Review: Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters

“I’ve had a bit of a session with Laura. She’s a young mother. Her baby, Harry, is only four months old and she’s struggling with it a bit. I didn’t like to tell her that I’m an older mother with children in their twenties and I’m struggling with it a bit too. So we discussed her struggles as if I didn’t have any.”

Domestic Bliss and Other Disasters, by Jane Ions, is the most honest depiction of being a parent of grown up children that I have read. It is also hilarious. I don’t mean just mildly humorous, this is laugh out loud funny on numerous occasions. Structured as a sort of diary, the story covers eight months in the life of a woman approaching fifty who questions what she has become since giving up her job as an English teacher.

The narrator, Sally Forth (and yes, she does decry her own name), is married to Bill, a politician. They have two children: Laura, who is married to Ben; and Dan, recently graduated but looking for personal fulfilment rather than a job that pays well. When the book opens, Sally’s long time friend, Jen, has just announced that she is moving north to help look after her grandchildren. Sally is appalled at this willing ‘banishment into servitude’.

“Jen knows me well, and understood that my reasons for wanting her to stay put were purely selfish. A friendship built up over more than twenty years is not easily replaced, however dysfunctional it might have turned out to be.”

The author captures the depressing competitiveness of parenting perfectly, but also the clash between comfort and jealousy when peers face either crises or perceived success.

Laura blames her mother for not warning her how entirely having a baby would change her life (as if she would have listened anyway). When she seeks reassurance that her prenatal freedom and independence will return eventually, Sally doesn’t like to point out that children do not disappear – concerns simply change. Laura expects Sally to be there for her, and to help with Harry occasionally, yet she criticises her mother for putting up with the scenarios Dan drops on her without a thought for how Sally might feel.

Dan’s role in this tale is brilliant, capturing the sanguinity with which he introduces friends to the household, fully expecting anyone he comes home with to be made welcome. He sees no big deal in offering hospitality in his parents’ house where he is put up and fed rent free. When he decides to build an ugly extension made from recycled materials, he looks on Sally’s concerns as stifling his rights and creativity.

Sally does her best to make all comers feel welcome, so much so that some seem in no hurry to leave. As Dan’s extension grows, neighbours threaten to complain to the council. All of this plays out over the Christmas period and into a leadership election that Bill is contending. Sally is struggling to find some direction in her life, all the while firefighting situations her children spring.

The writing is pitched to be light hearted while touching on truths that are rarely acknowledged. Expectations in family dynamics are mined for their irony. The underlying toxicity of many friendships is balanced against the need for reassurance many mothers seek  – that they have not somehow failed their offspring. Sally’s needs are recognised only by Jen, whose daughter is appalled when her mother does not find the role of doting granny enough, and Jen sets out to find herself a man.

If my children read this, I wonder would they may take my empathy with Sally personally and feel affronted – parents being expected to behave as wanted. When quizzed by Laura about certain subjects, Sally understood that honestly is not always the loving response.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and recommend it wholeheartedly to women whose children have grown and who may now find their continuing efforts underappreciated – or to those who wish to understand better how a mother of grown children feels. There is much to laugh about in the absurd situations Sally puts up with, through love and a kind heart.

I don’t suppose any mother of adults will manage to change how they are regarded – homemakers in nests that never quite empty. I’m already hoping there will be another instalment in this saga to enjoy soon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose.

Monthly Roundup – February 2021

February has been tough. My minor physical injuries continue to heal but not yet sufficiently to allow me to return to running or even to walk any distance. In the week just past, the cold and wet weather finally cleared to enable me to return to cycling. It is good to get outside but I still miss running more than I could have imagined before I took up the habit. It is, as far as I have experienced it, akin to an addictive, if mostly socially acceptable, drug.

My little family is keeping well although stress levels have increased notably. This has not been helped by the raising then smashing of hope that came with the government’s proposed path out of lockdown. The suggestion that mandatory vaccination or testing will be added to mask wearing in public spaces raises the spectre of being unable to eat out, take a holiday in the UK or even visit my local gym for the foreseeable future. The prospect of still being deemed a biohazard after so many months staying home leaves me questioning the freedoms we have surrendered – what a country I moved to for its tolerance and opportunity has become.

My inability to exercise each day left me with little to do other than read. Thankfully most of the books I picked up proved capable of taking my mind off the more negative aspects of the life I am currently required to live. February has been a busy month on the blog, mainly because I agreed to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize by reviewing the shortlist. My roundup post for this may be found here. 

I reviewed 13 books: 5 fiction (including 2 short story collections) of which 3 were translated; 8 non-fiction, 5 of which were memoirs. All of the latter chronicled the lives of people with health impairments. They were eye-opening and well written. None milked the misery but rather wrote to raise awareness of issues faced. Robyn added a further 12 reviews, a good mix of new releases and older works.

As ever in these monthly posts, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction / Short Stories

 
Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines, published by Salt
Like Fado by Graham Mort, published by Salt

Translated Fiction

 
Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle), published by Charco Press
Havana Year Zero by by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), published by Charco Press

Translated Fiction – Short Stories


Nordic Fauna by Andrea Lundgren (translated by John Litell), published by Peirene Press

Illustrated


Dreamy Days and Randon Naps by Mawson, published by Odyssey Books

Non Fiction

 
The Pleasure of Regret by Scott Manley Hadley, published by Broken Sleep Books
Chauvo Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo by Sam Mills, published by The Indigo Press


Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health, published by Dodo Ink

The Barbellion Prize Shortlist

Four memoirs that explore the realities of living with disability and chronic health conditions.

 
Sanatorium by Abi Palmer, published by Penned in the Margins
The Fragments of my Father by Sam Mills, published by 4th Estate

 
Golem Girl by Riva Lehrer, published by Virago
Kika & Me by Amit Patel, published by Pan MacMillan

 

Robyn Reviews

 
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, published by Rebellion
The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell, published by Bantam Press

 
Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth, published by Borough Press
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, published by Orbit

 
Fable by Adrienne Young, published by Titan Books
Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton, published by Faber & Faber

 
To Be Taught If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Red White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, published by St Martin’s Griffin

 
The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, published by Orbit

 
The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu, published by Pan MacMillan
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, published by Jo Fletcher Books

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased a number of hard copies, supporting: Illumicrate, Goldsboro Books, and Blackwells.

My monthly book post was both generous and interesting. It included a couple of purchases from Toppings.

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Book Review: Trauma

“The older one gets, the more we’re inclined to try to make sense of where we are and how we got here. Looking back we see these lightning traces, these impossible threads that weave our lives together and give them meaning.”

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays from an impressive roster of contemporary writers who publish in the English language. They share their thoughts on a diverse array of mental health issues caused by, to name just a few examples included: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drug, alcohol and pornography addiction; illness, including depression; sleep deprivation. The essays are deeply personal and skilfully written. They deal with hard-hitting subjects that demand time for reflection. The traumas suffered have been life-changing in myriad ways.

Jenn Ashworth writes in the introduction that she read the essays during the first lockdown of 2020. She suggests:

“It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for an anthology like this, when even those of us cushioned from illness, bereavement and financial disaster are learning the hard lessons of impermanence and dependence. Of having the truth of our precarity revealed to us suddenly, harshly and relentlessly.”

The wide variety of subjects explored adds strength to a book that could have been dispiriting but somehow comes across as affirming. The authors live daily with the impact of various mental health issues – theirs or a loved one’s – but write of how they have found ways to recognise the damage caused and – mostly, somehow – push through. There are few treatments or cures suggested. Rather, the stories shared are an acknowledgement of how widespread and lingering trauma is. Brushing it under the carpet – a conspiracy of silence that has long been pervasive – results in longer term misery, sometimes across generations.

With so many fine essays included, I will only highlight those few that resonated particularly with me. All in the anthology are worth reading.

James Miller’s The Madness of the Real focuses on the relentlessness of the news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone connectivity. He starts with social media – particularly as used by Donald Trump – and its assault on:

“truth, decency, tolerance and democratic values. The world’s biggest troll playing the world’s biggest victim, gaslighting supporters and enemies alike.”

Miller writes succinctly of a world on fire, fuelled by toxic leadership. The anger this engenders alongside the impotence many feel at the vastness of damage wreaked eats into our ability to trust the society in which we must live. He suggests that, in such times, literature can reflect back concerns and offer:

“inspiration, strength and solidarity. Old tools to build new weapons, elixirs to cultivate forbidden dreams.”

Where Miller writes plainly, Anna Vaught employs language richly flavoured in her essay, In Order to Live. A childhood characterised by emotional abuse led her to seek sanctuary in books – an escape ‘to new words and worlds.’ Having battled through years of mental health problems caused by toxic parenting, Vaught then suffered two nervous breakdowns while a young mother herself. She unpicked the origins of her illness by writing her autobiography – a cathartic process that enabled her to confront her family’s psychiatric history. She writes that she still reads at a furious pace, ‘in order to live’.

In Madness As Such, Neil Griffiths provides fragments written during a period shadowed by severe and extended episodes of depression. Although not always easy to read, this peals back the veneer of coping to expose a window into his mind at the time. It is raw and visceral.

“Overwhelm. I’m suffering ‘overwhelm’. (There is no more space left in this emptiness)”

In Quite Collected… Meanwhile… Rowena MacDonald employs a narrative presented in two columns to highlight how inner thoughts are masked to the extent that the bearer appears to be holding together despite help being needed. She escapes to private or anonymous spaces rather than risk being seen to break.

Naomi Frisby describes the damage caused by a toxic relationship in A Recipe for Madness. Believing her new partner to be the man of her dreams, she surrenders job and friends to be with him. On attaining control, he then changes tack, manipulating to ensure Frisby blames herself. In the aftermath, she feels humiliated that she was taken in, not recognising his narcissism.

“I prided myself on being independent, educated, strong, but my response to J pushing me away was to cling harder, to give more and more of myself to him. By doing everything I could think of to try and stop J abandoning me, I abandoned myself.
Finding myself again takes time. I have to learn who I’ve become and why.”

The Fish Bowl or, Some Notes on Everyday Sexual Trauma, by Monique Roffey, lays bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse amongst adolescents and beyond, so much so that any fuss made is discouraged, damage internalised.

Although focusing on her own experiences, the point is made that men suffer too:

“of always being measured against alpha males, of not being able to reach out to other men, of having few male friends, of lonely marriages and of erectile dysfunction, and of wives and partners who didn’t know what they wanted in bed and didn’t seem to want sex from them”

Tamin Sadikali writes of addiction to pornography – how he grew to loath himself but, for many years, couldn’t look away. Azad Ashim Sharma writes of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. After a year of clean sobriety, he then chose to return to his old ways. These essays are eye-opening. The authors understand how their habits will be regarded but also that they are more common than many may think.

“Waste water analysis shows that 1/50 people use [cocaine] every day in London.
In May 2019, Kings College London and the University of Suffolk collaborated and found that 100 per cent of freshwater shrimp tested positive for traces of cocaine.”

There is no advocacy for greater acceptability but rather acknowledgement of self-inflicted damage and the difficulties caused by a culture of denial and condemnation.

In The Art of Lost Sleep, Venetia Welby writes of the problem of severe insomnia, a problem she has battled since her teenage years.

“people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.”

As with many of these essays, this is a request for recognition of a serious problem that is too often belittled.

Throughout the anthology the writers present fearlessly articulate descriptions of the causes and effects of their mental health issues. These provide educative yet always engaging insight into widespread problems that deserve sympathetic treatment. It is a candid and illuminating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Robyn Reviews: This is How You Lose the Time War

‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a gorgeously written novella that crosses the boundaries between sci-fi, romance, and literary fiction. It’s the sort of story that’s impossible to capture in mere words – it’s an experience, and to reduce it to a simple summary or review would be to do it a disservice. I also suspect it’s a Marmite novella – some will adore it, and some will find it confusing and lacking any sort of substance.

Somewhen and somewhere – and by the same token, everywhen and everywhere – there are two rival time agents. Each seek out strands of time – sections of history – and subtly alter them to the needs of their side. They race to get there before agents of the enemies, to tip the balance of progress in their direction. Amidst this war, Red finds a letter. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence across time and space between two ultimate rivals – a correspondence which would see both branded traitors and could lead to one side ultimately winning, or losing, the time war.

The issue with that summary is that the novella is only tangentially about the war. The war is there, it’s happening, and it’s important in that it’s the entire reason for Red and Blue’s existence – but it’s merely the backdrop. The real story is about Red and Blue. Red, an agent of the Commandant, made for a purpose, perfected, sharpened; a woman who needs nothing, but finds herself craving it anyway. Blue, an agent of the Garden, a woman who thirsts and hungers and wants – a thrill-seeker of extreme talent who finds herself out of even her considerable depth. It’s also a story about words – the power of language, connection, expression; the power of emotion and its conveyance. The ideas and language are elaborate, but the underlying themes are simple. This is a love story, albeit one with teeth.

The novella alternates between Red and Blue, with the bulk of the story told in the form of letters. At-first, the non-letter content seems superfluous and unnecessary – as the novella develops, it becomes more substantial, but the letters are still the emotive heart. The narrative style of both the action and the letters is elaborate. El-Mohtar and Gladstone craft prose which resembles poetry – overly fanciful and descriptive, but at the same time gorgeous. They use many words to say what could be said in far fewer, but it’s so beautiful it adds an ethereal nature to what is already an otherwordly story – after all, it is a story about time-travel.

This is a sci-fi novella in that it deals with time travel, but very light sci-fi in that very few of the concepts are explained. The origins of the warring agencies remain a mystery, as does the nature of time travel. References are made to parallel strands of time – multiverse theory – and other futuristic concepts like neural implants and nanites, but this is at heart a literary novella not a scientific one. It can be confusing trying to navigate this unfamiliar universe without any explanations, but no knowledge of them is required to appreciate the beauty of the central tale. A little exposition would make life easier for the reader, but I can see why the authors chose not to.

Overall, ‘This is How You Lose the Time War’ is a beautifully written, genre transcending novella that weaves a tale of obsession and forbidden love. It won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s an ambitious piece of fiction and a credit to its authors. Recommended to fans of gorgeous prose and stories that really make their readers feel.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books
Paperback: July 18th 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Library of the Dead

‘The Library of the Dead’ is the first book in the ‘Edinburgh Nights’ series, a paranormal urban fantasy by the Zimbabwean-Scottish author TL Huchu. There are elements of dystopia, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy, with the story told through the lens of Ropa, a fourteen-year-old protagonist. It’s an ambitious concept, and the end result is a little like a library being thrown into a blender – entertaining, but lacking in finesse and flow.

At fourteen, Ropa is the breadwinner of her family. She can still remember a time when they had a house – although her younger sister can’t – but now they rent a space in the slums for their caravan, Ropa barely making enough to cover that. School is a distant memory, replaced by what she can do to get by: take messages from the dead to the living, ensuring they can pass to the beyond in peace. However, when one of the dead begs her to find her missing son, Ropa is pulled into a conspiracy far beyond anything she ever imagined. There’s much more magic in the world than just ghosts – and much more danger too.

Ropa makes a great protagonist. She’s feisty, brave, and simultaneously wise beyond her years and hopelessly naive. She puts on a tough face, but beneath it she cares deeply. She wants a better life for her little sister than she’s managed for herself and she’ll do anything to get it – even when her sister hates her for it. She also narrates in a Scottish dialect, occasionally interspersed with scientific terminology – something which I enjoyed, but others might find jarring.

While Ropa is the only point-of-view character, there are some great secondary characters – especially Priya, an apprentice Healer who uses a wheelchair, and Ropa’s gran, who clearly has a fascinating backstory only hinted at on page. Priya makes every scene she’s in more fun, and Ropa’s gran brings a sense of peace and calm to an otherwise turbulent novel.

Where it all falls down a bit is the plot. The idea is excellent – children disappearing from their homes, with those who return irrevocably changed – but the execution feels like a middle-grade novel with some adult themes and swearing thrown in. Ropa manages to get out of every sticky situation by sheer luck (except for one, in a mysterious house, which is brilliant). Her friendship with Priya is never explained – Priya simply decides Ropa is her new best friend – and Ropa’s general air of obliviousness makes her seem younger than her fourteen years. Personally, I think this would make a brilliant middle grade novel – but it’s clearly aimed at adults, and as adult fantasy it doesn’t work nearly as well.

The other part which doesn’t work for me is the dystopia. ‘The Library of the Dead’ is set in near-future Edinburgh, but something has happened referred to only as the ‘catastrophe’. There are mobile phones and the internet, but people are just as likely to use a donkey and cart as to use a car. Class divides have been exacerbated, with masses in slums and minorities in massive houses in the cities. There are frequent references to a distant king with an iron rule – everyone must greet each other by wishing him well – but there’s still mandatory public education and a healthcare system, even if it’s one that’s no longer free. The overall feel is cobbled together, and it doesn’t seem necessary alongside the paranormal elements.

Overall, ‘The Library of the Dead’ is a fun read with some great characters and interesting ideas, but it feels more like a hodge-podge of different books than a single linear narrative in its own right. Recommended for adult fans of YA and MG fantasy.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Tor Books
Hardback: 4th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: Ancillary Justice

It would be faster to list the awards that ‘Ancillary Justice’ hasn’t won than the awards that it has. Leckie’s debut novel, it swept all the major science fiction awards – the Hugo, Locus, Nebula, BSFA, and Arthur C Clarke – instantly cementing its place amongst the greatest works of the genre. It’s always difficult to pick up a novel like this, because it comes with such high expectations. ‘Ancillary Justice’ does not disappoint. It’s not perfect, but the idea is so utterly audacious and so cleverly portrayed that I can see why it made such a splash on publication.

Once, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the ship Justice of Toren, controlling vast numbers of bodies – known as ancillaries. They spent over two thousand years serving the Radch, a warrior race led by Anaander Mianaai. Now, Breq is a single soldier – their ship and other ancillaries destroyed – out for revenge. The novel flips between the present – Breq seeking a weapon powerful enough to destroy Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch – and the past, showing what lead to the destruction of the Justice of Toren and put Breq on their path for revenge. At its heart, the plot is simple, but the strength of this book is in the rich, exceptionally different culture of the Radch and other races, and the linguistic dexterity required to write a novel about a character who is at once many characters, and many characters who are almost – but not quite – the same.

Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative?”

Breq – or Justice of Toren, or Essen One, depending on the perspective – is fascinating. They’re not human, but they’ve spend two thousand years learning how to mimic one in their ancillaries. They’ve also gone from being a being spread out over many bodies to a being confined to one, which has clear effects on their psyche. Breq was designed to serve – to carry out the will of their ship’s lieutenant, and of Anaander Mianaai – but also to think, to weigh up decisions and decide the best course of action, and to be absolutely deadly when required. What happens to an AI like that when their prime directives clash? The idea of autonomy and consciousness is deftly explored, with Leckie using the medium of sci-fi to ask complicated questions about free will.

The line between human and AI is also examined. Breq is not human – but they experience emotions. They can use logic to decide the best course of action but also make emotional, irrational decisions. They struggle with things which come naturally to humans – the use of gendered pronouns, for example – but they form attachments to others like humans, and in many ways seem more human than not. There are some fascinating discussions in this book about what artificial intelligence could become, and where the line might fall – if there is a line at all. These are the sort of questions that I find extremely interesting.

“Without feelings, insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.”

I love how different Radch society can be to societies present on Earth. Gender is not a concept to the Radch, although it is to many of the groups they interact with. There is no such thing as privacy – every aspect of life is overseen by an AI. Class – specifically family lineage – is enormously important, as is religion, but the culture has changed so much you can believe this is thousands of years in the future. Some futuristic science fiction books feel too similar to present day society – no such claim can be made here.

Is this a perfect book? No – mainly because it’s confusing. It’s very difficult to write a book with many characters who are the same – with the same name, same speech patterns, same actions – but also different, and not have it end up confusing. Leckie gets very close, but the finale felt a bit messy and this made it lack impact. I also have issues with the character of Seivarden, Breq’s companion – they feel too good to be true, their motivations too opaque. It made them feel fake, rather than three-dimensional. Hopefully they’re developed further in subsequent novels in the trilogy. ‘Ancillary Justice’ deserves many accolades for sheer creativity, but – understandably for a debut – it isn’t quite polished enough.

Overall, I highly recommend this to any science fiction fan. It’s clever, unique, and pushes the boundaries of where science fiction can go. I’m looking forward to picking up further books in the series.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: October 1st 2013