The Sacketts #4: Jubal Sackett by Louis L’Amour

Read: 22 January, 2017

I picked this up without realising that it’s part of a larger series. In fact, I didn’t realise it at all until I had finished the book and went to GoodReads to see what other people think of it. Point being, this works perfectly well as a stand-alone.

It follows the story of Jubal Sackett, son of Barnabas Sackett, as he travels ever farther west – intent on seeing whatever is beyond the next horizon. On the way, he receives a quest to find a princess, makes friends, makes enemies, and falls in love.

It’s a bit of a meandering tale. When Jubal receives the quest to find the Natchez princess Itchakomi, I thought that would be the focus of the story. But then it seemed to be about defeating the antagonist Kapata. But then it seemed to be about finding a place to settle down and build a trading post. But then it seemed to be about finding one of the few remaining woolly mammoths. But then it seemed to be about dealing with the Spanish, and finding himself in the middle of a conflict between two Spanish soldiers.

The book always had a next horizon, a next quest, a next goal. All the quests that are introduced end up resolving by the end, but their lack of interconnectedness left the ending rather open – it’s obvious that there will be more, even if they aren’t told. As someone who likes tighter narratives, this bothered me a bit.

I was also a little disappointed into the survivalism aspects of the novel. I’m a bit of a survivalist fan – I cut my reader teeth on books like My Side of the Mountain and My Name is Disaster. I just can’t get enough of nitty-gritty stories of people surviving alone in the wilderness. Jubal had a lot of that, the focus tended to be Man vs Man, rather than Man vs Nature.

I did have fun with the book. I kept it on my phone as an emergency audiobook, to listen to while getting changed at work when I didn’t have have my normal audiobook to hand, for instance. Its slow, somewhat episodic narrative is perfect for these sorts of short burst readings, when I don’t need more than just a broad recollection of what’s already happened. The book is interesting in the moment, rather than as a whole.

I found the character of Jubal himself to be rather interesting. He’s the survivalist, but he’s also quiet, reserved, a reader. He often comes across more like a younger boy than a man, especially in how long it takes him to pick up on Itchakomi’s rather obvious flirtations. Even in his friendships, he seems somewhat emotionally immature. It felt like the book was written for a younger audience, with the main character’s emotional experiences being made relatable for that audience.

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William the Conqueror by Thomas B. Costain

Read: 8 December, 2016

As I was talking to my mom about reading the Narnia books to my son, she mentioned that she has a few children’s books that we might want to look through. There, on her shelf, was an extensive collection of Random House historical biographies for children from the 1950s.

These books had been my mother’s when she was a child, then enjoyed by me, and I picked out a few to share with a third generation – our first was William the Conqueror.

At five, my son is perhaps a little young for this series, but he followed along in his own age-appropriate way. The battle scenes, which enthralled me as an 8-10 year old, we’re a little too intense. There are also a few authorial asides (particularly with regards to gender roles) that made me uncomfortable enough to turn into Teachable Moments.

But, for the most part, this book holds up. The vocabulary is a bit challenging, and the narrative voice doesn’t lend itself well to out-loud reading, but it’s a great introduction to historical concepts. And while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the historical facts, the book lays an excellent foundation for helping kids to get a feel for a time period and a familiarity with essential names.

The writing style can be very repetitive, and seemed to have trouble deciding whether it wanted to show or to tell. It’s unfortunate because the book, on the whole, is great fun.

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 1: The Shrike by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Emma Ríos

Read: 5 October, 2016

Bunny and Butterfly are talking about Death’s Daughter, Ginny – a reaper of vengeance. They say that when someone calls out to her by singing her son, she will appear to avenge them.

Pretty Deadly plunges straight into the story, which makes it rather confusing. Characters are thrown at the reader in quick succession – characters with traits or dialogue that make it seem like they might be interesting, like there might be something going on that I’d like to know about, but then the story just keeps moving on and the mystery is never acknowledged.

The illustrations have a similar issue. While absolutely gorgeous, they are often a little too stylised, making the action difficult to follow. I sometimes couldn’t tell what was happening in a panel until I’d read a few more and could piece together what happened by its result.

The use of animals and animal-human hybrids gave the story a mythic feel, which I quite enjoyed.

Unfortunately, though the visuals and ideas were great, the execution just didn’t do it for me. There’s too much “mystery box-ing,” which leaves me feeling frustrated rather than intrigued.

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The Saxon Stories #6: Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell

Read: 2 October, 2016

My stash of audiobooks was running dangerously low, forcing me to grab something straight from my library branch’s shelf. Since my local branch is fairly small, their collection – a mere handful of shelves – is similarly sized, so finding something that looked both interesting and that I hadn’t already read can be a little challenging.

But they did have Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell. I’ve heard good things about Cornwell – that he writes solid historical military fiction – but never quite good enough for me to actually dive into the rather lengthy time investment of one of his books. But there he was, in a pinch, so I gave him a go.

I was rewarded with a very solid novel. Uhtred’s desperate fight to save a kingdom from its inexperienced king is both compelling and entertaining. The characters all feel real, and a number of episodes are quite funny (particularly those involving the priest who had secretly married Edward).

It would have been easy for the character names to become a problem – there are so many important characters, many of whom barely appear in person, and every second character’s name seems to start with Aethel-. Surprisingly, I didn’t find this to be much of a problem. I was reading the book casually, listening to it as I fall asleep in the evenings, but still the narrative managed to differentiate between all the important characters enough for me to follow along without too much trouble. It was certainly quite a bit easier than reading Game of Thrones, which I had to do with the relevant Wiki pages open and before me.

One of the reasons I had hesitated so long before trying to read Cornwell is that I hate battle/fight scenes in books. I find them utterly boring, and usually skim them to get back to the interesting stuff. Here, however, the action scenes actually work! They don’t feel rushed, and there’s enough character in how each player acts that the scenes feel like they actually add something to the broader narrative (beyond simply their resolution).

This is the sixth book in a series, but I had no trouble picking up what was going on. Uhtred does mention past events, but without the context of the previous books, it just read as character history. The story works perfectly on its own.

In conclusion, I found this to be a very solid book. It’s an interesting story told with good writing. I look forward to picking up more books by the author.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #6: Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie

Read: 3 June, 2016

Ruso and Tilla are back up in northern Britannia where a rumour has it that there’s a body buried in Hadrian’s wall-in-progress.

Downie’s writing is consistently solid, and I really enjoyed this latest addition to the series. It follows the familiar format of Ruso stumbling into the middle of a mystery – helped along by Tilla’s meddling. He then proceeds to bumble around for 200 pages until, in the final few pages of the book, the mystery largely solves itself. It makes the series a little less than satisfying as a procedural because there’s little to follow on – when I can’t guess the answer, it’s because all the salient information is being withheld.

There’s humour in this format, though. Ruso is building a reputation as a crime solver, and yet he actually does very little. Tilla is the more active agent, and much of the most important comes through her investigations. Beyond that, it is Ruso’s reputation that positions him to receive the information he needs for the mystery to be resolved.

The real appeal of the series is the setting, and how beautifully Downie is able to bring it to life. The world of these novels feels populated, and even background characters have tangibility. The world also plays out in our two main characters and how they interact and negotiate each other’s cultural differences (and the differences really are cultural, because both are as stubborn and curmudgeonly as each other, much as they might protest otherwise).

SPOILERS: I was concerned about how the couple’s infertility would play out, and had some concerns that Tilla would suddenly find herself pregnant after receiving the marriage blessing. I shouldn’t have worried, not after how deftly Downie handled the issue of religion in Persona Non Grata. She is very deft at navigating fraught themes. Getting a replacement baby from Virana skirted the groaning border, though. The choice to give up her baby isn’t contrary to Virana’s established character, but it still would have been nice to see a little more build up. As it was, there was really only the mirroring with Conn’s fiancée’s refusal to do the same. Still, it’s easy enough to see how the decision would have made sense to Virana, so I’ll accept it. And it’ll be interesting to see how the addition of a baby to the family changes the dynamic between Ruso and Tilla.

Overall, I found this to be a fine addition to the series. I actually bought Tabula Rasa when it first came out, but was afraid to read it and no longer have it to look forward to! But with Vita Brevis coming out soon, I took a chance and was not disappointed.

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The Once And Future King #1: The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

Read: 17 May, 2016

This really wasn’t what I was expecting at all. My dad had given me an old paperback copy of The Once And Future King when I was a child interested in Arthurian legends, but he made it sound like a very serious, stuff tome – a perception that wasn’t corrected by the fact that this thing is an absolute brick. It ended up sitting on my shelf for nearly two decades before I finally decided that I’d give it a read through audiobook (my preferred vehicle for fantasy novels suffering from gigantism).

It turned out to be very different from what I had assumed. For one thing, it’s clearly aimed at children (specifically boys – there are almost no female characters in the whole book, and the two I can think of are a) Maid Marianne, and b) the witch, Madam Mim).

The story is episodic, each usually involving some adventure Merlyn sends the young Arthur (often accompanied by his foster-brother Kay) on. These mix and match different stories, including Robin Hood! Most of these adventures include some kind of lesson: A discussion on the nature of time, an introduction to embryology and evolution, etc.

The book is still quite a brick, and I think it would have been difficult to get through if I had tried to just read it to myself. It did work well as an audiobook, though, and I think that it would have worked fairly well as a bedtime story – with each adventure read aloud and treated as self-contained.

I found the novel to be quite funny, particularly the episodes with King Pellinore. The audiobook reader was clearly having a lot of fun with those episodes, what?

Overall, I found the book a bit dated, and it’s hard to see it competing for children’s bedtime attention given the options that are available now. But it was still a fairly enjoyable read, a good story with some food for thought and amusing humour. I may give it a try on my kid when he’s a little older.

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Leviathan #1: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Read: 8 April, 2016

On the eve of the first World War, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the crew of a Darwinist airship, while Alek (fictional son of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand) is forced into hiding by his parents’ death.

This is the story of World War I, of huge forces smashing against each other as millions upon millions of lives are lost. But this time, the conflict is re-imagined as being between the Darwinist forces – who manipulate the “life threads” of animals to create fantastical war machines – and the Clankers – who build beast-like machines on legs.

The book gets classified as Steampunk, and it certainly is, but adding the organic construction aspects to it made it into something new. Is Fleshpunk a thing? Evopunk?

The plot is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though it does hint to the deeper politics in the background. The balance is pretty perfect to give the impression of the setting, but without bogging down the story.

The book is also classified as Young Adult, which I don’t think is quite accurate. It’s not a book for little kids, certainly, but I think it would be perfect for someone around 11-14. The characters, who are meant to be around 15 years old, act and think more like 11-12 year olds.

That said, the world building and the plot had more than enough to keep me entertained. And I really appreciated that Westerfeld doesn’t hold back on terminology – military equipment and ranks are properly named, for example. I could see 11-12 year old me absolutely devouring this book.

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A Memoir by Lady Trent #2: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Read: 24 January, 2016

I’m not a terribly huge fan of dragons but natural history? The Victorian era? Women who find a way to be badass despite the whole of their society weighing down on them? It’s like these books were written specifically with me in mind.

In this episode, Isabella mounts her first expedition without her husband, and finds herself caught in the middle of a multi-directional political struggle. And, of course, she and her companions make some pretty wonderful scientific discoveries along the way.

As with the first, this book is pretty much perfect. The characters are strong and come through really well, the pacing is spot on, the tone matches the content perfectly. I honestly can’t think of a single critical thing to say.

I’m seeing from reviews that many people found the book boring, mostly because it spent so much time away from the dragons. I guess I can understand, and it’s true that Brennan isn’t exactly Anne McCaffrey. It’s hard to see how this series would hold any interest at all for readers who just want dragons! and adventure!

It is a slower pace, and the dragons themselves are almost incidental to the characterization of Isabella – of her growth, and of her negotiation between the expectations of her gender and the hungers of her personality. But for the right audience (i.e.: me), these books are just glorious.

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Edward II: The Unconventional King by Kathryn Warner

Full disclosure: I started following Warner’s blog a few years ago and corresponded a few times via e-mail regarding some questions I had. We’ve since become Facebook friends and I quite like her as a person. 

Read: 16 April, 2015

Warner’s excitement about Edward II is infectious. I found her blog through my general interest in medieval Europe, and soon found my new favourite monarch. So I was understandably excited for this book to come out. (Then, of course, had to wait eons because Amazon apparently didn’t get enough books to cover the pre-orders.)

The writing style is, unfortunately, a little info-dumpy. I found it difficult to really get engrossed in the narrative when it felt more like reading someone’s notes than the final product. This is a very common problem in non-fiction, though, and is overshadowed by the book’s strengths.

Notably, how well Warner is able to make Edward II (and Isabella, for that matter) seem like a real person – complex and sometimes idiosyncratic, a whole person. In particular, it was wonderful to see such a nuanced look at Edward’s relationship with his wife, Isabella.

It was a shame that so much time was devoted to debunking the common myths surrounding Edward’s reign, but it had to be done. I was glad, also, that Warner didn’t take the easy route of simply dismissing them out of hand, instead taking the time to explain the arguments and present the evidence.

I really enjoyed the numerous lists in the book – how much Edward’s household spent on cloth for a wedding, how much fish was consumed during a stay in a particular place, etc. I know it’s not for everyone, but it helped me visualize what these events might have looked like, it made them tangible and relatable; especially since Warner took pains to translate the lists into modern terms (how much would that amount of money have really meant at the time?).

I definitely found it a worthwhile read, and I recommend it for anyone interested in the politics of medieval England, and particularly in the life of the first English monarch to be deposed.

EDIT: I’ve heard rumours that Warner may be working on a biography of Isabella next, so I’m really excited for that!

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Hild by Nicola Griffith

Read: 7 March, 2015

We know precious little about the real Hild, a woman who lived in 7th century England. Within the frame of sparse information, Griffith weaves a tale of a young woman who navigates from being the homeless daughter of a murdered king, to king’s seer, a commander of armies, and weaver of political intrigue.

Years ago, when I read Dune, I was completely blown away. Previously, most of what I had read was assigned reading – classics with literary and historical merit. But Dune captured me. What I loved about it was the many moving parts – the members of the household and the surrounding nobles, each with their own goals and motivations, and the lone protagonist stuck in the middle trying to find the pattern, take hold of the weave, and re-stitch it to his own will. It’s a magnificent theme, and one that I’ve always loved seeing done well. And Griffith does it well. Very well.

Hild begins in a very precarious social position, and we see her (via her mother, at first) rise and find safety for herself and her loved ones through cunning and information. The details of her rise, and of her struggle to maintain safety in an environment where kings can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, was extremely well handled. I felt like I could really see her learning, working things out, and tailoring her advice to the personalities of the recipients.

Often, when a character is shown to be especially cunning, this is either done by making everyone else in the story too oblivious to see the obvious, or it’s done by having the character make impossible logical leaps. Here, however, we see Hild paying attention, we see her building a spy network, we see how she comes to make those logical leaps that she does make (and, perhaps just as importantly, we see her be wrong sometimes).

Another aspect of this book that I loved is how much time was spent on both the Big Political Stuff and on domestic business. We see Hild organizing alliances between kings, and we see her checking sheep to estimate the price of the resulting wool. This really spoke to me, because history tends to be taught as The Important Things Great Men (and these few token women) Do, and neglects to show us all the things women and people of lower social standing were doing in the background to make those Great Things work.

Not only that, but the women who organized alliances and gave advice behind the scenes rarely get any credit. Hild, as a seer, speaks more openly, but we see how her mother and the queen are able to nudge others as well. In other words, the history here felt complete, and it was lovely.

All this is mostly to say that this book was right up my alley. All of my alleys. Griffith did an excellent job controlling the narrative so that the rather lengthy character list never felt overwhelming, and the pacing was perfect.

If I had to complain about anything, it would be that the ending felt a little rushed. (SPOILERS: And while I understood Breguswith and Aethelburh’s motivation in orchestrating it, I didn’t grasp was Edwin was thinking. I feel like we should have seen Hild spend a little more time working that out, though I do see how that would have interfered with the pacing of the climax.)

I highly recommend the book for anyone with an interest in intrigue and the domestic world of 7th century England. If you have trouble keeping track of lots of characters (particularly since they have unfamiliar names, several of the characters having quite similar spellings), it may be useful to keep notes.

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