Libraries and cats.

I have been working in one lately.

This is the view of the outside of l’Γ‰FA’s (the French School at Athens) library building:

The French have nice premises.

The French have nice premises.

This is a partial view of the inside of Salle A:

Salle A

Salle A

This is a lovely flowering plant that I wish I could identify:

Anyone know what the pink thing is?

Anyone know what the pink thing is?

And these are two of the three cats I saw in the garden at lunchtime:

White cat.

White cat.

White cat enjoys sunlight.

White cat enjoys sunlight.

Sneaky marmalade.

Sneaky marmalade.

Hiding under bushes.

Hiding under bushes.

Two at once.

Two at once.

Django Wexler’s THE FORBIDDEN LIBRARY and Sophia McDougall’s MARS EVACUEES

I read Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library back-to-back with Sophia McDougall’s Mars Evacuees. They’re very different books, albeit aimed at the same age-group (9-12).

The Forbidden Library is a fantasy novel set in a version of Earth around the turn of the 20th century. Alice Creighton overhears her father having an argument with a fairy. Soon after, her father leaves on a journey, his ship sinks, and Alice is brought under the guardianship of a man called Geryon, who almost certainly doesn’t have her best interests at heart. She learns that she has magical powers in a dangerous and forbidding library, and struggles to learn the truth about what really happened to her father.

Mars Evacuees is a novel set in a near-future Earth that’s been invaded by aliens, the Morrors. Alice Dare, daughter of ace pilot Stephanie Dare, is evacuated to not-properly-terraformed-yet Mars with a group of other young adolescents. But things go wrong on Mars, and Alice and a small group of others must make a dangerous journey alone across the planet to seek help.

Both of these books are an awful lot of fun, although Mars Evacuees is really more My Thing. I recommend them both.

How much do the insects of Athens love me?

This much.

This is how much the insects of Athens love me.

This is how much the insects of Athens love me.

There are two more insect bites under my watchstrap and another three on the underside of my arm. And three on my hand. My right arm has fared slightly better: there are only five insect bites in total.

They’re the large kind that start to leak a clear lymph if you somehow refrain from scratching them raw.

This one is the size of a twenty-cent piece.

This one is the size of a twenty-cent piece.

I am really, really glad that Athens is not malarial. That’s all I’m saying.

David Constantine, IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE GODS

David Constantine, In The Footsteps of the Gods: Travelers to Greece and the Quest for the Hellenic Ideal. I.B. Tauris, London, 2011. First published 1984.

This is a book about the image of Greece in the writing of French, English and German travelers to the Ottoman lands during the 1700s. Constantine’s background as a scholar of German literature is clear in his particular focuses. He deals with Winckelmann and Riedesel, Guys and Wood, Spon and Wheler, Chiseul and Tournefort, Robert Chandler, the reflection of Hellenism in the German literature of the late 18th century – but this is not the book I hoped to read. Its focus is literary, rather than technical and historical, and it does not ever give a Greek or even Ottoman perspective on all these interfering northern Europeans. Still an interesting book, but unsatisfying to the archaeologist.

Nnedi Okorafor’s LAGOON

…is a hard book to get out of my head. I will have a passage about it in an upcoming column. But it’s doing so many things, and so many of them well, that I keep coming back to it: it is a good book to think with.

Especially when in comes to a sense of place. Maybe I’m just startled to hit another novel that doesn’t take place in a sanitised or Americanised present/future – which is part of what I like about Stross’s near-future SF and the Laundry novels, and Karen Healey’s When We Wake and While We Run, come to think of it, although England and Scotland and Australia certainly get more play in Anglophone SF than Nigeria does. (And also part of what I liked about Samit Basu’s Turbulence, although the superhero genre really isn’t my thing.)

American SF is a wide field in itself, but I sometimes think that it can be limited by shared sensibilities and reading protocols, by the conversation with how things have been done before. This is changing slightly as ever more novels are produced, and as the Young Adult contribution to science fiction is taking a larger place in the conversation, but I still feel that there is a cultural koine there that elides a universe of experiences.

The American dominance of Anglophone literature may be unavoidable by numbers alone, but it does rather contribute to a sort of colonisation of the imagination. Lagoon sets its face against this state of affairs, with its unapologetic focus on Lagos, on Nigeria and Nigerian characters – and the odd Ghanaian. And it is a really interesting alien invasion story. And it has layers of things going on. I would love to see a smarter critic than me take this on and show me more of the connections between the things-going-on than I see myself.

Anyway. Interesting book.

Interesting fascist nonsense, and its opposite

Saturday night, I’d just arrived in a different city, fairly exhausted and not filled with brainpower.

Naturally, this was a good time to watch all three Starship Troopers films and follow them up with Frozen. The juxtaposition of Interesting Fascist Nonsense (two rather good B-movies and one incoherent mess, in that order) and Musical Family Adventure is a strange one.

But the story of sisterly love and the tales of ETERNAL WAR AGAINST INSECTOID ENEMY have something unexpected in common: they’re both really good at showing women as people. I’m, frankly, astonished.

Peter Temin, THE ROMAN MARKET ECONOMY

Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy. Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2013.

I will confess that after I started reading this, it became the thing I read when I wanted something to help bore me to sleep. Temin is an economist, and despite his best efforts to make himself comprehensible to non-economists, the economist-specific jargon and calculations are impenetrable where they aren’t tedious. In many respects it is a useful examination/elucidation of Roman markets and the operation of a Roman business economy: in other respects, Temin falls prey to the perennial problem of economists, and stops seeing people as people. His background as an economist of the 20th century obtrudes itself noticeably at times, when he makes certain statements about society in antiquity that feel rather strange to me. It feels as though he isn’t using a wide enough variety of kinds of evidence to support his statements – the quantitative evidence is scanty, yes, but there is more contextual evidence that could be brought into play to illuminate his arguments.

But ultimately, for its discussion of trade, the Roman labour market, and of the constraints of Malthusian population theory versus economic growth, it is interesting and useful in sum, even if I decline to try to follow its mathematics.

Wilfrid Priest, WILLIAM BLACKSTONE; and Robert R. Desjarlais, BODY AND EMOTION

Wilfrid Priest, William Blackstone: Law and Letters in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.

A biography of William Blackstone, most famous for his four-volume commentary on the English common law. An Oxford fellow, an MP, a judge, something of an academic reformer, his biography makes for interesting reading – and now I want to read more about English 18th-century law, too.

History! It’s fun! Recommended if you like the 18th century.

Robert R. Desjarlais, Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1992.

Some good, really readable, immensely interesting anthropology. Desjarlais does the difficult thing of trying to portray a cultural practice from inside and outside perspectives at once, while keeping his own position in the narrative, and the impossibility of outsiders ever achieving true inside perspectives, perfectly clear.

Robert Knapp, INVISIBLE ROMANS

Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women… The Romans That History Forgot. Profile Books, London and New York, 2013.

This is, I suppose, a decent enough introduction to social history and the Roman empire. Unfortunately, Knapp limits himself by concentrating primarily on inscriptions, literature, and – mainly Pompeian – iconography, failing to make a remotely adequate use of archaeological evidence and research. He also generalises and simplifies in ways that may well be unavoidable in a general survey, but fail to satisfy me. Citations! Where this general survey has another point of failure is in its unwillingness to point the reader clearly to where work has been done in greater depth. It further neglects to point out (in ways that I’ve come to expect from other work) that there are differences in the Roman experience from one end of the Roman empire to the other.

I’m not satisfied with it in the least. But as an introductory/popular text, it does the job it sets out to do well enough – although I think Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome covers much of the same ground with rather more nuance.

Books in brief: Bear, Elliott, Lin, Ross, Wells, Wright

Kate Elliott, Jaran, An Earthly Crown, and His Conquering Sword. Ebooks, Open Road Media, first published 1992-1993.

Read to cover in a later SWM column. It’s odd, sometimes, to come to a writer’s earlier work after their more mature stuff, and see the outlines of similar thematic concerns: much here is familiar, if in very different form, from the Crossroads trilogy. The through-line is more scattered, less developed, less well-defined – less, in all those respects that define a writer’s craft, mature – but these are still interesting novels, combining SFnal and fantastic sensibilities.

Ankaret Wells, Heavy Ice. Ebook, 2014, copy courtesy of the author.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. A lot of fun, set in the same universe (but many generations later) as The Maker’s Mask and The Hawkwood War. As with my previous experience of Wells’ books, the first half is very good and then the conclusion rather less good at pulling all the narrative threads together than one might wish.

But still, very fun. I want to read more like this.

Barbara Ann Wright, A Kingdom Lost. Ebook, Bold Strokes Books, 2014. Copy courtesy of publisher.

Third in series, after Pyramid Waltz and For Want of a Fiend. Wright has not developed any further as a prose stylist, but her grasp of narrative and tension, already solid, has here improved. I am decidedly pro Epic Fantasy With Lesbians, so I was already inclined to look favourably upon this novel – unfortunately, Wright and her publishers have chosen to hang a cliffhanger right in the middle of the climactic fight/chase sequence, which is a bit Bad Show, Chaps in my books.

I’m still looking forward to the next installment, though.

Jeannie Lin, The Jade Temptress. Ebook, Harlequin, 2014.

Romance set in Tang dynasty China. Rather weaker, I think, than Lin’s previous books.


Deborah J. Ross, The Seven-Petaled Shield and Shanivar. DAW, 2013. Copies courtesy of the publisher.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. I am a bit “meh” on these: they’re the first two novels in what seems like a not-particularly-imaginative epic fantasy series (trilogy?) but I can see how they might be more some other, less jaded reader’s cup of tea. However, I read three separate series in short order that featured clearly Mongol-inspired steppe nomads, and of these, Ross’s are the least convincing/interesting nomads. In some ways, reminiscent of a more consciously epic Mercedes Lackey – I think that is a good match for some of the sensibilities on display here.

Elizabeth Bear, Steles of the Sky. Tor, 2014. Copy courtesy of the publisher.

Will be mentioned in future SWM column. WOW. Masterpiece conclusion to an amazing trilogy. Bear’s books have only been in front of the public for about ten years: this may not mark the height of her potential powers. But wow. If she improves on this, if fate spares her to us for long enough? Forty years down the line, we may be talking of Elizabeth Bear as we talk today of Ursula K. LeGuin.

(Some) books received for review since last I took a picture

I’m a bit like a bus-stop in winter when it comes to posts this evening, I’m afraid. None all last week, while I was attempting to finish up some work, and now several posts (buses, in this metaphor) come along on each others’ heels.

Not shown: two novels by Deborah J. Ross, which I have already read and shelved, and MIRROR SIGHT by Kristen Britain, which has been misplaced during shelving triage and may be under my bed.

Not shown: two novels by Deborah J. Ross, which I have already read and shelved, and MIRROR SIGHT by Kristen Britain, which has been misplaced during shelving triage and may be under my bed.

In no particular order, Sophia McDougall’s MARS EVACUEES, Karen Healey’s WHILE WE RUN, Julie E. Czerneda’s A TURN OF LIGHT, Mur Lafferty’s THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY and GHOST TRAIN TO NEW ORLEANS, debut author Susan Klaus’s FLIGHT OF THE GOLDEN HARPY, E.C. Blake’s MASKS, and Irene Radford’s THE SILENT DRAGON.

There are also a couple more electronic ARCs in my inbox. I’m most excited about P.C. Hodgell’s THE SEA OF TIME.

Books in brief: Carey, Dare, Rutkowski, Sapkowski, Taite

Marie Rutkoski, The Winner’s Curse, FSG, 2014.

Written about this one with Stefan Raets at Tor.com. A lot of fun, but flawed.


Carsen Taite, Beyond Innocence, Rush, Slingshot, and Battle Axe. Bold Strokes Books, ebooks, various years.

Lesbian romance. Not SFF, and I was deceived to the extent of the role played by mysteries. The latter two have more better mysteries, and are more enjoyable. Not particularly great quality, but not notably terrible either.

Tessa Dare, Romancing the Duke. Ebook, 2014.

Regency romance. Slight, but entertaining. Also, fandom jokes. Recommendation came via Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Jacqueline Carey, Santa Olivia. Grand Central, 2009.

I hear a lot of people referring to this as YA. It doesn’t feel like YA to me at all. But it is really good. All about oppression and life and comings of age in multiple directions. Also boxing. It is big on the boxing. Recommended.

Andrzej Sapkowski, Blood of Elves. Gollancz, 2008. Translated by Danusia Stok.

Interesting. I’m not sure I’d stick with the series if I hadn’t played the videogame. It seems fairly so-so, a little bit too clearly pulling from RPG roots. And not great at its female characters. On the other hand, it does have a certain something…

Links: a picture, a story, a lovely piece of artistic sarcasm

It looks like Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is going to have quite the shiny cover.

Chaz Brenchley situates a British empire on Mars in his short story “The Burial of Sir John Mawe at Cassini” at Subterranean.

Annalee Newitz takes on 300: Rise of an Empire at io9:

When the Greek fleet is destroyed by the suicide bombers, Themistokles is hit and sinks deep underwater. Arrows and dead men and ship parts float past his head, in the gooey slow motion style that elevates the 300 franchise from mere war porn to aesthetically rich political statement. At that moment, Themistokles sees huge sea monsters rising up from the depths, eating men out of the water. The metaphorical implications are incredible. These creatures snarf up men the same way Artemesia tried to consume him with her anti-democratic sexuality. And their immense size suggests the power of Persia, rising up against the perfect democracy of Athens, where slaves treated really well and women who don’t want to be chattel have the choice to become slaves or whores if they don’t like patriarchy.

I am going to go see this film. Please donate to charity in honour of my sadly lost sanity.

Review copies arrived since last we mentioned such things…

I'm seriously spoiled for choice these days...

I’m seriously spoiled for choice these days…

That’s Glenda Larke’s The Lascar’s Dagger, David Edison’s The Waking Engine, David Weber’s Like A Mighty Army (I got an ARC of that back in January and reviewed it for Tor.com, I don’t know why Tor’ve sent me another copy, unless it’s just that they sense my shelves need more symmetry and silver leaf), Django Wexler’s excellent-looking The Forbidden Library, and Trudi Canavan’s forthcoming latest.

The Trudi Canavan arrived wrapped in brown paper and sealed with red wax. I preserved the wax seal of ORBIT here:

Gloomy hood cover with red wax seal

Gloomy hood cover with red wax seal.

It’s really a very cool piece of attention-getting. (And now I want a seal all of my own.)

There are also a number of electronic review copies lurking on my harddrive, and this copy of The Gospel of Loki whose review I’m working on lately. But electronic copies don’t have the same oooh shiny factor…