Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin is one of those books I had all the good intentions to read over the years but never quite got round to it. Le Guin was one of my early introductions into SFF, so it was wonderful to return to her writing, and I think as an adult I'm getting a lot more out of her works than I did when I was in my early teens. I do suspect I did have one botched attempt at this book in my younger years, and I'm glad I picked it up now.

As with all her writing, there's a lot going on. This isn't merely an exploration of a new world, though that does offer the template upon which Le Guin builds the story. We discover the world of Winter through the eyes of the human envoy Genly Ai, but it's more than that – Le Guin digs a little deeper beneath the skin, beneath the differences, to discuss what it means to be human.

Then on top of that, there is some discussion about how society orders itself – we learn about two different nations that exist upon Winter: one ruled by a monarchy, the other a communist state. Some of Le Guin's observations, I feel, might even be pertinent today, cautionary tales, even.

While the political intrigues at the start of the story were a bit difficult for me to follow, and the environment itself was hostile (not an easy setting in which to immerse), the process of the novel's unfolding was in itself the reward, and much like life, it took unexpected turns. Le Guin's description for the last part of the story, of the journey, and the challenges faced, reminded me once again of her absolute mastery of language. She is one of those authors who, with a few, deft brush strokes, can paint a detailed, rich image.

The notion of the Gethenians all being one sex wasn't too difficult for me to deal with (here I'm thinking of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos in comparison), and it certainly added to the defamiliarisation Genly experienced.

Central to her story, I feel is the notion of truth, of one's own personal truth, and how one's perceptions of it may change, along with notions of identity. Political intrigue, check. Deep introspection with a smattering of Taoist leanings, check. Part travelogue, check. The Left Hand of Darkness is all this and more, and I suspect it's the kind of book that will keep on giving every time I read it.

I must add that while I was sad to learn of Le Guin's passing this year, I found it easier to accept because of the incredible legacy she's gifted us after a full life.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien

I honestly have no idea who put me onto Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien (edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A Donovan) but it's proved to be one of my reading highlights for the year so far. If you're reading this review right now, thank you.

Those who know me well, will know that JRR Tolkien has always been my first love in fantasy, so to delve into this selection of essays that re-examines the role of women in the works was an absolute treat.

Everyone who's read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will know that there aren't that many female characters central to the story. We have Arwen, Eowyn, the lady Galadriel... And unless you've read the Silmarillion, you most likely won't pull up that many more names for female characters in Middle-earth.

I believe the selection of essays in Perilous and Fair, however, redeems Tolkien to a large extent. While the three primary characters I've mentioned are not front and centre in terms of the narrative in the novels, they are, however, not without agency, and each is examined, along with others, such as LĂșthien TinĂșviel, in terms of their power, and especially how male and female power differ and complement each other in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

Through this collection of essays, I've also come to see Tolkien himself in a different light – as a man who though a product of his time and environment, was nonetheless quite progressive in terms of his attitudes towards women (and their education) when compared to peers such as CS Lewis.

A nice touch was also the acknowledgement of the transformative aspects of fanfiction, and its contribution to the fandom as a whole – and a re-envisioning of the world from the perspectives of a woman's experiences within the setting.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

I'll start by saying that Lost Gods by Micah Yongo is an ambitious novel, and Micah most certainly bites off a lot of content for readers to chew on as this adventure kicks off. And this is most certainly a book one in a series, with some narrative threads left undone by the end and some fascinating characters who will most likely still go on to uncovering further mysteries.

Firstly, the world building is something that's right up my alley – a wonderful departure from the standard Euro-centric fantasy – that takes on a decidedly African flavour to the setting that is well realised. So, that's a huge thumbs up from me. That being said, Micah has a bit of a tendency towards exposition that could possibly have been reined in a wee smidge. Not that it bothered me too much, because the story does move along at a cracking pace, but there are moments when I feel that the flow has a few hitches. Then again, I'm a bit of a history buff, and while all the names and places did get a bit overwhelming at times, I reckon I remained afloat.

And there were some lovely characters. While we primarily deal with Neythan, and his quest to find his peer Arianna and figure out what on earth went wrong with his first mission as a newly fledged assassin, we do have some of the story from secondary characters who also have important narrative arcs. Perhaps here is a little bit of my wish that we could have seen a little more of them? Then again, some of what they discover I suspect will be important for readers to know later. There were a few moments where I felt that point of view could have been a bit deeper, with a bit more digging in terms of understanding characters' motivations to keep the overarching plot on track, but on the whole the characters are distinct and I cared about what happened to them. So there is that.

There is a lot going on in the story – not only courtly intrigue, but also conspiracies to uncover within an order of assassins, and Neythan (and by default readers) won't have any clue what's really happening, as Neythan is kept off balance the entire time – which I quite enjoyed. I did feel at times that the divine prophecy aspect to the story felt a bit tacked on, and could have had a bit more development, but it added an intriguing dimension to the novel that I'm certain will be developed later on.

While at times I wasn't entirely certain of what the characters' actual goals were (this was a bit muddy, especially near the end), I did enjoy Lost Gods, primarily because it's a breath of fresh air in an incredibly detailed world. There's a lot of lore here, beneath the skin, and for lore junkies like me, that's pretty much irresistible. So a big thumbs up from me, and I'm going to keep an eye on Micah's career.