The Rock and the Fire

New and upcoming releases, brief reviews of the books I read since last issue, and an old favourite

Issue #5, Sunday 19th September 2021

Bookish News

New and Forthcoming Releases

There are a vast number of books published each month. Of those, I pick just a few which I think I would like to read myself. If you share my tastes, you may like them too.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

I really, really liked this author’s All the Light We Cannot See, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal. This new novel, to be released 28 September, sounds strange but absolutely fascinating:

Cloud Cuckoo Land follows three storylines: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city wall during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour and gentle octogenarian Zeno, in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for a distant exoplanet, decades from now.

More details.

This month was the centenary of the birth of one of the world’s greatest science fiction authors, the Polish writer Stanisław Lem. This new collection of Lem’s stories in translation is just out. Nine of the twelve stories here have never appeared before in English. If you’re a fan of Lem’s work, this is a must-buy.

More details

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Shortlisted for both the 2021 Booker Prize and the (US) National Book Award for Fiction. I’ve already ordered a copy!

Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old […] What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, while all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.

More details

Dark Rise by C.S. Pacat

A new YA fantasy novel by this Australian author, due out 28 September, which sounds very promising:

Sixteen-year-old dock boy Will is on the run in London, pursued by the men who killed his mother. When an old servant urges him to seek out the Stewards, Will is ushered into a secret world, where he must train to fight for the Light in the oncoming war.

More details.

Other News

Women’s Prize for Fiction goes to Susanna Clarke’s ‘mind-bending’ Piranesi

The Women’s Prize for Fiction has been awarded to Susanna Clarke’s ‘mind-bending’ Piranesi. It was praised by judges as ‘a truly original, unexpected flight of fancy’.

We talked at length about this book in this episode of the podcast, and I wrote a long article about it for the first issue of Perry Middlemiss’ The Alien Review.

More details

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

Out of the four books I mentioned I was reading last issue, I completed two. But on the other hand, I also read three other books which weren’t on last issue’s list!

I’ve now added codes for the format in which I read the book: PB = Paperback; HB = Hardback; EB = Ebook; L = Borrowed from the library (otherwise I purchased the book); HTML = Raw HTML for a Standard Ebooks production.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

[PBL] This book won this year’s Stella Prize, which is awarded to the best book written by a woman (“cis, trans, and non-binary inclusive”) who is either an Australian citizen or a permanent resident of Australia.

The Bass Rock is an exploration of the mistreatment of women by men, and how women respond to that. It weaves together three main strands, each set in a different time period but tied together by location, within sight of the Bass Rock, a prominent feature off the coast of North Berwick in Scotland.

The first of these strands is set in the modern day, and the protagonist is Viviane, in her late thirties, who has been sent to help clear out the family house after her father’s death. The second strand is in the 1950s and is based on Ruth Hamilton, who has recently married a widower with two sons and has just moved into the house which Viviane is clearing out in the first strand: it takes a while before we understand the relationship between Ruth and Viviane. The third strand is set much further back in time, in the Middle Ages, and features the son of a priest who has just rescued a young girl accused of witchcraft. Each of the female characters suffers in varied ways from male entitlement, dominance, gaslighting and violence.

A very engaging read, easy to see why it won the Stella Prize.

More details

Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

[PB] As I discussed in issue 3, I’m a huge fan of the writing of Claire North and I was really looking forward to reading this, her latest novel. I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s set in a future age in which humanity is slowly recovering from environmental catastrophe. Legend has it that powerful spirits called kakuy awoke and inflicted terrible punishment on mankind for our disrespect of the planet and its ecosystems. Most religions have been replaced by temples which respect the kakuy and give thanks for the blessings the Earth confers upon us. No one prays to the kakuy, however, as they pay us no more attention than we do to an ant, unless we commit heresy and try to return to pre-catastrophe technology.

With that as a background, we follow the fortunes of a young man called Ven, who we first meet as a child. As an adult, he is recruited by a gangster-like character called Georg who has high political ambitions, and after some time becomes his assistant. However, Georg, the head of a “Humanist” party, is determined to (literally) unearth the technological secrets of the ancients and put them to use. Other countries push back, and eventually a terrible war begins. Ven’s role as Georg’s assistant places him at the heart of this conflict. But Ven isn’t all that he seems… What follows is an exciting story of betrayal, escape, punishment and release.

The book combines a cautionary science fiction story with a terrific spy thriller, comparable with John Le Carrè at his best.

In my view, this is a major work of science fiction. I would hope and expect to see it on next year’s Hugo ballot. I’ll certainly be voting for it there.

More details on the book here.

Here’s more from me on Claire North.

The Fated Sky & The Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal

[EB] These are part of Kowal’s “Lady Astronaut” series, an alternate history in which a massive meteor strikes the eastern United States in 1952, causing terrible and widespread damage. Worse, it appears to trigger irreversible climate change which within about a century will result in runaway global warming.

Seeking a way to continue human civilisation, America joins with other countries to put efforts into developing space travel. This is the 1950s, so it's all based on technology similar to the real space race, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Soyuz and Vostok.

A very strong theme throughout the whole series is the fight by women for recognition and respect as able pilots and later as astronauts. An equally strong theme is the same fight by people of colour to overcome racism and be respected on their own terms.

In the first book in the series, The Calculating Stars, the first-person protagonist is Emma York, a former Air Force pilot, who perseveres and eventually becomes a qualified astronaut on her way to the Moon. The second book, The Fated Sky, moves on to the first mission to Mars and again York finds herself included in the crew. Racism and misogny still run strong, though, and cause serious problems on the mission.

The third book in the series, The Relentless Moon, is up for Best Novel at this year's Hugo Awards. This one has a different first-person protagonist because it runs in the same time period as the mission to Mars, and there are continuing links between the story in this novel and the events in the preceding one.

Nicole Wargin, one of the early women astronauts, is now the wife of the Governor of Kansas. She is on frequent rotation to the small but now permanent settlement on the Moon. The space program is however threatened by an extremist group calling themselves "Earth First", responsible for a series of incidents of sabotage of space equipment, including some on the Mars mission. Wargin is sent back to the Moon to secretly investigate problems there and quickly finds herself in danger due to the efforts of a saboteur trying to close down the base.

I liked this a lot, even more than the other novels in this series so far. It's more exciting and tense than those, with a somewhat stronger plot.

More details (Sky) (Moon)

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

[HTML] I’m running out of time and space here to talk about this book at length. The third in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire”, it concerns the fortunes of Doctor Thorne and his niece Mary, who is the illegitimate daughter of his brother, now deceased; in particular with the apparently doomed love between her and the heir to the nearby manor, who must “marry money” and not a penniless girl like Mary. Great to see an intelligent, determined female character in a mid-Victorian era novel.

This is now available free through Standard Ebooks.

Currently Reading/Planning to read

We’re planning an all-crime episode of the podcast, hence the first two novels, both by Australian authors. The third one is by an author I really like.

An Old Favourite

From time to time here I’ll re-publish reviews of “old favourites”, which are basically books I would like to re-read if only there were time.

Railsea by China Miéville

[HB] Railsea is a young adult novel published in 2012 by China Miéville (whose adult works I have yet to read, but really, really must).

Railsea has a completely whacky premise: a world in which there are no oceans, and in their place is the endless ‘railsea’: a vast tangle of railroad tracks over which trains hurtle between islands of higher land, throwing switches on the run to change direction. Huge moles burrow beneath the surface and occasionally burst upwards, destroying rails and upending trains. These moles are hunted for their meat and fur.

The book begins this way with this wonderfully descriptive bit of writing:

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

There he stands, swaying as utterly as any wind-blown sapling. He is quite, quite red. If only that were paint! Around each of his feet the red puddles; his clothes, whatever colour they were once, are now a thickening scarlet; his hair is stiff & drenched.

Thus we are introduced to Sham ap Soorap, a young man on board the moletrain Medes, whose captain is driven by an obsession to catch and kill a great white mole which has in the past severed her arm. Well, you get the idea. If the trick was only this recasting of Moby-Dick then there wouldn’t be much to the book. But Miéville spins out a much more interesting and complex story, full of sly references to books like Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.

Sham’s train comes across a derelict—a wrecked train—inside which he discovers a kind of treasure map, indicating that there may be a place where there are no rails. Naturally enough, Sham plots to get to this mythical place and discover what secrets it holds.

I do like the way Miéville keeps breaking the ‘fourth wall’ and discussing what is going to happen with the reader (this reminds me a lot of Anthony Trollope doing the same thing). There’s a typographical quirk to the text too. Each and every instance of the word ‘and’ is replaced by the ampersand ‘&’. At first this annoyed me, but then I got used to it, and it does give an interesting feel to the story.

Lots of exciting adventure and interest. And in the end, there’s almost (stress almost) a justification revealed for the existence of the railsea. I really liked it.

And That’s All, Folks!

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