September was a busy month! A decent blend of fiction and poetry as I tried to clear my currently reading shelf for Black History Month!
Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb [4/5 stars]
Fool’s Errand is a pleasant return to form after the bloated final book in the Farseer Trilogy, Assassin’s Quest. I appreciate the leaner, more focused narrative, although it is not without its flaws. It’s been 15 years since the last book and Fitz and Nighteyes are older now, living a peripheral life away from other people a life of his choosing—or so he thinks. It seems destiny has not left this ageing assassin yet and he is pulled into on a new quest.
That’s all I’ll say plotwise. Nothing related to plot really happens for about 200 pages. Not all of it’s bad, though because we’re re-entering the world after what would some years for people—The Liveship Traders were published between the two Fitz series—so reminders of the nature of the world is welcome. Unfortunately it has the usual pacing problems as the previous books with a repetitive recapping of previous events (as in recapping events already recapped 50 pages ago kind of repetitive). But again, as usual, once it gets moving, it rarely stops. It’s great to see characters and familiar locales we’ve spent time away from change alongside the new. The narrative is suitably epic, dangerous, and heartbreaking: all we come to expect from a Robin Hobb book.
The new world order that Hobb has carefully laid out is inviting and not more than once have I thought about it. I look forward to sinking my teeth into the rest.
Another Country by James Baldwin [4/5 stars]
This book seethes with anger and hatred. Violence lines every scene and they manifest between men and women, black and white people, with homosexuality … It actually made it hard to get through. But if there is one thing about Baldwin I know is that violence, hatred, and anger are part of life.
Few would know that better than a queer black man growing up in early 20th Century America. There is no American ideals to believe for his life and it is reflected on the page. I imagine he is presenting a world that he was very familiar with, a violent, racist, misogynistic, deeply cynical world. This a nakedly unforgiving atmosphere that tinges every scene and it’s interesting to invert the common idea of the brilliance of love with the destructive elements of love and how people misunderstand—even weaponise it.
While the prose is gorgeous, the characters well-drawn, this darkness is wearying. So much hatred and self-loathing are in these pages but there are some really serious meditations of race relations that are still poignant today. I’m consistently blown away by how ahead of his time Baldwin was. Or perhaps we’re just behind?
Poems: 1955 – 1987 by Roy Fisher [4/5 stars]
Roy Fisher is all at once a wry, humorous observer, intimate yet detached, and a little strange. But in the best way. The poems here range from short pieces to prose poetry which has very surrealist imagery.
Perhaps a lesser known poet there is something quite unique and enjoyable about his style. At least to my untrained poetical eyes. My favourite set of poems was his first collected pamphlet City which has lots of observational elements and meditations of what ostensibly was Birmingham, where he spent a lot of his early life. Incidentally, he did not like this pamphlet and wanted to move away from it. The seeds of his later work are clearly planted there and while stylistically Fisher improved, his later stuff is a bit more obtuse, which is part of why I feel conceptually as a whole City is my favourite in this collection (although he was dealing with a topic that is specific to my current interests). Other favourites were his poems about poems and poetry, and the fan letter poems.
I almost stumbled on Fisher by chance and I’m glad I did. Not recommended for someone looking into get into poetry, I don’t think. There’s much I didn’t “get” which invites revisiting but I want to broaden my poetic palette more first.
The Colossus by Sylvia Plath [4/5 stars]
The Colossus would seem ready-made to be a poet’s easy pick for something that inspired them. Unfortunately living in the shadow of the much-loved Ariel, it’s not too difficult to see why Plath was well-regarded. While sometimes inscrutable, bundling meaning into dense and unfamiliar synonyms, her imagery has a heft to it that leaves a mark long after reading. She guides you along the page and gives vivid, three-dimensional description. Probably my favourite was the elegant finale, “Poem for a Birthday”, which inspired some of my own poetry.
This demands revisiting and I hope to own a copy in the future.
A Time of Dread by John Gwynne [3.75/5 stars]
Thank you Tor for giving me a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
There’s a lot of good going for this book that is unfortunately hampered by some uneven writing, which is surprising given this is Gwynne’s fifth overall novel. At points it reads like a debut. But! The good stuff: it has a good cast, a quite nice world, and focused narrative.
The backdrop of A Time of Dread is an ongoing conflict between an angelic race, the Ben-Elim, who are allied with humans and their demonic counterparts, the Kadoshim, who are beginning to spread their influence anew after being underground for the better part of one hundred years.
Told through four perspectives, the story moves across various parts of a landmass called the Banished Lands. The voices were varied enough but I was most engaged with Drem’s and Sig’s stories, in that order. Bleda’s was okay but he was under-served in the wider narrative and sort of disappeared mid-book, which is a shame since he’s got a good story. Riv’s voice was quite inconsistent and her decisions sometimes were infuriating. I think part of that was intentional, though.
The worldbuilding was quite spare as well. Not a lot of ground was covered but in terms of history and setting, it was mostly related to the previous series and recapping the events of that more than anything. I can tell there’s a lot more interesting world but Gwynne hasn’t built it out yet. Again, I do appreciate keeping the POV count down. It helped the narrative stay focused and definitely helped the speedier pace in the latter half, especially as the disparate POVs start to intersect.
The plot is quite compelling and has some pretty decent twists but it’s a slow-burn for such a small book (by fantasy standards) so that’s part of the reason why it can’t achieve greater marks. What is there had me slapping my mouth a few times, with a few raised eyebrows. The cast is solid and enjoyable, not overly complex but interesting enough.
Also, the writing! It was strangely uneven. In parts, it was quite nicely descriptive and economical, immersing you in the scenes and the characters, and in other places it was like Writing 101 (“Riv felt angry”, “Drem felt cold”). It was often enough to draw me out of the experience sometimes and soured some of the better scenes of the book.
The latter half is the best part, especially Sig and Drem’s parts, with Riv’s having a good number of twists but it was uneven because it happened in quick succession with not enough early set-up. I’m left with a lot of questions but I suppose it is a series so I’ll likely be returning. I think Gwynne can and will do better. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
A mixed, but ultimately very enjoyable, bag.
Bonus points for having a cast of characters in the front of the book. Honestly it helped keep track of the cast even if it wasn’t A Song of Ice and Fire large. It’s not necessary but it’s a nice thing more fantasy books should adopt, especially with larger narrative. (Looking to you, Brandon Sanderson!)