Review – The Telling

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By Ursula K. Le Guin

Published: 2000 (Harcourt)

Score: 7/10

 

Okay, confession time; I have never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before. When I heard a review of The Telling and found myself intrigued, it seemed like a good place to start. I know that’s an odd thing to say about the ninth book in a series, but I was assured that it could be read as a standalone book. In hindsight, some background on the Hanish culture may have made it slightly easier to get into this book, but I never got to a point where I didn’t understand what was going on.

The Telling is about a planet called Aka, where the local religious beliefs are outlawed by a totalitarian, technology-worshipping state. Sort of a parallel to the Cultural Revolution of China, where the Communist government suppressed the Taoist beliefs. Interestingly we see this world through the eyes of Sutty; a young woman of Indian descent who grew up on an Earth taken over by a cruel theocracy. The comparison between the two societies; a theocracy destroying opposing ideas and making life hell for those who didn’t agree with it, and an ideologically driven non-religious state destroying opposing ideas and making life hell for those who didn’t agree with it, was interesting. A poignant reminder that it isn’t any particular ideology that threatens history, information, and freethought, but rather dogma and fanaticism. Something that is important for us to keep in mind today more than ever.

I could tell from the start that Le Guin is a great writer. The description of Sutty’s life on Earth at the start was beautifully immersive, and throughout the book Aka feels like a real world, and the Telling feels like a real way of life. Sutty was also a great character, and a great narrator. After leaving Earth, she becomes an Observer; someone whose job it is to learn and the culture of a new planet. Given the contrast between Aka and the Earth she grew up on, this is sometimes an uncomfortable position for her to be in. We also get to see a lot of Sutty’s life on Earth, either through flashbacks or her telling her own story. I liked reading about Sutty’s childhood with her aunt and uncle, and also the scenes with Sutty and her girlfriend Pao.

Unfortunately, I found Sutty to be the only memorable character. Other characters didn’t get the development needed, which was especially problematic during the middle of the book, where lots of new characters with similar sounding names were introduced at once.

In fact, the middle of the book was very slow and boring, as we pretty much just get pages and pages of how The Telling works. As well as being slow, the fact that Sutty could find so many people who practiced the old ways so easily made the conflict between the corporation-state and the ‘maz’ who keep the old ways alive seem non-existent. Even near the end of the book, when the heroes are presented with a threat to their secrecy, the problem ends up resolving itself.

The Telling is a good exploration of ideas. It contains a beautiful world, that explores a lot of interesting ideas about language and culture. It’s a chilling look at the dangers of trying to erase the past; no matter what the motivation for doing so might be. This story is a love letter to history and books and freedom of thought. Unfortunately, it was sorely lacking in plot and action. As much as I loved some parts of this book, there were also parts I found really boring. As interesting as the ideas in this book were, it probably wasn’t the best introduction to Le Guin.

~ Lauren

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Review – Ghost Talkers

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By Mary Robinette Kowal

Published 16th August 2016 (Tor Books)

Score: 9/10

 

My father was a soldier, and war documentaries and war movies have always been something we’ve bonded over. I wouldn’t call myself a war buff, but I am quite partial to stories set during the world wars. Despite this background, I have never come across a story quite like Ghost Talkers. The description got me excited as soon as I read it; what if we lived in a world where Spiritualism was real? You know, the ghost and medium and séance stuff that was popular at the time of WWI. Why, the military would use it of course. Ghosts reporting to mediums from the front lines? What a great way to gain intelligence about the enemy’s movements.

So, Ghost Talkers has a unique, interesting idea that hooked me to the story right away. But we know that it takes more than a good idea to make a good novel. I am pleased to report that Ghost Talkers follows through, introducing us to wonderful characters, giving us a perspective of WWI that we don’t often see, and taking us on a thrilling, impossible-to-put-down plot.

The story follows Ginger Stuyvecant, an American medium working for the British Spirit Corps, who spends her days meeting the recent causalities of war and taking their final reports. She is engaged to Ben Harford, a British Intelligence Officer. Between them, they discover that a traitor is feeding the Germans information about the Spirit Corps, and that the mediums are in danger. There are few people they can trust, forcing Ginger to go to the front to uncover the truth.

We end up with a novel that is part spy thriller, part romance, and part fantasy. And all the parts work. The workings of the spirit corps are believable, and presented as somewhat scientific. The relationship between Ben and Ginger felt real, and beautiful. The characterisation in general was on point. I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of the supporting characters, but most got moments to shine, and some I grew quite attached to.

The depiction of war was not as brutal as I’m used to, but I feel it had the right amount of blood and gore for this story. Ghost Talkers is also interesting in that it shows the Great War from a woman’s perspective. For the past 100 years, we have celebrated the bravery of the men on the frontlines. Rightfully so; life in the trenchers was horrific. The constant shelling was enough to drive people crazy, and the courage needed to go over the top into the face of machine gun fire is unimaginable. What we often forget about are the women who were right in the thick of the war as nurses, ambulance drivers, doctors and motorcycle dispatch riders. A lot of the mediums (who are mostly women) experience a form of shell shock from having to relieve the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. In an afterward to the book, Kowal mentions that a lot of what the mediums suffer through was based off the experiences of female ambulance drivers, who were right there in the battlefield and often experienced PTSD.

Ginger’s point of view also allows us to explore the institutional sexism and racism present in turn of the century British culture. It was mostly explored well, though I feel at times I was being slammed over the head with the message. I do feel that Ginger might have been a little bit too 21st Century in expressing her views, which, I know is a strange critisism to make after what I said about the depiction of women in Bastion Station, but it didn’t really gel with the 1916 setting. However, I do like that she is a character with strong convictions who is not afraid to voice them.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the romance part of this story. I don’t really want to say much about it, for potential spoiler reasons, but if you are put off by the idea of a romance story, rest assured; everything is all good.

I’ve been disappointed before by picking up books with awesome ideas, that then turn out to not have enough story to support the idea. This is not one of those cases. Ghost Talkers is a wonderful ghost-spy-mystery-war-romance story, that I have no qualms recommending to anyone. Even if you think ghost or romance or war might not be your thing.

 

~Lauren