Review – The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales

The Fox’s Tower and Other Tales25733384

By Yoon Ha Lee

Published June 2015

Score: 9.5/10

 

I purchased this collection after I first read Ninefox Gambit and then forgot about it. The Fox’s Tower is a collection of Yoon Ha Lee’s fairytale-inspired flash fiction, which is not my usual thing, but I love Yoon Ha Lee’s writing so much I felt compelled to give it a go and damn I am glad I did.

Flash fiction (stories around 1000 words long) is hit or miss with me. Some stories pack a big hit in a little package, others I just don’t get or wish there was more to them. This collection also had some misses, but even stories I didn’t get, I still enjoyed, because Lee is an absolute master of the format. Every word is carefully chosen for vibrant imagery, and some stories feel more like poems. Yoon Ha Lee is an amazing writer, and this collection shows off his skill.

The stories all had a fairytale/East Asian folklore feel to them, but I didn’t recognise any as retellings. Not that that is saying much, since I grew up with European fairytales. There were quite a few fox stories, as the name suggests, and as far as I know they keep to the mythology of the magic trickster fox. Most of the stories are also written as fables, and makes you think about their meaning. Each story has a lot going for it: message, meaning, worldbuilding and characters, and it’s amazing that everything fits and works together so well in such little stories.

Some stand out stories for me include The Stone-Hearted Soldier, The School of the Empty Book, The Fox’s Forest, The Youngest Fox, and The Firziak Mountains, even though I don’t drink tea. Seeing that little list I just made, I can think of many other stories that deserve praise, but then I may as well list nearly all of them. These stories contain a lot of magic, and a lot of wonder. They also contain mostly female characters, including women as soldiers and rulers. There are also many queer couples and characters who are either non-binary or whose gender isn’t revealed in this collection, which was nice to see.

My biggest complaint about this collection is that it does not come as a physical book. This collection would be perfect in a nice hardcover book that can be picked up and flicked through at any time. I got the next best thing by getting this collection on my kindle, but most of these stories can be viewed for free here on Yoon Ha Lee’s website, along with more of his flash fiction.

Whilst I’m on the topic of Yoon Ha Lee, I have just found out that the final book in his Machineries of Empire now has a title: The Revenant Gun. Every source I’ve found seems to indicate it’ll be out around June next year. I cannot wait to get back into that world.

 

~ Lauren

 

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Review – Sleeping Beauties

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By Stephen King and Owen King

Published September 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 8.5/10

 

Oh wow, this was a huge book. 700 pages, but I listened to it as an audiobook, so nearly 24 hours of narration there. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised. After all, it’s a Stephen King book; it is going to be a huge doorstopper. But this isn’t just a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is a collaboration between King and his son Owen, with the idea being Owen King’s. The two authors wrote the book in such a way that you can’t really tell which parts come from who, but the result is a book that is very Stephen King, but also a bit different to his usual stories.

Sleeping Beauties is a story about what would happen to our world if all the women were gone. A suspected virus wraps a cocoon around any woman that falls asleep, and she can no longer wake up. This has some huge consequences on the world, and allows some interesting discussions about some of the unfairness the world dishes out to women (a topic which I think the Kings handled very well) and the different ways men and women act (which I think had a few issues.) The Kings do a great job at showing us the rapid changes to the world from many viewpoints, and in getting us into the heads of a range of characters. Having over 70 named characters did make things a bit confusing at times, but I feel I got a very good understanding of the most important characters. Not only that, but everyone was very sympathetic, even one of the main “villains” came across as a man who loved his daughter and wanted to do the right thing despite his anger issues.

Well, maybe not everyone was sympathetic. Some characters are just arseholes. Bonus points to this book for getting me to hate Don Peters so much, while also making him feel like a real person. I’ve seen other reviews call some of the more antagonistic characters cardboard cutouts, but unfortunately a lot of the viewpoints expressed by such characters are all ones that get expressed in the real world.

One thing that bothered me was the idea put forward by this book that men are inherently violent whilst women could theoretically build up a much more peaceful, fairer society. Aggressive, unreasonable or cruel women are seen as an exception, rather than the norm. It surprises me that the man who wrote Carrie can put forth such a vision without more deconstruction. True, there is some biological truth to the fact that males tend to be more aggressive, but these differences are exaggerated in Sleeping Beauties.

At one point a man in a bar preaches to the drinkers that women serve the same function in society as boys employed by coal companies in days gone by to pour water over the machines: they stop everything from catching fire and becoming destructive. An argument for this viewpoint is that women don’t start wars. My first thought was ‘What about Catherine the Great?’, but the point was never really argued against in universe. My problem with this reasoning isn’t just that it’s inaccurate, but that it assumes that women have had equal opportunity to become warmongers and tyrants. Or heroes for that matter. Or that history has remembered the contributions of women as well as those of men. Oh, and there is also the problematic suggestion that without women men would just be violent monsters shooting everything and everyone in their path.

But on the other hand…,

Everything the characters do can be explained in universe by factors other than ‘no women so now we go crazy’ or ‘no men so now we’re free’. As the women fall asleep, the men are left in a world where basic infrastructure is falling apart due to the lack of half the population. They must deal with this while fearing for the safety of their lost loved ones and facing an uncertain future. In this context, the aggression we see is to be expected. Meanwhile the women who become isolated from the men (don’t really want to explain this, kinda spoilery) have their small-town community connections, lack of outside enemies, and are able to pull together to rebuild like so many other communities do in the face of disaster. With all these elements, it is quite reasonable to expect them to act more rationally and kinder. The World of Men is falling apart, whilst the World of Women requires rebuilding and co-operation for survival. If the two worlds were not segregated by gender, I could see then both going down similar paths anyway. Maybe the reason why none of the characters bring up these factors is because in their world (and in ours), the perceived division between the sexes is such a huge thing that the search for answers stops there, rather than taking a more nuanced look at human nature and circumstances.

I’ll be thinking about this book and its message for a while. Whilst the aforementioned small issues exist, over all Sleeping Beauties is a call for equality, that gets a lot of the issues women do face. The message isn’t overbearing either; this is simply a good story, with characters that interested me and a plot that kept me invested for that whole 700 page trek. I never felt like it was dragging.

Despite how much I enjoyed this book, I felt annoyed that we never got any real answers to what caused the sleeping incident or why the small town in this setting was so special. That could just be me being accustomed to science fiction stories where everything makes sense. Asking for more explanation than what we got could be asking too much: after all, the reveal in Under the Dome wasn’t that satisfying.

It is also worth praising this book for the battle scene at the end. I’ve often read Stephen King books where the final battle was built up well, but then the battle itself fizzles out rather quick. Looking at you, Wolves of the Calla. That was not the case here. Maybe it’s because storming a fortified position is a longer process than a pitched battle, or maybe this is Owen King’s influence shining through. Either way, I was hooked through every process of the battle.

Now that I’ve typed that review, I just realised that it has been a long time since I read anything by Stephen King. I went back through my old blog posts, and the most recent King book was Doctor Sleep, all the way back in January of 2015. I think that has been my longest gap between Stephen King books. As for Own King, I have never read any of his work, and whilst I feel that he is the reason why this book was so much better than Doctor Sleep and other more recent King books, I probably won’t be reading any of his stuff. Read the blurb for Double Take and his short story collection, and just doesn’t seem like my thing.

I better finish this review before I get completely off topic. I liked this book a lot, and the narration on the audiobook was amazing.

 

~Lauren

 

 

 

Review – Provenance

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By Ann Leckie

Published September 2017 (Orbit)

Score: 9.5/10

 

I love the Imperial Radch trilogy. I love it so much, that when I heard that Ann Leckie was writing a new book set in the same universe I added it to my Goodreads shelf before I learnt anything else. Then back in June I got a sample book at Supanova that contained an excerpt from the first chapter. I liked what I read, but I also felt some doubts creeping in. This story is very different from the Imperial Radch series, and protagonist Ingray is very different to Breq. Also, they use regular pronouns. With a few Spivak pronouns thrown in.

As I read through Provenance though, it became apparent I had no reason to be disappointed. Yes, we have gone from military space opera to something a bit different, but it is still a very good story. I’ve seen other reviewers call Provenance a comedy of manners in space, and I agree with that label, even though I didn’t think about it whilst reading. All I thought about this book was that it was good science fiction driven by characters and worldbuilding.

We start off with Ingray on a space station, having just spent all her money to break a convicted thief out of prison to help her retrieve valuable stolen artefacts. Rather than going on a heist or quest type story, we instead see Ingray’s plans fall apart, and each new development change the game. There were a lot of things going on, but I never found it hard to keep track of the different agendas. Leckie also avoided the trap of having Ingray be a passive player as all these different things kept happening. Most of the action was out of Ingray’s control, but she never lacked agency. When she had an opportunity to do something, she did it.

Whilst Provenance is set in the Imperial Radch series, it is not set in the Radch itself. The aftermath of the events from Ancillary Mercy are in the backdrop of this story, and in a roundabout way have influenced it (No Ancillary Mercy, no Geck aliens in this story), but they are not what this story is about. I was a bit disappointed that what was happening in the Radch didn’t play a more prominent role, as I was looking forward to seeing how things worked out there. The good part about Provenance not being a direct continuation of the Imperial Radch series is that it stands alone. However, I would still recommend reading the Imperial Radch series first, as that’ll explain the universe better. Also, Provenance references the ending of Ancillary Mercy, so reading this book first will lead to a big spoiler.

The worldbuilding here continues the high standards set in the Imperial Radch trilogy. The people in this story feel like they have their own real cultures and histories. Ingray’s people, the Hwaens, have a fascination with relics and collectables called vestiges that drives a lot of the plot. Hwaen inheritance customs also play a huge role in the story. We are also introduced to an alien race called the Geck. The Geck ambassador’s dialog was well written; it was understandable, but still felt somewhat alien to me. Leckie has only given us the briefest glance into her universe, but she makes this fantastic universe feel very real and leaves us wanting more.

I also really enjoyed Ingray as a character. She differs from most S/F female protagonists I’ve come across in that whilst she is highly competent and resilient, she is also very feminine. She wears large fancy skirts and her hair is held up by multiple hairpins throughout the story, but she never feels like a princess/girly-girl stereotype. She does feel very human, with what I feel to be realistically strong reactions to events like finding dead bodies, having a gun pointed at her, or believing she may have thrown her future away. She also had a few confidence issues to work through. Something I can relate to.

I also found it interesting comparing Ingray to Breq from Imperial Radch. Breq wasn’t human, and one of the strengths of that trilogy was how inhuman Leckie made Breq feel. Ingray meanwhile is very much human, and her humanity makes it easy to root for her as the story unfolds.

I already knew that Ann Leckie was a master storyteller. Provenance just proves to me that I need to go and read everything I can by her.

~ Lauren