Review: Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

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Lovely but far too short, Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of an old tale by the same name, which tells the story of a poet and harper who is by the Queen of Elfland to serve her for seven years and returns being unable to tell a lie.

What songs do you sing to them in Elfland? There, where all the songs are true, and all stories history…I have seen lovers walking in those glades, with gentle hands and shining faces, their feet light upon the grass, where little flowers shone in the shadows as though the lovers trod the starry firmament. And some I almost recognized: Niamh of the Shining Hair with Irish Oisian; Fair Aucassin with his gentle Nicolette; and two kingly men with their arms around one graceful, merry queen…other faces, other figures strangely arrayed, each one with their own story, no doubt, and now at peace, with all stories done.

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Review: Hard to Be a God by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

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This book started well enough. The prose was quite good, with nice descriptions of scenery, the issues raised were interesting. We follow Rumata, an observer from future utopian Earth, sent to a medieval world with a couple others under a strict rule of non-interference (no killing, etc), but secretly trying to help speed up their development.

It’s fairly kitchen sink, some sci-fi tech, some medieval swashbuckling, bit of everything. The conflict arises when regime in Arkanar start killing intellectuals. Rumata knows this is wrong, yet is plagued by doubts – he is not allowed to kill and not convinced it would solve the problem.

Persecute bookworms all you like, prohibit science, and destroy art, but sooner or later you’ll be forced to think better of it, and with much gnashing of teeth open the way for everything that is so hated by power-hungry dullards and blockheads.

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Review: A Star-Reckoner’s Lot and An Ill-Fated Sky by Darrell Drake (A Star-Reckoner’s Legacy #1 and #2)

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Well, this was a mixed bag.

Positives first: I loved the setting. Sasanian Iran is something I haven’t seen used before and it seems well-researched – and interesting enough that I want to do some research of my own. Really, if you want me to get interested in a place or topic, just include it in a fantasy book. As far as the characters go, Waray the half-div stole the show completely. She’s blood-thirsty and a bit crazy and a prankster and šo-fun to read about. The highlight of the book for sure. Oh, and I almost forgot: the creative insults and the stupid puns. A nice addition if you’re into that.

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Review: Illusion by Paula Volsky

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Even though it’s a well-written book, I have found it very hard to enjoy. So I apologise if this comes across as less of a review and more of a vent – it’s been a long, long time since I read a book as frustrating and full of pet peeves as this. In general, I’d probably still recommend it, but not without a massive warning.

The blurb and recommendations seemed to promise many things I wanted. A revolution plot! Lower classes rising against their masters! Riches to rags! Character development! Some vague rumours about a guilliotine-like character! I was looking forward to it a lot. It seemed like I’d love it and fuck, I wanted so badto love it. Revolutionary fantasy is seriously lacking. But even a good concept can’t always save a book.

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Review: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

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I want to shove this book at everyone I know.

Can I find the right words? I can tell about how I shot. But about how I wept, I can’t. That will be left untold. I know one thing: in war a human being becomes frightening and incomprehensible. How can one understand him? You’re a writer. Think up something yourself. Something beautiful. Without lice and filth, without vomit…Without the smell of vodka and blood…Not so frightening as life…

This is a collection of accounts of Russian women who went through WWII – soldiers of all kinds, partisan fighters, and medical workers mostly, but also washerwomen, bakers, mechanics, civilians…both about the war and what happened afterwards. All of them women whose stories were forgotten; silenced or forced to keep to a certain, more traditional narrative of glory. It’s hardly a traditional war book. No listings of great battles, victories, losses. Only very human, personal stories from the perspective of those who did not get to tell them until then.

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Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (Leningrad Diptych #1)

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I have always been a sucker for folklore-inspired books – such as Uprooted, such as The Bear and the NightingaleThe ScarThe Ill-Made MuteIn the Forests of Serre…and now Deathless.

No one is now what they were before the war. There’s no way getting any of it back.

But while the other books play the elements relatively straight, only expanding them at need, this is a dark, brutal deconstruction; like, yet unlike the other retellings. The worldbuilding is excellent. Instead of the middle ages it is set roughly during the both World Wars, so it’s hardly a surprise. Half historical fiction, half mythology, there are rifle imps and communist house spirits, soldier factories, battles from history that are really fought between Life and Death, and a protagonist that embraces the darkness rather than fighting it. The characters are not particularily deep, but I felt like they don’t really have to be in retellings, if the atmosphere and the language and the symbolism are strong enough to carry it.

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