There’s so much out there about the “Decline and Fall” of the Roman Empire, it’s kind of refreshing to have a book about the very origins. Most of itThere’s so much out there about the “Decline and Fall” of the Roman Empire, it’s kind of refreshing to have a book about the very origins. Most of it isn’t new to me, though the boundaries between fact and imperial fiction can be; I have a GCSE and an A Level in Classics, so I was aware of the foundation myths of Rome, the rape of the Sabine Women, the seven kings, etc. It was nice to get more context for that, to know more about the actual grounding in fact — and to learn about Rome as a Republic, before the emperors, and to what extent it was ever democratic.
And of course, instead of focusing on why the Roman Empire fell, Beard focuses here on why it became great (while never glossing over the defeats and setbacks they suffered, which people can be prone to do). It was a hugely successful empire, beginning even before it was an empire, and Beard goes into a great deal of detail on why, how, who. Sometimes the details might be overwhelming, if you’re not that interested; it’s hard for me to judge, since I am interested.
The layout of the book is perhaps not intuitive, and people will wonder why Beard stops at Caracalla, when there was still life in the Roman Empire. But really, Beard isn’t writing just about the Empire, but about the Roman people, and what Rome meant to the world. What it still means; there are things we can learn even now about getting along. (Like absorbing each others’ religious beliefs, self-governance, becoming a citizen of the wider world as well as of our own countries…) Beard chooses to examine how Rome grew, how it became an empire; she stops before the decline, at the moment when Roman citizenship spreads across the empire.
Which is not to say that Beard thinks or states that the Romans were amazing or unproblematic or anything like that. There’s plenty of examination of the downsides and the faultlines; it’s just that Beard chooses to approach it differently to the typical post-Gibbon understanding, and is more interested in why it worked for so long than how it failed in the end....more
I think, the first time I read this, I may have observed that it’s beginning to push the bounds of credulity that Isabella (and dragons) should get taI think, the first time I read this, I may have observed that it’s beginning to push the bounds of credulity that Isabella (and dragons) should get tangled up in so much politics. I can’t say I actually noticed that, this time — it seems natural, when you just read the books straight through like this, because Isabella is willing to go anywhere and do just about anything for dragons. And of course, that means she’s in the least appropriate places for someone of her background (at least as far as her peers are concerned), and so of course she stumbles into things.
Besides, it’s Isabella. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t see her blundering into a plot or intrigue.
The story of Isabella’s time on the Basilisk is a lot of fun; the first half of the book is lighter, since it’s more travelogue-ish, until the point where the Basilisk is nearly wrecked and they have to go ashore. That opens up the world of the villagers they have to interact with, and involves a rather neat plot with a sort of third gender concept — on this island, those who are “dragon-spirited” have different social rules, and Isabella has to “marry” an island woman to calm down their fears about what she might do. Heal’li, the woman who helps her and guides her, is a pretty awesome character, and honestly I could do with a ton more of her. (And some note on whether “she” is indeed her preferred pronoun, or if, like Isabella, she’s bowed to necessity and allowed herself to be treated as female when she does in fact identify as male. I suspect not, given the way she embraces femininity, but it’s awkward to tell from Isabella’s point of view.)
And of course, Basilisk introduces new characters like Aekinitos (the “mad” captain, whose similarities to Isabella could have been used to good effect, though he was mostly in the background), Suhail the archaeologist, and even a rather more grown-up Jake (who immediately decides to become a ship’s boy, of course). I do feel the lack of Natalie, in this book; Abby isn’t much of a replacement, since she’s mostly there to keep an eye on Jake, both for Isabella’s sake and the sake of the plot.
I could probably go on for hours about all the things I love about this series — the societies, the natural history, the more general science, Tom Wilker, the enthusiasms of Suhail and Isabella — their sheer joy in what they do — the different dragons, the theories… the way that Isabella’s academic career unfolds: with some success, but by stages, as she makes a way for herself in a path barred for most women, and brings other women with her.
Don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t tried these books yet. There’s only one more to come after Labyrinth of Drakes (the fourth book), so it’s not going to be an epic series — and in fact, it reads all too quickly. I want more Isabella!
I “had” to reread this in preparation for the new book, but it was (of course) absolutely no hardship. I got into it right away, this time; before, itI “had” to reread this in preparation for the new book, but it was (of course) absolutely no hardship. I got into it right away, this time; before, it’d been a while since I read the first book, and I had to adjust a bit and remind myself of who everyone was. This time, it was all fresh enough to plunge right in, and it doesn’t disappoint. Brennan handles Isabella so well: we get to see all aspects of her life, like her relationship with her son (realistically painful, given the death of his father before he was born), her feelings about the religious/social stuff she has to bow to, her relationship with her family, and her attempts to make headway in the world of scholarship.
I was surprised when Marie Brennan mentioned that Tom Wilker was an incidental character who she didn’t expect to spend so much time with. For me, the books would be very different without Tom sharing Isabella’s dangers and trials. I have to confess that at one point I rather hoped he would be Lord Trent, though actually I do enjoy the intellectual friendship between them, and their support of each other without ever (well, almost ever) letting the fact that she’s a woman and he’s a man get in the way. People seem to find male-female friendship hard enough to grasp in today’s world, let alone a pseudo-Victorian one.
Also, yay for casual representation: Natalie Oscott does not, of course, have the words for it, but she’s asexual (not sex-averse, just it doesn’t drive her).
If you don’t love Isabella, I don’t know what to do with you. She’s resourceful, clever, but flawed as well, and her “deranged practicality” is exactly that, and if you weren’t reading her memoirs you’d be sure that she’d get herself killed that way. (Unless, of course, they do, and someone is reconstructing her memoirs from her notebooks, using her voice… It seems unlikely, but I’m suspicious-minded.)
One thing I would love to know: does Marie Brennan see Tom Wilker’s Niddey origins as having a direct analogue in our world? I’ve been picturing him as Welsh since, on one occasion when it said his accent was pronounced, he used a rather Welsh phrasing.
I was dying for this book ever since I finished Voyage of the Basilisk, and I made sure to get hold of it the very first chance I got, and reread theI was dying for this book ever since I finished Voyage of the Basilisk, and I made sure to get hold of it the very first chance I got, and reread the other books in preparation. I’ve loved this series more and more with each book, and this one is no exception: there’s so much awesome stuff — more biology, more anthropology, more archaeology, more Isabella, and of course, more politics. It’s lovely to follow Isabella and Tom and see them finally getting the recognition they deserve, even if they still have bullshit to navigate as well.
For those following the series, this is so satisfying: we get the solutions to various riddles about dragons, and we also get developments in Isabella’s personal life. If you’ve been wanting to know how she becomes Lady Trent, or who her second husband is — well, here you finally find out.
The only disappointments are not seeing much of Natalie or Jake, in my view. I love the way Isabella supports and promotes other women, and I want more of it, and Natalie was such a big part of how that got started. And she’s asexual and an engineer and just… gimme more! Gimme more of all of them. But I do adore how much we get of Tom Wilker and how much he’s developed: how he’s come to trust Isabella and support her, and how he’s not going anywhere without her as his partner. I really, really love that aspect; the way they stick together, and use their respective strengths for the other’s benefit.
And if you were wondering, yes: we see more of Suhail. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since this book is set in Akhia, and Suhail was Akhian — that detail was, of course, no coincidence. And Suhail gets his Howard Carter-esque “wonderful things” moment, which is also a delight....more
I should probably have written a review the minute I finished this one, but I felt like I needed time to let things settle, and then life took over. FI should probably have written a review the minute I finished this one, but I felt like I needed time to let things settle, and then life took over. For me, it was a really satisfying read, from the plot and setting to the diversity of characters, and it seemed like the perfect length too. Often I want more from novellas, but to me this told the story it had to tell and stopped — with plenty left to think about and wonder about, but not in an unsatisfying way.
My one issue is that there’s one scene that makes the mystery part absolutely obvious: I don’t know if it’s just the way I think, but that was disappointing, because the characters apparently took no notice and then a little while after, there was the actual reveal.
Still, to me the setting — even just the idea — is the central thing: what happens when the story is over, and fairyland spits you back out? I worried about it when I read Cat Valente’s last Fairyland book: how can you go back to normal after that? Wouldn’t normal life be a huge anticlimax — or even just completely baffling? And Every Heart A Doorway deals with that, and with all the different ways people might leave their fairyland, and how they might feel about it. There’s a gorgeously painful part where one of the returnees was trans, and when that was revealed, their world rejected them. And then there’s the way the various worlds fall somewhere on a spectrum between logic and nonsense; the fact that Nancy is (like me) asexual and how that affects her relationships with people; the different ways everyone relates to each other, despite a common background…
Overall, I found it really satisfying, and it emphasised how very much I need to get round to reading more of Seanan McGuire’s work.
Wolfsbane Winter is mostly a reasonably unremarkable fantastical love story, with some hints that this world is one we should be recognising. Not beinWolfsbane Winter is mostly a reasonably unremarkable fantastical love story, with some hints that this world is one we should be recognising. Not being great on the geography of the US, I only got some of the most obvious ones, like “Ellaye”, but I think there’s others for the more discerning among us. And then, of course, there’s the fact that this unremarkable fantastical love story is remarkable because of one major thing: both protagonists are women.
If you’re looking for relatively traditional fantasy without the crappy gender roles and homophobia, tahdah, you’ve found it! Women are capable soldiers and scouts, in this world, and are mostly allowed to do it. I think I remember some commentary from some characters that was less happy about it, and maybe some gendered insults, but it’s relatively free of that. The character arcs are fairly traditional too: from a damaged, traumatised child to one who can accept love, or from being broken down by a strange new ability to slowly coming to terms with it… It all feels very traditional, except minus the inevitable Guy Getting The Girl (and there are no kitchen boys who become kings, either, if you want to be really pedantic).
Given that fantasy is relatively devoid of non-straight love stories of any type, it was kind of charming to have a traditional one like this to read. If you’re looking for something groundbreaking, this isn’t it, except that it portrays a world a little more broad-minded than your average medieval fantasy novel. (Which this isn’t quite, see also “Ellaye”, but it feels it.) But it is fun.
I got a surprising amount of the way into this when I realised that I really couldn’t care less, because it spends so much time looping round itself,I got a surprising amount of the way into this when I realised that I really couldn’t care less, because it spends so much time looping round itself, I was too busy trying to figure out what some of the sentences even meant. I returned the copy I had to the library, so I can’t quote one, but there were plenty of sections where I felt that the point was not to get across a point, but to be flowery and pretentious. Eh. I kept waiting for the “terrifying thriller” parts to kick in; the brilliant new technology described in the summary and whatever would make the book stand out.
A third of the way in, I was still waiting, and meanwhile I was hanging around with characters who seemed opaque, pointless, uncaring and not worth caring about. There’s a line or two here and there that does work — the concept of falling in love, first, with the world a person inhabits, the things they surround themselves with, and then with the person. Or not. But, eh. Not interested in simply contemptible characters, and I didn’t feel pity or interest or anything else for them.
I’ve always heard amazing things about Tim Powers’ work, but I’ve tried The Stress of Her Regard before, and didn’t really get on with it. I didn’t doI’ve always heard amazing things about Tim Powers’ work, but I’ve tried The Stress of Her Regard before, and didn’t really get on with it. I didn’t do much better this time, although I persisted and read the whole thing. I feel like if I knew the life stories of Byron, Shelley, Polidori and Keats, I’d understand exactly what was going on better. It spends so much time on those characters, who from my point of view act erratically and often unpleasantly. (Dead child marionette. I won’t say more, just. Yeah.)
For the most part, it feels more horror than fantasy, albeit a very literary sort; that creeping disquiet, at times replaced by utter grotesqueness, and yet sometimes also laced with pity. It’s essentially about addiction, in a way, which makes it frustrating — the characters are always backsliding, always feeling that once more won’t hurt. Of course, it does.
Most of the characters are pretty unpleasant, too. There’s not much to just like about them — and the female characters are mostly hysterical, ineffectual, or killed.
I’d chalk it up to just not “getting it”, but actually, I don’t see what people like about it at all. I’m glad I’ve read it; now it’s out of the way!