Ava and Avery are a bonded couple from Kaya, a land where ancient magic ensures that, once bonded, one cannot live without the other. So when Avery isAva and Avery are a bonded couple from Kaya, a land where ancient magic ensures that, once bonded, one cannot live without the other. So when Avery is killed while on a mission to assassinate the evil queen of Pirenti, the northern country with which they have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, Ava is expected to die as well. But she does not, she lives on, though with only half a soul. Vengeance guides her back to Pirenti where, two years later, disguised as a boy called Avery, she is caught by the second prince, Ambrose, and sentence to life on the prison island. But when their ship is wrecked in a storm, Ambrose and Ava must work together to survive. In the process, despite their vast differences, a friendship develops. That friendship soon grows into love, even with Ambrose believing Avery is a boy - when their secrets come out, can their new-found connection survive? Is it possible to love your enemy, or love at all without betraying the man who took half your soul with him into death?
I have several problems with this book. First off, Avery is marketed as 'adult fantasy' but I cannot in good conscience call it anything other than Young Adult, despite the 'adult themes' and excessively violent, often gruesome scenes that occur. It's in the adolescent tone, the way the characters speak, especially. It's not just that they - well, the main character, Ava/Avery, in particular - sound so immature, it's that words like "whatever" and "gross" belong more to badly written teen fanfiction than published adult fantasy. That might make me sound like a snob, but it's not that - you write a novel set in another world, a fantasy world, which has its own, decidedly foreign, cultures. You cannot then make your characters sound like cliches from Clueless and hope that your fantasy world be taken seriously. The culture that created such colloquialisms as 'whatever' is not part of this world, and the effect is incredibly jarring. My ability to suspend disbelief was too often hampered by such lazy writing.
The writing is also lazy in the world-building. This was perhaps the biggest flaw of the novel. The details of this world just never quite made sense, or weren't adequately explained. Geography, as well, was out of whack. Pirenti is a northern country perhaps geographically akin to Russia or Canada; in the north are the 'ice caps', which appear to be a permanent, year-round hostile environment. Yet, at the same latitude is the prison island, which is described as a jungle. How does that work? While we're on the prison isle, world-building gaffes abound within the secret 'village' of escapee Kayan prisoners - it's not the incredible cliffside dwellings carved out of marble that they've brought from a nearby quarry that I struggled with, believe it or not, but the fact that they have glass in their windows, luxurious apartments (even for unwanted guests) and eat things like cheese. This place is home to Kayans who, they say, escaped the Pirenti prison. No one knows they're there and they can't leave. They have no animals or livestock (so, no milk for cheese), and if they want to remain undetected they would have to be careful of the amount of noise they make (quarrying for rock with no tools?? or do they use their sole Warder's magic - it's never explained what these people are actually capable of) and of smoke, say from a kiln or other super hot oven? Where do they get their clothes from, the materials for everything? All highly unlikely.
Distances and timeframes were also liberally dispensed with when required by the author to maintain her swift pacing. It all reminded me of cheesy action movies, as if they were used as the model for many of the scenes - especially the fight scenes. Plot holes abound here, too, such as when Ava escapes from a dungeon, taking not the guard's sword but his bow and arrows! A dungeon guard, carrying bow and arrows?? In the highly militaristic and violent country of Pirenti, they would know better.
I could keep going, but I think you get the drift. Really, though, this is a character-driven romantic fantasy, so I should be discussing the characters. When she isn't talking like a rather lame contemporary western teenager, Ava is solidly drawn and has some charisma, as does Ambrose. The other two main characters here are Ambrose's older brother, Thorne, and his wife Roselyn. All four alternate in first person narrative voice, and this is handled quite deftly. Roselyn is a nicely distinctive character, and Thorne is clearly a different person from Ambrose. The problem for me lies in the way domestic violence is handled. While it's wrapped up in a broader theme of power and women's rights, and while the denouement ensures that Thorne's violence towards his wife is not rewarded by the author, Roselyn's quiet, steadfast and loving loyalty to Thorne remains a distinct problem. While one fictional character should not a message make, Roselyn's refusal to leave her husband or do anything but love him makes her a difficult character to respect. That said, the characters are the strength of this novel, that and the swift pacing.
Pirenti is a violent country, so the violence does have some context, but it was a bit excessive and rather unrealistic at times. (Also, marble stains something shocking - how do you have a "killing room" lined in marble and keep it spotless?) Not being afraid of spilling blood and tearing minor characters apart does not make for a more mature novel or more sophisticated ideas. Rather, it becomes too much and, then, too ludicrous. My ability to suspend disbelief - necessary in all fiction, television and film, to varying degrees, but especially in fantasy - was tested time and time again, and often failed under the weight of plotholes, inconsistencies, over-the-top violence and I have no idea what was going on with Ambrose at the end. The romance aspect fell completely flat there (plus, it had finally started to drag by then).
A disappointing foray into a newish Australian voice in fantasy fiction, for me. ...more
The last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (thThe last book I read in 2016 was easily one of the best. I had read a short review of this trilogy in the Review section of the Weekend Australian (the Review section is much less right-wing than the newspaper itself, perhaps because it's mighty difficult to marry conservative values with the confronting and questioning nature of art and literature) some months earlier, ordered this, the first, book, and then forgot all about it. While looking for something to take with me on a beach holiday after Christmas (we went to Byron Bay), I thought this might do the trick - and I was right. I suffer from terrible travel sickness on domestic flights (something to do with the lower altitude, air pressure and the inner ear??), and even though I had my ear plugs, music and was taking a tonne of Travel Calm, I still felt incredibly nauseous, breaking out in a cold sweat and feeling close to vomiting. Usually, I can't read a thing, nothing can take my mind off how awful I'm feeling and how much concentration it takes not to throw up (I'm not always successful). And yet, Ancillary Justice was up to the challenge - and won. What a fantastic book! It absolutely deserves the praise it received in the review I read, not to mention all three major Science Fiction awards: the Hugo, the Arthur C Clarke and the Nebula (2014).
It will be hard, though, to explain the set-up of this story, because it is beautifully original without being too complicated or esoteric (I'm currently having that problem with another book, Briohny Doyle's The Island Will Sink). The Radch empire is centuries old and extends across a vast reach of galaxy. Their massive starships are artificial intelligences that not only run, manage, control and monitor absolutely everything on board (there is zero privacy), but also serve as soldiers through their thousands of ancillaries. An ancillary was a human but is no more - their brains are empty things. After being kept in storage in the holds until needed, they are connected to the ship and the ship's consciousness is thus split into all these different bodies, alongside and within the ship itself. Think of it like a computer tracking through thousands of cameras, able to think different things at the same time. On the ship, the ancillaries are like servants, and they are divided into different levels to match the many floors of the ship. On colonised planets, they are soldiers, spies and servants.
Breq is an ancillary soldier on a mission, a mission of revenge. As a starship, the Justice of Toren, she was blown up. This one ancillary was given last-minute orders and escaped in a pod. Her quest is one which no sane human would attempt, for Breq is going after the ruler of the empire, Anaander Mianaai, who also uses ancillaries to the point that there is no 'original' Anaander Mianaai anymore. Not only that, but Justice of Toren, before being destroyed, had discovered a truth that no one else realises: there isn't just one Anaander Mianaai anymore, one consciousness embodied in many ancillaries, there are two - and they are at war with each other/itself. This split, Breq has worked out, began when Anaander Mianaai ordered a whole planet destroyed as punishment for an attempted assassination: her conscience split over the decision.
As awful as the demise of a whole planet is, it has also given Breq the form of her quest: while the incredible guns used in the attempt were seized - guns that evade detection - one slipped through. It is in pursuit of this one special gun that Breq now finds herself on an ice-bound planet.
There is so much to love and enjoy here, not least of all Breq's first-person voice. As an artificial intelligence, as the remainder of the Justice of Toren, she is clearly not human, but she is understandable, sympathetic and vastly interesting. She can be quite deadly at times, able to make quick calculations and deductions, and very strong - much stronger than she appears. This is another aspect of the world that is interesting: in the Radch culture, they do not distinguish between men and women, and use the female pronoun for everyone. The actual, biological gender of the people Breq meets is irrelevant to her, not important. But we learn that the ancillary who calls herself Breq is gendered female; others, we never know for sure. The Radch are not particularly evil, intimidating, cruel or vicious. They are, however, superior-minded, and like many worlds, have a very clear idea of what it is to be civilised, and who is to be considered 'civilised'.
Alongside the exciting space-adventure story lie these thought-provoking ideas, and such is Leckie's skill at character and world-building, this complex story is rendered entirely clear without being simplified. It was beautifully layered, the backstory - Breq's story - parcelled out at just the right time, with just the right amount of new information revealed, and by returning to past scenes and events now and again, our understanding is solidified and expanded upon. A wonderful, wonderful story cleverly told - this is going on the Favourites list!
(I just bought this, thinking I didn't have it, only to realise that I got a copy in 2012 - Europa editions. Completely different cover tricked me!! W(I just bought this, thinking I didn't have it, only to realise that I got a copy in 2012 - Europa editions. Completely different cover tricked me!! Whoops! Now I have 2 copies and I can't return the one I just bought because it got marked up in my bag, poo.)...more
In 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family's farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father - suffeIn 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family's farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father - suffering from dementia - living in a nursing home, and his wife and young son are back in Amsterdam with her own, dying father. Only Squid, the old farm hand, remains on the property, but Kip avoids him. He is here with a purpose: to find his brother Tommy, who disappeared when Kip was nine years old, and atone.
I am automatically drawn to books written in or about places, people and events in Tasmania, my home state. I love this island, it has a tight hold of my heart, and after many years away I was drawn back as surely as fate. It is a rich, diverse landscape, roughened by harsh histories, home to the Gothic of its British colonial heritage as much as it is to an ancient Indigenous legacy - I can well imagine that it is much like Briton itself, with its older history of Celts and Saxons and Druids. It is an island with a tangible sense of time and timelessness: a paradox that makes utter sense when you live here. And because so much of it is unmapped, unknowable and frankly downright eery, it is ripe for imaginative work in the British tradition (I am still waiting for an Indigenous-authored novel but I don't know of one, and being of British ancestry myself, any understanding I feel I have of their stories and relationship with the land is automatically tainted and an unwanted act of appropriation. Such is the fraught discourse we find ourselves enmeshed in here).
The Better Son is Queensland-born Johnson's second novel and her sense of place is vividly realised. The cave in the book, Kubla (after Coleridge's poem Kubla Kahn), is modelled on the nearby Marakoopa cave in the Karst National Park, though there is a cave called Kubla as well. Marakoopa was first discovered by two brothers, James and Harry Byard, who kept it a secret for several years until it was opened for tourism. There is another famous cave nearby, called King Solomon's Cave, which I visited on Boxing Day last year. It doesn't have the ginormous cathedral caves of Marakoopa but it is beautiful, splendid and amazing all the same. Johnson says that her novel is a "fictional fusion of the two ideas: one of the world's most incredible caves and two small boys" who keep its discovery a secret. The small town of Mole Creek in Tasmania's north - not far from where I grew up - is rich farming land, but it sits on porous limestone country where sinkholes can open up quite suddenly and randomly. Underneath, it is an extensive cave network millions of years old. The idea of disappearing into a sinkhole or getting lost in a cave system is an aspect of Tasmanian Gothic, itself part of Australian Gothic - think Picnic at Hanging Rock as a good example.
Kip's story begins in the summer of 1952, and it is one of the strengths of Johnson's writing that he and his family are so believable. Perhaps his father, Harold, verges on cliché, but as an archetype veteran of WWII as well as an angry farmer, he rings true. Kip's mother, Jess, is educated and loving and the only thing standing between Kip and the father who seems to hate him. His older brother Tommy, on the other hand, is beloved by Harold and can do no wrong. Still, the brothers are close, and the adventure of descending (by knotted rope) into a vast lightless cave and then exploring it is the highlight of Kip's summer. It ends in tragedy, though, when twelve-year-old Tommy decides to explore a small tunnel and is never seen again.
If the characters are tautly drawn, the landscape is represented as a slumbering, other-worldly entity, breathtakingly inhuman and utterly uncaring, yet with a presence both awe-inspiring and ominous.
They picked their way through a forest of stone. Stalagmites connected with the stalactites from the ceiling to form giant columns as tall as city buildings; others, the height of men, were like the frozen soldiers of some ancient army. Kip held his candle high above his head, but the darkness devoured the light. [p.36]
The boys name it Kubla, after the Coleridge poem their mother taught them, and the parallels between the poem and Kip's story are made clear throughout the novel. The depiction of the porous, fragile landscape holding its secrets close is used by Johnson as an analogy for the troubled family, an analogy that is both fitting and, at times, spelt out too often. Herein lies the overall weakness of Johnson's novel: it tells more than it shows. There is a distinct "accounting" style to the storytelling as it faithfully follows Kip, after the tragedy and into adulthood, but without the detail and scenes that made his childhood so engaging to read about. Kip is sent to boarding school, then he goes to university, then he studies insects, then he goes to the Netherlands for his Ph.D to work with saving the tulips, then he meets Isle and so on. This recounting of Kip's life is woven amongst a recounting of Jess and Squid, who become lovers until her death. It's a short novel; I actually think it would have been stronger if those later years were handled differently, perhaps with clearer, lengthier scenes and less telling. It felt rushed, those chapters, as if the author were just accounting for those lost years until she could get Kip back to Mole Creek.
The final scene only makes the previous years feel even more rushed: Kip's descent into Kubla and hunt for his brother's body is nicely drawn out and tempered. His psychological descent into childhood - which verges on insanity - feels true as well as tragic. It's an emotional journey through the dark caves with their hidden, breath-taking beauty, a journey that provides Kip, now fifty-nine, a chance to decide whether he will be forever formed by what happened fifty years ago, or if he will break free of his own guilt, the sense of responsibility that has shackled him for so long. Ultimately, it is Squid who saves him from himself and reminds Kip of his own nine-year-old son: the idea that life keeps going and you have a choice as to what kind of person you will be, and that your responsibilities change with time. Now, as a father himself, he has the opportunity to do a much better job of it than Harold did with him.
Squid is easily the best character here, though I did like Kip and Jess as well. My husband read this book at the same time (we have our own copies - we treat our books differently so it's best that way!) and Squid was his favourite character as well. Through Squid we get another perspective - he is a third-person focaliser for some chapters, providing us with greater insights and details after Kip leaves Tasmania. Squid is a 'salt of the earth' character, a quiet, patient, loving man who looks after the farmland just as tenderly as he cares for Jess after her diagnosis. He provides a more politically-charged glimpse into farming practices - spraying versus using plants and insects as natural insecticides (which to him is common sense, while Kip works so hard convincing people of its worth), and the damaging forestry and land-clearing practices still carried out in the state today. So it's easy to like Squid, as our philosophies seem to align.
The Better Son is a wonderful story that, for all it felt rushed in the telling and, at times, a bit obvious, shows the sickening damage that some parenting can have on children, with far-reaching repercussions. The secrets themselves, which poison Kip's soul, are only a side-effect of the family dynamics, yet Johnson is careful not to make Harold an inhuman villain. At its peak, it made me cry, and that cannot happen without an emotional connection to characters and a story that is believable and poignant. ...more