Doomsday Book

I am also calling it the Domesday Book because I would imagine that’s what you’d like to call it, you are so convinced something awful’s going to happen to me. I’m watching you in the observation area right now, telling poor Dr. Ahrens all the dreadful dangers of the 1300s. You needn’t bother. She’s already warned about time lag and every single mediaeval disease in gruesome detail, even though I’m supposed to be immune to all of them. And warned me about the prevalence of rape in the 1300s. And when I tell her I’ll be perfectly all right she doesn’t listen to me either. I will be perfectly all right, Mr. Dunworthy.

Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book is an incredible novel. Well-written, pacey, it’s relentless in driving the story forward while keeping the terror just in check. Almost from the start, Willis flings you into the world of academic experimental history at Oxford circa 2054.

It’s just before Christmas and Kivrin, a Medieval history student, is determined to time-travel back to the Middle Ages to experience life as it really was. The absence of the Department Head meant that she was able to convince the acting Head at Brasenose College, Gilchrist, to authorise her drop even though Dunworthy, her mentor at Balliol, warns her against the dangers of traveling so far back in time. For Gilchrist. trying to maximise his trajectory up the career ladder, is planning to send Kivrin back to 1320, before the plague crosses over to England. With so little real information about actual daily life in the Middle Ages, Kivrin spends every moment of her time preparing, learning all the relevant languages, medical information, daily customs so that she will blend in seamlessly. Dr. Mary Ahrens has also prepped her at the hospital, giving her all the necessary inoculations including against bubonic plague, and enhancing her immunity.

Amidst severe misgivings from both Dunworthy and Ahrens, Kivrin goes through and the others make preparations to pick her up 2 weeks later. But something goes wrong and Badri, the university’s best tech who supervised the drop, falls ill just as soon as he finds Dunworthy. And Oxford goes into lockdown as a mysterious pandemic brings down those involved in Kivrin’s drop, one after another. The net, which allows the time-travel, works in a paradox where nothing that will change the course of history can get through. But something unforeseen has happened and no one is sure where Kivrin is. So what exactly happened here, and will they be able to get Kivrin back?

Kivrin finds herself transported to the Middle Ages but nothing is as she expected. The net was supposed to drop her near the village of Skendgate, close to Oxford, and her aim is to record everything she finds there so that when she returns she can help Dr. Montoya with her archeological dig. But she isn’t sure whether the trail she has found is the Oxford-Bath Road and whether the smattering of dwellings she spies down the hill is actually Skendgate. But she is suddenly overcome with fatigue and before she knows it, she is ill and someone has come to rescue her, and she finds herself in a household filled with fourteenth century people, in all their unwashed, superstitious glory. And she can’t understand them, their pronunciation differing from the Middle English she was taught. While Kivrin fears she will spend Christmas ill in bed instead of completing her research, something worse comes along and people begin to drop like flies. She should have landed in 1320, 28 years before the plague arrives in Oxford. But something has gone wrong.

She has a fever, but no buboes, and she isn’t coughing or vomiting. Just the fever.

In Doomsday Book Willis has created a complex, chaotic and thrilling tale mixing futuristic technology with old-world academic squabbling and melds it to the horrors of medieval society faced with the onslaught of the bubonic plague. It is seamless and the terror relentless. There is just a wonderful mixture of drama, speculation and comedy from a futuristic but still identifiable Oxford to a more earthy fourteenth century guise. I love the bit where Dr. Ahrens asks Kivrin whether she would like her nose cauterised as

the smells of the fourteenth century could be completely incapacitating, that we’re simply not used to excrement and bad meat and decomposition in this day and age. I told her nausea would interfere significantly with her ability to function.

And as Oxford in 2054 quickly buckles into a chaotic epicentre of disease control, Dunworthy, hounded by his secretary and a group of stranded American bellringers, finds a helper in Colin, Dr. Ahrens’ grand nephew, who injects a festive cheer in the nightmare from which he may be unable to rescure Kivrin. Colin is such a great character with his interjections of ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘necrotic’ which makes it seem as though he’s crawled out of an E. Nesbit book. And Kivrin is a protagonist that Willis can be proud of, strong, intelligent, scared and yet fearless; a true seeker of knowledge, with Dunworthy and Dr. Ahrens making formidable allies. As both Kivrin and Dunworthy battle through their respective timelines, will they both survive? And can Dunworthy bring his student back alive?

Doomsday Book has seen many years on my shelf and so many of my book blogging friends have entreated me to read this book and I wish I had listened to them earlier. It’s a magnificent story, far superior to so many time-traveling books and films I’ve seen over the years. I wish they’d make a live action adaptation of this but I fear they would spoil it. And boy am I glad Willis has written more novels in her Oxford Time Travel series. Who amongst us hasn’t wondered whether what we read in history books or watch in documentaries even come close to how life was really like in the past? Imagine studying history, really studying history by actually traveling to the past.

I’m off to read To Say Nothing of the Dog and Blackout/All Clear next.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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Servant of the Underworld

Aliette de Bodard is a writer I’ve been aware of for a number of years but whom I’ve only started reading this year and I’m furious with myself that I’ve left it this long to find such an incredible writer. I’ve read a number of her short stories set in her Xuya universe, science fiction set in an alternate universe exploring her Vietnamese roots, and also some featuring her Aztec priest who investigates suspicious deaths. And so I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, Servant of the Underworld, featuring Acatl, Head Priest of the Temple of Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl, the God of Death and his consort, who rule over Mictlan, the Underworld. Like many, I know almost nothing about the Mexica Empire save for the tales of the Spanish conquistadors who brought down the once glorious empire with violence and disease and took away chocolate and gold. What de Bodard does here is not only entice us with ancient history but weaves together aspects of magic and religion which were so thoroughly integrated in Aztec society. And she does this with aplomb.

Set in the Aztec city state of Tenochtitlan in 1480 when the Revered Speaker Axayacatl, Emperor of the Mexica, lies dying, Acatl’s life is turned upside when his elder brother Neutemoc, a Jaguar Knight, is arrested for abducting the priestess Eleuia from her blood-soaked bedroom. Acatl has never been on easy terms with his successful brother, a warrior, husband and father and the pride of his parents, not since he chose to become a priest thus sealing his cowardice in his family’s eyes. But nevertheless, he feels compelled to help Neutemoc, not least because the status and honour of their family is in danger. Eleuia wasn’t well liked by the teachers or students in her House of Tears, where she was employed, because of her ambition and allure. What was Neutemoc, a respectable, married warrior doing in Eleuia’s room? And what magic lies at the root of her disappearance? As Acatl tries to save his brother, he must confront and finally stand up to his worst fears. In his quest, he is aided and impeded by Ceyaxochitl, Guardian of the Sacred Precinct and agent of the Duality, who has simultaneously championed and forced Acatl onto his career path as High Priest of Mictlantecuhtli, and her slave Yaotl. Acatl’s sister Mihmatini who has recently returned to live with Neutemoc and his family surprises him with her calm acumen and skill with spells and tries to keep her brothers’ bond secure. And then there is Huei, Neutemoc’s wife, heartbroken and furious.

As well as the mystery of Eleuia’s disappearance, someone or something with great magical powers is determined to see that Neutemoc is executed for a crime he may or may not have committed. For Acatl, who is unhappy in his position both at work and at home, this is a testing time. He must win the loyalty of the priests in his Temple as well as the ears of the Court. And the only person who is there to help him is Teomitl, a young warrior sent to him by the Guardian, still a student, strong-willed and wild. Acatl must swallow his complaints and start looking for the answers before something worse that the execution of his brother is set in motion as it soon becomes clear that Eleuia’s abduction is only the tip of a war between gods.

Aliette de Bodard has managed to make a complicated mystery into an alluring journey into a past with which most of us are probably unfamiliar. But she does it seamlessly, merging historical figures with her fictional creation, placing us firmly in a land in which magic and ritual are alive and part and parcel of daily life. There are spells, sacrifice and lots of blood. But the blood is necessary for protection and spells and we don’t question it. It’s a mark of an accomplished writer indeed when you don’t recoil in horror as the main character cuts himself frequently to obtain the blood necessary for his rituals.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Acatl’s inner transformation. A conflicted soul, trying his best to carry on in his chosen path, yet burdened with the disappointment of his family. He is solitary, unable to participate in court politics because of his disgust with humanity’s baser instincts, and is only redeemed through his fight with evil and in the process, discovering social bonds he had though he had lost and never possessed.

Servant of the Underworld , the first in a trilogy, brings to light Aztec society in it’s full and frightening glory. The strict hierarchical social structure of priests, warriors and slaves, the rituals and strong belief in deities with powers to end the world, the absolute power of the Revered Speaker to keep the darkness at bay and the sun in the sky. And also the beauty of Aztec culture. Imagine going to a school called the House of Tears where the children of the wealthy are educated. And the binary nature of the gods with the male and female forms with names such as the Southern Hummingbird (God of War and of the Sun), the Jade Skirt (Goddess of Lakes and Streams) and the Quetzal Flower (Goddess of Beauty and Love). In amongst the harshness of life in Mexica, there is a fragile and painful beauty.

I can only imagine the amount of research that has gone into producing such a detailed and complex tale and yet de Boddard wears her research lightly. And in doing so, she has created a wonderfully complex world pulsing with emotion and colour.

You can be sure I will follow Acatl’s adventures in the sequels, Harbinger of the Storm and Master of the House of Darts.

I read this as part of Diversiverse, R.I.P. IX and #ReadWomen2014.

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Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

17 September, 2014

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We are nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.

Why, why, WHY have I not read Ray Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, earlier? But then I pause and think to myself that maybe choosing it for my book group at this particular time was fortuitous. Living in an era where we are bombarded by information, the internet, the telly, celebrity gossip, news that masquerades as serious journalism, only proves to magnify Bradbury’s frightening dystopian vision of the world where books are considered dangerous and routinely torched, along with the houses that shield them. While I grew up in a time when we didn’t have the internet or tablets or even a computer in every household, it’s horrifying to think that in 15 years, we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be unplugged. I go to work, read a little on my commute, come home and then just zone out watching box sets or J-dramas on the internet, available 24/7. I have all this time in the evenings and yet I feel I have no time at all. Every single day. What am I doing?

This is precisely the question Guy Montag, Bradbury’s anti-hero, begins to ask himself when three incidents occur separately but simultaneously and coalesce, acting as a catalyst to a seed which has been planted in his almost lobotomised mind. The first is his meeting with Clarisse, a free-spirited, fey neighbour who strolls around looking at and questioning things. She is the first person in years who has shown an interest in Montag, this strange, quaint, seventeen year old girl, the first to ask him, ‘Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?’ The second is finding his wife, Mildred, overdosed and watching her stomach being pumped not by doctors but by routine service men making him question the level of unhappiness in this world when doctors no longer treated suspected suicides seriously. And the third incident is when he is called out to a suspected book hoarder to be faced by a determined woman who would torch herself together with her books than live in a world without them. These three incidents shake Montag’s equilibrium, sending him on a trajectory where he begins to question and really see the world in which people no longer value knowledge.

What gives Bradbury’s short novel such power is that Montag starts off as a proud fireman, one of the supposed gatekeepers of peace and morality, a little like Torquemada, a little like Savonarola. He wears his uniform, emblazoned with Fahrenheit 451 – the temperature at which paper ignites, with pride. But as his apathy erodes, he begins to question why knowledge has become so maligned. Why are books being burned? Why are people looked upon suspiciously if they go for a stroll or engage in idle chatter or even a friendly debate? Why do the firemen have mechanical hounds who will sniff out the sudden changes in DNA and will go to great lengths to find and neutralise people with books? And his changing behaviour sparks the suspicion of his fire chief, Beatty, full of the knowledge of all the books he’s burned, ready to twist anything Montag can say.

Sedated by a diet of sound bites and recycled pop-dramas, Montag’s fellow city dwellers have no time to question their lives or the impending war that is slowly unfolding. But Montag is unable to stop himself as he begins a journey of discovery that will lead him to lose everything and go on the run. And in doing so, he encounters several people, all trying to hold on to their humanity via the books they love including a group reminiscent of the railway hobos of the 1930s.

Even though practically everything’s airborne these days and most of the tracks are abandoned, the rails are still there, rusting. I’ve heard there are still hobo camps all across the country, here and there; walking camps they call them, and if you keep walking far enough and keep an eye peeled, they say there’s lots of old Harvard degrees on the tracks beyween here and Los Angeles. Most of them are wanted and hunted in the cities.

It is almost unbelievable that Fahrenheit 451 was first published in 1953. Every single sentence is relevant to our world today. What is most frightening is that the future he predicts is already happening.

As Bradbury himself warns in a more recent preface,

It had to do with books being burned without matches or fire. Because you don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers? If the world widescreen basketballs and footballs itself to drown in MTV, no Beattys are needed to ignite the kerosene or hunt the reader. If the primary grades suffer meltdown and vanish through the cracks and ventilators of the school room, who, after a while, will know or care?

A frightening thought indeed.

Each page in Fahrenheit 451 is a revelation, a recognition that if we don’t realise what is important, that knowledge, studying , reading, debating anchors us to humanity, then we are lost. And more importantly, reflecting on our actions. As one character in the novel says,

We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as know that and always have it around where we can see it some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. We pick up a few more people that remember, every generation.

Although I loved everything about this book and didn’t really find it dated considering it was written almost 60 years ago (it’s easy to substitute tv with the internet), I did find Bradbury’s portrayal of his female characters lacking in three dimensionality. They were used more as props rather that as fully realised characters, there to spur Montag on in his re-awakening. They were a tad too simple and stereotypical and may as well have been incidents rather than people. However, I have heard that the film version does flesh them out a bit.

Neverheless, Fahrenheit 451 is a powerful book with important ideas, and even though it was conceived during the McCarthy era when censorship was rife, it is still relevant in our current climate.

Do also check out Bradbury’s interview with the Paris Review.

I read this as part of R.I.P. IX.

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R.I.P. IX is here!

5 September, 2014

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The only thing that makes the end of summer OK, is Carl’s wonderful R(eaders). I(imbibing). P(eril) Challenge which is celebrating it’s 9th year. It’s one of the first reading challenges in which I participated and I look forward to it every year. And although I may not post a wrap-up post each year, I love every minute of choosing and reading my list of books which are mainly from my shelves as well as seeing what others are dipping into. And how gorgeous is the artwork for this year’s challenge?

As usual, I’m hoping to read at least four books in the following categories: mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, gothic, horror and supernatural which, to be honest, are my favourite genres. So bring it on!

My pool of books from which I plan to read four (or more!) are:

The Fire by Katherine Neville – I loved The Eight which I read years ago.
The Abomination by Jonathan Holt – murder in Venice.
Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard – completely blown away by her short stories so I need more – an Aztec mystery!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – just because it’s JKR!
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray – the nights are drawing in and I’m in need of something spookay.
Faithful Place by Tana French – I really need to get back into French’s writing.
The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin – it’s just been shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger!
She Lover of Death by Boris Akunin – Erast Fandorin in the house!
A Vengeful Longing by R.N. Morris – the third mystery in a series featuring Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time travel and the Black Death!

Of course I’ll be adding and subtracting from this list, but who’s counting, right?

So will you be joining us? And, more importantly, what will YOU be reading?

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The second issue of Shiny New Books! is now online where you will find my review of Lauren Owen’s sensational debut, The Quick. Do go and have a gander to see what’s on offer, what other bloggers have been reading and what they recommend. Hope you are all enjoying your summer and trying out new books!

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Republic of Thieves

Oh Locke, how I have missed you.

Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves, the third volume in his majestic Gentleman Bastards series, is one of two books I have been waiting eagerly for years. Starting with The Lies of Locke Lamora which shook my reading mojo when I was feeling the fantasy genre was a little lacklustre and tired, Lynch’s beautifully realised, faux-quattrocento world introduced a new sophistication into world-building. Not only was it visually stunning but the prose was beautiful, the pace supersonic and page after page brought twists and turns that the reader couldn’t possible envisage for Locke and his crew. Lynch’s ambitious novel stunned the sff world and readers couldn’t get enough. This was followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies as Locke and his friend Jean Tannen take to the high seas for even wilder adventures as they con their way across their world. For Locke and Jean are part of the Gentleman Bastards, thieves with finesse. As this is the third in Lynch’s projected series of seven books, there will be some spoilers. If you haven’t read any of the books, I suggest you go and get yourself a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora immediately.

In The Republic of Thieves, we finally meet Sabetha Belacora, Locke and Jean’s childhood friend and fellow Gentleman Bastard who stole Locke’s heart and vanished leaving him heartbroken almost five years ago. We’ve heard of Sabetha in the previous books but only through Locke’s lovelorn memories and I couldn’t wait to find out more about this mysterious woman. Interspersed with Locke’s childhood memories, where we learn of their meeting as orphans in an underground children’s gang in Camorr, is the precarious present in which we find Locke fighting for his life against a deadly poison without an antidote. Jean is desperate to find a cure and won’t countenance Locke’s pleas to let him go when they are granted salvation in the form of Archedama Patience, a powerful five-ringed bondsmagi who offers them an employment contract in exchange for Locke’s life.

And so they sail to Karthain where a political game is beginning and in which Locke and Jean are tasked to ensure the political victory of the Deep Roots party. But theirs is game of many layers and the other party of bondsmagi who control Karthain have hired a formidable opponent to advise the Black Iris party; one who knows everything about Locke and Jean and how their minds work. As Locke is given the chance he has been craving and meets Sabetha, he realises that not only must he win her back but he must win the game and save all their lives. For Patience is as dangerous as she is helpful and is playing a completely different game.

Lynch is back on form and as soon as I dipped into The Republic of Thieves, I was sucked into his opulent, Dickension world full of tricks and counter-moves. Like the previous two novels, it’s clever, rich in detail and what really makes the novel is the wonderfully realised characters which he draws with such depth; they’re funny, conflicted, clever and feel things. Friendship, loyalty, love and sorrow mean something to them just as much as pride in their work. The only weak part, which I presume is also one of the highlights, was the bits about the play, The Republic of Thieves, which the Gentleman Bastards had to perform one summer when they were younger. In Locke’s recollections, we are re-acquainted with the Sanza twins, Callo and Gallo, who once formed part of their family and this was both bittersweet and funny. Although the play was relevant in that it formed the backdrop to their summer job as a traveling group of Camorri actors, I don’t think it would have harmed the novel if most of it was edited out.

The ending of The Republic of Thieves hints at more darkness in store for Locke and his friends. Will he ever get it together with Sabetha or is she lost to him forever? And what is the secret behind Locke’s orphan past? With so many twists in the tale, I can’t wait to find out more. Although The Republic of Thieves may not be as strong or substantial as the previous two books, it’s a welcome return to Lynch’s fabulous world. The next in the series is The Thorn of Emberlain – it’ll be another long wait but totally worth it.

Together with Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series is, in my opinion, one of the best and original series in the fantasy genre in the last ten years. I kid you not. Seriously, go and read them.

Wild Seed

‘I am here,’ she said in the same quiet voice. ‘You have me.’
‘Do I?’
‘As much as any man could.’

Black, feminist and the first science fiction writer to be a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, Octavia E. Butler is a writer I have long been meaning to read but of whom I was a little too much in awe. Such a deceptively small book, and yet Butler’s Wild Seed tackles some very troubling subjects in a surprisingly accessible manner. It’s not an easy thing for any writer to do. And yet she does it with such ease.

Wild Seed is the story of Anyanwu, chameleon-like, long-lived and with the power to manipulate and change her body, absorbing pain and healing herself and others. When she meets Doro, an equally enigmatic character who is drawn to her special powers, she is afraid but curious. But Doro is different from her; ancient, sly, dangerous, a parasitic spirit who kills to survive. He succeeds in persuading Anyanwu to leave her village in Africa and travel back to his settlement in the New World as his wife and she agrees in exchange for his promise that he won’t touch her family. But soon she realises that Doro has an agenda and will do anything to succeed. He is trying to breed a new people with special powers and has been traveling the world collecting specimen. And as a wild seed, one that he cannot fully understand and therefore control, Anyanwu must use her inherent survival skills in order to protect her descendants and remain free in every sense.

Wild Seed
is more than just a tale of migration and different cultures. Butler tackles the issues of possession, slavery and gender in a startlingly honest way. It’s savage and ugly and you wonder at the brutality of people so brilliantly magnified and realised by the spirit that is Doro – he would do anything to get what he wants and he knows just how to go about it.

Doro followed, thinking that he had better get her with a new child as quickly as he could. Her independence would vanish without a struggle. She would do whatever he asked then to keep her child safe. She was too valuable to kill, and if he abducted any of her descendents, she would no doubt goad him into killing her. But once she was isolated in America with an infant to care for, she would learn submissiveness.

And that is exactly the chilling lesson Anyanwu learns. Doro knows her weakness and that is her children.

Living for so long, death, morality and love mean something entirely different to him if at all. Anywanwu is the human, ethical side as Doro is the animal, biological. But this dichotomy is too simplistic for what Butler is trying to achieve. For life is all about the fight, the will to assert power, to pursue what you think is right and most of all, the search for companionship. And eventually, after many centuries, both Anyanwu and Doro find an uneasy truce, but not before her heart has been broken many times and Doro learns an unexpected lesson: compromise.

Wild Seed is storytelling at its richest. It’s harsh, chilling and brutal but not much more than what is recorded in history. Butler tackles the issues of slavery, possession and freedom but does this in a multi-layered, sensitive manner. A complex history deserves a complex treatment and that is exactly what she has achieved.

Doro had reshaped her. She had submitted and submitted and submitted to keep him from killing her even though she had long ago ceased to believe what Isaac had told her – that her longevity made her the right mate for Doro. That she could somehow prevent him from becoming an animal. He was already an animal. But she had formed the habit of submission. In her love for Isaac and for her children, and in her fear of death – especially of the kind of death Doro would inflict – she had given in to him again and again. Habits were difficult to break. The habit of living, the habit of fear … even the habit of love.

I’m not sure whether I can forgive Doro as Anyanwu does, although she doesn’t do it easily. But then imagining how one can sustain hatred and anger for hundreds of years isn’t easy and the idea of forgiveness in order to move on becomes something that one needs to think about. But for Anyanwu and Doro who only have each other, their love/hate relationship is stripped bare with time as they watch their loved ones and acquaintances die one after another.

I don’t think I’ve read anything like Wild Seed before. It’s not easy reading but it’s bold and imaginative and with echoes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale with a dash of X-Men. It’s a tale of strength borne of suffering and I strongly urge you all to read it. I am now keen to read more by Butler including Kindred and Parable of the Sower, two of her most famous novels.

I read this as part of Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe 2013 Challenge.