Kenneth Oppel’s YA novel This Dark Endeavour is a story of Viktor Frankenstein as a young man. He and his twin brother Konrad live in a castle near Geneva with their cousin Elizabeth. Though they’re identical twins, Konrad is the one who’s better at talking to people and fencing and schoolwork and bravery and all the things that get a young man attention. But when Konrad falls mysteriously ill Viktor and Elizabeth and their friend Henry turn to the forbidden art of alchemy to see if they can help him where the doctors failed.
It’s a good story. It has a clear escalating structure of finding alchemical ingredients, and the jealousy Viktor feels for Konrad is mixed with love enough that you want him to succeed even if you know he’s taking a weird self-absorbed path. Also, there’s passionate teenage declarations of love and melodrama. The weirdest part of the book was the Frankenstein family’s anachronistic liberalism. Early on there’s a scene where the family makes dinner for the servants, which helps make the upper-class family thing feel a bit more relatable for 21st century readers, but felt reductionist to me.
In any case, it worked well as a dark YA adventure story, and had some interesting discussion of alchemy, science and religion. I’ll recommend it.
Shadows Cast By Stars is Catherine Knutsson’s first novel about Cassandra Mercredi, a young Metis woman, in a future where plague is decimating the population and for some reason the blood of first nations people holds the only cure. Does that sound grim? Well, it is. Natives who live in the Corridor are tracked and will be captured for processing by the authorities if they deem it necessary. This is the book’s setup and we don’t actually see much of the repressive regime because almost right away Cassandra, her brother and father have to flee to the island, where there’s a boundary protecting the people who live there from Searcher ships and they can live their old ways in relative peace.
Then it becomes a story of Cassandra and her family trying to find places for themselves in the culture of the Band. Because she has some facility with healing and the spiritual world (she sees totems of people) Cassandra is recruited as the apprentice to the medicine woman. Her twin brother, who sees visions, doesn’t find a role so quickly.
The story has first kisses and explorations of a person’s own strength along with the spiritual dimensions of wild women of the woods and Raven and Sea Wolves. Where it feels very different from something like The Hunger Games is that instead of being pulled away from a home to fight on her own, Cassandra is pulled from a place of isolation and thrust into community and has to do all this stuff not just for herself but be able to help the people around her too. Knutsson’s done a good job with that kind of power dynamic which really resembles the ways we try to fit our lives together here in the present.
My main problem with the book is that it is written as the first volume of a series, so things are not resolved by the end. Future books look like they will explore the regime of the outside world. I hope it’s as well-imagined as what you find in this book.
I really liked Mat Johnson’s comic, Incognegro. It’s about a light-skinned black journalist going undercover as a white man to cover lynchings in the south in the 1930s. Well, that’s kind of the setup. In this story he’s going south to stop the lynching of his own jackass twin brother (who isn’t light-skinned at all).
It’s a tight little small-town mystery with more ins and outs than I’d expected at first. There’s moonshine and backwoods religion and klansmen, and it all hangs together pretty magnificently. One of the themes running through the story is that white people assume we’re the default, that our food isn’t ethnic food, that we don’t have accents, all of which makes us easy to fool. Obviously this is set in a different time with lynchings and much stronger threats of violence based on race, but it’s interesting how much of that “looking like you’re a minority or not” still plays into how people are treated.
Anyway, I recommend this one pretty highly.
China Mieville writes awesome books. Embassytown is his latest, and I think it’s his best. I’ve been going on about it on Twitter for the last several days. My girlfriend is sick of hearing about it (till she gets the chance to read it).
It takes place (mostly) on a planet where there is a small settlement of humans who live in an enclave of the alien city. The aliens, known as Hosts, have a very strange language. If humans want to be understood by Hosts they need two humans with great empathic understanding of each other speaking Language at the same time. The Hosts don’t understand the noises humans make. They don’t even recognize recorded Language. They need someone to speak to them.
In Embassytown the people who can speak Language are the Ambassadors. They are human pairs bred and brought up to think and speak as one mind in two bodies. CalVin is two bodies (doppels) but one person. Asking which body is Cal and which Vin is unconscionably rude. They are one being. They undertake ablutions every morning to eliminate any minor differences that might have crept in over the previous day.
The aliens are way weirder.
Avice is the protagonist of the tale, and she’s not an ambassador (or even half of one). She was trained to go travelling through the Immer, which is the stuff that lets worlds connect, regardless of their universal location (something similar is used in the RPG Diaspora). She left and came back and this is her story. She’s also a simile in Language.
What makes Mieville so fucking good is how he makes you twist your brain into understanding these concepts, setting up this world and making it understandable, and then smashes the whole thing to pieces. Thinking back on it, this might be why Kraken was good but not Holy Shit good. He’s at his best when he’s not a conservative creator. His characters aren’t about protecting the status quo. Not just characters change in his stories, the world has to change.
This book is about colonialism and the capacity to change the way you think through language. I don’t think it’s as much of a mindfuck as The City & The City in terms of how the reader has to think to understand the world, but I think he’s telling a story that’s more compelling. It feels more universal as it buzzes your brain.
Five stars. Great book. Should win awards.