Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman: a review

5/5 stars on Goodreads

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
The last book I read this year was The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. It’s the second book in The Book of Dust trilogy, a follow-up to his brilliant His Dark Materials series. It’s a massive book with almost 700 pages, the longest book I read this year, but it didn’t feel long.

The events in the book take place twenty years after the first, La Belle Sauvage. Malcom, the eleven year old boy from the first book, is now in his early thirties and an Oxford scholar. In secret, he’s also a member of the Oakley Street spy organisation that works against the authoritarian Church. Lyra, the heroine of the first trilogy, is an adult too, and an Oxford student. She has changed from the curious and headstrong girl to a believer of a new philosophy that states that daemons aren’t real. Naturally, this upsets Pantalaimon, her pine marten daemon, so much so that he takes off to find Lyra’s imagination.

A murder in Oxford sets the events in motion and sends Malcom, Lyra and Pan on quests through Europe towards the Near East where they may find answers to questions about daemons. They each travel separately, Lyra and Pan too, which causes problems for her, as people without daemons are feared and deplored. A larger background plot about dust unfolds slowly, with members of the Church as the bad guys that chase Malcom and Lyra. The book ends just as it reaches the point where we might learn the answers to all the questions.

I liked this book very much. There are several point of view characters and a reader always knows more than the characters. It’s a heavy book with a lot to say; some of it slightly in-your-face commentary about the state of our world, which jars occasionally. Lyra as an adult seems to have caused the author some difficulties, which he solves by mentioning her sex life, periods, and making her live under a constant threat of violence from men.

The most controversial scene takes place towards the end of the book. It’s a fairly gratuitous rape scene. Lyra is forced to share a train compartment with soldiers who decide to rape her. She’s not completely defenceless and she manages to inflict some real damage on her attackers, and she’s saved before any unforgivable damage happens, but the scene feels unnecessary.

Yes, rape is a possibility when a woman travels alone to a country preparing for a war, but there are other forms of violence that would have driven home her vulnerability. Robbery, for example―she carries the expensive aleomether that the Church wants. Religious zealots disgusted by her lack of daemon attacking her would have worked too, and would have been more in line with the overall plot. And they could have been women attacking her. Throughout the book, only men are a threat and women are nurturing and good, which is quite a change, considering that in the first trilogy the greatest enemy was Lyra’s own mother.

The book ends soon thereafter, but Lyra doesn’t behave like a rape survivor for the remainder. She allows men into her hotel room and sets off for a journey through a desert with a man she has only met. That, more than anything, makes the rape scene feel unnecessary. It doesn’t affect the plot in any way. The best I can say about it is that it isn’t written to titillate; it’s about brutality and violence.

Despite the rape scene, I gave the book five stars. There simply is something in the way Pullman unfolds the story that is masterful and satisfying. Seemingly unconnected events all advance the plot and carry the reader inevitably with it. And the build-up in this book promises that the conclusion of the trilogy will be truly epic.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Catching up: a review bonanza

I’ve neglected my reading blog again, which means I have six books to review since the previous post―not including the books that I have skipped earlier. It’s been a good month and a half with old favourites and new interesting finds. Here’s the summary.

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler

Ship of Smoke and Steel by Django Wexler was a brilliant find. It wasn’t at all what I expected based on the description and the sample chapters. I thought I was getting a swashbuckling pirate story with magic. What I got was a humongous steel ship filled with monsters and teenage mages, who have no idea where the ship is going and why, and who's steering it. Isoka, the main character, has to find her place in the strange society on the ship she's been brought to against her will, and figure out how to gain control of the ship so that she can return home and save her sister. But nothing is how she hopes it would be, not even her.

The book is marketed as YA, but despite the age of the characters, their life experience and the problems they face are not those of teenagers. It's all about survival. Isoka is a fairly unlikeable main character, and she doesn't really improve with softer characteristics she gains, as she lacks the insight to go with them. I actually preferred her as a cold-blooded killer. There was a bit too many fight scenes―the story goes from fight to fight that become repetitive―and the ending seemed slightly rushed. The epilogue didn't really make it stronger, but since the original problem of saving Isoka's sister is yet to happen, I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the Wells of Sorcery series.

Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron

Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron is the first book in DFZ, a new series set in Aaron’s post-apocalyptic, dragon and magic filled Detroit. Opal has a job cleaning unclaimed apartments after their owners die. On one such mission, she finds more than she expects and gets gangsters after her.

Opal is a great character with serious dad issues, and Nik, her side-kick, is an interesting companion. There’s a lot of action, magical and mundane, as the pair tries to find the site of a magical ritual that just might bring them a lot of money. Needless to say, it wasn't as easy as that. I'll definitely read the next book too.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman is book six in The Invisible Library series. This time round Irene and Kai have to team up with a group of criminals to steal a painting for a villain straight from the Bond movies. After the previous book where political machinations pushed the pair to the edge of their skills, this was a rather boring addition to the series. Kai especially was a let-down after becoming a more assertive, interesting character in the previous book. A new political plot is brewing, however, so I’ll keep with the series.

Where Winter Finds You by J.R. Ward

Where Winter Finds You by J.R. Ward is the latest addition to her long Black Dagger Brotherhood series. It’s marked as only half a book, but at 480 pages it’s long enough. It’s a second chance love story, a follow-up for The Shadows where Trez lost his beloved Selena. A woman has moved in Caldwell who resembles Selena perfectly and who dreams of a lover she knows is Trez. He’s convinced his love has been returned to him, but how is that possible, when Theresa has lived a full life already. I must admit I couldn’t see how this could be brought to a satisfying conclusion either, but in the end, the story worked out perfectly. It wasn’t the best BDB book there is, but like always, it was full of emotions that the reader is pulled into, only to emerge tearful and happy in the end.

The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer starts a spin-off series for his excellent Artemis Fowl series. Artemis’s little brothers, twins Myles and Becket, are now eleven and ready for adventures of their own. Myles is like Artemis, a genius bent on surpassing his big brother, but not inclined to criminal activities. Becket is more physical of the pair, with an interesting ability to talk with animals―not that anyone believes he actually can do it.

The adventure they are pulled into is typical fast-paced mayhem. Unlike with Artemis books, which are set in the fairy realm, this takes place in the human world, and the bad guys are humans too, a duke and a nun of all people odd. But it wouldn’t be an Artemis spin-off, if fairies weren’t involved. Humans are after fairies and it’s up to the twins to save them with the help of LEP specialist Lazul Heitz. Artemis makes a cameo appearance―he’s on a mission to Mars―as does Holly Short, the LEP officer from Artemis books. It’s a fun book that suits adults perfectly too, even though it’s aimed at ten-year-olds. And I hope the subsequent books take place in the fairy realm because that’s where the magic truly happens.

A Madness of Sunshine by Nalini Singh

A Madness of Sunshine is the first thriller by my favourite paranormal romance author Nalini Singh. It’s set in rural New Zealand where the author lives, and is inspired by Nordic noir books. The story is fairly straightforward: a young woman goes missing and practically everyone is a suspect. Only, they really aren’t; most of them are dismissed easily and if the author attempted to build an atmosphere of mistrust, it doesn’t really work. There are only a couple of plausible suspects and among them the guilty are found. The action is slow and the body count low.

It’s an interesting book nonetheless. Singh can write great characters and as this is very much a character-led book, it’s a pleasure to read. There are two point of view characters, a woman who returns home to recover from a past tragedy and a cop who has taken a job in a small town to recover from a past tragedy. They connect early on, and even though this isn’t a romance, the two getting to know each other carries most of the book. There aren’t great twists in the plot, but the ending is satisfying, even if some motivations of the suspects remain baffling even after the end.

Six books read in six weeks don’t sound much, but there are a few books that I have started and not finished. At this point I’m still three books short of my Goodreads reading challenge of sixty-five books, but I’m confident I’ll be able to make it. I’ll keep you posted―I hope.