Review: Ancillary Justice (Paperback)

I approached this book with high hopes – it was very solidly recommended to me, and seemed conceptually interesting. I judge books almost wholly on their individual merit, not according to their perceived literary value; I get that Ancillary Justice was making a statement, and was recognised for that. Plus, with all those awards on the cover… what could possibly go wrong?!

Unfortunately though, Ancillary Justice was a big, boring swing and a miss. While I appreciated the author’s efforts on a conceptual/literal level, it didn’t really translate to the nitty gritty. Conceptually, Ancillary Justice is themed around the idea of a galactic empire known as the Radch whose ships, ancient and sentient, with their own AIs, are able to field a personal hive-mind of ‘ancillaries’ – the converted populations of those worlds the Radch has ‘annexed’ who didn’t toe the line. Ancillary Justice follows the story of Breq, the last ancillary of a spaceship known as the Justice of Toren, on a quest to avenge its own destruction.

This sounds good on summary, but in a 350-page novel, it’s not translated to an effective story at all. Structurally, Ancillary Justice switched perspective each chapter; to the present ‘quest’ with Breq as the sole human embodiment of the Justice of Toren, and the next around 20 years earlier, slowly building up to the events that led to the spaceship’s destruction and, ergo, Breq’s quest.

Firstly, in those ‘backstory’ chapters, having a protagonist with twenty points of view is, to use a modern vernacular, “hella confusing”. The prose is a strange bastardised hybrid of first-person narrative and third person. First-person with an omniscient narrator? I found it a genuine challenge to keep up. I’d rather the author picked a perspective and stuck with it; instead, the narrator became omniscient through having twenty personality-less vessels giving an all-seeing eye to every scene.

My main concern with the prose across the entirety of the novel is that it comes across as dull, mechanical and clinical, though I expect that reflects the non-human, artificial nature of the protagonist’s consciousness. But the main character’s lack of personality pervades the prose itself. Breq’s characterisation, while easier to follow as a single entity, is devoid of personality. Simply put, emotion.exe could not be found. Breq’s cold and humourless demeanour, coupled with an ancillary’s predilection against expressing any emotion make her/it a boring and uninteresting protagonist to channel this story through. The only responses Breq seems to have to other characters is to either “lie” or to “gesture”. Other characters, even the officer Breq finds after being frozen for a thousand years, Seivarden, lacks any appreciable development bar a love of tea and bloodlust. Other characters, even ones that the spaceship AI (that said, some of the Station and Ship AIs do express a fun, passive-aggressive personality, though it’s riddled with inconsistencies of ability I believe exist to serve the plot) interacts with a great deal, feel as if they exist on paper only; there’s scant description of what they look like, and certainly little exploration of their motives. They just exist to, well, talk.

In the chapters set before the Justice of Toren’s destruction, and in the Breq chapters too, largely, the book becomes almost Tolkien-esque (spoiler: I find Tolkien unreadable) in the amount of meandering and, ultimately, pointless conversation the characters engage in. All they do is talk, talk, talk! There’s a great deal of backstory and world-building taking place, but the characters discuss political intrigue in the Radch universe as if the reader has taken an A-level in the backstory prior to starting the book. There’s a few scant pointers early on but these are easily forgotten about, leaving me confused as to what these characters are even talking about for pages at a time. It becomes a baffling and unrewarding mess – how can I care about this political intrigue and universe when I have no reference to the importance of it all?

The plot itself is, frankly, glacial. There’s an acute action deficit for the first 80% of Ancillary Justice, and when things do begin to motor, it’s all too late. The conclusion rests upon Breq’s confrontation with the Lord of the Radch, who is also a hive-mind that has gone insane and declared war on itself, and even then the book, honestly, fails to deliver on an epic finale. I won’t spoil the plot (there’s so little of it anyway), but on finishing the book I was left not hoping for more, but thanking the sweet Lord that it was finally over.

This book also decides to base the Radch empire on the notion that people and language is genderless; accordingly (to Tumblr’s delight, I imagine), all characters are assumed to be and addressed with female pronouns, which wouldn’t be a problem except that, firstly, this makes visualising the characters on the threadbare descriptions nigh-on impossible, and secondly, confuses the reader when the pronouns for a given character change from female to male in the space of a single sentence. There’s no reference point on which to hinge the characters.

I do, however, admire the spirit of this choice – it’s nice to be able to avoid the assumptions about masculinity and feminity and the character traits so often, and incorrectly, assigned thus, but Ancillary Justice’s Tumblr-friendly way of creating this led a long way to my overall impression that the book is a confusing, and almost-unreadable mess, which is a shame as I think, conceptually, there’s a ton to be able to play with. Ultimately, I feel, Ancillary Justice just took a too literary bent with the execution of its particular story. I prefer my fiction to be thoughtful and deep, yes, but there’s got to be a nice bit of plot and action driving it forward.

To unfortunately conclude, I can say that I did not particularly enjoy Ancillary Justice, despite a promising premise. I endured a confusing and ultimately boring narrative and dry prose that threatened to put me to sleep, along with a quest that is forgettable and a protagonist that is unlikeable, leave me with little other recourse than to say my journey stops with the inaugural book in this series.

Buy Ancillary Justice on Amazon UK

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Review: Twilight (Paperback)

Yes, I’ve read it…

Another set text from my creative writing and English literature course, Twilight was the one entry in my reading list I was truly dreading, but also looking forward to dissecting. I studied it as part of a strand on popular romance fiction, and will review it accordingly.

I managed to finish Twilight, though it was with some difficulty. I generally have little acclination towards romance as a genre; personal relationships between fiction characters being the sole motivator in a plot is not something that appeals to me. However, even from this standpoint, both the characterisation of the two main characters, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, in this book, coupled with the nature of their relationship if observed through non-tinted glasses, was troubling.

Bella’s characterisation was virtually non-existent. Sure, she’s a 17-year-old girl who conforms to the stereotype of “hating her life”, but what else is there to her? Bella’s personality is absolutely vacuous. Her sole motivation and reason to even exist is to fall uncontrollably in love with Edward. Bella takes an almost nihilist approach to her entire life; she doesn’t want to live in the dreary backwater of Forks particularly, yet chooses it over her mother’s new life with her stepfather. She doesn’t have a good relationship with Charlie, her father – there is little characterisation or progress on him besides his establishment as the town’s police chief. I get that the reason Bella is so vacuous is so that the reader can supplant their own self into her shoes and live the story through Bella, but it is very hamfisted and makes Bella a truly loathesome and boring protagonist. She’s unlikeable – the few friends she does miraculously make in the local school are treated contemptibly as nothing can seemingly come close to her infatuation, early on, with the “mysterious” and “perfect” Edward Cullen.

Edward Cullen’s behaviour quickly becomes irritating – he’s trying to avoid Bella because her “scent” is so good, he’s doing her a favour, she’s “better off avoiding him” – the usual tropes are invoked clumsily. There are a few hints at Edward’s mystique and Bella frequently identifies him as “perfect” and, more cringe-inducing, as an “Adonis”. Multiple times. Why is Edward these things? There’s no qualification of these terms; partly as the reader is meant to imagine why Edward is so wonderful, and partly I suspect because Stephenie Meyer simply had nothing better to say.

Edward indicates quickly a few superhuman traits that lead Bella’s inquisition. Her concerns are almost confirmed comically – Bella googles vampires, and, lo and behold, we discover Edward’s secret (though it takes a while for Bella to finally wrangle that out of Edward). Vampirism doesn’t explain or excuse Edward’s creepy and, frankly, deeply concerning behaviour. He watches Bella sleep. He follows her. He controls her behaviour. He even, near the end of the book, appears to engineer her sedation. None of this strikes me as healthy, or acceptable behaviour. So why is Edward lionised?

Vampirism seemed, to me, to be crutch for a story that outstayed its welcome about 66% of the way through. There are clumsy attempts to subvert classic vampire tropes; the only reason I find Edward scary is not through his vampirism (though he is part of a group of ‘good’ vampires who don’t hunt humans) but through his behaviour and actions. The ending of the book, where Bella is discovered by a vampire “tracker” and must be whisked away from Forks while the Cullens counter this “threat” is farcical almost to the point of melodrama. The pacing is all off; the book burns slowly until – boom – Bella is suddenly in some manufactured mortal danger. Meyer’s own additions to the vampire gamut don’t seem effective as part of a whole cohesive group of underground bloodsuckers.

To her credit, Stephenie Meyer does, in the book, identify a few salient points. Edward does question Bella’s almost manic resolve, at 17, to become a vampire, stating that she has a whole human life to lead. Bella has no answer to this beyond the quite pathetic “I love you, Edward!”, but I will credit the book for making this point clear. It alludes to the important message of not surrendering your entire existence for one person, and to enjoy life as whole. The classic romance trope of perusing sensual experience (read: sex) is subverted in Twilight as a quest for abstinence. Bella and Edward spend the whole book fighting urges – Bella her urges to seduce Edward and Edward to suppress his vampiric urge to kill Bella for her “exquisite” blood. Perhaps this pro-abstinence position is borne of Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon upbringing; regardless, it’s done in a less-effective narrative style, and is drawn out artificially.

I feel Stephenie Meyer has not done her own story justice, ultimately. The prose is wooden and awkward, with phrases feeling like they’re first-draft material and it could do with a good copy-edit. I wish more of the ancillary characters were expanded – some of them seemed more interesting than the protagonists. I realise this is a book about the burgeoning romance between Bella and Edward but these characters – most of whom, especially the classmates, are treated appallingly by Bella – have potential stories of their own outside of the vampire narrative that could’ve been explored at the same time as the Bella and Edward thread.

Overall, though, I did it. Certainly it was an unchallenging read; Twilight is certainly not anything I would consider “literary”, however I feel that the writing and the characterisation left a metallic taste.

Buy Twilight on Amazon UK

Review: The Vanished Man (Kindle Edition)

I’ve been steadily working my way through Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme series of thriller/crime novels and the fifth instalment was another enjoyable outing!

The Vanished Man pits quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme on the pursuit of an illusionist turned murderer who uses every trick in the book (pun very much intended) to evade capture. Slowly over the course of the novel, the true motives behind the murders and the identity of the murder themselves become clear, but there is a great deal of sleuthing before that.

The premise certainly intrigued me – who would better know how to distract, evade and, a prominent theme, misdirect the police than a magician? As the book develops, it becomes clear that there are no straightforward answers to any of the questions the mystery raises. It’s an enjoyable game as the reader both witnesses Rhyme’s efforts to decipher the Conjurer’s motives and methods as well as making their own attempts. It’s this sense of intellectual game playing that made this book an enjoyable and enthralling read. A large part of the enjoyment of a book like this comes from seeing how the investigator unpicks the mystery and seeing if the conclusions are mirrored in the reader’s mind. The Vanished Man certainly succeeds in this respect; there’s also the added urgency of several races against time to save the next victim from this almost completely unpredictable antagonist. Even, at 75%, when he’d been caught, cuffed and the book looked about wrapped up, an almost miraculous escape sets the plot up for a final furlong – the mystery of how?! always playing on the reader’s mind. It’s very good.

The plot is certainly no slow-burner as events do start to snowball quickly, which leaves little time to ponder character motivations too much; there are certainly moments of introspection but time pressures bring out the best abilities of the characters. There’s a number of plot lines that initially seem unconnected but, of course, they do link up in the eventual climax. Who’d have thought a novel about a murderous magician would touch base with anxieties about American nationalism? The prose is direct but not dull; there’s a certain brutality that doesn’t sugar-coat events. But ultimately, all the philosophical motives aside, it all comes down to one thing everyone can relate to: revenge.

In character terms, Rhyme himself continues to be a deceptively-endearing character; his disability and self-awareness give his personality a barbed exterior that is both matter-of-fact and amusing; however, it’s the moments where this facade is allowed to drop that makes him more relatable and, ultimately, human. The series as a whole does approach the idea of how disabled people are perceived in quite interesting and enlightening ways. The other regular cast that form a support network around Rhyme are competent at what they do – and care as much as he does, but in this book it’s the characters of Kara (who aids in this particular investigation) that give a glimpse into the psyche of Rhyme that other characters perhaps wouldn’t.

Regardless, I certainly enjoyed The Vanished Man a great deal. I’m eagerly looking forward to moving on with the series!

Buy The Vanished Man from Amazon UK

Review: Sunshine State (Paperback)

I recently was required to read Sunshine State as part of my Creative Writing degree course at Kingston University; it being a post-apocalyptic novel sweetened the deal a fair bit! I was tasked with reading the novel primarily to observe an example of setting and world-building, and it is on this basis that I begin.

The premise of Sunshine State is simple. In a near-future world devastated by climate change, former special agent Mark Burrows must undertake one final mission. The setting of a world blighted by global warming and a rise in sea-levels is subtle in the early part of the book; London being a sweltering nightmare the only real clues of something in this almost-future being amiss; there are heavy assertions that the “Storm Zone” that has befallen Florida is a teeming quagmire of environmental and societal collapse and, reading on, I was anxious for the plot to quickly traverse there.

Burrows’ mission in the Storm Zone is to find and neutralise a radical subversive known only as Kalat, but who is in reality a former fellow “invisible man” agent of Burrows gone rogue. I was impressed with the realisation of the Storm Zone as a lawless wasteland that society had quickly abandoned in the face of the most powerful storm, Winthrop, that brought about the climax of the environmental catastrophe. Ruined, abandoned towns, desolate roads and a general feeling of thunder and foreboding kept scenes in the zone feeling taut and charged. The Zone, too, is lawless and filled with a mix of characters that are almost amoral in nature.

There’s interesting commentary, too, in the portrayal of the United States: the country is depicted as having finally transgressed into a Christian fundamentalist state; likewise, this gives room for the abandoned and lawless Storm Zone to become a place of refuge for those the United States’ government is intolerant of and actively persecutes. It adds another layer – a worryingly believable one; the paramilitaries the United States fields are tellingly referred to as Witch Hunters – to the sense of despair and loneliness that pervades the Zone. Ultimately, I felt the United States became a sideline to the main plot; though I would be intrigued to see a radicalised United States explored further as a concept.

The narrative does, almost formulaically, follow the path of Burrows’ despair within the Zone, a hint at his tortured backstory and eventual double-crossing at the hands of the United Kingdom, who ultimately and matter-of-factly don’t expect his return. The trip through Mark’s psyche, exploring the Zone and also the backstory that created it, was quite well accomplished, though my affinity for this genre might preclude my opinion by a small margin.

Miller’s prose is unchallenging but goes some way toward painting a visceral and uncompromising picture of the situation Burrows is facing and the environment. There’s a cutting sense of tension throughout, refreshingly written with a clear voice and style. Early portions between chapters establish backstory through pointed meetings between Burrows and his counselor; these are later replaced with fragments of poetry that seem to echo the madness of Kalat’s thoughts as the climax approaches

I feel, however, a lot of this work is quickly undone in the final two chapters. Firstly, the threat that Kalat promises to bring about fails to ultimately materialise; instead, Burrows is presented with a lonely and insane mind that simply rails against the perceived status quo, and the fallout from this final encounter unfortunately fall apart in a series of vague and confusing extracts that, for want of a better way of putting it, leave Burrows alive and the mission accomplished. However, there is little concrete satisfaction which sadly puts paid to a lot of the interesting and promising scene-setting throughout the book, and left me wondering what the actual threat was to begin with.

However, saying that, the journey was better than the destination and can happily say that Sunshine State is certainly a competent entry with an intriguing take on an environmental catastrophe, and more worryingly, seems almost prophetic in places…

Buy Sunshine State from Amazon.co.uk