July Book Round Up
July has been a bit of hectic month for me, but here are the books I’ve been reading!
Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Blackwing by Ed McDonald
What We Did by Christobel Kent
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky
This book has been on my list for a little bit now and when I finally read it, I loved it. Both the premise and execution felt fresh and enticing throughout. Told from several perspectives, both human and non-human, this novel explores a lot of heavy ideas, including free will, humanity and sentience. The protagonist is Rex, a part-dog, part mechanical Bioform, designed for combat. Everything about him is designed to frighten, to kill, and to obey. He and the rest of his Bioform team- Honey the bear, Dragon the lizard and Bees- are cut off from communication with their Master. Suddenly Rex, the leader, must make decisions for himself. There are strong echoes of We3, the comic by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely, which I also highly recommend. By dint of being that much longer, Dogs of War is much greater in its scope, although both the comic and novel strike a similar tone.
The opening is chilling. In it, Rex does what he does best. Killing. He identifies enemies based on who his master tells him are the enemies, armed or unarmed makes no difference. Rex just about distinguishes between the ‘large humans’ and the ‘small humans’ although given their enemy-status, he doesn’t give them much thought beyond this. This book really does pack an emotional punch and keeps upping the stakes all the way through. Every time I wondered where Tchaikovsky would take the story next, he surprised me. Whereas in some fiction, the world becomes smaller and less interesting as the book progresses, in Dogs of War the world just keeps expanding. Tchaikovsky does an excellent job of keeping new curiosities open to the reader.
He also does an excellent job of writing Rex’s voice, in particular. Rex doesn’t remotely sound like a person to me, he really does sound like a dog. And Tchaikovsky manages to evolve his voice in a fluid way as Rex discovers his free will and his own sense of morality. Seeing the shift from an awareness of only the present to recognition of actions, consequences and envisioning potential future threat, was a real treat.
Dark, grim, but surprisingly optimistic about humanity, this book kept me invested and intrigued the entire time. I highly recommend it to anyone. But I warn you, it may hit a lot of emotional buttons.
Blackwing by Ed McDonald
This is Ed McDonald’s debut novel and it’s remarkably ambitious. He pulls off an intricate and unique fantasy world. There is so much variety and depth to this novel and yet he manages to convey it without overloading the reader with too much information. The description and exposition never feels forced or unnecessary. The setting is a fantasy dystopia with strong elements of the Western. Between the inhabited cities and the place where the mysterious Deep Kings dwell, lies a wasteland called the Misery. The Deep Kings want to invade with their armies of enthralled soldiers, but they are kept in check by Nall’s Engine, the only weapon powerful enough to be a threat to them.
In this world, magic isn’t pleasant. Magic disrupts and corrupts the landscape of the Misery and the creatures that inhabit it. Spinners, those who spin light at a loom to fuel the engine, are broken and ultimately destroyed by their magic.
This novel is definitely Grimdark fantasy, but this doesn’t stop McDonald conveying a dry sense of humour. While little of it is actually laugh-out-loud funny, there are plenty of wryly amused observations to take the edge of the darkness of the plot and the characters. The protagonist is named Galharrow and McDonald teases out his backstory through the whole novel, maintaining a level of suspense and curiosity throughout. Galharrow is magically bound to a magician called Crowfoot, who sends him instructions through the black bird tattoo on his arm. Between the malevolent Deep Kings, the powerfully careless Nameless magicians and the hierarchy of Princes and Counts, Galharrow sits mostly at the bottom of the pile trying to make a life for himself and trying not to get killed.
Part mystery, part quest, this novel is definitely one that kept me guessing throughout. The second in the trilogy has recently come out, so I’ll be picking that up imminently! I also recommend following him on Twitter. He’s a hoot!
What We Did by Christobel Kent (spoilers)
It was the concept of this one which caught my eye. Bridget runs a clothing store and is happy in her nuclear family until one day she sees her childhood abuser, Carmichael, walk in, evidently grooming a teenage girl. Later, when he begins to follow her and intimidate her in her shop, she murders him, half by accident. This was the premise that grabbed me.
I enjoyed Bridget’s obvious devotion to her husband and teenage son, as sometimes portrayals of loving mothers come across a little flat and lacking in sincerity. Bridget is also very anxious however, seemingly suffering from PTSD. She has a difficult relationship with her sister, self-harmed during her adolescence and also suffered from anorexia. I found this very interesting and brutal in its depiction, however I also felt it left Bridget a little flat. Aside from her love for her family and her PTSD, I didn’t feel there was much more to her. I think this could have been used as a compelling device in portraying how childhood abuse can strip away the essence of a person and leave them existing only via others, however, this wasn’t what I felt the writing conveyed.
What’s more, Bridget has no real agency. The murder is mostly accidental, but she finishes him off. She is pushed from one obligatory action to another, feeling trapped on her path of trying to keep her abuse a secret. As always, what makes characters interesting are their choices. Bridget has very few of those. I also had a little trouble with Bridget’s reaction to her abuser and the girl. She barely gives the girl, Isabel, a second thought. Without wanting to judge Bridget for her panic and her anxiety, I do judge her for not considering attempting to help Isabel. After the murder, she is pleased by her sixth-sense assertion that the girl hasn’t been abused, but without the murder itself (which was half accidental anyway), Bridget would have been no help at all. To me, the threat to Isabel is a perfect opening to draw Bridget out, to get her to confront her past and move. It’s a shame, I think, that Kent didn’t choose to go down this route.
Structurally, this novel has one major issue. After Carmichael’s murder, very little of real importance happens. There is a gap during which there is remarkably little tension and no real plot developments. I struggled to continue with this section of the novel.
However, a greater objection of mine is with the perspective of the journalist who is also a major character. Gill has been tracking Bridget’s abuser for many years in the hope of finally breaking the story and getting victims to step forward. The repeated assertion that those who suffered childhood abuse did so because they were weak leaves me feeling uncomfortable. This statement is mingled with the ‘abusers target vulnerable people’ line, but vulnerable does not equate to weak. ‘Weak’ is so often used as a moral judgement that this stops just short of victim-blaming. And Gill also sometimes refers to victims who ‘disappear’ and are ‘passing for normal’. The myth that all victims are forever broken or damaged or are incapable of having real lives beyond their abuse is quite problematic. The idea that a woman is forever defined by her abuse or assault is untrue and fundamentally sexist. Society still defines women by their sexual viability and attractiveness so as a consequence, survivors of assault are frequently viewed as damaged. The same ‘damaged goods’ narrative does not revolve around men who experience abuse. When sexual assault towards men is talked about, which is not often enough, it is treated in a much more isolated way.
Kent visibly made an effort to be inclusive in her novel, through the inclusion of Bridget’s sister, Carrie. Carrie is gay and has a girlfriend who doesn’t make an appearance in the novel. However, this is very much glossed over. Carmichael's cleaner, Magdalena also sleeps with Carrie, while Carrie is trying to find out more information about him after his death. However, when we learn more about Magdalena and her abusive past, Kent uses a very odd sentence: ‘The next boyfriend who’d seemed OK with her being bisexual, or gay: supportive.’ Am I missing something? Gay isn’t a catch-all term for anyone who isn’t heterosexual. This is what makes me feel that Kent should have done more research and should have spoken to more people who identify as LGBTQ+ during her writing process. Irregularities like this, and like Kent’s reference to ‘rights for transvestites’ come across as out of touch, at best. ‘Transvestite’ as a term is largely out of use nowadays as more people recognise flaws within the gender-binary and the implications this has on clothing. If clothing can be recognised as gender-less, ‘transvestite’ becomes obsolete.
Aside from the major plotting issue with What We Did, most of my objections are to do with the presentation of the content, rather than the content itself. I feel that much of this could have been fixed by further research and dialogue prior to editing. As always, this is just my opinion, however I think this book could have been so much better with a few tweaks.
Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
Matt Haig follow on to Reasons to Stay Alive. As he’s said himself, it’s not a self-help book, but more of a discussion of anxiety and how collective anxiety, particularly online, can affect people. I feel like this book is ideal for the end of a long, anxious day when I need something comforting, but also honest and practical. Haig talks very publicly about his mental health on social media and this book reads a little like an extension of a lot of the things he discusses there. Except of course with more scope and detail, without being limited in the number of characters he can use.
In particular, I found this to be a very soothing pre-bedtime read. It’s one to the books I’ve tried, and failed, to ration out. Haig’s writing feels like a familiar friend, offering advice and compassion. If you’ve ever experiences anxiety, or known someone who has, I recommend this book. It gives a raw, honest description of mental illness and elaborates on some of the subjects he touched upon in Reasons to Stay Alive, for example, medication.
Whether you use it as a resource to help you cope with mental illness, to help make you feel less alone or to provide ideas to help you recover from bad days, or whether you just want to understand how anxiety works and how it’s spreading via our online presence, you should pick up this book.