“Black Feathers” Joseph D’Lacey

Joseph D’Lacey’s book Black Feathers is set part in a world just sideways to our own, and partly in the future of that world. The “present day” parts follow Gordon as he grows up to the cusp of puberty then has to learn to live in & deal with the dystopian & crumbling society of 2013’s Britain – a world that’s like but not like our own, where the sinister Ward have taken over the role that the police & the government should be playing. The future follows Megan, again a child on the verge of becoming an adult. Her poor but idyllic sounding childhood ends as she’s called to be apprenticed to Mr Keeper, a shaman-like figure who remembers the story of the Black Dawn & the coming of the Bright Day. Gordon & Megan’s stories are interlinked – most prominently through the figure of the Crowman. Venerated, worshipped and feared in Megan’s day, he’s just whispered about as a shadowy figure in Gordon’s time and somehow Gordon is linked to him. There’s something dreamlike about the story, which seems appropriate to both Megan’s initiation into mysteries & Gordon’s search for the Crowman. It’s a dark & twisted dream, tho – gruesome and unpleasant things happen – and it’s not clear if ultimately it’s going to come to a good or a bad end.

I’m … not sure what I think of this book. I started off really liking it, but somewhere along the way I forgot that it was the first part of a series (a duology I think) and then it just kinda stopped. There’s not much in the way of resolution to either story thread and yet I wasn’t really left wanting to find out what happened next – I’d sort of run out of enthusiasm for it. Like somehow I thought the idea only had legs for one book’s length and now I’m left thinking “oh, there’s another whole book to fill?”.

There’s stuff I did like – the ambiguity of the Crowman for instance. The things the characters say imply ultimately he (it?) is a force for or personification of something good or at least mostly beneficial even if not in ways that humanity can always comprehend. But the way the narrative shows him to the reader is as much darker and twisted, I’m not sure if there’s anything “good” about the Crowman at all. But equally he’s set against the Ward, who are definitely not good at all – they’re a menacing caricature of secret police that don’t seem to have any redeeming features at all. So this is not a face off between good & evil, but it is a face off with evil.

But overall, I’m not sure what I think. And I suspect by the time the next book is published next year I’ll’ve forgotten about the series.

“Life After Life” Kate Atkinson

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is an astonishingly hard to categorise book. Part historical fiction, part alternate history, part historical fantasy. And probably properly classified as “literary fiction”. We follow the life of Ursula Todd, born on 11th February 1910 to a well-to-do middle class English family as she lives her life over & over again. Every time she dies she starts all over again, and each time things go a little differently. Atkinson tells the story through a series of vignettes of the key events in each life. It’s very much a book where the journey is the point rather than the destination, and the structure of it reinforces that. We loop back over & over to the snow of February 1910 where each time the same(ish) scene is told differently. At the end of each life the refrain is “Darkness fell” (or words to that effect).

At first each life lasts a little longer than the previous one as Ursula avoids the pitfalls of early childhood. Just as I was starting to wonder if Ursula could remember anything from life to life Atkinson started to make it clear that there was some leakage – Ursula would have a sense of deja vu or a sense of dread. Later the memories that carry from life to life are more complete & there’s a sense that Ursula can choose how things are going to go this time round. There’s also the way that Ursula chooses more adult solutions to problems in later lives – at first to successfully get past a death from influenza in 1918 she can only resort to pushing Bridget down the stairs when the sense of dread hits her. In a later go round she engineers a falling out between Bridget & her fiancĂ© which is a much more subtle way of preventing the trip to London (and gets Ursula into a lot less trouble).

The book doesn’t end where I thought it would – neither way I thought it would end, in fact. At first I’d thought that perhaps we’d see her live longer & longer – getting past the knot of deaths of influenza in 1918, and through the Second World War (another knot of deaths). But the life where we see her make it to 1967 & retirement isn’t the end. Another ending that wasn’t the way it ended was when we looped back to the very first vignette in the book – which isn’t Ursula’s birth, it’s 20 year old Ursula assassinating Hitler. It’s the classic time travel theme – prevent the Second World War by killing Hitler. And we do loop back to that, and it’s clear that Ursula is doing this knowing the consequences of Hitler’s rule of Germany. Interestingly, it’s not precisely the same scene that opened the book, some of the details are different. So we’re not seeing all the lives that Ursula lives, just key ones to give a flavour of the possibilities (just like each life we only see the key moments). But this is not where the book ends, either.

Which left me feeling a bit like I’d missed something with how the book did end. One of the phrases running through the book is “Practice makes perfect”, often said by Ursula’s mother. And there’s a strong impression that the last life we get a couple of scenes from is supposed to be the closest to perfection yet – Ursula’s mother manages to prevent Ursula’s death at birth despite the non-arrival of the doctor by having the right tools at hand. And Teddy, Ursula’s favourite brother, survives the war. Which implies that the war is somehow necessary? But then how would Ursula know – she doesn’t survive the assassination of Hitler either time we see it happen, so she doesn’t know if the world is better. Maybe I’m reading too much into that – maybe it’s just meant to be a sign that there isn’t an ending and Ursula will continue to live through all the possible permutations.

The characters are well drawn, and through the repeated lives you get to see how the core personality of each person stays the same but the way events fall out changes how that manifests. The centre of the story is always Ursula, but also prominent are Sylvie (her mother) and Izzy (her father’s younger sister) who are two opposing poles of role models for womanhood. Sylvie is a respectable housewife & mother whose whole self is poured into those roles. Izzy elopes at 16, she has a child out of wedlock, she writes novels & newspaper columns, she lives in London on her own. She is the epitome of the new freedom a single woman can have in the London of the 1920s & beyond. At first Sylvie seems the more sympathetic character, and Izzy to be rather selfish & scatty. But over the course of several lives Sylvie seems less selfless & a lot more concerned with appearances and with respectability, and Izzy is always there when Ursula needs someone.

This was a really good book. This time I’ve read it as a library book, but I think I might buy myself a copy – it’s a book that will be good to re-read. In particular later tellings of similar scenes often reveal a little more about some character’s motivations/personality so when you re-read you will get a bit of a richer experience. It seems apt that this is a story with themes of repetition with variation & of the journey being more important than the destination, and it’s a book about which both of those things are true.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield; “The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Two books in one post, because I don’t think I’ve got much to say about either of these. I read most of both while we were up visiting J’s parents last weekend, tho I started “In Great Waters” before.

“In Great Waters” Kit Whitfield

This book took a while to get going for me, then I found the end disappointing and too neatly tied up for my tastes. In this alternate history merpeople are real and the kings & queens of Europe are descended from a hybrid, who took control of Venice back in the day. Every non-landlocked country wants a hybrid ruler because then they can get their coastal merpeople to stop invasions from other countries. The merpeople (who are never referred to as that, they are deepsmen) aren’t quite intelligent although they have language and are almost “human”. Because the royal families all descend from one woman, and so have been interbreeding for several generations they have all sorts of health issues. But “bastards” i.e. non-royal-family hybrids are strictly forbidden & burnt to death if found.

The story is seen from two points of view – Henry, a bastard brought up by deepsmen for the first few years of his life before being cast out, and Anne, youngest daughter of the current English royal family which is in the midst of a succession crisis. I think one of my problems with getting properly sucked into the book is that Henry is pretty alien in perspective (good in theory, but didn’t help me get immersed) and Anne spends most of the book being a passive observer (not even always seeing enough to be sure what’s going on). So the story seemed to happen off the page for the first two thirds of the book, then suddenly our two characters are the centre of it all and everything gets resolved. And I think the implications are that we all live happily ever after, except for those who don’t. And I just don’t buy that.

I did like the pseudo-Tudor court with its paranoid politics. I also liked the way Henry goes through culture shock when he gets kicked out of his deepsman life into a landsman life – and never quite gets over his upbringing even if he gets socialised to some degree. It felt real and made for an interesting character. Just it was hard to sympathise with him and made the first few chapters which are solely his point of view more difficult to get invested in. Whereas Anne was sympathetic (and again felt real) but given it’s a plot point that she projected an image of being a bit “simple” in public there’s a lot of watching things happen around her.

“The Iron King” Maurice Druon

Got this out of the library due to a review which mentioned that George R. R. Martin has said that Druon’s books were an influence on A Song of Ice & Fire. Druon is a French author, who published the seven books of his Accursed Kings series in the 1950s in French (the translation I read was done by Humphrey Hare and I’m not sure if that was a new one for this edition or is the one done in the 50s).

The Iron King tells a fictionalised version of the last year or so of the reign of Philip the Fair, Philip IV of France. To give some context, for those like me who are shaky on French history, his daughter Isabella married Edward II of England. Their son was Edward III of England (and he’s the one that kicks off the Hundred Years War (post)). The bulk of the plot revolves around the final events of the prosecution & persecution of the Templars, and Isabella’s campaign to expose her brothers’ wives infidelity. I think it keeps fairly close to the actual events of history where they’re known (and it has footnotes telling you more details sometimes!).

I liked reading it, but it did feel rather old-fashioned. Not sure if I’ll seek out the others in the series or not. I might prefer to read an actual history book about these people instead.