Friday, September 24, 2021

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

I knew from the moment that I read the blurb that I'd enjoy The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. The premise is right on the mark for me: the musically gifted Nannerl Mozart wishes to be remembered, but in a world that favours men, with women relegated to being carers and mothers, a future as a shining star in music is out of reach. Not only that, but Nannerl finds herself overshadowed by her younger brother Mozart, who becomes the focus of their father's obsession for fame. 

As a musician, I already knew some of Mozart's history, and I enjoyed how Lu brings Nannerl's world to life, where travel was often a wearying, toilsome process in a shaking carriage and diseases like smallpox drove fear into people's hearts. Lu's knowledge of and love for music shines through in every chapter.

At its heart, this is a story about family, and the special bond between brother and sister, but also a journey into the dream-like kingdom of Back, where the unnerving faerie Hyacinth presides. I got serious Labyrinth vibes off the novel as a whole, with Hyacinth's fair fa├žade masking a more disturbing darkness much in the same way that Jareth the Goblin King at first presents himself as a dubious benefactor to the innocent, trusting Sarah. And in much the same way, Nannerl's own awakening as a young woman is reflected in Hyacinth as her animus.

What at first seems a magical intrusion into Nannerl's life soon takes a more sinister turn, as she navigates the choppy waters of growing up and finding her place in the world, while also coming to grips with the bargain she's struck with Hyacinth. I won't spoil, but I will say this much: the ending was bittersweet and subtle, and the author's message about women's rights crystal clear. How many other young women throughout the ages have had to take a back seat due to societal norms? This resonated strongly with me. 

Lu's writing is as musical as her subject matter, and her descriptions bring the story vividly to life. There were parts of the tale that dragged a little, and the conclusion is more a gradual, somewhat predictable unfolding as Nannerl aims to set injustices right, but overall this is a thoroughly enchanting story that I'd recommend to anyone who cares about the dreams of young women.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

A Blessing of Unicorns by Elizabeth Bear

I've been meaning to get into Elizabeth Bear's writing for a while now, so when A Blessing of Unicorns popped up in my Audible suggestions, I thought why the hell not. Only in hindsight do I see it's book 2 of a sequence of stories – The Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries, but it didn't bother me none that I missed the first instalment, and I may well go back to pick it up when I have a moment.

I will admit that it took a little getting used to narrator Zehra Jane Naqvi's voice, perhaps because the previous audiobook I'd listened to had been read by a man with a much deeper voice, but once I was over the initial shift, I got into Naqvi's style.

Set in the 2070s, which aren't that much different than current times, save for the deeper reliance on virtual and augmented reality than we have currently, A Blessing of Unicorns has Bangalore-based Police Sub-Inspector Ferron trying to figure out why internet-famous influencers are going missing. Not to mention figuring out why the missing women's flats are filled with small herds of artificial lifeforms in the form of multi-coloured unicorns.

Overall, this is a somewhat playful mystery that pokes sticks at society's tendency to put internet-famous influencers and their rather artificial lives on a pedestal. I enjoyed it, especially for the non-Western-centric flavour in speculating on an India of the future. And Ferron is a delight, and a pleasing change from the usual jaded, hard-bitten cops that often crop up in these sorts of stories.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I have a terrible admission to make. In all my years, up until the tender age of 43, I had never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yes, I know. Unforgivable. Especially if you consider how iconic the character is in terms of how the monster has permeated Western culture in fiction and cinema. Chances are also good, that many of you might've seen the creature on screen rather than leap off the pages of the source material. And I'll add here that loads of people didn't quite get the nuance of Shelley's story when we peel back the layers to understand who the real monster is.

Hint: It's not the creature.

At least, that's not how I see it.

What makes Frankenstein or, as it's also known, The Modern Prometheus, even more amazing is that Shelley started writing it at the tender age of 18, and it was published when she was 20, in 1818. How many of us can boast such a feat? Hells, I only finished my first novel after I turned 30. And it certainly wasn't even a touch near the mastery that Shelley boasts.

Frankenstein is a classic example of a Gothic novel, and I'd hazard to argue that it firmly straddles both the science-fiction and horror genres, and if you're serious about writing SFF, it's one of those works that is an absolute must to have delved into if you consider yourself an author who has earned their chops.

I haven't had as much time as I'd have liked to sit down and read the novel, but was able to pick up a copy included in my Audible subscription – a win. So I'd like to give a massive shout-out to the narrator, Dan Stevens, who did an absolutely amazing job with his characterisation of not only Victor Frankenstein, but the creature, and also Captain Walton, all of whom are important narrators.

Each has a particular viewpoint of the situation as unreliable narrators of the story: Frankenstein in his hubris and denial in his role as creator; the creature in his failed quest for personhood; and Walton as an impartial observer who introduces and ties up the story. 

There's much more to this story than merely a mad scientist playing god – if you delve deeper, it's a look at what makes us truly human, the capacity to reason, to feel pain. On a meta-level, it can even be viewed as a story that shakes its fist at an uncaring, unfeeling and selfish god who creates without care for his creations. And, also, a cautionary tale of not taking anyone or any situation at face value – with far-reaching consequences. 

I kept asking myself: what if Victor had not recoiled in horror? How different would this story have been? Instead, I found myself growing increasingly angry with the man in his hubris and denial in his role for having created this monster. Yes, yes, there'd have been no story otherwise, but I couldn't help but feel for the wretched monster so desperate to find love and acceptance. 

If you, like me, have yet to give this story a spin in its original format, but don't have the time to read, then I wholeheartedly recommend this edition from Audible. It's incredibly well produced and Shelley's writing is nothing short of magnificent.