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I'm extremely confused by what's going on with this book. There's some interesting (if incomplete) worldbuilding, but the plot manages to be mostly unsurprising and kind of dull. The political reality also makes no sense - either in the sense of domestic or global politics. It reads like there were some great ideas here that just didn't cohere into a book.

For a book with such a big scope, Summerland just feels too small. It's like there are only fifteen real people in the world. This is the kind of book where a character can walk into a famous members' club and immediately stumble across the one person they desperately needed to see. Everything seems to take place in an extremely narrow slice of England - mostly London, with a few places in the home counties thrown in. Even the portions of Summerland that we see are functionally the same as Whitehall. We see about five seconds of action on the front in the Iberian Peninsula, and that's it. 

Oh, and Rachel, the main character, grew up in India. She's called Rachel White and she's very pale (she refers to her pale complexion as her "best feature" at one point and this thought is not like, examined in any way....) and her mother has an extremely English-Upper Class name so I'm assuming she is a posh British child who was brought up in India as the daughter of a colonial officer of some kind. India is mentioned a handful of times, mostly as somewhere with better weather than England, or through Rachel's childhood nanny, who talked to her of spiritual things. That's about it, for India, though. In this book, it's a faraway warm place and it smells of spices.

I'm not saying this book is uncritical about the British Empire. But its criticisms look inwards. They focus on the crumbling nature of the white male patriarchy that runs the intelligence agencies, and not that much else. It's a book trying to be about big, expansive, almost global matters. But all it cares about is England.

Even Russia is just a faraway place where Lenin once lived, and which occasionally snares British agents and turns them with the promise of all-knowing typewriters and the promise of your spirit one day becoming part of God.

All of this means that I never felt that the war in Spain was real (and not just some theoretical bargaining chip that would bend to the exact will of whichever faction won control of it). In this world, 1938 Germany conveniently has nothing going on. Somehow nor do any of southern Europe or Asia or like, the USA or anywhere else in the world. For the story to make sense, the UK and the Soviet Union are the only world powers that matter. It doesn’t work. I am unconvinced. When the final act of the book suddenly tries to make the stakes into the survival of the afterlife it’s just not convincing. I can believe in a fictional world where Victorian spiritualism is real. But I can’t believe in a fictional 1938 with such a simple, basic geopolitical reality.

I found H.P. West very interesting but don't know enough about H.G. Wells to get as much out of his inclusion as some readers will. I think it's plain that Rajaniemi enjoyed writing him because he's written with a lot of kindness and empathy that shine through small details that are used to build a picture of him and his life - and we don't necessarily always see those for all of the other characters, although for the most part I thought that Rachel and Peter were both handled well.

But... in a book that is supposed to be so occupied with the threat of global war (because the threat of another world war is constantly mentioned, even though so much of the world is absent)... many of the most engaging scenes involved West crouched over his Small Wars (a type of war-game played with small figurines). Or they involved Rachel and her pet birds. Or... actually my favourite scene might involve a clandestine meeting in a strange wax museum.

Rajaniemi's prose is mostly pretty good, and at times I really enjoyed reading this. It's just a shame I also spent a lot of the time frustrated. Rajaniemi can write! He can write thrilling action scenes and affecting small moments and he can create characters I care about. But tying those together with an engaging world and a coherent plot that works on multiple different scales/scopes has eluded him here.
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 Hardback cover of A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer.

Not as perfect for me as A College of Magics... but A Scholar of Magics by Caroline Stevermer still hit me hard. I am bereft that this series is now over for me. Only three books! I need more.

I have never read a book which has captured so perfectly the conflicted feelings that come from being a student at an elite institution who does not come from the expected/traditional background. This book engages somehow critically with the ways in which these instructions work while also, of course, buying into the romance, the longing you feel to be a student... and because of reasons it can’t properly engage with the fraught problems that arise once you become a student. But I don’t mind; there was plenty of that in the first book in the series, although the institution in that book is of a different kind. The model for the university in this one is Oxford or Cambridge, while in A College of Magics the model for the university (Greenlaw) is more like a girls’ boarding or finishing school.

As ever, I love Stevermer’s prose and her characters. Lambert, in particular, is wonderful. And her dons, and the students, and Jane is pretty magnificent once more although she seems to slightly fade towards the end of the book... Stevermer's writing is gentle but clever, you can feel the influence of writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers without feeling that she is weighted down by them. I enjoyed here how she wrote an American protagonist in this very English world - and how she confounded a lot of my expectations of what that was going to look like.

But really what captures me most in her writing is the way she writes about magic. There is truly something of the numinous here, it’s mysterious without being vague or woolly. The way Lambert walks the labyrinth, the way magic here is to do with proportion and order... it’s compared to cricket, to the way time works, to the structure of the universe. And magic can be glimpsed in song, in architecture, in maths... yes, yes, give me more of this always. I’m also obsessed with a too-brief scene which takes place in a magical forest, and the way she builds on a very effective mythology. I would have eaten up much more of that.

I want more. This book works well as a standalone but it ends just as a new portion of Samuel's life begins (much as A College of Magics ends on the same sort of change for Faris), and here we don't even have the promise of a sequel with glimpses of him in.
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I finished reading Josephine Tey's book The Daughter of Time. I liked it less and less as it went on - I guess as the charm and wit of the narration and characters wore off, and the historical mystery part really set in.

I'm not actually opposed to the structure. But none of the twists felt like twists, and instead of reading like a mystery it reads like an argument. And an unconvincing argument made with weak evidence, at that. I know it's 60-odd years old, but honestly. It makes me think of Keats, can you believe it:

But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist? Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself. Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven, and yet want confidence to put down his half-seeing. Sancho will invent a Journey heavenward as well as anybody. We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket.

It feels very much like it was written to convince me of Richard III's innocence, and for nothing else... all of the rest of it is just there to try and convince me, to make me read the argument at the heart of it. Well, I am unconvinced.

Also I didn't like the general political tone, or the odd outburst about how effective and wonderful capital punishment is.
penguin paperback cover of josephine tey's daughter of time

I have been struggling to read much else - sadly, the fact that this was short and charming without much else going on probably worked in its favour. I didn't hate it - I enjoyed a lot of it. I just kind of wish I hadn't enjoyed it so much. And I'm liking it less and less as time goes on. It's a weird thing - sometimes I come to love a film a few days after seeing it, sometimes I like a book while I'm in its grip and hate it afterwards. A Little Life, I'm looking at you.

I also read Sofia Samatar & Del Samatar's Monster Portraits recently, and before that I read Anne Boyer's A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. In order to write about those I would need to be about 4000% times cleverer, with both books spread out in front of me. Total works of sparky, magical genius. I think they do well being read alongside each other, too. Monster Portraits is fantastical memoir, the short lyric essay/prose poem borderline as fiction which tells the truth.

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate is fabulist in many places, for some of the same broader reasons... realism is an overrated mode, and there are many things that can be achieved more elegantly with other modes. In Monster Portraits, it's about reshaping the past, making something new of the past. In A Handbook... it's sometimes about this, but sometimes, often, whether fabulist or realist, it's about imagining, planning, looking for a way out of the present. Into a new place, future, present, century.

Anyway, as I say, this isn't a review. It's not. It's just some thoughts about some books that I somehow, surprising even myself, managed to finish reading.
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book cover for A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer

I love almost everything about this book. A lot of the reviews on Goodreads take issue with the fact that it's not what it was sold as: I don't care much about that.

It's a three-volume novel in one volume. The first of those three volumes is a story about a magical women's college-cum-finishing school named Greenlaw, which owes more to girls' boarding school adventure stories (an excellent genre of book) than to anything else. It's very good at what it is, but the real fun begins when Faris leaves the college behind.

The college section is absorbing when you're in it; as soon as you leave Greenlaw, it becomes a kind of idyll that you're shut out from forever, always gazing back. It feels very real - to a certain kind of college experience.

Volume two is a travel adventure with intrigue and magic in Paris, a bomb turned into a very nice hat, and... a journey on the orient express.

Volume three is... I don't even know how to sum it up. A masquerade ball, political machinations, more magic. My heart broken into pieces.

The magic in this book is mysterious, and it has something of the numinous, something of... I don’t know, the mystery of the sublime about it. There is no magic system that can be easily grasped, which is all the better for me. It’s about feeling, and patterns, and loops of thought, and inner strength, and responsibility and sacrifice. And really, this is a book which seems to be about devotion in a lot of different forms. One of the ways in which it is about devotion is in the magic.

But why do i love this book so much? Why is it so fiercely dear to me?

I love all of the characters. This is the truth of it. I wanted more time with all of them. How does she do this? She writes everyone with such care. Almost everyone we meet is not who they seem; by which I mean, they are much more than they seem, at first. These are characters with an endless capacity for surprise, because the writing is so generous and subtle. I re-read one scene maybe ten times because I wanted to understand precisely what a character was saying about love in it, because there was allusion and sarcasm and something genuine beneath all of that. All there on the page - it just needs teasing out.

Tyrian, i love you. And i love Jane, and Reed, and Faris, and i even love Faris’s horrible uncle. And yet what really gets at me somehow even more than the characters themselves is the dynamics between the characters. Their relationships are so true and real and deeply felt. The tiny details, the unexpected moments. Oh, I love all of it.

Which is to say: the friendship in this book is wonderful, and is the root of so much else. But the romance destroyed me. In both the good way and also in a way that isn’t necessarily bad, but. The final twist hurts. I've seen it described as bittersweet: this can’t even begin to sum up the mix of emotions for me! Hi! It has hurt my feelings a lot!

This book broke my heart, in a way I expected (i looked up spoilers for one of the threads of this book before I went in) and in another way that I totally didn't see coming. Don't be fooled by the early 20th century boarding school adventure story feel, or by the sly joke Stevermer is playing when she makes this into one of the three-volume novels that Faris and Jane (and Tyrian?) love: this is not a pastiche, it's too clever and it hurts too much for that.

(find this review on goodreads here)


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December 2018

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