The Tuesday Book Digest (26/03/2019)

Or: How many different ways can I name my reader’s diary?

These past few days, I had the pleasure of finishing several novels and beginning several more, as well as reading another short story by the brilliant Ursula Le Guin.

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

This is my second proper piece of historical fiction by one of the greatest contributors to the genre, the one and only Ken Follet. If I had no liking for this genre before, this book alone would’ve won me over. As it is, I’m hungry for many more words penned by the very fine Mr. Follet.

A Dangerous Fortune has an awful lot going for it, chief amongst which is a cast of compelling characters moved by very believable motivations, and a historical accuracy both in the spirit of late nineteenth-century London, as well as the details of the age. It’s a riveting tale with plosts and turns that surprised me more often than not; and that’s an ever more difficult task for someone who reads as much as I do. #wotisevenmodesty

I didn’t expect I would love a historical novel about a banking family as much as I did. The main characters I either loved, or loved to hate — the villainous Augusta, the matron of the Pilaster family of bankers, some of London’s richest and most cunning financiers, is a woman who delights in her power over others, and though she knows nothing of banking, manipulates everyone in her family (and outside it) in both subtle and very brutal ways. Everything she does, she does for her son, Edward (or Teddy, as she calls him), as well as her own advancement in society. She is blind that her pampering and humouring of Edward’s every want and need has made a monster of her son. The fact that he’s an inept banker is besides the point.

Edward’s counterpoint in every way is Hugh Pilaster, the family’s black sheep through no fault of his own. Hugh’s father kills himself over the bancrupcy of his businesses; an event that hardens Hugh early on and makes of him a principled and ambitious banker, scrupolous and very much aware of the responsibility all employees in financial institutions should be conscious of (but rarely are, as the 2008 crash, and many others besides, show). I was awed by Hugh, and cheered for him harder than for most other characters I’ve been reading about–and I’ve been reading about some incredible characters these past few months!

The pacing, twists and turns, and characters all will leave you breathless, if ever you decide to pick this one up. In all honesty, had I read this book three years ago, I’d probably have taken a wholly different relation to my finance classes in university! Oh, well!

A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

I read an ARC of this one, and it is a beautiful, inspired science fiction novel, filled with truly masterful worldbuilding and brimming with political intrigue. I’ll say no more: you can expect my review of it very, very soon, over at BookNest.eu. I regret being unable to release it today, as it is technically launch day over at the USA (though I did see it already on sale in a Swedish bookstore last week, which surprised and confounded me to no end.)

Stay tuned for that, I’ll post a link on one or all of my social media channels as soon as it goes online! Follow my twitter, in particular, if you haven’t yet!

Semley’s Necklace by Ursula K. Le Guin

The second story in the “Real and the Unreal, Vol. 02” anthology, “Semley’s Necklace” is one half fantasy, one half science fiction, and all tragedy! Semley is a beautiful alien princess from a race that has attributes that reminded me of the Norse gods — warlike and proud, tall and stunning. However, her people are destitute, have been ever since the “Star Lords” came into contact with them, and all war of conquest between the natives of the world has come to an end. In the backdrop of all this is the story of Semley, who seeks riches enough for her lord husband, the prince of their people. She goes on a quest to reclaim a great treasure of her people, in the hope that it’ll be tribute enough for her family.

This short story very much feels like a classical myth, again of Norse origins. Towards the end, however, things take a turn that pierces the heart in its tragedy. I recommend this one with the greatest pleasure.

Thank you for reading!

Currently Listening to: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Currently Reading: The Imbued Lockblade by M. D. Presley.

Reader’s Diary: March 03, 2019: Le Guin and Iggulden

I’ve the highest regard for Ursula K. Le Guin. In tandem with that, I have something rather more tangible: one of her volumes of “The Unreal and the Real,” in particular the second volume, called “Outer Space, Inner Lands”. And what a fine volume of short stories it is — if you’ve little experience with shorter fiction, you, my friends, need to buy yourselves some Gaiman, a bit of Poe, Le Guin, a hundred others!

The first story in “Outer Space, Inner Lands” is “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a Hugo Award-winning piece, very short and all too brilliant. This short story breaks most, if not all of the guidelines your average creative writing class will impose on you; and yet, Le Guin’s story is superb in its prose, skill, and the moral and philosophical quandry it puts forwards.
What price is the happiness of the many worth? And what difference does the knowledge of the price paid make?

This story is a mind-fuck, in other words.

It is also a shining example of what short stories can achieve, the feats they are capable of. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is the kind of short story that, like “The Lottery” will long remain in your minds, for years and years to come.

One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt.

Found this on Google, don’t know what edition it’s from — some booklet, perhaps?

Today also marks the day when I finally finished my first proper historical fiction novel: “Dunstan” by Conn Iggulden!

This one, I got on one of the Audible.co.uk (Audible — it sales books that speak to you!) Daily Deals. It tells the story of Dunstan of Glastonbury, one of England’s most beloved saints. It’s a fictionalised account of the patron-saint of blacksmiths, a man who saw and served in one capacity or another seven kings of England, put the crown on the heads of several of them, and supposedly even held the devil by the face with the help of his tongs.

Wild stuff! This fictionalised account of his life explains away the miracles in ways both amusing and sobering, showing Dunstan to be a man of impressive willpower, action and greatest cunning. It’s this cunning that serves to raise Dunstan from son of a minor Thane to Archbishop and Kingmaker. A very fine novel, though it took me a while to get into. Perhaps too much time was spent on Dunstan’s childhood but it served to develop his character well.

Dunstan’s sins are many, nearly as many as his great successes. The characters of the myriad kings he served under come alive on the page, and even though I knew what was coming (history nerd alert!) to most of them, I was still overcome by tension — Iggulden’s easy prose and the wry tone of his narrator, an older, experienced Dunstan at the dusk of his life, did much to make this a captivating listen.

The narration was also fantastic — thank you, Geoffrey Beevers!

“What is a first line, but a door flung open by an unseen hand?”

I’m just excited to have finally taken my first steps into the unimaginably vast, detailed world of historical fiction. I’ll be reading (or listening to) more Iggulden in the future…but first, I think, it’s time to explore Ken Follet. It’s been a long time coming.

A Wizard of Earthsea: Yester-year’s Magic is All the More Potent

Illustrated by Charles Vess

Ursula K. Le Guin’s legacy will echo throughout the world of fantasy for as long as the genre is read. Chief amongst her works are the six novels (and several short stories) based in Earthsea, a world of seas and islands, and adventure most of all. I’ve had this classic on my TBR pile for ages, and when I stumbled on an excellent Black Friday deal on the Complete Earthsea Illustrated Edition with art by Charles Vess, I knew the time had finally come.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a 56,000-word novel, less than 200 pages in length in most paperbacks, a mere 125 pages in this glorious edition; for all that, it took me several days to make my way through. This is no page-turner that keeps you on your nails; rather, it’s a slow dive in a world that is half fairy tale, half “Young Merlin and Gandalf going on a quest of self-discovery”.

Self-discovery is something Le Guin places emphasis on. Our main character is Sparrowhawk, who will one day, we are told, grow up to be among the greatest wizards of Earthsea and certainly the greatest voyager and adventurer the world has ever seen. But before he became a legendary Archmage, Sparrowhawk was first known as Ged, an apprentice prideful for the depth of his talent and the well of his power. Going yet further back, he was a child on the island of Gont, motherless and raised by a blacksmith father without an ounce of tenderness; and taught in his first words of power by a village witch whose own knowledge of magic consists as much of truth as it does of old wives’ tales and fraudulent imitation.

Ged’s thirst for learning takes him far, to an unknown land where he studies among some of the greatest of wizards; but one lesson, more important than all others, he learns all on his own.

Power used unwisely and to one’s own prideful ends, is not the wizard’s way. 

It’s a hard lesson, and one that haunts Ged, defines his journey as the wizard recovers from a terrible ritual that let loose a thing of shadow into the world. 


“To light a candle is to cast a shadow…” 


Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea is about Ged’s moral journey and his coming face-to-face with his personal demons — and not dispatching, but embracing them and becoming whole. It’s a book also about friendship and the strength of kindness, which is often more powerful and significant than the greatest magic worked by master wizards. It’s about trust. Time and time again, it’s about “unshaken, unshakable” trust. 

“If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged, who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakable trust.” 

Illustrated by Charles Vess

But I’ve said enough about Ged. To learn the full length of his journey from a brash boy to a humble wizard, take the time to read the novel. And hey, if the journey of self-discovery isn’t enough…

A dragon awaits within these pages, and his face-off with our young wizard is a thing to behold, a thing of great beauty.

But before I let you go, I’d like to turn your attention to Le Guin’s prose, and her. Her words have a magical, enchanting quality about them. They seep into you gently, unerringly; and the lessons of the book stay once you’ve closed and put the book away. Long after, I’m willing to bet.  She does so much with little enough — the supporting characters aren’t particularly deep and they won’t offer some thorough observation of the human soul; and as I previously mentioned, this is no sprawling epic. It is, however, compelling to no end, and the world of Earthsea is a magical place.

And — something I didn’t know until I saw Charles Vess’ illustrations; Ged isn’t white. Funny how so many of the covers (and subsequent fan art) I’ve seen completely misrepresent the colour of the main character, portraying him as your run-of-the-mill white wizard. But he’s not, in a book originally published in the late 60’s — and that’s enormously important. Le Guin continually subverts expectations in tiny ways, even this early on in the genre’s history, even when, in some ways, this is the most traditional of fantasy stories. It receives my glowing recommendation.

You should read this if: 

  • You enjoy quests of self-discovery;
  • You’re looking to explore the roots of the fantasy genre;
  • You, like me, love the grimdark genre but could occasionally use a break and a reminder that the human condition is defined by more than just pain, betrayal, and loadsa murder! 
  • You have a love for magic that works on the basis of naming objects and creatures by their true names;
  • You’ve ever had a passing interest in the works of Ursula K. Le Guin;
  • You enjoy prose on the edge of the fairytale-like! 
  • And more! Prob’ly.

 
“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do…”

Thanks for reading, everyone! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on my blog, mostly because I’ve been posting my reviews over at the wonderful BookNest.eu ; but I hope to be doing more on here, as well! Discussions such as this, not quite reviews, about older books; some lists I’ve been working on; maybe a few “Favourite Male/Female Characters in Fantasy (2018)” lists! There’s plenty more to come.