As February finishes, I’ve now read 22 books this year so far, which Goodreads thinks puts me 6 books ahead of my 100-book target – hooray! I don’t have time to write about all of them, but here are a few more on which I had Thoughts.
‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ science-fiction
I’ve been particularly interested in ‘speculative fiction’ or ‘soft’ sci-fi recently because my work-in-progress fits squarely into the category, but I’ve always loved stories that have a magical, high-concept feel but which are still linked closely to our present-day world. I’m also interested in novels that take familiar genres and mix them with elements of science fiction or fantasy. Katie Khan’s debut, Hold Back the Stars, pulls this trick off for romance. It focuses on Carys and Max, two young lovers who find themselves stranded in space with only ninety minutes of oxygen remaining. As they try to get back to their ship, the narrative moves between their race against time and flashbacks of their past on Earth – where their relationship was initially thwarted by ‘Europia’ rules about the age at which you can form a long-term partnership. Before I started Hold Back the Stars, I thought it would be another novel about a dystopian future – but actually, Khan’s vision of Europia, if not perfect, was a lot more positive than I expected, which was intensely refreshing. It’s difficult not to warm to both Carys and Max, and the chapters that narrate their series of smart responses to their life-threatening situation were both fun and gripping.
Hold Back the Stars, I suspect, will be a little controversial, because of its deployment of multiple endings – a device that kicks in about two-thirds of the way through. There was a great discussion of the potential problems of the way this device was employed on Elle’s blog. In short, there’s no in-universe reason for the parallel options, they just happen. Personally, I think this is one of those situations where I agree with the criticisms but where this didn’t affect my reading experience in the slightest. I perhaps have a higher tolerance for magic and mystery than most readers of science fiction, and I wasn’t too bothered that the three threads weren’t explained. From a character perspective, I thought the device was great, complicating both Carys’s and Max’s character arcs as well as untidying tidy gender roles (it can be as restrictive to write a female character who straightforwardly contradicts traditional gender expectations as it is to write one who conforms to them – this twist, as well as Carys’s characterisation as a whole, allows her to do both, which makes her much more interesting). I’m keen to see what Khan writes next.
Alongside Hold Back the Stars, I read the final two books in Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, which in many ways, are as ‘hard’ sci-fi as you can get. Taking place in a distant future where the imperial Radch has a stranglehold over human civilisation, and maintains a precarious peace with an alien race called the Presger through an important Treaty, the books are narrated by Breq, once the AI mind of a warship, now contained in a single human body. If that wasn’t enough high-concept for you, the Radch has no concept of gender, so all characters, regardless of biological sex, are referred to as ‘she’, causing some confusion when Radchaai citizens come into contact with peoples who do use gendered pronouns. (I’ve written about my thoughts on Ancillary Justice, and on the set-up of the series, here.) However, the Ancillary novels also challenge the assumption that ‘hard’ sci-fi cannot deal with emotions, only with ideas; they are, like Hold Back the Stars, fundamentally about relationships. I loved seeing the growth of the bond between Breq and its wayward lieutenant, Sievarden, and I appreciated a similarly interesting dynamic that emerged in the second book with the character of Tiserwat. Overall, I found that I didn’t enjoy the second two novels quite as much as the first – being introduced to this mindblowingly ambitious series packed such a punch that the experience was never going to be repeated – but as a trilogy, this is a must-read.
I also finished the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, The Story of a New Name. I liked My Brilliant Friend but found it difficult to understand the hype; it seemed a very familiar, if beautifully-written coming-of-age story about the shy academic friend and the wayward attractive one. The Story of a New Name, for me, took both Elena and Lila off in a completely different direction; I loved it. There’s really nothing for me to say that hasn’t already been said before, but Ferrante is so good on the tense intensity of a certain kind of female friendship. I’m now launching into Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, with very high expectations.
What are my other reading plans for March? I have a number of exciting proofs to get through, namely:
- Laura Barnett: Greatest Hits
- Lisa McInerney: The Blood Miracles
- Ross Raisin: A Natural
- Lesley Nneka Arimah: What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky
I’ve also recently bought two other books – Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – which I’m very much looking forward to. I also want to read the Jhalak Prize shortlist – which won’t happen before the announcement of the winner – but then my shortlist reading never does.