A Review of Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
It’s been a while since this book came out and I only started reading An Absolutely Remarkable Thing now. I had bought it right away on the first day when a copy was available in my local book store in Freiburg. I’ve moved since, but now that its sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor (- curse you American English spelling), I really had to give this one a go.
You might have gathered from this blog already if you were attentive to it, that I follow Hank Green’s work in more than his books. I’ve been a subscriber to his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, he runs together with his brother John Green, for more than 7 years by now. And I derive a tremendous amount of enjoyment from his work and the work of his production company Complexly, so I would be lying if this enjoyment wouldn’t colour my views on this book, Hank Green’s debut novel.
My life over the past weeks has been wild. It has been a while since I finished this book, now that I come to writing this review. I’m heavily relying on my notes that I made while reading.
But let’s get to it without much further ado.
An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is an interesting novel, exploring themes mostly around the concept of fame. It’s protagonist April is a young bisexual woman thrust into fame by the appearance of a mysterious robot or sculpture, that appeared in cities all around the world. Somewhere between social media, and cable news punditry, April takes on the task to advocate for the mysterious visitors all the while her personal relationships are thrown into turmoil by her fame, but also her inability to have honest and open conversations with her loved ones.
Hank Green has talked about the fact that he might have ADHD in the past here. And to me, April felt like an honest representation of a young adult with ADHD, even if other reviewers have noted that April just very much feels like an extension of Hank Green himself, which honestly is a fair description, even if I might add that living with ADHD and feeling like Hank Green aren’t exactly opposite ends of the scale, even if Hank Green had a huge amount of privilege in his life.
The appearance of the Carls, as the robot statues are lovingly called, brings up the main conflict of this book around a line of xenophobia versus open-mindedness. This conflict gets addressed in a media war. While humanity collectively is tasked to solve puzzles that appear in synchronised dreams.
My biggest problems with the book I had were honestly the discomfort I experienced from confronting my own interpersonal relationship problems mirrored in how April deals with her girlfriend Maya, and the focus on fame and punditry. I just cared too little about the televised interactions between April May and Peter Petrawicki. The same is true for the veneration the fictional US President of this near-future sci-fi story receives. This is especially true considering the shenanigans of current US politics.
Nevertheless, this was a very quick and enjoyable read, even if I cringed at the inconsiderate behaviour of its protagonist all too often.
This book is a joyously crafted and thrilling sci-fi story imbued with the media conflict of our own time. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in young adult sci-fi stories that value good representation. Even if of course that representation isn’t flawless.
This book definitely isn’t flawless, but it has enough charm and enough will to try to be as good as it can be, that it remains enjoyable throughout despite some cringe-worthy moments, that are honestly as much about myself as they are about the book. I look forward to reading its sequel A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor soon.
When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.
Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.
That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.
The Physical Book
I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.
And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.
Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.
Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.
Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.
Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.
To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.
And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.
Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.
For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.
As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.
For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:
“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand.
To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.
For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.
As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.
Crime stories have been a staple of my childhood, long before I picked up any science fiction or fantasy books, I was most likely engrossed in some thriller. My reading started with a lot of German books that combined crime with humorous story-telling. When I started to read English language books, I had moved on from my obsession with crime stories. Now I return to one with fresh eyes in this Review of a German translation of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep, which is the first entry in the series of books about the detective J.G. Reeder. The German title is John Flack.
Really in light of current events, I feel it is even more necessary to point out, that this work should at least be read with the idea of “copaganda” in mind. Terror Keep neither accurately reflects current or historic police work, nor does it offer any worthwhile views into mental health. Any story about fighting crime in the traditional sense centres a view of crime that ignores any socio-economic factors, and makes police officers into heroes as they fight “real evil”. This book offers no different perspective. It at best entertains, but you can’t escape the ideas that fiction of its kind normalises. Crime in the real world is rarely as devoid of social context as it is here.
The Physical Book
Back to the book at hand. My copy is a 1982 paperback edition hand-me-down published by Goldmann. Of course, this book has seen better times, the paper has browned with age and feels coarse, and the jacket is showing signs of wear and tear as well, but it’s holding up reasonably well for the time it’s spent being read and being stored on various bookshelves and in numerous storage boxes. It isn’t particularly long, and about 30 pages are devoted to informing the reader of various other books in the publisher’s catalogue.
Now, Terror Keep is set in 1920s UK, predominantly in London and an imaginary town called Siltbury on the cliffed coast of southern England. Both places are treated as backdrops that only need description where it figures into the plot. Siltbury is left to the reader’s imagination and familiarity with southern English towns, and London stars as the world-famous city it is with a handful of recognisable places.
More important than Siltbury itself, however, is the mansion in which much if the second and third act of this book takes place: Lamar’s Keep. It’s a cliffside manor, with a horrifying dungeon and curious inhabitants and visitors.
Most of the characters show up at Lamar’s Keep and its surroundings over time, but that’s not the interesting thing about them. Well, the interesting thing about them is that they are not interesting in and of themselves. They are pretty flat, maybe some of them are more well rounded over the entire length of the series, but they stick closely to archetypal versions of a detective story.
We have in order of appearance the mentally insane, empathyless and driven villain, who happens to be a criminal mastermind. He, fundamentally, is just an ableist trope. We have the well-experienced investigator, who doesn’t shy away from a fight. We have a love interest for the investigator, who becomes a damsel in distress. We have multiple other policemen, who are either characterised by incompetence or as mere cannon-fodder and, finally, we have multiple henchmen of the villain, who all get a weird name pointing to earlier wrongdoings.
The most striking departure from this character template has to be Miss Bellman, ostensibly the damsel in distress and love interest, who at least for first half of this book seems to hold out pretty competently and well for herself, but the realities of 1920s ideas of womanhood will get to her soon enough.
The characters aren’t, what makes this book a gripping read though. The thing that kept me riveted to the book was the ease of how different elements of the plot flowed into each other, how the characters, setting, and plot intertwined. And lead from one page to the other.
There’s not much to be said about the plot that wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s constructed with clear intent, keeping the reader guessing without alienating them with too contrived plot-twists. Some explanations and crimes mentioned within this story fall onto the gimmicky side of plots, but they were not gimmicky enough to rip me out of the flow of reading this book. There’s a well-crafted tension that was pulling me along throughout the entirety of the book.
Edgar Wallace wrote many of his books by way of dictation, and the casualness of his writing certainly shows, the point is not to tell a story in its most beautiful manifestation, but a good thrill and a gripping story. In this vein, the writing is mostly unremarkable.
There were a few moments and passages in this book where certain word choices pulled me out of the book, but I think I have to pin those down on the translation, which certainly seemed somewhat clunky at times. Often maybe through no fault of the translator. After all, there’s at least one passage of basically untranslatable wordplay around the suites of playing cards, which the translator solved by annotating explanations of these jokes. But there might have been more passages where the translator was considering such annotations but eventually decided against them to avoid interrupting the flow of the book.
This book certainly is a gripping read and a fun one at that, but it isn’t a book that makes a good point about life or anything. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun story meant to entertain a reader, sitting in bed on a stormy night, or watching the waves on a sunny beach.
There are, without a doubt, problematic parts in this book, that suggest ideas about our world that might not be worth repeating because they’re demonstrably untrue. And these parts make me question if this book is worth reading in 2020. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Far from it, I enjoyed it myself, but I don’t want to recommend this book. It’s a well-crafted thriller from almost 100 years ago. It’s showing its age. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se, but there are also better books to search out. It’s probably a guilty pleasure for me.
My last book review was about Terry Pratchett’s The Long War: The Long Wait. My next review will be about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Two Strands.
If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com
A Review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long War
It took me quite a while to get to this book, maybe a bit too long. I remember loving the first book of The Long Earth series, but it’s now nearly 4 years since I finished The Long Earth. And maybe my love for the first book of this series needs an update because The Long War, the second book of this series, definitely didn’t conjure up feelings of love from me. A fit of anger every 50 pages seems to be a better description of the feelings I hold for this book. Nevertheless, I managed to soldier through even if it took me unusually long between reviews. That’s not the fault of the book alone, a global pandemic certainly didn’t help my focus, but the book certainly had its part. So, without further ado, I’ll bring to you my explanation of why I am so angry with this book and why I still kept reading it to the bitter end.
The Physical Book
My 2014 Corgi Edition of this book, is a pretty standard paperback book. After a month of reading and at times abusing this book, the soft touch foil lamination started to fray off the cover’s paper at the bottom edges, but this is definitely not a remarkable book in this regard. A younger me would have probably destroyed the cover by peeling the lamination of completely at this point though.
As for the cover art, I think it continues the trend of being unremarkable. It’s not bad, it’s not great, but from the struggle I myself had with the art for this review, I know this book isn’t easy to translate into art, it’s to inconsistent to develop objects or scenes that would be striking or lastin in memory.
I think the world-building is truly the strongest suit of this book and the entire Long Earth series. The series is set on Earth around the 2040s, but in The Long Earth humanity at large learns to step into stepwise adjacent worlds, worlds that are similar to so-called datum earth, but took a different path in the probability tree that characterises earth’s geological history. And there are plenty of these worlds, to both the so-called East of the datum and to the so-called West of the Datum. Not all of these worlds are habitable, some are pretty lush places to settle.
These worlds are only shown in vignettes or broad descriptions, only certain places in the vastness of the Long Earth are visited or described. The singular places that are described feel real enough, but also don’t show much character necessarily.
This lack of character that plagues some of the worldbuilding, is even more rampant in the actual characters. As a sequel, this book, naturally, doesn’t have to put much effort into setting up new characters, but at few new characters are set up nevertheless making this book pretty large in scope of characters. This, of course, is an opportunity to represent a certain diversity of characters, but it also makes some of these new characters quite shallow or into mere plot-devices.
Spoilers for Specific Characters
Roberta Golding, for example, is set up as a young girl that just knows everything but has an absolute lack of empathy. She feels to me like she is coded as autistic, and her framing as the smart kid made me viscerally angry quite a few times. For most of the book, she’s accompanied by a group of minor characters that seem solely characterised by their Chinese nationality, which seems questionable to me to say the least. Not that any of her actions would matter for the plot of this book. Roberta isn’t even mentioned as a character in the list of characters for this book on its Wikipedia article.
The best addition to the cast of characters in this book is probably the priest Nelson Azikiwe, who represents a refreshingly unique perspective, even if his plotline also ends abruptly and without any character growth.
End of Character Spoilers
And this is probably the main problem with the characters. There are too many of them to give them all at least small but satisfying character arcs, and the structural issues of the plot, make even the character arcs of those lucky few, that are supposed to have development, end too abruptly.
And the plot is where the real issues lie. The plot is what made me hit myself with this book multiple times and once even made me throw it away in anger mostly for not resolving plot lines properly, what follows in the next few paragraphs contains spoilers, so be warned, but I can’t explain the structural issues properly without referencing how they end.
The main problem I see is that this book continually hints at something larger, some epic fight to come, some epic exploits to follow, but every time, the plot builds to the point where the reader is hooked, the plot isn’t resolved, but either you are sent into an unrelated chapter, things are fixed by the AI Lobsang in a Deus ex Machina fashion or, the plot is just resolved post facto, by a garden party where you get to know that everyone is alive and maybe a few hints as to what happened between the height of suspense and the narrative now.
As stated before this wrecks a lot of potential for character arcs. And while I understand that not every story necessarily needs characters that grow, there isn’t any big overarching mystery set up, except maybe the expectation of a war to come, that never arrives, and ends in a complete fake-out.
End of Plot- Spoilers
I think the amount of characters doesn’t make this easier, but I even struggle to summarise the plot without making obvious spoilers, because for the most part this book has characters in search of a plot, and if they find a piece of plot they are almost always robbed of concluding that plotline satisfactorily.
As for the writing style, this book again is pretty unremarkable, it’s reasonably well written but that just doesn’t overcome the structural issues with the plot or the assortment of characters to bring under one roof.
Now, would I recommend this book? Hell no! I know a few people who really were engrossed by the world-building and who really enjoy the whole series of books, but to me with hindsight even the first book had some of the issues of this book.
If you really like world-building this book might be a pretty enjoyable and rompy read, but don’t expect a good story. I think you can read it for the vignettes of worlds, but the book is absolutely bereft of growth. For the most part it’s characters in vague search of a plot and the titular long war that never comes.
A Review of Wolfgang Schorlau & Claudio Caiolo’s Der Freie Hund
Again, this is a German book. And I don’t really know why I’m still doing these reviews of new German books in English, but apparently, this is what I’m doing now. As with my last review, I got this book as an advanced reader copy through vorablesen.de where you can find a short review of this book (German). This is a crime story coming out later this spring. Its authors are the quite prolific writer of political crime thrillers Wolfgang Schorlau and the relatively unknown Claudio Caiolo who seems to be an Italian actor, I’ve never heard about before. That, however, isn’t surprising because I’m not really knowledgeable in the world of the famous.
Now with the last book, there was in my opinion pretty solid hints that an English translation could at some point be available. For this book, however, I don’t think that is at all likely to happen. The primary author doesn’t even have a stump of a Wikipedia page in English, and as far as I can tell none of his books is available in English. So why am I writing this review in English? Well because I want to!
The Physical Book
This book as the last one was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a paperback. This one a bit more sturdy, with thicker paper, and thicker cover, even with flaps folding out from the inside of the cover. God knows, what they are called. Maybe, one of you will enlighten me.
The cover is I think a pretty classic one for a crime story, a photo of Venice with a cruise ship beneath the dark looming clouds of a storm. Not un-striking, but also not particularly interesting in my opinion.
Venice is a beautiful city. Perhaps, it is too beautiful for its own good. Considering the torrential outpours of tourists it receives every day. Capturing a city so fundamentally torn apart in a crime novel is definitely an interesting idea, even though a famous one. After all, that’s what Donna Leon has been doing in by now almost 30 instalments of her Guido Brunetti series, that has found a wide TV audience in Germany by way of our public broadcasting’s thirst for crime shows.
As a setting now for Schorlau and Caiolo’s novel, Venice takes an interesting role. Especially the tourism and the political, environmental and structural problems it poses are integral to the setup of the quite political plot. That aside, however, Venice also lacks descriptive depth for me. At no point did I really feel at home, felt included within the city of the novel. We did get a tour through the city by the way of a somewhat shoe-horned in love affair of our protagonist, being an architectural student. Even the auditory experiences our protagonist experiences on a short trip to Cefalù on Sicily, let me feel more at home there than in Venice. And while that discrepancy actually fits in quite well with the emotional connections the protagonist is experiencing, it left me a bit too distant from the main location this book takes place in.
The plot of this book is relatively straightforward with a few twists that genuinely took me by surprise strewn in. At times, it gets quite violent, and the authors don’t shy away from describing splattering blood, death and crime scenes.
At the very least this plot manages to navigate within a very interesting field of topics between politics, corruption, and the Italian mafia. Repeatedly there are hints to past tragedy and a long history of the protagonist with the mafia, that work as an interesting subplot to the story of a murder. Little time is spent on forensics, more so on personal relations and a somewhat uncanny ability of our protagonist to unveil the lies of others.
The plot however definitely does take a while to pick up and really only captured me in the second third of this book. Especially the romantic encounters the protagonist Antonio Morello experiences took me out of it too much from time to time.
As with the plot, there’s not really much I have to say about the characters. Our protagonist Antonio Morello is reasonably well fleshed out, some minor characters lack a bit of depth and motivation beyond that what would generally be expected in a whodunit.
Morello is an interesting character, between his relationship with the mafia in Sicily and his transfer to Venice, we learn a great deal about his history and the reason why he seems incredibly adept at picking up sensory clues beyond the visual. And while the trope of disability coming with extraordinary savant-style advantages is definitely tired, I don’t think this leans too heavily on the experience of Morello’s blindness in childhood.
As for representation, this book definitely venters around heterosexual men. There’s a gay character, but his homosexuality is framed more like an extension of his role as a villain than as something that adds anything to the plot. It’s not queer coding per se, just a weird addendum in an otherwise presumed to be a straight world of characters.
Especially in the way the authors describe women that only show up once or twice within the book, there’s an excellent example of what one could call the straight male gaze. Appearances are described with the underlying intent of explaining which woman seems worthy of sexual attraction. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not male and still attracted to women, but there’s a degree of objectification in describing the stockings of a maid, even if it furthers the characterisation of one of the police officers as a sexist, that gets resolved later.
And this sexism is not at all a problem of plot and characters alone, it manifests within the writing or at least diminished my enjoyment of it. I just don’t really want to read objectifying descriptions of women. What I found interesting, however, was unique stress on experiences outside the visual. Descriptions of auditory and olfactory sensation were incredibly immersive to me and went beyond what the average crime novel offers in my experience.
Other than that the writing seemed acceptable to me even if I especially at the start before I got used to it, sometimes the abrupt switches between scenes and characters made me think I had jumped a page accidentally.
I don’t think I would really recommend this book. It was an okay read, thoroughly captivating at points, but also somewhat flawed in its writing and treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. It brings an interesting mix of ideas to the table, but that didn’t suffice to convince me to want more of this book or more of this as a series.
If you’re really into political thrillers and crime stories involving the political this book may be worth picking up, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this book never gets a release in English. I’m not sure if I’m interested in picking up more books from the same writer, but I also wouldn’t frown at getting one for my birthday.
My last book review was about Qube by Tom Hillenbrand. And my next book review is about the very short collection of Essays Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art even some of the works I created for this book review on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.
For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.
Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.
Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).
Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.
The Setting & World-Building
Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.
Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.
I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Arthur C. Clarke
Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.
There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.
And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.
Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.
One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion
Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.
In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.
And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.
There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.
This is the first book I read within 2020 (this year) in its entirety, and it’s a very different book to those I usually read. I don’t tend to read much fantasy. As a child, I categorically avoided anything even remotely fantastical out of a lack of understanding for anything mystical. I lacked the ability to even think about what could lie beyond a very straightforward reading of nature as a system of physics. Over the years I’ve gained more and more of said ability, but still to this day, I prefer my books to be grounded in a physical reality I experience every day. And still, I find myself uninterested in what could be called “big picture stuff”. I don’t care for troops sent out to do this, Kings set to do that. Not unless I can establish a relationship with them beforehand. That just usually is easier if there isn’t a mountain of exposition and world-building in the way. This preference of mine is probably one to keep in mind while you read this review of The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie.
I first heard about Ann Leckie when she won the HUGO award for her book Ancillary Justice in 2015. And I’ve heard much good about the trilogy Ancillary Justice started since, but I have to admit, I have not read any one of those books. This, The Raven Tower, is the first book by Ann Leckie I came to read.
The Physical Book
The paperback of The Raven Tower I own is a big one, probably among the biggest paperbacks I own and it’s of the floppy kind, I’ve always somewhat disliked. This 2019 edition by orbit has 416 pages, but all of them are set fairly large and with spacious margins. Margins perhaps, that could have contained Fermat’s marvellous proof. And while its pages are floppy and it’s pages besmirched with a repeating dollop of misplaced ink, the dark cover brooding like a seal and lock on the book captures the essence of this book so well.
To any uninvolved onlooker, the cover might look reserved and uninviting, but to anyone, who has read more than the first few pages, this cover is a merciless siren of mystery and hidden darkness. This luring is only increased by the beautiful illustration on the first pages of the book and the ravens that lurk ever so often on the pages at breaks in narration.
The Setting & Worldbuilding
The Raven Tower‘s plot is for the most part centred around the fictional country of Iraden and its de-facto capital Vastai, but the reader does learn about a lot of the surrounding terrain though especially the area to the north of Iraden. I’m not usually interested in big picture stuff like countries and wars and often would prefer to read about intricate details of small locations than to know the borders and landscapes of a fictional country. Much of that is founded in my aforementioned dislike of fantasy settings, but there was definitely an exposition hump to overcome with this book for me. Only after that hump, I truly came to appreciate the world as a setting for the story’s characters.
Even if descriptions of single places and objects are rarely exhaustive, over time they build a gripping picture of a world in which multiple gods and humans coexist and interact based on rules and on the limitations of godly power.
In this world that becomes the reader’s home over the 400 odd pages of this book, you learn to know a few characters really well. There’s Eolo probably our main identification point within the story, except for the narrator The Patience of the Hill. Now, this feels almost like a mild spoiler already, because it is something that is only hinted at, at first, and only later revealed in its full consequence, but Eolo is trans. And oh boy is it good representation. Now I’m not a trans man, only a trans woman, but this felt like a genuinely beautiful example of good trans representation to me. Eolo is smart, resourceful and quick to act nevertheless. Serving his Lord Matwat, The Lease’s Heir, who is more often viewed as a petulant child than a good commander they form an interesting team to unravel the mysteries of the story surrounding the Raven’s Lease, Matwat’s father, and his succession.
With the Raven, we are now at the other big group of characters: the gods of Iraden and its surrounding countries. The Raven is ruler over Iraden, in a power-share agreement with the god of the silent forest. But more interesting are the two gods of the north with which we make intimate acquaintance. There’s one the Myriad come as a meteor often represented as a swarm of mosquitos, and even more important, The Patience of the Hill, who is the narrator of our story and plays a decisive role in the unfolding of the plot.
The Patience of the Hill is an interesting narrator. As a god, they are bound by the rules of their own power. In the world of the Raven, a god may only speak that what is true, or what they know to be within their power to make true. If they stray from this rule, they run the risk of draining their power either indefinitely or even dying. This leads to a very careful story-telling often hedging bets over things The Patience of the Hill has no immediate knowledge about or has only heard about.
With that prudence comes another quirk about this narration. Huge parts of this novel are told in second-person-narration. Namely, any bit that talks about Eolo is told from the perspective of The Patience of the Hill recounting the plot and feelings of Eolo to Eolo himself. That takes a bit to get used to but seems very effective at conveying the character of this story and world to the reader.
From the start this plot centres around human sacrifice and worship. These are the things that can feed a god’s power and this nourishment might be vital especially in times of need and war. The Raven has a peculiar arrangement for a human sacrifice. The god inhabits a raven, but every so often this instrument dies and with its death and the birth of a new instrument the Raven’s Lease is obligated to kill himself. The Lease’s Heir takes the position on the bench of the Raven. As Matwat, Heir to the Lease arrives in Vastai with his companion Eolo, the Lease, Matwat’s Father has disappeared, without fulfilling his obligation. In his place, Matwat’s Uncle Hibal has taken the role of the new Lease, but that opens just even more questions.
At the same time, there’s a much longer plot unfolding. An outright war of the gods is taking place over centuries, somewhat in secret to the humans inhabiting the world around Vastai, only breaking out into outright war every so often.
All this comes to a culmination within the Raven Tower and it’s full of intrigue, traps and brooding and intelligent actors on multiple levels of power. Only after I had finished this book, someone mentioned the idea that this is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And I might agree if not for the fact, that I’ve never in my life seen or read a Shakespeare play, not less Hamlet.
This is very much a book worth picking up. It’s, and I say this not casually, definitely the best book I’ve read within the last couple of years. It might not be the most “valuable” or the most adult and earnest literature, but it was honestly gripping, well written, and interesting. This is a world worth diving in.
Now there’s definitely an exposition hump to get over and an unusual second-person-narration to get used to, but that effort is without question worth it. I often, like with my last review, qualify to whom I recommend this book. For this book, however, I don’t feel the need to add any more qualifications. Thus, I’ll just say it plainly: Do read this book! It’s great. I don’t have this feeling often, but I truly didn’t want this world to end, just because I wanted to remain enthralled in its story.
It’s not common that I get enthralled by a book, especially not these days. Most often this is not about plot, not about story, but about feelings, feelings and descriptions. This book took me on a very different journey than the last one I reviewed, which was The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf certainly didn’t take me as long to read, and I am willing to extend it a much more favourable review. But I think I need to make some clarifications at first.
Well, you, dear reader, might come to this and ask, why the everloving fuck I’m writing a review of what is commonly considered to be among the canon of the so-called “Classics”. I can almost hear you scream: “Well, of course, it’s good; it’s a classic!”. And on some level, I’d have to agree with that yell of despair, but let me tell you why I chose to write this as a review when there would be so many reasons to make this a discussion:
I think it’s funnier this way.
I don’t think I possess the necessary qualification, the useful background knowledge on early 20th century English writing.
I don’t want to make this a spoiler-heavy discussion of a book, I think is very much worth being read on its own merits.
I don’t want to be forced to make this about anything but my own opinion. There’s a many good discussion of this book, citing sources, taking actual discourse into account, but I just want to have fun with this.
It’s weird that I come to read this book only now. My then-girlfriend gave me this little book for Christmas 2017 after all, almost exactly 2 years ago to this day. It was a wonderful gift, but as I am with books it usually takes a while till I get around to one even if I look forward to reading it.
The Physical Book
Its physical appearance is probably what intrigued me most about this little book when I unwrapped it on that Boxing Day in 2017. It was a small gift, and an impactful one even if its impact was delayed by two years. It’s a beautiful book, even if not a unique one in its styling. The edition I got is the one issued by the Macmillan Collector’s Library: a collection of small, little, truly pocket-sized editions of the classics of literature. Their dust-covers all held in a light pastel-blue and golden colour scheme, they hide even lighter blue thread-bound books, embossed with a floral pattern and Macmillan’s M in a square. The edges of the pages are covered in gold paint and a light blue ribbon cuts through the thin and narrowly printed pages full of text.
This book as a physical object feels like a treasure to me from appearance and feel alone. Its design is beautiful and every time I look at it there’s some little detail of mass.produced craftsmanship I failed to notice before. But what about its content?
The World & The Story Behind It
Mrs Dalloway is not set in an alternate reality, not in a different world. It’s very much grounded in real life. Characters walk and drive and wander through 1923, post-war London as they could have in real life. But London is not the setting as much as it is the backdrop for the real setting. The story of Mrs Dalloway unfolds entirely within the minds of its characters. In a way, it’s a dance through minds and London. London’s cityscape sets the beats of the characters’ minds. Big Ben signals the passing of time. The omnibus takes them through a journey in their mind.
The story of this book unfolds all within a single hot summers day, only interrupted by flashbacks through the memories of its characters. A relentless march of time set with Big Ben’s chimes at the midday mark of this novel.
Our view on the story unfolding is filtered and enriched through us gliding into the mind of this and that character, seamlessly slipping between them. Under this assumption, it might not surprise you to find, a pretty diverse set of characters for a novel essentially set in London’s upper society of the 1920s. Foremost, Virginia Woolf remains occupied with the fate of women in this society. Our main character Clarissa Dalloway is the knot that keeps all threads of the plot together and lends her name to the book itself.
Our main point of view characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Peter Walsh and to an extent Septimus Warren, a shellshocked veteran and his Italian wife Rezia. Clarissa’s point of view is marked by a ton of wit and nevertheless, her stability seems frail at points, she herself is plagued by emptiness and the dread of her greying years. She reminisces about her youth, love, and her age. Peter Walsh, her former suitor, is himself just back from India as he pays Clarissa a visit. He is reminded of the rejection he had experienced at her hand, while Clarissa had a lesbian love affair with their mutual friend Sally …
To love makes one solitary, she thought.
I could talk much more about every single character, but I don’t think this would get to an end. The more striking fact is that Virginia Woolf managed to fit so many detailed characters into such a small book. In no small part, this is helped by her stream of consciousness style, that allows us to fly into the inner workings of so many characters.
In turn, it’s not easy to summarise the plot of Mrs Dalloway. With its many point-of-view characters and the recurrent shifting between them, it’s definitely not an easy task to find a short description or to even follow its storyline. Even calling it a storyline feels slightly inadequate.
As such this book is almost certainly one that benefits from a re-read. I would bet it is one that grows upon me with every subsequent read through, giving me only more opportunity to get swallowed in its depth and details.
If I had to try to summarise it I would probably flail my arms around and then settle on:
On a hot summers day, Clarissa Dalloway is caught up in the preparations of a party she’s hosting that evening, as she gets visited by her former friend and suitor Peter Walsh just back from India and starts to reminisce about her youthful passions.
At the same time, Septimus Warren falls deeper and deeper into the pit of his shellshocked mind, and through inadequate (to the point of absurdity) treatment by the renowned Sir William Bradshaw and Dr Holmes, Warren is pushed towards his suicide.
In itself the plot is short, but what this book accomplishes, is less the narration of a riveting story, but an impressionistic view of British society, and especially the life women can lead within it.
The Writing & Style
Virginia Woolf’s writing seems masterful. Her sleight of hand when switching from point of view to point of view, in between so starkly contrasted characters is often almost imperceptible. The wit she imbues Clarissa with and the poignant observation of subtleties she shows, speak of a great writer and mind.
Her stream of consciousness writing reminds of her contemporary James Joyce, but in its dancing lightness I found, this prose way more accessible to my distractible mind, than I ever thought, for example, Ulysses to be.
Woolf’s prose is imbued with lightness and an uncanny ability to convey the passing of time and the emptiness, so many of these characters feel. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the often fitting and sometimes humourous observations this book makes, and it’s very hard to not feel strong emotions with it. Of course, the elaborate style also takes its toll on the reader. At least for me, this book was not at all a quick read despite its size and relatively small length.
There’s more than one theme hiding within this dancing prose. I talked about many of them in my revue of characters already, but I don’t think it would be amiss, to point these themes out again. Mrs Dalloway is not an easy book at all. It’s ram-packed with heavy themes, hiding in so beautiful a prose.
There’s the theme of a troubled state of mental health. Almost certainly something Virginia Woolf felt very acutely herself. After all, she herself had a long history with depression. Mixed in is the trauma World War I left behind, most obviously manifest in the character of Septimus Warren. And at last, there’s Woolf’s unique perspective on women in early 20th-century society, with their lives and success, their relationship to their husbands, age, and not to forget outside of heterosexual love.
This book is, without question, worth reading. However, I do think it’s appropriate to warn any potential reader. First, on a mostly practical point, this book talks about mental health and suicide, not everyone will be able to stomach such topics. Second, I do think to enjoy this book, you have to like or at least be fine with stream-of-consciousness writing. It’s a masterful example, but nevertheless, it takes some getting used to stream-of-consciousness writing, and this book is definitely not an easy read.
I love the impressions this book has left behind and I loved the experience of bouncing from mind to mind from character to character. Its perspective gives a very unique look into British society. It’s definitely a book on my “Read-this-again!”-list.