The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings is an innovative epic fantasy debut novel of 2015; and it’s hard for me not to pair it with another innovative epic fantasy debut novel, 2008’s A Shadow in Summer. Not because they’re similar, but because they almost completely aren’t.

Both Ken Liu in ‘15 and Daniel Abraham in ’08 burst into the genre (long-form – Liu was an established short story writer) with a distinctive take, each, as it were, pointing in new directions for fantasy. What the two novels have in common is that both seek to take fantasy out of its fauxdiaeval bubble by introducing notes and colours drawn from Asia rather than from Europe: Abraham invoking in a relatively enciphered way southeast Asia, and Liu drawing more transparently from China. Both, in addition, take unusual, and in some ways directly opposite, approaches to narrative. Both novels are, in their own way, creative success stories – certainly, enough to provide inspiration and encouragement to others who wish to explore new dimensions in fantasy. Yet both, in their own ways, have issues.

Continue reading

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall

Warning: this turned out to be a very long review, and much of it is more me wrestling with the genre than talking about the specific book. I really ought to edit it severely (I mean, even more severely than I ought to edit most of my reviews…), but I’ve been waiting to get around to that for the last six months, so I’ve given up and I’ve decided just to publish the damn thing. So, sorry about that.

I’m not a very good reader, these days. I don’t read enough – I still enjoy reading, once I’m doing it, but when it comes to actually starting a book, there always seems to be some more immediately (if less fully) rewarding way to spend the time available. It’s more than that, though: not only do I not read enough at all, I also read too narrowly, being still fundamentally a genre reader. Regular readers of the blog – yes, all both of you – may have noticed me venturing out a little from the genre, and finding reward for it: several of the highest-rated books I’ve reviewed here have been, at least theoretically, outside the SF&F genre. And yet, that’s been a bit of an illusion – most of those novels have been drawn either from the classic novel tradition from which SF&F emerged and to which it owes a continuing debt (The Count of Monte Cristo doesn’t have any dragons in it, for example, but its period setting, abstract ethical ruminations and series of picturesque adventures make it probably a more comfortable read for a modern fantasy fan than for a modern ‘lit-fic’ reader), or else have been, as it were, closely genre-adjacent in themes or genre-sympathetic in sensibilties. The only complete genre-distant novel I can think of that I’ve reviewed here is The Rider, and that… well, it doesn’t really feel representative of, as it were, the ‘mainstream’ in modern English writing.

What I haven’t really read much of at all, and haven’t reviewed any of for this blog, is writing from what is rather odiously known as ‘literary fiction’ (a term both arrogant and facile) – which is to say, veristic writing about ordinary people in the real world, acting like ordinary people, albeit perhaps in some striking situation. The kind of fiction that we’re all told we need to write – real art.

The Wolf Border seems to tick the boxes. I’m not aware of it itself having won any major awards, but its author certainly appears to fit the profile: first degree in English, second degree in Creative Writing; teaches Creative Writing courses; awards; writer-in-residence; Royal Society of Literature; published poet; literary magazines; Granta list; Booker-shortlisted. The conventional resumé. I read it because I felt I needed to read something like this; because it was recommended to me by several people; and because some of its trappings appealed to me.

[However, the fact that this is the third novel with ‘Wolf’ in the title that I’ve reviewed in the last year is honestly a complete, and slightly embarrassing, coincidence…]

I don’t read a lot in this genre. I’m finding it hard, as a result, to separate out my feelings about this book itself, and my feelings about the genre it represents. My apologies in advance if I’m a little incoherent in trying to set out these two sets of thoughts at the same time…

I think I can say: I can understand why people like and recommend this book. And yet I am not left with any great craving to read more widely in the genre.

Continue reading