Top-notch historical fiction is hard to find. Top-notch adventure fiction is hard to find. Well-written witty anti-hero protagonists are hard to find. Good historical adventure fiction with a well-written witty anti-hero protagonist is...well, you see where I'm going with this. Game of Kings
gets two thumbs up and five stars -- once I started it I couldn't put it down. I can't remember who told me I should read these books; I wish I could because I would send them lots of presents in deepest gratitude.
The story arc is not entirely original: a brilliant but dissolute younger son and a stolid older one with bad blood between them, dissolute younger son turns out to be not so dissolute after all (I shall say no more for fear of spoilers). But Dunnett executes the tale with flair, energy, inventiveness, and a remarkable level of historical detail. The 1500s is one of my favorite time periods for historical fiction -- so much going on in politics, religion, philosophy, science, an immensely active and fertile time so she's got lots to work with.
Part of my love for the book is of course due to the main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter. Accused traitor and leader of a band of outlaws, yet somehow one can never quite believe the worst of him; one suspects there is more (oh how I do love a misunderstood hero). If the facts did not prove me wrong I would suspect Dorothy Dunnett of being Dorothy L. Sayers
, because Lymond is very much like Lord Peter Wimsey. Lymond is less high-strung and more physically active (as you'd expect in the 16th century!), but both are aristocratic, highly (perhaps over-) educated, single-minded in pursuit of a goal, prone to quotation, chronically underestimated by their opponents, and exceedingly intelligent with a fierce sense of honor and loyalty. Both are also excellent musicians and their own harshest critic.
The supporting cast is just as much fun, particularly Will Scott, younger son of the Earl of Buccleuch, whose evolving relationship with Lymond forms one of the more interesting strands of the book. Will has been off at school in France with detrimental results:
"Moral Philosophy, that's the trouble," said Janet with gloomy relish. "They've taught poor Will moral philosophy and his father's fit to boil...He's quoting Aristotle and Boethius and the laws of chivalry and the dreicher spells of the Chevalier de Bayard on loyalty and the ethics of warfare. He's so damned moral he ought to be standing rear up under a Bo tree. And he won't keep his mouth shut. I grant," said Lady Buccleuch with a certain grim amusement, "that the pure springs of chivalry may be a little muddy in the Hawick area, but that's no proper excuse for calling his father an unprincipled old rogue and every other peer in Scotland a traitorous scoundrel."
As you can perhaps tell from Will's mother's speech above, the book's female characters are also excellent: intelligent, active, strong-willed, sensible, and perfectly willing to go behind their menfolk's backs if that's the most efficient route to the most sensible solution. (Mary Queen of Scots has a cameo as an inquisitive four-year-old to whom Lymond teaches a naughty riddle!)
The interweaving of the adventures of the Master of Culter as he tries to clear his name with the Byzantine twists and turns of Scottish, English and French politics makes for a swashbuckling story complete with duels, spies, pitched battles, cattle raids, explosions, murders, archery contests, mysterious lovers, and more. There's at least one death that will make you cry and the conclusion -- which is in doubt up until about the last ten pages -- will make you cheer.
And yay, there are five more!!
The subtitle is "unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened" and yup, they're all here.
I've been a regular visitor to Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half
blog for several years and many a visit has ended with me in tears and unable to speak for laughing so hard, so I was delighted to hear she was publishing a book. I was not disappointed :)
About half of the stories had been previously published on her blog, the other half are new for this book. "Depression" parts one and two, where Brosh recounts her struggle with depression, introduces a more serious note than, say, "The God of Cake" but manages to be both funny and poignant, particularly in its blunt illustration of why well-meaning friends and family are so often utterly unhelpful in the case of true depression.
As always, Brosh's artwork (done in Paint, which if you've worked with it you will know the crudeness of the medium!) is primitive but energetic and engaging, at time truly hilarious -- much livelier and more original than the vast majority of graphic novel/comic artwork which all looks very much the same. Nobody would mistake Brosh's alien-looking self-portrait, with its bug eyes, tentacular arms, pink dress, and blonde horns of hair for anyone else's work, ever
, likewise her dogs with their tilted heads and mildly panicked gazes.
The stories that accompany the illustrations are endearing, funny, self-mocking, and most of all very human -- her foibles, flaws and difficulties are easy to identify with. Unfortunately I recognized a lot of myself in "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult"!
Eerie, atmospheric, almost Victorian, Aickman's stories are all about hints and omens, tension and suspense. Very few of the mysteries in these stories are solved; instead one is left with an uneasy sense that there are some Very Nasty Things out there. Just around the corner or down the alley. In the dark.
I think my favorite was "The View," in which a man recovering from some unspecified illness goes on holiday, on his doctor's recommendation. On the boat over to the island that is his destination he meets a young woman who invites him to stay with her in her huge estate; he accepts and, although initially installed in a guest room, they are soon sleeping together. However, the ony fly in the ointment is that the view from his window keeps...changing. Between one day and the next things appear and disappear, or move from on place to another...
This collection also includes a classic "living dead" story ("Ringing the Changes"); a ghost story ("The Houses of the Russians"); one, or possibly two, "monster children" stories; the title story, an unnerving tale of a painter, an old woman and her daughter; and several more.
Aickman's stories share with those of H.P. Lovecraft a delicate balance between too much information and not enough -- too much and you get gore/splatter with nothing left to the imagination, too little and you get ho-hum, a story that doesn't compel or intrigue. There is a difference between horror and terror
; Aickman is a master of the latter. He takes you by the hand and leads you to the very doorstep of seeing what's lurking out there in the dark...and then turns out the light.
(Bonus: The dust jacket is illustrated by Edward Gorey
This was a beauty of a book, a mix of myth, fairy tale, love story, and cautionary tale. The kitsune
, the fox-woman, is a well-known figure in Japanese folklore and myth; here, Johnson places the story of a fox who wishes to become a woman against that of a young couple whose marriage is faltering under the weight of artifice and constraint. Above, in the house, Yoshifuji and his wife Shikujo communicate by writing each other haikus open to multiple interpretations, neither knowing what the other wants or thinks; beneath the floor Kitsune, the young fox, comes into season and mates with her brother because, well, that's what animals do. Kitsune wants (or thinks she wants) the trappings of humanity: to learn to read, to write, to understand art, to wear beautiful clothes and speak from behind a screen. Yoshifuji watches the foxes from his window and wishes he had their freedom.
Telling the story in diary form allows you to see through the eyes of each of the three main characters in turn, which gives the story both the immediacy of first person and the complexity of a multiple POVs.
Of all of them, though, I felt sorriest for Kitsune's mother and brother, dragged into this transformation mostly against their will; if I had one complaint about the book it's that Johnson doesn't offer a compelling explanation for why they have to pay the price for Kitsune's obsession with Yoshifuji.
Although the ending is left open, leaving me uncertain as to what if anything Yoshifuji or Kitsune learned from their experience (are they wiser? or more determined?), this was a real pleasure to read. Johnson is an artistic writer with a gift for description, evoking seasons, settings and the life and attitudes of Old Japan with a light touch and a painterly eye for detail.