The Toymakers

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Title: The Toymakers  

Author: Robert Dinsdale

Publisher: Del Rey

Pages: 468

Format Read: Paperback

The concept of toys coming alive has always been a fascinating one to me. As I child, I wondered if they’d come out to play at night, as Enid Blyton’s books suggested. And Margery Williams’s Velveteen Rabbit is one of the sweetest creatures I have encountered in fiction.

As for The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale – this is a book that takes the magic of living toys and crafts it into a beautiful tale.

Papa Jack’s Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is a magical toyshop full of secrets, of toy soldiers and dollhouses and ballerinas eager to dance. And also Sirius, the little patchwork dog and my favourite character by far.

Young Cathy Wray, distraught, confused and pregnant, runs away from home and finds herself a job at the Emporium. There she meets the bearlike Papa Jack, master toymaker, and his sons, Kaspar and Emil. Both young men take an interest in Cathy, but it is Kaspar who interests her the most. The Emporium is a place of wonder when it opens at wintertime, a sanctuary of childhood dreams and hope.

However, as Cathy settles in to her new life, she discovers that all is not it seems. Within the enigmas of the Emporium is the bitter sibling rivalry between Kaspar and Emil. Or rather, it is Emil’s low self-esteem and his burgeoning envy of Kaspar and his enchanting toys. His inner turmoil is realistically portrayed. Even Cathy, practical and kind hearted, finds it a bit difficult to deal with Emil and his many moods.

The Emporium, for all its magical toys, is not spared by the two World Wars either. Kasper enlists to fight and returns changed. The book deals with the trauma soldiers go through in a poignant way. Some of their distress and the futility of war is transferred to the toy soldiers. Both Emil and Kaspar make them, and both have very different ideas about war. The brothers’ Long War with each other drives most of the book, especially when the toy soldiers become self-aware and thoroughly erratic.

I kind of wish some of that was shorter.

As time passes, the Emporium changes. There is war and strife and growing families, all of it surrounded by the toys.

The Toymakers is a book I am so glad I read.

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on Archie Comics

Title: on Archie Comics

Format Read: Paperbacks, Ebooks

For a change of pace, I thought I would write about a series of books (comics!) that accompanied me through my childhood and teenage years – Archie Comics.

I was really young when I was introduced to my first Archie comic. I confess some of it went over my head at the time, but I was fascinated by the whole thing – Riverdale and the characters and the splash of colour on the pages. The first Archie I received was a winter edition – almost all the stories were set in December, there was snow, and fluffy jackets, and snow fights. Since then, I’ve collected several more. There was hungry Jughead and absentminded Archie and irritating Reggie. Dilton with his genius and reams of advice. Betty, ever practical. Veronica, always vain and impractical. And Hot Dog, who was, and still is, a favourite.

They were probably one of my best escapes during my time at school and college. Riverdale was a refuge, a happy dreamland of weird and interesting characters. I was pretty intrigued by the dresses Betty and Veronica wore, even Sabrina, and I really liked Dan deCarlo’s art. Some stories did not resonate with me, it is true. There were some particularly weird ones that left me baffled.

There were some that fascinated me as well. One was about Archie discovering a Dream Shoppe. They sold dreams, like a baker would sell cakes. It was a story that left Archie throwing a tantrum at the end. Naturally. Another storyline that I’ve come across only once and never seen since was about Veronica discovering an ancestor named Jezebel. This was, if my memory is correct, a strange tale, and a little creepy. I have no idea why I haven’t been able to find it since I first read it.

I do think Archie comics helped me keep my mind during stressful times. At least there was a happy place to escape to, and Riverdale was absolutely ideal. I have all my old comics, and I intend keeping them. They bring back some happy memories and besides, I do like rereading those whacky tales.

Archie Comics have made me laugh, and smile, and think. Everything I could ask for in a good book.

Od Magic

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Title: Od Magic

Author:  Patricia Mckillip

Publisher: Gollancz (S.F. Gateway)

Pages: 328

Format Read: Kindle

Od Magic is a fantasy novel about a school of wizardry and its mysterious founder, the giant Od. Nobody has seen her for decades, but all that happens in the book eventually finds its way to her.

Brenden Vetch is appointed to the school as a gardener. He has powers that confound the wizards of the school, he has powers that confuse himself. He hears plants think, or something like that. The novel starts with him, and then he’s not around for a long time.

Od Magic is told from multiple points of view. There is Arneth, a member of the city watch who is assigned to find a travelling magician in the streets of the magical Twilight Quarter. Then there is Mistral, daughter of the said magician. And Yar Ayrwood, a wizard at Od’s school, and Sulys, the daughter of the king. Brenden again, feeling bewildered. And an annoying apprentice who turns up at the oddest times, an Elver.

The writing is of course lush and beautiful and Mckillip’s descriptions, especially of the Twilight Quarter, are truly magical. The shifting points of view are a bit confusing though, since you’re not given enough time to really understand a character’s motivations. Because by then you are reading about someone else entirely.

The novel’s structure is fairly simple and the power struggles of both king and countryman are easy to guess. Which was refreshing. I liked it precisely because of its simplicity.

Strangely though, it is hard to summarise the plot, and it does seem a little weak at times. There is self-discovery and a magic system full of conjuration and divination. What ties the characters together is Od, naturally. She seems to guide them, forcing them to question themselves and the inflexibility of their king, without being present. Also, the magician of the Twilight Quarter, Tyramin, is something of a magnet – he’s the reason for a lot of chaos in the kingdom of Kelior. Except nobody can find him.

Od Magic, is, I think, a whimsical and dreamlike tale.

Red Sister

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Title: Red Sister

Author:  Mark Lawrence

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Pages: 499

Format Read: Paperback

This was a dark and engrossing read. Young Nona Grey lives in a harsh, unforgiving world, and at eight she is accused of murder. Children are not spared punishment and she finds herself condemned…until a strange abbess turns up and enrols her in the Convent of Sweet Mercy. There, Nona begins her training to become a nun – but not one dedicated to the scriptures. Red Sisters are trained to become exceptional assassins.

The story is unsettling and violent, and the children of the Convent of Sweet Mercy aren’t exactly allowed to be children. They are rigorously trained and they speak a lot like adults. A little immersion breaking, maybe, but not wholly unexpected given the environment they live in.

Nona Grey, the protagonist, manages to seem both childlike and precocious. She is also exceptionally skilled and an enigma to her peers. She is wildly unpredictable and holds friendship in high regard – but not all her friends are as she believes them to be. A strange character to be sure, and her emotions run raw and visceral as she discovers her abilities and navigates her new life in the Convent. This isn’t a life of luxury…learning alchemical poisons might just mean getting poisoned yourself. By the teacher.

And of course, she has been accused of murder. That is an event that follows her throughout the story, because she has made enemies at eight. They stalk her and try to seize her. Nona, child as she is, is not without her nightmares and moments of doubt. She does not run away from her inner conflicts and is forced to confront them. Also, strange things are happening around her and she finds herself drawn into conflict.

There is also some science fiction here that I enjoyed. The world of Abeth, for example, and its peculiar moon. Stories of how the current inhabitants arrived. I’m not going into spoilers, but these bits were fascinating to read about.

Red Sister is part of a series and you do get the feeling that there is a lot more to be said as the story continues in the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Mockingbird

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Title: Mockingbird  

Author:  Walter Tevis

Publisher: Gollancz (S.F. Masterworks)

Pages: 278

Format Read: Paperback

“Mockingbird” is set in an indeterminate future – a near future though, I think, not one removed from the present by a thousand years. This future is a world of drug haze and maddening languidness. There is no art, no cinema, no creativity and imagination, and no books.

There are no children either, except for robotic copies that mimic childlike antics without really realizing what they’re doing.

At the heart of “Mockingbird” is a robot, Spofforth, a machine that is described as perfect. He is more intelligent, better looking, and more self-aware than his human contemporaries. And that self-awareness leads him to contemplate deactivation, or suicide, if only those safety protocols programmed into him would let him.

There is also Bentley, a human born in that eerie world. Amidst the peculiarity of existence everybody else is trapped in, Bentley teaches himself to read. It is a skill that is forbidden and dangerous, a skill that will lead to imprisonment. But reading gives him insights into a world gone by. One with beauty and imagination and the joys of family.

And then there’s Mary-Lou, who is something of a vagrant. She spends her time at the zoo with robotic animals. Despite her wandering, Mary-Lou never goes hungry, and she always finds shelter. With Bentley, she learns to read.

The strange world of “Mockingbird” focuses on these three. Each of them learns something from the other. The art of reading helps them rediscover lost ideas such as friendship. And for Mary-Lou and Bentley, something like romance.

“Mockingbird” is a novel about reading and, in spite of the bleak world it presents, it is not about bleakness. It is a novel of hope, an emotion that gives even the melancholy Spofforth something to hold on to.

Overall, for me, this was a thought-provoking novel.

Borderline

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Title: Borderline

Author:  Mishell Baker

Publisher: Saga Press

Pages: 390

Format Read: Paperback

It’s been a while since I’ve read urban fantasy and Borderline is intriguing. For one, the protagonist Millicent Roper, or Millie, is an absolutely unexpected protagonist. She is in a facility at the start of the book after a failed suicide attempt. That attempt has left her with two prosthetic legs.

And she also has Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD.

In short, she’s a bit of a mess and she knows it. She is also fascinating. When a mysterious visitor by the name of Caryl Vallo drops in at the facility and offers Millie a chance to join the Arcadia Project, she takes it. It is, among other things, a second chance at life, and an opportunity to leave the facility, and to experience something new.

Never mind that the Arcadia Project is a shadowy organization that keeps watch over fey visitors from another dimension. And that they recruit members with a history of mental illness. It’s a strange and bizarre situation Millie finds herself in once she joins and takes up residence with the rest of their crew. To start with, Millie is partnered with the unpredictable Teo and asked to find a certain actor who has gone missing. He is also a member of the Seelie Court of the fey. In short, a nobleman.

Trying to find that missing actor opens a Pandora’s Box of secrets and magic and capricious fey, gates and glamour. And a potential war between humans and fey.

Borderline is filled with a cast of interesting characters. Millie for one is prone to extreme moods and irrational thoughts, but she is creative and extremely intelligent. She has problems and she acknowledges them, and the book does do a good job of presenting her issues with BPD. And her prosthetics. She is also prone to extreme mood swings and she can be pretty judgemental– and that makes her more believable.

Overall, I thought Borderline fun and engaging, fast paced and really quite complex.

Revelation Space

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Title: Revelation Space  

Author:  Alastair Reynolds

Publisher:  Gollancz (S.F. Masterworks)

Pages:  598

Format Read: Paperback

I’ve always been fascinated by space operas and the idea of lost civilizations in science fiction. The possibility of vanished alien civilizations in deep space are even more fascinating. As is the question of the possibility of life on other worlds…and why they haven’t made contact with the human race.

Revelation Space is remarkable in that sense. Here, the human race has reached the point of lighthugging spacecraft and interstellar travel – but the aliens are, for some reason, still missing. The galaxy is eerily silent. Except for the Jugglers, and those aren’t aliens in the way humanity had come to expect. They are strange, unreachable, and utterly incomprehensible.

Dan Sylveste, though, is curious about the remnants of the bird-like Amarantin race. The ruins are vast, and they are cryptic – because somewhere, somehow, they seem to suggest that the galaxy did have aliens at some point in the distant past, and they all vanished when they become spacefaring civilizations. The Amarantin themselves succumbed to that odd galactic mystery and disappeared nine hundred thousand years ago. It occurs to Sylveste that something out there has been targeting fledgling civilizations. And perhaps eradicating them.

Ana Khouri has been hired by the mysterious Mademoiselle to assassinate Sylveste. She boards the lighthugger Infinity and meets Volyova, one of the de-facto captains of the ship. And as she nears her target, Khouri finds that the Infinity has been hijacked by a peculiar entity called Sun-Stealer, the Mademoiselle has kept secrets from her, and perhaps assassinating Sylveste needs a rethink.

This novel starts out slow and takes its time with worldbuilding and setting the stage for something larger. It does appear to meander a bit with new characters introduced…the cast is very large. I found them a little flat, for they seem to sound alike for a great deal of the novel. And, Revelation Space being a hard science fiction novel is crammed full of detail.

This is a very slow read – but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It was scientific, and creative, and very imaginative, and it managed to keep that shadowy, frightening sense of loneliness in deep space throughout its narrative.