It’s a quarter of the way through the year, and restricting myself only to woman writers (thereby forcing myself away from the mostly male writers I’d started to default to and making myself find new things) is reaping huge rewards. Also an absolute disaster.
Here’s what March brought me.
Throne of Glass, Sarah J Maas – I bought this on a whim, and BAD WHIM, BAD! NO MORE BUYINGS!
It turned into something of a hate-read. Had I done a bit more research I would have known this wasn’t for me, and that’s all I’ll offer in its defence. I know I’m not the book’s natural reader.
A summary? This is Cinderella, except Cinderella is the most feared assassin that ever there was even though she’s only eighteen (this speaks poorly of the calibre of assassin otherwise available in this made up land). You know she’s an assassin because, while she’s trying on dresses and swooning over the two cardboard cut-out romantic interests that comprise the other parts of her contrived love triangle, she reflects on it often. The story doesn’t seem all that interested in helping you suspend your disbelief on this front.
Apart from a couple of set-pieces, most of the story happens off-stage so that maximum swoon can be accomplished. When the rare action occurs, the title character (whose name I forgot as soon as I deleted this from my Kindle) is somehow swapped out for a deadly warrior much like we have been told about (endlessly). It definitely isn’t the same woman. Nobody in their right mind would believe that. In short this is lazy, contrived wish-fulfilment that wants to be feminist but serves only to fall back on the worst cliches at the most critical moments. A lot of people seem to love this book. I thought it was awful.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke – In short, a dusty gentleman called Mr Norrell attempts to bring magic back to the world, and along the way takes on a flamboyant assistant called Jonathan Strange who soon outshines him. They have a disagreement. A creature from the realms of magic takes umbrage against them. There are twists, and some turns.
A nutshell summary of this massive book does it no justice at all. It’s an exceptionally rich read, full of complex, flawed characters, told with a dry and infectious academic wit, that sketches out a whole alternate history crammed with anecdotes and short stories in the footnotes alone. It’s often funny, sometimes cruel, and utterly immersive (as some of you will know, that is the highest praise I can give a fiction). The beginning moves slowly as the necessarily rather difficult to savour Mr Norrell begins his mission, but when Strange arrives on the scene it cracks along. Seeds sown early reap an abundance of fruit later on, and the sprawling narrative takes so many unexpected turns along the way that I found myself constantly delighted. Clarke subverts the natural structure of a story like this at every opportunity, with even the show stopping climax delivering deliciously unpredictable shifts and balances that took me by surprise. It soaked up almost a month of my reading year, but doesn’t feel that way. When I was away from it, I wanted only to return. I wish I hadn’t read it at all, so that I could now read it for the first time.
This is probably one of my favourite books now. So there.
The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, Susanna Clarke – Short stories set, for the most part, in the world of Clarke’s superb Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Perhaps reading this collection immediately after the novel was a mistake, for each of these tales feel like nothing more than excised anecdotes from the footnotes of that tome. In isolation they’re splendid things, confident, quirky, and charming – but I wish I’d read something else in between so that I’d had the experience of revisiting Clarke’s world rather than the feeling of trailing off that this collection left me with. That feels very damning, especially given the quality and warmth on display here. In reading, timing is everything.
Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough – For the most part this is an incredibly compelling psychological thriller, until the very end when it refuses to resolve within that framework, takes a sharp left, and runs breathlessly off the edge of a cliff. How much you enjoy the results depends a lot on how willing you are to take the plunge. I enjoyed the book a lot more when I thought it was a straightforward thriller. The two female leads, each betraying each other in different ways, one more manipulative than the other, pop off the page brilliantly (less so the man who brings them together, but much of the novel’s trick relies on not understanding his motivations throughout, so the author keeps him at arm’s length), and the dance they weave around and through each other is a page-turning delight.
Relatively early in the proceedings, Pinborough starts to bring in cross-genre elements that sign-post the way the book is going to resolve, but she leaves it until the latter stages before clarifying that those elements have taken over. I was still on board at this stage, happy to step over the genre line with the author and enjoy the savage ending. However, the #wtfthatending marketing campaign is talking about the epilogue, which takes everything you’ve invested in and throws it off that cliff. On the one hand it re-frames the whole book, turning it into a completely different story. On the other hand, I was happy with the story I had, and the epilogue felt like an unnecessary reversal that sold my investment short. Others, I’m sure, are going to enjoy it more but my own ‘WTF’ wasn’t one of amazement, but exasperation.
A case of a few pages at the end tainting what for me had been a brilliant read to that point.