The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

First of all, this is a quick note to say that I am moving house this week so won’t have much time for blogging for a while – there are just so many other things that need to be done! I have prepared and scheduled some posts in advance, so you probably won’t notice any difference, but I might be slow to respond to comments or to catch up with commenting on your blogs. I’m hoping to get settled in quickly so that things can get back to normal, but meanwhile here is my review of one of last month’s reads, The Night Tiger.

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The Night Tiger was a surprise. I had been drawn to it mainly by the colourful cover and the fact that it was set in Malaya (now part of Malaysia), a country I know very little about, but I didn’t really expect to like it very much. I hadn’t read Yangsze Choo’s first novel, The Ghost Bride, because the subject didn’t appeal to me, and it sounded as though this book, like that one, would have a very strong magical realism element – and I’m not much of a fan of magical realism. Well, I was wrong about that; although there are times when the story does veer towards the fantastical, most of it is concerned with simply describing the folklore and superstitions of the Chinese people of Malaya and asking us to accept that some of these things may actually be real.

The story is set in the 1930s and is told from two different perspectives. First there’s Ren, an eleven year-old houseboy whose master, Dr MacFarlane, has recently died. While on his deathbed, the doctor asked Ren to carry out a very special task for him: to find his severed finger and bury it in his grave beside his dead body. This must be done within forty-nine days, otherwise Dr MacFarlane’s soul will be condemned to roam the earth forever. In need of new employment, Ren enters the service of another doctor, William Acton, then begins his quest to locate the missing finger.

Our other main character is Ji Lin, a dressmaker’s apprentice who has been secretly working in a dance hall in Ipoh to earn the money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. While dancing with a salesman one night, she sees a little glass bottle fall from his pocket and, catching it before it hits the ground, she finds that it contains a shrivelled finger. This gruesome discovery leads Ji Lin to cross paths with Ren and when they each begin to have recurring dreams involving a train journey, it seems that their lives are becoming intertwined in other ways as well.

I enjoyed The Night Tiger much more than I thought I would. The setting is fascinating, of course; I have read two other books set in Malaya (The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng and The Separation by Dinah Jefferies) but they are very different types of books and don’t explore Chinese and Malaysian myths and legends the way this one does. The folklore surrounding the legend of the weretiger was particularly intriguing; there are hints that one could be responsible for the unexplained deaths that have been occurring around the town, and we can either believe that this is true or we can just believe that the characters in the story believe it is true, if that makes sense!

Both main viewpoint characters are easy to like; I felt closer to Ji Lin, because her story is told in the first person whereas Ren’s is told in the third, but I did love Ren too. He often seems very mature for his age – probably because he has been forced to grow up quickly due to his personal circumstances – but at other times he behaves more like the child he still is.

I’m still not sure whether I want to read The Ghost Bride, but I will look out for Yangsze Choo’s next book and see if it appeals.

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest novel, A Brightness Long Ago, is a prequel to 2016’s Children of Earth and Sky but although they are set in the same world and share one or two characters, each book also works as a standalone. I think this is probably my favourite of the two, although I enjoyed both.

Like most of Kay’s novels, A Brightness Long Ago takes place in a land which closely resembles a real historical setting – in this case, Renaissance Italy. Our narrator is Guidanio Cerra of Seressa, a city which, with its lagoon and canals, clearly corresponds to Venice. Guidanio is looking back at events from his past, beginning with his time at the court of Uberto of Mylasia, a cruel tyrant who once ‘sealed an enemy in a cask to see if he might observe the soul escaping when his prisoner died’ and who has become known as the Beast due to his treatment of the young girls and boys he summons to his chamber at night. As the son of a humble Seressan tailor, Guidanio knows it is a great honour to have been given a position at Uberto’s court but he quickly discovers what sort of man he is serving and so he is not at all sorry when the Beast is assassinated one night by the latest young woman who has been brought to his rooms.

Her name is Adria Ripoli, the Duke of Macera’s daughter, and she is acting on the orders of her uncle, Folco Cino, a leader of mercenaries. Having witnessed Adria enter Uberto’s chamber to carry out the assassination, Guidanio helps her to escape before she can be captured. He expects never to see her again, but as chance would have it their paths do soon cross again and Guidanio finds himself drawn into the conflict between Folco Cino and his rival mercenary commander, Teobaldo Monticola, two powerful men whose actions could determine the fate of Batiara (Italy).

A Brightness Long Ago explores some of Kay’s favourite themes, such as chance encounters, the spinning of Fortune’s Wheel, and the idea that the small decisions each of us make every day of our lives could have wider repercussions, affecting not only our own future but the future of others too – in other words, that everything we do matters. These are topics that Kay returns to again and again in his novels but they seemed particularly dominant in this one and that was my only slight criticism of the book – not the ideas themselves, but the way the authorial voice is constantly reminding us that ‘things matter’. I would have preferred a more subtle approach, I think! Anyway, the writing was still as beautiful as I’ve come to expect; as some of you will know, I choose a quotation from every book I read for my end-of-month Commonplace Book posts – I will have a difficult choice when I come to put this month’s post together as almost every sentence in this book was worthy of being quoted!

The 15th century Italian (or Batiaran) setting was already familiar to me from Children of Earth and Sky, but even if you haven’t read that book, if you have any knowledge of Renaissance Italy you will probably be able to draw parallels between some of Kay’s characters and members of the Medici, Borgia and Sforza families, among others. There’s a dramatic horse race – one of the most memorable set pieces in the book – inspired by the real life Palio race which has taken place in Siena for centuries, and the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) is also covered. The different names Kay uses for these people, places and events, along with the two moons in the sky – one blue and one white – mean this book can be classed as ‘historical fantasy’, but there aren’t really any other fantasy elements in the story at all. That’s not a problem for me, but if you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay and hoping for something with magic and wizards, I would recommend starting with Tigana instead.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Over the last few years, I’ve read and loved Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, Liveship Traders Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy, but I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading Dragon Keeper, the first in her four-book Rain Wild Chronicles series. Although I found the dragon storylines in the earlier trilogies quite enjoyable, I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to read a series in which the dragons would be the main focus – and also, after coming to the end of the Tawny Man books, I just wanted to continue Fitz’s story rather than have to get used to a whole new set of characters. It was tempting to go straight to Hobb’s final and most recent trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, but I knew I should keep reading in order of publication as the books do all form part of one larger sequence and it’s possible that things could happen in the Rain Wild series that I need to know before returning to Fitz.

Anyway, Dragon Keeper picks up the story that was set into motion at the end of the Liveship Traders. Guided by the dragon Tintaglia, a group of sea serpents have made the long journey up the Rain Wild River to the shores of Cassarick, where they have formed the cocoons where they will await their transformation into dragons. When the day of the hatching finally arrives, the people of the Rain Wilds – among them eleven-year-old Thymara and her father – gather round to witness this historic moment: the moment that will mark the return of dragons to the world for the first time in generations.

The dragons that emerge from the cocoons, however, are weak and malformed due to the inappropriate conditions they had lived in as serpents and the difficult circumstances surrounding their cocooning process. These creatures are unlikely ever to fly like their ancestors and can barely even manage to feed themselves. It seems that their only hope of survival is to make their way to Kelsingra, the ancient city of the Elderlings, but if they are to get there safely they will need some human help. Thymara, born with claws and scales – a more extreme example of the mutations that affect many of the Rain Wild people – is chosen to be part of a team of dragon keepers who will escort the dragons to their legendary homeland.

And there’s not really much more to the plot than that. There’s a sense that, with this first in the series, Hobb is setting things up for the three that will follow and the story is just beginning to get started when the book comes to an end. I liked it enough to want to continue, but it is certainly my least favourite of Hobb’s books so far. Maybe because so many of the dragon keepers are children (they are seen as more dispensable, not having families who rely on them), it felt almost as though this book was aimed at younger readers than the others.

There were several characters who intrigued me, though, and I’ll look forward to seeing how their storylines develop in the next book. One of these is Alise Kincarron, a young woman from Bingtown who looks destined for spinsterhood before entering into a loveless marriage with a local trader, Hest Finbok. The dragons hold a special fascination for Alise and the chance to accompany them on the journey to Kelsingra is both a dream come true and a way to escape from her husband. Hest has no interest in the dragons himself, so asks Alise’s childhood friend Sedric to chaperone her – but we, the reader, know something about Sedric that Alise doesn’t and that makes us think of him more as a villain than a friend.

As a setting, I prefer the Six Duchies of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, but I did enjoy the descriptions in this book of Trehaug, the city built in the treetops above the Rain Wild River. We did visit Trehaug and the Rain Wilds at several points throughout the Liveship Traders trilogy, but they lose some of their mysterious aura in this book as we learn much more about them and the people who live there. In case you’re wondering, we do meet some of the Liveship characters again (I was particularly pleased to see Paragon) but their appearances are very brief and the focus is definitely on Thymara, Alise and the other new characters. And the dragons, of course! Part of the story is told from the perspective of Sintara, a blue dragon who is not quite as weak and stunted as some of the others, and it was interesting to see things from her point of view now and then.

Although I couldn’t quite love this book, I did find it a relatively quick and easy read, in comparison to some of Hobb’s others which are usually much longer and more emotionally demanding. I’ll continue the series soon with the second book, Dragon Haven.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!

The Binding by Bridget Collins

With its attractive cover and intriguing premise, I hoped for great things from The Binding, but sadly it was not to be. I could tell almost from the beginning that it was probably not the right book for me, but I continued anyway, hoping it would get better – and it did. For a while in the middle I found myself enjoying it…but by the time I reached the end my feelings had turned to disappointment again and I wished I had followed my first instincts and stopped reading early on. For the right reader, though, I think this will probably be the great read it promised to be, so don’t let me put you off if you like the sound of the book!

The Binding is set in an unspecified time period, but there were clues that pointed to the late 19th century. Most of the action takes place in and around Castleford, a town in West Yorkshire, but it really could be anywhere. I’m sure the vagueness is deliberate because, as you’ll see, the world of The Binding is not quite the same as our own.

The novel begins with young Emmett Farmer receiving a summons to take up an apprenticeship as a bookbinder. He is reluctant to go – because he doesn’t want to leave his parents, his sister and the family farm, and also because he has always been told that books are dangerous and should be avoided – but it seems he is to be given no choice in the matter. Arriving at Seredith’s isolated bindery in the countryside, he learns from her the art of producing beautiful leather-bound books. But the real skill is involved in creating the contents…

Binders have a talent for drawing out unhappy or painful memories from people’s minds and trapping them between the covers of a book. With their memory wiped clean that person can then move on with the rest of their life, while the secrets of their past remain locked away in a vault. It’s a fascinating ability, but one which is open to abuse. What if one of these books falls into the wrong hands? What if someone is forced to have their memories bound because someone else wants them to forget? It’s a fascinating concept and the novel explores many of the equally fascinating issues that arise from it.

The book was divided into three sections and I think this structure caused some of the problems. In the first third of the book, we learned very little about Emmett even though he was our narrator and protagonist. His background was not really described in any detail, his relationships with his family and then with Seredith didn’t feel fully developed and I couldn’t even have told you what sort of personality he had. When the middle section of the story began to unfold, I understood why so much had been concealed from us and I was pleased to finally begin learning more about Emmett and the other characters – but by that time it was too late for me to feel the connection to them that I would have liked to have felt from the beginning.

I also think I’d had the wrong expectations for this book. I thought there would be a stronger fantasy element and that the concept of binding would play a bigger part in the story than it actually did. Instead, I couldn’t help feeling that the binding was only really there to provide a sort of framework for a romance between Emmett and another character. It’s disappointing because I think there was a lot of potential here and a lot of other intriguing ways that the binding idea could have been used. I’m sure there will be other readers who love this book, particularly those who enjoy young adult romances, but it just wasn’t quite right for me.

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

Thoughts on finishing The Tawny Man Trilogy (The Golden Fool and Fool’s Fate)

After reading Fool’s Errand a few months ago, I knew I didn’t want to wait too long before reading the other two books in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man Trilogy; on the other hand, I didn’t want to read them too quickly because then it would all be over and I wouldn’t have them to look forward to anymore (I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way about long-anticipated books). Once I started reading The Golden Fool, though, I had to keep going until I’d reached the end of the trilogy. I cared too deeply about the characters to abandon them while I read other books.

Before I go any further, I will give my usual advice that if you are new to Robin Hobb, the place to start is the Farseer Trilogy, which begins with Assassin’s Apprentice. After that, you should read The Liveship Traders Trilogy – it’s not completely necessary but I strongly recommend it as it will give you a better understanding of the world Hobb has created – and then move on to Fool’s Errand. If you have not yet read all of those books, you will come across spoilers for them in the rest of this post (it would be impossible for me to avoid them).

First, The Golden Fool. As the middle book in the trilogy, this one is neither as tightly plotted as the first nor as epic as the third. Its main function seems to be to tie up some of the storylines begun in the first book (such as Laudwine and the Piebalds), while setting the scene for the quest that will form the basis of the final book. The foundations of this quest are laid during negotiations for Prince Dutiful’s betrothal to an Outislander princess, the Narcheska Elliania. Dutiful’s mother, Queen Kettricken, intends this marriage to form a lasting alliance between the Six Duchies and the Outislands, but it seems that things aren’t going to go quite as smoothly as she’d hoped. Before the Narcheska will agree to marry the prince, she insists that he will have to prove himself worthy…by bringing her the head of the black dragon Icefyre, who lies in a glacier on a distant ice-covered island.

To help Dutiful prepare for his mission, Fitz – still posing as Tom Badgerlock, servant to the nobleman Lord Golden (the Fool) – reluctantly agrees to take on the role of Skillmaster, tutoring the prince in the Farseer magic known as the Skill. The importance of creating a coterie for Dutiful – a circle of those gifted in the Skill who will offer support and strength to the prince – is clear, but at present Fitz has other things on his mind. His adopted son, Hap, is in love with a girl from Buckkeep Town whose parents strongly disapprove of the match, and Hap risks losing his apprenticeship as a result. Meanwhile, his daughter Nettle, with whom he is linked through the Skill, is being visited in her dreams by a blue dragon; Kettricken and Chade want her brought to the safety of Buckkeep Castle and raised as befits a Farseer heir, but Fitz disagrees…

Worst of all, the friendship between Fitz and the Fool, which has endured for so many years, comes under threat when a delegation from Bingtown arrives. Among them is a certain woman called Jek, who will be remembered by readers of the Liveship Traders, and who seems to be under a misapprehension about the Fool. And this is one of several points in the novel where I was glad I had resisted the temptation to go straight from the Farseer Trilogy to the Tawny Man – this particular scene would have made far less sense otherwise. Even with my understanding of what it was all about, I found this a difficult and uncomfortable scene to read – it’s never nice to see people who care so much about each other hurting each other so badly.

Fool’s Fate picks up the story in the middle of the preparations for Dutiful’s journey to the Outislands where he must hunt down and behead the dragon Icefyre. Along with his old mentor Chade, and the difficult but strongly-Skilled Thick, Fitz is accompanying the prince on his voyage but insists that the Fool, who has predicted his own death on the icy island of Aslevjal, must stay behind. Can the future really be changed as easily as that – or will fate refuse to be defied?

This is the book where the significance of everything we’ve learned in the previous eight novels regarding dragons, Elderlings, White Prophets and Catalysts finally starts to become clear and I found the ‘quest’ element of the novel more compelling than the one in the final Farseer novel, Assassin’s Quest – although, having said that, there are some direct links between the two and, remembering that earlier quest, I enjoyed the brief glimpses we are given of Girl on a Dragon and Verity as Dragon! This is such a visual book too; some of the scenes involving Icefyre, the glaciers of Aslevjal and the Elderling ruins beneath the ice are described so vividly, I almost felt as though I was watching them unfold on film. We also see both the Skill and the Wit being used in new and fascinating ways.

As the final book in the Tawny Man Trilogy and, until the publication of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy in 2014 (which I still have to look forward to), the final book about Fitz, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up and a lot of ongoing storylines to be resolved. I think whether or not you will be satisfied with these resolutions will depend on how you feel about the characters concerned. Although one of Fitz’s relationships is given a happy ending, it comes at the expense of at least two others – and because I had felt much more closely engaged with the latter two characters than with the former, I found it a very bittersweet conclusion to Fitz’s story.

As usual, coming to the end of one of Robin Hobb’s trilogies has left me feeling bereft. I’m planning to start her Rain Wild Chronicles soon, but I’m wondering where the novella The Wilful Princess and the Piebald Prince fits in and whether I should maybe read that first.