Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Published: Solaris, 2014
Series: Book 1 of the Fractured Europe Sequence
Awards Nominated: BSFA, Campbell, Clarke

The Book:

“After a variety of crises, Europe has collapsed into many small states.  The increasing number of new borders and citizenships has created a chaotic mess where crime flourishes. Rudi is a chef in Krakow, but one day he finds himself quietly recruited into a seemingly silly (but lucrative) kind of spy game.  In his new role as a Coureur, Rudi transports goods, information, and sometimes people across many borders.  

As Rudi gets in deeper, he realizes that the work of the Coureurs can sometimes be deadly serious.  He eventually becomes entangled in a conspiracy that someone is willing to kill to cover up.  Will he be able to discover the secret before it costs his life?”  ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve read by Dave Hutchinson, and I chose it because of the many award nominations.  Also, sorry for the long silence.  It has been a hard summer to find time to write.

My Thoughts:

Europe in Autumn is a kind of spy/organized crime novel, which eventually has some supernatural elements.  It starts out in Rudi’s mundane life before his recruitment as a coureur, and I enjoyed seeing his life as a chef.  I found his impatience and mild embarrassment with his first ‘spy’ work amusing, and I got a kick out of his unenthusiastic personality as he grew in competence as a coureur.  On the other hand, his adventures felt very episodic.  The book jumped around from situation to situation, and I didn’t ever feel like I had a strong sense of the story as a coherent whole.  This is the first novel in a series, so it’s possible that subplots which are dropped here are picked up in the coming novels.

Rudi’s fractured Europe was carefully imagined, but it was also incredibly bleak. I don’t know how likely this scenario seemed to be back in 2014, but now it’s just close enough to reality to make me feel stressed out.  As a coureur (and even as a chef), Rudi spends a lot of time with organized crime syndicates, so the world we see is really dirty, cynical and full of violence.  I’m definitely not opposed to darker books, but I think this one just hit me in the wrong place and at the wrong time.  There were some ideas that I thought were pretty interesting, though, such as the long rail-line that declared itself as an independent country.

As the book moved toward its conclusion, it seemed to focus progressively less on Rudi.  Instead, the story began to be told through the perspectives of a string of minor characters and fictional documents.  At this point, I was mostly interested in Rudi’s personal story, so the shift away from him left me feeling puzzled.  The supernatural elements that eventually come into play are a neat idea, but I had mostly run out of interest in the story by the time they were revealed.  Overall, I think this book was a mismatch for me, but I can see the appeal in the story for others.

My Rating: 2/5

This slightly supernatural spy novel features an amusingly reluctant chef-turned-smuggler who has adventures throughout a fractured Europe.  I enjoyed the personality of the main character, but was less engaged by the episodic nature of the story and the bleak near-future world.  I also began to feel more indifferent as the novel shifted away from the protagonist in the latter part of the book, focusing instead of fictional documents and minor characters. This was not a book for me, in the end, but I can see how it could have caught others’ imaginations.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey, Part 4

I’m a little late for part four of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah’s Curse, but I’m still here!  This week we covered chapters 48-64, and I provided the questions.  Beware of spoilers in the questions and answers below!

1) Moirin makes some new friends on the way to Rasa.  What do you think will come of her decision to entrust them with the jade medallion?  Do you see this as a betrayal of trust or do you think the Emperor would understand?

I feel like this might be one of those decisions that comes back to bite her later. She’s given away most of her valuables as gifts, though, so I’m not sure she has any choice.  I think I would trust the people she gave the medallion to, but I think these things have a way of changing hands unexpectedly.  Hopefully, the Emperor would understand and not hold it against, and hopefully no one tries to use it to cause trouble in Ch’in.

2) On her way to the Lady of Rats, Moirin ends up in a dangerous caravan.  What are your thoughts on what happened, both with the assault and the illness?  

I found it interesting that Moirin compared herself unfavorably with Phedre in these chapters, when her magic makes her far more powerful in some ways.  I was reminded in this section how often Phedre relied on her training in Naamah’s Arts to find a way to power in a difficult situation.  When she was with the Skaldi leader, she faced a similar situation with no twilight to hide her.  Both Moirin and Imriel lamented that they were not great heros/heroines like Phedre and Joscelin, but I think they both found plenty of adventure.

On the assault itself, wow is that guy gross.  I find it disappointing and unsurprising that he is still a respected trader, and will likely do the same thing to the next pretty woman that comes along.  Based on the reaction of his men, I get the feeling Moirin was not the first.  At least she was able to learn some Bhodistani, and the association with him doesn’t seem to have soured the language for her.

I don’t know much about altitude sickness, but is that what Sanjiv was referring to as “mountain sickness”?  It’s amazing that it cleared up after only three days of rest.  If it was due to altitude, then maybe being in the valley helped. That might be the first time Moirin has reached near the limits of her physical endurance due to circumstances beyond her control.

3) Is seems that caste/class is going to be a major point in this story.  Even if Amrita agrees that the caste system may not be just, do you think there's anything that she and Moirin can do about it? Do you see any path to happiness for Jagrati and/or do you think she deserves to be defeated?

I don’t think they’re going to abolish the caste system in a few weeks, but maybe Amrita will be the seed of a new way for the future.  To be honest, I was concerned when I realized our villain was going to be an evil marginalized woman who attacks people through sexual desire.  I think the story is trying to show that she has a valid complaint with society, though, and no one would ever have listened to her without drastic action.  I don’t think she should get away with assassinating people, but I also have a feeling that we don’t have her whole story yet.  

I also think that the novel is trying to address ideas of privilege and class, not only here but also earlier in the story.  One of the reasons Bao got married was to raise his station, because he saw himself as below Moirin.  Amrita even observed that Moirin does not really socialize outside her own caste, though I think that’s not really true.  In any case, I think it will make Moirin more aware of hierarchy in the societies around her.

4) There is a lot of passion in Kushiel's Legacy, but the sex scene in this section doesn't involve much.  Given all of the focus on "love as thou wilt", what do you think about Amrita's gift and it's acceptance by Naamah? What do you think about the idea of sex without desire, but for compassionate purposes?

It was a really unusual scene, and not really all that in line with what I would have expected Naamah to approve.  It certainly helped Moirin, but it seems like the whole situation would be really awkward.  It made me wonder if Amrita desired her husband, or if sex has always been to her a gift to give someone else.

5) Bao returns!  I think we were all a little irritated with him for his Tatar adventures. Do his actions here change your opinion of him? Do you think he has escaped Jagrati's diamond for good?

I am glad that we didn’t have many chapters of Bao not believing Moirin was real, so for that I thank him.  I tend to believe that Jagrati was telling the truth when she said she thought Moirin was dead.  When Bao realized Moirin had not been sent to the Falconer and Spider Queen, that was a much more logical conclusion than to think the Khan had simply sent her somewhere else.  He picked a very self-destructive way to mourn, though, and the addiction is probably something that will stay with him forever (as will the tattoos).  As for Jagrati’s diamond, I’m not sure it has much power over Bao.  It didn’t stop him from recognizing Moirin, and he doesn’t really seem enamored of Jagrati.  It may be Moirin that needs to escape the diamond!

Other Things:

--I wonder why Sanjiv stays with such a horrible group of traders.  It seems like his skills are valued, so he could find some nicer people to join.

--While Amrita’s kid is quite clever, perhaps it was not the best idea to let a child plan their strategy.

--Amrita was safe from the Falconer because she was pregnant, but it’s been a decade since then. Does the Falconer only pursue women who have never given birth?
--How did Amrita recognize Moirin’s caste right away?  It sounded like she didn’t exactly look like royalty at the time.  

Monday, June 19, 2017

Read-Along: Naamah's Curse by Jacqueline Carey, Part 3

Welcome to week three of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Naamah’s Curse, book eight of Kushiel’s Legacy.  This week’s questions were provided by Susan of Dab of Darkness, and they cover chapters 33-47.  Beware of spoilers through these chapters in the questions and answers below!

1) What stood out to you for Moirin's baptising ceremony? Have you ever been through such a religious ceremony and did it go as you expected?

I really hated that she was forced into pretending a faith she did not have, just to avoid execution.  I also feel like the Maghuin Dhon and Yeshua should have a loophole about oaths made under duress, regarding her later troubles. On the other hand, I appreciated that the novel made it clear that these ceremonies would not have truly made Moirin a believer.  The important bit was that quiet moment earlier, where she personally decided whether or not to accept Yeshua as her savior.

Regarding the second question, I was baptized when I accepted the Christian faith.  It went pretty much as expected.  My denomination practices immersive baptism, so it was done in a small pool with myself and the pastor.  The baptism itself is intended as a symbolic death and resurrection to a new life with Christ, and also as a public declaration of faith.  No one pressured or coerced me into my faith; it was a choice freely made!  
2) Now Moirin and Aleksei are free. Aleksei has much to learn not just about Moirin but also about the larger world. What moment do you think challenged his ingrained beliefs the most? What do you think he will do ultimately with his life?

I think one of the most defined shifts he had was when he realized that his feelings and his genetic heritage did not mark him as an evil person.  His uncle tried so hard to instill undeserved shame in him, and I think Moirin’s words helped him see that this was not God’s will. I liked that he did not suddenly reject everything he believed.  He only rejected that of his uncle’s teachings that did not ring true when compared with his understanding of Yeshua.  I expect, given his d’Angeline charisma, that he will be a great leader in his faith.  I am glad he has concluded that this future cannot be with Moirin, because they really aren’t suited for one another in the long-term.
 
3) There comes a moment when Moirin realizes that she did come to love Aleksei, in a way, and that's the same moment she knows she will not see him again. Naamah's curse indeed! Have you had such a moment yourself? Do you think this curse also applies now to Moirin's love of the departed Jehane?

Moirin, like Phedre, has a lot of love in her heart, and I am glad there is a little corner in there for her memories of Aleksei.  I’m delighted that Aleksei did not tragically die, and at least they may see one another again in the world someday.  I would say the curse is simply that humans are capable of a great depth of love, and that this means we will hurt all the more when we’re inevitably parted by death or circumstances.  I would say this applies not only to romance, but also to love for family and friends.  In that sense, I think we all eventually feel that pain.

4) Falcons and spiders and rats, oh my! What stood out the most for you in Moirin meeting up again with Erdene, Bao's wife? And what do you expect Moirin will find as she heads towards the Falconer with his Spider Queen?

This sounds like a fairy tale!  I hope Moirin is kind to everyone she meets, so that she has plenty of magical allies! I’m guessing that Bao’s half-diadh-anam is burning low because he is a mind-controlled assassin right now.  I expect he will face a conflict where he must rely on his love for Moirin to overcome the Spider Queen’s dominating power.

Other Things:

--Did Aleksei remind anyone of Joscelin in this section?  I am remembering Joscelin’s strict discipline, and his shock with Phedre’s behavior.  

--I think it’s a bit unfair that Aleksei says Moirin didn’t hesitate.  She really did! She warned him, and then waited to see if he would back down.  It’s not like she shot an arrow at him on sight.


--I’m glad Moirin got her stuff back.  Erdene seems to be a kind woman, especially after all Bao has put her through.