The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

This is Natasha Pulley’s second novel. I remember seeing lots of very positive reviews of her first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, a year or two ago and thinking it sounded interesting. I never got round to reading that book, but when I heard about her new one, The Bedlam Stacks – which sounded just as intriguing – I decided to give it a try.

Set mainly in Peru in 1860, The Bedlam Stacks is narrated by Merrick Tremayne, a former opium smuggler and an expert in botany. Confined to his family estate in Cornwall due to a leg injury, Merrick is trying to come to terms with the fact that he will now have to put his adventuring days behind him and find something else to do with his life. Just as he is beginning to lose hope, his old friend Clem Markham arrives with a request from Merrick’s former employers, the East India Company. To tackle the problem of treating malaria in India, a supply of quinine is urgently needed – and Merrick’s expertise with plants makes him the ideal person to travel with Clem to Peru to take cuttings of the quinine-rich cinchona tree.

At first Merrick is reluctant to agree, knowing that his disability will make it difficult for him to travel through dangerous terrain – not to mention the fact that the Peruvians have a monopoly on the trees and are not about to let anyone else steal them. The alternative, though, is to stay at home and follow his brother’s suggestion of becoming a parson, so it doesn’t take him long to reach a decision! Venturing into the uncharted depths of Peru, Merrick and Clem finally arrive in the holy town of Bedlam, a place where the boundaries between magic and reality begin to merge.

The magical realism elements in The Bedlam Stacks are much more dominant than I had expected. There are moving statues, exploding trees and several other surprises which I will leave you to discover for yourself! This wasn’t really to my taste – I think I would have found it just as enjoyable to read a novel about an expedition to Peru that was based entirely on fact, without the touches of fantasy – but it was certainly imaginative and original. I did love the concept of the Markayuq statues, which apparently really exist and are still found in the countryside in Peru, originally thought to be guarding the villages. Natasha Pulley finds a clever and fascinating way to incorporate these into the story, but again I don’t want to say too much.

The sense of place is very strong – there are some wonderful descriptions of the Peruvian landscape as well as vivid accounts of more practical considerations such as the altitude sickness experienced during the journey – but I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a stronger sense of the time period. Neither Merrick’s narrative voice nor the dialogue between the characters felt convincingly Victorian to me; the choice of words and phrases, the grammar and the structure of sentences just weren’t right for the 19th century. I’m aware, though, that I can be a bit pedantic about anachronistic language used in historical novels and I know it’s not something that bothers everyone!

I did find a lot to enjoy in The Bedlam Stacks, although I’m sorry that I couldn’t quite manage to love it. Maybe I’m just not the right reader for Natasha Pulley’s books, but I’m still glad I’ve tried this one – even if not everything worked for me, I can understand the appeal!

Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

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Ship of Destiny by Robin Hobb

This, the third of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders novels, brings the trilogy to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Having become quite attached to the characters and swept away by the story over the course of the three novels, I’m sorry to have come to the end – but I have to admit, I’m also happy that I’ve finished and can now move on to the Tawny Man books and rejoin old friends from Hobb’s Farseer trilogy. First, though, I need to post my thoughts on Ship of Destiny – and as this is a trilogy which really needs to be read in order, I can’t avoid spoiling elements of the previous two books here; if you think you might want to read them I would recommend going no further with this review until you’ve read both Ship of Magic and The Mad Ship.

Ship of Destiny picks up each of the trilogy’s many storylines from where they left off at the end of The Mad Ship. For much of the novel, our main characters are divided into small groups, each having separate adventures of their own, until fate eventually brings them together in a dramatic sequence of events which brings The Liveship Traders to a close.

First of all, there’s Malta, who has escaped from the aftermath of the earthquake in Trehaug and has found herself sailing down the hazardous Rain Wild River in the company of the childish and petulant Satrap of Jamaillia. Malta’s betrothed, Reyn Khuprus, is desperately searching for her, with the reluctant help of Tintaglia the dragon. Newly released from her cocoon, Tintaglia would prefer to be getting down to more important business, such as saving her species from extinction.

On board the liveship Paragon, Althea Vestrit, Brashen Trell and Amber the wood-carver are getting closer and closer to the Vivacia, the Vestrit family liveship which Althea has her heart set on reclaiming. But Vivacia has already bonded with her new captain, the pirate Kennit, and with Althea’s nephew Wintrow; Althea could be facing disappointment when she finally catches up with her beloved ship. Meanwhile, Ronica and Keffria are trying to rebuild and reform Bingtown following the Chalcedean invasion – but for this they will need the cooperation of Serilla, the Satrap’s Companion, whose priority seems to be to obtain power for herself.

When I wrote about The Mad Ship a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was particularly intrigued by Amber, as she made me think of another character from the Farseer trilogy. That character, of course, is the Fool, and I was pleased to find that my suspicions were confirmed in this book. Amber recarves Paragon’s figurehead to resemble Fitz, there are discussions of destiny, and there are exchanges like this:

“You’d have to be a fool to think you could change the course of the whole world.”

She was silent until she broke out in a shaky laugh. “Oh, Paragon, in that you are more right than you know, my friend.”

Other characters continued to interest me too, particularly Malta. Who would have thought the annoying, selfish girl we met in the first book would mature so quickly and turn out to be such a shrewd negotiator? Kennit, on the other hand, goes from being a complex and strangely sympathetic character to a villain whose treatment of Althea and Paragon made me lose all respect for him – although I did find his final scenes in the book quite moving.

On reaching the end of The Liveship Traders, I didn’t feel as bereft as at the end of The Farseer trilogy, which I think is partly because, while there were plenty of characters I liked and cared about, I never felt as close to any of them as I did to Fitz. I was less emotionally involved with this trilogy, but I did still thoroughly enjoy it; I loved the world Robin Hobb created here and I was impressed by her ability to handle multiple storylines and keep track of who knows what! Also, as someone who doesn’t read a lot of fantasy, I found the dragon element fascinating, which is probably fortunate as if I’m going to continue working through Hobb’s novels I will eventually need to read The Rain Wild Chronicles which, judging by the titles, sound very dragon-heavy! First, though, I’m looking forward to the Tawny Man trilogy – I have my copy of the first book, Fool’s Errand, ready and waiting…

The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

This is the second volume of Robin Hobb’s The Liveship Traders trilogy. I read the first one, Ship of Magic, earlier this summer and enjoyed it so much I couldn’t wait to move on to this one. As it’s a trilogy that really needs to be read in order, I have found it impossible to write about this book without spoiling the previous one, so be warned!

The Mad Ship continues to develop storylines begun in the first novel. When we last saw the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, she had been captured by pirates far from her home port of Bingtown and her captain, Kyle Haven, had been defeated and injured. Captain Kennit, the pirate leader, is delighted to have taken possession of such a valuable ship, particularly as he is already beginning to bond with Vivacia, the liveship’s sentient figurehead. Also on board is Kyle’s son, Wintrow, who has Vestrit blood and finds himself competing with Kennit for the ship’s affections.

When news of Vivacia’s capture reaches the rest of the family, they must find a way to work together to rescue her and to bring home Kyle and Wintrow. This is easier said than done given the divisions and tensions within the Vestrit household! Althea Vestrit still believes that the Vivacia should rightfully belong to her rather than to her sister (and Kyle’s wife) Keffria, while spoiled, selfish Malta continues to cause trouble for her mother and grandmother. However, Malta is forced to grow up very quickly and through her relationship with Reyn Khuprus of the Rain Wilds, she has a chance to redeem herself in the eyes of her family.

Meanwhile, Brashen Trell and Amber the bead merchant have come up with a plan of their own to help Vivacia – one which involves relaunching Paragon, the old, abandoned liveship who is believed to be mad, having killed his crew many years earlier. Will their plan succeed or is the Vivacia lost to them forever?

Despite loving the first book, it took me a while to really get into this one, but I think it was simply suffering from being the second in a trilogy – there wasn’t the novelty of discovering a new world or the excitement of following the story to its conclusion. Halfway through, though, several of the storylines took a more dramatic turn and I found that I was absolutely riveted! So much happens in this book that I can’t possibly mention everything here; instead, I have just picked out a few of the things I found most notable.

* Dragons and serpents – What I loved most about this book was that we learn much, much more about the dragons and sea serpents and how they are connected with the wizardwood used in the construction of the liveships. In Ship of Magic, all the talk of ‘tangles’, ‘silver providers’ and ‘She Who Remembers’ had me completely mystified, but now the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place. Some links with the dragons from Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy are also emerging and bearing in mind how much I loved those books it’s great to come across anything that ties the two together.

* Amber – There continues to be an aura of mystery surrounding Amber; so far we know almost nothing about her origins or how she came to be in Bingtown. Remembering a certain character in The Farseer Trilogy, I’m starting to have my suspicions about her, but I will wait and see if anything else is revealed in the next book.

* Magic – The magical elements in this book are particularly strong. Not only do we have dragons, sea serpents and talking figureheads, but with the dream sequences and the abilities of certain beings to enter the thoughts of others, I was reminded of the Skill and the Wit from The Farseer books. I also loved the descriptions of Trehaug, the Trader city on the Rain Wild River where the Khuprus family live.

* Malta – I didn’t like her at all in the previous novel and in the first half of this one she continued to annoy me, but later in the book there are signs that she is growing and developing as a person. She is just one of several strong female characters in the trilogy; I have already mentioned Amber, but Althea, Keffria, Ronica and Etta all interest me too.

There is so much more I could say about this book but, to be honest, I just wanted to get this post written quickly so that I could move straight on to the final volume, Ship of Destiny, in which I hope some more of my questions will be answered!

This is book 13/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

the-bear-and-the-nightingale I was drawn to this book first by the cover – and then by the mention of Russian fairy tales and folklore. It seemed a little bit different from the usual books I read and I hoped it would prove to be an enchanting, magical read, perfect for the winter months.

The story is set in the 14th century in Lesnaya Zemlya, a village in northern Rus’.  The village is home to Pyotr Vladimirovich who, since losing his beloved wife in childbirth several years earlier, has lived alone with his five children and their elderly nurse, Dunya. The youngest child, Vasilisa (or Vasya, as she is known), is becoming wild and rebellious and it is partly because of the need to provide a mother figure for her that Pyotr decides to marry again. Unfortunately, though, his new wife – Anna – turns out to be a wicked stepmother who dislikes and distrusts Vasya and believes she can see demons hiding all over the house.

Vasya, who has inherited special abilities from her mother, can also see Anna’s ‘demons’, but she knows that they are not evil spirits – they are household guardians watching over the people of Lesnaya Zemlya. When Father Konstantin arrives in the village, believing he is on a mission from God to stamp out the old traditions and beliefs, the powers of the household spirits begin to fade. Harvests start to fail, winters seem colder and harder than ever before and the evil forces that lurk in the forest grow stronger. Can Vasya find a way to protect her family and restore happiness and prosperity to the village?

The Bear and the Nightingale is a story steeped in Russian myth, legend and fairy tale. Although I loved fairy tales as a child, I seem to have missed out on most of the Russian ones, but that wasn’t a problem at all – and I was surprised to discover how much I was actually familiar with. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the story of Frost which Dunya is telling the children as the novel opens:

“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.

Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows.”

Frost, or Morozko to give him his Russian name, is an important presence throughout the whole novel, although he only appears to the characters on a few occasions and we are made to wait until near the end of the book before his true significance becomes clear. Other aspects of the story are slow to unfold too – such as the role of the Bear and Nightingale of the title – which is why I’m not going to say any more about the plot or the characters, even though I would love to! I would prefer to leave some of the novel’s secrets and surprises for you to discover for yourself.

What I will mention is the setting, which I loved. Most of the action takes place in and around Vasya’s village, with lots of vivid descriptions of the harsh living conditions and the bleak, relentless winter weather, but there are also a few sections set in Moscow at the court of the Grand Prince Ivan II. I have very little knowledge of 14th century Russia (or Rus’, as the region was known at that time) so I wasn’t sure how much of this was based on fact, but as this is historical fantasy I tried not to worry too much about that.  I was more interested in the portrayal of the conflict between the old ways and the new, the changing beliefs of the people and the loss of old traditions.

The Bear and the Nightingale is apparently the first in a trilogy – I hadn’t been aware of this when I first started to read, but on reaching the end of the book I was happy to discover that there will be another two and that the next one will take us away from the forests of Rus’ and into medieval Moscow. I hope we won’t have to wait too long for it as I’m looking forward to it already!

Thanks to the publisher Del Rey for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

the-phantom-treeI have always found the concept of time-travel fascinating – and equally fascinating are the number of ways in which various authors choose to approach the subject when writing time-travel fiction.  The Phantom Tree is one of many dual time period time-slip novels I have read over the last few years, but I found it refreshingly different in that it deals not with the usual idea of a modern day character going back in time but a woman from the past coming forward to the present time.

The name of our time traveller is Alison Bannister (or Banastre, as she was known in her previous life) and she has been trapped in the 21st century for ten years, unable to find a way to get back.  We first meet Alison walking through the streets of Marlborough one day just before Christmas.  Stopping to look through the window of an art gallery, she is surprised to see a painting of a woman she once knew.  Investigating further, she learns that this is apparently a newly discovered portrait of Anne Boleyn – but she’s sure it isn’t; it’s Mary Seymour, who lived with Alison at Wolf Hall in the 1500s.  To complicate things further, the historian hoping to build his career around the discovery of Anne Boleyn’s portrait is Adam Hewer, Alison’s ex-boyfriend.  Without telling him the truth about her journey through time, how can she convince him that he’s wrong?   

The historical sections of the novel are written mainly from Mary Seymour’s perspective.  Unlike Alison, who is fictional, Mary is a real historical figure – but one whose story has been lost in the mists of time.  Mary is the daughter of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr, and Thomas Seymour, whom Katherine married following Henry’s death.  Katherine dies shortly after giving birth and Thomas is executed a year later, leaving Mary an orphan in the care of the Duchess of Suffolk.  Mary disappears from historical records in 1550, but Nicola Cornick suggests that she was sent to live with her Seymour cousins at Wolf Hall.  This allows plenty of scope to create a storyline for Mary which is both imaginary and historically plausible.         

Of the two time periods, I found the sections set in the past more interesting – in particular, I enjoyed the supernatural elements of Mary’s story.  Almost from the moment she arrives at Wolf Hall rumours begin to circulate that she is a witch, especially after she has a vision which seems to come true.  She also has a telepathic connection with a secret friend called Darrell and this reminded me instantly of Mary Stewart’s Touch Not the Cat, (which may have been intentional, as Darrell’s nickname for Mary is ‘Cat’). 

The present day story was enjoyable too, though.  I couldn’t help thinking that Alison had adapted remarkably quickly to modern life, which wasn’t at all convincing, but otherwise I was kept entertained by her attempts to find a gateway back to her own time and to decipher a set of clues sent by Mary through the centuries.   

The Phantom Tree does require disbelief to be suspended on many occasions, which I know is not something that appeals to all readers, but I think anyone who likes reading time-slip novels by authors like Susanna Kearsley or Barbara Erskine should find plenty to enjoy here.  I will now be looking out for Nicola Cornick’s previous book, House of Shadows!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

 

Witch Week Readalong: Something Wicked This Way Comes

witch-week-2016 I read this Ray Bradbury novel for a readalong as part of Witch Week, hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, but I’m sure I would have read it eventually anyway. It’s a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while – mainly, I have to confess, because I liked the title. It comes from a line spoken by one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”. I didn’t really have any idea what the novel itself was about, so the Witch Week readalong seemed a good opportunity to find out!

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. Not only are Will and Jim neighbours and best friends, they share another special bond: they were born just a few minutes apart, Will one minute before Halloween and Jim one minute after. They are inseparable, but they also have very different personalities – Will is the more sensible and cautious of the two, whereas Jim is more reckless and daring. The boys are thirteen years old as the novel opens one day in October when they have an encounter with a mysterious lightning rod salesman who warns that a storm is approaching.

something-wicked-this-way-comes That same night, a carnival – Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show – is heading towards Green Town. Will and Jim watch it arrive at three o’clock in the morning, excited that a carnival has come so late in the year. Their excitement quickly starts to fade, however, as strange things begin to happen in connection with the carnival and its sinister owners. When they spot Mr Cooger riding on a carousel while the music plays backwards, they realise they are witnessing something which shouldn’t have been possible, something which tells them that this is no ordinary carnival – and that their lives could be in danger.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, as it’s the first I’ve read by Ray Bradbury, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it. The writing style is unusual and took a while to get used to, but I found the use of language very intriguing. The streets are ‘footstepped’, for example, the rain ‘chuckles’ and ‘nuzzles’ at the windows, the people of the town ‘breathe back and forth’ to the carnival and laughter ‘walks on panther feet’. I’m not sure if I particularly liked the writing – the choice of words and the structure of the sentences are often so unconventional that I found it quite distracting – but it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember most about this book.

I’ll also remember the philosophical musings of Charles Halloway, Will’s father:

So in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do, depending on the season and the need.

And the many wonderful descriptions of the library, where he works:

When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they! – when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?

Some of the readalong participants have discussed the fact that the two main characters (in the first half of the book, at least) are teenage boys and how the age we are when we first read the book could affect our ability to relate to the boys and their lives. Although I did still enjoy it anyway, I do wonder whether I might have had a different impression of it if I’d read it when I was younger. Later in the book, Charles Halloway begins to play a bigger part in the story, providing an adult perspective and bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom to the fight against the evil forces of the carnival.

Good versus evil is obviously one of the major themes of the novel. A feeling of malice and danger hangs over the carnival from the moment it arrives and the people connected with it are both strange and sinister – particularly the blind Dust Witch who hovers over the boys’ houses in a hot air balloon in one of the creepiest scenes in the book. There are other themes too, though, such as life and death, age and the passing of time, the ties of friendship and the power of happiness and of love. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fascinating read and one which left me with a lot to think about.