February reading round-up

The cover of this edition shows a large black dragon in front of a castle holding a woman in its claws. Two male figures watch in the background.

Barbara Hambly, Dragonsbane (Winterlands #1) (1985)

I blogged about Dragonsbane here. It’s a fun fantasy adventure with interesting middle-aged protagonists, lots of action, and a great dragon. What more could you want? Perfect for a rainy afternoon.

The cover of this edition is a plain light blue with the title text in white

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle (2019)

I’m going to write a proper post about Burnout when I have a moment (hah!), but in summary, this is a mostly useful book. I found the chapters on the science of stress particularly helpful and have changed my own behaviour in response. It’s written for women and it’s nice to have a self-help book that actually names the problem (‘patriarchy ugh!’). However, I don’t think the book is so strong when it comes to long-term solutions and, while it nods to intersectionality, it lacks any class consciousness.

The cover of this edition shows old gravestones in an overgrown cemetary

Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead (2014)

Book six in the Ruth Galloway series, which has been keeping me in bedtime reading for a few months now. In this one, Ruth is involved in a TV show about the bones of a woman accused of being a child murdurer, while her police friends deal with the case of a mother whose three children have died in mysterious circumstances. Then another child disappears. I found The Outcast Dead enjoyable enough, although Griffiths has failed to make me care about Judy and her relationship with Cathbad, which is a major plot point in this one.

The cover of this edition is a painting of a black woman with her hair growing up to cover the top third of the image.

Nalo Hopkinson, Falling in Love with Hominids (2015)

Last, but definitely not least, Nalo Hopkinson’s fantasy/horror collection, Falling in Love with Hominids, was no question the best book I read during February. I’m hoping to write a post about it, so I won’t dwell too much here, but it’s a wide-ranging collection of thought-provoking and often startling stories, which ‘mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore’ (Goodreads). Hopkinson has an incredible imagination and a straightforward, direct style of writing that lures you into her tales of zombies, ghosts and monsters before usually subverting your expectations.

Barbara Hambly, ‘Dragonsbane’ (1985)

Original cover of Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly which shows a black dragon holding a woman in it's claws while two male figures watch from the background.

Dragonsbane begins in the bleak Winterlands, with a witch named Jenny Waynest meeting Gareth, a young nobleman who is seeking Lord John Aversin, a legendary dragon slayer. There is a dragon terrorizing the Southlands and Gareth has come to ask for Lord John’s help, with offer of a reward from the king. But when Jenny takes Gareth to meet his hero, he’s in for a shock. The famous Dragonsbane is a middle-aged, bespectacled scholar who is responsible for overseeing a small, muddy town. It’s true that he killed a dragon years ago, but by poisoning it and then sneaking up to hack it to death with an axe. John and Jenny are also long-term lovers and have two children together, much to Gareth’s disapproval. However, they agree to go with Gareth on the condition that the king will help them to defend their town against the bandits who plague the Winterlands.

But all is not as it seems. Gareth hasn’t been completely honest with them and the dragon seems to be a particularly ancient and powerful one. Worse still, there may be something even more dangerous than a dragon waiting for them in the shape of the sorcoress, Zyerne, who has wormed her way into the king’s affections and household.

Zyerne is seeking a source of magical power hidden deep in the caves of the gomes where the dragon has taken up residence. Jenny’s powers are average at best, and John isn’t much of a warrior, but they will have to find a way to defeat the dragon and prevent Zyerne from getting what she wants. Meanwhile, Jenny has her own internal battle to fight with the temptations and the price of power.

I’m not generally a fan of high fantasy, but I really enjoyed Dragonsbane. It’s a pacy, exciting read and the real strength is in the characters. Jenny and John are delightful protagonists. It’s so refreshing to have an older, experienced hero and heroine who have a healthy, adult relationship with each other. Gareth, the young, awkward man, trying to be a warrior, is also very endearing.

And then there’s the dragon. Morkeleb is the best dragon I’ve encountered in a fantasy novel since reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. A complex alien being with his own needs and desires, I loved him.

I had one problem with Dragonsbane and that’s the representation of Zyerne. The novel is clearly working through its own ambivalence about female power, and when it comes to Zyerne, this ambivalence tips over into outright misogny. Without giving too much away, the character is a one-dimensional villain who uses ‘sexy’ wiles (of course) to get her way. There’s no attempt to give her any nuance or complexity, or to really dig into her motivations. She just wants power, so she’s evil. I felt this could have been much better done.

But overall, I found Dragonsbane a very enjoyable and satisfying read and I’ll be checking out the sequels. Recommended if you’re looking for a fantasy world to sink into.

Vonda McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978)

Cover of the book Dreamsnake. It features an image of a face surrounded by coiling green snakes.

Dreamsnake sat on my bookshelf for years. I just never seemed to get around to reading it. Then Vonda McIntyre died last year and I thought I should make the effort in her honour.

The novel won the 1979 Hugo, 1978 Nebula and 1979 Locus awards and is still regarded as a classic work of feminist science fiction.

Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Dreamsnake is the story of a young healer named Snake. While travelling through the desert with her medicinal snakes, Grass, Mist and Sand, Snake is asked to try and heal the sick child of a group of desert dwellers. In a tragic misunderstanding, the dreamsnake, Grass, is killed by the frightened family of the child.

Snake is devastated. Not only has she lost her beloved Grass, she is no longer able to carry out her work effectively. Worse still, she has little chance of getting another Dreamsnake because they are alien creatures, brought to Earth by mysterious ‘Other Worlders’ and are very difficult to breed. But then a chance encounter with a dying woman provides an opportunity to visit the Central City, a closed society of humans who have access to advanced technology and still communicate with the Other Worlders. They may be able to give her another dreamsnake.

Snake begins her journey towards Central City, stopping on the way to help the people of a town, where she adopts an abused and scarred young girl who she hopes to train as a healer. But Snake is also being followed by two people, Arevin, one of the desert dwellers who has fallen in love with her, and a more threatening presence, someone who destroys her camp in the night.

Turned away empty-handed from Central City, Snake discovers there is another possibility when she hears of a dangerous man who may have possession of dreamsnakes. Should she risk everything to try and take some from him, for herself and her people?

And will she ever meet Arvein again?

I loved Dreamsnake. It was one of my favourite books last year. It’s a beautifully written story with an engaging heroine and an interesting world to explore. Snake is perhaps an overly perfect protagonist (everyone loves her; she’s the BEST healer etc.), which is usually a narrative bugbear for me, but I think that by taking away her dream snake, McIntyre gives the character enough internal conflict to make her relatable.

Dreamsnake is committed to anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist values. The “good” people are the ones who live outside the supposedly civilised city. They are mostly kind and generous, live in tune with nature and are generally non-monogamous in their relationships. The people inside the city are isolationist, selfish and small-minded.  They aren’t worth McIntyre’s time. She doesn’t bother to take us into the city, or to meet the Other Worlders. Dreamsnake is a book about people building a new society and leaving the past behind.

A lovely read, which I’m sure I’ll revisit again. Recommended if you’re interested in women’s writing and science fiction.

CN: While not graphic, there are references to child sexual abuse and rape in relation to one character.

Mary Oliver, Red Bird (2008) #20BooksofSummer

Red bird came all winter …

I read Mary Oliver’s collection, Red Bird, in one evening. Then I got up the next day and read it again on my commute to work. This is not her greatest work, but something about the poems really resonated with me. I rarely read a book twice in forty eight hours.

The poems in Red Bird are set in winter, which it soon becomes apparent is a metaphor for living through a time of grief and loss. The many birds, and other animals, that appear are metaphors for psychological and emotional states. The ‘big’ connecting theme in this collection is the inevitability and relentlessness of death: ‘Death waits for me, I know it, around one corner or another’ (p.38). The speaker is an older person, confronting loss and their own mortality, reflecting on the past, and fearful for the future. But, as ever in Oliver’s poetry, the poems convey a luminous quality of hope and resilience in the face of suffering, that has made her poetry so beloved. Oliver’s dog Percy makes a few appearances too.

I love bird poems and there are so many here. Goldfinches, night herons, hummingbirds, mockingbirds, crows, nuthatches, meadowlarks, teals and the ‘Red Bird’ of the title, who reappears in various guises, firing up the winter landscape with ‘the music of your heart that you wanted and needed’ (‘Red Bird Explains Himself’ p. 78).

There are some overtly political poems that address the destruction of the natural world by human civilization and the horrors of war (‘the terrible debris of progress’) in poems like’Red’, ‘Showing the Birds’, ‘From the River’, and ‘We Should be well Prepared’.

The collection includes Oliver’s famous ‘Instructions for living a life’:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it

‘Sometimes’, (4.) p. 37

Taken out of context (the poem is about death), it’s the kind of thing that gets her accused of being a bit ‘live, love, laugh’, but I don’t think there’s anything ‘live, love, laugh’, about Oliver’s poetry. She understands and fully acknowledges the pain and suffering of life, and wrote to try and help us deal with it.

As someone who has been living through their own ‘winter’ for the last two years, the collection had a special resonance for me at this time in my life. A reminder that the red bird is out there.

The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

Charlie Jane Anders, The Left Hand of Darkness at Fifty

The Left Hand of Darkness was published fifty years ago, but still packs as much power as it did in 1969. Maybe even more so, because now more than ever we need its core story of two people learning to understand each other in spite of cultural barriers and sexual stereotypes.