Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Book Review | Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


The Georgia Flu explodes over the surface of the earth like a neutron bomb. News reports put the mortality rate at over 99%. Civilisation crumbles.

Twenty years later, a band of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony move through their territories performing concerts and Shakespeare to the settlements that have grown up there. Twenty years after the pandemic, life feels relatively safe. But now a new danger looms, and it threatens the hopeful world every survivor has tried to rebuild.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, from the glittering years just before the collapse to the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after, Station Eleven charts the unexpected twists of fate that connect six people: famous actor Arthur Leander; Jeevan, a bystander warned about the flu just in time; Arthur's first wife, Miranda; Arthur's oldest friend, Clark; Kirsten, an actress with the Travelling Symphony; and the mysterious and self-proclaimed prophet.

Thrilling, unique and deeply moving, this is a beautiful novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything—even the end of the world.

***

Station Eleven's "lost world"—our world—is not recovered but remembered in Emily St. John Mandel's aching account of the apocalypse: a tale of two times which takes as its basis the affairs of the folks affected, both before and after the fact, by the actor and philanderer Arthur Leander.

The man himself dies of a massive heart attack in the first chapter, passing away onstage during the climactic fourth act of a performance of Shakespeare's King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, an apprentice paramedic in the audience that evening, does his level best to save the day, but Arthur Leander is already lost: the last celebrity to fall before the Georgia Flu takes them all.

Child actress Kirsten Raymonde also witnesses this, but remembers precious little of it twenty years later, when the second phase of Station Eleven takes place. Some might think her disconnect a blessing—"the more you remember, the more you've lost," after all—yet Kirsten has searched ever since for ephemera of everyday existence before the fall; especially for ephemera connected to Arthur Leander, and to the kindly stranger—the same soul who attempted CPR on the aforementioned actor—who was there for her that night.

To that end, then—to find proof of the past—Kirsten has become a member of the Traveling Symphony, a band of roaming revellers:
The Traveling Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare. They'd performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.
As the man learning the lead role in the ragtag troupe's rendition of King Lear puts it, "people want what was best about the world." The world that was, that is; another has risen in its stead, however:
Civilisation in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lived and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm, and these places didn't go out of their way to welcome outsiders.
But sometimes—in the mode of the motto taken from Star Trek: Voyager and scrawled on the Traveling Symphony's lead caravan—sometimes, as Seven of Nine said so memorably, "survival is insufficient": a lesson Kirsten and company would do well to remember when they cross swords with a self-styled prophet in St. Deborah by the Water. "We are the pure," he preaches, and "that flu was our flood."

Unwilling to make waves, they leave said settlement just as soon as they see its sinister side. What they don't know then, though, what they don't discover until the damage is done, is that a twelve-year-old has stowed away with them—a child bride the perverted prophet badly wants back.

All this is but a small part of the plot of Station Eleven, presented linearly, as if it were a thriller. It isn't. It certainly has elements of the several such novels the author has composed in the past, but rather than twisting her narrative into torturous knots for the sake of some tension, Mandel slowly explores the magic of the mundane. In a lamp-lit room in the aftermath of a heart-breaking party, two of Arthur Leader's ex-wives share a silence that is as moving as anything in this tremendously affecting text:
Miranda sits on the floor beside Elizabeth, whose breath is heavy with wine, and she leans back until she feels the reassuring solidity of the door frame against her spine. Elizabeth, who is crying a little, bites her lip and together they look at the sketches and paintings pinned to every wall. The dog stands at attention and stares at the window, where just now a moth brushed up against the glass, and for a moment everything is still. Station Eleven is all around them.
Station Eleven—which takes its title from a comic book-to-be poor misbegotten Miranda pours her whole heart and soul into; the same comic book the so-called prophet holds dear decades later—Station Eleven finds such meaning in these moments of minutiae, such incredible intimacy, that the reader rarely recalls the apocalypse of its premise. The author takes pains to keep it off the page in any case. 

The moments Mandel is more interested in—to the text's benefit, to be sure—do not exist in isolation either, though they frequently appear to. Eventually, connections are sketched between them—connections that draw one character into the orbit of another and conjoin this civilisation to that—but even these don't come easily.

Station Eleven features a great many moving pieces, and its pace is... not plodding, precisely, but rarely rushed. Indeed, there abounds "a feeling of moving in slow motion, like walking underwater or in a dream" such that it is "necessary to concentrate carefully on each step." But patience, please, because what takes shape, in time, is a truly transcendent Iñárritu-esque epic about remembering and forgetting, complete with impeccably crafted characters and an abundance of love for the little things that make life worth living. 

Little things like this book, in truth.

***

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

UK Publication: September 2014, Picador
US Publication: September 2014, Knopf

Buy this book from
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Or get the Kindle edition

Recommended and Related Reading

Monday, 26 January 2015

Book Review | The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen


Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: a young literature teacher named Ella. 

Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as "The Game"? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried for years start to come to light.

***

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen proposes that places, like people, have particular interests. Some specialise in film; some in food. Others areas boast about an abundance of athletes, or artists, or authors. The small town of Rabbit Back "was known to have no less than six writers' associations, and that was without counting the most noteworthy writers' association, the Rabbit Back Literature Society, which accepted members only at Laura White's invitation."

Laura White is an almost mythical figure in the Finland of this baffling but beautiful English-language debut, which is fitting considering the contents of the Creatureville series:
The local ceramicists for the most part produced water sprites, pixies, elves, and gnomes. Laura White had made these creatures popular all over the world through her children's books, but in Rabbit Back in particular you ran into them everywhere you looked. They were presented as prizes in raffles, given as presents, brought to dinner as hostess gifts. There was only one florist in Rabbit Back, but there were seven shops that sold mostly mythological figurines.
To be taken under Laura White's wing is no little thing, then, and though she hasn't asked anyone to join the Society in some time—in forty-odd years, in fact—speculation about a potential tenth member remains a sensational subject, so when an invitation is unexpectedly extended to substitute language and literature teacher Ella Amanda Milana, Rabbit Back pretty much erupts.

Ella herself jacks in her job to focus on her fiction, but at the ball where she and her sponsor are meant to meet, the Lynchian mystery this book is about begins:
There was a party, then there was a snowstorm in the house and Laura White disappeared right in front of everyone's eyes, and the tenth member isn't going to be trained after all. That's it in a nutshell.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Book Review | The Just City by Jo Walton


Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

They come from all eras of history. The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer's daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge, ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Athene's brother Apollo—stunned by the realisation that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell—a story of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another.

***

There's a touch of time travel in The Just City, and a rabble of robots that may well be self-aware, but please, don't read Jo Walton's thoughtful new novel expecting an exhilarating future history, or an account of the aggressive ascent of artificial intelligence. Read it as a roadmap, though, and this book may well make you a better person.

A restrained, if regrettably rapey fable with a focus on exposing the problems with philosophy when it's applied as opposed to lightly outlined, The Just City takes as its basis a certain social experiment proposed by Plato:
The Republic is about Plato's ideas of justice—not in terms of criminal law, but rather how to maximise happiness by living a life that is just both internally and externally. He talks about both a city and a soul, comparing the two, setting out his idea of both human nature and how people should live, with the soul a microcosm of the city. His ideal city, as with the ideal soul, balanced the three parts of human nature: reason, passion, and appetites. By arranging the city justly, it would also maximise justice within the souls of the inhabitants. (p.32)
That's the idea, at least. Alas, in reality, justice is far harder to achieve than the great Greek believed.

When a nymph named Daphne opts to be turned into a tree rather than share in eros with the god Apollo, said son of Zeus turns to Athene, the goddess of knowledge, to find out why the woman went to such lengths to avoid his affections. By way of explanation, Athene invites Apollo to participate in a realisation of the Republic. He takes her up on her offer by taking on the form of a mortal boy called Pytheas: one of ten thousand ten-year-olds saved, as their new masters would have it, from a life lacking liberty.

Simmea comes to the just city Athene teases into being with hope in her heart—hope that here, by learning to live according to Plato's principles, she can be her best self. She and Pytheas soon form a fast friendship; a friendship Kebes, who met Simmea at the slave market on the day their contracts were bought, and thinks Pytheas preternatural, simply cannot countenance.

But wait, what's this? Jealousy in the just city, where no one person is to possess, or be possessive of, another? "The ship was barely out of the harbour [and] already the seeds of rebellion were growing." (p.26)

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Book Review | The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley


The Annurian Empire's ruling family must be vigilant, as the conspiracy against them deepens. Having discovered her father's assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies. But few trust her, until she seems marked by the people's goddess in an ordeal of flame.

As Adare struggles to unite Annur, unrest breeds rival armies—then barbarian hordes threaten to invade. And unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn has fallen in with forces mustering at the empire's borders. The terrible choices they face could make war between them inevitable.

Fighting his own battles is their brother Kaden, the rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with two strange companions. While imperial forces prepare to defend a far-distant front, Kaden's actions could save the empire, or destroy it.

***

Attracting complaint and acclamation in almost equal measure, Brian Staveley's debut proved precisely as divisive as I imagined it might: there were those readers ready to invest in its incredible potential, and there were those bored by its borderline by-the-numbers nature.

The Emperor's Blades undoubtedly did suffer from some significant issues—its manifest mistreatment of women in particular irked this critic—but at the same time, I found in the fantasy saga's first volume quite a lot to like. What little there was of its world was wonderful; the cosmic horror of its monsters was a welcome exception to certain unwritten traditions; meanwhile most, if not all of the narrative's central characters were well developed by the conclusion of what was an engrossing chronicle overall.

At the end of the day, I dare say I enjoyed The Emperor's Blades. My reservations, however, came back to me in a flash when the time came to see about the sequel. By taking the better part of a hundred pages to begin, it doesn't put its best foot forward, I'm afraid... but beyond that? Boy oh boy. The Providence of Fire stands as a lesson in a sense: that great things can spring from small beginnings.

The Providence of Fire picks up—when it picks up—right where The Emperor's Blades left off: with Kaden, heir to the entire Annurian empire since the assassination of his father, and Valyn, captain of a Wing of rebel Kettral riders—and his elder sibling's saviour—as brothers in both blood and arms at last.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Book Review | Monkey Wars by Richard Kurti


In this dark, inventive fable, rhesus monkeys are brutally massacred on the dusty streets of Kolkata by a troop of power-hungry langur monkeys. Mico, a privileged langur, becomes entangled in the secrets at the heart of his troop's leadership and is shocked at what he discovers. He feels compelled to help the few surviving rhesus, especially Papina, a young female he befriends, even though doing so goes against everything he's been taught. As more blood is spilled, Mico realises that choosing between right and wrong won't be easy.

Told entirely from the monkeys' points of view, Monkey Wars shines a black light on the politics of power, the rise of tyrants and the personal dilemmas that must be faced when life is on the line.

***

Imagine a marketplace in Kolkata. Can you see the vendors selling stalls full of colourful fruit? Smell the heady scent of spices lacing the hazy air? Hear the buzz and the bustle of customers bargaining and bartering? Good.

Now picture the marketplace populous with as many monkeys as men and women. 

Were they peaceful creatures—the monkeys, I mean—it'd be a magnificent thing; a memory to truly treasure. But they aren't, and it isn't. These monkeys have no money, no manners, no morals. They take what they want, when they want it, and if someone comes between them and their ends... well. People have been hurt. But because "devout Hindus believe that all monkeys are manifestations of the monkey god, Hanuman," (p.3) authorities are unable to take action against said simians.

A true story, I'm told, though the tale screenwriter Richard Kurti spins out of it—an all-ages allegory of the rise of the Nazis arranged around a tragic romance right out of Romeo and Juliet—is as much fiction as fact.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book Review | The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord


For years, Rafi Delarua saw his family suffer under his father's unethical use of psionic power. Now the government has Rafi under close watch but, hating their crude attempts to analyse his brain, he escapes to the planet Punartam, where his abilities are the norm, not the exception. Punartam is also the centre for his favourite sport, wallrunning— and thanks to his best friend, he has found a way to train with the elite.

But Rafi soon realises he's playing quite a different game, for the galaxy is changing; unrest is spreading and the Zhinuvian cartels are plotting, making the stars a far more dangerous place to aim. There may yet be one solution... involving interstellar travel, galactic power and the love of a beautiful game.

***

Like The Best of All Possible Worlds before it, The Galaxy Game is a restrained space opera committed to splitting the difference between sweeping themes and smaller, sweeter story beats by focusing on unsuspecting characters caught up in machinations more elaborate than they can imagine—a pretty typical trajectory, to be sure, but don't be fooled, folks: this is the most normal thing about these extraordinary novels, which take the tropes of science fiction as starting points and twist them both conceptually and intellectually.

In place of the love story of Karen Lord's last, The Galaxy Game gives us a study of spacefaring infrastructure-cum-coming of age chronicle of a boy from The Best of All Possible Worlds. The son of the previous protagonist's sorry sister, Rafi Abowen Delarua also happens to have inherited the same ability to influence his abusive father made such dubious use of, so for a year he's been left to languish in the Lyceum.

The sinister facility's mandate—"to bring together all the rogue and random psi-gifted of Cygnus Beta and teach them ethics, restraint and community" (p.29)—is simple; deceptively so, Rafi realises, when his masters make plain their plans to cap him.

Only "the crazies, the criminals and the ones who'd set themselves on fire by accident" (p.32) are watched in this way—only those who would harm themselves or others have their prospects so summarily scotched—yet Rafi has done nothing wrong. If anything, he's overdone ordinariness; he's been so very well-behaved that his supervisors are singularly suspicious, and I'm afraid there's no dissuading them.
If he had remained at the homestead, he could have used his majority to take up work at another homesteading with no need for permission or blessing. If he had remained there and the past two years had not happened and there was no cap with his name attached to it. If he had remained there and never had a father—only a mother, a sister and a normal household with the ordinary struggle of selfishness and love. 
But he had a family that was not normal and a brain that was not normal and the government [of Cygnus-Beta] was too interested in both. (p.75) 
Thus, Rafi runs.