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13) Sarah Pinborough -- The Death House

This is my nominee for the 2015 novel Hugo.

Yes, I liked it that much. I bought this YA speculative fiction novel when I saw Gollancz tweet an opening day offer, because I'd greatly enjoyed one of Pinborough's tie-in novels and wanted to read more by her. I started reading it that day, and was bowled over. It is a stunning portrayal of life, love and growing up under the shadow of death; a bittersweet coming-of-age novel about children and teenagers who know they will never do so.

It's set in a near future very much like our present, save for one thing - there is an illness so terrible that all children are tested for the signs that they are carriers. If they test positive, they are taken to the Death House. There they will be cared for and given as normal a life as possible, right up until the time the sickness activates. It may be a few months, it may be years, but one thing is certain - they will die. And they will never be allowed to leave, or have contact with anyone other than each other and the staff assigned to care for them.

Toby has been in the House for long enough to have found ways to cope with the separation from his family and the knowledge of what awaits him, but the arrival of a new girl disrupts both the interactions between the Death House inmates, and Toby's coping mechanisms. Through his eyes we see the different ways the children deal with what their lives have become; all the emotions of a lifetime compressed into a few short years, with the teenagers like Toby finding themselves being surrogate parent figures for the younger children. There's a mystery plot as well; and the whole is a slow-burning build to a resolution where the older children decide exactly what is worth fighting for with their foreshortened lives.

Moving and beautifully written, this was one of the best things I read all year.

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Kobo
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46) Alex Epstein -- The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan Le Fay

Note: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

Young adult novel about what happened to the sorceress Morgan le Fay between the point in her childhood when her father was murdered by Uther Pendragon, and her return as an adult to trouble her half-brother King Arthur. The book opens at the council of war amongst the Romano-British leaders where Uter (as it's given in the book) first sets eyes on Ygraine, wife of Gorlois. Uter wants Ygraine enough to make war on Gorlois, enough to seek the aid of the magician Merlin -- and with the death of her beloved father, the child Anna finds herself sent to exile by her mother for her own safety. An exile so complete that she must change her name and tell almost no-one who she is when she arrives in Ireland. A safe place with a distant relative proves less than safe when the tribe loses a battle with its neighbours, and Morgan spends years in slavery, learning a little magic openly from the village wisewoman who owns her, and a great deal more magic in secret. Then there is escape, and a few months of peace and study with a new Christian settlement, and then a chance of love with a chieftain's son who can appreciate the knowledge of Roman battle tactics she brings. By the time she is eighteen, Morgan has learnt a great many things, but the one thing she has not learnt is how to let go of the need for vengeance. It has, after all, kept her alive through the dark times...

I found the book a bit hard to get into at first, but once I got into the rhythm of the writing I was hooked. Epstein has taken the historical period of 500AD as the basis for his story, a time when the Roman legions had long withdrawn from Britain but many of the British still thought of themselves as Roman. He's drawn on Irish mythology and blended it with modern Wiccan practice to create a believably consistent picture of magic, in a time when both Druid priests and Christian missionaries can draw on the power of the earth, and a young exile can learn to use it to protect herself and the people she loves. The result is a solid addition to the Arthurian legend, covering an area not much touched on, and giving a plausible reason for the adult Morgan le Fay to be who she is. Here she is a strong and sympathetic character, and it's only too easy to understand why she makes the choices she does.

The book's been written in such a way that it can be enjoyed both as a free-standing novel suitable for someone not familiar with any of the mythology and literature that has accreted around Arthur, and as a fascinating new contribution to that ongoing literary conversation. An excellent YA fantasy novel that should appeal to adults as well.

ISBN 978-1-896580-6-30
trade paperback at Powell's
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon UK (available now)
trade paperback or Kindle ebook at Amazon US (for pre-order)
LibraryThing entry
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Book 68

This YA novel was first published in 1963, and was set around fifty years in its then-future. Nearly fifty years on, it has aged remarkably well. Right on the first page, I was taken back to the sensawunda I had when I first read this book as a young teenager around thirty years ago -- not least because in the first paragraph Clarke beautifully evokes the sense of wonder his teenage protagonist feels at the sight of an international cargo vessel and the daydreams it inspires about the places it has seen.

When sixteen-year-old Johnny Clinton finds that the giant hovercraft has made an emergency landing near his home, his curiosity leads him to sneak aboard for a look around, and leaves him trapped as an accidental stowaway when it lifts off again unexpectedly. The orphaned Johnny's not too upset at the idea of being carried away from the home he's reluctantly offered by his widowed aunt, so he doesn't come out of hiding until the craft crash-lands in the Pacific Ocean. The crew have abandoned ship, and Johnny is left with nothing but a packing crate and his own clothing to keep him afloat and sheltered -- until a pod of dolphins find him and and save his life by pushing his makeshift raft the hundred miles to the nearest land.

That land is Dolphin Island, an island on Australia's Great Barrier Reef which is home to a research station studying dolphins. The station tracks down where Johnny came from before he's even released from the infirmary, but he's offered the chance to stay, an offer he's quick to accept. He rapidly builds a new life for himself, one that mixes ongoing formal education with involvement in the scientific work on communicating with the dolphins. There's more than a little adventure as well.

This is an excellent short novel, with an engaging protagonist, an interesting story, and some superb world-building. Clarke drew on his own experience of skin-diving on the Great Barrier Reef to paint a wonderful word picture of the Reef and its marine life. Clarke's extrapolation of technology hasn't suffered too badly as reality caught up with it -- it's different to what really happened, but not so much so that it jars. And glory be, the story hasn't been visited by the Sexism Fairy. There's a distinct absence of female characters, but not in a way that says that women shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about difficult things like science. Definitely one for my keeper collection.

LibraryThing entry

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August 2017

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