Surprisingly unsavage reviews: The October Man; The Silence of the Girls; Space Unicorn Blues

We’re back to the Savage Reviews Channel, and your usual savage host appears to have been replaced by someone less savage because I do not have nearly enough bad things to say about these books.

Today on the agenda:

The October Man by Ben Aaronovitch

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Space Unicorn Blues by T. J. Berry

So without further delay:

The October Man

In the past I’ve been one of those totally slavish Ben Aaronovitch fans. I’ve stopped just short of actively screaming into people’s faces READ RIVERS OF LONDON but I’m not as far off it as perhaps I should be.(1) Rivers of London is an excellent book: the characters, conflict, tension, pacing, voice – it’s all there, with that little bit of magical weirdness that all excellent people love.

I certainly wasn’t alone, however, in thinking that the books lost a little bit of momentum after the (excellent) second one. Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the series, was not quite hitting the marks. Ben Aaronovitch has not written any bad books – this is all relative. But I do get the feeling that someone who was a fresh and fun voice a few years ago is running out of ways to entertain. After Foxglove Summer, things picked up again, but although I enjoyed the sixth and seventh books, they didn’t really stand out to me and I found the conclusion of the main storyline to date to be a bit underwhelming. Perhaps with a fresh new plot, the series will pick up again in book eight.

The October Man isn’t book eight: it’s a standalone novella of a character who makes no appearance in the other books, which are set in the UK. This one is set in Trier, Germany, and the protagonist is one Tobias(2) Winter, who occupies more or less the same role as Peter Grant does in London (ie fairly low-ranking police officer and magic user, responsible for “weird bollocks” crimes). I got the audiobook version as well as the kindle version and switched back and forth between the two as I went along. There was a lot of grumbling in various review-heavy places about this audiobook not being narrated by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who has narrated all the others and is to many of us (myself included) the voice of Peter Grant. In fact, when I listened to Kobna narrate Black and British, by David Olusoga, my instinctive reaction was “why is Peter Grant talking posh all of a sudden?” because of course Kobna is putting on a working class accent that isn’t his real one when he plays Peter.

Kobna is an excellent actor and can manage to perform a bewildering number and variety of regional accents – so much so that Ben has admitted to adding ever more obscure ones just to torment him. He probably could have managed to sound German for the entire duration of this novella. But the producers picked a different actor, Sam Peter Jackson, who is German-born and now lives in London. It was an excellent choice, and I was immediately won over. Jackson hits just the right balance: he speaks English with an accent that isn’t strong enough to be distracting or make the words unclear, but nonetheless he is clearly playing a German character, and injecting a particular personality into him that is very distinct from Peter Grant.

And we definitely needed that. I’ve come to the conclusion that Peter Grant’s voice is indistinguishable from Ben Aaronovitch’s narrative voice. It’s chatty, sardonic, and it works brilliantly for a close first person novel. It’s very London. I don’t even know what I mean by that but I absolutely mean it. The narrative voice of the books has the exact personality of London. The main problem with The October Man is that Tobias Winter has exactly the same narrative voice and it doesn’t quite fit. He makes the same jokes that Peter would make. Ben clearly decided that Tobias was going to be passionate about cooking, as his particular defining interest. But Peter is an architecture nerd, and Tobias spent just a bit too much time talking about the kind of things that Peter would notice. Which might be because that is just how Ben describes settings. On the audiobook version, Sam speaks with a different rhythm compared with Kobna’s own, very distinct rhythm. It makes a big difference. The text of the book just isn’t distinctive enough. It sounds far too much like Peter.

And the book sounds too much like plots I’ve seen before. I don’t feel like Ben is really pushing any boundaries and bringing new and exciting elements to his writing. It isn’t a bad book – as I say, Ben doesn’t write those. But it is lacking in the freshness that I’d really like to see from Ben. I want him to increase his range.

The Silence of the Girls

Those of you who’ve been following previous reviews, may be thinking “hold on one freaking minute, Cantatrice. In your last review post, you lashed out at Circe, and then sort of apologised because you’re not really into mythical retellings and maybe this book just wasn’t for you and you were being grumpy. You compared it to seafood risotto and the fact that you don’t like that and keep forgetting that you don’t like that. And then straight after you go and read a book that is another ancient Greek myth retelling? The fuck is wrong with you?”

The fuck that is wrong with me is that I forget that I don’t like seafood risotto, which frankly sounds delicious right now and I could definitely go for some of that. OK. I bought this book at the same time that I bought Circe, and for the same reason: so much fuss has been made about it that I thought it’d be easier to just read the damn thing rather than explain why I hadn’t. So I read the damn thing. But yes, it is another retelling: it’s the story of Achilles during the siege of Troy, ie the Iliad.

And I feel… sort of… vindicated? Because this wasn’t seafood risotto. It was freaking seafood paella, which is what seafood risotto should be doing with its life, but it is too much of a failure in every sense even to realise it. Paella is awesome, and so is this book.

The Silence of the Girls is really the book that I wanted when I picked up Circe, and I wasn’t being fair to Circe (and I realised that from the start) because Circe is a goddess and is obviously going to have a different type of story to tell. TSotG is written mostly from the point of view of Briseis, a Trojan noblewoman who is taken as a slave when the Greeks invade. Achilles has slaughtered all her male relatives, and to make this all the more traumatic, she is given to him as a sex slave when the loot is distributed. As the title suggests, she is a woman who does not speak a lot. That makes sense: she’s had trauma upon trauma heaped upon her, is totally powerless, and living in a culture that thinks women have nothing of value to say anyway. But her inner world, her resilience and humanity, are conveyed beautifully. The rhythm of the sentences is more varied and complex than in Circe, and the emotions are more complex. I’m always a little bit in awe of a writer who can keep you reading with nothing but the inner world of the narrator, especially when they can put the most complex and ambiguous mental states into words that make you understand, even if you’ve never felt them yourself. This is not something I’m any good at.

In general, I avoid books that have sexual violence in them, and obviously just from the subject matter it was impossible to avoid it completely here. But it’s not graphic or gratuitous, just part of the facts of the story. I feel as though this may be something to do with this book having been written by a woman. I got through A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini with gritted teeth. He can put together a lovely sentence, can our man Hosseini. He  can immerse you in a scene. I understand why he is loved as a writer. But that book was gratuitous misery porn. Yes, it was never going to be easy as a woman living under the Taliban, especially one who is at the mercy of a violent husband. But to read a book about a woman whose every moment in life is torture, as she stumbles from one tragedy to the next, felt like the kind of book that only a man writes. I came away from it thinking: “this wasn’t your story to tell. You don’t understand women and you have, despite your best intentions, managed to make this the story of men. A woman would have written a completely different book.” Women are more resilient than we are often given credit for. Women know how to reach out to other women and support each other and take joy in small things, even when the world in general is incredibly painful. So this is the difference in focus: Hosseini created a helpless shell of a woman, and focused on the awful things that men did to her, in lavish detail. Barker has written the story of a woman whose life falls apart, who is subjected to all manner of trauma, and she doesn’t shy away from how brutal the violence is, but this story is not about that trauma.

I think the point of this book is that the women of history have often been rendered silent in the face of all sorts of atrocities. Both that they’ve been silent within the written record because they had no access to writing, and because there have been so many cultural contexts in which we’ve just been forbidden to speak our minds. But silence does not mean that there is any less going on in the mind. It was never any easier for a woman in the ancient world to be kidnapped and abused than it would be for a woman today, even if that’s “just how things were.” As I understand it, in the original legends, Briseis came to be madly in love with Achilles, and was devastated when he died. Yeah. The man who killed her husband and brothers, kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly, said that he wished she’d been killed during the invasion so that she couldn’t have caused any problems with his bros. That guy. Which is the kind of story you get, I suppose, when an ancient Greek man writes about the feelings of a woman.

Space Unicorn Blues

Every now and then I end up accidentally reading the brainless witterings of the kind of person who thinks that the Sad Puppies had a point and the entire speculative fiction market is under the control of the wicked social justice warriors who want to bring about the downfall of humanity with their insistence on things like respect and diversity and avoiding tedious stereotypes.

“What’s wrong with a nice space adventure where men are men and women are sexy aliens with enormous tits who want to be taught the finer points of human reproduction?” they say. “What do you even want? You want your space adventure stories to feature a magical, asexual, Indian half unicorn, is that it? How about a disabled lesbian Maori space veteran? An intergalactic transgender bar owner with a gangster streak? You want a book with themes about the dangers of xenophobia, colonialism and human disrespect for environmental sustainability? Would that make you happy? Is that what you want?”

And based on Space Unicorn Blues… yeah. That combo works pretty well. Thanks for suggesting it, imaginary internet dickhead. This book is a blast. It’s not going to win the Booker Prize but it’ll brighten up your train journey. The characters are great, the pacing is good, the worldbuilding is awesome. I always like a debut writer who comes out with something lovely and sparkling like this.

(1) I’m still pretty much like that about The Lies of Locke Lamora and I am not ashamed.

(2) There have been a real rash of characters called Tobias in the last couple of years, to the extent that I’ve made some snarky jokes about it to my Beloved. Mostly they’ve been  terrible characters in terrible self-published books. Why is Tobias the name of the moment? I have no idea.

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