I picked up this book at a Lifeline Book Fair some time ago, and I was so excited it was back on this weekend after a long, COVID-19 hiatus. When I selected this book from the bookshelf, there was no doubt why I had chosen it at the book fair in the first place. The cover is stunning. There is a great little story at the end of the book where the author explains that the design is actually a photograph of his great-grandfather’s own painting – a tradition passed down from father and son. The book is embossed, and the floral designs just feel lovely to touch.
“The Book of Gold Leaves” by Mirza Waheed is a literary novel set in the disputed area of Kashmir. The book is about two young people: Faiz, an artist who paints papier-mâché boxes, and Roohi, a university graduate who dreams of romance and gazes out her bedroom window. When Roohi one day spots Faiz near the shrine by her home, she contrives a plan to meet him through old school connections and by navigating proper decorum. While their connection is undeniable, after Faiz witnesses several very personal instances of violence, he is compelled to leave his terrorised city to train as part of an armed militia. Divided by distance and differing religions, can their love survive?
This is a beautifully written book that juxtaposes a classic love story against the slow erosion of freedoms that comes from living in a place experiencing conflict. The gradual takeover of a local girls’ school by the military was a heartbreaking metaphor not only for the loss of rights gained in the past, but for the loss of a future. Waheed imagines an armoured vehicle called the Zaal that literally catches people in nets and disappears them, morphing into a horrifying urban legend within the already terrified community. Waheed also juxtaposes the gentle artist Faiz, who dreams of painting a masterpiece inspired by a painting of Omar Khayyám, against how easily he trains to use assault rifles and make bombs in nearby Pakistan. Faiz walks a tightrope between his obligations to the militia and his desire for a peaceful, loving life with Roohi and Waheed does an excellent job of capturing this tension.
The only additional thing I will say is that Waheed is such an evocative writer and uses so much imagery that multiple times I found myself off on a daydream tangent thinking about ideas he introduces. This is a thoughtful book that requires some time to ponder about, but which has a lot to teach a willing reader.
Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history
I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.
“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.
This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.
This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.
A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.
I first heard about this novel when it won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fiction. Since then, it has been adapted into a TV miniseries that was released earlier this year. I’ve been really enjoying some of Reese Witherspoon’s work adapting books to film, so I picked up an edition of this book with a tie-in cover. After Marie Kondoing my bookshelf this year, and doing the #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge, I’ve been making a big effort to chip through my to-read shelf (yes, shelf!) and it was time to read this book.
“Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng is a realistic novel about a real town called Shaker Heights. The story is about two families. The Richardsons are a well-to-do family with husband, wife and four children while the Warrens consist of a single mother and her daughter. When artist Mia Warren rents a small home from Mrs Elena Richardson, she promises her daughter Pearl that they will be able to stay there for good this time. Pearl quickly befriends Moody Richardson, then his siblings Trip and Lexie. Meanwhile, youngest daughter and black sheep Izzy begins to visit Mia and assist her with her work. As the family grows more and more intertwined, journalist Elena begins to grow suspicious of Mia’s past life and starts trying to investigate.
This is a strong novel that examines a small community and the forces that shake up its apparent idyllic existence. Ng is particularly concerned with motherhood, what makes a good mother and who deserves to be a mother. This book also examines class, race and profession and the ways in which these factors impact someone’s “suitability” as a mother. At the heart of the novel is a fascinating ideological controversy in its own right that in turn drives a wedge between Mia and Elena and kickstarts Elena’s skepticism about Mia’s background. This is a very readable novel, and I really enjoyed the earlier chapters as Pearl begins to navigate friendships with Moody, Trip and Lexie.
While this book is very readable, I did find myself a little disappointed at the ending. The opening pages of the book are very compelling and hint at a significant mystery to unfold. Without giving too much away, I felt that rather than the “spark” Ng hints at throughout the novel, the ending was an underwhelming fizzle without any of the twists or big reveals that I felt had been promised earlier on.
A well-written and insightful book that I wished had a bit less contemplation and a little more punch at the end.
A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore
I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.
“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.
This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.
This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.
Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence
Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.
“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.
As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.
However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.
This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.
This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.
“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.
I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.
There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.
I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.
There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.
Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush
Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work
When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.
“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.
This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.
However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.
This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.
Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism and sexism
Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery and sexism
This author is one of my favourite young adult authors, and I was thrilled to meet him some time ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. After the event, he signed a copy of my book and was quite excited to see my name. He told me that he had a talking horse with this name in his series “Chaos Walking”, which at the time I hadn’t read yet but was thrilled to hear. Angharad isn’t exactly a common name in books. Since then I read the first book, but had yet to meet Angharrad the talking horse who it turns out is introduced in the second. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” instead. Like the previous book, this 10 year anniversary edition has striking black tinted edges and very subtle embossing of slightly shiny black text on the matte cover. It has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.
“The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness is the second book in the young adult science fiction series “Chaos Walking”. After discovering the truth about what happened to the women of Prentisstown, and meeting Viola, the girl who came from offworld, Todd and Viola arrive in Haven to find that it has been surrendered Mayor Prentiss, who now refers to himself as President of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are quickly separated, and Viola is placed in a healing clinic with women healers while Todd is locked up with the former Mayor of Haven. While recovering from her gunshot wound, Viola discovers that there is an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, Todd is put to work supervising enslaved individuals of the planet’s native species, the Spackle. Unable to contact one another, Viola and Todd start to question their trust in one another.
This is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Ness had already begun to explore the inequality between men and women caused by men developing Noise – the unchecked ability to project their thoughts to everyone around them – as a consequence of colonising the planet in the previous book. However, in this book he explores this issue far deeper and makes vivid connections between the way the Spackle are enslaved and controlled, and the way the women of New Prentisstown are enslaved and controlled. Towards the end of the book, Todd asks men who have been complicit in detaining, assaulting and marking women who they believe is going to be next.
Ness does an excellent job of character development in this book, really exploring what it means to be a man in Todd’s world. Juxtaposing Todd against Davey, Mayor Prentiss’ son, he examines how the two boys react to being made to brand Spackle and direct them to engage in slave labour. He also explores how Mayor Prentiss introduces Todd to control and violence so gradually in a way that is reminiscent of the progression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and little by little Todd becomes complicit himself in the very things he condemned. I also found Mayor Prentiss’ use of information as a means of control equally chilling, and Ness draws all these themes together, driving the story towards an explosive conclusion.
One thing that always stands out to me about Ness’ writing is its sophistication, and his ability to reckon with complex themes in a way that doesn’t speak down to young adults but converses with them. A frequent complaint I have of second books in trilogies is that they are often a bit of a sagging bridge between the first book and the last. However, similar to “The Secret Commonwealth“, I actually thought this book was stronger than the first.
A compelling and insightful book that weaves in themes of politics and history while still being a fast-paced and exciting story. I would highly recommend this, and all of Ness’ books, to young adults.
Non-fiction book about the motivations and impact of online trolling
Content warning: sexist and racist slurs
I have seen this Canberra journalist and writer speak at quite a few author events over the years, including with Carly Findlay, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Sved. However, despite being familiar with her work in cyberhate and online trolling, I had not actually read her book. Just when COVID-19 lockdown started to kick off, I saw that she had some signed copies available so after a contactless swap, I finally received a copy. After very recently being trolled for the first time (though certainly not harassed online for the first time), I thought it was high time I read it.
“Troll Hunting” by Ginger Gorman is a non-fiction book about the phenomenon of online trolling. The book is divided into three sections: Trolls, Targets and Troll Hunting. Against the background of her own experience on the receiving end of trolling, Gorman walks the reader through what trolling is, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are, the emotional and financial impact of trolling and how effective different mechanisms are in trying to prevent, curb and prosecute trolling.
This is a fascinating and insightful book that lifts the veil a little on something that is almost always hidden by the anonymity of the internet. Gorman uses her investigative journalism skills to connect with numerous and, in some cases, infamous trolls to unpack the motivations behind trolling. As she develops relationships bordering on friendship with her sources, Gorman finds herself asking ethical questions not only of them, but of herself. However, it is Gorman’s ability to empathise with and relate to these (mostly) young men that draws out why they spend their time trolling.
Gorman’s chapter “Deep in the grey” was one of the strongest and most unsettling in the whole book, and we learn that while online trolling has IRL (in real life) impacts on victims, the victims themselves are not always perfect either. The sources themselves are incredibly interesting characters, and by the end of the book, some of the trolls start asking themselves the questions that Gorman asks them about why they participate in trolling. Particularly unnerving is how much trolling is underpinned by sexist and racist beliefs, how organised some trolling is and how far it has to go before legal action is taken. I also really liked the Notes in the margins where Gorman provides a frank overview of how being a victim of trolling and writing a book about trolling starts to take a toll on her.
In terms of solutions to trolling, Gorman explores the pros and cons of stronger legislation, complaints-handling agencies, better training of police and even removing the anonymity of the internet. These are all systemic solutions, however following Gorman online, she clearly has developed ideas and strategies about how to target trolling as an individual. I think the only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book is a bit more about what we as individuals can do to tackle trolling. I had reasonable success with just being more annoying and inane than my troll, but I think in a future edition I would love to see an additional chapter on what strategies Gorman has since found that work well.
This is a book is full of nuance and depth that explores an issue that almost everyone is aware of but almost nobody truly understands. An important read for internet enthusiasts and policy-makers alike.
I have seen this book around for quite some time. It has a really appealing cover, and I picked up a copy some time ago at the Lifeline Book Fair (back when it was still on). It sat on my shelf gathering dust until it was chosen as one of the books for my fantasy book club. Flying horses, I thought. Exactly what I need.
“Green Rider” by Kristen Britain is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Karigan who runs away from her prestigious school after an incident with another student. Travelling alone through a forest, she comes across an injured rider with two arrows in his back. When he implores her with his dying breaths to carry his message to the King, she has no choice but to agree. Taking his horse and his gear, she begins the perilous journey through strange and dangerous lands.
Before I even get started, I have to make it quite clear: there are no flying horses in this book. If that’s what you are hoping for, forget it, you won’t find it here. The book started out quite strong, and is a typical Western-style medieval fantasy novel with swordplay, court intrigue, ghosts, feudalism and a couple of different humanoid races. Although it was a little at odds with the pace and tone of the rest of the book, I enjoyed the interlude with the Berry Sisters and their father’s house full of magical artifacts.
However, not long into the book it becomes clear that this is quite a rambling story that moves from one disaster to the next. As a character, Karigan does not have much agency and her problems are solved again and again not by her own skills, knowledge, instinct or talents, but by the dei ex machina of a myriad of external forces who always seem to arrive in the nick of time. Not that Karigan comes away unscathed; the number of head injuries she sustains in the book left me wondering whether she had developed an acquired brain injury. Distance is a little bit confusing, and this is one occasion where I felt the book really needed a map – for the author as much as for the reader. Despite riding what appears to be the fastest horse imaginable, Karigan always appears to arrive places later than other characters, and the route she takes seems to be no safer or faster than any other route. Furthermore, for all the time Karigan spends riding her horse (which she names, unimaginatively, “The Horse”), I would have expected Britain to spend a little more time on horsemanship. Apart from being given food occasionally, Karigan spends almost no time caring for the horse.
Now, speaking of horses, I cannot understate how disappointed I was that there were no flying horses. Britain hints at them when a character says “[d]o you know there is a legend that…the messenger horses of the Sacor Clans could fly”, and the badges Green Riders wear depict winged horses. Apart from that, flying horses appear to be simply a metaphor, and let me tell you: when I am reading a fantasy novel, I don’t want flying horses to be a metaphor. In fact, there isn’t a great deal of magic and the magic that is there is not clearly explained. Some characters have talents, but why that is or how that manifests outside obtaining a particular item is never explained. Throughout the book, despite acquiring a Green Rider’s horse, clothing, gear and, for all intents and purposes, profession, Karigan is constantly proclaiming that under no circumstances will she ever be a Green Rider. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. A merchant’s daughter and the equivalent of a high school dropout, it isn’t really ever explained why she is so reluctant to become a Green Rider and other characters maddeningly spend all their time offering her more Green Rider paraphernalia, nodding, smiling and alluding with all the subtlety of a brick to the calling of hoofbeats.
A slow read that doesn’t bring much to the genre that hasn’t already been done, let alone been done better.