Daughters of Doubt and Eyerolling

Author: TheMarquessMagpie Page 1 of 3

16 Ways to Defend a Walled City

After reading K.J. Parker’s novella Prosper’s Demon in January, we decided that 16 Ways to Defend a Walled City should follow soon.

The main character Orhan, a colonel of engineers, is widely out of his depth when the city faces an approaching siege. But he has to take command, since nobody else is willing to do it. What follows is a series of events he would probably never have bargained for. He proves to be cunning and resourceful, and is a great character to spend time with.

The plot of the book is built up in a very entertaining and clever way, and even the enemy on the other side of the wall proves to be a surprise for Orhan. Since the story is told as Orhan’s account of the events, the narration is pleasantly unreliable.

Parker’s writing style once again managed to delight us. Cleverly crafted shenanigans (yeah engineering!) are mixed with scenes that hilariously highlight the absurd paths bureaucracy can take. In one scene Orhan has to hunt down this book’s equivalent to permit A 38. Compared to Prosper’s Demon, the main characters feel quite similar. Which is a very good thing, if you share our fondness for smart, flawed characters and a dry sense of humour. There is also a sequel (How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It) following a different main character. We think it is a good idea to take some time between those books so that Parker’s style does not feel too repetitive.

Agricultural Dystopia

I’m pretty sure this term does not exist, but there is nothing more fitting for Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall. What starts as an idyllic trip to an Austrian mountain cabin has devastating consequences for the unnamed main protagonist. While the rest of her party is on a trip down in the valley, an insivible wall seems to have come down all around her. She is left alone with her cousin’s dog and is suddenly faced with the frightening prospect of mastering everyday life on her own.

The story reminded me of Under the Dome by Stephen King – or maybe the other way round, since The Wall’s German original version was first published in 1963. But despite sharing the same claustrophobic setting, the stories feel completely different. The Wall is told as a written account of the events, so there is a deep personal connection to the main character. Asides from tending some later-adopted animals, there is not a lot of plot. But still the story with its sad sense of doom drags you in. While there are so many dystopias with a lot of action, the quiet and domestic setting in the Alps was almost comfortable and thus really special. You also learn a lot about hay harvesting.

I really enjoyed the audiobook – only to notice in the end that my library hold was the abridged version… seems like I need to pick up a physical copy of the book sometime in the future.

How Not To Die On A Mountain

… is not really something this book will teach you. Touching the Void is Joe Simpson’s account of his highly improbable survival in the Peruvian Andes. Together with his climbing partner Simon Yates, Joe set out to reach the summit of the Siula Grande via the West face. While the ascent was a struggle, bad weather turned the descent into a nightmare.

When preparing for their trip in the base camp (where they left their non-climber companion Richard Hawkins to wait for them, the poor guy), they did not pack enough gas to account for a delay in their progress. Sounds like a bad idea, right? Combine it with terrible weather and you get two very exhausted, cold and dehydrated climbers with no way to melt snow and ice for drinking water.

Disaster strikes on an ice cliff, when Joe breaks his leg in a fall. The descriptions are not for the faint of heart, let’s just say that his tibia ended up in his knee joint which is not a decent place to be. They both know that this is a death sentence for him. Simon’s chances of descending alone would be slim enough, without attempting to rescue Joe. They try it anyway, and Simon lowers Joe by using two ropes tied together to increase their length. Sounds scary? Now try to imagine that they have to repeatedly stop to switch the belaying device from one side of the know to the other, while Joe had to balance on his one good leg.

This works quite well for them. But one disaster just is not enough. Almost having reached safer ground, Joe is lowered over a cliff edge, hanging free with his whole weight on the rope. There was no way to let him down any lower, and he could not climb back up. After supporting Joe’s weight for the longest possible time and with his belaying seat disintegrating underneath him, Simon was forced to make the brutal decision of cutting the rope to save his own life. Traumatized, he reached the base camp alone and had to tell Richard that Joe was presumably dead.

Joe, meanwhile, had survived his fall into a crevasse and began the mind-boggling process of hopping and crawling towards the base camp. His injured leg was completely destroyed and useless by then. Nothing short of a miracle, he reached them mere hours before their departure back to Lima.

This book is filled with technical descriptions of the climb itself and the gear they used, but also offers a very interesting psychological angle. Simon Yates faced a lot of criticism for his decision to cut the rope. People argued that he should have decided to (probably) die with his friend instead of cutting Joe loose to save himself. Joe shows a huge strength of character. He offered comfort and voiced his complete support and understanding to Simon before being even remotely recovered.

April Buddyread Reveal

Our next buddyread book has arrived, and it is Skyward Inn by Aliya Whiteley. Just look at that gorgeous cover!

The blurb and the line “This is a place where we can be alone, together” on the cover give you a kind of peaceful, found family vibe. After the year we’ve had, this seems like something we all need – although a past war between Earth and Qita also seems to play a major role in the story and resulting conflicts may disrupt the peace.

The space inn setting alone seems like a nice palate cleanser after our last buddyread, and I’m very much looking forward to start reading it.

Where You Come From

Who are you, when your native country does not exist any longer? In Herkunft, his work of biographical fiction, author Saša Stanišić tries to find an answer to this question. The original version won the German Book Prize in 2019 and is now scheduled for release in English in November 2021.

He takes the reader on a journey from Germany to his birthplace in former Yugoslawia, using anecdotes and sometimes fictitious means to reflect on how a coincidence like your birth can have an effect on your life.

Ultimately, it is a book about how memories shape your identity. As his grandmother’s memories are fading due to dementia, Stanišić takes stock of his own. They are humorous, heartwarming and even the serious ones feel like an easily acceptible part of life. Especially the parts about his coming of age in Heidelberg stand out.

While books written in German often feel very rough and chopped, Stanišić uses the language with poetic skill. I also enjoyed his book Before the Feast (Vor dem Fest), but Herkunft really managed to get me excited about his style of writing. Also, there are dragons. Saša Stanišić has now earned his place on my auto-buy list.

Not Only the Faithful Wife

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood takes a well known story and tells it from a new and enlightening perspective. I guess everyone has at least heard of Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War. But what do we know about his wife Penelope, other than that she is supposed to be the very image of a faithful wife?

While her narrative is usually mainly reduced to the fact that she waits for twenty years for the return of her husband, Atwood rightfully takes a stand that more should be said. From Penelope’s perspective we learn about the things she has to do to manage the kingdom on her own – for example fighting off suitors with the help of her most loyal maids – and other hardships she has to endure. Meanwhile, Odysseus is still off somewhere having adventures (some of them with goddesses).

Once Odysseus is back on Ithaka, he kills the suitors besieging his house and wife, and also the maids he believed to be unfaithful. The maids are a central element of Atwood’s story. She uses their voices as a Greek chorus, which is an element I really liked. In this version of the story, the maids only seem to be unfaithful to support a plan of Penelope that in the end protects Odysseus.

Penelope’s story is told in a very poetic, playful and most of all realistic way that adds so much to the Odyssey narrative. I almost always enjoy myth retellings, and this one really stood out.

Graceful Burdens

This little short story (21 pages) packs quite a punch! But since it’s by Roxane Gay, who would have expected it not to?

In the alternate reality of Graceful Burdens, you have to pass a genetic screening to be allowed to have children. Those who fail can only numb their desperation and longing by checking out babies from the library. Yes, a two week loan, no, renewals are not allowed. One has to wonder – where do these library infants come from?

When the main character Hayden decides to use the library, she gets swept up by an organiziation trying to change things and starts to see their society and her life in a new light.

The story’s tone reminded me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale and I would have gladly read a full-length novel set in this terrible world.

Squirrel Cat to the Rescue

One of the first books I picked up this year is Queenslayer by Sebastien de Castell, the fifth installment in his Spellslinger series. It’s been some time since I read book four – June 2019, to be exact.

This series is a perfect pick if you are tired of all the “chosen one” narratives out there. While the main character Kellen is from a powerful mage family, he only ever managed to master a single spell and on top of that is cursed with mysterious markings on his face. These are called Shadowblack, and the search for a cure is one of the driving forces throughout the series. Another big part is the relationship Kellen develops with a cursing and rowdy squirrel cat, Reichis. While threatening to basically eat everyone’s eyeballs, this familiar – no, sorry business partner – is probably the main reason Kellen is still alive in book five.

Other than the previous books, the pacing was quite slow for about two thirds of the book, which made the ending feel really rushed in contrast. The general idea of having a fairly incompetent main character is still fun, but starts to lead to a very generic and repetitive plot. It is getting harder and harder to believe that Kellen has managed to survive this long against powerful enemies with only a single spell and a murderous squirrel cat. Sadly, this is the weakest instalment in the series so far and felt more like a novella between two primary works. I hope this is justified by being the buildup to a grand finale. I want to finish the series with the last book, Crownbreaker, at some point in the next couple of months to see if it pays off.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny is the second short story collection I’ve read in the The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Not the second in general though – that would be Season of Storms, which I have somehow managed to skip. No need to worry though, I already ordered it.

At first, it was hard for me to get back into the world, and to build a connection with the characters. Well, considering I skipped a book it kind of makes sense. But after the first two stories, I was completely engaged and the book became a page turner. The recurring presence of mainly Yennefer, Dandelion and Ciri connected the stories much better than in The Last Wish, the first story collection set in the universe. While scenes with Ciri are quite emotional (for the reader, for Geralt not so much), scenes with Yennefer give food for thoughts on morale and determination. And every scene with Dandelion is basically a lot of fun. It felt like the focus for this installment shifted from monster-slaying to character development and it worked out really well.

Since the books were originally written in Polish, I decided to pick up the German translations and can highly recommend them. Erik Simon did a really good job. I’m now eagerly awaiting Season of Storms to finish the short stories. After that, it will be interesting to see if the novels also work that well for me.

Mercy in Pain

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave was my first finished book of this year and it was a really good one. It is a historical fiction novel set in the small island town of Vardø, Norway, and is based on the real event of a sea storm in 1617 which killed most of the male population while they were out fishing. While this event alone could make for a really interesting story, it is the witch trials – the first in Norway – following the storm that make this book a hard but rewarding read.

The story follows two main characters. One of them is Maren, who had to witness the death of her father, brother and betrothed during the storm. We follow her struggles as she has to adapt to the new life with the rest of the women of Vardø. While still coming to terms with the trauma of losing so many people, they have to fend for themselves in order to stay alive. The second point of view is that of Ursula, wife of the new comissioner coming to Vardø. He is supposed to assist the appointed minister to keep the women on a tighter leash.

The comissioner’s arrival deepens a divide that has begun to emerge between the women. There are the kirke-women, going to church and praying and focusing on womanly and godly behavior – and there are the rest of the women, taking on “male” tasks like fishing to keep the community alive. Maren faces the divide even in her own home, as she is left with her mother, her sister-in-law and her newborn nephew. While her mother leans more and more toward the company of the kirke-women, her sister-in-law is one of the native Sámi people which are increasingly suspected of witchcraft due to their rites and rituals.

Ursula has come to Vardø trapped in her loveless marriage to the cruel commissioner. On her way from Bergen, she envisioned a place of sisterhood to help her through her loneliness. She finds a safe haven in her growing bond with Maren, while around them conflicts are growing and finally erupting.

The writing is wonderful and lyrical, capturing the harsh setting while still providing sources of light and hope. Although this is a historical fiction novel, the tone and style reminded me a bit of last year’s buddyread of The Once and Future Witches.

While the beginning and the end of the book are really fast paced, the middle is more character-driven to illustrate the connection developing between Ursula and Maren. The difference in pacing gives the feeling that the middle drags a little, but I still enjoyed seeing the relationship between the two women grow. The commissioner is a character that fills you with dread right from the outset, and the feeling grows the more you get to know about him. Religion is once again used as a tool of oppression here. Especially in the unfolding of the conflicts you really start to question how people really could believe all the accusations thrown at the supposed witches.

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