The Just City, by Jo Walton

The Just CitySo, let’s be real. I barely skimmed the description of this book before reading it because a) Jo Walton and b) Greek gods. Sold. I knew there was something about Plato going on, but other than that I was Jon Snow.

You may want to know a bit more before going in.

So, okay, if you’re like me and you’ve only read My Real Children, the first thing is that this book is almost nothing like that one except for the wonderfulness of Walton’s writing. But oh, how wonderful it is.

The conceit of the book is that the goddess Athena has heard enough prayers across time wishing for a chance to live in the Just City of Plato’s Republic that she’s like, you know what, let’s do it. She collects those who prayed, recruits the willing, commandeers Atlantis, and starts building a city. She and the “masters” of the city then collect a bunch of ten-year-old (or “ten-year-old”, as these things go) slaves to educate in the style of the Just City. The story of the city is told from three points of view: that of Maia, a master of the city; of Simmea, one of the children of the city; and of Apollo/Pytheas, who has made himself mortal to experience the city as one of the slave children as well, for a reason I will talk about more in two paragraphs.

It is very interesting to see how these three narrators interact with the city; they all love the city for different reasons but recognize its faults, and because they’re all wildly overeducated they talk about it a lot. And then they talk about it even more when Socrates shows up. My god, that man asks a lot of questions. Really, once he shows up the whole book is just a giant Socratic dialogue about the role of the Just City and what Plato might have thought about this literal embodiment of it. It is fascinating to the point where I want to want to read The Republic but I know that’s never going to happen. At least I know this much about it!

I like that part of the story, the pretty much whole part of the story, but there’s another thread running through the book that you may want to be aware of, which is practically a discourse on rape. Right at the beginning, we learn that Apollo has no idea why Daphne would rather turn into a tree than have sex with him, and his lady god siblings are like, you are so stupid. He literally does not understand that women have, like, minds and bodies of their own, and so he takes on this life in the Just City to learn to comprehend this basic fact of existence. (The gods not knowing everything is another thread in this story.) Later in the book there is a rape scene between two regular humans with much the same thought process, and then even later there is more or less sanctioned rape as the children are paired off by the masters at procreation festivals. There is a lot of sex going on, and it is all quite problematic, and because this is a book with Socrates in it there is a lot of discussion of problematic sex, is what I’m saying.

So, to sum up: this is a super thinky book with lots of thinky things to think about. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I will be reading its sequel as soon as it comes out, and then like everything else Jo Walton has ever written because if she can make me like Socratic dialogue she can do anything.

Recommendation: For wildly overeducated people, lovers of Plato, and people who just like to think a lot.

Rating: 9/10

Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

Song of AchillesRecently, a video of a guy having a really bad day on Wheel of Fortune has been making the rounds on my Facebook, and it is ruining my ability to think about this book without mispronouncing its title. Thanks, internet. You’re the best.

But before I saw that video, everything was hunky-dory over here, because this book was pretty awesome. Thanks, book club, you are actually the best!

At first, it was a bit of tough going. As one book clubber posted to our group, “Hope you are all comfortable with homoeroticism because oooooh buddy.”

Oooooh buddy, indeed. Miller has taken Homer’s The Iliad and retold it from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s bffaeae and possible lover, only Miller has thrown “possible” straight out the window. Patroclus is as moony as a dystopian YA protagonist over Achilles, and it is their friendship and moreship that dictates the events that happen in this retelling.

I have to admit up front (or five paragraphs in, whatever) that my knowledge of The Iliad is limited to… pretty much this book. I had a brief fling with Greek mythology when I was, like, ten or something, so I know who Achilles is, and Helen, and Odysseus, but Patroclus? Chiron? Agamemnon? Nooooope.

But that didn’t hurt my reading of the book. In fact, it probably made it better, because when Important Things happened I was generally not expecting them. The only place it got a little weird was during the big fight at the end, where some dude disappears into thin air and that’s supposed to be, like, a thing in The Iliad, I guess?

Okay, story itself, for those of you who like me are like, oh, I know Achilles, he’s the one with the heel! (Spoiler: this is apparently not canon.) So our narrator, Patroclus, has a lame childhood with his lame dad and then he (Patroclus) accidentally kills another kid and is exiled from his dad’s lands and has to go live with Achilles’s dad instead. Everybody there thinks Patroclus is totally weird, including Achilles, but Achilles takes pity on Patroclus and makes him his companion. Patroclus thinks this is awesome, because he totally has the hots for Achilles, and then it turns out that Achilles totally reciprocates, and oooooh buddy.

Meanwhile, the Trojan War happens, and although Achilles and his nymph mother (who is no fan of Patroclus) try to avoid the thing, it’s the Trojan War and there’s really no getting out of it. There’s fighting and politics and posturing and snuggles and eventually all the prophecies come to pass and people are dead and other people are scary sadistic and unfortunately alive. This clearly falls on the “tragedy” end of the Greek theatre spectrum.

It’s all really fascinating and so much easier to read than pretty much any translation of an original Greek text I’ve ever seen, and Miller even includes helpful notes at the end to explain who everyone is and how the book compares to The Iliad. I definitely want to go find a nice easy translation of the original story and see just how many subtle things I missed for not knowing to be looking for them. Any suggestions?

Recommendation: For those who were ever interested in Greek mythology, and those who can handle some oooooh buddy.

Rating: 8/10

The Goddess Chronicle, by Natsuo Kirino

The Goddess ChronicleMany moons ago I read Kirino’s Out, a bonkers mystery/thriller story which I remember much more fondly than I gave it credit for back in the day. So when this book came up in my ordering, I was like, yes, I will put a hold on you right now.

The Goddess Chronicle is almost nothing like Out, although it is bonkers and it does have a sort of murder mystery to it. This novel deals with a girl called Namima who, we find out in the first paragraph, has died and now lives among the dead. Before that whole death thing, she was born on an island with some interesting religious practices that led to her sister becoming the island’s Oracle and being universally loved and praised while Namima, the yin to her sister’s yang, became the hidden, untouchable priestess of the dead. Not pleased with her lot in life, Namima broke a few rules, ran away, and eventually ended up dying with some unfinished business, leading her to the realm of the dead in which we meet her.

There she meets Izanami, the goddess who helped create the world but died in childbirth and ended up ruling the dead and choosing who will die every day. She has some issues with her husband, Izanaki, and we spend a few not-terribly-exciting chapters learning all about those, and then we get back to the good stuff, including Namima getting a chance to find out what happened to her family and then several chapters about that no-good husband, Izanaki, and his lady-loving adventures on the high seas.

I, to my shame and embarrassment, had no idea there even was a Japanese mythology to speak of before reading this novel — my mythological life was shaped primarily by the Greeks and Romans and then later those Norsemen, and of course being an American I worship different cultural gods. Luckily, the novel is apparently part of a series of novels retelling myths, many of which are making their way onto my TBR list as we speak so that I can stop being quite so ignorant.

Anyway, the point is that I found the story of Izanami and Izanaki quite fascinating; it is strongly based on cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity and gender roles that play out in Kirino’s frame story as well. If this book isn’t already on the syllabus for dozens of sociology classes, those hypothetical professors are doing it wrong.

I also loved Kirino’s writing, from the way she constructed a perfect myth-telling sentence (okay, those accolades might go to her translator, Rebecca Copeland) to the way she employs foreshadowing in my absolute favorite way — telling us what’s going to happen (like Namima’s death) and then letting her story be the interesting part of the novel rather than the filler between exciting plot events.

The Goddess Chronicle was almost entirely not what I was hoping for, but it was delightful in its own right and a book very worth reading.

Recommendation: For those in the mood for a slow, lyrical story, and especially those who fail at knowing Japanese mythology.

Rating: 7/10

Touch of Frost, by Jennifer Estep

Touch of FrostSince I started my new job, my co-worker and I have been playing the Getting to Know You Through Books Game — you know the one. “You love Bartimaeus? You must be awesome!” “Oh, you read those books? Hmmm.”

We’ve attempted to find more common ground books, but it’s not going well. I thought she’d approve of its whimsy, but my co-worker didn’t get into The Eyre Affair, which means she is clearly beyond hope even with her love for Barty. It’s about a literary detective! There should not have been a problem! Sigh.

She recommended to me this series, starting with Touch of Frost, that she devoured via ILL (read: borrowing books from not our library) at our library but that I could easily get from the library around the corner from my apartment, and it sounded pretty good. YA, a gypsy girl who could touch things and know their history, mythology, monsters… sold!

But… eh. Like certain YA novels I have read recently, this is probably a book I would have devoured as a teenager (see: my obsession with the Sweep series), but after reading it I was just like, “I’ve read better.”

It’s a book that I thought suffered from trying to be too much like other YA novels, but may suffer from trying to be too much like Clash of the Titans, which I have not seen but which the author credits as her inspiration in the acknowledgements. Maybe if I had seen the movie, I would like this book better? That is a mystery unlikely to be solved.

The plot: Gwen Frost, a capital-G Gypsy who can touch objects and feel/see/experience things related to the objects and their owners, is forced to attend a private school for the descendants of apparently not-mythical warrior-types, like Amazons and Valkyries and Spartans and whatnot. She is attacked in the library and awakes to find another student dead, and feels bad enough when no one else cares terribly much (because warriors and also because the dead student was a jerk) to investigate. Things go horribly and magically wrong and Gwen ultimately sets them right and discovers why she’s been sent to this weird-pants school.

Which seems okay, but there’s a lot going on in this book. It’s a boarding school book and a book about mythologically descended teenagers and a book about a girl who doesn’t know her own history and a book about an intrepid girl detective (Veronica Mars is name-dropped, so plus ten points) and a book about a girl who likes a guy but can’t quite get with him and it is just a lot of books all at once! And none of the books are really well developed, so I couldn’t hang on to one and go with it because I just found myself lost. I get that you didn’t pay attention in “myth-history” class, Gwen, but that is no reason to know absolutely nothing about the school you attend, and even less reason not to believe in magic when you HAVE IT. Double sigh.

The ending, though… the ending is the best part of the book for me. Gwen finally finds out what the heck is going on and she also (spoilers?) gets some extra power to play with and makes some enemies, but then of course I’m meant to read the next book to find out what’s going to happen next and after this one I am just not motivated. I guess I’ll put that on the “maybe someday eventually” pile with rather a lot of other sequels.

Recommendation: For those who like mythology and adventures and don’t mind a simple, fast-paced plot.

Rating: 5/10

an RIP read

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

American GodsFinally! Finally, I have read through the entire American Gods canon. Backwards, of course, because that’s how I roll (that is not how I roll). First it was Anansi Boys, all the way back in 2009, and then “Monarch of the Glen” in… 2011?! Goodness, time flies.

Now it is American Gods and I must say that this is probably my favorite of the set, for many reasons, including a) I don’t really remember the other stories that well just now, b) but this is definitely a different story than the others, c) I’ve got some more Gaiman under my belt and have an idea of what’s going on here in general, and d) it’s really just an awesome book. How awesome? It has an epilogue, that I liked. Inconceivable!

Right, so, anyway, what is this book about, you ask? Well, basically what it says on the tin. There’s a fella called Shadow who finds himself in the employ of one Mr. Wednesday, whose stalking capabilities are second to none and who turns out to be a certain god who is interested in getting together the old gang of immigrant gods to fight against the new American gods (TV, computers, and the like) who are snuffing said old gods out. Of course, it’s not that easy, and so Shadow finds himself trying to avoid some shadowy and poorly code-named government agents (Mr. Wood? Mr. Town? Quite creative, those) while also trying to figure out what to do with his undead wife who just wants to love him with her cold, nonbeating heart. You know, the usual.

But most of the book isn’t really about that war of the gods plot so much as it is about introducing the various gods in their guises and disguises, whether it’s a star goddess or a folk hero or stereotypically drunk leprechaun. Gaiman obviously had a lot of fun putting the old gods into the modern day, and although some of them seem mysterious at first he doesn’t leave you hanging too long on their actual identities so that you can go Wikipedia the heck out of them — which makes me think, man, if only this book had been written a few years later it would have had some really strange and interesting gods.

I was afraid I wouldn’t like the ending when I saw it wrapping up a little too quickly, but after it played out I thought it was done quite well, that it made sense, and that I will definitely need to acquire my own copy of this book so I can go read it again and see how everything fits together. And the epilogue, seriously, someone needs to go inform all the other epilogue writers that this is how you do it — none of that “btw this is what happened with all those other things” and all of that “here’s a scene or two that takes place later that happens to tie up some loose ends, nbd”.

Now I have to go read the sequel stories again so that I can understand them better… maybe in two years?

Recommendation: Do recommend. For lovers of mythology, America, and Neil Gaiman.

Rating: 9/10