Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

empress_of_mars_coverTitle: The Empress of Mars
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Life on Mars is hard. Although the British Arean Company promised wealth, growth, and a new life to all Martian settlers, once it found out that it couldn’t terraform (and profit from) the planet quickly enough, it pulled up roots and stranded those left behind without providing enough money for a return trip to Earth. Now the BAC’s presence on the planet consists of a skeleton crew of ineffectual bureaucrats.

Mary Griffith has been forced to make do in the aftermath. Formerly a botanist on the BAC’s payroll, she’s reinvented herself as the proprietor of The Empress of Mars, the closest thing that the entire planet has to a hotel, bar, restaurant, or welcome centre. The Empress of Mars is all about Mary’s attempts to keep a roof over her family’s head – attempts which rapidly gain steam when the discovery of a huge red diamond on her land rekindles interest in the red planet’s resources.

One of the hazy, oft-quoted rules of novel-writing is to avoid prologues. I don’t understand why, because they serve a purpose. The prologue for The Empress of Mars is absolutely astounding – here it is, in its entirety:

There were three Empresses of Mars.

The first one was a bar at the Settlement. The second was the lady who ran the bar, though her title was strictly informal, having been bestowed on her by the regular customers, and her domain extended no farther than the pleasantly gloomy walls of the only place you could get beer on the Tharsis Bulge.

The third one was the queen of England.

That’s it. Three paragraphs. But those paragraphs pack a powerful amount of information. They tell us about the geopolitical structure of this story’s universe – that England has managed to rebuild an empire, and that it has sole sovereignty over Mars. They tell us about the mindset of the people who are settling Mars right now – that they’re playful and informal, but also just really want a beer. They also tell us that life on Mars is a scarce one – there’s only one settlement, and only one bar.

However, this excerpt provides only a taste of what Kage Baker’s Mars is really like. You’ve got abandoned BAC employees like Mary and her colleague Manco Inca, a terraformer who has built a shrine to the Virgin of Guadeloupe in an underground cave. There’s Chiring, a Nepali journalist whose dispatches from the bar have greatly increased the circulation of The Kathmandu Post. There’s Brick, one of the planet’s many sturdy ice haulers. There’s also Eli De Wit, the lawyer who has come to broker the sale of Mary’s new diamond, and Mary’s daughter Alice, who has always hated living on Mars and sees Eli as her ticket off the planet.

One of the things I like about The Empress of Mars is its exploration of what life is like in the frontier of space. Baker references this explicitly through the character of Ottorino Vespucci (Reno for short), a dreamer who has come to Mars to seek his fortune – his time spent as a stuntman at a Wild West amusement park acts as  his chief frame of reference for living on the planet.

This is not new territory for science fiction. However, Baker’s taken great pains to depart from Golden-Age space opera in other ways, most notably in the ethnic, religious, and linguistic variety of her characters. As mentioned above, we’ve got Nepalis, Peruvians, and more. Americans speak English, but other characters speak a new language called PanCelt, while Ottorino speaks Italian. Interestingly, Christianity is no longer a dominant religion in human society, having been replaced in many respects by a New-Age form of goddess-worship. Mary’s tangles with the Ephesian Church make up one of the story’s many subplots.

And what fun they are! They all coalesce towards the end, but there’s a lovely shagginess to the way that all of the book’s various subplots – Mary’s new-found wealth from  her diamond, the marriages of two of her daughters, her dealings with the local clan of Irish medievalists – interact and converge. The plot here is solid, but the throughline of the book moves laterally in all sorts of ways. This is a refreshing change of pace from the vast majority of novels, where it feels like you could render the book on a graph. In some ways, the plot of The Empress of Mars defies easy categorization. But sometimes it’s really nice to have a book like that.

Up next: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – my 40th and final book review of 2012!

Book Review: The High Road by Terry Fallis

The High RoadTitle: The High Road
Author: Terry Fallis
Publisher: McLelland and Stewart
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of speculative fiction, as my past reviews clearly show – books about space zombies, ghosts, Russian mythological figures, and more. However, The High Road is speculative fiction of an entirely different sort.

It’s about an honest politician!

I mentioned Terry Fallis once on this blog a few years back when I bought his copy of The Best Laid Plans. The High Road is the sequel to TBLP and it picks up soon after where the first one left off.

Note: this review contains spoilers. Also, it will make more sense if you’re familiar with Canadian politics.

Mere months ago, maverick engineering professor Angus McLintock pulled off a stunning upset victory in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, long a Conservative Party stronghold. However, election time has come upon Canada again due to a non-confidence vote from the House of Commons and Angus, now a Liberal MP, has decided to throw his hat into the ring once more.

This time, though, the guns are out for Angus, as long-time Conservative Party spin manager Emerson “Flamethrower” Fox has decided to turn the riding Tory blue yet again. Known for pioneering negative campaigning in Canadian politics, Fox will do anything to win. Angus himself has sworn to take the high road and avoid doing any mudslinging, but Daniel Addison, his trusty campaign manager, and Muriel Parkinson, a canny political veteran, have a few tricks up their own sleeves.

There are some books that it takes me nearly a week to get through. There are some books that take me several weeks to get through (cough cough, The Terror, cough cough). Then, there was The High Road.

I read it in less than a day.

This was both because I needed a break from the sci-fi and fantasy stories that make up my typical literary diet, and because the book is fun and compelling, yet easy to read. THR proved to be a wonderful palate-cleanser. There are several things to like about this book.

For example, Daniel Addison, our narrator, is clever enough to be likeable, yet neutral enough to offset the sheer charisma that author Terry Fallis imbues Angus McLintock with. As with its predecessor, this book showcases Fallis’s deep knowledge of Canadian politics – and also, perhaps, much of his frustration with it.

As befitting the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, there are plenty of funny movements, although they tend to be more of the slapstick rather than the intellectual variety. Put it this way: the opening pages feature a naked man accidentally locking himself out of his house during sub-zero temperatures. THR also gets substantial mileage out of the unruliness (and food-sticking-to-it-ness) of Angus’s beard.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws. The book’s biggest problem is that it has to live up to the legacy of its predecessor without completely repeating the plot.

The whole purpose of The Best Laid Plans was to chronicle Angus McLintock’s unlikely yet integrity-filled campaign. Since making another long-shot campaign the sole focus of the sequel wouldn’t add anything new to the situation, Fallis understandably chooses to extend the book past the election – I’ll give you two guesses as to who wins. However, to heighten the drama, the plot demands that the election be a close call anyway.

In some ways, Fallis’s machinations to raise the stakes of the campaign work, but in other ways they fail. In particular, the nasty, knock-down-drag-em-out fight that readers anticipate between Angus and Emerson Fox turns out to be a non-starter. Whatever negative campaigning there is is drawn in broad strokes. Granted, this is a comedy, so that’s expected, but Emerson turned out to be a surprisingly toothless character.

Anyways. As I mentioned before, the book doesn’t stop with Angus’s campaign. Immediately after the election (literally hours after the votes have been tallied), an important commuter bridge collapses in downtown Ottawa. Angus, with his background in engineering, is hand-picked by the Prime-Minister-elect to investigate the causes of the collapse.

Angus being Angus, he takes his job seriously and ends up butting heads with several other politicians over the importance of infrastructure reform. Thus, the last major portion of the book manages to mix serious political commentary – the fact of Canada’s degrading infrastructure – with hijinks.

Ultimately, Angus’s crusade leads to increased infrastructure funding – see what I said about this being speculative fiction? – so at least the novel ends on a high note. It’s just that the book walks a fine line between wildly differing tones, especially at the end.

Up next: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Book Review: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Title: Ironskin
Author: Tina Connolly
Publisher:  Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: this review contains spoilers.

Jane Eliot is a veteran of The Great War against the fey. The five years since the end of the war have not been kind to her, however, as the lingering scar on her cheek – as well as the iron mask she wears to cover it – signal to all that she has been cursed  by fey magic.

After failing to hold down a string of teaching jobs, Jane has only one option left: to become a governess. In particular, she’s found a delicately-worded listing asking for assistance with a “special” child – one born during the Great War. Jane has pieced together the signs and realizes that the child, like she, is fey-cursed. She takes the job because she’s convinced that she can help this child overcome the same problems she has had to face.

Of course, life in her new home at Silver Birch Manor is more difficult than she imagined. For one thing, Dorie’s fey abilities are both unique and frightening. For another, Dorie’s father, Edward Rochart, is a distant, forbidding man, and the moors outside his house hold many secrets. How exactly does Silver Birch Manor get its inexhaustible supply of fey technology when it is so scarce everywhere else? Why do Rochart and his servant Martha constantly go into the forest bordering the manor? And why does Rochart host so many other women at his house, only to release them back into the outside world looking as beautiful as the fey themselves?

As Jane encounters these and other mysteries, she realizes that there may be a way to shed the fey curse that has ruined her face – although, as always, things aren’t quite what they seem.

So, before I go any further here, let me state a few things up front. Yes, this story is a retelling of Jane Eyre. Yes, it involves fairies. Yes, it also involves steampunk. If you have a problem with these things, stop reading now – because goddammit, this book is fun. Go find a mouldering library to sit in and grumble about literary purity for all I care, because you won’t be missed.

There. Now that we’ve got the Sacred Arbiters of English Literature off our backs, let’s get back to business.

Ironskin is a fun book. It plays with the plot of Jane Eyre, but takes it in new directions, reinventing some aspects of Jane’s background from whole cloth. For example, gone are her miserable extended family and her subsequent education at Lowood. Instead, Helen, the saintly classmate from the original book, is now Jane’s sister and has been radically re-imagined as a woman desperately trying to come to terms with her own cowardice in the face of Jane’s iron resolve.

However, certain story beats remain the same. The mysterious forest on the edge of Rochart’s property, as well as the its inhabitant, are a direct analogue for the attic originally found in Jane Eyre. Although I deduced the true nature of the forest early on in the novel, this was no doubt intentional on Connolly’s part.

I’ve mentioned Tina Connolly elsewhere on my blog. Having read a few of her stories, and having listened to all of the episodes in her Toasted Cake podcast, it was remarkable to realize how entrenched her voice has become in my head. When I was reading Ironskin, I could tell that it was her writing it, and it was her voice delivering the descriptions and dialogue in my mind.

The book’s biggest strength is its world-building. Five years ago, British society depended on fey technology, but the Great War’s onset spurred Britain to restart the Industrial Revolution. In this story, the fey are incorporeal, immortal beings who can inhabit the bodies of dead humans. Of course, doing so gives them human frailties; the only way to kill a fey for good is by jabbing some sharpened iron into the vein of a fey-ridden corpse.

On top of all that, dwarves exist (though they’re called dwarvven here) and have closed themselves off from both fey and human interaction. Although they are master craftsmen, they also love stories and poetry, the more outsized and romantic the better – they were even important cultural figures in Queen Maud’s court back in the day. Jane uses this fact to her advantage when she bribes a half-dwarvven character with a copy of The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud in exchange for some finely-wrought iron. And, of course, as the author mentions in her recent “My Favourite Bit” post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined so that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now A Midsummer Night’s Tragedy.

As I said in my review of Seraphina, it’s the inventive details like this that make me love fantasy books so much.

However, despite these delights, the ending is rushed. Jane’s eventual discovery of Rochart’s true profession (he employs magic to make women beautiful using fey-infused masks of clay) dovetails with her revelation that her disfigured face allows her to manipulate magic herself. The Fey Queen then emerges to reveal her true plans: the masks that Rochart has been making are the perfect conduit to allow the fey to take control of living bodies, and not just the dead. As Rochart’s masks have now been fused onto several members of Britain’s ruling class, this spells disaster.

The final events of this book – the revelation about the Fey Queen, the true importance of Rochart’s masks, Jane’s attempt to claim a mask for her own, and a mad dash to London and back – are all crammed into the last 60 pages. Compared to the slow, atmospheric buildup of the book’s opening, I felt its climax – which includes an extremely gory scene I’ll let you discover on your own – should have been a chapter or two longer.

This is convenient for Connolly, though, as it leaves the closing passages open enough to accommodate the sequel that will be coming out next fall. First The Hum and the Shiver, then Seraphina, and now this – it seems I’m unconsciously committing to all sorts of series which will continue in 2013.

Up next: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi


Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

One of the chief things I measure in a novel is how it affects me when I read it. Do the book’s events wend their way into my dreams? Am I compelled to keep reading? How concerned am I with the characters? Are there any scenes I can return to and re-read, savouring the prose on my tongue or goggling about at the audacity of the images that the author presents?

In other words, does the book that I’m reading make me feel delight?

Seraphina did. This book was part of the bag of free books I got at the World Fantasy Convention. However, I didn’t look at it closely until after WFC was over and my fiance and I were evaluating our respective hauls. Rarely am I held fast and astonished by a book’s very first passage, but then I came across Seraphina‘s opening lines:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the  heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

Humans and dragons have been coexisting in uneasy peace for decades. Dragons, imagined here as keenly rational, analytical beings – think Vulcans with scales – have the ability to alter their forms to look like humans.

Such dragons, called saarantrai, live alongside humans and have carved out a respectable niche as teachers and academics. The heart of this coexistence lies in the court of Goredd, the kingdom that brokered the human/dragon peace treaty – the court that Seraphina Domberg, a talented young musician, now finds herself in.

However, merely weeks before the 40th anniversary of the treaty, Prince Rufus, the son of Queen Lavonda, has been murdered in a manner that looks suspiciously draconic. With tensions rising between the upholders of the treaty and anti-dragon zealots, Seraphina finds herself in the middle and teams up with Prince Lucian, the queen’s grandson, to uncover the truth behind Rufus’ murder.

Seraphina is caught in the middle in more ways than one. Not only is she a musician in a court composed of both humans and saarantrai, but she holds a secret that could lead to her death if it were found out: she’s half-human, half-dragon. Now that she’s joined Lucian’s investigation, she must find a way to preserve the peace and avoid the attention that her prodigious musical talent attracts.

I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction because these genres examine interesting ideas in ways that others choose not to. In its own way, Seraphina tackles how racism affects people by taking it to literal extremes and imagining the external pressures faced by someone who is only half human. However, science fiction and fantasy also describe things that other genres can’t, like the internal pressures that Seraphina faces.

In particular, she experiences crippling migraines and strange visions, and the only way she can manage them is to spend time alone every day to meditate. Her meditation takes an extremely peculiar form, though, in that she visits a garden in her mind and talks to the people who live there – the people she sees in her visions, although she has no idea what is so significant about them. One of her vision-people lives in an orchard and litters orange peels along the ground. Another is locked inside a cottage. A third gazes up at a sky full of stars.

These people and these environments are all inside Seraphina’s head.

Think about this for a minute. How many mush-mouthed “important” literary works out there are willing to be as inventive as this? Would an author like Jonathan Franzen ever attempt to portray the mental state of one of his characters in such a literal fashion? More importantly, would they use such concrete imagery – orchards, observatories, ponds, walled gardens – to describe that state? Would they even consider the idea of the mind as a physical space, capable of being walked around in?

This is why fantasy and science fiction are important. This is what I look for when I talk about delight.

Hartman’s descriptions of the world her characters live in, and her unique depiction of dragons, are fascinating. Her world feels lived-in and filled with detail around the edges, like the fact that dragons bleed silver blood, and thus exhibit white bruises white when they get hurt. I also loved how hyper-aware Seraphina is of the draconic mindset, which is focused on patterns and angles and logic. Whenever she’s in conversation with a dragon, she automatically adjusts her speech so that it becomes more factual and less focused on intonation to convey meaning.

This highlights one of her greatest traits:  her intelligence. She’s not only smart, but she’s determined, too, and uses her unique knowledge of  dragonkind to become an important political player by the end of the novel. While she is prickly and unfriendly, this part of her personality springs naturally from her overwhelming need to hide her parentage.

However, this note leads me to my very few complaints about the novel. While she is considered prickly and often second-guesses herself, this is one of Seraphina’s only flaws. Otherwise, she’s a gifted musician who is brave and observant, and she even turns out to have psychic powers. (Hint: it turns out those people in her head are there for a reason.) In other words, she’s very close to being a Mary-Sue character.

In addition to that, Seraphina’s burgeoning relationship with Prince Lucian is telegraphed far too easily early on in the plot, and I despaired at the presence of the Obligatory Romance in this otherwise fine novel. Although Hartman sidesteps this by having Lucian choose to stay betrothed to his royal cousin, the potential for a romantic triangle is set squarely in place for the sequels. I wish that the relationship between Lucian and Seraphina stayed platonic instead. However, I will eagerly read the sequels in the hope that this development is replaced with something more satisfactory before the end.

Up next: The Universe Within, by Neil Turok.

NaNoWriMo: Taking the Plunge – Again!

Image from Morguefile.

Well, it’s officially late October, and you know what that means: a frantic ramp-up to NaNoWriMo. Well, perhaps not frantic, but it’s definitely a more informed mess of activity than it was in 2011. Last year was my first time writing for NaNoWrimo, and I think I learned a lot from the experience. Unfortunately, the story I started then remains unfinished, but I have a good idea of what its problems are.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how to end it, and so it’s been helplessly stewing and fermenting in my head for a year, awaiting some key insight that will make it reach critical mass and become complete. Ah, one can wish, right?

Anyway, with one successful NaNo under my belt (that is, I reached the wordcount goal even if I didn’t technically finish the story), I feel better about how to approach it this time around. Last year I was writing by the seat of my pants. This year, I have a much clearer idea of what I want to write about, and have even started doing some supporting research about the time period it’s set in, as well as other important elements of the setting.

Does this mean that I’ve abandoned my pantsing ways and become a full-on outliner? Not by a long shot. It just means that last year I blundered through the forest without anything to clear the way – this year, in contrast, I have a machete ready.

The only kink in my plans is that the World Fantasy Convention is happening from Nov 1st to 4th. I can pretty well guarantee that I won’t keep up the writing pace during those 4 days – the question is how long it will take me to get back on track from the 5th onwards.

Anyway, long story short: I’ve committed to NaNoWriMo again, and I’m excited about it! What about you, O faithful readers?

Book Review: The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg

Title: The Guilty Plea
Author: Robert Rotenberg
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

One of the genres that I’ve often had trouble “getting” is that of the crime/procedural (which was why I had problems with both Zoo City and Empire State). In terms of my reading habits, then, my enjoyment of Robert Rotenberg’s books is an outlier.

Old City Hall was Rotenberg’s debut, and The Guilty Plea picks up right where it left off, with many of the same characters. The premise here is similar to that of the first book: someone has been found murdered, and the various characters work together to push the case through the city’s legal system – the cops gather evidence and the lawyers pore over said evidence to bolster their arguments in the courtroom.

In this case, the victim is Terrance Wyler, the youngest son of a prominent family who owns a successful grocery store chain. When Samantha Wyler – the woman whom he was in the process of divorcing at the time of his death – shows up at her lawyer’s office with the murder weapon wrapped up in a kitchen towel, the case looks all but solved. However, the detectives and lawyers we met in Old City Hall – Greene, Kennicott, Summers, Raglan, and more – aren’t content to sit on their laurels and let the obvious conclusion do all their work for them. Papers still have to be filed, and people still have to be questioned.

This attention to process is a great part of why I like Rotenberg’s books. In essence, they are about more than just The Law or The Case: they are about competent people doing difficult tasks, and doing those tasks well. Rotenberg also delves into the psychology of people who become involved in a criminal case. In the trials, his lawyers analyze how witnesses gain and lose credibility in the courtroom; during the investigations, his cops pick up on subtle cues like people using rhetorical questions to respond to interrogations.

Within The Guilty Plea, specifically, I was impressed by the care which Rotenberg took to reintroduce the reader to characters from the first book, remind us of what they did, and place them in the context of who they interacted with. It served not only as a refresher course for the cast list, but also prepared me for the shifting perspectives across the book. On top of that, expert attention was paid to reintroducing the city of Toronto as a character as well – the streets and highways and neighbourhoods of the city reflect as much upon the plot of Rotenberg’s books as the people do. This focus on the city serves as one heck of an ego boost for a lifelong Torontonian like myself.

Despite these strengths, this book is not perfect. Like Old City Hall, it ended with the person on trial being innocent despite overwhelming evidence against them, with the real killer being suddenly revealed in the final pages. I understand that this is meant to increase the tension, but I don’t think that “whodunit” is the point of Rotenberg’s books.

Instead, I think the point is showing the process behind a criminal investigation, and the psychology behind preparing for trial. I want to hear more about the considerations that come into play when jurors are selected. I want to hear about the small things that affect the credibility of people testifying in court – things like witnesses not knowing where to place their coats, or being engulfed by the sheer size of the witness box. In Rotenberg’s world the courtroom is a psychological tango, and dammit, I want to understand the footwork involved! Last minute revelations of this sort cheapen the reading experience.

On top of that, some of the plot developments were poorly thought out. During the trial, Samantha was revealed to have had an extensive secret correspondence with Terrance’s brother Jason, her brother-in-law. This is the sort of thing upon which trials turn on a dime, but I was incredulous that 1) Samantha would have hidden this information from her own defense lawyer, especially when it could have bolstered her claims of innocence, and 2) so little follow-up research of email transcripts and phone records was done afterwards. Furthermore, although a noticeable portion of the novel was spent explaining what happened to the murder weapon, nowhere was it ever stated (unless  I didn’t notice, which would be odd), that the damn thing was dusted for fingerprints. Isn’t that Rule #1 of murder investigations – to thoroughly examine the murder weapon once its location is confirmed? Why didn’t that happen here?

Finally, I wish that Rotenberg would set his books so that they could take place across all of Toronto, and not just the downtown core. Speaking as a frustrated suburbanite, it would be really nice to see a book that actually paid attention to the part of town that I live in, instead of the same litany of major downtown locations and corridors.

The thing about The Guilty Plea is that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor closely, for good or ill. I hope that in subsequent installments, the strengths (good characters, good psychological insights, detailed settings) will increase and the flaws (downtown-centric focus, convenient revelation near the end of the book that the obvious suspect is not the real murderer) will diminish.

Up next: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey

Book Review: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Title: Half Blood Blues
Author: Esi Edugyan
Publisher: Thomas Allen Publishers
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5

Every year, there are one or two books that get nominated for All The Awards. In 2011, it was Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. The drama in the book was almost exceeded by the drama surrounding its production, however, as it almost didn’t get published – it was one of the books going through Key Porter’s pipeline when that publishing house declared bankruptcy. Ultimately, Thomas Allen swooped in to save the day.

About the book: Hieronymous Falk was a gifted trumpet player in 1930s Berlin. However, he was also a mischling – a person of mixed German and African descent. Fellow jazz musician Sid Griffiths was the last person to see him alive before he was arrested by German forces in a Paris cafe. Now, more than 50 years later, the arrival of a mysterious letter has forced Sid to re-examine his role in Hiero’s life – and in Hiero’s disappearance.

What I liked: Sometimes, it takes only a small turn of phrase to make me fall in love with a book. Here’s the passage near the book’s opening when I gave in:

See, thing about the kid – he so majestically bony and so damn grave that with his look of a starving child, it felt well nigh impossible to deny him anything. Take Chip. Used to be the kid annoyed him something awful. Now he so protective of him he become like a second mother. So watching the kid slip into his raggedy old tramp’s hat and step out, I thought, What I done got myself into. I supposed to be the older responsible one. But here I was trotting after the kid like a little purse dog. Hell. Delilah was going to cut my head off.

“Majestically bony” was when I gave in and let the book’s voice wash over me. Half Blood Blues is full of similarly deft images, like Sid comparing a theatre building to “a slab of cheddar, that lustrous colour and all them angles.” I was amazed with how Edugyan managed to write in an extremely slangy and “non-standard” way without reducing Sid or his colleagues into caricatures. Her facility with jazz slang and with voice is amazing.

What I disliked: At one point, Louis Armstrong walks up to the main character as he’s sitting on a bench in Paris. The old master consoles Sid by saying that his gift may not necessarily be musical – instead, it is the ability to make others feel like family. While the other musicians he plays with certainly do feel that way about Sid, I remain hard-pressed to explain why: he’s not a likeable person. Throughout the novel, Sid is selfish and displays a considerable inability read other people – but those same people welcome, understand, and trust him, sometimes to their own detriment. While this is a brave choice on Edugyan’s part, it’s also at odds with how the other characters interact with him.

The verdict: It took me a while to sort out how I felt about Half Blood Blues. Initially, Sid was so unpleasant that it interfered with my enjoyment of the book, but, I soon realized that it without a splash of bitterness, it would have had no heart. Ultimately, I found the pacing, characterization, and use of slang to evoke a specific time and place so precise that I respected it in the end.

Up next: Salt: A World History, by Mark Kurlansky