[personal profile] elvenpiratelady
There is nothing like cutting rocks on a buzzsaw and finding grit on your face and down your top hours later, nor crushing and milling rock samples and finding your hair (and nosehair) coated with very fine dust. THE GLAMOROUS LIFE OF A GEOLOGY STUDENT, I TELL YOU.

Anyway, this entry is about books! I recently read Voices by Ursula Le Guin and A Brief History of Montmaray and its sequel, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, by Michelle Cooper. The problem is that I think everyone should read these books and yet I want to talk about them with spoilers, so here is the deal:

You will go out and find and read these books immediately and then read the rest of this entry, and/or you will get your hands on some type of memory-altering substance and apply it immediately after you read the rest of this entry, at which point you will go out and find and read these books. Simple, eh?

So: A Brief History of Montmaray / The FitzOsbornes in Exile

If I told you that this story is told in diary form, written by a young woman living in a crumbling castle on an island in the Bay of Biscay, who lives with her mad uncle (the King of this island) and her younger sister and her cousin and their sullen housekeeper and the housekeeper's son, who gives the young woman feelings, and there are dark secrets and hidden and tragic pasts and also the year is 1936?

Well, I would not at all blame you for thinking that this is the most Gothic book that was ever printed, from that description. And while all those things happen, the life these people lead is utterly practical. The royals here do not wear fading lace and silk gowns and sit sighing at the window waiting for lost loves, they weed the garden and feed the chickens and put buckets under leaks in the roof and wash clothes and trade buckets of mussels with passing ships for things like paper and wax. And Sophie, our protagonist, does not consider herself remotely Gothic - as she says about the governesses they've been sent in the past:

Or worse, we were sent the sort of girl who thought that living in a castle would be madly poetic, who pictured herself drifting along the wall-walk in a flowing gown whilst reciting Keats, or trailing her fingertips in the moat as swans glided by. We don't have a moat, just a rickety drawbridge that connects the castle to the rest of the island. There is water at the bottom of the Chasm, but it contains sharks rather than swans. Furthermore, climbing the ladder to the top of the curtain wall while wearing a flowing gown would look very undignified, especially in howling gales and torrential rain, which is our usual weather for a great deal of the year.

This review is starting to get long and my fingers are getting cold, so the rest of my rambling thoughts about why these books are amazing are going in dot points:
  • As I have said, taking all the elements of Gothic novels and anchoring this story firmly in the practical world
  • Ladies, and more importantly, sisters. Sophie, our protagonist, is the middle child: her brother Toby is off in England at school, and her younger sister Henry (Henrietta) is a tomboy and very into the outdoors and such. Her cousin Veronica is sensible, intelligent and bookish. I'm counting Veronica as one of Sophie's sisters because they've grown up together and are as close as sisters, and the three girls here and their relationships and how they are sisters are wonderful to see, especially because finding older sisters in fiction who are actual characters and not just surrogate mother figures is very hard. I love how the three of them have very different personalities and strengths and while Sophie might judge them privately in her diary, the narrative does not. I love how Sophie is into traditionally girly things (dresses, balls, etc) because she hasn't had any access to them for her whole life, and the narrative does not judge her for that either! It's a sad day when you get excited because a story is not shaming a girl for liking traditionally feminine things, but there you go.
  • The way the past intrudes on the present: the year is 1936, and while the Second World War is rapidly coming about in the present, the effects of the First World War are keenly felt in the story. Sophie's parents died in Spain when someone threw a bomb into their carriage, similar to the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. King John, Sophie's uncle, led the young men of Montmaray into France to fight for France/England, and almost all of them died in the trenches. The King himself is a mad hermit in the present, which I read as having undiagnosed PTSD caused by WWI, and this leads to a murder that drives the plot of A Brief History of Montmaray. So it's interesting to see how WWI brought about the start of WWII, on a scale as small as Montmaray and as large as Europe.
  • Montmaray itself: the characters are culturally English, although the fictional island of Montmaray is in the Bay of Biscay halfway between England and France. The people on Montmaray speak English or Cornish, and there are many references to historical figures that tie Montmaray's history into England and France; if you did not know your geography you might think that it was actually a real place.
  • Sophie's feelings about the housekeeper's son, Simon Chester: she thinks she's in love with him, and as the book goes on (and in the sequel) she realises that she might not love him, but she has feelings of some sort for him. Veronica and Simon argue constantly, while Toby (Sophie's brother) and Simon are very close; in the end Sophie realises that they are both right, and that Simon is a person with good and bad points like anyone else.
  • The way the story talks about modern issues: we get to hear Sophie's thoughts about homosexuality, religion, and feminism, even if she doesn't consciously frame them as such. She thinks about them in a 1930s headset: she realises homosexuality is illegal but doesn't express contempt for it; she talks about liking the stories in the Bible but not being a great believer in god; and in the second book she gets angry about how people think it's shameful for unmarried young women to know anything about sex before they're married, but nobody says anything about how young men behave.
  • The year is 1936, and while Germany is looming as a threat, the first thing the Montmaravians know of WWII is the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Franco; Sophie writes about it as the war progresses, and they house Spanish refugee children in England. There have been countless young adult books about the Nazis, but when was the last time someone wrote a YA book about the Spanish civil war? It's a good reminder that while WWII was dominated by Nazi Germany, there were atrocities happening before it and in other parts of the world.
  • And the last point here, what I love with all my heart is that when the situation needs them to co-operate, four characters (Sophie, Veronica, Simon and Toby) pull together and work together as a family and as a group, and when they put their strengths together and support each other they become a force to be seriously reckoned with. I read the last third of The FitzOsbornes in Exile with my heart singing, to read about these young adults working so hard together, despite however much they argue they are united in their love of Montmaray, and I love that when the others fail or lose hope, Sophie is the one who rallies them and finally brings them to their goal. Sophie spends a lot of the two books convinced that she should be more like Veronica, or Simon, but in the end she is perfect as herself. She is brave and compassionate and smarter than she gives herself credit, and able to negotiate between warring relatives and conniving when the situation calls for it. Sophie is perfect and I love her and all the ladies in these books.

Voices by Ursula Le Guin

I read these three books very close together, and while they are all, somehow, about war, Voices is much closer to war than the Montmaray books. It's set in Ansul, a city that was attacked by a people called the Alds, and is now occupied seventeen years later by Ald military. Ansul used to be a place of universities and learning; the Alds believe that all words are evil and devils hide in books, so they destroyed all the writing they could find, and reading and writing are now banned in Ansul. I found a lot of parallels to conflicts in the Middle-East, but Voices is not a allegory: it's about the importance, the basic right, of living your life the way you want to live it without fear of being persecuted; it's about how the enemy of any tyranny is not books, but the knowledge they contain and the potential for learning they offer; it's about how books are a link between the past, present and future; it's about how words, and discussion, can free people in a way that action sometimes cannot. In short, it's about the conflict between one idealogy and the totalitarianism of having only one voice speaking to you, not for you, versus the freedom of voices speaking with each other.

Our protagonist is Memer, a girl who lives in a half-ruined house with the Waylord, who was once one of the rulers of the city, and the remnants of his house. The Waylord has been crippled by torture, but in his house is a secret room with the books that people have managed to save from the Alds. They bring them to the Waylord, and he keeps them safe in the room. He teaches Memer to read and to look after the books. Then a famous singer, Orrec, arrives in Ansul and some of the people see him as the one who can raise Ansul to rebellion and cast the Alds out of the city. Of course, being an Ursula Le Guin novel, it is not as simple as that. Here we go again with the dot points:

  • Ansul has been heavily scarred by war - the Waylord's house has been half-ruins for seventeen years, and the Alds occupy the city as a military presence but do not have any families or holdings there themselves. This is a city that is occupied, and while it's occupied, instead of ruled under an Ald or a native to Ansul, it can't go forward. Nobody repairs the ruins or thinks of building again; the Ald soldiers do bring their own families out of the desert and inhabit Ansul. This is a city, essentially, living in a very long present, and not daring to think of the future.
  • Memer is of mixed Ansul and Ald blood - her mother was raped by Ald soldiers as they first sacked the city. Another author might have made their protagonist angst about it for pages upon pages - not Le Guin. Memer considers herself fully Ansul in culture and loyalty, and the only person who mentions it outright is an Ald boy who does not understand Ansul culture at all. Ista, the housekeeper, even considers it a good thing that Memer is considered ugly by Ansul standards, as she's less likely to be raped by Ald soldiers if she goes out without an escort. Memer dresses as a boy when she goes out to buy food for her family and to hear news for this reason, but she is also comfortable with doing this and considering herself fully woman, even when she calls herself a boy's name and acts as a boy.
  • Now, this Ald boy who Memer interacts with, Simme - I have to feel for him, even though he's one of the occupying force. He's clearly not comfortable being in Ansul and he wants to go back to the desert, so even as he asks Memer (in her boy disguise) if she'll pimp out her sisters to him, even as he repeats the Ald's ideas that women who go out unaccompanied by a man deserve to be raped (while Memer seethes inwardly, and there's no way you could blame her) - he's clearly not happy, and I was relieved when in the end he went back to the desert with most of the soldiers. Simme's grown up mostly in occupied Ansul, like Memer, but from the occupier's point of view - he and the rest of the Alds are willfully ignorant about Ansul and its customs, and seeing Memer expose the priviledge he has - when she says how can you expect me to let you into my house when you don't know anything about our customs or our manners, what makes you think I would let you know anything about my culture when you've avoided learning anything about its basics - that was refreshing. I was worried that Memer and Simme would end up being a romantic couple after Memer reveals herself as a girl, and they become a symbol of the Glorious Union Between Two Warring Cultures - thankfully, Le Guin avoids that too. Memer is never interested in Simme, and Simme is only interested in Memer-as-a-boy because he wants someone his own age to spend time with. Going back to the desert was the best thing that happened to him.
  • Speaking of which - Memer's romantic life, or namely the lack of it. I read the book wondering who she might be paired with in the end - Simme? The Waylord? I didn't want her to end up with either of them, because she considers one to be her father and the other a barbarian, and thankfully, she doesn't end up with anyone in the end. Not that there were many choices. Memer does mention a young man that she might like to have a romance with, but it's treated as something to happen in the future, and it doesn't get any further development in the book. And isn't that refreshing, to have a young woman be happily single for an entire YA book?
  • Memer's relationship with the books the Waylord keeps safe - before she can read them, before she even realises that they can be read, she sneaks into the secret room and makes forts out of them, touches them, gives them names like The Bear and Shining Red. Even if she doesn't realise what they contain, they are precious to her from very early in her life, and she values them accordingly.
  • There is a point, in this book, where an Ald prophecy about demons in a cave is mentioned, and I quickly drew a line between that prophecy and the hidden room full of books (which becomes a cave in its darkest corner), and I was struck by horror at what that could mean. The Alds believe demons hide in books. The Alds use fire to drive out demons. I almost stopped reading, desperately afraid that this would end with a room full of burning books. Maybe another author would have had them burn that room, for drama and anguish and action, but thank god Ursula Le Guin was not writing that sort of book. Spoiler alert! The books are completely safe at the end of the story, and I think it's because to Le Guin, they're not just books - they're things, almost sentient, that have their own importance to the story. Books are not objects here, but treasures.
  • I have realised that I am completely doing these notes out of any sort of order, but! Orrec, the singer, and Gry, his wife! Orrec occupies an important place because he bridges the cultures here: the Ansul view him culturally as one of them (although he comes from the north, but he's not an Ald) and his poems are well-known to them, but he's also travelled widely and lived among the Alds, and the Alds, while they view him as a heathen, respect him as a teller of stories. He can go safely between the two cultures and the leaders of the rebellion want him to speak for them and raise the people of Ansul against the Alds, but Orrec himself is always acutely aware that while he is not an Ald, he is also a foreigner to Ansul, and he doesn't feel it's right to speak for Ansul. He is always aware of this and his power to speak to people is something he considers incredibly powerful, and he is always concerned at how he uses that power. Orrec's ability to cross between Ansul and Alds is vital for the discussion that eventually ends the occupation, and he once calms a crowd and prevents another riot breaking out that could destroy the new peace, but he never stops being aware that he is not Ansul, or Ald. Gry is his wife and able to communicate and to some extent control animals; her companion is a 'half-lion' (whatever that is), Shetar. This is also important, because Alds consider lions sacred, and Gry (disguised as a man) accompanies Orrec when he goes to play for the Alds, and the lion is intepreted symbolically by many Alds. The lion also frightens a horse into shying away and makes an Ald look as though he is retreating at a critical moment, and so the animal the Alds consider sacred leads to Ansul freeing itself. And Orrec and Gry are so clearly married and I love them together. They argue about Gry going with Orrec to the Alds (Orrec is against it; Gry refuses to let him go without her; she goes dressed as a man); Gry laughs at the idea of Orrec staying in Ansul to read the books, and says she'll train horses while he's busy. They clearly love each other but they both also have lives outside of their marriage, and I love them and so I was delighted to find that there is a book set before this, called Gifts, which is all about Orrec and Gry when they were young. They also grow to be surrogate parents to Memer. Gry becomes especially close to her - Memer's mother died several years ago, and Gry eventually reveals that they had a daughter who died of a fever who would be Memer's age. They're not trying to mould her into their lost daughter, and Memer doesn't try to force them into the roles of her dead mother and her unknown father - but they grow into a family.
  • A point I should have mentioned earlier - the commander of the occupying forces in Ansul, Ioratth, took an Ansul woman, Tirio, as an unofficial wife. This could also have been held up as a symbol of the Glorious Union Between Two Warring Cultures - except they're not married by Ansul or Ald laws, the Alds consider Tirio a woman of an inferior race, and the people of Ansul have various opinions about her, most of them either a sainted lady who is doing her best for her people, or a whore. Of course, the answer is somewhere in between - Tirio is a woman in a difficult situation making her way as best as she can. Ioratth is an important minor character, and Tirio is a background character, but it's good to see even their relationship is written as complicated, not either/or.
  • The eventual resolution. Spoiler alert: after rebels fail to assassinate the Ald leaders and their priests, the city devolves into fighting in many places. The Waylord's house becomes a refuge for people in the city to escape the fighting as well as a place for fighters to exchange information and rethink their tactics. In the end, the fighting is a minor part of the struggle - what creates the new peace in Ansul is discussion, going back and forth between the Waylord's house and the Alds' camp. In the end the leader of the Alds, back in the desert, issues a proclamation that Ansul is to become a protectorate of the Alds, to pay taxes to the Alds but to be ruled by the people of Ansul. Memer sees this as a half-victory, but she realises that this is the best they are going to get - Ansul is a city built on commerce and understands that paying taxes is what funds buildings and governments, and the Ansul people are going to govern themselves again by and large. Coming from an occupied city with no money and no legal government, this is a victory. That Memer comes to accept it as such, bittersweet though it is, shows how she's changed. At the start of the book she talks about how she wants to drive the Alds out of Ansul and kill them all, to exact revenge for her mother and her city - as the book goes on she realises that this will just bring the Alds down harder on Ansul, and this will only lead to more fighting. Becoming a protectorate of the Alds is the best outcome Ansul could hope for.
  • So in the end, Ansul moves out of its long present and begins to rebuild - people worship the Ansul gods openly, the ruined houses begin to be rebuilt, and most importantly, Memer brings the first book out of the secret room into the public eye. This is her idea, not the Waylord's, although he later approves - he's spent so much time protecting the books that he hasn't thought of the day that they can be publicly displayed, and Memer is thinking of the future. She also realises that the books belong to everyone in Ansul, and true freedom is sharing them and their knowledge.
  • Orrec and Gry also offer to take Memer with them when they leave, to see other cities and read other books. Memer is hesitant, but eventually she realises that the books will wait for her. Ansul will wait for her to come back because she can think about Ansul in one or ten years - the city has a future and she doesn't have to be afraid any more that it will be destroyed tomorrow. She chooses to go with them because it's what she wants - the book ends with her realising that after making herself hard and always being so wary and so careful, she doesn't have to be like that any more to survive. Memer realises that she can be young for the first time in her life, and she chooses to embrace the wider world, now that she has the freedom to do so.

And a quote:

I always wondered why the makers leave house-keeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn't it what all the great wars and battles are fought for - so that at day's end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tales tells house the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooked their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn't say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege and under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountain, they were welcomed with a feast. I'd like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.

Good grief, this is a long entry - and done just in time, too, since these books are due back at the library tomorrow (err, today). G'night!
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May 2012


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