I have a self-imposed rule that my books can’t go on the shelf until they’ve been read, in case I forget I own them and either don’t end up reading them, or, more likely, buy them again. This usually means I end up with a large pile of semi-interesting books, slowly being digested, towering over a more quickly fluctuating pile of books I have to read RIGHT NOW, both piles posing a safety hazard and potential ineffective mouse-trap. Over the break, I planned to make some headway into the neglected pile, but alas, this didn’t really happen.
In reality, I read my newest books, and then started re-reading old favourites. There are certain books I have to read every couple of years, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride and Blind Assassin, and authors I return to often like Iain Banks, Andrea Barrett and Haruki Murakami: every re-reading reveals new aspects to the stories, whilst also evoking the times I’ve read them before.
This year it was the turn of Steph Swainston’s Castle series – The Year of Our War; No Present Like Time and The Modern World. Having read her prequel to these books earlier this year, I was keen to return to the characters of the original books to see if knowing a little more history (and knowing what was going to happen to them later) would change how I felt about the story.
Now, the basic premise of the first book – a winged junkie immortal fights giant insects – makes it sound like the worst book in the world, but it works! The characters are well rounded – with honourable qualities, but also flaws: the immortals, who are supposed to be fighting a common enemy, often – like ancient Greek & Roman gods – become side-tracked by their own rivalries, love affairs (or drug addiction). The world Swainston places them in is incredibly detailed, and refreshingly for speculative fiction, you can’t draw a clear parallel between her societal structures and ones from our past or present. Then there’s little details like the fact they’ve invented jeans and blood transfusions, but not engines or gunpowder; and the various breeds of humans – winged & unwinged, among other variations, and the way those differences have moulded their philosophies. It’s safe to say I enjoyed my trip back in time and across realities. I really love books which can totally draw you into their world – whether it’s a version of what you already know, or something fundamentally different.
Now, if only I had another holiday to tackle that stack of unread books…