Books Read in February

8. Behemoth – Scott Westerfeld

9. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

10. Shotgun Gravy – Chuck Wendig

11. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear – Jim Steinmeyer

I also beta-read 2.5 manuscripts and read my own book at least twice.

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Book Review: The Winter Palace: A Tale of Catherine the Great – Eva Stachniak

Varara is a Polish daughter of a bookbinder. Her father journeyed to the Russian court because he felt there would be more opportunities there. Her father’s work was renowned and attracted the notice of the Empress Elizabeth herself. But when family fortune leaves young Varvara an orphan, she seeks refuge at the Palace. She’s taken in first as one of the imperial seamstresses, but with stubbornness and a little luck, she works her way up to becoming one of Elizabeth’s “Tongues,” or little spies.

And then Princess Sophie comes to court, a princess from Anhalt-Zerbst, to become engaged to Crown Prince Peter, a selfish, strange little boy. Young Sophie is rennamed Catherine by the Empress, and seems completely out of her element and powerless at the decadent Russian court. Varvara and Catherine are both tossed about, manipulated by others–until they start to fight back through knowledge of their own, so Sophie can one day become Catherine the Great.

Of course, there’s much more to it that that. Every character uses another. Character interactions have more layers than a matryoshka doll. It’s a slow novel, meandering its way through Varvara’s life from when she’s a young girl to a cynical, world-wise mother. It’s engaging and well-drawn, and I loved it.

The prose is lush and lyrical, full of metaphor and delightful turns of phrases. 18th century Russia comes to life through the pages. I knew next to nothing about Russian history, specifically in the 18th century. And it’s full of sickly-sweet smiles with people holding knives behind their backs, and just as twisted as any other royal court.

Recommended.

After finishing this book, I wished to learn more about Catherine, and so I listened to these two podcasts by Stuff You Missed in History Class. However, I caution not to listen to it before you’re read the book if you don’t know much about Catherine, as it quite obvious contains “spoilers.”

Catherine the Great’s Rise to Power

Catherine the Great in Power

SFX Weekender 3

Last weekend I made the arduous journey from the frozen north of Aberdeen to frozen northern Wales for the third annual SFX Weekender. This was my second UK convention. Last time at Fantasycon,  I didn’t know what to expect and was utterly terrified. This time, I felt more confident and at ease and overall I enjoyed myself.

SFX was held in Pontins holiday camp in Prestatyn, Wales. Pontins is nothing to write home about—so-called “chalets” that bear more resemblance to council estates with basic amenities, and the food in the canteen was inedible cardboard. But really, it was only a place to house us, and evidently Prestatyn was a huge improvement over last year’s location (I shudder to think what that were like–a haunted look came into peoples’ eyes when they mentioned it, like they had seen unspeakable horror).

It was wonderful to meet people I met last time and make new friends as well. Highlights include: the kebab fiasco, almost getting lost on the way to the Tor party in some tiny Welsh lanes with Adam Christopher, Will Hill, and Lou Morgan and finding Lavie Tidhar, David Tallerman, and a few others stranded at a “Pampered Pets” cattery by their cabbie (don’t worry, the cabbie came back for them). Staying up late and chatting with my Party Chalet roomies: Suzanne McLeod, Alex Bell, Michaela Deas, Diane Ware, and Sophia McDougall.  I also briefly met China Mieville, though I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say to him other than “how’s life?” (evidently it’s good). I also enjoyed attending the Strange Chemistry chalet pizza party, having surprisingly delicious food at the nearby haven of civilisation known as Beaches Hotel, and playing Apples to Apples, which is a lot of fun with a bunch of writers and publishers. Plus, I totally won, hehe. I regret that I never got around to dancing.

I only went to several panels, but I enjoyed them. Elf Preservation examined fantasy races and their purpose in genre literature. I also attended the urban fantasy and space opera panels, which were full of good discussion. I was also present at the costume contest, but I couldn’t see a thing so I have no idea who won. I didn’t go to any signings, as I’m not too bothered by those, and I dislike queuing more than necessary.

I did have a few criticisms. The main one was that there was nowhere to sit and chat easily, unlike Fantasycon. The signing room/canteen was loud, crowded, and smelled of stale grease. The main arena was loud and dark, as was the screening room. If something was going on in the pub, it was also loud. My throat started protesting Saturday night from the constant almost yelling to make myself heard to my friends. Next year, having a quieter place to sit and nurse a drink and chat would be most welcome. I’m also a fan of name tags, as I’m astronomically bad at remembering peoples’ names and this saves my ass.

My other criticism concerns the girls in lingerie on stilts. I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt unnecessary. SFX had a fairly even gender divide in attendance, as far as I could tell. The girls were for the men and perhaps queer women (though I spoke to two bisexual women who felt similar to me about them). I really didn’t feel they were necessary, and Sophia McDougall says it all better than I have.

Because Wales is hard for me to get to, I’m not sure if I’ll go next year, but I’m glad I went this time.

Lastly, here’s me in my half-assed costume of an urban fantasy elf, with a blurry Joe Abercrombie in the background. (Photocred: Andrew)