Review – One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – Agatha Christie

Fontana, 1990

Originally published 1940

There is nothing suspicious or unexpected about Mr Morley, respected dentist. His clients are another matter. From financial magnate Alistair Blunt to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, his waiting room could be the scene of a grand drama – but the one who ends up dead is Mr Morley himself. It looks like a suicide. Poirot, however, believes otherwise. The closer he looks, the stranger the case appears. The question is: was Morley really meant to die that day? And if not, who will be next…

This is precisely the sort of story I expect to get from Agatha Christie. The language is crisp, the mystery is fiendishly cunning and it’s immensely relaxing in a slightly disturbing way. There is an underlying mess of racism, sexism and classism, which is something else I expect from a Christie novel. I’m fond of Poirot so it was nice to see him show up early for once!

The Sharazad Project: Week 30

Last week we met an amazing lady wrestler and her totally unimpressed supervisor Dhat al-Dawahi. They’re getting ready to battle it out. As night forty seven gets underway, the girl challenges, “Then come and do it, if you have the strength,” and the old lady one-ups her, insisting they do it naked. Unknown to both of them, the king’s son Sharkan is watching, passionately backing the girl. She goes straight for her opponent’s windpipe, lifting Dhat al-Dawahi right off the ground. The old lady hits the ground hard. In retaliation, she…farts. Well, that’s mature.

Sharkan, at least, finds this amusing. He creeps closer while the two women are distracted. The girl shows excellent sportsmanship by helping Dhat al-Dawahi dress and apologising for the force of the fall. The old lady stalks off without a word. All the other girls are still there, by the way, the ones that our champion defeated first and tied up by the stream.

Sharkan proves he’s a truly foul person by charging towards the unarmed women, hoping to capture and enslave them. My princess responds by leaping across the stream and demanding an explanation for his terrible behaviour. I have to quote absolutely everything she says next. “Who are you, fellow? You have interrupted our pleasures and have brandished your sword as though you were charging against an army. Where do you come from and where are you going? Don’t try to lie, for lying is one of the qualities of base men, but tell the truth, for this will do you more good. No doubt you have lost your way in the night and that is why you have come to a place where the most you can hope for is to escape unscathed. You are now in a meadow where, were I to give a single cry, four thousand knights would come to my aid. Tell me what you want. If you need to be directed to your road, I shall guide you and if you want help, I shall help you.”

THERE ARE NO WORDS FOR HOW MUCH I LOVE HER.

Sharkan tells her that he’s a ‘Muslim stranger’ (oh thanks, could you be a bit vaguer? Are you also human and male?) who came alone looking for plunder, which he shall claim in the form of the girl and her companions. “You have found no booty at all,” the girl scoffs, “for by God, these girls are no prey of yours. Didn’t I tell you that it is a disgrace to lie?” WILD FANGIRLING. “By the truth of the Messiah,” she continues, “were I not afraid that your blood would be on my hands, you would find to your cost that my shout would fill this meadow with horse and foot. But I have pity on strangers, and if it is booty you want, then dismount and swear to me by your religion that you will use no weapons against me. Then you and I can wrestle together, and if you throw me, then put me on your horse and and take us all, but if I throw you, you will be at my command. Swear to that, as I am afraid of treachery on your part.”

Sharkan is confident in his manly warrior skills and agrees to the challenge. She makes him swear the most serious oath she can think of, then tells him to cross the stream to fight her. He says he can’t. In response, she leaps across the water and even someone as awful as Sharkan is a little bit stunned by her general awesomeness. She has no patience with his gaping, briskly encouraging him to get on with it.

They start wrestling. The girl twists in his hold, throws him to the ground and sits calmly on his chest. “Muslim,” she remarks, “you think that you are permitted to kill Christians, so what do you say about my killing you?No one loses by acting generously,” she adds, and lets him up. He is a sore loser, insisting he only failed because he was overcome by her extraordinary beauty, and he deserves another chance at beating her. She laughs at him and says she’ll untie her friends first. “Go off to a safe place,” she tells them, “so that this Muslim may stop coveting you.”

In the second bout she knocks him over even faster and lets him get up again, “because of your own weakness, your youth and the fact you are a stranger.” She knows about the king’s army and suggests Sharkan send his better warriors to her for instruction. He grinds out that he’s been befuddled by her amazing thighs, so they have to fight to best of three. “Why do you want to try again, loser?” she laughs. YES, REALLY. “But come on if you must, although I’m sure this bout will be enough.”

Sharkan puts up a better show this time. The girl notices and approves. She then grabs him by the thigh and flips him onto his back. “What an unfortunate man you are!” she mocks. “Go back to your Muslim army, and send someone else, for you are not capable of exertion.” With that she leaps back across the stream and taunts lightly, “It is hard for me to part from you, master, but you should go back to your companions before dawn, lest the knights come and take you at lance point. As you don’t have the strength to defend yourself against women, how could you cope with them?”

Pleading in the most melodramatic terms that he is the slave of love and cannot do without her, Sharkan asks to accompany her, pointing out that by the terms of their agreement he is now hers. She lets him follow her to the convent. The girls from the stream are waiting there, watching him. Sharkan wishes he could show off these ladies to Dandan, and tries to convince the champion to accompany him back to his army’s encampment.

She is not fooled for a second. “How can you say something that shows you to be so deceitful,” she snaps, “and how could I do what you suggest? I know that if I fell into the hands of your king, ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, I would never be freed…Were I in his power, he would not be held back by any fear of me since, according to your creed, I would be lawfully yours…How is it, then, that you can talk to me like this? As for what you say about looking at the Muslim heroes, by the truth of the Messiah, that is a silly point. I watched your army when you came to our lands two days ago, and when they advanced, I saw no signs that they had been trained by kings.” She says he could not speak to her this way if he were Prince Sharkan himself. That seems to be the only thing about him she doesn’t know. She wants to ride out against the invading army and kill Dandan and Sharkan in battle.

“I am not going to describe myself to you as brave,” she tells Sharkan, “as you have already seen my trained skill and strength…Had Sharkan been in your place tonight and had he been told to jump the stream, he could not have done it…I could come out against him, dressed as a man, capture him and put him in chains.”

Night forty seven ends there and so does this week’s segment. This girl may have outshone even the glorious Sitt al-Husn; if I don’t get her name soon I’ll be very annoyed, and if Sharkan gets a single finger on her, I will be incandescent with rage.

The Sharazad Project: Week 29

We are still on night forty five but are beginning a new segment, the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family. They are a warlike lot, conquering a huge swathe of territories across the Middle East and Asia. I don’t have sufficient historical knowledge of the area to know if this has the tiniest basis in fact; it doesn’t seem at all probable but of course sounds terribly impressive as a kingly accomplishment.

‘Umar’s only son Sharkan takes after him, a terror on the battlefield, and has been named his successor. But the king has four wives and a staggering three hundred and sixty concubines – I suppose if you’ve conquered half a continent, you expect your household to be similarly disproportionate in size – and when one girl falls unexpectedly pregnant, Sharkan’s prospects are placed in doubt.

He’s a notoriously violent twenty-year-old warrior prince. This will not end well.

The king doesn’t care. He quite likes the idea of having another son – assuming, of course, that he’s so extremely manly that another son is guaranteed. The pregnant girl is a Byzantine slave named Sophia, very beautiful and very intelligent. She assures the king that when she gives birth to his son, she’ll train him to be the very epitome of culture. When she goes into labour, everyone is on edge, waiting for news.

She gives birth to a girl. Messengers go to inform the king and Sharkan, but Sophia keeps the midwives close – her labour is not done yet. She was carrying twins. The second child is a boy, as healthy and beautiful as his sister. The king is pleased, though he only wants to see his son. The boy is named Dau’ al-Makan and the girl is Nuzhat al-Zaman. Each is issued an extensive entourage of carers. All the king’s officials go to congratulate him and celebrations spread outward through the capital. Sophia is, thankfully, not sidelined; the king places his young children’s education in her care.

Sharkan, meanwhile, has been away for years conquering places and has no idea yet that there was another child. This family is pretty messed up.

One day an envoy from the Byzantium emperor arrives to ask for the king’s help against the lord of Caesarea. The conflict began, we’re told, when an Arab king discovered a treasure trove dating back to Alexander the Great, including three huge white jewels inscribed with secret words. A child who wears one such stone will never suffer pain or sickness, adding enormously to their value. The Arab king showed extraordinary self-restraint by sending all three jewels to the Byzantine emperor, along with two loaded ships of other treasures. They never reached their intended owner; pirates in the pay of the lord of Caesarea stole the lot and killed the entire crew. The emperor has twice tried to revenge himself and failed. He’s now taking to the battlefield personally and has vowed to destroy his foe or die trying. He wants King ‘Umar to help. Got to say, he’s not really selling this plan.

Night forty six rectifies that. The envoys have brought presents. Fifty slave girls and fifty soldiers, to be precise, all expensively attired. When King ‘Umar consults his viziers, the elderly Dandan suggests he send out an army under the command of Sharkan, on the basis that a) ‘Umar has already accepted the presents and it’s just rude not to reciprocate, plus b) it will be excellent PR if ‘Umar wins this war, rulers from all over will send him more presents in the hope he’ll do the same for them. The king agrees with this logic. Dandan is now his favourite vizier and his reward is to be sent out with Sharkan’s troops. As for Sharkan himself, ‘Umar tells him to prepare for a new campaign and to obey Dandan’s directions. They ride out with ten thousand soldiers, trumpets blaring and flags flapping, a vision of royal power.

They travel for twenty days. On the twenty first, they come to a large valley suitable for a long camp and Sharkan orders that his army remain here for a few days while he checks out the lay of the land. By this I mean, rides off completely alone and keeps going for so long he falls asleep on horseback. When he comes to, he finds himself on the edge of a beautiful moonlit meadow and hears laughter. Curious, Sharkan goes to investigate. He hears a woman say, “By the truth of the Messiah, this is not good on your part. If anyone says anything at all, I shall throw her down and tie her up with her own girdle.”

A fortified convent stands in the meadow. A stream passes through its grounds and by the water stands an older lady, accompanied by ten heavily bejewelled girls. One in particular catches Sharkan’s eye, with her wide eyes and curly hair. “Come here,” he overhears her say to the other girls, “so that I can wrestle with you before the moon goes down and the day breaks.” And they do. And she slams each girl to the ground, tying them up with their own girdles.

The older lady refuses to be impressed. She says she could beat all these girls herself if she wanted so she’ll fight the champion herself. The girl smiles to conceal her growing anger. “Do you really mean to wrestle with me, Dhat al-Dawahi,” she asks, “or are you joking?” Dhat al-Dawahi does not joke.

This is BRILLIANT. Join me next week for the showdown.

Review – This Shattered World

This Shattered World (Starbound No.2) – Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Allen & Unwin, 2014

The planet Avon is of little importance on the galactic scale, a poorly terraformed young colony not yet self-sufficient enough to claim independence. Rebelling colonists demand greater freedoms, waging guerrilla warfare from the endless swamp; meanwhile, the military struggles to keep order as a mystery sickness drives its soldiers to terrible acts. Captain Jubilee Chase is the only one who seems to be immune. She knows there is something wrong with her, but it’s not until the rebel Flynn Cormac crashes into her life that she realises there may be something wrong with the whole of Avon.

This is the sequel to These Broken Stars but follows a different pair of main characters, with the previous protagonists taking cameo roles. I found this plot much weaker. Several key points were underdeveloped and the climax felt much too simplistic. The book’s best strength was in world building, expanding on the growth of colonies and the transference of Earth culture into a new world. The third book of the trilogy, Their Fractured Light, is slated for release in December.

Review – Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch No.2) – Ann Leckie

Orbit, 2014

The Radch empire has splintered. Anaander Mianaai, made near immortal through generations of clones, has reigned for millennia but a schism in her consciousness has led to an extraordinary civil war. Breq used to be the emperor’s weapon; now she serves in name only, doing what she can to protect those under her care. That alone will be no easy task. With the military splitting into confused factions and every citizen of the Radch forced into making impossible choices, Breq will be lucky to stay alive.

Ancillary Justice was a remarkable series opener. Leckie made a point of showing how heavily entwined language and perception are – for instance, with a whole culture that uses only female pronouns, she created an almost genderless novel, which was both fascinating and disconcerting to read. Ancillary Sword is very much a middle book, extrapolating on the events of the previous installment while setting up the scene for a third. That means there’s not as much action, but it does allow a greater exploration of the cultures within the empire and the messy clash against Radch expectations. It’s solid, thoroughly enjoyable science fiction. Book three, Ancillary Mercy, will be released in October of this year.

The Sharazad Project: Week 28

The current story is the sort of Shakespearean melodrama where everyone misunderstands each other and refuse to listen to reason. Luckily Qut al-Qulub is a persistent young woman and though the caliph has locked her up as a punishment for all that sex she didn’t actually have, she’s not taking it quietly. When he passes by her room, he hears her loudly waxing lyrical on the virtue and chastity of her hero Ghanim, who took care of her in her hour of need, yet his reward for that kindness has been persecution from the caliph. “There must come a time when you and the Commander of the Faithful will stand before a Righteous Ruler,” Qut al-Qulub proclaims. “You will demand justice against him on a day when the judge will be the Lord God, Great and Glorious, and the witnesses will be the angels.” BURN.

The caliph is troubled by what he’s overhead and has her brought to his quarters. She appears as the picture of sorrow, defending Ghanim’s morals with fierce piety. Typically, now Ghanim has disappeared and his mother and sister have been made homeless, the caliph realises he may have overreacted the teeniest bit. He promises to do whatever Qut al-Qulub wishes. She asks for Ghanim, her ‘beloved’, which – wow, she has nerve, but not only does she get permission to go looking for her really-not-a-boyfriend, she gets a thousand gold dinars to finance the search. Well played, Qut al-Qulub!

She spends the money with care, too, making charitable donations in Ghanim’s name and offering the superintendents of various markets in the city sums of money to give away likewise. One of them is, unknown to her, Ghanim’s benefactor. He offers to bring her home and introduce her to the tragic mystery man currently brooding there, being tended by the superintendent’s kind-hearted wife. Qut al-Qulub gets her hopes up. When she sees Ghanim, however, he’s so emaciated and unwell that she can’t be sure it’s the same man. Hoping that it is, she orders wine and medicine (an…interesting combination) and sits with Ghanim for a time. Presumably he’s too out of it to recognise her.

The superintendent then introduces Qut al-Qulub to Ghanim’s mother and sister, since they are also attractive and unfortunate and Qut al-Qulub seems interested in that sort of thing. There’s blatant elitism going on here, the superintendent is clearly biased in the women’s favour because of the trappings they retain of previous wealth, but they’ve been through hell recently and deserve a bit of luck. Qut al-Qulub sheds sympathetic tears over their condition, the two women cry because they’re actually living it, and no one swaps any explanations. It’s not until Qut al-Qulub hears a sobbed reference to ‘our Ghanim’ that she makes the connection.

As night forty four begins, she takes Ghanim’s mother and sister firmly under her wing, paying the superintendent to house them in style. After having her first proper conversation with them, she suggests they all go and see Ghanim again. The superintendent’s wife is included in the group, being considered a good friend to each of them. Also, it’s her house. The interview is dramatic: Ghanim comes to enough to call Qut al-Qulub’s name, she confirms his identity and faints away at his bedside. His mother and sister follow suit. A good thing they did bring the superintendent’s wife, at least someone is still conscious. When the collective swooning fit has passed, Qut al-Qulub eagerly reunites her very-nearly-a-boyfriend with his family and tells him about the caliph’s change of heart. Not only has the caliph decided the young couple can be together after all, he wants to meet Ghanim himself.

Qut al-Qulub takes Ghanim’s mother and sister to the baths and provides everybody with suitably fancy attire. She also personally prepares her new friends a series of restorative meals. Once they have been taken care of, she returns to the palace for a talk with the caliph. He wants to send Ja’far to collect Ghanim but Qut al-Qulub insists on getting there first so she can give her for-pity’s-sake-definitely-a-boyfriend a quick pep talk before the big audience. She also gives him a lot of money to tip the caliph’s attendants as he goes in. By the time Ja’far arrives, Ghanim is all set. He greets the caliph with deeply respectful poetry and, properly buttered up, the caliph welcomes him.

Hm. It seems the nights are getting shorter. Night forty five opens with Ghanim telling the caliph his story, all about the graveyard and the slaves and rescuing Qut al-Qulub. The caliph asks his forgiveness. Ghanim politely dismisses any need for that. (There is EVERY NEED). Pleased, the caliph gives him a palace and allowance, to be shared with his family. When the caliph meets Ghanim’s sister Fitna, he admires her beauty and wants to marry her; the ensuing double wedding is shared with Ghanim and Qut al-Qulub. As always, the caliph orders the whole affair be written down for posterity.

There’s no reference to Lady Zubaida. I’m going to assume she gets away with everything.

Review – The Red Queen

The Red Queen (The Cousins War No.2) – Philippa Gregory

Simon & Schuster, 2010

Originally published 1997

Margaret Beaufort is a girl born for great things. Denied political power despite her royal lineage, she takes refuge in piety and fantasises about a life of glory like that of Joan of Arc. Such dreams are tested when she’s married against her will at the age of twelve and sent to live far from everything she knows. Jasper Tudor is not a loving husband, nor is King Henry VI’s England a peaceful land. In a time when the authority of the crown is challenged like never before, Margaret has a chance to seize her dues – but she may have to sacrifice everything to get there.

Sequel to The White Queen, this book follows the journey of another female powerbroker during the Wars of the Roses, and a very different lady she is! There’s not much to like about Margaret, to be honest, but she’s written with such care and nuance that it’s easy to see how she became the person she did. She’s certainly fascinating to read about, as are the cast of people who surround her. I’m enjoying this series enormously. It continues with The Lady of the Rivers.