I’m a diehard AKH fan, but I admit to feeling a bit nervous about her latest book THE PYRAMIDS OF LONDON when I first read the blurb – talk about everything and the kitchen sink…
In a world where lightning sustained the Roman Empire, and Egypt’s vampiric god-kings spread their influence through medicine and good weather, tiny Prytennia’s fortunes are rising with the ships that have made her undisputed ruler of the air.
But the peace of recent decades is under threat. Rome’s automaton-driven wealth is waning along with the New Republic’s supply of power crystals, while Sweden uses fear of Rome to add to her Protectorates. And Prytennia is under attack from the wind itself. Relentless daily blasts destroy crops, buildings, and lives, and neither the weather vampires nor Prytennia’s Trifold Goddess have been able to find a way to stop them.
With events so grand scouring the horizon, the deaths of Eiliff and Aedric Tenning raise little interest. The official verdict is accident: two careless automaton makers, killed by their own construct.
The Tenning children and Aedric’s sister, Arianne, know this cannot be true. Nothing will stop their search for what really happened.
Not even if, to follow the first clue, Aunt Arianne must sell herself to a vampire.
But I needn’t have worried. Although it’s the kind of book that drops you in the middle of the action, and trusts you to work out the details for yourself (my favourite!), it was never overwhelming, and everything fell into place fairly quickly – yes, vampires, pyramids, airships, and well, everything else somehow worked together in this incredibly inventive alternate-history setting. And characterisation or story isn’t sacrificed for world-building either.
PYRAMIDS features what I’m starting to think of as trademark Höst – strong female protagonists, a diverse cast of characters, and as bonus, a narrative that subtly challenges gender assumptions*. Or at least, it challenged mine – specifically, I liked how it made me think about how often I unconsciously default to assuming male for certain occupations.
Story-wise, I was caught up from the start – we begin in the POV of Rian (or Arianne), who’s trying to investigate her brother and his wife’s deaths by infiltrating a vampire’s household (though not vampires as we know them…), but her plans rapidly goes awry. Massively awry. The other POV character is Eluned, Rian’s orphaned niece, who, together with her siblings, is determined to gain justice for her parents, while coping with the upheaval of being sent to live with an hitherto-unknown aunt. The plot is a complicated one (one could even say painfully complicated at times), but it all comes together satisfyingly in the end.
I’m of two minds around the use of dual POVs – my main objection is along the lines of “I love Rian! I don’t want to switch to Eluned’s POV… oh heck, I love Eluned, I don’t want to go back to Rian”. But I also enjoyed seeing the characters from different perspectives – Höst tends to write stiff upper-lip kind of characters (you can tell she hits all my buttons, right?), so this was an interesting way of seeing behind the facade, so to speak.
I don’t want to give too much away about what happens in this book, because a large part of my enjoyment came from not knowing how the story would unfurl as it takes several unexpected directions. All I’ll say is that I’m glad this is the start of a series, because it feels as though there’s so many more stories for Höst to tell in this world – and I want to know what happens next.
Disclosure: I’ve exchanged the (very) occasional tweet with the author. I bought this book pretty much as soon as it hit the virtual shelves. I don’t generally state when I’ve bought a book (basically, if I don’t say it’s a review copy, assume I bought it with my own money or borrowed from the library), but I thought it was worth mentioning again.
*I wrote this review when the whole Hugos controversy kicked off – to me, the (simplified) SP slate argument appears to be that “we want good stories, not books that push an agenda, and that’s why we’re doing this”. My view is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but there’s no need for me to write an essay on this when there are a whole load of blog posts on this topic (with accompanying screeds of comments, finger-pointing, personal insults etc). But one comment that really stood out to me was Marie Brennan’s contribution @ John Scalzi’s blog:
“Heavy-handed” is often shorthand “politics I don’t agree with, which therefore draw my attention.”
Politics you don’t notice in a story are the water you swim in, the air you breathe: they’re still there. You just don’t notice them because you take them as the natural state of the world.
Politics absolutely permeate stories, at every level of their creation *and* reception. Because “politics” are not just a matter of what you vote on at the ballot box, but what values you hold, what rights you take for granted, which fights you think are heroic and which are foolhardy, who makes a good protagonist and who a suitable villain. Saying you are just evaluating the “quality” of a story, or how much you “enjoyed” it, as if that were completely divorced from the extent to which it supports or challenges your assumptions about the world, is either massively disingenuous or massively lacking in self-awareness.
Which, apart from it being an incredibly sensible comment, struck me as very apt for my experience reading PYRAMIDS. The emphasis on female characters stood out for me because it was different to other books. PYRAMIDS isn’t what I’d class as a “message” book at all, but I liked that it made me think a bit more.