Rare Books in Rough Hands – a historical short story

The hammering on the door repeated, followed by a furious voice.

“Open up, in the name of the holy inquisition!”

Diego Ortiz stumbled through the bookshop, pulling up his britches as he went. There was just enough light for him to see without a candle, but in his rush he collided with the corner of a table and came away with a throbbing shin.

“Open up, Señor Ortiz!” The hammering persisted.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

Diego yanked the bar back from the door and pulled it open. In the street stood three robed priests, like wise men come to visit the stable, and behind them three armed men, who looked a lot less wise. The sun had barely begun to creep above the rooftops of Seville, and only the earliest of roosters had yet saluted the dawn.

“You are Diego Ortiz, the bookseller?” one of the priests asked.

“I am.”

“Father Alvaro de Fuentes. I am here to search your stock for heretical texts.”

“Couldn’t you wait an hour? As you can see, I’m not even dressed yet, and there’s been no time for—”

“We will not give you time to to hide crimes.” Father de Fuentes pushed past Diego, and his companions followed him. “You may fetch a shirt, but one of the guards will go with you.”

“You think I’m hiding heresies under my tunic?”

“Protestants are wily, Señor Ortiz. As long as Calvin keeps churning out his blasphemous texts, we must remain vigilant.”

The priests started pulling books off the shelves, piling them up in the middle of the room. Diego blanched at the rough treatment of his precious stock, then scurried off to finish dressing, a guard tramping after him.

By the time he returned, the shelves were virtually empty, the books a tumbled heap. One of the priests was tapping at the backs of shelves, testing for hiding places, while the other two examined the books.

“Is there anything you want to tell us?” Father de Fuentes asked, waving a volume of Tacitus.

“You shouldn’t find anything amiss,” Diego said. “And if you do, I can hardly be blamed. We haven’t seen an updated banned books index in years. If you would just—”

“Protestantism is heresy, your thin claim to technical ignorance no excuse. So I say again, do you have anything you want to tell us?”

Diego clasped his hands tightly together and tried not to let his fear show. This moment could see his business ruined, or worse. Admission in advance might show cooperation, but there were no guarantees.

“No, Father,” he said. “There is nothing here that should trouble you.”

“Should is a weak word for a weak man. Let us see what other weaknesses this place holds.”

De Fuentes read the spine of the book in his hand, snorted, and set it aside, the beginnings of a second heap. Together, he and his brothers began checking the titles, while Diego watched them nervously and the guards watched Diego. Every so often, one of the priests would hold out a book for the others to check, or they would compare a title with one on a list. Twice, Diego had to explain the difference between a book in his possession and one with a similar title by a wildly different author.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” he asked, trying to calm himself by treating them like just one more group  of customers.

“Certainly not.” De Fuentes tossed a Catalan romance onto the checked pile, and Diego winced as the book landed open, pages buckling, its corner scratching the cover of a poetry collection.

“Could you please take a little more care with my books?”

De Fentes scowled at him. “Souls are at stake. I would expect a good Catholic to value that above mere material goods. Unless, of course, there’s something you’re not telling us…”

“No, no, you carry on. I’ll just…” Diego wiped his palms on his tunic, leaving a sweaty smear. “I’ll just wait.”

At last, the priests finished checking all the books. De Fuentes put his list away and waved to the guards.

“We’re done here.”

“You’re not going to put them back?” Diego asked, pointing at the books.

De Fuentes glared. “Be grateful that you still have them all. This has gone very differently for others.”

Diego waited until the priests and their guards were gone, then sank to the floor next to his poor, abused books. He slumped, then laughed shakily. Rummaging around in the bottom of the heap, he pulled out a volume labelled as Tacitus’s Histories, then flicked through until he found a second title page. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, the title proclaimed. Diego turned the page and started to read. If it was worth all this, then it must really be worth reading.

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What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Pace of Reading

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Seveneves and the Coronavirus: Reading One Disaster While Living Through Another

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

My Terrible Choices of Great Books

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

Setting the Tone in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

Book Collection as Biography

I work in the room where most of my books live, and so see them every day. I see them when I walk in, when I glance up from my desk, when I get up to go make a cuppa. There’s a whole wall lined with bookshelves, and like everything else about these books, that tells you something about my life.

Our book collections are a form of biography, a life story laid out in pulped wood and print. Or perhaps more accurately an archaeology, the physical evidence of our past. I have books from my childhood, like a beloved copy of Winnie the Pooh. Books with messages from friends I’ve met down the years. Books signed by authors I’ve met. Books full of rules for games I’ve played, instructions for crafts I’ve picked up and abandoned, books bought for work. Each bookshelf shows something different, from my taste in stories to my work in history. Together, they tell a complex tale.

Even the books to read are a reflection of my personality, though I haven’t taken them in yet. They show my enthusiasm for second-hand shops, as well as my deluded conviction that I’ll someday read a big pile of worthy factual tomes.

Some of these books are particularly precious to me. There’s my single signed Pratchett, a memento of my favourite author. Next to that is a battered copy of On the Road, a gift from a best friend in sixth form. Two shelves up is a poetry book inherited from my great uncle, originally gifted to a more distant ancestor in 1904. My books represent family and friendship, work and leisure, down through different stages of my life. Not every one is a treasured memento, but most have a memory attached.

This is an incomplete biography. I’ve lost many books along the way, lent out and never returned or deliberately discarded when I moved to a smaller house. If they were all here then there would be books by the meter, books by the ton, books enough to fill shelves on every wall of this room. Their absence makes this biography incomplete, but then that’s the state of any biography. They’re dependent on bias, memory, and the uncertainties of what reaches the historical record.

My collection keeps changing, and with it my story. I’ll add books coming out this year to the stack. There are books on my kindle to consider – a reflection of the changing technological times I’ve lived through. Whenever I’m published, I add something to that corner of the collection, and of my story.

Our book collections are our biographies. So what does your collection say about you?

Smashwords Sale

This month, Smashwords are running a summer/winter sale (depending on your hemisphere) on a wide range of e-books. Several of mine are in the sale, giving you a chance to pick them up for half price or even free. So if you’d like to fill up your e-reader before you head off on holiday, head over to my Smashwords page now to pick up all sorts of fictional goodness.

We Will Be What We Eat

Food glorious food. Without it, we’d all just curl up and die. It’s been the driver behind great historical migrations, the inspiration for fabulous works of art, and a form of artistry in its own right for thousands of years. It’s constantly changing as the means of production and the tastes of society evolve.

Yet we don’t see much fiction centred on food. I can count on one hand the speculative stories I’ve read where food played a central part. It’s sometimes used to indicate character or social status or to add a taste of the exotic. From the mouse feasts of Redwall to the replicators of Star Trek, it’s used as a piece of window dressing, a way of setting the tone. But how often is food central, whether it’s the art of cooking, the struggle against starvation, or the complexities of supply systems? And how often, as speculative writers, do we seriously consider how food production and consumption might change?

I got to thinking about this because of a talk I went to recently as part of Pint of Science, a series of events aiming to make science accessible. It brought home to me the challenges we currently face in feeding humanity into the future. Modern western diets are carbon intensive, so preventing environmental collapse probably means significantly reducing how much animal-based food we eat. It’s a huge personal challenge (I love cheese, but apparently cheese doesn’t love the planet) as well as a social and governmental one. One way or another, it’s going to shape the future, but I’ve never seen it addressed in fiction.

Is this because questions of food don’t excite us? The Great British Bake Off says otherwise. Is it because sci-fi writers don’t like to address awkward issues? The likes of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer prove that’s not true. Is this something that’s hard to dramatise? Open a copy of Interzone and you’ll see that writers can make anything dramatic.

Maybe it’s just too far down our radar. Maybe its time hasn’t yet come. But surely there’s space in the world of science fiction to take a proper look at our relationship with food and food production, to change the way we view these things. Hell, maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it – if you can think of an example, drop it in the comments.

As a society, we need to think more about our food and where it comes from. Speculative fiction could be a way to encourage that thought.

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Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.



Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.