**spoiler alert** This is one of those books I would only read because I randomly picked it up off the "New Books" shelf of my library. When I lack sp...more**spoiler alert** This is one of those books I would only read because I randomly picked it up off the "New Books" shelf of my library. When I lack specific books I want to get on a trip to the library, I try to keep an open mind and stretch my comfort level when it comes to the type of book I might enjoy. This one looked like a "maybe." I'm not into the whole romance thing, so I was hoping it would be pretty funny. And I was right.
To me, it reads like a romantic comedy movie more than a book. I could see each scene happening in my head, and it had the same sort of pacing that a movie has--if it isn't a movie yet, then I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes one soon.
As with most plots of this nature, I found it utterly predictable. Certain aspects were surprising, of course--I didn't see the best friend dying by a lightning strike on Peter's wedding day, of course. But it was clear that Peter and Holly would end up together, somehow, and that everyone would live happily ever after. If you're looking for a fresh new plot with compelling characters, you won't get it here. Oh, the characters are interesting, and you'll end up hating most of them by the end. But you have to be able to stomach the smugness that the book exudes as all the threads come together and the loose ends get tied up.
It was OK. Enjoyable light reading, and it fulfilled my need to yell at the book when characters are being stupid and cheer when good things happen.(less)
As a neophyte of Salman Rushdie's work, I was not fully prepared for The Enchantress of Florence, although I should have been. Rushdie possesses an un...moreAs a neophyte of Salman Rushdie's work, I was not fully prepared for The Enchantress of Florence, although I should have been. Rushdie possesses an uncanny ability to manipulate perspective. In his stories, the flow of time is always questionable, and subject to change--if it flows at all. And his characters are larger-than-life, capricious archetypes that embody the virtues and flaws of humanity.
In this novel, Rushdie runs two stories parallel to each other: that of Emperor Akbar's court, the emperor's life and philosophy; and the story of a man's heritage, of a lost Mughal princess who travels from Asia to Florence to the New World, then beyond. The boundaries between these two stories--the latter of which takes place in the first one's past--are flimsy, permeable. If you were expecting a linear narrative that reads like a movie novelization, then you a) have not read Salman Rushdie before and b) will not get that.
I might even characterize this story as a fable, for it carries that particular brand of enchantment about it. Romance, yes, that too: the main characters all mediate on the nature of love at one point or another. Cloaked in sixteenth-century philosophical ideas, these ruminations may seem pompous or boring, but I found them intriguing. Akbar struggles with the existence of God, the divine right to rule, whether might truly is the only arbiter of power. We also see a fictionalized Machiavelli, disenchanted with his wife, and like so many men in this story, drawn into the web of enchantment that the eponymous princess weaves.
Descend deeper through these layers, and Rushdie focuses on the nature of power for women in a world dominated by men. How do women exert their influence? Is their beauty, their sexuality, the only way they can ever gain power? In this book, two female characters are essentially imaginary, constructed from the mind of Akbar. What does this say about the nature of gender, a man creating his feminine opposites because he cannot find them in life?
Rushdie uses this story as a vehicle to explore a woman's life--told largely through the perspectives of men, ironically--in this period of history. However, I wouldn't necessarily call this a work of historical fiction, in the sense that it does not concern itself too much with the details of history except when they serve a purpose. The story is not about the Mughal empire so much as it is set, for a part, in that empire.
While "epic" or "sword and sorcery" fantasy has its place, its success of late has typecasted the genre. In those stories, magic is almost a science, subjected to laws the way we have restricted gravity. We often forget that the definition of fantasy is broader. In this respect, The Enchantress of Florence reminds me of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell. It is truly a fantastic adventure and romance just steeped in unrestrained magic, a world in which anything is possible--but not everything is permitted.(less)
**spoiler alert** This is the first book in the series since Kushiel's Dart that I would really classify as romance. There have been romantic subplots...more**spoiler alert** This is the first book in the series since Kushiel's Dart that I would really classify as romance. There have been romantic subplots in the interim, but nothing like the romance between Phèdre and Joscelin from the first book. Jacqueline Carey is trying to rebottle that lightning in Kushiel's Justice. It doesn't quite work, but there are some good secondary effects that, in the end, make this book better than Kushiel's Scion.
It's your classic love triangle: Imriel loves Sidonie, who loves him back. But Imriel is the son of a traitor, so it would not do for their affair to become public. Also, Imriel has bartered himself away to marry a Cruithne woman, Dorelei, and beget heirs to the Alban throne. Got that? Good.
The dilemma, then, is whether Imriel remains in Alba with Dorelei or leaves—with or without impregnating her—and tries to make things work with Sidonie in Terre d'Ange. To further complicate matters, an ancient Alban tribe has placed a curse on Imriel, because they have visions that predict his son by Dorelei will bring a D'Angeline army to Alba and conquer. That doesn't put Imriel in a good mood.
The outcome isn't (or shouldn't be) surprising. After all, it's Sidonie on the cover, not Dorelei, so true love has to win in the end. I have to admit, I did not foresee Dorelei's death—which goes to show how little romance I read—but it's certainly an expedient way of reducing the love triangle to a love line. With Dorelei dead, Imriel is a widower, and he can absolve himself of any guilt over the matter by avenging her death. He cashes in on this future absolution a bit early when he reunites with Sidonie: at every meeting, they tend to have intense and passionate sex. This does put Imriel in a good mood.
Let's review: after his pregnant wife is killed, one of the first things on his list, above even "getting better" from his own wounds, is to have sex with the woman he was thinking about ever since he got married. Excuses and rationalizations abound: he just can't help himself, they fit so well together, Dorelei would have wanted him to be happy . . . but it just feels cold. I was really invested in the emotional significance of Dorelei and Imriel's relationship: she was a good woman, and he was beginning to envision a life for himself that, if not passionate, was at least contenting. By resuming his affair with Sidonie so quickly, Imriel does nothing but remind me that Dorelei's only purpose was to be an obstacle between him and his princess. It cheapens, for me, Dorelei as a person, and does nothing to further my enjoyment of Imriel and Sidonie's happiness (which I did enjoy).
I'm being glib here, and to be fair, Imriel does spend a large proportion of this book moping about one thing or another. Before Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and the Alban curse subplot. After Dorelei's death, he moped about Sidonie and how he failed Dorelei. And the rest of the book following his brief reunion with Sidonie is devoted to his quest for revenge. So don't get the impression that his marriage to Dorelei is a brief episode that then gets shunted aside. (Dorelei suffers from this fate.)
I could almost overlook these flaws, because Kushiel's Justice finally sees a return to Alba. Of all the alterna-Europe countries in Carey's world, Alba is the most fascinating. Thanks to the Master of the Straits, it remains isolated after the fall of the Roman—sorry, Tiberian—Empire. So no Angles, Saxons, or Jutes get to invade. It's a very different Alba from the invasion-prone British Isles we grow up learning about.
But Carey squanders this opportunity with the curse. The Maghuin Dhonn are the worst antagonists we've yet to encounter in this series. They are worse, by far, than the Unseen Guild, although the two groups share a predilection for shadowy manipulation. And do not get me started about Morwen. She and Berlik partake of the most tired and clichéd excuses for their actions: they had no choice, they saw what they saw, they would do it differently if they had seen another way. I hate fatalistic villains who believe they're carrying some sort of burden placed upon them by the future. They're so smug in a self-righteous way, their voices tinged with a haughty sort of sadness over the protagonist's inability to see their side of the story. All too often, as is the case here, such fatalism is just a smokescreen to disguise a lack of deeper characterization. The Maghuin Dhonn are a pitiful excuse for a plot device to set up Dorelei's death, which itself is a plot device to reunite Sidonie and Imriel and let him get his vengeance on.
Judging from all this vitriol, it seems unlikely that I could prefer Kushiel's Justice to Imriel's first adventure. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, this still emerges the better book. Its pacing is much better, and even if the plot is a tangled, mangled mess of illogical intrigue, it still has better characterization. Prior to her death, Dorelei went from unknown princess bride to a sweet, caring wife determined to make the best of her political marriage. Imriel doesn't deserve her. And if Carey surprised me with anything in this book, she did so with Maslin de Lombelon. I was really expecting Maslin to be an irrational foe of Imriel's long after he and Sidonie get together. Sure enough, he vehemently objects to Imriel's association with her at every turn—then he shows up and helps Imriel effect an escape from Vralia! Carey keeps it realistic, and Maslin honestly tells Imriel that he will always hate Imriel a bit—but they aren't enemies any more. That was a very interesting and unexpected development; I wonder of the extent to which Maslin will be an ally when Imriel and Sidonie resolve the political ramifications of their relationship in the next book.
I am looking forward to finishing this trilogy. If you desire a blanket statement, then look to those people who pronounce the first trilogy superior to this one. They are correct. There are plenty of things to enjoy about Imriel's trilogy, especially in Kushiel's Justice. But the plot is just so heavy-handed, forcing the characters, particularly the antagonists, to act out of expediency instead of natural motivations. This is a book that talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk, at least not when it comes to conflict. The romantic subplot, if that's more your area of interest, is slightly better, although it doesn't capitalize on the depth Carey is perfectly capable of putting into her characters. Kushiel's Justice is OK, maybe even good, but it seems blatantly obvious that it could have been so much better.
We have arrived at the end of a second trilogy, and I'm feeling regret—but not in a good way. Kushiel's Mercy at first seems like everything we need t...moreWe have arrived at the end of a second trilogy, and I'm feeling regret—but not in a good way. Kushiel's Mercy at first seems like everything we need to send Imriel and Sidonie out in style. This is the culmination of Imriel's adventures, his final chance to sever himself from the taint of traitor's blood. And it's the final chapter in a slow, simmering love story.
Going into Kushiel's Mercy, Carey has set up two expectations. Firstly, we're going to see the resolution of Sidonie and Imriel's declaration of love. Secondly, Imriel will have to find his mother and bring her back to Terre d'Ange for execution. We knew he would have to do this ever since Melisande went missing back in Kushiel's Scion, and he acknowledges it just before Ysandre sets him the task. This is a difficult mission, and a perfect one with which to conclude Imriel's trilogy. It's so damn perfect, in fact, that I totally didn't see the twist coming; I was just so intent on contemplating the search for Melisande.
The twist is brilliant. Well, OK, I'm not a big fan of how Carey makes all her characters, including Phèdre and Joscelin, carry a big aggressive Idiot Ball for the entire novel. And the way Carey sets up the stakes, it's pretty obvious that Imriel is going to emerge the hero of Terre d'Ange, avert civil war, and dispel any notion that he could ever be the traitor his mother is. So this brilliant twist sows the seeds of its own mediocrity. Let us leave that aside, for the moment, and instead look at some of the better consequences of Carey's plotting.
The only way for Imriel to get close enough to the resident wizardy bad guy is to change his face. But wizards are good at detecting that sort of magic, so the transformation has to be good enough to fool the wizard—so good that it will fool Imriel as well. And this means that for the first time ever we see a shift in narrative perspective; as Imriel takes on the identity of Leander Maignard, so too does his narration. His voice changes noticeably, acquiring the haughty, dismissive, and enthusiastic attitude of Leander and dropping a lot of Imriel's moodiness. It is, in a way, quite refreshing. And it's fun, too, to see Imriel's new personality fall for Sidonie all over again.
But there's only so much of Imriel-as-Leander we can take before we need Imriel again. My patience was beginning to wear thin just as Carey instigated his restoration. When it happened, I remember looking at how much of the book was left and thinking, "Now what?" I was sceptical that there was enough story left to cover nearly 400 pages. In the end, Carey makes a good effort at it, but Kushiel's Mercy is a very messy book with a very messy plot.
Astegal, the Carthaginian general who initiates the mind-altering, princess-kidnapping plot, is an idiot. He's supposed to be some kind of military genius, but it seems like he failed to do the research when it comes to Terre d'Ange. Firstly, he chose to make an enemy of Imriel. This is a man who went halfway across the continent, nearly freezing to death in the process, to avenge his slain wife. This is a man raised by a woman who carries in her head the Name of God. This is a man who's on a first-name basis with the Master of the Straits. You do not mess with Imriel de la Courcel (unless you're Sidonie). Of course, villains always think they have the super-special plan that will finally dispatch the hero, so Astegal's audacity is justifiable in this sense.
His second mistake is less understandable. Having freed Sidonie of the enchantment enamouring her with Astegal, Imriel gets around to asking if she's pregnant with Astegal's child:
"No," Sidonie smiled wryly. "I married Astegal in Carthage. The rites were all Carthaginian. There was no invocation beseeching Eisheth for fertility." Her expression turned quizzical. "And I never said a word about it. I must have known, somewhere deep inside me, that I didn't love him."
So let me get this straight, Astegal: you go to all this trouble of working a spell that convinces everyone in the City of Elua, including Sidonie, that you and Sidonie are in love. You and your wizard ally have obviously put considerable thought and preparation into this plan. And having executed it successfully, you proceed to marry Sidonie and try to impregnate her—quite vigorously, she says. Yet at no point do you bother to learn or recall that D'Angeline women, and only D'Angeline women, can only become pregnant by first saying a prayer to their fertility goddess.
That, my good evil general, is a very big detail to overlook. If you still had a head, I would advise you to smack it right now. But Imriel and Sidonie took that from you, because you suck at your job.
What can I say? I like antagonists who present a credible threat, and Astegal never does. Even when it's a given that the hero will succeed, it's still possible to make the reader worry about the price involved. Carey does this in Kushiel's Chosen, where Phèdre meets with failure after failure, only succeeding near the very end, with a lot of help. Imriel faces no such difficulties. All he has to do is blunder forward through the story, trusting that the plot will take him to a successful conclusion.
While I'm being curmudgeonly, let me comment on the absurd amount of sex in Kushiel's Mercy. I haven't discussed the sexuality in this series much since Kushiel's Dart. It's a complex issue that would make a great paper for some English student. The central precept of D'Angeline society is "Love as thou wilt." This applies not only to selection of sexual partners but to the practice of sex itself. Sidonie and Imriel spend the first part of Kushiel's Mercy exploring BDSM, which is more mainstream in D'Angeline society than it is in ours. It's only natural that Imriel and Sidonie have some intense reunion sex after he rescues her from Astegal's enchantment. But it seems like these two drop their clothes every few pages, dallying often enough that their encounters tax even Carey's ability to vary her descriptions.
On a deeper level, I'm having a hard time deciding how much of the sexuality in this series is just an excuse to write sex scenes. The D'Angeline attitude toward sex may seem more permissive, but Carey shows us only a narrow slice of that world. BDSM was also Phèdre's thing; making it Sidonie and Imriel's thing makes me wonder if this is more about Carey's preferences for writing sex scenes than it is any thematic statement about sexuality. Another review of Kushiel's Justice expressed disappointment that the series hasn't featured gay male characters. There are allusions to such relationships, but unlike Phèdre's liaisons with Melisande and Nicola, we have yet to see it explicitly depicted. On the surface, it appears that Carey is conforming to the double standard that girl-on-girl is hot but guy-on-guy is not. However, it's important to remember that Imriel has legitimate baggage from his time in Daršanga; some of his experiences have left him with terrible memories associated with having sex with men. So I was pleasantly surprised to see Carey write a sex scene for Imriel-as-Leander and another man. So maybe this elision is not deliberate on Carey's part. Nevertheless, the seemingly-unrestricted sexuality of this series is actually much narrower than it initially appears.
We have come to the end of the second trilogy of this series. Just as Imriel has come of age beneath the shadow of his mother's deeds, this trilogy will forever be judged against the first one. And the problem with that comparison is that the two trilogies really are very similar. Rather than depart from the formula of the first three books, Imriel's adventures continue along lines similar to those of Phèdre, albeit with less Earth-shattering consequences. But no one has ever succeeded by lowering the stakes from previous stories! This trilogy, and Kushiel's Mercy, fails to break new ground or go to the next level, whether it's in the sex, the relationships, or the political intrigue that snares these characters at every turn. Kushiel's Mercy particularly is very messy, with antagonists who aren't the least bit threatening and a plot sabotaged by the sappy romance between Sidonie and Imriel. I think it's perfectly possible to read this book and thoroughly enjoy it (if you're sleep-walking through it), but this is not the conclusion to a trilogy that I was expecting.
**spoiler alert** As with most romances and much Victorian fiction, I felt a considerable burden lifted from me after I finished Two on a Tower. Yet I...more**spoiler alert** As with most romances and much Victorian fiction, I felt a considerable burden lifted from me after I finished Two on a Tower. Yet I can't help but feel regret that it's over so quickly. Although not my favourite genre, Thomas Hardy is skilled enough to draw me into the lives of these two people and make me sympathize with their plight.
Even as I struggled with my distaste for the idiosyncrasies of Victorian English (such as double negatives and a fascination with the passive voice), I enjoyed Hardy's perverse determination to foil every attempt by the main characters to finally marry and live happily ever after. You just know it will end badly, but you still hope that somehow they will succeed.
Swithin St. Cleeve is a young (and thus naive) would-be astronomer. He becomes enamoured with Lady Viviette Constantine. After she becomes a widow, they secretly marry, only to later find out that her husband died much later than was originally reported, thus their marriage is void. Rather than marrying again, Viviette banishes Swithin to an expedition to the southern hemisphere, urging him to improve himself as an astronomer. Instead, she marries the Bishop of Melchester. When they reunite several years later, the shock of seeing him and listening to a marriage proposal causes a fatal heart attack.
The ending was somewhat disappointing, not due to its tragic nature, but the rather whimsical way in which it occurs. Indeed, after a slow and lingering two-thirds, the book picks up the pace and glosses over matters, the revealing of which, Hardy's narrator proclaims, "would avail nothing." While this may be so, it means the conclusion of the book is less substantial than its preceding sections.
While it was enjoyable in its own right and another fascinating look at Thomas Hardy, I can see why this is not considered one of his better works.(less)
I put this on my "romance" shelf because, as the cover opines, this is a love story. It isn't a cheap political thriller, nor is it a tawdry bodice-ri...moreI put this on my "romance" shelf because, as the cover opines, this is a love story. It isn't a cheap political thriller, nor is it a tawdry bodice-ripper. It's a wonderful and fantastic love story that has a happy, if bittersweet, ending that isn't too sappy or Disney-movie like.
In The Culprits, Hank Wallins is an asocial former seaman living in Toronto, who suffers from tinnitus and works a boring job every night. After an accident in the subway, Hank finds a girlfriend via FromRussiaWithLove.com. Although Anna enjoys Hank's company at first, she finds she can't love him--she still loves a Dagestani man named Ruslan, who soon becomes involved with terrorists.
Robert Hough takes us on a safari deep into Russia, a place many of us will never go in person. With all of the attention focussed on the Middle East these past years, it's easy to forget that other places have similar internal and ethnic tensions foreign to us in the West. It's easy to forget that not everyone is as lucky as we are; not everyone lives in a country where they are safe from being picked up off the street and tortured at random. Hough reminds us of this without rubbing it in our faces. However, this theme plays an important part in the shaping of several characters of the story.
I didn't like the narrator, especially not at first. My heart gradually warmed to him, but I still didn't like the device much. Thanks to the appositives he injects once and a while (even if they're in Russian), I figured out the identity of the narrator rather quickly. His identity wasn't the problem, however. It was his constant interruptions, which seemed to ruin the unity of the narrative. After finishing the book, I understand why Hough chose to have that narrator, and I suppose it was the correct decision.
Both Hank and Anna are interesting characters who undergo fairly dramatic changes over the course of the story. Hank initially courts Anna because of her resemblance to a woman he lost (perhaps the only woman he ever loved). Anna, on the other hand, just wants to escape from Russia, especially after she learns that Ruslan will never return to her the affection she feels for him. This isn't enough to bring them together, though.
I thought Hough was very clever to make this point, and if he had just let them live happily after Anna first moves in with Hank, the book would have been much weaker. They couldn't be happy, not at first, because they weren't doing this for each other--they were doing it for themselves, and because of how they felt about other people. Once Anna returns to Russia to confront Ruslan a final time, and Hank finally banishes the spectre of his dead lover by falling in love with Anna, not the woman of whom Anna reminds him, then they can fall into a state of bliss.
If ever I've heard an apt title for a book, The Culprits is one. Hough plays on this motif quite heavily; indeed, "the culprits" is a catchphrase that shows up all over these pages. These are obstacles that fulfil the proverb quoted at the beginning of the book: "Life is more difficult than a walk in the forest."
The Culprits is a serious book in many ways, yet it's also fun and vivacious. It invokes elements of tragedy, but it's also about hope. The ending, in particular, is very sad and whimsical, but it contains the promise of redemption. It takes a skilled writer to create a book that transcends any particular form in order to tell a complex, organic story. In short, The Culprits blew me away.(less)
It was difficult to get into this book for the first few chapters. The story properly begins in Chapter IV, where Mrs. Dean begins her tale of the doo...moreIt was difficult to get into this book for the first few chapters. The story properly begins in Chapter IV, where Mrs. Dean begins her tale of the doomed love between the inhabitants of Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. Prior to that, Mr. Lockwood's introduction to Heathcliff and his associates seems like a prologue, and a poor one at that.
I persevered, however, and my opinion of Wuthering Heights steadily increased from two stars to four. Inevitably, Wuthering Heights is compared to Jane Eyre, so I'll get that over with now: Wuthering Heights is a superior story, but Jane Eyre has deeper themes. This may seem like a cursory comparison, but I think it's accurate. The further into Wuthering Heights I went, the more I was impressed by Emily Brontë's grasp of plot and narrative. After growing accustomed to her dialect and style, I started turning pages relatively quickly, and I became engrossed in the plot.
The characters, on the other hand, aren't as well developed as those in Jane Eyre. They are mostly static and larger-than-life, although that often makes them all the more enjoyable. Heathcliff is perhaps one of the best antagonists in the history of English literature: simply immoral, eager to inflict retribution for any slight, real or imagined. I was very shocked when Heathcliff called his wife a "slut," once in the hearing of his twelve-year-old son! I tried to feel sorry for his son; it wasn't young Linton's fault that Heathcliff raised him in such a way, but I couldn't. He was just too cruel to Catherine, particularly after forcing her to marry him, and I could not forgive him for that. Nor could I forgive Hareton Earnshaw, which made the ending unpalatable for me.
What I found the most interesting about the characters, however, is how remarkably self-absorbed each one is. Aside from the narrators, every character without exception is an egotist. I wonder if that was a deliberate choice on Brontë's part in order to support the narrative's moral, if it was a result of the unreliable, judgemental narrator, or if it was due to Brontë's reclusive lifestyle. In any event, Mrs. Dean and Mr. Lockwood soon emerge as the two sanest characters in the book--this is no doubt Brontë's intention, as our trust in them must be explicit if we are to believe the story-within-a-story that follows.
I also wonder why Brontë chose to have such a structure instead of making Mrs. Dean the primary narrator. Perhaps because a book narrated by a housekeeper would risk earning less acceptance than one told by a "respectable" male member of society? Lockwood is a relatively undeveloped character, so I found it hard to get attached to him--indeed, any break from Dean's narrative was unwelcome. I was much more interested in the machinations of Heathcliff and the selfish protests of Catherine Linton.
Not sure why this book is still marketed as a "great romance." It's certainly a romance, and was probably more of a romance back in its day than in the present. However, the two-dimensionality of the characters makes any true romance hollow. The characters' humanity is only made apparent in the cruelty of their actions, so the best part of Wuthering Heights is its villain, through whom Brontë depicts a careful, decades-long campaign of "humanity" in the form of cruelty. Wuthering Heights is a tale of dark passions that can only be a product of the Byron school of romantic literature.(less)
Middlemarch is sublime; it avoids the pitfalls that would label it "pretentious" rather than "profound." Its plethora of characters and several intertwining plots allows Eliot to keep the pace of the book progressing quite quickly. The narrator seldom dwells on any one point too long unless it's thematically important, and he or she is always willing to gloss over aspects of Middlemarch life that are irrelevant to its characters' stories. Eliot gives us an episodic glimpse at the lives of her characters, picking those instances which together form an overwhelming argument to advance her themes. Although Middlemarch is certainly long by today's standards, it deserves its length.
Eliot masterfully balances several related but distinct plots that take place in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Although the story takes place during the Great Reform Bill of 1832, politics plays a secondary role. The story is largely character-driven and focuses on rural English life, which sounds boring until you realize that it's utterly fascinating. It's like the Victorian version of reality television.
Middlemarch owes its success to its characters. Every single character is three-dimensional, with virtues and vices, hopes and dreams and setbacks. Even characters who start out as seemingly two-dimensional foils or antagonists, like Rosamond Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, turn into people for whom we feel a mixture of sympathy, pity, and disgust. Eliot doesn't pander to her readers; her characters do both noble deeds and horrible ones. Often the latter are so deliciously predictable that Middlemarch attains that enviable quality of being a trainwreck--too fascinating to turn away--without becoming camp or dull.
Almost all of the conflict in Middlemarch stems from missteps by the characters themselves, along with a little external conflict added by itinerants like Raffles and Ladislaw. Eliot loves to pit two very likable characters against each other. Take, for instance, Mr. Farebrother and Fred Vincy, who both love Mary Garth. Mr. Farebrother's an honest vicar who's so well-meaning that he in fact sabotages his chances with Mary by acting as Fred's emissary. Fred, while somewhat indolent and unfocused, also means well and eventually determines to shape up and do whatever it takes to earn Mary's hand. As a result, Eliot creates quandaries to which there's no happy answer--a stark parallel to real life.
Of course, that's what Middlemarch is: realism. Time and again, characters entertain delusions about the world around them that prove false and even harmful. Fred Vincy--his entire family, in fact--rely on the fact that he will inherit property from the ailing Peter Featherstone; he's left with nothing when Featherstone wills his estate to an illegitimate son from out of town. Dorothea marries the unattractive Mr. Casaubon because she believes it's her purpose in life to help him in his religious scholarship; instead, she ends up an unhappy widow who remarries a flighty man. Rosamond Vincy falls head-over-heels for up-and-coming Dr. Lydgate only to discover that he's far more in love with treating patients than attending parties. Lydgate experiences a similar dissatisfaction with his spendthrift new bride. In case you haven't noticed, a good deal of the unhappiness in Middlemarch stems from marital conflict.
Eliot's observations about marriage--in fact, about life in general--are accurate and clever. She's like a funnier, more acerbic, more ironic Jane Austen (keep in mind that I say this while acknowledging that Jane Austen is a funny, acerbic, ironic author!). While I've shelved this book under romance, it definitely doesn't qualify for "happily-ever-after." Yet while Austen often demonstrated how marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be, her situations often felt contrived. In Middlemarch, on the other hand, the marital strife is organic; it's also reflected in the reactions of the townspeople. Eliot's social commentary is much stronger than Austen's because Eliot has constructed an entire microcosm in the form of Middlemarch society. As someone who enjoys living vicariously, Middlemarch particularly resonated with me, but it should appeal to everyone: the variety of views espoused by its characters expose you to perspectives you may otherwise never experience. Ultimately, that is what makes a story successful, and in an era where technology makes it increasingly easier to control the perspectives to which one's exposed, Middlemarch is all the more relevant.(less)
A thoroughly enjoyable book. It's easy to become disenchanted with Victorian literature, mostly because that culture is so far removed from our own. J...moreA thoroughly enjoyable book. It's easy to become disenchanted with Victorian literature, mostly because that culture is so far removed from our own. Jane Eyre is more refined than Pride and Prejudice (which I found only tolerable). Fortunately, Charlotte Brontë is a superior writer to Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre is a great novel in its own right.
The eponymous heroine is likable. She tends toward the melodramatic when speaking of her struggles, and at times I grew impatient with her, but that's only because of her flaws, which were also consistent with her character. Her strength of will is admirable, especially as she resists offers of marriage from well-intentioned but impertinent men. Brontë depicts Jane's sexual and social inequality with a deft hand, never emphasizing it more than necessary. It becomes a part of the fabric of the story, which is only natural, since she was writing in a period contemporary to that of Jane Eyre. Those of us reading the book from a twenty-first century perspective can find it difficult to imagine this world. Brontë has a plain style that makes Jane Eyre easy to read.
Considering the depth of Brontë's themes regarding the perseverance of women against all odds, I'm willing to forgive the heavy-handed romance that runs counter to that aforementioned deft sense of social justice. After all, that was the zeitgeist--novels were works of romance. Shifts in the usage of words like "intercourse" and "ejaculate", of course, make perfectly ordinary passages of this book hilarious for their modern connotations--if teenagers knew this, I'm sure they would find Jane Eyre and its contemporary novels more fascinating....
I heartily enjoyed the first two parts of this book, in which Jane comes of age at Lowood and arrives at Thornfield to become governess to a precocious French girl. The child version of Jane is self-possessed but not selfish (beyond what is normal for a child), and certainly not innocent. Jane's relationship with Helen Burns, and its outcome, is truly touching. Brontë very gradually accumulates a store of experiences for Jane that influence her to become a caregiver later in life.
I didn't like the last half of the novel as much, even though it may this part that cemented Jane Eyre in my mind as a worthy literary endeavour. The twist regarding Mr. Rochester's marital state was not as fulfilling as I had hoped; likewise, Jane's sudden inheritance did nothing for me--it was very much a deus ex machina. Then again, I didn't expect a tragic ending for this book, so I'm willing to accept that, to some extent, the ending is going to be a fairy tale. I must content myself with the fact that Jane as a character was consistent in her motivations and actions, never deviating merely for the sake of plot development.
The language of Jane Eyre is a rich meal, full of excellent diction and coherent style. If I were to recommend to someone their first Victorian novel, it would be Jane Eyre, mostly for that reason. The clear style and clever main character make the book an enjoyable experience, seldom tedious like some works of Victorian fiction can be for the twenty-first century reader.
Oh, I forgot to mention: my edition comes with a pretentious 26-page introduction by the late Q.D. Leavis. And I mean pretentious. I suppose it's only natural for the publisher to select someone inclined toward the significance of Charlotte Brontë's work, but did Leavis have to be so utterly biased? The introduction was virtually devoid of serious critique, glossing over any issues and emphasizing the critical praise Brontë received, both in her lifetime and since then. Likewise, Leavis' endnotes are intolerable, gangly creatures. I like my endnotes short and sweet. Leavis, on the other hand, has written one or two per chapter, and they run at least half a page. The very last endnote, which occurs several chapters before the end of the book, completely spoiled the ending for me. Do read Jane Eyre, but get your hands on another edition if you can.(less)
Foremost in my mind while reading Sense and Sensibility was how much both society and the English language have changed in the nearly 200 years since...moreForemost in my mind while reading Sense and Sensibility was how much both society and the English language have changed in the nearly 200 years since this book's publication. Conduct that we would now find unremarkable, perhaps even laudable, earns Jane Austen's characters harsh opprobrium. All of the book's conflict stems from the tangled web of relationships influenced by the mores of early nineteenth century England. Readers who stubbornly persist in interpreting this book on twenty-first century terms will be frustrated at best and bored at worst.
Still, as a story, Sense and Sensibility leaves much to be desired. Austen's wonderful grasp of irony is not enough to rescue this book from its chief deficiency: despite its title, this book lacks a sensible plot. The indecision of the main characters and the dazzling number of twists and reversals stretched my credulity, even from a nineteenth century perspective.
As with Austen's Pride and Prejudice, this book concerns sisters eligible for marriage. Whereas Pride and Prejudice is primarily a love story between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Sense and Sensibility is a comparison of the personalties of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood—the former possessing rational "sense" and the latter emotional "sensibility." This eponymous dualism underpins the entire novel, but it also undercuts, for Austen's attempts to vindicate Elinor's sense seem thwarted by a desire to give both sisters a happy ending.
She achieves this ending via the most scenic route available, it seems, going through several permutations of pairings before arriving at a final pleasing configuration. I quite enjoyed the resolution to Marianne and Willoughby's relationship, for it belied Willoughby's initial representation as nothing more than a one-dimensional cad. I assume Austen marries her off to Colonel Brandon in attempt to show that she has gained some "sense" from her experience with Willoughby and is ready to accept a man who, while not perfect, will make a satisfactory husband. In this respect the story makes sense; what I found unconvincing was Elinor's eventual happiness with Edward.
Maybe I'm just biased against happy endings. Austen goes out of her way to make Edward unavailable to Elinor. And then, just as Elinor is on the verge of finally coming to terms with Edward's imminent marriage to another woman, suddenly he shows up at her doorstep, asking for her hand! It's a result only acceptable in fairy tales, certainly not in a work that is, up until that point at least, firmly grounded in the realism of the nineteenth century. Additionally, Edward's stated defence—that he had lost all affection for his fiancée long ago, but felt obligated to go through with the marriage anyway—sounds remarkably similar to Willoughby's justification for his behaviour around Marianne. Yet where Elinor upbraids the latter, she disregards the wrongdoing of the former, and metaphorically jumps into his arms, throwing sense to the wind.
Nineteenth century English literature did not adhere to the "show, don't tell" maxim so prevalent today; however, Austen takes "tell, don't show" to an extreme, perhaps as a result of her initiation into writing via the epistolary novel. The first chapter is more of a prologue, so laden with exposition as it is; the rest of the book is not much better. The characters spend most of their time visiting each other's homes (or complaining about having to visit each other's homes, or not being invited to visit each other's homes). There's a sense of blandness to the narrative, an aftertaste that it never manages to fully eclipse before the book's end.
Sense and Sensibility is just what it appears to be: Austen's first novel and certainly not her best work. Aside from the wit with which Austen renders observations about her characters, Austen's writing is often too stilted to bear fully the weight of her lofty themes. That Austen aims high is not in doubt, as this speech by Elinor shows:
It was told to me, it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects, and told me, as I thought, with triumph. This person's suspicions, therefore, I have had to oppose by endeavouring to appear indifferent where I have been most deeply interested; and it has not been only once; I have had her hopes and exultations to listen to again and again. I have known myself to be divided from Edward forever, without hearing one circumstance that could make me less desire the connection. Nothing has proved him unworthy; nor has anything declared him indifferent to me. I have had to content against the unkindness of his sister and the insolence of his mother, and have suffered the punishment of an attachment without enjoying its advantages. And all this has been going on at the time when, as you to o well know, it has not been my only unhappiness. If you can think me capable of ever feeling, surely you may suppose that I have suffered now.
Thus, Sense and Sensibility is born of the noblest of intentions; as is all too often the case, it's the execution and not the idea that is at fault. In the end, this is a book more memorable because of it's author's merits, not its own. Trust your inclination: if you suspect you won't get much out of this, then you're probably right. On the other hand, someone truly interested in the book's subject matter will have a good time, provided he or she is willing to overlook the rough edges.(less)
Sara Gruen deserves props for ruining her protagonist's life in a quick and efficient manner. In the same day, Annemarie is fired from her job ("laid...moreSara Gruen deserves props for ruining her protagonist's life in a quick and efficient manner. In the same day, Annemarie is fired from her job ("laid off") and her husband leaves her for a juicy 21-year-old. A few weeks later, she learns her daughter has dropped out of school and her father has ALS.
In case that seems over the top to you, that's because it is.
After relocating to New Hampshire with her daughter to help her mother take care of her father, Annemarie finds that she isn't good at any of the following things: managing a stable, dealing with customers, cooking, disciplining her daughter, relating to her daughter, and letting go of the past.
I don't mean to sound snarky, because Riding Lessons doesn't deserve too much snark. It does deserve a slap on the wrist and some sort of tether to reality. There's just too much hardship going on, too many things going wrong. It's overwhelming, which isn't good for the reader. Fiction has to make more sense than reality does. It may be the case that someone very much like Annemarie exists and has to deal with all of these problems at once—real life need not conform to the rules of storytelling.
Neither does storytelling, of course, but they are convenient guidelines. Riding Lessons completely ignores them. Annemarie's divorce is only ever peripheral, brushed aside as often as it comes to the forefront like the annoying, hovering cousin at a family reunion. Nothing comes of the revelation that her mother assisted her father's suicide. And that's a big one. Regardless of one's position on it, euthanasia is a big issue, but Gruen ignores any of the possible ramifications of assisted suicide here.
And therein lies the flaw with having everything go wrong. With so much happening, so much to resolve before the inevitable end, important things get neglected. The divorce doesn't get as much time as it needs. Euthanasia becomes a sidebar, something routine. Likewise, Annemarie's antics, which are always irrational and border on illegal at times, never result in someone sitting her down and telling her, point-blank, to grow up and act like an adult. To her credit, Annemarie does change, and that's one reason I liked Riding Lessons despite its over-the-top plot. Annemarie shows she's capable of recognizing her mistakes and rectifying them, even if she's just as bad at doing that as she is at whatever caused the mistake in the first place.
But if we're honest with ourselves here, do we really expect that this will turn out poorly for Annemarie? No, we don't. I'm not going to delve into the land of spoilers—and that negative isn't a spoiler, because we never thought the ending would turn out otherwise. From the beginning of the book, there's a guarantee that there will be a semi-happy ending, some sort of reassurance that no matter how unrealistically screwed one is, life can get better.
As previously mentioned, I did like Annemarie's characterization. The characterization in general is the saving grace of Sara Gruen. For example, any conversation between Eva and Annemarie or between Annemarie and Mutti (as she refers to her mother) is priceless, because Gruen captures the daughter-mother dynamic perfectly. (Not that I've ever been on either end of such a dynamic myself.) Likewise, Jean-Claude's discussions with Annemarie about his daughter were interesting (the scenes where he feels her up, less so). Any scene in which Annemarie asserts herself, excepting her overreactions to her daughter, was usually entertaining. Gruen's good with the theatrics.
So Riding Lessons is not a lost cause. I'm not sure that I'll read the sequel. This book is closer to the romance end of the literary fiction spectrum for me to enjoy it overly much, and there's so much else I'd like to read. Though it could use improvements, and though I'm not as enthusiastic about it as Water for Elephants, Riding Lessons works—with an extra helping of suspension of disbelief.(less)
This is my first Pride and Prejudice sequel (indeed, I was unaware up until now of the cornucopia of books in this sub-genre!).
Any reviewer would be r...moreThis is my first Pride and Prejudice sequel (indeed, I was unaware up until now of the cornucopia of books in this sub-genre!).
Any reviewer would be remiss if he or she failed to remark on Linda Berdoll's diction, so let's address that first: yes, the prose is a deep, deep shade of purple. What many other reviewers seem to have missed is that this is an intentional device that Berdoll employs to mock Jane Austen's style (and indeed, the general diction of the Victorian era). I can understand how a reader can misinterpret this as a serious attempt to emulate Austen; Berdoll walks the line between parody and failed faithful sequel too closely for my tastes. However, in my opinion at least, Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife is an obvious parody of Jane Austen's style, both in it is diction and its characters. I am invoking the principle of charity, because to assume otherwise would mean that this book is a crime against humanity not even I would commit.
Oh, the characters. Oh, the sex. Not only does Berdoll delight in bombarding us with numerous intimate scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy, but she uses Regency slang like it's going out of fashion (which it has). I tended to skim through these scenes, but if that's what you enjoy, then by all means peruse them in as much detail as you would like.
Criticize Berdoll's style if you will, the two main characters are probably more complex than they were in Austen's original novel. We get to experience Elizabeth's burgeoning love for Mr. Darcy and her own trepidation about assuming the role of wife to a man of such high station. In time, we see her take a stand against her husband when she believes he's in the wrong, and fret over his absence overseas during a war, all the while struggling to do what she considers her "wifely duty" and bear Darcy a son. Likewise, Mr. Darcy is torn between his passion for Elizabeth and his lifelong learned attitude of aloofness in society. His new marital status shakes up the status quo at Pemberley somewhat.
I certainly cheered for our two protagonists, especially in their moments of contrived heroics. I cheered when Darcy rescued Elizabeth, and when Elizabeth rebuked Lady Caroline. I blinked in dismay when Major Wickham crossed the line dividing cowardice from villainy. All in all, Berdoll weaves a captivating narrative that, if utterly predictable, is still enjoyable.
The book is perhaps somewhat longer than it should be. Part of this is because Berdoll insists on retelling certain events from the limited third-person perspective of another character. This was interesting at first, and useful a couple of times, but it quickly became redundant. Likewise, certain aspects of the plot might have been condensed--does Bingley really need to father a bastard child? Do Jane and Lydia really have to have so many children? I realize that there's a theme in there somewhere about fidelity, but buried beneath the layers of (what I'm hoping is) irony, it will not soon see the light of day.
In addition to its ponderous length, there were a few glaring errors I found disturbing. For instance, when did Darcy's mother's name become "Elinor"? A quick stop at Wikipedia, of all places, would inform anyone who hasn't read Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Darcy's mother's name was, Anne. This is a classic example of Did Not Do the Research--ironically, according to the Author's Note, this book was originally going to be titled The Bar Sinister, which is the name of a sub-trope of that ilk.
Overall, I suspect that one's attitude toward Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife will be influenced by two factors: whether or not one perceives this as parody rather than straight romance, and whether or not one enjoys Regency romance in general. In both cases, the key to enjoying this book is to not take it seriously (at all). Failure to do so may result in a hernia.(less)
Much like zombie fiction, I tend to habitually give werewolf fiction a miss. I think it’s the pack mentality aspect that freaks me out—that and the re...moreMuch like zombie fiction, I tend to habitually give werewolf fiction a miss. I think it’s the pack mentality aspect that freaks me out—that and the related posturing for alpha-male dominance. But there are always exceptions to the rule, such as the Kitty Norville series. And while Bitten might be a werewolf novel, I’m given to understand that the Women of the Otherworld series embraces supernatural creatures of all stripes. If the Kelley Armstrong’s writing in the sequels is half as good as it is in this novel, then I’m eager to read them. Bitten definitely takes my werewolf prejudice and buries it deeply as Armstrong makes me care about Elena’s plight and the plight of her pack.
It helps that the novel starts with a fairly extensive prologue that’s all about Elena’s struggle to be human. I can sympathize with that. I can’t sympathize with someone struggling to be a werewolf. Elena’s life is complicated because she hasn’t fit in, even before she was bitten and turned—she bounced from foster family to foster family, and her abuse at their hands hardened her resolve to make something of her life, marry a nice guy, and be a successful human being. That all changed when the "nice guy" turned out to be a maladjust misanthropic werewolf who bit her so he could keep her. We pick up several years later, with Elena trying to live with an ordinary human guy in Toronto, despite having to Change into a massive wolf and run through the forest every week or so.
Armstrong plays fast and loose with the werewolf mythology, but to good effect. Howl at the moon? You bet. Change with the full moon? Not so much. Her werewolves have to Change roughly every seven days, though some can go longer before the need strikes, and it’s also possible to Change on purpose. In wolf form, people retain their human identities but have the instincts of a wolf layered over top—Armstrong shows us (not tells us) this early on when Elena encounters a coyote, which reacts to her with confusion because she looks like a wolf but smells human. In human form, werewolves can act human, but they have a very complicated relationship with each other. Elena belongs (or used to belong, depending on how you look at it) to the Pack, a confederation of what is basically two werewolf families. The Pack doesn’t let any non-Pack werewolves (mutts) have any territory, a source of friction that drives much of the conflict in Bitten. Elena thinks she has left the Pack, and her lover/biter, Clay, behind her. But she is recalled to help them deal with killings on the Pack’s home territory, because if they are exposed as werewolves, then that’s dangerous for everyone, Pack or no.
The first two chapters—Prologue and Human—hooked me. Prologue could have been called Wolf, for all it told us about Elena’s human life. I think this chapter is valuable for readers like me who are wary of the entire werewolf proposition. It showcases Armstrong’s writing style and eases into Elena’s behaviour as a wolf. There is confrontation but not too much conflict, and we get a good sense of who Elena is and how she is dealing with this whole "being a werewolf" thing. A fight sequence with another werewolf, or some contrived dialogue between her and a member of the Pack, wouldn’t have worked as well. Similarly, Human shows us how frail Elena’s persona is, and how she is desperate to fit in. When Philip’s mother and sister are congenial towards her and invite her to do things, when the sister accepts Elena’s offer to come up for coffee and driving her home, Elena’s joy is palpable. Again, I have yet to be able to identify with the need to run through the forest on four legs, but I definitely know what it feels like to not be sure how to act in a social situation, and I know that feeling of relief mixed with elation when you realize you’ve got it right.
After the second chapter, Elena returns to New York to answer the summons of the Pack Alpha, Jeremy. From here on out I found that the plot developed very slowly for my tastes. There were a lot of flashbacks and first-person exposition, and I kept feeling like I was waiting for the main part of the story to commence. Nonetheless, I did get a strong sense of the difficulty Elena was having in being immersed in the Pack life again. After working so hard to free herself from this dependency, she has been forced to get on it again, like an addict plunged into the middle of a drug den. The tension that she feels, torn between Clay and Philip, becomes the backdrop to her involvement in the larger struggle between the Pack and the mutts. And it’s this tension, the suspense created by her impending choice between the two men, that elevates Bitten above many similar books.
See, when it comes to novels with a straight female protagonist and two competing lovers, the lovers tend to be fairly obvious: one is bland and dependable, the other a dashing scoundrel. Yawn. In Bitten, the dichotomy is not so straightforward: Elena is truly torn between Clay and Philip, and it’s hard to say whether one is the superior choice. They are both very different choices. Armstrong does a good job emphasizing that there is no “right” choice, just two very different possible lives for Elena. And I was convinced she would go back to Philip for the entire book, right up until the end.
I’m disappointed she chose Clay.
Firstly, let’s get this clear: Clay is a douchebag. It’s probably not his fault—he’s an hereditary werewolf but was abandoned as a kid to live in a Louisiana swamp, where he would have remained feral if Jeremy hadn’t rehabilitated him. Still. Biting your fiancee is a dick move. Consent, people.
Secondly, I don’t like what Clay represents. This might be my human bigotry rearing its head again, but Philip represented life in the human world. By choosing Clay, Elena admits she belongs as a member of the Pack, which also seems to bring with it all the hierarchical, hegemonic nonsense that Pack life entails. True, she shows her resolve to remain Clay’s equal, not just his mate. But this just highlights my inherent discomfort with the patriarchical nature of the pack mentality.
Finally, did I mention Clay is a douchebag? No, but seriously, Philip is incredibly patient and understanding while Elena traipses off to New York, stays there longer than expected, and returns to Toronto with her "cousin" Clay in tow like a bad-tempered bad penny. (Note to future generations: a penny was a 1-cent coin Canadians used to have before we became uncool.) He does nothing but support her and tell her he’s there for her. He lets her have her space and secrets but also gently reminds her that he is available if she needs to talk, when she is ready to open up. He is the least developed character in this book, but he is still better than Clay.
I didn’t write the book, though, and Elena didn’t choose Philip. She chose Clay. I have to live with that. Or Google for some Elena/Philip fan-fiction. Or just live in blissful denial until I read book two. Yeah, that sounds good.
Because I am going to read book two. Even though I don’t agree with how Armstrong chose to end Bitten, it’s still a fantastic story. Now, I don’t have to read book two; this is a brilliant standalone novel. But I’d be happy to read more of Elena’s adventures. She’s a lovely protagonist with a great voice—not too smartass/sardonic, which seems to be in overabundance these days, but definitely not simpering either—and Armstrong puts her in sticky situations that require smarts and strength to resolve.
I didn’t expect to be reading another one after the last one, but I guess what they say about vampire romance novels is true: it never rains but it po...moreI didn’t expect to be reading another one after the last one, but I guess what they say about vampire romance novels is true: it never rains but it pours.
Actually, The Rest Falls Away has been on my to-read list since 2009, long before Dracula, My Love waltzed its way into my life. The tagline everyone uses to describe this book is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Regency England”, and I’m unoriginally repeating it because it’s so damn accurate.
Trigger warning in this review for romance nerds, because of course romance is one of these genres where my hypocritical genre snobbery becomes evident.
As far as romance novels go (I did warn you, romance nerds), The Rest Falls Away is impressive. Colleen Gleason balances the necessary relationships and love polygons with an intense, action-packed plot with a kickass but fallible protagonist. It is, in many ways, more interesting and more satisfying than many of its urban fantasy ilk to which I’ve subjected myself. Gleason enjoys coming up with new and inventive ways to kit out Victoria despite the restrictions of her Regency garb, not to mention all those excuses she needs for running out of parties to dust vamps.
The keyword from the last sentence, even though I didn’t actually use it in the sentence, was fun. The critical third ingredient to this book, in addition to its romance and action, is a thread of dark humour. This undercuts Max’s unctuous brooding concern over Victoria’s fragility and Rockley’s boring, bland declarations of love. Driven by the stark contrast between Victoria’s obligations in her respective lives as society debutante and vampire slayer, this humour is the same element that made Buffy work so well.
Like Buffy, Victoria finds herself with some new love interests following her induction into the world of the supernatural. In addition to Rockley she finds herself inexplicably attracted to Sebastian Vioget, owner of a nightclub where vampires and humans drink together in an uneasy truce. Though not a vampire, Vioget is far more powerful than an ordinary human, and he gets Victoria all hot and bothered. Then here’s Max, protégé of Victoria’s Aunt Eustacia; though he is old enough to be her father and unfailingly rude towards her, there’s still sexual tension that never seems to go away.
The romance part of this book is fairly tame, at least as I understand these things from my limited experience. Victoria gets engaged to Rockley without much fuss, and they fight a bit when he discovers she isn’t being truthful with him. But there seem to be few obstacles, at least until the climax—which really is a gamechanger—to their happiness. For this I’m personally grateful, although I wonder if it’s more of a consequence of one of my major criticisms about the characters.
Victoria is a wonderfully-developed protagonist. Her heritage provides many perks and powers, but Gleason balances this with Victoria’s inexperience. Victoria makes several unwise decisions over the course of the book as a result of ignorance, overconfidence, or pique—but these bad decisions are realistic given the circumstances, rather than contrived for reasons of plot-induced stupidity. She genuinely agonizes over whether to reveal her secret identity to Rockley, and we share in her unease over leading this double life.
I wish all the other characters were so interesting! Instead, everyone else seems to be flat, stock characters torn from the pages of other romance novels. Verbena is the stalwart, trustworthy maid—an Alfred to Victoria’s Batman. Rockley is the Standard Rich Love Interest; there is literally nothing memorable or unique about him. Victoria’s mother and her entourage are standard society women, hellbent on matchmaking because they are too old to have any fun themselves. Aunt Eustacia receives slightly better treatment, but she is still mostly there to serve the role of wise, old mentor.
The other thing holding The Rest Falls Away back is its lack of a strong central antagonist. Nominally this is Lilith, oldest of the vampires and lover of Judas Iscariot, the first vampire. She is supposed to be the Big Bad pulling the strings for the entire book, and we meet her at the very end. I understand that in not disposing of her Gleason is setting her up as a serial antagonist, and that’s fine. As an antagonist, however, she has many of the same flaws as the other characters: a swaggering, moustache-twirling characterization that makes her completely uninteresting. I enjoyed this book enough that I wonder how much more I would have enjoyed it with a truly terrifying antagonist to balance out Victoria’s protagonist.
With room enough for improvement, then, The Rest Falls Away hasn’t left me in a rush to read the next book in the series. But it’s a possibility. This is another book that belies genre snobs’ claims that romance, much like science fiction, belongs in a literary ghetto. Gleason demonstrates a talent for balancing the relationships of her protagonist with an action-filled story. If “vampires in Regency England” is what you want, then you should stop looking here.
The Vorkosigan Saga is one of those series I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And, in fact, I read Cryoburn last year for the Hugo Awards voting....moreThe Vorkosigan Saga is one of those series I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And, in fact, I read Cryoburn last year for the Hugo Awards voting. Going back to the beginning and reading the series in order has been a task long overdue, so let’s get this party started.
I love space opera. Technically speaking, Shards of Honour and its sequel, Barrayar, which I read in omnibus form, is probably more planetary romance. It is the first of a two part story of Cordelia Naismith falling in love not only with Aral Vorkosigan but with the planet of his birth, Barrayar. Cordelia leaves everything she knows behind to be with Aral—not that the alternatives are much better, thanks to her celebrity but suspect status after her participation in the defence of Escobar.
So, since I love space opera, Lois McMaster Bujold had a home-field advantage here. I love the intrigue that goes along with this type of science fiction. Because, let’s face it: if humanity does spread out among the stars one day, this is what we’ll be like. We’ll be divided and insular, petty and always bickering. Empires are difficult—as Barrayar demonstrates—and politics and diplomacy in the vacuum of space are always swift and unforgiving. The reactionary culture of Barrayar and the progressivist nature of Beta Colony both seem like possibilities for space colonies in the far future. Bujold also deals with the question of why Barayar doesn’t just go settle an uninhabited world ripe for the picking: the network of wormholes connecting all these worlds is what makes them valuable.
Shards of Honour doesn’t really deal with the Barrayar–Beta politics, however, except through the interactions of their embodiments in Aral and Cordelia. Ever since their first meeting on the surface of that survey world, two things are obvious: firstly, they are meant to be together; secondly, they will forever be the symbols of their upbringings—so I’ll leave you to guess what their union means for Barrayar.
Which brings me (finally) to my opinion of—and problem with—Shards of Honour. Cordelia and Aral are forced together by circumstance … and then he proposes marriage. Like you do. It is the ultimate contrived setup; Cordelia doesn’t fall in love with Aral so much as end up thrown together with him enough times to decide she might as well marry him. Everything about this story is so driven and obviously constructed towards getting Cordelia to Barrayar and married to Aral Vorkosigan, and it really frustrates me. I’d like to just embrace this book and love it unconditionally, because I love the characters … but I can’t ignore what is, if not lazy, extremely indulgent plotting.
Cordelia is an awesome main character. She’s smart and determined. She knows what she wants and will stick to her guns until she gets her way. In many ways, Cordelia is the perfect interface between Beta Colony and Barrayar. While she represents the non-warrior, curious nature of the Betan culture, she is actually far more of a warrior than most other Betans we see in this book. She might not always carry a gun and salute, but Cordelia is a tactician. She can scheme, and she can act and react with the best of them. It gets her out of trouble (and, yeah, into trouble) numerous times.
As much as the setup between Cordelia and Aral frustrates me, I like Aral too. Bujold does a good job making him a complex person. The Betans call him the Butcher of Komarr. He is the ultimate scapegoat and monster—until Cordelia meets him and discovers that, while he is Barrayan, he is a reasonably nice guy. For Aral, it’s all about doing what is honourable—but unlike some of his comrades, who allow the excesses of their aristocratic upbringing to corrupt them, Aral is all about his duty to the empire.
In many ways, it’s that conflict between personal gratification and service to one’s government/nation that underlies all of Shards of Honour. Cordelia essentially betrays Beta Colony to be with Aral (though she might not see it that way). Aral has to make some tough decisions about his personal loyalty in order to do what he thinks is right for the empire. And the biggest question, the conflict that this book ultimately resolves, is whether Aral and Cordelia can be together and be loyal to their own personal ideals as well as Barrayar. Beta Colony and Barrayar end their war before Cordelia marries Aral—I wonder what will happen next time war starts up?
Shards of Honour is a good novel on its own, but it is one that begs for more. I’m happy I read this as part of the omnibus. The transition into Barrayar is seamless. This really feels like the prologue to the latter book, which is where Bujold gets down and tackles the really interesting ramifications of Aral and Cordelia’s interstellar romance.
Intrigue and romance, war and murder and the conflict between honour and personal desire … Shards of Honour hits all the right notes for an interesting story. Oh, and there are spaceships and wormholes and nerve disruptors as well! Science fiction in name and set dressing, this is really just an action-adventure novel and a romance story wrapped up into one. It’s well worth reading—but don’t stop here.
Much like The Burning Glass, I don’t think it was a good idea trying to read this during the school year. After four days I got less than 60 pages in...moreMuch like The Burning Glass, I don’t think it was a good idea trying to read this during the school year. After four days I got less than 60 pages into the novel. Just no traction whatsoever.
The romance aspect of this novel was not enough in evidence for me to comment on it—we hadn’t even jumped back to the Tudor part yet. I mean, Celia and Richard’s relationship was shallow and fraught with tired, clichéd appeals to “destiny”. Despite the unfulfilling characterization, however, Green Darkness is probably of superior quality and research to the average historical romance.
Am I going to come back to it? Honestly? Probably not. I don’t remember why I added this to my to-read shelf in the first place—did someone, knowing my affinity for novels set in Tudor England, recommend it to me? It is tempting, but I have many other books I am much more excited to read. I will likely pass this on to someone who will find more enjoyment in it.(less)
Move over, Pride and Prejudice. Emma is my new favourite Jane Austen novel, and while Austen may be better known for Pride and Prejudice, this book i...moreMove over, Pride and Prejudice. Emma is my new favourite Jane Austen novel, and while Austen may be better known for Pride and Prejudice, this book is what has earned her acclaim in my eyes. At times plodding and predictable, Emma nonetheless won me over with a complex cast of characters, whose changing relationships are the key to the entire story. Austen's ironic hand makes this book a light but real commentary on the class divisions present in her contemporary England, particularly how those divisions influence whom, if anyone, a woman marries.
Austen puts a good deal of effort into making Emma a three-dimensional character who is patently unlikable. Witty, argumentative, manipulative, and proud, Emma wants for nothing—and as a result, her boredom gets her into trouble. The book tends to present scenes such that Emma does something to someone, rather than the other way around, but ultimately the person most affected by her scheming is Emma herself.
Watching Emma acknowledge her flaws and begin to change is a very satisfactory experience. Near the beginning, she almost comically refuses to recognize her own hypocrisy with regards to Harriet Smith's prospects. She looks down upon Mr. Martin, a worthy farmer, even though Harriet is an orphan and her only status comes from Emma's patronage. With each new target for Harriet's affections, Emma only complicates matters further. First she encourages Harriet to pursue Mr. Elton, who in the process falls for Emma; then she thinks Harriet has feelings for Frank Churchill, only to later learn it is Mr. Knightley who has caught Harriet's eye.
It sounds like a daytime soap opera, and the thought did cross my mind while watching these attractions wax and wane. Enough already, I thought, just marry someone! Such an interpretation is tempting but ultimately quite naive. The only relationship plot device that truly annoyed me was Frank Churchill's secret engagement. I predicted whom he was going to marry but did not foresee when they became engaged (prior to the beginning of the novel, even). This is an exception to the rule, however, and that is what saves Emma. Rather than rely on twists, Austen uses the conflict generated by her own characters to create a remarkable story.
Although certain characters (like Mrs. Elton) can be seen as antagonists, there are not so much antagonists in Emma as people acting on various motivations, working at cross-purposes. I read Mrs. Elton not as a malicious character but as a woman who, having married slightly upward in society, desperately seeks acceptance and validation from the other women in her new circle. Hence, after Emma spurns Mrs. Elton's attempts at friendship, Mrs. Elton becomes cold toward Emma. Likewise, her unwelcome exertions on Jane Fairfax's behalf stem from the same desire to be seen as useful, connected, powerful.
I love Mr. Woodhouse, who can also be quite an obstacle, in a harmless-old-man sort of way. It is no wonder that Emma is so bold and forthright in her planning when her father is disengaged with the world around him. I particularly love how he goes on about marriage as a bad thing, and the book implies that he has always held this view, even as a young man. So how exactly did he end up with not one but two daughters? Perhaps this paradox is the source of his lethargy and hypochondria!
The main conflict comes mostly from the love triangles in which Emma finds herself. First with Harriet and Mr. Elton, then with Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, then Harriet and Frank Churchill, and finally Harriet and Mr. Knightley. Not all of these triangles are genuine (and in almost every case, Emma denies her feelings for the main in question), which only makes the ensuing complications more comical.
Rather than merely keeping tone light, however, Austen harnesses this comedic energy to take Emma to the next level. After the "incident on Box Hill," as it becomes known, Emma takes a step back and seriously re-evaluates herself. Throughout the novel she talks to herself, her thoughts mingling with those of the third-person narrator. We learn from Emma about how clever Emma is, how kind Emma is, how lucky it is that Emma will never marry. And then, after she snaps and ruins the party for everyone, Emma stops to question exactly why she behaved that way on Box Hill. Was she truly upset with Mrs. Elton and annoyed with Miss. Bates?
The first half of Emma is sugary and sometimes soporific. The second half, however, is deep and full of introspection on Emma's part. Austen has created a character with genuine, interesting flaws and made a story out of the revelation of those flaws. By the end of the book, Emma is not perfect—no one is—but she is happier for having cast aside some of her pretensions and, on some level, changed.
The last chapter of the book felt like a hasty postscript. I suppose Austen felt it necessary to have a quick epilogue that assured us everyone lived happily-ever-after. It was just jarring, because it spanned almost as much time as the rest of the entire novel, if not more.
I began Emma with high expectations. Unlike Sense and Sensibility, Emma lived up to those expectations. This book continued to surprise me as I read further—not, mind you, in the plot, which is fairly predictable. No, this book's virtues lie in the hearts and minds of its characters. Austen does more than write romance in Emma; she creates an entire small village of people and the equivalent set of relationships to match. The result: thoughtful prose and an artful story.
This past Saturday I was Skyping with my friend Vivike, and I mentioned I had just finished Persuasion. Together, we pondered why Pride & Prejudic...moreThis past Saturday I was Skyping with my friend Vivike, and I mentioned I had just finished Persuasion. Together, we pondered why Pride & Prejudice is the most popular of Jane Austen's work, despite the fact that some of her later efforts, such as Emma and, yes, Persuasion, are manifestly superior. We put on our literary snob hats and monocles and lamented the popular interpretation of Pride & Prejudice as a romance in the way we think about romance today, an interpretation that we feel misses the mark when it comes to perceiving that novel's true potential for greatness. And we condemned Colin Firth for reifying Mr. Darcy, an act that has very probably doomed us all to the feverish exclamations of women and men the world over: "Oh, Mr. Darcy!"
But I digress.
I have not always been a fan of Jane Austen, because I too was once young and foolish (and I still am in many ways). However, I have now seen the light; with each successive work, Austen impresses me more and more. And one day I will definitely revisit books I've read before—in particular, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility—to see if my opinions of them have altered as my esteem for Austen has increased. Persuasion has done nothing to diminish her in my eyes, and it might be my favourite Austen novel. Perhaps that's because, as the professor who wrote the introduction to this edition insists, it is Austen's most "mature" work. I can't really speak to that; I'm not much of an Austen critic. Yet there are unique aspects of Persuasion that I find, well, persuasive.
Anne Elliot is indubitably the heroine of Persuasion, but for most of the book she is a minor character in her own life. Austen gives us privileged access to her thoughts, but we get to hear very little of what she says to other characters. Indeed, we're given to understand that she has very little influence at all; when someone does take her advice, it's usually because it only justifies the course of action he or she wanted to take in the first place. (But isn't that oh so true of life in general?) Anne's father and two sisters look askance at her because she is not as obsessed with social status as they are. When she learns her father, Sir Walter, is in some financial difficulty, she has no qualms about trimming their expenses in extreme ways, including but not limited to renting out their family estate. Also, Anne almost married a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, eight years prior to the beginning of the book. It was a love match, but "fortunately" for Anne, the kindly Lady Russell persuaded her that love was not enough: Wentworth was not good enough. Thank goodness Anne didn't make that mistake!
For those of us reading this in the twenty-first century, it is all too easy to view Anne as the only sensible character in the book. We place her on a pedestal above the vanity of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the preoccupation with precedence that plagues Mary, and the obsession with his inheritance that motivates Mr. Elliot in all his machinations. Anne is our class-defying heroine: she keeps up her connections to Mrs. Smith, who has fallen on hard times and is no longer respectable enough for a lady of Anne's status; she rebuffs Mr. Elliot, who is in every sense but character a perfect catch; and yes, she marries Captain Wentworth. This, after all, an Austen novel. And so it isn't as simple as "Anne = good" and "others = bad". Jane Austen, last time I checked, did not write Golden Age comic books. (Though, come to think of it, that would have been awesome.)
It's tempting to read Austen as some kind of incredibly subversive diatribe against class, but let's not go all Marxist on Ms. Austen's … err … well, let's not go all Marxist, shall we? It's true that Austen is very critical of some of her contemporary society's notions about marriage and how the quality of one's character relates to one's breeding. She is, we may go as far as to say, quite satirical, and it is this wit that often makes her books so enjoyable to read. Persuasion opens with an extended description of how Sir Walter spends his time: reading his own entry in the Baronetage of England (which is tantamount to someone spending all day re-reading his or her Facebook profile) and preening in front of his massive bedroom mirror. Sir Walter is vain in every sense of the word, concerned not only with his position in society but his exterior appearance as well. So Austen begins the book in fine form, mocking the emptiness that accompanies all those in the upper class who place style above substance. Or, as Mr. Elliot pompously confirms:
Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better, but yet "it was an acquaintance worth having," and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,
"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."
"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company, that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.…"
I love how Austen so deftly alerts the reader, in so few words, to the obvious inadequacy of the runner-up suitors. It's almost as if she has all the unworthy men wear T-shirts declaring, "I am a gigantic tool." Ironically, Mr. Elliot has quite a bit more personality than Captain Wentworth, who always seems rather distant up until his passionate epistolary plea for Anne's heart.
Buried among the satire, however, are gentle hints that sometimes conformity is well and good. This passage of Anne's, from the penultimate chapter, is the most obvious such incident:
I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion.
This is an incredibly nuanced perspective. (I love it more every time I read it, particularly that phrase, "in any circumstance of tolerable similarity.") And this is why I wince when people refer to Austen's works as "romances" in the modern sense of the word; I feel like they are missing out on so much! Anne here is saying that she thinks Lady Russell's advice was wrong but that she was right in submitting to it, because that was her duty. Lady Russell was acting in loco parentis, and Anne is not such a stranger to propriety that she would disregard Lady Russell's advice just to follow her heart. Thematically speaking, that is: love does not conquer all; love tempered with reason and maturity conquers all.
So my interpretation of Jane Austen, if you will permit me such folly, is that she is neither a hardcore subversive class warrior nor a conservative champion of the status quo. She is a realist, dissatisfied enough with her society to mock it but optimistic enough to hope that some people find happiness even under the present regime. Marriage is Austen's microcosm for all these social issues, for she herself did not married, and she has her class to thank in part for that privilege and modicum of independence. And as I become more conscious of class, and of my own privileges and biases, I am more fascinated by how Austen chooses to write about her own time and her own life.
Of course, this is just a small part of Persuasion, and maybe not even the best or the most important part. It is so many things—among them, yes, a romance. Doubtless this chimerical nature is a reason for its everlasting appeal and its status as a classic. Of course, not everyone is going to like it, and I entertained myself by reading some of the hilarious 1-star reviews before I commenced writing this one. The common complaint was one of boredom, and I can't help but sigh. Maybe I'm weird. No, I am weird, and I like it. I find Jane Austen fascinating and exciting for the same reasons that I rock out to classical music, believe that science preserves our sense of wonder rather than replacing it with one of purposelessness, and dance like no one is watching even though people always are. Life is too short and too precious to spend more than an iota of it bored. So I try to find entertainment and edification in as much of literature's vast panoply as I possibly can, and while I don't always succeed, I will always make the most of it (even if all that means is a snarky book review).
Sure, Persuasion suffers from a conspicuous lack of zombies, or even sea monsters. And there are no massive CGI explosions. Not a single one! Curiously enough, Persuasion manages to step up, rise above these debilitating shortcomings, and deliver a worthwhile story of romance deferred and relationships rekindled. Go figure.
**spoiler alert** Welcome to a typical "forbidden fruit" romance scenario in an historical setting. Aemilia is a discontent vestal virgin who manages...more**spoiler alert** Welcome to a typical "forbidden fruit" romance scenario in an historical setting. Aemilia is a discontent vestal virgin who manages to fall in love with a man. Naturally, since the vestals must remain chaste, this is considered a bad thing, and so Aemilia is torn between her loyalty to Rome and her love of a slave determined to overthrow Rome. Drama!
Narrated from Aemilia's point of view, the story takes on an intensely personal tone. We feel Aemilia's loneliness, her sadness that her family just packed her away to become a vestal virgin, her sense of estrangement from the other vestals, who offer more squabbles than support. She grows from an uneasy child into an uneasy woman, never able to give herself entirely to Vesta like some of the vestals can, unwilling to throw herself into the politics of her group. It's easy to sympathize with Aemilia, to watch her take a lover and reflect on how unfair it is that she gets caught. But she does get caught; she does have to suffer the consequences. In the end, what does it all mean?
Despite Aemilia's strong voice, her relationships with her fellow vestals are somewhat one-dimensional. It's as if Sherri Smith made the other vestals a certain way in order to emphasize Aemilia's sensibleness. Alarm bells immediately went off in my head, and I thought of other books that do this—pump up the main caracter by surrounding him or her with less-than-ideal companions. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't enjoy having Aemilia as the narrator. She was just far too biased (and, as I'll later point out, unreliable). From this perspective, The Virgin's Tale becomes a "woe is me" tale instead of a "tragedy of a girl forced to become political scapegoat" tale that it could be. Suddenly the story becomes about what happens to Aemilia instead of how what happens to Aemilia reflects on the nature of the Republic of Rome.
The only other interesting character is Julia, who joins the vestal virgins after Aemilia. The two share friendship and rivalry for the first few years of their service, culminating in an awkward nighttime visit by Julia to Aemilia's room. Here was where the book could have diverged, could have become interesting by making Julia Aemilia's lover, and for a moment, I thought that would be the case. After all, nothing in the description says that Aemilia broke her vow of chastity for a man.
Alas, my hopes were not borne out. Aemilia falls for a household slave, Lysander, who claims to have been born in Greece but is actually just a half-Greek born into slavery in Rome. He is also plotting to overthrow Rome by supporting a patrician's plot while secretly raising a slave rebellion of his own. To Smith's credit, Lysander has enough brains that he's not all brawn—Aemilia and him do seem to fall in love. Still, it's a gooey, carefree sort of love that seems riskless even though Aemilia is, in fact, risking it all. But I'm sure it's OK because, you know, he makes her feel really, really good.
And in fact, depending on the interpretation of the ending, that element of risk completely evaporates. That Aemilia would be caught was never in doubt. The book begins with her being sealed into an underground tomb. However, we don't learn if she gets rescued until the very end. There's reason to believe that rescue may just be a hallucination though.
The part of me averse to happy endings thinks Lysander's rescue of Aemilia is a weak way to end this book. We were built up for tragedy right until the end, and to yank away Aemilia's tragic death and replace it with a happily-ever-after is the ultimate cheat. Truthfully, I also didn't care much for either Aemilia or Lysander, so I wasn't sad to see her go. Much better that she should die for love than escape because someone inexplicably put a door into the side of her tomb and Lysander happened to sneak to where she was buried and help dig her out. Right.
On the other hand, the ending could just be a dream. Aemilia demonstrates herself to be an unreliable narrator several times in this book, most notably with the way in which she fantasizes about Tullia leaving the vestal virgins after her 30 year term of service is up and marrying her lover. It turns out that Tullia was actually caught and executed, her fate identical to what would befall Aemilia. We only learn this at the very end of the book. This, combined with the fact that the method of Aemilia's rescue seems improbable, leads to me to think that it's a dream and not reality. The stress of Aemilia's capture, combined with the depleting oxygen in the room, finally makes her crack.
Since the ending ultimately depends on whether one considers Aemilia a reliable narrator, it's up to the reader how to interpret it. Neither ending substantially changes my opinion of the book. I suppose I should probably just avoid these sorts of historical romances in the future. I picked the book up because it's set in ancient Rome, and I like ancient Rome. It's unfair of me to expect the book to rise above its genre and give me something else, just as it's unfair for a Western reader to expect a fantasy novel not to have magic. Nevertheless, I can't bring myself to label an entire genre mediocre—and that's what The Virgin's Tale is—which leads me to conclude that there are certainly better books in this genre than this one. While it's a far cry from awful, The Virgin's Tale doesn't possess anything that makes it stand out.(less)
Reading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; rega...moreReading this book was like reading someone's plot summary of this book. I can't tell if it's Maria V. Snyder's writing or worldbuilding at fault; regardless, the outcome is the same: we are never fully-immersed in this story. Like a stage play, Poison Study is a diorama with two-dimensional scenery and live actors. The only thing keeping the fiction from tumbling down is that thin fourth wall.
Ixia is a former kingdom that suffered a coup d'etat just before Yelena was born. Throughout the book we hear horror stories of monarchy and how life under military discipline is better. I'm sure there's both truth and fiction in such propaganda, but not having seen the kingdom of Ixia, I can only judge its successor state. Now divided into eight military districts, creatively designated MD-1 through MD-8, Ixia is ruled by Commander Ambrose. Together with his generals, who each administer a district, the Commander (as he is called) crafted the military-like Code of Behaviour. Ixia is really serious about the rule of law, and there are no exceptions to the Code. Everyone works, everyone wears uniforms, and every punishment for every infraction is predictable. This really sucks for Yelena, who killed someone in self-defence, since the punishment for murder of any kind is execution.
On its surface, Ixian society is interesting. However, it is as much a fantasy as the magic that later appears in the book. I can easily imagine a military coup followed by an unrelenting Code of Behaviour. But to have such a code cover every possible infraction? I doubt we can ever develop such an iron-clad law that we would have no need of lawyers. Human behaviour is too dynamic, too intricate, to ever fully classify in such a manner. And humans are so creative—both when it comes to good acts and bad ones—that it wouldn't be long before someone ends up in front of the Commander for a crime as-yet unanticipated.
When it comes time for the plot to rescue us from plot summary, Poison Study struggles but doesn't find a niche. And this isn't actually a problem of plot so much as one of characterization. In particular, the two villains, Brazell and Mogkan, fall squarely into the sinister, moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash school of villainy. In fact, nearly every antagonist in Poison Study is a brute, an idiot, or both. The exceptions are usually characters who turn (either from face to heel or vice versa), e.g., Valek and Rand. Valek begins as the stern, somewhat antagonistic master who will not hesitate to replace—i.e., kill—Yelena should she prove unsatisfactory as the food taster. He warms to her (understatement). Rand is the former king's cook, now the Commander's cook, who has gambling problems that make him beholden to a traitor. He also warms to Yelena (understatement laced with tragedy). These characters, in addition to Yelena, demonstrate that Snyder can write good characters, so Brazell and Mogkan rankle me even more. They just make all the classic villain mistakes, and Yelena's victory seems to owe more to those mistakes than any particularly clever planning on Yelena's part. I don't like those kinds of endings, and Yelena was definitely clever enough to win on her own.
To be fair to Snyder, I really liked Yelena, and she almost makes Poison Study worth reading. Her dilemma is real even if her world is not realistic. She has few allies and fewer friends, and she's still trying to run away from her past. Snyder's intriguing magic system doesn't get a lot of development in this book, something I assume gets remedied in Magic Study. Yelena's need to hide her magic is not, itself, a source of much suspense—we've all seen it before. But Snyder pairs this with a need to learn and develop her powers lest they overload her, which would be fatal to Yelena and dangerous for other practitioners. Thus, not only does Yelena have to keep her abilities secret from her magic-sensing master, but she has a year to develop them or face assassination by an Ixian sorceress. It's a tight deadline, and that is suspenseful.
I must admit, I was rather expecting Poison Study to have more to do with poison than magic. This isn't a criticism of Snyder, because it's her choice how to write the book; my interpretation of the title and the teaser just led me to expect something else. And it didn't quite prepare me for the sudden romance near the end—again, however, Snyder foreshadowed it and developed it throughout the story. So consider this a caution, not a criticism.
No, Poison Study is not a bad book. Unfortunately, watching Yelena reclaim her life—literally—and vanquish her personal demons, saving the country as bonus, is marred by a very pedestrian narrative style. The exposition is not so much dry as it is utilitarian. By focusing only on what is relevant to her plot and not on how Ixian society would realistically function, Snyder creates a world that serves its purpose but nothing more. It's the type of worldbuilding that is perfectly acceptable for entry into the country club of worlds, but only just, and all of the fancy-dressed well-to-do worlds look down on this one. And so do I.
This is a birthday present for a coworker, who as far as I know reads only that OTHER vampire series. I wanted something similar to give her, so I bou...moreThis is a birthday present for a coworker, who as far as I know reads only that OTHER vampire series. I wanted something similar to give her, so I bought Night World No. 1 upon the recommendation of a friend. Now I've read it for myself, so I know what it is I'll be giving away.
The first rule of Night World: Do not talk about Night World.
The second rule of Night World: Do not fall in love with humans. This includes turning a human girl into a vampire so that she won't die from cancer. But if you do, make sure they are hawt. We have standards to uphold.
The third rule of Night World: If you find that a human is in fact your soulmate, don't panic. The universe will move Heaven and Earth to produce an all-too-convenient loophole to rules 1 and 2.
These are the laws of the universe that govern L.J. Smith's Night World. The punishment for breaking rules 1 and 2 is death. Rule 3, therefore, is very convenient, and although not codified in the book as such, I have deduced from observations regarding the ending of all three novels in this volume.
Although not per se formulaic, all three novels in this book follow the same general arc. Human boy or girl and Night Person of the opposite sex fall in love because they are "soulmates." A straw conflict ensues, but then everything works out all right (because they're soulmates, so the universe wants them to be together). There's some suspense, some humour, and once and a while the protagonist learns something. An Umberto Eco book this is not.
Nor, probably, should it be. Nevertheless, I'm in the camp that prefers to provide staunch fare for young adult readers. Harry Potter and that OTHER vampire series may not be sublime works of literature, but they're still complex. I'll give Night World credit for being relevant, but it has such a charming, unvariegated simplicity to it.
Secret Vampire, the first novel in this book, is the worst offender by far. Poppy's dying from pancreatic cancer, so her friend James, whom she's had a crush on since forever, reveals that he's a vampire and can make her a vampire as well. Of course, telling her about the Night World condemns them both to death. Thanks to a convenient discovery at the end of the book, it turns out Poppy is allowed to know about Night World after all, so they can all live vampily-ever-after.
I quite enjoyed how Smith had Poppy react to having a terminal illness and then learning her best friend is a vampire. Her reactions are real and visceral. Likewise, James also has an interesting dilemma: he's stuck in a world where humans are considered food (at best) or vermin (at worst). Divulging his feelings for Penny or to Penny means death. I suppose, as an allegory for high school, it works well enough.
For all its verisimilitude in character, Secret Vampire and the subsequent stories all lack suitable accompanying conflict. The protagonist of each story loses something, in the end: Poppy can't go back to her family (although she gets to go live with Dad, yay); Mary-Lynette isn't going to be a vampire after all, so she'll only get to see Ash once in a while; Thea has to pretend to forget her past as a witch so she can live with human Eric. Although sometimes these losses are significant, the book always emphasizes the positive aspects of the end. As a result, there's no real tension, no real catharsis involved. Bad things happen, but only to a certain degree.
Daughters of Darkness and Spellbinder did manage to improve my overall opinion of Night World. It helps that both involve more characters and, in my evaluation, better characters. The Redfern sisters, for example, each have complementary qualities that juxtapose nicely with Mary-Lynette's human sensibilities. Similarly, the sister-bond between Thea and Blaise Harman in Spellbinder, with all of its attendant difficulties and obligations, worked very well. It also probably helps that both of these stories had more to their plot than, "Oh no, I told a human about the Night World and saved her life!" There are underlying conflicts, whether it's a renegade werewolf-cum-vampire hunter or an escaped spirit of a bellicose witch.
In particular, Spellbinder was my favourite. I loved the dynamic between Thea and Blaise. Smith captures the difficult positions one will often occupy thanks to friends or family, the choices one has to make between loyalty and, say, love. She also captures the attitude of certain teenage girls, witches or not, with creepy accuracy. Spellbinder appeals to that part of us that never manages to escape high school.
So somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed Night World. I can certainly find things about it ripe for mockery. On their own, the individual stories are somewhat weak. Together, however, they manage to resonate just enough to be meaningful.(less)
I won this in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, because I did not read the description closely enough to realize it is historical romance rather than...moreI won this in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, because I did not read the description closely enough to realize it is historical romance rather than mere historical fiction. I tend not to read romance, but as far as my experience with them goes, Tempted by a Warrior is not that bad. The story (if not the characters or the romance) held my interest, and the historical in "historical romance" helps a lot. Nevertheless, there are flaws in this book that are difficult to dismiss.
Tempted by a Warrior is told in a limited third-person perspective, alternating between Fiona and Kirkhill. Unfortunately for the narrator, neither of these two characters are particularly interesting. I have misgivings about Fiona's psyche, whereas Kirkhill is just annoying in his insipid competence.
In the prologue, we witness Fiona's husband, Will, beating her. She is nine-months pregnant. A few weeks later, Will is missing (presumed dead) and Kirkhill shows up as Will's father lies on his deathbed. Fiona falls in love with Kirkhill, as we knew she would, in a few weeks, and as their romance blossoms, so too does their adversarial relationship.
Remove the first sentence from the preceding paragraph, and everything would be fine. However, Fiona has been married to Will for two years, and presumably he has been abusing her for about that long. Suddenly, her husband is gone, and she just falls in love with the next man who enters her life? Where are the trust issues? Why is Fiona not fucked up from being a seventeen-year-old battered woman? Oh, sure, she puts up a token resistance and displays her "temper" when Kirkhill infringes on what she considers her decisions to make. And there is some tension about the mystery of what happened to Will—perhaps he is still alive! Nevertheless, once conflict brings Kirkhill and Fiona together and the whole Will issue is hand-waved away, Fiona dismisses the psychological impact of the last two years of her life without so much as a "by your leave."
This irks me in its own right, but it also bothers me because Fiona is an otherwise well-written character. She is young, but her two years of hell have clearly matured her. While she and Nan, Kirkhill's kid sister, share a hot-headed nature, Fiona is closer to Kirkhill when it comes to matters of practicality and frugality. Nan only wants dresses that will make the boys look at her; she is about as vapid and spoilt as 14th-century Scotswomen come. Fiona, on the other hand, knows what is like to live in a sort of enforced state of poverty—neither her husband nor her father-in-law had the means or desire to provide her with many gifts. Scott depicts Fiona's sense of relief over being "freed" by the death of her father-in-law very well, and aside from the evaporation of that whole abuse issue, Fiona's attraction and eventual trust in Kirkhill makes sense.
Or, about as much sense as any attraction to Kirkhill makes, considering he is bland. While Kirkhill, like Fiona, has his share of personal challenges to overcome, his always seem trivial, because he is overly-competent at life. I can't think of a single obstacle he faces that presents much difficulty. To be sure, sometimes he expresses aggravation over having to deal with a bratty kid sister and a truculent ward. But those are just the ebb and flow of everyday life. Kirkhill manages to banish any major conflict, even Fiona's abduction at the hands of English forces, merely by looking at it sternly (and shouting, "the Douglas!" a couple of times on his horse). I never feel like there's any question of the outcome; worse, I never feel like Kirkhill's challenges result in any real character growth. He is as bland, boring, and good at everything at the end as he is at the beginning. He doesn't deserve Fiona.
One of the plot threads running through Tempted by a Warrior is the disappearance of Will Jardine. Fiona wonders if she killed him; Kirkhill needs to find out of he is still alive to settle matters of inheritance—not to mention, you know, so he can marry Fiona in good conscience. Once they find Will's corpse, the nature of the threat shifts slightly: now it's possible that an unlikable sheriff, related to Fiona's sister by marriage, will swing by and hang Fiona for Will's murder. Oh no!
Except the threat never materializes. The sheriff never shows up; he is a character in name only. After building it up as a significant concern, Scott dismisses Will's death. We learn whodunnit, and Kirkhill decides the person does not need to face justice—after all, Will was a Bad Man. I cannot actually fault Kirkhill's decision, since this is 14th-century Scotland, and I'm sure it is a realistic depiction of lord exercising his will to confound justice. It's not like Fiona had any legal way of appealing Will's abuse, so his death is justice in its own way. What I cannot countenance, however, is the way Scott teases us. It is emblematic of Tempted by a Warrior in general: lots of drama without any real conflict.
It is a shame, too, because the characters (aside from Kirkhill) have the potential to do so much more. They just want for a good plot, something that will re-shape them. Similarly, Scott's historical setting is detailed and obviously well-research—but wasted on a story that fails to leave a lasting impression. Tempted by a Warrior is exactly what it says on the tin: many temptations, few of them very fulfilling.
In Grade 12 English we were responsible for an Independent Study Unit, where we read two novels and wrote an essay comparing their common themes. We a...moreIn Grade 12 English we were responsible for an Independent Study Unit, where we read two novels and wrote an essay comparing their common themes. We also had to give a presentation on a theme from the books. I studied Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus! and Girlfriend in a Coma; my presentation was on theodicy and the Problem of Evil. A classmate gave a presentation about Pride and Prejudice. We had the opportunity to ask questions, and someone (it might have been me; I hadn’t read the book at that time, but I can’t remember) asked about how Austen portrays the Industrial Revolution in her novel. His answer: “She doesn’t. She basically ignores it.” Fair enough. Indeed, while there are minor echoes of industrialization in her works, Austen’s novels are not concerned with the social change happening as a result. Their focus instead on the everyday lives of the rural gentry is what makes them so invaluable (plus, you know, the fact that they are really quite good).
This is the feeling that Mary Robinette Kowal replicates in Shades of Milk and Honey, a novel which she describes as “Jane Austen, with magic.” It is essentially a straight-up Regency-era comic novel in Austen’s style; the only difference is the addition of a minor, illusionary form of magic known as “glamour.” Lacking much in the way of practical use, glamour has become a “womanly” accomplishment much in the vein as drawing, painting, needlework, pianoforte, etc. The protagonist, Jane, is an accomplished amateur glamourist yet still well on her way to being an old maid. Her younger sister, Melody, is more attractive but less accomplished.
Kowal is careful to stress that glamour has not largely altered Regency England. It has no use in war. It’s decorative, fit for enhancing the beauty of a painting or covering the threadbare nature of a room. And this stance remains throughout the book: there is no secret twist halfway through in which glamour suddenly figures as a major plot point. Jane admirably employs glamour in a number of innovative ways throughout the book to further her own ends and help people in a moment of need … but by and large, the existence of glamour does little to change the nature of this book as a romance.
Doubtless this annoys some readers, who would insist that if glamour exists it has to be for a reason within the story. Why bother having it otherwise? Why not just write a Regency era romance novel and be done with it? Indeed, I would be lying if I claimed that a small part of me didn’t harbour such thoughts. And it’s fair enough to reject this book on these grounds, if that’s the kind of fantasy one is looking for. But I think that would be a mistake. Like Austen, Kowal is writing a story very confined in scope. This is the story of Jane and the Ellsworths, of the Dunkirks, of Mr Vincent and Captain Livingston. But it’s the story of these Austenian characters while they live in a world with magic. And glamour is there to highlight the differences in the social positions between Jane and Mr Vincent—for, unlike Austen, Kowal’s novel is necessarily socially conscious, being as it is a novel of historical rather than contemporary fiction.
Kowal can do things with glamour as a womanly art that she can’t with, say, painting. By inventing a new art all her own, she has the freedom to create mystery and the potential for innovation that would be harder to do with an established and mundane art. Part of the conflict in Shades of Milk and Honey comes from Jane’s repressed ambition, reawakened in her encounters with Mr Vincent, who misinterprets her curiosity and appreciation as an attempt to strip the sense of wonder from his meticulously created illusions. If Jane were a talented male glamourist, she could have become a professional tutor like Mr Vincent, and continued to explore glamour for its own sake. As a woman, though, Jane’s use of glamour is supposedly for entertainment only—for husband-catching. Even Jane herself seems to view it in this light, despite the fact that her talents in the area cause her to experiment and revel in the practising of glamour in a way few others do.
So on balance I appreciate the inclusion of glamour. I’m less enamoured of the attempts to replicate Austen’s clever characters and intricate plotting. Kowal’s painstaking labour to replicate a Regency flavour to the text and speech is laudable, yet in her homage to Austen’s characters, she verges on creating caricatures of a combination of them. Mr Ellsworth is the stereotypical disinterested, amused father figure who cares for his daughters but doesn’t deign to interfere unless he has to. Mrs Ellsworth is the stereotypical invalid/hypochondriac whose sole concern is getting her daughters married. It’s kind of the Uncanny Valley of Regency Emulation, but what bothers me is that I can’t figure out whether the problem is Kowal’s emulation of Austen or my awareness of Kowal’s emulation of Austen.
But if we set this question of style aside for a moment, then all I can say is that I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey. I enjoy the way Kowal sets up the characters, introduces them, before beginning a far deeper and more sinister story full of heroes and heroines and rogues and scoundrels. The plot itself is predictable to anyone familiar with this type of story. That doesn’t matter, though: it’s still a fun Regency romp. This is the kind of novel I might suggest to myself if I were looking for a “beach read,” in the sense that when people talk of beach reads, they talk of books that don’t require much brainpower to plough through—lighter fare. Shades of Milk and Honey has layers of meaning, fantastical elements mixed with Regency drama … but it is still a beach read. It’s easy to follow, easy to enjoy, and perfectly pleasant.
I've talked smack about Jane Austen before, not so much to discount her ability as a writer—if you question that, then oh, we will throw down—but to c...moreI've talked smack about Jane Austen before, not so much to discount her ability as a writer—if you question that, then oh, we will throw down—but to compare her unfavourably to George Eliot. What can I say? I was young and stupid two years ago!
Today I would like to apologize to Miss Austen. Since Middlemarch I've come a long way and read a lot more of Austen's works, and while Eliot's novel remains uneclipsed by Austen's novels, my awe and appreciation of Austen's abilities has only increased. Though I considered Sense and Sensibility somewhat disappointing, Emma more than made up for it, and now Northanger Abbey has only confirmed this opinion.
Reading four of Austen's works, two of which are unfinished drafts, all in one volume was very interesting. It provides a breadth to the Austen experience unavailable from a single novel, and unlike some editions of her work, I actually found the critical opinions in this edition helpful. The introduction provides something that we modern readers sorely lack, context. In particular, it explains the relationship between Northanger Abbey and gothic novels, a genre with which I am entirely unfamiliar. There is also a delightful set of explanatory notes at the back of the book that explain particular social references and literary allusions through these four works that otherwise would have gone right past me. Not only have I read more Austen, but I've had an educated and enlightening glimpse into the rural English society of that time.
I'm going to review each work separately, proceeding backward from the order in the text, since I'm saving the best for last.
Review of Sandition
It's difficult to review an unfinished work. I empathize with the editors for the difficult choices they made in typesetting Sandition and The Watsons. There are no paragraphs in Sandition, and paragraphs are one structural item in modern writing that I find indispensable. I have rejected books that I'm sure are otherwise amazing as a result of this very personal prejudice, so I am proud that I managed to slog through Sandition and give it a fair hearing. Because it's mostly very good.
Sandition stands out from Austen's other work because its setting is quite different from the villages and estates present in Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, etc. The eponymous coastal town is undergoing a renewal in the form of health tourism, an industry vigorously promoted by Mr. Parker. The protagonist is apparently Charlotte Heywood, daughter of an innkeeper who befriends the Parkers when they travel in search for a physician for their venture. Austen spends a considerable amount of time on the setting, the intricacies of Parker's real estate plans, and the zeitgeist in a town that is trying to make the transition from a rural habitation to a commercial resort. She's exploring her usual topics of money, status, social mobility, etc., but she does so from a different angle. Charlotte doesn't attend a dance or, so far, start courting suitors; she is more of a witness to Sandition's attempts to attract affluent tourists.
The stylistic, editorial problems with Sandition made it a chore to read. However, it is very short, and it is a shame that Austen did not complete it. Good or bad, it was definitely quite promising.
Review of The Watsons
Compared to Sandition, The Watsons is even rougher in plot and narrative. It is also more traditional, in the sense that we have a female heroine who struggles to find a suitable, likeable husband while dealing with family issues. Notably, the Watsons are one of Austen's poorer families; though they do not quite live off the charity of a relative like the Dashwoods do, Emma's return to the family after the death of the aunt with whom she was living signifies an increased burden. Best to get her married right quick!
The bulk of the extant text consists of a ball that Emma attends as a guest of a richer family. Her sister Elizabeth usually attends this annual affair, and Emma's unfamiliarity with the people and the event are a source of tension. Emma attracts attention to herself when she dances with a young child, Charles, whose sister reneged on a promise to dance with him in favour of dancing with an eligible young man. In particular, the Watsons later receive a visit from none other than Lord Osborne himself, and we know what that means.
Like Sandition, The Watsons is promising, but I'm very hesitant to judge it as is. It is an obviously unfinished, unpolished work, and not something I would be likely to read were it not for the author and her status.
Review of Lady Susan
An actual finished work from Jane Austen, Lady Susan is the epistolary account of the manipulations of the eponymous flirty widow, Susan Vernon. And it is amusing, almost laugh-out-loud funny.
The short length of the letters, combined with their shifting points of view, presents a very different experience from Austen's other work. While a narrator shows up at the very end, the bulk of the novel consists of the first-person accounts of Lady Susan and various other correspondents. Each of these characters have a delightfully distinct voice, and I love watching Austen switch between them. From the schemes of Lady Susan and her low opinions of her own daughter we quickly jump to her sister-in-law, Catherine Vernon, complaining to her mother about Susan's behaviour.
Despite the intensity of her wit and humour here, Lady Susan does manage to make me care about its characters and the conflict. Susan is a duplicitous bitch who schemes to get her own way and neglects her daughter. I don't want to see Frederica marry Reginald any more than Frederica does! Yet there's also something intriguing about Susan. She has twin roles: widow and flirtatious woman. She can marry again, but she doesn't want to give up that freedom. Susan is a very different character from Austen's other heroines, who are mostly young and somewhat innocent. Susan is neither, and even though she is not a nice person per se, she is a very interesting one.
I'll go so far as to call Lady Susan a hidden gem. It's something you might miss if you focus only on Austen's better-known works, and that would be a shame.
Review of Northanger Abbey
Though not published until after he death, Northanger Abbey is the first novel Austen sold to a publisher. The editors of this edition call it both a parody of and an homage to the gothic novel. I find it the most obviously self-aware of Austen's works. Austen's narrator vehemently defends the novel as a literary form from its detractors:
… they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels;—for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding—joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.
That is a small snippet from a much longer diatribe on the infidelity of other novelists to their own form. I love it; it's Austen with attitude.
I found it easy to identify with Catherine. Like her, I've often wondered what my life would be like with elements of favourite fictions included. Austen creates moments of suspense as Catherine pokes around Northanger Abbey that are absent from her other stories. There's plenty of tension in Emma and Pride and Prejudice, but the emulation of the gothic form lends a different atmosphere to this book.
Of course, central to the book are the relationships of the main characters, particularly Catherine's friendship with Isabella Thorpe and her budding romance with Henry Tilney. Isabella and her brother, John, are obviously bad influences on Catherine; the scenes in which they inveigle her "with gentle violence" to accompany them on a country carriage ride at the expense of an engagement with Eleanor Tilney are delightfully awkward. Poor Catherine is unsure of how to extricate herself from what she sees as terrible rudeness, especially when her current "best friend" and her own brother are among those encouraging her! It's like high school peer pressure, albeit everyone is better dressed and there are no drugs involved.
Once Catherine goes to Northanger Abbey, her relationship with Isabella becomes entirely epistolary. We learn about Isabella's infidelity and flirtatiousness at the expense of Catherine's brother. As with Lady Susan, the letters from different people allow us a rare glimpse at another person's perspective on the matter. Despite Isabella's entreaties, Catherine remains constant once she learns from her brother of what Isabella did, which is something I found interesting. I thought for sure there would have to be an attempt at reconciliation by the both of them, but I was wrong; Catherine is stronger than that. Good for her! That is, naturally, the point: Austen sets the stage for Catherine to choose between friends, Eleanor or Isabella. Eleanor is the obvious better choice, but it takes a while for Catherine, who is a little naive, to understand the depth of Isabella's shallowness.
I don't know if "the most uncomplicated" of Austen's leading males is the right phrase to describe Henry Tilney, but I think it captures the gist of what I want to say about him. He is not dark and brooding like Mr. Darcy, and the dynamic between Catherine and Henry is quite different from the one established between Emma and Mr. Knightley, mostly owing to the differences in maturity between the two heroines. Henry is Catherine's first love and her first real exposure to a potential husband. She conflates his true personality with those of heroes from her gothic novels, conjuring up a fantastic backstory of betrayal and murder for his father, the General. This is the most serious obstacle to their union, aside from General Tilney's short-lived objections.
The abruptness of the conclusion to Northanger Abbey is its weakest part. Austen lampshades this, mentioning, "the anxiety … as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." I still don't like it. The Morlands just happen to improve enough in their financial situation to obviate the General's objections to the marriage; Austen invokes a narrative fiat to create a happy ending and remove the conflict. It's effective but crude and a little undermining for the rest of the story.
As always, I've read and reviewed this book with an emphasis on how it compares to Austen's other stories. Northanger Abbey is not my favourite Austen novel, nor is it my least favourite. It exhibits the best and worst of Austen's traits as a writer, a humourist, and a careful descriptor of the relationships of her chosen demographic. I especially liked the insight it provides into how Austen viewed the novel form and gothic novels, something I admit was emphasized by the editors to the benefit of my historical edification.
Yes, I have indeed read another romance novel with vampires. What is wrong with me?
As with The Rest Falls Away, Soulless has been on my to-read list...moreYes, I have indeed read another romance novel with vampires. What is wrong with me?
As with The Rest Falls Away, Soulless has been on my to-read list for a while now. I almost bought the boxed set of all five books in this series at Christmas time, stopping myself on the grounds that I wouldn’t want to bring them back to England with me, so they’d gather dust at home until the summer. When I went to the Bury library last week to pick up some books I’d reserved, I noticed Soulless in a display of alternate history novels. Call it serendipity, but I took the opportunity to cross this one off my list.
I should clarify that, while this is both a romance and a vampire novel, it’s not a romance vampire novel. That is, the main character, Alexia, falls in love—but with a werewolf, not a vampire! However, vampires constitute a significant portion of this story as well.
Gail Carriger takes a lot of liberties in imagining an alternative Victorian England where the supernatural is not just real but openly acknowledged. Vampires and werewolves conform to rules of civility that allow them to coexist alongside humans. (Ghosts also exist but are less … ahem … substantial.) Humans can become supernatural beings if they have excess “soul”. Alexia Tarabotti is special because she is soulless, and therefore neutralizes supernatural beings with her touch. Vampires’ fangs retract, werewolves revert to human form, and the creatures become mortal. Carriger never really addresses how Alexia’s abilities affect ghosts, unfortunately.
Given that Alexia’s state as a soulless “preternatural” is one of the most unique and intriguing things about the book, one might have expected Carriger to explore its ramifications more creatively than she does. Everyone who is aware of Alexia’s status declares her important and significant, as evinced by the resolution of the book setting her up as a VIP. Unfortunately, soullnesses is sidelined in favour of the development of the romance subplots and the mystery of the missing supernaturals. This doesn’t ruin the book—I, for one, still found it quite enjoyable—but it’s a regrettable decision.
Alexia’s romance with Lord Maccon is far from the standard, more torrid fare that one might expect in a stereotypical romance novel. Carriger tends towards comedy in all respects, so the romance is a whirlwind of mixed signals and cross-cultural misunderstandings. Alexia’s difficulties fitting into society—owing to her Italian heritage and her forwardness and independent spirit relative to the ideal for women of that era—parallels Maccon’s own unease as a “barbarous” Scottish werewolf among the London ton. (That’s a brilliant word for the fashionable slice of society, by the way.) Similarly, Alexia’s indomitable “Alpha” spirit matches Maccon’s obstinacy. The two are, in short, perfect for each other.
Carriger pokes fun at all aspects of Victorian comportment, fashion, and attitudes towards women. In flippant tones she describes the social disaster of having a club for scientific gentleman next to Duke Snodgrass’ house, or reminds us that because of Alexia’s Italian heritage, her skin and hair are darker than is ideal. Alexia’s half-sisters and mother are more traditional in how they perform their gender roles—the overall effect almost comes across as a kind of softened version of Cinderella.
For all the light-hearted mockery, however, Carriger is more than content to echo the typical tropes of Victorian high society rather than subvert or interrogate them any further. As with Alexia’s soulless state, it seems there is much more that Carriger could have explored here, had she chosen to take the book in that direction. I love the light and frothy tone that Carriger maintains, but I’ve always been more impressed when an author can maintain such a tone and still engage in more substantial social commentary.
If what you desire is an entertaining mixture of Victorian England, werewolves and vampires, and romance, then Soulless has all of that. It has a snappy, engaging plot—although the villain isn’t necessarily that interesting or imposing—and Carriger carefully introduces nuanced differences between Alexia’s world and ours as a result of the existence of supernatural and preternatural beings.
I’m always intrigued when books receive such a diverse spread of ratings and reviews from my friends on Goodreads. Some of my friends loved Soulless while others hated it. At the risk of seeming tepid, I have to say that I’m somewhere in the middle. Soulless is a lot of fun, but it also has its nuisance moments. I always wanted to keep on reading and to discover what would happen next—but there were times when I had to roll my eyes at the campiness of the whole thing. There is a slight duality of tension within the book, which cannot decide exactly what type of book it wants to be.
I shall definitely carry on with the Parasol Protectorate series, though I’m rethinking that urge to buy the boxed set.
So I started sticky-noting this book on page 8. (Well, I started on page 12 and then retroactively stickied something on page 8.)
I will sometimes mark...moreSo I started sticky-noting this book on page 8. (Well, I started on page 12 and then retroactively stickied something on page 8.)
I will sometimes mark up books I own when I feel like it, but I usually prefer to use sticky notes if I find something I really want to reference in my review (they are easier to find and allow me to be more verbose than scribbly margin writing). But I don’t do this that often. When I sticky-note, it’s usually for non-fiction books, occasionally for books that are really, really good, and sometimes for books that are really, really cringe-worthy.
Sorry, Emily Giffin. But Love the One You’re With is not non-fiction, and it’s not winning any awards from me. It forced me to confront some of my attitudes towards chick lit as a genre and how I, as a straight, white man, critique that genre. Not only do I have little experience with chick lit, but I also feel like an outsider when it comes to the target demographic. While I’m certain not all women enjoy chick lit as characterized by Love the One You’re With, I’m also certain some women do (and many of them have written reviews here on Goodreads explaining why). So even as I attempt to deconstruct this book and what I perceive to be its subtext, I don’t want to seem prescriptive or judgemental about people’s reading choices here. Please go ahead and read this if you choose … but that doesn’t change the fact it’s not very good.
My sticky-noting died off a little bit before the hundredth page, for a few reasons. Firstly, I went to have a bath, where it is easy to read but hard to sticky-note. Secondly, my sticky notes would just have gotten really repetitive. I think the book actually improves as it goes on, but mostly Giffin repeats the same types of tropes and clichéd writing that led my initial bout of stickying enthusiasm. Here’s the passage that started it all:
As it turned out, I was right about both Andy and Margot. He was nice, and she was just about everything I wasn’t. For starters we were physical opposites. She was a petite yet still curvy, fair-skinned blue-eyed blonde. I had dark hair and hazel eyes, skin that looked tanned even in the dead of winter, and a tall, athletic frame. We were equally attractive, but Margot had a soft, whimsical look about her while my features were more easily described as handsome.
There’s something about the phrase, “We were equally attractive” that set me off. It’s just so clunky. Do women really talk like that? I went to the trouble of finding a woman and asking her! My friend, who shall remain nameless, agreed this paragraph sounded more like plot device than serious internal monologue. And while I can understand that some women would probably have these sorts of attractiveness comparisons, the way Giffin chose to phrase it set the alarm bells ringing.
See, Giffin is clearly writing to an audience, and that audience is not me. It’s obvious in the way she tosses out little reminders that assume a like-mindedness I can’t muster:
I know for an absolute fact that Leo and Andy met once, at a bar in the East Village. At the time time, it was only a brief, meaningless encounter between my boyfriend and a best friend’s brother…. But years later, after Leo and I had long broken up, and Andy and I had begun to date, I would deconstruct that moment in exhausting detail, as any woman would.
And, a little later in the book, as Ellen talks about how she first met tantalizing ex-boyfriend, Leo:
The thought took me by surprise as I wasn’t accustomed to assessing strange men in such a strictly physical way. Like most women, I was about getting to know someone first—attraction based on personality. Moreover, I wasn’t even that into sex. Yet.
It’s the “as any woman would” and “like most women” phrases that get under my skin. I’m sure some women certainly fit this rather narrow mould that Giffin realizes in Ellen, and perhaps those are Giffin’s target audience. But she does this audience a disservice when she serves up a story devoid of real controversy or conflict, filled instead with stereotypical characters and a pre-packaged plot that has been microwaved to room temperature.
Ellen is one of the most bland narrators I have encountered in a long time. I don’t usually hear a character’s voice in my head when a book is in first-person. But in this case I kept imagining Ellen’s voice as Kristen Stewart’s. Love the One You’re With is actually just an urbane version of Twilight (without the vampires and werewolves and if Bella had chosen Jacob over Edward). Leo is Edward: the attractive, subversive bad boy whom Bella—sorry, Ellen—just can’t help but find so dreamy. Andy is Jacob: the stable, safe, but slightly boring choice, who happens to be from an alien culture (Atlantan instead of Native American). And, like Bella, Ellen is spineless and indecisive, with the personality of an empty box of Tic-Tacs.
Ellen’s marriage with Andy is “perfect” (according to the back of the book) until she runs into Leo one day, a meeting that precipitates a crisis of careers as well as feelings. Andy wants to move back to Atlanta to practise law with his father and have a big, ostentatious house. Ellen doesn’t really want that, or pretends she doesn’t care, or something, but goes along with it because she wants him to be happy. Surprise, surprise, she isn’t happy when she suddenly has to be steeped in Southern Hospitality 24/7 and conform to certain social expectations. Then, she blames herself for her own unhappiness because “he gave me a lot of outs.” So instead of discussing the issue with her husband in a calm manner, she gives more thought to having an affair with Leo.
I suppose there are some legitimate issues that Giffin tackles here. Having never been married myself, I’m only going off what I know from books and romantic comedies, but it seems like resolving differences about where to live would probably be a big deal. Similarly, everyone in the book keeps asking, in one way or another, when Ellen is going to start popping out babies. Again, not something that I can speak about from experience, but I can understand why that would be annoying and even demeaning. So I can see how some women who read this book might identify with what Ellen is going through.
Yet for all the seriousness of these issues, Giffin never actually challenges or critiques them in any meaningful way. Without going into spoiler territory, let’s just say that a careful deus ex machina and predictable phone call result in a happy ending that just begs “motion picture, please!” Instead of contrasting Margot’s cheerful pregnancy with a more adamant desire not to enter into motherhood, Ellen, in her typical indecisive way, never really commits one way or the other. Giffin tries to tell us that Ellen is a strong, independent person: “Yes, I’m Andy’s wife. And I’m a Graham. But I’m also Suzanne’s sister, my mother’s daughter, my own person.” Ellen’s actions throughout the novel belie this claim, for she seldom forges her own path when another sees fit to offer her one to follow.
I don’t go for the defence that books like this are “beach reads,” are leisure reads, and should therefore get a free pass. Literature, all literature, is powerful, and being something read for leisure does not excuse it from being well-written or thought-provoking. There’s nothing wrong with craving something with more story than substance, but there’s a difference between a book that is light and fun and a book that is just shallow. Love the One You’re With, to be fair, does not land squarely in the latter category—but it dangles perilously close. Moreover, what saves it from this label is not so much any redeeming quality as it is the fact that, like the main character, this book suffers from an incurable case of blandness.
My dad occasionally wanders into my room with that look on his face communicating the depth to which the books he borrowed from the library have disap...moreMy dad occasionally wanders into my room with that look on his face communicating the depth to which the books he borrowed from the library have disappointed him, proceeds to the shelf where my to-read books live until I devour them, and borrows a book before I read it. That happened with The Night Circus. Afterwards he commented that it reminds him of World of Wonders. I can see why. Both books are set, at least partly, in a circus/carnival even stranger than most. Both are about the convoluted relationships of several central characters. But The Night Circus is much more overtly fantastical, centred as it is around a magical duel of surprising subtlety.
Celia and Marco are proxies, pawns in a challenge conducted between two magicians of incredible longevity and power. This is the latest—and apparently the last—such challenge, which ends only when one of the two players’ proxies dies. But it’s no ordinarily duel, magic or otherwise. Celia and Marco are not supposed to interfere with each other; instead, they compete in displays of their magical prowess, attempting to show the other’s methods and abilities are far superior. For the challenge’s venue, Prospero and his counterpart, the mysterious Alexander, arrange the creation of a circus like the world has never seen. This is the eponymous nightime circus, moving from town to town with no schedule, no warning. Within this circus, Celia and Marco compete to prove themselves the better magician.
And what a circus! The book straddles the transition into the 20th century. Set amid the decline of Victorian England and the rise of the United States of America, it has that particular atmosphere of sepia-toned photographs, gas lighting, and quaintly dressed couples in the autumn air. The circus is similarly romantic, a combination of impossibly efficient and magnificently mysterious. Some of the tents have performers: acrobats, fortune tellers, even an illusionist. Others are far less conventional, including labyrinths of ice and wish-granting trees. It truly is a world of wonders.
The circus is the brainchild of one M. Lefevre, but its success and vitality is due to Celia and Marco. Gradually, the circus changes from setting to material for their duel. Marco lights an eternal bonfire that allows him to watch and manipulate the circus from afar, for he is usually in London while the circus is on the road. Celia is the one responsible for the train that transports the circus to each new destination, not to mention whatever magic enables its setup and takedown. In between these more quotidian tasks, they find time to design new tents and attractions. At first they work separately, designing and implementing their own creations. But once Celia and Marco discover each other’s identity as their opponent, they begin to collaborate—and their sponsors are none too happy with such fraternization.
That this is a love story should come as no surprise. It’s advertised as such in the dust jack cover copy, and even if it weren’t, then every rule of storytelling would still demand it! Celia and Marco’s romance is not sappy, but it isn’t particularly well-realized either. For one thing, there’s Isobel. Marco meets her long before he meets Celia—long before he properly begins the challenge, even, though he has been training almost his entire life. Isobel reads tarot, and they develop a comfortable but not necessarily passionate relationship. Indeed, Isobel clearly wants (or needs) Marco more than he does her, to the point that she volunteers to join the Night Circus so as to spy on Celia for him. Later, when all is said and done and it’s clear that Marco has chosen Celia, Isobel’s reaction proves to be a major turning point, sending ripples throughout the circus. Yet Isobel bears no malice toward Celia, and while this is refreshing, I kind of wish she had gotten mad, at least at someone.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there never seems to be a serious obstacle between Celia and Marco being together. There’s a notable one during the climax, of course, but even the solution to that was rather predictable. Theirs is a storybook romance without the troubles that should accompany any two literary characters’ attempts to make it work: where are the disagreements, the arguments, the fights? Where are the misinterpreted phrases, misconstrued glances, and awkward moments? It’s not sappy and not overdone, but Celia and Marco’s relationship is still just a little too smooth.
This glossiness translates to other areas of The Night Circus, including the magic that Celia and Marco perform. Its products are amazing but the magic itself is not as flashy: Celia can alter her gown colour at will! Marco can write stuff in his notebook! Actually, I’m going to disagree with some reviewers who express their disappointment that the duel is not so much a duel as a talent show. I loved this aspect of The Night Circus. I like that Morgenstern took it upon herself not to make this some kind of conflict related to force, or even to wits. Rather, it is a conflict of stamina. Celia can feel herself slipping as the strain of managing the circus begins to become too much. Marco has been keeping the circus performers from aging, not to mention carefully managing the mind of his employer, M. Lefevre. The magic takes its toll on both of them—but they can’t give it up, for they have been bound to this challenge by the magic of those who would see them dance until one of them drops.
I wish we had learned more about the pasts of Prospero and Alexander. It’s implied that they are extremely old, on the order of centuries at least, but that each of them is beginning to reach his limits: Prospero traps himself in a ghost-like state after attempting to achieve true immortality; Alexander remains corporeal but is feeling the weight of his age more than ever. This is to be their final challenge, one more game for old times’ sake. The point of the challenge, if it has one at all, seems to be to gauge which theory of magic is better—Celia’s almost psychokinetic manipulation of the world around her, or Marco’s textual, wordbased sorcery. Yet with so little background on these characters, we are left without a mythology for The Night Circus.
Finally, I just have to add how much I enjoyed Bailey’s story. His subplot progresses asynchronously with Celia and Marco’s challenge, but he becomes an integral part of The Night Circus and its resolution. I found Bailey a much easier character to identify with than Celia, Marco, or any of the others associated with the circus. His conflicts in life were real and recognizable, with the lure of the circus a classic juxtaposition. Along with Herr Thiessen, Bailey is one of those supporting characters who make a novel a lot better than it might have been if the author had chosen only to focus on the main plot.
My review is somewhat more lukewarm than I thought it would be after finishing The Night Circus. I really enjoyed reading this book. Erin Morgenstern’s prose is poetic to the point of seductiveness. In my descriptions of this book to people I have tiptoed around the term magical realism, for it connotes an idea similar to what comes to mind when I consider The Night Circus. But the fantasy in this book is overt; I suppose I might call it magical surrealism for its use of illusion and the subtlety of its magical acts. Although the relationships between the characters are not the highest point of this book, I think it’s definitely worthy of the acclaim and hype it seems to be receiving so far. Instant classic? No. But something to consider if you too are disappointed with your choice of library books.
Contrary to what the title of this book implies to any sensible reader, this book is not about River Song. Disappointing, I know.
I ended up liking thi...moreContrary to what the title of this book implies to any sensible reader, this book is not about River Song. Disappointing, I know.
I ended up liking this book much more than I expected. To be perfectly honest, I did not want to like The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s a popular book, a “pop lit” book that has appropriated something so dear to science fiction and turned it into a gimmick for a romance. I had resolved to read it so I would know what others are talking about, and be armed with reasons why I dislike it. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, I found myself entranced by the way Audrey Niffenegger has ruthlessly pursued this idea of two lovers literally out of sync with each other. She is quick to establish consistent rules about Henry’s time travelling, and there is a singular pleasure to watching the timeline wrap around itself as we see an event Clare witnessed as a young girl from the eyes of the much older, temporally-displaced Henry. In short, Niffenegger takes what could have been a gimmick and, through an obvious effort and maybe even some talent, turns it into a great story.
That’s not to say the time travel in this story is perfect. After all, the reason that Henry travels through time unwillingly is kind of silly—it’s genetic. As if there are certain alleles that somehow cause our bodies to opt out of the space-time continuum. On the surface it’s an intriguing premise, and Niffenegger at least tries to make it sound scientific. Nothing but Henry’s body travels with him, so he always arrives nude—as he remarks, it’s a good thing he doesn’t wear glasses. But how does this phenomenon know what is part of Henry’s body? If it’s anything with the time-travelling DNA, then that would leave behind his hair, not to mention all those lovely bacteria on and inside our bodies that keep us alive and healthy. Any way you slice it, Niffenegger’s explanations for Henry’s condition are implausible—but her attempts at plausibility are sincere enough that I’ll be generous and call this science fiction, not fantasy. It’s such a fine line!
Once we grant Henry his miracle exception to hop through time, we can finely immerse ourselves in the story—or stories. We get to see both Henry and Clare’s perspectives of events, sometimes of the same events; sometimes we even see the perspective from two different Henrys when they meet up. This is particularly fascinating during the first part of the novel, when Henry recounts the first time he can remember time-travelling, and all the times his older self taught him survival tactics: pickpocketing, fighting, etc. (Randomly materializing in the nude is a dangerous hobby.) Niffenegger comes up with all of these interesting consequences of Henry’s singular ability, both for Henry and for the woman he is destined to love.
Clare meets Henry when she is young (six, I think), but he is already in his forties. Henry won’t meet the contemporary Clare until he is 28 and she is 21, so for the first two decades of her life, Clare must content herself with Henry’s sporadic visits to a meadow near her parents’ luxurious home. At the very beginning of the story, Henry’s visits to Clare are a little creepy: naked middle-aged man shows up and begins spending quality time with a young girl. Niffenegger lampshades this concern during their first visit, but there is still something problematic about the way Clare essentially imprints upon Henry. It makes one wonder if either of them had any choice in the matter.
If there is one deeper theme I’d take away from The Time Traveler’s Wife, it has to be the meditation upon free will: act like you have it, even if you (probably) don’t. Henry talks about how he is unable to change the past, how even when he tries, he feels constrained somehow. (I find the description and explanation rather unsatisfying, but again, credit to Niffenegger for establishing ground rules.) This means that if he sees his older self do something, he is bound to repeat that action when he becomes that person, no matter how hard he tries. If that is the case, it seems to me like Henry’s entire life—and by extension, everyone’s lives—are predestined. Niffenegger doesn’t explore this as explicitly as I would like, but it is fairly well-developed through the course of the plot itself.
Henry and Clare’s relationship is in many ways like that of the Doctor and River Song. The older time traveller appears to a young girl and influences her in a big way; she falls in love with him. They continue to meet; he gets younger, and she gets older. They have adventures together out of order. Both The Time Traveler’s Wife and Doctor Who explore how confusing and interesting such a relationship would be, and neither shies away from the fact that it’s very messed up. Henry’s presence during Clare’s formative years essentially means she has little choice but to fall in love with him. Later, she finds the contemporary version of him, showing him her little diary with all the dates of his visits, and tells him they are destined to be together. Sometimes I lament our linear existence, but I have to say, I can see the benefits to having everyone experience events in the same order.
The Time Traveler’s Wife is not quite the sappy romance I feared it would be. Henry and Clare’s relationship is, most of the time, genuinely touching. I suppose one could complain about the way Clare eternally pines for Henry, but I think Niffenegger makes it clear that, however the relationship came about in the first place, both of them love each other unconditionally. Still, if it weren’t for the time travelling, the story would be fairly ho-hum and conventional. It’s the unchronological nature of events that rescues this book—that, and occasionally brilliant moments of writing from Niffenegger. I particularly loved the mood she captures when Henry is meeting Clare’s family for the first time, Christmas 1991. The squabbling and bickering feels very real, even if the supporting characters (the oddly stereotypically-dictioned servants) do not.
There is only one major thorn in this otherwise pleasant surprise: the ending. Specifically, the last two acts of the book. By this time the novelty of Henry’s time-travelling has worn off, and we are fast approaching the point where something has to give. Nevertheless, I was kind of expecting … I don’t know. Something more than what we get. Something deeper, more meaningful. I’m not going to spoil it, but essentially my problem is that there are no surprises in store for us: it does happen exactly the way Henry tells us it will happen. I wasn’t hoping for a last-minute reprieve, but I put the book down without any sense of being changed for it. And that, to me, is unsatisfying.
So I don’t quite think The Time Traveler’s Wife deserves all its accolades, but maybe that’s just me. It’s a good book, one that I enjoyed, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to certain people. What could easily have been a poorly-executed gimmick is actually the core of the book. Yet for all the big issues raised by time travel—like free will—this book remains a stubborn biography of two people rather than slipping loose to become something bigger. I was party to the experience of The Time Traveler’s Wife but not really part of the experience.
Two years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusin...moreTwo years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusing and daunting and knew that, in Haruki Murakami, I had found yet another author whose works I will continue to digest long after I devour them with all the tenacity my love of reading requires. So for this Christmas as I considered which book to inflict upon Viv, Murakami’s latest was a natural choice. And I prefer to give people books that I have already read, so that my recommendation is all that more genuine. Of course, when I went to buy 1Q84 last Thursday, I didn’t quite realize it was 925 pages. Since I planned to give it to Vivike when I saw her on Monday, I had an intense few days of reading to do. But I made it!
I liked 1Q84 better than Kafka on the Shore almost immediately. It might be owing to the more overtly science-fictional premise, this idea that Aomame might just have slipped into a parallel world. It might be that the mystery in this novel develops at a much less sedate pace than its impressive length suggests. It could be that, unlike the somewhat unequal relationship between Kafka on the Shore’s two main characters, Aomame and Tengo are a much more evenly-matched duo. Watching their stories converge, seeing the foreshadowing that Murakami uses, is one of the most delightful things about this book. I kept developing—then discarding—various theories as to what was going on. There were moments when I was so sure of an answer, only for Murakami to pull the carpet out from beneath my feet a hundred or two hundred pages later. Yeah, occasionally I was right—but who am I to keep score?
1Q84 is a mystery and also a little bit of a fairy tale. Aomame is the investigator, and she is also an Alice in a Wonderland that is uncomfortably similar to her own world. Quickly it becomes apparent that the cult at Sakigake, the Little People, and Air Chrysalis all have something to do with Aomame’s sudden transition to this alternative worldline—but what, precisely, is the connection? Meanwhile, Tengo struggles with the ethics of his role as the ghostwriter of Air Chrysalis; he has also begun to wonder how the novel relates to Fuka-Eri’s real experiences at Sakigake. It’s a rich and multi-layered mystery. Wanting to know the answers was definitely one reason I kept reading (aside from my self-imposed deadline!). But the style and substance in which Murakami steeps his mystery makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
1Q84 reminds me of Bridge of Birds in the way that many of its characters are less like actual people than they are like characters from a myth or a fable. (Alice in Wonderland has a similar quality to it.) The Leader, Professor Ebisuno, the Dowager, and even Fuka-Eri all have an advisory aspect to their personae. Even their names (Ebisuno is commonly addressed as “the Professor”, and while we do learn the dowager’s name late in the book, no one ever calls her by it) suggest the roles they play rather than people. The effect of this characterization is two-fold. Firstly, it supports the Jungian archetypes that Murakami explicitly employs throughout the novel. Secondly, it emphasizes the almost meta-fictional nature of the book—I say almost because 1Q84 never quite reaches the point where I would call it meta-fiction, but it comes very close. As novels that feature novelists as characters often are, it is a novel that is very keen to discuss and allude to various aspects of the conversation around literature.
And like Bridge of Birds, 1Q84 has a happy ending because it has something to say about the nature of happiness. Both Aomame and Tengo have solitary lifestyles that they believe have made them happy, so they must confront whether this happiness to real or merely a wishful delusion (and if it is the latter, does that matter as long as it feels real?). Aomame finds herself making a friend just as she learns her next assassination will result in her going underground and changing her face and name. The death of Tengo’s father, and his mounting foreboding over his relationship to Fuka-Eri and the Little People, make Tengo realize that he is not really close to anyone and that he has no one on whom he can rely. As someone who has few close friends and leads a sparse social life with an emphasis on solitude accompanied by tea and a good book, I appreciated seeing this nuanced and complex take on such lifestyles. Murakami doesn’t draw conclusions so much as present possibilities.
One person noted on my review of Kafka on the Shore that “the best authors (and I include Murakami here) do not set out to write a novel within the boundaries of a particular genre”. I would tend to agree, and 1Q84 is an excellent example where this appears to be the case. This novel flirts with so many genres but ultimately transcends them all. Much like China Miéville, Murakami seems very comfortable taking complete ownership of his story. He very clearly has influences (1984 being only the most obvious one, and perhaps the least significant). Yet like Miéville he seems less concerned with genre than with setting and character, as he should be. Yet Miéville and Murakami approach worldbuilding in totally different ways. Miéville is like the medieval artist who would sea serpents into the corners of maps: he describes his wonderful and terrifying new worlds to us with a level of detail that makes them come alive. Murakami, in contrast, is more minimalist, allowing the reader to build up a world through a relationship with the characters who traverse it. Aside from what Aomame learns, we don’t really know how 1Q84 differs from 1984—and it isn’t all that important. Although these two approaches are different, they achieve the same end: a work of fantasy that is not mired in the medieval tropes embraced by those who seek to emulate Tolkien and Vance. Both are extremely creative and talented authors with original voices.
Maybe it’s because I’m slightly more familiar with the theories of Jung than those of Hegel or Kafka that I preferred 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore. That said, familiarity with Jung is certainly not a prerequisite to understanding or enjoying this book. There’s room to interpret 1Q84 through the lens of the Shadow and the Magus, but there are many additional layers of meaning. You will notice that this review focuses on the literary qualities of 1Q84 almost to the exclusion of other concerns. That’s just my particular hang-up, and I hope you won’t come away with the impression that this is a book only book-lovers can love.
There are so many other topics that 1Q84 covers. In general it’s a fascinating window into Japanese culture back in 1984. It deals with issues of abuse, of both women and children, and does not shy away from the ugly truths around this subject. It addresses the fine line between religion and cultism. Also, it’s an interesting example of a novel that wouldn’t work the same if it were set after the advent of the Internet. Murakami refers to computers a few times in the novel—Tengo notably buys a dedicated word processor—but I get the sense that if the novel were set in, say, the 2000s, its tone would be completely altered. The march of digital technology has changed us in ways that we don’t necessarily perceive until we read fiction written now about then.
I can’t quite bring myself to give this book five stars. Unlike some people I’m not going to criticize it for its length, and I was pretty satisfied with the pacing. However, some parts of the book did feel repetitive (and perhaps this was because the three books were published as separate volumes in Japan). For example, I’m not convinced that Ushikawa as a character adds enough dimension to the story to merit his own chapters. (Yet Murakami chose to introduce a third character to the existing duet, altering the structure of the narrative rather significantly, so there must be more to it.) Combined with the extremely compressed time frame over which I read it, this repetition meant that there were moments when I wished Murakami would just get on with it.
For each of those moments, however, there was definitely another moment when I was so invested in this story, so completely sold on its premise and determined to find out what would happen. Without a doubt, 1Q84 is a novel expansive in its philosophical and literary scope in a way that does not sacrifice the true core of any tale of fiction: the story. This is the second Murakami novel I’ve read, and it’s even more enticing than the first. With his careful eye for detail and for balance, Murakami is a first-class writer—and as always, kudos to the translators as well, for their dedication is responsible for helping Murakami’s voice cross the gap between our languages.