Jacob pointed out that there are spoilers in this, and rather than locate them all, or put the whole thing behind a spoiler tag (it's not that bad) I'...moreJacob pointed out that there are spoilers in this, and rather than locate them all, or put the whole thing behind a spoiler tag (it's not that bad) I'm going to post this warning. Read the book first. You should probably do that anyway.
I dove into this yesterday evening and emerged, satisfied, some hours later, after which I spent more hours thinking and replaying parts in my head, because that is what I do when I don’t quite want to let go of a book. I read this first in two parts, back in 1999 or 2000, and (thanks to Hallie, who is obsessive sometimes) I know I went out and paid good money to own the pair immediately afterward. And yet I find I can’t go back to it very often; I am overwhelmed by how very much I identify with Meliara and how caught up I am in her trials, whether she’s running from the evil king’s minions or trying to negotiate her way through a court that is utterly alien to her. Now I’ve read the e-book version available from Book View Café, with all the extra bits from Vidanric’s point of view—but more about that later.
The first thing that always strikes me is the depth of this world and the constant sense that there are so many more countries out there in it, going about their business and only peripherally brushing up against Mel’s country Remalna. They don’t matter to this story, but they could, because they all have histories that interconnect, and I like that in a secondary world fantasy. What occurred to me this time, and I’m not sure if I should be kicking myself for not noticing this before, is that it’s the world itself, in the person of the Hill Folk, that comes to the rescue both in Crown Duel and Court Duel. And the reason I think I should be kicking myself is that Mel’s opening explanation of the Covenant and the Fire Sticks and the Hill Folk acts as a sort of warning, advance notice of what’s coming later: This is Important. It’s not just important for our ability to understand the world (and I can’t even call this infodumping, it’s done so well) but as a reminder that in Remalna, there’s an underlying magic that has nothing to do with humans, and yet in these two instances, that magic takes a powerful interest in what humans do. So why am I not shouting deus ex machina? Because these endings, the Hill Folk making arrows sprout like branches, the Hill Folk taking a hand to end a threat to themselves and the land, come as the direct result of action by humans—not just Mel, but everyone who’s involved in reclaiming Remalna from the corruption that’s been eating at its heart for however long Galdran and his family were in power. One small way this is evident to me is the final end of the Duke of Grumareth, turned to stone by Flauvic and then shattered, who should have returned to bloody flesh and was transformed instead into clear stones. The Hill Folk might have acted out of self-interest, but they pay attention to humans as well.
And what humans they are. I am endlessly fascinated by how the characters in this book, even the minor ones, fairly burst with personality. Nessaren, for one—we can never have too many woman warriors who are convincing in the role. Meliara’s “flirts” (only one of them, I think, is sincere), particularly Savona, who’s charming but obviously not interested in more than that superficial flirtation; I liked seeing him in one of the Vidanric stories at the end, the poor man. His relationship with Tamara is another delight, since I don’t think either of them really knows what he or she wants, which means I don’t know what to wish for; you’d think that would be distressing, but for me it’s part of what makes them both human and therefore complicated. The people Mel encounters in her desperate attempts to stay ahead of Galdran’s men, all of them as generous as they’re able to be. Then Bran and Nee—I have trouble loving Bran, who seems cursed to always say the wrong thing to his sensitive sister, but Nee makes a good contrast to Mel and a good confidante. And the villains—all the Merindars, who are each evil in their own special way, and Debegri, who is refreshingly simple in his straightforward, uncomplicated love of hurting others. I love that they are all so memorable. I love that each has a part to play in the bigger story.
That story, of course, is Meliara’s—and Vidanric’s, because from the moment she’s pulled out of that trap on the mountain, their stories are intertwined. Their first meeting is under such conditions that Mel can’t trust him, which is natural, but that lack of trust combined with several near-fatal misunderstandings puts her in a position where she cannot bring herself to trust him, even when her mistakes are pointed out to her. Because at this point, it’s not about trust; how can you forgive someone for having seen you at your worst, humiliated, ignorant, constantly doing the wrong thing, whose very presence is a reminder of all those failures? Mel never sees herself the way others do, as a hero, mainly because she knows whatever successes she’s had have been ones she’s stumbled into, and although I feel tremendous empathy for Mel, it’s Vidanric I feel sorry for: in love with someone who hates the sight of him, unable to correct for those original misunderstandings, filled with admiration for someone who doesn’t know how powerful she is. My favorite of the Vidanric stories is the episode with the candlestick. Seeing that from both sides was just marvelous—Vidanric from Mel’s perspective is cool, aloof, always in control (he did catch that candlestick!), but inside his head he’s going over how he’s going to do everything right so she’ll stop hating him just a little bit. And he gets everything wrong. If I didn’t love him before, I did at that moment.
The plot is about reclaiming a kingdom, told from Mel’s perspective, but there’s also so much going on behind the scenes, as is evident in the Vidanric extras at the end of the new edition. I like the depth of plot enough that those stories, instead of annoying me, gave me glimpses of what the story would have been like as a political thriller instead of an adventure-romance. (There was a chance I’d be annoyed by them because Vidanric is such a good Mysterious Stranger, and seeing through his eyes might diminish that aspect of the romance. I probably shouldn’t have been worried.) I’m not going to go to the lengths of wishing for a second version of the whole novel from Vidanric’s perspective, but I wouldn’t be sad to see one. Because, really, I like seeing the plot through Meliara’s eyes. I like that even though her initial beliefs are shaped by what her father has and hasn’t taught her (and I think he’s a candidate for Worst Parent Ever) she’s able to winnow out what’s true about her ideals from the chaff of ignorance surrounding them. I like that she’s able to overcome her humiliation to become humble enough to apologize to Vidanric. And I like that who she is, at heart, gives shape to the story.
According to my records, it’s been almost ten years since I last read Crown Duel. I wonder if it will be another ten years before I read it again? Maybe. But I think it is the rare book that stays with me so profoundly that it feels like those ten years were nothing. So I’m going to give it to my daughter now, and I hope she loves it like I do. (less)
This book stuck with me for more than a day after I read it. I loved the characters, particularly Pat and Tiffany, but really all of them, and most of...moreThis book stuck with me for more than a day after I read it. I loved the characters, particularly Pat and Tiffany, but really all of them, and most of what kept coming to memory during that day were interactions between them--Pat and his therapist/friend/fellow Philadelphia Eagles fan Cliff, Pat and his father, Pat and Tiffany. Matthew Quick addresses issues of mental illness as if they're not "issues" but aspects of his characters' personalities that both constrain their lives and fail to define them, and he does it brilliantly. I also loved how football was the common thread that joined each of them, even the ones who didn't love it. I picture Quick looking at the Eagles' past seasons, searching for a year that would be the perfect setting for the story he wants to tell. Now I'm both eager and afraid to see the movie--how could it live up to the original?(less)
There are no words. Wow. I knew there was a good chance I would like this. I didn't think it would be my favorite book of the year.
I am not a fan of J...moreThere are no words. Wow. I knew there was a good chance I would like this. I didn't think it would be my favorite book of the year.
I am not a fan of Jane Austen pastiche, none of the "after Pride and Prejudice etc." books, none of the "let's retell Jane Austen set in the modern world!" because I find no fulfillment in them. Longbourn is not one of these, not only because it tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants at Longbourn as opposed to the original characters, but because it succeeds at adding not length, but depth, to the original work.
I'm not going to bother explaining the plot, because there's a lot that would be spoilers. The three main POV characters are Sarah, the older housemaid/lady's maid; Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper/cook; and James, the newly hired footman. Each of them takes up the narrative in turns, lending their perspective to the story at exactly the moment it becomes most interesting. I fell in love with Sarah, whose working day begins as the novel opens, her chilblained hands struggling to bring in water for washing day. Baker's prose is beautiful and her love for her source material undeniable. She takes few liberties with Pride and Prejudice, and the ones she does take, again, add depth to the original story. I had no idea anyone could redeem Mr. Collins' character. That alone makes the story brilliant. Her treatment of Wickham is similarly engaging; everything Baker does to expand on his character is plausible given his behavior in the original book.
Baker doesn't bother aping Jane Austen's style, which lends a sense that Austen's Regency-era prose is that of the gentry, while Baker's is that of those below stairs. It's structured like a three-volume novel, each book ending on some event that changes the story and sets the stage for the next part. I had some misgivings about the beginning of Book Three, which goes back in time to show some of what happened before the start of the book, but it turned out to be the right choice. The ending is sweeter for the tension leading up to it, and if The Silver Linings Playbook stayed with me for a day after I finished it, this one keeps replaying in my head with no sign of going away. Maybe it was the timing, maybe this was just the book I wanted to read at just the moment I wanted to read it, but I was blown away at how strongly I reacted to it, and I am certain I will return to it again.(less)
**spoiler alert** Medair an Rynstar set out to recover a powerful artifact that would save her people from an invading army--and wakes 500 years later...more**spoiler alert** Medair an Rynstar set out to recover a powerful artifact that would save her people from an invading army--and wakes 500 years later to find the war long over, the invaders integrated into the population, and no place in the new world for her. Compelled against her will to help one of the invaders' descendants, a man who looks eerily like that long-gone army's leader, Medair gets pulled into a new political conflict in which a faction of reactionaries wants to overthrow the "conquering" regime. Does fulfilling her mission mean she must follow its literal meaning and destroy the invaders, or is her task to protect the kingdom no matter who's ruling it now?
I'm going to have to review both The Silence of Medair and Voice of the Lost as one, because they really are a single book (and have been issued as such, as Medair). I can't recommend reading them separately. Why not just review that single volume? Because I want credit for having read two books. :)
Medair's choice isn't trivial, because there are good arguments on both sides. Höst makes that choice easier on the reader by making one of the sides moderately repellant, but it's still easy to sympathize with Medair's struggle, especially since she has such strongly antipathetic feelings toward the "invaders." To her, it's only been a short while since they were an enemy intent on conquering her people. Höst succeeds at the difficult task of keeping our sympathies with Medair on this subject. Medair's ultimate choice of which side to take has repercussions she can't avoid and can't reject, because her loyalties have genuinely been compromised.
It's also interesting how Medair deals with the complexities of being stuck in a time not her own. In her case, it's not just that customs have changed; she lived through an historic event that's now been romanticized out of recognition, with her own name and reputation become legendary. There are songs about her that were written by an ex-lover to make himself sound like the hero abandoned by Medair (when in truth he was a philandering jerk who did a lot of bed-hopping and abandoned her). Worse, there's an entire rebel faction using her name--one that wants the invaders destroyed, even though they've interbred with the natives and have had five centuries to become natives themselves. In some cases, even Medair's status as the person who actually lived through the invasion isn't enough to change people's minds about the history they've learned.
More problematic is the ending, in which Medair's lover Illukar defeats the world-destroying Blight with unexpected results, not the least of which is that he survives. (view spoiler)[Illukar sort of melds with Ieskar, original leader of the invaders and someone Medair was deeply attracted to. Now they're two people in a single body--fortunately they look almost identical, so they don't do this grotesque feature-shifting--but both love Medair, and she loves both of them, so it's okay. Intellectually, I have a problem with this being so easy, but I'm deeply impressed with Höst's abilities, because emotionally I thought it was romantic as hell. (hide spoiler)] But that's the only problem I have with the book, which I thoroughly loved.
I *love* this book! It's not your typical mystery because Akunin goes off on these tangents about the history of the town it's set in, and who the peo...moreI *love* this book! It's not your typical mystery because Akunin goes off on these tangents about the history of the town it's set in, and who the people are, and things like that. I loved that, though. It never felt confusing or made the story bog down, because Akunin is really good at telling stories within stories.
And the main character, Pelagia, is a hoot. She's a clumsy and awkward nun who's brilliant at solving mysteries, but the credit for it goes to Bishop Mitrofanii because, you know, he's a man and a bishop and all that. But he's not overbearing or sexist at all; he knows Pelagia should get the credit, but she doesn't like the spotlight and he takes guilty pleasure in his fame. Still, they're really good friends, almost like a real father and daughter. So when Mitrofanii's aunt writes him about a crisis--her beloved and rare bulldog has been killed--he sends Pelagia to investigate.
Surprisingly, Pelagia wraps up the mystery of the dead bulldog in the first half of the book; she knows it's only part of a larger mystery that probably involves an inspector from the capital who's come to challenge the temporal and spiritual leaders of the town. The solution to the mystery is the climax of a courtroom scene that happens only after several false solutions have been found and discarded. The book ends with the promise of the next book, Pelagia and the Black Monk--literally ends with an ellipsis that I bet leads into the first sentence of that book.
An interview with Akunin at the end of my copy of this book reveals that he wanted to show that popular literature and good fiction could be the same thing. He definitely approaches his fiction with literary skill and the attitude that good writing is important to any kind of story. I'm fascinated with his insights into modern Russian literature and look forward to reading as many of his books as I can get.(less)
I think I have a new favorite detective series; why, why do I have to wait for the translator? (Answer: Translators are hard-working people who have a...moreI think I have a new favorite detective series; why, why do I have to wait for the translator? (Answer: Translators are hard-working people who have a difficult job, and Andrew Bromfield is excellent, but probably has a life outside producing new English-language editions for people like me.) Erast Fandorin is charming, so young and sweet and yet so dogged in his pursuit of the mystery behind why a young man would kill himself, in public, for no apparent reason. There are many twists in the tale, many surprise revelations, and while I started to anticipate them simply because there were so many of them, I would never have anticipated the novel's ending. Never. Akunin's strong authorial voice makes the book sound like it might have been written in 1876 Russia, though with a modern twist; I wouldn't mistake it for Dostoyevsky, of course, but it has a similar feel. I look forward to reading the rest of the Fandorin mysteries as soon as I can get them.(less)
I'm a fan of Kay's history-derived fantasies, like the Sarantine Mosaic, and this one is outstanding. I had trouble putting it down and couldn't stop...moreI'm a fan of Kay's history-derived fantasies, like the Sarantine Mosaic, and this one is outstanding. I had trouble putting it down and couldn't stop thinking about it when I did. The Chinese-analogue empire of Kitai is powerful, but covets the horses of the western Tagur Empire. Shen Tai is only fulfilling his years of mourning for his father by burying the dead of Kuala Nor, but his courage in facing the restless spirits brings him to the attention of a wife of the Taguran Emperor, formerly a princess of Kitai's Imperial Family. She's so moved by his sacrifice that she makes him a present of some of their finest horses.
Two hundred and fifty of them.
This extraordinary gift makes Shen Tai a marked man, putting him in danger not only from ordinary men and government officials, but from the Son of Heaven, who might decide Shen Tai is a threat to his power. Tai has to figure out a way to get from the distant Kuala Nor to the palace, convince the Emperor of his good intentions, and, oh yeah, not get killed in the process.
Tai's problem is like a stone dropped into a particularly muddy lake, as other political concerns are affected by it. His sister Li-Mei has been effectively sold as a bride to the barbarians of the steppe, something that the newly-powerful Tai objects to. The antagonistic presence of those barbarians on the northern border has created political and social turmoil within the Imperial court. And on a personal level, Tai has to deal with seeing the girl he loves become a concubine to his hated rival, cousin to the Emperor's most-loved consort.
Something I look for in a long novel with multiple viewpoint characters is whether I care equally about all of them. I've learned that I get dissatisfied with the whole book if I'm more interested in one or two POV characters; it doesn't matter if they're all well-written if I just don't care about the others. Under Heaven passed this test brilliantly. I never got bored with any section. I'm also a fan of Kay's writing style, as well as his ability to evoke a particular historical culture without sounding derivative. It's a long book that to me never felt long. There are a couple of really good love stories, just enough action, and a lot of excellent political intrigue. This book was recommended to me by a friend, and I think it's the best recommendation I've had all year.(less)
While I enjoy Michael Totten's writing about the Middle East and its conflicts and politics, my favorites of his blog entries have always been his sto...moreWhile I enjoy Michael Totten's writing about the Middle East and its conflicts and politics, my favorites of his blog entries have always been his stories of traveling through eastern Europe. This book collects and expands on these, as well as including new material, and I recommend it to anyone who's interested in the history of eastern Europe, the southern former-SSRs, and the near-Asian countries that influence that area.
Totten is a really good writer, and this is really good travel writing: evocative, personal, with a sense of immediacy. He opens with the tale of an impulsive trip he took with his friend Sean LaFreniere to Iraq--a whirlwind trip in which they had only three days to get from Istanbul to the Iraqi border and back again. Like most trips, it didn't go as smoothly as they hoped, but the main point was...they could drive to Iraq. You might as well say you could drive to the moon.
And this is what characterizes the rest of the book: We live in an era when we can go pretty much anywhere. Totten, accompanied by various friends, drives to places like Ukraine, Chernobyl, the Russian-occupied city of Gori in war-torn Georgia. Along the way he documents what he sees and links it to history. I wish I'd had this book when Yugoslavia fractured into all those warring countries; Totten makes the conflict easier to understand.
The thing that most amazed me was Totten's description of Islam in eastern Europe, in places like Bosnia and Albania and Kosovo. It bears little resemblance to the Islamism of the Middle East that most Americans are familiar with, that Islamist clerics are trying to force on those Eastern Europeans. Can both versions really be called Islam? Muslim women in Kosovo, for example, rarely wear the hijab or even a head scarf. Alcohol is freely available. Praying five times daily, in public, isn't a community thing. I am interested to see what kind of Islam comes out of these countries--assuming their Arab neighbors fail to convert them back.
Very enjoyable and informative writing, and I hope Totten produces more of the same in the future.(less)
This book was recommended to me by Jessica Day George as we were talking about dogs, specifically Pippin, my favorite wind-up toy. I said I owned it b...moreThis book was recommended to me by Jessica Day George as we were talking about dogs, specifically Pippin, my favorite wind-up toy. I said I owned it but had never read it (this applies to about a third of the books I own) and she *insisted* that I read it IMMEDIATELY because I was clearly in need of something fun after finishing three intense books in three days.
She was totally right. I was in tears the whole time, because Pinkwater does this thing where he's just going along, telling a story, and then he drops some off-hand comment that is like a humor bomb in the middle of a paragraph, and it's so startling that it's even funnier than it would ordinarily be. Pinkwater is also something of a genius at reproducing the Polish-Yiddish dialects of his father and uncles, and good dialect is something I love in a book. I am not a dog person--Pinkwater addresses this briefly, saying that dogs are far too much trouble to raise unless you are totally committed to them, and it's okay if you aren't--but I love reading about other people's passions, and Daniel and Jill Pinkwater are passionate about their dogs. Brilliant and hilarious, and I wish I'd read it sooner.(less)
I knew this was going to be a good book. I didn't realize it was an amazing book.
It begins as a kind of treasure hunt orchestrated by seventeen-year-o...moreI knew this was going to be a good book. I didn't realize it was an amazing book.
It begins as a kind of treasure hunt orchestrated by seventeen-year-old Ginny's Aunt Peg, a free-spirited wanderer who recently died of brain cancer. Ginny is surprised to receive her aunt's first envelope, which contains $1000 and a set of instructions that lead her to the next little blue envelope. Each letter gives Ginny a new challenge, leading her all over Europe and into some very strange adventures. It's a journey that Ginny, who isn't adventurous, would never have taken on her own, and each little blue envelope makes her stretch a little further, so that when she reaches the last of them, she's ready for her aunt's final message.
There's a lot to be said about this book, but I'll stick with the thing that impressed me most: Ginny is a typical girl. Why is that impressive? Because Maureen Johnson managed to tell a story that wasn't about the shy wallflower gaining confidence OR about the cocky, assertive girl who learns humility. Ginny's just normal. She's uncertain about some things and confident about others. She's brave enough to take on her aunt's more bizarre instructions (find a random Italian boy and ask him out?) even when they make her nervous. She hasn't dated much and isn't sexually active, and that doesn't make her weird or frigid. She felt like a real person, not a representative of one type of teenage girl or another.
I also loved Ginny's friend Keith, the odd playwright/director/actor she meets in England. I often feel like these artsy, quirky, countercultural characters are meant to be super-cool just to prove that being artsy and quirky and countercultural is inherently better than being normal and non-tattooed. But Keith is just a guy. He dresses in a kilt and does weird things, but not because Johnson wanted a character who would draw Ginny out of her (nonexistent) repressed life and make her super-cool as well. He and Ginny make a good pair because her flaws are countered by his virtues and vice versa. I especially liked the part where we learn something of Keith's background, which is a little shady, and none of it is played up as excusable or a misunderstanding. Even when he and Ginny were in conflict, I liked his character.
This was a fast read, because everything is a fast read when you don't stop until you're done. There are a few moments in the middle where Aunt Peg's instructions don't seem to lead anywhere, but overall it's fast-paced and I didn't want to stop. So I didn't. It was well worth the time.(less)
Flora's Dare is even better than Flora Segunda, and that one was pretty amazing. Flora's Dare feels a little more finished to me, probably because Flo...moreFlora's Dare is even better than Flora Segunda, and that one was pretty amazing. Flora's Dare feels a little more finished to me, probably because Flora's various quests all grow out of one desire, which is to become a Ranger. All the complicating factors come from other people, like her sister Idden and her friend Udo, or from external problems like the Loliga, a spirit creature trapped in the body of a giant squid, who's trying to escape captivity by destroying Califa. There's time-travel and ghouls and possessed footwear and secret identities and a magical plushy pig. Flora remains an unconventional heroine, this time because she doesn't recognize just how heroic her actions are. All she sees is her failure to accomplish what she set out to do, and that makes her sympathetic. I like her developing relationship with Udo--or, more accurately, Udo's development into a responsible human being instead of a self-absorbed prat with all the sensitivity of a rock. It's also nice to see her father come out of his depression and become more reliable. I'm looking forward to the next book.(less)
This has everything I look for in a Tim Powers novel: dark, rich magic; an alternate history that fits perfectly with historical fact; and well-paced...moreThis has everything I look for in a Tim Powers novel: dark, rich magic; an alternate history that fits perfectly with historical fact; and well-paced plotting that slowly reveals the secrets at the heart of the novel. I have trouble thinking of this as a vampire novel (which it is) because although the vampires behave just as tradition dictates, their origins are completely different. That origin story is, I think, what I really love about the book; the idea of their being lifeforms from a pre-human time, with stony forms and a passion for human love, is so completely different from any other vampire story, and I find it compelling. (I'm glad Powers took some of these ideas and ran with them in a different direction in Declare, because the concept has a lot of potential.)
Michael Crawford is like many of Powers's male protagonists--not terribly heroic at first, maybe sort of a wuss, in denial about the world he finds himself in--and as frustrated as this kind of character makes me, I admit it's far more likely than the guy who's dropped into the middle of some weird magical danger and doesn't have any trouble adapting. Josephine, on the other hand, is one of a kind and a masterpiece of characterization. I don't really believe her defection to the vampire's side, near the end, but it's more because the setup feels forced than that she wouldn't make the decision. And it's for her sake that the epilogue is even necessary; her life was such hell for so long that it felt right to see her finally sane and happy.
Of course, what makes this a Tim Powers novel is the cleverness with which he works the real-life poets Byron, Shelley, and Keats into the story. The excerpts from their journals and letters fit so well with the events of the story that it's chilling. Turning John Polidori, who has always seemed to me to be sort of a loser, into a vampire gave him a more interesting story than he actually had--though I still think he's sort of a loser, and that was one of the things that kept me from really liking the sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves. The Stress of Her Regard isn't my favorite Powers book, but it's definitely near the top of the list.(less)
I love alternate history stories, I love stories about paranormal abilities, and I love war stories, so I was already sold on this one before the firs...moreI love alternate history stories, I love stories about paranormal abilities, and I love war stories, so I was already sold on this one before the first page. The cover copy draws comparisons between this work and that of Alan Furst (whom I don't know) and Alan Moore (for whom I have great respect), but in my opinion this is totally Tim Powers. I mean, really--blood sacrifice, vast inhuman intelligences that exist in the spaces alongside our reality, uncommon magics, and with the World War II setting it's practically in the same universe as Declare. And I don't mean that in a derogatory, "it's unoriginal" way either. Tregillis has put together his material in a fresh and interesting way, and I like his characters, even the ones I hate. Mad Gretel the seer is infuriating and fascinating all at once; I feel sorry for her brother Klaus, who despite being a Nazi weapon is still one of the good guys. I liked it just as well (maybe a little better) the second time around, and look forward to the sequel.(less)