I spotted this on the fly at the library and I am glad I did. Most of this book is lovely - a slow romance played out over an anthropological expeditiI spotted this on the fly at the library and I am glad I did. Most of this book is lovely - a slow romance played out over an anthropological expedition with fascinating ramifications. Part Jane Austen, part conceptual exercise. My only quibble is that, for this reader, I needed about 50 pages more of explanation sprinkled into the first half. This is not a book to be read swiftly, as subtle cues about abilities and social mores can fly past which makes events sometimes feel very left-field; in my semi-distracted holiday state I could have used clearer signals and foreshadowing. At the very least the bones of the mythology that coalesces as the book goes on would have served me better in the first few chapters. But these are minor issues for a book that's fresh, inventive, and breathing life into a genre that often feels like a straitjacket of conventions....more
I ended up liking this far more than I thought I would (especially with the dark, blood-spattered cover). I'm knocking off one star because of the witI ended up liking this far more than I thought I would (especially with the dark, blood-spattered cover). I'm knocking off one star because of the witch - unless I find out that whole subplot plays a role in Abercrombie's larger world, it felt unnecessary and poorly thought out. What the book does well is its shifting, multiple POVs; though the majority had a similarity of voice they still separated well enough that you could sense the individual character, and yet you always felt that you were reading one cohesive story. Only one POV was more individualized in style, and I'm still wondering whether that was on purpose (as was that character's enigmatic conclusion)--perhaps that too was part of the greater world the author is writing in.
I especially liked the battle sequences themselves, which felt very cinematic (has anyone yet written about the influence of cinema on novel construction?) and often showed us a character for the first and last time. In the circumstances, that device became poignant.
Overall, it was an entertaining read, and a far more plausible presentation of a swords-and-armor battle than a lot of fantasy stuff out there. ...more
So it has been many, many years since I read any epic fantasy.
However. I have been trying to focus my fiction reading around works with multiple POVs;So it has been many, many years since I read any epic fantasy.
However. I have been trying to focus my fiction reading around works with multiple POVs; specifically, I have been looking for works that have what I am thinking of as "interludes"—quick scenes from the POV of minor characters, interspersed between the main narrative thread(s).
As I Googled around, two books kept coming up: this one, and Stephen King's It.
As I'm not quite ready to face It for a second time (another story for another day), I instead find myself sitting here, overstuffed from 1000 pages of epic fantasy, both amused and a little disappointed that not much has changed from my half-remembered teenaged readings.
I should say first and foremost that this is an encyclopedic act of worldbuilding. Sanderson has thought of everything, and he's cheerfully determined to use it all, everything, every last little detail. That those thousands of pieces slowly gel into something resembling a plot is quite admirable, even astonishing, and accounts for a good deal of the rating I have given this book.
However, the characters are mostly flat, and the world itself, for all its teeming diversity of peoples and flora and fauna and religions and languages and customs and technology and mythologies . . . for all that, it never feels quite alive. Everything feels of a type, from characters to cities; the sketched-in plot already seems familiar; some of the specifics feel clumsy (such as the racial distinction of "lighteyes" versus "darkeyes", or a religion based around an Almighty with Heralds and Knights).
In science fiction, there has been talk lately of the genre's inherent conservatism: if you can imagine aliens and other planets, can you not imagine alternatives to the race and gender hierarchies in our society? A similar argument could be made here. This is an entirely different world—yet the men wear pants and do the fighting, while the women wear snug dresses and makeup and must keep one hand covered (I still don't get the hand thing). The most intriguing element for this reader—that literacy and scholarship are considered woman-things--is completely unused in the book. If women are the scribes and readers of this world, literally writing and reading men's words to each other, it would stand to reason that they would have enormous power and influence—indeed, one can imagine a world where men are essentially the physical arm of a woman-centered society, making war and building empires on the basis of women's words, women's knowledge.
Not in this book.
(I would like to read that book.)
For a long time I have griped about the "thinness" of much commercial fiction, where detail and attention to prose are sacrificed for rapid plots and 90k word counts. If you are an up-and-coming writer, this is the model that you are advised to follow in order to get published at all: keep it short, no prologues or fancy prose, start in media res if possible . . . That this book breaks all these rules and was a best seller is both a cause for hope and a source of frustration. It is still possible to break what is becoming a mold; unfortunately it seems that only certain authors get that privilege.
And perhaps not with the best results. What I look for, in a novel this size (and regardless of genre), is something approaching life: not just an agglomeration of details but a sense of depth, of plausibility, of characters living in a space and time, not just marching through a set of constraints. Too often in this book, what we get is not life but a catalogue, as if we are reading not a story but an act of documentation. This may change with the second book; the question remains: do I want to invest another 1000 pages to find out?...more
It is difficult to write about this book without falling into the cliched language of the glowing book review: lyrical, profound, extraordinary. It isIt is difficult to write about this book without falling into the cliched language of the glowing book review: lyrical, profound, extraordinary. It is all of these things.
It is one of the most delicate, lovely prose voices I have read in many a year.
It is the only novel I have ever read that brought home to me the institution of slavery. Previous novels I've read all focused on one person's experience, or one family's experience; they put you cringing and weeping into those shoes and made you walk. They were powerful stories but also singular ones, and that tight focus can lull you into the delusion that slavery was an isolated thing, a monstrous but finite period in history that produced specific acts of cruelty.
Instead, this novel presents you with the vast panorama of institutionalized human bondage. It shows without comment all the complexities and degrees of bureaucratic cruelty; the nest of knotted, suspect laws that must exist in order to justify one man's possession of another within a Constitution that begins "We the people"; the ways decency and compassion must squeeze through the bars of a poisonous framework just so people can get through their days; a society based on human property, an economy based on human property, a governing structure based on human property; a world where it is natural for one person to own their blood relations, where you can know to the dollar the market worth of your lover, and where freedom is a fragile piece of paper with nothing behind it.
At the same time, it is a story; it is, in fact, many stories woven together, and never has the adage about every character being the hero of their own story seemed so poignant. As for the ending? No spoilers, save that in a sense it does not end, because none of this has ended. But it was not what I expected, and it was utterly right.
As a writer, I was humbled by this book. As a human being, I am grateful for it....more
**spoiler alert** I have been thinking on how to describe the process of reading this book, and I think it best to indulge in a kind of extended metap**spoiler alert** I have been thinking on how to describe the process of reading this book, and I think it best to indulge in a kind of extended metaphor (Mr. Stephenson, I hope, will appreciate the spirit of the undertaking, even if the metaphor itself is a little simplistic.)
Imagine, if you will, that you are pressed against a vast stained glass window, which is illuminated from behind. The space around you is dark, but there is something behind you that keeps you from stepping back to see a greater portion of the window. You can move over the surface of the window in any direction, but you can never see more than what is right in front of you.
Your task is to grasp the meaning of the window.
At first all you can do is study, and marvel at, the colors and textures, the subtle changes in hue and thickness. You linger for a while over your favorites; you touch the ripples in a particularly distorted piece, or move carefully over one that seems excessively thin and fragile. Over time you start to make sense out of small sections—you piece together a figure here, a deliberate striation there—but you still cannot assemble these moments of illumination (hah!) into any kind of larger narrative.
About 600 pages in, you suddenly fit together several sections at once; you start to project outwards from there, sketching in your mind’s eye plausible window-shapes, imagining just how large this damn thing might be.
Around 700 pages in you suddenly come across a sharp curve in the leading, and another, and you realize that your ideas were far too mundane for this work: this is not just any window-form, but a rose window, as vast and complex as any you have seen.
By the end of the book, you sense that there are at least two overarching themes. One is revolutions—not just the political kind, but also the rotations of bodies, their trajectory and orbits and intersecting paths. Another is emptiness—the emptiness behind it all, be it the celestial framework of the universe or the intricate mechanisms of finance and politics as Europe moves through its Age of Reason.
I am dazzled. And jealous. But mostly dazzled. Did I mention that he wrote this beast longhand? That he tried many methods of notetaking, but in the end found it easiest to keep his decade of research “in his head”?
Why, then, only four stars?
Because this is a book where plot and theme are one and the same, and the characters exist to demonstrate the great clockwork he has constructed. Oh they are people to be sure; but they are people who never linger in a moment, never savor a touch or a glance, never lose themselves in a haze of emotion—or if they are teetering on the edge, the curtain falls, the chapter ends, and we are back to calculus. The characters tell us a lot about what they feel, and it is a testament to the fine calibration of the clockwork that how adroitly they delineate their inner states is precisely aligned with their backgrounds, education, and sex. But we never feel it, we only read it.
Did Mr. Stephenson ever weep for his people, as he put them through their paces? Perhaps he felt a pang, regret, but I’m not sure he wept, and a book of this scale should provoke tears. There is a coldness in the prose. I am aware that this was not a sentimental age, but I cannot even feel their injuries, their violent surgeries; I felt more moved by the plight of that poor dog than any of the characters, though many of them also suffer what could be called cruelty.
Also, Eliza reads like she was written by a man. She is a marvelous construct for an erudite Pygmalion to play with, but she did not live for this reader.
In the back matter, Mr. Stephenson describes how he began the project after reading about Newton and Leibniz, and certainly their work and positions are marvelously rendered here. So this was never a project about the human heart, and there is little room for a poignant moment in a book so stuffed with ideas and events and so bustling with people. But now, able to step back a little from the great window, I find myself remembering a blur of descriptions and ideas . . . and yet only three things really stand out: the meticulous tracking of Eliza’s successive penetrations (Pygmalion takes careful notes, to the exclusion of all other displays of love or intimacy), and two bodies. One is the little Shaftoe boy in the beginning, and the other is Tess’s horrific decay at the end. Both float past us with all the other teeming flotsam of this magnificent teeming novel, and I cannot help but think that something was lost in not giving them more weight. Love matters. But perhaps that too is part of the emptiness, of a world ruled by particles instead of God. ...more
I have just finished this. I gobbled it down in a manic every-waking-hour marathon over the last three days. I have wanted to read this book from theI have just finished this. I gobbled it down in a manic every-waking-hour marathon over the last three days. I have wanted to read this book from the moment it was published; I finally, finally was able to; I was not let down.
Note well that I complained, halfway through, that the book would benefit from a map and a family tree. Note well that there is a map in the front matter, and a glossary in the back. I shot right by the map. I didn't think about looking in the back. I produce books for a living and know damn well where you stick the maps and the glossaries. I was deranged with words.
I'm also unable to form a coherent criticism of this text. That might change; the rating might change. Problems might dawn on me over the next few days. But right now I am too awash in what the kids call "feels" to offer any such reading. Sometimes you read something that you know is right for you and it is and it still feels like it's given you something unexpected. I was anticipating much, but not quite this much feeling.
There are books that excite you and make you moony-eyed, that make you restless in the wee hours and make a plane flight pass in a blink. But this is a world unto itself, full and complete, that wholeness in prose that I am forever chasing. If nothing else, I have a better model now, when people ask me what I want my own work to be. Like this, like this....more
**spoiler alert** I have finally finished this monster of a book, foreword, appendices, notes and all. I should say right off the bat that the fourth**spoiler alert** I have finally finished this monster of a book, foreword, appendices, notes and all. I should say right off the bat that the fourth star up there is solely for the absolute thoroughness of the editorial work on this: the notes are excellent, the translation readable, the index first-rate.
And I must confess(!) that I came into this with a very heavy bias, as Rousseau is not my favorite person and I was reading this book in part to flesh out a story idea I'd had, one that was a bit heavy-handed in its anti-Rousseau sentiment . . . but I suppose I should give some points to the jerk in that by the end of his Julie I was actually somewhat moved, and my idea became less, uh, virulent in its sentiments (though he still gets his, trust), and I am more than anything else just relieved to have this brick out of my knapsack.
The story of Julie is in fact fairly brief; what makes it long is the amount of personal philosophy Rousseau crams into the letters, along with long, detailed descriptions of the Valais, Geneva, and Paris--there are pages alone devoted to the dress and manners of Paris women. If you haven't read Emile, you can get the gist here, and some of the text as well--paragraphs are lifted wholesale. And you can also learn every nuance of his personal brand of Protestantism, how a nobleman should extricate himself from an ignoble affair, how to produce various flavors of wine from one vineyard, how to train a servant . . . we won't get into the various books the characters quote and advise each other on, because there were so many my head is spinning.
Julie herself deserves a place in the family tree of Mary Sues. While I expected the rapturous descriptions from her lover, as it turns out, everyone loves Julie and Julie loves everyone--but she loves virtue more, hurrah for her. This is a woman who does everything right, who is able to look back on every blow in her life--even, say, the death of her mother--and see it was all for the best. That doing everything right includes sending her lover away for years at sea, nearly killing him, only to bring him back to her house and make him observe at close detail her new life with her husband and children . . . ugh.
And therein lies the rub, for me. I appreciate the romance in this, the idea of a virtuous love, I can understand the emotion such an idea carries. As, apparently, did most of Europe--this book is one of the first runaway bestsellers, perhaps the first bestseller; it made Rousseau capital-F Famous, deluging him in fanmail and proposals, sending readers by the droves to the little Swiss towns he describes.
But like so much of Rousseau's work, it's just implausible, and completely at odds with his own less-than-virtuous life experiences. Julie is beautiful, everyone loves her; her house is not fancy but still perfectly suited to her station; her servants adore her, her otherwise emotionless husband loves her, her cousin loves her, her perfectly-behaved children love her (so much so that her cousin gives Julie her own daughter to raise), and she happily prescribes life choices to everyone around her that they accept like some kind of commandment from a goddess. She is nothing more or less than Rousseau's perfect mouthpiece. This is a woman who is granted thirty pages in which to die, so she can demonstrate just how Rousseau thinks we should go into that good night--even going so far as to school her own Minister on how one should go to God.
For us mere mortals, I'm guessing we're supposed to love her too, and aspire to conduct ourselves like her . . . but quite frankly if her creator couldn't be bothered, why should I? Personally, I would have high-tailed it to England with my foxy and adoring tutor, taken the estate his friend offered us for free, and lived happily ever after. Dear J-J, you can in fact go through life without the mental hairshirts of virtue and class and still be a good person. Trust me.
I had said at the start of this ramble that I was moved at the end, though. And I was. But not by Julie's epic death; I was moved by all the people whose lives she had shaped and were now left with the emotional vacuum of her loss. Her lover who gave up everything for her, who had denied himself any kind of surrogate happiness (or, ahem, release); her cousin who I suspect might have found other words to describe her love were they alive today . . . those were the plights that moved me, and it seems peculiarly apt that for Rousseau it was enough of an end to have these two young adults simply devote their lives towards the raising of Julie's children, full stop, when he never even kept his own.
I cannot speak to the overall accuracy, thoroughness, etc. as this was a new field of research for me. But I had to upgrade to Evernote Premium to getI cannot speak to the overall accuracy, thoroughness, etc. as this was a new field of research for me. But I had to upgrade to Evernote Premium to get all my notes and page scans in, which should tell you something.
2. It's taken me a while to get through it because of real-world-stuff, but it's a credit to Massie's writ6 things:
1. GIRL. What a story. What a life.
2. It's taken me a while to get through it because of real-world-stuff, but it's a credit to Massie's writing that all it took was a few paragraphs and you were back in his brisk, energetic tale. This is how I like my history: a well-told narrative, yet without pretending to know everything about the subject. There are points where the narrative lets us know that the record is missing or incomplete.
3. Behind every benevolent autocrat is, apparently, an orchard of ruble-trees?! SHE SPENT SO MUCH MONEY. Where did it all come from? Her allowance as Grand Duchess seemed quite comfortable, yet when you see the amounts available to the Empress, well, you can see why both she and Paul in turn were chafing at the bit. But this was the one thing that I really wanted to see addressed: where did the millions and millions of rubles come from?
3a. It takes a bit of shine off her legacy to know that so much of it was simply bought outright.
4. That anyone could walk up to her in the park and vent is a wonderful thing. I don't think people realize how generally accessible monarchs were. You could strap on a sword and hang out in Versailles. You could take your dog for a walk and chat with Catherine. The world seems like it was much smaller then.
5. This book reinforced my image of Diderot as a smart, kindly, well-read, energetic ass.
6. I think the office of "favorite" deserves a great deal of modern study. Perhaps in a series of, ahem, personal experiments? Seriously though, I am now in the market for some kind of comparative examination of male and female concubinage. Any recommendations welcome....more
I have not had this much pleasure out of a book in a long time.
While really the title should be Mostly Upper-Class, Mostly British Women in the EighteI have not had this much pleasure out of a book in a long time.
While really the title should be Mostly Upper-Class, Mostly British Women in the Eighteenth Century, within those borders lies a whole wealth of weirdness. There are some choice pieces in here; I've got quotes from it scribbled everywhere. For those who, like me, had a rather perfunctory intro to Women's Studies--a quick stop at Wollstonecraft and straight on to the late 19th century--this book is excellent at showing that she was just one of many, many voices in her time, clamoring from all sides and with a whole range of ideas as to what it meant to be a woman.
There are some WTF pieces in here; there are some yes! fist pump! pieces in here, and there are some that truly break your heart, as you watch the author in question wrestle deeply with the inherent contradictions between what she has been told her role should be (and which she wants to keep, at least in part) and her desire to learn, to be treated as an equal, to be taken seriously.
All of which I read slowly and with pleasure and with a lot of "no freakin' WAY" at some of the most idiotic stances against the ladies (who knew the study of botany was so very corrupting?), or this choice bit of Fordyce (Austen fans will know Fordyce's Sermons, as they are what Mr. Collins helpfully regales his cousins with in Pride and Prejudice):
"What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will."
But here's the rub: I read all this . . . and then I read that Elizabeth Wurtzel essay that just came out, in which she states that, "I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that," and I thought to myself, three centuries gone now? For ****'s sake.
We are overdue to put some things to bed, no pun intended. We are overdue to call some questions done, to stop entertaining those who would drag the dialogue back to old ground. Because the thing about this book is, it shouldn't have been this pleasurable. It shouldn't have been so amusing. Because this kind of enjoyment is founded on familiarity, and we're three centuries gone now; this should have been bewildering in its strangeness, not reminding me of people I read and know. ...more