It's like the Hobbit, but about love and memory and trauma and forgiveness, instead of an invisible-making ring, and starring old people instead of hoIt's like the Hobbit, but about love and memory and trauma and forgiveness, instead of an invisible-making ring, and starring old people instead of hobbits. But it is about killing a dragon. Ishiguro seeds several little mysteries into the opening and then sets the reveal to "leisurely", to gratifying effect. Also starring: Sir Gawain, of Green Knight fame, for some reason. The ending made me misty-eyed. ...more
The best, most reliable way to get me to buy a book is to compare it to a John le Carre novel. There are writers I like better, but the sly thrill I gThe best, most reliable way to get me to buy a book is to compare it to a John le Carre novel. There are writers I like better, but the sly thrill I get when the intricate and far-ranging puzzle pieces of a le Carre novel start falling together is rare enough for me to find in novels outside of le Carre's that I reach for it when promised. You think I'd know better by now. For whatever reason the effect of a le Carre novel seems to be impossible to imitate.
So that's how City of Stairs ended up in my hands. Specifically, I heard an interview with the author where he spoke about the influence The Spy Who Came In from the Cold had on his novel, and within the hour I had downloaded it and started to read.
To cut to the chase, this is not a fantasy spy novel. It's actually more of a murder mystery, or police procedural, than it is anything else (moreso almost than even a fantasy novel), where a character who we are told is a spy foregoes the black arts of tradecraft for the gum-shoe trail-following of your average shamus. And as a fantasy procedural it's pretty good, though a little too upbeat and banter-reliant given the case at hand.
The secondary world fantasy setting is intricate and well-developed, if that's your thing (it's less and less my thing), featuring something of a power reversal between a former quasi-Euro-tinged colonial power and a distinctly Indian subcontinental-flavored colonial subject. It also features gods, the fascination with which in fantasy literature I don't for the life of me understand. The fact that it was about gods more than anything sapped my interest from the book more than its unearned le Carrean pedigree (and which I admit is entirely a problem with this particular reader than with the novel).
The one consistent irritation I had with City of Stairs that I'm pretty sure is the fault of the book's rather than with my expectations/tastes are the massively clunky expositional passages. Barely a chapter passes without a relentlessly informative "As you know, Bob" lecture that runs over multiple pages and which characters launch into at the slightest hint of an interrogative. I know it must be difficult to have a complex and elaborately worked-out world while lacking a stylistically suave way of getting it onto the page, but when push comes to shove I vastly prefer the third person, textbook-style infodumps....more
I feel like some of the best, grittiest, most gonzo science fiction you can find these days is in comic books. You've got Brandon Graham's Prophet rebI feel like some of the best, grittiest, most gonzo science fiction you can find these days is in comic books. You've got Brandon Graham's Prophet reboot and Multiple Warheads, Rick Remender's Black Science, Eric Stephenson's Nowhere Men, and now this one. The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history of the Manhattan Project, layered in with post-apocalyptic, conspiracy theory, intergalactic warfare plot threads. So much fun....more
I am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with sI am not much of a fan of the secondary world epic fantasy genre. It takes a lot for me to actually pick up, let alone finish, a 500+ page book with somewhat gaudy cover art featuring people and places whose names contain an excess of vowels and apostrophes. So that I bought this novel on the day it came out and finished it in less than a week says a lot. To me, anyway.
I first heard of this author through her essays, in particular We Have Always Fought, which is a bracing rhetorical bucket of cold water over the head, one of those pieces of writing that articulated something I already kind of knew on some level but did it in such a way as to actually change the way I look at the world. It rearranged my brain. The way Hurley writes about stories as significant, high stakes political endeavors that can change the world in some meaningful way is immensely exciting, and something I believe, too. So of course I was curious about the kinds of stories she tells.
The first thing that struck me, however, is how epic fantasy-ish it is. We get the requisite map, the reminder that this is "Book 1" of what I presume is a trilogy, and the monsters and cosmology and vowelly-named people, places, and cultures that contain just a slight hint of real world ethnic and cultural markers. This has more to do with my ill-suitedness for the genre at large, though, than with anything germane to this novel. But it's worth noting that while MIRROR EMPIRE does a great many subversive, progressive, and downright refreshing things on the story level, its props and window dressing come straight from epic fantasy central casting.
Beneath the nacreous epic fantasy surface polish, however, is an amazingly complex, hyper intelligent, maximalist fugue of a story with a great many interesting things to say about pacifism and warfare, genocide, gender role mutability, self-violence, and even the deadly importance of books and the art of translation. On the thematic level MIRROR EMPIRE is probably one of the most ambitious fantasy novels I've read. Unlike some ambitious works that seem to lack the narrative underpinning to fully realize that ambition (such as Mieville's Bas-Lag novels), the story stays firmly on the rails, its heavy freight confidently in tow. ...more
Last month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odLast month I needed a jolt of good old, epic senswunda space opera, and man did this book deliver. This 25 year old sci-fi classic might look a bit odd sandwiched between new fiction by 21st century lit-fic superstars, but Simmons’s obvious love of classical literature, with a plot structure borrowed directly from Chaucer and frequent shout-outs to Keats among others, never lets the reader forget that the author is a classical literature super nerd. The only downside is that the novel ends in a cliff hanger of sorts, but because the slow reveal had already given me a sense of what was going on, and because the the plot threads were starting to fray a bit towards the end I didn’t feel the need to dive into the second book right away. Perhaps I’ll save it for the winter....more
This very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felThis very short novel contains a charming, if somewhat twee, story of a normal young boy who has a fantastical adventure, book-ended by two deeply-felt episodes that glancingly attempt something more.
The book begins with our unnamed first-person narrator returning to the house of his youth on the occasion of (I think) a funeral. These opening pages are freighted with a deeply introspective world-weariness, and it felt like the story was gearing up for a kind of self-realization narrative.
But once home, our narrator encounters a mysterious neighbor, and this encounter summons the memory of an experience the narrator had as a child. That story, as recalled by the narrator, is the meat of this novel, and it's interesting and just as full of monsters and fairies and magic as you'd expect from the byline. There are some dark moments, and a twist of tragedy. But it all comes across as very harmless and safe, even in some of the less comfortable and sad moments.
For me, though, the novel only became interesting in its final pages, after the narrator finishes recounting this experience he had and is talking with the mysterious neighbor. Without getting into specifics, it is only at the end that the story starts trying to broach some of the self-realization hinted at in its opening pages. But before it goes anywhere, the book ends.
I feel like Gaiman has a clearly defined comfort zone, and if he tentatively sticks a foot outside of it, as he does here at the very end, it is only to withdraw it a moment later with the hope that the attempt at something deep will count for the real thing. I look forward to the day he works up the courage to venture outside of his self-circumscribed magic circle and tell us about the monsters he really sees there....more
Quickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jumpQuickness of style and thought means above all agility, mobility, and ease, all qualities that go with writing where it is natural to digress, to jump from one subject to another, to lose the thread a hundred times and find it again after a hundred more twists and turns.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (p. 46)
Calvino, in the above quote, is discussing a characteristic element of folk tales. The narrative speed of folk and fairy tales accounts for their immediacy and the ease with the reader accepts certain implausibilities.
Genevieve Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is one of the best embodiments of Calvino-esque quickness that I’ve come across lately. A story about twelve sisters in 1920’s Manhattan, sequestered by their petulant, reclusive father in their Upper East Side town house, who sneak out every night and dance their feet off at prohibition night clubs, the novel packs a lot of story in its 277 pages.
Jo is our protagonist. The eldest of the twelve sisters and their de facto leader (their “general,” as her sisters call her), she becomes a sort of surrogate mother after their real mother dies. Befitting her nickname, Jo is a master tactician, especially during her and her sisters’ nightly escapes to the nightcblub, cooly and efficiently ushering her siblings to and from taxis, into the clubs, monitoring for trouble and organizing a hasty but organized retreat when trouble arrives.
But Jo’s leadership comes at a cost: her responsibility to her sisters precludes her from the fun: she doesn’t dance, but sits at the night club table and watches her sisters like a hawk. And when a love interest appears in the form of Tom, the owner of their regular night club, she is compelled to rebuff him, and then some.
As difficult as Jo’s life is already, her challenges are compounded when her father announces his intention to marry off each of his daughters, setting off a series of events that, before the novel is over, leaves the sisters scattered across the country, enmeshed in various new friendships and relationships, and even running their own night club.
I kept thinking of the above Calvino quote, and the essay, Quickness, from which it is taken—so much so that it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I later found out that Girls at the Kingfisher Clubias a retelling of sorts of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, a German fairy tale fist published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Unfamiliar as I was with the original fairy tale while I was reading this novel, the Calvinoesque quickness with which Valentine’s story unfolds nonetheless left me with that distinctive fairy tale feel.
But this novel’s quickness is both a feature and a bug: the fast pacing (coupled with a large cast of deeply interesting and economically drawn characters) kept me engaged and intensely interested, but it also let the story get off easily with some rapid hand-waving around a few key plot points.
One scene in particular where the narrative quickness comes at the expense of believability occurs at one of the most crucial moments in the story.
[NB: following couple of paragraphs contains spoilers.]
After Jo and Tom spend their first night together, Jo convinces Tom to enter into a sham marriage with Jo’s eldest sister, Lou. Not only does this involve Tom marrying someone he doesn’t love (he loves Jo, and Jo loves him back), but it means Tom will abandon his night club business and moving to Chicago. That’s a lot to ask anyone ever, let alone some guy after only one roll in the hay.
This is an impossible request and the narrative does nothing much to show us what kind of tidal shifts in Tom’s character had to occur for him to agree to it. Basically, when Jo and Tom are laying on the bed enjoying post-coital intimacy and, after Jo tells Tom about the conditions under which her father keeps them, she looks him in the eye and says “I need a favor.” We see Tom’s resistance to the idea, and Jo’s ultimate ability to persuade him, only during snippets of flashback in the scene that immediately follows. Tom is driving Jo back to her house. Before the reader even learns what the favor was, we are told that:
The ride was silent; everything had been silent after she’d asked for the favor and they’d fought.
(“Do you know how dangerous this is?” he’d shouted, after he’d stopped saying no, no, no; after he’d stopped trying to explain as he would to a child that what she was asking had risks.
“No worse than being trapped in that house,” she said, buckling her shoes. “No worse than that.”
If he thought she could be frightened into seeing the comforts of staying quietyly at home, he’d picked the wrong fight.) This is an important moment for the story, where a character has to be persuaded to do something that is so against his will that it seems implausible. To believe this as a reader I need to see that persuasion in action, and Tom’s gradually diminishing resistance and ultimate capitulation if I’m going to go along with it. But all we get is the above four short paragraphs. It certainly moves the story along, but at the loss of dramatic tension and readerly disbelief.
(One other thing, which is more of a stylistic quirk but kind of related, I think: Valentine is very fond of extended, multi-paragraph parentheticals, such as in the above quote. It’s not that it doesn’t work, but more than once I felt like story elements that deserved more real estate were wedged between parenthesis for the sake of narrative momentum.)
But apart from a handful of “pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain” moments in the narrative that veer the story into two-dimensional territory, this novel is full of psychological complexity emotional nuance and just plain human-ness that belies the story’s speed. It even had me close to tears at one moment toward the end, which I think is the first time that’s happened with a book this year. Calvino would be envious of Valentine’s talent....more