I do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections...moreI do not know where to start in talking about this book.
I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections, and half of Imtithal's. This is partly because I am a sap, but mostly because this book (and this trilogy, given the foreshadowing) is about a fall from paradise, about the elves going off to the Grey Havens, about the horrible inevitableness of the change you don't see coming. And that atmosphere hangs over every passage of those two narratives, infusing them with an exquisite sense of loss.
Three narratives, actually, because Hiob's framing narrative is also imbued with that grief, though at a remove.
There are four narratives, by the way -- the three previously mentioned and that of John the Priest. That complexity of structure is typical of Valente's novels (at least the four I have now read); she weaves together disparate narratives better than any author I have ever read, ignoring linearity in favor of thematic resonance. So Hiob says "I have boys to scribed for me now -- for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys' work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim" and four pages later Hagia writes "I have been all my life a scribe. . . But in the end. . . I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy. . ." Characters echo one anothers' thoughts without knowing, and their actions are mirrored or reversed to throw light on the sorts of people they are.
This is the sort of book that rewards careful reading, and punishes any lack of attention or attempt to skim.
John's narrative, at first, does not seem to fit with the other three. It is the most chronological, mostly confining itself to whatever events it is relating rather than musing on what came later (though John does do a little of this sort of foreshadowing); it is also the most surreal, and the first section when he is adrift on the sea of sand is downright hard to figure out, because we don't yet have enough knowledge of the world to know what is real and what is metaphor. But that discordant note is a very carefully measured choice on Valente's part.
There is a passage in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion that seems appropriate, so I will quote it here:
You have to make a cup of yourself, to recive that pouring out [necessary to becoming a saint]. You are a sword. You were always a sword. Like your mother and your daughter, too -- steel spines run in the women of your family. I realize now why I never saw saints, before. The world does not crash upon their wills like waves upon a rock, or part around them like the wake of a ship. Instead they are supple, and swim through the world as silently as fishes.
John is just such a sword. He is the catalyst, the thing that, when added to Hagia's delicately balanced world, changes the world rather than being changed itself. That's why when he finally is mirrored it's by Thomas, another Christian who stumbled into paradise, with vastly different results.
And Hagia is. . . absolutely the most perfect challenge her world casts against John. The book is incredibly sensual -- far more sensual than Palimpsest, which was all about sex. Each of the men of the Church is confronted with the world of the body he thought he left behind: Thomas by Imtithal's physical affection; Hiob by the fragrant, liquid rot that worked against him in his task of copying; and John by Hagia, with her eyes where her nipples should be, at the tips of abundant breasts, and totally comfortable in that body. The tension in the book comes from those challenges, even though we already know who ends up the victor.
To bring a long rambling squee to the point, every moment of this novel is perfectly constructed, every choice deliberately calculated to further the story being told. Because of this (not despite it) it is deeply moving. The best thing I read last year was Valente's two-volume The Orphan's Tales; so far this year, it is definitely The Habitation of the Blessed.(less)
So much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First...moreSo much to like and so much to dislike, all wrapped up in one slim package. The good stuff first, I think, because overall I did enjoy this book.
First off, there is thankfully nowhere near the same level of obnoxious unnecessary Capitalization in the text as there is in the jacket description. But the cover art is both eye-catching and accurate so the marketing's a wash overall. The cover art also captures the part of this book that I enjoyed the most: the sections starting about a third of the way in that are part of the long tradition of lost worlds fiction. I loved Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Caspak Trilogy ages ago, and this book is a worthy entry in that genre. It depicts the same sort of bizarre wilderness, filled with unexpected dangers and delights. I raced through the sections traveling through and trying to survive that wildnerness and was varying disappointed and annoyed when other elements of the novel came to the fore.
The central world-building premise, that of the metaphor of God as clockmaker made literal, is absurdly cool. It's an obvious fit in the clockpunk genre, and Lake's reminders that this world is not our world were effective and rarely overplayed. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the protagonist could hear the heavens ticking along -- an ability that grows and changes over the course of the book, mirroring Hethor's character arc. But I wanted more done with this premise; with so much of the plot resting on turns and crises of faith, I wanted much (much!) more information on how Lake's Christianity is not our Christianity. Little changes like the Brass Christ and the altered Lord's Prayer are nice. . . but I wanted (and felt the story needed) to see how God's presence manifest and undeniable changed the history of the Western World, given how much of the moving force of our world's history rests of disputes over faith. I didn't buy that Hethor's world would be as similar to ours as it clearly was.
Even though the book is most rightly clockpunk, it is also steampunk -- it's set in the Victorian period, and there are airships in the Royal Navy. Unfortunately, I felt the entire steampunk setting was nothing more than window-dressing. There was never anything done with it. So, for example, we're told that America never broke away from England but that has no bearing on the plot and there's never any reason given for why the alternate historical elements of heavenly clockwork and working magic would have made America less likely to rebel. The Chinese Empire is the major threat to England rather than any of the other powers in Europe, but again, we're never shown why and it makes absolutely no difference to the plot who the enemy is. As far as I can tell, pretty much the only reason to give this novel a steampunk setting rather than the more natural clockpunk Renaissance setting is so that Lake can have all the adventures happen on an airship, and that's just not enough reason for me.
In fact, almost all of my reservations with the novel arise from its setting. The entire Southern Hemisphere is essentially erased, and even though that has happened for good world-building reasons it made me raise my eyebrows. If that erasure had had a measurable impact on the history of the Northern Hemisphere I would have applauded it as daring; but apparently the whole Age of Exploration (and Imperialism) was able to function exactly like ours. . . without Africa or half of the Americas to explore and conquer and mine for resources. Um, no. (One character even has a throwaway line dissing slave owners. . . who were the slaves?)
Compounding this issue is the fact that the second half of the book, the whole section I enjoyed for its Lost World air, harps (and harps, and harps) on the Noble Savage trope. Can we please retire that one now?
I had some issues with Lake's control over perspective as well -- the entire book was written from a tight third-person, except when Hethor was describing things, and then it switched to omniscient so that Lake could use references not available to his main character -- but overall this book will probably succeed or fail depending on the reader's enjoyment of lost worlds and tolerance for problematic world-building. For me it was about as much of a wash as the marketing.(less)
This was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the init...moreThis was a deeply disappointing collection for me. It doesn't work for two reasons. The first reason is that, to borrow Jo Walton's phrasing, the initial volume in any of Shinn's series always blows me away, then each successive volume is only half as good as the one before. Two of the four novellas in this volume are set in the worlds of Shinn's two longest series, and those two novellas have reached only homeopathically good territory. The second reason is that I just don't think Shinn is capable of writing stories with the sort of thematic freight she attempted here -- the two non-series novellas are drawn from two of her more message-heavy novels, and the two series novellas attempt to address some of the seriously thorny issues inherent but not really addressed in her previous world-building.
Still, it's the sort of volume that if you are a Sharon Shinn completist, you simply have to read it. And since her prose is always pleasant and easy to read it goes very, very quickly.
Flight (set in Samaria, just before Archangel) This was by far the worst story in the bunch. It features the return of Raphael as the Biggest of all Big Bads, doing evil just because he can; a really, really, really clunky and histrionic speech about the evils of a system where women are only valued because they can produce angel babies; and a completely forced romance. I rather wish I could erase my memory of it.
Blood (set in the world of Heart of Gold) The novel this is based on is one of the few by Shinn that I have never re-read; though I don't remember disliking it nothing about it ever stood out enough in my memory that I wanted to revisit it. So this was the one case where I could not tell what information was new for the novella and what was a reference to the novel, which probably made it feel fresher than it would have otherwise. It too features some clunky speachifying on the evils of a patriarchal system, but there is a greater focus on the budding friendship between Kerk and Jalci, a very Hollywood but still somewhat heartwarming set of scenes at a sort of shelter for abused women and their children, and an actual honest-to-goodness moment of heartbreak and moral ambiguity. That moment gets completely ruined a moment later when Jalci recasts everything as black and white, but it made the story worthwhile for me. I think this was the best of the bunch.
Gold (set in the world of Summers at Castle Auburn) I think this novella would actually work better for people who have not read the novel. If you have not read the novel, it's a fairly straightforward story about the dangers of living in fairyland -- not a particularly memorable entry into that canon of literature, but I happen to like those stories with their depictions of dangerous beauty. If you have read the novel, as I have (though not tremendously recently), something about the story just doesn't quite seem to match what came before -- I spent the whole time trying to figure out what on earth happened in the interim to twist the recurring characters' motivations to this result. The story also featured a tremendously whiny teenage girl protagonist, and again the romance seemed forced.
Flame (set in the Twelve Houses, just before Mystic and Rider) Senneth is my second-favorite of all of Shinn's characters (right after Jovieve in Wrapt in Crystal) and Shinn went a fair way to ruining her for me in this story. Here she is wishy-washy and whiny or self-righteous by turns. Because of the difference in her character, I assumed that the story was set several years before Mystic and Rider; I would believe that this teenage Senneth would grow into the wonderful Senneth I so loved. Unfortunately, Shinn then made it explicit that Senneth went straight from the events of this story into the events of Mystic and Rider, so my interpretation was invalidated and I was left feeling merely annoyed. Plus the resolution was completely predictable (which is problematic because the story is set up as a pseudo-mystery rather than a romance) and again there were far too many soapbox moments. (It's bad to burn witches. I know this already.)(less)
WARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nov...moreWARNING: No spoilers for Chill, but plenty of spoilers for Dust.
Chill picks up almost directly after Dust ended, when the ship is reeling from the nova blast and the crew is reeling from all of the deaths, particularly Rien's sacrifice to bring the new angel -- an A.I. integrating all of the splinter A.I.s that developed when the ship broke down centuries before -- into existence. Perceval is now captain, but she is barely functional as she deals with her grief, and there is an enormous power vacuum that the remaining Exalts of Rule and Engine -- both those for and against Perceval's captaincy -- are scrambling to fill. And while the A.I.s have all been integrated into the new angel, it is bothered by enormous black spaces in its awareness of the ship, due either to damage or enemy machinations.
And then a very dangerous prisoner escapes, so two teams -- one led by Tristen, the other by Benedick -- are sent in pursuit.
The plot is made up entirely by that pursuit, and I found that choice disappointing. The entire plot of Dust was Perceval and Rien fleeing through the fascinating landscape of the half-ruined ship; to have the entire plot of this one be another chase through a now-much-more-familiar landscape just seemed repetitive. There are a couple new and exciting set-pieces -- particularly a scene involving massive intelligent fungi doing something deliciously unexpected -- but ultimately I felt a bit let down by Bear's imagination. What stood out most about Dust for me was how gloriously imaginative the world-building was; with that thrill behind me this was just another SF action novel.
Or would have been, were it not for the characters.
If there was one flaw in Dust, it was that all of the characters were ciphers to me for 2/3 of the novel. Not so here. Dust and Chill ended up being mirror images of each other: the first all ideas and no character development; the second few (new) ideas but wonderful, complex characters with long histories and complicated relationships. The chase plot is really just window-dressing for internal, character-driven action, as the characters left standing after Dust figure out who they want to be in this new world.
Unfortunately, window-dressing or not the chase plot was still there, and it required a resolution, and that resolution was something of a deus-ex-machina. It also left a pretty significant plot thread dangling, as this is the middle book of a trilogy. But for these characters I would forgive a great deal more than that.(less)
Dust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way...moreDust is a difficult book to review. It is a work of glorious genre- and gender-bending. It had moments of hilarity and moments of heartbreak, and way more sensawonder than any book I've read this year (including Zelazny's Lord of Light and M. John Harrison's Light). But the characters were ciphers to me through the first two-thirds, and I'm positive that I didn't get any of the allusions fully. Still, I shall do my best, and talk about the elements that occur to me in order.
First, the science fiction. This is a broken-down generation ship novel, and the ship itself is a glorious bit of world-building. It is the world to its inhabitants, but they're under no pretenses that it is also a ship, and they curse accordingly -- Space! is the usual ejaculant, and the Enemy of vaccuum is present in several wonder-and-horror-tinged E.V.A.s. The ship is enormous, and much of it is dead, and what is left alive is incredibly strange, full of both nanotechnology and plain old terrestrial biology run amok. The people who set out in Jacob's Ladder (the ship's name) loved tinkering with genetics (for reasons explained about a third of the way in which I shan't spoil but which have bearing on the next section) so the humans now on board are split into the Exalt -- people whose blood literally runs blue due to their nanotech symbionts -- and the Mean, baseline humans who are forced to serve. The Exalt have clearly played with their genetics, many being winged, or furred, or otherwise altered, but even the Mean are not quite humans like us, as Bear makes it clear early on that there are at least three genders present -- men, women, and kant, the ungendered. (She invents new pronouns for the kant: "hir" and "sie" which function well enough but when first presented look unfortunately like typos.) And there are any number of artificial intelligences running around, greater and lesser ones, some diffuse throughout the ship, others contained in rather unlikely places (like a laser-torc that is also a basilisk, or a nuclear reactor leak).
And running through all this SF coolness are biblical and Arthurian and gothic allusions that make the novel look and feel quite a bit more like high fantasy. One of the two protagonists is called Sir Perceval, and she (I did mention the gender-bending, didn't I?) is also a celibate knight on a quest; the Exalt, as mentioned before, are literally blue-blooded and have split what remains of the ship into domaines which they rule through primogeniture; and the A.I.s are referred to as "angels" and all (except one) have taken (or were given? it's unclear) names straight out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But this is NOT fantasy dressed up as science fiction. It has all the trappings of a quest fantasy because it draws on those sources that quest fantasy evolved from, but these characters chose them consciously. The Exalt created their high-tech Medieval world, and their ancestors built the Biblical A.I.s, and the fact that there are two different sets of referents being used by two classes of individuals (the Exalt and the A.I.s) is totally consistent and meaningful. This is a consciously feudal future, one where terms like "Exalt" and "angel" are thrown around divorced from any sense of reverence or religious connotation (but again, not without a meaning that I don't want to spoil).
There are also all the social SF elements -- this is the future, and one of the understated ways Bear makes sure we don't forget that is the way their mores are not our mores. There are the three common genders, and there's a double-gendered individual (I couldn't tell for sure, but I don't *think* that was a common thing; there weren't special pronouns for the single double-gendered person so I'm assuming that that choice isn't common, though it didn't particularly surprise or apall the characters who met him/her/hir); there's sexuality of all stripes presented matter-of-factly, including incest (after all, if there's no worry about inbreeding leading to monsters. . .); there's also cannibalism as a matter of course, because an Exalt who consumes another Exalt gains access to their identity -- memories and personality included. And yet alongside that cannibalism everyone appears to be very casually vegetarian, because humans are wonderful at maintaining two mutually-exclusive world views, and I wouldn't expect that to be any different in the future.
Did you notice that this is only a 342-page novel? That's a lot to unpack, and that's one of the reasons I was engaged but not enthralled through the first 200 pages. Bear never hands the reader information -- all this world-building was accomplished without a single info-dump, and without any of the characters having those terribly awkward "As you know, Bob" conversations. But getting all that across and moving the quest along left less time than I would like to get to know the characters. Bear starts the novel at the last possible second (as you should, but as very few authors do, preferring to give their readers a few introductory chapters to make sure they're solidly grounded in the world and the people and the power structure) and that unfortunately means that I didn't have a clue why Rien and Perceval were acting the way they were at first. I had some guesses, and my guesses ended up being right, but it took 200 pages for me to be really comfortable in their skins, to feel like they were acting rather than reacting.
Once I was there I was with them body and soul, and the ending kind of floored me, but it took a while.(less)