This is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in beingThis is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in being both accessible to the modern reader and still hard to untangle. It has moments of humor, pathos, and heart-pounding suspense. It also stares unflinchingly into some very dark places, without letting that darkness overwhelm its story. It is a wonderful book, but not one to be read lightly, particularly if you prefer your reading to be full of sweetness and light. Benjamin January's world is full of everyday defeats and stolen bits of happiness -- and the fact that his world is our world makes every defeat that much more painful. But for the stout of heart this is a luminous piece of genre writing....more
This novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightfulThis novel picks up a couple months after the end of The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and if it isn't as surprising as that novel was it is no less delightful. While Starhawk has responded with her usual calm to all the changes in their fortunes, Sun Wolf is still assimilating the new needs his power places on his way of life and his new relationship with Starhawk specifically and women in general. Of course he immediately clashes with another strong-minded, aristocratic, redheaded woman, but Kaletha is very definitely not Sheera Galernas.
The Witches of Wenshar delves deeper into the magic system that Hambly has set up for this world, and if none of it rocked my world with originality, its very familiarity let Hambly continue exploring the things obviously dear to her heart: her characters and the role of women in the world. In the course of the novel, Sun Wolf goes through the same series of revelations that Starhawk went through in The Ladies of Mandrigyn when she was stuck in Pergemis with Ram & Orris and their family, and his melancholy as a result is handled with a wonderful delicacy.
This novel is actually better paced than its predecessor was; Sun Wolf and Starhawk are never separated by more than a day's ride, so the shifting between perspectives is much smoother because they are both party to the same events. There are no large battle scenes for Hambly to choreograph, the action all taking place among small bands of people or individuals, so there were never any moments when I lost track of who was doing what. And the denouement, though I could see it coming a mile a way, still drew a snicker from me. All in all, this novel was just as enjoyable as The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and that is no mean feat. I am eagerly awaiting getting my hands on a copy of the conclusion to this trilogy....more
The Ladies of Mandrigyn is utterly delightful. It is, in fact, exactly what I was looking for when I attempted Jennifer Roberson's Sword Dancer, whichThe Ladies of Mandrigyn is utterly delightful. It is, in fact, exactly what I was looking for when I attempted Jennifer Roberson's Sword Dancer, which so disappointed me. The Ladies of Mandrigyn makes no pretensions to being anything more than a pure sword-and-sorcery novel, replete with heroic acts and larger than life characters played out against a highly romantic background, but the execution is flawless, the characters never cease being sympathetic (or devolve into charicatures) and, most importantly, there is plenty of humor.
Sun Wolf and Starhawk, needless to say, are stock characters. What so delighted me about this novel was that Hambly handled them like real people without ever losing what has made those stock characters so successful in the fantasy genre. She spent most of the novel inside their two heads (though it was technically written third-person omniscient, because when it suited her Hambly did delve into other characters' motivations at will), letting us see the pasts that made them what they are. And by staying in their heads so closely through all the action, we were also able to see the fears and doubts that neither character would ever share with those around him/her, maintaining both the realism for the reader and the virtual perfection for the observer inside the novel.
What set this novel apart even further from the run of the mill sword-and-sorcery novel was that that realism of character extended to all of the minor characters in the novel. Every character that has a speaking role is an easily identified stock character that Hambly makes completely three dimensional. Where this is most impressive (or at least most noticeable) is with the eponymous ladies of Mandrigyn. Most fantasy novels, even those written by women, have very few female characters. This may be because fantasy is usually action or politics oriented and women traditionally have not been leaders in those spheres; it may be because the female fantasy authors today grew up reading male fantasy authors who only introduced women to their novels as damsels in distress; it may be because women still grow up in a society that places more value on men. Whatever the reason, I have learned to enjoy the occasional strong female character in isolation from her own kind. Starhawk is this type of strong female character, and if the story had been about Sun Wolf and Starhawk in their mercenary band that is exactly what it would have looked like.
But the brilliant (though of course still not unique -- I can name one or two other authors that have a similar premise, but only one or two) thing that Hambly did in this novel was make Sun Wolf the fish out of water, a lone strong man surrounded by women. She didn't take the cop-out route of making the women a bizarre Amazonian exception to all the normal gender roles; she set him down firmly among women who were used to fulfilling those traditional gender roles and are being forced out of them by circumstances out of their control. The myriad ways the women reacted to this unwanted freedom is wonderfully realized, as is Sun Wolf's gradual awareness of how similar and different these women are from the men (and the occasional solitary woman) he is used to training. I especially loved Hambly decision to give Sheera that calamitous magic that true leaders have, that charisma that turns otherwise intelligent human beings into lemmings, rather than simply making her leader because her soon-to-be husband possesses that magic.
There isn't that much else to say about the novel. I will admit, Hambly doesn't write her battle scenes terribly well; I found myself lost within them at several points. However, she seems to know that this is a weakness, because she lets most of the battles occur off stage, keeping the focus of the story on those things she does best: funny dialogue and wonderful characterization. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the second volume in this trilogy....more
This is a deeply impressive novel. It is exquisitely crafted: the pace is measured, but sure; the metaphors are used delicately; and the control overThis is a deeply impressive novel. It is exquisitely crafted: the pace is measured, but sure; the metaphors are used delicately; and the control over perspective (shifting between first person, tight third person, and loose present-tense third person for the three different timelines) is both absolute and absolutely necessary to the emotional arc being told. It is a novel to mull over, savor.
It is also an incredibly intense experience, or at least it was for me. I read it slowly partly so that I could admire Griffith's work, but mostly because reading it for more than half an hour at a time left me introspective and melancholy. There is a great deal of pain in the novel, and the carefully distanced prose makes it all the easier for the reader to fill in the blanks. For all the science fiction trappings (and they are many, from the cyberpunk-ish (but mostly irrelevant) identity hacking to the bioremediation science that furnishes much of the plot and much of the imagery) this story is about trauma, and surviving trauma, and then surviving your survival tactics. It's about ethics, and class, and identity, and monsters that come in human shape. It's vaguely dystopian without being political, and it's about corporate espionage while refusing to forget that corporations are anything but faceless.
I can't say I loved the book; it was far too emotionally hard for that. It left me unsettled and totally drained, and I don't know that I would ever read it again. But I will certainly be picking up everything else Griffith ever writes....more
I loved this book. It's set a couple decades after the events of Swordspoint and does feature a number of the same characters, but it can easily standI loved this book. It's set a couple decades after the events of Swordspoint and does feature a number of the same characters, but it can easily stand on its own. And unlike Swordspoint I was immediately emotionally invested in Katherine, because her world is more approachable to me than St. Vier's was, full of people mostly trying to do the right thing and build happy lives. Katherine is just your average girl from the landed class, raised to run a household and attract a husband. She knows nothing of politics and cares less; she has an eye for beauty and doesn't have an unconventional bone in her body. And in a classic fantasy of manners (or in fact any comedy of manners) twist she is sent off to the city to make her family's fortune and is immediately forced to break the most important conventions of her gender and her class.
What Kushner does absolutely brilliantly is take all the fantasy of manners tropes and subvert them, filling the book with page after page of witty, comedic banter and then hitting the reader with a line that cuts through to the real power dynamics in these sorts of stories -- the danger and the desperation inherent in the system we are so comfortable in in fantasy worlds. An example: one of the secondary characters is a pretty, vivacious girl Katherine's age going through her debut season, and she is being moody and demanding and in all ways a typical girl in this sort of story. Her brother, who wants to use the carriage, doesn't understand what's gotten into his normally sunny sister, and starts to pester her. Their mother immediately steps in and pulls him aside and asks to speak to him as an adult. This is what she says:
What happens to Artemesia this Season or the next will determine the course of her entire life from on. She is on display, everything about her: her clothes, her hair, her teeth, her laugh, her voice. . . Think of it as -- oh, I don't know, as a horse that has only one race to win. If she marries well, she will be comfortable and happy. If she makes a poor choice, or fails to attract a worthy man, the rest of her life will be a misery.
The game of courtship reduced to buying livestock, and even better is that even with this explanation the brother clearly doesn't understand exactly how little control of her own destiny his sister has, and how little margin for error there is.
But we the reader aren't allowed to forget this lesson, as Kushner weaves Artemesia's conventional life through Katherine's unconventional one, then brings the two girls together at an incredibly fraught Rogue's Ball that changes both their reputations in the City forever. From that point on the balance shifts decidedly from comedy to tragedy, though there are still little choices that Kushner makes that utterly delighted me -- for instance, Katherine and Artemesia both drawing on their reading of a Three Musketeers-esque novel to guide them through utterly unfamiliar waters. But as Kushner piles political complication on top of social complication on top of the problems inherent in talking about sex in a roughly Regency England era setting, we are forced to confront all of the ways that type of political system can leave people wide open to be victimized, and then can lead to society blaming the victims for their abusers acts.
All of which was so incredibly right, so perfectly suited to what I like and need to read, that I felt personally betrayed by the ending. In the last 20 pages Kushner took the novel back to its comedy of manners roots, waving a magic wand and making everything better, and then practically ended the story with "and they lived happily ever after." The ending of the novel made me scream in frustration, and I think I would actually recommend that people who respond the way I do to the 454 pages of the novel proper not even read the five pages of Coda....more
First, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They aFirst, I have to say, that jacket description is riddled with so many small inaccuracies about this story that I was tempted not to include it. They aren't fundamentally important inaccuracies -- though it is very important to realize that the "she" referred to at the start of the second paragraph is Kagaya-hime, not the "aging empress" who isn't an empress at all -- but it bugs me now that I've read the story to see how wrong it is. Ah well, moving on.
This is a wonderful book, sure to appeal to fans of Patricia McKillip and Catherynne Valente, though it's more accessible than either of their work. It's very much rooted in the myths of Japan, and while I don't know a ton about the time period, nothing of what I do know was contradicted by what Johnson wrote, so I am assuming that she captured the era (Heian-era Japan I believe) with some degree of accuracy. Like in McKillip and Valente's work, this is not fantasy that lovingly details a set of rules for its magic system; it is fantasy where there are gods and there are humans and there are animals and the lines between these things are not sharp at all, where anything can happen and no one is much surprised when anything does. Logic plays a role, but it's dream logic, and the worst error to commit is in assuming that any other being's motivations match our own.
But what made this book brilliant (and caused it to be nominated for the James Tiptree, Jr. Award) is the way in which it is fundamentally a womens' fantasy. The fudoki of the cats is entirely female; there is no place for males, and none of the fudoki cares to even know the names of the toms that fathered their kittens. Harueme (this would be the aging noblewoman narrating Kagaya-hime's tale, half-sister to the former Emperor Shirakawa) also lives in an almost entirely female world, where women have husbands and lovers but their days are spent hidden from male sight (and even the seductions take place with an eye to maintaining the illusion that no man can see their faces). Harueme loved her half-brother, and reminisces about her soldier-lover Domei, but the most important relationship she has is with her attendant, Shigeko. The novel even acknowledges that women menstruate -- I'm pretty sure I can count on one hand the SF/F novels that do that -- and there are elaborate (historically-based, I assume) codes of conduct built around that simple fact of life. It's a novel about women's issues: family and home and place in a society when all of those things are rigidly proscribed.
It works on a pure fantasy level too, with the cat-transformed-into-a-human element and the presence of the kami (which are a whole class of gods, not the name of a specific god as the jacket implies) and even a small war of revenge that leads to a seige; and I'm pretty sure it works as historical fiction, though as I've said I don't know very much about the time period so I can't attest to its accuracy. But it will linger in my memory because it shows a slice of life fantasy novels too often forget, not with any particular message, but just because these are stories that rarely get told. I wish there were more novels like this....more
This was my first Georgette Heyer novel, and I found it truly delightful. I rarely read romances because I have no patience for swooning heroines andThis was my first Georgette Heyer novel, and I found it truly delightful. I rarely read romances because I have no patience for swooning heroines and brooding heroes, and though one of my favorite authors cites Heyer in general and this book in particular as an inspiration, it took me some time to pick it up.
I had no trouble with the amount of period detail, because it seemed no more overwhelming than reading any period piece (such as Jane Austen, who is mentioned a couple of times in the text); indeed, it was set out in a fairly accessible way, which it often is not when reading something written during that time period. I also had no trouble with the time spent on description, particularly of clothing -- Heyer uses her descriptive passages well, always making sure that they are accomplishing either some character-building or at the very least are humorous. (In many cases they were both.) I did find the characters drawn a trifle broadly for my taste -- each person, when introduced seemed so much a stereotype that I worried the plot would be wholly predictable.
However, once all the principal parties were introduced, Heyer was able to just set her characters at one another, and this was where she soared for me. I giggled throughout the novel, and actually found myself dog-earing pages with particularly witty dialogue so I could read them to my boyfriend later on. I found Jenny a heroine after my own heart, particularly because she would have laughed at anyone even attempting to call her one.
And that was why I loved the ending so very much. The novel has no ". . .and they lived happily ever after", and that makes it feel far realer than a romance has any right to be. There is no melodrama in this novel, no great stores of passion; it is simply two people finding contentment with each other, and discovering that if the choice is between passion and contentment, contentment is to be preferred. Truly, a novel after my own heart, and one I can heartily recommend....more