Brilliantly evocative, the poetry of change-bell ringing winding throughout the novel in unexpected and delightful ways. The final solution was proper...moreBrilliantly evocative, the poetry of change-bell ringing winding throughout the novel in unexpected and delightful ways. The final solution was properly horrifying and unsuspected until quite late in the novel. My one little quibble is that the character of Deacon is so unreservedly black. . . I prefer even my villains to have a bit more grey in them. But beyond that, truly a mystery classic.(less)
There is nothing really new in the SF meets noir detective novel. On the noir side, there is the cynical, hard-boiled detective unwillingly drawn in t...moreThere is nothing really new in the SF meets noir detective novel. On the noir side, there is the cynical, hard-boiled detective unwillingly drawn in to the machinations of the powerful; there are the beautiful women embroiled in the case in varying degrees, nearly all of whom eventually get bedded; there is the city filled to the brim with drug dealers, whorehouses, and little people being eaten up by the powerful. On the SF side, there are hints of an ancient galactic civilization, now defunct; there are guns and computer programs to do anything anyone could want; there are A.I.s, particularly The Hendrix, which is a fabulous invention; and of course, there is the ubiquitous process of resleeving, by which death has been conquered – for the rich. Even the melding of the two genres is not new: it dates back at least to Isaac Asimov’s Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel Olivaw novels.
What Altered Carbon provides, however, is all of those familiar elements done up in a superb style. It is an extraordinarily visual book – I understood from the first page of the prologue why Joel Silver and Warner Bros. bought the film rights for $1 million. The narrative is fast-paced, the tone is spot-on, and the philosophical musings, while also not ground-breaking in any way, are moments to savor rather than skip over. The mystery is satisfyingly twisty but still fair to the reader, and the final confrontation ratchets up the tension to a screaming pitch then uses the bare minimum of words to choreograph the denoument.
I do have one quibble, however: I read the author bio in the back of the book first, and two of the three sentences were about the film rights. I found this a tad tasteless, not very informative, and kind of distracting, as I spent the entire novel trying to imagine how someone would film it.(less)
The first novel I picked up by Jo Walton was Tooth and Claw, a fun Austen-esque romantic comedy of manners with a twist: all the characters are dragon...moreThe first novel I picked up by Jo Walton was Tooth and Claw, a fun Austen-esque romantic comedy of manners with a twist: all the characters are dragons, and all of VIctorian England's aristocratic cultural mores have their grounding in dragon biology. I never read alternate history, so despite enjoying Tooth and Claw greatly, I didn't pick up Farthing until I started a science fiction challenge and made alternate history one of the genre categories. I was rather dreading it, to tell the truth; in addition to not liking alternate history, I've felt overdosed on Nazis and Hitler since I had to read Night three times in two years for school (as well as Dawn and a couple others of that ilk -- all of which were excellent, and I respected them, but there is only so much of the dark side of human nature I can take).
So when Farthing started out as a fun (well, a different kind of fun), Sayers-esque cozy British country house mystery, I was pleasantly surprised. The narrative switches between Lucy's first-person perspective and a third-person limited perspective focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard, and both perspectives were absolutely perfect for the tone. Lucy reminded me of several Agatha Christie heroines -- the ones that seem least suited to solving a mystery on the outside but who deep down have all the insight into the people around them, and the necessary cynicism to suspect the darkest motives while still holding firm to her own principles of right and wrong. Inspector Carmichael was a totally different type of detective, the one who forever keeps an open mind despite all and sundry pushing him this way and that with their own biases and assumptions. Added to this mix of British delight was Walton's frank insertion of sex -- not sex as scenery, added for tone and texture but otherwise irrelevant, but sex as motivation, which none of the British mystery novelists of the time could have talked about (though many alluded to it).
Throughout the first two-thirds of the novel, this was all it appeared to be, and I was delighted by that -- British country house mysteries are one of my favorite afternoon reads, and they are a sadly limited field as their authors tend to be dead, and forensic science has made their methods completely out-dated. But I did not fall into the trap I think many readers did, judging from the comments online. I never once forgot that this was an alternate history novel.
Through that first two-thirds the alternate history was kept strictly to the background. Oh, there were hints of chilling things happening -- the casual anti-Semitism many of the characters (even some of the "good" guys) displayed, the mention that some of the Farthing set were working on measures that would (1) allow the poorer classes to leave school as early as 11; (2) restrict higher education to those who had gone through public schools (which from what I'm aware of would be classified as private schools in the U.S. -- schools like Eton); and (3) restrict voting rights to only those who had graduated from University. Even more terrifying was how few of the characters not actively involved in politics cared about those measures -- Inspector Carmichael, for example, cared only in terms of how that would affect him personally or professionally, a trait which I found abominible and utterly realistic.
And then, just as I had pieced together the mystery to my satisfaction and was wondering how Walton was going to drag it out for the last third, all that alternate history came to the fore, and it devastated me.
[SPOILER ALERT! About character growth, not the mystery.:]
Walton didn't drag out the mystery -- the characters pieced it together at almost the same time I did, and they discovered it was too late. Lucy was the most practical about this; she knew the implacable force they were up against best, and she knew when it was time to run. It was due to her essential good nature that a life was salvaged from the mess at all, and I don't expect the series to follow her any further, though I will miss her. She escaped as best she could, and if the life she gained was not what she deserved, I have no doubt that she will make the best of it. Carmichael took a little longer to understand how powerful the forces arrayed against him were, and he suffered more as a result. His eventual capitulation to those forces I found totally in keeping with his character, because as I mentioned above he was always deep down the type to focus on keeping his own head above water. Many appear to have missed Walton's clues to this facet of his character, and I don't deny that they were subtle, but I respect her more as an author because of that.
So while some have decried the ending as too abrupt and out of the blue, I found it absolutely perfect, if absolutely terrifying. The ending is what elevates the novel above Tooth and Claw -- instead of being an homage to a beloved genre with an SF twist, it is a dark, powerful, moving work entirely in its own right. I could not put it down through the last third, even though I desperately wanted to escape that world. I have no idea how Walton is going to continue to explore the world in the next two novels of the series; I don't even think I really want to know; but I know I have to pick them up and read on.(less)
There were some interesting and evocative passages about Africa, but I found the writing style too aggressively simplistic (reminiscent of Dick and Ja...moreThere were some interesting and evocative passages about Africa, but I found the writing style too aggressively simplistic (reminiscent of Dick and Jane books, to be honest) and the mysteries so inconsequential that I don't remember them 20 minutes after finishing the novel. If I don't think of these as mysteries I might at some point pick up another, but probably not.(less)
I loved Farthing, the first book in this series, despite avoiding alternate history and especially anything involving Nazis and WWII like the plague....moreI loved Farthing, the first book in this series, despite avoiding alternate history and especially anything involving Nazis and WWII like the plague. In Farthing, Jo Walton took a classic British country house mystery and used it to divert the reader from all the subtly horrifying alternate history world-building going on at the edges, then brought all the alternate history aspects to the fore in the final third like a punch to the gut. It was one of the best books I've read all year.
In this sequel, which takes place almost directly after the events in Farthing, Jo Walton uses the classic thriller novel as her starting point in continuing to explore her fascist England, and if it isn't quite as successful as Farthing was, it is still compulsively readable and raises questions that will linger long after the book is finished. It can be read as a stand-alone, but I have no idea why anyone would want to, as reading it first would spoilthe events of Farthing, and that would be a terrible shame. (Needless to say, this review will also spoil the events of Farthing, so read no further if you haven't read the first book yet!)
This book has the same structure as its predecessor, alternating chapters between a tight third-person focused on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard and a new female first-person narrator, also a woman born to the upper classes who has rejected (and been rejected by) her traditional aristocratic family. In this novel, the female narrator is Viola Larkin, who has been estranged from her family since she chose to take up acting as a profession. Carmichael is still reeling from his decision to compromise his ideals of justice to save his comfortable life with his man, Jack, and Viola has just agreed to take on the role of Hamlet in a production that will be attended by Mark Normanby (the new Prime Minister) and Adolf Hitler, who is coming to visit England to cement ties. Within the first couple chapters, Carmichael is investigating the accidental bombing death of an actress who was also going to be in the production of Hamlet, and Viola has been forced to become a part of the new assassination plot by one of her sisters, a card-carrying Communist.
This structure works less well in Ha'penny, however, because the two protagonists are far less sympathetic here than the two protagonists were in Farthing, creating emotional distance and lessening the impact of events later in the book. Carmichael, though very much consistent with the character Walton set out in Farthing, has now fallen from grace; he does not deserve the same sympathy he received when he appeared to be the righteous detective on the trail of monsters. And while Lucy Kahn was a little person caught in a trap who had the wit to find a way to escape for herself and the man she loved, Viola has much more power in determining her own destiny and chooses to give that power away by swooning over her terrorist captor. A review I read advanced the notion that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, but to the best of my knowledge a person does not develop Stockholm Syndrome after a momentary fright -- and besides, Viola was strongly attracted to Connelly before he ever became her captor. No, to me Viola is just another one of those fantasy girls that gets hot and bothered when a man mistreets her, and while I have no problem with sado-masochism in principle and found it wonderfully treated in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series, in this instance it simply rang false. (Underlining the falsity, later in the novel Viola is disgusted by Normanby's subtly sadistic treatment of his wife.)
The novel also failed a little for me because I simply have no sympathy for terrorists. I reject utterly the notion that the ends can justify the means, so I had no problem rooting for Carmichael to discover the conspiracy and put a stop to it. That sucked some of the tension out of the middle of the novel, where in Farthing the middle section ratcheted up the tension by pitting Lucy against Carmichael when both were clearly on the same side.
Still, despite those weaknesses, Walton pulled off an ending that had the power to devastate, and the fact that it raises so many questions about power (questions concerning both what the ethical assertion of power looks like and what power any individual has to change any larger system) makes this a novel that people should read and discuss. I would strongly recommend it to nearly anyone, and I will most certainly be reading the next book in the series.(less)
Angry Robot provides cheeky but helpful classifications on the jackets of their books; on this one, they says: "File Under: Fantasy / Aztec Mystery /...moreAngry Robot provides cheeky but helpful classifications on the jackets of their books; on this one, they says: "File Under: Fantasy / Aztec Mystery / Locked Room / Human Sacrifice / The Dead Walk!" Now how on earth could I resist that? As it turns out, I am very happy I didn't resist it, because within I found a very strong debut, one equal parts detective, historical, and epic fantasy novel.
The detective component was extremely satisfying. As is traditional, Acatl has a sort of semi-formal standing with the authorities, undertaking the investigation for personal reasons but with official backing (though not always with official resources). He is also personally invested; though not truly a locked room mystery, the only apparent possible suspect at the opening of the novel is his own brother, so much of his initial investigation does revolve around proving that someone -- anyone -- else could have committed the crime.
And while in broad strokes the plot works like any other mystery plot, with Acatl roaming the city interviewing witnesses and suspects, in its details it derives a great deal of novelty from the setting. This is the Aztec Empire at its height, not London or New York or Los Angeles, and de Bodard keeps that fact front and center. Acatl has different laws to obey, and different resources to draw on, than most other detectives; not least of those is the need to keep clear of the ire of the gods, and the efficacy of blood magic. Additionally, on a pure-craft level, I was very impressed with how subtly she kept cluing me in to who was who, and who represented whom, in a very different sort of hierarchy than the ones I am more familiar with; she also used names that were fairly easy to distinguish and track despite their likely unpronounceability for her audience.
But if I have one quibble with this novel, it is the two major liberties de Bodard took with her otherwise historical setting. First, she made up one branch of the temple hierarchy up out of whole cloth; I find that practice personally problematic, and in this novel at least (there are currently two sequels) it didn't seem to add anything. It actually confused me quite a bit, because the character who represented that branch didn't fit with my understanding of Aztec society as established in the rest of the novel. The second issue was that, in order to make Acatl more sympathetic, she removed the human sacrifice he almost certainly would have practiced from his temple's purview; again, I find that decision problematic and I think the book might have been richer if she had engaged with the issue rather than skirting it.
She had the opportunity to address the issue from a sympathetic angle; after all, blood magic does work in this world. The gods want sacrifices, and they become more and more entangled in the attack Acatl is investigating. By the climax Acatl's entire world is at stake, in good epic fantasy fashion, and the resolution feels earned.
Ultimately, though, while I enjoyed the mystery and historical fiction and epic fantasy elements, what makes this book special, what makes it stand out from other similar books, is the development of Acatl's character. He is a very different person by the end of the book than he is at the beginning, and the climax is so completely rooted in that journey that the book could not exist were he a different person. That, to me, is incredibly impressive, and makes de Bodard's career something I am excited to watch grow.(less)