If I had asked someone to write a book tailored specifically to my interests, attention patterns, sense of humor, and favorite writing style, while in...moreIf I had asked someone to write a book tailored specifically to my interests, attention patterns, sense of humor, and favorite writing style, while including a unique plot, unpredictable and engaging characters, and a post-apocalyptic setting unlike one I've ever seen before, they might have come up with Nick Harkaway'sThe Gone-Away World. Certainly, they could do no better. The Gone-Away World falls exactly into a certain category of novels that is impossible to describe. I could try: It's about a gang of soldiers-cum-truckers who are called on to put out a fire in the real-world-sustaining Pipe, assisted by a troupe of mimes and also some Indian runner ducks. It's about Harkaway's protagonist and his best friend, Gonzo, who grow up in a tiny town called Cricklewood Cove under the protection of the School of the Voiceless Dragon and a surprisingly clever headmistress, and get into hijinks that occasionally involve pyrotechnics and college, and accidentally going to war. It could also be about what happens when the world is made to Go Away by dint of a new and untested anti-bomb, and the strange circumstances that the survivors need to navigate, using pigs, some very nasty gong-fu, and the disturbingly odd and possibly anagrammatical Dr. Andromas. And that's not even mentioning the strangest love quadrangle in fiction or the tribulations of wartime sheep.
Amid all of the ridiculousness, Harkaway manages to pick out a compelling storyline that is strangely believable. More than that, he is downright insightful - not in the profound, "dust unto dust" way, but in a more relatable, everyday sense. Describing horror and disgust: "I feel as if I have overturned a stone, expecting insects, and discovered that the stone itself is nothing but a vast mass of bugs." It's impossible not to know what he means. The whole book is like that - descriptions that are somehow exactly right, but have never been named before.
A review of this book is probably not complete without mention of the twist, but I won't say more than that it's clever and brilliantly executed, and it makes reading it a second time absolutely necessary.
I really can't put enough accolades here. I know that lots of people won't like The Gone-Away World (too roundabout, not standard, utterly ridiculous), but like I said at the start, it feels like this was written for people with my standards, and I loved all of it. It's original, laugh-out-loud funny, multi-dimensional, and engrossing. Absolutely recommended.
Good lines: (side note: this book is eminently quotable. Maybe 50% of it would look good on a facebook page, so I'm not even going to try to pull up my favorites.)
"Spring becomes summer, summer becomes autumn, and Gonzo and his beloved part company over her inability to comprehend the importance of muddy walks and frantic leaf kicking."
"Just hearing Master Wu say 'ninja' is like hearing a concert cellist play "Mama Mia" on the ukelele. Ninjas are silly. They are the flower fairies of gong-fu and karate. they can jump higher than a house and burrow through the ground. They know how to turn invisible...and that, surely, is Master Wu's point. He is making with the funny."
"It's like crying, the way wine is like water."
"It takes persons of courage and unusual skill to make flapjacks at a time like this."
"Perhaps Professor Derek - accursed be his name and his seed in eternity, and may giant badgers pursue him for ever through the Bewildering Hell of Fire Ants, Soap Opera and Urethral Infections - is still alive and trying to clean up his mess."
I would love to quote the shrew passage here, but I might run into copyright infringement if I type out as much as I want to. Or bore people. (less)
Lev Grossman'sThe Magicians will undoubtedly be compared to Harry Potter, although that's not a very good characterization. Also, inevitably, the Na...moreLev Grossman'sThe Magicians will undoubtedly be compared to Harry Potter, although that's not a very good characterization. Also, inevitably, the Narnia books, but that's not it either. The Magicians follows Quentin, a dissatisfied seventeen-year-old Brooklynite through his time at the magical university Brakebills and the period after he graduates, when he is a dissatisfied twenty-one-year old magician. Quentin, unhappy with the gray, flat world of rigorous academia that he leads in New York, is thrilled to find that magic is real and that he's going to become a magician. An avid follower of a series of fantasy novels in which a group of four children are sucked into a fantastical world of talking animals and sword fights and an evil "Watcherwoman" - sound familiar? - he yearns to live in just such a fantasy, and hopes that being a magician will make that true. Three guesses as to whether that actually happens.
Quentin's first three years at Brakebills are so promising. There are details there that I love - the library of flying books, the wizarding game of welters - and some characters, Eliot in particular, that come off the page when you least expect them to. The thing is, Grossman puts just enough into his magical universe to make it fascinating and leaves out all the details that you want to see. It's frustratingly incomplete. Quentin, of course, is not happy there either. The world of Brakebills is Hogwarts with all the grit left in (see, I can't avoid it either) and the happiness left out. He and his classmates - who always seem to be slightly drunk on bad liquor - never find those shining moments of success that would have validated their irritable slog through endless classwork and interpersonal drama. With half the book left to go, Quentin graduates, only marginally happier than when he started.
In the second half, the tone of the book stays grim - perhaps even becomes more hopeless - while the plot swings wildly around to follow Quentin and a few other Brakebills graduates as they discover that Fillory - the obvious allegory of Narnia - is real, and they can get there on a whim. They gear up in a way that the Pevensies (or the Chatwins) never had to, packing snow gear, food, hunting knives, and to some characters' dismay, guns - and off they go. Quentin, by this time thoroughly dissatisfied with both Brooklyn and Brakebills, leads their trip with a sort of desperate gusto, hoping that Fillory will be the place that will make him happy. Again, three guesses - because nothing is really as amazing in Fillory as it is in the books. Magical talking animals aren't cute, they're disturbing, and when they attack you, you have to kill them. Treachery happens, and guns are fired.
Stepping back for a moment here, it's easy to get fed up with The Magicians at this point. The author's left the promising world of Brakebills behind to dump his characters in the middle of a pseudo-Narnia, which doesn't promise to end well. But if you buy into his world for just a second and ignore the inconsistencies that came before, it's here that the story turns heartwrenching. Who hasn't wished to somehow cross into a magical world and live happily ever after as a king or queen at some point? It's the reason Peter Pan is so popular - growing up means that you have to learn that people can be evil and that there is no special formula for happiness. Sometimes you make mistakes you can't fix. Sometimes you have to bring guns into Narnia.
To sum up: not my favorite fantasy book, but in my favorite style, a combination of fantastical elements and the grit of the real world. If you're willing to ignore some inconsistent characters and not much character development (hopefully to come in the next book), it's a quick, interesting read, almost half literary criticism and half fiction. I was pleased to read a book by someone who was clearly as disillusioned by Narnia as I was, but Narnia-lovers might resent the perversion of childhood favorites. At the very least, worth checking out from the local library. (less)
The Windup Girl is the sort of book I would love to have loved. It's got so much going for it: post-apocalyptic setting, utterly vibrant writing, and...more The Windup Girl is the sort of book I would love to have loved. It's got so much going for it: post-apocalyptic setting, utterly vibrant writing, and a fully realized steampunk culture, to just name a few. That's not to say that it isn't a good read - very good, in fact - I was just prepared to add it to my best-of-the-best list, but it falls a bit short of that.
First the rant, then the rave. The major stumbling block for me in the Windup Girl was the intricate political environment that takes up maybe 50% of the narrative. Three political parties are locked in an increasingly-unstable power triangle in Bangkok, which inevitably collapses (or explodes) in the second half of the book, sending the city into chaos - well, maybe just increasing the chaos, since post-apocalyptic Bangkok isn't known for its stability anyway. Personally, I don't like political intrigue, so that contributed to my difficulty with this plot thread. Compounding that, I have a horrible time remembering character names, so the long list of political players, their significant others, assistants, assassins, and enemies wasn't very easy for me to navigate. It's likely that a second reading would be better for me. It's also likely that someone with different interests and levels of attention would find the political aspect of the book fascinating. I was just far more interested in the chapters about Emiko, the eponymous windup girl.
Which brings me to the rave. One of the rarest qualities a non-realistic fiction book can have (and one that is a pleasure to discover) is internal consistency. I define internal consistency as the relationship between the details the author provides and the proposed environment of the book (or a character's personality, but where The Windup Girl shines is most definitely in the setting). The Windup Girl achieves that on an extraordinary level. Bacigalupi has created a wonderfully complete picture of a culture scraping by in a world without electricity, where calories are used as money, where "generippers" try to salvage genetic information from crops that are going (or have gone) extinct, and where plagues created by genetically engineered crops can, and routinely do, reach pandemic levels. In that sort of world, of course radios have hand cranks and rickshaws are back in fashion - that's the least of it. Bacigalupi didn't stop at energy generation, though. Such a culture would also want to invent some way to store energy without the convenience of batteries, and et voila, there are kink-springs, a form of mechanical energy storage that's seamlessly woven into the background. My favorite bit pops up maybe three times: in a culture obsessed with salvaging dying species, the oath "Jesus and Noah!" is perfect. Some books are internally consistent by omission - they don't have enough detail to prove consistency one way or the other. This book has detail to spare, and it all clicks.
I've barely mentioned the windup girl, Emiko, but that particular plot thread is best to discover on your own. Suffice to say that it's poignant and frustrating and endearing, as well as creatively realized and vibrant. Emiko will make you scorn all the other android characters you've ever read about.
Four stars at least, to be re-evaluated on a second reading. Definitely recommended. (less)
Only China Miéville can make me dream about tsunamis. Even when I read The Perfect Storm (also highly recommended), I dreamed about boats, not the pow...moreOnly China Miéville can make me dream about tsunamis. Even when I read The Perfect Storm (also highly recommended), I dreamed about boats, not the power of the ocean. That's not to say that there are tsunamis in The Scar. There aren't any. But no one but Miéville can put the sea and all its vastness into my head quite as vividly as that.
The Scar is the story of the floating pirate city Armada and the macabre power flux that determines its fate. The story is carried by Bellis Coldwine, a refugee from New Crobuzon, who has the same bad luck that most of Miéville's character's seem to have when her ship is attacked and commandeered by Armada's scouts. Armada has a rule about passengers of their captured ships: once on, never off, so Bellis is stuck, although she maintains a fervent and slightly annoying single-mindedness about returning to New Crobuzon. In a slightly meandering fashion, the story gets on its feet with a bit of political intrigue, which sets a very long chain of events in motion. The two eerily scarred rulers of Armada's most powerful sector, known only as the Lovers, have a plan, a Big Plan, that relies on several extraordinarily dangerous things going right, and very little at all going wrong. I won't say more than that, because I think the book benefits from those couple of reveals, but suffice to say that what they want to (and do) attempt is awe-inspiring in scale. Along the way, there are lightning elementals, airships, an absolutely horrifying race of mosquito people (the women are brutally vicious blood suckers, the men have sphincters for mouths), rifts between worlds, submersibles, vampires (that don't sparkle), deception on all fronts, mile-wide inter-planar animals, mutiny, and a cast of characters that is barely on this side of likable. Or maybe it's barely on the other side of likable.
I'm having trouble summarizing this story. That's because (and it's been said before), China Miéville's world building is impeccable. It's hard to pin down exactly what that means, also. The level of detail is amazing, but it's not a story that's sodden with them. The politics and culture are all incredibly well fleshed out and the references are all internally consistent, but I'd expect that of any top-notch sci-fi/fantasy writer. It's more that Miéville has just thought of everything. If there were to be a floating, unfindable pirate city in Bas-Lag, of course it would look like Armada. Ask, for example, what its citizens would use for taxis, and you can not only expect that he'll give you dirigibles, but you can also assume that he knows what the fares are for each ride, the schedules for all the lines, and how long you have to train to fly one. The narrative may not give you all of that, but you get the feeling that it's all there anyway.
The Scar is maybe not quite as good as Perdido Street Station. Mainly (and most subjectively), I got fed up pretty early on with Bellis Coldwine. Apart from having an annoying personality (most of the characters in the New Crobuzon books can claim that), she just didn't change at all. Bellis at the beginning was complaining to exactly the same tune as Bellis at the end. I felt like she carried the story in the most literal sense: she was a vehicle for the reader to learn about Armada. Also, more specifically, I really didn't understand her distaste for the Lovers. They were slightly creepy, yes, but I didn't quite connect with her complete (and vocal) disgust.
Of course, Bellis is balanced out by some great elements. Tanner Sack, a prisoner on Bellis's ship who is allowed to live free on Armada is one of them. Watch for a wonderful couple of pages where he gets himself Remade into an amphibian, because they're some of the best in the book. There's also Shekel, who - actually, I can't tell you that. Go get yourself a copy, because this one is definitely recommended.
Note: This is technically a sequel to Perdido Street Station, but although it's probably better to read them in order (there are some references to the events of Perdido in The Scar), it's certainly not necessary.