Warning: slight spoilers below. But stuff I’d have wanted to know.
An obscure epic fantasy that came highly recommended (by Kate Elliott, for instance....moreWarning: slight spoilers below. But stuff I’d have wanted to know.
An obscure epic fantasy that came highly recommended (by Kate Elliott, for instance. I like her books and the way she talks about books, particularly the social consciousness with which she reads, but I have to stop taking her fantasy recs. They’ve ranged from so-so at best – Daggerspell, Banner of the Damned – to unreadable at worst – Irons in the Fire, bleh). But in the end this bored me so much I took nearly a month to finish it, a bad sign for an adventure fantasy book of under 400 pages.
Wells must have heavily workshopped the first sentence – for that matter, the first chapter – because this book started off very well, only to disappoint within the first hundred pages. Here’s the opening line:
“It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court when someone banged on the door.”
Who could read that and not want to know more about Tremaine, and what has brought her to this point? Not me. Too bad the characterization turns out to be so flat. Tremaine is supposed to be suicidally depressed, but she doesn’t come across as suffering from depression at all, more like a morbid smart-aleck, and once her suicidal inclinations have served their plot function (getting her into a dangerous adventure), they soon disappear, only to be ultimately explained away by magic. I am not sure why Wells felt an external force was needed to “explain” why Tremaine was hit harder by events than others; why isn’t it enough that she’s a different individual, one more prone to depression?
Not that there’s a whole lot of individuality to anyone in this book. Even many of the most important secondary characters, like Florian and Gerard, can be easily summed up as “nice people, who do magic” – more plot function than personality. And the minor characters? Forget about it. I still can’t tell you who that guy Niles was, though apparently he had some importance. And I regularly read books far more populated than this; I keep track of characters like it’s my job.
But back to that beginning. When a character worries about a court verdict in the first sentence of a fantasy novel,* I expect a story built around a highly structured society: something like His Majesty's Dragon, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw. For the first few chapters that’s what we get, as Wells builds a fascinating fantasy version of London during the Blitz. But all too soon, the leads are dumped on a remote island and spend 100 pages running around tunnels and fighting. That was where it lost me, and by the time we return to the original setting toward the end of the story, I was so bored by these shallow and static characters that I no longer cared. Nor did the worldbuilding turn out as deep as expected; this is more the kind of fantasy where people conk enemies (mysterious evil invaders with no discernible reason for their belligerence, natch) over the head than the kind dealing with social intricacies.
That said, obviously there is an audience for this kind of thing, and the plot isn’t quite as silly as you might expect from some of the blurbs (which make it sound like it’s all about uncovering the secrets of some magical object – there is some of that, but it isn’t overwhelming). It is not as dire as a lot of fantasy out there, and the writing isn’t terrible, so if you are a reader more interested in plot than character, this may be for you. But after this bait-and-switch I won't be reading the sequels, so I'm glad there's at least a bit of resolution here.
* This part of the sentence apparently meant nothing, just another way of saying "trying to find a way to kill herself that would look like natural causes." I hate it when I'm paying more attention to what a writer is saying than the actual writer is.(less)
Banner of the Damned is a BIG book: almost 700 pages in hardcover, and with a lot of words squeezed onto every page. So it gets a big review.
PLOT: Thi...moreBanner of the Damned is a BIG book: almost 700 pages in hardcover, and with a lot of words squeezed onto every page. So it gets a big review.
PLOT: This is essentially two books in one, both centering around a scribe named Emras and her employer, Princess Lasva, in a quasi-medieval world. The first half is set in their peaceful home country of Colend, and deals with court intrigues, Lasva’s love life, and Emras’s growth from teenage scribe student to the most trusted member of Lasva’s staff. The second half (mid-book spoilers follow!) is set in the martial country of Marloven Hesea, dealing with their rather more deadly politics, the Colendi characters’ difficulty in adjusting to a very different culture, and Emras’s dangerous involvement with magic.
While the book is certainly epic fantasy--involving several countries, their rulers, a gazillion characters and a possible existential threat--it’s notable for being structured around a quest for peace, rather than a military conflict. There’s fighting here and there, but far more time is spent on politicking, relationships and most of all the characters’ daily lives. While there isn’t an enormous amount of tension or conflict in any form, the book did manage to hold my interest throughout its substantial length. Nevertheless, it would have been more compelling had there been a clear, driving plot throughout; the second half of the book makes the first seem rather pointless, and the first half could have been summarized in a quarter of the pages.
PACING: Consistent throughout. It’s a rather dense read--in that the pages are packed with names, places, and minor events--and not one I breezed through, but it maintains a reasonable pace and avoids bogging down in typical epic fantasy traps like overlong journeys or over-description.
CHARACTERS: Reasonable but not exceptional. They feel just fresh and human enough that I wanted to keep reading, but not enough that they’re likely to linger long in my mind. Emras has a dry, detached narrative voice--which makes sense for her profession, but isn’t great in a novel, particularly one of this length; her arc, in particular, could have been much more dramatic than it actually is. (view spoiler)[She accidentally becomes the evil mage! That ought to be fascinating! I can't help thinking of Wicked, which I read just a few months ago--no, this book doesn't try to be Wicked in any way, but, well, when the main character moves into a tower and starts doing magical experiments and is labelled as evil, I'm going to think about it, and the comparison does not do this book any favors. (hide spoiler)]
There’s a lot to like about the way Smith handles characters in her world. As a girl, Emras spends six months working in the kitchens as penance for rudeness to a servant: she learns that baking is important work, that people put effort and creativity into it and take justifiable pride in their work, but that it just isn’t for her. This is representative of the respect with which Smith treats everyone in her world; you won’t find the stereotypical oily, cringing merchants or simple-minded, devoted servants or any other contemptuous stereotypes here.
There are plenty of potentially fascinating female characters in the book: it’s a world where gender equality is accepted. And differences in sexuality are no big deal either; extra kudos to Smith for creating a positive asexual protagonist, which I’ve never seen before. While there will always be a place for books that deal with gender issues through ugly, unequal worlds (Firethorn is a brilliant example), there’s a lot to be said too for more aspirational books; not all women's stories are or should be about fighting sexism or sexual violence.
All of which makes me wish the characters were deeper and more interesting as people. They're not bad, but not great either, and the number of supporting characters in the book exceeds the author's ability to make them all distinct. Sometimes I had trouble remembering all the minor characters and their roles, which is almost never a problem for me.
WORLDBUILDING: Impressive. It’s obvious that Smith has written many other books in the same world; it’s very detailed, with complex and dynamic cultures. She even sneaks in some linguistics. My biggest issue is that the only map is of Marloven Hesea, which doesn’t enter the picture until the second half.
WRITING: Workmanlike. It’s sometimes repetitive but overall decent.
MAGIC: Seems complicated and well-thought-out without getting too bogged down in details. People use it in daily life in the ways you’d expect--like for hygienic purposes--again giving the impression the author has really thought through the world.
RELATIONSHIP TO OTHER BOOKS: While technically a standalone, Banner of the Damned takes place 400 years after Smith's Inda books. Which I’ve never read but now know a fair bit about, because there’s a lot of hearkening back to them--a bit much for new readers. I got the feeling it would have been structured differently if it weren't in some way a sequel; for instance, spending 350 dense pages becoming invested in the country of Colend, only to be yanked out of it into an entirely new place (and without ever returning, as Colend plays no significant role in the second half) is a bit jarring, and gives the impression that the author expected readers to have a prior, stronger interest in Marloven Hesea. Also, the “timeless evil” is rather ill-defined and plays only a small role in this book, while it’s indicated that the Inda books tell a more comprehensive story.
CONCLUSION: This is a solid epic fantasy book (in more ways than one!). I liked reading it, but am unlikely to seek out Smith’s other works. Worth checking out if you’re an epic fantasy fan and especially if you love worldbuilding, but not for the casual or infrequent fantasy reader.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I absolutely loved the first book of this trilogy, Shaman's Crossing, but Forest Mage was a disappointment. The plot of the book is this: "the magic"...moreI absolutely loved the first book of this trilogy, Shaman's Crossing, but Forest Mage was a disappointment. The plot of the book is this: "the magic" (which seems to be a sentient being of such power that it's not clear why it requires human help) shoves the protagonist, Nevare, across the country of Gernia until he reaches the Speck forest. It does this by screwing up his life until he has no other options. What really bothered me about this plotline (aside from the fact that, in the context of the trilogy, it's little more than a "bridge book" getting us from Point A to Point C) is that Nevare has no free will. Whenever he tries to assert himself, his situation gets worse. And nothing that goes wrong (even his own sudden obesity) is his fault. It's gone from very easy to relate to his problems in book one, to almost impossible here. If I'd realized after finishing Shaman's Crossing that the rest of the trilogy would be an exercise in determinism, I'm not sure I would have continued at all.
There are some positives in this book: both the world and the characters who inhabit it remain three-dimensional and fascinating, and Hobb's writing style is still good. It is overlong, though; I can't imagine why the publishers thought it was necessary for this installment to be 150 pages LONGER than the first book, and the excessive length plus numerous grammatical, continuity and other minor errors made me think it was a rush job. And it's hard to spend this much time reading about a protagonist who spends most of his time on his own. Supporting characters tend to appear for chunks of the book, then disappear again; there isn't a single one who is present throughout, although many of them are far more interesting than Nevare at this point.
Hate to say it, but I would recommending stopping after book one. (less)
This is the third McKillip book I’ve read, and my clear favorite so far. The spare, detached style puts one in mind of a fairy tale, but the story wor...moreThis is the third McKillip book I’ve read, and my clear favorite so far. The spare, detached style puts one in mind of a fairy tale, but the story works because it’s a very human and emotional one; in the end the narrative detachment doesn’t distance the reader from the tale so much as prevent all the strong emotion from dragging it into melodrama.
The blurb is all wrong (and the cover seems to be based on the blurb): it’ll tell you it’s about a 16-year-old and implies that this is one of those tiresome stories celebrating its isolated heroine’s choice to give up solitude and learning in favor of marriage and motherhood. [Sidenote: I really have no patience for those books' aggressive rejection of unconventionality in favor of traditional choices and have to wonder about their appeal. Is it because most people make conventional choices (hence, why they're conventional) and want to feel vindicated?] Actually, after Sybel accepts a baby to raise in the first chapter, the book skips 12 years, and the real story is about how she is dragged into the scheming and enmity between kingdoms that she had tried to avoid.
I really enjoyed this: it’s a quick read (sure, there are 343 pages, but they’re tiny pages), and the story is compelling and feels fresh even though it was published nearly 40 years ago. It’s stripped down to the essentials, with the worldbuilding relegated largely to the background. The characters are well-drawn and come alive in the details, and their dialogue rings true, grounding the story in reality without jarring with the elevated tone of the narrative. I liked Sybel, with her pride and her lack of sentimentality or social skills, and quickly came to care about her story. But even the minor characters are well-drawn and their relationships believable. I especially liked the romance, which is sweet without being overly perfect, and the fact that Sybel needs her man to love her, not to rescue her or solve her problems for her.
The one thing I disliked was the ending: McKillip has a reputation for fuzzy sorts of climaxes and that is the case here; I also found Sybel’s abdication of responsibility rather less than triumphant, although that may have been the point. (view spoiler)[I had it all worked out that the Liralen was one's own soul, and that Mithran had lost his soul through his nefarious deeds and Sybel risked losing hers if she continued her quest for vengeance. And then it turned out to be the Blammor, and.... what? There must be some symbolic meaning behind that that I don't understand. (hide spoiler)]
Overall, a well-written fantasy tale that uses no more words than necessary to tell an affecting story, and does a great job of combining fairy tale and reality. Some have classified it as YA, but this is one of those books you can tell was written before such classifications existed: younger readers could certainly enjoy it, but there’s nothing immature about this story, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to adults.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Like its predecessor, Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword is a fun, clever book that doesn’t quite deserve 4 stars.... but 3 would be selling it t...moreLike its predecessor, Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword is a fun, clever book that doesn’t quite deserve 4 stars.... but 3 would be selling it too short.
This is a 20-years-later sequel to Swordspoint; it has its own plot and protagonist and doesn’t demand that you read Swordspoint first, but it’ll make more sense if you do. Katherine, a 15-year-old from a minor noble family in the country, is summoned to the city by her uncle Alec, the Mad Duke, who’s determined to make a swordsman of her. The somewhat cheesy premise develops in an unconventional way: Katherine would prefer ballgowns and parties but begins to come around once she reads a trashy novel romanticizing swordsmen, and she acquires some skill through hard work but doesn’t become one of those eyeroll-inducing teen prodigies common in fantasy. (view spoiler)[I've seen people complain that she does, but she wins exactly two duels: one with a drunk guy and one almost by accident because her opponent didn't take her seriously. When a genuine street fight happens, she gets the hell out of the way. That doesn't say "master swordsman" to me. (hide spoiler)]
Generous amounts of intrigue and adventure make this a fun novel, and I liked it better than Swordspoint primarily because Katherine is a more engaging and likeable protagonist. She’s a bit silly, but unlike with most such protagonists, her naïveté is endearing rather than annoying. She’s lively enough to be enjoyable, and has just enough depth to be realistic. The character development overall isn’t unusually deep, and there are some missteps--in particular Artemisia, who reads more like a tired parody of a shallow rich girl than an actual person, and whose relationship with Katherine makes little sense--but the cast is colorful and certainly keeps things interesting.
The book is fluidly written, and with believable dialogue. It explains more than Swordspoint, but does so without awkward info-dumps. The switching between Katherine’s first-person point of view and a roving third-person, while a bit odd, works fairly well, and Katherine’s voice is distinct from the third-person narrator’s. The setting is also enjoyable: the society is well-developed and feels realistic, and Kushner illuminates it through subtle details rather than through ostentatious invention.
The thematics are good too: there’s a smart examination of power and privilege, which feels natural and not heavy-handed. And I enjoyed the characters’ interactions with the book-turned-play, “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death.” Books about books ordinarily don’t work for me, because to best enjoy them you need to share the author’s favorites; but by using an invented story, Kushner is able to capture much of what it feels like to be swept away by a book (and later see it adapted) in a more universal way, without tying it to a real-life work. The contrast between that story--apparently a melodramatic, swashbuckling romance--and this one provides food for thought, as well as several humorous moments.
The biggest problem with The Privilege of the Sword is the plot.... namely, its lack of structure. Interesting things happen, but tension never builds to a climax, and the scene that wants to be a climax happens in the protagonist's absence--Katherine doesn’t even find out about it until afterwards. Extraneous subplots take up disproportionate space; it’s unclear what Lucius and Teresa, for instance, are even doing in the book. Katherine’s romance is on the dull side, disappointing after more interesting possibilities for her are dangled early in the book. And the end is rushed; the final twist carries enough difficulties and complications to be a book unto itself, rather than simply being passed off as a happy ending.
So this is really a 3.5-star book, but I’m rounding up because it is so fun and smart. Also, I love it when authors create secondary worlds without including magical elements, and as this type of fantasy is still all too rare, I’m inclined to be generous.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I should have known better than to pick this one up, but at least now I can warn the rest of you. This book barely has a plot, the characters are flat...moreI should have known better than to pick this one up, but at least now I can warn the rest of you. This book barely has a plot, the characters are flat and two-dimensional, and their secrets, when revealed, turn out to be not all that interesting after all. Even if reading a book about women using a book club as an excuse to talk about their troubles with relationships, children, etc., is your cup of tea, you can do better. If it's not, Dinner with Anna Karenina won't win you over. Stay away.(less)
I picked up this book looking for a fun, quick read. And that was what I got. So the three-star rating is a compromise between my level of enjoyment w...moreI picked up this book looking for a fun, quick read. And that was what I got. So the three-star rating is a compromise between my level of enjoyment while reading it (4 stars) and my thoughts on its actual quality looking back (2 stars).
The plot centers around Kaylin Neya, who’s a Hawk, i.e., a cop, in the city of Elantra. She’s assigned to investigate some child murders in the slums where she grew up, which seem to be somehow linked to the mysterious tattoos that have appeared on her body. But she hasn’t been back to the slums since she fled 7 years before, and it quickly becomes evident that there’s a lot she’s hiding from her friends and from the reader. (The book is written in third-person, but from Kaylin's perspective.)
This review is going to seem weighted toward the negative, but before I get into that I’ll reiterate that I really did enjoy the book. It was just what I needed at the time, and my id was all over it. Beyond that, a couple noteworthy things Sagara did well: Kaylin seems to have a life more than most protagonists do, rather than simply existing to fulfill her plot functions. And the relationship between her and Severn pushed my closet-romantic buttons. (I don’t have very many of those buttons, so that’s always nice. It is the sort of relationship that only works in fiction--in real life I’d probably be helping Kaylin get a restraining order--but like I said, this book is all about the id.) And I will grant that Sagara does a decent job with the moral dilemmas presented.
Now, in retrospect, for the more analytical side of my reactions. The following is a bit spoiler-ish, but I’ve made it as vague as possible.
Other reviewers have mentioned a variety of problems with this book. There’s the plot: the mystery seems less fulfilling when you find out that several of Kaylin’s most important allies, including her boss and both of her partners, have known the causes of the murders--for years!--and nobody has bothered to tell Kaylin even though she’s the person who most needs to know. Now granted, a couple of these apparent allies are so enigmatic that when they go to a restaurant, they probably make the waitstaff choose their meals for them to avoid disclosing something so personal as their food preferences to a stranger. But as soon as Kaylin figures out what questions to ask, she gets answers. So the whole thing doesn’t make much sense and feels cheap.
Then there’s the characterization: very broad-brush. Granted, this is standard in thrillers. And the writing. For the most part, it’s.... okay. It's written in the breezy style common to urban fantasy. But sometimes it’s just plain confusing--there’s unattributed dialogue in conversations with more than two people, and confusing magical events that aren’t explained. In some places words are left out, which is the editor’s fault. But then characters do things like “nod quietly”--as opposed to what? nodding loudly?
Finally, the book left me with questions--which may be answered in future volumes, but are basic enough that they should’ve been addressed here. For instance, Elantra’s police force is divided into the Hawks (investigators), Swords (peacekeepers) and Wolves (thugs)--why? The Hawks seem to do everything themselves anyway. And speaking of the Hawks, if you were a police commander and had an officer whose immediate, knee-jerk response to her new partner was attempted murder, would you really deal with this by just telling her to behave and sending them on their way? And the slums are home to noctural man-eating monsters--so why does anyone still live there? And if they've got to stay, why does nobody hunt down and kill these creatures during the day? And what’s stopping the creatures from crossing the river into the better parts of the city anyway? I could go on, but that’s probably enough.
In conclusion, this book is great brain candy, but probably not for the analytical reader. I may pick up the sequel next time I’m in the mood for this sort of thing--but let’s be honest, knowing the potential love triangle is going to be in the same holding pattern for the next several books doesn’t help matters.(less)
I started reading this, then realized no matter how interesting Cleopatra's life was, it's not worth reading a 900+ page book by Margaret George. Her...moreI started reading this, then realized no matter how interesting Cleopatra's life was, it's not worth reading a 900+ page book by Margaret George. Her Autobiography of Henry VIII was admirable in the obvious research that went into it, but in retrospect, the plot and characters were just so bland. And this one didn't look to be much better.(less)
I tend to avoid books set in the U.S. post-WWII. The ones that aspire to genuine literary merit tend toward pretention, high-handedness, and tedium. B...moreI tend to avoid books set in the U.S. post-WWII. The ones that aspire to genuine literary merit tend toward pretention, high-handedness, and tedium. But The Last of Her Kind is different: it’s a well-written, thoughtful, thematically rich and, above all, an interesting book.
In 1968, Georgette George and Ann Drayton are assigned to room together at Barnard College. Georgette grew up in poverty in upstate New York; Ann comes from a rich family in Connecticut, but in an effort to disavow her privileged roots, requested a roommate as different from herself as possible. At first Georgette finds Ann unbearable, but soon they become friends, and the book follows their lives and their complicated relationship over more than 30 years.
I didn’t live through the 60s or 70s. I’d learned about that period, but I’d never seen it like this. Georgette, Ann and Georgette’s sister Solange are all (in different ways) a part of the radical hippie culture at the time, and this book does an excellent job of bringing that period to life in all its bizarre, fascinating weirdness. So the first half in particular works well as historical fiction. And Nunez's decision to write the book as if it were a memoir allows Georgette, as the narrator, to contrast America as it was then with America in the early 21st century, in non-obvious ways.
The book also shines in its examination of its characters and themes. Ann is one of those rare characters that the author really lets us come to our own conclusions about. Did she make a meaningful difference in the world? Or did she hurt the people around her more than her good works could make up for? Is she admirable in her sincerity and her willingness to practice what she preaches, or just obnoxious in her fanaticism? Can someone from a life of privilege really advocate for the underprivileged without being a hypocrite? How do you make that work? For instance: when Ann gets into legal trouble, she insists on being represented by a public defender, because she wants to get the same justice as everyone else. But then, her insistence on equality means she’s taking the public defender’s time away from actual poor people. So what should she have done? The book doesn’t try to answer these questions. But they’re absolutely questions worth asking.
The writing style is excellent, and full of insights into humanity without becoming sentimental or overwrought. The characters are complicated and interesting and feel genuine, although the narrator, Georgette, is somewhat less interesting than the others. Part of the reason I give 4 stars is that less than a month after finishing this book, I was having a hard time remembering her name. She's written as the more conventional one as a foil to Ann, but isn't especially memorable in her own right. The other part is that for the first 50 pages or so, before the book hits its stride, Georgette seems to tell us too much about what Ann is like rather than showing us through scenes, and that the random rape scene, much as it does fit into the novel’s themes, still felt gratuitous.
Overall, an excellent book, even if Literature-with-a-capital-L is something you generally avoid. I don’t reread often, but this is a book that deserves rereading--or just stopping to think as you read, rather than rushing through it in a day as I did. But I read it so quickly because it’s a compelling, well-written book, and that’s a recommendation in itself.(less)
This is one of those books I zip through, only to realize upon completion that the book isn’t actually very good. But since some of Gaiman’s other wor...moreThis is one of those books I zip through, only to realize upon completion that the book isn’t actually very good. But since some of Gaiman’s other work has been very well-received, perhaps this just wasn’t the right place for me to start.
As other reviewers have described, Neverwhere is about a young man living in modern-day London, who through an act of kindness toward a stranger gets sucked into the world of London Below, where people live dangerous lives in the tunnels and Tube stations below the city and are nearly invisible to the inhabitants of London Above. He joins a girl named Door and her companions on their quest to find out the truth behind Door’s family’s murders.
In all fairness, this book just wasn’t my cup of tea. First, because it’s essentially an urban-fantasy-thriller; my impression of Gaiman was that he’s a more literary writer—and okay, there’s a Shakespeare reference or two, but this book is still a thriller, with a fast-paced but unmemorable plot consisting of constant rushing about the tunnels of London Below, and characters who are decent and likeable but not particularly well-developed. Second, I didn’t realize that the book was adapted from a TV series, and it reads a bit like a video game: the plot consists mostly of running around and questing after various items, there are lots of tired tropes (the murdered family in the backstory, the mysterious waif with magical powers, the mysterious manipulative villain) and the end is predictable. Silliest was the important plot location that, we’re solemnly informed, can only be accessed “the easy way” once by any individual; the second visit must be via an underground labyrinth. Naturally, this is never explained; do plot coupons, dungeons and boss battles need to be explained? We all understand that the point is to give the player a chance to… but wait a minute, this is a novel, not a role-playing game.
The setting, meanwhile, is an interesting concept but not fully developed; like the protagonist, I feel like I was whisked through a maze of tunnels, but have no idea how to get anywhere and am not entirely convinced they still exist when I’m not there. And Gaiman explicitly raises a lot of questions that are never answered (the magic is never explained at all, nor are any limitations placed on it beyond the requirements of the plot; the villains don’t seem to be human at all, though we’re never told what they are). The parallels drawn between the citizens of London Below and homeless people (“those who fall through the cracks”) are interesting; I’m just not sure that they actually work. After all, the Below-ers are literally invisible to the Above-ers, and there’s some implication that the Below-ers lead more interesting or meaningful lives. On the other hand, part of the point of fantasy is to comment on reality, and the analogies can’t always be exact.
So I didn’t think much of this book, and am not sure if I’ll try a different Gaiman book in the future; but I recognize that it may just be me, and if you’re looking for a quick fantasy adventure (but not necessarily light; it’s gruesome in places) this may be just the book for you.(less)
This one's going to be more personal response than review. There will be rambling, and spoilers. If you like, skip to the end and tell me what you thi...moreThis one's going to be more personal response than review. There will be rambling, and spoilers. If you like, skip to the end and tell me what you think about villain protagonists!
What I really like about this book is the language. Mostly because so much of the slang comes from Russian, and my year of college Russian pretty much never comes in handy (I learned tons of grammar, but not enough vocabulary to actually, say, have a conversation or read a newspaper, so of course I've lost most of it). Burgess is actually a really careful writer and so everything you need to know, you can figure out from context, and pretty soon you'll be reading along as if you'd been using these words all your life. It's pretty cool. It makes me wonder if maybe I should give Sea of Poppies another try, but then that book has a 40-page glossary. A Clockwork Orange does not have any glossary and if you look one up online you're doing it wrong.
Also, it is pretty engaging. It helps that it's less than 200 pages long. Doing a 100-book challenge this year means I'm all about the novellas.
And Burgess does do a good job with the dystopia. It doesn't feel outlandish the way some dystopias do. The dystopian elements are much more understated--out-of-control crime, to which the government responds by hiring ex-cons as police officers, and so on.
Overall though, I can't say I particularly liked this book. For one, the rather heavy-handed thematic elements felt completely irrelevant. A large chunk of the book deals with the protagonist, Alex, who's convicted of murder early on in the book, being conditioned to be non-violent, and the moral implications of being good because you're forced to rather than because you choose it. Frankly, I didn't care about Alex's free will. He gave up the right to make choices for himself went he went around murdering, raping, assaulting and robbing people. As far as I was concerned, getting out of prison at all was far better than he deserved.
So, I hated Alex. I've given this some thought and realized that my feelings about villain protagonists break down strictly along gender lines. And Alex is, essentially, a bundle of all the worst elements of the stereotypical alpha-male psyche, with none of the good mixed in. He feels the need to dominate every group he's a part of. He's careless and leaps into things without considering the consequences. He takes his family (in this case, his parents) for granted, making demands of them without ever considering them as anything other than people there to provide for him. For that matter, he's utterly lacking in empathy or concern for others in any respect. (Okay, that's not so much a stereotypically male trait as just plain sociopathy, and I'm not sure if sociopaths are predominantly male or not. But I'm also not sure if Burgess intended Alex to be a sociopath, given the final chapter's conclusion that this was all some teenage phase he went through.) And most importantly, he revels in aggression, which is his response to everything from boredom to annoyance to being short on cash.
What's scary about this character is that Burgess apparently found some wish-fulfillment aspects in writing him--really, this is a male fantasy I didn't want to know about. Although, in all fairness, enjoying a fantasy and wanting to live it are two entirely different things. I'll admit to reading Gone With the Wind with great enjoyment, and that Scarlett O'Hara appealed to something in me, which doesn't at all mean that I want to go out and seduce men for kicks or make money through exploitation and deceptive business practices. Nor does it mean that a fear of not being able to get away with it is the only thing stopping me from doing those things. So, okay, guys, I don't hold Alex against you. But I still hate him.
And then that 21st chapter.... I can see why the initial American publisher excised it. Alex suddenly decides, at the ripe old age of 18, that he's aged out of criminal behavior and he wants to go have a baby. Um, right. Because that's totally when the urge to settle down kicks in. The story is that the publisher felt that chapter was too optimistic, but I'm not seeing a whole lot of that.... Alex still feels no regret, no empathy, he's just gotten bored by spending every night committing random acts of violence. He's no less selfish than before. Will he really not turn aggressive again the next time things don't go his way? Can he possibly have a healthy relationship? I doubt it. At least Burgess didn't award him a girl at the end.
Maybe I'll clean this up into a real review later. In the meanwhile....
What's your experience with villain protagonists? Are there examples of the opposite gender that you've liked/sympathized with? Does it depend on whether or not the character is sexually aggressive? Would anyone like to recommend me a well-written book with a non-sexually-aggressive male villain protagonist that I might like?(less)
After seeing this musical twice in the space of a year, I realized that I really am enough of a fan to track down the companion book. (I love Maguire'...moreAfter seeing this musical twice in the space of a year, I realized that I really am enough of a fan to track down the companion book. (I love Maguire's book, too. And they are going to make a movie! Maybe.)
So, this is a coffee table book. It is completely gorgeous and very well-designed, with lots of beautiful photographs and sketches and overall a great layout. Which I guess is the point of musical companion books?--I don't know; the other companion books I've read are all for fantasy book series.
Anyway, there is a little less content than there might be. There is not a full libretto, although most of the script is here, illustrated with really great pictures. It's kind of weird when there's a break in the script and part of a scene is just summarized. I guess there are copyright reasons for this, but then other musical companion books evidently do have a full libretto (the Rent book for instance). Maybe they are worried about community playhouses stealing their show. I mean, it's such an easy set to put together, right? There's a lot in here about the set and costuming and such--I am genuinely impressed by how much attention is put into detail that random audience members don't even notice. Or at least there was a lot of stuff I hadn't noticed.
Other things I learned from this book: - Gregory Maguire is not really a fan of the ending. He had to do some mental gymnastics to convince himself that it's sad enough. [I actually don't think the musical has a particularly happy ending. The first time I did because it wasn't what I was expecting. The second time I thought it was more of a downer, although not for exactly the same reasons as Maguire.] - They did once have a black guy play Fiyero on Broadway. Not in the original cast though. [Why is it that you can paint a main character green but yet having an actor who is not Caucasian is so difficult?] - Broadway musicals go through a really long production process, including lots of readings for small audiences (with real actors who might or might not end up actually playing those parts) and then real unofficial performances, where they look at what's working for the audience and what isn't and change stuff. Really, it's a wonder Broadway ever produces a flop. I wish I lived in a city where this stuff happened. (Well, not really. But it would be cool to go to an early performance and then see how things had changed.)
What I didn't really get from this book, and was hoping to get (perhaps unrealistically), was more of a sense of how they developed the plot and characters and why they made the decisions they did. There's this part where the actress who played Glinda in the readings and the original cast (everybody who had anything to do with the musical is interviewed in this book, although in very short snippets) says that Glinda was hardly in the original script. Well, that's very different from how it turned out--what was in the original script?
I mean, maybe this is just me, I love to analyze stuff that I love (it's a pity I don't love very much classic literature), but I find it fascinating how much the Wizard of Oz/Wicked story changes with each adaptation and yet how each new version is in conversation with the ones that came before it. So you'll see a Chekhov's gun in one version that won't fire until the next one--for instance, the way the Scarecrow in Baum's book talks loudly and often about how vulnerable he is to fire, but nothing comes of that, at least until the 1939 movie, where the Witch keeps throwing fireballs at him. Then in Maguire's book, Elphaba thinks the Scarecrow might be Fiyero, but only because she's having a nervous breakdown and is delusional--but in the musical, he is the Scarecrow.
And I wonder if the people who made the musical realized they were making the same changes in the hero/villain dynamic from Maguire's book that were made when Baum's book was turned into a movie. Both take a story whose heroine goes voluntarily into a confrontation with a villain who doesn't know she exists, and turn it into a story where the villain hounds her into it--is it the moral ambiguity the developers are afraid audiences won't like, or is it just a matter of getting villains onstage more? There are a lot of similar things that I wonder about. I kind of hope that if they do make a movie, they adapt it all over again, just to see what they do. In Baum's book we're told in a brief aside that the Witch had used the flying monkeys to drive the Wizard out of the West--doesn't somebody want to do something with that? Because I want to see it.
Anyway, this is going far afield from the companion book, which obviously is not some kind of literary analysis. Get it for the pictures.
The Well of Shades begins right where Blade of Fortriu left off; those who haven't read its predecessor should start there. Stylistically, it's much l...moreThe Well of Shades begins right where Blade of Fortriu left off; those who haven't read its predecessor should start there. Stylistically, it's much like Blade of Fortriu, and it's a good, entertaining read. There's a new central character, though: Eile the impoverished, angry teenage mother. I never really warmed up to Eile, which partially explains why I was less than delighted with this book. The first two books in this series followed basically the same people, but here our #1 viewpoint character is a girl we've never heard of, whose #1 priority is her 3-year-old child... whom we've also never heard of. Admirable as her devotion to her daughter is, and interesting as it is to see King Bridei's court through the eyes of an outsider (who... doesn't even speak the language...), I was irritated that the focus on Eile & Saraid was at the expense of characters I already cared about. That said, Eile's character development is extremely well-done; no one can say Marillier is afraid to delve into the psychology of battered women, even when the results aren't pretty.
As for the rest of the book....
What I Liked:
Like Blade of Fortriu, The Well of Shades follows several different characters over their own personal story arcs; it does so well, and Marillier handles difficult points of view (Breda, Brother Suibne) skillfully. There was actually a villainous character with understandable motives... okay, the Widow is hardly the major villain here, but she's a nice break from the random practitioners of mindless cruelty that we see elsewhere. I had some sympathy for her. There are a handful of little, true-to-life moments that just made me smile, like Eile practicing her Gaelic by discussing the weather with the king's bodyguards and her hilarious conversation with Conor when he still thinks Faolan is a bard. And there are some great minor characters. Would have liked to see more of many of them (Ferada, the teenage Bedo and Uric, Conor, Liobhan...).
Anyone who's read the Sevenwaters trilogy knows that Marillier is a genius when it comes to writing about families. You find yourself caring about the main characters' relationships with their parents, siblings, uncles, etc. But bizarrely, aside from main characters' relations with their spouses and/or young children, she seems to be avoiding families here. People's reunions with long-lost relatives happen off-stage and leave much to be desired; even Tuala and Broichan's surprising relationship isn't really dealt with on a practical level. And then there's Faolan's character. Why change what was so good? He was interesting in the first two books, but by the end of this one might as well have changed his name, since he was unrecognizable. It seems like the same end could have been achieved while staying a little more true to character. There's a plot device one writer I admire calls the "Cliff of Justice", where the set intervenes and kills the villain (i.e. he fortuitously falls off a cliff) at the key moment in order to save the hero from moral quandary. It is always a cop-out; this book is no exception.
Of course, if you read #2, you'll probably read this one no matter what anyone says, and don't get me wrong, it's a well-written book. For me, though, it lacked the emotional resonance of some of Marillier's other work, which was disappointing. (less)
I enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly...moreI enjoy literary fiction now and then, although it’s not my usual fare, for the three-dimensional characters and polished prose. I am, however, fairly indifferent to symbolism and other literary devices (maybe I’ll develop more appreciation for them eventually, once my school days are far enough behind me). And I have the feeling that if I were a lover of literary devices and critical essays, I’d give this book 5 stars. As it is.... a solid 4.
The basic plot: the young, unnamed narrator receives a surprise proposal from an older man, Maxim, and moves with him to Manderley, his enormous estate. But no one can stop thinking about his recently-dead first wife, Rebecca, and there’s something increasingly ominous about all of this....
The plot is compelling and suspenseful without falling too far into horror, and I quite enjoyed reading it. The narrator in particular is incredibly well-realized; her shyness and self-consciousness have turned off some readers, but I found her so completely believable and relatable that this didn’t bother me a bit. The secondary characters are also vivid and realistic. Maxim and Rebecca, however, gave me a bit of trouble. Maxim is rather distant for much of the book, and I was never quite sure who he was. As for Rebecca....
(view spoiler)[I am still trying to work out my reaction to Rebecca. Part of this is my unique experience with the book--I let a friend spoil me years ago, thinking I’d probably never read it, and she interpreted the book very differently; her view was that Rebecca is slowly revealed to be a villain, such that the reader understands and accepts Maxim’s murdering her. To me, it seemed we get very few hints of Rebecca’s imperfections before being simply told that she was a sociopath (although that word isn’t actually used), and so I never had any visceral response to her nor thought Maxim’s actions excusable. In part this may be because times have changed; a large part of what’s supposed to make Rebecca so awful is her rampant adultery, which just isn’t as horrifying today as it may have been in the 1930s.
All that aside, I’m not entirely comfortable with the juxtaposition of the good-hearted, timid narrator whose life revolves around her husband with the sociopathic Rebecca, who’s dynamic and has a life and doesn’t need men (but seduces and manipulates them for fun). It’s not uncommon for early-20th-century novels to portray “good” women who are shy and let love dominate their lives, while the “bad” ones want more and do more (and not caring for men, in these cases, always means engaging in romantic relationships with them anyway, but in selfish and destructive ways); a rather unfortunate worldview that we’ve hopefully gotten past today. At least there is the more confident and also good-hearted Beatrice to balance things out a bit. (hide spoiler)]
At any rate, the author does a great job with the setting--which reminds me of an old movie--and with atmosphere and suspense. Everything from the weather to the plants on the estate is imbued with potentially sinister, anthropomorphic qualities. (Occasionally I had my doubts as to whether weather actually works as described, but it makes for good storytelling.) And the writing is, indeed, very good throughout. I’ll leave you with a passage I particularly liked:
“I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say: ‘By-the-way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She’s married, with two children.’ And the blue-bells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me.”
It takes a very good book for me to start marking passages I like, and I’d recommend this one. But it’s probably best if you don’t spoil yourself first!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I almost never give 1 star to books I've actually finished, because they're bound to have some redeeming quality that will at least bring the rat...moreGah!!
I almost never give 1 star to books I've actually finished, because they're bound to have some redeeming quality that will at least bring the rating up to 2. But the best I can say about this one is that it's not offensive--in fact, I share many of the author's opinions--and that the prose was at least competent enough for me to continue reading, but that isn't very redeeming when it so utterly failed to entertain that I threw it against a wall. (I really did!)
The (alleged!) premise of this book is that it's a retelling of the fairy tale/ballad of the same name, set in the early 1970's in a small Minnesota liberal arts college. I say "alleged" because the fantasy element is only occasionally hinted at until the last 50 pages or so out of 456. The rest is "Daily Life of an English Major." (On reflection I've decided to not even put it on my "fantasy" shelf; it hasn't earned that.) In fact, over 300 pages describe the protagonist's freshman year, even though the events of the ballad don't happen until she's a senior. And, seriously, nothing happens.
But don't just take my word for it. Here's a representative sample:
"She put the books she was holding neatly on her lower shelf, shrugged out of her pink nylon jacket and hung it over the back of her desk chair, tucked her gray Blackstock T-shirt into her pink corduroy pants, put the jacket back on, zipped it to just below the Blackstock seal on the T-shirt so that the lion seemed to be peering over the zipper pull, and said, 'Let's go, before the line gets too long.'"
And the whole book is like that! Endless minutiae (and bizarre fashion choices), with every little thing described in detail no matter how irrelevant it is. Now, I have nothing against slow pacing; the right author can write a brilliant book consisting almost entirely of minutiae. Read The Remains of the Day if you don't believe me. But the difference between that book and this one is that here, the minutiae doesn't mean anything; there's no payoff; it doesn't advance the plot or illuminate the characters or their relationships. It's just endless daily life, the stuff that's moderately interesting to live through but gets boring when even your friends talk about it too long--and how much worse, then, when the people living it are fictional characters?
In Tam Lin, we sit through every meeting Janet has with her academic advisor to pick her classes. The merits of various professors and their teaching styles and syllabi are discussed. Every time Janet and her friends want food, we see them weigh which dining hall to eat in (the one with a view of the lake? or the one resembles a dungeon? did I mention that the architecture of generically-named buildings I could never remember is also much discussed?). And of course, there's the books. Endless discussions of literature--by which I mean, for the most part, old-school poetry and plays--seem to substitute in the author's mind for both plot and character development.
In fact, there's so little tension in this book that halfway through, Janet realizes the biggest problem in her life is that one of her roommates, while a perfectly nice girl, doesn't understand Janet's literary obsession. And that Janet therefore finds her tedious. What the....?! Did the author miss the creative writing class where they talked about how a plot requires conflict??
And then we get to the end, and the retelling bit plays out exactly like the ballad, and exactly as Janet was told it would. And then the (alleged!) villain responds with a disapproving stare and exits stage left. I say "alleged" because the most detailed description we ever get of her supposed acts of villainy is basically, "Well, there's a rumor she's slept with a married person sometime." How truly menacing!
I could keep going.... the indistinct personalities, the mysteries and foreshadowing that are heavily built up and then come to nothing, the use of unexplained, apparently magically-induced memory loss and general indifference to keep Janet from figuring out the entire (alleged!) plot early on, the dialogue that's probably 50% literary quotes, the 12 pages describing a play blow-by-blow, which even then fail to explain it so that it makes sense!.... but in the spirit of what I think Dean was trying to do with this book, I am going to recommend some other books instead.
So: if you want to read about college women in the early 1970s, try Nunez's The Last of Her Kind. If you want cultlike groups of Classics majors at small-town liberal arts colleges, read Tartt's The Secret History. If you like the idea of pretentious college students combined with fantasy elements, try Grossman's The Magicians. Or, for less pretention and more coming-of-age, Walton's Among Others (okay, I had mixed feelings about that one, but at least it has some plot and character development to go with its science fiction references). And if you're here because you want a fairy tale retelling where the girl saves the guy from an evil sorceress, check out something by Juliet Marillier, preferably Daughter of the Forest.
But if you really do want to read a book that describes liberal-arts-college life in exhaustive detail and talks endlessly about the sorts of works only an English major could love? Then by all means, read Tam Lin. You can have my copy!(less)
Women of the Silk is a perfectly enjoyable little book, although it suffers from some flaws which may simply be the result of its being Tsukiyama’s fi...moreWomen of the Silk is a perfectly enjoyable little book, although it suffers from some flaws which may simply be the result of its being Tsukiyama’s first novel.
The book follows its protagonist, Pei, from 1919 until 1938. Her impoverished family gives her to a silk factory at age 8, where she grows up and forms close bonds with other girls and women. The blurb makes it sound as if the book revolves around the women challenging conditions in the factory, which isn’t the case (they do, but this takes up only one 17-page chapter). Instead, it’s a novel about sisterhood and about life in China in the early 20th century.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and found it to be a fairly compelling read, although the pace is a bit slow and important events tend to come out of the blue rather than building up naturally. Pei is a likeable protagonist, the women around her are interesting, and I like the unconventionality of the story: the women’s finding happiness in work and sisterhood and Pei’s not having (or wanting) a male love interest.
Still, though, it’s not a great book. The character development is not especially deep. The sense of place is decent, but not strong. The writing is often repetitive, and the author tends to state the obvious and to tell us things rather than showing them. The dialogue is decent in short exchanges, but whenever characters speak in paragraphs, they sound exactly like the third-person narrative voice. And Tsukiyama is ridiculously coy about whether the women are in romantic relationships with one another: she raises the possibility with Pei and her best friend, only to never refer to it again. (view spoiler)[I wonder whether Tsukiyama wanted Pei and Lin to be platonic life partners but thought the book needed some sex, or whether she meant them to be lovers but--especially since this was published in 1991--was afraid that doing so more explicitly would keep the book out of the mainstream. At any rate, having a random sex scene that was never referred to again--especially since this relationship was the most prominent in the book--seems like the worst of both worlds. (hide spoiler)]
As far as Chinese sisterhood books go, I liked this one probably a bit better than the much more popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but not so well as the historical fantasy novel The Secrets of Jin-Shei. It has its flaws, but was engaging enough that I’m likely to pick up the sequel eventually, and hope Tsukiyama’s writing has improved.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)