Mm...not sure what to make of this book. It's surreal and strange and gripping, right up until the last twenty pages or so, when it gets just plain weMm...not sure what to make of this book. It's surreal and strange and gripping, right up until the last twenty pages or so, when it gets just plain weird, and not in a good way. Other reviews have gone into detail about the ending so I'm not going to spell it out here, but it's a problem. In several senses of the word. From a character/human drama perspective, the ending relies on a crude, stigmatizing, and offensive portrayal in a book that's otherwise very sensitive, insightful, often compassionate about the diversity of humans and our foibles. From a plotting perspective, it simply doesn't make any sense. I can't decide if Oyeyemi just ran out of steam in the last few chapters, or if this was really intended to be a clever twist to connect several generations of a family together with the motifs of the book—reflections and perceptions, passing but not belonging, how secrets eat away at families, etc.—that turned out to be not so clever. I don't know. But yes, the ending is weird and Deeply Problematic.
It's an unfortunate ending to what is otherwise an enchanting (not in the cutesy way) book. I admired how unflinching Oyeyemi was in portraying her female protagonists with edges and dark corners, in all their pettiness and seething rage and just plain spite. Boy, Snow, and Bird are each fascinating and disturbing characters—fascinating for their being disturbing and alien and somehow recognizable and relatable. Boy in particular is kind of repulsive at times, seductively so, which makes for more disturbingness (it's a word, I declared it). And the Whitman family…whew. Talk about secrets and lies and dysfunction. Again, sucks you in for all of its horribleness. I'd rather have had an ending that was strictly about Boy, Snow, Bird, and their family learning to live with each other than the actual ending, which resurrects and suddenly makes central a character abandoned early on in the book, perhaps out of a misplaced desire to complete the circle or tie off loose ends. Or perhaps a decision to prioritize tying off certain ends over others. Narratively, the ending is deeply dissatisfying, because we spend the whole book building up to Boy, Snow, and Bird finally being in the same place, at the same time, having to confront the fact of each other—and all of that narrative pressure just kinda fizzles away. Womp.
I kind of wish this hadn't been my first introduction to Oyeyemi....more
Pretty original. I wasn't expecting the protagonist to be so...unconflicted about using the Death Note. Definitely makes it more interesting that he hPretty original. I wasn't expecting the protagonist to be so...unconflicted about using the Death Note. Definitely makes it more interesting that he has few qualms about using it....more
Disappointing compared to Boxers. Four-Girl/Vibiana is a much less fleshed out character than Bao, and the same goes for her character arc. I was hopiDisappointing compared to Boxers. Four-Girl/Vibiana is a much less fleshed out character than Bao, and the same goes for her character arc. I was hoping Yang would manage to give the same depth and nuance to Vibiana's Chinese Christian side of this history as he did to Bao's Chinese nationalism/the Boxers. But she ends up being less morally complicated than Bao and therefore less compelling. Part of the issue is that Saints is much shorter than Boxers; we spend a lot more time with Bao than Vibiana. Even so I think Yang could have done more in the space he gave Vibiana's story.
It doesn't help that, unlike Bao's spirit guide (the first Chinese emperor Chin Shih Huang), Vibiana's is the palest and most blonde depiction of Joan of Arc I've ever seen. It's not clear why this is who appears to Vibiana, or why she and the then not-sainted Joan have a connection. It's also not clear why Vibiana is so attached to the Catholic faith she converts to; by the final chapters of the story, she's a true believer, enough to risk her physical safety and even life for her faith. But we don't get to see how or why that happens. Vibiana finds solace in a foreign religion because her family and culture of origin tells her she's cursed, and treats her that way. She finds a new home with a French priest and other Chinese converts, but religious devotion doesn't seem to be a big part of her life until the very end of the story. I found it confusing.
Here be spoilers!
In Boxers Yang's challenge was to make a character who commits heinous, murderous acts still sympathetic. He rises to the challenge admirably, showing the factors that led ordinary Chinese people like Bao to be willing to murder and pillage on a large scale: the arrogance of Westerners who were protected as they flouted local law and culture, Christian missionaries' open contempt of Chinese traditional beliefs (including destroying shrines and representations of local gods), the way conversion to Christianity destabilized family and cultural ties and traditions, the way some Chinese converts used the protection association with Westerners afforded them to exploit other Chinese people, all compounded by famine and scarcity that left ordinary Chinese people starving while Westerners and some Chinese converts lived in comfort.
There's no such complexity to Vibiana's story. The most interesting thing she does is leave her family for a Christian enclave, and it's pretty clear what she gets out of it. There's nothing Vibiana does that's morally problematic or ambiguous. The most interesting character in the book is Dr. Won, Vibiana's kindly spiritual mentor who turns out to also be an opium addict—and he's a secondary character whose struggles with addiction are only briefly addressed at the end of Saints. (Interestingly, Dr. Won is based on a real Chinese Catholic who spent the last 30 years of his life denied communion because of his opium addiction, only to be made a saint a century later.)
The volume's title of Saints, invoking modern images of pristine holiness that are much less visceral and earthy than traditional saints' narratives, turns out to be a foreshadowing of Vibiana's one-dimensionality: her entire story boils down to being a nice person who is ultimately martyred. Modern hagiographies/martyrdom narratives, it turns out, are not really that engaging; contemporary saints in popular imagery are never as compelling as sinners. Vibiana and Bao are characters intended to draw us into their respective sides of the story. By extension, Yang's portrayal of Chinese Christian communities in the 1890s-1900 falls flat in comparison to his more vivid and relatable account of the Boxers.
I have to wonder if the contrast between Boxers and Saints is a reflection of Yang's admitted ambivalence over his own history and identity as a Chinese-American Catholic. In an interview about the two volumes, Yang says that the books are the product of his "wrestling" with a "good question" (his words) an acquaintance once posed to him: “Why would someone of Eastern descent become Christian? The Eastern faiths have so much wisdom and beauty.” Not to get too psychoanalytic about it, but it seems a bit telling that Yang is able to convey the motivations of Boxers sympathetically, without excusing their violence, but doesn't offer any comparable insight into the motivations or mindsets of Chinese Christians. They're martyrs and little else (apart from the ones who use Christianity as a pretext to rob their fellow Chinese with impunity).
I can empathize with that, actually. Like Yang, I'm from a non-Western family that is devoutly Christian today because of the efforts of Western missionaries in the not too distant past—efforts that included the denigration and suppression of centuries of tradition and culture, and efforts that were inseparable from a larger program of Western imperialism, theft, exploitation, and genocide. What does it mean to be a Christian today because of such a history? Why would someone from a culture that has been devastated by the arrogance and presumption of Westerners become so devoted to the faith the oppressors brought with them? Personally I don't feel there's a good answer or reason for this (beyond just general human tendency to be invested in the belief and value systems we're raised with). It seems to me that Yang hasn't found a good answer for his colleague's question, either. ...more
Absorbing and fast read. Gene Yang does an admirable job creating a character who is sympathetic even as he commits monstrous acts. Makes me curious tAbsorbing and fast read. Gene Yang does an admirable job creating a character who is sympathetic even as he commits monstrous acts. Makes me curious to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion, and the longer history of Western imperialism and Christian proselytizing that stirred up such violent anger and war.
It was alright. I was more interested in the recurring themes of anxiety (which the heroine struggles with), coping with its symptoms, and overcomingIt was alright. I was more interested in the recurring themes of anxiety (which the heroine struggles with), coping with its symptoms, and overcoming the fear and despair that comes with it, than I was in the heroine's quest. The two—her journey and her working through anxiety—are intertwined, actually, but I didn't find the story aspect of it that compelling. I did definitely recognize and empathize with the symptoms of anxiety, the various little tricks one has to use to talk oneself out of being immobilized by fear, talk oneself out of giving up, talk oneself into believing one's actions matter or make a difference. So that was interesting. Wish the story itself had been more engaging. The non sequitur, surreal Half World and its nightmare-like denizens were also not really my cup of tea....more
Stunning in its originality and detailed world-building, devastating, and gripping. Give this book to anyone who claims all fantasy is pure escapism (Stunning in its originality and detailed world-building, devastating, and gripping. Give this book to anyone who claims all fantasy is pure escapism (though note: there's not a thing wrong with pure escapism).
When I read the first book of The Inheritance Trilogy on my e-reader I loved it so much I was annoyed with myself for not having bought a physical copy (I prefer paper for books I reasonably expect to reread or revisit later). I didn't make the same mistake with The Fifth Season, so I'm pleased that Jemisin has again delivered a story that is a great read, gorgeously written, super creative, and fresh. This book, like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, reminded me of why I love fantasy in the first place—you can really see Jemisin putting her imagination and speculative muscles to work. Very far from stereotypical sword and sorcery in Ye Olden Times (aka vaguely medieval Europe) fantasy....more
This is well written and the main character is fun. It's an entertaining read with a number of laugh-out-loud lines. But somehow the story didn't quitThis is well written and the main character is fun. It's an entertaining read with a number of laugh-out-loud lines. But somehow the story didn't quite gel for me. I felt like 3/4 of the way through the book I still didn't know what it was really about or where it was going, or even that it was going somewhere. I can't put my finger on why exactly it felt that way; there are two clear narrative threads/mysteries that are more or less resolved by the end of the novel. But somehow it still felt lacking in direction. The ending seemed really abrupt. I also wanted to know more about what Brie's deal was....more
Um, I finished this book in *mumble mumble* hours, that is to say, pretty quickly. Suffice it to say it was pretty absorbing. I loved the story. It'sUm, I finished this book in *mumble mumble* hours, that is to say, pretty quickly. Suffice it to say it was pretty absorbing. I loved the story. It's pretty original both in premise and how the plot unfolded, and the main characters are really charming. Some of the developments are heavily telegraphed, but for the most part I didn't anticipate the twists/revelations, especially the ones tied to the central mystery. Take this with a grain of salt; I'm woefully bad at seeing where a story is going without anvil-like foreshadowing (and generally uninterested in trying to think about where things are going - it takes me out of the story). The ending wasn't as excruciating/evil as I'd expected given all the reports I'd read. It's a bit of a surprise, but not the cliffhanger I thought it would be.
Gothic novels are a big inspiration for Unspoken. There's lots of taut suspense and looming shadows and violent storms, an intrepid heroine who is compelled to investigate despite the constant threat of danger and death, and of course a handsome, brooding, dangerous stranger. It's pretty fun stuff and mostly works. Brennan's penchant for witticisms occasionally sits uneasily with the darker aspects of the book. On the other hand, I laughed out loud several times, so I can't complain too much about the humor being out of place.
I really liked Unspoken and am definitely looking forward to the next book. There is one big problem with it, though, which I haven't seen mentioned in reviews so far: the writing was just not as good as it could have been, in terms of structure and clarity. There are a lot of conversations and thought sequences that shift from one topic to another with little logic, sentences bogged down with too many clauses or poor word choices, and abrupt transitions between scenes. They were jarring, and particularly frustrating because I got the sense that the issue wasn't Brennan's ability as a writer so much as incomplete editing - like the book needed just a little more time to really gel. These passages should have been flagged for not quite making sense/potentially taking the reader out of the story, but weren't. Which is a shame; it's such a little thing to keep the book from being a complete package. The last section or two of the book were a lot stronger in this respect; hopefully there'll be less of this in the next book....more