Kind of a 3.5, which might be blasphemy against Austen.
These past months I’ve been getting into Jane Austen for the first time since reading Pride &Kind of a 3.5, which might be blasphemy against Austen.
These past months I’ve been getting into Jane Austen for the first time since reading Pride & Prejudice in high school (and Northanger Abbey for giggles). Mansfield Park was the first on my list, and I couldn’t help comparing it to Pride and Prejudice and also Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda. Fanny Price is not nearly as strong-willed and, dare I say, “sassy” as Elizabeth Bennet, and as in Belinda, proper behavior seems contrasted with behavior we moderns may enjoy. In the case of Belinda, it’s women crossdressing and fighting duels. Mansfield Park’s threatening scandal arises from, of all things, a play! A co-ed performance, but still.
Poor Fanny is the perfect model of a quiet, obedient woman—and this leads to quite a bit of trouble, which makes me suspect a tongue-in-cheek critique of such a model. A woman cannot be too quiet when her principles are on the line!
In short, I found that while it had the light and lively Jane Austen touch, Mansfield Park exhibited a number of standard early-19th-century novelisms. A woman must hold to her own judgement in the face of a number of persuasive, well- and ill-intentioned people who know nothing of her actual needs. Even if a number of times they might happen to digress with lectures upon the past experiences of various acquaintances, experiences that map eerily well onto our heroine’s own situation. Austen’s wry sense of humor shows more through the narration than through quiet Fanny, but adds some spirit to the plot.
On the other hand, there’s also quite a bit of grimness, including moments of subtle but no less chilling abuse from Mrs Norris and Mrs Bertram. The constant idea that Fanny owes them. The refusal of “indulgences” like fires in the fireplace…in November. One time they send up a servant to help Fanny dress, so clearly she owes it to them to return Mr Crawford’s advances!
The romantic subplot was pleasant, and it was certainly a nice change of pace to see someone at Mansfield Park be kind to Fanny for once, but it was never really clear why Edmund was so nice—except that he’s just a decent person. He cares for Fanny “as a sister” for most of the story. Sweet, but not all that romantic. In fact, by the last few pages it became clear to me that Mansfield Park is more of an “anti-romance,” where the suspense isn’t so much over whether Fanny and Edmund get together (much less unresolved sexual or romantic tension!) as ensuring Edmund *doesn’t* fall for the wrong woman, and he and Fanny both escape the entanglements of the Crawfords.
I feel like there is probably a contemporary “sequel” to Mansfield Park out there—one where Fanny and Edmund do get their hearts-palpitating romance, and perhaps Mrs Norris and Mrs Bertram get their comeuppance properly. Maybe with Fanny’s more spirited younger sister, Susan, when she comes to take her place at Mansfield Park.
A prize from the LibraryThing early reviewer's program, one I'm ridiculously late in reviewing. It's just that I don't feel like I have much to say.
AfA prize from the LibraryThing early reviewer's program, one I'm ridiculously late in reviewing. It's just that I don't feel like I have much to say.
After the ship they're piloting over a newly colonized planet explodes, Brandon and Palmer find out they're part of a broader conspiracy to take over the planet. Along with the native colonists, and with the dubious assistance of a mysterious alien race aliens, they decide to fight back.
This is a story I feel like I should have loved: space opera with an element of mystery, a genuinely interesting alien race (telepaths who appear deceptively, disturbingly human--a psychological Uncanny Valley), a love subplot that isn't strained and includes a well-rounded female character. The problems surrounding a struggling space colony, especially one on a planet already inhabited by an intelligent species, have a lot of potential. But in the end, I could never really get into it. The politics were perplexing and overlooked in favor of lots of action, interspersed by occasional dialogue scenes that never seemed to clear anything up. Sometimes I caught myself skimming for pages on end. I perked up whenever the aliens appeared, but their plotline also didn't feel very strong. I can't even recall how it concluded.
I finally wrote up this halfhearted summary for fear that if I delayed them any longer, I'd forget the plot of the book entirely. It would probably benefit from a rereading, and I might do that now that I have an ereader (reading on a computer screen may have encouraged me to skim, but I've written thousands of words reviewing other ebooks read on a computer before now). But I guess "it just didn't grip me" is a review, too.
My rating hovers around 3.5 stars; there's not a lot of substance, but what is there is good.
Though short (33 PDF pages), this was very readable and iMy rating hovers around 3.5 stars; there's not a lot of substance, but what is there is good.
Though short (33 PDF pages), this was very readable and informative--it's designed to teach the principles of citizen science/crowdsourced science to people who have never heard of it before. Now, I'd heard the term before and had vaguely positive associations, but couldn't explain it to you if you asked me. When I saw this ebook offered in a LibraryThing giveaway I pounced, because hey, KNOWLEDGE.
Citizen science consists of research, data-crunching, information gathering, processing, analysis, and funding that is crowdsourced among volunteers, many of whom aren't any sort of expert. Willingness is key. Fittingly, Be the Change is written with an enthusiastic, persuasive tone--sometimes a bit too much so. I felt like I was reading a pamphlet at times, and I suspect one of the major goals of this book is to get people to check out Clarke's website Citizen Science Center.
But it did succeed in making me feel more knowledgeable and more interested in citizen science. This is not only because of my minor obsession with crowdfunding, but possibly because I'm a science fiction fan, or at least so Clarke theorizes when she suggests the popularity of sci-fi shows, movies, books, and games reflects a greater interest in science proper among audiences. I think for me the relationship is more vice-versa--I enjoy the science fiction and fantasy aesthetic, and my interest in science is secondary and meant to help me better hone that enjoyment. It may be a chicken-and-egg problem.
In order of volunteer effort required, Clarke breaks down a number of projects and methods for supporting them, including crowdfunding, distributed computing, web-based science, and apps. Some of this reminds me of Mechanical Turk's "hits" or microtasks--small jobs that require human intelligence (so they can't be automated or computerized), but don't demand much in the way of expertise, and would frankly be a drain on the productivity of a qualified scientist. Enter your ordinary citizen/science fan. To keep people motivated, many of these projects are "gamified," using point systems to provide psychological rewards.
And some of these projects just seem like cool things to be involved with. The Baby Laughter project, which collects "field reports" of babies giggling in the wild to refine scientist's understanding of cognitive development, sounds adorable. And the Human Memone project, which collects information about health and memes, is both fascinating and kind of punny. Although I can't quite determine what their working definition of "meme" is, and if I have to fill out a survey of every meme I've ever seen on Tumblr or my Facebook feed I'd be very old before I finished.
A prize from the LibraryThing giveaway program. I entered on a whim, because the title seemed interesting and also the author's last name had a Z in iA prize from the LibraryThing giveaway program. I entered on a whim, because the title seemed interesting and also the author's last name had a Z in it. Put that way, I sound awfully flippant, but the fact is I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in. There was barely any description on the LibraryThing page. The advanced review copy's back cover informed me it was a Young Adult Trade Paperback, 316 pages, release date December 2013, and part of the Seven Stars Trilogy.
In fact, it is the third book in the genrebusting Seven Starts Trilogy (as I learned upon seeing the title page for "Part V"). But once I started reading, I was lost no longer--plenty of background info is filled in the first few chapters, enough that I was confident of being able to follow. A cosmic war between the Apollonians and Dionysians, a chosen Ubermensch leading a plucky band of young teenagers on their quest to collect 7 shards of the Risa Star. The opening chapter, though, managed to be evocative while resisting the urge to infodump too much, instead offering us an enticing conversation between a fox with "only" two tails, and a hooded figure coping with the fallout of his Face-Heel Turn.
Actually, a number of characters in this story underwent a Face-Heel turn. The revelation of what happened to Ubermensch Jake's best friend Alex was fairly predictable. But then came the revelation of the true nature of the many-tailed fox Inari and the true nature of the Risa Star Shards themselves. That was a delightfully unpleasant surprise and added an air of cosmic horror to what had been a fairly standard, though entertaining, quest fantasy. Of course, given the obvious Neichschze references, plus quotes of Yeat's The Second Coming, maybe I should have had my suspicions.
I do wonder what readers of the first two books will feel about this. Betrayed? Did they already have hints strewn before them? This may be a trilogy whose third book is kindest to readers who dive in media res! In any case, I really enjoyed the twist, and finished the book rapidly with a new sense of suspense for the characters and their worlds.
My favorite parts: Alex (despite the fact that both revelations about him failed to completely surprise me. As for the latter, I'd like to compare with other readers to see if I was actually picking up hints, or my tendency to read certain characters as LGBT struck upon a lucky coincidence this time), the Grey Sage (although having the nickname "Sage" myself made me do a double-take a number of times), and Lucy's plotline, which is a great deconstruction of the aftermath of your average portal fantasy. Of course, this entire story is something of a deconstruction. Yet it reconstructs, too, and comes out in the end as something more complex than a war of good against evil, yet is still true to its roots, and left at least this reader highly satisfied.
Because it's an advanced review copy I can't really say much about prose & typos, although "to be" gets overused (yes, after a while you can notice this even in pleasure reading)--but on the other hand, there is a great splash page around the story climax, which was cool to see in a mostly-prose, yet highly visual, story.
I discovered this book, published in 1997, on a quest for more epic fantasy with LGBTQA characters. I was immediately taken with its worldbui3.5 Stars
I discovered this book, published in 1997, on a quest for more epic fantasy with LGBTQA characters. I was immediately taken with its worldbuilding of a gender-neutral society, where well-developed female characters are featured alongside a central male same-sex romance. The setting itself tastes somewhat of anachronism stew—the plot, name conventions, and the date of the admittedly fictional calendar all suggest the Dark Ages, but Renaissance trappings appear in characters’ costumes, architecture, and downright Shakespearian traveling player troupes. To top it off, characters sit sipping hot chocolate, so either the Americas have been discovered early in this world or its botany is somewhat askew. It is fantasy, to be sure, a genre where authors can and should get away with a lot, but I felt a distinct lack of consistency. Not just in the worldbuilding.
I could never quite come to terms with the way the storytelling so heavily relied on flashbacks. The plot would move forward a few pages, and then suddenly be hurtled back decades into the characters’ personal histories. At times there was some genuinely interesting parallel narrative as Demnor, the crown prince of Branion, struggles with his mother in the present day while reflecting on how he defied her by his childhood romance with his lover, courtesan/strategist Kellhanus. Yet after a while the frequency of flashbacks began to cut into the story’s momentum and even became disorienting. When Demnor “reflected” back to a conversation made earlier in the morning, it just got annoying. I think stories should be told chronologically more often than not, at least for events taking place within the same year!
The plot is a tangle of the personal and political. Demnor struggles with his tyrannical mother, the Aristok of Branion, as well as the barbarian Heaths to the north. There’s a religious schism that’s of some interest, although I can’t pinpoint its real life analogue (Protestant Reformation? Greek Orthodox?) if it even has one. Demnor’s marriage to Duke Isolde, and its impact—or lack thereof—on his romance with Kellhanus, and the friendship of all three members of this “love triangle” was refreshing to see, but in other cases character development got lost among a cast of characters that covers multiple feudal courts, two religions, at least one courtesan’s guild, and plenty of petty nobility. Why so many people? Where they all needed to tell this story? There were times when the point of the story seemed to be “Look at all these fictional people.”
That subverted love triangle aside, which may make the book worth reading on its own, The Stone Prince never really felt like it got going. Stepping back, I can trace how Demnor in his struggle for control of Branion, Kellhanus and some internal politics at the Companion’s Guild, and Isolde in her marriage to the crown prince all had some parallel building plotlines. Although, if my interpretation is correct, I’m not wild about how, in such an ostentatiously gender-neutral setting (Isolde is an Earl), the narrative climax of the primary female character is childbirth.
(For another “love triangle” that isn’t, including two romantically involved men and a woman, where the woman’s motivations and arc play out a little differently, I recently read Tanya Huff’s The Fire’s Stone and cannot recommend it highly enough).
The Stone Prince is worth looking into if you’d like to see more completely gender-neutral societies in fantasy settings, and perhaps if you’re into alternate history (for all the ‘history’ aspects sometimes don’t withstand aggressive scrutiny, it can be very fun to have a story with enough depth to really aggressively scrutinize in any case). The story continues in several sequels, but frankly I wish it hadn’t been so bogged down with minor characters and magical pyrotechnics (which never really seemed to come together) in this first book.
This modern retelling of the Iliad has been frequently compared to Mary Renault, a comparison that piqued my interest. While Renault writes of historiThis modern retelling of the Iliad has been frequently compared to Mary Renault, a comparison that piqued my interest. While Renault writes of historical figures who have entered into mythology, Miller places mythical figures against a historic background. When dealing with the supernatural, Renault uses a far more subtle hand—the magic and spiritual power in her stories comes from more abstract concepts of duty, fate, and a character’s role in history and society, while in The Song of Achilles, as in the Iliad, gods really do walk the earth. Yet so do mankind, and Miller brings this legend down to a highly personal level.
In doing so, she does have one other difference in approach from Mary Renault. Renault’s ancient Greece is inhabited, and readers are dropped into it to sink or swim as best they may. The actor character in The Mask of Apollo assumes we’ll be nearly as familiar with the stage as he is (even though more than half the plays he references are lost to time). The reader keeps up by drawing on inferences, but Renault never slows down her plot to explain things. She would never, as Miller does, take a paragraph to explain such basic period knowledge as what the punishment of Tantalus was (spoiler: it’s in the name). Sometimes there’s a sense of lecture in Song of Achilles that didn’t ruin the entire story for me, but did leave me feeling patronized.
Although, on the subject of stating things outright: the other obvious comparison to Mary Renault is that both Song of Achilles and Renault’s body of work include, unapologetically, men who have sex with other men as protagonists.
It’s hardly crass or pornographic, though I don’t think anyone following my reviews would really worry about that. In fact, Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship is built up to very slowly—sometimes too slowly to my taste. The opening chapters include an excellent scene introducing Helen from the point of view of Patroclus as her child suitor (among a crowd of suitors including much more macho types), but after that it’s a timeline of boys growing up in a hypermasculine warrior culture with all resultant angst, interspersed with the petty politics of small kings. Those politics were interesting, and young Patroclus and Achilles were likeable enough, but as kids they spend a lot of time being told what to do, taught what to do, and wondering what to do—and not enough time actually doing things.
The most interesting character in the front of the novel is Thetis. Here Miller did something unique, portraying with sympathy and awe this powerful, violated, vengeful sea-nympth as both a mother and a goddess. I would found Thetis uncanny, yet pitied her at once. Considering this story is narrated by a male character within an androcentric culture, the fact that Thetis wasn’t made a caricature made me happier with the story as a whole and with Patroclus (who, to be fair, has completely reasonable grounds to disagree with and dislike his boyfriend’s mother).
Other female characters are handled with varying degrees of sympathy and kid gloves. Achilles’ wife, whose name I no longer remember, was not particularity standout—clingy and shrill and part of Thetis’ plots along with her father. Again, this is from Patroclus’ hardly impartial POV. Later, Iphegenia seems awfully disempowered, at least compared to my favored telling of her story by Euripedes—for the sake of the themes of the story, perhaps, but a modern retelling could be a little more willing to showcase its women. Things improved with Breisis and some of the other captive Trojan women. They weren’t exactly empowered feminist icons, but it’s hardly Miller’s fault what the Iliad did with its women, and at least the female characters get some respect and protection. Achilles and Patroclus are decent men among a pack of Greeks who aren’t gilded heroes of manhood. The deconstruction of violence and machismo was more powerful during these scenes of actual warfare. All the same, some readers may be frustrated at Patroclus’ downgrade as a warrior from the original myths. He sometimes seems pacifistic because he doesn’t have the chops to handle an actual fight. All the same, it’s in my nature to enjoy subversions of masculinity, and his scenes treating injured warriors in the medicine tent were truly affecting.
I also found Patroclus and Achilles’ relationship to be endearing and powerfully portrayed. While the Greeks, at least during the Classical period, were fine with practicing a certain sort of same-sex relationship (one that, let’s be frank, comes with some pretty gross baggage about age differences and disparities in power, pleasure, and consent between active/passive partners—all together now, “Because masculinity”), as egalitarian lovers the two draw some flack. This may be a historical in-joke, as throughout the ages nobody has been able to agree whether Achilles or Patroclus “topped” (and, because masculinity, this has been a vital question for some people’s interpretation. If this is an ongoing argument with regards to the characters in your own slash fandom, take comfort or at least perspective from certain passages in the Symposium). Actually, considering how famous these two have been, it’s surprising that Song of Achilles is one of the first books to actually portray their romantic relationship.
In fact, Odeysseus (suitably wily) has a line near the end of the book: “What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another,” which may be taken as a statement on the modern struggle for LGBT rights. For a thing while, discussing the possibility of these two ancient heroes being gay (or acting gay—one anachronism in this story is that Patroclus does identify as a man-who-only-likes-men, which, as Breisis appropriately points out, is unusual as most Greek men will do both sexes) was a thing that didn’t happen, at least not in the mainstream. Even Mary Renault’s stories, which I’m sure were groundbreaking in the 1960s, had to be very subtle and circumspect. Now that the fact has been made explicit, in an award-winning book no less, perhaps we can hope for more such interpretations to come.
Another prize from the LibraryThing giveaways program, this one even came with a courteous letter from the author himself. I'm always one to be impresAnother prize from the LibraryThing giveaways program, this one even came with a courteous letter from the author himself. I'm always one to be impressed by presentation, and the presentation of this book was fine indeed: I was especially impressed by the dozen or so illustrations by Sean Bodley scattered throughout the text. The back matter was also quite impressive: 40 pages of Dramatis Personae (not as excessive as it first appears if these characters continue to play a part in this 9-book planned series) and another 10 pages of glossary that, while not necessary to understand most of the book, will prove helpful if you need to brush up on your Latin.
The full title at the least should prepare you for the Latin and the epic scale. Although my favorite bit is Beewicke. It's just adorable. Don't tell Thaddeus, though--he hails from the village of Beewicke, appropriately renowed for its honey, and he is highly sick of hearing about it (a running gag that just managed to not annoy the reader as much as it does Thad).
For all its epic promise, though, this first story of the saga is smaller in scale. Its focus lies mainly on young Thaddeus, a boy who shows promise in magic; his new teacher Master Silvestrus, and his fellow apprentices Anders (a likeable bookworm) and Rolland (a redheaded thief who has quite a bit of character development to undergo, and, with the help of his travelling companions and a few amusing hijinks, does). Plus the talking mule, Asullus. The mere fact of a talking animal doesn't bother me much, and Asullus actually has plenty of sound advice for the new wizards, but his Scottish (mulish?) accent is transcribed, and that becomes painful after hundreds of pages (and he does talk for pages upon pages of this 500-page book). The Redwall series did the same thing, but being children's books they were more concise.
There's also a steady stream of other characters--again, see the 40 page Dramatis Personae. At once I liked the young courtesan Ethne, whose affectionate but not passionate relationship with her patron was sympathetically drawn and who is revealed to have both a kind heart and a good head on her shoulders. I didn't quite understand her attraction to the much younger Thaddeus, who does little but gape at her from the moment they're introduced (to be fair, he's recovering after a bandit attack). Bella the dog was almost sinister in her ability to enchant everyone around--trust me, this works quite well in context. The characters who were least fleshed out, honestly, were the 3 female apprentices and their teacher, who the travelling students and Silvestrus encounter in the second half of the novel. Three boys, three girls--they're inevitably paired off, but though the dynamics of the groups as a whole play out well, the individual young ladies were never very fleshed out. This is especially a problem as Thad seems to have chosen one for his life partner, and she gives Thaddeus a gift that surprises everyone and suggests she has intelligence and powers beyond the norm--but it's never really explained. Perhaps in book two.
For all I was occasionally surprised or baffled, not much of this story felt like a surprise. The plot exchanges a firm handshake with genre conventions and takes them along on the journey. A prophecy is in play, although this topic is lightly lampshaded (playing with a trope by admitting it's there, and yes, it is a trope, but let's make use of it anyway--the term is from TV Tropes, which I will not link you to because you will never emerge and I'll feel bad). Our thief is even a redhead. While tension arises from temporary problems--like the attack from Rolland's fellow thieves--these problems are quickly cleared away within a chapter. Like many journey stories, it moves linearly: start at Beewicke, end at the Collegium Sorcerorum. On the way Thaddeus has met many people and learned many things, and the fact that the things he's learned haven't proven relevant in this story suggests they'll be crucial in the sequels. But I'm just taking that on faith. Payoff does come in the fast-moving final chapters, which among other things explain Ethne's motive for getting so close to Thad (I would read a novel completely about her, just saying) as well as fleshing out most of the other female characters (except the three students) in one fell swoop. Proper epic scale is very nearly reached. But honestly, I wonder if this isn't a series better begun on Book 2, with the relatively staid Thaddeus of Beewicke serving as a sort of prologue.
Compared to other epic fantasy novelists like Tad Williams or Patrick Rothfuss, Sauvain's great girth of spine derives less from busyness (Williams has stuffed so many side quests into a book that I've actually become furious with him) and more longwindedness. I dare say's and As I was saying's and With not a moment to spare's abound. And sometimes characters are downright redundant:
"...that does not mean I have a liking for yanking and overgrown boy half a mille passe because I'm enjoying the experience!"
My high school English teacher used to give her students an M&M for every word they cut form their essays. The habit has gotten deep in me; I was wondering if have a liking for or because I'm enjoying the experience would earn me more candy-coated chocolately treats.
Some of the garrulousness is clearly meant to make the dialogue more realistically historically flavored. Speaking of history, although there is plenty of Latin (which adds an appropriate level of authority and epicness to the proceedings, without hampering the understanding of any reader either already versed in the language or willing to look back in the glossary), this clearly takes place in a secondary world rather than the actual European Dark Ages.
There is one last topic I'd like to address: sorcery being connected to sexual intimacy. I was a little nervous when I read this on the back cover copy, because it sounds like a trashy porn setup (as opposed to an intellecutal and tasteful porn setup--ahem, ahem) and/or give me flashbacks to the reverse system in Andre Norton's Witch World, where you could conveniently disempower an enemy sorceress by assaulting her. I have...issues with Norton's worldbuilding choices. However, the Collegium Sorcerorum system is far more thoughtful, including offering a loophole system for female wizards to make use of (if, among other things, they'd like to put off pregnancy). A little tough, still, for ugly or asexual male wizards. Not tough at all for Thaddeus, though. Given his womanizing-as-a-teenager tendencies I appreciated the nuanced writing of most female characters. They may fall into tropes, but no more and no worse than the male ones, and the sexism of several male characters is called out in ways more playful than anvilicious. Thaddeus never White Knights or takes credit for simply seeing women as people, and the men who do hold less-than-ideal attitudes are not mustache twirling professional misogynists, just everyday people with a blind spot. A blind spot that may get their egos smacked upside the head, to badly mix my metaphors.
Also, I caught the Hound of the Baskervilles reference on page 303 to Lord Basker who keeps hounds and lives on the moors. Although that's another strong argument against this one taking place in the actual dark ages.
For this review, another thank you is in order to the LibraryThing giveaways program, and of course Nadine Ducca herself for offering the first volumeFor this review, another thank you is in order to the LibraryThing giveaways program, and of course Nadine Ducca herself for offering the first volume of her Timekeepers trilogy.
Although I was often confused over what was going on, the original mythological background of Serving Time was strong from the beginning. The author has clearly spent time developing this mythology and shows it by demonstrating her characters' familiarity with its workings. I found Robert, the wizard who figured out how to blackmail Time, a fascinating character. He didn't play a major part until the end, though, as there is a wide cast of characters scattered across multiple planets, satellites, and outposts. And as for the story's mythology, it's far from comforting. After the Angels meant to guide souls through their many incarnations have fled, the demonic powers, kept barely in line by a frazzled Time, try to pick up the task. Nobody is particularly happy about this. Not Time, who has her own concerns. Nor the demons, who are meant to devour souls, not look after them! And who must contend with the ever-present threat of clerical work.
Things are no more comfortable on the mortal plane, where big businesses now run pretty much everything with no sense of corporate social responsibility. It forms an interesting parallel with the bureaucracy on the mythological plane. Our protagonist's Tristan's opening scene, which shows a day in his life as a hired assassin dogged by robots ready to clean up after his "job," was pulpy goodness worthy of Blade Runner, or perhaps The Fifth Element.
The demands of being a killer for hire have driven Tristan to a breakdown, making him less than useful to his bosses, who sell his contract cheap to another corporation even more lacking in concern for employee welfare. Meanwhile, Tristan's brother Eneld is visited by a demon who gives him a warning: it's his task to look after his brother's soul in this, Tristan's final incarnation before he's damned to the Respository (hell in this setting) as damaged metaphysical goods. Although the brothers may be less than convinced by this vision, they clearly have pressing problems as Tristan is pursued by his new bosses, who he's trying to escape.
The prose and tone of the story varies widely. I admit I have nitpicks--like when the Goddess Time is described as a "fifteen foot" colossus on a limitless plain. The exact number makes her size ever so slightly less impressive (I like to think most mortals won't whip out a yardstick on their first confrontation with a deity). But the dialogue is plausible and mostly snappy. There are also points where the prose becomes playfully visible-"It was on the verge of hyperventilating, if soul dew could ventilate in any way." Fun and fitting with the bizarro tone. And yet in other cases I just couldn't figure out where the author was coming from. What does it mean that Time has strands of hair "like honeyed spiderwebs"? And another thing that puzzles me, and makes me wonder how seriously the science-fiction worldbuilding is being taken: why is Tristan's drug run for his corporate overlords done under cover of an interplanetary shipment of tiramisu? Glad as I am to know we'll still be eating tiramisu centuries from now, wouldn't it be a thousand times faster and cheaper to bake it on-planet? Did nobody find this sort of suspicious?
Speaking of baked goods in the future, fruitcake and Christmas are still going strong, even as the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona has not only been completed but also fallen into ruin again (I see what Ducca did there, and it amuses me, not least because of the sense of scale it gives). All the homey anachronisms could probably be excused in the end, although I always like to see spec fic writers dream a little weirder. But the tone never quite recovered from the revelation that the highly laid-back population of the Stone Cloud spaceship call themselves "Stoners". I love puns from the likes of Peirs Anthony, but I felt rather offended on behalf of my sense of humor at that one. How much danger in Tristan's soul really in, and how much should I fear for him, in a world built with puns?
Puns aside, a sort of wordplay does go into the mythology-building of this story too, at least for fans of Madeline L'Engle. Over the ages, Time has developed quite a few *wrinkles*, and is displeased twice over when various galactic species start exploiting them for time travel--plus the apparently unforgiveable indignity of being a female deity who does not look like a teenager. I mean, Lucifer certainly isn't worried about his looks. Then again, Lucifer doesn't have the problem of being a gorgeous young woman everyone pictures as a white-bearded Father, so I guess I can cut Time some slack here. Mythological figures being irritated by mortals' mistaken impressions of them is a trope I usually enjoy, but I enjoy them because of the surprise factor; a female character being caught up in her looks is, alas, not much of a surprise. In any event, Time's vanity is assuaged by Robert's offer of a cure, in exchange for perks like power and immortality. But Time has another favorite human: Tristan, who in a past life was Time's good friend Alexia. Perhaps I only dreamed the lesbian subtext between those two, but they were certainly very close--Alexia medicated Time's vanity just as Robert does in the present, but they also went on adventures together literally to hell and back. The sweet girlfriendship plot, and Time's tendency to call Tristan "Alexia" even when he's romancing her, redeemed the otherwise disappointing representation of female characters. I warmed to Eneld only very slowly after his intro shows him in bed with a woman who he calls a slut (granted, logical thinking is never his strong point, but why is this supposed to be attractive in the character who serves as the moral center? Tristan's much more screwed up, in that he actually kills people for a living, but he's very upfront and equal-opportunity in his screwedupness). Jim Kirk spoiled me; I expect the 23rd century to be a touch more progressive, to say nothing of free love.
This story ends on a definite cliffhanger, but its resolution centers more around Robert than Tristan in my mind. This is fine, except Tristan has been the more central character, and winds up nothing but a pawn for the last chapters. His story will be continued in the sequels (Serving Time is the first of the Timekeepers Trilogy). Overall, while this story has an entertaining setup and I appreciate the devil-may-care attitude blending mythology and gritty science fiction, the sometimes corny tone and lackluster character development made it hard to lose myself in. Readers more used to irreverence in their stories (use the "Stoners" pun as a guideline) might even love it.
This seems like the perfect book to review for Halloween—not quite a romance, but a historical fantasy with moments of searing eroticism and truly effThis seems like the perfect book to review for Halloween—not quite a romance, but a historical fantasy with moments of searing eroticism and truly effective horror.
I’m the hipster reader who liked what Philippa Gregory wrote before she was cool. Not that I don’t love her Tudors work, too, but A Respectable Trade (about the slave trade in 18th century Bristol) and the Wideacre trilogy (also 18th century, about a woman’s scheming to gain control of the family estate) have special places in my heart. The Wise Woman, though set in the time of the Tudors, has a lot of similarities with Wideacre: a woman’s desires, thwarted by the cruelty of the times (misogyny not least of them, but not really the greatest factor, either) become twisted until there is no act, however callous or depraved, she will not commit to achieve what she wants.
This was a heady conflict in Wideacre, not least because we found sympathetic characters in the background even when the protagonist becomes odious. We had someone to care about and reason to want the protagonist to stop her destructive and self-destructive path. There isn’t so much of that in The Wise Woman. We might start out sympathizing with Alys’ desperation, but it soon becomes obvious that she’s selfish, cowardly, and dishonest. The people surrounding her are for the most part no better. Her mother figures, the wisewoman Morag and the abbess Hildebrande, love her beyond all obvious reason and try to guide her down the path of, if not righteousness, at least good sense; both fail and pay for it. The rest of the cast are as self-absorbed as Alys and often crueler. The young lord Hugo, who is our romantic hero insofar as this story has one, is brutal and sexually violent. No matter how rich he is, I really can’t see what Alys sees in him. At least they deserve each other.
Gregory has come up in prior reviews where I talked about the irritating habit of writers to present BDSM practices as “bad people having bad sex.” Granted, everyone in this story who is sexually active is on some level bad for other reasons, but the searing eroticism I spoke of before, while very fun in the beginning, gets downright distasteful—not only sadomasochism but also bisexuality are played with and handled poorly, dare I even say disrespectfully. This was true in the Wideacre trilogy, too, which has an incestual BDSM relationship. Clearly there’s some bad people having bad sex there, but a later book in the trilogy also suggests not having sex means you’re a sad and broken person. As an asexual dominant, I felt…a bit alienated by this, and yet I kept reading Wideacre because the conflicts Gregory dropped her characters in were just so compelling. In this book, because I found fewer people sympathetic, I also was less compelled to care about what happens to them, and I was much less patient with the handling of sex.
The horror in The Wise Woman, though, is genuinely creepy: candlewax is now terrifying to me. There’s body horror (wax and voodoo dolls and other things too strange to describe), spiritual horror (is Alys damned?), and anyone with a phobia of water or fire is not going to be cured by this story, to say the least. This creepiness is made more effective by the fact that Gregory never goes completely wild: the possibility always remains, just barely, that Alys is only imagining these things. It doesn’t make them any less disturbing. But it does keep this story from jumping the genre shark—it’s not quite fantasy, magic isn’t exactly real, but we can never quite be sure. And the well-researched (you can expect no less from Gregory) historical background only provides realistic grounding that enables us to better accept the horrorific parts.
So it was an uneven but thrilling ride, like that roller coaster you only go on when the line is too short for you to second-guess yourself. But the ending did not just fall flat for me, it made me glare into space with an expression of utter confusion and betrayal. When it comes down to suspension of belief, and what’s really happening and what’s all in Alys’ head, I’m not so sure the final paragraphs weren’t something our morally confused heroine dreamed up. Because if she really did what she’s depicted as doing—then, however horribly she suffers for it, I feel she’s received more redemption than she deserves. The ending leaves a whole lot in the air about other characters and their plot arcs, so that I didn’t feel well paid off for the time I had invested reading up to that point. But if you’re reading this story to be creeped out rather than to have your sense of justice satisfied (wise call on your part), or if you’re interested in Philippa Gregory’s development as a writer before she hit it big with Anne Boleyn (you can see hints in that direction with background historical events in Wise Woman), this one may be worth checking out.