- The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia - Sedia's second novel centers around Mattie, a clockwork doll who has won a provisional freedom from her maker (he still keeps the only key that can wind her mechanism) and trained as an alchemist at a time when magic and mechanics are at odds. Mattie's commission from the gargoyles, her city's patron saints, to discover the reason they are turning into stone, is interrupted by civil unrest, as political struggles between the guilds of mechanics and alchemists boil over into riots, murders, and an uprising by the city's underclass. None of this is badly done, and there are some very nice notes such as Mattie's friendship with a foreign (and thus maligned and suspected) alchemist, or the character of the Soul-Smoker, who gathers up the lingering souls of the dead and is feared and reviled for performing a necessary act. But taken as a whole The Alchemy of Stone gives the definite impression of having been written to meet a checklist of modern fantasy tropes: steampunk, an urban setting, non-Tolkienian fantasy creatures, the intersection between magic and science, issues of class and racial prejudice mapped onto the fantasy world. There's nothing here that hasn't been done better elsewhere, and what Sedia brings to the table--her use of language and her characters--is again well done but unremarkable. It could simply be that I've read too many novels of this ilk to appreciate yet another entry in the subgenre, but I'm not so well read that this is likely to be an uncommon problem, and The Alchemy of Stone, enjoyable as it was while I was reading it, doesn't do nearly enough to set itself apart from the pack.
- Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott - Narrated by the empress Zhan from her deathbed as a series of letters to her exiled lover, McDermott's debut flits between different periods in Zhan's past, demanding our absolute focus as we piece that past together. Accompanied by her uncle Seth, a shaman, Zhan journeys from her remote mountain village to a great city in pursuit of her grandfather, who has murdered her whole family. Once there, she amasses a fantasy coterie--Seth's gypsy lover, a grizzled mercenary, and the paladin Adel, who is helping Zhan for her own reasons--and must race back to her home in advance of an invading army. All of this is to make Last Dragon seem very conventional, but even ignoring its jigsaw structure, the novel seems to be deliberately defying the conventions of epic fantasy by attempting to depict its characters and their situation as realistically and unromantically as possible. McDermott's focus is not on the few moments in which the characters confront their enemies head on but on the long, unheroic trudge to reach those moments--Zhan and Seth's miserable sea-voyage on their way to the city, the frozen wasteland the group must traverse on their way back to the village, the stinking prison cell in which they're held towards the end of the story--and he truly makes us feel the characters' misery and discomfort, the way that these overshadow their grand motivations of honor and duty even as those motivations keep driving them forward, so that victory, in the end, is simply a way of finally getting some rest.
Last Dragon's tone of mingled determination and despair is so overwhelming that it's easy to simply get caught up in it, and in the pleasure of piecing together Zhan's story, but once the last page was turned I realized that as overpowering as I found the novel, I'm still not certain what McDermott was trying to do with it. Was the point nothing more than to give another whack to the epic fantasy subgenre, whose heroes often dedicate themselves, body and soul, to a cause, without suffering the soul-deadening effect McDermott so ably describes? Possibly, and if so then the point is well made, but it would be awfully disappointing to think that so much effort had been put into contravening the basic assumptions of a subgenre that most of the novel's target audience don't read (it has the whiff of condescension too). There are enough questions left unanswered by the novel's ending--mostly relating to Adel and her true motivations in helping Zhan, but also involving the gap between the end of the novel and the dying Zhan's present--that it could very well be that McDermott expects us to piece together an underlying story, one that I wasn't quite able to see. Or the underlying story might not be there, and the point of the novel could be that we're being told a partial narrative by someone who was only a minor participant in the proceedings--which, once again, is a rather flimsy point on which to hang a novel. Whatever the answer is, the end result is that Last Dragon feels a little underdone, and yet I'm not sure that this ought to matter. McDermott's writing is strong enough that the novel can be enjoyed simply for its tone and effect--not to mention for its plot, which is entirely riveting--and I'm willing to let that be enough for now.
- Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta - Niall, who liked this novel a great deal more than I did, compares it to David Mitchell's Ghostwritten--which like it is a novel made up of globe-spanning, linked narratives, in which the fantastic is used to highlight some of the aspects of modernity--but I was more strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales. Unlike Mitchell, and like Valente, Dasgupta--who strands a small group of airline passengers on their way to Tokyo in an unnamed Indian airport and has them tell each other stories to while away the hours until their flight--starts with familiar fairy tale formats and complicates them to the point of surrealism. Either way, the comparison is unkind. Tokyo Cancelled is a great deal more fantastic than Ghostwritten, but not completely steeped in the fantastic like The Orphan's Tales, and the midpoint it occupies does not seem, to me, particularly stable. It's never clear whether we're meant to anticipate realism or surrealism, whether fairy tale logic or real world logic will hold sway, and the result was that I could never quite immerse myself in the novel. It doesn't help that I wasn't particularly taken by any of the stories as stories. There are some nice touches here and there--a touching love story between a woman who has lost hope and a sailor she meets in a coffee shop, the billionaire who builds a tower in which to keep his daughter, who causes all organic matter to sprout and bloom, out of the hands of the ministry of defense, the tailor who buries a garment commissioned by a prince in the desert and returns to find it hailed as a precious antique--but every time, just when it seems that Dasgupta has hit on a compelling metaphor, or has built up a good head of narrative, he loses the thread. The central concept--marrying modernity and fairy tales--is a good one, but Tokyo Cancelled just doesn't manage that mix very well.
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin - One of my reading projects for this year is to finally get properly acquainted with Le Guin, whom I've enjoyed well enough in the short form (and in her non fiction and reviews) but whose novels have never worked for me. I started with Lavinia, about which I may have more in the future, and having done reasonably well there felt brave enough to tackle The Left Hand of Darkness, which had already defeated me once in my early teens. I pronounce the experiment a limited success, in that I finished the novel (no onerous chore, to be certain) and liked parts of it very much, mainly the construction of the customs, language, history and folklore of the planet Gethen, and the last third of the novel, in which the human envoy to Gethen, Genly Ai, traverses an ice shelf with a disgraced Gethenian politician, Estraven. The matter of fact way in which Le Guin describes the danger and hardship Genly and Estraven face, as well as their attempts to deal with them, contrasts sharply with her descriptions of the landscape itself, and create an intense and utterly engrossing sequence.
On the other hand, the actual meat of the novel, and the reason that it is so well known--Le Guin's description of the effect that genderlessness has on Gethenian society--left me somewhat cold. Partly, the problem is that the novel has dated rather badly. Jo Walton has a good post here about the difficulties of reading The Left Hand of Darkness in the more feminist era to which it no doubt contributed, and as she says it is hard not to be thrown by Genly Ai's simplistic assumptions about masculinity and femininity, not only because we'd like to believe that in the more advanced era in which he lives such assumptions would be a thing of the past (the fact that he has several female colleagues would certainly seem to support this expectation), but because those assumptions are so different from present-day stereotypes about men and women. Observing Estraven's careful calculation of their food intake during the ice crossing, Genly muses that such behavior would be scientific in a man and house-wifely in a woman, and though clearly Le Guin is making a point, that point is so over the top for our time (when was the last time you heard someone described as house-wifely?) that it is jarring. Beyond its datedness, however, I find it difficult to accept the notion of The Left Hand of Darkness as a feminist novel. Le Guin's point that, absent gender characteristics, Gethenians treat each other simply as people (which is anyway undermined by her choice to use the male pronoun for all Gethenians--a choice which I understand she reversed in several Gethen-set short stories) doesn't deal with gender but circumvents it, and in so doing implicitly reinforces Genly's sexism. If anything, The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about a challenge to Genly's masculinity, and has little or nothing to do with women, but because that masculinity is rooted in such dated notions of gendered behavior, it's hard to sympathize with Genly's ordeal. Not for the first time, therefore, I find myself admiring Le Guin's work but not really resonating with it, and though I'm glad to have read such an important piece of SF history, I don't think I'm going to become a Le Guin fan any time soon.
- No Name by Wilkie Collins - I like Collins better than Dickens, with whom he shares certain attributes and interests, but unfortunately the portion of his bibliography that's considered worth looking at isn't nearly as large. I'd already read his two best known novels, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which left me with his second tier, into which No Name was my first foray. Once again, my conclusions are mixed, but in a way that demonstrates just how important historical context is in determining which novels survive the test of time and which fail it. As a piece of writing, No Name is only slightly less successful than either The Moonstone or The Woman in White, and in its middle segment, which describes a battle of wits between the con man Captain Wragge and the housekeeper of the man he plans to swindle, Mrs. Lecount, it even surpasses them. But it's a novel rooted in assumptions I don't share, and it fails because it expects me to react in certain ways to its characters' actions when actually my reaction is the exact opposite.
No Name's beginning creates the expectation of another Vanity Fair--when two sisters are left penniless after their parents' deaths by a quirk of the law and the cruelty of their relatives, the younger, Magdalen, vows to regain her fortune by whatever means necessary. But No Name quickly becomes a soppy, happy-ended Count of Monte Cristo--Magdalen debases herself and abandons her cherished ideals and beliefs in order to avenge herself on her relatives, but ends up alone and near death, and renounces her wicked ways. The problem, for one thing, is that those ways aren't that wicked. Vanity Fair works so well because Thackery, without losing sight of the real hurt she causes, recognizes that Becky Sharpe's offenses against society's mores are, objectively, meaningless, but Magdalen, despite hurting no one but herself--she tells lies, goes on the stage, marries for money--is described as the most wretched and evil creature in existence. Even worse, whereas The Count of Monte Cristo recognizes that a desire for vengeance is normal, and only then concludes that to pursue that desire is soul-destroying, No Name starts from the assumption that there must be something wrong with Magdalen for wanting revenge on the people who have hurt her, that she is perhaps even monstrous (though it's never stated outright, it's pretty clear that what Collins means is that desiring revenge is monstrous in a woman). Magdalen is no Becky Sharpe, whose wickedness is offset by intelligence and humor. All she has is a strength of character which Collins describes as being a manifestation of evil, and unlike Becky she isn't the author of her own life--the actual planning of her revenge is left to Captain Wragge, with Magdalen as the mute driving force behind him. A happy ending for Magdalen, therefore, requires that she lose her one defining attribute, which is what happens when she surrenders herself to a kind man who forgives her past crimes. All told then, a rather disquieting read, despite Collins's great skill at plot and character. I think I'll have to find another Victorian to be my Dickens substitute.