Recent Reading Roundup 25
If I finish the book I'm reading right now (J.R.R. Tolkien's collection of essays The Monsters and the Critics) before the end of the month, I will have read as many books in April as I read in the three months preceding it. That's what reading holidays and volcano-induced delays will do for you. Of course, this is far too many books to give any of them an in-depth look, so here are some quick thoughts about some of them.
- Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente - Valente's latest novel, currently on the shortlist for the Hugo award, took a while to win me over. A portal fantasy in which the fantastic world (the titular city) is reached via sexual contact, with visitors to the city 'infecting' their partners and giving them access to the portion of it that is tattooed on their skin, Palimpsest revolves around four such visitors--a lonely Californian beekeeper, a New York locksmith obsessed with the death of his sister, an Italian antiques dealer infected by his wife, who leaves him soon after to fully pursue her obsession with Palimpsest, and an aimless Japanese woman--who are bound together by their simultaneous arrival in the city, and must find each other in the real world if they want to travel to it permanently. The first half of the book is understandably concerned with introducing both the characters and the reader to the city and establishing its allure, but Valente's imagery in these chapters is rife with the same writerly tics that were minor irritants in the two Orphan's Tales books and which here, when she's creating her own fantasy world rather than riffing on a familiar mythical setting, become a hindrance to the very immersion she's trying to achieve. Her imagery relies heavily on words that have exotic associations (lots of spices and herbs, for example), and these seem to have been chosen more for that evocative power than because they make sense in context or create a meaningful image. I found it hard to believe that Valente herself could picture the places she was describing, much less picture them myself.
In its second half, however, Palimpsest's focus shifts from the city itself to the characters' reactions to it, and the novel became a great deal more satisfying and involving. Valente's depiction of the main characters' growing obsession with the city, and their discovery of a Palimpsest subculture, comprising everything from support groups to sex clubs, is very well done, and the ambivalence that permeates her descriptions of the determination with which those who are infected by Palimpsest seek to rack up new locations or achieve the holy grail of emigrating to it recalls M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart and Nova Swing. Also, near the end of the novel the city itself becomes a great deal more interesting, with the various puzzle pieces laid out in the early chapters coming together into a semi-coherent history of the city (this reminded me of the similar process of piecing together the history of Ambergris that is one of the chief pleasures of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen). Though I wish that a little more had been made of the hints Valente drops near the end of the novel, that Palimpsest is a great deal less fantastic than visitors to it believe, and that its inhabitants are befuddled and exasperated by the influx of tourists looking for meaning and purpose in what to them is nothing more exotic than their home, I nevertheless found Palimpsest an intriguing and enjoyable read.
- A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel - I liked Mantel's universally lauded Wolf Hall but had some reservations with it, rooted mainly in my awareness of how she was twisting and manipulating history to suit the spin she wanted to put on it, and thought that A Place of Greater Safety, which discusses a period and individuals I know a great deal less about, might suit me better. Instead, I'm forced to contemplate the no doubt enormous skill it must take to make a story about the central events of the French Revolution tedious and soporific. In part, this is clearly a deliberate choice by Mantel, who tries to stress the fact that the famous events of the Revolution--the storming of the Bastille, the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Terror--were part of a much larger, more complicated, and less exciting sequence of events, most of which took place in committee rooms and parliaments. But there have been riveting stories told in such settings (HBO's miniseries John Adams, to name but one) and Mantel, instead of dramatizing history, chooses to focus on her protagonists'--Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins--personal lives. Instead of facing head on the fact that these three men claimed to be the enemies of tyranny and ended up erecting one, that they overthrew their government for the sake of human rights and then enabled and enacted judicial murder on a scale previously unheard of in human history, instead of trying to make recognizable and perhaps even sympathetic human beings out of such contradictions, Mantel tries to elide over these difficulties by concentrating on the characters' romances, bromances, and difficult relationships with their fathers, all of which we've seen before.
Whereas in Wolf Hall recasting Thomas Cromwell as an ordinary and sympathetic person helped to demystify him and the times he lived in, in A Place of Greater Safety a similar process of demystification renders Robespierre, Danton, and Desmoulins inert because it forces out precisely those aspects of their character that make them worth reading about. Like Wolf Hall, which cuts off just before Cromwell's political machinations take an unsavory turn (he was, for example, the architect of Anne Boleyn's false conviction for adultery and treason), A Place of Greater Safety is manipulative, expecting us to sympathize with its protagonists and dread their inevitable undoing, but though the novel's final fifty pages, in which two of the protagonists are sent to the guillotine by the third, are its best and most intense, they also foreground Mantel's manipulation in a way that Wolf Hall avoids. These men deserve to die, far more than many of the tens of thousands who have gone before them, and for whose deaths they share responsibility, and Mantel hasn't done nearly enough character work to make us regret this clearly-deserved end.
- Graceling by Kristin Cashore - the last stop on my not-exactly-whirlwind tour of 2008's most-buzzed YA novels, Graceling proved a sour note to end on. I haven't loved every single YA novel I've read in the last couple of years, but Cashore's debut is the first that truly made me wonder whether I was too old to be reading in this category. The novel's premise--it takes place in a fantasy world in which certain individuals, called the graced, are born with innate talents, and Katsa, the teenage heroine, appears to have a grace for killing--has a lot of inherent potential for drama. Katsa was not only born with a fearsome skill (expressed for the first time when she accidentally kills a visiting cousin at the age of eight) but has been exploited for it from a very young age by her uncle, the king, who uses her as his thug and enforcer while hiding behind the rumors he propagates of her cruelty and bloodlust, even as he exerts control over her every choice and movement. Its execution, however, is practically benign, downplaying much of the difficulty and horror of Katsa's situation. The worldbuilding is also much too simplistic, and often casts a shadow on the novel's plot and characters, as allegedly real people are forced to move in cardboard-thin political and social systems. Katsa, for example, has rebelled against her uncle by establishing a network of noblemen and warriors that spans several kingdoms whose purpose is to promote justice and right wrongs, but in practice it operates like a fantasy-world A-Team. Later in the novel, Katsa is stunned by the realization that she can take a lover without marrying him, which she then does with hardly any qualms or consequences, when the very fact that such a possibility had never occurred to her before would seem to suggest that she lives in a society in which extramarital sex is forbidden and punished. There are some nice notes in Graceling--as other reviewers have noted, Katsa is the epitome of the badass female heroine, and her journey over the course of the novel towards independence and self-control makes the perfect counterpoint to her innate skills; her romance with another graceling called Po is a well-sketched portrait of a relationship in which the woman is in almost every way the stronger partner, and there's an engaging sequence near the end of the novel in which Katsa and the young princess she's protecting escape their enemies by traversing an impassible mountain range in the dead of winter--but they don't quite make up for what is, on the whole, a thin and unsatisfying novel.
- The Dazzle of the Day & The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss - I've been aware of Molly Gloss since her story "Lambing Season" was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula several years ago, but this was the first time I'd read any of her novels, which range across several genres but have in common an interest with frontier living and with the small, tightly-knit, rural communities that grow on these frontiers. The Dazzle of the Day is, as far as I can tell, Gloss's only overtly SFnal novel, a family saga that takes place, for the most part, aboard a generation ship whose journey is nearly complete and whose inhabitants have to choose whether to colonize the planet they are now approaching or stay in the safety and comfort of the ship. The colonists are Quakers, and one of the chief joys of the novel is its exploration of their mores, outlooks, and social structures (though on the latter count I'm not sure how much is Gloss's invention and how much a reflection of real Quaker lifestyle). The result is a very different kind of space colonization novel, whose characters--thoughtful, reticent, introspective--are constantly questioning the choices that have brought them to this point, constantly on the verge of renouncing the plan to leave footprints on the surface of an alien planet. This is a low-key, slow novel (a little too slow, and too concerned with the minutiae of Quaker society, in its middle segments), but also beautifully written, and, in its depiction of a space-faring future that is so different from our frenetic, grasping way of life, quietly shocking.
The Hearts of Horses is a historical novel which takes place in rural Oregon near the end of the first World War. The heroine, Martha Lessen, is a young woman traveling between farms, earning her living by gentling young horses for farm work. This is the epitome of a low-key novel, told in episodic segments detailing Martha's growing acquaintance and friendship with her clients and neighbors, veering off into their stories, and spending a lot of time on the business of how to gentle a horse, with most tension and high emotion described obliquely and with a terseness that seems to suit the farmers, ranchers and cowboys who make up the novel's cast. And it is quite lovely, Gloss's spare language illuminating her characters and situations perfectly, and just as the novel's wholesomeness begins to rankle, revealing a dark undertone as she alludes to or outright describes what the characters are unaware of or ignoring--the fact that the reflexive patriotism that has swept over their community is responsible for sending young men to be slaughtered in a pointless war, the anti-German sentiments that rear their heads as a result of this patriotism, the wasteful wartime farming practices that will, in a decade's time, create the Dust Bowl effect and kick-start the Depression. Still, The Hearts of Horses is not a social or political novel. At its core it is exactly what it presents itself as--a quiet, beautifully written, moving account of life in a corner of history notable mainly for being ordinary and unremarkable.
- Pavane by Keith Roberts - the great-granddaddy of alternate history, Pavane posits a world in which Elizabeth I is assassinated shortly into her reign, causing the collapse of the English Reformation, cementing the Catholic church's grasp over all of Europe, and stymieing social, political, and technological progress for centuries. When the novel opens in the 1960s, Europe is still feudal, the ruling monarchies are still largely controlled by the church, and the standard of living for most is barely more than medieval. The novel is made up of a series of linked stories spanning several decades, which do the double duty of illuminating how Roberts's world works and charting a sea-change in it, as some force--perhaps futuristic, perhaps magical--begins moving mankind back towards democracy, humanism, and technology. The details in Pavane are nicely done and frequently disconcerting--the haulier whose trucks are dragged behind a coal-powered locomotive, the secrets and rituals of the guild of signalers, whose semaphore towers are the only means of rapid communications (one wonders whether Terry Pratchett got the idea for a similar institution in the Discworld from here).
It's on the macro level that the novel falls flat. It's hard to believe in a church that is capable, much less willing, to hold back technological progress and the geopolitical and economic boons that come with it, or in a Europe that would be prevented from pursuing these for centuries. To a modern reader, it is also particularly glaring that Roberts's future is so complete Euro-centric. One would expect non-European cultures to move into the power vacuum created by Europe's stagnation and dominate the planet as Europe did in our history, but besides a passing reference to colonies in North America, the world outside of Europe is hardly mentioned, and global history appears to proceed largely as it did in our world even absent the mechanisms that steered it in this direction. If Pavane were simply a story springing from an unlikely, even impossible premise it might still be a worthy read, but the novel's whole point is that the stagnation of Europe was necessary for humanity's survival, that the church has been colluding with beings from the future to prevent nuclear war by keeping humanity from acquiring technology it isn't yet wise enough to use. Which just brings the shortcomings of Roberts's premise into focus, not least of which his assumption that only white people can build nuclear bombs.
- Far North by Marcel Theroux - if there's any one reason to be glad that I went on this reading vacation (besides, you know, a week off, in a castle in Wales, with lots of good books, good food, and good friends) it's that it gave me the chance to read Far North, which is currently well in the running for the position of my favorite read of 2010. Theroux's novel, currently on the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist and I hope, tomorrow night, the winner, shows all those other post-apocalyptic literary science fiction novels (well, The Road) how it's done. It is narrated by Makepeace, the last inhabitant of what was once a utopian, back-to-nature settlement in the wilds of Siberia. Makepeace's parents came to Siberia hoping to divest themselves of a technological lifestyle that, they felt, was cutting them off from their humanity, but in the leaner times that have followed--the actual nature and scope of the apocalypse is never mentioned, but it involves hordes of refugees descending on the towns desperate for food, shelter, and safety--Makepeace considers this a foolish affectation. For some time the town's enforcer of law, she now find herself lonely and eager to discover whether humanity has survived and if so, in what form, and begins a years-long odyssey. It's strange to say this about a novel like this one, which posits not only the end of the civilization we know but the emergence of a brutal, uncivil one populated by religious fundamentalists and slavers, but Far North is not at all depressing. Mainly this is due to Makepeace, whose voice is brilliantly realized, and who balances her cynicism about human nature and the future of humanity with a strength of will that sees her determined to live through even the worst of her ordeals. Which isn't to say that Makepeace is superhuman or a saint. At various points in the novel she is helpless, craven, and complicit in atrocities, but she also maintains her core of self, her willingness to do the right thing if it's at all possible, and her ability to empathize and connect with others. The result is a novel that is hopeful through its hopelessness, perfectly positioned between Makepeace's twin realizations that the world is not worth living in, and that living in the world is all there is.
- Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding - the consensus on Wooding's novel seems to be that it is the least, and least deserving, of this year's Clarke nominees, but nevertheless a rollicking, fun adventure of a type we should see more often (see: Niall, Dan, Nic). I beg to differ. I agree with Dan that the genre landscape (hell, the literary landscape in general) could use more swashbuckling adventures with at least some nutritional value, but I don't think Retribution Falls, which has been universally and quite accurately described as Firefly with airships, is that book, or that the comparison with Joss Whedon's TV series does it any favors. For one thing, it just isn't that rip-roaring. It takes a lot more skill to write exciting action scenes and zingy one-liners than it does to script them, and Wooding isn't quite up to snuff. Retribution Falls is often slack, with the result that its snappy comebacks fall into place with depressing predictability, and its action scenes fail to ignite. The characters are an even more distressing affair. Especially for a novel whose point is to follow the process by which the crew of the airship Ketty Jay are transformed from a rag-tag band of outlaws and miscreants with nowhere else to go into a coherent group, Retribution Falls pays surprisingly little attention to most of its characters, allowing most of them to fade into the background while concentrating mostly on its ne'er-do-well captain, Darian Frey, who makes a greedy and short-sighted decision to accept a robbery commission that seems too good to be true, and ends up framed for murder. Two other characters, aristocrat and dark wizard on the run Grayther Crake and the Ketty Jay's newest crewmember, Jezibeth Kyte, also have points of view, but the novel is anchored by Frey and his growth into the role of captain, which is unfortunate as Frey, who has been described as a more dickish version of Mal Reynolds, is actually something much worse--he is a whiner, and rather stupid to boot, and his growth over the course of the novel just barely brings him to the baseline of functional adulthood. That Retribution Falls hinges on him thus makes it quite an unpleasant read, at no point as much as when Frey encounters two of his former lovers, both of whom are depicted as pathetic grotesques, made horrible by his betrayal of them and condemned for that fact. These depictions (and those of the Ketty Jay's two female crewmembers, who aren't, for the most part, humiliated as Frey's former lovers are, but are underdeveloped) make Retribution Falls something much more unsavory than underperforming swashbuckler with an annoying main character, and taken together these faults make for a book that I simply can't love as so many others have.
- The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness - Ness's follow-up to the intense, explosive The Knife of Never Letting Go picks up precisely where the first volume left off, with young teens Todd and Viola discovering that the sanctuary they've been seeking from the pursuing army of Mayor Prentiss, who killed all the women in Todd's town and is trying to take over the planet they live on (to which end he wants Viola, the representative of a colony ship on its way to the planet, by his side) has already fallen to him. They are separated, and, with great reluctance, end up following very different paths as they struggle to survive under enemy occupation--Todd, taken in by the mayor, becomes a collaborator; Viola, who falls in with the town's disenfranchised women, including a charismatic disgraced politician and former warrior, becomes a terrorist--and to reconnect with each other. The high-pitched intensity that made The Knife of Never Letting Go such an irresistible read is in full effect here, and because issues of gender are less prominent in this novel, the problems I had with the previous volume's handling of gender roles become less of an issue. Instead, the focus of the novel is on how anyone, male or female, can live honorably while surrounded by evil, and on the compromises that such a life forces on one's conscience. The Ask and the Answer is plagued by some of the same problems that hobbled The Knife of Never Letting Go--it is manipulative as all get out; the frenzy with which Todd and Viola cling to each other, search for each other when they're separated, and yearn for each other's presence and approval quickly becomes overbearing and repetitive; and there is a tendency to woobify Todd, to expect the reader to feel sorry for him because he feels guilty for having done terrible things, that I found off-putting. Nevertheless, this is a hell of a read and a hell of a follow-up to The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I'm quite curious to see how, and how neatly, Ness will wrap up the story in the series's concluding volume, Monsters of Men.
- The Night Watch by Sarah Waters - my love-hate relationship with Sarah Waters's bibliography continues apace. After greatly enjoying her most recent novel, The Little Stranger, I decided to give her fourth book, The Night Watch, previously ignored because of my bad experiences with her first and second books, a try, with less than stellar results. The Night Watch moves backwards in time, beginning in 1947 and skipping back to 1944 and then 1941 as it follows several characters, mostly gay men and women, in wartime and post-war London. In 1947, former ambulance driver Kay is depressed and out of sorts, lacking the purpose that rescue work once gave her life; office worker Helen's relationship with up-and-coming writer Julia is one the rocks; Helen's coworker Viv is stuck in a relationship with a married man; Viv's brother Duncan, recently released from prison for an unspecified crime, is working a dead-end job in a charity factory and spending most of his time with his elderly landlord. As the novel moves backwards in time we find out how the characters got in these situations, but the point of the exercise escapes me. There's something almost malicious in the way Waters forces her characters through the motions of trying to make a better life for themselves after she's already shown us that what lies at the end of all their paths is a quagmire. It might almost have been more bearable if the 1947 section showed the characters dead or arriving at an irrevocably tragic ending. The fact that they're all stuck, held in place mostly by their psychological hangups, makes the process of learning how they got to that point, all the while knowing that there will be no extra chapter in which we learn whether they got out of it, almost too awful to bear. Unless it's this maliciousness that Waters wants to convey, I'm not sure what she was trying to do with the novel, which is otherwise very well observed, describing war-time London and the upheavals the war creates in social roles, especially for marginalized groups like women and gay people, with evocative clarity. Like most of Waters's novels, The Night Watch is a slick piece of writing, but I didn't find it a very enjoyable read.