Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 26

Looking over this list, I see that it creates a distinctly underwhelming impression of my recent reading--even the one book I really liked proved less impressive in hindsight.  That's not actually an accurate picture, because there's a whole pile of books that I'm planning to write about in the near future that I've been very pleased with.  But for the time being, here are some books I wasn't too crazy about.
  1. The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers - This is only the second Powers I've read, and the first, The Anubis Gates, was more than a decade ago and thus one of my earliest forays into non-Tolkienian fantasy.  That, and the fact that The Anubis Gates is a fantastic book with a twisty time travel plot that is a joy to unravel, created some high expectations from Powers, which I thought this novel, in which the Romantic poets turn out to be entangled in relationships that are one part abusive, one part addictive with vampires who fuel their creativity and feed on their, and their families', lives, would easily fulfill.  Not so, however--where The Anubis Gates's plot is twisty but, ultimately, impeccably structured, The Stress of Her Regard is a floppy, maybe even flabby book, overpopulated and unfocused.  Powers introduces some interesting twists to the vampire mythology, even suggesting a strange sfnal explanation for their existence and bringing in such esoteric subjects as quantum mechanics to the heroes' struggle to escape their lovers/tormentors' attentions, but it's too much mythology for a novel as centerless as this one is.  I was more than halfway into the book before I really understood the rules of how its vampires worked, and even then Powers kept piling complications, provisos, and special cases onto those rules.  The novel's characters and their predicament, meanwhile, are nowhere near interesting or appealing enough to make puzzling out this mythology worthwhile.  The poets who turn out to be victims of the vampires--Byron, Shelley, Keats--are all on the nondescript side.  Powers is more interested in them as examples of the dissipated, doomed Romantic lifestyle than as artists and innovators (which was particularly hard to swallow in Keats's case given that the version of him presented in the movie Bright Star, where he is intelligent, driven, and serious about his poetry, is still vivid in my memory), but it takes writerly flare to create characters who are as mad, bad, and dangerous to know as the Romantics supposedly were, and Powers doesn't wield it in this novel.  The poets thus become a little dull, and sadly they are not overshadowed by the novel's fictional hero, Michael Crawford.  Powers deliberately constructs him as something of a loser, tormented by his many failures even before coming to a vampire's attentions, but he does too good a job, because Crawford just isn't a very interesting character even when he overcomes his self-doubt and starts kicking vampire ass, and the romance he develops in the second half of the book, which drives his final confrontation with the vampires, is unpersuasive (it doesn't help that I have a sneaking suspicion that the novel would have been a great deal more interesting had it been told entirely from the point of view of his love interest).  It's possible that The Stress of Her Regard is a lesser work best left to Powers enthusiasts, or maybe my recollections of The Anubis Gates are a little too rose-tinted.  I'm certainly a bit afraid to revisit it now, or to take another stab at Powers's bibliography.

  2. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche - Marche's novel has an innovative concept that I found both exhilarating and worrisome.  The book is presented as an anthology of short stories from the fictional North Atlantic island nation of Sanjania, moving chronologically through folk tales, religious fiction, and pulp-style adventure stories to the more modern form of the short story, even as the nation undergoes the traditional hardships of a former colony, passing from colonial rule through more and less successful efforts at democracy and self-government.  It's a fantastically original and instantly appealing concept, but at the same time a self-defeating one.  The stories in Shining at the Bottom of the Sea are not the point of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.  Though Marche is a persuasive ventriloquist with a wide range of styles at his disposal (the blurbs on the cover compare him to David Mitchell, and though that's probably going too far the two are certainly in the same ballpark), to read any of the stories as short fiction in its own right is to miss the point of the book, which is the cumulative image they form of Sanjania.  But unlike a fantastic novel taking the same tack (the most obvious comparison that comes to mind is City of Saints and Madmen) the Sanjania that Shining at the Bottom of the Sea creates isn't a creation in its own right either.  Its purpose is to mirror reality, almost to the point of slavishness, and certainly to the point where any sense of unique Sanjanian-ness is lost amongst the real-world parallels.  So that Shining at the Bottom of the Sea is almost an empty novel, an impressive achievement whose point escapes me--it certainly doesn't say anything about colonialism and the recovery from it that other, more traditional novels haven't already said.  It's an enjoyable reading experience, both because of the audacity of Marche's experiment and because of his success at it, but leaves very little residue behind itself.

  3. His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik - Novik's bestselling, mega-successful series is by now on its sixth installment and I've only just gotten around to reading the first.  Can't say that I regret the delay, but then I wasn't expecting to, and in fact His Majesty's Dragon delivered exactly what I thought it would--it is charming, very readable, a great deal of fun, and extremely lightweight.  What I wasn't expecting was just how much the novel would downplay the adventurous aspect of its alternate universe, in which the Napoleonic Wars are fought from the air on dragon-back, in favor of a comedy of manners that morphs, in the novel's long center segment, into the classic boarding school story, complete with the protagonist, Will Laurence, a naval captain who is drafted into the dragon corps when he imprints on a newly-hatched dragon captured by his ship, turning out to be preternaturally talented at his new role and being resented by the school's mean kids for outsider status and talent, only to be finally accepted by them as the bestest dragon-rider to ever ride a dragon.  A cross, in other words, between Harry Potter and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonsinger, but one in which the dragon character, Temeraire, is as appealing and vividly drawn as the lead, and in which the relationship between them is sweetly devoted to the point of being almost romantic.  No wonder this book was such a runaway success--it rings nearly every one of fandom's bells, and quite nicely too--though I suspect that later books in the series move away from the school setting and spend more time on aerial battles, which in His Majesty's Dragon are almost an afterthought (the climactic one is won by Temeraire suddenly demonstrating a previously unknown ability that demolishes the enemy forces).  Not that I'm in any hurry to have those suspicions confirmed--I'm not sorry I read His Majesty's Dragon, but having seen what all the fuss is about I think I can give the rest of the series a pass.

  4. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James - I'm not quite sure what to say about this novel.  When I read it a month ago I thought it was one of the most wrenching, overwhelming pieces of fiction I'd read in a long time, and a sure contender for best book of the year.  But only a few weeks after finishing it, I find that it's left almost no residue in my mind--I had to struggle, when sitting down to write this post, to recall its main plot points and characters.  That's a damning testimonial that I'm almost certain The Book of Night Women doesn't deserve.  I have no idea why it slipped from my mind so easily, and it could simply be that it's been a busy few weeks and that other subjects have occupied me.  Nevertheless, I can't recommend this book as wholeheartedly as intended to right after I finished it.  That said, this is still a magnificent novel, telling the story of Lilith, a slave in a Jamaican sugar plantation in the late 18th century who becomes entangled with her master's family situation and with a plot on the part of the plantation's slave women to foment rebellion.  James narrates the novel in the slaves' patois, which is initially a jarring choice that makes the novel's early chapters a challenging read, but which soon comes to suit, and amplify, its angry, visceral tone.  The Book of Night Women is suffused with anger and hate--of the slaves towards their masters, whose every cruelty is described with grueling detail; of the masters towards their slaves, whom they resent for not being the docile animals they want them to be; of women towards men, who, black or white, exploit the advantages of their gender in horrific ways.  In the middle of all of this is Lilith, raised in relative privilege due to her mixed-race background, but still prey to the dangers that threaten the life, well-being, and sanity of a female slave.  She's a fascinating and infuriating character, at once vulnerable and terrifyingly powerful, intelligent and deliberately ignorant, proud and self-hating.  Over the course of the novel she confronts the horrors of powerlessness, and the arguably greater horrors of exercising power over others, and struggles to reconcile her feelings towards the masters and overseers, who treat her with a combination of disdain, lust, and occasionally love (which she finds hardest of all to deal with), and towards the rebel slave women, who try to recruit her to their cause and bump up against her vanity and pride, but whom she also admires for their ability to find and occupy positions of power on the plantation.  These are all, of course, terrifically complicated questions with no real answer, and inasmuch as Lilith can be said to grow, it is into the realization that she doesn't know how to live well--happily, honestly, and honorably--as a slave.  Add to this James's rich, almost overpowering descriptions of Jamaican plantation life, of the heat and hard work and suffering that the slaves (and occasionally the masters) endure, and you get a novel that is almost too much to process.  Which may be why I couldn't quite hang onto it, or maybe it's because beneath his impressive presentation James is saying familiar things about the corrupting influence of slavery, violence, and hatred.  That doesn't mean those things aren't worth saying again, or that The Book of Night Women isn't worth reading.

  5. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock - This is one of the foundation works of the English fantastic, and as so often happens with these milestone books I find myself more impressed than won over.  Steven Huxley makes a reluctant homecoming from France, where he's been recovering from a war wound, after his distant, emotionally abusive father's death.  He discovers his brother Christian immersed in an obsession with nearby Ryhope Forest, the same obsession that consumed their father.  From Christian, Steven learns that the forest is a breeding ground for 'mythagos'--living, breathing manifestations of the communal myths of the various tribes and nations that have lived in England over the millennia.  One of these is a woman called Guiwenneth, whom both Christian and his father fell in love with.  After Christian leaves to look for her in the forest, Steven ventures in and creates his own version of Guiwenneth, with whom he also falls in love, and when Christian returns and kidnaps her, Steven must follow him into the depths of the forest.  The descriptions of Ryhope Forest, as a completely wild place in the middle of civilization, whose inside is bigger than its outside and contains living remnants of England's history, is well done, but the characters are not very persuasive.  The biggest problem is Guiwenneth and the plot's focus on her romance with Steven.  The very fact that all three Huxley men fall in love with this woman suggests that something ineffable, probably magical, is at work, and in his descriptions of their courtship Holdstock doesn't do much to dispel the impression that Steven doesn't so much fall in love with Guiwenneth as fall under her spell, and that Guiwenneth may have been made to love him (she is, after all, a manifestation of English racial memory activated by his presence in the forest).  So it's hard to become involved in Steven's frantic search for her, and though the novel picks up whenever the narrative gets out of his Guiwenneth-obsessed head, and especially when he encounters ancient tribes in the forest who tell him their myths and legends, these instances are relatively uncommon compared to the love story, which leaves Mythago Wood a rather uninvolving work as far as I'm concerned.

  6. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford - NYRB Classics has always been a terrific series, but their releases over the last year or so seem to have been calculated to appeal to my tastes and interests (and a lot of them have shown up in older, dog-eared editions at my used bookseller, which is how I came to read The Mountain Lion several weeks before the NYRB edition is due to be released).  In addition to The Mountain Lion, I've flagged Tove Jansson's The True Deceiver, Frans G. Bentsson's The Long Ships, and any one of the three short story collections by Mavis Gallant.  Unfortunately, my first foray has proved a bit of a dud.  The Mountain Lion, a short and lyrical novel about a brother and sister in the who come to stay at their uncle's Colorado ranch in the 1920s, has some fine qualities.  Stafford's writing is lucid and beautiful, and she gets right in the heads of siblings Ralph and Molly, who don't quite fit in at home where their mother aims to raise them, as she has their older sisters, to be a gentleman and a lady, and to think of manners and politeness as the highest ideal.  Ralph and Molly, however, are rambunctious, adventurous children, and are drawn to their mother's stepfather, an uncouth, uneducated rancher whom she barely tolerates.  When their grandfather dies his son invites them to stay with him in Colorado, but the ranch doesn't proved to be the home they've always wanted.  It's too wild and too scary for children raised, however unwillingly, in a genteel environment, and for Molly, at least, the barrier of her gender proves insurmountable, which drives a wedge between the siblings, who up until that point have only had one another.  This is a promising story, but Stafford takes it in uninteresting directions--she makes the focal point of the schism between the children their shared horror of adulthood and of sexuality, which Ralph begins to question when his own sexual maturation begins.  This turns The Mountain Lion into yet another story about children who don't want to grow up because the adult world seems so crude and messy to them, and populated with so many unbearable people, which I think has been done more than enough (though in all fairness to Stafford her version, published in 1947, predates the canonical entry in this subgenre, The Catcher in the Rye).  It also forces Stafford in the direction of an unnecessarily melodramatic ending for Molly, who is too strong and too disgusted with adulthood to make the compromises with it that Ralph does.  One senses that there is something slightly autobiographical in the character of Molly, a bright, talented aspiring writer who is frustrated and furious at the realization that she has no home and no one who truly appreciates her, and it's therefore understandable that Stafford should have wanted to give her an ending that is grandly tragic without forcing her to compromise her principles, but a more interesting novel, I think, could have been written about that compromise.

11 comments:

Chuk said...

I would say that The Stress of Her Regard is definitely the weakest of Powers' books. (I haven't read Dinner at Deviant's Palace, but all his other work is better.)

Don't give up on him just yet, especially not without reading Declare.

I agree with your statements about the Temeraire book -- I like them, but they're definitely lightweight. I'm still following them but they are enjoyable rather than impressive.

Katherine said...

Some friends of mine really enjoyed the Temeraire series, and I tried to join in -- but after having enjoyed the first volume well enough, I found the second dull with intermittently fun parts, and the third almost unreadable. I got 200 pages into Black Powder War before admitting to myself that I wasn't enjoying it.

N. K. Jemisin said...

Actually, I'd recommend continuing with the Temeraire series. It veers farther from the fannish buttons and goes deeper into things I'm not interested in as the series progresses, but these are things which you've said you prefer: there's much greater emphasis on naval, ground, and aerial tactics, for example, and on the darker sides of war, like germ warfare. (The European dragons get a kind of draconic smallpox from the Americas, which I thought was a nice ironic touch.) And there's more of what does interest me -- examinations of how having a second sentient species on the planet will change things like colonialism (in short, European imperialism fails in this world because the native peoples of prospective colonies, like the Americas, have their own dragons to fight for them), etc. The series does threaten to replace human struggles with draconic at times -- e.g., Temeraire realizes after book 3 or so that the dragons in England are slaves, and begins agitating for freedom; this almost obscures the fact that *human* slavery still exists in this world (though to a much lesser degree than our own). But Novik generally steers clear of Failrocks in this regard, so I'm still an enthusiastic reader.

Dave said...

I'd also say that The Stress of Her Regard is the weakest Powers I've read. I would recommend that you at least give On Stranger Tides a read.

I'm enjoying the Novik series, although I also found books 2 and 3 a bit of a slog--as she's moved away from the Napoleonic stuff I've gotten much more interested to see the impact dragons have had on the wider world, as Nora mentions.

-Peder said...

Let me join the chorus telling you that it's too early to abandon Powers. My suggestion is for one of his earlier ones, 'Drawing of the Dark'.

Raz Greenberg said...

I didn't read "The Stress of Her Regard", but I pretty much agree about Powers - I loved "The Anubis Gates" but his other two books I read - "Drawing of the Dark" and "Last Call" just failed to impress me ("Last Call", in particular, was such a big snooze). I'm still somewhat curious about "On Stranger Tides", since it is the book that inspired the famous "Monkey Island" series of computer games. I'll get to reading it, someday.

I liked "His Majesty's Dragon" too, though like you, I'm in no hurry to move on to the sequels. I was disappointed that Novik didn't really explore the more radical possibilities of her alternate history, but I guess that's too much to expect from a book that doesn't pretend to be anything other than pure entertainment. She could, however, spice up things a little bit - her protagonist (not the dragon, the other one) spent many years at sea, on a ship, and I'm supposed to believe that he remained a perfect gentleman who doesn't curse even once throughout the entire book?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I thought On Stranger Tides was the book that the next Pirates of the Caribbean film was going to be based on? Could be both, I suppose, depending on how loose the adaptation/inspiration is.

SF Strangelove said...

Yes, the next Pirates of the Caribbean film is supposedly based in part on Powers' novel On Stranger Tides. No, it isn't one of his better novels.

I agree with Chuk, don't give up on Powers without reading Declare. It doesn't have the manic, gonzo energy of The Anubis Gates, but in its more measured, stately way it is a much more satisfying reading experience. It is a several-course meal of fascinating spy-craft, Kim Philby, the Middle East, and the supernatural.

Tamara said...

I think the Temeraire series gets better as it goes on too. #1 veers too close to cuteness, (I think #2 is the weakest though) but things get both grimmer and more complicated moving on, with the introduction of new characters that help flesh out Lawrence and a failry sharp move away from any episodic structure. The series never exactly becomes "gritty", but the more measured portrayal violence I thought served the novels quite well in fleshing out the times.

GenjiandProust said...

I've been following Powers since... hmmm. Drawing of the Dark, and Stress is definitely a minor, minor work. Declare is quite good, and Last Call is his first book where he successfully moved the plot back and forth between characters so his typical "3rd Quarter sees the Hero suffer reverses" pattern doesn't also lead to a desperately anemic 3rd quarter in the novel.

ecbatan said...

By all accounts the next PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie will be based only very loosely on ON STRANGER TIDES -- Powers has ironically conceded this, and seems happy to cash the checks -- and why not!

I love THE ANUBIS GATES almost without reservations (though as GenjiandProust suggests, there are longeurs round about the 3rd quarter), but the rest of Powers, though usually at least interesting, doesn't live up to it. DECLARE is probably the best, though I retain a great fondness for his first novel, admittedly nothing great, a Laser original, THE SKIES DISCROWNED. (Powers rewrote that as FORSAKE THE SKY -- my feeling is that the rewrite is undoubtedly better written, but I found it less fun.)

As for TEMERAIRE, what everyone says. It begins very engagingly, and very lightweight. But the later volumes, which more and more suggest further disconnection with our world, are getting a bit deeper and more interesting.

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