| Book review post for April (part 1)
||[Apr. 28th, 2008|10:05 pm]
Haven’t done one of these in a long time, so I’ve got a lot of novels to cover; I’ll do another post sometime soon.
George Meredith, One of Our Conquerors
Where do you start with this one?
Okay. The basic story: Victor Radnor is a successful businessman whose main activity, when he’s not brokering deals, arranging musical gatherings, and being proud of his daughter, is waiting for his wife to die. He married Mrs. Burman, about twenty years his senior, to get hold of her money. Then he fell in love with her young companion, Nataly, and they eloped together. Of course, the little problem of Victor’s first marriage means that they’re living together without benefit of holy matrimony. Their daughter, Nesta, has no idea she’s illegitimate—but every time Victor tries to set up their household in a socially acceptable neighborhood, the rumors find them, and Nataly is tormented by them. Now he’s built a new house, Lakelands, and Nataly is horribly worried the same thing will happen all over again, just as Nesta is being courted. Victor remains confident that Mrs. Burman will die any moment now and set them all free.
The style of this novel is tortured, possibly on purpose; Meredith wrote it when he was in his sixties and had just achieved popular success after thirty years’ hard labor as a writer and editor, and he badly wanted to say, “Take that!” to the critics who had always complained about the way he wrote. So the first sentence of the novel, describing Victor slipping on an orange peel, goes: “A gentleman, noteworthy for a lively countenance and a waistcoat to match it, crossing London Bridge at noon on a gusty April day, was almost magically detached from his conflict with the gale by some sly strip of slipperiness, abounding in that conduit of the markets, which had more or less adroitly performed the trick upon preceding passengers, and now laid this one flat amid the shuffle of feet, peaceful for the moment as the uncomplaining who have gone to Sabrina beneath the tides.” Nesta, whose nickname is Fredi, appears this way: “Upon the opening of the door, there was a cascade of muslin downstairs. His darling Fredi stood out of it, a dramatic Undine.” And so on.
Meredith is also both allusive and elusive. Most of the really important scenes take place off-stage. Blink and you’ll miss a reference to a character’s emotions or hidden problems, or possibly mistake the real thing for a metaphor. Because a large part of the novel shares Victor’s perspective on the other characters, it took me a while to realize exactly what sort of pain Nataly’s silence concealed. Meredith’s major theme is how marriages (and courtships) fall apart, because he believed men and women were both so deformed by the inequality of the sexes that they could not recognize or understand each other. And that’s what’s happening here. Do not read One of Our Conquerors for happy fun times.
I would say it’s a good novel and worth the work. But I have read fourteen Meredith novels. I am biased.
Justine Larbalestier, Magic or Madness
Reason Cansino, at fifteen years old, has spent most of her life on the run around Australia with her mother, fleeing from her evil witch of a grandmother, Esmeralda. But now her mother has gone mad, and Reason is committed to Esmeralda’s care. She quickly starts discovering that the magic her mother described as “light and mirrors” is slightly more than that.
One thing that impressed me about this book was the sense of darkness in it. Reason’s perspective is, in a way, innocent, since she’s grown up out of cities and away from most popular culture, and she’s a bit scornful of people who can’t look at a wall and immediately count how many stones it contains, or recite the Fibonacci sequence in their heads. But there are unsettling clues that keep showing up just at the moment where you think Reason’s following a false trail. The truth about the other characters is not identical with what Reason thinks, but neither is it identical with the thoughts of the two more “experienced” teenage narrators in the book, Esmeralda’s next-door-neighbor Tom and the New York runaway J.T. Magic isn’t an escape into a land full of unicorns. There are multiple prices to be paid for it. And the ending is a cliffhanger that probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but which immediately made me want to read on.
There were other things I enjoyed, too: Reason being into mathematics, and the fact that she isn’t completely white (her father was an Aborigine).
However, I also felt like there was a lot missing from the story. There’s an antagonist who’s obviously terrible, but the truth about him remains shadowy enough to dilute the fear, even when we’re in the head of J.T., who knows the most. Reason is a transparent narrator, perhaps because she’s written in first person; Tom and J.T. seem to hold back on things they really have no reason not to think about for the sake of maintaining the book’s mystery. This eventually drove me nuts. And it’s a trick that I usually like and respect when other narratives use it.
I also found it hard, at some points, to care about what happened to Reason. She’s competent and wise and street-smart, but then she gets manipulated endlessly by the people around her. And there are several long stretches of the story where the reader has knowledge Reason doesn’t, thanks to the other narrators, so it’s a process of waiting for her to catch up. That, in turn, lessens the force of her epiphanies on the reader when they do come. I really think this is a book that would have benefited from being written in just one viewpoint.
Elizabeth Bear, Dust
Set on a crippled colony ship, the Jacob’s Ladder, rotating around two stars about to explode, Dust has an awful lot of the medieval romance about it. There are literal knights (post-humans, some with wings), angels (the remnants of a superintelligent AI that broke up at some point in the distant past), courts, and peasants (people without the genetic and nanotechnological benefits the post-humans possess). The story begins with the capture of a knight named Perceval by Ariane, who virtually controls the court of Rule; Ariane cut off Perceval’s wings after she surrendered. Rien, a servant girl in Rule, is assigned to take care of Perceval until the moment Ariane is ready to consume her memories and her nanotechnology. Perceval reveals that she and Rien are half-sisters. Rien frees her, and they set off on a quest across the world.
I will say that the world is extremely cool. I don’t think it’s truly a successful attempt to blend SF and fantasy, but if you really like medieval romance, stories about generational ships, or both, Dust is worth your time. There are also a few engaging minor characters—Gavin, the blowtorch that has formed itself into the shape of a basilisk, is one—and some of the meetings between estranged characters trying to figure out how to fit into one another’s lives have a realistic awkwardness.
But from my viewpoint, Dust took three of the things I found irritating in Bear’s other novels and mixed them with two new irritating things that left me unsure why I kept reading. The first three irritations are the lack of emotional connection with the characters and everybody turning out to be related to everybody from Blood and Iron, and the convoluted, hard-to-follow politics from Carnival. The fourth is what I find to be an extremely problematic handling of sexual orientation. I literally cannot say more about that without getting into spoilers that will destroy the end of the book for you.
The fifth is a sense of randomness about some of the revelations included. At one point Rien encounters what’s apparently a revered artifact of the ship’s earlier culture. She draws her breath in awe, the scene ends, and when we return to Rien’s viewpoint, she has abandoned all thought of that artifact. The only other references to it are in a few chapter epigraphs. Its significance is never explained. Maybe it’ll be explained in the next few books of the trilogy. At the moment, it’s just a random shard of glass in the book’s stainless steel world.
If the book sounds interesting, you might want to read it. I’m completely the wrong audience for it.
Tanith Lee, A Heroine of the World
What a weird book.
No, seriously, what a weird book. This book is about Aradia, the daughter of a kingdom defeated in war. When the conquering enemy overruns her city, she’s taken as a concubine by the general who moves into her aunt’s house, and from there carried off to his northern country. Along the way, there is rape, death, pregnancy, forced marriage, constant danger, truly creepy sexual harassment, true love, and beautiful description.
I think it’s the last combined with everything else in the novel that led to the overwhelming feeling of oddness as I was reading it. A Heroine of the World is about what probably would happen to a young woman—when the story starts, Aradia is 13—caught up in war and conquest in a fantasy world where women have neither social status or something else like magic to even the scales with men. Aradia is not a trained warrior; she’s extremely naïve in the political realities of the world; she’s religious in the absolute worst way; she has recognizable trauma and depression, to the point that reading some of her sections made me want to curl up and die. So she’s a pawn for most of the narrative. She takes some actions, one at least that changes the whole course of the story, but they’re always small and don’t do much good in the short term, or sometimes in the long term either. Most of the men she meets try to victimize her. Lee is more brutal toward her heroine than Martin is toward his. If A Song of Ice and Fire makes you want to start looking for a razor blade and a nice warm bath, avoid A Heroine of the World at all costs.
But along the way, Lee is describing everything beautifully, especially the estate Aradia’s first husband owns. She actually managed to make me interested in the clothes and the makeup the female characters wear; I literally cannot remember the last time a book did that. So the horror is tucked inside glittering sentences, which don’t really muffle it but make it possible to go on reading.
This book is weird.