June 28, 2005

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss

Emotionally, City of Pearl ends with a maxim from Rouchefoucald; it's one character's interpretation of a second's hard choices as acceptably moral, even heroically moral. It's a nice yardstick to set next to the whole story in hindsight, where it would have been too didactic during the action.

The action is moved by the slow and horrible collapse of Terran governments under environmental disaster, but mostly occurs on another planet. bearing a human colony but managed by a race given to low-impact environmental absolutism (their cities are, ideally, invisible). There are other sentient species, including some cephalopods, who I'd like to hear more of.

There's some Ken McLeodism in the heroine, who is a hard-core hard-case environmental enforcer, a police officer who impresses Marines. The Cassini Division idea about "someone has to do the dirty work, so I might as well" fits her like a T-shirt.

ISBN: 0060541695

Posted by clew at 12:12 PM

June 25, 2005

Od Magic, Patricia McKillip

If you like McKillip's books, you will almost certainly like this one, because it shuffles themes and characters she's used before; I'd say this is closest to Shadows in Ombria and The Riddle-master of Hed.

Well, if you like McKillip's books, as I do, you probably don't think of her style as something as scuffed as shuffling; the pleasure is more like that in a villanelle, in which you very soon know what will happen and venture on to hear how.

Spoiler:

I wasn't convinced by the gentle ending; a tyrant changes his behavior based (mostly) on fear, but the fear is based on historical knowledge, not anything he's seen. Maybe. I didn't mind not seeing half the characters killed in resistance. I've happened across enough grim light fiction recently, for one thing, and for another McKillip doesn't make the danger seem trivial.

Worldcat doesn't seem to have it yet;

ISBN: 0441012485

Posted by clew at 05:03 PM

Dog Warrior, Wen Spencer

Not as good as the first one; has lost some originality, as an adventure story, and didn't pick up character depth to make up for it.

I didn't think the two characters who are Exactly The Same But Different made sense, really, not even the poetic sense of All Shall Be Revealed Later. Which is a pity, I had hoped that the silver purity of one of them would make a good foil.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

Posted by clew at 02:03 PM

June 23, 2005

Murder by Magic: Twenty Tales of Crime and the Supernatural, Rosemary Edgehill, ed.

Of these short stories, only "Cold Case" was both a supernatural story and a 'fair' mystery, meaning one in which the reader has clues sufficient to solve the puzzle but isn't likely to. Diane Duane didn't use much otherworldly material, and didn't overexplain it. (And it's just a neat, spine-chilling little ghost story.)

Of the rest, some are successful because they reuse the background from longer books. Debra Doyle, e.g., has much fun with pseudo-academic footnotes pointing out what she hasn't explained; she also has a classic ghost-story ending. "Doppelgangster" (Laura Resnick) lives up to its silly name. But mostly the stories were too short for the idea: so much of the 'magic' had to be explained to make the 'mystery' comprehensible that there was a constant rumble of stage-machinery coming on and off set, and no time for misdirection.

ISBN: 0446679623

Posted by clew at 11:36 PM

Cagebird, Karin Lowachee

And I hope this concludes my accidental series of grimly realistic novels of the hero's journey, because this one was so plausibly grim that I didn't finish it. When I want to be this depressed, I turn to modern history.

The hero was brought up as the slave, catamite, and protegé of a pirate captain, and the parts of the novel not set in one captivity or another are dedicated to catching and enslaving other people. He manages to be a not totally unsympathetic character, but as he seems to be a hopeless one (I didn't finish; this is not a fair review...) that only makes it more depressing. There's some learning and growing; I don't remember any acceptance or healing, nor any occasion for them.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

Posted by clew at 10:11 PM

Not Exactly the Three Musketeers, Joel Rosenberg

This is an example of the current trend of heroism with extra grime and gloom, and there's a series by this author alone with the same spin on a slew of classics. I like the titles, I didn't finish this one, I won't read more.

The prose is full of jarring errors, suggesting that it wasn't sold by the word so much as by the stopwatch. For instance, a woman described as 'unbecoming' when Rosenberg clearly means 'uncomely'.

The descriptions of the not-three-musketeers' not-heroism lag, and I'm having a hard time deciding why, especially in comparison to pointless paragraphs in The Oakdale Affair. I think it's a failing of perspective; the characters are purportedly soliloquizing to themselves about behavior they unthinkingly accept... so really they're soliloquizing to us, but they aren't that sort of character. Dunno.

Now that I think of it, The Three Musketeers in the original are fairly horrible people, but it's easier for a modern reader not to notice because they really do unthinkingly accept their cruelties. Also, of course, Dumas keeps everyone busy, having seemingly been paid by the pound.

ISBN: 0812550463

Posted by clew at 10:02 PM

The Oakdale Affair, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I guess Burroughs was a great writer, but he wasn't a good one. Everything about this early story is some degree of awful but I enjoyed the whole. The plot would fit the bad Camp Fire Girls series; the characters are stock; the subtext is lively, but probably unintentional, as no-one does anything with it; the prose suggests that the author was paid by the word:

But even the most expert of second story men nod and now that all seemed as though running on greased rails a careless elbow rakes a silver candle-stick to the floor where it crashed with a resounding din that sent cold shivers up the youth's spine and conjured in his mind a sudden onslaught of investigators from the floor below.

That's a clunky sentence as narrative, but it isn't hard to say; it's not tin-eared. Likewise, although the plot and characters are old chestnuts, they're used handily. At least, I assume they're used handily, and that a blind test would show some difference between this and a similar-plotted story by a failed G. A. Henty or a pulp writer who never wrote anything better. I don't know where the difference resides; pacing, maybe: the sentences are prolonged but the action clips along paragraph by paragraph.

It is very sad that the republisher who wrote such a laudatory preface about Burroughs could not honor him with adequate proof-reading as well as hard covers.

Project Gutenberg etext 363

Posted by clew at 09:38 PM

Howl's Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones

... speaking of the Brontës; I'm not sure whether the Miyazaki movie or the original best rings the Jane Eyre bell.

The characters don't change as much in the movie, and it certainly isn't as puzzle-box-like as the book. I missed Sophie's growing up as Jane Eyre did, although the visual variation of the spell on Sophie was terrifically clever and at least as informative as prose about it. On the other hand, the Miyazaki Howl has all the blinded romantic hero glamour; Jones' (query: Jones or Wynne Jones?) is a regular guy, although clever and likeable.

War stuff in the movie, thrillingly creepy; on the other hand, why no Wales? I was really looking forward to

  • hearing the saucepan song (in Welsh), which should sound foreign in either English or Japanese so wouldn't need translation, except
  • perhaps it would need to be translated for the Welsh version of the movie, should there be such a thing.

On the whole, I think the movie did a decent job of telling a slightly different story with pretty much the same characters, so that one can enjoy them in either order without feeling betrayed that something fundamental has been changed. The movie is prettier; the book is smarter.

Find in a Library from Worldcat

Posted by clew at 09:10 PM

June 19, 2005

The Brontës Went to Woolworths, Rachel Ferguson

This is obviously a novel about a family's use of imagination and literature, our era might say 'creativity', to ameliorate the loss of their father and associated income. Most of the Carne family interactions manage details of how the game is worked out, how a joint fantastical narrative is agreed on, how they negotiate what's in what category of reality without admitting that different categories of reality exist.

A. S. Byatt's introduction (I recommend reading it after the novel) is particularly interested in how dangerous this degree of fantasy is. I think she's thinking of the danger that the players will forget they're playing; her novel The Game, she mentions, obviously owes a lot to this. This is an evident danger, and the more seductive because the imaginary world uses the eerie as material.

Me, I was struck by the plodding predictability of the class structure of the game. The Carnes make up stories about real people, including people they know. It never occurs to them to tell a (charming, kind, successful, imaginative) comedian that he's in their game, because he has the wrong kind of relatives. At the opposite pole, they go to some effort to invite a judge and his wife into the game and make the game comfortable for them. But their governesses, who live with them, are constantly shown the game and consistently shut out of it. Governesses live an unpleasant divided existence... The Brontes, literature's champions of the governess, are the only defenders of the governess in the game; perhaps they have enough reality to overrule not only the Carnes but Ferguson herself.

From the intro in the Virago reprint I have, Ferguson was well read in her day (1920s through the 1950s) especially by professionals, or not-too-radical New Women, or decaying gentles. There are, accordingly, a fair number of old copies of her books for sale, or still in the more thorough libraries, but she seems to be just comprehensively out of print. I think The Little Professor remarks that the Virago reprints made more happiness than profit, as they were bought in ones and twos by professors of literature, but not assigned in their scores and hundreds. (Googling doesn't confirm my memory of that, although she does refer to at least one case of even a reprint being much-sought-after.) Anyhow; if you want a more thorough and scholarly view of similar and earlier novels, I recommend her summaries. I also find that just picking out the dark green Virago Modern Classics spines at the used bookstore is a good search algorithm for novels that are not actually hard to read, but not trivial; they spread over enough of the exciting history of the last century to be a gentle reminder of history, too.

Oh! I should also tip a bit to Greer Ilene Gilman, who has been recommending this for years, and whose Moonwise is soon to be reprinted, hurrah.

LCCN: PR 6011 E7 B76 1988

ISBN 0860689360

Posted by clew at 04:06 PM

June 17, 2005

Firethorn, Sarah Micklem

Triple-decker fantasy novels are increasingly often trying for realism and grittiness, for instance by a exaggeration of the Parsifal lowly childhood before heroic glory. (The Deed of Paksennarion; The Books of Ash.) Micklem goes one better; her heroine is still a camp-follower at the end of the first volume, and might remain so; and it's no fun at all.

She is a witch, and the leman of the most glorious soldier of the aristocracy, and possibly the favored pawn of a god. None of these are without their cost. Witches, in this shamanic society, half-poison themselves and have no guild; the most glorious soldier is most likely to die in battle and leave her stranded; and the gods are not convenient allies. The Hallowed Hunt and Lois McMaster Bujold's other Chalion novels talk about the harsh and glorious duty of acting in the world for divinity, but that challenge is like a kind parent's treasure hunt compared to the bafflement and lack of affection Micklem's people feel in the face of their gods. The hardware is, maybe, 8th century, CE; but the sense of Fate is more like the 8th century BCE.

Come to think of it, I think Bujold falls into wish-fulfillment characterization not of her angst-hero Miles Vorkosigan but of his parents. So universally perfect, so modestly boastful! so much unquestioning approval from their children, envious approval from their peers! And then Bujold set up a theology for her fantasy novel that's explicitly familial: the gods are a family, mortals are in that family, and the family is fundamentally fair and loving although it's too realistic to make life easy. It's locally benign, as wish-fulfillment goes. I am much more bothered by her using a similar theology in the SF novels, and using it to paper over sins of class.

Micklem's use of language is like experiments that excise all Latinate words from English, though that's not exactly what Micklen's done. She has a skewed wordlist, slightly formal, reliably vulgar, very specific; but few invented words or none.

ISBN: 0743247949

Posted by clew at 12:09 AM

June 16, 2005

Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, David Cannadine

In four words, empire gets you hats. That's the argument made by the pictures; there are some stupendous hats. (There is a Girl Genius Jagermonster joke about hats; but they couldn't outdo the real hats.)

The argument in words is more of a counter to the exploded view that the Empire was a work of virtue, incidentally profitable; and the more current view that it was a work of racism, incidentally profitable. Cannadine argues that the people in charge were reinforcing, or less successfully introducing, societies that looked like their vanishing ideal of England; theatrically hierarchical, romantically rural. They ranked a 'well-bred' foreigner well above a 'low' native Englishman. There are several telling direct quotes, my favorite being the Prince of Wales forcing the crown prince of Germany to give precedence to King Kalakaua of Hawaii. I like this best for two bitter reasons. One, it's not clear the Prince of Wales himself was expected to give precedence (as host, or merely as the more powerful?); a summary of what this politics did to all the lowly. The other is that Victoria's Daughters predisposed me to suspect Queen Victoria's family politics of snubbing Kaiser Billy into starting WWI. It's like searching through a Rube Goldberg drawing for the candle and the half-scorched string.

The details are interesting as the background to Victorian literature, economy, and politics; for the scale and wealth of the British Raj; for hints at how this reified fantasy of pre-Industrial pageantry damped the fires of Industry's imposition. It's easy to scorn the stiff people painted in their funny hats, and quoted saying such rude things, but I was uncomfortably convinced that triple-decker fantasy sagas are the popular descendants of the Durbar pageant and the Kenya villa.

I would have liked much more explanation of why the English masses went along; they clearly didn't like many of the effects on their position. Seduced by tea and sugar, weakened by wage competition? Not powerful enough to do anything anyway? Everyone who really objected moved to a Commonwealth country and subjugated the natives? Some of each?

I greatly liked the final Recessional third about the limitations of Carradine's own interpretation, and the end of the empire, and the incomplete view of it all he had as a child.

ISBN: 0195146603

Posted by clew at 11:29 PM

Market Forces, Richard K. Morgan

I think this is an expansion of a Harlan Ellison story from the '70s or thereabouts. In the Ellison story, lethal driving was a matter of personal duelling, with race/class undertones; in Market Forces it is the approved field of competition for salarymen (and salarywomen). There's room for commentary on how all the violence flows downhill into poorer countries, while the money flows back up, but it's really a story about one man near the top of the system.

The protagonist starts as the most moral company man, but is seduced into the popular justifications; seduced largely by his own skill at winning, though his competitors and bosses try all the other seductions too. It's a violent novel, and gloomy, and is probably meant to become a movie, which I won't be tempted to see.

ISBN: 0345457749

Posted by clew at 11:05 PM

June 15, 2005

Crucible, Nancy Kress

When I imagined writing a space-opera based on Alcibiades' career I was always looking at him from Athens' point of view: the desirable scandalous youth, rumors in absence, the return. Kress gives us the eyes of the innocent colony he descends upon. He rips them right apart; they have no immunity to rhetoric, let alone betrayal.

History is an overt theme. The colony remembers very little about Earth except that everything had gone disastrously wrong; they have intentionally ignored history, believing it irrelevant. (Clearly, not; the memory should have made them wary.) By the end of the story, they have probably made themselves unique among human settlements, and past knowledge is less relevant to them. They regret having ignored the past, but I can imagine Kress going on and showing that they become so different they can't understand it.

ISBN: 0765306883

Posted by clew at 05:17 PM

June 04, 2005

Gryll Grange, Thomas Love Peacock

This is an even more straightforward country-house romance than Crotchet Castle, with even more occasions for remarkably comfortable men to sniff at the foolish changes made by 'improvers', principally the idea of advancement by examination; they do huff very effectively at the idea that passing an exam in Greek makes a good engineer, but they rather pass over the system, if any, previously used to promote engineers. On the other hand, it maps so perfectly to the same kind of political argument now that it was still a bit funny.

There's a sort of Bunthorpe who is so in love with the abstract ideal of Womanhood that his household is run by seven well-educated but working-class sisters, who have half the building to themselves and do all the work in pairs to avert cruel gossip. They all marry local rustic suitors, in a ninefold wedding with the two gentry couples. Perhaps this was meant to provide comic relief or a choral effect, but they hardly get to speak.

One delightful bit of material history:

Twelfth-night was the night of the ball. [...] The carpets had been taken up, and the floors were painted with forms in chalk by skillful artists...

And Peacock footnotes that with a quotation from Wordsworth using the metaphor "like Forms with chalk/Painted on rich men's floors". Slippery to dance on, I wonder, or like rosin? How much would it cut into varnish? Hmmm...

Peacock, Thomas Love. Gryll Grange. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1896.

Posted by clew at 10:18 PM

The Queen's Necklace, Teresa Edgerton

The title is an accurate hint that this is another Dumas homage. It's slowed down in its opening third by needing to explain much of Edgerton's clockwork-complicated world, but it gains speed and dash as it goes on. I thought it had all the charms of Edgerton's The Gnome's Engine, for instance, and a lot more excitement.

The politics and fashion feel a bit later than the Musketeers' setting, and perhaps a bit more Germanic. The states are small, there is more urban immiseration than rural (or swashbucklers don't plot in the turnip-fields), and the clockwork (though putatively the legacy of a decayed magic) follows the fashion of the late 18th century. This is style, not plot, though; the trends we think of as arising with the Enlightenment aren't important here. They are more used in Gnome's..., which might be why it's more tasteful and slow.

ISBN: 0380789116

Posted by clew at 09:28 PM
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