Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

Midway through this book, things took a sudden turn. And I loved it.

I mean, I was enjoying the book thoroughly up until then anyway. Con men in a fantasy city, getting to see people smart and fairly amoral turn the tables on the rich and powerful? If it's well-written (and this is), count me in! I love capers with a deep and abiding passion.

(Seriously, Crown Conspiracy, learn from this. Your capers were not as interesting, and your dialogue terrible. Scott Lynch knows how to do this stuff right.)

And Locke Lamora is such an engaging character! We're first introduced to him when he's a conniving child, but reckless, and creating unforeseen havoc in his wake. He is thrown out of a group of young pickpockets, and apprenticed to a mysterious thirteenth God that most of the devotees of the Twelve know nothing about - the one who protects thieves and conmen like him. We also meet his young compatriots, a pair of thoroughly lovable twins, a stocky young man who becomes Locke's closest friend, and apparently, a young woman Locke falls head over heels with. She doesn't actually appear in this book, but I have faith she'll show up at some point.

In the "present," Locke and his compatriots are immersed in an elaborate and fascinating scam of one of the richest nobles in the city. (I'd like to stress how wonderfully drawn all the Gentlemen Bastards are.) While passing themselves off as mere thieves, they work below the notice of the local crime lord, Capa Barsavi.

And then shit gets real. I was loving the deft touch, but then it suddenly took an entirely warranted darker turn, bad things happened to characters I cared about, and they kept on happening. Locke gets caught tighter and tighter in a vice, and there were points where I wasn't sure how he'd get out of it. Or who else would be left alive by the time he did.

That's what takes this to another level. This is a great story, with wonderful characters, and intriguing world that is drawn in strokes that are never heavy-handed, but which intrigued me. And it is also something more, a tale of power and revenge, of being in the worst possible position and having to find a way out, but not without great personal cost. There is violence and death and some fairly gut-roiling scenes, be warned.

So if you love capers, you'll like this book. But if you want consequences that are real and dire and urgent, you'll love this book.

I can't wait to read the next one.

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan

Sorry, guys. I know this is one of the big successes of the self-publishing fantasy biz, but wow, was it not for me. The story lagged, the dialogue was beyond wooden, most of the characters whiny and emotionally immature. It took a good couple of books after this one to get the taste of bad fantasy out of my mouth.

Let's start with the biggest problem. The dialogue. The descriptive passages are fine, but there is such a tin ear for dialogue in this book. Practically every page had something that dragged me out of the story and made me look at the page cockeyed, wondering why the hell it had been phrased in such an awkward way.

Particularly bad is his attempt to use modern English in his medieval fantasy setting. I'm not saying this can't be done. (I'm reading The Lies of Locke Lamora right now, and that is how you do it well, ladies and gentlemen.) I'm saying it's done badly here. It's awkward, and it doesn't fit the descriptive passages. It feels like someone trying far too hard to be hip.

And worse is the one character who tries to speak in self-consciously archaic English. He switches from "thee"s to "ye"s from page to page, with no internal consistency, and no thought - and often, it's the wrong word to use. Seriously, the descriptive passages are generally fine. The dialogue, blech.

The story is fine. The main characters, the robbers, are fine. (I do love a good rogue - see above re: Locke Lamora.) The royalty, though, is all far too whiny and prone to behave like they're about ten and never been in a castle before, instead of having been, you know, raised to this. I don't mind if characters are rebelling against their training, but there needs to be some proof there was this training, you know?

At any rate. Someone has killed the king and laid the blame on two of the most elite robbers in the kingdom. They are broken out of jail by the king's daughter and sent to protect the king's son and get him to a secret prison. And stuff happens along the way to uncovering the conspiracy and setting the heir on the throne.

As far as a fantasy plot goes, it's okay, but definitely not new or innovative. That might have been acceptable, if it hadn't been for that dialogue. Oi.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

It's hard to follow Middlesex. Practically anything that came from Jeffrey Eugenides' pen or computer or whatever was going to pale in comparison. And indeed, this isn't as good as Middlesex. But don't mistake that for not being good. The Marriage Plot may not reach those lofty heights, but it's still a solid read.

Madeleine is finishing university, having written her undergraduate thesis on "the marriage plot" - the Victorian/Regency novels that end in marriage, or talk about what happens after marriage. Her supervisor opines that novel writing went to shit after divorce was introduced, because if you can just leave, where's the drama in the story?

I think this book is trying to answer that question.

Leonard, Madeleine's erstwhile boyfriend, has been given a mental health diagnosis that means that he will probably struggle for the rest of his life. Does she stay with him? How? What responsibilities do each of them have to each other under the shadow of such an illness? Can you walk away? Should you? What does it mean if you do? How do you stick it out? Where do your responsibilities end?

While those two deal with those questions, the book is interspersed with sections about the third man in this triangle, Mitchell, who knew, just knew, Madeleine is the woman he's going to marry. From the first time he met her. Unfortunately, she's not that interested. So he takes off on a journey of self-discovery, and some of what he discovers are not comforting truths.

Much of this book is about immediate post-undergraduate life, and trying to find a place in the world, and dealing with adult issues without a safety net, and the ways in which you thought you were going to change the world might get sidetracked. Not every quest leads to comforting discoveries about the self. And sometimes life sucks and might continue to suck.

The book offers no easy answers to any of these issues, but I do enjoy that it raises them. It may not attain the lofty heights of achievement of Middlesex, but I'm glad I read it.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I was working in a bookstore when this book first started to be hugely popular. I have had friends who loved it practically swoon when they heard I hadn't read it. I've heard other people dismiss it out of hand. So, eventually, in absolutely no hurry, I had to check it out myself.

And the verdict? Meh. It's okay. Parts of it are interesting, but other parts (particularly the ones that are supposed to be suspenseful) are far too repetitive, and the narrative dwells on sexual violence in much more detail than I have any interesting in reading.

It is mostly a light romance, and I did enjoy that Gabaldon avoided the route of having Claire fleeing from an unhappy marriage. But you know what I enjoyed most about the book? The moments when not much of dramatic significance was happening. Or at least those moments when peril-to-life-and-limb was not the focus of attention.

The moments of jockeying for power, of the running of a castle or an estate, the quieter moments - those were the ones I enjoyed. I thought the characters were well drawn and intelligent at those moments, and I wished the book were a) shorter or b) had more of those.

Because every time the author worried that there wasn't enough tension, someone got captured by the goddamned English. I can't even count the number of times this happened. Find some other way of creating tension, or have it happen once or twice, and cut your narrative in half. Because around the time we got to the seventh or eighth capture, I was so fed up. Claire or Jamie were captured by the English and threatened with rape or actually experienced torture and rape. Over and over and over and over. And then, at the end, after the most horrific events, it gets recounted. Once. Then twice. Then thrice. And I think even a fourth time, in increasingly horrific detail, and this starts to feel like torture porn.

While I'm glad the author wanted real consequences, as opposed to the lightweight vague threats most romance novels have, I don't need to hear about it in such loving detail. I just don't.

And what was with the Geillis subplot? It seemed like there was something interesting there, but which the author decided to keep to herself instead of sharing. Without any kind of payoff, why include it? She's obviously a complex character, but we got so little in return for so many hints.

So, yeah. The political intrigue stuff was interesting, the quiet moments of life were good, the capture by the English was overused, and the details of sexual violence far, far too complete.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Is it ever not going to be problematic to have a book about a young white girl finding nurturing black mother figures in the South? It's not the book itself, necessarily, just the part where this is practically a genre unto itself, and I haven't run into any books (certainly not with the stature of this one) about the young girl in the South who is black, and her experiences. Also bothersome is that the black women are mostly there to mother the young white girl, and all of their differences tend to come down to eccentricities.

This is probably unduly harsh. The Secret Life of Bees is not a bad book - it's an easy read, it's a comfortable read, even in its portrayal of the impact of the Civil Rights movement on a small town that is interacting with it mostly through the media. It's just the overall impact of the stories authors are choosing to tell, that publishers are choosing to publish, and readers are choosing to read.

Does someone have something to recommend to me that breaks out of this mold?

Lily is the only daughter of an unloving white man. Her mother died when she was very little. She and Rosaleen, the black woman who raised her after her mother's death hit the road after an altercation between Rosaleen and the biggest racists in town. They find themselves in a small town in South Carolina, where they are both more or less adopted into the family of three black women, sisters, August, June, and May.

Lily struggles with how to tell the sisters who she really is and why she's there, as well as anger and guilt about her mother and father. Meanwhile, the sisters nurture. August takes care of the bees and takes Lily under her wing. June, a school teacher, refuses to marry the man she loves. May feels the horrors of the world far too sharply. Other black women come to their house for their own brand of syncretic worship, focusing around a statue of a Black Virgin Mary.

This book deals with some fairly difficult issues, so why do I categorize it as not particularly challenging? It deals with abuse, suicide, racism, and violence. None of those are easy topics. And yet, this book never reached out and grabbed me by the throat. It seemed to dance over these topics, not ignoring them, but not fully engaging with them either. It lacked anger, and some of these issues deserved some anger. (There were angry characters, but they were mediated by the nurturing aura of the book itself.)

I think part of the problem was that every time I picked it up, I kept pulling away from it, wondering why we so often seem to need this mediating figure of the young white woman in order to tell these stories. Wondering where the books about just August, and June, and May were. Or Rosaleen. Are they not being written? Or not published? Or am I just entirely oblivious to a bunch of books I should be reading?

Friday, 12 July 2013

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Being below the concern of alien beings is not a new science fiction theme (although it is a relatively rare one), but I've never read a book that examined the idea quite like this. Ursula K. Le Guin's foreword is right - most of the time, the people who interact with alien technology are highly skilled and educated, even if, as in Rendezvous With Rama, the aliens couldn't care less about us.

Not so in Roadside Picnic. Alien artifacts lie littered in several "Zones" along the surface of the earth (which lie, states a scientist in the book, along a line that would match up with objects being shot at a spinning object from a very great distance). The aliens who brought them have gone, leaving their refuse behind, like the remnants of a roadside picnic - hence the name of the book.

Are the artifacts there as a test of knowledge? A test of faith? Or just discarded, carelessly, with no thought for the havoc they could cause?

Because cause havoc they do. For every useful discovery, like the spacell batteries, there are gravity distortions that could crush unwary trespassers. Or, you know, hellslime. I'm pretty sure the name says it all. In addition, the children of those who get too close are likely to be born...different. And corpses start to walk. And bad luck accompanies those who try to leave.

But as dangerous as the Zones are, people go in. And most of those who dare are the Stalkers, who go in by night, not only likely to be killed by the hellslime or other unpredictable hazards, but also by guards patrolling the fence. But they go, because what they bring back could make them rich.

They are desperate, they are scared (if they're going to survive.) And some of them, such as Red, the protagonist of the story, seem to have a special affinity to the Zone and its hazards.

This book feels hollow. Not shallow, but the world that is created, through what comes across in translation as very spare prose, has hollowness at its centre. There is no moral centre. There is no social centre. Near the Zone, the Zone is the centre, and it provides little but fear and frustration. The scientists can barely ever figure out what they're looking at, and even when they make something work, they have no idea if it has any relation to the original purpose.

Humans who live near the Zone have to live face to face with, not only knowledge that they aren't alone in the universe, but the knowledge that it couldn't care less, and is suddenly and abruptly likely to bite.

Roadside Picnic is a quick read, but it's one that is likely to stay with me for a while. The world that is created comes into being in quick strokes, but remains vivid in my memory.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Young Miles by Lois McMaster Bujold

Do you know that moment when you realize you're in the hands of a master storyteller? It's relaxing, because all the tension about whether-this-will-be-a-good-book-or-not just drains out of you, and you can marinate in what's happening, confident that whatever comes will be worth the trip.

It doesn't happen often. I can't tell you what it is that tips me off. But when it does, I know I've found a new friend. And I found it in these books. Almost from the first chapter, I started to grin. Something about these books hit me in exactly the right spot, and I settled in to enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did.

I'm late coming to these books, in general, and in the group read Science Fiction Aficionadoes has been doing the last little while. I beg for leniency on the grounds that our local library is not very good at science fiction and fantasy. They didn't have the first two books that make up the story of Miles' parents, and neither did any of the local used bookstores. So I have slunk quietly into the back of the room with the third book in our read, and even though I'm late, I'm very glad to finally be here.

Because Miles as a character is just so much damn fun. Small, with brittle bones, the result of a chemical attack on his mother while she was pregnant with him, Miles is brilliant. And energetic. And insubordinate. But brilliant. And this book is an omnibus of two books and one short story covering Miles' early career. In the first, The Warrior's Apprentice, Miles washes out of military school because of his size and physical limitations, and is sent on a visit to his grandmother. How he more or less accidentally gets from there to being the admiral of a mercenary force, I'll leave it to Lois McMaster Bujold to tell you. Suffice it to say that when I read the author's afterword and got that she was making a direct reference to The Sorcerer's Apprentice and how things get out of control in that story, it made perfect sense. Each individual decision Miles makes is perfectly logical, and perhaps even necessary - but they all get him, collectively, in over his head.

The short story, "The Mountains of Mourning" is a little gem, sadder than the books, as Miles faces head-on the prejudice that has tainted his life, and in this case, has resulted in the murder of a baby whose only fault was being born with a harelip. He must dispense justice while being seen to do so, and the story treads this ground very well.

Then we get into The Vor Game, where Miles finishes military school, and is sent on a horrible first assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of Antarctica, to prove that he is capable of following orders. Of course, he ends up joining a mutiny. From there, it's an interstellar romp, as he's sent on an intelligence gathering mission, and ends up back with his mercenary forces, with the fate of the Barrayaran Emperor on the line.

But what is really special about these books is not that they are fun. They are, absolutely. I love them for their fun. But they also slip little moments of poignancy in that make them something more. I have great fun following Miles on his crazy adventures, but there are touches of pathos, of difficulty, of prejudice, considerations of honour and what it means, dark shadows of what Miles could become. And these are layered in effortlessly, in amongst the heady enjoyment I got, and both together are an intoxicating brew.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees