Monday, 29 October 2018

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay writes marvellously. That can be pretty much taken as a given. He's one of the few authors where I think I've actually read all his extant novels. So then it becomes less a question of "is this a good book?" than "how does this stack up against his other books." He's created his own style in such a way that I have few good comparisons other than to his other work. No one else writes quite like this - almost historical fiction, but not. Taking religious and magical beliefs seriously and as written when going into a certain time period and location of the world. I love that he does it.

Which means that when it comes to Children of Earth and Sky, I'm asking myself how it stacks up. It is in the same general part of the world as the Sarantine Mosaic, or not that far off, and the fall of Sarantium happened within living memory. Those are not his favourite books of mine. While they have moments as crystalline and perfect as any he's written, on the whole, I haven't found them as compelling as, say, the couple he's written in his not-China over the past few years.

However, while I'm not sure this ranks up there with my very, very favourite of Kay's works, it's really very good, and I was always thoroughly engaged while reading it. I am a fan of the way he's been playing with authorship and history, different ways of recounting and remembering events in many of his recent books, and he's at it again here, but it's subtle in a way that I really appreciated. There are a few times we see the same event through different eyes, and the accounts are different, the words one person remembers speaking not quite the same as the words another person remembers hearing. It's not overdone, but brings an interesting sense of Brechtian alienation to the narrative, calling to attention the subjective nature of the novel and the narrator as the story unfolds.

Where are we in this version of not-quite-our-world?  Well, we're partially in not-Venice and not-what-will-become-Croatia, and this world's analogue of real, historical pirates from Croatia who started out attacking Muslim ships in the Adriatic, but also weren't above going after Christian ships as well, particularly from those cities that traded freely without worrying about religious affiliation. We also visit the home of the not-Ottoman Empire in the time after the conquest of Sarantium, when an artist from not-Venice is sent to paint a picture of the Emperor in the not-Venetian style.

(I honestly don't know whether or not to dump all the book names on you, or keep referring to them as not-whatevers, because this is so strongly but not entirely rooted in the history and geography of the time period.)

As is fairly common in a Kay book, we are in and among a large group of characters - a Seressinian painter on the way to the Ottoman Empire. A young woman posing as a doctor's wife who is actually a spy for Seressa. A merchant son from not-Croatia (I just don't remember the name of the top of my head.) Another young woman, the first ever to sail with the Senjan raiders. Others, who interweave with them. The young woman from Senjan has the ghost of her grandfather in her head, and that is not metaphorical or illness.

These people all come together first on the ship of the merchant son, when it is attacked by Senjani raiders. Things go very wrong, very quickly, and then action is arrested, twice, by unexpected developments. When it is over, all four travel with others to the merchant son's city, to find out what happens when their worlds are upended.

Oh goodness, how much more of the plot do I want to go into? These paths diverge and converge, there are machinations galore, there are moments of affection and moments of duty and moments where one makes the other impossible. There are really great bits, and as a whole, this is a very strong book. Perhaps not quite reaching the lofty heights of Under Heaven, which is still my favourite of Kay's recent works. But it was well worth reading this new chapter in his not-Our World.

Monday, 22 October 2018

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It has been a few weeks since I finished The Goldfinch, and that is not going to help in this review. I sat down and wrote a review yesterday in which the length of time was no issue, but I'm finding that this particular book is fading in my mind. That's what happens when you go on vacation with five book reviews backed up, and no real drive to write them instead of visiting friends and relaxing and doing some cross-stitching. Some books stay vivid, some start to fade.

The thing is, I enjoyed every minute of The Goldfinch while I was reading it, yet when I wasn't and had time to think about it, the less and less I felt like I liked it. The writing is good, and enjoyable, but when you stop and ruminate, not that much happens, or at least, not that much in which the main character is actually involved. And this is a huge doorstop of a book. Good writing is great, but as far as plot and character go, it gets a little rockier.

Does that make it like certain paintings? Great up close, but not so great from a distance? Or am I reaching for a metaphor to suit the plot?

This is another Donna Tartt book about the world of the rich, or rather, the outsider in the world of the rich, who is there, but not of, who doesn't have a lot of money, who is desperate to stay there, but keenly aware of the vulnerability of his position. She's good at this, and it's interesting. But it also feels a bit repetitive.

The main character is in his early teens when his mother dies in a terrorist attack on a museum of art in New York City. (I haven't retained the name of which museum.)  He was there too, and woke up after the explosions to find a world of bodies and dust, where an old man was dying. He shared the last moments of that man's life, gave him water, and was given a painting that apparently the old man had taken off the wall. Before the explosion, presumably, because he didn't seem able to move afterwards.

As Theo learns to live without his mother, first with the wealthy family of a school friend, then with his con artist/gambler dad and dad's girlfriend. He makes a friend in Las Vegas, a Russian boy  named Boris, with an abusive, mostly-absent father, and they do a lot of drugs together. Actually, after this point, you can pretty much just assume that Theo is probably doing a lot of drugs. Then his father dies, and he runs away from home so he can't be placed in the foster care system.

He makes his way back to New York City, a place that is practically a character here, and eventually, to the home and shop and workshop of the business partner of the old man who gave him the Goldfinch painting that he's been hiding since the attacks that killed his mother. The business partner is terrible at business, a kind, gentle man who makes and restores beautiful furniture. Theo lives with him, eating his heart out about the granddaughter of the dead old man, who was also present in the museum at the time of the explosions. She and Theo are both scarred mentally, but she also carries physical scars.

Theo also reintegrates into the sphere of the wealthy family he stayed with in the immediate aftermath of his mother's death, putting him closer to the world of the wealthy, while always feeling slightly insecure himself. And this is all interesting, really it is, but it's all wrapped in a bookend of an art heist gone wrong, of big things happening that...do happen, but Theo doesn't have much to do with them. In a meditative tome on loss and insecurity and trauma, do the parts with guns really add much? I mean, they do bring Boris back in, and he's an interesting character, but overall I'm not convinced they add to the narrative, which may point to there being something off about how it is structured.

This book is made up of very short chapters, but it doesn't move quickly. It lingers, and the lingering could work, I think, does work in some ways. But the juxtaposition with blood and guns doesn't do the book any favours. It's such a small part of the narrative, so little of what's going on, and when the ending does arrive, it's not as satisfying as the process of reading was.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Tower of Glass by Robert Silverberg

I've made my position on how or whether authors and what you know of them belong in a review perfectly clear, on Goodreads, and copied here on this blog. It's a point people still try to argue on the Goodreads version, although I gave up responding a long time ago - I think through that and a bunch of responses, I've done my part to explain clearly, why I do think that it is perfectly acceptable, even necessary, to bring what you know of an author into a review, at least the kind of reviews that I write.

Because when I sit down, I'm trying to capture something of what the experience of reading was, and the me I brought to the book is not irrelevant. And if that me I brought to the book had knowledge of the author that changed what I made of it, it's disingenuous to pretend that I didn't. I am not a neutral medium who reads books. I'm a complex human, with prior knowledge. It might mean I'm inclined to like an author, or inclined to be a bit cynical when I read. By bringing up authors and their behaviour, I'm trying to be transparent about my experience reading the book, instead of hiding it.

Which is to say, I'm a little jaundiced about Robert Silverberg right now. He felt the need to take N.K. Jemisin to task for addressing the racism she and other Black authors have experienced when they try to be present in SF/F spaces. Apparently he thought that doing this while accepting a Hugo was graceless and playing identity politics, to identify racism and give it the middle finger. Well, that's pretty damn graceless right there, not to mention how much it downplays Jemisin's achievements in winning three extraordinarily well-deserved Hugos in a row, for all three volumes of a stunning trilogy.

So, I can't pretend I don't bring that baggage with me when I read Tower of Glass. I was grumpy, and expected to be grumpier. But I do find it worthwhile to read old science fiction, even when there are things about it that grate on me. I'm a historian at heart, and I want to understand where we came from, and what led to what. No one has any obligation to read old SF, but I find it fascinating, particularly when I've read enough to start noticing patterns, common themes, ways in which authors were building on or responding to each other.

So take into account that I'm not inclined to give Silverberg too much benefit of the doubt when I say that...actually, this one is still pretty good. Not great, absolutely, and there are definitely some weird undertones I'd like to talk about with my historian hat on, historical signifiers of racial and ethnic difference, but on the whole, this is quite interesting and not overtly bothersome.

I mean, yes, as with a lot of Silverberg, we have the oversexed woman and the more virginal one, and that got even ickier with the introduction of a man lusting after his pure white daughter-in-law. It's such a minor part of the book, but it definitely was a moment of "what the hell?" Were I writing my "old SF" series at the moment, where I really pull apart how things are written, I'd go to town, but this is only partially that, and I don't have the time to do that deep a dive at the moment.

Let's get to what it does well, though, before I go back to what is maybe not so great. The world the characters live in is a future, but not far future. Creating vat-grown humans is a big business, and these androids (they have no mechanical features I remember) do not have full human rights. They are indentured employees or slaves, and as the natural-born population has fallen, the android population has risen.

The main character, Krug, is a rather loutish businessman who created the process by which androids are made, so he is very rich, and very powerful. He's using that money and influence to have many of his androids build the eponymous Tower of Glass, a very thinly-veiled Tower of Babylon parallel. It's built on permafrost, and his eventual plan is to use it to quickly send a message in response to an alien signal that has come in, instead of taking a slower route by which he would not be alive to see the results.

While he's not careless of android life (androids are expensive), he also doesn't consider them fully human. Which is, funnily enough, a problem, not least because the androids have developed their own religion in secret, and one of their core values is that their creator, Krug, will someday emancipate them. Other androids are working on political avenues for emancipation, which is interesting, but I'm not sure the clear division (religion or politics) really works - many people have combined the two!

His right-hand android is a high priest of the android faith, and works to convert first Krug's son, who is having an affair with a beautiful alpha (the androids are divided into races of alpha, beta, and gamma - more about that in a minute.) The female alpha shows Manuel the android world and the religion, and he mostly but not entirely recoils from it. He flirts with taking up the cause of android freedom, but that's half thinking with his dick, and half wanting to find a good way to rebel against his father.

Of course, eventually the androids find out that Krug thinks of them as possessions, not children, and the religion is shaken and a revolution begins. Guess what happens to the monstrously tall tower? No, go on, guess!  (Okay, that sounds snarky, but it is really a pretty good book.)

So, let's go on to the section about how signifiers of race are layered in here. And the question becomes, is it done well? Uh...not really. Silverberg relies strongly on oblique references to race that conflate high intelligence with low sex drive (think of stereotypical historical depictions of Asian men) and low intelligence with high sex drive (that horrible stereotype of black men). And women who are either virginal and pure or all about the sex, all the time.

But it was an offhanded reference that got to me the most. When Silverberg shows Manuel exploring Android Town, we see him encountering not only the very intelligent alphas, but also some betas, and notably, a lot of drunken, carousing, sexing, drug-addicted gammas. Skin colour isn't matched the same way (I think alphas are red? I don't remember what the others are), but there are class as tied to race delineations going on in this created species.

And then there's the mention of how the smell of garlic permeates the android quarter, which today may sound relatively innocuous.  Garlic has a very long history of being a signifier of foreignness, particularly when dislike of the smell is directed at Italian immigrants, who occupied the space we mark as "white" only recently. If you remember that the Ford Motor Company used to send home visitors to the houses of their employees suggesting ways in which they could live more American lives, then think of the part where one of the major "suggestions" made to Italian women was to cook with less garlic.

Of course, I'm making a lot of only a few short passages. But they're indicative passages, and if you have studied how stereotypes are both developed and disguised, Silverberg uses a lot of these to split the androids into three races that hearken back to strong stereotypes of the 19th and 20th centuries. And of course, since they're vat grown humans, the androids are genetically programmed to be smart or stupid, sexual or asexual. They may end up ruling the world, but their stratifications are all too familiar, and Silverberg just recreates them instead of interrogating them.

And that, gentlefolk, is something that Jemisin does exceptionally well, never taking easy answers to explore how power is creating and sustained. I'm never going to prefer Silverberg to what she's doing. Still, for a time, and place, there's some interesting stuff here, going hand and hand with less innocuous authorial decisions.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

Given how much I've enjoyed James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series, it was not a hard sell to get me to want to try one of the fantasy series of one of the authors who writes those books. I didn't make any real moves to do so, though, until I was helped along when Tor.com's book club offered the first in a series by Daniel Abraham for free. So I downloaded it, and it languished for a while on my ereader while I was busily finishing up reading Hugo nominees.

Finally, I got around to picking it up, and this was a book that it took me a while to get into. I never minded reading it, but it didn't really grab me for quite a while. There were a few moments where I considered putting it aside, at least temporarily. Then one reveal happened, about halfway through, and suddenly things started to fall more clearly into place, and I was more eager to get back to it. The book still feels a little weirdly paced, but in the end, I quite enjoyed it.

Not so much that I'm jumping right on the bandwagon of seeking out every book after this one, but I'm definitely in a place where I'm open to reading more of Abraham's fantasy, and I'll be interested to see where this goes, because he's created a neatly twisty tale of ethics and, particularly, ethics in teaching, that I do find fascinating. 

And in that, it felt like there were some deliberate subversions of stories so subtle I hadn't really noticed them at all. Near the beginning, there is a young man studying, who discovers that, although the teaching is harsh, and he suffered from it as well as a boy, it is the act of compassion when he is the one in charge that qualifies him to study to become a poet. (I'll get to what that means in a few minutes.)  This is something that feels rather familiar, but what he does next is not - to point out that relying on such a system, that encourages cruelty towards real people, real children, in order to find the few who reject such training is to condone the cruelty, to make it a tool they use in education, and that the few who break it do does not excuse the abuse of the rest. He leaves.

I was very caught by this, but then the story turns away from that character to a city, to the machinations of a trading company in the court of someone with power of life and death (I don't remember the exact title, I'm terrible at both titles and names.) But I guess to make this make sense, I need to explain what I understand of poets.

Poets are not quite that, although they may also write poetry. What they are is someone who was able to fashion a metaphor in a way that never previously existed, and, by so doing, capture the spirit of that metaphor, to enslave them to their will, to make them part of their own self. It does seem to be a profession of men, and there are not many. The metaphor/spirit that is bound to the poet in this town and this court hates the poet, and plots to destroy his captor. Again, we are getting comments on how cruelty is built in to systems, and excused because it is said to create.

A plot develops, to destroy the spirit of the poet, and it's interesting, but I did find my attention start to wander. Right up until it is revealed that one of the characters in this town was the young man who rejected the teaching of the school of poets, and at that moment, I was all in again. I had already liked the older woman who was chief accountant/bookkeeper of the merchant company, and her younger apprentice, but it took the moment of tying it all back together to make the book really sing.

I am not going to relate the rest of what happens, but there are such interesting thoughts here, such a rejection of systems that have stood for so long that they are worn smooth, and yet that smoothness obscures the pain that sustains them. I do want to see where the series goes from here. In writing this review, in trying to put my thoughts in order, I've realized how much I do want to know what happens next. I guess Abraham goes on my "writers to follow" list after all.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb

Quest stories. Man oh man, quest stories in fantasy. They've been done, a lot. Sometimes well, sometimes poorly, often taking Tolkien and pasting other characters on top of it. I have to say, though, it wasn't until George R.R. Martin's fourth or fifth book that I started to get really, really freaking sick of quest stories. Because by then, I had started to notice that if we spend any time with the character who is travelling from one place to another in search of something, they were never ever just going to freaking get there. Something would happen - and that's okay if it happens once or twice, but when I start needing to find something beyond fingers and toes to count on for how many times it happens, and how rarely anyone JUST FUCKING GETS WHERE THEY'RE GOING and how that delays the story and doesn't add a ton? I was frustrated. I continue to be frustrated, as you can see.

I can, however, tolerate quest stories when that's not really the story, when there's a good cast of characters and it's about how they relate to each other, not whether or not they'll get to the end of the road they're travelling on. (But I do get impatient when roadblock after roadblock is thrown at characters, because it feels like the story is being delayed. Travelling itself is not a plot. Dream bigger. Figure out what happens when they arrive.)

Which is all to say, I didn't so much enjoy the first third or so of Assassin's Quest, when the main character, was travelling on his own personal quest of revenge, by himself, and meeting setback after setback. I started to get bored, just waiting for the next thing that would make this long book longer. It's not that it was poorly written, it's just a fantasy trope that I am very, very exhausted by. After, though, Fitz met up with others and continued his voyage, and suddenly I found it much more interesting! Because from that point, although it was still voyage-setback-voyage-setback, much more of the story became about the interconnections of these people and how they related, and I was back on board.

But other than the ranting about the trip, I suppose I haven't told you much about this book. It's the third in a trilogy, in a larger fictional universe. Fitz is the bastard son of a prince, brought up in the castle as an assassin's apprentice, as well as a wizard's apprentice - Fitz has a little of the "good at everything" syndrome going on, but he's not great at being a wizard, and we partly find out why in this book. He's much better at a different kind of magic, connecting with animals, one wolf in particular. This is a talent that is much feared and scorned.

Fitz is also supposed to be dead, did in fact die, we find out, and it was only through a combination of Talent and Wit that his friends were able to bring him back to life after he'd been tortured to death by his uncle, the new and usurping King Regal. Fitz, after he comes back to himself, decides he needs to kill Regal, and then have his life to himself, finally, for the first time.

I'm not unsympathetic to this character motivation, but the form it took did fall into that pattern of "Fitz travels to do something, things prevent him" for a little too long for me. It was less about his discovery, more about the journey. However, that said, once he decides to go north to find Kettricken, his deposed uncle's wife, and travels there with an overanxious bard and a mysterious old woman, and then runs into the Fool and then everyone bands together to go find Verity and it becomes more about interactions between these people as they travel and run into difficulties in getting where they're going, suddenly the reading was so much more compelling.

As was what happened when they finally, finally got there. This rounds off this trilogy in this world, although there are other related books that I have not read, but we get Fitz to a place, not of happiness, but at least of pause, after having been through quite a lot. In the end, I'd be willing to read more of Hobb's books in this world, but I keep my fingers crossed the plots are less travelogues-with-delays.