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09:42 pm: Belated book review post, part 1
This goes back to books I was reading in July. Some of these I waited to write anything about because I thought I needed extra time to understand them, but by this point, if I’m still in a state of confusion, I’m probably going to remain there. And there will be more posts coming.

Liz Williams, Nine Layers of Sky

This was the most emotionally confusing book I’ve read in years. I started off really liking it, became underwhelmed by the middle, and then changed my mind back again before the end, only to have the actual end throw me off. So I’m not sure how useful this mini-review is for anyone else.

The book’s set in Kazakhstan, and concerns Elena, once an astrophysicist, now a janitor; everyone’s dreams have begun to perish in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Ilya Muromets, one of the legendary heroes of Russian folklore, has been alive for eight hundred years, and badly wants to die, but every time he comes close to it, a rusalka appears and heals him. They become connected when Elena acquires, mostly by chance, an “artifact” of some kind that appears to open portals to another world, and Ilya is hired to go after it.

I liked both Elena and Ilya as people. That’s always pleasant, since in a lot of books with two main characters, I feel as though the author really wants me to like one of them, and cuts the other down to a shadow or a satellite or a Designated Love Interest. I didn’t feel as though either Elena or Ilya were a reward for the other, and that was good, probably the aspect of the book I liked most (other than the conceit behind the artifact, which unfortunately is a huge spoiler).

The book’s structure is potentially confusing, with chapters from both Elena and Ilya’s points-of-view as well as side-trips into the world that the artifact contacts, but I didn’t have trouble following it, thanks to Williams clearly marking the sections and distinguishing the character voices. I had a lot more trouble with the pacing. Many of the chapters are short, which I didn’t mind at first, but towards the end, the chapters become so short—two pages is the norm—and the pace so jarring that I kept being thrown out of the story. I honestly think a lot of the road trip in the middle of the book could have been cut out to make more room for the climax, which felt rushed in other ways.

The other part of the reason I felt so confused about the book is a spoiler, so, white-texted. Elena and Ilya fall in love in literally two days, and then spend some time angsting about whether the other person loves them in return. Since we get both their points-of-view, we know the answer to that question. On both sides. And meanwhile, time that could be used to develop the relationship is used on running from bad guys. This is the point where my emotional barriers came up and I lost any connection with the characters at all, because they weren’t themselves when they fell in love. The kindest thing I can say about this section of the book is that they get over the angst quickly.

So, in the end, it’s hard to know if I can recommend this, other than to say that if the setting and characters sound interesting to you, pick it up.

Naomi Novik, Temeraire

I liked this. Nice, pleasant, light reading. Laurence, the ship’s captain who becomes bonded to the dragon Temeraire, has a voice that’s both a credible pastiche—well, says me—of nineteenth-century novels and interesting to read in and of itself. And Temeraire is one of those wonderfully naïve competent characters who doesn’t quite understand why the rest of the world doesn’t measure up to his standards and sense.

That said, I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel, for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t find any of the minor characters nearly so well-developed. I kept losing track of who they were, other than Celeritas the dragon drill-master and Laurence’s mother. I didn’t believe in the romance, which is, of course, nothing new for me, but in this case it was because I didn’t get enough sense of the female dragon-rider involved before Laurence jumped into bed with her.

Second, I became irritated how everything had to come back to Laurence and Temeraire being the first to discover everything useful. Temeraire is the first to discover that it’s good for dragons to bathe and have their harnesses off when not on active duty, for example. Meanwhile, dragons who have lived hundreds of years and are just as intelligent as he is have no notion of this. I hate books that dumb down other characters to make the heroes look smart, and this is a prime example.

Third, I’ve heard very bad things about the pacing in the next book, and the minor character problem is apparently worse there, so. Skipping. But I do encourage you to read this first one.

Rikki Rooksby, A.C. Swinburne: A Poet’s Life

This is a biography of Algernon Charles Swinburne, the Victorian poet I’m obsessed with interested in; I’ve read sections of it before, but this was the first time I’d read it straight through. And it’s very satisfying, I think, in odd ways. If you need to write about Swinburne’s personal life, you do it like this, with a vast sense of both sympathy and critical instinct, an understanding of contradictions, and a dedication to sifting the truth from the lies. (Swinburne lied about himself. Constantly. Even personal letters are no guarantee of truth).

Swinburne’s life includes so much that the biography could easily have been overcrowded. Or Rooksby could have fallen prey to the critical myths about Swinburne, which are numerous (for example, that his poems are all sound and not sense, which was popularized by T. S. Eliot in this essay, and that he wrote nothing worth reading after 1879). It’s not overcrowded, and he kept clear of them. He can write about Swinburne the descendant of French aristocracy and Swinburne the sadomasochist, Swinburne the devoted friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Swinburne the belligerent combatant who called Emerson “A gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape, carried at first into notice on the shoulder of Carlyle, who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own...”, Swinburne the hypocrite who turned away from a friend proven to be homosexual and Swinburne the hypocrite who deliberately spread stories that he’d had sex with a monkey and then eaten it. And the epilepsy, alcoholism, bitter anti-theism, and utter inability to control himself are there, too.

But his writing is the core of the book, and it should be. Swinburne wrote poetry, criticism, plays, and one completed novel, A Year’s Letters/Love’s Cross-Currents, and part of another, Lesbian Brandon, the latter of which is full of the themes that pervaded his poetry: incest, torturous death, pain, pleasure, desire, the sea. He didn’t do everything equally well, but Rooksby also refuses to assert that after 1879 (when Swinburne was put under pretty much house arrest by his good friend, Theodore Watts-Dunton, for the rest of his life, because otherwise he would have drunk himself to death) Swinburne wrote nothing good, because it’s not true. His good poetry became rarer, but he wrote The Lake of Gaube, and A Nympholept in the late 1890’s, among others. The ending of “A Nympholept,” a meditation poem addressed to Pan, might be my favorite single stanza of poetry:

The terror that whispers in darkness and flames in light,
The doubt that speaks in the silence of earth and sea,
The sense, more fearful at noon than in midmost night,
Of wrath scarce hushed and of imminent till to be,
Where are they? Heaven is as earth, and as heaven to me
Earth: for the shadows that sundered them here take flight;
And naught is all, as am I, but a dream of thee.

Given that Swinburne’s critics and Swinburne’s defenders both tend to be fiercely partisan, Rooksby’s biography is one of the most balanced I’ve seen.

M. L. Rosenthal, Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art

This is a reread; I read it when I was taking a Yeats class last year for a presentation. But I remembered quite liking it, and wanted to take another look.

Yes, still good. Rosenthal doesn’t go through every single one of Yeats’s poems and plays, but he comes damn close. He also refers casually to events in Yeats’s life as intersecting with events in the poems, and obviously expects you to know what he’s talking about. I’ve forgotten a bit, so some parts were mysterious, but that just leads to a sense of a tantalizing world out there to explore, extra depth, which is a key part of my deepest enjoyment (in SF/F, it comes from the worldbuilding).

Rosenthal is convinced that the volume The Tower is the center of Yeats’s poetic career, and especially the poem The Tower itself. I owe this book for making me pay closer attention to a poem I’d skimmed over because I couldn’t understand some of the more obscure references in it, and anyway I wanted to read the Byzantium poems again. I wouldn’t say that “The Tower” is my favorite Yeats poem, but at least I can appreciate more of what it’s trying to do.

I will never, I think, truly appreciate Joyce and Beckett, the other authors that class was on; their sensibilities are too alien to me. But I’ve remained very fond of Yeats since then, and this book is part of the reason why.

W. H. Hudson, Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest

This book was published in 1904, an answer of sorts to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Green Mansions is set in South America, and rather than solely concentrating on the confrontation of a white man with the indigenous people living there, adds a fantasy element to the mix: the bird-woman Rima, who sings more than she speaks, and whom the narrator falls instantly and senselessly in love with.

W. H. Hudson was a British writer, but rather unusual among them; he was born in Patagonia, spoke Spanish before he spoke English, and only came to England when he was in his 30’s. That might account for part of the intense lyrical description in Green Mansions (it’s far more lyrical than Heart of Darkness), although in this case the novel isn’t set in Patagonia, but Guiana, and so Hudson produced much of his effects from research.

Abel, the narrator, plunges into the jungle as a political exile from his native Venezuela, and falls in among Indians he despises as cruel and unintelligent savages. He soon learns of a forest where the tribe he stays with refuses to hunt, and he goes in to see why. The reason is that Rima lives there and protects the animals who dwell in it, and the natives are afraid of her. Abel falls in love with Rima, but his world-view and hers are fundamentally incompatible. For one thing, Abel views Rima as a possession and someone dependent on him—a woman, in other words—while Rima has no notion of ordinary gender roles.

And it gets darker from there. Abel’s racism, sexism, and other moral failings are in full sight, and in some ways I find the ending worse than Heart of Darkness. So, though I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a happy fun time. (It is freely available online if you want to read it).

Elizabeth Bear, Blood & Iron: A Novel of the Promethean Age

Intellectually, I enjoyed this a great deal. Emotionally, my reaction was more muted.

This is an urban fantasy novel, concerning the conflict between the forces of Faerie and the Prometheans, an order of human mages who follow the magic of iron. Faerie has lost power, and population, in the centuries since the Prometheans began their rise. One of their means to try and restore lost population is to kidnap human children with fey blood from Earth and bring them to the Courts. Both Courts, Seelie and Unseelie, have Seekers who do this, but the centerpiece of the book is largely the Seelie Seeker, Elaine Andraste, whose primary name for a good part of the novel is Seeker. Not long after the story begins, her task expands to include finding and ensnaring the Merlin, a source of pure magic in the form of a human being. Of course, the Unseelie Court and the Prometheans are also looking for her.

It’s an immensely complicated book, with very little exposition (in the sense of “direct explanation”; there are plenty of hints in the background). I haven’t mentioned a quarter of what’s going on. The Arthurian mythos is mixed up in there, and real-world history, and ballads, and ecological arguments. There’s lots of old pain, which morphs into new pain as the story continues. There are intelligent and understandable characters on all sides, though very little time is spent on the Unseelie Court or Hell, and not much more on the humans. It’s definitely not just a retread of the wish-fulfillment stories that too many urban fantasies become.

My brain strained to keep up with this, perhaps because I haven’t read much Arthuriana, perhaps because I’ve always been more interested in prose and poems about Faerie lore rather than ballads. I’m sure there are echoes I missed. And there are tons of interesting/stunning/praiseworthy scenes that I want to read again.

Emotionally, I had almost no connection with the main characters at all. There was one I liked, but towards the end of the book, that connection faded when he did something I felt hadn’t been prepared enough for. (This is where the book’s concentration on Seeker was a problem; in such a crowded world, I feel she becomes too much the linchpin, and has to do some things that could, perhaps, have been left up to other people). When characters became hurt or made sacrifices, I performed a mental experiment with myself; would I have been gasping with surprise or choked up if that pain or sacrifice had happened to Character X rather than Character Y? And the answer was no. They became interchangeable to me in terms of emotional affect. I felt as though I should have been on the edge of tears, but I never was.

The reasons behind my rather vague comments above are here, spoiler-protected. Matthew’s decision at the end of the book just left me numb; I didn’t understand why his brother’s death would turn him so completely and fully against the beliefs of the Prometheans. Leaving them I could see; helping Faerie, I couldn’t. I never felt as though I understood Jane Andraste’s reasons for behaving as she did, either. Given that she’ll build another army to try again, she seems a mindless villain refusing to learn from her mistakes, while the Seelie Court is full of people who can learn. The takedown of the Unseelie Court happens so neatly and quickly that it was impossible to feel much alarm. And the sacrifice to Hell at the end—I just didn’t care. I wouldn’t have cared if it had been Seeker who went.

I want to read more books in this series. But I also hope that the next one produces a different emotional effect in me.

Current books in progress: Megan Whalen Turner, The Thief; Dana Phillips, The Truth of Ecology; Gilbert White, A Natural History of Selborne.



Date:March 27th, 2013 04:09 pm (UTC)
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