[info]limyaael @ 10:02 pm: Book reviews!
Recently, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t posted anything about them to any journaling service because the thought of writing up everything I wanted to say about all of them intimidated the hell out of me. Then I decided to limit myself to three paragraphs per book, which is the genesis of this post.

Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam

This book is alternate history; the American Revolution largely failed, and thus the British Empire controls most of the North American continent in 1899, including the old Dutch colony still called New Amsterdam. It’s a mosaic novel, composed of six short stories and novellas and centered on the meeting of Sebastien de Ulloa, an Old World vampire who crosses the ocean to get away from his past, and Abigail Irene Garrett, forensic sorceress and Crown Investigator of sorcerous crimes for the Duke of New Amsterdam.

I love the worldbuilding here; the use of magic is integrated into science and technology, so even though sorcerers are fairly rare, the “magic vs. science, fight!” mindset endemic to so much fantasy is missing. There’s nice use of historical circumstances and altered historical circumstances—there’s still an independent Aztec Empire—and cool bits—the ghost wolves of Paris! Sebastien and Abigail Irene are great leads, especially because they aren’t the kind of characters usually chosen as protagonists. Sebastien is a vampire dedicated to life; even if he has tragic suicidal thoughts, he still enjoys art, sex, and not being emo. Abigail Irene is an older woman who manages to bear the scars of her past mostly with equanimity, even when an old lover comes calling, and doesn’t hold her lovers to absolute faithfulness (because she’s not being absolutely faithful, either). The novel feels much more adult than some of the fantasy I’ve been reading, because it accepts that not everything is perfect and that some mistakes can’t be fixed.

I did have some problems with the stories’ structure, which generally follows a mystery plotline (who murdered someone in the dirigible that Sebastien and his lover are traveling on? Who is sorcerously murdering important families in New Amsterdam, and how?) Basically, it’s impossible to guess the mysteries’ solutions before they arrive, due to those solutions resting on parts of the worldbuilding and magic not explained before the critical moment. The characters understood it, but I wasn’t part of that world and wasn’t coming in with the same arsenal of background information. Lengthening the stories, especially the two shortest, “Wax” and “Wane,” would have helped with this problem.

Elizabeth Bear, Whiskey and Water

This is one of those books that’s annoyingly difficult to talk about to someone who hasn’t read the previous book (Blood and Iron). Nevertheless, I will try.

It’s been seven years since a massive war between the Promethean mages (followers of the magic of iron and believers in humanity’s “progress”) and the Seelie Court of the Faerie. The nonmagical world is aware of nonhumans now, and wary of them; there are horseshoes hanging on the doors of houses again, and people are paying attention to old ballads and superstitions. The last thing either side wants is an innocent tourist in New York winding up ded of Faerie. But this happens, and the race is on to find the murderer—as well as opposing politics in Faerie and Hell that might destroy most of the main characters, and trying to fight the renewed rise of the Prometheans.

Blood and Iron did a great deal for me in the intellectual department, but almost nothing in the emotional. I’m pleased to say that this book is much better; I genuinely cared about the characters and had a few heart-pounding and sniffly moments (like the one where several people have to cross a street while being hunted by a deadly Faerie predator). However, there is still a bit too much reliance on allusions and stories that most people may or may not get. I consider myself not ignorant of myth and still had a major, “What?” moment about the identity of one character, to which there is one scant clue pointing before the revelation (unless there’s something going on with a specific aspect of Celtic myth which I am really not aware of). But this is definitely the urban fantasy I’ve enjoyed most since Charles de Lint’s stuff became all about the Speshul People and went sour for me.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

This book is being talked up all over the place. It’s supposedly the best manuscript the editor’s seen in years, it went into hardcover even though it’s a debut novel, the characters are immensely engaging, etc. Nothing can live up to the hype, and this doesn’t.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a pleasant novel. It is—easily the best high fantasy I’ve read in years. But considering that my last experiences with the subgenre were Jordan and Goodkind, after which I developed an allergy which makes me sneeze whenever I see the words “orphaned hero,” I’m not sure if that statement’s a recommendation or not. (No, I don’t consider Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire high fantasies. Harry Potter reminds me more of boarding-school fiction; AsoIaF is a combination of historical fantasy and Martin’s own special “Let’s see how many of the characters we can slaughter and maim in viciously heartbreaking ways” school).

The hero, Kvothe—said like “quoth”—is retired and working as a bartender when Chronicler, a, surprise, chronicler, finds him. He wants to tell the story of Kvothe’s life. Most of the book is Kvothe narrating this story in first-person. The Name of the Wind covers his childhood in a traveling troupe, the development of his musical, acting, and magical abilities—seriously, there is almost nothing this kid cannot do—his orphaning by the villains (come on, that’s not a spoiler, you knew it was coming), and his quest for vengeance, to the point where he’s in his teens. He goes to university, stuns his teachers, and gets picked on by a bully, and there’s a mysterious girl who drops in and out of his life. This is done about as well as the template can be done, and the only thing I wasn’t thrilled with was Kvothe’s genius being praised on every other page. Luckily, not every character treats him like that, or I really would have put the book down; I am not fond of stories where secondaries exist only to orbit the hero.

Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

Ooh, this was a fun one. A caper novel, set in a Renaissance-like city, about an organization of thieves called the Gentlemen Bastards. Most other gangs rob the poor or at best the rich merchants; the Gentlemen Bastards go after the rich nobles, in direct defiance of the Peace organized by the master criminal, or capa, of the city. They are so good at it that they’ve never been caught.

The hero, of course, is Locke Lamora, and I liked him because he has a mixture of qualities that support each other without being sickeningly sweet and flawless, or one of those characters whom you can only admire in a novel, because if you start to think about him as a person, you realize you’d despise him in real life. Locke is loyal to his friends, rash, judgmental, foolish about love, vengeful, sometimes idiotic at exactly the wrong time, quick on his (mental) feet, and appreciative of others’ qualities, to the point that he doesn’t try to do everything, because he knows there are many things his friends can do better. And when events spiral out of control, he really has to improvise; he doesn’t have some master-plan set in place for just such a situation as this.

The only big problem I had was the ending. It rests on a loophole. There’s a scene earlier in the story that’s pretty clearly meant to establish the loophole’s existence, but Lynch had to walk a fine line between revealing too much and making the loophole incomprehensible, and in the end kept his cards too close to his chest. Also, I have a hate-on for loopholes and wish the heroes would face the consequences of their actions for once, or at least think of really clever ways to escape. Pure luck should be more limited. Nevertheless, Lies was good enough that I’m currently reading the sequel.

Elizabeth Bear, Carnival

This is science fiction set in a future where the Governors, intelligent machines created by radical environmentalists, have reduced Earth’s population to fifty million, largely by slaughtering all the white people and most of the rest who weren’t artists, artisans, or producers of some kind. Since then, they’ve kept the remaining humans under strict ecological control. No one eats animals; no one has pets; permission to reproduce is rarely granted. Some of the humans have fled to other planets, but the Governors are reaching out to gather them into the fold. Earth’s government especially wants control of New Amazonia, a planet ruled by women that apparently has a unique, non-polluting power source. New Amazonia will only accept ambassadors who are female or “gentle” (gay) men. Vincent Katherinessen and Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones, who once worked together as both partners and lovers, are therefore sent to the planet to negotiate with the women, under the guise of returning stolen art. In reality, they’re meant to steal the power source. Both of them plan to double-cross the mission, however.

This may sound like a simple gender reversal on the surface; I was wary about reading the novel because of that. However, the New Amazonian society is not without flaws, and Bear is wise enough not to make “male vs. female” the center of every debate in the novel. There’re enough political ramifications that I had difficulty following them (for which complaint see the next paragraph) and many notes on the cultural discomfort Vincent and Michelangelo feel when around people who actually eat cooked animals. The men on New Amazonia also tended towards real people, without the smiling submissive stereotypes that so often show up in idealized matriarchal societies.

I suspect this is a book that was meant to be read in a few sittings; I read it over a week, with a break of days in between important sections, and this may have removed explanations from my memory. However, I didn’t grasp all the political groups; there were several of them on New Amazonia and several in the government of Old Earth, and who the heroes were reporting to and whom they were supposed to meet on the planet and who was a double agent and who exactly was responsible for which theft, kidnapping, or assassination attempt all became increasingly unclear. There were also a few incidents—including an important theft—that seemed desperately underplayed, and which I can only suppose were not that important to the main plotline. Labyrinthine politics are a feature of three of the four Bear novels I’ve read so far, but in the other books I kept better track of them. I’m not sure what the difference was here.

Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword

This is the sequel to Swordspoint, which I loved, and the prequel to The Fall of the Kings, with which I was less than thrilled. You can imagine how relieved I was to like this book, though the premise—girl learns swordplay!—has haunted many a terrible fantasy novel.

Katherine’s family is noble but poor, until her uncle the Mad Duke swoops in and promises to repair their finances. The catch? He wants to take Katherine away from her family and train her in swordplay. Katherine, who rather likes being a girl, objects to this, but gradually learns to adapt.

Katherine reacts and feels like a girl reared in a patriarchal and heteronormative society when introduced to new and different influences, which too many of the rebellious bad girls of fantasy don’t. She freaks when she’s stuffed into boy’s clothes; people can see her legs! She gets “hot down there” and is puzzled, because she thought sexual arousal was something that only happened to men. She’s crushed when the friend she thought she made at her first ball is bitchy to her. Though she does change, and is more like a “liberated” woman by the end of the book, the narration makes it clear that her transformation is a slow and painful thing—exactly the kind of growing-up story I want to read. I think I lost my escapism gene somewhere.

And this isn’t even everything I read! Except it’s still getting long, so there will have to be another post. Later.


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