Books read, February 2011
Continuing my quest to read all the fiction!
Seriously, I have read more fiction in the first two months of this year than in the entirety of last year — possibly the last two years. (Presuming we don’t count all the Victorian lit I speed-read while hunting for a title, and really, we shouldn’t count it, because that stuff was going in one eyeball and out the other.) Eventually these posts will include some nonfiction, but for now, I am wallowing in made-up stories, and it is glorious.
Ethan of Athos, Lois McMaster Bujold. I don’t mind this being a non-Miles book, but Ethan didn’t really hold me as a protagonist. Partly this is because of the thing Bujold introduced and then flaked on, namely, the religion and culture of Athos. I admit I held my breath at the “omg I’ve never even seen a picture of a woman ahhhh they are the Source of All Sin” thing, because it’s the sort of idea that could go really, really wrong — but it didn’t so much go wrong as go away. Aside from Ethan being vaguely reluctant to talk to women when the plot needed it (he failed to have a useful conversation with the security guard, but accepted Quinn awfully fast), he didn’t seem to have much trouble adjusting. And dude, he didn’t even flip out when that security guard flirted with him. It makes me wonder what Athos’ theology says is wrong with women: usually sex is high on that list. You can argue that they’ve been isolated long enough that the religion has faded down into vague uselessness — but if so, that makes it a pretty disappointing bit of world-building.
A Crown of Swords, Robert Jordan. Analytical re-read, discussed at greater length here.
Clouds of Witness, Dorothy Sayers. I read Whose Body? and Strong Poison a while ago, and liked the latter enough that I decided I should back up and take the series in order. This one was moderately fun, and boy howdy can I tell where Sayers influenced Dunnett; some of Lord Peter’s dialogue could have come out of Lymond’s mouth (allowing for anachronistic literary allusions). I also liked that this one involved the rest of the Wimsey family. The class commentary was interesting; the communists came off looking none too good, but then the same could be said of Gerald, with his whole “I won’t tell them where I was; they should just accept my word as a gentleman that I didn’t murder that man” notion of legal defense. The ultimate solution, however, ended up a bit on the convoluted side.
Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett. Pratchett, like Bujold and Sayers, has been on my list of “I should read more/any of their work” for ages now. I’ve read scattered Discworld books before, including the first two or three, and last year I made a brief attempt to start at the beginning again, before deciding the early books are too much on the flimsy-humorous-fantasy side for me to want to re-read them, so I started back in with this one instead. And it was fun, though I think I would have liked it to either focus more on Esk and Simon, or to be long enough to develop them while also spending time on Granny Weatherwax. (Don’t get me wrong: I love Granny Weatherwax. But I didn’t get quite enough of her or the others for this book to work the way I wanted it to.)
Labyrinth, Lois McMaster Bujold. Novella, and not nearly as satisfying as The Mountains of Mourning. It’s less personal, and Miles’ dealings with Taura bother me quite a bit. I’m all in favor of him showing that he thinks of her as human, but given her age and the circumstances, that was not a method I could approve of. But overall, it didn’t make for bad reading.
Borders of Infinity, Lois McMaster Bujold. Another novella, and again not as satisfying. I’ll be interested to see if later vintage Bujold does better with religious stuff, because here again, as in Ethan of Athos, she introduces something potentially cool (the religious frame of Miles’ takeover) and then drops it as soon as the plot gets underway. I would have liked to see that, not the logistics of controlling the camp, fill up the body of the story, though I understand that the logistics ended up being the important part in the end.
Brothers in Arms, Lois McMaster Bujold. This book laid to rest a complaint I almost made in last month’s post, which was that nobody ever seemed to connect Miles’ two personas. I mean, it isn’t hard; okay, I can remind myself that Barrayar is not the center of the galaxy, and Aral Vorkosigan’s son is not (yet) such an important person that people would have heard of him — but Admiral Naismith is a Betan persona, and there’s a Naismith in Betan history who would probably pop up the moment you searched for that name, given that she bailed on her home planet to marry the Butcher of Komarr. Put that together with Miles using his real first name, and the fact that he’s rather, shall we say, physically distinctive, and it was starting to really annoy me that nobody had figured out who Naismith was.
But then I read this book, and I compared the narrative chronology against the order of publication, and it fell into place. Bujold wrote this novel early on, establishing that this is the point at which that house of cards first threatens to fall down; therefore, anything she wrote later that takes place earlier (like The Vor Game, or Cetaganda) can’t make a big issue of it. This is a salutary lesson for me, in case I ever decide to write a series of this kind, hopping back and forth in a single character’s life (or other confined timeline).
What did I think of the book itself? It was okay. Not half as emotionally wrenching as I wanted it to be, given the subject matter, but intellectually interesting.
Unnatural Death, Dorothy Sayers. More Sayers, this time with a less convoluted solution (and yes, I say that even given the whole thing with whatsherface the woman in London). I liked the fact that Lord Peter’s scheme with the newspaper advertisement blew up in his face, though (as per above) I would have liked it to be more upsetting to him; in this case, however, I think it’s more that the style of narrative simply doesn’t go digging into his emotional reactions. I do believe they’re there — I just have to fill them in for myself.
Mirror Dance, Lois McMaster Bujold. This? Is more like the kind of thing I was hoping for, when I started reading this series.
I now have enough data points to say with confidence that Bujold leveled up as a writer in the course of writing Barrayar; the difference between the prior and subsequent works is palpable. Better worldbuilding, better character development — just better all around. It helps that this is the first book where we really get an external perspective on Miles, and moreover one that doesn’t have much reason to like him; it helps dispel the whiff of Gary Stu that starts to gather around his more extraordinary hijinks. And I do . . . I was about to say, I do like Mark, but maybe it would be more accurate to say I like reading about him. Definitely he may grow into somebody I like. (I can see why Cetaganda felt like a letdown, if you read these in publication order.)
My primary gripe is what I think I’ll call the Bothari Gripe: I’m not sure I buy the psychological stuff at the end. If somebody who knows the subject says it’s realistic, I’ll believe them, but it felt too plot-convenient for me to really buy it. Which is a pity, because if I’d been sold on it, the end of the book could have really gutted me.
The Bone Key, Sarah Monette. H.P. Lovecraft, now with 100% less sexism and 300% less purple prose! This is a collection of truepenny‘s Kyle Murchison Booth short stories, and I quite enjoyed them. I vaguely wished for them to deal more closely with the rare books and manuscripts that are Booth’s area of specialty, but then again, I’m not sure how you would write more than maybe one story of that kind without it getting boring, so it’s probably better that I didn’t get my wish.
(Also, it is not her fault that she re-awakened my intermittent burning desire to read some really good fantasy about archaeology. I keep coming across short stories — in this case, “The Venebretti Necklace” — that give me just enough archaeology to whet my appetite, not enough to satisfy. I don’t mean Indiana Jones, either; I mean actual excavation, not pulp adventure with a cameo appearance by a trowel. If this story or book exists, please tell me!)
The Sandbaggers, Ian Mackintosh. On loan from yhlee. This is, quite literally, the episodes “Always Glad to Help” and “A Feasible Solution” (S1.5-6) stitched together into a novel. Most of the dialogue is verbatim from the show — to the point where I could hear the actors’ voices in my head — and the few bits that weren’t, probably got filmed and then left on the cutting-room floor. Its primary merit lies in the stuff that doesn’t come through in dialogue, namely the occasional detail about the operation of SIS or the interior states of the characters. As a novelist, Mackintosh makes a damn good screenwriter — but I’d be curious to read some of his other fiction, now that I know he wrote some, to see how it goes when he isn’t transcribing another form of media.
Mort, Terry Pratchett. Continuing the Discworld binge, only it isn’t really a binge, because I know that if I read this series in too concentrated a dose I’ll burn out on it. Very much liked this one, though, especially because I’ve got a big ol’ soft spot for the bumbling newbie who levels up to Badass over the course of a story.
Havemercy, Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet. Nearly gave up on this one at half a dozen points during the course of this book, and I probably should have. It isn’t terrible, but I never really got into it. For one thing it has what I think of as the epic POV problem: the narrative is split among four protagonists, and the early scenes did very little to build my investment in any of them. The central concept seemed cool, though — mechanical dragons as weapons in an ongoing war — so I gave it a longer chance than usual, and before that ran out I’d developed some interest in the Rook/Thom side of the plot, so I kept going. Alas for Royston and Hal, I had zero interest in them until about page 300, when the trouble with the magicians kicked in. Prior to that point, the main tension in their story seemed to be “they have the hots for each other but people in the countryside frown on that kind of thing,” and as I recently described, that doesn’t do much for me. I would have much preferred the novel to be entirely about Thom and Rook, especially because the extra page time might have let their conflict mature into something more satisfying.
Also? Near-total lack of significant female characters isn’t solely a failing of male authors. This book doesn’t even get the A Companion to Wolves defense, as Havemercy is a) female only in the way a ship is female and b) in a whopping four scenes.
Clockwork Phoenix 3, ed. Mike Allen. Started reading this last summer, before With Fate Conspire ate my head, but I read the bulk of it this month. I may be partisan, since I’m in it and all, but I think it’s a very good anthology; lots of cool ideas paired with beautiful writing, which is pretty much the mission statement for the series. The more science fictional stories worked less well for me, but that’s probably a taste thing, and John C. Wright’s “Murder in Metachronopolis” should be a must-read for all of my friends who like well-thought-out time travel. My personal favorite, though, was Shweta Narayan’s “Eyes of Carven Emerald,” which mixes the life of Alexander the Great with an Armenian folktale. The prose is gorgeous, the ideas are haunting, and she did a lovely, lovely job of putting all the names in something like their local spellings, rather than the more familiar Anglicizations.
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest. So it turns out that if you put zombies (which I don’t much care for) into steampunk (which I’m okay with) and the nineteenth-century Western frontier (which I quite like) . . . nope, I still don’t care for the zombies. Don’t get me wrong; this is a perfectly good book. It just isn’t my cup of tea. I give Priest full credit for really thinking through her post-apocalyptic nineteenth-century Seattle, all the physical and social details that make it feel real, and the steampunk tech feels like more than window dressing, which is a good thing. But god, zombie stories are so depressing. I found myself skimming past the obligatory Chased By The Undead scene, and the obligatory Oh No Your Companion Is Contaminated scene, and so on, because I just didn’t care. Not her fault. But I did care about the characters, and the history between Briar and Maynard Wilkes and Leviticus Blue; moreover, I cared about those things enough to keep reading past the zombies. So if the rotting undead are your kind of thing, you may consider this book recommended.
Books started and abandoned this month: four.
Next month’s list will probably be noticeably shorter. Dragon Age 2 comes out on the 8th, and as Bioware has a solid track record of delivering stories fully as engaging as a good novel, I expect that will eat quite a lot of my time.