Books read, October 2011

Two cons ate into my reading time a fair bit, but I still made it through a decent number of books.

A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan. As usual, my own work doesn’t count. (But this was for editing purposes, if you’re curious.)

Freedom and Necessity, Steven Brust and Emma Bull. A historical novel set in 1849, about (at least to begin with) a man thought to be dead, who has no memory of what happened to him. The novel is epistolary — that is, told via letters, and the occasional newspaper excerpt or such — and although it takes a little while to build up momentum, from the start the characterization is superb. All four of the main letter-writers are very vivid and distinct, with complexity that unfolds beautifully as the novel goes on. I particularly loved Susan (which will surprise no one); she says things at various points which struck me as addressing the issue of feminism in the nineteenth century from an angle that is not the same one I’ve seen over and over again in other books. A sample quote:

I’m doing this mostly because it’s opened wide a door to a room inside me that before I could only guess at by the light along the sill and through the keyhole. It’s a room in which all those things in me that, living the normal life of a well-bred woman, I could never use — strength and speed and hardiness; command over my mind and body; respect for the language of my senses; a certain ferocity of the spirit — are not only useful but essential. In that place life is lived as if in mid-air over an obstacle, between leap and landing, with everything committed and nothing certain.

Her life is infinitely more dangerous once she gets involved with the plot, but the sense that she is truly living for the first time is striking.

(Also, if you tell me Brust and/or Bull imprinted hard on the Lymond Chronicles, I will be not at all surprised. James bears many interesting resemblances to him — and this book has a similar-ish Richard, too.)

The only reason I am not head-over-heels in love with this book is that I felt a little bit let down at the end. Some of that, I think, is the fault of the cover copy, which promised me “a magical conspiracy,” and didn’t quite deliver the way I wanted. I’m fine with the book being largely mundane, but there came a point where I really expected fantasy to break through much more strongly than it did, and the lack disappointed me. Related to that, the plot strand involving the Trotter’s Club never integrated with the rest in the way I really wanted. Saying more would involve spoilers, though, so if you want to know what I mean, e-mail me or ask me in person.

Still and all — a very, very good book. My complaints above keep it from being perfect (for my tastes); they don’t make it bad. Not by a long stretch.

A Sudden Wild Magic, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

another book of mine, but I’m not going to tell you which one or why Yeah, I’m being mysterious. Deal with it.

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom, Jill Thompson et al. First volume of a graphic novel series, about a place I almost want to call the Hotel California — which may well have inspired it. There’s a bar in a house that can be accessed from many different places, but not everyone who comes to it is allowed to leave again. It’s hard to properly judge a comic on this small of a dose, but I liked how it began.

Hexwood, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

Wild Robert, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

Believing Is Seeing: Seven Stories, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

Last Watch, Sergei Lukyanenko. Russian urban fantasy, and final volume of the series that began with Night Watch (also made into a very attractive movie). It’s been long enough since I read the first three volumes that I had to refresh my memory on Wikipedia, but it made for a pretty solid ending. The biggest weakness, I would say, is that each novel is more like three loosely connected novellas, which somewhat undermines the sense of forward movement. But it does a decent job of finding a transformative note to end on, which is something I really look for in the conclusion of a series like this.

Castle in the Air, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

0 Responses to “Books read, October 2011”

  1. mindstalk

    HTML needs help.

    I re-read Freedom and Necessity last month. Yep, still good. I think I noticed more odd things this time around, but yeah, the fantasy is a bit too low-key. Or something.

    • Marie Brennan

      Danke — normally I preview before I hit post, but this time I didn’t.

      The thing for me with the fantasy was, I could see a space in the narrative for it to somehow tie the Trotters’ Club and the Chartist thing together . . . and then it didn’t. And so I was left with both Not Enough Fantasy and Not Enough Integration.

    • diatryma

      I don’t remember any fantasy in there. I put it in the mental category Shelved Fantasy due to Authors. At this point, years after reading it, I’m not sure if a stronger fantasy element (meaning any I noticed at all) would have worked for me.

      • mindstalk

        I don’t think it’s ever clear where the mysterious carriage comes from. There’s also the “mixture of Gaelic and Latin” that James calls upon a couple of times. And the usual subtle Devera (mysterious little girl) appearance, though she’s in nearly all his books so may not count.

        • rachelmanija

          At the climax, someone might get magically commanded and someone’s hand might glow with magic fire. Alternate explanation: the character who describes this just got hit over the head, so…

          • Marie Brennan

            Yeah, exactly.

            Edited to add: Also, it bugs me that right at the start, Richard is advising James to keep certain things with him, that is clearly intended as supernatural protection; but a) it never really becomes relevant and b) why the heck is Richard the one giving that advice? Chekhov’s mistletoe, man.

          • mindstalk

            Heh, yeah. Most of the magic is people believing in magic.

            Of course, explicit magic would falsify Marx’s materialism, at least in a simple reading.

            Did I tell you about my working through the fairy tale retelling novels?

            In sequence,
            Briar Rose — Holocaust/Sleeping Beauty metaphor
            Sun, Moon, and the Stars — there are artists, and there’s a Hungarian fairy tale. God knows what they have to do with each other.

            Then Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. “Wait, the Classics department *isn’t* just a bunch of weirdos? Actual fairy tale elements? So shocking!”

          • Marie Brennan

            Briar Rose — Holocaust/Sleeping Beauty metaphor

            Which bugged me because I tend to not like fantasy used primarily as metaphor — but on the other hand, injecting actual fantasy into that bit of history sets off warning sirens, so.

            Sun, Moon, and the Stars — there are artists, and there’s a Hungarian fairy tale. God knows what they have to do with each other.

            Oh hallelujah I’m not the only one who reacted that way.

            Then Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin. “Wait, the Classics department *isn’t* just a bunch of weirdos? Actual fairy tale elements? So shocking!”

            <lol> Whereas I, having read them in the opposite order (well, I don’t remember whether the Yolen came before the Brust or vice versa), was sorely disappointed by the lack of actual folklore-in-real-world elements of the others.

          • mindstalk

            Did anyone not react that way? It was an enjoyable read, mind you, if non-standard for me, but yeah, weird even by Brust standards.

            Ooh, yeah, my order is definitely better, or less disappointing. It was a neat accidental setup, though; I might have been more suspicious had I read Tam Lin cold, but after the other two I was really explaining odd things away, right until just before the climax, if not the climax itself.

            Don’t think I did read anything else in the series, come to think of it, though I read a lot of the Datlow-Windling collections.

        • Marie Brennan

          I thought the carriage got explained, insofar as the woman in it was whatshisface’s sister. Which was so very much not what I’d been assuming it was, and the real explanation was rather disappointing.

          • mindstalk

            Who got explained, yes. If *where* got explained, I missed it. There was that whole thing of “there’s nothing in that direction for a long way but the horses look fresh”

          • Marie Brennan

            True. It almost felt to me like a revision artifact — it was originally intended to be something else, that didn’t work out, the rider and the mysterious heavy box got explained later by other means, but the other details were accidentally left in.

      • Marie Brennan

        In general, it would have gone better if the phrase had been “an occult conspiracy.” There was definitely one of those; it’s just that it didn’t really go beyond “people in funny-looking robes doing silly things,” except for about one paragraph, maybe.

  2. rachelmanija

    I have the same caveat about Freedom and Necessity, but it’s still one of my very favorite books.

    • Marie Brennan

      As I said during Sirens, until page seventy or so I was going, “okay, this is nice, but I don’t much feel like it’s — O HAI THERE MOMENTUM.” Once it got moving, it moved beautifully.

  3. rhinemouse

    So, I’m curious… does the Lymond-ish character share his arrogance? Because I’ve been vaguely wanting to read Freedom and Necessity for some time, but I have issues like whoa with arrogant heroes. (I bailed on Lymond after a hundred pages because I wanted to stab him in the face.)

    • rachelmanija

      Not to anywhere the same degree. Though I too can see the inspiration, I find James way, way more likable than Lymond.

    • Marie Brennan

      He is not nearly as arrogant, no.

      (In the closest thing to a defense I can mount for Lymond, you are clearly supposed to want to stab him in the face sometimes, and his arrogance is, as you go along, counterbalanced by other things. But he’s not the easiest character to like, no.)

      • rhinemouse

        Thanks, that’s good to know!

        (Yeah, I’ve heard that Lymond later reveals Depths and I totally acknowledge that he’s a worthwhile character–he just happens to push all my buttons in the very worst way.)

        • Marie Brennan

          Hey, if he’s not your cup of tea, he’s not your cup of tea. A friend of mine quit reading the series further on in the first book, and of the two reasons she cited, one was addressed about ten pages after where she stopped. But the other was that she has a low threshold for truly horrible things happening to characters, and in that case . . . no, no, run FAR away from those books. As much as I love them, there is no “one size fits all.”

  4. la_marquise_de_

    I remember being vaguely disappointed with F & N, partly for the reasons you mention, partly because of the end — that ‘off to magic America’ trope so does not work for me!

    • mindstalk

      Why not?
      America wasn’t magic so much as free from extradition treaties.

      (I’ve seen it pointed out recently that for much of the 19th century, American exceptionalism was simple fact, not posing. The only democracy (for white men), big economic opportunity, vs. constrained aristocratic monarchies. Slavery and imperialism sure, but there was a real difference between the US and everywhere else, then between the US+Switzerland and everywhere else…)

      • la_marquise_de_

        Well, we hadn’t had an absolute monarchy here since the mid-17th century, the French Revolution had broken the aristocratic stranglehold in France, and the low countries had long had a tradition of city states without kings. Yes, Russia was still feudal, but a lot of Europe was pretty democratic. Not republican (in the non-party sense) but democracy and republic aren’t pseudonyms. I found the ending of F & N lazy because the characters didn’t face up to their problems, they ran away from them, which didn’t feel like a proper resolution to me. And then, as a Briton, I was always taught that the Puritans were the purveyors of religious and social repression, who sought to impose their values on everyone, and I am always slightly surprised when I’m reminded that in the US they are remembered as fleeing oppression. Things look different from different angles, I think — you didn’t share our experience of Puritan repression in the 1640s and 1650s and thus have a very different legacy from them.
        And slavery is a big deal, it really is. I can’t dismiss or ignore it in any nineteenth century narrative, so America as ‘land of the free’ at that period has a weird ring for me. (Not that I’m claiming the UK was perfect. Far from it. The evils of empire are many and still spreading and our hands are very dirty indeed.)
        (‘Magic America’ is a quotation from a song by UK band Blur.)

        • Marie Brennan

          I found the ending of F & N lazy because the characters didn’t face up to their problems, they ran away from them, which didn’t feel like a proper resolution to me.

          I had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I agree; on the other hand, it would have been a cop-out to say that everything’s okay and the characters don’t pay any price for their actions. The logical conclusion of certain events, both in story and backstory, would be imprisonment, execution, or transportation, which is a) even more of a downer (since I read having to flee as something of a downer to begin with) and b) not something the characters would voluntarily stand still for, so making it happen = making them lose, on some level.

          And then, as a Briton, I was always taught that the Puritans were the purveyors of religious and social repression, who sought to impose their values on everyone, and I am always slightly surprised when I’m reminded that in the US they are remembered as fleeing oppression.

          This is true; having read about 17th century Puritans, I see the ones who sailed over here in a much less charitable light. On the other hand, the Bill of Rights is a pretty big freaking deal. 1850s America was not at all a flawless promised land, even when it comes to upholding that same Bill of Rights, but it did have some notable things going for it.

          . . . until about ten years later, and the fanfic for that writes itself. Probably ending with both parties getting shot for seditious activities. I mean, okay, they intend to go on to Wisconsin, but they start in Baltimore, and it’s not like there’s anything there that might fire up their activist instincts . . . .

          • mindstalk


            But yeah. Voluntary exile seems a fine if bittersweet way of avoiding the jaws of the law by that point.

          • between4walls

            Oh, I so want this. Because I took the references to Abolitionism by Richard, the letters of introduction to various radical German immigrants (this guy is a little later, though) to be pointing to something like this in their future.

          • Marie Brennan

            It’s not a fanfic I would ever write, but it does seem the logical sequel/coda, yes. 🙂

          • la_marquise_de_

            I’d have probably liked it more if I’d got the sense that they were going to continue their activism in America, I think. It just didn’t quite work for me (but a prison break would have been fun…)

          • mindstalk

            Well, baby and recovering invalid…

          • Marie Brennan

            A prison break would have been unrealistic, I think. But yeah, I don’t disagree that the ending felt a little off.

        • mindstalk

          Uh, pretty democratic? This is 1849-1850. The Chartist revolution has just *failed* almost everywhere. Britain has elections but the franchise is far more restricted than in ancient Athens or Rome, or the US even with slavery. France is in the Second Republic but it won’t last long. The Netherlands are monarchical again, though I think they liberalize a lot right around now, and the old republic had been fairly oligarchic, I think. The German-speaking lands… well, remember Marx et al. are political refugees in Britain from those lands, that’s part of the plot. And his “dictatorship of the proletariat” meant universal suffrage direct democracy, which was most closely approximated by the US (not very close) and Switzerland (very new to it, if I remember right).

          Yeah, the Puritans came to America to establish their own theocracy, but that was 200 years of subsequent mellowing before the time of the book, and the US is more than Puritans and slavery. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were founded on actual religious freedom for Quakers and refugees from the Massachusetts Puritans respectively, New Amsterdam was founded on commerce and didn’t care, Maryland was a Catholic haven…

          • between4walls

            I don’t know if it makes sense to say the Chartists (who are more of a reform movement than a revolution) have failed almost everywhere, since they’re only in the UK, IRC.
            But the 1848 revolutions had failed and the constitutions won that year revoked everywhere but Denmark and Piedmont (which didn’t even have that liberal of a constitution).
            Whereas several of the Chartist demands were already law in the US.
            This isn’t to be all “yay USA!” because slavery was an abomination and one that had already been abolished by a number of European countries. But a number of people involved in the revolutions did end up fleeing to America, so the ending does have some justification.

          • la_marquise_de_

            Absolutely. I just would have preferred the characters to do more in what was presented as ‘their’ context, rather than leaving. But that is just me.

          • between4walls

            I would have preferred that too, I just wanted to explain why the ending worked (to a point) for me anyway.
            It’s not just you, I think Jo Walton had the same problem with the ending.

          • Marie Brennan

            It’s one of the difficulties of writing historical fiction. We’d like to see him achieve something in his own context, but the historical truth is that nothing really did change then — not until later. (Might be another reason I wanted more out of the Trotters’ Club plotline; that one does have room in it for meaningful protagonist action.)

          • la_marquise_de_

            I was thinking over a longer term, I have to say — the implications of the Code Napoleon, for instance. And the nature of constitutional monarchy, which is not at all the same as absolute monarchy.
            As a lifelong feminist and socialist, though, I don’t consider the 1850 version of universal suffrage any closer to Marx’s definition than the UK one. I’m not saying Europe is better, I’m saying that it has its own contexts, and that a simple comparison is just that, simple. In my view, there is a lot of disingenuousness about slavery in your argument. You may well — possibly correctly — feel that I am too soft on my own kind.
            But, y’know, all I said was that the ending didn’t really work for me. That’s allowed. Even for non-Americans.
            I’m backing off now, because it’s mid-evening here and I have other stuff to do. I respect your views, certainly. But I am rather over having to defend having different ones to Americans.

  5. between4walls

    Will your Victorian-ish world have an equivalent to the European 19th-cent revolutions, speaking of F&N?
    One of my favorite parts of that book on reread is Richard’s low-key character development; his unorthodox triage method at the end is disturbing (though necessary), but in retrospect completely in character.

    • between4walls

      Also, formatting of the last two reviews seems to have got scrambled?

      • Marie Brennan

        So it did. Weird — I could have sworn it was okay, but then it wasn’t, and when I went in to fix it, I apparently mistyped one HTML tag, which caused several tags to be deleted from the code entirely when I went back in to fix it again. That’s really annoying.

        As for your question — probably not, no; the political issue I’m grappling with this time around is colonialism, because the story will spend relatively little time in the protagonist’s home country. I might try to mention something of the sort, but ultimately it doesn’t really figure into the story.

  6. malsperanza

    F&N spoiler in here

    I loved Freedom and Necessity, and had the same two caveats as others have mentioned: the supernatural element seemed unnecessary and tacked-on; and the ending in Happy!America was a bit too Disneyish.

    I wouldn’t have been irked by the supernatural stuff if it had been entirely in the POV of people who believed in the supernatural (the Trotters Club folks), but there are a couple of passages in the climactic scene that are authorial POV, which makes the magic real. Since there was no magic until then, it smelled like a deus ex machina to me.

    I loved, loved, loved the serious attention given to the politics and history of the Chartist movement. I’ve rarely seen a romantic historical novel do such a good job of making a rather dry historical episode come alive. The scenes with Engels were especially good, and the accuracy of the evocation of period was fantastic. Also the use of the epistolary form, which is so difficult to pull off.

    So, if the hero and heroine were going to have an Escape to America happy ending (all too common in bodice ripper romances), I’d really have liked the political thread to be carried through. America was, in 1847, potentially the Chartists’ dream – or at any rate it was still seen as a kind of tabula rasa in which the workers’ revolution could occur. James, surely, would have been excited to be in that milieu. But the setting would have had to be urban: New York, Philadelphia, Boston – where the floods of Irish famine immigrants were transforming the politics of labor. That would have required quite a lot of additional research and scene-setting, and the book was anxious to be done, by then, so they gave the lovers a rural, arcadian closing scene. It was too romance-novelly for my taste.

    But these are minor points in a book I otherwise liked enormously.

    And I forget where I read it, but I’m pretty sure that the Lymond influence on James is directly acknowledged by the authors. It’s a clever answer to the question: what would Lymond look like in a more modern context? What cause would he champion?

    In the Lymond Chronicles he’s an unblinking apologist for the nobility; that’s his world, that’s where power resides, and the role of a nobleman is to be a good and just leader. James lives in a world where the nobility is no longer in absolute command of politics, and though he is a son of that class, he is not loyal to it.

    • malsperanza

      Re: F&N spoiler in here

      Sorry – by “authorial POV” I mean “POV of reliable reporters, whose perspective we trust.”

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: F&N spoiler in here

      I wouldn’t have been irked by the supernatural stuff if it had been entirely in the POV of people who believed in the supernatural (the Trotters Club folks), but there are a couple of passages in the climactic scene that are authorial POV, which makes the magic real. Since there was no magic until then, it smelled like a deus ex machina to me.

      Interesting — I view it from a slightly different angle, which is that it wasn’t real enough. Especially given the perspective character for that bit, I wanted it to break through a lot more. (But yes, that would have required more setup beforehand, and more denoument aimed at addressing it afterward.)

      As for the Escape to America, it isn’t really rural; they’re in Baltimore, or at least just outside it. Susan only talks about going to Wisconsin, and does mention that they’d like to go to New York and Boston and so on first. Which is why I personally assume they never make it to Wisconsin; I would be sadly disappointed if they didn’t get caught up in politics first.

      What bugged me, honestly, was the very romance novel-y pregnancy. Especially since if you look at the timeline, Susan somehow magically knows she’s pregnant when she’s, like, two weeks along.

      But yes, it’s a novel that actually managed to make the Chartist movement interesting to me! (Like so many things in history, I support its goals, but am bored by practically everything I’ve read about it.) And yes, it did the epistolary format very well. Your comments about the comparison with Lymond are interesting, too.

      • malsperanza

        Re: F&N spoiler in here

        Yes, either way, the supernatural element wasn’t well integrated and felt equivocal.

        I guess they are not far from Baltimore, but the scene is in the country, under a tree, with fields all around and a rustic farmhouse home. The reference is to America as Rousseauvian natural paradise, in contrast to England, home of the Industrial Revolution and Blake’s dark satanic mills. Which is a common trope of historical romances.

        And yes: Susan’s pregnancy, which is cast as a sign of her emancipated nature, was an unfortunate lapse into romance noveldom. And not needed: her emancipation was already well-established and the couple’s mutual happiness was already fixed in the fact of their mutual escape. Still, the romance itself was very compelling, James and Richard are a great pair, and the book had some nice new twists on the Gothick tradition of haunted stately home.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: F&N spoiler in here

          Oh, the romance was fabulous. “Will you have breakfast with me forever?” But the pregnancy just felt . . . out of place. A standard-issue signifier (from a different genre) for Happily Ever After, when so much of that romance was explicitly not standard-issue (and not from that genre).

          All of the pairs are great, really. James and Richard, James and Susan, Susan and Kitty, Kitty and Richard. Such fabulous characterization, in so many places.

Comments are closed.