Books read, January 2012

Hey, alecaustin! You thought your book post was embarrassingly late? 😉

Before we get more than a quarter of the way through February, I should talk about what I read last month.

Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey. Loved this one. I am gung-ho to see more urban fantasy, whether YA or adult, that acknowledges there are supernatural options other than vampire/werewolf/etc, especially options that aren’t northwestern European in origin. Healey’s book is set in New Zealand, and while I utterly lack the background to judge how accurately she depicts the supernatural element, my impression is favorable: it doesn’t feel shoehorned into a European paradigm, and also doesn’t feel Wow Look at This Exotic Thing I Found. It helps that race and colonialism get mentioned, rather than ignored, and also that the story makes it clear New Zealand magic stuff isn’t the only magic stuff in the world.

It did start on a slightly rocky footing — largely, I think, because the main character is (through no fault of her own) extremely confused about what’s going on at first. Like, on the level of forgetting conversations, or remembering things differently than they went two pages before. This led, in a few places, to me being confused too, which was a bit of a problem. I also have to admit I found the book structurally weird, in that the plot that shows up early on — which looks very much like the kind of plot you see in a lot of YA urban fantasy — turns out to be almost a side note to the actual plot, which shows up later on. That shift of gear startled me a bit. Despite those quibbles, though, I very much liked where the story ended up going; it hit a lot of my love-of-the-numinous buttons, and also showed a remarkable willingness not to flinch back from consequences. I’ll forgive a lot more than this book’s flaws, in exchange for those things.

Fox and Phoenix, Beth Bernobich. Alas, although I wanted to love this one, I didn’t. Three reasons, I think. First, I haven’t read the short story that serves as a prequel, and the references to its events kept making me aware of that lack. (Especially since the plot of that one sounded more fun.) Second, and more trivially, I was unpersuaded by the world; I like the fact that it’s Chinese in basis, but the blending of magic and tech felt awkward to me, with chi being referred to as “magic flux” and essentially treated like electricity. Third, and most unfortunately, I just didn’t like the main character. I think he might have been fun in the short story, but here he’s the sort of boy who shirks his chores and ignores his homework and avoids the girl who used to be his best friend because she’s “bossy.” Me, I wanted to read about the best friend, who actually put effort into studying magic and preparing for obstacles and so on. (There was, very unfortunately, a moment late in the book when the protagonist thinks to himself that he’s been useless, that his friends have done all the real work. I was inclined to agree.) So this one was a miss.

Bloodhound, Tamora Pierce. Sequel to Terrier, and a Tortall book. Further adventures of being a cop in a pre-modern society. I kind of want to send all writers of “gritty” epic fantasy to read this series; Pierce doesn’t rape and torture her characters, but she pays attention to things like how counterfeiting can destroy a kingdom’s economy, with devastating consequences for the populace. That, to me, is real grit. The notion of the Court of the Rogue is, admittedly, on the romantic side, but that’s an inheritance from the earlier (and less gritty) Tortall books, so I can forgive it. And the story at least acknowledges some interesting ethical questions about the contact between cops and criminals. If it slides away from answering those questions outright, that’s okay; people slide away from uncomfortable things like that all the time, so I can easily believe that the characters do the same. Whether or not it gets resolved in a later book, I will have to wait and see.

I could have wished for a better villain motivation — the ones responsible for the counterfeiting turn out to have been kind of stupid and selfish, in ways that disappointed me a little bit — but still, pretty good stuff.

Minor Arcana, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

Guide to Korvosa. Gaming book, for the Pathfinder RPG. Ignore the bit where it tells you how many people live in Korvosa. Or just add another digit, and then the city it describes will make more sense.

Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray. Another serious miss. Some of my complaints are trivial; I recognize that not everybody will be bothered by ladies in Victorian London riding on top of an omnibus, or the “white” dome of St. Paul’s being apparently unmarred by all the pollution. Some of my complaints are less trivial: a teacher at a British finishing school spouting mythology that sounds more like late twentieth-century neopaganism, or nobody thinking to suggest that the red-haired, green-eyed girl surnamed Doyle might be, y’know, Irish. Some probably should have put me off the book right from the start, but they weren’t as blatant as they got later, and I was able at first to process them as the prejudices of an upper-class Victorian protagonist, which might be called out by the narrative as it went along. But no, there really are just Gypsies running around outside the finishing school — one of whom is a fortune-telling old lady, the other of whom is the Inappropriate Paramour of one of the girls at the school — and, well, the best thing you can say about the treatment of the Indian character is that he ended up pretty much being irrelevant to the story. I’m sure his secret magical order will continue to play a role in later books (an order which he proudly proclaims to be older than King Arthur or Charlemagne — way to ignore his actual culture, there), but I don’t intend to read on to find out.

Reading on did allow me to discover that the book has some moderately decent things to say about female friendship, and the constriction of social roles in that time period. But it wasn’t nearly enough to counter-balance the flaws.

Servant of the Underworld, Aliette de Bodard. Yay, back to the better stuff! First of a series of fantasy mysteries set in pre-contact Tenochtitlan. The only way in which I am the wrong audience for this book is that I was occasionally impatient for it to stop explaining things I already knew. But since your average reader probably needs those explanations, I can’t really fault it for that.

The story is, as markgritter has noted, not quite a mystery in the genre sense; the point is less to figure out whodunnit than to stop whoeverdunnit from carrying out their nefarious plan. The shift from one to the other is, as with Guardian of the Dead, a little jarring. And I confess I felt just a little bit out of step with the characterization throughout, in a way I can’t quite articulate. But still. Aztecs! Fantasy! I went out and bought the two sequels, and am looking forward to them.

The Game, Diana Wynne Jones. Discussed elsewhere.

We’re off to a slow start so far this month, but hopefully that will pick up.

0 Responses to “Books read, January 2012”

  1. alecaustin

    Mine was extra embarrassing because I’d written most of it in January and then didn’t write up the last two for a week+. (Also, you seem to have missed a tag close there…)

  2. alecaustin

    Talking about actual book stuff, for once:

    Glad to hear you liked Guardian of the Dead; that was ‘s reaction also, IIRC. I’d add it to the list, but the list is already far too long.

    Servant of the Underworld definitely does shift gears midway through, and I hear you on the characterization. My feeling was that it was the most mystery-genre thing about the book, in a hard-boiled “my family resents me for doing [blah], and will continue to do so even as I try to reconcile with them” way? I mean, it’s not a show-stopper, and I’m going to read Master of the House of Darts still. But some of the priestly and familial antagonisms come off rather pat, to me.

  3. Anonymous

    I think you’ll really like the sequels to Servant of the Underworld. A little less explaining things, and a lot less rote family stuff.

  4. Marie Brennan

    I remembered hearing good things about it, but it really didn’t do a lot for me.

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