Books read, April 2012
The trend of reading fiction by women instead of men continues. Partly this is because half of the titles I finished this month were YA (and three-quarters of those were by Suzanne Collins), but still. I had this odd feeling of, I dunno, backwards activism or something when I sat down with Saladin’s book — like I was virtuously promoting diversity in my reading by picking up something by a man. <g>
The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Read this a couple of days after seeing the movie, and it should tell you something that I still felt very compelled to go on reading, even though I knew what was going to happen. As others have pointed out, the worldbuilding is made of Swiss cheese, but whatever — the story was engaging enough that I was willing to accept the silliness of the world as part of my initial buy-in.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed. Epic fantasy (of the slender sort, page-wise) drawing on Middle Eastern sources. It’s original in more ways than that: the main protagonist, Adoulla, is a fat old man, which is not exactly common in this genre. (The early parts with him made me feel like Iroh had a long-lost Arab cousin.) I was put off by the very first bit, wherein the villain is torturing some unknown character — a scene that returns sporadically throughout the book — but I don’t consider it to be very representative of the book as a whole, so if that kind of thing is not your cup of tea, don’t let it deter you from the rest. As for the rest, I had some quibbles on the character front, but it’s still a fun read. (And it has several active female characters, most of whom get point of view, which is definitely a point in its favor where I’m concerned.)
Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins. Not as strong as the first book, but not bad. It falters the worst near the end, when it sinks too fully into a rehash of tropes from the first book; not just the Hunger Games themselves, but a certain character-level gambit that is much less well-justified the second time around. But I liked the earlier parts, where it both showed us things we hadn’t seen before, and showed us old things in a new way.
Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins. Weakest of the three, as many people before me have said. What I found interesting was the way some of its weakness seemed to come from its realism. True, Katniss spends quite a lot of the book not really able to affect the plot — but that’s because logic dictates that she wouldn’t be, in that situation. And while Collins might have been able to engineer a situation in which Katniss was in control, doing that without it being cheesy and unrealistic would have been a lot more difficult. I was actually enjoying the book a decent bit until the last quarter or so, where it kind of fell down into a confusing mess. Too many things there felt too sudden, too arbitrary, or built on too shallow of a foundation. (Some of which, I think, is a consequence of the pov structure. Keeping us solely in Katniss’ head really limits what we’re able to see — a point on which I think the movies have the advantage, for all they lose in emotional immediacy.)
Cold Magic, Kate Elliott. This one ate a lot of the month, as I went from the easy-to-devour Hunger Games trilogy to something that required much more chewing. The worldbuilding here is much, much denser, and I spent a fair chunk of the early pages trying to sort out just how everything fit together, before I hit the exposition that made it all clear — and even then I don’t understand it all, and expect I will have to keep reading to find out. But that isn’t exactly a hardship. (Afro-Celtic alternate-history, um, icepunk? Was that the word people were using when I mentioned this one on Twitter? Anyway, fascinating.)
Black Heart, Holly Black. Conclusion of the Curse Workers trilogy, and I have to wonder whether Holly spent some time debating title color schemes before deciding that screw it, she’d just go ahead and use her last name. 🙂 Anyway, this one felt a bit more scattershot, in that some of the side plots weren’t as closely integrated as I might have liked. And I was not entirely sold on the last bit of denoument — but that might be because I am fundamentally a very different person from Cassel, and what makes him happy is not my cup of tea. Having said all that, I did enjoy the book, and definitely recommend the series.
A Handbook on Asante Culture, Osei Kwadwo. Nonfiction! The (Ghanaian) author is not a native English speaker and, um, really could have used a copy-editor who is. Yeah. But if you can get past that issue, this is a very useful “here’s what we do” kind of anthropology book; it talks about topics ranging from education, puberty rites, marriage, and divorce, to how Asantes swear oaths, administer justice, run their farms, and more. It is purely descriptive, not analytical: it will not tell you the symbolic significance of eggs in Asante society, only how they get used in various contexts. But sometimes descriptiveness is what you want. If the author has a fault, it’s a tendency to speak a bit too glowingly of the “olden days,” when there was less theft and people were polite to one another and no able-bodied people ever couldn’t support themselves; I somehow doubt earlier Asante society was that perfect. I very much like, though, the way Kwadwo slides from describing how things used to be done to how they’re done now because of the passage of such-and-such law in the thirties or whenever; it helps erase the tendency in any discussion of traditional whatever to see the past as some kind of timeless void, disconnected from the present moment.
The Ancient Asante King, A.A. Anti. This book, on the other hand . . . okay, it was written in the seventies (Kwadwo’s is from 2002), and explicitly concerns itself with Asante kingship in the nineteenth century, prior to 1874. But I do not take issue with its historical focus, nor with the author’s apparent (and very old-school) belief that it’s really really important to understand the lives of Great Men in order to understand the society they rule. What I take issue with is the utter failure here to make me understand the lives of the Asante kings. The descriptions Anti provides would lead you to believe their lives consisted of nothing but eating, watching jesters perform, having sex with their many beautiful wives (and getting rid of the ones who stop being beautiful), ordering people to be horrifically tortured, and going to war. That last bit is the sole point on which you can discern anything resembling an actual effort at governance or statecraft on the part of the ostensible ruler. Since I doubt the Asantehene was solely a figurehead, puppeted about by the real political leaders, I find this gravely disappointing — and pretty offensive to boot, since the descriptions here make the Asantehene sound like a horrible person and total waste of space. (Despite the multi-page digression partway through, where Anti points out to you all the horrible bloody things other societies have done in their pasts. Yes, okay — but I would like more evidence, sir, that you have not swallowed wholesale historical accounts that need a good questioning, and also anything resembling an attempt to analyze these practices and think about why they existed in the first place.)
(And Anti is Ghanaian, too. So it isn’t a matter of foreign bias. Internalized racism? I have no idea. But yeeks. Read the two pages about the downfall of Kofi Karikari in 1874 and the problems Osei Mensah Bonsu faced after him — the one place in here it stops being general maunderings about “the king” and starts being about specific kings — and chuck the rest.)
Side note: if anybody can recommend something I can read to get a sense of what the Queenmother’s role is in Asante society, I’d be much obliged. Neither Kwadwo nor Anti addresses it directly, though at least the former makes up for it by talking a lot about women more generally in Asante society.
Now We Are Sick, ed. Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones. Collection of poems, that I acquired because I was being completist about Diana Wynne Jones’ work. Very little of the collection is memorable: it’s an assortment of verse on various gross subjects, the best of which make you chuckle for a moment before you move on.