Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Review, 7/9/10

Three books this week. I swear I used to be able to read more books in a week. Of course, when I was taking classes, I often had to read two or three texts over the course of a week, but those were gutted and skimmed, mostly. Still.

Holly Black - White Cat

Oh, I love the premise of this book - our world, but magic works within a limited scope. "Curse Workers" have to touch you with their bare hands, and different "workers" can achieve different effects, from minor changes in luck up to transformation. Black put a lot of thought into how that would affect society, and a little thought into how it would have affected history. As such, everyone wears gloves always - at one point, the protagonist is looking through some porn, and the shocking thing is not the nudity, per se, but the lack of gloves. "Workers" are both elites and second class citizens - there's a political movement to force them to register, and a political movement opposed to it. "Workers" are often a key element of weddings (where luck would be nice to have) and christenings, for instance. In terms of history, Black includes a few notes about how previous societies dealt with the whole concept of magic - I would have liked more of that. At any rate, A+ for world building.

This book is also a caper novel - the hero is a con artist in a family of con artists, and he runs cons to get what he wants. Delicious, I love this particular genre, and Black describes some very nice cons, and includes some very good descriptions of legerdemain - she doesn't leave her audience in the dark about what's going on in the con scenes, either. That's a tactic which works very well on screen, but comes across as irritating in a novel, I find. So, A+ for capers, too.

The book is fairly twisty, but the twists are telegraphed well in advance. B+ for twists.

I didn't like some of the character building, especially the hero. Some of his motivations are messed up for obvious reasons within the context of the novel, but others are just messed up. Some of his reactions are off, too. He discovers some major secrets about himself, but seems to take them in stride far too easily - I didn't buy the shock. C+ for the protagonist.

I will happily read a second book in this world, because I really want to see what Black does with the background material. I want more history, and I want a deeper appreciation of the social environment. I'm not sure I'm keen on reading a lot more about this set of characters, however.

Albert Castel - The Presidency of Andrew Johnson

Johnson was a fascinating president. Castel wrote this political biography during the 1970s, and it comes at the end of a series of scholarly works dealing with Johnson, many of which were highly critical of Johnson and especially his approach to Reconstruction. Castel is mildly sympathetic towards Johnson - he doesn't deny Johnson's many flaws, but presents the man in a sympathetic light.

I learned some details about Johnson and the period in question, but nothing hugely enlightening.  While I still feel that the 14th Amendment was well conceived, I think that some of the strategies used to get the Amendment ratified were questionable. That is, I applaud the ends of the Republican Congress in the late 1860s, but deplore their means. Castel is mildly cynical about the Radical Republicans - seeing that they had a great deal to gain from the policies of Reconstruction in the form they championed - but agrees that at least some of their motivation was ideological rather than pragmatic.

As a scholarly work, this book was quite accessible, I would recommend it to a general audience. Castel is informative, and his knowledge of Johnson and Reconstruction is exhaustive. He includes detailed end notes, and abundant (but not to the point of being distracting) quotations. The final chapter is an excellent historiography, up through the 1970s, detailing the odd trajectory that Johnson's story has taken since the 1870s.

Jim Hines - The Mermaid's Madness

I really liked this novel. This is the second of the "Princess" novels. Hines is documenting the story of what happened to fairy tale princesses after their "happily ever after". His protagonists are Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty woke to find that everyone she knew and loved was dead, and that a rival neighbor had taken over the kingdom, and forced her re-awakening so that the last possible restraint upon them could be removed. Her fairy given gifts translate nicely into martial arts - grace in dancing = grace in fighting, for instance. Snow White was raised by a powerful witch, and makes use of said witch's training in her use of mirror magic - she is a powerful self-taught sorceress. And Cinderella has the magical protection of her mother (later revised into a Fairy God Mother, but originally, Cinderella was protected by her mother, who inhabited a tree in Cinder's backyard.), currently embodied in a magical glass sword.

This novel opens with the princesses travelling to provide a token tribute to local mermaids - or undines, as they prefer to be called - only to discover that the political situation has changed rather significantly over the winter. The adventure which follows involves twists, back stabbing, treachery, magic, fencing, and a great deal of other fantastic stuff.

What I like: Hines has thought out his characters very well. They have entirely realistic motivations, even given their fantastic origins. He has done excellent world building as well, considering the implications of mermaids - how do they work? What motivates them? - etc. The book is a quick read, but has some depth for all that. This is a well thought out and well written book.

What I didn't like: Very little. I did find the inclusion of Christianity to be a little odd - it threw me out of the world briefly, and really, given the world building, doesn't make a lot of sense. Oh well - it was a minor point, and not nearly enough to prevent me from recommending this book quite highly.


  1. Both Holly Black's book and Jim Hines' series sound amazing!!! I've read several of Holly Black's other works, but I haven't come across this one yet. I mentioned this in another comment, but retold fairy tales are probably my favorite genre, so I'm always happy to discover more recommendations.

  2. Hines is brilliant. He likes to turn traditional plot elements on their heads. He has another series in which the hero is a goblin, those are also quite good.

    The Holly Black - well, we'll see what she does with a further book in the series.