Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Review, New Years Eve Edition - 12/31/2010

[eta: This is the last post of 2010!]

Cassandra Clare - The Clockwork Angel

So, this is the first book of a prequel trilogy to Clare's Mortal Instruments series, about which I know almost nothing (but the covers are pretty, in a conventional way). When I brought it home, I speculated on how one might classify it's genre - neo-Victorian, steampunk? Having read it, I'd say that it's sort of neo-Victorian, more than steampunk, although clockwork and steam machinery do play a role. I don't think it necessarily fits the steampunk ethos, although perhaps that will change over the course of the series. At any rate, a young girl from New York arrives in London to meet her brother, but discovers that she is not who she thinks she is, that her brother is not who she thinks he is, and the world is not as she thinks it is. She falls into a enduring struggle between - well, not good and evil, per se, since one of the major themes of the novel is that conventional definitions of good and evil tend not to fit well, but between order and chaos, perhaps. On the side of order are the Nephilim, descendants of an ancient race of human/angel hybrids. On the chaos side is the Shadow-world of vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. Further on the chaos side are demons, and so the Nephilim and the Shadow dwellers have warily put aside their differences in order to deal with an influx of demons. The loose alliance between traditional enemies seems to be fraying, however, as the Shadow dwellers have begun to move into the mundane shadow world of gambling and drugs (which in Victorian London means opium and card games like Faro).

The book was fun, and well written enough that I am considering picking up the first of the Mortal Instruments books. The plot was fairly conventional, the twists were moderately predictable, and the characters were interesting enough to be worth reading. The Victorian background seemed fairly background - I suspect it was used because these books are prequels, rather than any real desire to set them in the Victorian period - but Clare has obviously done some research, and the setting was not jarring for all that it was more or less non intrusive.

Cinda Williams Chima - The Warrior Heir

I enjoyed this book. Like the Clare, it wasn't all that deep, but the characters were fun, and the plot was simple. I think I would have split the book in two, ending book one with the end of the school year and having book two cover the trip to England (England seems to feature in reading this week). This book was a romp, a quick read, with a few twists. Although part of an expanding series, this book seemed perfectly complete in its own right. I'll probably pick up the next one - Chima seems to be writing a series of interlocking stories within her world rather than following the same characters through several books -- interesting if done well.

Jill Lepore - The Whites of Their Eyes

A short work, more like a long essay than a book. Lepore is a Colonial historian, and this is an interesting musing on the ways in which Americans use (and abuse) the history of the Revolution, the early republic, and the Founding Fathers. Lepore tells three historical stories: the story of the Revolution (when did it start? 1776? 1760? Earlier? It depends on what you mean by the Revolution - the war, or the radical shift in ideology?) and the early republic (who were the Founding Fathers? When did they become Founding Fathers?); the (largely unsuccessful) effort to organize an inclusive Bicentennial celebration in 1976; and the current use/abuse of Revolutionary history by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and folks like the Texas School Board (who revised their US History curriculum to remove Thomas Jefferson as a Founding Father).

This was a fascinating book. I found Lepore's discussion of the Revolutionary generation most interesting. Her discussion of the current attempts to re-cast US history into a Fundamentalist mold felt mildly screed like (even if I agree with her) - it wasn't necessary to convince the people who agree with her, and wasn't sufficient to convince the people who disagree with her. The general theme of the work was that the Revolution has been a political football since 1779, and that what we are currently experiencing isn't really all that different from previous attempts to control the meaning of the beginning of the nation (although, perhaps, somewhat more shrill and certainly louder than in previous iterations.)

I have only one complaint. Much of the work, I felt, would have been better as a lecture than as written - Lepore has a fairly breezy writing style that probably works very nicely when spoken. This reflects, I suspect, her view that academic historians should write histories that non-academics can understand and appreciate (I agree!), but sometimes it is difficult to walk the line between a tone which is open and conversational and one which seems to trivialize the subject under discussion. There were places where I think Lepore crossed that line, places where, in a lecture, she might have softened the words with an ironic smile, or a wink.

Still, a solidly thought provoking work, and one which I would recommend to anyone currently frustrated by the political rhetoric in the United States.