Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Review, 6/18/10

Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven

Kay is one of my favorite authors.  It has been interesting watching his writing change from the more traditional fantasy settings in works like The Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana, where the world was lushly described, to more character driven works like A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, and this book. The world in this book is presented in broad brush strokes, with only a few details suggesting the whole picture, not unlike traditional Chinese brush drawings. Since Arbonne, Kay has used fantasy infused versions of real world history - medieval France in Arbonne, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in al-Rassan, ancient Byzantium in the Sarantium duo, and ancient China in this current novel.  Here, China becomes the empire of Kitai, cultural and military center of its world, beset by barbarians and connected to Sardia (where the best horses come from) by the Silk Road.  This use of a somewhat familiar backdrop is a brilliant piece of writing craft, because it allows Kay to focus on his characters to the extent that he does.  This is not to suggest that Kay is careless with his background, because he isn't.  The research that has gone into all of his books is clearly evident.  Rather, the descriptions of the world provide grace-notes to the symphony that the characters represent.  In contrast to the background, the characters are fully realized, colourful, detailed, and vibrant.

Kay's novels explore themes of sacrifice, duty, friendship, and love, and this book is no different in that regard. Kay tells a story of a young man and an inconvenient gift in the form of a herd of Sardian horses.  He also tells a story of a reluctant princess, and a beautiful courtesan.  These stories are wound around each other, each building and supporting the others until they end in a complex climax which is not necessarily what you might expect.  All of this takes place against a backdrop of rebellion and dissent in the empire.

It seems odd to criticize an almost 500 page book for being incomplete, but there is an element of incompleteness here.  Although the trio of stories forms the core of the novel, Kay suggests that they are not the big story in the book - they are merely a footnote to the story of rebellion. This is an interesting conceit that could have been explored a little more. Further, early in the novel, Kay introduces a series of very minor characters who provide a different viewpoint on the action, but this stops after Part I of the book.  Through Part I, I found myself wondering "when is this minor character going to interact with the protagonist? What is their role in the bigger story?" until, towards the end of the section, I realized that they did not have a bigger role in the story - they existed to provide a small outside view. And then these outside views stopped, just as I was getting a handle on them, and I found I missed them later in the book.  Given the epilogue, where the idea that the matter of the novel which preceded was only a footnote to the great sweeping narrative of history, a series of smaller, sub-footnotes would have been nice.

Things I liked: Deep characters driving a complex story full of emotion and rich narrative. Things I didn't like: As fantastic and brilliant as the novel was, it could have been even more fantastic and brilliant.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Library Post, 6/14/2010

Holly Black - White Cat

Another from the Big Idea project that John Scalzi hosts. Black has an interesting idea about a world where magic works, and the first chapter looks fantastic. Magic, organic world building, and a caper novel - heaven.

Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due - From Capetown With Love

This is the 3rd of the Blair Underwood presents: Tennyson Hardwick series. Barnes and Due (a husband and wife writing team) are writing a series of books about a hardnosed gigolo turned private eye. The action is solid, the sex is very steamy, and the protagonist is black, which is actually the point.

Amal El-Motar - The Honey Month

I'm very excited about this one - I know Amal, and this is her first book, a series of fiction meditations about honey. It came from a literary experiment last February. I'm looking forward to reading this a great deal.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Beach Reading Review, 6/13/2010

So, I only managed to get through 2 books at the beach. The plan was to sit on the beach in the sun and read. The plan was thwarted by rain, which forced us to find alternate amusements, which were less conducive to reading. So. The two books were:

Jenna Helland - The Fanged Crown

This is the first of a series of Forgotten Realms (tm) books. Wizards of the Coast has tried several times to relaunch the novelizations of Dungeons and Dragons settings. Books about role playing settings are tricky to do right. You want a nice balance of characters who your readers could see as player characters, but you don't want to descend into "he swung his +1 sword of goblinbane at the goblin shaman, who cast Hold Person, and hit for 20 points of damage," because if  you do, you'll lose the non-player readers. And, frankly, most of the players too. One thing is universally held to be true among role players, and that is that there is nothing more boring than listening to someone else describe the exploits of their character. Helland, I think, has done a nice job of walking the fine line between crafting playable characters and describing the play. This wasn't a deep book by any stretch of the imagination, but it had some interesting plot points. I might, if I stumble upon it, pick up the next in the series. Actually, since the author of each of the 4 books is different, I might well pick up the next one to see what they do with Helland's opening. Round-robin writing can be amusing to read.

Naomi Neale - I Went to Vassar For This?

I am a sucker for quirky romances. This was pretty quirky. Advertising pitchlady Cathy Voorhees is accidentally sent back in time when her microwave explodes, and finds herself in 1959, inhabiting the body, and the life, of Cathy Voight, a cookbook writer. She falls in love with the landlord, manages to fix the thing which needed fixing in order to go back to now, and it all works out right in the end, which is sort of the point of the romance as a genre, really. Oddly, for a romance novel, there is no description of sex, although there is some discussion of the "oral-genital kiss of love," which is classically 1950s. Neale seems to have done her 1950s research fairly well - I didn't spot any obvious mistakes, anyway - and manages to address some weighty ideas, like racism and sexism, in a fairly lighthearted way. It was a cute book, and I'd read more by Neale.

I won't take the other beach books  back to the library just yet, so perhaps there will be a second edition of beach reading in the next week or so.