Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Review Post, 1/7/2011

Is this the first review post of 2011? Why, yes, I believe it is!

So, I suggested that this would be "de Lint Week", but that's perhaps an overstatement. Still, more de Lint than anything else, so that counts, right?  Additionally, authors in today's post are people that I have met in person!

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. - Empress of Eternity

Mr. Modesitt is a nice guy, and a snappy dresser. He worked, at one point, as the Director of Legislation and Congressional Relations for the US Environmental Protection Agency, and so he takes science and politics seriously, which is reflected in his writing.  This book is a great example of that.  There is plenty of science and lots of politics, and both are handled with care and attention.

The book starts a little slowly.  The first three chapters were actually a little difficult to get through, but it picked up after that.  The pace picked up, but the book never really a page turner.  This was a very character driven book, and a lot of the book was dialogue.  I don't mean to imply that there was no action - there was a car chase, and several battle scenes, two or three failed assassination attempts and one successful one - but there was a lot of dialogue in between the action, and so the whole book was a little slow.

As long as we're talking about things that might be off putting about this book - it's deeply (and not very subtly) allegorical (this is a thing which science fiction has always done, though, so that's ok).

Science allegory - This is a book about global warming, and Modesitt doesn't mince words, nor hide which side of the debate (the solidly scientific side) he falls on.  If you fall on the other side of the debate (the fluffy headed anti-science, denialist side), you may find this hard to swallow.  Even if you agree with Modesitt (as, perhaps you gather, I do), there are passages with moderate to severe overtones of preaching to the choir, which could be hard to endure. So, that's the science.

Politically, this book is also mildly allegorical, addressing issues of political power in a democracy, and the duties of citizens.  That's a little less heavy handed, but it's still there.

Other things - I would have liked a map and a timeline so that I could properly place the events geographically and temporally.

So, kinda preachy, and needed some maps. Despite that, a good book.  There are interesting heroes, both male and female.  There's a spy plot, there are big bad guys, there's a weird artifact (a canal which stretches across the "central continent" of Earth), there's far future technology - it's good sci fi.  There's some discussion of where myths come from which is interesting too. I won't steer you entirely away from this, but if you've never read any Modessit before, this may not be the best place to start, and if you're a big fan of the Recluce novels, but haven't read any of Modessit's sci fi, I'd suggest starting with Archform:Beauty or The Elysium Commission as entry points.

Charles de Lint

De Lint is also a nice guy, although not as snappy a dresser as Modessit.  He's also one of my favorite authors, one of the few whose books I will buy when I see them for sale, rather than borrowing them from the library first. (unless I see them first at the library, you know?)

For quite some time, de Lint has been writing Urban Fantasy (arguably, he's the father of the genre), and exploring questions about the nature of reality. What is real? Where do myths come from? What happens to our ideas when we put them out into the universe? Where do the ideas come from in the first place?  Questions like that.  His novels explore interactions between people and their environment, and the way that these interactions build upon each other and resonate with each other, creating "magic" and spirit, even in places where you don't expect to find it. (A note - while de Lint clearly believes that there is a broader world than our "consensual reality", he uses elements of myth and legend as metaphors, as he explains here.)

(A further note - just because they are metaphors doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't real. As Erik Amundsen says:
First first thing: magic is almost certainly not real in our world.  At least, not the way the word makes it sound.  Not real in the sense that it will cure your cancer or even your dandruff.  Not real in the sense that it will beguile your lovers or confound your enemies (well, actually, that part usually works pretty well, actually, but not, you know, like magic), most important, it is not real in the sense that it can replace a single ounce of real, actual work you really, actually need to do in this world o' sin.

Second first thing, is that, real or not, it works.  It won't do what you want for you, but it will with you, by you, throughyou, to you, eventually.  It doesn't negate the work you have to do, but it can make it easier, perhaps even make it possible for you to do it.)
So. That's what we're dealing with when we read something by Mr. de Lint - the world which may or may not exist beyond the world in which we live.

Charles de Lint - Spirit in the Wires

This is an older novel, set in de Lint's fictional city of Newford. Here, he explores a question which lies alongside the questions about reality listed above - How does all of this interact with the internet? When the book was published (2004), a lot of the issues of the internet were still relatively new (isn't that scary? 2004 wasn't THAT long ago!), and so there are elements of the book which feel a little dated - everyone connecting via dial up, for instance. Still, de Lint has been playing with the internet for quite some time (he's no Luddite!), and so the descriptions are fairly accurate - which is odd for many books discussing the internet.

Like the Modessit, this book is a little slow, because it is heavily character driven and has lots and lots of dialog.  Indeed, on a lot of levels, there are things about this book that are all wrong - de Lint introduces a new character deep into the book, he cuts back and forth between characters long after it seems like the actions of some of the characters no longer affect the primary action of the book, and there's a sudden "conversion" scene (or "face turn", if you prefer) - but somehow the whole thing works.

Despite the dialogue heavy nature of the book, there's plenty of action too.  Although dense and complicated, the book is a pure joy to read.  It was also deeply philosophical, prompting considerations about reality and magic, all in all, a fantastic book. De Lint tries to write each of his books as stand alone novels, so that you don't need a lot of backstory to enjoy the book.  In this work, that is mostly successful, but the book focuses on a number of characters who have been in other works - arguably, the book would be a richer experience if you stared with memory and dream, Trader, and Someplace to be Flying. Arguably. But it's not an overriding argument; you could start here and work your way backwards too.

Charles de Lint - The Painted Boy

Where Spirit is a relatively older novel, this is de Lint's most recent work.  Recently, he's been moving away from Newford - the city was a useful construct, but I get the sense that de Lint needs to move on to new ground periodically, and Newford was becoming restrictive.  This book is set in a small city on the US/Mexico border - de Lint spends his winters in New Mexico - and features a cast of characters which we've never seen before (another reason to shift away from Newford - less chance of running into people the readers already know). This is also part of a series of YA novels that de Lint has been working on recently (recently being "over the past decade or so", I guess) with The Blue Girl, Dingo, and Little (Grrl) Lost springing to mind. As such, the characters are younger than in the earlier novel (late teens instead of late 30s), the plot is moderately less convoluted, and there's a little less conversation (and a little more action).

As the novel begins, 17 year old Jim Li arrives in Santo del Vado Viejo from Chicago.  He's not sure why he's in Santo del Vado Viejo, but his grandmother suggested that it was time for him to travel, and his parents reluctantly agreed.  He knows it has something to do with the tattoo on his back - which isn't a tattoo, but rather an image of a black and gold dragon which appeared when he turned 11. Jim is a member of the Gold Dragon Clan, formerly defender of the Chinese emperor, but now a defender of where ever they happen to find themselves settling.  Jim ends up caught up in a struggle with the local gangs, and  (slowly, and reluctantly) comes into his inheritance.

This is a great book, a quick read, with enough depth to be entirely satisfying, but not so much complexity that you get bogged down. Something you could sit down with and read in an afternoon, and enough of a page turner that you may find yourself doing exactly that. A fine place to start exploring the world of de Lint.

eta: This evening, I started to read Waifs and Strays, de Lint's collection of YA short stories (and the other de Lint on my Christmas Bounty list), and discovered that the interview I did with de Lint, back forever ago (it's the one I linked to above) is cited in Terri Windling's intro to the collection. She misspelled my name, alas, but, hey, a tiny moment of meaningless fame!