Saturday, April 23, 2011

Friday Book Review, 4/22/2011

Two this week.

Faith Hunter - Seraphs

This is left over from last week's trashy book binge - I kept the trilogy, and had hoped to review this one and Host this week, but, alas, Host will have to wait until next week, because I am not done.

I continue to find Hunter's world building delightful - there's a lot of interesting stuff to play with in the setting. My wife points out that the author's note suggests that Hunter is working on a role playing game set in her world - that would make a great deal of sense. I can easily see this as an RPG setting. Although the action does not move away from Mineral City (a smallish town in the Appalachian Mountains, where Thorn St. Croix lives and works), Hunter gives a good sense of the political and cultural landscape in this post-apocalyptic world. All good stuff there.

Hunter's characters are interesting as well, although the further away from Thorn the characters get, the less well rendered they are as characters (which is natural, I suppose, but the description gets thin fairly quickly, I think). That being said, even the primary characters are not hugely deep - Thorn is inexperienced as a mage, this gets her into trouble that an experienced mage would have avoided. Her lack of training allows her to do things that a formally trained mage would not attempt, and this helps her get out of trouble. The men in her life are either ruggedly handsome (and thus want to sleep with her), bitterly evil (and thus want to kill her), or gay (and thus want to protect her). The women in Thorn's life are either rivals for the affections of the ruggedly handsome men, married to the bitterly evil men (and are thus either inclined to hate Thorn, or possibly seek to act as diplomats), children, or more or less non-entities. There are a couple of exceptions - there is a happily and stably married couple who are friends of Thorn, and there is Lolo, Thorn's distant "mentor" (although she doesn't really mentor Thorn all that much; it's more like Thorn asks some pointed questions [by long distance magic communication; there are no phones in the Mage Enclave] and Lolo refuses to answer them - Lolo exists in the book largely as a figure in the background, someone who has knowledge and refuses to share it for some reason.). On the other hand, I wasn't really looking for depth of character or complexity of plot when I grabbed the books, so. Caveat Emptor, perhaps.

Thorn spends this book cleaning up the mess she left behind in the previous book, and setting up the mess she will have to deal with in the next book. This is, of course, the nature of a series. In terms of the nature of books in a series, I think, if forced to, you could read this book without having read the first book, but parts of it would be frustrating - Hunter provides a fair bit of back story throughout, but there are significant gaps in the narrative. Having read the first book, there were several places where I could have done with a little less back story - but not significantly so. It distracted, but it did not detract. 

In this book, Thorn reconnects with the Big Bad from the last book, as she attempts to rescue a pair of Seraphim who are trapped under the local mountains (where the evil Darkness is doing ... something. Something involving blood, and breeding mages. Mages, as you may recall, require a Seraph in order to go into heat; without one, the female mages cannot ovulate. Having a trapped Seraph or two would be a vital point in any clandestine mage breeding scheme.)

I should say, at this point, I'm less thrilled with the whole mage heat thing than I was in the first book. It's clearly a significant plot element, but it really squicks me out. Plus, it has the effect of removing any sense of bodily autonomy from mages, and since the mage we see the most of is Thorn, that really means it removes the bodily autonomy of women. Thorn seems capable of keeping herself to herself, and I keep hoping that there's going to be some sort of plot revelation in which it becomes clear that the mages are revealed to be really human, or something of that nature. (I should also say, that as I approach the last 1/4 of the third book, that hope becomes increasingly fleeting. Alas.)

Another thing I'm not thrilled about is the way that Thorn charges into a combat situation, kicks a lot of butt, and then finds herself unable to go on, and is forced to call "mage in dire"*, summoning big strong (male) Seraphs to save her.

I'm also not particularly happy with Hunter's use of neologisms and portmanteau words - like champard - Champion Partners, the human folks who provide their muscle to back up a mage (mages are fast, but not all that strong. Humans are strong, but not as fast as mages. Champards balance the weakness of the mage, or something of that nature). Neologisms sometimes irk me, especially when they don't really need to be used - champion would probably have worked, in this context, just as well.

So. The world is delightful (and I think I'd like to see more of the world, perhaps), the plot is sufficiently compelling that I want to finish the third book, but there are serious problems with the characters. As I said above, I wasn't looking for great literature. These are a quick read, amusing and diverting, but my wife says (and I agree) that they leave you wanting something with more substance afterwards.

*to summon Seraphs, mages recite a little rhyme: "Mage in battle, mage in dire, seraphs come with Holy Fire", and, eventually (just in time) a seraph or two will show up. My problem here is that you can't be "in dire." You have to be in dire something - in dire need, in dire circumstances, in dire condition, in a dire badger. Of course, that breaks the rhyme, but still - "mage in dire" is silly - and it gets mentioned a LOT.

"I told you what would happen if you quoted Monty Python at the table again. Now Zifnab has been eaten by the dire badger, and I hope that will be lesson to you all."

Rowan Jacobsen - American Terroir

Oh, but this was a delightful, and thoroughly dangerous, book. This was my food book for the week (the last food book for Lent!). It addresses the idea that food grown in a particular location tastes in a particular way, and so some food (because of where it is produced) is "better," or at least more interesting, than food produced elsewhere. Jacobsen is making an almost heretical argument - that the concept of terroir (generally used to described the sort of flavor affecting growing conditions that make specific vintages French wines taste in a particular way) can be applied to the New World. He makes a compelling argument (at least to me - but then, I'm not a French vinter, so I have no dog in the fight, as it were.)

Jacobsen's second argument is that, by ignoring terroir, Americans end up eating a lot of pretty crappy food, and if we concentrated on selecting foods from the regions that produced those foods best, we would eat a lot better. This argument is also compelling, but, at the same time, it is highly troubling. I've just spent the past several weeks reading books suggesting that I should concentrate on eating locally - now here's Jacobsen suggesting more or less the opposite - that I should get my maple syrup from the "North East Triangle" (Vermont up into Eastern Canada, out to the East Coast, and down as far as West Virginia, more or less - and I live in that triangle, so that's not a problem), my avocados from Mexico, my apples from Northwest Washington State, my salmon from Alaska (the Yukon River, to be specific), my coffee from some fairly limited producers (who still know how to properly roast a good coffee bean), my wine from a select few California vinters (more on that later), my chocolate from folks who know how to make chocolate the way that the Aztecs did, and my honey from Pitcairn Island. Instead of eating locally, I should eat globally - and, by eating globally, I will better support small farmers and sustainable fishermen and ancient folk/food ways all over the place. While, at the same time, eating fantastically better than I ever thought possible. Well. I like the sound of that, even while I'm torn by my desire to be a locavore.

The writing here is passionate, but the tone is light, and full of humor. Jacobsen includes several discursive footnotes (which, as a reader, I always find highly enjoyable), and his descriptions of the foods he is talking about are mouth watering. I spent most of the week wandering around craving really high end cheese and light roasted coffee and fantastic sounding chocolate, and oysters (which I don't eat, ever, at all). This is why the book is dangerous - I think I could, given a lot more money, be a really good foodie (total side note - foodie is recognized by the spell check, but mage is not? Huh.). But I can't afford it, even if Jacobsen makes it sound fantastic.

Beyond making me crave foods well outside my budget, the book had a couple of significant flaws that almost threw me out of the enjoyment of the book. First, in his chapter on wine, Jacobsen makes use of an extended metaphor, comparing cheap wine to a stripper and good wine to a lover who continues to surprise you, even after a long relationship. This is fine as far as it goes, but he feels the need to defend his use of the metaphor in a footnote, in which he suggests that anyone who might be offended by the potentially sexist nature of the metaphor lacks the intelligence to fully appreciate what Jacobsen is saying. Ick. If you feel that your metaphor needs defense so badly, perhaps you need to find a different metaphor.

Second, and perhaps more egregious, there is a strong vibe of "the best example of this sort of food is X, and it is the best because I say so." For instance, in the chapter on coffee, Jacobsen presents an interview with George Howell, a guy who has started (or re-started) a tradition of coffee "cuppings," or tastings. This guy contends that a light roast is the way that coffee is supposed to be, and that a dark roast is a trick that coffee merchants play on coffee drinkers in order to sell an inferior product. Fine, ok, I buy that, but the guy describes one of his first cuppings. Several notables in the American coffee world were presented with a blind panel of coffees and asked to say which was the best. One of the notables invariably picked the darkest roasts, saying "this one, I like this one the best." Jacobsen, and Howell, respond by saying "no, you're wrong, that's not the best. This one is." You see, perhaps, the problem - one the one hand, Jacobsen (and the people he is talking to) are suggesting that some products are superior to others, and that as a result we should like those better. But, the way they present this, they imply that if we claim to like an inferior product, it is because we are wrong - that we don't actually know what we like, that we are deluding ourselves. In the chapter on chocolate, this comes out quite strongly - Jacobsen is not a fan of the current push for darker and darker chocolates. He describes the people who enjoy a really dark chocolate as being involved in a cult - he says that he's not going to convince them of his rightness, and so it's not even worth trying. This tone of smugness was all through the book; sometimes it was a lot closer to the surface than at other times.

So. I loved the food descriptions. I'm sympathetic to the idea that support for small scale production of artisanal products result in better food, in better conditions for the producers, and in a generally better world. I wish I could afford to provide more of that support than I do. I also wish that my camp, the camp of people who like that sort of thing, wasn't full of smug folks who think that liking a superior product makes them a superior human being.

That's it for this week, but I'd like to remind you that YOU are a superior human being for reading this.