Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Review, 5/20/2011

Four books this week, although, to be fair, I had almost finished one of them last Friday.

Elizabeth Moon - Kings of the North

This is the sequel to Oath of Fealty, which was the first book in a new trilogy featuring Paksenarrion. Except, not really featuring her at all, just in the same world. She makes a brief cameo in this book, which is mostly about Kieri Phelan, struggling with his new duties as king of Lyonna, Dorrin Verrakai, struggling with her new duties as Duke Verrakai, and Jandelir Arcolin, struggling with his new duties as commander of Phelan's former mercenary company.

This is very much the second book in a trilogy. It has a satisfying narrative of its own, but it's clear that the overall narrative is connected fore and aft to the first and last books in the trilogy. I would not recommend, at all, picking this book up without first reading Oath of Fealty - I might even suggest that you re-read the first book before starting this one, if it's been a while.

Plotwise, there's a lot of politics here; diplomats negotiating marriages, kings balancing advisors, that sort of thing. There's action as well - Arcolin continues to fight against bandits, there's some sword fighting, there's a forest fire, an surprising assassin or two - but the heart of the book is politics. And that's great - this is a much more mature novel than any of the first trilogy. Political novels are tricky to write, I think, because you have to keep the pace up while nothing physical is going on. So, in that regard, excellent.

I was concerned going in that the novel would be scarred somehow by Moon's regrettable statements about the Park 51 Islamic Center. I think, ultimately, the only thing that the whole thing spoiled was my ability to read easily - if there's a screed in the book, it's very subtle, and I missed it. The novel remains full of the things I like about Moon's writing - deep complex characters, especially women; a celebration of choice and free will, especially for women; and, above all, a compelling story with a lot of threads leading in a lot of different directions. Existing fans of Moon will, I think, be pleased.

Scott Nicholson - Everyone Plays at the Library

Nicholson invites us to see the library as more than just a place to get books. He suggests that the library is a social forum, and that playing games is one of the things we do in social forums. He states that we've been playing games (like chess, checkers, and Scrabble) in libraries almost as long as there have been libraries in the US. He then presents a number of different sorts of games, rating them based on how well he thinks they would fit in a library setting. He ends by suggesting a number of ways in which different sorts of games can be integrated into the mission of a library.

The premise was interesting, and the presentation is very professional. As a library advocate, I found the work valuable. As a reader, however, it was a little dry, and as a game player I found a lot ... not to disagree with, I guess, but to quibble over. Games that, perhaps, I felt would work better, or less well. Nothing egregious, just the sort of things that gamers like to debate - this game is clearly superior to that game because of a,b, and q. So, interesting to an extent (especially for those involved or invested in public libraries), but not exactly a page turner - a good starting point, and a valuable reference.

Maria V. Snyder - Poison Study

A delicious political novel, with nice world building, and a little taste of romance. Yelena is scheduled to be executed for killing the son of a General. She is offered a choice - she can hang, or she can take a job as food taster for the Commander of Ixia (the nation she lives in); ensuring that his food is not poisoned. She takes the job, and discovers that there is a great deal of danger in the job, not all of which has to do with poison in the food.

The world is interesting - Ixia, previously a kingdom, is currently run by the Commander, who took power in a coup. He has imposed a fairly harsh order on society - everyone wears a uniform, everyone works at a designated job, movement is restricted, killing anyone for any reason is a death sentence - but there are suggestions that this order is greatly preferable to the random chaos that existed under the king, where citizens were killed at the whim of the aristocracy, people starved and froze in the streets for lack of clothing or employment, and there was no justice. The ambiguity of the situation was compelling - everything is grey, there is no clear black or white in Snyder's world. Compelling and entertaining.

There is magic here as well - banned in Ixia, but prominent in Ixia's neighbors - and that is, perhaps, less well explained. (I suspect that a full exploration of the magic system will come in the sequel, Magic Study). Still, the book has a great deal that I like - strong female characters, compelling plot, dark politics, devious intrigue, and a touch of romance - I'll be picking up the sequel.

Trigger warnings - torture and (mostly offstage) rape.

Michael Capuzzo - The Murder Room

This was not a great book. I'm just going to lead with that. Capuzzo is telling the (non-fiction) story of the Vidocq Society - a group of 82 forensic experts and dogged crime solvers named after E.F. Vidocq, the father of the Surete in France (and the inspiration for the first detective novels by Edgar Allen Poe, and by Arthur Conan Doyle). The club, based in Philadelphia, brings together experts to solve cold cases - murders which have not been solved for over two years. Police, and the parents and loved ones of victims, bring the cases to the Society who look into the case and provide advice which sometimes results in catching the killer.

So. Not a great book. Capuzzo's writing style is a little off putting. He likes to use little cute phrases to describe people - not all the time, because that would make the book unreadable, but often enough that it's awkward. Also, he plays games with chronology - he'll introduce a case in a chapter, then move onto another case in the next chapter, then return to the earlier case in the chapter after that - distracting. Finally, the subject material is unpleasant. Most of the cases involve very violent murders, and the book features serial killers, sexual sadism, child abuse, and any number of other unpleasantness. Consider that a trigger warning - the subject matter is unavoidable, because it's all pervasive. The Society doesn't get asked to solve simple murders where the murderer is easy to finger and the motive is fairly simple to discern - they get called in to solve complex cases where the motive is murky and the killer is playing games with the cops.

Finally, I really didn't connect with the Society members that Capuzzo chose to highlight. They were, in their own ways, psychologically off - the suspicion is that they are able to catch serial killers because, save for some indefinable elements of personal history, they could have gone down that path themselves.

So, icky subject matter, off-putting characters, and a distracting narrative style. All in all, not my thing - not bad, but not a great book. When I picked the book up, I noted that it could be dreadful - I don't know that I would go quite as far as that, but it's certainly not my new favorite.