Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Review Post, 6/17/2011

My girls have left to spend their week further south, and my hosts are out celebrating Father's Day (Happy Father's Day, incidentally, to any fathers, new or established), so I think that counts as downtime. Here's the expanded reviews.

Bernard Cornwell - The Archer's Tale

This is the first of Cornwell's "Grail Quest" trilogy (although Cornwell has a notorious habit of sneaking back and filling in bits he feels he left out, so it may well turn out to be much longer than a trilogy). It's Sharpe's Rifles, only in the Hundred Years' War, with long bows instead of rifles. Pretty good, but not very deep.

Weeeeell. It was a little deep in places. Cornwell does some nice things with villains and redemption. His protagonist is no saint, although clearly he has some admirable qualities. Cornwell does excellent character building in his primary characters - once you get past second tier characters, however, they become pastiches. Some interesting musing on the nature of war, and how it really hasn't changed all that much, and on the importance of competent leadership.

One thing that Cornwell has always done very well is the inclusion of an author's historical note. Cornwell is scrupulous in pointing out where he has taken liberties with the historical record in order to insert his character into the fray. He is also very good at not altering any major events in order to get the desired effect. This book is certainly true to that tradition. It needs maps, however - several of the Sharpe's Rifles books have excellent maps of the battlefield, with troop movements carefully displayed. This book, not so much. Since the book concludes in one of the very few set piece battles of the 100 Years War, a battlefield map would seem to be lacking.

Perhaps a trigger warning is in order - Cornwell's character muses on the use of rape as a weapon, and concludes, eventually, that it does more harm than good to the invaders, and acts to prevent it, as possible. This realization comes as a result of nursing a rape victim back to mental health. The rape scenes are not graphic, but they are present; if that bothers you, I'd say read with caution.

Elizabeth Adler - The Property of a Lady

I didn't finish this one - Adler kept introducing new characters, and it wasn't what I thought it was going to be at all. I thought it was going to be a novel about a Russian princess struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Instead, it was a heavy handed spy novel set just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Except Adler didn't know the Soviet Union was going to fall, so. Ultimately, I didn't care much about any of the characters, and I know how the history ends.

As mentioned in the comments, the book looks like a romance novel, and it certainly has elements of romance in it - handsome male spies, a beautiful news reporter, an attractive young woman with an aristocratic background who, in her old age, claims to have been married several times (it seems clear that Adler intended to introduce us to the woman's husbands over the course of the novel). Ultimately, I think the book was trying too hard to do too many things - is it a spy novel? Is it a novel about the television news business? Is it a romance novel? Is it a memoir? Hard to say. I think, had it been properly billed as a spy thriller, and the memories of the old lady been left out, it would have worked quite well. Equally, had it been billed as a recounting of the life of a remarkable woman, it would have worked well. Smooshing those two novels together, though, was a big mistake.

China Mieville - Kraken

This was a truly delightful novel. It was dense, with multiple story lines weaving in and out of each other, pulling the reader deeper and deeper into the murky plot. Mieville leads his readers down a branching path of a story, teasing them with false resolution after false resolution until he, and his readers, arrive at a pleasantly satisfying ending.

The premise - the theft of a preserved giant squid from the Darwin Center in London seems to have triggered an apocalypse of some sort. As Billy Harrow, Mieville's principal protagonist soon discovers, the squid is just the tip of an increasingly weird iceberg. Harrow finds that London is a remarkably complex city, with various cults vying for attention, each with an agenda and an apocalypse of its own. This web of Armageddonim - a lovely plural ("I find I need to know the plural of apocalypse," Riley Finn) makes the various cults fractious - clearly, only one apocalypse can be THE apocalypse - and so the London police have a special branch devoted to keeping the cults from each others' necks. This branch also handles all the weird stuff - the magicians and mystics of various ilks who, it becomes clear, inhabit the netherworld of London (and most other major cities, it is implied.) This netherworld includes magical villains such as Grishnamentum (who may or may not be dead) and the Tattoo, who has a warped and twisted sense of humor to match his warped and twist band of henchmen. It includes people who do origami on things other than paper - people, say - and people who can transport objects with magic, and people who can connect you to the magical protective power of music. It also includes cult collectors - an odd bunch of religion geeks who become members of cults in order to show off to their peers - and several unusual actors - the Ocean has an embassy in London, as does Fire. This is all delightful stuff.

As my on going love of Charles DeLint should indicate, I am fascinated with the idea that there is a world which operates in a state of "un, sub, or supernatural" being - just over, or under, or slight off from our own. Mieville is clearly playing with this idea here, as do authors like Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers. However, where DeLint's work presents that world as largely ... I don't know - harmless is not the word, because there's plenty of menace in DeLint's fantasy world, but, somehow, lighter than our own world? ... Anyway, Mieville's parallel world is dark, moody, heavier than our own world. The writing is not straightforward either - Mieville clearly delights in teasing his readers. He is playing a game with us; he is smarter than us, but, at least in this book, he doesn't come across as smug. He is inviting us into his joke, into his complex game, and hopes we enjoy what he has to offer. And I did. I will, perhaps, seek out something else by him - I understand that Perdido Station is not un-readable.

I will note that Mieville's London has coloured my dreams to some greater or lesser extent for the past week or so - I can't remember them when I wake up, but they are rambling, complex things, full of blind alleys and trap streets (and trap streets - I can't believe that Mieville is the first author to use them to narrative effect. Trap streets are streets that cartographers include in their maps in order to prove that they were the author of the map - they don't exist in the real world. Mieville posits that they DO exist in the real world, but that you can't find them unless you're in the right frame of mind. This is a simply brilliant bit, and I'm sure someone else has had the same brainwave, but I've never seen it before). If you don't like that sort of thing, perhaps you should read the book with caution.