Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Review, 8/12/2011

Four books this week.

Pierre Pevel - The Alchemist in Shadows

This is the sequel to last year's The Cardinals Blades. Pevel is a French writer, and these books are translated. I don't know how much of what troubled me about the book is due to the translation and how much is due to the fact that Pevel is French. At any rate, although I really enjoyed the book, I had two fairly significant problems with it as well.

First, some plot. The story revolves around the same group of rapier wielding swashbucklers as the last book. The Cardinal's Blades are a small group of elite soldier-types who serve Cardinal Richelieu as spies and troubleshooters and all the sorts of things small groups of elite soldier-types are generally used for. Doing things that no one else can do, that sort of thing. Anyway, at the beginning of the book, there is a woman, a woman who has spied for many nations, including France and Spain (where the dragons are, you know) and England. She works for herself, and sells information to the most interested party for the highest price she can get. She has evidence of a plot against the French throne, and will only give it up in exchange for formal protection by the Cardinal, which would require a formal pardon by the king, which the king is unlikely to give, because it would piss off the Parlement, the traditional Parisian court system. The main story is about the Blades unraveling this plot.

That's my first problem with the book - it feels like a series of loosely linked vignettes - short stories which have been patched together with some interstitial bits to make a novel. It's even possible that this is the case - the first story about how the Blades fight the nasty Spanish dracs (dragon type things that walk like men) the second story about how they track down some subversive elements in the French aristocracy, and the third story about how they save the French throne - but the patches seem a little shaky. It was jarring.

The second problem I had with the book is that the pacing is odd. That may actually be due to the short stories bolted together aspect - each story has rising action and a climax - but for most of the book, it felt like everything was dragging very slowly. Lots and lots of talking, not a lot of action. And then, in the last few chapters, BOOM, action all over the place, so much it was hard to keep track of who was where, doing what to whom with what implement.

All that aside, the book was quite enjoyable. The characters were interesting, the plot was compelling, everything worked, mostly. Just, you know, don't read it right before bed, unless you're suffering from insomnia.

China Mieville - Embassytown

This is a book about postmodern linguistic theories about the meaning of language. What is language? Do words mean anything in and of themselves, or are they just convenient tags we hang on things we observe? Mieville attempts (with considerable success) to wrestle with these ideas. What is reality? To what extent do we define reality by the way we use language? That is the other major concept in this book.

Setting. Humans have traveled far away from Earth (Terre) by tapping into a sort of sub-space. There are some humans who can manipulate this sub-space - the immer - which, Mieville contends, is the reality which underpins the universe. The universe in question is the third universe, but the immer does not change. Immersers, who can manipulate the immer, can manipulate reality in the universe as well - a skill that immers call "floaking". Avice Benner Cho - the heroine of the book - is moderately skilled at floaking - twitching the universe just a little so that she doesn't have to work very hard. Convincing authorities (for instance) that she has permission to be places where she does not, in fact, have permission to be.

Avice lives in Embassytown, a small human settlement on Ariekei - a planet on the fringes of explored space, quite difficult to get to via the immer, and inhabited by the Hosts (or, to non-Embassytown dwellers, the Ariekei). The Hosts are a strange alien race who speak with two voices simultaneously, and who cannot understand people who do not also speak with two voices (but only one brain). Embassytown breeds Ambassadors, perfectly identical cloned twins who are trained to speak as one. Through the Ambassadors, humans can speak to the Hosts, exchanging Human technology for Hostish bioengineering.

In addition to their strange speech, the Hosts have no concept of figurative speech. The words in their language have intrinsic meaning. In order to make use of figures of speech such as similes, they must construct complex situations to which they can then, at a later date, refer. For instance, there is a rock outside of town which has been split in two and then cemented back together. The Hosts did this so that they can say "this situation is like the rock which was split apart and the put back together" - if the rock did not exist, the Hosts literally could not think of concepts which were like that rock.

Everything comes to pieces when the government of Bremen - theoretically in charge of Embassytown - attempts to make a power-grab by sending their own Ambassador in. From there, things become increasingly complex and dense and complicated. But, in the end, the book is about language, and meaning, and reality. Do words mean things? If so, do we alter reality by using specific words for specific things? Hard to say, but interesting to explore.

This book was a little tough to wrap my head around. There was a strong feeling of Mieville being smarter than his audience, being "more postmodern than thou," but it wasn't overwhelming, and it didn't make the book unreadable (as linguistic games often do). It wasn't, however, a puzzle like Kraken - there was no sense of Mieville inviting his audience into a shared exploration. It was more straightforward in its narrative structure, even as it was more abstruse in its content. So, it might make your head hurt, and it will probably make you think, but it's a good story, and you may enjoy it despite all of that.

Robert Allison - The American Revolution

I grabbed this because I wanted to see how you could possibly cover the American Revolution in less than 100 pages. I'm sorry to say that, frankly, you can't. Allison gives it a valiant effort, but the event was such a nuanced thing, with complex meanings and sub-events and twists and such, that to pack it all into a tiny book like this means you are stripping away too much. Frankly, when I finished, I was disappointed. Not so much in Allison, or even in the book, but in Oxford University for publishing the book. Oxford has been publishing some huge, 900-1000 page historical bricks, each detailing a small time period in World or European or Asian or American history. These are invaluable to the historian. They are frequently written in engaging prose, such that the layperson could, with only a little effort, read them - even enjoy them. This book is like one of those books seen through a telescope the wrong way around - tiny, and not very helpful.

I did think of one use, though. Say you needed to appear knowledgeable (but not TOO knowledgeable) about the American Revolution, but only had an afternoon to get that way. I'm envisioning something from Mission:Impossible, where you need to infiltrate a cadre of, I don't know, college freshmen, with only a limited amount of time to prepare everything. This book would be invaluable in that case. Or, I suppose, if you needed to take a test on the American Revolution, and had been sleeping through the first half of the semester - this book might help there too. Otherwise, don't bother.

N.K. Jemisin - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Ok, I don't know why I didn't think I would like this book, because it has stuff in it that I like a lot. It has complex politics. It has strong characters (especially the heroine,  Yeine). It has complicated religion. It has backstabbing, and a castle on the top of an impossibly tall stone spire. It has a compelling world which is well crafted (although we don't see much of it in this book). It has a delightfully convoluted plot (not aided by the fact that Yeine does not know how to tell a story. Note, it is Yeine who lacks this skill - Jemisin is a fine story teller, but her narrator is woefully unreliable.) and a satisfying conclusion (although it is the first of a trilogy). I don't know why I didn't think I would like it, but I didn't, and I was wrong.

Yeine is summoned to Sky, the ruling city of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Her grandfather, patriarch of the Arameri family (to which Yeine is related through her mother), and also (sort of) ruler of the Kingdoms, and also (sort of) high priest, has summoned Yeine. When she arrives, she discovers that Dakarta (her grandfather) wishes her to be his heir. Sort of. One of three, and thus part of some byzantine contest to determine who will take Dakarta's (sort of) throne. Yeine discovers things about her family that she does not like, things about herself that she does not imagine, and things about her gods that she almost cannot comprehend. In the end, everything comes out sort of ok.

I'm really looking forward to the next book, which will present its narrative from the point of view of someone antagonistic in this first novel. I suspect that Jemisin will attempt to rehabilitate this character, both in terms of the world and in the eyes of the audience - making hir sympathetic to the audience while zie repents of hir sins from the first novel. I love that sort of thing!

Some potential triggers - there are some mentions of rape, and some consensual sex which borders on rape. There's some torture as well. Yeine's family is not very nice, and her world is not all that pretty, on a lot of levels (largely because her not very nice family has been running things for quite some time).