No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, August 11, 2017

2017/74: Penric's Fox -- Lois McMaster Bujold

Did demons mourn? Oh, yes, breathed Des. It is not something we come into the world knowing, as elementals. But we learn. Oh, how we learn. [loc. 1662]
This novella begins some eight months after the events of Penric and the Shaman: Penric has become friends with Inglis, and is visiting him -- and trying to learn shamanic magic -- when both are sought out by Senior Locator Oswyl. A local sorceress has been murdered, and he needs to find the murderer. Penric, though, is more interested in the fate of the dead sorceress' demon ...

Bujold explores the system of shamanic magic, which also features in The Hallowed Hunt (a novel I confess I didn't get along with) throughout this novella. Penric's fascination -- he's still ravenous for knowledge -- is infectious, and I think Inglis' explanations are rather clearer than in the earlier work.

But what I found most interesting was the depiction of demon-host relationship(s) from the outside: not Penric and Desdemona (who would be the first to admit that they're not an exemplar of the phenomenon), but the murdered Learned Magal and her demon -- and that demon and their new host. We've previously only seen Desdemona as Penric sees her (as she allows herself to be seen), but the fate of Magal's demon makes her unusually forthcoming.

It was actually the publication of this novella -- and a friend's anticipatory delight -- that prompted me to start reading the 'Penric and Desdemona' series. Thanks, V!

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

2017/73: Penric and the Shaman -- Lois McMaster Bujold

I take my first duty to be to souls, not laws. And to learn as well as teach, or what else do the gods put us in this world for? [loc. 856]
Four years have passed since Penric acquired, or began to host, the chaos demon he calls Desdemona. Now a fully-fledged Divine of the Bastard's Order, he is living in the palace of the Princess-Archdivine Llewen, sorcerously crafting printing plates, and studying greedily.

This pleasant existence is interrupted by the arrival of Senior Locator Oswyl, who is in pursuit of a murderer and would like to avail himself of Penric's sorcerous skills. The victim had been friends with a shaman, who has disappeared: and so has the soul of the murdered man. In short, the shaman may have taken not only the man's life, but his ghost -- and his promised afterlife.

It's not quite that simple, of course. This novella opens with a chapter from the point of view of the shaman Inglis, injured in the snow and rescued by villagers who have secrets of their own. Inglis carries a heavy burden of guilt and grief.

I do like these novellas: they're gentle, thoughtful, often very funny, and they deal with some interesting features of Bujold's quintarian theology. Penric is rather less callow than in Penric's Demon, and his relationship with Desdemona has clearly evolved over the intervening years. Oswyl, an honourable and conscientious investigator, has burdens of his own, and at first finds Penric hard work. And Inglis, with his ambition, his damaged powers and his loneliness, is an intriguing character. Another enjoyable read.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

2017/72: Penric's Demon -- Lois McMaster Bujold

When he glanced up at the mirror, his mouth said, “Yes, let’s get another look at you.” [loc. 331]
Penric kin Jurald, scion of a minor noble house, is on his way to his betrothal when he accidentally acquires a chaos demon.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, chaos demons are usually passed from Learned Divine to Learned Divine -- not from Learned Divine to clueless teenager. Secondly, this demon has had only female hosts before Pen. Thirdly, the acquisition of a chaos demon automatically makes one a sorcerer: and Pen knows nothing about sorcery. And fourthly... well, fourthly, Pen's body is home to a demon as well as to Pen himself, and nothing in his life so far has prepared him for this.

What makes all the difference -- and what makes this novella so charming -- is that Pen is a decent and compassionate young man. He grants 'his' demon a name -- Desdemona -- and attempts to get along with his unsought companion as best he can. With, it has to be said, some amusing consequences. But by the end of the novella -- after threats to both Penric and Desdemona -- it's clear that the two of them have a workable partnership.

Luckily Bujold has written more novellas in this sequence: they were the perfect post-con pick-me-up.

Monday, August 07, 2017

2017/71: The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. -- Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Photography breaks magic by embalming a specific moment—one version of reality—into a recorded image. Once that moment is so recorded, then all other possible versions of that moment are excluded from the world that contains that photograph.” [p. 35]
I was really looking forward to reading this: perhaps that's why this is such a negative review, reflecting the depth of my disappointment.

The premise of the novel is simple: time travel exists, and magic existed in the past but fizzled out with the rise of industrialism, and especially photography. Our intrepid protagonists would like to bring magic back. Of course it is not that simple. 750 pages later ...

Sorry, where was I?

'You will thank me for sparing you the details' one character assures us early on, after brief mention of a database. This gave me hope that Stephenson might have refrained, or been persuaded to refrain from, his habit of wordy exposition. But reader, 'twas not to be: later on we get pages and pages depicting the effects of bureaucracy on a small, innovative startup. That this startup is commodifying time travel does not make the bureaucracy-mockery any more entertaining.

Some of the most egregious flaws:
- a character from the twenty-first century is stranded in Victorian London. She self-censors her 'modern' turns of phrase, and her obscenities, in a journal she believes will not be read for over a century. Why?
- a character from the sixteenth century is Irish. Naturally her letters home include phrases such as 'GrĂ¡inne it is who’s writing this' and 'I’m after meeting a gentleman' -- peppered with a plethora of 'sures' and 'indeeds'.
- very few of the characters get a physical description, except the blond blue-eyed 'hero'.
- many of the characters are from central casting (though I did rather enjoy the Vikings)
- a child is forced by her parents to cooperate in a ghastly scheme. She never mentions this to anyone, despite being quick to develop, and expound upon, any grudge.
- features a rather spineless Christopher Marlowe, who is then (possibly) removed from history. [GRRRRRRRR]
- Norwich is not actually in, or near, Surrey
- the ending. What ending?

It's not all bad. There is a rather good, entertaining, swashbuckling novel -- of probably around 250 pages -- cunningly secreted within this tome. (I am so thankful to have read it on Kindle: I doubt my wrists could take it in dead-tree format.) The Viking plan is neat; Melisande an interesting protagonist (more interesting than her male counterpart: perhaps it's Nicole Galland's input, but there are a lot more interesting women in this book than in Stephenson's other works); the tilting balance between science and magic interestingly analysed. It's made clear (repeatedly) that one can't tamper with the past and expect the present to remain unchanged. As the novel progresses, it emerges that there are multiple sides to the story; that DODO (Department of Diachronic Operations) is up against a number of antagonists, some with more skin in the game than others.

But it is too long, and I did not especially like any of the characters: and if I had had the actual book, rather than the e-book, I would have hurled it across the room when I came to THE END.

Adam Roberts liked it more than I did.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017/69: Christopher Wild -- Kathe Koja

The will is honed, trained, playful, relentless, the mind its twin in dark exuberance and nerve; and the body breathes in and out, one with the breathing world,rapt and glorying in even the smallest things -- the feel of breeze on bare skin,the vagrant scent of smoke, pink glitter of rain on a neon sign,the humble heat of bodies massed together on the train -- and all the vehicle and joy and habitation of Chris Marley, Christopher to his friends, his name a dare and a beacon, symbol and sigil, the poet's name, X04. [p. 195]
Any new novel about Marlowe is relevant to my interests, and Kathe Koja's more so than most. I'd seen the trailer and read the blog posts ... but I wasn't sure what to expect apart from poetic, visceral prose.

The first third of the book ('The Skinner's Trade') covers Marlowe's known life. He's working on a play, 'The English Agent', that the Service has requested, though they are unlikely to be happy with the results: his fellow intelligencers are thinly disguised, inept, corrupt. But Marlowe is trying to write himself a door, a way out.

The middle third of the book ('Night School') has Christopher Wyle, or Wild, tutoring a Miss Sloan in poetry; the setting is an unnamed American city in the middle of the twentieth century. A time of war, of subterfuge -- Chris becomes involved with the Free Speechers, resists recruitment by a shadowy import/export company (or do they have some deeper purpose?) and works on a poem about Icarus and Orpheus.

The final third ('Quod Me Nutrit') is set somewhere in Europe in a dystopian near future, a surveillance state where Chris Marley, tracked by the cuff on his wrist, goes by the tag 'X04': he's a poet, an activist, something akin to a rapper. State Security -- 'the Red House' -- would like him to write for them. He's disinclined.

Each section starts with the words 'he comes to himself in the alley'. He's been beaten, but doesn't recall his assailant. There are other resonances: the month of May, a song about mermaids, thunderstorms, birds in flight, Saint Sebastian. Resonances of names, too: a fellow named Deering, or Reeder, or Reed; a lover named Rufus or Rudy or Ruby ... they're caught up in the resonances, too. 'Why did you call me Kit?' 'I ... don't know.'

The poet -- he is always a poet -- writes by hand, one knee propped up; smokes tobacco; can't, and won't, be controlled by the men who think he serves them. He lives light, always ready to run, to move on: his only treasures are his own words, the notebooks in which he's written. He is, by his own admission, not a careful man.

This is a book that rewards a second reading, not least because the final quotation (from Marlowe's own translation of Lucan's Pharsalia) alters our perspective on the tripled selves of the novel. That said, I suspect this is a work I'll be returning to again and again.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

2017/68: The Lawrence Browne Affair -- Cat Sebastian

Sodomites had been a favorite subject of his father’s rage-fueled tirades... lumped in with other crimes against nature, such as Catholicism and being French. [p. 154]
Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is mad. (He's not technically the Mad Earl: that sobriquet was given to his elder brother, who's now dead.) Lawrence, who has sensory perception problems (loud noises make him anxious: he likes his environment to be predictable), is perfectly happy living hermit-like in Penkellis, his crumbling ancestral home, doing Science. Most of the servants have left (a small matter of an explosion or two) but the vicar visits several times a week. One day he suggests that Lawrence might benefit from a secretary.

Enter Georgie Turner, younger brother of the more ruffianly Jack (one of the protagonists of The Soldier's Scoundrel. Georgie has got on the wrong side of a London crime lord and, for his own safety and that of his friends and family, decides that Cornwall is an excellent career move. He arrives at Penkellis with the intention of doing a little work, determining whether the Earl is really mad, and absconding with any portable souvenirs that catch his eye.

It is, however, not that simple.

Lawrence has a conscience, and believes that he is inherently bad and broken. Georgie is also, irritatingly, developing a conscience: not a success factor for a professional conman. Lawrence is gratified by Georgie's interest in, and growing understanding of, his scientific labours (they are inventing something rather like a telegraph); Georgie discovers a new-found passion for learning and intellectual challenge. Also a, possibly not as new-found, passion for strong men chopping wood in their shirtsleeves.

Add a Cornish smuggling ring, a doomed marriage, an orphaned child, and a notorious rake (see The Ruin of a Rake) ... a very entertaining read, and an emotionally satisfying romance that's founded on mutual respect and consideration.