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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

#106: Dzur -- Steven Brust

Dzur is the tenth Vlad Taltos novel. Do not start here! Go back to, well, one of the others!

The action of the book takes place straight after the events in Issola: you may also wish to reread Teckla to familiarise yourself with Vlad's recent history. And you will miss a few of the jokes if you have forgotten certain key elements of (I think) Orca. And while you're there, might as well read the others: I think they're all referenced one way or another ...

The book is framed by an elaborate meal at Valabar's, during which Vlad entertains a (Dzur) guest and casts some light on his current situation. Each course of the meal (and there are many) leads into another chapter of the narrative. In a sense, then, all this happens over dinner. But not really.

Vlad is still wanted by the Organisation he used to work for. The rackets he once ran are under the control of the Left Hand of the Jhereg (a.k.a. the Bitch Patrol). His ex-wife Cawti needs his help (and has an ace up her sleeve with which to persuade him). Morrolan, who does not appear in this novel, is not best pleased with Vlad. The Demon Goddess may be messing around with his memories, suppressing some and permitting others to return, newly vivid. And, oh yes, someone's trying to kill him. Business as usual, really.

There's a sense of imminence throughout the novel, the sense that something big is about to happen: and I don't think that's ever quite resolved. Vlad has come into an enormous amount of power, but he hasn't had time to adjust to it. And though he's a character whose life is enriched (not to mention saved) by his friends, they're mostly absent from this instalment. Apart from Sethra. And Kiera.

I enjoyed the novel very much, but it left me desperate to eat a large, indulgent, gourmet meal accompanied by a selection of fine wines reread the rest of the series -- not practical right now, as they're in a box in a loft in another county. And I'd like the next one now, please.

#105: Life Mask -- Emma Donoghue

Life Mask is based on the true story of three 18th-century Londoners: actress Eliza Farren, sculptress and aristocrat Anne Damer, and nobleman Lord Grey. Working within the facts – Eliza ended up marrying Lord Grey; Anne Damer (Horace Walpole’s niece) was reputed to harbour Sapphic tendencies – Emma Donoghue has created a plausible and poignant love triangle.

There are plenty of masks in this novel. No one’s entirely honest (even with themselves) about what they want, what they feel, what they think. Eliza’s manipulative and steely-nerved: Anne’s haunted by a single kiss, years since: Derby is ugly, emotionally stunted and probably deserves better than he gets.

Donoghue strikes resonances with contemporary affairs: Fleet Street hacks who hound the nobility, a cult of celebrity, scandal-sheets and anonymous reportage, the threat of war and the power of rumour. In pointing out the similarities, Donoghue’s occasionally heavy-handed: it’s not necessary to use modern phrases like ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ to hammer home the point.

Some of the info-dumps are a little too blatant, too: “only 200 of the 558 members of parliament” ... a reminder that Walpole’s the author of that lurid Gothic romance The Castle of Otranto ... ‘editorials’ from the fictional Beau Monde Enquirer, illuminating the wider issues of the day in language that’s plain to a modern reader.

But this is still an immensely readable novel, packed full of observations on human nature, on friendship (between two women, between men, between men and women) and on love, sexuality and repression. Anne, apparently devoid of an impulse towards erotic love, wonders if she’s unsexed herself for her art like the castrato she’s heard sing. This is as much her story as it’s Eliza’s, and the happy ending that she achieves is unexpected but just.

#104: The Privilege of the Sword -- Ellen Kushner

The Privilege of the Sword is sequel to Swordspoint, Ellen Kushner's deliciously mannerist novel that's wholly fantastical, though it's one of the few fantasy novels I can think of where there's no sorcery, no magic, no magecraft.

The Privilege of the Sword is a swashbuckling tale, all the more delightful because its protagonist is Katherine Talbert, teenaged niece of the Mad Duke Tremontaine - Alec Campion, noted for his decadence and his wealth. He's made a deal with Katherine's mother, his sister: a long-standing legal dispute will be resolved, and the Talberts will have their lands and wealth again, if she'll just give him Katherine for six months.

Katherine is not keen on the notion: little does she realise that the Duke has Plans for her that don't involve marriage, or a Season, or pretty frocks. Far from it. Katherine is to learn to use a sword: she's given breeches and boots, jackets and cloaks: she's taught by a master swordsman, and then by a mysterious friend of the Duke's who lives at his country estate. She forges a friendship with the pretty and well-born Artemisia Fitz-Levi - and vows vengeance on the man who's dishonoured her friend. And she falls in love with a book (a swashbuckling romance called The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death), and the play based on it, and maybe even with the actress who plays the lead. And ...

Oh, it's all too delicious. Wit, and subterfuge: the Mad Duke in all his sardonic elegance: the beautiful Lucius Perry and his dark secrets: Katherine's growing comprehension of the rules that really govern Riverside, and her own role - noblewoman, swordsman, socialite? - in that society.

Kushner's style is admirably suited to her theme: light and witty, delicately sketching complex relationships. The world she writes of is reminiscent of 18th-century London, packed with scandal and drama and intrigue, peopled with strong and fascinating characters. It's also, notably, a world where sex and gender are expressed rather differently. The Mad Duke's depravities are disapproved of because of their sheer excess, not because he beds men as well as women. Katherine's masculine attire and martial skill raises eyebrows because it's an eccentricity (and because she's the Mad Duke's niece) rather than because it's an affront against femininity. Oh, women are still property in several legal senses: Artemisia's honour is not her own concern, but her father's and her brother's. But it's legitimate for Katherine to come to her aid.

As soon as I'd reread this, I had to surf on over to Amazon and order another copy of Swordspoint (I have at least one, possibly two, but they're in storage) because I absolutely have to reread it and review the past history of some of the characters in Privilege of the Sword.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

#103: English Passengers -- Matthew Kneale

The eponymous passengers -- embarking on this voyage in 1857 -- are a mixed bunch. The Reverend Geoffrey Wilson is looking for the Biblical Eden; Dr Thomas Potter is after evidence of Aryan supremacy; Timothy Renshaw is fleeing a dissolute lifestyle. They arrange passage on the Sincerity with Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, a Manxman whose smuggling operation has gone badly wrong. Meanwhile in Tasmania, the penal colony is thriving; the natives are being oppressed, hunted, converted; and Peevay, son of an Aboriginal mother raped by a convict father, is trying to win his mother's love and find his own place.

The novel's told in different first-person voices, each quite distinct -- none more so than Peevay's, which the author states is intended "to portray someone intellugent and interested in words, who is from a culture wholly remote from that of white men but who has been educated by them, absorbing English phrases, both formal and informal, that were common in the 1830s".

Peevay's voice resonated with me, because it's a literary experiment that I've tried myself, and I was surprised to find that Kneale and I had used similar methods to attempt to convey a voice that is foreign, and naive, but far from stupid.
Of course I knew it wasn't really this fellow God who made us. It was other ones who are secret, like everybody knew. I never did say this to Robson, though, as I didn't want to grieve him when he was kindly saving us. ... Robson's God was a puzzle to confound. Everybody knew where our real ones were as they could see them every night shining in the sky, but when I asked Robson where God was, he just said 'He is everywhere'. He even said he was three people, which seemed some grievous mystery to confound. Also he told that if we didn't believe God was everywhere, then God would get angry and send us to some piss-poor place to get burnt, which was heinous, I did ponder. Our real ones never did care if you knew they were in the sky. They were just in the sky.

If there's a voice that doesn't quite work, it's Potter's, which is too modern, too abbreviated, and doesn't seem to follow its own internal rules. Also, reminds me of B. Jones' Diary. Content-wise, though demonstrably mad and deluded, he's all too evidently based on a number of 19th-century philosophers and naturalists.
Mules slipping, selves likewise, til all = greatly begrimed, boots heavy w. dirt. Only one little affected = half caste (no shoes) who = scampering through oblivious. This = further instance of his speedy reversion to aboriginal savagery.

Potter revises his book with each new plot twist, from perfidious Celts (when Kewley catches him out) through degenerate overbred Normans (Wilson and his increasingly ludicrous quest) to the baffling, impenetrable ways of the Aborigine -- is it 'some peculiar primitive instinct' that makes Peevay 'steal' Potter's treasured Aborigine skeleton? Like all of the characters to some extent, Potter's a caricature: one gets the feeling that the author is gently mocking everybody, even as he brings out their individual tragedies with a sure hand.

Given the wealth of voices (as well as the five protagonists, there are many subsidiary voices getting a word in edgeways: Jack Harp, Peevay's father; Mrs Gerald Denton, Wife of the Governor of Tasmania; Julius Crane, a prison inspector ...) it's admirable that Kneale ties up all the threads of his tale with dramatic justice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

#102: The Island of the Day Before -- Umberto Eco

I bought The Island of the Day Before in 1996, when it was first published in paperback. It took me ten years to get around to reading it, but eventually I decided that it would be ideal reading to accompany me on my first crossing of the International Date Line.

I was right, and wrong. It is a fine aid to sleep on a long flight. And it's a long, and rather dense, novel that nevertheless can be read in short bursts. But my primary reaction was baffled irritation, and I was relieved when I made it to the end. Not least because Eco, in true po-mo style, doesn't actually end his novel, and I like the idea of his characters existing in Limbo for all eternity.

The novel is set in 1643, and tells the story (according to the back cover) of "Roberto, a young nobleman ... survives war, the Bastille, exile and shipwreck as he voyages to a Pacific island straddling the date meridian. There he waits now, alone on the mysteriously deserted Daphne, separated by treacherous reefs from the island beyond: the island of the day before. If he could reach it, time - and his misfortunes - might be reversed. But first he must learn to swim..."

Now, if the book within the pages had been the book described on the cover, all would have been well. Or better, anyway. But instead of that swashbuckling, romantic, plotty story, much of the novel consists of Roberto's life story told in flashback (born; convinced he had a double who did all the naughty things; in love with a peasant girl, possibly; takes part in the siege of Casale; gets on the wrong side of the wrong people, and is sent to investigate the principles of longitude). And much of the rest of the book is taken up with a jumble of incoherent philosophy, mind games, gleeful catalogues of theories, emblems, ailments, cures, cartographical errors, ornithological collections, novelistic misconceptions and obscure terms. (Versipellous, nielloed, hircocern ...I wonder whether they were as obscure in the original Italian? If not, the translator -- William Weaver -- has a lot to answer for.)

Yes, there is some plot in there too, but it's overshadowed by what seems to be cleverness for its own sake. The wordplay is almost obsessive, and the whole scenario seems to be an excuse to set up various philosophical arguments -- Roberto is a thoughtful young fellow -- and then mock them.

And this whole thing about the date line ...
Father Caspar had erred to such an extent that he found himself, unwittingly, on our 180th meridian, I mean the one we calculate from Greenwich, the last place on earth he would have thought of, because it lay in the land of schismatic antipapists ...

Well? Is it the 'date line'? Or is it not? Because a great deal of the book seems concerned with mind-games about looking into the previous day, changing the past, Judas' suffering going on forever and thus taking place in a location where time doesn't pass. If this isn't the date line (or a date line: it was a very indefinite construct before the 19th century) then ...

We have the author's voice to remind us that this is a Novel, a tale told, a construct in itself. And perhaps the whole thing is some elaborate joke about narrative. Perhaps we are as trapped within the tale as Roberto is trapped on the ship: perhaps we are distracted by the scintillation of the prose, the pretty pictures and the clever jokes (there's a dog named Hakluyt), in the way that Roberto is distracted by the caged birds, or by his own phantasies.
Is it possible he did not realise that he was planning to land in reality on the Island to rescue a woman who was arriving there only through his narration?

Is it possible that the reader has not realised that he has read to the end of The Island of the Day Before to find the ending of a story (man is shipwrecked, gets fever, goes mad) that has no ending?

Well, is it?

#101: Blood and Sand -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite writers of historical fiction as a child, and I've continued to enjoy her novels -- most of which I've reread again and again -- in adult life. I wasn't even aware of this novel -- published in 1987 -- until I read a LiveJournal post about it.

It's an adult novel: I don't mean that it's full of sex and violence, though there's some of each, but the language is more mature, and the descriptions of warfare more intricate and strategically detailed. Yet at the heart of the novel, as at the heart of so many Sutcliff books, is a close friendship between two young warriors -- in this case Thomas Keith, Scots armourer captured in battle and a willing convert to Islam, and Tussun Bey, the Viceroy's charismatic younger son. The novel is set in Napoleonic times: 1807, in Egypt and the Holy Land, with Napoleon and Wellington passing in the background like the shadows of giants behind a painted screen. In many respects the setting, though exotic, feels little different to Sutcliff's depiction of Roman Britain. The military detail seems less compelling, either because of the lack of that familiar setting (and the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of same) or because, with its mature target audience, it focusses more on politics and double-dealing.

Based (including some of the most swashbuckling elements) on a true story, but I haven't been able to find out very much more about Thomas Keith. There's one element that Sutcliff specifically mentions inventing -- Keith's marriage -- and his wife Anoud is not as compelling a character as the other protagonists. At the close of the novel, her thread of the story seems very much an afterthought. It fits the unexpected ending, but makes her role in the tale equivocal.

Recommended, though certain readers will revel more in the subtext than in the story that Sutcliff tells.