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

Monday, December 31, 2007

#80: Stella Descending -- Linn Ullmann

From the moment she was born (her mother standing; Stella's first cry an earsplitting wail that struck one of the nurses deaf) Stella's been falling: throughout this novel, which opens with her fall from the roof of an apartment building she doesn't live in, she's falling and falling for ever.

Stella's story is told in -- or rather can be pieced together from -- narratives by her daughter Amanda; her curmudgeonly friend Axel, ninety if he's a day; by Corinne, the detective investigating Stella's death, who claims to be five hundred years old and to be able to smell a murderer; by the three old ladies who witness her fall; by Stella herself, in the form of the video that Martin shot just before she died, which was to have been a catalogue (for insurance purposes) of everything of value in their house.

Martin, her partner (who came into Stella's life by delivering an avocado-green sofa and then refusing to leave; who may or may not have pushed her from the roof), does not have a voice, except when he talks to Corinne.

This is an odd, impressionist book, made up of repetition and angle: the same event seen by different eyes, the same things seen in different places. Stella falling; Amanda constantly playing a Nintendo game in which she falls from world to world; a game in which there's a beast in the forest that eats children's hearts, which may or may not be the same beast that Martin's taking Bea to see in the forest. There's a face in the shawl that they hang over the window to keep out the light of the early northern morning, when neither Stella nor Martin can sleep. They play games; they challenge one another. Stella falls ill, and loses her sense of smell. (This happened to my mother.) Stella's mother wants to become a tree, and only on her deathbed does her stomach rumble, her body betray her with simple human noises. It's a novel full of silence, and falling, and absence. It's a series of impressions, a state of mind that Ullmann brings about: not necessarily a plot, but a situation and a series of events. Stella Descending is a novel where one comes away knowing more about the characters than they've really said.

The prose is lovely and the translation transparent. I suspect this is a book that will blossom with rereading.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

#79: Ilario -- Mary Gentle

Ilario is set in the same alternate history as Ash, about forty years before the events of that epic. It's a world in which the Visigothic city of Carthage is under the Penitence, an eternal darkness of unknown origin; in which Byzantium -- or rather Constantinople; that is to say, New Alexandria -- is the last stronghold, not of the Roman Empire but of the Pharaohs' Egypt; in which the Empty Chair in Rome is a symbol of the cursed papacy, and the schism of Christianity is between Christus Imperator and the Green Christ; in which Gaius Judas is a saint; a world which apparently revolves around Ilario, eponymous narrator of this novel.

I have written before about the difficulties faced by any reviewer tackling a novel narrated by a hermaphrodite. His? Hers? 'Its' is inelegant and, though it might feel right for a narrator who denies or is divorced from their sexuality, it's certainly not right for Ilario. Though the first five pages (which feature the only explicit sex scene in the novel) aren't representative, Ilario is seldom unaware of the sexual attraction -- and the uneasiness -- felt by those around him. Or her. [I'll end up using the male pronoun, I know I will: it carries less baggage in this setting, and I don't like the invented pronouns such as zir and hir.]

One of the major themes of the novel is appearance. Ilario, a painter by vocation who's desperate to learn the New Art of the Italians (perspective, painting only what one sees, et cetera), is well aware of how easily the eye is deceived: aware, too, of how much one can learn about something by looking at it properly. Truthfully. That perceptual laziness of the human brain, though, keeps Ilario alive more than once: people see what they expect to see, and if Ilario is dressed as a young woman then obviously the female pronoun -- and all it implies, in a society where women have no power, no legal existence, no rights -- is to be applied. And if some brawny fellow forgets that Ilario -- lately the King's Freak in the court of Rodrigo Sanguerra's court -- has been trained as a knight, well, it's his own fault if he picks a fight he can't win.

Another theme is the relationships between parents and children. Ilario is fleeing Rosamunda, who gave birth to the 'monster' twenty-five years ago, abandoned the child to die, and doesn't welcome the reappearance of Ilario in her life. Nor does her husband Videric -- who turns out not to be Ilario's father after all -- but he, at least, doesn't go after Ilario with a poisoned dagger. No: he sends Rosamunda to do his dirty work, stirring up some political difficulties that would better have been left to fester.

Ilario ends up on the run, a slave again, though this time his master, an Egyptian eunuch named Rekhmire', is less interested in his abnormalities than his talents. He encounters his father (by far the most likeable character in the novel); gets married; gets married again, on the other side of the bride/groom divide; meets the 'Master of Mainz', a German gentleman with a newfangled invention that'll make seditious publication ever so much easier; encounters Neferet, Egyptian Ambassador and not what she seems; meets the Pharaoh, who only wears a beard for formal occasions; sketches the biggest ship in the world, and its Admiral (who is rather badly lost); and finally achieves a penitence of his own, in a cause that practically everyone (including the reader) notices before Ilario does.

I liked this much more than I liked Ash: possibly it's the focus on arts and science, rather than on matters martial; perhaps a more likeable protagonist (though Ilario exhibits poor impulse control pretty much constantly, and behaves more rashly than a protagonist in a Shakespearean comedy); perhaps because I recognise many more of the historical and ahistorical references now; perhaps because the story feels more rounded, more concluded. And it is a story that depends on its protagonist's dual nature:
If I were a man, I wouldn't know what goes on in the Ladies' Court, and if I were a woman, I wouldn't have any different experiences to make the comparison.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

#78: Pirate Freedom -- Gene Wolfe

... where the hurricanes blow and lean, hard ships snap at the edges of the Spanish Main like wolves around a sheepfold ...

I have a horrible feeling I've missed something very important about Pirate Freedom. Because surely it can't simply be a pirate story with a time-travel framing narrative that allows the protagonist to keep stepping back and telling us that it's not like in the movies.

It is a Gene Wolfe novel, all right. Unreliable narrator? Individual who is not who (s)he seems? Plot like a Mobius strip? Narrative breaks just before something really important happens? Unexpected reappearance of apparently minor characters? All of the above? [Tick]. (Has anyone done a survey of Character-A-revealed-as-Character-B? I have a feeling it's more likely to be females than males, though this may be mostly to do with the majority of Wolfe's protagonists being male.)

If I read Pirate Freedom as a straightforward piratical adventure, it works pretty well. Captain Cris (as he is commonly known) rises through the ranks with precocious speed -- his age isn't given, but he's pretty young at the beginning of his adventures ... or at the beginning of the book, anyway -- and brings a modern sensibility to his career as a freebooter. Slaves are treated humanely, women with respect, underdogs with sympathy, enemies with the cold-blooded ruthlessness that they deserve. Cris falls in love with the beautiful and ferocious Novia (Spanish for 'sweetheart') and becomes fast friends with an English pirate, Captain Burt, who confides the details of his buried treasure.

Meanwhile, the framing narrative ticks along ever so quietly. It's possible to reconstruct events outside the novel; to form a hypothesis about Cris's father's business, and make a stab at identifying the time at which the tale's being told. What we can't guess at is the mechanism; what we can't predict is what happens after the last page.

The simplicity of the narrative is enhanced by the occasional glowing image (ships as wolves) and some very fine, because understated, descriptive passages. It's a rivetting read. But I still have that sense that, if I look at it just right, it'll snap into focus like an optical illusion, and I'll see more.

#77: The Pinhoe Egg -- Diana Wynne Jones

The Pinhoe Egg is set in the world(s) of Chrestomanci, but instead of focusing on Chrestomanci -- a position rather than a person, the title given to a nine-lived enchanter with the responsibility of regulating magic usage in a series of parallel worlds including our own -- this novel deals with the magic users who hide away almost in the shadow of Chrestomanci Castle: the Pinhoes and the Farleighs, and other more shadowy families, who inhabit small country villages and try to avoid being noticed.

Marianne Pinhoe is looking forward to the summer holidays, because she'll have time to work on her story about Princess Irene. Unfortunately, her grandmother -- Gammer Pinhoe, the head of the clan -- has other ideas. Gammer has been acting oddly of late, and the rest of the family suspect she's quite mad. Marianne isn't convinced, though Gammer's escalation of the old feud between Pinhoes and Farleighs is certainly not the work of a sane woman.

Gammer sends Marianne's brother Joe to work, and spy, at Chrestomanci Castle, where he ends up befriending Chrestomanci's son Roger: all well and good as far as Cat Chant is concerned, since it keeps Roger out of his way. Cat's found a huge, ancient egg in Wood House, where Gammer used to live: found it despite a quantity of 'Don't Notice' spells surrounding it. And the thing about eggs -- however well hidden they may be -- is that they hatch.

There's a lot of mayhem, magical and mundane, in this novel: and some of the magic is pretty dark stuff. (Mr Farleigh, the gamekeeper, nails dead animals to the fence as a warning, but there's a nastier purpose too. And hang on, isn't it quite a long time since the Castle needed a gamekeeper? And what happened to Gammer Pinhoe's husband? And why do the roads that lead away from the Castle not lead anywhere?)

There are a few things that niggle about this novel. How old is Cat? He seems very mature, and considerably more confident and assured than in Charmed Life, but I think he's the same age as Roger and Julia, and they behave much more childishly. And is Irene, Jason's wife, any relation to the Princess Irene that Marianne's writing the story about? (She does seem to break the mould, being a young woman -- rather than a girl -- who's a genuinely nice person, and on the right side: others have remarked on the lack of such characters in Jones' books.)

Niggles aside, I enjoyed this very much: there's space for Marianne, Joe and Cat to discover and demonstrate their talents, and the depiction of Gammer's decline is realistically unpleasant and unsentimental. Plenty of elements from fairytale, legend and myth; and I'm fairly sure I detect a general air of homage to E. Nesbit.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#76: Girl Meets Boy -- Ali Smith

"Let me tell you about when I was a girl, my grandfather says."

Which is a first line to pull me in and keep me reading if ever there was one. I loved The Accidental, and Ali Smith is just as playful here and a sight more light-hearted. The myth she's chosen is Iphis and Ianthe, from Ovid's Metamorphoses: Iphis, a girl-child left out to die, is raised as a boy, falls in love with the beautiful Ianthe, prays to the gods on the night before her -- his -- her wedding, and becomes a man in truth. Plenty of meat there (as it were) for a feminist interpretation, but Smith goes further.

Anthea (named after Anthea Redfern, poor lass) falls instantly in love with an ecological activist named Robin, who is wearing a kilt and defacing the corporate logo outside Anthea's place of work. Robin has the swagger of a girl, she blushes like a boy, she turns boys' heads like a girl, she turns girls' heads like a boy. She reduces Anthea's sister Imogen to speaking, thinking, in parentheses and lacunae -- "(I am sitting in the same room as a )". I'm not sure Imogen ever articulates the word 'lesbian' but that's what Anthea has become. And not just that: she rejects her employers, a multinational corporation who are in the business of bottling water. Anthea is all about fluidity and freedom, and water should be free.

Smith's writing is glorious, playful and fluid and inventive, full of the grand gestures and unlikely juxtapositions of myth: full of transformations and redemptions and change.

#75: The Escapement -- K J Parker

The conclusion to Parker's 'Engineer' trilogy: I've always admired Parker's plotting, encyclopaedic military knowledge and understated humour, but the 'Engineer' books are the first in which the characters have really caught my interest. They are competent and practical, fitted for their roles but capable of improvisation when everything falls apart. They have ambition, humour, hopes and fears. They are human and likeable.

What can I say? K J Parker doesn't do happy endings. Though it could be said that these are happy endings. Marriage! Reinstatement! A long and pampered life! Military supremacy! Vengeance! The comforting knowledge of having been right all along! Everything has worked out just right, in theory. And in practice everyone is fiercely miserable. Apart from the happy dead, of course.
The quickest way to a man's death is through his heart, but if you want to get into his brain ...
Psellus, promoted beyond his competence and struggling to hold onto the Mezentine Empire, is grimly determined to solve the mystery of why Vaatzes committed abomination in the first place, and to find a solution to the real, nasty and million-strong consequence of that abomination. The book starts with the same scene -- the fencing lesson -- as the previous two: it's Psellus's lesson this time, and he learns something different from it, something new.

And everywhere people are musing on the uselessness of honour and the emptiness of revenge. Miel Ducas, courtesy and breeding all but worn away by his partner in crime, but still preferring to be lynched as a highwayman than dishonoured as an aristocrat ("if you weren't a stupid, ignorant low-class woman you'd understand that", he thinks but is still too courteous to say); Vaatzes protesting that "revenge is the last thing on my mind. I never believed in it and I don't want it"; Veatriz considering love, and how it doesn't solve everything, and how only a romantic like the Machiavellian Duke Valens -- who knows the way to any man's heart, except perhaps his own -- would think that it did. "Poor man, he's lived his life thinking that the book closes at the first kiss, and that being in love is like crossing a border, over which they can't follow you. Perhaps he thought love could be starved out with a blockade, or stormed with overwhelming force, once the defences had been undermined."

In The Escapement, lies are layered: the lies about the Mezentine Empire, its foundation, the Specifications that dictate every aspect of life. The lies that two people in love tell one another. The lies that a commander tells his men. The lies that rivals tell one another, the sins of omission; the truths that aren't believed.

There's a great deal of detail about medieval / Renaissance warfare, especially siege warfare, that might choke the reader unaccustomed to Parker's pace. Easier to go with the flow, to see how metaphors are constructed from that material: the illuminating glow of the cold spot in a forging, the perfect ignorant mimicry of an illiterate copyist, the escapement that lets a mechanism work in a controlled way, rather than running free. Pain 'like an army of occupation; a strong garrison in the centre, but elsewhere its control was patchy'. (That's from an incident that befalls Duke Valens, an incident requiring messy and ingenious surgery: it's based, Parker adds in an endnote, on a wound sustained by Henry V at the Battle of Shrewsbury.)

There are some threads that don't seem satisfactorily concluded (Daurenja's past; the founding of the Empire) and some tics that become quite infuriating (characters who are never named). And if a happy ending is required, this is not the book for you. But it's clever and wistful and emphatically practical, marrying philosophy and ethics with the fine art and coarse, bloody science of warfare, and though the resolutions are icy-cold and implacable, it all comes out like clockwork.

#74: Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition -- B. R. Burg

In which Professor Burg sets out the thesis that homosexual behaviour was natural and normal and very much the done thing in Caribbean buccaneer communities around 1700.

The first chapter, 'Sodomy and Public Perception in Seventeenth-Century England', argues that sodomy was not viewed as negatively in Stuart society as it would be later: homosexual characters in plays and broadsheets were more likely figures of fun than stereotypes of wickedness. "Crimes of violence and treasonous plots were common subjects of the penny sheets, but on the rare occasions when they dealt specifically with sodomy it was clear they regarded it as a minor offence within the panoply of evil deeds." (p.33)

Chapter Two, 'To Train Up a Buccaneer', adds that vagabonds and criminals were unlikely to get many opportunities for heterosexual behaviour. Chapter Three, 'The Caribee Isles', presents some statistics about the demographic imbalance in the Caribbean colonies: far fewer women transported than men (though I hadn't previously encountered the argument that women could get out of transportation by pleading pregnancy: I'd thought they were more likely to have a capital sentence commuted to transportation for that reason); those women who emigrated mostly doing so as part of a family; female servants jealously guarded in case pregnancy should curtail their economic usefulness.

Chapter Four, 'Buccaneer Sexuality', and Chapter Five, 'The Buccaneer Community', argue in favour of predominantly homosexual behaviour amongst the pirates, whether bound by emotional and affectionate ties or simply the "homoerotic unity often observed between men in times of hardship, crisis or danger". Burg makes a case for penetrative rather than oral sex -- for reasons of hygiene, class-related mistrust of 'exotic' behaviour, and the pirates having "no need to include in their sexual practice techniques well-suited to furtive encounters." (136) -- and explores pirate nicknames, drinking habits and behaviour towards female captives.

I'd find the theory more credible if I trusted Burg's research a little more. There are minor errors -- for instance,the name of the founder of the Scout movement given as Richard, rather than Robert, Baden-Powell -- that shouldn't have made it into a second edition: there are ... interpretations that are presented as fact. Burg writes of Dampier buying the 'tattooed lad' Jeoly, and of their 'deep attachment': "Ownership of Jeoly had its pleasures but all was not joy for the Captain in the relationship." (123). Jeoly was a man in his thirties, and Dampier wasn't a captain. There's nothing in Dampier's own writing, or that of those who knew him, to support Burg's interpretation.

Burg readily admits there isn't actually much evidence:
...the absence of substantial quantities of documentation for pirate actions does not inhibit research into their intimate lives to any greater degree than would have been the case if more material were available. Still, despite the lack of familiar historical source materials and the total absence of the type of psychological data that has formed the base for much modern research on homosexuality, there remains cause for cheer. The very paucity of information on individuals vitiates many of the conceptual and theoretical problems that have vexed investigators and turned so many of them in directions that produce little but valueless articles. The passage of time and the absence of truly revealing personal records only channels research away from the preferences or general orientation of individual pirates and instead directs it towards the entire pattern of buccaneer homosexual behaviour. (44)
In other words, no tedious facts to get in the way!

I'd be surprised if there wasn't a tendency to homosexual behaviour, at least in the absence of other options, in a substantial portion of buccaneer 'society'. But I'm not convinced it was the norm, or that the majority of pirates were uninterested in women. (Or that 'a pirate forced into a situation of equality with a female would undoubtedly have been as uncomfortable as [if he'd been sitting] down to dinner with the king' (172).)

Monday, December 17, 2007

#73: The Mirador -- Sarah Monette

I read this the day it arrived -- Halloween -- but have been busy on other projects since then, with the result that this blog's out of date; I have quite a few reviews to write and post; and I'm writing about a book that is Ancient History as far as my memories go.

That said, I do remember enjoying it enormously ...

The Mirador is the third of four, and in some ways it feels as though Monette's marking time: we don't yet get to see how these plot threads spin out, in the way that many floating plot elements in Melusine were resolved in The Virtu. This third book introduces a new POV (the redoubtable, and likeably flawed, Mehitabel) and takes some of the focus from the intense relationship between brothers Felix and Mildmay, who spend much of their time trying to avoid one another, not always successfully. It's a chance to see that relationship from the outside, and Mehitabel's perception of Felix is (or becomes) much clearer than Mildmay's ever was. Mind you, Mehitabel's perception of herself is, at times, damningly clear. She's an actress with a string of lovers, a woman who makes no bones about being a social climber. That's simply how things are. And it has to be said that Mehitabel acts more, in the sense of causing things to happen, than either Felix or Mildmay, who tend to react. Which is part of the problem.

The Mirador begins two years after the events of The Virtu, and what I thought was an unforgiveable act turns out not to have been so. Though it hasn't been forgiven, as such: Mildmay is not thinking about it, and he's not-thinking so hard that at times the reader is hard-pressed to remember just how abusive Felix has been.

Mildmay, bored and lonely and with a lot of bad memories to suppress, naturally goes out and finds himself a new intrigue: the case of Guinevere Dawnlight, formerly Jenny, who's been imprisoned for digging up a corpse from the oldest graveyard in Melusine but won't say why. There's also the matter of another grave, deep beneath the Mirador, that can't possibly be the final resting place of the lady named on the plaque: or can it?

It all comes back to Mildmay's former thief-keeper, Kolkhis, and Vey Coruscant, the blood-witch who Mildmay crossed (Melusine) and assassinated (The Virtu). Confronting Kolkhis -- unwithered and unstaled and thoroughly unsavoury -- Mildmay finds himself making some connections, facing up to some unpleasant aspects of his bond with Felix, and not making himself one whit happier.

Felix is thoroughly unpleasant, high-handed and arrogant, yet with a certain breezy style (and disregard for popular opinion) that's oddly endearing. There's one passage where something very bad has happened, and Felix has done something very bad: and we're not quite sure if those two bad things are one and the same. But then each of the POV characters is up to no good in his or her way. Mildmay, thief and assassin, is the most honest and straightforward of the three. Except with himself.

Minor characters from the previous books are fleshed out. Kolkhis; Lord Stephen; his brother Shannon, Felix's ex. The entire novel is set within Melusine -- largely within the Mirador, that vast windowless fortress-court -- or within a stone's throw of the city walls. That probably contributes to the sense of claustrophobia.

I don't want to explore the plot in too much detail: I'd rather think about the setting. The Mirador, with its improbable coincidences, its ghosts and tombs and intrigues, is like a knot, like a maze: mazes are important here, and Mildmay's gift for finding his way anywhere (almost anywhere: "only ever gotten lost once in my whole life, and there's a couple different ways that wasn't my fault") is certain to come to the fore again. I want to see how that unravels. I want more of the legend of Heth-Eskaladen, the librarian-god whose descent to Hell is commemorated by the Trials every four years, a Lower City festival strong on mazes. I want more about Malkar: where he came from, just how many times he pulled that trick of his, and why Felix, turning up the card of the Dog in his Sybilline reading, seems to have forgotten that when he was mad he saw Malkar as a dog-headed monster. I want more about the distinction between noirant and clairant magics, and how they're different from simplistic Bad and Good. (Noirant is "the magic of labyrinths, of things that are tangled and lost and dark".)

'I want' never got. But Corambis, last in the series, is due in 2009.