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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

#48-#51: Sanibel Flats, Captiva, Shark River, Twelve Mile Limit -- Randy Wayne White

Sanibel Flats -- Randy Wayne White
Captiva -- Randy Wayne White
Twelve Mile Limit -- Randy Wayne White
Shark River -- Randy Wayne White

I can't really review these individually, because I've read 'em at breakneck speed: they are not trashy airport thrillers by any means, but they're lighter reading than I've been tackling lately, and they were just what I needed.

I discovered White's Doc Ford novels with The Man Who Invented Florida a couple of years ago: liked it a lot -- covers similar territory to Hiaasen's eco-thrillers, but it's different in tone: more reflective and less headlong, and rather more character-driven, it says here -- and gradually acquired others in the series, and just lately the time's been right to read them.

Basic premise: Marion 'Doc' Ford (you can see why he doesn't use his first name) is an ex-Special Ops operative turned marine biologist; makes a living selling sealife supplies to educational institutions, and has a lacksadaisical attitude to the women who seem to find him irresistable. He's proud of not being governed by emotion (despite the fact that at least once per novel he's almost certainly swayed by, eww, feelings): meanwhile, his friend Tomlinson is very much in tune with the mystical, with auras and reincarnation and past life and hefty doses of ganja. A lot of the fun of these novels is the interplay between the two, and from the supporting cast of Dinker's Bay denizens -- boat and marina people, people who'd rather live a happy lazy low-key life on the Gulf Coast of Florida than be anywhere else.

Sanibel Flats is the first in the series, with a plot somewhat reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie (Mayan emeralds! moving lakes! mystic riddles!) but rather more in the way of character development and sense of place. (All the Doc Ford novels evoke the Florida coast, and the environmental and cultural issues that affect those who live there.) Ford's past is more obvious in this novel than in later ones: also, it's written in third person, and the others I've read are first person. I wonder why the author decided to switch? First-person definitely gets us inside Ford's head, and I think it makes him less stereotypically heroic ...

Captiva is about the feud between pro-net and anti-net factions, and there's some excellent social observation in there. Enjoyed but little to say about it!

Shark River reveals quite a bit more about Ford's murky past as a secret government operative. Again, enjoyed but have little to say.

Twelve Mile Limit is based on a true story of four divers whose boat sunk out in the Gulf: one swam to a light tower and survived, the other three vanished without trace. White's afterword notes that he's tried to explain their disappearance, what could have happened to them in the peculiar wind and water conditions of the Gulf -- basically a thousand-mile-wide lake with two narrow outlets. I found this novel unsettling, but compulsive reading: it did, though, seem to become a little too headlong near the end.

I have one more on hand, Tampa Burn, after which I may have to acquire more. Or maybe the urge -- is it perhaps just an urge for beaches and colourful characters and descriptions of good food?! -- will mellow ...

#47: A Song for Nero -- Thomas Holt

When you're the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, heir to the likes of Tiberius and Caius Caligula, you're pretty well obliged to measure up to a fairly high standard of debauchery. It's expected of you, like wearing the toga and being able to recite your Homer. When they bring on the Libyan eunuchs on all fours dressed in goatskins, you can't turn round and say, No, thanks, I'd rather read a book. (p.38)

I don't read much comic fantasy, so I'm not familiar with Holt's better-known work (though I did enjoy Expecting Someone Taller and Who's Afraid of Beowulf?). A Song for Nero is a historical novel: what if Nero didn't die by his own hand as everyone thought, but switched places with a boyfriend who strongly resembled him, and went on the run with his dead boyfriend's brother Galen? What if Nero and Galen have been roaming around the Mediterranean for ten years, living on their wits as not-very-successful conmen and hustlers? And what if Nero's ready to rediscover himself? His great crime, according to the establishment, was to sing and play an instrument in public. Lucius Domitius -- as he's always known in these pages -- still yearns for recognition of his artistic talent, though he's terrified of being recognised if he actually performs his own work.

A Song for Nero is a pacy romp through the seamy underside of Roman life: slavery, brothels, crime syndicates, disgustingly bad wine, Queen Dido's fabled treasure and Virgil's Georgics (a.k.a. 'On Farming'). There's more than a few similarities to Homer's Odyssey, too, especially as the novel moves towards its conclusion. Galen and 'Lucius Domitius' are oddly likeable characters, considering their lack of morals, general bad behaviour and sleazy pasts. (Holt has Seneca delivering a speech about the virtues and achievements of Nero as Emperor: there's a certain amount of exculpation here. But it's not all hagiography by any means: several characters have very good reasons for wishing Nero properly dead.)

There are few women in this novel -- something I didn't notice until the first female speaking role, if you see what I mean, around page 200 -- and mostly they're rather unpleasant. Luckily Galen and Lucius Domitius don't seem to be greatly interested in any flavour of carnal pursuit: Galen does fall for someone, but this does not turn out well. And Lucius Domitius may have had all the carnal pursuits he can handle for one lifetime. Also, though there's no hint of sexual attraction between the two, it's clear that they are codependent: I hesitate to tag Galen's feelings for Nero as 'love', but there is a strong attachment.

Holt's prose, and some of his imagery, reminds me strongly of K J Parker. There's the colloquial, cynical tone; a certain fatalism; an emphasis on the randomness of life; the sense that there might or might not be something slightly odd, supernatural-type odd, going on, but that it's really not important, just one of those things the universe dreams up to confound humanity. There are some insights into family history at the end of the book that cast both Galen and Lucius Domitius in quite a different light. Reading Holt's description of returning to a familiar house, now run-down and ruinous, felt so familiar that I was sure I'd read that part of the novel before, perhaps in a review: then I remembered similar scenes in several of Parker's novels.

There was the gate, probably the same bit of mouldy old string holding it onto the post as when I'd left; there was the mounting-block, half crumbled away, with weeds growing up through the cracks. There was the well, and the staked-off rectangle of gravel we tried to grow beans in, and right next to the back door, the midden -- maybe a tad taller and nastier-smelling than it'd been in my day, but you can't really call that progress ... (p453)

But maybe it's just that they've read the same books. Or that I'm manufacturing similarities in the prose of two authors I like very much.

And once or twice I thought, this is a better ending than the one in all the books. Far better this way than the big fight scene, stringing the great bow and shooting down the noble lords of Ithaca like stray dogs. So much more sensible, if you will insist on coming home, to settle down in a quiet way, do an honest job of work, raise a good crop of corn and grapes and beans, and not worry about who rules over who, or what the rights and wrongs of it all are. ... the trouble with Ithaca is, when you finally get there, you find out it's moved on, and the place where it used to be is called something else now, and strangers live there who don't hold with your sort. (p. 498)

#46: Fathom -- Cherie Priest

I knew when I took you that you were evil. That's why I pulled you under the waters and held you against myself. That's why I saved you, because you were formless and void, and I thought I could bend you to join and assist me. I brought you in as a daughter, and as a companion to my son. I received and restored you knowing that you were made of bile and nails, so I suppose the fault is mine after all. I did not frighten you enough while I had the opportunity. (p. 304)

Cherie Priest's latest novel (the only other of her books I've read is Four and Twenty Blackbirds) is a dense, rich elemental tale that I think I'll need to read again to appreciate in full. It has something of the same feel as Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides: the fury of tropical storms, ancient horrors concealed beneath the sun and sand of Florida, pirates (pirates!), magic, the stifling lushness of the land and the blue waters that, for all their clarity, hide a great deal.

I think there are echoes and overtones of Shakespeare's The Tempest in here, though it's far from a direct remapping of that tale. Still: there are individuals (not quite people, not exactly human) who correspond to the four elements -- Earth, Water, Fire and (at a stretch) Air: a girl trapped in a form not her own, a water-witch, a Greek smith ...

And pirates! Specifically, José Gaspar -- a popular figure from Floridan folklore, the island Gasparilla named after him -- who turns out to've failed at the task appointed to him: for punishment, says Arahab, I removed from the face of the earth every trace that he'd ever lived. There remains neither note nor relic to confirm he ever breathed before I claimed him. (p. 56). Now Gaspar (one of the more likeable characters in the novel) has work to do, and a new companion: the young, modern and amoral Beatrice. Arahab the water-witch deems it time to wake a slumbering god: against her stands a creature with no name, and Beatrice's cousin Nia, and an insurance adjustor named Sam.

Fathom feels like being at sea: it's a novel full of movement, pursuit, violence and change. Some beautifully evocative scenes and some shocking volte-faces: Priest has the power to surprise and shock, to catch the reader in her characters' reactions.

It's a distinctively American fantasy, and a Southern Gothic fantasy, and though it's a world away from the Florida-set thrillers I also enjoy, the landscape is the same -- albeit lashed by huger waves and lit by a weirder light. I liked this a lot, though there were occasional phrases or paragraphs that made me want to edit ...

#45: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science -- Mary Roach

Orgasm appears to be a state not unlike that of the alien abductees one always hears about, coming to with messy hair and a chunk of time unaccounted for. (p. 241)

Subtitled 'The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science', this pop-science book is an enthusiastic, idiosyncratic survey of the scientific study of sex. It is incredibly funny, warmly human and full of fascinating factoids: the premarital medical examinations that took place in a majority of US states during the fifties and sixties, which often involved a medical practitioner breaking the hymen; bisexuality in farm animals; observations of fetal masturbation; the percentage of young American males reporting sexual activity with animals in Kinsey's groundbreaking surveys.

Chapter titles include "The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?"; "The Taiwanese Fix and the Penile Pricking Ring: Creative Approaches to Impotence"; "Re-member Me: Transplants, Implants and Other Penises of Last Resort". Truly, this is an important reference work for anyone writing about sex.

Roach adopts a no-nonsense approach to the subject, but Bonk is far from clinical: contacting Dr Deng, a lecturer in medical physics who's doing ground-breaking work in coital imaging, Roach receives a reply asking if her organisation can recruit volunteers 'for an intimate (but non-invasive) study'.

My organisation gave some thought to this. What couple would do this? More direly, who wanted to pay the three or four thousand dollars it would cost to fly them both to London and put them up in a nice hotel? My organisation balked. It called its husband.
"You know how you were saying you haven't been to Europe in twenty-five years?" (p. 113)

It's hard to review a book that's so packed with facts, with humour and with humanity. I like Roach's style a lot -- she has fun researching and writing about this, and she manages even the most graphic sections with grace and tact -- and I learnt a lot about Kinsey's findings, about the medicalisation of impotence, about genital anatomy and about some of the modifications that are made to it in the causes of fertility, pleasure and repression.

And most importantly, Roach doesn't lose sight of the non-scientific aspects of these studies. Though they no doubt have their uses, ultrasound movies are a superficial rendering of the complex and varied mind-body meld that we call sex. Sex is far more than the sum of its moving parts. (p.128)

Excellent bibliography, which made it very easy to find this:
underpants worn by the rat
Dr Shafik's work on the effect of different types of underpants on the sexual activites of rats

#44: Nova -- Samuel R. Delany

Colours sluiced the air with fugal patterns as a shape subsumed the breeze and fell, to form further on, a brighter emerald, a duller amethyst. Odours flushed the wind with vinegar, snow, ocean, ginger, poppies, rum. Autumn, ocean, ginger, ocean, autumn: ocean, ocean, the surge of ocean again, while light formed in the dimming blue that underlit the Mouse's face. Electric arpeggios of a neo-raga rilled. (p. 22)

An old favourite, reread: I love Delany's early novels, and I marvel anew at his prose style. Nova is the Grail Quest in a space-opera setting, with Captain Lorq von Ray (space pirate!) recruiting a motley crew of drifters to grab seven tons of the element Illyrion -- 'source of untold wealth and key to the shifting balance of Galactic power' -- from a star that's going nova.

Nova is rich in symbolism -- especially the Tarot Major Arcana -- and in prose: the characters are vivid, especially the Mouse (gypsy kid with a rare talent for the sensory-syrynx he stole at the age of ten) and Katin (intellectual, socially maladept, devoted to moons). On this reread I noticed how distinctively each of the crew is sketched -- and how each of them has a personal space, an object or skill or habit, that's invaded by the others. And, too, how each of them has lost something and is searching.

I like Delany's future, too: a thousand years from now (though with frequent references to life in the 20th century!) when the means of production have become immediate once more, and workers with cerebral sockets plug directly into all manner of machinery. There are three major factions -- Draco, the Outer Worlds and the Pleiades -- and plenty of double-dealing, piratical behaviour and violence: but there's also art and grace and beauty. Astonishingly detailed for such a short novel, and I realise how much this shiny future has influenced and inspired me.

#43: Fly by Night -- Frances Hardinge

Since the burning of her father's books, Mosca had been starved of words. She had subsisted on workaday terms, snub and flavourless as potatoes. Clent had brought phrases as vivid and strange as spices, and he smiled as he spoke, as if tasting them. (p. 13)

Read on B's recommendation: this novel, in 22 chapters ('A is for Arson' through to 'V is for Verdict', via an abecediary of criminal and legal terms), tells the story of orphan Mosca Mye's flight from the soggy village of Chough where she grew up, in the company of conman Eponymous Clent and Mosca's fearsome goose, Saracen. They travel to the city of Mandelion, and proceed to become involved in a tortuous maze of murder, beast-fights, illegal printing-presses, mad aristocrats, marriage-houses, floating coffee-shops and espionage.

The country is recovering from civil war of a religious flavour: most people still say their prayers to one or more of the Beloved, small gods in charge of specifics. But one day, according to legend, a glowing heart had appeared in the chest of every Beloved shrine and beaten three times. From that day all the little religions became one ... (p. 41) The priests of the Heart are known as Birdcatchers, and feared for their destruction -- their literal demonisation -- of the Beloved. Finally the populace rose against the Birdcatchers. Now the conflict is between the Stationers (the only organisation licensed to print) and the Locksmiths. As Mosca unravels the schemes and plots that weave through the city, she discovers unexpected facts about her dead father.

Mosca's a complex and likeable character: twelve years old, but doesn't think of herself as, or behave like, a child. Nor does she regard herself as inferior because of age or gender. She's fearsomely independent but her weakness is words: I'd been hoarding words for years, buying them from pedlars and secretly carving them onto bits of bark so I wouldn't forget them, and then he turned up using words like 'epiphany' and 'amaranth'. (p. 260)

The secondary characters are rounded and interesting: the Cakes, a young lady responsible for catering at the marriage-house where Clent and Mosca lodge; Miss Kitely, firm and sensible coffee-shop proprietor; Captain Blythe, the highwayman ...

The star of the book is language, words, the power of words to make people think (and to stop them thinking), all tied up with Mosca's logophilia. I suspect younger readers will struggle with some of the vocabulary herein: there were a couple of words I had to look up. But Hardinge's prose sings, and I'd love to hear it read aloud:

A mighty heave on a lever, and the machine stressed and pressed the paper down on to the type. Mosca could almost feel the flexing of the metal, forcing words into the world. (p. 117)

I like this book very much for a number of reasons: the language is glorious, the setting strongly reminiscent of Restoration London (Hardinge acknowledges a debt to Maureen Waller's marvellous 1700: Scenes from London Life), and though there's no overt explicit magic, this reads like a fantasy. There's some fairly serious discussion of religion, atheism and free thought: it is also extremely funny.

This novel doesn't have a sequel, which is a shame: like Mosca at the end, I don't want a happy ending. I want more story. (p. 435) Definitely looking out for Hardinge's other novels, though.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

#42: Boudicat -- Robin Price

Witches often tell the future by 'reading the bones'. In fact, bones are a popular read in this island, where books are rare as a rainless summer. (p. 16)

Fourth in a series ("set in Roman times in a world ruled entirely by cats, where humans have never existed"), but there's an introduction for those who haven't read the preceding books. Spartapuss is a former slave of the emperor Clawdius, who freed him; later, he accompanies Clawdius to the Land of the Kitons and meets some Mewids.

Boudicat opens rather later, with Spartapuss taking pen to paw (just don't think about opposable thumbs) for the first time in eighteen years. The tribes are restless, especially the Micini ...

Can you guess which well-known historical figure is the basis for this story?

It's a very quick read and very funny, with plenty of sly asides for an older audience -- "Give me my bow of gold!" "I'm afraid it's burning, but I've got some arrows if you desire?" (p. 127) -- though the books are marketed for the 9-12 age group. Spartapuss is a coward, a cynic and a cantankerous old beast, but he ends up showing unexpected courage and resourcefulness.

Could do with better proof-reading, though ... ('peaked' in place of 'peeked', 'found' instead of 'fond', some sentences that just don't make sense.)

Great fun!

Monday, June 08, 2009

#41: Cambridge Blue -- Alison Bruce

First in a new series of crime novels set in Cambridge -- a realistically grim and dirty Cambridge rather than the pretty college town As Seen On TV.

DC Gary Goodhew is the new boy at Parkside police station. His boss, DCI Marks, doesn't approve of Goodhew's methods -- okay, he's brilliant and intuitive but not so much the team player. And Goodhew's colleage Kincaide is old school, old-fashioned and morally rather grubby.

Goodhew is first on the scene when a corpse is found on the common. The novel follows his unravelling of the tangled strands of Lorna Spence's life: Richard the boyfriend who's also her boss, Richard's smart sister Alice, Richard's other sister Jackie, Lorna's glossy bitchy friend Victoria ...

It all interconnects neatly and unprettily (Bruce doesn't pull punches either in autopsy rooms or in human nature) and though I was pretty sure I knew who the murderer was by about page 130, I kept second-guessing myself -- a sign of a suspenseful mystery.

There are a few annoyances. The viewpoint slips occasionally, so we get authorial observation about Alice's fashion sense in the middle of someone else's viewpoint. The prose slipped by me, except for the occasional clunky dialogue. And disguising an individual's gender by avoiding pronouns is seldom effective and almost always irritating: plus, if anything, it drew my attention in a way that less mystery wouldn't have.

I did enjoy reading this, though, and the portrayal of real-world Cambridge -- plus outlying villages, M11 speed cameras, cheery cyclists and riverside cafes -- is nicely done.

#40: Galapagos -- Kurt Vonnegut

Why so many of us a million years ago purposely knocked out major chunks of our brains with alcohol from time to time remains an interesting mystery. It may be that we were trying to give evolution a shove in the right direction -- in the direction of smaller brains. (p. 208)

Galapagos is a tale from the far future, with ghostly narrator Leon Trout (son of the famous SF writer Kilgore Trout) looking back one milion years to events that occurred in 1986, when a cruise liner was shipwrecked on Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos Islands, changing the course of human history ...

The book's twistily non-linear, with random snippets of information dropped in all over the place: "on her eighty-first birthday, two weeks before a great white shark ate her". It's clear from the beginning that the Bahia de Darwin is doomed: what's less clear is how the wreck will happen, and how the various characters will be affected. (Vonnegut uses a star before a character's name to indicate that they'll soon be dead: this mutes the dramatic impact, but adds to the feeling of arbitrary fate.

The passengers on board the ship aren't quite as elite as preliminary publicity suggests. There's a widowed school teacher; a blind teenage girl and her guide-dog; six young prostitutes of the Kanka-bono tribe who speak no English; a pregnant Japanese woman very recently widowed (her husband was an inventor of genius, and his latest invention, Mandarax, a simultaneous translation device with a library of world literature and a medical diagnosis app, ends up on Santa Rosalia too); and the ship's captain, Adolf von Kleist.

These people are the future of humanity.

Vonnegut makes much of 'big brains' and the ways in which humans waste and torment themselves, ruin their world and commit atrocities due to all that intellectual capacity. So much simpler, perhaps, if we evolved back into something more suited for catching fish, basking in the sunshine and being happy ...

Every character's story -- those who survive to reach the island, and those who don't -- is sketched in a handful of telling details. The Captain's brother is suffering from Huntington's chorea (luckily, the Captain is not a carrier); the Kanka-bono girls are on board because of an act of kindness by a pilot, and an act of cruelty by a tycoon; Hisako Hiroguchi's mother was exposed to radiation when Hiroshima was bombed; Selena's guide dog never barks.

There are so many details, and such a meandering structure, that it took me a while to notice what was missing: an account of the first days on the island. I don't think the book needs that scene: I think it's easily extrapolated from character and situation. But it seems an odd omission.

And I'm still thinking about Leon Trout, and his purpose, and whether this is some penance.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

#39: Thirteenth Child -- Patricia Wrede

We'd studied the animals of the North Plains Territories in natural history in school. They were divided into two sorts, the ordinary and the magical. The ordinary ones were things like mammoths and dire wolves and saber cats and terror birds and the magical ones were steam dragons and Columbian sphinxes and spectral bears and swarming weasels, and all of them were deadly dangerous, magical or not. And those were just the plains animals; there were other things just as bad in the northern forests, and no Great Barrier magic to keep them off, either. (p. 68)

Thirteenth Child is the first in a new trilogy, Frontier Magic. It's told from the viewpoint of Eff (short for Francine), the thirteenth child in a large family, and the elder twin of her brother Lan -- a "double-seventh" (seventh son of a seventh son) to whom magic comes naturally, powerfully and in unexpected ways.

The thirteenth child, on the other hand, is regarded as unlucky, sure to bring doom and badness on herself and everyone around her. From an early age Eff is victimised by cousins, aunts and uncles. Eventually, her parents decide to move out West, away from the rest of the extended family, to make a new start.

Quite aside from the everyday use and acceptance of magic, this is an Earth unlike our own. Columbia has been settled by emigrants from the Old Continent, Avropa -- "Albion, Gaul, Prussia". (Hard to say when the Roman Empire fell, but it did exist and did plunge Avropa, at least, into a kind of Dark Age.) Byzantium endured until at least the early 1700s. Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras were magicians as well as philosophers. Benjamin Franklin was a double-seventh son.

Columbia (also referred to as the United States) is governed by an Assembly, of which the first three Presidents were Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the next two weren't Madison and Monroe. The Secession War in 1838 was won by the colonists. Before that, Aphrikans were traded as slaves, but slavery was abolished with the help of people from the Aphrikan colonies in South Columbia. By Eff's time people of Aphrikan descent don't seem to be subject to racial discrimination. What year is it? Hard to say. There are railways, universities, policemen in uniform, grain mills. And there is a magical Great Barrier, near the Mammoth River, that protects the settlers to the east from the dangerous wildlife to the west.

Apart from the wildlife -- both magical and 'natural', sphinxes and saber-tooths, but seemingly united in a desire to attack humans -- Columbia was unpopulated until the colonists came. (The wildlife, incidentally, is not endemic to Columbia: there are references to nests of dragons in Ashia and Avropa, wiped out by magic. Only magic is regarded as a reliable protection against the 'monsters', though the Rationalists are founding well-fortified settlements where the use of magic is forbidden.) None of the expeditions bound for the Pacific Coast have returned: out of fifteen parties, only three men made it back, all mad. Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition vanished, though traces of their journey have been found.

This novel has attracted a great deal of criticism for its omission of the Native Americans: it would be dishonest to pretend that I wasn't aware of the discussion, or that I didn't read the novel with that and other criticisms in mind.


I'm not wholly convinced by the absence of the Native Americans. True, the western part of Columbia is inhabited by dangerous beasts. True, nobody ever comes back sane from beyond the Rockies. But there's something out West that scares even steam dragons. There's a strong smell of smoke on the wind. And there's something changing the natural balance, with attacks on settlements increasing and strange new creatures appearing and multiplying. I wonder if the Native Americans are simply not visible to the settlers. They don't have our world as a yardstick: they don't expect to see people living here amid the monsters. Given that this is the first book of three, I'm keeping an open mind on the subject and waiting to see what Wrede presents in the next two books.

A certain degree of vagueness in the worldbuilding is to be expected in the earlier part of the book, when Eff is a small child and doesn't seem to think much about the wider world -- at least not in terms of her place, her people's place, in it. Later, though, I'd have liked more context: don't they teach them history and geography in that school, as well as magic?

Eff, though, is a very self-centred narrator. She's caught up in her own miserable secret, in the fear of being discovered and ostracised as a thirteenth child. At one point early on, with a sibling ill, she wonders if Sharl died then maybe I wouldn't be a thirteenth child any more. Then I ... wondered if I was really as evil as Uncle Earn said, to have such thoughts. (p. 42) She's also utterly convinced that she'll 'go bad', though she's not entirely sure when this is due to happen. And as she enters adolescence, her magic begins to manifest in ways she can't control and is afraid to accept.

Eff is beginning to come to terms with her own magic -- quite different from her beloved brother's -- by the end of the book. There are three systems of magic in use: Aphrikan, Avropan and Hijero-Cathayan. Eff and her brother are instructed in Avropan magic at school (standard fourth grade syllabus) and, along with rather fewer other children, in Aphrikan magic by their teacher Miss Ochiba. The Aphrikan tradition is quite different to the strictures of the Avropan system. It teaches them to use their world-sense, to seeing different aspects of a thing and not to judge by first impressions. When Eff is finally confident and motivated enough to use her own magic instead of repressing it for fear of hurting others, she's doing something new, something that is a mix of traditions. "You're Columbian born and bred," Wash Morris tells her. The American Columbian melting-pot! I suspect that this new 'Frontier Magic' will become the focus of the trilogy -- perhaps there are additional ingredients yet to be added to the blend.

I'm not altogether satisfied with the world-building, though it'd be hard to shoe-horn sufficient detail into the viewpoint of the young, repressed, self-centred Eff. I'd like to know about religion in this world: there's Christmas, and churches with bells, but no mention of God or Christ or prayer. There's nothing about communication with the Old Continent, on personal or societal levels. (No Parisian fashions here.) Has anyone got around to exploring Australia and New Zealand?

Thirteenth Child feels very much the first part of a longer story, with many sub-plots left hanging and much unexplained. I trust Wrede to explain it all. I hope she won't disappoint.

A couple of observations on my position regarding the controversy this book has sparked:
- I suspect that, as a European, there is a whole dimension to this book that I don't relate to in the same way as an American. Not better, not worse: different, in the way that an American reviewer might miss class-related ambience in a British novel.
- I don't believe any alternate-history situation is unacceptable, or should not be written.

I welcome civilised debate: ad hominem attacks -- actually, attacks of any sort, as opposed to discussion -- will be deleted or frozen.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

#38: The Eagle of the Ninth -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Behind them, in the bare swaying branches of the wild pear-tree, a blackbird with a crocus-coloured bill burst into song, and the wind caught and tossed the shining notes down to them in a shower. They turned together to look up at the singer, swaying against the cold blown blue of the sky. Marcus narrowed his eyes into the thin dazzle of sunlight and whistled back, and the blackbird, bowing and swaying on the wind-blown branch, seemed to be answering him. Then a cloud came sailing across the sun, and the bright world was quenched in shadow. (p.283)

A favourite since childhood, reread because I found a second copy (my first is in storage and falling apart) browsing a charity shop in Haltwhistle, just south of Hadrian's Wall, whilst on a tour of Roman sites in the area. Reading Sutcliff's evocation of the wild Northumbrian landscape, I realised why the long hills and wide skies had seemed familiar: my mental picture of the area was founded on sentences and images in the novel.

From Luguvallium in the west to Segedunum in the east the Wall ran, leaping along with the jagged contours of the land; a great gash of stonework, still raw with newness. (p. 134)
Also marvellously evocative of Roman Britain (even if, as I am assured by Experts, some of the details are wrong and were wrong when the novel was published in 1954). I spent some time trying to work out if there really was a fort between Housesteads and Chesters: if so it'd be the setting for Marcus and Esca's return from the north and I could stand there and look out down to the burn, see the landscape (rather barer) that the sentry saw, and people it from my imagination.

When I first read The Eagle of the Ninth, in primary school, there was a lot I didn't notice and a lot I took for granted. It took me years to recognise the thematic links between this and later novels. This was my first encounter with fictionalised Romans, and it's a remarkably sympathetic one: Marcus Flavius Aquila is a soldier through and through, but mature and humane enough to begin to understand what the Empire has done to the tribes it conquers, and to the peoples it civilises.

The adventure of the Eagle doesn't grip me as it did when I was ten. I'm more fascinated now by the shifting relationship between Marcus and Esca -- former centurion, former slave -- and by how much they learn from one another, not only about their respective cultures but about themselves as individuals, comrades, friends. (I wish Sutcliff had written a sequel from Esca's point of view.)

There was a BBC adaptation in 1977 -- I remember being excited every Sunday afternoon for half a term, waiting for it to be time. (Why, yes, once upon a time one could not watch TV on demand. I wish the BBC would release this on DVD, though apparently there's a film due next year. And there's a tiny snippet on YouTube.)

Oh, and the emerald ring that Marcus inherits and passes to his descendents? In the gift shop at Chesters I bought, for about £2, a child's 'Roman Ring'. It has dolphins, and a green stone: not intaglio, not emerald, but ... I'm wearing it now.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Hidden World -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Summer 2009.

The Hidden World concludes the quartet that began with A Princess of Roumania, and continued in The Tourmaline and The White Tyger. Miranda Popescu, raised in our own world as an adopted orphan, is still homesick for Massachusetts -- a Massachusetts that was only ever imaginary, a refuge created for Miranda by her dead aunt Aegypta Schenk. Massachusetts is lost to Miranda, and she finds a way to enter the hidden world, the uber-reality that lies beyond and within the 'real' world where Miranda now lives. That 'real' world is definitively not our own, cosmologically or geographically or historically. The sun orbits the Earth (which may be flat); the planets are also gods; the British Isles have sunk beneath the sea, leaving Newton and Shakespeare refugees in an altered Europe; North America is a wilderness inhabited by savages, and Roumania is a world power. Now Miranda has ventured beyond that reality into a purer, more elemental world.

The Hidden World begins with Miranda recuperating in an isolated farmhouse, musing on her missing friends Andromeda and Peter, and haunted in dreams by her dead aunt, who's still determined to use Miranda as a tool to forge a better world and bring about the salvation of Greater Roumania.

Roumania is at war with Turkey, both in the real world where massive tanks roll up from technologically-supreme Africa and in the hidden world where monstrous hybrid dogs snarl and snap at Roumania's defenders. Airships rain bombs upon Budapest: survivors of a train crash in the south of the country are afflicted by radiation sickness. The old government has been overthrown, and some still mourn the death of the infamous diva Nicola Ceaucescu, rumoured to have been involved in sundry wickednesses.

Being dead is no impediment to Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu, sorceress and socialite, heroine of Roumania (in her own eyes, at least), ambitious and clever and utterly determined to defeat Miranda Popescu and her aunt Aegypta's vision of Roumania's future. The Baroness is far from a cardboard character: on the contrary, she's more complex, more conflicted and more fascinating than almost any other character in the four novels. She's very much a product of her time and her world, and her fragile, careful shell of vulnerability ("the happy thing about being a woman [is that] you don't have to do anything, but only suffer for long enough") overlays an ruthlessly indomitable core.

How Nicola Ceaucescu opposes Miranda is only part of the tale in this concluding volume. Miranda's friends -- in Massachusetts, they were Andromeda and Peter -- both find a measure of peace with their true selves. Of the three, though, it's Miranda who sees her choices clear-eyed and determines that the price demanded of her is too bitter, too high, and never-ending. "There were a lot of books I used to read ... There was always something to be accomplished, and it was always difficult. People suffered. But at the end of the book it was all worth it, because the thing was finished and the story over. That's not true here."

The Roumania quartet is post-modern fantasy: there are no easy answers, and even the questions are trick questions. Park trusts his readers to read, not just what's written -- in clear, elegant, unfussy prose -- but what's not. The Hidden World gives up its secrets subtly and gradually. Details that seem insignificant (the way that the Tourmaline, Kepler's alchemical stone, feels less like stone and more like 'a tough little sack of flesh'; the way that Kepler -- according to Newton -- imprisoned a creature of the Hidden World in a stone tower; perhaps, too, the way that photographs of Miranda's father never show his face clearly) suddenly fall into place. The last few pages of this novel are tremendously complex, packed with allusions that cast light on what's gone before. And, to return to Miranda's complaint, it is worth it: it is over.