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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

2013/15: Wendy -- Karen Wallace

George Darling clanged the decanter again and poured what was left in it into his glass. "I could have had any woman I wanted," he muttered to himself. "And I chose a fairy-tale princess who can't grow up." (p. 192)

Wendy lives in London with her father and mother, Mr and Mrs Darling, her younger brothers John and Michael, and the family's beloved dog Nana (who may be more than she appears). Wendy's life may seem privileged, but she's miserable: Nanny Holborn's regime is cruel and abusive, Wendy's playmate Letitia Cunningham is mean-tempered and manipulative, and Wendy sees her father kissing Lady Cunningham.

Wendy doesn't understand adults, and doesn't want to, but she finds herself drawn into the deceptions and white lies of the grown-ups around her. There's some respite when the three children are sent -- without Nanny Holborn and her cod liver oil! -- to stay with their aunt and uncle in the countryside. But Wendy discovers a secret about her friend Thomas (an autistic boy who loves to paint) that makes her question everything she thinks she knows.

Though based on the characters, and to some extent the plot, of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, Wendy is set firmly in the real world. There's no Neverland, no Tinkerbell, and though Thomas will 'never grow up' this is not by his own choice. If there's a magical element, it's Nana, who occasionally remarks upon the behaviour of the humans around her. But nobody listens to Nana.

Wendy deals with the idea of 'growing up' in a number of ways. Esther Cunningham, elder half-sister of the repulsive Letitia, is a suffragette; she also realises that she has to leave her father's house, not only for her own sake but to help her father let go of the memory of his dead wife. George Darling, with his shiny motor car and ill-advised flirtation, seems to be having what we might now call a mid-life crisis. And Wendy learns that adults are peculiar and incomprehensible beasts, and that you can hate someone and love them at the same time.

I find I don't have much to say about this novel. I didn't really engage with it: there was nothing especially wrong, but also nothing especially right.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

2013/14: Naomi's Room -- Jonathan Aycliffe

...everywhere the problem is the same problem: how do we keep them dead, how do we prevent the categories of life and death from becoming confused? The dead do not refuse to die, they are willing accomplices in their own disposal. But they will not rest unless the living rest as well. [loc 526]

Purchased on whim, this is a horror story set in Cambridge and London in the 1970s. Charles and Laura are academically successful, happily married, and have a beautiful five-year old daughter named Naomi. One Christmas Eve Charles takes Naomi to London, to Hamley's. The little girl is abducted: days later, her body is found in Spitalfields.

The couple struggle with their grief and shock. They clutch at straws; an odd aspect of the murder, a newspaper photographer who's noticed something unexpected in some of his pictures, a face in the background of an old holiday snapshot. There are hints of a family secret, signs that their house holds hidden spaces. And steadily the sense of menace rises, chilling and melancholy and terrifying.

If the final third of the novel had been in the same key as the preceding chapters, I might have slept with the lights on for weeks. However, events pivot around a single moment, and after that moment nothing can ever be the same. I found myself re-examining the narrator's account to date, seeking foreshadowings and connections. (To Aycliffe's credit, these are present, and admirably subtle: though there are a few aspects of the story which don't seem to fit together, such as the narrator's relationship to the doctor.)

I can't say I liked the last third of Naomi's Room; it took the story from the psychological to the gory, and I prefer the former. But it's an effective shift, all the more so because of the continuity of narrative voice.

2013/13: Alif the Unseen -- G. Willow Wilson

"...I believe that with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized. It doesn’t mean the Alf Yeom will make any more sense to you, but it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information." [loc. 2343]

Set in an unnamed (and probably fictional) Emirate, Alif the Unseen combines elements of cyberpunk and folktale: the Arab Spring meets the Arabian Nights, if you want a pithy tag. There are echoes of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson here, but there's also a strong theological component. Wilson explores feminism, Islam, the East-West schism, censorship, and revolution -- and does so by telling a story about princes, djinni and mystics.

Imagine the tale. There's a poor boy in love with a rich girl. She rejects him; he acquires a cloak of invisibility, but endangers himself in the process. All looks grim until he is befriended by a djinn. Subsequently he is helped by a prince for whom he's performed a favour; he falls in love with a girl he has known since childhood; he travels to a mystic place where he finds himself fixing an efreet's laptop --

Stop. Reload. Alif is 23, half-Indian and half-Arab, a renowned hacker who provides security workarounds for anyone who can pay. He's in love with an upper-class Old Quarter girl, Intisar, but she tells him she never wants to see his name again. Heartbroken and embittered, Alif creates his masterwork: a program that will recognise Intisar's 'digital fingerprint' -- the unique combination of language, word choice and grammatical tics that identify her online activities -- and 'filter any Internet user who fit her specs, making them invisible to each other' [loc 509].

Unfortunately this does not go unnoticed, and Alif, together with his childhood friend Dina, has to flee the censors. The two of them fall into improbable company: a hitman who may not be human, an American woman who's converted to Islam, and Alif's old hacker buddy NewQuarter1, whose pedigree is rather better than those of Alif or Dina.

Alif the Unseen is full of likeable and well-rounded characters. None are without their flaws. Alif, despite being surrounded by strong women -- Dina, Intisar, the American, Azalel, Sakira -- is still surprised when Dina shows intelligence or initiative, ("She really was as smart as a man" - loc 1129) and bemoans his "agony at the quiet female rhythms that encompassed him, prompting him to flee back into his computers, the cloud, the digital world populated by men" (loc 3832). The American (whom I made a conscious effort not to read as authorial self-insertion despite the similarities between the character and Wilson herself) voices a sense of entitlement, whilst viewing her adoptive culture through a soft-focus, rose-tinted post-colonial haze.

The changing world in which Alif, Dina and the rest find themselves is very recognisable. Wilson examines the ways that technology can empower the poor, elide class structures and be used both to preserve and to attack social and political structures. Woven through the tale of a revolution, too, are threads concerning the nature of knowledge, the fuzzy edges of modern science, and non-Western spins on Western pop culture. ("[Pullman's] The Golden Compass! It’s full of djinni trickery!" [loc 1279])

I liked Alif the Unseen a great deal, despite the flaws of the characters -- which aren't flaws in the characterisation -- and a sense that the finale is over-simplified. It has the exuberance of some early cyberpunk novels, and a philosophical dimension that I found thought-provoking. (Mostly provocative of thoughts about djinni: I may need to reread Declare.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

2013/12: The Far West -- Patricia Wrede

The Far West -- Patricia Wrede

I wasn’t Aphrikan, and I wasn’t Avrupan, not really. I was Columbian, born and raised, for all my grandparents weren’t. I didn’t have to do things one way or the other. I could do either, or both, or mix them up until something worked. [loc 1564]

The conclusion to the Frontier Magic trilogy that began with The Thirteenth Child and continued with Across the Great Barrier. Disclaimer: I read The Far West straight after Across the Great Barrier [the joys of Kindle: instant next-book-in-series gratification!], so may have blurred the two together.

The Columbian government is keen to map the Far West of the continent, and Eff -- together with her twin brother Lan, their friend William, Eff's mentors Professor Torgeson and Professor Ochiba, and circuit rider Wash -- leaves 'civilisation' behind to spend a hard winter on the frontier.

There are plenty of adventures to keep them occupied: new species, both magical and mundane; the mysterious Cathayan delegation, who are part-funding the expedition; improbable readings from thaumaturgical instruments; a prairie winter. Eff also finds herself dealing with admirers in the plural -- and with the prejudices and expectations of her family. ("you think that just because I’m going on the expedition, I’ll turn into some kind of tart?” [loc. 2364]).

The plethora of new magical predators, and the peculiar build-up of magic along the Grand Bow River, indicate that more is at stake than Eff's virtue. But her magical skillset -- still a source of bemusement to her teachers and friends -- might prove more important than her brother's 'seventh son of a seventh son' geomancy, Professor Ochiba's Aphrikan magic, or the Cathayan Adept Alikaket's holistic approach.

It's a very American novel: the wild frontier, the pioneer spirit, the vastness of the landscape and the cultural melting-pot. There's also that sense that what you can do is more important than any accident of birth: personal qualities will get you further than a good name or a pale skin.

One of the aspects of this trilogy that I admire most is that it's not Epic Fantasy. There's no Big Bad or Evil Overlord; Eff is not a Chosen One. Instead, the threat comes from ecological imbalance, and it's countered by a team effort. Eff's role has nothing to do with gods or destiny. True, she has strong magic of her own (though even at the end of the trilogy she's still struggling to control and understand it) but it's her non-magical qualities -- helpfulness, willingness to learn, patience, amicability -- that qualify her as a member of the expedition, and bring her to the point where she can make a difference.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

2013/11: Across the Great Barrier -- Patricia Wrede

"...it’s one thing to refuse to use spells ourselves, and it’s another thing entirely to talk of deliberately bringing in a lot of grubs in order to destroy the natural magic in our settlement lands forever." [loc 1522]

Across the Great Barrier picks up almost immediately after the events of The Thirteenth Child, in which Francine 'Eff' Rothmer learnt that she wasn't cursed or wicked, and that the trouble she was having with magic wasn't a flaw, but indicative of a new methodology. In the previous novel, Eff was instrumental in dealing with an infestation of magic-draining mirrorbugs. Now, the people of Wrede's Columbia have to cope with the ecological aftermath.

The Thirteenth Child, set on a North American continent empty of human life until the arrival of 'Avrupans', was criticised for its erasure of Native Americans: but how do you -- how can Eff -- explain the absence of something that's never been there?

However, Eff is growing up (she celebrates her twentieth birthday in Across the Great Barrier) and her perspective is broader than it was in the first novel. There's more discussion of the rest of the world, and of the history of Columbia. It's interesting to examine Wrede's worldbuilding, the chains of cause and effect that produce Eff's world. Here, the 'last' Ice Age never happened, so there was no Bering land-bridge by which humans could cross to the American continent. The magical wildlife of the far West is fierce enough that dragons flee it, never mind mere humans. Lewis and Clark's expedition was utterly lost. Men who attempt to cross the Rockies come back mad, if at all. And only the Great Barrier Spell, created by Franklin and Jefferson, preserves the east of the continent from the worst of the magical perils.

Eff finishes school, works awhile in the university's menagerie, and then volunteers to head west as assistant to Professor Aldis Torgeson, a Vinlander and a biologist, who becomes something of a role model for Eff. Their expedition also includes the Aphrikan Washington Morris -- a.k.a. 'Wash' -- who acted as guide on the journey to discover the mirrorbugs.

Meanwhile Eff's twin brother Lan has returned early from boarding school, after an incident he won't discuss which has clearly shaken him to his core. His (and Eff's) friend William has been disowned by his father. Both young men join the expedition. Needless to say, they find adventure aplenty beyond the Great Barrier Spell -- not to mention traces of a mysterious threat which menaces the peaceful pioneer settlements east of the Mammoth River. The risk is compounded by the fact that some of those settlements, including one where Eff's sister and her husband live, are Rationalist: they disapprove of using magic, and the more extreme among them are even talking about deliberately reintroducing mirrorbugs to drain the natural magic from the land. Eco-crisis ahead!

And as though the ecology of magic, and the wild frontier itself, aren't enough, Eff finds herself being courted ...

One vexing profreding issue: someone had performed a number of global search/replace operations in the source for this book, leading to such infelicities as "I could see he liked being the indent of attention" [loc 3917] and "I saw a bump in the crt of the lizard’s forehead" [loc 4229].

But that didn't stop me going straight on to the final volume of the trilogy.