Tag Archives: Fantasy

My Best of 2010, Part Three

N. K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms

When I review books I tend to write about theme a lot. (I hope I’m less simpleminded and reductive about it than your average high school English teacher.) N. K. Jemisin’s books have plenty of interpretive possibilities–among others, there are ideas here about power, and how it interacts with religion, and how cultures use their gods even as they think of themselves as following or living under those gods–but I must confess that when I read these what I most appreciated was their narrative drive.

I read these books at times when I was frustrated with stories padded with meaningless action, narrative cul-de-sacs, and excess exposition. (Too many recent books, and way too many movies, seem to think that unless they overemphasize and overexplain everything their audiences won’t Get It.) Attention spans are shrinking, but so many novels and films feel weirdly long, harder to sit through than many genuinely longer older works. So it’s a relief to come across novels like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms which earn their length. These books plunge straight into their plots, deliver worldbuilding and backstory as they go, and waste no time.

These are both “outsider caught in a world of complicated schemes and political maneuvers” books, and both sidestep one of the usual problems with this plot type: it often discourages active protagonists. It’s easy for this kind of book to resemble a stereotypical mediocre hard-boiled detective story whose narrator bounces from thug to thug, gets exposited at, and ends every scene by falling unconscious from a blow to the head. I was glad these books–The Broken Kingdoms in particular–starred narrators who had goals and were constantly making plans.

I also loved that these were two more entries in an my favorite fantasy-genre trend: series whose individual volumes are complete novels, not chunks of a 3000-page epic narrative. (In my cynical moods I suspect the epic-writers have no faith that their audience will come back unless they’re left hanging. In my case, they’re the ones I’m most likely to drop, partly because by the time I’ve picked up volume two I’ve usually forgotten the plot of volume one.)

Caitlin R. Kiernan, The Red Tree

I started writing a couple of paragraphs about this, then realized the paragraphs were threatening to turn into a short essay, as much about the horror genre as about this book. I hope to finish that essay and post it; in the meantime, I’ll just say I liked the book.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

I wrote about this around the time I read it.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

This is another book I’ve already written about.

China Miéville, Kraken

As with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I liked Kraken for the force of its story. It’s probably not China Miéville’s best novel, but he seems to have had fun writing it. The prose reads like it’s running, like it’s tripping over itself to get the ideas out–and there are a lot of ideas here: the book starts with the impossible theft of a giant squid and from there sprawls out in all directions. The pages ooze enthusiasm and some of that enthusiasm transferred to me at a moment when I was having a hard time feeling enthusiastic about anything at all.

Kraken is Miéville’s stab at the “hidden magical subculture existing in the margins of a modern city” genre. (I’m trying hard not to call it “urban fantasy,” because these days that term means at least two different things.) What distinguishes Kraken, besides Miéville’s abundant imagination, is its attitude towards magic. Sometimes these “the real world, but with magic!” stories set up a magic-vs.-science rivalry, in which “science” (or “technology”) is a mysterious force opposed to magic. Which annoys me. First, because it misrepresents what science actually is–it’s a process, not a hegemonic culture, philosophy of life, or force of nature. Second, because these stories always push us to root for magic–which is, wow, so creative and dreamy–and against science, which is cramped and closed-minded and inhuman, apparently. Anyone whose sense of wonder has ever been tripped by witty, enthusiastic science writing knows this is not an honest argument. Fantasy isn’t real, but it’s about reality, and when a story touches something real and isn’t honest about it, in a poetic or metaphorical sense, it grates.

So it’s wonderful that Kraken doesn’t prescribe any particular attitude towards magic. Maybe you’re awestruck, but it’s just as okay to think, as Kraken’s protagonist Billy does while pondering the Law of Sympathy, it’s “trite” that “a thing has power, moronically enough, because it’s a bit like something else.” Billy works in a natural history museum. He’s a tour guide, not a scientist, but he sees the world with a scientist’s eyes. Kraken,unusually for an urban fantasy, suggests that the rational, curious, investigative approach of a scientist might be as valid a way to understand a fantasy universe as it is to understand the real world.

My Best of 2010, Part One

As I too often note on this blog, I haven’t written much lately. I could claim I haven’t been writing because haven’t had much to say, but the truth is that I haven’t had much to say because I haven’t been writing. Sometimes I don’t consciously realize what it is I have to say until I try putting it into words.

The sticking point is that to write something I have to put in some serious thought–serious for me, anyway–and I cut down on sustained pondering over the last couple of months. I’ve spent the year anxious about a number of things, the biggest of which are the economy and the direction in which the country is headed. It feels like everything we’ve built in the last century is being torn down and hollowed out. Lately, if I’m not careful, contemplation can metamorphose into perpetual low-grade panic.

So I haven’t engaged enough with the books I’ve read. I’ve let the texts wash over me, let the authors’ thoughts drown out my worries, escaped from a world where, for the moment, I don’t want to spend very much time. I managed this without focusing on any particular kind of book. Some people disdain “escapist” literature, but, truth be told, you can escape into Dostoevsky as easily as Doctor Who.

This is, of course, not good for me. So I’m going to try to post more often. I’m starting slowly with a review of 2010–just a paragraph or three on the books that made the biggest impression on me, for good or ill. I’ll split it into multiple posts, because in a few cases I’m coming up with encouragingly long paragraphs. I may eventually try to come up with longer essays on a few. (If nothing else I’m a little chagrined that, of the books I did manage to write about, the only ones by female authors were the among the books I didn’t like.)

The books will be listed in alphabetical order by author, because I hate trying to rank things. (Anyway, it’s not fair pitting contemporary writers against the aforementioned Dostoevsky.)

The Best (Part One)

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River

This is, sadly, Kage Baker’s last novel. It’s one of her better ones, another book in the fantasy series that began with The Anvil of the World, set in a secondary world which draws as much from America as most Extruded Fantasy Product does from Europe. Like Anvil, it’s very much a working class fantasy: it focuses on the kind of people who stay in the background of most secondary world fantasy, and it spends a lot of pages just watching them do their jobs while the plot casually emerges from the background. The Bird of the River is about a riverboat and some of its day-to-day operations would have looked familiar to Mark Twain. I came away thinking I should really read Life on the Mississippi again. Maybe in 2011…

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

This is one of the books I reviewed. In the absence of new insights, I’ll simply direct you to that post.

Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

I avoided The Last Unicorn for years because of the word “unicorn,” which for me conjures up black velvet paintings sold out of a trailer. Peter S. Beagle is a genius, though, so inevitably I was going to get around to reading this, and when I finally did it blew away any thought of kitsch.

The Last Unicorn is set in a world balanced halfway between fairy tale and history, tipping towards mundanity. It’s a world aware of itself passing into legend, a place where wannabe Robin Hoods hope a folklorist will come along and transcribe ballads about them. This may sound very twee and self-referential, but it’s not. It never feels like the characters are playing parts, or that the things that happen to them don’t matter.

Beagle remembers that, in legend, wonders cost something. As one character says, “Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.” The novel is tinged as much with loss and disappointment as hope. It’s not about heroes, but failures: people who’ve reached the middle of their lives and found they haven’t wound up in anything resembling a fairy-tale ending, or even a fairy-tale mid-plot. There’s a unicorn in The Last Unicorn, but the book is mostly about the human characters coming to terms with lives that aren’t the stories they’d wished for.

The City and the City

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China Miéville’s The City and the City is another Nebula nominee. It’s a police procedural set in two imaginary cities. If you haven’t read it, it might be best to stop reading this review now. The City and the City doesn’t dump its premise on you all at once; odd details pile up, and one or two chapters in the true premise hits you and remaps your entire perception of the story.

On the other hand, if you’ve heard of The City and the City at all, you probably know the concept. Some stories have twists that will never surprise anyone again, because they’re part of our common mental furniture. Everyone who sees Psycho knows not to get too attached to Marion Crane. Among SF fans the premise of The City and the City is already just as well known. So I won’t be spoiling anything for most people when I explain that The City and the City is set in two imaginary cities that occupy the same space.

The citizens of Beszel walk the same streets as the citizens of Ul Quoma. No one remembers how, or why, the cities split, but over the centuries the divergent cultures maintained separate identities with complicated mental defenses. The cities learned to unsee each other. Tyador Borlú, the Beszel police detective at the center of the story, walks among Ul Quomans and is effectively alone. All his life he’s been trained in selective attention. He doesn’t acknowledge that Ul Quoma is there. If he did, he’d be in trouble; no one wants to come to the attention of Breach, the group that polices the imaginary boundary between the two cities.

This sounds like fantasy, and maybe it is… but only just barely. We “unsee” things all the time. Things we don’t want to acknowledge… or people we don’t want to acknowledge. When I Googled The City and the City to check the spelling of names and places, I found a review that mentioned the secret cartography of London gangs:

These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

That sounds just like the “crosshatched” maps of Beszel and Ul Quoma.

Unseeing isn’t always a bad thing. The human brain can only process so many things at once; if we consciously acknowledged everything we perceived, all the time, it would be hard to sort out which details were immediately important. You don’t want anyone stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, distracted by the ants and the weeds and the cracks in the asphalt, while a car hurtles towards the intersection! And when you’re traveling home on a crowded bus, politely “unseeing” the other passengers lets everyone read or talk to friends or just unwind in the pretense of privacy.

But sometimes people take selective attention too far. One of the clichés that get thrown around a lot when people talk about the United States is the “melting pot.” This isn’t a great metaphor—it raises images of people rendered down into homogenous goo, being assimilated but not assimilating anything themselves. But it does at least approach something true: put cultures next to each other, and they mix. They trade. They fall in love. Which is scary for the people who’ve built their identities around belonging to the culture on the top of the pyramid. So they build walls, and patrol the deserts. Certain neighborhoods become anathema. Certain people are not “real” citizens. They squint suspiciously at anyone who looks like they don’t belong, and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the people who “don’t belong” have actually been around longer than they have…

Beszel and Ul Quoma can only maintain their purity as totalitarian states. No one in either city has a choice in what to see or unsee—no one gets to decide what’s important to them. The division between the cities takes precedence over everything, even life and death. If Borlú came upon an Ul Quoman dying on the street, he’d have to unsee and walk away, or face Breach.

This is a problem for a man investigating a murder that crosses between cities. I could predict Borlú would have to choose between catching a killer and throwing away a lifetime of mental training. What surprised me was that Borlú steps outside the barrier between Beszel and Ul Quoma but doesn’t permanently disrupt it. Order is maintained, the status quo continues. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—Miéville’s never seemed optimistic about the possibility that things might change for the better. (Iron Council ended with the image of a revolution that perpetually approaches but never arrives.) You can climb over the walls, but you can’t tear them down. Borlú can refuse to look away from the unseen, but once he does he can never return to ordinary life.

A Nebula Nominee

I’ve had a hard time writing much of anything lately, though I’m working on reviewing some books. I read this year’s Nebula nominees recently–or most of them, since from what I’ve heard about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, it’s pretty much the same kind of deal as his short stories. I’m not sure I can deal with his trademark ecologically collapsed dystopias right now. I’ve written about Finch here before. I’m writing about Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire now because what I have to say is short enough that I can actually finish the post.

This review is short because I bailed on Flesh and Fire a third of the way in. I’m not sure why this got a Nebula nomination–it’s a standard volume one of an Extruded Fantasy Product trilogy. (I’m not convinced that any series should be nominated for anything until it’s finished, unless each volume stands alone.) Judging from the first few chapters and a quick skim through the rest of the book the plot doesn’t go anywhere particularly unusual for the breed. But the details are off-puttingly weird.

In Flesh and Fire’s world, wizards own slaves. The protagonist is taken from slavery to become his master’s apprentice–it appears wizards all begin life as slaves as well as owning them. What’s strange is that the book seems to think we should like, or at least not detest, the wizards, and based on my skim-read there is so far no sign that this series is building to a takedown of the whole rotten system. This creeped me out.

The other oddity is the magic. Flesh and Fire features a wine-based magic system. The wizards (or “vinearts”) grow magic grapes–this is where the slave labor comes in–and produce “spellwine” which they have to drink to use. Presumably there are only so many spells they can cast in a certain period before they pass out in a pool of their own vomit. The book spends a lot of time setting up the mechanics of the system and if you’re not a big wine fan it makes for odd reading. Eventually I realized what this reminded me of: those mystery novels whose protagonists are slightly too focused on cooking or crossword puzzles or weirdly intelligent cats. They’re the cozy version of the men’s adventure novels that spend way the hell too much time on the technical details of submarines and submachine guns.

Flesh and Fire is an epic fantasy for people who really, really like wine. I have no idea what this says about the Nebula judges.

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip

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Sometimes a book comes late to the party. It walks in bearing beer and waving a hot new album it’s discovered, to find that very CD blaring from the stereo and the guests already drunk. That’s Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati’s graphic novel retelling of the Orpheus myth. I gather Poem Strip was an important comic in Italy; according to one review it was the 1970 winner of the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award. But in English Poem Strip made its first appearance in 2009, and entered like an aging swinger who’s never revised his mustache and still wears forty year old polyester bell bottoms.

Here’s the problem: Poem Strip is absurdly, distractingly sexist. Buzzati drew many pictures of women for this book, and most are at least half and generally some smaller fraction of naked, and even while ushering guests down staircases or staffing the front desk in an office they tend to pose as though for girlie mags. Derek Badman, in his review at MadInkBeard, speculates that these women were in fact traced from girlie mags. He also complains that some of Buzzati’s drawings are crude. I think we have to cut the guy some slack on the art; he was obviously drawing one-handed. It’s a lot like the often-adolescent and now mostly embarrassing underground comics of the 1960s; you get the sense that this is the work of a guy who’s just realized standards have opened up to the point that he’s allowed to publish sexy drawings, and in all the excitement has forgotten that sometimes it’s better not to.

Much of the early part of the book is taken up with a song from Buzzati’s Orpheus—here a rock star named Orfi—called “Witches in the City.” Orfi alternates paranoid ramblings about all the women he thinks are out to seduce him with chanted litanies of names—“Barbara Yvonne Leda Fiorella,” et cetera, as though implicating the entire other half of the human race. Not only are women sirens luring men onto sharp rocks, they’re all in on it together, man. I hope Buzzati got into therapy at some point.

It’s too bad Poem Strip is hiding behind this huge stumbling block, because there’s also a lot to like. Stylistically, it looks like a collaboration between Fredrico Fellini and Glen Baxter, colored with a limited palette. Buzzati references Fellini directly at one point, as well as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Arthur Rackham, and a number of other artists who he credits in his brief forward. He fits his style to the tone of the page, swinging from realism to expressionism and back and still managing to keep Poem Strip a unified whole.

You know the story (at least, you should). Orfi, despite his weird gynephobia issues, has somehow managed to keep a relationship going with Eura. Who dies. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Euridyce. So Orfi follows her into the underworld, reached through a strange door in the Via Saturna. He’s met by a talking overcoat that at one point calls itself “Kruschevian.” An interview with the translator confirms that the overcoat is a reference to the Soviet premier but unfortunately doesn’t explain the connection. (I wish Poem Strip had a new introduction, or maybe some footnotes.)

Life, in the overcoat’s view, is like an ocean whose tides are set by death’s huge gravitational pull. In the afterlife, the absence of death creates a different emotional landscape. The dead can’t die again, can’t be injured and have no need for physical pain, so they have fewer things to fear. They have less to lose, and fewer reasons for sadness. With all of eternity to play with, anything can happen; life’s possibilities never close off. Knowing the answers to the ultimate questions, they have no sense of the uncanny. They have no need to pass on their genes to a new generation, so no need to feel passion.

To placate the dead Orfi sings to them about what they can no longer feel. This is the best and most substantial passage in the book. Buzzati illustrates an old man who “checks his mailbox for the hundredth time but there’s nothing there,” dried leaves on the wind forming “strange ghosts in the sky,” a bogeyman floating over the city. Every image gets at least a page to itself. The art here is mostly at the expressionist end of the scale, as much designed as drawn, and weirdly evocative. A thing that rises by the side of the road and reaches out to a traveler is depicted pretty much as a blob, but it’s scary as anything.

Finally, Orfi finds Eura, and loses her again—but not the way you’re thinking. This is where Buzzati kind of redeems himself in terms of gender politics. Usually this myth treats Eurydice like the rope in a tug of war. She dies, Orpheus drags her out from Tartarus, then she’s yanked back because of something Orpheus does. But in Poem Strip Eura refuses to follow Orfi out of the underworld at all. Eura doesn’t mind being in the afterlife. She’s in the right place. She’s dead.

And maybe, Eura hints, the afterlife isn’t a cold, passionless place after all. Love is not absent, and she and Orfi will be together again when the time is right. It’s Orfi who’s yanked away from the flatly prosaic afterlife to the land of the living. Poem Strip returns to the themes of Orfi’s song in the last few pages, depicting swirling storms and “turreted clouds of eternity.” the disturbing, uncanny world of the living goes about its business as Orfi stands in the Via Saturna, holding the promise of Eura’s ring.

Steven Brust, Iorich

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Once upon a time Steven Brust wrote Jhereg, a lighthearted adventure starring Vlad Taltos, a human assassin and organized criminal living among the Dragaerans (basically long lived elves). Some of that book’s fans would have been perfectly happy to watch Vlad smart-assedly knife his way through a whole series of cookie-cutter sequels.

Luckily for the rest of us Brust was up to something more interesting. A couple of volumes later, in Teckla, the situation set up in Jhereg got knocked down and Vlad started asking himself the kind of hard questions fantasy crime lords can’t ask themselves and still end a long day of organizing crime with an untroubled night’s sleep.

If you haven’t read Brust, Jhereg and Teckla may look like nonsense words. They’re three of the seventeen houses of which all Dragaerans are members. The houses are a kind of caste system: every house’s culture embodies a piece of Dragaeran society (including pieces, like the criminal Jhereg, they’d rather do without) and every house gets a turn running the empire according to its own principles. The houses are named after Dragaeran animals, and the Vlad Taltos books are named after the houses1, and in each book Vlad has to think like a member of that house to solve a problem, and sees the world from its point of view. Vlad is touring the empire house by house, and his moral education progresses through what he learns along the way. (Jo Walton has written good introductions to the Taltos series and Dragaera in general at Tor.com.)

Iorich is the twelfth book in the series. The house of the Iorich provides Dragaera with its lawyers and judges, so here Vlad’s immersed in the legal system. He’s investigating why a friend of his has been arrested under one of those “technically on the books, but it’s not enforced unless you’re really obvious about it” type laws. Except she wasn’t obvious about it; she’s been arrested for reasons that are too complicated to explain in a book review, and are in any case spoilers.

When Vlad was a criminal, he saw the law as a barrier to evade. Now he discovers his enemies using the law as a tool to get what they want–even if what they want is contrary to the purpose of the law.

Let’s take a little side trip back to the real world. You often hear people complain that the law isn’t written in plain english. Why are the bills creeping through Congress a thousand pages long? Why do lawyers and legislators spend paragraph upon droning paragraph defining, in minute detail, the meaning of everyday words like “vehicle?” Everybody knows what a vehicle is, so why not just say “vehicle?”

Because it’s difficult to get people to understand what “vehicle” means when their self-interest depends on not understanding it. If the law did not carefully and precisely define what it meant by “vehicle” then every idiot hauled into court over a vehicle-related dispute would have their own argument as to why, in the case of their own personal vehicle-like object, the law didn’t apply.

Language is messy. Dry and convoluted legal language is a linguistic junk drawer organizer. It sorts the mess into neat little cubbyholes and reduces the wiseguys’ ability to interpret the document however they like.

But no matter how detailed and orderly you get, language is not computer code and people are not functions. It’s impossible to write a law so perfect that somebody can’t misuse or misinterpret it. Outlaw torture and sooner or later someone will write a legal opinion pretending that when they torture somebody it’s somehow okay. The law doesn’t prevent injustice; it just makes injustice harder to pull off. Which is why we need courts and lawyers and judges to keep an eye on each other. As Vlad’s lawyer puts it:

But, you know, there is making the law, and enforcing the law, and interpreting the law, and they all mix up together, and it’s people who do those things, and the people all mix up together. You can’t separate them.

Which is not to say that Iorich is a heavy tome. Like almost all this series, it’s written in First Person Smartass. (The source of this term is not clear, but it seems to be everybody’s first description for this series, and it’s useful for all kinds of books besides.) Vlad’s voice reminds me of Archie Goodwin’s from the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. (The family resemblance is enhanced by the loving attention with which Brust writes about food. Dzur, for instance, is organized around a meal at the most kickass restaurant in Adrilankha.) Iorich, like every other book in this series, is a just-one-more-chapter novel. I’m always disappointed when the chapters run out.

I’m not loving the cover, though. It kind of looks like a box of Dragaeran Frosted Flakes.


  1. Mostly. The book that takes place earliest in Vlad’s life is Taltos, and the word is that Brust plans a final, nineteenth, volume called The Final Contract. ↩

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

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The fantasy genre is the last redoubt of the three-volume novel. Your local Barnes and Noble contains shelves of geography-spanning tomes–most longer than they should be–split into threes. There is no sensible reason for this… but the book that inadvertently invented Fantasy as a marketing category was The Lord of the Rings, and the form passed from the first hack imitators of Tolkien into tradition. Even good fantasy writers work in the multivolume format by default1.

So I love Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Trilogy (City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch): three different books about the same world that combine, Voltron-like, into something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s weird that more fantasy series don’t work this way. We get few novels2 about any given fantasy world, all written by the same author and therefore sharing a family resemblance. But why are they so often slices of a single story, and almost always written in the same style? Walk over to the “Literature” section and you’ll see a near-infinite variety of novels set in the real world, about all kinds of events, starring innumerable people, written in every possible kind of prose. The world is not one thing. A city is not one thing. Why shouldn’t an invented world be seen from many perspectives, described in many styles?

So City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of literary short stories. Shriek: An Afterword chronicles the lives of two underachieving siblings, told in alternating, arguing voices, with bigger things going on in the background…

And Finch is a hard-boiled detective novel, set after the Gray Caps, the mushroomy original inhabitants of Ambergris, have taken over the city. And it’s great–Finch is everything a hard boiled detective novel involving intelligent fungus ought to be. The Gray Cap overseers send John Finch, a tired steampunk Humphrey Bogart, to solve a murder. Finch bounces from faction to faction and picks up pieces of the puzzle from various interesting people who proceed to beat him up or knock him out. Everybody wants his help. Nobody asks for it without a threat.

The prose in the first two Ambergris books was straightforwardly literary (with digressions into reference-book style for certain parts of City of Saints and Madmen). Finch is written in short, sharp sentences. Sometimes sentence fragments. Telegraphese. There are food shortages and power cuts and Finch can’t spare the resources for a coordinating conjunction.

(I get a little more into analysis after this point, and some of it is spoilery, so I’m putting the rest of the review behind a link. Just go read the book, okay?) Continue reading Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

Sunflower

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“Everyone appears ridiculous when in love,” writes Gyula Krúdy in Sunflower. I’m cynical enough to believe it. Love inspires people to greatness. It also inspires people to stage elaborate, embarassingly public marriage proposals involving scoreboards, skywriters, and/or mariachi bands. I don’t understand why women say yes to these things. This is one major reason why I do not expect ever to marry.

Sunflower looks at love from all angles, and finds it ridiculous. All angles contained in Budapest’s upper class, sometime around the turn of the 20th century, anyway, and for the same reason P. G. Wodehouse wrote about the upper class. Poverty isn’t funny.

Sunflower isn’t ridiculous in the way Wodehouse is ridiculous. Wodehouse is funny ha ha. Krudy is funny peculiar. Sunflower has a dark side. Everyone’s falling in love, or out of love, or just worrying about love, but death isn’t far away; you don’t get love without danger. As soon as we meet Andor Álmos-Dreamer he dies for love. He gets better, but it sets the tone. The novel skips back and forth through family histories. Men fight duels over women, or just drop dead, sometimes because their wives asked them to. Death doesn’t stop love: one character, Miss Maszkerádi, was fathered by a ghost.

All this is described in stunning prose, with images and metaphors packed in one after the other, urgently running together. It’s like Krúdy wasn’t sure this slim novel would have room for them all. Hungarian, and Krudy in particular, is apparently next to impossible to translate. I don’t know how well this book represents Krudy, or how much came from the translator. Either way it’s a marvel. (This despite the fact that the translation sometimes turns incongruously modern. Would a young woman around 1900 or so call a guy a “creep?” Or, for that matter, a “guy?” Would she say “crap,” or “Men stink?”)

Miss Maszkerádi isn’t into looking ridiculous. She judges her present as though she’s looking back at a distance of fifty years. She doesn’t want to do anything she might feel embarassed about later. The one thing she loves, and identifies with, is a solid and immovable willow tree. Pistoli, the local squire, feels the trees inviting him to hang himself on their branches. He’s smitten with Miss Maszkerádi. This can’t end well. And it doesn’t… Krudy foreshadows heavily enough that I’m not spoiling anything by letting slip that Pistoli doesn’t survive the book. But it doesn’t end too badly, either—or at least no worse than anything else. Hardly anyone minds appearing ridiculous, or even dying. It’s the price you pay for living.

Unseen Academicals

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I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I will admit not every volume is a classic. The early books are shallow parodies, and sometimes Pratchett translates real-world phenomena much too closely and literally into the Discworld. I’m talking here about arbitrary pop culture, rather than institutions like police or postal services that would appear in some form in any functional society even in a fantasy world. Reaper Man is an excellent short novel about Death getting laid off and finding a job as a farmhand, which sadly stepped into a broken teleporter with a tedious short novel about evil shopping carts. The Last Continent is a pointless trudge through every “Australian” cliché in the Australian Cliché Encyclopedia. Moving Pictures—set in “Holy Wood,” fergodsakes—is the one Discworld book I’ve never been able to start, let alone finish.

So I wasn’t expecting much from Unseen Academicals, which features on its (U.S.) cover a bunch of Discworld hands reaching for a (British) football. But you know what? It was actually damn good.

The actual football (a.k.a. soccer) content of Unseen Academicals is low. We do get a few “look, this is how [THING] is done on the Discworld” jokes; and, yes, the book does end with the Big Game, although luckily the most tedious bits are given as sportscaster commentary set off in easy-to-skip block quotation format. But Unseen Academicals isn’t so much about football as about everything around football. It’s about how sports ritualize and manage conflicts. Or fail to. It’s another variation on the Discworld series’s major project: taking a late medieval sword-and-sorcery world and civilizing the hell out of it. Lord Vetinari had banned football because it inspired riots among the more thuggish fans; the games, and the riots, have continued in the streets. As the book opens he’s realized that to keep the violence under control he has to bring the game into the open and tame it.

(The rest of this review may contain spoilers. I’ll put it behind a link.) Continue reading Unseen Academicals

Mistborn: Not Quite Awful

Cover Art

So how many aspects of good writing can you hack out of a Big Fat Fantasy and still have something I’m willing to read through—or at least skim through—to the end? Thanks to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, I now know the answer: almost all of them.

By any sane standard Mistborn is ninety percent pabulum. The prose is the written equivalent of an oatmeal-on-wonder-bread sandwich. The dialog is subtly unlike anything any human would actually say, but that’s understandable; the characters aren’t people so much as mannequins pushed around a chessboard by an army of tiny robots. The little narrative details that, in a good novel, give rise to its most memorable and vivid images are too ordinary to recall. There is humor—for a trilogy that builds to a total apocalypse, Mistborn is charmingly unwilling to sink into the kind of unrelieved bleakness that battered me into giving up on George R. R. Martin after four bloated books—but I only know it’s humor because, like a long-lost Wonder Twin, it takes the form of humor. None of it is funny.

Then there’s the underlying worldview, with which I have Issues. Continue reading Mistborn: Not Quite Awful