A roundup of cool books I have recently read—post the second

This post’s theme is “books other people recommended.” (Recommended is in some cases too weak a word, and might more accurately be replaced by “books other people handed to me, saying, ‘You’ve got to read this.’”)

Beneath the cut are mostly non-spoilery reviews of The Magicians, Un Lun Dun, His Majesty’s Dragon, and Lord John and the Private Matter; moderately spoilery reviews of Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown; and a very spoilery review of Drums of Autumn.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. A.k.a., “Holden Caulfield goes to Hogwarts.” This book is brilliant. Depressing as all hell, and somewhat mean-spirited in its humor, but absolutely mind-bogglingly brilliant. Plot, themes, characterization, and prose all work smoothly together; it overall left me with a feeling of having hit the nail perfectly on the head.

I wasn’t completely sold on the ending—by which I mean specifically the epilogue. It does do something to mitigate the otherwise unwavering bleakness of the story, but I’m not sure that mitigation was the right idea. I understand Grossman is working on a sequel, and, well, frankly, I could tell. I think he undercut the book’s ultimate message for the sake of setting up said sequel. But that’s a nitpick; overall, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Thank you, Dave.

Un Lun Dun, China Mieville. Gorgeous. While I admired Magicians tremendously, I did not actually enjoy the process of reading it. Un Lun Dun, in contrast, is a commentary on / answer to / modern version of children’s fantasy literature that is loads of fun to read. Awesome worldbuilding, amusing wordplay (sincerely so; not annoying like Xanth), a plot that deviates deliberately from the tropes it draws on. It is worth noting that the book is “for younger readers,” and calibrated appropriately; I kinda lost interest before the end, but I attribute that to being not exactly the target market. And I finished it anyway, for the delight of the world and the language. Thank you, Matthew.

Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, by Jo Walton. Frankly chilling, and very well done. The characters are all different and interesting and multi-toned. The voices of all four narrators (four including Carmichael) are distinct in telling ways—and none of them completely reliable because none of them have full context. I found the plotting to be compulsively readable (i.e., I really wanted to know what was going to happen next) and the development from “non-interference treaty with the Nazis” to “police state” believable in a way that turned my stomach.

And I have rarely been quite so slammed on the side of the head as I was by the matter-of-fact narration of imprisonment in Half a Crown. Not that I haven”t read much more upsetting prison scenes—I have—but they are generally those of Heroes Fighting For Causes, rather than people to whose lives I can relate who happened to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could absolutely envision myself in the position of the imprisoned character, and I did not like it at all.

I have heard that some panned the last book for an unrealistically positive ending. I don’t quite agree. For one thing, I didn’t think it was that positive. For another, I’m not sure there was another option. The overall message of “Your government could be doing terrible things and you have a responsibility to not bury your head in the sand” is vastly preferable to an overall message of “Your government could be doing terrible things and there is not a damn thing you can do about it.” I did have mixed feelings about who was alive, who was dead, and what tactic seemed to be working at the end of book three—without going into too many details, there was a romance to the remedy that seemed out of place (oh, is that all we had to do to stop the bad guys?). Overall, wow. I admired it. It upset me. That’s not a bad thing; it was supposed to. Thank you, Jeff. I think.

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik. To be honest, what really tipped me over into reading it was finding out that Novik had written “Commonplaces”. The characters of “Commonplaces” are so beautifully drawn, the prose so enveloping, that I had to read something longer. I got what I was looking for: prose that drew me in and pulled me along, well-drawn characters, fascinating world-building, and a general feeling of wind in my hair and the taste of salt in my mouth—it felt like a worthy companion to the Hornblower and Aubrey I read just recently. Swashbuckling, with early nineteenth century manners. And dragons. What’s not to like?

I will say that the characters, prose, and worldbuilding are better than the plot, which was more episodic than overarching, and more for the sake of revealing the world bit by bit than gripping in its own right. I was enjoying online casino slots the worldbuilding and language too much to care, but I imagine this will be a more serious drawback for other people. Thanks, Adam (for the rec) and Sam (who actually loaned me the book).

Lord John and the Private Matter, by Diana Gabaldon. Someone, I no longer remember who, recommended this to me when it first came out. At the time, I had heard of Outlander but hadn’t read it. I noted the title down in the list I keep on my computer, and it was a long time before I realized the Lord John series is a spin-off of the Outlander universe.

What moved Lord John and the Private Matter to the top of my reading list was getting to know Lord John in Voyager and Drums of Autumn, the third and fourth books in the Outlander series. Lord John is by far my favorite of Gabaldon’s characters, and the idea of having a whole book from his dry British perspective was just delightful.

And indeed, Lord John’s voice proved to be a wonderful thing, as did the beautifully-detailed setting. The plot is much tighter than anything in the Outlander series, and I appreciated that: Lord John is in fact attempting to resolve multiple private matters at once, and they come together in a satisfying manner. If you like historical fiction, I highly recommend this book.

Which brings me to

Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon. I should start by saying I really liked the first three Outlander books. They occupy an intersection of historical fiction, speculative fiction, and romance that is not common ground. Although they sometimes veer too far into romance for me (there’s only so much hot throbbing sex I need in my fiction, thank you), I’ve found a lot to like. The characters are all fantastic, all in very different ways; the settings are exquisitely detailed. The prose doesn’t overwhelmingly impress my eye, but it reads very well when listened to, and I’ve been listening to the Outlander series in my car. The plots are huge and sprawling. Sometimes this works very well; other times less so. I found Drums to be a “less so.”

The pacing of Drums… confused me. For one thing, I was astounded at what Gabaldon chose to spend time on versus what she chose to summarize. So we’re wandering our way through life in the colonies… time at Aunt Jocasta’s house… building the cabin in the woods…. back to Brianna and Roger’s story… and I’m a little bored, but only a little, and I tell myself to relax and enjoy the layers and texture, because that’s what’s going to make the plot-critical things hit home—that sense of immediacy, of being there.

Except then hugely important plot-critical things are summarized. Things that would be very exciting to narrate—a theft, a particular battle, and a decision to exchange prisoners come to mind. I mean, really? We get all the build-up with Roger and his captain on the ship, but the finale is off-screen? All those details about making beer and Jocasta’s house and Claire’s impromptu surgery during the dinner party and Jamie throwing his back out—neat details, don’t get me wrong, but largely irrelevant to the biggest plot thread—and the biggest plot thread resolves with Jamie and Roger talking to each other while a battle we don’t see rages outside? Really? I had the uncharitable suspicion that the end of the book was written fast to meet a deadline.

I was also disappointed by how much of the plot hinged on characters going off the deep end without stopping to ascertain whether they properly understood the situation. I could buy it as a character trait of one person, but Jamie, Brianna, Claire, and Roger all share it, and after a while, I started wondering why these (theoretically quite intelligent) people didn’t start saying to themselves, “Hey, the last ten times I lost my cool and stomped off into the woods without waiting to hear the other side of the story, I was totally wrong! And then very sorry. And bad things happened because of it. Maybe, this time, I’ll listen before I act…” But no.

In general, a far too large percentage of the book’s emotional tension struck me as manufactured—by both author and characters, characters being angsty and author changing what they were being angsty about. Roger is unhappy because Brianna doesn’t want to commit to an engagement! Brianna is unhappy because Roger is being controlling! (And I was with her there, for what that’s worth; attitudes that are understandable in 18th-century Jamie I found appalling in an Oxford don of 1969.) Roger storms off. But wait! Now Brianna is unhappy because Roger hasn’t come back! Now Brianna refuses to return home, where it’s safe, because she is worried about Roger! Roger is unhappy because he thinks Brianna hates him! When he learns it’s all a misunderstanding and that she is waiting for him, he’s unhappy because now he’s not sure he wants to return to her! Then he decides he does, but then she’s not sure she wants to marry him, because what if he only returned out of duty! I was driving down the Pike shouting at the stereo for crying out loud, he’s wanted to marry you since chapter three, can’t you just make the Occam’s Razor assumption that he still means it now?

And finally… I get that Jamie Fraser is sexy as hell. I do, really. But Claire and Loaghaire and Ginerva and John? Deathless passion? From all of them? Really? He’s pretty cool, I grant you, but discovering why John married who he did was the point at which I concluded that John would have done better to get on with his life.

Maybe I’m just not cut out to appreciate romance genre tropes.

But I’ll definitely be back for installment five, angsty melodrama aside. The Jamie and Claire Show, as it has come to be known in my household, was a bright feature of my old brutally long commute, and now is good company when I go to visit friends in Boston.

So that”s that. What have you been reading?

Comments (4)

JulianMay 17th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

I just finished Thunderer by Felix Gilman, which was quite good, and is sort of a less depressing, but still dark version of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. I also recently finished Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest, Under Heaven as well as Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet which were both excellent and, coincidentally, set in faux Asian settings (Tang-dynasty-China-with-the-serial-numbers-filed-off, in the case of GGK, and a more general “Asian themed setting” for Abraham.) I really think that you would enjoy them both.

If you enjoyed Un Lun Dun I would definitely recommend Perdido Street Station and the slightly less dark, but still incredibly good The Scar. Those are what Mieville writes with the gloves off. Both are dark and magnificent, and I’m not certain that there’s anyone writing today who can do world building like Mieville.

HeatherMay 17th, 2010 at 5:01 pm

I have read Perdido – it is magnificent. For some reason, I couldn’t get into The Scar, though I tried. Looking forward to Kay’s latest – from what I hear, I think I would like it too…

NicoleMay 17th, 2010 at 6:57 pm

“(there’s only so much hot throbbing sex I need in my fiction, thank you)”

Wait…how much hot throbbing sex *do* you need in your fiction? Is there a percentage?

I kid. (I think we can all agree that it is 100 percent. 100 percent hot, throbbing sex. Infection-sex!)

I need to read the Outlander series (Tiff told me I did) but their size is intimidating. Maybe now that I have all this summery free time, I’ll get on that.

Unrelated, but: I never liked The Scar either. I just didn’t like the prose. Perhaps that has biased me unfairly against Mieville, because I never really got into his other stuff.

Ken SchneyerMay 17th, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Most recently, The City and the City by China Mieville, which really messes with your head. I loved it. Fantastic worldbuilding, compelling character, and a murder mystery to boot! Mieveille employs the Good Old Trick of using the detective’s eye for detail and departure from normalcy as a way of giving painless information about his fictive universe. I must try that technique sometime.

I’m trying to get through The Windup Girl, but the Major Downer Future that is Bacigalupi’s stock-in-trade keeps making me stop.

I’m reading Edward Gauvin’s translation of George-Olivier Chateaureynaud’s collection, A Life On Paper, because I’m writing a review of it (I got an ARC — it’s not available to the public yet). But it’s very special, both because of GO-C’s vision and because of Edward’s masterful English prose. Think Poe, then think Melville, then think Becket, and you get the idea…

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