A roundup of cool books I have recently read, post the third

I haven’t done a “stuff I’ve been reading” post in eight months, though I have, I assure you, been reading during that period. High time I caught up.

Below the cut are short reviews of The Guns of the South, The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, Whitechapel Gods, A Game of Thrones, The Fiery Cross, Shades of Milk and Honey, The Grand Tour, The Mislaid Magician, Twilight, and The Anubis Gates. I recommend them all with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm except Twilight and Warlord (except insofar as Warlord sets up Leviathan, which I did like.)

The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove. Time-traveling White Supremacists bring modern weaponry back in time so that the South can win the Civil War. The front cover features Robert E. Lee holding an AK-47. What’s not to like, really?

I’m not as familiar with Turtledove as maybe I should be, given how much I like alternate histories; I’ve only read Ruled Britannia, which I liked a great deal, and I heard the Escape Pod version of “Joe Steel,” which blew me away. I initially found Guns disappointingly mechanical, both in prose and in plot, but it grew on me after a little while. Perhaps halfway through I realized I was sufficiently interested to no longer be bothered by the sense of plot-machinery laboriously moving around me… and a few pages after that, realized I could no longer predict what was going to happen, at which point I became interested for real. Turtledove handles the long-term ripple effects pretty deftly (which are the most interesting part of an alternate history anyway), and Lee’s character arc worked for me.

The Warlord of the Air and The Land Leviathan, Michael Moorcock. Speaking of creaking machinery… but I mean that affectionately. Warlord didn’t particularly grab me, but it struck me as perfectly reasonable old-style science fiction. It pivots around a number of very familiar tropes—a few layers of story between the reader and the core plot, where the narrator has found a manuscript written by a man who was told an unbelievable tale by a traveler from an antique land; a (frankly appalling) cheerful unconscious racism on the part of the main character, suitable for a Brit of 1905; a lot of heavy-handed worldbuilding. The world was interesting, the plot less so.

So much for Warlord. With that as context, I was genuinely impressed by Leviathan, which did a truly deft job of setting up and switching viewpoints, and thereby setting up and confounding expectations. I left the story uncertain who the good guys were, if any. I appreciate any story that has that effect on me. Much more intricate plot, too.

Whitechapel Gods, S. M. Peters. Moving on from first-generation steampunk to modern steampunk. And wow. The most apt comparison might be to rich dark chocolate—the 99% stuff that always leaves me gasping at the density. A richly-imagined world, absolutely watertight atmosphere, didn’t lift me out for a second, I swear I could feel the coal dust on my fingers and in my lungs. Very dark—not relevant enough to my life to be personally upsetting, but darker than I’d read before bed, thanks. Which shouldn’t be any surprise; modern steampunk is often no more than a half-step away from horror.

I will say that the plot rocked my world a great deal less than the worldbuilding did. I am a huge fan of the art of leaving stuff out, but there does come a time when you need to make clear exactly what the hell is going on—well, I think so, anyway. It’s a tough thing to balance, particularly as pauses for explanation can do terrible things to immersion—see also, The Guns of the South—but in my opinion Whitechapel Gods needed a few more explicit connections. Also, when you’re writing a story with multiple POV characters double-crossing each other through a series of missions and conspiracies that are never fully explained, maybe you don’t want to name two of them Bailey and Bergen, and three others Hews, Heckler, and Hume. I mean, throw the reader a bone. Although any book where Colonel Moran wanders through shooting things without a word of explanation as to how he’s managed to stray out of his universe gets extra points from me.

A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin. It’s only been recommended to me forty-seven times, so it was about time I got around to it. Gorgeous. No creaking machinery here. Lush, fluid, glittering world-building, detailed enough to give me the overall feeling that I was attempting to drink a waterfall. Well-plotted, too, which well-world-built fantasy isn’t always—clearly-plotted in a way Whitechapel Gods, for instance, isn’t. I liked trying to uncover the mystery behind Jon Arryn’s death at the same time Ned was trying to uncover it; I tumbled to the solution a chapter before he did and felt pleased with myself. I similarly evolved a theory regarding Jon Snow’s parentage, and was disappointed to not have it confirmed or denied before the end of the book (or the end of book four, either, so I understand). I liked the intersection of character motivations and the number of them solidly stuck in the shades of gray.

I liked the use of fantasy tropes and historical allusions… to a point; if I have a nitpick, it was the relentless level of worldbuilding detail. There was a point where Bran was reciting the history of the land at his tutor’s prompting where I wanted to shout, “Yes, it’s England, yes, I get it, yes, thanks, that was stronger before you drew the line explicitly  connecting the dots!” I understand that’s only going to get worse, given the series has four books with the fifth some years overdue and the end of the series nowhere in sight. (“Series that propose marriage to Epic but flirt with Endless at the rehearsal dinner…”) I understand, in fact, that Mr. Martin is going to break my heart. I ran my eye over a synopsis of the other three (a terrible idea, really; my only excuse is that it was late into a night of insomnia and it seemed like a good plan at the time), and it looks a whole lot like the following books can be summarized as “a series of unfortunate events.”

The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon. Speaking of Endless-flirting series and crushing levels of detail… But it certainly kept me entertained while driving. Fiery Cross is supposed to be the weakest of all of them, and I do see why. Any given chapter was well-executed, but the connections between them did not add up to any overall arc. Still, nothing in it made me want to scream at the stereo, as Drums of Autumn did, and I do have A Breath of Snow and Ashes cued up on my iPod next.

Shades of Milk and Honey, debut novel of Mary Robinette Kowal. If Whitechapel Gods was like dark chocolate, Shades was in fact a whole lot like steamed milk and honey. A pleasant read, relaxing, quietly charming. Set in Regency-England-except-with-magic, an Austenesque plot with Austenesque characters. Did not quite achieve Austen’s trademark dry snark, but then, who could?

The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician, Patricia C. Wrede and Carolyn Stevermer. I liked Sorcery and Cecilia so much that I went on to read the other two. Also Regency-England-except-with-magic, and in this case with an almost Austenesque level of smartassness. A big old fun romp, with occasional moments that actually moved me, somewhat to my surprise. It was a similarly pleasant surprise to discover how much I liked the addition of James’ and Thomas’ voices in the third book; Thomas writing to James was particularly delightful. YA done right, if you will.

Twilight, Stephanie Meyer. Speaking of YA done right…

This would not be it.

GAH.

Serves me right, of course, for wading in, but I had to see what was causing all the fuss. I’d heard people call the prose unreadable, but I did not find it so—although, to be fair, I was listening to it, so that might have well made a difference—but it’s certainly not the worst I’ve ever read. (Which may say more for my tolerance than my judgment, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I thought the book had a number of interesting aspects to it—I liked the Native American werewolves; I liked the “vegetarian” vampires and their various backstories. I liked that Bella was an exceptional student, and the details of high school biology labs and so forth struck me as about right, as a good use of details to build atmosphere.

And then there was Bella’s relationship with Edward, which gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies. I think it was the line, “I wondered if I should be concerned that he was following me?” that had me yelling at my car stereo, “YES! You should be CONCERNED! Because that is STALKING!” God above, there’s a whole generation of teenage girls who now think that controlling behavior just like Edward’s is a good way to demonstrate affection? I think the human race might officially be doomed. At least Heathcliff’s behavior was not presented as acceptable!

Yes, well, it’s been said elsewhere, at great length and with more eloquence than I feel like striving for. The only thing I’ll add is that the relationship really makes no sense. It makes no sense. At the point where she falls irrevocably into passionate devoted love with him, he’s done nothing except ignore her, treat her rudely, or blame her for making him almost lose his temper. I’d sort of like to read it as the story of a vampire mesmerizing a victim—a text from the point of view of an unreliable narrator—except I have no reason to believe Stephanie Meyer is that smart.

The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers. Described by Wikipedia as “A time travel story set mostly in 1810, featuring a brainwashed Lord Byron, magic, Egyptian gods and a werewolf.” The 1983 winner of the Philip K. Dick award. And oh my God, what a rollicking good time.

It grabbed me from the beginning, the plot was intricate, the characters evoked tropes I recognized without being trite, there was some genuinely creepy stuff and some genuinely great worldbuilding, and the pacing just never let up. In the first chapter, we’re introduced to an amazingly rich technology baron who has cracked time travel and intends to take a group of tourists to hear a speech given by Samuel Coolidge in 1810. POV character Brendan Doyle, a literature professor, has been hired to give them some necessary background, and as part of his payment gets to come along. Where he gets (inevitably) stranded, and hijinks ensue. That’s the first chapter. The rest of it all unfolds at the same rate of knots. I couldn’t catch my breath, but I didn’t want to.  Time travel capers should all read like this. I wanted Guns to read like this.

This was described to me as “steampunk”—as in, “you’re trying to write steampunk timetravel, Heather? Tim Powers already did that, you should read Anubis Gates”—but it’s not, not really. My friend Joseph suggested “thaumapunk,” and that sounds about right. Lots of double-crossing involving sorcery; not so much with the great big machines.

Reading descriptions of the rest of Tim’s stuff, as summarized by Wikipedia, puts me into something between a swoon and fit of jealousy—like that. I want to do it like that. How do I learn to do that?

I keep practicing, I suppose, which is what I should go off and do now.

Comments (8)

AdamJanuary 19th, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Huh, I hadn’t realized that there was a connection between werewolves and Native Americans in Twilight (because I see no reason to read the Twilight series, as someone who does not aspire to write YA). I wonder how it compares to the treatment in White Wolf’s Werewolf: The Apocalypse. That’s where I first encountered the Native American/werewolf connection, complete with bad blood between the European based groups of werewolves and the Native American groups that were greatly depopulated (or in some cases wiped out.) As with much of White Wolf’s work, the worldbuilding in that RPG is very nice, although it’s hard to stitch together all of the various games because their viewpoints and issues are nigh incompatible.

OrichalcumJanuary 19th, 2011 at 1:14 pm

It’s much less sophisticated and complex than the WW werewolves, from what I remember. And yes, spending your nights staring into a teenage girl’s bedroom is _not_ an indicator of True Love.

I think Turtledove is great at coming up with initial concepts and much poorer at, well, story, characters, and dialogue. He also has a regrettable tendency to revert to the obvious.

Re Martin – I should note that apparently the History of England is less jarring for the vast majority of readers who aren’t up on their Wars of the Roses and don’t realize that “Stark” and “Lannister” are not coincidental names. Sadly, this includes most official reviewers. That said, yes, Martin’s biggest problem as a writer is that he hates the fuzzy map areas of “Here Be Dragons.” (There’s a point where he ranted about how poor a writer Tolkien was for not telling us more about the Haradrim, and all I could think was, “no, that’s one of Tolkien’s _strengths_ – giving us the illusion of a deep and complex world without drowning us in it.”) By the fourth book, there are 54 separate p-o-v characters, and the Stark kids make Bella seem rational and stable.

DennisJanuary 19th, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Orichalcum: Yes, but the insanity of the Stark kids is arrived at carefully and logically. It’s Break the Cuties (from tvtropes) at its finest (or worst). That said, you (and Tolkien) are dead right about “Here Be Dragons.” I don’t care about Dorne, and now after AFfC, I actively hate Dorne because it ate half a book I waited five years for. And don’t even get me started on the Iron Islands.

Also, as someone who knows the Wars of the Roses back and forth, I loved, loved, loved the way he played with the people and the names. No simple parallels, but seeing the overlaps made characters like Joffrey (Edward Lancaster Prince of Wales and Edward V) or Ned (who is set up as Edward IV, but is really Richard Duke of York with a little Will Hastings thrown in) and Robert (who is closest to Edward IV) and Tyrion (who is Richard III with some Richard Neville), etc., etc. (I could do this for hours.)

And Tim Powers is indeed all sorts of awesome. He’s not perfect, no one is, but sometimes he gets damn close. If you could shave about 100 pages out of LAST CALL, it might actually be the best book ever. Loved THE ANUBIS GATES and THE DRAWING OF THE DARK is also awesome.

Ken SchneyerJanuary 23rd, 2011 at 9:08 pm

See, I *know* the worst prose you’ve ever read…

HeatherJanuary 25th, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Yes. Yes, you do.

Molly E. AlbanoJanuary 27th, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Twilight: I have not read the book, only seen the second movie. I do know though, there’s a tremendous amount of fuss about the series. I would state though that Edward’s treatment of Bella is an attempt (conscious or not) to reach the YA audience.

YA women today deal with the very relationship issues that Meyer presents. Seeing them in a novel is a release of latent frustrations. (Often this technique is used in comedy where we laugh at ourselves). YA women are at the age where they decide for themselves what’s acceptable in a relationship. (i.e. Where is their personal line between “attention” and “stalking?” Is rudeness ok if we explore why it occurs? usually it is due to frustration because the male party sees love/like as a weakness because it means he cares what the woman thinks and thus that gives her power over his feelings).

If Meyer is using these relationship issues as a way to connect to young women, kudos to her, she’s succeeded due to her cultlike following! I would also suggest that she has done so in the form of an “empowered” character. (i.e. Bella is a stellar student. In the second movie, she put herself between a werewolf and her “friend.” No easy task). Contrast Meyer to conglomerates like MTV who glamourize and financially capitalize on relationships gone horribly wrong in a misguided attempt to “reach” young women. The example in my mind is “16 and Pregnant,” originally intended to be a reality show about the harshness of teen parenthood. (i.e. getting up every hour, on the hour, to feed a newborn who will not stop crying and absentee fathers). Now, girls are purposely getting pregnant to get on the show.

Granted, if/when I have a daughter, I would like her to read something deeper than “Twilight,” (like my sister’s books 🙂 🙂 ), I still think Meyer’s attempt (conscious or not) to reach young women through an empowered female character, is positive. It at least points out the issues that begins a dialogue about what’s acceptable in a relationship.

HeatherJanuary 27th, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Hey Molly, nice of you to stop by. 🙂 I appreciate you commenting.

The idea of reaching a YA audience through an empowered female character is a good one. There are a number of YA authors trying to do just that (among the more recent, my friend Dawn Metcalf, with her first novel _Luminous_, coming out in a couple of months!)

Where we disagree is the idea that Bella is empowered. I don’t think she is. At least not in the first book, which is all I have read. I have not read the second book nor seen any of the movies, so maybe she becomes more active in the second book, or maybe they smooth out some of Edward’s controlling nonsense in the movies. But here are a few reasons I read Bella as specifically dis-empowered in the book Twilight:

1. She is a great student with a plan for her life that includes getting a college scholarship, before she meets Edward. After she meets Edward, her entire plan for her future is “being with Edward”, in whatever capacity he permits. She is willing–eager, in fact–to become a vampire and become unable to be with her family of origin and existing friends, not to mention the rest of the human race, in order to be with him. If I understand the rest of the series correctly, she marries him as soon as she turns 18 and they have a baby immediately afterward. She goes from a good student with plans for the future to a teenage mother dependent on her husband for everything, and this is presented as a positive thing.

2. I reiterate that the way she falls in love with him makes no sense. It’s not that he’s awesome and kind of dangerous and she digs that, because I would understand that. It’s not even that he’s awesome in some ways but kind of rude and she digs that, because I’d understand that too (I mean, you’ve met my husband, right? Awesome people with tactless manners are good by me). But that’s not what’s going on with Bella and Edward. At the point where Bella can’t get Edward out of her mind, he’s done nothing to earn such regard except be physically attractive and treat her very rudely. He condescends to her, he laughs at her, he insists on driving fast even though it scares her. And this, for some bizarre reason, causes her to fall in love with him and decide to spend the rest of her life with him, so he can (presumably) continue to laugh at her and insist on driving fast even though it scares her. I would have rather seen her fall in love with him because he was kind, or they shared something in common, or he was awesome even though he made a bad first impression by being tactless (like Mr. Darcy, or like your brother-in-law), or at least he was physically attractive and neutral towards her. Glamorizing belittling behavior from a boyfriend is not a good thing for a YA novel to be doing.

3. After Bella becomes Edward’s girlfriend and is accepted by the rest of the vampire clan, they draw they attention of some other vampires who eat humans, and who decide they want to eat Bella. So Bella becomes an object that one set of vampires is trying to take away from the other set of vampires, like a ball in a game of keep-away. Edward’s family devises a plan to keep her safe and gives her no say in it. “You have fifteen minutes to say good bye to your father,” Edward tells her. “If you take sixteen, I’ll come in there and carry you out” – or words to that effect; that’s not quite a direct quote. Vampires are stronger and faster than humans, so Edward’s family carry her places like you might carry a cat from room to room, without asking her permission first. The idea of a woman as a prize – the princess given to the knight in marriage after he saves her from the bad guy – is a very old trope, and not the best of all possible patterns for a modern young man and woman to be following. If Edward and Bella worked together to figure out a way to keep her and her parents safe from the bad vampires, that would be fine with me. I’d read that as “empowered heroine” not as “object.”

4. In the interval between when Edward and Bella get together and the evil vampires show up, Edward spends most of his time telling Bella what to do. He decides he’s going to drive her to the nearest big city for her planned weekend trip because he doesn’t trust her car. He doesn’t ask her – he decides. Later, he decides that tonight is the night she should introduce him to her father. He doesn’t ask her – they don’t discuss it – he tells her, she objects, and he arranges matters so they do it his way despite her objections. If he said something, she objected, they argued, and then he won or she won or they worked out a compromise, I’d read that as “empowered heroine”, but as it is, I wouldn’t ever let any man talk to me that way. Not twice, at least.

5. This one is admittedly smaller than the rest, but bugged me a lot. Vampires are much stronger than humans. Edward has to constantly keep himself in check, or he might kill Bella by accident. This means they can’t be all that physically affectionate. Okay, no teenage sex, I’m cool with that. But it also means she can’t kiss him back if he kisses her, because if she does, she arouses him and he might lose control and kill her. She has to be absolutely passive when he kisses her. Early in the relationship, she forgets, and kisses him back, you know, like normal people do when they are kissing a boyfriend, and he scolds her. The next time he goes to kiss her, he reminds her to “be good” beforehand, and she “behaves”, holding still and not kissing back. Now, I’m not arguing that Meyer should be advocating teen sex as such, but when you put two characters in a romantic/sexual situation, the woman should be “allowed” to participate as much as the man, and not be merely the passive recipient of whatever he decides he wants to do. “Lying back and thinking of England” went out of style a hundred years ago. A woman who doesn’t get to even kiss her boyfriend without his permission is not an empowered female character.

You’re absolutely right that Twilight does indeed introduce issues about what’s acceptable in a relationship – the beginning of a good dialogue a mother might have with a teenage daughter. So we agree there. But Meyer seems to me to be coming down on the opposite side of the dialogue from where I would position myself – i.e., it’s okay that Edward tells Bella what to do, it’s okay that Bella marries him at 18 rather than go to college. Because of this, I think her contribution to YA is a net negative rather than a net positive.

Molly E. AlbanoJanuary 28th, 2011 at 12:03 pm

My pleasure! 🙂 I read your blog during lunch. Keeps me outta trouble! 🙂 🙂

I enjoy your book reviews. I’m always up for book discussions.

Twilight: Oh wow! I didn’t know 95% of this! So I’ll ask the obvious question. “Where the f*** does Meyer’s cultlike following come from?!” If the books center around a romance between Edward and Bella, then pre-teen, teenage boys may not be interested. If Bella is so submissive, why do the girls read it? I mean, we’re at a point in our history now where women do nearly everything men do. They can be doctors, lawyers, and a law was recently passed that they can fight on the front lines of war, if they choose.

Talking to parents of teenagers, they do say that the females are more sexually direct and aggressive in relationships than their male counterparts, counter-intuitively. I’m wondering if they don’t do this for a) the shock value to adults/a negative desire for attention and/or b) thinking this is what the young men want, so they’ll get their attention. If b) is true, then that might be how Meyer is reaching her audience, just flipped around a bit. Bella is submissive ’cause that’s what Edward wants. Most modern teenagers are aggressive ’cause that’s what they think the opposite sex wants.

Reading your response, Heather, about the rest of the Twilight novel, I don’t agree with Meyer’s attempt to reach the “tween” female audience. These girls would do much better with an assertive female lead. (Note I didn’t say aggressive). Learning proper skills of assertion in their formative years will give them the tools to succeed in any calling they choose.

On a personal note, in the romance novels I like to read, (Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series) the female lead is assertive. Usually when the male lead tries to put restrictions on her, he is subverted, often in a manner that leads to comic relief. 🙂 At the same time, by the end of the novel, the male leads realize they love the female leads enough to let them go, while realizing they may never fully emotionally recover from doing so. These male leads make this view clear to the female leads, so in the end, it’s a mutual choice. 🙂

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