Friday, February 9, 2018

2018 read #5: Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
342 pages
Published 1985
Read from February 1 to February 9
Rating: 4 out of 5

In subject matter, Fire and Hemlock fits with the trends of its time, when urban fairy tales like Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, and modern retellings of old fairy ballads like Charles de Lint's Jack the Giant-Killer, helped reinvent urban fantasy. Yet the comparison I kept coming back to as I read it is an urban fantasy from another era entirely: Jo Walton's Among Others. Which is not to say that Fire and Hemlock is ahead of its time. Wynne Jones repeatedly and appallingly has her adolescent protagonist Polly worry about her weight, even having her muse about starving herself to look thinner for an older male admirer; Polly is subjected to casual harassment from nearly every man in her life, ranging from her mother's new boyfriend to the bookie on the street corner; she mentally takes responsibility for "tempting" them all with her charms. The lechery of the men, and Polly's feelings of provoking their behavior through her temptations, is given scarcely any commentary in-text -- rendering it to all appearances normalized. Especially when you consider that this is (based on its publication history more than anything else) a work of juvenile fiction, it makes for some cringe-inducing reading in the #MeToo era.

Those unpleasant details date the book firmly in its era (or possibly even earlier, to the late 1970s adolescence much of the book describes). Yet much of Fire and Hemlock feels like a prequel to Among Others, which is to my mind quite the au courant post-fantasy. Both novels follow bookish protagonists from the wreckage of broken homes; both devote many pages to the solace of reading books and finding one's own place within their pages, listing formative titles with evident tenderness and reverence. Both books expertly balance their sense of unreality, remaining ambiguous for much of their length about whether anything "fantastic" has actually occurred. Far more so than its urban fantasy contemporaries, Hemlock integrates the fairy story seamlessly with Polly's quotidian adolescence. The Queen of the Fairies appears to be merely a rich, beautiful woman who lives in a mansion, her curses dealt out in phone calls and train stations, their sting found in the barbed words of an abusive parent. The flashy fae of War for the Oaks are largely supplanted by unseen machinations beneath the surface of the everyday world, and Hemlock is all the better for it.

Hemlock is far from perfect; aside from the aforementioned problematic elements, I found that certain chapters ran a bit overlong with at times tedious verisimilitude. (As with other young adult works, I might be less bothered by this if I were within the target demographic.) But I found it absorbing, moving, and at times edge-of-my-seat tense all the same. Definitely among my new favorites.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

2018 read #4: The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs.

The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
153 pages
Published 1969
Read from January 29 to February 1
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

What I loved about this book was its wonderful atmosphere, which mingled creeping, half-seen, corner-of-your eye horror with charmingly fussy details and an almost children's-book whimsicality. It's a balance that anticipated Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or, perhaps, the Fairyland books by Catherynne M. Valente. I won't say it's ahead of its time, exactly; one can well imagine it being a contemporary of A Wizard of Earthsea or Lord of Light. But as a work of fantastic fiction, it certainly feels more polished and aesthetically-purposeful than most novels published in the ensuing decade. Or heck, most fantasy novels published to this day.

What I didn't like so much about this book was how the characters themselves seem to have wandered out of a children's fantasy novel. John Bellairs apparently spent most of his career writing young adult works, and while The Face in the Frost is considered "for adults," everything about its central duo, from their names (Prospero and Roger Bacon) to the way they caper about and throw snowballs makes them seem like middle school friends or brothers who are detectives, rather than top-tier wizards who are getting on in years. At one point, Prospero, in mortal peril, having been pursued across half a kingdom by faceless terrors and separated from Roger Bacon, finds himself in a village where nothing feels right, where mirrors seem just a bit off, where the people in the pub keep having the same conversation, and his only response is to shrug and make nothing of it. The scene's payoff is satisfyingly creepy, but if the only way to make it work is to have a cunning wizard overlooking clues that even my D&D players would have picked up on, it just isn't worth it. Frost shows its age in the creaky joints of its storytelling.

Monday, January 29, 2018

2018 read #3: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord.

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
189 pages
Published 2010
Read from January 20 to January 29
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Spoilers ahead!

The first half or so of this book is excellent. I love the narration, related by an unseen, often humorous, occasionally defensive storyteller, and the story itself (inspired by a Senegalese folk tale) has charm and heart to spare. But once the indigo-skinned djombi arrives to reclaim his powers of chaos from the wise and dutiful Paama, I felt that the tale went from sweet to a tad bit trite. Paama relearns the meaning of duty from all the afflictions and small graces of humanity that Chance shows her, returning to her gluttonous and self-absorbed husband to take care of him in his final days -- a definition of duty that I, for one, as a survivor of abuse and neglect, find rather distasteful. And Chance, for his part, relearns the value of human beings from his whirlwind tour with Paama, starting the path toward his titular redemption with an anticlimactic revelation that amounts to, "Oh, this one human being is all right, I forgot humans could be all right sometimes." It's all too pat and easy.

Lord's narrator chides people like me at the end. "Paama will be too tepid and mild a heroine for some, they will criticize her for caring for her estranged husband in his last days." Fair enough. Clearly this book and I won't see eye to eye about that, and purposefully so. All the same, I found Redemption in Indigo a warm and enjoyable little read.

Friday, January 19, 2018

2018 read #2: Summer of Blood by Dan Jones.

Summer of Blood: England's First Revolution by Dan Jones
217 pages
Published 2009
Read from January 15 to January 19
Rating: 1.5 out of 5

There is a strain of pop history writing that veers toward the facile: indulging in novelistic scenes of what "must have" been going through its protagonists' heads during pivotal moments, without providing any real insight into their characters or motivations that couldn't be gleaned from a wikipedia article, worded in prose with all the art and subtlety of a USA Today article, granulated with recurring stock phrases like "orgy of destruction" and "blistering fury," like so much cheap sugar sprinkled on a prepackaged confection. I remember liking Dan Jones' later, more exhaustive volume, The Plantagenets (though the four-star rating I gave it seems at odds with the rousing adjectives "serviceable" and "competent"), so Summer of Blood was a surprising disappointment. It is nothing more nor less than a bland, forgettable, and sadly shallow recounting of a pivotal moment of British and working peoples' history, one that (inadvertently or not) twists an underclass uprising against systematic wealth inequality into a quaint Middle Ages Tea Party in order to fit an easy, accessible narrative.

One aspect of Summer of Blood that, in retrospect, could have been presaged by a reading of Plantagenets is Jones' creeping ideological slant. In that review I mentioned Jones' "traditional" historical focus, which emphasizes kings and masculine power while brushing aside "queens and female agency in general." Summer of Blood approaches the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381, a major uprising against wealth inequality, the landed classes, and the legal system that allowed the two to flourish, as a proto-libertarian revolt against nebulous phrases like "government intrusion" -- an askew angle Jones, in a preface to the American edition published in 2016, makes particularly queasy by linking it with the spirit of racist faux-populism that gave us Trump that same year: "Even today, there are many Americans who would cheer the English rebels' aims of rolling back government from their everyday lives, shunning oppressive taxation...." Spare me!

Jones' glib "liberty from big government" narration is particularly malaprop when contrasted with the contemporary sources he quotes: Essex villagers were "delighted," in the words of John Gower, "that the day had come when they could help each other in the face of so urgent a necessity" against the landowning aristocrats. That sounds a whole lot like pure socialism to me -- but reducing a complex set of historical world-views to fit my own ideology would put me in the same category as Jones.

It isn't just in the wording that this proto-libertarian slant shows itself. One of the primary aims of the Peasants' Revolt was to dismantle a system of legal serfdom, debt servitude, and debtors' prisons recently enacted as a weapon against the poorer classes. Time and again, the villagers went straight to the prisons whenever they entered a new town and released the captives there; time and again they sought out and burned legal records and memoranda of debt. Jones manages to get these facts right, then concocts from them a "conservative" motivation: "These were the highest badges of a legal system that in rebel eyes preferred contracts and statutes to trusted community tradition, and the rebels plundered the trove with glee." I'm pretty sure that the rebels were not making coordinated attempts to release prisoners and destroy debt records in order to preserve "tradition." I, for one, suspect the medieval underclasses had more ideological sophistication than Jones credits them with in this book.

I don't claim to know Dan Jones' ideological background. Perhaps the supposed ideological bias I scent is the fault of the newspaper-ready clichés Jones uses to get the gist across. "Freedom" has been corrupted by so many libertarian, right-populist, and neoliberal connotations that using it as a glib, anachronistic shorthand for a rebellion's demands might create a false sense of bias in the concerned reader. Regardless, even if it's merely an artifact of making the text more accessible, the lack of nuance in what should be a fascinating history is inexcusable. Any sense of what might have motivated the rebels of 1381 gets lost, along with their way of seeing the world and their social hierarchy, in the easy, ready-made modern clichés of "freedom."

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 read #1: Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
329 pages
Published 1986
Read from November 30, 2017 to January 1
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I've been having such a hard time reading fiction lately. Non-fiction gives me little trouble; I can stay focused and motivated to read even the driest history tome. Yet not even the sprightliest and most engaging fantasy can keep me turning pages these days. When I began this book, I found it to be the most charming YA fantasy I'd ever picked up, bursting with warmth and character. It only added to the charm that Sophie, the viewpoint character, reminded me quite a lot of a particular loved one. Nonetheless, after the first couple days and the first half of the book were behind me, I found my interest lagging. As much as I loved and rooted for Sophie, I just couldn't stay focused on the story. I'd pick it up, read a page or two, and get engrossed in Facebook before I'd even realized I'd put it down again. No doubt that was due to my recent (post-2016 election) reading slump, and how it's led me back into my bad old habits of dicking around online for hours at a time. For whatever reason, fiction seems more affected by my slump than non.

My slack attention span, alas, deteriorated my experience of this book. Not having seen the movie (nor, shamefully, anything by Studio Ghibli), I was surprised to find it was originally a young adult novel by an author I'd never read, yet had been peripherally aware of for some time. Without the movie as a foundation, and leaving the book aside for weeks at a time, I lost track of a number of characters and plotlines, and so found myself awash when they all came flooding back in a roar of twists and revelations in the final chapters. I'd quite forgotten who Fanny was, so her return -- no doubt an important and satisfying emotional beat -- left me scratching my head. I just couldn't follow the series of fake-outs, deceptions, misunderstandings, and suchlike. Entirely my fault, I think; if I'd just read through at a steady pace back in early December, the whole would have felt far more cohesive. I'll just have to see the movie at some point and see if I can make better sense of that.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

2017 read #7: The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
515 pages
Published 2015
Read from November 17 to November 29
Rating: 4 out of 5

In the preface, Frankopan proclaims his intention to write a history re-centering the world away from Western Europe and the United States, to narrate the history of the world from its long-time axis along the Silk Roads. In practice, however, much of the book explores how Central and Southwestern Asia interacted with -- you guessed it -- Western Europe and the United States. China would seem to be a fairly prominent topic to plumb in a book exploring global history from the vantage of the Silk Roads, but it receives a mere handful of mentions and little in-depth coverage. Africa south of the Sahara gets mentioned barely two or three times. As a "new history of the world," it's somewhat lacking. Which is not to say that The Silk Roads isn't excellent at what it does cover, which is an especially topical and important subject for study, but the statement of intent set out in the preface was misleading.

That's pretty much just a minor quibble. My interests in history tend toward the ancient: I prefer Etruscans over Romans, Minoans over Classical Greeks, the Neolithic over any of those metal-themed eras. Yet Frankopan's prose, and the fascinating subject matter, kept me engrossed long past the too-brief section on late antiquity. I fully expected to check out, mentally, after Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated about three-fifths of the way through the book, but if anything I read the chapters on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries more assiduously than I did what came before, speeding through (in relative terms) the remaining chapters in just three days. The hypocrisies of post-war Western foreign policy -- hallooing about democracy and freedom while propping up tyrants and dictators around the globe -- and the way they led directly to 9/11 and America's clumsy, heedless invasions throughout the region, are explored succinctly and brilliantly. The corresponding rise in Western authoritarianism was, perhaps, not as clearly formed when this book was written; Frankopan makes no mention of it. Yet its seeds are plain in hindsight.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

2017 read #6: A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab.

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
400 pages
Published 2015
Read from September 26 to November 16
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

My attention span can sometimes still keep me hooked on a book and reading away at a reasonable pace, but far more often of late is its tendency to evaporate and leave me stranded halfway through something I had once thought interesting. I began reading A Darker Shade of Magic immediately after writing my review for The Refrigerator Monologues, and sped through its first hundred pages that same day. Shade is zippy and pulpy, rarely pausing for breath after the initial work of world-building is done, flinging its heroes pell-mell from one predicament to the next. I love the setting and atmosphere Schwab has constructed -- a strength of her writing, if one may extrapolate from two books. But the central characters -- a moody, conscientious mage; a prickly, ass-kicking rogue; a pair of sadistic evil ruler archetypes with vaguely incestuous overtones -- offer nothing new to a long-time fantasy reader, and the magical peril hunting them through the various Londons rarely feels perilous. Something always turns up, some new ability or inner strength or helpfully apathetic guard always gets them through to the next moment of peril. Mix and repeat until the page count is satisfied.

Sometimes I want nothing more than a fun, atmospheric adventure book where the good guys win and the cheeky rogue flirts with the recuperating prince before realizing her dream to sail the open sea. I would totally play as Lila Bard in a game of D&D. But sometimes such a book can become like Halloween candy: a treat at first, but the days go by and there's so much of it left and you just want a nice yummy salad instead.