Archive for February, 2002

Ford, John M.: Last Hot Time, The

Since John M. Ford and Neil Gaiman will both be at Boskone, I thought I should re-read their latest novels before then. I started with Ford’s The Last Hot Time (although maybe Ford isn’t going to be at the convention, because I don’t see his name on the preliminary program any more. Bummer; hope he’s well.). In a way, I think this is the silver lining of having the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome in my left wrist and having to cut way back on typing: I really like this book, but it’s oddly difficult for me to be coherent about it, so I have an excuse to make this short. Short-ish, at least.

The Last Hot Time is connected to the Bordertown shared universe, but does not take place in Bordertown. (The connections are ambiguous enough, to my reading at least, that I will not venture to say whether the book is set in the same world or a similar one.) Elfland came back sometime in the 1990s; the book is set the Levee, the part of Chicago that borders Elfland. Danny Holman is a paramedic escaping his small-town life in Iowa for the big city; he is given a job by Mr. Patrise, the Levee’s leader, who also dubs him Doc Hallownight. Though the book is set, as best I can tell, in the equivalent of the near future, the style is very much of an earlier era: wide-lapel suits, snap-brim hats, big cars and Tommy guns and smoky nightclub singers and gang wars and all the rest. (Cf. Doc Sidhe.)

That’s the setup. I’m reluctant to talk about the plot, because it sort of unfolds and ties together in a way that might be easy to spoil. There is a plot, let’s just say, though the direction of it might not be obvious at first. And, of course, if a young man runs off to the big city, he’s going to learn a lot about life and himself, which Doc does indeed.

Why do I like this book so much? It’s very strange, but I can’t point to one thing; there are a lot of great things about it, but even naming them all seems oddly insufficient. I will point out that it’s a book that requires careful attention to who the viewpoint character is and how events get filtered through his eyes; I don’t know, maybe I like it so much because it’s a Ford book where I understood all of the key points on my first read! I think, though, that it probably just hit me in just the right time, place, and manner to really resonate. It’s very finely done (and short), so I certainly recommend it, even if I can’t be coherent about it.

(In case you were wondering: my wrist is feeling much better than it was at the end of last week, thank you; I’m just trying to be careful.)

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Gaiman, Neil: (201) American Gods

I found Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, American Gods, extremely frustrating the first time I read it. I thought perhaps I would like it better upon re-reading: perhaps my high expectations, or my narrative expectations, got in the way unfairly. I regret to report that I do not, in fact, like it any better now that I’ve re-read it. (This seems to be the week for frustration in this book log.)

Why is it frustrating? Oh, lots of reasons. I did have high expectations for this book, and justifiably so, I think. Since the amazing Sandman comic series concluded its 75-issue run, Gaiman’s novels had been enjoyable but slight, lacking the kind of power and depth Sandman displayed. The tale of a war between the old and new gods of America was just the kind of project I’d hoped to see Gaiman take on.

It may be unjust to compare American Gods to Sandman, since a ten-year monthly epic and a 400+ page novel are quite different formats. But too much of American Gods invites me to do so, to the book’s detriment. There are, of course, the gods, whose incarnations in America are quite different from the ones who dealt with Dream, which is somewhat disorienting, at least at first. (The other disorienting thing about the gods in this book is that Bast’s feline form is exactly what I’ve always pictured myself as in the “If you were an animal, what would you be?” game.) There’s the very basic theme of belief and story, painted over a broad canvas with stories embedded inside the larger tale.

More importantly, there’s the main characters. It’s been observed that Gaiman apparently has a thing for passive protagonists; Dream was passive, but for interesting and ultimately tragic reasons. Shadow just is. He is, in fact, one of the major sources of my frustration; it’s very annoying to be mad on behalf of someone who doesn’t appear to care.

The other main (and related, in spoilery ways) source of frustration is the plot. I don’t object to violating narrative expectations, but I want there to be a payoff for it. Here, I ended up saying, “That’s it? So what?” which is not what you want to do after 400 pages. To be sure, those 400 pages were a very smooth and easy read, with some great stories, characters, and lines (of which my favorite is probably, “Media. I think I have heard of her. Isn’t she the one who killed her children?” “Different woman. Same deal.”). But they don’t, to me, add up to anything: the plot’s resolution, its effect on Shadow—they just leave me frustrated.

A lot of people seem to really like this book, and it’s received quite a lot of critical attention. That’s great; Gaiman has an impressive body of work and deserves the attention. But whatever it is that people are seeing in this, I’m missing it.

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Peters, Ellis: (07) The Sanctuary Sparrow

The good news is that I’ve finished the last big paper required for graduation (handing it in tomorrow, and good riddance). The bad news is that my wrists hurt again; I’ve clearly pushed my recovery too hard. So, very briefly: The Sanctuary Sparrow is the seventh Cadfael novel; a little darker than most of them, I think, in its claustrophobic portrait of a rather messed-up family, but still enjoyable. (And hey, if anyone out there wants to read 20K words on special verdicts in criminal jury trials, just let me know . . . )

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Emerson, Jane: City of Diamond

Arrgh. Sharply limited typing + being ahead on school reading = lots of time to read, but also = limited ability to update book log. (I’m tempted to slide into secret diaries writing style. “Wrists update: somewhat painful. School v. boring. Classes *so* silly. Still not employed.”)

Last night, I finished Doris Egan’s (writing as Jane Emerson) City of Diamond. When I brought the Ivory books up on sf.written, opinion was mixed—but everyone recommended this. They were right; it rocks. Thanks to Pam for sending me a spare copy.

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Cornwell, Patricia: Post-Mortem

Today I was practically crackling with cranky restless energy and thought maybe a nice serial killer novel would do the trick. Unfortunately, I ended up just skimming Patricia Cornwell’s Post-Mortem; I like procedurals, but its narrative voice fell rather flat for me.

Bah. I’m going to work out now; maybe that will help.

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Kagan, Janet: Mirabile (re-read)

Since I was still feeling kind of cranky, I decided to re-read Janet Kagan’s Mirabile, on the theory that maybe I’d feel right at home with another cranky person. Worked just fine; it remains a good comfort book. I think my favorite bit is “Getting the Bugs Out”—I loathe mosquitos, and they are all too fond of me. (And how did I miss that this was a fixup the first time through?)

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Stevermer, Caroline: (02) When the King Comes Home

Re-read Caroline Stevermer’s When the King Comes Home; I’d been fighting off the urge ever since the winter holidays (something about the time of year; maybe it’s just that I first read it around then), but since I was kind of on a roll with cranky narrators, I decided I might as well give in.

I really, really like this book, as I said in my review. A few, very random, additional comments:

  • I continue to be very impressed by the level of craft in the prose.
  • In retrospect, I tend to think the book starts a little slowly, but I never notice it when I’m reading. The ending still makes me sniffle.
  • I’d mentioned in my review that this and Jo Walton’s Sulien books were both novels in the form of elderly women writing down Arthurian-related long-ago events; they also happen to share competent and interesting Guinevere analogues, a remarkably rare thing (the books are otherwise dissimilar).
  • An unoriginal lament about art within novels: I want to see the paintings described in the book (like I want the rest of Ask to Embla, and Crispin’s mosaics, and . . . ). I also want her next book, a sequel to A College of Magics, which has been sold but not, apparently, scheduled—but at least there’s a reasonable prospect of getting that. (Ooooh. I also just found out that not only is a reprint of Sorcery and Cecelia in the works, but so is a sequel. Hot damn.)
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Lee, Sharon, and Steve Miller: (07) I Dare

At Boskone this past weekend, I picked up the latest Liaden book by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, I Dare. (I didn’t happen to meet the authors or hear them speak, though Chad did attend a panel they were on.) This concludes the “Agent of Change” sequence, picking up where Plan B left off.

I found this an enjoyable but slightly disappointing book. I should say that I read the Liaden books for the people: Shan, Miri, Val Con, Priscilla, Sheather, and all the rest are fabulous, vivid, living-and-breathing characters and I really like spending time with them. So, okay, I’ll swallow the happy coincidence that allows the dramatic big set-piece confrontation at the end, and the utter one-dimensional stupidity of the villains, and whatever. (However, I do object to the cliffhanger ending. I don’t mind life-goes-on endings, like Tigana‘s, and if the book had stopped just three pages earlier, it would have been fine. Throwing those pages in, though, when the next three books are going to be about other people, seemed gratuitous.) And yup, the lifemates thing still bothers me, but I was expecting that.

I think my real problem with the book is that it feels unbalanced. It largely splits its focus between Miri, Val Con, and the rest of the people on Lytaxin on the one hand, and Pat Rin on the other. Which is all well and good, but Pat Rin’s part of the story covers about six months from the opening to the climax, while the Lytaxin crowd’s covers four days—in what feels like about the same number of pages, though I admit I didn’t count. I’m happy to see these characters, but a lot of the Lytaxin stuff seemed not to advance the story that much, and the contrast with Pat Rin’s very busy life was striking.

Pat Rin’s part of the story, by itself, posed another balance (small “b”) problem for me. Don’t get me wrong; I was quite pleased to see Pat Rin take center stage. Gordy asked, way back [*] in Carpe Diem, “Then why’s he like that?” Shan’s response, “Well, I suppose, that like most of us, he’s not finished yet,” both indicates why I like Shan so much and why spending more time with Pat Rin was interesting. I happen to like becoming-human stories, which I think it’s fair to characterize this as. But part of Pat Rin’s becoming human is his falling in love, and his growing love affair—plus his lover—are just sketched. I don’t object to subtle love stories; at one level, that’s what The Last Hot Time is, after all. But it’s quite a contrast with the other Liaden stories, where the relationships and the characters are central and thoroughly developed.

Okay. Two more gripes and then I’m done. One is a gripe about the physical book, not the writing: the copy editing was just bad. Sure, I’m probably unusual in being bothered by random extra spaces between words and around punctuation, or curly quotation marks going the wrong way, or periods sometimes being inside quotes, sometimes outside; but I notice and it distracts me. The other is actually a rehash of one of my American Gods complaints: maybe Val Con can forgive what he learns on Lytaxin, but I found it morally repugnant and I’m both annoyed at the person who did it and at him for not being madder about it. (In the coincidence department, we learn in this book that another of Val Con’s nicknames is—Shadow.)

Hmm. If I’m complaining about balance, I should have spent more words talking about the things I liked, but they 1) require less explanation and 2) are mostly spoilers, anyway. Besides, even stretching this typing out over a few days (yay, backdating posts on Blogger Pro), my wrists are hurting. Overall, I did like it; I just didn’t love it the way I did some of the earlier Liaden books.

[*] Maybe someone out there can help me. In the following quote, what is the apostrophe before “way” standing for: “tucked all tidy and peaceful into a pretty little cave that was ‘way to small for them”? It’s not a usage I’ve come across before, and it’s used more than once in the book.

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Stevermer, Caroline: (01) A College of Magics

Caroline Stevermer’s A College of Magics is set in the same world as When the King Comes Home. I don’t think I re-read it when I reviewed When the King . . . , but I was in the mood for it after this re-read.

My prior impression of A College of Magics was that it was quite good but went a little weird at the end. Upon re-reading, it felt a lot smoother, I think for a few reasons. First, this time I knew that (despite the title) only the first third of the book is a school story, so I wasn’t faintly disoriented by the shift. (Of course, had I actually looked at the table of contents, it would have been incredibly obvious that yes, this is a three-volume novel and doesn’t confine itself to Greenlaw.) Similarly, I was much better at spotting the continuous thread of plot this time, now that I knew what it was. What’s more, When the King . . . in a way gives a precedent for some of the weirdness at the end of A College of Magics; I almost wonder if it wouldn’t be better to read them in non-publication order for that reason. (People may well have to do that, since A College of Magics is currently out of print.)

A College of Magics is set sometime early in an alternate version of our 20th century (the cover blurbs are amusingly contradictory on the precise date). Faris Nallaneen, the umpty-great-niece of Ludovic, has been packed off to Greenlaw College by her wicked uncle “to age, like cheese,” until she reaches her majority and can take her place as Duchess of Galazon. I shall refrain from talking about the plot, because it doesn’t become overt until the second volume, but there’s magic and intrigue and romance; friends are made, swashes are buckled, hats explode, lions are fed crab puffs, and oh yes, Faris comes into her own. Overall, the book’s a delight; not quite as good as When the King Comes Home, but more fun.

Jane caught at Faris’s poplin sleeve. “Are you going to find Menary now? It’s tea time.”

Faris froze, staring at Jane’s hand as though it were made of raw liver. “Of course.”

Jane’s voice held only calm interest. “What will you do when you find her?”

Faris met her eyes. “I don’t know. Deliver the same lecture to her, I suppose.”

“Dry work. I’d hate to miss the spectacle but I’m perishing for my tea. Just sit with me for a moment while I drink a cup and then let me come along to watch you murder Menary.” She closed the study door and led Faris back to the table. “Though of course, we’ll have to queue up for the privilege. She does love to do an ill turn when she sees the chance.”

“Do you speak so highly of all your friends?” asked Faris, coldly.

“Menary doesn’t have any friends. She doesn’t want any. She’s more interested in servitors. I merely asked her a few questions. And don’t snipe at me for my shocking geography,” Jane added. “If it isn’t the Empire, it’s all the same to me: Galazon, Aravill, Graustark, or Ruritania. You really can’t expect me to keep all those little countries straight. I’m not ignorant, just English. Milk? Sugar?”

“Can you tell Wales from Finland?”

“Don’t sulk, it’s not becoming. The tea’s a bit stewed, I’m afraid, but that’s your fault for distracting me. The milk may render it palatable. Now tell me about this wicked uncle of yours.”

Faris glared at Jane but accepted the cup and saucer Jane offered. “If you were in my place, would you sit here and drink your tea?”

“In your place, I would challenge Menary to pistols at dawn.”

“May I call on you if I should need a second?”

Jane inclined her head graciously. “I am at your service. Now sit down. I have a ginger cake from Fortnum’s.”

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Sabatini, Rafael: Scaramouche

A quote from The Last Hot Time sent me browsing through the Yale Library catalog the other day: “[Danny] got a book from the library, a Rafael Sabatini swashbuckler with brave, kind heroes and the certain promise of a happy ending.” I only recognized two titles in the catalog, and picked Scaramouche over The Marquis de Carabas mostly at random. Since I still felt like reading about buckling of swashes, this seemed a natural choice.

I can’t really say I would consider Scaramouche a comfort book. A tale of revenge during the French Revolution (yeah, there’s a happy setup), it features a protagonist who, we are told in the first line, “was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” That laughter tends to be rather cynical, or else affected; André-Louis is an instinctive actor, and though he certainly has feelings, he is almost always playing a role, even after almost an entire book’s worth of upheaval:

When understanding came at last André-Louis’ first impulse was to cry out. But he possessed himself, and played the Stoic. He must ever be playing something. That was his nature. And he was true to his nature even in this supreme moment. He continued silent until, obeying that queer histrionic instinct, he could trust himself to speak without emotion.

I tend not to find people like this very good company, at least if they remain this way over the whole book, and it’s the company I keep that makes a comfort book for me. I can see why this book was and is popular, but it wasn’t really what I was looking for.

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