Archive for July, 2004

Stevermer, Caroline: (03) A Scholar of Magics

I’ve been stuck on writing up Caroline Stevermer’s A Scholar of Magics for an unreasonable time now. I don’t know why doing it justice is giving me such trouble, but the queue behind it is getting quite frightening, so I will do my best here. Insert fangirl squees liberally for full effect.

A Scholar of Magics is a semi-sequel to A College of Magics; it’s just as delightful but a little smoother. Greenlaw was the eponymous college of the prior book, a school for women that also taught magic; Glasscastle is its counterpart for men, located in England to Greenlaw’s France. (They have interestingly different approaches to teaching magic, however.) At the opening of Scholar, one of our protagonists is having tea with the wife of one of Glasscastle’s scholars:

Samuel Lambert, all too aware of his responsibilities as a guest, saw with dismay that there were loose bits of tea leaf in the bottom of his cup. Lambert was not easy to alarm. He had no objection to tea leaves as such, but their presence made it probable that his hostess would once again try her dainty, inexorable hand at telling his fortune.

Fortunately, Jane Brailsford, his hostess’s sister-in-law and a major character from College (who later helpfully sums up all the reader needs to know about College, though in an unfortunately clunky passage), arrives unannounced:

Grateful for the unexpected reprieve, Lambert used the precious minute or so of solitude after Amy’s departure to conceal the contents of his teacup in a brass pot that held a substantial aspidistra. When his sleeve brushed against the foliage, he roused a beetle from its afternoon nap. The insect flew low over the table, rose to an altitude just out of swatting range, and set itself to veer around the room for the rest of the day. After watching its erratic flight for several circuits of the room, Lambert helped himself to a few sugar cubes from the bowl. He wasted two shots before he got the hang of the insect’s abrupt changes of speed and direction, but the third sugar cube closed its account. Lambert nailed the beetle on the wing at three paces, exactly over the tea tray. The corpse missed the milk pitcher with half an inch to spare and landed, legs to the sky, between the teapot and the sugar blow. Uncomfortably aware that no etiquette book covered freelance insect extermination, Lambert retrieved the evidence. He deposited the dead beetle and the sugar cubes on top of the tea leaves in the aspidistra pot and resumed his seat.

Lambert is an American sharpshooter assisting studies of accuracy for a government-funded research project vital to the imperial interests. (Early-twentieth-century alternate Europe with magic setting, in case you didn’t follow the link to the College review.) In the six months of work, the only event of note was internal: Lambert fell helplessly in love with Glasscastle, which he thinks won’t have him. Things change rapidly, of course, else we wouldn’t have a book; both Jane and a mysterious man in a bowler hat are very interested in Lambert’s roommate, a scholar named Nicholas Fell.

It might help the unfamiliar reader to know that Stevermer’s books in this world [*] (besides College, there’s the very brilliant When the King Comes Home, set in the Renaissance-equivalent) start out with relatively low and explicable levels of magic; then the characters take a physical journey, and the magic gets a lot less explicable. The magical dilemma of Scholar continues to elude me, I have to say; I briefly thought it had to do with modern physics, but, well. Fortunately this doesn’t ruin the book for me, as the things that I did understand are more important to the story and are more in the foreground of the plot. In addition, the movement of the story felt smoother to me than in College, perhaps because Scholar isn’t structured as a three-volume novel, or perhaps because I was expecting it this time.

[*] Which is not the same world as that of Sorcery and Cecelia, which Stevermer co-wrote with Patricia C. Wrede (sequel coming out soon, yay!), per a post from Lois McMaster Bujold.

While speaking ever-so-vaguely about the shape of the book, I should add that if you had the same reaction as I did to the opening material, fear not—one need not actually read Comus to understand what’s going on, as the interactions are text rather than (or in addition to) subtext. (I’m sure it would enrich the experience, and I’ll be getting to it Real Soon Now.)

For the longest time I could never keep the plot of College in my head, but I didn’t care because I read it for the characters. I don’t think I’ll have the same problem with this one, but I’ll still read it for the characters. It’s lovely to see Jane again, and I was extremely pleased to meet Lambert, whom I have a strong urge to hug and send ginger stem cake. Their interactions simply made me smile all the way through the book, not a unique occurrence but one to be treasured all the same. The supporting characters are nicely rounded, and I was rather amused that two minor characters, advisees of Fell, move the plot by their determination to get grades out of him—well, it made this faculty wife snort, at least.

Those who liked College should certainly read this. It might be a good place for people to start reading Stevermer as well, despite its quasi-sequel nature, as I think it’s a touch more polished than College (people seem to split sharply on When the King Comes Home, which rather surprises me, but it is first-person with a very distinct voice). I would strongly recommend this book to people looking for any or all of the following in their fiction: non-mechanical magic, non-medievaloid fantasy, academia, fantasy of manners, sensible women, sensible men, affectionate characterization, wit, and charm.

(I suppose I managed some fangirling after all.)

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Westlake, Donald E.: (12) Road to Ruin

As well as a new Dortmunder collection from Donald E. Westlake, there was also a new Dortmunder novel, Road to Ruin. Unfortunately, the novel isn’t nearly as good as the collection. I fervently hope this is not the start of the decline of the series: the prior Dortmunder novel, Bad News, was enjoyable but pretty low-key, and this one is both low-key and unsatisfying.

(Put a Lid on It was the intervening book, a non-Dortmunder; I just read it this weekend and I’d put it about the same level as Bad News. However, there are over twenty books before it in the queue (eep! I didn’t think it was that bad until I counted), so detailed discussion will have to wait.).

In Road to Ruin, Dortmunder and the gang set out to relieve an Enron-executive-type of his collection of classic cars. That much is set up in the first two chapters, presently available online. What those don’t indicate is that there are other people with plans for this executive, and their plans end up colliding with Dortmunder’s to create an incredibly unsatisfying ending. I know nothing about the way Westlake writes, so this is not to be taken as anything but a way of describing my reactions—but it felt to me as though, either Westlake wrote himself into a corner and couldn’t or didn’t rewrite to get out of it, or his characters took the bit in their teeth and refused to cooperate. It did not feel like a Dortmunder plot.

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Westlake, Donald E.: (09) What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

So [after reading The Road to Ruin], in search of a Dortmunder plot, I went back to one of my very favorite Dortmunders, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?. As far as I’m concerned, this is very nearly perfection: it has a lovely packed plot (Dortmunder gets caught by a rich householder who steals a ring off his hand, Dortmunder pulls several jobs trying to get it back), great observations about New York and D.C. and Las Vegas, and the highest density of favorite lines of probably any of the books. For instance, I’ve been known to cite this passage as a remarkably accurate description of the drive to D.C.:

Two hundred fifty miles between New York City and Washington, DC, give or take a wide curve or two. Through the Holland Tunnel and then New Jersey New Jersey New Jersey New Jersey Del Maryland Maryland Baltimore Baltimore Baltimore Baltimore Maryland lunch Maryland outskirts of Washington outskirts of Washington outskirts of Washington, and now it was up to Anne Marie to be the harbor pilot who would steer them to their berth.

They had run along two kinds of highway. One was country highway, with green rolling hills and leafy trees and a wide grassy median between the three northbound and the three southbound lanes, and it was all pleasantly pretty every time you looked at it, and it was all the same pleasantly pretty every time you looked at it, and the goddam green hills were still there every time you looked at it. And the other was city highway, where the lanes were narrower and there was no median strip and the traffic was full of delivery vans and pickup trucks and there were many many exits and many many signs and the road’s design was a modified roller coaster, elevated over slums and factories, undulating and curving inside low concrete walls, sweeping past tall sooty brick buildings with clock falls mounted high on their facades that always told the wrong time.

Or there’s the hit musical of the bad guy’s company:

As for that show, it was Desdemona!, the feminist musical version of the world-famous love story, slightly altered for the modern American taste (everybody lives). Hit songs from the show included “Oh, Tell, Othello, Oh, Tell,” and “Iago, My Best Friend” and the foot-stomping finale, “Here’s the Handkerchief!”

Or the line that just sums up Dortmunder perfectly:

“Good news,” Dortmunder said, with some surprise, as another person might say, Look! A unicorn!

This is an interesting contrast with Road to Ruin in another sense, as they both have crooked rich guys as Dortmunder’s targets, but the one in Road to Ruin is far less likeable. I’m not sure if this was a result of the shifting public perception of CEOs (as one character says, “every white-haired man in America that owns a suit has testified in front of Congress”), or just of a feeling that the time had come ’round again for a nastier antagonist.

I’d like to think that What’s the Worst That Could Happen? is not necessarily the pinnacle of the Dortmunder series, but as Westlake has just turned seventy-one, it may be time to start ramping my expectations of future books down. It’s much to Westlake’s credit that he hasn’t succumbed to the Brain Eater far earlier, as some other authors have, and of course he may never do so, but expect the worst while hoping for the best and all that.

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King, Laurie R.: (01-04) The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; A Monstrous Regiment of Women; A Letter of Mary; The Moor

I didn’t read the first four of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, A Letter of Mary, and The Moor, all back-to-back, but as I’m catching up on the book log, I might as well talk about them all at once.

I picked up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice one day when I was tired and in the mood for something Mary Sue-ish. I prefer the definition of “Mary Sue” [*] that automatically excludes anything well-written, but well-written things can still scratch that wish-fulfillment itch, and this did so admirably. As the book opens in 1915, Mary Russell is a tall, rich, half-American feminist teenaged orphan with a Dark Past; she very nearly trips over a retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs, and he ends up training her to be his partner in detection and, eventually, wife (and if you think that’s a little icky, you’re not alone). Oh, and she’s got aim that a hobbit would envy too, but I don’t think she has violet eyes or anything. (The book does get points for not lingering on her horrible guardian, I admit.)

[*] If you’ve yet to encounter this concept, exhaustive discussion can be found at Making Light.

While Russell and Holmes eventually get married, romance does not intrude on The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which is a very good thing because thematically it’s about daughters and their journey from pawns to queens. As an opening book, it needs to establish Russell’s training and her growth into a detective, which makes it somewhat episodic; however, it’s tied together pretty well by the theme. Some of the changes that King rings on the Holmes canon are interesting, using where necessary the idea that Doyle was Watson’s literary agent and editor. One that deserves special mention, however, is Russell’s attitude toward Watson, which infuriated me and has apparently infuriated many others: it’s both condescending and inconsistent, which is fairly impressive, but then she is a bit of a snot sometimes.

And it’s really the distinctive narrative voice, occasional snottiness and all, that pulls me through these. The framing story is that various manuscripts were sent to Laurie King, who published them after signing enormous waivers with her publishers. According to the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of Beekeeper’s, Russell is writing her memoirs in the late 1980s and early 1990s:

I do not remember when I first realised that the flesh-and-blood Sherlock Holmes I knew so well was to the rest of the world merely a figment of an out-of-work medical doctor’s powerful imagination. What I do remember is how the realisation took my breath away, and how for several days my own self-awareness became slightly detached, tenuous, as if I too were in the process of transmuting into fiction, by contagion with Holmes. My sense of humour provided the pinch that woke me, but it was a very peculiar sensation while it lasted.

Now, the process has become complete: Watson’s stories, those feeble evocations of the compelling personality we both knew, have taken on a life of their own, and the living creature of Sherlock Holmes has become ethereal, dreamy. Fictional.

Amusing, it is way. And now, men and women are writing actual novels about Holmes, plucking him up and setting him down in bizarre situations, putting impossible words in his mouth, and obscuring the legend still further.

Why, it would not even surprise me to find my own memoirs classified as fiction, myself relegated to cloud-cuckoo-land. Now there is a delicious irony.

If nothing else, King has her own sense of irony. I will also be interested to see where if anywhere King takes this framing device; there are odd and somewhat improbable hints in the third book, but nothing in the fourth.

A note about editions: I initially got a trade paperback of this book, thinking it was all that was available. It isn’t and there’s a perfectly good mass market available, much more satisfactory than the too-large, too-floppy, too-expensive trade. If anyone is unbothered by that kind of thing and would like mine, just ask; I have the mass-market now and the trade is free to a good home.

(I’ve seen various editions of books in the series headed as “a novel of suspense featuring Sherlock Holmes and his partner Mary Russell,” as well as the other way ’round. I much prefer another option I’ve seen, “featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.” The part about “novel of suspense” is fairly accurate, though.)

The second book in the series is A Monstrous Regiment of Women, which suffers badly from wanting to be Gaudy Night and failing miserably. It’s partly an Oxford book, has a tight community of women, and is largely taken up with Russell trying to figure out what to do about Holmes romantically. However, the book’s structure makes it a pale shadow at best: not only does it set up false choices for Russell, it then deliberately takes them away from her! The ending is also rushed and insufficiently explained, and overall there’s very little detecting. Also, I don’t particularly care for “love at first sight” romances, which this turns out to be on one side at least (and which increases the “ick” factor mentioned earlier). At least this is offset by Holmes having stopped calling her “Russ,” every instance of which in Beekeeper’s made my hands twitch as though they were going to throw the book across the room.

(I’m starting to wonder if this is a subgenre, books written in obvious tribute to Gaudy Night. Besides this, there’s Carla Kelly’s Miss Grimsley’s Oxford Career; what else?)

I went into the third, A Letter of Mary, wondering how the Holmes/Russell marriage was going to be portrayed. Fortunately, the martial side of their partnership is largely off-stage or even not so different from their previous state—which frankly makes me wonder why romance had to be introduced at all, but now we’re getting into my pet peeves. The book opens with a major theological revelation, a letter from Mary Magdalene referring to herself as an Apostle. It then resolutely and purposefully ignores the theological for the mundane, which is something of a disappointment. Once past that, however, this is a reasonably good mystery.

(This is also the book with the Lord Peter Wimsey cameo, which alas seems forced.)

The fourth book in the series, and my last to date, is The Moor, or what I think of as The Hound of the Baskervilles—The Unauthorized Sequel: we’re back in Dartmoor, folkloric dogs are being seen, and something nasty is afoot . . . . (If there was any doubt that what we have here is legal fanfic, The Moor would easily dispell it.) I liked this quite a lot. Doyle (or Watson) was writing for an audience that presumably knew about Dartmoor, while King (or Russell) is writing for an audience that can’t be presumed to have such knowledge. As a result, I got a much clearer idea of the geography and a lovely sense of place, really very evocative. As a mystery, it works pretty well, though I have a few qualms about whether it’s too derivative of The Hound of the Baskervilles. At any rate, it was a good place to leave Russell and Holmes for a while (the next two books are kind of a set, and I haven’t got to them yet, and the most recent is only out in hardcover).

If I had discovered these when I was younger, I probably would have fallen completely in love, daydreamed about being Russell, that kind of thing (Beekeeper is copyright 1994, which is probably just on the edge of my suspectibility). While that’s no longer a real possibility, they’re still good reads and only slightly guilty pleasures.

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Block, Lawrence: (110) The Burglar on the Prowl

We got Lawrence Block’s latest Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery, The Burglar on the Prowl, out of the library. I read these for the unrealistic but amusing light banter and the occasional interesting occupation-neepery, not for the plots, which are always incredibly complicated tangled knots of things. There’s hardly ever a red herring in these, basically, and getting everyone involved in the mystery’s solution somehow tends to be a baroque affair. Plus, there are always at least four different endings.

Prowl has the light banter, no question. But it also has, smack dab in the center of the book, an enormous “ick” factor for me, far greater than Holmes/Russell. The characters appear entirely oblivious to the psychosexual mess they’ve stepped in, which left me with the strong impression that they were all aliens. Ick ick ick. Not recommended.

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Snicket, Lemony: (08) The Hostile Hospital (audio)

I listened to Lemony Snicket’s The Hostile Hospital, the eighth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events, on tape for a road trip some time ago. For an actual summary of the book, I can’t improve on Pam’s book log entry, so I will just refer you to that and note that I may need to stop getting these on tape. As Pam notes, and as I noted about the last one, the over-arching plot has really started ramping up, and as a result I have less patience for listening to digressions. For me, these are really probably better skimmed.

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2004 Hugo Award Nominees: Novel

I now interrupt the catching-up for my comments on the five 2004 Hugo Awards Nominees for Novel. (Votes are due the 31st.)

[broken up for import into MT; follow the links or hit "next"]

Next up: the short fiction categories.

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Simmons, Dan: Ilium (as part of the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel)

[Originally part of one post discussing the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel, broken up for MT import; see that post for comments]

I’m going to start with the books I’m voting below “No Award”:

When the nominations first came out, I decided to read all of the fiction ones—it’s my first Worldcon and I was feeling conscientious. I didn’t want to read Dan Simmons’ Ilium until its sequel was out, but it was nominated, so I sighed and got it out of the library.

I loved it. It was just fun. As various other people have said before me, it’s a post-Singularity novel told in three initial strands: an apparently-resurrected twentieth-century scholar chronicling the Trojan War at the command of Zeus; an expedition to Mars by moravecs (sentient robots) of the Jovian moons prompted by worrying quantum activity there; and old-style humans on an Earth greatly changed by the post-humans. Two of these three strands are more interesting to me, the Trojan War one, which gives the book its brilliant opening:


Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, O Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they may have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur-ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-again-against-his-will Hockenberry—poor dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage may be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer, Achilles.

On second thought, O Muse, sing of nothing to me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.

[Italics restored 7/27/04; sorry about that.]

I also really like the moravecs, both as people and as comic relief:

“I’m sorry I didn’t see this guy in the chariot coming sooner and take some evasive action,” Mahnmut said to Orphu in the last seconds before he had to shut down comm for landing.

“It’s not your fault,” said Orphu. “These deus ex machinas have a way of sneaking up on us literary types.”

The third strand gets better over the book as its main viewpoint character improves, but it’s still not quite as interesting.

Ilium is packed with ideas, allusions, exciting moments, interesting characters, and just plain fun. However, while a lot of the backstory can be worked out from what we’ve got in this book, it’s not at all a complete story. So I was in a bit of a quandary over where to put it on my ballot, and eventually decided to set the problem aside while I read the other nominees.

Then I found out that another nominee, Robert J. Sawyer’s Humans, was the middle book of a trilogy. (Sawyer’s books hadn’t really been on my radar, so I’d had no idea until I picked it up in the store.) Well, if I had doubts about voting for the first half of a work, I very definitely objected on principle to giving an award to the middle book of a trilogy. As I wasn’t that interested in reading the book to begin with, I decided I would just vote both Ilium and Humans last. I realized this sounds rather backwards, since I did like Ilium so much, but there’s still the chance that the continuation of the story, Olympos, will be bad enough to retroactively drag Ilium down with it. Should Olympos not suck, it will certainly be high on my list when eligible.

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Stross, Charles: Singularity Sky (as part of the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel)

[Originally part of one post discussing the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel, broken up for MT import; see that post for comments]

The book I’m voting above third, above “No Award” but below the other two, is Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky. As the title suggests, this is directly concerned with the effects of different kinds of Singularities. The backstory’s Singularity was when nine-tenths of humanity vanished and humanity was told:

I am the Eschaton. I am not your god.

I am descended from you, and I exist in your future.

Thou shalt not violate causality within my historic light cone. Or else.

Turns out the populations were dispersed across time and space, into colonies of sorts. One of those colonies was populated by “a mixed bag of East European technorejectionists and royalists, hankering for the comforting certainties of an earlier century,” which set up a highly conservative social order complete with bureaucracy, Emperors, and secret police. They are, to say the least, deeply unprepared when the Festival shows up, drops cell phones everywhere, and offers those who pick them up anything they want in return for entertainment.

On this opening, I had pretty low expectations—oh, we’re going to make fun of these people, didn’t we fight this wars already and win them? It was actually better than I expected, though, as the book shows the chaos caused by this economic Singularity and its real cost. The New Republic is not a nice place, and I didn’t root for it, but I did have a fair bit of sympathy for it and its denizens.

The book doesn’t fully work for other reasons, however. I’m not convinced by the central romance; frankly, I’m given no reason to be convinced. There’s a horribly book-stopping “information wants to be free” speech. The main reason, though, is that the tone and plot are a mismatch. A character complains at the end that there wasn’t anybody without a covert agenda, which is true, and the plot’s more than a little farcical as a result—except the tone’s too serious for farce, and so the book just ends up feeling like a mess.

There are definitely good things to Singularity Sky. The characters are largely sympathetic, there are amusing turns of phrase, and the backstory is fascinating. As a work, though, it doesn’t really gel.

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Bujold, Lois McMaster: (202) Paladin of Souls (as part of the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel)

[Originally part of one post discussing the 2004 Hugo Nominees for Novel, broken up for MT import; see that post for comments]

And so my last two votes are between Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls and Robert Charles Wilson’s Blind Lake. This was a tough decision, actually. I’ve previously logged Paladin, so I’ll just say that being fantasy does not disqualify it, certainly not if American Gods can win—Paladin is at least as rigorous a working-out of theology, and in my opinion a better book too. I really liked Paladin, but the problem was that it didn’t blow me away the way A Deepness in the Sky (the 2000 winner) did, which appears to be my subconscious standard for what a Hugo winner ought to be like. So I held my decision in reserve and read Blind Lake last of all the nominees.

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