Fink, Joseph & Jeffrey Cranor: Welcome to Night Vale

I tried both listening and reading to Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, which may have been my mistake. You see, I’m very picky about what audiobooks I listen to, because many books are just too slow out loud for my tastes. But I’d listened to the first chapter that was released as an extra on the podcast, and in general I’m just so used to Night Vale as an audio-first experience that I decided to give it a try.

I believe I got to about chapter 8 before I gave up, because it was just not working for me: as a novel, it’s far longer and slower than the podcast, naturally, and my mind was drifting far too much while I was driving. This is nothing against Cecil Baldwin’s performance as a narrator, which is excellent as always; it’s just not what works for me in audio.

But this may have carried over into my experience of the book, which basically felt like a whole lot of waiting for things to happen. And I genuinely have no idea how fair an assessment this is, because I tried to re-read once I knew the ending, to see the whole shape, and I couldn’t make myself do it; I kept checking social media and playing silly games instead, before I gave up and reminded myself this wasn’t homework, it was supposed to be enjoyable.

(Oh, another thing that didn’t dispose me well toward the book, which I think can be reasonably laid at the feet of its creators: the podcast episode that was released immediately before the novel was available was called “An Epilogue,” and opens thusly (via):

The last couple weeks, as we all know, have been eventful ones. I’m not going to go over everything again – we all know what happened. We are well read, well informed people who have paid attention to the whole recent “KING CITY” affair. We know about the terrible ordeals that Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro endured. We know how their troubles all ended up. And we know the truth about The Man in the Tan Jacket. We know all about him now, because of what Diane and Jackie found out. So I won’t go over all of that.

Which is (a) not how people talk — commit to your framing device, damn it — and (b) the kind of thing that makes me want to say “Yes, you’re very smart. Shut up,” like Peter Falk in The Princess Bride. And the whole episode is like that, nothing happening but blatant teasers for the novel.)

So I was grumpy and felt like things were moving slowly when I shifted to reading; would the free-floating omni POV and expository prose have gotten on my nerves without that? For instance:

Josh sometimes appears human. When he does, he is often short, chubby-cheeked, pudgy, wearing glasses.

“Is that how you see yourself, Josh?” Diane [his mother] once asked.

“Sometimes,” Josh replied.

“Do you like the way you look?” Diane once followed up.

“Sometimes,” Josh replied.

Diane did not press Josh further. She felt his terse answers were a sign he did not want to talk much.

Josh wished his mother talked to him more. His short answers were a sign he didn’t know how to socialize well.

Similarly, was I discounting character development because of my mood, and failing to give enough slack to the need to establish location and worldbuilding for new readers, just because I already knew it? Would I have found charming and in-character the chapter that’s just a Carlos monologue, if I weren’t in the mood to say “ugh, that’s just an excuse to give Dylan Marron a speech for the audiobook?” I can’t say.

I can recognize that some of the book’s themes are laudable, even if I can’t make myself care about them. And I did enjoy some of the small touches, particularly the house’s thoughts and the man in the gray pin-striped business suit. Further, other podcast fans like this just fine–see, for instance, Amal El-Mohtar at NPR–so it can’t only be a book for readers new to Night Vale. But fairly or unfairly, it just wasn’t for me.

(Oh, and if you’re new to Night Vale and are arachnophobic, you want to avoid the book and podcast both.)

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Novik, Naomi: Uprooted

I reviewed Naomi Novik’s new standalone fantasy novel, Uprooted, over at As the title of the post says, it’s not the book I expected, based on the first three chapters: it’s better. Check it out.

Addison, Katherine: The Goblin Emperor

I should really start booklogging again, shouldn’t I?

Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor is a standalone fantasy novel that was nominated, on its own merits, for a Hugo this year. As the first novel under a new name by Sarah Monette, I was quite looking forward to it; and I enjoyed it very much, though it is certainly not for everyone.

The main thing to know about this book is that it is a story of one person’s growth and development, specifically Maia’s journey from the despised fourth son of an emperor, raised in isolation and near-ignorance, to an effective Emperor after an airship explosion kills his father and his three older brothers. There are subplots in which things happen, but the book is about Maia; this gives it a somewhat unusual shape, which is why it’s useful to know that up-front.

(The secondary thing to know is that if you, like me, have trouble with decoding the meanings of names—I was too sleep-deprived the first time through and thought the variants on titles were personal names, so I could not figure out who anyone was after a certain point in the book—there’s an appendix that explains things.)

This is a single-volume kingdom-level fantasy, populated entirely by non-humans (distinctly non-mythic elves and goblins; Maia’s mother was a goblin, which is one of the reasons his elf father despised him), set at the start of industrialization, all of which are refreshing changes from multi-volume medievaloid epics. But the setting also leads to some intrinsic awkwardness about the very premise. Maia’s journey is a fantasy of political agency, but—as in-book revolutionaries remind us—no matter how much Maia tries to improve politics by promoting voices that had been marginalized, the system he sits atop is still one that denies legitimate political agency to the majority of people. Of course this is a problem that all novels about the triumph of non-elected rulers have, but (perhaps unfairly) The Goblin Emperor‘s very recognition of the problem made it more prominent in my experience of the book. Not so much that I didn’t enjoy myself, but it was still a little weird.

One criticism I’ve heard is that Maia is too nice. I think that the book is careful to show the effort it takes him, and the reasons he prioritizes empathy, but I recognize that mileage could reasonably vary on this. (Also, I’d much prefer to cut people slack for being perhaps unrealistically nice than the reverse.) Another is that the opening is pretty slow; I was drawn in by Maia’s emotions as he’s suddenly thrust into being Emperor with almost none of the knowledge he needs, but if the opening doesn’t inspire similar feelings in you, you may find it rough going.

I did enjoy this a lot, especially on the second time through when I’d figured out the names. More, on balance, I think it is more successful as a single book than Ancillary Sword. I look forward to reading The Three-Body Problem, the last Hugo nominee for Best Novel I intend to read [*], and seeing how I’ll rank this category overall.

[*] If you haven’t heard about this: here’s one post and a followup with context, and here’s a handy list of nominees.

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Tolkien, J.R.R.: Hobbit, The (reread)

This is a post about rereading The Hobbit in two different ways.

First, I don’t think I ever actually linked to the chapter-by-chapter reread I did over at in 2012-2013, with revisits for the movies, and one more post coming, obviously. (I did The Lord of the Rings, too, over a much longer time.)

Second, Chad and I have just read it out loud to SteelyKid (who turned six over the summer and is in first grade). We alternated nights, and started out with Chad reading odd-numbered chapters and I reading even, but then Chad combined chapters 13 and 14 and so we switched even-odd status for the rest of the book.

It was so much fun, reading it to her. Her attention did drift a bit during long descriptive passages—generally she’s reading books that are more heavily illustrated than my childhoold coffee-table-sized hardcover with pictures from the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation, so she has more to occupy her. (Also, reading illustrated books, as opposed to picture books, introduces the problem of spoilers—and not just when she flips ahead, either, but when they put the most dramatic image of the chapter at the front no matter where it falls in the chapter.) But she paid enough attention to notice things like Thorin not being captured by the spiders being signalled clearly throughout the chapter, which I personally never noticed until the reread project, and was involved enough to want to interrupt for long discussions of why not this method or that method to kill Smaug. I was also surprised to find that all the songs I read went very smoothly out loud, even the ridiculous elf tra-la-la-lally ones. (Some of the chapters were really pushing the limits of bedtime, though, in the vicinity of 45 minutes or so, in case you’re thinking of doing this yourself.)

We’re not reading her LotR any time soon, because clearly she’s not ready for it, but I can definitely say that first grade is a dandy time to read The Hobbit.

(Chad showed her the Rankin-Bass movie, which I don’t get the impression she was very enamored of, and which I still have never seen. Afterward she asked him if she could see the new ones now, because she’d heard them mentioned on the radio. He said no.)

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Milan, Courtney: (102) The Heiress Effect

I was lukewarm about the opening book in Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister series. But not about the second book, The Heiress Effect: I love it passionately and with only the tiniest little reservations. I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t stop reading, it’s awesome. (I actually read this quite some time ago, but when I was looking at my ereader I couldn’t remember if I had because sleep deprivation, so ended up reading it all over again.)

Why, you say, is it awesome? Let me tell you, dear reader. Here are our main characters:

Jane Fairfield is stunningly rich but needs to remain unmarried until her epileptic sister Emily comes of age, because her sister’s guardian, in misguided attempts to keep Emily safe, confines her and subjects her to painful medical quackery—which Jane attempts to deflect with bribes and other methods, but to do that, she needs to be in the household. So she deliberately makes herself garish and horrible to repel suitors.

Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of a duke (see the prequel novella) who was raised in a loving, hard-working farming family and who desperately wants a political career to address class injustices (the political plot of the novel is the Reform Act of 1867, which increased male suffrage in the UK). To do that, he’s taught himself to fit in with the elite, to swallow their insults and work behind the scenes for incremental change.

Oliver sees what Jane’s doing almost immediately, the first person to do so; but he can’t afford to like her as she is, and she can’t afford to be the kind of political wife he’s looking for.

Also, there is a secondary romance involving Jane’s sister Emily and an Indian man who’s come to England to study law and work for better political treatment of India (this is ten years after what was then known as the Sepoy Mutiny). This is my first little reservation, that this whole plotline may be slightly too easy, but the two of them are very sweet and a lot of the complexities are at least raised, and I figure I’m allowed a little bit of wish-fulfillment in my fiction. (At the epilogue, it’s about twenty years early, historically, for an Indian MP.)

(My second little reservation is that one character is too blatantly Snidely Whiplash. He’s sadly plausible, and I guess everyone else turns out to be at least a bit nuanced, but it feels rather on-the-nose, especially early on.)

So: characters I liked immediately, genuine conflicts, and the thing that really hit a nerve for me: it’s a book about the personal costs of fighting oppression: internalized -isms, learning the dangers of using the master’s tools, and doing what you can with what you have (the part with the grand adventure is what started my waterworks). Oh, and grace notes of female friendship, strong adoptive families, and not magically fixing or shaming people with disabilities, too.

It’s awesome. Go read it.

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Leckie, Ann: (02) Ancillary Sword

I liked Ancillary Justice very much. I . . . don’t actually know what I think about its sequel, Ancillary Sword.

For me, Sword is such a middle book that I can’t fully assess it until I know the shape of the whole series. It’s doing fascinating and important things in terms of character growth and worldbuilding (which, because the Imperial Radch is an empire built on conquest and economic exploitation, involves a lot of examination of systems of oppression). It has some great bits like a character who reminded me of Delirium in a particularly dangerous state, and four-fifths of a limerick that I was sad to learn doesn’t have a last line. But it’s also a trip away from the main action set up in the last book that, by the end—as one character explicitly says—has added at least one entirely new complication and not resolved any old ones. And so I feel my assessment is on hold, waiting to see if the character growth and worldbuilding pays off sufficiently to justify the somewhat slower pace and the change of focus.

(I’m also a little uneasy about the combination of forced labor on plantations and this being a fantasy of Breq’s political agency. But people who I trust to be more clued-in on things like this than me, such as N.K. Jemisin, don’t seem to have had a problem with that, and I can see ways in which the book attempts to address the problems with that setup. For me it’s more a balance/tone thing than anything, and I’m feeling a little raw on these topics right now, so I’m not sure how far I trust my uneasiness.)

Anyway. Pretty much every other review I’ve seen seems to like this book as much or more than the first, so chalk me up as a tired outlier who is, nevertheless, very much looking forward to the next book.

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Colley, Linda: Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837

book coverSince Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, in part, about the hierarchies and inequalities of British society, I asked the Internet for a social history of Britain during this time period and was recommended Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837.

Britons starts with the Act of Union that joined Scotland with England and Wales and ends with Queen Victoria’s accession, particularly emphasizing the last fifty or so years of that time. It argues that during this period, people in Great Britain [*] formed a British identity that supplemented existing identities. This was the result of multiple factors, including being a Protestant island threatened by Catholic invaders, actual or potential; the pervasive importance of trade; reaction to losing the American war; and the changes wrought by widespread military mobilization that allowed limited increases in participation in public life for men and women.

[*] Not the United Kingdom; this is not a book that attempts to grapple with Ireland, except to discuss Catholic emancipation. Relatedly, this is not a book concerned with the morality of imperialism.

I read this like the homework it is, skimming for the important bits (and making extremely, extremely brief notes to myself summarizing each chapter, which I’m putting behind the jump). It seemed readable to a non-historian, and puts a useful emphasis on primary sources such as popular political art and government surveys; because of the way I read it, I can’t really say whether the level of detail was illuminating or excessive.

At any rate, a useful overview for my purposes, and as relevant today as it was in 1992, when the first edition was published (there’s a 2009 revised edition, which was not the one I had library access to). Colley is still writing about this topic: see her archive at The Guardian.

Read More →

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Mendlesohn, Farah: Rhetorics of Fantasy

book coverI don’t usually log books I’ve only read part of, but I need someplace to stash my notes on the bits of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy that are relevant to the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell reread, and I’ve come to accept that I’m probably never going to read the book straight through.

Rhetorics of Fantasy is a critical work examining “the way in which a text becomes fantasy or, alternatively, the way the fantastic enters the text and the reader’s relationship to this.” It argues that fantasy can be divided into four categories: the portal-quest (a character, and through them the reader, enters a fantastical world); the intrusion fantasy (fantasy enters the fictional world); the liminal fantasy (“magic hovers in the corner of our eye”); and the immersive fantasy (the fantastic is treated as the norm throughout).

These are thought-provoking categories, and I’d like to read the book in its entirety. But I find Mendlesohn’s prose a lot of work—this is not a complaint, I’m sure it’s within the norms of its genre, it’s just not a genre I’m used to reading. Also, I haven’t read a number of the works being closely examined, making those sections even harder going: so, realistically, I’m never going to finish this.

But what Mendlesohn has to say about JS&MN is quite useful and interesting. She categorizes it as an intrusion fantasy, though she points out that it’s more complicated than this: it opens as an immersive fantasy, because everyone agrees that magic exists . . . it’s just not performed any more, and thus its return is an intrusion. And (like in Lud-in-the-Mist) “magic is not an intrusion, but part of a palimpsest,” visible depending on one’s perspective.

The intrusiveness of magic in JS&MN is linked to manners—from politeness up to the very broadest sense of what different groups’ proper social roles are. Related to this is the way the story builds conflict around knowledge (how it’s arrived at, who has access to it) and how it talks about magic in terms of motion and the senses. And the footnotes, too, are intrusive, in that they often “disrupt the meaning or common understanding of the tale told in the main text.”

(There’s also a discussion of Stephen which I shall elide here for spoiler purposes, but which follows pretty obviously, I think, from what I’ve summarized above.)

Like I said, useful stuff, and I particularly like the bit about the footnotes. I’m sure I’ll be coming back to these ideas.

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Rapport, Mike: Napoleonic Wars, The: A Very Short Introduction

book coverMike Rapport’s The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction is another book I read in prep for the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell reread. And it lives up to the title and was just what I needed. I won’t remember the ebb and flow of the war, but I’ll be able to look things up for quick context when I need to; and more importantly, the book gave me the big-picture political context, which may not turn out to be directly useful to this reread but was interesting all the same.

international relations . . . were driven by the concern with what diplomats called the ‘balance of power’. This was based on the assumption that in pursuing their own interests, states and rulers ultimately achieved stability in the international order and a minimum guarantee of security for individual states—or at least for the stronger ones. . . .

. . . The ‘balance of power’, therefore, rationalized a brutally competitive international states system, in which the essential dynamic was the pursuit of individual, dynastic interest. Moreover, in a pre-industrial world, before rapid economic development provided states with a sustained expansion in domestic wealth, the quickest and most effective way of securing the resources upon which military power was based—above all, population and taxable wealth—was through territorial conquest, which also had the benefit of denying one’s rivals the same.

That’s from the first chapter, “Origins,” which lays out the state of European international relations prior to 1787 and then sketches the political changes leading up to the French Revolutionary Wars. Chapter two covers the French Revolutionary Wars; chapter three covers the Napoleonic Wars themselves. The other four chapters of the book look at the wars in terms of societal structures and government institutions, on one hand, and the experiences of soldiers, sailors, and civilians, on the other. As far as I can tell, this book does precisely what it says on the tin, so if that’s what you’re looking for, check it out.

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Mirrlees, Hope: Lud-in-the-Mist

Lud-in-the-Mist coverI’m going to be rereading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for starting in a couple of weeks [*], and to prepare for I’m doing a bit of research, posts about which will all be tagged as above. I started with Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist because Jo Walton said that JS&MN “is clearly written from an alternate universe where” it, not Lord of the Rings, was “the great fantasy-defining genre-starting book of the twentieth century, after Dunsany.”

[*] Though not, thankyouverymuch, chapter-by-chapter as I did for LotR and The Hobbit, since the precipitating factor here is the BBC TV adaptation which is expected to be out around the end of the year and JS&MN has 69 chapters.

So this was published in 1926 and is about a town that borders on Fairyland; but, we are told on the first page, “There had, however, been no intercourse between the two countries for many centuries.” This is, however, not accurate: not much later, the reader is told that fairy fruit is still readily available in the town, though its consumption is “regarded as a loathsome and filthy vice.” Trade in fairy fruit is part of what drives the plot. But more broadly, the book is about exposing the inaccuracy of that first statement: where JS&MN is about the return of magic, Lud-in-the-Mist is about the acknowledgement of magic that never actually left. (Well, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s a topic for the reread.)

This is a weird, weird book, partly in the way it portrays magic—where the weirdness is appropriate, because it’s meant to be discomfiting—and partly in the way its tone and plot don’t cohere by the end, which I regard as unfortunate. And indeed, I think it’s interesting to look at JS&MN as taking a very (very!) broadly similar plot arc as Lud-in-the-Mist and devoting much more effort to arguing that the resolution is just.

Speaking of justice, my second reaction after finishing (after “that was weird”) was, “no-one told me it was about law!” This is a book set after the merchants kicked out the aristocracy, who had looked upon fairy things with reverence; the merchants banned everything fairy, but they “substituted law for fairy fruit”: “fairy was delusion, so was the law. At any rate, it was a sort of magic, moulding reality into any shape it chose. But, whereas fairy magic and delusion were for the cozening and robbing of man, the magic of the law was to his intention and for his welfare.” (There’s even a trial late in the book, though the technicality that permits it would never fly these days.)

In terms of relevance to JS&MN, there’s a quote from about halfway through that’s the only thing I highlighted while I was reading: “Reality was beginning to become very shadowy and menacing.” While a bare-bones and unpoetic way of putting it, the way that the books write about magic, and its interaction with what we would call ordinary life, feel similar to me. There’s the similarity, on the very broadest plot levels, of the plots’ concerns: they are books of extremely different scope, but they’re ultimately about the proper place of magic in their societies. There’s also possibly a certain similar ironic tone in the omniscient narration, though I think that JS&MN‘s narrator is a bit warmer (I also can’t remember if Lud-in-the-Mist‘s narrator ever uses “I” instead of the occasional “we.”).

Anyway, worth reading, glad I did, but strange book and I’m not sure I actively recommend it. However, it is currently in print in the US as well as the UK, so it’s at least easy for people to give it a try. (The US ebook covers showing at Amazon and B&N are kind of hilariously wrong. I’m using the current UK cover here, which is sufficiently abstract that I have no idea what it’s depicting, but at least is pretty.)

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