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Books Read, Some Not Recently

In December and over the holidays I read a number of Damon Runyon's short stories collected in The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1981). A writing giant of the 1930's, Runyon has a wonderfully distinctive fictional voice and smashing comedic timing.

A coworker lent me Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (1983), which is a brick-long love story to New York City, in the mode of magical realism. Thief and mechanic Peter Lake breaks with his gang, the Short Tails, and while on the run from their deadly vengeance finds a - I kid not - a magical white horse, and breaks into a mansion where he meets and falls in love with a consumptive dying heiress, Beverly Penn (who ticks off some kind of Etherial Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, if I could just remember which one, or five). Penn drags Peter to meet her family in semi-mythical Lake of the Cooheries, a Dutch upstate township that isn't quite in synch with local time. After getting the bemused family approval of her sketchy squeeze, Penn dies, Peter is cornered by the Short Tails, and jumps off a bridge into a Magic Cloud Wall (see: magical realism), sans horse, that eventually dumps him in 1999. Meanwhile, Virginia Gamely, a Cooheries resident, and Hardesty Marratta, the son of a San Francisco millionaire, go to work for the Penn newspaper empire (still thriving, in the late '90s) (remember this was written in 1983!), all of which comes together in a sweeping legendary winter of cold and snow and madness and light, at the turn of the millennium, to hurl New York into a golden age. Justice may be involved. Or innocence. Or something. The writing focuses on stuffing every possible shimmering evocative turn of prose into the story, with less fuss about where the story's going. The lyrical prose reminds me slightly of Catherynne Valente, with a generous bye for publication in another era, and being a little less a list of Writing Choices Not My Thing. In The Winter's Tale, the winning entries for Not My Thing are Peter and Beverly's romance, and Beverly's ethereal characterization (too good, too pure for this world, bordering on out of touch with consensus reality). Beverly is the woman on a pedestal, and the women in general are a bit unreal, but... so are the men.

(There's a movie that has been roundly panned. Which you can see coming from the twee conventional romantic trailer. You can't squeeze 800 pages and all of new New York City, in two time periods, into two hours.)

It's a hot mess and I like it. The plot is a mess with absurd resolution, when any thread resolves at all, and the prose is over the top, and it doesn't matter, it's so bizarre it takes the reader right out of the world into the world of the story.

I tripped and reread Martha Wells' Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy (2004-2005), some of the Ile-Rien and Cineth short stories collected in an ebook in 2015. It's hard to succinctly talk about why I enjoy these so much. I love the way The Wizard Hunters drops the reader into the troubles Ile-Rien and Cineth face and gets the multiworld ensemble working together against their common enemies, and against the frictions individual characters face with "their" people. The Ships of Air develops the cultural blind spots both sides discover alongside a breakneck action plot. The Gate of Gods almost sticks the landing; there's a lot of landing to stick (Tremaine and Ilias! The reason for the Gardier invasions! Giliead and sorcery! Ixion! Florian and Ixion! What's going to happen to Arisilde! And oh yes, defeating the Gardier.)

And there is snark. So much snark and sarcastic humor.

"It's a grend," Tremaine explained, keeping her voice low. "It's got Gerard trapped."

"You saw him?" she demanded. "What's a grend?"

"A big... thing." Tremaine flapped her arms in a vague gesture. "We didn't see him, but he's got to be there. If it had already eaten him, surely it wouldn't still be hanging around."

Florian stared, taken aback. "You know, when you're optimistic you have a strange way of phrasing things."

Then I read The Death of the Necromancer (1998) for the first time. The Death of the Necromancer is set a generation earlier, focusing on the adventures of the previous generation as Nicholas Valiarde's attempt to avenge his foster-father's murder is derailed by someone else's plot, one that smells of banned magics. One of the joys of The Death of the Necromancer is seeing Nicholas surrounded by characters in his weight class. Co-conspirators Madeleine and Reynard have their own histories, ambitions, and agency - Madeleine's particular defiance of family tradition plays a role, as do Reynard's disavowed military connections - and mad brilliant drug-addled Ari, repeatedly called the greatest or most powerful sorcerer in Ile-Rien, is least as much a problem as a sorcerous help. I love the sense of place the descriptions of Vienne evoke. I also like Inspector Ronsarde and Doctor Halle, whose antecedents are fairly obvious and I do not care at all.

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Being the latest in the Vorkosiverse, this time focusing on Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and her burning desire for six daughters; and also the start of a post-Aral romantic relationship with Admiral Oliver Jole, who has some life decisions of his own to make.

The e-ARC hit my smartphone on October 21st of last year, and I wasn't able to bring myself to open the book until March, when time and the tenor of other readers' spoiler-cuts had given some hints about how to adjust my expectations. Which is good, because it's Mirabile! It's a fluffy lighthearted Janet Kagan Mirabile, but in the mid-2010's, rather than the early 1990's, starring Vicereine Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan and Admiral Oliver Jole as Annie and Leo. But with a lot more debate about babies than the (de)merits of the kangaroo rex. The pacing is relaxed, almost fluid, with a lot of interior questioning about do I do this, what goal do I set rather than how do I do this thing I really really want. The poly threesome retcon is certainly going to throw some readers for a loop. The polyamory I can wrap my head around, but the age gap and inherent power imbalance in screwing your military secretary has me sticking my fingers in my ears, trying to pretend the math isn't hitting my antipathy for May-December romances.

I'm not on board with the Baby Train. Daughters for Cordelia, okay, she's always pined to raise children, especially the girls, in as nontoxic an environment as the Barrayaran Empire would permit. That's a logical extrapolation from canon. But... sons for Jole? There's very little canon to build on, but I'd like a bit more foundation built for "childless 49 year old who sends 'married to career' vibes sees next birthday roaring up, decides three 20 year projects and retirement are in order."

It's a very nice novel, with a lot of small touches to like. But there's a focus on biological legacy as the legacy that counts which I'm side-eyeing. If it were just Cordelia, okay, that's a characterization choice, but it's not. This goes back to Ethan of Athos, with Ethan grousing about sons and Terrence Cee determined to have Janine's babies. It's in every novel Lois has ever written where discussing offspring is at all appropriate to the context. (There's a few Miles stories where this is less evident. Borders of Infinity, for example, where two of the three stories are about prison breaks. Of course, the third story in the collection is about justice for infanticide...) I'm trying to make sense of author comments like:

I had thought for a while that Cryoburn would be the last book—ending the series, as it began, with the life of Aral Vorkosigan. Fan after fan wanted to know what happened next with Miles, although I thought the answer was plain: He settles down to shoulder the adult work that he's been shaped all his life to carry, walking the walk. But it gradually occurred to me that while Miles's life constricted upon his father's death, Cordelia's opened out; and, furthermore, the SFnal [science-fictional] setting gave her a vastly larger array of choices than a woman in our world would have.(source)

Some choices open up to Cordelia, on Aral's death... maybe it's a case where the author feels she's Made The Point (that Cordelia accepted certain restrictions as part of the Aral Vorkosigan package) and now the author is ready to focus on new ideas.

But there's also the very tart point that came up in Komarr, where Ekaterin muses that a decade at eighty doesn't feel like an equivalent exchange for a decade at twenty. Wider array of choices notwithstanding, it's not the same choices at 80 as at 20. A reflection that seems especially on-point for someone considering parenting. At 50, Barrayaran Jole might expect to live through his 70's or 80's, or even into his 90's, but for how many of those years will he have the energy to wrangle toddlers, kids, teenagers, as a single parent? It's fine to say, I want kids, but what about the logistics of raising them?

There's my other feeling that the text pays some lip-service to the merits of leaving your legacy in a non-babies way, but consistently treats the biological legacy as the one that really matters. Where are Cordelia's strings of mentees, to carry on her legacy? Mentioned, offscreen, maybe, but not given the screen-time her grandkids receive. What about Jole's legacy of well-trained officers as a counterweight to possible sons? It's implicit in his interactions with Kaya Vorinnis and the birthday party sequence, but not given the explicit on-screen time that, say, the lost possibility of a fourth son receives.

I think what's missing in Jole are those pointed reflections on trade-offs. Age. Energy. Time. Choice. Power to direct your life. The things you didn't want until you lost one-fourth of the possibility. The esteem of your society. More status, or more titles, don't necessarily correlate with getting what you want, or what you need, or finding happiness. It's a theme that's colored the series since the very first novel, when Aral almost refused the regency; or when Miles created a mercenary admiral out of glitter and misdirection, and lost Elena and Bothari. It's Crown Princess Kareen captured by Vordarian, it's Cordelia's pressure on Mark and Kareen for more grandkids. (Dear Mark, and Kareen: good for you for resisting!) That tension is present in Jole, but it's not developed into the thematic backstop that would help the A-plot cohere with the various C-plots (there is no one thread so prominent I'd call it a B-plot) into a resonant whole. I'm not feeling that satisfaction of a really moving book, so but I also suspect I'm not the target audience for this story. I'm curious to see how Jole holds up on a future reread. But... maybe far in the future, when I've aged into another audience.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/662064.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.