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2016 Reading

I think it's time to admit I am never cleaning up any of the 2016 book log, post, and move on.

League of Dragons (2016) (Naomi Novik): The concluding novel in the Temeraire series. Napoleon is finally finished off, various disputes are disposed of, and Temeraire and Iskierka's egg hatches.

It's important to note that I read Bujold at a formative age, so I am often puzzled when a romance ends without everyone getting partnered off and having babies. So it's just now hitting me that the series isn't just sort of in the romance genre, this is romance: man meets dragon, man and dragon form lifelong emotional bond, all their friends and some of their enemies get paired off in the sequels. Babies are peripheral, and often either Great Trouble (see Harcourt) or Precocious Darlings (see Ning... sort of. Ning also may qualify for Great Trouble).

It's kind of stunning to realize I've been reading these novels for a decade. So my feelings about the series wrapping are colored by that emotion. The novels have not always been brilliant, but they've generally been entertaining. Novik does fantastic action sequences, and has a knack for setting up memorable scenes that's grown over the course of the series. Comparing the first time Temeriare uses the divine wind to the arrival of the Tswana dragons in League of Dragons</em>, or to Temeraire's entrapment by the Russians shows how much that talent's been developed.

Characterization wise, I've never quite come to grips with Laurence's emotional arc, but I see that in 2006 I wrote, Laurence isn't going to admit to having an emotion until he's on the duelling grounds, holding a smocking pistol and wondering why the other guy isn't getting up, and where did all the bullets go? So, saw that coming.

The worldbuilding is interesting, but I'm not sure it's rigorous? The premise looks like "Napoleonic war with dragons" but Europe is the theater least impacted by the "with dragons" worldbuilding. I would be very curious to see a novel set in North America, where dragons seem to have had some wrenching effects on attempts at European colonization.

Uprooted (Naomi Novik) (2015): Reread, picked up for plane distract during an October vacation. It's very likeable, even if it feels like it's trying to be three novels. It's three novels I'm happy to read! Not The Chosen Girl is a good story, Fairy Tales Meet Realpolitik has its moments, Young Woman Defeats Ancient Evil is good times. The only thing I don't like is the romance, because there's a point where your mixed feelings about the older mentoring wizard and his relationship with the younger witch in training run smack into your memories of Harry Potter fandom and you want to gouge your eyes out, because student/teacher has never ever been your thing, and that's... not how the author feels.

Necessity (Jo Walton) (2016): The concluding novel of Walton's Thessaly trilogy. Pytheas of the City, aka the god Apollo in mortal form, dies on the same day the Platonic cities are contacted by other humans. Somehow, the humans become the least of anyone's troubles, as Apollo learns the goddess Athena has disappeared. The protagonists of Necessity get involved in the recontact and the search for Athena during a narratively very busy period.

What a genre mash-up! Aliens, time travel, gods and goddesses, Platonic and Socratic philosophy, all come together in Necessity.

It's odd that the series was initiated by Apollo's fundamental incomprehension of Dephne's refusal of his intentions, and ends with Hermes being told off to have sex with Marsillia and father Alkippe. It's not exactly glossed over, but it's shoved aside in the wrap-up.

Bring Down the Sun (Judith Tarr) (2008): Swag bag freebie. A novel of Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, mixing history and fantasy. Olympia, known by various names as she departs from the path of an alcolyte to a fading Goddess religion to pursue power, magic, and lustful romance among the politics of Epirus and Macedonia.

Holy erotica, Batman! Tarr mixes history, fantasy, and romance in a short novel. Olympias wrestles with the dark magic of Thessaly's witches, learns about political power, struggles to understand and master her magical gifts, and meets and marries Philip of Macedon. A slight novel in word count, the mix of setting and genres is an interesting study in satisfying divergent trope demands. The tensions of those demands sometimes make the characters a bit wooden, and the length contributes a sketchy feeling to the worldbuilding, elements which keep the novel a bit slight in impact.

A Darker Shade of Magic (V. E. Schwab) (2015):

INTERNET BUZZ: It's a fantasy novel about London, written by a YA novelist.
ME: Meh.
INTERNET: It's got a multiverse.

The multiverse is three linked universes, conveniently color-coded. Our protagonist, Kell, was born in Red London, rich in magic. His adoption into the royal family is linked to his status as an antari, one of the vanishingly rare blood magicians capable of moving between the worlds. He travels between unmagical Gray London, which looks an awful lot like Regency London, and White London, where magic is desperately sought and ruthlessly controlled. Once upon a time there was a fourth London, but it was overwhelmed by ravenous magic. In Kell's time, Black London is a nightmare story, but its power is barred and locked away.

Our other protagonist is Delilah Bard, thief and gutter rat, who really, really wants to be a pirate. Delilah and Kell collide when Lilah pickpockets a Black London relic forced on Kell, which at best threatens the balance of power between the Londons and at worst could spread Black London's fate.

I really like it when a novel makes me think about the human condition, or stretches my mind in some way. A Darker Shade of Magic struck me as light entertaining, without much ambition to bend the mind. There might be something interesting going on with Kell and Rhys, but I wasn't sucked into Kell's mixed feelings about the royal family, not enough to be really riveted by the mess with the soul-bond. I am trope-savvy enough that I am disappointed Kell used a dying antari to do a thing, with the assumption that Holland is going to die and take himself out of the picture. It's also Very Suspicious that Delilah has a glass eye - the living eye being lost in childhood - when the mark of a world-walking blood magician is a funny-looking eye. The worldbuilding could use a few more rounds, too. Why London as the navel of the world? What about, oh, anywhere but London? Is there a Red Portland, Maine? A Lagos scrambling for the dregs of magic? On a petty note, the virulent spread of the Black London possession magic was a little too unstoppable to get past my suspension of disbelief. The emotional highs and gory lows should have compelled my attention, but instead I found myself disengaging to poke at the underpinnings. The multiverse conceit is interesting, but I might have liked this more if I'd been able to accept the rest of the premise without so many questions about whether it could hold up to the narrative promises.

Penric's Mission (Lois McMaster Bujold) (2016): Third in the Penric series. Penric and the demon of chaos he's named Desdemona fail miserably at espionage and succeed at healing another character caught up by intrigue. The first two Penric stories are not required to understand this short novel, but they're fun reading. I think this could have used one more editing pass, to balance some of the events between the end of the last story and the start of this one, unless I was supposed to think, "well, that offstage crisis was not in-clued".

The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (Anne Fadiman) (1997 / 2012): Nonfiction account that places miscommunication between one set of doctors and parents in the larger forces of Hmong experience and immigration. In the 2012 edition's new afterward, Fadiman writes: I hope The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down is settling into its proper place not as the book about the Hmong but as a book about communication and miscommunication across cultures. That's very much the light in which I read this. And in that light, I found it an easy, clear read. Fadiman takes pains to explain to readers the historic and cultural contexts that drove Lia Lee's parents decisions, balanced against the more familiar medical imperatives driving her doctors.

Death's End (Liu Cixin, trans. Ken Liu, 2010/2016) HOLY SCIENCE FICTION MADNESS. This is serious end of the world times. End of the universe times.

Ye Wenjie did not show up out of cryo to be the boss of everyone, sadly. Instead the trilogy backtracks to the early Crisis era to follow astrophysicist Cheng Xin through several flavors of time dilation (hibernation, near-C travel, hanging out in a custom mini universe) as she makes a series of well-intentioned but strategically disastrous choices. Luo Ji comforts the young woman by telling her she has made the choices that let humans remain human, in the kill-or-be-killed-or-hide-in-terror universe Liu posits in the trilogy, and she shouldn't be so hard on herself for choosing love over pragmatism. This is a sweet thought in a novel that wipes out Trisolaris, then Earth, then intimates the possibility of reunion between Cheng Xin and love-from-afar Yun Tianming just long enough to get your hopes up, and then brutally smashes this gasp at happiness, and then Yun Tianming builds Cheng Xin a miniverse where she can hang out until the next Big Crunch and then start over in a better universe, except it turns out that other people have had the same idea and raided so much material from the universe it won't crunch unless everyone gives it back (and even then it's kind of a maybe). This is Depressing Territory (tm).

Because of the structure, the time-jumps all the way back to the beginning of the trilogy, and billions of years into the future, I wonder if this could have been a standalone novel. But I think the structure of discovery and different human reactions to the wider universe require the larger canvas. The lens of characters doesn't match organically with the final message of the series, I think. The series, in its final volume, has a strong strain of love in the face of an indifferent universe; to borrow and mix a metaphor, a heart of flesh in a universe that is indifferent to whether the heart is flesh or stone. All that matters is whether it's hidden or visible. Either way, someone will take a shot at that heart.

It's one of the big themes: does love triumph over death. And now I think I have an inkling of why this was such a hit in China.

I made a sincere attempt to read Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning (2016) based on promising reviews and made it all of two pages before losing empathy for the narrative voice.

This entry cross-posted at http://ase.dreamwidth.org/677503.html, where there are comment count unavailable comments.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 29th, 2017 08:41 pm (UTC)
I lost interest in Termeraire somewhere around the fourth or fifth book, whichever one it was when they were sent into exile. Did it get better?
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