Over the last few months I seriously fell off the horse when it came to keeping track of my reading. So this covers December and January, but only the things I can recall reading — which isn’t very much.
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu. I know this one ate quite a lot of December, because BRICK.
I . . . really, really wanted to like it. Epic fantasy, drawing on Chinese epic tradition! Sign me up. I was totally there for the worldbuilding and the character archetypes and the nature of the plot. And, courtesy of comments I’d seen elsewhere on the internet, I was prepared for (though not pleased by) the fact that the first half of the book has virtually no women playing significant roles, because I knew that there would be more showing up in the remaining pages. As indeed there are! But anybody without that advance warning would be justified in thinking that the only women in the story would be helpful wives, distant goddesses, or deeply problematic seductresses, so I can’t really say the second half justifies the first.
But the real problem for me was the style. It read a lot like an old epic — too much so. I fundamentally did not care about any of the characters, because the text never let me get close enough to any of them to form an emotional attachment. The style is incredibly distant, telling instead of showing, often spending more time narrating to you what is happening than letting you experience it. Let me give an example — it’ll be a spoiler, but (for reasons I’ll explain in a moment) not much of one. If you’d prefer to avoid it, though, just skip the next paragraph.
So there’s a plot thread involving one of the few early female characters, who has been blackmailed by an enemy general into working for him. We don’t see her arrive in the lands of the rebels — that part I’m okay with, since it isn’t as important as what she does when she gets there. Once established among the rebels, she manipulates two men into falling in love with her: an uncle and a nephew, who have been inseparable for the nephew’s entire life. (These are major characters in the book; the nephew is essentially co-protagonist with another guy.) Once both of them are besotted with her, she plays off their jealousy, using it to create a rift between them, until they become wholly estranged and the uncle sends the nephew away at a critical moment when he needed to be present. Then she murders the uncle and commits suicide.
From beginning to end, this entire thing takes about sixteen pages.
Fully a quarter of which is spent on that last sentence, actually; the rest gets crammed into twelve pages, where it shares space with other things going on in the plot. We the readers are told that both of these guys have fallen in love with her. We’re told that they’re jealous. We get little snippets of actual interaction, a few paragraphs here and there, which present us with emotion (love! jealousy! anger!) the narrative hasn’t actually earned. I don’t consider this to be a spoiler because I don’t feel like there’s an experience to spoil; it feels more like me giving away the ending to a historical account of the Duke of Buckingham’s assassination. I majored in folklore; I’ve read a great many epics from different parts of the world, and can deal with that kind of arm’s-length approach. It is not, however, what I’m looking for in a novel. The sweeping scope of The Grace of Kings is impressive, but it only fits into one book because so many of the elements of modern fiction have been squeezed out. The result is that I found myself pronouncing the Eight Fatal Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.” I finished the book, but have no motivation to pick up the sequel. Which is a pity, because I was so excited for the first one.
Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones. I don’t remember where I heard of this one; it’s an ebook that’s been sitting on my tablet for ages. Normally when I call something “Ruritanian fantasy,” what I mean is that it’s set in a secondary world, but has no magic (e.g. Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books). In this case, however, I mean that it’s set in the fictional European country of Alpennia, but has magic. I suspect that Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword are among its literary ancestors, as one of the two protagonists, Barbara, is a woman trained as an armin (bodyguard) and duelist for an eccentric Baron. The other heroine, Margerit, unexpectedly inherits the Baron’s estate upon his demise — including Barbara, who was his property. The plot is moderately complex, involving the question of why he named his goddaughter his heir and why he failed to free Barbara as he promised (and why he owned her and trained her in the first place), running alongside a strand wherein Margerit begins to study the “mysteries” (sacred magic) and investigate why they no longer work the way they should. Overall it came together in a reasonably satisfying way, and Jones has a pleasingly solid grasp of the social politics of a nineteenth-century-type world: Margerit can’t just go “la, who cares” and blow off her obligations without consequence, however much she may want to. Plus, lesbian romance, which I know would be a selling point for many of my blog readers. :-)
Phoenix, Stephen Brust. Still working my way slowly through these. I liked Vlad’s interactions with the Empress: they struck a nice balance between the formal ceremony that accompanies such a role, and showing the Empress as a human being (well, for the contested values of “human” that apply in this setting). I’m also pleased, though not surprised, to see Brust follow through on what he began in an earlier book, with Vlad questioning his role in the Jhereg and his chosen livelihood of murdering people for money. I have no idea whether that was planned from the start, or whether Brust got a couple of books in, looked at his assassin hero, and reconsidered how good of an idea that really was, but either way it’s nice to watch the change percolate through the narrative. Where it goes in the long run . . . well, that will be interesting to see. “Phoenix stone” felt like a bit of handwavium to me, but I’d love to see more exploration of what pre-Empire sorcery was like, and how the Interregnum changed the way sorcery worked.