Monday, April 23, 2012

Holiday reading: four reviews

I brought four books with me to New York. I've finished reading them, so I thought I'd write some short reviews. In the order that I read them:

In the Mouth of the Whale [2012], Paul McAuley

In the Mouth of the Whale is the third book in McAuley's Quiet War series. I have read the previous two (The Quiet War [2008] and Gardens of the Sun [2009]), and I didn't love them. So why did I bother to read the third one?

The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun were both very closely related. Same characters, with the action in the second basically picking up exactly where the first left off. In the Mouth of the Whale, however, jumped ahead something like 200 years, and moved the action out of our solar system to Fomalhaut, 25 light years away. I thought that was an interesting choice for the third book in the series, and that's why I decided to give it a go.

The book concerns three characters, and the ways in which their stories intersect with a war over Fomalhaut's gas giant. The Child is being raised in a post-catastrophic climate change Amazon, groomed for a mysterious future task. Ori, a genetically engineered slave, works on a scientific research station orbiting the gas giant, and gets swept up in the war to possess it. And Izak, a disgraced outcast who travels Fomalhaut clearing networks of viruses ("harrowing hells"), learns of a conspiracy threatening the Library of Worlds.

For the majority of this book, I felt like I'd finally found a Paul McAuley novel that I could love. It has all of the action and big ideas of good space opera, with more than a passing nod to real, or at least plausible, science. I particularly enjoyed the way McAuley imagined its virtual worlds; I think writers of far-future space operas often fail to consider the ways in which the genre's tropes are affected by digital technology.

Unfortunately, the last quarter or so of the book left me a little cold. It felt like an early draft. Like McAuley knew where he wanted to go, but wasn't entirely sure how to get there smoothly, and didn't have time to sort it out. The prose seemed less natural, with more info-dumps. It was a shame, because I enjoyed the rest of the book so much.

The Intuitionist [1999], Colson Whitehead

Unsurprisingly, this was the stand-out read in this batch. The Intuitionist is about Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector. Though it is never named, the setting is obviously meant to be New York (or perhaps some alternate-world version of New York?), late in the 19th century. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist; she inspects elevators by riding them, and getting a sense of how well they are operating. The opposite (dominant) school is the Empiricists, who inspect elevators by examining their machinery using the traditional tools of engineering.

The book begins with an elevator accident in one of Lila Mae's buildings. Before long, she's swept up in Department of Elevator Inspectors politics and the ideological war between the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. All of which is further complicated by hints that the father of Intuitionism, Fulton, may have invented the perfect elevator -- the "black box" -- before he died.

The Intuitionist was the most literary of the four novels reviewed here. It is rich with metaphor, particularly (although not exclusively) for social and racial progress. But it isn't only literary fiction. The plot has elements of a noirish mystery: dirty politics, organised crime and murky motivations. I'd also argue that the premise -- two warring philosophies in a powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors chasing the plans for the ideal elevator -- is quite science fictional. That's one of the things I love about it. You could read it all sorts of different ways.

It's not perfect. Sometimes I felt like Whitehead wasn't entirely in control, of his metaphors and his ideas. And, as I mentioned previously, I was occasionally distracted by the rhythm of the words. Nevertheless, I think this was a remarkable book. I'm very glad to have read it, and I think you should too.

The Kingdom of Gods [2011], N. K. Jemisin

This was also the third book in a series, called The Inheritance Trilogy. I enjoyed the first book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [2010], very much. Its sequel, The Broken Kingdoms [2010], was also very enjoyable, although I felt it lacked some of the flair of the first book. I feel exactly the same way about the third book, The Kingdom of Gods.

I honestly don't think I can summarise the plot of this book and have it make any sense to someone who hasn't read the first two. The Three, who are foremost of the gods, are central to the novels. At the beginning of the first book, everything is out of balance: Bright Itempas the Dayfather has slain Enefa, goddess of the earth, and imprisoned Nahadoth the Nightlord. The first book is concerned with redressing this imbalance. In the second, Itempas is attempting to atone for his sins. The third deals with the fallout of the conflict, when Sieh, trickster god and perpetual child, is somehow made mortal (and thus doomed to grow up).

And yet, those descriptions completely miss the point. The main characters in the first two books -- Yeine and Oree Shoth -- are mortals. They get caught up in the gods' lives, but neither is a passive participant. Jemisin writes powerful, interesting characters. Her endings are superb; they're never what I expect, and yet they manage to seem completely, naturally inevitable when they arrive. That makes for very satisfying reading.

In the first book, I particularly loved Jemisin's portrayal of the gods. They were flawed and complex, as befits any decent character, but I felt she also managed to really capture their alienness. As the series went on, I think that sense of alienness diminished. I'm not sure if that was something in Jemisin's writing, or if it was just my familiarity with them, but I felt it made the sequels slightly less compelling.

Having said all that, if you like fantasy at all, give The Inheritance Trilogy a go. My criticisms really are minor -- the good far, far outweighs the bad here, and it's rare that I'm still saying that three books into a fantasy series.

Undertow [2007], Elizabeth Bear

I have read three of Elizabeth Bear's science fiction novels -- the Jacob's Ladder series -- and I loved them very much. They were complex, fast-paced, and hugely inventive. I want to describe her prose as jagged; it's sometimes a bit challenging, but I really like it. I feel like I need to concentrate when I read her books, to keep track of everything, and that's a feeling I enjoy.

In many ways, Undertow was no different, except that somewhere about two-thirds of the way through I lost the thread. It might have been because there were too many characters (or too many forgettable names). Whatever the cause I could still follow the action, but I'd lost track of why it was happening. That made the reading a somewhat hollow exercise, and though I picked it up again by the end, it was too late.

Undertow is (blessedly) a stand-alone novel. It takes place on the damp colony planet Greene's World, and involves a revolution of the frog-like natives, a conspiracy inside the dominant Rim Charter Trade Company, an unusual use of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a few other things besides.

I couldn't tell you if the book's failing was in the writing, or my reading. My feeling is that Bear might have slightly overstretched with this one -- too many concepts and plots rubbing together, none of them given quite the time they needed to fully develop. Fortunately, it still contained enough of the things I love about Elizabeth Bear's writing that my enthusiasm for reading more of her work is undiminished.

Okay, so maybe those reviews weren't so short after all. I enjoyed all four books. The best of them was clearly The Intuitionist, although it was too engaging to make perfect holiday reading. The Kingdom of Gods was an excellent read too; my issues with it really have more to do with my feelings on sequels than the actual book. Both In the Mouth of the Whale and Undertow were flawed, but with plenty to keep me interested. You could do worse than read either.

I also read the first quarter of Deadline [2011] by Mira Grant -- nominee for this year's Best Novel Hugo -- but I've decided to abandon it. I might talk about why next time.

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