Holiday Leftovers: His Majesty's Dragon, The Ruby in the Smoke, By the Mountain Bound

Monday, December 28, 2009

Due to constraints on time and inspiration, Faithful Readers (all 6 of you),  in place of a long article on one book, here are some brief thoughts on other books I've read recently, that don't quite have enough to get their own article.  Plus, my camera is broken.

Naomi Novik, 2006

Sometimes I see a book that seems to say, "I was written just for you!"  This is one of those books. 

In sketchiest outline, the plot is a little bit like Eragon, (person imprints on dragon, life changes), if Eragon were any good.  And set in the Napoleonic Wars.  And starred a Naval captain.  The author is, like me, a great fan of both JRR Tolkien and Patrick O'Brian, and it comes through in the writing.

The protagonist, Captain Laurence, is a proud, hot-tempered man who clings to duty and responsibility when his life is turned upside-down.  His unexpected bond with Temeraire, a rare Chinese Dragon captured from a French ship, means that he must be transferred from the Navy to the more free-and-easy Aviator Corps.  Most of the book is about their transition: Laurence letting go of some of his assumptions, while refusing to budge on his principles, and the influence of Temeraire's growing practicality, curiosity and intelligence on both his handler and the other dragons.  Nothing too mind-blowing so far, but entertaining and well-written.

Now the super-cool part: Novik has taken ideas I've seen before and blended them in an awesome new way.  The handler has a special bond with the dragon, but in her world, to fight from dragonback on a large breed looks less like a knight on their noble steed, and more like a cross between the upper rigging of a ship and a heavily crewed biplane.  Someone is helping the dragon see the shape of the battle and understand what is best to do next, some people are shooting rifles at the closest enemy, some dropping bombs, some packing a bandage around an injury, one watching for signals, all strapped to the same dragon.  I love team-style warfare, whether ships, starships or dragons, and I think it's brilliant.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Philip Pullman, 1985

This book, on the other hand, looked as if it were written for me, but was disappointing.  16 year old Sally Lockhart is investigating the murder of her father in Victorian London, which sounds thrilling, but...isn't.  And yes, it's YA, but I've read plenty of good YA.

Aspects of this book were good, but it never felt all that exciting, even when characters' lives were in danger.  Sally's proficiency with math and business and no-nonsense style is fun, but not groundbreaking, the villain is underwhelming, and she sadly gets very little accomplished on her own as far as solving the mystery.  It was short, and not compelling, but may be okay as an intro to the time period for much younger readers.

3 Stars - A Good Book

Elizabeth Bear, 2009

This book was just... odd.  It's a prequel to a book I haven't read, (which apparently stars a character I really wanted to like, but just couldn't), it's a weird spin-off on Norse Mythology, and it kinda reads like a too-dramatic anime/manga might.  In other words, it was too long (despite being short), with enough endless angst and dragging of emotional feet to cause any tension to deflate into boredom.

It has the dubious distinction of containing the "safest" homosexual sex scene I've read, because apparently demi-gods' sexual energy is all magic and shiny and bound up in kissing, in which you transfer soul-stuff or something.  Uh...yeah.

It reminded me a little of Mists of Avalon, mostly for it's "inventive" spelling.  I had to check online to get reassurance that 'waelcyrge' = 'valkyrie'.  Not that it seems to matter.  There were a bunch of depressed immortals spatting/sparring/loving each other, possibly after the end of the world, but there are still human settlements, and they sort of protect them, or something, and then this super powerful chick arrives, and everybody's all freaked out, but it's kinda dumb, and then there's a really boring battle, and everyone dies.  Now you don't have to read it.  You're welcome.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Chronicles of Narnia

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis, 1954

(FYI, this is my goodreads review reposted for those of you who may have read it last year)
Fair Warning:
I am reading (in some cases, rereading) this as an adult, one who is most decidedly Not Christian, and somewhat against religious children's books. If that doesn't describe you, your mileage will obviously vary. The following is very long, as I sum up each book. Spoilers aplenty.

After seeing the new Prince Caspian movie last summer, I decided that, as a fan of both classic children’s literature and fantasy literature, I should really take another look at The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, I read what I considered to be “the good ones” of this series (Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, Caspian, Dawn Treader, Silver Chair) although the little I remember is mostly from the BBC TV specials.

Overall opinion: Any book with the default plot of “kids fall into fantasy world, proceed to defeat evil” is going to have at least some fans in the legions of kids who wish they could do just that. I enjoyed the ones I read as a child. Reading as an adult, the writing is weak, the characters thin, the plots thinner.

The more of these I read, the more I couldn’t stand the writing style. Sometimes speaking directly to the reader works, but most of the time here, I just find it hugely patronizing and distracting. The first time Lewis reminds his readers that it is "foolish" to shut oneself into a wardrobe, it's cute. The 5th? Less so.

Now, I’m going to sum up what I liked and didn’t like in each book. (Also note, these books are really short! Around 110 pgs each in the collected edition.)

The Magician’s Nephew:

Had some very pretty parts. The beginning was interesting, but this book seemed to do its level best to demystify the later adventures, and make all the magic more like science. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it felt out of tone with the books which were written earlier, but come chronologically later.

Best: The descriptions of the wood between the worlds, and Aslan sings the world into being.
Worst: Shoehorned in references to Lion/Witch/etc, making that book less cool.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Actually not awful, despite the whole creating out of the void and all.
Score: 2 stars out of 5

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

Classic. When I read this as a child, I completely missed the whole “Jesus” thing. What surprised me on rereading was that they spend, pretty much, one single day in Narnia before they fix everything. That’s kinda silly in my book.

Best: Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, Edmund and the White Queen. Santa brings them weapons.
Worst: And then, we won the battle... Lewis starts a grand tradition for him of all major action taking place ‘offstage’.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: You know what? After reading some of the later ones, I’m behind Jesus-the-Lion on this one.
Score: 3 stars

The Horse and His Boy:

And now, suddenly, we’re in the Arabian Knights. But no one who lives in Arabian Nights world is nice and kind and good like the people of Narnia... Eesh. I’m also confused, at this point, why there are huge human countries just off the borders of Narnia. I never got that implication that they were there before...Even the Telmarines in Prince Caspian are given a special explanation for how there happen to be Humans in Narnia. Note that this one was written fifth, after Lion, Caspian, Dawn Treader, and Silver Chair.

Best: Shasta and company sneaking into/around the big city is pretty well done.
Worst: Not only is the person who doesn’t treat you well not your father, you’re a prince! Yay! Not a surprise, and not interesting.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Throughout, Aslan "secretly" helps them escape to Narnia by scaring them, appearing as a friendly cat, etc. A pretty wussy power set, overall. This is the Son of the Emperor-etc-whatever? What, do your powers only work in Narnia, all of a sudden? Ironically, this is almost more annoying than his super mega powers in other books.
Score: 1 star

Prince Caspian:
Okay, first off, all the cool scenes in the movie? Not here. Most of the lame scenes in the movie? Also not here. Clearly it was adapted in the loosest sense. Caspian spends his time joyously capering with the good folk of Narnia, and then they get in trouble, and call some kids. Kids bring Aslan, he fixes it. Huh.

Best: Peter’s hysterically funny letter to Miraz. Seriously. And mice who kill soldiers. They’re cool.
Worst (Sort of): Downright weirdest part is that when the Earth kids finally get to Caspian, where he’s fighting off armies and such, the boys get to go help fight. Not that it makes a huge difference, since Aslan sends the trees to scare the Telmarines away "almost before the Old Narnians had really warmed to their work". The girls, on the other hand, get to take a nap, and then dance with Aslan and Bacchus and his Maenads (Wha-Huh?!?) all over Narnia, freeing people to be happy, and turning nasty little boys into pigs and nasty men into trees and such. I kid you not. One little girl is brave enough not to run away and "The Maenads…whirled her around in a merry dance, and helped her take off some of the unnecessary and uncomfortable clothes that she was wearing." I could not make this up.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Subtext of the Lucy/Aslan scene is basically the same as the movie: If you really trusted/believed, you wouldn’t care what your family thinks, you’d trust me... Creepy...
Score: 3 stars

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:

I have fond memories of this one, but it was awful. Like Gulliver’s travels, but with Jesus. They go to an island and get into trouble due to a magical thingy. Aslan bails them out. Rinse. Repeat. Oh, and then they sail to the end of the world.

Best: Lucy and the Magician’s book. A pretty decent scene, if somewhat overly moralizing.
Worst: Whole thing deadly dull. No Plot.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: All of them.
Score: 1 star

The Silver Chair:
Lovely after the dreck that was the Dawn Treader. Aslan gives two kids a quest, they mess up some, but mostly get out of it on their own, overall a good solid adventure story.

Best: Adventure in the Giant’s House is predictable, but good. Scene with the ensorcelled Prince. Jill and Eustace terrorize their school bullies with swords.
Worst: Almost anytime Aslan butts in. He’s out of tone in this one. Happily, he’s barely in it.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: See above.
Score: 3 stars

The Last Battle:
This was just... odd. I already had heard the plot, but it was just weird. An Ape sets up a false Idol Aslan to make himself rich and important, the Arabian folks we last saw in Horse and His Boy show up to conquer Narnia with the Ape’s help, the King totally fails to stop them, and then Aslan shows up to end the world. It was just... that. Also King Tirian has a very special relationship with a unicorn, and as a side note, all the characters are dead and in joint Earth/Narnia Heaven. Whatever.

Best: King Tirian and Eustace and Jill sneaking around the countryside.
Worst: The number of things in this book described as indescribable was pretty annoying. Also, Susan can’t go to joint Earth/Narnia Heaven because she grew up and likes boys. I can understand that with Neverland, but really, now.
Most Annoying Jesus-the-Lion Moment: Aslan has a heart to heart with an Arabian, I mean Calormene, and is told that all the good stuff he (and anyone) ever did in the name of his Calormene god was actually done for Aslan, and all the bad stuff for his god. Oh dear.
Score: 1 star (Not actively bad, just dull)

Even trying to put aside the heavy handed preachifying, I probably wouldn’t read these again, or give them to my hypothetical future kids. Okay, maybe The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Only, however, along with books I prefer, like The Wind in the Willows (better talking animals), Peter Pan (better plot, characters, and themes) and 
The Just So Stories (better use of narration).

Overall: 2 Stars - An Okay Book 

By Heresies Distressed

Monday, December 14, 2009

By Heresies Distressed
David Weber, 2009
Vaguely Spoiler-y for the trend of the series and events of the book.

Impossibly likable protagonists, creepy fanatical killers, six-legged lizards and a history lesson.  It could only be the latest from David Weber...

This is the third one in the “Safehold” series, which I've previously described as Arthurian legend meets Protestant Reformation plus alternate Industrial Revolution...IN SPACE.  (Even though the IN SPACE part is mostly theoretical, more like IN THE FUTURE ON A DISTANT WORLD.)

The third volume is better than the second, but still prone to brain-twisting naming conventions.  Conventions arrived at by (I presume) postulating what modern Earth names might look like after being wrung through the generations during 800 years of medieval society.  It turns out he's gone so far on that continuum, that he's come out the other end at fantasy names with too many Y's.  (Byrtrym?  Really?  Just call the man Bertram and be done with it.)

More action than the last one, dealing with larger problems, but still ramping up for actual conflict.  I can't decide whether I'd rather Weber come up with something to actually challenge Merlin (main protagonist), or whether I'm happy with the current (slight) limitations on his/her power.  Weber's very good at writing villains who make me feel ill, and the psychotically hypocritical, fanatically blinded, rabid, power-mad Grand Inquisitor is par for the course.  I'm often happy to give protagonists who counter these guys any advantage they require, and hang balanced story-telling.  I did end up feeling uneasy at the end of this book.  Weber pulls off some scary scenes, but nothing devastating, and having read plenty of his other work, I know that he is fully capable of devastating.  I'm left with the sense that the protagonists have to have a huge set-back in the next one, and that looming danger makes me unhappy.  The “good guys” have too many advantages, and that can't last.

I like that he highlighted again the dichotomy between Merlin's body and the mind inside, played to good comedic effect in Book One.

This volume may have focused on fewer characters, or possibly just didn't introduce any new ones, which helped the narrative feel more manageable.  There were some early on chapters where I had no idea what was going on, but I came back up to speed pretty quick.

I don't inherently object to a list of characters in the back, but these books would be much better off with a recap prologue, or, actually really useful would be a list of characters that INCLUDES their allegiances (at least as of the start of the book). 

For example:
Meaningless Collection of Letters: Bishop of City: not useful. 
MCoL: Bishop of City, secretly agent of X, worked with Y and Z, previously had A and B killed: useful.

Also the index needs a cross-reference, so when I start a chapter with Lord NameofProvince and his friend Lord NameofCity, and later there's dialogue between Mike and Jim (Or Myke and Jyym), I'll be able to remember that these are the same people.

But overall an enjoyable read nonetheless.  I had been skeptical after Book Two, but now I'll definitely keep reading to see what happens next.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Animal Society: Just the Stats, Ma'am

Monday, December 7, 2009

As you probably noticed, I like books. I also like lists.  So, for your reading amusement (and not just because I'm super-busy this week), I'm wrapping up the Animal Society Theme with a quick statistical-ish comparison of the six books I read.

Reviews, in case you missed 'em:

Wind in the Willows
The Rescuers
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Mouse Guard
Watership Down

Stats Away!

Continuum of Anthropomorphism:

Extremely human-like society
Wind in the Willows
The Rescuers
Mouse Guard
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Watership Down 
Slightly human-like

Positions on various species:

Weasels are jerks, along with all their kin
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Mouse Guard

Cats are bastards
The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down

Rats are evil
Redwall, Watership Down

Rats are great!
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Wind in the Willows

Birds?  They're okay
Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down, Wind in the Willows

Nope.  Birds are bastards too
Mouse Guard

Primary Protagonists are 90% mammalian

100% mammalian?
Mouse Guard, The Rescuers

100% mammalian or avian?
Mouse Guard, The Rescuers, Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down

So Toad stands alone, huh?
Pretty much


Animals are British:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Watership Down, Mouse Guard?  (Rabbits have British accents)

Other European?
The Rescuers

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

To be fair, does that exactly match the nationalities of the authors?
Well, yes, except that Margery Sharp is British but very vague as to where her books take place...

Homo Sapiens:

Animals understand humans:
Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Animals talk to, understood by, humans:
Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers

Narrator relates human speech, even though characters don't understand it:
Watership Down

What's a hu-man?
Redwall, Mouse Guard


Animals brandish artificial weaponry:
Redwall, Mouse Guard, Wind in the Willows, The Rescuers (sort of)

Animals wear clothes:
Same list.  Huh.

Live in holes in the ground:
Watership Down, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

Live in hidden places that are well appointed inside:
Mouse Guard, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Rescuers, Wind in the Willows

Live in explicitly human-type dwellings:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, The Rescuers (Miss Bianca and her Porcelain Pagoda)

Animal-Animal Relations:

Animals think nothing of making friends outside their own species:
Wind in the Willows, Redwall

Animals think twice about making friends outside their own species, but it does happen:
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Watership Down, The Rescuers

Animals try to keep to themselves:
Mouse Guard

Is it Cannibalism if...?

Fish are not mammals, therefore they do not speak and we can eat them!
Wind in the Willows, Redwall, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (although it seems less weird in the latter)

Ultimate Goal of Society (More or Less):

Wind in the Willows: Good Food, True Friends, Messing around in Boats.
The Rescuers: … Rescuing people?  Well run meetings, Duty to the 'Greater Good'(TM).
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Survive, thrive, keep superpowers firmly under wraps...for now...
Redwall: Defend nice people.  Only stab bad guys, but don't worry, they'll identify themselves.
Mouse Guard: Crush your enemies, See them driven before you...
Watership Down: Live in (relative) safety, Help one another.  Tell Stories, Make baby rabbits.

Regular Book Write-ups return next week, or earlier if circumstances allow.