The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Linda and I usually agree about fiction, but this turned out to be an exception. Linda thought the characters were unlovable and rudderless. I think that’s the point.

Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn boy with good grades and plenty of troubles, all small. He goes to his Princeton interview and receives instead an offer of admission to Brakebills, the secretive upstate New York college of magic. Naturally, he accepts at once, leaving behind Brooklyn, his parents, and his childish, fannish enthusiasms. Brakebills is Hogwarts refracted through realism, a contemporary college filled with real kids who fight with each other, sleep together, and gain surprisingly sophisticated tastes in liquor.

At Brakebills, we soon find ourselves thrown together with a rambunctious red-haired pal and a preternaturally smart, shy young woman, and it doesn't take us seven thousand pages for the the redhead to punch Quentin in the face or for the girl to take him to bed.

The backdrop of The Magicians is Fillory, which is to say Narnia. Everyone at Brakebills has read it and seen through its allegory. They’ve also read Lord of The Ring and nearly everything else in sight, though not His Dark Materials, which gets an occasional nod but which is working Grossman’s side of the street. If Philip Pullman’s trilogy is an emphatic, passionate refutation of Narnia, The Magicians shrugs its shoulders, accepts why we might once have rather liked it, and claims to have left all that behind. Still, it keeps coming up.

Quentin’s girlfriend, Alice, is drawn superbly and concisely, a wonderful example of that old writerly magic pioneered by another Alice: to make us love a character, give her no inner life and let everyone else love her.

Washington Post | New Yorker | NY Times |

March 4, 2011 (permalink)

Connie Willis

Half of a novel, Connie Willis’s Blackout ends at an arbitrary midpoint so its sequel, All Clear can begin.

It’s 2060. Time travel works. Every day, young historians set out from an overworked Oxford lab to witness times past. Some study the Crusades, some study Rome, but our protagonists are observing the home front in Britain in the early years of the Second World War. One plans to interview Dunkirk refugees, another will mind children evacuated from London to the countryside, a third plans to spend a few weeks as a London shopgirl during the blitz. The war at home is told well, though this is familiar territory and Sarah Waters’ Night Watch is tighter and more focused.

These time-travelling historians are strangely ill-prepared and incurious. They know a lot about their specific assignment – implants and memorization tell them exactly when the air raid sirens will go off and where the bombs will hit each day – but their grasp of the course of the war outside their assignment is often vague. None seems to have much passion for history or much interest in the twentieth century. Neither the characters nor the author show sufficient anxiety for the many small things that everyone knew in the past but no historian would be likely to anticipate. One historian is going to serve as a housemaid to Lady Caroline: does she know how to do all the things a housemaid would? What kind of soap do you use when washing the windows? At what hour (and on which day of the week) do servants bathe? How do you trim a wick or shine a shoe?

Our heroes seem chiefly interesting in confirming facts and impressions from their textbooks. This seems wasteful: even if the Temporal Continuum keeps you from changing important things, and that means you can’t actually get close to Great Events that change everything, there are tons of details about how people lived that we simply don’t know about, things that everyone knew then but no one knows anymore. In ancient Rome, where did the slaves sleep? We have no idea at all. Every Roman child, free or slave, knew the answer. But in all our surviving stories and histories and letters, no one happens to mention where you’d find your secretary or cook in the middle of the night.

Even for quite recent times, there are lots of things we don’t know because they require comparisons that contemporaries – even surviving contemporaries – couldn’t make but that any graduate student could easily handle. Go back to London or New York or Chicago in 1910 for a few days, and you could find out all sorts of stuff we don’t know:

  • What was tenement life really like? We have the good memories and the bad memories and the details and the statistics. There’s much more to know. Lots of things – the smell of Old Paris, or (for that matter) all those kids necking in Parisian parks – they’re gone now. What else are we going to be forgetting?
  • How good were baseball players in 1910? We can reconstruct a lot, yes, but wouldn’t it be nice to have one afternoon’s report on Cy Young and Walter Johnson from a contemporary scout?

Or, go over to London in 1880. We could find out things like:

  • How did Escoffier’s sauces actually taste? How much sauce did he use? What were pre-phylloxera claret and sauternes really like?
  • How golden was the golden age of cricket?
  • What was the composition of London fog?
  • What was it about Sarah Bernhardt?

This is an engaging book but not an economical one. The time-travel subplot spawns complications that the characters are surprisingly slow to grasp, and it seems none of them have read the classic time traveller stories. Provisions are in place for retrieval teams to rescue students who fail to appear for their extraction rendezvous, but nobody in 2060 seems to have anticipated that fallbacks or contingency plans might perhaps prove useful.

March 1, 2011 (permalink)

The Last Ringbearer

Russian paleontologist Kiril Yeskov reimagines The Lord Of The Ring and its aftermath by assuming that Tolkien’s story is, in fact, merely one side of the argument. In this version, Mordor is not evil, but a civilization that opposes reason to magic, preferring justice to the law of nature. The desolation of Mordor is merely the unfortunate outcome of an early ecological disaster, a massive irrigation project that went wrong.

After a few years of bumper crops the inevitable happened – huge tracts of land were rapidly salted, and all attempts to establish drainage failed due to high groundwater levels. The end result was an enormous waste of resources and massive damage to the country’s economy and ecology. The Umbarian system of minimal irrigation would have suited Mordor just fine (and been a lot cheaper to boot), but this opportunity had been irretrievably lost now. The masterminds of the irrigation project and its executives were sentenced to twenty-five years in lead mines, but, predictably, that did not help anyone.

Mordor tried to deal with an ecological problem with an ambitious plan. When it failed, the war-monger Gandalf and the imperialist elves seized the opportunity to attack.

Caravans of traders went back and forth through the Ithilien crossroads day and night, and there were more and more voices in Barad-Dur saying that the country has had enough tinkering with agriculture, which was nothing but a net loss anyway, and the way to go was to develop what nobody else had – namely, metallurgy and chemistry. Indeed, the industrial revolution was well underway: steam engines toiled away in mines and factories, while the early aeronautic successes and experiments with electricity were the talk of the educated classes. A universal literacy law had just been passed, and His Majesty Sauron the VIII has declared at a session of parliament (with his usual ton-of-bricks humor) that he intended to equate truancy and treason.

The main action of The Last Ringbearer begins with small bands of orcs and trolls – our protagonists are a research engineer and an army medic – desperately trying to avoid ethnic cleansing at the hands of merciless elven hunters.

This analogy to the former Soviet Union and to the dream of rational Socialism pervades the early chapters, which move effortlessly from political accounts to a brilliant military history of the Pelennor campaign, focusing on the strategic decisions made by Commander-South, who in Tolkien is the chief Nazgûl.

The author of The Last Ringbearer is extremely knowledgable and invariably respectful of Tolkien’s work. This is no juvenile satire like Bored of the Rings. A few trivial mistakes do creep in – several meetings take place in the tower of Amon Súl, which was destroyed more than a thousand years before – and some names are misspelled, presumably because the Russian orthography differs: Cirdan the elven shipwright becomes Kirden, Celeborn becomes Cereborn, Linden becomes Lindon.

The middle portion of the novel devolves into an espionage story which, while competent, would fit equally well into any fantasy context or, indeed, into World War Two. In this section, which takes place south of Gondor in Umbar and Harad – that is, nearly off Tolkien’s map – we are reminded again of Tolkien’s extraordinary ability to choose names. Yeskov tries, but his invented Elvish names sometimes belong in Rohan and his Umbar names – which include characters named Jacuzzi and Makarioni – don’t work at all.

Yisroel Markov’s translation is terrific when dealing with history and workmanlike when describing the refugees of Mordor. His elvish dialogue is hopeless.

Clofoel of Tranquility: Haste is advisable when hunting fleas or dealing with a sudden bout of diarrhea, esteemed clofoel of Might. So please don’t urge me along: Trolls are tough guys and I’ll need a significant amount of time to get reliable information out of him.

Lady Galadriel: How much time do you need, clofoel of Tranquility?

Clofoel of Tranquility: I believe no less than three days, o radiant Lady.

Clofoel of Might: He just wants to give his bums under the Mound of Somber Mourning something to do, o radiant Sovereigns! This is so simple – let him use his truth potion and that spawn of Morgoth will spill his guts in a quarter-hour!

Lord Cereborn: Indeed, clofoel of Tranquility, why don’t you use the truth potion?

“Clofoel” is an invented Elven title, but it doesn’t sound like Sindarin at all, at least not to my ears. The invented Umbar lexicon is worse: “umberto” for the law of omerta is bad, and “Corregidor” for a minor official, while authentic for 15th century Spain, will inevitably be misread as the Philippine island.

But these are details, easily remedied or overlooked. To add to the Russian overtones of this remarkable book, it is not commercially published but circulates in Web-borne samizdat editions.

February 24, 2011 (permalink)

A readable and entertaining overview of our current state of knowledge about Pompeii, one of the the Roman towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79A.D. Beard does a particularly fine job of explaining to non-specialists how our views have changed as we have learned more about Pompeii and as our interests and attitudes have changed over time. This is a fine history of History, then, but the focus remains on our surprisingly-detailed knowledge of this Roman town, and the even more surprising gaps in our knowledge.

February 9, 2011 (permalink)

An expansive and delightful look at the opening of the 19th century, as experienced in the Dutch trade factory near Nagasaki. With great technical virtuosity, Mitchell takes this saga into genre territory -- the Ninja Raid, the Swashbuckling Sea Story – and then leads it out again. The massive book is obviously in dialogue with Clavell, whose excesses should not obscure his abilities, and with the incomparable O'Brian, but where O'Brian dissembles narrative sophistication, Mitchell exults in the spectacle, shifting mode and manner and point of view with ease.

February 7, 2011 (permalink)

At Readercon, Straub spent the better part of an hour describing his difficult path toward creating this fine new novel, a struggle with old editors and new to publish a book that’s quite unlike Straub’s famous Ghost Story. The narrator’s voice in A Dark Matter is precisely Straub’s own, a feat writers seldom achieve even in autobiography, and Straub captures the contemporary midwest beautifully.

I don’t care for tales of the supernatural: I'm happy with magic as metaphor, yes, or magic as fantasy, but if what you’re selling is teasing apart the fibres of reality to peer at underlying, mystic truth, then I guess I’m a tough customer. But it is what it is, it’s superbly done, and it has characters and scene that I’ll remember for a long time.

February 4, 2011 (permalink)

Winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for best novel, this seems a surprising selection. My impression has been that Edgar nominees and winners are mysteries with terrific sense of place, or that they have astonishingly interesting characters. I may have lost track of trends; I seem to have missed most of the Edgar winners lately and the novel’s of which I am thinking are now twenty years old.

This is an entertaining book and it will, in due course, make a nifty movie, but it has neither. It’s a dual-protagonist mystery – a detective and a kid – and everyone behaves as you'd expect. The Police Chief does what Police Chiefs will do in books where the Chief's interest is not aligned with our those of the detective. So does the sheriff. It’s a mid-Atlantic story, so there’s a Big and Scary Negro of whom we ought not to be frightened. Everyone, in fact, is scary and unpleasant in predictable ways. The best character, probably, is the Kid’s Sidekick, who has a bad arm and a wry sense of humor.

Lots of intricately-plotted mysteries collapse at the end, but that’s when this book really gets rolling. There’s a lot of plot to be put into place, and once all the pieces are on the board, the machine rolls along beautifully.

February 4, 2011 (permalink)

A brilliant and realistic fantasy novel set in late 20th-century Wales, where young Morwenna Phelps has recently lost her identical twin sister, her name, her ability to walk without a limp. and perhaps her family. In the wreckage of what might be seen as an automobile accident (but might also be a titanic magical duel), she is sent off with a father she scarcely knows to an English boarding school where she is the Barbarian Outsider. There, she does not care that she is not loved as long as she is feared. As she always has, Mor takes refuge in books. She tells us all about them. The cruelties of school girls and school dinners don’t matter nearly as much as her discovery of James Tiptree, Jr.’s secret.

Jo Walton dexterously explores a fresh formulation of magic, one that admits the possibility of magic all around us while not contradicting our common experiences or turning the protagonist into the Chosen One. Morwenna has already saved the world. She was crippled, her twin sister Morganna died. That’s past. This is what happens later.

Among Others portrays its characters through the books they were reading in the fall of 1979, and by how they talk about those books. In the process, Walton builds a stirring case for the role and use of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. This is a book for people who read, people who go to ReaderCon, people who know why Donaldson is not Tolkien, why Asimov’s lack of style does not really matter, why so many of us could love Chip Delaney and also Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin and also Larry Niven.

(Warning: the inside flap copy contains a borderline spoiler. Don’t read it.)

Several crucial scenes take place in meetings of a public library’s Tuesday night science fiction club. Gaining access to this meeting was no small task, requiring letters, permission slips, and a spell; the meeting serves, formally, as the Hero’s Last Sanctuary, this book’s pause at Minas Tirith before the march to Pelennor. This is a book that’s going to be discussed at many such meetings for many years.

January 25, 2011 (permalink)

Two twice-haunted children meet in the park. Law Walker is biracial, his father is an angry and wildly successful Harvard historian, his mother is an angry and wildly successful preservationist, and he’s haunted by their expectations, their demands, and by the weight that history and society heaps on the shoulders of a black boy of whom much is expected. Katey Mullens has a simpler lot; recently orphaned, she sees ghosts and is haunted by the fear that she’s going mad. Naturally, they fall in love, and inevitably their love finds expression in a hopeless school project – saving the derelict Pinebank mansion from city planners.

The book is complicated by the fact that Pinebank and the crusade to save it were real, the principal actors in that struggle feature prominently in its pages, and so this Victorian-revival Gothic novel cannot have a proper villain. Smith finds an ingenious solution to the problem and executes it so well that most readers won’t notice the unexpected genre shift.

Both Law and Katey subscribe to the conviction that the experience and memory of slavery is the heart of the American experience. And they are right. But Black folk are not alone in saying, “we were slaves” or in gathering to tell the tell:

Still in all, every night we does the tell, so that we 'member who we was and where we came from... but most of all we 'members the man that finded us, him that came the salvage. And we lights the city, not just for him, but for all of them that are still out there.

Or, for that matter:

Debout, les damnés de la terre
Debout, les forçats de la faim.

So many voices of the past need such careful attention here that occasionally John and Katey find themselves aswim in pools of exposition. This is realistic, too – high school kids philosophize like there’s no tomorrow, and Smith has a remarkable flair for carrying thoughtfully nuanced ideas into a lively plot – but perhaps some episodes carry more exposition than they can quite lift without straining. The book’s YA point of view tends to flatten the characters of parents who might otherwise lend a hand with the ideas as well as obstructing desire. The YA label may also explain why Katey’s very plausible suicidal ideas – or at least acceptance of imminent death or insanity – are not explored very deeply. Smith is already courageously exploring a topic so sensitive that it is almost unmentionable, and asking her to undertake a second within the compass of a small book and in the crumbling walls of this tottering house might have invited wholesale collapse.

January 15, 2011 (permalink)

I admired the craft, but I fear that I misunderstood the book. This broad portrait of Life At Home during the Second World War weaves together with great skill a vast cast and disparate stories. Crowley’s writing calls little attention to itself, but within its tightly controlled span are deployed all the latest weapons: multiple points of view, tense shift, cinematic scenes that nod to Coover, first person plural straight out of Then We Came To The End. I see why Crowley is so widely loved and admired. But each character here is carefully kept at a distance by age, deformity – two midgets and a cripple are at the center of the story – dishonesty or worse, and few of them seem to care very deeply about more than getting by. If they cared more deeply or more consistently, that might tear the story out of shape, but surely avoiding a natural plot is as artificial as imposing thrills where they would not naturally belong. These are the Tales of Our Fathers, or more often our mothers, told in a way that lets us kids keep our place and our distance.

January 15, 2011 (permalink)

These meditations on an extended metaphor juxtapose a fascinating collection of maps with an equally fascinating assortment of literature: Dante, Calvino, Nabokov, Borges, Woolf. Turchi seldom allows maps to play a role much beyond metaphor, either in composition or in analysis, and metafictional studies like Moretti’s map of where Parisian Objects Of Desire lived, and where their writers lived, play less role in his imagination than Stevenson’s original sketchmap of Treasure Island. The book’s limited application to my immediate interests in spatial hypertext, alas, left it languishing half-read on my nightstand for nearly five years: bought 29 January 2006 and finished 12 January 2011. That’s an injustice to a fine book whose main failing is that it wasn’t quite the book I had in mind.

January 10, 2011 (permalink)

Cherie Priest

Set in the same world as Boneshaker, this novel follows the journey of nurse Mercy Lynch from the wards of a Richmond hospital to distant Seattle. Her father, who abandoned his family when she was young, has been stricken, and once she decides she must go, nothing will stand in her way. Obstacles are plentiful: the Civil War has been raging unabated for twenty years and grows more terrible every day as technological progress fails to break the stalemate in the trenches; we have airships and armored trains and steampunk mecha tanks, but we have nothing close to peace. In the far West, a legion of Mexican soldiers has disappeared, and strange rumors of the walking dead are beginning to be heard. Mercy is a strong, competent, foul-mouthed young woman with iron nerves and a fierce determination to win through.

I am not convinced the zombies are strictly necessary, either here or in Boneshaker. Much of the book involves combat between trains, recalling Buster Keaton’s The General, and that’s a terrific idea, though I'm not sure the tactics used are ideal. I do wish Priest was not again opposing a Strong Heroine to an Evil Engineer. But I had a hell of a good time.

January 10, 2011 (permalink)

The Age of Reform: 1815-1870
Sir E. Llewellyn Woodward

Recommended as a general history of the Victorian era, this delightful volume takes a very broad view without generalization or loss of detail. This is by no means a small book at 702 pages, yet Woodward maintains throughout an air of breathless concision, a sensation that there is no time to waste on inessentials.

January 7, 2011 (permalink)

We return once more to the old, familiar interrogation rooms of The Looking Glass War and to vintage LeCarre in this sad, compelling, and brilliant story. An athletic Oxford don and his beautiful girlfriend, a fledgling barrister, visit Antigua for an indulgent tennis vacation. Their tennis turns out to be beyond the league of the typical Caribbean tourist, but near their resort lives a wealthy Russian who plays a very strong game indeed and who leads the couple into unexpected thickets and, soon, to basement interrogation rooms. LeCarré has a remarkable knack of drawing minor characters who are vivid but not merely idiosyncratic, whose peculiarity is the most natural thing in the world.

December 22, 2010 (permalink)

Alaya Johnson

This dazzling tale of Jazz Age New York centers on Zephyr Hollis, a girl from the West who teaches English to impoverished immigrants, volunteers at a blood bank that caters to indigent vampires, and crusades against corruption, crime, and intolerance directed at Others. A promising story by a new and very promising member of the Interstitials.

December 22, 2010 (permalink)