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

An large and intriguing fantasy, the story of a hero named Kvothe (which rhymes with "Quoth"). The superhero origin story explains how our hero achieved greatness; here, we explore how our protagonist renounced greatness in trying to become an unsuccessful innkeeper. Engaging and cleanly written, though I’m not certain that this exploration of the nature of fairy stories takes us far beyond “On Fairy Stories” and “Neverwhere,” and there’s little sign of the sort of narrative play that animates A Visit From the Goon Squad.

June 19, 2012 (permalink)

The Hot Rock
Donald E. Westlake

Fresh out of jail, Dortmunder lands an unexpected job when an old friend asks him to put together a team to liberate the Balabomo Emerald, which two small and impoverished African nations are eager to possess.

Deploring the influence of best-seller lists, Michael Dirda wrote that

The best books of a genre seldom make the list. The finest all-around American crime writer of the past forty years—I speak of Donald E. Westlake—never matched the sales of Elmore Leonard, let alone [James] Patterson. Reviewers praised his comic Dortmunder capers, readers ecstasized over his lean Richard Stark noirs. A novel like The Ax—as brilliant a black comedy as the film Kind Hearts and Coronets—should be famous.

This is the first Dortmunder, and it’s on a frolic of its own.

June 8, 2012 (permalink)

A well-written collection of interesting and often-revealing vignettes of the earliest moments of the American Civil War, of the time when, it seems, anything might have happened and a great deal did. Goodheart has a knack for capturing large movements in small moments, mixed with a historian’s care to avoid excessive extrapolation or sentimental generalization.

June 3, 2012 (permalink)

In this second volume of the arc that began with The Magicians, Grossman continues to explore a magical world viewed in a strictly realist mode. Our focus again is Quentin Coldwater, who has graduated from Brakebills, the secret university of magic. In the company of his classmates, he’s bored and self-involved and he’s one of four kings of Fillory, a world of magic. But things are not quite right, and neither is Quentin, though nobody (least of all him) knows quite what’s wrong. Efforts to fix things inevitably lead to worse.

The brilliant thread here lies not with Quentin (who is something of a dope) but with Julia, the girl he admired back in his Brooklyn high school and whom he forgot after she failed the Brakebills entrance exam. The sorting hat sorted her out and she was supposed to forget the whole thing. Somehow, the spells of forgetting that were supposed to erase the memory of magic don’t quite work — she’s too smart, she sees the fuzzy edges in her memories — and these lead her into a dark subculture of underground magic, riddled with drugs and desperation. It turns out there’s an underground world of people who didn’t get into a good school, a world of community college magicians who swap tips and tattoos in dingy basement hangouts.

Julia is a student who will do anything for knowledge. There is a price to pay, and she pays it, but it’s not just a big bank loan.

May 28, 2012 (permalink)

An SF meditation on the meaning of marriage, Triptych works by showing us a marriage which is not a marriage – one which inspires loathing in all sorts of people – and yet turns out to be one.

We begin (rather unpromisingly) with a pleasant day on an Ontario dairy farm, a day on which an spaceship crashes into our front yard and its pilot attempts to murder our infant daughter. A pair of special forces operatives – dressed in black, of course – arrive just in time to shoot the alien and save the daughter. One of those operatives is that daughter, now almost thirty, who has travelled back in time to save herself.

This complex setup gives way to a set of nicely drawn portraits of several marriages. We have the young agents, who are partnered but not married. We have the parents. We have the space aliens, who are likable and helpful refugees from an interstellar disaster who turned up on our doorstep and to whom earth has offered asylum. They’ve got some nice ideas – they have spaceships, after all. And they have some interesting ideas too, including the notion that marriage is between three adults. After all, if there are 24 (or, back home, 31) hours in the day, you need three shifts of keep an eye on the baby.

A Rose Fox suggestion from Readercon 2011. This year’s Readercon runs July 12-15.

May 17, 2012 (permalink)

Diana Peterfreund

At sixteen, Seattle schoolgirl Astrid Llewelyn learns a few things. Unicorns exist. They’re real: powerful, magical, and very dangerous. They can be approached only by maiden girls. And they’re terrible, bloodthirsty monsters bent on the destruction of humankind.

It turns out that there’s an academy in Rome, recently revived, that trains unicorn hunters. Summer in Rome will look good on college applications. And, though she’s not exactly proud of the fact, it turns out that Astrid is fully qualified. (In other words, we’ve got the Slayerettes all over again, albeit with poorly-funded and disorganized Watchers.)

To its credit, the book lets Astrid interrogate this strange mythology, and she does a credible job. Who makes these rules? What sort of crazy, patriarchal, Manichaean power thought that this would be a nifty way to run things? That interrogation is the strongest part of the book and ties neatly into Arcade Fire’s “Abraham’s Daughter”:

Just as the angel cried for the slaughter
Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.

The solution (and much else) is left to subsequent books. This book is structurally simple but written with a satisfactory directness and simplicity. The sense of place is shaky. That this is tourist Rome may be excused since our heroine is, after all, a tourist, and the cloisters of the Order of the Lioness are good, but school kids spending the summer in Rome would know the Metropolitana better than these do, and they’d notice more small, disturbing oddities about life in Italy. Yes, they're distracted by attacks from legendary monsters, but surely they’re also going to be noticing that the shampoo is different, the toilets have funny shapes, there’s wine with dinner (and two mains), and people park (and sometimes drive) on the sidewalk?

May 12, 2012 (permalink)

This is the latest installment in the saga of The Laundry – a branch of Her Majesty’s Secret Service that is dedicated to securing Britain against paranormal phenomena and the eldritch horrors of the Elder Gods – that began with the wonderful stories of The Atrocity Archives. Doomsday approaches, the sleeper threatens to wake, and management wants to audit paper clips again.

The book includes a detailed and excellent description of the clandestine use of an operable Memex.

At times, the layers of irony here seem intolerably rich. Yes, we all miss Douglas Adams terribly, and yes, the long dark teatime of the soul still demands reflection. But ironic SF is hard: if you ever drop the ball, the whole thing collapses. Stross loves to walk right up to the line.

May 11, 2012 (permalink)

Veronica Roth

In YA Dystopian future Chicago, everyone is a member of a faction. There are five factions: Amity, Dauntless, Erudite, Abnegation, or Candor. If you aren’t part of a faction, you are cast out. Parents raise their kids in the manner of their own faction, but sixteen-year olds are free to choose the faction that suits them best. And when Beatrice Prior has to choose, she revolts at the prospect of a lifetime of Abnegation and takes the sudden, dangerous plunge into Dauntless.

One of the book’s problems begins with the lapsed parallelism of the faction names. Dauntless and Erudite are adjectives. Amity, Abnegation, and Candor are nouns. This leads to all sorts of minor awkwardness. The book must have been workshopped many times at Northwestern, where Roth began it as a creative writing student; I can’t understand why everyone didn’t harp on this.

Our rite of passage is immediately followed by an excellent boot camp story as our heroine (and many others) are tested for induction into Dauntless. The effect is heightened by the cultural differences among the recruits, with Abnegation vs. Candor filling the role usually played by the Micks and the Dagos in WWII bootcamp. Plus, in this girl’s army, you can have a crush on your drill instructor.

One detail annoys me. Here, as in The Hunger Games, the protagonist says she is 16 and is obviously younger. The roots of this story lie in Percival, in the mystic journey and the puberty rite. It’s a bat mitzvah, a kina'alda. The world does not lack for sixteen-year old girls: go out and look at a few, and then tell me that girl is Tris Prior. The target audience is YA; they know how their 16-year old friends look, and they know when they’re being lied to.

But these are quibbles. This is not a profound book. It’s not a book of ideas, though in other hands the premise would bear it. It’s a confection, but a delightful one.

April 30, 2012 (permalink)

Two long-estranged sisters find themselves in interlocked novels: one in a police procedural, the other a thriller. A caper threatens to break out. One problem for the plot, it seems to me, is that it assumes a senior British detective today would think that her having worked for a few months in a strip club, fifteen or twenty years ago, would be a terrible secret, that if her colleagues knew, that would end her career.

But, suspending disbelief, this formal experiment in mystery fiction has real depth and imagination and a remarkable conclusion.

April 29, 2012 (permalink)

Henry VII barely won his throne, beating Richard III by the narrowest of margins after a life chiefly on the run. He was determined that no man would repeat his accomplishment, and he was anxious never to lack money again, and in the process of securing these goals he secured the Tudor dynasty and stabilized England after a century of tumult. Richard III had been a knight of the late middle ages who died calling for a fresh charger, but Henry Tudor was an early modern bureaucrat who meticulously reviewed every account and checked every detail. On the road, Prince Henry managed to mislay a gold chain, the royal jewel-house keeper noted grimly, “and the king knoweth of it”

That nobody especially liked him, save for what he could give, seems not to have bothered the king. Or perhaps it did: in later years, his progresses were interrupted by frequent breaks for solitary time spent alone or, at any rate, out of the spotlight. He did his best to govern without Parliament, and largely succeeded.

This biography of Henry VII has been widely praised everywhere, from The Guardian (which you would expect) to the Wall Street Journal (which you would not). It’s a very fine book, and will become the definitive biography of this important and neglected era. It is is not, to be honest, very much fun, but neither was Henry.

April 26, 2012 (permalink)

Often cited as an inspiration or precedent for The Hunger Games, this Japanese dystopian novel, by sharing the underlying premise, gives a wonderful illustration of the importance of competent execution in even the most favorable circumstances.

Battle Royale gets off to a fast start. Forty eight middle school kids are being bussed on an outing. Suddenly, they all feel sleepy. They wake up and find themselves in The Program: they will leave the classroom at three minute intervals. Each student will be given a different weapon. They will kill each other; the survivor gets to go home.

Everything goes wrong here. Where The Hunger Games is often hamstrung by its relentless focus on the hero’s point of view, Battle Royale flits wherever it likes, reducing its pacing to mush punctuated by body counts.

Yuji Oniki’s over-literal translation does the book no service at all; all the students come out with the same slightly-accented voice, and while this might be what the author put on the page it is surely not what he wanted to do. In an afterward, he says Shogo’s dialog is patterned after Hawk in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries. Now this is an incongruous image – I’m not sure that any Japanese middle school kid could really sound a lot like Hawk — but I’d think Hawk would be just about the easiest character to pastiche you could ask for. I’ve read every line Hawk spoke, and the idea never crossed my mind.

There’s almost no description, either. I had to ask Japanese speakers to figure out what “middle school” might be in the original because, for hundreds of pages, I couldn’t figure out whether these forty-eight students were meant to be in eighth grade or twelfth. Since writer and translator are both living and can (presumably) talk, it might have been prudent to add a bit of description to the translation’s description of the action. Some of the dialogue, I think, represents polite or even formal discourse between boys and girls on their very best behavior. The Japanese reader knows the gestures that accompany these words, but the American reader could use some help.

Swarthmoron and CO that I am, in The Hunger Games I was always keeping my eye out for pacifism. Here, almost half the class opts immediately for some variant of pacifist rejection, ranging from the immediate suicide of two lovers to a variety of more-or-less doomed rebellions. None are interesting: the lovers leap over their cliff without evoking a sigh, the rebels flourish and fail in a chaos of happenstance.

The book assumes that boys and girls are completely different and hints that a separatist society – girls without boys – might be more tenable than risking contact. At any rate, accidental contact with a boy leads to universal disaster, which makes the boy a little sad. But since he had no role in the disaster and has a girl to protect (because his pal, now dead, had a secret crush on her), the disaster doesn’t mean much to him or anything to us. The book is deeply, casually sexist to no particular point, and would be deeply immoral if we cared enough about these kids to make them matter. The Hunger Games does itself a favor in avoiding firearms; Battle Royale spenda too much time comparing Lugers to Uzis and not enough letting the poor kids look their victim in the eye.

April 26, 2012 (permalink)

A British ceramicist inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke from his beloved uncle Iggy, an old man named Ignatz who has lived for many years in Japan. Intrigued, he gradually uncovers the story of their family, the Ephrussi, who emerged from Odessa in the 19th century to become one of the world’s leading banks, rivaling the Rothschilds for wealth, for influence, and for inciting the envy and hatred of the Nazis. A fascinating book that carefully avoids nostalgia and that is always thinking about the role of objects in life, a history that only a potter could have written.

April 13, 2012 (permalink)