Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Recent reading

A. S. Byatt, The Children's Book. I wanted, so badly, to love this book. Possession is one of my favorite books, one that haunts me even when I haven't read it in a long time. The Children's Book I liked very much, but did not love. It had, I believe, the potential to be great, but was brought down by its own ambitions.

Byatt has an enormous cast of characters, and tries diligently to give each of them a moment on center stage. But what this means is that many of the characters are not fully realized, but rather are simply a name attached to a history and a set of characteristics. Because so few of them become people, it is very difficult to care about them, even when horrific things happen (and they do.) It's a book that deals with a grand geographical and temporal scale, and so Byatt often sums up the passage of history, telling us the events rather than showing them to us through the eyes of the characters. And (I can't believe I, of all people am saying this) if you are going to begin and end a story in medias res, you cannot allow the passage of time to serve as plot.

But what The Children's Book does well it does brilliantly, and that is meditate on the act of telling a story, and the effect that the stories we are told has on us. The connection between life and story is made real and tangible here, and that is a haunting and powerful thing to read, and to consider.

George Mann, The Affinity Bridge. On the other hand, The Affinity Bridge is a book that, based on the description - it has zombies! mad science! steampunk! - I never would have expected to enjoy. But based on the recommendation of a friend, and the shiny, fabulous cover art (art by Viktor Koen, jacket design by Jamie Stafford-Hill). I picked it up, and loved it.

The Affinity Bridge was a great deal of fun to read. The elements that I was wary of (zombies and steampunk) felt organic to the story, not tacked on for added shiny mayhem. And I particularly loved the character of Veronica Hobbes. Mann allows the male characters in the novel to pay service to the conventions of the day, and suggest that, for example, the smoldering ruin of an airship crash is no place for a lady, and then allows Hobbes to competently go about her business. She's great, and I'll read the next book just to see what she does next.

Elizabeth Bear, By the Mountain Bound. This tells the story of the events that precede All the Windwracked Stars (which you will want, so if you don't already have it, just get them both at once. If you do, find your copy now, because you will want to reread it.) Bear's Shakespearian delight in, and facility with, language is well on display in this gorgeous book. It is the story of love, and lies, and the end of a world. Of a Grey Wolf, and a girl in a red cloak. There is sacrifice and faith, magic and poetry. And, as is the case when a story begins with a marriage rather than ending with one, there is tragedy. Bear is one of the most brilliant writers working in speculative fiction, and if you want to understand why, this book is an excellent place to start.

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