A review of “recent” books

Last August, I wrote a “review of ‘recent’ books,” briefly talking about four books I’d read earlier that year. In today’s post I’d like to write about several more “recent” (to me) books.

I should begin by noting one book that I am not going to be reviewing today: I thought so highly of Miss Aubrey Hansen‘s first full-length novel, Peter’s Angel, that I wrote a full-length review of it (though still short, and not doing it justice) last month. If you haven’t already, go read that review.

Books I Abandoned

In this list of “recent” books there are, again, some I couldn’t finish, though for different reasons from Life of Pi (the example of that phenomenon last year). I’ll talk about the three books I abandoned first.

First, To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. This has been highly recommended several times on a mailing list I used to follow, and by authors and critics whose opinions I think highly of, so I was excited to see it at Christmas. But I couldn’t make it more than a couple of chapters in. It feels deliberately confusing and obscure, “literary” in the worst pejorative sense of that word—Willis probably has good reasons for all of that (To Say Nothing of the Dog is a deliberate and explicit homage to Three Men in a Boat—which my family started into in our “family reading” a few months after I tried this novel—and the main character is afflicted by a temporary mental illness from too much time travel at the start), and my dad says it becomes much more straightforward soon after the point where I abandoned it. But “I don’t care what happens to these people!” so I decided against picking it up again.

Second, most recently, The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve had friends whose opinions I value rave about other books by him when I asked the question “read any good books lately?” in passing, and his work on finishing The Wheel of Time (about which more later) appears to do him credit. But again, only a few chapters in, while I’m curious about the setting and the worldbuilding, I quickly found I could hardly care less about the characters and the plot of this particular novel. Perhaps if it hadn’t started with a basically “Western” atmosphere … I don’t know.

And third, The Last Centurion by John Ringo. This was given to us by my aunt, with a note attached that she disagrees with his politics but the story “sucks her in every time.” I’ve had some experience with Ringo, and I find his thematic or political points on target but organic from the story, and his characters and plots compelling, but the situations he drags his characters through occasionally a lot closer to “horrific” than I would prefer to go. So, again, I was looking forward to reading this, though the statement in the blurb that it was “told blog-style” made me somewhat doubtful.

When I started it, the world (near-future post-apocalyptic America) and the premise got me very interested. But I soon discovered that “blog-style” meant “first person, a step closer to stream-of-consciousness” and “language uncensored.” The narrator and (presumably) main character is a modern-day Marine (or perhaps Army Ranger, or something), and Ringo makes him about as foul-mouthed as any stereotypical NCO I’ve read about. I wanted to keep reading to find out what was going to happen in the book … but within a couple of chapters, I decided I couldn’t take any more of the vulgarity.

Christmas

As has been my practice the last few years, I give books that I want to read (and that I think and hope they’ll enjoy) to my family as Christmas presents.

(Before I begin these, I should say that if you’re really, really picky about grammar, syntax, usage, and whatnot, the two non-“mainstream-publisher” books leave a bit to be desired on that front. I noticed a few items in passing; my dad noticed patterns. They aren’t as bad as the stereotype for self-published books, nor as bad as most only-self-proofed fan-fiction, nor for that matter as bad as some of the “professionally proofed” science fiction of the ’60s or so and before, but while some people can produce a remarkably clean result from just self-proofing, it’s hard even if you have help, and these are certainly not up to the standard that Miss Hansen’s work has set.)

Firmament: Radialloy

The first of these was Firmament: Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington, which (like Miss Hansen’s Red Rain, which I reviewed last year) I heard about through the Holy Worlds forum. Based on the glowing reviews there (and in the broader community—here, for example), and her interview on the Holy Worlds podcast, I bought it.

If you like Star Trek, I suspect you’ll quite like Radialloy. If not—if you prefer the ambient “science” of your “science fiction” to bear at least some relation to real possibilities, and the worldbuilding to be strong and consistent—it’ll probably disappoint.

I’m not one of those who effortlessly (or even with much effort!) “keeps a map in his head”—but it’s not a good sign when I get the distinct impression that the internal layout of a building or a ship would be impossible to map because it’s inconsistent. Similarly, I don’t mind seeing something (a pilot’s flying of a spaceship, for example) described in a way that pushes the limits of physics slightly once in a while, in the context of a coherent vision that mostly appears to be consistent with reality, particularly if the change is something fundamental to the story—but egregiously and capriciously setting the laws of physics entirely aside just to paint one character bounces me out of the book. (Again, if you like Star Trek, you probably won’t mind any of this, and you’ll probably like Radialloy. But I don’t much care for Star Trek; I prefer a description of space-flight along the lines of 2001 to stunt aircraft flying transplanted into space and sped up an order of magnitude.) What’s worse, the medical side of the drama at the heart of the story is treated as seriously as any “hard science fiction” story handles its subject … but because, as I described above, the setting and characterization treat the science so flippantly (even given that it’s space opera), instead of lending “weight” to that attempt at a “hard science” core, they undermine it.

Miss Pennington’s characterization is, if anything, one of the strongest points of the book. Most of the characters start out looking like either caricatures or “stock characters,” then become much more nuanced over the course of the book. But even so, and even with Miss Hansen raving about them and the podcast priming me, even late in the book I found myself basically indifferent to their involvement in further events. Unlike Red Rain, where I was engrossed from the beginning and only registered feeling “vaguely dissatisfied” when I closed it for the last time, or Peter’s Angel, where nearly every interaction hums with life, Radialloy‘s ensemble cast lacks … something. Some je ne sais quoi. As I said above, looked at from a craftsmanship perspective, the characterization is quite strong, particularly for such a young author. But it’s not vivid in the sense that it needs to be … which is a matter of artistry.

In the end, I think Miss Pennington’s choice of genre conflicts strongly with the story she’s trying to tell. It’s quite likely that in another milieu she’ll be able to produce a book I’ll feel worth my unqualified recommendation.

Wrede

The next book was Magic and Malice by Patricia Wrede. Wrede is one of the few authors whose books I will usually buy on the strength of her name alone, and whose backlist I will search out for times like this. Magic and Malice is an omnibus of two novels, Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward, that were first published in the ’90s. It’s “Regency England plus magic,” sort of like Sorcery and Cecelia: or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (and sequels, written with Caroline Stevermer)—her website says that they “have carefully avoided establishing for certain that they [the two series] take place in the exact same world.”

I’d say that this was “quite good”—but with Wrede, as with Bujold, that’s something of a disappointment. Well worth reading, even well worth having (and thus using up shelf space on, which is saying something!), but it’s not quite as enjoyable as the best of the other “Regency Magic” books, and not nearly as delightful or “weighty” as her recent Frontier Magic trilogy (the first volume of which I heartily recommended in last year’s post).

Part of my slightly-disappointing reaction to this might, on reflection, be influenced by the volume of good-to-excellent Pride and Prejudice fan-fiction I’ve read (and in a few cases, reread and reread) over the past several years. When I first read Sorcery and Cecelia, I don’t think I’d even read Pride and Prejudice, so it was essentially my first exposure to Regency fiction; now, I’m if anything nearing overload.

Still, Wrede is Wrede, so it’s well worth picking up if you happen on a copy, and reading if you get a chance.

The Windrider Saga

The third “Christmas book” was The Windrider Saga by Rebecca P. Minor, an omnibus of the first two novellas of that series, “Divine Summons” and “A Greater Strength.” I first heard of this series, and was intrigued by it, some time ago (two or three years ago?) when I was first finding my way into the “quasi-independent Christian fantasy scene,” and I decided to get it when I listened to an interview with her on (again) the Holy Worlds podcast.

I love the premise, and to some extent the setting. But I’m afraid that’s the high point of this review. At some point I had read that these novellas were originally published in serial form in an “e-zine.” I had forgotten that by the time I came to read this volume … but by the end there was something niggling at the back of my brain, that when I remembered that, or read it again, it explained so much.

The thing is, serial publication is a very different medium from book publication. I suspect I might even have loved this story, and been begging for more, had I been given only a “chapter” a month. I’ve had several fan-fics that affected me that way. But with a dozen or so chapters (in each novella) all at once, the flaws add up in a way that the merits don’t.

It doesn’t help that the pacing doesn’t feel right—not for one continuous story, nor for a lot of little, tenuously connected, stories. There’s a reason that, in the old days (before my time, but I’ve read many of my dad’s old Analogs) when the magazines were the primary market for science fiction, and an author might take several stories and turn them into a “fix-up novel,” there would (if the author was a craftsman and not just a “hack”) be significant revision even beyond what was necessary to get the stories to line up with each other. Sometimes (as in the case of “Strangers to Paradise” etc., whose position on my list of books everyone ought to read I defended last week) this “fix-up job” didn’t improve the stories (to say the least); sometimes it made a better novel than the originals were stories. But each form has its conventions for narrative pacing—with enough leeway that readers can’t say, “There should be The Climax on page such-and-such,” but enough that if a story or book doesn’t follow them, it doesn’t feel right. And so both of these novellas “don’t feel right.”

These are the first two “volumes” of The Windrider Saga … but by the middle of the first novella, I seem to recall, I felt almost as though I’d stumbled into the sixth or eighth book in a series; scenes, characters, actions, and so on were (again, as I recall … perhaps the worst indictment against the book is that it’s largely forgettable) drawn in a way I’d expect if we’d had books and books to immerse ourselves in them, rather than in our first meeting with them. A book late in a series only needs to reintroduce returning readers to the characters, settings, and situation, and then they can be our old friends again; in the first book, or an early book in general, we need to get to know them first. So these stories seemed to be trying to lean on a level of familiarity that’s just not there yet.

What’s worse, those two issues—pacing and character development—interacted to the detriment of both. It’s not good when the most noticeable character arcs in a book-length story are nearly all one chapter long, and developed in each chapter along the model that you’d expect the book-length arcs to follow.

In the end … I’m not quite to the point of saying the Eight Deadly Words (“I don’t care what happens to these people!”), but these novellas did not live up to the strength of their premise.

Williams

My parents got me The Masques of Amen House by Charles Williams, a collection including some critical material and a fair selection of poetry in addition to the three masques, for Christmas—though with delays at the publisher (the Mythopoeic Society Press) it didn’t get here until it was closer to an early birthday present than a belated Christmas present.

My regular readers know about me and Charles Williams—I have found him tremendously insightful and influential, and have if anything listened to his ideas overmuch. (I am, slowly, developing more nuanced, more … organic to myself … views, I think.) So you should not be surprised that I tremendously enjoyed this. In particular, there is a degree of sheer humor and wit in parts of these plays that I have not seen elsewhere in his work. And knowing a little bit about the publishing process, the parts of the masques depicting that are quite funny.

I am not going to put this on my list of books everyone ought to read, because it’s really of more limited interest, but I still highly recommend it.

Another collection of Williams’ plays (titled Collected Plays, and containing Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Judgement at Chelmsford, Seed of Adam, The Death of Good Fortune, The House by the Stable, Grab and Grace, The House of the Octopus, Terror of Light, and The Three Temptations) also entered our house at Christmas.

While I essentially devoured the Masques (in bits and pieces, admittedly, as I found time), I had to wade through these. The masques were a delight with some weight; these are primarily weighty with some delight. Some of them reminded me again that Williams could have some very odd ideas at times, but what he brings out in these plays is well worth pondering.

What’s more, unlike the masques, and even in a way unlike his poetry and his novels, these plays were intended for a more general audience; they are still not “easy reads,” but they probably expect less background (not that anyone nowadays has what Williams wrote as if he expected!) than the poetry or even the novels.

I had been wanting to read some of these plays for a while now (our Mythopoeic Society chapter does either Williams, Tolkien, or Lewis, in a cycle, every other meeting, and we’ve gone entirely through the standard Williams a couple of times since I was aware enough to notice, while the Lewis and Tolkien corpus give far greater numbers of choices), and they were … different from what I expected, but just as “well worth reading” as I had expected. Highly recommended.

The Practice Effect

The Practice Effect, by David Brin, was another “belated Christmas present,” from my dad to my mom; it arrived a week or so after Christmas, but we waited until the Masques arrived to distribute all the belated presents at once.

I’ve had the “gimmick” of this story, the difference between its world and ours (which I won’t go into any detail about here), told to me several times over the past decade or so, when my dad’s thought of it and asked “Have you ever read that story where …” So I wasn’t really surprised by it. However, I knew essentially nothing about how that worldbuilding foundation was worked out, or about the plot (except a few scenes that had stuck in my dad’s mind) or characters.

The book manages to be both interesting, insightful, and funny. The last point feels more deliberate than organic (the chapter titles are all puns, for example), but beyond that it all flows masterfully from the kernel of the interesting “gimmick” that gives the book the title.

If I ever create a fifth installment of my list of books everyone ought to read, this book might be on it. In any case, I highly recommend it.

Gawain

The last Christmas book was The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris, given to me by a dear friend. It’s a quite short novel, probably aimed at middle-grade readers, set in the Arthurian myth. It focuses on Gawain—a character who was one of my favorites when I first read Malory, but who is, as Morris says in his editorial matter, much neglected in modern retellings and adaptations of the legends—from the perspective of his squire.

This is an interesting take on the legends. Were I closer to the age of its intended audience, I would probably find it delightful. But reading it as an adult, I found it more disjointed than I like a book to be. (It also doesn’t help that I’ve essentially lost any taste for the sort of indefinite series of “chapter books” that this looks intended to start—I was surprised to not feel even any twinge of interest in the couple of Freddy books that came in the box with the collection of Williams plays, for example, despite devouring all of them I could get my hands on in middle and high school.)

Long-Awaited Opportunities

At last month’s meeting, one of the other members of our Mythopoeic Society chapter lent us several books, including two that we’d been looking forward to for months (but felt we couldn’t really afford at new-hardcover prices).

Bujold

The first was “the new Bujold”, Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold. I had followed the development of this book as it was reported on “the Bujold list,” an email mailing list nominally devoted to discussion of Bujold’s work that I lurked on until quite recently, with some interest.

Bujold is, even more than Wrede, an author whose name is nearly a guarantor of quality. Her worst books are better than some authors’ best, so we expected to be delighted. And on that front, Bujold certainly delivered. As always in her work, the story is tightly constructed, the descriptions sharp, the prose sparkling with wit. And, as always, she subtly imbues the work with somewhat-weighty ideas well worth considering, and weaves in connections with, echoes of, and resonances with many other books, both her own earlier work and in literature in general. In particular, she’s taken this opportunity to tie up a lot of loose ends left from earlier in the series and answer a lot of questions that fans have been speculating about for a long while.

This being Bujold, it was well worth reading, and it’ll almost certainly be well worth re-reading. It’d even be worth shelf space (which is in short supply in our family!) if this were our own copy, and not borrowed. And this is a work any author should be proud to have produced.

But comparisons to Bujold’s earlier work are inescapable. As good as Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is, and as worthy a successor to A Civil Campaign and Memory as it is, it isn’t quite as good as either of those books. (A Civil Campaign is on my list of books everyone ought to read, in the third installment of the list, and Memory is a candidate for a fifth installment if I ever make one.)

Still, that’s about the worst thing I can say about it: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance doesn’t quite meet the standard of excellence par excellence that Bujold herself has set.

Jordan

We never thought we’d see the day when we’d see the words “the final volume of the Wheel of Time” on a book. But it’s come. The other long-awaited book is A Memory of Light, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

(In a collection of essays by Larry Niven I read a few years back, he talks about how, when a collaboration with another author—perhaps Pournelle?—was published, whichever author whose name the publisher had printed in bigger type on the cover called the other one to complain about the insult. On this book, Jordan’s name is written about half again as big as Sanderson’s, undoubtedly to make them equal width, but as I said when I saw that, Jordan is no longer alive on Earth to complain.)

A Memory of Light is a worthy conclusion to the series, tying up most major loose ends. (Jordan was on record as intending to leave several loose ends unresolved at the end, so this is if anything better than we feared.) The part of the resolution that is, by the structure, intended as “the climax proper” is somewhat unsatisfying, and as you might expect from a 900-page climax to a series it’s somewhat wearing, but even so on the whole it’s quite satisfying.

This isn’t my favorite of the series, or even of the three (which Jordan had said it would only take one—not that any of his fans believed him, since the whole thing was originally proposed as a trilogy and, according to the Wikipedia page the publisher gave him a six-book contract because he was known for writing longer stories than he projected) that Sanderson finished from Jordan’s notes. (Of the last three, I think my favorite is The Gathering Storm, because of the resolution of the divided-White-Tower arc.) But after such a long and involved series, being better than the previous books doesn’t matter so much as improving the series as a whole, and A Memory of Light is a worthy capstone to the series.

Others

There are two—well, three—more books I want to talk about.

The first is one that I had the opportunity to, but deliberately chose not to, read. In addition to lending us Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, A Memory of Light, The Alloy of Law, and one other (which I’ll talk about below), our friend in the local Mythopoeic Society chapter outright gave us J.K. Rowling’s first “novel for adults,” Casual Vacancy, saying that he had bought it under some assumptions that proved false, and that for him it wasn’t worth keeping. Based on that, and on a review of it (that I now can’t find), I decided against even starting it.

Second, while casting about for something quick to add to my count for this reading contest, I thought of an ebook I downloaded a while back (when it was being given away) but hadn’t yet read. It’s Aquasynthesis, a collection of apparently unrelated SF stories published by Splashdown Books.

As usual with such things, I think it would have been better without the “framing story.” And as usual with such things, the quality—my enjoyment—of the stories was somewhat hit-or-miss. But I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m glad I read it. I might even read it again at some point.

Lastly, the fourth book my family was lent is Imager by L.E. Modesitt. I’ve read several books in his Recluce series, and at least one in the “Spellsong Cycle”; the latter had an interesting premise but felt like hackwork (the premise has been overdone, and at one point he even slipped and used a term from the Recluce series), but the Recluce series—while varying in quality from book to book—is weighty, thought-provoking, and generally interesting and enjoyable. Imager feels more like Recluce than the Soprano Sorceress books (in terms of quality, not milieu or writing style, though there’s some resemblance there too). There’s an interesting premise here, fairly compelling characters, and it’s a far less grating first novel in a series than The Magic of Recluce (for all that that’s on my list of books everyone ought to read, having been added in the fourth installment), since we were introduced to Recluce through a point-of-view character who gets (temporarily) exiled from its carefully ordered society because he’s bored—something that, as it comes through in the prose, threatens to make the book boring, and Rhenn is anything but bored. I quite enjoyed Imager and look forward to reading future volumes as I come across them.

That’s all the “recent” books I have to talk about. Have you read any of these? (What did you think?) Or any other comments? What have you been reading lately?

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