Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

July 11, 2010

Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest

Filed under: review,Uncategorizable — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:41 pm

What should I write about this book—this book that is a city, this city that is a book, this book that is many books and none of them complete?

Cities are built upon cities and the graves of cities; books are nurtured on the warm, rich humus of libraries, the rotted and matured drifts of pages. A word, a phrase here and there, escapes the embrace of time and settles instead into a new book, bedding down in a second home.

People, too, are built on the ruin and the glory of past selves. The things we do, the books we read, the lovers we take all leave their marks on us, and we mark our cities, our books, our lovers in turn.

We must ask ourselves, then: upon what is Palimpsest written? What was reused, what was erased, what was allowed to remain, that this book could come to me like bread still warm from the oven?

It rests upon three pillars. The first, a thing of steel and mother of pearl, is the portal quest; four very different people find a new world, and there is a destiny only they can fulfill. The second is strange and fantastical, but nobody else gives it more than a passing glance; after all, they see it every day. The world is revealed slowly, in sidelong allusions and small pieces to be jigsawed together—or tossed down and left to make what pattern they will. The last has the dream-logic and strange gravities of a new relationship, of an unexpected seduction, of the discipline you never knew would be your life.

It subverts the portal-quest, in that there is no wizard, no eternally trustworthy guide—and in that the transitions between worlds are quietly backgrounded. An immersive fantasy is normally one in which the reader is the only stranger, and little care is given to make her feel at home; this is very much not the case in Palimpsest. The only intrusion is that of our protagonists, and in the end, that is accepted rather than resolved. And, whilst in the liminal fantasy, the fantastic approaches and retreats (or, conversely, is approached and retreated from) here the fantastic and the reader take their places in a winding, looping dance of approach & retreat, teasingly, seductively. But we all know how those dances end, and so it is with this.

Despite the size and complexity of the city of Palimpsest—which is, after all, almost de rigueur for city fantasy—it feels very circumscribed, very personalized. And the story tells you, its own self, that this is for you: that no other reader has been given the same book.

So, then, let us close the book, and leave the city to live happily ever after. When we return to it, it will be made new.

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