The Year In Books (Part 2)
Continuing from Part 1 a couple days ago, here are capsule reviews of the rest of the books I read in 2010.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham
This is the first book of a fantasy trilogy concerned mainly with the corrupting influence of power. Though the book alternates through many point-of-view characters, the focal point is the four princes and princesses of a vast empire. Only after their kingdom is deposed by the “savage” race known as the Mein do these children learn the dark secrets that helped their people hold on to power: Among other things, the empire sends an annual tribute of children to placate a mysterious, powerful nation across the seas. This slave trade is crippling to many of the diverse tribes that the princes’ empire has subjugated in the name of the greater good.
The children are scattered to the four corners of the empire and left to grow up in very different cultures and situations. Years later, the ex-royalty find themselves back in the middle of political maneuverings that may return their father’s dynasty to power – if they want it.
At times, this 750-page novel gets bogged down by the plodding pace that derails so much epic fantasy. Fortunately, Durham also uses this to slowly build the main themes of his novel. The reader is hundreds of pages in before they fully comprehend that the Mein, far from being the purifying force they intended, have had to make compromises that make their empire just as corrupt as the one they replaced. The deposed princes and princesses struggle with the question of whether the sins of their fathers will continue on with them, or if there is even another option. At the end draws near, it seems that Durham’s thesis may be echoed in a fiercely idealistic movement led by the eldest son, which insists that the only true victory comes from never compromising their ethics at any cost. Yet perhaps the thesis is that corruption is inevitable, as even this hope comes to nothing (at least in the first novel).
There were times when I was on the fence about continuing with this series. However, the book ends with tantalizing hints that other secrets of the world will be revealed, and the theme of corrupting power is one that is important to me. I look forward to seeing where book two, Other Lands, leads.
Naked by David Sedaris
This is a collection of humorous autobiographical short stories. Sedaris is unashamed to showcase his selfish side and to discuss the aimless adventures that defined his youth. These qualities have given him a loyal following among middle-class intellectuals, who can live vicariously through his misspent wandering youth while drawing absolution for their own vague feelings of guilt from Sedaris’ confessions.
Sedaris has a gift for making even his personal experiences feel universal. Though my family’s dynamics were nothing like his, I still found myself nodding knowingly at his descriptions. All the characters (except for possibly the narrator, ironically) feel vibrant and consistent across the years, which is an especially difficult trick to pull off when drawing from life. Yet the book feels strangely inessential in the end. I read each chapter because it was there, and would have happily continued for as long as the book went on. As soon as it was over, I felt no need to seek out another book by him. This may have been partly because the last chapter breaks the spell of the rest. Everything up to that point is firmly looking back on the past with a mature, self-deprecating eye. That final chapter (“Naked”, from which the book gets its name) follows modern-day Sedaris on a trip to a nudist colony for a magazine assignment. The personality of author Sedaris is no longer separate from his younger subject, and the situation he is in becomes less fascinating when the reader knows that he is there specifically to write about it.
The City and The City by China Miéville
Miéville, arguably the most important fantasist of our times, is always trying something new. This book is his bid at a more accessible, cross-over novel, and to this end he adapts the tone of a police procedural. The clipped, informative prose that results, often filled with random details that would be seen by someone efficiently scanning their surroundings, puts the reader firmly in the scene. This is important, because Miéville is the master of the “New Weird”, and his settings wouldn’t otherwise be accepted by mainstream readers. In this case, he at least shows consideration to these readers by sticking with one Weird idea that develops through the course of the novel.
The setting of this novel is two distinct cities, each with their own culture and government. However, these cities exist in the same physical location. A native of Beźsel might walk right past a native or building of Ul Qoma, ignoring the “foreign city” with a practiced eye. This separation is strictly enforced by a mysterious organization known as “Breach”, who will use their absolute authority to punish anyone who damages the illusion that these cities are completely separate. For someone who has grown up in one of these cities, this strange lifestyle becomes unconscious, and they can “unsee” items in the other city with less effort than it would take to actually acknowledge them.
Similar to its namesake, The City and The City is two plots in one. The police procedural hits all the beats you would expect from a standard movie, as the narrator investigates a recent murder. Of course, as time goes on, it becomes obvious that the dual nature of the cities is involved, and the protagonist must also become dangerously involved in the mysteries that underlie his world.
Neither portion of the book succeeds entirely. The chief investigators from each city learn to trust each other, distrust the system around them, and make important progress in the case, but it seems to be more because the formula requires those steps than because of anything that comes organically out of the plot. Meanwhile, the explanation for the dual nature of the two cities is never satisfying: After reading the book, I still don’t know why someone would choose to live in such an awkward place, or what motivates The Breach to enforce such a system. Though there are hints of a rich past culture, possibly with a reason to create such a separation, we learn enough about the modern-day set-up to make it seem unsustainable.
I can’t argue with the final result, though. Miéville takes a premise that seems ridiculous at first, and makes it real. Near the end, when you catch yourself shocked at the idea that someone would breach the boundary between the cities, you’ll realize that the book has won you over.
The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupéry
I read this story only once as a child, so it was fairly unfamiliar to me when I returned to it last year. This meant that I didn’t have any preconceptions to distract me from the disappointing nature of this “classic”. 60 years ago, it was much more surprising for a book to satirize an adult’s worldview and compare it unfavorably to the simple honesty of a child’s. Now that this trope can be found everywhere in children’s stories, The Little Prince has little to make it unique. The satire itself seems slow and belabored, and the author often comes across as too preachy.
The exploration of friendship at the book’s end salvages the book from complete failure. This is a more challenging topic for authors to cover, especially when it comes to the unflinching sacrifice that this book is willing to consider, making it still somewhat notable in children’s literature.
The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross
The premise of this book is that it may sound exciting to work on a task force that protects the world from magical threats, but in reality, it would probably be as mind-numbingly dull as any other bureaucratic office job. Since this is written by Charles Stross, it also doesn’t shy away from scientific or mathematical discussions of what actually powers this “magic”.
That sounds like an interesting idea at first glance, but it’s not nearly as clever as Stross seems to think. If you’ve ever watched a detective show where the hero has to deal with “the system” and let his boss give him that “You’re out of line!” lecture, or if you’ve read a fantasy epic in which the narrator complains about all the mundane travel and starvation that “never makes it into the adventure stories”, then you’ve seen this before. Stross gives lip service to the fact that every minute of action is balanced against 8 hours of desk work, but he glosses over most of the boring parts to make the story fun. There are discussions of bureaucracy, of course, but that’s still par for the course in today’s Dilbert-influenced world. Besides, the bureaucratic threats are not defeated by playing within the system, but by infiltrating buildings at night or by taking complaints to administrators with the power of Deus Ex Machina. In the end, Stross sabotages most of what is supposed to make this book unique.
The plot itself is ok. A lot of build-up, followed by an actual adventure that feels too abbreviated. The physical nature of the book works against it, as well: I didn’t know that an extra novella was placed at the end, so I assumed that all the pages I saw were going to be used to wrap up the main novel. Once I understood the nature of the enemy, I thought that there was enough time left in the story to uncover the true, surprising plot behind what I knew. Suddenly, though, the story ended, and the characters seemed too surprised to learn what I had figured out already.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
This near-future sci-fi novella has a serious point to make. In it, Chiang argues that human-level Artificial Intelligence cannot be rushed. To achieve it, we’ll need to “grow” the intelligent creature with constant human and environmental interaction, letting it go through a frustrating childlike phase before it becomes “useful”. The story follows people who do just that, treating the AIs more like their children than tools.
Unfortunately, I mainly know what the thesis of the book is because the inside cover lays it out for the reader. Within the book, the argument is never made explicitly or through the story. While people who don’t understand the need for time and human interaction are shown to fail, the people who are raising the intelligences correctly never experience great success, either. By the end of the story, they’ve given up family, friends and money to do so, and only a couple of the thousands of people who originally tried are still going at it. All they have to show for years of effort are some computer constructs with child-like intelligence, with no guarantee that they’ll ever progress past that point. Chiang’s argument makes a lot of sense; it just isn’t well-supported by his story.
Judging the story by its own merits, it isn’t much more successful. Human motivations are only more obvious than the computers’ because the story is told from their point of view. It tells us what they are thinking rather than shows. In the most problematic example of this, the romantic tension between the two leads is explained via an update in each chapter, telling us which one isn’t in a relationship and whether they are hoping that the other one’s relationship will end soon. The plot itself never progresses very interestingly or resolves well. Chiang is a well-regarded author of short stories, but it seems that even novella-length stories require some skills that he isn’t yet comfortable with.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
This story is an interesting data point in my comparison of young adult and adult novels. Though it’s aimed at teenage boys, and therefore it keeps the sex and language toned back, it has some of the most disturbing scenes I’ve read all year. By the end of the book, the young narrator has seen his loved ones murdered, and has to deal with some truly awful things on his own conscience. It will resonate with anyone who is coming to terms with the evils of the world or their own potential to do harm, but don’t share it with a child who is overly sensitive.
The setting itself is very clever: Humans populated the planet a generation ago, but now live a simple subsistence life with no contact back to the high-tech Earth. Shortly after arriving, the settlers were exposed to a disease that killed every woman and made the men broadcast their thoughts so that anyone could hear. At least, that’s what Aaron, the protagonist, was brought up to believe. As the book opens, he makes a discovery that starts to reveal the depth of lies around him and the evil that men are capable of. He spends the book fleeing from village to village, while his thoughts broadcast more than he would like to share with either his pursuers or with the villagers who do not welcome anyone from his “cursed” village.
The book is tense, with new friends and enemies at every location, constant cliffhangers, and of course the mysteries about the truth that is sending Aaron on the run. His portrayal as a self-centered, resentful pre-teen is very convincing, as is the character growth he shows over the course of the book. I am confident that the rest of this series will give a very satisfying portrayal of his maturation. And yet, this book has some serious flaws that makes me wonder if I’ll bother with the sequels.
The progression of the plot, and the revelation of the mysteries behind it, are extremely frustrating. Almost everyone Aaron encounters could answer all his questions for him, but they never give more than one or two tantalizing hints before he has to run on again. This plot hammering is so blatant as to be insulting, especially considering that all the men he meets should be broadcasting these thoughts. Aaron even has a book with him that provides most of the answers, but he can’t read and keeps forgetting to ask others to read it for him. As for the rest of the plot, it firmly subscribes to the hackneyed comic book convention of “If you don’t see a body, then they aren’t dead’. Time after time, a character is left in a situation that should definitely kill them, but they reappear later. This cartoonish trope cheapens the serious, even shocking, events that should be driving the plot.
The story ends with a cliffhanger that might normally send me running out for the next book in the series. After an entire book of arbitrary plot-lengthening decisions, though, I just felt frustrated.
Kraken by China Miéville
As Miéville was writing the tightly structured, potentially mainstream The City And The City, he was also working on this sprawling mess of a book that returns to his “classic” style. Like so many other fantasy novels, it presents a normal Londoner discovering that a world of magic is intertwined with his seemingly mundane city. The shades of Gaiman’s Neverwhere are strong at first, as the protagonist is swept through events beyond his control. The quirky and memorable bad guys named Goss and Subby even play a suspiciously similar role to Gaiman’s own Croup and Vandemar.
Before long, though, it becomes obvious that Miéville’s main debt is to himself. This is reminiscent of his young adult Un Lun Dun, but while I felt that book was frustrating and overly cutesy, this novel takes the time to develop all his ideas and fit them into a cohesive system. The underlying conceit is clever, as well: Rather than understanding the world better with their magic, the people in this underground create new cults and religions to explain it. Though all indications are that no religions are right, nothing in this shadow London can be explained without the superstitions and religious wars that drive it.
This is classic Miéville, in both good and bad ways. While the ideas are creative and an incredible number of plots are juggled at once, it also has an inconclusive ending and can feel slow-paced as it keeps shuffling between those plots. There were stretches of time when I could only read one or two chapters per day, and in a book this convoluted, that kills the momentum. Read this book at a time when you can breeze through 500 pages in short order, and you won’t regret it.