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Anthony Ryan's epic fantasy novel Blood Song (2011), first in what I hope is only a trilogy in progress, begins with Lord Verniers, the Imperial Chronicler of the southern Alpiran Empire, recounting the time he met the legendary war hero of the northern Unified Realm, Vaelin Al Sorna. Among Vaelin's many names is Hope Killer, for in battle he killed the Hope of the Empire, the Emperor's chosen successor from among his people and Verniers' best friend (at least). For that "murder," Vaelin has spent the last five years in an Imperial dungeon, and has only now been released so that he may face certain death in a duel against the champion of the Meldenean Islands. For their part, the Meldeneans want to watch Vaelin ("the Spawn of the City Burner") die because when his father was Battle Lord of the Realm he torched one of their cities along with its men, women, and children. Verniers' italicized first person narration beginning each of the five parts of Ryan's novel reveal the Chronicler's scornful view of Vaelin's "savage" culture and his hatred of Vaelin. Verniers is also fascinated by the man with "an innate inability to be diminished" and can't resist asking Vaelin to tell his life story so he can write it down as they sail towards his impending doom.
The five parts of the novel, then, narrated in third person from Vaelin's point of view, appear at first to be Verniers' version of Vaelin's story, but the farther the novel progresses, the more it becomes apparent that Vaelin is hiding things from Verniers. . . This raises uncomfortable questions the novel may not answer: why does Ryan begin by making us think Verniers is telling Vaelin's story and then suddenly reveal that he's not, and if he's not, who is?
Be that as it may, the bulk of Blood Song is the account of Vaelin's life from age 11 when he was put by his father into the monkish Sixth Order of the Faith, the Order dedicated to smiting the enemies of the Faith and the Realm. Vaelin is shaped like tempered steel into a Brother of his new "family" (the Brothers are supposed to sever all ties to their former biological families), undergoing harsh martial training, bonding with his fellow young initiates, and gradually learning more about his biological family, about the seven Orders, about the Faith (based on ancestor worship), about its "heretic" Deniers, about realpolitik, and about his "blood song," a gift or a curse that warns him when something bad is going to happen and helps him read people. Vaelin is a compelling protagonist, a person of courage, sensitivity, empathy, morality, and kindness, as well as an instinctive, skilled, and fearsome fighter, able to kill unthinkingly and then to feel his soul soiled by the act.
Ryan writes many great lines. Pithy ones: "War is always an adventure to those who have never seen it." Humorous ones: “The smell was enough to make Scratch get up and slink away.” Ultra violent ones: "[Vaelin] heard rather than saw the geyser of blood painting the ceiling and walls, as the headless corpse continued for a few steps before collapsing." Numinous ones: "He wondered if he would dream of wolves." Sublime ones: "It was the strangest and most unfamiliar landscape he had seen, a broad expanse of mostly bare rock pocked by small pools of rainwater and rocky tors rising from the undulating surface like great deformed mushrooms." And one recurring line of intense pathos, when Vaelin protests too much: "I have no father."
Stephen Brand has an appealing and affecting slight northern England accent, by which the "o" in words like love, up, and some becomes "oh," which expresses Vaelin's "barbarian" speech as heard by a "civilized" Empire listener like Verniers. In general, Brand's voice is quite appealing, intelligent, raspy, British, and sparse, a perfect match for Ryan's text. He modifies it for different characters, as with Frentice's street cockney, but never egregiously, not even when doing voices of female characters or children.
Blood Song has plenty of elements typically found in the heroic epic fantasy genre: different histories and cultures in conflict; small-scale and wide-screen graphic violence; supernatural abilities or gifts; a natural born leader hero with prodigious fighting ability, strong moral code ("I'll kill but I won't murder"), sensitive conscience ("I am a murderer"), and vital destiny; a brilliant and beautiful princess chafing in her role; a mysterious evil entity with occult evil minions; a melting pot world (no elves, dwarves, or orcs, but plenty of hunter gatherers, pirate captains, European-esque knights, British-esque longbowmen, Chinese-esque merchant princes, African or Arabic-esque nobles, etc.); and so on. But Ryan tells his story with such humane conviction, complex characters, spare prose, skillful revelations, exciting and horrifying violence, modern political vision, bracing imagination, and unsentimental pathos, that reading Blood Song was a page-turning pleasure I didn't want to end. Ryan's world creation, fantastic imagination, and narrative approach are not as weird and unique as something like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon, but Blood Song is authentic and compelling, and fans of heroic epic fantasy should enjoy it.
The promising conceit of Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Or on the Segregation of the Queen (1994) is that Mary Russell, who possesses deductive powers and mental brilliance the equal of Sherlock Holmes, met the great detective in 1915, when she was fifteen and he fifty-four, became his apprentice/confidante, began helping him solve mysteries as a fully equal partner, and now as an old woman in the 1990s is writing her memoirs about her relationship and experiences with Holmes. King cleverly has Russell explain at the outset that because Holmes became a figment of Dr. Watson's imagination, because Watson's stories about him had taken on a life of their own, and because now people are writing their own stories featuring Holmes, her detective may differ from the one in the reader's imagination. She also points out that her version will be more accurate than Watson's, because the good doctor always viewed his friend from a position of inferiority, whereas she was never awed by Holmes' deductive powers, possessing them herself to an extraordinary degree.
The "tall, sardonic recluse" and the "gangling, be-spectacled girl" met on the Sussex downs after Holmes had seemingly "retired" from detective work to live on a farm where he could keep and study bees, and Russell, whose parents and brother had been killed (and she emotionally and physically scarred) in an accident, had begun living with an unloving aunt on a nearby farm belonging to her mother's family. Both being "blessed or cursed with minds of hard brilliance that alienated all but the most tenacious" people, they felt an immediate affinity. The plot gets going in earnest a few years/chapters later, after Holmes has tempered, tested, and trained Russell, who has also been studying mathematics and theology at Oxford University, and they take on a kidnapping case that "reeks of failure."
Jenny Sterlin gives a fine reading of the novel. I like her Holmes, slightly deeper than Russell, and superiorly wry. Missing from the audiobook is King's cute preface in which she writes about receiving a trunk full of Holmes and Russell artifacts, including the manuscripts for all the stories written by Russell, as if she (and not King) were their author.
King writes plenty of cool lines one can imagine Holmes uttering:
--"My life has been plagued by criminals with instinct but no sense."
--"Guessing is a bad habit brought on by indolence."
--"Reading that drivel of Watson's a person would never know I've had any real failures."
Russell also has plenty of good lines:
--"Holmes, this is Russell you're talking to, not Mr. Watson or Mrs. Hudson."
--"No! I refuse to accept a gallant stupidity in place of rational necessity. Go."
--"Reminders of my femininity always took him by surprise. However, I could not hold him to blame, for they always took me by surprise as well."
And King writes plenty of pleasurable sentences, as in this passage: "Sherlock Holmes had invented his profession, and it fit him like a glove. We watched in admiration that verged on awe, as his love of challenge, his flair for the dramatic, his precise attention to detail, and his vulpine intelligence were called into play and transformed his thin face by putty and paint into that of his brother."
However, she also writes a few melodramatic clunkers:
--"Eccentricity had flowed into madness as malignant as a poisonous spider."
-- "I was struck again by the size of that man's [Holmes'] heart."
And Holmes stroking Russell's hair to soothe her to sleep once let alone twice seems a bridge too far in character revision. And Russell and Holmes diss Watson a bit too often. And a certain Holy Land "excursus" may not be entirely meet.
[SPARSE SPOILER ALERT]
Worst of all, the climax is unfortunate. After King has the criminal genius nemesis of Holmes and Russell go to so much effort arranging elaborate crimes, traps, and tricks to toy with them, and has our genius heroes go to so much effort figuring out the purpose and identity of their nemesis and setting up their own elaborate trap for her, to then have the climax come down to the Scene of Triumphant Gloating followed by the Scene of Diving and Scrambling for a Loaded Gun felt disappointing. For that matter, despite being an unobservant and illogical person, I guessed the nature, gender, and identity of the nemesis before Holmes and Russell do so, which made me think that a mystery story involving genius detectives has somehow failed.
I did enjoy the relationship between Holmes and Russell. I do like a 90-something woman writing her memoirs, because it adds a fine melancholy to everything that happens. I am intrigued by her provocatively signing her "author's preface" M. R. H. Fans of pastiches and fiction featuring Holmes should like this book.
A day in the life of Eric Packer, 28-year-old "hyper-maniacal" self-made billionaire genius asset manager and founder of Packer Capital, may not sound so promising as the subject of a novel, but "Maybe today is the day when everything happens." Eric's day begins after another night of insomnia. "What did he do when this happened? He did not take long walks into the scrolling dawn. There was no friend he loved enough to harrow with a call. What was there to say? It was a matter of silences, not words." He walks through the 48 rooms of his triplex apartment, "past the lap pool, the card parlor, the gymnasium, past the shark tank and screening room," before tracking currencies and examining research reports and descending in the one of his two private elevators that plays music by Satie. Leaving the 89-story residential tower, Eric enters his anonymous white limousine, telling his chief of security, Torval, "I want a haircut," though the destination lies across NY City through a vast traffic jam caused by a visit from the President of the United States. As Eric's limo crawls across town in stops and starts, he is serially joined for meetings in the car by his top aides (chief of technology, currency analyst, etc.), and at one point a doctor's associate even enters the car to give him his daily health check up and rectal prostate exam. Occasionally Eric leaves the stopped limo, to visit his mistress art dealer or to eat a meal with his wife of 22 days, Elise Shifrin, banking fortune heiress and poetess, who realizes for the first time that he has blue eyes and refuses to have sex with him because the energy involved in poetic creation is "precious."
Aside from sleep increasingly failing Eric, strange things seem to be happening today. His chief of technology assures him that "our system's secure. . . we're impermeable." Why then does Eric catch a glimpse of himself in the limo spycam running his thumb along his chinline one or two seconds before he runs his thumb along his chinline? All factors must lead the yen, which he has been borrowing in massive amounts, to drop in value. Why then does it continue to rise? Eric has read a line in a poem about a city under siege that goes, "a rat became the unit of currency." Why then do grey spandex-clad anarchist performance artists start popping up waving dead rats around in the air? He believes that "Data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process," and that "the master thrust of cyber capital" would be "to extend the human experience to infinity, a medium for corporate growth and investment." Why then does he feel so much in his body and want to live in "meat space"? And a "credible threat" against his life has manifested itself. Why then does he feel so unconcerned and alive?
Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003) explores the mind of a cyber capital potentate and by extension our contemporary world, dominated as it is by "the investment banker, the land developer, the venture capitalist, the software entrepreneur, the global overlord of satellite and cable, the discount broker, the beaked media chief." But it also speculates on the human condition in general, on love, memory, identity, pain, doubt, randomness, fate, and knowledge, all influenced by metropolitan life.
DeLillo packs into this April 2000 day in the life of Eric Packer philosophical ideas (e.g., "But how can you make words out of sounds? These are two separate systems that we miserably try to link," like "Mirrors and images. Or sex and love"); speculations on "obsolete" words (e.g., skyscraper, office, and ATM); quirky characters (e.g., the stalker Benno Levin); funny and pointed conversations (e.g., "That's not why I'm unemployable." "Then why?" "Because I stink. Smell me." "Smell me."); and bizarre and vivid set pieces (e.g., a movie scene shot in the middle of the night featuring a horde of nude people lying as if stunned or dead in an intersection). DeLilo also writes many neat descriptions, like this one contrasting people and advertisements ("Stunted humans in the shadow of the underwear gods that adorned the soaring billboards. These were figures beyond gender and procreation"). And many pithy lines:
"Poems made him conscious of his breathing."
"Money is talking to itself now."
"The logical extension of business is murder."
"What did he want that was not posthumous?"
Will Patton gives a great reading of the novel, craggy and tender, a high point being the intense stream of consciousness fugue before the climax wherein Eric ponders a closed door in a derelict building.
Not all of Cosmopolis works for me. For instance, there's a long scene of a grandiose funeral for a sufi-rap star that feels forced and unsuitable for Eric's character. But readers interested in the contemporary human condition, in cities, or in dense, rich, short novels should like this one.
September 1792. The Reign of Terror is in full swing in Paris as crowds of "citoyens" enjoy the guillotining of a hundred aristocratic traitors and enemies of France per day. But wait! A plucky band of young English lords, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, has been rescuing condemned French "aristos" and their families and escorting them to England, thereby thwarting, embarrassing, and insulting the leaders of the Revolutionary government. And why? Because English nobles are sportsmen, "saving men, women and children from death, as other men destroy and kill animals for the excitement." And who is this Scarlet Pimpernel, the leader of the League, the brave, cunning, and audacious master of disguise who commands perfect love and loyalty from his followers? Faith, the French would pay dearly for that secret!
In this context, La, how dispiriting does Lady Blakeney (nee Marguerite St. Just) find her husband Sir Percy! True, he is tall, "massive," and handsome, and he is one of the ten richest men in England and is a close friend of the Prince of Wales, but, alas, he is also "a dandified leader of fashion," "an effete fop," "a brainless nincompoop," possessed of a lazy expression, an "inane laugh," and no intellectual pursuits. Why did Marguerite marry Sir Percy, when she was one of the most sought after women in Paris, "the cleverest woman in Europe," a dazzlingly beautiful young actress and hostess of a "charming salon" frequented by minds of "originality and intellect"? Because Sir Percy loved her more than life itself, and she had never before been so loved. That changed the day after their marriage when Marguerite confessed that she had caused the death by guillotine of a Marquis and his family, for in her pride she withheld from Percy the extenuating circumstances, immediately turning his love to contempt and hers in turn to despite. Thus by September 1782 they are the happily married king and queen of fashion in public, an estranged couple in private.
When French spies and agents show up in England hunting for the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel so as to become able to catch and guillotine him in France, and when Marguerite's beloved brother Armand is threatened with death in France as a traitor to the Revolution, the plot of The Scarlet Pimpernel heats up.
The Baroness must be one of the first writers of historical, romantic espionage. She works hard to generate suspense. She tosses in neat reality claims, mentioning for instance that the Fisherman's Rest hostelry/coffee room is still frequented in the 20th century and that Percy's "palatial" house in Richmond is now "a historic one." Marguerite and Percy and their fraught relationship are compelling. The Scarlet Pimpernel's "arch-enemy," "the cunning devil," "the wizened fiend," the "fox-faced" French agent Chauvelin, is interesting. Even as he hates the Scarlet Pimpernel he can’t help but admire him, and believes (not without cause) that every French aristo who escapes France will strive to generate support and money and armies with which to return the monarchy and stamp out the Revolution.
However, too often the Baroness overwrites. She uses the word "inane" to describe Percy at least twenty times and "fox" or "foxy" to describe Chauvelin at least a dozen, and paints the villain too infernally. She works too hard to make us idolize, if not worship, the Scarlet Pimpernel, possessed as he is of "that strong individuality which belongs to a leader of men--to a hero: to the mighty, high-soaring eagle," a "fearless lion," a man whose name brings a blush to the cheeks of the women of England, and we are repeatedly reminded of his bravery, cleverness, impudence, audacity, energy, nobility, and heroism. He is never unmodified; he is always "the brave Scarlet Pimpernel," "their brave rescuer," "the brave hero," "one brave man," "the brave eagle," "their brave deliverer," "a brave heart," and so on, ad nauseam.
The Baroness often writes febrile prose, as when female characters experience "nameless terror," "nameless dread," or "nameless misery." Not to mention sentences like, "Every word they had spoken seemed to strike at her heart with terrible hopelessness and dark foreboding." And passages like, "How lovely she looked in this morning sunlight, with her ardent hair streaming around her shoulders. He bowed very low and kissed her hand; she felt the burning kiss and her heart thrilled with joy and hope."
Furthermore, granted that the French Revolutionary government was, especially for people living in monarchies, a bloodthirsty regime madly plying the guillotine in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity, the Baroness depicts England as "the land of liberty and of hope," but in that "beautiful land of freedom" the common English "yokels" and fishermen tug their forelocks before their noble betters and punctiliously vacate the coffee room in the Fisherman's Rest for them. Something doesn't add up.
Michael Page gives a solid reading of the novel, though I wish he would pause now and then to heighten the effect of some of the Baroness' dramatic phrases and to give the reader a chance to catch his or her breath.
Finally, I remember Scaramouche (1921) by Rafael Sabatini as being a better written, less overwrought, more suspenseful, more substantial, and equally romantic (and questioning of identity) book set in the same period.
In Flyte (2006), the second novel in Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series, eleven-year-old Septimus Heap (seventh son of a seventh son), is now the Apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, happily learning everything Magykal he can, cleaning the library, and dreaming of Flyte, "the Last Lost Art." (Sage uses bold font, capital letters, and archaic spelling to make Magykal things look special.) All is not well, however, in the Wizard's Tower in the Castle. An ominous Shadow has been shadowing Marcia and her ShadowSafe is taking much too long to construct. Worse, Septimus' eldest brother Simon, who resentfully ran away to live in the Badlands and learn magic from the remains of the Necromancer DomDaniel when Sepitmus and not he became Marcia's Apprentice, kidnaps the Princess Jenna (the Heap's adopted daughter), for some nefarious purpose. Without any support from the feckless adults around him, Septimus sets off to rescue Jenna. From there Sage tells a page turning story full of laughs and frights and action that you can imagine entertaining theater audiences.
There are moments of magical writing in Flyte, as when something moves up through the Marram Marshes "ice white in the moonlight," when a lab emits "a distinctive smell that reminded Septimus of burned pumpkin," and when, after a vivid description of the sentient Dragon Boat, Sage writes, "Deep in a locked hold, which no one had opened--not even Aunt Zelda--beat her heart, silent and slow." Unfortunately, despite all the Magykal Spells, Charms, Hexes, Balms, Potions, Artifacts, Wizards, Witches, and fantastic beings, such moments are rare and lost amid much uninspired writing. There are mundane similes, as when five different times characters drop or sink "like a stone" and as when a character is swatted into the air by a dragon tail "Like a baseball sailing out of the ball park," though there's nary a hint of the sport in the pseudo-medieval magical world. Some things even act as magic-mood breakers, like the Apprentice Belts that Septimus and Simon use like Batman Utility Belts.
At times Sage's suspense doesn't work because she signals what's really happening before the characters catch on, distancing the reader from their panic attacks (by, for instance, revealing that a pursuing cloud is white instead of black). Perhaps Sage is trying to make her book less scary for kids. (She also caters to kids with plenty of "gross" humor: booger-eating bugs, dragon dung, leaky sewer pipes, Land Wurm slime, cabbage sandwiches, etc.) And although she does introduce the potentially interesting Wolf Boy and Merrin Meredith, her characters, even Jenna and Septimus, feel under-developed, partly because she is so busy writing one exciting action scene after another--which actually begins causing a suspense-numbness. Indeed, despite a fair amount of Flyte going on in the novel, I rarely felt any magical wonder or transcendent exhilaration from the activity, partly because Sage usually shows Flyte during "suspenseful" action scenes.
If the story and characters were compelling enough, I wouldn't stop to ask questions, but as it is . . . Why would any pirate, no matter how notorious, keep a merchant prisoner in the hold of his ship for seven years instead of killing him or selling him for ransom? Why is Septimus so afraid of heights but dreams longingly of Flyte? Why does Jenna save someone's life at one point and then later angrily ask Septimus why he does the same thing? Why are so many of the ghosts--but not the Queen's ghost--visible to living people? Etc. And because Sage never really explains what Magyk is or how it works, despite Septimus having been Marcia's Apprentice for at least a year, for the sake of her plot she can do anything she wants any time. As a result, I often found myself asking questions like "Why do they use Magyk to make coffee?" or "Why don't they use Magyk to lift up this sunken boat?"
Gerard Doyle is a capable reader, but less enhancing than Allan Corunder was for the first book. Though Doyle is fine doing a "low, sepulchral voice" and natural enough doing women, his kids start sounding a bit whiny. The audiobook does not include Sage's "What Happened Before. . ." afterword, in which she writes amusing and neat mini-story backgrounds for nearly all the characters who appear in Flyte.
Flyte is not a bad book. It has many virtues. In addition to being good at telling page-turning stories with a heart, Sage imagines cool things like the Counterfeits board game whose counters have minds of their own. And the ShadowSafe and Doll's House are interesting and creepy. She's good at surprises. And I like her exploration of families: biological, adoptive, surrogate, coven, camp, and more. And I do like Septimus and Jenna and Marcia and Arthel and look forward to finding out how they develop in future books. But if the third book in the series is as disappointing as Flyte, I may regret having bought books 2-7 during an Audible sale. I hope that they will have less movie-ready action and more magical Magyk.
Roughly the eighth book featuring Miles Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold's ever-entertaining space opera series the Vorkosigan Saga is Komarr (1998). It opens about three months after the events of the last one, Memory (1997), when the brilliant, curious, hyperactive, and independent Miles apparently found his calling as an Imperial Auditor, a detective/diplomat/judge/paladin who speaks with "the Emperor's Voice." Because Miles and his eight fellow Auditors wield the authority of the Emperor without rules as they solve unusual, challenging, and politically delicate cases, it would seem to be an ideal gig for Miles. And it is, but for one small drawback: it tends to put him on the defensive and to deny him his "forward momentum" that has entertainingly (for us) helped him get into and out of so much trouble in past novels. In this one Miles has traveled to Komarr with his older Auditor colleague Vorbathys to investigate the accident which may be sabotage by which a freight space ship crashed into the solar mirror system vital to the ongoing terraforming of the harsh planet. And it just so happens that Vorbathys and Miles will be staying with the family of the older man's niece, Ekaterin Vorsoisson, whose husband Etienne is the administrator in charge of terraforming in the part of Komarr most affected by the accident/sabotage.
Bujold alternates chapters told from the points of view of Miles and Ekaterin, whose husband is a domineering, serial job-changer who refers to Miles behind his back as "the Vor dwarf" (readers familiar with the series know that an assassination attempt on his parents while he was inside his mother's womb made Miles unnaturally short and large headed). The most interesting parts of this book depict Ekaterin's unhealthy relationship with her selfish and manipulative husband (sex with whom is a nightmarish labor for which she must "hypnotize" herself via ugly fantasies into being able to respond with "natural" passion to avoid his resentful guilt-trips), her curious feelings about Miles (how did he receive and survive the myriad scars on his stunted body?), and his attraction to her (which involves sensual dreams, wistful conjugal fantasies, asides like "Down boy, don't even think about it," and rhetorical questions like "So what is this thing you have about tall women and unrequited love?") It's neat for the lonely Miles to take a back seat every other chapter to a potentially strong but hitherto "self-effacing and self-erasing" woman as she wonders, "How did I grow so small?" and begins to realize that she owns herself.
All of the above is complicated by the fact that Miles, Vorbathys, and the Vorsoissons hail from Barrayar, the homeworld of the Empire that some decades ago violently absorbed Komarr so as to be able to control the planet's many wormhole jump points, which still makes some of the native Komarrans resentful if not rebellious. And by the fact that Ekaterin's husband and their young son Nikolai have a genetically-transmitted, AIDS-like adult-onset disease, her husband having refused thus far to be treated for it because of the attendant shame on being perceived to be a "mutant" in the still too macho and patriarchal Barrayaran culture. Bujold highlights that culture by having her Barrayaran characters think of, allude to, or talk about apt Barrayaran sayings, fairy tales, epic poems, legends, and such that emphasize their dread of mutants and their celebration of self-sacrificing women and heroic men.
Throughout the novel, Bujold writes plenty of her trademark witty lines of dialogue and italicized inner thoughts:
"Tien with a plan was about as reassuring as a two-year-old with a charged plasma arc."
"How could you be lovers with someone and yet feel that every moment alone with them intruded upon your privacy, your dignity?"
"I spent a career fighting the powers that be, now I am them."
"Marriage was not an experience she cared to repeat."
Grover Garden gives his usual professional reading of the novel: nothing fancy, a limited number of voices, none of which are very different from each other, but all easy to listen to (and only his voice could belong to Miles!).
Although to move her plot forward Bujold has Miles act a few times in ways that are, given the situation and his character, unbelievably obtuse or reckless, she tells an involving mystery and an appealingly awkward romance, and I recommend Komarr for fans of entertaining, political, cultural and psychological space opera who don't require violent, large-scale, and pyrotechnic action.
The fourth entry in Patrick O'Brien's Age of Sail books about the bosom buddies Jack Aubrey (navy man through and through) and Stephen Maturin (surgeon, naturalist, spy), The Mauritius Command (1977), probably features the most action in the series up to this point. The novel begins domestically enough, with Stephen visiting Jack at his poky Hampshire cottage where he lives with his wife Sophie, their twin girls ("bald babies" with "pale, globular faces," turnip-like noses, and the air of being "infinitely old, or members of another genus"), her obnoxious niece Cecelia, and her atrocious mother Mrs. Williams. They're struggling to get by on Jack's half-pay (as a post-captain without a ship), because Mrs. Williams lost all her money and Sophie's dowry in a foolish investment. Their hives house cobwebs rather than bees; their vegetable garden is rife with caterpillars and flies; their cow is cadaverous and dry. Jack, whose natural medium is the sea, is clumsy and lugubrious on land and spends long hours in his jury-rigged observatory gazing longingly at passing ships.
Luckily for Jack, Stephen has managed to get him an important commission: he is to captain a frigate to the Cape of Good Hope, where he will join a squadron of British ships to help them give Bonaparte and company a black eye by taking the French island colonies of and around Mauritius. Stephen is to deal with intel, propaganda, and diplomacy, while Jack is to be the Commodore of the entire action. This is but a temporary post, after which he will resume being a post-captain, but success may land him a baronetcy. It surely gives Jack a host of new worries and frustrations, partly because he frets at not being able to take part in the plans he designs, partly because he must give orders to captains who are the lords of their own ships and hope that they will perform well. It is thus vital that he accurately assess their strengths and weaknesses, and they don't get on well together. In fact, Lord Clonfert envies, admires, fears, worships, and hates Jack and feels an over-mastering desire to impress and surpass him, which, combined with his dashing behavior and manic-depressive personality, makes for a compelling character.
Throughout the novel O'Brien liberally (though never tediously) sprinkles age of sail details about food, ships, tactics, and the like, as well as about Stephen's interest in flora and fauna and human nature. And, of course, plenty of action: ferocious, "hammer and tongs" naval battles, delicately coordinated land and sea attacks, aborted actions, cat and mouse games, and more. O'Brien never repeats a battle scene, whether by its events or by how he narrates them. Now he thrusts us up close and personal into real-time action, so that we hear the thundering broadsides crashing into our ship and see the deadly wooden splinters flying around and smell the powder and blood; now he stops just before an action is about to begin and lets us see what happened in the fight by reading over Jack's shoulder as he writes an enthusiastic but circumspect letter about it to Sophie. Some of the most suspenseful scenes involve transferring landlubber Stephen from one vessel to another.
The most enjoyable part of O'Brien's books is the rich friendship between Stephen and Jack as they age, share more failures and triumphs, and gain more (not always accurate) insights into each other's character. For example, "Jack loved him, and had not the least objection to granting him all the erudition in the world, while remaining inwardly convinced that in all practical matters other than physic and surgery Stephen should never be allowed out alone." Another funny example occurs when Stephen warns Jack, "To swim so soon after dinner, and such a dinner? I cannot advise it. You are very corpulent; full of gross, viscous humours after these weeks and months of Poirier's cooking. . . . dinners have killed more men than ever Avicenna healed." Stephen's continuing ignorance about the navy is mildly exasperating to Jack and comforting to the reader. And they give each other warm endearments: "my dear," "joy," and "brother."
But O'Brien avoids writing simple bromance sea adventures by including the horrifying wounds resulting from naval warfare, the slimy politicking behind promotions and appointments, the insoluble psychological mystery of Clonfert, and the occasional misanthropy of Stephen, as when Jack says, "Without there were babies, we should have no next generation," and Stephen replies, "So much the better, when you consider the state to which we've reduced the world they must live in, the bloody-minded, wolfish stock from which they spring, and the wicked inhuman society that will form them."
With a sensual poetry O'Brien evokes the experience of being at sea in the age of sail, whether feeling so cut off from the land as to be in another world, being becalmed, surviving a hurricane, or getting under way in a frigate:
"The Raisonable began to speak as she bore up for Rodriguez, spreading sail after sail: the masts complained, the taut rigging sang with a greater urgency, the sound of the water racing along her side mounted to a diffused roar; the complex orchestra of cordage, wood under stress, moving sea and wind, all-pervading sound, exalting to the sea-borne ear."
Readers who like authentic, character-driven historical sea fiction (especially like that by Forester and Lambdin set during the Napoleonic wars) must like O'Brien's books, but should begin with the first in the series, Master and Commander, for although each book is self-contained, all work together to tell one composite story.
The reader Ric Jerrom is flawless; only he can be Jack and Stephen and O'Brien's narrator for me.
When I began Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929), a fictional essay based on lectures about "women and fiction" that Woolf presented at two Cambridge University women's colleges, I expected to find a well-written proto-feminist tract (if not a "blazing polemic" as the book description on Audible calls it). I did not expect to find a beautiful, funny, stimulating, and readable pleasure. While expressing Woolf's plea that women be accorded the same things that most men have always taken for granted--enough money, privacy, space, and freedom to live and write how they will--her book presents a concise history of (mostly) British literature and a modest account of aesthetic creation, both informed by an accurate and respectful view of the sexes. Although she twice humorously confirms with her audience that no men are hiding in the room, Woolf wrote her book for both men and women. And though much of it is most applicable to the early 20th century, much of it is still relevant to the early 21st.
After introducing her core "opinion," that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," in the first chapter Woolf talks about visiting "Oxbridge," a fictional hybrid of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. There a Beadle gesticulates her off the grass, protecting the turf of the male Fellows and scholars. There a man tells her that ladies are only admitted to the library in the company of a Fellow or a letter of introduction. There she decides not to attempt to enter the chapel for a service. With sweet-tempered sour grapes, she figures that "the outside of these magnificent buildings is often as beautiful as the inside." She ponders all the gold and silver on which the university was built and is maintained and attends a sumptuous luncheon at a male college and a poor dinner at a woman's college.
Woolf's Oxbridge experience sends her in the second chapter to the British Museum to search its library for answers to questions like, "Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?" She discovers that all of the many books on women were written by men, many of whom, despite living in patriarchal England, must be angry at women because they suspect that women want to seize their power.
In the third chapter Woolf cites a dead bishop as opining "that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare." This inspires her to speculate on the lives of historically invisible middle-class Elizabethan women and to imagine Shakespeare's sister Judith, whose era prevented her from becoming a playwright and drove her to suicide.
Woolf gives a history of women authors in chapter four, beginning with a couple of "eccentric" 17th-century aristocrats derided for writing poetry, moving to the first middle-class woman to earn a living by her writing, and then comparing the four great 19th-century women novelists, Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, and George Elliot, explaining how difficult it was for them to write in a world in which women had no private rooms and could not own anything.
In Chapter Five, Woolf examines the state of contemporary women's fiction, riffs on the scarcity in past literature of women who are close friends with women, and advises the female author of today to "be truthful" and to write "as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself."
In the sixth chapter Woolf ties together threads from earlier chapters and promotes androgyny ("one must be woman-manly or man-womanly"), for any purely masculine or feminine mind will be sterile and barren. Interestingly, she also thinks that the sexes are too similar and that their differences should be increased. The conclusion to her book is that if women could have 500 pounds per year (enough to live on) and a room of their own (a private space) they may be themselves, write what they wish, and in time bring Shakespeare's sister to life.
Throughout her book Woolf explains interesting observations about literature: WWI replaced the "illusion" of romance with "reality," Charlotte Bronte's situation deformed her genius, "masterpieces are not single and solitary births," some writers (like Shakespeare) are more "incandescent" and "androgynous" than others, and fiction written with integrity (truth) intensifies the reader's experience of the world. And everywhere she writes supernally, whether describing prunes ("stringy as a miser's heart") or sunlight on windows ("The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder"). Placing Woolf's great novels, To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando in the context of A Room of One's Own shows that she did write poetic, incandescent, and androgynous fiction illuminated by integrity and experience.
This audiobook version of A Room of One's Own, read to perfection by Juliet Stephenson, whose clear, intelligent, and sympathetic voice enhances Woolf's wry sense of humor, keen insights, beautiful imagery, original metaphors, and flowing sentences, is followed by four short stories by Woolf also read by Stephenson:
--"Monday or Tuesday," in which, "Lazy, indifferent, shaking space easily from his wings, knowing his way," a heron flies above a series of vivid images.
--"The Haunted House," in which a ghostly couple searches a house for buried treasure, "The light in the heart."
--"Kew Gardens," in which an intrepid snail tries to reach its goal as several imperfectly communicating couples walk by beautiful flowers.
--"The New Dress," in which Mabel Waring wretchedly regrets wearing the wrong dress to Mrs. Dalloway's party.
Adrash, the 30,000 year-old "god" of the world Jeroun, has spent the last 20,000 years trying without success to change the nature of humankind, whose petty and violent behavior (especially through their worship of him) has led to predictably cyclic rises and falls of civilizations. Bored, Adrash longs for the challenge of some prophet uniting the competing nations and feuding religious sects of Jeroun and leading them into war against him. But (sigh) people can't change, can they? Adrash thus has a decision to make: "Return to Jeroun as mankind's redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever."
Zachary Jernigan's weird epic fantasy novel, No Return (2013), is largely about the human (in)ability to change, alternating between two story-strands featuring five point of view characters. One set, a man, a woman, and a "construct," are traveling together across the continent of Knoori to the city of Danoor, there to attend an influential combat tournament that's held once each decade. Vedas Tezul, a devout warrior monk, plans to win the tournament for his Black Suits, Anadrashi devoted to the downfall of Adrash and opposed to the White Suit Adrashi who worship him). For twenty years Vedas has not removed his skin-tight magical black armor (and has not had sex). Despite his faith, he suffers persistent guilt and grief whenever a child recruit to his Order is killed in a skirmish against the White Suits. Vedas' companion Berun is an assassin construct, a robot made of magical metallic spheres. Caring nothing for money or religion but liking fights and festivals, Berun plans to win the secular tournament following the religious one. Able to change his shape and to repair damage at will, the prodigiously strong Berun is a formidable fighter, but he can never tell whether his thoughts, feelings, and actions are his own or those of his mage creator-master-father ("Have I never admired anything for myself?"). Vedas and Berun's guide, Churli Casta Jons, is an earthy veteran/mercenary on the run from gambling debt collectors. Not overly religious ("I try not to mix religion and killing. . . it's liable to get you killed"), Churls will also enter the secular competition. She is either insane or haunted by her daughter's ghost, and the latter more likely possibility is scarier than the former. Vedas, Berun, and Churls are an entertaining trio as they travel through badlands, over steppes, and across bodies of water, for their relationships and problems feel real, funny, and moving (especially the sexual tension between Vedas and Churls). If they embrace change, there will be "no return."
Contrasting with the road buddies are Ebn Bon Mari and Pol Tanz Et Som, half-human, half-elder rivals in the Academy of Applied Magics. Ebn and Pol are Royal Outbound Mages, who don magical Void Suits to travel 30 miles up from Jeroun to the region of the moon, where Adrash lives. Ebn, Pol's mentor and captain, wants to appease Adrash by seducing him, while Pol, her handsome and gifted student, wants to impress the god by attacking him, each scheming against the other's plans and life. With their mutated bodies, intellectual superiority, merciless cruelty, sex magic, and unhealthy views of love ("The only true expression of [which] is submission"), Ebn and Pol are a morbidly fascinating pair to follow.
Complicating the above situations is a sentient species of nine-feet tall "elders" whose advanced cultures fell over 100,000 years ago and whose mummified bodies are so imbued with magic that "corpse miners" collect them so that their skin may be fashioned into Black Suits and White Suits for battle and Void Suits for space travel and their bones may be ground into dust for money and spells.
Not for the squeamish, the book has some unpredictable, suspenseful, arousing, revolting, and mythic violence and sex, most of it integral to the development of character, plot, and theme. The violence is never dully repetitive, and the sex can even be cosmically funny (it might convince you to never masturbate aboard a ship).
The novel is about love, friendship, parents and children, change and identity, free will and fate, and the drawbacks of organized religion. It has plenty of humor, beauty, weird wonder, and great writing:
Beauty: "She drank the sunlight like an elixir."
Violence: "carving people from crown to scarum."
Life: "Fate held a person like a mother holds her child, lovingly or with revulsion."
Romance: "Your name was the first word that came out of his mouth."
Sublime: “For a moment, the scope of the animal could not be fathomed. When she turned her head, the large black object a few feet from her head resolved itself into one of its talons. . . the animal seemed to be watching the city.”
Uncanny: “Holding her daughter's hand felt like air passing through her lungs.”
The reader of the audiobook, Jonathan FitzGibbon, is perfect. His base narration voice is nasally sophisticated, reminiscent of Vincent Price. All his character voices are interesting and appropriate. Vedas sounds frank, rational, and restrained, Berun deep, ponderous, and boomy, Churls sarcastic, seasoned, and coarsely accented, Ebn and Pol intellectual, arrogant, and decadent. And Churls' daughter sounds cute and creepy, a sweet kid learning to be a mighty ghost.
My disappointment lay in expecting No Return to be a self-contained novel like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (with which it shares literate style and "weirding" of genre tropes), when it turned out to be more like the first book in a series like Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of The Fallen (with which it shares vast scales of time, varied species, cultures, and religions, and "gods"). Jernigan is surely crafting his own desires and fears, and I'd like to read more books about Jeroun, but hope for a trilogy rather than a decology.
The first chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) begins with a nightmarish opium-vision involving a cathedral spike on which an impaled body ought to be writhing, until the spike seems to resolve itself into the rusty post of an old bed, on which a man is "shaking from head to foot" as he lies next to the drug-stupored bodies of "a Chinaman" and "a Lascar," while the mistress of the den, "a haggard woman," offers him another lit pipe. Later that same day, the man dons his white robe and joins the choir of a Cathedral for the vesper service. Yikes, this is vintage Charles Dickens, but perhaps a Dickens with a darker urgency than in his earlier novels.
The novel is mostly set in Cloisterham, a moribund Cathedral town peopled by or visited by plenty of "Dickensian" characters, ranging from the grotesque and comic to the malevolent and innocent, most equipped with idiosyncrasies. There are Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud, a pair of orphans engaged to be married from when they were infants by their fathers' wills; Neville and Helena Landless, mysterious orphan twins from Ceylon; Hiram Grewgious, the kind-hearted and "particularly angular" lawyer; Thomas Sapsea, the egotistical auctioneer/mayor; "Stony" Durdle, the alcoholic stonemason; Deputy, the demonic-cherubic stone-throwing urchin; Dick Datchery, the stranger with an unbelievably thick shock of white hair; Rev. Septimus Cripsarkle, the physically and spiritually fit minor canon; and the conflicted choirmaster John Jasper, uncle of Edwin and music teacher of Rosa. Dickens sets their fates in motion in a melodramatic murder mystery plot for which we can guess the identity of the villain early on but are left wondering about his psychology and fate, until we reach the end of Chapter Twenty-Three, at which point Dickens died, leaving his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), tantalizingly half-finished.
Dickens was a genius and a pro, so most of what he wrote has much of interest in it, and his last book is no different. Plenty of funny, original, and apt descriptions of his grotesque characters. "Miss Twinkleton, in her scholastic state of existence, "is as ignorant [of matters of the heart] as a granite pillar." The philanthropy of the great philanthropist Honeythunder "was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine." And Mrs. Billickin "came languishing out of her own exclusive back parlour, with the air of having been expressly brought-to for the purpose, from an accumulation of several swoons."
Dickens of course also writes plenty of evocative descriptions of places, as in moonlight and sunlight scenes of the cathedral.
"They enter, locking themselves in, descend the rugged steps, and are down in the Crypt. The lantern is not wanted, for the moonlight strikes in at the groined windows, bare of glass, the broken frames for which cast patterns on the ground. The heavy pillars which support the roof engender masses of black shade, but between them there are lanes of light. Up and down these lanes they walk."
"Cloisterham is so bright and sunny in these summer days, that the Cathedral and the monastery-ruin show as if their strong walls were transparent. A soft glow seems to shine from within them, rather than upon them from without, such is their mellowness as they look forth on the hot corn-fields and the smoking roads that distantly wind among them."
And Dickens gives a dark underpinning to his human dramas: "They were but a sign of broken joys and baseless projects; in their very beauty they were (as the unlikeliest of men had said) almost a cruel satire on the loves, hopes, plans, of humanity, which are able to forecast nothing, and are so much brittle dust. Let them be."
However, for all his professional genius (or maybe because of it), at times Dickens seems to go on autopilot riffs that don't seem to visibly advance the plot, significantly develop character, or appealingly tickle this reader's funny bone. One example might be the cold war waged by Miss Twinkleham and Mrs. Billickin over what should be prepared for dinner.
And, after all, the novel is unfinished…
David Timson gives his usual wonderful and dexterous reading of a novel, enthusiastically and variedly voicing the lines of all the characters, taking especial pleasure with Grewgious, Deputy, and the opium den mistress, Princess Puffer, who is quite scary.
In conclusion, any of Dickens' completed novels would probably be better to read before The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but for people who have read most of his other works, this book is an impressive flash of the master's brilliance.
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