The Text: The Iliad was composed for oral presentation around 30 centuries ago. It is arguably the most canonical of Western works, and was foundational to Greek and Roman culture for thouands of years. At its heart, it is the story of war--and, as Lombardo's translation puts it, the "Rage" of Achilles, a spurned soldier whose prickly sense of honor shakes up the progress of the Trojan war. In Lombardo's translation, this whole ancient edifice becomes incredibly readable and has an immediacy to it, lacking the artificial formality and faux "high" language of some older translations, so if you always wanted to read this but found it dull, this might just be the translation for you.
The Main Performance: Lombardo's translation itself grew out of performance notes, where he would give local gigs reciting translations of Homer to rapt audiences. That passion for performance (Homer was composed for recitation, not silent contemplation!) carries over into even his slightly muted recorded version. His dark, rich voice is at times reminiscent of Ian McDiarmid's performance of Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars trilogy--laced with archaic sonorous undertones and a rich sense of performance even as it remains modern enough that we can immediately comprehend the characters' emotions and attitudes. This is certainly the most engaging performance of the Iliad I have heard, excepting live performances by Lombardo himself.
Production Values: Susan Sarandon reads both a solid introduction to the work and chapter summaries. The latter will be useful to anyone who has a difficult time following the complex narration of the story as a whole, but may be annoying to those who already know the story and are listening for a solid performance. Musical cues introduce the beginning and end of each chapter, and are well-done by slightly intrusive.
tl;dr: This is the best audio performance of The Iliad I've found, with a modern translation grounded by a rich, old-school vocal performance.
Like Susanna Clarke (Ladies of Grace Adieu), Mary Robinette manages to gently weave magic into a historical world (and its distinctive mores) in a way that makes it feel right at home. Yet while Clark's work (which I love, but your milage may vary) takes a meandering route with Dickenesque descriptions and elaborate footnotes, Shades of Milk and Honey takes a much more direct approach.
Starting as a streamlined version of Austen's Pride and Prejudice (two sisters instead of five; a less caustic father-figure; a slightly less nuanced Darcy-figure; slightly less ornate language), the novel at first combines nostalgia with some delightfully sly magical tweaks. (Why are women always fainting in Austen novels? Because the illusion-magic that culture assigned to women is just so darn exhausting, of course!) Throw in the obligatory Artist who has utter disdain for social proprieties, genteel discussions of the Nature of Art, and ominous depictions of class tensions that lead to a climactic magic-and-bullets showdown, and you have a novel that is unique, pleasant, and thoroughly readable.
But the thing that really brought this together was Kowal's narration. It's always nice to hear an author read his or her own work, but Kowal's theatrical bakground shines. Jane's vapid-yet-lovable sister Melody particularly benefits from Kowal's performance--Kowal imbues her voice with the sort of energetic ignorance more commonly associated with American socialites from the 1920's, which goes a long way to both endear her to audiences and reveal the shallow facade required of women who have "nothing to recommend them other than their beauty."
The performance: Wil Wheaton may be his best when portraying arrogant jerks (of which this book contains a good number), but he also nails the reading throughout. Comedy is timing--and in this case, he gets it, meaning you may actually get more of the jokes with his reading than on your own. And he buys into the drama, which helps you to do so as well.
The book: Think the genre-bending metaliterary drug trip of The Princess Bride (book, not movie), only done much better. (I'm going abstract, because the story really is not to be spoiled.)
More to the point: there have been a lot of recent books that try to deconstruct or humanize common adventure tropes--Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon, &c. There also continues to be a number of more straight up adventures that twist genre expectations, yet play out as a rolicking yarn with solid characters (the Jim C. Hines series starting with The Stepsister Scheme is perhaps the best in this category.) But the two never seem to mesh. Hines, for all his brilliance, isn't giving you a particularly thoughtful meditation on the role of narratives in our lives; Grossman and Chabon are as thoughtful as they can be but seem to lack the sense of all-out fun one might desire.
Somehow, Redshirts hits the intersection of those two categories, while bringing a lot of the funny. All the characters are human, the reflections on fiction are legitimately poignant, and the whole thing just *works.* Even if veteran Scalzi readers may find more recycled plot devices than they might have expected, this is, for me, probably *the* Scalzi book; the one I would loan to my friends first.
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