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What I read on my holidays, part 1 - The Lyorn's Den

Tue Jan. 23rd, 2007

02:09 am - What I read on my holidays, part 1

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As some of you might know, Ceridwen and spent two weeks on Tenerife in December. We weren't as active as I thought we would be -- my fault, mostly, because I started out with a cold which I must have caught on the flight back from the US and which was just ready to roll the day we boarded the plane to Tenerife, and then I wrenched my back while petting a beautiful red cat. The cat had kind of a tabby pattern, but twisted somewhat so it formed rings and swirls.

So, I read a lot. I have none of the books around at the moment, so I'm doing this from memory. If I find that I overlooked something important, I can always update.

"Falcon", by Emma Bull seems like a book that missed its format. It should have been two issues of a series of short novels, maybe #3 and #8, or something like that.

The first book is about how Dominic, a nineteen-year old who's a safe third or fourth in line to inherit rulership of a beautiful and backwards planet (his older brother's wife is pregnant) returns from a holiday to find the prince (his uncle) subject to strange moods, his elder brother distrustful and his homeworld in unrest. In an attempt to get a clue he sides with the common people, becomes something of a romantic figure and unmasks the conspiracy -- too late. All he can do is to hop on the next spaceship and never return.

The second book takes place ten years later. Dominic, now Niki Falcon, is the last surviving fast courier pilot in the galaxy. He tries to complete his final job before the biological modifications necessary to pilot the courier ships kill him. In doing this, he discovers that his strange passenger, a famous musician, is in over his head in conspiracies, too, and that his own fate and that of the musician's world tie into one another.

In between, and, one could say, before and after, too, is a vast emptiness. Things get hinted at, mentioned, the occasional flashback spotlights some events, but like mountaintops rising from a deep ocean, these small islands of story are all the reader sees and, considering the age of the book, is likely to ever see. I could drive a person to distraction.

And yet, none of that matters. Because what is there is brilliant, beautiful, unexpected, colourful, like quick sketches with details part highlighted and part hidden, that tell you more than a wall-filling oil painting or the common doorstopper novel would. Dominic/Niki is cute, clever, daring, human and too good to be true without being annoying about it, the worlds are shiny, the women daring and dangerous, the dialogue is a pleasure to read. Both the defeat at the end of the first book and the victory at the end of the second feel surprising, maybe even rushed if one's reading speed has adapted to thicker books, yet in re-reading (which is easily done on a book -- or two -- this short) one sees that every element was there all the time. A perfect book to read on the Canary Islands.

Sigh. I fangirl Emma Bull like mad, at the moment. I wish there was more. But maybe showing only the good parts is the secret of success.

Maybe I shouldn't talk about "Deathstalker: Legacy", by Simon Green. After all, I read only about 50 pages of this 500-pages tome at steadily increasing speed, first waiting for the punch line, than only looking for it. Yet it eluded me.

"Deathstalker: Legacy" got recommended to me as a swashbuckling space opera, a genre that I am fond of and which I do not overburden with demands on logic, characterization or general deepness. I started out as a Star Wars fan. I write Perry Rhodan fanfic, I'm not one to look down on pulp. But this was, excuse my French, bloody f*** awful.

Maybe I shouldn't have read "Falcon" first. Both books start with a young noble who has no interest in a position of power. But that's where the similarities end. The (I suppose) hero in "Deathstalker: Legacy" is about to be crowned emperor of the galaxy (and whines about it for pages at a time), of an Empire so vast and clichéd that it'd give everything George Lucas ever dreamt up a run for its money. From characters' descriptions, to their names <shudders> to the aliens and the setting, the sentiments expressed and the language used, clichés are laid on with a shovel. A big one. And I've found more irony in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles than in (admittedly, only) the first 50 pages of this book. I have to respect the skill in elaborating so much on this riff without even letting a grin through once -- Buster Keaton would be envious. But if this is supposed to be a perfectly executed parody, it's too damn long. And if it isn't, it has been written 40 years too late, and is still too damn long.

Mark Twain said that in a good story you want the heroes to triumph over the villains, while in a bad story you do not care if they all drown in the river. In this book, I would have taken great pleasure in seeing great Cthulhu rise from the deep and drown the whole bunch on page 20.

Now, C.J.Cherryh has no inhibitions at all about drowning characters in the river, or do much worse things to them, and that's why she's not on the list of my favourite authors: She regularly has me squirm in ways Dean Koontz or Stephen King have not managed so far. Her characters and her settings feel so real to me that I say "ouch" if a character cuts themselves while chopping onions. Let alone embark on colonizing a new world as they do in "40.000 in Gehenna", all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, some of them (this book is part of the Alliance-Union cycle) cloned slaves who do not have enough free will, let alone decision-making capacity to be anything but trusting and enthusiastic about the project, and you know from page one, you just know that they are being set up -- by their bosses, and by the author -- for a monumental failure.

The kind of failure that even the most heroic measures or actions can't avoid, or ameliorate, or turn, at least, into some romantic tragedy instead of an unpleasant, chaotic, rain-soaked disaster of shattered hopes, of honest efforts gone to waste, of good intentions paving the road to hell. However, Cherryh is an author you just have to trust to pull through. She'll get there at the end. There will be hope, and mending, and a new world. Even if the characters she introduced, the characters you cared about, couldn't help but care about, because Cherryh gets into their heads so perfectly, speaks in their voices until your own thoughts adapt the pattern, won't live to see it. Cherryh is far less bloodthirsty than George R.R. Martin in his latest epos, in the same way that a landslide is less bloodthirsty than a howling mob, i.e., if it catches you, it won't make a heck of a difference.

Our colonists are unloaded onto their new world, already inhibited by enigmatic, lizard-like aliens who have so far shown no sign of intelligence. (Or have signs of intelligence gone unnoticed by explorers caught up in their prejudices and their desire to find a planet than can be settled? Re-reading, one wonders and tries to find the answer between the lines: in vain.) Shit happens. Big lizards happen. The settlement gets destroyed, rebuild, destroyed, rebuild, the people shatter over the land and create a civilization without much history. Barely a century later, the tribes go to war. Civilized observers despair, lizards are enigmatic, and anthropologists researching the local culture end up on different sides and completely out of their depth. Cherryh's heroes are distinguished by their tenacity, their patience, their clear thinking under pressure and by their ability to deal with the alien. They might be passive, which makes for a slow pace (in this book), or difficult reading, and they always get put through the wringer. It's a nice change from more flashy heroics.

All in all, I liked the book well enough, though not as well as "Downbelow Station". Maybe because I feel more for engineers than for anthropologists.

After the doorstopper I had packed and expected to last me a few days at least had failed me, I had to go to the hotel's library, which had a large selection of books in eight languages. I know from experience that mysteries, crime stories or spy thrillers are a safe bet when I just want something to entertain me while I sit outside, drink coffee and soak up the sun (to the degree my skin colour will allow me), so that's what I stacked up on.

"Spy Story" by Len Deighton is a strange, short, ahistorical book, a complex Cold War intrigue as seen through the eyes of the first person narrator. None of the characters is exactly sympathetic, not even the narrator, but the book captures perfectly the gloomy, paranoid atmosphere one expects from a British spy novel, especially a 70s one, and does not lack for scenes of utter absurdity. My favourite was two Russian goons happening upon the narrator while his girlfriend is out to get the car. After a fistfight they apologize for their bad timing, they had intended to blow up his bedroom walls in search of secret papers (IIRC) when he was not home. They blow up, they leave, the girlfriend comes back and looks quizzically at the destruction. All that in a very dry tone, and without any hysterics.

Not a book that I would ever buy, but not bad.

Alex Kava's "The Soul Catcher" is a rather standard modern crime novel. It has a detective/heroine with Issues, a serial killer with Issues!!!, sex, dead girls, general unpleasantness and a compelling enough storyline to have one read, or at least skim, to the end. I didn't identify the murderer before the detective did, but I hadn't been paying that much attention. There was a somewhat interesting storyline about a charismatic preacher and his cult following, which was as sordid as to be expected, but made less sense than one would have hoped. I have encountered more convincing and far scarier cults when reading the news.

One of the heroine's Issues is her mother, who seems an utterly hopeless case, but we learn in the end that all she needed was a good shock to get her act together.

It's the kind of book you might consider getting from the library for a long train journey. It keeps you entertained, but doesn't quite deliver even on the few promises it makes.

For all the faults of the common modern crime novel, in Michael Connelly's "The Last Coyote" (chosen, unsurprisingly, for its title), the narrator has a voice that gets the story safely through some choppy waters. The narrator is an L.A. cop whose house got destroyed by an earthquake, whose girlfriend has left him, and who got suspended from his job for striking a (clearly scumbag) superior. To fill the time he decides to investigate his mother's murder, thirty years ago.

It seems hard, making a story about a murder that long past interesting or convincing, (but wait until I review Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time!"), but with a chandleresque cast of the greedy, the corrupt and the desperate, Connelly manages well enough. The case is presented reasonably calm, the narrator is a grown up and does not let his issues tempt him into hysterics.

Not great, but OK.

Did I mention I was desperate? "Future Homemakers of America", by Laurie Graham is not a type of book I would normally read, but it had the right length for a few days of vacation left, I had enough of crime novels, and the tale of four young American Air Force wives stranded in an English marsh in the 1950s and befriending a local woman promised some culture clashes and recent history, which, I thought, might amuse me. And so it did. But I can't even remember the characters' names, and, being unfamiliar with the genre, I cannot say if the book is any good, compared to its peers, or not.

And that's it for today.

Current Mood: tiredtired


[User Picture]
Date:February 1st, 2007 12:08 pm (UTC)

40,000 in Gehenna

Ever read "Cyteen"? The Gehenna project is mentioned there once or twice as some project of one of the main characters. Cyteen is - besides other things - a very interesting study of free will (or the lack of it when the Azis, the cloned workers are concerned), the illusion of free will, of actions and of consequences. But beware - it made me downright paranoid while reading and for quite a while afterwards.
--------- It isn't paranoia if they *are* out to get you! ----------------
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[User Picture]
Date:February 1st, 2007 07:34 pm (UTC)

Re: 40,000 in Gehenna

I read it when I was in school, but I can't remember much from it. (Hey, it's been, eh, some long time back.) It had a reputation for being "difficult" back then, I do not know how much that influenced whatever I thought about it.

Ah, well. Goes on my list. I've still got two months time-out from my life. Unless work is driving me crazy before and the nice young men in the white jackets ship me home in a padded jet.

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