So it’s been one of those weeks (actually, no, more like one of those fortnights) where I end up with all sci fi and fantasy fiction to review for you. I had jaw surgery last Monday, so this is what I read as I was lounging around recovering and trying to imbibe enough liquids through jaws that were banded together to keep myself from getting dehydrated.
Fortunately, I didn’t have extremely high expectations for this fantasy/steampunk retelling of Jane Eyre. Consciously imitating the plot of a famous novel can be a good literary device like any other, but in this case it seems to be a substitution for the author’s ability to plot her own novel. Even though a lot of strange stuff happened in this book, none of it struck me as particularly interesting. In fact, yes, that’s the word for how I felt while I was reading this book: I was bored.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
As it happens, I am the only person I know who dislikes this novel. I started reading it as a kid, and put it down partway through because I found it horrifying. But since there’s a movie coming out, and I have so many friends who adore the book, I thought I’d give it another try. So I gritted my teeth and read it through, all the way to the end.
As an adult, I still find it horrifying, on even more levels, but also fairly indifferently written. I just don’t enjoy anything about it. Not the bullying and violence, not the fact that the whole book is peppered not with profanity but with juvenile potty language, and not the tiredness of Card’s grotesque, unattractive imagery. He’s not a writer with much finesse under the best of circumstances, but it is particularly apparent in this rough early novel.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a weird personal antipathy to Orson Scott Card. I heard him speak one time at an Honors Devotional when I was at BYU, and he thoroughly creeped me out. I’ve made attempts at beginning several of his books, but every time I get the same feeling, like I need to go wash the literary muck off my hands. So yeah, your mileage may vary, but this book was not for me.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am always thrilled to find a new fantasy author whom I actually like and respect, because they sometimes seem to be so rare. This is my first book by Guy Gavriel Kay, and I found myself not only impressed, but entranced and ravished. And then I looked him up on Wikipedia and found that he had become interested in fantasy while helping Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R.’s son) posthumously edit the Silmarillion. Be still my heart! Imitators of Tolkien are a dime a dozen, but future fantasy writers chosen while still philosophy/pre-law students to help edit Tolkien’s works are few indeed.
Under Heaven is more historical fiction than fantasy, although it includes some decidedly supernatural elements. The novel is set in an alternative eighth century China, under a version of the celebrated Tang Dynasty. Lyrical and introspective, it tells the story of Shen Tai and how an extraordinary gift changed his life and thrust him into an unexpected role in the unfolding destiny of the empire.
I could not get enough of Kay’s flawless, elegant prose, but the haunting, beautiful poetry included at intervals in the text elevated his writing into the realm of the sublime. The sweeping and intricately plotted narrative, at times achingly elegaic, evoked a richly atmospheric world and time. I am by no means an expert in Tang Dynasty China, but even I noticed how replete the book is with cultural details and elements (although none of them seem forced or flashy). Judging by that and the informal biography Kay included in his Acknowledgements, this is an extraordinarily well-researched historical fantasy.
Kay’s characterizations are superbly complex and nuanced. I was especially intrigued by his female characters. Two of the most powerful women in the book are literally owned by men, and yet they masterfully wield their considerable personal power within a severely constrained situation.
I loved this book, and hope that all the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay’s corpus is equally superlative.
One note: this is a book intended for adult audiences. There is a scene of very disturbing violence, and a fair amount of sex. Consider yourself warned.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was surprised by how good this was, but it’s hard to describe exactly what the book is like, and it feels wrong to just talk about what it’s “about,” because the subject matter is so at odds with the tone of the book. Ishiguro’s alternate world is subtly different from ours in literal fact, but chillingly similar in its feel and ethos.
The style and pacing of the novel seem strange at first, but after a while I realized that the unsettlingly rambling yet matter-of-fact first-person narrative is a huge factor in the devastating impact of the story. The fact that the narrator not only recounts what is happening, but accepts it, adds immeasurably to the pathos.
This is a book deeply concerned with social issues and the complicated ethics surrounding them. But its true genius is in the way it illustrates individual responses to those issues, both by those who are most terribly affected, and by those who are endeavoring (with or without success) to improve conditions. It is a story of love and friendship, of injustice, of creating meaning and quality in life. It answers no questions, but it forces the reader toward serious introspection.
This would be an excellent book club read, because it is so thought-provoking, and would provide a gateway into some wonderful discussions.