Tag Archives: book recommendation

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh (水浒传)

Outlaws of the marsh is one of (many) different titles of the Shui hu zhuan, one of the four classics of Chinese literature (the others are Journey to the West, The romance of the three kingdoms, and The dream of the red chamber). It’s also known as The water margin, All men are brothers, and occasionally by its Japanese title, Suikoden.

Note that three of the four classics are perpetual video game/anime fodder.

Plot summary

Told as a series of vignettes, The water margin follows 108 bandits/heroes as they eventually take refuge in a marsh fortress where they band together and seek revenge against the corrupt officials who have wronged them.

There’s also a third volume in which the bandits fight on behalf of the government but its authenticity is questioned and I haven’t actually read that one.

So how is it?

There’s a saying in Chinese that I think I’ve mentioned here before. It translates as “the young shouldn’t read The water margin, the old shouldn’t read The three kingdoms.” To over explain, The water margin’s heroes are not good role models. They spend most of their time as bandits and their only real redeeming feature is their commitment to each other. Even when one of them attempts to “lie low” they end up getting drunk, getting a giant tattoo, and ransacking the temple where they were supposed to be hiding out. Another chapter includes a discussion of the secrets to a successful seduction, one of which is “having a tool as large as a donkey’s.”

Really it’s not significantly different than the unexpurgated Book of one thousand nights and a night, or the Canterbury tales. Modern English editions of the latter tend to tone down the language considerably and for most modern English speakers reading Middle English is exhausting at best. The distinction between modern written Chinese and the language of The water margin is significantly less pronounced than with Chaucer, and since the target audience for most translations is academics the “low humor” is more evident for most readers. It’s closer to Rabelais than Chaucer in that respect, though Rabelais is more current.

Enough lit crit. The water margin actually reads pretty well for a moden audience. I’d go as far as saying it’s the most accessible of the four classics. That the protagonists are outlaws help to reduce the degree of baker puns knowledge required. 

It reads like a serial adventure. Each chapter is mostly self contained which makes it easier to pick up and put down without committing to a lengthy session. That’s mostly a benefit but after a dozen or so chapters the fact that almost every chapter follows the same basic formula can start to wear.

Translation notes

I’ve read parts of several versions, both in Chinese and English. Assuming that most people coming here who read Chinese won’t care about what I have to say about that, the best translation I’ve read is probably the one titles Outlaws of the marsh, but…

It’s out of print and incredibly expensive if you can’t find it at a library. 

Unfortunately, good translations are surprisingly difficult to find. Wuxia novels have this issue too, to the point where huge swathes of a fantastic genre are just completely unavailable in English. The translations that are available are frequently by graduate students rather than professional translators and frequently err on the side of the overly literal or overly poetic (see Fox volant of the snowy mountain for a translation that manages to be both).

Recommendation

The translation issues above, alongside poor availability, make it difficult to recommend. I do anyway, but carefully.

I generally recommend Outlaws of the marsh (that’s the edition available in my local consortium) to people who only read “literary” fiction or to Literature teachers looking to expand their horizons. 

If it was more widely available I’d recommend it to all those parents of teenagers who complain that their child only reads fantasy novels (or whatever genre is the current bête noir of excessively serious parents) but even then it’s still “literature” enough that teens or younger readers who aren’t reading above their grade level probably won’t stick it out long enough to get to the really fun parts.

In general I’d recommend the abridgment of Journey to the west released under the title Monkey, which is more accessible and more widely available before I’d recommend this but since Monkey is essentially a superhero story I’d recommend Outlaws of the marsh to the truly stuffy types as the “it’s one of the four classic novels of Chinese literature” will only go so far in getting the obnoxious literary snobs (who I didn’t believe really existed until I got a job at a public library in an absurdly wealthy modern-day Mayberry) to read it. Expecting them to read a book about an immortal flying monkey is probably expecting too much.

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Foreigner

Foreigner / C.J. Cherryh

Foreigner is the first book in a series that as far as I can tell is just called “the Foreigner series”. Each book is usually described as the sequel to the one before it which makes figuring out the order somewhat time consuming if  it never occurs to you just to look it up online.

That’s something of a problem because Foreigner is less the first book in a series and more the first chapter of a huge romain fleuve, so reading them out of order is less desirable than usual.

It’s also one of my favorite books/series.

Plot summary

Foreigner tells the story of a colony ship knocked hopelessly off-course. In need of supplies and with no idea how to get home, the three major factions (officers, crew, and the colonists themselves) are unable to agree on the best course of action. Eventually, a space station is built around a habitable planet, home to a species, the atevi, that has just discovered the steam engine.

Over 100 years later, the human colonists are limited to a single island and only one human, the paidhi, is permitted to interact with the atevi. The paidhi is responsible for regulating the transfer of technology from the humans to the atevi, using years of study and immersion in the alien culture in order to avoid potential cultural destabilization. Bren Cameron is the newest paidhi and quickly finds himself the target of what appears to be an assassination plot. Bren is forced to decide who to trust in a culture that lacks even the concept of friendship as he attempts to make sense of the volatile political situation.

So how is it?

If you’d asked me that question two years ago, or even last year, I’d have said it was one of my favorite books. Now I’m les sure of that. It’s still great, and it is one of the most effective elucidations of Cherryh’s themes of cultural disconnect and the resulting challenges thereof, but it’s so long now that reading the whole thing is a major commitment.

For the average US reader, getting through this series would take years of reading nothing else. That’s a tall order, and to be sure the same is true of Aubrey-Maturin and sf readers, like romance readers, tend to read far more than the average, but still, for me, who generally reads at least 150 novels a year (more if you count comics and nonfiction) it ended up being excessive and I had to take a break. Which leads to the second pair of issues:

1) It’s really hard to tell what order these books are supposed to be read in

2) bookstores are horribly inconsistent when it comes to carrying the whole series, or even just a selection of consecutive books

For number 1, the internet makes this a little easier, and some libraries have taken to numbering the books themselves, but as it stands the only indication of the order of the books is generally a line on the cover that says “the sequel to [title]”. This led me to an entertaining reverse journey as I tried to find the first book in the series from the 7th or 8th. Some printings do feature a list on the inside, but as with historical romance novels that list isn’t always easy to find.

For number 2, this is where you’re better off checking your library. I have the advantage of living in an urban area with lot of public libraries. The libraries seem to have collectively decided: some will carry the entire series and some not carry the series but will carry all of her other books. We have a highly efficient ILL system around here so that works pretty well. Bookstores are really bad at it though (especially, I am going to call out the Oakbrook Barnes and Noble , for having one of the worst sf selections larger than 24 linear feet).

Now ow that I’ve wasted several hundred words on administrative junk I’ll talk about the book/series itself.

It’s really good. It features an incredibly complex storyline with close to a dozen different factions but no clear “bad guys”.  The length is a big advantage here, as no single book is tightly focused on a few events. Most books only cover a couple of days as Bren attempts to navigate the Byzantine power structures of atevi society. Anyone who has been an immigrant, or at least lived abroad for any length of time, will recognize the challenges he faces here. Returning  home is just as difficult, as Bren discovers that the changes he has made in order to succeed amongst the atevi have made him an outsider in his own culture as well. Many of the oning conflicts in the series stem from problems of translating between languages that don’t even share a biological context, let alone a cultural one.

It’s one of the most effective portrayals of a convincingly alien culture I’ve ever encountered, even if Cherryh isn’t always successful at completely hiding her inspirations (not that that’s exactly necessary). It truly is a work of anthropological science fiction in the best  sense of the label. Bren ends up attempting to balance the interests of half a dozen human factions and at least as many atevi associations. It’s a thoroughly complex work that does a good job of respecting the reader to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on, since the plots of each book are rarely explicitly laid out.

Recommendation

It’s a great book and series but to get the most out of it requires a pretty significant investment. As a result I’d probably recommend Cyteen or Downbelow station over this unless it was a really hardcore reader. The series is more or less broken up into trilogies that are more or less complete, so those who have already read those other books or who wanted to give this a try could assign themselves a “stopping place” at the third or sixth book and still experience some resolution.

As I mentioned above, Cyteen or Downbelow station are probably more accessible, so I’d recommend those first unless someone was explicitly looking for something lengthy.

A civil campaign

A civil campaign / Lois McMaster Bujold

A civil campaign is definitely my favorite of the Vorkosigan books to date. It features a significantly more lighthearted tone than most of the series, and Bujold herself has described it as a “romantic comedy”. 

Plot summary

After returning to Barrayar Miles is eager to court Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, the arrival of sex-selection technology around the time of Miles’s birth has resulted in a generation with a severe gender imbalance and Miles must contend with a horde of other suitors.

Meanwhile, Ekaterin is living with her aunt and uncle, both highly respected engineers. Deciding to pursue her love of gardening and landscape design she has sworn never to marry again. After the events of Komarr are classified at the highest levels, Ekaterin  and Miles discover themselves implicated in an ugly rumor, one that ImpSec refuses to dispel as it provides an effective cover story for what really happened during the Soletta Array disaster.

So how is it?

As I’ve said, it’s not the “best” Vorkosigan book but it is my favorite. There’s a playful silliness here that serves as a nice contrast from the drama of psychological abuse that serves as the center of Komarr. Together, the two books balance each other out wonderfully.

There are several interesting subplots in A civil campaign that sere as interesting social commentary, especially as they intersect. 

René Vorbretten, newly married and eager to start a family, discovers that his grandfather was the son of an officer of the Cetagandan occupation, not his great-grandfather. The conservative faction of the Council of Counts jumps on this opportunity to have Vorbretten stripped of his titles.

In another subplot, Barrayar’s system of male primogeniture is challenged by the newly available medical technology.

In a third subplot, one Count attempts to deal with both the underpopulation of his district and the general societal gender imbalance by taking unused donor eggs and growing himself several hundred daughters.

All of these subplots have some interesting things to say about the assumptions made by chauvinists about how widely their views are held, and the way different interests interact to create political coalitions. 

A civil campaign might be the “romantic comedy” of the series, but that doesn’t mean it shares the normal conflation of obsessive, possessive behavior with romance. Miles’s attempts to court Ekaterin without her knowledge end up working well as a deconstruction at the way the classic romantic comedy structure eliminates women’s agency.*

Miles is presented as much more flawed here than he sometimes is, and finds himself confronting that his standard strategy when dealin with people is attempting to manipulate them into doing whatever he wants.

The way everything comes together is perfect, complete with an obnoxious proposal and a Shakespearean pairing-off of most of the recurring characters, but there are some really poignant moments. The emperor Gregor’s discovery about the type of person his father really was from The Vor game comes back here as Ekaterin struggles with letting her son know what really happened at the end of Komarr.

It’s a great book, but it’s conceivable that it might be too silly for some. There are several Oscar Wilde-sequel moments, including a disastrous dinner party and a scene where one character’s creditors catch up with them. There’s also what amounts to a food fight in there. A civil campaign maintains the emotional depth of the series but never feels grim. My favorite Vorkosigan book, but Sam the Eagle types will be cranky at the tone.

*the best of the classic romantic comedies is obviously His girl Friday, and a major factor in that is that the original stage version was about a platonic relationship between two men.

The thousand names

The thousand names / Django Wexler

In my previous post I mentioned that I might do a longer post on this one. I’ve since finished the second book in the series (on the quatorze, no less) and have lots to say about it so I’m going to review this one first.

The thousand names is the first book of The shadow campaigns, a “flintlock fantasy” series heavily inspired by the time period of the French Revolution.

Plot summary

The Vordanian colonial troops in Khandar are in a rough place. After a religion-fueled rebellion, the Vordanian-backed Prince of Khandar has been forced to flee the capital. Stranded in a remote, barely defensible fortress, the Vordarians hope that the impending arrival of a new Colonel will come with orders to abandon Khandar to its new rulers. 

Unfortunately, the new Colonel is Janus bet Vhalnich, an absentminded noble who is convinced he can lead his undertrained, vastly outnumbered troops in a campaign to reconquer Khandar for its prince. 

So how is it?

It’s the first book in my favorite fantasy series I’ve read in quite a while. Still, some of my appreciation is down to very personal factors in that the series seems intent on catering to my whims so I’ll try not to oversell it to those who don’t share some of my more esoteric interests.

First, The thousand names is a novel about a military campaign before it is a fantasy novel. I picked it up off the new release shelf at the library where I worked during a time when I was having problems finding books to read. I almost abandoned it after reading the prologue and first chapter, as I found the apparent protagonists utterly unlikeable and it seemed like the book was going to be a rah-rah manly men love to fight kind of thing. It was only the references to thee petit caporal in the acknowledgement a that kept me going. Looking back on it and after rereading it I’m not sure where I was getting that from and am suspicious that I was just in a bad mood at the time. After reading it, I’ll say that it is one of the best campaign novels I’ve ever read.

The thousand names is significantly more straightforward than later books in the series. It functions well as a tight introduction to what will become an incredibly complex conflict. 

There’s an especially great sense of moral complexity. For the most part, the opposing factions are depicted as groups of individuals rather than monoliths. Neither side is particularly “good”, as both are just people. Wexler does a good job of writing about atrocities committed by both sides without absolving those responsible but also without using them to paint an entire culture as irredeemably evil. This moral complexity is further magnified in the sequel as the plot shifts from a military campaign with a specific well defined goal to politics.

The two easiest comparisons here are A song of ice and fire and The Malazan book of the fallen. It is heavily influenced by serious historical scholarship like the former and has the epic, strange, worldview of the latter.

I’ll say this again: I probably like this more than I would otherwise because the historical era Wexler draws from is near and dear to my heart. It’s also one where I have a more in-depth experience than is normal so I get extra pleasure from catching the little historical nods peppered throughout. Those who haven’t had jobs where they got to do things like translate Napoleon’s shopping lists might enjoy this less than I do.

Recommendation

I would recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone who reads fantasy OR historical fiction, but…

The thousand names is exclusively concerned with a single military campaign. The characters are great but if you don’t like to read about campaigns then you probably won’t enjoy this as much. Still, the sequel is very different so if it sounds intriguing but you’re less interested in the military history thing then you’d have to weigh whether or not it’s worth reading a 600 page prologue.

One could theoretically skip this one if one would prefer to get straight to the politics and more George R.R. Martin style fantasy and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who did so but my enthusiasm for the series makes that a hard course for me to recommend.

A few cross recommendations

The Aubrey-Maturin novels

The “Sharpe’s …” Novels

A song of ice an fire

The Malazan book of the fallen

The heroes and/or Joe Abercrombie generally

A reading list for LS

So a couple of weeks ago I was talking to somebody about books and offered to put together a list of suggestions for them. Because I’m lazy I decided to make the list do double duty as a blog post, and because I’m too lazy to type up an email and then copy-paste it to the blog I’m going to write it up here and send them the link instead. As a result you’ll be getting this a couple weeks late as I already had several posts buffered, so my apologies.

Anyways. This particular person had been somewhat unsatisfied by a lack of “edgy” reading material. They were disappointed by the ending of Redshirts as it was too upbeat for them, so I offered to put together a list of suggestions on the darker side. They cited the way Martin manages to make the reader fall in love with his characters before killing them off.

Crooked little vein / Warren Ellis — If you’re looking for edgy fiction it’s hard to find edgier than Crooked little vein. A “road novel” that exists to explore the bizarre excesses of weird humanity, this one has everything, incest, drug abuse, kaiju fetishists … (It’s like that thing were people get together and masturbate to Godzilla movies while wearing monster gloves) [end Stefon].

Ellis is known for excess, but Crooke little vein is excessive even for Ellis. It’s closer to Ennis in prose than anything else, which means it’s going to gross out or offend a huge portion of its potential audience. Think Palahniuk. 

The lies of Locke Lamorra / Scott Lynch — I reviewed this fairly recently so I won’t repeat myself a ton, but it has a lot of the strengths of Martin but transplants them from England to Italy and replaces political maneuvering with con games and elaborate revenge schemes.

The thousand names / Django Wexler — the third book in this series just came out. I wasn’t initially going to recommend it here as the first volume is very much a military-focused campaign novel, but a blurb on the second volume claimed that it “[does] for the Napoleonic wars what George R.R. Martin did for the War of the Roses.” The second book takes things in a more urban direction, and despite the fantasy genre it’s the best depiction of the French Revolution in fiction, hands down. Because there isn’t a one to one correlation between history and the plot Wexler can capture the atmosphere and competing tensions without distracting people looking for historical inaccuracies.

I almost dropped The thousand names after the first chapter, worried that it was going to be a classic “Europeans fight savage colonial rebels” style military fantasy novel but I stuck with it and was really pleasantly surprised.  I’ll probably post a more detailed review of this later unless I don’t.

American psycho / Brett Easton Ellis – I always forget that not everyone has read this so I don’t frequently recommend it, but this story of a yuppie who may or may not be a depraved serial killer is a classic of transgressive fiction.

Lock in / John Scalzi

This one is a murdwr mystery with a twist: in the near future, a disease has spread worldwide that renders a sizable portion of survivors “locked-in”. Completely conscious but with no control over their bodies, those so afflicted must rely on specially designed cradles to take care of their physical bodies while they control “threeps”, robotic surrogate bodies controlled via a surgically implanted interface. As threeps have become more common, public sentiment has started to shift. No longer seen as a disabled minority requiring special care merely to survive, the “normal” majority increasingly views the locked-in as excessively coddled and privileged.

It’s not a particularly edgy book but it’s an interesting premise and it is well written enough that I feel comfortable recommending it here nonetheless.

The heroes / Joe Abercrombie

I have a love-hate relationship with Abercrombie. I really disliked the First law trilogy as he seemed to be doing his best to make every character as unlikeable as possible. His later books have foud more of a balance, retaining the edginess and cynical outlook while creating more well-rounded characters. 

This is another one I’ll probably write a full post on later so I won’t say too much aside from this: The heroes is one of the best anti-war novels I have ever encountered and it shares Martin’s sensibility that goodness and best-ness aren’t really the same thing.

Things I would recommend but think you’re less likely to actually read

Preacher / Garth Ennis – a preacher finds himself with the power of the Word of God. Accompanied by his girlfriend and a foulmouthed Irish vampire, Jesse Custer travels the country looking to make God answer for his crimes. Ennis is arguably the kin of gratuitously edgy, and Preacher is his best known work.

Transmetropolitan / Warren Ellis – Transmetropolitan is really just an extended rant by Warren Ellis with science fiction trappings. Like the cyberpunk genre as a whole, as it has aged it has become much harder to distinguish some of the “futuristic” aspects from everyday life. With Transmetropolitan, which revels in hyperbole and obnoxiously excessive jokes, it is perhaps more surprising that some of those jokes now accurately describe contemporary society. 

Angel’s blood / Nalini Singh – this is a romance novel. Still, if you’re looking for edgy it’s pretty far up there, featuring a society rules by utterly amoral angels who have no real regard for mortals and treat humanity as disposable playthings at best. It’s by far the most violent book I’ve ever encountered in the romance section, only slightly less gruesome than American psycho.

Prédateurs / Maxime Chattham – as far as I can tell, this book is only available in French. Which is too bad because despite being by far the most disturbing book I have ever encountered it’s still really good and has a surprisingly uplifting ending. The story of a group of MPs attempting to stop a serial killer in the middle of a war zone, it presents an interesting commentary on human nature. The setting and time period are kept intentionally ambiguous, although it’s heavily implied that the characters are American soldiers on the western front of World War II. Jump on a translation if one exists.

A rogue by any other name

A rogue by any other name / Sarah Maclean

And now for something completely different: a historical romance review.

A rogue by any other name is the first book in Sarah Maclean’s Rules of scoundrels quartet, each featuring one of the owners of the most notorious gaming hell of 1830s London, the Fallen angel. It’s an interesting series for multiple reasons but it finishes better than it starts.

Plot summary

After losing his ancestral lands on an ill-conceive wager, the Marquess of Bourne is willing to do anything to get them back.

Lady Penelope Marbury has wealth and connection to spare, but the stigma of a broken engagement has caused her father to go to desperate lengths to enhance her dowry and find a husband for her and her sisters.

So how is it?

It gets better as it goes along, but is hampered somewhat by some of the particulars of the plot. Overall it’s pretty good and worth the read.

The biggest failing of A rogue by any other name is that it follow the somewhat tired “kidnapped bride” plot structure. The writing is there, and Maclean’s dialogue is some of the best I’ve ever read in any genre. Still, if you’ve read very many historical romance novels you’ve seen this plot before, and the rhythm cleaves closely to the formula.

The actual premise of the series is interesting, and there’s some trenchant social criticism to be found. Each of the Angel’s four owners has found themselves exiled from polite society because of some past mistake or scandal. Unable to compete on society’s terms, they’ve decided to change the game. Of the four principals, Bourne is the least interesting and Chase, the hell’s enigmatic founder, is by far the most. 

It’s an interesting story of a group of people “disinvited” from polite society who, after building power and success outside of traditional avenues for such, decide that they are ready to return. There are visible inspirations from other sources, but unlike many genre fiction series it’s not a genre remake. A rogue by any other name has done definite Count of Monte Cristo influence, complete with discussion of whether or not it’s appropriate to go through with revenge even if it means innocent people will suffer the same way the revenge-seeker did.

As I’ve mentioned, the serie sets progressively better after this one, but there is a thematic progression as each installment colors further outside the traditional lines of the genre (and the society it depicts) so it’s still worth reading them in order.

The series is a little bit like Empire records or [insert title of rebellious teen angst film] in a Regency setting. It’s got that feel of a group of outcasts deciding to “stick it to the man” that I find overwhelmingly appealing.

Recommendation

This is a must read for fans of historical romance. For others the recommendation depends on an open mind. This series is not Stephanie Laurens, equally comfortable sitting alongside the “regular” fiction as it is historical romance. MacLean sits comfortably deep in the genre, and the fact that there’s more going on here than popular conceptions of the genre would suggest* won’t sway those who find the genre itself a turn-off.

For those willing to explore a new genre, those who don’t enjoy sentimental happy endings should probably look elsewhere as well. Those who don’t like being able to predict which characters will end up married after the first chapter could skip this too.

One thing that’s worth mentioning about the series as a whole is that there’s a wider diversity of character types than is usually expected of a regency romance. Not everyone is a member of the titles nobility, and some people end up married outside the aristocracy. For a genre that’s largely about wish fulfillment** that’s kind of a big deal.

Additionally, there are characters who are gay (although this is not mentioned explicitly it’s implied so heavily there’s not really room for doubt), a protagonist who is a single mother, and even nonwhite characters whose skin color isn’t fetishized. 

It’s a great series for genre fans, and it seems to be tailor-written for fans of the genre who recognize its frequent blind spots. Still, this is very much a historical romance series. It’s not going to be a heart-wrenching examination of 19th century English social problems. That’s a strength for those of us who deal with some of those issues firsthand on a day to day basis and so don’t feel the need to be beaten down by the same issues in their leisure reading, but that also means despite the definite social conscience of the series it’s not going to have a lot of appeal outside of the genre.

*my supervisor derisively refers to historical romance as “smut books”. As a result, there’s no way I’m recommending this series to them.

**I don’t mean that as a pejorative.

Death of a kingfisher

Death of a kingfisher / M.C. Beaton

I don’t generally read a ton of mysteries anymore. It’s not that I have some problem with the genre, it’s that as I’ve grown up I’ve come to occupy a cultural headspace that makes the value structures seen in most mystery novels seem baffling. I don’t know if this is a generation thing or a philosophical thing or what, but I tend to find that mystery novels assume a set of perspectives on the part of the reader that I don’t share. 

I still do read them though. Partially because I think it’s important that I don’t get too wrapped up in reading lots of the same types of books, partially because I’m occasionally in the mood for something stupid and can’t find anything to read, and partially because I either hope it will make sense finally or that this one will be different. It’s similar to my experience with The adventures of Menahem-Mendl but more embarrassing as I’m supposed to have all the cultural context here. 

Sometimes these things are easier to pinpoint than others. With M.C. Beaton it’s fairly self-evident what the issue is.

So, Death of a kingfisher is one of the Hamish Macbeth novels, featuring the misadventures of a folksie constable in an exceedingly rural part of Scotland. They’re not quite cozy mysteries, being a bit longer than something like Miranda James, but in terms of structure and complexity they’re firmly in the cozy camp.

Plot summary

When a tourist in town for a fishing class does mysteriously, it’s up to Hamish Macbeth to bring the culprit to justice!

So how is it?

Perfectly serviceable. The plot follows more or less the same structure as your average mystery novel (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – I say this as a reader of both epic fantasy and wuxia novels). There’s nothing really here to distinguish it to those outside the genre aside from the setting.

Now to go on an extended tangent. I feel like the mystery novel is an inherently conservative genre. I’ve seen that accusation leveled at superheroes before, which is true to some extent, but there’s a very active group of authors who are trying to subvert that, which is aided to some extent by the fact that while superheroes may be agents of the status quo most of them are also vigilantes and not the exclusive tools of “the system”. When it comes to mystery novels it seems like there’s less of a counterculture, or if there is that it’s less visible. Gun machine and Crooked little vein are the only English-language example I can think of at the moment.

Here’s an example from Hamish Macbeth: at one point he complains about how rediculous it is that he’s expected to take it easy on people found with small amounts of marijuana whereas he’s supposed to actively prosecute people who drive drunk.

Yeah, complaining about not being allowed to let people get away with driving drunk is not a way to endear me to the series. It’s a really easy example of what I mean by the inherent conservatism of the genre though. Marijuana use is a priori worse than drinking and driving not because it has a more negative impact on the people doing it or others, but because it doesn’t conform to the expected societal norms. It would be one thing if there was any justification presented for why one was somehow worse than the other, but there isn’t. It’s seen as self-evident. The idea that failure to conform to “proper society” is somehow a bad thing independent of the (real or imagined) negative impact of a given activity permeates mystery novels. This was just one example that immediately jumped out at me.

But as I’ve said it’s a perfectly serviceable mystery series with a quaint rural setting. It’s pretty quick reading – I finished this one during the downtime of a reference desk shift. It’s just not quite my thing.

Recommendation

I do and have recommended this series before. It’s one of my go-to recommendations for older mystery novel readers that are looking for something new that isn’t too edgy. It works pretty well for that.

Komarr

Komarr / Lois McMaster Bujold

Komarr is the first post-Memory volume of the Vorkosigan series. As a result, it’s quite a bit different than the earlier books and even more so than Shards of honor presents a blend of genres – half regency romance, half science fiction.

Miles Vorkosigan features, but from this point on in the series other pout of view characters become increasingly prominent.

Plot summary

Ekaterin Vorsoisson is unhappy. Her husband, terraforming project administrator Tien Vorsoisson, is moody and struggling to hide a genetic illness that drove his brother to an “accidental” death in a vehicular accident. To make matters worse, her husband’s job has forced her to leave her belove home world for the domed cities of Komarr, a world whose attitude towards Barrayarans is rarely welcoming and frequently hostile.

After a mysterious accident destroys a large portion of the planet’s orbital solar power collector her uncle, former engineering professor and current Imperial Auditor Vorthys comes to Komarr to investigate. Accompanying him is the “mutie lord” Miles Vorkosigan, the twisted dwarfish son of the notorious “Butcher of Komarr”.

So how is it?

As I’ve mentioned in many of my previous posts on this series, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. 

I need I make a confession: I like books that feature really mundane activities. My favorite Recluce book is the first one because I like the part where Lerris is working as a carpenter. My favorite of the Chronicles of Prydain is Taran Wanderer. My favorite parts of Memory are the part where Miles is trying to get his home up and running and the part where he goes fishing. For some reason my favorite parts about sff are the parts that do the least to distinguish it from other genres. As a result, my favorite part of Komarr is a scene where Ekaterin and Miles go shopping. My second favorite part is a scene where Ekaterin’s son refuses to go to school. So be aware of that when I say that this book is one of my favorites.

One of the reasons I like Komarr is how relaxed the whole thing feels. Yes, there’s a plot involving the secret behind the accident that destroyed the Soletta array, but that takes a back seat to scenes of people going shopping and eating dinner and questioning themselves and getting to know each other. It feels very historical romance that way, which is fine with me an makes me wonder if I should be reading more historical romance anyways.

Komarr is also more towards the “hard sf” end of the spectrum than most Bujold. There’s plenty of discussion about terraforming and waste-heat and things like that. It adds a sense of realism but never falls to Kim Stanley Robinson-like depths of obnoxiousness like “Joe exited the ship into an atmosphere of 70% nitrogen and was promptly surrounded by a dust cloud featuring iron particles at a concentration of 377ppm. The barometric pressure was N and the gravity was .7g which meant he found walking across the surface composed of 66% silicon, 20% iron, and 10% trace organic material …” (Etc.)

So Komarr is kind of weird in that it’s simultaneously more and less “hardcore” sf. I suspect that this will be more of a stumbling block for hardcore sf fans than it will others. The engineering talk is largely just extra flavoring while the emotional moments are the core of the story.

I think it was Jo Walton who said that for her, Memory was the point were the Vorkosigan books stopped getting better. That wasn’t the case for me, but Komarr is the beginning of a new stage of the series with less emphasis on Miles himself and fewer set-piece action scenes. I like it that way but those looking for puppy-style adventure will be disappointed when characters start talking about their feelings.

The climax of this book is amazing and make it worth checking out for fans of the earlier books too.

Recommendation

As I mentioned in my previous post about this series, Komarr is actually a great entry point to the series. It’s mostly told from the PoV of a new character and while previous events are important the plot doesn’t assume knowledge of them and it’s easy to figure it out from context. (Neither is much time spent recapping. Bujold is the best at informing the new reader without boring the old one.)

It’s also worth a recommendation to non-sf readers. Historical romance* fans in particular will find a lot to love here. It’s a strong recommendation for fans of Sarah MacLean who are willing to try something unusual. Shana Galen is another good comparison.

*That being said, Komarr is much less sexually explicit than most historical romance so if that’s your primary motivation you’re going to be disappointed.

The traitor spy trilogy

The traitor spy trilogy / Trudi Canavan

The traitor spy trilogy is an exemplar of what is (to me, at least) a relatively new sub genre of fantasy. It takes many of the normal high fantasy trapping but redressed them in a more intimate, focused story. Instead of saving the world from the evil sorcerer, they’re saving the town, stuff like that. I enjoy it because it gives more room for the story to focus on character development and plot without having to devote as many pages to exposition describing all of the places the heroes travel. Karen Miller and Irene Radford’s books arguably fit that mold as well. I’d put the Imager series there too but Moddessitt doesn’t rely as heavily on the Tolkien via D&D fantasy tropes so the feel is very different.

It’s also a time when I’ll actively encourage to read things out of order. The traitor spy trilogy is the direct sequel to an earlier series by the same author. I enjoyed both, but I highly recommend reading this series before the other one for reasons I’ll go into below.

Brief plot summary

A healer finds herself in an uneasy alliance with her former bully. Her son discovers signs of what his late father might have been doing during the period he mysteriously disappeared. An underworld leader seeks to protect his family from a mysterious foe. A man must decide if his relationship is worth saving. A country struggles to maintain peace with an old enemy.

So how is it?

I was really pleasantly surprised. It’s a solid series with a diverse cast that is very much driven by its characters.

The biggest praise I can give it is how “mature” the older characters behave. (I was going to say “adult” but that has too many other connotations when it comes to fantasy.) Characters have relationship struggles that aren’t entirely predicated on the Hilarious Misunderstanding (or its cousin, Refusing to Listen and Automatically Jumping to the Worst Conclusion). People face their assumptions and sometimes change. Old grudges get reconsidered and adolescent squabbles don’t necessarily become adult feuds. Difference of opinion is not a sign of evil intent. It’s wonderfully refreshing and there wouldn’t be space for it in a more epic story without a massive increase in the page count.

Another thing to love about the characterization is age related. All too often in fantasy teenagers are indistinguishable from adults, and adults rarely act their age. This is endemic to fictional media as a whole. It frequently feels like 99% of interpersonal conflict in any given show or movie stems from a supposedly adult character throwing a tantrum. Considering the mailings I get from my Republican State House representative it seems like there are plenty of adults who do act that way, but it doesn’t reflect what is normally considered mature behavior nor my lived experience.* Even if it is atypical adult behavior, it’s nice to see patterns of interaction that more closely resemble my lived experience. This goes both ways: Canavan’s adults feel like real grownups but her younger characters also behave more like “real” young people.

*I’m willing to accept that my experience may be atypical. Other expats banned me from answering questions about American culture while I was in Japan because my perception of U.S. culture is apparently nonstandard.

I really can’t stop heaping praise on Canavan’s characterization, and I feel like a big part of my enjoyment was due to reading this trilogy first. It’s not that the earlier books are bad, but Canavan’s writing is vastly improved in the Traitor spy trilogy and because all of the events of the first trilogy are long past there’s a sense that these people existed before the book started and had a full complement of life experiences. It also helps to make the parental characters more well rounded. 

I continue to praise the characters. I like that many of the characters have adult children but the portrayal is balanced so that neither parent nor child feels like an afterthought or a plot device to motivate the other. I like that there are LGBT characters and that they do face discrimination but that’s not all they’re there for. I like that characters in relationships make mistakes and the principals involve actually listen to each other when these things come up. I like that not everybody has the same ethnic or cultural background and that these differences are not just superficial (“these people wear red, but these other people are so different they wear blue!”) but at the same time there’s not a sense of ethnic and/or cultural determinism. (“Abcders love shoes and think that all V should N but Zyxers love sandals and think that only E should N”)

So it’s a good series and very readable.

Recommendation

It’s good for fans of the high fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Rothfuss, etc.) but its appeal outside of that is probably limited. It’s not exactly an action packed series so readers looking for something like Brent Weeks or David Dalgish will probably be disappointed. It’s also good train for people looking for fantasy novels that aren’t “young straight white man saves the world”. There are major characters who fit that mold, but the series does a good job of giving other characters equal time in the spotlight. There are characters who aren’t white, who aren’t young, who aren’t straight, and who aren’t men. Some characters aren’t two or more of the same thing, even! I realize that “not every heroic character is a SAWCASM” is a pretty low bar, but so few books seem to manage that that it’s worth mentioning the books that do.

The lies of Locke Lamora

The lies of Locke Lamora / Scott Lynch

It’s not uncommon to label something “genre fiction” as a way of dismissing it. When somebody who does this then comes across a “genre” book they enjoy, they are faced with a choice: do rhetorical somersaults to justify why it’s not really a science fiction novel or rethink their assumptions about conflating descriptive labels and value judgments.

Even folks like Nancy Pearl (who as a librarian should know better) are guilty of this. Pearl did it with The sparrow. It seems to be a universal phenomenon with The handmaid’s tale. People frequently treat Octavia Butler that way as well (although her works are also at risk of being exiled to an “African American interest” section featuring a jumble of books whose only link is the color of their author’s skin).

People seem to think that if it deals with serious issues then it can’t be sff. Considering the genre’s roots in Shelley* (also a victim of “it’s important therefore not sf”) it’s an attitude I don’t really understand.

*yes, sad/rabid puppies, science fiction is literally the child of feminism. Chew on that.

It’s more common with science fiction than with fantasy, as it’s easier to dismiss fantasy as “fairy stories” (although with the popularity of Game of thrones it’s starting to happen with Martin). It also helps that many of the stories that get this “not sf” label are dystopian.

So what does this have to do with The lies of Locke Lamora? If you haven’t guessed by now, this is one of those books. I’m not sure why, as it’s very clearly a fantasy novel. Secondary world, wizards, impossible alchemy … It’s not even a book that addresses serious issues in any great depth. Still, the library were I worked when I read it kept it in the regular “fiction” section, and the blurbs in the mass market copy I own now claim that it is more than just genre fiction.

I assume that people read it who “don’t like fantasy” and then had to justify their enjoyment somehow.

A propos of nothing, I didn’t read this book for quite a while because I kept misreading the title as “The lays of Loch Lomond” and thinking it was historical fiction. It wast until I saw the cover art for the third book in the series and realized that this was something I would enjoy. 

Yes, I judge books by their covers all the time.

Plot summary

Locke Lamora is an orphan taken in by the priest Chains and trained to be one of his “Gentleman Bastards”, robbing from the rich in the name of their god and consistently flouting the underworld’s “secret peace”, an unspoken agreement between the city’s criminals and its government that allows criminal syndicates to operate more or less openly as long as they refrain from targeting the wealthy or law enforcement.

So how is it?

I really liked it. It’s fast paced, fun, and never loses sight of the fact that as lovable as the Gentleman Bastards are they are still ruthless criminals.

The Gentleman Bastards series draws equally from Ocean’s 11 and Rififi in a fantasy setting more than a little bit reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. The best film comparison is probably French cult classic Man bites dog – it’s humorous but still quite dark. It’s not quite as intense as Game of thrones and its sequels or the Sword of truth series, but it’s not far.

One thing that helps temper the brutality is that there are consequences. Committing atrocities is a great way to turn allies into enemies and that goes for heroes and villains. (See also: Rififi)

This book isn’t written in a noir style, but thematically it’s noir through an through. The questionable means used by the protagonists, the emphasis on revenge, etc., etc.

One of the blurbs compares it to Dickens. I’m really not seeing it, unless all it takes to be Dickens is a group of orphans being taken in and trained to be thieves.

It’s a good book that’s only mildly disturbing while managing to maintain a sense of humor while telling a surprisingly dark story.

Recommendation

This is a great crossover novel, especially for fans of Game of Thrones. It keeps the emphasis on the characters and off the magic and tells a recognizably human story rather than a cosmic one.

It’s also good reading for fans of heist films and books about loveable rogues in general.