Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria was nominated for both a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award this year.  And in this case it's easier to understand why.  This is a writer's book, interesting but essentially introspective in style.  The protagonist, Jevik, is a fascinating character, a young man itching to go to the Big City and see the culture for himself--he had been exposed to it by a tutor brought to his remote island by an equally remote father.  He throws himself into the scene and pays the price innocents often pay--he loses that innocence and goes on a journey of discovery. 

That journey is driven by the ghost of Jissavet, a girl dying of a wasting disease thought to be a spiritual sickness.  She is at the end of her life, but manages to convey her bright, disdainful personality when they meet briefly on his chartered ship.  How she comes to haunt him is a long story best read in the book.

There is one parallel to the last book I read, A Natural History of Dragons--the world is made up whole.  But the sensibility feels somewhat South Asian (though Samatar herself is from South Sudan), so the tropes are less familiar.  And Samatar writes from a very foreign point of view within this space.  This is interesting but in the end becomes a critique--my mind grew tired trying to wrap itself around metaphors like "her eyes were as one who had come from the country of herons".  ???  They almost work, you strain to make the connection, but in the end are quite unsure.

Samatar also gives a nod to writers by portraying the role of books in this world as heady, absorbing, dangerous things.  Dwelling on the danger more than the fascination, though not in such a way as to imply that they should be censored.  In this context Jevik is of course very much a bookworm.

A very interesting achievement in this book is an extended portrayal of Jissavet as a haughty, unkind person yet one worth working to get to know.  Jevik certainly thinks so, even in death. 

The book did not continuously hold my interest, it gets a bit carried away with writing and settings.  The plot gets slightly obscured in those difficult metaphors.  But it certainly gave me some mental exercise, and I felt like my boundaries of what I could read were stretched.  I give it three stars for style. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year.  It's one of those books that's a bit tough to review.  It's well-written--Brennan picks a style (Elizabethan) and sticks with it.  The protagonist is a feminist role model, at least for her setting.  I finished it and stayed somewhat engaged.  What stands out, for me, is what it lacks:

  1. Dragons: The protagonist (the future, but not present, Lady Trent) is obsessed with them, and dragons do figure prominently.  But the cover, title, and early part of the book led me to expect that we would learn much more about them than we do.  We get some anatomy, particularly bone structure and a little social habits, but that's it.  The speculation about sparklings is mildly interesting, I guess it counts.
  2. Obsessive detail: Books of this sort can engage by taking a deep dive into their fantastic subject matter, making for geek fun and material for Cons and cosplay.  But see #1, we have not a lot of depth.  And if you don't have detail, you need:
  3. Compelling action: There is adventure and danger in this book, but it's pretty carefully described and doesn't arouse much in the way of emotion.  Stuff happens.
  4. Grounded culture: Anthiope is a fully make-believe place, though the culture takes an Elizabethan Europe background mostly for granted.  There's some development of what makes Scirland unique, but not much.  It could sort of be anywhere, as long as anywhere is mostly like here.
  5. Fresh and insightful social commentary: Lady Trent is minor royalty in Scirland, and bucks current social trends by being a woman interested in science.  Her father and husband "indulge" her.  OK, but it's been done.  For a long time.
So while it's a competent book, it's not compelling in any way.  I see there's a sequel, and there is definitely room to grow here, but not much to say you should start.  I say two and a half stars--never done that before, but you have to start somewhere.