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Six Books - Qualified Perceptions
Six Books
Blackout (by Connie Willis)
I think I will have to put Connie Willis (or at least her time travelers) in the "not for me" pile. I think she's a decent writer, and she clearly has a passion for the stories she tells, but this book, even more than some of her others, is rubbing me the wrong way. I find the stories of the non-soldiers in WWII Britain compelling. I like a lot of the "contemps" characters, who are fairly stock but detailed nicely- the rector, who I find quite charming, Miss Snelgrove's hard-assness softening to humanity when Polly seems seriously in trouble and then hardening up again later. I love the inflatable tanks, and I found myself wanting to read up on things like the Dunkirk evacuation. But the time travelers themselves kind of annoy me - they call themselves historians, but they're more like tourists, and they progress from being smug that they know when/where the bombs are coming and can stand in safe places, to being completely sure that they're about to be rescued any moment now (to the extent of running outside to meet the rescuers that they have logically concluded are there RIGHT NOW), to filling up with self-pity at how doomed they are when they aren't immediately rescued. (Okay, Mike is worried that he accidentally destroyed the timestream, so he has more reason to fret, but the other two, I was less sympathetic to - okay, you're now in the same boat as the people you've been touristing at. Though I suppose tourists wanting to see dangerous places in safety is not limited to time travelers). Second, the plot is all about all possible minutia going wrong, over and over, which is a type of plot that makes me wince rather than entertains me. (Here in particular, it's also muchly about transportation going wrong, over and over, which is a bit tedious). I think if I continued on through Blackout and into All Clear the characters would get more proactive, but I wasn't willing to put in the effort.

Empire of the Ants (by Bernard Werber)
An odd little book, half about ants, half about people, with very quick cuts between them. I didn't much care for the part about people, because they weren't very sympathetic. For example, when your dog goes down in the basement marked "DO NOT GO IN BASEMENT", and starts barking hysterically and whimpering, the proper response is not "We'll buy a new dog tomorrow". Though as a horror-movie-resident response, it's a good one. Anyway, the human side of the story is all about Going In The Basement (or Not), and stretches my disbelief a bit (could you really walk (possibly down a staircase) for five hours dragging an unreeling rope behind you? The first hour is cited as going 480 meters down (it's a spiral stair). Climbing rope is about 6.2lb/100'. That's about five hundred pounds of rope - that must be getting hard to manage. Anyway, I kept getting distracted by thoughts like that. The ant story was interesting; ants are pretty cool. (Also, I have a soft spot for stories about ants; when I was little, I had a book about a kid who turns into an ant and learns all about being an ant, but then I left it in the park and hoodlums tore out all the pages. I thought it was called Empire of the Ants, but I can't find any evidence of it now. No, it wasn't the Ant Bully, it was a much older book. One of the other books from that collection was Motorcycle Chums in the Gold Fields, which was written in 1912. Wait! No, I found it! It's Emperor of the Ants! That was the cover! Er... sorry about the digression here.) Other than the half of the book about people, my other quibbles are that I think the initial Ant Mystery (what mysterious secret weapon wiped out the ant patrol with no evidence) was a cheat, as when the solution is finally found, I do not think there would have been no evidence, and the ending was a bit of a left turn. Two and a half stars for the half a book that was interesting. :)

The Broken Kingdoms (by N. K. Jemsin)
Sequel to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it's also basically a standalone story, as the first was, picking up wth mostly different characters (but a direct result of the end of the previous book) for a completely different plot. It's less of a mystery than the first book, and somehow felt shorter (perhaps there is more action and less people getting to know each other), but it's still lovely and moving and occasionally shivery. Five stars.

A Local Habitation (by Seanan McGuire)
The next book in the series after Rosemary and Rue. It's a more interesting mystery than the previous one, and I enjoyed it - it's actually a lot like a one-night with a serial killer than a standard murder mystery - though the targets as a group are mostly too stupid to live (and many of them do not). I guessed two out of three of the main secrets, which made me feel clever; I wasn't very happy with the reveal of one of the secrets (it made the main character also seem a little too stupid), but it's hard to explain without spoilers. Three and a half stars - an enjoyable read, but I do not insist that everyone else read it. :)

*The Android's Dream (by John Scalzi)
Scalzi's books are some of my favorite popcorn. Hopefully he doesn't think that's insulting, but I refuse to class anything with fart jokes as Serious Literature. Anyway, the fact that the Android's Dream (in the book) is the name of a genetically modified electric blue sheep should hint at the combination of clever and goofball going on here. The storyline is very jagged, though not in a bad way - there are constant changes of pace and additions of new plot that keeps it going at a good clip. Many of the plot twists are provided by people being smarter than expected, which I approve of, and in the cases where they're not as smart as they should be, the blind spots are well-justified beforehand. There is one hole that niggled at me at the end - the secret masters of string-pulling must have pulled some particularly unpleasant strings that they never got called on, but I can't quite believe they weren't involved, either. Hmm. Three and a half stars.

Mainspring (by Jay Lake)
(Spoilers, and about half a rant, ahead) I found the clockwork-steampunk setting intriguing (there is a huge wall around the equator, with geared clockwork teeth, that the Earth rotates around a geared track in the heavens. Two thousand years ago, God sent the Brass Christ to rewind the world, which was running down.) The main difference that this has made in Western culture (aside from zeppelins) is that America is still a colony, and there's a big rivalry with China. Africa, on the other hand is home to winged savages (who aren't smart enough to talk, but do have swords), small brown furry noble-savage types, stork-tall brown people who don't talk but have shadow monsters in their cities... Africa (except for Guinea, where the slaves for the American slave trade come from) is more like Oz, scattered with different-weird-peoples for the travelogue to encounter. I found that... somewhat off-putting. Now plot. Hethor, the main character, gets sent on a Mission to Rewind the Mainspring, by the Angel Gabriel. I rather liked the initial bits in New Haven, with the apprentice/master relationship, and the conversation with the librarian. That was the closest anyone ever got to seeming like real people with real strengths and fears (though I thought that the clockmaker really shouldn't live in that much fear of his sons just based on them being the only people he could leave his estate to...). Hethor is young enough that I figured it would be a coming-of-age story for him, but he doesn't really grow or change appreciably (other than losing his virginity). Case in particular point - he meets the Correct People (the small furry noble savages), rests with them for a while, and then declares he has to go, to continue his mission. Many of them declare they are coming with him. He says "no, it's too dangerous, you can't come." They come with him anyway. It turns out that they are amazingly useful to have along - they can fight, they can climb, they can help run the zeppelin they get later. He would be dead many times without having brought a team along (and many of the team do get killed along the way). Then, at the end, in the middle of Antarctica (in the warm meadow he has made with his phenomenal cosmic powers - oh, getting those might also count as coming of age), he tells the few survivors that they can't come down into the polar mechanism, it's too dangerous, and he'll probably die. Instead, they should stay here, trapped in this one meadow, which will probably stop being warm when he dies. !! "Too dangerous, stay here in the deathtrap" is not character growth compared to "Too dangerous, stay in your nice safe homes"! He hasn't learned about the importance of comrades, or the egocentric selfishness of saying "I am the only one who can do my mission" or any practical sense at all! As it turns out, the one Correct Person, his lover, who still comes with him, thinks to BRING A WEAPON (though she is not as effective in the fights as Hethor, with his Manly Shoulder Shoving, so that was another thing to be exasperated about) and she gets to prove useful by dramatically falling onto a villain to push him over the side. Actually, pretty much all the villains get to die by being pushed off of things. It's very children's-movie that way. Okay, and the villains. They are... secular humanists of some sort, who espouse the heresey "God has abandoned his clockwork. Resist the tyranny of creation! Rather than rewinding it, we should let it run down (okay, I'm following it so far - better to die than serve an uncaring God?), and then the Clockmakers will come to fix it for us! Yay! (wait, what?)" Are the Clockmakers other Gods? Are they people? If they're people, why doesn't Hethor fixing the spring count as Clockmaker? If they're other Gods, why are they going to be better than God? I am so confused. Two stars.

Current Mood: headache

10 comments or Leave a comment
lillibet From: lillibet Date: April 10th, 2011 06:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
I had much the same reaction to Blackout. Since someone had already given me All Clear and someone else had asked me to help them understand the ending of that when I got there, I went ahead and read it, but oh my goodness, the fretting! It was really off-putting and I don't blame you a bit for not reading the sequel.

I'm going to have to look for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
arcanology From: arcanology Date: April 10th, 2011 07:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Connie Willis's time travelers have been on pretty smooth downward slope since she started, it's unfortunate - I think success leading to less portion control is one of the big thing. Blackout needed to be a few chapters in a book, not a tome the size of a dictionary. Also the fretty chaos fit very well with To Say Nothing, but the same fretty chaos gets old every book.

Jay Lake's stuff is mystifying to me - giant clockwork world is an awesome setting, and then the stories he puts in it are just noodling wastes and confusing as hell.

I just put hundred thousand kingdoms on my kindle, which has totally reduced the activation energy from reading a good review to buying the book.
pingback_bot From: pingback_bot Date: April 11th, 2011 12:11 pm (UTC) (Link)

[links] Link salad overeats dreadfully before coming back from Texas

User jaylake referenced to your post from [links] Link salad overeats dreadfully before coming back from Texas saying: [...] A reader reacts to (among other things) Mainspring [...]
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 11th, 2011 01:35 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: [links] Link salad overeats dreadfully before coming back from Texas

I think this is my first Official Pingback. Kind of embarassing to have it be for a book I didn't like. :-\
arcanology From: arcanology Date: April 11th, 2011 09:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: [links] Link salad overeats dreadfully before coming back from Texas

Well I've got your back on this one, you captured my disappointment on reading the book pretty well.
desireearmfeldt From: desireearmfeldt Date: April 13th, 2011 04:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Shorthand Connie Willis rant

On my list of LJ posts to make when I have time is one about Blackout/All Clear. While I agree only somewhat with arcanology on the firing-your-editor problem, I agree more with some of his other points, and yours, e.g. the willful stupidity of the viewpoint characters and the artificial building up of the rushing about frenzy -- and also that I really liked the contemps and the story with them, while being disappointed with much of the time-travel plot. One of my gripes is that I think she's writing two different books/types of book that shouldn't be mushed together -- as arcanology pointed out in his review, the goofy chaos works well in To Say Nothing of the Dog but works against her attempt at serious emotional drama here and more so in Domesday Book (where there is at least less of it). Mr. Dunworthy in particular makes no sense as a character, because he exists in both goofy-universe and angst-universe, and he can't be the same person in both.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 13th, 2011 04:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Shorthand Connie Willis rant

I couldn't tell at the point that I stopped reading, whether Mr. Dunworthy is actually the evil genius mastermind, who is pulling everything into place by pretending to be incompetent, or is the genuine incompetent-to-the-point-of-malice that he appears to be. (Possibly if I remembered previous time travel books better, I would know the answer to this).
desireearmfeldt From: desireearmfeldt Date: April 14th, 2011 03:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Shorthand Connie Willis rant

In this one, it's more like the latter (though I don't think CW means him to be *as* dumb and irresponsible as the logical reader must conclude he is). In To Say Nothing of the Dog his role is minor, but one more gets the impression that he's being clever behind the scenes than that he's being incompetent. In Domesday Book he's mostly a victim of ill fate doing the best he can -- and more of an honestly tragic figure there than in Blackout/All Clear, where he's meant to be but it doesn't ring as true.

The trouble is, the Mr. Dunworthy of Domesday Book really should never have let anyone use the net again, and if he did, he should know way, way better than he or anyone else seems to in the latter books.

I read To Say Nothing of the Dog first, without knowing the others existed, and that one a) read like a goofy farce, where people doing dumb illogical things was part of the comedy, not meant as realism, and b) like the net malfunctioning was supposed to be genuinely unusual and surprising in-universe. But when every single book involves severe and unexpected net malfunction (or at least, not-functioning-as-expected) to drive its plot, one has to wonder, not so much why they keep using the net, as why they ever expect it to function as expected, and why they don't just develop a routine that takes into account the fact that they can't actually reliably send people where they think they're going, or keep track of them/get them back?
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: April 14th, 2011 03:20 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Shorthand Connie Willis rant

I can sort of accept "My God! *Another* completely unexpected technical glitch!" because that's kind of a staple of SF serial fiction (how would things like Star Trek survive without it?). But what the heck was with moving all Mike's missions around so that he didn't have any of the right skills and accents for the mission? That was just gratuitously hosing, and was what pushed me into "he's either evil or has a Plan... or is really badly written." :)
desireearmfeldt From: desireearmfeldt Date: April 14th, 2011 11:52 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Shorthand Connie Willis rant

That particular example turns out to have a reason, but it's one of those pre-game stupid-rays "I'd better not tell anyone my reason or, er, well, it might be bad, I'll just keep all the important information to myself, yeah, that'll make it better" things.
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