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Eleven books - Qualified Perceptions
Eleven books
* for audiobooks
*How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny
Book nine of the Inspector Gamache / Three Pines series. It was odd, I was sure I had read this before because of the title, and I was sure that I had thought about the title before. "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in." I don't know if I really believe that as a Truth, that the places where we are broken are are the truest parts of our soul... I keep trying to rephrase it, but I'm just breaking the poetry. It pulls at my heart, whether or not I believe it. But no, I hadn't read it (the book, not the song lyrics) before. The arc plot that has run all nine books (maybe not the first couple, I don't recall) is finally done, and nicely dramatically, but I am definitely glad it is over. The arc bad guys have always been implausibly evil to me, and their final evil plan is just... poor. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) I do not think that you can sufficiently disguise "deliberately blowing up a bridge with explosives" as "bridge collapses due to insufficient maintenance", not in the face of serious investigation. And even if you have all the local police on your side because of corruption, especially if the terrible tragedy is being used as an excuse for Quebec separatism against the neglectful Canadian federal government, I think you cannot avoid federal investigators. (My other complaint is that I begin to suspect that Ruth only wrote two or three lines of poetry, and "Who hurt you once..." is quoted way too often. But I concede that writing really good poetry for a fictional poet is a very hard task.) I can forgive the computer-hacking subplot, which is really much less bad than the average fictional portrayal of computers, though they could use, among other things, treptoplax's lecture on the difference between latency and bandwidth. Anyhow, I still love this series, and I look forward to the next book, which I hope is back to the small scale.
The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth (by Sarah Monette)
This is a set of stories, aiming for the intersection of Lovecraft and Henry James. Creepy rather than terrifying, and with a "cautious tiptoing through horrors, with lots of books" that does really suggest Lovecraft to me (Henry James I haven't really read). Anyway, I found them to be in that "good but not enthralling, with no real complaints" category that makes for boring reviews. Three and a half stars.
The Phoenix Legacy: Sword of the Lamb, Shadow of the Swan, House of the Wolf (by M. K. Wren)
(tw: rape, infertility, plus spoilers ahead) I mistook a "Hmm, I wonder if this is as good as I remember (answer: no)" for a "Hmm, I think this is good", and ended up reading this. It's a reprint of a space opera that came out in the 80s, and space opera is one of my genres, and I wanted to know what happened well enough that I kept reading, so I don't quite regret it, but... it had some things that really pissed me off. But, okay, to try to be even-handed, the positive things first.

The "princess" rescues herself. Yay! There's a lot of embedded history, but most of the time it's just put in as documents that the reader gets to read. Only once is it characters expounding on the history to each other. The "psychohistory"-ish thing going on doesn't seem magic the way Asimov's is, it seems more like Nate Silver turned up to thirteen, so that was kind of nice.

The biggest thing that annoys me is the treatment of slavery, and it's complicated (maybe), because there seems to be a big difference between the authorial POV and the character POV. Now, I can deal with dystopias without assuming that that's the society the author wants, but it seems to me that the author admits that slavery is pretty terrible, but the shiny goodest-of-good idealistic good guys written by the author and seemingly depicted as really honestly good guys, more seem to believe that slavery is... kind of a bummer, but the best that they can do for the present. Maybe this isn't a contradiction, but it doesn't read to me like the author is deliberately writing characters who are blind to the situation. More like the author likes the characters, so when writing from those characters' POV, the view is uncritical. Let me find some quotes. Here is the beginning of a slave ("Bond") uprising.

This one began in the service alley behind the third quad dining hall where three Selasid [the bad-guy lord] guards entertained themselves with the sequential rape of a Bondmaid, one of the kitchen workers. Her fellow workers couldn't have been unaware of what was happening with only an open door separating them from her abject agony, yet none of them responded to it overtly. There would have been no uprising if the woman's husband hadn't entered the alley at that point. He killed one of the guards with his bare hands -- a superhuman feat that, if he hadn't been Bond, would have guaranteed him hero status in vidicommed legend -- before he was cut down by the other guards' lasers. But before he died, he tried to escape into the kitchen; the Bonds there panicked and ran into the dining hall, and in the melee a cooker exploded, adding impetus to the panic, which spread into the hall, filled to capacity -- at least two thousand Bonds. They poured out of the hall (where the casualties were primarily due to trampling, not lasers), and out into the compound; the chain reaction was out of control. The guards 'commed for reinforcements, and no doubt the word "uprising" was first spoken then. The Lord Orin Badir Selasis later had submitted to him detailed reports on the "disturbances", which assured him unanimously that it all began with an unprovoked attack by a Bondman on a House Guard, and when his fellow guards came to his defense, the Bonds in the dining room "revolted". I learned the genesis of the uprising from the Bonds who were present in the kitchen and hall at the time. Those who survived. Neither Lord Selasis nor his Fesh overseers questioned a single Bond.
So, the narrator here is Richard "the Lamb", the prince who goes disguised among the Bonds and learns of their plight. But it's not a "rescue of the benighted lower class by the noble main character" story. The Lamb doesn't try to free the slaves. He becomes a saint among them to convince them to not rise up, both to protect them from getting killed, and to protect his civilization (here's the psychohistory bit) from having another Fall. Except, of course, while the Next Dark Age is a scary peril for the elite, it's not like living in the non-Dark is doing much good for the 75% of the population in the slave compounds.

Now, here are the lawful good idealist main characters together:

"Malaki says the best roses always have thorns. He's Elder Shepherd in our Estate compound. He's also a practicioner of herbal medicine. Malaki says the fruits of roses have magical properties for curing illnesses. I've never had the heart to tell him about mundane matters like vitamins." Alexand smiled, wondering at her casual attitude toward her apparently close relationship with a Bond Shepherd.
Lo! How enlightened they are, being friends with their slaves, and not making a big deal about it! And thinking themselves gracious for not making a big deal about it. I felt like it was meant to be sweet and charming of her, but I just wanted to shake her. "WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT THE GUY TRYING TO BE A DOCTOR WOULDN'T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING ABOUT MEDICINE THAT YOU WOULD DEIGN TO TELL HIM?" But no, the Shepherd is more cute when all he knows about is which fruits are magic, so best leave him that way.

The "good" lords point at their goodness in the pre-game in the fact that they have passed laws requiring minimal decency in treatment of the slaves. Sufficient food, sufficient shelter, mandated arbitration clauses to judge abuses, etc. But there is no one with the authority to check these laws (one lord can't go poking around in another lord's slave compounds), and there are no penalties anyway if they are broken. The end-game victory for the "good guys" is that now breaking the laws will involve paying fines. Hooray.

Okay, that's my first complaint. I bookmarked more things, but it's all similar. My second complaint is the sexism, though I don't get the same impression that the good guys think it's okay. The most egregious example: The Woolf noble house has two sons. The younger son, Richard, dies a martyr in Book One; the elder son joins the rebels by faking his death. But - alas! - their mother, Lady Woolf, is secretly barren, and can have no more children. The Woolf house has no more heirs. There is a ban against anything other than natural pregnancy, and there is a ban against divorce. So Lady Woolf kills herself, that her husband may remarry and have heirs, providing extra angst to the main character and his father. It felt very self-refrigeratoring. And then the second wife is understanding, supportive, loving, and in all ways a perfect companion for Lord Woolf, but I cannot find a single aspect of character which is not about her relationship with her husband. (To be fair, she doesn't have a lot of scenes, and in the scenes she does have, she is quite likable as a character; it's Show not Tell, at least.) The other example: After the faked-death of the elder prince Woolf, his betrothed princess gets engaged (arranged marriage for all the nobles) to the evil prince. The evil prince is secretly impotent and sterile due to (evil!) a previously acquired STD. Thus, the princess knows (because this would be how it is done in these families) that she'll end up in seclusion while they illicitly use stored sperm to get her pregnant and bear an heir or two, and then the family will kill her so she doesn't tell. (This situation is the one the princess rescues herself from, for an actual Yay.) Once the good guys win in the end, they legalize divorce, and (oddly) the evil prince is nearly (but not quite) executed - I think for hiding being infertile rather than for attempting to have his fiancee murdered after she escaped (someone else got accidentally murdered instead, but she was a slave so I'm sure it didn't count.)

That really wasn't very even-handed. And... they're really not terrible. They're dramatic, and often moving, and if they didn't irritate me, they would probably be a lot of fun. I think mjperson would like them, and if you aren't irritated by the same sorts of things I am, you might well like them too.

*Rage Against the Dying (by Becky Masterman)
A first mystery novel; I'm trying to find another author to go through that I like as much as Louise Penney or the painful Tana French. Masterman might not be that, but I did like this quite well. Her protagonist, snarky retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn, is a good mix of likeable and flawed (though the one bad choice that shadows most of the book is painfully frustratingly bad - though understandable). The mystery is serial-killer genre, done pretty well. And there's a lot of humor in her voice. "The house came with pugs, which are kind of a cross between Peter Lorre and a bratwurst." (Yet another book that uses the "That's how the light gets in" quote.) Four stars if you like the serial killer mystery genre.
Cracked (by Eliza Crewe)
A YA book, first in a trilogy, I think. About a half-demon orphaned girl, destined to be evil but slowly redeemed into humanity by friendship. I don't think it's much of a spoiler there; it's kind of clear how the story will go. Not bad, but it didn't transcend its YA-ness for me.
California Bones (by Greg van Eekhout)
The magic system here is osteomancy (getting magic from consuming the bones of magical creatures, or of other osteomancers), so there's a lot of cannibalism here, as well as an undisguised subtext of consumable resources running out. Other than that, it's a pretty awesome heist story, with a nice point of angst resolved with grace and humanity. Four stars.
Sparrow Hill Road (by Seanan McGuire)
I didn't enjoy this one as much as other of McGuire's books, but mathhobbit did, so your mileage will vary (hah! it's about road ghosts!). Like her other books, there's the sense that the particular weirdness involved in the story is only a small part of a vast ecosystem of weirdness, in this case ghosts; unlike her other books, it's very non-linear and more like a collection of related novellas, some of which are broken up and interleaved with each other. I was also expecting the main plot to resolve, which it doesn't, so that adds to the feeling of it being like reading a bunch of urban legends about ghosts (the main character is the Vanishing Hitchhiker, sort of). Three stars.
The Artful (by Peter David)
I think I originally had a fondness for Peter David for a bunch of writing on She-Hulk? I occasionally buy books of his because his name is filed under "authors I really like", but the books never seem up there in the "really like" territory, so it kind of mystifies me. Anyway, this is the second book I've read recently about the Artful Dodger (is he the original trope for the Plucky Thiefly Urchin? The Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance too, but Dickens wins by fifty years or so) - the other one was by Terry Pratchett, and called Dodger, so this one is of course called The Artful. I think Pratchett got the better half of the nickname. In fact, I found it jarring every time the character was referred to as "The Artful". Anyway... this is a perfectly fine example of the genre of the Artful Dodger and Princess Victoria versus the Vampyres. Three penny-dreadful stars.
*Skin Game (by Jim Butcher)
Apparently, the way to indicate that you have read this book to other readers is to cry out "Parkour!". That was... an oddly amusing running joke, for its simplicity. Interestingly, I am starting to notice that plot points that particularly exasperate me are signs that Something Is Up. Both examples are VERY SPOILERY SPOILERS, so stop reading now if that will bother you.
  • I've mentioned the "Dresden-vision comes with a heads-up display that rates all the women on attractiveness, and has a "Days Since Dresden Had Sex" timer blinking in red. There have been two instances in the series where it seemed like not only Dresden but random women standing nearby were paying way too much attention to Dresden's lack of sex and how terrible that must be for him, and I really wanted them to shut up about it. Both times have been indicators of the succubus-demon Lasciel pulling someone's strings. I guess I have to treat it as subtle good writing, rather than annoying bad writing, though it's dangerous to put something in that comes across as badly done and doesn't get a different explanation until much later.
  • The parasite plot, that's been going on for a couple of books (plus a couple books more of foreshadowing with Unexplained Headaches), has been bothering me, because it seemed so unexplained and unrelated and out of left field. The real explanation turns up this book, and it's not unrelated.
Between those two points and Butters' heroic moment (also foreshadowed back in Dead Beat), I am forced to concede that Butcher really is a better author than I thought - and it's not like I thought he was a bad author. Four stars.


4 comments or Leave a comment
lillibet From: lillibet Date: June 30th, 2014 04:23 am (UTC) (Link)
Are you reading James S.A. Corey's Expanse Saga? If you like space opera, it's really excellent, and significantly advanced politically from the 80s.
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 30th, 2014 03:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yes, definitely. :)

"Yeah,” Alex said in his drawling voice. “I mean, Naomi only got beat half to death. She can cut this Clarissa slack, it’s no big deal. But the captain’s girlfriend got hurt. He’s the real victim here.”
lillibet From: lillibet Date: June 30th, 2014 07:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
kelkyag From: kelkyag Date: July 4th, 2014 07:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Re: the Wren trilogy: I find that I am less and less tolerant of fiction about entitled elites (especially by blood) as I get older. This sounds like it'd hit all the wrong buttons on that front.

Three cheers for poetry that speaks to you. :)
4 comments or Leave a comment