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Five books - Qualified Perceptions
Five books
Colours in the Steel, Belly of the Bow and The Proof House (by K. J. Parker)
These are clearly written by the same author as Shadow/Pattern/Memory. She likes to write about likeable monsters. She likes to write about war. She likes to write with strange flash-backs, flash-forwards, and flash-sidewayses. And wow, does she like to write about crafting the tools of war. Pattern (the middle book in the Scavenger trilogy) was all about smithing; Colours is about smithing and siege engines, Belly about bowyering, and Proof about the making, wearing, and bashing of armor. And she writes about them the way kirisutogomen writes about economics - it's not like I can tell if it's right or not, but it sounds an awful lot more convincing than I believe someone could just make up.

I've dithered back and forth as to whether I like this series more or less than the previous one. I like the main plot more (well, plots - as with S/P/M, each book is very distinct). It's more straightforward, as compared to what I now remember as a lot of muddly traveling around with different companions. But the "weird" plot is more confusing. I don't quite understand what's going on, who is pushing what and why; in S/P/M, the flashback weirdness was an unfolding mystery (and good heavens, did it unfold). In this series, it's just there, and somewhat puzzling. I'm very fond of the writing style, cynical and often dryly humorous ("One of these days, I'd really like to win a battle, rather than just stand quiet while they lose it at me. You know, just to be able to say I'd done it. But I'm not complaining. I mean, it works.")

There is a really chilling, nasty bit of horror in the middle book, though. In S/P/M, who is a monster is something of a question of opinion; in Belly of the Bow, all sorts of monsters focus into terrible clarity for a moment or two - and then it picks up and keeps going back to the cynical humor ("Let's not argue and bicker about who killed who" would fit right in...). Four and a half strangely disturbing stars.

Tides (by Scott Mackay)
For crying out loud, Mr. Mackay, if you're going to stuff your book full of dramatic tides, to name your book after them, would it kill you to actually read up on tides? First, you seem to confuse tides and waves (maybe because of the misnamed phrase "tidal wave"?). Yes, they both go up and down. But that's really about it. You don't have to sail your boat up over the slope of a tide. Tides aren't walls of water that break over you. And I can't think of how you'd get thirty-seven tides over the course of several hours, followed by none for the rest of the day, even with two moons. Similarly, you don't look at a coastline from your boat and see the high-water mark and the low-water mark on the shore. Because the low-water mark is under water. The author's strange blind spots aren't all having to do with tides, though. There's a scene when two ships have been separated. The one ship sees a trail of smoke, and sails towards it. They get to a little island, from which the smoke is still rising, and discover that the other ship has foundered there, and everyone has frozen to death. Well, okay - but what about the fire? No, there's no fire mentioned. Nobody seems to have built a fire. Where did the smoke come from? It's never mentioned again, nor do the characters wonder about it. Perhaps boats crashing into islands naturally produce plumes of smoke? Sort of like cars naturally exploding when they hit things? And then, there's the traditional "first contact, learn language" scene. The lizardman points to his chest, where there are painted red stripes: "Endango rango". The lizardman points to the red hair of the love interest: "Omingo rango". From which, the protagonist successfully deduces: "Me = Endango", "You = Omingo", and "Rango = the lizardman's name", because the stripes and the hair are both red. Or, take: the captive humans get to see the sailing ships that the lizardmen have. And their city, and their armor and weapons. Later, an lizardman scientist is brought in to examine the humans, and one of the things he does is count their teeth. The hero is astonished and creeped out - they can count? Well, anyway, you get the point. I'm only continuing because I keep finding things to complain about, but really, if the author can't be bothered to pay attention, I'm not sure why I should be expected to. The sad thing is, there are the bones of an interesting story, in the clash between the culture of truth and the culture of deceit, and the gradual corruption of the protagonist from one to the other. I could have enjoyed that story, maybe with a different author. One and a half stars.

The Dante Club (by Matthew Pearl)
I confused this book in my head with The Club Dumas, which it very much isn't (the latter is the source for the movie The Ninth Gate). A series of grisly murders is committed while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translates (with help from other poets of the times) the Inferno; "while we were translating Dante into ink, someone else was translating him into blood." The interaction between the Boston historical figures, the literary talk, the doings of poets, are all very enjoyable to follow. The battle between the head of the Harvard Corporation and the poets studying Dante (metaphorically the battle between Veritas and Christo Et Ecclesiae - I had no idea the motto was both) reads entirely plausibly to me. The murders, though - they're gruesome and grisly, but I almost get the feeling that the author didn't want to think about them very hard, and the narrative suffers oddly around them. The unfortunate soul who is stuffed upside-down into a hole is only described as feeling cold, and realizing that his heart was beating above his head - I'd have to think there'd be stronger physical sensation than that. Where is his weight resting? Are his arms pinned against his sides, or up near his face, or...? Anyway, it's interesting, and more highfaluting than most of what I read, but I can't entirely support its position as a #1 bestseller. Three stars.

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13 comments or Leave a comment
ricedog From: ricedog Date: June 20th, 2006 04:30 am (UTC) (Link)


Drat, you finished it before I did. :) I'm tempted to say I like the Scavenger trilogy more, because of the gradual pace at which information unfolds, but I should read the next 2.25 books before I say that.

Did you find it offputting the way she switches viewpoint characters almost in the middle of a sentence sometimes?
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 20th, 2006 01:18 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Parker

I liked the Scavenger trilogy better at the beginning, too. Though that was (I think) because the Principle plot baffled me, but I eventually got used to it.

Both you and desireearmfeldt have remarked (in separate books) about annoying viewpoint changes that just didn't bother me. Occasionally I found myself checking back a paragraph or two "Wait, when did we switch from Bardas to Gorgas?", but somehow I think of it as a clever author trick, like a movie cut between similar scenes or mid-sentence would be.
ricedog From: ricedog Date: June 20th, 2006 08:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Parker

mini spoiler, I guess.

In this book the viewpoint changing is particularly irksome because it makes it harder to track the headache plot, which already has the problem that some characters have access to a headache remedy.

From: desireearmfeldt Date: June 20th, 2006 12:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Are the Fencing books borrowable? :)
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 20th, 2006 01:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
From: desireearmfeldt Date: June 20th, 2006 12:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I forget if you were at mjperson 's when I saw Ninth Gate and went "hm...this seems very familiar...I'm sure this is based on some book I've read..." and only later figured out "Wait, this is _The Club Dumas_ except without the Dumas part!"
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 20th, 2006 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I think I was. That was what caused me to go out and find Club Dumas (and promptly confuse it with Dante Club.
arcanology From: arcanology Date: June 20th, 2006 03:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Having finally read the book, I can say that the movie took the good parts.

The author is way to enamored of his own clever structure - look at me, I reject the idea of coherency! - which is made worse because you only get to learn that he's screwing with you at the end.
mijven From: mijven Date: June 20th, 2006 02:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Ew. I think I can cross The Dante Club off my reading list (it was a bookclub suggestion.)

However I must admit, reading your review of Tides was highly amusing. So I'm glad you read it, if only to spare me ever having to do so. (Unless some day I pick it up and think: "gosh, this seems strangely familiar." Anyway, clearly the black plume of smoke was from the ship. They all burnt their lunches.)
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 20th, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
The Dante Club is apparently extraordinarily popular with book clubs, because it's essentailly about a book club of brilliant famous people reading Dante. :)
From: desireearmfeldt Date: June 20th, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think the author was more interested in the historical part than the plot, gory parts or not...
firstfrost From: firstfrost Date: June 20th, 2006 04:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
He mentions in the afterword that the novel was written while he was at law school at Yale, and was (in?teaching?) a seminar about Dante and justice and thinking about using Dante as a take on modern justice, as Dante populated his Hell with all the people in his society. So I think in addition to the plain history, he had a Cool Idea about Dantean Justice Murders that he wanted to play with, but he wasn't completely able to hammer his Cool Idea into a canonical Mystery Plot.
ironrat From: ironrat Date: August 7th, 2006 04:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
I picked up Dante Club to try and fill the time while waiting for a plane. I couldn't get past the first five pages. The writing, I found, was horrible and cloyingly, painfully overwrought. I didn't get much farther.
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