S/Ship of Theseus, by Doug Dorst, J.J. Abrams/V. M. Straka

It’s impossible to talk about this book, which, for simplicity’s sake, I will refer to as S, without talking about its production as a physical object, which can only be referred to as “lavish.” A typical page looks like this:

;

further, there are objects (postcards, a cypher wheel, loose pages) inserted into the book. So. Let’s talk about it.

There are two books here: first, the fictional V.M. Straka’s Ship of Theseus, which is about a man who is press-ganged onto a strange ship, and second, Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams’ S, which is about a college student and a grad student who are trying to solve the mystery of who Straka was. The students’ story takes place in the margins: Jen’s handwriting is the cursive in the above page, while Eric’s is the block capitals. Ship of Theseus is not only a book, it’s a code, or so Jen and Eric (and a whole host of other people) believe; it’s complicated by the fact that it’s translated, and that the translator left footnotes, which are their own code, and which are sometimes factually incorrect.

As you can see, it’s complicated.

My feelings about the book, the project itself, and the success of both, are also complicated. J.J. Abrams, as of course many of my readers will know, and I had to google to be sure, directed Lost, which I understand was also about codes and mysteries and sounding complicated. My knowledge of Lost is entirely secondhand, but it’s my impression that many fans felt cheated by the ending (which I don’t have any knowledge of) for not solving anything. They would most likely feel similarly about S: Jen and Eric’s story has an ending which is not unambiguous, but which leaves a lot of ends loose; Ship of Theseus is Symbolic, but I’m not sure what of.

So, what’s the project? Is it to create a Great Book? (That, I think, we can discard immediately.) Or a simple diversion? Or just a labyrinth of misdirection, mirrors, and general confusion? It feels to me as though it’s the third. And does it succeed, on the level of what it was trying to do, and as a book? My answer is a resounding “I’m not sure.”

First of all, I enjoyed it a lot more than I enjoy much metafiction; I thought the extra materials were necessary and not just a gimmick; and the way the marginal text was used (with different colors indicating different times) was actually clever. I kept wondering throughout my reading, though, whether it wouldn’t have been more effective if it had been a traditional narrative, with Ship of Theseus only referenced. The problem with Ship of Theseus being the main text is that the authors have to write something that’s worthy of being analyzed – and to me, much of it seemed like empty symbolism (though that might have been the point). Also, Jen and Eric made jokes based on the the text of the novel, which was fine, except I couldn’t help thinking “but you wrote that too.” It feels circular.

Taking Jen and Eric’s romance as the main story is, I think, the most generous reading. I hope I’m not spoiling anything if I say that they don’t find out who Straka was and that a good 75% of what was mysterious over the book remains mysterious at the end. Jen and Eric, however, who spent most of the book communicating by taking Ship of Theseus out of the library alternately, end up in the same place, having mostly triumphed over the slimy professor and his assistant, who is actually named Ilsa. They’ve grown enough to confess their love for each other, in a very effective way; they’ve experienced interesting character development; they’ve had wins and losses. That aspect is very well executed. And would I have picked it up if it had been a conventional novel about two students trying to solve a literary mystery? Probably not.

But. The literary mystery isn’t solved, and the main text is Ship of Theseus, and isn’t it all maybe a gimmick? And is that a problem? It’s a difficult book to read: you have to physically manipulate it in ways that you don’t with other books; you have to keep parallel texts in mind; you have to keep track of when Jen and Eric are writing. It’s a puzzle. It’s a good puzzle, I have to admit, but I can’t help but feel that it shows a lack of confidence in the material itself.

And let’s just say it: Ship of Theseus isn’t that good. Which is fine, as long as the authors of S know it isn’t. It’s a morass of symbolism, anchored to nothing, except maybe the fictional biography of Straka and his translator. This is, I think, what the point of the story is: “All that ink…is valuable because story is a fragile and ephemeral thing on its own, a thing that is easily effaced or disappeared or destroyed, and it is worth preserving. … We write with what those who’ve come before us wrote.” (450-451, about 5 pages before the end, on a page with very little commentary on it.) And that’s a fragile hook on which to hang your entire project.

So: with all that being said, how do I feel about S? Here’s an answer that’s appropriate: I don’t know. I legitimately cared about Jen and Eric’s story, a story that could have been thin and uninteresting, but which the authors invested in, and thought the ending was very effective. I thought the rest of it was much less effective. I didn’t, in all honesty, expect to have the mysteries solved, but it’s slightly frustrating that they were left so open.

Here is a line that I will draw at the bottom: it’s well-executed, and much better than it could have been, and I enjoyed reading it.

P.S. This blog has, up to now, reviewed books that were unambiguously SFF. Is this SFF? I mean, probably. There’s a ship of the dead at the center of it. But it’s not really the point of the book. It is, however, one of the more interesting things I’ve read lately.

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Ellen Kushner et al., Tremontaine

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When one finds oneself stalling with thirty pages left in a book, there may be two causes. First is that you love it so much you don’t want to finish it; second is that it hasn’t enthralled you and the length of your subway ride has been the only thing impelling you to finish. Unfortunately, I believe that in the case of Tremontaine, it’s the second.

Tremontaine is one of serialbox’s efforts – this first “season” is composed, like a TV show, of episodes written by several authors. It’s an interesting way of bringing back the serial novel, but I have to say that even in the case of Bookburners, whose first season I loved, I wait for the compilation. The serial format means that each author has their own take on the characters, to some extent, and also that I did it wrong in reading it in two big gulps. Tremontaine is also a prequel to the classic Swordspoint, but you don’t have to have read Swordspoint to read Tremontaine (I’ve read Swordspoint but recall very little of it).

Prologue and technicalities being past, Tremontaine is the story of Diane, Duchess of Tremontaine; William, the Duke; Ixkaab, a trader from an Aztec-flavored empire; Micah, a farmgirl with an uncanny knack for numbers; and Rafe, a scholar.  The length and the serial format give plenty of opportunity for each character’s desires, dreams, and plots to be explored thoroughly; I have no complaints there.

If you’d like to stop reading this review now, the upshot is “I enjoyed this and think it’s fairly well executed, but it left me almost entirely cold.”

The thing that sinks it, for me, is the plot itself. If I’m promised a master plotter, I want to be confused and unable to follow their plots. Diane, we’re told by the back cover and by the text, is a master of subtlety, but she manages to have her master plot foiled, in large part, by a rag-tag crew of misfits, who don’t have much trouble with it at all. In all of the writers’ hands, Diane is very good at the social aspect of manipulation, but her actual plotting skills were weak, and I don’t want to open any Doylist vs. Watsonian debates, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s because the writers didn’t have anything up their sleeves.

Further, what I do remember about Swordspoint is that it had a sort of hard-edged glitter to it and a glamour that I felt were missing from the world of Tremontaine. Buckles should have been swashed, daggers hidden in cloaks, rapiers out in plain view. And there were some passages with the glamour of the swordsman, but they were few and far between.

However, there are at least several good points: Ixkaab’s people are suitably interesting, when it comes to difference between their culture and the people of Tremontaine (though I thought she had much too little difficulty fitting in and figuring out how Tremontaine worked). It’s absorbing enough; I did want to find out what happened next, mostly. Science – actual science – and math, and scholarship are important to the plot – despite what I said about swashbuckling, it is a breath of fresh air to see a fantasy that doesn’t depend entirely on war and warriors.

The characters are all fairly interesting; if we’re enumerating problems, one of them has to be was that, while I didn’t dislike anyone who was supposed to be sympathetic, I wasn’t strongly attracted to them either. Most of the characterization was fairly stable across authors, but I felt that Diane especially varied to an unpleasant extent.

In sum, Tremontaine is pleasant enough to spend time with, but I wouldn’t suggest that you rush it to the top of your to-read list. It’s better than the common run of fantasy, with much more to distinguish it (competent prose across the board, for one) than most new releases, but it simply wasn’t all that compelling.

Margo Lanagan, Black Juice

I don’t use the word “perfect” or its derivatives very often. In Black Juice, Margo Lanagan has perfected a certain tone – a pervasive disquiet, an all-consuming unsettledness. It is hard to get your feet under you in many of her stories: something is different, not right. In the rare missteps, the slight off-kilter of her narrators caused me to look for a twist – the inhuman narrators of “Sweet Pippit” are really monkeys or trees or something that aligns with human experience or something like that – but Lanagan is better than that. There’s no easy punch line to any of her stories.

There’s no easiness in any of her stories. Along with the discomfort of the stories, there’s a strong undercurrent of sorrow: in “House of the Many,” a young boy leaves the world he’s grown up with, a village of cultists. When he returns, he finds that nothing is as big or as terrifying as he had remembered it. It’s not a new theme, but Lanagan plays it well: the boy’s reactions to the wideness of the full world and to the diminishment of the world he’d left are equally heartbreaking.

Her characters are often lost to themselves, like the nameless lady of “My Lord’s Man.” The wife of the lord has run away; her husband finds her and instead of taking vengeance dances with her. Watching, the lord’s servant doesn’t understand: “‘Mullord sees something in you,’ I finally say, ‘beyond your beauty and beyond your rage at the world. If he sees it, I believe it must be there.’” But the lady doesn’t see it either; the story ends with no resolution of the tension between the man and the lady – but with hope in the lord’s vision: “‘So we must both trust my lord’s sight,’ she whispers, ‘and hold onto that trust, mustn’t we? ’Tis all either of us can do.’”

And trust in others, in one’s family and in one’s community, is often what her stories are about. “Singing My Sister Down,” is a touching story of a family watching the ritual sacrifice of their sister and daughter in a tar pit. Lanagan normalizes the sacrifice and the reaction to it: it is an exceptional day, because the punishment (the woman has killed her husband) is unusual, but the method of execution is not extraordinary. And the woman, Ikky, trusts in her mother and her brother to watch her until she has sunk beneath the tar.

Lanagan’s prose is another attraction: every word is carefully chosen, showing the beauty of her constructions without seeming precious or overwrought. Take this passage from “Rite of Spring,” a story of the wind and the boy who has to bring the springtime to his people: “They’re something to throw at the wind; words seem like nothing, but they’re tiny, fancy, people’s things. Who cares whether they do anything? What else can we put up against the wind except our tininess and fanciness? What else can the wind put up against us but its big, dumb, howling brute-strength?” I can’t say anything about it; it’s simply right.

So is the whole collection. It’s bleak, but there’s a thread of hope throughout the bleakness: that if the man can’t see what his lord sees in his lady, the lord does; that even if you’re doomed to sink beneath the tar, your family will be there; that the plants at the end of “Perpetual Light,” a story about a woman burying her grandmother, will flourish: “Would they all twelve prove viable, their stalks strengthening, their greenness emerging, thickening, bunching, seemingly out of nothing and for no reason, vibrating slightly in their rows?”

Angela Slatter, The Bitterwood Bible

The Bitterwood Bible is marred by a homogeneity of tone and theme. It’s a collection of connected stories, but despite those connections, the stories would be better served by being read separately. Slatter’s prose is often lovely; it’s delicate and soft, and well tuned to the purpose of illuminating moments in the lives of her heroines. But in excess it becomes cloying. There’s a feeling after finishing these thirteen stories that you’ve read one, or at best two. These stories are, without exception, about young women in powerless positions; there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it could be the same young woman, acting out various setups of the chessboard.

The two strongest stories are the first, “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter,” and one of the least integral, “The Night Stair.” “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” drops the reader into its world with no help; we don’t know why the titular character tells the widow that her mirrors should be covered – but we soon find out. And this heroine is the most defined, and the least conventional: she’s not afraid to shirk her duty for personal gain. “The Night Stair” is a vampire story; in the end, this heroine takes up the mantle of vampirism because she would be the kindest possible vampire. Like the other heroines, the girls at the center of these two stories deal with power, both magical and social; the exploration is at its subtlest here.

Unfortunately, many of the rest of the stories run together. A young girl is in a disadvantaged position, probably due to a man’s influence; she will probably not come out of it happily or without personal sacrifice. There are worse formulae. But it is hard to read these stories without wishing for something to lift the mist of the soft prose and the sad situations. Further, the world these women live in is vague at best. Some of this is due to carelessness: a girl is referred to as having “platinum” hair in a setting that seems to be medieval or at best early modern. There are graver faults, however: in this seemingly medieval setting, a man wears a “three-corner hat”; there are “timepieces;” a girl goes to a “bookseller.” All this in a world with such intensely Old English names as Adlisa, Deor, and Oswain. There is no sense that this world is not medieval England, but it is clearly not supposed to be.

Lastly, while the prose is beautiful much of the time, there are a few noticeable lapses. Her characters are nearly always introduced with the color of their hair and eyes, along with another detail of their appearance:

A small woman with a pixie’s face, hard brown eyes and short blonde curls stares at me.

The door is unlocked by a short, pinched-face girl with dark hair and an ice green gaze, a black dress and a white maid’s apron over the top.

In the second example, the description of the girl, who speaks once and never reappears, is completely unnecessary; in the first, the description is inelegantly introduced. Then there’s the sentences like the much too modern “Silence all around as we file it under we’ll never know.” “File it under” implies, of course, a filing system, which would never exist in the world as she’s created it. Most egregious is “‘Blah, blah, blah,’ she says, rolls her eyes and makes to shut me out.” The character is supposed to be rude, but this goes beyond rudeness and into teenage petulance.

Nonetheless, in a genre overflowing with machismo and violence done by both women and men, perhaps we need a book that shows the quiet moments, with violence done subtly if at all. There are no great armies or hugely consequential battles here; it’s about the fate of single people, or at most villages. It is a shame, however, that the stories do not distinguish themselves from each other more.

Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance

I wish that I had liked Radiance better. My relationship with Catherynne M. Valente is strained: after loving the Orphan’s Tales duology, I couldn’t finish Deathless, and, on revisiting the Orphan’s Tales, I was utterly disenchanted. In general, I find her prose overblown and her metaphors to border on the nonsensical. In Radiance, she’s toned her prose down; indeed, the prose is the best thing about this book. My other complaints remain. Her characterization, as always, is shallow; the concern with stories and their telling overwhelms any actual plot; the fragments of the novel, which is told through a variety of screenplays, diaries, and other narrative devices, never cohere into a greater whole.

The core problem is that Severin Unck, the glamorous and mysterious figure at the novel’s heart, is not nearly glamorous or mysterious enough. She appears as a child in her father’s film reels and in memories, but she has no presence on the page; indeed, she seems to disappear even when she is present. If Radiance has a plot, it is the disappearance of and search for Severin Unck. It’s a shame, then, that it’s so hard to care about whether she’s found or not. There are other characters, among them Mary Pellam, who is to become one of Severin’s mother figures; Erasmo St. John, one of Severin’s lovers; and Anchises, another of Severin’s lovers. Almost all of these characters have more page time than Severin; none of them are more interesting.

Valente has always been concerned with stories – who tells them, what they are, how they determine reality. It’s an interesting theme, but it’s one of two or three in Valente’s work; at this point, she doesn’t have much to say about it that feels new. Yes, truth is what you make of it; yes, we define ourselves with stories; yes, “careful the tale you tell/that is the spell,” to quote that other noted fantasist of our time, Stephen Sondheim. All of these things are true, but it feels as though this is the only story Valente has to tell.

This story is told through a variety of documents. This is the most successful aspect of the novel; if it is about stories, it makes sense to have our view of the characters and plot filtered through the lens of fictional storytelling. That said, the goal of a splintered narrative is to have all the splinters come together at the end, like the reverse of a glass falling. In this case, the splinters stay far apart. There’s also an implausible revelation scene that seems utterly unnecessary; it’s a loss of control rather than the dreamlike feel she seems to have been trying for. There’s also a glitzyness to the narrative: it’s almost all surface, with no emotional core.

That being said, I enjoyed reading this novel quite a bit: it’s like a dream, in that it’s very beautiful and it doesn’t quite cohere. Still, her prose is very effective and often lovely:

There is no such thing as an ending. There are no answers. We collect the pieces we can, obsessively assemble and reassemble them, searching for a picture that can only come in parts. And we cling to those parts. The parts that have been her. The parts that have been you. Your chest, your ribs, your knees. The place where her last image entered and stayed. We have tried to finish Percival’s work – to find the Grail, to ask the correct question. But in some version of the tale, Percival, too, must fail, and so must we, because the story of the Grail is one of failure and always has been.

If novels rose and fell on their prose alone, this one would certainly rise. But they don’t: I demand character and plot as well as prose, and Valente provides neither.

Ilana C. Myer, Last Song Before Night

Last Song Before Night is a competent debut. It’s pleasant enough, and I doubt I would react the way I have to it if it hadn’t gotten reviews such as Jason Heller’s on npr.org. Heller’s extravagant praise of the plot, the characterization, and the themes addressed in the book raised my expectations, and on all three fronts I was let down. Let’s say, before we start, that Last Song Before Night is not a bad book. It’s simply not an outstanding one.

To summarize: Lin, a noblewoman who has chosen exile and disguise, wants to be a magic-working Poet, but is barred from the Academy by her gender. Rianna, a noblewoman, is in an arranged marriage to a man she is fond of but doesn’t love. Darien, a Poet, is a competitor for the position of Court Poet. Lin and Darien are drawn onto the quest for the mysterious Path by the Seer Valanir Ocune; in their way are the villainous current Court Poet and Lin’s evil brother.

The problem is, despite Heller’s comment that “Last Song Before Night is no retread,” none of it feels fresh at all. The trope of music as magic is a constant in fantasy from Tolkien onwards; Lin’s disguise as a boy is, at least, not convincing, but its antecedents are too many to name; the arranged marriage comes up far more often than it should; the villains even use “blood magic,” which is a common and tiresome shorthand for true evil.

What’s most troublesome to me, though, is the fact that women are not allowed to be Poets. It’s perfectly true that in 2015 there are many professions that default in the cultural psyche to male, and until about a week before the writing of this review, combat positions in the military, for one, were male-only. But such overt discrimination is rare in modern American society. Discrimination against women is not limited to literal bans on female members of a profession, though: take the relative dearth of women in the US Senate, or in Silicon Valley. A woman doesn’t have to face a misogynistic law to face discrimination; it’s a sign of a lack of creativity, I think, that so many fantasy authors want to tell and retell the story of the first woman to break into a male-only profession. It’s hardly an “exploration of cultural misogyny” (Heller) if the two main female characters face stereotyped, almost strawman forms of misogyny rather than the more insidious forms that modern American women face – and besides, Lin doesn’t ultimately overcome the misogyny of the society on her own, but rather is lifted to high position by the command of a more powerful man.

The characters are, for the most part, likable enough; the villains are appropriately villainous, though they’re sometimes, as when Lin’s brother tells a woman he’s seducing that he beat his sister, a little over the top. But whatever strange magic it is that makes me fall in love with a character was missing. The plot carried me along, but I was not particularly concerned with whether Lin, Darien, or Rianna accomplished their goals.

A common thread in positive reviews is praise of the prose. Unfortunately, that’s the book’s greatest failing. Myer’s prose ranges from unnoticably-all-right to clunky, and from the snatches of songs she gives us, it’s for the best that she doesn’t give us more. (Snow Queen of my heart/a dark night slowly falls/and if I lose you in shadow/I will ever sing alone.) This passage is fairly typical of the prose:

That Galicians loved money was also common knowledge, and undoubtedly how Rianna’s father had famously risen from street sweeper to become one of the most powerful men in Tamryllin.

It betrays a lack of logical progression: if love of money were the sole prerequisite for the acquisition of money, there would be far more millionaires in this world or any other. Nor are her supposedly lyrical passages better:

Light assaulted her in the vast room; from overhanging lamps with their multiple slender branches, from torches in wall sconces of decorative brass, from wineglasses reflecting light like a thousand flashes of bared teeth. Master Gelvan’s house could rightly be called a palace, its parquet floors spread with intricate Kahishian carpets, wall hangings and paintings on the walls that Lin knew were each in their way special.

The first sentence is quite lovely, with the exception of the final simile (why “bared teeth”?); but the rest of it is clumsy, especially “could rightly be called a palace,” and the final word, “special,” is a complete let-down. It’s true that not every wall hanging needs to be described, but grouping them all under the word “special” diminishes their power as a whole. I’ve read things with worse prose, by far, but it is hardly worthy of praise.

This is not, as I’ve said, a bad book. It doesn’t bear the weight of high expectations well, but if you go in looking for an adventure and a set of likable enough characters, and a fairly interesting plot, you’ll be satisfied. As a debut, however, it’s relatively strong, and I would consider borrowing her next book from the library.