Ellen Kushner, Terry Pratchett, Dorothy L. Sayers

Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner: I bought this book on the recommendation of my best friend, despite my initial qualms about her plot summary—she described it as a medieval story about a swordsman and a scholar (I thought hopefully of Narcissus und Goldmund and less optimistically of Mercedes Lackey’s numerous swords-and-sworcery novels). Still, I wanted to read it anyway. I’m not entirely sure why, although the reviews by Orson Scott Card and Neil Gaiman on the cover did help persuade me. (Also, I’ve heard about Kushner’s latest book, Thomas the Rhymer, so I was prepared to give her writing the benefit of the doubt, even if the plot sounded a bit old.)

Swordspoint is written like a fairy tale, but it’s so much more than that—I think of finely embroidered lace and whole ivory scenes carved in nutshells, and still the analogies are inadequate to describe the sheer beauty of her writing. It is refined and poised and elegant, but so very passionate. That description of Alec and Richard in bed was more erotic than anything I’ve ever read, and it wasn’t even explicit. (Far from it, really.) And of course, that strange dynamic between the two lovers forms the hidden heart of the story, which in itself was as intricate as the writing. (On a entirely superficial note, I do love fantasy based on court intrigues, and the politics in this novel was as convoluted as I could have wished.) Oh…I keep trying to describe, to pin down in a glib phrase exactly why this book fascinated me so much, but I can’t, really. I can talk about the imagery (the drop of blood on snow that begins the novel), the characters (St Vier and Alec and Duchess Tremontaine), the setting (Riverside where the prostitutes and swordsmen inhabit the abandoned houses of the nobility), but it feels vaguely sacrilegious somehow.

One thing I did want to note was that Riverside does not seem medieval at all. For one, the setting is clearly urban, although the rule by aristocrats and lack of monarchs does suggest a feudal social structure. But then again, you have the Italian city-states—and seriously, if Riverside evokes any historical period for me, it’s definitely Renaissance Italy. Never mind the vaguely French and English names, Riverside is Italian through and through. The duels, the noble houses, the vague murmurs of trade and mercantilism in the background, the intrigues, the backstabbing, the decadence (one would ask why I’m associating decadence with rebirth, and even possibly accuse me of making the fatal mistake of substituting decadence for cultural fertility, but Italy in my mind is always just a little decadent—think of Venice, after all). I can imagine da Vinci living in this city, the unnamed capital. (Not to mention Machiavelli.) I suppose there’s also a lingering sense of the Roman Empire as well—the habit of hiring swordsmen to fight your duels reminded me of the gladiators. (And now, on second thought, one could even say France under Louis XIII and XIV. The musketeers, the glitter of Versailles—the description of the Duchess’ morning dress definitely made me think Marie Antoinette.)

Monstrous Regiment, by Terry Pratchett: I think I’m pretty much all caught up on the Discworld series now, unless Going Postal has already been released. (One of the disadvantages of not checking my LJ anymore…the Discworld community was so useful with information like that.) I liked Monstrous Regiment, but I don’t know if I enjoyed it in quite the same way as I enjoyed the other Discworld books. Pratchett is turning more and more to satire as opposed to humor and parody. There’s a distinction of course. I didn’t laugh at all during Monstrous Regiment—there’s a sober tone to it that has been developing slowly over his last few books. Not that it isn’t worth reading. I just felt that I was reading a very different series than the one I began. Of course, Discworld has modernised considerably since Rincewind in The Colour of Magic, “kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat”. I still adore Pratchett’s writing of course, blunt yet completely clever. Although a part of me wishes he’d return to the old days of the Watch, when Vimes was more occupied with straightforward criminals than international politics. (I’m sure Vimes will agree heartily with me on that one.)

Whose Body?, by Dorothy L. Sayers: Yes, I’ve succumbed to Lord Peter fanaticism. Whose Body? is the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, and I plan to read its sequels in chronological order. I don’t normally consider mystery to be one of my favorite genres—when it comes to genre fiction, I consider myself nearly exclusively SF/F—but I have to admit that I really adore 19th century detective fiction. Anything contemporary bores me (I have tried some, you know), and I only get about as far as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, before I give up. But I swallowed both volumes of The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Bantam anthology) in fifth grade, before I discovered Lord of the Rings. Plus, I adore Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. I like Miss Marple, but I don’t particularly enjoy Poirot—my love of detective fiction is so very narrow and requires a properly Victorian setting, with a thoroughly British detective. (The one exception being Dupin, although Dupin is rather Gothic at times.) A LJ friend of mine once equated reading detective fiction with the art of solving crossword puzzles, and the image has stuck in my mind ever since—the delight of a good mystery novel for me is tied up in the delight I would get in sipping tea in a cup set on lace tablecloth with a neatly folded newspaper and a sharpened pencil next to the saucer. It is a game, a mental challenge, an exercise strictly delineated by certain conventions and formalisms not so different from filling in the right letter in the right space and not slurping when you sip Earl Grey (two sugars, no cream).

The genius of Sayers however is that she acknowledges this precise framework, and then proceeds not to topple it but to somehow sidestep it. There are plenty of sly asides when the characters mention how in a detective novel there would be a convincing clue right about now but real life is not so accomodating, etc., but what I’m really speaking of though is a specific scene where Lord Peter walks into Freke’s waiting room, for the purposes of giving fair warning, and observes the patients there. He notes that the finances of five countries are in the hands of Freke (a neurologist and surgeon who specializes in nervous disorders; his patients include a man who, yes, controls the economies of five foreign nations), and speaks to a Russian emigrĂ©e and her daughter, the former of whom repeatedly calls Freke “un saint” in rapid French. I make it sound so banal, but when I read that scene, I was absolutely flabbergasted. It wasn’t about showing Freke’s humanity, or anything like that—Freke, cold, scientific and entirely amoral, is hardly an exemplary human being—but it was about wondering what happens when the crime is solved and the ends of the mystery are neatly tied up, what happens to the people irrelevant to the mystery but nevertheless indirectly connected, what are the true consequences of the decision to reveal the truth. Lord Peter, who seems so frivolous at times (intelligent yes, but frivolous, and even he admits it and wonders at the suitability of his playing detective), breaks down into a flashback to his time in the trenches during the First World War after he solves the mystery, and you realize that while Peter worries if he’s just playing a gentleman’s game, most detectives never have to ponder the question at all. Sayers is a crueler author in that respect, but a much more brilliant one, I should say.

Also noticed that Freke’s description of criminal psychology—and how the successful criminal ultimately gets caught—paralleled very closely Raskolnikov’s breakdown in Crime and Punishment. Would not be surprised if that was a partial inspiration for Sayers, who must have been an extremely, extremely well-read woman. (She cites a paper to support her point about vicious crimes having petty motives. Plus her discussion of psychology and physiology, as well as her description of the criminal investigation is so precise and so erudite that one must absolutely admire her sheer intelligence.) I did think that Freke was a bit of an obvious choice for a culprit—I suspected him right away after noticing that he was a doctor at the hospital near Thipps’ flat and that he had connections to Lady Levy. Of course, I had the reader’s advantage in knowing that there was high probability of the two cases being related (both being in the same book after all), but it was a little transparent. Of course, that’s not really the point—the highlight of the novel is not the ingenuity of the crime (although that was clever, I admit) or the criminal, but that moment in the doctor’s waiting room, when Wimsey shoulders true responsibility for his actions.