Robert Graves, Orson Scott Card, Anne Bishop, Steven Brust, Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, Jean Webster, Dorothy L. Sayers

I finished these books last month. My reactions have muted with time, so I’ll try to note down quickly my most memorable impressions.

Claudius the God, by Robert Graves: I’ve been meaning to read Claudius the God ever since I finished I, Claudius two years ago, and finally I’ve gotten around to borrowing it from Lamont. I realized, upon finishing it, that this whole story of Claudius has been structured to be a classical tragedy, in which our unlikely hero, Tiberius Claudius, sets out to rule with the best of intentions only to be done in by his fatal flaw, his blind love for Messalina. A little less superficially, Claudius’ tragedy represents the tragedy of the Republic, the final death toll as it were, and his decision to throw Rome to the dogs by appointing Nero as his successor was a quintessential tragic ending. It’s not an especially emotional book, but I felt like I was emerging from a funeral once I finished it. By the way, Graves really does his research. I mean, I had unconsciously assumed that Claudius’ army of bureaucrats was partly fictionalized, but as one can see from some of the passages given at the end of the book, even the names of all the individuals were taken from historical sources. I also liked the Herod Agrippa subplot—a more glamorous version of a tragic hero—although it took me a while to see the thematic connections between Herod and Claudius. The book does tend at first to feel like a chronicle of events, but Graves ties up everything into a coherent whole, which does not fail to impress me.

Shadow of the Giant, by Orson Scott Card: Much better than the prequel, if only for the fact that Card is too busy tying up the plot to lecture us on his grand philosophy of life (get married and have children, if one wants to be sarcastic about it). Bean continues to rather annoy me as a character, and I definitely did not expect the Virlomi and Alai plot twist. Also disappointed at Card’s decision to reverse his opinion and denounce the Muslim world as forever at the mercy of religious fanatics. But despite my quibbles and despite the fact that Card’s prose is simply not as compelling as it once was, I really enjoyed the story of Peter consolidating his power. It’s an idealistic vision, I think, but I think Card managed to pull it off in spite of his instinct to polemicize. I also really like the idea of the Hundred Worlds being rooted in a great Jeesh diaspora, haha. There’s a major plot thread left unresolved (w/r/t one of Bean and Petra’s children), so perhaps that rumor that Card is planning to write a novel that connects the Shadow arc with the Lusitania arc (set after Children of the Mind) is true. I’m also very glad that Card ends with Ender (no pun intended); one gets a final sense of reconciliation that one hadn’t even known was necessary.

Dreams Made Flesh, by Anne Bishop: A collection of short stories set in the Black Jewels universe. I must say, I wouldn’t even have known that this anthology existed if my dear friend and blockmate didn’t tell me about it. Some of the stories were better than others. (The first story was an example of why some writers should not attempt the “mythic” style. Also, Hekatah is unconvincingly vicious.) My favorite is the one about how Lucivar and Marian met, although I wish Anne Bishop would occasionally write about females from, well, normal families. (That might be expecting too much of the Blood though, since they are all mentally unstable in one way or another.) I also liked the way she resolved Jaenelle and the matter of Twilight’s Dawn, although the little drama surrounding her relationship with Daemon was a bit forced.

The Paths of the Dead, by Steven Brust: I must say that Piro & co. are nowhere near as interesting as Khaavren and his friends, but the book does provide the backstory that I’d been waiting for, namely how Zerika got the Orb back from the eponymous Paths of the Dead. Also, we get to see Morrolan’s origins, which are hilarious (I shall spare potential readers any spoilers, but nonetheless, I couldn’t stop laughing).

Sorcery & Cecelia, or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer: I think this book impressed on me more than ever just how difficult it is to write an epistolary novel. The problem is balancing exposition and action while remaining true to the constraints of the letter form, and Wrede and Stevermer more or less succeed at it, although there are points when they are clearly hampered a bit by having to tell everything in retrospect. One reviewer said that the love interests are more interesting than the two letter-writers, who are hard to distinguish voice-wise, and I can see their point, although I think that’s kind of inevitable given the genre. I mean, “spunky girl meets aloof, sarcastic man and falls in love after much snarking” dates all the way back to Pride and Prejudice. The fact that I still enjoyed the story and still thought that the romantic relationships were cute says a lot for Wrede and Stevermer’s ability to keep things fresh.

Dear Enemy, by Jean Webster: I didn’t even know that Daddy-Long-Legs, a childhood favorite of mine, had a sequel. But it does! I suppose it doesn’t have the piquancy of its predecessor, but I liked it nonetheless. Yet another epistolary novel, by the way, and like Daddy-Long-Legs, we only see one-half of the correspondence. Of course, in Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy never expected a reply, but in Dear Enemy, Sallie (Judy’s best friend from college) does in fact receive answers to her letters. She also writes them to more than one person. To pull this kind of writing stunt off and still tell the story vividly is no ordinary feat. Sallie’s tone changes subtly with the person to whom she’s writing; that kind of attention to detail always makes me happy. Oh, and it’s both disturbing and yet fascinating to see the early American views on eugenics and race being discussed here. (Jean Webster wrote Dear Enemy in 1910s, I believe.) Sallie has the sense to see that one can “fight” heredity with the proper environment and loving care, but it is a tad disconcerting to see how easily people accept the idea that negative personality traits, such as drunkenness or idlery or insanity, are determined entirely by genetics. (I speak as someone who hopes to be a geneticist: phenotype isn’t that simple.) The book is available on Project Gutenberg, by the way, which is how I read it, staying up until past 2 in the morning.

The Lord of Castle Black, by Steven Brust: More laughter at Morrolan as a young Dragaeran, small mysteries finally answered (e.g. the identity of Zerika’s Eastern lover). The Lord of Castle Black is the second volume in The Viscount of Adrilankha, which in turn is the third “book” in the Khaavren Romances, and I think it suffers somewhat from not being published as part of a larger volume. I didn’t know that the Duke of Kana was going to turn out to be such a major part of the plot (although I supppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; nothing Brust mentions is entirely superfluous); if I had, I would have paid closer attention in the last book. Piro’s choice of romantic interest is startling and kind of random, but then again, Brust likes to play these jokes, and it’s not entirely inconceivable considering Piro’s (relative) age.

Unnatural Death, by Dorothy L. Sayers: First published as The Dawson Pedigree. I much preferred this mystery to Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, and upon considering why, I concluded it’s because Wimsey is much more morbid although still flippant as he ever is. In other words, Wimsey is just more Wimsey. There is this particularly excellent scene when Inspector Parker asks him just why he’s so interested in the Dawson case, and Wimsey talks of the perfect crime, so flawless and so inconsequential that no one even knows that it was a crime to begin with. He says that there is no conceivable way of knowing just how many of these crimes happen, since after all, a crime that is detected as a crime is by nature a failure. I wish I hadn’t returned the book so that I can quote this scene exactly, but this passage is exactly why I like Sayers’ writing so much. I also enjoyed the story for its own sake; it’s not a particularly flamboyant mystery since Wimsey’s suspect from the beginning turns out to be the culprit in the end. But the psychology of the culprit!—not clinically sociopathic, entirely sane, but nonetheless amoral. Sends shivers down my spine exactly because I know people who are like that. The means by which the crime was committed is so simple, yet I spent the whole book wondering about it. Also Miss Climpson! I would have adored the book for Miss Climpson’s letters alone.