Naomi Novik, Kazuo Ishiguro, Neal Stephenson, Diana Wynne Jones

The following books were read in May 2006. (I’m still catching up on the backlog.)

His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik: Dragons in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. The main character being a Royal Navy officer, Laurence, who stumbles across an egg of a rare Chinese breed, originally promised to Napoleon himself, and finds himself chosen by the newly hatched dragon, whom he names Temeraire. The charm of the book for me was the way we were slowly introduced to aviator culture, with its freedoms and unorthodoxies that come as a shock to Laurence with his strict Navy discipline. Still, Laurence is not so inflexible that he cannot adapt, and both he and Temeraire undergo training to become members of the Royal Aerial Corps. Temeraire, by the way, is an adorable character, an inquisitive and precocious child at first and later an intelligent companion. It’s his relationship with Laurence that really ties this book together.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro: Another one of those books that I find it difficult to write about. This book really shook me—I went to sleep when I was halfway through the book and had nightmares about it—in much the same way that Oryx and Crake did, although in a more subtle way. I think it has to do with the insidious way in which Ishiguro makes you (that is, through Kathy’s first-person perspective) realize that you are not considered human. There is something horrific about the thought of human clones, about manufacturing people without acknowledging their personhood…and Ishiguro doesn’t force the issue on you but instead lets the feeling of wrongness eat away at the back of your mind until the truth is revealed. Also, the usual Ishiguro theme of might-have-beens, all the missed opportunities of the past. Except before, it always seemed that there was still some way for his protagonists to correct their mistakes—some possibility of reconciliation, however slight—but there doesn’t seem to be any such hope for Kathy and Tommy. They can never go back. That hit me like a sledgehammer when I finished the book, and I could have cried and cried at their quiet resignation, their very lack of regret.

Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik: Sequel to His Majesty’s Dragon, which I read rather hurriedly at the Coop right after my last final. I found the voyage to China rather long—although I did enjoy the description of the festival-at-sea, with all its delicious foods—but it was interesting to perceive the East-meeting-West encounter from British eyes instead of the other way around. I’m very much used to the anti-imperialist rhetoric criticizing the Europeans for their arrogance and cultural insensitivity, so it was a bit of an eye-opener to see the same criticism applying to the Chinese, who show just as much arrogance and insensitivity to the British in the book. That isn’t to say that Novik portrays Chinese characters or culture in an unflattering light; quite the opposite since she portrays China with the grandeur of an old and sophisticated civilization (while avoiding the mistake of exoticizing it). The reconfiguration of the human society to accomodate dragons was particularly well thought-out.

In the Beginning…was the Command Line, by Neal Stephenson: The fact that Neal Stephenson could keep me endlessly entertained while writing about operating systems is a testamonial to how compelling his authorial voice can be. The clever metaphors (he starts off, I believe, by comparing operating systems to cars sold by different types of dealerships), the philosophical asides (the almost metaphysical dichotomy between the command line and the user interface), and the smart commentary on the subcultural differences behind each of the operating systems (Windows, MacOS, Unix, etc.) made it a swift and smooth read. The book was released before the advent of Mac OSX, so it’s a bit outdated, but the book’s essential points are still valid. Stephenson went to some lengths to make the technical aspects comprehensible to the lay reader, and I especially liked the descriptions of how the earliest computers worked (my first computer was a 286 IBM-compatible, so I had no conception of the pre-DOS computing world). I’m also enamored by his descriptions of what some of the Unix-based GUIs can do, and if I had the luxury of owning several up-to-date computers, I’d set up a Unix machine right away.

Unexpected Magics, by Diana Wynne Jones: I was more than a little disappointed to find that I had read all of the short stories in this anthology because they had all previously appeared in Warlock at the Wheel and Other Stories, Hidden Turnings and Firebirds Rising. The only new story was the novella Everard’s Ride, which seems to be one of her earliest works. The writing was unsteady, without the characteristic authorial voice that I’ve growned accustomed to, and there seemed to be several missing scenes. The ending was also unusually tidy (her endings tend to have few loose ends but they normally leave you with the feeling that the story could be continued, but I can’t imagine a sequel to Everard’s Ride).