Guy Gavriel Kay, Marisha Pessl, Luo Guanzhong (trans. Moss Roberts)

The perennial question: will I ever catch up on the year-long backlog? Who knows? But in the meanwhile, I’m attempting to prevent the backlog from increasing by updating with the books I’ve read in August.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay: About two years ago, Sai compiled a beautiful, haunting fan soundtrack for this book, and to this day, it’s probably the second most-played playlist on my iPod. I’d been meaning to pick up this book ever since, although I wasn’t sure what to expect since I had mixed feelings about the Fionavar Tapestry (Kay’s four-volume, classic high fantasy series), which I thought had excellent prose, interesting plot points, and really boring characters.

Well, I finally got around to reading The Lions of Al-Rassan, after buying a used copy at a local bookstore, and I can attest that it most definitely does not have boring characters. Granted, the main female protagonist, Jehane, isn’t particularly compelling (I mostly ignored her except for the moments when her know-it-all attitude grated on my nerves), but the story isn’t really about Jehane at all. She just happens to be the principal witness, so to speak, of the momentous meeting between Ammar ibn Khairan (”the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan”) and Rodrigo Belmonte (”Scourge of Al-Rassan”). Although they come from opposing kingdoms and belong to different faiths, their friendship becomes the stuff of legends and ultimately, of tragedy. I kept going back and reading the scenes about the two of them together.

“Are you in love with this man?” she’d asked her husband once in Fezana that winter—more than half jealous, if truth were told.

“I suppose I am, in a way,” Rodrigo had replied after a moment. “Isn’t it odd?”

The line seems a little trivial out of context, but what does it mean, after all, to be in love? Ammar and Rodrigo are both great men, but they discover, probably for the first time, their only true equal in each other. Kay describes them as fighting together as fluidly as if they were two bodies controlled by one mind. How bewildering, how amazing to realize that you are not alone but have a counterpart in another human being…and how tragic to know that this one person—perhaps the only person—capable of knowing you entirely must inevitably end up as your enemy. For this book is tragic and ended up breaking my heart as surely as the music originally did. Perhaps it’s the theme common to so many great fantasy novels: the ending of an age, the passing of the ephemeral present into history. This book is about the fall of Al-Rassan, which will never live again except in memory, and I think it’s that awareness that makes Ammar’s poetry so compelling. Another layer of tragedy right there: after all, one could say that the decline of Al-Rassan began with Ammar’s assassination of the khalif and continued with his assassination of Almalik.

What Ammar says to Rodrigo who asks him to join the Jaddites in their Reconquest of the peninsula:

“What would I have you do? What you cannot do, I suppose. Go home. Breed horses, raise your sons, love your wife. [...] Teach your people to…understand a garden, the reason for a fountain, music.”

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl: My college roommate recommended this book to me because she knew I was fond of intertextual references and allusions in my fiction. (I usually like clever books, even when they are too clever.) Anyway, the New York Times review made the character sound a little like Nancy Drew (perky, too smart for her own good, crime-solving, with gang of less-clever sidekicks who willingly tag along—please note that I’ve never actually read Nancy Drew and am stereotyping). But I started reading the book anyway since I generally trust my roommate’s judgment, and much to my surprise, Blue van Meer (the book is written from her first-person perspective) is actually very morose and is prone to overextended analogies and theorizing. A voice that I could very much sympathize with. The textual references were not nearly as impressive as I’d been led to believe. Every chapter is titled after a literary work, and Blue obsessively uses parenthetical citations for nearly any assertion she presents (very good academic habit, in my opinion), but the actual references themselves are mostly incidental and not necessary to understanding the book itself. They’re more to convey character than actual thematic meaning, i.e. not meant to be intimidating.

As much as I liked Blue herself, I found myself getting increasingly irritated with her in the latter half of the book. Why on earth did she continue hanging out with the Bluebloods when it was clear that she didn’t fit in with them and that they didn’t like her? The fascination of Hannah Schneider is one excuse, but Blue spends so much time analyzing how fake Hannah was, for all her fascinating ways, so I kept wondering why did Blue continue even when she knew better. Actually, that’s my problem with the whole book: Blue knew better, admitted she knew better, and yet still wound up in a situation that could only make her unhappy. (Was it just hindsight that made it seem that she should have known better? Was it adolescence?) In any case, the Bluebloods were intolerable. As for the explanation that Blue arrives at…well, it felt too overblown to be believable. Oh, it holds together very well because Pessl carefully sets up clues throughout the book to make the Nightwatchmen conspiracy theory watertight. But the tone of the book was so much about, well, ordinary high school life with an idiosyncratic twist on all the usual conventions, so the whole political radicalism kind of hit me from left field. Perhaps it was meant to leave that impression; maybe you weren’t supposed to completely believe Blue. But I closed the book feeling really dissatisfied, although I’d quite enjoyed the first half of the book, especially when it focused on her relationship with her father. Anyway, that general dissatisfaction also may be why I completely failed to sympathize with Blue over the clear psychological trauma that she must have received on discovering Hannah’s corpse.

(Oh, and Blue might be attending Harvard, but Pessl clearly has never gone to school there. Wish she bothered to do a little more research on that aspect of the book, since she clearly did a lot of research on everything else.)

Criticisms aside, I still think it’s an impressive first novel, and I liked Blue, even if I got frustrated by her. Which in itself is probably a testament to how much the novel engaged me.

Three Kingdoms, vol 1, by Luo Guanzhong (trans. Moss Roberts): Almost six years ago, I read the abridged one-volume translation by Moss Roberts and thought it was the most amazing epic I’d ever read. I finally got around to purchasing the full four-volume translation, by the same translator, and finished the first volume this summer. Many of the chapters that had been skipped in the abridged version were in this first volume, it seems, since I remember the scene where Cao Cao and Liu Bei drink tea together in the capital (Cao Cao makes his little speech about the heroes of the age) happening fairly “quickly” after Liu Bei gains renown in helping quell the Yellow Turban rebellion, while here, there are chapters and chapters of constant political and military maneuvering, as alliances are made and broken every ten pages. Hard to keep track of, but fun to read about. I was surprised to find how often Liu Bei runs away or pragmatically switches sides because the author of Three Kingdoms is supposed to be biased in favor of Shu but despite this bias, Liu Bei comes off as no more virtuous than Cao Cao. I mean, the author does insert moralizing statements on why Liu Bei is good and Cao Cao isn’t, but when it comes to actual actions, the bias is not apparent at all. Actually, more of the moralizing statements (and awkward justifications for why Liu Bei is a paragon of all Confucian virtues) come from later commentators, who are mentioned in the footnotes, rather than from the author himself. The footnotes are worth reading; Moss Roberts often includes some of the more elaborate interpretations from well-known commentaries, which I found very entertaining.

Zhuge Liang doesn’t appear in this volume at all; he’s introduced early on in the next volume. But despite his absence, there’s a lot of excitement in this first volume. Since the three kingdoms haven’t been established yet, there’s a lot of backstabbing going on. Plus, it’s nice to get more backstory for all of the characters; I didn’t pay that much attention to Wu when reading the abridged volume (being too enamored of Zhuge Liang, of course), so this time, I’m doing a more careful job of keeping track of all the characters.

Comments (2)

  1. charmian wrote::

    :D Glad to hear you’re reading more 3K!

    Lions of Al-Rassan, of the two GKK books I read, was the one I liked better (the other was Tigana). It IS tragic, and that is a rare thing to find in a fantasy, where most novels have happy or mostly happy endings.

    I think Liu Bei’s “virtuous” part is supposed to come later, I think, when he steals starts his own kingdom for real.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 03:15 #
  2. charmian wrote::

    Hmm, whoops, the “steals” was supposed to be in strikethru.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2007 at 03:17 #