Susanna Clarke, Naomi Novik, Terry Pratchett, William Gibson, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke: A collection of short stories set in the same universe as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. (Well, one is supposed to be set in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, but it still reads very much like the other stories in the book.) I’m perpetually delighted by the attention Clarke pays to detail, e.g. the conceit of having the stories be “compiled” by an academic who is the Director of Sidhe Studies at the University of Aberdeen or the archaic spelling used in “On Lickerish Hill”, which is presumably set at an even earlier time in English history. Feminists will comment approvingly of how Clarke explores “female voices” since the majority of the stories in the book feature female protagonists and female narrators. The fictional Professor James Sutherland (the aforementioned Director of Sidhe Studies) comments:

Yet if these stories demonstrate nothing else it is the appalling unpreparedness of the average nineteenth-century gentleman when he accidentally stumbled into Faerie. The Duke of Wellington is a case in point. Women do seem to have fared somewhat better in these perplexing circumstances; the heroine of “Mrs. Mabb”, Venetia Moore, consistently demonstrates an ability to intuit the rules of Faerie, which the older and more experienced Duke is quite without.

What really charmed me about the book was how authentic all the stories sound, as if they were really taken from actual folklore passed by mouth to mouth in the countryside until recorded into writing by an eager amateur researcher. They’re all slightly different too: you can see the direct fairy tale inspiration for “On Lickerish Hill”, which draws on “Rumpelstiltskin”, but “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” sounds vaguely Gothic, while “Mr Simonelli or The Fairy Widower” is in the form of diary entries. It’s mindboggling to think how much Clarke must have read, from all periods of English history, to carry off such different voices so effortlessly. But her talent for imitation doesn’t mask her style: each story exhibits that unique touch of whimsy mixed with a slightly sinister twist, much like the fairies themselves. Like a prism in the window, casting a shadow next to the insubstantial rainbow: an imperceptible shiver down one’s spine to accompany each charming phrase.

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik: I read this book without having read The Black Powder War, which breaks my usual rule of reading series in chronological order whenever possible. I still enjoyed the book though. Where Throne of Jade reimagined imperial China in Novik’s alternate world history with dragons, Empire of Ivory takes us to Africa, where certain tribes consider dragons to be reincarnations of heroic ancestors. Isn’t that such an interesting idea? Of course, Laurence is held prisoner by the African dragon-king so I suppose he didn’t exactly share my fascination with the culture, but nonetheless, it’s funny to think that the Europeans, and the English in particular, seem to be in the minority in their insistence on treating dragons as “beasts”. The ending is, alas, another cliffhanger, but I’m glad to see Laurence doing what he believes is right, even though he has to betray his country to do so. For someone like Laurence, it must have been one of the most difficult decisions of his life: choosing between honor and loyalty.

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett: The return of Moist von Lipwig! Who turns from the Post Office to the Royal Mint. I didn’t like this novel quite as much as I liked Going Postal—the book was, to put it simply, not as funny—but it was still clever and entertaining. Dropping the gold standard, printing paper bills, fighting off the machinations of the Lavish family who owns the Bank…Moist manages to juggle it all with his natural instincts for charlatanry. I was a little surprised at the ending (the subplot with the golems felt a little like deus ex machina), and I’m still not sure what Pratchett intended with Mr. Bent. But I was very amused by Hubert (whose model of the Ankh-Morpork economy uses water to represent money and not only predicts but causes economic change), and if I understood economics or finance better, I’m sure I’d find even more amusing references to laugh at. Probably not going on my list of most memorable Discworld novels but still a good sequel, which makes me look forward to Moist von Lipwig’s next change of career. (I’m still waiting for Ankh-Morpork to build its subway system!)

Idoru, by William Gibson: I suppose I should simply resign myself to being perpetually confused by the ending of Gibson’s novels. I think Idoru was more coherent than Neuromancer, but it still ended abruptly for me: I still don’t quite understand what Rez and Rei were aiming to accomplish. What is the Project? What is the island that the idoru owns? I like the atmosphere of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels—the creatively imagined technology, the densely urban settings, even the eccentric characters he creates—but I’m always left with a feeling of dissatisfaction at the end. Did I not read carefully enough? Am I missing something important? In any case, I kind of wish I had Laney’s talent for intuiting “data nodes”—we could certainly use that sort of talent in genomics research, what with all the eye-glazing massive datasets we have to deal with and essentially no good method for determining signal from noise—but of course without the traumatic past as an involunatry experimental subject in an ethically dubious orphanage.

The Birthday of the World, by Ursula K. Le Guin: Almost all of the short stories in this collection focus on the worlds of the Ekumen, the loose universe in which The Left Hand of Darkness, Rocannon’s World and many of Le Guin’s other stories are set. It includes one of my favorite short stories by Le Guin, “Solitude”, which is as compelling on rereading as it was the first time I read it. For several days afterwards, I kept thinking of the end, when the narrator goes back to the planet as an adult and how she lived there, how she could go back to being alone again.

The rest of the short stories were new to me. A few were set in worlds that I had already read about, e.g. “Coming of Age in Karhide”, which was set several years after The Left Hand of Darkness. (Interesting to read about the helplessness and rage that the young Gethenians feel about the onset of kemmer; how like our own puberty despite all the biological differences Le Guin posited.) There was also a short story about Werel, which Le Guin had explored previously in Four Ways to Forgiveness, although I thought it was a little unfocused. “The Matter of Seggri” was much more interesting, containing multiple “primary source” excerpts concerning a world where there is a large gender imbalance, and women run most of the civilization, while men are kept in castles where they engage in violent games to show their physical strength while women choose the ones they like to father their children. The boys are treasured and pampered as children then sent off to the castles when they reach puberty. An interesting inversion of gender prejudices: men are not educated, they are not expected to know about technology or art, they do not form families. Le Guin writes about the effect that contact with the Ekumen has on the society as well; there are rebellions, both physical and intellectual. I was struck by the short story, purportedly written by an avant-garde author on the planet, where a man, who becomes the favorite of a particular woman, falls in love with her and is devastated when she finds his attachment unnatural and ultimately rejects him. Also by the first-hand account of a boy who escapes the castle and goes to the university for education: when asked what he wants most, he says he wants to be a wife, to be able to love another person and create a family, rather than be the breeding tool that his society expects him to be. Another interesting set of stories is set on a world where marriage occurs between four people, two couples of opposite gender and different moiety. I’ve been informed that the moieties actually do exist among Australian aborigines and certain tribes in South America, which is unsurprising given Le Guin’s extensive anthropological background. The difficulty in meeting a single person suitable for marriage…imagine how much more complicated it would be to meet three!

The best story in the collection though wasn’t part of the Hainish universe at all. “Paradises Lost” is set on a spaceship that has been traveling to colonize a new planet. It’s been several generations since the spaceship left Earth, so that all the inhabitants have only known the world of the ship. They have no knowledge of what it’s like to live on Earth and are not expected to live long enough to see the new planet. A new religion denies that the destination even exists; only the Journey is important. They have slowly started to erase records of the old Earth and alter curricula so that the younger generations are receiving less and less education about how to live on ground. Thus, the ship is caught unprepared when an unexpected acceleration schedules their arrival several decades ahead of the expected date. Life on the ship: sterile, peaceful, without danger. Everything is provided and recycled in a near perfect closed system. You never really think about how different it would be for people who were born and lived and died on that ship, and how strange, even frightening, the natural world of a planet would be.

The story traces the lives of two friends, Hsing and Luis, in excerpts over the span of their lives: it’s as much a wonderful portrait of their relationship as it is a commentary on religion and community. I loved the last line, when they have landed on the new planet and grown old together:

Swaying, she lifted her bare feet from the dirt and set them down again while he stood still, holding her hands. They danced together that way.

Comments (2)

  1. daimira wrote::

    I love Moist! Going Postal has to be my favorite Discworld novel (particularly since Vetinari is in it). Sad to hear the Making Money isn’t AS good, but happy enough to hear that it’s still entertaining.

    Must get my hands on that Le Guin collection.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 06:26 #
  2. troisroyaumes wrote::

    Well, I went into Making Money with high expectations after Going Postal, which may be why I was just the slightest bit disappointed. It’s still a Discworld book though! Which automatically means it’s worth reading.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007 at 03:33 #