rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
( Jul. 9th, 2012 01:33 pm)
A Week to Be Wicked, by Tessa Dare. Sweet, funny Regency romance in which a female geologist with a fossilized dinosaur footprint runs off with a rake with a trauma-related sleep disorder; hijinks ensue. Avoid if you're looking for realistic period attitudes, grab if you want adorable escapism. The psychological and trauma-related dynamics, however, are quite believable, which certainly added to my enjoyment.

Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington. Narrative nonfiction by an Appalachian journalist who starts out covering a news story about a Pentecostal pastor's trial for attempted murder by rattlesnake, and ends up snake-handling himself. Extremely strong opening, fascinating subject, excellent prose, but it ends up adding up to somewhat less than I expected. I think it needed either a bit more introspection, or a bit more larger-picture analysis, or both. Worth reading but not quite revelatory. Incidentally, how in the world do people drink strychnine and survive? Is it tiny doses, or what?

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, by Robert Johnson. Meh. Ridiculously unsourced. If you're going to say people in ancient India had the practice of choosing a year-king, I would like a cite for that or I'm going to think you read in The Golden Bough.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Solid historical about a baby washed ashore from a shipwreck and raised by a British tribe; they eventually exile him, whereupon he goes to Rome, gets enslaved, and eventually ends up on a slave galley. The depiction of the galley ship is horrific and vivid, and the section after that, which I won't spoil, is quite moving. But I didn't like this as much as I did some of Sutcliff's others. The protagonist was a bit too everyman for my taste.

This one is now up on Kindle, but several of her others are no longer available in that format. Weird.
To quote [personal profile] smillaraaq: "Some wildernessy survival, absolute BUCKETS of Noble Warrior Guys bonding and being Reluctant Honor-bound Noble Frenemies, outnumbered ragtag bands involved in desperate pursuits and hopeless last stands...all that good stuff."

A historical novel set in Britain, as the Roman Empire is beginning to fall apart. Young commander Alexios gives the order to abandon his fort and pull out all his troops when it's attacked; when it turns out to be the wrong decision, he's disgraced and sent off to command the Frontier Wolves, in the icy middle of nowhere, where Roman soldiers rub shoulders with British tribespeople... some of whom become Frontier Wolves themselves.

Alexios feels (and is) completely out of place, but slowly learns the ways of the Wolves, with help from Hilarion, his wry second-in-command, and Cunorix, the son of a British chieftain. Yes, these can certainly be read as slashy, as can his more fraught relationship with Connla, the chieftain's wild second son. Alexios earns his wolfskin cloak and his command, witnesses and partakes in training and rituals, and comes to fit in... only to be once again faced with the same terrible choice that led him to the Wolves in the first place.

This is in the same continuity as Eagle of the Ninth: Alexios has the dolphin ring. These books build on each other, though they can be read in any order, displaying the whole brutal tapestry of history, as colonizers and conquerors march in and take over, only to be conquered and colonized in their own turn. The books are intimate, but the series gives you the wider picture.

Like Sutcliff's other books, it's very well-written and well-characterized, slowly paced (up to a point) but incredibly atmospheric. This one, with its emphasis on learning a new culture, reminded me a bit in theme, pace, and tone of Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, though it has no magic. However, while it does have a basically happy ending, it gets darker along the way than the other Sutcliff novels I've read. I liked it a lot, in part because of the darkness, which concerns heroic last stands and tragic matters of honor rather than random grimdarkess.

Finally, standard Sutcliff warning for those sensitive to animal harm: animals are neither inherently doomed nor inherently safe. There is non-gruesome hunting and war-related animal death.

Only $4.90 on Kindle! Frontier Wolf
It is so fun being able to download books and carry them with me in a device which turns on instantly and is lighter than most paperbacks! I used to read sf where people had portable pocket libraries and be so envious. I am probably getting more enjoyment out of my Kindle than I would out of the much-mourned rocket cars.

Most of E. Nesbit's fantasy is available for free, including Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet. Classic fantasy, still quite funny and readable, though attitudes about race, gender, class, and other political issues were in many ways typical for an English person writing in 1900. (In other ways she was quite radical, as she was a socialist and had an open marriage in 1880.) The Story of the Amulet, in particular, has some scenes of remarkable power and beauty. "We'll sail her straight for the Dragon Rocks."

There are a bunch of versions of the Mahabharata, though unfortunately I'm not familiar with most of the ones available on Kindle. I have to link Krishna Dharma's Mahabharata, though, because it has a highly indignant comment protesting the author's anti-Kaurava and pro-Pandava bias, noting, "I mean, I'm not saying the Pandavas weren't great, but come on! The Kauravas are villified to a point where it's annoying to read the tirades against them. For instance, we always hear "That sinful blind king and his foolish brain-dead evil horrible unintelligent demonic son Duryodhana will surely reap the consequences of their actions, surely destiny is all-powerful, it must all be arranged by providence." The comment was written by none other than Duryodhana! I had not realized that he had an Amazon account.

I also note Wren Journeymage (Wren Series), by Sherwood Smith, sequel to her Wren to the Rescue books, available only in e-book format. $4.99.

Sherwood has got quite a lot of books on Kindle, some only available as e-books, some simply good deals. For instance, her classic Crown Duel and A Posse of Princesses at $3.99, and a revised and polished re-launch of her space opera Exordium (with Dave Trowbridge), The Phoenix in Flight (Exordium), at $4.99.

While browsing Suzanne Brockmann's titles, I discovered this: When Tony Met Adam (Short Story). A new gay romance! I really admire her willingness to push the boundaries of the normally exclusively-straight genre romance market.

There are some nice deals ($4.90) on Rosemary Sutcliff titles I haven't read, Frontier Wolf, The Mark of the Horse Lord, and Knight's Fee. Has anyone read any of these? How are they?

Finally, Sarah Rees Brennan's The Demon's Surrender (Demon's Lexicon) is out! Though I plan to buy it in print.
Owain, a young Roman-Briton boy, is the only human survivor of a battle between his people and the invading Saxons. He and the hound he finds on the battlefield, whom he names Dog, head out in search of some place where they might belong. This turns out to be even more complicated than one might imagine, as Owain discovers when he comes to the abandoned city of Viriconium and takes up with a beggar girl, Regina.

Like The Shield Ring, this is a start-and-stop book, alternating sequences of intense emotion and suspense with lengthy time-skips and slow interludes of daily life. I liked many individual scenes very much and was very satisfied by the story, but it was not exactly a quick read – even less so than The Shield Ring.

I liked how Owain’s virtues are the ones generally considered passive and feminine: his courage and battlefield prowess are present but largely elided, while his endurance, patience, kindness, and self-sacrifice are the focus of the story.

Now that I’ve read three of the books in the “Dolphin Ring” sequence, which I think encompasses about a thousand years of history, it’s fascinating to see how conquerors become the conquered, and each culture in turn mourns its fall to “barbarians.” It’s one of the best examples I’ve ever read of a God’s-eye-view of history, in which the reader gets both the inexorable sequence of events and the length of time, and a sense of how every sparrow that falls is important, if only to itself.

Though the book is not particularly full of startling plot twists, the overall shape of the narrative was surprisingly difficult to predict. In case that’s a common reaction, I’ll put the rest of the plot behind a cut.

Read more... )

Warning: This is by no means a “dead dog” book, in which animals are slain by the hand of the author for cheap tears and life lessons (“Kids! Being a man means shooting your own rabid dog!”) However, there are major animal characters in this book, and it takes place over a long period of time, which means that they don’t all make it to the end of the book.

Other Warning: There is a villainous character who limps, and one line in which the limp and villainy are equated. This is the opinion of the character and not representative of Sutcliff in general, who often writes very sensitively and realistically about disability.

Dawn Wind
After reading this book, I finally figured out what author Sutcliff reminded me of: Ursula Le Guin, circa A Wizard of Earthsea. The formal, slightly archaic, elegant style; the immersively detailed setting and culture; the alternation of leisurely description of place and daily life with intense scenes of action and emotion. If you like A Wizard of Earthsea, you will very probably to like Sutcliff.

A Saxon child, Frytha, is one of three escapees when the Normans fire her village (the others are a shepherd and a dog.) She is taken to a Norse stronghold, where she is befriended by a boy named Bjorn. She learns the ways of her adopted culture, and he wonders if he’ll be brave enough to stand up to Norman torture should he be captured. When he finally goes to infiltrate a Norman camp, she follows.

The plot is simple but powerful, a story of a doomed society holding out to the last. But it’s not awesomely depressing. (Without spoilers, I’ll just say that while what happened historically is known, the fate of the individual characters is not.)

It doesn’t have the continuous narrative drive of Eagle of the Ninth, because while there are several sections that build lots of suspense, there are also several long time-skips, so the tension gets set back and then must be ratcheted up all over again. But it was overall gripping, moving, and beautiful.

I loved the main characters and several of the minor ones, and the precise details of the exotic-to-me time and place made the settings of many historical novels seem like flimsy, painted plywood flats. It's historical, not fantasy, but the culture was so alien to me that it much of the sense of wonder of really good otherworld fantasy.

The Shield Ring

A Wizard of Earthsea (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 1)
Midnight Never Come, by Marie Brennan.

In parallel stories which eventually mesh, a tale of parallel courts closely joined unfolds. In London, an ambitious courtier tries to uncover a mysterious influence affecting Queen Elizabeth, and in the Faerie Onyx court, a disgraced faerie courtier tries to win back her position by impersonating a human woman in the court above. This seemed very well-researched, and the politics are laid out so clearly that even I could follow them. It's interesting but a bit meandery at first, but becomes quite gripping about halfway through. There are sequels but the conclusion is satisfying and feels conclusive.

My big nitpick was that the main relationship in the story, between the human and faerie courtiers, begins as one of deception and then grows into something real. But the deceptive relationship, which lasts a year and is very intense, occurs almost entirely off-page, and so the change from fake to real loses much of the power it could have had. We also miss Lune manipulating the man she will eventually love, and watching him fall in love with her human front. Nor do we get to see much of what her human persona is like, and get to judge for ourselves how congruent it is with her real self. I would have liked a longer book that spent some time on that missing year, rather than simply skipping it.

Overall though, I enjoyed it a lot, even though faeries are a very hard sell to me nowadays.

First Light, by Rebecca Stead. Extremely readable and quirky middle-grade sf with parallel stories (again) following a boy who goes with his scientist parents to Antarctica, and a girl living in an underground world beneath the ice. Clever and compelling, but suffers a bit in comparison with Stead's own When You Reach Me, which uses some similar plot devices better, and also has better characterization. Still well worth reading.

The Cats of Seroster (Piccolo Books), by Robert Westall.

Again with the parallel stories! An old British fantasy, in which sentient cats in a medieval human kingdom embark upon a complex plot to restore the deposed king (who will treat them well) to his throne, and get rid of a usurper (who hates cats.) The story threads follow the cats from own point of view, and also the hapless traveler magically forced into the role of the legendary savior of the kingdom. Very readable, with excellent battle sequences and an unusual perspective in general, but marred by casual but persistent and creepy misogyny: rape, rape threats, the only major human female is unnamed and does nothing but have sex with the hero, etc.

The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Beautifully written historical adventure set in Roman Britain, which reminded me a bit in prose quality, atmosphere, emotional and political complexity, and characterization of A Wizard of Earthsea, though there's no magic. Roman soldier Marcus is severely wounded in a battle with the native Britons and forced into a very early retirement. When he sees a terrified young man his own age forced to fight as a gladiator, Marcus buys him as a slave. The young man turns out to be a captive British warrior, Esca. The two young men end up traveling in search of the lost legion of Marcus's father. Lots of warriorly bonding ensues, along with adventure and a complex look at the colonialism of the time.

I am a complete sucker for Noble Warrior Guys bonding and adventuring and "He was such a great fighter, I was honored to kill him," and this book is all about that. (Slash fans, don goggles now.) I loved the language, the vivid setting, and basically everything about this book. I wish there were more women, though the ones we do meet are interesting and non-stereotypical. The very beginning was a little slow and heavy on historical detail, but I was soon grabbed and thereafter didn't put the book down till I had finished it.
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