L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

30 October 2006 Blog Home : October 2006 : Permalink

What I Read This Month

I spent most of the first week of October on the plane, in airports and / or suffering from jetlag. This gave me much time to read. And the fact that I passed through London on the way to Baahston meant good selections of English language books to read. I went on a bit of a spending spree as it happens. Amusingly though three or four of the books turned out to have some interesting links.

The first book I read - or rather started to read - was Neil Gaiman's "Anansi Boys". I've never read anything else by Gaiman but I've heard him recommended so I thought I should try one. I never quite finished the book though because to be honest I lost interest. I can't say there is anything wrong with it and I may well restart, but I'll be honest I lost interest and failed to maintain the required suspension of disbelief. So I went to sleep on the plane and when I arrived in Baahston I bought something else before I had time to restart. There is a tenuous link to my next book in that the Eos blog where that book's author writes about this and that has Anansi Boys as its Featured Book at present.

The second book - the link to all the others - was Lois Bujold's "The Sharing Knife: Beguilement" (TSK1) and it was truly excellent. I read it in one night having been awoken by the dreaded jetlag at 4am. This book is the start of a tetrology (or rather two stories of two volumes each) set in a brand new world and because it is really volume one of a single two volume story, although it has an ending, it leaves you waiting hungrily for volume 2. Aspiring authors (among whose numbers I include myself), would benefit from reading this work simply from the crafts(wo)manship shown. Lois creates her world and characters in a way that I think can only be compared to the best impressionist painters. By the end of the book you learn a lot about the world she has imagined, about the characters and so on, yet there is no more than a page or two of "data dump" and even that, since it shows up during the recovery from some rather dramatic events slips by you with while your heart is still recovering from the excitement and while you, the reader, is utterly fascinated to know why the victory was possible.

There are some interesting echoes from previous Bujold works; this is, I think, at least the third book where a man who is middle aged and a younger teenaged girl fall in love (although one of the books which I thought was like that - the Hallowed Hunt - turns out not to be so according to Lois' fascinating interview here - I think Ingrey just appears older) and one can see certain territorial similarities with Barrayar such as blighted land, cities that have been destroyed and the need for pioneering on new land. Indeed the hero, Dag, is reminiscent in much (other than height) of Miles Vorkosigan: both characters have had mostly offstage tough times before we encounter them, both have an incredible drive and both are more unforgiving of themselves than of anyone else. For that matter there are certain echoes of Ekaterin in the heroine, Fawn, both exhibit considerable personal courage and are extremely smart but are kept repressed by their families before the hero arrives on the scene. All in all however the echoes are more the sorts of things that we Bujold devotees will enjoy picking at rather than overt hints that require one to have read a previous work to comprehend. In fact I would say that if there is one thing that Lois does superbly it is to make each book in a series stand alone and, while this book is clearly merely vol 1 or 2 it does stand alone very successfully. I suspect she will fail to make vol 2 so independant but I have no doubt that the second two-volume tale will stand alone just fine without need for readers to knwo about events or world details from this tale.

The story is, at heart, a romance and at Baen's Bar one of the commenters went though a sort of mental checklist of attributes of story, hero and heroine and noted how Lois seemed to hit almost all of the critical points. Of course this isn't just a romance, it is also a fantasy, and the same commenter also noted how Lois managed to hit almost all the critical points of succesful fantasy too. That commenter found a few actions at the start to be a little contrived, but I'm not sure I agree. The book starts right in the middle of trouble and the hero has to make some fairly difficult choices, none of which can be called "right", under a good deal of pressure. As it turns out his choice is not perfect and has some unfortunate consequences which end up helping the story along in ways that are convenient for the author but I don't see it as the sort of thing that is implausible.

One of the more interesting links is between this book and the new Dick Francis book "Under Orders". The books share a number of interesting points in common e.g. both heroes - Dag and Sid Halley - have a missing hand and both have a new romance and a heroine who is perhaps more independant than she should be. I have seen comments around the place, in the guise of sympathy for the death of Mary Francis, seemed to say that Dick could never write on his own - claims that seemed to be driven more by envy/jealousy than any foundation in fact. The implication apparently being that as an ignorant jockey he was dependant on his wife for all the hard bits of actual writing and he just attached his name to the cover. I am glad to say that Under Orders contradicts the naysayers, it is not perhaps the best Dick Francis book ever written but it is far from an "also ran". As with TSK1 it starts off with a certain amount of action in the classic "Show don't tell" format that writers are supposed to aspire too because it gets the reader hooked good and proper but unlike TSK1 it comes to a good solid conclusion so if Sid Halley does ride investigate again it will be a totally different plot. Amongst the more surprising shared features of this book and TSK1 are some thoughts about data analysis and a consideration of genetics / DNA. With regards to the data analysis parts of both books, what turns out to be important is not so much what is present but what is absent, a lesson that could usefully be learned by the touters of many conspiracy theories. In this book the science of DNA analysis and genetics is key to unveiling the criminal, but it also plays in the background because the heroine is research the genetic causes of cancer. In TSK1 it is the heritablity of "groundsense" - a kind of magic - that is of interest. It seems to me that the fact that mainstream fiction works can use our current knowledge of DNA, genetics, evolution etc. as fairly minor supporting elements of world building means that despite their best efforts, the Intelligent Design crowd have lost the war of ideas.

I also read Terry Pratchett's new discworld bok for children "Wintersmith", another book with surprising links to TSK1. Pratchett's book is the third one to feature Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle and it is just as appealing to adults as well as younger readers. In fact I do, on occasion, wonder what children make of Pratchett's books for them since they seem to cover topics that the standard Disneyfied ones don't. In other words they are very good books for children because they help educate the child through parables. One of the nice things about the Nac Mac Feegle books is the concept of personal responsibility and how even a child must face up to the consequences of her actions. I'm hesitant to bring this up because I'm fairly sure that the Nannystate crowd would object to exposing children to this sort of message. I'm sure that tyrants, propagandists and marketeers worldwide would prefer that Pratchett stop going on about Headology and (in this book) "Boffo" because by reading about these discword concepts a child can begin to see through the hype and propaganda churned out to try and hoodwink the masses.

The link between Wintersmith and TSK1 is very much due to magic. In the Discworld a large part of the problem of using magic revolves around the fact that its use tends to attract the attention of extradimensional things that seek to possess life but, because they don't really understand what it is, cause great harm to the world if they are ever allowed in. This is not at all disimilar to the behaviour of the "Malices" in TSK1. However while this similarity in evil enemies is striking what I find mroe interesting is that both the witches of the discworld and TSK1's Lakewalkers share a lot in terms of their acceptance in larger society. Both perform tasks that others cannot and which the majority of inhabitats have no idea are a problem, both groups are feared and misunderstood by those they protect and both echo the Rangers and Wizards of Tolkien in that they seem to think that it is better that the majority fear them than that they should understand what it is they do and what monsters they fight. Both groups, as a result, are viewed with a mixture of respect, fear and distrust, although it seems to me that the witches, thanks to the power of Boffo, are more respected and less feared than the Lakewalkers. This might seem to mean that the witchers are better off but on the other hand the lakewalkers have an entire society so they are unlikely to suffer from the "cackling" - that is to say when the unfortunate witch does the Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader thing.

Finally I've read the Baen omnibus "The Free Bards", whcih is first three of Mercedes Lackey's Bardic Voices series in one handy volume. I'll be honest these stories, while a fun read, simply lacked the intellect behind the others. The book is enjoyable but it suffered by being read just after the others because it lacks the depth of world building that the others possess. The first book in the series "The Lark and the Wren" is available as a free eBook and is, in my opinion, the best tale of them all. The others build on some of the problems first discovered in that book but aren't really as enjoyable because they don't show the same sort of development of the characters. Admittedly these stories are sort of fantasy whodunnits and in the mystery genre you don't get as much character development, however it has always seemed to me that the best whodunnits, from Dorothy L Sayers to Dick Francis, do in fact also include heroes and heroines who develop and who evoke the reader's sympathy. One reason why I've never reread a single Agatha Christie is that her detectives are so unattractive and unchanging and while the protagonists of the Free Bards are rather better than Miss Marple or Hercule Poirrot they don't grab my interest in the same way that Sid Halley or Lord Peter does. This is a pity because book 4 (5?) in the series - "Four and Twenty Blackbirds" (also avalaible as an eBook) - did develop the hero's character quite nicely and made me curious to read the intervening books.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin