I reread In the Garden of Iden (Kage Baker) (1997)
in the run-up to vacation, because sometimes what you really need is some slapstick with tragedy. It's been... a decade? More than a decade? Since I originally read this, so I'd forgotten some of the set pieces: the "unicorn", the Christmas celebration, the dubious consequences of Sir Walter's deal with the Company. Iden
has most elements of the Company series, in a nutshell, including that pompous git Mendoza's boyfriend. It's so good! The writing is fluid and smart and funny and the plot flows together wonderfully. Baker's early death was a great loss to the SF/F writing community. The Winged Histories (Sofia Samatar) (2016):
Samatar's second novel, set in the same universe as her first, A Stranger in Olondria
. It's Samatar's take on epic fantasy. Histories
is divided into four parts, presenting four POVs on a civil war in Olondria. I bogged down at the opening of the third part, almost exactly halfway though, which opened with second person present tense. (And by "bogged down" I said, "oh, no
," and pulled the next book in the to-read queue.) This is nominally standalone, but I struggled to assemble a sense of the characters, their relationships, and what made their stories sufficiently compelling that I should keep reading. Histories
also suffered from the tension of being epic fantasy and being critical of epic fantasy. It's hard to reach for an affecting touchstone Crowing Moment of Awesome while taking a hard look at the assumptions that make that Crowing Moment of Awesome so affecting. Also, epic fantasy just isn't my genre. On the outside, it looks like it should be. It's a genre that runs long in wordcount and intricate in worldbuilding. But epic fantasy rarely digs into the spin-off of the worldbuilding assumptions, the second order assumptions. GRRM unintentionally nailed it: The common people pray for rain, health, and a summer that never ends. They don't care what games the high lords play.
I want to know what causes the Westeros wacky seasonal variation, how that impacts the society - I want
some impact on society - and I really don't care about a bunch of people fighting over power. Power is boring, limitations set the state for interesting stories. Histories
has the right idea - the characters have limits - but again, the execution is almost
Also, there's an xkcd graph
that is relevant to this novel. I thought the plethora of fictional plants, animals, trade goods, what have you, was a Le Guin style ethnographic argument on cultural contextualization and atomization or something, but it's an example of epic fantasy imitating the forms of the genre's founders while forgetting that one of the founding giants was an obsessive philologist whose smash hit was a spin-off of his conlang projects (note the projects multiple
). Okay, I exaggerate? But to make my point that the outward shape is reproduced, not the inner truths readers found in the reading experience.
Points for ambition. I want
to like The Winged Histories
, but the execution didn't do it for me on this pass. But apparently I want to talk in detail about its ambitious failure, which might get me to try other fiction by Samatar, or even grit my teeth and finish the second half. Eventually. Lab Girl (Hope Jahren) (2016):
I think this might have been an NPR book? It paid off very well for an NPR read, if so. Memoir by a die-hard plant nerd, focusing on the adventures of life in pursuit of the tenure track and also on the awesomeness of plants. It's a 304 page account of a lifelong love affair with green things. There's a relaxing effect of the writer skimming across her experiences, touching on the tenure track struggle, the desperate state of research funding, the experience of being a woman in academia and a field research science, adventures and misadventures in mental health, family relationships, and not delving too deeply into any one of these, except maybe the awesomeness of Jahren's partner in crime and research. The City of Bones (Martha Wells) (1995):
Scrappy loner with wacky survival abilities thanks to long-vanished Ancients - and his partner in dealing Ancient relics - are reluctantly drafted to save the world. Scrappy loners are one of Wells' go-to character types, which is useful for talking about societies, and the odd things that make up the culture, like burning people's bones to prophesy, or trading their sanity for mage powers, or engaging in high risk trades in Ancient relics, because money, against a backdrop of postapocalyptic desert scarcity. It's a bit Mad Max, minus the cars. And also with the strong female protagonists - loner Khat and his partner Sagai are drawn into high level intrigue by Elen, a junior Warder of the city-state Charisat. Elen and Khat have contrasting emotional arcs: Khat struggles to keep his distance from Sagai and Sagai's family, Elen struggles with stepping out of her mentor's shadow. If you like Wells' other fiction, you'll probably like this too.