On Wednesday, I finished my last book, I mentioned that I was going to do some summary posts. I’ll write a qualitative report in a few days, but thanks to Goodreads allowing you to export statistical spread sheets of your books, first I’m going to do a quantitative post.
‘I’m watching you.’
‘Your son just crashed his car.’
‘Alan’s cheating on you.’
‘Your home is to be repossessed.’
Leave a message after the tone.
“Hello, Ms. MacLeod? It’s Sheena, from Dr. Stern’s office. You missed your appointment yesterday.”
‘Just do it’
‘But it says…’
‘What’s gonna happen?’
Someone knocked back, and they all fled.
Unable to sleep, she went back to knock again.
Someone knocked back.
She pulled the door open
‘Hello?’ she said, squinting into the light.
‘Hello,’ she said, stepping out of the light.
Yet again failing to move away from the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre (though this time I have an excuse. We were visiting my girlfriend’s mum when I finished The Secret River, and there’s not too much in the hoard of books she and her brother left behind when they moved out that aren’t!), and from author’s I haven’t read before.
Hobb’s world is unique, as far as I’ve found, in that although she’s now on her fourth series set there (Ship of Magic is the first book in the second of these), they all stand alone from one another, and to the extent that there are only passing references to the ones that come before and after in each. The focus of this series is far to the south of where the Farseer Trilogy (The first, and only of the series I’ve hitherto read) takes place, though most of the plot takes place at sea, rather than on land. The titular Ship of Magic is a Liveship, which is exactly what it sounds like: a ship fashioned from a magic wood that can, under certain circumstances,come to life and communicate with the world through its figurehead. Not only are a number of the ships important characters in their own right (including two that are point of view characters), but control over them (yes, that is as morally suspect as it sounds, and that point is raised by a number of characters) is a major driving force for much of the story.
The plot, once it gets going after a rather slow start, is certainly engaging, and the slow revelations that there may be more to the world than the characters, let alone the readers, know is definitely interesting. However, Hobb’s strength is definitely her ability to create characters that you absolutely hate. She did in the Farseer Trilogy, but a number of the characters in Ship of Magic simply blow those out of the water. The best (or maybe worst? I can’t decide) example is Kyle, whose every action and every line of dialogue makes you want to throw the book across the room in frustration at the sheer unfairness of it all. The only character I can think of that I hate as much as Kyle (that I’m supposed to hate, of course. There are several that I loath for other reasons), is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. However, unlike Umbridge, Kyle does, in occasionally flashes, show that he is capable of being sympathetic. While brief, these flashes underline that in contrast to Rowling’s straw-person antagonist, the reader’s aversion to Kyle is borne mostly out of the Hobb’s writing. We hate him because of the fact that he antagonises most of the point of view characters, whose thoughts we are getting. Until of course he becomes a slaver, at which point he loses almost all remaining grounds for sympathy.
If you like fantasy, then you could do far worse than to read Robin Hobb, and the less fantastic works she penned under a different name, Megan Lindholm that I’ve read are good as well. As I said, most of her series can standalone, so as long as you start with the first one, you should be fine. Of the ones I’ve read, I think the writing is better in Ship of Magic, though the plot is perhaps better in Farseer, although that may be simply because it’s more in line with traditional quest narrative.
I have never read a book that I’ve understood less than The Female Man. To the extent that I don’t feel as though I can justifiably give it a rating. You might say that if I didn’t understand it, and therefore most likely didn’t enjoy it, I should give it a low rating, but the thing is that when I could tell what was going on, I was enjoying it, but unfortunately these flashes of clarity were only flashes.
According to the blurb, The Female Man tells the story of four women (who are in fact the same woman) from alternate universes; one that’s basically ours, one where WW2 never happened and the depression never finished, resulting in an even more unbalanced society, a futuristic one where there are no men, and one where men and women are in a constant state of actual war. As far as I can tell, the story is essentially the story of these women visiting each of these worlds in turn. However, I’m a bit hazy, because the novel is split into a number of different chapters, each narrated in the first person and which is often very unclear which of the four women is speaking, making it incredibly difficult to follow.
However, I think that more of a problem is the way things have changed since Russ was writing. She was one of the pioneers of feminist Science Fiction in the 1960s, and a particularly experimental one at that;The Female Man owes a lot to the Many Worlds Theory, which was a relatively new concept at the time of writing (and one formulated by the father of another of the authors I’ve read this year). Nowadays though, Sci-fi seems to have normalised somewhat, at least as far as I’ve come across, so I’m just not used to this level of complexity in my fiction. Or maybe I’m making excuses for myself?
I did want to like the Female Man, but despite trying very hard, it was far too complex a book for me to understand.
The Courilof Affair, by Irene Némirovsky
I went through a phase during the my late teens, when I decided that I really loved Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky. Of course, I only managed to finish one of them before it was due back at the library. As this was the very short Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it’s not that much of an achievement (I may also have read Crime and Punishment, which I’m fairly sure I skimmed more than I actually read). To this day, as far as I can remember, the only other books I’ve read by Russian authors have been Sergei Lukyanenko‘s Watch Trilogy, an urban fantasy series which owes more to Stoker than Tolstoy, and Master and Margarita.
And now, The Courilof Affair. Which, with it’s moral confusion, class dispute and general nihilistic misanthropy fits very much in with the 19th Century books I failed to read years ago. The foundation of the plot is the planned assassination of Courilof,the aristocratic Education minister under Nicholas II by a Swiss communist. By necessity the murder must be in a place so public that it cannot be ignored by the world’s elites, and thus the assassin, whose name we never truly learn, must ingratiate himself into the ministers household. However once there, and despite the fact that the pitiful Courilof represents everything he hates, the narrator finds himself empathizing with the man.
And then he spends the next hundred or so pages struggling to do what he at once knows he must and he cannot. The problem is, despite the fact the plot is interesting enough, the narrator is difficult to sympathise with, partly because, well, he’s an assassin, and partly because the framing device tells the reader in the prologue that he does indeed go ahead with it.
It’s an interesting work, but it lacks the punch needed to really make an impact or indeed an especially enjoyable read.