The White Lioness – Henning Mankell

My father used to say about detective fiction that one sign that a series had gone off the rails was when the plot went international. The theory as I understood it is that mystery novels are both about solving the crimes and about evoking a sense of time and place. This holds true whether you are looking at classic fiction like Dashiel Hammet or recent books by authors like Archer Mayor. Even if the place changes, the story is strongest when it stays relatively local. Henning Mankel’s Wallander series violates this principle at every turn.

April 1992, Wallander catches a case when a local real estate agent Louise Åkerblom goes missing. Confusion grows when the police discover the finger of a black man. And then the house explodes. It turns out that Åkerblom was murdered because she stumbled upon a house where a former KGB (Konovalenko)is training an African assassin. Wallander must now learn the identity of both the assassin and the handler. Things become complicated, however, because of a falling out between the two, and each thinking to use Wallander as a conduit to the other. This game turns more deadly when the Konovalenko decides to use Wallander’s daughter as a lever. Now there are two clocks against which he is racing.

The White Lioness is not much of a mystery. In the strictest sense it is one for Wallander, but in terms of genre it reads like a spy-thriller, bouncing between the plotters and the people trying to catch them. The tension is not whodunit or why, but in the cat-and-mouse game itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the book reads like The Day of the Jackal awkwardly grafted onto the Wallander setting.

The White Lioness is the second Wallander book I have read after The Dogs of Riga. Both books are firmly rooted in the events that followed the end of the Cold War, this time focusing on the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It is revealed early on that Sweden is a convenient training ground because of lax border security and proximity to Russia, and the plot one concocted by a radical Boere element in South Africa to subvert the government that is ending apartheid. Despite most of the story being set in Sweden, the Swedish element primarily serves as the way into the story, while the criminals in particular are of non-Swedish origin. My complaints about The Dogs of Riga, including the sense that Wallander is being yanked through events and over-reliance of happenstance are magnified in The White Lioness and I am no closer to developing a sense of Ystad than I was before. I had taken another book in the series from the library, but after this somewhat lackluster experience I probably not going to read it any time soon.

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Recently I finished Yasher Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk, but don’t have enough to say for a full post. Memed, My Hawk is a modern-day folktale set in rural Turkey in the 1920s. Memed is a young man from a poor family who wants more for himself—including to marry Hatche, who is betrothed to the nephew of the town headman. This intensifies Memed’s longstanding conflict with the headman, Abdi Agha, and Memed is forced to turn bandit. The question is whether the life of an outlaw will destroy Memed’s inherent goodness or whether he can become a hero of the people. Memed, My Hawk invokes a time and a place in Turkey, but I found it wanting in terms of characters. Memed is the closest to having depth, but mostly serves as a modern Robin Hood, with Hatche his Maid Marian and Abdi Agha his Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone else in the story is an unchanging archetype. There were individual moments that lived up to the book’s billing, but I was by and large more frustrated than enthralled.

I am now reading Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, the latest installment in his The Stormlight Archive of doorstoppers.

The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky is the third book in the trilogy, so my discussion will include references to the previous two books, as well as commentary on the series as a whole. There may be spoilers.

The end is nearing, perhaps a permanent end. The moon is approaching, and it is up to Nassun and Essun to decide how the Plutonic Engine is going to be used, returning to Father Earth his long lost child—or ending the aeons-long war with a bang. Essun controls the key to the engine, the Onyx obelisk, but the system has an override at an island city called Corepoint in the middle of an ocean on the far side of the world. There the showdown between mother and daughter will take place.

The main narrative unfolds through Essun and Nassun’s twin story lines. First Essun. After her exertions in The Obelisk Gate, Essun fell into a coma and awakens to discover her world changed. Not only is Castrima on the move in a race to inhabit the now-depopulated city Rennanis, but now using orogeny causes her limbs to turn to stone—a process already underway. Essun simultaneously has to further her knowledge about how to use the engine and come to grips with her newly-imposed limitations. Almost despite herself, though, Essun has her friends, including her Stone Eater Hoa, the inventor Tonkee, and lorist, cum-conscript general, cum strongback laborer Danel. They will help Essun however they can.

As befits her childhood, Nassun’s story is more straight-forward. She is resolute in her determination to destroy the moon, carrying out the wish of Steel, “her” Stone Eater. Despite the dangers of a trip through the earth on a long-forgotten transportation system, Schaffa refuses to leave her side. This trip, which will take him near to Warrant (the Seasonal home of Guardians), and destroy him utterly.

Like its predecessor, The Stone Sky introduces a new plot thread that serves as the keystone in the overarching story being told by Hoa. Thousands of years in the past there were no stone eaters, no orogenes, and no seasons. In Syl Anagist life was sacred and the millions of people built the Plutonic Engine to harness the power of “Geoarcanity” by harnessing the power of life into an endlessly efficient system. This will herald in a perfect society that will reduce the number of people who need to be exploited to an absolute minimum. Of course any system requires some sacrifice. Each element of the Plutonic Engine (the obelisks) have to be infused with the life energies of the apostate Niess, a defeated people who were capable of manipulating these energies, and initiated by genetically modified, supposedly sterile people called Tuners capable of using both this magic and orogeny.

But just as Icarus flew too close to the sun, the people of Syl Anagist dug too deep and pushed too far. The consequences were dire, starting a war with Father Earth that threatens to destroy humanity.

Despite the central importance of the mother-daughter relationship over the course of The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin is at her best when tackling questions of exploitation. Some of these, such as Schaffa’s relationship with his charges, function as surrogate parent-child interactions, but more often they operate on system levels, such as the suspension of powerfully-orogenic children in stations to reduce seismic activity. Here, in addition to explaining the origins of the conflict, the entirety of the new plot arc asks the question whether it is possible to build a society without exploitation. The answer, obviously, is no.

The Stone Sky is a little bit slow in pulling the divergent threads together and at times substitutes answering questions about the world in place of plot development on the main plot. This is a function its structure, i.e. that it is Hoa explaining information to Essun’s final form, and the setup from the earlier books in the series that started with the characters apart. Thus in addition to the origins of the conflict, we learn about dead-civ ruins, the secrets of Guardians, and origins of Stone Eaters in this book. The Stone Sky is not merely an info-dump, all the same. First, the answers are all to questions raised earlier in the series and, second, the answers come from stories. All the same, the pacing of The Stone Sky is notable because it is fundamentally a race against time with the total apocalypse one of the potential outcomes.

For those people who delay reading a series until they know whether the author sticks the landing: Jemisin does. I would not be surprised if it does not complete the three-peat of Hugo awards, but it is nevertheless a deeply satisfying conclusion to a brilliant series.

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Next up, I broke my streak of books written by women when I started reading Yasher Kemal’s modern folktale Memed, My Hawk.

The Obelisk Gate – N.K. Jemisin

Note: As the second book of a trilogy, this post will include some mention of the first book, The Fifth Season, including spoilers in a general sense.

The Season initiated by “The Rifting” when the earth split apart and consumed Yumenes and the imperial Fulcrum is well and truly underway. Everything changes in a Season and the mandate now is simple: survive.

Like it’s predecessor, The Obelisk Gate unfolds between multiple story lines. In one, it picks up with the story of Essun in the comm of Castrima, an underground relic of a “deadciv” with mechanical systems that come alive in the presence of Orogenes. Here there is a question of survival. First there is the social experiment of a comm that includes both the outcast orogenes and “Stills” (people without orogeny) that is mostly held together by the headman Ykka, herself an orogene, but balanced precariously with the presence of Stone Eaters who have their own agendas. Alabaster, turning into stone after inciting a cataclysm, is also in Castrima, both reminding Essun of her previous life and demanding that she learn—in order that she finish what he started. But there is another threat to Castrima: an army from the city of Rennanis is approaching, equipped with guardians and guided by a Stone Eater of its own. Despite Castrima’s subterranean nature, this army nevertheless seems to be honing in.

The second storyline follows Jija and Nassun, Essun’s estranged husband and daughter. Jija wants his little girl back, to have her “cured” of orogeny, so he take her south to a place called “Found Moon,” run by three renegade Guardians, including Schaffa, the one who had collected Essun when she was still known as Damaya. Much to Jija’s chagrin, the training she receives only heightens her powers beyond rather than curing it. In time, Nassun (who believes her mother didn’t love her) comes to realize that her father is not capable of loving her unconditionally. His condition is her orogeny—in other words, who she is. Nassun turns instead to Schaffa who loves her and, unbeknownst to Nassun, her mother.

Unlike in The Fifth Season, these two storylines remain distinct in The Obelisk Gate, setting the stage for a potential intersection again in the trilogy’s final volume.

The Obelisk Gate reveals the first big development in the trilogy when it comes to the obelisks, large stone satellites that float in the sky above the world as relics of a long-lost civilization. These…things…pulse with energy that can be tapped into by particularly skilled Orogenes. This idea was introduced in The Fifth Season, but Alabaster reveals to Essun what he learned about their origins in the course their lessons. The obelisks were part of a network of living magic that somehow set the moon from its orbit. Alabaster wants Essun to transcend her Fulcrum training and grasp living magic so that she can access the Obelisk Gate and catch the moon.

Despite suffering a bit from middle trilogy syndrome where it neither introduces something new and exciting nor concludes something major, The Obelisk Gate is a fantastic novel and a worthy Hugo Award winner. Jemisin walks a fine line. She both manages to build upon the impressive scale of the world and is clearly working from the same plot and template in terms of the narrator (her Stone Eater, Hoa), while also jettisoning two thirds of the point of view characters such that the book feels different. I suspect that the conclusion to the series is going to play an outsized role in my final impression of this book because the series-long arc investigating the relationship between mother and daughter begins to come to the fore by the latter parts of The Obelisk Gate.

Since I bought the second and third book in this trilogy at the same time, I put The Obelisk Gate down and picked up The Stone Sky….and have almost finished reading it. Largely for this reason I am holding back on discussion of some of the information that is carefully doled out and will probably write a spoiler-ific post once I have finished the series. For now, I will say the same thing I said about the first book: I cannot recommend this series highly enough.

Ship of Magic – Robin Hobb

A storm is brewing in the Vestrit family. The patriarch, Ephron, is dying, the family debts are growing daily, and the first voyage of their liveship Vivacia with son-in-law Kyle Haven as captain bodes poorly for the future. When Ephron dies, passing his wisdom and experience to Vivacia, the ship and estate pass to Keffria Haven, and thus to Kyle who, contrary to tradition in the old trader families, believes that women’s management has caused Vestrit fortunes to falter. Althea, the younger daughter who has sailed on Vivacia for years is put off the ship, along with the mate Brashen Trell and some others of Ephron’s chosen crew, and replaced with men of Kyle’s choosing. Since liveships, vessels brought to life with magic, require a member of the family to sail them, particularly once “quickened” and come to their full consciousness, Kyle has summoned his oldest son Wintrow back from the monastery he was dedicated to, forcing him to become a sailor. What’s more, Kyle has decided that the solution to the Vestrit financial crisis lies in changing the usual cargo, turning the Vivacia into a slave ship.

Althea runs away. The situation on the between Kyle and Wintrow Vivacia deteriorates, and the situation at home becomes even worse as the tensions between Ronica, Ephron’s widow, and Keffria are only put aside when they realize that Malta, thinking that her mother and grandmother are prudish and lame, has decided she is old enough to start courting boys and in her naivete and fascination with finery becomes entangled in a courtship with a member of a powerful family from the Rain Wild—a place of magic and death that made the traders of Bingtown wealthy, but at what cost?

And then there is the pirate Kennit, determined to capture a liveship and use it to become king in the Pirate Isles.

Ship of Magic is a fascinating and richly complex book that takes place in the same world as The Assassin’s Apprentice, but quite far to the south. There is a large, possibly apocalyptic story in its backdrop, since we receive glimpses of worms, large carnivorous sea creatures that can terrorize ships, who may have some connection to liveships and believe that a time of change is upon the world, but that is not the driving narrative. The plot arc involving the pirate Kennit is more fully developed, but it serves as a Chekhov’s gun that is repeatedly returned to than a central feature of the plot.

No, Ship of Magic is a family drama in a time of social change. The book is built around the figure of Kyle Haven, despite rarely, if ever, getting his perspective. At the outset the family largely accepts Kyle despite that he is not from one of the old families. He makes Keffria happy (they have three children together, but this happiness is both physical and emotional), he is an experienced sailor and wants what is best for the family. Once the stabilizing presence of Ephron is gone, however, Kyle’s domineering attitude and lack of respect for tradition come to the fore. The latter is particularly problematic because he is both unaware of and indifferent to old contracts with the Rain Wild Traders that require gold or blood and the magic that animates the liveships. The only thing worse than bringing enslaving your son on a liveship so that it will sail is turning the liveship into a slaver, but Kyle only sees the one as a way to fulfill a requirement and the other as cargo. Back in Bingtown, his presence likewise looms large since his actions caused Althea to disguise herself as a boy and flee to sea under a false name and for Malta to defy her mother and grandmother in the belief that Kyle will side with her.

There is a lot I liked about Ship of Magic, certainly enough that I will read the remainder of the series at some point. I am now absolutely convinced of the importance of EQ in this world. Not only does it govern the functioning of a Liveship since it is that relationship between ship and family that allows it to sail (and the ship’s ability to sense emotions of everyone onboard is a key reason why people don’t use these vessels to carry slaves!), but despite moments of action and adventure on the high seas, all of the tension in the book is pulled from relationships created and broken, whether from love, hate, or respect. To wit, Kyle is the central villain in the story, and Hobb sets him up to fail with deep character flaws, but not because he is evil. (There is an evil character in the story. His name is Torg.) Kyle’s villainy lies in his sexism and in his inability to see outside of what he wants, which is fine when, for instance, he wants to please his wife, but less so when it leads him to ignore Trader and Vestrit custom. These emotional tension sometimes made the book tough to read, but, despite the length of the book, they did not bore me.

I also appreciated the complexity of Ship of Magic. The book contains an unusually large number of different points of view, more than The Eye of the World and the same number as Game of Thrones. This feature, however, also led to one of my main complaints. Ship of Magic is long and sprawling and interesting, but its structure seemed incomplete. There are multiple plotlines that are eventually brought in touch with the Vestrit family drama to greater or lesser extents, but that are largely at odds with the rest of what is happening or that spring up seemingly out of thin air or are mysteriously dropped. This is good in the sense that it leaves the impression of a richly textured world, but bad because it muddies up the book. This is fine in the middle of a series where the readers are already on the hook, but not great as a premier that contributes to the stereotype of fantasy literature as bloated and dense.

While more difficult than it sounds, I do wonder if there was a different structure that could have split the series differently, perhaps into five or six shorter books each with a clearer coherence that would then allow Hobb to receive more credit for what she does well. There is a touch of artificiality about the cultures in the world, with names a little on the nose and instances where “northern” and “southern” stereotypes of our world are transposed into this land, but they are not reduced to tokenism. The social changes at Bingtown, both cultural and economic, with the influx of slavery and a relative decline of the old families that signed the compact with the Rain Wild Traders, form a well conceived and executed backdrop that offer avenues for challenging the Vestrit family and the emotional payoffs in Ship of Magic are earned at every step, better than most novels I’ve read regardless of genre.

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I am now reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen and while I can appreciate its importance and how it captures moments in American history, I am not loving it thus far. I have a few directions I can go after that, but am very much enjoying my streak of science fiction and fantasy written by women suspect that I will be reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky in close succession.

The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

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For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

One of the consequences of growing older and becoming busier is that I don’t have the same impulse to stay up all night reading books, even ones that I really enjoy. For the most part that is a phenomenon of my past, but every once in awhile there is a book that makes me want to read straight through in one sitting. This is one such book. I restrained myself, parsing out chapters as a reward for getting enough work done on weekdays, but I wanted to start with this introduction in order to cut right to the chase: the The Fifth Season is spectacularly good and the first book in a series that has won back-to-back Hugo awards for best Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel.

Appropriately for its title, The Fifth Season starts with an end. A deep, fiery, man-made rift opens in the planet’s single continent, the Stillness, spewing ash and starting destructive earthquakes. Like in all fifth seasons, apocalypse-level cataclysms, society crumbles and people die while clinging desperately to the advice preserved in Stone Lore. All the while, obelisks drift through the sky above the stillness.

The Fifth Season rotates between three viewpoints, each following a woman at a different stage of life: Damaya, in her youth, Semnite, as an upwardly mobile professional, and Essun (referred to as “you”) as a middle aged woman chasing her husband through the apocalypse because he killed their son and absconded with their daughter. Each narrative revolves around the issue of orogeny, a hereditary magical ability that allows the wielder to to harness the kinetic energy of the earth in order to quell or incite geological material and activity. This power, which manifests at an early age, is commonly received with superstition and fear, with the wielders killed by angry crowds unless they are swept up by the Imperial Fulcrum, a training program where they can be controlled and protected by the Guardians.

Thus Damaya is swept into this system and exposed to its benefits and horrors, but often finds that her questions about the Fulcrum’s secrets go unanswered. Semnite, by contrast, is a fast-rising “four-ringer” Imperial Orogene and is now authorized to operate in the world on her own, and is dispatched with the prodigy ten-ringer Alabaster to clear a harbor of coral. Her mission is simple on the surface, but the subtext is that she is required to have a child with Alabaster who, in turn, teaches her about orogeny and the true nature of the Fulcrum. Essun, finally, experiences orogeny in the world when her husband kills their child upon finding out this secret.

The three narratives draw together as the book progresses, both serving a larger plot and remaining distinct stories in their own right.

Despite the breadth of the time and space covered by The Fifth Season (the attention to the scale of the continent was refreshing), the cast of characters remained relatively small, which allowed room to explore them in some depth. Jemisin likewise builds depth into the world, both with ruins of civilizations destroyed by fifth seasons past forming the bones of the continents and with an attention to the variety of racial features that set the different people apart.

Society on the Stillness is in the twilight years of an empire that dominated large swathes of the continent through its control of orogenes because this allowed much of its territory to remain stable while technology was developed. Its rule is not what it once was and most outlying comms (communities) are not directly subject to central power the way they once were. But being subject to an empire for so long has left its mark in most communities such that they are organized along similar lines. Each person has a name, the comm they are attached to (particularly important in times of crisis), and their use-cast, such as “leader,” “innovator,” or “strongback.” During a Fifth Season many of these distinctions no longer matter, but they also serve as a mark of normalcy. Center and periphery alike are adhere to Stone Lore, the advice literally carved in stone about how to survive cataclysms that is supposed to be immutable. This convention, however, need not actually be the case.

I’ve enjoyed the other books of Jemisin’s that I have read, but in The Fifth Season she takes the combination of worldbuilding, prose style, and storytelling to a new level. I cannot recommend this book enough and am greatly anticipating its sequel, The Obelisk Gate.

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I am continuing with my streak of reading books by women, so, next up I am reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-winning novel The Word for World is Forest.

Still Midnight – Denise Mina

It is Ramadan in sleepy, suburban Glasgow when a brutal home invasion staged by Pat and Eddie (two white men) throws everything into chaos. They are demanding two million pounds of the Anwar family, which seems to not have access to such resources and accidentally fire a bullet through the hand of the family’s youngest daughter before kidnapping the patriarch, Aamir, declaring it to be retribution for Afghanistan, and fleeing into the night. Of course, the family is from Uganda. Is the middle-class veneer hiding deep pockets full of illicit activity, is the home invasion a hate crime, or is there something different going on altogether? This is what detective Alex Morrow needs to find out while Aamir Anwar is still alive, if only her superior would give her the lead of the case instead of passing it to his (male) protege.

Mina gives approximately equal space to the stories of Alex Morrow, Aamir Anwar, Pat and Eddie (the kidnappers). The first two make sense, the former because she is our protagonist, and the latter because it is clearly foreshadowing that will have agency in his escape. The last inclusion is made for Pat because of a romantic angle to his story, but largely dissipates the tension that the best crime novels create because the reader knows more about the mystery than does the protagonist. Far be it from me to reject this story structure entirely, but it struck me as representative of larger problems with the book.

I picked up Still Midnight looking for a good crime novel written by a woman since that has been my resolution for the month. In small ways the book met my expectations, with a female protagonist who has to deal with rude coworkers, micro-aggressions, and with an eye for details I’ve not seen in male-written books in the same genre.

My problems arose when the story veered from Alex Morrow’s role in the case because much of it came across as half-realized or far-fetched. For instance, there are multiple plot threads that deal with Alex’ relationships outside the police department, including a failing marriage caused by a recently deceased child that felt airlifted into the story and a half-brother criminal who is loosely connected to the case. Both relationships could be seen as filling in parts of Alex’ character, but they don’t seem to fit into this story. Similarly, Aamir gets flashbacks to his escape from Uganda and the horrors that beset his mother, but while the scenes are moving, they aren’t exactly central to the plot. Then there is a strange, sudden, and largely unexplained romance between Pat and one of the family members. I could go on (e.g., the lack of a sense of place, the lack of depth to the characters other than Alex, how the case returns to Alex seemingly because her colleague doesn’t feel like dealing with paperwork), but will let it rest.

Still Midnight was extremely frustrating. I wanted more of Alex and a fuller sense of her Glasgow, perhaps with the tension building to a breaking point with her husband and her job as she fought these conflicting interests. Instead, Still Midnight offers a promising start, but devolves into a shallow drama punctuated by interesting moments, featuring a too-large cast of uninteresting characters.

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Continuing with my month-plus of only reading books written by women, over the weekend I started reading N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-award winning novel The Fifth Season. In short: it is mind-blowingly good, combining her penchant for interesting world-building with a leap in the poetry of her writing. I’ve been too busy to just read it in a single sitting, but it is so good that not being able to is making me angry. Stupid responsibilities.

Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

Note: as this this the second book in a trilogy, there will be minor references to the events of the first book.

The second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy picks up roughly where Assassin’s Apprentice leaves off, with FitzChivalry, royal bastard, recuperating after nearly dying in the mountain kingdom. He was successful in ensuring that Kettricken managed to marry King-in-Waiting Verity, but the underlying problems—including the continued raids from the Red Ships and the ambition of Prince Regal—have only intensified. All is not right in the Six Duchies.

Royal Assassin is a long book, and felt it, with the plot covering a lot of ground. It may be effectively divided into two halves: one where hope for salvation comes from men, and another where the hope is straight from legend. In the first, Fitz works alongside his mentor Chade and Verity to thwart the Forged Ones and build a fleet to confront the raiders at sea. In the second, Verity leaves on a quest to find the Elderlings that legend says once saved the kingdom, while Fitz works with Kettricken to hold the kingdom together against Regal’s worst excesses as King Shrewd’s health fails. Bridging the two parts of the story are the continuing personal relationships that so defined the first half. Fitz courts Molly Chandler, reduced temporarily to a maid in the castle, but King Shrewd has other ideas about his romantic future. At the same time, Fitz has to build rapport between Kettricken and Verity who are so different, yet more alike than they care to admit, and negotiate a family drama between Chade, his half-brother King Shrewd, and Prince Regal where the first two are unwilling to accept that the third is willing to sabotage his own family to satiate his own pride.

There are of course more of these relationships, including another one with an animal, a wolf, that plays a critical role in the plot. Rather than parse these relationships in any sort of detail, though, I want to double down on the central point I made in the post about the first book, which is confirmed through the text of Royal Assassin. Fitz is adequate as a character, but what makes this story so effective in its first-person narrative is this web of relationships and the emotional connections they create (including hatred), whether through mundane interaction, through magic, or through their absences in the case of the Forged Ones. Hobb’s genius in this book is how thoroughly she develops the connections, so when they are ripped away, Fitz’ pain is conveyed all the more powerfully. Along the way, the reader gets a sense of both positive and negative relationships in a variety of contexts. If the humanistic purpose of reading is to develop emotional maturity, I cannot think of a fantasy or science fiction book that does this more successfully than this.

Royal Assassin relies on emotional tension enough that it frequently a difficult book to read, even as I became ever-more enamored of its craft. The story feels condensed because so much of the plot takes place in the same handful of rooms in Buckkeep, while, at the same time, there are two powerful threats. The one is nameless and apocalyptic, threatening the very existence of the kingdom as the Red Raiders bear down. Where other fantasy stories might make this the primary conflict, though, Royal Assassin doesn’t. Our central villain is the vain and influential Prince Regal, easily dismissed, but supremely dangerous. Our protagonists suspect what he is up to, but can’t prove anything and so are forced to largely watch helplessly while he schemes his way to the top—and proves better at doing this than at actually governing.

It is possible to pick nits with Royal Assassin. The conclusion, for instance, struck me as both too much like a variation on its predecessor and it suffers a bit from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, but its positives vastly outweighed the negatives and I am looking forward both to concluding the series and reading more in this world.

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I am really enjoying this month (or more) of reading books written by women. Last night I started reading Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, a Scottish detective mystery featuring detective Alex Morrow. Without being able to speak to the book’s overall quality just yet, I am already noticing subtle differences with, say Wallander, in terms of the types of details Alex attends to regarding her presentation.

Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

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Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie- Fisher

Like real life is this other thing, and we’re always trying to determine what’s going on in this distant, inaccessible, incomprehensible place.

“What are they like in real life?”

“That happened in real life? Really?”

Stuff like that.

When I was working in Boston in 2008-2009 my then-boss went to a Carrie Fisher stand-up show, Wishful Drinking, giving it positively rave reviews. I missed my chance to see the show in Boston, but it has been hovering near the top of my list of books I’ve wanted to read ever since. A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a copy in my local library and so it became the first book in my month(+) of reading books written by women.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t a post where I write up reflections on a book with a personal anecdote, saving those comments for a final, reflective section, but if there is any book to invert this structure for, it is this one.

Wishful Drinking is memoir version of that stage show. These origins were particularly evident sometimes as it had a particular rhythm that felt spoken. It could be repetitious, with repeated phrases and punctuation designed to evoke the experience of watching someone perform. Mostly this worked; many of the pictures shown during the show are in the text, but it was also a constant reminder that this material would be even more spellbinding in the hands of a skilled performer.

But this is all prelude, without actually talking about what the book is. Wishful Drinking is a memoir that is candid about mental illness, fame, drug use, and the intersection of the three. Fisher doesn’t focus on a particular episode in her life, but ranges widely over her life and is by turns funny and heartbreaking. She is up-front about her problems, in terms of her personality and her mistakes, and, in the process, making light of the the discontinuities of her life. For instance, she talks at length about how her parents were famous and yet her family was decidedly backward in culture and her experience with becoming a sex-symbol at a young age.

Fisher has a relentless focus on her own experiences and issues without offering wider commentary in a way that might be construed as narcissistic. And yet I don’t think it is. Wishful Drinking is a slim and engaging read and Fisher holds her audience’s attention for as long as she wants it, whatever the medium. But neither is this memoir just entertaining fluff. The focus on mental issues is a poignant look into otherwise invisible problems that are only slowly becoming appreciated.

Along the way, Fisher delivers observation after observation about the intersection of class and fame, illness and profession. The one that leads this post stuck out because it is one that seems particularly important to the modern world where people’s professional lives are looking increasingly unlike they have in the past. College? Athletics? Graduate School? Academia? Writing? Each of these things are bandied about as processes from which one must eventually give up and join the real world. As though that isn’t what those people are doing.

Wishful Drinking lived up to my lofty expectations and I’ve added her more recent memoir about her experiences filming Star Wars to my list.

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Continuing with my plan to read more books by women, I finished reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter and have now begun reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin.