Monday 27 June 2022

Review: Signal to Noise

Signal to Noise Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reviewing the reprint from Solaris, which I received as an e-arc via Netgalley. There may be changes between what I read and what is finally published; I hope one of them is to fix the vocabulary error "hierophants" for "sycophants," and another is to remove the numerous coordinate commas between non-coordinate adjectives. Otherwise, apart from the odd slightly off turn of phrase that is probably because the author is not writing in her native language, the writing is highly capable.

I've read a couple of Moreno-Garcia books that I very much loved ( The Beautiful Ones and Gods of Jade and Shadow ), and one that didn't work for me and that I abandoned partway through ( Mexican Gothic ). The ones I loved pulled off the move I call the Glorious Ending, where things seem to be going inevitably downhill, because people, but then someone does a truly loving and wise thing and turns the looming tragedy into triumph. The one I didn't love was, I think, the wrong genre for me (the Gothic novel). I found this one closer, unfortunately, to Mexican Gothic than to the other two; it's an 80s-nostalgia book, a very-into-music book, a coming-of-age novel, and features a protagonist who is dealing with her pain by shoving it onto other people, none of which endeared it to me. I did finish it, though.

I grew up in the 80s, though I'm about seven years older than the main characters in this book; they're 15 and at high school in 1989, and I was in my last year at university by then. I wasn't into pop culture, and certainly not popular music, in the 80s, either, which makes me an atypical 80s kid and also means that 80s nostalgia properties don't connect with me all that well. A lot of the music referenced here is in Spanish, as well, since the story is set in Mexico City, and I don't have a frame of reference for it at all. I know some of the better-known English-language songs, like "A Whiter Shade of Pale," but the thing about very-into-music books is that the things that are so evocative for the characters don't necessarily translate for the reader unless that reader is also into the same music and in the same way. The title of a song is just a series of words if you don't have any emotional or cultural context for it, and because the music is so central to the main character, it carries a lot of meaning for her - but little or none for me.

The evocation of the setting is otherwise rich and powerful, I assume because the author is writing from her own experience. There's a decent amount of skill shown, too, in the dual timeline, 1989 and 2009, in the same setting with some of the same characters; a young woman who has escaped from Mexico City to work in Europe as a computer programmer comes back for her father's funeral and has to face up to what happened 20 years before, including a betrayal that is teased for some time before being revealed, which makes sense out of so much of what has gone before.

Unfortunately, though, I didn't get from this book the full Glorious Ending that I got from a couple of the author's later works. The ending is slightly more hopeful than everything preceding it has necessarily prepared the reader for, but only slightly, and I can't help cynically wondering if the relationship that's tentatively (re)formed at the end is doomed by the fact that, honestly, the main character is not well equipped for loving relationships by either nature or nurture.

These are alienated characters who are mostly dealing badly with the disappointments of life (with the exception of the female best friend, Daniela, who, while a bit spineless, genuinely enjoys a relatively conventional life and finds fulfilment in it), and who are, as teenagers, striving earnestly for outcomes that would not actually make them happy and are a bad idea, by means that will cost them more than they realize. As a matter of personal taste, I don't enjoy following such characters, and that's reflected in my low rating for the book.

This is one of those cases where the execution is good, but the book is just not for me.

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Tuesday 21 June 2022

Review: The Greater Trumps: A Novel

The Greater Trumps: A Novel The Greater Trumps: A Novel by Charles Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Charles Williams novel, which means it's completely unlike anything written by anyone else (even That Hideous Strength , which is sometimes, with some justification, described as a Charles Williams novel written by C.S. Lewis).

I read it first while at university in the late 1980s; a friend owned most of the novels in paperback, and lent them to me. This version from Open Road is, not typically for them, quite a clean scan, with only a couple of minor errors.

Williams wrote books that these days would be described as "cosmic," based on his own mystical Christian theology combined with occult symbolism, and nowhere is this more marked than in this book, based on the Tarot. The premise is that the original Tarot deck has turned up in a collection of rare old card decks left to a middle-aged, fussy, irritable Englishman by a friend of his. By coincidence (which I assume we are supposed to conclude was orchestrated by cosmic powers), his daughter is engaged, or something very similar to engaged, to a man of Roma descent, whose grandfather is the keeper of a set of magically animated three-dimensional images of the Tarot that was separated from the deck many years before. The young man wants to reunite them, and invites the cards' new owner, the daughter, and the owner's saintly maiden sister to his grandfather's house for Christmas.

When I say "saintly," she is saintly in very much a mystical, meditative way, not at all in the sense of being dreamy, but in that she is just herself and is always perfectly content with whatever happens and completely surrendered, in a quiet and unspectacular way, to the will of Divine Love. It's difficult to convey exactly what she's like; Williams does it brilliantly and memorably. She is, at the same time, very ordinary and completely extraordinary, and in many ways she is the heroine of the story, except that her niece Nancy is also, in a different and more active way, the heroine of the story.

English books of the early 20th century often have these middle-class characters who are more or less lacking in self-insight and more or less ridiculous as a result, who get mercilessly mocked by the author for it; that's not what Williams does, though it at first looks as if he might. Mr. Coningsby, for example, the owner of the cards, is a man of very limited insight, but he's not actually a bad person, or cowardly, or despicable, when it comes down to it. Even Ralph, his son, who at first seems like one of the vague English wasters so often encountered in P.G. Wodehouse, shows strength of character when it's needed.

And it is needed, because much of the last part of the book is an extended sequence of trials, beginning with a conjured snowstorm, in which the various characters battle with and against the power of the Tarots for what they value - which is ultimately each other, or at least human connection. The language is heightened, almost poetic, and a few times we get sentences that go on and on for a page or more because the author is so caught up in his own attempts to describe something that is, ultimately, indescribable.

It's a rich meal. There's a lot of depth of thought behind it, which isn't dished out in expository lumps but alluded to in the context of the events; you'd probably have to read Williams' nonfiction works to really get to grips with all he was talking about, and even then you might not grasp it. But it's also a tension-filled, compelling story, and succeeds very well at that level, and also at the level of depicting ordinary human characters with flaws who are nevertheless and at the same time also creatures of great cosmic dignity and importance. I'm not aware of anyone writing today who can come anywhere close to it; contemporary "cosmic" fiction tends to be philosophically shallow, New Agey and amateurishly written, in my experience, though perhaps that's sample bias.

It's rich enough that I wouldn't want to make a steady diet of it, and I won't jump straight into another Williams (I bought a few of the ebooks when they were on sale some time ago). But it definitely belongs on my Best of the Year list for 2022.

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Thursday 16 June 2022

Review: Joseph Andrews, Volume 2

Joseph Andrews, Volume 2 Joseph Andrews, Volume 2 by Henry Fielding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A genial comedy with a feeling of genuine fondness for its central characters, including the absurdly disheveled, forgetful, and sometimes too easily provoked clergyman who is the title character's mentor and friend. It makes full use of coincidence to first create, and then resolve, tension, but it also uses human agency to the same purpose, giving us villains to boo in the form of a venial and dissipated squire and his sinister henchmen, and getting the heroes through a number of adventures with the help of good-hearted people they happen to encounter, along with a number of ill-tempered and ungenerous characters and several other outright rogues.

Part of the satire, I think, is that everyone is a bit exaggerated, like a caricature in a political cartoon. And yet what Fielding is exaggerating in human nature is familiar to us even today, and certainly would have been familiar to his readers, so that his characters have a weight and heft to them. They're simultaneously types and memorable individuals.

Fielding is also well known as being one of the founders (along with his brother) of the Bow Street Runners, Britain's first properly constituted police force, and as a magistrate who sought to apply the law fairly and justly, and I was reminded of these facts when reading about the arbitrary application of the law by ignorant country justices of the peace, who could send poor people to be imprisoned or whipped for minor infractions with no recourse if egged on by more powerful people who had an agenda. Also, when reading about the criminals who were, apparently, often at large preying on travellers, and seldom caught and punished.

The author uses his authorial powers to make everything come out well in the end, though, and leaves us with a satisfactory conclusion for our heroes. While the long eighteenth-century sentences can be a bit challenging if you're reading it after a tiring day, it's not nearly so convoluted as other writing of the time, and I generally followed it easily and enjoyed both the journey and the people I encountered on it.

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Review: Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park

Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park Mary Bennet and the Beast of Rosings Park by Joyce Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this one out of series order, having picked it up on a BookBub sale after reading the first. I've been waiting to get the second book on sale, but, in the middle of a book drought, finally decided to just go ahead and read it. It sounds like the second book is quite an adventure, and I still do plan to get it at some point.

Here we see Mary Bennet (the middle sister from Pride and Prejudice) staying with her cousin Mr. Collins at his vicarage beside the great estate of Rosings, as she recuperates from magical exhaustion occasioned by the plot of the second book. This third one is a mystery, with sheep (and eventually a person) being killed and mutilated in the area, seemingly by something that may or may not be the legendary beast that inhabits the woods of Rosings Park. Mary uses her magical skills and, even more so, her intelligence and courage to eventually solve the mystery, and along the way we get quite a different perspective on young Anne de Bourgh, and even on prosy Mr Collins and his patroness, Anne's mother Lady Catherine. It's not a wild thrill ride of a plot; there's still a lot of Regency visiting and conversation and marital maneuvering, aimed presumably at the fans of the source material, and there's seldom any sense of urgency, but there are a couple of relatively tense scenes, especially the climax.

The copy editing issues are individually minor, but there are a lot of them (more than 50): mispunctuated dialog, missing quotation marks or (occasionally) periods, missing commas, misplaced apostrophes, small words accidentally substituted for other similar words, errors of tense and number, and a couple of homonyms. This is one reason I'm not prepared to pay $5.99 USD for these, the other reason being that, while they're enjoyable, they're not anything like twice as good as plenty of other books that cost half that much.

Overall, it earns four stars as a pleasant read, but doesn't make it onto my Best of the Year.

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Friday 3 June 2022

Review: Joseph Andrews Vol 1

Joseph Andrews Vol 1 Joseph Andrews Vol 1 by Henry Fielding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An amusing satire on 18th-century England that still manages to have some universality in the fun it pokes at the pretentious, small-minded, snobbish, and ill-tempered.

Though the author's better-known work The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling has all of the same virtues as a work of prose, only to a greater degree, I personally prefer the hero of this one. Where Tom Jones professes his love for Sophia but has no problem sleeping with any other woman who he encounters, Joseph Andrews, following the exhortations of his kindly mentor, the Reverend Adams, refuses a number of advances by assorted women because he is true to his beloved Fanny. This is partly in imitation of his sister Pamela, the same Pamela Andrews from the novel Pamela by Samuel Richardson, which Fielding had earlier satirized in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews . So this book is a spin-off from a satire of a rival's work, but incorporates some of his values into it without apparent intent to satirize them. Joseph is sincere in his commitment, and it's clear that Adams is a devout and faithful clergyman (in contrast to every other clergyman they meet), even if he is a bit free with his fists at any provocation.

The story involves a good deal of travel (Joseph is trying to get back to his home area after losing his position in London because he wouldn't sleep with his recently-widowed employer), and it's clear that 18th-century travel was significantly dangerous. The characters are constantly encountering criminals of one sort or another. There appear to have been a great many inns and taverns, though, since they keep stumbling across them (and then having trouble paying the bill, because they've been robbed by the criminals).

I'm looking forward to reading the second volume next.

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Review: Our Lady of the Artilects

Our Lady of the Artilects Our Lady of the Artilects by Andrew Gillsmith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one didn't really work for me, and I stopped at about the 48% mark.

Part of the problem was that I was reading an ARC from Netgalley, and the manuscript was very rough in such things as basic punctuation accuracy (questions missing their question marks; quotation marks missing at the beginning or end of dialog; quotation marks doubled up, single where they should be double or double where they should be single; missing periods at the ends of sentences; mispunctuated dialog tags). I'm sure at least most of this will be fixed before publication, though even a good proofreader will probably miss a few out of so many, but as is often the case, it broke my immersion so that I noticed how other things, story-level or craft things, weren't quite working either.

The setting is an unspecified (as far as I read) time in the future, but at least a couple of centuries away. Some time long past in the narrative, but in our future, civil war broke out in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims, and a couple of European countries came in on the Christians' side. This somehow led to the European Union failing and being replaced by a revived Holy Roman Empire, and the formation of an Islamic Caliphate across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, with a capital in Kashmir. But now, a couple of centuries (?) later, the Holy Roman Emperor (a Habsburg who is also Filipino) has the Caliph as his closest friend and ally - and the Christian part of Nigeria is one of several African provinces of the Holy Roman Empire, apparently having been recolonized.

None of this strikes me as particularly plausible. Sure, it's possible that the HRE and the Caliph become friends and allies; Britain and France were allies a century after Napoleon, and Germany and France are allies less than a century after WW II. But it doesn't seem highly likely, given the origin of their respective empires as it's described. And that origin itself seems to me highly unlikely. The Holy Roman Empire has been gone for over 200 years; I suspect most people today couldn't tell you what it was, that most of those who could nevertheless rarely think about it, and that practically nobody thinks that reviving it (and a monarchical/aristocratic system) would be a good idea. Even today's head of the House of Habsburg doesn't seem to think that.

Sure, this is science fiction, and contrafactuals are expected. But I also expect them to be made plausible, and for me this wasn't.

So, to the story. Essentially, androids (called "artilects") have attained humanlike consciousness, thanks to some new techniques which are well thought through and make sense. A number of artilects have experienced a vision which links up with the Fatima visions from the early 20th century (the content of which the author fudges a bit, not always consistently, to support the story). Also, now that they have souls, one artilect has been possessed by a demon; the Vatican has sent a priest who, conveniently, happens to be both an exorcist and an expert on AI to deal with this, and he becomes a main character in the story. This brings what might be called a cosmic dimension into the SF, which gave me strong That Hideous Strength vibes, not least because a shadowy, centuries-long conspiracy led by one of the key AI developers is attempting to do something involving the overthrow of conventional religion and morality using Trojans built into the technology which runs both the artilects and the technological enhancements used by about three-quarters of humans.

It's ambitious as a premise, and for me, at the point where I stopped reading, the author wasn't managing to pull it off. The several viewpoint characters hadn't achieved the depth I was looking for, and the whole conspiracy with its cosmic aspects and the philosophical/religious/moral/ethical arguments about that (involving Christians, Muslims, and characters who were neither) had too many moving parts that didn't quite come together. Nor am I a fan of sinister centuries-old conspiracies as a story element in the first place.

Overall, I felt the author's reach had exceeded his grasp; that he'd attempted something he didn't have the skill to achieve. Others may well feel differently.

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