12.19.2010

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death
Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death is a book that it should have been a lot harder to read, given the subject matter. The author wrote in the afterword that she was inspired--if that's the right word--by a 2004 article about "weaponized rape" in the Sudan. It's amazing and horrible to think that such an interesting book could come out of that kind of source material. This book took some serious chutzpah to write, and I have to admire Okorafor's courage.

The book jacket claims that this book is set in a post apocalyptic Africa, but the land and people are so different that it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be earth. The protagonist, Onyesonwu, is a mixed race child and the product of rape. While she has unusual talents, everyone except her mother and non-biological father shun her, dislike her, and fear her. Instead of caving to public opinion, Onye grows up brave, strong, and utterly determined to better herself and learn how to use her gifts. Beyond that, she is driven by a terrible need for revenge on her biological father. She learns that that man who raped her mother is organizing a genocide against her mother's people. With a few friends and the love of her life, Onye sets out west to kill her biological father and stop the Nuru's plans to wipe out the Okeke.

I wasn't sure what the purpose of this book was supposed to be at the beginning, but as the plot developed it turned into a kind of inside out gospel. Characters make constant reference to a Great Book, which explains the apocalyptic event in vague, Biblical allegory. If the Great Book is analogous to the Old Testament, there is a prophecy that claims that a great sorcerer is coming to rewrite the book. Onye believes that she is that messiah-like figure. Her travels in the West with her companions (read disciples, but much more human) remind me of parts of the New Testament, but with added wrath and foibles. Even the ending of this book is remarkably similar to the end of the Gospels and the writing style has the same sparse, plain simplicity.

Its subtle, Gospel-like allegory really made the book before me because, without it, I don't know if I would have made it past the first chapters because of the violence against women and a certain cultural practice that no women should ever suffer. This is going to be a difficult book to recommend to people. This book demands a certain amount of bravery on the reader's part.

This is a book that demands that you spend a lot of time thinking about it afterward. I finished it yesterday and I know that I'm going to be pondering Who Fears Death's lessons. I may have to read it a couple more times in order to get to the bottom of it. Well, I already knew that great books are difficult. In this case, it's not the plot or the motives that are tricky to parse, it's the meaning behind it all that's hard to get at. There aren't any easy answers in this book, since it seems like all the characters get punished in one way or another. I will say that I hope this book doesn't disappear. I hope a lot of people read this book and discuss it. It deserves to become a major work.

12.15.2010

Kindred, by Olivia Butler

Kindred
Kindred
Octavia Butler's Kindred is a book that unflinchingly answers the question of why readers read: to try and experience, however secondhand, someone else's life. In this case, we get a small taste of what life might have been like for the millions of Africans and their descendants who were enslaved in the United States. The story follows Edana Franklin as she inexplicably travels back and forth between the 1810s and 1820s and her own time of 1976. For reasons that are never explained in the novel, Dana keeps getting called back to the Maryland farm where her distant ancestors (black and white) lived. At each visit, Dana saves the life of the white landowner (her great-umpty-great grandfather).

Because Dana is from the twentieth century, all she knows about slavery is what she learned from books. Reading about casual racism and the violence and horrors of slave life is very, very, very different from actually experiencing it. Even Dana comments more than once that she doesn't know how her ancestors lived with it. It's a heart-wrenching read. What makes it worse is that Dana's many times great grandfather never seems to learn that just because a person's skin is dark doesn't mean that they don't think and feel like human beings. Rufus is, by turns, kind, jealous, irrational, and violent. He's the ultimate spoiled brat. And yet, Dana keeps saving his life because, if he dies, she never gets born.

Kindred is a short, but intense books. It's exactly the kind of book that I like as it's packed with ethical dilemmas that have no easy solutions. It's the kind of book that immediately makes you ask "What would I do in this situation?" The characters, for once, are sensible and rational. It's just the situation that's bizarre. In an interview, Butler said, "I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people." While 1976 had its racism, it was a haven of racial harmony compared to 1820s Maryland. Slaves did escape to the North, but this book successfully showed me why that was so rare. The whole damn deck was stacked against African Americans. Patrollers traveled back and forth across the South, looking for people who weren't where they were supposed to be. Butler shows a small hint of the terror they caused among the free and slave populations. Except for running away and maybe making it North, there were no other options. And instead of living quietly with her writer husband in 1976, Dana keeps getting pulled back into the past to repeatedly save one of the perpetrators of slavery.

Kindred is tightly written, with no spare scenes or language. It's under 300 pages, but in those 300 pages, Dana has to decide whether or not to teach her fellow slaves how to read, help them escape, treat their ailments, or try to resist what her so-called masters order her to do. It's a wonder that Dana didn't just give up and despair after just one or two visits to the past.

All this makes it sound like Kindred is on par with Russian novels for depressing narratives. What redeems it is Butler's care to show the characters' humanity. If nothing else, Kindred showed me that people are people. We respond to our circumstances and environments. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. Some people are saints. Others are assholes. Most of us fall into the wide area in the middle.

The talent and sophistication of Kindred makes me wish that Octavia Butler had more success than she did. I have a few of her books on my shelf, waiting to be read. I'm looking forward to diving in and seeing what I can learn from them.

12.08.2010

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

Way of Kings
The Way of Kinds
Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings is a book that reward the patient. At 1,001 pages, it's huge, a doorstop. The book moves slowly until the last 200 or so pages. But those pages are so utterly glorious that they make up for any drag in the previous 800. I didn't get to bed until after midnight last night because I just could not stop reading. According to his blog, Sanderson has been working on this book for over a decade and it shows in the detail. Chapters featuring characters that aren't part of the main narrative contain hints to the world's history, mythology, culture, even linguistic drift. Some readers might be willing to sacrifice some of that detail to make the narrative move faster, but I read them avidly, looking for clues to what happened in the 4,500 years between the prologue and the rest of the book. This book violates a few rules from the Fantasy Novelist's Exam, but this book is so well done, so interesting, and so original that I didn't care.

The book follows the adventures of two main characters at first. A third is added later. The first characters, Kaladin--a spearman turned slave--and Shallan--a scholar, don't even meet. (This is not a spoiler. You might like the book better if you're not waiting for them to meet.) It's almost like reading two books at the same time, though they're set in the same world. Kaladin's story was, for me, the most interesting. It had pathos. It had warfare. It had endurance. Though Kaladin has his character flaws and a tendency towards depression, I really bonded with his character. He's a hero in the Aragorn mold: reluctant, but honorable. Shallan is harder to like because she doesn't seem as courageous as Kaladin. She's a terrific expository character, however. Reading her sections fill you in on important history in such a way that it doesn't sound like exposition. The third character, Dalinar, is proper and honorable to a fault, but he develops into a wonderful character by the end. They all seemed so real.

After a short interlude in which a king gets assassinated in spectacular fashion, we meet the cast in the middle of a war that's been going on for six years and appears to have no end in sight. Dalinar and Kaladin are on opposite ends of the hierarchy, giving different views of the Alethi war effort. The way this culture fights is pigheadedly wasteful. It's more like a bloody tournament than a war. There's no strategy, bizarre objectives, and no one seems to want it to end except our male protagonists. Shallan is far away in a city with a massive library, studying to become a scholar while secretly plotting a way to restore her family's fortunes.

This short summary might lead one to ask why it took Sanderson over 1,000 pages to tell the story, but the book is stuffed with battles and intrigues, dreams and visions. The interludes give the reader glimpses of what's happening in the rest of the world. As I read them, I got a picture of a world that appears stable on the surface but that is starting to fracture. At the end of the book, you learn that some characters are deliberately upsetting the balance. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that the plot really started to move in those last 200 pages. Okay, one more thing. There is a battle sequence at the end that is on par with the Battle of Helm's Deep. The battle and the ending were so good that I almost wanted to start reading the book over again so that it wouldn't end.

This little review* doesn't do justice to this book, but I don't think I can say how much I like it without resorting to atrocious hyperbole. The Way of Kings was the best book I've read all year. It might be the best fantasy novel I've ever read. (So much for avoiding hyperbole.) The only downside is that I have to wait a minimum of two years to read the next one. Mr. Sanderson, I'd tell you to hurry up and write, but I know better. Books this good cannot be rushed. So I'll be patient and wait for my reward.

___

* I don't know why I call these reviews. They're not systematic at all and I don't really do plot summaries.