7.21.2011

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches
The further I got into Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches, the more I thought, "This is what Twilight could have been with a better heroine." If I'm really being honest, I'll add, "And if it had a better writer." A Discovery of Witches is a meandering contemporary fantasy that achieves the amazing goal of being original in a very crowded genre. It's a highly entertaining read, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what Harkness comes up with in the future.

Instead of a gritty urban setting, A Discovery of Witches opens in Duke Humphrey's library at Oxford University. Diana Bishop is a scholar of the history of science, particularly alchemy. Working in academic myself, I felt right at home among the stacks in this fictional Oxford. A bewitched document touches off the action and almost before you can get your feet and figure out what's going on, Diana is being chased all over Oxford, the French countryside, and upstate New York. Matthew Clairmont, a vampire, adds more than a dash of dark mystery to liven things up. Diana and Matthew are a great pair. Matthew is protective and intelligent. Diana is stubborn and independent. In spite of their obvious attraction to each other, each refuses to be trampled over by the other.

Diana and Matthew's relationship alone could have fueled a novel. But on top of this, Diana finds herself an unwitting guardian to the document she discovered. Other members of the supernatural community are willing to kill and torture to get their hands on it. While the novel wanders from setting to setting and mini-drama to mini-drama, this chase adds tension to the whole--excuse me but I have to say it--witch's brew. I have to admire Harkness for keeping that many balls up in the air while still writing a coherent, balanced narrative.

The mysterious document that triggers the action, at times, seems like a MacGuffin. There's a lot of speculation about what's in it. After a few chapters, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Matthew and Diana's relationship challenges the status quo in the supernatural community. It threatens the secret the supernaturals have been keeping for centuries. In Oxford, various representatives of tradition start to warn Diana away from the document and Matthew. People break into her apartment, follow her, launch little attacks to scare her away. Slowly, Harkness turns up the heat on her heroine. When Oxford becomes too dangerous, Matthew takes her to his ancestral home in France. Then things get really ugly when Diana is kidnapped and tortured.

Near the end of the book, Diana and Matthew flee to Diana's aunts' home in New York to regroup. In the last quarter of the book, I got the clear sense that Harkness was building up to a second book in the series. But she gives A Discovery of Witches a satisfying ending that makes up for all of this.

This book is so skillfully done, I'm surprised that it's the author's first published work. She's subtle and the prose is wonderfully detailed without being stodgy or getting bogged down. There's enough action to satisfy any reader, and more than enough emotional depth to elevate this book from the rest of the crowd. I'm really, really looking forward to the sequel to this compulsively readable book.

7.11.2011

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes
Unfamiliar Fishes
Sarah Vowell is the history teacher I wished I'd had in college. Not that I had bad teachers*, but Vowell has the same kind of curiosity about history that I have. She seems to delight in weird stories while still taking time to consider the deeper implications of historical events and ideas. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Vowell looks at the turbulent history of nineteenth century Hawaii. I'd never really been interested in Hawaii before now--I much prefer cold places to hot ones. But learning about Hawaii, the only state in the union that we invaded rather than acquired through money or revolution, provides an interesting perspective on the history of the United States as a whole.

I love the beginning of Unfamiliar Fishes. The book begins with the author sitting under a banyan tree, contemplating her plate lunch. Nothing on her plate is native to Hawaii. Neither is the tree. From that humble (but tasty) beginning, Vowell drifts back to the early 1800s, shortly after Captain Cook was killed by the island's inhabitants. In the early decades, missionaries headed out for the islands to convert the natives, burn their idols, and remodel the land into their idea of productive and useful. The way Vowell presents it, this collision doesn't seem as violent as other encounters between missionaries and native populations. It helped, I suppose, that the Hawaiians were in the middle of modernizing their culture and religion. And it also helped that the Hawaiians had a firm grip on their country and that the missionaries were only allowed to settle on the king's permission.

But the entire story had changed by the end of the century. By the turn of the century, the last queen, Liliʻuokalani, was overthrown by the white population and the native Hawaiian population was in the minority. However, the population might have been wiped out by disease and white people, they managed to hang on to their language and culture thanks to the efforts of Hawaiians who created a written version of their language, documented dances and chants, and saved their relics. As I read the book, I started to wonder if the Hawaiians invented anthropology.

The other thing that attracts me to Vowell's writing is she doesn't relate a history in a linear fashion. Instead, she meanders back and forth, revisiting and expanding themes and concepts. It's like riding on her shoulder as she does her research. It's like she built up the text as she read through other books and archival material. It's almost as if we're reading her notes. The recursive text is also full of little anecdotes. Anecdotes make history come alive for me by showing me real incidents in the lives of real people. I loved reading about people like Henry Obookiah, a Hawaiian who went to missionary school intending to bring Protestantism to the islands, and Lucy Thurston exchanging food with Hawaiians through a porthole in the brig that brought them to Hawaii.

The history of Hawaii is so different from the history of the rest of the country. I knew only the vaguest details before I read this book, mostly gleaned from reruns of Magnum, P.I. It started the same, with missionaries and capitalists arriving as quickly as the Hawaiians would let them. Then there were the diseases that wiped out a significant portion of the Hawaiian population. But somehow, the Hawaiian monarchy managed to keep a hold of their country. But by the end of the century, the lack of heirs to the throne started to take their toll. A few short lived and/or bad kings let whites get the upper hand. Shortly after Lili'oukalani took the throne, the grandsons of missionaries and the sons of sugar farmers took advantage of the unsettled politics to stage coup. Sanford Dole and his cohorts offered up Hawaii on a silver platter to the American government. And America became an imperial nation.

Unfamiliar Fishes is a lively history, a wonderful read. I look forward to the next neglected piece of history that Vowell is going to write about next.

* With one notable exception who liked to tell us about his time in Columbia hanging out with a friend who had drug cartel connections. Good times!

The Broken Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin

The Broken Kingdoms
The Broken Kingdoms
I've been waiting for N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Kingdoms since I finished the first book in the series. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was delightfully original and fresh, and I was hoping that the sequel would be just as good. The Broken Kingdoms takes place ten years after the events of the first book and is narrated by a new character. The characters from the first novel, with one notable exception, only make brief appearances. I wasn't disappointed. By introducing a new characters, I got a deeper sense of the world Jemisin created.

The first chapters introduce us to Oree, a blind artist with an inexplicable gift for painting highly realistic paintings. She spends her time staying under the radar in a city that sprawls around the former home of the creator gods. Unlike the first novel, Oree's city is full of minor gods who enchant alleyways and watch out for surprisingly specific groups of people and situations. There's magic everywhere, and now that the natural order of things has been irreparably disrupted, everyone seems to be striving for a new kind of equilibrium. It's a very interesting world that I would have liked to spend more time soaking up the atmosphere.

Instead, Jemisin launches us into the main action by having Oree and the mute man she rescued from the street suddenly being pursued by the militia and cultists. Oree believes they're after her mute and morose friend, Shiny. But there's more to Oree than anyone, even she knows. Around all the chasing and fighting and kidnapping and murdered gods, Jemisin also explores the mythological mystery she set up in the first book. We learn more about the Big Picture. I had a hard time deciding what was more interesting--always a good sign in a book.

Another good sign: this book doesn't seem to be suffering from Middle Book syndrome. In a lot of other trilogies I've read, the first and last books are good to great. But the middle books seem to be place holders between its siblings. The Broken Kingdoms has its own story and main characters, which helps it stand on its own. That gives me high hopes for the next book, and the other books Jemisin will write in the future.

Yet another good sign: Jemisin is superb at showing character growth without hitting the reader over again the head with internal monologues or training montages. I didn't notice how much Oree was changing until near the end of the book. At the beginning, Oree is kind, matter of fact, full of common sense. But by the end, she's plotting bloody revenge. It's a completely different book by the end and yet it all fits without being jarring or confusing.

Another great entry in the series. I highly recommend both of them to readers looking for something fresh in the fantasy genre.

7.05.2011

Embassytown, by China Mieville

Embassytown
Embassytown
China Mieville's Embassytown is a book of ideas, more than anything else. While it has decent characters and an interesting plot, it's clear they they exist simply to further develop Mieville's fascinating take on first contact and language.

Our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, is a pilot of sorts. As a child, she wanted to leave her home town and planet, showing a classic case of wanderlust. She only returns later because her husband is fascinated by the language of the aliens that Avice grew up with, the Ariekei. The narrative wanders back and forth between the present of the story and Avice's past, slowly building a picture of life on the Ariekei planet. Like historical first contacts, the Ariekei become infected. This time, they are infected by the human version of their Language. They become addicted, and life on their planet screeches to a halt. The only alternative the Ariekei can see is to destroy their ability to hear and then drive the humans off their planet. By the end of this book, there's enough action and derring-do to make up for the meandering first half.

The Ariekei possess sophisticated biotechnology, but the most interesting thing about them--to the humans at least--is their language. Their language must be spoken simultaneously by two mouths, with a single consciousness behind them. To me, part of the book can be read this way. One thread of the story pushes it forward. The other doubles back to clarify. And the Ariekei cannot lie. More than that, they cannot create similes without acting them out first. They cannot say anything that is not demonstrably so. It's difficult to imagine, given the virtuosity that is possible in English. It had never occurred to me, but something as simple as a simile or a metaphor or a hyperbole or an understatement are species of lies. But think of all the meaning they can impart, all the richness they can give our expressions.

The Ariekei want that richness. They hold Festivals of Lies where they take it in turns to attempt to lie. It's not until halfway through the book that one manages it. Surl's small lie and the addictive speech of an ambassador spark more than just a physical war. They also spark an existential war about Language that, at times, takes on religious tones.

Like I said, this book is more about ideas than plot. It's supposed to make you ponder about the implications of the Ariekei Language. It requires a certain amount of patience to get through to the end. The only criticism I have is that the book seems hollow to me. The characters are serviceable, but I didn't really feel like I knew them by the end--Avice in particular. I spent more than 300 pages in her company, but she was just as much a cipher at the end as she was at the beginning. I've noticed this in Mieville's previous book, Kraken. He's very interested in ideas, and plot and characterization take a back seat. Avice is a terrific example of this. Until very near the end, Avice is an observer, an outsider. Consequently, you get to see the larger plot from the periphery and it was difficult for me to get invested in it. But I enjoyed it as an exploration of the possibilities of language.