Friday, 22 June 2012

Lilith Saintcrow
Release Date:
December 2011

I got a trial sample of this book on my ereader for free a while ago, and the sample just sat there as I kept being distracted by pesky things like real life. Finally, one quiet evening, I found that I had time to take a look at this book. I began reading the sample. I continued reading the sample. I couldn't put it down. In a style reminiscent of Jacqueline Carey, Saintcrow created an alternate history set in what appears to be Renaissance-era France. In fact, it was a bit too much like Carey's work at first. But I really enjoyed Carey's novels, so wasn't put off by the similarity.

The story is told in the first person past-tense. The main character, Vianne, is a noble woman serving the princess and next in line to the throne of Arquitaine. She's also a hedgewitch. At the start of the book it isn't quite clear what this means other than that Vianne spends a lot of time digging in gardens and running around in something called 'garden boots' (I was picturing Wellingtons here for no good reason!). But it is clear that there is a distinction between two kinds of magic, 'court sorcery' and 'hedge witchery' and by the very sounds of each name, you can guess that hedge witchery is near the bottom of the pecking order in terms of glamour and importance. So, the MC is a noble woman, but she's frequently dirty and running around in boots instead of slippers, and she practices a type of magic that is devalued by those around her. Translation; she's sort of an outcast, or a geek if you will.

But this magical system isn't what grabbed me. In fact the magical system is never clearly explained, though there seem to be some important connections between Court sorcery and the monarch. No, the assassination is what grabbed me. The assassination that pulls Vianne's world down around her in the dark of night, leaving her holding the dead bodies of those she cares about one moment, and running away with a tall dark stranger the next. Enter the hero of the book, Tristan. He's a dark, broody and secretive captain of the king's guard, and is now all that stands between Vianne and death. It was at this point that my free trial ran out and I hastily pressed the 'buy' button on the kindle store website.

Now, looking back, I can fully understand why I selected to buy this book for a measly $2.99, but I ended up dissatisfied. The MC spends a large chunk of the next part of the book (in fact, about 50% of the total novel) ill. She loses consciousness. A lot. She sleeps. A lot. She is shivering and weak all the time, and she spends a lot of time trying to get her sluggish wits working. The reader is told again and again that Vianne has a sharp mind. Her companions report this, she reports it, and even her own vague memories of unraveling unspecified court intrigue are supposed to illustrate and support this facet of her character. But it is very hard to believe these reports and these memories when she is unable to get her wits working for about 50% of the book. She misses things that are obvious to the reader (and also, often, obvious to her companions) and frankly doesn't seem to have a very sharp mind at all. That, combined with her constant illness and weakness, and with the fact that the story is told in the first person, results in a frustrating read.

I tried to cut Vianne some slack. She did just witness the murder of several people she cared about—that's gotta be a shock (to say the least!). And she caught a flu or fever, so of course her wits aren't working as sharply as they normally would. I recognize all of this. But the illness and sluggishness just seemed to drag on too long. I found myself losing interest in the main character.

And then there was the romance. I really wanted to like the romance. I was in the mood for a good romance. For me, this wasn't it. Tristan has all the characteristics of a good hero. He's brooding, secretive (in a way Vianne never seems to pick up on—then again her wits are sluggish) and occasionally has a precise, controlled violence that's pretty appealing in a renaissance hero. He's a bit pig-headed, but not too much. And (and this is a classic romance-move) he's been pining for Vianne for a long, long time. Perfect, right?

Romance is an individual thing. I think the Tristan-Vianne romance might work for some, but for me it fell flat. I'm going to try to explain why: I believed that he cared for her, and even loved her. I believed his emotions entirely. But, I didn't believe hers. This is especially odd, since the tale was told in the first person. Or maybe it was because the tale was told in the first-person that this was my reaction. Vianne never tells the reader that her pulse quickened, stomach flip-flopped or heart skipped a beat at the sight of Tristan. She never gives us any physical indication that she cares for him. In fact, for a while I wasn't sure whether she did care for him. She admits that he's attractive, but that seems to be the extent of her interest in him, almost as though he's merely eye-candy. Rather, it seems that she comes to care for him only because she recognizes that he loves her. Sort of: “oh, he loves me. Well, I guess I should be with him then.” Yes, she says that she loves him. But it doesn't feel as though she loves him.

By the time my ereader informed me that I was 80% of the way through the book, I was determined to see it through to the end, but I was pretty tired of the story. However, I will admit that, in the last few pages, there is an interesting twist. I was glad to see it, and it has left me mildly curious about the next book in this series. But, since I'm not invested in the romance, I doubt I'll be buying the next book.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Book Comments

Authors: Terry Pratchett and Terry Pratchett
Publication Date: 1992 (and 1971)

What follows isn't a review. Just some thoughts that occurred to me while reading one of my favourite author's more mysterious books.

First, a disclaimer: I love Terry Pratchett's fiction. Seriously. Love. It. I went in with high hopes and a full expectation to enjoy the book. What I did not expect was to spend so much time pondering the introduction. Not that there weren't many other clever 'Pratchettie' things going on in this book, because there definitely were. Tongue-in-cheek jokes about how to take over an empire using currency instead of swords, jabs at philosophers (that one hit close to home, given my degree in philosophy!) and a fascinating race known as the wights who can remember the future, that is, until one day they can't! (Cue existential crisis).

But, as I said, what I want to focus on is the introduction, where Pratchett tells us that this book was written by two authors, and both of them have the same name. One is seventeen-year-old Terry Pratchett. The other is forty-three year old Terry Pratchett, established author of the Discworld novels. Pratchett tells his readers that, when the Discworld novels became popular, people rediscovered this little book. By then the book was out of print, but the fans began pestering the publishing company for a copy of this book, if it was indeed by the same author as the Discworld. The question was, was it by the same author?

The answer in this case is a bit complicated. On the one hand, yes it was by the same author in a strictly legal and practical sense. But, in a more personal sense, no, the author was no longer the same. Pratchett tells us that he looked at the old manuscript and found that many of his ideas had changed in the intervening years. He thought differently about what made a good story in general, and what made a good fantasy story in particular. He decided a few things needed to be changed here and there, and ultimately ended up rewriting the entire book. So, the 1992 edition isn't quite the sort of book that the forty-three year old Pratchett would write if he were to approach the same subject matter again, and it isn't the same book that the seventeen-year-old Pratchett wrote in 1971. It's a collaborative effort. But, jokes Pratchett, at least he doesn't have to split the royalty cheque with the other author!

This introduction fascinated me. As I read the book, I wondered about which aspects were the seventeen-year-old Pratchett's contribution, and which were the forty-three-year-old's. I wondered about what the book looked like in its 1971 incarnation. I wondered if we all grow to fundamentally disagree with our earlier selves. And, finally, I wondered about the self itself. What is it that makes us who we are? (Cue existential crisis! I know, I know, there's a joke about philosophers lurking here somewhere.)

It's curious to me that Pratchett couldn't let the book stay as his seventeen-year-old self had written it. Writers often talk about their books as their babies, that they are unwilling to send out into the world. But in a sense, these books can be something else as well; they are often parts of the writer's self. The 1971 book could tell us something about what seventeen-year-old Pratchett thought about the world, what he valued, and what he found funny. The 1992 book mixes this up, leaving me curious and bewildered.

Identity, persona and authorship are all tricky concepts. Did Pratchett have a right to rewrite the book? Legally, of course he did. But part of me is left with an image in my head of a forty-three-year-old man muzzling a seventeen-year-old boy. Or is it a forty-three-year-old man guiding and refining a seventeen-year-old's rough ideas?

Whether muzzling or mentoring, I cannot say. But I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out. Now I wonder whether all writers cringe at the efforts of their younger selves. Maybe growing up is just growing embarrassed.

If so, I guess we only have ourselves to blame.