Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Report: Past and Present

I haven't done a book report in a while. I've been reading a lot, but some of it has been reference and some has been re-reads. This is a selection of noteworthy books that might be of interest to my readers from among all my recent reading.

First, I have an interesting compare/contrast between two books that are superficially similar, but ultimately different. Both books would fall loosely into the steampunk category and both involve parallel story lines about two orphan (or semi-orphan) teens, with the story lines converging later in the book.

The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt is more of a fantasy novel and was published for adults. I suppose it's really a blend of science fiction and fantasy, with some rather different technology in use, but the story revolves more around the fantasy aspects. I would describe this as what you might get if Charles Dickens had written science fiction/fantasy (other than a ghost story) -- in both the good ways and the bad ways. It has a broad cast of characters, some of them very vivid and others fairly grotesque. The world building is very detailed, showing the depravity of the upper classes and the squalor of the lower classes. There are plucky orphans coping with being thrown out into a frightening world. At the same time, though, it kind of reads like it was written in serialized form, so that the end was written after the beginning was published, and the author changed his mind about where the story was going, but it wasn't possible to change the beginning, so the ultimate direction of the story seems to be a bit "huh?" like it doesn't really fit the beginning. There's a lot of meandering in the middle, with the two main characters both having random adventures that ultimately have little to do with the plot, so that it reads like maybe a separate episode in a serial when the author wasn't sure where the story was going but needed for something to happen in this week's installment. This is probably the most "steampunk" steampunk book I've read. I think the best aspect was the steammen, the steam-powered sentient robot-like people. Ultimately, though, I think the book collapses under the weight of too many ideas. There's material in here for at least four books, with several wildly different cultures, at least two different magical systems, a bevy of god-like entities, two major political/socioeconomic systems, a secret police/spy type agency that's barely touched on (in spite of being the title of the book) and multiple species of citizens. Plus a total ripoff of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. I think it might have been a stronger book if the author had picked one or two concepts and really developed them in a focused way instead of skimming rapidly past all this stuff. I did like the book and I liked a lot of the ideas in it. I also liked the two main characters. But given the material and concepts, I wanted to love the book, and I didn't. There are some follow-up books, not true sequels but set in the same world. The reviews say they're more focused and cohesive, so I might check them out, but I'd really rather find out more about the main characters here because they're the kind of people who would surely have more adventures.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld was the other book with a similar set-up, though it's published as young adult, is alternate history instead of alternate world, and although it's classified as steampunk, if you want to get really technical, it isn't exactly, since it's about World War I and the machinery is oil-fueled, not steam-driven. In this history, Darwin not only discovered evolution but also DNA and genetic engineering, and the "Darwinist" nations (Britain and its allies) now use engineered creatures instead of machinery, like a giant flying whale-like ecosystem as an airship. The "Clanker" powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and their allies) focus on machinery that works like animals -- instead of tanks, they have Star Wars-like walkers. Our orphan boy on the run is the son of the archduke whose assassination sets off the war, and now he's being hunted by factions within his own country, and our girl is a British girl who's disguised herself as a boy to get on the crew of an airship. Their paths inevitably cross when war breaks out. Although there's a lot of world-building going on, it's still very focused on the elements that matter to our main characters. The sequel is coming out in October, and I can't wait. It's a good adventure story with a few twists and a lot of imagination. (Mom, I think you'd like this one -- look for it in the library.)

On a totally different note, the book I mentioned saving for a rainy day was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. This is a gothic-type story-within-a-story book about a young woman hired to write the biography of a dying bestselling novelist who's built a career out of keeping her true story a mystery, instead making up a totally new biography with each book release. Now she wants to tell the real story she's kept hidden. The young woman goes to the author's manor on the Yorkshire moors, where there seem to be secrets and mysteries, and she has to listen to the story in order without asking questions. So, there's the author's story of her origins, starting with the story about her grandparents, and that story involves family secrets, a crumbling mansion, creepy twins and maybe even a ghost. Then there's the story of the biographer trying to uncover the mysteries of the house where she's working, and she starts trying to track down elements of the author's story to make sure it really is the truth, and in the process finds even more mysteries and secrets. There are some cool twists that change your perception of everything. It's not so much an unreliable narrator story as it is a canny narrator who leaves the crucial clues out in plain sight but doesn't draw attention to them. I think I'll have to re-read this book next fall or winter on a properly gray and blustery day now that I know the secret and see if my perception changes. I read this in one sitting, and if you like stories like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, you might enjoy this book.

I like these literary mystery type stories, where there's something going on in the present day, and that unravels the story of what happened in the past. There was one I read a couple of years ago that shall remain nameless that I had high hopes for but that ultimately disappointed me. It, too, was about a modern researcher trying to track down the real story about something that happened in the past, but it ended up just being the modern person finding some old letters that told the whole story (which, oddly enough, was written out like a standard historical romance novel, including details that would not have been in letters), and the modern part only intruded to create cliffhangers, so as the people in the past were in peril, the researcher would be interrupted in her reading. That was such a letdown because if you're going to bother with a modern story to frame the past story, something needs to actually happen in the modern story, unless you're going with the "I met a man in a bar" approach and the framing only happens in the beginning and end. It shouldn't be so easy as finding a stack of letters that tell the whole story, with no detective work on the part of the modern person to piece it all together. The Thirteenth Tale wouldn't have been nearly as interesting if it had just been the biographer listening to the author telling her story without doing any other digging on her own.

Hmmm, now I need to add this structure to the list of things I want to play with in a book. I just need a story that lends itself to the idea of a person in one timeline or setting researching another timeline or setting, so that there are two parallel plots, one in the past and one in the present.


Anonymous said...

I'm not generally into gothic stuff or mysteries, but after reading your review, I thought I'd give Thirteenth Tale a look. So it's on order. :)

I picked up a new book that I've wanted to get around to, though: Enchanted, Inc. :) Yes, I started reading your blog without having read any of your work. I like your blog enough that I thought I'd get your books, so here goes! :)

Chicory said...

Return of the Victorian Era! I'll have to check out the Thirteenth Tale. I adore the old Gothics, especially Charlotte Bronte's work.

Shanna Swendson said...

@penguins -- I hope you enjoy the book like you enjoy the blog!

@Chicory -- The Thirteenth Tale isn't exactly Victorian, though it seems as though parts of it may take place in that era (the past story). The time frame is rather ambiguous (probably deliberately so). The "now" part of the story takes place in a time with telephones and cars, yet the main character communicates primarily through letters, doesn't have a mobile phone and doesn't use the Internet for research. I can't tell if that's a sign of the time period or something to do with her character.