Carolyn – Uprooted – Naomi Novak
Uprooted by Naomi Novik was firmly entrenched on my to-be-read list, albeit as a “someday, when it’s in paperback”, before a friend was so insistent I read it right then that she offered me her own, first edition, first printing, signed copy. Despite my attempts to insist I couldn’t possibly borrow such a treasure, she persisted, buying me my own copy and insisting with a fervor I confess I now feel.
The novel tells the story of a valley in danger, and the lengths one woman, Agnieska, will go to in order to protect her entire way of life and all the people that live it. It is a story of apathy and disbelief, and the trouble it can cause. It plays on the fairy tale structure and tropes, including a wizard named “The Dragon” and a dangerous forest full of dark magics that relentlessly expands, trying to swallow the whole valley.
Every scene–even those few that as a reader I might have wanted to do without–is carefully crafted and placed to accomplish the major themes of the story. It is a tale that lives and breathes as much as the magic system it develops. I cannot recommend it highly enough and it deserves all the accolades that have been heaped upon it.
Chappy – His Majesty’s Dragon – Naomi Novak
Is this gunpowder fantasy?
Because someone called dibs on the wonderfully written sort-of-fairy-tale Uprooted, which I had just finished, I was forced to read something else quickly to write about before the Titan editors became overly wrathful. Since I had enjoyed the aforementioned book a great deal I decided to read one of Naomi Novik’s earlier works: His Majesty’s Dragon the first in a series of Gun-Powder fantasy novels.
I’d read alt-history before, yet my closest read in the genre outside of some hit and miss Steampunk had been the incredible Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, which relied on a magick closer in many ways to what she had accomplished so well with Uprooted…
Well, I can’t say I’m disappointed. The writing is pleasant and fun. The story is a bit tropish but carried off well enough. As the series carries on it suffers a bit from the “One Dude is the Lynchpin” of every engagement in the war syndrome which eventually puts me off most series. Sure, he’s special but it’s book five before anyone does anything important off-camera to fight Napoleon.
There’s really no magic involved, it’s more of a redefining of physics and natural history to make dragons replace impossible machines of the steam-punk worlds. She doesn’t seem to break the rules once she’s set them down which I consider a huge plus.
Novik’s writing, even at this early stage in her noveling career, is wonderful. Plots are mostly simple with a few easter eggs and a big multi-novel spanning Chekhov’s gun in the form of a stinking mushroom. (spoiler?) In short, if the notion of flintlock and swords from dragonback can appeal to you, try this series.
Chappy – Some thoughts about Alternative History Genres
One Titan is flying in a mechanical dragon over oceans so someone had to fill this column space. As previously noted I’m reading through a series loosely based on the time period of the Napoleonic wars. And mostly along the Eurocentric histories of the time. Even those events that take place in South Asia and in Africa are mainly guided by the European history of the time.
And I suppose it was the World Shattering event of the era. An upjumped Corsican artillery officer and Jacobin came to change the world with new tactics, and it many ways it was the birth of the English dominance of the world. So naturally most everything I know about it comes from reading fiction set in the time.
This particular brand of alternative history, that of interweaving actual historical events with some physical change instead of asking “what if” or “time travel (my least favorite of the genre)” asks the reader to have certain knowledge of the history in question that the others do not.
For example, when Len Deighton wrote SS-GB about a Nazi SS officer working in Great Britain after she lost WWII we don’t really need to understand events in the war itself. Only that Great Britain lost and now the world is different. Or when someone writes a time travel story all we need to know is that they won’t be internally consistent and at the end it will all be a big incoherent deus ex machina anyway and we can put the book down, unread, and read something more enjoyable.
However, when an author attempts to weave the history together with real events it may be important for the reader to know when the fictional history diverges from actual history.
In the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik I thought I recognized when that happened. I opened Wikipedia and found that I’d already missed the mark rather widely.
My two sad European Civ courses more than 20 years ago didn’t cover the Napoleonic Era thoroughly. And I’ve never remedied it.
Now I’m on the lookout for a good survey of the whole mess to put on my reading list. The damned reading of fiction has now forced me to learn something. Perhaps it will make the Temeraire series even more enjoyable in retrospect as I see how the two histories came together and apart.
Meg – Beyond the Gates – Catherine Wells
Marta’s a scientist/grad student working on documenting the native species of her homeworld. ‘Dray’s Planet’ is young (relative to earth) and was colonized by her ancestors 200 years ago. Her people use the remoteness of their planet as a barrier to protect their religious and cultural ideologies from Unbelievers in the rest of the universe.
While working on her science, she finds a mysterious vertebrate she dubs the ‘dinka-chak’ (chicken-lizard). They invite an Unbeliever expert to help figure out what the heck it is. Adventure, political twists, and culture clash ensue!
There’s a framing device with sections written in italics of a father in the distant future relaying the events we are reading to his son as a campfire story.
The set up plays into the theme of ‘friction between science and religion.’ Wells uses the device to contrast fact and myth and to illustrate the way events change when the lenses of time and culture are applied. It’s a neat idea, but not revolutionary.
The largest complaint I have is with head hopping. In the first three paragraphs we switch between the italic frame story’s son and father and back and I didn’t know who was actually narrating.
I thought since Marta is the MC in the main story, we’d follow her throughout and avoid this in the main narrative prose, but it’s riddled with bounces from perspective to perspective. They are sometimes separated by a ‘***’ sometimes by an extra line break, but most of the time, all I get is a new paragraph to try and figure out who’s head I now occupy.
Even parts that are clearly from Marta’s perspective include observations that would only be possible if she had an eyeball attached to a wall in front of her. “Marta’s eyes sparkled wickedly…” How does she know how her eyes are sparkling? I can’t see my eyes, maybe there is some large anatomical scifi difference that I missed?
There are some neat world building tidbits. Marta’s planet uses glass instead of plastic. (Lots of sand, not a lot of ancient dead organic matter) They use actual keys instead of keypads as electricity is precious. They don’t have hard metals and use sponges for data storage. (insert hand wave)
(If they don’t have metal, how did they get all the trucks and guns on the cover. I don’t think someone wrote up a very good art brief, then again, I paid the $2 asking price.)
I’ve enjoyed that the differences are treated as realistic and practical, the adaptations of a frontier world, instead of ‘primitive’ which is an easy pit to stumble into when writing about the meeting and conflicts of two distinct cultures.
It’s been a fast read other than minor backtracking to figure out who’s head I’m in every few pages or so. I’m interested in the plot and the greater dangers that have been hinted at. (by Marta’s patron, I think, but it may have been a stray Marta thought that telepathically inserted itself into the paragraph, who knows.)
And, of course, I love that everyone is up in arms about an ugly chicken with teeth.