Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace is in some sense orthogonal to Paul Scott's The Jewel in the Crown.  The former covers a few characters over a long span of time to illustrate the effects of the British colonization of India, while the latter looks at a period of a few days through a lot of characters' eyes (again, as a way of writing about the effects of the British Raj).  Ghosh's book also covers a vast geographic area, with sections in Burma/Myanmar, India, and Malaysia, where Scott's book all takes place in a small town.

But I'm not sure that The Glass Palace gains from its vastness.  For one thing, some of the time is passed over very rapidly, particularly toward the end where it feels like Ghosh just lost interest.  It feels a bit like he had a long-range plan to bring the story up to the present day, but the last 40 years are so rushed that he could've stopped at the end of WWII without substantially changing the novel.

On the other hand, the passage of time lets his characters have little epiphanies; in particular, his focus on the way the British used the Indians as an armed force to impose their will on other countries in the area was really interesting, and not something I've ever thought about.

On the whole, I liked the opening of the book very much, and more than the rest.  Maybe it's because the setting, Burma in the 1880s was so unfamiliar to me, whereas the 1930s and '40s in India seemed to cover ground I've seen before.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Naming of the Beasts

The Naming of the Beasts brings a lot of the storylines in Mike Carey's excellent Felix Castor series to a close.  I've seen in interviews that he plans to do at least one more, but if he stops here, the series will feel complete.

In one sense, it's a satisfactory conclusion.  Asmodeus has been a thorn in Castor's side since the first novel, and a confrontation was bound to come.  Carey makes Castor work hard for a chance, and the climactic showdown never feels cheap.  Also, Carey's prose is as good as ever, making him pretty much the best writer I've read in the urban fantasy field.  (Which I suppose is damning with faint praise, given that his competition is the likes of Jim Butcher; so I should say instead that he's one of best writers in the mainstream fantasy business.  Not in the overdone purple prose sense of, say, Patrick Rothfuss, but more like a Raymond Chandler, with the deft strokes of characterization in just a few words, the occasional simile that's just right, and so on).

On the other hand, the plot feels a little mechanical, in a way that the other Castor books have managed to avoid.  It felt a little like a video game -- Castor goes to Macedonia, and ends up with a seemingly irrelevant bit of junk, but it turns out to be useful against Asmodeus; then he meets with a guy whose secret seems worthless, but it turns out to be useful against Asmodeus, and so on.

On the third hand, Castor also has a set of run-ins with Jenna-Jane Mulbridge, and these are very well handled.

In the end, it's a book you just have to read if you've already read the other Castor books (and if you haven't, you should!), and my mild misgivings don't prevent it from being a very solid novel.

The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse

Just like its title, The Gumshoe, the Witch, and the Virtual Corpse, by Keith Hartman, is an overstuffed novel.  There are something like 15 point-of-view characters, sci-fi, witches, shamans, a mystery, social commentary, and so on.

The different pieces were mostly enjoyable, but they pull in so many directions that none of them really shines, and some really suffer.  For example, there's a whole sub-plot with Indian magic, and our gumshoe is set to be the next shaman, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  There are a few other similarly abandoned plots, which is just not good in a sprawling novel like this.

The other issue I had with the novel is that it feels very contemporary for a novel set 30 years in the future.  You could strip out the science fiction and the magic, and the resulting novel would be almost the same, except for the very end.

I think I might have enjoyed this novel more if it had been shorter.  At 430 trade paperback-size pages, it just dragged by the end.

The Mahabharata, vol. 1

The Mahabharata is one of the world's longest poems; it grew over time through a long process of accretion. As a result, there are digressions within digressions.

It's also so long that any unabridged translation spans many volumes. The one I chose to start tackling, by Bibek Roy, is about 10% of the whole. At that point, about 600 pages in, the main storyline is just warming up. What I mostly got was an interesting grab-bag of Indian mythology, including the birth of the Garuda, the creation of the nagas, and so on. 

It was also sometimes a bit of a slog. The major players have many names, which makes it tricky. And sometimes the same story is told twice, right near each other. I also feel like the translation is not particularly felicitous, although of course it's hard to tell. But I'd like to hope that the original is more poetic than Roy's translation. 

One of these days, I'm sure I'll get on to volume 2, because a lot of vol 1 was fascinating, despite my difficulties. But I'm also not in a rush. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Case Histories

Case Histories, the first Jackson Brodie novel, was Kate Atkinson's first foray out of the world of literary fiction into detective fiction.  Unfortunately, it fails very badly as detective fiction.

Some of the flaws stem from the heavy "literary" atmosphere Atkinson is building.  This is really a novel of character portraits, to the extent that we're about 2/3 of the novel when Jackson Brodie finally begins to work on all three cases, and the extent of his work is calling around to three witnesses.

But there are also some elements of this novel that are just inexplicable from any sort of perspective.  For example, there's a subplot about a threat on Jackson Brodie's life which seems to come from an airport potboiler.  It has no bearing on the plot, and enters into the realm of absurdity for a supposedly realistic novel.  (Like trying to assassinate a person by dynamiting his house.  Seriously.  This is the sort of thing you find in a Road-runner cartoon, not a serious novel).

So how is the novel as literary fiction?  Well, the above-mentioned stupid subplots have to be glossed over.  And you still have to ignore coincidences that would make Dickens blush.  And then you're left with a bunch of character sketches that don't really go anywhere, because you've just had to gloss away the little forward motion this novel has.

Maybe I'll try one of her non-detective novels, but I think that I'm done with Jackson Brodie.

The Rook

Daniel O'Malley's The Rook is a nicely light-hearted urban fantasy.  It breaks the urban fantasy mold in one particular respect that I quite liked: for once, we don't have a mix of faeries, werewolves, vampires, etc all thrown together; instead, there's only one vampire, and none of the others.  Instead, it's more like the X-men, with a bunch of folks, each with his/her own unique power, inside an organization that harnesses them and their powers.

The set-up is clearly a way to give O'Malley maximal opportunity for info-dumping. An amnesiac protagonist is a pretty classic way of introducing the reader to things that everyone else on the story is already supposed to know. Fortunately, his breezy style makes these sections less of a chore than they might be. And Myfanwy Thomas is an appealing enough character to carry the story through the rough patches. 

Overall, an enjoyable light read.