Books of 2015, #43: Farthing, Jo Walton

I will always be grateful for Jo Walton, because it was her reread for of Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series that finally got me to read them, and I enjoyed them immensely.

I read her Hugo-winning novel Among Others when it came out, and while I enjoyed many parts of it—it is, after all, a love letter to the genre of SF—it didn’t quite hit for me.

So I’m uncertain why I picked up her earlier novel Farthing, but I did, and I’m glad.

Imagine if Gosford Park (I was of course tempted to use Mr. Fellowes’ more recent and better-known work as a referent, but Gosford Park fits better) was set in an England that had successfully negotated peace with Nazi Germany. The murder is political, rather than personal, and British politics have become corrosively anti-Semitic and anti-Communist, while keeping the same streak of homophobia that led to Alan Turing’s demise, and the class system remains ever the same.

The whodunit is really secondary—the interesting bits are the characters, and the way they co-opt or chafe against the milieu in which they are force to exist. Against my expectation, it worked quite well.

Books of 2015, #42: The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler

Two books in one year with “of Speculation” in the title. Weird.

Remember what I said about not quite buying the fated aspects of Rose Red and Snow White’s relationship when talking about Fables? I have the same sort of reaction to this novel.

The prose is lovely, the atmosphere is interestingly off-kilter, the central narrative conceit—a narrative of the lives of two late 18th century carnival performers and their early 21st century descendent—is interestingly done…and yet the central action seems set up to make a lie of the title; there’s no speculation here. It’s ultimately all about fate, and even the defeat of the heavy hand of fate ultimately leaves me cold.

I wanted to like this much more than I actually did.

Books of 2015, #40-41: Stay & Always, Nicola Griffith

A consistent—and in most cases spot-on—criticism of comic books is that Nothing Ever Really Changes. Characters of any significance have too much economic value to risk alienating their audience by having them change signifcantly. More ambitious authors may make some changes, but when they move on, the narrative always seems to muddle its way back to the status quo.

Thus Wolverine, having “died” near the end of 2015 will almost certainly be back, no matter Joe Quesada’s assertions of “Dead is Dead”; in fact, by any strict interpretation he’s already back, insofar as there’s a…nah, I don’t want to get into that.

In many ways, this is the same for Lee Childs’ “Jack Reacher” novels; they jump forward and back in relationship to one another, and his circumstances may be different in some ways, but by the end of the novel, he’s generally back to the same situation he started in. He certainly hasn’t changed or grown as a character—still an amoral, violent, near super-human instrument of retribution.

One day before long I will re-read Patrick O’Brien’s “Master & Commander” series, and I wonder if I will find that they break out of this pattern of long-running series’, or not.

Aud Torvingen, on the other hand, changes.

In fact, the two sequels to The Blue Place show a character who is broken and isolated and decides to heal and engage. Not always well—sometimes with an excruciating level of obliviousness—but motivated.

As whatever-sort-of-novels-these-are, they seem to work well enough: character is injected into extraordinary events in others lives, takes action, occasionally fucks up, eventually resolves problems. The difference is that you can see how the events act on the character, not just the other way around.

It’s an interesting strategy.