by Doctor Science
This week: novels by Ada Palmer, Adam Rakunas, and Frances Hardinge; novella by Seanan McGuire.
Dinner was delayed slightly because I was reading the last few pages of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning while snapping beans.
I love the style, how much everyone talks and thinks, the layers of world-building and characters. The fact that the Enlightenment includes both Voltaire and De Sade.
One part of the world-building that frankly baffles me: how monolingual most people seem to be. The fact that people talk in *Latin* to conceal the topic of their conversation from speakers of other Indo-European, and even Romance!, languages, wtf. Particularly surprising because their Enlightenment heroes were all polyglots.
There's one thing that bugs me, but I don't know if it's going to be dealt with later or not. This is yet another futuristic novel (of a string I've read recently) with hereditary aristocracy and even rulership, where the aristocrats/princes include people of exceptional charisma, intelligence, and beauty. That trick never works! -- at least, not when the general population is healthy and well-fed. Regression to the mean is one driver toward democracy, especially since charisma seems to be poorly heritable (or not at all). Contemplate Prince Charles if you find yourself thinking that a long line of royal ancestors will tend to produce exceptional leaders.
Similarly, I can't figure out why control of the transport network is so hyper-centralized: not just in one group, but one family. Why would people do that? Wouldn't it make more sense to have more people doing it, in more places (not an earthquake zone, for instance), and have the workers chosen on the basis of skills/talent/experience, not family membership? Am I missing something?
Basically, I can't figure out if Palmer has almost forgotten about democracy and how it works, or if there are guillotines in these aristocrats' future.
Wow, what a complicated book. This is SF you have to keep your brain on for. Written in a 18th-century style including digressions, talking to the reader, and Homeric similes, it is actively in dialogue with the Enlightment: Voltaire and Diderot, Madame de Pompadour and De Sade. It's a novel of ideas, plot, and world-building, past and future. I wonder if I should lend it to my mother, who loves Ideas and litfic but usually finds SFF unappealing.
My response can only be love when the author calls the book part of "the path which flows from Gilgamesh and Homer to the stars." That's it, that's why I love SFF.
I've left more detailed comments on the spoiler thread at Making Light.
Windswept by Adam Rakunas. It's such a goddamn relief to read a science fiction or fantasy novel that doesn't focus on aristocrats of some sort. "Windswept" is tropical-colored noir, with the focus on people who do dirty, hard work and don't get paid enough to do it. Our protagonist, Padma Mehta, is a union rep with a (highly-specific) alcohol problem, trying to take care of her people while keeping more than half an eye on her plan to retire and run a distillery. The planet she's on, Santee, is part of the underbelly of interstellar civilization, growing sugarcane for the molasses that's a basic chemical feedstock. It really makes you think about the kind of work that has to go on behind the scenes of your favorite space adventure, and how unsung the people doing it tend to be.
I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel, coming out next month. My only uncertainty is whether I'll get a hardcopy (paperback) or an e-book. The paperback of "Windswept" is set in a font just a bit smaller than my old eyes are comfortable reading -- I can do it, but it makes my vision blurry if I read for more than a couple hours. I'll probably get the e-book if the rest of Casa Science doesn't care for "Windswept", but a paperback if the others want to read it, too.
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge continues to cement her rep, for me, as a writer of exceptionally sophisticated YAs. I'm not even sure what makes "The Lie Tree" YA except the age of the protagonist, and the fact that there's no sex and little violence. No-one's motives are simple or unlayered, there's a good deal of description of setting and character ... aha, that's what it reminds me of! Joan Aiken! But with extra layers of complexity in the characters. I think I need to re-read "The Wolves of Willoughby Chase" for comparison purposes.
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. A great premise, beautifully creepy prose, and not the expected ending. My only problem: it's a murder mystery, and it fails the John Donne Test. That's a matter of personal preference, of course.