Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragons

But in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that's the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you're feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty's Dragon.

I can't really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the most important in both parties' lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!). So you get fun twists you'll never find in straight-up historical fiction. Like: Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages. And all the dragons are sentient beings, even if they are too often treated like livestock — or convenient weapons.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn't so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik's world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy ... with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey's books another look (it's been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

Read these, not that

Not this

 If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even by those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found the experience improved considerably – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

These!

 Worth the wait, and the length.

Worth the wait, and the length.

Enough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with  back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through, though it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and a fun return to the 1990s — and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

 All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. And I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical — Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

 Just because.

Just because.

In review

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.

 

After they're gone

present darknessIt happens every time -- I wind up obsessed with the writers who appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar for months after the event. Perhaps it's just the inevitable effect of spending four days in their company, or thinking about their subjects. I at least have a valid excuse for reading After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman after the Seminar -- because it wasn't published until February. What a great read it is -- an unconventional crime novel in many ways, more of an examination of what happens to a family when its center mysteriously disappears. In this case it was first Felix Brewer, and later his mistress, who disappeared exactly 10 years after her lover. Many assumed she had gone to join him -- until her body showed up 12 years after that.

Another decade has passed by the time it gets taken up as a cold case by Sandy Sanchez, a retired homicide detective now working as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department. But the real pleasure of the book is not just following Sandy's investigation, but in learning the story through chapters that move fluidly among characters and in different times. It provides a portrait of Baltimore in the second half of the 20th century, for the most part, in a particular upper middle class Jewish circle. And it never flags -- while in some books that alternate viewpoints you just can't wait to get away from some characters and back to others (ahem, George R.R. Martin), in this one every single chapter was interesting in its own right and I was always glad to pick up with whomever Lippman wanted to tell us about next. The whodunit aspect is satisfying, in the end (I hadn't guessed it) but the real pleasure of this book, for me, was the people.

Speaking of compelling characters, I've just caught up to Malla Nunn's series of Emmanuel Cooper novels (s0 far) with an advanced copy of Present Darkness, which publishes in June. The books are set in South Africa in the early 1950s, just as apartheid is being instituted, and it's a fascinating, horrifying, fraught time period especially for a man in Cooper's position. I don't want to offer any spoilers but suffice it to say that Cooper's background and upbringing means he's in a position to cross a lot of lines. He's also a World War II vet with a nasty case of PTSD decades before that term would be applied -- in his case it manifests as migraines and the voice of his Scottish drill instructor issuing orders and advice inside his head. Start with the first in the series -- A Beautiful Place to Die -- and read them in order.

I had always considered apartheid the most outrageous social atrocity of my high school and college years, and its ending a miracle of my adulthood -- but I had never really sat back and thought about 1) how insanely recent it was 2) its endless complicated consequences for the people who actually had to live with it and 3) how bizarre it was in a country that had just sent soldiers to World War II -- fighting against and defeating a regime built on ethnic hatred. Cooper is a classic crime fiction hero in many ways -- a flawed but admirable man who seeks to do good in a deeply screwed up world. It's a tribute to Nunn's skill that I find myself missing his world when I finish one of her books -- because who would really want to live under those conditions? Yet her people and the plots are so compelling that want to know what happens next for Detective Sergeant Cooper. Like Matthew Shardlake (C.J. Sansom's Tudor series), Gaius Petraeus Ruso (Ruth Downie's Medicus series) and Jackson Brodie (Kate Atkinson), I am eager to hear how he will get out of his next tight spot and figure out a way to, improbably, do some good.