starlady: roy in the sunset at graveside (no rest for the wicked)
[personal profile] starlady
What I've Read
Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings - This book, my friends. This fucking book. It wasn't a DNF for me, but I did have to nope out for five days after one of two named female characters in the book to that point was introduced and then killed in a very sexist way after two pages just before the 50% mark. People have said that this book is innovative in terms of the epic fantasy genre. Well, kind of. If what you are looking for in epic fantasy is a return to the pre-modern writing styles of epic poetry, heroic sagas, and historical chronicles--spiced with just enough modern things like characterization to keep it interesting--then this is for you. But if, like me, you have struggled through epic writing in five languages as well as countless others in translation, you may be damn tired of all this already. If, like me, you have learned classical Chinese, you may be struck how this book reads exactly like Sima Qian's work, among many others. Without qualifiers, you may also be offended by the sexism of the book's structure as well as its content, in which the idea that women can play a crucial role in societal production beyond the invisible, denigrated women's work (to say nothing of women's relationships with each other, of any kind at all) of which Liu, or at least his narrative, has precisely zero consciousness from beginning to end. "Liu is playing a long game with the women!" Yeah, and the idea that you can take women out of this or any kind of story about a society in general and "play a long game" with them is fucking offensive.

Liu described this book as "silkpunk" a long while back, and because of that I was expecting things that are vastly different than what I got, such as…female characters who do things. (I exaggerate, but not by much.) It is punk, as I was discussing with [personal profile] seekingferret a while back, in that it's one of the most heterogeneous writing styles I've ever encountered. Someone else compared the book to Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy in terms of both authors' willingness to roll with verbal anachronisms, but having read both and knowing just as much about the 17th and early 18thC as anyone but a professional historian specializing in the period can--and ditto for Chinese history--I am here to tell you that Stephenson renders a much more credible facsimile of the speech of his chosen time period. Liu just doesn't care. People fight "mano a mano," he quotes Milton's "On His Blindness" (!) and various famous Chinese poems verbatim, there are "kids" running around--Ken Liu don't give a shit. This punk spirit of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the mix extends to the landscape of the setting and the bits of Chinese history on which he is drawing; at times it's a clear mixture of the Spring and Autumn periods, the Qin dynasty, the Han dynasty, the Three Kingdoms period, and the Song dynasty, as well as being its own thing. The thing is, the book is completely readable despite or because of all this heterogeneity. But if I'm going to invest this much of my life into reading a book of epic fantasy, I'd much rather read a book by someone who knows that half the human race exists and goes about its own business even if men don't care about them. I could name names here, but this isn't a zero sum game, and the point is that Ken Liu has not won a fan in me with this book. (I want to be clear that despite the relentless violence, again right out of classical Chinese texts, this is a much less grim and depressing book than The Mirror Empire, and between the two, both of which I disliked in different ways, I'd be hard-pressed to pick, but I'd probably take this one. It has fewer onscreen rapes than TME, for one thing.) So, that happened. And as far as I can tell, there's not actually that much revolutionary here.

Genevieve Valentine, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
- I started reading this book in the middle of The Grace of Kings because it featured not one but twelve named female characters, in that it's a retelling of the story of the twelve dancing princesses set in Jazz Age New York City from the princesses' point of view. And in fact, there are more than twelve named female characters! Shocking! What ludicrous delusion is this! In all honesty and not just in comparison with Ken Liu, however, this is an excellent, engrossing novel. The twelve Hamilton sisters, led by the eldest Jo, are kept shut in by their father and their only freedom is sneaking out to speakeasies to dance all night. The book is excellent and engrossing, and even though it's told from Jo's perspective, Valentine manages to make all of the sisters individuals in a believable way. And though the girls literally only know their bedrooms and their regular hangout, the Kingfisher Club, there's more than enough drama inherent in what they do to survive, and how they find their freedom, to fuel the narrative. It was great.

Arakawa Hiromu, Silver Spoon vol. 8 - This one took a while because it's when some of the heavier stuff starts happening, and I feel bad for the characters. I continue to love this manga, and I did want to mention that one of things I appreciate about it is Hachiken's strained relationship with his parents and with his older brother, who is basically a self-interested flake (as well he might be at 20, to be honest, but he's a huge contrast to his younger brother). Anyway I need to read the next two volumes so I can read the new ones.

Kate Elliott, The Very Best of Kate Elliott - This anthology collects all of Kate Elliott's short fiction and a few of her essays, and I liked it very much. Some of them are set in the universe(s) of her novels, but only the Crossroads story was really intensely spoilery, I thought. And as much as I liked the stories that tied in with those larger universes, I thought the stand-alones such as "In the Queen's Garden" were some of the most effective pieces in the collection in terms of showing off Elliott's strengths as a writer. In any event, I loved it.

Laurie J. Marks, Water Logic - I think I liked this book the least of the three books, but that's partly because I am half air and half fire and find water logic totally incomprehensible. (I don't much understand earth logic either, but by earth logic, action is understanding, so reading that book on some level brings you to the understanding of its logic.) And to say I liked it the least is merely to say that it was not quite as transcendent as Earth Logic, which I think is my favorite (not least because it is secretly a Twelfth Night book), or Fire Logic, which of course is amazing. I will say that I also thought that what happens to Clement in Water Logic was actually harder to read than much of the injuries that Zanja endures at various points in the narrative. Other bits are equally tragic. I was also interested that it was in this book that Zanja's difference came back to the fore, and I don't actually think it's coincidental that this book is about the legacy of colonialism in much more overt ways. I fear that Air Logic will be a difficult and merciless book, just as air logic is. And finally on a more meta note, I'm disappointed in myself that it took me this long to realize how New England--and really specifically western Massachusetts, honestly--these books are, or Shaftal is. But once you see it, you realize it's everywhere.

What I'm Reading
This is kind of a hard question. I'm at the point of having just started a few different books but am not definitively in the middle of any of them except for Silver Spoon vol. 9. I've been busy. And jet lagged. Very jet lagged.

What I'll Read Next
I just got Comixology finally, and Ms. Marvel vol 1 is in my future! :D

(no subject)

Date: 2015-04-29 13:19 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Yeah... I have mixed feelings about TGOK. When you only have two named female characters in the first three hundred pages, and then by the end of the book you're in double digits of interesting, meaty female parts, it's clear that this was a conscious choice on Liu's part. And on the whole, it's a choice I think was a mistake, because fuck the long game, if your book is broken for the first three hundred pages because of your long game, you've done something wrong.

On the other hand, it's a subtle point, but I do think it's important that when Liu does start telling female stories more substantially, those stories have backstories that fill in what was happening to them in the first half of the book. It's not that he starts adding in women. Those women were always there. And they were always soldiers, farmers, servants, rulers, mothers, daughters, thieves, merchants.

I also think it's a little glib to say that just because he's borrowing a lot of techniques from the classic epics, he's not doing anything revolutionary. He's doing it in a secondary world fantasy, for one thing. And the techniques he's using are techniques that nobody else writing fantasy uses because they are the techniques that strike us as most obstructively old fashioned in those epics. And because they are techniques that are really, really difficult to do well. You need to be able to tell an incredible amount of story in an incredibly small number of words in order to backtrack the way Liu does without slowing down the story. The old epics cheat on this account, by using pop cultural allusions to embed whole other epics in a line or two, but in secondary world fantasy you can't do that (or you can, and Liu does, with the Milton and other quotes, but you can't lean on it.) The difficulty level of pulling off a novel like TGOK is very, very high. And yet for large swaths of it, Liu does pull it off.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-04-29 13:34 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
So maybe what I'm saying is that TGOK isn't revolutionary because nobody's going to be able to copy its stylistic innovations?

(no subject)

Date: 2015-04-29 17:44 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
I guess? I mean, historical epic techniques in a secondary world fantasy is not the same as historical epic techniques in a historical epic? But this is just a matter of taste.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-04-30 19:25 (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Another thing: I don't think 'silkpunk' is about a prose aesthetic, I think it's about a technological aesthetic. The battle kites, airships, innovative explosives... That's Liu's analogue to steampunk gearing and such.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-04-30 13:56 (UTC)
toft: graphic design for the moon europa (Default)
From: [personal profile] toft
Thanks for the review of Ken Liu - will definitely be avoiding that one.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-05-02 07:45 (UTC)
metaphortunate: (Default)
From: [personal profile] metaphortunate
That was the impression I had gotten of Liu's book, and it makes me sad.

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