Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness

This book has been popping up into my field of vision for a solid two years, and the first sequel is already out and keeps showing up as well. Goodreads connections have read it, it shows up on lists of "Best Of" books, and frankly, once something has managed to make itself heard over the usual noise of cultural recommendations, I feel like I need to check it out.

The timing on this one is entirely coincidental--it was sitting on top of the "Leave One, Take One" bookshelf at the hair salon I go to, and I figured that there was literally no way it would be easier to read this book.

The backstory is kind of intriguing--the author is herself an academic with a number of non-fiction books on her C.V. What does a professor of European history and history of science write about when writing successful fiction?

Turns out--she writes Mary Sue Meets The Dreamy Vampire.

Honestly, there is obviously intellect at work, and some lovely passages about the lure of old libraries and the pleasures of intellectual pursuits. Obviously, the scenes set in Oxford are drawn from her own experience. And I am not philosophically opposed to supernatural novels--mixing witches, daemons and vampires into academia is not necessarily a deal breaker. I am willing to go with someone who handles this well.  But this main character--Diana Bishop? She positively reeks of Mary Sue-ism to the point where I had what amounts to an allergic reaction and gave it all up.

Our Heroine is a witch. Actually, a Salem witch, the descendant of the Salem Bishop witches, who are supposedly the most powerful ones in America, as well as the daughter of the Proctor line as well. This means that she is Sooper Speshully Powerful, the culmination of the two most powerful magic families in the country. But! She refuses--on principle!--to use magic! Because her parents were killed mysteriously when she was a child, so obviously (?) that tragic backstory explains why she has to do academia like a non-magical person would. Except when she does use magic, but she tries to limit it! And fixing the washing machine shouldn't count, because it might have caused water damage to the apartment below hers! (This is an actual thing she says.)

So, now she is in possession of an honestly earned Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and she's got tenure at Yale. So no privilege or snobbery there at all. Because she didn't get it from using magic! It's all her own intellectual effort! (Because Harvard and Yale are completely meritocratic, and have no Old Boy Networks, or tendency to admit and reward family connections or anything.) So trust us--even though she is Magic, she didn't use it (unless she did?)--she is just one of the top 1% of intellectuals in the US all by herself! Nothing special about her at all!

Now, she's at Oxford doing research for a keynote address on alchemical history. Because that's not magic! She insists it isn't, so it mustn't be! And she calls up a number of books each day, including one called Ashmole 782, that is odd. It's not willing to give up its call slip to the librarian until Diana touches it. She feels the tingle of a spell on the cover. She opens it, and it's all palimsest and magical writing and odd non-standardized alchemical imagery, and since she is so principled (the washing machine doesn't count, I tell you!) she decides she would be too tempted to use magic to understand it, so she sends it back to the stacks.

But somehow, her touching it breaks a magical seal, and now all the magical creatures are aware that Ashmole 782 has been found. It starts asserting a magnetic draw, and all kinds of magical creatures start showing up in the library and trying to get their hands on it, using Diana if possible.

Fortunately, the incredibly handsome and debonair 1500 year old vampire Matthew Clairmont shows up before anybody else does. Even though magical creatures hide their nature from humans, Matthew has managed to become a world renowned expert on genetics and Norwegian wolves, and a couple of other areas, without looking more than 35 and without raising any suspicions. (He is also apparently not worried about having his fame follow him and cause any suspicions in the future either, when his seminal work is still being taught and he still looks 35 decades from now.)

Matthew and Diana are both gorgeous, both Sooper Speshully Powerful, and so of course Diana is absolutely not going to fall in love with him or anything. She even calls home to tell her psychic aunt that. And then she falls asleep in her chair with the window open, and wakes up in the small hours of the morning with the taste of cloves in her mouth.

What? Did you suspect that Matthew the Sooper Speshul vampire came in through the window and watched her sleep? Is this what vampires do now? Thanks, Stephanie Meyer. Thanks a whole lot. But--he had an excuse! He thought maybe she had smuggled Ashmole 782 out of the library, against all the rules and conventions of academic research! So he had to search her apartment! (But mostly he just stood there and watched her sleep, while seeing Powerful Magic seeping out of her skin.)

Powerful magic you say? She is more powerful than she knows? Maybe you have to teach her how to accept her power and control it so it doesn't break loose and wreak havoc. (Substitute the word "sexuality" for "magic" just to make the dynamic between these two characters as creepy as it is.) We are in vintage romance novel territory here--back in the old days of the late 1970s, when the formula required that the heroine be under the age of 22 and a virgin, while the hero had to be wealthy and a good 15 years or more older, as well as sexually experienced but wounded….

Of course, he starts putting the moves on her--I mean, hanging around the library to intercept all the other magical people who want to find that book and think she may have it. Nobody seems to have tried just putting in a call slip, nobody seems to be trying to track what happened to that book after she sent it back. Everybody just seems to assume that she's got it? Like with her at all times, even when running or rowing on the river?

I lost it when the big set piece of the first part of the book is the two of them finding they have something in common, which is--yoga? Seriously? Matthew the 1500 year old vampire puts on yoga pants and puts a mat into his Lamborghini and goes to do downward dog poses?

It's worse than that. The class is for all sorts of magical people--vampires AND witches AND daemons, who we have been told have strict taboos against mingling together. But magical wonderful Matthew has managed to use yoga class (!?!?!) to get these several dozen beings to overcome their natural revulsion in order to--take a yoga class. I am so not buying this at all.

But I stuck it out for about one more chapter, after Diana flounces around at Matthew, then finds out that he built the enormous country home where the class was held--back in 1590, using the architect who had built Hampton Court for Cardinal Wolsey. Then Matthew goes to Scotland to meet with a friend of his and to brood darkly over a chess board--because he is In Love With Diana. Because of COURSE he is--who wouldn't fall in love with someone with exactly zero personality, and who has been nothing but snide and bratty to him?

It's that Sekkrit Power she has (hint: it's really sex) that she doesn't realize she has (really, it's totally sex) and that he knows he can teach her how to harness and use (sex, ya think?)

So at that point, I gave up. You know where this is going, right? They are going to both be in love with each other, but not say anything because reasons. Or they are going to be Forced by Magical Society to be apart, until they overcome the oppressive system from the Sooper Speshulness of their Love (the greatest love story of all time and history, of course.)

I did look up a plot synopsis to see if I was missing anything--and nope. There is a whole lot more Sooper Speshul Magick Powers nonsense, and then. . .time walking? Also a lot of Diana being rescued by her white knight, which--ugh.

Well, at least I know I'm not missing anything. So many other books are already lined up to fill up this particular spot!

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Mockingjay, by Susanne Collins

This is the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy, and there is no mistaking that fact. Collins is so over this series that it's painfully obvious that she could barely be bothered to write this one.

To be fair, I don't have the writing and publication history at hand. I do have some vague recollection that after the first novel hit (and hit HUGE!) Collins went back and wrote two more novels, that were released very quickly in order to meet the demand for more of the story. Which is quite an achievement, and not something I feel that I could do, so Major Kudos to Ms. Collins. Seriously. Seriously bad ass, ma'am!

And I have to say that I admire many many parts of the trilogy, and this book in particular. I especially admire how she opened up the story from the very narrow focus of the first book, and how she took the idea of Hunger Games and recast it for this last book.

I just feel like the whole is kind of half-baked, as if it was rushed through production before it was fully thought through.

Quick synopsis:

In the first book, Collins establishes a post-war dystopian North America of indeterminate size. (Does Canada still exist? Mexico?) The Capitol of the nation of Panem has defeated the Districts, and compels them to send two tributes each year to the arena where they are forced to kill each other for the viewing entertainment of the Capitol. The classical Greek and Roman parallels are intentional.

Our Heroine, Katniss Everdean, is not chosen for the Games, her younger sister is. Katniss cannot bear to let this happen so she volunteers. The Capitol's fascination with the tributes leads to silly fashion shoots and chariot rides and the vapidity of celebrity culture up to the very evening before the Games, and then the tributes are released into a controlled location and forced to fight for their lives. Katniss manages to seem very powerful while not actually killing anybody. In the end, she and the other tribute from her District are the only ones left alive, and they both prepared to poison themselves with berries--which would leave no victors for the Games. The rules are changed for them, and they are both allowed to live.

In the second book, Catching Fire, the 75th anniversary Games have a different format, and the tributes are to be chosen from past victors. As the only female victor from District 12, Katniss is sent back to the arena. There is a Victory Tour, which gives the reader glimpses of all the Districts, as well as more strategy and backstory about the lives lead by previous victors. Collins gives Katniss the additional challenge of not only staying alive through the Games, but also coming to understand how the Games function in the political life of Panem. It's really pretty savvy plot construction, broadening the scope of the story and adding more complex world-building, while also not simply repeating the first book. Katniss has to survive again, and this time it requires different skills and even trusting others.

By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss has been rescued (abducted?) from the arena and flown by a rebel alliance to the mythical District 13. Of course, it's not just a myth, it's a real place that refused to surrender to the Capitol and threatened to use its nuclear capacity to destroy Panem. It was driven underground and cut off from the rest of the country, forced to provide all it's own needs. It is, conceptually, the Sparta to the Capitol's decadent Rome. Everyone is disciplined, rationed, conscripted to service the needs of the whole. There is little margin of any sort, all material goods are strictly inventoried and allocated sparingly. Katniss hates it. She is rarely allowed outside, she spends a lot of time passive-aggressively avoiding the obligations. This puts her in conflict with the leader of District 13, President Alma Coin.

This goes on for a very long time, as Katniss shifts the tiny distance between traumatized victim and bratty teen. Her partner in the Hunger Games, Peeta, was left behind in the Capitol, and she feels guilty for that. Gale, the boy she spent her time with back home, is slowing becoming militant in his opposition to the Capitol. Stuff happens with her family as well, as Prim is growing up but Katniss doesn't want to see it.

(Katniss is such an angsty martyr at this point, it would be funny if it weren't so dull.)

Eventually, a plan is developed to use her as the face of the rebellion, which means even more boring grooming sequences and photo shoots. Admittedly, I appreciate the fact that Collins is making a point of how much work goes into making someone camera ready and looking "naturally" beautiful--I do! Female beauty standards require a fair amount of work and attention, and Collins gives it to us at full volume. Katniss is also amazingly bad at acting, and the videos of her pretending to fight are risible.

Eventually, a plan is hatched that Katniss and her team--including camera operators and beauticians--will be taken to the Capitol where rebels are fighting a guerrilla style war. The plan is to drop her into areas that have already been secured, do some mock fighting, and then pull her out. Propaganda, pure and simple. What could go wrong?

Well, obviously, EVERYTHING could go wrong, and does. The team ends up watching atrocities and experiencing deaths, they find themselves in real battles, and the death toll grows. The President has booby trapped the Capitol with Games-like weapons, and the team ends up working their way through basements and apartments. At one point, they end up hidden in the basement of a former Games stylist for days, doing absolutely nothing while the war advances to a climactic moment. They join the assault on the President's palace, where Katniss witnesses the moral bankruptcy of the regime. A concrete enclosure/bunker has been erected in front of the palace, and filled with children. Any attempt at storming the gates will kill the kids. Then from somewhere a fighter jet strafes the kids--is it a rebel plane, or a double feint from the President? The rebels respond by sending in medics--and of course the first medic killed by the booby trapped kid enclosure is Prim.

Katniss is once again deeply traumatized, and also in the middle of things while not actually doing very much. She ends up inside the palace after it has been taken by the District 13 forces. President Snow is a captive--kept very nicely in a comfortable set of rooms, which offends her deeply. Strategy sessions are held, and Katniss has a seat at that table. A proposal is bruited about that a final Hunger Games be staged, using the children from the Capitol. And despite her experience of the horror, Katniss votes to hold them, to spread the pain around. It's a jarring choice, and not one well supported by the author.

Things keep happening off stage, and finally, Katniss is called upon to serve as President Snow's executioner. She stands on the balcony of the palace along side the new President Coin, and she has managed to discern that the new system is going to be a corrupt and horrible as the old one. Not sure what gives her this insight--perhaps she's just delusional at this point. In any event, she shoots the new president instead of the old one, but Snow obliges everybody by dying via cyanide capsule or something like it.

Then Katniss goes home to District 12, where Peeta comes too. The district had been bombed to the ground earlier, so almost no one is there, and in the end, Katniss marries Peeta because really, she's too tired to do anything else? This epilogue is weirdly tacked on, serving primarily as a declaration that Collins is done, done, DONE with this series and she's going to tie it all up so nobody can make her go back to it. After "10 or 15 years" Katniss caves in and has a couple of kids with Peeta, because she's pretty sure they won't be sucked up into a rebooted Hunger Games, and anyway, Peeta really wanted them.

Gale is given a "very important" job in District 2 and disappears from her life and the epilogue. Shippers--you have been told. No Gale/Katniss pairing will be allowed.

Kudos to Ms. Collins for tweaking the formula with each sequel, so they aren't quite the same story over and over again. On the other hand, it's clear that she was ready to be done, and did whatever she needed to to end the saga.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley--a Flavia de Luce Novel

I rated this 3 stars, although it might be a 3.5. 

First of all--what happens? The overarching pall of the series is lifted--we learn the fate of Flavia's mother Harriet. Harriet's absence has been of major importance to the family generally and to Flavia specifically. Flavia was so young when Harriet disappeared that she has no memories of her mother at all. Meanwhile, her older sisters have tormented her with this fact, alternatively accusing her of being the reason Harriet left, or claiming that she was adopted. In either case, Flavia feels the lack of her mother acutely, and she dreams of the possibility that Harriet will someday return.

More broadly, Haviland de Luce has mourned his lost wife for ten years, remaining remote and unapproachable, leaving his daughters to essentially raise themselves. The family estate is also in limbo, as Harriet's presumed death and lack of a will have created such a tax burden that the family lives basically in poverty. Harriet's absence makes the entire premise of the series possible. At the end of the previous book, the de Luces receive a telephone call, which Father reports "Your mother has been found."

The first five chapters of this book describe the preparations for her return--a special train, military escort, etc. etc. Which seems odd, until you realize that Harriet is, in fact, dead and it is her body being returned to Buckshaw. And, of course, that was exactly what you expected, except that you hoped otherwise. 

Harriet is also obviously more than just a "missing mum." The military honors, the security provided by the British Home Office, the special train, and Winston Churchill on the platform. Up until now (if I am recalling correctly), Harriet's disappearance has been treated as if it were the unfortunate result of an adventurous spirit who couldn't remain at home tending to children when there were mountains to climb and Tibet to explore. She was an aviatrix, an English Amelia Earhart, who simply never returned. Now, however, we are learning that she had an official role--and she disappeared while on a mission for England during WWII. This is not just a domestic tragedy, and the world beyond Bishop's Lacey and Buckshaw has entered the picture.

This coincides with a deeper focus on Flavia's character as well. Flavia is nearing her 12th birthday, and without trying, seems to be maturing. She has begun to see behind the surfaces of her family members and is beginning to show some real empathy. It's a welcome development--she remains fixedly eccentric as ever, but is somewhat less combative.

In developmental terms, her emotional intelligence is starting to catch up with her I.Q.

Regularly throughout the novel, she notices things about her family that had escaped her before. Watching her father navigate the funeral arrangements in his deep grief, she realizes that "the more he felt, the less he showed." He was not merely an absentee parent even while present--he was a complicated man dealing with enormous sadness. Flavia also stops to notice that her eldest sister Ophelia is quite beautiful, and she shares a hug with Daphne as they each find comfort in the other. 

Other family members arrive as well, including Haviland's sister Aunt Felicity, and Harriet's sister Lena, who also brings her young and precocious daughter Undine to Buckshaw. Undine is less a character in her own right than a reproduction of Flavia--young, bright, bored, and obnoxious. She exists almost entirely to show how Flavia has grown, since rather than recognize herself in the child, Flavia is annoyed by her. Instead of responding sympathetically, Flavia begins to adopt the tactics her sisters used against her, engaging in a battle of one-upmanship. And not always winning.

The book begins to reveal the backstory of Flavia's parents, both fighting in the Pacific, where Haviland was captured by the Japanese and subjected to the horrors of the POW camps. Harriet toured those prisons and the two managed to meet without giving themselves away. Harriet never made it home; Haviland did, a broken and grief-paralyzed shell. These are the stories that Flavia is hearing for the first time, expanding her world and changing her perception of her place in it.

It is no coincidence that this is the book where she flies in her mother's old Gipsy Moth plane as well. Bradley describes how the world looks different, and smaller, from the air, familiar and changed at the same time, without hammering the metaphor. Flavia's vision has expanded.

As a character study, this book is far more successful than I would have expected. The changes are not forced, and are scattered among the reliable standards of the series--her fascination with poison, battles with her sisters, extra-long descriptions of recondite chemical tests and facts.  

However, the book as a whole feels clumsily stitched together--there are set pieces that remain well written and engaging, but they fail to connect with each other either logically or emotionally. This is especially damaging to the mystery aspect of the book--too often the book drops narrative elements and fails to pick them up again, or fails to treat them consistently.

This most egregious example happens at the end of the novel, during the funeral service. Earlier, Flavia  found Harriet's oil skin wallet, which happened to contain her will. While running chemical tests on the wallet itself, Flavia found invisible writing that seems to spell "Lens Palace." Then, while sitting in church and gazing at a stained glass window of Samson and Delilah, Flavia notices that the gothic script under the window is hard to read--the M looks like a W, for example. With that, she realizes that "Lens Palace" is actually "Lena de Luce," and her aunt is the one who killed Harriet. 

The service then requires that she walk to the chancel, where she stumbles, and when she looks up after catching herself, she sees three police officers advancing on the murderer, who then bolts.

But we don't know why this is happening now. How did the police suddenly decide that Lena needed to be arrested? Flavia hasn't told them her thinking, nor have they seen the clues she has. The murderer hasn't done anything to give herself away, and the stumble is not a prearranged signal or anything. There is no reason why the police are acting at this particular point in the funeral service, rather than before or afterwards. Whatever logical method the police used to solve the mystery remains unexplained, while Flavia's solution is also not communicated to anybody either. So why does the murderer suddenly lose nerve and bolt? No reason is given, which feels like a cheat. I mean, Sherlock Holmes wouldn't solve a mystery, only to be told that the criminal has already been arrested for some unconnected matter. Like littering? 

Which is too bad, because while the series is certainly an exploration of Flavia's character growth, it is also a murder mystery series, and solving the murder needs to remain satisfying.

There is also a scene where Flavia walks out of her house (Buckshaw) and across the lawn to where two characters are working on an airplane. There is no reason why she goes at that particular time, and once she is there, she simply looks at them and then walks away. As far as I can tell, there is no reason for the whole scene. Why is it there? It doesn't amount to any sort of clue, it seems oddly out of character for Flavia to just walk out of the house at that moment for no reason.

There are a couple of other clunky matters as well. The first is the death of the man at the train station. As Harriet's coffin is being unloaded, a strange man in a long coat approaches Flavia, recognizing her as the spitting image of Harriet. He attempts to give her a warning: "Tell your father that the Gamekeeper is in trouble. The Nide is under…" something interrupts him, and then he is pushed beneath the train to his death. Flavia is the first to his side, and describes the sad sight of his arm above the platform, the golden hairs blowing in the breeze. 

So despite this chilling experience, and the clear invitation to investigate (who is the Gamekeeper? What is a Nide?) Flavia doesn't even think about the event much at all. I accept that she doesn't tell her father, allowing him to grieve without distraction for a while, but I find it very hard to believe that she doesn't even think about what it all might mean, or try to figure out who to interview who might have some information. She never even tries to figure out what the police might know about him. She just lets an obvious murder drop--this is not the Flavia we have known for the last five books.

Another oddity is her quest to revive her mother. Nuts, of course, her belief that she might be able to concoct a chemical mixture that would restore Harriet to life, but she takes it seriously, and Bradley devotes quite a large chunk of narrative to her quest. One chapter is spent detailing her research into the use of thiamine, based on some cryogenic experiments of her great uncle Tarquin, detailed in the notebooks in her chemistry lab. There is a short sequence where she learns a jujitsu move from her father's "man" Dogger: a blow that she believes will jolt a corpse back to life. There is another chapter spent trying to obtain the chemicals, first from the apothecary and then from the local doctor. The apothecary refuses her, but his reclusive sister (wife?) slips her the substance, claiming it is repayment of a debt to Harriet. The doctor happens to be carrying the other chemicals in his bag when he nearly hits Flavia at an intersection. It was a dosage for a patient who just died, so he simply hands it over.

These are almost suspiciously easy, and Flavia speculates that perhaps Harriet herself is assisting the project, supernaturally.

This is about four chapters of preparation, and doesn't include all the logistics about the family standing vigil with Harriet's coffin, what hours they are on duty, how Flavia manipulates Ophelia into switching shifts, and then how Flavia runs the line of mourners off. There is yet another chapter of Flavia opening the coffin, cutting through the inner zinc liner, and seeing her mother's face for the first time. (There is an explanation of how this is even possible after ten years, involving the body being originally preserved on the icy glacier, then packed in dry ice for transport and preservation.)

At this point, we have followed this plot for dozens and dozens of pages, with all its numerous steps and Flavia's confused motives--she would like to have the chance to have a mother, she would like to return Harriet to Haviland to ease his sadness, she would like to be a hero--this is a major component of the book. Sure, it's nuts to think that she could actually succeed, but the quest has become narratively hefty.

Which makes the denouement of it so disappointing. Just as she has looked at her mother's face, there is a knock on the door of the room, and (after some swift tidying up of the area) Flavia opens the door to find her father and two Home Office officials who insist on taking over the area and ejecting the family.

And Flavia doesn't even seem bothered in the least. This whole plan, the whole emotional need for a mother, all the work she has put into trying to revive her mother--gets foiled by the intrusion of a couple of goons, and Flavia simply walks away. She doesn't try again later, she doesn't try to snoop on the officers to find out why they are there (and we never learn it either)--in fact its only after quite a few scenes that she mentions that she lost her chance to try. And it's treated off-handedly, shrugged off as a missed chance.

I just can't believe that. Flavia wouldn't ignore the murder of a man on the train platform, especially after he gave her such a cryptic warning. Nor would she just walk away from the kind of major project that revivifying Harriet became. Maybe--just maybe--she would give up if she doubted it was possible--but the book doesn't make that case either. 

These feel like authorial slips to me, rather than evidence of Flavia maturing. It's as though Bradley crafted the chunks of the story, but ran out of time to link them together convincingly. Which is frustrating, because the elements of greatness are there! Flavia is a fascinating character, and the mystery is gripping.