Alas, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is not any more enjoyable on a re-read than it was the first time around. And I have to disagree with my prior self: the pre-Hogwarts section is objectively long but doesn't feel nearly as slow as the Hogwarts section proper, probably because it's more varied and eventful. (There is also less CAPSLOCK HARRY than I remembered, but what there is, is still too much.)
I'm not sure that I fully realized that this book runs on an idiot plot on a different level than the prior one, but it made me want to shake all the characters silly—even sillier—until they agreed to talk to each other, already! I can't nitpick any closer than that, because I was skimming as I'd given myself permission to.
Well, it's done, and now I've only one left before my memory-refreshing project is complete.
I see that Emma Bull's first solo novel in years, Territory, is out. I read an ARC months ago, the kind gift of friends. However, for reasons that will become clear shortly, I wanted to re-read it before writing it up, and I don't have time now. Normally I'd just wait, but there's a very important thing people need to know about Territory before they read it. So, as a public service, here it is:
There will be a sequel.
I read the book without knowing that, and I assure you that it was a deeply peculiar experience. Don't have that happen to you! It's a very good book and it would be a bad distraction to get to the end and say, "What, is that it?" It's not.
Territory is a secret history of Tombstone, Arizona, starting in 1881. There's the Earps and Doc Holliday and John Ringo and Ike Clanton, but there's also Mildred Benjamin, a widow who works for a newspaper, and Jesse Fox, who keeps being pushed to acknowledge his magic by his friend Chow Lung, a physician from China. Much happens (she says, in the airy manner of someone who read the book months ago), and an arc is concluded satisfactorily without cliffhangers. But, as I said, a sequel is forthcoming.
If you like Emma Bull's prior books, I see no reason why you shouldn't like this one. And if you're interested in Tombstone and don't object to secret histories, it's certainly worth a look. I only wish I had time to re-read it now to give it the more thorough and detailed review it deserves.
In the Hugo Nominees for Best Novella, I find myself voting for the same author, but this time not by default. As before, my tentative ranking and one-line comments are below, with spoilery commentary behind the cut.
- Robert Reed, "A Billion Eves" (online at Asimov's): a good concept well-executed.
- Robert Charles Wilson, "Julian: A Christmas Story" (online as 500KB PDF): a good concept for a prologue well-executed.
- William Shunn, "Inclination" (online at Asimov's): neither this nor the next were surprising, but this one is slightly better in the ancillary details.
- Paul Melko, "The Walls of the Universe" (online at Asimov's): see above.
- Michael Swanwick, "Lord Weary's Empire" (online at Asimov's): an evocative beginning, an incomprehensible middle, and a terrible end.
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Over the weekend, I finished my pre-book-7 re-read with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, or, as I found myself thinking of it, Harry Potter and the Belated Infodump. It looks a little worse on a re-read, now that I'm past the relief that it's not another Order of the Phoenix, and I continue to have concerns about whether the conclusion will be satisfying.
This principally stems from my feeling that the books are weakest when it comes to the mythic, and I can't see how the ending can be other than mythic. Since the first book, there's been a theme about the power of love, which could in theory work, but here, well, I can't even write the phrase without rolling my eyes. There was no improvement on that front in this book—but I did find a small ray of hope in the direction taken with regard to fate and prophecy and predestination.
Here I'm obligated to note that I'm still worried that the broad critiques of Wizarding society will get lost in the plot to come. The opening of this book was interesting in that regard, as the first return to an omniscient viewpoint since book one. (Yes, there's the fourth book's opening, but that gets fudged as a dream. (Rowling's never been very concerned about strict POV limitations—consider the Pensieve scenes.)) Unfortunately, the return to school muffles the urgency in that wider view, a tension that's been recurring throughout the series, and one of the reasons that I was really pleased by the ending of this book.
(The opening of this book is also interesting for chapter 2, the wisdom of which seems likely to be debated hotly for years.)
But this made me realize, on this re-read, just how much plot is to come in the last book, even by the narrowest expectations. I've criticized prior books for dragging the plot out to fit the school year. This time I'm worried about the reverse, that there'll be too much to fit easily and things will be slighted. (A book that's nothing more than Harry Potter and the Quest for the Plot Tokens [*] will not satisfy.) Especially since this book shows signs of doing just that: there are a couple of matters that should have continued to be problems, but are very clumsily dropped—so clumsily, in fact, that I'm now more inclined to believe that some things have been set up from the start, because of the contrast. And I particularly worry about plot holes in quick-wrap-this-up situations.
(One that I'm oddly afraid of is that Rowling can't count. For very spoilery reasons why, see this old LJ post.)
Two other notes: the "Half-Blood Prince" subplot in this book still feels kind of forced, for all that I can infer a couple of reasons for it to be there. And everything adolescently-hormonal in this book is awful, and I say that as someone who was not bothered by the portrayal of Harry and Cho.
On the whole, as I said two years ago, I am more excited about the series than I had been after this book and the possibilities its ending opens up. The re-read has helped me get a better handle on my hopes, expectations, and fears. While I don't have it in me to get too emotionally invested after Stephen King ripped out my heart and stomped on it, I am looking forward to the last book.
[*] I find myself wanting to do parody titles for all the books, now, but nothing's leaping to mind for the first three. The others are:
4. Harry Potter and the Idiot Plot
5. Harry Potter and the TEENAGE ANGST
6. Harry Potter and the Belated Infodump
7. Harry Potter and the Quest for the Plot Tokens
David Langford's The End of Harry Potter? was a freebie from Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Tor, the book's U.S. publishers. After I finished my re-read, I gave it a skim to see what Langford spotted that I missed.
This would actually be a good way to brush up on the series if you couldn't or didn't want to re-read. Langford neatly and concisely pulls out themes, techniques, references, and patterns, giving the reader an idea of what might be—or ought to be—significant in the last book. And though much of the content was familiar, there were still a few things that I hadn't picked up on (for instance, Langford cites a passing comment from Dumbledore in Chapter 37 of OotP, and suddenly I am much less concerned about Rowling being able to count). If you're looking for a quick, well-grounded refresher, give this a try.
Sarah Monette's novel The Mirador (forthcoming, August 7th; I read an ARC) is a sequel to Mélusine and The Virtu, but differs in some important ways from that duology.
The most obvious difference is the inclusion of a third first-person point of view, that of Mehitabel Parr. Introduced in The Virtu, she is almost immediately revealed as an unwilling spy for the Bastion, the Mirador's bitter enemy. I consider Mehitabel's POV an excellent addition: she's smart and sharp and provides a useful additional perspective on Mélusine society (particularly the Teverii, two-thirds of whom acquire a welcome though perhaps belated depth as a result).
Also, of course, Mehitabel provides plot: she's been reactivated as a spy because the Bastion is preparing for . . . something. And there is another difference: the nature of the plot. In the first duology, the nature of the plot was apparent from early on: there's a broken Virtu and an insane Felix; can they can be fixed? On the other hand, in The Mirador, the ultimate direction or goal of events is not immediately apparent. Mehitabel discovers that the Bastion is planning something, but does not know what. Mildmay attempts to shed his obsession with a dead woman by investigating her death, and finds himself among those of uncertain motive. And Felix fears the return of his former master, but does not know whether it is possible. As a result, the book's pace again felt slightly leisurely to me, this time as I waited for the mysteries' solutions to be revealed.
The Mirador's plot further differs in the amount of closure. Though it also opens a duology, which I suspect will be U-shaped, it stands alone much better than Mélusine does. That is, while the direction of the plot may not be immediately clear, by the end, it's either wrapped up or pointed in a definite direction. [*] There is one possible exception, a matter that could be either plot or decoration. If it turns out to be plot, I'm not sure what the long-term consequences will be, but I anticipate there being plenty of time for that.
[*] A more subtle way in which this book has greater closure is how small matters from the beginning are referenced but inverted at the end. I thought this was awfully cool, though perhaps I'm just overly-proud of myself for noticing.
I think this greater closure will probably make the wait for the concluding book, Summerdown, more bearable. Whether it makes The Mirador a better place to start reading is less clear. On one hand, I wasn't reading with an eye toward whether the book would be comprehensible to a new reader. On the other, The Mirador starts with Felix and Mildmay in pretty bad emotional shape—not as bad as Felix's madness at the beginning of Mélusine, but still bad in a way that may not grab an unfamiliar reader. If someone tries it, I hope they'll report back on their experience, but I won't go so far as to recommend it.
Speaking of characters being in bad emotional shape, Mildmay fans should be pleased to hear that he's much more active in dealing with his angst in this book and accomplishes a great deal. (I was very pleased.) And he's still a great narrator. As a small example, I was tickled pink by his comment, about Robert of Hermione, that "Felix hated him like there wasn't nobody else around who'd do it right"; it just seems so apt.
Unfortunately I found another central character, Gideon, to be less vivid than he should be, which lessened some of the book's force. I'm not sure why this was the case. The limitations of first-person point-of-view mean that some of his motivations are mysteries, but there's a good deal of other detail about his personality—yet I had to flip back through the series to remind myself that it existed, because it just doesn't seem to stick. Whether the lack is in me or the book, it's not ideal.
Other than Gideon, though, and with the necessary caveats about reading the first half of a duology, I thought The Mirador was an excellent follow-up to Mélusine and The Virtu. I don't feel authoritative enough to say that it's objectively better than its predecessors—though I will assert that it's not worse—but I can say that I liked it even more, and I'm greatly anticipating Summerdown.
I expected to dislike Peter Watts' Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight (also available online) for its tone. I mean, not only have I seen James Nicoll's comment "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts," [*] there's the dedication to this very book:
If we're not in pain, we're not alive.
Which makes my hands twitch as though I'm going to throw the book across the room every time I lay eyes on it (see also Chad's review). However, I ended up disliking it for a different reason: I don't know what it's saying. Which turns out to be a prerequisite to having an emotional reaction to it, whether finding it suicidally depressing or an almost comical piling-on of WOE.
[*] Which Watts basically flaunts on the front page of his website, to give him that much credit.
Here's the setup: in 2082, thousands of probes—evenly spaced around the Earth—fall from the sky, and as they burn up, they send a message—somewhere. By chance, a research instrument catches the edge of the signal, and a potential first contact team is sent out. It consists of an AI ship and five beings. The website blurb (slightly modified from the jacket copy) is pretty cool, so I'll excerpt it as a pre-made summary:
Who you do send to meet the alien when the alien doesn't want to meet?
You send a linguist with multiple personalities carved surgically into her brain. You send a biologist so radically interfaced with machinery that he sees x-rays and tastes ultra-sound, so compromised by grafts and splices he no longer feels his own flesh. You send a pacifist warrior whose career-defining moment was an act of treason. You send a monster to command them all, an extinct hominid predator once called vampire, recalled from the grave with the voodoo of recombinant genetics and the blood of sociopaths. And you send a synthesist — an informational topologist with half his mind gone — as an interface between here and there, a conduit through which the Dead Center might hope to understand the Bleeding Edge.
The book is retroactively narrated by the synthesist, Siri Keeton, whose half-brain resulted from surgery to treat severe epilepsy. Since then, Siri views all human behavior as the result of observable and reproducible algorithms. Since he's tapped for the mission because he's the best synthesist out there, his lack of empathy apparently doesn't impede the process of transforming advanced knowledge into something non-experts can understand—without understanding it himself. I'm having a suspension of disbelief problem right there, but it's questioned once by Siri himself and isn't central to the book, so I'll let it pass.
(Whether Siri is actually good at synthesis is something that the book's readers are, by definition, unable to tell, since all we've got is his version. But it's clear that Siri is not as good as he tells himself when it comes to reading people's emotions. This leads to painful scenes like him telling his girlfriend, right before sex, a little fable about how men and women are "evolutionary enemies," complete with metonymic Sperm and Egg. (I wish I were making this up.) In fact, that entire relationship is painful. At their first meeting, the woman decides to rename him and offers to tweak his brain so he'll grow out of being "dark" (personality manipulation is her former profession, now mostly automated). She keeps trying to change him, she cries all the time because he won't be honest and emotionally open with her, she ends up leaving because she's used up all her emotional effort and he doesn't care . . . And then she dies horribly so he can be Haunted By Guilt. (Not a spoiler.) It's all dreadfully stereotypical and the net effect is fingernails on the blackboard of my mind.)
The book is deliberately designed around questions of consciousness, intelligence, humanity, and evolution, from the composition of the crew down to the prose, which is saturated with theoretical exposition. [**] And here's my fundamental problem. This all leads to a very definite—emphatic, even—answer to the questions. About which I'm indifferent, but never mind that for the moment. There's an answer.
Except there's this prior series of events, which looks inconsistent with that answer. To the extent that I understand them, which I think I do, enough for these purposes—what baffles me is the motivations for the events, not the results. So, either the book is inconsistent; the book is consistent but isn't clear about reconciling the apparent inconsistency; or the book is clear but I'm too stupid to understand it. Being confident in my intellectual abilities, I'm naturally leaning towards the first two, neither of which are good.
(Yes, I know what response I'm inviting. Go ahead, prove it. The events in question are, briefly, (ROT13 spoilers) fnenfgv orngvat gur fuvg bhg bs fvev fb ur pna or na rzcnguvp uhzna naq haqrefgnaq gur nyvraf, juvpu npghnyyl jbexf.)
[**] If that's your thing, there are appendices with over a hundred references.
Even if I understood this book, I suspect it wouldn't work for me, because as I said, I'm not really interested in the question it's asking. As a result of that detachment, I can see all the ways the book has been deliberately constructed to get to its answer, or to be uncharitable, all the ways it's stacked the deck. In short, I neither liked it nor was impressed by it, again finding myself in the apparent minority (and regretting this whole Worldcon-homework thing).
Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge (also online), is the last novel for my Worldcon homework and an unexpected pleasure. When it came out, I found myself with an aversion to near-future SF, and the consensus seemed to be that it was weak, so I didn't get around to reading it until now. It's certainly lighter than Vinge's last novel, the brilliant A Deepness in the Sky, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and think it's successful on its own terms, which I'll generalize as a relatively intimate thriller backed by detailed science-fictional worldbuilding.
The book opens with a somewhat risky narrative strategy. In the prologue, an intelligence agent discovers that someone has run a very advanced trial of mass mind control technology. However, for political reasons, the resulting investigation has to be run through a deniable agent known as Rabbit, who's introduced in chapter one. These sections are great: engaging, fast, high-stakes, and twisty.
And then the next chapter opens in the point of view of Robert Gu, who is recovering from Alzheimer's thanks to a new treatment. [*] The next several chapters are an up-close look at Robert, who is an asshole, with the interesting mind control plot pushed to the background. (My notes at this point read, "La la la, when is something going to happen?") Fortunately, the pace started picking up just before my frustration level got too high. The resulting plot is complex but not, to me, difficult, and eventually culminates in a fine long action-packed sequence.
[*] The title is the name of his former retirement community: "He'd never been able to decide if that spelling was the work of an everyday illiterate or someone who really understood the place."
Though arguably there's as much at stake, the book never is as dark as Deepness. Indeed, in some places it skates close to goofiness. There's a subplot about libraries digitizing their books by shredding them that strained my disbelief a bit, and I found the big confrontation at the library to be simulataneously corny and cool. Contributing to the lighter tone are a number of cultural references, which didn't bother me, but your tolerance may vary. (The exception was in the fourth paragraph of chapter 30, to which I said, "Okay, that's just too cutesy.") But even when it's light, the worldbuilding is still thorough, pervasive, but not overwhelming. I was impressed and entertained.
After the slow opening, I thought the book did a good job of balancing characters with worldbuilding and plot. Robert eventually improves (which I imagine you guessed from the fact that I liked the book), and the characters have a nice web of interconnected relationships. I'll note here that the majority of characters are not of European descent, at least not predominantly, though I don't recall seeing any characters described as of African descent. However, race and gender are both treated as though they'd quietly become irrelevant, which I suppose stretches my disbelief neither more nor less than this bit of background worldbuilding:
In the twentieth century, only a couple of nations had the power to destroy the world. The human race survived, mostly by good luck. At the turn of the century, a time was in view when dozens of countries could destroy civilization. But by then, the Great Powers had a certain amount of good sense. No nation state could be nuts enough to blow up the world — and the few barbaric exceptions were Dealt With, if necessary with methods that left land aglow in the dark. By the Teens, mass death technology was accessible to regional and racial hate groups. Through a succession of happy miracles . . . the legitimate grievances of disaffected peoples were truly addressed.
Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it [which is where the plot comes in].
"Happy miracles," indeed.
Finally, this is often described as a Singularity novel, which is both accurate and misleading. The Singularity is an element of the book, but not its focus—I suspect it would be entirely possible to read the book without even noticing it's there. If your default association with "Singularity novel" is "the Rapture for nerds," don't let the description put you off, because it's not applicable here.
I'm actually glad I waited this long to read this book, because if I went into it hoping for another Deepness, I'd have been disappointed. Now, I just hoped it wouldn't suck, and it more than surpassed that. (I don't think I'm overvaluing it in relief, either, though I admit that things can change in hindsight.) It's good to end my Worldcon novel reading on a high note.
The last of my Worldcon homework, the Hugo Nominees for Best Novelette. This is a difficult category for me, because right now my categories are:
Somewhere near the top, but not enthusiastically:
- Michael Flynn, "Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth" (online at Asimov's): largely competent slices-of-life about a disaster.
Somewhere near the bottom:
- Paolo Bacigalupi, "Yellow Card Man" (online at Asimov's): caused me to want to scrub my brain out with a wire brush.
- Ian McDonald, "The Djinn's Wife" (online at Asimov's): a story in which characters do stupid things that conform to gender stereotypes and that are apparently supposed to demonstrate some larger point.
- Mike Resnick, "All the Things You Are" (online at Jim Baen's Universe): another fucking male wish-fulfillment story.
Somewhere, I'm not sure where, because I need to think about this some more:
- Geoff Ryman, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" (online as PDF): if this were secondary-world fantasy, it would probably get my vote. But the way it approaches the real world makes me very uncomfortable.
More behind the cut. Lots of spoilers this time.
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When it's all said and done, you know what Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ultimately is?
It's a Harry Potter book.
Which is to say, it has roughly the same strengths and weaknesses as the other Harry Potter books. It is neither a transcendent improvement over the previous six, nor the worst of the lot. In a couple of places it impressed me, in a couple more it disappointed me, but on the whole it was about what I expected.
The book starts fast and dark [*], opening like the sixth with an omniscient opening and then a very brief time at the Dursleys. There's some action and some set-up, and then Harry is jolted into the plot promised at the end of the last book (in a bit that, though small, I found surprisingly ominous and effective).
[*] After, if this can be counted as part of the book, the best jacket copy ever: "We now present the seventh and final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter." That's it. (Anyone got the UK editions? What are their copy?) Also epigraphs of great significance, a first for a Harry Potter book.
Except that what follows isn't so much plot, as action substituted for plot. Granted, I didn't notice this until after I'd finished the book, because that action appears on a regular basis (unlike the long middles of the prior two books) and is created by the bad guys being a lot less stupid than usual. However, those not reading it in one gulp may well have trouble getting through this. I'm disappointed, though not surprised, that the year structure continues to influence the pacing. The wider view of events is similarly intermittent, making me regret once again Rowling's choice to stick with Harry's point of view except for the occasional opening.
Two-thirds of the way through, the plot coalesces and starts running straight downhill (to mix metaphors). I think that, on the whole [**], this section accomplishes what it sets out to do. It contains a scene that made me sniffle, against my expectations, and though the symbolism ends up being somewhat mixed, I can see the reasoning (and mixed symbolism/themes are also not new to the series, as was discussed on LJ about Chamber of Secrets). I wish that the ending had set out to do more, but again, I'm not surprised.
[**] The exceptions are a very small side-plot, which is handled so badly that I cannot fathom its point, and the epilogue, which has more things wrong with it than this footnote could contain even if they weren't spoilers—about all I can say for it is that it's not The Dark Tower, which is damning with faint praise indeed. It is entirely skippable and indeed I would recommend it.
I was surprised by some of the side details of the plot, but not in its main direction. This is not a criticism, because I suspect that the conclusion of any intensely-scrutinized series should be partly predictable if the author has been playing fair. And there is an ending, and it is consistent with the series to date—which is why I said, ultimately, the important thing is that this is a Harry Potter book. Unless your opinion of the series is tied closely to particular characters (also not a criticism), it's not likely to be changed much by this book. I thought the series was good at the details, less good at the bigger picture, and very good at pulling me through the page until I had to make a concerted effort to come back out and start analyzing. I read the book straight through, and then wandered around in a daze for most of a day, surfacing slowly from the, well, spell it had cast on me. I may sound lukewarm now, but I won't regret the time I've spent on the series, if for nothing else than that initial thorough transporting.
A spoiler post follows.
This post contains book-destroying SPOILERS for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Here's the non-spoiler post if you got here by mistake.
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For the curious, below the cut is my Hugo and Campbell ballot.
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I'd previously decided not to buy Bill Willingham's Fables. Sons of Empire, volume 9 of Fables, made me decide to not even get it out of the library. I am no longer Willingham's audience—actually, I haven't been for a couple of volumes, but I can no longer ignore it.
The last straw for me was the title arc, which boils down to a glamorization of not just war, but violent conquest taken to the extreme. It made my skin crawl. (The continued stereotyping of Arabian Fables, in the last episode, was just a bonus, as it were.)
All hail libraries, because I'd be really bitter if I'd spent money on this series to have it turn out this way.
A couple of administrative notes:
First, I'll be without Internet access until Monday, August 6. To reduce the amount of spam I come back to, I've shut down comments on all entries before 2007.
Second, I apologize for the recent excess of posts showing as updated on feeds. I've made a change that might address that, but unfortunately making the change will blurt all the old posts back out. (There doesn't seem to be a way to have only new posts published to the feed.)
Third, now would be a great time for you to tell me about the feature you'd like to see on the site, or the thing that hasn't been working but you've never got around to mentioning it, or the thing you find stupid and distracting.