Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Reviews: FRAGILE THINGS and THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND

Mmmmm.... sleepy today, as a result of a late night last night and an early meeting this morning. It's probably too late for any of you to read this post at work today, but I've got the time to get it off my chest and leave time for links on Monday.

It's been ages since there were any book reviews around here -- anyone ever notice that the more involved one gets in the book industry the less time there seems to be to read? Actually, I think that's a fallacy, but I have seemed to be in the reading doldrums until recently. What I have had the time and energy to read has been fairly escapist fare, though not stupid by any stretch. I was tempted to describe my January books as "diet reading" -- a take on the "light reading" idea -- but really, it's more like candy reading, or junk food reading -- though it's not junk, just on the more fun side than the intellectual side -- oh, the whole food metaphor breaks down. Just read the reviews.

FRAGILE THINGS
by Neil Gaiman
(William Morrow, October 2006)
I'm a fan of Neil Gaiman based on his great, great fantasy novels NEVERWHERE, AMERICAN GODS and its recent sequel (of sorts) ANANSI BOYS, though oddly I've never read his most famous work, the epic and groundbreaking SANDMAN graphic novels. I'd been saving this short story collection like a box of chocolates for my Christmas vacation reading, but it took me a little longer to get to it, and when I did I have to admit I was at first disappointed. Perhaps this is because I'm such a fan of Gaiman in the longer novel format, where there's time to develop the resonances of his mythical allusions, and the running gags are more effective. In any case, I thought this collection was a bit hit-and-miss. Gaiman sometimes styles himself a bit of a fantasy rock star (check out his author photos with the leather jacket and brooding expression), and sometimes it seems as though he's bought his fans' idea that he can do no wrong. In particular, the "poems" included in this collections were a little cringe-inducing, and the short pieces (including the liner notes he wrote for an actual "rock star") and several of the stories seemed to set up a spooky premise, then abandon it in despair. The introduction, while illuminating the circumstances of writing several of the pieces and acknowledging their allusions, were a bit too much about the awards and accolades each story had received. The collection started to seem like an overindulgent double album, and I began to be a bit annoyed.

But just as I was about to give up in despair myself, tossing the book aside with the impression that ol' Neil just hasn't got it anymore, a couple of the stories totally wowed me. The alternate history "A Study in Emerald" puts Holmes and Watson in the service of a British royalty far different from the one you remember; the language is completely Doyle-esque, and it takes a while to figure out the catch. "Sunbird," which was included in a great McSweeney's anthology, is a hilarious and delicious cautionary tale for foodies. "The Monarch of the Glen" picks up the story of Shadow, the hero of AMERICAN GODS, as he encounters another set of myths in a remoter corner of Scotland and tries to figure out who's side he's on; it's one of the longer pieces, and showcases Gaiman's skill at working ancient figures into the contemporary landscape.

But my favorite was probably the early story "Forbidden Brides ofthe Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" -- how could you resist a title like that? Its hero is a writer of "realist" fiction who happens to live in a fantastical villa where epic, tragic, and supernatural events occur with monotonous regularity, who eventually embraces his desire to write "fantasy fiction" about relationships in suburban kitchens belonging to insurance adjusters. It's a cheeky answer to critics of "escapist" fiction, honoring the writer's right to invent worlds that he or she can love. At his best, Gaiman creates such worlds with incomparable skills and amazing creativity. Despite its flaws, this collection is worth reading for glimpses of those worlds.


THE BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY, BOOK ONE: THE AMULET OF SAMARKAND
by Jonathan Stroud
(Hyperion, 2004)
So there I am in Powell's City of Books, possibly the biggest independent bookstore in America, and what do I purchase? Two t-shirts and a Young Adult fantasy novel in remainder. I would be embarassed, except that 1) the t-shirts are supercute (look for a Fashion Issue of the blog soon), 2) any non-remaindered book I could get at my own bookstore and at a discount, so a remainder is really quite a logical purchase, and 3) this book was recommended to me in glowing terms by none other than Bookseller Chick. She tells me that she's actually sold it to far more adults than kids, and I've added it to my own pantheon of delectably smart and suspenseful fantasy that shouldn't be left entirely to the under-21 set.

You've probably heard of this writer and his trilogy: it's alternate England again, where magicians are the ruling class and perform feats of magic by carefully summoning demons, or djinni, from the Other Place. The djinni, of varying degrees of supernatural power, are either evil or just annoyed at being slaves, depending on whom you believe, and the magicians are constantly scheming against each for power and advantage, so it's a dangerous world. We're narrated through it primarily by Bartimaeus himself, an ancient djinn who's been called up by a precocious underage magician named Nathaniel who has revenge on his mind.

What I found interesting about this book is that while you're rooting for B. and N. to triumph (and there's lots of suspense about whether they will), neither are exactly morally admirable, and neither is anyone else. Nathaniel has a sense of fair play which is apparently quite unusual among magicians (no one's sure where he got it from), but he's primarily a punk kid hoping to punish his enemies, and he's also an insufferable classist snob about "commoners." (The class struggle is a theme I suspect continues to grow in the following books, and I thought magic as a metaphor for inherited class privilege was an interesting and effective one.) Bartimaeus, while bound by a series of spells to serve Nathaniel, is a ruthless and conniving old-world sort of creature, though leavened by a wit that makes him seem something like the Artful Dodger or Charlie Croeker from THE ITALIAN JOB (he could have invented the Self Preservation Society). I'm looking forward to reading the following volumes to find out whether these self-serving heroes go through some kind of moral maturation, or whether the amoral nature of their world means they are heroes simply by virtue of being the novel's protagonists (and not quite as bad as some other people).

In any case, Stroud's writing is clever and fast-paced (more in a Dickens sort of way than a Dan Brown sort of way), and he wisely never spends so much time explaining the practicalities of the magic that he forgets his characters. Much of the explication is told through Bartimaeus' slightly sneering footnotes, which makes it funnier and easier to absorb. I tore through this one in a couple of days, relieved to have something that truly made me look forward to the subway ride for a few minutes of reading time. It was followed by a couple of other winners, but I'll save them for next review post.

Question to the readership: how do YOU describe the opposite of heavy reading? Is there a kind of non-judgemental language about this kind of genre fiction? Or should we just admit that it's a guilty pleasure?