Reading: Gemini

Sep. 20th, 2017 09:18 pm
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In the final book in Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series, Nicholas de Fleury returns to Scotland to try to make amends for the damage caused by his earlier actions and to safeguard his family from the enemies who have tried to kill both him and them so many times. For a while, I thought that Gemini was going to be a bit of an anticlimax to the series; several plot threads were resolved at the end of Caprice and Rondo, and Gemini is almost entirely set in Scotland, lacking the exotic locations of the earlier books. Nicholas has also changed and grown, and in Gemini is tackling the task of learning to care for people, and not just for the outcomes of his schemes. However, after a slow start, the novel gathers pace and the psychological drama is more than a match for the drama of any of Dunnett's other novels; there were just as many twists and edge-of-the-seat moments, and I found it just as hard to put down. It's a fitting end to the series, and like the ending of Checkmate leaves me wanting to go back and re-read key moments from earlier in the series in the light of the final revelations.

Fittingly, having started reading The Game of Kings on my 40th-birthday trip to Scotland, because I wanted to read something set in Scotland while I was there, I read Gemini while on holiday in Scotland once again. Three and a bit years, 14 books, at least 7,000 pages and an amazing sweep of European and Middle Eastern history in the early modern and late Middle Ages later, I can safely say that it has been one of the most intense reading experiences I've ever had. I can't actually remember who it was who made Dunnett sound intriguing enough for me to give her a try (I suspect it may have been a gestalt entity of friends and acquaintances), but it's been incredible, and in many ways I'm sorry to have come to the end. (I do still have King Hereafter to read, and will probably give the Johnson Johnson novels a try at least, but neither is going to be the same.)

Reading: The Shortest Way to Hades

Sep. 16th, 2017 10:08 am
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The Shortest Way to Hades is the second of Sarah Caudwell's Hilary Tamar novels, and is very similar to the first; Hilary, Professor of Legal History at Oxford, is called in by the junior members of the barristers' chambers at 62 New Square to investigate the death of a young woman who was recently involved in a variation of trusts case in which all of them represented various parties, and which they feel was suspicious. Like the first novel, it's entertaining and contains some lovely comic scenes; I particularly enjoyed the account of how Selena, on finding herself present at an orgy, decides that her preferred pleasure is in fact reading the copy of Pride and Prejudice she happened to have in her bag (a woman after my own heart!), and, having an Oxford background, I also very much liked Hilary's justification for not taking part in examining, which was an absolutely pitch-perfect example of the Oxford don's refusal to carry out a disagreeable task couched as a favour to absolutely everyone else. Meanwhile, the mystery was well enough plotted that I didn't come anywhere close to suspecting the real murderer until the final reveal, which is all you can really ask of a mystery, after all.

I think I enjoyed Thus Was Adonis Murdered more, but I'm not sure whether that's because the second book is so similar that I knew exactly what I was going to be getting and there wasn't the pleasure of discovering something new, or if I simply wasn't quite in the right mood for it; I certainly think it's just as good a book.

Reading: The Mark of the Horse Lord

Sep. 12th, 2017 07:07 pm
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Reading Gwyneth Jones put me in mind of Rosemary Sutcliff, and as I'm off to Argyll on holiday soon I thought I would re-read The Mark of the Horse Lord, which is set in Argyll. Unlike most of Sutcliff's novels set in Roman Britain, Phaedrus, the protagonist of The Mark of the Horse Lord, isn't a Roman soldier; instead, he's a half-British ex-gladiator, son of a Greek wine merchant and a slave woman, who lived his whole life as a slave until being freed after winning a fight in the arena. By coincidence, he discovers that he is the exact double of Midir, the exiled prince of the Dalriad tribe, and is persuaded to impersonate Midir and travel beyond the northern boundary of the Empire to lead a rebellion and win back the kingdom of the Dalriads from Queen Liadhan, who has seized the throne and imposed the old matrilineal rule of the Earth-Mother in place of the patrilineal worship of the Sun-God. The plot is not dissimilar to The Prisoner of Zenda, really, as Phaedrus tries to take over another man's life and relationships and learn how to be a king.

This isn't my favorite Sutcliff; Phaedrus is a less sympathetic protagonist than the various members of the family in the Dolphin Ring saga, hardened by the years in the arena as he is, although he does become more sympathetic as the story goes on. I also don't find the society of the Dalriads, beyond the frontiers of the Empire, as interesting as the Roman society depicted in the books set inside the Empire, and, revisiting it now, I also feel that the conflict between the matrilineal and patrilineal societies is probably more nuanced than the book really suggests, and I wish we had got to see Liadhan's point of view as well as Phaedrus's.

Reading: Rainbow Bridge

Sep. 10th, 2017 05:16 pm
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Rainbow Bridge is the fifth and more or less final novel in the sequence Gwyneth Jones began with Bold As Love (there is a sixth book set in the same universe, published several years later, but that appears to be a YA novel with a different main character, rather than part of the main continuity). It begins more or less where the fourth left off, in a near-future, post-oil England which has just been invaded and is under military occupation, and sees Ax, Fiorinda and Sage (Jones's near-future rockstar Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot) playing a complicated game, having to work with the invaders to try to prevent further loss of life and manipulate the global political civilisation to give the world the best possible chance of surviving the coming Dark Age.

It's taken me over a decade to finish this series, despite loving the first two; it took me a while to get round to obtaining a copy of the third, and then I wasn't reading much, because citalopram killed my ability to become absorbed in a narrative, and in any case I was scared to try to face the darkness of Jones's post-catastrophe near-future. I only returned to it after re-reading The Once and Future King left me thinking that the tragedy of the Arthur story could have been avoided if only someone had told them about poly, and I remembered that that's exactly what Jones does here.

Despite reading it so slowly, I have liked the series a lot; the narrative is odd, disjointed in places, and the structure of the novels is somewhat unconventional, veering between affairs of state and the trio's polywobbles, with parts of the political action taking place offstage and merely reported in a way that would drive the advocates of show-don't-tell as an unbreakable rule of writing round the bend, but somehow it works for me. I like the characters, too, even if I have found myself wanting to smack all of the central trio with codfish at multiple points throughout the series. And actually, like Rosemary Sutcliff's novels of post-Roman Britain, which are an obvious influence on Jones (there is a chapter in Rainbow Bridge entitled 'The Lantern Bearers', and a section called 'The Shield Ring'), while the future of these novels is dark and scary and beset with difficulties, it's not a hopeless future; what matters, mostly, is love and loyalty and being able to be flexible in some things while absolutely inflexible in others, and ultimately, it's quite a hopeful book, and ends with Jones's three heroes finally able to settle down in peaceful obscurity, away from the public eye.

Reading: Desolation Island

Sep. 9th, 2017 11:10 am
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After finding The Mauritius Command rather sombre and focused more on the mechanics of the campaign than on the characters, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed Desolation Island much more. After some time working for the Navy ashore, Jack Aubrey is given command of the Leopard with orders to take her to Botany Bay and a cargo of convicts, including a spy who Stephen Maturin has been given the task of covertly obtaining information from. As neither Jack nor Stephen has been entirely thriving on land (Jack's fair and trusting nature makes him an easy mark for dodgy tradesmen and card-sharps, while Stephen has been taking more and more laundanam in an attempt to ease his broken heart) this voyage is a good thing for both of them, but after a promising start they are beset with difficulties; an outbreak of gaol-fever (typhus) kills a third of the crew, while several others are left too weak to travel and have to be put ashore in Recife to convalesce. Undermanned and unable to fight his ship effectively, Jack makes for Cape Town where he hopes to be able to recruit more sailors, but encountering a larger Dutch ship in the South Atlantic he is forced to change course and flee far south of the Cape to try to outrun her. The chase through the stormy Southern Ocean is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of writing, as is the Leopard's subsequent desperate limping journey to make landfall at Kerguelen Island (the 'Desolation Island' of the title), while after The Mauritius Command's focus on plot the emphasis is firmly back on character. If I had one gripe, it would be that the mention of Australia as a destination had made me hope to see Stephen encountering a wombatt, but even wombatt-free it's a terrific read.

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