Thursday, May 22, 2014

Shadows by Robin McKinley

by Robin McKinley
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013
356 pages

Before I go too far with this review, I think it would be helpful to explain a bit about my relationship with Robin McKinley's writing. McKinley was the first fantasy author I read outside of Tolkien, and that book - The Hero and the Crown - made a huge and lasting impression on me. The lead character was female, she was an outcast, she was determined and kind and confused and smart. I devoured that book, and turned back to the beginning and devoured it again, and I have never stopped loving it, though the related book The Blue Sword is the one I love more and has become one of the books I've read the most over the years. I've also read Deerskin (and holy shit was that ever an eye opener when I read it as a young teen - it's not an easy book to read, subject-matter-wise), a number of her short stories, Beauty, The Outlaws of Sherwood, Chalice, and Sunshine - which is also my favourite McKinley book and one of my top three books of all time. I do fully intend to read her entire backlist at some point, with either Spindle's End or Rose Daughter being next on the list.

Suffice to say, I am fairly well-versed in McKinley's works. And while I like some of her books and stories better than I like others, I always respect her work, if that makes sense. She has really excellent characters, and very detailed, realistically flawed worlds, and she rarely wraps all the bits up by the end of the book, but she doesn't write sequels. Sometimes I don't love her endings, but unlike some books, when a McKinley ending doesn't quite work for me it doesn't generally ruin what came before (Chalice might be a slight exception to this rule; I really disliked the ending of that one, enough that I haven't read it since my first reading.) And another thing about McKinley is that each book is different; though there are common threads running through her body of work, the narrative voice is often wildly different between stories.

It's the narrative voice of the titular character that makes Sunshine such a hit for me, and it's that same voice that turns a lot of fans of her other books off that particular one too, I find. It's very unusual, a first person perspective that is almost, but not quite, given stream-of-consciousness rein. I love Sunshine. I love her, and I love the way I can almost become her when I'm reading that book. I love the way some of her expressions, idiosyncratic and odd as they are, bleed into my own personal stream-of-consciousness narrative when I'm reading that book and often for weeks after. I love her turn of phrase, I love the way she thinks. She, more than any other fictional character I have encountered, feels like a friend.

This is key to my feeling about Shadows, because Shadows is pretty much in the same vein. Maggie, the main character in Shadows, is younger and lives in a very different world from Sunshine (maybe?) but that next-to-stream-of-consciousness narration is there in full force. We are right there, inside Maggie's teenage head, as she's telling us the story, and she takes us on her tangents (some of which circle back to be important, and some of which are just flavour) and she flashes back and she uses a lot of slang.

By which I mean to say that I really, really liked this book, and it's probably not for everyone.

Maggie is seventeen years old, and her mother has just remarried after her first husband, the father of her two kids, was killed by a drunk driver seven years previous. Maggie feels she would probably be predisposed to dislike the guy - she's fair-minded that way - but she outright hates him, because he's not normal. He is an immigrant from Oldworld, where magic is still common, which is bad enough. In Newworld, where Maggie and her family live, magic isn't just not practiced, it's illegal. Anyone who shows any sign of being genetically predisposed to magic has their magic gene removed as a kid, and anything that seems odd is reported to the authorities immediately. There are still breaks in reality, completely unpreventable, but the army deals with those using advanced technology. Magic isn't necessary and it's destabilizing and unsafe. But Maggie's new stepfather, Val, has strange shadows that follow him everywhere and seem to move on their own, and Maggie can see them, and they terrify her.

There is a lot going on in Shadows, and part of what I love about it is that it's so easy to read anyway. We have a coming-of-age story. We have a society that might almost be a dystopia, but it's not, not quite, because there are some safeguards against completely authoritarian rule. But it's close, and over the course of the book we see how easy it might be for ordinary people (and even the not-so-ordinary ones) to just accept what they are told as truth, and how easy it might be for those who mean well to step over the line into despotism. What we have, in short, is a world that's unsettlingly familiar, in all its political chicanery and popular intellectual laziness.

We have a love story, but it's fairly secondary. We have a female friendship, between Maggie and her lifelong best friend Jill, that is realistically and beautifully portrayed; they're not catty, they're not mean to each other, they get each other, and sometimes they argue. We have a lot of diversity - Maggie is white, Jill is black, one of the love interests is Eastern European, and another of their good friends is Asian. We have a lot of parallels to our world - certain countries we recognize exist, like Japan, and there are cellphones and drunk drivers and pizza parlours and animal shelters and cliquey, slang-spouting teenagers muddling their way through high school and life. It's also absolutely not a world we live in, with its regularly occurring breaks in reality ("cohesion breaks" or cobeys) and magical gene splicing and "physics of the worlds" departments in local universities and a big army structure designed to clamp down on magic.

We also have a plot that develops surprisingly quickly and smoothly, given the roundabout narration, and that then proceeds with inevitable speed. This book moves once it gets going, and everything slots into its place, and while one's disbelief has to get suspended at one or two points, it mostly works. The end is a bit cheesy. But I've seen far worse.

Oh, and the book is funny.

I don't think this book is for everyone. Some of the slang is a bit overdone (for me, the parts where it worked amazingly well far outweighed the parts where it didn't) and as above, the ending didn't quite fit. But the detail of the world, and the enjoyment I got out of living in Maggie's head, and the fact that all the pieces don't always get explained (there's a bit about Val, the stepfather, that we never learn more about and it's BIG), and the fact that I used the word "cobey" in conversation without realizing in that moment that it wasn't actually a real thing that happens... You should read this, I think. It's not your ordinary young adult novel. It's not your ordinary adult novel. It's something McKinley does well, which is write something entirely, completely new, using bits and pieces of old, and throwing in a strong, vital, honest, and realistic female lead as a bonus.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in 80 Days (Extraordinary Voyages 11)
by Jules Verne, translated by Michael Glencross
Penguin Classics, 2004 (originally published in French in 1872)
248 pages

I feel kind of guilty, because a) I haven't been blogging, and b) I am cribbing a bunch of these notes from my book club notes and so am kind of not really blogging again. But at least there's some new material up here. It's not that I haven't been reading - I have - but more that I haven't been finishing much, and I have started quite a bit and either given it up for good or given it up for an indefinite period of time. It's also probably something to do with having a two-year-old who wants us to read and read and read, and who goes to bed late, and it's something to do with work changes that have been happening (good!) and spring! is! here! So we're spending lots of time outdoors and birdwatching and gardening and... not blogging.

Anyhow. So Jules Verne. This is the first thing I've ever read by him, though I recall that Journey to the Centre of the Earth was one of my favourite movies as a kid. The little bits of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea that I used to catch while it was playing on repeat on one of the three t.v. channels we got when I was a kid used to scare the complete pants off me, so I never have seen the full thing. And I have somehow escaped seeing any of the adaptations of Around the World in 80 Days at all. Verne is a bit of a gap in my reading, being as he is often considered the grand-père of science fiction. Perfect, therefore, for my genre book club.

Around the World in 80 Days was originally published in 1872 as a serial in France, and collected into a novel edition in 1873. It is considered one of Verne's best works, though it contains none of the speculative technology that Verne employed in other works, and therefore can't really be considered science fiction. That said, it is speculative, in that no one had actually accomplished the feat (the first person to do so, in 1889, was Nellie Bly), and employs the best factual information Verne could get at the time; so it skims very close to science fiction. It is considered a classic of modern adventure fiction. The main character is Phileas Fogg, a rigidly eccentric, very wealthy British gentleman who takes a bet at his club one evening that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. He drags his newly employed French valet Passepartout along for the ride (Passepartout, it could be argued, is the real hero of the story.) Along the way they rescue a maiden in distress, purchase an elephant, take a wind-powered sledge across the frozen prairies, are attacked by Sioux warriors and waylaid by an enormous herd of bison, arrested, and finally resort to piracy on the high seas to get where they are going on time.

I didn't really love it but I certainly didn't hate it either, and I'm quite glad I read it. I think the big hurdle for me (aside from some of the cringe-worthy and unhappily predictable racist bits, particularly in the section where the train across the American prairies is attacked by Sioux warriors) was Verne's pedantic style, and his habit of getting sidetracked by... uh, "interesting" technical details. He spent more time describing the shortcomings of the P&O ships than the rescue of Passepartout from the Sioux.

The characters were placeholders and occasionally totally inexplicable, and clearly there to serve the plot, though I will admit that this does leave the reader's imagination entirely free to fill in whatever gaps they would like, and mine generally did. It was interesting to read the portrayal of Phileas Fogg compared to Passepartout, knowing that certain French/British rivalries were still very much in force at the time of the book's writing: Fogg is completely unreachable; Passepartout, while more relatable, is often rather a puppy-dog-like dufus, though a very brave and agile one.

One piece of criticism I read suggested that none of the English translations available really do Verne's writing justice, which could be part of the problem, though part of me doubts that the translators can do much when he chooses to spend a bunch of time elaborating on the genius of American railway engineering instead of the inner life of his characters. If I had the patience I could see trying a different translation, and perhaps I will some day, but I thought Michael Glencross did quite a serviceable job with the material he had.

As an interesting side note: I had to see if wind-powered ice sledges actually existed, because I was pretty much thinking that was an invention straight out of Verne's very creative, very speculative, and very scientific mind. Apparently not. Right around the time Verne was writing this book they were making headlines for racing trains and beating them.

All in all, glad I read it, would recommend it to the right person (interested in historical adventure, perhaps, and in a light, quick read.) Not going to be considered one of my favourite books, but I do feel like Verne is part of the consciousness of our culture, and now I have a better background understanding of why. Would probably try Verne again, most likely Journey or 20 000 Leagues, though I'll admit Five Weeks in a Balloon rather tickles my fancy too.