New Amsterdam (Elizabeth Bear): One of the nice things about the internet is when random strangers tell me things. When I posted about a fantasy short story collection recently, somebody stopped by to let me know that there was a full book based on one of the stories. So this is that book.
To refresh your memory, the premise of New Amsterdam is roughly the same as the Lord Darcy series -- early 20th century, magic works, the protagonist is a magician-detective. Or at least, that's what I thought after reading the one short story in the collection. When I read the full book of New Amsterdam stories, though, I realized that I'd gotten a slightly distorted viewpoint.
For one thing, the protagonist isn't actually the magician-detective. It's actually a vampire-detective, and the magician-detective is pretty solidly a secondary character. For another, it's not really a mystery series -- yeah, there are dead bodies and the deaths are investigated, but it's much more a story about vampire culture and international politics. It's interesting that I managed to get such a wrong-sided viewpoint from the one story I originally read. I think the deal is even though I noted all these things, I figured the series as a whole would have less vampires and politics and more mystery than in the single story, but in fact the series as a whole had more vampires and politics and less mystery -- I was correct in guessing it was an anomaly, but had its direction exactly backwards.
It is not hard to guess that I am not totally thrilled about the actual direction of the series. Part of the deal is vampires are totally boring* but, more generally, I don't think the individual elements here are well-integrated. Like, the high-level political arc of the book is good, but making it go requires the characters to make certain decisions that don't feel realistically motivated. The magic is interesting too, but I'm not really convinced that it has a reasonable influence on the setting (unless it's much rarer than the stories make it appear).
Actually, while I'm griping about the magic, I should gripe about the mysteries. The whole point of magic is it can do anything in any way; if that's all you have, it's impossible to write a satisfying mystery because the ending will always come out of left field. So generally speaking the author has to impose rules, probably using other magic -- my divination tells me there was no living thing in the room; the laws of magic don't permit someone to turn invisible without using mandrake root -- and then give a mystery that is, well, a mystery, but follows the rules. This book is pretty shaky about that; while you can sometimes deduce the murderer by dramatic necessity (this guy has no other purpose in the narrative, ergo he's responsible), there's rarely a way to work out the solution in advance because it turns out to be a wacky magic thing.
Anyway, uh, I see I have written a skillion paragraphs, which I usually only do if a book is a total mess. This book is not a total mess by any means; apparently it just hits a bunch of my buttons. It actually hits a bunch of my awesome buttons too -- I give points for airships, wireless power, the wolves of Paris, political intrigue, alternate Aztecs -- and if you are less picky about the fiddly bits of premise than I am (a category which includes almost everyone) the good bits will probably far outweigh the gripes.
*Or, well, conventional descriptions of vampires are boring: stylish foreign vampires, bisexual vampires, sucking blood being like sex, vampires not really being scared about holy symbols, vampires being old and world-weary. Are there any vampire stories where, say, the blood-drinking turns out to be a common myth but the fear of crosses and garlic are real?
Normally being a vampire is, if you will forgive the analogy, like being a min-maxed D&D character: generally speaking you are super-powerful, but there are a few situations where you fall down completely. In either case, the effect is that you shape the entire narrative around yourself, because the author/GM has to take special measures to counteract you with a dramatic smackdown or else let you stomp all over the existing plot.
It seems like it would be more interesting if being a vampire got you some bonuses but there were other non life-threatening (but not purely cosmetic, like the mirror thing) penalties. Like, say, it seems like the whole mindset might change to be more like a predator -- there's no time for angst and musing on the human/vampiric condition because your brain is too busy going stalk stalk bite. (Now I am imagining teasing a pet vampire by dangling a raw steak on a string in front of it.)
The other thing I wonder about is why there are so many straight, bi, and gay vampires, and so few lesbian vampires. I guess the obvious answer there is that the standard gay stereotype involves being a stylish dresser, going out a lot at night, and sucking on strange things. The standard lesbian stereotype, on the other hand, involves having hairy legs and being snappish and muscular, so you get things more like this.
Imaro and Imaro 2: the Quest for Cush (Charles Saunders): I am a simple man with simple tastes, and if you give me a book about a black Conan analogue who wrestles a sorcerer who has turned himself into a giant snake, I am going to enjoy that book. What we've got here is the creation of a Conan-esque hero with an African heritage rather than a European one. So he grows up in an alternate-Masai tribe, fights lions in an awesome way and then is exiled and has to go become a wandering ass-kicker.
Ok, so the book is good and if you like this sort of thing you will like it -- besides the aforementioned lion-fighting, there is an awesome and original take on Atlantis, a gladiatorial arena, living stone guys, and so on. And having established this, now I am going to spend the rest of the review in pedantic examination of how this differs from Conan. Because that is the kind of guy I am.
The most major difference is these books have -- get this -- continuity. One of the defining elements of Conan-style pulp for me is that the stories don't come in any order, they just jump around in the guy's career. This has a number of implications: the protagonist can't really be on a big heroic quest*, there's less emphasis on the long-term effects of their actions, it's less of a big deal if they hook up with a person or a magic whatsit, and their adventures can occur anywhere, not just a reasonable distance from where the last story stopped. I do think Imaro suffers from this to some extent: there just isn't the variety of settings and situations that Conan has, and while some of that is for other reasons (see below), I think the continuity thing has a lot to do with it. On the plus side, it's an interesting change for the hero to have a sidekick and a girlfriend and a nemesis for, like, multiple stories, and while there isn't actual character development as such, it's interesting to have a guy disappear and then turn up again later on.
*Dilvish the Damned and Cugel's Saga are notable exceptions, but even there it's relatively background in most of the stories, unlike, say, the ring quest in LOTR.
The lesser amount of variety, alluded to above, is another big difference. A couple things lead to this effect, I think. One is that the stories here are longer than the equivalent ones in Conan -- Howard is routinely busting out a full story in 30 pages, and these are more like 50, which means you fit fewer per book. Another is the heavy emphasis on rural stories. Conan is a barbarian and unfamiliar with the ways of the decadent cityfolk and blah blah, but in fact a lot of stories have him hanging around in cities. Imaro is more of a purist and so a large number of possible settings and plots are cut out.
Finally, the last big difference is the psychology of the protagonist. Conan is fully-realized as a character from the start, doesn't change in any significant way, and his personality is expressed almost entirely by action. Imaro (and note this contrast is deeply related to the continuity-vs-no-continuity thing) evolves a great deal over the two books, has psychological traumas he works through, and the narrator is constantly commenting on his mental state. There are a couple scenes where shades from his past appear and freak him the hell out -- you'd never get this with Conan, because Conan lives entirely in the present.
P.S. I guess there is a save-these-books campaign going around LJ right now because they aren't selling well enough to continue publishing or something. At least, that was the story in the post I heard about them in.
Consider the Lobster (David Foster Wallace): I was telling someone that I managed to put this on hold at the library, receive a notice that it was in, pick it up, and carry it around for a while before finally realizing it was by David Foster Wallace and not David Sedaris. "Yeah," he said, "but once you started reading you would have been able to tell by the footnotes*." And I don't think he's even read this book.
Anyway, this is a collection of essays and magazine articles. Some of them are amusing but pretty inconsequential (like his takedown of some Updike novel), but several of them are quite solid (the opening essay is about attending the academy awards of porn; another is about linguistic prescriptivism vs descriptivism**; another is about a conservative talk radio host). Wallace is pretty good at starting off with something specific and then working it into a more general point about society or culture. He gets into political-ish stuff a lot, but this is ok by me because his politics are close enough to my own to not be irritating. At the same time, he feels pretty "fair" to me -- he doesn't write like he has all the answers and seems to be making an effort to consider other people's viewpoints.
So, yeah, good stuff.
*This book actually invents something even more irritating than footnotes in the last essay. The text that would be in a footnote is in a box which is embedded somewhere in the body of the text on this or the facing page, and then an arrow is drawn from the spot in the main text to the box. It's like someone had heard of hypertext but was drunk during the explanation.
**And, if you haven't read it, it's up on the web to take a look at and involves SNOOTs.
Currently: Was; next up: White Teeth and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. (This is my contribution to the 106 books meme.)