So last up on my Hugo reading for 2020 is two of the novella nominees.
P. Djeli Clark’s The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a supernatural mystery of sorts. The main characters are from a bureau that investigates hauntings and such-like, in an alternate Egypt where magic was reintroduced into the world there. The world-building is excellent; it’s only a novella, but in the space available to it, it builds up a world with a different history, with different magic-tech, with different politics and international relations, one that feels plausible and detailed. And then it adds to this great characters, with not only the two protagonists (an older, more jaded, investigator and his fresh-eyed young partner) but a whole cast that they interact with. And then it uses these characters and setting to build and develop an actually interesting mystery storyline. This is everything that you want a story to do, but which so many novellas can’t quite manage. This Is How You Lose the Time War was a worthy winner in this category, but I wouldn’t have been mad if this had won.
Rivers Solomon’s The Deep is based on an a song from clipping. (which is why it has so many authors listed), and tells the story of a society of water-breathing sea people and their historian. The book description/cover copy gives more detail than that, but doling out information about their history is largely what this story is about, so I’m going to call that too spoilery for me to say here. This novella is good, but didn’t quite work for me. The story structure is a bit lumpy, as it’s trying to mix together a present-tense story of this historian with the history of the people as seen both in broad overview and in specific anecdotes—while the history and the character’s story have thematic resonances, the interweaving of them still felt awkward. Then too, the protagonist is doing that YA thing where they think of themselves as a bad person for reasons that are obviously not true, and discovering this is going to be one of the emotional beats of the story. This is a common trope that must work for a lot of people, but I always bounce off it. I think this is a worthy nominee, and I’d probably place it about the middle of my list if I’d been voting for the Hugo.
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is subtitled “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” and sure enough, that’s what it is, an epic, centuries-spanning intellectual history of (especially) anti-Black racism.
The book is organized around examining the ideas and times of five historical figures—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. It can sometimes get a bit loose in this framing, because there are things that Kendi needs to introduce that those people weren’t involved with, but as an organizing structure, it does keep the scope focused.
I’m not going to sit here and recap the book’s arguments or analyses, because that’s what the book’s for. What I will say is that Kendi lays his analytical framework out clearly, makes a compelling case for his arguments, and draws a clear intellectual through-line through five hundred years of European colonialist and then American history. This is a scholarly book (by which I mean, for calibration, there are 45 pages of endnotes citing sources), but is absolutely accessible enough to find a popular audience.
Which, obviously, it has, winning a whole boatload of awards and topping bestseller lists. So yeah, my recommendation isn’t really needed here, but all the same: Highly recommended, essential reading for anyone who wants to actually understand American history.
So I started reading Ted Chiang’s Exhalation because one of the novelettes in it, “Omphalos,” was Hugo-nominated. I didn’t actually like that story much, but I’ve liked Chiang’s short fiction in the past, so figured the rest of the book would be better. Alas, it mostly wasn’t.
The problem is that most of these stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just thinkpiece essays with a light veneer of fictionalization on them. More than anything else, they’re exploring a science-fictional premise in detail rather than narrating a set of events that occur to characters we’re supposed to care about. Chiang is particularly interested in the themes of free will and the exploration of truth, and most of the essays… er, stories touch on those themes in one way or another.
To be fair, there are two exceptions: The Lifestyle of Software Objects and Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom both have multiple characters who interact with each other in a way that relates a sequence of events in narrative form, which is to say, they’re actual friggin’ stories. And they’re pretty good! And as you can tell from my italics, they’re both novellas, so make up a significant fraction of the book’s total verbiage.
I’ve been pretty negative here, but really, you can probably make a case that it’s worth reading this collection for two good novellas alone, and it’s not like the shorter fiction is terrible; if you like thought experiments, Chiang runs them with the best. Recommended for fans of Chiang, people who like SF short fiction better than I do, and people who are more interested in big ideas than characters or plots.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell. No, you’re thinking of Oliver Cromwell; Thomas was a key advisor to Henry VIII. (But yeah, they’re related.)
So the general arc of the thing is reminiscent a lot of Hamilton, but tbh it’s probably the arc of a lot of historical figures who meet with early success and then die before their time. But basically you’re looking at a first book that’s Cromwell’s rise to power, where he first becomes an advisor to Henry, and rises to prominence. The second book is him at the height of his powers, cementing his success and place in the world. The third book… well, it’d be a spoiler if this weren’t history, but also nobody hangs around Henry too long and stays alive, so yeah, it’s a tragic ending.
These books have won tons of awards, so it’s probably not any surprise when I say that they’re excellent. They seem to be well-researched; which is to say, you can find grumpy old history professors complaining that the conversations and details about interpersonal relationships are fiction—which I think people pretty much get; no matter how much you think you understand a historical figure from a novel, you don’t really understand them—but lots of other professors saying that Mantel nailed the details and concerns of the period; and nothing felt obviously off to me, someone who is not an expert but has done a nonzero amount of reading about this time period.
Beyond the setting, Mantel really also paints an incisive portrait of not only Cromwell, but all the characters in the book. (There’s actually literal portrait-painting here, as Hans Holbein is a character in the books, and does his famous painting of Henry, but I digress.) In particular, one of the things that Mantel does well is keep you in Cromwell’s mindset, but then periodically drop in someone telling him what his reputation is in the countryside or whatever, and it’s always a bit of a shock, because you’re seeing this very reasonable calm guy do the things he needs to do as kindly as he can, but then it’s like, oh yeah, right, he did technically literally just burn Thomas More for a religious difference, I can see why people might think badly of that, even as it seemed an inescapable course of action to Cromwell.
The different books also capture their mood well. The first is… not exactly exuberant, but it’s the kind of optimism and energy of a youngish man on the rise. But by the third, it’s looking back as often as forward, it’s rueful at times as Cromwell second-guesses himself, and in general it’s a darker and more melancholy feeling that culminates where it inevitably must.
Obviously strongly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Tudor England, but honestly this trilogy is good enough that I’d recommend it to anyone for whom that time period isn’t an active negative
So the premise of Naomi Alderman’s The Power is that suddenly one day, women start getting the power to generate/manipulate electrical fields, making them powerful and dangerous in a physical way, in the way that men stereotypically are today.
This could have come off as a kind of wish-fulfillment power fantasy or as a purely cynical “power corrupts” fable, but it mostly doesn’t do either of those things in a straightforward way. What it mostly feels like is a plausible story of how things change—slowly at first, and then somehow so quickly that it all seems inevitable in retrospect—and about how the course of events is always balanced between the large forces that nobody could change and the whims of particular individuals.
And along the way, it really hits its notes well. The characters feel real, the online forums that it portrays are the most precise portrait of online communities that I’ve seen since Vernor Vinge’s Galactic Usenet in A Fire Upon the Deep, and even its framing story captures its characters and interactions in a note-perfect way.
Recommended for anyone looking for a good read about gender roles, the sources and uses of power, and the ways that civilizations change.
So the basic premise of Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun is that in the age of British imperialism, they also discovered Arcadia, the mystical land of the Fae… and proceeded to go about sending missionaries and traders and so forth there, just as much as they did to any other “heathen” place.
Neat premise, but unfortunately it gets executed in the form of a gothic tale of misery and horror. A missionary has been in Arcadia for some time, and his sister gets worried about him, and decides to go for a visit. When she arrives, she finds a faerieland that is inscrutable and incomprehensible to mortals, on her way to the creepy old mansion (named “Gethsemane”) where her brother has been staying.
From there it gets less and less pleasant, as dark secrets are exposed on the way to the revelation of even darker secrets, horrors pile upon horrors, and all the characters descend into their own personal nightmares.
Objectively speaking, this is a good book. Ng has built something that’s unlike any other fairy story I’ve read; and it engages with religion more deeply than I’ve seen outside of, say, Lent, with which it shares some common themes, now that I think about it.
But it was deeply, deeply unpleasant to read, and I can’t really recommend it, unless gothic tragedy in elfland is the aesthetic you’re looking for.
Martha Wells’ Network Effect is the first Murderbot novel (after four novellas), and it is pretty much exactly what I wanted it to be.
Basically, you’ve got Murderbot, one of the best first-person narrators in recent years (really, rivaled only by Gideon). You’ve got returning characters from the novellas, including my personal favorite. You’ve got the meditations on identity and humanity and friendship and purpose that are kind of the running theme of the series. And you’ve got a very solid plot full of mysteries to be solved and action to be had.
Really, the only difference between this novel and any of the novellas is that it’s more. The character interactions get a chance to be deeper; the plot is substantially more complex; there’s just more room for everything to breathe. There are writers out there who, in making the jump from novella to novel, might end up losing the tautness of their work as a bit of flab sets in, but Wells isn’t one of them.
To my tastes, this is the best Murderbot work yet. The whole series is strongly recommended.
I was a little meh about Foundryside, but Robert Jackson Bennett’s Shorefall, the second book in that trilogy, impressed me a lot more.
Part of this is because of where things were left at the end of Foundryside. Rather than just reprising a standard fantasy-thief thing, it’s set up to do something far more interesting; I don’t want to talk about this in any detail, because that probably constitutes a spoiler for the first book, but it’s neat.
But then also part of it is because this book just kicks into high gear and never lets up. There’s this hyper-compressed timeframe (I think the whole book takes place in like two days?), and just a lot of stuff going on. And then, when you think you know where it’s going to end up, it doesn’t really do that, either.
It’s not just fast-paced action, though; the book is also digging into some really interesting themes about what it means to “win” in a historical sense, in kinda the way that the last season of Game of Thrones essentially failed to. I’m looking forward to the third book, and will read it basically as soon as it’s available. Recommended to anyone who likes modern-style epic fantasies that don’t suck.
So I liked Station Eleven quite a bit, which made picking up Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel an easy call. But so, in my write-up of that earlier book, I mentioned that it wasn’t really an apocalypse/post-apocalypse novel, it was “one of those literary novels that tells a portrait of a handful of characters over the course of their lives.” And hey, guess what this is doing even more explicitly, and with even less of a fantastic element to it?
So the main thing that happens in the book, the event that the story is wound around in a multi-character, time-jumping sort of way, is the unwinding of a Ponzi scheme that’s explicitly based on the Bernie Madoff scandal. There’s more to it than just that, because you don’t make rich, layered character portraits out of just a single event, but that’s the really big thing.
It’s well-written and affecting, mostly with a kind of melancholic mood. Recommended if you liked Station Eleven for its literary qualities, which this also has; disrecommended if you liked it for its apocalypse, which it doesn’t.
Walter Jon Williams’ The Rift is kind of a weird book. WJW has mostly written interesting and sophisticated SF and fantasy, but this was his attempt to write a bestseller disaster novel in the ‘90s, and it reads like… well, like a big dumb bestseller from the ‘90s.
It’s got the tons of characters—the President, a rollerblading teen (the ‘90s!), a stockbroker, a KKK sheriff, an end-times preacher, and a whole bunch more. It’s got the dumbed-down, easy-reader bestseller style. (Which is really weird when you know that’s not how he normally writes.) And of course, it’s got its big ol’ disaster.
The disaster is a little weird, too, because it’s not an apocalypse. Yes, there’s a giant earthquake; yes, bad things happen to the Mississippi; yes, our characters are caught in the midst of life-threatening crises… but at the end of the day, civilization isn’t destroyed; the US government is deploying its resources to get things back to normal and rescue people and all that.
Like, there’s one part where a character in deep shock is trying to get to their job, and it’s obviously absurd—the city they live in is levelled, there’s a disaster going on, of course “your job” isn’t a thing to be thinking about anymore. And yet, the company’s New York branch is totally fine and 100% unaffected, and the person’s coworkers are still working normal 9-5 shifts and the company’s still cutting them a paycheck and what-not.
It’s a little surreal, that combination of world-altering crises mixed with life-goes-on mundanity, but also more than a little relateable at this particular moment.
But also, the part where rescues keep happening but our protagonists need to always be in danger results in some semi-contrived plotting, as the characters keep finding almost-safe spots and then leaving them for one reason or another. In fact, because they’re always in motion, this ends up being something of a river novel, as they go down the Mississippi from Missouri to Louisiana. (And really, the part where the main characters of this river novel are a black man and a white boy has to to be a deliberate nod to Twain.)
Anyway, the book is fine, and if you want to read a big dumb disaster thriller period piece, hey, here it is. It’d be good airport reading, if airports are ever a thing again. But if you’re expecting a Walter Jon Williams novel, with the kind of style and verve that would normally imply, this isn’t what you’re looking for.
So Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is about magic doors, in pretty much every sense of the word. It’s set around the turn of the century (not this most recent one, the one before that), and it interweaves a kind of children’s adventure story in with the rise of twentieth century imperialism, contrasting modern capitalist institutions with exploration and wonder and the like. Which sounds really tendentious when I say it that way, but while the book comes close to being too precious, it stays on the right side of the line.
While I was reading it, though, the Hugo nominees were announced, and somewhat to my surprise, I saw that Ten Thousand Doors was on the list, as were two books I’d previously read (Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire). Well, that’s three of six; if I’m halfway done reading the nominees, I might as well commit to it, and read the rest.
So next up was Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night. I’d read a previous novel of hers while reading through the 2017 nominees; it was okay, but was the weakest of that bunch, so expectations were low here—but those expectations were easily surpassed. Because this is a kind of ‘70s-era SF story about a distant-future human civilization on a planet with a distinctive environment (in this case, it’s tidally locked to its sun, so has a boiling hot side and a freezing cold side, and humanity lives in a narrow band on the boundary between them); it’s one of those civilizations where things clearly have not gone right for the settlers, and seem to be only going worse over time in an entropic way. So in addition to the personal story of the protagonists of this novel, there’s also a kind of over-arching question of whether humanity has a future.
One of the things I like about this novel is that it is deeply political, but it is never simplistic. As much as you might sympathize with the revolutionaries, Anders will keep you from deifying them; as much as you might hate this or that aristocratic character, it’s not clear whether anyone else in their position wold really be better. Solid characters, great world-building, and an interesting multi-track story make this one a very solid piece of SF in the Le Guin mold.
And speaking of low expectations, I was extremely hesitant about Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, because I also read one of her books, Feed, while reading through the 2011 nominees, and I absolutely loathed it. It was, and remains, one of the worst SF books I’ve read, and it was a terrible award nominee.
And so McGuire has been super-successful, with like a zillion Hugo nominations (and wins) to her credit, and it is of course entirely possible that a writer can grow and improve over nearly a decade; but I have been distinctly lacking in recommendations for her work from people who share my opinion of her early stuff, so… who knew what I was getting into.
Fortunately, it turns out that she has improved greatly as a writer. This book is enormously better than Feed was, in a whole bunch of ways. It’s telling the story of two kids with a particular destiny, the alchemist who made them, and the battle for control of cosmic forces as waged through children’s fantasy stories. It’s creditably fast-reading, has an interesting story structure that’s playing around with time, and is an enjoyable read.
But while it’s good, I still don’t think it’s great. The storybook element never really fully integrates in with the modern storyline, and there’s some really clunky writing—I forget if it’s actually a verbatim quote that the villain says “I’ll show them! I’ll show them all!” but at worst, it’s something close to that. Yikes. Decent fluff, but not really award-caliber stuff, in my opinion (which is clearly not that of the Hugo nominators).
And finally, we come to Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade. This one is best described as a leftist’s response to Starship Troopers. It starts off the same way, with a young non-citizen joining up to attack the alien menace after they wipe a city off the Earth, and then we follow them through that war (not always in strict chronological order—this is another one that’s doing interesting structural things with time). It should be an interesting read, and much of the time it is.
But the problem is, the actual story is interspersed with these godawful political rants. Some of them are monologues in a character’s mouth, others are just straight tendentious description from the first-person viewpoint. In both cases, they’re awful. They’re just crashingly unsubtle. While Hurley’s political beliefs are a lot better than Ayn Rand’s, this has the monologuing quality of Rand, like someone got a really predictable red rose twitter feed mixed up with the novel.
And the hell of it is, it’s not needed. If Hurley just told the story straight, you’d end up angry at the capitalist overlords; if she just had people naturally doing what they do and going about their lives, you’d understand the pains and frustrations of their daily life in this world. Showing the story would drive home the point a lot more clearly than page after page of political philosophizing does anyway. (And really, even if it were taken down a notch that way, it’d still be simplistic; there’s none of the nuance and depth you see in Anders’ novel here, this is just straight polemic.)
Overall, this is a solid round of nominees. If I were voting for the winner, I’d put Gideon the Ninth and A Memory Called Empire on the top of my list (probably in that order); next up would be Ten Thousand Doors and City in the Middle of the Night (in no particular order), as the “very good” choices. Below that, I’d vote for Middlegame as a kind of weak winner, and then “No Award” before Hurley’s novel. It’ll be interesting to see what the actual Hugo voters do.
C.L. Polk’s Witchmark is set in a fantasy world that’s at like the equivalent of our world’s World War 1, both in terms of its tech (where aether-powered lights are replacing older gaslights, for instance), and in terms of, well, a major war coming near an end.
That’s the setting. The story is about a doctor with a secret past investigating a mysterious death—which involves gathering allies and delving into the world’s political and magical underpinnings. I’m reluctant to say much more than that, because it’d be too spoilery; but thanks to the original world-building, this is an interesting journey to go on.
This is the first volume in a series, but it does resolve satisfactorily without any kind of cliffhanger. (And the second book is out now anyway, as it happens.) I’m actually really curious to see where the second book goes from here, because it doesn’t seem like it could just be more of the same. Highly recommended to fans of fantasy investigations.
N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became is an expansion of her excellent short story, “The City Born Great.” The question that always arises when a great story is expanded into a full novel trilogy is, did it need to be? Was there really enough there to justify a full series, or did someone just want to cash in on the success of something that was perfect at its original length?
At first, I was leaning toward the latter take. The prologue of this book is a less-complete version of the standalone story, and then the first chapter of the book sort of feels like a drawn-out repeat of the short story’s climax, so it really did feel like this was just an unnecessarily padded retelling.
But as the book goes on, it changes up more, and starts adding more layers and complexity to the story, and by the end… yeah, okay, this novel justifies its existence, and it points the way to a trilogy that fully justifies its existence. It’s Jemisin, and she knows what she’s doing. The original short story probably packs more punch per-word, but even if you’ve read it, the novel is well worth reading, too
Mark Bittman and David Katz’s How to Eat is an expansion of this excellent article about how to eat well. The question that always arises when a great article is expanded into a full book is, did it need to be? Was there really enough there to justify a full book, or did someone just want to cash in on the success of something that was perfect at its original length?
In this case, the answer is: sorta both? The book retains the primary virtue of the article—its Q&A format and breezy tone—but I don’t know that it really gives you any better advice about its ostensible topic. If you really wanted to know how to eat, you could read the original article and give the book a miss. There’s more detail in the book, but nothing that fundamentally changes anything.
The main thing the book actually adds is a defense of nutrition science, and I think this is where Katz (who is a nutrition scientist) is coming to the forefront of the writing duties. Because the thing is, the easy conclusion from reading the original article is that nutrition science isn’t worth a damn, and that in this particular field, we should just ignore science altogether and focus on more traditional ways of knowing things. The book doesn’t exactly disagree with this, but it does try to carve out a space for science to augment and enhance the knowledge we have from rough empiricism and common sense. So if you’re of a science-y bent and you’ve been disturbed by the apparent failures of nutrition science, hey, here’s some consolation for you.
For most people, though, this counts as a breezy, interesting-enough, but probably inessential book; you could totally just read the article and leave it at that
So Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House is an urban fantasy, wherein a young woman is recruited by a centuries-old occult organization to guard against supernatural evil, and trains under the tutelage of an older and more experienced man. And somehow, it wasn’t until I wrote that out that it even occurred to me that you could compare it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Mostly that’s because this is so firmly its own thing; I wasn’t even thinking of it as being in the urban fantasy genre until well into the book. Part of this is the setting: It takes place at Yale, and it is super about Yale, both as a geographical place and as a cultural institution. The other part of it is the main character, who is very much not the type of person who usually ends up at Yale, which sets up a strong sense of class-based culture shock, as this person who’s lived in genuine down-and-out circumstances is now immersed in a world of wealth and privilege. (It’s also a pretty straight-up class conflict, too, but in a way that feels relevant and true, not in some cartoonish Animal House kinda way.)
The world-building is interesting, the mystery has enough twists and turns to keep you turning the pages, the narrator is vivid and jumps off the page, and it does that thing where it combines breezy readability with some real substance. Strongly recommended.
Ben Aaronovitch’s False Value is the latest full-length Peter Grant novel, and it’s my favorite in quite a while. As I mentioned when I wrote up the last one, the series had gotten mired in a convoluted ongoing story; but fortunately that’s over now, and we’re back to what this series should be: A smart-ass wizard cop investigating magically-suspicious mysteries with the help of an interesting cast of characters.
About the only fault I have with this book is that it does an in media res start that, when combined with my terrible memory and the last book being like two years ago, had me convinced I’d forgotten an important plot point in the last book. But no, I hadn’t, it eventually flashes back and fills the reader in on what happened.
If you’ve been reading this series, you’ll want to read this one, even if you’ve thought it was flagging and getting bogged down recently. This very much feels like a return to form. Recommended.
Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History is much more directly about the Silk Road than is Peter Frankopan’s similarly named book. Specifically, it’s looking at a half dozen sites on the route between China and the West, and examining the archaeological evidence to try to adduce a history of those locations, and particularly of trade and cultural exchange there.
The spoilery version is that there’s not really any particular evidence of large-scale, long-distance trade in any consistent way; there’s mostly small local trade, and cultural and technological exchange that happens through population movements, with people immigrating to a new city for whatever reason. But of course, the book isn’t just outlining that bare thesis, it’s also going into detail about each location, the significance of what was found there, the history of its archeology, and its relation to other nearby cities.
It’s a bit on the potsherds side of history—many of the records that historical surmise is built on come to us not as whole documents, but as paper fragments repurposed for funerary goods—but it’s lively and interesting, and a relatively quick read. Lightly recommended.
So T Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones is an (indirectly) Lovecraft-inspired work of fantasy horror. It’s actually based on some super-old-timey Victorian fantasy horror that Lovecraft only wrote a letter about, but it’s inspired by his letter as much as the original story, so hey: Lovecraftian it is.
And it feels Lovecraftian. At first, as in Lovecraft’s stories, there’s this sense of mystery, of things beyond human comprehension, ancient beyond time and unknowable and ps super fucking creepy. The book is suffused with creeping dread and eldritch horrors glimpsed only briefly and partially. I was reading it alone at night, and not gonna lie, I turned on some very unnecessary (but at that moment, extremely necessary) lights.
But if you’re finding it too scary, just keep reading, because then you get to the part that—as in Lovecraft’s own stories—takes all this horror and turns it into a more-or-less straight fantasy novel. The mysteries are explained and made visible, which necessarily robs them of their power to horrify. (The book lampshades this at one point, noting that even though you’d think this should be the case, the protagonist was still pretty friggin’ scared—which, fair enough, if something is actually happening to you, different story. But as a reader of fiction who doesn’t have to deal with unpleasant realities, yeah, not so scary anymore.)
Of course, there’s also the ways this book is not like Lovecraft—it’s got a protagonist who feels like a real person, most notably. The book is in first person, and it’s a great narrative voice; I’m not normally a fan of fantasy-horror, but got pulled along for the ride by the narrator, a woman who reminds me of an older, more mature version of Gideon the Ninth.
Recommended for anyone who likes Lovecraftian fantasy-horror written by a better writer than Lovecraft.
So it occurred to me that I’ve never actually read a history of World War II. In recent years, as I became more interested in modern history, I’ve read about the buildup to WW1, WW1 and the interwar period, and the post-WW2 period, but I just kinda skipped right over WW2 itself. So I looked around for recommendations for a reasonably up-to-date general overview of the war, and settled on Max Hastings’ Inferno.
It very much does what it sets out to do, give a comprehensive and comprehensible high-level view of the war in all its theaters and fronts, colored with enough first-person detail to keep it from becoming dry, but not so detailed that you get caught looking at trees instead of forests. It’s absolutely the sort of book that’s meant to be a “first” book on the topic, giving you enough context to plug in more narrowly-focused books on any topic that particularly interests you. So kudos on that front.
The biggest negative is… maybe not actually a negative, in context. Specifically, it’s that this is a very conventional book. The Winston Churchill we see here is man of resolve and willpower, with just a soupcon of racist shitbaggery; the dropping of the atomic bomb is justified with ease; maybe the most daringly revisionist view it holds is that Douglas MacArthur was a vainglorious fool who got a lot of people killed for no good reason. And so it’d be nice to read a book that’s maybe a bit more thoughtful about topics like that, but honestly I’ve always found it useful to know the conventional wisdom before you start reading the things that push back against it, so a conventional history at this level isn’t bad at all.
Recommended to anyone who has a high school level knowledge of WW2, and wants to know just a wee bit more.
I’ve remarked before that Dave Duncan was one of my favorite writers in junior high and high school, and he continued writing imaginative, unique, better-than-they-had-to-be fantasy novels even as I became medium-old. He died in 2018, alas, at the age of 85; but being the prolific writer that he was, he left something like five novels in the publication pipeline, including the third and final volume of Dave Duncan’s The Enchanter General series.
So as a little aside before I get into talking about these books, I am these days no longer particularly young, and it’s easy to feel like I’m in the back side of my career, right. So it’s particularly notable to me nowadays that Duncan didn’t publish his first novel until he was 53. He had a whole decades-long professional career as a geologist, and then at an age when people start thinking about retirement, he wrote and published his first novel… and then went on to write like 30-odd more novels without ever stopping. I don’t have any plans to turn to a writing career, but it’s still a little inspiring to think that something like that is possible, you know?
Okay, so anyway, these particular books are historical fantasies. They trace, across the course of the three of them, the life of Durwin, who starts off as a stable-hand, and with the benefit of some training in magic, becomes… well, the series is called “The Enchanter General,” so you can probably guess. His adventures start in the early reign of Henry II and continue through the end of the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
As historical novels, they’re a little old-fashioned; they’re really giving you that pop-culture conception of the characters. This is definitely the Lionheart and not-yet-King John you’ll recognize from movies or Robin Hood stories or whatever. There’s not that sense of really delving into the authentic historical period like there is in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Also old-fashioned is the book’s handling of women. For the entire first book, basically every character of note is male, and female characters are mostly described in sexualized ways. This is clearly a first-person voice thing, as Duncan’s written tons of books that don’t do this (and the third book in this series, when the protagonist is rather older, doesn’t do it as much), but it’s still a stylistic choice that feels decades past its expiration date. I expect that many readers will bounce off the books because of it.
Which is unfortunate, because except for that, the books are quite good. If the history is a bit poppy, it’s also instantly accessible, with some great characters (including an excellent Eleanor of Aquitaine, giving the book at least one notable female character); and the intersection between the protagonist’s life and grand historical events is a fine place to set a story. And while this isn’t quite up to the standards of Duncan’s best work, it does share with those a propulsive energy that keeps pages turning; I sped through these quickly, reading them in even small free moments.
The poor handling of female characters keeps this from being an unequivocal recommendation, but I guess recommended for those who don’t think that’d be a book-killer for them.