Ah, sweet vacation, giving me all the time in the world to read, and no computer access to log the books I've read. I've inevitably gotten a bit behind, so I suppose I'll just cram together all my vacation reading into one entry.
First up, the second half of The Steerswoman's Road omnibus, Rosemary Kirstein's The Outskirter's Secret . Everything I said about the first book applies here, except for the parts that were less than enthusiastic.
As in The Steerswoman, we follow our medieval-tech characters as they try to unravel the secrets of what is more and more clearly a high-tech background to their world. Here, they follow the trail of "magic" to the Outskirts, an alien and inhospitable landscape peopled by roaming tribes of barbarians. The Outskirts are vividly depicted and original, as are the people who live there.
As in the first book, one of the most interesting plot elements is the characters finding out the truth about their world. Kirstein continues to handle this exceptionally well -- obviously, the reader possesses a high-tech background and will be able to recognize things as tech a lot quicker than the medieval-level protagonists; but the protagonists aren't treated like idiots. They're smart people who can think logically, and only lack background knowledge. Writing about the intersection of intelligent primitives with high-tech is difficult, but it's wholly believable here. There was only one part of the world-building that I thought the characters should have figured out well before they did, and even there, I can believe them taking that long to realize the truth.
This is an exceptional book, and highly recommended. The only problem is that there's no proper ending to the story; if I'd read it in the '80s when it came out, this would have been horrible, but with the sequel out now, it's more forgiveable. Of course, I'm told the sequel still doesn't finish the story (I'm further told that the next book in the series is already written, so there shouldn't be another 15-year gap), so if you're strongly averse to unfinished series, you might want to give this one a pass. I wouldn't recommend doing so, though.
After finishing that, I picked up Eric Frank Russell's Next of Kin , which I'd heard praised as a hilariously funny book (and which has a Terry Pratchett blurb saying "I wish I'd written this"). Honestly, I don't know what these people are talking about. This book is staggeringly unfunny, the characters are unconvincing and irritating, the plot is pretty lame, and the writing is charitably described as utilitarian. Most of the alleged humor seems to come from the protagonist insulting his superior officers, and talking (in Heinleinesque smug-expository fashion) about what dolts the upper ranks are. Ho ho.
I confess that I actually did laugh once or twice in the book, as there are a few isolated funny bits near the end, but getting at those bits isn't worth forcing your way through the painfully unfunny book in which they're embedded.
Finally, we come to Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart . I was strongly predisposed to hate this book. The cover makes it look like one of those Anne Rice/Tanith Lee/Storm Constantine goth-dark sex-tinged fantasies (note: I've never read any of those authors, so that might not actually be an accurate description of their contents; but it's an accurate description of what they look like). Then inside, it's got a map with just enough points marked out on it that you can guess the characters are going to go on the grand tour of the world -- and that the people of every nation will conform to the blandest stereotypes. Combine that with its 600-pages-in-hardcover length and my growing distaste for long fantasy, and you've got a book that I certainly wouldn't have read if Anne hadn't praised it highly.
As I started reading it, I did so suspiciously and distrustfully. I found plenty to fuel the mean-spirited booklog review that I was already composing in my head. Carey's world did have that Eddings-esque stereotyped-nationalities thing; the characters did take in just about every part of the map, from decadent not-Paris to the woad-stained shores of not-England and the harsh winter landscape of the primitive not-Nordic tribes; there was rather too much oh-so-deep wallowing in violent sex (the protagonist is a masochistic whore, quite literally).
But... somewhat despite myself, I started liking the book. The politics and intriguing are increasingly interesting as the book goes on, the world-building turns out to be more clever and less generic than it initially appears, and the characters get over at least some of their angstiness when actual important events draw them out of their decadence. On the whole, this is a well-written book, with a tightly-woven plot (that -- one super-irritating twist aside -- is fully wrapped up by the end), and interesting characters.
In short, this is a book that seems custom-designed to irritate me in principle; but I ended up quite liking it and intending to read the sequels. I suspect that means it's really quite good, and probably better even than I'm giving it credit for. Trent has a possibly fairer (and definitely more in-depth) review if you want a second opinion.