If you ever find yourself looking at your booklog archive and thinking, “Gosh, I haven’t really been reading very much, have I?”, I highly advise taking a nice long vacation, where you will almost certainly remedy the situation. So, here’s my report on Books I Read On My Vacation.
First, I needed something for a long plane ride, and what could be better than a Discworld book? Fortunately, Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal was released just in time for the flight. Fortunatelier, it’s a good Discworld book. Not that there are bad ones, really, but there are mediocre ones, and it seems to be even odds as to whether you’re going to get inspired Pratchett (Night Watch) or phoning-it-in Pratchett (Monstrous Regiment) these days.
Going Postal isn’t super-brilliant in the way that Night Watch was, but it’s definitely good. The protagonist is a con artist who’s been Vetinaried into taking a job as the head of the long-defunct post office. You get some standard Pratchett thematic stuff — magic piling up in unexpected places, SFnal exploration of the consequences of technology — but there’s also some new stuff mixed in to keep it from feeling stale. Insights on the privatization of infrastructure, and the opaqueness of complex, Enron-esque financial dealings might not be what you’d expect from Discworld, but they fit in well. Combined with a protagonist who doesn’t feel like a reprise of other members of Pratchett’s extended cast, you’ve got an enjoyable and fresh entry in the series.
That got me most of the way through the flight, but a bit more light reading was called for, so Rosemary Kirstein’s The Language of Power was next out of the bag. This is the third or fourth (depending on how you count the first omnibus) entry in her hitherto-brilliant Steerswoman series, and it maintains the series’ level of quality. Engrossing plotting, a likable and distinctive protagonist, interesting mysteries, and pacey writing keep things moving along enjoyably. If I were to offer any criticism, it’d be that this feels a bit middle-booky — there’s less overt sensawunda than in the first few books, but neither is there a feeling of incipient wrapping-up. That’s probably inevitable in any middle book of a long series; and things are building interestingly, so as middle books go, it’s quite strong.
That took me through the initial settling-in period, after which I was ready for something weightier, and it doesn’t get much weightier than Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World , as measured in sheer poundage. I was nervously anticipatory about this book. On the plus side, Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle has ranged from very good to great so far; on the minus side, he’s famously bad at endings, and the second book was a bit worse than the first, so it was possible that the series just fell off a cliff in the third book.
Possible, but not actually the case. The System of the World is superb, probably the best book of the trilogy. It pulls everything together into a well-formed package, provides the heavy sense of closure that’s necessary at the end of such a long trilogy, and is just generally excellent. On the stock list of Stephenson’s weaknesses, we can officially cross off the “bad at endings” thing. Readers who favor tight plots and concision will want to leave “sprawling and digressive” on there, though — while things are tied together well, it’s easy to imagine 1000 pages being trimmed out of the trilogy without materially affecting the main story. But that misses the point, which is that these books are about the world as much as the story, and that the digressive and sprawling nature is necessary to immerse the reader in the world.
When Cryptonomicon came out, it was so much better than what Stephenson had written before that it retroactively diminished his prior work — Snow Crash had seemed excellent, but Cryptonomicon was so much better that Snow Crash now looked like juvenilia in comparison. With the full trilogy now complete, the Baroque Cycle is so impressive that it diminishes Cryptonomicon in the same way. This is perhaps the best fantasy trilogy since Tolkien’s. (Also, it totally vindicates my then-idiosyncratic reading of Cryptonomicon as a fantasy novel.)
Moving along, since Stephenson’s brick took up most of the vacation proper, it was time for more airplane reading. First up: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s America: The Book , a mock civics textbook of sorts. It’s occasionally generically and predictably funny in that Dave Barry sort of way, but it’s occasionally hilarious, too. Net verdict is that it’s reasonably funny and probably worth reading if you’re a Daily Show fan.
For the rest of the flight, I read Patricia Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons , which is the first of her Enchanted Forest YA series. I’d read some of Wrede’s books before and been moderately unimpressed, as they were just generically competent. Given my general antipathy toward YA books, it’s entirely reasonable to expect that I’d care for this even less.
But, somewhat surprisingly, that’s not the case — I really enjoyed this book. Whereas her adult books (at least, those of them that I read) were set in Generic Medieval Fantasyworld, this one’s set in a unique and interesting quasi-fairytale world that has some of the feel of The Princess Bride or One For the Morning Glory (though without the narrative playfulness of those books). The characters still feel a bit stock, but instead of being problematic, it just fits into the formal constraints of YA literature — all YA protagonists feel somewhat generic, so if Wrede’s princess is awfully like Coraline or Hermione or Sally Kimball, well, that’s to be expected. If we except Pratchett’s allegedly-YA Discworld books and Pullman’s not-at-all-YA trilogy, this is clearly the best YA fantasy I’ve read. Which probably means kids would hate it.