Jun 20 2018

An Interview with R S Ford, author of A Demon In Silver


Q: Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did A Demon In Silver evolve?

A: It actually sprang from an idea for a totally different novel. I came up with a concept set in the modern day, featuring warring gods who had fought one another through the ages. They were known by different names in different cultures throughout time, but were now on the brink of extinction. I canned the idea as it was obviously very close to Gaiman’s American Gods, but the concept of warring gods stayed with me. When I later got to thinking about a fantasy realm that had once been ruled by magic but now there was none, the two ideas kind of evolved into the War of the Archons series.

Q: I really enjoyed the way you constructed A Demon In Silver as essentially a chase narrative, introducing many important characters only as they become involved in the pursuit of Livia. I was also impressed with how you wound the plot back around to the beginning of your narrative, closing the circle, as it were, even as you left room for lots more to come. What inspired you to structure the story in these non-traditional ways?

A: I don’t really like rules, would be the quick answer. Basically, some of the plot reveals required a non-linear plot structure for a bigger impact. But I think the story bounces along fast enough so as not to ruin the pacing and plot.

Q: Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

A: Readers of fantasy have become much more diverse in recent years, which is reflected in the wide array of fantasy that’s currently available. Aiming at a particular demographic only limits your readership so I don’t tend to write for any one perceived group. I think the best a writer can do is produce the kind of novel they’d like to read, then you just have to set in free and hope other people like it too.

Q: What is the first book you read that made you think, “I have got to write something like this someday!”

A: I’ve read and admired a lot of novels over the years. I think the one that made me sit up and take notice the most was The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. On the face of it the story has been told a dozen times before, but it casts aside all the old tropes to become its very own thing. And I don’t think I’d ever laughed out loud that much at any novel I’d read before.

Q: How did you learn to write?

A: Practice, practice, practice. I’m a great believer in learning on the job, and writing novels (or anything for that matter) requires that you put in the hard hours. I wrote around five novels before I had a word published. The process of writing a novel from start to finish, even if it turns out to be horrendous, is more valuable than any creative writing course you could go on. That’s not to say those things aren’t valuable, but finding your own ‘voice’ as a writer is the key to success.

Q: Do you adhere to any particular writing regimen?

A: I find myself easily distracted, so I subscribe to a very strict regimen. I tend to cut my chapter plans down into bite-size pieces and go at them in short sprints. Then I’ll go back through in one session revising the huge mess I’ve just made.

Q: In the acknowledgments to A Demon In Silver, you talk about the changes you had to make to the novel as plotted. Do you generally consider yourself a plotter or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants)?

A: That particular plotting snafoo occurred because I didn’t have a firm plan for where the novel was going when I started it. Normally I have a strict chapter breakdown before I’ve written a word. Needless to say, I won’t be ‘pantsing’ again.

Q: What made you choose fantasy, and particularly the blend of high meets grimdark (highdark?) in A Demon In Silver, as your means of expression?

A: Ooh, Highdark! I like that, can I steal it? (Doreen responds: Absolutely!)

I’ve always been a fantasy fan, probably due to the freedom of expression it gives. You’re not tied down to a real time or place and are free to come up with whatever background you like. Also, I’ve always found that despite their ‘otherworldly’ settings, fantasy novels are essentially about people and character, as opposed to SF, which usually seems to be about high-concepts and ideas. I’m all about the characters.

Q: Speaking of high fantasy meets grimdark, I see that you’ve also written short stories set in the Warhammer and Pathfinder universes. Are you much of a role player, and how does that inform your writing, if so?

A: I used to work as an editor for an RPG company back in the dim and distant, and I have been known to roll the odd funny shaped die. I don’t take much influence from roleplaying, as the traditional adventuring-party concept doesn’t really fit in with the kind of books I write. However, I love a look through a setting guide every now and then, and find them a great source of inspiration.

Q: Are there any new books or authors in fantasy that have you excited?

A: I’m currently reading The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith-Spark and liking it a lot. I’ve also heard some very good things about Blackwing by Ed McDonald so I’ll be picking that up at some point and most likely adding it to my ever expanding to-be-read pile.

Q: What can you tell us about your next project?

A: As we speak I’m thrashing out book two in the War of the Archons series; The Hangman’s Gate, while I also dream about the other projects I’d love to write if only I had the time.

~~~

Author Links:

Hear All, See All, Say Nowt richard4ord.wordpress.com
Follow him on Twitter @rich4ord

~~~

A Demon In Silver was published June 12th 2018 and is available via all good book sellers. My review of the book itself may be found here.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/20/author-interview-with-r-s-ford-author-of-a-demon-in-silver/

Jun 19 2018

The Synapse Sequence by Daniel Godfrey

Anna Glover is not a war criminal, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t treated as such by the public at large. Blamed for giving the United States and United Kingdom a reason to wage war with China during her former life as an air crash investigator, she now works to build an experimental synapse sequencer which accesses the memories of multiple witnesses to reconstruct pivotal events, a technology that its owner, Jake Morley, wants to monetize for use in London’s judicial system. Desperate to prove the value of the project — and, by extension, herself — Anna flings herself into the seemingly minor case of a foster teen beaten into a coma. As she dives deeper into N’Golo Durrant’s life, she realizes that the very underpinnings of modern society are in jeopardy… and that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The synapse sequencer is a fascinating fictional construct. In Daniel Godfrey’s hands, this exploration of memory and technology becomes a cautionary tale of the intersection of Artificial Intelligence and politics, and makes for thought-provoking reading. I did not personally believe in Mr Godfrey’s depiction of life on a Universal Income (essentially a guaranteed basic income which has been tried to great success in certain European countries in real life,) but I definitely appreciate the dilemmas raised as the plot unfolded. How much of our lives are we willing to cede to authority and technology? How much of memory is reality as opposed to perception? Twisty and bleak but not without its own cautious optimism, The Synapse Sequencer is the kind of dystopian thriller that will have you reevaluating what you think you know about your relationship with modern tech.

Stay tuned for an interview with the author within the next few weeks!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/19/the-synapse-sequence-by-daniel-godfrey/

Jun 17 2018

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Just in time for World Cup, I have finished Unseen Academicals, the Discworld book that takes up soccer — football, as it is known in some places, or foot-the-ball, as it is generally called in Ankh-Morpork. I had not been looking forward to this particular book on my trek through all of the main Discworld novels. It focuses on the wizards of the Unseen University, who are my least favorite among the groups of characters who appear in multiple Discworld books. I was tired of Rincewind by his second appearance as the protagonist of a wizards’ novel, and while the others are more enjoyable to read about than he is, they still don’t hold my interest very well. Second, the later novels that don’t feature Tiffany Aching are starting to seem more programmatic, with Pratchett’s interest in exploring a technological development or aspect of society driving the story, rather than telling a good story that happens to look at some subject in particular. Third, Unseen Academicals is the longest Discworld novel, clocking in at roughly 540 pages. The page count has been creeping up through the recent books, without commensurate gain. I like Pratchett’s stories better when they are brisker and tighter than when every development in the tale is lovingly indulged by author and editor.

The book also shares Thud‘s problem, that of an important and universally known aspect of culture that the author has somehow failed to mention in 36 preceding books. Pratchett nods in this direction early on, writing that there is so much violence in the game that the participants keep it clandestine, and so many participants that the Watch finds it expedient to steer clear of games as they happen. I wasn’t convinced. For example, if the game is as important to the social lives of Ankh-Morpork’s right poorer inhabitants as Unseen Academicals claims, then young Sam Vimes would have been a part, and he would surely have said something about it in all the novels where the conditions of his growing up are mentioned.

Pratchett does better with his handling of Rincewind; namely, he sends him off-stage right away. The main trunk of the plot grows from two developments. The budget of the Unseen University — and thus, crucially, the institution’s ability to support the wizards’ luxurious eating habits — depends on a bequest, one of whose provisions is that the University must field a football team regularly, and the time defined by “regularly” is about to expire. The other is that Vetinari has decided to put a damper on the massive mob violence that accompanies foot-the-ball matches. Here, readers can see echoes of the violence that plagued British soccer in the 1980s and 1990s, along with efforts by authorities to curb it. Both reasons seemed contrived to me, and contributed to my overall sense of the book as programmatic, rather than a story arising naturally from the characters and setting.

In addition to the senior wizards who have been around for several books, Unseen Academicals stars several people from the serving class that keeps the university running. Glenda is in charge of the night kitchen, makes formidable pies, and embodies the bedrock decency of most of Pratchett’s protagonists. She also comes in for criticism because of some of the things that she assumes that are part of her decency. That is a level of reflection I have not often seen in Pratchett’s work; on the other hand, it’s Vetinari doing the criticizing, and he hardly has any room to talk in the matter of manipulating people. As he would freely admit. Juliet works in the kitchen with Glenda. Juliet is not very bright, but she is stunningly beautiful; some of her choices lead to a subplot on fashion and celebrity. Trevor Likely is part of the cadre that ensures the university’s candles are all artfully dribbled. He is also the son of a famous foot-the-ball player and has no small amount of talent himself but has sworn to his dear mum that he will stay away from the violence. Mr Nutt is a dribbler like Trev, and turns out to have an even more unusual personal history.

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/17/unseen-academicals-by-terry-pratchett/

Jun 15 2018

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

War for the Oaks had a band-naming scene before the name of your next band became a Thing. It had fantastic conflicts in a downtown setting before vampires were ever thought to be sparkly. It has strong female protagonists as if that is the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is. It is set in the Minneapolis that Prince had shown the world in Purple Rain, three years before the publication of War for the Oaks. Prince himself might well have been playing at one of the venues the characters drive past, or a club they went to in between scenes actually shown in the novel.

In a city where rock and funk are crossing their boundaries, the divisions between the mundane and the magical are coming down too. Eddi McCandry doesn’t know that at first, she just knows she’s breaking up with her awful boyfriend and quitting his band at the same time. She doesn’t need that shit. In the breakup, she keeps the drummer, Carla DiAmato, who’s a good friend, too.

On the way home from that ill-fated gig, a man follows Eddi through the downtown streets. She tries to run, but he appears in front of her or beside her when she was sure she left him far behind. She trips on a flight of stairs and loses consciousness.

As her senses return, she hears two voices. One, she discovers, belongs to a dog. The other is

A woman [who] rose from the [fountain’s] water. She seemed to be standing on its surface, to be a coalescence of water into a woman-shaped pillar. Her long gown looked like water, too, spilling over her breasts and straight down in a current of darkness and green-shot light. Where it reached the surface of a pool, it disappeared into it, indistinguishable. Her hair seemed fluid as well, but snowy white, pouring down around her to her feet. Her face and arms were moon white. (p. 18)

Things are not as they seem in Minneapolis.

Readers and Eddi discover things at the same pace, seeing the world reveal another aspect that had been there all along, hidden in half-sight. War for the Oaks is not obviously deep, but it is obviously, and tremendously, fun. It’s the kind of book that had me tapping my feet in gleeful anticipation of what would happen next, and I polished it all off within 48 hours of first cracking the covers.

Why does the book work so well? Eddi and Carla and the rest seem like natural people, even the supernatural ones like the talking dog (who also has an incarnation as a dapper gent) and the woman from the fountain. One slightly odd thing leads to another odder thing, and before the break between sets, Eddi is part of a fight between rival courts of the fae folk. Bull leads Eddi and readers into the other world step by step. It’s appealing, but also appalling, and by the time Eddi knows most of what is really happening, the only way out is all the way through and, if she survives, out the other side. It’s a great jam.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/15/war-for-the-oaks-by-emma-bull/

Jun 14 2018

The Royal Art Of Poison by Eleanor Herman

I’m one of those overwhelmingly practical (some would say dull,) people who, when asked which historical time and place I’d most want to live in, answers “Right here and now is just fine.” Don’t get me wrong, like any other closet romantic, I have a fancy for the decadent trappings of bygone Europe, with the caveat that the rich who could afford such finery were few and far between, the middle class were barely considered people, and the poor suffered even more mightily than those even a little bit higher on the social scale. Eleanor Herman puts it best when she contrasts the highlights of the past with the drawbacks:

I am seduced by beautiful gowns, glittering jewels, and gorgeous palaces. I revel in fantasies of candlelit banquets, river regattas, and royal pageantry.

It should be quite clear, however, that my answer to a theoretical life as a baroque princess is a firm no. At this point, I would be afraid to time travel even for a few hours–attend a Versailles ball, let’s say–because I might bring something horrifying back with me. Worms, perhaps. And if I stayed there longer, well, it would be hard to enjoy the splendors of court life if I were in agonizing pain. Or dead.

See, the royal courts of Europe were hotbeds of intrigue, with assassination attempts by poison at one point being thought to be so prevalent that monarchs and others in positions of power went to extraordinary, and to our modern eyes comical, lengths to avoid such a death. Still others openly researched new poisons and became notorious for an alleged mastery of this “royal art.” Documents from the era detailing poisoning, suspected poisoning, and the many gruesome forms of death which carried away the rich and famous abound.

It is these documents that form the basis for this immensely entertaining book. Ms Herman is a historian with an eye for irony, detailing not only the often unfounded fears of the nobility but also the many ways in which these same people were voluntarily poisoning themselves, whether through the advice of physicians, the pursuit of beauty or the general lack of hygiene and sanitation. She then spends the bulk of the text examining twenty-two famous historical cases where a person’s demise was suspected to have been helped along, comparing notes from the time with current medical and scientific knowledge to make an educated conclusion as to the real causes of death. Each case is given a juicy amount of gossipy background: I learned a lot of memorable information about European courtiers that I won’t be forgetting any time soon. I also learned a lot more that was flattering to Napoleon than my Anglophile upbringing had deigned to impart, so it’s not all decadent sexy time gossip.

I was impressed even further by Ms Herman’s acerbic recounting of how poisoning, which faded in popularity when the democratic curbs to the power of the European monarchy offered a less murderous alternative for effecting change, made a comeback with the Soviet state, and how its practices continue to date. She lists a quite horrifying number of poisonings that can be laid at the doorstep of one modern European ruler, who has his own medieval precautions:

Knowing that karma is a bitch, Putin is the only world leader known to employ a personal food tester as the kings of old did. Rather than relying on his security team to ensure his food is free of poison, as other leaders do, he has a physician on staff who works closely with his personal chef. Both ingest a little bit of everything well before it is served to him. We can picture them crossing their fingers that they won’t vomit, pass out, and glow an eerie green in the dark.

Ms Herman concludes with a handy guide to all the poisons she’s previously listed, as well as their effects and a list of darkly humorous superlatives. As with the rest of the book, she writes in a style that’s both engaging and educational. I appreciated that she doesn’t hesitate to reflect on what the prior political predilection for poison means in our modern times. The Royal Art Of Poison is a terrific look at a subject that is at once morbid and racy, and embodies the best of popular history writing.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/14/the-royal-art-of-poison-by-eleanor-herman/

Jun 13 2018

A Demon in Silver (War of the Archons #1) by R.S. Ford

Maybe I don’t read enough (hahaHAHAHA) but I honestly can’t think of a grimdark meets high fantasy series that is as accessible as R. S. Ford’s War of The Archons. Granted, we only have the first book, A Demon In Silver, but I was well impressed with how Mr Ford took the best elements of both genres to create a very readable series debut. Written as essentially a chase narrative, we’re introduced to the various players as they become embroiled in the pursuit of Livia Harrow, a farm girl who begins to display magical powers thought to have disappeared over a century ago. Best of all, the book then circles round to its beginning to upend everything we thought we knew about the narrative. It’s a thrilling, twisty trip through a brutal fantasy land that isn’t, thankfully, just a reimagined Europe, and I’m definitely on board to see where Mr Ford goes with this series next.

One thing I could use a little less of were the (thankfully only occasional) incidents of tortured prose. Style is as style does, and while I can overlook the creative use of adverbs (and the overuse of the word “trews”,) this next was just too much for me:

“Her fingers moved across the blanket that covered her until her fingertips were consumed by [her dog’s] soft fur.”

No, her dog does not have carnivorous fur, and no, her fingertips did not undergo some sort of physical or spiritual transformation. As much as I love my people at Titan Press (hello and thank you for the books!) this kind of nonsense begs for stricter editing. But if that kind of thing doesn’t bother you, then I can absolutely recommend ADiS as a terrifically written high grimdark fantasy, especially since it is far and away the most fun I’ve had with the genre since early Ciaphas Cain (which technically is genre-adjacent, I know, don’t @ me.)

Stay tuned for a special treat, readers: we’ll be posting an interview with the author himself on the 20th as part of his blog tour. Check out some of the other stops using the infographic in the meantime!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/13/a-demon-in-silver-war-of-the-archons-1-by-r-s-ford/

Jun 12 2018

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Like Going Postal, Making Money starts with a deus ex Vetinari. Moist van Lipwig has brought the Royal Post back to life, but the operation is running so smoothly that being in charge no longer satisfies his urge to take ridiculous risks. Lord Vetinari, the Patrician who rules the great city of Ankh-Morpork with a lightly tyrannical hand, sees what is happening and make van Lipwig an offer he can’t long refuse: ensuring the stability of the Royal Mint and, incidentally, expanding credit enough so that long-delayed public works projects can be financed.

As the story opens, the situation at the city’s banking system is anything but minty fresh, and that is having effects on the population, even in a quasi-medieval setting filled with wizards and Guilds and suchlike. Van Lipwig’s success at the Post plays a role, too. The stamps are convenient enough and available enough that people have been using them as a means of exchange, particularly for small transactions. Vetinari explains, “But they keep their money in old socks. They trust their socks more than they trust banks. Coinage is in artificially short supply, which is why your postage stamps are now a de facto currency. Our serious banking system is a mess. A joke, in fact.”

Van Lipwig, who has been both a con man and a showman, often both at once, counters, “It’ll be a bigger joke if you put me in charge.” (p. 38)

Except that it turns out a showman and a scoundrel are exactly what banking in Ankh-Morpork needs. The Lavish family, who have run the Mint since time out of mind have been using it to fund their eponymous spending. The Mint makes a loss on much of its physical production of coins. Its methods are antique, even by local standards. Its customer base is dwindling. It plays practically no role in credit formation.

Early on, Vetinari asks the crucial question, “What does gold know of true worth?” That comes at the end of a short back-and-forth with van Lipwig about tradition and innovation.

“You took our joke of a Post Office, Mr Lipwig, and made it a solemn undertaking. But the banks of Ankh-Morpork, sir, are very serious indeed. They are serious donkeys Mr Lipwig. There have been too many failures. They’re stuck in the mud, they live in the past, they are hypnotized by class and wealth, they think gold is important.”
“Er … isn’t it?”
“No. And thief and swindler that you are, pardon me, once were, you know it, deep down. For you, it was just a way of keeping score,” said Vetinari. “What does gold know of true worth?” (p. 37)

He then touches on the true backing of money, “a large, bustling city, full of ingenious people spinning wealth out of the common clay of the world. They construct, build, carve, bake, cast, mould, forge and devise strange and inventive crimes.” (pp. 37–38) Gold has very little to do with it, no matter what the traditionalists think.

Structurally, the book is a paean to fiat money. As has been said of turtles, it’s promises all the way down. Van Lipwig’s gifts for inspiring confidence come in handy when he is one of the first to discover that there is much less gold in the Mint than has been generally assumed, and not everyone is convinced of the new approach to money, backed by the industriousness of the city. It’s a thing damn’d close to a bank run.

Van Lipwig is not a complete charlatan. Here he is in conversation with Mr Bent, the Mint’s chief clerk and de facto operational head. Bent is also a gold bug of the first order.

Van Lipwig: “Look, I’ve been reading. The banks issue coins to four times the amount of the gold they hold. That’s a nonsense we could do without. It’s a dream world. This city is rich enough to be its own gold bar!”
“They’re trusting you for no good reason,” said Bent. … “There must be something which has a worth that goes beyond fashion and politics, a worth that endures.” (pp. 192–93)

For Bent, that something is gold. Making Money is, among other things, an extended demonstration that Bent’s position is untenable.

There are many other things in the book’s 470 pages, including plenty of humor and adventure. There’s quite a bit about the respectability or lack thereof of various businesses, and the snobbery behind much of banking as it is actually practiced. There is also a long plotline concerning golems and deterrence in international wars. The Watch turns up, in the nick of time, as does a zombie lawyer, who has a rather more expansive view of time. Igor has been there all along.

At the end of the teller’s hours, though, Making Money is all about just what the title says. People make money, full stop.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/12/making-money-by-terry-pratchett/

Jun 11 2018

Circe by Madeline Miller

(I’m quite proud of myself for cramming this book into my schedule before I had to return it to the library, so props to meee!)

Circe is a fantastic meditation on the stages of womanhood and on what it means to be human, bringing a minor character from Greek mythology to the forefront with her own compelling tale. Most people know that Circe is a sorceress who transformed Odysseus’ men to swine but was then charmed by him into not only changing them back but also into helping him continue his voyage. The rest of her story, however, is far less known, even to a mythology nerd like me. Madeline Miller gathers all the information extant on this character and builds a story that not only finds the beating heart of this remarkable figure but also shows with sensitivity and skill how universal are her desires and fears.

In all honesty, for long stretches of the book, I found Circe herself to be annoying. But it was sort of in the way I’d look back on my younger self and, if I was being perfectly honest with myself, cringe at how raw and silly I was in comparison to who I am today (tho to my credit, it didn’t take me hundreds of years to sort myself out, Circe.) I wasn’t a huge fan of her parenting style either. I get that being a single mother in exile makes for lonely, even crazy-making work (and God knows I have a lot of sympathy for other moms because children can be little demons,) but I felt that she took her son far too seriously. It isn’t the end of the world if he has a freak out: let him cry himself out in a safe area while you read a book or whatever the ancient Greek equivalent was. Even so, there were enough reminders of the timelessness of the female experience that made me feel for her throughout. By the time Telegonus had grown up and was eager to sail beyond Aiaia, I was 100% Team Circe. And oh that ending!

I was also impressed with the way other female characters were presented, especially Pasiphae and Penelope. Despite Circe being the heroine of the piece, it was clear that the other women, tho ostensibly her rivals, were pretty badass in their own right. I loved how Pasiphae skewered Circe’s self-pitying view of herself, and the relationship between Circe and Penelope was note perfect, complex and fraught until it wasn’t. I also loved how Circe finally confronted Helios, an emancipation that took her waaaaay too long but which I was glad for nevertheless.

Ms Miller writes with prose that is beautiful but rarely intrusive, and when it does jump out at you from the narrative, it’s hard not to stop and admire what she’s doing as her words seem to ring a bell within your heart (or my heart, I should say.) She tackles topics and achieves narrative triumphs that have few parallels in fiction, husbanding the familiar myths to tell fresh new stories that carry so much meaning in our modern world. I’m glad I had time to read this before plunging back into work reading.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/11/circe-by-madeline-miller/

Jun 11 2018

Truly Devious (Truly Devious #1) by Maureen Johnson

Okay, look, I read and review a ton of mystery series of varying quality over at Criminal Element and there is only one rule: each book should solve a major crime. The one exception to this rule that I’ve encountered before Truly Devious was also what I felt was the weakest of Louise Penny’s critically acclaimed Inspector Gamache novels, but even that pretended that it had solved the murder at the heart of its events. I won’t name which book because that would be a spoiler, but I knew the ending was wrong and was greatly gratified to find in the next book that I’d been right. But I also got to binge-read the series and know that if that hadn’t been the case, I would have been pissed (tempered somewhat by the fact that Ms Penny had built up enough goodwill with her previous books that I was willing to overlook my annoyance this one time.)

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Maureen Johnson doesn’t exactly solve any crimes by the end of TD. You get a solid lead on the identities of the people behind the historical kidnappings and murders, but the present day murder doesn’t feel properly solved: it’s mostly conjecture and then drama and then the book ends and you have to wait for the next books to find actual answers. I found that entirely irritating, especially since this was my first exposure to Ms Johnson and I don’t have any reason to believe that I’ll gain any crime-solving satisfaction from reading several hundred more pages in the distant future when the sequels publish. So if you, like me, hate it when mystery novels don’t actually solve their mysteries, consider yourself warned.

But don’t consider yourself warned off, as this is actually a really fun read in the “teenagers solving mysteries at school” subgenre. Ellingham Academy is like a real-life Hogwarts: free tuition and board (with a stipend included) on a Vermont campus where students are encouraged to learn at their own pace. The application process for the two-year school is agonizingly vague. Stevie Bell is thrilled to be accepted, especially as it means escaping from her dully conservative parents, who seem more bewildered than anything else by a daughter whose main aim in life is to solve crimes instead of the usual teenage girl pursuits. Stevie, you see, is enthralled by the decades-old mysteries of Ellingham Academy and aims to solve them all. But then one of her classmates is murdered, and suddenly crime becomes a lot less abstract for her.

My quibbles with presentation choices aside, I really like how Ms Johnson writes people and relationships. Stevie is a great protagonist, well-rounded and realistic. I particularly enjoyed her relationship with the head of security, who both encourages her intelligence while demanding she not risk her life in pursuit of the truth. They have a push and pull that rings much more truly than in other novels where the amateur sleuth exasperates the protective professional.

And, of course, there are excellent depictions of Stevie’s relationships with her parents and with her friends and classmates. The mystery itself isn’t quite as good, as far as we can tell, because we have no idea what the solution might be. I’m still annoyed that they didn’t at least solve for her classmate’s death, but I’m willing to wait for the next book because Ms Johnson has a gift for writing emotions and relationships. I just hope that the resolution is worth the wait!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/11/truly-devious-truly-devious-1-by-maureen-johnson/

Jun 10 2018

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Everything I said here about the greatness of the first half of Life and Fate holds true for the second. What strikes me most is how consistently he captures the contradictions of humanity, in situations both mundane and extreme. Some people are pitiless one moment and turn around and show great compassion the next; they feel exalted by events and then laid low by a chance phrase or an averted glance. This is not to say that his characters are random or that they behave with no apparent motivation; quite the contrary, Grossman shows their interior lives clearly enough that a reader can follow them to the highs and the lows, the betrayals that seem like the highest duty and the acts of mercy that they perform without a second thought, returning life when a much crueller fate might seem deserved.

Grossman’s canvas is as vast as the Soviet Union in the Second World War but most of his scenes are as intimate as a couple walking in the park, or a group of soldiers huddling in a cellar. Few chapters are more than four or five pages long, but together they add up to an epic of life and death during the war that’s as great as any on the subject. Part of Grossman’s brilliance is that he is content not to have all of the parts of his narrative connect, or connect only in the loosest fashion. He shows Soviet prisoners of war without needing to have them affected by their side’s advance, let alone having them rescued by other major characters, as a lesser writer might have done. He presents scenes within the headquarters of German General Paulus, humanizing the adversaries without lightening in the least what his army was fighting for. His sequence in a concentration camp and on the way to a gas chamber is connected only tenuously to the main characters — one of the people, Sofya Osipovna Levinton, is a friend of two women in the family at the center of the novel — but it is utterly heartbreaking without being pathetic or overwritten. Human to the very last, and the guards, the technicians, the attendants, the survivors taken out of the death line, all also recognizably human. The horror is compounded later in the novel when a character asks whether anyone has news of Sofya Osipovna, “she seems to have vanished into thin air.”

Continue reading

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2018/06/10/life-and-fate-by-vasily-grossman/