Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Kingmaker's Daughter

by Philippa Gregory. Fourth in her "Cousins' War" series.

Anne Neville, the younger daughter of the 16th Earl of Warwick, walks behind her mother and her sister Isabel at the coronation feast for King Edward's queen Elizabeth knowing that nobody likes this queen, that Edward should not have married her against Anne's father's advice. Warwick's support had been instrumental in putting Edward on the throne, and Warwick had expected his advice to be followed afterwards as it had been beforehand; his ambition to be the power behind the throne in England will shape the rest of Anne's life, first as he attempts to use her as a pawn and finally as she grows up to play the game herself.

I like Philippa Gregory's novels a lot, and I like this series better than her later Tudor ones. She's very good at taking limited information--and women from this period, even royal women, left few traces on the historical record--and using it to develop plausible characters. I particularly like her take on Richard III: neither the thoroughly and self-consciously evil villain of Shakespeare nor the thoroughly noble, slandered king some other authors have described, but an ambitious man who saw his chance and took it. This is a Richard I can believe in (especially since Gregory takes the line that Richard did not kill the princes in the Tower).

Very interesting to see the same events from a different perspective; Jacquetta and Elizabeth Woodville, both presented very sympathetically in their own novels earlier in the series, make great villains from another point of view!  But we've gone over these same events three times now, or in some cases four; I'm very much looking forward to The White Princess, which I hope will carry the story forward a little farther.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters.

Dr. Faraday remembers Hundreds Hall, where his mother had once been a servant, from his childhood before the war, but the house is very different when he is called there as an adult to treat the lone remaining housemaid. The family--Mrs. Ayres, daughter Caroline, and son Roderick--live in a few rooms, having closed off much of the house, and can only afford to turn the generator on for electricity a few days a week; the doctor remarks to himself that the house looks like it's starting to melt away. As Faraday finds reasons to continue visiting the family, horrifying things start to happen in the house.

This was our book club selection for this month, and a much more successful choice than last month's attempt on The Wings of the Dove. We had a very lively discussion on what exactly was haunting the house--one of us thought the building itself was possessed; we dismissed the suggestion of an actual ghost (brought up by one of the characters in the novel itself), and though a couple of us liked the idea of poltergeist activity caused by a still-living character, we couldn't agree on who was causing it.

It's a very leisurely novel, but once things started happening it got pretty creepy. I'd read more by this author.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Far West

by Patricia C. Wrede. Third in her "Frontier Magic" series.

Francine Rothmer, known as Eff, has mostly overcome the stigma of being a thirteenth child, considered unlucky by some, and mostly grown out of the shadow of her magically gifted twin brother, the seventh son of a seventh son, but she still isn't entirely sure what to do with her own life. She just knows she wants it to involve the Far West, the still largely unknown lands beyond the Great Barrier Spell that runs down the center of North Columbia, along the course of the Mammoth River. Western settlements within a hundred miles of the river notwithstanding, there's a lot of country and a lot of wildlife, both magical and otherwise, that have never been seen before. Eff has traveled that way twice, and is already thinking about a third time even before the government announces an upcoming exploratory expedition.

I'm normally quite interested in fantasy that takes on frontier America, as opposed to the vaguely medieval, vaguely European settings of so much high fantasy from Tolkien on. I think it was Jo Walton who referred to it as the Matter of America, as the Matter of Britain is the stories of King Arthur. Aside from Orson Scott Card and Lois McMaster Bujold not many writers have given it a shot yet. But I'm not sure what to make of this series. I love the author, and I enjoyed the first book in the series pretty well...and then ran across an internet controversy about the author's choice to depict a fantasy American West with no Native Americans. I hesitate to even try and summarize the two about twenty sides of that argument, but I came away from it feeling that my own initial acceptance of the premise (that the ancestors of the Native Americans had, in this world, stayed in Asia) as a reasonable enough starting point for the story says something not very flattering about my own biases.

In any case, the second and third books in the series came across as kind of repetitive anyway, and Eff is so self-effacing a character that if she weren't the first-person narrator she'd practically disappear.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Haunted Honeymoon (1940)

When Lord Peter Wimsey, amateur criminologist, marries Harriet Vane, professional writer of detective stories, they make a pact to give up crime. I'm not sure why they bother, since that's obviously never going to last, even before the former owner of their new country home is found dead in the basement the morning after they move into the house.

This movie version from 1940, starring a wonderfully miscast Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter and a rather more appropriate Constance Cummings as Harriet, is not available on DVD. The only way I got to see it was by pure luck; my boyfriend just happened to check the listings for Turner Classic Movies a couple of weeks before it was due to air, at 7:15 in the morning on a Wednesday. We checked to see that the VCR still worked, bought a blank videotape (still available at Walgreens), and I started taping it before I went to work.

I'm glad to have seen it. I now have some recording of every Peter Wimsey story committed to film: the Ian Carmichael versions of Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, The Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors from the 1970s, and the Edward Petherbridge versions of Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night from the 1980s, all of which I bought on DVD, and this odd little version of Busman's Honeymoon.

But it is odd, and the changes they made to the characters of Peter and Harriet are the oddest part. In the books it was obvious to both of them from the beginning that neither should have to give up a career for the other. The one thing that made Lord Peter think that maybe he ought to give up crime--his feeling that by pursuing monsters he was becoming a monster, and that sending a man to the gallows for murder was not substantially different from committing murder himself--is never mentioned here. Nor does his PTSD make an appearance.

I'd be quite interested in seeing a production of the original play now. I wish the BBC could have done this for television with Petherbridge and Harriet Walter, who had great chemistry in the three stories they did, but apparently they couldn't get the rights to it. Pity.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Confusion of Princes

by Garth Nix.

Khemri was taken from his parents as an infant, to be raised in isolation as one of the ten million Princes of the galaxy-spanning Empire. As such, his mind and body were augmented; Princes are stronger and faster than ordinary humans, mentally connected to the Imperial Mind, and capable of being reborn in a new adult body if killed in the service of the Empire and judged worthy of continuing to serve the Emperor. Khemri is somewhat shocked to learn that the reason why Princes pretty much have to be tough to kill is that other Princes are constantly scheming to eliminate rivals, to increase their own chances of becoming Emperor; only when officially on duty in one of the six Imperial Services are they more or less safe from murder or challenge, so Khemri joins the Navy. An offer to join a seventh, secret service sends his life in a wholly new and unexpected direction, but the chance of becoming Emperor remains at the back of his mind.

The world building in this teen science fiction novel is pretty amazing. The book is told by Khemri, who takes things like bitek, psitek and mektek for granted and explains very little; and he can't explain much about how the Empire works and what Princes actually do because he doesn't really know it himself. Nevertheless, the structure of the society becomes clear to the reader. Khemri starts out thoroughly self-absorbed and conceited; on becoming a full-fledged Prince at 18, he assumes that of course he will be the next emperor because, really, why else does he even exist? Lessons that come as a shock to him--like the concept that people may not always jump to obey his orders--do start to improve his character.

The book is episodic, and some characters in the first part who look like they're going to be important end up not playing much of a part in later episodes.  I enjoyed it, though.

(And it made me want to look up a book I read a long time ago: The Princes of Earth, by Michael Kurland, also a science fiction book for teens. I don't remember it well enough to know how much else it has in common with this one. What I mainly remember about it is some wordplay the main character engages in with his classmates at the University on Mars, which leads them to conclude that he may be worth getting to know better; it revolves around replacing an important word in a phrase with 'tomato.')