Serpent’s Reach – Afterthought

I am on a serious CJ Cherryh binge right now. I think after I started reading The Wind-Up Girl (still only halfway) and got so bored by its character clichés that I figured I need to turn to something better, and since I’ve never actually delved too deep into Cherryh’s Alliance-Union universe save for the two Hugo winners, I might as well start at the beginning.

I’ve decided to start Union-side because there’re only 4 books (and a short novella) in the series, plus I want to re-read Cyteen again. I first went to Wikipedia because, for crying out loud the background is so ridiculous that you definitely need the Cliffnotes before you start (to be fair, there’re 27 books total in this series so I get how it became this way). Serpent’s Reach is the first one. It follows a woman whose clan got wiped out in a political move and basically is a long-con revenge story with some star-system shattering endings.

Let’s get the bad parts of this book out first: mainly the pacing. There were several time skips and I thought they were abrupt and frankly, either need to be expanded or completely removed. Right now they’re in that awkward place where you have enough details to want more but don’t get any. Like the years the protagonist spent between her exile from a planet and arrival on a ship. There’s a whole chapter devoted to her physically aging. Like, what? You couldn’t just go ‘she was 16, now she’s 29, here’s a summary paragraph about what she did during that time, done?’ And the plot would work out pretty much exactly the same, so this definitely came across to me as really unnecessary.

I also found some of her plot elements intentionally too vague. Overall the book feels like it’s been cut due to page constraints or something, because there were a lot of uneven detailing going on. I couldn’t figure out what happened at the end to the Kontrins until I looked up the plot on the Internet! I mean I got the sense that the planet blew up and everyone died (it didn’t), but not exactly what went down. An additional sentence or two would be more than enough to clear it up, instead of me just have a vague feeling of dread, which worked very well in Downbelow Station but not here. Guess that’s why that one won a Hugo and this one, not so much.

And now onto the good stuff – the great things that makes me such a devoted Cherryh fan – her characters and their relationships. (With a healthy dose of political intrigue, although not too much for this book.) I loved the parley between Raen (main character) and Pol (sort of antagonist but turned out to be antihero-ish). They were completely on equal terms when it came to connivance and ruthlessness that it made Raen just as terrifying as all the male villains (a lot of media doesn’t do women the same justice). That had always been the case with Cherryh –  her aliens are wonderfully alien, her men are emotional and exquisite, and her women absolutely frightening. It’s special in that her women are NOT devoid of emotion (no “ice queen” or “stoic assassin” here), on the contrary,  usually it’s driven by passion or hunger for power or, in this specific case, revenge for the death of her entire family.

Her male characters, on the other hand, tend to be the “heart” of a story. The helpless ones, the insecure ones (which most of them overcome if they’re given enough screentime), the downtrodden ones. And I don’t mean all her men are like that, I mean if there is a character in an ensemble who’s more on the powerless side, it’s assigned to a male character and not a female one, unlike convention. There’re plenty of strong male characters in Serpent’s Reach, by all means, but the least ruthless (arguably?) was a clone named Jim who eventually gained independence through his own volition. It’s refreshing to see, and all the power dynamic he had were flipped from the norm (at least in 1980s terms). I love that he eventually gained the same mindset as Raen through “programming”, which brought out the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. I also love that her entire Union-side stories tend to focus exclusively on this because of the clones. It just added more dimension to what it meant to be human (along with, of course, the super non-human aliens such as the majat and how they navigate a world completely different from the various strains of future homo sapiens.)

Reading Cherryh’s books makes me happy. It’s escapism at its finest for me, because I can forget about how depressing the real world works and just lose myself in this new, more fascinating future. I know some sci-fi people love because it really could happen, like Star Trek give people hope and optimism for the human kind and such. Well, I don’t think this series is it, necessarily. In fact some facets of it I hope never come to life. It’s like the world of Game of Thrones – no way you want to actively strive to create a world just as such, but if you’re already in it, it is quite an awesome ride to live vicariously through.

The Last of the Wine – Afterthought

Reading a Mary Renault historical book is like sipping tea on a cozy afternoon in your favorite chair. The prose is so technically superb, the plotline so well-crafted, the characters so vivid that you feel like you’re talking to them in your living room. It felt, well, very British, in a sense (fitting considering the time they were written and she was a British lady). Nothing seems to be actively happening but so much is going on that they all roil under the surface like a boiling pot. It is more in what is not said, or said so subtly that it’s missed, that drives the stories.

The Last of the Wine is all of those and more. At certain points I had to put the book away because it went from 0 to 60 in a few pages flat. I was not expecting reading a brutal description of javelin someone in the neck and then excruciatingly killing them out of mercy so soon after the narrator barely put on arms in the same chapter. I literally went “Okay time to go do something else” in the middle of the paragraph and took a cooking break. For a book filled with men discussing philosophy and the virtue of love and justice it also gets ridiculously violent. Alexias (narrator) has been through so much crap that it sometimes feels a little too artificial. But that’s my only critique – a Greek narrator in a historical fiction got a little bit larger than life. It worked very well for Alexander the Great in the Alexander novels; in this particular book sometimes it takes one out of the immersion.

There are so many other reviews of this book that touches on how immersive, how rich, how vivid all the setting and characters are, that I’m not going to discuss it here. (I think the fact I feel like I’m physically sitting down with Alexias and listening to him recount his life story is proof enough.) I, however, am going to talk about an aspect that is very much true to ancient Greek culture that kind of baffles me, and that is the relationship of lovers. I’ve read Plato’s Republic and know the bones of Symposium, so the concept that the highest form of love is between a youth and a more mature man is not foreign to me. But Renault took it one step further and explored how it is actually applied in real life, and it just warps my mind how the two people involved navigate the concept of women and marriage. True to the time, women and slaves are in completely separate categories from “men.” But Alexias speaks of his love for Lysis as fundamentally not in conflict with his desire to marry and have children, or have a female prostitute or two, and neither does Lysis. It’s just bizarre to me that they can take their respective women to supper together, or remain in love (in the philosophical and physical sense) after Lysis has gotten a wife, or that Alexias get to sit on the chariot with the bride and groom as a wedding send-off and everyone sees it as the norm! I mean, I do understand it in a theoretical sense, but in practice with a real-world situation (figuratively) makes it harder to grok than  what I’ve read in sci-fi alien societies.

On  a less academic note, I did get a kick out of how furtively she portrayed when the characters, shall we say, shared a night together. There are times I didn’t even realize what had happened until way later, and went ‘Oh of course!’ and then had to flip back to double check. I can see how my much younger self had missed quite a lot of conflicts due to simply not understanding the implications, which also explained why I was baffled by the progress of events and remembered nearly nothing about the book. Every sentence actually means something broader, so if you skim a word you might miss out the point of the entire paragraph. But don’t fret; this isn’t Finnegan’s Wake. It’s not written dense just for the sake of being dense. I am far from an academic intellectual, and the book works for me just fine.

And that line that Socrates threw to Kritias – savage in its simplicity and made me rethink Socrates as a real o.g. Yep, gangsta philosophers – that’s what The Last of the Wine truly distills to. It’s definitely one of those books I’ll re-read in the future. Now to move on to a new adventure – something sci-fi to balance it out, perhaps?

Lolita – Afterthought

Let’s just start with the fact that I tried to read this book three times before and failed. I couldn’t get through the first 100 pages without feeling sick to my stomach – the first time I was barely out of my teens. I had trouble separating the “I” from myself when I read, and so when the narrator describes the horrific things so casually, as if it were a normal occurrence that normal men go through, it filled me with disgust. So I would always stop, put the book away, and neglect it for the next few months or, in the last case, years.

Well, I suppose the fourth time and almost a good decade between attempts mellowed me out. I finally finished the book, and did not get sick or give up. I guess age and experience actually helped in this case? Now I could talk about it like a piece of literary work instead of something to be feared. My MFA colleagues were always going on about how beautiful Nabokov’s writing were. Now I actually understood  what they were raving about. I’ll have to say that I’ve never been more glad for the invention of the Internet. There were so many words I did not know in this book, and a lot of seemingly arbitrary foreign phrases, that I basically kept Merriam Webster’s website open on my phone the whole time I was reading. I probably should’ve splurged for the annotated version of this book – although it’d distract from the first reading experience, it’d also help quite a lot. I was stopping every few pages to look up some unknown phrase anyway.

Like everyone else had praised, I found Nabokov’s prose masterful and beautiful. He crafted a very unreliable narrator, although I did not find Humbert sympathetic and definitely picked up on the deliberate use of omission when it came to Lolita’s actual well-being. I thought the first part of the book was fascinating, but after the death of Charlotte the story meandered into a very tedious road-trip across the most mundane places of America. It’s a very literary book, full of references I did not understand and begging to be analyzed and critiqued in a college seminar. The ending was weird and abruptly violent, especially coming from such a coward and weaselly man like the narrator. The story structure could definitely be tighter, but I guess everyone was too shocked and disgusted to get to the second half of the book at the time, judging by the subject matter. Or that taste in book pacing had changed since 1955. Probably the latter.

The narrator did leave me a little bit confused in the end. He seemed to be still attracted to Lolita, who had long outgrown the pedophile-attraction age. So was I supposed to think that Humbert had fallen in love with a “normal aged”person, just like the non-pedophilic adults forgoing sleeping around with every attractive youngster for the older person they’ve decided to love and marry? Humbert still fantasized about the 12-year-olds but only in passing. I don’t know if this was Nabokov’s way of drawing parallels between what we considered “grotesque” and what we considered “normal.” I don’t know any pedophiles, and I’m not a pedophile, so I have no idea if people like that can actually give up all the young children when they somehow meet “the one” who’s of the appropriate age. Doesn’t seem likely, but like I said I have no actual source for clarification. It seems like Nabokov has gone a little far in normalizing pedophilia attraction. It works when he uses the same phrase a normal person would use to describe who they find attractive to prepubescent girls. It doesn’t quite work when Humbert’s still in love with Lolita after she aged past it. Pedophilia is not a fetish, it’s a mental disorder. I’m not buying that Humbert can still be so hung up on Lolita even after she’s grown up and got pregnant by another man. I would’ve expected him to move on to other children by then, and hold the same faint attraction for Lolita as the first girl he was with when he was a teen.

Anyway, that’s enough talk about pedophiles for the day. Funny that the current book I’m reading is about pederasty, and written in 1956, and also in first person. Completely different genre, however. It is interesting how society change in what we considered “normal” through history. At least with this book I don’t have to look up words every few pages, because they’re kind enough to include a glossary on the front matter.