Head over to the other post for the mid-2019 analysis.
Book of the month: Circe, Madeline Miller
I have a confession to make: I accidentally joined a book club – that’s not the confession, sometimes life’s just like that – and I have spent three months not writing about the books from book club! But I LOVED Circe, so it was time to pull back the curtain and start including the monthly object of analysis. Circe is best known as a monster-of–the-week in The Odyssey, where she is a powerful but isolated witch who turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs and traps him into staying for a year. She also appears in other myths about the Titans, mostly in her capacity as the daughter of Helios or mother of Telegonus, who also has an eponymous but obscure epic The Telegony much like his father Odysseus. The “feminist retelling of classic-but-problematic story” genre has been gaining steam in recent years, as authors turn to existing works for inspiration and decide that sunlight is the best disinfectant for their biases, and I’m HERE FOR IT.
The Odyssey is not kind to its women – it’s not kind to anyone but Odysseus, who Circe rightly points out has a pathological need to always be the smartest person in the room – and women like Circe and Calypso and Penelope are especially short-changed by a story whose main character always has to be right, even when he’s not. Miller, instead, gives voice to a character who is always someone else’s supporting player, gives her a narrative and consistent personality, and lets her discover her motives and values under her own steam and not by the hands the powerful men (and gods) around her. She breathes an internal monologue into a genre (mythology) that’s famously external to its characters’ inner lives.
I also want to give a shout-out to the writing style – Miller totally nails the distinctive and idiosyncratic mythology voice, with quirky similes and meandering sentences. (Not that I would know anything about meandering sentences…)
Circe is Miller’s second novel – the first, The Song of Achilles, is coming soon from a library near you (well, near me), and I can’t wait for her next work.
Genre: character study. Setting: mythology. Format: novel. Reason I read it: book club, but that was just the excuse to move it up in line. Rating: 3/3, delighted to read Greek mythology that isn’t just Zeus behaving badly
The Psychology of Time Travel, Kate Mascarenhas
In 1967, a reclusive group of scientists invent time travel. During their first public demonstration, one of their number unfortunately finds that too many trips in too short a time can cause disorientation, and after a very public breakdown is expelled from the Conclave, the time travel agency the inventors founded. Over the rest of the novel, the wringer of non-linear time is applied to a locked-room mystery, a romance, institutional power structures, and the psychology of grief. Also, there are only about two named male characters, and they have almost no bearing on the plot. All of the inventors of time travel and the vast majority of the Conclave’s staff are women, and the characters barely seem to notice. I have read many a book where the same overwhelming fraction of the cast are male and this is never remarked on – when the same overwhelming fraction are female, while not especially uncommon, it is always noted. Sometimes the most effective statement is to create a world where women in powerful, central positions is so implicitly common as to be unremarkable.
Because Mascarenhas’s focus truly is the psychology of time travel, I wish she had pared back the locked-room mystery (which was a little too twisty) and dived more deeply into the psychology of a few key characters. If we’d had more exclusive focus on Ruby and Odette’s outsider perspective on time travel and travelers, the exploration of the toxicity of the Conclave might have been more effective. In particular, Margaret’s paranoid, absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely leadership style reverberates through the entire lifespan of time travel (which inexplicably stops working about 300 years after its invention) because a single lifespan is no object when she can spread her influence over time. She leads a culture of actively selecting agents for lack of empathy and pushing hazing rituals that further desensitize them, which protects the Conclave’s public image, but irreparably damages its culture. But the mechanic that time is a stable loop, which is required for the locked room mystery to be solved, limits the scope of Ruby and Odette’s revelations on these themes. No matter that they realize that the Conclave is rotten and actively impeding its agents’ ability to relate to others, the timeline is set, and they can’t change anything. It’s frustrating that the characters don’t seem to realize what insight they had, and even if they did, nothing could come of it by the story’s own rules.
In most other months, this would have probably been the featured book, but Circe was stiff competition.
Genre: character study, high concept, speculative, mystery. Setting: science fiction. Format: novel. Reason I read it: recommendation. Rating: 3/3
The Backstagers Volume 3, James Tynion IV (words), Rian Sygh (pictures), Walter Biamonte (also pictures)
I didn’t realize that Backstagers was going to get a volume 3 since the story of the malevolence within the backstage netherworld had wrapped up pretty well in volume 2. It turns out that’s because the main arc had indeed wrapped up, and volume 3 features cute little day-in-the-life moments with the characters themed around holidays. It’s cute, but not very substantial, and I would have liked to get more character development if I wasn’t going to get any more plot. The art’s still gorgeous though.
Genre: character study, speculative. Setting: magical realism. Format: graphica/comics. Reason I read it: series continuation. Rating: 2/3
The Empty Space, Peter Brook
I was hoping that this would be a book about directing from one of the most famous theater directors of the 20th century. It’s not – it’s a philosophical exploration of how theater succeeds through illustrations of ways it can fail, and is absolutely not practical or about directing specifically at all. Although it wasn’t what I thought I was getting, it was great. Learning through process of elimination – discovering what’s effective by examining and eliminating what’s not – works really well for me. (One of my most frequently recurring frustrations is that search functions on websites almost never have an exclude option.) Brook explores the motivations, philosophy, and choices that underlie both effective and ineffective productions. Much of his praise centers on the value of patience, experimentation, and thoughtful choice. He contrasts these outcomes with lazy “choices” that are just following convention rather than actually being made with intent. I’ll be taking these insights with me to shows for a while yet.
Subject: drama criticism. Reason I read it: research. Rating: 3/3
Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides, Kate Heartfield
Nearly done with my quest to read all the Nebula and Hugo nominees for best novella, with two more (and the Nebula ceremony!) this month. (Arrives is the nominee, and Rides is the completion of the duology.) Unfortunately, this is so far the weakest of the lot. A muddled time travel spy vs. spy story, this nomination has to have been won on sheer strength of Alice’s personality. The characters have clear and distinct motives and the stakes are well defined (a common struggle with time travel stories). But unfortunately the complex worldbuilding is all over the place and leaves far more questions than answers. Crucially, it fails to make the case of why the central conspiracy to stop time travel forever might succeed, especially since ringleader Prudence doesn’t seem like the most competent agent. There are two warring factions of time travelers, but their opposing ideologies are both poorly defined and defined far too late. Titular Alice and her inventor partner Jane are entertaining and the best part of the books, but their chemistry isn’t enough to buoy Prudence’s bumbling conspiracy and the confusing setting.
Genre: high concept, speculative, issue. Setting: science fiction/historical fiction. Reason I read it: award nominee. Rating: 1/3 both
The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard
Also a Nebula nominee, and one I liked rather more than the above – and since reading, crowned the winner! Sentient spaceship Shadow’s Child takes on odd jobs rather than venture back into deep space, which enables long-distance space travel, and where she was traumatized by the loss of her crew. Long Chau hires Shadow’s Child to help investigate a mysterious and possibly criminal death… of course, in deep space. Also, Long Chau is Sherlock Holmes and Shadow’s Child is Watson. In space.
As some of the most popular characters in filmed adaptations of all time (let alone literary adaptations, which are too numerous for me to find a list of), a writer really has to have something new to say about Holmes and Watson to justify yet another version. Fortunately, de Bodard does. (As do the creators of Elementary, which I am literally watching as I write.) Not only does de Bodard have a genuinely novel take on these classic characters (framing Shadow’s Child’s trauma as survivor’s guilt is particularly thoughtful, which Elementary also does. We also see the pair’s genuine partnership and Long Chau gets through the loner-jerk phase much sooner than usual), the mystery they tackle is actually worthy of their detective skills. Of this year’s nominees (I have read 5 of 6), it would have been a close call between this and Murderbot #2 for my vote – and since Murderbot #1 won last year and we’re getting a Murderbot novel (eventually), we’re all the winners here.
Genre: mystery, character study, high concept. Setting: science fiction. Format: novella. Reason I read it: award nominee. Rating: 3/3, the game is in fact afoot