Sunday, May 20, 2007

Blast From the Past. Reposted from 2007

Recently I was introduced to the student of a friend who exclaimed upon introduction, "Oh, M's told me about you! You read hundreds and thousands of..." pause here for me to anticipate her saying something along the lines of 'weighty Shakespearean tomes' (even though I don't) while trying my best to look humble, as if students at top colleges all over the country are constantly being awed by my *ahem* overwhelming smartitude... then imagine my dismay when she instead said, " fiction and fantasy novels!!"

"What?! No!"

"I do not! Hardly. Barely, practically not even, that... often. 'Doh!"

I don't know why I'm afraid to admit my inherent dorkiness. After all, I come by it honestly- my parents raised us on a diet of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica and whenever the piercing beep of the smoke alarm in the kitchen sounded (don't tell my mother I let out that this happened on a fairly regular basis, it probably had less to do with her cooking skills than with the distraction of trying to make dinner with seven rowdy children runing around underfoot) they thought it was hilarious to dash from the room shouting, "Phaser on overload!! Run, run!!" I think I was in high school before I realized that not all families had customs such as these. *sigh* We were not what you'd call, "cool."

The truth is that when I look over my book journals many of the titles written there technically fit into this category, but when I hear "scifi/fantasy" I immediately and off-puttingly picture a mass market paperback with a luridly drawn cover featuring a) a busty blonde heroine with a sword, b) a musclebound brooding hero with a sword, c) an evil magicians and/or dragon d) busty aliens with swords, or e) all of the above, and I cringe.

I am not a fan of Robert Jordan, can you tell?

Most of the great stuff I've read I found in the children's section, but since the advent of Harry Potter the children's fantasy market is so flooded with crap that it's hardly worth plowing through. It appears that publishers will take anything with the word magic in it no matter how poorly written or tired it is.

The "adult" section (hmm, that sounds wrong) of the genre has always been like this as far as I can tell. There exists a level of cheesiness that is hard to find anywhere else (no, romance doesn't count. It's composed entirely of- not even cheese- processed cheese food, like Velveeta). While there are definitely gems- Tolkein, of course, Michael Marshall Smith's futuristic noir novels, or William Browning Spencer's Zod Wallop, and plenty of others, and what I do like I tend to really, really like- I usually don't even bother browsing in this area of the library unless someone recommends a book or author to me.

So I was cautiously optimistic when my good friend Morgan recommended a book called, "His Majesty's Dragon." It was described as "Patrick O'Brian, Jane Austen, and Anne Mcaffrey all rolled into one." I would differ only to say that Novik is a much, much better writer than Mcaffrey (see earlier comments re: cheese).

The book (the first in a series) is set in during the Napoleonic wars in a world exactly like the one O'Brian and Austen wrote about (or, you know, exactly like the one I assume O'Brian wrote about without having actually read any of his books, although I did see Peter Weir's "Master and Commander," which I'm pretty sure counts) with the small distinction that Novik's world includes dragons.

Novik does a wonderful job making this inclusion seem natural and believable. The dragon character, Temeraire, manages to be both dignified and appealingly childlike at the same time. His- at first, reluctant- handler, Captain Wm. Lawrence, is a bit of a stuffed shirt at first, but he's actually very decent under all of his British proprietry. Lawrence's relationship with both Temeraire and the Dragon Corps (the slightly scandalous but indispensable dragon branch of the military) challenge and change him for the better.

I'm almost finished with the second book, "Throne of Jade," and have enjoyed it as much as the first. The only drawback now being that the fourth book is still being written. To keep myself occupied, I'll be keeping an ear out for news about the Temeraire movie that Peter Jackson, who recently acquired the rights to the books, is hopefully going to produce and direct.

[Update: as usual in a fantasy series, the first book was by far the best. They went downhill after that. I think I read three before I gave up. Why can't sci-fi/fantasy authors just write a great book and leave it at that? I suspect pressure from publishers plays a role. The movie doesn't seem to be going anywhere, mostly because instead of just wrapping up a story the author keeps leaving each book open ended and writing another. *sigh*]

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