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[Book Reviews] [Sociology] Ignorance of background stories, China, Japan, and fiction

Thu, 2015-09-03 22:10
Hello, Internet! After tithenai's glowing review some months back, I put Ken Liu's "The Grace of Kings" on my to-read list. I recently finished, and said on Goodreads:

This was a good book that came so close to being a great book. Truly excellent world-building, well realized characters who develop and change, compelling moral dilemmas with clear paths only sometimes available. I loved the first 40% of the book unconditionally, and there was still much to love in the following 60% -- thoughtful, robust female characters, political machinations, two supporting characters who almost separately Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the entire thing. Since this is the first installation of a series, I'm still holding out some hope for a more satisfying arc further down the line.

The thing I didn't like: there's a turn in the development arc of one character where they take a path that I think they're smarter than. It's a big, epic, tragic-heroic flaw, but the character's development up until that point seemed to indicate more insight and maturity than that, so it was a disappointing "and now doom happens, for a preventable and foolish reason" development. History's full of that, sure, but it didn't seem consistent with my read of that character.

Four stars, and hope for the future. I'll try the author's Hugo-winning translation next!

Welp... it turns out that apparently it's based on history and that guy really did do that thing. Hahaha, whoops.

"In The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s telling a version of the fall of the Qin dynasty, and the Chu-Han contention, in an alt-Hawaii-ish setting with gods and zeppelins and it’s totally great. But more to the point (for this essay, anyway), he’s using storytelling tricks which remind me a great deal of Ming Dynasty classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and it’s these techniques as much as (or even more than!) the setting that make the book feel so fun and deep at once."

But not being already familiar with the Chu-Han contention, I thought it a disappointing gap in characterization only so dispiriting because the rest of the book is so great. Ahahahafacepalmhideunderthetable. Stranger than fiction. But one of the reasons I liked "The Grace of Kings" so much was that it spoke to a narrative I didn't already know and hadn't seen already done to death. Hooray, larger world. (I would love to see what those of you who know more about Chinese history and classical literature than I do think of it.) The author also has a collection of book-relevant links on his blog, including another perspective on foundational stories. Worth checking out!

In the course of finding out the above, and discussing it with ilcylic, I said:

Raven: Oh man. He has a free short story up and it's brutal. Unit 731.
ilcylic: Whee.
Raven: Yeah. It's brilliant, though, even if its conceit is very unlikely. Fantastic depth of characterization and multiple perspectives. In case you feel like reading really thoughtful sci-fi about war crimes and justice, heh. (And what is history, and who controls it.)
ilcylic: Well, the opening is interesting.
Raven: It's worth it all the way through, but man. Oof.
ilcylic: Indeed. I can't imagine sight-seeing such a thing. Even for historical purposes.
Raven: Yeah. I think they'd need, like, shock historians.

So I kinda want to go read the relevant source material for "The Grace of Kings" and then go back and see how that changes my perspective on the work. I might have to amend my review appropriately, though I think there's value in the reactions of both the unfamiliar and the educated reader, so I'll probably leave the original text and then just add to it. Besides, by the time I get around to that, the second book might be out, heh. In the meantime, on to "Three Body Problem"!

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[Book Reviews] "Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba"

Mon, 2015-08-24 17:14
Hello, Internet! I have recently been thoroughly delighted by one of my finds from the Garden District Book Shop, "Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of Baroness de Pontalba". This book was *magnificent*. The author's site does a pretty good job of summarizing it, as well as giving you a guide to her authorial style. Up-front disclaimers: the events depicted in the book are horrible in parts -- attempted murder, children that died in infancy (they don't get a lot of coverage, but pretty much any factual book about that time period that focuses on family life and law is going to have some... the titular Baroness has five children in her marriage, three of whom make it), widespread societal sexism and denial of a woman's right to self-determination, theft of fortunes. But the book's treatment of some of those difficult topics is one of its great strengths -- the author brings to life the contrasts between the assumptions of most nineteenth-century mindsets versus our own modern assumptions, and that allows the reader to broaden their experience of the book. She's also helpful in pointing out how things that horrify us would have been "meh" to most people of the time and vice versa (privacy! it worked differently!), due to those worldview deltas. I particularly liked her explanation of the family-centric asset managements vs. individual control of money in the French courts. (Like, law court, not waiting-on-the-king Empire court, though it was often the nobility of the Emperor's court who went to the law court to argue about money and property.)

Dr. Vella provides a thorough background of New Orleans further back than I had read in detail, which finally made clear to me the intersections and cultural tensions between the French New Orleans government to the Spanish-Creole government back to France and then finally Louisiana Purchased into America. Aha! One side of the heroine's family (her family by blood) were Spanish nobility, the other (her family by marriage) French nobility, and she goes back and forth in the book between New Orleans and France, investing heavily in real estate and inheriting property in both. It's the best book I've read on the changing economics of the aristocracies of the time, and how that shaped the city. Literally -- the heroine's New Orleans holdings included the buildings around what is now Jackson Square. She was the architect. It's a deep look at property rights, the rights of women, the differences in marital law between France and Louisiana, urban planning, charitable giving, and a complicated love-hate relationship that defied both families in turn and inspired an opera. I'm loving it. I'm seeking out everything else the author has written -- apparently she's got a book on George Washington Carver coming out this year that I'm totally going to read. I love her authorial voice -- she gives you what's known of the facts, and describes how she got this data, but she doesn't hesitate to pass judgment when that's appropriate, and her sly wit is *hilarious*. Five soaring transatlantic iron arches out of five.

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