#132 – The Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb
- Read: 9/30/19 – 10/5/19
- Challenge: Mount TBR (84/100)
- Rating: 5/5 stars
I love it when a sequel is better than its predecessor.
I’m not always the best at figuring out mysteries and putting together two + two to equal a plot revelation. But Hobb has spun out the whys of her world-building with such grace that I can see the “what” of things without always understanding the “how.” Even before the revelations were explicitly stated, I knew them, on some level, even if I couldn’t have explained them in detail beforehand.
Yet one major reveal at the end was still a complete surprise, even though it made utter sense in retrospect, and has left me with half a dozen new questions to ask the final book in the trilogy.
Another strength of this story is that Hobb knew which characters to let diminish and which to strengthen. Kennit is a more complex character now with a stronger presence, while Wintrow’s importance wanes. Kyle is blessedly absent after the loose ends of the previous book concerning him are tied up–his only importance becomes his memory, in how it motivates Malta, who also gains greatly in complexity and importance in this story. Paragon and Amber, who were likable oddities in the first book, are now more fleshed out, while Brashen and Althea take smaller roles.
In many cases, it seems that we’re not following individual character arcs, but rather arcs of story relevance–not everyone is going to remain useful for the entire length of the trilogy, and some characters serve to introduce us to others later, like passing off a baton in a relay. I can see it happening (potentially) here at the end of the book–Keffria has never been of much import other than being Malta’s mother and Ronica’s daughter, but she’s handed a bit of intrigue to accomplish in the next book, and who knows if Ronica has even survived? Her importance to the plot might be passed along to Keffria.
That brings up my only real quibble with this book, and it’s not major enough to ding it a star, because it’s an issue of personal taste more than style–but with two books down and the stakes really high, our characters do seem to have pretty serious plot armor. Only one named character of any real importance has died, and he’s minor at best. Pirates die, slaves die, cities burn or crumble under earthquakes, but our important characters always seem to survive, though there has been some grievous bodily harm. In fact, most of the main cast, at this point, is wounded to some degree, but it was one in particular, Wintrow, who truly seemed like he should not have survived his ordeal, that really brought this point to my attention. Important characters simply won’t die. While I’m not bloodthirsty by nature, and I certainly don’t want any given character to die, there’s enough danger going around that I feel like the possibility should be available. And it could be that someone will die in the next book, maybe even early on, maybe even from the events at the climax of this book. But I wouldn’t bet money on it.
#133 – Atonement, by Ian McEwan
- Read: 10/5/19 – 10/7/19
- Challenge: Mount TBR (85/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
- Task: A book you see someone reading on TV or in a movie
- Rating: 1/5 stars
I saw the movie, once, many years ago–probably not too long after it was released, I feel like I rented it from the Blockbuster we still had in town back then. But despite seeing it only once, and so long ago, I remember it vividly and could still have described every major plot point. It was elegantly crafted, it was tragic, I enjoyed it.
So of course, when I saw the novel at a used book sale, I picked it up for pennies. I am completely unfamiliar with Ian McEwan’s work, I only know there’s a lot of it out there, and I don’t believe I was aware the movie was an adaptation of a novel at all, back when I saw it.
I have to say, though the plot remains unchanged, the book has ruined the story for me, solely because of the atmospheric contempt for femininity that runs unchallenged through the entire work.
Briony is deeply flawed, to be sure, and in theory I want male authors to give that sort of in-depth treatment to their female characters. But Briony is also a child, and she’s depicted from the very start as a little tyrant trying to lord her artistic vision over her cousins; jealous of the apparent maturity of Lola, two years her senior and far more womanly already; self-loathing of her own imperfections, naivete, and the very notion of childhood itself. There’s even a scene where she whips nettle heads with a stick, naming each one after something she hates, and eventually it comes around to herself. Because that’s as close to literal self-flagellation as we can have a child character approach.
Briony is the worst, and the narrative never lets us forget that.
But okay, okay, the book is about her “atonement” for the mistake she made as a child, which means she can’t have been good to start with. So why are the other female characters also so weak, helpless, victimized and self-loathing? Cecelia spends the first half of the book bemoaning her uselessness and lying about dramatically. Their mother, Emily, a minor character at best, still gets a POV chapter where she explains to herself, and thus the reader, that she’d love to be a better mother to her children, if not for the crippling migraines, and because she isn’t a good mother, she’d best lie still and hate herself for it. Lola is the traumatized victim who can’t speak for herself, who doesn’t even know who actually attacked her, even though on some level it’s incredibly freaking obvious, but goes along with Briony’s mistake because she’s weak and hurt. (To McEwan’s credit, it is at least made clear that Lola was not in any way inviting her fate, and from the start, Paul Marshall’s character is stuffed with clues about his pedophilia. I wish all books that touched on this subject were at least this transparent that pedophilia is wrong, but time and again that proves too high a bar to set for some authors.)
In the movie, I thought the story was beautifully tragic, not just because of the eventual reveal of Robbie and Cecelia’s deaths, but because Briony never fully understood that ultimately, it wasn’t entirely her fault. She was a child, and so many of the people around her could have stepped in and done something to prevent the disaster in the first place, or questioned her story afterward, because it still strains my credulity that Robbie was convicted on her testimony alone, basically. I can see so many logical places for another character to speak up and say, hey, this doesn’t seem right.
But the book, with its pervasive air of disdain for all things female, takes that tragedy and makes it the just result of being a creative but tyrannical child, and female, because would a boy the same age have so greatly misunderstood the events of that fateful night? The entire plot hinges on the innocence and outrage of girlhood in the face of burgeoning sexuality, and yet McEwan doesn’t respect his female characters at all, turning the tragedy into a punishment.
#135 – The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn
- Read: 10/7/19 – 10/9/19
- Challenge: Mount TBR (86/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
- Task: A novel based on a true story
- Rating: 4/5 stars
I was surprised by how readable this was for historical fiction–I got through its 500+ pages in just over two days. What? Really? But it occurred to me, as I was nearing the end, that in some ways this is historical-lite; not that it doesn’t concern actual places, times, and events, but that it isn’t bogged down by them or by excessive detail, instead choosing to focus on the characters and their emotional journeys. In that way, its style reminded me far more of good romance than historical fiction, and there is a romantic subplot to help move Charlie’s chapters along.
Here’s the thing, though. Charlie’s half of the story is far weaker than Eve’s, especially when it becomes clear that most of what Charlie is suffering now (uncertainty, lack of direction, loss, grief, and unintended pregnancy) Eve suffered herself, and generally far worse. Charlie takes pains to point out to Eve a few times that she knows her personal trials don’t compare, and it’s true, and good of her to acknowledge. But that doesn’t make Charlie more interesting, it just makes her slightly less of a brat. Her romance with Finn (who is charming and I adore him because, even as thinly fleshed out as he is, I am a complete sucker for stoic but considerate men) fills the space in her half of the narrative where Eve would be doing spy things, and much as I love romance, in this case, spy things are simply more interesting.
The other minor failing of the dual alternating plot lines is how blatantly obvious each small mystery becomes. Rarely do we have to wait more than a single chapter to have a question answered, and many chapter-pairs are tied together by glaringly obvious repeated lines, be they lines of poetry, or nuggets of wisdom Eve tells Charlie which we hear again a chapter later being told to Eve herself, years before. It’s a small thing, but it was like a repeated tiny slap in the face every time it happened, saying “Look how clever this narrative structure is! Look! Look!”
For all that, this novel does tell a story worth reading, and despite its accessible style, doesn’t do anything to gloss over the horrors of war, especially those inflicted on women.