This Week, I Read… (2018 #30)

106 - In the Company of a Courtesan

#106 – In the Company of the Courtesan, by Sarah Dunant

This might be the best male/female friendship and business partnership that I’ve ever read. Which is not at all what I thought I was going to be getting out of this book.

Having read one Dunant work before, I expected the lush detail in the prose, the well-composed characters, and the thematic examination of a woman’s role in society through the lens of a female protagonist.

Imagine my surprise that the narrator is a man, and a little person. His “deformity” does a lot to move him out of the category of men-the-courtesan-could-sleep-with, and that aspect of it would be troubling in modern times but is entirely believable of 16th-century Venice. But his height defines his character, not in the lazy and comical way media often treats little people, but in the natural, true-to-life way of informing how he’s grown up, how he interacts with the world around him, and the troubles and dangers that come along with living in a city not made to his size.

The courtesan and her life are not romanticized at all–only once do we get to peek into her bedroom for a tender moment, and even that isn’t sexually charged. Her profession is depicted as exactly that–a job. One where she has to spend hours making herself beautiful, where she has to gauge the competition, where she has to know when to play politics and when to idle on the sidelines.

What kept this from being an amazing read instead of a good one was the pacing. At first, the goal was clear–Rome was sacked, they have to survive, get to somewhere safe, and set up shop again. Once that was met, they had to become successful.

And that happens in the middle. So when a chapter ended “…we were content.”, I was wondering where the story was going. Something else had to go wrong, and while I saw some hints of foreshadowing with some of the minor characters, I didn’t have a clear picture of the direction the narrative would take.

Once I finished, I liked the book less. It’s not a terrible ending, but tonally it’s quite different from the early story, it’s rushed, almost tacked-on, and it relies on a series of revelations that solve a mystery I never realized was present in the story to begin with. I know I’m not the most observant reader in that regard, and I have a strong distaste for the mystery genre because of it, but this was basically being smacked in the face with an answer to a question I’d never asked.

107 - The Golden Compass

#107 – The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman

It’s been a long time since I read a fantasy work that felt so original to me in terms of world-building. That’s not to say that every aspect considered separately is new–the technology level described here is basically steampunk, even if it’s missing the usual trappings–but the combination of everything produced an ambience, an aesthetic, that felt fresh and interesting.

I also loved the deconstructionist theme–question everything, don’t trust adults simply because you’re a child, organized religions can do as much harm as good.

Still, there are some obvious and gaping flaws in the story I couldn’t miss, even star-struck by how much I loved the themes and setting.

The foreshadowing is obvious and terrible, so heavy-handed I had major plot events figured out light years ahead of time. I’m trying to give that a mental pass, though, because I’m an adult, and as a kid, I probably wouldn’t have seen so much of this coming. Still, I wish there had been more subtlety.

The alethiometer is the worst kind of plot device. Lyra never has to figure anything out for herself, because she can just ask it a question and it will tell her exactly what she needs to know. It didn’t bother me at first, when we saw her learning to use it, because her explanations to others of how she interpreted the symbols’ meanings was interesting. But it’s never explained why she can read it at all, when everyone else says they wouldn’t be able to without one of its books to decode the symbols; Lyra fails to consult it at key moments for no apparent reason except that the plot needs her not to have the answers; and late in the story, she gets increasingly detailed/specific answers from it that seem far beyond the rudimentary readings I was willing to tolerate in the beginning.

By the end, I hated the alethiometer more than Rowling’s Time-Turner from the Harry Potter series, which was the previous record-holder for Worst Magical Device.

And even when Lyra doesn’t magically know everything because of the alethiometer, that’s okay, because whenever she needs to travel somewhere, an adult will spend the time telling her everything they know. I get that she needs to be “taught” by a bunch of adults as part of her learning not to trust them automatically, but it was an obvious narrative pattern that quickly tired me. Whenever a new crisis arose, first Lyra had to listen to some adult exposition-dump at her. In the case of the imprisoned Scholar, I mind less because Lyra is using her blossoming cleverness to lead the conversation where she needs it to go, and that’s character growth. But that’s the only time it felt natural or useful.

Corollary to that, if Lyra is supposed to question everything, why are so many characters around her completely trustworthy? Sure, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel are the worst, but what’s wrong with Serafina Pekkala? Lee Scoresby? As far as I can tell, they both told her the absolute truth according to their knowledge, and never betrayed her. Even better (or worse) is Iorek, who is a fantastic character, but is the most steadfast, loyal, and lovable one in the whole book. Yeah, one could make the argument he’s only protecting and aiding Lyra for honor, he was ordered to, but by the end there’s clearly affection between them, even if we only have Lyra’s love for him confirmed, and not his for her.

When does Lyra ever question or distrust Iorek? The one time she thinks he might fail her, it’s not because he wasn’t trying (he was) and the damn alethiometer even tells her twice to trust in him. So Iorek is a brilliantly written character who nevertheless undercuts one of the major themes.

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