This Week, I Read… (2019 #39)

126 - Ship of Magic.jpg

#126 – Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 9/14/19 – 9/21/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (81/100)
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

It’s amazing to me how this book has nothing to do with the Farseer Trilogy, explores different characters, different ways of life, different aspects of magic, and yet is still obviously and convincingly set in the same world. Kudos to Hobbs’ fantastic world-building; this is not epic fantasy where there’s only one City and everything else is vague notions of far-off places, this is a complex and cohesive setting that I have no doubt can carry the weight of the sixteen books set it it.

I fell in love with most of the characters–Vivacia, Paragon, and Brashen especially–and despite the slow, detail-heavy pace, they kept me invested over this dense 800-page story. However, that love of the characters led to a more minor version of the syndrome that frustrates me about A Song of Ice and Fire now, and years ago made me give up on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time six books in and never look back: the “make me care about a character then ignore them for a hundred pages” paradox. (In Jordan’s case, the breaking point was when my two favorite characters were entirely missing from an entire book. Martin’s ASoIaF is nearly as bad.)

Here, it did sap my will a little to be following so many POV characters across so many story lines, especially late in the story when stakes were getting really high. The most notable issue was Wintrow’s predicament after he ran away, I almost skipped ahead to find out what happened to him because I didn’t want to wait for the pace to get me there naturally. I resisted and let it happen in its own time, but I admit to pretty severe frustration.

What I think I admire most about the writing of this is that every single POV character is clearly the hero of their own story, some almost to the point of self-absorption and two in particular (Malta and Kyle) well beyond it. Even the more compassionate among them think almost entirely of themselves, and thus have only themselves to blame for their bad decisions (which are many and varied) made in pursuit of their goals.

Kyle in particular, from the perspective of basically any other character who interacts with him, is clearly wrong about nearly everything, but he nearly goes to his death still convinced that none of it is his own fault; whatever goes wrong for him is the result of the weakness, stubbornness, or willfulness of others. The fact that he’s completely incapable of introspection makes him an antagonist in this story, but an understandable one–haven’t we all known someone who has good intentions and makes decisions that are meant to benefit others, but can’t accept that they don’t know best? I hate Kyle to his very bones, but I never questioned that he wasn’t motivated by a desire for unreasonable personal power, but simply the betterment of his family’s lot in life. He’s a terrible person who does some of the most purely evil things that happen in the book, but I can still understand and even sympathize with why he does them.

And I could explore and unravel the goals and desires of every POV character in that much detail, and more. Hobb spends the whole book examining the nature of duty, loyalty, and the limits of personal freedom, whether it’s on board a ship or inside a family. The end ties together some of the individual story lines in interesting ways while leaving others completely hanging–I’ll definitely be moving on to the second book soon, though I’ll give myself a break with some lighter reads first. But I’m invested, and my quibbles with the book that kept me from giving it a fifth star are not nearly enough to stop me from continuing the story.

127 - AlterWorld

#127 – Alterworld, by D. Rus

  • Read: 9/21/19 – 9/22/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (82/100); PopSugar Reading Challenge
  • Task: A LitRPG book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ 10%, and trust me, I didn’t even want to read that much, but it’s my minimum personal cutoff for feeling like I really gave a book a chance.

I’m a nerd. A geek. I played World of Warcraft seriously for years, I know the lingo. And since I watch a hell of a lot of anime now, I can slot this book right down there with the worst isekai I’ve ever seen.

My complaints are many and wide-ranging, so I’d better get straight to them.

1. The grammar and punctuation are atrocious from the very first page. Given that I knew nothing about the author and this is set in Russia, I did wonder if English was not the author’s first language, and behold, upon looking him up, D. Rus is Russian. But there are Russian-language editions as well, and no translator listed anywhere I could find, so while obviously I give non-native authors leeway in their skill in English on a personal level, there’s no excuse for it in a published work, that presumably saw editing by a native speaker at some point. If it didn’t, it needs to.

2. There are no explanations for any gamer terminology given as it’s introduced. Yes, I’m a gamer and I know what it all means, but any non-gamer would be lost almost right away. Even with the understanding that gamers are the target audience and the major readership, I was still put off by seeing so much jargon go without context.

3. AlterWorld, the game, is bland and entirely generic. It’s so cookie-cutter standard that I can’t see why anyone would want to play it, let alone give up their mortal existence and live in it. I certainly don’t want to read about it. And if there are interesting aspects to it that are revealed later that I didn’t get to, well, they should show up much earlier to get me hooked, because Mr. High Elf Necromancer nearly failing to kill a level 1 bunny is just not interesting enough to keep me going.

4. The real-world setup for the idea of “perma stuck” is sloppy and rushed, just online “research” the main character breezes through with vague notions of governments being concerned about their citizenry deliberately wanting to lose themselves in online games and putting preventive measures in place. If this has been going on for two years, how has Max never heard of it? He specifically says he avoids all gaming news, and yeah, I can see where the early instances would pass him by, but if world governments are passing laws and mandating safety measures, if suicide rates are apparently skyrocketing, how big are we supposed to believe the rock is that he’s been living under? The setup simply isn’t credible.

5. Max himself is one of the most irritating narrators I’ve had the displeasure of reading this year. Half the time it seemed like he couldn’t complete a full thought before bouncing to the next one, jumping through real-world situations that could take entire scenes in a single paragraph.

I only attempted to read this because the PopSugar Reading Challenge this year called for a LitRPG book, and this was popular, highly rated, and available for free. I doubted I’d like the genre, because quite honestly, I’d rather just play a game myself than read about someone playing a game. But I tried, and it’s laughably awful, and I’m never going to touch this genre again, I’ll put those potential hours into my latest Skyrim character instead, thanks.

128 - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

#128 – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

  • Read: 9/22/19 – 9/24/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (39/48); The Reading Frenzy’s “Back to School” Readathon
  • Task: A book with stars on the cover
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It was long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the major story arc, the journey out to the newly-allied planet, isn’t introduced until a quarter of the way through the book, and then the trip itself is filled with so many short and separate subplots, I almost felt like this was a season of television instead of a novel, it was that episodic, and little from one episode carried over to another, except for very small amounts of character growth.

I like the characters, and I like the alien species we encounter, and I like the AI rights subplot, and I like the ship. It’s all very likeable. But I wasn’t really moved much by any of it, and sometimes it felt like the story was an excuse to have philosophical discussions between these likeable characters about inter-species cultural issues. To the point where, fascinating as they often were, I still felt like they were the point of the story, and not, you know, the plot.

I’m tempted to call it fluffy, because the tone is generally light and reminds me of the best parts of Firefly–except that it actually has aliens instead of endless swathes of white humans dotted with token PoC–but the subject matter isn’t usually all that fluffy. Partway through we learn that most humans are pacifists, which presents interesting dilemmas for the crew, especially the captain, when presented with violence and war. The AI stuff is about the right to exist and be recognized as equal to organic life, and then Ohan’s arc is about the right to self-determination, played out through a complicated dance of religion, disease, and culture. There’s inter-species sexytimes going on, there’s xenophobia, there’s danger. It’s not fluffy.

Yet, at the end of it, I’ve come away more motivated to write my own ragtag bunch of shipmates their own story than I am to either reread this one, or continue the series. It’s not a bad thing for a piece of media to be inspirational, not in the slightest, but I’m left with the sense that, despite the length and the extensive universe-building, I’m still missing the meat in this space-fiction sandwich. I’m still hungry for something more.

129 - The First Time She Drowned

#129 – The First Time She Drowned, by Kerry Kletter

  • Read: 9/25/19 – 9/26/19
  • Challenge: Virtual Mount TBR (40/48)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In some ways, this is an ambitious novel, tackling trauma, mental illness, toxic family relationships, and suicide all in one story. But in others, it’s lackluster–in essence it’s the same story I’ve read dozens of times across YA and women’s fiction: bad things happen to a young girl and she spends her teenage years dealing with the fallout of it. Or in this case, pointedly not dealing with it. Her family isn’t just not-supportive, they’re actively harmful to her, and while I won’t argue the existence of toxic family–I have had my own experiences there–Cassie’s nuclear family was so dysfunctional that it seemed more melodramatic than realistic.

The flowery, “poetic” language didn’t help. I didn’t find it beautiful, I found it off-putting. Eighteen-year-old girls who spend almost three years institutionalized probably don’t have internal narration that studied and literate and stuffed with metaphor. I’d have felt better about the prose style if it had been in third person instead of first, because I just couldn’t believe the inside of Cassie’s head sounded like that. (The constant inter-cutting of present and past didn’t help, either. Flashbacks are fine to some degree, but these were near constant.)

I found Cassie herself just as off-putting, if not more. I’m always hesitant to say “I don’t like this female teenage main character” because of all the sexist baggage that comes along with women not being allowed to be “unlikable” in fiction the same way men are. But I didn’t like Cassie, and more to the point, I didn’t see why anyone else would, either. In the institution, sure, friendships are going to develop between the patients because of the time spent together, the forced intimacy of living side by side for months or years, and the shared experience of being isolated from society. But once Cassie got to college, I simply didn’t understand why anyone chose to spend time with her. After Zoey saves Cassie from her illness (and her own stupidity,) she’s done her good deed and been the Good Samaritan, and yeah, maybe she hangs out for a while out of guilt or concern, but Cassie is pretty awful to be around (whether it’s by her own fault or not, ultimately.) So why does Zoey like her? And for that matter, why does Chris? His attraction seems shallow, though to be fair, so does hers, and when Zoey blatantly attempts to pair them up like an obnoxious wingman, Cassie treats Chris really badly. I can’t imagine any guy I treated that way in college doing anything other than bailing on me and finding a girl who wasn’t a complete jerk. So Chris basically likes Cassie because the plot needs him to.

The only thing I found believable about the whole story was the behavior of Cassie’s mother. In some ways she seems too awful to be true, but I’ve dealt with that kind of narcissistic, cruel, gaslighting-type behavior from a few of my family members as well, though thankfully for me it wasn’t anyone so close to me as my mother, and also thankfully, they’re no longer in my life. But the emotional manipulation Cassie suffered struck all the right (wrong?) notes in me, and I hated her mother with a deep and profound passion.

I’m not particularly pleased that the only part of the book that resonated with me was the very worst of its subject matter. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.

 

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