This Week, I Read… (2019 #51)

162 - The Signature of All Things.JPG

#162 – The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Read: 12/3/19 – 12/8/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (106/100); The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: A book that was gifted to me
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

A four-star first half with a one-star ending stuck on the back end.

I went into this blind in terms of actual content, as this was a gift I received. I doubt I would have bought it on my own, despite loving both science and the history of science–I would not have trusted Gilbert to write that novel well, knowing what I do about her other works.

But it was a gift, and I finally read it. At first I was surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Henry was a fascinating character to set up Alma’s story, and she was still reasonably interesting, though I do see why some reviewers find her lacking in comparison. One of the strengths of this work is that the side characters are all given full, even lush, personalities and backstories–no one is glossed over as unimportant, and that does lead to the risk that side characters could catch a reader’s attention more than the heroine. I found her engaging enough that I was fine following her around the length of her life, but I do see the potential for other, better stories in many of the minor players.

However, that level of devotion to all characters does lead to a certain narrative ponderousness, a slow pace that drags further when one has to stop the main story to find out everything and anything we’ll ever need to know about this new character being introduced. I didn’t mind so much in the beginning, but by the time Alma goes to Tahiti and I had to sit through the entire life story of both the Reverend and “The Boy,” I was worn out on being introduced so thoroughly to each and every soul in the book.

The more fundamental problem I have with this is that it’s an incredibly long walk to get to a very short pier. I see how the pieces fit together. I see how every person in the story was necessary to Alma’s decades-long journey through the fields of science, and more literally, from her home all the way to Tahiti and then abruptly to Amsterdam. It’s a long chain of connect-the-dots across years and continents, and the scope is incredible. I know the how, but in the end, I’m unsatisfied by the why. I was quite bitterly disappointed to realize that this is, at its deepest core, literary fanfiction for The Origin of Species, and not a particularly good one, at that. All that work to put an OC into actual history and not have it go anywhere, not fulfill any purpose! If I’m going to read that style of reimagining, I’ll just pull Neal Stephenson off my shelves, he makes it far more entertaining.

The ending was just so bland, so unfulfilling, so purposeless. Why did I follow Alma for nine decades and five hundred pages only to discover she was happy with her life despite not really accomplishing much of anything?

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#163 – Cibola Burn, by James S.A. Corey

  • Read: 12/8/19 – 12/12/19
  • Rating: 4/5 stars

A slight dip in quality compared to the first three in the series, but still really engaging–in the second half, anyway.

Part of my problem was the slow start. It took me three days to read the first half and one to read the rest. There’s so much setup to the politicking on the newly settled/contested planet that it’s a slog at the beginning, despite what is supposed to be a big “boom” of an opening–literally.

Part of my problem was one of the new characters. I loved Havelock’s story–surprised to see he’s back, of course, but he was the perfect counterpoint to the villain, whose primary flaw was inflexibility, while Havelock weighed the relative benefits of company loyalty against morality and made the “right” choice. Basia’s story was okay, he’s got grief issues about his lost son and he’s emblematic of the sort of pioneer spirit of the settlers. But Elvi was by far the weakest female character this story has ever produced. It’s not that I don’t see how the choices she made about her love life made sense, from an introverted scientist’s perspective. She’s actually a reasonably complex character, so I can’t level the “two-dimensional” criticism at her. It’s just that her entire function is to be the science girl and tell Holden things. Yeah, she figures out how to stop the plague, she’s not entirely useless. But the story focuses so much on her crush on Holden, which is “solved” by banging someone else entirely so she stops throwing her sexual energy in a useless direction and can get back to doing science. Putting her in the climactic sequence with Miller and Holden at the end felt wrong, like she was sorely out of place, and it didn’t really finish her character arc in a satisfying way. I’m not even sure what her arc was supposed to be; she’s not completely without agency or heroism, but her purpose is murky, narratively speaking, unless she’s just the lens we view Holden’s actions through. And since Holden still has his own POV chapters, I’m not sure that was entirely necessary.

So that’s the bulk of why this was a four-star read instead of a five for me. I still enjoyed it a lot; I still think the series is moving in an interesting direction, giving us a bit more information on both the protomolecule civilization and whatever it was that destroyed them, while moving along humanity in what is obviously a reasonable direction: of course settlers are going to go squat on newly available worlds! Humans explore things! We colonize them! We get ourselves into trouble! Which is basically the thrust of this entire story.

What I really liked, though, was Avasarala’s epilogue, spelling out to Bobbie what the consequences of this new human migration would be. Things are going to get even more interesting from here, and I look forward to having both of those beloved ladies back in the future.

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