This Week, I Read… (2021 #12)

#34 – The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Mount TBR: 33/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Has a map
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

As a longtime Kay fan who is finally working through some more of his back catalog, I could say about this novel nearly everything I said about A Song for Arbonne when I read it late last year. Sweepingly epic. Potentially as good as Tigana, my first Kay novel and a very high water mark to meet. Will probably reward rereading multiple times.

I do think this might edge out Arbonne for grandiose levels of tragedy, though. While the epilogue does show us happy endings for a small subset of the large cast of characters here, it’s definitely bittersweet at best. What is it about the fall of nations that inspires and fascinates this author so much?

But I was captivated by these characters as individuals, I think more readily than any other Kay work I’ve read since Tigana. I constantly felt the push and pull of the shifting loyalties and the duties each person bore to their faith, their country, and the people in their immediate circle. It was so complicated at times that I truly wasn’t sure how things would play out, not in the way that I felt like I was purposefully being kept in the dark–the subtle clues are undoubtedly there for me to catch next time, that I missed this time. But I appreciated the sense of surprise and uncertainty.

Also, I was crying buckets of tears pretty frequently throughout the final hundred pages, so yeah, I fell in love with these characters.

If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the three major religions of the setting, being obviously analogous to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are a primary source of conflict throughout the story, without adding much flavor to the world itself. They’re little more than fancy labels to attach to a character to explain why they’re treated a certain way, or why they treat someone else as they do; the strictures and taxes imposed on the Jewish analogue are mentioned repeatedly, but nothing of their faith as a culture, and even less is said about the other two in that sense. I’m aware enough of the history this is based on to fill in some gaps myself, but I would have appreciated more richness to the text about it.

#35 – Unquiet Land, by Sharon Shinn

  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Lost royalty
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A lackluster end to a subpar series. I’ve been a fan of Shinn for just over two decades now, and for me Elemental Blessings can’t stand up to either Samaria (my overall favorite) or The Twelve Houses (which contains my single favorite novel of hers but isn’t quite as good throughout.)

But I’m not reviewing the whole series here, just this last installment. And it’s not even as good as the earlier novels, which I didn’t think were particularly great. I basically finished this out of loyalty.

So, first: I cannot recommend the audiobook, I strongly disliked the narrator. There’s always a risk with fantasy or sci-fi that the speaker isn’t going to pronounce the made-up names the way you/I think they should be pronounced, and this time around it was a constant irritation to me. (“Zoe,” however, actually is a real name, and hearing it pronounced it “Zoh,” one syllable, was like being flicked in the forehead every time, mildly painful and immensely annoying. There were others, but this was the worst.) Also, I found the insertion of accents that don’t exist in the text, in order to differentiate characters from each other, to be actively harmful to the story, with a subtle air of racism to it. The “noble” or otherwise rich foreigners got highbrow, vaguely British accents; the Welchin guards and traders, ie, working-class folks, got vaguely Irish accents; the love interest, also a foreigner, got what I can only reasonably describe as an incredibly plodding, nearly monotone pan-African accent that I couldn’t possibly assign to any one of the hundreds of languages it might have been supposed to emulate. I wouldn’t have liked this book anyway–I’ll get to the story issues in a moment–but the narration definitely made the book worse for me.

Okay, second, the story. Also plodding, for most of its runtime, as there were very little stakes to anything for the first two acts, and a great deal of that time was spent on the minutiae of running a high-end imports shop. I think some of it was necessary, of course, but there was just too much of it, and rather than making me appreciate the hard work of being a shopkeeper (as this shop was backed by the royal coffers and didn’t need to make a profit,) I simply feel like the author was indulging in a love of describing very pretty things for their own sake. I like pretty things myself, but this felt overly repetitious.

(You know, I’m noticing that the worse I think a book is, the more adverbs I end up using in the review. I have to make sure everyone understands that the story wasn’t just repetitive but “overly repetitious,” etc. I’m not going to edit any of them out, but I bet if I go back and read a sampling of my other one- and two-star reviews, I’ll find the same thing.)

Even setting the pace aside, there are issues. The new culture/country/people that are introduced as the villains here aren’t just different, aren’t just bad in mundane ways, they are actively horrible and Evil with a Capital E, and in case you weren’t sure that their “extreme” view on morality was the wrong one, oh wait, they’re also vampires. Not in the magical creature sense, but it’s a Rich Person Thing for them to drink human blood. There’s simply no subtlety to it, and also I had put the clues together far earlier than the story finally revealed it, which made the slow grind toward the characters figuring it out boring.

Our heroine Leah has her arc from “I abandoned my child because I wasn’t ready to be a mother” to “everything’s fine and I’m a mom now” basically handed to her on a silver platter, because Mally is an improbably perfect child who accepts her without the slightest hesitation, never displays any real trauma or lasting effects from her unusual upbringing, never throws a tantrum or misbehaves in any way, and is a preternaturally wise and powerful child. Leah herself doesn’t really have to do much to make their new relationship work, because Mally is so perfect. Even her future non-romantic relationship to the child’s father pretty much sorts itself out without a lot of input from her. Shouldn’t Leah have to do something? Anything at all?

And the romance. Um, what romance? I’ve never felt less chemistry between the leads in any Sharon Shinn novel I’ve ever read. Yeah, some of their story is back in Jeweled Fire, which I did only read once, and several years ago, so I don’t remember it perfectly. But here, in this book, the romance is “Hey, I really missed you.” “Hey, I really missed you too, but I have this exceptionally dark past and I don’t deserve love.” “Hey, maybe let’s talk about that?” “Okay, we talked, things are still weird but now let’s bang.” And then suddenly at the end of the story there are high stakes that come out of nearly nowhere and baffled me with how quickly they have to be set up, and then how painlessly it’s all resolved.

So disappointing.

Should I stop reading new Sharon Shinn books and just revisit her earlier, stronger series when I need a comfort read? And now that I’ve spent all these hundreds of words exploring all my frustrations with this book, do I think it’s bad enough that it’s actually only worth one star? Hmm. No, I generally have to hate a book or not be able to finish it at all to give it one star, so I guess this can keep its two. But I’m giving Shinn’s newest series the side-eye and thinking that maybe I should just not read it.

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