No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, July 16, 2017

2017/69: Christopher Wild -- Kathe Koja

The will is honed, trained, playful, relentless, the mind its twin in dark exuberance and nerve; and the body breathes in and out, one with the breathing world,rapt and glorying in even the smallest things -- the feel of breeze on bare skin,the vagrant scent of smoke, pink glitter of rain on a neon sign,the humble heat of bodies massed together on the train -- and all the vehicle and joy and habitation of Chris Marley, Christopher to his friends, his name a dare and a beacon, symbol and sigil, the poet's name, X04. [p. 195]
Any new novel about Marlowe is relevant to my interests, and Kathe Koja's more so than most. I'd seen the trailer and read the blog posts ... but I wasn't sure what to expect apart from poetic, visceral prose.

The first third of the book ('The Skinner's Trade') covers Marlowe's known life. He's working on a play, 'The English Agent', that the Service has requested, though they are unlikely to be happy with the results: his fellow intelligencers are thinly disguised, inept, corrupt. But Marlowe is trying to write himself a door, a way out.

The middle third of the book ('Night School') has Christopher Wyle, or Wild, tutoring a Miss Sloan in poetry; the setting is an unnamed American city in the middle of the twentieth century. A time of war, of subterfuge -- Chris becomes involved with the Free Speechers, resists recruitment by a shadowy import/export company (or do they have some deeper purpose?) and works on a poem about Icarus and Orpheus.

The final third ('Quod Me Nutrit') is set somewhere in Europe in a dystopian near future, a surveillance state where Chris Marley, tracked by the cuff on his wrist, goes by the tag 'X04': he's a poet, an activist, something akin to a rapper. State Security -- 'the Red House' -- would like him to write for them. He's disinclined.

Each section starts with the words 'he comes to himself in the alley'. He's been beaten, but doesn't recall his assailant. There are other resonances: the month of May, a song about mermaids, thunderstorms, birds in flight, Saint Sebastian. Resonances of names, too: a fellow named Deering, or Reeder, or Reed; a lover named Rufus or Rudy or Ruby ... they're caught up in the resonances, too. 'Why did you call me Kit?' 'I ... don't know.'

The poet -- he is always a poet -- writes by hand, one knee propped up; smokes tobacco; can't, and won't, be controlled by the men who think he serves them. He lives light, always ready to run, to move on: his only treasures are his own words, the notebooks in which he's written. He is, by his own admission, not a careful man.

This is a book that rewards a second reading, not least because the final quotation (from Marlowe's own translation of Lucan's Pharsalia) alters our perspective on the tripled selves of the novel. That said, I suspect this is a work I'll be returning to again and again.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

2017/68: The Lawrence Browne Affair -- Cat Sebastian

Sodomites had been a favorite subject of his father’s rage-fueled tirades... lumped in with other crimes against nature, such as Catholicism and being French. [p. 154]
Lawrence Browne, Earl of Radnor, is mad. (He's not technically the Mad Earl: that sobriquet was given to his elder brother, who's now dead.) Lawrence, who has sensory perception problems (loud noises make him anxious: he likes his environment to be predictable), is perfectly happy living hermit-like in Penkellis, his crumbling ancestral home, doing Science. Most of the servants have left (a small matter of an explosion or two) but the vicar visits several times a week. One day he suggests that Lawrence might benefit from a secretary.

Enter Georgie Turner, younger brother of the more ruffianly Jack (one of the protagonists of The Soldier's Scoundrel. Georgie has got on the wrong side of a London crime lord and, for his own safety and that of his friends and family, decides that Cornwall is an excellent career move. He arrives at Penkellis with the intention of doing a little work, determining whether the Earl is really mad, and absconding with any portable souvenirs that catch his eye.

It is, however, not that simple.

Lawrence has a conscience, and believes that he is inherently bad and broken. Georgie is also, irritatingly, developing a conscience: not a success factor for a professional conman. Lawrence is gratified by Georgie's interest in, and growing understanding of, his scientific labours (they are inventing something rather like a telegraph); Georgie discovers a new-found passion for learning and intellectual challenge. Also a, possibly not as new-found, passion for strong men chopping wood in their shirtsleeves.

Add a Cornish smuggling ring, a doomed marriage, an orphaned child, and a notorious rake (see The Ruin of a Rake) ... a very entertaining read, and an emotionally satisfying romance that's founded on mutual respect and consideration.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

2017/67: The Ruin of a Rake -- Cat Sebastian

... to combine scientific pursuits with actual orgies struck Julian as excessive in all directions.[loc. 63]
Julian Medlock is a shipping heir, the epitome of a Regency gentleman, whose carefully-polished exterior that armours him against the world and hides a number of secrets. Lord Courtenay is a notorious rake, penniless despite his aristocratic name, who has become bored of being bad. Courtenay is widely acknowledged to be the inspiration behind lurid bestseller The Brigand Prince of Salerno -- a novel which Julian knows rather well.

Eleanor, Julian's sister, is unhappy despite her unladylike scientific pursuits: she has surrounded herself with what appears to be a circle of reprobates, Courtenay chief among them. Julian feels responsible for his sister, whose unsuccessful marriage he helped arrange. Summoned by his sister's butler to 'rescue' her from the perceived depravities ensuing from her friendship with Courtenay, he finds himself involved in a scheme to improve Courtenay's reputation -- ideally without wrecking his own. He is uncomfortably aware of Courtenay's good looks: now he begins to realise that he's misjudged the man.

Charming, funny, and notable for having a protagonist who is good at accounts. Julian is, perhaps, his own worst enemy: but he and Courtenay mellow one another's less admirable traits, and even manage to communicate effectively. I think this is my favourite so far of Cat Sebastian's novels: and it's the third in the linked trilogy which began with The Soldier's Scoundrel. I realised I'd missed out the middle volume, The Lawrence Browne Affair, so set out to remedy that omission.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

2017/66: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen -- Lois McMaster Bujold

"So, how long has my mother had this questionable fetish for bisexual Barrayaran admirals? I don’t think even the Betans have earrings for that one." [loc. 4825]

Three years have passed since the death of Aral Vorkosigan. His wife Cordelia, being Cordelia, has not resigned herself to a faded life of mourning: she is Vicereine of Sergyar (the planet where the two first met, back in Shards of Honour) and is pursuing a number of projects. One of these involves Admiral Oliver Jole, who has appeared -- fleetingly -- as Aral Vorkosigan's aide in several previous novels, and is now revealed to have been Aral's lover for many years, in a polyamorous relationship which shivered to pieces after Aral's death. Cordelia and Jole have remained close friends, though, and at the beginning of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen Cordelia returns from Barrayar with a freezer-case full of genetic material and a very interesting offer for Jole.

This novel focusses on Cordelia and Jole's renegotiation of their relationship, and of their lives. Jole is about to celebrate his fiftieth birthday: Cordelia is in her seventies (though Betan lifespans are typically well over a century): they have both lived full and worthy lives, and they have both grieved the same man. Now, perhaps, it's time for a change of direction.

Which is obviously when Miles and Ekaterin and their six children show up.

I find I don't have a great deal to say about this novel, though I enjoyed it immensely. My first great crush on the Vorkosigan Saga is two decades in the past: I was only vaguely aware that Aral had died, since I haven't read the last couple of novels in the sequence. But I returned to Cordelia like an old friend; I'm saddened by the death of Aral; and I am quietly pleased that he had Jole, as well as Cordelia. (In the early books it was clear that, while bisexual, he preferred men: Cordelia was the exception, because she was nothing like a typical Barrayaran wife.)

I'm happy, too, that characters past the first flush of youth are written as romantic and sexual beings; that they communicate well with one another, rather than having the kind of difficulty that comes from mutual incomprehension and is so common in flimsier romantic fiction; and that Betan technology gives Jole a chance at parenthood with the person he loved.

I strongly recommend Foz Meadows' post on this novel, which I found fascinating -- not least because it references a work of fan fiction which could be seen as predictive -- and which also has a comment from Bujold.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

2017/65: Untamed -- Anna Cowan

The Duke’s transformation was absolute, down to the very marrow of his bones. There wasn’t a single hint of self-consciousness about him. His demeanour, the set of his mouth, the lazy sway of his hand, all belonged to Lady Rose. The ease with which he changed his skin was frightening. [loc 812]
Regency romance in which the Duke of Darlington flees London disguised as a woman: this is a factual but useless description.

Untamed is set in something like the Regency period (see below for qualifiers); it is a romance; the Duke does dress up, gloriously and in the outmoded style of the previous generation, as 'Lady Rose'. He does leave London to stay with Katharine ('Kit') Sutherland -- sister of one of his many, many conquests -- and is horrified to discover that she works hard, morning to night, to keep the household fed and the money coming in.

None of that is especially useful either.

I think I must have heard about Untamed when it first came out: apparently I bought it four years ago, though have only just got around to reading it. And rereading. It is a glorious novel, suffocatingly intense and sensuous in the broadest usage of the term. Kit and the Duke are utterly fascinating, as is the changing detente between them. At times I was reminded of Dunnett's heroes, vulnerable and vicious and too clever for their own good: at times of Heyer's tougher and more practical heroines (and heroes, for that matter). And while on first reading I was rudely flung out of the novel by a scene that I simply could not believe in (the ball, with Kit's grand entry: I stopped reading at that point and set the book aside for a couple of days) I couldn't stay away.

So my approach to some of the more anachronistic, less credible moments -- there are a few, though nothing on the level of that particular scene -- is to treat the novel as an alternate history, possibly even a fantasy (sans magic). There are certainly aspects that jar horribly with the conventional Regency setting, and turns of phrase, or thought, that sound disconcertingly modern: but those potential flaws make perfect sense for the characters. (And yes, there are Corn Laws, and a potential rival for the Duke's title, and glancing mentions of a more familiar nineteenth century: but these are background.)

The secondary characters in Untamed are well-drawn -- especially brother Tom with his secret hobby -- but nobody feels quite as real as Kit. I find her pragmatic approach to life thoroughly satisfactory, and the perfect foil to the beguiling Duke.

I like Anna Cowan's prose: simple, evocative phrasing -- 'his heart alight with hopeful anticipation' -- blended with rawly specific descriptions of emotion and its outward effects. I'd like to see what she does next.