The Will to Battle – Ada Palmer

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Ada Palmer’s fiction gets a lot of attention for its voice and ideas, but I think her greatest strength is actually characterization. The Will to Battle features a large ensemble cast and somehow manages to give all the characters devastating and/or moving moments. Structure-wise it’s a bit off (suddenly a lot of things happen in the last quarter that are not resolved) and the engagement with Hobbes simply doesn’t work, but what do I care when I can wallow in characterization?

Furthermore (and this extends the comparison with Hugo I made in my review of Seven Surrenders), her characters, while all in conflict with one another, are mostly of an elevated, well, character. The few base ones stick out, and undoubtedly have a role to play as the true villains of the story (though I wish Perry/Kraye would just GO AWAY ALREADY, he’s no fun to read about). This is made explicit when Mycroft, the narrator (more passive than usual in this book) confronts Thisbe, the woman with whom he raised Bridger. There’s no love lost between them, however, and Mycroft says of her family members, “…Sniper’s a noble creature, and Propero’s a noble creature. They’re all noble creatures, Thisbe, except you, you’re a….You’re a tick…..A tick, and you feed, and you bloat, and you crawl, and you think it makes you something poetic and exciting, like a vampire, and you’re so wrong.”

They’re all murderers, Mycroft, Prospero, Sniper, and Thisbe, so the difference isn’t in their deeds but in their–there’s the word again–character, their position on the scale of nobility to baseness. Their motives, and their acceptance of consequences. It reminds me, as I said, of Victor Hugo’s novels, where one must never confuse a Javert with a Thenardier, however much they’re both antagonists.

Aside from all that, there’s also some great humor in this book. Achilles, or a version of him, features in this book, and one of the characters has an obvious crush on him. Thus the following bon mot: “‘I know my sister broke your heart, and a rebound is natural, but Achilles? Really? There is such a thing as asking for it!’ Death in the guise of MASON blushed.”

I don’t know that this review will convince anyone to read the book–at this point in the series, either you’re thoroughly enjoying yourself or you’re off the hype train. There’s only one book left to go, and I hope it resolves some of the mysteries of this one. Moreover, I can’t wait to read it and immerse myself once more in the world of these fascinating people.

The Horse and His Boy – C.S. Lewis

After selling quite a few copies of the Narnia books at the Christmas book drive in the bookstore where I used to work, I decided to pick up this book, one of the two Narnia books I hadn’t read. It always looked boring to me as a child, so I skipped it when reading the series.

The book has many virtues, including a female character with, well, character, a proud, haughty, brave, loyal, impatient girl named Aravis who accompanies main character Shasta on his journey from Calormen to Narnia. Faced with a forced marriage, the young noblewoman steals her dead brother’s armor and runs away from home. Unsurprisingly for an aristocrat or “Tarkheena,” she looks down on Shasta, a fisherman’s adopted son, but she learns better when he shows his courage, facing a lion to help her. Like most of Lewis’s sympathetic female characters, she’s a tomboy and finds her “friend” Lasaraleen, a girly-girl, silly and selfish–their interaction confirms for me that there really is some misogyny in the exclusion of Susan in The Last Battle. Lewis (correctly imo) sees traditional femininity as a trap. However (and here’s where the misogyny comes in), he doesn’t see that traditional masculine roles can also be a trap, and the always-up-for-a-fistfight minor character Corin is portrayed uncritically.

However, I absolutely loved Aravis. If I have a complaint, besides the big one that I’ll get to at the end, it’s that this isn’t a more character-driven book–Aravis’s grief for her brother is largely unexplored, and Shasta, though real enough, is not very deeply characterized. Aravis certainly isn’t the equal of Orual from Lewis’s post-Narnia book Till We Have Faces in terms of depth, but she’s flawed and vivid and good, and I was very happy to find such a character in Narnia, especially one who’s female and nonwhite.

Alas, as I could have predicted from The Last Battle, pretty much the entire country of Calormen is portrayed negatively and racistly. They’re a massive traditional stereotype of a decadent Eastern empire, dirty and superstitious and tyrannical, proud without much to be proud of. Someone on Twitter pointed out that Aravis from this book and Emeth from The Last Battle, the two “good Calormenes” we encounter, are some of Lewis’s best-drawn characters in the series, which is certainly true, and I give him credit for not painting them all with one brush. However, the racism was pervasive and disturbing enough–and it’s not just about culture, there’s emphasis on how much nicer-looking the white Narnians are–that I deducted a star from this otherwise five-star book.

However, it has Lewis’s usual sense of humor (the grown-up Aravis and Shasta marry so as to go on quarreling and making up “more conveniently”) and sense of the numinous in religion (Aslan of course puts in an appearance, in both his terrifying and comforting forms), and I enjoyed Aravis so much (though Shasta is really the main character) that it may be my favorite Narnia book.

The Hollow Girl – Hillary Monahan

Hillary Monahan, who is part-Romani and a sexual assault survivor, explores both topics in this wrenching but flawed novel. I really wanted to like it more than I did, but though I devoured it, I couldn’t give it more than three stars.

Bethan is a Welsh Romani girl who has been raised by a woman whom she believes to be unrelated to her. Her guardian is a witch in a world where magic is rare but real, and she wants Bethan to follow in her footsteps. Bethan is more concerned about dealing with her harasser, Silas, whose father is a leader who won’t accept that his son could do wrong. She’s also enjoying a budding friendship (or maybe something more) with diddicoy (part-Romani) farmboy Martyn, who is curious about her culture and helps her out at the market.

Things go seriously wrong when Silas attacks Martyn and Bethan, raping her and nearly killing her friend. Bethan turns to her grandmother’s arts to engage in a gruesome ritual to save Martyn and avenge herself on Silas and his accomplices. She deals with dissociation after the attack, and also has to consider whether or not she wants to continue along the path her grandmother set her on.

The ethics of the book are downright weird, with outright slavery in the form of a magical bond being condoned. The prose is also not at the level I hoped it would be. The setting is vague in terms of time–it seems to be in the past, but there aren’t a lot of clues as to when. Nevertheless, the characters sometimes use very modern language when discussing racism and other topics. And the grandmother character’s backstory somewhat unbalanced the book–I felt like it should have taken up either less space or more.

That said, it’s an interesting and readable book. Monahan brings her personal knowledge and experience to bear on two very important topics, and reading the book was certainly educational for me. But I feel like it had a lot of unrealized potential in terms of the writing.

Turtles All the Way Down – John Green

I’m not an automatic fan of everything John Green writes- I loved Looking for Alaska but couldn’t get into An Abundance of Katherines and never read The Fault in Our Stars. However, he is immensely talented, as this book reminded me. It’s the single best portrait of OCD I’ve ever read, probably in part because he himself suffers from this illness, as I do. #ownvoices stories can be found in the most unlikely places, and a white male superstar of YA lit has written a raw, intense novel about mental illness that I hope is not dismissed by those who are sick of his fame or think he’s overrated due to his privilege. These are valid complaints, but Turtles All the Way Down does not stop being an important book because of them.

I related to so many little details, even though main character Aza has a very different form of OCD from mine. Green gets the shame, fear, evasions, and irrationality all down on paper–the fear of getting triggered in a romantic moment, the desire not to go through with effective but painful Exposure-Response Prevention therapy, the way these bad patches reccur throughout life, the self-centeredness that happens when you literally can’t get out of your own head. If I had to recommend one book to people who don’t have this illness to understand it, it would be this one.

One thing I didn’t like was that while fandom played a part in the story, it was treated satirically (Aza’s best friend is a Rey/Chewbacca shipper ffs). Satire is fine but it meshed uneasily with the otherwise realistic portrayal of Aza’s relationship with her best friend, tested by class, mental illness, self-absorption, and other barriers. I also thought that it would be interesting to read a story about a character like Aza’s friend, who is poor, dealing with mental health issues without resources, but that would be another story entirely. It’s not just middle-class people who suffer from this illness.

However, these quibbles didn’t stop me from absolutely loving the book. In addition to the OCD parts, Green captures the importance of transient relationships. Just because a romance doesn’t last doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a positive effect overall. He also discusses an interesting problem, that of virtual vs in person romance, without dismissing one or the other.

I could ramble on further but basically: Go read it. Now.