Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bite-Size Reviews

Since submitting The Last Free City I've had a bit more time on my hands which I've been using to catch up on my reading.

First on my list was Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem. Holland is a highly-regarded historical novelist, although new to me, and while some aspects of the book failed to please, I can see why she is so well thought of. Jerusalem takes place at the time of the Second Crusade. It encompasses the final years of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, with some well-realised court intrigue with a particular emphasis on the Templar Order. Holland is first-rate in economically conveying the feel of the period, even if her dialogue is a little too modern-American for my taste. There was also a tendency to switch point of view, even within conversations, which I also found offputting. Set against this, the characterisation was subtly nuanced, with the protagonist Rannulf especially interesting. What hinted most at Holland's mastery of the form was the ending, however, which it is hard to discuss without spoilers. Suffice it to say that, in refracting what could have been a downbeat resolution through a twelfth-century lens, Holland firmly anchored the book in its period. I will certainly be reading more of her work.

Next I turned my attention to one of my favourite Jack Vance novels, To Live Forever. Vance, to my mind, gave up writing true science-fiction in the late 1950s, and this is the best of his core sf novels. It explores the practical consequences of a treatment bestowing immortality--a treatment that must be rationed if a population explosion is to be avoided. The novel follows the fortunes of Gavin Waylock, who has been cheated of his own immortality and is determined to win it back by any means at his disposal. It's one of Vance's earliest forays into the crime-fiction format he later developed in the Demon Princes and Alastor series, and is a good starting point for the science-fiction reader who wonders whether Vance will be to their taste. Published in 1956, it is the first novel to showcase the precise and pared-down style which was to become his hallmark. To Live Forever shows Vance's facility for creating bizarre but plausible societies and then pushing them to breaking point. The novel is hard to find these days and unjustly neglected. Why not track it down?

6 comments:

David Isaak said...

Track it down I will--though the pile of books To Be Read is now high enough to be a hazard.

So--is it harder to write historical fiction, where you have to stay within the bounds of period, etc., or fantasy, where you have to make up all the history too?

(verification code today: destoter.)

Tim Stretton said...

a) is harder than b) - for me, at least. No-one can nitpick you on your own history.

Although I did once speak to a historical novelist who rhapsodised on the rigour of getting shoes right...

David Isaak said...

For me, I think fantasy shoes might be even harder. You can't go look them up.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I've never read a Jack Vance novel, Tim - which one should I start with?

Tim Stretton said...

What a question, Aliya...I love 'em all. Here a few suggestions:

Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
Vance's stab at conventional commercial fantasy, with all that entails

The Eyes of the Overworld (available in the Dying Earth omnibus edition)
One of David's favourites, with a splendidly dark anti-hero and Vance's ironic humour on max. You'll like this one...

Emphyrio
Melancholy stand-alone sf. Showcases every aspect of Vance's art except his humour.

All these are in print and easy to get hold of in the UK. I don't think any of the Demon Princes novels--Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face, The Book of Dreams--are in print, but they're readily available second-hand. They're a kind of sf Count of Monte Cristo, they're great fun (and my first Vance novels) and it doesn't really matter if you read them out of sequence.

That should get you started, although David may have other favourites.

Have you read Gates of Fire yet? My copy has just arrived and it looks very promising - but I need to finish Mansfield Park first. Never has Fanny irritated me more...

Aliya Whiteley said...

Yeah, Gates of Fire turned me into a bit of a Fanny. I blubbed endlessly. It's all those men doing manly things. Great book.