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25 April 2007

After another long gap between review postings, I'll write some brief comments on books I've read lately.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë (1853) is a strong novel, though just as virulently anti-Catholic as The Professor and perhaps almost as xenophobic. I want to say that it's not as good as Jane Eyre, but that may be my natural aversion to its anti-Catholicism speaking; certainly it has several strong, interesting characters, with a plot roughly as interesting as that of Jane Eyre, and less conventional. And its first-person narration, simultaneously reticent, mocking, and revealing, is amazing in spots. But can someone tell me if Shirley suffers from the same anti-Catholic asides? If so, I reckon I'll just read Jane Eyre again.

I read Blindsight by Peter Watts as it was one of only two novels on the Hugo ballot that I hadn't already read (I'm partway through the other one, His Majesty's Dragon/Temeraire, now). I had previously read his first novel, Starfish — an impressive piece of work, but, my God, how depressing! Blindsight is better-written than Starfish and perhaps not quite as depressing in its overall tone (which isn't saying much) but perhaps even more depressing in its worldview and its final conclusions about the nature of life and consciousness; probably the most pessimistic first-contact story I've ever read. That said, the human (and other hominid) characters are interestingly well-drawn, especially the hemispherectomized narrator, and the aliens are among the more original ones of recent years. This will probably end up in third place on my Hugo ballot (after Eifelheim and Glasshouse) unless His Majesty's Dragon gets a lot better in the next 200 pages.

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford (2002) is an amazing novel of 1890s New York, on the marches of mainstream and fantasy. A young painter is hired to paint a portrait of a woman who will not let him see her face; he is to interview her from behind a screen and infer what she looks like from her life history. Her husband is not in evidence at first, but eventually shows up (so to speak; he won't show his face, either, when he accosts Pirambo and asks why he is seeing his wife). She spins a marvellous tale of a childhood spent assisting her father, a crystalologist or diviner by means of snowflakes, and a young adulthood following in her father's footsteps as a fortune-teller. How much of this story can Pirambo trust? What is her motive for having her portait painted without letting herself be seen? Is there a connection with the women found in the streets of New York bleeding to death through their eyes? Can Pirambo survive the project with his life, health and sanity?

I've lost track of how many times I've read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath — it's one of my two favorites by Lovecraft, along with At the Mountains of Madness. Though it's nominally "horror", I find it more droll and pleasantly creepy than horrifying; it's about halfway between his early Lord Dunsany pastiches and his later horrific style. I would compare it to Dunsany's "Idle Days on the Yann" for its density of delightful and creepy world-building in relatively few words, though it has a quest plot that moves pretty fast. The conflict of the cats and the Zoogs, the unintended voyage to the Moon, the intrigue of the ghouls against the Gugs, and the ascent of Ngranek are all especially nifty. The only serious flaw is that not all the humor is intentional. For instance, when Randolph Carter is finally approaching the castle of the gods on the peak of unknown Kadath,

Vaster and vaster loomed the tenebrous towers of the nighted castle above, and Carter could see that it was well-nigh blasphemous in its immensity.

Who, I wonder, are the gods almost but not quite blaspheming by having built such an immense castle? Themselves? Each other? Some other gods? The latter might seem superficially plausible until one realizes that all throughout the story the Other gods have been portrayed as occasionally defending the "mild gods of Earth" against impious mortals — clearly if they objected to the size of their castle it wouldn't be a castle much longer. No, this is just Lovecraft throwing the word "blasphemous" around without thinking of what he's saying, either in seriousness or drollery.

It's 70 years now since Lovecraft died, which I understand to mean that the long-disputed copyright status of some of his works is now moot and they're all public domain; so this etext which may or may not have been pirated when first put up a few years ago is now licit (warning: HTML etext with gratuitous Flash plugin).

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