The OF Blog

Monday, September 01, 2014

Elsa Morante, Arturo's Island

Quite apart from endearments, I lived entirely without kisses and caresses, and out of pride, I had to approve of this.  But sometimes, especially in the evening, when I was alone in a room and started to miss my mother, mother came to mean precisely caresses.  I longed for her large, her holy body, for her small silken hands, for her breath.  In winter my bed was freezing cold, but to warm me there was only Immacolatella to sleep with, cuddled close.

As I didn't believe in God or in religion, I didn't even believe in a future life and in the spirits of the dead.  If I listened to reason, I knew that all that remained of my mother was shut underground in the cemetery.  But reason retreated before her, and without realizing it, I actually believed in heaven, because of her.  What else was that kind of Oriental tent floating on air between the sky and the earth, where she dwelled alone, idly contemplating the sky with upturned eyes like one transfigured?  There, every time I thought of her, my mother came quite naturally to mind.  Later, the day came when I no longer looked for her; she had vanished.  Someone had folded up the rich Oriental tent and taken it away. (p. 41)

Elsa Morante's 1957 Premio Strega-winning novel, L'isola di Arturo (released in English in 1959 as Arturo's Island, translated by Isabel Quigly), differs in many regards from her 1974 opus, History, which I reviewed earlier today.  It is a tauter, less sprawling novel, but this relatively slightness in page numbers does not mean that it is a lighter or less substantial novel.  It is a story of a feral youth, left to fend for himself on an island in the Bay of Naples that housed criminals in its old castle complex while his father, a prison official, spent ten months of the year away.  It's an interesting take on the nurture vs. nature argument, but it is also much more than just simply a tale of an abandoned youth raised without any women in his life.

Arturo's Island is set sometime during the mid-20th century.  Arturo, the first-person narrator, is a young teen who lost his mother when she died giving birth to him.  His father largely abandoned him to the all-male island staff, only seeing him in brief spells.  These meetings, which fill Arturo with a mixture of hope and dread, typically ended with another abrupt departure, with little sentimentality getting in the way of his father.  Then one day, as Arturo is nearing sixteen, his father brings a girl scarcely older than him to the island, declaring that she, Nunziata, is his new wife.  This event, taking place roughly a quarter into the novel, shifts the focus away from Arturo's developing personality (in particular the giant holes in his life caused by the absence of women) toward a more typical Oedipus father/lover/son triangle.

This shift, while understandable, does throw Arturo's narrative out of kilter for several pages, as it takes time for the reader to reconcile the rather naïve Arturo's worldviews with the more lust-centered youth of the middle sections.  However, Morante does largely manage to integrate this new development and its attendant action (attempted seduction, regretful rejection, proxy seduction to make a larger point) does serve to reinforce Morante's earlier arguments regarding the deleterious effect Arturo's neglected upbringing has had on his personality and his ability to relate to women.

But it is in the final sections where the plot turns in a surprising and yet fitting fashion.  Arturo witnesses a clandestine meeting, one that reveals to him for once and for all that things he had felt he had in common with someone close to him were in fact yet another level of subterfuge, one that was designed to keep Arturo in the dark.  This event encapsulates many of the conflicted emotions and bitter cynicism that Arturo had developed and it causes the novel to end on a rather dark yet not completely hopeless concluding note.

Although the paragraphs above might seem to give away much of the novel's plot, there are many levels to Arturo's Island for readers to enjoy.  Morante's prose is wonderful here (I read it first in Italian, but Quigly's translation captures much of the original's spirit), as Arturo's personality is revealed through his introspective, sometimes self-damning monologues.  In the passage quoted above, his conflicted emotions are revealed with such a clarity as to make subsequent passages all the more revealing.  The plotting is well-done, as the love triangle (complicated by the birth of Arturo's half-brother) develops at a steady pace, never feeling extraneous or tedious.  The themes are also well-developed, especially Morante's exploration of how nurture and nature both might come to shape a person's world-views, especially male attitudes toward women.  It is not a perfect novel, as sometimes these themes are not as subtle as they could have been, but on the whole, Arturo's Island was a deep yet very enjoyable read.

Leatherbound Book Review: Elsa Morante, History

It is known that such a feeling gnaws at its victims with the ferocity of a tireless rodent, and often compensates them with dreams.  Mussolini and Hitler, in their way, were two dreamers; but here is where their inherent difference lies.  The dream-vision of the Italian Duce (corresponding to his physical desire for life) was a histrionic festival, where among banners and triumphs, he, a scheming vassal, would play the part of certain beatified ancient vassals (Caesars, Augustuses, and so on...) before a living crowd humbled to the rank of puppets.  Whereas the other (tainted by a monotonous, vicious necrophilia and horrid terrors) was the half-conscious minion of a still formless dream.  In it, every living creature (including himself) was the object of torment, to be degraded even to putrefaction.  And at the end – in the Grand Finale – all the peoples of the earth (including the Germans) would rot in unseemly piles of corpses.

We know that our dream factory often has its foundations in debris of our waking hours or our past.  But in the case of Mussolini, the product was fairly obvious in its superficiality; whereas in the case of Hitler, it was a teeming of infections, clustered around who knows what roots of his disturbed memory.  Searching his biography, that of an envious little philistine, one could unearth some of these roots without much difficulty...But this is enough for now.  Perhaps the Fascist Mussolini didn't realize at the time of the Ethiopian venture, supported by Hitler the Nazi (and then followed immediately by another common venture in Spain), that he had irrevocably yoked his own carnival chariot to the other's funeral hearse.  One of the first effects of his servitude was that the national slogan, Romanity, of his own coinage, had to be replaced with a foreign one, of another's coinage:  race.  And so it was that in the first months of 1938, in Italy too, the newspapers, the local clubs, the radio, began the preparatory campaign against the Jews. (pp. 39-40)

La Storia, the original Italian title for Elsa Morante's 1974 work, can mean two things.  It can be "The Story," the singular narration of a tale, or it can be "The History," which in English connotes something different, something supposedly "more true" than just mere story.  Regrettably, this ambiguity is lost in English translation, yet within this "history" of Rome during the 1940s is buried the "story" of a woman, Ida, and her two sons, Nino and Useppe.

History is a sprawling novel, covering largely the 1941-1947 wartime and immediate post-war years in Rome.  Morante opens each year section with a chronology of that particular year's notable events.  The litany of death and suffering, of hatreds acted out and little moments of generosity snuffed out, is, as she wrote in the preface to the 1977 Franklin Library "First Edition," 'A scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years.'  This "scandal" is key to understanding the novel and how expertly Morante weaves in the universal with the tragic family history that forms the core of this novel.

Ida, a widowed teacher who is left to care for her two young sons, including one (Useppe) who suffers from epilepsy.  Soon we learn that Useppe is the product of rape and that it was a German soldier who performed the rape.  Through much of the novel, Ida struggles to deal with the consequences of these two violent acts, the death of her husband and her continual reminder of her rape when she cares for her son.  Morante presents Ida's struggles with some sympathy, but her focus is more on the symbolic connections between Ida and her sons' lives and Italy's socio-political condition during these years.

As seen in the passage quoted above, Morante often utilizes vivid, dreamlike images to establish atmosphere.  The Italy that Ida experiences is one that is starting to awake from a terrible, horrific dream of violence and hatred spawned by Mussolini's shackling his Fascist wagon to the back of Hitler's crazy train.  Throughout the novel, death and madness lurk behind a lot of the scenes, including Useppe's struggles to survive his bouts of grand mal seizures.  As the war progresses and Mussolini's government collapses in 1943, the privations Ida and others suffer grows.  We are witnesses to their search for shelter after a bombing, their near-continual hunger and the changes this causes in their relations with others and the world.  It is a somber tale, yet it is effective because of how integrated it is with the other "scandals" of the war.  Tens of thousands of years later, after all, we humans still try to hope against hope, even as we repeat all of our old mistakes of avarice and distrust.

Morante's story, however, falters a bit toward the end, as we shift away from Ida and more toward her two sons and another character, who like Ida, managed to hide his Jewish ancestry during the last years of German occupation of Rome.  While Morante tries to explore the effects of racism through these new PoVs, there isn't as strong of a connection between the personal and the historical as there was with Ida's struggles.  Ultimately, however, History manages to regain much of its lost momentum and while the conclusion is far from what one would call "happy," it is still a profound one that leaves the reader pondering this momentary wake in the crashing historical wave.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ludmila Ultiskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter

4.  January 1946, Wroclaw 

LETTER FROM EFRAIM CWYK TO AVIDOR STEIN 

Dear Avigdor,

Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year?  He is alive, but stuck in a monastery!  When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it.  We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this!  A monk!  After the war there are not that many of us still around.  He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk?  When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there.  I was sure, and I still haven't changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked.  To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case.  I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)

Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya's 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative.  Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein.  In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established.  It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones.  In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem.  It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.

Daniel's character is one of the few things that are established solidly.  He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups.  He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive.  This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices.  For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled.  Daniel's efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.

However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further.  There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels.  Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man's transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants.  It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.

Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works.  Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable.  The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one's creed or belief system.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Looking at my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, 2/3 into the year

Today marks the 242nd day of 2014.  There are 123 days remaining in the year, so roughly 2/3 have already passed.  Thought I would post an update on my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, note some changes, and lament one or two that have already failed.  Here is a link to my original January 2 post on the topic.

1.  Read (or re-read) at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French.

As of right now (totals will change when I finish reading a few by midnight on the 31st):

Spanish:  37/50 - ahead of pace by 4
Portuguese: 21/50 - behind pace by 12 (might finish 1-2 by tomorrow night)
French:  28/50 - behind pace by 5
Italian:  27/50 - behind pace by 6 (should finish 2 by tomorrow night, however)

Since I'm planning on reading a lot more non-English literature in September and October, these totals will shift significantly.  Portuguese is the only one in real danger of not being reached, but even there I have almost 60 print volumes and over 30 e-book editions.

2.  Have 35% or more of my reading/re-readings this year be of works (co)-authored or (co)-edited by women. 

Currently at 80/224 2014 reads, or 35.7%.  Just above pace.  Have two more books by women that I want to finish by tomorrow, so percentage may rise slightly.

3.  To (re)-read and review each of the Premio Alfaguara winners, including those of the 1965-1972 incarnation.

I have only 8 out of 25 books left to review, so this is still very doable.  Planning on reviewing more in September and October.

4.  During the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, reprise my 2010 "World Cup" series of posts by writing a combination of reviews of prominent writers from participating countries or summaries of national literature.

I wrote Group previews, but no real reviews of nationally-prominent writers of these 32 nations during that time.  Partial fail.

5.  Do an in-depth series of articles/reviews on a Southern writer.

Haven't started this yet, but likely to start reviewing Eudora Welty's novels in the coming month or two, along with a few more Faulkner reviews if I have the time.  Thomas Wolfe, however, will likely be shunted to next year.

Newer Goals:

1.  Write at least one post a day in 2014.  

So far, so good.

2.  Write 150 reviews in 2014.

I've written 103 so far, so slightly above pace.

3.  Read/review all the books listed in the 2014 Upcoming Releases post from January.

I've reviewed all but 20 of the books already released and am quickly closing the gap, writing at least 4-5 reviews/week for the past three months.  Already have over 80 2014 releases read/reviewed.

4.  Average at least a book a day read, as I've done since 2008.

Behind pace by 18 right now, but should catch up in the coming weeks.  Be off work due to injury certainly has given me more time to read, plus I like to read more when it's cooler.


If you came up with reading goals, tell me how you're doing.  Curiosity and all that.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bryan Lee O'Malley, Katie

 Many stories, whatever their medium of expression or genre of storytelling, often begin with real-life encounters with people and a simple "what if?" pondering that leads to a series of other questions that in turn engender a story.  This was the case for Bryan Lee O'Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim) in his latest graphic novel, Seconds.  In this story of a young, independent-minded, and occasionally obstinate woman, Katie, O'Malley explores the concepts of seconds, whether they be key seconds in one's life, the desire for second (or multiple) chances to make amends, or the second "doubles" that represent the roads we should (not) have taken, the paths that we wished we (never) had explored.

Seconds begins with Katie, who had been working at a small sit-down restaurant of that name, planning after four years of work there as the chef in charge, to establish her restaurant.  She is someone is so involved in her projects that she is a bit intimidating to the staff who do not know her well and her aloofness, which covers up some of her insecurities, plays a major role in the events to come.  As she readies for the move, stressing over things like the budget and the name for this upcoming restaurant (initially she chooses Katie's), she comes to know better a timid yet intelligent young woman named Hazel, who informs Katie (who incidentally lives in an upstairs studio apartment on the top floor of the building where Seconds is) that there is a house spirit there who is capable, through the use of magic mushrooms on the premise and the writing down of the mistakes one wishes to correct, of giving that person who has ingested the mushrooms a second chance to atone for a mistake.  After Katie's ex-boyfriend (and former staff member) Max appears at the opening of her new restaurant, causing Katie to babble and to make a fool of herself, she stumbles back to her apartment and discovers the mushroom and on a whim, eats it and writes down her wish that she had never broken up with him.

What follows is a series of follies, as the alt-Katies (Katie keeps a memory of all of pre-mistake events, but does not recall the alt-changes until she wakes up on the day the change has reverted herself to) have made even further messes.  O'Malley does an excellent job in telling this familiar story, as each alt-Katie's decision making, self-centered as many of them are, further fleshes out her character and those of the kitchen staff at Seconds.  The result is an absorbing read where the reader may find herself turning the pages quickly to discover what happens next.

This fast-paced and familiar plot of using up "second chances" to discover just who you really are is augmented by several choices that O'Malley made for his secondary characters.  While it would have been easy for him to populate his characters with strictly Caucasian people, the characters in Seconds resemble the people that you would find in most any restaurant or business today:  people of various ethnic groups, a loving gay couple, overweight and malnourished people,  people who are not move-star attractive.  Furthermore, O'Malley does not place over-emphasis on this diverse cast of characters:  they are people first and foremost and their loves and lusts, faults and virtues, are shown to be as natural as those of Katie herself.  It is their interactions with her and how the alt-Katies respond to them, that make Seconds different from most other based-on-life graphic novels.

Although I am far from an expert on illustration, I did like the illustration style here.  There seems to be a combination of North American and Japanese manga comic styles here, with vivid colors and wide eyes adding greatly to the effect.  The lettering is a bit small, but the clever dialogue (often expressed in bracketed smaller print to underscore sotto voce commentary) fits the style employed here.  The only quibble I had is that there could have been perhaps even more expression on the faces of the characters, but for the most part O'Malley and his team did an excellent job in rendering the characters and their situations. 

Seconds is one of the best graphic novels I've read in the past few years.  Its combination of a personal yet universal narrative with a "butterfly effect" alt-timeline story works very well.  Its characters are dynamic and fleshed out superbly.  It is one of those rare graphic novels that will appeal to audiences of various ages, genders, and ethnicities.  It simply is a very good story that is illustrated well.  If you like intelligently-written graphic novels, this is one worth reading.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Some late August Foreign Book Porn


Made my monthly trip to McKay's today.  Found quite a few titles in translation in languages that I want to learn.  Above are four Serbian translations:  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin; Tolkien, The Silmarillion; Salvador Dali, I am a Genius; and Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Being somewhat of a Tolkien enthusiast (at least for his non-LotR works) and certainly one who enjoyed Gabo's most famous work, I was almost ecstatic to see these four books available for a grand total of $6.50.  Will likely re-read these stories in tandem with these translations in the coming year or two, maybe sooner in the case of Tolkien, as I don't have published reviews of those two books.


More works in translations (and two in the original idiom, albeit one seems to have been modernized):  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in Italian; Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs in the original French; three Dostoevsky short stories in Spanish translation; and a prose, modernized French edition of Tristan et Iseult.  All of these for language practice (and the Dostoevsky because it was only 15¢).  All this for $1.55.



Got lucky here and found the "first edition" (a limited edition published by arrangement before the mass release) of the English translation of Elsa Morante's Historia (I've already read the Italian original, but this is a leatherbound, gilt edition from The Franklin Library and it was a steal at $18 for its very good condition).  Also found an Attic Greek-Brazilian Portuguese translation of the middle third of The Odyssey for $3 and Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's most famous work, The Piano Teacher, in the original German for only 75¢.

Spending $29.80 in store credit (and having almost $7 remaining from the books I traded in) for these classics makes me very thankful that I can travel to a wonderful bookstore 1-2 times a month and always find surprises and excellent fiction for cheap rates.  Now to find the time to work again on my languages so I can read the German and Serbian editions almost as quickly as I do the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian books bought.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

"Sorry," Roh said.  "I'm Rohinmey Tadisa Garika, a student of Ora Dasai's.  Forgot about Saiduan privacy.  I meant no offense.  We're very open here."

The sanisi sheathed his blade.

Roh had not gotten a good look at the sanisi back in the foyer.  Now that he was up close, he realized he had made a false assumption.  The sanisi was tall, far taller than any Dhai, and dark, with twisted rings of black hair knotted close to his head, though it looked like it had been shorn short not many months back.  The ends were ragged.  It was the sanisi's face, though, that made Roh pause.  The hair that graced the sanisi's upper lip and the sides of the cheeks was soft and downy.  Roh had seen pictures of Saiduan men, and they all had short but noticeable beards. (p. 38)

Epic fantasies, especially their opening volumes, are difficult books to review.  The reviewer has to not only take into account that there likely will be no complete character or plot arcs, that there will be a suspension of events in order to build for the subsequent volumes.  Then there is the necessary acclimation to created "worlds" and cultures, with alien-sounding character and place names and perhaps ways of life that differ considerably from those depicted in more realist stories.  Although certainly not a prerequisite, there is often more mass violence (battles, assassinations, duels) in epic fantasies than in most other literary genres.  If a reviewer has difficulties with some of these elements, it can make it much more difficult to enjoy the opener to an epic fantasy series even when the author has gone to some length to introduce elements, such as gender and race, that are often either neglected or presented in a fashion that would alienate those who are not males or are Caucasian.

For readers who want to find "something different" in epic fantasy, Kameron Hurley's first epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, may appeal greatly to them.  Over the course of 449 pages (I presume the Nook e-edition I read equates to the print pages), there is a lot that transpires within its pages:  two seemingly parallel worlds starting to merge; a five-gender system in which "traditional" power/status structures are upended; three distinct cultures, each with its own dynamics, including a sordid pogrom taken up against one of those cultures; semi-sentient mobile plants who are a terror and people who use bears with forked tongues as a mount; and a magical system based on the waxing and waning of satellites.  This should be excellent fodder for those who long for imaginative, inventive fantasy elements, but yet... Yes, but yet..., as there were several major flaws that kept me from enjoying The Mirror Empire.

Structurally, the opening chapters are a mess.  Hurley has to expend a lot of pages to establish these series of subplots that it makes it not just a bit difficult to follow, but it also makes them rather prosaic.  Introduce quickly a setting, don't devote the space to making these settings "organic" to the plot, move on to the next subplot setting, rinse, repeat.  By the time the first quarter is over, everything is just so muddled.  There are two main reasons this confusion is exacerbated, the prose and characterizations.

To be honest, Hurley's writing feels much more like an extended outline than a polished narrative at the syntactical level.  The narrative is just too staccato.  The descriptions are sparse, feeling perfunctory.  This leaves the settings, which should be interesting with these inventive creatures like the acid-spitting plants and forked-tongued bear mounts, barren of anything of real interest.  The fact that there are two portal worlds that seem to be bleeding into each other only makes this lack of scenery development all the more disappointing.  There really was nothing that stood out here in terms of setting.  The spartan prose also affects the dialogue, as those to often felt as though a bunch of high school Drama I students forced to take the class were just mumbling their lines, with little conviction behind them.

This makes the characterizations feel hollow, flat.  Hurley tries to present a plethora of views and have certain scenes that underscore the different socio-gender power structures, but as can be seen in the scene quoted below, the potential falls short:

Zezili must have shown her disapproval in her face, because he interrupted before she could dissent, hurried on.  "Just the daily papers from Daorian.  I know your feeling about books, and Daolyn feels that way as well, but surely, what harm is there in papers?  Just some news from outside?  There was a silk merchant through here last week, she –"

"I regret that we have had no children," Zezili said.  A sore subject indeed, in any company.  "I have heard that a man assisting in the raising of children often finds some fulfillment from it, but I'm here to take life in Rhea's name, not give it."

"You should just dedicate your body to her as well, then," Anavha said.  A bit too cutting for Zezili's taste.

Zezili's anger stirred.  "You would like that, wouldn't you?" she said.  "Having a sexless woman for a wife?  Yes, you'd like taking solace in none but your own body.  Because that's all I would allow you.  My sisters have no use for you.  Who will touch you then?  Or will you content yourself to be a mad little thing, running after dajian effeminates?"

She saw Anavha clenching his fists, saw the anger in him, and saw it dissipate into tears.  Rhea only allowed him tears. (pp. 66-67)

The first thing I noticed in this passage is that Hurley depends too much on description between the quotes.  The pair's faces have to be described, as apparently the words alone cannot give an accurate depiction.  Even worse, there are extraneous sentences, such as "A sore subject indeed, in any company.", whose incomplete fragments do not further the emotional establishment, but instead feel like placeholders for more direct, intense descriptors.  This occurs so frequently in the narrative that this is not an isolated case, but instead is a prominent flaw in the narrative.  The characters' emotions and thoughts are reduced to sounding almost robotic that this plethora of weak narrative intrusions.

These choppy, weak sentences made for a difficult reading experience.  There was no elegance to these scenes.  I could see the narrative bolts so often that it was difficult to put that aside and to concentrate on the unfolding story.  This is a shame, for there were times that the story was interesting, that I was engaged, and that I wanted to see how these subplots  involving power and resistance while so many strange, magical things were occurring would unfold.  As I write this a day after finishing it, all that comes to mind is that there were a lot of things happening, but few things that meant much at all.  Perhaps the fault is in the stars, or in my inability to connect with this complex series of plot and character developments.  But perhaps it's as simple as a good story being held back by structural flaws that, if fixed, could have made The Mirror Empire a great epic fantasy opener.  As it stands, this novel is just a hot mess.

 
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