Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Bourgeois Book Club

Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Three Princes is the sort of novel I should love. An intriguing alternate history where the empire founded by Caesar and Cleopatra and the empire of Incas are the world's superpowers, Christianity never really got off the ground, and solar power and air travel were invented centuries before they were in our world. With a dash of James Bondian spy thriller/intrigue, complete with Blofeld, and prominent gay and female characters, it is a story that should hit all the right notes.

And, yet, a little over halfway through I realized I simply didn't care, and stopped reading. The worldbuilding is immersive and intriguing, but for a history nerd like me, terribly implausible. The main character, Lord Oken, is meant to be charming, but seems a bit lifeless to me. He's a little too much of a superficial James Bond clone. But all the characters, really, seem less than they should be. They're not really interesting, even if piled with "interesting" backstories, personalities, etc. It's all terribly, terribly disappointing.

I feel a traitor for not liking a story that involves so much diversity, written by a woman, and well within my genre interests, but one can't enjoy something for its politics, or at least I can't.

Raiders of the Nile by Steven Saylor

My favorite mystery series returns with a novel-length follow-up to 2012's Seven Wonders, a short story collection of Gordianus's travels in the East (on a tour to see the Seven Wonders of the World) as a young man. The end of that book saw Gordianus ensconced in Alexandria, a city important to his future development. Raiders of the Nile details more of young Gordianus's adventures in Ptolemaic Egypt. This time, mistaken identity and kidnapping lead Gordianus into banditry, and he must use all his talents to extricate himself and Bethesda from a potentially fatal caper.

Though I liked the travelogue-cum-mystery The Seven Wonders very much, I've been less-than-enthused about the backwards turn Saylor has taken with Gordianus. I have a great deal of antipathy for prequels (and, no, not just those ones). I always find going backwards in a story to be just not that interesting. The imagined backstory and prior adventures are just always so much better than the ones you end up with in "canon" with prequels. And the backdating of characters and developments are, I think, a challenge that most authors can't really manage. You have to devolve things, and it never quite works; thus, the rejuvenated characters never quite ring true to my ears. We've followed Gordianus "forward" through his life, and it's disorienting now to leap back to just before we "knew" him. We already know who he is, and how his life develops.

Gordianus had traveled extensively throughout the series, but my favorite books are those that take place within, or at least spend a large amount of time in, Rome. I like Gordianus's Rome. Late-Ptolemaic Alexandria? Just isn't the same. 

But it's still Saylor, and still Gordianus, so the humor and pace are as good as ever.

Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

In a future Europe where borders multiply faster than E. coli in a petri dish, as every region, town, street, ethnicity, language enclave, park, and transcontinetnal railroad, might declare its independence and sovereignty at any moment, most of them at each others throats, even basic communication can be difficult. That's where the Coureurs, secret agents-cum-mailmen, come in. Rudi the Estonian chef finds himself recruited into this shadow world, and the deeper he goes, the closer he gets to a secret that transforms him from a minor agent to Europe's most wanted man. 

For a majority of the book, the extent of the science fiction is nothing more than the setting of a future Europe and a few neat gadgets, until a twist ending that ups the science fiction quotient way up.

It's a thrilling read, and I'm eager to read the continuation, especially after the big reveal at the end. My main criticism would be that it's very male. There are not many women, and the story is not terribly interested in them. Its place at the intersection of Le Carrean spy thriller and science fiction, both traditionally very male-focused genres, explains it, maybe, but doesn't quite forgive it.

Still, a good read, and look forward to more.

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