Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

December 28, 2013 at 09:16 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , )

Romanitas

7/10

7/10

The writer of this review site has commented several times on his repeated disappointment, regret, and guilty pleasure that follows almost any alternate history novels with gloomy inevitability. It is always with a heavy heart that a new one is begun, and always with a heavier heart that it is later set down. Romanitas provides–not so much an exception–as a chink of light that suggests all is not so dreary in this field as might be supposed.

“‘It isn’t justice,’ said Cleomenes, unhesitatingly. Varius snorted a little, scornfully. Cleomenes added, ‘And you will help us find Marcus Novius.'”

-Romanitas

It is not for her writing that Sophia McDougall stands out from the morass of alternate fiction writers. Her writing is competent and engaging, though overprone to slackness and a passive habit that suggests at times her creation is at risk of escaping her abilities. Neither is it for her concept. Her concept is certainly fresh and initially exciting, and while at times the grey old world of the real shows through, this allows her to build a world that is believable and visceral, as well as being a novelty.

One of her greatest successes, though, is her refusal to grandstand or monologue on behalf of her own cleverness. It is her staunch refusal to fall into the trap of telling rather than showing how the world of Romanitas is different and worth the read. There are occasional explanations of ancient history, and how her timeline diverged from what the reader will know as real life. Sensibly, some of this is even handled in a brief appendix. At no point is the reader given cause to wonder what happened to the story, and why he’s being lectured on political events utterly irrelevant to the current predicament of the main characters.

With these modest successes and impressively-avoided pitfalls, Romanitas progresses pleasantly but not thunderously. As with any fugitive plot, there are moments when the willing suspension of disbelief wears a little thin, or where the necessity of a limited viewpoint will annoy even a patient reader. There are chapters that seem nothing but a litany of rushed poetry on grey mountains and windswept highways. There are at least one or two deus ex machinae littered around, which make the plot seem more ragged than it really is. In spite of at least two sequels, Romanitas reads admirably on its own, without the phantom shadow of an unborn sibling hanging over the ending. The verdict can only be that this is an imperfect work, and a book that will require patience at times, but for anybody in earnest search of good alternate histories to read, this would be a fine place to start.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

December 22, 2013 at 18:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

HoundOfTheBaskervilles

3/10

3/10

It was a little surprising (and honestly, disconcerting) to find that not only did Holmes’ eternal companion Watson provide the voice for this mystery, but also most of the legwork. The conceit of a narrative through a letter can be done well, but it can also be done poorly. In The Hound of the Baskervilles it certainly feels like laziness.

A second and deeper problem with this mystery is the straightforwardness of it all. The method and the killer are made plain halfway through, with the rest of the book merely a sweeping-up exercise: the setting of a trap, and the successful conclusion of all ventured by the intrepid detective. Characters are brought in as literary devices and plot shortcuts rather than as meaningful components of a whole, and once their part in the play is concluded they are swept away, never to be heard from again.

“‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.'”

-The Hound of the Baskervilles

Doyle’s writing is excellent, but readers might well be forgiven for imagining that writing in the persona of a rather self-satisfied and coddled English gentleman making reports and penning florid missives would not come with too great a difficulty to this author. This is a fun story to read, but is neither intellectually nor creatively stimulating. There are better mysteries out there, and there are better mysteries to be investigated by Sherlock Holmes. It is telling that the best part of this book, the most interesting part and by far the cleverest–is confined to banter between Sherlock and Watson as they try to guess the identity of a caller at the very beginning of the story. For all the iconic weight that the spectre of this hound has cast upon the body of English literature, once its tracks have been thoroughly traced by the reader its form cannot but come as a disappointment.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

December 15, 2013 at 16:19 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Horror) (, , , )

TheOceanAtTheEndOfTheLane

8/10

8/10

The harshest and truest criticism that ought to be levelled at this book, is that it is a very good fairy tale. Few recent books can honestly be said to have made no mistakes, no one foot placed wrong; and yet be so palpably missing something. There are really very few causes for complaint. Gaiman is certainly over-fond of commas, and sprinkles them with a vexing prodigality through his book. The story recalls in a dim sort of way the work of Susanna Clarke (which is completely unsurprising, considering the connection between the two authors) but is entirely enterprising and thoroughly original.

It is, as noted above, a very good fairy tale. That ought to be enough, but any reader finishing this story will not be able to escape the feeling that this novel might easily have been seminal. It could have been Gaiman’s best, and the best fantasy in a decade, and a flawless work that would have other writers gnawing their own hair in envy. Instead, it is just very good.

Perhaps this has something to do with its haphazard and unintentional inception. By all accounts, Gaiman intended to write a short unpublished story, then a short published story, then a novella, then a full novel. As it is, it tallies up to be a rather brief novel, and it might be that there are details that could have been eased out onto unspoiled pages, deeper plots, deeper characters, a fuller tale.

“Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.”

-The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Again, it must be emphasised: this is not a case of a story feeling half-baked, or of questions left unanswered, or of a rushed plot stapled together to meet a publisher’s deadline. This story is complete, and it is very good. Another way of looking at it might be the fierce regimentation of the various adventures and plots in the story. There is the funereal visit at the beginning, for instance. It arrives, there are some pleasing interior monologues, and once that part of the story is over the viewpoint and the flavour shift abruptly. Later, there is the crisis with Ursula and the Roald Dahlian imprisonment within one’s home–which is terrifically written and both thrilling, and tense and suspenseful–which is concluded, resolved, and finished.

Gaiman isolates these separate incidents from each other, and once one crisis or adventure or stream of thought is concluded, it does not really arise again. There is nothing to be said against his narration. His voice is crisp and clean, and it is melancholic without being morbid, youthful without being juvenile, dark without despondence. It seems rather that he might have returned to the draft a few times, and out of the neatly planted and segmented seeds of a story, cultivated a rich and flowing garden of an epic.

This is a story that readers will appreciate and remember, but not for all that long. It is not a story to change lives or inspire deep and permanent longing and wistful love, but it is a story that while it lasts is captivating.

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