Savouring the flavour

Yesterday I chose my next read, a full day after I had finished Surface Detail. Have yet to start it.

Not because I’m not in the mood to read what I chose – no, I think it will fit well enough. It is rather that some books needs savouring, needs to develop their full taste before you add another flavour… or the experience is spoiled – too close and the read vanishes in a POOF! …as it had never happened.
And that is such a waste.

I love the books that do this to me, the books that challenges my brain, calling out for a duel, engages unexpected connections. So I’ll let the taste of Surface Detail linger on a few more hours, before taking on Umberto Eco’s Baudolino. I think.

Review: Surface Detail, by Iain M Banks

When I started out with Bank’s latest Culture novel – Surface Detail – I did so expecting a well written but gory, gruesome and bleak story. 100 pages in I knew he would live up to those expectations… 200 pages in, though, I was starting to wonder. Gory and gruesome, definitely. Bleak? Well, not so much, because where I expected a tale of deluded individuals searching for meaning in the meaningless and, in the end, dying meaningless deaths as a consequence this time the ongoing theme seems to be one of hope, of the value of holding on to one’s dreams.

Among the interesting features was the way the designated villain, Jolier Veppers, evolved into a textured person – callow, yes; greedy, yes; willing to spend lives to stay on top of the hierarchy, yes. A despicable person, yes. But despite this, a person, not a figure from some shadow play.

Another is how all the stories that this book is made from contribute to the central tale and theme. Some of them are decidedly gruesome reading – especially so the descriptions of the Pavulian Hell – but without them the story would had felt half made and shallow.

Despite all this the book was only jogging along pleasantly – if such a word can be used in the Culture context – until Lededje, main protagonist, meets Demeisen, avatar of the Culture Special Circumstances Agency Abominator-class Picket Ship Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints. Then the tempo picks up, the pages just flying by. The Falling Outside Normal Moral Constraints really is a very sophisticated war ship, built to destroy. Such a Mind, and such an avatar, has to be able, independent, and, compared to a culture – the Culture – that tries to embody the original Star Trek ethos (everyone gets what they need to live, no money needed, peaceful explorers…) more than slightly psychotic. Set alongside Veppers, for example, or the war about the Hells, his very existence incites discussion on ethics and morality, and about what constitutes “evilness”…
I guess those who end up not enjoying this book will arrive at that notion for one or both of two main reasons – the description of the Pavulian Hell and the ideology behind the Hells, and the fact that such a mean character as Demeisen is also portrayed as somewhat likeable.

Endings are always hard. This one have three – a “real” story ending, followed by a few pages telling how the various characters ended up, and a third one, which I hesitate to retell as it’s a major spoiler… but you’ll only understand that third ending if you have read Use of Weapons, Culture novel #4.
Personally I could had lived without the intermediary, second, ending, but it doesn’t spoil anything and I can see how the author or the editor wanted this in, so… it’s OK with me.
The third ending… puts an added perspective on Use of Weapons, and I like that.

Recommended reading. IMHO. High reread probability.

Reread, again: The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy G Kay

I don’t read much fantasy. I really don’t. The reason is simple – I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to the supernatural or fantastic. Such stories are, to me, deux ex machina-devices stacked on top of each other, nothing more. Therefore it might be surprising that the only two books that I’ve read to pieces are… fantasy genre books – the first were Lord of the Rings (yes, I’ll call them one book, even it it’s six books in three volumes), which I read again and again until covers and bindings fell apart. That was when I was 12. The second one is The Lions of Al-Rassan.

Admittedly, the binding isn’t very good – it’s a trade paperback. None the less it’s starting to fall apart. So, why does it get treated to repeated reading?

First, the Moorish era and the way it has influenced European culture and “science”, and how it fed the Christian movement, through reasons of fear, backfed for political reasons, interests me and I think Kay has succeeded in using the historical events in a good way; using it to discuss loyalty, friendship, tolerance, and politics – how spin is used to whip up hatred or to keep the public focus away from important matters. Clearly a mirror of our own times – of all times – and extra relevant in these times of War on Terror, of war and fear against anything that isn’t an exact copy of oneself.

Second, for some reason I just love the pretentiousness of the text. The way the words are weaved aspires to poetry, and sometimes it gets a bit construed, or close to being an academic exercise in form and style, but I don’t care because the images are elaborate as the carvings and mosaics of a Moorish castle and evoking real life memories I have of harsh dry cliffs, scorching sun and lush orange grooves; winding labyrinthine alleys, surprising courtyards; the scent of olive groves, thyme and rosemary; star-roofed Arab baths, and the horse shoe arches of Cordoba…

Most people gets irritated on the low quality poetry. I don’t, and for two main reasons – a) I skip it. Read most of it the first time around, and never again – just like I do in any book featuring verse (yes, I skip it in LoTR as well), and b) because some of it is very close to originals penned by Moorish poets, over 1500 years ago. And having read some of those originals I can only say that either they are only readable in their original language, or styles have changed over the millennia. Or maybe both? ;-) In any case I don’t think they’re truly intended to be astonishing poetry but to add texture and ambience. Which is well enough.

Most people also gets irritated by the improbability of the friendship between the main characters, not to mention the love story. I’m not. Perhaps I’m biased by my agreement over the general message – people are people, whatever their heritage or belief – or perhaps I’m just plain blind. I don’t know. But through the story we see two of the main protagonists turn from many-layered individuals into mere placeholders, marionettes, tools for their respective sides, none of which they totally agree with. Sorrow and grief follows, as expected. And at the very last we are shown hope – that coexistence is possible… and that war is not a means to achieve that.

So perhaps the reason I like the book so much is that while it’s well written, well told, and evocative of personal physical memories of place most of all it verifies and validates my personal philosophy; something that might be comfy and cosy, but not especially worthy. But as long as I don’t overdose on it I think a shot of hope every now and then is needed, to sustain life.

I will read this book again. I know it – and admit it – without shame.

Review: Trading in Danger, by Elizabeth Moon

For the longest I thought Elizabeth Moon‘s Trading in Danger was just SF chicklit with a streak of adventure tacked to it. And perhaps it is, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the read. What made it worth it was the quality of the writing (good) and the believability of the central character (high), whose inner doubts and journey takes this from brainless superhuman space adventure and into the realm of a good relief/pleasure read.

After having read the Serrano books props, characters and plot turns had a distinctly familiar feel, and from time to time I couldn’t help wonder if all (or most) of Moon’s books are structured this way, populated by these kinds of characters. Despite this I, as just mentioned, enjoyed the reading experience, and I’m more than pleased that there are authors out there who can write the stories I/we need when the brain needs some unwrinkling to get going again.

Recommended.