Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Deadlocked

I love Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series*, and I love saying nice things about authors I love. It's always a good day when I get to do that.

Today is not a good day.

Since I'm writing about book 12 in a projected 13-book series, it's hard to review without either depending on knowledge of the previous books that some readers don't have (Hi, Mom!!) or spoiling the story for people watching the TV show (which has now reached roughly book 5) without reading the books at all.**

The premise of the books, and a brief synopsis: they're set in our contemporary world, except that vampires, werewolves, and lots of other supernatural freaks are real. The protagonist is a small-town Southern waitress who also happens to be a supernatural freak herself; she's telepathic, something we eventually learn is due to her own weird heritage, which will remain unspecified here. (See? Not giving away too many spoilers. Three cheers for me.) She finds it exhausting dating humans, since she can read their minds, but she can't read the minds of vampires -- so by book 12, she's the girlfriend of one of the hotter and more interesting ones, and she's also deeply involved in the world of the "supes," who hide a lot of their secrets from most humans.

Each of the books is structured as a murder mystery, and in each book, we learn a little more about the intricacies of the supernatural power structure. There are many, many deaths, a fair amount of sex, and some very funny parts, mostly having to do with the incongruity of violent supernatural slaughter in mundane settings. (If you've ever wanted to see an amnesiac vampire trying to clean up shotgunned werefox remains in a rural kitchen with an avocado-colored refrigerator, this series is for you. Charlaine Harris is good at what she does: she fulfills blood-lusty desires I never even knew I had, God bless 'er.)

And that summary is good enough, since most of my complaints about this book have little to do with the content anyway. I've bitched about book series before, and here we go again: Deadlocked is a prime example of why authors should stop milking their good ideas for bestsellers until they're empty and dry. This book is the literary equivalent of a manager's rising to the level of his incompetence; Harris didn't just phone this one in, she typed it in Morse code with her toes, probably while drinking a fruity cocktail on a Caribbean beach.

Good for her to some extent, say I, since she's earned that cocktail and that expensive beach resort with her previous, much better books, which is doubtless also why she's continuing to write more books in the series. But at a certain point, an author must do a cost-benefit analysis: does that author need another hundred thousand dollars now, or would she prefer to retain a reputation as a good writer?

With this series, Harris has reached the same point that Janet Evanovich, author of the massively popular Stephanie Plum series***, reached a few books back. Both of these series feature normal-girl protagonists who end up, not quite voluntarily, living very strange lives, one as a bumbling discount-lingerie buyer turned bounty hunter and one as a virginal Jeopardy-watching good-girl barmaid turned telepathic vampire moll. The humor of both series depends on the contrast between the bizarre major events in the heroines' lives and the banal day-to-day details; both Evanovich's Stephanie Plum and Harris's Sookie Stackhouse regularly spend the afternoon with Molotov cocktails whizzing by their heads and the evening watching TV and cleaning out the fridge. And for more books than one would expect, this worked in both series.

The love triangle plotline, so beloved of series writers in all genres, also worked for both of these authors for longer than one might expect, mainly because the characters in both series are appealing and because both Evanovich and Harris are good writers (and in similar ways). Harris, in particular, managed to keep the romantic suspense coming, by adding occasional decoy love interests along the way.

And now for the complaints. As I said above, these series both worked for longer than I expected, since one would expect descriptions of getting dressed for work and washing dishes to pall after a while. As of Deadlocked, they've officially friggin' palled. I get that Sookie's main challenge is living a somewhat normal life while silver-toothed fairies and ancient Roman vampires are trying to kill her and eat her face, but there are only so many instances of "I carried the groceries in from the car and put the bloodstained [insert item of clothing] in the washer with cold water" an Indiscriminate Reader can stand.

But aside from that, the narrative's still working for me; in fact, Deadlocked (and any other readers of this series, I welcome your opinions on this) is better than book 11 in this regard. It's really what Harris is doing with her characters that's starting to grate. Eric Northman, the badass Viking vampire who's been Sookie's main squeeze for quite a few books now (sorry, True Blood watchers, read the damn books already), started out as one of the best characters in the series: intelligent, ruthless, funny, sexy, violent, and a little confused by modern culture -- in short, everything a very old vampire should be****. He's been reduced to a caricature of himself, without any of the wit or goofiness he occasionally showed to balance out the big-tall-sharp-pointy-teeth part of his character, and the series has suffered.

But that's only a symptom. The disease is author-is-no-longer-engaged-itis, and Charlaine Harris signed this series' Do Not Resuscitate order when she finished book 12. The only cure I can think of is to end the series as quickly as possible, while it still has some freshness to it, and to Harris's credit, that's what she's going to do with the next book. Not all series writers have this good sense. Janet Evanovich has yet to get the memo; Stephanie Plum's 19th book is coming out next year, probably. So I'll give Harris a few points for realizing only a little belatedly that she's dragged it out too long.

Unfortunately, I must deduct about ten million points for the way Deadlocked ominously points toward Harris's ending this awesome series in an extraordinarily boring way. Anyone who's reading the books might want to look away now, but Jesus Christ on a cracker, is Sookie really going to dump Eric and live happily ever after with that whiny nonentity Sam the shapeshifting bar owner? He has about as much personality as a shapeshifting turnip that has the great power of changing into other equally dull root vegetables at will. I think Harris is trying to portray him as the attractive beta hero, but he's more like a gamma. Or an epsilon. Or a potato, for all the fascination he exerts on the page. I would rather read about a god damn potato.

I give this book two and a half stars overall, which is okay; but it's pretty sad considering that books 1 through 9 are in the four star range. This series needs to end.

* And like any good hipster, I liked it before it was  HBO's hit show True Blood.

** To be fair, I don't care about the latter group. Dude. Read the books before you watch the show. And look for another books vs. TV post coming soon, in which I will contradict that statement utterly.

*** The first book, One for the Money, recently became a poorly reviewed film.

**** Although he neither sparkles nor deflowers high school girls, so maybe he does leave a little to be desired.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Something Borrowed

After reading only a few pages of Something Borrowed, my disgust knew no bounds: this book embodies so many of the tired tropes of chick lit that I wondered how Emily Giffin hadn't been arrested for copyright infringement. Then I glanced at the copyright page and realized that Giffin hadn't ripped off those tired tropes; this book was published in 2004, and so she's actually responsible for some of them. This makes me detest this book even more, if possible, and in order to demonstrate why, I'm just going to go ahead and Godwin myself.

Who's worse, Hitler or a neo-Nazi? Yes, it's kind of pathetic to be a neo-Nazi, spouting philosophies that the world went to so much trouble to prove wrong. But Hitler was the originator. It's bad, in short, to lamely write yet another book about an average-looking, slightly overweight*, supposedly brainy "good girl" heroine with a snarky, narcissistic, thin and gorgeous best friend. It's even lamer to be the person who first thought it was a good idea.

This book hits that particular nail on the head, then beats it, whacks it, stomps on it, stretches it on the rack, and shoves its head underwater repeatedly. If Giffin were the Spanish Inquisition, even the strongest-willed reader would be begging to convert to Catholicism fifty pages in; as it is, I was willing to swear on a whole stack of Bibles that pretty, shallow girls are the greatest force of evil in the galaxy if only one original thought could appear on those pages to comfort me a little for having read through the whole thing.

As you may have guessed, it did not. And this book is also written in the present tense. Why? Christ, why? Chick lit authoresses, you are not James Joyce. You do not need to depart from thousands of years of narrative convention, nor do you do it well.

Back to Something Borrowed, and there are spoilers ahead -- simply because there is no such thing as a spoiler for a book like this. The book starts with our heroine, Rachel, turning thirty and lamenting the fact that she is alooooone, with a job she haaaates, and her best friend Darcy is about to marry a handsome, smart, wonderful man, when Darcy's always had everything she always wanted, and it's not faaaaaair, and . . . honestly, who gives a rat's whiny navel-gazing ass? Rachel's a pretty, youngish, well-educated lawyer with a nice apartment in Manhattan, plenty of money, and several really good friends.

Her one big problem is that when her law-school buddy Dexter (I feel like a tool just typing that name) hit on her a few years before the book starts, she turned him down because she didn't feel like she was in his league. Please take note of this. This is important, and not only because it's a really, really stupid thing to write a novel about. She turned him down because she had low self-esteem. And without even trying again, he turned right around and immediately started dating Darcy. This is supposed to demonstrate his strength of character, dedication to true lurv, and preference for inner beauty over a great body, right? Because that's what the author tells us, over and over, this character is really like. No? No conflict there, Ms. Giffin? Okay.

Flash forward to the thirtieth birthday party, seven years later. Dexter (urgh) stays late with the birthday girl, after having put drunken Darcy in a cab home a couple of hours before. (Darcy drinks lots of cocktails, wears cute clothes, and dances on the bar! She's bad! Bad and mean! Die, Darcy, die!) They have a few more drinks, stare into each other's eyes, and confess a mutual love for Bruce Springsteen, thus proving that they are spiritually One, realize that Darcy doesn't like the Boss (Omigod! Like, she is so not right for her fiance!), and have sex.

Now, at this point I was just thinking, wow, Dexter's (ugh) kind of a prick. But oh, you have no idea. Having a one night stand with his fiancee's best friend? Lame. Calling her the next day and then going and sleeping with her again, and then continuing all summer, while he's still keeping his engagement? Lamer still. Continuing to have really, really hot sex with his fiancee while going over and banging the heroine's brains out every other night, all summer, while the heroine is well aware that he's doing both? Priceless.

While Dexter (what up, bra?) is happily having his cake and eating it too**, Rachel is -- what, you say? Telling him, "I'm sorry, I have a modicum of self-respect, so get the hell out of my apartment, since you're stringing one of us along, either me or my best friend from childhood"? No. She's sitting around pining and hoping that he chooses her. Let's go back to that self-esteem thing for a minute, shall we? Because I know what you're thinking; it's what I was thinking during the first half of this book. She had such low self-esteem that she turned him down. Okay, so now she'll learn her lesson and tell him to get lost, right? We'll all feel proud of her character development. No. She kind of gives him an ultimatum at one point, but then folds like a house of self-hating, self-pitying cards as soon as she gets the chance. The final message of the book is that she learned self-esteem because this spineless sleazy douchebag chose her over her hotter friend. Let that one sink in for a minute.

Now that it has: I'll state for the record that I have no objection to multiple sexual affairs at once, just as long as everyone's happy with the arrangement.*** But telling one woman you love her, asking her to marry you, then screwing her best friend, telling her you love her, then screwing both while telling both that you love them, lying to one and leading on the other . . . that's just vile. And Rachel puts up with this. For months. And then we, as the readers, are supposed to not only believe but cheer for the fact that the immense compliment, the tremendous honor, of this overly entitled cad's choosing to screw only her is what gave Rachel a feeling of real value and worth.

The really sad thing is, one of the quotes on the book cover calls it "uplifting." It's uplifting in the same way that Sex and the City is empowering. Perhaps that will seem like a statement devoid of irony to some, so let me be clear: this book's message is about as deep, positive, and inspiring as a poster advising teenage girls to put out if they want to keep their pimply high school boyfriends.

Aside from the present tense issue, Something Borrowed isn't badly written. I'm deducting an extra star for the way the author lazily presents her characters as intelligent by having them graduate from law school without ever convincing anyone they're not riding the short bus to their prestigious jobs every day. One and a half stars overall, two within the genre.

* But only by the fashion industry's unrealistic and self-esteem-destroying standards. She's still hot enough for the chiseled hero, we promise, because God forbid an actually unattractive girl get a dude with a six-pack! She may wear clothes from the Gap, but gosh darn it, people like her!

** This is a euphemism.

*** Consenting adults and all that. Although I will add that this type of arrangement, happy or not at first, frequently ends in four-letter words scrawled on the hood of someone's car.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rilla of Ingleside and The Blue Castle

A few posts back, I had reason to mention Anne of Green Gables, and I thought perhaps it was time to go back and reevaluate some of Lucy Maud Montgomery's books. Oh boy, how wrong I was.

Not to be completely negative: some of her novels (particularly the first three or four Anne books) are fun. There are good moments. And even her worst books are interesting, if you happen to find interest in a) realistic accounts of life in turn-of-the-century Canada or b) the slow transition from Victorian novels to Modernist fiction, both of which are more or less fascinating for me. (The former: less, the latter: more.)

Rilla of Ingleside is the final book in the Anne series*; the eponymous Rilla is Anne's youngest daughter, 14 or so when the book begins. This book suffers from many of the same weaknesses found in the earlier books, and adds a few of its own to the catalogue. All the main characters still seem to think that an appreciation for gloppy, sentimental poetry is the highest form of spirituality; the beauty of nature is described and dwelt upon at agonizing length; and the male characters, like all of Montgomery's men, are so blank and featureless that one wonders if she ever actually met a human male.** This novel also, as is so common with the ends of series, reduces its long-recurring characters to caricatures. It's clear that Montgomery had finally run out of new insights to offer into Anne's deeply spiritual flower worship, thank the dear sweet baby Jesus. (Don't worry, though! Her children take over where she left off!)

Since World War I breaks out a few pages into Rilla, this book is unique in the Anne series, incorporating as it does a bit of the world outside of a small and peaceful part of Canada. If you take the other novels at face value, the most important world events between about 1885 and 1914 were an unsuccessful cake and a Methodist going to a Presbyterian church; Rilla is staged entirely in the same milieu, but the war is the focus. The treatment of the war, and its effects on those left at home, is the book's strongest point. Montgomery does a good job with the elderly, loving servant who bakes goodies (out of strictly rationed foodstuffs) to mail to the boys at the front; it's truly touching, the more so because it's one of the few places in any Montgomery book where the touching doesn't feel forced.***

On the other hand, the deepening pool of melodrama into which Montgomery can't help wading eventually rises up to drown characters and readers alike, and any genuine moments of emotion get lost in the process, sucked down into a whirlpool of bathos and overextended metaphors.

This novel also suffers from what my mom (Hi, Mom!!) calls "uh-oh, Teen Romance alert!" I realize that people used to get married earlier in life. But this particular uh-oh Teen Romance stretches my credibility to the breaking point and beyond. The hero and heroine spend one hour sitting on a beach together, during which time he basically talks at her while she listens worshipfully; when he comes back from the war a few years later, it's still TRUE LURRRV! Sorry, but no. That's a divorce (or, in 1920s Canada, a long and bitter life together) waiting to happen. On the other hand, they both like flowers and poetry and stuff, and no doubt this gooey spirituality of his, combined with her cheerful, earnest, womanly desire to bake cakes for him and clean his boots, will entirely erase his years in the trenches in France watching his friends drown in their own blood in a pit of mud and excrement while starving to death. Surely.

On to The Blue Castle, a novel Montgomery allegedly wrote for adults. I think I may have mentioned coincidences in fiction, and how I try not to judge too harshly, since they're usually less bizarre than in real life. Okay, not in this book. I take it all back. If you read the first two chapters of this novel, and then tried to construct the most absurd, unlikely, impossibly stupid set of coincidences you could possibly derive from any and all people and objects mentioned in those chapters, you would still not predict the end of this book. It achieves a twist ending simply by being more predictable than any book in history. It's actually awe-inspiring.

On the plus side, this novel's characters are kind of appealing; the heroine finds out, at the beginning of the story, that she has a year or less to live, and her resulting "what the hell? you only live once" transformation from downtrodden spinster to sarcastic shocker-of-aunts is very funny.

Then, to my great regret, this character moves to a house in the woods, and things get ugly. For L.M. Montgomery, no tree is just a tree. It is a noble and lofty pine -- standing untouched amidst primeval glory, limned in traceries of frosty white shed from the tears of drooling cherubs, its branches against the shining face of the moon's orb as delicate as the embroidery on Persephone's wedding gown -- which Montgomery then uses to beat the crap out of your will to live. After winter comes spring; bushels of mayflowers are violently shoved up the reader's (choose a metaphorical body part) at every turn, in chapter after chapter of sugary nature-worshipping filth. By the end of the novel, I was twitching with the desire to pour cement over every virgin forest in North America, just so no one would ever, ever write something like this again.

Rilla of Ingleside: Two stars overall and within the genre of YA fiction.

The Blue Castle: One and a half stars overall, half a star within the genre of Modern-era fiction.

* I'm going to assume not everyone has read these: Anne, an orphan in late 19th century Canada, is accidentally adopted by a couple of boring middle-aged people who meant to get a boy to help around the farm. Her big, green eyes, winsome charm, and delightful hijinks win them over anyway. She goes to school. She has equally sappy friends. Her inferiority complex about having red hair eventually fades. She goes to a teachers' college, becomes a teacher, goes to a university and gets a B.A., gets married, and has a whole bunch of kids. Throughout, she wistfully declaims on the loveliness of sparkly dewy moonshine on fairy wings, or whatever the fuck else, and everyone seems to interpret this as evidence of intelligence, God help us. And that is all the context you need.

** The book was written ten years after she married, as a matter of fact, so I guess that explanation is out.

*** Suggestiveness acknowledged and intended.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Catching Fire and Mockingjay

Since I reviewed the first book in Suzanne Collins's series, The Hunger Games, I now feel compelled to review the other two. As any readers who know me (and that would be all of you - Hi Mom!!) could have predicted, I cracked faster than a crack rock in the hands of a Central Park crack squirrel when it came to getting book three; no waiting for the paperback or a used copy of the hardback for me, despite my protestations!

I have to qualify that, though: only by anyone else's standards did I crack quickly. It took a week. Since I once took the last bus to the other side of town on a rainy night when I had to be at work early the next day to get to Borders to buy a book I had already read, simply because I wanted to reread it that frickin' second, a week wasn't so bad. And it says a lot about how entirely certain I was, by the end of book one, about what would happen in the end of book three.

Anyone who has not read my review of The Hunger Games, go check out my predictions about the end of book three. Ready? Should I try to pretend I'm not going to spew spoilers all over this page? Should Collins try to pretend that any of her readers are as stupid as her heroine Katniss, and therefore couldn't see the end of the series coming like an out-of-control freight train packed with high-energy explosive cliches? No, and no. I called it, and I have no doubt every other reader did as well.*

I'm reviewing books two and three together because neither lives up to the very modest expectations set by the first. In Catching Fire, Katniss and the less moody of her two inexplicably devoted boyfriends return to the Arena, caught in an eeeeeevil plot of the government to get them out of the way, since they've become such heroes to the people of Panem (which means "bread," as in "bread and circuses," in Latin - oh the subtlety) that they can't just be assassinated outright without causing a lot of trouble. As a side note, nothing in these books convinced me more thoroughly of the utter uselessness, hopelessness, and pathetic misery of the people of Panem than how inspired they all apparently were by the boring love affair of a couple of dumb teenagers on TV. Side note side note: yes, this might be a commentary on America's celebrity-worshipping pop culture, but really, when a statement is made so blatantly, is it worthy of discussion? Back to that in a minute.

In Mockingjay, we learn - drum roll please! because no one saw this one coming - that district thirteen really wasn't destroyed, and has been basically blackmailing district one in order to be left alone. Katniss becomes a figurehead for their movement to get rid of district one once and for all, and dumb and poorly plotted machinations ensue. There's a bunch of fighting, blah blah blah, in true Harlequin Romance form the rival love interest gets revealed as a bastard so that Katniss doesn't really have to choose, there's one gratuitous death in particular that's supposed to be really touching and tragic and just feels needless, and then all the remaining teenagers finally get to have sex, presumably, although it happens off-stage.

It's meant to be a bittersweet ending with a lot of meaning. Read it and draw your own conclusions, if you wish, but I wasn't able to get much satisfaction from watching a brain-damaged heroine bumble her way to a life of relative peace and security after accidentally defeating a series of eeeeevil caricatures of politicians.

Also, I found the repeated bread, cake, and baking themes throughout the books irritating, since I can only infer that Collins believes her readers are dumb enough to think repeated imagery necessarily has a meaning beyond the author using repeated meaningless imagery to make it look like there's a meaning.

And so back to the books' "deeper" themes. I said I wasn't going to bother with the political messages in the series. I lied. And I say "messages," because there are several, and all of them contradict the others. The themes, ideas, and messages in these books are so clumsily presented, so poorly thought-out, and so utterly shallow that they don't merit real analysis. Small, local government is good! A wealthy upper class living off the toil of the poor oppressed peasants is bad! Redistribute all wealth! Everyone will obviously do this voluntarily, since there isn't going to be a large bureaucracy forcing people to comply! States' rights! Socialism! Suzanne Collins, if you can find a way in which socialism and small government can coexist in a large nation, please enlighten me. And lay off the damn carbohydrate metaphors. And write your next book in the past tense.

Catching Fire: Two stars.

Mockingjay: One star.

* If not, please report to the nearest Social Security office to sign up for your monthly disability check.

Friday, May 11, 2012

City of Diamond

Space Opera Week!

This is a difficult book to classify, outside of the obvious it-takes-place-on-a-spaceship science fiction designation. It's also one of my favorite stories of all time, so give up any hopes you may have had for an objective review.

In a (probably futile) attempt to be objective, I'll qualify that: this book is certainly not everyone's cup of space-tea. I gave it to the cousin I've mentioned before, the one whose tastes in science fiction are roughly the polar opposite of mine, and he got about three pages in before handing it back and questioning my judgment, intelligence, and sanity - in fact, pretty much everything but my ancestry, for obvious reasons. He thought it was boring, and I'll give him this much: it starts out slow, hops between many different viewpoint characters before building up much momentum, and proceeds at an uneven pace from there. More like a series of vignettes, at times, than a connected narrative, the book doesn't weave together for longer than the duration of many readers' probable patience.

Nonetheless, I love this book more than I love Snickers ice cream bars.* This is truly a character-driven story, and I happen to like (or at least, like reading about) each and every one of the characters - feelings I know many will not share. Our protagonist, Tal, is the forbidden offspring of a human and an alien; forbidden because all of these offspring, before they were forbidden, committed murder while still children. Like the others, Tal is a violent sociopath with few scruples and even less understanding of what it means to be human. As far as anyone knows, he's the only "demon" who's managed to evade capture and execution long enough to reach adulthood, and to gain some perspective on human society and its rules. And that's where his story gets interesting; the author, Doris Egan writing under the pen name Jane Emerson, made the wise decision to introduce him in the middle of his story, leaving out all the mayhem he probably committed earlier in life.

That's wise for two reasons. First, while Tal perpetrates some serious, and seriously entertaining, murder and mayhem during the course of the book, it's suggested that he's calmed down quite a bit in the recent past; if he were even slightly more prone to blackmail, blowing people up, and betraying his friends than he is in this story, he wouldn't stay sympathetic for long. To many readers, his character will not be sympathetic at all, anyway. To those readers, I say: go pick up Anne of Green Gables** and read a different blog.

The second reason is simple: the character development possibilities inherent in a protagonist who's just discovering his own capacity for humanity are almost endless. What does friendship mean? Is love something desirable, or just a weakness? Why does everyone seem to like Pride and Prejudice so much? Tal struggles with these questions and more - but he still finds time for blackmail, of course.

The eponymous setting of City of Diamond, where most of the action takes place, provides a perfect backdrop foil for Tal's constant misunderstandings of human morals and customs. A massive city-ship populated by Redemptionists, a pseudo-Christian sect that took on, a few hundred years before, some of the worship practices of a group of advanced aliens who used blood - literal blood, not metaphorical wine-as-blood - in their rituals, the Diamond houses a rigidly stratified and highly superstitious society. Adrian, Protector (something between a president and a king) of the Diamond, gets his jollies by letting Tal (known as "Adrian's demon") stay on board and unsettle everyone by his mere presence, also giving him a high position in the aristocracy and the run of the place. In return for sanctuary aboard the ship, outside of which he's marked for execution on sight, Tal tacitly agrees to help advance Adrian's goals and also not murder or betray him unless it's really, really inconvenient not to.

There are two other ships: the Opal, even more strictly religious, the populace of which is kept in line by the humorless Ecclesiastical Police, and the Pearl, home to all those from any of the three ships who show the psychic talent necessary to be an oracle. (The oracles are available by phone for a fee per minute; unlike Earth's phone psychics, though, they're actually accurate.)

The novel's plot centers around a state marriage between Adrian and a girl from the rival Opal, everyone's search for a lost legacy of the alien Curosa called the Sawyer Crown, possession of which confers supreme authority over all three city-ships, and all the political and social machinations that ensue. Adrian drafts Tal and his female personal assistant/bodyguard/assassin/etiquette tutor to help find the Sawyer Crown before the leaders of the Opal can do so. Lots of people die in the process.

For the purposes of this review, I'm calling City of Diamond space opera, a term that's mostly applied pejoratively. That's not how I'm using it. I love space opera in all its forms, and this book - while it's not the Wham! Bam! Zap! Telepathic sex! variety of space opera people mostly think of when they hear the term - is basically a space adventure, and does have its share of melodrama and mildly outre sex acts.

The interesting, original characters help to set this book apart from others in its general genre, but it has one other rare, oh so painfully rare, distinction: it's simply written well. I mean that in every possible way it could be meant. The dialogue is realistic. The settings are described carefully, but not so carefully that you wonder, amidst page after page of detail, if anything's ever going to happen. Egan's prose is neither pretentious nor careless. She also manages to shift POV*** between third-person omniscient, third-person limited, and first-person without making the reader feel either like a ping-pong ball or simply baffled. There are also portions written in the epistolary style, something that has recently come back into fashion (Meg Cabot, with her light chick-lit novels written mostly in emails and journal entries, comes to mind) in a new and unpleasant way. This is more reminiscent of those early sci-fi stories that have memos or documents inserted in the text for "authenticity," and you know what? That style really does help build immersion in the world.

I hereby shamelessly, subjectively, and in full knowledge that many would disagree with me, give City of Diamond four stars overall and five within the space opera genre. And I would cheerfully commit human sacrifice in order to get my hands on the sequel, which is both unwritten and, according to Doris Egan's website, unlikely ever to be written.

* Yes, those exist, and yes, this blog will still be here when you get back from the store.

** Full disclosure: I loved the Anne books when I was a kid, and reread them as recently as my early twenties. But I challenge anyone to read the passages about the souls of flowers and kindred spirits and suchlike without throwing up just a little in their mouths. If you can do that, then City of Diamond is not for you. As a side-note, I've often wondered if P.G. Wodehouse based his character Madeline Bassett on Anne.

*** Alert readers may recall I slammed George R.R. Martin for his use of multiple viewpoint characters. Since Doris Egan is ten times the writer that Martin could ever be, she gets a pass; it's allowable when it's clear that the writer used that technique out of choice, not because it's the last refuge of a mediocre author who's bitten off more plot than he could otherwise vomit onto the page.