Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett 213p.
This is the third book in the Discworld saga and I’m becoming a victim of series fatigue. In addition to reading the first two installments of the series in quick succession, I watched The Color of Magic and The Hogfather on Netflix instant. Little things are beginning to irritate me. If I see another reference to the Great A’tuin that serves no other purpose than to show how quirky and different this universe is, I’m going to scream. Intergalactic sea turtles are awesome and amazing, but they cannot be the trick rabbit that is pulled out of the hat night after night. On top of those little irritations, I’m finding myself moving past declaring how funny and original Pratchett is – this book displays equal amounts of the charm and quirk that are hallmarks of his style – and becoming more nitpicky as to the pacing and plot. This doesn’t do Equal Rites any favors.
In Equal Rites, Pratchett is playing with the idea of the sexism that pervades fairy tales and fantasy novels regarding witches and wizards, with the former normally considered lesser or more evil than the latter. Prior to reading the novel, I read a speech Pratchett gave about witches/wizards at some function or another, wherein he muses on the topic that becomes the backbone of this book. A baby girl is mistakenly imbued with powers by a dying wizard who didn’t think to check all the baby bits out before completing this last Discworldly task. Over the course of her childhood, she becomes apprenticed to a witch that hopes to stamp the magic out of her, but when that fails, the two embark upon a quest to the Unseen University to get the girl some wizard learning. Of course, nothing happens as it is supposed to, hijinks ensue, and the Discworld is nearly destroyed. But never fear! It all works out in the end.
Rather than the resounding OMG THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER that the first two books in the series got from me, this is just getting an alright. I don’t want to downplay the alrightness of that alright – it’s an enjoyable read and I look forward to continuing the series. However, I have some reservations. It took me a while to into the book, requiring several tries before I finally busted through the first ten or fifteen pages and wanted to keep going. I didn’t really enjoy anything from Esk’s – that’s the wizard girl – point of view. In fact, it’s only been two weeks or so since I read the novel, and I already forgot Esk’s name and had to look it up. That isn’t true of any of the characters of the first two novels. My favorite bits were when the POV changed to Granny Weatherwax, who was a ton of fun.
All my bellyaching aside, it was a pretty good book. I’m not giving up on the series, but I am going to take a bit of a break before continuing through it.
The Winter Queen (264p.) and The Turkish Gambit (211p.) by Boris Akunin
What’s the cure for series fatigue? Starting a completely new series, of course! I got interested in Akunin’s Erast Fandorin series after reading J.K. Barlow’s review of one of the latter books in this mystery series.
This is a really tricky series to review without spoilering something, because the only consistent thing throughout is the characterization of the central figures. Akunin changes the sub-genre with each book, so the style can change dramatically from book to book. The Winter Queen is is essentially Erast Fandorin’s origin story, explaining how he becomes an uber-detective by setting him up in a position where he can solve crimes and providing him with an arch nemesis. That is a lot of ground to cover, especially when it is all being done within the narrative of a complicated conspiracy intrigue. Despite the mystery fully unraveling by the its end, this is not a stand alone book but a pilot for the series and absolutely required to correctly interpret Fandorin’s attitudes in future stories. Because it is attempting to do so much, it was a bit of a beast for me to get through, but I immediately saw the pay off when I continued to The Turkish Gambit.
The Turkish Gambit is more manageable. Blessedly, I don’t know a damn thing about the Russo-Turkish war during the 1870s, so I can’t nitpick over how misrepresented it may have been. Russian forces are trying to overtake the city of Plevna and have been thwarted time and time again by the work of a spy. Russian losses, both monetary and human, are mounting by the tens of thousands and Fandorin must find out whodunit before Imperial Russia falls to the wolves of Europe.
It’s difficult to get further into The Turkish Gambit, or the characterization of Fandorin, without discussing said spoilers from the first book in the series. I think this plays to the strength of the Fandorin books. Fandorin is not a crime genius that is simply recycled from book to book. He is a character that develops and changes, with his story arc being central to his development. He is also fallible, whereas a Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe would rarely be so. There are times when, sharing the same knowledge that Fandorin does in-series, I made connections that Fandorin failed to see until it was too late. There were also times when he made connections that I didn’t think about. I appreciate that in a mystery series, because it keeps me on my toes. This also isn’t a typical series, insofar as that while the first book is from Fandorin’s point of view, the second book is not. The change in subgenres means that the pacing of the books will not get formulaic.
It is set in an Imperial Russia on the brink of great change. The prose is beautiful. Akunin explores the convergence of the times – the growth of Russia’s relationship with the rest of Europe, the changing political ideologies amongst the populace, and what it meant to be modern. Even the cover art is awesome. Highly recommended.
Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn (289p.)
Blessedly, Unbelievable lacks the dreaded travelogue that seems to plague journalistic explorations of quirky topics, sticking instead with a historical account of the personalities involved in the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. Horn juggles the creation, work, and demise of the lab with various case studies it has tackled and the major personalities in the field of parapsychology and all things mystical.
I was attracted to Unbelievable because it just plain fascinates me that Duke University would have an ESP lab. Doing experiments are one thing, but having an entire faculty devoted to it is another. Unfortunately, Horn managed to make it a lot less interesting than it had any right to be.
The main problem was that Horn lacked a focus and has a tendency for tangents. Then she fell victim to the very thing that Dr. J.B.Rhine, the head of the laboratory seemingly railed against for the entirety of his career: the lure of ghost stories. The lab’s focus was on telepathy, ESP, and psychokinesis. This was because that sort of phenomena was able to be tested in the controlled environment of the laboratory, allowing for similar studies to be done to test against their results. Those involved in the Parapsychology Lab’s work were desperate to be acknowledged as legitimate science. Occasionally, a more sensational case was taken on, but this was not the thrust of the lab’s or Rhine’s work. Yet, that is what Horn leads with in the title and spends a good part of the book discussing. It felt like a waste of time and allowed her to go off about this or that medium or psychic personality that was involved in those cases, rather than the work of the Duke lab itself.
Although interesting, I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you happen to be very interested in ghosts and ESP. I’m working on reading Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death next and have high hopes for a better review.