Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dorothy Dunnett's THE UNICORN HUNT

I've already had one bout of impatience with Niccolo, his opacity, his motivations and his less than stellar treatment of his companions, but things got much, much worse in The Unicorn Hunt, even though I once again got to see sights and have experiences that are really not available to me in meatspace life. Niccolo has just become a real jackass of a tour guide.

Of course this is all fallout from the knife-twist of an ending that Scales of Gold brought us (spoilers for that novel follow. What are you even doing reading this review if you haven't read that book anyway?). Gelis van Borsalen, once just the bratty younger sister of Niccolo's lover Katelina, took the virago route to better hound Niccolo about her sister's sad fate, for which she and all of Niccolo's other enemies still blamed him, and forced herself on him as a traveling companion, the better to simultaneously berate him and get the gory details about what became of poor Katelina. But of course, of course, of course, she wound up sleeping with him. A lot. And they decided that maybe they liked each other well enough to maybe get married when they got home from their African adventures. Which they did, but only after Gelis spent some time in Scotland as a maid-of-honor to Princess Mary. Where her orbit intersected with that of Niccolo's very estranged maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol*. Very intimately. Oh, look, she wasn't through trying to punish Niccolo, was she?

So now Gelis claims to be pregnant, but not by her shiny new husband. And her shiny new husband is still reeling from the news that Loppe (whom we now call Umar because that was his actual name all along) was killed along with his entire family in a massacre back at Timbuktu.

So what with one thing and another, The Unicorn Hunt is one giant traveling temper tantrum on the part of Niccolo. As we travel with him from Bruges to Scotland to the Tyrol to Egypt to Cyprus to Venice, we are meant to understand that a very elaborate and subtle game is going on between our hero and his crafty wife, but it really just looks like Niccolo has gone right off the rails, picking fights with former friends, viciously attacking old enemies in unconscionably harsh ways, lying to his companions (well, he always does that, but it's usually in some way for their own good? Or at least not seemingly just for the sake of being a jerk?) and generally just causing trouble for everybody. There are allusions strewn throughout the narrative to things being "steps" in a "plan"  but I could never figure out what the plan really was or even what it was supposed to accomplish, save finally flushing out Gelis, who hid herself away after their wedding night, claims to have given birth but keeps spiriting away the alleged child before Niccolo can even lay eyes on it, but if that's all that was aimed for, it's the most unnecessarily convoluted Rube Goldberg machine of a plan, maybe ever, and it didn't work too well anyway.

What saved this novel for me was a new character, a sort of proto-Phillippa Somerville named Katelijne, niece of Niccolo's one time good friend and protector Anselm Adorne, whose antics in Niccolo's train and wake are highly original and entertaining and who takes no crap from anybody, even when she's mortally ill. That and my love for many of the secondary characters in Niccolo's company, especially physician Tobie, sailor Michael Crackbene, Grigorio the lawyer and his mistress, Margo... I'm always happy to see any of them in a Niccolo novel (and many of the others besides, but some got left in Bruges, or Scotland, or Venice, etc.).

And believe me, this novel needed saving, because not only has its hero turned into a world class asshat, but he's also, midway through an eight-volume series of highly realistic, plausible and naturalistic historical fiction, suddenly manifested a supernatural talent that then serves to get him out of all of his plot difficulties: he's a diviner. Not just a water witch, though he is that; he can also divine seams of precious metals waiting to be mined, find stashes of already coined precious metals, and even, via the trick of tying an object to a string and swinging it over a map, find people who are hiding from him. Dudes, I'm about ready to give up right here.

But still, it's Dunnett. And despite all of the things that made me want to tear my hair out, there are still wonderful things to be had from this novel. Her ability to evoke exotic settings and celebrations, her descriptions of places I'll never see and places that don't exist anymore, and the cultures that inhabit-or-once inhabited them, is second to none, and no matter how much she wound up cheating us of an amiable hero and a plausible plot resolution, she did not cheat us on any of her scenery porn.

So I'm going to keep going in a while, but right now, I need a break from Niccolo and his tantrums. He can still and think a while about what he's done. I've got a summer of Wolfe to get on with.

*Who, for his part, is unknowingly raising a child born to his late wife, Katelina, that is not, in fact, his, but was sired by one Niccolo.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Tatyana Toylstoya's THE SLYNX

It's not every day that I come across a novel that seems destined for the "among the strangest things I've ever read" category simultaneously as it also just never quite winds up feeling strange enough, somehow, but such is Tatyana Tolstoya*'s The Slynx, a post-apocalyptic and satirical fantasy that is couched very much in terms of a folk tale.

The setting is sort-of-rural Russia, some 200 years after a violent unknown event referred to by its survivors as, simply, "The Blast", which was pretty obviously a nuclear war that didn't quite destroy the world, but sure did change it, starting with the aforementioned survivors. Those in our little corner of what's left of the world who managed to live through The Blast and its immediate aftermath just kept on living unless murdered or killed by a freak accident or finally just sickened of it all enough to commit suicide. But get this: they don't really age, and, if they were of childbearing age at the time of The Blast, they could keep on having children, and did, and so repopulation happened at a good rate.

Only about those children. Yes, about them. That's where mutation sets in. Everybody's got some kind of disfigurement, some visible, some not. And these children age, and die off, and basically enjoy the lifestyle and span of your average Russian serf, circa the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could be almost idyllic, if your idea of an idyll is a return to pre-mechanized agriculture, ignorance, superstition, and boredom. Oh, and of a whole new sub-race of people who are human but alas, are also quadrupeds and are thus used in place of draft animals.** Draft animals that drink too much vodka and talk back to their owners and occasionally maybe try to stage a revolution...

Enter one Benedikt, son of an "Oldener" woman, who works as a copyist of old pre-Blast manuscripts. His calling is kind of noble and it lends him a certain weird distinction -- in order to copy one has to read -- but the 200 years between the last of these books' publication and his own time have wrought changes that make a lot of the knowledge he can gain thereby useless or nearly so, because it's all about context, and the context has changed. For instance, while books are precious in Benedikt's world, it's chiefly as testaments to the wonderful wit and wisdom of Dear Leader, one Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. He wrote them all, you see. All the novels, all the how-to books, all the chemistry text books. War and Peace, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. A Manual of Applied Organic Chemstry, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. The 1972 Sears Catalog, by Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe.

And yes, he is a despot, ruling from afar with the help of the dreaded Saniturions, secret/thought police in the guise of public health officials, who punish freethinkers by treating them as vectors of disease. Straight out of the movie Brazil, these guys. All that's missing are the weird baby masks.

But so, the plot of The Slynx (the Slynx being an imaginary monster that attacks and tears apart lone villagers in the night, and pretty much serving as a metaphor for all the woes of this world, especially ignorance and oblivion, because this book is all about what happens when a culture's memory is obliterated and everyone is just trying to make sense of it all from random pieces) is pretty much that of Snowpiercer. Benedikt is very like Curtis, if Curtis was more of a lovable doofus who marries above his station than a guilt-ridden antihero who kills his way to the front of the train, who advances uncomprehendingly through the several strata of a very confined society and learns that its very top/front isn't all that different from the rear/bottom and that it's all pretty much just a sad little cemetery of a society he's living in. But funny. Darkly and deeply funny.

You know, like life is. We're having a Blast. And maybe that's all that we deserve to be remembered for?

*Yes, she is from the same family as that War & Peace guy.

**Not a lot of animals survived The Blast. Mice are the primary food animal, and also serve as a kind of currency, for example. There are other, barely recognizable, creatures around, but most of them are not safe to eat.

Dorothy Dunnett's SCALES OF GOLD

Oh, Niccolo, Niccolo, Nicollo. It's been too long since I followed your adventures. So long that I had to catch up again by listening to all of the books I'd already read as audio books*

There is a stinger of a surprise ending to Scales of Gold, the fourth in the House of Niccolo series, that threatens to blot all that comes before it from memory. I'm not going to give away that ending, because it's a doozy, but in so resolving, I'm making this a harder blog entry for myself.

The machinations of Niccolo's enemies (his very estranged supposed father and grandfather, and the rival mercantile house, the Vatochino, chief among them) have left Team Niccolo cash poor but rich in responsibilities, so the need becomes immediately evident that the gang needs money. Hard money. The very hardest. And where, before the New World ripened for the plundering, did gold come from?

Africa. And where does Niccolo's best friend and maybe sometime lover (last novel the King of Cyprus said sooner or later Niccolo would either have to send him away or make him his lover), Loppe the polyglot omnitalented African, a former slave who has mentioned betimes that it would be swell if he could go home and show Niccolo the sights and they could maybe get some gold...

But meanwhile, other fallout from Niccolo's previous adventures is falling out. His maybe-father, Simon de St. Pol, has a sister, who had a Portuguese husband that died last novel (and of course some people blame Niccolo, but we know the truth), leaving behind a young son and half of a trading company (Simon owns the other half, dun dun DUUUUUNNNN), and it, too, is on the brink of failure, but Niccolo has a plan to maybe save it and blah blah blah everybody is on the island of Madeira (not yet famous for its wines) but oh, they're too late -- Simon has been there and decided to sell off his half of the company to... The Vatochino! His sister and nephew will be destitute, unless Niccolo and Loppe can save the day!

But wait, they don't think they're going alone, do they? Because no. The nephew, Diniz Vasquez, must go with them. And so must... Oh jeez. So must one Bel of Cuthilgurdy, Simon's sister Lucia's best friend and traveling companion**, and also... Gelis van Borsalen. Last seen as Katelina van Borsalen's bratty little sister back in Niccolo Rising. She's all grown up now, as attractive as her late sister, and pretty damned sure that, whatever the official ruling, Katelina's death is also Niccolo's fault. And she's not going to give him any peace, going to follow him wherever he goes like a buxom young Fury.

Many of Niccolo's other friends are involved in this venture as well, but the significant one aside from those already named is Father Godscalc, originally the house chaplain to the Charetty Company (Niccolo's original employer as well, whose widowed owner he married by way of positioning him to help her to expand its scope and get him a good start in business in his own right, and from which he wound up inheriting many excellent advisers, partners and helpers, some of whom are keepers of various of his secrets and some of whom can barely stand him and some of whom are just in it for the money. Of these, Godscalc is one of the secret keepers, of course), who also wants to go to Africa, but not for gold; he wants to find a land route from the continent's western coast to Ethiopia, believed to be the true home of that legendary Christian king, Prester John. Goldscalc envisions a great evangelical pilgrimage to Prester John's kingdom, saving souls and making converts all the way, and securing from that great king a pledge of money and manpower to help save the rest of Christendom from the Turk. Niccolo, Niccolo kind of owes him one.

But so, adventures. Lots and lots of adventures, including an entertaining sea battle on the way from Madeira to the mouth of the Gambia, in which a ship that Niccolo was given by Emperor of David of Trebizond back in The Spring of the Ram but was originally owned by, you got it, Simon, must attack a ship sailed by the Vatochino without being recognized as both companies race for the gold. Whoever gets there first has the upper hand in contacting the natives and making the deals for that season's haul.

But all of that's just preamble. The heart of this novel is in, that's right, Timbuktu, a city of clay and mud that dissolves when it rains, only to be built again because it is a city of scholars, holy men and entrepreneurs, and its position makes it the crossroads for much of western Africa's commerce circa the 15th century. Everybody in Niccolo's party has something to learn there, as well as things to acquire (like copies of scrolls from the impressive libraries repositories of Timbuktu). The interlude here is as lovely as anything Dunnett has written, and as satisfying. But Dunnett is never satisfied merely with being satisfied, and Prester John beckons.

A lot of people point to this novel as a turning point in Niccolo's development as a man and a character, and they are right to. Up to this point he has been largely passive and protean, exercising his talents in mostly hidden ways, often only when others have forced him to. Here he finally takes his fate and that of others deliberately into his hands, realizes he is an adult and that his life doesn't have to be solely one of avenging the circumstances of his irregular birth. He leaves Africa interested in finding for himself the pleasures of family life, which he has tasted with the Charetty company -- his late wife had two nearly-grown daughters who eventually came around to being okay with having a stepdad just a few years older than they -- but now wants for real. And now I'm not going to say anymore about that because it's all tied up in the twist ending, a real emotional cliffhanger that had me plunging straight into the next novel, the Unicorn Hunt.

Dorothy, Dorothy, Dorothy!

*Which, these are pretty good, but I could have done without all of the accents, especially on the female characters. Most male narrators don't do female voices well anyway and really shouldn't even try, but they sound much worse when they're also given comic Italian or Flemish or Greekish accents.

**Which, get ready for Bel. She's late middle aged, fat, Scottish, fiercely intelligent, stubborn and altogether awesome. She may be my favorite Dorothy Dunnett character yet. I love her so much I had to consult the oracle of internets to make sure she appears in later books, because if she got killed off (spoiler: not in this novel) I was going to be very, very angry.