Round two for July!
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS by Karen Lord: The story begins with stoic Dllenahkh receiving the news that his home planet is gone and only the few (mostly men) who were off-planet at the time remain. Some time later, a team goes on a mission looking for settlements of refugees with Sadiri lineage who are interested in volunteering for a marriage registry and working to sustain their cultural identity. The story is told mostly from the point of view of bubbly Grace Delarua, a linguist along to translate.
The story is more thoughtful than action-packed, more about building relationships within the team than saving a race, and surprisingly light for a book that begins with near-extinction. A couple of examples that don’t need a ton of supporting context:
“Like to get your hands on some genetic samples?” he said in much the same tone that a Tlaxce City hustler would use to describe rare and reasonably priced merchandise that might or might not have fallen off the back of a freight car.
“I am experiencing a measure of excitement combined with increasing pleasure, which is perhaps manifesting as an expression of amusement.”
It was the first time he had ever used the scales to describe his emotions. “I love it when you talk dirty,” I whispered, and sealed the moment with a kiss.
Ultimately, it’s a love story between two very different personalities who accept each other as they are and yet find enough ways to reach each other in the middle to make an intimate relationship work, which just happens to occur in the setting of near-extinction.
MORT by Terry Pratchett: Mortimer is a kindhearted klutz with a dangerous ability to read that makes him a liability in his rural farming community, so his dad takes him to town to seek an apprenticeship. There are no takers until midnight rolls around, bringing Death on his pale horse, Binky, to whisk Mort away for job training. On his first night working solo, Mort reaps the soul of the assassin who’s going to kill the princess he has a crush on rather than the soul of the princess he was sent to collect. Unfortunately, since her death is already on the books, her kingdom proceeds with the mourning and transfer of power as if she’s dead. Princess Keli hires a wizard who can still see her to remind everyone she’s alive despite what their brains are telling them. This bubble of unreality is doomed to pop when history as already written forcefully corrects the anomaly, but rather than let his goof fix itself, Mort remains determined to save the princess from her inevitable demise again.
Pratchett always has a snort-worthy turn of phrase (the princesses were beautiful as the day is long and so noble they could pee through a dozen mattresses), but the Discworld books are a mixed bag for me. There are several different arcs, some of which I love and some of which I intensely dislike, so it’s in my best interest to wait to try a new-to-me arc when one of the books therein is on sale. Everyone assured me the Death books would be my favorites, and though I had to wait years for a price drop, everybody was not wrong. Mort and his adventures are entertaining and all, but while his assistant is off getting into mischief, Death is conga lining, gambling, and trying to get drunk in an attempt to understand the concept of “fun,” which I find to be INCREDIBLY RELATABLE CONTENT.
DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE by Joan He: Hesina’s father, the king, is found dead. It’s officially ruled a death by natural causes, but Hesina has reason to believe he was poisoned and pushes for an investigation and trial. Her military brother warns her that announcing the king was assassinated will lead to a war with a neighboring country, where tensions along the border are already high, but she doesn’t listen until her father’s beloved consort, who was born in that other country and whom Hesina doesn’t believe for a second would murder him, is chosen as the scapegoat.
I had so many problems with this, I’m not even going to get into half of them because this post will have more words than the amount of book I read. I’m going to limit myself to plot issues. Looming largest, the trial process makes no sense to me. The roles that we would think of as being played by lawyers for the prosecution and defense are supposed to be random people whose names are picked out of a hat or something to that effect. (Hesina cheats—she visits a “sooth” who tells her to get a specific guy, so she gets a minister who is involved in the selection process to break the rules and get her this specific guy, who is in prison and not any more qualified than some rando off the street, but we’re going to break all sorts of laws to get him on the say-so of a member of a villainized caste of mages without ever questioning the wisdom of this course of action. Okeedoke.) The obvious problem with this process is that your randomly selected representative doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart—as demonstrated by the consort’s rep immediately saying, “Can’t argue with that evidence! She’s obviously guilty. Off with her head!” Now, if this kingdom had been portrayed as a place where the justice system was hopelessly corrupt, this obviously huge flaw in the process would make sense—but much ado is made about how “The Eleven” did away with the iron-fisted rule of kings and made everything more democratic, and Hesina is completely uncynical and full of faith in the system as if this isn’t a glaringly obvious opportunity for abuse.
In order to get a trial, Hesina has to appeal to the “bureau.” She turns over the evidence she has, and they investigate, decide whether they agree there was foul play, and pick their suspects—familiar police work. HOWEVER, they don’t share any of their investigation until the moment the trial begins. That’s right, the randomly chosen defense and prosecution go into this not only with no vested interest in the outcome of the trial but also COMPLETELY UNPREPARED. It’s like high school debate club—here’s a topic you know nothing about, you’re pro, you’re con, go. Maybe it’s just me, but I think justice benefits from a thorough analysis of a situation instead of whatever this is.
Not to worry, though, because Hesina’s representative—a scrawny teenager the sooth told her to spring from prison—has mad forensic skills and absolutely slays in the courtroom. But at the end of the first day in court, when Hesina, her two besties, and Perry Mason here gather to chat, nobody says, “Wow, skinny teenage convict, who are you, where did you get your abundance of prosecutorial flair, and how did you not talk your way out of getting thrown in prison?” There’s a staggering lack of curiosity about this person tasked with bringing the correct kingkiller to justice and, by extension, averting an unnecessary war.
Remember her brother warned her a traitor in the palace was stirring shit to start a war? Hesina figures out that the culprit is the minister who arranged for her to get Perry Mason. He has investments that will become more profitable in the event of war, so he’s the one sending information to enemies. Instead of turning over her evidence of this traitor committing treason to the investigative bureau, Hesina pays him a personal visit. He freely admits he’d like a war to make him rich and says she should keep her mouth shut because she broke the law by asking for a specific representative. Instead of telling him he broke the law by not reporting her unlawful request and broke bigger laws by making the arrangements for her to have the specific representative and therefore has zero room to threaten her, she sternly discourages him from framing anyone else for the murder, gives him the evidence of his treason so he can destroy it, and leaves. At no point does it flit through her mind that the admitted traitor who is sending treasonous missives to the border and framing innocent people for murder in his quest to start a personally enriching war also MURDERED HER FATHER, a key milestone along the path to the war that this guy unabashedly admits, to her face, that he wants to happen.
And that’s where I quit, at 26%, because the failure to connect dots that are practically touching already was filling my heart with hostility. And before anyone pipes up to say “It’s all explained eventually!”, I submit that “eventually” isn’t good enough. There are times when information is relevant to the reader’s understanding and interest, and those are the times when information should be provided OR when a good reason for withholding information should be provided. The correct time to explain why a princess/pending queen with every resource at her disposal consults a sooth when sooths are supposedly evil is before or while she’s doing it. The correct time to explain why a princess/pending queen does what the supposedly evil sooth tells her to do without question is before or while she’s doing it. The correct time to explain Perry Mason’s origins is the first opportunity immediately after he reveals himself to be Perry Mason. The correct time to explain why the person known to be doing all of the bad things isn’t also a murder suspect is when she knows he’s doing all of the bad things but doesn’t consider him a murder suspect. If the correct time passes with no explanation nor acknowledgement that there is an explanation you just can’t have right now, what’s happening in the moment doesn’t make sense. If a whole series of events doesn’t make sense, I don’t trust that the writer has any interest in making sense “eventually,” and I’m not going to read 300 more pages to find out whether I’m right and should have quit 300 pages ago.
The rest of this month’s reading will be curriculum vetting, which bores even me, so I’ll spare you.