I've been reading a lot lately. Last week's books were interesting but none was entirely successful.
Bareback is a novel about a world in which werewolves are the majority, and once a month they retreat into secure spaces to transform. The policing of this transformation is left to the minority of children who are, because of a birth defect, left unable to transform. This tiny despised minority are called, vulgarly, barebacks, and face discrimination at all levels of society. They are forcibly conscripted into the chronically understaffed Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity, and must monitor their blithely privileged countrymen. Every full moon night, they risk maiming or even death to catch the curfew breakers.
Lola May Galley, our embittered, embattled heroine, is forced into dealing with the man who broke curfew and bit off her friend's hand. Then her friend is murdered with the Department's own weapon – a silver bullet.
The world of the lycos and non-lycos was beautifully realised and more or less infodump-free. The implications of such a split society -- privileged class, underclass seen as inferior and shaming to their families -- are well worked through.
Lola was engaging and tough, and while it took an age for there to be some movement on the central mystery, once it started moving, it was wonderfully unpredictable. There are some gorgeous and unsettling pieces of writing, particularly those passages where Lola is out at night on patrol through the woods, trying to train the young recruits to Dorla
There's one oddity about the book: it reads as though it was written about a North American milieu; the cities sound as though they're laid out on grids, the general tone of conversation is more American police procedural than anything else; the characters go to bars; but every now and then it sounds very British. I suspect the American version of this book (retitled Benighted to avoid smutty references) would actually read better.
In Great Waters, in contrast, is firmly set in a Europe that seems to be on the cusp between the mediaeval and the renaissance worlds. Again, there are two kinds of human: the landsmen, and the Deepsmen -- merpeople -- who patrol the inland waters. Only landlocked countries can escape forging some kind of pact with the deepsmen who control the waterways, and thus all trade. They do this first by royal families breeding with the children of a deepsman queen, then forbidding any further intermarriage under pain of death
Whitfield's hero, Henry, is reared among the merpeople, but is the product of an illegal liaison between a deepswoman and a human. He is brought to shore by his mother because he is too weak to survive unaided with the deepsman. He is found by a nobleman who sees in him a chance to seize the throne of England.
Her heroine is Anne, a half-deepsman princess in a family weakened by inbreeding. She hides her fierce intelligence in the murderous royal court because it is not valued and because it might be dangerous to show it.
Whitfield is fantastic at showing a world we're familiar with from Henry's deepsman perspective. Our world is full of alien, painful lines and ugly colours, confusing loyalties, lies and betrayals.
What works less well is explaining why the deepsman are so powerful in the politics of this Europe. While they are capable of disrupting the shipping, there's no indication that there's a matching politics underseas which would weld the deepsmen into a coherent force. They are hunter-gatherers, seemingly less intelligent, and uninterested in the politics on land. Meanwhile, the rulers of the royal houses are weak on land because of their hybrid anatomy and inbreeding, and not powerful enough to survive in the sea through physical means alone, so it's hard to see why powerful nobles would not seek to overthrow them and bargain with the deepsmen on their own terms.
A second flaw in the book is that it's a very long set-up to get Anne and Henry to meet, and then the book ends with an abruptness that feels unsatisfying.
While the writing is finer and more intriguing in In Great Waters, as a world, Bareback works better. That being said, I though both of them were terrific in their own ways.
Last week's third book was The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I think I am just too damned old for books like this.
When I was 19 or so, I loved The Secret History by Donna Tartt; we all did. Our copies were passed around and read and reread. I am afraid to reread it again now because while I think the writing would remain just as beguiling, I fear that these days there wouldn't be a single character I wouldn't want to punch into the consistency of taramasalata.
So, reading a novel which also contains a similarly airless, self-contained college world maybe isn't the best move.
Our hero, sort of, is Quentin Coldwater, a Brooklyn boy-genius who turns out to be a wizard, and is invited to Brakebills, a college for the magically inclined. The book chronicles his four years there, the dissolute period after graduation, and what happens when they discover that the imaginary world of a children's book that they have all read turns out to be real.
Lev Grossman has read his Harry Potter and his Narnia series, and loves to show it. I think this is meant to be delightful for the reader who can play spot the references. I found it unbearably arch and pleased with itself. His characters were often fingers-down-blackboard irritating. Maybe everyone under the age of 23 is a completely insufferable twat and he's just reflecting reality, but I don't think so.
The regrettable thing is that there are some really strong sections in The Magicians -- one in particular, which deals with a very powerful force entering Quentin's reality while he and his classmates are completely unable to move, was creepy and wonderful and sent shivers down my spine.
But for all that I liked his musing on how boring talking bears would really be, or his descriptions of transmogrification into birds and what that does to the brain of a human, I couldn't always get past the wish to punch Quentin, or one of his classmates, for being so emo and yet smug.