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[Trying to clean up & out all my half-written lj entries before leaving for an offline holiday...]

Naomi Novik, Victory of Eagles

I liked both Throne of Jade and Empire of Ivory rather less than the first volume, and I must admit I'd kind of forgotten about Black Powder War and had to check amazon (and it's a special kind of internet generated laziness that makes you go to amazon rather than five steps to your own bookshelf... *facepalm*) for the name of the fith book on the vague suspicion that there had been a fifth book, and don't remember very much about it other than thinking Stephen Maturin wouldn't have thought twice about pulling that trigger, and I doubt would even have let Jack (much less William Laurence) stop him, actually given the opportunity to shoot Napoleon.

Victory of Eagles, though, I really enjoyed and IMO is the best book of the series so far along with His Majesty's Dragon, with a more tightly constructed plot than the last few volumes; what worked really well for me was the alternation between Laurence and Temeraire's POVs and the intertwining of the story of the war and the dragons' struggle for equal rights. The latter is especially is the more interesting part to me, and (along with her ideas about the position of women in a world like the one she created) the genuinely fresh and original element of the series, the one I'm most looking forward to see how it will ultimately play out. And to be perfectly honest, at this point I'm more fond of the dragon characters (especially the newly introduced unharnessed dragons) than the human ones, who, by comparison remain a little one-dimensional, always making me wish that characterisations were just a bit deeper and more complex. I know it's unfair (although at the same time also almost unavoidable) to constantly compare her books to O'Brian's but if you compare Laurence to Jack Aubrey, Laurence is bound to come out a bit pale. Endlessly honourable, but, his relationship with Tereraire aside, really a bit boring. I wonder if she'd done better with a female main character, because the women of the series tend to be more interesting than the men.

My only real quibble with the book (apart from another rather anti-climatic, buy-the-next-volume! open ending, but I've resigned myself to those) is that Laurence rather too conveniently (convenient for the progression of the plot, that is) only resolves his crisis of conscience when the task he's been given has been more or less completed, Napoleon has been driven back south and they way for the British army cleared. And while Laurence hadn't know that Wellington was only a three days' march away when he sent his letter of protest, he cannot have been unaware of those facts. It's not that I don't understand his horrible moral dilemma when he faces the consequences of what his honour (although with more than a little prompting from Temeraire) had compelled him to do and feels the obligation to at least try to make amends by agreeing to do something that goes against his honour and morals. On the other hand... part of my issue is that in the situation as the author described it, it needed to be done -- the alternative being complete conquest and French rule. For me Laurence (who after all had been a soldier all his life) wouldn't have come out fatally compromised as a character if he'd accepted the necessity, instead of soothing his concience by a - not even last minute, but after the event refusal. It might even have been a chance to let the character develop in an interesting direction, which frankly he could do with.

Tharkay's highly individualistic code of morality that is concerned only with his own soul and conscience is a very religious/philosophical stance to take, but only possible for someone who is indeed alone and responsible for no one but himself, with no ties to society or family. It's easy for him to say that Laurence shouldn't have felt responsible for what his government had planned to do, or what Napoleon had done as a result, but impossible for someone like Laurence. It's an interesting philosophical question and I appreciate her posing it, but given the specific situation... is the example really adequate? Civilians would have been a different matter entirely, but killing enemy soldiers of an invasion army, albeit in a less cavalier fashion that he might have wished for? Wouldn't the circumstances justify this kind of guerilla warfare - incidentally, a term coined in the Napoleonic Wars for the Spanish resistance against French occupation?

(Also, if it the core of the problem was moral - killing without giving quarter and not engaging at a risk to themselves - rather than legal, where does Laurence's protest leave (again, morally, because he'd taken care they were legally covered) the other captains under his command, following his orders? Or, if setting dragons directly against enemy soldiers rather than serving as some kind of fighter plane really is a court-martial offence, were does this - this time legally, considering Laurence's insistence that Temeraire shouldn't be in command of the mission - leave Temeraire's company of unharnessed dragons, before they were formally taken into service? Yet somehow, as far as I remember, no one, not even Laurence, was horror-struck at what they'd done.)

On a rather different note, what I find refreshing (perhaps an unfair generalisation, but having read Victory of Eagles right after Lynn Flewelling's latest novel it really stands out) is that for an author who comes out of, and still is involved with, fandom, specifically the slash corner of it, her writing is almost completely free of fandom tropes of any kind. If there's any 'ship' dynamic at all, it was, especially in the first book, in a clever twist of things between Laurence and Temeraire, which I suspect can't be entirely coincidental with Temeraire taking Stephen Maturin's part as the outside observer who criticises the practices and absurdities of military hierarchy and human society, the advocate of democracy. Not to mention the tendril-stroking thing. *g*

Which brings me to another point... I've been wondering for a while, but most recently apropos Shadows Return, which sacrificed the comparative complexity of the earlier volumes' political plots to become one long, self-indulgent and almost entirely relationship driven hurt/comfort slave!fic that just barely skirts mpreg, with only token appearances by the minor characters (who hadn't been so minor before, either), whether it was fandom that made me look at fiction in terms of tropes and kinks, or whether the close interaction between fandom and professional authors that the internet offers makes authors more likely to... It doesn't even have to be conscious pandering to the audience, but does being so familiar with fandom and knowing exactly what will get you readers (and it's commonplace that at least in fandom even mediocre slash will get a writer more comments and publicity especially when it's the right pairing than good gen) - consciously or subconciously - influence a writer's decisions?

The first time I noticed this was with Ellen Kushner's (ellen_kushner), The Privilege of the Sword, which I certainly liked rather better than The Fall of the Kings (specifically Katherine - who, at least on a first read-through, miraculously escapes being a complete Mary Sue - and Artemisia's story, their self-identification with the novels they read, which was sweet and really rang true), but still rather less than Swordspoint. Now I can't say that part of me didn't appreciate the fanservice of bringing back Richard and Alec (I don't think I ever finished or posted my review of PotS, but it contained the sentences 'It's not something special like Swordspoint, but it's certainly enjoyable to read. And Richard and Alec get a sort-of happy ending on a Greek island, and that has to count for something.'), but, well, fanservice. Part of me felt throughout that it might have been better if she'd left the characters from SP behind and made it a love-story between Katherine and Artemisia. (Which actually was the way I thought Kushner was going, until the novel suddenly took a somewhat unexpected 180 degree turn towards heterosexuality.) And there's the scene in the brothel towards the end of the book that felt entirely gratuitous to me, written with an eye to the slash fans who'd come for Richard/Alex and got a book with a female protagonist, and no less so for its thin pretext/justification of illuminating Marcus's angsty past.

Then there was Sarah Monette (truepenny). Now I completely loved Mélusine, despite all the angst and more angst: I've rarely been pulled into a fantasy novel so immediately; loved the characters, loved the world-building, and immediately preordered the hardcover edition of The Virtu when I was finished. And there she kind of lost me. The problem for me started when, once Felix is restored to comparative health and sanity, Mildmay starts slipping into self-doubt because of his injury and what you end up with is two characters being dysfunctional, angsty, whiny, and in Felix's case, occasionally thoroughly unpleasant, in alternating first person POVs, with no respite for the reader at all. Ever. And once she brought the incest angle into it, all I thought, maybe unfairly, but it didn't help that the Supernatural fandom was getting big just then, was, ::sigh::, fandom. Which is kind of ironic as I seem to remember there was some kind of kerfluffle when Monette had objections to her novels being called 'slashy' since they were original fiction.

I do realise, though, that I have no real point there, because three books I liked less than their authors' earlier work does not an argument make, and tropes have existed before fandom, kinks ditto, and fanservice probably wasn't a new idea when Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead. I still wonder though if such a close interaction between authors and fandom as livejournal (or blogs and the internet in general) offer doesn't reinforce this kind of thing at least a bit?


solitary summer

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