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Book Reports: The Just City and Children of Earth and Sky

So, I recently read a couple of recent specfic books that reminded me how much I like straight-ahead historical fiction.

One of them was Jo Walton’s The Just City, which is very much a speculative book: one of the main characters is Apollo, one of the main plot points is whether the robots are sentient, and one of the Sources of Reader Pleasure is the interaction of people from different times and places. I more or less enjoyed it; lots of Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, with the balance in question throughout, but on the whole I think tipping towards approval. I wonder if, in three months, I will remember liking it or disliking it. It reminded me, I think at the author’s deliberate evocation, of Mary Renault’s Greek books, which as Gentle Readers are probably aware are my very favorites. Love those books. Ms. Walton’s book is sort of a cross between Ms. Renault, earlyish Isaac Asimov and, well, Jo Walton. I may read the second one, and I may not; it’s a little hard to imagine the Pleasure outweighing the Irritation in a second book, but then, I have no idea what sort of book the second one is.

The other was Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest, a massive tome called Children of Earth and Sky. It fits into Mr. Kay’s ouvre quite well: a lightly-fictionalized version of history with some minor fantasy elements. The book is largely terrific; I find the invented names for cities to be profoundly irritating. Because I begin by translating them back to the real world (this one is largely set on the road between pseudo-Venice and pseudo-Istanbul, with a few scenes taking place in those cities and a few in pseudo-Dubrovnik and pseudo-Prague) I have to pause, when a place is mentioned, and translate them back. Oh, right, that’s the Dubrovnik one, I thought to myself, or more accurately in that case That’s the one that’s down by Split or somewhere, I’ll have to look it up at some point, because my central-European geography isn’t very good. I know Mr. Kay has reasons for what he does, but I would be happier if all the maps were our maps and the cities our cities, and the historical figures had their right names, too.

Or at least I think I would. I do like historical novels without speculative elements, but I haven’t been reading new ones for a long time. I’ve actually never read anything by Samuel Shellabarger other than Prince of Foxes, which is one of my very favorite comfort books. I have read two or possibly three Thomas Costain books, but haven’t sought out the others. Mary Renault hasn’t been writing much lately, what with having died in 1983. I didn’t like the one Phillippa Gregory book I read; I could try again, I suppose. I should pick up Wolf Hall; I didn’t make it through the tv series. I enjoyed the first couple of Sarah Waters books (and didn’t blog them?) although the last one I tried didn’t work for me. Hm.

Anyway, do any Gentle Readers have recommendations? I’m not looking for Romance Novels, although I certainly don’t object to a love plot of some kind. I like my historical novels with adventure, politics, philosophy, art and economics… but mostly adventure.

I suppose I could just read more Walter Scott.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Or Dumas.

I prefer my historical fiction with a strong infusion of the fantasy, so I don't have much in straight-up historical fiction to recommend. Besides Dumas, which is only straight-up historical fiction in that there isn't any magic, I suppose. In early nineteenth century historical fiction, there's also Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi in the Italian, which sounds better, I think). It's in the vein of Scott and Dumas, but Italian.

I thought The Just City was outstanding, but I think that of pretty much everything Jo Walton writes. If you were as indifferent about that one as this review sounds, then you might not want to pick up The Philosopher Kings, which I found much less compelling than Just City. But then again, it's quite possible you prefer the very aspects of the book that I find less compelling, so who knows? The payoff, of course, of proceeding through The Philosopher Kings is that then you can read Necessity, which is possibly the most interesting of the three, although it's much more speculative fiction than historical fiction.

Are you bothered by Kay's style of setting up his alternate world in all his books, or is it only when you know the historical analogues well? I found that I was less compelled by his China novels because I didn't have much grounding in the history and geography he was adapting, but I enjoy the play of adaptation. Instead, I was bothered by the geographical inconsistencies between Children of Earth and Sky and The Sarantine Mosaic, when Children was certainly set in the same world as the earlier books.

I think all of Mr. Kay's books I have read have been the ones where I know the real history at least somewhat; I haven't read the China ones. Perhaps I would, as I wouldn't be translating back to real history but just taking them as story. I do like his writing and his handling of plot. And I have to say I don't know the real history of this stuff all that well, just the general outlines and of course the geography. I found it irritating to have to remember another name for Venice, but not to have to remember another name for its Duke.

I'm not sure if I was indifferent to The Just City as much as ambivalent. There was a lot to like, but there was a lot that I didn't like at all. I've actually started The Philosopher Kings, because when I saw it at the library I found myself somewhat to my surprise taking it off the shelf. I'll presumably report my thoughts at the end of the thing.

And I'll take a look at the Manzoni. Our library has it upstairs, I just hope it's in English.


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