In Memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

It took me a while to get to this, so long that I figured I might as well hold off uploading it until the Glorious 25th of May (“Truth, Freedom, Justice, Reasonably Priced Love, and A Hard Boiled Egg”). When I posted my initial reaction to Sir Terry’s death on March 12, I promised a follow up to say just a little about what he, as an author, meant to me. And here we are.

I first got into reading his stuff over a decade ago, and I proceeded to drag the rest of my family into his orbit. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent reading the Discworld books and Good Omens, or listening to them on audiobook on long car trips. We got Hogfather on DVD when it came out (I found it not so much good or bad as kind of wonky, though with a terrific Susan—I enjoyed it, the rest of my family less so), and I even watched The Colour of Magic and Going Postal even though they were kind of bad (though I’d argue the latter had its merits). A couple of us even watched the animated Wyrd Sisters at one point (which also had its moments). So much joy and family bonding came of reading those books.

Terry Pratchett is, hands down, one of my favorite authors of all time. I can name only a handful of writers who could delight me and touch me as profoundly and consistently as Pratchett writing at his best. Heck, even most of his inferior works were well above my standard reading fare. After his death, my mother and I started reading A Blink of the Screen, the recently published anthology of his short stories, some of which were written in his early- and mid-teens, and even they are cracking good stories by and large, showcasing a command of humor far superior than I’ve managed to develop as an adult (and not for lack of trying). My literary world is greatly impoverished by his absence.

Heck, I’ve immersed myself in his works to such an extent over the years that it’s even influenced my speech patterns, (especially noticeable when it comes to my use of expletives).

And on top of all that, the sense I got both from reading his stories and from what I’ve picked up about him as a person is that he was, by and large, a very decent bloke. I believe he had some stances which I strongly disagree with, but I think he was at heart a good person, and to my knowledge he didn’t promote any outlooks which are actively horrible—not something I can say about all my favorite authors, sadly. Such a loss.

Here’s just one snippet of his writing, one of my many favorite funny quotes of his, from one of my favorite of his books, Hogfather:

The late (or at least severely delayed) Bergholt Stuttley Johnson was generally recognized as the worst inventor in the world, yet in a very specialized sense. Merely bad inventors made things that failed to operate. He wasn’t among these small fry. Any fool could make something that did absolutely nothing when you pressed the button. He scorned these fumble-fingered amateurs. Everything he built worked. It just didn’t do what it said on the box. If you wanted a small ground-to-air missile, you asked Johnson to design an ornamental fountain. It amounted to pretty much the same thing. But this never discouraged him, or the morbid curiosity of his clients. Music, landscape gardening, architecture—there was no start to his talents.

Many people have used the master’s own words to eulogize him, and why shouldn’t they, when he left such a wealth of good ones behind to choose from? I’d like to see somebody compile a list of the best ones, but for now, here’s my pick, another quote from Hogfather:

Susan: All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.

Death: REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN.

Thank you, Terry, for making me and so many others that little bit more human.

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Finnikin of the Rock review

This review is an update of one I originally wrote for another blog some three or four years ago, now, and (bar some minor tweaking) it has not been altered.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed by now, wordpress formatting is utter crap – most times, it will let you put spaces between paragraphs, but sometimes it won’t, and when that happens, you’re just plain shit out of luck. I apologize for any inconveniences the bad formatting produces.

Finnikin of the Rock

For ten years, the kingdom of Lumatere has lived under a curse, with no one able to enter or leave it. Trapped outside the kingdom, young Finnikin of the Rock has devoted his life to securing a new homeland for the Lumateran diaspora. In the Cloister of Sendecane, he meets the novice Evanjalin, who has dreams of the lost Lumateran heir, Prince Balthazar. With the help of Evanjalin, Finnikin now has a chance to do what he never before thought possible: bring the Lumateran people home.

Take two things which I dearly love—fantasy adventure and Melina Marchetta’s writing—combine them together, and the result is pure, undiluted win. Marchetta brings her genius (a word I use without a trace of hyperbole) for plotting and insight into the human condition to provoke a sense of wonder and giddy excitement I haven’t felt from a book since childhood.

Finnikin of the Rock employs many classic fantasy elements, but it doesn’t read like a typical fantasy novel. It’s not a story about defeating the villain or winning/ending/preventing the war or saving the kingdom or even just saving one of the main characters. Those things all happen—more or less—but they’re aspects of the story, not its main focus.

The story of Finnikin of the Rock is a story of reclamation and recovering from trauma. Indeed, the book serves as a decent companion piece to Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. At the beginning, you have the initial trauma of the royal family’s assassination, the ascent of a brutal dictator in their place, the wave of violence and terror these twin events unleash, and finally the curse by the dying matriarch of the Forest Dwellers. In the middle, the characters finally end the trauma by leading the Lumaterans home, breaking the curse, and overthrowing the usurper. For the final few chapters, you see them beginning the long and painful process of recovery and healing as they reconstruct their beloved kingdom.

Unlike Marchetta’s previous book—the phenomenal On the Jellicoe Road—the story here is of building up from tragedy, rather than building up to even more tragedy. This may cause the novel to lose out on a bit of its predecessor’s emotional punch, but on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable giving this book a blanket recommendation than On the Jellicoe Road—which some of the people I know would give up as too depressing. And when I say “lacks emotional punch,” keep in mind that’s in comparison to the greatest example of emotionally-charged fiction I have ever read. Finnikin of the Rock is still the most exciting, enthralling, emotionally engaging story I’ve read since … well, since On the Jellicoe Road.

Apart from being Marchetta’s first fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock is her first book to feature third-person narration and all-male viewpoint characters. Obviously, this was a book for Marchetta to stretch herself as an author, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The characters are a bit odd. Neither Finnikin nor Evanjalin come across as Mary-Sues, despite the former being fluent in seven languages, a master at swordplay, an adept knife-thrower, etc.; and the latter being a ridiculously resilient survivor with more than a touch of the Master Manipulator archetype.

I find myself having an especially difficult time describing Finnikin, as he feels like such a generic fantasy protagonist. Marchetta goes into sufficient depth with Finnikin to keep him individualized, and he’s certainly not a cliché hero. Coming from another author, I might even have been struck by his characterization, but he just doesn’t stick out the way Taylor Markham or Marchetta’s other protagonists do. It doesn’t hamper the story, but in this way at least, the book is perhaps not quite as good as I’d expected.

As long as I’m quibbling about the characters, I think Marchetta could’ve devoted a little more time to establishing Lucian before reintroducing him into the narrative. Finnikin spends the first two hundred pages or more reminiscing about his childhood friend Prince Balthazar, but not so much his other childhood friend, Lucian. When Lucian and Finnikin finally reunite, it should be a triumphant moment, but because he’s had only a perfunctory buildup, my reaction to this turn of events was rather tepid, and more to do with what I’d extrapolated about their relationship than what Marchetta showed in the text.

Compare that with the presentation of Trevanion. By the time he shows up, Marchetta has already established him as a deeply caring man and a first-rate badass. When he finally appears “on screen,” the reader already cares about him, and is stoked to see him kick some righteous arse. Which he does.

I’m also growing increasingly sick of the attitude in Fantasy that (to quote Niall Harrison’s review of Graceling) “monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne.” To be fair, someone does point out that the Lumaterans were so emotionally dependent on the royal family that their assassination throws the country into barbarism literally overnight, and there’s a throwaway line at the end about putting together a new constitution for the country. Yet the new ruler still demonstrates extraordinary unilateral powers – which is just fine because it’s a Good Monarch who only makes Good decrees. Blergh.

While I mostly enjoyed the romantic subplots, there was one line near the very end which made me wince. A female character tells her betrothed that when they’re married “you can touch me whenever you want. Wherever you want.”

The context is the two of them dealing with an overprotective guard. Now maybe I’m being an over-reactive Man!Feminist about this (again), but this assertion left me a little queasy. I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but here in the US, the criminal justice system only recently overturned the notion that a wife signs over all control over her body to her husband upon marriage, and she therefore owes him sex any time he wants it.

Speaking of romance, just when I was thinking ‘all very nice, but this narrative is going to be completely heteronormative, isn’t it?,’ two of the King’s Guard casually mention being bonded to each other. Later on, Lucian casually teases Finnikin by telling him essentially “I don’t bonk other men, but if that’s what you want, I’ve got a cousin who’d be happy to oblige.” Sure, Lucian’s taunt may carry a whiff of homophobia if you take the suggestion to be emasculating for Finnikin, but the sexuality of the gay characters is treated as both positive and unremarkable.

The plot and backstory are as satisfyingly complex as I’ve come to expect from Marchetta, though the twist with Evanjalin must rate at least nine KiloBrooks on the predictability scale (the twist itself, not necessarily all the associated details).

Bottom line: Finnikin of the Rock is a lovely book, downright lyrical in presentation. As the story unfolds, the reader feels both the wonder of discovering a beautiful new world and the heart-beating intensity of grand, sweeping adventure. Highly recommended.

Book review: State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

I first posted this review of State of Fear in 2009—by coincidence, shortly after Michael Crichton’s death. I have made some minor edits from the original to improve readability and to reflect some subtle shifts in my thinking in the intervening 4+ years. My views on the whole, though, have not changed substantially since this review’s initial publication.

Moderate plot spoilers for State of Fear follow.

When the mysterious Professor John Kenner first requests a meeting with billionaire environmentalist George Morton, Morton’s lawyer, Peter Evans, thinks little of it. But after the meeting, Morton’s behavior changes drastically. He disappears for days at a time, and he begins questioning his current pet project: a lawsuit against the United States for its involvement in global warming. When Morton dies in a car crash, Evans finds himself propelled into the midst of an environmental terrorist plot which will shake him to the very foundations of his beliefs.

I have mixed feelings about State of Fear. The plot is decent, not extraordinary; enough to keep the reader interested but not enough to carry the story all by itself.

The book’s real strength is in its discourse, and even there, it’s only a partial success. The many lectures on environmental science and on power structures are among the best and worst aspects of the book.

Many environmentalists will no doubt be infuriated by Crichton’s skepticism of global warming (or global climate change as it is more accurately known). Personally, I do not agree with many of Crichton’s conclusions (rightly or wrongly), but I feel many of his arguments have at least some merit.

The book’s Wikipedia entry contains links to several pages which will dispute the scientific points Crichton makes in his novel. But I’ve also run into other people in recent years criticizing the science behind climate change. What struck me after the first such instance was that I, personally, am in no position to evaluate the science of climate change. I don’t know it or understand it enough to have an informed opinion.

As Crichton points out, there’s a lot we don’t know about how our planet works, and that includes climate science. He obviously has made up his own mind that climate change is not a significant danger and, unfortunately, ends up imposing that interpretation upon the story. He begins by saying “we just don’t know enough about the Earth to evaluate whether climate change is really a serious threat or not,” but by the end the message has morphed into “there is no serious danger of climate change at all.” This not only undermines the original point he established, but is a much weaker one. (Certainty in general is a more difficult argument to make than uncertainty.) I think he’d have done his case more good to leave it at saying climate change is not a certain thing, and including his own belief that it likely isn’t a problem, than trying to force that conclusion onto the reader.

However, Crichton still has some insights that should make environmentalists, progressives, and radicals take note. First there’s the arrogance. A major point he raises is we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. But he also aptly displays our unfortunate habit of assuming we know what’s going on, we know what’s best, we know what needs to be done, we know better than everyone else. Am I the only one who spots the conservative stereotypes being spun right back at us?

The character of Ted Bradley beautifully illustrates the arrogance and racist romanticism of Western progressives’ ideas of life in “underdeveloped” nations. (Granted, a lot of the more “logical” characters’ responses are equally biased and problematic, but that doesn’t negate the point.)

And then, of course, there’s the young eco-terrorist who excuses his actions by saying “We’re trying to save the planet!” And his justification for implementing a plan that hinges upon getting several hundred people killed? “Casualties are inevitable in accomplishing social change. History tells us that.”

Along with the arrogance goes close-mindedness. My creative writing teacher in college 1st year once remarked that “liberals are very close-minded,” and she had a point. Crichton illustrates this fact with the various characters’ knee-jerk attempts to dismiss evidence that conflicts with their worldview (in this case, their ideas about climate change) as propaganda manufactured on behalf of industry or some ultra-right wing conspiracy. In other words, their instinctual reaction when confronted with evidence which calls their beliefs into question is to dismiss it out of hand. Do I detect another conservative stereotype being thrown back in our faces?

Best of all, there’s the lecture by Professor Hoffman where he explains the politico-legal-media complex. Hoffman’s analysis of this entity, its purpose, its methods, and the “state of fear” it intentionally creates to further its own selfish interests is correct almost down to the last detail. His worst slip-up is failing to include big business; corporations (and not just industrial corporations) in his list. The big companies have just as much to gain from the “state of fear” as the government and the judicial system (and they own the major media outlets, anyway).

Unfortunately, Crichton’s (and thus, his characters’) obsession with climate change muddies the message. The way Hoffman and Kenner hurl accusations against climate change activists seems to suggest they don’t realize that if the PLM didn’t have climate change to manipulate people into submission, it’d use something else. The powers that be are doing far too well staying the course while the rest of humanity suffers (and occasionally prospers) just to give up because their prime source of fear has dried up. To modify a line from James Donovan: “If there were no existing crisis to terrify the people, the establishment would have to invent one.” Hoffman’s allusion to the transition from Cold War to climate change as main focus for the “State of Fear” suggests he knows the truth, but this quickly gets overshadowed by his and Kenner’s rhetoric about the Great Climate Change Deception.

Ending the threat of climate change (whether real or only imagined) will not put an end to the horrendous loss of human life that Hoffman and Kenner lament—only dismantling the diseased politico-economic structures which are the source of the titular “state of fear” will do that.

One more positive piece of discourse: As Morton points out at the end, environmentalist groups have been assimilated into the establishment and are, therefore (to an extent at least), now part of the problem. In many ways, the cooptation of environmental groups mirrors the cooptation of labor unions a century earlier. True, the unions’ ostensible purpose should put them in direct conflict with the establishment, but they’ve been built within a framework which requires the establishment’s existence, even if it’s only as antagonist. In much the same way, national militaries require a national enemy (usually external) to validate their own existence. So the labor unions, and the environmental groups, have a vested interest in keeping the structures which necessitate Crichton’s state of fear in place.

At other times, though, the discourse is less successful. Ted Bradley is obviously too hard-headed to accept even the idea that climate change is unproven. After his first argument with Kenner, the reader has got the formula down cold. Bradley is the straw man, continually offering up weak arguments about climate change as well as other Euro-American myths about the “natural” world for Kenner to knock down, but not satisfied with Kenner’s arguments no matter how strong they are.

By the end of it, the reader is left feeling nostalgic for Kenner’s conversations with Evans and Sarah, problematic though they were. It’s painful to watch Bradley go up against characters like Kenner, Sanjong and even Henry, knowing full well he’s going to be steamrollered. At least Evans and Sarah were capable of intelligent discourse, rather than sticking to dogmatic drivel.

In “The Science of Science Fiction Writing,” author James Gunn cites rationalist Isaac Asimov as saying that generally his (Asimov’s) villains were as rational as his heroes. Asimov’s reasoning, as quoted by Gunn, runs as follows: “If it were a western, where everything depends upon the draw of the gun, it would be very unsatisfactory if the hero shot down a person who didn’t know how to shoot.” There’s a lesson in there Michael Crichton would’ve done well taking to heart.

The other problem with using Bradley as the main voice of opposition for the last part of the book is that since Bradley is so extreme in his views, Kenner and the other author surrogates end up taking the opposite extreme. Bradley has a romantic view of native life, native villages, and native peoples. In seeking to prove Bradley wrong, Crichton has his characters cite the most horrific counter-examples he can find … thus giving the impression that all village life is savage and terrible, and the backward villagers would much rather live in cities/be better off with a Western education.

… In other words, in his attempts to puncture the “Noble Savage” myth, Crichton makes himself into a colonial and neocolonial apologist. (Crichton neglects to mention that the misery of modern village life is partially due to centuries of past colonial oppression as well as present neocolonial economic oppression—often aided and abetted by the local governments; Crichton is correct that you can’t put all the blame on the Big Bad West.) This colonial-era racism is even more blatant when you consider that the only person of color on the protagonists’ side is so thoroughly Westernized that the book makes a point of mentioning his British accent. Contrast with the ultra-traditionalist natives of Gareda Island who hate white people and eventually eat Ted Bradley (as heavily foreshadowed earlier in the book). Yes, the racial politics in this book are really that bad.

The only other notable characters of color in the book are a femme fatale in the beginning, and Henry, the educated islander. On the one hand, he has a Western education, and argues for the benefits of, essentially, Western civilization over native savagery. On the other hand, he apparently betrays the main characters to the savages in question (or something). I’ll leave it to the reader to make up their own mind what all that is supposed to signify.

And on top of all that, some of the discourse (mostly the scientific lectures) is just plain boring.

Okay, that’s probably more than enough of that, let’s talk about the story.

Like I said, the plot is decent but hardly thrilling. Basically, it involves Evans, Sarah (Morton’s secretary) and Kenner, traveling around the world like James Bond thwarting the dastardly schemes of the Environmental Liberation Front. The tension is occasionally exciting, and some of the conventions—such as the mini-octopus as assassination tool—are compelling enough to keep a modicum of interest, most of the time.

Peter Evans is a bland character, with such traits as his weak-willed manner and somewhat quirky love life doing little to flesh him out. He’s okay as a protagonist, though the part where he contemplates the moral implications of Kenner having killed three eco-terrorists and concluding “Screw ’em,” irked me.

His reasoning runs thusly: “There were bad people in the world. They had to be stopped.” From there, Evans and Crichton immediately jump to the conclusion that “stopping” said “bad people” can only mean killing them, without even considering the possibility of another alternative. It’s an outrageously narrow-minded and self-serving position to take. Yes, killing is wrong, but they’re the bad guys, so that makes it okay.

Granted, this facile and, if you think about it, downright terrifying reasoning for ejecting some human lives from the moral universe is a staple of Western culture, and hardly unique to Crichton*. Still, given all Crichton’s moralizing elsewhere in the book, the fact that he not only concludes “some people just need to be killed,” but utterly fails to explore the implications of who gets to make that call and by what authority and by what means their unworthiness for continued existence may be established is even more reprehensible than in most such cases.

*Brandon Sanderson’s second “Mistborn” book, The Well of Ascension and the climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins are two face-palmingly blatant examples from recent years.

Sarah is also fairly dull; her most interesting moments come during the action sequences. The relationship between her and Evans is the painfully standard romance you can find in practically any Western literature.

George Morton is an eccentric gentleman, and probably my favorite character in the book. A well-intentioned person, he’s apparently far enough removed from Crichton himself that the latter can bear to portray his hypocritical side, which adds dimension to the character. His ambitious plans for the future outlined at the end of the book at least somewhat make up for Kenner’s extreme pessimism (more on that in a minute).

Morton’s idea for an environmentalist group “Study the Problem and Fix It,” is not only amusing, but it raises some important philosophical points. The idea of an organization whose purpose is to work itself out of a job certainly has merit—better that than an organization which stagnates by an obsession with continuing its existence over and above fulfilling its’ mission statement.

Nicholas Drake is a two-dimensional villain: he has to raise a certain amount of money for his organization to keep his salary. He probably believes in the threat of global warming, too, despite all the counter-evidence in Crichton’s universe. Ideologues can be like that. However, the question of what Drake believes doesn’t come up either way. The fact that this aspect of his motivation is apparently insignificant to the story indicates the extent of his characterization. When I first began to suspect Drake would turn out to be a villain, I hoped that at least he would retain some amount of character beyond simply being the opposition for our intrepid heroes. No such luck. Crichton could’ve learned a thing or two from Dan Brown.

Ted Bradley is an obnoxious, self-satisfied, sexually harassing jerk and perhaps worst of all, is convinced he knows The Truth. In other words, he’s probably the most multi-dimensional character in the book. Sure he’s flawed and dangerously naïve (or arrogant, or both), but he also genuinely cares about the good of the planet and of his fellow human beings. In other words, he’s a lot like most real life heroes, villains, and people who are morally neutral. And unlike his fellow rich environmentalist Ann, he had the courage or conviction or both to stick with the main characters even after learning about the cannibal natives. I dunno that I liked him, exactly, but he was an interesting character and I didn’t want him to die, if only because he’d already taken so much flak as Crichton’s Straw Environmentalist punching bag already. Which, of course, is why Crichton killed him off and no one else. A little vindictive there, Mike?

In a note at the end, Crichton says that a book where “so many divergent views are expressed, may lead the reader to wonder where, exactly, the author stands on these issues.” That note led this reader to wonder who, exactly, the author thinks he’s kidding. John Kenner is obviously Crichton’s mouthpiece in State of Fear, in much the same way that Socrates was Plato’s in the latter’s famous dialogues. Except that Crichton is no Plato, and he doesn’t pull it off nearly as well. Socrates the character is pretty cool, Kenner is … a Mary-Sue; he’s clearly only there to be the stick with which Crichton bludgeons his view of reality into the other characters, and the reader.

Even this might not be so bad, except that Crichton sacrifices characterization for discourse. Kenner is not only Better Informed Than Thou, he’s also Holier Than Thou, “I have an apartment … I do not own a car. I fly coach.” Wait, I thought you were the one who didn’t believe climate change was a real danger, so why not own a car? But anyway, while Crichton is right to point out that celebrity environmentalists can be very hypocritical, it’s not like the rest of us are pure as snow, either. We all have flaws, including Crichton, and (if he were a real person) including Kenner. But no, Kenner in the book is blissfully free of any intentional character faults.

All that aside, I spent the last third of the book hoping desperately for Kenner to be wrong. Not about his views on climate change, I knew Crichton was too wedded to his mouthpiece on that score, but about something, anything. But no, Kenner, it appears, had to be completely right about absolutely everything.

And to top it all off, he’s so damn negative. His little speech to Bradley towards the end about everything you do having unexpected, negative consequences was supposed to be an argument for cost-benefit analyses, but it came off sounding more like “Nothing you do can ever really make things better because any positive changes you make will be balanced out by negative changes somewhere else” the implied corollary being “so why bother trying?” Again, I’m sure that wasn’t what Crichton meant to say, but it’s what he said. Thank goodness for Morton.

Sanjong is Kenner’s token POC, good little colonized sidekick. That pretty much covers the extent of his personality. At least he didn’t die, though. Or turn out to be evil.

Bottom Line: There’s some good discourse in here (even if I disagree with a lot of it) but it’s often mishandled, and the plot and characters are too generic and mediocre to carry the story by themselves. A good time-waster, but if you’re looking for a thrilling narrative, compelling characters, or deeply thought-provoking philosophical arguments, I advise you to keep looking.

Book review: “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown

A couple of years ago I listened to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code on audiobook to see what all the fuss was about. On the one hand, consensus on the internet seems to be that Brown’s story is shallow, his prose horrendous, and his book at best a guilty pleasure. On the other, Donald Maass cites The Da Vinci Code in his “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” as having several strengths writers can learn from.* So my expectations going into the book were somewhat mixed.

*On the third hand, Maass also cites Left Behind in that workbook, so he’s not infallible. On the fourth hand, to be fair, I really should actually readLeft Behind before making judgments about its quality. Just because the theology is terrible and some people on the internet say the writing is awful, I can’t know for sure until I’ve seen for myself.

The following post contains major spoilers for The Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code tells the story of American symbologist Robert Langdon and French cryptologist Sophie Neveu, as they struggle to solve a puzzle left them by Sophie’s recently-murdered grandfather, Jacques Saunière. Hounded by the French police, and followed by Saunière’s real killer, Langdon and Sophie must unravel a series of puzzles which will lead them to uncovering the greatest secret in history.

This was a good book, and I’m not ashamed to say it. In fact, I’ll go even further: The Da Vinci Code is somewhere between a good book and a great book. At least, it’s somewhere between a good story and a great story.

I know what people say about Brown’s prose, but that’s the sort of thing I can usually skip over, especially when I’m listening to the story on audio. I’ve taken a look at some criticism of The Da Vinci Code’s writing since I read it, and yeah, it’s pretty bad. Hilariously so if you have the right mindset, maddeningly so if you don’t. However, I still maintain that if, like me, you can get past the wretched prose, you’re in for a very good story.

Dan Brown takes a plot that could easily be cliché and dull, and plays it well. Ever found yourself saying “There’s a good story—maybe even a great story—in there, if only the author had brought out its potential”? Brown does exactly that.

The plot is fun and gripping, but what’s a good plot without good characters? Langdon and Sophie are engaging enough, reasonably good thriller heroes. But I often find that a much better indicator of a story’s quality is the way it treats its supporting cast and its villains, and it is here that Brown truly breaks the mold.

A less talented author would simply have depicted Silas and probably Bishop Aringarosa as religious fanatics, trying to hold onto their church, and the power that it represents, at whatever cost. Brown does not succumb to this shortcut. Instead, he presents Silas’ and Aringarosa’s devotion to Jesus’ doctrines of love and pacifism, and Silas’ struggle to reconcile that pacifism with his own use of violence to protect the church—and the greater good it represents, to him.

Brown, while not necessarily agreeing with the Catholic Church, is at least sympathetic and understanding, pointing out that the terrible things it did and does make sense to the church, if not to its victims.

Best of all is his treatment of Sir Leigh Teabing, the Teacher. Personally, I never saw his status as the main villain coming, which is another testament to Brown’s storytelling skill. I had Teabing written off as the lovable, quirky side character who I would be very upset about when he inevitably died sometime later. Rather like Talaan from Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die.

Boy, was I wrong. At the moment of the reveal, though, my heart sank. As soon as I found out that Teabing was the Teacher, I knew it would also turn out that everything I’d known about him had been a lie, that the delightful, eccentric old man I’d grown so fond of over the past half dozen cassettes had been only an act, a mask to disguise Teabing’s own petty, selfish desire for power (via the Holy Grail). Happens even in good murder-mysteries. All. The. Time.

Wrong again. Turns out, he was almost exactly as advertised. True, he was willing to be much more ruthless in the pursuit of what he considers the greater good than I expected, but the character we saw up to the reveal was pretty much the character as he truly was. By the end of the final confrontation, I actually felt kinda bad for the guy—hey, I’ve sympathized with “heroes” who were a lot less noble in pursuing their goals.

Brown does equally well characterizing his police characters, Bezu Fache and Lieutenant Collet.

I don’t know whether to call foul on Brown for his presentation of Fache in the book’s second half: it’s like Brown wants to use him as a red herring, but also wants to cover his ass by providing the alternate explanation before the reveal. When I first listened to the book, I thought he was trying to keep people guessing in scenes which did not include Fache personally, but had given up and all but admitted that Fache was the Teacher in the ones which did include him, which really ticked me off. Now, of course, I know that was all a smokescreen, but I still feel that practically telling the audience “Fache is the Teacher” (while still leaving enough wiggle room to back out of it after the reveal) in some scenes, and then acting like “no you’re still supposed to be guessing” in others is not playing fair with the reader. This is annoying, but I hardly think it ruins the story.

I have a few other quibbles with the book, as I’m sure everyone does with practically any story, but I don’t think they’re worth going into here.

The last point I’m going to address is the alternate history Brown presents in the book. It’s improbable, but it makes for a pretty good story. I’m given to understand that Brown has claimed that all the historical information in the book is accurate, even going so far as to put a disclaimer to that effect at the beginning of the book (which didn’t make it into the audio version). It’s at this point that he oversteps himself, as much of that information is inaccurate or at least hotly disputed. To my knowledge, Brown has cited no further evidence to back up his assertions. While this certainly does not speak well of Brown, I do not see that it detracts from the quality of the book itself.

More serious in that regard is the fact that one of his more villainous characters, Silas, is also an albino. As already mentioned, he’s not a card-carrying evil albino—in fact, I found him quite sympathetic—but that doesn’t necessarily make his presentation a-ok. I’ve heard there may be other issues concerning the depiction of the Catholic Church (or at least Opus Dei) and a couple European nationalities, and I could completely believe it, but I’m afraid I’m not in a good position to make an informed call on any of that.

Still a wonderfully engaging read, sometimes thought-provoking, always entertaining. If you can get by the lamentable prose, The Da Vinci Code is a fair good treat.

Since writing this initial piece, I have also read (read: listened to) both the original Angels and Demons and the second sequel, The Lost Symbol, and some of Brown’s charm has worn off as a result. First, the folks at ferretbrain pointed out some really awful racial politics in the first book which I confess to missing completely when I first read it, but which I cannot at all disagree with. In this regard, at least, Brown appears to have improved with time, in that Silas in Da Vinci is a lot more sympathetic than the Arabic assassin in Angels, while the villain in Symbol is straight Caucasian. Progress, of a sort.

I’ve also found that once you read one Dan Brown book, spotting the villain before the reveal becomes easier and easier. I figured out the one in Angels midway through, and I had the one in Symbol nailed down as soon as his backstory was introduced. With each additional book, I grow decreasingly impressed with Brown’s powers of misdirection.

His characterization is also less impressive to me now. Both Angels and Symbol have some pretty neat characterization, but I wouldn’t throw around words like “spectacular” in that regard. The sympathetic villain in Angels is pretty interesting, but not, for me, as enjoyable as Teabing in Da Vinci, while Moloch in Symbol is just a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

Symbol also bugged me in a number of other ways. Much of the story was still pretty exciting, but a substantial amount of it was dreary, irritating, and at one point even sickening (an over-detailed description of Moloch drowning a supporting character from the victim’s point-of-view).

I still have some fondness for the series, but I wouldn’t call either Angels and Demons or The Lost Symbol a great story, and I probably wouldn’t call them good stories either, which makes me seriously question my original assessment of The Da Vinci Code. But, since I’m not going to go back and re-read it any time soon, this is where my thoughts remain for the present. Later, everyone.

Read this book!: On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

I originally listened to this book on audio in 2009, after reading this glowing review by Kyra Smith of Ferretbrain, who, if anything, understates its merits. I’ve read it twice more since then, and am midway into my fourth read-through. The following is an update of one of a couple of draft reviews I wrote for the book after my first reading three years ago.

On the Jellicoe Road (title shortened in the US and UK to Jellicoe Road for reasons as yet incomprehensible) is the story of Taylor Markham, a student at the Jellicoe School (grades 7-12), a couple hundred kilometers from Sydney, Australia. Taylor has just been chosen to head the Jellicoe students in their annual territory wars with residents of the town of Jellicoe and the cadets who visit every year for wilderness training.

Taylor, however, has enough problems already, what with the pain and confusion surrounding several mysterious events in her past, the recent disappearance of her long-time caretaker Hannah, and the appearance in her dreams of a young boy in a tree who keeps trying to tell her something dire. The discovery that the leader of the cadets this year is the very boy who betrayed her three years earlier complicates the situation even further.

Interspersed with Taylor’s narrative is that of five friends who lived in the area twenty years earlier, brought together by a horrible tragedy on the Jellicoe Road. Their lives, their secrets, their triumphs and their downfalls will shape the fates of Taylor and those she cares about in the strangest and most surprising ways.

The story is extremely complicated, but in the end, all the loose plot threads come together in a rich, majestic tapestry with nary a fray or broken seem in sight.

I will admit that towards the end, I was beginning to figure out several of the book’s secrets before they were revealed, and at least once got mightily annoyed at Taylor for not making a particular connection much sooner. Still, it’s all good, and even at the very end, Marchetta still managed to throw some completely unexpected and deeply satisfying twists my way.

This is a book that you read and then reread and then reread again for good measure, first because there’s no way you’ll pick out all the pertinent details on the first run, and second because the story is so utterly captivating.

The characterization in <i>On the Jellicoe Road</i> is marvelous. Taylor is more than a little messed up (unsurprising, given her history), and often treats the people around her less kindly than they deserve. And yet she does care deeply about other people, and one of the great pleasures of the book is in watching her relationships with the other characters (and theirs with each other) mature and evolve as they grow closer together. Plus, she’s just a lot of fun, and even her more anti-social behavior (like that of the titular character on House) is usually entertaining.

The supporting cast is equally wonderful. They’re so good, in fact, that I can’t pick out just one or two favorites among them, and if I tried to summarize them all I’d 1) be here all night, and 2) spoil an awful lot of the book.

Another thing I should mention is that the story is deeply, incredibly, heartbreakingly sad. But, in a good way.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve ranted about the use of pain and tragedy in fiction as a shortcut to quality. And even when the tragic elements are appropriate to the world the author has created, they often feel unnecessary, only there to spur the protagonist to get off her/his/its butt and get to work already, or to pull the observers’ heartstrings, or to fill the authors’ angst quota.

It therefore came as something of a shock for me, upon reading On the Jellicoe Road to (re-)discover that tragedy can work to make a story better, in the right hands. The hands of Melina Marchetta, for example.

The copious amounts of pain and suffering and loss highlight moments of joy and connection and forgiveness, which are also in plentiful supply. This bittersweet mood runs through the entire book, and the epilogue is unbearably poignant.

I should throw in a word of warning here. While the tragic elements do enhance the story, they might be overwhelming to people (especially young people) who have not already been desensitized to tragedy in fiction. Sad books are not for everyone, so I would encourage anyone thinking of picking up this book to consider carefully whether they can handle this level of intensity before proceeding.

Which is not to say it’s all grim and gloomy. Those elements are omnipresent, and grow more prominent as the story progresses, but as already mentioned, there’s also great happiness and wonder. Additionally, the book is often very funny, with Taylor’s first person narration providing many entertaining observation, and plenty of witty banter among the various characters.

There are occasional flubs and missteps, and I find many of the political viewpoints which crop up highly suspect, but all these concerns are exponentially surpassed by the mastery of the plot, the richness of characterization, and the heartbreakingly beautiful emotional core of the story. All these elements and more make On the Jellicoe Road a towering literary achievement. With the sole caveat of emotional intensity, I give this book my highest possible recommendation.