Monthly Archives: April 2013

River of Stars, by Guy Gavriel Kay

riverofstarsIt’s always a big event in my world when Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite fantasy writer, comes out with a new novel, and River of Stars was definitely worth the wait. Like Under Heaven, this book is set in Kitai, which is based on medieval China — a refreshing change from the Eurocentric worlds of most fantasy fiction. Kay’s method is to research a place and time as intensely as if he were writing historical fiction, but then to free himself from the constraints of actual history by changing names and details and writing it as fantasy, which allows him to invent characters and change the course of events. If you’re a hard-core fantasy fan who likes more sorcery than swords, you may find Kay’s writing disappointing, because the strictly “fantastic” elements are minimal (and becoming less with each book, it seems to me). There’s no real “magic” as we usually think of it in the world of Kitai, only elements that in our world we would think of as folklore and superstition, which are real within the world of the novel. You could remove those elements and while the story would lose a little of its strange otherness, the plot and character development would be essentially unchanged. The story told in River of Stars is a very human story — it didn’t happen exactly this way in Song Dynasty China, but it certainly could have.

What animates Kay’s fantasy novels are not wizards and spells but human interactions — politics and love and betrayal. His main characters in this novel are Ren Daiyan, a young outlaw-turned-soldier who believes that it’s his destiny to win back his country’s lost territory and former military glory, and Lin Shan, a poet who has received an education far beyond what’s normal for girls in her culture and so has ambitions bigger than women are normally expected to have. That their paths will eventually cross is inevitable, but the love story is subordinate to the bigger political story in which they, along with many others, are caught up. The barbarians are, quite literally, at the gates — Mongol-like hordes from the steppes. Ren Daiyan believes it’s possible to fight back and not only defend the territory they have but win back some of the greatness Kitai has lost, but those in power have other ideas.

The genius in this, as in many of Kay’s novels, is to juxtapose the intimate stories of individuals who feel absolutely like real people, with big stories — the rise and fall of empires — and show us what impact individuals can have on the course of history — as well as what they can’t do. Because he makes his characters so vivid and alive, we root for them even when we don’t agree with them. If you asked me whether it was better for a country to live peacefully in a smaller territory and avoid war, or engage in a huge costly war of conquest and expansion, I would definitely approve of the first option — yet by halfway through the book I’d become so immersed in Ren Daiyan’s character that I wanted him to succeed in his quest to bring back the lost days of Kitai’s glory. To me, that’s one sign of a great writer.

If you find Kay’s writing slow or hard to get into, as some do, this probably won’t be the book to change your mind — his typical intricate style and careful pacing is on display here, as are a few stylistic and plot tropes that are familiar to his regular readers (once we got near the end, I was able to predict the ending because it was similar to a plot twist Kay has used in other books). And the usual fantasy-novel problem of keeping track of characters’ made-up names is compounded her by them being made up Chinese names — even more challenging for an English-speaking reader, and there were a couple of minor characters I never did get straightened out. But these are minor quibbles about a lovely book. My main problem reading this was trying to distract myself and draw it out longer so I wouldn’t race through it too quickly. I enjoyed being in the world of the book so much that I tried to make it last nearly a week instead of the day or two that I could have read it in. Though Kay’s fantasy contains very little magic in the usual fantasy-novel sense, his ability to build a real world and draw readers into it is truly magical.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- fantasy, Fiction -- historical

Does Jesus Really Love Me? by Jeff Chu

doesjesuslovemeThis book, subtitled A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, is a must-read for anyone interested in the deep divide in American Christianity between those who want to welcome gays and lesbians as fully participating members of their churches, and those who believe gays and lesbians must change their orientation or at least remain celibate if they are to be pleasing to God and acceptable as church members. Jeff Chu, himself a gay man with a partner, grew up in a conservative Chinese Baptist home. Like many gay Christians, he struggled after coming out, trying to reconcile his faith with his sexual orientation. However, Chu is also a journalist, so rather than just writing a memoir exploring his own experiences, he set off on a journey across the U.S., interviewing dozens of people — gays, lesbians, fundamentalists, gay and lesbian fundamentalists, Ted Haggard, Fred Phelps … pretty much the whole gamut of people who might have a stake in this issue.

Of course, there are gaps — it’s not meant to be an exhaustive study but a broad sampling. I would like to have seen an interview here with Mel White, founder of Soulforce and author of Stranger at the Gate: Gay and Christian in America, a book that for me was an absolute game-changer in terms of the way I thought about these issues. And from my own selfish perspective I’d love to have seen some mention of Seventh-day Adventists, who struggle with this issue in the same way as do many of the other small, conservative denominations with a strong cultural identity that Chu included in the book, such as the Churches of Christ and the Covenant churches. But I guess that’s the point — many of the arguments, the stories and the struggles are the same across denominations.

“Stories” is the key word here — Chu is not making a theological argument; he’s talking to people and relating their stories. Some stories are triumphant; some are heartbreaking. He interviews and reports on his subjects with great compassion, whether they are pro- or anti-gay, although he makes no pretense of objectivity and often relays his own impressions of people as he’s reporting what they said. But he makes one interesting point that I think highlights how broad the divide really is. Speaking of someone else who’s made a mission out of telling the stories of gays and lesbians in the church, he points out that stories will never convict people whose faith is based on Scripture alone. If you believe the Bible says that homosexual sex is an abomination, then it will never matter how many wonderful, loving, committed gay Christians you know — you’ll never be able to view their religion as anything but a lie, or their relationships as anything but sinful.

The knowledge of this deep divide underlies everything Chu says in this book, which is why it can’t really be described as a hopeful book on anything but the most personal level. Chu ends his journey of discovery with his personal faith in God strengthened, but his faith in the church as an institution almost non-existent. There’s not really one Christian church worshipping one God in America, he concludes: there are many churches each worshipping their own version of God and teaching their own version of truth, and unity on the most contentious issue of our day is not in sight, nor may it ever be. Does Jesus Really Love Me? is a sobering, thought-provoking, well-written book that may help people on both sides of this issue to hear each other’s arguments more clearly and perhaps have a little more respect for each other, but it almost certainly will not bring them any closer to agreement and acceptance. And that’s a sad thing.

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Filed under Nonfiction -- general

The Woman Who Died a Lot, by Jasper Fforde

woman who died a lotI’ve read every one of Jasper Fforde’s books, although to my surprise in looking back over my old reviews I note that the previous book in the  Thursday Next series, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, somehow got read but not reviewed here on Compulsive Overreader. Really, what I say about one book in the series could pretty much be said about any of them — endlessly witty, inventive, quirky books with plot twists that have to be read to be believed. In the last book, Thursday’s adventures were mainly in the Book World, but in this novel she’s back in the so-called real world, taking over as head of Swindon’s libraries (libraries, and anything book-related, are far more important in the alternate universe of these books than in ours, so librarians come armed and with permission to use lethal force, if necessary, to retrieve overdue books). Thursday’s also dealing with family problems — her genius teenage daughter Tuesday showed a classmate her breasts for five pounds, her son Friday just had his entire future revoked, and her daughter Jenny still doesn’t really exist…or does she? Amid work and home pressures, Thursday has to help avert a smiting from an angry deity who’s promised to smite Swindon at the end of the week. Oh, and somebody’s making Thursday clones so realistic that occasionally the real Thursday wakes up inside one and doesn’t realize at first that she’s a clone.

It’s complicated. But isn’t it always?

Something new with this installment: it’s poignant at times, and surprisingly realistic. I know: “realistic” is not the first word you think of when you think of a series of books set in an alternate version of our world where (some) people are able to jump back and forth into the plots of novels. What’s realistic is that action hero Thursday is now in her mid-fifties and has barely survived her injuries from the last novel. Unlike a cartoon character (or her own clone) she doesn’t bounce back unscathed: she has to deal with permanent disability, physiotherapy, and no longer being young and strong enough to take down the evil emissaries of the Goliath Corporation at a single bound. Possibly the most unbelievable character in contemporary fiction, Thursday Next has become surprisingly real as her story has unfolded.

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Filed under Fiction -- fantasy, Humour

March Round-Up

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