Book club book number four. I’d vaguely heard that this was meant to be good, but hadn’t really engaged with it or read anything about it. There are a lot of books, and I waste quite a lot of my time not concentrating on them, which is a shame. But it’s nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and there’s been some general noise about it, so it was vaguely in my awareness. And then book club said read it, so read it I did.
Eh. I’m not sure the noise really was trustworthy.
It’s not a bad book, exactly. I have no overwhelming criticisms for anything done particularly godawfully. And I did – sort of – enjoy it. It’s sweet, and fun, and kind of charming… it eschews grit and elaborate drama and turmoil and all that in favour of light, soapy, people-watching. And so it has no substance. It’s just… fluff. It’s pleasant enough fluff, and I didn’t totally object to reading it. I just don’t see why people think it merits awards and whatnot when there’s not really anything there. Nothing really happens. And maybe that would be ok if it were really really people-driven. If the characters grew and changed and you got sucked in watching their development. I harp on and on about characters, and the reason I loved All the Birds in the Sky so much is because it was so much about the people… so I could get behind a really good peopley bit of fluff if I were in the right mood. But you don’t get that either. The characters are fun and pleasant. Some of them are quite nice to read. But they don’t have any depth to them either, and once the focus passes away from them individually, that’s pretty much it for them. You don’t get anything to hold your attention from beginning to end… it flits from person to person, never long enough for depth, so you finish the book feeling just a bit… unsatisfied.
The plot… well… again, it does something I have liked in the past but don’t like here, just because the context doesn’t support it. It doesn’t feel like a plot that builds towards anything, instead it’s just a series of events that happen one after another. I said this about Guy Gavriel Kay, but I’ve still read three (four?) of his books. I loved them. But Kay writes gorgeous prose and stunning characters. Chambers… hasn’t. In another medium, in another way, maybe this could work, but in an already lacklustre book, a series of entirely predictable events without any foreshadowing or relation to one another beyond chronology… well, what’s left?
In truth, not much. But it’s not completely nothing. She’s got some lovely world-building going on, and a lot of good things that SFF often lacks. Her aliens and alien cultures are pretty interesting (shame we didn’t really see anything of them) and the ideas behind her characters work just fine. We’ve got cultural changes that aren’t just “human with a mask on”, different relationships and genders and norms and… that’s great. It’s something there does need to be more of and I’m glad she’s done it. But it can’t stand alone. You need an actually good plot, good characters, good… anything. There has to be substance as well, and there just really isn’t.
Also it’s horrifically clichéd… did I say that bit already? One of the characters gets introduced and my immediate response was “it’s Kayleigh from Firefly“. A lot of it is like that. Some of the scenarios too. And well… if you can’t be good, then be original… and if you can’t even do that…
Oh and the prose. Again, it’s not strictly bad, but it is awkward. She’s good at dialogue – which feels natural all the way through and which is so bad when authors can’t get it right – but her actual descriptive passages just feel clunky and unpolished. There’s nothing specific I can really pin down about any of them to draw out (except maybe that some of them really do go on for rather a bit too long) but they just don’t feel quite done. I’m going to assume this is her first novel and it’s just a symptom of that, something that will change and develop as she publishes more. I hope so. It wasn’t bad enough that I noticed it all the way through, because by god the book would have been a slog then, but every time I paused to think about it, it just wasn’t quite there.
This all being said, I don’t regret reading the book entirely. It was good fun, in a completely mindless sort of way. It was the verbal equivalent of staring out of a train window and watching the scenery go by… which I do do not infrequently. But it’s not something you actively seek out.
And that’s why I’m so perplexed that this book has such universally good, enthusiastic reviews. And it’s award nominated? I just fail to see what there is here to support that kind of enthusiasm. If anything, I’m seeing this more than in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, though I enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet more (because the characters don’t make me angry). And it does spoil a book, knowing that so many people exist who think it’s absolutely stellar, while I’m struggling to find anything really notable at all. I just… the frustration overwhelms the enjoyment. I don’t like not understanding things. And that’s what spoilt the book for me, in the end. If the critical response had been largely “meh”, I’d have stuck it in the “mildly enjoyable trash” pile and be done with it. But instead, I’m sitting here trying to work out what so many people saw in it to make them go “OMG AMAZE”. I’m being forced by popular opinion to pick apart something that hasn’t got all that much there to dissect, and of course the only place that will lead you is disappointment.
And here I am, much more negative now I’ve spent 1000 words discussing it than when I sat down. Damn it.
On the upside, Slade House next, which was legitimately amazing.