Friday, April 27, 2012

Magistrates of Hell by Barbara Hambly

I can't pretend to be at all rational about Barbara Hambly. When I read her books, it's not just about the pleasure of reading a really well-put-together story, it's the way that reading one of her books puts a hot iron to my own creative impulses. She writes not only worlds that I gladly get completely lost inside, but worlds that make me want to create ones of my own. Though I should have known/remembered, it was a surprise to realize/remember that, though Hambly's vampire novels have been published many, many years apart, internally, it's been less than a handful of years. Which is an observation that's really here nor there except that I really need to go back and reread the whole series from the start. One thing I like best about Hambly's vampires is that, although they can be beautiful, seductive, and—as in the case of Ysidro—hero/protagonists, she never stints on the idea that they are, first and foremost, predators and that every beautiful, seductive thing that they do is for self-serving reasons, be it protection or food. And though the relationship—triangle—between Asher, Lydia and Ysidro is central to the entire series, it definitely comes at a gradually steeper price, both in responsibility (with great knowledge, blah blah…) and in danger. This latest book takes place in Beijing (Peking) in the days of the early Republic of China. I've read Hambly's Benjamin January series and liked it greatly, both on its own merits and for a thoughtful representation of a non-Caucasian culture by a Caucasian author. Magistrates of Hell, unfortunately, is somewhat more problematic than the January series, if only because, unlike the January series, Magistrates is written from the point of view of the colonialists. And though James and Lydia are both greatly open-minded and non-partisan for any time period, let alone this one, they're still—by necessity—people of a certain place and time, looking at Chinese culture through foreign eyes and judging it accordingly. As well, the nature of the story and the motivations behind it mean that very little of ordinary Chinese society of the time is seen. Only that part of it that particularly panders to the colonials, either through politics or through the seedy commerce of drugs, prostitution, etc. I think that Hambly does go through great pains to present China, and the Chinese, sympathetically and with relatively non-judgmental equivalency…but I also don't think she always succeeds. In particular, early in the book, Hambly sets up a comparison between the more obvious bigots of the diplomatic corps declaring that Chinese culture/thinking/being is unfathomable because "they're not like other people", versus a vampire hunter declaring similarly about vampires because they're not human. This, on the one hand, shows up the fulcrum of bigotry, creating Otherness where none necessarily exists. But on the other hand, it's basically equating being Chinese with being a bloodsucking monster. Ouch. Though my uneasiness about this representation of (a particular part) of Chinese culture persisted throughout the book, it wasn't so great a deal-breaker that I didn't love the hell out of the book anyway. Since Traveling With The Dead, Lydia's feelings for/about Ysidro (and vice versa) have been very apparent, but in Magistrates, I found myself a lot more conscious of Asher's part in the triangle and how, though much less overt, in that restrained English manner, his feelings for Ysidro are no less powerful than Lydia's and how, given that Asher is fully aware of Lydia's feelings about Ysidro and vice versa, he shares Lydia with Ysidro fairly equably, other than the natural concern that he and Lydia are entangled in something of a long con by a predator. That is, there is something very polyamorous about the relationship that, while not expressed in sexual terms, is no less strong for the lack. And no less fascinating, either. And while the trappings with which Hambly brings together these three adventurers is, in and of itself, a romp worth having, it's the ongoing unanswered question of how this relationship will/does/can resolve that keeps bringing me back when other vampire stories have long been leaving me…cold.

Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

The first time I read Naomi Novik's Empire of Ivory, I read it much more on the face of things, accepting the story as written without thinking a whole lot more about it. On this read-through, however, I found myself thinking a lot more about the under-story and the subsequent discomfort and interest it raised. It's a little amusing that I read this book and Barbara Hambly's Magistrates of Hell so close together, because I think both books suffer from the same problem: writing about colonialists in foreign (non-Caucasian) countries from the point of view of the colonialists. This was, for me, somewhat less a problem in Novik's Throne of Jade because, while there was still the same "oh, goodness, aren't they foreign!" tone on behalf of the POV character, Laurence, China was—at least at the time—a completely sovereign (and respected) power, not yet ripped apart by Western (and Japanese) interests. Africa, on the other hand, particularly South Africa, where much of the story takes place, was an entirely different—conquered—entity. And, on the one hand, Novik raises some really interesting ideas of alternate history in how the timelines of colonized nations, as in Africa and (mentioned later & briefly) in the Americas, are altered by a greater ability to fight back against invasion by the presence of an equalizing (or superior) level of defense provided in the persons of native dragons. Assuming that the rallying defense of Africa is able to continue in the face of Western powers, assuming that the Americas were never conquered-colonized, or at least not to the extent they were in our dragonless timeline…that changes the entire history of the world. In some pretty profound ways. Sadly, though that was the most interesting part of the book for me, Novik doesn't really have or make the time to dwell on those issues as, because we are looking through the lens of a British colonialist, Laurence's main concerns—Britain and the war against Napoleon—force us to return to more European concerns. Putting that aside, though, I think that a great deal of Empire of Ivory's problem is the same as the previous volume, Black Powder War, in that (for me, at least), while Laurence is a sufficiently "good" and heroic person to be Temeraire's captain, he's also a very bland character. Which is fine, when it's the Temeraire-and-Laurence show; I think I noted before that Laurence is very much set up to be the straight-man of the duo and is sufficiently unobtrusive enough as to give the reader an easy point of self-insertion, to imagine themselves in his place as Temeraire's captain and friend. But when the story rests on his shoulders alone, though not bad, the story is far less interesting than when Temeraire is along and contributing to the story. And though some of that could've been relieved during the crews' period of captivity by finding out more about the African dragons, the fact that Laurence was isolated in the cave and/or ill much of that time means that there was no real insight or greater interest offered there, either. And then going back to my original point/issue and the comparison to Hambly's book… Like Hambly, I think that Novik went to some pains to show Africa and the African characters featured with humanist texture, sympathy and as little prejudice or judgment as possible (given that we're still looking through colonialist eyes of the period), but, also like Hambly, I don't think Novik always succeeds. In Hambly's book, she sets up a comparison of bigotry in English vs. Chinese and human (vampire hunter) vs. vampire, a metaphor that works on one level, but less so when you realize that the two comparisons equate Chinese with blood-sucking vampire (monster). Similarly, I think Novik sets up a comparison with the systematic inhumanity of slavery and the business of slavery with a similar level of Othering against the markedly un-human and yet, sentient/thinking, dragons. And, again, it's a metaphor that works on one level, when talking about Othering and bigotry when it's so clearly arbitrary and wrong…but it fails in the way these metaphors often do, where non-Caucasian Peoples are (continually) compared/equated to non-humans, animals, etc. to make the point. However, on the side where it succeeds, Novik does an excellent job of conveying the horror of Britain's willingness to commit genocide by deliberately spreading the dragon-plague, first to France and then to points unknown, harkening (very deliberately, I'm sure) to the pox-blankets passed to Native American tribes in the Americas. As well, she brings it all back to the series' strongest point: the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire; the only reason that Laurence is in a position to think anything (or do anything, for that matter) about the government's proposed pandemic. This is most poignant when Laurence is thinking of the life he might have had and muses: "The vision stood at a distance almost bewildering, now; mythical, softened by a comfortable blind innocence. He might have regretted it; he did regret it, now, except there was no room in the gardens of that house for a dragon to be sleeping in the sun." The strength of Novik's vision, greater than just the bare, if fond and amusing, facts of Laurence & Temaire's relationship, is the profoundness of how Laurence is changed by his love for Temeraire, as are most dragon-friends. Certainly those with enough sense to recognize the gift for what it is. Becoming Temeraire's captain and friend takes Laurence in a direction and on an adventure he could never have predicted before it happened and, having a taste of his life with Temeraire, nothing after it could ever be the same. It seems like there's a metaphor in that, too.