Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
Published: Timescape Books, 1983
Series: Book 4 of the Book of the New Sun
Awards Nominated: BSFA, Locus Fantasy, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: John W. Campbell Memorial Award

The below may contain spoilers for the series.

The Book:

“Severian continues his journey, and now it leads him into war.  He still searches for the Pellerines, in order to return the sacred artifact called the Claw of the Conciliator.  Severian will have to face who he is and who he must become, if there is to be any hope for the future of Urth and its dying star.” ~Alli

This is another audiobook that I listened to during my commute. Reviews of the previous three books in the series can be found here, here, and here.

My Thoughts:

The Citadel of the Autarch seems pretty much the same as the previous three volumes, with Severian wandering around, having experiences, and listening to stories.  This time he comes into an area at war, which is somewhat less exciting to me than when he was traveling in Nessus or in the mountains. One of the highlights of this section for me was a storytelling competition that he oversees among fellow patients in a sickroom. The competition provided an interesting chance to see the values of a variety of different cultures on the planet, including the Ascians, who can only speak in discrete set phrases (perhaps a pun on ASCII). As the series comes to a close, many of the mysteries from throughout the story are cleared up, and there are some interesting thoughts on identity and time travel.

I’d been delaying writing this review for a while now, both because I’ve been very busy and because the overall completed series has left me unenthused.  I can tell that this is a very carefully constructed tetraology, and I can understand how many people have probably had a lot of fun analyzing it. The world is also complex, and I have enjoyed uncovering different aspects of it slowly through Severian’s experiences.  Ultimately, though, there are no characters that I particularly care about, and I didn’t find the plot particularly engaging.  Severian wanders from encounter to encounter, and he is surprisingly passive through it all.  I was hoping there would be something more to his being made into the autarch than fate, but that doesn't seem to be the case. The series has certainly had its moments, but in the end I think I have to admit that it just doesn’t speak to me.

My Rating: 2.5 / 5

I had a hard time getting into this classic series, and ultimately I think it is just not for me.  I think the first novel is a pretty good indicator for whether or not you will enjoy the series as a whole, since it continues in much the same manner.  This last installment was less interesting for me, since it largely featured a war I never managed to care about, and since I was underwhelmed by the conclusion of Severian’s personal story.  I have never been especially engaged by the characters or the plot, and my main joy from these novels has been from reading experiences of Severian’s that are either creepily atmospheric, point out creative aspects of the world of Urth, or both. I know a lot of people love these books, and I gave it my best shot.  In the end,  I probably should have accepted earlier that this just wasn’t going to be my kind of series.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Chosen, Part 4

It’s time for week four of the read-along of Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey!  This week’s questions are from Lisa of Over the Effing Rainbow, and they cover chapters 37-49.  Quite a lot happened this week, after last week’s politicking, so I think we’ll have a lot to discuss!  

Also, if you’re wondering, life has been extremely and unexpectedly busy these past few weeks, which is why there haven’t been any new book reviews lately.  It’s been pretty much all I could handle to keep up with the read-along.  I’ve just about finished writing the next one, though, so there will be more book reviews coming along very soon!

1. Last week we talked a bit about who might succeed Cesare Stregazza as Doge. This week we learn that he might not be out of the game just yet, after all. What are your thoughts on his discussion and agreement with Phédre?

I suspected he was not as out of the game as his relatives assumed.  I’m afraid a lot of his discussion with Phedre was nullified by things we learn later, but I hope she can honor her agreement with him before his death.  I was surprised that he had such a low opinion of Ricciardo.  The guy seemed nicer than Marco to me.  Perhaps he is just the better actor of the two.  

Suborning the priestess of Asherat-at-the-sea seems like a very awkward way to try to force Cesare out of his seat.  If it was done by the d’Angelines, maybe it makes more sense, because they might not have much of an understanding of the religion of the area.  Regardless, it seems like it would have made more sense for his enemies to just poison him at the opportune moment. He’s in poor health, so his death would probably not be questioned.  Perhaps the prophecy was arranged by his kinsmen, knowing that he would interpret it correctly as a corruption of their religion and a death threat.  In that case, they are requesting he step down (perhaps because they don’t want to murder a kinsman) or face assassination.

2. Melisande resurfaces - and right where I did NOT expect to find her! What about you? And what do you think of her latest ambitious designs? When she and Phédre speak again after her capture, Phédre calls her mad; Melisande hints at "playing a god's game". Is this ambition or is it in fact madness?

I did not expect that at all!  Benedicte’s wife is supposedly Etaine de Tourai.  She must have existed, or it would have drawn suspicion.  She’s explained as:

“Etaine de Tourais, she is called; a noble-born D’Angeline refugee from the Camaeline hills.  Husband, father, even her brother, all killed in the first wave of Selig’s invasion.  Her family had a quit-claim on House Courcel.  Somewhat to do with her father taking arms at Benedicte’s side in some ancient battle against the Skaldi” (p. 115-116)

I suspect that Etaine was killed in the invasion along with her family, and Benedicte helped Melisande impersonate her in letters and rumors.  

As for her ambitions, I suppose she’s hedging her bets with Imriel, but I didn’t really think she was the sort who would be satisfied by having a baby well-placed in succession.  I’m guessing that’s just her ‘if all else fails’ plan.  I think her need for support outside her homeland is a bit of a weakness.  In the first book, she needed the Skaldi, and in this book, she needs La Serenissima (though arguably her allies in La Serenissima are D’Angeline).  She does not seem to me to have the understanding of non-D’Angeline cultures that would help her succeed in these multi-nation schemes.

I don’t think she’s insane.  I think at least some of her references to “playing a god’s game” are her flirting with blasphemy in her treatment of Phedre, who is Kushiel’s chosen.  Otherwise, she’s probably talking about violating the precepts of Elua in other ways.

3. Things fall apart for Phédre and Joscelin after so much pent-up angst - but our Cassiline isn't done with her yet, thank goodness! Phédre's escape from La Dolorosa, and Joscelin's attempted rescue, is some of the most nail-biting drama we've seen yet in this story. Do you think Joscelin will manage to find her, or will he play it smarter and go to Ysandre instead?

I suppose he left because he did not feel needed, and also because he felt violated after Phedre pressured him into sex against his will.  The first part was proved wrong almost immediately, and I’m glad he came to rescue her!  As for the second part, I think that will be a difficult thing for them to overcome, especially since I don’t get the sense Phedre has really accepted that she is in the wrong. I would hope Joscelin would go to Ysandre.  However, I suspect that his Cassiline nature will prevail, and he will keep trying to find Phedre.

4. New character alert! What are your initial impressions of Kazan and Glaukos? How much trouble is Phédre in this time?

They don’t seem like horrible people so far.  They took her in and are helping heal her.  I think that she just doesn’t understand that there are a lot of constraints on what a pirate ship can and can’t do on a moment’s notice.  For instance, they can’t just drop what they’re doing and sail to Marsilikos or La Serenissima.  They need provisions, not all ports are safe for them, etc.  Once they get to the right place, Phedre can ransom herself.  She can always make more money later.

Other things:

--La Dolorosa was actually more terrifying after we knew more about it.  I was actually glad that Phedre was planning to accept Melisande’s deal.  I did not want to read about Phedre enduring what would have come in that place.

--I hope Ti-Philippe is okay! It seems that he was not with Joscelin, so I wonder what else he could be doing.

--It has been so long since a major character died, I had been lulled into a false sense of security.  Rest in peace, Remy and Fortun :’(.

--I feel that Melisande is underestimating Phedre.  From their conversations, it seems like Melisande still sees her as that (relatively) innocent, inexperienced teenage girl who was working for Delaunay.  Phedre may have changed her view a little through their conversations, but I’m hoping she still underestimates her enough for Phedre to be able to take advantage of it.

--I did not guess that Percy was being blackmailed.  He did not seem disloyal to Ysandre in the last part of the previous book or in the first of this one.  If it came out that he was involved in Lyonette’s treason, though, Ysandre would probably execute him.  I can see that he really has no choice if he wants to preserve his own life.   

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Read-Along: Kushiel's Chosen, Part 3

It’s time for week three of the read-along of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Chosen, and this time I provided the discussion questions!  They cover chapters 27-36, so beware spoilers through this point in the series.  This was a very politics-laden section, mostly involving Phèdre getting settled in La Serenissima and trying to find a lead on Melisande’s whereabouts.  

1. Do you think Joscelin might have really considered using the “terminus” in the fight between the Unforgiven and the Yeshuites? How deep do you think his loyalty to the Yeshuite people goes, and why do you think he feels so driven to arm, train and protect them?

I think he was telling the truth, and he would have simply thrown.  I think it would have hurt him deeply to have to do it, but I don’t think he would have used the terminus for anything short of having to kill his companion.  

He seems to be very deeply loyal to the Yeshuite people at this point, and I don’t think I have seen enough of him to really understand why.  I know there are similarities between the Cassiline and Yeshuite faiths, and that they seem to be offering him both absolution and a role in their homeland prophecy.  However, he still seems to be more bound to Cassiel, and I’m not sure he would accept either of those things.  Maybe it is just that he sees the help he can give the Yeshuite people as something wholly good, so that it is one thing in his life that he can not feel conflicted about.   

2. What do think of the differences between the culture of La Serenissima and the City of Elua, and the differences in how they conduct their political intrigue?  Who would you favor for the next Doge?
La Serenissima is a very unique place, but I think I prefer the City of Elua.  La Serenissima is a republic, instead of a monarchy, but the leaders are only allowed to be drawn from a limited pool of nobles.  Given that, it doesn’t seem all that different from a monarchy.  The role of women seems considerably less equitable there, as well.  Not only can Phèdre not safely serve Naamah, but women can’t even inherit wealth or property.

I was a little surprised by the different style of intrigue.  It seems that in Terre d’Ange, people are very guarded, and speak to one another very carefully.  Here, while much still remains hidden, people speak quite straightforwardly and at length.  The strategy seems to be to cover their true intentions with a torrent of information.  If I had to pick anyone for Doge right now, I’d choose Ricciardo. He’s the only one that we’ve seen so far who seems to have an interest in the well-being of the people of La Serenissima.

3. What do you think of Phèdre’s plan to play along with Severio’s romancing?  Do you think he is approaching the matter with more sincerity than his parents?

This situation stresses me out.  Romance and serving Naamah really are two different things, and I hate that Phèdre is faking the former.  At the same time, I don’t see anything else she could have done, since rejecting Severio would likely have cut her off from the Stregazza family.  At the moment, I get the sense that Severio is approaching Phèdre in sincerity, and I think he is going to be hurt and humiliated at the end of it.  I am really hoping that it will be his parents who put a stop to the courting, so that he never has to find out Phèdre was never interested in him.

4. There is a lot of fortune-telling in this section, from the Oracle in the temple to the astrologer.  What do you make of the Oracle’s answer to Phèdre?  Why do you think the astrologer killed himself, and do you think he would he have been able to lead them to Melisande?

I agree with Phèdre’s companions, that it seems a fairly obvious prophecy on the face of it.  I’m not sure what it means, though.  Is Melisande actually in the City of Elua, and she wanted Phèdre to come to La Serenissima for some scheme-related reason?

I think the astrologer definitely had contact with Melisande.  It seems to be hinting that he may have lost his position due to a poisoning from her or one of her people.  I don’t really understand his suicide, though.  He hadn’t actually crossed Melisande at that point, so he needn’t have worried about her retribution.  It crossed my mind that no one saw him take his own life--maybe someone in his house forced him to drink the poison, to make sure he didn’t say anything, and then fled.  The characters seem to understand it as a way for him to take control of his own fate, but surely there are better ways to do that.  

5. Joscelin and Phèdre meet a couple who have made compromises in order to build a happy life together.  What do you think of their family, and does their example give any hope for Phèdre and Joscelin’s future?

They seem happy, but it is a little sad that they have had to make such major compromises. Phèdre seemed to see it as hopeful, but I am not sure their example will really map to Phèdre and Joscelin.  With Ricciardo and Allegra, it seems like he has mostly stopped following his own desires for the love of his family, and she has accepted that he has those desires and may still act on them from time to time.  Cast onto Phèdre and Joscelin’s relationship, that would mean Phèdre has to stop serving Naamah and Kushiel, and Joscelin has to accept that she will always want to return to it.  I can’t really see that happening, because they are both so dedicated to their own paths.

Other Things:

--La Serenissima was a name for the Republic of Venice in reality.  It surprised me that fantasy-Venice is not known for its painters!  Real-Venice has a rich history in both music and painting(Tiziano, Tintoretto, Veronese, etc…).

--La Dolorosa was a creepy place. It reminds me of Alcatraz.

--It was interesting to see how horrified Phèdre was at the sacrificing of the lamb.  It seems that Elua and his Companions were not into blood sacrifice at all.

--The Yeshuites seem to be in an even worse position in La Serenissima than in Terre d’Ange.  I am afraid of what the leaders may do when they hear the Yeshuites are training in combat.

--I think there is still some trickiness left in the current Doge.  I’m curious to see what will happen when Phèdre comes to sing for him. It seems like the invitation was designed so that he could have a chance to speak with her alone.