Author Topic: What are you reading?  (Read 50568 times)

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 32335
  • Karma: 132
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #180 on: September 06, 2020, 06:19:34 PM »
A books update again!



I spent most of August reading The Outlaws of the Marsh/Water Margin, which was an experience to say the least - over 2000 pages across four volumes, detailing the bringing together and eventually splintering apart of a band of outlaws. This being classic Chinese literature, there are 108 outlaw chieftains, and you don't get a run through of them until 2/3 of the way through the piece: it does get fairly impossible to keep track of all of them, but that by and large doesn't matter. Most of the story is very pulp-fantasy in style, consisting of an intricate interwoven web of combats, thefts, intrigues, imprisonments, and suchlike as a variety of corrupt officials force the protagonists, in various ways, to abandon their previous lives, until a showdown with the government ensues and thereafter the employment of the outlaws as military shock forces starts to whittle the band's numbers down again. The primary themes of the book are about resistance to corrupt authority, though largely in a backward-looking way: the lead protagonists generally want to restore good advisers and governance to the Emperor, with one or two exceptions.

The characters are a full suite of fantasy archetypes, and come from all walks of life, a sharp contrast to western texts where the heroes are typically all of noble birth. They also all have fantastic epithets/nicknames as part of the "gallant fraternity", by which they often identify one another. Song Jiang, The Timely Rain, the most important character in the book, is a county clerk: he is not an especially notable warrior, or strategist, but nonetheless becomes the at times unwilling figurehead of the outlaws, and his generosity of spirit (to his fellow gallants and very much not to others, see below) keeps the group together. The 108 include among others Gongsun Sheng "Dragon in the Clouds", a Taoist monk who can control the weather; Flea on a Drum, the group's thief; Dai Zong the Marvellous Traveller, who has a special way of wrapping written prayers around his legs to let him walk at many times the speed of other men; Li Kui the Black Whirlwind, who is a full-on D&D style barbarian who often massacres enemies and bystanders alike in fits of rage and is the buffoon who often ruins plans; and Sagacious Lu, a former army official who became a Buddhist monk to escape the police then got thrown out of the monastery for being drunk and disorderly. Monsters are rare, except the occasional big tiger, but magicians of various sorts certainly appear.

The moral viewpoints in the story are very alien to me as a reader, which takes the edge off some of the reading enjoyment for it. Violence against women is common, graphic in nature, and feels gratuitous at times: one of the most common reasons for outlaw leaders to end up on the mountain is having murdered a spouse or concubine who betrayed, cheated on or blackmailed them in some way, and these killings are often shown very much as on-the-page events and seemingly approved of. This includes the main lead character, Song Jiang, which can make him an awkward protagonist. The view overall of women is quite negative, though complex: women as warriors (like the wonderfully nicknamed Ten Feet of Steel) or powerful political players are an assumed part of the writer's setting, so women in some ways get a bit more agency than in contemporary European writing, though also a more negative overall presentation.

The rest of the moral universe similarly strikes odd notes: suicide is common, seemingly often used to get people out of the way of the plot, and not in most cases a source of obvious character change or development for those left behind. Meanwhile some of the outlaws do outright standardly villainous acts: a couple of tavernkeepers who routinely cook guests and serve them a la Sweeney Todd are among the protagonists. Perhaps a way to square this circle lies in the mystical overview in the text, in which there are a number of supernatural events that mark Song Jiang and his band out as heavenly, but perhaps in the sense of a vengeful rather than benevolent heaven: they are scourges of villainy, their own evils balanced against the rapacious bureaucrats and officials they oppose.




Meanwhile, in the last few days, I read Jeannette Ng's Under the Pendulum Sun, which is... creepy as hell and with more messed up family vibes than a game of Crusader Kings gone wrong, but also very very good if you like gothic fantasy-horror. It's a step more into gothic victoriana than, say, Lud-in-the-mist, but it has a strong sense of the fae and faerie which manages to reimbue it with some of the upside-down madness and mystique that it sometimes lacks in more conventional fantasy. I don't think it's going to shoot into my favourite books list but that's mostly because its sort of claustrophobic creepsome vibe gets to me a bit too strongly: I certainly will read another one as and when it appears, nonetheless, which I think is a good mark to hit for a book that's outside my comfort-reading zone. I don't think I can write much much more without spoling bits of plot as it's very intricately woven and reliant on its sense of mysteries, but I'd recommend it all the same.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 32335
  • Karma: 132
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #181 on: November 11, 2021, 10:35:50 PM »
Well, it's been a long year-and-a-bit since I last posted here, and I've read horribly little in that time - but I'm finally creeping back into things a bit. I recently finished A Time of Marvels, a book of central European folk tales which was quite fun, and then this week I've read through S.A. Chakraborty's Daevabad trilogy, which I enjoyed a lot and can really very much recommend: good solid fantasy with a lot of djinn (who, indeed, the book is mostly about) and a much more Middle-eastern centred mythos than most fantasy literature tends to have.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Pentagathus

  • King of the Wibulnibs
  • Posts: 2577
  • Karma: 19
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #182 on: November 13, 2021, 06:55:55 PM »
I've been reading (well listening to audiobooks but shush) Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy on and off for the last few weeks now. Very enjoyable despite having a lot of the traditional fantasy tropes, it has a lot of creepy scenes that feel they could come from a horror style story but it manages to avoid being grimdark. Characters are good too, seems like everyone has some kind of development. Perhaps a little slow to start with but I didn't mind.
It was interesting to see just how much inspiration George Martin took from this series, especially considering that (IIRC) he started writing GoT around the time this series was newly released. At some points it feels like it goes from inspiration to outright plagiarism but I suppose that's quite hard to avoid with fantasy.

Jubal

  • Megadux
    Executive Officer
  • Posts: 32335
  • Karma: 132
  • Awards Awarded for oustanding services to Exilian!
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #183 on: November 14, 2021, 11:00:32 AM »
Ooh, I read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn a while ago and remember really liking them, though what I remember now is quite hazy on a "That's the one that had kinda inuit-ish dwarfy people and elves with a really complex and fun sounding boardgame that never got explained properly and a bunch of magic swords, right" level. But I'd like to re-read them sometime.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

Pentagathus

  • King of the Wibulnibs
  • Posts: 2577
  • Karma: 19
    • View Profile
    • Awards
Re: What are you reading?
« Reply #184 on: November 14, 2021, 01:46:18 PM »
Yes that sounds about right. Though the trolls made me think more of fantasy ram-riding Himalayan people than Inuits. Pretty certain the Wranermen of the southern swamps were inspired by native americans.
The audiobooks also have a very good narrator.