My horse did not win the Kentucky Derby. I wanted General Quarters, for all the sentimental reasons – and I had a strong enough hunch that I would have put money down, if a) I’d had any and b) I’d known how. Phew. But at least I remembered to watch it – I have managed to forget the first Saturday in May for the last several years – and at least everyone, two- and four-legged, managed to walk off the track in the same condition they went on. The guy with the crutch had it when he got there… Can I please hope for a Triple Crown winner this year? Please?
I’ve been making my way through Paula Volsky’s books. A little while ago I read The Grand Ellipse, the tale of a pseudo-19th century international balloon race, which had a strong flavor of Jules Verne. It was good… ish. Didn’t love it; didn’t love the characters; thought the attempt at light Regency-esque froth was a little forced. Which may be why I didn’t read any more Paula Volsky for a little while, despite my tendency to settle on an author and stay there till I run out of books…
In any case, a couple of weeks ago I picked up The White Tribunal. Wow. Somewhere I saw a comparison to The Count of Monte Cristo – which is pretty solid, actually. In a world where magic is outlawed and feared, the White Tribunal has risen to combat practitioners of the evil art, those who consort with Malevolences. Behavior outside the norm, personal vendetta, interest in non-kosher topics: all these can put a man, or a family, under the scrutiny of the White Tribunal, and that is rarely good for one’s health. Volsky doesn’t shy away from detailing horrors, and horrors there were in plenty – there were serious overtones of the Spanish Inquisition here, and I do not mean the Monty Python variety. The general punishment, or rather execution, for run-of-the-mill transgressors consists of The Cauldron. Which is what it sounds like. Tradain liMarchborg watches his father and brothers put to death, although they were entirely innocent of any supernatural dealings; he himself is spared death because of his youth at the time, merely imprisoned in a pocket of hell. When he at last claws his way to freedom he decides that since he has already been convicted for the crime, he might as well commit it. In reviews I saw the comment that the ending was weak. I wouldn’t so much say “weak” as “huh?”… or perhaps “I think the publishers left out a few pages”. It’s a pity – it had some greatness to it, but I saw part of the ending coming (the part that, you know, ended), and while a fairy tale Happily Ever After would have been absurd, a Something Ever After would have been nice. It’s always a shame when a book’s ending undermines the whole thing.
The cover is by John Jude Palencar, about whom I can say nothing ill. Except that the cover doesn’t quite fit anything I recall about the plot… Still, it’s JJP. I’m not going to argue. Gorgeous.
I moved on to Wolf of Winter. Cover by George Bush. Well, it’s not as bad as I would think it would be if it were by Shrub (or Bush père), but it’s not good. Detail: the coat was of gray fur, not red. And it looks like it could have used a couple more hours under the brush (the cover, not the coat) – but it could be worse.
The book itself was very Russian, in setting and theme. The royal family consists of three brothers, the youngest of whom, Varis, is weak and sickly in a land that all but exposes weak and sickly children. Again, it’s a world where magic – here, necromancy – is despised, and again the main character (“hero” he ain’t) turns to the forbidden for, in part, revenge. The story reminded me a little of a movie I saw a few weeks ago – annnnd cue digression…
Some time back I bought a movie to fill out the “five used DVDs for $whatever” criteria at a video store: Perfume, with Alan Rickman and Dustin Hoffman, starring the alarming Ben Whishaw (whose Hamlet I would give a lot to have seen) (a LOT). I bought it because of Rickman and Hoffman (thinking how odd it was I’d never heard of it), and because it sounded fascinating: the story of a young man who is obsessed to the point of murder with recreating the scent of a girl. And that’s just what it was, but so much more. A baby is born in 18th century France in the deepest poverty, and manages to survive against all odds. The child, and then the man, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, emerges as peculiar, completely lacking in almost all social skills, and in the root cause of that lack: the most extraordinary sense of smell ever born into a human. Scent is his primary and overriding perception of the world; nothing else matters. And one day on his first venture into Paris he is passed by a girl whose scent captures Grenouille’s attention like nothing else ever has.
He approaches her, but between being overwhelmed with the scent and never being exactly eloquent, has no notion of how to behave. He frightens her, she runs away, he follows her – being easily able to track her by that scent – and in trying to control her he accidentally kills her. The death means nothing to him – the fact that he has committed murder, the fact that he will be hanged if he is discovered, the rights or wrongs of the situation, none of it means anything to him, literally. It is the scent that matters, and with the girl dead that fades quickly. He remembers it, though, always, and the overwhelming desire to recapture it is what leads him to go to Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman), a once-famed perfumer, to learn how to distill scent. Eventually he does learn enough of conventional perfume-making to create a method that will allow him to capture an individual’s scent… Unfortunately, this method leaves the individual dead (or, at least, he finds that it’s easier to kill them than make them cooperate) – but, again, this does not matter in the least to Grenouille. No one else exists except as scent. His obsession is pure. He kills thirteen girls to reach his desired result; he would have killed hundreds to get it, if he’d had to, or everyone on earth, and never spared it a thought. It was a bizarre, unique movie, incredibly beautiful to look at, fascinating in all of its detail, and only slightly off-putting in its morbid sense of humor. I won’t watch it again in a hurry – but I probably will watch it again eventually.
And back to the book. Varis is a lot like Grenouille, in a way. He wants what he wants, with little regard for anyone else, and what he wants is primarily the power necromancy brings him. That power can bring him other things that he decides he also wants – like the ability to become Ulor (czar, basically) even though seven people (including five children) stand in his way… However, one brother’s wife realizes what he’s doing, if not how, and spirits her son and daughter (13-year-old Cerrov and his younger sister Shalindra) away out of his reach. Shortly, of course, the son is the rightful Ulor, but too young to do anything about it, and he and his sister go deeper into hiding when the assassination attempts begin. The story divides to follow the children into hiding, and when they are separated it sticks with Shalli and Varis until their paths converge. And can I just say that this treatment of children was perfect: obviously young, without being annoying or anachronistic. Well done. It was all well done – the writing superb, the pacing gripping, the story marvelous. Loved it. And despite comeuppance where it was due, the story does not end on a HAE note: there is a disquieting hint of where one person’s future may lie. Wonderfully done.
And now I’m reading:
Illusion. The cover comes first, because that was the reason I bought the book in the first place, and it was the first of PV’s books that I read. Michael Whelan, bless his brushes, is still my hero. This is nothing short of magnificent, and I’m still proud that I had coffee with the man once. Anyway… the book echoes the French Revolution (except that the Queen isn’t exactly Marie Antoinette – hated like she was, though), and follows both Eliste – Exalted lady-in-waiting to the Queen, spoiled but clever and thoughtful when she bothers – and the leaders of what becomes the Reparation movement, the bourgeousie, the “canaille” – the commoners, the serfs and tradesfolk who are being taxed literally to death to support their betters, who are no more than property or servants in the eyes of those “betters”… When I put the book down, the Reparationists had just stormed the palace, killing anyone in their path, and had the Royals – and handmaids thereof – trapped. They’re demanding the King, and the King, being none too bright or perhaps overly optimistic, is about to go out to them. It’s been a long while since I read this, but I have a strong feeling it’s not going to be pretty. It’s a dead-on (no pun intended) depiction of just how revolution can start – in this case, almost accidentally. I’m looking forward to enjoying the rest of this long book (with the exception of the scenes of brutality I know are to come) – and I think I might just read Tale of Two Cities next. It’s been a while.
One can’t help but think about conditions here and now, and wonder about the possibilities of another revolution here and now. I mean, most weeks I can’t manage to go to the movies because I can’t afford it. I haven’t had my hair cut in months because I can’t afford it. My boss just a few months ago bought a new Jeep, and is considering buying a boat. I don’t begrudge him – or anyone – money they’ve earned by hard work, and which offsets the risks that they take. But the inequity sometimes gets thick enough to choke on. I’m not about to pick up a torch or a pitchfork… but I can see how it could happen.
In poking about looking for info on Perfume I was led into various other avenues, and I find that there’s a film called Dorian Gray coming out this year, starring Ben Barnes, and also starring Colin Firth and Ben Chaplin. Oh, that can’t be bad. Ben Barnes was Prince Caspian, and (from Wikipedia) “is set to reprise his role (this time as King Caspian) in the third film in the Narnia series, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Filming was expected to begin in January 2009 with locations in Rosarito, Mexico, Prague & Australia, with a release date of 7 May 2010. However, Disney announced that they were dropping The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because of budgetary concerns. It was then picked up by 20th Century Fox (teaming with Walden Media).” Huh. Oh, also – “In March 2009, Entertainment Weekly reports that Barnes has been casted to play as Hamlet in Ophelia.” Hamlet with a new POV? Lovely.
And more Shakespeare, adapted: “The Tempest is an upcoming 2009 American film and the 3rd on-screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s romance of the same name. It is directed by American Julie Taymor and stars Helen Mirren [playing Prospera, in place of Prospero – I’ll reserve judgement there], David Strathairn, Djimon Hounsou [Caliban – wow], Alan Cumming [Sebastian], Alfred Molina, Russell Brand, Ben Whishaw [Ariel! Wow] and Felicity Jones.” Pardon my drool. I’d rather see Patrick Stewart do on screen what he did on stage – but Helen Mirren is extraordinary. If anyone can pull it off, she can.
Another coming attraction: “Solomon Kane is a film directed by Michael J. Bassett, and based on the character created by Robert E. Howard in 1928. James Purefoy stars in the title role.” Antony! God, I loved Rome. I’ve never seen him in anything else – now I want to see this too.
Good grief, I haven’t seen a new movie, in the theatre, since – I think – Pirates of the Caribbean II… Unless, was Night at the Museum after that? Still, quite a while. And now, along with those above, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Star Trek (maybe) and Wolverine , I may actually be spending some money. If I have it … :)