Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Explosionist -- a book review

You know I really only mention books I loved, and I loved my latest Cybils read: The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson. I'll describe it as "an alternate history supernatural mystery" set in 1938 Scotland. With terrorists, dynamite, seances, and creepy government secrets. Intrigued? You don't know the half of it yet.

You don't see that much alternate history. I loved Jo Walton's Farthing, an English country-house murder mystery that just happened to take place in a world in which the English had made a truce with the Nazis and changed the course of history. In The Explosionist the turning point wasn't World War II but the battle of Waterloo in 1815 -- in which, instead of losing, Napoleon won, consolidated his power in Europe, and later conquered England as well. Scotland is now allied with the "Hanseatic States" -- the Scandinavian countries and Russia -- and maintains an uneasy autonomy through manufacture of the weapons with which Europe fights its wars. So, that's the backdrop, but the author never overwhelms with exposition; the history comes in just how I like it, in small, fascinating doses where relevant, and it never slows the story.

The fun of the alternate history is in the little references to how the world is different. Small things, historical personages turned upside-down. We learn in passing that Oscar Wilde is the famous Irish obstetrician who invented the incubator; Freud is a crackpot radio-show host nicknamed "Thanatos"! Alternative energy sources have been developed, because Scotland didn't have access to oil reserves -- "You'll find a few fuel cell enthusiasts in the Americas, of course, but most of their motorcars are powered by a filthy and wasteful method called internal combustion. All very well if you're American and sitting on top of huge petroleum reserves, but that kind of reckless comsumption doesn't suggest a very sensible attitude toward the future!" And how! There's also a chilling reference to the unnamed European chancellor having a "toothbrush mustache." And aside from the historical differences, there is one major way that the world of the book differs from our own: spirits commune freely with the living in all manner of ways, notably through radio waves and photography! Spiritualism is a respected scientific field, and when 15-year-old Sophie is warned in a seance that she is in danger, she has good reason to be afraid.

But. . . what nature of danger? The city has been rocked by a series of terrorist bombings, and she can't help but suspect the teacher she has a crush on might be involved. The medium who delivered the warning turns up murdered, spirits are sending Sophie messages, and as if that's not enough, a new and sinister threat emerges from a source much closer to home: her own aunt. To tell what that is would be to spoil a very creepy revelation, but I'll say this: it raises the question of what sacrifices a country can, in good conscience, demand of its citizens, and it takes the role of woman-as-selfless-helpmeet-to-male-power to the most devastating extreme.

Only as I try to convey in some simplicity what this book is "about" do I really realize how complex the story is, and I mean that in a good way -- while reading, all the threads are woven so well that you don't feel like you're in the midst of a labyrinth of plot. To be extremely simplistic, here's what the book is about: it's the story of Sophie and her Danish friend Mikael trying to unravel the mystery of who murdered the medium, and while they're at it, who's behind the bombings in Edinburgh, and what are the political stakes. With the help of dead people, and sort-of dead people. While the country ramps up for war. Whew.

Okay. I can't do it justice. Just read it. It's a great book-group book. Much to discuss about power and resistance, armed deterrance, government abuse of power in the shadow of war, and more. I liked the way the author showed Sophie's perspective on her own country slowly shifting as she begins to see familiar things through the eyes of her foreign friend, and questions them for the first time. Like here, in response to the "suicide machines" in the public library:

"I don't see why you're getting so worked up about it," Sophie said, uneasily conscious that it had taken Mikael's reaction to reveal what was troubling about the familiar practice. She suddenly wondered whether she might be blind to other things about Scotland as well.

I think about that a lot -- the way people are blinded by their indoctrination, whatever it might be, religious, political, whatever, and with the most recent discussion on my blog, this seemed particularly appropriate. It is terribly difficult to see beyond one's own indoctrination, particularly if one doesn't travel or meet a wide variety of people. It is through connection with people of different experience that we have a chance of broadening our own vision. But first, you have to open yourself up to it, and not cling to the things you've always blindly believed.

The author, Jenny Davidson, is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and hey, she blogs. I have only just this second discovered her blog, andI see that she has a post about "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures," accompanied by a photo of a vampire bat in action. Oh joy! It's like she wrote it just for me! I must go and read it. . .


Wyman Stewart said...
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J.M. said...

Ooo this book sounds sooo great! I cannot wait until winter break when I can dig in! How many books are in your to-read shelf on any given time? You're spoiling me with suggestions, Laini! :)

I wonder why there isn't more alternative history and magical realism done in this way...

P.S. Love the new Ladies. I've been telling all my friends how cool you are lately. In case your sparkling elf blog ears were itching.

...I'm also resisting commenting on the above...Wyman I will just say that no one is declaring open season on anyone and language like that, culled directly from the violence of hunting, is some of the reason why the us vs. them mentality is playing out. I want a future without otherness and that starts with thinking about what's best for a civic-minded people, not merely the expectation and division of politicians and where MY responsibilites lie. I have a list of things I will be doing in my community for betterment regardless of who enters the position of president.

Em said...

This one sounds so good! I'll have to somehow get my hands on a copy. :)

Jim Di Bartolo said...

Wyman, your consistency in speaking down to people is only rivaled by your lack of brevity.

And I'll assume that your statement to my wife regarding travel vs. imagination isn't suggesting that she's lacking in the latter, but if so, then you're clearly a newbie to her blog and thus somewhat forgiven.

And yes, no declarations of open season on Republicans indeed (as there's far too much of a mess for the next President to clean up).


Colleen said...

I loved this book also - it's so smart and so different. Jenny is working on a sequel which I'm sure will be awesome.

Did you read the sequels to Farthing? The second was awesome and I'm reading the third right now for review. Jo Walton amazes me.

Wyman Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tone almhjell said...

This book looks amazing! I'm getting it. I absolutely love this kind of fantasy.

I've been reading some really good stuff lately, too: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley. The latter I haven't finished yet, but it's perfect, perfect for snuggling up next to the fire place on evenings that are black rather than blue of tint. I just think it might snow soon.


lkmadigan said...

Laini, I think you did justice to the book very well! I wish I had read your review yesterday, since I was in a bookstore last night.

And wyman, thanks but (tapping watch) time to move on. Hijacking the comments thread is bad blog etiquette.

Stephanie Perkins said...

GAHHH! Why is this book not in my library yet? It sounds amazing!

Laini Taylor said...

Hi all -- Wyman, I'm going to remove the one above comment in which you make some offensive statements. Any others, if you like, you can remove yourself. Simply click the "trashcan" icon that appears below it. I do welcome comments, but really long comments in a post where they are not relevant risks derailing any discussion on the post at hand. And I have found your tone to be somewhat belittling, although I will accept that it was not intentional, as you have said very nice things too. Sincere good luck with the job search, to you and many others.

Laini Taylor said...

Tone, I have The Name of the Wind on my nightstand, but I will have to wait to read it until after my Cybils books. Really heard good things about it! Patrick Rothfuss's blog is in my blogroll -- he's really funny!

Kathy Ostman-Magnusen said...


Just wanted you to know that I featured Sunday Scribblings on my Artist Friend's Space today.


andalucy said...

"It is terribly difficult to see beyond one's own indoctrination, particularly if one doesn't travel or meet a wide variety of people."

That seems a little condescending. I hope that you do not assume that Mormons are mindless idiots. Based on comments you made in response to hwalk, it seems that you believe that anyone who could believe such things must be brainwashed and have no ability to think for themselves.

Laini Taylor said...

Hi, Calandria. Sorry if it sounded that way, and I can see how it could. I certainly think no such thing of Mormons. I do wonder how many people who commented in those gay marriage posts actually know gay people in any meaningful way, because it is very, very hard for me to understand how a good person can discriminate when it is not just an abstract, but an actually person/family in question. If those commenters DO know gay couples, and still seek to deny them rights, that is more troubling to me than if they just don't know any gay people.

Above, though it may have sounded like a slight against Mormons, it wasn't intended as such. I really mean that about all people, and all manner of indoctrination. I was raised Republican myself, and changed when I moved away, went to college, and was exposed to different ideas.

In any case, with the "gay marriage" question, it's certainly not all about Mormons. There are many groups seeking to discriminate against gays, and Mormons are only one. It just happened that everyone who commented pro-8 identified themselves as Mormon.

andalucy said...

Thanks for the reply comment, Laini. Btw, I quickly jumped over to our online library reserve and put The Explosionist on my list. I LOVE alternate history. In fact, I'm trying to write one. Thanks for the book review! You are also the one who clued me in to Eva Ibbotson, who I LOVE now. Thank you!

Sorry to be commenting on what may be a dead horse at this point, but I was in Chicago over the weekend and just saw the posts today.

You know, it is possible to be indoctrinated in leftist beliefs too. It is possible to indoctrinate one's self. :-) I'm kidding with you. It's just that you always mention "indoctrination" in the same breath with anything Republican or religious. :-)

There are Mormons on both sides of this issue, as you noted in the other post. I am Mormon. I do have gay friends and family members. Sure, it is a cut and dried issue for some members of our Church or for you maybe, but for others of us it is complicated. I've been thinking about this and how you seem unable to understand how a thinking, compassionate person could be opposed to gay marriage. Mormons believe that families are eternal. That's why Mormons are married in temples. We believe that our marriages can continue after death. Personally, I think that is a beautiful belief. We also believe that a homosexual union is NOT one that can be eternal. (You may ask why we believe this. How can we think that God can be so discriminatory? Maybe that's a question for another comment, post, email, what have you.) We believe that the homosexual act is spiritually damaging, and distances one from God. Again, you may disagree. I'm just trying to explain our beliefs. I think that most Mormons are idealistic and compassionate. They would favor prop 8 out of concern for those who would enter into a lifestyle that they would later regret after this life.

You may think our beliefs are all hogwash. Why should we impose our beliefs about marriage on you? The question could just as well be, why should you impose your ideas about marriage on us?

If you don't agree with prop 8, vote no. But don't tear down a people who are merely doing what they think best for the country. Isn't that what we're all trying to do? (I know you were not tearing Mormons down, Laini, but some of the commentors did.) I feel deep gratitude for a system of government that allows the opportunity for all to have a voice.

Elise Murphy said...

I've got it on my list, Laini, Thanks!

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Calandria, thanks for coming back and explaining more -- I really do not want to alienate you as a reader. I always appreciate your comments. And the thing is, I DO understand that Mormons and other Christians believe this thing they believe, and though I happen to think it is narrow and unloving, I in no way question [your collective] right to believe it. But you kind of fall into the same trap in your argument as the people who said I was "discriminating against discriminators" Above you say "we" are trying to impose our beliefs about marriage on "you." But we're NOT. If we tried to make you marry someone of your same sex, THEN we would be imposing our beliefs on you in the same way you are imposing them on the gay community. But you will be in no way affected by whether these loving same-sex couples are united in marriage or not. Can't you see it's not the same thing at all? One side is attempting to meddle with the rights of others; the other side is not meddling back, they're just saying, "don't meddle with my rights." It's really NOT the same thing.

As for the benevolent concern for the eternal souls of others, you may see that as kind and altruistic; I see it is condescending and self-righteous. We must all look to our own souls, no? Does Jesus teach to judge others? To discriminate against someone and tell them they'll thank you in the afterlife? As a non-religious person, that sounds to me like a gearing up for a heavenly "told you so," and very much like casting the first stone.

But this all completely ignores the fact that THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH BEING GAY. That basic principle that you are espousing, I have a HUGE problem with it. It flies in the face of science, which is increasingly proving that being gay is a natural physiological phenomenon, and not some aberrant perversion, not some "choice", and not, as one Mormon commenter said, a "mental illness". And. . . a LOT of people are gay. Is it your belief that every gay person in the world is a kind of mini-Job, and God has set out their entire life as a test of faith? That God is some trickster sitting up there saying, "I'm going to make you gay, and I'm going to watch you every day to make sure you never give in to your natural inclinations, but instead live a life of repression and pretense, denying your true nature." What kind of God would do something like that? What is your belief on this matter?

I just can't understand how you can think that the loving gay couples and parents I know are abominations in the eyes of God. They're just people in love, people with families.

And yeah, I absolutely concede your point that "liberal" can be a kind of indoctrination too. But I would assert that one of the hallmarks of liberalism is a reliance on truth and scientific method, and that by and large liberals are more willing to consider opposing points of view than conservatives. It's part of the definition of being "liberal" -- a greater openness to change, to new experience and new thought. I'm not saying there isn't blindness too -- that's just human, and we must all struggle against it.

But just watching these two campaigns is a great illustration of the differences between liberal and conservative tendencies. One is looking to the future with hope; the other is desperately trying to get lies to take hold about its opponent. The difference FLOORS me every day. The meanness, pettiness and outright LIES of the McCain campaign, not to mention the "he's not like us" murmur that underlies everything, the terrible devisiveness -- vs the spirit of hope and inclusiveness of the Obama campaign.

Oy, sorry, Calandria. Once I get started. Despite everything I say there, please believe I don't question your right to your religious views; I just wish the churches of this nation didn't feel the need to become political. It seems to me that religion should be a private thing for you and your community and your God, not a militant thing that teaches you to force others to be just like you. We have a rule of law in this country, but we are supposed to be free from religious law. No?

andalucy said...

I think everyone is religious in that everyone believes in something greater than themselves. For many who reject God, it becomes science, which is funny when you consider scientific "discoveries" of the past.

You ask, "Is it your belief that every gay person in the world is a kind of mini-Job, and God has set out their entire life as a test of faith? That God is some trickster sitting up there saying, "I'm going to make you gay, and I'm going to watch you every day to make sure you never give in to your natural inclinations, but instead live a life of repression and pretense, denying your true nature." What kind of God would do something like that? What is your belief on this matter?"

No. I don't see God as a trickster, though I did get a big kick out of your mini-Job scenario. :-) Too funny. Mormons do believe in a pre-existence where people were free to make choices in their pursuits, passions, pastimes. God has never forced anything on anyone. I don't know why some people are gay and I agree it's a pretty tall order to expect someone who has those feelings to deny them. I don't pretend to know what the answer is there. I don't believe that God sees loving gay couples as an "abomination." I do believe in a loving Heavenly Father who knows us better than we know ourselves.

You say, "As for the benevolent concern for the eternal souls of others, you may see that as kind and altruistic; I see it is condescending and self-righteous. We must all look to our own souls, no? Does Jesus teach to judge others?"

But the thing is, we all judge every day. We make constant judgements about moral behavior, though we may have different standards or criteria. I noticed that several commentors chose to judge hwalk personally and made demeaning comments about her. They didn't seem to feel much compunction about that. That was a bad example because obviously it was "narrow and unloving" of them. But do you get what I'm saying? In a society we have to have laws and we have to judge. We have to weigh competing rights.

Ok, notice I didn't say I would vote yes for Prop 8. I do not live in that state and frankly I haven't done the research to know if I would vote yes or not. Maybe not. I am a "live and let live" sort of gal. I actually have no problem with gay people getting married in city hall. My problem would be if ecclesiastical leaders were prosecuted for refusing to perform the marriages, or if my child were taught in school that gay marriage is a-okay. There are two examples where I would consider rights being trampled on. (Quick veerage--I was helping translate once at an ECFE class with hispanic moms where a public health nurse was speaking about teens and sex. The nurse said words to the effect that, "Some people try to discourage teens from having sex but that's basically wasted breath. Teens will have sex." Luckily, it wasn't my turn to translate because I wouldn't have known what to do. The other translator said something like, "It's important to talk with your teens about sex," knowing that most of the moms there were conservative Catholics and would have been outraged at the nurse's statement and probably wouldn't have listened to another word she said. I bring this up because I've seen first hand that health class can be really controversial.)

Laini, I won't stop reading. You are too good a writer and I have learned too much from you to give you up, even if it gets me sent to Hell. :-P

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Calandria! Sorry for the delay in responding -- I do want to reply. Thanks for being so reasoned and respectful in your comments. I really try to be, too, and I know sometimes I may slip and show frustration or condescension, but hopefully not towards you.

You make good points above, and I certainly concede that people judge, that society must have standards and laws -- I just disagree that religious organizations should have undue influence over what those are. I hope that as a society we are growing broader in our definitions of freedom and acceptance, moving further and further away from a past which includes slavery and subjugation of women, as well as discrimination and violence against gays. It feels to me like religious groups want to slow that progress down and keep us beholden to antiquated notions of "morality." If we abided by the Bible in all things, this would not be a very free society. But it doesn't sound like you would disagree with me on that, so I will sign off with respect,

andalucy said...

Thanks, Laini. I'm so glad you blog about these issues. You defend your position very well and it makes me examine my positions as well as the ideas and beliefs behind them more closely. I can't speak for all Mormons, but this Mormon in no way wants to discriminate against gays or relegate them to the fringe of society. Like I said, I do have a family member who is gay and friends, too. I want them to have the rights I have.

"It feels to me like religious groups want to slow that progress down and keep us beholden to antiquated notions of "morality." If we abided by the Bible in all things, this would not be a very free society."

Oh my gosh, yes. I totally agree with this. Yikes! But I don't think any of my friends nor I belong to such a religious group. :-)

While I have enjoyed this discussion, I feel guilt that it may have taken time away from your writing, and I want more Laini Taylor books! So I'll keep quiet for awhile. Ciao, Girl.