Saturday, January 08, 2005


El Iskandryia and Veniss

I recently bought and read Veniss Underground, by Jeff Vandermeer, and Pashazade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood. I started the former with a few days remaining in 2004; I'm not sure whether I finished it in 2004 or 2005. The latter is the first book I both started and finished in 2005.

Since I intend to write at least a little about each novel I read in 2005, and had no such resolution in 2004, I'll start this post with Pashazade to make sure I get to it. In the first chapter, we meet Felix, Chief of Detectives of El Iskandryia, at a murder scene. He drinks heavily, smokes, is overweight, and was thrown out of the LA police. I found him the most likeable character in the book.

In the second, we go back a few days and meet the young man who turns out to be the central character, Raf. He has an old fox living inside his head. Why? Well, that's just one of the puzzles about Raf, and he doesn't have the answers to some of them. The next few chapters move us around with respect to date and to main character, until the cast is assembled.

One of the most impressive things about Pashazade is that it's very well thought-out as the first part of a trilogy. It's a murder mystery, resolved within this volume. And it's about the mystery of Raf, much of which remains at the end of this volume. Thus, by the end, there's a well-judged mix of closure and open questions.

Since the setting is important, and unusual in the sf with which I'm familiar, let's read a little about the free Mediterranean port city of El Iskandryia.

The free city was not just built on the rubble of its own history, it used that rubble in the rebuilding. Greek columns reshaped by Roman artisans now formed part of mosque doorways, having been ripped from an earlier Byzantine church. So, too, the cultures had mixed. Until the rich mix became its own culture.
The quoted paragraph illustrates one of the main things that prevented me liking Pashazade as much as I wanted to. The prose seems to be trying to establish El Iskandryia as a fascinating, exotic place, but doesn't succeed in making it so for me. The last couple of sentences quoted. Point to the problem. Short sentences may establish a laconic style suitable for a murder mystery, and make for easy reading, but they don't help to establish the sense of place for which Grimwood sometimes seems to be striving.

Describing the other main ways in which P didn't work for me involves spoilers, so skip over this paragraph if you want to avoid them. Grimwood kills off one of the best supporting characters about halfway through. You can probably guess who it is if you re-read the above, and I tell you that it's not the fox. Then there's the matter of Raf's plucky little neice, whose computer wizardry is introduced rather too late in the novel and rather too convieniently for its plot to be convincing.

This is probably sounding more negative than I intend it to be. I did enjoy Pashazade and will probably pick up Effendi, the second novel in the trilogy, at some point. I've heard a couple of opinions that Effendi is the best of the three books, and I am interested in finding out more about Raf.

I have two main reactions to Veniss Underground. One, Jeff Vandermeer writes very well. Two, Veniss is less real to me than is Ambergris, in which Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen is set. I'll revisit the comparison between the two cities and worlds of Veniss and Ambergris when I've read the definitive version of City of Saints and Madmen (I have an earlier version, comprising four stories). You can make a partial comparison without leaving the comfort of your browser. Among the Vanderstuff online are "Dradin, in Love" and "Quin's Shanghai Circus," the first parts respectively of City of Saints and Madmen and Veniss Underground.

That's enough writing for now. Time to read something.


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