Some great reviews of this around -- see, e.g., Ceridwen's
-- both of which kind of nail my experience. Eh!'s is different, but smart; Greg's and Joel's are probably where I ended up -- not interested enough to have too much to say. (I generated most of the below after just a hundred pages or so.) Karen--yay!--had the most fun with it. I'll say this: I found it more generally amiable than I expected... but it was still long, and full of the kinds of stuff I didn't dig. Ah well. Cool book group discussions, though.
IN PROCESS, thoughts v.1:
I may never get a real "review" of this book, as I'm running headfirst into the walls of my taste. Ceridwen elsewhere pointed out her enjoyment but noted it was something of an "overbaked fantasy," stuffed with the scent of "anise and cinnamon" -- nice. I found myself grumbling about the endless baroque back-storying, but that's like complaining about gunfights in a Western, isn't it? It's not really the cup of tea's fault that I'm a coffee-drinker.
But I haven't really the experience or the enthusiasm to try to review this as a single work (and the most boring thing in the world would be for me to use the limits of my taste to bash the novel)--I'd rather try to tease out some of the generic tics and tactics that I see, and try to untangle what about them brings pleasure. Open rambling:
--Fantasy vs. Science Fiction (part one>)
: CAUTION -- Wild Overstatement Forthcoming. I was struck here, as I have been in the past (say, when trying to wade through volume 2 of LotR), how much nostalgia is coin of the realm. Not just in the return to tropes of feudal society, a fetishized love of the baroque hierarchies of bloodline and class systems, or the reliance on tropes of wizardry, swordplay, medieval ordnance, etc.... even in the constant expository sidebars--characters constantly stopping to tell one another, or to think to themselves in long stretches. (I could bash this -- but it can be done well, and Downum's repetitions of these conventions seem to me, as an outsider, well-crafted.) Here's step one toward W.O., and it's a pretty conventional interpretation: Fantasy novels romanticize the past. But note the definite article there--"the" Past, as a concept, an Idea/l--which is separated from, even utterly disavowing, history. Sure, characters go on and on about who did what in which battle, or how so and so came from so and so's bloodline, but such historicizing is not about causes, or the way different factors alter historical outcomes. Instead, it's all destiny, Quest, fate, blood. There is a fixity to what happened, and thus--I'd argue--to what will happen. I'm being vague, so let me trace a counterpoint.
Science fiction, on the other hand and for another w.o., romanticizes the future, sure, but it does so to reveal and engage an historical consciousness. (H/t to Frederic Jameson...) Whatever future is outlined, the genre conventions are to untangle and examine the conditions
which led to this new future--changes in tech, or species interactions, or.... you name it--the future is extrapolated extravagantly to reveal how such conditions (environment, biology, commerce, technology) alter culture and society.
In fantasy, the tropes of Identity, Family, Character are echoed in what happens. But in science fiction, History has the upperhand, and changes/alters identities, families, character.
--Fantasy vs. Science Fiction (part two?)
-- wait just a second, mister
. The kind of fantasy we see here with Downum -- or any of the stuff that avoids the masturbatory Conanism of one strand of fantasy -- is often marked/marketed as feminine, while sci-fi is all boy's toys. Where's gender go here? Isn't your privileging of a certain vision of History (versus a certain disparaged attention to the Past) founded on a bedrock of culturally-normed gender presumptions? Or, put in English, isn't this a bit of intellectualizing which (yet again) diminishes an ostensibly-feminized genre while puffing up an (ostensibly-)"rational" genre?
Could we turn this around? The fantasy world laid out in Downum doesn't merely idealize a Past; it engages centrally with how social systems--families, genders, sexuality--privilege and marginalize people, how such systems
shape/determine the historical possibilities. (Ceridwen's reading of race in fantasy, in her review of Perdido Street Station
, unpacked an analogous smart reading of what fantasy can do well.) It isn't that the Past is idealized; it's that the genre is very smart at engaging how deterministic social systems actually can be. This may be a far more nuanced form for social critique than the (pie-in-the-)sci-fi idealized future systems could be. (Put another way, Asimov's algorithmic psychohistory is the ahistorical side of this coin--all concept, no concrete human/social systems at all....)