I don’t review books. I don’t have the temperament for it. But I’ve made a bit of a promise to myself this year to talk more about books I’ve read and am reading. I won’t mention everything I’ve read because I won’t keep up, but I’ll do my best.
On March 12/March 13 (Hawaii/Australia time) Justine Larbalestier and I are going to begin a discussion of women’s fiction, old school blockbusters. We begin with Jacqueline Susann’s VALLEY OF THE DOLLS.
But I do not like to neglect my first and most heartfelt love, sff. So today, fellow readers, I am going to go full squee on Martha Wells’ The Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy, which consists of 1: THE WIZARD HUNTERS 2: THE SHIPS OF AIR & 3: THE GATE OF GODS.
I really loved Wells’ Books of the Raksura, and I’m thrilled that Raksura novellas are forthcoming later this year. But I have to say that I loved Ile-Rien as much and in some ways possibly more (without in any way down-grading my love for the Raksura universe).
Let me talk about why.
I will do my best to not inflict too many spoilers on you but there will be some, and I guarantee there will be spoilers in the comments so fair warning.
1. FoIR is fantasy, with science, with a (spoiler, see note 1 below). I could also describe it as historical science fiction, with wizards. Wells pulls this trick off neatly, and with her usual insouciant flair. Her ability to toss off this kind of difficult juggling act always impresses me. Oh, yes, you may think you are reading a story set in a fantasy version of late 19th century/early 20th century Paris with different names but it is never that simplistic. The setting is shot through with alterations that fit perfectly and then meanwhile so many new vistas are about to open that I can’t even begin to tell you about them for fear of babbling incoherently about the world building things I love and adore in this series.
Listen, you know I am hugely picky about world building. I can love a book and series for its characters even if it has a fairly standard or somewhat blandly default world; that’s cool. But not that many writers REALLY impress me with their world building. Wells consistently does. She’s INCREDIBLE. The combination of memorable characters I want to read about with world building that wows me is the exquisite fictional meal I savor above all else.
2. Everything she does with the Syprians was evidently mainlined from and for all my reading kinks.
This includes a classic example of a marvelous fantasy society that does interesting things with gender roles.
Tangential rant begins:
Yet this series is NEVER DISCUSSED when it comes time to talk about fantasy that does interesting things with cultural gender roles. The trilogy was not a huge success; I know many haven’t read it (a terrible shame). But every time I see an online conversation or essay about X new novel/writer has *finally* done something interesting with gender/women’s experience/what-have-you in fantasy, as if these sorts of explorations weren’t being done before, I want to scream. Writers (mostly women) have been doing interesting work with gender roles in sff, with women’s work, with sexuality, with varied and diverse characterization, and every time we trot out a new (or old) work as if it is the Exceptional Girl among a raft of Default Man Focus (whether the work is written by a woman or a man), we erase the footprints of this important tradition.
Tangential rant over.
The other thing Wells does really well is to only tell you the cultural details you need to know at the time you need to know them. There is no infodump, there are no long detailed descriptions, and yet I came away with a strong sense of each of the societies encountered within the three books.
3. The main character, Tremaine Valiarde, begins the trilogy depressed. Not mildly depressed but deeply depressed:
It was nine o’clock at night and Tremaine was trying to find a way to kill herself that would bring in a verdict of natural causes in court, when someone banged on the door.
“Oh, damn.” A couple of books on poisons slid out of her lap as she struggled out of the overstuffed armchair. She managed to hold on to the second volume of Medical Jurisprudence, closing it over her fingers to mark her place. The search for the elusive untraceable poison was not going well; there were too many ways sorcerer-physicians could uncover such things and she didn’t want it to look as if she had been murdered. Intracranial hemorrhage seemed a good possibility, if a little difficult to arrange on one’s own. But I’m a Valiarde, I should be able to figure this out, she thought sourly. Dragging the blanket around her, she picked her way through the piles of books to the door. The library at Coldcourt was ideal for this, being large, eclectic and packed with every book, treatise, and monograph on murder and mayhem available to the civilized world.
IMO Wells does a brilliant job with Tremaine’s depression. It’s real. It affects how she reacts (or doesn’t react) to events and individuals as she is plunged into danger. She begins the trilogy with a bit of a flat affect that is entirely realistic. How she changes across the story is part of the story. That Tremaine is also deeply snarky and inappropriate at the wrong times just makes it all better. Also she can stare down almost anyone, and initially that is in large part due to the fact that she has a bit of a death wish and thus doesn’t care that she’s in danger.
4. Ilias. Okay, I am a sucker for physical men who are competent, level-headed, loyal, brave, well built, and amazingly good fighters. If they also are not assholes and are in fact reasonable, thoughtful people who almost never jump to conclusions, who listen to people and make mature decisions, then it’s gold. If they are also best friends with a Chosen One, and not one bit resentful at being the sidekick/bodyguard, and have a bit of an angsty back-story which they don’t belabor, it’s even better. ALL THE FEELS.
Wells excels at using the culture she has set up to refine and enhance the characterization. People behave within the societal expectations of their culture, or clash against them, or struggle to understand how to negotiate wildly different sets of cultural behaviors.
5. Many characters in this novel appealed greatly to me, large and small. Wells limns them efficiently, lets dialogue and action do most of her work, and consistently uses humor at the right moments. The ways people from different cultures misunderstand each other is believable, and the ways people of good faith cooperate even though they are misunderstanding each other is refreshing. I would say more but I’m trying to write this main review without spoilers. There are in fact many secondary characters and I had no trouble keeping them all straight.
6. THE WIZARD HUNTERS (book one) had a bit of a slow start for me. There was nothing *wrong* with it. Well is always solid. The world(s) and (catastrophic) situation is carefully set up and revealed. It was intriguing enough to interest me. However I got hooked at a very specific place, where the two main storylines meet, somewhere around page 90 in the edition I was reading. It wasn’t that I found it boring before that — by no means — but from that point on I couldn’t stop reading until I had read all three books. There was, alas, a bit of a delay because I had reserved book 2 from the library and it had to come from another branch. I read book 2 and 3 basically in one weekend. I INHALED them.
So IF book one has a bit of a slow start for you, stick with it. For other readers it won’t have a slow start at all. As always, YMMV.
7. I checked out the first two books from the library. However I have had to buy e-versions so I can re-read certain passages OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
There is much more I can say about the book but I will leave that for comments.
If you have read the Fall of Ile-Rien Trilogy, please join up in the comments.
I AM ALLOWING SPOILERS IN COMMENTS.
Note 1 (from above): THIS IS A TECHNICAL SPOILER EVEN THOUGH IT COMES EARLY IN BOOK ONE.
Multiverses. I love them.