Saturday, November 13, 2010

It All Comes Back to St. Paul's

I've taken a while to post about Connie Willis's two-volume series, Blackout and All Clear, because I'm so full of thoughts on the books, but I can say very little about books' ideas without giving away much of the plot. Suffice it to say, I absolutely love the duo. The past few days I've spent in a state of inspiration and mourning: the conclusion filled me with hope, and yet I'm sorry I am no longer reading it. I actually reread the last couple of pages of the book multiple times because they were so lovely.

Set in the Oxford time-traveling universe, this series follows three historians to England during the Blitz. Daily life in London and Bletchley Park, the evacuation at Dunkirk, and service in an ambulance corps felt particularly realistic. Willis mentions the time she spent interviewing a group of women in England who served in different capacities during World War II, and if I were one of them, I'd be pleased to the point of tears that these books were inspired by their lives. I've read and watched many stories set in England, Europe, and America during WWII, but this is the one that best conveys that extraordinary manner in which ALL of England went to war, and every man, woman, and child did their bit.

Again Willis touches on chaos theory and divine providence, intertwining historical fact, science fiction, and poetry. The relationships amongst the characters are deep and heart-wrenching. The conclusion is close to perfect.

I strongly suggest reading Doomsday Book prior to this series, as it is helpful to already know the characters of Mr. Dunworthy and Colin Templar when Blackout begins, and it's even more important that you read Willis's short story Fire Watch beforehand. There's a reference or two to To Say Nothing of the Dog as well, but it's not essential to have read that one already (although it's enjoyable to see a repetition of the themes from TSNofD, albeit with far more gravity).

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth, the second installment in his steampunk trilogy, was just as much fun as Leviathan. Like the first volume, the highlights are the detailed drawings of the fascinating contraptions and beasties. The plot is engrossing, the locations exotic. As with the first volume, I appreciated that the book is a well-rounded story in its own right instead of simply being an episode in a series with a cliffhanger ending. Certainly, there is more story to tell, and I look forward to reading it, but this chapter of the story came together in the end in a satisfying manner.

That said, I have decided that characters aren't Westerfeld's strong point. Although the characters in this story are interesting and elicit an emotional reaction from the reader, the only one with much complexity is Deryn/Dylan, the British girl disguised as a midshipman. Periodically, Deryn's slang is so reminiscent of a cocky, young midshipman from a Hornblower novel that I'd forget she was a teenage girl. Her outer confidence and leadership is nicely contrasted with her inner turmoil and secrets. I wish Westerfeld was able to provide a bit more depth to Alek, the Austrian prince on the run. Perhaps he will succeed in doing so in volume three.

My only other criticism is that for some inexplicable reason, they commissioned someone other than Keith Thompson (who did the brilliant interior illustrations, especially the map of Europe in Leviathan) to create the cover art. The cover art for Leviathan was perfect--a mass of interlocking gears. Who approved this cheesy photo of an aviator on Behemoth's cover? Boo.