Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Review: The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Review: The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal

a review by Rich Horton

Mary Robinette Kowal's new novel is The Spare Man, and as the title hints, it's sort of "Thin Man in Space" book. And in the spirit of that book (and perhaps even more, the Thin Man movies (the first of which was loosely based on the novel -- the sequels were new stories)) this novel is a lot of fun. Also, there's a lot of drinking, including cocktail recipes at the beginning of each chapter. I will testify that the cocktail recipes are by themselves worth your time -- they include a great many classic cocktails, a number of nonalcoholic cocktails, and a few invented by the author. Among those included are three of my very favorite cocktails, all gin based: the Aviation, the Last Word, and the Corpse Reviver #2. On those grounds alone, I approve of this book!

Tesla Crane and her husband Shalmaneser Steward are taking their honeymoon on an interplanetary cruise liner to Mars. Tesla is a brilliant engineer/inventor, as was her father, so she's very rich. Shal is a former private investigator, now retired. They have a dog, Gimlet. So far, so Nick and Nora! There are, of course, some differences, besides the whole "in the future, traveling to Mars" stuff. Tesla had a major accident testing a new PAMU system, and she still has significant physical challenges. And mental challenges -- she has PTSD, fairly easily triggered, and carries a load of guilt about the others (her employees) who died in the accident. And Gimlet is her service dog. (The cruise liner, by the way, is named the Lindgren, which I suspect is a nod to Kjell Lindgren, an astronaut and SF fan who has twice been a Special Guest of a Worldcon, in Spokane and in Helsinki. For Sasquan (in Spokane) he videoconferenced in to present the Best Novel Hugo from the International Space Station. (I was in the audience and in fact I also received a Hugo at that con!))

Tesla and Shal are just getting started on their honeymoon when the first murder happens -- and Shal, trying to help, is found with the victim, bleeding out, in his arms. As a result, he is arrested, and Tesla is restricted from seeing him, and generally obstructed in a number of ways. Luckily, she has lots of money, and a super high-powered lawyer (who is, however, several light minutes away and getting farther!)

The story follows a large cast of suspects, of varying degrees of reader sympathy: the victim's husband, a shady seeming doctor, a man with his robotics loving trans child, a magician performing for the cruise line, a couple who seem nice but maybe -- just maybe -- are having marital troubles, etc. etc. In the time-honored tradition of mysteries, there are a couple further mysterious deaths, including the one extra person ("spare man") who seems to be missing but can't be identified. 

Tesla and Shal, sometimes against their better instincts, not to mention their lawyer's advice, do what they can to investigate the crime(s). In this they are helped sometimes by a long-suffering but professional security person, and impeded by a seemingly moronic security chief and by his only too obedient sidekick. We get a neat tour of the Lindgren, with its three gravity levels (Earth, Mars, Luna), and its typical variety of cruise entertainments, not to mention of course the bars with the bartenders of varying competence. And in the end the criminal is revealed -- as often, perhaps this is a bit of an anti-climax, and a bit over-complicated as to motive and means. But that's not the point of these novels.

It's a fun read, really. Not exactly as light-hearted as the Thin Man movies -- the novel seriously treats subjects like disability, and scientific aspects like Tesla's job and the (quite crazy) spaceship design. The characters are a varied and interesting bunch, if most of them (not surprisingly) are only lightly sketched. Tesla and Shal are a sweet and smart couple, Gimlet is adorable, Tesla's lawyer Fantine is a scream, and the drinks list is sublime. This is a really nice futuristic entertainment.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Review: The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

Review: The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

by Rich Horton

The Terraformers is an endlessly fascinating, deeply thoughtful, provocative hard SF novel set in the deep future, some 60,000 years from now. It interrogates or speculates on intelligence, governance, animal rights (and the definition of animal!), public transit, and of course the process of terraforming. It's also a sometimes frustrating novel, with a rather broken-backed plot (partly for good reasons), with plenty of built-in assumptions that invite argument, and with an ending that approaches deus ex machina. So what did I think over all? Gosh -- you should read it, is what I think! It's never less than interesting, and if you can't argue with an SF novel's assumptions, then what are you reading SF for, I wonder?

It opens on the planet Sask-E, as Destry, a ranger for the Environmental Rescue Team (ERT) investigates a fire in the boreal forest that she is trying to maintain. This fire, we learn, has been set by a Homo Sapiens, who is roasting a captured animal while squatting on what should still be virgin and developing forest. Bad enough -- but eating an animal? Truly awful! Destry ejects him, and then finds herself in trouble with her boss, Ronnie, an executive with the corporation, Verdance, that is developing the planet. Their goal is to have a (quasi-)pristine Pleistocene planet, for which Homo Sapiens will pay plenty to live in. And the interloper that Destry sent off is a son of one of their major investors. 

There's a lot to unpack there. We are in the year 59,006, relative to when I don't know for sure, though I suspect it's relative to the Farm Revolution and the establishment of the "Great Bargain" -- when Homo Sapiens on an ecologically ruined Earth struck a bargain with animals they had, in some sense, "uplifted". Since that time Earth-based intelligences -- "people" is the appropriate term -- are all enhanced by what I take to be electronic means, enhanced in intelligence (define it how you may) and in longevity (with some other capabilities too.) People live centuries. People include Homo Sapiens, Homo Diversus (the dominant strain, I gather -- physically modified in various ways, sometimes including wings), and Homo Archaea (a Neanderthal variety), and also various animals: cats, cows, moose, many more; and also machine intelligences -- and these categories can mix. Destry herself has a companion, a flying moose named Whistle, who has a low "In Ass" rating -- because his vocabulary is small. As such he is technically a "Mount", but Destry takes care to treat him as another person. Soon we learn that Verdance owns the whole planet, and ALSO owns all the people, whom they have decanted themselves. (Lots of questions there about slavery, and the nature and measurement of intelligence, and also manipulation of such.)

Things take a turn when Destry discovers that a volcano on Sask-E, Spider, shelters a large colony of Homo Archaea -- the original workers for Verdance, who could breath the first atmosphere but have trouble with the higher oxygen content now present. They were supposed to die off when the atmosphere shifted -- instead, they retreated into the volcano, and have survived for a millennium. Destry and Whistle and other ERT friends get involved in a sort of rebellion, when the people of Spider resist Verdance's diversion of a river which had supplied the Spider City the water they need -- and Destry and company help them resist, and eventually negotiate a treaty, guaranteeing Spider's independence in exchange for a couple of months of labor a year from each resident.

Then the action jumps a few hundred years. We follow a team of ERT workers, led by a Spider City resident named Sulfur, plus the now deceased Destry's successor, a man named Mischa, as they try to set up an environmentally friendly mass transit system between all the new or planned cities. Much of this concerns Ronnie's obsession with what she knows will be obsolescent trains; and the distrust between Sulfur and Mischa, the latter who, like Destry, works for Verdance. Also involved is Cylindra, a former Verdance employee now leading the efforts of another corporation, Emerald, which has bought a great deal of real estate on Sask-E. Somewhat fortuitously, they are able to play off Cylindra's and Ronnie's mutual antagonism to drive through a better transit system, using newly decanted intelligent flying trains.

The third section jumps forward another few hundred years. Sask-E is largely populated by corporate-owned cities, with Emerald the dominant force. Spider City is still independent. And the intelligent trains are a significant force. The primary viewpoint character is Scrubjay, the first train, nurtured by Sulfur and Mischa. Scrubjay finds a sort of squatter on their train one day -- a cat and a journalist, left homeless by rapacious housing policies, plus a lot of pro-Homo Sapiens racism -- as the planet was designed to mimic the Pleistocene in which H. Sapiens evolved, some people want it to be an H. Sapiens-only planet. These tensions soon come to a head in Emerald City, as that corporation, and its maximally evil (she'd be twirling a mustache if she had one) leader, Cylindra, are evicting non-H. Sapiens, violently resisting protests (to the point of space laser attacks on city blocks) and doing countless other evil things. The intelligent trains get involved in the humanitarian job of rescuing refugees, and they realize that the only way to counter Emerald's scheming is to have Sask-E declared a public planet, which will only work if they can prove that there are non-corporate, legal, governing bodies ... Meanwhile, Scrubjay's new friend, the journalist cat named Moose (in honor, apparently, of Whistle) is investigating, gathering evidence of the misdeeds of Emerald ...

I've left a lot out, and that's OK -- it will be a delight for you to read about all those other fun things. Annalee Newitz is one of those writers with a particularly high ratio of ideas to pages. This book is simply overflowing with cool speculation, interesting political discussion, wild and implausible but fun concepts, and neat characters. As I suggested above, though, it's not perfect. The tripartite structure, with major characters completely abandoned at each new section, makes sense, but still is at some level dissatisfying. The one idea that seems underexplored is longevity -- these characters, living centuries or millennia, don't give off any sense of being that old. The book is an argument for governments, at one level -- and that's a good argument to make, but in setting up corporations as unredeemably evil it overplays its hand. (The corporate villains, especially Cylindra, are just too over the top, and in fact much of the nasty stuff they get up to is stuff we see right now -- from governments.) The resolution depends on a lot of coincidence, a lot of luck, and a lot of utter stupidity on the part of the bad people. There are ethical questions left unaddressed (the "uplifted" animals don't seem to have been asked permission, for one thing), and people sure seem to take a long time to realize that almost everyone on Sask-E is enslaved. (I mean, they know this, and complain some times, but they never (until, maybe, right at the end) seem to think "Well, the basic problem here is that people are literally owned, so maybe that is what should stop FIRST.") Some of the science is awfully rubbery, but that's been par for the course for "hard" science fiction (as I'd call this) forever.

I seem to be complaining a lot, but really these are, if not nits, elements that are well worth putting up for in exchange for the cool ideas, the intriguing plot and characters, and the ethical questions that ARE raised, and are very much worth thinking about. I highly recommend this novel, zits and all.

One more minor note -- I "read" this by listening to it. The narrator is Emily Lawrence, and she does a fine job -- but -- (I keep having buts!) -- but, the producers try something unusual. A lot of the characters -- the AIs, mainly -- emit sound effects. Newitz' prose describes these well enough, but the audiobook attempts to reproduce the sound effects, and I found that extremely distracting. (And sometimes annoying, as when the text calls for something like "lively music" and the sound effects don't really seem to fit -- made me think of the subtitles on TV shows like Stranger Things, which became almost a joke when they described the background music and stuff.) Some of the characters' voices were (it seemed to me) electronically processed -- and this too is something I found bothersome. That all may well be just me, though -- other people might find it really cool. (And the presentation of the trains' singing, towards the end, was really pretty effective, I will say.) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Resurrected Review: Night Lamp, by Jack Vance

I haven't "resurrected" one of my ancient reviews in a while, so I thought I might do that again. This is from very early in my reviewing career, about a novel from very late in the great Jack Vance's career.

Originally posted: 03 Jan 1997

Night Lamp, by Jack Vance

Tor, 1996, $23.95 US

ISBN: 0312856857

a review by Rich Horton

Night Lamp is Jack Vance's latest novel. Unlike his most recent work (The Chronicles of Cadwal), it appears to be a stand-alone. By and large it will be satisfying to Vance fans: it is Science Fiction in Vance's most familiar style, elegantly written, full of ironic bits, often downright funny, portraying at least three complex social structures based on intricate manners. It also shares the weaknesses of much of Vance's work: it is discursive, the Science content is notional at best (for instance, his spaceships seem basically to be automobiles that can fly in space and travel at many multiples of the speed of light without relativistic effects), and it seemed short one rewrite.

The story is that of Jaro Fath, a young boy who is found, on the remote planet of Camberwell, by Hilyer and Anthea Fath, while in the process of being beaten nearly to death by local thugs. The Faths rescue Jaro, and in the process of restoring him to health it is necessary that his memory of the first six years of his life be erased. Hilyer and Anthea take Jaro back to their home world of Gallingale, where they are somewhat unconventional (by Gallingale standards) university professors, and they raise Jaro as their son.

Jaro grows up intelligent and strong, but his life is complicated by several factors. He hears voices in his head which seem to be associated with his early life. His ambition to become a spaceman and seek out the mysteries of the lost six years of his life is thwarted as much as possible by the Faths, who fear that he will come to grief tracing his apparently violent history. And he inherits from the Faths disdain for the social system of Gallingale, which is based on the concept of "striving" up social "ledges", trying to reach clubs of higher and higher status. This disdain leads to conflict with his fellow students, and naturally seems to increase his interest in a classmate (Skirlet Hutsenreiter, a wonderful name!) who is hereditarily a Clam Muffin: that is, a member of one of the highest ranked clubs.

As Jaro comes to maturity, he slowly learns more and more about his past, and of course is eventually free to track down the mystery of his birth and how he came to be alone on Camberwell. However, as I said, the plot is discursive, and the resolutions seem too often to be the result of coincidence. Often great difficulties melt out of Jaro's way. Furthermore, the climaxes of the book (there are a few) seem muffled: and the final climax is not that of the original plot problem but of one introduced only a few tens of pages prior to the end. That said, the book is interesting to read throughout, and Jaro's story is romantic and is resolved more or less satisfactorily.

The prose style is a true joy: Vance is his inimitable self. His writing has a reputation for ornateness, but it seems to me that his sentences are in fact simple, well constructed, and often relatively short. The ornateness comes from the wonderful names (of characters, of stars and planets, of the clubs on Gallingale), and from the elegance and formality of the writing, including the dialect. Vance's work has usually, it seems to me, had an ironic edge: this book has full measure of irony, and is also often much more forthrightly funny than I remember Vance being in earlier novels (such as Emphyrio, which I reread just a few weeks ago).

There are a few rough spots: on occasion, information is imparted twice in succession, as if Vance wrote two sections separately, forgot that he had already said something, so repeated it, and didn't catch it on a rewrite. Furthermore, I have a major gripe with the blurb on the jacket flaps. Not only does it get the name of a major character completely wrong (there must have been a very late change: there is no similarity between the name in the book and that given on the jacket); but it also gives away a shocking and surprising plot turn from the middle of the book. Fortunately, as is my usual policy, I didn't read the jacket flaps until after I finished the book. (A certain once famous Amazon reviewer, I might note, clearly did her review from the jacket copy and not the book, as I had often suspected, back then!)

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Review: Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

Review: Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki

by Rich Horton

Ryka Aoki's Light From Uncommon Stars won the 2021 Otherwise Award for Best Novel (in a tie with Sorrowland, by Rivers Solomon.) It was also a 2022 Hugo Award nominee, and garnered several other spots on award shortlists. I have just "read" it, in the audiobook version, narrated very nicely by Cindy Kay.

The central character in the novel is Katrina Nguyen, a teenaged trans girl in California who has run away from home -- from an abusive father and a not very supportive (and also abused) mother -- as the book opens. She takes only a few things with her, most especially her violin, for playing violin is her one joy (and it is predictably not supported by her father, who resents everything that suggests she's not the boy he had thought she was.) She fetches up in Monterey Park, CA (which in a horrifying coincidence was the site of a mass shooting just as I started reading the book -- in another horrifying coincidence, major characters in the novel share a surname with the shooter in that incident.) Katrina stays with a boy who had previously been nice to her, but this is terribly unsatisfying -- the boy is not very welcoming, and a lot less nice than she had thought. She makes money by doing sex work for people who are excited by a trans girl -- though they hardly accepting of her. Things are getting worse when she encounters Shizuka Satomi, a world famous violin teacher, while playing to herself in a park. Shockingly, Shizuka decides to take this almost wholly untrained player on as a student -- she hears something special even when Katrina is playing simple training exercises. Katrina moves into Shizuka's house, and into the care of Shizuka's housekeeper Astrid.

This would be absurd except for what we know about Shizuka (the novel follows four different major points of view.) She is called the Queen of Hell -- her previous six students all became world famous violinists, and then died in suspicious fashion. We learn that she sold her soul in exchange for her violin prowess -- and then cut a deal -- if she can train seven more violinists to be masters, then deliver their souls to hell, she will save her own soul, and (perhaps more importantly to her) free her music, which has mysteriously been erased from the world.

Shizuka makes another, very different, connection -- she meets the proprietor of a donut shop, Starrgate. Lan Tran seems a normal (if very attractive) Asian-American woman, with five children, all of whom work hard at the shop. But Lan too has a secret -- she and her family are aliens, escaping from a war, and from the terrible Endplague. They are trying to build an actual stargate in the big donut that advertises their shop, ostensibly to attract tourists to visit Earth when a gamma ray burster arrives in a few hundred years. All of Lan's donuts are replicated from original versions the previous owners cooked, so that her family can concentrate on the stargate. But her Aunt Floresta, and her son Edwin, are intrigued by the prospect of actual cooking ...

All this is a rather wild combination of not very plausible science fiction, fairly standard fantasy, and the all too plausible (and very well depicted) life of an Asian trans girl in an Asian community in the Los Angeles suburbs. (And I haven't even mentioned Lucia Matia, the violin repairer who wants to become a true master luthier (like the family her name is an anagram for ...)) It's tremendously involving  and readable, as Katrina absorbs Shizuka's teaching -- and Shizuka tolerates her desire to play gaming music for You Tube; while Shizuka and Lan become closer and closer, and even learn to accept the other's dark secrets. The demon who controls Shizuka's contract has other ideas, of course, when Shizuka seems to get too invested in Katrina as a person instead of as a soul to be delivered to hell. Lan, too, has family issues ... 

The novel builds to a truly powerful and moving conclusion -- I was brought to tears. (There are multiple, almost Lord of the Rings movie-like codas, that while arguably important to the reader, also drain some energy from the conclusion.) The depiction of Katrina's life and personhood, and her struggles, is wholly believable (to this white cis-male reader) and quite wrenching. Details like Lucia's secrets of violin making are fascinating (even as I'm not sure those sections of the novel were entirely necessary.) Even the donut shop details convinced me -- I have spent a lot of time in the LA area on business, and I make it a point to visit small family-owned donut shops, and I think the Southern California donut scene is awesome. 

Does it seem like there's a but coming? Well, there is. The novel is moving as I said, and often quite effective. The central theme, about transgender identity and struggles, is really well delivered. But there are significant flaws -- they don't by any means ruin the book -- it's still a joy to read, and the good parts do outweigh the flaws. Still -- it is very much a YA novel, with the trope of the mistreated teenager who becomes the most awesome in the world at her chosen art. The characterization is inconsistent -- Katrina is spot on, I think, and Lan and Lucia are well enough done. Shizuka is kind of a mess though -- the evil Queen of Hell when it suits the novel, but otherwise evenhanded and totally perfect as a teacher and guardian. Other characters are either cliches or ciphers. The whole SF part is pretty ridiculous, and my willing suspension of disbelief could not hold up. And there are a couple of structural or plot missteps, most damagingly a have your cake and eat it too bit at the end when a major character is shown making a tremendous sacrifice which is later revealed as a) unnecessary, and b) as something the character KNEW wasn't really going to be a sacrifice at all. (This last was wholly unneeded, and I think the book's editor should have intervened. A tiny change, and that could have been fixed.)

I don't want to complain too much. Yes, there were many moments that I said to myself "Now, wait a minute!" But I never stopped being fascinated, and I really was wholly invested in the climax, and, as I said, brought to tears. This is a good book, very much worth reading. If it's not perfect -- well, to quote a character in famous gender-fluid scene from another medium, "Nobody's perfect."

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Old Bestseller Review: Dangerous Ages, by Rose Macaulay

Old Bestseller Review: Dangerous Ages, by Rose Macaulay

a review by Rich Horton

Rose Macaulay (full name Emilie Rose Macaulay) was born in 1881. She was educated at Oxford, and turned to writing after leaving school. She wrote perhaps 20 novels, three volumes of poetry, and a good deal of nonfiction, including several memoirs. Her most famous novel by far was her last, The Towers of Trebizond. She was a Christian, of the Anglo-Catholic strain, and always struggled to reconcile her attraction to mystical Christianity with her other beliefs, and especially with her long term relationship with Gerald O'Donovan, a former Jesuit priest -- the two never married. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1957, not long before her death at the age of 77. Of her novels, The Towers of Trebizond has remained popular since its publication, but her other novels have not gotten as much attention, though more recently some of them have been reprinted, some by Virago, others (including Dangerous Ages) by the British Library. What Not, from 1918, is science fiction, and I will be reading it soon! (My copy of Dangerous Ages was a lucky find at an estate sale, a possible US first, from Boni and Liveright, no dust jacket but otherwise in probably Very Good- condition.)

Dangerous Ages appeared as Rose Macaulay turned 40. It was also just after the Great War, a time of great transition in England (and of course in all the warring countries) -- driven in part by a certain despair at the collapse of the pre-War balance of power, and relative peace, in part by mourning over lost lives, in part by an apparent feeling (shown most prominently perhaps in The Waste Land) of a failure of "civilization". This novel opens on the 43rd birthday of Neville Blendish. Neville is the wife of Rodney Blendish, a Labour politician. She is deciding to return to the medical studies she abandoned upon marriage. Now her two children, Kay and Gerda*, have grown to adulthood, so she feels she has time again, and she feels the need for an independent role now that her primary role as the children's mother is past. She doesn't want to become like her mother, Emily, who is in this novel always called Mrs. Hilary. Mrs. Hilary never did feel independent of her husband -- and when he died young she began to diminish. Neville wants to avoid a fate like her mother's -- though Mrs. Hilary is rather a stupid person, while Neville is quite intelligent -- perhaps that will be enough for her.

At this point I confess I thought the story was to be entirely about Neville, but instead it shifts and keeps shifting. It is instead a story about several generations of women in the Hilary/Blendish family: Mrs. Hilary; her mother-in-law, only called Grandmama; her daughters Neville, Nan, and Pamela; her daughter-in-law Rosalind; and her granddaughter Gerda. (There is another daughter-in-law, the wife of Mrs. Hilary's eldest son Jim, but she doesn't come into the story.) The book takes place over about a year, and we see all these women, interacting with each other, with the men in their lives (or the woman in her life in the case of practical Pamela, who is clearly a Lesbian, though, as with much fiction of this era, this is never openly acknowledged.) The novel is not a very plotty novel, though much of the action is driven by Nan's decision to finally marry her long-time lover Barry Briscoe, only to have him fall in love with Gerda after he misinterprets Nan's brief avoidance of him to make sure she's made up her mind as a rejection. 

The women are all beautifully and honestly depicted. Mrs. Hilary is, as noted, rather stupid, and also rather prejudiced. She hates modern novels but also hates to have it known she doesn't read much. She hates psycho-analysis but then is driven to take it up when she realizes she's depressed. And she has little idea how to treat her children, though she fairly sincerely loves them. Grandmama, a fairly minor character, is a sensible and knowing woman, thoroughly a creature of the late Victorian era, and mostly just ready to die whenever her time comes. Neville -- to me the most sympathetic character (along with Nan) struggles with her new studies, loves Rodney but in some ways doesn't fully respect him, does her best to help her children while letting them make their mistakes. Pamela is, as noted, solidly practical, and she has only a minor role in the novel (and her partner even less), though she gets the last word. Rosalind is truly an actively nasty person, a gossip, serially unfaithful to her husband Gilbert, vulgar, always ready to hurt her family members, and also an unintellectual woman who takes up fad after fad (including psycho-analysis.) Gerda is young and pretty and enthusiastic, a poet but not a very good one, an eager but not necessarily effective worker. And Nan -- Nan -- in her 30s, with a reputation of going from man to man, a novelist (a modern one!), often sarcastic, never sure of herself enough to commit ... she's the one I rooted for. 

As I suggested, the novel is to some degree plotless (but in a good, readable, way) -- but in the end coalesces around the arc of Nan and Gerda vying for Barry's affections. This involves Gerda working for Barry for a while, and then a vacation for Nan and Gerda and Barry and Kay, in which inevitably the athletic Nan goads the frailer Gerda into a sort of competition -- with of course a shocking ending that only hurts Nan's chances -- followed by Nan running off to Rome where another man is fleeing his wife ... it would all be melodramatic but in fact the narration -- at times sardonic, at time humorous, at times sympathetic -- never gives off that feel. 

The "Dangerous Ages" of the title are really any age -- at least for women -- though the quote in the book is directed at Nan's age. But the book is interested in all the women, and it is deeply feminist without being quite overtly so. But for all the book's women -- even the foolish Mrs. Hilary or the foul Rosalind -- their culturally defined roles are a burden. And they battle it -- Grandmama with her resignation, Mrs. Hilary with her fads and depression, Neville most explicitly, with her desire for an independent life (without ever wanting to leave Rodney), Nan with her cynicism and her pain, Rosalind with her sleeping around and her nastiness, and Gerda with her optimism about social change, and her hesitation at the idea of marriage. Perhaps only Pamela -- in some ways the most "modern" of all, living with a woman, making her own living -- has escaped her milieu's strictures. I hope I'm not making the novel seem ponderous or tendentious -- it is not that at all -- told with a light touch, ever interesting, its characters well portrayed, their fates revealed honestly. It is not perhaps a great novel, but it's a very good one, and a book that deserves attention now, a century and a bit after it was published.

(*The names of the Blendish children, of course, are the same names as the children in Hans Christian Anderson's classic tale "The Snow Queen", but I confess I don't see a real parallel between them and Anderson's characters. Perhaps the only meaning is to suggest something about how Neville and Rodney chose to name their children.)