Sunday, May 31, 2015

June's Book: Tigana

Yes, this is June's book. This is the first time I've ever written an entry on a month's book during the previous month! This is what vacation does, I suppose. It was also a fun read, which didn't hurt.


Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Fantasy (1990 - 688 pp.)

If I were to sum up Tigana in a word, it would be "swashbuckling". It hails from the height of the D&D/Lone Wolf era of high fantasy. It is stuffed with tropes to the Fantasy Novelist's Exam's chagrin. It is derivative enough to feel familiar yet is impressively released well before other '90s high fantasy epics like Wizard's First Rule (1994) and Game of Thrones (1996). The whole thing really feels like the perfect visual stimulation to have going while listening to, say, Keeper of the Seven Keys Parts I and II.

A hyper-quick summary, for those unwilling to achieve this from reading the first hundred pages: Devin, a young singer who is our hero, is called into action by a fellow musician named Alessan. Alessan opposes Brandin of Ygrath, who has conquered half of a peninsula called the Palm. The other half is controlled by Alberico in the name of the Barbadian Empire, who has made some enemies there who, unsurprisingly, link up with our hero as well. The beautiful Catriana is an early addition to the pack, her own singing voice acting as the recruiting tool. In true fantasy fashion, they are joined by a wizard (cannot even give you a name because that is how early spoilers start in plot-driven books like this one) and an engineer (Baerd). All this occurs in a world based very accurately on Renaissance Italy with some Spanish influences, albeit with less emphasis on family plotting. There is not much more I can say without giving away twists Kay throws at the reader.

A pleasant surprise was the relatively common occurrence of plot events that left me completely surprised. Reading enough fantasy books makes one used to the tropes, so when they are subverted in novel ways, it makes the reading experience more fun. Kay is highly skilled at this. For all the familiar twists and turns fantasy books throw at their readers, there were many times when I truly felt I had not read anything much resembling this book before. A character would act in an unanticipated way, or a plot point would deviate from what seemed right, or a dynamic would turn into something oddly cerebral. The best example of the last phenomenon is in the character of Brandin of Ygrath, who is one of the more compelling fantasy villains I have read and is my favourite character in Tigana. It is too bad his character is not revealed until far into the book, as the first half or so of Tigana feels like the heroes are opposing a force that is evil simply because the reader is told that force is evil. Feeling the struggle between good and quasi-evil toward the end makes Tigana what it is.

There are a couple minor issues with the writing and editing. One is Kay's use of comma splices, which is so common I have not bothered with examples. This is most likely a writing issue considering how often it arises. Although the writing is intentionally very casual, as in the removal of the comma before the word "though", I have a difficult time writing off comma splices outside of dialogue on this basis. Another is the repeated use of certain words. This is an editing issue, as keeping track of individual word use throughout an almost 700-page tome is unsurprisingly difficult for any writer. Some of Kay's favourites in Tigana include "equanimity" and "ramshackle". At one point, the latter appears twice in four pages (532, 535), implying some very run-down surroundings.

Hopefully the massive spike in popularity A Song of Ice and Fire has faced in recent years due to the hit TV show Game of Thrones will result in books like Tigana receiving a revival in commercial and critical acclaim. Tigana, for its story and rich world-building, to say nothing of the sex and violence that dot it, would make a great choice for a movie.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 1

NOTE: Kay was born in Saskatchewan, grew up in Winnipeg, attended the University of Toronto law school, and currently lives in Toronto. It is always nice to see Canadian talent recognized. I think the linked interview's joining of literary and legal skills is perhaps overstated, as someone who has had to use both. Kay's seeming decision to write full-time is one I envy, though.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"The" Things People Search for on Wikipedia

Yesterday, when searching hand-dandy ol' Wikipedia for one of its hundreds of thousands of articles starting with the word "The", Wikipedia's commonly searched terms decided to give me some options:

Entries starting in "The" should be relatively neutral, after all, allowing us to see what people tend to search. There's no, say, "Xip" opening leading to prehistoric mega-predator-fish Xiphactinus tainting the search results.

Apparently, people love their pop culture and Darwin. Interestingly, "Theory of evolution" was the one selected article not to begin with the word "The" itself. I can understand wanting to talk about the Beatles. I haven't even bothered reading "The intersection of Clinton & Fidelity", which for humour's sake* I hope is an intersection of streets.

Note also the featured article on rodents. Cute. If I knew a Laura, I'd try to celebrate the supercontinent of Laurasia with her.

*You see what I'm referencing here. Yes, you do. Don't act like you don't.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

May's Book: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Literature (1895 - 336 pp.)

Continuing my tradition of Victorian and natural world-inspired fiction, I come across a story that is simultaneously one of the most familiar yet unfamiliar to audiences my age up to about my parents' age. The Jungle Book, for all its notoriety in popular culture, is a quite possibly misunderstood collection of short stories that span the globe. Most are set in Rudyard Kipling's native India, and most of those contain all our favourite characters (Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, Shere Khan, et al.) but that is simply most of the most, not nearly all.

Anyone familiar with the 1967 Disney movie would barely recognize this book, to the point that I think the filmmakers should have started from scratch instead of appropriating an existing book. A particularly flagrant example is in the relationship between Bagheera and Kaa, the python. In the movie, Bagheera rescues Mowgli from Kaa. In the book, Bagheera and Kaa are friends. Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, also barely appears in the movie, and is a crucial figure in the book. More examples abound but would unfortunately be spoilers. Suffice to say that the central theme of the Law of the Jungle, in which the predators align themselves in a hierarchy based on military control, is probably not what the writers of "Bare Necessities" had in mind.

The core stories concern everything from Mowgli's adoption by the wolves ("Mowgli's Brothers"), to demonstrations of Kaa's power ("Kaa's Hunting", "The King's Ankus"), to the battle with Shere Khan ("Tiger! Tiger!"), to vengeance against man ("Letting in the Jungle"), to an attack by dholes ("Red Dog"). "How Fear Came" is an exercise in jungle history, narrated by Hathi the elephant. The world Kipling creates is one in which talking animals frequently go into expositions on the nature and laws of the jungle, which are interspersed with fight scenes. Mowgli is not a particularly nice character, as he often taunts creatures, but the animals are generally good at keeping him in line. Whether Mowgli's claimed superiority in light of Bagheera, Kaa and Akela watching over him is a commentary on human attitudes toward nature, I will leave to academia to debate.

The non-core stories occur around the globe. One of my favourites is the first non-core story to appear, "The White Seal", about a brave young seal who searches for a new home for his clan/tribe/group/pack. "The Undertakers", about a jackal, heron and crocodile trio having a conversation on the nature of man, has a dark sense of humour to it. "Toomai of the Elephants" was the only story I did not like - it utterly lacks action, consisting of 20 pages of a boy watching elephants dance. A pleasant surprise was "Quiquern", the only story set in Canada. Kipling's knowledge of Arctic geography is impressive, and the canine characters he creates are effective stand-ins for friendship in an unforgiving north.

The edition I read has some very helpful footnotes, mostly on points like geographical references and nomenclature. Although Kipling makes up some names, Mowgli and Kaa being the main ones, most characters are named after their species or some trait they possess. For example, Bagheera is a South Indian word literally meaning "panther", and Shere Khan is Hindi for "sovereign cat".

At the end, editor Arthur Pober includes a short list of questions useful for anyone teaching The Jungle Book to an elementary school class. The questions are far simpler than the ones I pondered while reading, such as how the book comments on human-animal or British-Indian relations, but they appear like the sorts of things one would ask an introductory reader. Whether I would expose young children to a book in which characters frequently cut each others' throats out is another matter but hey, it has less gore than White Fang.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Life Experiences in College, as Someone Asked Me on Quora

Someone anonymous just asked me this great question on Quora: Which experiences should I have while I'm at college that I will never regret and remember for the rest of my life? As someone who's always trying to make the most of things, and who loves academia to death, this really appealed to me.

My main points in my answer were:

  • Take courses that give transferable skills you can't necessarily pick up in the workplace.
  • Get to know your professors.
  • Be willing to live with random unknown roommates.
  • Travel.
  • Think beyond.

The rest of the answer is linked at the top of this post.