Monthly Archives: January 2017
Binti is a very peculiar story, one that seems to start as journey of discovery, only to turn into something completely different; the kind of story that carries several layers of meaning, yielding them one by one only as you keep thinking about it. It’s not what I would call an immediate story, but rather one that gains flavor and depth with time, not unlike a fine wine.
The main character, the titular Binti, is a young woman living in Namibia and belonging to the Himba tribe, a small ethnic group dwelling in voluntary seclusion from the rest of the world, a world very technologically advanced where space travel is easily accessible and Earth has come into contact with a variety of alien cultures. The Himba, and Binti’s family in particular, have specialized in providing refined technological gadgets, but they prefer to keep contact with the outside world to the minimum, relying mostly on strict observance of tradition and cultural heritage and a general distrust of outsiders. As Binti says at some point:
My tribe is obsessed with innovation and technology, but it is small, private, and, as I said, we don’t like to leave Earth. We prefer to explore the universe by traveling inward, as opposed to outward.
When Binti gains admission to the prestigious Oomza University through her exceptional mathematical skills, her family and the whole village do their utmost to discourage her from that path, stressing the need to keep close to her own roots and not betray them. Her quest for knowledge cannot be denied, though, so Binti leaves overnight to take the ship for Oomza, but once she sets foot in the spaceport, her family’s warnings about outsiders appear to be all too true: the Khoush, who seem to be the dominant (globalized?) population, look at her with open, blatant curiosity, commenting about her appearance, manner of dress and the ritual clay covering for her skin and hair. It’s a jarring scene, one that should have no place in a futuristic – and hopefully more evolved – world: Binti is observed like a strange specimen, touched and inspected as if she were not another human being but a thing, not possessed of feelings or a soul. The very fact of her difference is enough for these people to wonder at her non-conformity and to criticize it, at the same time robbing her of the status of person.
Here comes however the first inkling about Binti’s character: where others would have been offended by the incident, or ashamed of their heritage, she calmly explains the differences trying to bridge the gap in knowledge (and manners!) with her serene composure. This attitude will serve her even better once she boards the ship and starts making friends with her fellow students, the common thirst for learning creating a bond that transcends cultural distinctions. This is where an abrupt change in narrative course plunges Binti’s journey into tragedy, the very suddenness of it a jolt that requires some time to be metabolized: the young woman finds herself alone on the ship – that is, except for the alien Meduse, whose grudge against humans brought them to commit an act of brutality.
In this moment, through her loneliness and terror, Binti’s role in the story comes to the fore: she is meant to be a bridge between two clashing civilizations, the ambassador that will help them cross the chasm of misunderstanding and hate, because she is the one who knows the value of cultural symbols, of precious heritage, and she will be instrumental in mending the rift created by human ignorance. There is a sort of poetic justice in this: the young woman who was disowned by her own clan for having left her home in search of knowledge, and scorned by more “modern” people for her attachment to tradition, is the only one who can comprehend two different worlds and bring them closer toward mutual understanding.
Still, such an accomplishments – the personal the public one – are not without a price: Binti comes from a cultural milieu where change is viewed with suspect, and the experience she went through has changed her in many ways – mental, psychological and even physical – and the realization that she is now far from her own roots in a way that has less to do with actual distance and more with frame of mind, leaves her somewhat adrift and afraid, more afraid than she was at the beginning of her journey.
The resolution of the story is, in my opinion, its only point of weakness because it feels too easy, too short – or maybe it’s just because I wanted more: Binti is such a fascinating character that I think she should have deserved a whole novel, and her path should have had more room to expand and to delve deeper into her experiences. Still, this remains a fascinating story, and it reinforced my need to explore this author’s longer works to discover more of her amazingly different themes.
A few years ago I read, and greatly enjoyed, Max Gladstone’s THREE PARTS DEAD, a totally new take on fantasy and magic, and afterwards I kept reminding myself to read more of this series – especially when I learned about the new books being published – but such are the fluctuating “currents” of my TBR pile that this second volume was being constantly shifted back. Now that I’ve finally read it, I’m struggling with a creeping feeling of disappointment, as if something that I had greatly appreciated in the first book was sadly missing here.
The story does not take place in Alt Coulumb, like book 1, but rather in Dresediel Lex, a city whose past seems to hint at an Atzec-like culture, made of stone pyramids, winged serpents and human sacrifices to the gods. The latter have been taken out of the equation after an equally bloody war in which the gods were vanquished and supplanted by deathless kings and a form of magic that uses soul as currency, although many still worship the decades-gone gods and look with longing at the times when blood was freely spent to garner the favor of those divinities.
Despite this more secular imprint on society, life in Dresediel Lex can be hard: the place sits in a dry, desert-like area (it could somehow remind me of Las Vegas, if it weren’t for its proximity to the sea) and water supply is the main problem the inhabitants have to face, since the ever-growing population’s needs have already run the nearest sources dry. Caleb Altemoc is a senior risk manager at Red King Consolidated, the corporation that actually runs the city and delivers its water through a complicated net of pipes and Craft, a combination of technology and magic that uses some of the now-subjugated gods as power sources.
When the water from the current reservoir becomes poisoned by Tzimet – fanged, demon-like creatures that can come out of the faucets and attack the citizens – Caleb is called to investigate and his suspicions are equally divided between his father Temoc, one of the last priests supporting the old religion, forced to live in hiding, and Mal, a mysterious woman Caleb saw running over the structure of the reservoir. Mal is also tied to Heartstone, a firm that RKC is going to acquire to expand its power base and its reach in the services offered to the city, and so Caleb’s attraction to her becomes mixed with the investigation and the number of unanswered questions circling around Mal.
The investigation brings Caleb into a maze of ancient secrets, long-held grudges and the ever-growing threat of seeing everything that RKC and the King in Red did, to unshackle the citizens from the need to appease the gods with human sacrifice, turn to ashes: the fact that the path RKC has taken is crumbling under the law of diminishing returns gives the loyalist of the “old regime” the lever they need to try and bring it all back to reinstate the old ways. There is much to keep one’s attention in this story, not least the increasing sense of impending doom that comes from Caleb’s discoveries, that in turn climax into a scene of city-wide mayhem in which the titular Serpents play a focal role.
The main question is a complex one, whether it is preferable to stick to the old ways – ensuring the prolonged survival of the city through human sacrifice – or embrace the new ones, which however do not guarantee the same kind of continuity. Someone would be made to suffer either way, and the only choice allowed is to pick the victim: a sacrifice on the altar to buy the gods’ favor, or a war with other cities for their resources once the ones at hand are depleted. As the author writes at some point:
“You seem to think it’s different if we kill for gods or for water; either way the victim dies at the end.”
Despite the fascinating conundrum, the sense of incompleteness I was mentioning before did linger all throughout the book, and in the end I believe it was because Caleb feels a bit thin – especially if compared to other, more interesting and fleshed-out figures, like Caleb’s friend Teo, with her sharp, world-wise attitude and staunch attachment to the people she cares about; or his father Temoc, whose love for his son cannot be separated from the loyalty he feel for his gods and the tenets of his faith. Caleb is indeed the child of two worlds, the old and the new, and he dwells in a no-man’s-land of uncertainty that, sadly, spreads into the area of character development: besides the obsession for the elusive Mal and his gambling, there is not much to make him stand out, and at the end of the story he’s not much different from the man he was at the beginning – at least from my point of view.
I did ultimately enjoy the book, but not as much as I’d hoped after the great experience that was Three Parts Dead: the perceived weakness of the main character, and the less intriguing background (I found Alt Coulumb much more fascinating a place than Dresediel Lex) were something of a letdown. Still, I’m curious about the world of the Craft Sequence, and will certainly read other books in this series, in the hope of finding again the… magic of the first volume.
This past year has been a very interesting one, not least because I’ve reached a significant number of read titles – a round 60 – that marks a new record for me: granted, quality matters more than quantity, but I’ve always loved to lose myself in books since I was able to read, so this means I’ve enjoyed myself more than in the past. And that’s a very nice consideration, one that compelled me to write this post as a reminder of all the wonderful stories that kept me company while traveling on the subway on my way to and from work – the time when I do most of my reading.
From the ratings of these books I can see that only 3 received a very low evaluation, and they were the only ones I did not finish: turning it into a statistic – which seems one of the requirements for a year’s end recap – it’s just 5% of the total. Not a bad turnout indeed, particularly when the average rating is of 3,83 over 5.
At the opposite side of the rating scale stand seven books that received a 5 star rating, and in the best tradition of “…and the winner is…” here they are, in the order I read them:
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter Hamilton
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier
Morning Star by Pierce Brown
Dark Ascensions by M.L. Brennan
The Glass Flower by GRR Martin
Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey
As far as other statistics go, the represented genres have been the following:
Science Fiction: 27
Urban Fantasy: 9
Mixed SF & F (Anthology): 1
Clearly I’ve leaned more toward SF (also thanks to the SciFi November event, that encouraged me to read more in that genre), but if I were to sum the books from the Fantasy and Urban Fantasy genres, the two major contenders are on an even footing.
Here is a visual recap of the titles I read, a very nice reminder of all the books I enjoyed (and those few I didn’t…) during this year: seen all together they make for a nice wallpaper… 🙂
Propositions for the new year? Well, I know beforehand I might not be able to fulfill them, so I will stick to just… reading: reading everything that strikes my fancy and try to have fun with it. It’s not a bad start, isn’t it?
I wish you all a happy 2017, filled with great books!