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Monthly Archives: March 2017

“Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral” by Mary Doria Russell

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Epitaph is a very different story from Mary Doria Russell’s best-known work, the science fiction novel The Sparrow. Set in Tombstone, Arizona, in the late 1800s, this story explores the events leading up to and following the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

As with most major historical events, the causes of the gunfight were more varied and subtle than is widely appreciated. Russell does an excellent job of laying out those causes and surrounding them with an engaging story. The characterization here is also strong. Russell shows notorious figures like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as they probably actually were: real people with both virtues and flaws.

One of the intriguing things about this book is the way it highlights similarities between the time period it’s written about and the modern day. Political party rivalries underlay the more personal disagreements between the Earps/Holliday and the Clantons/McLaurys, and the underpinnings of that polarization largely had to do with the balance of power between the federal government and the states. And while we tend to think of gun control as a modern issue, a city ordinance in Tombstone that prohibited the carrying of guns within city limits played a role in the escalating tensions.

Although Wyatt was the most famous Earp, his brothers Virgil, Morgan, and (to a lesser extent) James were all involved in the events of the story. The one complaint I had with Epitaph is that it didn’t distinguish Morgan and Virgil from each other as well as I would have liked, and sometimes I forgot which brother had done or said a particular thing.

The Sparrow established Russell as a highly capable science fiction writer, but with her new book, she demonstrates a talent for historical fiction as well. This intricate, informative, and engaging novel is definitely worth a read.

“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is exactly what it says on the tin: a retelling of the classical Norse stories, from the creation of the world to its end at Ragnarok. While the stories themselves, of course, existed long before Gaiman, his writing style puts a new stamp on the old tales. A wonderful dry humor runs through most of the book, particularly where Loki is involved.

Speaking of Loki, Gaiman fans will surely remember that he presented us with his own interpretations of both the Lie-Smith and the All-Father in American Gods. The version of those characters that Gaiman shows us in this book are different but equally engaging.

As for the stories themselves, some of the myths are ones that many readers probably remember having seen in a children’s book of mythology when they were young. One of the most famous Norse myths, of Thor dressing up as Freya to get Mjolnir back from Thrym, is included, for example. But some lesser-known myths are skillfully retold as well, such as the story of how the god Kvasir’s blood was used to brew a mead that would give anyone who drank it the talent of poetry.

Norse Mythology is a fairly quick read, but it’s a lot of fun. As with pretty much everything Neil Gaiman writes, I highly recommend it.

“Arcadia” by Iain Pears

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Arcadia is an intricate story that manages to create something new out of three time-worn sci-fi tropes: futuristic dystopias, time travel, and parallel universes. A scientist living in a future world where resources have become so depleted that a totalitarian government is the only feasible way of managing what remains seeks to invent a device that will grant access to resource-rich alternate worlds. As she tests her creation, she begins to suspect that what she’s invented is not a gateway to parallel worlds, but a time machine. Using it to flee into the past, she then sets to work building a new prototype that she hopes will accomplish her original goal. But things get a lot more complicated when a friend’s neighbor accidentally activates the prototype.

There are three distinct plotlines in this novel, each with its own set of characters. Juggling all three could easily have backfired, but Pears handles this masterfully. The reader is given enough time in each setting for any given section to see the plot advancing, but not so long that he becomes bored or forgets what was going on in the other two threads.

The nature of the totalitarian regime seen in one of the plot threads is unique as well. In most historical dictatorships, intellectuals have been targeted because their insistence upon facts and willingness to question “what everybody knows” pose a threat to the ruling parties. Pears’s story turns this on its head: the repressive social system we see in Arcadia is not run by the military or politicians, but by scientists. There are many real dangers posed by letting emotion run roughshod over intellect, but here we see the dangers of intellect without emotion (specifically compassion). It’s also a vivid illustration of the principle that intelligence and wisdom are not always the same thing.

For all these strengths, there are two major weaknesses in this novel. First, two of the major female characters, Angela Meerson and Rosalind, often came across as petulant and immature. While there are good plot-justified reasons for this (Rosalind is a teenager and Angela takes psychotropic drugs to enhance her cognitive abilities), it still grated on me. If I weren’t familiar with Pears’s other work, I might chalk it up to a difficulty with writing women, but Pears presents likeable, three-dimensional female characters in his other books (e.g. Flavia di Stefano in his Art History Mysteries and Sarah Blundy in An Instance of the Fingerpost). Even in this same novel, we have female characters who are much better-written: Emily Strang in the dystopian future and Catherine of Willdon in the world to which the machine is a portal.

Second, the ending felt unresolved and abrupt to me. For obvious reasons, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I will say that a couple of characters set out to solve a major problem, but the book ends without telling us whether they succeeded.

Overall, Arcadia is an impressive undertaking. However, while few writers could have handled it as well as Pears does, I don’t think it quite lives up to the standard set by his previous work.