Lately I’ve been trying to learn how to read a novel more critically, to really figure out what I liked or didn’t like about them. So this is an exercise for me, on top of whatever meager value it may have for my readers! It’s a little weird to do this when I’ll be meeting all these authors, but I figure I’ll be the target of plenty critiques of my own.
Books are listed in the order I read them. Minor spoilers only.
I definitely enjoyed reading this, but I’d say it was my least favorite of the three Gentleman Bastard books. The dialogue was still great, witty and funny, with the characters to back it. I know some people didn’t like Sabetha, but I had zero problems there. She came across to me as a character of hidden depths, of density: we only get the barest hints of her recent years, but those hints certainly sufficed for me. Some people didn’t like the ending, but I was… torn. It wasn’t entirely believable, given how easily he accomplishes things that ought to have been impossible; but it was propulsive and exciting and I loved reading it.
What I didn’t like was the main (present-day) plot. It had no tension and no stakes; nobody cared if Locke and Jean won or lost. They barely even cared themselves. Furthermore, there was no big interesting scheme, only a bunch of trivial back-and-forths between them and Sabetha. The actual election got only cursory attention most of the time (“Dot all the i’s, cross all the t’s, leave no bribe unbribed!”), aside from a clever but brief con at the end, which only made it clearer how unimportant the election was. The backstory plot from their younger years, which I didn’t like in Book 1, had all the fun tension missing from the election plot: there was danger, there was reward, there was a big con that took many tense scenes to pull off.
This book helped me articulate one of the reasons why I usually don’t enjoy YA novels. The stakes were plenty high, but the motivations were all childish. The primary motivations of the princes and warrior-kings were things like old crushes, schoolyard jealousies. Affairs of state took back seat to these teenage-level personalities. There was also a distinct, literal “cleaned-up” nature to the society, which seemed to tie into the history/cosmology/plot for future books, but it wasn’t to my taste as a reader.
I had some more specific problems in the front half of the book. Tons of characters, each with a surname and a given name and a nickname. There were whole scenes that I simply could not follow because I could not tell who was who. (For example, I knew the nicknames of the main 6ish characters, but then a teacher rattled off 20 surnames and I had no idea which group contained which names-I-knew.) Those sorts of problems disappeared in the second half, though.
This story had a wonderful prologue: the MC gets a mission, which relies on the existence of her internal conflict, and hands her the external conflict. Bam, goals and stakes are go! Overall, this book was very fast-plotted and fun, and I enjoyed it much more than I expected. The book played in fun ways with identity, acting, cover identities, though I kept expecting even more. There was no antagonist, which was not as big a problem as you might think. I may try to track down the sequels.
So, I made a strategic error. I was in the library, looking for a Brust book. They didn’t have anything on my list of good starting points, so I had to choose on the fly. “Hey, this one says it’s the first book of a set (The Viscount of Adrilankha), so it should be a good place to start.” Alas, not so much. If I had checked the internet, I would’ve learned it’s also #3 of another set (The Khraaven Romances, I think). The plot truly did stand on its own, but the characters did not; there were many references to past places and actions, including explicit stuff like “The reader should be familiar with this character!”, which made me feel like I was listening to someone else’s inside joke.
As for the book itself: A fun read, plot that kept me going, very distinct characters. The players and stakes of the series conflict are very clear, even though many threads remain hanging at the end of this book. It was also quite funny, but some of that came from the weird courtly speaking style. Which unfortunately really started to grate on me after a while, because everyone used it, even servants. Effectively, the author voice was so strong that it muffled a lot of the character voice in dialogue. The Omnipresent Style was also very fluffy and roundabout, which meant you spend way too much time reading exchanges like this:
“There is something important!”
“What is that thing?”
“Why, I will tell you that thing this instant.”
“Please continue, I am waiting for you tell me that thing.”
It’s much funnier in Brust’s words, of course. But after a few dozen times it really wore thin on me.
More book reviews to come!