Readings: Álvaro Enrigue

Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is one of the strangest and best books I’ve ever read. It is a book from which I need to recover. The urge to go on vacation just so I can digest is quite strong.

The book takes place during a single tennis game. It’s not even, strictly speaking, tennis, but pallacorda, the original tennis, as it were. It is only somewhat similar to the tennis we know now. Don’t worry, you will find out more if you read the book (and you might find yourself on the internets way past your bedtime looking up things like jeu à dedans court design even if you care not at all about tennis or its origins).

suddendeathThis might sound boring, except you get so caught up in Enrigue’s masterful blow-by-blow commentary that you are sucked into the book before you know it. Besides, consider that the tennis game in question is the game between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. They are also doing it with a ball made with Anne Boleyn’s hair (shorn off her head before she lost it to the sword). But how did they come to possess such a thing and why are they playing at all? They both seem to be dreadfully hungover and not at all in the mood.

To tell you this, Enrigue takes you on a dizzying tour of what seems like an impossible array of subjects: history of tennis and art, succession of Popes and cardinals, colonization of the Americas, to name just a few. At times it turns meta and breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should feel jarring, yet you go with it. The book is a mad mix of breathtaking game scenes, history bits, quotes, some well-done smut, and even a film script. At times, it made my head spin as it switched from the game court to Central America to Spain to Rome and back to the court. It made me want to learn, to create, to finally learn Spanish for the first time in my life (amazingly, I never expressed any interest in doing so and mostly stuck to languages nobody speaks). It is possibly the most alive and physical book I have ever read.

At one point, the book refers to the scene in Don Quixote where Altisidora has a vision of devils playing with rackets of fire, using bad books as balls. Sudden Death is definitely one of the books that is never going to be subjected to such treatment in the devils’ tennis court.

‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

Curiosity killed the explorer: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

One cannot meddle in the affairs of other species across interstellar distances without spacecraft.

All kids allegedly want to be marine biologists when they grow up. I don’t know if this is really true, but I did want to be one. I remember having a lovely illustrated encyclopedia of marine life that I lugged everywhere for at least one whole summer. I knew it by heart. I can still see it in my mind, usually opened to the cephalopods section. I still harbor deep love (One! Two! Two marine puns!) for things with tentacles.

Crustaceans were not really my thing. But objectively I could see they were also fascinating. If they are your thing, however (and not just with garlic butter), you will enjoy A Darkling Sea. Crustacean aliens are one of two alien groups you will meet within. The other one is not an underwater species, but it’s equally as odd.

All action takes place on the planet humans call Ilmatar. It is covered in a thick sheet of ice with a layer of ocean underneath. A group of humans occupy a base on the bottom of the ocean, where they study Ilmatarans, an intelligent underwater species. Having a base on the bottom of the ocean, of course, is not as easy as just plonking down a bathyscaphe Captain Nemo-style. There are pressure and temperature challenges, to name just a couple of things. There are little infodumps throughout the book that tell you how you, too, can send a team to live and do science under the sea.

Where the explorers go, conquerors and exploiters always follow.

darklingIn a nutshell, this is what another alien species called Sholen think of humans’ attempts to study the Ilmatarans. They consider humans ‘a stain on the world’ of icy Ilmatar. Sholen have an uneasy truce with humans: as long as humans don’t disturb (and Sholen determine what that means) the underwater aliens and don’t interfere with their life and culture, they can conduct their studies. Unfortunately, this arrangement crumbles when one of the humans decides to go out and take a closer look. It sounds like fun and games until a group of Ilmatarans capture him. For science. They don’t really mean him harm, but not being human, they are not up-to-date on human physiology, and so they end up dissecting him out of curiosity.

There are many layers to this book. Sholen are not simply meddling ‘grand panjandrums of alien contact’. The couple sent to Ilmatar to investigate the researcher’s death face their own political hurdles at home, and their decision about whether the death is an accident or not can have serious consequences. Ilmatarans have a pretty complex society themselves, and different groups of Ilmatarans end up having different types of interactions with both human and Sholen.

Curiosity is really the thing that ties the novel together. Humans are curious about Ilmatarans, Ilmatarans are curious about humans, certain humans are also curious about Sholen (for example, how their foodmaker works, not to mention their leader/follower relationships that hinge entirely on pheromones, physical contact, and sex). It’s a powerful force that appears to tie all the cultures together.

A Darkling Sea is a nice mix of adventure, first contact, cultural miscommunication, and a slew of other themes that don’t seem like tropes mostly because the book is a lot of fun to read. Plus, it has some neat discussion of language and writing systems, if you are into that sort of thing (see ‘sound writing’ on page 204), as well as amazing descriptions of food. Doesn’t your mouth just water when you read this:

The meal began with subtle vegetable tastes mixed with stimulants, progressed to strong spices and disinhibitors to improve the conversation, and wound up with aphrodisiacs and a mild narcotic with a blend of pickled fruit flavors.

Or maybe this is more up your alley (or underwater trench):

There are cakes of pressed sourleaf, whole towfin eggs, fresh jellyfronds, and some little bottom-crawling creatures Broadtail isn’t familiar with, neatly impaled on spines and still wiggling.