Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best Second In a Triolgy Ever

Book club loved Illuminae so much that Gemina was the next choice, and thank god because 1) weren't we all dying to read it? and 2) I needed a densely action-packed page turner to balance my other reads and my state of mind.  It was just the roller coaster I wanted it to be.

As I was reading Illuminae, I wanted to talk all the time about the big questions the book posed, about the lies an organization tells to keep its constituents safe, about the renegade whistle blower and whether being right means everyone needs to know everything, about the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few--I could go on.  Gemina didn't raise that kind of question nearly as much--it was a much more personal story, about a few humans against a few humans.

I still want compulsively to talk about it, though, only this time I want to talk about it as a work of craftsmanship. I want to discuss how in the world the authors built this incredibly intricate machine full of moving parts. In Illuminae, the hits just kept on coming; in Gemina, the pieces were there, laid out for you, and you watched them click together.

The story takes place at the same time as the first book--the Illuminae characters are fleeing toward the Heimdall station, where they can jump through a wormhole back to a busier part of space and be rescued. Gemina is about all the awful things that are happening on Heimdall during that time--the intended cover-up on the attacks from the first book.  Heimdall is taken by a team of commandos, and on one level, it's pretty much just Die Hard in space.  Plus terrifying space worms and a malfunctioning wormhole.

The parts that go into this! To make the assault team interesting bad guys, individual people, and sometimes almost likeable, in spite of everything--that alone is not a simple task.  (There are photos of the team in the book; the fact that they are all hotties in their early 20s who look like vampires from Twilight--and that the team leader literally looks like one of the specific vampires from Twilight, may be the weakest part of the book.)  

This face just screams "head commando"
You've got a hero and heroine who are about as far from Kady and Ezra as you can get--if Kady is the goth geek girl at the back of the class, Hanna is the prom queen who is also a black belt in marital arts.  Ezra is your boy next door clean cut good guy; Nik is a fast talking hustler who's not quiet bad enough for his crime syndicate family.

And Ella.  Oh, Ella, who is a delight. I will spoil nothing, but I love Ella very much.

Like, I said, moving parts. Gemina is in many ways (though not page count) a smaller book than Illuminae. There are fewer individual players acting, and though there aren't actually that many fewer elements in the big bubbling cauldron of plot, most of the action plays out on a hand-to-hand combat level. This is about an assault team taking the station and the renegades stopping it; there is a lot more at stake and a lot more balls in the air, but this is a book about boots on the ground.

I'm going to say it officially; I think this is the best second installment in a trilogy that I've ever read.  It doesn't sag at all.  It doesn't suffer from trying to force some kind of weak stakes to tide us over while we set up the pieces for part 3.  It doesn't suffer from giving us a new set of characters--quite the opposite--though it also gives us a some time with some of our favorites from the first book.  It advances the overall plot while working perfectly well on its own level.

Best. Sequel. Ever.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Page to Stage

I've been reading Fingersmith on a hard deadline, almost frantically, because we had tickets to a new play at the American Repertory Theater in Harvard Square. I've read a couple of Sarah Waters books before--The Little Stranger and The Paying Guests--and loved them both, in very different ways. But I listened to them both as audiobooks, and I'm surprised to find that this made a difference in my enjoyment.

Don't get me wrong, this is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The combination of smart, twisty plotting and gorgeous, literary writing is really irresistible. But I think I might have enjoyed an audiobook more. Waters has a way of describing things perfectly, with such precise, clean, readable prose, but in great detail.  What I've found for myself is that when a narrator has a strong voice but there are parts of the story I find slow, the actor who's reading them can bring a lot to me.

But then, maybe I just felt the stress of my timeline, because of the play.  I can tell you that the play felt the stress.  The book is, not action-packed, but full of incident.  Each part builds to the next, and while you can slim them all down, you can't cut any of them--the introduction to Sue's life in the Borough at the beginning of the book is as important to the plot as it is to the flavor and character and can't be ignored.  It's a story of many acts, and plays may only have so many.

I have a few quibbles with the production, as well--they could have used amplified audio; I sometimes had trouble hearing through the accents--but mostly, it's that it felt like an adaptation.  There's something about watching an adaptation of a book you know, a feeling that they're trying to hit the important beats of the book, rather than make its own story.  I've always assumed this is because a book has a lot more space than a movie--you can't squeeze as much into a movie as you can into a book.  There are exceptions--Harry Potter movies work well as movies, in my experience.  But your standard BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel is more about hitting the moments you know--summarizing the story--than working on its own, sometimes.

This play suffered from that.  It hustled from plot point to plot twist, scrambling through the memorable lines and moments to keep them all in. There was also a bit of a problem with tone--they added a lot of humor, which worked well by itself to alleviate the grim tone of the story (which is not as pervasive in the book). But it made the whole thing feel very uneven, especially the secondary characters and some of the darker themes.

The book, though, is full of great twists and thrills, an enormous, ongoing tension, and a really sweet love story.  I wish I had read it at a time where I had more bandwidth to give it, or that I had listened to the audiobook. I'm going to position my next Sarah Waters novel more carefully in my lineup.