I absolutely inhaled Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship, reading it in just two days. All its strength comes from its disturbing premise, which did fascinate and disturb me. The enclosed society of this ark-like ship has promises that are unnervingly simple and sweet–the reader tears along with the main character through the first half, working furiously to uncover the secrets of the cult. Ultimately though, once the mysteries are solved, there’s not a ton of substance to give the book any lasting power beyond the turning of the final page. It’s less of a story, and more of a ride. A cool ride! But a temporary thrill. The characters, especially our heroine, are simple at best and off-putting at worst. I wish Lalla would have been pushed way further in her capacity to understand, manipulate, and resist her surroundings–she was so inert as to be frustrating. However, the ending was right, and that counts for something.
Gay Gavriel Kay is known for his manipulation of meticulously researched history into subtly fantastical tapestries of novels, and Under Heaven plays a variation upon that form using Tang Dynasty China as inspiration. The book is long and immersive, filled with the gorgeous, decadent pageantry that so often accompanies great empires–the palaces, the clothing, the perfumes, the jewels and feathers, the opulent gifts. Of course, behind all this lies the plot motivation: the sincere desire among those in power to, at the perfect time, kill one another for a precisely planned gain. It’s an enthralling adventure with many “ooh” moments, but Kay doesn’t skate away perfectly. There are some problems with pace, and big time problems with the fetishization of women in positions of sexual slavery. I understand that courtesans and concubines were a part of culture in the historical period that inspired Kay, but even considering that, I feel that his presentation of their points of view and capabilities was laughably deficient. It also irritated me that the main character reliably saw every single woman blatantly in terms of her sexual potential to him, at least at first meeting. If you can put that aside (and I tried to do that, mostly), the overall story is wonderful, especially with the enhancements of crying ghosts, shamans, and wolf spirits. Certain scenes were just exquisite. Certain captivating characters (Sima Zian, Meshtag) I’d read another whole book about, gladly. Wish both of them had gotten more page time.
I look forward to giving another of Kay’s novels a shot somewhere down the line. Song for Arbonne is so beautiful, and so much better than this was. Maybe I’ll just read that one again.
Benjamin Percy has given writers of fiction everywhere a gift with Thrill Me. It reads somewhere between a career coming-of-age memoir, a nuts and bolts writing guide, and a certain Christmas when your one weird uncle sits you down to give you some tough love advice about life that all turns out to be true. As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, I’ve read a whole lot of books on writing craft, and I will confidently laud Thrill Me as one of the most enjoyable, applicable, smart, and motivating writing guides out there. Percy’s voice is relatable and fun, while also sage and seasoned. There are dozens of game-changing takeaways here that I can’t wait to try in my own writing. This book will leave my shelf often, accumulating multiple colors of highlighter ink and no doubt a crease in the cover. I almost don’t want anyone else to read it because I’d prefer to hoard all of Percy’s great advice to myself. Fiction writers: buy this book, read it, and thrill us!