May 3rd, 2009


May Books 1) The Patriot Witch, by Charles Coleman Finlay

This is hot off the presses, having been published only last week. Our hero, Proctor Ward, is a young Bostonian caught up in the start of the War of Independence. He discovers that he has magical powers, inherited from his Salem ancestors, and gets mixed up in faction and counterfaction of the secret network of witches, supported by Quakers and other free thinkers. (The British have magic too, led by the historical John Pitcairn, whose son discovered Pitcairn Island.)

It reminded me a bit of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books, which also feature a magical America from a few decades later in an alternate timeline. Finlay, however, is less mystical, less didactic and basically less annoying about it; where Card is retelling the biography of Joseph Smith, Finlay is using an intense knowledge of the setting to hang his plot on. There are also perhaps faint reflections of Buffy, with the young hero discovering mystical powers and dealing with family and love-life. (One thing Proctor Ward lacks, however, is a Giles-like mentor.)

Good marks for sense of place; slightly cheeky to have the hero not only fire the first shots at Lexington but also save the day at Bunker Hill; but in general the history doesn't get in the way of the story, making it an enjoyable read.

May Books 2) Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, by Deirdre David

I became fascinated by Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) after reading her account of the death of William Huskisson, and even more so her memoir of life on a Georgian plantation in 1838-39, but rather bounced off the first biography of her that I read. This, however, was praised in the Economist, which was a good enough recommendation for me to put it on the wishlist. (And my wife got it for me for my birthday last week.)

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May Books 3) Zoë's Tale, by John Scalzi

The last of the Hugo novels for this year, and it's been a good year. I've had difficulties with Scalzi's writing before, and so am glad to report that I enjoyed this more than the other two books of his I have read. Zoë's Tale actually takes place in parallel with last year's Hugo nominee, The Lost Colony, being the story of the teenage daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, the leaders of the human colony of Roanoke, living through and playing a key role in the key points of humanity's conflict with the alien Conclave federation. I had forgotten most of last year's book, but Zoë's Tale does clear up one (but not all) of the more handwavey plot elements.

Zoë herself is rather delightful, with a line in sarcasm that readers of her creator's blog will recognise. The other characters seem fairly three-dimensional as well. The political background, and behaviour of the most senior political leaders, once again doesn't make a lot of sense (a standard complaint of mine, and of course a YA novel like this more or less has to involve the protagonist getting one up on the adults) but it's a decent enough story apart from that.

So, my Hugo voting order: a close run thing, but definitely Anathem first, followed closely by The Graveyard Book. After that it gets even more difficult to choose between Saturn's Children, Little Brother and Zoë's Tale - the Stross is probably better than the other two but unfortunately has anthropomorphic robots which I object to. Thanks in no small part to Scalzi's efforts, you can join the Worldcon and download four of the five books for yourself.