River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Firstly, as an ethnic Chinese reading this novel, I commend Kay on his research and besides minor quibbles, I really think his fictional Northern Song Chinese setting came across as authentic and compelling.
I had never read him or Chinese historical fantasy before so I had little expectations of what I will be getting. I was pleased to learn that this is a tale where Kay re-imagines history in a fantasy setting even though the fantasy element is on the slight side. Nevertheless, since my one true love in reading remains fantasy and I know of the major history events that this book relates this does capture my interest. I’m also satisfied with the open-ended ending which leaves me with some hope that Ren Daiyan, the fictional equivalent of Yue Fei, potentially did not meet his bad end (I doubt it given his character but at least the ending dangles some hope in front of you). There was one point where I hoped the ending would be more positive towards Ren Daiyan but I think the current ending fits the book better so I’m content.
Overall, I think Kay is a writer that I will want to add to my list of favourite authors. I think he has a good handle of the omniscient voice even though it made the opening (specifically chapter 1, I definitely started getting into the book after chapter 2 when Lin Shan appeared) a bit slow and at times I felt like the omniscient voice was interference (but other times it felt insightful and deep). I also appreciate his prose- lyrical and full of imagery. However, the main characters (Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan) are only a part of this epic tale, small vehicles in some sense. I do like epic tales and I like this aspect of this book well enough but this does stop me from bonding with the characters and does take away from this book.
Songs of Insurrection by JC Kang
I DNFed this book, the start of the Dragon Songs Saga. I got to the half way mark and then I just didn’t feel like I have the patience to keep on reading it. Perhaps because I came to this straight after River of Stars, I had high expectations of a Chinese fantasy series written by a fellow ethnic Chinese. But I think why I DNFed it was partially this high expectations, partially I was the wrong reader for this series and partially I just had issues with various aspects of the story or the writer’s way of doing things.
Firstly, I didn’t feel like this story really needed to be set in a fictional ancient China and in fact, this story was more like ancient China and a bunch of ethnic Chinese characters shoved into the conventional fantasy setting than an authentic Chinese fantasy story like River of Stars. Specifically, I felt like the conveyance of Chinese elements were primarily delivered through scattered Chinese terms emphasised via italics and sometimes the interchangeable use of specific Chinese terms and their meaning in English just seemed completely random to me. Perhaps that’s my unique experience as a Chinese and this book is really targeted at the ESB market so I’m just the wrong audience for this.
The other aspect in which I think I’m mismatched with this book is that the portrayal of the female protagonist Princess Kaiya mainly resulted in my boredom and disbelief. I felt like perhaps this book should be labelled under romance as a large part of the first half of the book seemed to concern Princess Kaiya being smitten with this foreign prince. This does have a narrative purpose in making readers question whether her actions are really decided by her or she was under undue influence but an unfortunate side-effect was that she was always feeling like her stomach was full of butterflies or other similar wording which really got to the point of being repetitive. Also, Princess Kaiya came across as a sheltered wall-flower who kept second-guessing her own actions and then stick to them anyway. I do get it on one level- it’s a reflection of her being a teenager and/or the Chinese upbringing where you have a fear of going against rules. But again it gets repetitive when she keeps doing that. The same goes for her emotional range-she’s forever fluctuating between determination and doubt/apprehension, even when she’s supposedly drunk (I don’t drink alcohol so I have no first hand experience to relate to but I felt like her thought pattern is the same whether she’s sober or drunk which just doesn’t seem right. I also feel like in this story she fluctuates between being sober and drunk within the span of three or four hours or that’s the way it appears to me). So all in all, whenever we arrived in a chapter in the princess’s POV, I felt an urge to skip it except for the event of the chapter. The pacing of the chapters is nice and quick, that’s the main merit I see in this book and why I stick to the half way mark. That and the other story line with Tian and Jie who were portrayed a bit better in that I couldn’t find direct fault with them but there was nothing to endear them to me either.
The above were my main disconnect from this book but some other nitpicks I also have included: the tendency for readers to get confused when a scene contains multiple sidecasts and the author’s attempt to make them distinct through coupling names and physical attributes don’t always work; world building tidbits like there being three moons and their usage in time measurement that came into the story and then had little narrative functions and sometimes only caused confusion or just in general diverted attention from the story.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
Picked this up for my overseas holiday read and I think it’s a good choice- The chapters are short enough that I can breeze through it. As for the story itself, I do think it has all the qualities of a classic. While the omnipotent voice creates distance compared to contemporary novels, I am still captivated by the anti-hero of the story enough to look him up and learn that he is completely fictional. I am also impressed by the depiction of the sense of smell that is central to this novel which then branches out to the other senses. Overall, a good choice for long time readers of the mystery genre looking for a high quality light read.