Friday, April 13, 2007

A Quick Thumbs-Down

A Sundial in a Grave: 1610 by Mary Gentle is one of several books I picked up because Abigail Nussbaum recommended them. I have found Abigail's opinions to be very similar to mine on some things (and always very well expressed), but we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.

Stuart England is just a little later than the Elizabethan era that fascinates me, and Gentle is good at period detail: the sights, sounds, and especially smells of the time are vividly presented. But I found the main characters and their sexual kinks tedious and the plot unfulfilling. Especially tedious was the samurai Tanaka Saburo, who suffers from what I think of as "stoopid furriner" syndrome: his facility with English and French varies according to the needs of the plot, so that he can't string words together correctly one minute and can talk about someone's "mad fancy" the next.

My biggest objection was Gentle's framing device, similar to the one she used in her Ash saga, that explains the book as a translation and compilation of actual documents. It's probably meant to make some kind of clever academic point about textuality, but this is a novel, not a textbook, and the frame just needlessly distances the reader from the material. For one thing, if you're going to pretend that your story is a memoir, it should read like a memoir. For another, there's no reason the "extra-textual" material (supposedly letters and other fragments found with the main text) couldn't simply have been incorporated into the narrative without sleight of hand about computer reconstruction and missing kanjis.

I'm sorry I didn't see that this book is soon forthcoming in cheaper mass market paperback, because I resent shelling out 14 bucks for this one. Add it to my "Hours of My Life I'll Never Get Back" list.

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