Sunday, February 26, 2023

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Patrick Suskind
Completed 2/26/2023, Reviewed 2/26/2023
5 stars

This was a beautifully written, intensely creepy book.  It was sort of a fantasy, perhaps a little more magical realism.  I was struck most by the amazing prose of this translation from the German.  There’s very little dialogue, it’s almost all description, mostly from the murderer’s point of view.  It’s about smells and the power they have over us.  I’m not much of a fragrance person.  I used to be terribly allergic to flowers, trees, grass.  I never liked the smell of a freshly mown lawn and perfumes and colognes usually made me gag.  But this book was able to override that guttural reaction and make me believe in the power of the scent.  This book won the 1987 World Fantasy Award.  It was a huge best seller in Europe and obviously had an impact on the English-speaking fantasy community.

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born without a scent.  He smells like nothing.  With no father and mother that dies of consumption, he is taken in by the state and given to a series of women to nurse him.  However, none of them can handle him because he eats voraciously, leaving no milk for their own child.  Eventually, he is abandoned to a monastery and then to an orphanage.  Despite having no scent himself, Grenouille has an almost supernatural sense of smell.  He can actually walk around in the dark because he can smell everything and everyone in his way.  After a traumatic childhood, he realizes what he must do.  He becomes an apprentice perfumier.  There he learns the components of every smell that exists and how to extract it to then combine it into a perfume people will love.  However, he also finds that the most amazing smell is that of a virgin girl.  This leads him to unspeakable acts trying to create the perfect scent.

I didn’t know what to expect with this book, sensing that it was another non-traditional fantasy.  What immediately grabbed me was the prose.  It is astonishingly beautiful.  When there isn’t much dialogue, the prose needs to be outstanding to hold me as a reader for very long.  This book did it.  It’s not very fast paced.  In fact, it could have dragged in several places, especially during Grenouille’s apprenticeship, but Suskind kept me reading with descriptions that moved the story along.  

I didn’t feel the empathy I usually do for characters in a book I rate this high.  But I felt like I knew Grenouille with an intimacy that’s almost scary.  He’s not a particularly likeable character, especially when you know what’s coming from the book’s blurb.  Still, I became consumed in wanting to know what makes up this character.  You learn that from his interactions with others as well as his interactions with the scents of the world.

I give this book five stars out of five.  It goes against my usual reasoning for rating a book so highly.  Normally, I need a pretty deep visceral reaction to the character or the storyline.  In this case, it was prose and the process of revealing how Grenouille made it through life.  And the ending was shocking.  This book is not a light read.  It’s very dark and very brutal.  It’s not for everyone.  But if you want an intimate account of a strange murderer’s mind, this is the book for you.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Last Call

Tim Powers
Completed 2/21/2023, Reviewed 2/21/2023
3 stars

I felt pretty meh about this book.  I think it was mostly because it was about something I’m not much interested in…poker.  It had an additional complexity of the Tarot mixed in the game, a variation called Assumption which I never really understood, and so many bad guys I lost track until a bunch of them got killed off.  It’s basically an urban fantasy/magical realism tale with an alternate history bent.  It’s written well with decent prose.  But with all this, it never hooked me.  It won Powers the 1993 World Fantasy Award.

The story is about Scott Crane, a professional gambler.  His bizarre childhood left him an orphan with a prosthetic eye.  He was raised by Ozzie and had a foundling sister Diana.  In 1969, he played a game of Assumption poker in which he apparently lost his soul.  Now, twenty years later, someone is coming to claim it unless he can figure out how to stop him.  The story takes him on a journey to Las Vegas with his cancer-fighting neighbor Arky and his estranged sister Diana to prevent him from becoming the new King and Diana the new Queen of an empire of gambling.  All they while, they are chased by a myriad of bad guys wanting to kill or protect them for their own gains in this empire.

That’s the best I can do summarizing it.  It’s really so much more complex than I can describe.  But to start to describe that complexity gives away all the twists in the story.   There are some things I think I can tell that won’t be spoilers, because they’re revealed relatively early on.  Like the reimagining of Bugsy Seigel from plain old gangster to king of a magical gambling empire.  Or the ghost of Scott’s deceased wife trying to tempt him to embrace her and relinquish his quest.  Those were two highlights that peaked my interest a little.

Part of what kept me from being drawn into the story was adult Scott.  I didn’t empathize with him.  He was simply a character in a story.  I felt no life from him.  Usually, I can identify with characters with self-destructive tendencies, but not Scott.  I had similar mediocre feelings for Diana.  Nothing really drew me to her.  On the other hand, I did like his neighbor who believed that near-continuous drinking of Coors beer would help reduce the tumors growing on his lymph nodes.  He was less morose than Scott.  Arky was colorful, interesting, and hopeful.  

As far as the bad guys go, they all ran into one another, except for one crazy guy who believed Scott and Diana were his parents.  I think he represented the Fool in the Tarot’s major arcana.  He spouted gibberish and danced on ledges like in the depiction on the card.  

I give this book three stars out of five.  I think if you’re more intrigued by Las Vegas and gambling, you’d get more out of this book than I did.  The book has pretty high scores on various review sites.  Powers is a very popular author, writing in various subgenres of fantasy.  The previous book of his which I read was The Stress of Her Regard, an interesting twist on the vampire trope.  However, I found that to be also a middlin’ three stars.  I have one more chance in this Mythopoeic/World Fantasy Award challenge to read Powers.  We’ll see if that book hits a homer, or if it’s the third strike.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Soldier of Sidon

Gene Wolfe
Completed 2/6/2023, Reviewed 2/6/2023
4 stars

I really liked this third entry in the Latro series, much more than Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete.  But, like his first two novels, I was occasionally lost.  In this book, I somehow missed that Lucius (known as Latro to many of his adventuring acquaintances) had made it home before going on a third outing.  As with the first two books, there are many spots where I got a little lost, which I think is intentional on Wolfe’s part.  It’s part of the conceit of the book.  Latro still has severe memory loss, not remembering the past and forgetting the events of each yesterday.  So we only know as much as Latro writes down on his scroll and he doesn’t write everything as a fluid narrative, but as a tool to help him remember what has happened from day to day.  By this third book, I totally bought into the conceit and was happy to be back in this world where every day is completely brand new.  This book won the 2007 World Fantasy Award.

Captain Muslak from the previous books finds Latro and asks how his memory recovery is progressing.  When he finds out Latro hasn’t recovered anything, he offers to take him to Riverland (Egypt) in search of a god who can cure his memory loss.  Latro agrees and Muslak puts together a crew to accompany them.  The gods still speak to Latro, and this time it’s the Egyptian gods who task Latro with a mission to a shrine in Nubia near the source of the Nile. Along the way, they pick up temple singers, aka prostitutes, to keep Muslak and Latro happy.  On the way, Latro encounters gods and magical creatures who sometimes threaten, sometimes help him in his mission.  

One thing I really liked about this book was that Wolfe used the actual names of the Egyptian gods and place names.  It made it easier to keep which gods were helpful and which were not, compared to the Greek Pantheon of the first two books.  And there was a lot more interaction with the supernatural in this volume.  One character which was quite the surprise was a woman made of wax who normally only appears when called by her husband.  However, for some unknown reason, Latro also makes her stir.  She wants to be Latro’s lover or wife, having him eschew the prostitute.  Besides trying to get Latro for herself, she needs the blood of a human woman to stay young.  

Latro himself is a wonderful character, an innocent due to his mental condition.  Latro is relatable and I empathized with him.  Whenever he had a slave, he wanted to free him or her.  He had a general kindness toward people and pets.  He suffered from blood guilt, feeling guilty for murder of people, real or imagined.  He didn’t trust many people, and from day to day, his level of trust would change.  Somehow, he was always able to feel love.

Wolfe’s fans waiting 17 years for this book, and having read it, were ready to wait another 17.  Unfortunately, Wolfe died in 2019, so a fourth book was never written.  There isn’t exactly a cliffhanger in this volume, but it doesn’t end neatly.  Rather, it ends abruptly, leaving the reader wanting more.  I guess that’s one of the signs of a good book, leaving the reader wanting more, and I did.  I give this book four stars out of five.  I think Wolfe, like Robert Silverberg, are two underrated authors in genre fiction.  I always keep an eye out for their books at used bookstores and on sale for the e-reader.  They both have great imaginations, and are terrific writers.  They belong to a category of sci fi/fantasy writers who should have been more accepted by the wider public.