Review: Heaven’s Queen (Paradox #3), by Rachel Bach

March 24, 2015

Heaven's QueenFollowing the destruction of Reaper’s tribe, Devi and Rupert shelter on a Terran cash planet while Caldswell and his crew lead the lelgis through hyperspace and away from them. Their unplanned hyperspace jump has cost them a year’s worth of missing time, Devi’s virus is progressing towards a potentially fatal end, and they cannot turn to either of their governments for safety, as the Eyes are seeking to capture Devi and harness her virus.

This book is such a mixed bag of the brilliant and the frustrating. Let’s start with the frustrating.

I love Devi as a character, but alas, in Heaven’s Queen an imposter seems to have taken her place. Surely the Devi I know wouldn’t act so much like a petulant brat towards everyone from an old lover to a perfectly amicable space hippy, with her scenes in the Church of the Cosmos being so uncharacteristic that I have a hard time believing someone who acts so whiny and unadaptable over a bit of gravitational weirdness could’ve cut it in an elite mercenary unit like the Blackbirds. She might forgive the man who knowingly and willfully killed someone he thought was her, but she wouldn’t turn into a lovesick teenager carrying on about how he was the most important thing in the universe (especially once she’s embroiled in trying to save the universe), much less tolerate his jealously staking his claims over her in front of her ex like a dog pissing up a lamppost. She wouldn’t sit around playing house with her murderous beau without a single thought or qualm about the third of a species she was just responsible for annihilating.

Well, this Devi does. If Rachel Bach was writing about two different Devis, I wish I’d known sooner, because she sure as hell wasn’t writing about the one I met in the first book of the trilogy. And where the romance has never taken over up until now, it absolutely dominates the first half of the book. You forgive each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but you love each other, but you shouldn’t be together, but his hair’s so pretty, but you shouldn’t be together… You know, if the really great world-building and the epic plot and all of the fascinating supporting characters weren’t getting sidelined for this relationship, I might care more about the romantic angst. But they are, so I don’t.

Because of this, and because of the setup that has Devi and Rupert start off more or less stranded together, the beginning of the book is really quite slow and feels like an anticlimax after the way Honour’s Knight ended. Once the plot kicks into high gear, though, we hit the good stuff. It’s a shame the characterisation in this volume is weak because this is the finest display of Bach’s ability to sustain intensity without turning the story into the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay film, without drowning out the moments of wonder and horror like the haunting death of an emperor phantom or the final revelation of just what the Eyes did to Maat.

I found myself more interested in Maat’s story than in Devi’s, in a way. The conditions in which she was kept were so incomprehensibly cruel, and yet it’s hard to sit in judgement of those who put her there without thinking about how few of us, with the knowledge they had at the time, would have done any different to protect the universe and everything in it we held dear. For most of the trilogy she’s been a name hanging over the characters’ heads, but not much more than a silhouette of a character herself, played for creep factor. Here she becomes real, and it’s impossible to ignore what she was: A little girl tortured in the name of the survival of billions.

I really like the look into the nature of the lelgis and their motivations, as well. The enigmatic nature of Devi’s initial contacts with them and the presentation of themselves as guardians of the cosmos had me in mind of the vorlons from Babylon 5 for a while, but it was oddly fitting that something so epic originated from something so mundane and, well, human, as hubris.

The ending was a bit pat but I mostly appreciated that it wasn’t too drawn out. My favourite part about it was the Sacred King actually appearing on the page and the intriguing hints as to his nature. I hope that’s not the last we see of him; if it’s true that the author plans to return to this world with a different set of characters, I’d enjoy seeing something maybe a bit more localised in Paradoxian territory so that things like the Sacred King’s true nature and the history of how he came to be so sacred to Paradox could be explored in more depth.

I find myself coming back to the same thing I said at the end of book two: This trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts. Taken alone, Heaven’s Queen is a problematic novel with a suspenseful, and not ultimately unsatisfying conclusion. Viewed in hindsight as a whole, I find myself more forgiving of the Paradox trilogy’s issues in light of its accomplishments, and I would like to see what other feats of world-building the author accomplishes. At some point, I will definitely check out the work she has written under her other name of Rachel Aaron.

3 stars

Review: Honour’s Knight (Paradox #2), by Rachel Bach

March 24, 2015

Honour's KnightDevi Morris’s stint as security aboard the Glorious Fool isn’t exactly off to a shining start. She has no memory of the attack that left her with a near-fatal gut wound, broken limbs, and a fellow merc to bury. The ship’s cook whose name she can’t remember, whose very visage sends inexplicable waves of revulsion through her, wants her off the ship for reasons she doesn’t understand but isn’t about to put up with. Weirdest of all, although her return to health allows her a return to duty, she can’t shake her visions of the little glowing bugs that trail her through the ship, or the painful black stain that sometimes spreads across her hands.

There’s a lot to like about Honour’s Knight. It’s a real page-turner, with a much broader portrayal of Bach’s intricate world-building than the largely shipbound first book, and, especially in the latter half, tightly-wound suspense in its many action sequences. The beating Devi took at the end of the last book doesn’t hold her back from being her usual kickass self in this one, and I think if anything she has a bit more agency this time around, because she’s so critical both to the climax of the story — she was a bit sidelined, though not for invalid reasons, during two of Fortune’s Pawn’s tensest action scenes — and to the future on a larger scale.

The novel also starts on a surprisingly dark note, elevating the trilogy from pure popcorn by introducing the moral theme of the value of the individual versus the security of the collective. There aren’t any black hats here because everyone, at least on the human side of things, has a sympathetic motive, and the conflict arises from their differing views on if and when the sacrifice of the one for the many is a choice we have the right to make. Everyone who played a minor role in the first book gets very well fleshed out in this one, and I really like the addition of Cotter’s replacement, Rashid. He puts a human face on the consequences of Caldswell’s operation.

That said, I can’t help but find this novel a bit weaker than Fortune’s Pawn because of its scattershot pacing in the first half. I hate memory loss storylines. I generally feel that it’s a cheap way of hitting the reset button so that more drama can be mined from treading already-trodden ground, from re-establishing relationships that we’ve already seen established, and I don’t find it dramatic, I find the wait for a return to the status quo boring. I anticipated spending a lot of Honour’s Knight gritting my teeth.

Devi’s story doesn’t really slow down too much. One of the frustrating parts of a memory loss storyline is waiting for the protagonist to catch up to what the reader already knows, but thankfully this isn’t a situation where we have the full story and are just waiting for Devi to get with the programme. Her encounter with Brenton at the end of the last book created more questions than it answered, and even if she had her memories she’s still got to find a lot of pieces to put the puzzle together, which come pretty fast. There’s not a huge gap between the point where the reader has enough information to see the bigger picture and the point where Devi can also, which minimised my annoyance. But she accepted her circumstances far too easily and the lack of impetus to investigate what she learned about Caldswell before her memory wipe means she has to be led by the nose more than I liked — or yanked by the spine, based on the uncomfortable description of her out-of-body encounter with Ren.

It’s got a bigger impact when it comes to her relationship with Rupert. Being subjected to him moping and giving her soulful looks gets tedious fast; when he demonstrates his willingness to put the mission before Devi with fatal consequences, it kills my interest in seeing her do anything except promptly get her memories back and put a bullet in him. The character becomes really unrootable and while I like that Bach allowed Devi her fury, it wasn’t enough. Anything more than a reluctant alliance should be dead in the water.

Yet… although logically, the pairing doesn’t work at all, the chemistry still does kind of rise off the page. It’s annoying that I can’t really name any reasons why Devi should be drawn to Rupert at this point besides ‘Well, he’s pretty’, but when they’re in a scene together the pages somehow fly by. When they’ve both got their memories, at least.

There isn’t an ending so much as a cessation so abrupt that I had to check I hadn’t missed something, and I’m glad I had the third book to go onto immediately. This trilogy feels a lot like one book chopped into three and I think some of my pacing quibbles stem from that. Put together it is greater than the sum of its parts.

3 stars

Review: Fortune’s Pawn (Paradox #1), by Rachel Bach

March 23, 2015

Fortune's PawnDevi Morris has spent years working her way up the ladder of Paradox’s elite power-armoured mercenaries, but to achieve her goal of becoming a Devastator, part of the Sacred King’s own unit, she’s going to have to step outside her career path to accomplish something extraordinary. Working security on a trader vessel like the Glorious Fool definitely wouldn’t cut it, but on the advice of a friend and lover that there’s more than meets the eye to the ship’s strangely high turnover of guards, and that it’s just the kind of high-risk posting that might catch the Devastators’ attention — if she survives it — Devi takes the gig.

The crew of the Glorious Fool are a ragtag bunch: Besides Captain Brian Caldswell, his engineer sister-in-law, and his silent, disconcerting daughter, are a systems analyst from a space-dwelling cult with a very liberal view of gravity, a ship’s doctor from a race of lizard-like people more known for enslaving and eating humans than repairing them, a perpetually disgruntled navigator who’s essentially a giant bird, and another Paradoxian armoured merc Devi has to beat in line from day one. But far more intriguing to Devi is the beautiful, enigmatic ship’s cook, Rupert Charkov, who hides more than just his uncanny strength and reflexes.

I absolutely love Devi. She is an object lesson in how to write a strong female protagonist. She’s ambitious and genuinely loves her work, taking an almost childlike glee in her beautiful powered armour (which is almost a character unto itself) and guns, and she’s got a deserved confidence in her own capabilities, but she’s not immune to failure and frustration. She’s an unabashedly sexual person who decisively puts down the one character who attempts to slut-shame her for it, but it’s only one part of her life and not the most important one, and her career comes across as her greatest passion. She’s able to be vulnerable and experience a broken heart like anyone else, but it’s clearly not the end of her world and certainly doesn’t erode her professionalism. She is, in short, an awful lot like real women, only with more firepower than most of us, and it’s ever so refreshing to see her character type in science fiction.

The romance is not as dominant a factor in the book as I expected going in, and to start with it’s a well-written one. There’s no love at first sight nonsense here; it starts as a healthy attraction written with lots of chemistry, intensifies when she’s rebuffed and her curiosity is piqued, and evolves into something more emotional as the shipboard environment becomes more high-pressure. It falls down a bit for me in the second half of the book. Devi’s an intensely practical person, and although he’s shrouded in mystery to a large extent, Rupert begins as down-to-earth and reserved as well, so it’s a bit jarring when the dialogue between them turns a little overwrought and gushy. It’s not that egregious by romance standards, and I’ve certainly read worse, it’s just not the kind of relationship I picture these two fairly hardened people having. At that stage I’d envision them being the kinds to convey a lot with body language while leaving it unsaid. I think some of Rupert’s lines, in particular, feel a bit like wish fulfilment.

The world-building is something I’m really impressed by, especially given how much of the narrative is shipbound. We barely see Paradox, and yet there’s a great sense of what it and its ruling Sacred King mean to Devi, of the role that armoured units serve in its society, of its relationship with Terrans and the other species. The xith’cal and the aeons could’ve felt like just talking lizards and birds, but they don’t, with the xith’cal in particular feeling pretty distinctive. I love that we essentially get a genderqueer lizard-person discussing their gender identity with Devi at one point and that it feels so organic that these people are simultaneously convincing within the context of their societies, and also just as people.

Towards the end the book does involve one of my biggest storytelling pet peeves, something that I usually feel is excessively soapy and mostly exists to draw out a story by forcing it to retread already established ground. It made me somewhat grumpy about beginning the next book, but with enough faith in Bach’s writing to get over it. It’s also definitely not one for people who need each volume of a series to be mostly complete unto itself, because all the payoff is set up to take place in the next book. It’s a really promising setup, though, and you can see that all of this world-building is here to support a story that’s going to be suitably vast in scope. Unless you’re allergic to cliffhangers, it’s a solid sci-fi romance with the emphasis on sci-fi, and I’m glad the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club led to me reading it.

3.5 stars

Review: Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

March 18, 2015

Karen MemoryIt’s the Wild West, but not quite as we saw it; it’s also an age where licensed Mad Scientists hold steam-powered robot duels and everything from street lifts to sewing machines have an added touch of steampunk. Karen is a teenage prostitute working in one of Rapid City’s classier bordellos, the Hôtel Mon Cherie. When the wounded Merry Lee, who liberates women from sex trafficking operations, turns up at their door with a frightened young Indian woman rescued from just such a brothel, trouble arrives with them. Trouble’s name is Peter Bantle, and Karen is the first to notice the strange way that Bantle seems to bend people’s wills against their best efforts. With a mayoral election on the way, a dead street walker turning up outside the Hôtel, and a U.S. Marshal on a manhunt, Karen and the women of Madame Damnable’s house have a lot more on their hands than just the usual gold-hunting johns.

Karen Memory is a very engrossing read, with that just-one-more-chapter quality that makes the pages fly by. Even when there’s not a lot happening, Karen’s narrative voice gives the story a conversational feel that keeps the pages turning, although her patois was occasionally jarring to me because it felt very East End, especially in the first quarter of the book when I don’t think the author had settled in to the character’s mannerisms quite as much as she did later on. I could write my knowledge of American regional dialects on a post-it note and have room left over, so it may actually be an accent that’s appropriate to the place and period, there’s just a bit of cognitive dissonance going on when a character in a Western is making me think of London. Bear definitely did a good job of evoking the sense of being in the mind of a slightly world-weary but not broken down teenager, though, which again aids the novel’s flow. I’m pushing thirty, but still young enough to be bugged when — all too frequently — authors fail to accurately capture the teenage voice.

It’s a first-person narrative, so Karen is obviously the character we’re treated to the greatest sense of, but everyone else veritably leapt off the page as well. I admired the fact that each woman in the Mon Cherie is a fully fleshed out individual that the reader not only gets a full sense of, but cares enough about to fear for, as well. This is a very diverse book, including multiple gay characters, a trans woman, and men and women of colour, and it’s a diversity that feels sort of effortless because the historical period isn’t used as an excuse to reduce anyone to their social status as the Other. Bear trusts the reader to understand why being on the outskirts of the society of the time would have brought these characters together without rubbing their, and our, noses in ugly attitudes in the name of gritty realism. I also enjoyed the fact that the women had each other’s backs, and the occasional mild competitiveness didn’t blunt their affection and compassion for each other, which is a big step up from the vapid cattiness with which prostitutes are so often portrayed.

I am anti-prostitution, but I don’t like the demonisation or objectification of women involved in it, so I walked into the book with a certain hesitation about its premise. I feel like fantasy fiction is divided between takes on prostitution that either glorify it to a level that makes even some of its proponents uncomfortable, or that invite us to alternately sneer and leer at the ‘whores’ while ascribing few characteristics to them beyond the pathetic or the salacious. This is the first book I can think of where the portrayal completely worked for me. There’s no sleaziness at all, in fact there aren’t even any sex scenes. In a way, although the brothel is very important as a setting, what the women who work there actually do is just sort of incidental. The johns are background noise, the women are women first and prostitutes second, and leaving aside the fact that the main romantic relationship is a lesbian one, it’s the way women platonically relate to other women that is the main focus of what actually goes on at the bordello on the page. At the same time, the Hôtel Mon Cherie is never explicitly painted as a good thing or glorified, but it does contrast a really important difference between a drug-free, woman-owned establishment where everyone is at least nominally there by choice — even if their reasons are sad or their other choices are ugly — and an operation run by brutal men like Bantle, where the girls have no say in their customers or their treatment, and particularly ones that engage in sex trafficking. The whole thing is just refreshingly agendaless.

The development of Karen’s relationship with Priya is another thing that worked well for me. Firstly, because it’s great to see the more rarely-explored (at least in the genres I read) situation of a lesbian relationship where the characters are already comfortable with their sexual orientations and the relationship can develop at the same pace as most heterosexual ones, without the additional angst of a coming out story. Secondly, I liked that Karen’s initial development of feelings for Priya reflected the giddiness of a crush without turning into insta-love, which I think is the perfect balance for a girl who seems worldly enough not to be fooled by the difference between lust and love, but still pretty sheltered when it comes to opportunities to pursue intimacy for herself, out of genuine attraction, with members of the sex she’s actually drawn to.

I think if the plot had continued to operate on the relatively intimate scale on which it began, just addressing the murder mystery, their conflict with Bantle’s operation, and the side plot involving Priya’s sister, the book would’ve been just about perfect. Where it falls down for me is that it tries, towards the end, to blow up into a story that’s too big for the world the author’s built up until that point. That story could’ve been a great one too, but if Bear was going that route then a lot more groundwork needed to be laid for me to find it satisfying. There should’ve been more mad science, rather than just tantalising hints; the nation responsible for one of the dastardly schemes should have been a little more gracefully integrated before they showed up as cackling villains; the Wild West should have been a bit more wild. Having scheduled automaton duels between licensed Mad Scientists dropped in as a background detail without ever being elaborated on works great if you’re just telling a story about this one bordello, the people who work in it, and their clash with a rival operation, but if you’re going to build up to something that has much, much bigger stakes, then the world is one of the things that needs building.

I didn’t really buy into the framing device of having this be Karen’s dime novel, either. That felt like an afterthought, because it seems incongruous with the conversational tone that I mentioned earlier and with Karen’s use of dialect. To be honest, I headcanoned it away almost immediately and forgot it was meant to be the case until I looked at my review notes.

I can’t really say that these flaws impeded my enjoyment much. They’re the kind of things that registered without much impact while I was reading, and became more prominent in hindsight.

Karen Memory is a book with very broad appeal, and the impression I went in with before I read it, that it was a book about steampunk prostitutes, turned out to be very reductive, as those are two of its least defining qualities. Give it a go. This one’s a keeper.

4 stars

Review: Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens

March 14, 2015

Nicholas NicklebyAlthough it is the third of Dickens’s novels, Nicholas Nickleby is perhaps the first to feel more than prototypically Dickensian. It dances between comedy and tragedy, with a protagonist who is more than a little autobiographical and a secondary cast who are, to a man, larger than life. That Nicholas briefly spends time caught up in the inner workings of a theatre troupe is remarkably apt, because the tone of the entire book is decidedly theatrical, and it’s unsurprising to learn that it widely became the target of plagiarism for stage adaptation before it was even completed — a practice which prompts Dickens to use Nicholas as his mouthpiece to launch a vitriolic rant at just such a plagiaristic dinner guest in the latter pages of the book.

Much as The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist before it engaged the social issues of the day in the form of, respectively, debtor’s prisons and the New Poor Law’s workhouses, Nicholas Nickleby opens by sending Nicholas to one of the infamous Yorkshire boarding schools where boys lived in conditions such as five to a bed, all sharing a towel, in rooms with sewage and effluvium in their midst. Unlike his first two novels, where Dickens was at his strongest when tackling society’s injustices, these are some of the weaker chapters in the book, perhaps because he doesn’t let himself be angry enough. During Nicholas’s time in Yorkshire, I expected to see more of the scathing sarcasm with which Dickens described Oliver Twist’s workhouses levelled at the boarding schools, and not so much of Nicholas dodging the unrequited affections of the unfortunately named Miss Fanny Squeers.

From the moment Nicholas engages with the theatre troupe, the plot becomes background noise for a good few hundred pages. What takes centre stage are Dickens’s small insights into people, into personhood, as he piles more and more into his madcap dramatis personae. Take Miss La Creevy, the little miniature painter, whose scenes bear minimal importance to the overall direction of the story but the utmost to the heart of the novel, for the grace and good-humoured patience with which she is shown to bear her loneliness, the ways in which she is shown to have drawn positivity from being her own source of company, and the ken of humanity she demonstrates in return when she is the first to recognise the changes in Smike and the most astute at bringing him out into the world.

This, writ large, is the beauty of the book. Dickens’s characters can be melodramatic, they can be caricatures, they can be unabashedly, unapologetically over the top, and that’s here too, in the form of Lord Frederick and Sir Mulberry, Kate’s contemptible harassers, but they are rarely just that. They’re also Smike and Newman Noggs and the Cheeryble brothers — each a different facet of humanity’s capacity for warmth.

Kate’s chapters do disrupt the flow occasionally, because she borders on being another of Dickens’s repetitive illustrations of his one ideal of womanhood, but she’s not quite as tediously angelic as, say, Rose Maylie, a fate from which she is largely preserved by her hilarious relationship with her and Nicholas’s mother. Mrs. Nickleby would be too exasperating to be true if not for the fact that everyone has a relative of her ilk in their family tree somewhere, and the universality of having sat through a family dinner with one renders her exceedingly amusing.

Ultimately, the resolution is served by the fact that Dickens doesn’t strive to tie things up in as perfectly a happy bow as in Oliver Twist, but allows some bittersweetness to linger. It’s hard not to be heartbroken for Smike, but in an odd way, the heart breaks a little for Ralph Nickleby, ostensibly one of the black hats of the piece, also. He had the seeds of a better man within him, and so many opportunities where, had he simply allowed them to grow, he could’ve joined in the happy ending. Kate stood as his bridge to reconciliation with his fatherly instincts, with Nicholas and, through him, Smike, but every time he chose to protect his standing instead of the young woman appealing to his shrivelled sense of family, he took a step closer to that ending. He is one of Dickens’s more nuanced villains, and his final mental break is exceedingly well written. It’s a shame that more focus is given to the rescue of Madeline and all her entitlements, suspenseful though that plot can be, than to a more natural integration of Ralph’s downfall than having all the bad news unceremoniously dumped in his lap in the Cheerybles’ office.

Nicholas Nickleby can be a long and scattered book. It’s perhaps one of the best early examples of Dickens’s powerful descriptive prose, but he has yet to touch the heights of A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. It is, however, unfairly subject to oversight, and there’s a lot here that is well worth your time.

3.5 stars

Review: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

March 13, 2015

Oliver TwistThe second stop on my tour of Dickens’s novel-length fiction, Oliver Twist is not one of my favourites, but it is perhaps one of his most memorable. Its strengths lie solidly in its opening: Where the first of Dickens’s novels, The Pickwick Papers, began in a way rambling and bucolic, the opening chapters of Oliver Twist are a swift introduction to Dickens’s acerbic wit. He manages to elicit simultaneous laughter and disgust with his descriptions of situations, and people, so horrifying, like the unfortunate expiration of most of the orphans left in the care of Mrs. Mann, the woman who raises Oliver until he is old enough to enter the workhouse, just as she’s close to getting the poor mites to subsist on nothing but air. Every authority figure to whom little Oliver can look for succour is unflinchingly self-important and corrupt, and Dickens lays bare his contempt for the workhouses, the officials, and the New Poor Law that condemns so many, including orphans like Oliver, to starve in their halls.

Though not exactly like Oliver, because Oliver isn’t much of a person. Dickens is sometimes criticised for a perceived lack of depth in his characterisation, and it’s a criticism I tend not to agree with very much, because I think that most of his protagonists, be they Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield or Pip, have a distinct sense of corporeality to them drawn from Dickens’s own character. Oliver, though, brings little of that to the page. He begins his journey as a figure too saintly to be true, whose lack of agency is couched in piteousness too overwrought to elicit quite as much sympathy as it ought. It’s not a terrible starting point balanced against the fire of Dickens’s anger and the bite of his sarcasm, but I rather expected to see Oliver come into his own upon acquiring more worldly experience.

For a while, it looks like he will, with his introduction to the lively cast of Fagin’s crew. Fagin himself was a problematic character even to some of Dickens’s contemporaries, leading him to edit later editions of the book and be more conscious of his attitudes towards the Jewish community; to the modern reader, the blatant ethnic stereotyping and the literally devilish qualities assigned to the character are downright offensive. But the early days of Oliver’s time with him remain some of the better chapters of the novel nonetheless, because while the workhouse setting is the ideal channel for Oliver Twist’s social commentary, this is where it briefly becomes a character-led story, and what characters there are to lead it. I will forever wish the Artful Dodger might’ve had his own tale, though other authors have since walked that path; he commands every page he’s on, and for such a memorable personage, there are too few of those. I like to imagine a tale in which Oliver benefitted from exposure to his streetwise smarts and used them to seize some agency of his own, and find a way out from under Fagin’s thumb.

What we get instead is an Oliver who fades into the background of his own story until he is a pawn shuttled about so much that his passivity, his wide-eyed innocence, becomes grating. I think this is an area where the serialisation hurt the story, because that initial fire is given time to gutter out. Once the Maylies come into the picture it feels a little like Dickens lost interest in telling the story of Oliver Twist as opposed to writing one of his more painful odes to his late sister-in-law, complete with melodramatic laments from a fallen woman on never having the opportunity to be more like the character who represents her. Oliver is the means through which the latter half of the story comes about, but it is not his story.

I think Dickens also undermined his portrayal of the plight of the poor by giving Oliver a background of secret wealth, the better to tie things up in a bow full of happy endings. It suggests that the reason Oliver was worth saving is because he was someone all along, someone of money and society even if he didn’t know it, rather than supporting the notion that everyone’s essential rights, needs, and human dignity are worth recognition and support.

Almost everything that Dickens does in Oliver Twist, he does better somewhere else. That makes it difficult to articulate why it’s a book to which the memory clings so hard. Perhaps it’s the legion of adaptations it’s inspired, which gives more life to the sometimes lifeless page, though I then ask myself what made the book capture so many imaginations that it led to all of those adaptations in the first place. Perhaps it’s just the young man’s fire with which it’s written, since Dickens was only in his mid-twenties when he authored it. It’s certainly one of his angriest books, and after reading, it’s hard not to feel a shadow of that in your chest when you think of the phrase ‘Please, sir, I want some more’.

2.5 stars

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