Bonecrack by Dick Francis. rachelmanija and egelantier have been urging me to read Dick Francis for literally years, but I have been foolish and never listened to their advice. Until now, though I can't claim to have suddenly increased in wisdom. Instead Bonecrack was the only book I had small enough to wedge into my vest pocket when I went to the Women's March Saturday – I couldn't face having no access to a book all day long, but also didn't want to carry a bag on such a long walk. And for such silly reasons I have finally discovered a great author.
In Bonecrack, Neil has taken over managing an elite stable of racehorses from his father, who was severely injured in a car accident and thus is temporarily out of commission. Not much time goes by before Neil is kidnapped by a Mafia-esque killer with an unusual demand: he wants his son to become Neil's head jockey and to be allowed to ride the horse everyone expects to win the Kentucky Derby. Since he doesn't have much choice about the matter, Neil agrees and thus Alessandro – touchy, spoiled, and only seventeen – shows up to brood in Neil's down-to-Earth English stables.
Neil, who is the epitome of calm, rational, and self-possessed, is determined to think of some way out of his predicament without asking anyone for help, but he slowly grows to like Alessandro, at least if the kid can get out from under the control of his father. Neil's own father is pretty much a dick (if not quite an insane megalomaniac), and the two sons have much in common. I really loved the slow growth of their friendship.
This is a thriller, though, so there is also plenty of exciting action, including a fantastic climax. I loved the many supporting characters and detailed world of the stables. I know pretty much zero about horses or racing them, but Francis's descriptions of their elegant appearances and the experience of riding them were lovely to read. A great book all around.
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer. Goddamn. How does one even begin to review this book?
Okay. Set in the 25th century, the world has become, in many ways, a utopia. War and murder have been all but erased. One way this has been accomplished is by removing religion entirely from public discourse – people can still believe whatever they want to believe, but all proselytizing is illegal, and even discussing theology in groups of three people or more is strictly controlled. Gender is considered an inappropriate topic to discuss in public; everyone is referred to as "they", and most clothing is gender-neutral. Nation-states have also disappeared, as a consequence of those flying cars sci-fi is always promising us:
Pundits may whine that Hives were birthed by technology rather than [a politician], an inevitable change ever since 2073 when [the first flying car] circled the globe in four-point-two hours, bringing the whole planet within comfortable commuting range and sounding the death knell of that old spider, the geographic nation. There is some truth to their claims, since it does not take a firebrand leader to make someone who lives in Maui, works in Myanmar, and lunches in Syracuse realize the absurdity of owing allegiance to the patch of dirt where babe first parted from placenta.
Instead people belong to one of seven "Hives", each of which has slightly different goals, politics, and lifestyle than the others. An individual chooses which one to belong to upon reaching adulthood. People also no longer live in nuclear families, but instead in a bash', a small group of adults who may be relatives, friends, spouses, or work colleagues, but all of whom have explicitly chosen to form an extended family, raising any children communally. Again, you choose this upon becoming an adult, with your options being continuing in the bash' of your parents, joining another established bash', or getting a group together to form an entirely new bash'. One of my favorite parts of this book is how plausible this all feels, the way it's easy to see how such a future might have evolved from our own modern day. But though this might be the future, history is important too: the 25th century turns out to obsessed with the Enlightenment, seeing it as the origin of their age. They continually reference Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, de Sade, and contemporaries, discussing them and their ideas so frequently that they're referred to with nicknames rather than formal titles. And then there's the tracker system, and the set-sets, and the Mars terraforming, and so many other details that I could go on and on and on about! I love Palmer's endless imagination.
All of this worldbuilding is fascinating and completely delightful, but there is also an actual plot. An important editorial is stolen from a newspaper office shortly before publication and left in the bash' that controls the computer system for those flying cars, planning the course routes to prevent crashes. Solving this bizarre crime – primarily why on earth anyone would bother committing it – forms the central mystery of the book. A second plot involves Bridger, a 13-year-old child with the unexplained ability to create miracles, bringing toys, drawings, and imaginary friends to life. Bridger and his talents are currently unknown to any world powers, and his guardians are determined to keep it that way, at least until Bridger is mature enough to make his own decisions.
Our main character and narrator is Mycroft Canner, a criminal who only escaped the death sentence (the exact details of what crime he committed aren't revealed until over halfway through the book, but trust me, it's worth the wait) by serving a life-long penance indentured to the public good, which means he spends his time picking up trash, clearing away flood debris, and being in curiously close contact with the heads of at least four Hives. Mycroft is fluent in many of the world's languages, and the constant switching between English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Latin, Greek, and probably at least one more that I've forgotten (distinguished in the text by subtle typographic marks) added to sense of the book's complexity and depth. Mycroft also uses gendered pronouns despite how archaic and intimate it sounds to his contemporaries, though it quickly becomes obvious that he's also not using them the way we would. A character becomes "he" or "she" not by their biology, but by their presentation, personality, job, or to parallel them with another character.
What I really want to talk about with this book isn't the plot, the characters, or the worldbuilding (even though those are all excellent), it's the philosophical questions it raises. Is this a utopia after all? Is clearing away gender and religion from the public sphere a good thing? If you can create a better world, what price would you be willing to pay to do so? When and how do the ends justify the means? None of these questions are answered in Too Like the Lightning (unsurprisingly, as it's the first of four books, and I can't wait for the next one to be out in March), but I adore all the discussion it's opened up.
Mount TBR update: both of these! So that brings me up to a grand total of... 2. Well, it's a start.
What are you currently reading?
The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World's Oldest Symbols by Genevieve von Petzinger. I'm teaching a class (well, probably more accurate to say 'giving a lecture', but the group calls them classes, so whatevs) on cave paintings next week, and in putting together a list of 'further resources' for people, I came across this interesting new book. We'll have to see what I think about it!
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