Monday, December 29, 2008

Book Review: The Moon and the Sun

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

1998 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel

Reading a book you love is one of life's greatest joys. There is something almost transcendent about being transported into another world that grips you. Like most things in life, however, there's a flipside - there are the books you hate. It was this fact that sometimes made high school literature classes, despite my love of books and the excellent teachers I had, miserable. If reading a book you love brings joy, then being forced to stick with one you loathe is utter misery. One might imagine, for instance, that hell consists of an endless reading of Jude the Obscure. Deciding to read all the Hugo and Nebula award winning novels has had many benefits. It has introduced me to new writers, served as a guide to the greats of my favorite genres, and has allowed me to witness of variety of strong writing techniques that will benefit me personally as a writer. It is not, however, without its consequences. Having a goal to read a certain set of books is rather like the aforementioned school assignment in that, rather I like the book or not, I feel compelled to read the entire thing. The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntrye was one such miserable book.

The Moon and the Sun is an alternate history novel set in the court of Louis IX of France and involves the adventures of a brother and sister with a certain sea monster. I cannot point to any one single factor that makes The Moon and the Sun a subject of such abject loathing on my part. Ultimately, a number of points of sheer mediocrity, combined with several pet peeves, led to my shunning of this spectacularly bland book. The first fatal flaw of McIntyre's book is its lethargic pacing. I can love a slow book, my fondness for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Pride and Prejudice proves this point, but such pacing needs to be balanced by spectacular prose and brilliant characterization and on both these counts The Moon and the Sun scores poorly

The main characters manage to be mildly engaging, though not in any way spectacular, while the large supporting caste never rises above the depth of a teaspoon. Of particular annoyance is the character of Pope Innocent XII and it serves as a particularly good example. For those of you who don't know (I didn't before reading the book) Innocent XII is a Pope famous for reformation within the Catholic Church. He did much to weed out corruption during his reign and is famous for having remarked that the poor were his nephews. My research on him is extremely limited compared to McIntryre's, but I cannot imagine that her characterization of him comes close to accurate. He is a cardboard cutout of a legalistic catholic: angry at all times and obsessed with the idea of sin. Even had Innocent XII been such a Pope, I cannot imagine that he would have been like this at all times. Supporting characters need not be as dimensional as the main characters, but one should get the impression at least that the dimension is there. Unfortunately, like her characterization of Innocent, the majority of her supporting players never rise above clichés. This across the board negative stereotyping of Catholics is one of those pet peeves I mentioned, by the way.

As far as the writing style goes, there is little to mark it out as either good or bad. There were a few flaws that nagged me, however. One was that she did nothing to indicate when a piece of text was a character's thought beyond having the perspective switch to first person. I would be reading along and suddenly the text would make the switch without any other indication that she was moving into a piece of thought - a very disconcerting experience for any reader. The other major flaw, of similar character, is that she would from time to time switch perspectives without giving the reader much indication she had done so. Once again, when I would realize that she had changed perspectives, I would be jarred out of the story. Often enough, I would have to go back and figure out where the change had happened so I could put the right events and thoughts with the right characters. These flaws are so basic that no professional writer should ever have them in their work.

Worst of all, when the plot finally gets around to unraveling, it turns out to be an utterly predictable and painfully cliché storyline.

There are two minor things, however, that raise The Moon and the Sun very slightly in my esteem. The first is one of the main characters, Lucien de Barenton, a clever noble who advises the king and who happens to be a dwarf. He is not enough to recommend to book, however. Indeed, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series has a similar character, that of Tyrion Lannister, and is a much superior read. If you want the clever dwarf, check that one out instead. Though, the judges who give out the Nebula Award do not apparently agree with me as they committed the egregious error of awarding the Nebula to The Moon and the Sun over the first book in Martin's series, A Game of Thrones which was nominated in the same year. Sometimes the judges show spectacularly bad taste. The other feature of minute quality in The Moon and the Sun is the way she ends the story of the sea monster. I cannot, however, really discuss this without spoiling the whole plot, and while the book isn't really worth reading, I imagine there are some who might still want to torture themselves and so I will remain silent on the ending. Suffice to say that, in my opinion, the novelty of the ending does not even come close to being enough payoff to makeup for this travesty of a read.

I cannot imagine what compelled the judges of the Nebula to even nominate The Moon and the Sun, and much less to give it an award. This is especially baffling to me in the face of the fact that it was running against A Game of Thrones. Perhaps the judges all voted while drunk. Perhaps they were all struck with temporary insanity. Who knows? It shall always remain to me an arcane mystery, but at least this review was fun to write.

Rating: 2 out of 10