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Saturday, July 21, 2018

City of Ink (Li Du #3) by Elsa Hart

The publisher approved me for City of Ink on Net Galley because I had reviewed the first novel of the Li Du mystery series, Jade Dragon Mountain, here.  I praised the first book for its unusual  18th century China  setting.  When I received this third novel,  I realized that I should have gotten seven lashes with a wet Chinese noodle for neglecting to read the second book in the series, The White Mirror.  Last month I corrected that shortcoming and reviewed Li Du #2 here. I thought The White Mirror was fascinating because of it's 18th century Tibet setting.  It was the best novel that I read in the first half of 2018.  My honest review of City of Ink is below.

                       


  In City of Ink Li Du returns to Beijing from exile.   He had been exiled for his association with Shu who had been executed for conspiring against the Emperor.  Shu had been Li Du's mentor and friend.  He couldn't believe that Shu could have been guilty of such a terrible crime.  So Li Du's main goal in returning to Beijing is to clear Shu's name.

 I believe that Li Du's effort to vindicate his dead friend could have made a compelling short story.  It was certainly the strongest aspect of City of Ink, and provided a powerful ending to the novel.

Unfortunately, a great deal of narrative space was taken up with an investigation that didn't interest me nearly as much as the drama of Li Du's personal crusade to clear Shu.  There were murders at a tile factory.  Li Du diligently followed the clues and came to a slightly unexpected conclusion.  Yet this was the sort of case that could have taken place anywhere.  It was a classic mystery with the requisite plot twist, but after the extraordinary goings on in Tibet during The White Mirror I expected more.

The Imperial exams for government positions were an event in the foreground of City of Ink.   It didn't surprise me that corruption had crept into the exam process.   It would have astonished me far more if all the examiners and applicants were completely honest.  Bureaucratic corruption adds realism, but I considered it a routine element in this novel.

Li Du's friend, the storyteller Hamza was entertaining as usual.  I continue to regard him as the most interesting character in this series.  I hope that Elsa Hart includes Hamza in Li Du's future adventures.

I admit to having been disappointed by the mystery aspect of City of Ink, but I am optimistic about the possibilities that could develop for Li Du and Hamza in upcoming novels.

                               





                       

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Smoke and Iron (Great Library #4)-- Saving The Great Library From Itself

I reviewed the previous novel in Rachel Caine's dystopian alternate history fantasy series back in April here and promised that I would get to Smoke and Iron relatively soon.  The time got away from me. With the best of intentions, I become over-committed.  Then I heard from the publisher wondering when I would review it.  So I shoe-horned this Net Galley into my schedule as best as I could.  Many thanks to the publisher and Net Galley for the ARC.
 
                             

The central characters of this series are rebels, but they are rebels that are part of the Great Library.  They are scholars, obscurists with magical abilities and High Garda military officers who want the Great Library to be restored to its original values without the authoritarianism and corruption that had crept in.  They're something like the contemporary Americans who call themselves the Resistance except that the protagonists of this series are only a small group.  They needed to gain more support or they couldn't possibly succeed.  Smoke and Iron is the story of how they start to build a network.   This isn't a simple process.  It's difficult and dangerous.  It also couldn't be completed in one book.

There is a belief that heroes are people who accomplish great feats on their own.   This is a myth.  Heroes have mentors and allies.  Even an impressively strong character like the hijabi heroine Khalila couldn't do it all on her own.   Even the powerful obscurist Morgan needed help from within her own order.   Jess had connections from the criminal world where he originated.  They all had people that they could call on.  Some of those who responded were surprising.   The inventor Thomas provided some astonishing innovations.

By the end of Smoke and Iron what had seemed like a quixotic mission began to look possible.   This novel is the turning point.   So it's definitely essential to readers of the Great Library series.   Yet a  positive resolution isn't guaranteed.  Hold on to your metaphorical headgear.  The fifth book in the series is likely to be  hair-raising because the Archivist and his cronies won't give up their power without a tremendous struggle.

                           
 
                          

Sunday, July 1, 2018

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia--A Rebuttal To Hillbilly Elegy

When I came across commentary about Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, I thought about what I knew of the history of the region and it didn't sit right.  So I never did read it.   I figured that I wouldn't get any fresh insight from Vance.  I read Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders many years ago.  So I'm familiar with that perspective. I was glad to come across What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by historian Elizabeth Catte who is also native to the region.  I thought I could learn something from Catte's book.

                         

 I already knew that Appalachians were portrayed as backwards as an excuse to seize their land. Catte tells us about Kentucky widow Ollie Combs trying to block the bulldozers that were destroying her house in 1965.  (See a page on Appalachian Women on the Appalachian Voices website.) The company made the argument that Combs owned everything above ground, but the mining company had purchased the resources underneath her property. The house stood in the way of extracting that mineral wealth.  Ollie Combs was arrested.  Catte tells us that Bill Strode, the Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who documented Ollie Combs' act of  resistance, was also arrested. (See the article about Bill Strode on Wikipedia.)

It wasn't just about the destruction of the environment though that was also a serious issue.  It was about taking everything these people had--their homes and the farms that were their livelihood. This is the root cause of Appalachian poverty.

Before the labor regulations of the New Deal, the mining companies didn't treat their Appalachian employees much better. You can find out more about the serious exploitation that was going on by reading the History Channel's article about the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, which was called "the largest labor uprising" in American history.  Although I was aware of the intense labor struggle between miners and mine owners in West Virginia,  I learned from Catte that the mine owners actually had a private army which was dropping bombs on the strikers from private planes.  The fight to preserve Blair Mountain as a historical site is currently ongoing. It's slated for mountaintop removal mining. (See this article on the Progressive.org website.)

Catte also mentions  Black Appalachians in her book. If you read Vance's book you'd think that there were no African Americans in Appalachia.

Elizabeth Catte has an extensive bibliography to bolster her arguments.   It was refreshing to see her perspective. She successfully proves that there have been  and still are Appalachian radicals, and that the population of Appalachia is more ethnically diverse than Vance portrays.