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Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Winter Thief



Jenny White's novels, especially this one, remind me of GRRM to an extent. Both seem to have a coolly detached and fatalistic view of the powerlessness of individuals (including kings and pashas) swept by the currents of history. Fatalistic, but not cynical, an attitude derived from their uncommonly vast knowledge of and clearheaded understanding of the real histories of nations and politics.

Her delineation of all the forces at play in and around the Ottoman Empire at that particular moment --- January 1888 --- is almost as impossibly complicated and unbearably tense as the moment before King Joffrey ordered the beheading of Ned Stark. International socialists, Armenian nationalists, Ottoman bureaucrats and secret police, Kurdish troops, everyone has his or her own agenda. Everyone is at odds with each other and, as we already know, bureaucrats who are supposed to be on the same side are more dangerous than your enemies, and the knife is more likely to be plunged into your back than your front.

The macrohistorical elements are beautifully and credibly weaved together. The political landscape is accurately drawn. The ultimate effect is a sense of inevitability and pessimism, especially if you know that the storm brewing and temporarily averted in this book did arrive a couple of decades later, in real life, with its full force of mayhem.

Yet while reading it I was frequently bothered by small flaws that buzz around like gnats around the light on a summer night. Not bad enough to erase the accomplishment in other aspects, but annoying enough to damage my enjoyment. Most of characters are distinct enough thanks to colorful ethnic details, but their motivation from one scene to another or in certain moments are crude and unbelievable. Transitions from scene to scene are sometimes sloppy and illogical. Dialogs and relationships are occasionally unrealistic. The author lets slip her weakness in plotting with some awkward narrative choices and overlapping exposition.

These flaws are not enough to make me throw the book down. In fact, her pacing is excellent. I didn't zip through it in one day like I did with "The Abyssinian Proof," but did stay up till 2 am to finish the last stretch.

White is simultaneously sharp and sloppy. Most important , besides the plotting problem, I can't help but feel deeply unsatisfied with the uneven characterization. Something, a crucial ingredient for a great storyteller, is missing. I can't quite name it, but this ingredient has to do with a deep and organic insight, an unconscious and instinctive understanding of the heart. White seems to lack this instinct and fake it with overly intellectual analysis and argument.

GRRM, on the other hand, has this instinct in astonishing abundance.

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