Thursday, April 16, 2009

[Lisa’s Take] Hand of Isis (Jo Graham)

Last year two brand new authors each released their first book. Jo Graham’s Black Ships and Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist both blew me away and made it solidly onto my “top 5 books of 2008” list, along with two other first time authors (Galen M. Beckett and J. M. McDermott, if you’re curious). Within the last couple of months, Graham and Barnes each released a second novel – you can imagine my surprise and delight, both at the quick turnaround and that so many great new authors were succeeding.

I tore through Barnes’ new book in a day. I was a little disappointed – it was ok, but not great. I’m no good at delayed gratification, so I turned immediately to Graham’s new release, Hand of Isis, hoping author #2 could fix me up. Sadly I ended up being doubly disappointed: I’m now 0-2 on second books by promising new authors this year.

Hand of Isis is a re-telling of Cleopatra’s life story from the perspective of one of her handmaidens (though handmaiden is a bit misleading, given the strength and power that said sidekick wields). While it has some vague ties back to Graham’s first book (implications of characters reborn, old souls, and repeated destinies) it stands on its own as a story. There is a lot of good to be said about the book – the descriptions and portrayal of the world are absolutely lush, and the amount of research Graham put into this book might be even more impressive than the research she did for Black Ships. The character relationships were strong and poignant, and her interweaving of magic and gods with the established belief system of the time was very impressive.

Now for the less good bits. The most compelling part of Black Ships was Graham’s strong characterizations. You really got to know all of her main characters at a very deep and emotional level – thus why I ended up sobbing over the last chapter at lunch time. However, in Hand of Isis the characters weren’t as solid – I’m not positive what caused this problem, but I think in part it had to do with the idea that the main characters were reborn versions of the main players in Black Ships. I didn’t remember their quirks and defining features well enough to project them onto their reborn counterparts, and Graham didn’t spend time re-developing them. As a result – no big emotional connection.

The second problem I encountered was in the book’s pacing. The first third of the book was excellent and moved along very swiftly. The last third also was filled with action and major plot points that kept me reading. The middle third, however, dragged horribly. While Graham excels at relationships and world building, she really fell down on the political aspects, and the middle of the book read like a litany of politically-based, distant actions. It made for a very underwhelming middle of the book, and did a lot to lessen my overall opinion of the story. If I’d gone into the final section less grumpy, I imagine my review for Hand of Isis would be much more glowing.

This third item might be me feeling touchy, but I feel like Hand of Isis seemed a little “romance novel” in sections. I’ve seen at least one other author go from “promising new fantasy author” to “relegated to the romance section” and I’d hate for Graham to head that direction. That said, I did very much approve of her portrayal of sexuality and love, in all of it’s not-quite-standard forms. I know it sounds like a weird dichotomy to say that I liked her approach to sexuality but that some of the relationships seemed like a romance novel… but there it is. I honestly can’t think of a good way to clarify.

Finally, I touched upon a similar idea in my review of The Domino Men, but I think the world in Cleopatra was a little too “real” for me. In Black Ships I wasn’t at all familiar with the historical period Graham based her story in, so it felt to me like straight up fantasy. It’s pretty much impossible not to know a bit about ancient Egypt and the world of Cleopatra, though, so Hand of Isis really felt like historical fantasy, rather than “fantasy” fantasy… which always decreases my enjoyment a bit. Entirely a personal bias, and not at all the author’s fault.

So all in all Hand of Isis was fairly balanced between things I liked and things that were gripes, but my high expectations meant that I had further to fall from the disappointments. Unless you’re particularly a fan of Jo Graham, I’d say skip Hand of Isis and just read Black Ships – the latter of which I do highly recommend. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Jo Graham’s work and I’ll no doubt be excited when she releases her next book, in hopes that it will make it up to the level of her first release.

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