Thursday, July 05, 2007

Brasyl - Ian Macdonald

Ian Macdonald is a jobbing SF author who's been writing for quite a few years, but has only recently ridden to fame on the back of 2004's Hugo-nominated River of Gods. His latest effort Brasyl comes out in the UK this month; it's an energetic, intelligent SF novel where quantum theory mixes with historical fiction and reality TV across parallel universes, all driven by a strange Latin beat. The style is original, beautiful and immaculately constructed, but I found it very hard to get into, and in the end didn't really like the book that much.

The plot comes in three strands across three alternate Brazils - in 2006, a shallow and ambitious TV producer, Marcelina, is seeing her career and life slowly destroyed by a mysterious doppelganger; in 2036, semi-legal entrepreneur Edson gets mixed up with a nasty gang war involving black-market quantum computing; and in 1706, Irish Jesuit Luis Quinn is dispatched up the Amazon to investigate the rumours of angels with flaming swords, and to bring down the murderous slave empire of a rogue priest. Alas, Marcelina's character was too annoying for me to care much what happened to her, and Edson's story was too strange to really engage with, so it was only the third strand that I really enjoyed reading, and even that was a bit too Heart of Darkness for comfort. Also, with such dispirate story threads, you'd naturally expect them to be all heading towards some kind of grand unified conclusion, but this never quite happened, leaving the book with a very disjointed feel.

The use of so many Portuguese expressions also added extra distance between story and reader. I belatedly discovered a glossary in the back, which helped, but for much of the book I struggled to remember the difference between malandras and favelistas, and never entirely understood the concept of jeito. It helped with the setting, but not so much with the understanding.

Take the film Twelve Monkeys. On an intellectual level, I can tell that this is a very good film - it's an interesting idea, an unusual premise, it's well-scripted and well-acted - and yet, on a visceral level, it does nothing for me, and I don't really enjoy watching it. I feel much the same about Brasyl. For me at least, the balance between style and story was tilted too far away from the story; it's had glowing reviews elsewhere from people whose priorities obviously differ, but for all its glittering brilliance, I don't think it's a book I'd bother to read again.



Blogger Neth said...

Wow - a review more negative than mine (it's nice not to the only one not blindly praising this novel). I liked it - it's good, but it could have been great.

It'll almost certainly win at least one major award, if not several. I'm not sure how I feel about this - it wouldn't be my top pick of 2007.

4:57 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

I know what you mean - it's nice to have some Literature in the genre, and it'll probably be recognised for that fact, but frankly I'm more looking forward to the new Harry Potter...

10:27 am  
Blogger Aidan Moher said...

Interesting. I've had my eye on this novel, due to the almost universal praise, but your comments (along with Neth's) are making me wonder whether this would be a book I would enjoy.

I will still try to get my hands on a copy, it isn't very long, but I might pick it up with a bit more trepidation now.

A Dribble of Ink

12:58 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good review! I agree that the book just didn't work. You were a little harder on it then I was, too. I think I gave it a 7/10. Definitely not deserving of any awards (imo).

(I noticed the glossary with about 15 pages to go in the book... so annoying.)

3:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the second book that I've read by Macdonald published by PYR, the other being "River of Gods." I really like his books and his ideas and where he is talking cyberpunk. However, PYR needs to invest in an editor.

1:37 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tell me one publisher that doesn't need to employ an army, not just a platoon mind you, of editors. This subject needs more attention and exposure of crimes. And what really gets me going is when the author has gushing thankyous to its editor (wife, agent, army of reseaerchers, mumandad, publishers secretary, -well, there might be some good sense there and the caterers to the family dog) in front of its massive volume.

12:54 pm  
Anonymous David said...


5:02 pm  

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