In the realm of useful, reading Japanese naturally tops English because however execrable the work it's language practice. (Now that I can read with reasonable facility I've lost that comfort as well. Japanese dreck is very drecky, and there's a lot of it.) But reading English fiction usually feels like a not very satisfying waste of time. Thus I haven't read much of it these past five or seven years except for mysteries, because those perversely are a satisfying waste of time-- much more so than Canlit or mainstream fiction. Or, indeed, most fantasy.
Fantasy leaves me increasingly cold. Maybe there's ideas out there, but they're inaccessible inside 600 page long thumping tomes written in 20th Century Bloat. Style matters to me quite a lot because I can happily read authors that are all style and no substance, like Cabell, while the reverse- like lots of le Guin and *all* of Doris Lessing- hurts me almost physically. All of this comes clear as I read Elizabeth Willey's A Sorceror and a Gentleman.
My first reaction is that everyone ought to be squeeing over it all over the place and they're not. (Well, someone is, is how I came to be reading it; but still, it's not like Anne Bishop or Phillip Pullman who I know but have never read.) Such it is to be caviare to the general. The few reviews I can find on it online all say It's Zelazny's Amber even if they add Done better, and I'm sitting here saying Christ on a cracker guys Amber is the West Side Story version of Willey's R&J. If anything. But I'm sure many people prefer WSS: it's got music and dancing and doesn't have that difficult language.
Whereas me I am utterly entranced that Willey has done something I'd thought impossible- written an English equivalent of the way Zeniba talks, and Kamaji and all those old guys in manga who say Waira for I. A language that expresses different generations. (Granted her generations are infinitely older than Japanese ones. Umm, maybe. Like, how old is Zeniba anyway? I wouldn't care to guess.)
I gather this is the second book in a loose trilogy. Don't know how much the first one tells you but this one has a marvellous way of not telling you stuff right off- like why half the people talk like the characters in A Midsummer Night's Tempest (to me the real forerunner of Sorceror.) Or the geography or the history or even who the people are. Information comes when and as it comes, and for a wonder that doesn't drive me bananas as it usually does. Granted I've had mourenshuu (ferocious training) in dealing with the state through my recent manga reading, still. The characters' names have western associations but the associations are not only the wrong ones, they're randomly wrong. The settei is a patchwork quilt but the patches are sewn together in no way that I understand. Golias and Ottavio and Gaston and Prospero? No pattern there. I don't see a schema at work, a 'medieval Europe except' thingy; the place feels like another universe that may fortuitously have things in common with ours, but that is still very much its own separate reality.
There are no maps, and it doesn't matter. Even better, large chunks of action- the boring bits, like battles- just get dropped and you cut to the consequences. Dunno if this was her or her editor, cause yes she was edited, by Teresa Nielsen Hayden yet, but oh god, if only those 600 page thumpers would do the same and, y'know, just *skip* the part where we go to suborn the mercenary and show what happens after he's been suborned. I like the slowness. I like the gradual sense of seeing more of the characters. I like the royal family and the royal sons and their complicated relations with each other- useful, that, very, and I'm taking notes, believe me- and I like that there's no lecture introducing them all the way there is at the start of Nine Princes in Amber. Because Willey doesn't have to do it and Zelazney did: as far along as vol 3 I was still going back to that section to remind myself Now which one is Deirdre? whenever Deirdre showed up.
How lucky there's a sequel and how lucky that I have it. And how unlucky I have a full-plus week ahead of me this week.