"All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike," says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).
Van's maternal grandmother Daria ("Dolly") Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O'Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severniya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called "Russian." Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with "Russian" Canady, otherwise "French" Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes. (Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, p. 3)
And then it came, reaching them across the rooftops of Myna: the cry of a thousand throats. The assault had begun.
It was enough to shout down even Tisamon's wrath. Stenwold fumbled with the telescope, then stumbled to the window, nearly losing the instrument over the sill. When he had the glass back to his eye his hands were shaking so much that he could not keep it steady. The lens's view danced across the gatehouse and the wall, then finally settled. He saw the black and red armour of the army of Myna: men aiming crossbows or winching artillery around. He saw ballista and grapeshot-throwers wheel crazily through the arc of the telescope's eye, discharging their burdens. There was black and gold now amongst the black and red. The first wave of the Wasp divisions came upon them in a glittering mob: troops in light armour bearing the Empire's colours skimming over the tops of the walls, the air about their shoulders ashimmer with the dancing of nebulous wings. For a second Stenwold saw them as the insects they aped, but in reality they were armoured men, aloft in the air, with wings flickering from their backs and blades in their hands. They swooped on the earthbound defenders with lances and swords, loosing arrows and crossbow bolts and hurling spears. As the defenders turned their crossbows upward toward them, Stenwold saw the bright crackle as golden fire flashed from the palms of the attackers' hands, the killing Art of the Wasp-kinden. (Adrian Tchaikovsky, Empire in Black and Gold, p. 10)
Here are two representative early passages from two very different works. Which one is the "harder" work, in your opinion?
Perhaps many reading this will think "Nabokov," after seeing his name and thinking of the reputation he has (if they have heard of him beyond thinking "that author of Lolita, some Russian-sounding guy). But what about the other work, the Tchaikovsky quote, which concerns a battle between two forces set in an imagined "world" where the fighters appear to have the outward appearance of armored insects?
A few days ago on a SF/F forum, someone questioned why I used the word "challenging" to describe my reading of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. That novel was, for that reader, a relatively straightforward read, with only the barest hint of an unreliable narrator and with action that unfolds in a linear space. In many ways, it resembled closely other epic fantasy novels, with the exceptions of main character (female) and a few other details of the spoilerific variety.
But for me, it wasn't as easy as that. I don't read that many epic fantasies these days and never really read any beyond Tolkien until I was 23, back in late 1997, when I picked up Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series out of late-night curiosity when shopping in a local supermarket. Double narratives, word play, duplicitous narrators - these are more familiar features than battle scenes, mages, fantastical creatures, and the like. For many, and it seems I am one of them, it is easier to process a story if the ground rules have already been (quasi) established and the focus is on the characters and their internal dynamics. While I don't speak Russian (yet!), it is much easier for me to understand an Ivan Ilych or Anna Karenina than it is for me to understand a Mantis-kinden fighting off the Wasp-kinden.
Decoding and parsing a fictional text can be tricky. The jargon employed, if it is successful in its goals, will be understood implicitly by the recipient. I understand Russian patronymic customs. I don't quite grasp why there are these groups of people who take on the characteristics (and in battle, the outward appearances) of members of the Class Insecta.
This failure to grasp quickly what is being said (I struggled for much of Empire in Black and Gold, because the setting seemed so foreign to me and I couldn't process quickly what the characters were saying and doing, because of this alien setting) can make one's easy, straightforward text into another's difficult, frustrating read. While I ultimately finished Tchaikovksy's book and will read the next two sequels for which I have review copies, I could not help but think that there was something in the textual parsing/decoding that went awry.
Victoria over at Eve's Alexandria describes a situation very similar to what I experienced. She has an interesting take on her initial difficulties with David Anthony Durham's Acacia: The War with the Mein:
I'm ashamed to confess there were moments when I decided not to finish it. I have a post half drafted about why this was, and what changed my mind. It has a lot to do with how and why I read (epic, high) fantasy, I think, and the importance of reading it with a generous heart. By generous I don't mean forgiving or in any way charitable; I mean open and wide and willing to admit 'big' emotions that are generally alien to our daily experience.There is something akin to that in how I read certain fictions. I don't read fiction for "escapist" reasons; I want to be engaged, in hopes of discovering something that would be of some benefit in addition to being merely entertained. Works that are full of pathos resonate more with me than stories that appear designed to reinforce certain wishes about order and stability (which is how I've often parsed several epic fantasy novels). Yet I prefer stories to be grounded in either a "realistic" setting or one that uses the expectations of "realism" to create a narrative tension that sucks the reader in (as is the case with several "weird" fictions and their relationships with the "real" world and the emotions found within it). It is an interesting conflict, to say the least.
Perhaps much the same holds true for others. Maybe how one has learned how to decode and to parse the fictional text in front of that imagined reader will affect greatly the sorts of stories that reader prefers to consume and consider. Possibly, the "straightforward" texts of one reader will be a nightmarishly complex and occasionally frustrating read for another.