Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ian McDonald - Brasyl (Book Review)

"Brasyl" (Amazon: US, UK)
by Ian McDonald (blog, Wikipedia)
Format: Hardcover, 357 pages
Publisher: PYR Publishing
When I began reading "Brasyl", I could hardly believe that it was nominated for many prestigious awards (2007 Quill Book Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award, 2008 Hugo and Locus), not to mention that it won 2008 British SF Association Award. It was supposed to be a great book, but for me, it felt long-winded, full of unnecessary explanations and sometimes, a bit too complicated. But since I have a personal policy to finish the book I start reading, I forced myself to continue instead of putting the book back on the shelf. Lucky for me, I guess! It certainly is a very good book, even if it falls a bit short of greatness.
McDonald's style impressed me. It is obvious that he knows the subject he's writing on and the way he goes about it; even at the beginning, when I was still unsure what to think of the book, it was clear to me that McDonald is a master of style. The plot was another matter, though - the three main characters, each of them positioned in his or hers own era (2032, 2006 and 1732), were presented with great care and detail, but the point of the novel was nowhere to be seen and the story moved at sluggish pace. A great part of "Brasyl" consists of three people living their lives without a hint of connection between them, and frankly, I'm not really a fan of such stories. But, to my relief, things started happening soon, the plot evolved and connections began to uncover, if slowly; after the first part of the book, it finally becomes clear that there is something bigger going on behind the scenes.
Although the book's genre is SF, not all three protagonists come from the future. Father Luis is a Jesuit missionary, sent to punish a disobeying priest in the middle of Amazon rain forest - which is a perfectly normal thing to happen since Father Luis lives in the 18th century. Marcelina, a Rio TV producer who is always hunting for provocative and scandalous stories, is a woman of our present, addicted to Botox and knowing no shame. Only Edson, a guy from 2032, could be regarded as a typical SF character, but even so, the problems he deals with are not very futuristic. What makes "Brasyl" a science fiction book is the idea behind the novel - a theory of parallel worlds. You may already heard of it before, since it's pretty widespread (I first learned of it a few years ago). It is, however, presented surprisingly well, awing the reader and making him think, at which point "Brasyl" becomes one of those addictive can't-put-it-down books.

If you're not familiar with modern Brazilian slang, you might have some trouble with the dialogue which is heavily tinged with the said slang. There is a glossary at the back, but it's not really handy to constantly flip between the pages. Both -- pure Portugeese and slang words -- add a lot to the atmosphere, but at the same time, they make "Brasyl" harder to read.

Long story short, everything more or less serves its purpose in "Brasyl". Long introductions to the lives of Marcelina, Edson and Father Luis seem redundant at first, but later on you see how the happening creeps slowly into their everyday and overwhelms it, which (at least for me) felt as a fresh and welcome take on the matter. Also, the seemingly unimportant details turn out to be crucial for the story, and the above mentioned slang words add to the overall atmosphere. "Brasyl" is a very good book written with style, but it has its flaw - the long, confusing beginning. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend it to all SF fans.


Thea said...

Hmm, great review Trin. I had heard of 'Brasyl' (by virtue of all those impressive award nods), but had not picked it up. Although it starts slow, maybe I'll give it a shot--especially since it was able to win you over despite a dragging beginning!

Plus, I'm a sucker for parallel universes :p

RedEyedGhost said...

4/5 seems kind of high compared to the text of your review :P

I really did not like this book, mainly because of the ending (or lack thereof), and it was horribly overwritten at points.

But even with all it's flaws I gave it 3.5/5 (so not too different than what you gave it), because the amount of detail put into it without feeling overly detailed (like Kim Stanley Robinson) and the science in the sci-fi was very interesting.

And that wasn't Spanish ;) The glossary did annoy me because most of what I wanted to know wasn't listed.

Trin said...

@thea: you give it a try ... just remember not to put it down for good if you get a feeling that the plot is going nowhere :)

@redeyedghost: well, maybe I failed to express how much better everything is in the 2nd half of the book ... :) not only that the plot suddenly starts to run smoothly, you even start to see that the first part was important (so it's a good thing to re-read the book, I guess it's more enjoyable the second time), and the style is good all the way through.
I think the problem is that I wanted to present the 'downs', but I forgot to properly explain the 'ups' :D

Anonymous said...

I've read both, The River of Gods and Brasyl and liked the previous one a great deal more, even though Brasyl was great as well. You should really give The River of Gods a try.

Good day,

Anonymous said...


ThRiNiDiR said...

The slip-o-the-tongue has been taken care of; thanks for the diligence guys ;)


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