I finished this book yesterday. It won’t get out of my head.
I have no fucking idea what to say about it.
It’s difficult for me to describe this book. It has been by far the hardest book I’ve read in a long time. I don’t know whether its because of my tiredness recently making Le Guin’s prose more difficult to parse, or whether her normally flowing words are made more stilted by the genre change. It is after all, as the back of the book says:
Le Guin’s triumphant debut in mainstream fiction.
Triumphant? Maybe. Written in 1979, it does seem to lack the staying power of her other (and there are many) triumphant SF books. But then, I am mostly out of touch with both the literary and ‘mainstream’ fiction circles, so maybe it still is.
It really doesn’t help that I don’t know enough 19th century European history to have any context at all for this novel. I had no idea about whether this was alternative history or historical fiction for most of the book, which is to its detriment. It is one of the few things Le Guin wrote in this setting, I believe the only other being her short stories, the Orsinian Tales.
I should probably back up a little at this point. Malafrena is essentially an alternative history about a fictional country under the control of Austria, post Napoleon. It’s a very detailed book, imitating that kind of 19th century prose and styling, with long descriptions of characters and surroundings as well as ever-long discussions by various old men drinking. The pace often matches the provincial setting of the title’s country manor. I kept falling asleep and wanting to give up for the first half of the novel, there was so much dullness and naivete.
Thematically the book is a rich mix of cautionary revolution tale, with ideas of home, family and growing up, tied into an exploration of whether it is better to die free or live a slave. That’s not the whole story – a good portion of the book questions what freedom actually is, a question that is never really answered.
Overall it’s beautiful, it’s horrible, it’s fascinating but I don’t know if I like it. It is the worst of Le Guin’s books and I hate it for how empty it left me. It is the best of her books because while the first half was slow, the second half captured me utterly and won’t go the hell away.
I preferred The Word for World is Forest, though. I still haven’t found any words at all to describe how I feel about that book other than a grossly simplistic ‘like Avatar but good’ comparison.