So I thought I'd review the two books I read on the trip! Behind the cut, since they're plenty spoilerriffic.
Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve
Sarah gave this one to me a while ago, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, because I definitely enjoyed it. Here's the opening line:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.
And you have to admit, as opening lines go, that's a doozy.
It's the story of a young man who stumbles into sinister doings, gets tossed out into the world, learns the truth about how things work, grows up, and contributes to Saving the Day. A familiar story arc in an unfamiliar world.
I had some quibbles, but they're generally authorial choices that are in line with it being a young adult novel, so I feel it would be a bit unfair to seriously criticize the book seriously on those grounds. So while some of the sci-fi elements were a bit more hand-wavey than I'd usually go for, they were there mostly to provide an imaginative and novel setting, and it really succeeds on that front, so let's just not look too closely. And if the plot relied a little much on lucky coincidence, well, that's how YA adventure stories often go, you know?
The only actual complaint I have is that near the end, a lot of secondary characters get killed off in a way that felt gratuitous to me. As if he started closing in on the finish and realized he didn't really know what to do with them, so he decided to kill 'em off in hopes of extracting some cheap pathos from the deaths.
Still, it's fast-paced and readable, tremendously original, and despite the aforementioned complaint has quite a few refreshingly "anti-Hollywood" (for lack of a better term) elements in it, so I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it if the dustjacket summary sounds like something you'd like.
The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks
This is the second of Banks' Culture novels, but very hard to find in paperback, which is why I haven't read it until now. I'm a bit surprised that it was written so early, because it's really a masterful book. It is absolutely brilliant. Excession has long been my favorite, but this may very well have displaced it.
On the surface, this book is about a guy from the Culture who's good at games, who goes to a civilization outside the Culture to play the game that permeates and runs their entire empire. The thing is, there's an entire other book going on underneath that, and what's going on with that subtext is only explicitly spelled out in a few spots. Somehow, whether through reading short summaries elsewhere or what, I don't remember, before I started reading I had picked up on the idea that the main character ends up doing very, very well at the tournament. And when you remember that the Culture is mostly run by hyperintelligent AI Minds, you realize that there are layers and layers to everything that's going on. Everyone is playing a game, though the stakes are very real.
And when you read it that way, wow. There's so much going on, I found myself in a number of places stopping to think about what I'd just read, and what it meant, and what it was saying, and it was a really satisfying thing to do. The events of the book's finale are gripping drama on the literal level, and at the same time they say something meaningful and important on the metaphorical and symbolic levels, and it all fits together perfectly.
So yeah, this book really, really worked for me. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it someday.