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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Black Hills

Black Hills
by Dan Simmons
512 pages

*** About the Book ***

This is the story of the American West from the 1870s through the 1930s as seen by a Lakota Sioux named Paha Sapa. When Paha Sapa is ten years old he is present at the Battle of Little Big Horn where he meets George Armstrong Custer just before he dies. When he touches Custer, Paha Sapa is suddenly filled with Custer’s ghost; this ghost becomes his constant companion for the next 60+ years. The story jumps from present to past in a series of vignettes that cover such diverse topics as the Great Dust Bowl, the Chicago World’s Fair, World War I, the carving of Mount Rushmore, and the rise of Hitler.

Here's a video of Dan Simmons talking about this book:

*** Why I Read It ***

Amanda chose BLACK HILLS for the 20-Minute Book Club portion of her That’s How I Blog! Show. I was intrigued by the plot and decided to read the book and participate in the discussion.

*** My Thoughts ***

I have mixed feelings about this book. At first I really liked it. Then I hated it. Then I got bored by it. Then I fell in love with it. Then I wanted to throw it across the room. Then I got really confused. Finally – after over 2 months (including a 3 week break) – I read the final pages and closed the book. And I can’t make up my mind about this book!

It is impossible for me to review this without giving some minor plot spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Here are some things that I’m conflicted about:
  • I love the concept of the book and the way that so many historical events are tied into Paha Sapa’s story. This is the greatest strength of the book and the reason that I didn’t quit reading it.
  • This book would benefit greatly from a glossary of all the Indian words used. In addition, there was a term used by the author early in the story that is vitally important ... but the definition isn't given until halfway through the book. I can't be the only one who didn't know what "counting coup" means!
  • I hated Custer’s ghost. In our discussion on the show Nicole referred to him as Custer the Horny Ghost, and that is the perfect description. Why the ghost felt the need to recall his sexual encounters with his wife in graphic detail is beyond me. It didn’t make any sense with the story. Jen said she didn’t feel the ghost was necessary to the story at all, and I have to say that I agree. [Jen had some serious issues with this book that she details in her review.]
  • The remembered conversations between Paha Sapa and his son, Robert, were beautiful. I loved the way that Paha Sapa was conveying his people’s history to his son who had grown up mostly in the society of white people.
  • The imagery of the Stone Giants in Paha Sapa’s visions was very well done and made a lot of sense. But the way that his actions played out in regard to his plan felt like a cop-out to me (Simmons wrote it all out one way then went back and said it was just a dream and wrote out what “really” happened); to me it was like he couldn’t decide which option to go with so he gave the reader both.
  • I can’t decide if I like or dislike the ending and the epilogue. The World War II bits seem sort of tacked on and don’t have any real relevance to the rest of the book. It seems like Simmons wanted to include this part of history and had to figure out a way to get it in there.
Ok, so you can see why I’m conflicted. There are some really great aspects of the book that I just love but then there are some things that really drove me crazy.

*** Your Thoughts ***

If you’ve read Dan Simmons, does this sound like any of his other books? If you’ve read this book, do you agree/disagree with my opinions? Have you read any books that have left you this conflicted?


Bibliolatrist said...

you finished!!! good for you - I'm still plodding through. It will be far from my favorite of his novels, but it won't sour me on him. (And I love this video - he seems like such a cute, friendly writer! :)

Julie P. said...

I've been hesitant to pick this one up because it is so intimidating! Although your emotions are all over the map, I think it's a good thing when a book can incite that many feelings! You should consider joining the Reagan Arthur Challenge since you're already well on your way with this one!

bermudaonion said...

Your review is excellent and I love the way you highlighted the good and the bad. It really does sound like it would be a good book to discuss. I agree with Julie - you should join us in the Reagan Arthur Books Challenge!

Elisabeth said...

Heather - I'm not surprised and feel a little vindicated to read your review. I feel like this book has gotten a lot of 'hype' - at least I keep seeing it everywhere I turn. But absolutely nothing about it appeals to me! And I hate when I feel like my instinct are contrary to everyone else's. So, thank you for a helpful review!

Jenn's Bookshelves said...

I've read many of Simmon's novels, and they all seem to have the same characteristic: difficult to read but better enjoyed via audiobook. I did this with both The Terror and Drood, and got much more out of them that way. I plan on doing the same with this one, as I too attempted to read it but didn't really feel "engaged."

raych said...

The 'Oh God why is this so long' part sounds about par for the Simmons course. I read and hated Drood and it's kind of turned me off him for now.

Markin said...

In a way, this is like The Terror, I think. Splendid amount of research unobtrusively mixed in. Grand writing. But I kept thinking that, given the real life horror of the way the Franklin Expedition ended, there was really no need for a supernatural horror -- felt a little shoe-horned in. Yet the book was spell-binding. And, in the end, Simmons actually managed to weave the supernatural horror element legitimately into the narrative. I'm still not sure the book needed its inclusion, but I had peace with it.

Heather J. said...

Bibliolatrist - I'm looking forward to what you have to say about it when you (eventually) finish reading. :)

Julie P & bermudaonion - I'll check out the challenge later today! Not sure I'll sign up but I'll def. consider it.

Elisabeth - You are quite welcome. :)

Jenn - I've been thinking of doing THE TERROR on audio - thanks for letting me know that it works that way.

raych - I've heard that he tends to be long-winded ...

Markin - Yes, I agree. From what I know of the Franklin Expedition, they had enough problems w/o this extra horror. But I'm still going to give that one a shot!

Markin said...

Strong, strong suggestion, Heather J., in re: reading The Terror: wait until it's summer time. You do not want to read that book when it's cold out. Trust me.

Scott Cookman's Ice blink : the tragic fate of Sir John Franklin's lost polar expedition and Owen Beattie's Frozen in time : the fate of the Franklin expedition are very readable books for the background information on the expedition, if you get interested in reading more. Simmons consulted both, if I remember rightly.

Heather J. said...

Markin - I actually really enjoy reading polar books in the winter - it adds to the ambiance I think. :) I listened to the audio of SHACKLETON while driving thru the snow a few yrs back and loved that experience. (Plus I've got this fascination w/ anything polar that I love exploring thru my reading). FROZEN IN TIME is already on my TBR list but I'll definitely look into that other book.

Markin said...

I thought the same thing, about cold adding to the ambience ... I found it added just a tad too much. [laughter] I'll be interested in your reaction to the book, though.

Ryan G said...

I got this book a few weeks ago and I've been looking forward to reading it. Now after reading your review, I know to go in without any expectations.

Aarti said...

This was my first Dan Simmons book and I admit that I really enjoyed it! Yes, Custer was horny and repetitively so. But what annoyed me most were the italics!

I think I enjoyed the book so much because Paha Sapa was just such a wonderful character. I wanted to hug him.

Heather J. said...

Ryan - I'd say that's a good idea.

Aarti - Jen @ Devourer of Books felt the same way about the italics but I actually really liked them. :)

Allie said...

Sorry to butt in on a post that has nothing to do with what I am going to write, but I wanted to respond to your question about the LOST challenge.

What would be easier for you? I can cross-post reviews if that makes things easier, but my reviews are a little all over the place (over the course of a few posts), but I always make the LOST comparisons in the last post. Would just those be cross-posted over?

Ti said...

Oh man... I just received this book from the publisher. I LOVED The Terror, thought Drood was good but way, way too long and so I wanted to read this one too.

I read the part about your mixed, all over the place feelings and then stopped because I haven't started it yet. I will come back to read your review after.

Heather J. said...

Allie - I replied to you via email. :)

Ti - I hope you do enjoy this one, esp. since you liked THE TERROR so much!

Serena said...

I have not read this book, yet, but now I'm worried with all these conflicting reviews.

Marg said...

Late to the party, but I wanted to comment on a couple of your posts. I really, really liked The Terror, but it took me forever to read. Parts of it were mesmerising, parts of it were confusing and parts of it were just drawn out, but when I finished it, I felt like I had really achieved something. I intend to read more by Simmons, but I feel like I have to clear everything else off my shelves before I do so. As if that is ever going to happen! lol

Heather J. said...

Serena - Maybe if you go into it with low expectations you'll end up being happily surprised ... :)

Marg - I'm glad to know you enjoyed THE TERROR - I do really want to read it, but I may try the audio version. (And no worries, it is NEVER too late to comment!)

Jen - Devourer of Books said...

Oh, I totally agree about the ending to Paha Sapa's story, I didn't even mention that in my review, such a cop out. I also disliked the epilogue, just another part of the book that seemed totally unnecessary to me.

Heather J. said...

Jen - Yeah, you definitely disliked this one more than I did, but I think we agree about what parts could have been cut out!

rainygirl said...

after reading illium,olympus,hyperion canots and Endymion i'm becoming a kind of simmons expert! he is difficult to read and it seems he doesn't care. the opening of his books is rather difficult, one can not understand what's he talking about. this book from what you wrote seems to be a little different, it is more fantasy than SF. but then simmons always write SFs that are very close to fantasy..they obey Clarke's dictum that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I am with you. It is hard to pick this one back up once you have put it down, but I am gearing up to get ready for part two of our talk.

Heather J. said...

rainygirl - I'm hoping to get to Illium at some point ... I love the original story!

Nicole - Looking forward to it!!!

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