With a Tangled Skein
Length: 380 pages, standard paperback page size/font
Part 3 of the series, here we go. The earlier parts hadn't been anything remarkable, but I was rather looking forward to this one. Anthony's treatment of female characters in general has been a recurring complaint of mine, so I was curious to see what he'd do with having one as the protagonist. As I've said before, he's shown that he's capable of of treating them fairly at times. That's what makes it all the more irritating for me when he tends to portray them as weak baubles incapable of doing stuff on their own terms. Before anyone tries to cry about hypocrisy over my harping on Anthony's sexism as compared to how I gave just the barest touch to the recurring racism in Lovecraft's works, allow me to point out that the difference between the two is that Lovecraft treated the racism in his works as a normal and constant thing, whereas Anthony has shown enough moments of balanced treatment for male and female characters that the sexism comes off as being a deliberate design choice. Both forms of discrimination are at odds with egalitarian ideals, yes, but when one is presented consistently, it's easier to accept it from a relativistic perspective because the author doesn't know any differently. With Anthony, on the other hand, the contrast between the way that his female characters act in general and how they sometimes show some independent agency just accentuates the problem.
So, opening rant completed, how about I get to talking about the actual book, yes?
Well, unfortunately, it was rather hit-or-miss, but it managed to hit a little more often than it missed, so that counts for something.
Let's start with our protagonist, Niobe. The book starts off by introducing us to her as the prettiest girl in Ireland, who's throwing a tantrum because her father is trying to arrange a marriage for her to some younger guy. It's not exactly the greatest start, because the book itself treats her behavior as being really bitchy. Characters are allowed to be flawed, sure, but it's usually a good idea to start off with something that hooks the reader's attention and gets them interested, not something that makes it sound like even the author is repulsed by the character who'll be the focus of the next few hundred pages.
Once that initial part passes, though, and Niobe starts to show some awareness of what a brat she's acting like (mostly towards her new husband rather than her father, because her side of the family more or less disappears after that first chapter), she starts to become an enjoyable character. She still has her flaws, but they become elements of an overall character instead of being the first thing that smacks you in the face, and the rest of her character is generally reasonable and rational. I'm not really a fan of her motivation for falling in love with her husband being because of getting enraptured by his literally magical ability to make her hear amazing music when he touches her while singing, but again, as she grows to appreciate more aspects of him and displays a more genuine and selfless love for him, it becomes more acceptable.
Of course, this being an Incarnations of Immortality book, you know some shit's going to go down with Satan. That's once again the case here, as after sending her some sinister visions while she's orgasming a few times (you have no idea how much I wish I was making that part up), Satan sends a hitman to bust a cap in her face. The hitman is a complete moron, though, and so her husband gets shot instead. In her grief, Niobe seeks to bargain with Death, and so she's advised to commit suicide by Viking funeral to meet him.
This is where things get a little weak for a moment. Death shows up, but the way that he tries to accommodate her and takes her to meet with Time feels really out of place. It's the sort of thing that Zane would do, except Zane isn't Death yet at this point, because later parts of the book place the opening section at several decades before On a Pale Horse, and that book made it clear that the previous Death was a generally impersonal and perfunctory guy. Well, okay, maybe this is an even more previous Death who was more like Zane, right? That feels like a stretch given that On a Pale Horse makes a big deal out of how Zane's compassion and humanity is so rare to find in Death, but let's go with it for now.
In any case, after a short bit of time, Niobe becomes Clotho, the youngest aspect of Fate. This feels like it should be building towards something, because she finally meets Satan in person around then, but it doesn't really go anywhere. I mean, yes, there is some stuff that happens, but it's mostly an excuse for her to be immortal while matters with the Kaftan family (which she'd married into) advance. It's maybe a bit interesting that we actually see other Incarnations change their office-holders in this book, but aside from that, a vague prophecy, and another failed attempt by Satan to kill someone, there's precious little than happens for quite a while.
After that lull, things do get interesting again when Niobe steps down from being Clotho. This is the first book in the series to deal with what happens to a person after they give up their immortality (since Death changes office when he's assassinated by his successor and Time poofs out of existence at the end of his term), and it's actually handled fairly nicely, in something that I took to be a loose parallel to people trying to reintegrate into society after military service or prison time. I don't know if that was intentional, but regardless, it was probably the most subtle and elegant social commentary that Anthony's managed to fit into the series so far, so kudos to him for that.
Of course, this happens around the midpoint of the book, and it'd be rather dull to just read about Niobe having a normal life from then on. Eventually, shit goes down again, and she's recruited back into immortality as Lachesis, which was a pretty cool twist that took me by surprise (as I've said before, I'm usually not good at picking up on foreshadowing). No further plot discussion beyond this point since it's too far into spoiler territory, but let it suffice to say that the pattern of interesting moments following by dull periods continues.
Annoyingly enough, aside from a brief stint where a young kid was Time, most of the Incarnations are more or less the same as they've been in the previous books, despite explicitly being different people (aside from War, Nature, and Satan) at times. The Kaftan family is also pretty underdeveloped. We get to see more of it, sure, but Luna (the same girl who keeps getting saved in every book so far) and Orb (Luna's half-cousin, introduced in this book) are very nearly the same person aside from one being skilled at painting while the other's talented at music, and the male Kaftans are likewise almost indistinguishable aside from Magician Kaftan being even more of a Gary Stu than the others. Even Satan isn't as cool in this book as he was in the previous two, probably because he seems to rely too much on dropping constant sexist pet names for Niobe, which just comes off as being cheesy and weak in comparison to his demeanor towards Zane and Norton.
Similar to Bearing an Hourglass, the big final climax ends up somewhat disappointing. It's not as bad, since at least it does imply some further action to take place and actually resolve things, but do you know what would've been even better? Actually resolving things in this book itself. I don't think that's asking for too much, especially when the book advertises itself as being an independently complete work within a greater series. It really isn't, not with an ending like it had, but again, the ending implies enough that it's passably acceptable.
That's more or less my impression of the book as a whole, too. It's nothing special, but just like Bearing an Hourglass improved marginally on On a Pale Horse (until the awful ending), With a Tangled Skein manages to improve marginally on Bearing an Hourglass. Had the ending been better, it would've been an outright good book despite the intermittent lulls. With that, though, I have to knock it down to being merely above average, but that's still a high mark for the series so far. Though I wouldn't call it a must read by any means, it's enough for me to give a tentative recommendation.
Length: 380 pages, standard paperback page size/font