If someone asked me to read a novel that was about politics in space built upon an etiquettical framework using formal diplomats my response might have been: ”maybe toothpicks holding up my eyelids first.” To make the premise utterly antithetical to all I love, throw in a seemingly dysfunctional family who essentially captures the child of their enemy, decides to adopt him, and discovers that he is a spoiled brat who is obnoxious as all get out. I would now be thinking along the lines of either a toothpick in the eyes or shoot me now. All of this is true of Scott Meyer’s Master of Formalities, yet he pulls a rabbit out of this unlikely hat with a book that is clever, completely works, is consistently amusing, and, often, laugh out loud funny. With apparent ease, he has you cheering for those for whom you want to cheer, disdaining those who deserve it and caring for those characters we love. He builds an intriguing world to boot (despite his odd naming conventions, about which more later).
Mr. Meyer builds relationships through the narrative, especially in challenges amidst the mundane activities in the non-mundane world of a ruling family. Not only do we learn that things are not always as we seem, those whom we may esteem might not be fully worthy of it, but we also discover that we ourselves are not all that we might’ve thought we’re cracked up to be. We see our own foibles through the eyes and lives of these characters, but Mr. Meyer is gentle with us. It’s done with humor and empathy.
One of the things that really struck me, as this post is being written in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaigns, is that we could do with a bit of etiquettical lubrication in our interchanges. More specifically, we tend to talk (or flame) past one another using sound bites. We rarely listen to one another. We have little civility. It’s all about winning, not learning, guiding, or trying to find a common way. In our disregard for one another, in which we’re always right in our own eyes, it has to be our way. Now I’m not suggesting we be less passionate about the views that we hold dear. I am suggesting that even while we hold those views dear, we hold one another in esteem and treat each other civilly. Dare I say, show common love and learn to truly listen to one another even when we know we disagree. The golden rule of doing to others as we would have done to us is still golden.
So I think we could do with a Master of Formalities here to help us use proper form and ensure that not only do we not spend our days killing one another, but we might spend some of our days listening to one another. While the rules of society and etiquettical obligations may lead to harm as many authors are wont to demonstrate, they may also lead towards conversation. Etiquette is not meant to browbeat or to make someone else feel below you (just read some Miss Manners). While anything can be used to try to feel superior, the intention of etiquette, like the masters of formalities, is to provide a buffer and a framework for communicating and dealing with others, especially others with a different agenda.
Politics aside, The Master of Formalities has engaging characters with brilliant situational comedy while being framed in a beautifully described world which is both familiar and foreign. Mr. Meyer likes to emphasize this foreign aspect through his interesting names. We have Joanadie Jakabitus and Hennik Hahn. Must rulers must have the house name letter start their first name? Of course not, lest we forget Lord Ment Pavlon. We also have Umily and Glaz, Kreet & Shimlish Hahn, all a bit different. My favorite is Chowklud, the name of a spicy sauce which causes pain to your nerves and is pronounced like chocolate. This seems to be his way of making sure that those who might confuse this for a comedy of manners recognize it’s a SciFi comedy of manners. One could naturally translate Bertie Wooster to this world with Jeeves, his Master of Formalities, constantly getting him out of trouble.
I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book. Luke Daniels admirably narrates the work. Not only is his pacing and annunciation impeccable, the voice he lends to each of these characters seems to fit like a glove. Yes, that is Wollard; how could he sound like anything else? Mr. Daniels will sacrifice for his art- Hennik’s voice is a grating as his personality. This is my fourth audiobook with Mr. Daniels’ voice leading the way; he never disappoints.
So, don’t be put off by the title or the premise. This witty, winning SciFi novel will worm its way into your heart. I highly recommend it.