Murder of Crows by Athena

I’m not sure how to review, per usual with my 3-star outings, which in my universe means “I liked it” just to be clear. The prose and a lot of the ornament, characters, and set-pieces really worked for me. The overall structure of the novel and its pacing did not. I was confounded at least once in my expectation that this was paranormal romance, which is a problem of my expectations, and not of the book. It is closer to dark fantasy, nearer in tone to Neil Gaiman than Karen Marie Moning. Maybe Charles de Lint is the best comparison. 

Fable Montgomery returns to Portland to deal with her beloved Aunt Celeste’s murder. The opening is slow, the hot cop and his chilly female partner settling in for some round-the-clock surveillance, with what I felt like was the usual hand-wringing about pasts and lost opportunities and tense conversations, cut with a little spooking for fun. The fairy statue keeps moving whyyyy? Then, the whole thing shifted leftwise, and the air filled with feathered beings and the house filled with funny, drunk aunts, and I really started enjoying myself. 

Fable is whisked to a otherworld called Aria, learning her lost history and managing her grief for her aunt. I find these paranormal otherlands pretty great landscapes for characters to work out grief. It’s a good metaphor because the world no longer makes sense without the loved one in it, its customs antique and occult, and if only she were living everything would make sense. Fable flounders, learning the way we often do more about her aunt in death than she knew in life. We sit in rooms, hearing stories from those who knew the dead in ways we couldn’t or didn’t, and it’s an otherworld. That this otherworld is also cut with half-remembered childhood – the way the lost family member is also the loss of childhood on some level – that was some seriously cool stuff. 

As I said, the ornament here is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and there’s some great stuff involving evil ravens that bloom out of tattoos on the edge of a knife, or the landscape blurring past in the arms of what is morphologically an angel. However, I don’t think this is a spoiler to say that Fable’s past is a secret history, a childhood in Narnian escapes run to amnesia for occult reasons, a common enough trope in fantasy literature to be both familiar and frustrating. She catches up much slower than I would prefer, especially given the complex backstory and world-building that is attempted in the blank space of her memory, characters allowed to explain at length what is going on, but not what really is going on. The expository restraint was too restrained. 

I think I’ve said this before, but an intrinsic problem with modern characters swooped into fantasy worlds is that that characters have to spend too much time on the exposition couch mutteringthis is not happening. We as readers know they are in a fantasy novel, but they don’t, and while it would blow character believability to have them accept their new fantastic surroundings too fast, it’s still a little frustrating to watch them flounder. This can can be made up for by the potential for neat, anachronistic – this is the wrong word, but whatever – dialogue, where fantastic creatures ask about the most recent season of Survivor, or Fable drops an f-bomb. Maybe this is sounding like a cut-down, but I really do dig this, when modern folk rub shoulders with all the ye gads fol de rol of the Grimmish mythic idiom, and the modern folk get all Buffy dialogue up in the house. Good. 

The device of the lost manuscript – Fable writes a seemingly prescient account of the novel’s proceedings in a near swoon, which is then stolen but for precious pages – is deployed somewhat clumsily. At times it is this nifty almost postmodern commentary on linearity in story and the whole bothersome fate business in fantastic fiction, and at others it’s a tiresome infodump that set me itching to skim. The lost manuscript folds up really nicely in the end, so my issue is more structural than anything – I think there could have been a mechanism other than the bald reading-out of the pages that transpires. 

Though I said this wasn’t paranormal romance, and it isn’t, there is a love story on the edge of the proceedings, which in many ways I dug. Fable’s not some half-assed virginal dimbulb who doesn’t understand her own feeeelings down there. And while I said that her love interest was functionally an angel, the fact that dude is part bird is understood and freaked out about as the partial bestiality it is. No, he’s not a dumb beast, but he isn’t exactly human either, right? Maybe this sounds like a turn-off – oh noes, TEH BESTIALITY – but I really dig when writers own the unsafe edges of these creatures and their hybrid natures. 

This bit here is an actual spoiler, I think, dealing with something that happens very late in the book. It isn’t, like, totally plot pivotal, but it is an aspect of the love interest’s relationship that is pretty central. SPOILERS. Anyway, the only thing that flipped my shit – and I admit this is a personal hang up of mine – is that my eyes roll back into my head whenever the mate-for-life trope is activated. And when angel man high-handedly pulled off some lifelong “mating” with Fable without her knowledge or consent, I was eye-rolling. This wasn’t as coercive as I’ve seen it done before when the trope comes up – there are complexities due to the secret history which make consent/identity/etc murky – and the lead up was cooler and more sexy than usual – but mate-for-life still ticks me off.

I think my real problem is I don’t get the point of the mate-for-life trope in fiction, except as a pander to lame, simplistic readerly or authorial instincts. This man is not just true-blue, he’s so true-blue he’s biologically incapable of loving someone else ever! No worries, forever! (See, for example, the treatment of Jacob and all of the other imprinted wolves in the Twilight books.) And one that introduces ethical and behavioral complications no writer yet has taken on, as far as I’ve seen. So, he’s bound for life to his mate? And she is not in the same manner? What happens when, in a couple months when the thrill is gone for her, she tries to leave? Or even, let’s give it 20 years, and they’re empty nesters (har-de-har-har) who have grown increasingly apart, and she discovers the writings of Erica Jong? He descends into martyred alcoholism? Or does he kill her because he owns her in his mind? 

Love is an emotion, and never unconditional or unbreakable. Nor should it be, imao; people are capable of terrible, love-destroying acts, and while it’s tempting to pull out a bunch of genocide and other rhetorical point-scorers to make my point, even some of the more garden variety betrayals and cruelties should not (or cannot) be forgiven or gotten over. That someone could be stuck in a love relationship he has no emotional agency within – literally forced to love – regardless of anything the other person does, this strikes me as seriously depressing. Admittedly, I’m a bitter old crank though, and given how often I run into mate-for-life motifs, I’m probably an outlier in freaking out about it. And, the way it was used here was more to establish our fella as a gauzy dreamboat with feeelings, which is the best of the options with this trope. /SPOILERS

Again, this is not a huge part of their relationship, and in other regards I liked the ways they interacted and related, especially Fable’s checkered romantic history and her general competence despite the weirdness and danger going on here. There’s another situation that impinges on her autonomy, but that is also politically sensitive. She doesn’t lay out an offensive monologue about how unfair it is waa-waa, and then everyone reorders their civilization to make her feel better – something I see happen a lot in fantasy; Mary Sue reorders it all. Nor does she dissolve into a dishrag, but wends to a third option. That’s neat. 

So. I enjoyed this world and its characters. There’s a lot of there there, and some real comings to terms with grief and lost childhood. However, the plot felt thin, with no solid payoffs, and the ending dot-dot-dots to the next installment in what I felt was a frustrating manner. This felt like scene-setting or prologue, and the ending is not so much a cliffhanger as an indecisive break. Which bums me out, because there is certainly something here. All that said, I think I’m on the hook for the next installment. First novels are what they are, and given the strengths of this one, there’s a lot of potential. And actual and fantastical. Which, boo yah. Plus, I adore the cover. 

(And, just a final aside, although I almost never, ever do this, I was approached by the author on GR offering me a copy, and the description was honestly interesting to me. I bought it fair and square, because I geek out a little about direct transactions between authors and readers, but she did kindly send me a cleaned up copy about halfway through my read. As a self-pub, the usual typos had slipped though the editing process – I noticed a few before I switched to the new version – but have since been expunged. So. Here is your stupidly detailed full disclosure abut how I exchanged a few emails with Athena, who seems like a really cool lady. The end.)

Born to Darkness: Compromises that Work

Another day, another plane read. 

Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann was on the deck due to one of those library displays that I both drat and keep falling for. This turned out well better than I’d hoped, an extremely active little story that lets the characters just barely get out their conversations before the next twist bang bang shoot shoot. The set up is a cross between X-Men and Wild Cards, where a very limited number of people, the Greater-Thans, have a “metal integration” much higher than your average person’s, allowing then to do things like violate physics and read minds and stuff. Of course, there is a group of good guys, and a group of bad guys, and the bad guys are producing a drug which induces higher integration, yet also has the side effect of making its users batshit insane, or “jokering”. Which is what reminded me of Wild Cards, I’ll have you know. 

As a sort of cross between science fiction and the romance novel, the story occasionally fails the way a compromise can. There are three romantic pairings, an abduction to solve, and a whole Second Great Depression America to sketch here, in addition to fight and love scenes, and that the story hurtles along the way it does is no small feat. While the sex scenes did not gross me out or make me laugh, I was occasionally irritated by the lovers and their simultaneous orgasms – seriously, get out of the damn way, lovers, and explain the mechanism by which the whole “integration” thing works instead of experimenting with bjs. 

But! Because of the sometimes romance novel sensibility, Born to Darkness tackles some issues I can’t imagine a straight science fiction writer – and I kind of mean the double entendre there – taking on with success. One of the Greater-Thans, the unfortunately nicknamed “Mac”, has as one of her powers the ability to thrall sexually any person who swings towards girls. When we meet her, she’s full adult and aware of her powers – down to using them seriously unethically, seriously – but as a teen when her powers were first presenting, there was a fair amount of ugliness and violence as people – including her own father, yuck – respond to her unwitting transmission of sexual power. 

Mostly this backstory is used as an impediment to her romance with hot SEAL dude – the Navy thing, not a selkie. Oh noes! He might love me only for my super-charged vagina! But that the complex relationship between a woman’s sexuality and sexual violence was addressed at all was really notable. I was just this afternoon stewing because of some comment threads I read about the recent Walking Dead episode – the one where a character is threatened with rape and sexually assaulted – where some commenters were like, it’s realistic that she would be near-raped because obviously men are just waiting for civilization to break down so they can rape to their hearts content. (Of course, leaving aside the realism of walking cannibal corpses, etc.) I just, I mean, I hate the fuck out of this view of both women and men, that justifies sexual violence by conceptualizing male sexuality as this disgusting violent nightmare, and then acting like this view of people is the “reasonable” one. Fuck you assholes. Point being, I guess, that I thought the whole interplay here between sexual violence, coercion, attraction and whatever was an interesting one, even if it was treated kinda topically in the text. 

Because this was not wholly science fiction either, I had some irritations with how exactly the Greater-Than thing worked, but then I also get the impression that this is just the first in series, so information will be parceled out as it comes. The mechanism of the magical/scientific powers was certainly better than a lot of PNR I’ve read, which seems to pull magical rules out of its ass to fit the needs of the romance and not the other way around. (Does that metaphor even work?) The whole post-Depression America thing was kind of a kick, especially because the sensibility seemed a lot less regressive than I usually find in romance novels – the creeping lack of availability of birth control, for example, is seen as the dystopian nightmare it is. 

The ending seems to fall off a cliff of dotdotdot next episode next week. But the nice thing about continuing series is that there isn’t the need to tie off all relationships into perfected bliss, and the almost downbeat conclusion to some of the romantic plotlines was cool and unexpected. (Especially because I almost wanted to barf, given how happy two of them are. Especially given that mind-reading was in the mix. Maybe I’m just a whole-hearted bitch, but there is no way I want even my own husband of 14 years in my mind ever. That is not romantic to me.) Anyway, pretty brilliant plane read, and probably deserving of another star from me just for sheer enjoyment. Shiny.

LZR-1143: Perspectives – Worst Title Ever?

I’m not afraid of flying. Better put, I’m not afraid of flight, but I don’t particularly like being stuck in a metal tube with a bunch of other humans breathing the same air and having far too many elbows. My daughter, for example, is positively made out of them. And it’s not even so much the usual blah-de-blah about crying babies and pretzels and halitosis as it is plane travel post 9/11. And that isn’t even my fear of terrorists – I think Flight 93 pretty definitively showed that no hijack could ever work that way again – as it is my fear of all of the other assholes on the plane thinking about 9/11 and how they’re going to jump up and save the day, or even worse, that they are going to preempt them terrorists by being the worst people ever. It wasn’t much after 9/11, when feelings were obviously much hotter, when a red-faced dickhead with delusions of USMC browbeat my teenage step-brother to the point of tears because my step-brother wasn’t following Mr. Angry White Man’s codes of conduct. Apparently, dangerous devices such as ipods, even when they are allowed by the flight crew, should be put away to make every paranoid jerk more comfortable. The worst thing about about it was that absolutely no one stood up to this dick. Oorah. 

So, a collection of short stories that opens with a zombie outbreak on a plane and involves a number of other mass transit zombie outbreak situations that are similarly public-yet-confined is absolutely perfect reading for a plane flight on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. I probably would never have read this had my daughter not completely commandeered my ereader on the way back, leaving me stuck reading whatever random kindle freebie I downloaded whenever ago off my phone, but it turned out okay for me. None of these stories are going to be anthologized anytime soon – these aren’t notable examples of the short story form at all – but they certainly got the job done for me in the creeping dread in public department. Good job, me. Excellent timing. 

These stories are apparently vignettes of people glimpsed in the full length LZR-1143 novels – which, I might add, is a terrible name for a novel, as it is impossible to remember – and as such, limits the snap of wondering whether these cats are going to survive. Despite some really bad scene transitions – like, really bad – I probably liked the boy’s narrative the best. The boy had enough lightly-touched backstory and teen survivalist goodness, in addition to an upsetting restraint when it came to the gore – sometimes things are worse if you can’t see them – to feel deeper than its short pages. The fry cook pulls off a pretty nice zombie joke in its opening scene – omg, the lunch rush is like zombies – and the one about the pilot is fine. I also liked the businessman on the DC subway story, partially because I read it on the DC metro schwink schwink schwink. The sniper story I could take or leave, and the inmate one is terrible, just terrible. I’m on the fence whether to bother with the full novels – and I get the impression this freebie is there to entice me into them – but maybe the next time I travel I’ll give it a shot. 

So, I made it through both flights with neither zombie outbreak nor blowhard dickhead ruining my fragile calm, my luggage was not lost because I didn’t check it, and I got to see the Smithsonian. Oh, and here’s a pro-tip: if arrivals is totally full up with holiday travelers, call your ride and have him meet you up on departures, which will have that empty, garbage-spinning-in-the-wind feel about it, so you can make your clean getaway once the outbreak begins. You’re welcome.

Review: Walking Dead: When the Dead Come Walking

from ladybohemian’s Deviant Art

I know that this is probably the wrong reaction to last week’s episode, When the Dead Come Walking, but pretty much all I want to do is ship for Daryl and Carol. I mean, their names even rhyme, and I’m sure without much workshopping, we could come up with a cute name like Bennifer or Brangelina. D’Caryl? ….aaaand a quick search of the Intertubes offers up Caryl, complete with tumblrs, twitter handles, and unbelievably adorable fan art. Holy hannah, but do I love the Intertubes.

Carol’s come a long way from her incarnation in the comics, or even from last season, where she was a dishrag in both incarnations. I can’t rightly remember if she had a daughter in the comics, but mostly last season she got to be distraught mom. But she, like Maggie, has done some amazing work this season, and it’s possible that it’s more the actress than the writing (like Maggie.) The actress who plays Maggie has this big expressive face, all eye-whites and teeth, and her reaction shots absolutely anchor scenes like Rick finding out about Lori’s death or Glenn’s torture. The actress who plays Carol plays it smaller, with more flicks of the eyes and sly humor, but she also just nails the small moments: a look passed to Daryl (♥) before he sets out, the wordless understanding that passes between her and Rick when she meets Asskicker/Judith without her mom. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Walking Dead does so much better when characters don’t talk, but honestly, this is still pretty much up to the actor to bring it.

Which brings me to Michonne. I’m sorry I’ve been doing this so much this season, and I will throw in my hedging that comic and show have diverged so much that nothing I say about the comic could ever be a spoiler for the show, but I’m really bumming that two of my favorites from the comic, Michonne and Andrea, have become so shabby in the show. Andrea was a cold sniper in the comics, competent and hard-edged, and watching her blonde it up so bad with the Governor just depresses me. Michonne…I don’t even want to say this too loudly, but I’m thinking the actress just isn’t up to the task, short of some good physicality when it comes to fight scenes like the one that opens the show. Maybe that scene where she’s interrogated by Rick and Daryl is badly written, maybe not, but comics Michonne was a ton more sly than the bald-faced glowering that went on there, especially considering the smart reaction shot that had her observing the Rickocrats quiet emotional upheaval of Carol’s survival and her revelation of Lori’s death. We should have had moments of quiet and humanity from Michonne at any point to date, but we don’t have much more than nostril-flaring and hard stares.

I am not, nor have I ever been, much of a fan of torture sequences – it’s all so much Sun Tzu by way of 9/11 – and given the whole descent into feudalism we’ve got going on, it feels a little cheap. Which is not to say that Glenn didn’t bring it big time – Merle’s assessment that he’s the sneaky one is pretty right on, pulling out a can of whup ass when Merle unleashes a walker on him. But godamn it, rape. Shows like Walking Dead do not have the nuance to be able to pull off the Governor’s sexual assault of Maggie – and that was sexual assault, right down to his gross “comforting” of her – even while I admire the way the actress played some very tricky scenes. I get the whole “things worse than death” they’re trying to pull, but action-driven horror shows that are fundamentally about how two white men manage leadership should not fuck around with rape. You guys can’t handle the truth; don’t even try.

So, what else? Oh, the the sequence where they find the cabin-bound dead-dog dude was almost funny to me, because if this had been last season, we would have spent several long episodes getting to know dead dog dude, but here it was in the house, stand off, run through, out to the porch to be eaten by walkers. Why doesn’t he seem to know about walkers? Why does he ask for a badge? Whatever! Moving on! Merle’s racist stuff about T-Dog was also inadvertently funny: remember that dude who once had a line? Aww. I don’t know what to think about how dumb mad scientist dude is about his colon cancer friend, but it was nice to see Andrea not be a total waste. I still want to punch Andrea though. I think that’s probably it for incidentals.

This episode is obviously very much setting up the mid-season finale, moving the players from one place to the next for their inevitable conflict. The writers are also obviously playing hide the football with Merle and Daryl, and let’s hope they don’t fumble that meeting. This whole season for me has been met and often exceeded expectations for me, cut with horrible anticipation about how badly the writers might blow it. Which on some level is a pretty great metaphor for life with the walking dead.

Stormdancer: Huge Tangents

First off, I’m going to put in my Nice White Lady disclaimer, which is that, as a middle-class white lady, I have shaky standing to speak to how cultural appropriations read to members of the cultures appropriated. While I may be aware that I am the recipient of enormous cultural privilege, by virtue of that very privilege, I am inevitably going to be blind to certain things. Just take a look at the clusterfuck that is Racefail – and actually, other resources here; this whole thing is such an unbelievable googlehole – which starts with a Nice White Lady addressing the issue of how white people might go about writing non-white characters without being a dick about it. (Here is where I complain about the terminology I have at hand. Throughout Racefail, the acceptable nomenclature is Person of Color, which gets abbreviated as PoC, which strikes me as…inelegant. Non-white is used a lot too, but both non-white and people of color are these huge fucking rhetorical catch-alls that lack the crap out of nuance, and have the additional problem of encoding race as a binary, which is obviously bullshit.) Several people point out that her thinking on the matter is somewhat racially tone deaf – you can’t just file the serial numbers off of white characters and make them members of a different culture. We may all be humans and stuff, but our treatment at the hands of other humans due to appearance or accent or cultural membership fundamentally affects how a character thinks and feels. At this point, the whole conversation goes completely insane and people start shouting about how they are not racists, etc. 

Rather than get into all the twists and turns of Racefail, the thing I found so demoralizing about it was how quickly the conversation about cultural appropriations and writing cross-culturally – genuinely interesting and important topics – turned into an almost all-white wank about who has standing to comment in the first place, whether classism is more important than racism, and the usual toolbox of derailing tactics. And, I know I like to link to this a lot, but I really like this video about the difference between the What You Did conversation and the What You Are Conversation. White people like to freak out and act like getting called out for saying some racist stuff – and I’m not talking about hardcore obviously KKK level shit, but just the dumb shit we say (and I am including myself here) that displays our cluelessness or ignorance – means that the person calling us out called us a Racist™ – the hardcore obviously KKK level kind. Which is probably my Nice White Lady way of saying that when I enact my own personal racefails in this here essay – which certainly could happen – please just call out my words so I don’t have my feelings hurt, because lord knows, being called a racist when you obviously aren’t – I have several black friends! – is so much worse than actually being racist. 

Fantasy, Steampunk, and the Mythic Past

There’s been some chatter about this interview with Jay Kristoff on the bookonets where he cops to the fact that most of his source material for the Japanese-inflected steampunk novel Stormdancer is pop cultural stuff like anime and manga. On a genre level, I don’t really have any problems with this, because steampunk is a pulp genre, not concerned with strict historical or cultural accuracy. Oh, shit, you guys, I feel a huge sermonette about genre coming on, because I have some serious things with that little genre. My Ideas About Steampunk: Let Me Show You Them. 

So, steampunk has its roots as an off-shoot of cyberpunk, and at its roots, its concerns are alt-historical and somewhat science fictional. The early stuff I encountered, mostly starting with my man William Gibson, kinda blew my mind by relocating the futurism of the past back into the past, like if the House of the Future actually came to pass like Disney envisioned, or Jules Verne, or whoever. There’s this really great story called “The Gernsback Continuum” collected in Burning Chrome– honestly, that story is somewhere top five for short stories for me – which concerns a photographer sent out to record 30s futurist architecture who starts hallucinating their Aryan efficient future laying out in forgotten buildings and molding cars. Science fiction – and I mean this term at its most expansive – has often been concerned with futures, and folding back old futures and laying them against the present – man does this get me all hot and bothered. But there’s a pulp edge to steampunk too – the pulp-history. Alan Moore punks around with steampunk with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking more pulp characters from the Victorian period, but fucking with them. Even though League occurs in a world more or less our own, it’s not so much alt-history as punk-history, because, hello, Martians. It’s the futurism of the past located in the past, and when it works, it makes me giddy.

But steampunk has been around for a while now, and as a genre, seems to be slipping more to cosplay than alt-history. Take something like Soulless or Geared for Pleasure, which are decidedly more about cool trappings than they are about coherent alt-history or even punk-history stuff. And while Soulless‘s alt-history, when it attempts it, are absolute shit, Geared for Pleasure(like Stormdancer, actually) dispenses with the whole idea that we’re even on earth at all – we’re in a fantasy land that looks Victorian-ish, and has some dirigibles and clockwork to settle it within the genre. (And here’s where I plug Meljean Brook‘s steampunk books, because she’s enacting a freaking excellent alt-history under the cover of romance novels, though the referents are more Georgian-Regency than Victorian.) Anyway, point being, I would argue that given the books I see labeled as steampunk as a group, adherence to some kind of alt-history framework that gets everything right is not a requirement of the genre. Pop cultural or pulp cultural sensibilities are more central to the definition of the genre, playing in gadgets and trinkets, playing dress up, having some chase scenes and whatnot. In this vein, I dig Kristoff using Japanese pulp culture to artifact his little world here, especially because the world is understood to be not strictly an alt-historical Japan – the landmass has been reordered and renamed – but a fantasy land that snarky genre readers could characterize as Not!Japan. 

Which brings us to fantasy. I’ve spilled some ink about fantasy – and here I mean mostly high-fantasy, the stuff in Not!Medieval!Europe! – but I’ll try to hit the high notes. I often get my back up about high fantasy because it’s this lamely nostalgic playset about Simpler Times, with regressive gender roles and a bunch of heraldic folderol about honor and quests and whatever. And when you go to criticize it on those terms, some basement-bound virgin always pops in with, “But that’s how things were in the medieval period! Don’t blame the writer for creating a Not!Medieval!Europe without interrogating all the fucking horrible shit that went down in what even scholars refer to as the Dark Ages! Look! Crossbows are sweet! Luke Skywalker has a really great time!” Which cheeses me the fuck right off, because this Not!Medieval!Europe! was created by a modern storyteller, for a modern audience, and if the writer thought it was just fine to throw in a bunch of regressive cultural shit in there “for historical authenticity,” often while positing dragons and Dark Lords and a bunch of other frankly inauthentic shit, then…I don’t know what then. But then, fuck you. You can’t have your medieval cake and eat it too. When you create a mythic past-ish place which is understood to be sweet as fuck, and then make that place a hellhole, just casually, for huge swaths of characters so your little hero can be heroic, what you’re doing is bunk-ass historical self-insert which justifies current shitty injustice. Casually. Which may be the thing I hate so much about it. 

But before I go off the ledge of frothing at the mouth about high fantasy, I have enjoyed the occasional Not!Asian setting – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham being the gold standard, imho. The Khai are sorta khans, the ornament and texture of the world is more medieval Asia than medieval Europe. The key difference may be that Abraham does not inject real world terms and language into his story, just letting the lack of primogeniture and tea drinking and scroll writing set a scene that feels less medieval European and more medieval Mongolia (though, I get the impression, more genteel than both). Kristoff goes to freaking town with a ton of Japanese words, especially in the beginning, which is problematic on a couple of levels, not the least of them being readability. For any fantasy world, not even just the ones that use real, if unusual, words, you have to lower your readers into the pot slowly. Much as I complained about the staging of the first of the Long Price books – and that first one is stagey – the staging here is too much, too soon, with even the infodumps using dozens of terms and concepts that confused. Fantasy, putting aside all the cultural appropriation stuff, should not take nearly a hundred pages to get into. 

But then speaking of Not!Europes, much as I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, I have read some really great critical analyses that unpack Martin’s sometimes hinky use of racial and cultural stereotypes. I mean, the Dothraki are Not!Mongolians, but the rapedy-rapeness of their culture, and the ways Daenerys’s story turns into your typical WhiteSavior™ narrative – Oh, You People™ do not understand the horrors of slavery! – this is actually pretty badly done. (And I’m not going to entertain arguments that just because the people are bunch of raping asshats in Westeros too, this makes it okay. For one, rape culture isn’t a zero sum game, and for two, in Westeros rape is understood as rape, even while it is justified and tolerated, while in Dothraki culture, no one thinks it’s a Bad Thing until the Nice White Lady points it out. Because brown people rape and slave like handshakes. We’re here to serve, us Nice White Ladies. You’re welcome.) 

I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand criticisms that come at Stormdanceras not being authentically Japanese. Even though this world is avowedly Not!Japan, the door was opened for these criticisms by using so, so much Japanese terminology, language, and sort of half-assed pulp Japanese culture, but then occasionally mixing it in with stuff like lotuses and pandas into this Asian-fusion slurry that just isn’t a good idea. I said before you can’t just file the serial numbers off of culture and make all characters a-historical a-cultural humans – tralala, can’t we all get along – but here the serial numbers are sill showing point of origin so strongly that this Not!Japan is still pretty much Japan. And you can’t rightly call this an alt-history or punk-history – this does not have a deep enough understanding of Japanese culture to be such – so it could probably be successfully argued that use of Japanese culture is an example of our old friend, Orientalism. I’m going to duck out of these criticisms of Stormdancerthough, even while I set up the conceptual framework for them, because I lack an understanding of Japanese history and culture myself. Most likely it’s a subtle thing, best explained by my Nice White Lady counterparts Subservient Asian Lady in Need of Rescue or her mother, Tiger Mom. Hold on; I’ll send them a text message. 

Oh, and, one last thing. Just because I’m ragging on A Song of Ice and Firea little, I’m doing that because I love it and I want it to be better. Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but people seem to get their panties in a bunch when beloved properties are criticized, which strikes me as wrongheaded. Or overly touchy? One of the problems of talking about cultural appropriations is everyone gets all “I’m not a racist!” which is fine, but calm the heck down for a minute and listen – this is not about you. There are many many good things in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you like soapy bloodbaths and the descriptions of food, which I avowedly do, and my criticisms of the Dothraki storyline aren’t meant to negate the whole thing. I criticize because I love, because if I didn’t love, I wouldn’t have fucking bothered with several thousand pages that, at this point, don’t look like they’re going to wrap up anytime soon. At its most interesting, the critical enterprise seeks to understand and comment on why things bring us narrative pleasure, and sometimes those reasons are a little fucked up and weird, because we are all a little fucked up and weird, and we can always be better. The end. 

In Which I Actually Talk About the Book

As I’ve hinted before, this story takes place in a Not!Japan which is a generation or three into an industrial revolution. There are SFF elements, in that there is an agricultural product not dissimilar from spice melange in Dune– speaking of your cultural appropriations, because you guys see how much Herbert ripped from Mideastern religion and politics, yo? – which both gets the populace hiiiigh and powers all of the fantastic technology. The lotus, as this is called, is also a huge ecological nightmare, a sort of super-cotton which drains the soil of nutrients, or a super-coal belching filth into the air. As I also noted before, the opening is tough sledding, far too jargony and with too much term salad and infodumps – which on some level is funny, because the prologue, which I normally turn my nose up at, is clean and full of stakes and action. 

So we settle down with Yikiko, daughter of the Imperial Huntsman or whatever he’s actually called, and they are sent on a mission most likely to end in failure by the Emperor or Shogun or whatever he’s called. The Shogun (I think Shogun) who is possibly the Character Most Likely To Be An Orientalist Stereotype has had a dream that the griffin – or thunder tiger or whatever – is still extant despite the fact that, like, everything is extinct. So off we go! Yukiko has some unfortunate daddy issues, and there are some boys (two of them, in fact, making something of a triangle, you see) and some other stuff. Which is when I put the book down maybe a month ago, not feeling all that good about this. 

The prose is probably love it or hate it, which is a stupid thing to say now that I’ve typed it. I did neither one nor the other. I guess what I mean that it is very florid and descriptive of sensation, so if that is not your bag, steer clear. There’s some tendency to repetition that I found somewhat annoying – we get the lotus is bad – but I’m willing to give this a pass a little given the YA format. Heads up, kids, we’ve got the one planet and all. But Kristoff writes really excellent fight scenes – which is much harder than it looks, I say – and the way he deals with the dreaded love triangle is brutal and awesome. And the way he dealt with sex in general was pretty refreshing. Though all fade to black, like YA does, Yikiko deals with her sexuality very matter of factly, without a bunch of purity terror and the like. There could probably be more mention of um, certain biological realities, but this isn’t Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., so that is just fine. 

The latter half of the book is more fun to read, once Yukiko stops bitching and infodumping on the airship. Her relationship with Buruu – he’s the thunder tiger, in a sort of Dragonflightscenario – turns on a dime it doesn’t deserve, to mangle a metaphor, as do several of Yikiko’s revelations, where she’s all YOU GUYS ARE THE WORST one minute and ALL IN WOOO the next. I did like dad’s ninja-girlfriend a lot, and felt like it was unusual to see the sexual partners of parents – other than the other parent, of course – dealt with with anything other than evil stop-mom writing, so that was cool. But, also, sadface on some things that are spoilers. 

Anyway, I feel like as usual with my three-star outings, I’m struggling with something to say about the text itself, and obviously I’ve already blathered like crazy about a thousand concerns that might be a bit more peripheral. I did like this story, in the end, and I did enjoy the less simple than usual political/economic sensibility of the book, but I admit this is pretty much grading on a curve with other deeply politically stupid young adult dystopias. (Cough, Divergent, cough.) (And I’m not talking about partisanship – I’m talking about a complex sense of the polis and how it functions, which is something often sorely lacking in books aimed at teens.) 

Plus, whatever, chainsaw kitanas are freaking sweet, and don’t let anyone tell you different. 

Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction

This review is something of a mess, written over months, and at least four separate reading sessions. Which works in some ways, because Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction is a mess. I thought it was a short story collection, and while I admit it’s my bad for misreading the term “anthology”, it’s not the best anthology. I can’t tell who Grace Dillon, the editor, thinks she’s writing for. Heavily academic, full of lots of jargon and dense, offhanded references to theory, writers and history that blow past your average reader. I have a good background in science fiction, and a shakier one in Native (North) American history – a minor in college coughcough years ago – and I could barely keep up. 

I probably should have just given up, but it got to be a grudge match: Grace Dillon, you will not defeat me with your horrible introductions and promiscuous use of epigraph. There’s a lot of very cool material in here, a lot of both explicit and implicit criticisms of science fiction as a genre, new and odd angles on science fictional narrative, etc etc. It’s a good place to get a broad polling of indigenous voices in a genre that is often extremely colonial in nature, which is what I was looking for when I picked this up. 

It’d also be a good place to start building a syllabus or a master’s thesis, but as a pleasure reader primary, I didn’t take much pleasure in that aspect of the anthology. Quit freaking mansplaining what is going on and just cut to the chase! The excerpts should have been doubled in size and the introductions cut to a paragraph. Terms, in general, should have been better defined – I don’t think there was an articulated definition of either science fiction or indigenous, which might seem like talking down to the reader, but in an anthology predicated on contested things like genre and identity, I think more down-talking would have been preferable to the over-the-head talking.  

So I’m going to give this points for existing, and for having fairly strong selections, but I’m going to take many of them away for the huge editorial drag going on. 


This was the book I brought to read while standing in line to vote. W00t. 

Notes in progress: 

So far the short stories have been excellent, but the introduction and prefaces to the individual stories are written like a Master’s thesis, by which I mean pretty jargony and hung up on some really abstruse stuff. The editor has this pretty big boner for the concept of slipstream science fiction, and it’s often pretty cool watching her twist herself in knots trying to make some of these stories come off as science fictional. It works a lot of the time, like the odd, dreamlike story “Aunt Parnetta’s Electric Blisters” by Diane Glancy which centers on the technological intrusion of the icebox – culture transmitted through technology and all that. Plus, it’s just really beautifully written, despite the dialogue being in dialect, which I normally loathe. 

“Custer on the Slipstream” by Gerald Vizenor is a harder sell, at least the way it is being sold here. At first glance the title seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the Master’s thesis – slipstream! fiction! – except that it’s referring to the 70s version of slipstreaming, which is using the wake of rig to pull your car along. I’m not saying it doesn’t count in the collection or anything, but it seems (at least partially) like this is a mordant satire about the concept of “Indian time” – you know, “he runs on Indian Time, therefore he never shows up at the right hour” – instead of being about “slippage” and “culturally constructed expressions of time space that run counterfactually with national narrative” or whatever. (These are not direct quotes; I am being a bitch here.) 

Without even explicitly naming the concept of Indian Time, Dillon seems to fall into the usual apologia about how Native people are more in tune with the planet and nature and stuff – and, I don’t actually dispute that time sense can be, and often is, culturally constructed – I just kinda get bothered by implicit justifications for racist terminology that use other stereotypical characterizations of Native America. The perception of the concept of Indian Time, by both whites and native people, might more be a function of the crushing poverty and often physical remoteness of most Indian Reservations, which might make it hard to show up at the BIA to treat with Custer at the hour set for such an event. (Which is, of course, not even getting into the fact that much of Native America is urban.) Which is kinda the point of the story – partially – so all this talk about slippage feels like it’s missing the point. In other words, I think this story works in the collection, but not for the reasons outlined in the intros.

Anyway, then onto an excerpt from The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong, which I enjoyed until I had to just stop reading. In the intro, Stephen Graham Jones has some really interesting stuff to say about reading science fiction as an indigenous person – how so much sf encodes Western Expansion narratives in ways that are, of course, totally racist, but at least the SFnal shift makes chinks in the colonial narrative that your usual Cowboys and Indians story doesn’t allow. Sure, Klingons are noble savages – indeed, down to using Crazy Horse’s famous exhortation that “It is a good day to die” as a war cry – but there’s a red-shift in the characterization. Badump tss. 

What I read of The Fast Red Road was totally PKD style identity freak-out and pretty great, but as just an excerpt of a larger work, it was difficult to track what was going on. A slice of an identity wig out is hobbled, because so much of a wig out relies on a series of reversals that can only be considered as a gestalt. At that point I paged through the table of contents and figured out that roughly half of these entries are excerpts from larger works, which seems a little ominous to me. I have given myself permission to chuck things as I go if they refuse to work in single-chapter form. 

I started into the excerpt from Flight by Sherman Alexie, but then it was time to vote! 

Vote Vote! 

A few more notes:

This is not true, but I will say it anyway: the intro to the excerpt from Flightwas longer than the excerpt. Or boy did it feel like it. The section of this book I read on the plane yesterday was all bits of larger works, and Dillon’s intros are beginning to wear, though I don’t feel like I can skip them lest I not know what’s going on. The intro to Flight feels like a shoehorn job, because the very brief passage from Alexie’s story doesn’t feel science fictional at all, but more in line with coming-of-age identity mind-fuckery. That is a perfectly cromulent literary device, I’m just calling bullshit on every act of mind-fuckery being science fictional. Plus, and I hate to say this out loud, but I don’t like Alexie’s writing style all that much. I read a bunch of his stuff years ago until I learned I should probably just not. He’s really choppy and spare, and I can see how he’s good at what he’s doing, but he’s just not for me. 

The excerpt from Refugees by Celu Amberstone (which, annoyingly, does not appear to be in the database) was the first of these bits that got me wanting to read the larger work. Taking place on an alien planet which had been seeded with Native people seven generations before by an alien race, and are now in the process of folding in modern Vancouverans (-ites?), the ideas felt like stuff from Octavia E. Butler‘s Xenogenesis Trilogy, but written by John Crowley. Sort of. Not to be too blurbily reductive. The aliens are lizard-people, which has this really nice recoil to it, even while the (possibly hopelessly naive) damaged narrator – who was born on the alien planet – tries to understand what all the shouting is about from the Earth-born folk. There was a lot of nuance here, and motivations were murky and dangerously misunderstood – a pre-industrial utopia which might just be another reservation – conflicts between urban and rural. Really nice.

The Black Shipby Gerry William is hard core space opera, which is perfect. Space opera 100% encodes the colonial narrative in its little mechanical heart, and William is firmly aware of this, running the tropes with a twist. It’s like if Chickotay weren’t horrifyingly lame, all the potential of the conflict between the Federation and the Maquis running out into make-out sessions about Honor and the Chain of Command. 

Oops, I skipped over “Men on the Moon” by Simon Ortiz. I’ll get to it later.

Midnight Robberby Nalo Hopkinson is another one I’d pick up, partially because it turns out I dig her style. She’s got a way of blending folk tale and idiom into SFF settings – at least going from this, and the other book I’ve read by her, The Chaos– while having this just splendid sense of the weird. Reminds me a little of Sheri S. Tepper in that, although I think Hopkinson is more playful. Good use of dialect too. 

The other Gerald Vizenor selection – this time from Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles – did not turn my crank at all. I dig he foresaw the whole ecopunk peak oil situation in 1978, but the writing feels dated, and the excerpt goes nowhere. 

That could certainly be the fault of our intrepid editor’s choice of excerpt though, a problem I see in the next two selections as well: the first from Mindscape by Andrea Hairston, and the second from Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller.  I was only able to get through the second selection with some teeth gritting – and I don’t think I got much out of it – and the first I was unable to complete. Which is not to say that either are bad, just that as small selections – often shorter than the editorial introduction – I couldn’t track the characters, cultures nor conflicts in a meaningful way. Throw in stylized dialect like in Golden Clouds, and I’m out. Books teach you how to read them; they build their characters and dialects and cultures so it isn’t an assault. (Certainly, beginnings can be assaults, but that is part of the learning process.) Being told how to read them in humorless academic introductions is not the same as the lessons you get in novels about how to read that novel. 

As uncharitably as I’m feeling about the editor right now – I am growing to hate her penchant for epigrams and academicese – I don’t think any passage would work, so it’s probably not her choice of passage that is at fault. These are complex, multi-cultural novels – not in the mealy-mouthed sense of multi-cultural, as buzzword for tokenism, but multi-cultural in the sense that its characters are all vocal and distinct cultural voices, and I don’t think we’re used to seeing that. Although there is absolutely a pan-Indian identity these days, the Native experience (in America, anyhow) is one of profound multi-culturalism, with hundreds of distinct tribes, languages and histories. And sure, some of my ancestors came from Sweden, and some from Wales, but that all just lingers on at Christmas. As a white person, I experience my Americanness – no past, glowing future – in a way that is monolithic: I am not Swedish-American or Welsh-American or any other hyphen American. I am American. Native people in the states have a second hyphen, or a third: they come from Native America, but they also come from a tribe, or tribes, or a profound and complex hyphenization. An other that is deeply individual. 

Things begin to pick up for me as a reader when I hit the “Native Apocalypses” section of this this book. I haven’t been making note of this, and I apologize for my laziness, but these excerpts and short stories have all been grouped under various headings: Native Slipstream, Contact, etc. I’m on much steadier ground when the end of the world is seriously freaking nigh. Which might be a thing with this collection: I am a reasonably assured sff genre reader, but I’m little hazier when it comes to aboriginal fiction. I imagine if you came in as someone with zero interest in either of those things, you would be seriously at sea. This collection assumes you can 1) tolerate academic writing 2) read sff 3) have even  passing interest in indigenous fiction. Add it up before you pick this up. 

Anyway, so Sherman Alexie’s “Distances” kinda blew my mind, and I’m sorry I said his stuff didn’t work for me. This totally does. I have a shine for narratives about the black plague, that enormous pestilence and upheaval that profoundly reordered European history. A third to a half of Europeans dead? Jesus. Here’s the thing: I’ve seen statistics that say that as much as 90% of the population of the Americas was dead by European diseases before the people of the interior even knew contact had occurred. ZOMG. Talk about your plague narratives. And talk about how for Native America, the end of the world has already occurred. There are stories of rivers so alive with fish that they could overturn the boat in the European discovery narratives, and that’s because the millions of people who used to fish those streams were dead. Jesus. Dillon finally starts speaking to me in her intros, pointing out the sterility of most Western post-apocalit, when the world would rightly explode with verdency if we were out of it. This is the line that killed me, every time Alexie wrote it: “Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.” 

“When This World is All on Fire” by William Sanders is maybe more perfunctory as a short story – I could see some of the reversals coming – but I liked the more intimate reversals that were the set-up. The value of land changes as the waters rise, even the shitty, half-discarded land of the reservation, but the people, they keep being held to standards of blood and upbringing and jurisdiction. 

From The Moons of Palmares by Zainab Amadahy. I skimmed this one heavily again, because the set up was impossible for me to understand. The same excerpt problem again, though I could dig the space opera encoding from the not-Fleet perspective.

From Red Spider White Web by Misha. Well, this killed. I admit I have a long running love for the cyberpunk street-level diction, and this delivers the whole Sino-fetistist artist whackadoo milieu with a bullet. I dig the masks. I dig the main character selling her ass by the holographic proxy. I dig the scene where she holds the schoolchild down and undoes her masks like profanity. Hot damn all around.

 One more section to go!

Even though I had something like 20 pages to go, it took Herculean effort to pick this sucker up again. I had forgotten I even liked the armegeddon section, but for our last group of writings, we’re back to abstruse and hard to follow, as least as it comes to Dillon’s intros.

“Terminal Avenue” by Eden Robinson is a fine short story, and kind of a relief because it is a short story. Occurring right at the moment of a beating of a Native kid by faceless authority figures for his physical transgression outside a new, urban reservation, the story is impressionistic and almost Proustian in its digressions. The arm coming down reminds the boy of other happier transgressions, ones that didn’t end in a traffic stop. Native America is often conceptualized as rural – and certainly the reserves are, often harshly so – but urban environments have their reserves as well. Don’t cross the boundary lines.

From Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko. Another selection, this time somewhat easier to follow, although the introduction completely fails to hit what seem to me the themes. Mordant, funny satire of commercialized Native America – con men in buckskin, Carlos Castaneda and his Yaqui bs – but met up with Native people using the commercial face of Native America to their own ends. Lots of terrorism and violence, which is interesting in post 9/11 world, because this was written 1991. Maybe Silko was right about the Ghost Dance.

From The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto by Stephen Graham Jones. I just don’t even get this. Something about an android Lone Ranger and his embarrassed Tonto. I suspect the passage is too brief, and the intro fails to illuminate. Again.

From Star Waka: Poems by Robert Sullivan. You’d think something called Star Waka would be this big nerd joke about Star Wars slash Trek – the way waka sounds like war, but then turns out to be a boat, the way waka could be like walk, you know, or trek. And maybe that’s a thing in there somewhere, but as a single poem, it’s not.

And then that’s it!


Review: Walking Dead: Hounded

Spoilers, per usual.

This really strange dude who lived in my freshman dorm was fond of rolling up and saying to people, apropos of nothing, “100% of smokers die,” as he pulled hard on a smoke. Zombie stories are pretty much this statement, only with everyone, and real soon. It’s a numbers game, and we’re all redshirts.

In terms of narrative, this long, slow dirge for humanity is going to be hard to pull off long term, which makes Kirkman’s continuing comics (which I have not followed, past the prison sequence) such an interesting exercise  I can see how it might fall into holes, playing out Rick’s creation of new community, and then that community’s eventual demise like an episode with the A-Team where they roll into town and sort out the bad from the good and then roll on. Continued existence is going to boil down to soap mechanics, or action movie mechanics, and this episode does both in a way I found pretty satisfying.

“Hounded” covers a lot of ground, running at least three plotlines, maybe four if you consider the stuff in the prison as separate arcs. Most of this was taunt, almost understated stuff, although maybe understated is just in comparison to the usual histrionics. It opens with Merle and a bunch of redder shirts than usual hunting Michonne through the usual Georgia underbrush, and while the zombie cryptoquip was maybe lame, the sequence let Michonne be the badass she is. Everything Merle did was telegraphed 15 minutes before it happened, sure, but beheadings are always fun to watch.

Andrea continues to be terribly blonde, and while I’m not surprised by her falling into bed with the Governor – call me Phillip – in this incarnation, I’m not exactly happy about it. On the one hand, I like her admission that she likes the zombie fights, that she understands them. Things like the zombie fights are usually run to make us, the viewer, understand that the people involved are without morals or reason, so we can write them off and revel in their deaths. When someone like Andrea, who is, admittedly, still seriously blonde, can admit she likes the catharsis and action of the fights, it kinda validates all of our morbid rubbernecking from the couch. On the other hand, quit being so damn blonde. I say this as a blonde, so, you know, I’m not being racist.

And Rick, ah, man. Here’s where the mortality issue comes in. We’re going to be dealing with character death for episode upon episode – 100% of Rickocrats are going to die, it’s just a matter of time scale. But this is the really shitty thing about death: they don’t all matter the same way. When Rick lost Lori, man, that was a mind job. You pretty much know he has to be bananas when he’s on that phone, his series of stark, honest confessions about what he’s done and why, but the writers play it pretty close. I kept watching that walker he shot and then gut-stabbed last episode like it was going to heave up and come for him, but it never did. Death is final in the end, it’s 100%, and the acting out of Rick’s grief was just right.

And Daryl, my God, his strange eulogy for his mother while he hunts through the prison for leftover walkers was just poetry, even if Carl’s “I shot my mom” felt accidentally funny. (Sorry Carl.) And Daryl’s realization that it must be Carol’s corpse banging the door in the closet was wrenching, even if I was pretty sure she was alive. (Seriously, why did they dig a grave for her last week if there was no body? Whatever, tv does as it will do.) But her being alive is a small bright moment against the horrible, inevitable statistics of this show, one I will take, given the end.

Because here’s where the soap mechanics come in: in all the shitty Georgia strip-malls, Merle’s gonna stumble on Glenn and Maggie in this one? Okay. I mean, sure, we’ve set up our antagonists, and we have to get them in conflict in some way or another, and this is it. I’m kinda dreading next week, based on some stuff I know from the comics, but maybe Kirkman & writers will avoid the mess they made there. Fingers crossed. Here’s hoping against the statistics.

Un Lun Dun: I Love You For Your Mind

China Miéville is my new boyfriend. I mean, look at him:

China looking very growly and hawt

Hubba hubba. I mean, I’ve always had a thing for guys who have had their noses obviously broken at some point, but this man is just wicked attractive. Now that I’ve been super lame and girly about this authors merits, I do want to say that I love you for your mind, Mr. Miéville, your hot, hot mind. And the fact that your name is weird. And you’ve got those little French thingees over the e that I can’t get my word processor to do. (I roll with cut-and-paste; it’s a kluge, but it gets the job done.) 

I’m too young to have this be emotionally real for me, but one of the reasons Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was so upsetting is because it discombobulated the viewers notions of main character. Hitchcock spends all this time documenting Marion and her crime and escape, lavishing scenes on her switching cars, chatting with the bf, all that. Then she checks into a motel, has a little dinner, dips into the shower and SWINK SWINK SWINK end of story. Like, WHAT? I imagine everyone in the theater thinking. You just killed off the main character! In steps Lila, Marion’s sister, and we all kind of breathe a sigh of relief, but it just has to be said: Lila’s not as interesting. Norman is, though, and then you realize that the story’s about him, and he’s a bloody killer. 

But maybe that’s not even it, maybe it’s that we can’t trust Hitchcock anymore because stories should be about one thing and not another, one person and not another, and we like it when character is destiny, but more importantly, we like it when characters have destinies, because, like, isn’t that the point of fiction? Fiction winds up these little marionettes who trundle forward in little dioramas, and maybe the fictions are more or less life-like, maybe the dolls have real silk dresses, or the walls are actually lathe-and-plaster with horsehair and newspapers from the turn of the last century as insulation, but it’s still fiction, which means there’s a simplicity at it’s soul, even when it’s complicated – there’s just no way to make a 1-to-1 model of everything. We root for main characters, even when they suck and are terrible, because we are main characters all; I don’t care how much empathy you have, you simply can’t know what goes on in another person’s head, anyone’s. So Hitchcock kills his main character, and we all start, because, holy wow, man, you just killed us. 

Anyway, Miéville does this with the concept of Destiny in Un Lun Dunand I just want to give him a big smooch for it. (Well, okay, for other reasons too.) A pair of girls fall into the Un Lun Dun/unLondon of the title. UnLondon is just fantastic, not entirely because it’s trying to be fantastic, but because it isn’t, sort of. Man, that didn’t make any sense. Okay, here’s an example: our protagonists run in with folk called the Roofrunners, who seem like those sort of aggressively clannish Klingon types who are always crowing about how no one has stepped onto the ground in three generations and wear a lot of leather. You can see where this is going, right? Some Roofrunner is going to have to step onto the ground at some point very soon to Save Them All, but then, when it actually happens, turns out the roofs are false roofs, just sitting there on the ground with no houses under them, so all they really have to do is STEP DOWN. That is so freaking funny! I mean, it’s all fiction right? The roofs, the city, the people inside, why not have the roofs on the ground? Why not make the danger something that comes from the stories these people told, and not the imaginary gravity of their imaginary environment? Whoa. I just freaked myself out. 

There’s other sublime weirdness as well: a school of fish in a diving suit who constitute a sentient entity, or a bird in a robot man with a birdcage for a head, or any of a hundred other frightening or comic people and things. There’s pictures too – little pen and ink sketches by Miéville himself – more swooning – that aren’t obnoxious or distracting, but help catalog the oddments without interrupting the narrative. He has the good sense not to interfere with my notions of how the main characters look, instead stuffing the peripheries with the ideas I might miss out of the corner of my eye. 

BUT, all soul mates have to have their their first fight, and here’s my opening salvo: sometimes puns just piss me off. There should never be places called Webminster Abbey…made of webs! Inhabited by the Black Window…who is like a window with spider legs! It’s just, you know, lame. (Although, the actual descriptions of the Black Windows, even though just typing those words made me die a little bit, was unsettling and powerful.) Gaiman’s Neverwheregets mentioned a lot with this book – I think it’s mentioned by and Miéville himself – I had the same problems with that one. Additionally, one of the reasons I didn’t groove on Neverwherelike some of Gaiman’s other stuff is that Richard Mayhew is milquetoast as all get out, and his problems with his gf were kind of stupid, Sex and the City style antics, and he just needed to sack up, in general. Deeba is similarly unrealized, in some ways: I don’t have a good sense of how she is when she’s alone, but at least she didn’t have a harpy-ish girlfriend who seemed like a sexist caricature. 

Sorry Gaiman! I still love you too, but I’m throwing you over for this Miéville fellow!

Some of my Favorite TwiThings

Because I’m too old and sick this weekend, I could not partake in the midnight madness that was was the premiere of the second part of Breaking Dawn. I’m not going to pretend to fandom, but I have grown to love the Twilight franchise for its unabashed Mary Sue’d girliness. Sure, it’s totally regressive, and possibly even dangerous if taken too seriously – an undead virgin pedobear grooms his teenage girlfriend for domestic bliss? Shudder – but it’s no more alarming than any of the thousands of masculine fantasies that have some teenage asshole played by Shia LaBeouf blowing up most of the eastern seaboard because he lost his girlfriend or something. So many of the criticisms of Twilight are genderfails, angry at girls for being girls and wanting girl things.

But that doesn’t mean I’m above making fun of Twilight, because making fun makes fun. Here are some of my favorite things that come out of the Forksverse:

Buffy vs. Edward

Deleted Twilight Sex Scene
And this round-up from i09 that lists some of the scariest and most awesome Twilight merch available out there. 
So, have fun this weekend, Twihards. 

Breaking Dawn: Narrative Tension Goes Fsssst

I read Twilight more or less on a dare, mostly so I could swirl my chardonnay and get my schadenfreude on. While I can certainly snob out about how horribly Twilight is written on so many levels, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it made me. Meyer captured itchy, awkward adolescence with such an evocative squirm, and then she relieved that adolescent discomfort with a monstrous romantic bliss. I can see why so many people responded to this, even though I was still too busy breathing into a bag having flashbacks to middle school to relax and and get swept up in the romance. When she’s good, she’s good because she is not in control of her subject, not able to stop the outpouring of discomfort and terror underlying the domestic bliss that is a woman’s expected relief, and while Twilight ends with a certain romantic harmony, Meyer doesn’t perfect the ending. All impediments to Bella and Edward are not swept away, and they don’t fade out to domestic harmony.

If you think about it, that’s fascinating. I think if Meyer had been a seasoned writer, following the rules of mass market romance – and yes, I know that Twilight isn’t mass market romance, but it does share some commonalities – she would have written a series of books shifting to other points of view, working out other romances within the Forksverse. Edward’s coven would have been all unattached, the tribe would be introduced, and they would have hooked up pair by pair: Mike with Alice, Jacob with Rosalie, that one chick with Jasper. Edward and Bella and then the later couples would cameo in epilogues and picnics with their babies, doling out advice to the new lovers while they writhed in romantic incompleteness until they didn’t, and then the sparkle ending could have been repeated ad infinitum. But Meyer is not that kind of writer; her strengths, such as they are, reside in her uncalculating evocation of…I’m struggling here…the terrors and pleasures of American femininity? The inherent conflict between the self protagonist and traditional gender roles? Some shit like that. 

Fascinating or no, I had zero interest in reading any more Twilight books after the first. But because Twilight talk is pretty much what fuels the Goodreads engine – although this is changing a bit, thank heavens – I’ve followed roughly 89 kajillion conversations about the series, spoilered myself on the plots of each book, and spent more words on books I haven’t read than is wise. I’ve wanted to read Breaking Dawn bad for a while, because I’ve been assured that Breaking Dawn is where the wheels come off, where Meyer’s unexamined domestic panic goes insane and burns the house down. Those assurances were not wrong. I’ve been hamstrung by my disinterest in plowing through nearly a thousand pages of love triangles, cheesy stand-ins for the Catholic church, and racist, Rousseauian garbage about how Native Americans are in touch with their inner furry beastie to get to this book. (Also, Edward is not Heathcliff, he’s Linton, and I’m not sure I can handle watching Meyer act out that mistake in Eclipse.) Anyway, point being, thank god for movies, because I got good and drunk and watched the movies of the middle two books with Elizabeth, who explained the stuff that they missed, and I was good and ready to read this. 

I can see why they split Breaking Dawninto two movies, because it is two books. One is a shockingly naked expression of procreative terror, an effective horror novel which is effective because it is so completely, so thoroughly, so devastatingly unconscious. The other is a boring, mechanical attempt to cauterize the previous blood-letting, an act of wish fulfillment so severe it almost negates the power of the previous installment. The wish is to unsee the terror of the previous entry, but whoo boy, there is no unseeing that. Before reading this, I tried to think of novels that detail the process of pregnancy and childbirth, and I mean embody, not just use as grist from some guy’s mid-life/Oedipal crisis, or mention as the conclusion to the novel. I blanked for a long time, but eventually I came up with two: BelovedToni Morrison‘s ghost story of slavery, and BarrayarLois McMaster Bujold‘s court intrigue of the domestic. I find it interesting that the pregnancies in these fictions are all metonymous in some way, dissociated. From Beloved, I have a vivid image of Sethe’s water breaking in an unstoppable stream of piss, while her daughter-ghost rises in her high-necked white dress, or from Barrayar, Cordelia helping a woman deliver a baby during a battle, while her own swims in a tank, his fragile bones breaking. But neither of these births are normal by any stretch: disembodied, metaphorical, political, even while they have a fierce physicality that I can remember years later. 

The dissociation in Breaking Dawncomes from the fact that the point of view shifts to Jacob for the whole of Bella’s pregnancy. The book starts with the Swan-Cullen wedding, a dreary obvious affair with requisite reference to clothing. The newly minted Cullens then whisk to Brazil to a desert island, and a series of sexual encounters that feel like S&M literature written under the Hays Code. I found them alternately hilarious and unsettling: a bedroom filled with white downy feathers after Edward has pillow-bitten his way through the grind; Bella waking covered in bruises that she can’t remember receiving, and begging a remorseful Edward into doing it again. She gets knocked up – pun intended – on the first try, though doesn’t realize it for nigh on 100 pages of snorkeling, eating eggs, and trying on lingerie. We’re in kill-me-now territory, for this reader. But they eventually figure it out, Edward making a tight-lipped phone call to Carlisle, his father/doctor, and Bella going completely fucking insane with baby fever. 

Here’s where the point of view shift happens, and it’s breathtaking to behold. I try to avoid speculating about authorial motivation, but I think it’s obvious that Meyer is bound up in Bella, at the very least as a wish-fulfillment vehicle, if not a full-blown author proxy. (Breaking Dawndoes goes full Mary Sue in the last half though – more on that later.) And Meyer, for a variety of reasons, can’t have her stand-in express the terror and discomfort of pregnancy, the doubt and fear, the sheer towering life-and-death of it all, so she turns to another who can. Jacob performs his task admirably, giving voice to thoughts that by all rights Bella should be having, would be having, if she weren’t silenced by her standing as idealized womanhood. The pregnancy is breakneck, almost literally, a week of gestation collapsed into a day. Bella grows hollow-eyed, starved of nutrition by her fetal parasite, her ribs cracking by the sudden ballooning of her body, sipping blood out of a styrofoam cup with a lid and straw. In one awful scene, her pelvis snaps. 

Holy fuck. I’ve had some babies, and I was harrowed by these descriptions. While I found much of pregnancy novel, and enjoyable in its novelty in some regards – when else can I experience being kicked in the bladder from within my own body? – pregnancy was also uncomfortable and scary, on both physical and existential levels. My son gave me an umbilical hernia, which necessitated surgery; I am riddled with stretch marks; I had never once experienced heartburn before my nascent kids pushed my stomach into my throat. (What is this sensation I am feeling?? My heart it burns! Oh, so that’s heartburn. Sucks.) And I had it easy compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from friends, bedridden with a variety of leaking, potentially lethal pregnancy-induced conditions. I’ve been dithering for the last half hour, trying to figure how to say this out loud, this unspeakable truth, but I believe that every pregnant woman, regardless of her politics or her beliefs, thinks to herself at some point, this thing inside me has no right to kill me. I resent that I may have to choose between my life and another’s. I resent that I am expected to love someone more than myself, sight unseen. I love myself. I choose me. 

Phew. I’m feeling a little gross after writing that, but there it is. Bella doesn’t say anything like this, and Jacob twists and howls, saying it for her. I thank the starry heavens that we make it through Bella’s pregnancy in another character’s head, because she is freakishly placid and resigned. Bella is surrounded by unwomen – the barren, the childless – who protect Bella’s wishes to go through this unwise, fatal pregnancy because they don’t care about her at all, they only care about the baby. The sterile werewolf who hates Bella and Jacob, Rosalie who has been opposed to Bella’s transformation into a vampire on the grounds that Bella will not be able to have children, these women give voice to the conundrum that they are giving Bella what she needs to become a woman, in this traditionalist mindset, but that the woman is disposable in that act of creation. Good gravy, think about it, it’s so fucking sick and perfect that it kills me a little. 

At the end of Jacob’s pov section, Bella goes into labor, such as it is. Honestly, I have never read anything scarier in my life, the placenta detaching, Carlisle, the doctor, conveniently off set. This is a mutant, remember, encased in a placental sac so hard that it can only be gotten through with teeth, the infant’s teeth. It is a shower of blood, one that had me flashing back to my own deliveries, and not in a good way. This following bit is gross and overshare: I had repressed this memory, but after 42 hours of labor, and a nail-biting finish where I nearly bled to death, I remember being wheeled out after all the stitches and happy conclusions (in that neither I nor my son were dead) and seeing the river of blood and fluid on the floor, leading to a drain. I remember lying in bed, two mornings before, after waking up to my water silently breaking, and thinking, holy shit, there is no way out of this now. I have to experience the next 12 hours – this was hope talking, though I didn’t know it – and there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop it. It was the moment before the roller coaster went down the hill, and I didn’t know if there were tracks at the end, and that was panic, pure panic. 

The birthing sequence is told twice, once from Jacob’s pov, and once from Bella’s, and it’s fascinating to compare. Jacob is angry and horrified, like you are when you are a rational human watching a mutant baby eat its way out of a woman you love. Bella’s perspective is batshit insanity. I went back and re-read this part today, after I finished, because I have this horrible image of Bella’s child smiling at her with a full set of teeth – seriously, close your eyes and imagine an infant with a full set of teeth, smiling – shudder, shudder – and I couldn’t remember whether Bella noted this, or Jacob. It was Bella, and that image fills her with joy. I’m running out of expletives, but holy cussed godamn fucking shit. I’m losing the capacity to talk about this coherently, because this is so fucking bananas. 

So. Baby born, who is flawless and perfect. Bella transformed into vampire, now flawless and perfect. From here on out, the plot could not be more boring, more impossible, more unnecessary. There’s some thing with the Voltari making a power play for the baby or something – seriously, I’m not detailing the plot because it makes so little sense. I barked out some laughs when Bella and Edward go at it like marble rabbits every night when the baby goes to sleep – haha, such an accurate depiction of new parenthood. I completely lost my shit when, after roughly seven hundred new characters are introduced, Jacob says something to the effect of: how am I going to keep all these people straight?! Next to his statement is a little asterisk.*

*See page 756 is written below, and I am sent back to an index – hahahahahaha – that is a list of characters complete with helpful little strike-throughs for the characters who have died in previous books – hahahahaha. Holy shit, woman, have a little more faith in your writing. 

It’s like Meyer squeezed out this horrible truth, and then panicked, canonizing Bella and stripping out all the narrative danger, all the reality. We don’t really hear again from Jacob or the wolves, which is incredibly frustrating, because obviously Sam and Jacob make up at the end, but all of that occurs off-stage. And there are a bunch of new wolves??? And they are not really werewolves, we learn in an infodump?? Everyone recedes into a prop for the perfect child, one that makes everyone instantly love her. Meyer spent all her truth on the trauma of childbirth, and once we’re back in Bella’s head, she can’t express the impolite notion that infants can be difficult to love. I do believe in a certain amount of parental instinct – we wouldn’t make it far as a species without it – but for most new mothers, we are struggling with exhaustion, blood loss, and a dizzying hormonal stew when our babies are at their neediest: screaming, feeding, pooping on a loony schedule. Teeth or not, they do not smile for weeks, and while that first smile is intensely satisfying – I can still remember the first time the boy laughed, and that was sheer joy transmitted by sound – the weeks before are managing an uncommunicative alien who has consumed your life. 

Oh shit though! How could I forget the imprinting?? Sweet zombie Jebus. Jacob does express this impolite anger at the child at the end of his section, stalking down to murder the infant for what she has done to Bella. It is the cheapest, grossest cop-out ever that his anger is magicked away by some sort of gross sexual soul mating. (I know I’ve used gross twice in that sentence; sue me.) I’m way ZOMG about the idea of imprinting – this is what I get for not reading the previous books, where they explain why only guys imprint, and why imprinting isn’t the most kinked idea ever. Edward’s convenient mind-reading keeps telling us that Jacob only has pure thoughts for his infant bride, but come on. I suspect that Meyer pulled this stunt to give poor, rejected Jacob a consolation prize, and to keep him from running out of there. One of the last chapter speeches is about the power of family, and how family is choice and a bunch of other garbage. Jacob would never choose to stay with this family Meyer has constructed without magical duress. But with imprinting, now the cult can be complete! (And, though these thoughts lack coherence, I think there might be something in this imprinting business that is about sexual competition between mothers and daughters, and the uncomfortable reality that all children grow to become sexual beings. The imprinting puts a tight leash – pun intended – on the child’s inevitable adolescent sexuality. Best mother ever!) 

Bella goes full Mary Sue in the end, even her trademark clumsiness erased, her beauty perfected, her talents blooming into story-destroying weapons. She’s so good at everything that she makes conflict impossible. I was sorely disappointed by the big “battle” with the Voltori, who succumb to her perfect motherhood in the most boring episode of Vampire Matlock ever. Which is super funny, because Alice’s clairvoyance is obviously the real reason that any of that worked out, but that’s the trouble with clairvoyant characters – they really know how to spoil a plot. I spent a fair amount of time laughing when Alice bails, and everyone is like, nooooes! That must mean we are dooooooomed!! Because, you know, there’s no other good reason for a clairvoyant to head out on some super secret mission when there’s a big throw-down on the horizon. Certainly she won’t arrive at the perfect moment with some major trump card. That’s not more likely at all. But Alice’s decampment serves as grist for the emo mill, and without all the hand-wringing brought on by her leaving, there would be almost no emotional drama – clearly fake as it is – to the any of the boring, perfect proceedings leading up to the end.

Much as the last section bored me to tears, at least when it wasn’t grossing me out, I was zero to the bone on the last page. Bella and Edward’s forever and evers to one another, the vision of this family locked into an unchanging perfect stasis, unable to sleep or dream, fundamentally cut off from the larger world, this hit me like a ton of ice. Good god, who wants this? Who aspires to shed every single vestige of their humanity in the attainment of domestic perfection? And having gotten there, who thinks this perfection is anything but a horrible nightmare? Edward was right at the first: an existence of unchanging perfection is no life at all. Throughout this book, the people in Bella’s life disappear on by one: only a brief mention of her school friends at the wedding, then silence, her mother considered and then discarded again, her father brought in in the most ancillary way possible, the concerns of lives of the werewolves dropped after Jacob is neutered. Breaking Dawnis a chilling portrait of the most self-serving narcissism, that old Freudian saw about procreation as immortality turned monstrous in its perfection. I just went and tucked my kids into bed, and I feel fiercely in this moment how transitory their childhoods are, how precious it is that they grow and change, what a gift it is that we fight, and even that we inevitably die. It’s quite a feat Meyer performed here, making me cozy up to my death while I tuck my kids in. Grief is the left hand of happiness, to misquote my beloved Ursula K Le Guin, and I hold my children with both hands. Anything else is as dishonest as it is awkward.