Disappointments: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Most of the time, I prefer to think of the universe as cold, meaningless and without a greater consciousness that imbues our lives with meaning and guides us with an unseen hand. So you can bet your sweet butt that I sat up and took notice when the universe handed me two of my most favorite things, Jane Austen and zombies, together in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What? Have all my years of fruitless prayers been answered? There truly is a benign and smiling force who animates both undead flesh and my haphazard existence! 

I’ve been waiting on the release of this book for some time with trepidation. The idea is flawless: who doesn’t want to see reanimated corpses intrude upon the landed gentry of Regency England? But the devil is in the details, and I couldn’t know if the execution would match the fevered imaginings of my idle mind. 

Austen has always attracted fan-fic, but it’s usually more along the lines of Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. (And when I say takes a wife, what I mean is takes a wife. Right now, I’m doing that fist-pump thing that the immature use to connote sex.) It makes sense. Despite all of her savage, manly wit, Jane Austen’s stories occur in the carefully delineated world of women. Men must want for a wife, not for combat training and the feel of zombie skulls crunching under the weight of a vorpal sword. The fan-fic takes this all to the logical, romance novel end. Women marry, and then sis-boom-bah, other, more entirely throbbing vorpal swords are sunk into flesh, while toes curl and the gardener rustles below the window. 

Zombies come with their own, ready-packed symbolisms and meanings: consumerism, a sort of post-Marxist fear of the the rising masses, along with a discomfort toward mass media. One zombie is funny, a lumbering inconsequential, quickly dispatched. But many zombies, and there are always many zombies, is a force of crowd-sourcing, a d.d.o.s. attack, the worm eating your email, the end of modern life as we know it. Like scientologists. 

So what happens when we add one symbol cluster to another? Some interesting things, unfortunately done in a less than interesting manner. Many, many people have already noted that while Pride and Prejudicetakes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and soldiers factor prominently in the tale, not one word is breathed about the blood, sucking gunshot wounds and gangrene that is war in the 19th century. (Personally, I’ve always thought this observation was specious. I mean, things are about what they are about, and not about other things. Do we bitch that we don’t know more about Mrs. Lear?) Adding zombies into the story of Lizzie and her Darcy reminds us that life was about more than bonnets and barouches, that people lived and died in service of the motives of the upper classes. Workers of the world unite, and feast on brains. 

However, despite my panegyrics in the the service of the idea of this novel, the execution is maybe less than satisfying. Large, large chunks are lifted verbatim from Austen’s story, which is fine and all, but when the text strays, you can feel the graft. For example, Charlotte is bitten by one of the “unmentionables” and slowly succumbs to zombification during the course of her marriage. It works well as metaphor of the slow smothering of an unfortunate match, but to what end? Other people, in equally crappy marriages, do not zombify and need to be beheaded. So, am I just making all that stuff up about badly matched people? Is the only Zombie on top of mountaintops that which I bring with me?

Braaaaaains. (I couldn’t resist.)

Review: Iced by Karen Marie Moning

I’ll give you the take-home before I write this review, because I might get bored and wander off: Dani O’Malley is the Scrappy Doo of the Feververse. Which makes her the Dawn Summers, Jar Jar Binks, or Wesley Crusher of this franchise, if you lack familiarity with the buzzkill that is Scrappy Doo. 

I wanted to give my read of Icedby Karen Marie Moning the most auspicious reading environment possible, so I waited until I was good and sick with a cold that has surely done something terrible and permanent to my lungs to start reading. I hated the crap out of the opening of Darkfeverwhen I read it in full health, and it was only after being softened up by illness that I was able to stop hating Moning’s writing tics and Mac’s voice long enough to get into the story. Darkfeverended up being a solid read for me, definitely not the best thing I’d ever read or anything, but interesting enough to hook me into reading book two. 

Which is when I went completely insane with TEH FEVER and spent some of the most enjoyable lost Sundays of my reading life freaking out about Mac and Barrons and the increasing stakes and deepening darkness of the Fever world. Moning’s got some stones in that series, pitching a full scale armageddon into the third (I think) book, raining death and destruction down on our little attack Barbie, building a complicated mythos, and kicking ass while chewing bubblegum.

Girl-pulp has never especially been my thing, but the Fever books had my number. I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything like MacKayla Lane – had I known her in high school, I would have written evil shit about her in my journal while sitting friendless in the library – but older me certainly appreciated her difficult transformations from helpless bobble-head to someone who managed to be both girlish and powerful. Plus, the Fever books managed to tackle issues of sexuality and trauma in a way I think girl-pulp is essentially attuned to, but usually cocks up because of wish fulfillment or chicken shitting out or something. 

Point being, I knew Dani from the Fever books. I knew how much she bugged the ever-loving fuck out of me. And I knew my shabby track record with book ones of series by Ms. Moning. (I see I have failed to mention that I tried to read the first of her Highlander books and fell asleep with the effort; reheated Outlanderwithout the historical research being the elevator pitch.) I knew I would do better to read this in an uncritical and infected frame of mind, which I duly did. Alas, friends, I think I would have had to have been a lot sicker to have enjoyed this book. Sicker being the operative word. 

Dani O’Malley is living in a post-fae-mageddon Dublin, a parentless street-kid fourteen who is simultaneously pretending to worldliness and younger than her years. Her voice is greatly toned down from her sections in the Fever books, which is fecking good news, because there is absolutely no way I could have taken 400+ pages of that. But it brings me to my first real problem: why in the sam hell do we have a protagonist in a romance series who is fourteen years old

I did a quick check, because I’m anal that way, and I see a notable number of people have shelved this on their “young-adult” or “ya” shelves on Goodreads. Setting aside the fact that the author herself has stated this book is for grown-ups – authorial intent only goes so far with me, and for the thousands of teens that are going to read this book anyway, classifications be damned – for many folk, age of the protagonist is the defining characteristic of young adult literature. And Dani is this obnoxious spaz, literally hyperactive with her ability to move at superhuman speeds: the unkillable, unstoppable force of adolescence. All of her damaged narrator stuff could totally work as a young adult narrative, what with the whole coming to terms with both childhood and childlike cruelty and abuse angle, blahblah blah. 

But for me, it’s not so much the age of the protagonist as the sensibility of the writing, and I firmly believe that that sensibility is pretty well fucked in this book. It’s a pretty standard device of the romance novel to have the protagonist not understand her own desirability, running conversations where dude looks at her with eyes darkened with desire, and she cluelessly wonders, do I have something on my face? (Sookie fucking Stackhouse is the reigning champ of this, despite her alleged psychic powers.) That happens one billion times in this novel, sometimes from point of view sections from dude composing odes to the rigid cock Dani gives him. I’m sorry, what? Come again? No, wait, don’t, because that’s totally fucking gross. Fourteen years old.

It’s not that I don’t think 14 year olds don’t have sexualities. I kissed my first boy at 14, and listened to friends report much more, um, adult interactions at that age. It’s not that I even think that sex or cussing don’t have a place in young adult literature. But I do not like this 14 year old romance heroine in this world of pedophile sex clubs – she keeps thinking back on a club at Chester’s that she zoomed through where the working girls were all dressed in little girl costumes while the customers had their explicit way – a romance heroine who is chained up, stripped to her underpants which are described in detail; a romance heroine who at one point wakes up in a bed with a naked dead woman who was literally fucked to death; a romance heroine who, in an almost laughably cliche section, almost succumbs to hypothermia and must be gotten nude with not one but two dudes whose erections are described as they warm her back to life. This is not young adult content. This is adult content, and I find it alarming in the extreme that 1) I am to identify with Dani as a romance proxy and 2) I’m to find any of this sexy at all. 

I’m not going to entertain arguments that Dani is somehow older than her years because she’s had a traumatic childhood. Her sections are solidly first person, and my impression of her internal age is even younger than 14: the invincibility, the obsession with candy, her childish conceptualization of her relationships (hers with Dancer being the most ridiculous, imao). So an abused child can make herself dinner; that doesn’t mean she’s an adult. That means she’s surviving, and just barely. I’ve even seen apologia that posit that because in “traditional” cultures, women would be married with children at 14, this makes all the penis-rubbing on Dani okay. This makes my head explode with rage. This is an adult book for modern adult readers and that we should find all this sexualization of a character who by her own fucking admission doesn’t get what’s going on around her acceptable is fucking sick. Just, fuck, I hate that I’m even talking about this at all. 

Whether this book is young adult or not, it grosses me out that I’m thinking more about the state of the erect penises around Dani than I am about the very real fucking emotional trauma of her childhood and existence. She was kept in a cage as a child, for chrissakes, and it sicks me right out that I’m obviously supposed to be speculating more about which of the three – count them, three – dudes might finally slip her some dick than I am about how obviously fucked up she is as a person, as a child, and as a nascent woman. God. As either young adult or adult literature, that’s a major fail. And given how well Moning handled Mac’s grief for her sister, despite Barrons walking around like sex-on-a-stick for ages, it feels like a bigger fail. 

Now, that I’ve worked myself up to a froth, back to Scrappy Doo. I think I might have handled all of these pedobear stylins better if there were a story here I gave a shit about, something with emotional weight and teeth. Much as I love Scooby Doo, the reluctant dog detective angle here in Icedis both half-assed and boring: Dani’s trying to figure out how and why parts of Dublin are getting flash-frozen and then exploding. Nothing much happens with this for hundreds of pages, short of Dani coming up against some penises and trying to find candy bars. Mac bugged the shit out of me in Darkfever, but her quest for her sister’s killer felt like something emotionally real, while here it just felt like Dani yelling lemmee at ’em, I’ll splat ’em, but without direction, as this long, obnoxious avoidance of real traumas. 

Given the last scene (which is far too spoiler to detail), maybe that’s what Moning is going for – a narrative calculated to show the avoidance mechanisms of trauma – but, if that is true, she’s done a helluva job pissing me off and screwing around before she gets to that in the next book. I’m not saying that ending was a cliffhanger – certainly not the kind of cliffhanger I grudgingly expect from KMM – but it does have the televisual omigod that has you sitting with your thumb up your ass until next week’s episode. (Or, you know, not with the thumb.) I resented the shit out of the cliffhangers in the Fever books because I gave a damn, but here I’m solidly in fuck it, who cares territory. I’m not reading that next book short of miraculous reviews from people I trust, and even if it is miraculous, Icedis disastrous enough for me to warn away everyone but the most avid Fever fan or lover of Scrappy Doo. And to the latter: what is wrong with you? 

And, as a final bitch-move, my alternate cover: 

a pedobear peeking out from broken glass with the Iced: a Dani O'Malley novel written over it

The Hidden Goddess: Second Verse, Same as the First!

Second verse, same as the first! 

Just kidding. 

Sort of. 

I liked the first of this series, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, almost despite myself. The opening is rough, like a chainsaw working out the bite into the flesh of the log. But it finds its bite partway through the book in a way that treats American history with respect, even though I wish a little more of that history made it into the book. Or, you know, in a way that mattered. 

Second verse, same as the first. By which I mean, this epilogue starts with some seriously interesting stuff about Grant’s presidency and alt-history stuff about the sources for the American Civil War, and then, and then, well, nevermind all that! I’m not really complaining, I guess, because Hobson took some things about the first book that I really sparkled on and expanded them – like the effects of gender on the credomancy explained in the first book – the magic of belief – in the character of Miss Jesczenka. I almost wanted her to chuck Emily – our heroine from the first book – and focus on the spectacular Miss Jesczenka, who articulates an astonishingly personal and accurate ambivalence about the experience of being a woman in a misogynist society. Just, good Lord, she’s so awesome. 

It’s not even so much that I’m bagging on Emily – she is a fine main character, with her fish-out-of-water folksy ways – but I felt like the inevitable second book issues between Emily and her paramour, Dreadnought (oh, just barf on the names here, even though they are explained better in this outing) fell into a lot of lameness traps. Emily and Dreadnought (ugh) spend a lot of the first book sniping at each other in that antipathy-is-attraction way, while here, they are kept apart by a bunch of logistics and the occasional bullshit misunderstanding. Some of the misunderstandings were valid – Emily’s search for her birth parents, and the varying allegiances and mis-allegiances found and lost by her questings were spot on – but sometimes it was like, ZOMG IMMA MISUNDERSTAND SOMETHING I JUST WALKED IN ON THAT IS EASILY MISCONSTRUED. Bah. 

Emily and Dreadnought’s (ugh) relationship is never anything more that paint-by-numbers – right down to the argument-ending kisses he plants on her more than once – which, I would like to know if that has ever actually worked for a dude irl. I’m not sure why the wisdom is that lovers have to be kept apart in book two, but I’ve see it often enough for it to be a thing. Shame, really, because there were a number of developments that I could easily imagine Dreadnought (ugh) and Emily tackling together, because the implications had more than enough potential for conflict between them to arise – real conflicts, rather that logistical bumbling and iffy misunderstandings. The baddie here is so over the top she’s maybe hard to take seriously, but certain political situations were neat enough to keep me from focusing on the unreality of the bad guy’s motivations. 

It’s been a while, but I felt like the tone of this book was more consistent, and more consistently goofy than the first, though I do not mean that as a dig. A failing of the first book might be that that it expected me to take some very silly stuff seriously, while here there’s some very serious stuff that might have been treated more lightly than it should have been. The question of tone is a tricky one, one that I don’t have an easy answers for, though I get the difficulties of managing a story that is equal parts end-of-the-world, banter-y romance, and alt-history. That the tone is managed as well as it is is certainly something. 

The ending dot dot dots to a certain kind of romantic completeness, which both irritates and satisfies in equal measures. I went to look for the next book in this series – that’s how on the hook I am – and it looks as though the narrative of Emily and her Dreadnought (ugh) will be skipped over to writhe in the stories of their kids. Which, boo a little bit. Given the end, I would like to hear some stuff about how Dreadnought (ugh) deals with…some things, how he copes with losing something fairly vital to his personality. Love is the answer and all, but, as the narrative here says, it’s just a start. Too bad that’s all we get here.

Heart of Steel: I Love This Series Despite the First Book

Heart of Steel takes place in the same world as The Iron Duke, a profoundly alternate history where the Mongolian Golden Horde, using superior technology, slowly devastated Europe in the 1500s, and enjoyed several hundred years of complete control. In roughly 1800 – and this date is important – the titular Iron Duke of the first book broke the Horde’s technological enslavement of England. As befits a steampunk novel, much of this technology is patently ridiculous – nanotechnology, megolodons, gene splicing, chainsaw arms, &c – but this is engaged with the proper amount of hand-waving and acceptance. Brook does not make the mistake of trying to detail the history of this alternate history/technology too closely, but instead throws her efforts into creating a complex world of believable politics and motivations. Gee whiz.

I say the date is important, because even though this is steampunk, this is not your daddy’s usual Victorian gaslight playset. The referents are all solidly Regency/Georgian, from the name “Iron Duke” – this was Wellington, the man who routed Napoleon at Waterloo – or the sugar boycotts, which were bound up in Regency abolitionist movements. The sugar boycotts are mirrored here explicitly in a distrust of sugar – this was how the Horde deployed their controlling nanotech into the blood of the conquered – but also in a series of arguments about consumer choices and allegiances between the two sides of the American hot/cold war going on about slavery, though it is coded in terms like indenture. Honestly, I could go on and on about all the really cool shit Brook does encoding history, and the complicated ways one’s allegiances are never perfect, but a series of compromises between lesser evils and expedience.

Which brings me to a thing about genre, which is pretty much per usual for me. This is solidly marketed and sold as a romance novel, and that’s not wrong. Yasmeen is a mercenary captain of an airship with cat eyes and hot pants, and she is being pursued by one Archimedes Fox, a man whose exploits as a daredevil are written up as penny dreadfuls (sorry, I know this is an anachronistic term) by his sister. Unlike the central couple in The Iron Duke, this relationship is much less dominance/submission, almost chaste in its reserve. Archimedes decision to fall in love with Yasmeen and his strange justifications for his reserve (which don’t seem in keeping with his character) are part and parcel with the doled out endless frustration/final cure of the format. But, unlike The Iron Duke, the relationship doesn’t devolve into a 50 page sex interlude that profoundly fucks up the narrative. And look, I like sex interludes, especially when they move the emotional plot forward, something I think Brook normally excels at.

But back to genre. This is the smartest steampunk alt history I’ve encountered in a long, long time. With another cover and a different publisher, nerds would be all over this like corsets on cosplayers. Just to be clear, I don’t think nerds are somehow better than the romance reading audience that this is sold to, or that nerds and romance readers don’t overlap. While I struggled with it for a long time, mostly due to internalized sexism, I’m a romance reader myself, primarily in the genre confines I read in generally: scifi romance, paranormals, some historicals. But as a nerd, I think this would be something my people who haven’t embraced the romance genre would enjoy. I’ve bitched before about how genre as a marketing tool divides readerships in ways I think is unhelpful, and this is a shining example of that. And, especially because steampunk is so full of godamn shite. Here’s my digression. My husband loves him the steampunk. I’m probably going to misrepresent his feelings, and that’s okay because he’s almost never online to contradict me.

Anyway, back in the day we both read some of the formative novels in the genre, stuff like The Difference Engine or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Difference Engine has bloody brilliant ideas, wrapped in a fish-wrapper of boring. The technology is pushed just that much, leading to some interesting stuff about how the Victorians constructed criminality and the class system. Unfortunately, the rest of it was feh…zzzzz. League is more beholden to the pulp fictions of the Victorian era, a series of literary hat-tips that ramp to a statement about colonialism and the hero in that mode. To get to the misrepresentation, my husband has this big thing about the feel of technology, some sort of Ruskin-esque reappropriation of mass produced goods towards the individual purpose. I feel a little eye-rolly about a lot of this stuff, because I feel like much of steampunk cosplay is just as rigid as any other folk costume. You can tick off the elements: goggles, corset, walking stick, hat. It’s just another anti-establishment genre that establishes itself with a dress code and not an ethos.

But, when I’m not being a cranky bitch, I love this stuff. I love the interplay between consumerism and identity, and the ways steampunk, when it’s not busy playing dress-up, can get to the beginnings of industrialism and rough the origin, make it weird, lay it bare. I want all steampunk novels to be this smart, but then I also want them to be fun, and it’s a tricky line to walk, I think. Steampunk’s readership is a divided readership, and not even half of it is to my taste. The navigation between the pleasures of spectacle and those of considered alt history are at odds; this is an old argument about world-building versus character. I said there is some hand-waving here about exact origins of this world, but it’s nothing like the hand-waving in something like Soulless, where the alt-history takes a backseat to more pulpy concerns like killer umbrellas and werewolves. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy Soulless, I’m just noting its pleasures do not come from a richly realized alt history that will make you think. It’s the difference between costume for its own sake, and costume as disguise, and that’s what keeps me coming back to the genre, often stupid as it is.

So. I don’t know. I thought this split the difference between spectacle and consideration in a freaking fantastic way, even if I pretty much don’t give a shit about whether our lovers ever come to their inevitable perfection, because you know they will. I’m a certain kind of reader, a picky, nerdish sort, the kind of reader who was happy I had to hit google a half a dozen times to write this review to make sure I was getting my dates right. I’m Team Frak Yeah the way the world here is laid out. I think this book is much less pulpy than the cover might imply. Or possibly pulpy in just the right ways: zombies! airships! pirates! without sacrificing coherence for romantic union. The ending is rushed, I admit, and sometimes the world is confusing simply because there is so much going on, but I will take those problems happily. Brook kicks some serious nerd ass in this book, and I’m waiting for the next.

Sunshine: Not Talking about that Other Vampire Book for Teens

I’ve been falling behind on my reviewing, and as a consequence, my memory begins to drift and the shape of the thing looses focus. Add in the fact I felt kind of bowled over by the torrential first person narrator in this one, and a few weeks after my read, I have this clear, loud image of Sunshine, the character, still ringing in my mind, and a series of afterimages burnt on my eyes, and not such a good grasp on connectives and plot. So.

I don’t think I’ve read an opening as good as the one in Sunshine by Robin McKinley for a long while. It starts with a lot of chat and gossip, laying out this relationship of that, origins, trivia. I’m just snuggling down for a sprawling family drama, and then McKinley his me with it: this is a profoundly alternate future, after a magical world war that decimated much of the world’s population. She never backstories this too much, which I count as a strength, not just because I bore easily when world-building builds the world too worldbuildily, but also because I felt it made sense for the narrator to have a hazy sense of history. The Vietnam War was going on when I was born, and I couldn’t give anything but the sketchiest of timelines for the conflict itself, but I could identify aspects of the culture now that could be traced back to not just the conflict itself, but the secondary social conflicts going on in the US at the time. And that’s the way Sunshine talks about the magical wars, not with a series of dates of skirmishes, but as the starting point for world view and cultural expressions. I mean, this is a little dorky, but I really enjoyed the really concrete ways that Sunshine talked about neighborhood activism, civic boundaries, hell, even building codes.

Then another hit when Sunshine – her real name is Rae, thank heavens – is abducted by ghoulish vampires and left like livestock with another captive vampire who appears to be starving. It’s a hideous, claustrophobic situation, made better by the fact that none of these vamps, not even the captive with whom she comes to an understanding of mutual necessity, is anything but an inhuman monster. I’m not a huge fan of vampires in contemporary fiction, I think because the whole sex/death thing tends to be weighted too far to the sex side of the equation. One time when I was living in the dorms, and my only source of DVDs was a small town public library – gather round, children, and hear how I walked uphill both ways – I checked out the creaky old 1932 film Vampyr. The titular vampire – it’s in German, hence the emo spelling – is a ghoul, an old woman who crawls out of her grave and murders. When they put her down, it’s bloody and messy, not a discrete spray of ash or some cheery fire. You’ve gotta get your hands in it, death. These vamps are more like that ghoulish woman than they are like certain neutered sparklers I can think of. (Oh, hai, I’m ur one Twilight reference in this review, cuz I think they may be obligatory.)

I’m not going to get into the latter plot too much, partially because the mechanics of it are mostly gone to me, but Sunshine spends the rest of the book in a profound state of shock and trauma, babbling out her ordinary existence almost like a ward against death and its embodiments. She’s a talker, Rae, as a narrator, often spending hundreds of words on her job, her baking, the minutia of arranging her bandages. But especially the baking. It was a little frustrating at first for me, and likely it will annoy lots of readers, but eventually I learned to stop worrying and love the baking. For one thing, I just like when characters work at real jobs. And all the politics and hierarchy of a family, within a kitchen, within a restaurant, within a community were a smart way to convey this world to me. But then I also liked the way her voluminous chatter was a sign of her near-death trauma and her working through it through life and it’s mundanity.

I know there’s other stuff I wanted to say, but I can’t think of it now. I’ll just end with some stray thoughts:

I liked that Sunshine has a boyfriend, even though she has this weird, glancingly sexual connection with the vampire. I liked that she and her boyfriend had a relationship full of silence and lacuna, but that it was still real in its own, soundless way. The scene where she and her boyfriend make love in the sunlight was one that stuck with me, partially because it was so fragile and unsaid.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the vampire’s home, which was so cliche and overwrought. It was a clever nod to the vampire conventions, one that Con, the vampire, shrugs about. Yes, well, that’s what created me, and I won’t tear it down, but that’s not what I am.

The magic in this book works so well for me, because it it was humdrum and daily. The abandoned charms were especially nice, shuttering in the glovebox.

The ending? Ah, the ending. No spoilers, but it is open and unfinished, in a way, hand in hand, and out into the darkness. It would be more than nice if McKinley revisited this world, though I do not think she will. I’ll just comfort myself by imagining good things, and that’s a kind of completeness in itself. In a book about adolescence’s end, the leap is as important as the landing.

Bickering as Courting: The Native Star

This was another insomnia read, picked up in the dark hours when no one but me is awake. Pretty much with an insomnia read I’m just looking for readability, which is one of those terms that is probably not that helpful. Maybe I should go onto Karen’s Reader’s Advisory group and try to define this readable beast.

Tone: light to medium
Pace: fast
Setting: not contemporary, possibly with magic, aliens, gadgets or other neat ideas that are fun to watch play out
Romance: light
Narrator: inobtrusive

Admittedly, these are just my criteria, but this is my insomnia and I’m sticking to it.

The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, on the dust jacket, is likened to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I think works insofar as they are both mild alt-histories with magic as the alternate part of history, but the tone and pacing are very, very different. I would not want to read anything with footnotes, as much fun as they are in Strange & Norrell, in the odd hours. And as much as I love Strange & Norrell , the pace is glaaaacial. (And not to be be bitch, I think Strange & Norrell is a better book, by whatever odd metric I have for judging writing and content, fwiw. Just not better in the middle of the night.)

But! The other thing I like about likening this to Strange & Norrell is that neither one is steampunk, a label I see applied to this one. Forsooth, arguing about genre is a losing business, but just because something is an alternate history set in the late 1800s, that isn’t enough to make it steampunk. Magic ain’t gadgets, and a certain kind of fetishized retro-technology porn is an inextricable part of the (sub)-genre. But! I’m willing to concede that this is in the odd dash-punk edge of alt-history. I noticed some similarities between the sanguimages from this book and the warlocks in Bitter Seeds – indeed, both are termed warlocks, a nice double entendre on their need for blood to perform magic, and their usefulness in wartime. Tregillis’s book also has magic and something like steampunk – though maybe it’s more gaspunk? Sorry, Ian, wherever you are. I don’t know how to class your book, or this.

It’s like there is a cluster of dash-punk genres – alternate histories that keep coding and recoding history with various magics and the magics of technologies, pushing the true history to reveal itself. Mike has noted that most alt-histories have alt-histories written within them, and Native Star is no different: here, it is a series of pulp novels that comment on the magic-working characters, which is not dissimilar to the pulp novels in Raising Stony Mayhall. I have said this a thousand times before, but I do not care about originality, so if it seems like my comparisons to other books are intended to cut this one down, that is not my intent. This is a genre exercise, whatever that genre may be, and the parameters of the world and characters are individual enough to put down any talk of being a poor copy. I mean, points for a giant oil-soaked killer raccoon alone, if novelty is your bag.

So far, this is the worst book report ever, me blathering about things only interesting to me. So, to the plot summary:

The Native Star starts with a small town witch, Emily, with money problems putting the whammy on the town babbitt, in an move that backfires into zombies and some irate townspeople. She ends up with a magical stone lodged in her hand – don’t ask – and then the story is off and tumbling in a post-Civil War Old West. Her compatriot through these tumbles is a man called Dreadnought Stanton, which is possibly the stupidest name ever, and I never did figure why Emily was the only character with a non-stupid name. The beginning rankled a bit, what with the silly names and the poor characterizations – yes, Emily is smart but uneducated; yes, Dreadnought (ugh) is a stuffed shirt patrician type, but with seeeekrits. But – and this so rarely seems to happen for me – the characterizations completely tighten up as the book progresses, the stock characters thawing into something resembling humans. The action is well-written, and the banter ranging from not-distracting to super fun. I was expecting certain inevitable twists that ended up being different enough from my expectations to be satisfying. I’ll just say: fuck yeah, hubris!

I even came to peace with the names, which end up being often Dickensian and sly. There’s a lot of really funny hat-tips in this book, like the bounty hunter with an Italian accent who seems to have walked off the set of a Spaghetti Western. I found this delightful, especially because it was underplayed. And – this is going to be huge tangent – but can someone please write on of these dash-punk action thrillers in the Reconstruction South? There seems to be a lot of fictions that center on the myth of the Old West in narrating our American discomfort with Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and – you know – all that blood let to forge the melting pot in the first place. And how the culture wars still rage along lines set down at the time.

The bestest of these fictions, to me, is the HBO series Deadwood, but there’s plenty more stories in that well, from Eastwood’s Unforgiven to the sublime moody weirdness of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This book opens with magical carpetbaggers slitting the throats of conciliatory but angry Southern merchants, and, hot damn, I really wish there had been more of that, as much fun as the Old West stuff was. But the dash-punk genre seems to encode these anxieties into magic or gasmasks or whatever, so I guess I can’t expect them to take on the Reconstruction South, when pretty much no one wants to touch that live wire, genre or not. Hobson does take on Grant’s presidency and the war obliquely, in a way I haven’t completely teased out yet, so that is something. (And I’m shit for history, really, so it would be cool if someones like Eric or Matt read this and gave me a book report. I’ll totally mail this to you. Kthxbai.)

So. There are things I could bitch about (not excited about the Native characters) and things I could praise (excited by the proto-feminist characters), but what it comes down to is that this was the right book at the right time. And not just to sound like I’m faint-praising this book for being a pretty midnight tumble, I spent the day thinking about the characters and the alt-history, unknotting some later plot developments and choices. There’s a lot of smart and funny here in all of the relentless action. Hot damn, that’s something, insomnia or not.

The Coldest War & The Long Con

I’m a late Cold War baby. I didn’t have my parents’ experience of growing up in a world of weapons escalation, the Iron Curtain* descending, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, etc etc. The Cold War was decidedly hotter for the generation preceding mine. When I came on the scene, it was more about Sting songs suggesting Russians might not eat babies – though still with the conditional: if the Russians love their children too. By the time we saw the Berlin Wall come down, various ex-pats from Pink Floyd were invited to come and give a concert of songs from the Wall. I actually watched parts of this in West Germany, in the living room of my German cousins. I still find this whole concert both absolutely appalling and brutally perfect, historically speaking – kinda like Elton John repurposing a song about Marilyn Monroe for Lady Di. Just, yuck.

Anyway, point being, I’m a late Cold War baby, and my experience of the Cold War is almost completely pop cultural. I remember quite vividly watching The Day After on my grandparents’ somewhat filmy television – imdb informs me it aired in 1983, which would put me at 9 years old, just the age of my son now – and growing increasingly freaked out. Not so much the attacks, which are pretty standard disaster porn fare from the era, but the dread of the long denouement, one that ends, as much as it ends, in despair. My parents sent me to bed – they saw the freak out – long before The Day After was over. I only know the ending because I sought it out a couple of years back, suspecting that that was the film that sparked my life-long bone-crunching fear of zombies. Which, yep, that’s the genesis.

I dreamed of nuclear annihilation for years: the mushroom clouds blooming in the distance, the hot wind, the feel of my body in a painful disintegration. I never died in these dreams – I’m not sure about the folklore that says that if you die in dreams, you die in real life, because I have certainly died in dreams, just not these ones. (Of course, maybe I’m in some weird Gibsonian afterlife, typing on into the void. Seems unlikely though.) In these nuclear dreams I lived in agony, the world on fire. Dead but not, crawling.

However, I was seriously freaked out by Gretel in Bitter Seeds, as Gretel is a prescient sociopath created by Nazis, and undoubtedly the Big Bad in both books. I mean, just, eeek. Her brother, Klaus, is a little luggage-y in the first book – he’s mostly there to be eyes on Gretel, because you can’t give Gretel, the big prescient bad, her own pov without completely destroying narrative tension. In this book, Klaus really comes to life, becoming a character I just absolutely adored. Marsh is still a little iffy to me – I felt like his personality had been mothballed for 15 or whatever number of years in some respects, though the stuff with his wife had the ugly, brutal reality of love’s long, slow death.

All this blither blather, I assure you, has something to do with The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis . I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers, because this is one of those books that hinges so very, very much on its ending. The Coldest War is the continuation of Bitter Seeds, an alternate history of WWII wherein the Nazis have developed steampunkish Übermench, and as a counter, the British have harnessed the chthonic power of Eidolons, Lovecraftian horrors par excellence.** There’s some lumpinesses to the first book that are worked out a bit here. Tregillis’s characterization is a little weak in the first book, especially when dealing with characters like Marsh’s wife and kid, which seem to pop into being with big bullseyes on their heads, redshirts just waiting for an away mission to die to prove the situation is serious.

So here we are, in the Cold War that is and isn’t like our own Cold War, monsters and ubermench, Soviets and race wars, oil and the firebombing of civilian targets, and what struck me was the inevitability of nuclear disaster. Why haven’t we blown ourselves to shit yet? I’m not dreaming of it anymore, my cells burning as I scream in dreaming living death, but it’s not like we’ve somehow precluded this eventuality. The warlock children who have been raised to speak the Lovecraftian language of the Eidolons at one point tie a push-pin into Sante Fe, NM, and I shuddered, shuddered.

Alternate history is, sometimes, our imagining the worst of all possible worlds, the difficult cultural superego who passes judgment and offers dubious salvations. We imagine monsters who can see what we do, and they can see what we’ve done. Holy shit. I mean, I was only 9, but I wonder a little about my cute little childhood nuclear terror and the fact that my country dropped The Bomb on civilians, on cities. I don’t want to get into a big thing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the inevitability or the necessity of their destruction. When I saw a recreation of Big Boy in the Los Alamos museum, when I saw the recreation of the Enola Gay in the Imperial War museum in London, I burst into tears. History is an inevitability. I know it doesn’t do any good, but I’m so sorry.

What do you call survivor’s guilt, when your country, your people, perpetrated the attack? I’m sorry that history is shitty and sucks? I know, I’m at least a generation from the people who made these decisions, more like two, but I’m not exempt from my culture and my history. I’m an American, and proud of it in many, many ways. And in others I want to crawl into the basement and cry for a long, long time. I mean, I don’t want this to devolve into a bunch of typical liberal hand-wringing or whatnot, I just want to say that history is both personal and horribly impersonal, and our entrances and exits into that great narrative stream are punctuated by both easy upset and shocking convergences. So there.

I suspect I’m not making a ton of sense, because I’ve drinking since noon – vacation rules! Richard and I were talking about this book while I was reading, while the newest Captain America movie played in the background – which is super funny, because Ian totes looks like skinny Captain America, before the serum – and we posited that there are three ways a plot with a prescient sociopathic villain can go:

1.) Turns out, Gretel isn’t actually a psycho. (Or, lolsyke, nevermind everything I ever said about my characters.)
2.) Some random, unforeseeable event defeats Gretel. (Also called Making Shit Up so Things Can Turn Out Right.)
3.) Secret option 3, which means Ian is badass and awesome.

I’m happy to say this book is solidly in secret option 3 territory, and there was a moment there when several conceptual things came together that were so freaking awesome. I had the shit scared out of me by Gretel in book one, which was deepened here in many ways. There’s this thing really early on where Gretel needs a jar, and it turns out she engineered the death of Heike (which happens midway through the first book, and you kind of just think that sequence is there to how you what a badass Gretel is, like Darth Vader crushing some throats). But then it turns out she engineered this death so that Heike’s brain would be jarified and brought to the Soviet Union so that Gretel could dump the contents and use it for a very prosaic purpose. Just, holy shit. This whole series is a long con, the longest con. And as scared as I am of Gretel, I’m more terrified of what scares her. And what scares her is what scares me, and has scared me since I was 9. The inevitability of history is a godamn bitch.

*Just wiki’d the source of this term, because weirdly, we were just talking about Churchill at work, and my client piped up that Churchill was the origin of the term Iron Curtain. Which, turns out, not exactly. Fothermucking Goebbels used it during the War, and it has some roots in the bible or something. Holy god, reading that wiki page made my arms tingle, what with how this book deals with the War, the Cold War, and Everything. Sometimes life is freaky.

**Here, right before I’m about to be critical of Bitter Seeds is probably as good a time as any to announce that I’m friends with Mr. Tregillis, for full disclosure. I also know that Ian doesn’t read reviews, so I could probably be as big a bitch as I wanted here, not that I want to.

Bitter Seeds

In interests of full disclosure, I should say that I love Ian Tregillis with all my heart, even though that bastard awesome houseguest never sent me a galley or ARC or whatever they are called so I could read it before it came out for the general public. Okay, he send a digital copy to my husband, but I turned my nose up at it, because I hate reading serious stuff on computer screens because there is something unserious about them. So, you know, whatever. 

Still, though, Ian, the non-writer Ian, the friend I know, is fabulous and strange, and I can’t believe Tor got John Jude Palencar to do the art for his book, because that’s like wrapping some thing I love in another thing I love, and the whole idea makes me swoon. Go to the libraries, folks; queue this up on your Amazon. The minute this comes out I’m holing up and reading it all damn day.

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Okay, admittedly I didn’t hole up and read it all damn day, but I am excited to finally have this in my hot little hands. 

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Last Sunday, while I was gulping this down in a haze, I folded up this book and curled up for a nap. Then I fell hard into a nightmare featuring Gretel, who is the biggest bad in this book, which is saying something. I was in a bare room made of concrete block with a concrete floor, with windows near the ceiling, like I was in a basement. I have no idea why or how I was in this room, but I was alone, and then I wasn’t. She was there, her long black hair braided down with the ominous wires, giving me a half-smile. ARG OH GAWD WAKE UP. 

An alternate history, Bitter Seeds runs the second world war with steampunk (gaspunk?) Übermensch on the Axis side and warlocks on the Allied. There was a long conversation about the intersection between the various genres of historical fiction, alternate history, and science fiction on Mike’s review of this book, which really got me thinking about all the ways in which history is coded and turned into narrative. Some of the coding is literal – one of the more fascinating aspects of WWII for me is the shadow war that went on using cyphers and codes, all the way up to the Navajo code talkers who used their own language, albeit in a simplified, reworked way, to pass vital informations. It still manages to blow my mind when I think about this Native language, suppressed for years, overrun, the Navajo people limned into an America that is qualified as a Native America, and how this encoded people and language were hooked up to wires that then transmitted a vital imperial information. ZOMG. 

Of course, breaking a code is never good enough, which the Allies did early with Enigma, they had to then obfuscate where that information was coming from. If the Axis knew their correspondence was insecure, then they would have changed the codes. False information about the information gathering system has to be relayed and planted – false spies, false documents, false events then encode how knowledge is gathered. No, we haven’t broken your codes; we have some spy in place, or whatever. This lead to all manner of horrifying calculus: bombings allowed to do their damage to protect the source of information, people sent to sure death to protect the codes and broken codes. It’s the kind of thing that hurts to think about, even though we sit on the lee side of the war, and can figleaf the equations with the knowledge that ultimately, the Allies won, and the equations added up to something. 

(I’m not sure why I’m balking from using the pronoun “we” in this situation, even though that’s what I keep typing before I key back and write Allies. My family had some dogs in that fight: a grandfather in the South Pacific, great-uncles in France, a grandmother home with a war-baby unsure that her husband would ever come home. But as an American mongrel, I also had cousins removed in the German army and the Danish resistance, in-laws in the camps, a grandfather too old to be a soldier so instead a school teacher. I’ve always thought it would be fascinating to take a group of folk – anyone really – a world map, and a bunch of push pins and string, and chart the movements of our (grand)parents in the War – which still continues to be the war one means if one says “war” out of context – and watch the earth criss-cross. I’m not sure what this would accomplish, but the image of this this web is what stops my sense of “we”, I think. What did you do in the war, dada?)

As usual, I’m horribly off topic. Sort of. I believe that alternate histories are almost coded into the narrative of the War itself, into the narrative of history. When one hears the story of the British retreat at Dunkirk – the scrambling and madness on the beach as the British try to arrange transport – the sense of how close the German army was, how if they had just turned and looked, they would have been able to end the British capacity to mount the later counter-attacks – one sees how close history is, how intimately random. Gretel, the clairvoyant Nazi creation, sees the retreat at Dunkirk and the event does run to this terrible conclusion. 

Future sight – something that has always kind of bugged me in fiction – almost reads as our backwards retellings. The Nazis were evil – this is self-evident historically, so much so that even mention of them in argument has its own conversation ending term – one has Godwined the conversation. But during the war, the Holocaust was only understood in hints – it was coded – again, so much so, that when one views the horrifying footage of the camps being liberated, there are always these weird testimonials from Allied troops giving name, rank and serial number. I saw this – they say – I am real and so is this. Our understanding of their evil is backwards – not false – in some ways – it is something based on later knowledge. The evil of the Nazis was countered in many different ways, but if the center of that evil was not self-love and other-hate, but a cold, calculated personal self-interest of a single sociopath, what would the Allies have to do to counter that? Especially because they did not understand that that was what they were fighting? Ugh. Cue blood-bath. 

Anyway, massive digression notwithstanding, I think this book codes technology, and that ruptures the narrative of the War along lines I’d never considered. The British warlocks – which is a nice piece of nomenclature, non? – negotiate with large, chtonic powers so outside their grasp that it’s almost funny, beings who require blood in a real, non-metaphorical way: the tip of a finger, a pub full of folk, a train car full of people…where is this going to end? Nowhere good. The Nazis, famously less squeamish about taking a shovel to the back of child’s skull for the “greater” “good” – create a creature even they fear – a prescient sociopath – the Gretel of my dream – who has her own agenda. 

It’s easy to run the war many ways and have the Axis win, even provisionally – don’t attack Russia (didn’t Napoleon teach you anything?), don’t attack Pearl Harbor (would the US and its isolationism ever gotten involved otherwise?) – but here I think the question is about how the Germans ran off so many brilliant thinkers: Einstein, Freud, Benjamin (who killed himself days before the papers for him to leave came through), and well, a whole freaking passel of German scientists who bolstered American and British war technologies to the obvious detriment of the Reich’s plan. I don’t think it’s an accident that Gretel – and her brother, who is our pov proxy for Gretel – are gypsy children, war orphans from the previous war, and so insanely pivotal to the Nazi cause that their “bad blood” isn’t so much overlooked as feared to the point of being ignored. I almost need a chart here – one like my push-pinned map – that accounts for a Nazi sense of purity of blood with a purity of will, and how those concepts ultimately implode when in contact with one another. 

Gretel, her brother, and the other children who survive the heinous, thankfully only loosely sketched machinations of Van Westarp – mad scientist extraordinaire – to become the embodiment of will-to-power, are the coded terror of the oven, the camp, the cleansing, one that has its own agenda, an agenda that is to live in defiance, because living IS defiance. Gretel scares the shit out of me, partially because the thought of survival in the face of such institutional, casual hatred makes me want to lay down and die. We – we? – can honor survival, but it comes at a cost, one that can often be measured in pints, as in blood. Pints to quarts, quarts to gallons, and after the gallon, how do we even quantify anymore?

I’ve always liked “The Empire Strikes Back” most of the Star Wars trilogy – I live in an alternate history where the prequels don’t exist, and Lucas never mutilated my childhood – partially because it’s the darkest of the trilogy, laying out the Oedipal conflict without the hard, unsatisfying conclusion of synthesis. But part of my unfinished satisfaction draws from the fact of conclusion – without an ending, even an unsatisfying one, it would just hang, undone. I have some criticisms of Bitter Seeds, as a stand-alone work: my unlove of love triangles, my sense that sometimes the research of the history overtakes the thrust of the story, but my happiest of gripes is that I want to read more. This story is not done: the War has gone Cold – actually literally cold as the ice freezes Europe as the Soviets make their play – and the hot war reaches its chilly détente. Publish the next, now. Get to it, Ian. I wait.

A Book of Tongues and Cussing, My Favorite Kind.

There’s going to be some swearing in this essay. If you don’t like swearing, you will not like A Book of Tongues.  

This book was pitched to me as “gay Deadwood”. That’s not wrong – there is a bona fide San Francisco cocksucker here in the mix – literally! And like the book that inspired the rec for this book, the action takes place in the complicated mess that is the post Civil War Old West – the odd mix of ex-Confederate soldiers and Pinkertons, Mexicans and Native Americans, slugging it out in the harsh Southwestern terrain and the shitty main streets that play at civility on the edge of this thing and that. And this thing and that aren’t that well defined anyway, so each place is a hinge to another place that’s a hinge. Hot damn. 

And like Deadwood, the style here is absolutely killer, written in its own vernacular that’s somewhere between cliché and profanity, tactile and personal. Files is an author to watch – she’s got words that are strong as hell, a style with force and power. But, and I hate to say this, as a first novel, there are some serious lapses in pacing and exposition. After a pretty boring opening, punctuated by impossibly complex Aztec backstory, the central section ramps up into a fury of action and character sketches that are absolutely joyful to read. The story concerns hexes – magic workers – who are by needs solitary, because two hexes in the same place will try to suck each other dry, even if they don’t want to. The main hex is a man called Reverend Rook, who gained his power when he was hanged by the Confederate Army for fragging his lieutenant. He didn’t frag his lieutenant – that was the San Francisco cocksucker – but he swung anyway. 

So Rook, San Francisco cocksucker, and a covert Pink (this is the Pinkertons, semi-Federal militia who did shit like put down strikes and shoot people for whomever had enough green) work their way through the west, destroying and coming to terms with their own badness. And if this had been the thrust of the story, I might have given this more stars, but there’s a lot of weirdness involving an Aztec cosmology that doesn’t make any sense to me, isn’t well explained, and doesn’t go anywhere I give a shit about. 

Karen was the one who asked me to read this, because she was immune to its charms and wanted to know why it tasted like olives to her when, to so many others, it didn’t, or maybe they liked olives, or something. Honestly, I think the olives metaphor is a good one, because while I liked this, I can see where the things I enjoyed, the things I respected, might not be enough to forgive other narrative lumpiness for other people. I happen to like olives. I like them a lot. The olives here for me were a spectacular sense of profanity and a baroque prose style, but even while I enjoy olives, there were some teeth cracking pits when it came to pacing.

That middle section ramps to a confusing, but still compelling, magical meeting in an Aztec hell, the principles in our crazy love triangle – and don’t think this is some kind of coy fuckless love triangle that has a gormless girl in the middle, but a love triangle with a bunch of stone killing veterans, guys all three – existing in a dream state of blood and death. Then…we jump to a chatty month later, and the aftermath is recounted in flashback. I have serious problems with this, and with how the characters in the final section talk around their characters and what their actions mean. The middle section sketches some of the finest characters I’ve seen in a while – not because they are likely characters, but because they are burning with their impossiblities, completely understandable in the world they inhabit. But the end, blah, stop talking. 

There’s too much weird here, which may be the problem. I’m willing to take on the idea of magic workers – hexes – and their parameters, but this Aztec cosmology business is too much for me. I get the impression that this cosmology is all worked out, and will make sense at some point, but that point is no where in this book, and so I’m left wondering what the fuck. The magical confrontations skew metaphorical in a way I find hard to grasp, and, this is just total bitchiness from me as a reader, it makes me fucking insane when characters talk in both bold and italics . Bold has no place in body text except as a titling element, and it is beyond distracting to see large blocks of dialogue in bold. And if you are going to bold something in body text, don’t you dare mix it with italics. Both are emphatic typography, and it goes beyond shouting to use them together. (A better solution would be to use ALL CAPS in emphatic dialogue. I have seen that done well, like in A Prayer for Owen Meany or Perdido Street Station, though has to be approached cautiously to work.)

Anyway, but I’m complaining too much. I drink this olive. I drink it up. I don’t think I can put better why you don’t like this, Karen, beyond your very smart perception that sometimes a book is an olive to a palate that doesn’t like olives. There are problems here that will not overcome the olive, if you don’t like them – not the least of which is an ending that dot-dot-dots to the sequel in a way that is seriously annoying. I still haven’t decided whether I’ll take on the next book. These characters – they are so fucking good – but these places they are in, where they are going – I don’t know if I care. Either way, once Files is done with this series, I’ll be reading the shit out of her next books. She’s good – she’s got something – and once this is over, I’m jazzed to see what she does next.

Unholy Ghosts, Hecklers and Critics, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Critical Process

I am here today, friends, to talk about author behavior. And also this book. But because of the recent, sometimes ugly, and wholly passionate conversation going on here on Goodreads and the bookish Internets in general about the relationship between authors and readers and reviewers, I came to read this book. I don’t want to get too far down into this rabbit hole, but even dividing writers from reviewers from readers is a little weird. Of course writers are readers too, and sometimes reviewers. (This is leaving aside the strange species of author who does not read, which must exist.) Of course reviewers are readers. (Except for the strange animal who does not read but reviews anyway. Which is not to say I have any problem with DNF reviews, just that I’ve seen at least one example of the kind of reviewer who starts into a book with a critical stance in mind, and then deep-sixes the book when it fails to conform to that vision.) Of course reviewers are writers too, though I certainly understand that writing a largely unedited essay while sitting on the back porch is quantitatively different than writing, editing, and publishing a novel. Of course it’s all a messy mess of varying personalities and aesthetics.

I guess what I’m trying to say that so much of this fighting comes down to warring ideas about the place of criticism layered onto the strange posture of identity and Internet identity. I had this really interesting conversation with my friend Emily yesterday about the movie “Heckler”. A couple people had recommended it to me because, honestly I don’t know why. Because they said it made them not hate Jamie Kennedy as much as they had before. It’s a documentary by Mr. Kennedy about hecklers in comedy shows. I watched about half of it before I lost my crap and had to turn it off. So much of it sent me up the freaking wall – the way hecklers were equated with the entire critical enterprise, the way negative was equated with some sort of jealousy, the fact that more than one person said “Until you have made a movie, you can’t say anything about making movies.” I reject that with both hands and a foot up your ass. I’ve been reading, watching movies, consuming fiction in all of its forms since I before could form a godamn sentence. And sure, there have been times when I have gotten my hate on in a serious way about books/movies/whatever, my negative assessments aren’t coming from some some lonely pit of jealousy and despair. Oh how I wish I had produced this piece of art I hate!

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

I, as a critic, am not exempt from criticism. It’s a form of writing, in its own weird way, and Emily was absolutely right when she pointed out the performance of the heckler, and that of the critic, are going to be assessed in some ways by the power of the performance. The heckler seeks to disrupt, to pull attention – any performer does. Some people seek to go as bloodlessly academic in their reviews as possible – and mazel tov to you – but every single time the top lists are brought up, people bemoan how those who do don’t get the attention they deserve, etc. I had to really really resist putting scare quotes on that last phrase – none of us deserve anything for what we write, from authors down to the unwashed reviewers. Sure, it’s a crying shame when a writer bleeds out and no one notices – reviewer or author. It’s a crying shame when intelligent writing is trampled over to get to some godamn thing full of .gifs and misspellings up the ass. But there’s no A for effort. I can sit looking at this cursor for hours, pouring out my soul, and that and about two bucks will get me a cup of coffee. I don’t deserve anything. No writer does, not critics, not authors, not nobody.

But people use the term “popularity contest” like it’s a bad thing, when ultimately, it is what it is. A popularity contest measures popularity, and acting like a popularity contest should be a meritocracy does a disservice to both merit and popularity. Because what it comes down to is that Goodreads is a Frankenstein’s monster of social network and critical platform, and if it bugs you that the top reviews are all of severely popular books in genres you despise and don’t credit, then the problem is you. People like stuff I hate all day every day, in forms I hate, for reasons I hate. All day. That doesn’t make them wrong, or me right. It doesn’t make my aesthetic judgement any better. It just makes it sometimes at odds with what a large group of people think. And I don’t get a gold star for being some kind of iconoclast, because I’m pretty sure I’m not; I’m just an individual who doesn’t reside exactly in the golden mean. Which pretty much everyone is – average taste is a mathematical concept, not an identity.

Anyway. Fuck. What was I talking about before I slipped into ranting? Oh yeah. Heckler. One of the things that super bugged me about Heckler was the section which dealt with all the racist shit comics say on stage. Like when Michael Richards freaked and screamed the n-bomb a hundred times (when reacting to a heckler, interestingly) whenever that was. Or the scads of ethnic jokes clipped in the documentary. When those audiences reacted negatively, they weren’t heckling for its own sake, because they were “jealous” of Kennedy’s “popularity” – it was because he just said some racist ass shit. Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement to find racist ass shit unfunny, and react to said racist ass shit negatively, but I don’t actually think so. That’s a question of identity and worldview. That’s an articulatable position – your comedy is racist, and therefore unfunny – which is a step above “your shit is just unfunny to me because of taste” on the critical hierarchy. Taste can’t be argued. Whether your shit is racist or not, and whether that makes it unfunny or not, that can. That’s the difference between heckling and the critical process, motherfucker.

I’m not so far gone that I can’t see that there is a world of overlap between heckling – or as I think we might call it on teh interntetz here, trolling – and the critical process. All writers – critics and authors – are writing as hard as they can, trying to reach as many as they can. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times recently, where someone comes onto a review and says “this review sucks” and than get all miffy when they’re called out on it – what the hell are you trying to accomplish? “This review sucks” is nothing but a statement of taste. Same as “this book sucks” if you don’t back it up with something other than your subjective taste, or you don’t articulate your subjective taste. Both statements of suckitude are valid, I think, but I’m not personally going to credit criticism of any form that can’t back itself up. The book sucks, the review sucks, for reasons. Maybe those reasons are weird and person to you – say it out loud. Articulate those reasons or go home. I disagree because I liked it – I disagree because I didn’t like it – those are bland statements, not opinions. Or maybe they are opinions, but they aren’t interesting ones. They are not discussable, disappearing into the black box of subjective taste, the non-overlapping magisteria of readerly pleasure or disgust. I guess what I’m looking for in criticism is an opening for conversation, and pointing out something sucks is just saying stuff to be heard. There’s no listen. There’s no opportunity for listen.

So. Whatever. I feel like I’m so far from the point I wanted to make that it’s notable even for me. I’ve been watching the various controversies unfold on Goodreads and elsewhere with an almost obsessive fervor. If you haven’t been following too closely, a site which I will not name came online month or two ago, which published the private information of several Goodreads reviewers, in some cases down to where these reviewers lunched. While they themselves hid under anonymity. This site was unhappy with negative reviews, referring to these reviewers as bullies, and hoped to give them a “taste of their own medicine” by, what, having them killed by Internet loonies? Jesus Christ. They scrubbed their site of the most offensive and possibly legally actionable content just in time to have their bullshit published on HuffPo, after which HuffPo delivered the absolute weakest apology for their total lack of journalistic due diligence. Anyway, point being, in all of this, I saw post after post by an author who was smart, well spoken, and angry about how these reviewers were being treated. Who was funny and witty and cool. That author, my friends, was Stacia Kane. (And, for the record, there are a bunch of writers I noticed speaking intelligently during this mess – Foz Meadows, John Scalzi, and a couple others I can’t think of right now.)

I do maintain a probably-not shelf on Goodreads, which is mostly for weird shit that I won’t read just because it’s weird, and I don’t want it on my to-read. In most of all this shouting about authors and reviewers, the books in question by authors-behaving-badly would have gone unread by me anyway, just because of my total lack of interest in the subject or genre. So probably-not-ing them has no meaning. But I decided to turn the frown upside down and read something by an author-behaving-goodly. If Ms Kane’s book was half as smart and funny as her posts, it’s not like I could go wrong. And I dabble in urban fantasy, so it’s not like it’s a stretch, even if my reading interests tend more strongly in other directions.

So, yeah, this book was fun as hell. It’s an alternate history where there was a ghostocalypse in 1997 – something about how the murderous undead appear and tried to kill everyone? And succeeded with, like 2/3 of the population of the Earth? But not, like, zombies or whatever? I admit, the backstory is a little hazy, but that’s not the godamn point. You’re thrown into the story with Chess Putnam, who is some kind of Church-licensed ghostbuster, but also a total addict and fuckup. The plot is Scooby Doo all the way, in the best way, where there are three plots – one relating to Church business, and another two dealing with various dealers that Chess is in deep with in one way or another – that start converging into a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions.

God, I loved watching this unfold. The book is not surprising, really; this isn’t going to blow your post-modernist skirt up or give you shit about the meaning of life, but it is going to knock about and snort speed and talk in a street dialect that manages to be fucking cool without being racist. I usually get all tense and pissy about dialect, because it tends to be used racistly – I have christened this an acceptable adverb – subtly telling the reader that certain characters (usually the brown ones) are stupid or ignorant. The dialect here was more street talk, used by anyone on the corner, and the fact that Chess speaks in more standard English was more a function of her half-status on the street – her feet in two worlds – than her betterment of anyone. That’s how you use dialect. Amen.

And man, I loves me the fuckups. I feel like they are relatively rare out there in urban fantasy, and even more so in romance. I feel like every time I crack a book about werewolves or steamships or vampires or whatever genre stuff, I find these virginal ingenues who can’t find their sexuality with both hands and a flashlight. Who never dream of being bad until they find that one guy who unlocks their honey-oven with his manroot, and then ye gads! sex kitten emerges. But only, like, because of love and whatnot. Chess is not this, and it felt fresh as the nicotine hitting the blood on that first hard inhale. You kinda want to puke because it’s so dirty and transgressive, but you also want to do it again. Rarr. And speaking of rarrr, there’s a dude here, one of those muscle-buses that I’m on record as making fun of – though I would not kick Jericho Barrons out of bed for eating crackers – who totally worked for me. Big, ugly, nasty enforcer for a drug dealer who can, like, read and stuff. Because literacy is sexy, baby.

Though, the fuckup protagonist is a little more common in detective or Noir stories – probably Harry Dresden falls into this a little, though he irritates me greatly – so it’s not like Chess is wholly unusual. I don’t have a ton of background in urban fantasy series, which is probably a saving grace for my enjoyment, when I get right down to it. I kept holding Chess and her world up to the characters and places I do know – Mac & Fever, Ward’s vamps, Dresden, Sookie, Kitty the Werewolf – measuring them in relation to one another. This is on solid genre ground, and probably the more versed in the genre you are, the more similarities might bug you. But it is on solid ground.

So, I don’t know. What’s the point of reviewing, ultimately? I don’t mean that rhetorically – I’m asking with my bowl out. I’m not in this game to get people to read shit I like if they’re not going to like it. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t actually believe in the “constructive review” – I’m not arrogant enough to think that my shit-talk or praise is going to influence – or should influence – how someone writes. Presumably they have people they trust for beta readers, and it’s not like whatever I read isn’t a done deal anyway. I’m not here to sell books or sink them, not that I think that I could anyway. I’ve had a lot of somewhat bullshit existential twisting about what it is I’m doing here on Goodreads – wondering what the point of it all is – and even though I keep deciding not to review anything anymore, I keep coming back. Reading is a sullen art, and I like saying it out loud, I guess. Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s all the critical process ever is.

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