Sometimes I feel out of step with other readers. I thought THE DRAFTER and its sequel were both excellent novels. The mid-apocalyptic Detroit setting was well detailed. The characters' backstories came out organically as the reader's understanding of the world deepened (and the reader's experience mirrored the protagonist's confusion, at least in the first one.) Also, drafting was just a cool concept, and spy drafters even better. Alas, I felt like those things were absent in PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION. The setting is an indistinct college town in Anywhere, USA, and the mechanics of the magic at play here are rote. Worse, I didn't feel much from or about the characters either.
PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION starts in medias res as a woman, Meg, barrels down a road in her car, castigating herself for trusting various people. She gets into an accident (which reminds her, briefly, of an older accident that ended in blood on the road) after a man jumps in front of her car. They argue, then we jump back 3 days, and begin following Meg through her day. First stop is to her psychiatrist, who appears to be helping her through social anxiety and agoraphobia, stemming from the death of her mother and a brutal car accident. Meg is put on a new highly experimental drug called Fitrecepon (hint: anagram solvers are a thing) and then sent out into the world. Meg is to keep a diary and watch for paranoia and changes in diet and sleep patterns.
Which is where I run into my first set of problems. From here, Meg goes out and spontaneously makes friends with a visiting professor (Meg is an art teacher, apparently), at which point they become joined at the hip and spend the entire weekend together with escalating intimacy. I think Meg's weird toad-eating and subservience to her new friend Haley is right in line with her dismal self esteem and her fervent desire to overcome her anxiety. I think she also would be hungry for a drug to be a magic bullet, which is how she treats it, even after Dr. Jillium's warnings. But Dr. Jillium should have her license revoked for how she handles a highly experimental drug (which is apparently not even in trials, it's so experimental, which is not how any of that works.)
My mother's best friend has cancer, and last month they decided to try a new chemo drug on her. She went into the office and was hooked up to the rig, where they pushed a few secondary drugs first. Then they hung the bag with the drug in it. Jay watched the drug run down the tube to her hand, and the moment the drug hit her bloodstream, she went into anaphylactic shock. They had to do the whole Pulp Fiction epi pen to the heart thing right there as her husband watched on in horror. This and other terrible side effects of, really, any drug are always possibilities; ask me about how contrast dye makes my body break out in hives! When Meg blows off keeping a diary of the effects of the drug, that should have been the end of it, right there, day one.
The opening bit also blows any sense of creeping dread we may feel. Haley, Haley's roommate, Meg's boyfriend, Austen: they are all under suspicion by the reader, which made me read a lot closer for tells and slip-ups by the characters. Of course Haley and her friend-boy are not to be trusted; we have that knowledge from the first. Meg's escalating paranoia about Jillium and Austen reads exactly like a side effect, which no one seems to see but the reader. That all is not right with Meg's sense of what is real and what isn't is telegraphed so loudly that I had the twist figured well before it hit. While I don't think that's a bad thing in all instances -- sometimes the tension between what the reader knows and the characters do can be a cool effect -- in this case it made me skim a bit until I could get to where Meg catches up.
I don't want to land too hard here. This may come off as a bitchy thing to say, though I don't mean it that way, but PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION is readable as hell, and I was halfway through before my brain started screaming about Dr. Jillium. The novel moves along at such a fast clip that I didn't have any time to start nitpicking, and even when I started, I was compelled to read to the end. I am not in any way a completist, and abandon at least half the books I start. Meg's genuine rush at overcoming some of her anxiety is well rendered, and I think in general her mental illness is dealt with sensitively (though I'm a little unsure about that ending.)
So, on the balance PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION was a nice read on a Sunday, but I just didn't think it was up to the quality of THE DRAFTER, which of course no one read because the world is deeply unfair. The cover is also aces.
I received my copy from Netgalley.
Original review, posted April 2012
So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning.
Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something.
Whatever, moving on.
So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens.
Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story.
So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally.
Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!
And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude.
An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird.
Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.
*Update, Jan 2015:
Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves. For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)
In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!
After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.
I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.
I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.
But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.
I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.
I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010’s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.) Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.
I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.
Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.
I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.
The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.
There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary Justice: Fire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.
When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light — but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.
I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)
Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.
I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.
I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.
I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.
Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.
So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.
Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.
Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.
It kills me to say this, but The Wizard’s Promise didn’t work for me. I think I can see what the book was attempting to do, but I don’t think it did it. The reason I’m so sad I didn’t love this is that Cassandra Rose Clarke absolutely slayed me with The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, killed me so hard I was willing to follow her into young adult fantasy with her duology The Assassin’s Curse/The Pirate’s Wish. I was a rut of being sick of young adult fantasy — all the Chosen Ones and half-assed magical systems, the violet eyes and virgins. The Assassin’s Curse duology ended up rewarding my lovesick mooning over Clarke. While it wasn’t on the gut-punching level of Mad Scientist’s Daughter, the story was active and emotional, with just enough subversion of the tropes to feel fresh in a sometimes moldering genre.
The Wizard’s Promise takes place in the same world as the Assassin’s Curse books do, a generation later, long enough for the exploits of the pirate Ananna to become something between tall tales and legend. Our main character here is even named after Ananna — her mother knew her, apparently — but she goes by Hanna. She lives on one of the northern islands, a spare, insular place. She’s at that itchy cusp of adulthood, still living with the ‘rents, but struggling with what she wants to do with her life in that gauzy, dreamy way of the inexperienced. Maybe I’ll become a famous witch after stunning everyone at school!
Hanna is apprenticing with a fisherman of no particular talent named Kolur at the behest of her mom, and the action of the novel begins when what should be an everyday fishing expedition goes pear-shaped. Hanna and Kolur end up well off course, with a mysterious old friend of Kolur’s — a witch of some talent — along for the ride. Kolur and his witch friend are just obnoxiously withholding about what is going on, and Hanna responds with an equally obnoxious foot-stomping petulance. In the dreary sailing that occurs after they find themselves in the wrong place on the map, Hanna meets a not-quite-human boy named Isolfr, who also is withholding about the shape of things, but less so than the grown ups.
Here is where I want to talk about magic. I generally like the magic in this world, which is both concrete and not over-explained. Hanna’s magical talent is wind-magic, the sort of useful calling up the of the elements for fishermen and boats. There’s also earth-magic — something Hanna’s mother practices — and sea-magic. The rules of magic aren’t gotten into too closely, which I can appreciate, because practice and theory are well two different things. I had a blacksmith once explain to me that “all the goodness” goes out of iron when its been reheated too often and too hotly, and it doesn’t make me a good blacksmith to be able to explain what he means on a molecular level (which I can, but it requires some hand waving and a napkin to write on.)
That doesn’t mean that some of the spell-casting didn’t frustrate me. Isolfr — the not-quite-human boy — casts a spell on Hanna such that the fisherman and the witch she shares a boat with cannot hear anything Hanna says about the boy. This isn’t magic so much as narrative convenience, a football-hiding maneuver that serves the storyteller more than the story. And even though we get some reveals about the purposes of the boy and the fisherman, I couldn’t even tell you why that information was withheld from the reader or from Hanna. Much of the action is inert, without discernible reason for most of the novel. I felt like luggage, carried along by hands unattached to a more vital body of purpose, and this is no place to be as a reader. Magic shouldn’t be convenient; it should be structural.
Which is not to say there weren’t things I enjoyed about The Wizard’s Promise. The couple who befriends Hanna when she’s stuck on some godforsaken rock in the north are wonderfully domestic, with the kind of easy, kindly relationship that’s both kinda obtuse and profoundly enviable. I like how Hanna is forced at a point to work diligently towards amassing enough money to buy her way home, and how that really just doesn’t work, or doesn’t work quickly. She eyes a small jar full of coinage, which fills slowly and then drops as she has to do things like make rent and eat. Not many young adult books — fantastic or not — address the hard economic realities of life at a grinding job that doesn’t reward one’s talents or youth. Like one gets at this age.
It’s possible my trouble is the split-novel format — The Wizard’s Promise is the first of another duology — and maybe this pair is to be back-loaded with all the action and promise not exactly come to fruition in the first. Not even come to the middle, really. I can’t really assess this novel on books that haven’t been written yet (much as I’d like to, loving Clarke the way I do) so I have to say this is not a success as a standalone novel. I’m on the hook for the next, because my heart, but that’s more nostalgia than sensibility. And y’all really should read The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, kthxbai.
I finally got to see my first Miyazaki film in the theater when I took the kids to see The Wind Rises this weekend. I’m still kicking myself for missing The Secret World of Arietty when it passed through town as that has since become my most deeply felt Miyazaki film – I hesitate to use words like “favorite” with my darlings – and that would have just killed on the big screen. Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this is his last film, and even though he’s retired before, I should not be messing around with being “too busy”. The Wind Rises is the biography of plane engineer Dr. Jiro Horikoshi who designed planes before and during WWII. As a last film, this is both a departure and right in line with Miyazaki’s body of work, a puzzling, deeply personal biopic about a childhood hero that elides as much as it informs. It it both gorgeous and strangely inert.
This isn’t going to be a review, btw; it’s more going to be a collection of impressions. I don’t have a mind for the visual, and I’m no film scholar.
There are two Ursula K. Le Guin novels I haven’t read: Malafrena and Always Coming Home. (Note: Ursula K. Le Guin is my heart, and the writer whose works are most important to me on every single level.) I’ve only taken one run at Malafrena, and I suspect it was mostly wrong timing, as her other Orsinian tales – Orsinia is the fictitious country in which a collection of her stories occur – worked for me entirely. (She’s coming to terms with Virginia Woolf, on some level, in those stories. I know!) I’ve crashed on the rocks of Always Coming Home at least twice, making it a third of the way in before I just set it down and walked away. I posted a non-review of my failure at some point, and a fellow ursine reader sent me this just transcendent explication of the book, calling it her most personal work, this deeply felt but also surface-placid recollection and exploration. I still haven’t read it, despite circling around the book-with-cassette-tape edition I have on my shelves. I have a discomfort about it, like watching something too personal.
There’s something to that here, in The Wind Rises. My husband and I had a long conversation about works we thought fit this strange format: undisputed masters of their craft creating art that ultimately fails (on some level) because the artist has an audience of one: the artist. We can piggyback into this audience, or worm our ways in using biography or the tabs on the personal that align in some feeling way, but the art itself is ultimately impressionistic in a way that defies that external logic. You can hang on by the skin of your teeth or the teeth of your skin, but you will never get it on some visceral level, even if your viscera responds. This can seriously fucking piss off viewers or readers, as evidenced by a lot of nasty, false-populist reviews like Rex Reed‘s for To The Wonder:
“To the Wonder is the kind of fiasco that keeps film-festival programmers salivating and discriminating audiences stampeding toward the exit doors. It’s a simpering yawn that makes The Tree of Life seem like an action thriller with Bruce Willis. It is about … nothing.”
Which, look, I’m not going to say that To The Wonder is approachable or even worthwhile to a lot of people, nor am I going to say that those people are either idiots or “discriminating”, Rex. But it’s not about nothing. We’ve been hacking our way through Malick’s To The Wonder over months now, stopping for tirades from my husband – what is this shit? – and conversations with friends – hi, Eric! – about the individual, national and cultural response to a work that’s clearly, clearly, as much about personal mythos and national narrative as it is about, like, telling a story. There is no story that can tell me. There’s no story for anyone. It’s all memory or recording. My husband made peace with To The Wonder when he realized the film depicts all the interstitial moments – just after that conversation, just before that realization – a collection of boring connective moments that are the troughs between the high heights, the slack edge of feeling. But that’s an intellectual response, in the end, to a stark emotional landscape. That’s what we’ve got, I guess.
A lot of The Wind Rises bores me in the same way that To The Wonder does – these vistas where I consider the shape of the light or the angle of the sky more closely than I should, knocking myself out. Huh, you don’t see animated characters smoke anymore, and that smoke is gorgeous. Look at the ripples on the water. Look at the fluid dynamics of the clouds. But then there’s the moments that poleaxe me, like when Marina’s daughter asks her, “Why are you sad?” and she says, “I’m not sad.” There’s no reason on earth that should freak me out, but it does. The moment when I realized that all of the machine noises in The Wind Rises were made by people, which is occasionally funny and sometimes alarming. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake was made by human voices as well; yeesh.
It felt important to me that Hayao Miyazaki was born in January of 1941, about a month after Pearl Harbor, just weeks before my grandparents married and my grandfather enlisted in the Navy, which would send him to the South Pacific where he would encounter Jiro Horikoshi’s planes, at the very least in their effects. Miyazaki is not a Boomer but a War Baby, living through this profound upheaval as a pre-linguistic person; the war more a series of impressions and conversations remembered over dinner or around the doorjamb. I remember these times of my pre-personhood myself – Nixon impeached, the end of the Vietnam war – but I remember them more from my relationships with Viet and Hmong children who began peopling the elementary school, or the conversations overheard but not actually listened to, in the way of children, as my parents talked. Miyazaki is dealing with a part of his life that cannot be accessed through memory.
That The Wind Rises works best in its soaring, physics-defying dream sequences makes perfect sense to me, in this context: Miyazaki painting these watercolor vistas – like the landscapes Jiro’s wife paints en plein air during their courtship? The goofy, childish authorial voice of the Italian engineer intoning with its almost easily-dismissed gravitas as a bedtime story about the worst things there are, and the ugly, logical conclusions of the engineering war machine. There’s a lot of criticism of The Wind Rises because it never exactly owns the effects of Jiro’s engineering in the war effort, but then also some real anger in Japan about its pacifist message. I get the impression that a man of Miyazaki’s generation cannot win, in artistic portrayals of his generation and the gauzy childhood memories of the one before, a rock and a hard place of national narrative and the you lost mentality of the post-Allies. I’m aware of my dislocation as a viewer because I am not Japanese; here I felt the generational disconnect as well.
One of the things I noted as I watched was the strange convergence between Jiro Horikoshi’s marriage and the one between Richard and Arline Feynman when Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. (The wiki article on Jiro has exactly zero about his personal life. I honestly don’t know how much Miyazaki bent here, in terms of life story, and it would be interesting indeed if this was fictional. Also, bearing in mind I’m getting most of my information about Feynman’s marriage from Feynman’s anecdotal memoirs and the film starring Matthew Broderick. I refuse to google, because on some level this has more to do with how biography is created than dreary facts.) The sick woman of Jiro’s wife is something of a thing in Miyazaki’s films, from the absent mother in My Neighbor Totoro to the boy in Arietty. The sequence where Jiro holds his wife’s hand while working slayed me, slayed me like the harsh breaths in Arietty. There’s a lot of his signature characters – the dwarfish superior played for comedy like the mean housekeeper in Arietty; Jiro’s sister who is so like Ponyo in her chubby, brutal girlishness, even when she is grown. I can see the war machines from Howl’s Moving Castle or the thrill of flight from Kiki’s Delivery Service.
The Jiro Horikoshi of the film has the same courtship as Feynman with a tubercular woman, a marriage despite filial objections, and the same divided loyalties as he works unceasingly and tirelessly for a dubious purpose. The same dislocated relationship to the war effort – tangible, but indirect – the same lonely death of the wives. And the same transcendent belief of the unflinching beauty of their arts as they practice them. There is something wrong with the world that intellects like Feynman’s and Horikoshi’s are spent on things that florescence and then explode. “None of my planes came back,” Horikoshi tells his soul-body in the end. It is left to the viewer to see them driven to debris and the end. Feynman’s creation rains down on Japan in a hellfire. That Miyazaki inserts himself in a wand-breaking sequence like Prospero’s, the authorial acknowledgement that talent and mastery come to their end, hellfire or not, lends a tragic sweetness to the film. Is this the end? Does it have to be? Oh, God, no, please.
I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.
Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.
Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.
It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.
Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):
The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”
Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.
Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.
And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.
Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.
Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.
“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.
“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.
“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.
“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.
“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.
“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.
“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.
“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.
“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.
“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.
“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)
“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.
“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.
“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.
“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.
“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.
“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)
In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.
I picked up Wake last week when I was up north. Amanda Hocking is a Minnesota writer, whom you might have heard of because she is a self-publishing superstar. I think her success story is just adorable, I kind of love everything about it, and I’d resolved to read something of hers eventually. I was under the mistaken impression that Wake was about mermaids living in Lake Superior, so this seemed like the logical place to start. You know, because I would read the crap out of a novel about mermaids in Lake Superior. Wake is about mermaids (sort of, more sirens than half-fish ladies) but the locale is the Maryland coast. Not that my disappointment about locations really has anything to do with anything.
The novel opens with a chatty, boppy little opening, establishing our two point of view characters, Harper and Gemma Fisher. The names are pretty indicative of tone. Gemma is our 16 year old protagonist, and clearly she was named first. Her name’s kinda chick-litty and unlikely – Americans don’t name their kids Gemma, and it reads as exotic/fancy – with a cute little metaphorical implication of someone named fisher being in a siren book, right? But then Harper Fisher? This is just straight up a terrible name, and I find it hard to imagine the kind of people who would saddle their kid with two occupations as monikers. Or if I can imagine them, they look very different from the parents here.
These are book names: romantic, lightly metaphorical, and also kinda girly milquetoast. Gemma Fisher is what you want to be named when you’re 14 and someone just mangled your oddball Celtic name for the umpteenth time and then asked you if you had a nickname. No, fool, I would have just given you the nickname instead of going through fifteen minutes of you acting like I made my name up to make your life hard. Well, that escalated quickly. Also, I never wanted to change my name, but I can totally see the appeal of names like Gemma & Harper to teens, who were named Jennifer and Kristen before there were 27 Jennifers in every class, and they want in on the new name that there will be 27 of in every class.
The opening of the novel sets up the sisters’ lightly sniping relationship, and a couple of boy love interests for the sisters, in addition to foreshadowing you with a two-by-four about a pack of mean girls. Harper and Gemma’s mom is packed away in a home because of a traumatic brain injury; their dad ain’t handling it so well; Harper more or less acts as Gemma’s mom in a caring but overbearing way, blah blah blah. This is going to be an uncharitable thing to say, but I thought of the writing advice attributed to Elmore Leonard: don’t write the parts people skip. So much of this was skippable, from reams of unnecessary dialogue – seriously, I did not need a whole run down of the breakfast options this morn – to the logistical wranglings – hey, I left my bike at the pool; can I get a ride – to the artless but inoffensive prose. It was nice that Gemma’s paramour was the sweet, nerdy boy-next-door, but, gotta say, their relationship had zero juice.
I ended up just giving up because I could just see this muddling on to its three-star conclusion. I’m going to dig parts of it because I can see that it focuses pretty strongly on female relationships, and that is something depressingly lacking in a lot of YA. (Hell, in a lot of fiction, period.) The tension is going to be about Harper and Gemma’s relationship when Gemma gets all siren’d up; plus, sirens are a pretty weighty metaphor about female sexuality, etc. But there’s going to be a half dozen things that make me bananas, like Gemma’s solo night swims in the ocean. Everyone’s on her for it because she’s a swim team star and shouldn’t waste her swimming at night or something? No. Do not swim alone at night in the ocean ever. Don’t swim alone. I don’t care how strong of a swimmer you are; they might never find your body.
Like the names, the night swimming is included because it sets up this romantic situation – ah, the water in the moonlight – but it doesn’t make sense that a swimmer wouldn’t have very basic water safety drilled into her by her coach, who would do more than sigh and shake his head if he found out about it. Oh, also, mama’s crazy, and I can see that going nowhere good. But! I can see why Hocking is so successful. It’s real mundane, but in a way that makes the mundanity just a little bit shiny. Gemma’s a good girl and Harper’s a book nerd, (I’m a good girl and a book nerd!) and they have pretty boring problems, (I have pretty boring problems!) you know, until dun dun (omg, college!).
I can also see the appeal of the girlishness of the whole package here. I showed my six year old daughter the cover – and my daughter is a damn fine barometer of girlishness – and she was pretty into it. But then I peeled the cover off and showed her the poster that’s secretly on the back of the book jacket.
She more or less freaked out about it. What are they doing? I want to go swimming too. Wake isn’t going to be about saving the world or huge action sequences. It’s not going to culminate in fisticuffs or explosions. Instead, it’s going to be this chatty, actionless parable about not fitting in and growing up and female sexuality, which is going to resonate for girls on exactly the same tuning-fork frequency as Twilight. I honestly think that’s great, the whole girl pulp for girls thing, and Wake seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of not being regressive and reactionary about female relationships slash sexuality.
But I am, alas, old and cranky, and this just is way not for me. Frankly, Gemma and Harper are so muted, such nice people, that I had a hard time relating to them. (And that thing where girls can’t tell if they’re horny or just embarrassed – she wondered at the blush creeping up her cheeks, etc – is just weird. Can’t you tell that at a pretty young age?) I figure if I want to hear a story about a coven of mean girls, I’ll just re-watch The Craft.
Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.)
I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything – but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well.
Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient.
Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it.
Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.
Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas.
I am going to begin somewhat uncharitably by making fun of the cover for Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Now, I know covers ain’t content, and usually authors have close to zero say in cover choice, so I’m not making fun of Ahmed here. However:
I showed this cover to my husband and asked, “Where’s the Disney singing sidekick?” At which point he retorted, “Is that Mel Brooks?” But snarking hipsterism aside, the cover is kinda perfect, because Throne of the Crescent Moonfeels like very old school, summer vacation reading, sword-and-sandals fantasy, the kind of thing little Ceridwen would stay up reading past her bedtime because OMG, it’s the end of the world! and also maybe some fart jokes; lol; he said fart. The cover conveys that pretty well, as does the completely forgettable title which feels like it was spat out of the Random Fantasy Novel Title Generator. It’s just sad, is all, because the title and cover are so stock fantasy, and I think the book itself is maybe more interesting than the cover implies? Maybe not, because I can’t say I more than liked this, and I only read it because I’m trying to get through the 2012 Nebula nominees before May 18th when they announce the winners. (Kim Stanley Robinson: why did I leave your doorstopper for last?)
So Doctor Aboulla Makhslood is the last of the ghul-hunters, a wheezy, fat old man with a cheerless, devout dervish apprentice. Abdoulla is definitely getting too old for this shit, but not so old he can’t enjoy giving his apprentice a hard time and opening up a can of whup-ass on some ghuls. The story starts with Abdoulla’s old flame asking for some help in the deaths of some of her kin, and Abdoulla saddles up the donkey and heads out. Abdoulla’s very much like your kinda racist teasing old uncle, who talks a lot of shit but is essentially a good guy. If only he would STFU about how much he loves living in New York.
There’s a getting-the-band-back-together feel of the opening, which has Abdoulla and his dour dervish meeting up with a badass Cheetara vengeance girl, finding their purpose – we must find the ghul-of-ghuls! – and then chatting over tea with Abdoulla’s neighbors and friends, who just happen to be an alkemist and a mage. Wonder fantasy team activate! There’s a lot of street-fighting and Robin Hoody folk characters, dire magic, out of touch Khalifs and civil unrest, and everything winds up to a pretty perfunctory meeting with a Big Boss – zap! pflash! – complete with moral compromises and the like. Super fantasy friends to the rescue! Huzzah!
I told myself I wasn’t going to be a quipping jerk in this review, and I see I’ve failed at that completely. Let me start again.
There is a lot I liked about Throne of the Crescent Moon, the primary thing being its cranky old main character and his cranky old friends. It’s neat to see a fat old grouch grouse his way through a plot usually left to the young and beautiful, people like his pious apprentice and cat-changing-girl. He and his old friends score a lot of points off of their youthful exuberance, even if it occasionally seems unfair that everyone seems to be written to bear Abdoulla’s quips. It’s also too bad the dervish and the cat-changing-girl are so thinly written, especially the supposed sexual tension between the two of them. I believe that not at all, and none of the “conflict” the dervish experienced rang true to me.
I also enjoyed the…how do I put this?…religiosity of the characters? Abdoulla and his old friends are cynical, urbane folk who have little faith in institutions or even human nature, and this rubs up against the youthful piety and certainty of the younger characters. But, Abdoulla still has a complicated and dynamic engagement with his religion and his faith, even while it’s kinda crimped and leftways. I’m not a believer in much myself, when it comes to your traditional monotheisms, but Abdoulla read to me like my Grandpa Ed, who for generational reasons could never come out and own his atheism (in the strictest sense), instead subsuming his wonder and prayerfulness into hymns and books. Abdoulla believes in things: his city, his friends, even the concept of duty (despite his constant bitching), and he calls those things God. Even the devil can quote scripture, but it takes a holy fool to make a fart joke and then quote scripture. Grandpa Ed would approve.
I think I’m going to go out on a limb and say this isn’t going to win the Nebula. Not only is Throne of the Crescent Moon a first novel – like any award, name recognition factors – but it also has a pretty stock fantasy plot, despite the slightly unusual main character. (I don’t think the cranky mentor is unusual, just to be clear, just that it’s unusual for him to be the main character. It’s like if Obi Wan were the protagonist of Star Wars, and also drank and farted more.) So, enjoyable little book that doesn’t set out to accomplish much, but does accomplish the small things it sets out to do. A younger version of me would probably like this more, as she wouldn’t be as jaded about fantasy conventions. I feel like maybe Ahmed was working out his fantasy tropes in this his first novel, and that will leave him open to muck around with convention more in later outings. That would be swell. I’d read ’em.
From the author’s note for The Killing Moonby N K Jemisin:
Like most fantasy writers, I have found it challenging to write material influenced by real (if bygone) cultures. […] Since this is a fantasy novel, not a historical text, I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify these tales as much as possible — in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth for flavoring. My goal was to give homage; my goal was not to ape humanity. Armchair Egyptologist, you have been forewarned.
Well, thank the baby Jesus.
I have had a long and loud love/hate relationship with high fantasy, with periods of intense love-making followed by throwing all of its shit out into the yard and setting it on fire. Some of my most favoritest books have hailed from high fantasy’s storied borders – The Long Price Quartet, The Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle. But I have also found books that just make me keen for their dangerously juvenile wish-fulfillment and naive politics. A penniless goatherd turns out to be the son of a king; a scarred warrior reclaims his honor: all of this occurring in a Medieval Europe clone that appears to be structured by nostalgia for vicious, illusory things like honor, blended with the worst of middle class American values. So much high fantasy wrong-foots it, trying to blend meritocracy with the divine right, ending in a Calvinism of fiction: good wins because it wins. Feh.
And that’s not even getting into the second or third generation “corrections” of this historical/political naïveté evidenced by formative high fantasy, novels that posit lovingly detailed rape-and-murder-a-thons as an expression of their grittiness or historical accuracy or what-fucking-ever. I am not much interested in escapisms that use casual injustice as a backdrop for some idiot imbued with narrative privilege to level up. I see enough of that shit in the real world, thank you, and adding dragons into the mix doesn’t make it easier to swallow. And just to be clear, it’s not the rape and violence that I have a problem with – I enjoy a bloody fight scene as much as the next girl – it’s how so often rape and violence are deployed without interrogation and without consequence. Good still wins because it wins, but now someone can get herself raped to prove the situation is serious and nothing else.
I seriously did not intend this review to become a jeremiad about the state of high fantasy, but you go to review with the barely controlled rampage you have bubbling in your mind. Or I do anyway, not to bring you into it. What I really wanted to impart with my freak-out is that I have a complicated relationship with high fantasy, and reading Jemisin’s foreword made me sigh with relief. So often I read high fantasy, and the location is just medieval Europe or medieval Asia with the serial numbers filed off, but not particularly well. The problem I see with much of high fantasy is a sloppy, self-serving use of history which conflates character expediency with historical accuracy, creating a fantasy world with all the problems of the historical record and then some.
The Killing Moon takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, based very loosely on ancient Egypt, but other than a river-flooded desert city and a pharaonic leader, the Egyptian is gestural or inflected. The plot centers on three people: a priest of the killing class, his apprentice, and an ambassador/spy from another city-state. While the milieu seems broadly pantheistic, Gujaarah is focused on the worship of a specific deity, a moon goddess of death and less so of rebirth. In practice, this works out to a priestly caste who harvest “dreamblood” – a magical but still body-based humor not unlike one of the four Hippocratic humors of the body in Classical and medieval medicine. (There is, for example, dreambile, and I assume dreamphlegm, but no one types out the word phlegm if they can help it.) (Also, someone pointed out that phlegm has been changed to the word “seed”, so we can have some sexytimes ritual prostitutes.)
The opening is one of those confusing messes that ends up being more calculated than it appears, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone tossing this book down before the gears catch, because it takes nearly half the book for the teeth to bite. A priest has one of his ritual killings go wrong; there is a murderer demon on the loose; some people have confusing conversations where the political subtext doesn’t necessarily figure, but is extremely important. And politics is decidedly the name of the game in Gujaareh, in a way that even the main characters (other than the ambassador-spy, of course) don’t get. That was one of the things I found so delightful about The Killing Moon: the way the politically naive – what about honor! and piety! and stuff! – aren’t rewarded for their naivete, but aren’t exactly punished either. True belief isn’t exempt from political expediency, and vice versa.
Unlike Long Price, which I would hold this book in close comparison – if you like this, then – I wasn’t as enamored of the central characters. The priest and his apprentice have an intense Oedipal relationship with a bunch of sexual overlay which I don’t quite connect with, never having been a celibate killing monk. Which is not to say I found them unlikely or incoherent, just that the inherent staginess of the court intrigue plot – which is the basis of much epic fantasy – undercut the interpersonal concerns of a relationship that’s already pretty far out of the experience of most readers. (Celibate killing monks, they prolly totally grok it tho.) The ambassador-spy isn’t nearly as badass as the term ambassador-spy would imply. Not that everything has to be about badassery, of course, I just felt her character was more reactive to the other two main characters, more expedient than personal.
So, anyway, I greatly enjoyed this, partially just because of personal insanity about high fantasy, but then partially because The Killing Moonis well written and interesting, daring to take on some very odd protagonists. I have some questions, the usual ones I have about magical systems – so there’s a goddess? and a demonstrable magical system? Does that mean there really is a goddess, or does that mean that the almost physics-like magic is just ascribed to the goddess? (These are questions that keep me up at night when dealing with high fantasy, in general, so that’s not new.) I feel a little shitty this review, because I feel like a lot of it sounds like relative faint-praise – high fantasy sux! but this sux less! – but that’s not where I’m at with this book. That said, I only picked this up because it’s one of the Nebula nominees for 2012 – self-assigned homework reading – so there was a definite kicking-and-screaming vibe in the beginning, but I’m glad it worked out in the end.