Review: Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs

I have a definite thing with the paranormal concept of “mating”, which is mostly understood to be an unbreakable romantic bond that exists independent of the emotional state of love. Obviously, romance novels have certain parameters to them, namely, that there be an HEA or HFN, so mostly they don’t address the glaring problem that a bond like this, one independent of emotion, can represent. So I kind of freak out when writers address the potential disconnect between mated bond and honest affection, because it’s so vanishingly rare. The newest Alpha & Omega novel, Wild Sign by Patricia Briggs, addresses this issue. The only other novel that I can think of that takes on a disconnect between mated bonding and real affection was one of Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, The Secret. That instance was utterly heartbreaking.

I have a pet theory that the “mating bond” acts as a sort of safety net for people writing overbearing asshole types, which many of these shifters tend to be. The whole pack hierarchy of dominance/submission, which is de rigueur in shifter narratives, offers up a steady supply of pushy, domineering alpha males (literally! har har) whose behavior towards women would be legitimately alarming in real world contexts. (Hell, often their behavior towards other men as well.) With the introduction of the mating bond, that more or less ensures the romantic lead won’t go fully physically abusive, though of course the more intangible methods of abusing and controlling one’s partner are still fully on the table. Admittedly, the Alpha & Omega series isn’t quite a romance series, though it includes a strong romantic through-line, so much of my noodling about the mating bond doesn’t apply, exactly.

The Alpha & Omega books follow the married couple and mated werewolf pair, Anna and Charles Cornick, the Omega and Alpha of the series name, respectively. The werewolves in this universe are often incredibly violent, and the pack bonds are just the thinnest check on that violence. This is in direct contrast with shifters like the Changelings in the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh, whose shifter nature instills a sense of protectiveness and community. Singh’s Changelings are almost constitutionally incapable of abuse; Briggs’s werewolves are all too capable of violent outbreaks, and in some cases predisposed. Further, Charles acts as his father, Bran Cornick’s enforcer, and Bran is the pack leader of all North American werewolf packs, a sort of uber-alpha. His direct pack is made up of the hurt, damaged, unstable, and otherwise not housebroken werewolves. As his dad’s strong arm, violence is literally Charles’s job. His bond with Anna provides ballast for him, a line out to softer, kinder human emotion.

But the mating bond between Anna and Charles — one that seems genuinely enviable — is not the relationship at issue in Wild Sign: it’s the prickly, disconnected connection between Bran Cornick and his mate, Leah. The fact that they are mated but seem to have a deep antipathy for one another has been a thing not just in the Alpha & Omega series, but the Mercy Thompson books as well, where Leah acted as mean step-mom antagonist. Frankly, the way the antagonism between Mercy and Leah was introduced and maintained was indicative of a problem Briggs had writing relationships between women, at the very least in the earlier novels in that series, but really going up to the one that took place in Europe? I find the individual novel names forgettable. Anna’s relationship with Leah has been less antagonistic, but largely Leah is portrayed as a harpy Bran ruefully puts up with. And honestly, if I were Leah, I would be less than impressed with Bran’s lackluster care and concern. His treatment of her as an irritant has never sat well with me.

Wild Sign acts as a corrective to this, and gives us not just Leah’s backstory, but also the origin story for her relationship with Bran Cornick. Anna and Charles head out to the California wilderness to investigate an off-the-grid town full of magical users which seems to have vanished without a trace. Apparently, this town was on land that Leah owns, and both the land and the reason for the town’s disappearance are connected to her mating bond with Bran. Suffice it to say, there’s some real nasty shit in her backstory, the kind of thing even Briggs addresses mostly euphemistically. Her bond with Bran is anything but ideal, almost an echo of said nasty shit, and it’s completely legible why they would hold each other at a distance. They are bonded by trauma, unbreakably so, but trauma isn’t actually ennobling, and intimate violations can play havoc with one’s ability to be intimate.

It’s a lot, and there were certainly points where I wondered if maybe it was too much. But then Briggs has never much shied from really nasty traumas, especially in Alpha & Omega. Charles and Anna met, after all, when he had to execute her pack leader because of the alpha’s brutal sexual, physical, and psychological abuse of Anna and others. And indeed, the antagonist in Wild Sign dredges up this history of violence for Anna — makes her relive it — in a way that felt true to the ways trauma can resurface, even for people who are functionally healed. Shifter narratives, especially those that center on werewolves, deal often with body trauma, I find, something having to do with the werewolf’s lack of control over their body, and the violence of the physical change.

That said, there are some real moments of levity in Wild Sign, like Anna and Charles’s run in with some sasquatch, or the basis for the monster of the week the novel has going. Which is good, because darkness pushes on everything they do, threatening to snuff out the sometimes tremulous light. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.

Coronavirus Diary: Supernatural Episodes 1-3

I, like a lot of wordy people out there, have been wondering what to do to document America in the Time of Quarantine as it happens. I am still working full time, so I don’t have tons of time to devote to such a project, even if I weren’t riding the edge of anxiety and depression all the time. Plus, just about everything is shit: It was my birthday yesterday; today my beloved guinea pig died; I haven’t seen my mom closer than ten feet away in a month. I have no bandwidth for reading anything that offers less than an unequivocal happy ending, so I don’t feel up to going back through my to-read pile of Nebula winners and other thoughtful stuff I have on deck. It’s just not going to happen.

So, you know, I started watching Supernatural. Obvi.

I probably won’t have anything new to say about a show that’s gone 15 seasons and has spawned roughly 8 gajillion reaction gifs. I’m not even watching that closely. But this here may or may not become my shelter-in-place exercise. It’s entirely possible I’ll give it up or try something else next week. That’s fine too. So, without much further ado, here are my scattered thoughts about epis one through three of the first season of Supernatural.

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”

Like many, or even most pilots — especially on network television — the pilot episode arm-wheels its way through both character development and exposition. It’s chock full of “As you know, Bob” style dialogue, and character conflict that feels not just manufactured, but fake. There’s a genuinely scary opening with a nuclear family that ends with mama on fire and a young child taking his infant brother out of a burning building. Flash forward twenty something years: Younger brother Sam is visited by older brother Dean in such a way as to make Dean seem like a creeper. Dean is gross about Sam’s girlfriend, insulting about Sam’s field of study, and generally passive-aggressive. Hey dad is missing, you should come with me, etc. Sam reluctantly sets off with Dean to find their dad, and, like fight some demons or whatever. They bumble into a vanishing hitchhiker situation that’s equal parts exploitation film and freaking creepy. They vanquish the ghost, and when they return to Sam’s apartment, he finds his girlfriend on fire, magically, the same way his mother was, fade to black.

This was a good pilot in many ways. I thought the supernatural stuff (ahem) was well done in terms of stagecraft (or whatever this is called in television) though a little overdone in terms of exposition and explanation of the occult occurrences. You could see the writers reaching for that twist, which is fine, if a little obvious. Frankly, we cut the cord so many years ago (indeed, about the time Supernatural began airing) that I’m sometimes surprised by network television’s storytelling styles. Everything is so bald and open, and so much of the run-time feels like filler. A network season has 20-ish hour-long episodes to fill with neat narratives of rising action and denouement, which definitely affects how an evolving narrative is told. Supernatural, even just in its opening episode, feels X-Files old school, like I can predict that there will be several episodes that are monster-of-the-week, cut with one that’s more mythology heavy. Maybe that will change in later seasons, but that’ s what I’m going to expect from season one.

When you put the pilot of Supernatural up against, say, the first episode of Killing Eve (which is probably not a fair comparison, but I watched it real recently), it’s notable how much text is subtext and the other way around in their requisite storytelling styles. Episode one of Killing Eve has this running joke about a birthday party from which Eve and some of her co-workers are suffering hangovers. The party wasn’t planned! It was impromptu! all the party-goers keep exclaiming. Eventually it clicks that one dude in the office — an officious dickish manager type — wasn’t invited to the birthday party, is salty about that, and everyone who was at the party is trying to pretend they didn’t plan and participate in a party without him, on purpose. This is never spelled out explicitly; you just have to figure it out for yourself.

Supernatural, but contrast, enacts the most drearily obvious dialogue, where one character announces his motivations, and then the other one does, on and on, in addition to explaining both internal and external states explicitly. Every single physical object and clue is carefully laid out; all motivations made clear in dialogue. The supernatural is completely legible, it just takes a Buffy-ish search of the public library microfiche to divine its motivations. As bad as this was, the parts of the opening episode that detail the supernatural — most of which are without dialogue — are scary and effective. So far, this is the stuff to keep watching for.

Season 1, Episode 2: “Wendigo”

I’ve said this before, but I think it’s generally true: having more than a little knowledge about a specific subject means you’re not going to accept sloppy, half-assed bullshit about said subject, even if it’s “just fiction”. (Which, don’t get me started about that one.) I am not going to pretend to have any real expertise in the folklore of Native America, but I do know, as a lifelong resident of Minnesota and a student of folklore, that literally everything about the monster of the week in this episode, the Wendigo, is completely hot garbage. They lampshade this a little in the episode when Dean announces that he’s never seen a wendigo outside of the upper Midwest, but they’re in Colorado so shrug emoticon. I do not understand why this episode wasn’t set anywhere from northern Minnesota to upstate New York — that’s the range for the source material. A cursory google will turn this up.

That Native American folklore and culture is treated shabbily ends up becoming a theme of the first season, if the first half dozen episodes are any indication. It’s all completely confused if not blatantly racist, treating the hundreds of cultures on the north American continent as interchangeable, throwing language, customs, and beliefs of wildly different native peoples together in an insulting mishmash. Imagine a story about a creature called a rusulka who lived on Mt Olympus and could be vanquished with a stake through the heart. Now imagine that story was being told by a member of culture which committed genocide upon the entire continent where those stories originate.

The Wendigo is understood to have been born in hunger. It is a human transformed by cannibalism into a monster that preys on humanity. That the Winchester brothers bumble in, and work to protect bunch of stupid, ill-prepared white people from its vengeance feels tone deaf if not cruel. Especially because the Winchester brothers are the absolute worst godamn hikers of all time. Look, I’m not even especially outdoorsy, but I grew up in an outdoorsy family so I know some stuff about not freaking dying on a hike in a state park. You need water, a liter per day per person at minimum. If you’re going on a more rugged hike, off the marked and groomed trails, you need the bare minimum of gear to pitch some horrible lean-to if the weather goes south and you have to bunker down for the night. The hike the brothers are going on is described as challenging — the sister of the lost hikers has gone so far as to hire a guide — so it feels nuts that they show up with a duffel bag full of guns, and nothing else: no water, no food (except for some half eaten bag of snacks), bad shoes, leather jacket.

So, this episode is dumb, but at least I got all excited about seeing not one but two! Canadian actors I know from DaVinci’s Inquest, a police procedural set in Vancouver which I was obsessed with some some reason in the early 00s.

Season 1, Episode 3: “Dead in the Water”

While there were some aspects of this episode I did not enjoy — I loathe the trope of the traumatized slash autistic child who learns to communicate through the self-serving ministrations of some rando — “Dead in the Water” began to make the folkloric source material work for it, and not the other way around. There was a legitimate plot twist concerning the motivations of the monster of the week, one that looks at first to be some version of the Loch Ness or Lake Champlain Monster.

“Dead in the Water” also features a fresh-faced Amy Acker, presumably in the interregnum between Angel and Person of Interest. She manages to take a stock “mama’s worried about her boy”- style character (which we will encounter a lot in later episodes) and complicate her feelings and motivations. Largely, those worried mama character serve as light romantic possibilities for one of the brothers, and that holds true here. (This time it’s Dean.) But she lends a moroseness and almost resignation to the character which I liked, even if it was impossible fully to transcend the self-serious and overly expository dialogue. Complaints aside, “Dead in the Water” was still the best episode to date.

Three is a magic number for a lot of series: the third season is often the best, or, conversely, where the show goes completely bonkers and just starts doing whatever. Sometimes this is one and the same. I feel like the writers only start getting comfortable with the Winchester brothers at the very end of the season, but episode three is where that begins to coalesce. Sure, fine, I’ll keep watching.

Go Large or Go Home: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously — like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying — but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it — both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren’t terrible people there wouldn’t be any heat and there wouldn’t be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral.

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark strives for a sensible, measured tone and its characters mostly don’t act like twats, but two things keep The Demon Lover from being a snoozer like A Discovery of Witches: There is a real current of high emotions, even if the prose is measured, and the metafictional elements make the narrative satisfying on a different register. A monster yoga class is most bananas thing in A Discovery of Witches, but it mostly reads as silly and incongruous, not the Gothic kind of bonkers. Mostly people sit around, read, and drink absolutely prodigious amounts of wine.

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead, Diana is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but she won’t use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. I can see, given her childhood, why she might reject her witchy powers. Her parents died young under cloudy/tragic circumstances, and she was raised by fun witchy aunts after their deaths. I can imagine a psychological mechanism by which she rejects her parents’ origins because she believes that this got them killed or some other pop psych nonsense. But that is not her professed motivation. Instead, she wants to succeed in academia on her “own merits,” question mark? Which, isn’t magical ability one of her own merits? She’d regularly prissy and condescending to her aunties about their magic. I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You’re in love with each other after having a not very interesting sounding dinner? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home.

I’ve seen a lot of people dismiss this novel as “like Twilight” or “just a romance”, but I think that might be both wrong and kinda sexist. Twilight, for all its stabs towards real world resonance, is absolutely fucking bonkers. You may have trouble getting through the prose, but the book fairly teems with Bella’s anxieties and passions and emotions. While Diana shares Bella’s almost sneering condescension to everyone around her — Bella doesn’t like anyone — she doesn’t share Bella’s high emotions, or, dare I say it, clumsiness? Meyer’s over-reliance on Bella’s propensity to the faceplant as a meaningful character trait is sloppy and ridiculous, of course, but it does gesture to the ways her relationship with Edward disorders her world. Diana is prim and priggish through the entirely of her interactions with the supernatural. There is precious little fascination; mostly magic is a pain in her ass. And as I’ve said before, her relationship with vamp dude is based on so much Tory smugness that it completely lacks juice. Most romance novels I’ve read, even the boring ones, do a better job of stoking the heat. If someone slags A Discovery of Witches as “just a romance”, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their understanding of both Gothic and romance novels.

Anyway, I don’t want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup type characters plot their way through genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, but this outing is not a success. I don’t particularly like Diana — she’s a unappealing mixture of conceited and useless — but I get the distinct impression I’m supposed to. Frankly, if this were written in such a manner that we were expected to laugh at her self-satisfied bullshit instead of cheering it on, A Discovery of Witches would be aces.

Review: Roar of Sky by Beth Cato

Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth trilogy – which began with Breath of Earth, continued with Call of Fire, and now completes with Roar of Sky – has been an incredibly active and peripatetic series. While Roar of Sky does cover at least as much ground as its predecessors – our heroine Ingrid, her lover Cy, and their friend and pilot Fenris move from Hawaii to California to Arizona and several points between – there’s something almost internal about the movement, contemplative and personal. After the pyrotechnics (almost literally) of the climax of Call of Fire, Ingrid is bruised and hurt, seeking answers to deeper questions of who she is and where she came from. Even as she seeks answers to her origins, she struggles with limited mobility and persistent pain from her last encounter with the antagonist, Ambassador Blum, physical disabilities that may likely be permanent. She is coming to terms with her origins, even as she learns – painstakingly, painfully – how to go forward.

We first met Ingrid Carmichael in the weeks leading up to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leveled 80% of the city and still ranks as the largest loss of life from a natural disaster in California’s history (in both our timeline and hers). But while the earthquake may the same, the California it takes place in is profoundly different. The United States and Japan have merged into a larger empire called the United Pacific, and have since waged war on China. As a nation at war, the Unified Pacific is in the grips of dangerous xenophobia against anyone who isn’t Japanese or white American (but especially against Chinese-Americans). As the dark-skinned daughter of a prominent geomancer, Ingrid is both insulated from public animus, and deep in the heart of a system that devalues and judges her. Because Ingrid has a secret: she is a geomancer too.

Which brings me to another key difference between Ingrid’s world and our own history: geomancy, Reiki, kitsune, qilin, sylphs, and all manner of mythical powers and strange creatures exist in world of the Unified Pacific. Ingrid’s closest relationship is with geomancy, a sensitivity and mastery over the seismic power of the earth. This power can be siphoned off by geomancers and locked into crystals, which are then used like batteries to power everything from lightbulbs to dirigibles. This is not just an alternate history, but an alternate reality. Women are not supposed to be able to work geomancy, so when Ingrid’s powers of geomancy manifest during the earthquake, it thrusts her into dangerous geopolitics (pun absolutely intended.)

Roar of Sky begins in Hawaii, where Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris have fled after their confrontation with the kitsune (a fox deity, of sorts) who is living as a high-ranking official in the United Pacific, and absolutely dedicated to the destruction of all Chinese people – both in America and Asia. Ingrid was told by her father that she has a familial relationship with the Hawaiian goddess Pele, so she braves the active geology of the Hawaiian islands (as a geomancer, this kind of seismic activity can be deadly) in order to find out more about her kin. Ingrid is wheelchair bound at times, her nervous system burned out by the overflow of magic she used to protect herself from the kitsune previously. Ingrid’s visit to the crater of Kilauea is tactile and detailed, with the kind of description that feels lived in. She thrills at her feelings of connection with the landscape, even while acknowledging she will never quite be Hawaiian, even if it is her family’s heritage.

Her interactions with Madame Pele are even more interesting. I’ve seen a lot of characters damaged by magic, like Ingrid, who then drag around for a while until they are magically healed. Magic takes, then it gives back. But that is not what happens for Ingrid, even while she treats with goddesses, qilin, and other forces of nature. Ingrid’s legs are permanently damaged, and no amount of narrative convenience or wishful thinking will heal them. Cy and Fenris work tirelessly to fit her with braces and other helpful apparatuses, but even those that work force Ingrid to adjust to her new physical limitations. Never have stockings been more annoying. In a real way, Ingrid is learning to walk again, even as she’s in a flight, and then fight, for her life and those she loves.

As Ingrid, Cy, and Fenris move through the United Pacific, they encounter and re-encounter people who are pivotal to both their pasts and their futures – everyone from Theodore Roosevelt (recast as ambassador in this reality) to Ingrid and Cy’s fathers, mentors, sisters, and friends. Ingrid has always been a likable character, though her naivete occasionally rankled. That naivete has been dampened by the real limitations she’s encountered, though it never quite goes away entirely. (Ingrid, after all, has been somewhat sheltered.) That naivete – which some would call optimism – is her weakness and her strength, and both are put on full display in Roar of Sky. Roar of Sky is as much the story of empire as it is of one woman, and her journey both within and without.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop: Speshal Snowflake Powers Activate

This review slash rumination was written five years ago, before the term “snowflake” took on specific political meaning. Which is to say: now, it’s a slur from conservatives about liberals, slagging them for being thin-skinned or whatever. Back before the current political shitshow, the term “speshal snowflake” had some limited currency out there in the book-o-sphere. It referred to a character who kept mowing down narrative impediments by virtue of inherent awesomeness, a Mary Sue in terms of plot expediency if not eye color. Pretty much all of these terms are now twisted and/or problematic. So, you know, you’re welcome to my anachronistic musings about urban fantasy novels, half a decade too late.

I’m here today, friends, to talk about the Speshal Snowflake. She’s one of those creatures both more ubiquitous and more soul-wearying than vampires, starring in melodramas in multiple subgenres, both fantastic and literary. Like the Mary Sue, who can be either close cousin or indistinguishable doppelganger, the Snowflake can scythe down impediments through sheer narrative invincibility, the hand of the author cradling her against the slings and arrows. She’s the only person that matters; everyone will love her; all will look on her and despair, etc. The Speshal Snowflake is special precisely because we have been told she is so, and anything she does (or does not do, often tellingly) is special on the dint of this telling, both regardless and irrespective of actual, measurable, ethical worth. 

And like the Mary Sue, reactions to the Speshal Snowflake are decidedly gendered. Very rarely, and only in the most egregious of cases, is a male character understood to be either a Mary Sue or a Snowflake. I can’t think of an instance where anyone seriously called Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead a Speshal Snowflake, but it’s all there: complete lack of narrative danger (for Rick), others dying to prove Rick right slash lend gravitas to Rick’s ethical struggles, an almost preternatural ability to fall upwards into leadership roles. I barked out a laugh when Rick was questioned by some nameless Alexandrian in a recent episode, who then got eaten by walkers just moments later. Rick is right because he is right, and the narrative will bend itself around his rightness. Nevermind if it would be well more interesting to see a world where his ethical choices weren’t immediately upheld by the narrative. If the walking dead are like weather, an implacable force that carries no inherent moral force, they they should be ultimately uncaring of any choices anyone makes. No man should be exempt from winds that blow.

But we’re more inclined to call Katniss Everdeen a Snowflake than Rick, even though I feel like their situations and ethical struggles are roughly commensurate in terms of silliness of premise and direness of consequence.The walking dead violate the very laws of physics, and it makes no sense that a teenage girl would be the center of a struggle for empire. Which is I think my point: the walking dead are not weather, they are a narrative device, just as surely as Panem’s ludicrous and impossible political system is a device. Those things aren’t important because story, narrative, is not reality, it is something heightened and purified and concentrated. Let me tell you a tale of people in extremis, and the choices they made. Let us wind up this automaton and let it go. 

These nerds once made relationship maps for things like the Icelandic Sagas and Beowulf, charting how often various characters are in relationship with one another. Beowulf looks like spikes radiating from Beowulf himself, while the Sagas were a complex web of relationship, with no one person in the middle. The Sagas, of course, are based largely in fact, and there is not one particular protagonist of this here world. That a story is about anyone at all, in particular, makes them special.

We are, all of us, the leading role in the story of our lives, and when we slip into the narrative skin of these our avatars, we bring our native self-importance into the mix. We bend to the “I”, because we are the protagonist in our stories unfolding. Which is to say, there isn’t especially anything wrong with the Speshal Snowflake. Every protagonist is going to have more or less Snowflakiness in their crusts because that is how fiction works: this person or persons is more important than all the rest, which is why you’re bothering reading at all. It’s like asking why no one shows people going to the bathroom in movies: because that’s dumb, and it’s not in service to the story. 

Which is not to say that the Speshal Snowflake can’t get irritating. I found Bella Swan cringingly, horrifyingly accurate to my adolescent sense of self-importance and self-involvement — the way she treats her friends is shabby indeed, just as a start — even though the narrative rewarded her constantly for this awful behavior (insofar as anything in Twilight can be understood as a reward). I just fucking squirmed through most of her interactions with her peers, how every single uncharitable instinct of hers was credited, how everyone else’s interior life was that much more legible compared to how complex and inscrutable she is. 

Edward cottons to her precisely because he can’t read her mind, even though we can, and we know. I found this reason for his ardor just hilarious, btw, because literally every boy on earth cannot read my mind, and I certainly didn’t have anyone tripping over themselves to stalk me (more’s the better). There’s something clever about how Meyer sets this up: putting us right in the mind of a boring B+ student of no particular talent, and then making her desirable for something we can all relate to. You know, no one can read my mind either?! And I just got a B+ in English?? We know what she thinks because on some level we thought it as Speshal Snowflakes ourselves, before the world intruded with its elegant and inevitable smackdowns that come in like a thunderstorm as the years tick on. The Speshal Snowflake is someone who has never been confronted with weather, the rain lashing the windows and the electrical wire down on the ground, hissing. 

So. The reason I bring up the Speshal Snowflake is that 100% the protagonist of Written in Red is one. She rolls into town with naught but the clothes on her back, on the run from dangerous figures who are unaccountable to the usual societal systems, and in short order finds herself a job, a place to live, and the protection of otherworldly forces. She heals a boy who was irreparably damaged by the loss of his mother, makes friends with implacable and deadly forces, and almost accidentally works a political system to her favor. She is, in short, everything I should hate in urban fantasy. But I don’t. 

I fairly love her, and her world. The world of Written in Red is something like the one in Charles DeLint’s Newford books, where crows and coyotes and bears shed skins to walk with us humans; or Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, with its profound alt-history of magic and death. We are on another Earth, where humans exist at the largess of creatures terrible in their needs and powers, and as we humans tend to be, we have to be reminded of that fact over and over. I found the perspective of the non-human characters, who think of us a meat, just terrifying, the kind of thing that slipped into my dreams and conjured up nightmares of being hunted and torn. 

Meg Corbyn is a cassandra sangue, a blood prophet, who has been raised as an asset, as a useful source of prophesy for men rich enough to pay for such a thing, and either enrich themselves or feed their predilections. She escapes somehow — no doubt a tale for later books — and ends up in a mid-sized town in the north. Maybe Buffalo, maybe Milwaukee, maybe Minneapolis; big enough to feel more important than farming communities, but too small to really matter (though its residents would never admit it). Another newcomer (and point of view character) is the police officer Monty, who reads like an old school constable, his work more politics and subtle maneuvering than gun handling and force. 

Meg follows a prophesy she had to the inner-city citadel of the Others, where human law does not apply. She’s hoping she can dodge the people who have very real incentive to control her prophesies by hiding behind inhuman monsters. It’s not really much of a plan, admittedly, but she’s been very sheltered. She gets a job as the liaison between the Others and the humans of the city, and most of the plot bops around watching her steps and missteps as she navigates her new life. And it’s here where her Snowflake powers really activate, almost effortless making friends and allies among the Others.

But here’s the thing: I resent Snowflakes that are only so because I have been told they are, characters who are demonstrably terrible people who win only because the author deems it so. (Jamie McGuire writes a ton of these heroines, boy howdy.) I have some reservations about late-period Harry Potter, for example, who gets told over and over that he is good, when a lot of the stuff he does, like the shit with Gringotts and Griphook, is completely indefensible. Completely indefensible, and I will not entertain arguments that say that because Harry is good, nothing he can do is bad.

That is the problem with the Speshal Snowflake: when authors lose sight of moral agency. I would have accepted the sequence with Griphook if there had been any narrative stank on it, an acknowledgement that that was a shite thing to do, but maybe the ethical landscape is more complex than good or bad, that growing up might mean getting dirty. That a lot of evil in the world is done by people acting on what they believe to be the right reasons. That’s not what happens. We are sung a chorus of Harry’s goodness. We will not linger on the sizable number of deaths perpetrated on a poorly understood and sometimes persecuted minority who look a lot like a Jewish stereotype, if you get right down to it. Their lives and deaths do not matter

Phew, I apologize for the freak out; I’ve been saving that one up. That’s not what’s going on here: Meg has very real reasons for why she’s so innocent, why she doesn’t react like normal people to scary, dangerous predators. As a blood prophet, she was kept secluded and helpless. Everything she knows about the real world was through disconnected images and sounds she was taught. If she doesn’t know what a car is, then she can’t describe her visions to the people who control her. At the same token, she can know what a microwave is, but she should not be taught to use one.

Denying her self-sufficiency was a form of social control. That she takes very real delight in learning the simplest of things, like listening to pop music, ischarming, and reminds us readers of the wonder of our everyday lives. I exclaim this quite regularly, but did you know I carry around in my pocket a tiny computer capable of getting me just about any book, movie, or musical recording; it can connect me to others across the globe and on another floor of the house; it can furnish me with information about just about anything. Good god, you guys, it’s like a goddamn science fiction novel. That Meg is fresh and delighted by all the wondrous things we take for granted is no strike against her. 

Her existence as a blood prophet is also very subtly done. She’s been told a lot of things about what that means and how she is, and she only slowly starts to question that received wisdom. It’s not even lingered on, but that Meg very deliberately chooses to live in a place where she has seen a prophesy of her own death, that she doesn’t run from the prophesy, is a very cool detail. This is how a prophet would behave, trusting her own visions, letting them play in the hopes that she could turn the knife, instead of avoiding it altogether,

That the prophesy is accessed through cutting, and that all of the blood prophets are girls, is another fraught detail. The other point of view characters condescend to feel bad for her, assign her the blame for the scars tracing her body, but it’s not as simple as they made me do it or she’s pathological. Especially when we begin to understand the true violence perpetrated on her in the home for girls, when her skin was sold out for the scars it could bear. The potential violence of the Others, which is still often terrifying, has got nothing on the violence she’s already endured. She’s a Speshal Snowflake precisely because she understands weather, and the things worse than weather. 

I’ll admit there were moments when I was like, aw jeez, that’s a little too much. A young woman who plays as clumsy antagonist, working for the people who would get Meg back for her prophetic skin, has baldly stupid motivations that are lingered on far too long. Meg herself mentions another girl in the place she came from, an openly defiant girl, and I wanted to hear way more about her. Reminded me, in a way, of Moira from The Handmaid’s Tale, this bright, angry, dynamic personality who lays in harsh contrast with the almost passive protagonists, the special ones.

(I don’t really have this thunk completely out, but there’s something about those minor characters, the throwaways and half-remembered, who have so much life in them compared to the drear details of the average protagonist, special or not. I have a number of fictions I love precisely because of the minor characters, and though this isn’t exactly that, it’s interesting to me that people can often write the incidental more strongly than the important. Maybe their lack of importance makes them easier to write true.)

Anyway, Written in Red was just delightful to me, the kind of thing gulped down in all the space I could make for it, running to its prophetic conclusion. I thought it dealt beautifully with the trope of the Speshal Snowflake, grounded her right in the background she needed to exist, in the parameters she was given. No, of course, magic doesn’t work, but if it did, this is what it would look like. It would look like the storm on the horizon, the one we can never exactly escape, right up until we batten down, and do.

Review: Fray by Rowenna Miller

I was ambivalent about Fray’s predecessor, Torn by Rowenna Miller, and I continue to be ambivalent about the Unraveled Kingdom series. I do think that Sophie is in an interesting position in the novel. As a small business owner who has pulled herself out of poverty and now is betrothed to the crown prince, she’s more than capable of rubbing elbows with all manner of folk, if not comfortably, than at least credibly. But I’m less enamored by Sophie’s burgher judginess and almost willful naivete when it comes to effecting change in the brutally unfair government she lives under. She continues to evince a sort of conservative (lower case c) cowardice that I find distasteful.

After the street violence of Torn, Fray opens on the eve of a reform vote. The government of Galitha seems to be a sort of constitutional monarchy, but more in line with 19th Century Russians than 18th Century English. (I don’t say 19th Century English, because Galitha is maybe only at the very beginning of an Industrial Revolution.) By which I mean, the nobility, who make up the governing body, are bloody brutal bastards. A labyrinthine bureaucracy has a stranglehold on most commerce, and both city workers and farm laborers are kept right on the edge of the most abject poverty. The country is a tinderbox, and the ruling class does not comprehend just how much danger there is of the whole thing erupting into very serious violence, despite being given a taste of the edge of that anger at the close of the last novel.

Sophie herself is in a precarious position. Though she began a love affair with the crown prince at the end of Torn, and they are engaged to be married, his family largely ignores her due to her ignoble birth and wrong ethnicity. (Sophie is a member of a persecuted minority, but this mostly feels like window dressing to me. The way it tends to come up is Sophie commenting to herself about her Otherness, and not in constant, casual microagressions in every interaction she has.) Though I did credit her several panic attacks about what marrying into the royal family will do to his standing — she is the type to offload her true anxieties onto other people — I had a hard time believing the royal family of this backwards country would do anything but work him over until he married someone “respectable”. I’m fairly sure that’s what happened between Charles and Diana, and that monarchy is only a figurehead.

Add in the fact that a distaff relative — who happens to be in a committed relationship with another woman — is being severely pressured to marry a man for political reasons, and the world begins to look like its bending to either the needs of the plot, or Sophie, or both. I am always willing to give some latitude for the sake of the story, so this isn’t a cardinal sin, but it could become one with time. Because the other problem is that Sophie regularly and almost compulsively puts the desires of her wealthy friends over her family, her people, and her neighborhood. Her brother — one of the leaders of the resistance — was denied entrance to the university due to class and race, and he has since poured his prodigious talent into tract-writing and rabble-rousing. He’s absolutely not wrong about anything he says about the injustice of the world.

Even though Sophie ostensibly understands what a raw deal he and most of people like them have been given, she’s constantly frustrated by his disquiet. When violence flairs up in the streets, she blames her brother despite the fact that social inequity is everywhere and that anger is *inevitable*. When the reform bill passes, and then Sophie and the crown prince slowly come to the realization that the nobility is slow-walking any true reformation, I was like, oh my god, OF COURSE that’s what they’re doing. Why is this a surprise? Your brother has always and ever been right, you just refuse to hear anything he has to say. Moreover, even the rich assholes pretty much told Sophie and the prince to their faces that they would cripple the reform. Her middle of the road whataboutism is infuriating. Sure, maybe your boyfriend is a good guy, but its clear to me, and everyone else in the country, that the ruling classes are ripe for having their heads separated from their necks.

But! Then the book will mess with Sophie her bougie preconceptions, so I end up being on the hook for more. I keep hoping for a big SYKE! turns out Sophie is a revolutionary! moment, but then the alternative might be more interesting: a portrait of someone, who, like the rest of us, worries about the news of babies in cages and hopes for incremental change, but can’t be arsed to actually do anything but worry. Shudder. That’s a horror story right there.

The Wizard’s Promise by Cassandra Rose Clarke

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 received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly.

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

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.

 

 

Ink by Amanda Sun

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.

Nebula Nominees: The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

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:

The cover for Crescent Moon, which has very cartoony looking D&D people looking boss

Seriously. 

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.