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: Wolf Rain by Nalini Singh

In the third of Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling Trinity novels, Wolf Rain, she returns to origins: back to the Sierra Nevada region where the SnowDancer pack of Changeling wolves rules. The previous two novels – Silver Silence, which takes place in the Changeling bear packs of Russia and Ocean Light, which explored the secretive BlackSea pack of water changelings – struck out into unexplored groups and places to uneven results. Ocean Light especially felt like it was lacking, so it feels like a good move to head back to familiar ground. We know a lot of people in SnowDancer, and when we ran into them, mostly they weren’t just hanging around canoodling and being sooooo in lurrrrrve, which I find happens often in romance sequels. This always sets my teeth.

The novel kicks off with emotionally isolated SnowDancer lieutenant Alexei (whom I’m fairly sure has popped up before in previous novels?) following an anguished psychic broadcast in the middle of nowhere SnowDancer territory. He finds a hatch to a bunker inside a cave, and inside the bunker he finds a Psy woman (named Memory) grieving over her dead cat. They gtfo of there, with Alexei provoking the Psy to anger to keep her moving. He identifies her as an E, the empathic designation, which she balks at: she has an affinity with monsters, in her mind. She nonetheless submits to interviews with such talents as Sascha Duncan, a cardinal E and shield technician, and sets up residence with other Es in the SnowDancer territory.

Since childhood, Memory has been in the clutches of one of those psychopath villains Silence produced in batches since she was maybe eight or nine. Silence, a widespread form of social conditioning used by the Psy for several generations to remove all emotion, has fallen, but the Psy, and by extension Memory, are on a long road to wellness. In some ways, her arc is one of the entire race, post-Silence, a road map out of the recrimination and self-loathing that comes from discarding Silence. The E-built “honeycomb” is fine and all, but they cannot be doing all of the emotional work for the entire race. Wolf Rain addresses head on the problems the Psy face in a post-Silence world, and is probably more mythology-heavy than its predecessors, which I count as a good thing.

Alexei’s trajectory is maybe less interesting, but then I’m just way less into Changeling psychology in general, so it could be me. I find the whole predatory dominant thing – which Alexei embodies to a T – rather tiresome, and the whole “mate for life” trope endlessly frustrating. A biologically based unbreakable bond absolutely destroys any real emotional agency. People have vastly different emotional makeups, and even worse, one’s character changes over time. I don’t get how “mate for life” isn’t anything but an emotional prison when two people bond in their 20s, and then get tethered to one another permanently despite divergent interests and concerns as they age.

Moreover, both mate-bonding and pack-bonding lends the Changelings a form of emotional perfection that can really mar any story that relies on emotional growth. They’re often cast as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which makes them hard to relate to, and limits their emotional range. (I mean, that may be the ultimate thrust of the series, in a way: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. They’re aspects of humanity split out, and the series finds them coming back together.) Alexei’s experiences actually calls some of this Changeling bonding stuff into question; just because two people are mated, doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly, horribly wrong. I still have my reservations, but some of my issues are addressed, and credibly.

Memory’s experience as a sub-designation E mirrors Alexei’s grapplings with the Changeling emotional makeup. Though (of course) her self-image was completely twisted by her Psy captor, she’s still not like the other Es we’ve met, who are stereotypically soft and feminine, true nurturers and providers. Memory is made out of anger and vengeance; it is what got her through her captivity. She is willing to cut a bitch if a bitch needs cutting. I really, really like the idea of an empath who is sensitive to the darker registers of the human emotional experience. It’s more neatly dealt with in Wolf Rain than I would prefer, but that it’s acknowledged at all is aces.

So far, the Psy-Changeling Trinity novels have been slightly shaky, but Wolf Rain gets back to basics in a satisfying way.

I received my copy from Netgalley.

Review: Ocean Light by Nalini Singh

This was originally written in July 2018.

If I believed in such a thing, the Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh would be a “guilty pleasure.” While I don’t believe in feeling bad for reading enormously successful and interesting books – that’s ridiculous – there are aspects of the series that nonetheless make me me feel kinda embarrassed. Any romance involving one of the changelings – and they are always predatory changelings – is so hopelessly mired in kinky Victorian notions of biological determinism and dominance and submission. I mean, that’s usually what you find in animal shifter narratives, so Psy-Changeling isn’t outside the norm, but I know I’m going to have to grit my teeth through that stuff to get to the extremely cool mythology she’s been spinning for almost 20 novels now. (I don’t have the same problem with the Psy, who are Vulcan-like psychics, because their romances tend to center around recovery from severe abuse and personal sexual awakening, which I find much more interesting than YOU MAH WOMAN GRARR.)

Technically, Psy-Changeling wrapped up with Allegiance of Honor, which was a sort of clip show, where we checked back in with literally everyone who had ever been mentioned in the previous 14 books. I get why it was written that way, but romance epilogues make my teeth ache, and this was more than a dozen of them all piled up. It was also a letdown because the previous three novels, Heart of Obsidian, Shield of Winter, and Shards of Hope, are hands down the best novels in the series. Singh brings all of her complicated mythology to full flower in those novels, and in ways that make the romance plot absolutely integral to the narrative. Heart of Obsidian especially. That they’re a dozen novels deep in a series makes them even more impressive; Singh had the opposite of burnout. 

Silver Silence, the novel directly previous to Ocean Light, was the first of the novels in Psy-Changeling Trinity, which details life after the fall of Silence (a form of widespread social conditioning practiced by the Psy designed to repress all emotion.) Like Ocean Light, it follows a character seen on the periphery for most of the series: Silver Mercant, personal assistant to all-around badass and ex-Psy Council member Kaleb Krychek. She falls in with a bear pack outside of Moscow, which was interesting because we’ve never seen bear changelings in action before. Bear changelings end up being annoying, but then they’re not as drearily serious as either the cats or the wolves, so on the balance more fun to read about.

Like Silver Silence, Ocean Light centers on a peripheral group, one that has heretofore been shrouded in mystery: the BlackSea pack, the changeling clan that encompasses the entirety of the earth’s oceans. Even the land-bound changelings think of them as out there. While we’ve encountered some of the BlackSea characters in Psy-Changeling novels, specifically Miane, the alpha, and her security guy, the pack itself has been secretive. BlackSea takes in Bowen Knight, head of the Human Alliance, in order for BlackSea scientists to remove a degrading chip in Knight’s head. This is a conflict we’ve seen before in Psy-Changeling, most recently in Shield of Winter, where it was the secondary plot. It is not as good as a primary conflict, like it is in Ocean Light, because it is a relatively inert situation: people worry, maybe they go to the doctor, then they worry some more. Either dude dies or he doesn’t.

We’ve met Bowen many times before. As the head of the Human Alliance, he’s tangled with both the Psy and Changelings (both of whom tend to treat humans like butt monkeys, but more so the Psy). He’s also been kind of a dick, which doesn’t necessarily change in Ocean Light. I don’t think that’s all bad – I like when dickish folk remain true to their characters even after, like, emotional and sexual awakening. That’s one of the best things about the romance between Kaleb and Sahara in Heart of Obsidian: Kaleb is a stone cold psycho and Sahara is his only emotional human relationship. In fact, I think he generally characterizes her as his only “weakness”: he sees his strength as flowing from his emotional sterility, and in many real ways it does. Even after they fall in love, he remains completely cut off from the rest of humanity. Sometimes the damage is just too great, and love is not a magic elixir. So it’s fine, good even, that Bo remains a dick, but he’s just less compelling than Kaleb all around, so I’m way less into it.

The romance in Ocean Light largely consists of Bowen and the BlackSea chef, Kaia, making eyes at one another while agonizing about how Bowen might die from a medical procedure. Further complicating their relationship is that Kaia, while being a water changeling, has Psy ancestry and some of their mental gifts. Bo is pretty much an anti-Psy bigot, so this could be a problem. The non-romance plot has to do with ongoing kidnappings of BlackSea members, kidnappings that seem to be perpetrated by the Human Alliance. Knight and Miane’s [sic, I super want this name to be Maine for no good reason] security guy work towards figuring out who the traitors in their organizations must be, but mostly through phone calls and data searches, and we don’t get to see changeling kicking down doors and apprehending bad guys for the most part. They spend most of the novel hanging out in the BlackSea HQ chatting and making sandwiches. There is some movement at the very end, but reading about a grueling transatlantic flight isn’t exactly action either.

BlackSea itself, though, was interesting to read about. There’s still a fair amount we don’t know about the pack – pack members tend to be especially secretive about what their animal is – but the underwater city was beautifully rendered. While shifter narratives almost never address bestiality – and I am not suggesting they should – there was an ongoing tentacle-sex gag going on here that surprised a laugh out of me. All considered, Ocean Light was fine, but I felt like more could have been done with both BlackSea and Bowen Knight, alas.  

I received my copy from Netgalley.