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: 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.

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.

 

 

Magickal IreLand: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

When I read romance, I tend to gravitate to the paranormal ends of things – steampunkery, werewolves, (less so) vampires, superpowers, alt-histories. Some of this is just basic reading proclivities. I’d rather read science fiction or fantasy in general, so it makes sense I’d go for that edge of a genre. The other thing, for me, is that paranormal romance often allows the writer to slip her bonds and do a bunch of crazy ass shit. One a writer can start messing with the rules of physics or magic(k) or whatever, she has the opportunity to pull some compelling gedankenexperiments, but you know, about sex and the interpersonal, not about whatever SFnal idea. A lot of these thought experiments can seriously, seriously piss me off, but they tend to produce a lot of friction, a mainline down into the hind brain. When writers can rearrange the rules of the world, or your body, or the history of it all, what they reconstruct and reconfigure can be really telling.

Take, for example, Breaking Dawn, which includes about a 50 page span that is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever read. The rest of that novel is a Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light painting wrapped in a snuggly blanket of No Narrative Danger, and ends, for this reader, in the most chillingly inert vision of family perfection I’ve ever seen. The mate-for-life trope gets me chuffed every time I see it – why would the removal of emotional agency be a desirable thing? – but it’s especially fucked in Meyer’s universe. There’s all this weird heat in the narrative, this danger that might just claw out of your stomach like a blood-covered baby with a mouth full of teeth. That you could look down on that and become suffused with love, like Bella does, is a deeply kinky thing to admit to, which is likely why the second half of that novel is an arm-wheeling attempt to cauterize the bloodletting through a bunch of speachifying and absolutely nothing happening.

Whether I like all this is not my point; my point is that is fascinating. I could reel off a dozen other examples of paranormals that have gotten my blood boiling, dropped my jaw, or otherwise surprised me with the parameters of their wish-making and the oddities of the wish-fulfillment. Which is why Nora Roberts’s Dark Witch is notable, in a way. Dark Witch is the coziest, most frictionless paranormal I’ve ever had put me sleep. The heroine is literally given a pony in maybe the second chapter she’s in, after being given a family, a love interest, her dream job, just the cutest little apartment in a cottage she’s ever seen, best friends, a sense of purpose, and magic(k)al abilities. This all occurs in the first half of the novel. By the time she’s given a new car – a Mini Cooper, squee – I was straight up laughing. I guess there’s some bother with a Voldemort-ish sorcerer, but I wouldn’t be too fussed with him until book three, when he will be – spoiler alert – defeated.

Dark Witch opens with a couple of chapters of 13th Century Ireland, where, apparently, all the kids are amazing, precocious and well above average. I mean, there’s a baby riding a stallion! I know! Anyway, housewife slash dark witch Sorcha is having problems because the evil witch Voldemort wants to fuck her or something. I’m not entirely clear on what this will accomplish, other than the obvious, and it’s the usual mumble mumble magic POWER mumble RULE THEM ALL of paranormal bunkum. (Even Tolkien, I hesitate to say. Quick: explain Sauron’s motivations, and “he wants power” is not a motivation. Why does he want it?). I’m also not entirely clear why Voldemort’s constant offers to impregnate Sorcha make her even slightly consider his offer, which it does. Sorcha has three children under the age of 7 and lives alone in a cabin in the woods with no running water in 13th Century Ireland. I would imagine that not being impregnated by an evil sorcerer would be like a get-out-of-death-in-childbirth-free card in medieval Europe, but what do I know.

Fast forward to the here and now, when Iona Sheehan has arrived in Ireland to find her extended family and, like, herself. Her parents have always been withholding jerks, but she’s still irrepressibly optimistic and zesty. She heads out to find the O’Dwyer siblings, Connor and Branna, who are third or fourth cousins of some stripe. Branna runs a candle and hokum shop called The Dark Witch, and Branna is a falconer. (I know!) Iona is immediately adopted by the siblings, who are all like, you’re our lost sister, would you like to live in this adorable room and have a pint of Guinness and scones, sláinte, Irish Irish McIrish. Then they do a jig and play the fiddle, and shamrocks explode into sparkling green confetti. It’s really cool, very Irish.

My friend Mike has this theory that we should just turn England into a theme park which would be called EngLand. There would be people in plushy Queen Elizabeth costumes (both original and New Coke flavors) hugging babies, and rides around sets of various historical periods. It would all be clotted cream and nevermind all the bother of Thatcher and Blair and the fact that England isn’t frozen in the mythic past full of stallion-riding babies. And that’s more or less what the tourist trade will sell you, if you want them to, and you probably do. Mike’s theme park is more-or-less a reality in certain tourist districts, this Disney cottage sold to visitors who pay well for its clapboard authenticity.

This is even more fraught when it comes to Ireland, as the Irish diaspora after the Famine “returns” to the Old Country looking for connection and explanations, often bumbling into political realities that surprise. My sister-in-law whose maiden name has a Mc in it was blithely amused that her family in Ireland had been Catholic, and that they were a little taken aback by her family Protestantism. How would I even know that? she asked me, and I was like, um, because…just…nevermind. There’s a great album called “The Crossing” by folk musician Tim O’Brien (no relation to the writer), which is about the immigrant experience several generations on, the Return to Ireland, and what a bust it can be. Ireland will not adhere to your grandparents’ extremely suspect idealizations of lies their parents told them, mixed in with a bowl of Lucky Charms. In the song “Talkin’ Cavan,” an Irishman says to O’Brien, “A Cavan man then…you know, a lot of people wouldn’t admit to that,” after O’Brien cheerfully relates his family line.

“Then the very next day in the hardware store
I found a cousin ten times removed or more
But he was no apparition, he wasn’t a haint – he was sellin’ nuts and bolts and paint
I told him about our family connection, and he kinda stood there still, reflectin’
I could tell he wasn’t that much impressed when he asked me with nary a trace of jest
He said, ‘How exactly may I help you, sir?
I just bought some nails and got the hell out of there.”

The Ireland that Iona has traveled to, the one with the Branna and Connor hawking and making their little charms and soups and playing fiddle certainly must be a magic(k)al one, because ain’t no Ireland ever looked like that one, not in the here-and-now, not ever. How exactly can I help you, Iona?

But it’s a cozy painting nonetheless, this IreLand. All of the characters are relentlessly kind and decent people who enfold Iona into the warmth of their collective bosom. (Not that the guys have bosoms. Maybe it could be said that the love interest enfolds her onto the warmth of his collective…well, you catch my drift.) Everything anyone says to anyone else is devoid of subtext, just a bald and accurate statement about their internal state. Even Iona’s second act “misunderstanding” with her lover is handled with maturity (despite the stupidity of its underpinnings). I did really get a hoot out of the guys’ night/girls’ night out after said misunderstanding, and that I just called it a “hoot” is indicative of how much of a hootenanny it was. Gosh, those Irish know how to have a bottle of wine split between three women and joke about becoming lesbians and wake up with killer headaches. Golly.

It’s funny to me to read a paranormal novel so completely without high emotions of any kind, this soporific round of walks in the misty Irish spring and mature, adult conversations. There was one chapter, in particular, that detailed the making of a soup so closely that I thought maybe the soup was significant and it would burst into flames or something. No, it was just soup, which they then ate. Later I breathed a sigh of relief when a visitor interrupted a similarly detailed assembly of a pan of scalloped potatoes. (O, would that he had hailed from Porlock.) The wish-fulfillment is all front-loaded, not functioning as narrative reward. And if it’s not narrative reward, then what is it? I just don’t get it.

Dark Witch is a strange one, to be sure, almost tired of itself, of its forgone conclusions and lack of real conflict. Let’s just give the heroine a pony first thing and see what happens. It’s sweet that Roberts portrays this battle between good and evil as so forthright and cheerful, but it also isn’t any fun. Codladh sámh, dear reader.

The Land of the Painted Caves and Paleo Sue

Good lord. This was paiiiiinful. So painful that I couldn’t get through more than 200 pages of The Land of Painted Cavesby Jean M. Auel, and only that while skimming pretty heavily. Oh, Ayla, I am disappoint.

You don’t get to book 6 of a long, decreasingly satisfactory book series without being a partisan, and I was devoted to the cause. I have enough self-awareness in my dotage to know I should never revisit The Clan of the Cave Bearlest I crush a happy adolescent experience with my weary cynicism, but I also know that book was freaking badass. Setting aside for the moment that many of the attributes of the Neanderthals have been since proven inaccurate – it’s more than likely they could speak, for example – the story of a human girl taken in by a band of another hominid species is absolutely compelling.

Because that’s the thing: the fact that humans overlapped with another hominid species for thousands of years is somewhere close to the coolest fucking thing ever. Forget the hundreds of species created by science fiction; we shared the globe with at least one – and possibly more – species that the Prime Directive would call sentient. Tool-making, at least nominal burial of the dead, clothing and other ornamentation: Neanderthals, you has it. Seriously, you guys, COOLEST THING EVER. (Followed, in a close second, by the fact of dinosaurs. Think about it: dinosaurs were real.)

Neanderthals have always been used in fiction as a foil to our humanity – you know, like aliens have – and a lot of those depictions have tinged with the false Darwinian concept of “progress”. Auel sidesteps much of this by making her Neanderthals complex, intelligent people with distinct personalities, and she grounds the tale in some hard core paleolithic research. Creb, for example, was based on an actual skeleton of a Neanderthal man, who was born with various physical deformities and lived to the unthinkably old age of 40. The physical evidence of his long existence suggests a society willing and able to care for him. I can absolutely do without her Lysenkoism – the very concept of heritable racial memories is difficult to use without being racist (literally) – but godamn did she make the myriad uses for the cattail or the migratory patterns of the ptarmigan or flint freaking knapping page-turningly awesome. A family friend got a higher degree in archaeology pretty much because of The Clan of the Cave Bear, a field where she works to this day. That’s inspirational.

And at the beginning of the series, Ayla is a a pretty wonderful protagonist. A smart girl, and competent, but living within a system that doesn’t credit her gifts or respect her. I loved how brutal she was, but also kind and caring, and I loooooved her Clan family – her adopted mother, Iza, the scarred mog-ur Creb. I was recently talking about some assigned reading book, something important, that I know I read in high school, and how I can’t remember a single thing about it. (Maybe A Separate Peace?) I could probably tell you all of the major and some of the minor plot points in the first two Ayla books, despite the fact that I only read them once. Maybe if touching war dramas had more awkwardly phrased sex scenes and mammoths, I’d remember them better. Pro-tip, writers.

I admit I’m nattering at this point, because I kind of don’t even want to talk about how bad this book is. Things have been declining steadily since The Mammoth Hunters(and if I’m going to be honest, since The Valley of Horses, because Jondalar is, and always has been, the worst ever.) The Mammoth Huntershas a stupid jealousy plot. The Plains of Passagehas a thinly veiled dig on the more extreme feminist archaeology of the late-80s – you know, like the Starhawk feminist utopia stuff – which in some ways deserves the dig, but feels rich from someone who is using discredited Soviet genetic theory as the basis for her Neanderthals. The Shelters of Stonemanages to invoke some seriously painful class superiority bullshit, but at least it had a plot.

Ayla has certainly been leveling up through these novels, but in The Land of Painted Caves, now her domination of the paleolithic world is complete! Heretofore, she’s invented the bra, the needle, the atlatl, and domesticated both horses and wolves. But as hokey as all that was, she was still a person. From the second freaking page:

Ayla, too, had extraordinarily sharp vision. She could also pick up sounds above the range of normal hearing and feel the deep tones of those that were below. Her sense of smell and taste were also keen, but she had never compared herself with anyone, and didn’t realize how extraordinary her perceptions were. She was born with heightened acuity in all her senses…”

This isn’t the Ayla I knew, who was smart and cunning, but totally had to work on her skills like the rest of us humans, whose talents were the product of work and determination, not some magical superhuman powers. It keeps being noted that she cannot sing, but this isn’t a character flaw in exactly the same way that Bella Swann being clumsy is not a character flaw. It’s dumb and lazy characterization. I don’t really mind Paleo Sue in the other books though, because all of Ayla’s inventions were neat little thought experiments about how those items came to be, what kind of conditions and experiences would have created innovation. That’s badass, and more importantly, it makes the dry archaeology personal and engaging.

This book, however, is about Ayla visiting ALL THE CAVES, and, get this: she doesn’t even paint them herself. They were painted generations before, and I threw down this book when Ayla and the Zelandoni medicine woman wonder why they were painted and then shrug and have some dinner and the baby passes water. Seriously, this is about as interesting as listening to someone narrate their visit to a museum, a narration with an unhealthy focus on where the dog is and who’s going to check on the car, in case it got eaten by lions. Seriously, Ayla, go large or go home. They should have been painted as part of the narrative – you know, like how Ayla is the Venus of Willendorf – and there should be something more than speculation about what they mean. Ground the story in the physical, and then make the leap. You’ve done it before, Ayla, do it again.

I’ve been skipping the sex scenes in Ayla books since I became sexually active – they’re pretty much cut-and-paste – but I have been all in on anything having to do with harvesting plants and whatnot. Auel had me with her paleontology porn. There are flashes of that here – like a scene where Ayla skins and guts a wolverine, which was pretty cool – but so much of the archaeology stuff is badly stitched in. I can’t bring myself to care about the hundred scenes where Ayla smells some tea (instinctively, whatever that’s supposed to mean) and then identifies its herbal contents.

Ayla and Jondalar meet up with several thousand people who appear, we are reminded of their back story from another book, and then they wander off. Ayla hands Jondalar the baby several hundred times. The baby, being perfect, somehow manages to be potty trained at several months. (And speaking of Bella Swann, the baby is named Jonayla, which is also the worst name ever.) They visit several caves, describe them in excruciating detail, and then move on. People are worried about Wolf, but then it turns out he’s awesome so they stop worrying. Ayle has a strange accent. Something vaguely approaching an event happens, and then someone wanders in, having missed it, and they recount the entire fucking scene you just read arg omg you would think Auel had never written a fucking novel, let along one that hugely captured my adolescent imagination. 

Jiminy Christmas, I can’t go on with this. I’m bummed, because I’ve hugely spoiled myself on all the plot points and kind of want to see the infidelity plot that shows up in the latter quarter, and the comeuppance that happens with all of Ayla’s yelling about how sex creates babies not magical spirits or whatever. I want to see it play out because Auel’s ideas appear to be simultaneously a feminist caricature and anti-feminist, which is a neat trick, if she can pull it off. The concept that men would, en masse, become patriarchal assholes when they learn they have something to do with procreation – and it is deeply stupid that any hunter-gatherer society would not know this anyhow – is so, so offensive, suggesting it’s logical for men to be brutish assholes. Ayla destroys an egalitarian society through observational science. Think about it. Yuck.

Also, she managed to make cattails boring again. Sigh.

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud – the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. 🙁

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Yesterday, I had a birthday party for my Christmas-born daughter. She received an embarrassment of princess accouterments:  crowns, jewels, plastic sparkle shoes, dolls, et&c and whathaveyou. Last week, when I picked her up from my dad’s house, she and my step-mom, Chris, were snuggled together on the couch, watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. It was the end of the movie when I came in, right before the transformation, and Chris put up her hand, apologized, and said she couldn’t talk until the inevitable magic had been transacted. We watched: monster into man, teapot into Angela Lansbury. Chris flicked her fingers under her eyes in the way that means “I’m not crying” but she was. One of the girl’s gifts yesterday was a Belle doll. Another was a sparkle pony with a hair brush. The girl took the brush from the horse and combed the princess’s hair. After work today, I took out the over-sized Disney Princess activity book we received yesterday. We found the page with Belle and the Beast, and first thing, she blacked out all the eyes. This may sound creepy, and it is I guess, but this is the first thing most kids her age will do. I took down this book and began reading.

An antidote, but not exactly. The Bloody Chamberis the kind of collection that gets described as a “feminist reimagining”, which is accurate on some levels, but I think can imply that Carter is enacting a series of simple reversals: women as aggressors, boys locked in towers. There are reversals, but not the ones you expect or for which you have prepared. They have a sameness to them that doesn’t lend to the gulping down I did, yet again, but it works, in its own way. I started with the stories that deal with Beauty & her Beast, as they were foremost on my mind: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”. This is not a collection that is a novel in disguise; they are short stories whole and complete. This is more like an album, in a sense that will most likely be lost sometime soon: a collection of pieces that riff on a theme. The Lyon tale is almost traditional in its telling: the father, the rose, the pact with the beast, the forgetting and return, the transformation that has you flicking your eyes with all of the wish-fulfillment, bright and romantic. But then comes “The Tiger Bride”, which inverts a central metaphor disturbingly, rising to a climax that made all of my hair stand on end. I don’t mean this metaphorically – even knowing the end, which I did, my body responded with the uncanny mammalian reaction that can mean several things at once: fear, pleasure, pain. Ah. Oh God. I am covered in fur.

There’s something hot-house about the prose. It’s fragile, breakable, spun from glass. It’s intentionally unreal, like Rappaccini’s Daughter who was raised on poison; beautiful, deadly. These are not stories that aspire to airless heroic beauty – although you many gasp from the lace and blood and satin – they also have a earthy, almost obscene sensibility. “The Snow Child” is a dagger of a tale, epigrammatic. It strips the fairy tale down to its Oedipal basics, almost strips out the story from the story, and you’re left with blood on snow and a rended black wing.

I think one of the failures of many modern fairy tales is that they take place in la-la land, long ago and far away, in the faux-medieval forest. With notable exceptions, such as “The Werewolf”, Carter’s stories occur in identifiable times and places. “The Lady of the House of Love” – simply one of my favorite short stories EVER – interrogates Progress and Rationalism & investigates horror in the age of the machine gun. In the year before the first world war, a young Englishman – a rational virgin – peddles into a Romanian town filled with ghosts and the last, inbred vampire daughter of Nosferatu. About his bicycle:

“To ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, since the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion…Voltaire himself might have invented the bicycle, since it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to its bane. Beneficial to the health, it emits no harmful fumes and permits only decorous speeds. How can a bicycle ever be an implement of harm?” (p97)

Maybe you can see where this is going. The vampire speaks to personal, domestic fears, and how those fears intersect with larger, societal moralities. (Ftw, Stephenie Meyer.) The vampire is also the symbol of the aristocracy: inbred, parasitic, but with a strange intimacy. The boy rides in on his bicycle, and only sees the vampire in the most rational terms: what wonders a sanatorium will do! And the boy, well-meaning, blind, & sweet as he is, doesn’t realize that his bike is the symbol of the devastation to come, that the greatest force for democracy has been the machine gun. We ceased to fear the aristocrat when we realized he could only kill us one at a time, family by family; we could kill each other so much faster and more efficiently once decadent individualism was subsumed into a machine. The vampire may be inhuman, but inhumanity has finer gradations like anything else, and the trenches are a scarier monster altogether, or scary precisely because they aren’t a monster.

There’s more going on in this story, much more, but that’s what I’ve got for now. I mentioned one of Carter’s wolf stories, three of which end the book. A scant two pages long, “The Werewolf” is a mastery of narrative voice: Carter creates a place, then she relates a folklore, then she tells a story in that folklore. The story is about girls and crones, the old woman stripped and stoned to death, the young woman who prospers from a folklore that will turn her out once she crosses the dangerous boundary into age. “The Company of Wolves” doesn’t work as well as the other two. Carter falls into lecturing for the first half, but by the end has worked into glorious perversity: Grandma’s bones wrapped in her own clothes, her hair unburned in the fireplace layered over with the girl’s discarded, burning clothes, the girl and the wolf in a house surrounded by baying wolves, consummating and consuming. In the 80s, Neil Jordan & Angela Carter turned these wolf stories into a movie, which is a fiasco, but a really compelling fiasco. Cheesy sets, a poorly done framing device, almost perversely miscast: Angela Lansbury (again!) is the wrong kind of old woman for Carter’s tales; Stephen Rea is cool, but he makes a really shitty huntsman/wolf. But I can see why they did it; Carter’s stories have a concreteness to them, a vision.

As often as these stories get soaked in bleach by Disney and repackaged for sale, the fairy tales themselves have an essential danger that can’t be scrubbed out. You can wash the blood off the floor, but it catches inevitably in the drain. (As a side-note, I think this is why Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” doesn’t work & mostly bored my kids: they strayed waaaaaay too far from the central motifs. No spoiled princess, no pact that ends with the girl having to share her bed with a reptile, no violence integral to the story – in many versions, the frog becomes a man after the girl has thrown him against the wall in disgust and anger. There was violence in the Disney movie, but it was parenthetical, and banter is a poor substitute for real conflict.) Fairy tales also get re-purposed by children, with no parental intervention: Beauty’s eyes blacked out, doll and beast submitting to the same brushing. Carter’s stories aren’t definitive, but then no fairy story is, related from mouth to mouth, like a kiss or contagion, the kind of thing thing that raises the hair on your arms even while you snuggle in the intimacy of motherhood. Sweet dreams, kids.

Addendum:

As much as I like the new Penguin editions with their flash art on the cover, listed above, I am positively freaking out about the Folio Society’s new illustrated edition of The Bloody Chamber. Christmas is coming up again; think of me.

Sharp Teeth: Domestic God and Dogs

Barlow takes the Homeric fire, tosses on a bunch of kerosene, toasts a couple of marshmallows until they bubble blackly, and then eats them with a grin. Then he throws on a couple of tires for good measure and leans back for a long, slow pull on a hip-flask. Man. I’ve been doing the sputtering flail whenever I try to describe Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow to people: it’s a free verse novel! about werewolves! an L.A.! Quit backing away like I’m a crazy person because I’m totally for serious and so is Barlow.

I’m the kind of dork who flips out when I read in one of the blurbs for this book that says it’s written in blank verse. Godamn it, blank verse has meter, my friends, and this does not. This is free verse. I’m also the kind of dork who has an opinion about free verse, generally, which goes something like this: free verse is for the lazy. No, no, calm down; I’m also enough of a dork to defend e. e. cummings with my dying breath for relying on other, cooler, more chthonic prosodic stylins. Sure, he’s kind of responsible for a bunch of lamers thinking it’s okay to just write crap all over the page and call it poetry, but that’s like blaming [some historical figure] for [later, sucky historical movements]. You know what I mean. (And I’m not talking about [Ayn Rand] and [Objectivism], for the record.)

The dorkiness will keep on coming when I try to relate my feelings about the Epic. I’m no Classics major; that train of inquiry more or less ended when a history prof in my freshman year gave the following question as a mid-term exam: Compare the Fall of Greece to the Fall of Rome. Um, does “fuck you” count as an answer? So, my relationship with the Epic begins with John Milton and then terminates in Alexander Pope. It’s been a while since I’ve sung this tune, but let’s see if I can hit the high notes: Milton translated the Epic into the vulgar language of English, and much like the translation of the bible into the vulgar language of English, both ended in a profoundly local sense of divinity and identity. Milton grappled with a Mediterranean God/form in his own tongue, and it changes that form, the God, and the tongue in ways that cannot be counted. 

Pope tootles along almost a century later, and knowing he couldn’t be Milton, broke his Epic musings into two things: he translates Homer’s epic into fucking heroic couplets, which is, like, the most insane thing ever, trust me, and then writes what he calls a “mock epic”:The Rape of the Lock. I don’t really know what to say about The Rape of the Lockother than it makes me seriously nuts on several levels. It’s goofy; it’s in absolutely more heroic couplets; it uses the word “rape” in an already (at the time) archaic sense that means “theft”. It’s been a while since I’ve hefted this tome, but I do know that a thousand proverbs in English come out of The Rape of the Lock. It’s catchy as hell. You can dance to it, even though it kind of pisses you off. So, your English prof would say at this time, the Epic is dead. Long live the Epic.

So. Then. Well. *cough cough* The epic didn’t really die there, and then English got itself transported to America and hit the Pacific ocean and sat down on the California coast and thought, “Oh, fuck, man”. There’s The Golden Gateby Vikram Seth which is a sort of prose poem/epic Tales of the City. Fantastic, and worth a looksee, seriously. It’s funny; it’s light; it’s written in the Onegin stanza which has a kind of loosey-goosey conversational style to it, despite being rhymed-and-metered. The opening: 

To make a start more swift than weighty 
Hail Muse. Dear Reader, once upon 
A time, say, circa 1980, […:]

Ha! Milton may have invoked the wrong muse when he began Paradise Lost, and Seth just sketched her briefly, but Sharp Teeth takes this a step farther. 

Let’s sing about the man there
at the breakfast table

No muse. Let’s just sing. Let’s just boogey it out on this California coast in the twisting idiom of supernatural Noir, which is both tired tired tired like the detritus of the American Dream and open open open like the frontier that ends at the Pacific ocean and breaks into the thousand ethnic neighborhoods. The epic at its heart cares and is concerned about God in its many guises; Sharp Teeth is no different. But since Pope elevated the silly to the profound, the epic in English can throw in the kitchen sink, and Barlow does, in spades. 

I say there are werewolves, but this isn’t the kind of genre fiction that gives a shit about silver bullets and the lame specifications of rule-bound supernaturalism. People become animals. They become these sleek, domestic beings because they are beaten until they change or they share the blood of another werewolf, or because they break with grief after an act of kindness shatters the darkness they have cultivated so closely. There’s a lot here about love, and kindness, about cruelty, about the prime mover and his ineffable indifference and old Wile E. Coyote who lopes into the grand creation and arranges a thousand coincidences that arrange themselves into the doofy haphazardness of our lives. 

I’m in love. I still won’t release my unease with free verse; that’s the fur on my hackles that I simply won’t shave off. This isn’t tight prose, but I like the shaggy dog of its looseness, which says things like:

The secret must stay
and – according to the scientists – 
the love will live.
The heart is quite comfortable with secrets.
After all, its home is a dark wet place
tucked in among all the other organs
who aren’t talking either. 

I’ve run off the end of the cliff. Love is the anvil that will hit me when I drop. Hail Muse.