November 24th, 2013
|12:43 pm - "Cats, as you know, are quite impervious to threats"|
So, recently, in Adventures of Being a Gothy Cliché, I joined a SF/F meetup group specifically to attend their Halloween party. And then I didn’t like any of the other stuff the meetup group was doing. Until I got a message saying that their book for their December book club was going to be Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which has been on my TBR list for a while.
Things I knew about To Say Nothing of the Dog:
1. Its title is a reference to Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to Say Nothing of the Dog), a book I have not read, but which is supposed to be very funny, and is a travel narrative about… well, exactly what it says on the tin: three men in a boat.
2. Somehow it’s a SF/F book despite being based on a Victorian travel narrative. (I thought it was going to be maybe about three men and a dog on a space boat? So unprepared.)
It turns out, To Say Nothing of the Dog is about TIME TRAVEL, which I would have known if I had read the subtitle of the book, which is “(Oxford Time Travel #2)”. I have not read whatever Oxford Time Travel #1 is, but whatever. It is also about THE VICTORIAN ERA, which is one of my favorite eras. Overall, it is a sci-fi, historical fantasy, mystery, comic novel, with a side of romance. So, all the things.
The driving force of the plot of the novel is a formidable and very wealthy American heiress who married into the British peerage and is now known as Lady Schrapnell. Lady Schrapnell is basically funding the entire time travel research department at Oxford in exchange for their help in rebuilding Coventry Cathedral, which was bombed by the Nazis in World War II. Our protagonist, Ned Henry, is an Historian, whose talents are currently being wasted by being sent by Lady Schrapnell to dozens and dozens of local jumble sales throughout history, mostly in the 1940s, trying to observe and take notes on every detail of the Cathedral. One of the items that isn’t quite accounted for is an overdecorated Victorian monstrosity known as “the bishop’s bird stump”—we don’t find out what precisely that is until at least halfway through the book—which had been life-changingly important to one of Lady Schrapnell’s ancestors. The other main driver of the plot is that another Historian, Verity Kindle, accidentally brought a cat through the time-travel net from 1888. Ned comes down with an advanced case of time-lag and is sentenced to two weeks’ rest, which Lady Schrapnell will no way let him get, so the Oxford people send Ned back to 1888 with the cat and tell him to rest in the Victorian countryside. This isn’t really how Ned’s trip to 1888 ends up going; instead, he ends up on a boat with a rambly Oxford undergraduate named Terence, an even more rambly Oxford don named Professor Peddick, and a bulldog named Cyril. Shenanigans ensue, as do incongruities in the space-time continuum, due to the cat. Then there is a lot of stuff about chaos theory and missed trains and penwipers and women’s education and kippers, and a hundred thousand bajilliondy references to literature and history. My favorite bits were when the Historians made Jack the Ripper references and then tried to remember if Jack the Ripper had been active in 1888, because I just read about that in The Invention of Murder, so I knew that he was active in 1888, but in the fall and winter, whereas this novel takes place in June, so not yet. Then I felt smarter than Oxford Historians! I don’t usually feel quite that smart, so it was nice.
Anyway. Ned is a pretty likeable protagonist; he seems to be a pretty competent person generally but he is rather adorably unprepared for the Victorian era, plus he spends half the book with time-lag, which is a pretty funny affliction, at least from the readers’ perspective. (Symptoms include random outbreaks of maudlin poeticalness, Difficulty Distinguishing Sounds, hormone imbalances, and a noise like an air raid siren going off in one’s head.) Ned is also apparently adorable when wearing a boater hat, especially at a jaunty angle. He is very dedicated to doing his job properly and not fucking up the space-time continuum, even when his job devolves into going to lots of mid-twentieth-century jumble sales and buying penwipers, although in that case, he might be committed to doing it properly, but he doesn’t have to like it. Ned’s inner narration makes cursory attempts at seeing where people are coming from, but largely it is just hilariously judgmental.
Verity is also a great character. When she first shows up Ned starts poetically comparing her to a naiad and all that sort of Love At First Sight Due Entirely To Physical Beauty stuff, but this is because he is time-lagged, and therefore both maudlinly poetical and hormonally imbalanced. He specifically compares her to a naiad because she is all wet after jumping into the Thames to save the cat. Verity has actually been prepped for the Victorian era, so she saves Ned’s bacon on propriety things on a number of occasions; she is also presented as a perfectly competent and intelligent Historian who is just a bit out of her depth in the overwhelming amount of wacky that is this book’s plot. I also like that her characterization isn’t static; she is usually pretty poised and polite, as she would have to be to pass as a respectable young Victorian woman, but going on “drops” (i.e. time-traveling) makes her sort of talkative and giddy and then she eats all of Ned’s food. I cannot remember the last time I read a book where a female character was allowed to babble and eat other people’s food and was still treated seriously. Verity has also spent a lot of time in the 1930s, which she claims was fantastically boring, as there was nothing to do except read mystery novels, so she brings a lot of fun mystery genre-savvy to the book. Just because it bears repeating: Verity gets to talk a lot about goofy shit like mystery novels, but she is still treated as a serious, intelligent, and competent character. I would like more characters like Verity, please.
I would happily ramble about To Say Nothing of the Dog all day, but I’m not sure how much sense it would make to anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book already, because it’s a very strange and complicated novel. It clocks in at nearly five hundred pages, which is extremely long for a comic novel, because it has to cram in as many jokes about cats and chaos theory and kippers as humanly possible. Every page of it is extremely well-researched and deliriously silly. I strongly recommend it to anyone who likes time travel narratives, chaos theory, nineteenth century nonsense, historical tidbits, saucy fictional cats, lowbrow but highly educated humor (think Monty Python), and British stuff. In fact, I would strongly advise against reading it unless you are moderately familiar with British literature and history, or you may spend the whole book looking stuff up on Wikipedia.
November 8th, 2013
|08:39 pm - Of murder, mystery, and melodramas|
Not too long ago, I went into Porter Square Books with the intention of not necessarily buying any books (I was there for an Event and I was very, very broke), but then I saw a book that called to me, and seemed to have been written for the express purpose of tempting me into buying it no matter how much I couldn’t afford to. It was even in hardcover! A beautiful, creepy black hardcover.
The book was The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, by Judith Flanders.
The subtitle is a little misleading as it makes the book sound like it has a stronger thesis than it really does; it’s not really arguing a point so much as dumping lots of fun information on the reader. The book covers about fifty murders that took place in the UK in the nineteenth century. For each one, it describes the murder, gives some historical background about how it fits into general fears of the time or trends in murders (poison panic, burial-club panic, etc.), then discusses how the murder was dealt with in the, um, ‘nonfiction’ press, and lastly discusses instances in which the murder shows up in nineteenth century fiction. There is also some discussion of the development of the police, and particularly detectives, as a professional and cultural institution. The book’s thesis, essentially, is just that the Victorians were SUPER INTO murder, and that the ways in which they were SUPER INTO murder laid the groundwork for modern crime entertainment like murder mystery novels and TV procedurals. I, for one, am willing to accept this argument as being pretty well supported.
I was already familiar with some of the issues discussed here; I had the good fortune to do a short unit on “sensation novels” in undergrad as part of a nineteenth-century British novel course, and a few years ago I read an excellent, in-depth book about the Road Hill House murder and early Scotland Yard, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. I also remember gawking over the Jack the Ripper crime scene photos at CrimeLibrary like a proper little babybat sometime in high school.
This book introduced me to so many more murders, though, including some really weird ones. I found it fascinating to compare which murders caught the public’s imagination, and which ones didn’t, even when it seemed like they should have—and I was particularly interested to see how the ones that did get turned into entertainment for mass consumption got written and rewritten, with the victims or, sometimes, the murderers getting cleaned up to be more sympathetic, class and political attitudes grafted on to the “narratives”, sometimes narratives being created nearly out of whole cloth from a handful of sensational details (Jack the Ripper may be the most egregious offender in this category), newspapers picking this side or that—the victim, the murderer, the detectives, the family, the press itself.
For me, most of the fun in this book comes from the excerpts of plays, newspaper articles, interviews, etc., particularly the really trashy ones. Trashy Victoriana is very, very trashy; in many cases, it is also quaint and badly spelled. Awkwardly scanned verse abounds (“We beat him dreadfully upon the floor,/We washed our hands in his crimson gore” –from a broadside reporting on murderess Maria Manning). There are a lot of awkward Victorian line drawings of dismemberments and public executions, which have to be seen to be believed. Judith Flanders has an excellent talent for summarizing penny-blood and melodrama plots in a sort of snarkily affectionate tone that makes me really want to read these pieces even though they are clearly laughably dreadful. (I am sure this is partly because I am the sort of person who just purchased a copy of Varney the Vampire.) Flanders is a social historian, and the weird historical tidbits she gives us paints a great picture of just how weird the Victorian era was—excerpts from Punch & Judy shows, magazine advertisements for arsenic soap, and the solidly shameless behavior of the highly respected Madame Tussaud’s waxworks company, who never met a piece of murder memorabilia they didn’t try to buy. I finished this book kind of wishing I could time-travel to the Victorian era but also being really glad I don’t live there, which is just as it should be.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in weird history or Gothic fiction.
Current Mood: geeky
November 4th, 2013
|08:28 pm - A book with a lot of soul(s)|
Over at Mark Reads, Mark has just finished up reading N K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a copy of which I had picked up at Readercon over the summer. Since I had the book but hadn’t begun reading it yet when Mark announced it as his next project, I tried to read it along with Mark, at the glacial pace of two or three chapters per week.
It turns out, I am not good at reading on that kind of a schedule. Sometimes I would accidentally read ahead; other times I’d forget to read a chapter on time. But the book was good enough that I kept coming back to it no matter how many times I screwed up the reading schedule, and now I have finished it.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about a woman named Yeine, the young leader of a small “barbarian” country called Darr. Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, was once the heir to of the Arameri, the ruling family of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—functionally, the Arameri rule the world. Kinneth was disowned for marrying Yeine’s father. Now Kinneth is dead, and Yeine is summoned to the Arameri city of Sky—an entire city elevated on a pillar, so it literally sits in the sky—by her grandfather. Here she is told she is now one of his three heirs—the others being his niece and nephew, Scimina and Relad—and that the three of them are now in competition to see who will rule next.
The story, however, is not entirely about the competition. (In fact, I think the competition is really the weakest part of the book—I’m not really sure how it works? It’s never clear what the criteria are for determining a winner…) The book is largely about Yeine trying to figure out the circumstances of her mother’s death and to learn more about who her mother was when she was an Arameri. Yeine also turns out to be unwittingly involved in a plot by the Enefadeh to get free. The Enefadeh are really the main plot in the story—they are gods that have been enslaved in corporeal form and given to the Arameri as weapons.
Currently, the universe is functionally monotheistic—only one god is in power, Itempas, also known as the Skyfather, who is the god of order and light and stability and all that sort of thing. However, once, there had been three ruling gods—Itempas, Nahadoth the Nightlord, and Lady Enefa, the goddess of life and death and transience and all that cool stuff. Itempas murdered Enefa and enslaved the Nightlord, along with all of the lesser gods, and gave them to the Arameri family, who had been the most loyal priests of Itempas. Itempas and the Arameri have run the world in a brutally orderly fashion ever since. (And I mean BRUTAL. The Arameri are basically what you’d get if Nazis were a royal family.)
The gods are some of the most fleshed-out characters in the book, besides Yeine (and, in a weird way, Kinneth, even though she’s dead the whole time). Yeine develops a weird sort of romance with Nahadoth, although it takes her much longer to develop any sort of civil communication with Naha, Nahadoth’s daytime self (who is basically a different person. And kind of a creeper). The other god we see the most of is Sieh, the god of childhood, who is the son of Enefa and Nahadoth, and is actually the oldest of the second generation of gods. Sieh is adorable, most of the time, and apparently it takes effort and energy for him to remain childlike—he grows up if he’s too worn out. The other main gods that we see around Sky are Kurue, the goddess of wisdom, who is really quite obnoxiously cranky and stuck-up, and Zhakkarn, the goddess of battle. Enefa has… some cameos, as well.
Notable humans in Sky include T’vril, who is basically the head servant, and who becomes one of Yeine’s few actual friends, and Viraine, the scrivener (basically a magician—scriveners perform magic by writing in the gods’ language), who is manipulative and skeezy, but who turns out to have a big role in Kinneth’s backstory. Scimina and Relad are really fairly minor characters—Scimina is prideful and sadistic in the extreme, and Relad is a sad drunk, and that’s largely it.
Apart from my not really getting the competition plot, I liked this book a lot, largely because I like thing that are surprising and relentlessly political. Issues of race, economics, and power feature very, very heavily, and there is some interesting gender stuff in that Darr is a traditionally matriarchal society (Sky, interestingly, seems to be fairly egalitarian; murderous fuckwittery appears to be considered an appropriate pastime for all genders, provided it is enacted upon people poorer or browner than oneself). A lot of it is very heavy, but I managed to outsource most of my feelings of readerly torment to Mark, who emotes better than I do anyway. Now I have to get a hold of The Broken Kingdoms; I’m already a day behind…
October 23rd, 2013
|08:13 pm - In Which Mark Reads Me a Story|
So I sort of mostly read John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream? By this I mean that Mark Oshiro did it over at Mark Reads, and I did not read along since I was already reading along with N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but then I ended up listening to all the videos at work, which mean I have heard Mark read the whole book except for one chapter to me. Skipping the one chapter was pretty confusing at first, even with reading Mark’s reviews, because there are like fifty billion plot twists per chapter. Luckily, the missed chapter was fairly early in the book—I think it was Chapter 5 or Chapter 6?—so I mostly figured out what was going on.
The Android’s Dream is a reference to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which I read for my Aliens and Others in Science Fiction class at Clark, and is largely famous for being the novel that the Blade Runner movie was based on. This novel, oddly enough, is not about androids—it is about sheep. But more on that later.
The book opens with a human diplomat named Dirk Moeller attempting to “fart his way into a diplomatic incident,” by getting a fancy computer thing inserted into his colon that would take his gas and produce scents that were deliberate insults in the “language of scent” employed by the Nidu, the alien race he is in trade talks with. There is a whole lot of wacky backstory about meat and Dirk’s father and the Nidu’s sneakiness in establishing their diplomatic base on Earth, and also something about eating a panda, and some people die. Despite being 110% about terrible people doing terrible things and dying, it’s a hysterically funny first chapter, if you have a slightly Cards-Against-Humanity sense of humor.
This sets up the action of the rest of the novel, which is more or less about how the Nidu are mad that Dirk insulted one of their people into having a heart attack, and the only thing Earth can do to make up for it is to find a special breed of sheep—called the Android’s Dream—to be used in the Nidu coronation ceremony that is happening in two weeks, except that the Android’s Dream sheep owned by the ruling clan have all mysteriously died, and oh my god I can’t even really talk any more about the plot because everything is too bizarre for me to want to give it away. Basically, the humans get landed a genuine far-fetched, ridiculous-sounding, probably impossible Quest.
Harry Creek, a mid-level diplomat and former war hero who also just happens to be a computer genius, is badgered by his deceased best friend’s older brother, a higher-level diplomat, to take charge of finding the Android’s Dream sheep. Aided by an AI computer system made out of a brain scan of the aforementioned dead best friend, Brian, he finds Robin Baker, a pet store owner who is the key to finding the Android’s Dream. Then a bunch of nasty mercenaries start trying to kill Harry and Robin, and a whole bunch of different schemes and conspiracies start cropping up, from Nidu ambassador Narf-win-Getag’s attempts to seize the throne of Nidu to a whole number of political plans by various US Secretaries of Various Departments, and, my personal favorite, the attempt to fulfill the prophecies of the Church of the Evolved Lamb, a fake religion invented by a hack writer and con artist who was unsuccessfully trying to swindle money out of a totally badass rich old lady who saw right through him and ended up actually founding the fake church instead. The Church of the Evolved Lamb seems to have its roots in making fun of Scientology, except it’s better, because most of its members seem to be in on the joke, sort of like Pastafarians. It’s hard to explain. Actually, the entire book is hard to explain.
This being a John Scalzi book, there’s a lot of unrealistically clever dialogue, which I do not think is a bad thing, as it gives all us wannabe clever people something to aspire to and to learn by example from. The worldbuilding is also tons of fun; Scalzi likes to throw in lot of seemingly unrelated vignettes and short “historical” lectures and the occasional as-you-know-Bob conversation, but the infodumps are usually for info so strange that they’re still quite fun to read in their own right. (I am also just the kind of dork who is generally okay with taking periodic breaks from stories to learn fake history. History is great!)
The most fun side character in this novel is Judge Sn, a fabulously cranky alien judge who is less than terribly happy about his posting on a shithole little planet like Earth, and is featured only in one chapter in which Narf-win-Getag brings a lawsuit against one of the Earth governmental departments concerning Robin Baker. There is, however, an entire short story about Judge Sn, entitled Judge Sn Goes Golfing, which is basically a weird sendup of redemption narratives. (This actually works, once you read it. Or have Mark read it to you.)
One of the things that consistently impresses me about Scalzi’s books is the way he can work in all sorts of philosophical issues without ever getting heavy or philosophical. A huge part of the book is about sentience and speciation and whether or not a certain entity with human, but not all human, DNA gets to be considered human or not. But mostly this is for purposes of legal and political shenaniganry, rather than any kind of deep thoughts about being. I get the feeling Scalzi just really, really likes to play Frisbee with Very Serious Topics like death and power and humanity.
I’d say that at some point I should pick up the book and see if it’s a different experience actually reading it, but to be honest, it’s not likely that I’ll do that anytime soon. It’d also be interesting to see if it’s still funny if I know all the plot twists and power grabs ahead of time, because a lot of my reactions to it this time around were about how many times in a row the plot gets turned entirely on its head (I am very very jealous of Scalzi for being able to do this; I am bad at plot twists).
Current Mood: exhausted
Current Music: Switchblade Symphony
October 20th, 2013
|03:18 pm - Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?|
Much like everyone else who has gone through the American school system in the past few decades, I have read Shirley Jackson’s famously creepy short story, The Lottery. I think The Lottery is one of those pieces that I had to read multiple times at different grade levels; however, I had never read anything else by Shirley Jackson, until now. In honor of it being Halloween, the latest book for my Classics book club was We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a short but exquisitely creepy novel about the last living members of a wealthy family, who live in a big house overlooking a small New England village.
Our narratrix in this novel is Mary Katherine Blackwood, generally known as Merricat, who is eighteen years old. The other two remaining members of her family are her older sister Constance, and her Uncle Julian. Uncle Julian is very sickly, having survived the poisoning that killed the rest of the family six years earlier. We discover, eventually, that Constance and Merricat were the only family members not poisoned, Constance because the poison was in the sugar, which she never used, and Merricat because she had been sent to her room without dinner.
When the story opens, the three of them have adapted to a very regimented and quiet life within the big Blackwood house. Merricat is the only one whoever leaves the property, going down to the village to shop on Tuesdays and Fridays. Merricat is also in charge of security, ensuring there are no holes in the fence keeping everyone else off their land, and performing a lot of odd magic rituals, mostly consisting of burying things, but sometimes including other superstitions such as breaking glass, nailing stuff to trees, and avoiding certain words. Merricat is a bit of an odd person, and her narration comes off as particularly odd because she is so matter-of-fact about things like her magic rituals, and her imaginings about living on the moon, and wishing people dead, which she does quite frequently. Constance never, ever leaves the property, or even goes into the front yard, sticking entirely inside the house and in its back gardens. This is because it was Constance who was accused, and then acquitted, of the poisoning of her family. Even though she was acquitted, most people still think Constance did it. (She didn’t.)
Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian’s idyllic and highly ritualized existence is interrupted by the arrival of their cousin Charles, who, as far as Merricat is concerned, disrupts everything. She continually refers to him as a ghost and a demon, and believes that he was able to enter the house because one of her magics failed, and she keeps attempting to do more magic to get him to leave. Charles is basically a normal guy, in all of the ways that cause him to be the most disruptive and displacing possible element in their household. In addition to taking up much of their father’s space (such as staying in his room and going through his things), Charles smokes constantly, gets angry at Merricat for burying things, is generally loud, and is somewhat obsessed with the amount of money they have in the house—mostly in the safe, but he also gets extremely agitated when he discovers that Merricat once buried a handful of silver dollars in the lawn. He gets angry at the general weirdness of the household, a lot, but refuses to leave, being committed to saving them from themselves and, rather transparently, to acquiring their money. Eventually, being essentially a symbol of great big messy dudely oafishness, he leaves his lit pipe unattended, and Merricat throws it into a wastepaper basket, which causes a fire. The fire succeeds in getting Charles out of the house, but not before the firemen show up, Uncle Julian dies, half the house burns down, and the townsfolk gleefully trash most of what is left.
Constance and Merricat, being proud and weird and now deeply regretting letting anybody into their sanctuary, retreat even further, building an even stranger and more secluded life within the two remaining rooms of the house, the kitchen and Uncle Julian’s room. The townspeople start leaving food at their door, apparently in penance for having trashed the place, and possibly because they seem to think that anyone strange enough to live in half a burned-down house is probably a witch or something, and, as far as Merricat is concerned, they are very happy.
Much of the creepiness in this story comes from Merricat’s bizarre narration, particularly once you begin to suspect—and finally find out—that it was actually Merricat who poisoned everyone, back when she was only twelve years old. Merricat is willful, stubborn, somewhat narcissistic, and will absolutely not have anything other than exactly as she would have it; at the same time, she is very disciplined, adhering to a long list of things that she is and is not allowed to do, plus engaging in endless rounds of exacting magic rituals. It’s never really clear if the magic is real or just something Merricat believes in. It’s also somewhat unclear if everyone else is quite as terrible as Merricat believes or if Merricat is just a really hostile person, especially when you consider that she is the sort of person who murdered almost her entire family for sending her to her room, but it’s very easy to believe her observations of people and generally be on her “side.”
While this book avoids many of the goofier elements that characterize so much Gothic fiction—and I say this as someone who adores Gothic fiction—it still fits itself firmly within the Gothic tradition, both by being extremely creepy and by focusing on very dark themes such as death and destruction and the decline of very rich families. Unlike most traditional Gothics, it is short and very tightly written, avoiding both sentimentality and overwrought vocabulary. The degree to which anything supernatural happens is unclear, being either little or none at all. There is also surprisingly little violence, but a heavy focus on domesticity and domestic ritual, particularly food. (Constance does all of the cooking; Merricat is “not allowed.”)
Constance, to me, is the most interesting character; while Merricat clearly adores Constance, Merricat is also 100% certain that she knows how they both best should live, and actively sabotages any attempts Constance might seem to be considering making to their lives. Merricat does not want Constance to go out into the village, which means, in practice, that she does not want Constance to stop being afraid to go out into the village. When Charles shows up and Constance starts having thoughts that perhaps Uncle Julian should be in a hospital and Merricat should be in school and Constance should leave the house ever, Merricat sees this as Charles’ demonic influence and redoubles her efforts to get him out of the house, and to show Constance that they ought to stay in the house. Merricat, in short, molds both of their lives to Merricat’s specific preferences, and rather than wondering for a minute if Constance is okay with that, seeks to make Constance okay with that, by proving that all the alternatives are intolerable mistakes. Merricat doesn’t seem to be aware of how manipulative and possessive she is, and seems to honestly believe that she is looking out for her sister. The book ends with Merricat telling Constance how happy they both are.
Charles is probably somewhat unfairly maligned in the story, seeing as he is a regular person and Merricat insists upon referring to him as a ghost and a demon; however, I admit that even without Merricat’s opinions, I really didn’t like him either; he falls into the role of Man of the House very easily, even though he is just a guest, and he makes no effort to try and figure out why they are so weird or what the culture of the house is, and as far as I am concerned that makes him rude and presumptuous.
The creepiest part of the book, I think, is how hard it is not to like Merricat, to sympathize with her and agree that all the people she thinks are terrible are terrible, and that they are being small-minded and rude for being hostile to her and Constance, and that it makes perfect sense to try and protect your house with magic and anyone who gets mad at you just because they don’t get it clearly deserves a bit of shaking up anyhow, and that it’s really invasive of people not to leave them alone all shut up in their weird house. Being able to make the reader sympathize with a murderer—and not any sort of tragic-backstory of justifiable-homicide sort of murderer; just the cold-blooded murder of her whole family, for petty and objectively stupid reasons—is evidence of the disturbing sort of genius of really, really great writers.
October 12th, 2013
|05:32 pm - Vampires in ur Internetz!|
I have been into vampires for a very long time. I started reading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles in eighth grade, which is way too young to be reading anything other than the first book in that series and I think it may have screwed me up for several years. I read horror vampire novels and paranormal romance vampire novels and ~classic~ vampire novels like Dracula, and I watched old terrible old vampire movies and terrible new vampire movies and parodies of vampire movies and this Eddie Izzard clip:
And then I read books on vampire folklore and the science and history behind vampire legends, from Father Montague Summers’ dense, old-world demonologies to Paul Barber’s gross but eminently readable Vampires, Burial, and Death.
In tenth grade I wrote a research paper on the development of the vampire in stories, noting their periodic booms in mainstream popularity, and I wondered if the next vampire revival would happen in my lifetime. It happened just a few years later, kicking into high gear sometime around my sophomore year in college.
(Overall this has made me as happy as a vampire in a Red Cross donation facility, although I would like to rant for a moment: it is tiresome as shit when people insist on comparing every single fucking vampire story ever directly to Twilight, immediately, as if there are only two, monolithic kinds of vampire story, Twilights and anti-Twilights. The two fastest ways to turn me off a vampire story are to promise me it’s just like Twilight, and to promise me it’s nothing like Twilight. If you’re too stupid to even tell me about the story you are supposedly telling me about, I’m not taking your book recommendations. And if Twilight is your only fucking reference point for vampire stories, you don’t know enough about vampire stories to be telling me anything about vampire stories.)
The point here is, I have read A LOT of vampire stories. So I was very, very excited to learn that Holly Black, fabulous modern Gothic YA writer extraordinaire, was writing a vampire story, because if there’s anyone I would trust to write an absolutely awesome one, it would be Holly Black. I got a gorgeous little “teaser” of it last year at her book signing with Libba Bray and Sarah Rees Brennan, when she read to us from the first chapter of what was at the time her work-in-progress, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. In this snippet, a girl named Tana wakes up in a bathtub after a party, and finds out that everyone else in the house is dead.
Then I spent a year anxiously keeping an eye on all the news for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown—release dates, cover art, etc. And the book signing tour. The book signing tour included an event at the Cambridge Public Library, two days after the book’s release. I went with a bunch of people from my writing group, and we listened to Holly Black talk to us about how she almost didn’t write the book because she wondered if it was really a good time for another vampire story (thankfully, she concluded that it is ALWAYS a good time for another vampire story), and how she used to pretend her Barbies were good vampire Barbies who could defend her from the evil non-Barbie vampires outside, and all the different vampire stories in varying degrees of melodramatic trashiness that she read when she was younger—Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite, Les Daniels. (I had somehow never heard of Les Daniels but it sounds like I ought to go check him out IMMEDIATELY.) I also got a shiny signed book!
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is every bit as awesome as I would expect from Holly Black. Like her other YA books, it draws heavily on old stories—and you can tell she really knows her stuff—but it’s also thoroughly contemporary.
The thing that really intrigued me about the worldbuilding in this book was that the development of vampires in society is basically backwards from the way the idea of the vampire has developed through time. In old vampire legends, vampirism was usually a plague—a vampire would be created in a town or village, and it would come back at night and feed off of other townspeople and turn them into vampires, and if you didn’t dig up and kill all the vampires quickly, the next thing you knew, the whole town would be dead. As the vampire moved from a folklore monster into a literary one, and the world moved forward, getting smaller and smaller so it became harder to explain how a creature could hide if it caused mass death like that, and as our fear of plagues dwindled and newer, more modern fears took its place—fear of venereal disease, fear of loneliness and alienation, fear of the world changing too fast, and, in the case of heterosexual women living in a patriarchal society, fear of being attracted to predatory beings with power over you—the vampire became a figure that hid, that went to great lengths to space out the deaths it caused, or make them unsuspicious or unmemorable; in the most modern incarnations, even to feed without killing.
In Holly Black's world, the vampires used to be like that—hidden, nearly unknown. They kept their numbers carefully low so that they wouldn’t come into public view. They had a tightly controlled hierarchical secret governance thing. The process for making new vampires involved the progeny drinking its maker’s blood. It was all very twentieth-century-vampire-novel-y.
Then, about ten years before the book opens… vampirism went viral. A baby vamp with no idea what he was doing went around biting people without killing them. These people would then go Cold—basically, they had an infection that made them crave human blood. It took almost three months for the infection to wear off. If they actually drink human blood in that time, when they’re infected, they turn into vampires. (Weaker vampires than ones that had been fed a vampire’s blood before their full transformation, but still vampires.) In this way, vampirism came into public knowledge, and became a widespread, deadly plague—like in the old vampire folk legends.
The areas with the worst outbreaks were quarantined and walled up. These quarantine cities were called Coldtowns, and the first, biggest, and most famous of them was in what used to be Springfield, Massachusetts. Outside of the Coldtowns, vampires were hunted, and if they were caught, were either killed or sent to Coldtown. Infected humans would be sent to Coldtown if they were found out by law enforcement. Inside the Coldtowns, vampires hunted freely, preying on the population of humans walled in with them, and the seemingly endless supply of humans who voluntarily migrated to the Coldtowns, hoping to get turned into vampires. They also threw ridiculously decadent parties, and filmed them, and put them online. Some vampires basically became reality TV stars.
The most famous reality TV star Coldtown vampires is Lucien Morales, who fits into the fine tradition of batshit crazy, spotlight-hugging blond vampires who revel in being vampires, like Eric from the Sookie Stackhouse books and Lestat in the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles (alright, so Lestat goes through phases of reveling and being broody/guilty, but he’s introduced as a reveler), and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer—that is the Blond vampire archetype, and Lucien is a Blond. Holly Black describes him as “slick” and having “a face like a pre-Raphaelite painting,” although I’m not sure what that second part means, as I tried Googling “pre-Raphaelite paintings” and they are 99.9% pictures of ladies, but at any rate, there is a fine old tradition of describing vampires by what school of art they look like they belong to, so I’m going to go with it. Lucien throws the bangin’est parties in Coldtown, and he’s batshit nuts, but very charming.
In an interesting break with tradition, the Dark vampire character is even more batshit crazy than Lucien! The Dark vampire is the brunet male vampire who is the love interest and has more of the broody/guilty/missing-his-humanity thing going on. Bill Compton, Louis du Point du Lac, Angel, and Matthew Clairmont are all Darks. The Dark and the Blond are sometimes friends and sometimes enemies, but usually it’s more complicated than that; they are invariable foils for each other. In this book, they are actually described as “frenemies.” Our Dark is named Gavriel, there are about five different plot twists involving reveals of various aspects of his identity throughout the story, and he is actually mad, as in, he’s been tortured so badly that his mind is sort of fragmented, and he says and does a lot of really weird stuff, because staying coherent is very taxing for him. He is an amazing character.
Our main human girl is a high school student named Tana. When Tana was little, her mother went Cold and attacked her, and her father had to kill her mother. Tana now lives with her little sister Pearl and her extremely depressed father. As mentioned earlier, one day, she goes to a party, and wakes up in the bathtub, and everybody is dead—except for her amazingly obnoxious attention-whoring jerkface ex-boyfriend, Aiden, who is infected and quickly going Cold, and the vampire Gavriel, who is chained up and apparently being hunted by other vampires. Tana is almost-maybe-bitten by one of the other vampires in the process of getting them all out of the house, and doesn’t know if she’s infected or not. The three of the head towards Coldtown, where they pick up a brother-and-sister pair of blue-haired teenagers who go by the names Midnight and Winter, and are seeking to get turned into vampires. When they get into Coldtown, things start to get even more out of control.
The pacing in this story is a little odd in terms of page count—they don’t even get to Coldtown until nearly halfway through the book; what the real plotline is going to be—who is the bad guy and why, what is the evil plan they have to stop, etc.—doesn’t become clear until pretty late in the book—but it doesn’t feel weirdly paced when reading it. The story is deeply rooted in the idea of decadence that permeates so many of the older Gothic novels: much of Coldtown is falling apart, post-apocalyptic, insufficiently maintained since the walls went up ten years ago and with a death rate much higher than that of anywhere in the civilized outside world. It’s also bloody as all get-out: although this is a teen book, I think if they made it into a movie, it would be so far into an R rating that it couldn’t be marketed as a teen movie.
The major moral theme in this story is, as Gavriel puts it, the sin of mercy. I found this both fascinating and unexpected, because one of the more frequently-used endeepening subjects of the modern vampire novel is that killing is always inherently bad, and therefore the good vampires feel guilty about this, and they can take steps to try and mitigate it (only killing bad people like murderers and child molestors, etc.), but it’s still bad. Wrestling with whether acting as a vigilante rather than just giving in and eating babies is enough to make one good or if that’s all just rationalization is a classic way to give vampires, and particularly Darks, moral depth. Even Twilight sort of gets into this, with Edward having a broody confessional fit about how he ate a serial killer once in the twenties and that’s why he’s a monster and Bella shouldn’t be with him, and Bella is like “Who cares, you probably saved lives actually” and Edward’s like “It’s nice of you to say that but NO I AM TERRIBLE” and there’s really no follow-up to that, it’s just part of their eternal difference of opinion about which one of them sucks and which one of them is perfection incarnate.
In The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, the idea is that doing the right thing can be hard, and sometimes this is because you are not a sociopath who enjoys killing people, therefore killing someone might be hard, but sometimes killing is the right thing to do. Holly Black takes the old Catholic idea that infects so much of Western culture about worrying about the purity of your own soul over paying attention to the actual consequences of your actions, and throws it out the window, then jumps out the window after it and stomps it into the dirt. There some science talk about accumulated toxins, but mostly, there are a lot of cases in which some entity or other is goddamn dangerous to others and is better off removed from the picture. Tana’s big moral quandaries tend to be variants on: Can she kill without hesitation if she has to? Can she resist the temptation to take pity on the concrete, begging entity immediately in front of her, and save the lives of the nebulous, faceless, not-present, other people that will die if the danger isn’t removed? When is saving somebody a good idea, and when is it stupid? The trouble at the core of the plot all started with one act of badly judged mercy. I found this line of thought particularly interesting because there are a number of really manipulative characters here, most obviously Aidan and Lucien, and it reminded me of discussions over at Captain Awkward about how manipulative people are able to get smart, nice, good people into bad situations by playing directly on their good qualities—loyalty, sympathy, empathy, niceness, sense of fairness, desire to help, desire for inclusiveness, etc.—and the only way to get out of or defend yourself from these kinds of people is to develop the ability to put your good impulses on hold.
There is also a bunch of stuff about reality TV and the romanticization of vampires and death and violence and all that. Particularly involving Midnight the blue-haired runaway, and twelve-year-old Pearl, who likes watching both Coldtown feeds and vampire-hunting shows.
If any of this makes it sound like this book is a deep philosophical meditation on moral quandaries… don’t worry, it mostly isn’t. There some thought-provoking themes there, at least if you find the same stuff thought-provoking that I do, but mostly the book is a fast-paced, decadent, bloody adventure. A lot of authors have been trying to modernize the vampire story lately, the way Anne Rice did in the eighties, but Holly Black has officially succeeded in reinventing the vampire story for the early twenty-first century. I mean, there are gifs. Gifs!
October 11th, 2013
|03:11 pm - Moar Lynbury Legacy Sassy Gothic Goodness (and Eeeeevil, don't forget the Eeeeevil)|
About a year ago, I picked up Sarah Rees Brennan’s (sarahtales) Unspoken, largely out of not-wanting-to-look-like-an-asshole-itude, at a book signing where the at-the-time-unknown-to-me Ms. Rees Brennan was accompanying my longtime favorites Libba Bray and Holly Black.
I married it I would totally marry this series, actually. Unspoken turned out to be one of the smartest, most well-written YA books I’ve read in ages, as well going up to 11 on the Relevant To My Interests scale.
Unspoken ended on a totally WTF-y note and I and legions of other readers have spent a year shivering in antici… pation for Untold, the second installment of The Lynburn Legacy.
But now—oh frabjous day!—Untold is out! And I have read it! And BRB, have to go pick up pieces of my soul from the floor and mail ‘em to Sarah Rees Brennan for her collection.
Untold continues the story of Kami Glass, editor and lead intrepid girl reporter of her high school newspaper The Nosy Parker, as she seeks to save her sleepy little English town of Sorry-in-the-Vale from being taken over by evil sorcerers want to use human sacrifices to fuel their magic. The evil sorcerers are the nuttier faction of the town’s ruling sorcerer family, the Lynburns, whose less nutty faction is actually still quite nutty and sometimes douchebaggy too, but at least they get that human sacrifice is wrong. Kami is also dealing with the fallout from having severed the magical telepathic bond that had connected her to one of the non-evil sorcerers, Jared, for her whole life (although for most of that time she’d thought he was an imaginary friend).
The story opens with Kami and her awesomely cranky BFF Angela getting attacked on Halloween night by evil magically animated scarecrows, and gets weirder from there. The evil Lynburn faction, headed by Rob Lynburn—the one who always seemed like the nicest—moves to consolidate power in the town with disturbing ease, promising the other sorcerers in the town power while simultaneously terrifying them out of thinking they could possibly decline. Kami and her friends are a small but awesome faction, but they have their work more than cut out for them in resisting Rob and his cronies, and things are additionally complicated by the fact that their social group is ridden with incredibly awkward interpersonal situations. The cast list includes:
KAMI GLASS: Is basically awesome, and dedicated to fixing everything. She tries to be constructive about stuff like figuring out how to fight the sorcerers and adjusting to not having Jared in her head anymore, but it is hard. She never gives up and always has something sassy to say even when she doubts herself. She also cares a lot about her family because her family is freakin’ awesome.
ANGELA MONTGOMERY: Kami’s BFF, Angela is very beautiful and also massively cranky as a human being. She likes naps and dislikes most people. She is a lesbian and has a thing for Holly, which has made their friendship a bit awkward. Though she is massively lazy, Angela learned self-defense from her older brother, and can and will beat the shit out of you if she has to.
HOLLY PRESCOTT: Holly’s family is sorcerers, who used to be prestigious within Sorry-in-the-Vale and somehow fell from grace, and now her home life is kind of shitty. Holly is very pretty and is mostly a boy’s girl, except for her friendships with Kami and Angela. Holly usually manages to keep up a fairly sunny personality, at least in public, except when there are major plot points happening.
JARED LYNBURN: A mashup of the in-distress Gothic heroine and a broody rogueish bad boy. Occasionally a tavern wench. He is a sorcerer, and he is dealing with no longer being mentally tied to Kami even worse (MUCH MUCH WORSE, which is a LOT of bad) than Kami is dealing with not being connected to him. His mother Rosalind is with the evil sorcerers, and is in love with his uncle Rob Lynburn, head of the evil sorcerers, because THAT’S NOT CREEPY AT ALL.
ASH LYNBURN: Ash Lynburn wants to be good and nice and make people happy! As a result, he almost became an evil sorcerer, because his dad is Rob Lynburn and he wants to please his dad. His mom is Lillian Lynburn, head of the nutty-but-not-evil sorcerer faction, and now he wants to please her, but he can’t, because she’s still pissed off at him for almost becoming evil. Ash also seems to have a crush on Kami which is very awkward, since Ash and Jared are cousins (and might be brothers because JESUS CHRIST ROSALIND) (ALSO ROB, YOU ARE NOT OFF THE HOOK HERE, ASSHOLE) and look very much alike, leading to at least one super awkward scene involving romantic entanglements and mistaken identity.
RUSTY MONTGOMERY: Angela’s older brother. Almost as lazy as she is, but much happier—his picture is in the dictionary next to the phrase “laid back.” Owns a gym, and teaches his sister and all her friends self-defense. Rusty is very handsome, and likes to talk about how handsome he is all the time, but not in a snotty way.
They are occasionally joined by some very colorful adults, including Lillian Lynburn, ice queen extraordinaire, a woman so arrogant that I am surprised that she doesn’t walk into doors and then be offended they didn’t open for her of their own volition; and Jon Glass, Kami’s fabulously sassy (and apparently hot) dad. There is a scene where Jon Glass sasses Lillian Lynburn and I laughed so hard I almost vomited.
I don’t really want to talk too much about the plot outside of “evil sorcerers” because the plot is MADE OF TWISTS and therefore EVERYTHING IS SPOILERZ plus I already went and told you about the scarecrows. As usual, Sarah Rees Brennan lives on our tears, so the plot veers wildly back and forth between high-octane nightmare fuel and interpersonal soul-crushing, and the dialogue oscillates beautifully between heart-wrenching and hilarious. The ending is somethin’ else, as usual, although differently than the last one—in Unspoken, the Thing That Happened at the end was itself massively shocking and I was like “Noooo my feelings” as soon as it happened; in this one, the ending is the Unfair Cliffhanger of Doom, so I zipped right through the last plot point—which, though not in this instance predictable, is a Gothic classic—going “This is riveting! What happens next?” and it was only when I realized that there is no next for another year that I started shaking my fist in the general direction of Ireland (or wherever she lives) and shouting “DAMN YOU, REES BRENNAN”.
On a happier note, I finally learned what a honey badger actually is! And why he don’t care! I do so love learning things.
Recommended strongly for people who like one-liners, Gothic novels, ladyfriendship, and awesomeness.
Current Mood: Gothy
Current Music: "This is Halloween", TNBC
October 2nd, 2013
|09:07 pm - More vampires, as always|
So far, Saving Raphael Santiago may be my favorite installment of the Bane Chronicles.
In this one, Magnus, styling himself as a private eye sometime in the fifties, gets an assignment from a woman who says that her son disappeared when he went off with his gang to hunt vampires, and she wants Magnus to find him and save him. Magnus finds the boy, who has already been turned into a vampire and is really unhappy about it (ß that is what we literary types call understatement), and helps him train to control his vampire weaknesses (allergy to religion, etc.) enough to fool his mother into thinking he’s human.
Once I pulled my head out of my arse and remembered what joke goes with what story, I was able to have Thoughts on this story, and my Thoughts are that so far this is the best balance of for-realz story and funny jokes. It has a solid plot, and is well structured and well paced, and it gives us some very insightful background into a character we are already familiar with—it doesn’t leave us at loose ends, since we pretty much know what happens to Raphael in the next fifty years or so. The bits about Guadaloupe’s fear for her son and Raphael’s absolute determination to see his mother again—and to hide her transformation from him—are poignant. The ending is sweet in a fucked-up way, as Raphael returns to his family and successfully fools them into thinking he’s alive with an enormous pack of lies.
However, this story also doesn’t give up on pure Magnus hilarity. The opening paragraphs, about Magnus’ decision to become a private eye, are perfection; and the dynamic between Magnus and Raphael—who are both enormously judgy in polar opposite ways—is wittily antagonistic. Things get even funnier when the green, ever-cranky warlock Ragnor Fell shows up, and strikes up a sort of friendship with Raphael that seems to consist entirely of bonding over making fun of Magnus. Magnus does not appreciate this. Everyone’s banter and snotty comments are as fabulous as Magnus’ wardrobe. There are a lot of allusions to things that happen in the future—at one point, Magnus vows that as soon as he’s rid of Raphael he is going to get a cat and throw it a birthday party every year—and some adorable drunk vampires that Raphael speechifies at.
Overall, both Cassandra Clare and Sarah Rees Brennan are in very good form in this one.
September 30th, 2013
|09:27 pm - Mundie money goin' bust|
I done fallen behind in my Bane Chronicles reading! But yesterday I finally was able to read The Rise of the Hotel Dumort, which I had purchased immediately prior to my Kindle shitting the bed.
This one is by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson, whose stuff I still really need to get around to reading. It is a properly structured short story, rather than a set of vignettes or a weird prologuey thing, taking place at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties in Manhattan. Magnus has been taking a well-deserved break from Downworlder politics and is having a grand old time running a speakeasy, because of course. This all goes swimmingly until Magnus gets a visit from the police, who smash up his bar, and also a visit from a little flapper vampire, who tells him something vaguely portentous, and then a third visit, this time from a batty, ancient warlock who is also saying vaguely portentous things.
Magnus, attempting to get away from all the random people crashing at his hotel room now that he doesn’t have a bar anymore, investigates, and discovers that the batty old warlock is holed up in the shiny new Hotel Dumont, where he entertains some rich mundanes who are trying to summon a demon or something ill-advised like that. It is around this time that the stock market crashes and all the mundanes freak out, and also when the demons show up, and therefore the Shadowhunters as well, and there is general mass chaos and panic. It’s fun.
This installment stood alone better than the last one, and while it wasn’t quite as funny as some of the others, it still had a fair amount of Magnus being Magnus, and his dry, judgmental commentary on everything fills my decadent Gothy heart with glee, as always.
The story kicks off with some jokes about Magnus deciding to become a private eye, and I am not sure the rest of the jokes ever quite top the opening two or three paragraphs, but that is okay, as they are quite excellent paragraphs. EDIT: This is the next Bane Chronicles story. That's what I get for reading them both in one sitting. Jesus, I have not misremembered something I've read this badly since I forgot about Nick going shirtless in The Demon's Lexicon. What is happening to my close reading skillz?! Anyway, if I am not still totally misremembering, I think this means that this installment is generally just more serious and its humor is much more dry and understated than some of the other ones.
It was also fun to read this in a fancy historic hotel and I think if I ever get around to writing an urban fantasy something, 88 Exeter Street will have to feature in it prominently.
|06:53 pm - In Which Things Are Very, Very Relevant To My Interests|
In preparation for the release of Republic of Thieves next week (OMG NEXT WEEK), and also to get my dear friend Josh to shut up and stop bugging me about it, I read Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, the sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August.
I liked The Lies of Locke Lamora quite a lot, but I think I like Red Seas Under Red Skies better. This is not necessarily because it’s a better work in any literary sort of way. It because Red Seas Under Red Skies is a lot like The Lies of Locke Lamora, except with more lady pirates, and more cats. I really don’t think there’s much more Relevant To My Interests a book can get. Maybe if one of the next GB books somehow manages to also be a Gothic novel? Help, now I’m distracting myself.
In Red Seas Under Red Skies, Locke and Jean, having barely escaped Camorr with their lives, have set up new identities and are peacefully working away at a long-term scheme to rob the shit out of the Sinspire, the most exclusive casino in Tal Verrar. The Sinspire is supposed to be uncheatable, a supposition which, of course, Locke and Jean take as a challenge. They are still being pursued by irate, entitled Bondsmagi, who are still all pissed off that Locke dared mutilate one of their members merely for killing four of Locke’s best friends. (Bondsmagi are assholes.) The Bondsmagi decide to fuck with Locke and Jean by tipping off Tal Verrari’s archon, Stragos, about their real identities. (Tal Verrar basically has two ruling branches of government—the Priori, which is a largely merchant-occupied city council, and the Archon, which is sort of a military dictatorship that’s not really supposed to be ruling when there isn’t military need, but nobody likes giving up their dictatorship just because it’s not needed.) Stragos poisons them with a long-acting poison for which only he has the antidote, and then sends them off to enact a wacky scheme, in which they are supposed to get pirates to attack Tal Verrar so that Tal Verrar will rally around its Archon and its navy, who are currently not #1 in the public sentiment and who the Priori are trying to cut down to size. Locke is unwilling to give up the Sinspire scheme over this, partly because he’d just hit the part of the scheme where he’d confessed to the owner of the Sinspire that he’d been cheating (this is part of a plan to gain them access to be able to do more stealing), and so he has to figure out a way to tie the two stories together so that he can continue playing both games. It is all very complicated.
Things are further complicated by the fact that Locke and Jean don’t know shit about boats or sailing or piracy or any of that stuff at all. Stragos furnishes them with a sailing master to help them fake it; however, the voyage is basically cursed from the beginning according to the prevailing nautical superstitions in this world, as they managed to set sail without any female officers or cats. It’s very, very bad luck not to have at least one female officer on board, and it is also terribly bad luck to not have any cats. Havoc ensues, and then awesome badass lady pirates ensue, and then more havoc ensues, and everything is great, at least if you’re a reader. (It sucks a lot if you’re Locke, as usual.)
Our main badass lady pirate captain in this book is Zamira Drakasha, former captain in the Syrune navy and a single mother of two: Paolo, a boy of about 4, and Cosetta, a girl of about 2. Her crew is filled with a colorful variety of other badass pirates, male and female, from a variety of nations, although none of them are quite as badass as Drakasha, otherwise they’d be captain. Drakasha runs her ship in an eminently sensible and occasionally-almost-democratic fashion (equal shares, etc.); I envy her administrative and organizational powers. She is also occasionally quite funny, particularly when hazing new crew members. Zamira is, in fact, so awesome that some sad little bigot once got all offended by her existing, prompting this glorious smackdown. I could talk about what a great character Zamira is all day.
Zamira’s first mate, Ezri, a runaway noblewoman, is also pretty badass, and she develops a very adorable romance with Jean, and you know what, you guys, I don’t even want to tell you about all the awesome stuff she does, you’re gonna have to read it for yourself.
Another one of my (many) favorite characters on the pirate ship is Regal, a small black kitten with a drooly nose, who adopts Locke whether Locke likes it or not. Adopting Locke largely consists of sitting on his head when he’s trying to sleep and giving him lots of drooly kitty kisses. I related to this part as I have recently begun living with a cat again, and our cat is fond of climbing up on people’s chests and just sitting there, sticking her face in your face and occasionally kneading your collarbone with her front claws.
The end of the book seems to be setting up for Regal to continue to be a character in the third book, but I won’t actually find out for A WHOLE WEEK.
Current Mood: giddy
September 23rd, 2013
|09:16 pm - Time for some hardcore medieval fantasy!|
I had the privilege of buying Elizabeth Bear (matociquala)’s Range of Ghosts directly from the author, along with a few of her other books. She is one of the many awesome people I met at Readercon, so I was happy to pay for shiny signed new physical copies plus shipping rather than buying an ebook, even though I’ve never read any of her other stuff.
I do not regret this decision at all.
Range of Ghosts is a political fantasy and it’s based largely on the medieval Middle East and Asia. A major theme is the rise and fall of empires; the empire that owns most of the known world at the time of this story is the Qersnyk Khaganate, which is largely based off the Mongol Empire—the Qersnyk are a culture made up of a number of nomadic horse tribes from the steppe. The Khaganate is facing civil war after the death of the Great Khagan. Other kingdoms, empires, and former empires—some subject to the Khaganate; some on its borders—have their own cultures and their own reactions to the war within the Khaganate. How closely these other kingdoms seem to be based on other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures varies, or possibly my familiarity with the cultures in question does. The different cultures and the different factions within the political houses are all well-characterized and clearly differentiated. As far as I can tell, there are no white people in the entire book.
My familiarity with Mongol history is very limited, so around the time I began reading this book I also listened to a five-part Hardcore History podcast called “The Wrath of the Khans,” and learned stuff about Genghis Khan and his heirs. It was both educational and disturbing, because welcome to history.
One of our protagonists is Temur, grandson of the Great Khagan, and now the heir with the most legitimate claim to the throne, as his cousin has killed off his elder brothers while trying to seize the position. The cousin is named Qori Buqa, which personally frustrates me, since I noticed that Qori Buqa seems like it would be pronounced close to Cory Booker and I am like “Noooo Cory Booker is awesome; this cannot be the bad guy” but that’s all me. (I voted for Cory Booker TODAY. Yay!)
Our other main viewpoint character is the Once-Princess Samarkar, who, after arranging to be widowed, tries to remove herself from the vicious political situation in the Rasan Empire by becoming a wizard. The process for becoming a wizard of Tsarepheth involves a surgery to remove her ovaries; wizards must be infertile for their magic to manifest. Samarkar is awesome; more on that later.
The worldbuilding in this book is often really creepy, in a good way. The skies are different over each country, and change to reflect changes in political borders and leadership—so when the Khaganate takes over another land, their sky changes to the Qersnyk sky, which features a personal moon for each member of the ruling family (this provides a handy guide for who is still alive at the end of every day). The magic that can be wielded by humans comes in ways that require high costs and intense training—wizardry can only come when the body has lost its ability to procreate, and seems to be largely based on manipulating elements with one’s will. Sorcery, which is much more sinister, seems to be mostly blood magic, and frequently involves killing people. In addition, objects can be cursed or ensorcelled. The dead must be sent along to the afterlife with whatever prayers and rituals are required by their culture, or else their ghosts stick around and can be manipulated with sorcery, which is bad news, because when ghosts attack you they can suck out your life/warmth/energy, and they can only be repelled with salt.
After surviving an absolute massacre of a battle (even by battle standards), Temur hides his identity for a bit as he and his awesome horse take up with a bunch of refugees, and he develops a relationship with a badass young Qersnyk woman named Edene, who also has an awesome horse. When Edene is abducted by a huge army of scary-ass blood ghosts, because she is too badass to get abducted by anything less, Temur, accompanied by his and Edene’s awesome horses, goes in search of her. It is on this quest that he meets Samarkar, out on her first real wizarding assignment to the city of Qeshqer, which, it turns out, has been completely depopulated and its people’s bodies used for more creepy sorcery. Everything beyond this is entirely too complicated for me to sum up but suffice to say that there is a creepy blood-magic murder cult that is trying to deliberately sow war and kill people, including Temur, and they have Edene.
Edene gives us more insight into the creepy murder cult as she becomes a viewpoint character. I almost just wrote that she is my favorite viewpoint character except that’s not true—no one character is my favorite viewpoint character because the really great use of viewpoints here is in the way they all play off each other. So we get the inside view of the creepy murder cult from both Edene, the outsider, and a guy known as Al-Sepehr, the sorcerer who seems to be our main villain (one of them, anyway. It’s complicated). And when Temur and Samarkar are travelling together, which is for a pretty big section of the book, the narrative keeps switching back and forth between both their viewpoints. All the viewpoints are very distinct and shaped strongly not just by their narrator’s individual personalities (the way we think of personalities, in terms of traits and general attitudes) but are also very clearly rooted in their personal experience, particularly in terms of their knowledge of and experience of different geographies and cultural practices, etc.—some characters have seen oceans before and some haven’t; some have never seen desert; the Qersnyk do not have the custom of kissing so this is a weird foreign custom to them (it is apparently true in the real world that some cultures do not have kissing, at least according to a bunch of the anthro texts I used to read for Pearson; this is one of the things I cannot get over thinking is really weird); the steppe characters feel claustrophobic in enclosed mountain holdfasts and the mountain characters feel lost and exposed on the steppe. It helps that the characters are very well-realized, and often fairly sympathetic to modern reader biases in terms of their values and priorities, so it’s easy to get into their headspaces, and then it cramps your poor modern brain to be in the headspace of someone who is thinking about all sorts of complicated, advanced political scheming one minute and, like, boggling over the existence of pillows the next. I love it.
I have the book in trade paperback, but I strongly suggest buying it in hardcover so the next time you run into an asshole who claims that “politically correct” fantasy about anyone-other-than-white-dudes is boring, you can more easily beat them to death with it. I have no idea where this series is going except that I am pretty sure somebody will die at some point because so far this book doesn’t pussyfoot around, and I don’t want anyone to die because everybody is awesome. (Seriously, I am Mark Does Stuff levels of unprepared.) I will probably pick up the second book in October when I will be attending a book signing for Elizabeth Bear and her adorkable boyfriend Scott Lynch (author of The Lies of Locke Lamora, which I read in August). Then I will have all the awesome signed books and everyone had better be jealous.
Current Mood: geeky
Current Music: Nightwish
September 8th, 2013
|10:24 pm - Butterflies and books|
So, for my Classics books club, I admit I somewhat rushed my way through Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. As the book club meeting was tonight and I picked it up only last Sunday, I was afraid I wouldn’t finish it on time. Luckily, it’s a relatively short book, only 300 pages (which I suppose is not particularly short; it’s just not particularly long either), and it was much quicker reading than a lot of the other classics we’ve read (I was afraid it would be as dense as Proust, but it’s really, really not).
Speak, Memory mostly covers the earlier parts of Nabokov’s life, up through his time at Trinity College in Cambridge, although it tends to jump around a lot chronologically, and the last chapter is mostly about his son. Nabokov talks a lot about memory itself, the way it works and doesn’t work, the things he remembers and misremembers and forgets, and the way in which he tends to lose his grip on his memories of things when he uses them in his novels—the memory becomes one of his characters’ memories rather than his own. It’s all very self-aware and thought-provoking, and you can see why this is the guy who’s famous for writing with unreliable narrators.
While Nabokov paints poignant and frequently comic sketches about a whole bunch of aspects of his childhood, including portraits of all this tutors and governesses, and the houses where he lived, and his ancestors and family members, the bits I liked best involved his hobbies of catching butterflies and writing poetry. The butterfly stuff I liked largely because it was fabulously written, and it provides a common thread that is worked into many of the subsequent stories, and because the portrayal of young Vladimir with this awesome scientific hobby that none of the adults understand and who are all various flavors of patronizing about it is just really sad.
The poetry bits I liked because they are HOLY GOD SO SPOT ON about the trials and tribulations of writing shitty adolescent poetry. He writes about falling into using disorganized clichés instead of the images in one’s own head because of certain words rhyming, and about how derivative one can be even when one works really hard on every line, and about how pretty much everyone but his mom completely savaged his poetry. I laughed at loud when he said he wrote a poem about “a mistress I had never lost, never loved, and never met, but whom I was entirely prepared to meet, love, and lose”—which I think is derivative adolescent poetry in a nutshell, really.
I admit to rather liking the bits where he complains about how his classmates at Cambridge, while usually very well-educated, liberal, and sensible men, were all complete idiots about Russia, and seemed to have no interest in rectifying their ignorance, and how this drove college-aged Nabokov entirely up a wall. Nabokov, as a character, seems to be a rather judgy and asocial dude, but this is okay, as we are reading a memoir, not hanging out with him at a party, and he’s really quite funny when complaining about people.
I’m afraid I’m rather talked out about this book as I just had a two-hour discussion on it, but I will leave you with one observation: After the text of the book ends, my edition has a one-page “About the Author” section. Does anyone else think this seems a bit stupid? I just read 300 pages about the author. The only information in the About the Author section not covered in the preceding 300 pages is his death, which could quite easily be presented as a single line at the end of the books saying “Vladimir Nabokov died in (place) on (date) of (cause).”
September 7th, 2013
|05:13 pm - The singing vampire suffragette|
More cool stuff from my People I Saw At Readercon list! I will be doing this for a long time, y’all.
Anyway, the people in question is Alaya Dawn Johnson, who I saw speak on… uh… four panels, I think, but who I was not able to meet in person, which is a bummer, because she was pretty awesome on all her panels. Her newest book, and first YA book, is The Summer Prince, which I was sort of intending to buy until I saw she wrote vampire books as well, so I bought those instead for now, because I am predictable. (I fully intend to read The Summer Prince too, hopefully sooner rather than later; I have heard nothing but good things about it.)
Moonshine takes place in Prohibition-era Manhattan, which is always a fun time, in a universe where vampires and various other forms of nonhumans, known as “Others”, are openly known to exist, but generally denied most rights like the vote and a living wage. Our protagonist is Zephyr Hollis, a night school teacher for immigrants and Others and chronic social-justice activist—often to the detriment of her own health—and the daughter of a famous Other-hunter from Montana. The plot happens when Zephyr, short on money, agrees to find notorious mob boss, bootlegger, and suspected vampire Rinaldo, for a very handsome Other of unspecified kind named Amir, who is one of her night school students. Amir turns out to be a djinn, and the main love interest, which is pretty cool; I don’t believe I’ve ever read a djinn romance before.
Secondary characters include a just-turned vampire boy named Judah with no memory of who he was before he was turned, Amir’s ponderously djinn-y older brother, a gang of teenage mobster vampires called the Turn Boys, Zephyr’s Irish roommate Aileen who may or may not be a Seer, and a lady reporter called Lily who is (a) a fabulous lady reporter and (b) also kind of an upper-class twit at the same time. Lily is possibly the most interesting character, to me. Amir is somewhat less so; the djinn thing is cool and it is nice to have a mixed-race lead couple (Amir is clearly Arab when he is not a pillar of smoke, apparently), but he’s kind of got the “feckless bad boy” thing going on and generally I don’t care that much about his personality.
The plot gets plottier when a new street drug made from cloned pig’s blood and ergot hits the streets, resulting in a rash of blood-mad, drugged-up vampires running around doing stupid things like mobbing the blood bank and staying out past daybreak. Rinaldo is trafficking the drug, so figuring out the drug situations becomes important for finding Rinaldo. Also, Zephyr’s bigoted Other-hunting daddy shows up with a contract on the Turn Boys, at this point Zephyr’s most important sources of information, so then there is family conflict and daddy issues and stuff.
This book may not have been a deep work of literature but it was a ton of fun, and it was aware of and sensitive to both the social issues of the 1920s and with the current issues about diversity in fantasy, and seriously GANGSTER VAMPIRES IN PROHIBITION NEW YORK WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT.
August 24th, 2013
|10:33 pm - Of tea, werewolves, and brass octopi|
I don’t even remember who first told me to read Gail Carriger’s Soulless but I am sure glad they did!
Soulless is the first book in a series entitled “The Parasol Protectorate” and its subtitle/tagline is “A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols.” Yeah, yeah, don’t judge a book by its cover and all that but for real, somebody in the marketing department at Orbit Books knows exactly how to get my attention.
Soulless is a sort of steampunk fantasy absurdist mystery-romance-comedy of manners, written in a ludicrously correct Victorian style that I personally found hilarious, but anyone not already into That Sort of Thing might find annoyingly twee. Our heroine is Miss Alexia Tarabotti, a 25-year-old spinster with the misfortunes to have a dead father and a very silly mother and half-sisters, to be half Italian, and to have no soul.
In this particular version of Victorian London, vampires and werewolves are “out” and are respectable (mostly) members of society. As far as their current understanding of science can tell, different people have different amounts of soul, and people with enough excess soul—usually artists and actors and the like—are able to survive the transformations to werewolf or vampires. (The others just die.) Being a vampire’s drone (blood donor and servant) or a werewolf’s claviger (keeper who ensures they are properly locked up at full moon) are fairly popular if somewhat risqué lifestyles/career paths. Far more rare than persons with enough excess soul to become supernaturals are people with no soul, known as preternaturals. Alexia’s father was one, and she is as well (her living family has no idea). Being a preternatural means that Alexia can nullify the traits of supernaturals upon contact; for example, when she touches a vampire, their fangs retract into teeth; when she touches a werewolf who is at all wolfing out, they revert to entirely human.
Alexia is a bit of a bluestocking and enjoys reading, eating, going on walks, more eating, using her trusty silver-tipped buckshot-loaded brass parasol, tea, being endlessly sasstastic, and hanging out with Lord Akeldama, a cartoonishly flaming vampire who is nonetheless absolutely deadly. She also manages to get into a lot of fights with Lord Maccon, the Earl of Woolsey and head of the London werewolf pack, who seems to have had a massive grudge against her ever since an often-referenced incident involving a hedgehog.
Lord Maccon, of course, turns out to be the love interest, so that he and Alexia can sass each other endlessly, including while they are making out, leading to some of the very few makeout scenes I have ever read that I was actually thoroughly engrossed in. I am not a big one for makeout or sex scenes, generally, but the combination of absolute nonstop no matter what was going on sass and the very Victorian and analytical way they are written was actually very engaging. Alexia doesn’t really do the vague sentimental thing; or the getting lost in the moment thing; her perspective on various amorous activities is all very question-and-answer and mentally cross-referencing what’s going on with the stuff she’s read in her father’s books (her father had a rather inappropriate book collection) and generally Scientifick. Lord Maccon’s perspective is less intellectualized but still quite funny. (The POV shifts in this novel are a beast, to be honest; they shift around all over the place.)
The plot begins with Alexia being rudely attacked by a vampire at a party, and proceeds to involve vampires and werewolves disappearing, and new vampires appearing who seem to have no understanding of vampire society whatsoever, a club of scientists called the Hypocras Club, a deeply creepy automaton, and investigations by the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR).
This book, while being entirely fluffy and absurd at all times, is also extremely well-researched, and manages to sneak in quite a few critiques of Victorian England’s various social justice failings, including the insanely silly and restricting views of “appropriate” behavior and life choices for women, the overemphasis on and narrow standards of physical beauty for women (Alexia, being half Italian, is pretty much universally regarded as unmarriageably ugly by all the English humans), prejudice and stereotyping of Italians and the Scottish, restrictive sexual mores, the utter unpracticality of nineteenth-century clothing, and the danger in underestimating people just because they are outrageously campy and dress like circus ringmasters (seriously, Lord Akeldama is quite uncomfortably the Sassy Gay Dude, until shit goes down, and then… well). It’s nothing as deep or going-to-save-your-life as, say, Tamora Pierce’s stuff (plus it is not YA), but it avoids unduly glamorizing or glossing over how utterly stupid the Victorian era really was in many respects.
Overall I enjoyed this novel as much as Miss Tarabotti enjoys treacle tart; the rest of the series is definitely going on the TBR list. Highly recommended for anyone who likes absurd steampunky things (and only for people who like absurd steampunky things).
Current Mood: tipsy
Current Music: "Welcome to Night Vale" podcast
August 20th, 2013
|09:33 pm - My liquor-infused alchemical oranges bring all the boys to the yard|
The latest from the Books By Cool People I Met At Readercon files: I just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, the first book in the Gentlemen Bastards series, the third book of which releases in October. I have plans to attend a book signing for it in Cambridge with my writing group, so I figured it was imperative I read this series in a timely manner.
The author, Scott Lynch, was a thoroughly entertaining and informative speaker; I saw him on a panel called “The Xanatos Gambit,” which was about schemes and conspiracies and such. He is dating the infamously hilarious Elizabeth Bear, whose books I will also be reading as soon as they arrive. *eyes mailbox impatiently* He also has very nice hair.
The Lies of Locke Lamora takes place in a semi-Renaissance-y city called Camorr, which seems to be largely based on Venice, but with more sharks. Which is extra awesome and scary since Venice, and thereby Camorr, mostly has canals instead of roads. So there are SHARKS EVERYWHERE. Shark-fighting is, in fact, one of Camorr’s premier entertainments; by Camorran custom, only women can fight sharks.
Camorr is ruled by a Duke named Duke Nicovante, who nobody really cares about, and Camorr’s gangs are all ruled by a guy named Capa Barsavi, who consolidated all the gangs and developed a “Secret Peace” with the legitimate establishment that basically means that the gangs can steal and murder and stuff as long as they don’t steal from (a) policemen or (b) nobles. If you think this is a really fucked up and classist Secret Peace, you are right! And you will probably like our heroes, who pretend to hold with the Secret Peace but really don’t.
Now, this is not particularly an Issues Book, and the Gentlemen Bastards only do half the Robin Hood thing. They steal from the rich… because the rich have the most money, so they are the ones that you can steal the most money from! They don’t really give to the poor, though; mostly they just chuck all the money in a vault and take from it if they need to buy equipment for a scam. It’s actually kind of adorable.
The Gentlemen Bastards consists of:
LOCKE LAMORA: Locke Lamora has been a genius thief since he was first found by the Thiefmaker of Camorr (a Fagin-esque character who picks up orphans and trains the in pickpocketing so he can sell them to gangs later). The Thiefmaker sold him to a con man in record time because it was near impossible to stop baby Locke from trying out schemes that were clever, but way beyond the Thiefmaker’s pay grade in terms of fallout that Locke, being five, had not thought about. As an adult, Locke is a shortish, unassuming-looking dude, skinny, neither attractive nor unattractive; a master of disguise, who pretends to be a regular cat burglar in Capa Barsavi’s employ, but is actually a master swindler who has bilked enough of Camorr’s nobles out of enough thousands of crowns that he’s known as the Thorn of Camorr.
JEAN TANNEN: Jean is a big, fat, ugly motherfucker who is the bruiser of the gang. He carries a pair of hatchets called the Wicked Sisters, although he can probably kill you with pretty much anything he gets his hands on, or just with his hands, in a pinch. From the highest-class background among the Bastards, he also likes reading poetry and classic romances. The main relationship in this book is Jean and Locke’s bromance, which is truly bromantic.
CALO AND GALDO SANZA: Identical twins, known for being handsome (if with somewhat large noses), spending a lot of time at brothels, finishing each other’s sentences, and being outrageously skilled card sharks. (Nobody in Camorr says “card sharks” though because there are too many sharks around already.)
BUG: The Bastards’ teenage apprentice.
SABETHA: The lone female Gentlemen Bastard, she is off somewhere on a mysterious Mission or something, so we do not meet her during this book. Locke is rather hopelessly in love with her. Apparently she is a redhead. Scott Lynch appears to have felt that going on too much about the Lone Female Bastard Who Is Also The Love Interest And Is Apparently A Feisty Redhead would be somewhat cliché, so for now the Gentlemen Bastards is functionally all gentlemen.
The main antagonist is a fellow called the Grey King, who is killing off a bunch of Capa Barsavi’s garristas, meaning the heads of his gangs. This worries Locke, since, while he is careful to not be very important, he is officially the head of one of Capa Barsavi’s gangs.
Once I figured out that this was a story where the hero was a dude, his core group o’ buddies were all dudes, and the villain was a dude, I was somewhat prepared to be disappointed at this story being a Wall o’ Dude and there being no ladies, except maybe one Token Awesome Lady Who Is Awesome Because She’s The Only Lady And Is Not Like the Other Ladies. This turns out to have been a radically incorrect assumption on my part. Other dude authors who wish to write about dude heroes and their dude friends, please take note: You can, in fact, write a story about a dude hero and his best dude friends without leaving out the women entirely or reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures! The Lies of Locke Lamora has a lot of female secondary and tertiary characters, many of whom are flat-out AWESOME and have quite a bit of agency, and the rest of whom at least help the book avoid the weird Tolkien thing where the General Populace just seems to be all men. So we have some lady shark-fighters, as previously mentioned; a slew of female priestesses, alchemists, prison guards (!), gang members, pickpockets, merchants, and general random people; a batty old noblewoman who is not nearly as batty as she seems because she is actually the Duke’s spymaster; a beautiful young doña who, while her involvement in the story begins because she and her husband are a mark for one of the Bastards’ schemes, is also a highly accomplished botanical alchemist (I kind of want to be best friends with Doña Sofia, actually; she grows oranges infused with liquor); and, possibly one of my favorite characters of all time, Nazca Barsavi.
People who know me will understand why Nazca Barsavi is everything I want in a character. She is the daughter of Capa Barsavi, and she’s actually heavily involved in running the family business, making her a high-ranking mafiosa in her own right and quite likely to become the next Capa of Camorr if they can find a way to make her meathead older brothers deal with it. She wears steel-toed boots, because steel-toed boots are awesome, and she also wears glasses (er, optics). I had not even realized what an extreme shortage of kickass ladies who WEAR GLASSES there is in pretty much all storytelling ever. More of this, please! She is also friends with Locke! Actual, straight-up, honest-to-goodness friends, where they talk about stuff and clearly care about each other and when Capa Barsavi decides that they should get married, they are both all like “No offense, but together we are clever enough to find a way out of this stupid plan, right?” and then they agree to PLOT and SCHEME and BE AWESOME until they figure out a way to NOT marry each other without pissing off the Capa. She is also super bossy in flashback to when she was seven, and it is adorable. Basically, she is THE GREATEST. I would read an entire series just about Nazca Barsavi.
So you can understand how amazingly upset I was when the Gray King FRIDGED HER.
I specifically say the Gray King fridged her because honestly, Scott Lynch/the story in general didn’t. Lynch seems to be a member of the George R. R. Martin School of Killing Off Characters Right When You Are Really Excited To See What They’re Going To Do Next, so she’s not particularly singled out here (unfortunately for the readers’ feels). She also isn’t tortured or mutilated graphically or sexually molested or anything gratuitous like that. Her death was not a cheap plot point to engender manpain in our hero because otherwise the plot was sagging. Rather, the Gray King killed her specifically to show her father, Capa Barsavi, (who is emphatically not our hero) that he could get to him, and to upset Barsavi out of hiding. The text shines a pretty bright and unsubtle spotlight on how totally fucked up that sort of thing is by having all the characters whose “side” we are more or less on explicitly state that THAT IS REALLY FUCKED UP, LIKE A LOT and also berate Capa Barsavi for getting all vengeful because DUDE THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HE WANTED YOU TO DO ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING. So honestly I cannot really fault it from a storytelling point of view as being anywhere near as lazy as the usual Hero’s Girlfriend Is Killed Horribly, Vengeful Rampage Ensues. BUT I CAN BE MAD THAT THERE WAS NO MORE AWESOMENESS WITH NAZCA AFTER THAT POINT. And I am. Maybe if more books had characters like Nazca I would be less stuck on this.
Anyway. So Scott Lynch has proven that you actually CAN write a nonsexist book even with dude main characters, and also that we need more kickass ladies with glasses. Take note, people.
On a less sociologically-oriented note, the scams, cons, chases, and general conniving fuckery in this book is SO MUCH FUN. There is crossing and double-crossing and fake double-crossing, multiple layers of false identities, a disguised Locke getting punched in the face while the puncher explains “And that’s from Locke Lamora,” cursing, fire, pretty costumes, and, of course, more sharks. There is also some really amazing-sounding food. Overall the book ends up being a weird but highly addicting mishmash of “all the fun fluff!” and “very serious feels-punching.” Lynch particularly seems to enjoy putting Locke through a lot of physical abuse, causing long periods of suffering, which is a nice change from the Cartoon Biology that affects so many fantasy books (and its even more widespread Hollywood cousin, Cartoon Physics, which seems to have utterly taken over every live-action movie with a budget of more than about ten dollars).
Overall, I am very excited to read the second book, and also for the release of the third book, and also the author signing for the third book so I can tell Mr. Lynch to his face that just because I’m buying his books does NOT mean I forgive him for killing off Nazca.
Current Mood: geeky
August 15th, 2013
|10:25 pm - Of "Okiesmo" and an oil boom|
So, I just finished reading Funny Money, by Mark Singer, and I am embarrassed to admit that I did a thing I almost never do, which is I read half of it and then didn’t finish it for several months.
It wasn’t a bad book! It was, in fact, a pretty good book, but it appears it didn’t engage my attention quite enough to prevent me from being distracted by other things, because I am more easily distracted when I don’t entirely understand what I’m reading, and Funny Money is primarily about three things I do not understand at all: banking, oil drilling, and Oklahoma.
Funny Money tells the story of the rise and fall of the Penn Square Bank, a tiny shopping-mall bank in Oklahoma that briefly became a very big oil-and-gas loan broker, and then collapsed in a pile of bad loans and general mismanagement, and very nearly took the entire banking system with it. It is a story about a bunch of dudes doing that American thing we celebrate so much where they work themselves up from being unknown small-timers into being big tycoons through pluck and determination and hard work and dreaming big and wearing loud suits, except it’s sad because then it all implodes because actual financial systems and the geographical realities of oil drilling don’t care two figs for dreaming big and are based on facts that, if you don’t understand them, you will fuck things up.
Mark Singer tells this story well, explaining banking and oil drilling and Oklahoma to the lay reader on a need-to-know basis and pretty simply. He has a great facility for description, highlighting the awkward, plastic absurdity of America in the 80s, making the scenes vivid enough that sometimes it feels like you’re reading a novel.
Since it is not a novel, however, reality forces Mr. Singer to engage in some storytelling sins that are storytelling sins for a reason. For one, the names are often too similar, so I found it difficult to keep track of which oilman was which; they were all named Beep or Bill or Bud, and they were all pretty interesting characters (the way in real life you’d say “That guy’s, uh, quite a character”) but I got them all mixed up anyway. I should have made a chart or something. There is a similar problem with the names of all the different companies and banks, because… banks. Banks put their creativity into efforts besides naming themselves, it seems. Like how to cover up that they have no idea what they’re doing by doing a lot of it. The other main storytelling problem, for me, is that while the characters are all entertainingly wacky (in ways that scream that they should not be trusted with large amounts of money), there is nobody to root for; not a single person that I actually liked.
All that said, this book is both entertaining and informative, and provides several useful examples of the limitations of positive thinking.
August 5th, 2013
|10:12 pm - Of Marya Morevna, Koschei the Deathless, and Comrade Stalin|
I just finished reading Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless and I have so much I want to say about it I don’t know where to start.
I bought this book right after Readercon, as Catherynne Valente had been there and I had met her and she was lovely and I figured I should read her adult novels, as the only thing of hers I’d read was The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, which has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it the more impressed I am with the way that it seems to be familiar and strange at the same time, both for children and adults, a simultaneously traditional and modern fairy tale. When trying to decide which adult book to buy, I settled on Deathless, which promised to be a retelling of an old Russian folktale about Marya Morevna, a character I am minimally familiar with due to her appearance in the Tatterhood and Other Tales anthologies I was obsessed with when I was wee. Also the title and cover seemed specifically crafted to get my attention, because I am predictable.
The story, in short, is about a Russian girl named Marya Morevna, who runs off with and marries Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who can really be surprisingly evil considering he’s the god of life. Also surprisingly creepy! His magical land of Buyan is a place where all things are living, meaning that the walls are made of living skin and hair and the fountains spurt blood and aaaaaaggghhh, but I am getting ahead of myself. Maria finds out that she is basically the latest in the Koschei-and-his-wife story, which usually involves him abducting a girl named Yelena, who then eventually runs off with a hot but dumb dude named Ivan and steals Koschei’s death. But not permanently, because folktales and fairy stories never permanently end.
Marya’s version of the story begins around the beginning of the Communist revolution and takes us through about World War II, and there is a lot of Soviet history and culture featured prominently in the book. Some of it is funny, such as the various folktale creatures that take up Party allegiance, and some of it is harrowing, like when Marya runs off back home to Leningrad with Ivan, and is trapped there through the Siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s, the deadliest siege in history.
In addition to being extremely well-researched in terms of history, Catherynne Valente really blew me away with her use of language, which is something I don’t say very often (I generally think in modern books I should be engaged with the story and possibly exploring ideas about [insert themes relating to humanity here], not counting metaphors), but this book does some really rich, multi-layered, poetic things with language without getting dense. She makes ample use of old fairy-tale-telling conventions, particularly repetition/mirroring and things happening in threes. Marya has three older sisters, and every time something happens with the sisters—whether it’s the sisters getting married, or Marya going to visit them, or her sisters’ husbands appearing to Ivan as birds—it is broken into three scenes, one for each sister, from oldest to youngest, and the scenes all play out with the same structure and most of the same language, with very specific details changed. Each of the sisters marries a bird who turns into a man who represents the Russian ideal of the year they were married. There is probably some symbolic stuff that I missed since I know little about birds, but I learned a bit about the evolution of the Russian ideal man. Baba Yaga—now known as Comrade Yaga, except when she thinks that’s too familiar—famously sends Marya on three quests, the last of which involves Marya having to ride Yaga’s mortar and pestle. The scene where Marya gets in the mortar—written from the mortar’s point of view, preceded by a scene where Marya makes her preparations—is one of the most delightfully weird scenes I’ve read in anything in a long time; I was so delighted, in fact, that I read the scene three times and showed it to somebody else before I could continue reading.
Other bits that stuck with me included: Madame Lebedeva’s speech on makeup, the Communist house-imp committee (a natural occurrence, given the Communist practice of moving multiple families into one house), Naganya the rifle imp, the dragon that does paperwork for Stalin because he can kill more people that way, and—for me, the most perfect encapsulation of what this book does that makes it so awesome—the introduction to the village of Yaichka.
I admit I was reading so fast that I missed the first obvious clues about what was going on Yaichka, when all of Marya and Koschei’s neighbors were being described. I twigged on to who the neighbors were at the third set of neighbors, who are the last Russian royal family. The citizens of Yaichka are known only by their first names and patronymics, no surnames; the bell only rang in my fat head when I saw that the youngest daughter of the third family was Anastasia and their son was sickly and named Alexei. Then I went and started the chapter over, with their neighbors Vladimir Ilyich and his wife Nadya Konstantinova, and their two little sons, Josef and Leon, and their description of how everything in Vladimir’s household is equally distributed, and how he has a gift for convincing people of strange ideas, and how little Josef tends to smash things up without really “getting it” about whatever problem his parents are trying to solve… and then I realized who this family was and it all made sense and was also beautiful and metaphorical. The second neighbor I couldn’t recognize so I Googled the names it gave and hoped the first result would be the right one, and I think it was, because it seemed to make sense when I reread the passage. (The second neighbor was a famous Russian military commander I had never heard of, and his passage described how precise and orderly his house was, and how he and his daughters defended Yaichka from the wolves howling in the woods.)
The only thing I didn’t really get about this book was some of the discussion about marriage, which is fairly significant, since the book is enormously about marriage. But I have never been married, and all discussion of marriage is alien-sounding and uncomfortable for me on a visceral level. So all I can say about the treatment of marriage in this book is that it is very dramatic. She does mention that to outsiders it looks incomprehensible, and that I can agree with.
This book definitely left me wanting to do a great deal of research about Russia and Russian folklore, and then come back and read it again. Alas, I probably won’t, as I have about ten other Catherynne Valente books I have to read.
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: "Welcome to Night Vale" podcast
July 28th, 2013
As you may have heard, particularly if you are anywhere near Boston, Neil Gaiman has a new book out, called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This book is kind of a big deal.
Since I am eternally behind the times, I have been reading The Graveyard Book instead. This was published five years ago. I picked up a beautiful but sadly unsigned copy at Porter Square Books, because I
have all the willpower of a sloth wish to support independent bookstores instead of chucking the entirety of my disposable income at Amazon.
I got the one with this sexy, Gothy cover:
Ahem. Anyway. The Graveyard Book is essentially a retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which I have not read, because I win at being an English major. (I have read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And “White Men’s Burden,” which, um.) Except, since it is a Neil Gaiman book, it has ghosts instead of animals.
The protagonist of our story is Nobody Owens, known as Bod, whose entire family is murdered when he is a toddler. The baby survives by wandering into the nearby graveyard, where he is adopted by some ghosts and given the Freedom of the Graveyard. In addition to ghost parents, he also gets a Guardian, a mysterious being named Silas who is neither living nor dead, and who can leave the graveyard in order to get Bod food and other stuff he needs, what with not being a ghost himself. Most of the book is pretty episodic, which makes sense since it based on a short story collection. The main plotline, however, has to do with Bod growing up, and, of course, with finding out who killed his family and why, and stopping him from finishing the job. (The man is still planning on finding the baby that got away and killing him. But he is prepared to wait.) (He is kind of a sick fuck. There are reasons for this.)
One of the main strengths in the book is the same thing that is one of the main strengths in pretty much all of Neil Gaiman’s books, namely, awesome creepy supernatural creatures. The ghouls are both scary and adorable, with hilarious names like “the Bishop of Bath and Wells” and “the 33rd President of the United States” (NOT Harry S. Truman. Just the 33rd President of the United States). There’s also a very, very, very old entity, that may be a single being or may be a group, which guards the very oldest pagan tomb under the graveyard, known as the Sleer. The Sleer is hard to describe without giving stuff away, but be assured that they are very creepy and very important to the plot, and also kind of cute and sad? Poor Sleer, stuck guarding an empty tomb for centuries. They must be so bored.
There are also illustrations, because Neil Gaiman books are fancy like that.
I highly recommend this book, not like anybody needs me to recommend it, since we all already know that Neil Gaiman books are generally pretty awesome. I laughed, I cried, I got tingly-crawly feelings on my skin, although some of those turned out to be carpenter ants actually crawling on me. (And this is after I put down two different kinds of ant bait. Le sigh.) I really should have read it five years ago.
Current Mood: good
July 27th, 2013
|09:39 pm - Rock 'n' roll samurai movie!|
Man, it's been a very long time since I've done a movie review. This is partly because I don't watch movies much anymore except for rewatching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl over and over again while I do research for my eLance client. I may have to cancel my Netflix DVD account; it takes me so long to get around to watching a movie that it would probably be cheaper for me to buy them at this rate.
Anyway. I finally got around to watching Samurai Fiction, recommended by Shayna quite a long time ago. Shayna's movie recommendations are pretty much always awesome, and this was no exception. It's a Japanese film, and though it was made in the 1990s, it's almost entirely in black and white. Occasional splashes of color are used to very good artistic effect. The cinematography is lovely, and shows the movie to have been directed by someone who is clearly very familiar with old samurai movies and the films of Akira Kurosawa. The very modern rock 'n' roll soundtrack works extremely well, especially for the fight scenes.
The storyline itself is a fun martial arts romp--not quite a comedy, but with a strong comic streak in it. Kazamatsuri, a very tall outlaw samurai, steals a sword that is the most precious treasure of the clan he's working for. The son of the clan chief, a hotheaded but honorable young samurai named Heishiro, runs off to take the sword back, accompanied by his two ridiculous friends. His father sends two awesome ninja after him to make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble. (ONE OF THE NINJA IS A LADY WOOHOO.) Kazamatsuri, unfortunately, is so badass that he beats the shit out of the three young dudes, and Heishiro recuperates at the house of a middle-aged dude who saved his sorry ass. The middle-aged guy, Mizoguchi, is a master swordsman, but also a pacifist, and lives in the woods with his daughter Koharu. A predictable but still very cute romance blossoms between Koharu and Heishiro, which mostly involves Heishiro getting nosebleeds. Kazamatsuri spends most of this time hanging out in a whorehouse with a couple of doofy minion-y friends he picked up and the woman who owns the place, who quite frankly may be the most awesome character in the movie. Mizoguchi tries to talk Heishiro out of killing Kazamatsuri as the story inevitably gears up towards a grand Final Showdown wherein the sword gets tossed into the river.
While there is a repeated srs bsns theme of pacifism and the necessity of taming Heishiro's hotheadedness and impatience, as they are manifestations of ego, these themes are basically there to ground the story just enough to keep it engaging--it is mostly a good, fluffy popcorn movie. Some parts of it are straight-up absurdist. Kazamatsuri makes the greatest unimpressed faces, and our noble young hero Heishiro's periodic flip-outs are deliciously undignified. Koharu is pretty adorbs and is shown as knowledgeable about a bunch of stuff like plant uses and is opinionated and not silly at all, so overall not a bad showing for being the sweet idealized lady love interest who's the only non-warrior in the movie. (Even awesome hooker lady claims to have killed several men and can hold her own in a fight using a poker).
My only real complaint about this movie is that the lady ninja did not get enough screen time. MORE LADY NINJA PLEASE! LADY NINJA ALL THE TIME 4EVER.
Current Mood: amused
Current Music: some sort of Japanese rock 'n' roll
July 26th, 2013
|10:35 pm - Short, weird, locally grown sci-fi|
In my ongoing quests to read more science fiction, read more short stories, support more non-big-name authors, and spend the last of my Amazon Promotional Credit, I decided to kill... *counts* four birds with one stone and purchase the ebook (which is the only form) of Dystopian Love by Jay O'Connell. Jay O'Connell is in the writing group I recently joined because the writing group is full of fancy creative people who actually finish stuff.
Dystopian Love contains eight stories, seven of which are solidly not just science fiction but truly speculative science fiction, with a science- or technology-based premise building into a story that explores how it affects us as humans. (The eighth story is essentially an extended sci-fi nerd joke.) The collection kicks off with a very well-done male pregnancy story (this surprised me, as the entirety of my experience with mpreg is Lord of the Rings fanfiction) and gets thoughtfully weirder from there. While there is one space story, most of these pieces deal with Earth-based issues--computerized banking, disease, self-aware and/or rogue AI, alternate timelines, human evolution, the dangers of living entirely off of peanut butter and oatmeal. The major theme in this collection is relationships, and the stories explore how the various sci-fi premises allow the protagonists to pursue familial or romantic relationships--or, in some cases, very convincing facsimiles thereof--in ways that would be impossible in our current reality. I think the AI stories are particularly well done, or perhaps just particularly well suited to this theme, but either way, I found them the most intriguing and enjoyable stories in the collection. The one about the guy trying to buy an illegal body for his AI son was a particularly great mix of cute, sad, and thought-provoking. (I do love a well-done baby cyborg story.)
This collection is self-published, but I believe many of the individual stories have been published in various places over the last several years.
Overall I very much enjoyed this collection, and it also got me thinking, which are two things that go very well together. If you like sci-fi and have a bit of a dark sense of humor, I would recommend it pretty strongly.
Current Mood: thoughtful