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November 7th, 2015

05:01 pm - The warp and weft of Northumbria
I'd heard of Hild a few times before Nicole Griffith came to this year's Readercon as Guest of Honor, and it definitely sounded like the sort of thing that was right up my alley: A coming-of-age story about a badass lady warrior in the early Middle Ages; in this case, Saint Hilda of Whitby, about whom I knew basically nothing. So I bought a (signed; my life is awesome) copy at Readercon, admired the gorgeous blue cover with its stern portrait of a calm, chain-mail-wearing young woman, smelled its new book smell, and finally actually started reading the damn thing this October, when the weather started to turn and drove me inside away from the gorgeous Boston fall foliage to curl up on the couch with tea or beer and get lost in seventh-century Northumbria.
Hild delivered everything it promised and more. The language is vivid and rich and poetic, bringing out the feel of the story's time and place without falling into the sort of stilted faux-archaicness that a lot of fantasy and historical fiction is prone to. Hild herself is our viewpoint character, starting from when she's about three years old and running up through her late teens, I think Griffith nails the development of her thoughts and voice through the years, always compelling and somehow relatable despite the fact that (a) Hild's entire society and worldview is very, very different from a modern person's and (b) Hild has many skills and powers of understanding that I do not possess at all and, in fact, barely understand what she's talking about and (c) Hild is demonstrably a very strange person, although largely she knows that and is less strange when seen from her own perspective.
The book isn't really fantasy, I don't think, although the role of prophesy and "seeing" and wyrd in it makes it a little hard to tell sometimes. Ideas about magic and gods are baked into the various cultures' worldview--Anglisc and Briton and Irish alike--and even conversion to Christianity can't change that. It's not entirely clear if Hild's seeing powers are completely or only mostly the result of learning, observation, political canniness, and her carefully cultivated loyal network of informers.
There is a lot of very dense political history stuff going on here, and while I was happy to jump into what I consider a new area for me--I know nothing about the seventh-century unification of Northumbria--I do think my amateur background in general British Isles nerdery helped me out a bit, since I know a lot of other readers have been driven nuts by the names of all the characters and tribes and such. Probably the most important thing anyone who's not the sort of dork who has voluntarily taken a class in Anglo-Saxon translation needs to know is: our modern habit of using "British" and "English" more or less interchangeably is VERY MODERN. "Anglisc" is the root of "English" and supposedly the English are more or less descended from the Angles and Saxons, at least in part, but "British" at its root refers to the Welsh. (Arthur, King of the Britons? He was Welsh too.)
If you can pick out which is the Welsh name among "Breguswith," "Gwladus" and "Wuscfrea," you are 110% good to go and probably the exact sort of dork this book was written for. I am the exact sort of dork this book was written for. (It's Gwladus, and it's the "w" as a vowel that gives it away you're welcome I'll stop showing off now.)
This is a book about social change, and specifically the sorts of things that constituted change in this particular time and place--war is one of them, but war is basically well-established; it obscures the things that really matter, which are trade and the perception of religious favor. The big thing shakin' up this corner of the world at this time is the introduction of Christianity, which contains a lot of concepts quite foreign to northwestern European pagans, and which brings with it other interesting things, like writing and choral music and brown people.
(I like that this is a large book because it makes it an excellent thing to whack people with when they claim that there's really any point at all when there were totes no black people in Britain and/or that if there were they must have been slaves. In the seventh century, the Romans--who controlled an empire that extended well into Africa and the Middle East and who were excellent at moving people around--had been gone barely two or three centuries; they were well within memory and their buildings were everywhere. This book makes it clear that it's not like the Romans left and poof, they immediately became Ancient History and everyone forgot about them. The POC that are in this book are generally traders and priests; slavery exists but slaves are generally taken from other tribes/kingdoms in the Isles that people are fighting with--the two most important slave characters in this book are from Munster (in Ireland) and Dyfeint (in Wales). We also get a decent look at some of the ways in which "old world" slavery at this time and place works differently than the plantation chattel slavery that (some) Americans learn (a miserably tiny bit) about in schools.)
But as much as I liked all the historical stuff and all the political intrigue and social change and other stuff that I usually like in books, I think one of the most truly impressive feats of Literature in this this book was the fact that Griffith somehow got me sort of on board with the main romantic plotline. Sort of. With many reservations and at least one almost-throwing-the-book-across-the-room. But I still sort of found myself wanting it to work out? There are many things in this romantic plotline that I am generally not OK with. First of all, I rarely get invested in romantic plotlines anyway; I tend to very impressed when the dude does not annoy the shit out of me and I don't find myself thinking that the main character is clearly way too good for this twerp. That is not what happened here--I think Cian is a big meathead idiot who mostly thinks with either his dick or his sword arm but doesn't do anything with his head except grow hair, apparently. Also, I'm still not comfortable with the twincest microtrend that seems to be popping up in like everything these days. In this one they are only half-siblings BUT STILL. WHY IS THIS A THING. To top it off, Hild knows they're siblings, but Cian doesn't because he is an oblivious twit, and nobody can tell him because he is too dumb to keep a secret so if he knows then EVERYONE WILL KNOW, so... they basically hit upon the ingenious idea of keeping it secret by having them get married because they totally can't possibly be siblings if they got married, that'd be weird! So Cian ends up in a marriage where he has married his own sister and she knows that perfectly well but is keeping it from him. I think this might be the single most twisted love story I have ever seen in an ostensibly YA book. But while I was reading it it was like the part of my brain immersed in the story was going "D'aw what a heartwarming love story and what a lot of sexual tension between these two" and then my rational mind was like... banging on the door to the cockpit where reading-brain is piloting yelling "NO WAIT THAT'S REALLY FUCKED UP, TURN BACK CAPTAIN" and seriously you guys marrying your siblings and lying to them about it is bad. So, well played, Griffith. The Sexy Twincest Plotline Game has been officially won, so can we all knock it off now?
On a different note, I genuinely and gleefully liked that Hild and a lot of the other new Christian converts seem to... not really grok Christianity very well. I grew up Catholic so all the stories and memes used in Catholicism make intuitive sense to me, but I adore seeing all the pagans take it all a bit too literally and misunderstand basically everything, rather than being real orthodox true believers. I also like that Christianity is portrayed in a very factious, non-unified manner--many of the priests are perfectly nice, and then there's Paulinus. Paulinus is basically the personification of Churchy Assholery in the story. He's also sort of a shadow Hild character at times, which is very interesting, especially since Hild knows it and Paulinus doesn't seem to.
Recommended for: history dorks, people who aren't scared by big names (seriously, my fellow reviewers, are you all trying to record the fucking audiobook for this or something?), people who want to get dug deep into a world and are willing to do a bit of work to get there. Excellent winter reading. Not beach reading at all, not even by my standards.

Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: nerdynerdy

(Scribble in the margins)

October 9th, 2015

08:58 pm - Pencils, whales, and pronouns in the objective case
As a matter of professional interest and definitely not because I am just a giant nerd anyway, I finally got my hands on a copy of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris, the senior copy editor at The New Yorker, a highly prestigious publication. Full disclosure: I don't read The New Yorker. My interest in The New Yorker extends about as far as being vaguely proud that a friend from my high school days who works as a fact checker there recently became mildly Internet famous for making Alex Trebek say "Turd Ferguson" on air. Other than that, I figure if there's anything good--usually the Borowitz Report--somebody will post a link to it somewhere.
I went into this book prepared to nitpick, due largely to my own prejudices about The New Yorker being maybe a wee bit pretentious, and I nearly immediately found ample stuff to nitpick, since quite early in the book Norris starts talking about dictionaries. Now, when she gets deeper into talking about dictionaries, it turns out that she actually is aware that, for example, "Webster's" is not a brand name and any dictionary can use it, and that some "Webster's" dictionaries are published by Merriam-Webster and others are published by completely unaffiliated publishing houses. But that doesn't stop her from kicking off the section on dictionaries with an announcement that The New Yorker is fully committed to the Webster's "brand," to the exclusion of all other dictionaries--"even Oxford," she says, as if it were somehow surprising that an American publication would limit itself to using American dictionaries and not employ a British dictionary as its spelling reference. Perhaps this book is not aimed at people who actually work with dictionaries, I thought, especially considering that she introduces the book by seeking to dispel a number of myths about copy editors. But then I'm not entirely certain who besides copy editors she expects to be very interested in all the stuff about pencils and the copy editing workflow at The New Yorker and who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick that she gets into in the second half of the book. I, for one, loved the second half of the book, especially the Moby-Dick chapter. (The capstone course for my English degree was an entire semester on Moby-Dick. I have strong, if mixed, feelings about it.)
The real low point of this book is the chapter on gender, and not even entirely because of her rather idiotic insistence that pseudogeneric "he" wouldn't be a problem if people didn't notice it and think it was (which: welcome to literally how words meaning things works) while, as usual, completely glossing over the fact (actual, scientifically studied fact) that singular "they" straight up actually is not a problem because people don't notice it and even people who claim it is Very Very Wrong and one of their Biggest Pet Peeves and are deliberately on the lookout for it so they can correct it manage to miss it at least half the time in other people's speech or writing and can usually be counted upon to use it regularly themselves. (Tom Freeman calls out her use of singular they in this very book over at Stroppy Editor: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-singular-they/). This was, indeed, a disappointing argument to run into, especially after what is a very intelligent discussion of the fundamental flaw in most attempts to come up with new pronouns to fit into the language: most of them try to be logical, so they stick out, where as English is not logical and the whole damn point of pronouns is to blend in. No, most awkward part of the chapter on gender is her somewhat self-congratulatory account of her bumbling journey to accept her transgender sister--who she introduces as her brother, although at least she doesn't deadname her (I think). While I mostly like the personal, autobiographical stuff in this book, I would have been pretty OK if this chapter had stuck to being A Brief History of Pronoun Schemes Academics Have Come Up With To Avoid Admitting Singular They Exists.
The high point of the book, in my opinion, is the chapter on swearing, which is very sweary and thoroughly delightful. Although this is in close competition with the discussion on VICTORIAN COMMA USAGE, because I adore both wacky Victorian writing and fussing over commas, and I admit I've always sort of wondered what passed for "copy editing" back in the day when all the sentences were 50 words long and full of too many commas and stuffed with Significant Caps. Well, now I know! I don't know how many other people feel that their lives are greatly improved for knowing this--maybe it is just me--but I am WAY happy. Oh, and the bit about the pencil convention was golden.
Actually, everything after the third chapter (that being the gender one) had me pretty much completely hooked, full of gossip about the staff at The New Yorker, dryly funny personal anecdotes about really nerdy things, and grammar advice delivered with, huzzah, a good attitude. Idunno, maybe they had to put the weird, less-good-attitude stuff at the beginning to lure in the sort of target audience that reads books by copy editors? Apparently if you start off by saying "I am a professional copy editor and I have no time for fucksticks who think bad grammar signals the End of Civilization and probably think Strunk & White is a good grammar guide, what twerps" you won't retain readers who self-identify as "interested in grammar" for long enough to teach them anything--you have to lure the people who liked Eats, Shoots and Leaves in first. Like how the first few episodes of Orange is the New Black had to be about the middle-class blonde white girl to bring in a middle-class white audience before it could start giving them everyone else's interesting stories. Or that seems to be the going theory for why the first three episodes are kinda weak, anyway. What was I saying? Oh, yes--the book gets less cranky as it goes on.
Also, I am super, super jealous of the sheer number of people involved in the QA process in a New Yorker piece. The place has a separate style editor. A STYLE EDITOR. I want to be one of those when I grow up. I sort of am, at my current place, but I am also the sole copy editor for most pieces, the proofreader, the fact checker, the collator, the person who has the graphic designer input all the changes, and sometimes the formatter. I'm also turning into the foreign languages and geography QA'er, apparently, which I suppose is somewhere between being a style editor and a fact checker at the same time.

(Scribble in the margins)

September 27th, 2015

05:42 pm - Highlanders of the Caribbean
Well, I am on a roll with reading books wrong. In the case of Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series, it's because I got it out of the library, only read 25% of it before I had to return it about two months ago, got back in line, and read the rest of it last week when it finally cycled back to me.
While Outlander took place almost entirely in Scotland, and Dragonfly in Amber brought us as far as France, the aptly named Voyager brings us basically everywhere. Acting on news from the research project she, Brianna, and Roger started in 1968, Claire moves from Boston back to Scotland, travels back through the stone circles at Craigh na Dun to sometime in the 1760s, tracks down Jamie in Edinburgh, and from there a relentless flood of shenanigans takes them all around Scotland, then to France, and then back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean. And that's just the main plotline, from Claire's perspective. We also get POVs from Jamie, as he does all sorts of dramatic Highlander things like hide in a cave for seven years and escape from an English prison; from Roger; and from one Lord John Grey, who seems to have a bunch of his own spinoff novels now.
The book is also kind of all over the place in other ways, too. Some of it is very serious--Jamie's time in Ardsmuir, for example, is pretty dark, treated with all seriousness and mostly not filled with highly improbable action-hero hijinks. Other bits are, uh, not--once they get on a boat everything basically becomes "Highlanders of the Caribbean" and it's all very colorful and almost absurdly action-packed, and develops a serious case of Les Mis-level small world syndrome (you know how in Les Mis, Paris has like twenty people and one policeman and one apartment to rent? In Voyager, the entire British Empire has about twenty people, one ship, and two military officers).
One of the big effects of leaving the rural Scottish highlands is that there are a lot more people of color in this book, which is a thing that can obviously go very wrong very quickly, especially considering the time period is really the height of British colonial power in the New World (it's like, 10 years before the American Revolution starts, I think) and the slave trade is in full swing. I have... mixed feelings about how this is handled. It's clearly well researched, which certainly helps it avoid some of the more common myths and pitfalls about the time (most notably, Gabaldon knows what involuntary indenture is and the ways in which it is similar to and different from chattel slavery; this shouldn't be noteworthy but it is). But the general approach she takes to characterizing pretty much all ethnicities--which is not so much to avoid stereotypes, but to deliberately walk straight into them and then try to build up more perspective/characterization on top of it--works slightly less well with, for example, the one Chinese character--a short, frequently drunk man with very bad English whose skillset is basically a grab bag of Chinese Things, including Chinese herbal medicine, acrobatics, calligraphy, acupuncture, and, of course, magic--than it does with any one of the ten billion Scots that populate the series. (Granted, one of the things I do kind of like about the books is that every culture the characters come into contact with has its own magical traditions and they all appear to work equally well, but the execution can still feel a bit clumsy--like, this random English lady keeps finding herself in situations where every time she meets new people she gets to witness their magic in action. Every single time.) The one Chinese dude is an especially interesting case of both being an interesting character and giving me wincy feelings because he's a fairly major secondary character and he gets a good amount of page time. He's known throughout the book as Mr. Willoughby, which is obviously not his name but was bestowed upon him in a well-meaning but ultimately worse-than-useless attempt to help him blend in. He's sometimes a comic character but other times a very tragic one, especially when you finally learn his backstory--something I found particularly interesting was that a major part of his backstory is that he is actually kind of a sexist dillweed, in the hopeless-romantic-with-ludicrously-unrealistic-views-of-women method that made me like him a bit less as a reader but is clearly a huge point of commonality between him and a lot of the white dudes in the book. By the end of the story I actually did like him, but there were a couple of cringeworthy scenes to get to that point.
Also cringeworthy is an appearance of one of my least favorite tropes EVER, actually I don't really know if it's a trope but I have seen it in one other book at least, which makes two too many--where a nice white lady who is very opposed to slavery gets so upset about it that she winds up owning one, because that is totally a thing that happens, and it is very upsetting, because clearly the important thing about slavery is how hard it would be on anti-slavery white people to be landed with one, and now she has to decide how best to go about being a good white savior, which in both cases I've read have inexplicably involved steps other than "ask person what they want and do it." I partly don't like this trope because it smacks very strongly of "author's personal self-examination and thought exercises leaking onto the paper"; in this case, many of the compounding issues that cropped up in the Jackie Faber book where this happens are thankfully avoided, but at least in the series so far, I can't help but think that the entire subplot with Temeraire could have been completely excised with no harm done to the rest of the book whatsoever.
These are the low points. There are many, many other things going on in this book (these books tend to be pretty densely packed with a wide assortment of Things), including the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (who is a major creeper), our first gay character who isn't predatory and terrible, hints of family backstory and things for Claire's Boston doctor friend Joe Abernathy (JOE ABERNATHY IS GREAT), lots of ladies with lots of agency in different ways all along the moral spectrum, and, as usual, a lot of sex, although kilts have been sadly outlawed at this point so Jamie is reduced to constantly wearing breeches. And have I mentioned the MELODRAMATIC ADVENTURES ON THE HIGH SEAS? It is everything you could want out of a melodramatic adventure on the high seas; I think Gabaldon had a checklist of Stuff That Happens When Adventure On the High Seas and made sure every point got in there somewhere--there is kidnapping, espionage, shipwrecks, slave revolts, an outbreak of plague, naval battles, pirate attacks, smuggling, big storms, seasickness, hardtack with weevils, a Portuguese pirate with too much jewelry and a cutlass, stowaways, a parentally disapproved-of romance, and even a dude with a hook for a hand, although the said dude is Fergus, who we actually met in the last book and who lost his hand long before becoming a sailor. At one point there is even a big hat. (Note: People for whom melodramatic pirate adventures are NOT catnip might find this half of the book frustrating, the way I find cartoon physics in non-cartoon movies frustrating, because it kind of pushes against one's suspension of disbelief sometimes. I'm just willing to overlook this because for me, melodramatic pirate adventures are SUPER CATNIP.)
On a more serious note, the looks we get into the British penal and colonial systems, in Scotland and elsewhere, are really, really well done, I think--they're very informative but also very emotionally engaging, and involve a lot of heavy stuff about power and identity, which is especially apt since the British relied even more heavily on eradicating people's identity to conquer them than they did on brute force (not like brute force wasn't a major component, of course). I particularly appreciate the looks at the basically decent English people who were still complicit in and perpetrators of these colonial systems that very definitely weren't at all about "helping" or "civilizing" any of the people in the lands the British took over and who the English definitely never saw as their fellow countrymen, even the sort of nice ones, no matter what the official imperialist rhetoric was.
This book's story arc never particularly wraps up--it just leads right into the next book, which I have dutifully added to my library queue. The line is shorter than it was for the last few books, so with luck I will have it within a few weeks.

Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: Skye, Bear McCreary

(Scribble in the margins)

September 21st, 2015

09:33 pm - In which there's a lot going on under the surface
Do you ever, like . . . read a book wrong? Because that's sort of what I felt I did with Kai Ashante Wilson's short but intricate debut novel, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Though it's less than 250 pages long, it took me nearly three weeks to read, mostly in small chunks of 10 pages or less.

This is not the recommended way of reading this book. There's too much going on, and it's not all laid out and explained as clearly as one might need if one is, you know, not actually fully paying attention.

The basic storyline is that of a demigod (put simply) named Demane, a healer, who is traveling with a band of mercenaries/security guards to escort a caravan across a magically-guarded road through the Wildeeps to its destination. The road is supposed to be protected from the mysterious time-and-space-bending monster-filled magic of the Wildeeps, but there are reports of something coming onto the road and eating people anyway. Demane and another demigod-posing-as-a-human, who goes by "the Captain," have to protect their fellow mercenaries and hunt down the threat, while simultaneously pretending to be humans and hiding their relationship with each other from the humans, who are apparently not OK with that sort of thing. If that sounds boring, it's because I'm explaining it badly. The narrative is structured nonlinearly, with a lot of flashbacks and bits that are hinted at, and it's a very character-driven story, so the main point of the thing is really more Demane's struggles to find a place within the humans' weird ways of doing things, managing his relationships with all the other fighters in the caravan, and, eventually, learning to go back to and harness his demigodhood to protect them.

The language in the book is a big glorious colorful tapestry of code-switching, blithely ignoring the constraints of any one register or sensibility of real-world history. Some of it dips into a sort of modernist, poetic stream-of-consciousness style; other parts are gory and action-movie-y; some bits are silly to the point of slapstick (some humans are silly to the point of slapstick too, so I supposed that's realism); the setting is mostly in the pseudo-medieval-fantasy vein--although it's more of a McAfrica than McEurope--but there's elements of science fiction, or at least science fiction terminology, woven in there too. There's slang that sounds very modern to my ear, which I admit I could be entirely wrong about since it's mostly Black slang and I'm not very well educated on Black slang, and there's bits of French and Spanish tossed in (which was fun but frankly a little jarring since it's a secondary-world fantasy), and basically the point here is that it's a ridiculous ton of fun if you like playing with language! Also it keeps you on your toes.

People closer to the topic than me have written, and in all likelihood will continue to write, insightful things about what it means that nearly the entire cast of characters in this book is black men, and the two leads are queer black men. I will read those things; right now I'm only going to say that I don't think this should be such a rarity. (Also I don't think reading it damaged my fragile white lady brain or anything.)

I'd be very interested to read more things set in this universe, partly because it was really engaging but also partly because there's clearly a lot more to it than was actually explained in the book itself and now I'm curious. I'm also not sure if this is a standalone novel or the first in a series; it has an abrupt ending that really seems like it could go either way.

Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: none

(Scribble in the margins)

September 8th, 2015

09:37 pm - Not like I didn't have a blast at Disney World though
Anyway, last weekend I finally caught up on Witches Abroad, which I vaguely remember as being "the Cinderella one." Which it is! But I'd forgotten most of the rest of it.
Like many Discworld books, this one is about stories; like many of the Witches books in particular, it is about fairy tales; but this Witches Discworld book, specifically, is about Disneyfication.
The "abroad" where the witches go is a city-state called Genua, which seems to be based in part on New Orleans, but which is being sanitized and forced into basically becoming the Magic Kingdom (it also reminds me of the walled city in Shrek). It's really just Magrat who is supposed to go, officially—after all, Desiderata Hollow left the magic wand to her when she died—but obviously Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax aren't going to let Magrat go off and do anything on her own, so all three of them go, with Granny complaining about "forn parts" the whole way.
While Granny is staunchly (and meanly) provincial, Nanny Ogg is a belligerently enthusiastic and clueless tourist, bulldozing her way through Genua with a hodgepodge of incorrect common phrases from a variety of languages, apparently under the impression that "foreign" is a language and she speaks it. It's hilarious, and probably very embarrassing for Magrat. Magrat is, as usual, ineptly well-intentioned, and can't figure out how to do anything with the wand except turn things into pumpkins.
The entity Disneyfying (Disnifying? Disnefying?) Genua is a fairy godmother named Lilith, who uses mirror magic. This Evil Queen trope makes her scary as hell because she can basically always be spying on people; her whole magical system bears more resemblance to George Orwell's Big Brother than anything else: She's always watching, and she can have you disappeared if you don't behave according to the exact code expected of you. Her goal is to provide everyone with a happy ending, whether they like it or not, which on second thought also has weird Communist dictatorship overtones. I think there's some underhandedly political commentary about authoritarian utopianism going on in this book, y'all. I always missed it because I was too busy focusing on the fairy tales aspect and the puns!
The fairy tale tropes are deconstructed mercilessly, especially once you find out more about Lilith. It involves more mirroring, in a way.
While the sanitized/gentrified/Disneyfied aspect of Genua is handled brilliantly, the New Orleans-y stuff underneath falls a bit flat sometimes—Pratchett is clearly very familiar with his fairy tale tropes and the way they differ from messy reality generally, but he's not as familiar with the voodoo stuff he's incorporating as he is with the rural British cultures he draws on in places like the Ramtops, so some of the jokes feel more obvious than I generally expect from Pratchett and some of them are just plain racially awkward. (Lilith's whitewashing of Genua would have been SUCH a powerful layer if it had been handled a bit better!)
Overall, though, it is basically everything you'd expect and want out of a Witches book, and then a little bit more.

Current Location: a heat wave in september
Current Mood: hot as heck
Current Music: none

(Scribble in the margins)

September 5th, 2015

11:33 am - Genderswapped bugpunk shenanigans
I seem to be getting back into the swing of this whole "book clubs" thing! For my writing group's book club, I just finished reading Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, the first book in her "Bel Dame Apocrypha" series, which appears to be at . . . three books? Four books? A trilogy with a companion novel? Idunno.
Our heroine—or possibly anti-heroine; it's difficult to tell since this is one of those "everybody sucks, but in different ways" sorts of stories—is Nyx, a bel dame, which is a sort of government assassin who mostly is supposed to cut off the heads of "contaminated" soldiers and draft dodgers. This is serious business, because Nyx's world is embroiled in a centuries-long ongoing holy war between her country of Nasheen and its neighboring Chenja, and in Nasheen, the entire Nasheenian male populace is drafted. As a result, women do basically everything else, although a lot of them go to the front, too. (In Chenja, it works a little differently, but most of the men are still drafted.) The world they live on has been laboriously terraformed by magicians to be habitable, but is still an inhospitable desert planet in which bugs are the main power source for most things—from cars to medicine to magic—and biological weapons are common in the war. Overall, the worldbuilding is highly original, very earthy, and extremely gross.
Nyx, through a series of bad life choices, winds up stripped of her bel dame license and running a bounty-hunting operation with a ragtag team of international misfits, which consists of Rhys, a pious Chenjan political refugee and magician of mediocre talent; Khos, a big blond Vikingesque shapeshifter dude who left his strictly sex-segregated homeland of Mhoria because he was too heterosexual to cope (somehow this isn't stupid); Taite, an asylum-seeker from the shapeshifter-hating country of Ras Tieg who isn't properly inoculated and whose pregnant older sister isn't, either; and Anneke, who is I think actually Nasheenian and who is sort of the mechanically handy one and is super into weapons.
Nyx gets issued a note (i.e., a bounty-hunting assignment) by no less illustrious a person than the Queen herself, which is unusual, because the Queen ordinarily does not give notes to disreputable bounty hunters and indeed seems to be attempting to actively circumvent the bel dames, who are supposed to be the government's assassins. The note will pay enough for Nyx and her entire team to peacefully retire, if it doesn't get them all killed. Obviously, that's going to be a BIG "if."
The assignment is to bring in an alien who has gone missing—possibly kidnapped, more likely she ditched the other aliens she came to the planet with and went into hiding—and who, supposedly, could end the war. How, it is not known, but obviously this is kind of a big deal, because if she could end the war in favor of Nasheen then she could also end it in favor of Chenja.
Since the bug tech/magic in this world is quite advanced and biopunky, Nyx and co. are able to sustain a pretty hefty amount of getting shot, tortured, beaten, sunburned, starved, cut up, and generally damaged before they will die, and in certain cases, even death isn't the end—we learn that Nyx has already been resuscitated once before the book's main story even starts. This mission (and Nyx's life in general) is brutal. The actual body count is high—assassins gotta assassinate somehow, after all—but Nyx also goes through organs and limbs like they're going out of style, and all the immigrants on her crew seem to get beaten up, cavity searched, and tossed into boxing rings on the regs. It's the grittiest thing I've read since I listened to that podcast about medieval bread (it had actual grit in it so it wore people's teeth down and gave them abscesses).
I'm also impressed that there's number of tropes in here that could have been crappy if they'd been written by a less skilled or more bitter writer. Nasheen is run entirely by women, with the entire male gender being sidelined to the role of cannon fodder, and it's neither a feminist utopia nor the sort of whiny simplistic oppression-reversal story that has plagued so many decades of sci-fi, but a real-feeling, high-stakes look into the unsustainable human cost of constant warfare. I think one way the book gets avoids having any of these tropes come off badly is that there's such a variety of them—the overarching "shared" culture on the planet is largely technological, plus sectarian violence around what is technically supposed to be the same religion. Outside of that, each country structures its society and its oppressions radically differently, and none of them come off looking particularly good. It's Khos, the giant Viking dog-man who left his homeland because he liked sleeping with women too much, who has the most astute observation in the entire book: All these societies, in their different ways, lack balance, and this lack of balance—these systems of control, separation, and lack of respect—that cut people apart from each other are all really like cutting out a part of yourself, which is why everything on Bugpunk Desert Planet is so endlessly messed up.
This is a high-octane, high-context, action-packed work of grim, cynical, desert-flavored grimdark. It would make an absolutely killer HBO show, and I'm very much looking forward to the book club discussion.

Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: weekending
Current Music: birds chirping and stuff

(Scribble in the margins)

August 30th, 2015

03:21 pm - A girl, a boy, a house, another girl, a crazy housekeeper...
Sometimes I pick up books in odd places. One of the oddest was earlier this August when I was housesitting for my cousins, and I found a trade paperback copy of Daphne du Maurier's classic Gothic romance Rebecca in the pantry.
Well, somehow in all my adventures in Gothic lit I'd never read Rebecca--except for Sarah Rees Brennan's Gothic Tuesday version (http://sarahtales.livejournal.com/192435.html)--plus my Classics book club (the one I haven't been to in a year) is reading it this month, so I stole it borrowed. Borrowed without permission, but with every intention of giving it back. (Which I did.)

My initial thoughts are that Rebecca is one of the absolute house-iest iterations of the "girl meets house" style of Gothic that I have ever, ever read. The book is a weird sort of love triangle between our nameless heroine, her broody and much-older husband, and her husband's dead first wife, except that it's really more of a triangle between the girl, her husband's house, and the dead first wife's influence within the house. Or possibly it's a love triangle between Max and Rebecca and the house, and the heroine is just watching it all trying to figure out what the hell is going on, which she's not very good at (admittedly, neither was I).

Our heroine is never given her own name, and is known throughout the book predominantly as Mrs. de Winter, or often "the second Mrs. de Winter." This is not really entirely because her individual identity is subsumed under her husband's as it is because the psychological conflict surrounding her ability to take on the role of Mrs. de Winter--within the house, within the local society, within the minds of all the people who knew Rebecca--is a driving theme. Being Mrs. de Winter has at least as much to do with being mistress of Manderley as it does being a companion to Max.

Max is, by Gothic romance standards, not all that terrible. This is a low, low bar, since Gothic romance boys are generally creepers of the highest order. Max is about twice as old as our narrator, which is pretty sketchy, and he is, of course, terribly broody, but at least unlike many other terribly broody Gothic heroes he is not all like LET'S TALK ABOUT HOW BROODY I AM ALL THE TIME and seems to be mostly trying to move on and think and talk about other stuff, he's just not good at it. He's also kind of obtuse about what an enormous lifestyle change he's thrust upon our narrator, formerly a penniless middle-class schoolgirl whose only previous occupation was a traveling companion to a hilariously obnoxious American woman, and he ignores her entirely too much once they return to Manderley. There is also the small matter of THE BIG TWIST AT THE END where we learn about what *actually* happened to Rebecca, which I think is where the real literary genius of this work comes in.


So the heroine has spent most of the book thinking that Max loved Rebecca and is sad and haunted that she died tragically, but it actually turns out that he hated her and murdered her when she told him she was having somebody else's child. The heroine is THRILLED at this news that Max is a wife-murdering murderer, having lived in the shadow of everybody (especially Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper) making a lot of noise about how awesome Rebecca was, and some other people making noises about Rebecca that were really vague and which the narrator assumed were about how awesome Rebecca was. How exactly Rebecca is awful is left rather vague in a very literary and infuriatingly Victorian fashion (PS this book was written in the 1930s), but it appears she slept around, was a drug addict, was sleeping with her cousin (oddly enough the fact that it was her first cousin did not seem to weird out any of the characters as much as it did me; the times, they have a-changed apparently), and was cruel to horses and to their mentally disabled neighbor/tenant. Other than that it's just like "she was selfish and rotten" and that is told more than shown, which is unusual for this book, although I think there is enough textual evidence to support the idea that she was highly controlling and narcissistic (as a temperament, not trying to diagnose literary characters with anything here). Anyway it twigged enough of my Ugh I Have Known That Asshole (not ones quite as skilled, thank God) buttons that I too was right on board with Max shooting her, except for the fact that she seems to have been deliberately goading and lying him into it in order to make sure she could still mess with him even after her death. And this is the sort of thing that literature has to be really, really good to accomplish, because I am HIGHLY anti-men-shooting-their-wives as a rule. There are also good solid reasons in real life why you can't go around shooting That Asshole just because they're That Asshole and I am generally on board with keeping those rules in order to have a non-murdery and civilized society, but in literature things are allowed to be more messed up than that.

All in all, while I'm not sure Rebecca is the most romantic of the Gothic romances in the sense we currently use the term "romantic," it's certainly one of the Gothic-iest that I've read in a while, and very much one of the most romanticism-y. It's dark and full of secrets. In addition to the big crumbling house and family mysteries, there's an almost absurd emphasis on natural beauty, mainly the sea and all the flowers around Manderley. The flowers are used to almost every literary purpose that flowers can be used, from being a creepy blood-red to set a creepy tone to being the focus of a weird power play between the heroine and Mrs. Danvers keeping alive the will of the dead Rebecca (JUST PUT THE STUPID VASE OF LILACS WHEREVER OMG). The heroine is highly sensitive and imaginative, and despite failing to pick up on any of the clues about what actually happened with Rebecca, she's more than capable of picking up on every slight and bit of judgment directed at her, of being excruciatingly and paralytically aware of when she doesn't fit in, and generally being an anxiety-brained basket case such as I myself am prone to being. She also spends nearly as much time playing out scenes of how she imagines things have gone or will go in her head as she does actually reporting on stuff that she witnesses happening, which is definitely something I relate to. I actually found myself getting sucked into the heroine's head and going along with whatever she thinks very easily, because not only is the book well-written enough to pull a reader in convincingly, but I actually have a lot in common with the heroine personality-wise and thought-patterns-wise. (Her and Catherine Moreland from Northanger Abbey. Deep down, I essentially am a dimwitted British Gothic novel heroine.)

Apropos of nothing I'm sure, who's going to see Crimson Peak with me this fall?!

(Scribble in the margins)

August 24th, 2015

07:02 pm - This book made me try to draw
Last Monday night and Tuesday I stayed at my mom's place because my brother was in Iceland. Mom had bought a book for him and by the time he got back Tuesday night we had both read it. It took me an hour.

The book is "The Crossroads of Should and Must," by Elle Luna, and it's a fast read because it's heavily illustrated--the writer is also an artist, and the book is beautiful, vibrant and expressive, in a colorful big-brush-strokes-y style that reminds me a bit of the "Max the Dog" books that Tim had when we were kids and a bit of the rainbow-lettered line of life advice inspirational things popular for families in the 90s, of which I still have the "How to Be an Artist" mug.

The specific genre of this book is one I tend to derisively refer to as "inspiration porn," a genre I am generally somewhat dubious of as I find it often to be pretty shallow and frequently victim-blamey ("Feeling stressed out about all the stressful shit going on in your life? That's your own fault for choosing to be stressed! Just, like, stop feeling stressed out about things, maaan!") and I have developed the admittedly cynical belief that, in large part, the role of self-help/productivity-boosting literature in our culture is to deflect attention away from the structural and cultural shenaniganry that keep us a society of permanently stressed-out unhappy people and set us up for a life of constantly "improving" ourselves instead of the society we live in (worst offender: "Who Moved My Cheese?"). But on the other hand, I am also all for self-improvement and continual growth and lifelong learning and all that sort of thing, which is probably why I end up reading so much self-helpy stuff anyway even though I end up hating most of it.

That said, this is a pretty down-to-earth book as far as inspirational writing goes. It's full of "actionable" ideas--so many that you're free to pick and choose and combine them and make up your own if any occur to you, rather than being dictated to that this is how to do it--it's not one of those One Weird Trick to Becoming a Happy Healthy Hyperproductive Capitalist Robot And Liking It pieces. And it doesn't promise any quick fixes--a lot of it is about planning, asking questions, and developing awareness of things you might be thinking or doing unconsciously (what the rest of the self-help game calls "mindfulness", I guess, and academia calls "deconstruction"--what am I actually doing right now and why am I doing it?).

This book would take a lot longer than an hour to read if I actually stopped and asked myself all the questions, which I didn't. I should read it again and do that sometime, although it's likely I won't. I should especially do this because I have far too many interests, so I have trouble settling into a "passion" or a "calling"--sometimes I feel like I ought to say it's writing because it's the most productive and has the biggest community of people for whom it is also their passion around it, rather than because I myself actually have stories to tell. I feel like most of the time I more want to acquire things than produce them--acquire stories, skills, languages, experiences, knowledge--also some actual stuff, to be honest, like a Disney villian mansion--and that I feel like I ought to produce or create rather than just consume, more as a moral imperative than an actual drive of my own. And I procrastinate on writing fabulously--I go to the gym every morning, I read about 75 books a year, I write reviews for all of them, I've started taking Irish and I keep finding myself actually studying outside of class, I have too many friends (HOW DID THAT HAPPEN) and I guess I clean a lot now? Reading this book made me want to write, but also to draw, and also to study Irish harder and practice Tarot and write better reviews than I've been doing. What I actually did was finish the bowl of ice cream I was eating and wash the dishes, then I picked up my paper journal and wrote the first draft of this review. It's been nearly a year since I used my paper journal; I think I need to journal more as well I think--I always feel better when I do. And now I'm thinking about how I've tied up all my writing stuff SUPER ORGANIZEDLY into a whole complicated mess of computers and it's made it difficult for me to write if everything isn't just so--if I don't have all my shit with me but also am out of the house. That's dumb. I should make it easier for myself to write, not harder.

I really should reread the book and make myself a plan. I like to plan. I should probably create a system of incentives, too.

Ach, weel. As of when I first read this book I have suddenly become extremely broke, so I am sure I will have plenty of time to sit around and work on all the things as I must necessarily give up all my optional spending for a little bit.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: quiet

(Scribble in the margins)

July 25th, 2015

09:14 am - Magical art powers
So far, one of the most-hyped books I've seen this summer was Shadowshaper. Granted, I deliberately sought out a bunch of the hype because I loved Daniel José Older's adult "ghost noir" fantasy books, Half-Resurrection Blues and Salsa Nocturna. But then it was actually released, and even more hype appeared, in places I was not expecting it--Holly Black's review in the New York Times, for instance, or Kate Beaton praising it on Twitter.

I had deliberately chosen to avoid preordering it so I could buy it at Readercon and get the author to sign it. I had deliberately chosen to torment myself.

After a brief heart attack when the Crossed Genres table said they only had limited copies available so we should all hurry up--I had to be late for the con because of work so this scared me--I finally arrived at Readercon, and ran immediately to the dealer's room to get two copies (one for me, one for a friend) before I keeled over dead.

Now recovered from Readercon (except financially) and not deaded, I can say that I have read Shadowshaper and it was quite worth all the running around and flailing.

Shadowshaper is the story of Sierra Santiago, a 16-year-old street artist in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn (i.e. the current one). Sierra's project for the summer is to paint a mural of a big old dragon on the side of an abandoned monstrosity of a development project in the Junklot, near where all her old dude neighbors play dominoes. Things start to get weird when she notices that one of the other murals in the Junklot, a portrait of a now-deceased neighbor, is fading--and crying. Also, her grandfather--who hasn't spoken coherently in over a year, since he had a stroke--suddenly starts apologizing and telling her to hang out with Robbie, a tattoo-covered Haitian kid at her school. And then a thing that's basically a zombie shows up at a house party and chases her, at which point things are definitely weird and she's not imagining it.

This confluence of weird things is how Sierra finds out she's a shadowshaper, a type of sorcerer who can channel whatever spirits are present into art, bringing the art alive and giving the spirits form and herself access to the spirits' power. It's a very original and thoroughly enviable form of magic power, and one that I (and probably every other reader of the book) instantly coveted. The shadowshaper community is in a sorry state, though, having been hijacked by male chauvinism and anthropology over Sierra's lifetime, which is why she didn't know about it.

Sierra, her awesome wisecracking friends, tattooed cute shadowshaper Robbie, Sierra's brother Juan who is in a salsa thrash band, a librarian at Columbia, and Sierra's possibly-a-gangster godfather all must band together to find the mysterious, powerful ancestral spirit Lucera and save the shadowshaping tradition from the machinations of a power-hungry anthropologist named Dr. Wick, who has gotten a little too deep into multiple of the spiritual traditions he studies and is, apparently, miffed that he hasn't been accepted as the #1 most powerful leader in all of them, like the sweeping-in-late-outsider white dude always does in stories like Dancing with Wolves/Dune/Avatar/any of a number of others. He's convinced that the shadowshapers need to be "saved," for a value of "saved" that apparently involves killing a bunch of them, and he has to be the one to do it.

Daniel José Older is not shy about his political views, especially the view that white people need to learn when to stay in their lane, and while he is extra not-shy about them on panels and on Twitter (seriously, everybody go follow him on Twitter), the book is also a pretty explicitly political book (all his books are). Because he is a very smart dude, he doesn't believe that there's such thing as a non-political book, just books that don't acknowledge their politics or explore them intelligently and ones that do. This particular book explores issues of gender, race, gentrification, the imperialist history of anthropology, street harassment, ethnic identity (this is different than race), plus the YA staples of family, finding out unflattering things about grown-ups in your family, and taking on adult roles and responsibilities. There is a lot of a lot of stuff going on here, is what I'm saying. It is both built into the fabric of the plot and, often, called out explicitly, which I know is not necessarily everyone's bag but would probably be kind of weird not to do, because I think most people occasionally do try to talk about stuff that's going on with other people. It also establishes Sierra as an intelligent straight-talker who's not afraid to call out bullshit--or in some cases, who becomes not afraid to call out bullshit, which is a vital growing up skill.

A big part of the book is Sierra's sense of identity and place as a black Puerto Rican in Brooklyn, and as an outsider to all of these things (seriously, I think the last time I went to Brooklyn was when my great-grandmother was alive, for her surprise 90th birthday party, which is not what killed her don't worry) I am not in any way qualified to be having opinions on how this is approached or portrayed--the author knows more about this than I do, for obvious reasons--but what I will say is that, to someone not very familiar with this milieu, it's very vibrant and grounded, with a palpable sense of place and culture that permeates everything and makes it all feel cohesive and natural. Like, sometimes people know exactly what they're talking about but they're not very good at bringing it alive for other people, and this does not seem to be one of those cases. And I love, love, love that the city functions like a city--and especially like a city at this current moment in time for U.S. cities--with street-harassing douchebags yelling gross things at you when you walk down the street, and public transit taking like ten goddamn years to get anywhere, and the lightning speed of gentrification turning things into Starbuckses every time you look away for a second--all that I am in a place to tell you is all VERY TRUE STUFF these days. (The place is Boston, supposedly the most rapidly gentrifying city in the U.S. right now.)

Anyway, all of that is wrapped up in a big loud fun fast-moving ACTION FANTASY PLOT of FANTASY ACTION, with FIGHTING CHALK NINJAS and SNOTTY OLD CHURCH GHOSTS and DRIVING REAL FAST and SNEAKY INFILTRATION OF LIBRARIES and ZOMBIE ATTACKS and WITTY BANTER and all that fun stuff. And a lot of stuff about music, which I personally sometimes find a bit weird to deal with in books because my imagination fails me, but in this case I now really want salsa thrash to be a thing. (Is it a thing? Can someone make it so, if not?) And there is of course an Obligatory Romance, which, me being me, I believe has two main things going for it: it is blessedly straightforward (no triangles! no creepy starting-off-hating-each-other!) and the dude is not an overbearing twit. (For anyone unfamiliar with my general reactions to romances--which are divided into "wanting to punch one of the parties" and "not wanting to punch either of the parties"--that was a positive assessment.)

Oh, and the librarian character was the best, because librarians are the best. Except for sometimes when Sierra's friends are the best, because they are all full of hilarious one-liners.

(Scribble in the margins)

July 21st, 2015

06:49 pm - Snow globes and sucking at darts
I hadn't remembered Reaper Man as being one of the mid-series Discworld novels, but we're definitely getting into mid-series now. And mid-series Discworld is generally the best Discworld; I hadn't remembered it as being one of the particularly good ones either.

Upon rereading it with Mark who Reads Things, it turns out that this is likely just because I only read it once, in ninth grade. I vaguely remembered it as the one where Death becomes a farmer, although I'd forgotten why. Reaper Man is a thoughtful exploration of the role of death in our lives and what it means to have only finite time in our lives--at least, it is when it's not full of madcap puns and zombies and animated compost heap monsters.

I'd also forgotten that this book is where we are introduced to the Auditors, who are existentially terrifying.

The Auditors are much like Dementors except that they are terrifying in a boring soulless way instead of in a traditionally terrifying soul-sucking way. They have no personal identities and they keep the universe running in an orderly and predictable fashion, which is not really how it all ends up working once you get near the Discworld. They fire Death for, essentially, developing too much personality. (Because soulless business culture FOR THE UNIVERSE.)

Death, now with a small batch of time in his hourglass before he gets annihilated, goes to work on a farm down on the Discworld, harvesting crops for an old widow lady named Mrs. Flitworth. Here he becomes Bill Door, and learns about his neighbors in a more individualized and human fashion than he ever has known his assignments before. Unfortunately, with no Death, the natural circle of life is disrupted--people can't die, and neither can animals, really, and apparently neither can general nature life-energy organic matter stuff, hence the animated compost heap. As the extra life energy builds up and people who were supposed to die float around being ghosts or zombies or whatever and generally not passing on, some other unknown thing shows up, a parasitical thing that seems to want to leach all this extra life out of the city. Windle Poons, a very ancient wizard who manages to become a sort of zombie out of sheer willpower when he dies and can't reincarnate, investigates, along with a ragtag band of undead creatures and a bunch of typically useless wizards all hepped up on saying "yo." Along the way, Poons learns more about life than he'd ever arsed himself to learn while he was alive.

The friendship between Death/Bill Door and Mrs. Flitworth is far and away the most touching part of the book, especially the bittersweetly comic bits near the end as Death tries to make sure she has the best death ever in return for all she's taught him. Mrs. Flitworth also gets mad props for being so accepting of Death even when she finds out who he is.

The book is a good one to read after the recent passing of Sir Pterry himself, as it's all about accepting Death as a natural and necessary thing, and not in too cheesy a way, either.

Current Location: lower allston
Current Mood: hothot
Current Music: Grateful Dead

(Scribble in the margins)

July 17th, 2015

09:57 pm - Hananja's Law is peace, and also scary as all get-out
When I heard N.J. Jemisin speak at Arisia, she mentioned that she had written her Dreamblood duology before the Inheritance trilogy, but hadn't been able to sell it. She gave two reasons for this: one, that it was "too weird," and two, that there weren't any white people in it.

To the second point, I say: There were so white people in it! There were two; they both died tragically for plot-furthering reasons in the first 10% of the book. That counts, right?

Anyway. Now that that's out of my system, on to the first objection: the weirdness.

Yes, The Killing Moon is weird. It's very weird. And I loved it for its weirdness. It's thoroughly imaginative and highly original, drawing from a lot of real-world mythological and religious stuff and recombining and extrapolating it into nothing remotely resembling anyone's D&D campaign. The main civilization in it, Gujaareh, is very loosely based on ancient Egypt, mainly in that it floods once a year and death is a huge part of the religion and it's in the desert. And there's some stylistic "McEgypt" flavoring, as Jemisin put it.

In this world, there are four humors in the human body: dreamblood, dreamseed, dreambile, and dreamichor. They all have magical properties if you know how to use them, and they are all secreted during dreaming.

In Gujaareh, dreaming is very serious magical and religious business. The various orders of the religion harvest these dream-humors and can do magic with them. Mostly healing. But a few priests, the most revered and important, are called Gatherers, and what they gather is dreamblood. To heretics and outsiders, they kill people. The view from inside Gujaareh is more complex: Gatherers usher people into Ina-Karekh, the land of dreams, and help them construct what I in my utter lack of Jemisinian poeticism can only describe as their "happy place," where their soul will be at peace; then they cut the cord between their soul and their body so they die peacefully. The cost for this service is merely the tithe of dreamblood.

Gujaareh faithful believe this is an awesome system; predictably, it creeps basically everyone else the fuck out. Especially when you consider that there are two ways someone can be marked to be Gathered--one is if they request it, due to injury or disease or some other pain they wish to not endure any longer; the other is if the holy orders deem them corrupt. Corruption is not tolerated in Gujaareh. Or so it is believed.

The plot of this book is about four Gatherers--well, three Gatherers and a Gatherer-Apprentice--and a badass lady diplomat from neighboring Kisua exposing a tangled web of lies, secrets, and coverups that may indicate that corruption in Gujaareh goes right to the top, and war may be right around the corner.

If that sounds all too insubstantial and shadowy and political for you, here's the fun part: They're tipped off that something is rotten in the state of not-at-all-McDenmark because there's a Reaper running around, Reaping souls. A Reaper is basically what happens when a Gatherer goes corrupt and scraps all the peace and providing a service bit of Gathering and just rips people's souls out of their bodies and eats them. It is bad times all around.

So that's all I'm going to say about the plot.

Since the magic in this system is predominantly done mentally (there are a few physical props they use, but not many) and takes place literally in dreamland, and is so heavily intertwined with religious faith, the fantasy aspect of this book and the psychological novel/character-driven aspect of the book must be closely intertwined, and Jemisin pulls it off beautifully. The characters feel real and even relatable, and very human, even as their psychologies are clearly shaped so much by these forces and powers and beliefs that we don't have in our world. This is hard to do and very impressive, I think. And it means, for me at least, that the world was able to really suck me into it, becoming rich and real-feeling without a lot of pages of scene-setting info-dumping descriptions. The language helped too--the whole book is written in a distinctly nonmodern register, although not so flowery or stylized that it slows down the way reading actual ancient texts does. Although I did end up reading a lot slower than I often do with big epic fantasy books, because I did want to stop and savor the language and think about what was going on, since it's definitely far enough off the usual beaten path of familiar fantasy tropes that I think if I'd just ripped through it the way I rip through, say, Discworld books (which are all about the familiar fantasy tropes), I'd miss a lot and get confused.

I want to talk more about the specific characters but I'm not sure how to do that in a way that's not enormously spoilery. Sunandi, the Kisua diplomat, is a great, great character--flawed, mostly by being enormously judgy of the Gujaareh religion, but smart and powerful and full of agency, and also one of the more "normal" viewpoint characters for a modern reader, probably, in that she's not an adherent of a wacky death cult. Nijiri, the Gatherer-Apprentice, is a fierce protagonist--I feel like I want to peg him as the protagonist because the storyline turns out to be a sort of terrifying coming-of-age narrative for him, and I read so many YA/coming-of-age stories that it's easy for me to latch on to seeing that as the central narrative character arc, but I think you could probably make a good case that he and Sunandi are co-protagonists. Nijiri was born servant-caste before he was taken into the priesthood and he's extremely strong-willed, which could have been a bad combination in the outside world but generally serves him well throughout this story: he refuses to give up no matter what monsters are roaming around the city or how screwed up his mentor Ehiru gets.

I feel like I'm doing an awful job talking about this book. It deserves a much more careful review than I can give now. Maybe when I finish the duology I can offer more complete and coherent thoughts on the series as a unit.

Current Location: Lexington, MA
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: none

(Scribble in the margins)

08:39 pm - In the hills of Connemara
Occasionally, I pick up books in odd places.

It's not necessarily odd that I got a book from my Dad--he's not a huge reader (we think he's dyslexic) but he does read--but it's a bit odd that I got this book from my dad, since he rarely reads fiction. In fact, the last time my Dad really bothered to read fiction, he tells me, is when he was working in London shortly before I was born, and for a while had to work the graveyard shift so he could be on the same time frame as his colleagues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. This is how, when Dad was cleaning his house out last year, I ended up with his rather yellowed mass market paperbacks of Walter Macken's historical fiction trilogy about "the dark periods in Irish history," which isn't very specific if you know much about Irish history. The three dark periods covered in the trilogy are the Cromwellian conquest, the Famine, and the War of Independence/Civil War (in Irish history, those two wars happened right on top of each other). One famous dark period not represented in this trilogy is the Troubles, because these books are older than I am, and the Troubles were still going on around the time my Dad was working in the U.K., at least according to the stories he tells of being Randomly Selected for extra scrutiny every time he got on a plane out of there, being a young 6'4'' ginger man with a name like "Fitzgerald." (I think being Randomly Selected back then was not as invasive as getting Randomly Selected is now though.)

Anyway, I digress. So far I've only read the first book in the trilogy, the Cromwellian one, titled Seek the Fair Land, a reference to the main characters' quest to flee the ever-encroaching Puritan English and eke out a more-or-less independent existence in the mountains of Connacht.

Our protagonist is Dominick McMahon, a merchant in the city of Drogheda, a bit north of Dublin. (If I recall correctly, he was originally from Ulster and displaced sometime during the Plantation or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Dominick really can't catch a break.) When Drogheda is razed and his wife dies in the attack, Dominick takes his daughter Mary Anne, his son Peter--now mute as the result of a head injury sustained in the invasion--and the kindly priest Sebastian and flees west, on the advice of a big Gaelic warrior named Murdoc who he'd saved and befriended in another invasion of Drogheda a few years earlier, when the Gaelic Irish took the city from an earlier wave of English.

The book takes place over several years, during which a specific antagonist appears: Coote, who is made Governor of Galway City. Coote is fanatically supportive of Cromwell's goals of either converting or exterminating the Irish, using a combination of political promises, economic pressure, and sheer brutality to subdue all resistance from a people he sees as being heathens and therefore basically not human. His job is to be Cromwell's arm in Galway, and his characterization is basically that he is, indeed, Cromwell's arm in Connacht, which is more characterization than you'd expect. The Cromwellian invasion was pretty fucked up. Coote was a real person who eventually died of smallpox in Dublin, but this version of him is better because Murdoc stabs him in Galway City, which is quite satisfying for the reader, after spending 200 pages reading about people being starved and tortured and hanged and imprisoned and sold to the sugar plantations in Barbados (something like 40% of the Irish population was killed or displaced during the Eleven Years' War, so there was quite an ugly variety of things that could happen to them).

Murdoc and Sebastian essentially represent two different and often conflicting ideals of native Irish manhood, with Murdoc being the paganistic, man-of-the-land brehon warrior sort and Sebastian embodying the importance of Catholic identity as a basis for Irish identity. Dominick spends much of his emotional and mental energy navigating between the two and their equally strong, if often opposing, convictions, wrestling with despair, self-doubt, self-interest, compassion, hatred, and all the other emotions that those of us whose sense of self is somehow damaged or underdeveloped have to deal with. (Most of his physical energy, obviously, goes into fighting, hiding, tracking, hunting, digging graves, and rescuing people).

This book was written in the mid-twentieth century and bears some of the stylistic flaws of genre fiction in the time before word processors, namely, clunky sentences that really could have used a few more rounds of line editing; relatively flat female characters with limited roles who could have used a few more rounds of beta-reading by a female beta reader; and an annoying affinity for using the word "rape" when discussing ravages of towns, cities, the land, and other things that are places rather than people.

As far as my limited research will allow, the historical aspects of this book seem pretty accurate, at least in terms of places and dates and people and things that happened in the war. Culturally, I dunno! One thing that I noticed that I am now really intrigued about is that this book still portrays a fairly sharp distinction between Gaelic Irish (Os and Macs) and the Anglo-Normal families as late as 1650, whereas I had thought they had pretty well assimilated by then ("more Irish than the Irish themselves and all that.) But it turns out that may have been exaggerated later for nationalism reasons (although as a Fitz I want to be like NO DEFINITELY THEY'RE IRISH!) (Note: Wikipedia calls the Fitzgeralds a "notable Hiberno-Norman family" and lists Hiberno-Normans as distinct from both Normans and Gaelic Irish) and it was really the Protestant suppression the beginning of which this book chronicles that led to the "Old English" becoming considered actually regular Irish people.

Um, anyway. If you like lots of history nerdery and you want some Game of Thrones-level violent fuckery but only 200 pages of it instead of 2 million, you could do worse than following Dominick on his starving-in-the-mountains adventures.

Current Location: Lexington, MA
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: none

(Scribble in the margins)

July 16th, 2015

08:32 pm - In Which It May or May Not Be Valentine's Fault that Timothy Is Short
I read Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame in about a day, which is pretty much the exact same thing I did with both of the first two books in this series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret.

The title of this one is a bit more literal than the first two--the book is about fire. Much of the series has already been about fire: Timothy Wilde's parents died in one; his larger-than-life older brother Valentine is a firefighter; and, of course, he got half his face burned off at the beginning of Book 1. As a predictable consequence, Timothy Wilde is terrified of fire.

So it's only fitting that the final mystery in the series would be an arson case.

At least one thread in the plot seems deceptively simple: When sleazy robber baron industrialist and hella corrupt Democratic Party alderman Robert Symmes reports the arson to Timothy and Valentine, he also hands them a convincing suspect pretty immediately: a women's labor rights activist whom he had fired after an unsuccessful strike. He also seems to have proof in the form of creepy threatening letters that Sally Woods, the activist in question (who lives in a greenhouse with a printing press and wears pants and is generally awesome) had sent him.

Obviously, it's not going to be that simple.

For starters, when Robert Symmes asks Valentine to investigate the arson, he pisses Valentine off so badly that Valentine decides to run against him for Alderman, which upsets nearly everybody because of a long-ass list of Tammany Hall-related Reasons. Like, Timothy isn't even the person who is the most pissed off about this--that would be Gentle Jim, Valentine's boyfriend. The circumstances under which Symmes pissed Valentine off are also ones that intersect with both Timothy's detective work and a lot of long-running personal and family issues for Valentine, who honestly seems to be in competition with Tim for which one of them can be the most messed up. (Or more likely, it is Tim that is in competition with Valentine.)

The resulting plotlines draw Tim--and us--deeper into the world of corrupt Tammany politics, and into the horrifically exploitative world of women's industrial labor in the mid-nineteenth century, including the prejudices endured by the white in-house factory girls, the abuses heaped upon the out-of-house freelance seamstresses (mostly immigrants), and the even more horrific abuses employed to divert immigrant/refugee women into the sex trade (this story takes place at the height of the Hunger, so: lots of very destitute Irish washing up in New York). There are good cops and bad cops and good corrupt politicians and bad corrupt politicians, and while I usually found it pretty easy to slate characters into Awesome Characters and Characters I Want To Punch Up The Bracket, in the actual situations on the ground Timothy doesn't always know who's a "good guy" and who's a "bad guy" (except Alderman Symmes, where the only question is just HOW reprehensible is he really) (answer: TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE), and winds up in all sorts of awkward situations like "working with his nemesis Silkie Marsh" and, as previously mentioned, "trying to solve a crime on behalf of Alderman Symmes."

Some readers have apparently complained that there is not enough Valentine, probably because they want the book to be all Valentine all the time, which is understandable enough. Valentine Wilde is both the hero this version of New York City needs and that it deserves. Timothy is not very good at heroing, which is what makes him such an excellent actual protagonist. But Valentine is totally big on heroing, doing ALL THE DRUGS and banging ALL THE LADIES (AND SOME OF THE DUDES TOO) (MOSTLY JIM) and speechifying ALL THE RABBLE-ROUSING SPEECHES and dressing ridiculously and running into fires and slamming rapists' heads through walls and basically being a Big Damn Hero and also entertainingly batshit. His and Timothy's relationship continues to be a thing of beauty to read, meaning they fight even worse than me and my brother Timothy ever did--which is sayin' something, but I don't think Tim and I have ever devolved into a giant screaming match about how much we hate each other in front of extremely important political personages, at least not as adults. This Tim and Valentine will have giant I-hate-you screaming matches at any time in front of any person, about literally anything, from Valentine's sex life to why Timothy is short. All these topics eventually end up illuminating something about their extremely complicated relationship, because fiction is supposed to have less pointlessness in it than real life.

Anyway, if the book were all Valentine all the time, we also wouldn't get as much of everyone else--not Bird Daly, on her way to becoming a teenager; Elena Boehm, whose accent gets more pronounced every book for some reason I still haven't figured out; Dunla Duffy, an immigrant seamstress whose half-simple Gaelic poeticism makes getting information out of her a whole new mystery plotline in itself; Mercy Underhill, back in New York and with something unidentifiably wrong going on; Tim's squad of Irish roundsmen buddies, including the one who falls in love with a police-hating immigrant woman because she nearly shot him; Gentle Jim Playfair, with whom Tim begins building a real friendship independent of Valentine; pants-wearing activist Sally Woods; the fictionalized version of George Washington Matsell, first head of the NYPD; or spectacles-wearing wannabe-dandy newsboy Ninepin and his crew (but mostly Ninepin)--even the bad guys, like Grand Bitch Silkie Marsh and Alderman Robert "That Guy" Symmes, are worth every minute of their time on the page. Usually in a book this big there's something that I figure could have been edited down, even if I don't personally mind, but with Faye's stuff I need every single interaction between every single character that takes place. All I need is for someone to have an asshole cat and I might have actually died of awesome casting.

Despite all the screaming and arson and oppressed laborers (and an ACTUAL TARRING AND FEATHERING OMG), much of this book is still funny. Partly this is due to Timothy's entertaining internal narration -- he is very clever when he is not being dense as a brick--and a big chunk of it is due to his wacky pseudodetective sidekick, Mr. Jakob Piest, a Dutch policeman with a talent for "finding things." But the funniest part of the book is Timothy voting for the first time in his life, which doesn't sound all that exciting until you get up close and personal with just how absurdistly corrupt the Tammany Hall voting machine was at that time. And how terribly loud the "dandy" fashions of the era were. Apparently, an orange cravat and getting completely shitfaced were mandatory for voting in this time period.

As always, the flash patter remains one of my singularly favorite aspects of the book, but I really have to take a step back and admire how seamlessly this thieves' cant fits into the rest of the worldbuilding, with different characters' use of and reactions to it informing their already rich characterization. This New York is pretty hardcore awful, but it's not a one-dimensional pseudo-deep grimdark -- it's as rich and thrilling and satisfyingly devourable as a Guinness chocolate cake.

Current Location: Lexington, MA
Current Mood: geekygeeky
Current Music: Irish music in my head

(Scribble in the margins)

June 30th, 2015

09:04 pm - Vive la France, vive l'Ecosse
Do you know what book cycled REALLY QUICKLY through the BPL system? The second Outlander book, Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber. When I put it on hold after finishing Outlander in April, I was like number 70-something in the queue. I got the book from the library in sort-of-late May and finished it June 2. (Yeah, so I'm behind on reviews.)

In this one, Claire and Jamie go to France to try and stop Charles Stuart's disastrously ill-conceived rebellion against the British crown from ever happening. Obviously, all does not go according to plan, although it might be going according to fate. They take over Jamie's cousin's wine business while he is away on a business trip and ingratiate themselves with the Jacobite factions in France, basically trying to get them to write off Bonnie Prince Charlie as a bad bet and not finance his rebellion.

In addition, Black Jack Randall keeps showing up to be an antagonist, continually finding new and inventive ways to be completely awful to Claire, Jamie, and anyone else who's around. Much of the conflict that crops up between Claire and Jamie is related to Claire's desire that Black Jack not be killed until his child is conceived, so that Frank doesn't get disappeared from the future, and Jamie's quite understandable desire to kill Black Jack immediately before he can ruin anybody else's life.

Around this story there's a fun frame mostly from the POV of Reverend Wakefield's adopted nephew, Roger MacKenzie, who meets a now much-older Claire and her twenty-year-old daughter Brianna in 1968 and begins to piece together what happened to Claire back in 1948. And Roger turns out to have some of his own connections to Claire's story, too.

The first thing that really struck me about this book is that it's bleeding enormous, and I say this as someone who likes bleeding enormous books. But this series is really shaping up to be a big, sprawling, hardcore-everything saga. Major, major upheavals occur a few times per book, and this one seems like at least four books in one--the first 1968 section, the France section, the back in Scotland for the uprising section, and the second 1968 section with its plotline about Geillis Duncan.

I like 'em all, though! And I particularly like Claire as a character, although I still think book-Jamie is much more of a jerk than TV-Jamie. But while book-Jamie is less perfect as a romantic object to me, he's still a very, very interesting character, and I think the book does a solid job of examining the aftermath of what happened to him at the end of Outlander and his attempts to reestablish his sense of self.

While there's definitely bits of this book that could have stood to have been edited down a bit, for the most part I think that there's a hell of a lot going on in these 800 pages. One of the major themes is power--both society-wide and individual--and the effects of having power and being put under the power of others has on people. Another major theme, obviously, is whether or not they can influence history, and while I probably could write a whole review just about the How Does Time Work In This Universe question, I basically refuse to have that conversation ever again, so I'm pretty cool with the fact that nobody in the series so far knows anything about it either. There's court intrigue; there's a lot of medical stuff; there's some weird stuff about magic and occultism; there's a lot of people conflating medical stuff and occultism, as usual. Babies and pregnancy also feature heavily in this one, and not in a sugar-coated way--the book explores issues of reproductive choice and coercion, what lineage/heritage do and don't mean, what it means to be a "real" parent, the emotional toll of miscarriage.

Despite my general inability to care about the sex scenes--of which there are a LOT--I've found myself pretty invested in Claire and Jamie's relationship, and not just as a cross-temporal study. I'm freakin' hooked on this series. It feeds my history dorkery, my morbid cravings for horrendously hardcore-everything drama, my "kickass ladies" comfort zone, basically everything. Hopefully one of these books I'll have the time and drive to sit down and do a full proper review that is pages and pages long and is full of my opinions about specific bits of it, but for right now, that just seems too daunting! It's so daunting it's actually been three weeks since I finished the book and I've been putting off writing a review for it. Bad self.

(Scribble in the margins)

June 11th, 2015

10:32 pm - *eats banged grains*
One of the books I was most excited for when Mark Oshiro started reading Discworld was Moving Pictures. Once he started reading it, to my surprise, I became even *more* excited, because I had not known that apparently he spent a good chunk of time living in Hollywood, and Moving Pictures is about Hollywood. Would Mark, for once, be prepared?

He was not. No one can ever be quite prepared for Moving Pictures, although it is good to have a solid background in movie references, to fully understand all the ungodly number of jokes.

Moving Pictures is strictly in the "a Modern Thing gets invented, Discworld-style, and chaos ensues" tradition of Discworld plotlines, which is unabashedly my favorite Discworld plot type. In this case, the movies are invented, as one might guess from the title, and a small town devoted to making movies springs up in a desert, and is called Holy Wood. People start being called to go there. Victor Tugelbend, a fairly boring, generically handsome, surpassingly lazy student wizard, is one of them. He is apparently called to be a fairly boring, generically handsome action hero/romantic lead with dashing moustaches, or something. He teams up with a talking mutt named Gaspode the Wonder Dog to try and figure out what is going on with this whole Holy Wood thing and why everyone is acting strange, especially why Victor's usual film opposite, Ginger--a smart, driven, interesting character whose role as a starlet means that in films all she gets to do is look sultry and be rescued--keeps sleepwalking and trying to dig a hole in the ground on the outskirts of the city.

This is the... tenth Discworld book, I think, and it does a lot to further establish and develop the rules of reality on the Discworld--especially the roles of story and belief, which are a huge theme throughout the entire series. It also has some pretty hilarious critiques of certain story tropes that are basically dumb, and a lot of fairly biting satire about the corrosive, greedy, exploitative, appearance-obsessed aspects of Hollywood culture. But it also shows love for the magic and splendor of movies and storytelling, and thus avoids becoming cranky elitist trash. Also it has a shameless cartoon-chase scene, which is not particularly elitist either. The metahumor and references certainly have created a monster in that so much comedy following Pratchett has gone down those paths so hard they've ended up well up their own arseholes, but in this case, it works beautifully--genre fiction, movie melodrama included, being a thing that relies so heavily on being "in conversation with" other stories in order to exist and function and to train its audience into understanding its shorthands.

Overall, definitely one of the more memorable Discworld books for me. Now let's see what happens when we get to Soul Music!

(Scribble in the margins)

June 5th, 2015

I've been dropping the ball pretty hard on a lot of my book clubs, and BSpec's book club to read Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem is no exception, except that I actually DID make it to the book club. I was surreptitiously (OK, not that surreptitiously) attempting to read the last 10% or so of the book during the meeting, and I finished the book the following morning.

This is not because the book was not good. It's because parts of the book were not good, and when I got to those parts, I'd space out and spend time dicking around on my phone or thinking judgmental thoughts about real life things (don't ask) and otherwise not making any progress despite sitting on the couch or my bed for pretty substantial periods of time. But the bits that were good were really good, which is why I kept attempting to read.

Three-Body Problem is a Chinese novel that has a lot of elements of what I'm familiar with as sort of Golden Age-y/"classic" science fiction, including both the fun bits that make me feel like I ought to read more classic sci-fi and the doofy bits that are why I don't. I can certainly see why the more dedicatedly sci-fi-oriented parts of SF/F fandom like it, but I think it could have been edited down one or two hundred pages (probably the same way a lot of sci-fi fans feel about the long Victorianesque food-porn-ridden fantasy doorstoppers I like to read).

Things that were good included everything to do with the video game, the space bits at the end with folding the proton, the story of the Trisolaran listener, the characterization of the one character who actually has characterization (she's the bad guy, but whatever), the one scene where they actually use the bloody nanofilaments that are the whole reason the "protagonist" is even in the story, and some of the discussion about the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese political situations in general. I was also kind of impressed at the way it managed to provide a sympathetic look at pretty much all sides of the conflict--it was nihilistic as shit, but I really felt for the aliens who were going to invade, and the humans who sold the planet out to the aliens, and the "evil" environmentalists, and also the people who, you know, didn't want aliens to invade and murder us all, even though the anti-aliens-invading side really had fewer and less compelling arguments.

Things that were less good: the protagonist was boring as hell. In fact, all but one of the characters were there just to be their jobs and had no discernible characterization outside of "having expertise in such-and-such because that's their job," although the "dirty cop" character was kind of fun, if only because he seemed to have been borrowed from a different genre so at least he shook things up a bit. There was a bit too much technobabble and longwinded discussion of physics for me, especially since it definitely seemed to be doing the classic Golden Age Scifi That Is Not Considered Literature (And This Is Why, Dammit) thing of substituting technobabble/sciencebabble for characterization. There was also some weird gender stuff, some really odd sexualization of some of the female characters at really inappropriate times (like... when bloodcrazed teen girl Red Guards are murdering people or being murdered) that took me out of the narrative, the kind of stuff that makes me stop thinking "Aliens are invading; what happens next?" and instead reminds me "I am sitting on a couch reading words that were made up and written down by a dude; that is what is going on right now. What will the next words be and will they be any good?" There were a couple of continuity issues, like the boring protagonist had a wife and son for one scene in the beginning when he needed them to take pictures, but then they are never mentioned again.

I know I am clearly missing a whole lot about Chinese culture and storytelling and the political realities of what can and cannot get published in China, and I'd love to know more about that (Sarah provided some insight in our discussion, secondhand from her Chinese grad school roommates who had read the book before it was available in English and apparently had a lot of opinions about it) (thanks, Sarah!). But I'm still not 100% sure I'm going to read the second volume? I might if I'm feeling particularly nihilistic, but generally if I'm going to read an underedited 800-page genre monstrosity I'm going to go for some sort of dark fantasy with too much characterization (and food porn) (and dresses) rather than too much physicists talking about how physics is, like, everything there is, man.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 31st, 2015

09:43 pm - India minus Indians

As many who hear me ramble about books know, I have a not-very-deep but quite enthusiastic love for Gail Carriger's fantasy-of-manners steampunk books, the Parasol Protectorate quintet and the ongoing Finishing School series. So I read the first book, Prudence, in her new series set in this universe, The Custard Protocol.

This series takes place about twenty years after the end of the last Parasol Protectorate book, and its protagonist is Prudence Alessandra Maccon Akeldama, the metanatural child of werewolf Conal Maccon and soulless Alexia Tarabotti, adopted by the mysterious vampire dandy Lord Akeldama. She goes by Rue. She can "steal" vampires' and werewolves' skins, meaning she touches them and she turns into the sort of creature they are, leaving them mortal until either the sun comes up or they get far away enough that the tether snaps.

While Rue gets into a number of scrapes that add up to her being at least not at all a passive character--not that I'd want to be anywhere within fifteen hundred million miles of her in real life, considering her principled disdain for such stodgy middle-class values as "being even dimly aware of other people and giving half a shit about them"; I think she's supposed to be a heroine but I can only stomach her as an anti-heroine--and the further development of the wacky steampunk universe is a lot of fun, I didn't end up liking this book as much as the others.

While I'm not usually focused so much on the plots in Carriger's books as I am the wacky hijinks, I feel like the plots in this one were a little more confused than usual. I'm usually quite fine with the plots of comedies being basically vehicles for jokes, and some of these were, mainly the bit where Rue is only aware of one of the two major plotlines for a good long time and thinks people are talking about one thing when they're actually talking about another and everyone is being too ~mysterious~ to use their words and clear it up, but I still felt like I just didn't really buy it? Perhaps the jokes weren't as funny as they needed to be for me to not mind. And Rue's trip to India ended up being far too pro-colonialism for my taste--I know it's a fluffy book series taking place in an alternate history, but one of the basic plotlines (which doesn't really become clear until a good two-thirds of the way through the book) is that the English crown ~accidentally~ pissed off one race of supernatural beings in India by allying with a different race of supernatural beings in India, and they have to sort out a way to ally with both of them because the race they didn't know about ~stubbornl~y insists upon being mortal enemies with the other race and won't recognize England's ~super enlightened~ policy of blanket alliance with all supernatural races they come into contact with. The entire idea of Indian independence appears in the book only as a red herring, on the occasions when the doer of a nefarious deed is as yet unknown and therefore might possibly be "dissidents." It's a lot uglier than the trip to Egypt at the end of the Parasol Protectorate, where the plotline focused on issues that were essentially unrelated to British colonialism--this plotline is basically about how best to pull it off. I kept waiting for Rue to realize that the British were wrong to be ruling India, and she just never fucking did. If Carriger wants this universe to be fun and fluffy even though it's about the British Empire, she's welcome to do that, and I'll read it, but there are some places she just should not go if she wants to not go anywhere serious, and "India" is one of them. Now I'm half afraid that the next Finishing School book, which takes place in the 1840s instead of the 1890s, is going to involve the cast going off to Ireland to have wacky hijinks at the potato famine.

The characters were often fun the possible exception of Quesnel, who is a terrible obnoxious love interest. Ivy's twins--Primrose Tunstell, Rue's best friend, and Professor Percy Tunstell, played in my head by Eddie Redmayne--accompany Rue on her dirigible journey, and are good solid sidekicks. Basically, things are OK as long as they never leave the dirigible, but when they do it gets pretty cringeworthy at times.

Whether or not I read the second Prudence book is probably going to depend on how much I like the fourth Finishing School book, and possibly whether I hear any news of whether or not the second Prudence book involves everything from the first book coming back to bite Prudence firmly in her self-absorbed imperialist ass.

Also, was it just me or was the humor that there was considerably more lowbrow in this one? There's always been raunchy humor in the books in addition to the farce and whimsy, but this one really came off as a lot cruder and with a lot more fart jokes.

Current Mood: disappointeddisappointed

(Scribble in the margins)

May 27th, 2015

10:40 pm - Pour yourself a b. and s. and put on your mess jacket

Sometimes, I’m just not up for reading anything of substance or anything that’s going to be too distractingly interesting. The beginning of this month was one of those times, so I picked up P. G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves, a classic in the “utter fluff” genre. This one’s  a novel rather than a series of short stories, although it is a pretty short novel.

Following an eventful trip to Cannes with his Aunt Dahlia and Cousin Angela, Upperclass Twit of the Year Bertie Wooster finds himself entangled in a handful of other people’s plotlines, each of which he manages to bungle fabulously. Bertie is in the middle of a spat with Jeeves about a white mess jacket, so Bertie is determined to solve all his friends’ problems himself, rather than letting Jeeves do all the scheming, to prove that he isn’t dumber than his valet and to show Jeeves who’s boss. Predictably, Bertie is actually a lot dumber than his valet, and Jeeves is functionally the boss.

Plotline number one concerns one Gussie Fink-Nottle, a school friend of Bertie’s who is also a hopeless nerd. Usually quite antisocial and retiring and unable to talk about anything except newts, Gussie has fallen dreadfully in love with Madeline Bassett, a friend of Cousin Angela’s from their trip to Cannes. Gussie is too nervous to bring himself to ask Miss Bassett to marry him.

Plotline number two concerns Cousin Angela, who has broken off her engagement with Bertie’s Drone Club buddy Tuppy Glossop, because Tuppy didn’t believe that a shark had tried to eat Angela in Cannes and kept mansplaining to her how that wasn’t possible and it must have been a flatfish or something. Angela—quite rightly, in my opinion—broke off the engagement and has since been flatly refusing to say a single civil word to Tuppy until he apologizes for not believing about the shark, which is the one thing Tuppy can’t seem to bring himself to do (Tuppy is a bit of an idiot).

Plotlines three and four involve Aunt Dahlia, who lost a lot of money at baccarat in Cannes and now need to figure out how to wheedle another sum out of her husband to print her ladies’ magazines, and who needs somebody to hand out prizes at the local grammar school at the end of the month.

Bertie’s initial plans involve sending Gussie Fink-Nottle to Aunt Dahlia’s house to give out the prizes, in the hopes that living in the same adorable English country manor for weeks will prompt Gussie to speak to Miss Bassett, but instead the whole thing devolves into a complex farce that sort of reminds me of the sillier everyone’s-stuck-in-one-house English murder mysteries, except that the only murder-related mystery is when Aunt Dahlia will actually murder Bertie. People all get engaged to the wrong other people; Aunt Dahlia’s wonderful French cook Anatole quits (this is a BIG DEAL); Gussie gets into more extremely embarrassing scrapes (impressive since he kicked the book off by dressing up in scarlet tights and showing up at a total stranger’s house instead of getting to the fancy-dress party); there is much emotional eating of disgusting-sounding British food.

But as entertaining as all these convoluted plots are, the real high point of this book is its voice, which, the book being a first-person narrative where the person is Bertie Wooster, is that of a high-spirited, eminently dumb, fashionable young man who is hip to all the kickin'est slang in use in England in 1920/30/40-whatever. Bertie as a narrator is in his own way wonderfully observant, his own way being that which is superficially detailed and full of vivid figurative language what would be poetic if it could be taken seriously but instead is jokes. Regardless of circumstance, Bertie thinks and speaks in the what-ho-cheerio register of a certain time period of British public schoolboy, and the closest thing to intellectual stimulation this flufftastic book provides is trying to puzzle out some of the less obvious slang terms. (They're usually pretty easy to gather from context, especially if you're decently familiar with English upper-class-twittery.) There's a running gag where Bertie always refers to his aunt as being "an aunt" rather than a person, woman, being, etc., like aunts are an entirely separate species from any other human demographic--so you get sentences like "She looked like an aunt who has just bitten into a bad oyster" instead of, say, "She looked like she'd just..." or "She looked like someone who had just..." I think I liked that one because it was a bit more understated than most of the other, more blatantly farcical gags. And while it's hard to be as witty as Wodehouse on the spot in terms of actually coming up with hilarious observations, the basic register is easy enough to ape and also quite a lot of fun to engage in! I recommend trying it next time you text someone.

(Scribble in the margins)

May 7th, 2015

09:02 pm - Mil-SF of manners?

In January I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which won last year’s Best Novel Hugo along with a whole bunch of other awards, and this week I read the sequel, Ancillary Sword, which is also up for a Hugo in a non-shenanigans-filled way.

Our protagonist is still Breq, the one remaining body of what used to be a troop carrier and hundreds of troops all linked together into one giant AI, before the Lord of the Radch destroyed her. There were reasons for that, which are uncovered in the first book. In this volume, Breq, now Fleet Captain of the Mercy of Kalr, gate-jumps to a station above a minorly important tea-growing planet to seek out Lieutenant Awn's little sister and try to mitigate the damage from the Lord of the Radch's conflict with herself.

The result is a complex melodrama of politics and personal relationships and cyborg stuff, packed with ample amounts of both shooty space action and tea-drinking imperial snobbery. The Radch continue to be a fascinating culture, with perhaps more in common with the British Empire than with the usual U.S.-military-in-space that we normally see, but with a lot of uniquely Radchaii worldbuilding--it's a gender-neutral culture; the most important type of relationship recognized in society at large is that between "patron" and "client" (romantic coupledom is considered a bit childish); family and personal relationships are put on display through jewelry, mostly pins.

It could have ended up a ridiculous mishmash, in which case I probably would have liked it anyway but for different reasons, but it all pulls together really well. The stakes are high; Breq is badass; the worldbuilding is rich; and the plots explore a lot of really important issues about identity and power and entitlement, giving moral weight to all the shooting and tea-drinking snobbery. (I realize this means this book is not for everyone; some people apparently prefer to know who the good and bad guys are by whether they're wearing white or black cowboy hats on top of their space helmets; but I like it when determining good-guy and bad-guy status involves some sort of thought about what constitutes "good" and "bad.") I like being in Breq's head a lot--her perspective is *different.* And I loooove the way the technology of the Radch affects the characters' identities and sense of self--I kept thinking that my Aliens and Others class would have had a field day with this series. Breq is not human, but sometimes she seems more human than the human characters, for many of the positive ways we evaluate "human," at least. Other times she is definitely, definitely not. There are a number of times when you get so sucked in to Breq's POV that everything she does seems to make 100% perfect sense and only later, when somebody else points it out, do you realize how odd it looks from a human point of view.

The third book, "Ancillary Mercy," is supposedly in copyedits right now, according to the author's Twitter. How do I get to be Ann Leckie's copyeditor?

(Scribble in the margins)

May 1st, 2015

10:15 pm - They're called cinnamon rolls, Widget
A whole bunch of people told me that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would be right up my alley. They have been telling me this for a good couple of years now. I have finally gotten around to reading it and am pleased to report that my friends know me very well. Or perhaps I should be less pleased to report that I am apparently very, very predictable?

The Night Circus is a lush, vaguely steampunky-Gothic, dark-romantic Victorian fantasy. It is ostensibly about two young magicians forced into a bizarre competition of skill by their teachers—both entirely dislikeable characters in their own ways—in the arena of a mysterious, magical black-and-white circus. Mostly it is about the circus, really, and although obviously the challenge that started it is quite important and provides the plot, the circus becomes a lot more than that—which I think is the point. There are many people involved in the circus besides the two magicians and their insufferable teachers, and the circus is very, very important to them. There are, therefore, a lot of vignettes and subplots and backstories and whatnot. A lot of readers, even ones who like that it takes place in the Victorian era and is full of pretty Victorian things, may not be as OK with the structure and pacing of the novel, which also tends to resemble a lot of Victorian lit in that it begins quite at the beginning and rolls along slowly and descriptively like a big sluggish river of words until it washes gently up upon the plot. The regular parts of the story are interspersed with little second-person interludes simply exploring the circus, which will probably strike some readers as pretentious and bore them, but which I enjoyed as pure one-thousand percent escapism, probably because the Night Circus is the type of place that I would love to attend. (Its fans, the rêveurs, have a dress code that just so happens to be what I wear half the time anyway. Like, it is my kinda place.)

I think my biggest complaint is that some of the magical stuff was a bit vague—I don’t know if actually explaining the mechanics of it any more would have made it better (actually, I’m 99% sure it would have ruined the atmosphere) but sometimes it didn’t have enough emotional force to really keep it all together—there’s a number of mentions at the end of how much effort it is for Celia to keep the circus running but I think if that’s the case—and if it’s been a longstanding case—the Celia POV parts of the book needed a bigger infusion of sensation-novel-ness, a stronger sense of the weight and strain of maintaining control.

This book does, however, go firmly on my “I want a movie/miniseries” list, even though it is not particularly action-packed, because it is so hugely visual and I want to see all these illusions animated! I also want an excuse for a more social experience of it, like going to a midnight showing in full rêveur wear or having a premiere party with all black-and-white food. Please tell me I can get this! Marketing to Goths is like, so hot right now, right?
Current Mood: tiredtired

(Scribble in the margins)

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