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Reading Challenge Review: The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

A book with nonhuman characters (#7 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells


I wanted to like this book more than I did. It landed on my radar because of a recommendation made by NK Jemisin in a video chat I attended as part of Juliette Wade’s fabulous Dive Into Worldbuilding series. Any book loved by one of my favorite authors should have a few points in its favor for me, and there were definitely things to like in this book… but in the end, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out more of Wells’s work, at least not without further recommendations.

The book’s set in a world with a bewildering number of sentient peoples, most of whom seem to be basically humanoid with minor differences on human-like axes (like gold vs. green skin). But the main character, Moon, is different: he looks more or less like other people most of the time, but he can also shift from straightforward humanoid into a winged, vaguely dragon-like form (the book cover seems like a fairly accurate description). He doesn’t know anyone else who has this ability; he’s spent his life drifting from community to community, and whenever his shapeshifting’s discovered, he’s run out of the community because people decide he’s secretly a Fell, a member of the Evil Bad Race who have a similar look (the fact that the baddies are black bothered me a little (also see here) but I was willing to let it go by).

In the first few chapters, Moon meets another member of his race for the first time in his adult life, and suddenly he has a name for his species and a complex social hierarchy to integrate himself into. His people, the Raksura, have four distinctly different forms and a fairly strict caste structure, and (surprise surprise) Moon finds out that he’s at the top of it: he’s a consort, destined to be the mate to a queen and sit at the heart of a Raksuran “court.” But there are complications. The Fell are threatening the Raksura, and they have a dastardly plan that involves (gasp!) miscegenation.

I liked some things about this book quite a lot. The biology of the Raksura was different from anything I’d seen before, and I liked the complexity of their social structure, which reminded me of social insects. I also liked the parts of the book that showcased interactions between the Raksura and the various “groundling” races (another term that seems a little problematic, but isn’t questioned within the book itself by any race): it felt as though the author had thought about what it’d be like to have a number of sentient species, with various gifts, interacting on the same world. The glimmers we got of the world itself were also fascinating: among other things, there are floating islands that, if broken into tiny pieces, can be used to power floating ships. I love that sort of stuff.

What I didn’t like nearly as much was the central conflict between the Raksura and the Fell. Maybe this is an artifact of this being the first book in a trilogy, but the Fell felt almost cartoonishly evil to me, with no real motive other than to make life difficult for the other races around them and to seek out sex with the Raksura. Unrelatedly, I also found the sheer number of named characters confusing. The community Moon joins has dozens of citizens, and every one of them has a name, and since everyone’s name is a common noun and “clutches” (siblings) often get similar names, it was difficult to keep track of people who sometimes only appeared for a scene or two. A cast of characters might’ve helped with that.

After some reflection, I realized that what bothered me most about this book was the feeling of missed opportunity. Thematically, stories about characters seeking for their place in the world are some of my favorites (spoiler alert: I’m writing one), so I should have been drawn into the plot, and the worldbuilding is full of fascinating nuggets. But I felt as though the characters were a mostly undifferentiated mass, and the plot that showed promise in the early pages devolved at the end into a straightforward “good guys vs. bad guys” shootout. I also found the prose frustrating, overly wordy in a way that suggested insufficient editing rather than an attempt at careful wordsmithing.

I’m glad I read the book, and I will continue to look out for books with this kind of distinctive world. And if you like stories that focus their energy on driving the plot forward, and you like non-traditional fantasy settings, you might give this one a try.

Reading Challenge Review: The Slow Regard of Silent Things (or: “Write What You Love”)

A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet (#16 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss

I recently read a book by one of my favorite authors and didn’t like it. And unlike some of the people who’ve written angry reviews of the book on Goodreads, I’m okay with that.

In April of 2014, Pat Rothfuss announced that he would have a new book coming out before the end of the year. After getting out of the way that this book wasn’t The Doors of Stone, the third volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle, he went on to explain that it was a story he’d had “tickling around in [his] head” for a while, about a comparatively minor character from the Kingkiller Chronicle universe, and that after some experimentation and consultation with his editor and others whose opinion he trusted, he had decided this story should be a book of its very own.

Over the course of the next few months, Rothfuss continued to drum up soft publicity for the book on his website. And he also expressed some hesitation that not all his fans would like it. On the publication date, October 28th, he wrote a post wherein he confessed that “When I finished [the book], I honestly expected it to just sit in a trunk for years. I knew I liked it. But I also knew it wasn’t like any sort of fantasy story I’d ever read before. At best it was arty, at worst it was incomprehensible.” The foreword to the book itself begins with the words “You might not want to buy this book.”

Like many of Rothfuss’s fans, I read the post; I read the foreword; and I bought the book anyway. And as I suspected might be the case, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I like his longer novels. Rothfuss is a skilled storyteller, and a solid worldbuilder, but it’s very clear to anyone who reads more than 3 lines of his prose (or any of his blog posts on writing) that one of his most cherished identities is as a wordcrafter. And that’s the side of him that gets let loose to play in Slow Regard of Silent Things. The book’s as much a prose poem as it is a plotted story; the protagonist lives in a mental world full of verbing and nounage, and most of her possessions have names, and a lot of them aren’t given explicit description outside of their names. Add to that the fact that she sees the world differently from most people (the reasons for which haven’t been canonically established in the series yet, but have been implied to do with something that went wrong in her magical studies) and you have a book spanning seven days, where the most plot-driven thing that happens is the main character spending a chapter making soap. She spends time trying to find a gift for her friend; she rearranges things in her home underneath the University so that they’re in their proper places (in a thought process that felt like something between schizophrenia, OCD, and a deep understanding of feng shui); and she hides from the world above. That’s what this book is about.

I finished the book in part because I’m a completist, especially where my favorite authors are concerned, but I don’t think I’ll be reading it again. I’m definitely not the target audience: what hooks me into a book are culture, discussion of interesting ideas, and moments between characters. All of these are qualities Rothfuss’s other books have in common, but they’re not what this book was about. That said, I’m already considering which of my poetry-inclined friends would like it best. And I’m okay with an author writing something that’s not for me.

In the last year or so, I’ve done a lot of reading about creativity and “the artist’s life,” whatever that means. One of the things that’s resonated with me deeply is that in order to maintain their creative well, artists — professional or otherwise — need to be able to follow their muse where it takes them once in a while; to do something fun even if they don’t think it’ll be “profitable” or “mainstream.” I’m also a firm believer in the principle that every well-written work has its audience. Maybe I’m being naive, but I don’t believe that Rothfuss wrote this book because he was getting pressure from his publisher to put out something to keep his name in readers’ minds, or because he wanted the cash; I believe he wrote it because he had a story to tell, and he was lucky enough to have a creative team who could help him get it out to a place where it could find its audience.

I’ve written here before about how firmly I believe in the principle that you should write what you love and trust that people will read it; it’s advice that I’ve heard, among other places, in the 2014 Comic-Con panel where Rothfuss talked about worldbuilding. And I’m glad to see that it seems to be advice that he’s taken for himself.

I hope this book finds its loyal fans. And I hope that if I ever become a famous author someday, I’ll still be able to write the odd little stories that come through my brain from time to time. Because after all, isn’t that what this writing life is about?

Reading Challenge Review: Flesh and Fire, by Laura Anne Gilman

A book by a female author (#9 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Flesh and Fire

I knew this category would be one of the easier ones for me to meet, but I’m always happy to add more female authors to my list. I chose to seek out Laura Anne Gilman’s work after stumbling over her recent blog post on how she decided to publish her epic fantasy under her own name rather than using a gender-neutral pen name, and she didn’t disappoint. Flesh and Fire, the first book in The Vineart War trilogy, introduces us to a young man named Jerzy who’s been plucked from his place as a vineyard slave to be his master’s new apprentice. In that role, he’ll learn how to work the magic that makes his master’s order, the Vinearts, so vital to the world they’re a part of — because in this universe, magic is all tangled up with wine.

Gilman’s dedication is to her agent, who she claims made a casual suggestion to “write me a food- or wine-based fantasy”; this book is certainly that in spades. I won’t say too much about the details of the worldbuilding, because a lot of the joy in the book for me came from discovering its twists and turns, but I’d feel comfortable starting where the book does, with a version of the world’s creation story. Paraphrasing and summarizing, it goes like this: in ancient times, the prince-mages held all the power in the land, political and magical; they managed the vineyards and crafted the powerful spellwines which allowed them to control the elements and heal the sick. But they grew arrogant, and so the gods sent their son to warn the prince-mages to be careful, and when they ignored his words and killed him, his blood spilled forth as the most powerful spellwine anyone had ever seen, and it changed all the grapes of the world into something weaker and more limited in their scope than what had come before. This gent’s known as Sin-Washer, and his legacy for people is a new political system that divides power between the Washers (priests), the princes (rulers) and the Vinearts (mages).

“And… Vinearts must spend their entire lives learning their vines, and have no time to build armies or rule over men, and princes, busy with the ways of men, have no time to dedicate to the secret and subtle ways of vines.”

We pick up our story a few thousand years after these events, and learn that in the meantime, things have been going pretty smoothly. As with most fantasy, that changes pretty quickly once the tale gets going, but we don’t see much of the ramifications in this first book. Flesh and Fire is largely a book of setup, introducing us to characters and places and how the magic system works — and if you’ve read other reviews of mine, particularly my take on Robin Hobb’s books, it won’t surprise you to learn that I was absolutely fine with that.

The negative reviews of this book on Goodreads echo those I read for Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice — suggesting that in nearly 400 pages, “nothing happens.” I didn’t have that impression at all; in fact, as I read, I was continually struck by Gilman’s skill with pacing, how she managed to spin a story that covers a little more than a year by skipping over all but the most important parts (this is, you may have guessed, something I struggle with). This isn’t really a story about the mysterious threat that’s rising to throw the world out of balance; this book’s meant to introduce us to the hero who we’re led to expect by the end of the book has some unique role to play in stopping that threat. And I think it does that admirably.

Warning: moderate, early-book spoilers beyond this point.

When we first meet Jerzy, Gilman doesn’t even give him a name. He’s “the boy,” one of the faceless mob of slaves tending the master’s vineyards. But when he has an unexpected reaction to the accidental overturning of a vat of spellwine, the master pulls him from the group and brings him into the house, and from that point forward, everything about his life is different. Gilman takes her time with this transition, and it eats a good chunk of the first third of the book. For me, that was exactly the right choice; I enjoyed being able to experience Jerzy’s shock and slow acclimation to his new world, and I admired the way Gilman used different perspectives to give us information about him that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Another unusual thing about this book compared to its Big Fantasy Novel counterparts is that we see comparatively little magic until quite late in the story: in fact, one of the Goodreads critiques I read was that “it didn’t feel like a fantasy book,” an assessment which seemed to be based in the fact that most of the characters were mundane folk living their mundane lives and that nothing big and flashy happens for many chapters. I’d disagree with the point, though: I think the worldbuilding here is quite subtle, but clearly present, and strong enough to convince us that this isn’t the world the readers come from. While Jerzy’s world does fall prey to the accusation of being “not-quite-Europe” in many respects (it’s pretty clear that Gilman based the book’s two major settings on wine-growing regions in France and Italy), the religion is distinctive and so are the cultural attitudes. There’s also a “cost-of-magic” discourse here that’s unlike any I can remember seeing before.

More plot-peripheral-but-notable things:

  • I very much liked the device of starting the novel with the creation/changed world story. I’ve been tempted to do this sort of thing in my own work and have always drawn back from it, fearing that it’d be alienating to a reader, but this book pulled it off in a way that worked for me.
  • I was intrigued by the fact that Jerzy seems (at this stage at least) to be more-or-less asexual, an identity I don’t remember seeing as central to a main character in other books I’ve read. Admittedly, Gilman hints pretty strongly that his orientation may have something to do with his being a survivor of molestation, which I don’t love, but I did appreciate how his difference from the characters around him (who demonstrate both different-sex and same-sex attractions without either one’s being framed as inherently “normal” or “abnormal,” another thing I liked) was remarked upon (by others) and pondered (by Jerzy himself).
  • From a craft perspective, I also liked the fact that several characters who we’re led to believe will be major players in the books to come don’t appear until relatively late in this one. I’ve read a few discussions of plotting and pacing that say you shouldn’t introduce anyone important after the halfway mark, but Gilman breaks that rule and breaks it well.
  • For what it’s worth, I finished the book more concerned about what will happen to the hero than what’s happening to the kingdom; the sections of the book that moved away from Jerzy’s immediate concerns to give us a broader perspective on world events seemed less engaging to me, maybe because those characters were by necessity less fleshed out. I don’t feel like that makes one thread or the other “good” or “bad,” but I did find it interesting.

In short, while I didn’t think this book was perfect, I liked it quite a bit. I will definitely be seeking out more work by Gilman and looking to find out what happens to Jerzy and his friends and allies.

Not “Blannie,” Just Annie: Remakes, Reimaginings and Representation

At one of our Christmas dinners this year, I mentioned that I was planning to take Husband to go see the new Annie remake. Hearing that, a relative smiled and said innocuously, “Don’t you mean Blannie?” Which, of course, is a hashtag that’s been appearing on Twitter in discussions of the new movie, a compression of “black Annie.”

“No,” I said. “I mean the remake of Annie.”

As a kid, I was a big fan of movie musicals. I watched and rewatched The Wizard of Oz. I remember sitting transfixed on the living room floor by West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and on the edge of the couch a few years later with Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. And as was the case for most kids who grew up in the ’80s, the story of the spunky orphan and her bald benefactor took its turn on-stage in my house, too. One of my never-quite-realized childhood ambitions was to cast and recreate these shows using my friends and family, and I have a very clear memory of discussing with my mother whether my best-playmate uncle might be willing to take on the role of Rooster, orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan’s no-good brother.

I don’t remember where Husband and I saw our first trailer for the 2014 Annie, and I don’t remember if I’d heard anything about the movie before seeing it. But I do remember how excited I got, just hearing snippets of the familiar songs. This was a story that had a special place in my heart as a kid; I was thrilled to hear it’d be coming back to the big screen. And when I saw Quvenzhané Wallis’s grinning face, I thought: “Oh, wow, the new Annie’s black? That’s amazing!”

I’ll freely admit that I might have had a different reaction before I started graduate school, before I took courses on the sociology of race that were the first place I read about how few characters of color (or diverse characters of any kind) have historically appeared in children’s books. Even a few years ago, I might still have balked at the idea that a classic, much-loved story could be reimagined with a protagonist of a different race and keep the spirit of the original story. But now, after a year of thinking about how to increase the representation in my own work, after reading Writing the Other and looking at the numbers on protagonists of color and following the efforts of the team at We Need Diverse Books to increase all kinds of diversity in children’s stories, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are more important things than respecting the canon.

It seems like the Marvel and DC universes provide a pretty good model for exactly this sort of thing. In 2011, the Ultimate Marvel universe killed off Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, the first black (and second Hispanic) Spiderman; there was some backlash, but the loudest voices, including that of Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, supported the impulse to make Spiderman a character who demonstrated that you didn’t have to be white to save the world. Both the Marvel and DC movie franchises are taking steps in the same direction, greenlighting films for, among others, an Aquaman played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa, and Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther.

These stories don’t take away from the ones that came before them. Having a new Wonder Woman movie that’ll bring a female superhero into the imaginations of 21st-century little girls doesn’t undo the fact that The Dark Knight was a good movie, or that Bruce Wayne’s Batman is a fun character. Having a black Spiderman doesn’t erase the white Spiderman: it just gives more kids the opportunity to pretend to be a superhero who looks like them. And kids do notice that stuff. This Washington Post article, by writer Amina Luqman, about how her son didn’t want to dress as Harry Potter for Halloween because “I’m not tan, I’m brown” just about broke my heart.

One response to the unveiling of Miles Morales (archived here), by opinion writer Alexandra Petri, repeats a commonly-used phrase from those who object to what they see as the “forced” diversification of contemporary characters: “It doesn’t matter what the character looks like so long as he tells a compelling story!” As Petri suggests, the people who say this are absolutely right; we should all be able to enjoy a compelling story. And sure, part of pretending is imagining yourself to be somebody else. But increasingly, research and popular opinion seem to be assembling around the notion that it shouldn’t always be kids from underrepresented groups who have to stretch their imaginations the furthest to see themselves in the heroes of their favorite stories.

Husband had never seen the 1982 Annie, and so we watched it together last week so he’d be properly contextualized for the new movie. Seeing it for the first time in 20+ years, I was struck by its cheesiness (the adults all look a little too happy to be real) and its increasingly improbable plot (Miss Hannigan doesn’t recognize her brother with a fake mustache? Annie gets adopted by Daddy Warbucks only because she happens to be the one who overhears when his assistant first comes to the orphanage? There’s a mansion and substantial grounds somewhere on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue?). I was also struck by the movie’s casual racism: Daddy Warbucks’ two bodyguards are “Punjab” and “the Asp”; respectively, a tall, dark-skinned, turbaned man who can “put a spell on [the dog]” and make toy airplanes fly with a wave of his hand, and a smaller East Asian gent whose main jobs seem to be driving Daddy Warbucks around and teaching Annie how to do karate chops. I still hold some affection for the movie, and I might even show it to my own kids someday, but I wouldn’t do so without unpacking those stereotypes a little. And I suspect I would feel differently if I looked less like Aileen Quinn, who played Annie, and more like Geoffrey Holder and Roger Minami, who played the bodyguards.

The writers of the 1982 Annie, and its Broadway predecessor, took their own liberties with the original story. The comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which debuted in 1924, expressed its creator’s strong objections to (among other things) unions, the New Deal, and communism. If creator Harold Gray had known that his spunky red-head would someday be portrayed meeting with FDR to help set up the New Deal, he might’ve come back from the dead to protest. Stories change to fit the times they’re told in.

It’s true that when I saw the new Annie this weekend, I didn’t see a little girl with red hair. But I saw girls somersaulting around their group home singing “A Hard Knock Life”; I saw adults hamming it up in ridiculous dance numbers; I saw the message that a good-hearted youngster can have a positive impact on the world; and I saw a spunky kid with a sparkling smile who sang “Tomorrow.”

So no, I didn’t go see “Blannie” this weekend; just a new version of Annie, written to introduce the story to 21st-century kids of all backgrounds. And this movie musical nerd was glad to add it to all the others in her library.

My 2015 Reading Challenge

As someone with a lot of time to read, I tend to start the new year with a vague theme in mind to focus my reading for the next 12 months. For 2014, my goal was to broaden my reading in genre fiction, and I don’t think I did too badly. I made the virtual acquaintance of Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, Fritz Leiber, Nalo Hopkinson and Anne McCaffrey; I read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina, Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon, and tried my hand at Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. And on my shelf, waiting to be scooped up, are Zelazny and Gene Wolfe and Raymond E. Feist; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and The Mists of Avalon. I promise I’ll get to them all, sooner or later, just like I’m fully intending to spend a year reading “the classics,” another reading popular books from outside my own genre (romances and westerns and mysteries, anyone?), and two more reading only books translated from other languages and those written only by authors of color.

In short, I like having reading goals. Even if I know I’ll inevitably end up reading a lot of stuff that isn’t on That Year’s List; having a goal gives me somewhere to set my gaze when I walk into the library, instead of frolicking through the shelves like a butterfly (which doesn’t mean I never do that). So this year, with all the above vaguely-defined goals in mind, I have decided I’m going to focus myself with the 50 entries of the PopSugar Reading Challenge. I chose this one not because of any particular loyalty to the site but because I thought the list looked interesting and fun, like a literary scavenger hunt. A sampling of the things it’s asking for would include a book more than 100 years old, a book set during Christmastime, a book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit, and a book your mom likes.

I expect I’ll be attempting to cram some of my other specifications into this challenge as well, particularly the goal of reading more diversely: as Aarti at Booklust points out every year during the runup to her Diversiverse challenge, authors from all backgrounds write all kinds of books. And I’ll even declare that I will post reviews for the 50 different books I read for the challenge here, so stay tuned.

What about you, Loyal Readers? Are you doing a reading challenge this year? What’s on your list?

The Napoleonic Wars With Dragons, But Good: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire Books

“Laurence, is there something particularly interesting in Dover, and might we go and see it? So many of our crew seem to be making a visit.”

“Oh, dear,” Laurence said; he felt rather awkward in explaining that the main attraction was the abundance of harbor prostitutes and cheap liquor. “Well, a city has a great many people in it, and thus many entertainments provided in close proximity.”

“Do you mean such as more books?” — a dead-standard conversation between dragon and man in His Majesty’s Dragon

The first of Naomi Novik‘s Temeraire books, His Majesty’s Dragon, was presented to me by a friend six or seven years ago with a one-line verbal summary: “It’s the Napoleonic Wars with dragons… but it’s good.” Eight books later, that’s still the way I most often summarize the story for new readers, but I usually add a few other details, like the fact that Novik’s dragons are sentient and highly verbal, characters in the truest sense, and that the books, in addition to being an alternate history of the Napoleonic wars, are also a rip-roaring travel adventure and an exercise in ever-expanding worldbuilding. The premise might sound a little silly on first hearing, but the tale is well worth a further investigation.

I’ve been doing a reread of the series for the last few weeks, in anticipation of the ninth and final book that will hopefully come out sometime next year, and I’ve been pleased to find that the books hold up just as well on a second read as they did the first time through.

Without diving too deep into the spoiler weeds (always a difficult thing when you talk about a story that stretches out over time), I can say that this series focuses on the adventures of Captain Will Laurence, of His Majesty King George III’s Aerial Corps, and his dragon Temeraire. When we meet Laurence in the first book, he’s a naval captain who’s just won a fierce battle against a battered French frigate, and Temeraire’s egg is found aboard the captured ship. The egg’s seen as a great boon for Britain, because every dragon that can be brought into the service puts them one step closer to defeating Napoleon. But unsurprisingly (since this is a novel and all), things turn out to be a little more complicated than that…

Temeraire and Laurence are in the service, and so as you’d expect, there is a fair of large-scale combat (usually at least a few big action sequences per book). But I don’t read these books for the action; I read them for the characters and the world-building.

Novik’s cast is extensive, and in what feels like one of the more realistic elements of her extended plotting, characters often disappear for a book or two and then reappear when their travels or service bring them back across Laurence and Temeraire’s path. The human characters, mainly military sorts, certainly have their moments, but my real affection, and I suspect the affection of many people who enjoy the series, is for the dragons. As the quote above suggests, Temeraire is both extremely intelligent and naive about human affairs in a way that’s consistently charming, and the other dragons have distinct personalities that are equally appealing. Each dragon in His Majesty’s Aerial Corps has a handler who stays with him or her basically from hatching until death (dragon or, more frequently, human; the question of what to do with a dragon whose captain has died comes up often enough to count as a recurrent plot point), and the relationships between dragons and their captains might be my favorite part of the character development in these stories.

The worldbuilding, though, is why I keep coming back to the series. Over the course of the eight books I’ve read, Laurence and Temeraire have literally traveled over most of the globe — and as in Jacqueline Carey’s D’Angeline books, although they encounter historically accurate settings and characters, everything is also a bit different from what historically-minded readers might remember from their lessons. Sure, the dragons of the Far East that we hear about in legend are very different from the dragons of Europe, but what kinds of dragons might you expect to find in sub-Saharan Africa, or in Australia, or the Americas? And how would symbiotic relationships between dragons and humans might change the course of human history?

I’d never claim that these books are high literature; they’re most definitely written in the style of a fun romp around the world. The human characters are a little flat in places; the combat scenes can sometimes feel a bit repetitive; and I find it hard to worry too much about whether Napoleon is going to take Britain, which leaves me wondering how history buffs would feel about the conflict being made into the Macguffin for Temeraire’s adventures. But I’m going to finish my reread, and I’ll definitely be buying the last book when it comes out. And if you like dragons, or adventure tales, I’d recommend picking up this series. It’s the Napoleonic Wars with dragons… but really, it’s good.

Book Review: M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts

Her name is Melanie. It means ‘the black girl’ from an ancient Greek word, but her skin is actually very fair, so she thinks maybe it’s not such a good name for her. She likes the name Pandora a whole lot, but you don’t get to choose. Miss Justineau assigns names from a big list; new children get the top name on the boys’ list, or the top name on the girls’ list, and that, Miss Justineau says, is that. — opening lines of The Girl With All the Gifts

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for 4½ months, ever since I read Charlie Jane Anders’s glowing review on io9. In her words, “[s]ome books feature powerful characterization and heart-stopping emotional journeys. Others have great world-building in the service of a thundering great adventure. Still others have clever scientific ideas. But it’s rare to find a book… that aces all of the above.” In Anders’s view, M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts is that book, a book to “blow your mind.”

After finally getting my hands on it, I don’t think I agree.

There’s plenty I can say to praise the book. It’s extremely readable, moving at a mad clip for just over 400 pages: I read it in a day and a half, and during my read, I was definitely guilty of being That Woman Walking Through the Streets Like Belle “with her nose stuck in a book.” I enjoyed the ride. I’m not sorry I read it. But I don’t feel like it does anything magnificently “new.”

The Girl With All the Gifts is a dystopian novel, set in a near-future UK where people are living in tiny, isolated communities, there’s a lot of military activity, and are afraid to go out into the wilderness. The characters we’re following are primarily staff (and one student) at a very unusual boarding school: in the first chapter, we learn that when the children go to their classroom each morning, they’re first bound into wheelchairs with straps on their arms, legs, and neck. They only eat once a week, and the whole building smells like nasty chemicals. But our hero, ten-year-old Melanie, doesn’t mind any of this: she loves school, loves Greek mythology (especially the tale of Pandora, whose name literally means “the all-endowed” – that’s where the title comes from), and loves her teacher, Miss Justineau. She couldn’t be happier.

Of course, the adults who comprise the rest of our viewpoint characters have a slightly more complicated view of things.

Saying more than this, and especially getting into what I didn’t like about the book, is tough to do without including spoilers, so I’ll throw up the flag: abandon all hope of unspoiled reading, ye who proceed from here.

In its themes, the apocalyptic scenario Carey crafted reminded me of Mira Grant’s Parasite (read my review here): he presents an interesting symbiotic twist on the zombie tale. One thing I liked very much about Carey’s approach was that he didn’t string the readers along: around the time I figured out what was going on (roughly 50 pages in), he has his school administrators talk about it explicitly in-scene. The threat to this world is “hungries,” people infected with a new strain of Ophiocordyceps, a real-world fungus that currently infects ants. In its original form, the fungus drives its hosts to climb high up in the trees so that they can rain spores down on the forest floor; Carey’s modified human variety has never been seen to produce spores, so the only way it can be spread is by (you guessed it) biting. Hungries are classic horror-movie zombies, mindless and basically inanimate until they’re presented with an opportunity to go after human flesh. Except, that is, for a small minority – all children – who seem to be almost “normal.” The kids in this school are oddly-sentient hungries; the reason everyone smells like chemicals all the time is because of a gel that blocks the enzymes in the (uninfected) adults’ sweat that would otherwise send the children into a feeding frenzy.

As a concept, it’s interesting, and I flew through the first hundred pages eager to see what would happen next. But then – disaster befalls the school compound! a few adults and Melanie need to go on the run! everyone but Miss Justineau wants to send Melanie away!

After the first hundred pages, the book becomes an adventure story, and at that point, my mind was no longer blown. I think the main reason for that is because although I believed there were credible threats outside the group, I didn’t really feel any tension between the characters Carey works so hard to convince us are at odds. The three main adults Melanie’s interacting with are her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau, the school’s military commander, Sergeant Parks, and the head scientist, Doctor Caldwell. Parks makes a lot of noise for quite a while about how Melanie’s not safe, and she needs to be sent away; Caldwell is constantly talking about how she needs Melanie as a specimen to figure out why the fungus is working differently in her body. But since I didn’t really believe that either of these things was going to happen, all the talk around them seemed like a waste of words.

I was also disappointed in the “twist” ending, where the reason for the special children’s unusual degree of sentience is explained. Along with Caldwell, we as readers were supposed to notice a few hungries encountered throughout the novel who had vestigial “normal” behavior of one kind or another; this leads Caldwell to the conclusion that some hungries maintained vestigial sex drives, and that the children are their offspring, born with the fungus in their bodies and therefore adapted to be symbiotic with it. This revelation comes alongside the discovery of a huge wall of mature fungus that’s about to produce spores, which will make the infection airborne and ensure that every uninfected person in the world will soon become a mindless hungry. But some of them will breed, and their offspring will go on to found a new civilization, with Miss Justineau in her biohazard suit there to bridge the gap.

The readers are strongly encouraged to see this ending as evoking the opening of Pandora’s box, where many terrible things were released into the world but then Hope followed at the end. I couldn’t help but wonder how many readers would see this as a happy ending: wiping out the last dregs of the human race over the age of 16 seemed to me quite a bit darker than your typical dystopic glimmer-of-hope novel.

Maybe I’m jaded; maybe I’ve read too many dystopias; maybe it’s that this book is, at its heart, a plot-driven story with comparatively little attention paid to developing rich characters (I had particular issues with Dr. Caldwell’s motivations in several places). With the exception of Melanie, I found the characters shallow and forgettable, and that’s never a good recipe to draw me into a book. That said, if you’re a zombie/dystopia fan looking for an interesting alternate take, this story makes a fun read.

What Does He Care About? Or: Why I Didn’t Finish The Lies of Locke Lamora

When I was younger, I very rarely left books unfinished, but graduate school cured me of that inclination. These days, I always have too long a reading list — books for character research, books for syllabus development, books meant to familiarize me with the bones of my genre — so when something I’ve declared to be a “fun read” doesn’t strike my fancy, I set it aside. Such was the fate of Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora, described in its Publisher’s Weekly review as “a picaresque fantasy that chronicles the career of Locke Lamora—orphan, thief and leader of the Gentlemen Bastards—from the time the Thiefmaker sells Locke to the faking Eyeless Priest up to Locke’s latest con of the nobility of the land of Camorr.”

I don’t usually write reviews of half-finished books, but I thought this one deserved a moment’s analysis — superficially, it does a lot of things that I like very much, but when the pieces come together, they just don’t work.

I requested The Lies of Locke Lamora from the library after reading Scott Lynch’s short story in Martin & Dozois’s Rogues anthology. Lynch’s story was my favorite in the collection (you can find a review, and more in-depth discussion of why, here); I thought he did a good job of painting a relationship between old friends in a relatively small space, I thought the caper he gave his heroes was unique, and that the setting he built was fascinating. So I was excited to pick this book up and get to reading. But now, three weeks later, it’s going back to the library only a little more than half read. I can usually finish a 700-page book in a few days. What was different about this one?

I think its biggest problem (and one I’ve seen echoed in other reviews) was the title character, Locke Lamora. He has all the traits I generally like in a protagonist; he’s a sneaky roguish type; he snickers at those in power but takes care of his friends (the trope, if you’re interested, is Jerk with a Heart of Gold); and he’s clever enough to put together a good scheme but not so clever that it always runs smoothly. His motives are (almost) purely selfish: unlike the rogues of Sanderson’s Mistborn, he’s not trying to free the peasants of his city from their corrupt overlord. He’s not Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. He’s not even Han Solo. Locke and his band of merry men, the Gentlemen Bastards, are interested in scamming the nobles of their city, and in piling up as much cash as they can fit into their hideout. Their toast before dinner is “To us. Richer and cleverer than everyone else!”

A character like this — with things other than the fate of the world as his priorities — subverts some of fantasy literature’s deepest bones. The Big Fantasy Cliche (and the reason Star Wars is a fantasy movie), is the Hero’s Journey story arc. The world is hovering on the brink of destruction; a protagonist rises up from humble and obscure beginnings; they prove to be the Chosen One uniquely qualified to save the day. This story is still a lot of fun when it’s done well, but I like seeing fantasy authors starting to branch out. For instance, one of the things I like about Kvothe, Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles hero, is that for all his big talk about the fantastic things he’s going to do in Book 3, his basic motivation is selfish. Big baddies destroyed my family; I want revenge. It’s a good story goal — it’s big, complicated, hard to get — but it’s hardly on the level of The Survival of the World.

Locke’s goals, on the other hand, are simple. He wants to become rich(er); he wants to win back the love of his life, who’s departed for points vaguely-defined for reasons even-more-vaguely-hinted-at; he wants his friends to survive. That’s about it. Sure, there’s an antagonist who shows up to throw obstacles in his path and make these goals more difficult, but that doesn’t happen until about halfway through the book. Sure, he’s been unlucky in love, but the details of that seem to be about the only part of Locke’s backstory that Lynch doesn’t want to share with readers early on.

The book’s presented more or less as 2 parallel storylines, with one showing the Gentlemen Bastards as successful grown-up thieves and the other filling in the tale of how they met under the tutelage of a sneaky master back when they were kids; although many reviewers seemed to find the “flashback” sections tiresome, I actually preferred them to the “present” storyline. Young Locke makes lots of mistakes; he’s got a few major complications in his life (like the fact that because of a scheme that went poorly before Locke became a young Gentleman Bastard, his master can kill him without consequence, at any time, until the boy brings in a huge amount of money to buy his freedom from the “death mark”). Adult Locke is too talented, too sure of himself, and I didn’t find myself rooting for him. It seemed like he started the book with all his goals achieved, and by the time the antagonist showed up to start complicating that picture, I’d already written the protagonist off as a selfish, cocky jerk.

That’s really the execution problem here, I think. The craft problem may be that Locke’s goals are too petty; the outcome is that I don’t care what happens to him or his friends. At the point where I stopped reading, Locke’s been off-stage for at least a few chapters; when last we saw him he was in a seriously life-threatening situation with no obvious escape route. And I couldn’t even motivate myself to see how he was going to get out of it.

Characters certainly aren’t the only reason that people read Big Fat Fantasy books, and this book still has things in its favor. The worldbuilding includes some interesting details; the action sequences aren’t bad. And I liked that short story enough that when Lynch puts out something else new, I’ll probably look it up if only to see which work was the fluke. But for me, this book demonstrates the problem with bending fantasy too far from the Hero’s Journey tale. If your protagonist is a selfish jerk with no evidence of caring for anyone but his own nearest and dearest, readers may not care when he gets sealed in a barrel and dropped into the bay. And as writers, I suspect that’s the sort of thing we usually want to avoid.

“But There’s No Action!”: Robin Hobb and Breaking the Fantasy Mold

I read a lot of books these days; usually at least one Big Fat Fantasy Novel a week, sometimes more. But of all I’ve read in the last two months, only one book grabbed me so hard that I couldn’t do anything else until I’d finished it. That was Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice.

The book introduces us to FitzChivalry Farseer, a prince’s bastard son who’s brought to his father’s family as a small child, raised by the stablemaster, and trained to be (surprise!) an assassin in the service of his grandfather the king. Without a doubt, there are a few elements of this world and its story that make it likely to appeal to me in particular. The main character has animal empathy magic, which has always been one of my favorite magical abilities. The royal family in Hobb’s Six Duchies, the Farseers, have a unique naming tradition, where children’s names are expected to reflect their dominant personality quality (Fitz’s father really is named Chivalry; others in the royal family are Shrewd, Regal and Verity); any book that demonstrates that its author has thought about names and naming already has points in its favor for me. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I have a soft spot for rogues, particularly the hapless sort who still make mistakes. In this book, Fitz does that in spades, ending up on the wrong side of some powerful people who don’t like the steps he’s taking to try to preserve the honor of his home kingdom.

I enjoyed every part of this book: the worldbuilding around how assassins are trained, the contradictory cultural views of different kinds of magic (while human-to-human telepathy is viewed as a mark of royal blood, Fitz’s animal empathy skills are a curse), the distinctive and disturbing way that the Six Duchies’ enemies have of raiding seaside villages. I thought the characters were well-drawn and sympathetic. In general, the book left me with a feeling of having been well-entertained by a skillful storyteller; so when I finished it, as I’ve taken to doing with all the books I’ve liked in the last year, I went on Amazon.com and read some 1-star reviews. (I find it’s a good way to remind myself that no book is going to please all its readers).

One of the most common complaints I found about this book was that its protagonist spent the majority of his time feeling sorry for himself (a point which I can get behind); the complaint that surprised me, though, was that “nothing happened” in the first book. People who didn’t like it said that the book was “boring” or that “the pacing… is positively glacial.” I couldn’t disagree more. I liked the level of detail Hobb went into about Fitz’s life in the castle, his training, and his relationships with his teachers and the family he’s trying to figure out his relationship with, and I never felt like the plot dragged.

A few weeks later, when I read my second Hobb book (The Dragon Keeper), I remembered the review and took more notice of Hobb’s distinctive storytelling style.  Basing my impressions on the back cover copy (admittedly always a dangerous first step), I expected the book would be about a group of humans and dragons making their way up the river in search of an old dragon settlement, but the expedition doesn’t leave until more than two-thirds of the way through the book. Dragon Keeper isn’t about the adventure to find the hidden city; it’s about introducing us to the viewpoint characters (of which there are about half a dozen), their world, and their struggles. There’s the girl who comes from a society marked by traces of magic, who’s viewed as deformed and second-class because the magic manifested itself more overtly in/on her body than it does in “normal” people. There’s the dragon who doesn’t live up to her own ideals and race-memories of what a dragon should be. There’s the human scholar who studies dragons, thinking about fleeing her emotionally abusive, loveless marriage. Before putting these characters together, Hobb takes the time and space to let us get to know them as individuals — and small moments, like showing us how a riverboat captain uses his ship’s cat to check for vermin in the cargo, are the things I liked best about this book.

While I haven’t read nearly enough Hobb to speak about whether this leisurely style holds true for all her books, I will say that after having it brought to my attention, I found it refreshing. I feel like modern genre fiction too often falls into the trap of drawing its inspiration from the most cliche devices of big-budget movies, video games and tabletop RPGs, where there’s an expectation that the intrepid heroes will encounter an opportunity to fight at least once every few chapters. As someone who has a hard time with visualization when she reads, I often end up skimming action scenes, and get frustrated when the climax of a book is entirely wrapped around a clash of swords and fireballs. I’ve set aside more than one series for having “too much fighting”; not because I was bothered by the violence, but simply because I’d gotten bored.

In my position as an as-yet-unpublished author, I’m maybe more sensitive than many to the expectations around what fantasy books are “supposed” to look like — and when I outline my own books, looking for thematically-appropriate mini-arcs in the big story I’m telling, I find myself looking for places that’d “make a good final fight scene.” It’s reassuring for me to find an author like Hobb, well-respected and well-read, who bends an expectation that I’d begun to think of as one of the most strongly embedded. I have a friend who’s interested in reading more genre fiction, but hesitates because she’s not interested in reading fight scenes. After reading these two books, I’ve got a new author to recommend.

Book Review: Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey

The encroachment of grass had not come overnight, nor had the Lords awakened one morning recently and decided in a flash not to give all their traditional tithe to the Weyr. It had happened gradually, and had been allowed, by the Weyr, to continue, until the purpose and reason of the Weyr and dragonkind had reached this low ebb, where an upstart, collateral heir to an ancient Hold could be so contemptuous of dragonmen and the simple basic precautions that kept Pern free of Threads.

As part of my ongoing writerly education, my reading resolution for this calendar year was to familiarize myself with authors from the last few decades’ fantasy canon. My progress has been uneven (there are just so many wonderful new books coming out!) but I’ve read some Tad Williams this year, and some Robin Hobb, and I’ve got books on my to-be-read shelf from Raymond E. Feist and Gene Wolf, Zelazny and LeGuin, and Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz. And, on my most recent vacation, my traveling companion was Anne McCaffrey, and the first tale she wrote in the Pern series.

I’d absorbed some bare basics of McCaffrey’s world by nerd osmosis. I knew that there were dragons; I knew that the dragons worked with humans to burn up a weapon that was being dropped on their home world. I knew McCaffrey used glottal stops in her characters’ names. And I knew that she wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the storytelling norms of mainstream fiction were quite different than they are now.

I didn’t expect that last point to matter as much as it did; because of some of the book’s stylistic elements, if I hadn’t been on an airplane, I might have stopped halfway through. The characters are portrayed more distantly than I’m used to; we don’t get much of their inner monologues, or really see them change through the course of their adventure. The main characters are a couple whose attraction to each other feels at times more like a plot device than an emotional bond. The plot’s also structured differently than I would have expected, with the Big Bad Threat to the Planet not showing up until the third act; for most of the book, the force driving the conflict is politics and power struggles among the dragonriders and the other citizens of Pern. All this goes to say that reading the book has made me realize contemporary readers do expect certain things in their stories, in a way that I didn’t have such a visceral understanding of before.

And yet — I’m really glad I read this book, and I will at least be finishing the trilogy it’s a part of. And not only because McCaffrey’s shadow stretches over all the contemporary fiction featuring dragons, from Novik’s Temeraire books to Paolini’s Eragon, Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon, and Hartman’s Seraphina. Stylistic differences aside, I thought the book made a very interesting cultural exploration of how the weight of history fades over time.

What I didn’t realize until I picked up the book was that the threat the dragons and dragonriders are trained to attack — the biological Threads that drop onto Pern from a neighboring planet and will, if left unchecked, consume every living thing in their path — isn’t a constant danger. Because the Threads’ home planet has an elliptical orbit compared to Pern’s, the two planets only come close enough to allow the transfer every two hundred years or so. When the book starts, there’s been a particularly long Interval since the last Pass, closer to 400 years. As the quote I start the review with notes, much of Pern has gotten lax about adhering to anti-Threads safety guidelines, and people have started grousing about why they ought to be paying to support a fleet of dragonriders for a threat that might never come again (legend states that the Longest Interval will be when Threads never come back to Pern). This has very obvious echoes of the way people deal with abstract danger in real societies; when crime in your city is low, it’s easier to gripe about the huge amounts police officers are paid. When there hasn’t been a major earthquake for 25 years, bolting your bookcases to the wall might not be your top priority. And in any society, four hundred years is a long time.

I thought McCaffrey presented a society “gone soft” very well. Even the dragonriders themselves don’t quite know what to do against the Threads; for generations, they’ve spent their lives in flying competitions. There aren’t enough young humans being taught to ride; there aren’t enough dragons being born, because those in charge of the fertile females haven’t worked at keeping them in trim. The characters trying to prepare Pern against the threat have to go to ancient tapestries and songs for hints about how their ancestors dealt with the last incursion of Threads. It’s disaster-proofing through historical document analysis: I loved it. And once the plot to save Pern (with some help from archeology and other, more magical sources) got rolling in the last 75 pages, I stopped caring about the book’s flimsy characterization and slow start, and instead read straight through to the end.

This book does show its age. A modern story would likely spend more time in the heads of its protagonists and in describing the world, and it would probably start the big plot wheels rolling sooner. Those differences might be enough to turn some modern readers off, but after making it through to the end of the book, I can see why this series caught the imagination of so many dragon-loving kids, and I will be reading the rest of this trilogy for sure.