Review: E.J. Beaton, The Councillor

I want to say at the outset that I ended up really enjoying this book and gave it four stars on Goodreads which has become kind of my standard for “damn good but not life-changing” and did I mention that stars are stupid ways to rate books? Anyway, I’m saying all that because the criticisms that follow might make it sound like I had major beef with this book, which I don’t.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a European-inflected story of fantasy court intrigue, with not one but five courts combined, plus another court mostly offstage playing the role of diplomatic spoiler. Five countries have formed a confederation called Elira, and the central country, Axium, is where the “Councillor” of the title, Lysande Prior, is from. Lysande is an orphan foundling, casualty of the war with the White Queen, who was taken under the wing of Sarelin Brey, the Iron Queen whose throne in Axium oversees the city-principates of Elira. Lysande grows up a scholar, sneered at by the nobility, who has been developing an illicit habit of drinking a concoction of chimera scale for both stimulation and solace.

When Queen Sarelin is murdered, the court at Axium discovers that Sarelin has appointed Lysande the Councillor who will choose the new monarch from the other city-princes, a plan which goes off the rails immediately when Lysande institutes a new council of all five leaders to make this deliberation while she investigates the murder, which may be a sign that the White Queen is rising again.

Lysande isn’t the only one afraid of the White Queen’s rise. Every principate in Elira has been undertaking to exterminate or at least suppress all people known as “elementals,” or what Avatar fans would know as benders — people with the magical ability to summon and control an element such as fire, air, or water. The assumption is that any and all elementals are evil minions of the White Queen, and why would they not be, with such power to harm ordinary mortals in the palm of their hands?

Both my main criticisms of the book are a matter of pulled punches. Lysande’s arc is about discovering her own power despite her upbringing in the orphanage with its mantra restrain, constrain, subdue. Why do the denizens of the court sneer at Lysande with her ink-flecked doublet? Because class war, that’s why. But you can’t have a class war without something to make it stable — or resolve it altogether. To use a Bowen systems metaphor, you need a triangle. The elementals would appear to furnish the third leg of the triangle between “the silverbloods” and “the populace,” but other than a bit of window-breaking, it’s not psychologically established that the silverbloods have been stoking the populace’s resentment against elementals in order to maintain their sway, or that the elementals are to the populace anything but the oppressed in parallel. I mean, it’s right there within the story’s reach, but Beaton doesn’t quite reach for it, either because she’s occupied with other aspects of the worldbuilding or because she wants to conceal the fact that elementals can crop up in the bloodlines of the nobility as well as the populace.

This is important because all three of these, er, elements, find their nexus in Lysande’s POV. The orphanage taught her the mantra restrain, constrain, subdue, but its main function seems to be as a bond for her to break free from and leave behind; it could be something they teach children of unknown provenance in case they turn out to be elementals, or it could be something all non-noble children are taught so they don’t rise against their betters. The point is, the story really only cares what Lysande thinks about the mantra, not what the oppressive teachers were hoping to accomplish by inculcating it. I think this is a missed opportunity, because a major plot point of this story involves Lysande reading her own thoughts and feelings into the affect and words of another character, and missing clues to a later betrayal. She’s a scholar; she’s trained herself to avoid eisegesis and steer to exegesis. The story needs to give her something to exegete, but there are some blank spaces.

Similarly, part of Lysande’s arc is embracing her D/s sexuality. In this ‘verse, no one is particularly fazed by bisexuality, or other gender-inflected orientations, but D/s is still somewhat taboo, it appears. Here again restrain, constrain, subdue is an obstacle for Lysande, whose desire to be the Dom in her relationships gathers force during the course of the book. Now, I know what I just said a week ago about smut sunblindness and my preferences for evoking rather than baldly stating what’s going on in a sex scene. But there are a couple of sex scenes — again, rather key to the plot — in which Lysande becomes less diffident about bringing her Dom orientation into the open, and the most explicit thing in them is the communication of the characters’ eyes. I’m not saying that D/s sex scenes should always be explicit. What I’m saying is that a scene about Lysande loosening her own tethers can’t depend on the opening stages of foreplay to establish what that feels like to her before subsiding in amorphous euphemism in which all we clearly know is that she’s on top. It doesn’t seem, judging from a later scene, that Beaton can’t write that kind of sequence; it’s that she chose to pull the punch here. If Lysande commanding the initiative was the main point of the scene, it’s possible a fade-to-black might have been more effective for the purpose, but clearly a few clues also needed to be established, and that was the sequence’s downfall — attempting to have it both ways.

I dwell on these criticisms because they really did slow me down a bit in the first half of the book — I was interested in Lysande but not compelled by her, and the problems I mention were sustained throughout. But the prose is evocative and well-paced, and getting to know the world was fun, and I always like a bit of politics, and the other characters, while avataristic, are interesting, with something likable about nearly all of them. These things come together to make the last stage of the book very satisfying, with its tiered reveals and a catastrophic attempted wedding and a duel between elementals with fire, water, and rapiers. No punches pulled there! Much of this depends on the character of Luca Fontaine, the prince of Rhime, who is Lysande’s only real equal (with the possible exception of her attendant Litany) among the other characters and has a bottomless capacity for snark, swag, and sleight of hand.

Possibly the best thing about this book, despite the obvious pitfalls of the choice, is that it is set firmly in Lysande’s POV and is therefore not portentously concerned with Lysande’s Destiny with a capital D. This story is about her experiences as they unfold and her changes as she meets them, and it does an excellent job of letting us in to Lysande’s surprise that anyone might want to ally with her, without protesting too much. Because of this, it’s easier for me to imagine what Lysande might look like to people looking at her from the outside — easier to imagine her gaining enemies as her power grows. It’s true I did guess early on who the murdering traitor was, but there was still plenty of suspense as to when Lysande was going to discover it, so it was no encumbrance.

Take it all around, this is an ambitious, creative, imagistic fantasy that takes interesting characters and established tropes and twists their right angles into fascinating tessellations. I’m glad I persevered with it.

5 ADHD-friendly criteria for choosing books

Happy Monday! I hope you’re at home. Wash your hands.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s today’s topic. I had thought about doing this one as a video, but as the ensuing post will illustrate, that plan has been (at least for now) scrapped. Mass quarantine has given rise to a new appreciation of the arts, including opportunities to read books, and I wanted to say a little bit about what it’s like choosing things to read when you’re ADHD.

First: a small briefing on what it’s like from the inside. Too often ADHD gets talked about in terms of its inconvenience for other people. (This is where a video would work well.) We all have a part of our brains dedicated to making plans — visualizing, ordering, measuring timescale, anticipating what “done” looks like. For most people, that part of the brain delivers plans without much thought: for those people, planning is like picking up a newspaper at a kiosk and reading it. For us, it’s like we have to consult Gutenberg and build the printing press, hire the reporters, gather the editors, invent the sections, instruct the galley mechanics, and print the paper, and by the time it comes out, it’s two weeks later, it’s old news, and we’re exhausted.

So instead, what ADHD people do is recruit other parts of their brain to get a plan done and executed. It’s like being right-handed and having to write with your left all the time; you can do it, but it’s awkward and tiring and the result looks kind of pathetic.

Everyone’s compensation strategy is different. Me, I use the part of my brain that makes lists. So say I want to get a particular book (without going to Amazon). So I make a conscious and explicit list of actions in order. I decide, library or bookstore? Then I choose a time to go when they’re open — and also when I’m not obliged to be doing something else. Then I leave the house, get in the car, drive to the place, and look for the book. I could check the internet catalog to see if they have it first, but that…doesn’t necessarily make it into the plan. Say I don’t find the book. I go to the nice person at the desk; they tell me they can order it for me. I say yes and go home. When I get the heads-up that the book has come in, I have to make this plan all over again and execute it.

Sounds simple, you say. It is — if you’re not doing it with the wrong hand.

So I have the book in my hands now and it’s time for Phase 2 of the plan. I open the book, start reading words, and keep doing that till I’ve read all the words. If something happens to interrupt me, I have to ramp up the momentum again as if I’d never started.

So you can see that when ADHD people say they can only do something if it’s interesting, they don’t mean that they just can’t be arsed to do a lot of stuff. They mean that if making the plan and executing it is so tiring, then doing the thing needs to have some intrinsic reward to make it worthwhile. In other words, if I’m going to make a long list of ordered tasks to get a book, it better be a damn good book.

(By the way, if you have a loved one with ADHD and you want to help them Do a Thing, you can approach it from either end. You can help pre-make some of the plans to funnel them into Doing the Thing without getting too tired and shearing off. Or you can find ways to raise the intrinsic reward of the Thing once they get to doing it. Offering rewards at the end doesn’t help; it just becomes, like, Phase 3 of the plan, one more distracting and tiring irrelevance.)

When I was a kid, I had less logistical labor to do — not no logistical labor, but less than I have now. So I had more energy for reading books. Now, well — on a normal day, I get up, make tea, take meds, do prayers, get showered, get dressed, get in the car, drive to work, do work over a period of 8 hours, get in the car, drive home, decide what to have for dinner, make dinner, eat dinner, allocate my free time, wash face, and go to bed. And that’s without extra stuff like meetings and fencing practice and doing dishes. So…I read less.

Which is why I’ve decided in 2020 to lean into my instinctive priorities for choosing books to read. And I’m telling you about it, in case it’s useful.

  1. Is the book easily available? This is what makes Amazon so insidious. If I’m interested in a title, I can shorten that list of tasks a whole lot by typing the title in the search blank, deciding if I want to buy it, and then *click* a Kindle copy is delivered. Instant phase completion! If I don’t want to spend my hard-earned cash at Amazon, then I ask: does a friend have it to lend? Do I have time to get to the library right now? Is it at the indie bookstore down the street? (Thanks, Will!)
  2. How long is this book? I’m not gonna lie: last time I was in the library I caught sight of This is How You Lose the Time War on the shelf, and said: “Hey, this is on my list — look at this, it’s skinny! I didn’t know this was a novella. I’m taking this home.” So I took it home, read the whole thing in an afternoon, and had time for a nap into the bargain. Win. I can read a long book, but it needs other selling points, as you will see.
  3. Is it recommended by more than one friend? Generally, I wait to seek out a book until I’ve had a critical mass of recs over a period of time long enough for me to contemplate them. This tactic rarely fails to pay. If I read a book off only one rec, the fail rate increases. So I’m leaning into this one now.
  4. Is it by or recommended by a trusted author? Major shortcut. Knocks out half the decision load.
  5. Does the description promise my favorite tropes? Look, after a while on this earth you get to know what you like. If the other criteria are weak, I might try a book on the strength of someone saying it has my favorite Love Between Enemies kink. And, since it’s me, if I can’t find a book that has the specific tropes I want, I wind up writing it. But that’s a whole other post.

And finally, one more principle I’m leaning into this year: forgiving myself for not finishing a book. I got interested in Tipping the Velvet enough to get a Kindle copy, and started reading it. Then I got interrupted, and didn’t come back to it, and didn’t come back to it, and I finally asked myself: finish the book? or go read spoilers on Wikipedia? Spoilers it was. I may get back to it some time, but I give myself permission not to. (On the other hand, I was reading Ancillary Mercy at Christmastime a few years ago, and got so busy with services and whatnot that I literally had to put it down for 48 hours, and it about killed me. So, behold the power of intrinsic reward.)

And there you have it. The shape of our daily logistical labor is quite changed right now, and may never be quite the same again, but I feel sure that these criteria will still be helpful to me choosing books in the future.

Be safe. Be well. Read books. If you want to.

On Thankfulness and Gratitude

I keep meaning to read Diana Butler Bass’s book on gratitude, but haven’t got round to it for much the same reason I don’t do a lot of things that I look forward to being good for me. “You’ll be happier once you’ve washed the dishes,” I say to myself, as how Bullwinkle might say, “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!”

That trick, as any ADHD person knows, never works.

So my thoughts on thankfulness and gratitude this Thanksgiving season are unguided by anything other than my own insight. (I might have said exactly this when I was 25, but I would have meant something rather less modest.)

I am thankful fairly often. It isn’t very difficult; I think of thankfulness as an undirected feeling of relief and obligation, and reasons to put oneself in that headspace are plentiful. I’m thankful for a good day, a finished task, a delicious meal, avoiding a car accident, getting a good night’s sleep. Having a continual background anxiety that some other shoe is about to drop — that makes thankfulness noticeable by contrast.

So I never particularly liked that Thanksgiving exercise of “let’s go around the table and everybody say one thing they’re thankful for” — what, like it’s hard? I’m thankful for breathing, for getting over a sprained back when some people have a lifetime’s worth of the same chronic pain, for today not being a day when something terrible happens to me… I mean, it’s great and all, but there’s not much of a so-what factor there. And every thing I just listed is something someone else isn’t getting. I think the exercise would work better on a community level, like what David Mamet is said to have said Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

Gratitude is something totally different. Gratitude is directed. It sometimes isn’t explainable because so often it’s for something you can’t do for yourself. You can’t put your own hair up when you’re sick over the toilet, like my mother did for me on one occasion. You can’t make someone apologize to you for some hurt they did. Sometimes, you can’t even explain to a person what it is they did that eased you, or revived you, or humbled you. Sometimes, when I’m grateful, I feel thankful that I’m grateful, like it’s a sign that my soul is in good working order.

I’m not sure what makes gratitude so inescapably spontaneous, though. Like, it’s easy enough to explain when someone does something for you specifically to manufacture your gratitude for their…gratification. But sometimes, a gift is given, a favor is done…and the firefly doesn’t light. In my experience that mostly happens when I feel secretly that I ought to have done it myself, or been able to do it myself. That I needed power more than I needed the gift.

I think gratitude is reserved for the meeting of an unambiguous need.

I think we shouldn’t expect people to be grateful when we meet a need for them that was manufactured by people or by structures. But the thing is, sometimes people are grateful anyway. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s one of the most helplessly genuine reactions we humans possess: and like tears, it’s made of the thing that caused it. It’s something that is still sacredly right when lots of things are wrong.

I guess if I’m going to be thankful for anything this holiday season, it’s that.

Admiring other writers, and other invitations

Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?

I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.

This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”

It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.

Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.

So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.

(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)

Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.

And that is all the news that’s fit to print.

An agenda ain’t nothing but a to-do list

I haven’t played a video game since 1991, but I’m tickled by the concept of a horrible goose with a to-do list.

So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.

For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)

For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.

I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.

But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?

In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.

Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)

Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.

I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”

Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.

But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.

And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.

Like writing a novel.

So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.

Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.

There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.