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.

Summer reading orgy roundup #1

Every summer around solstice time — that is, in a normal year; I don’t even know what I did last summer — I put away my writing projects and indulge in an orgy of reading. I gather up books I expect to be a pleasure to read, and sample them as the mood strikes me. So here’s a roundup of the books on my proverbial nightstand.

Finished

Martha Wells, All Systems Red (Murderbot #1): Fun, snarky, jabs an elbow into the fourth wall from time to time, exactly as advertised. Will read further into the series but it’s not urgent, as the ending of this initial novella lands pretty satisfyingly.

Nghi Vo, The Empress of Salt and Fortune: A pan-Asian fusion of fairytale and magical fable. Deceptively simple prose that evokes a fine beauty. Plan to read the companion novella, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain.

K.J. Charles, Slippery Creatures & The Sugared Game (Will Darling #1 and #2): Charles is just the best at period queer romance, and that’s all there is to it. These are well spiced with murder, mayhem, and snark, and the POV character is so Fed Up With Everything that my primary delight in reading these is when Will loses patience and tells off and/or punches people — or both at once. My hold on the third book just came in, so I’ll be finishing this trilogy in short order.

In Progress

E.J. Beaton, The Councillor: Fantasy court intrigue, European-inflected but with new twists on mythic imagery and magic. I like the POV character so far but haven’t quite…chimed with her? I don’t think it amounts to a flaw in the writing, but it is slowing me down somewhat.

Arkady Martine, A Desolation Called Peace: I read the first chapter of this and decided it was too exciting to be an adequate distraction from the panic attack I was having at the time. Will circle back later.

On Deck

S.A. Chakraborty, City of Brass: Had a critical mass of recs for this series, so look forward to giving it a try.

Still welcoming recs for pleasurable reads in the above vein!

Insta-review: Katherine Addison, The Witness for the Dead

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on my stoop waiting for my ride to pick up my car from the mechanic (I hope and expect that purchasing new tires will be the last major expenditure involved in getting a new car), when an Amazon truck trundled to a stop in front of my building. Turns out the package was in fact for me — not only had I forgotten when this book’s release date was, I had not actually expected to get it on the release date. But then, I don’t usually bother to pre-order books.

But I pre-ordered this one, largely because The Goblin Emperor was my compulsive comfort read last summer, and while this summer is definitely an improvement over last, I’m all for Moar Comfort.

It’s a thinner, smaller book than TGE, which was one reason why I did not hesitate to plunge in in the early evening hours and read till it was finished — rather late, but not so late as to give me a serious book hangover. I would say it pretty much met expectations.

Thara Celehar’s storyline was not the most interesting aspect of TGE for me, partly because the murder mystery in that book was not really a murder mystery — it was there to support the court intrigue plot and the development of the characters. What makes Celehar interesting as a character is his persistent stubbornness — and his deadpan delivery of wry truths; and in this book, written from his first-person POV, we discover the full range of his charism of speaking to the dead.

Celehar is now living in Amalo, an industrial city that in the last book was the departure point for the last emperor’s fateful airship voyage. There’s intrigue here, but it’s not court intrigue, and so it doesn’t lend the same kind of weight to Celehar’s character development that the court intrigue lends to Maia’s. The murder mystery in this book is not integrally linked with the temple intrigue, but it serves the same function as the murders in TGE: it’s there as a principal joist for the real plot of the book, which is Celehar earning his place in the community as Maia did in his.

There is in fact more than one murder mystery in this book, but none of the deaths are actually that mysterious, because, as I said, the mystery is not really the point. The point is to follow Celehar and his methods and his interactions with the denizens of Amalo. Also there’s a tantalizing gesture toward romance with a colorful opera impresario, but this is also not a romance, so the Happily Ever After is deferred beyond the scope of the book.

What this book is, I decided, is All Creatures Great and Small, if it were about dead bodies instead of animals. Not quite episodic, not quite plot-integrated, it’s the story of a youngish professional dropped into a new setting, navigating interpersonal politics and accepting cups of tea he doesn’t like while demonstrating how to tame a zombie or survive a night on a haunted hilltop, with shoestring resources, occasionally forced to change into secondhand clothes that make him look ridiculous.

If James-Herriot-but-with-ghouls sounds right up your street, then you won’t mind so much that Celehar insists on detailing the names of all the streets he takes and the trams he doesn’t take and the kinds of tea served in the airship builders’ favorite tea houses and the names of five different Ethuverazhin operas. And I don’t mind, really, because Addison has created a world that by necessity has to be differentiated from ours in language, social structure, technology, and magic — and given the choice, it’s better to toss these things in casually rather than stop to explain every little thing. It’s the kind of worldbuilding I favor myself, and the kind of narrative matrix I tend to use, and that’s why I know that some people would find it tedious: because betas have told me so.

But that never deterred me, and it clearly doesn’t deter Addison from telling exactly the kind of story she wants to tell, and that covers, if not a multitude of sins, certainly the number of foibles you can find in Witness for the Dead.

Now what did I do with my copy of All Creatures Great and Small?

Review: Heather Corinna, What Fresh Hell is This?

Subtitled, let us not forget, Perimenopause, Menopause, Other Indignities, and You.

A lot of my recs come from Twitter these days — an almost miraculous phenomenon given how narrowly I hedge my follow list and limit direct engagement with my timeline. (You people following upwards of 100 accounts either have an impressive amount of bandwidth, or else you use the platform way differently than I do.) Most of the people I follow are longtime acquaintances or otherwise folks I’ve interacted with in other venues; the few that aren’t are usually a mere degree of separation from that. If the people I follow don’t know me, they know other people who do, or vice versa. For this reason, I can’t even recall whose tweet or retweet alerted me to the existence of this new book.

My hat is off to someone who can feverishly complete a book of this stature in the middle of a pandemic, an anti-competent administration, and a bastard of an election year. Never mind if the book is actually good. Which it is.

In a snappy, salty, colloquial, and practically informative voice, Heather Corinna lays out what we know and are learning about the processes of perimenopause and menopause. It should surprise no one to hear that most of this work is taken up with ground-clearing of entrenched misogynist and gender-rigid ideas from the medical establishment up through the second half of the twentieth century. (There’s even a guest appendix in this book written by a trans woman.) Think of this as a sort of sweary What To Expect When You’re No Longer Expecting.

I’m being facetious, but Corinna takes great care to lay out options rather than giving advice, to document the science in the most accessible way possible, and to make you laugh doing it.

Having a bunch of arghful or super-demanding life stuff, all while our biochemistry is flying up and down like a haunted elevator or radically changing to a kind of hormonal makeup we haven’t had for more than a week at a time since we were kids — no shit that can have an impact on our mental health.

For instance, did you know that as the ovaries taper off making their kind of estrogen, the body supplements itself with another estrogen made by fat cells? In a strange coincidence, uterus-havers often gain new weight around the middle when they reach middle age. Could it be that human bodies are smart and know something about how to mediate this natural transition? This book does not insist we take a sunny view of this process — it’s named after a Dorothy Parker quote for a reason — but it does take on a project of demystifying it so that we can escape having an adversarial relationship with our own bodies.

And I’m all for that. There have been many ways throughout my life that my body has looked out for me, even in the throes of cystic acne and digestive misery and mental illness, responding to life stuff with its own wordless logic, keeping me safe and even stable despite my unfriendly feelings toward it. I haven’t been embarked on middle age for very long, but it feels like the season of the Great Permission: to give no fucks — or to give lots of fucks — to nope out of things, to swear freely, to eat copious amounts of Louisiana Hot Sauce, but most of all and most importantly, to live here. Not to live outside myself like an antelope at a watering hole, or to surveil myself like a Russian Olympic judge.

So, yeah. I highly recommend this book to all kinds of people — it’s written like a conversation with people going through what it describes, but it’s highly informative also for the people who love and live with them — and I’ll probably be recommending it to my doctor, too. I’ll be tickled if I find out she’s already read it.

The season of lights, and a rec

A very happy Lightfall to all! Otherwise known as Yule, Solstice, the feast of St. Thomas, and O Oriens in the antiphons leading up to Christmas Day.

This is, in fact, one of my favorite days of the year. I consider it the starting gun for my season of best creative productivity. It’s the end of that long ache of days growing shorter, of things husking and falling away, of incremental losses and seemingly undirected wandering into dimness of heart and mind. It’s the firm clasp of night, sparkling with stars.

This year, it’s also sparkling with the Grand Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Yesterday evening I managed to get a couple shots of it with my zoom lens. And perhaps the sky will be clear enough this evening to get them at their nearest.

Nearer to home, I took some shots of some excellent Christmas lights:

And finally, I have an enthusiastic rec. For my birthday, Erica gave me the book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch. It is the poppest of pop-sci: a linguist’s examination of how the informal written language of the internet has evolved as the internet becomes more ubiquitous. This may be a specialized interest, but honestly I can’t tell, because I’m one of the generation of adopters McCulloch calls Full Internet People, and in addition to that, I would have been a linguist if I’d realized what it meant that my favorite classes in college were all linguistics and mind science courses.

(Not to mention, of course, that my energies in college were entirely devoted to averting the terror of Being a Bad Person, such that I hardly had headspace to recognize what I wanted and develop the nerve to pursue it. As Lord Peter said, there are reasons to want twenty years of one’s life back — but not the same twenty years.)

In any event, this book was so engaging that I wore my aging eyes out trying to read it all in one go — and in fact got to the end of the text sooner than expected, because the bibliographical information at the back is — necessarily — extensive. You can’t write a book about the internet without lots of URLs, and McCulloch thoughtfully keyed them to the Internet Archive so that it would take longer for the links to break. But in fact you don’t have to refer to the back material at all in order to enjoy this book, which covers the generations of adopters (rather than the generations by age cohort), rhetorical shadings in pixel text, emojis, memes, irony, passive-aggression, the development of spelling conventions, and lots of other things that you can recognize yourself in no matter what kind of relationship you have with the internet. If you want to geek out about language, this is an excellent book to do it with.

Light and peace to you this long night.

Review: Jo Walton, Or What You Will

Because Erica so much enjoyed this book for the meta of writing that so easily beguiles writers into nattering about their process (I say; beware), I thought I had better read it. I checked out the ebook at my local library and read it over the course of a few days, and gave it the standard four stars on Goodreads that I always give to books that I enjoyed and that were well-written.

(Honestly, the star method of rating books is so two-dimensional. If only there were some way of rating books with an opaline sphere with colors for the quality of writing, colors for the emotional pull, colors for the personal impact, &c. But that’s not very useful in late-stage capitalism, is it? No, it’s five stars or bust, for book evaluation as for customer service. I hate to think I might be letting good authors down by not giving them five stars, but I can’t help using the metric the way I think best, and anyway, writers can’t be fired — or even deplatformed, as the opal orbs of their past indelible impacts would testify if only they could. )

— Clearly, I’m still under the influence of the narrative voice of Or What You Will, which is effortlessly strong, like a deep, pellucid current. How else could Walton get away with writing a book in which the entire first half has maybe one chapter devoted to the vehicle story and the rest a series of digressions about — if you do not come too close, if you do not come too close — the history of Florence, the history of the author being narrated into being by her own muse, the history of Montreal, the nature of religious experience, the evolution of a writer’s relationship to her own past art, and anything and everything the muse thinks important to enlist our participation in his project of saving Sylvia Katherine Harrison’s life. Or her soul, as the case may be, if there be a difference.

(And anyone who knows me by my fanworks knows there is no way on God’s green earth I wouldn’t notice all the references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Anyone who’s read my fic, that is, or Virginia, who’s not here for me to talk with about this book. The moment when a loved one of the author texts her that they can’t wait to discuss a book with her, but dies before they can, gave me a pang.)

From a writer’s point of view — and for all I know, from a critic’s — this book is a narratological puzzle box, bound to give delight to those who like such things. Would people who are not writers or critics find it self-indulgent? I don’t know, but the thing I said out loud at one point was How the fuck is she getting away with this?! — so Your Mileage May Vary is not going to apply if Our Muse succeeds in getting you on a Vespa, which he probably will if you’re interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.

I am not sure the ending quite succeeded for me, after all the buildup, after all the debate between author and muse about what is real in the real world and what is real in the worlds of her invention. But then, the narrator is ultimately thinking about his own life and soul, and I can’t help centering on the author’s — and the narrator’s arc is satisfying, so far as it can be (and the fire and the rose are one).

I can’t help thinking about characters I drew up when I was in my teens and early twenties, and how, in some respects, they saved my life, by living out stories — and sometimes telling me about it — that I needed to “see” lived out, as some kind of internal healing mechanism. (In some ways, especially that way, writers are always seeking eucatastrophe.) I suppose it was while writing what’s so disparagingly called “self-insertion” fic that the germinating plant began to peel away from the cotyledon’s husk: a prolonged meta exercise like writing yourself into a media-property story teaches you exactly what wishes can be fulfilled, what parts of yourself you can save, and before very long at all the avatar I’d built was an entirely different character with a different trajectory, different preoccupations, different needs. She was a lot more heteroromantic than I am, to start with; but I didn’t know that at the time.

In any event, I didn’t do much of that with my characters in Ryswyck. The situation was the other way around; instead of saving myself (“saving” like Dante’s “salute” — greeting with true recognition which when you think about it is nearly all of what salvation is) by means of writing them, I saved myself so that they could be written. Yet the enacting that I suspect all writers do behind closed doors — weeping one’s own characters’ tears, rehearsing their cadences as if playing them upon a stage, laughing at their jokes — is still present, and does me as much good as it does them, maugre Socrates and Freud and all the dour, humorless figures who cluck their tongues from their pantheons over this process of selving as if it were invalid. I can go and kneel where prayer has been valid, if I so desire — and I can also make the valid prayer in the first place. I have never not thought so, even at my deepest depths of self-suspicion.

Because of this, I deeply appreciated the Muse making the point that people who have suffered abuse in their lives (like Sylvia, his author), or been exposed to some traumatic and humiliating event, are not, despite common wisdom, blighted people. They can know or learn how to love; they can be happy; they can pray and make art and live full lives. They can have a coherent sense of autobiography. They can co-inhere. And the best thing about this assertion is that the Muse is making it on behalf of the author who made him, is advocating for her in a way she cannot advocate for herself. And if nothing else, it is a good thing that Or What You Will exists, to reach out, grasp the reader by the collar, and insist that if you greet the author, you should greet her with true recognition.

Thus do we all save one another.

Review: El-Mohtar & Gladstone, This Is How You Lose The Time War

This book has been on my TBR list for a while. So when I hied myself over to my branch library to renew my card and saw it on the shelf, I checked it out. (Disappointingly, several books I had hoped to put holds on are not in the system. Obviously I’m going to have to put a second string to my bow and sign up for a JoCo account.)

I admit, a big selling point for the book was the fact that it’s small. (Again with the ways in which I am not the reader Author Me is looking for.) I didn’t realize the book was actually a novella; if I wanted to be That Bitch I would check the word count and issue Commentary on how 50k words is not ten thousand words too many to be considered a novella, So There. But eh, who has time for that. Time War is, pretty clearly, a novella; it has no wasteful digressions, no overblown prose, no jags where there ought to be jigs. I read it in the same afternoon, with time left over for a nap.

I gave it the same four stars on Goodreads that I give to other excellent books, but I didn’t write a review of it there because I wasn’t actually sure what I thought about it. And — I still don’t. The back jacket cover is full of blurbs giving a kind of praise I’ve never seen before — I think Gerard Manley Hopkins was name-checked at one point, which you definitely don’t see every day — and none of it was stuff I thought about the book, but I thought it plausible that someone else might think it.

The story, you would think, hits my Enemies Who Love Each Other kink whang in the gold. Not quite: the two time soldiers in this story fall in love as enemies and continue in their duties even after they’ve acknowledged their secret and forbidden love; but it wasn’t quite the specific non-romantic love of enemy for enemy that I hunger for so much. Close, though; as close as things usually get.

I think the book both stands and falls on its thoroughgoing commitment to discorporealized action. Or…dyscorporealized action, in some instances. Like Charles Williams (honestly he’s much more my go-to comparable than GMH for this), the actions these time soldiers take, the letters they write, happen in an almost metaphysical realm, the synapses between thoughts, between beats of the heart. The story is written and lived in interstitial, intercostal spaces; the reveal of the seeker-shadow is a fulfillment rather than a bucking of its trope; for all the main characters tell one another about their physical lives, those lives are conducted at a far remove from anything we experience. Possibly the most anchoring thing in the book is the occasional allusion to memes of our time — I laughed when I encountered the reference to “I’m in ur base killing ur doods.” Do kids these days know that meme?

Trying to get a critical grasp on this story, I noticed that it’s written in tight-third, present tense POV — a perspective tailor-made for this kind of story; or vice versa. It’s going to sound like a backhanded compliment when I say it’s like fanfiction pieces written by the best practitioners of that perspective. But tight-third present tense perspective became popular among fic writers precisely because it is so handy for invoking this dreamlike sense of immediacy, and — if you have the chops for it — providing the bevels needed for imagistic wordplay and incantatory style.

This stylistic choice is not just popular in the realm of fanfiction, but when you find it out in the wild it’s usually in literary fiction. I suspect that reviewers have a Pavlovian response to encountering this style, which is to tag it as having high literary merit whether it does or not. But that’s not El-Mohtar’s and Gladstone’s fault. Their book does everything it does in good faith, and in the end I suppose that’s why I liked it as much as I did.

But the thing I liked best about the book, the thing that filled all those resonant spaces in my heart whenever I pick up a story looking for Escape in Tolkien’s sense, was the last line of the acknowledgments section at the back. El-Mohtar and Gladstone clearly mean their book to be an act of resistance, as all real art is in times like these, and the last thing they have to say about it — and the last thing I have to say about it — is this:

Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep fighting. We’re all still here.

Erica H. Smith, The Seed Time

I’ll put the TL;DR at the top: Erica’s latest in her Waters of Time series, The Seed Time, has just been released.

Erica started this independent publishing gig way longer ago than I did. I wasn’t the first to join her cadre of betas, and that was fifteen years ago; since then, she’s produced five books and gathered a modest but enthusiastic following.

Erica’s books are knotty, plotty, and rife with water metaphors. Each one follows members of a main cast, most of whom work at Constantine and Associates, a time-travel firm for hire. What with the quadricentennial of the Declaration of Independence, the intrigues of 2176 politics, and the equally complicated intrigues of office politics and love triangles, the time jumpers who work at Constantine and Associates never can just leave work at work. On many levels, these books are about the damnable difficulties of saving the world, not least because it’s so hard to agree on what that is supposed to look like.

The other day I ran across a quotation from someone or other asserting that yes, in fact, novelists tell their stories because they hope to burnish some truth that can redeem us, because they hope to have a meaningful effect on the world. To tell a story is to take action, and so it’s no small thing to me that Erica has produced a story of great complexity in five fascinating installments. That’s a lot of action!

In time, when I too began writing and wrestling and groaning with a project of my own, Erica served as sounding-board and beta for me, and mentor in the process of independent publishing. We’ve worked together well on our various projects the last fifteen years, in no small part because we respected one another’s goals. A lot of beta-reading relationships fall apart because at some point the beta gives in to the temptation to say, “You shouldn’t have those goals — you should have other goals instead.” Giving cogent feedback on someone’s writing is something I came by much more naturally than I came by that ethic, but unless you can do both, it’s not very helpful.

In any case, Erica is an excellent beta reader and an equally excellent writer, and if you follow the link to her page you can sample the first book in the series, Time for Tea, by way of introduction to an absorbing series.

Or in less elevated words: New book YAY!

Review: Tamsyn Muir, Gideon the Ninth

I am so not the kind of reader I want, really. I’m the kind of reader who hangs about like a cat in a doorway, ambivalent both about going out and staying in, until something happens to tip the balance. In this case, the requisite critical mass of recs plus my decision to take a mental health weekend resulted in my getting a Kindle copy of Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth — and, of course, reading it in one sitting.

The kind of readers I want, of course, are the kind of readers Gideon the Ninth has: readers who will rave about it in their spaces and joggle their friends’ elbows until they have read it too, so that they can flail together about it. So, full disclosure, I’m a little bit envious of Gideon for its insta-fandom. But not envious enough to turn up my nose at it, either before or after reading it.

Gideon Nav, the POV character for most of the book, is a foundling indentured servant of the Emperor’s Ninth House. It’s the terminal House, with a terminal population, racked by terminal boredom, and all Gideon’s escape attempts have been foiled by the daughter of the house, her nemesis since childhood: Harrowhark Nonagesimus, necromancer extraordinaire. Harrow offers Gideon a devil’s bargain to get off the planet: put her swordswomanship to use as Harrow’s cavalier in a dangerous trial to be elevated to the Emperor’s elite. Harrow is determined to win that place to save her dwindling House.

Gideon couldn’t give less of a shit about the Ninth House, but it’s an adventure, and she gets to wield a sword. And does she ever get to wield a sword. But as you would expect, the trial turns out to be far different to what they expected, and will require more of them both than they could ever have imagined.

The story is, just as advertised, brilliant and pyrotechnic (in a skeleton-y kind of way), with a narrative voice that cracks wise in an ironic but not cynical style. And, it doesn’t fail to deliver on lots of swordplay. Now, I’d quibble that a Zweihander is not an automatic overmatch for a rapier, precisely because what you gain in weight you lose in speed, but I can forgive that because Muir has obviously done proper research, and worked the fighting skills of Gideon and her counterparts from other Houses into the thematic foundations of the trial itself. Sometimes you want speed, and sometimes you want a can-opener, and at all times you want deadly ferocity and a towering passion for winning.

The story fulfills its promises, and any mysteries it leaves unsolved are obviously to be addressed in future books. I gave it the same solid four stars on Goodreads that I gave A Memory Called Empire, and for much the same reasons. Annoyingly, star ratings tend to be a bit like customer-service ratings — anything less than a 5 is a failure of some obscure kind; believe me, if there were an extra little gold star I could add for “life-changing!” I would give five stars to books more often. This book was excellent but not life-changing.

The reason it wasn’t life-changing has everything to do with my particular taste. About half way through my reading of the story, the knowledge sank in that this book’s engine was the Final Girl trope — and sure enough, the story delivered, with precisely the amount of creative body-horror you might expect from a story about dueling necromancers in which life and death are both extremely plastic and ductile.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that tropes are unmentionables, like underwear in polite company — like, how very coarse and bodily of you if you admit to needing to wear any; please. Tropes aren’t just foundation garments; they’re foundations. All stories are made of them, good, bad, and indifferent.

I approve of the Final Girl trope in principle, but in practice I find it kind of…a surfeit, a panoramic waste. There are some characters in this book I would really have liked to see more of, dammit. From my point of view, the Final Girl isn’t bad or even unsatisfying; it just isn’t the here kitty kitty kitty that reliably brings me running.

But, like I said, I enjoyed it happily in one sitting, admired the prowess of Muir’s wordplay, and have no reservations adding my rec to some other cat’s critical decision mass.

Allusion: sixth (and probably last) in a series

“It is, let me stress,” says Robert Alter, “an unnatural act to compose a poem or write a story.” And now that you’re all set to quibble with him, he goes on: “No one would think of perpetrating such an act without having been exposed to poems or stories that present themselves as objects of emulation or rivalry.” He goes on to instance the sonnet as a form that no one would use to express themselves without knowing what a sonnet is and entering into its continuity.

And, he’s not exactly wrong. I mean, I remember the first sonnet I ever tried to write. Probably best that my old folder of poetry was lost in some move or other. Still, if we were exposed to no forms of literature, we would have to invent them — I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team and you wouldn’t believe the number of times Phil Harding holds up a chip of flint he’s just dug up and says in his adorable West-Country accent, “Now, this don’t look like much, but it’s actually a Neolithic worked scraper — an exciting find!” Creating or maintaining forms of literature may not be “natural” — but they’re as essential a human technology as any other tool developed from antiquity.

But the reason Alter is using this argument is that he is trying to combat the sense of allusion as, again, something accidental or incidental to a text, which is better spoken of as an agentless process of “intertextuality.” “You can ‘allude’ to something,” Alter says, “but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it.” Not to belabor the point (but I totally will because this is my blog and I want to), but this idea that the literary critic does things to books texts, and only writers and naive people let books do things to them, is one that I just can’t accept. Yes, to consider texts critically is not the same thing as to enjoy or write them; but half your critical apparatus goes out the window if you refuse to think of writers as active agents in purposeful engagement with the tradition they have chosen to enter into, or their stories or poems as anything but inert objects to be played with in your current academic environment. I loved my education but I often felt that it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. “Here is a boatload of life-changing texts, but you should feel embarrassed if you ever admit that one had an actual effect on your mental landscape.”

(This is perhaps not fair to my professors in the English department, who no doubt had their hands full developing callow twenty-year-olds into proper critics not hampered by the Dunning-Kruger effect; but even my most sensible mentor, a medievalist with a wry sense of humor, when suggesting we consider how a text might be designed to affect us, used a gingerly dryness as if to insulate himself from the spirit of the age. I took note of that along with everything else in those seminars.)

Anyway, allusion. Alter calls it “an essential modality of the language of literature,” rather than simply a device in the writer’s toolbox. That is: the act of writing a poem or story is an act of engagement with whatever other examples of the form the writer has read and been affected by, and that engagement gives rise to allusion in different forms and modes. Two of Alter’s examples are Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord.” Never once in Faulkner’s book does the biblical story of David and his son Absalom make a direct appearance. But the title, being an allusion to that whole tragedy, informs the story between the covers as a comparably tragic self-destruction of a house. Hopkins, on the other hand, starts his sonnet with a direct quote from Jeremiah, and then strikes from there at the heart of his own frustration and sterility.

These two examples of allusion are comprehensive, and there are also recurrent or fleeting allusions within a text — but to use allusion, rather than just to be colored by whatever you’ve already read when you sit down to write, is to set up and activate a resonance in your reader that enriches their experience. Do it really well and they may not even have to get the reference.

Of course, the writer can make allusions for their own private enjoyment as well. A casual reader of Ryswyck may note by the style that I’ve obviously read a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold and Dorothy L. Sayers, and if I wanted to conceal their influence I probably wouldn’t be able to. A person familiar with the Major Arcana would likely recognize the images of at least two characters, which I worked into the design. But I’d be surprised and pleased if any reader caught the several references to the Gospel of John in the text — I put those in the design for my own pleasure, and to remind myself of what I like best about that gospel, the telling of a story from beginning to end in such a way that time itself becomes layered and laminated, like an exploded diagram of a theological reality.

Nobody needs to get that in order to enjoy my tale. But it’s part of the “high fun” of writing to make full use of all the nodes and meridians of meaningful stories in your reach. To think that a story should be full and resplendent with its own sui generis meaning, free of all dependence on other texts, is — well — a bit wanky, and a modern aberration. Some Stone Age person knapped a flint scraper for Phil Harding to find; I went to the store and bought a stainless steel knife. Guess who did more heavy lifting for the human race?

Now watch me dice this onion and cry some tears of gratitude.

This has been a not-so-liveblog responsive reading of the chapters in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Brought to you by the letters Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and by the number Q. Tune in next time for…whatever I decide to do a series on next.