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?

The Protagonist Opportunity

First, go read this amazing essay by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton. I’ll wait.

So, speaking of hotel clerks, there once was a man who went to a conference at a hotel whose customer-service motto was “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities.” He went up to the desk and said to the clerk, “There’s a problem with my room.” “Ah,” said the clerk, tapping the sign, “but there are no problems, only opportunities.” “Call it what you want to,” the man retorted, “but there’s a woman in the room assigned to me.”

Yes, it’s a stupid joke, and faintly creepy to boot, but it plays into what Palmer and Walton are talking about in their essay, which is at bottom an issue of displacement, in the Archimidean sense. It reminds me of the time when I, with disastrous naivety, joined a writer’s group while I was working on Ryswyck. At one point another member grilled me about who the protagonist was in the story: I tried to say that if anything, Speir and Douglas (and specifically the friendship between them) was the protagonist, if there had to be one — but that wasn’t sufficient. I finally allowed as how the reader’s-eye POV belonged to Speir, but refused to follow the logic that was being pressed on me: they wanted me to refocus the story on one person and leave out what wasn’t relevant to her directly.

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of my participation in this group, but I’m really grateful to Palmer and Walton for bringing an even wider angle lens to this issue — for describing the continuum of storytelling from protagonismos through braided POV through tapestry. Not only does this perspective explain why I find pitch advice for aspiring writers so desperately annoying (“make sure to identify your protagonist and her conflict/desire/pain point!”), it shows how dangerous for our collective narrative diet it is to read no stories except those driven by protagonismos.

Of the tapestry stories mentioned in the essay, I’ve read only the last — Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, which a housemate lent me as a favorite book of his (in exchange for Doomsday Book, if I recall correctly). I would never have picked up this immense book on my own, but I was fascinated by this “tapestry” mode of storytelling, in which all the characters, and the landscape itself, are like the striations of a muscle, working away to drive the story along. I do believe that even a plague flea was given a brief POV in Rutherfurd’s book.

Like Palmer and Walton, I’m not entirely sure what made Rutherfurd the final outlier in the trend away from tapestry storytelling, but I remember the 90s, and recall how much of the fin of that particular siècle was dominated by avatars — the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Ryan White, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan (a lot of men are coming to mind, for some reason!). Stories were avatarized: A Night to Remember became Titanic; D-Day became Saving Private Ryan. Nowadays we’re getting villain origin stories, as if the only way to make Cruella de Vil interesting or compelling is to protagonize her. And let’s not get into Star Wars, shall we?

As the essay points out, the trend has swung so hard that a series like Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” — which in another frame would be seen as a bog-standard braided-POV story — is regarded as an outlier for having a large ensemble cast. Ensemble casts have been actively discouraged as making books unwieldy and hard to sell. My friend and fellow indie author Erica H. Smith has embraced the cast-of-thousands approach — structurally, her books are made up of disciplined POV braids mostly in tight-third, but every other chapter she finds herself inventing another fascinating walk-on character to stir things along and I’m usually like, “Ooh! I like them; are we going to see them again?” “…Maybe.”

This is one of the uses of independent publishing. Ensemble casts, intricate POV braids, walk-on multitudes, tapestries — they may not sell like hotcakes, but someone has to write them. Else the protagonismos displacement might go the way of the Ever Given and block global sea traffic for weeks.

Thanks to this essay, a widened perspective shows me that my own instincts were what I thought they were — a braided ensemble like the cast of Ryswyck is not grotesque, nor is it fully a tapestry story. But as I’ve mentioned in other places, I made sure that the turning point of the plot depends not on Speir or Douglas or any of the other POV characters, but on the most ordinary and unsophisticated character in the cast, a character whose legacy will ultimately cast a longer shadow than a charismatic would-be protagonist like Barklay. I did my best to make sure not only that every character had a trajectory but that nearly all of them are indispensable to the community and to the solution of the story’s dilemma.

The fact that this essay exists is a harbinger of what I certainly hope will come, stories whose moral imperative is based in community, with hope that doesn’t spring from powerful avatars or narrative exceptionalism.

Now excuse me while I go seize an opportunity.

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.

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: Alexandra Rowland, A Conspiracy of Truths

I really thought I was going to like this.

I can’t remember how A Conspiracy of Truths landed on my TBR pile — possibly through my online trivia league’s recent SFF trivia-fest — but it looked like my jam, to the hilt. In any case, a few months ago I went through the old TBR pile looking for a choice for book club, and read the opening sampled on Amazon, and thought: well, it’s more than 400 pages, but it’s got a snappy voice and a cantankerous POV character who’s in a bit of a pickle. Sold!

Incautiously, I announced it as my book club choice before reading it.

As it turned out, not even the most catholic-minded, voracious reader in my group finished it. I finished it for two reasons: 1) I had to lead the book-club discussion, and 2) I felt a driving need to be absolutely certain this story didn’t unravel to something I would have been sorry to miss.

Spoiler: it didn’t.

I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because, well, it’s better-written than Jodi Taylor’s One Damned Thing After Another and I gave three stars to it. But whereas I finished Taylor’s book thinking: “Well, that was complete junk food, but I had fun consuming it,” I finished this book thinking I’d just read a Serious Tale that actually roused me to resentment.

This takes some doing. My approach to reading is generally the Golden Rule approach: I do unto the author as I would have them do unto me. So when I pick up a book, I give it all the generous credulity at my disposal, which often takes little effort, and save the critical eye for looking back from the end. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I didn’t like the book until like two days after I finish it.

But here’s the premise of this book. (Spoilers follow.) An old wanderer from a long tradition of powerful storytellers enters (with an apprentice) a cold, backward, Slavic-coded country and gets arrested for witchcraft, which makes him by their laws an enemy of the state. He uses the tales he tells from his jail cell to turn his imprisonment to his advantage in a complicated intrigue. Scheherazade meets The Thief — right?

Nope. Presented with what is a legitimate threat to his life and freedom (and with the knowledge that a similar fate came to someone he knew as a friend), the nameless Chant emulates the capricious, sadistic god his storyteller forebears once worshiped, and plays the women leaders of the country against one another, with the express purpose of destroying the entire country and having another, nameless, offstage friend of his shovel its remains into the sea with her army. So…technically…these folks were right on the money: he is an enemy of the state.

Every time a character started to interest me, Chant would get her killed. And yes, the characters were interesting, in a Gormenghasty-grotesque kind of way. The only character I actually liked was the apprentice, and Chant’s contempt for him was practically a parody of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward Watson: Ylfing is valuable only because Chant needs him, and Chant only needs him because he can’t find anyone better.

The companion book to this story, A Choir of Lies, is supposedly about Ylfing when he ascends to Chanthood, and tries to handle another sticky situation differently than his master. The blurb suggests that the credulity and open-heartedness of the young man that was the only bright spot in this book will not be enough to sustain him through whatever difficulties arise. I can’t say that’s much of a temptation to read it.

This is what I want in a story billed as a “conspiracy”: I want people to connect, to recognize one another’s invaluable gifts, to take a difficult situation and turn it inside out (if they’re the conspirators), or to foil the nefarious plot (if they’re the protectors of the current order). Nothing like this happens in A Conspiracy of Truths; people simply use one another all the way to destruction. The only consistent moral imperative of this story from first to last is how justified Chant is in his destructive machinations. It grew so unpleasant I started looking for ways to read him as an unreliable narrator; but the story never escapes his grip for a moment, so there was no way of finding out that Chant’s reality isn’t the centered and approved reality that the author wants to give me.

My voracious-reader friend, doing her due diligence in lieu of finishing this book, found this interview with the author about the subgenre of “hopepunk” — a term which I did not realize Rowland had coined. I was glad to read a description of hopepunk from the source, as it were, because I have never found the concept useful or appealing, despite approving thoroughly of all its component parts. Hopepunk — a righteous fury against bad systems coupled with an affirmation and triumph of the underdogs — seems to be what A Conspiracy of Truths is aiming at.

This is the theory. But in practice, my response to both the concept and this book can be summed up with one bewildered, annoyed sentence: “Yes, but not like that.”

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.

The Un-Natural

Last night, looking for something to watch while eating dinner, I saw that Netflix had added The Natural to its list of Acclaimed Movies from The Past. I remembered liking the movie a lot as a kid, so I started it up.

Seriously, Cheese Man makes more sense than this movie.

My memory of this movie was pretty patchy. Like, Robert Redford got hurt somehow — maybe it had something to do with war? — and that made him an underdog, and there was some kind of sinister money plot, and at the end he hits an amazing home run and starts bleeding and manages to run the bases before he dies. Maybe?

The rewatch didn’t do this movie any favors. To start with, it’s little Roy Hobbs and his nobly poor farmer dad, and nobody else except the well-off farm girl Iris hanging around in worship. Where is Roy’s mom? No mom? Okay, maybe they’re just trying to keep this story succinct. Roy’s dad dies and lightning strikes the tree he died under. So Little Roy makes The Perfect Bat from the wood. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is earnestly aping Aaron Copland, which along with the Model T tells you that it’s the Olden Times, i.e., the early 20th century.

Roy Hobbs brands his bat WONDERBOY. So far what this movie seems to be missing is symbolism.

So cut to a few years later when Roy is off to make his fortune, but first he stops to have a midnight barn tryst with Iris. Then he gets on the train with…some dude who’s agenting him. A mysterious Woman in Black is on the platform. Some baseball insiders are in the dining car musing over a newspaper story that two sports greats have been mysteriously shot with silver bullets. I wonder if this will have any bearing on the story!

Roy and his agent get into a dick-wagging contest at a local fair with the baseball insiders, and Roy strikes out the legendary batsman. Back on the train (that was the longest half-hour water stop I ever heard of), the Woman in Black approaches Roy alone and draws him out so far as to say he intends to be The Best That Ever Was.

At their destination, the Woman in Black invites Roy to visit her in her hotel room, and he goes. She gets him to say again that he intends to be The Best, and then she lowers a black lace veil and shoots him.

What?

TITLE CARD: 16 YEARS LATER

Roy shows up at the dugout of a washed-up team in New York with a scout’s contract, and Wilford Brimley, pissed off at getting sent an Old Dude, refuses to play him. But eventually he has to, and discovers that he is The Best. Suddenly the team becomes good. The co-owner tries to bribe Roy to suck so that he can buy out the team from Wilford Brimley, and Roy nobly refuses.

Meanwhile this whole time, Roy refuses to let on a) where he’s from, b) why he didn’t keep playing ball after high school, and c) what the hell he’s been doing with himself for 16 years. We know he didn’t go home because there’s a scene where a lonely Iris goes into a diner and sees a newspaper article about this sudden phenomenon. No matter how many times people ask him, he deflects the questions.

Then Roy’s rival on the team crashes through a wall trying to catch a fly in right field, and somehow this kills him? Which leaves Roy a clear path to Wilford Brimley’s daughter and a place on the starting lineup.

What??

This is the halfway point of the film. I skimmed the cursor through the rest to see if there were some hope of a sensible plot, and I didn’t. So I noped out.

I can’t remember how Roy suffered the relapse of his wound in the side. Maybe the Woman in Black, annoyed at having failed to eliminate a Paragon of Masculinity, comes back for another try?

No doubt there was some kind of reveal when everybody finds out Roy’s Tragic Past, but it can’t be any less ridiculous than the build-up. Roy is too ashamed to admit to being the victim of a random malicious misfortune…why? Roy didn’t wind up back home…why? No newspaper article connected the dots with the other silver bullets…why? Roy’s agent mysteriously disappears at the point of the shooting…why?

It’s like Roy takes a 16-year hiatus for Doylist reasons, and his creators, the perpetrators of this plot, write it this way for Watsonian reasons.

I guess having your masculinity perforated is a fate worse than obscurity.

I must not have noticed the absurd misogyny of this plot when I was a kid because it read like randomness to me. After all, the potential is great. Robert Redford! as a baseball hero! facing incredible odds! in a dashing 1930s knickerbocker uniform! This could be great!

But you were failed hard, Roy Hobbs. No mom, no home community (highly improbable, WTF), no arc of team camaraderie, no war angst, no Great Depression angst, no best male friend, not even an honorable rival. Nope, just a lot of inept men and unfathomable femme fatales, a drab backdrop for the luminous Natural. If this were football there’d be flags all over the field. Illegal Succubus, Intentional Incomplete Use of Wilford Brimley (like, The Firm made better use of him, WTAF), Improbable Wounding, Running Out the Play Clock…I can’t even.

So, file this one under Beware Movies You Enjoyed As A Kid.

ETA: I went over to Wikipedia and read the rest of the plot summary. Oh my God, it only got more egregious from there. Two succubi and a Penelope. Oh, and Roy doesn’t actually die in the end; he lives to sire a line of Naturals while his loving long-lost Iris looks on. Well, at least the next generation has a mom. Baby steps?

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.