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.

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?

Things to be noted, snow edition

It is very cold and a very fine snow is misting down, and that is just as it should be. Some notes from the home front:

  1. While my tea is steeping, I’ve taken to picking up the camera and practicing shots on whatever I find marginally interesting in my flat. It is not yet light enough in the mornings to tempt me outside, but I take the camera with me when I put the trash out, and got some fine shots of a winter world this morning.

2. I lack half of one scene and the tail end of another to complete a chapter of TLT — I spent all my energy on a grocery trip on Saturday, but put down 1670 words on Sunday, which I call satisfactory.

3. My chromebook charger finally bit the dust last night, so I ordered a replacement and will have to make do with ye olde work computer until tomorrow.

4. A fellow community member said that thanks to C.’s rec she picked up Ryswyck and wound up reading it all in one sitting! — thereby confirming further that once a reader gets to a certain early point in the characters’ trajectory, the momentum takes care of itself. Gratifying.

5. I have named some characters from the diplomatic delegation of the Southern Consortium and made a start building up the part of the world where they enter. This also involves building up some of the world of Berenia, but that is less complicated: just think of the world’s most disadvantageous game of Settlers of Catan.

Things to be done:

  1. I have promised myself to make no promises to keep up the habit of taking morning shots.
  2. Keep going, of course. What else?
  3. One of these days I will need to get a more comprehensive laptop, but I’m allergic to spending large sums of money, so I expect it to be a while before I actually do any such thing.
  4. I really need to find someone with a good signal-boost radius willing to read and rec Ryswyck far and wide. Like, how do you ask someone to do this??
  5. What I’d really like is to have a conversation with someone who actually knows at least one region of Africa well and can speculate on the nuances of a secondary-world Global South empire. Quite apart from authorial primary research, it’d be an interesting conversation! Must gird myself to forage on Twitter, I suppose.

And that’s the state of the state. Now back to work.

Getting (re)started, plus music

So we are well away into the New Year, and I have sat down with The Lantern Tower again, determined to make the most of my favorite season for writing in. As usual I had bogged down right about the point where I’d be starting to build connective tissue between the first section and the second — fascia rather than plot; I know what happens at the end of Chapter Six, that part’s not a mystery. I’ll go back and fill that in much like I did the last couple chapters of Act One in Ryswyck.

So here I’m starting again at the beginning of the second section, writing scenes I know, planting out scene plugs I’ve got socked away in Google docs (gardening metaphors are rising to mind just now; I’ve been watching a lot of Monty Don specials and really wish I had some unshaded gardening space).

Besides the propagated sceneage, also already there are fascinating decisions to make. Like in what manner I should alternate locations for the action in Bernhelm and at Ryswyck Academy. If this were a film by Greta Gerwig I might dare to interleave by scene or section, without keying first to the objective chronology: but a book is not a film, so if I want a similar effect I will want to use tools of the written art. But which ones? That is a fun mystery, running one’s mental fingers over rows of smooth-worn tool handles.

Too, I have discovered a tension that is the mirror reverse to a tension I had to manage in the first book. In that book, though I consider Speir and Douglas to be co-equal protagonists, there was a point at which the action, the momentum and moral thrust of the story belonged to Douglas. I concerned myself intensely with the art of putting Speir on a sideline without sidelining her. Here, the opposite tension is in effect; and in this case I’m wrangling not only the balance of Speir as emerging primary agent with Douglas as subordinate agent, but also the residual sexism of fearing that as a wrongness. Once I identified the tension, however, I felt a small sense of relief: oh, I see, it isn’t wrong.

So that’s the state of things in the word trenches greenhouse at the moment.

Meanwhile, I had forgotten to add a music post to my blog hiatus list, partly because I’ll run across music, think “oh, that would be good to add to my collection of Ryswyckian atmospherics,” and then promptly lose track of it because I haven’t done anything practical like make a playlist or something that neurotypicals are likely to do as a matter of course. Anyway, here are two shots of Ryswyckian atmosphere for your Monday: one a tune by Penguin Café called “Protection” (I listened to several versions and preferred the most acoustic possible one, so you get the Tiny Desk Concert here); and a traditional waulking song from Mary Jane Lomond. It would be great to get some French/Alsace-based country songs to build atmosphere for the Bernhelm sequences in TLT; will have to keep my eye out, but if you know of any, link me!

Mother, factorial

[Crosspost from my Tumblr blog 15 October, where I stashed these thoughts during the site hiatus.]

Today I amused myself by ficcing my own ‘verse, as I like to do sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up. The majority of my main characters live in a country that is matrilineal, for reasons which I had fun building out. (Matrilineal, I say, not matriarchal — but even a matrilineal society is so far from the current landscape I live in that there seems little difference from this vantage, as I shall soon demonstrate.) One of them is the youngest of thirteen children, whose mother is a hard-working and locally influential farmer in a rural northern district. So today’s fun involved me making up stories for myself about his eldest sister and how she went about starting her own family with the help of a cousin from the next village over.

Now, I wanted to work out just how distant of a cousin I wanted her partner to be (I quite like him, he’s a nice fellow, very decent despite having grown up in a small and rather dysfunctional community), so I grabbed a sheet of paper and started to jot down a genealogical diagram…

And then had to stop, flummoxed. You know what a genealogical diagram looks like: a line is drawn between a man and a woman to signify they are married and/or had children, and then the next tier shows the children all depending from a single bar. But for Rosemary Douglas, mother of thirteen, head of her household, that doesn’t work. In her childbearing career she made contracts for children that double as local alliances with men who could afford to commit to sworn sponsorship. All of them planned — except for her youngest. How the hell would I diagram that?

I decided — I couldn’t. I’d just have to leave the fathers out. But neither did it make much sense to just have Rosemary, with a bar below her marked with all her children’s names in birth order from left to right, with no room for the kind of detail one would want for working out genetic relationships in matters like this. How would Ilonians diagram their genealogies, then?

I wound up drawing something like a factorial: Rosemary at the center, with her sons in a segmented line down the left, and her daughters in line down the right, the elder closer in and the youngest at ends of each line. Her daughters could be diagrammed the same way: a hinterland rather than a tree, very Ilonian. To work out genetic details at need, one could write the name of the father/sponsor on the line segment between Rosemary and each child, and work back to his mother from there. You could see then how often lines would cross and avoid overentanglements.

I have no idea how actual maternal lines are diagrammed in RL. But I was sort of shocked afresh at how spatially embedded in our minds patriarchy is. I was used to thinking of a Bowen genealogical diagram as a logical reflection of how humans are, how their generations pass, universally. But it isn’t, really. It’s like how “matrimony” doesn’t mean the same as “patrimony” except with mothers: matrimony means “I have acquired a womb!” and patrimony means “I have acquired a dynasty!”

In any event, in reference to quotations I’ve seen round here about sci-fi and fantasy as the kind of imaginative activism necessary to envision a better world for ourselves, I have been doing exactly that: telling myself stories of people living complicated, imperfect, not-always-easy lives in a world I want to see emulated, for the sake of my own sanity in these times. And I’m telling you about it, in case it helps.

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.”

What’s a redemption arc, anyway?

…Something to talk about instead of the pandemic, that’s what.

Occasionally, in my fannish lurkage, I see things cross my ken that confuse me, because it seems like half the conversation is missing and I could have sworn it was common currency ten minutes ago.

Today’s case in point: “redemption arcs.” Should a character be given a redemption arc? goes the debate. What makes a good redemption arc? Why don’t people like them? Is there a point of no return for a character, after which no morally-solvent story redeems them?

And all this debate is being conducted as if nobody ever heard the term “woobie.” Maybe I should do a series on the Fandom Old Lexicon.

For those of you just tuning in, a “woobie” is a Bad Guy Character that gathers a contingent of fans who love them so much they’d like to hug and kiss and squeeze them and call them George. Such fans get defensive when the Woobie is criticized, either on behalf of the character or in response to implied criticism of themselves for liking the character so unreservedly.

It’s hard to predict what characters get “woobified” — sometimes fans light upon an otherwise uninspiring antagonist character and festoon them with personality quirks or backstories or leather pants, out of all recognition to the source. Sometimes, though, one sees characters that are practically written to be woobie-bait, and sure enough, they get the fan base that canon was trolling for.

It’s the woobie dynamic that is being addressed when people talk about “redemption arcs” nowadays, I think. Only in the current climate, we have to talk about it not only as if the adorers of antagonists are somehow painfully unaware that the character is Bad, but that the only way to justify liking them is if they redeem themselves by the end of the story, like it’s somehow Cheating if a character is liked by fans without that.

And look, I get it. The Woob is not my jam — or the conditions under which I will woobify a character are extremely narrow and idiosyncratic. I’ve been known to be critical of woobifying as well as the woobies that receive the treatment. But “redemption arc” means something much more technical to me than “way of justifying a woobie’s existence.”

A “redemption” “arc” is exactly that — a trajectory in the story (which all significant characters should have) that starts in one place and ends in another, forms an essential contribution to the story’s moral imperative, and takes place primarily in the arena of the character’s own psyche. Redemption is wrought by and within the character being redeemed. And the significance of this work is something that the author is crafting on purpose, for their ultimate aims for the story as a whole.

The response of other characters to the redeemed character’s trajectory is something else entirely. I’ve said before that we often talk like redemption is bestowed and grace is earned, when it really should be the other way around. Redemption is earned. Grace is bestowed. Which means the other characters rightfully have the option of not bestowing it. It all depends on what story you’re trying to tell.

Once when a reader talked to me of Barklay in near-woobifying terms, I thought to myself: “Oh dear.” Because on the one hand, yes! I did hope to achieve a character that exerts a compelling interest! And part of the point of Barklay is to portray what kind of work redemption really is — its pitfalls, its blindnesses, its backslidings, its threat to the person’s stable self-image. On the other hand, Barklay isn’t meant to be the central figure in Ryswyck — except, technically speaking, as a MacGuffin for the other characters’ arcs. As a character he’s just…someone the main characters find difficult to love and also can’t help loving; someone about whom they ask, Am I cheating the universe and myself if I give grace to him?

To me, personally, that’s the far more interesting question. And if a “redemption arc” were something arbitrarily bestowed, you could hardly even ask it. Which is why, paradoxically, my instinct is to let woobifying fans have their fun. No: you don’t have to justify being fannish about a Bad Guy by trying to anticipate a story arc in which they make up for all their badnesses and either are welcomed back into the fold or die covered in a hero’s glory. Unless that’s what floats your boat, of course. Give them leather pants by all means. Draw them glaring from under the fold of their cloak, with the tiger’s eye that knows nothing of repentance. Fly! Be freeee!

And now for my afternoon cup of calming tea.

Orbis Factor

I’ve been wanting to make a post for a couple of weeks now, but my ideas were all too inchoate to put hand to keys for. My thoughts are only barely starting to coalesce, but it’s time to take a stab at posting anyway. So here they are: beads on a string, notes in a mode.

To start with, this morning’s offering from the Lent Project included a chant from Ensemble Organum, a ninefold Kyrie Eleison that made me sit right up in the predawn dark and then seek it out to listen again. I’ve said before that the chants in my ‘verse owed something to plainchant from both western and eastern Christian traditions, but didn’t have an example to put forward. Now I do. Longform chants in the Ryswyck ‘verse have plumb notes and refrains, and there is usually a lead cantor for the verses while the assembled sing the response. This piece evokes the tone better than I could have hoped.

And then there’s the actual theme, which is appropriate not just for Lent but for this particular constellation of events and decisions and griefs on earth, for this exploded diagram of a theological moment:

Maker of the world, King eternal, 
Have mercy upon us.
O immense source of pity, 
Have mercy upon us.
Drive off all our evils, 
Have mercy upon us.
Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, 
Have mercy upon us.
Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, 
Have mercy upon us.
Keeping and confirming thy believers, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou and thy Father, an equal light, 
Have mercy upon us.
We know that God is one and three, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, 
Have mercy upon us.

Last night I showed up at fencing practice to discover that I needed to practice something new for the next tournament: refraining from the handshake at the end of a bout. I shouldn’t have been surprised; protocols for containing the spread of COVID-19 have been circulating in all the other circles, church and workplace, that I frequent. And invariably, the question gets asked: if we don’t shake hands to pass the peace, if we don’t shake hands to greet our colleagues at a conference, if we don’t shake hands to honor our opponent on the strip, what do we do instead? Elbow bumps? Hip checks? Toe touches?

My immediate instinct was to lay my open hand against my heart, as my characters do. And I reflected yesterday, both in a work meeting and at fencing club, on how hard I had had to work while writing to push aside the echo of clasps and handshakes for greetings in my own world, how (worldbuilding often works this way) I had speculated that maybe unchecked epidemics in my ‘verse during the bad times had given rise to the no-touch greetings I wanted to depict.

And lastly in my exploded diagram, I voted in my primary the other day. I don’t often address politics directly in this blog, in part because I prefer to do it elsewhere, and also in part because unlike when blogging was new and I was younger, I don’t assume that political opinions are necessarily significant just because I have them. But here again is another enharmonic between the tones of the world I didn’t make, and the one I did.

You may guess I am less than enthused about having our field of presidential candidates winnowed down to two septuagenarian white men, not when we had multiple viable alternatives on several axes of value. But that’s democracy for you. When the other party has ejected all its reasonable and/or honorable people, those reasonable and honorable people have to go somewhere, and there’s no use pining after a parliamentary system where you can put party bulkheads between the groups within a coalition. Nope, the coalition is calling from inside the house.

I particularly regret that Team Warren (i.e., me and others like me) was not able to successfully make the case for her to the African-American part of the coalition. By and large, they’ve clearly chosen their guy, and I’d rather they hadn’t, but I get it. I spent one evening five years ago in the company of some friends — all white women, all reliable Democratic voters who espoused progressive principles, all people who understand what the word intersectionality means — and someone brought up the topic of the protests in Ferguson: and the things that started coming out of people’s mouths utterly appalled me. But I doubt any Black person would be shocked. So unless you win enough time and produce enough solid, present-tense deliverables, a movement is not going to get traction with African-Americans if its prime selling point is that the White Left really really likes it, even if the policy promises are good, even if the candidate has an admirable voting record. I know, I know, people are not their demographics. But the demographics are their people. And every part of the coalition is our people. Obviously, I’ve discovered I can’t speak for the rest of the White Left, but I’m convinced that we owe the first gesture of respect for others’ insights, rather than demanding acknowledgment of ours out of the gate.

Warren’s period of silence between Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign gave me a chance to recover my own equilibrium. And the letter she sent her supporters underlined my admiration for her, rather than dissipating it. All of it was good, but this was what snared my attention:

Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.

If Barack Obama was a pastor, Elizabeth Warren is a paladin. What else would you expect of a candidate whose supporters took one of her quotes about fighting for the CFPB (“I want…” either a good agency, “or no agency at all and a lot of blood and teeth on the floor.”) and spontaneously brandished the slogan, “Blood and Teeth!

She’s got all kinds of plans for the symptoms, but her real lance is aimed at the disease: that complex of inequality, misogyny, the lust for domination, and fear that reached pandemic proportions long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. In that perspective, becoming POTUS was a modest aim.

And from my vantage, Warren’s campaign served as a laboratory for the counterpart of Ryswyckian principles of courtesy in the environment of middle-school meanness that infests our public discourse wherever it takes place. (But I was glad for the excuse to get off of Twitter again.) Would I have rather it prevailed? Of course. But the principle of “Smile. Bow. Hit them.” doesn’t promise victory. It only promises the chance to make a victory even of your deepest defeats.

We’re all still here. So I guess it worked.

So it’s back to persistence. I still want more people to read Ryswyck — it’s obviously becoming more relevant than I ever dreamed; or wanted, let’s be real — but even so, the persistence of dreaming and writing has freshly become an end in itself. I make the world, and the world makes me.

Kyrie eleison. Blood and teeth.

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.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.