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.

Actualfax writing update

Having learned the hard way not to push on a recalcitrant chapter before it’s ready to move, I put aside Chapter 6 of The Lantern Tower to await more comprehensive inspiration, and then pursued inspiration by other means, viz. freeform dreaming.

Which seems to have been somewhat fruitful. At least as fruitful as getting the eff off of Facebook except for short moments responding to contacts and crossposting from what Charlie Pierce calls “this here shebeen.” I’m not Boston Irish, so I’ll have to call this place something else.

I also took advantage of the holiday weekend so far as to pick up Household Lights, and the time away from the manuscript seems to have done some good; the problems I and my betas have identified I could view with greater clarity, and I’m about 70% of the way to a solution for them.

I’ve also made progress lining up cover art for the book, so (God willing and the creek don’t rise) I should be able to release Household Lights in mid-Spring as planned. Yay! Further updates as events warrant.

And now, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, &c.

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?

Erica H. Smith, The Seed Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or in less elevated words: New book YAY!

Trajectories

Probably one of the pitfalls of visiting a writer’s blog — certainly one of the temptations of writing one — is the tendency to talk about craft in the form of dispensing advice, as if anyone asked for it. Pat Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold — people do ask for advice from the likes of them, so it makes sense for them to share advice with their whole audience.

Yours truly has rarely been asked for writing advice. (Not even from my students…well, especially not from my students, let’s be real.) Strangely, I find this somewhat of an obstacle to dispensing any.

However… Some years ago I picked up a great little book by Stephen Fry — an instruction manual for writing poetry called The Ode Less Traveled, which is the sort of cuteness that only Stephen Fry could get away with. The most memorable thing I took from the book is his introductory argument, which is that if you can learn to tie your own fishing flies, or paint with oils, or roller-skate, then you can learn to write poetry. The jargon of writing is one of the perks of learning an arcane pastime, much as we like to use it instead as a class marker, and so no one should be intimidated by the terms and forms and trickinesses of producing one’s own genuwyne home-made art. I agree.

So, I don’t object to rules as such — I’m both a teacher (by training) and a democrat (by temper), after all. But, like any fly-tyer ready to throw down in the Letters section of Fly-Tyers Monthly Magazine,* I do get annoyed by the writing advice of other people.

This morning I was ranting musing to myself along the old commute, on the subject of realizing and writing characters. I run across a lot of really screwy advice about writing characters, in writing blogs and on readers’ and reviewers’ community websites. (Less so in books, as the advice in that case really does need to be solicited in order for the publisher to get any kind of an ROI.) A lot of it seems to view the writer as a sort of Doctor Frankenstein rummaging through corpses for the Very Best Parts. The fledgling writer is advised to determine their character’s birthday, their favorite color, their worst childhood nightmare, their first pet/kiss/car/whatever. This, presumably, will add up to an imaginary meat suit that the writer can then climb into and animate upon the page.

But the problem with complaining about a rule that says You Should Do This is that one then seems to be saying You Should NOT Do This, and that’s not how it is at all. I’ve sketched some pretty deep filigree in the backgrounds of my characters. Only I called it things like Having Fun, or Telling Myself A Story No One Else Will Know About (except my longsuffering friends to whom I natter in chat windows). By all means figure out your character’s birthday. But ignore those people who earnestly tell you it will be the making of the actual story you are trying to write.

Still worse, in my view, are critiques of character-writing that prescribe balancing them, like a chemical equation, or in one case, a food pyramid. Give them more faults, make them eat more spinach, let them have an inner conflict or a thwarted desire or a terminal case of Cute Metaphors.

Bah! Ranty Morning Commute Me advises you to pitch the lot in the garbage. Characterization is not about balance, even when it is totally about balance. Characterization is about trajectory.

At the beginning of a story or often even a scene, your character — the character you are forming with and in yourself, the character you hopefully already like — starts in a place, physically, mentally, geographically, emotionally. At the end of the story, or scene, they are somewhere else. A good trajectory can be harmonious with other characters’ trajectories, or discordant. It can be thematically complex or it can be simple. But above all it ought to be noticeable.

A too-perfect character, perhaps, has nowhere to go but down yet doesn’t go down. A too-miserable character plods along their flat line. A character might be indecisive by nature, but their trajectory is entirely another matter. This is a story, not an oscillation.

Yet even with this I hesitate to offer hard-and-fast advice. I get annoyed with these little rules because they seem to take no notice of the gestalt of writing, the prolific chaos of gestating characters and their story and their surroundings and the stakes of their success or failure. I think these rules are silly because they aren’t designed to make people aware of this holistic picture. But, if they do that for someone…then they do. My first day of fencing I was taught to kick a penny across the floor. It was two years before I had a lesson in executing a flèche. The holistic approach isn’t necessarily Lesson One.

Still, I could do with about 100% less cute metaphors, stratagems, and Excel sheets in my writerly viewfinder. Mind your trajectories and never mind about that shadowy figure known as The Reader. The writer is always Reader One. Worry about Reader Two second.

Or as Chaucer says, take the wheat and let the chaff be still.

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* I made all of this up. But if there really is such a magazine, I bet dollars to donuts there’s a flame war going on in there.

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.