Detective sergeants on parade

So, for reasons which it would be redundant to go over, I’ve been watching a lot of BBC detectives of late. I finally succumbed to the lure of a Britbox subscription even though I resent the way they shell-game all the shows I want to watch between one subscription or another; look, if I wanted to be nickel-and-dimed for television programming I could have just got cable TV. Capitalist greed, feh.

Anyway, I’ve been cycling between Inspectors Lynley and Morse, with a chaser of Poirot on rewatch, and found myself adoring the sergeants in each.

As far as I’m concerned DS Barbara Havers is the primary reason to watch the Lynley series. Scrappy, working-class, intuitive, she has like 50 chips on her shoulder and flies off an average of three handles per episode, and still she comes off as more stable than Lynley, whose love life only escapes being a weltering disaster by net volume. Lynley is a very good cop, and somehow he’s the only person who can get on Havers’s wavelength long enough to realize she’s also a very good cop. Havers spends most of three seasons on the knife edge of getting sacked, and every time it gets close you can just see the WTF on Sharon Small’s face, like a furious little bulfinch about to go on the attack.

Meanwhile, DS Robbie Lewis was already on my radar thanks to my having watched Inspector Lewis around the time it was being aired. I loved Lewis as a chief inspector and I love him even more as Morse’s sergeant, though he’s pretty much the diametric opposite of Havers in personality: even-keeled, pacific, and meticulous. He looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and Morse often laughs at him for being the kind of young family man who won’t say a cuss word and critiques the realism of pornographic films collected for evidence.

It’s that dramatic difference between the two sergeants that helped me tease out the thread of a trope I love: the loyal second-in-command. Because this is what Havers and Lewis have in common, so strongly that it carries a huge amount of emotional freight in both series.

As far as DS Havers is concerned, Lynley’s name is “Sir.” She doesn’t call him anything else, even when she’s throwing him a life preserver off the side of a speedboat. Even when Lynley at his most irrational chews her out for things beyond her control, she lets it ride and does what he says for the time being, because she trusts him in general. She argues with him, and occasionally disobeys him to follow up a lead, exactly so far as their dynamic will allow without breaking under strain.

DS Lewis, meanwhile, makes me laugh. He pokes fun at Morse poking fun at him. He comes back at Morse’s occasional intemperate accusations with a patient denial. He makes a mockery of class distinctions by refusing to complain about them. He fills in the gaps and asks the follow-up questions and helps Morse bend rules and gets conked on the head in dark places. He makes a fantastic catch in a cricket game, and looks over to where Morse is sitting in the audience, only to find him disappointingly asleep.

I love this dynamic because it is not a simple power differential. These characters are not equal in terms of the hierarchy they’re in, but they have the respect of their partners and a lot of room for maneuver. Occasionally the dynamic gets flipped topside and the sergeant is taking care of their boss. That’s my other bulletproof kink, honestly, and all my favorite working partnerships have it: Hazel and Bigwig, Breq and Seivarden, Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey, Simon Illyan and Miles Vorkosigan. No matter how much of this trope you dish out, I’ll still be back like Oliver Twist with my empty bowl and limpid eyes.

In fact, I’m fixing to dish bowlfuls of it out myself if I can ever get the plotting for The Lantern Tower off the ground. Curse this pandemic for spifflicating my creative season of the year.

Ah well. Back to the detectives tonight, I expect.

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.

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.

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.

The Love Between Enemies

Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, I became a Fandom Old. I mean, notwithstanding that the last three years have aged me about ten, somehow all the frivolous jargon of internet fandom when it was new is now, little by little, becoming museum pieces.

One such phrase is “bulletproof kink.” It used to be a catch-all term for any trope that reliably gets the user’s attention, whether it had anything to do with romantic/sexual relationships or not. I don’t see it being used anymore, and that’s a shame, because I don’t know of any replacement that really gets at that sense of idiosyncratic enthusiasm which is the whole point of participating in fandom in the first place.

All of which is to say that I have a bulletproof kink that has driven my interests since I was very small, and that is the trope of enemies who love one another.

There are a lot of things I don’t mean by that. I can enjoy stories about enemies becoming friends, enemies becoming lovers, or friends/lovers who have to be enemies for some reason, or enemies who are forced to be allies by some emergent situation. And I’m definitely not alone in enjoying such dynamics between characters.

But what I love in any of these stories is not at all based on the transmuting of enmity into something else. What I hunger for are stories about the love between enemies as a specific form of love in itself.

A love like that can manifest in all sorts of ways. Like “I will kill/insult you but by God I will not stand there and let anybody else kill/insult you” is one. Or, a series of encounters in which the enemies speak on a level of mutual respect even as they work uncompromisingly to thwart one another. G.K. Chesterton understood this love: the entire plot of The Ball and the Cross turns on it. There were some aspects of it in the Harry-Snape relationship in the Harry Potter series, but I was disappointed in my hope that there would be an endgame scene where they were forced reluctantly to fight back to back. I got one episode of Father Brown where he and Inspector Sullivan had to work together, but it was totally robbed at the end by an erasure of Sullivan’s character development; Chesterton would not have approved!

Catch Me if You Can and its daughter-story White Collar are favorites of mine because of this dynamic; and, now that I think about it, I could go down the whole list of books and shows I’ve made fanwork for and point out how a spark of this dynamic drew my interest. But the point is, a love between enemies exists not in spite of the enmity, but as a function of it. It is not a comfortable love; nor is it a destabilizing one. If I had my druthers the proportion of books and movies driven by this trope would dwarf that of media full of squabbles between people who call themselves friends and lovers.

So naturally, any story I write is going to have this trope in it, in spades. And probably the other suits as well. And I’m just getting started. I’ve been in the process of storyboarding Ryswyck‘s sequel, and the most fun lately has been hatching in the dynamic not only between Speir and du Rau, but Speir and Selkirk as well. Love for enemies is definitely Speir’s jam.

So if, like me, you have a bulletproof kink for the love between enemies, I’m here with my scoop, dishing it out.