Category Archives: dragons

assasin's curse

The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke

 The Pirate’s Wish by Cassandra Rose Clarke is the completion of the duology started with The Assassin’s Curse. The author’s afterword notes this is a duology because The Assassin’s Curse got too long, so the book was bisected, and it shows. The first novel doesn’t end satisfactorily, and this one feels dissipated, bled out into the more wangsty concerns of the bildungsroman. 

This is functionally the third act of the coming of age romance, and third acts are the parts of coming of age romances that I like least. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy much of The Pirate’s Wish, the characters, and the choices Clarke makes on a narrative level, just that maybe it could have been more ruthlessly edited to be a single novel. Young adult readers aren’t afraid of doorstoppers, bless their hearts, though I am cognizant that they are more likely to pick them up if the author is named Meyer or Rowling, and not a first time novelist. So I get it. 

The first book details how Ananna, a pirate’s daughter, flees from an arranged marriage out into the world without much more than her ambition and wit to get by. She’s a likable protagonist, competent in many ways (ways such as pick-pocketing, which is badass) but also a little naive. So, you know, like someone you knew or were or wanted to be. (Pick-pocketing!) She ends up with her fate tied to the assassin Naji through a curse, and an odd one. In the terms of the book, an impossible one. Naji cannot abide having Ananna in any kind of danger, or have her move too far away from him without pain – real, physical pain. 

It’s an interesting wrinkle, because put that way, that reads a little like the crazy instalove mania that you find in a lot of both young adult and adult romances, where lovers cannot be parted and the hero must stalk and pedestal the heroine for her own good and his. But that’s not Naji and Ananna’s relationship. He’s a little scarred and mysterious, sure, but he maintains his rationality in spite of the curse, and doesn’t treat Ananna like a child. Or not exactly like a child; he is still sometimes high-handed, but it reads as age-gap and not jerk ownership of Ananna. 

Possible spoilers for the first book ahead. 

Ananna and Naji are given a series of metaphorically vague tasks to complete in order to break the curse, one of which is something to the effect of true love’s kiss. Which, despite the fact that Naji and Ananna are not eye-gazing or spooning, you pretty much know is going to be between the two of them. So it’s a cool choice that Clarke makes to dispense with that oracular kiss first in a confounding and complicating way: she may love him, but he does not love her, and everyone becomes harshly aware of it when the first task is completed. Bummer.

But even though I kinda appreciate the whole confounding the expectations thing, it makes Ananna and Naji’s relationship a whole bunch of annoyance from this point on. She deals with this revelation reasonably well, in that she doesn’t fall apart or become a dishrag, but there’s still far more blubbering and storming off than I prefer. Naji, who has the whole mysterious scarred assassin thing going for him in book one, starts pouting and hanging out in his room in a way that diminishes his character. And while there’s something touching about the restraint in explicating his back story – a person is not just the story of how he got his scars – it makes it hard to understand his motivations. But! I do adore a lot of the characters here, even if Naji is not my favorite. The manticore and her kin are wonderful, and the lesbian queen and her pirate consort are pretty much the best ever. 

The final task is kind of a mess. Not in the way it’s written, which is beautiful and odd, but just in how it plays out. Why and how did that happen at all? But I did appreciate the final conclusion between Naji and Ananna, which took their characters into account in a way I rarely see when dealing with romantic couples. By way of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just gesture to the Norse legend of Skaði, a goddess of hunt and woods, who must choose a husband only by the look of his feet. She chooses Njörðr, a deity of the sea. Their relationship is always going to be a compromise – sea or woods – and while love may be transformative and all, it probably won’t change your basic nature. It is very cool to see a young adult novel not magic away very real, character-based conflicts between people – something that happens even in stories that are not literally magical. Nice. 

So, a nice conclusion on the story, but not as awesome as the first two acts. I want to say this could have been tighter and less peripatetic, but then I liked the shaggy bopping around of The Assassin’s Curse. Maybe I just don’t like coming of age, as a brutal, cheerful pirate’s daughter is way more fun than one who has been tempered and changed. Good story though. 


I received an ARC through NetGalley and Strange Chemistry, and thank them kindly. 

assasin's curse

The Assassin’s Curse by Cassandra Rose Clarke

I have a challenge question if you send me a friend request on Goodreads, which is, “What is the best book you read in the last year and why?” There are no right answers – in the sense that if your best book is something I loathe I won’t hold it against you – and I don’t really care what your definition of “best” is. Best can be a lot of different things. Pretty regularly, friend requesters turn it around on me, and makes me throw up my hands. What kind of jerk question is that? Gosh, how can I be expected to answer that? 

According to the stats, I have rated 36 books since the beginning of the year, and of them, eight I gave five stars. (I admit I’ve become soft in my ratings, but then I do read less dross.) But of that eight, I’d call Cassandra Rose Clarke‘s The Mad Scientist’s Daughter the best. She managed to punch through my rib cage and strangle me with that one, with the kind of science fiction that uses technology as folklore in the long, unsaid tides of lived lives. Just, oh my god. I knew Clarke had a YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, but I have to be in a very specific mood for YA fantasy. But then the sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, came up on NetGalley, I freaked right out and requested it. And then I read both books – which constitute a duology – in one huge freak-out sitting. (I would like to thank the ugly head cold I got for giving me the time prone to do that.)

Ananna of the Tanarau is a pirate’s daughter betrothed to a semi-landlocked idiot at the start of the action. She manages to mess that up fairly spectacularly, and ends up on the lam, chased by magical assassins set after her by her would-be-husband’s family. Ananna reminded me a little of Saba from Blood Red Road, both with her clueless competence and her near-dialect, but both her character and the dialect was more restrained, and for the better. She ends up tied to one of the assassins through magical weirdness, and she and the assassin, Naji, end up scrambling all over this world in an attempt to untether their destinies and break the curse.

Which, gotta say, written out like that, this book sounds a little trite, and certainly The Assassin’s Curseisn’t reinventing the wheel in terms of young adult or magical systems. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this elsewhere, but originality doesn’t necessarily factor for me in young adult slash fantasy fiction; whether I like a book of this nature comes down to whether I like the protagonist. I like Ananna a lot. She’s got ambition, and a mind, and she’s both emotionally reactive and measured. She factors the angles and leaps, or she leaps and then factors the angles, and she’s neither always making the right choice nor being overcome by hard choices. 

Maybe it’s all the sailing, but The Assassin’s Curse reminded me a little of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. Especially the odd, inhuman character of the manticore, whose brutal predation was both funny and scary – not unlike Le Guin’s dragons. There’s a lot of action in The Assassin’s Curse, and often really strange action, occurring in magical locales with weird physics, and Clarke manages this all well. (And I think physical scenes can be deceptively hard to write.) The magical systems aren’t really tightly defined, but I didn’t mind. This isn’t some wank about how the world works, but about how people work within the world, and that Ananna knows what she knows but doesn’t know everything made perfect sense to me. 

The ending kind of dot-dot-dots in a way that is not the best, if you’re into self-contained fictions, but I had the sequel in my hot little hands, so it was okay for me. Not to start reviewing the sequel, but The Pirate’s Wish didn’t exactly deliver on the promise of this novel, but it still wasn’t a bad conclusion. For what it’s worth.

Stormdancer: Huge Tangents

First off, I’m going to put in my Nice White Lady disclaimer, which is that, as a middle-class white lady, I have shaky standing to speak to how cultural appropriations read to members of the cultures appropriated. While I may be aware that I am the recipient of enormous cultural privilege, by virtue of that very privilege, I am inevitably going to be blind to certain things. Just take a look at the clusterfuck that is Racefail - and actually, other resources here; this whole thing is such an unbelievable googlehole – which starts with a Nice White Lady addressing the issue of how white people might go about writing non-white characters without being a dick about it. (Here is where I complain about the terminology I have at hand. Throughout Racefail, the acceptable nomenclature is Person of Color, which gets abbreviated as PoC, which strikes me as…inelegant. Non-white is used a lot too, but both non-white and people of color are these huge fucking rhetorical catch-alls that lack the crap out of nuance, and have the additional problem of encoding race as a binary, which is obviously bullshit.) Several people point out that her thinking on the matter is somewhat racially tone deaf – you can’t just file the serial numbers off of white characters and make them members of a different culture. We may all be humans and stuff, but our treatment at the hands of other humans due to appearance or accent or cultural membership fundamentally affects how a character thinks and feels. At this point, the whole conversation goes completely insane and people start shouting about how they are not racists, etc. 

Rather than get into all the twists and turns of Racefail, the thing I found so demoralizing about it was how quickly the conversation about cultural appropriations and writing cross-culturally – genuinely interesting and important topics – turned into an almost all-white wank about who has standing to comment in the first place, whether classism is more important than racism, and the usual toolbox of derailing tactics. And, I know I like to link to this a lot, but I really like this video about the difference between the What You Did conversation and the What You Are Conversation. White people like to freak out and act like getting called out for saying some racist stuff – and I’m not talking about hardcore obviously KKK level shit, but just the dumb shit we say (and I am including myself here) that displays our cluelessness or ignorance – means that the person calling us out called us a Racist™ – the hardcore obviously KKK level kind. Which is probably my Nice White Lady way of saying that when I enact my own personal racefails in this here essay – which certainly could happen – please just call out my words so I don’t have my feelings hurt, because lord knows, being called a racist when you obviously aren’t – I have several black friends! – is so much worse than actually being racist. 

Fantasy, Steampunk, and the Mythic Past

There’s been some chatter about this interview with Jay Kristoff on the bookonets where he cops to the fact that most of his source material for the Japanese-inflected steampunk novel Stormdancer is pop cultural stuff like anime and manga. On a genre level, I don’t really have any problems with this, because steampunk is a pulp genre, not concerned with strict historical or cultural accuracy. Oh, shit, you guys, I feel a huge sermonette about genre coming on, because I have some serious things with that little genre. My Ideas About Steampunk: Let Me Show You Them. 

So, steampunk has its roots as an off-shoot of cyberpunk, and at its roots, its concerns are alt-historical and somewhat science fictional. The early stuff I encountered, mostly starting with my man William Gibson, kinda blew my mind by relocating the futurism of the past back into the past, like if the House of the Future actually came to pass like Disney envisioned, or Jules Verne, or whoever. There’s this really great story called “The Gernsback Continuum” collected in Burning Chrome– honestly, that story is somewhere top five for short stories for me – which concerns a photographer sent out to record 30s futurist architecture who starts hallucinating their Aryan efficient future laying out in forgotten buildings and molding cars. Science fiction – and I mean this term at its most expansive – has often been concerned with futures, and folding back old futures and laying them against the present – man does this get me all hot and bothered. But there’s a pulp edge to steampunk too – the pulp-history. Alan Moore punks around with steampunk with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, taking more pulp characters from the Victorian period, but fucking with them. Even though League occurs in a world more or less our own, it’s not so much alt-history as punk-history, because, hello, Martians. It’s the futurism of the past located in the past, and when it works, it makes me giddy.

But steampunk has been around for a while now, and as a genre, seems to be slipping more to cosplay than alt-history. Take something like Soulless or Geared for Pleasure, which are decidedly more about cool trappings than they are about coherent alt-history or even punk-history stuff. And while Soulless‘s alt-history, when it attempts it, are absolute shit, Geared for Pleasure(like Stormdancer, actually) dispenses with the whole idea that we’re even on earth at all – we’re in a fantasy land that looks Victorian-ish, and has some dirigibles and clockwork to settle it within the genre. (And here’s where I plug Meljean Brook‘s steampunk books, because she’s enacting a freaking excellent alt-history under the cover of romance novels, though the referents are more Georgian-Regency than Victorian.) Anyway, point being, I would argue that given the books I see labeled as steampunk as a group, adherence to some kind of alt-history framework that gets everything right is not a requirement of the genre. Pop cultural or pulp cultural sensibilities are more central to the definition of the genre, playing in gadgets and trinkets, playing dress up, having some chase scenes and whatnot. In this vein, I dig Kristoff using Japanese pulp culture to artifact his little world here, especially because the world is understood to be not strictly an alt-historical Japan – the landmass has been reordered and renamed – but a fantasy land that snarky genre readers could characterize as Not!Japan. 

Which brings us to fantasy. I’ve spilled some ink about fantasy – and here I mean mostly high-fantasy, the stuff in Not!Medieval!Europe! – but I’ll try to hit the high notes. I often get my back up about high fantasy because it’s this lamely nostalgic playset about Simpler Times, with regressive gender roles and a bunch of heraldic folderol about honor and quests and whatever. And when you go to criticize it on those terms, some basement-bound virgin always pops in with, “But that’s how things were in the medieval period! Don’t blame the writer for creating a Not!Medieval!Europe without interrogating all the fucking horrible shit that went down in what even scholars refer to as the Dark Ages! Look! Crossbows are sweet! Luke Skywalker has a really great time!” Which cheeses me the fuck right off, because this Not!Medieval!Europe! was created by a modern storyteller, for a modern audience, and if the writer thought it was just fine to throw in a bunch of regressive cultural shit in there “for historical authenticity,” often while positing dragons and Dark Lords and a bunch of other frankly inauthentic shit, then…I don’t know what then. But then, fuck you. You can’t have your medieval cake and eat it too. When you create a mythic past-ish place which is understood to be sweet as fuck, and then make that place a hellhole, just casually, for huge swaths of characters so your little hero can be heroic, what you’re doing is bunk-ass historical self-insert which justifies current shitty injustice. Casually. Which may be the thing I hate so much about it. 

But before I go off the ledge of frothing at the mouth about high fantasy, I have enjoyed the occasional Not!Asian setting – the Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham being the gold standard, imho. The Khai are sorta khans, the ornament and texture of the world is more medieval Asia than medieval Europe. The key difference may be that Abraham does not inject real world terms and language into his story, just letting the lack of primogeniture and tea drinking and scroll writing set a scene that feels less medieval European and more medieval Mongolia (though, I get the impression, more genteel than both). Kristoff goes to freaking town with a ton of Japanese words, especially in the beginning, which is problematic on a couple of levels, not the least of them being readability. For any fantasy world, not even just the ones that use real, if unusual, words, you have to lower your readers into the pot slowly. Much as I complained about the staging of the first of the Long Price books – and that first one is stagey – the staging here is too much, too soon, with even the infodumps using dozens of terms and concepts that confused. Fantasy, putting aside all the cultural appropriation stuff, should not take nearly a hundred pages to get into. 

But then speaking of Not!Europes, much as I enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire, I have read some really great critical analyses that unpack Martin’s sometimes hinky use of racial and cultural stereotypes. I mean, the Dothraki are Not!Mongolians, but the rapedy-rapeness of their culture, and the ways Daenerys’s story turns into your typical WhiteSavior™ narrative – Oh, You People™ do not understand the horrors of slavery! – this is actually pretty badly done. (And I’m not going to entertain arguments that just because the people are bunch of raping asshats in Westeros too, this makes it okay. For one, rape culture isn’t a zero sum game, and for two, in Westeros rape is understood as rape, even while it is justified and tolerated, while in Dothraki culture, no one thinks it’s a Bad Thing until the Nice White Lady points it out. Because brown people rape and slave like handshakes. We’re here to serve, us Nice White Ladies. You’re welcome.) 

I guess what I’m saying is that I can understand criticisms that come at Stormdanceras not being authentically Japanese. Even though this world is avowedly Not!Japan, the door was opened for these criticisms by using so, so much Japanese terminology, language, and sort of half-assed pulp Japanese culture, but then occasionally mixing it in with stuff like lotuses and pandas into this Asian-fusion slurry that just isn’t a good idea. I said before you can’t just file the serial numbers off of culture and make all characters a-historical a-cultural humans – tralala, can’t we all get along – but here the serial numbers are sill showing point of origin so strongly that this Not!Japan is still pretty much Japan. And you can’t rightly call this an alt-history or punk-history – this does not have a deep enough understanding of Japanese culture to be such – so it could probably be successfully argued that use of Japanese culture is an example of our old friend, Orientalism. I’m going to duck out of these criticisms of Stormdancerthough, even while I set up the conceptual framework for them, because I lack an understanding of Japanese history and culture myself. Most likely it’s a subtle thing, best explained by my Nice White Lady counterparts Subservient Asian Lady in Need of Rescue or her mother, Tiger Mom. Hold on; I’ll send them a text message. 

Oh, and, one last thing. Just because I’m ragging on A Song of Ice and Firea little, I’m doing that because I love it and I want it to be better. Not to get too far down this rabbit hole, but people seem to get their panties in a bunch when beloved properties are criticized, which strikes me as wrongheaded. Or overly touchy? One of the problems of talking about cultural appropriations is everyone gets all “I’m not a racist!” which is fine, but calm the heck down for a minute and listen – this is not about you. There are many many good things in A Song of Ice and Fire, if you like soapy bloodbaths and the descriptions of food, which I avowedly do, and my criticisms of the Dothraki storyline aren’t meant to negate the whole thing. I criticize because I love, because if I didn’t love, I wouldn’t have fucking bothered with several thousand pages that, at this point, don’t look like they’re going to wrap up anytime soon. At its most interesting, the critical enterprise seeks to understand and comment on why things bring us narrative pleasure, and sometimes those reasons are a little fucked up and weird, because we are all a little fucked up and weird, and we can always be better. The end. 

In Which I Actually Talk About the Book

As I’ve hinted before, this story takes place in a Not!Japan which is a generation or three into an industrial revolution. There are SFF elements, in that there is an agricultural product not dissimilar from spice melange in Dune– speaking of your cultural appropriations, because you guys see how much Herbert ripped from Mideastern religion and politics, yo? – which both gets the populace hiiiigh and powers all of the fantastic technology. The lotus, as this is called, is also a huge ecological nightmare, a sort of super-cotton which drains the soil of nutrients, or a super-coal belching filth into the air. As I also noted before, the opening is tough sledding, far too jargony and with too much term salad and infodumps – which on some level is funny, because the prologue, which I normally turn my nose up at, is clean and full of stakes and action. 

So we settle down with Yikiko, daughter of the Imperial Huntsman or whatever he’s actually called, and they are sent on a mission most likely to end in failure by the Emperor or Shogun or whatever he’s called. The Shogun (I think Shogun) who is possibly the Character Most Likely To Be An Orientalist Stereotype has had a dream that the griffin – or thunder tiger or whatever – is still extant despite the fact that, like, everything is extinct. So off we go! Yukiko has some unfortunate daddy issues, and there are some boys (two of them, in fact, making something of a triangle, you see) and some other stuff. Which is when I put the book down maybe a month ago, not feeling all that good about this. 

The prose is probably love it or hate it, which is a stupid thing to say now that I’ve typed it. I did neither one nor the other. I guess what I mean that it is very florid and descriptive of sensation, so if that is not your bag, steer clear. There’s some tendency to repetition that I found somewhat annoying – we get the lotus is bad - but I’m willing to give this a pass a little given the YA format. Heads up, kids, we’ve got the one planet and all. But Kristoff writes really excellent fight scenes – which is much harder than it looks, I say – and the way he deals with the dreaded love triangle is brutal and awesome. And the way he dealt with sex in general was pretty refreshing. Though all fade to black, like YA does, Yikiko deals with her sexuality very matter of factly, without a bunch of purity terror and the like. There could probably be more mention of um, certain biological realities, but this isn’t Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., so that is just fine. 

The latter half of the book is more fun to read, once Yukiko stops bitching and infodumping on the airship. Her relationship with Buruu – he’s the thunder tiger, in a sort of Dragonflightscenario – turns on a dime it doesn’t deserve, to mangle a metaphor, as do several of Yikiko’s revelations, where she’s all YOU GUYS ARE THE WORST one minute and ALL IN WOOO the next. I did like dad’s ninja-girlfriend a lot, and felt like it was unusual to see the sexual partners of parents – other than the other parent, of course – dealt with with anything other than evil stop-mom writing, so that was cool. But, also, sadface on some things that are spoilers. 

Anyway, I feel like as usual with my three-star outings, I’m struggling with something to say about the text itself, and obviously I’ve already blathered like crazy about a thousand concerns that might be a bit more peripheral. I did like this story, in the end, and I did enjoy the less simple than usual political/economic sensibility of the book, but I admit this is pretty much grading on a curve with other deeply politically stupid young adult dystopias. (Cough, Divergent, cough.) (And I’m not talking about partisanship – I’m talking about a complex sense of the polis and how it functions, which is something often sorely lacking in books aimed at teens.) 

Plus, whatever, chainsaw kitanas are freaking sweet, and don’t let anyone tell you different. 

smaug

The Hobbit: The Nursery is Where It’s At

I’ve undertaken to read this to the boy; our first real book with chapters. Richard and I alternate reading at bedtime, so the experience is kind of fractured, but so far I’m loving it. I got to be trolls tonight. I do brilliant trolls. 

—–

When I was six, my dad, who was more the reader-at-nighter of my parents, endeavored to read The Hobbit to me. He got to the part about the giant spiders in Mirkwood, and I promptly lost my damn mind, and begged him to stop reading. He did. My room at the time was this odd room that couldn’t rightly be said to be on any floor of the house but its own: you reached the top of the stairs to the second floor, and then there was a door at the end of the long, Victorian hallway, then then another set of maybe five stairs to a small room with sloping ceilings, kind of like a dormer, but not. I couldn’t be called an arachnophobe, exactly, but I was regularly terrified by mosquitoes that would somehow get into the bedroom while I was sleeping, drink my blood, and then whine around me in the dark. The ceilings were dotted with the bug and blood marks when my dad would have to come in after I started screaming and hunt down the offending insects with a shoe. So boo on you, mosquitoes, and boo on giant spiders. 

When I was eight, he started again, and the intervening two years gave me the composure necessary to finish the tale. I loved it. I didn’t really go on a big rampage of reading fantasy at this point, although I did like the Lloyd Alexander stuff I found in the school library. But something about this story made me want to write it myself, and I set to telling the tale of some creature who never went on adventures until he did and then all manner of craziness ensued. I don’t know where any of this writing has gone, and in truth I don’t think I really want to see it, but I’m now stuck by the power of Tolkien’s writing to make other people want to write. I just recently finished reading Meditations on Middle-Earth: New Writing on the Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien by Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond E. Fei, and if there is any commonality to the stories of latter day fantasists, it’s that being readers of Tolkien made them writers. (I mean, shit yeah, writers are always readers first – duh – but I’m just going to go on record as saying that if an author claims never to read, then they aren’t an author, they’re a dumb word product generator/marketer, and no reader should ever encourage them. There’s enough crappy word-product coming out of people who actually give a tinker’s damn, bless them.) There’s something exceptional about Tolkien’s world that drives people to tell stories themselves, something weird and hind-brain, coiled up in our mystical and commonplace daily word usage that jumps from the dinner table anecdote to the broad, unending vistas of the otherworldly. Man, just thinking about it makes me all hot. 

I started reading this to my own son now that he is six. I fretted a bunch about the giant spiders, but of course it turns out that I am not him, or he is not me, and we don’t share the same fears. I’ve read The Hobbit maybe a half dozen times, or had it read to me, but I’ve never before been in the position to read it aloud to someone else. I thoroughly recommend having some babies for the purposes of reading stuff aloud to them. Barring that, as that could possibly be irresponsible and expensive, take a very patient lover and spend some time in a darkish room in your pajamas and really roll the tale out. (This stuff may not be sexy in the strictest sense, but literacy is hot however you slice it, and this is the kind of tale for the telling.) Be the freaking trolls, wield Sting while you shout attercop and slash down your arachnid foes, smoke and steam and lie like Smaug in the ruined halls, squeak and scheme and try to avert a battle of five armies, and fail, but fail in the honesty of smallness. The story rips along for the most part, a busy enough tale to keep the attention of distractable six year olds for maybe half the time. This may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise, but half is maybe the best for which a parent can hope.

This most recent reading has given me an appreciation for the role of the narrator in The Hobbit. The narrator’s often a tricky beast, capable of bringing down the entire narrative house of cards with his or her weird intrusions and extra-narrative knowledge. Who the hell are you, narrator? Stop that right now! But when done well, the narrator can be this sly commentary on the mechanics of plot and character. I’m thinking here of the narrator in Persuasion, whose voice rings with the authority and social barbarism that is everything the (very beloved, and almost idealized) main character is not. Narrators are often genderless, but the Persuasion narrator is almost a counterpoint to Anne’s hyper-femininity, not male exactly, but differently female. You see this when one of the Musgroves injures herself in the seaside town. The prose is simple, descriptive, a series of declarations. Anne within this narrative takes charge in the most feminine of ways, and manages to tell everyone what to do without ever using the imperative; indeed, I think even without finishing a sentence, but I don’t have the book in front of me. (I’m so far off topic, it’s awesome to behold. I’ll try to bring it back around.) The narrator details the domestic with her clear prose; the character is the domestic with her silence and demurrals. 

Tolkien’s not much interested in the questions of gender. Now that I’ve typed maybe the most insanely obvious statement I’ve ever written in a review, (gold star! high fives!) when I give it some thought, I realize that women in The Hobbit function as a sort of bracketing device. There’s some mention of Bilbo’s mother at the start, descended from the Old Took himself, and Bilbo has to confront the acquisitive Sackville-Bagginses when he gets home, but at its heart, The Hobbit is concerned with what happens when a quiet boy is thrust into the world of men. Bilbo is not child at the beginning, but he’s comfortable and domestic, puffing about getting seed cakes and dratting unwelcome visitors who mess up his kitchen. Throughout the tale, he pines for food and bed, and those lovely old standards of feminine affection, the pocket handkerchief. I don’t think anyone much uses those anymore, but my Grandfather did, and those worn and frayed squares of cloth, washed, folded and placed habitually in the pockets of his jackets by my Grandmother, are one of the few items I took from his belongings when he died. For me, and it’s possible that I’m an eccentric in this regard, the pocket handkerchief is an emblem of the quiet and commonplace intersections that take place between partners in traditional gender roles, and Grandpa’s hanky, and his love for Grandma, and her love back makes me all weeping and nostalgic for a social structure that I habitually scorn, wasn’t raised in, and have no interest in bringing back, even if such a project weren’t doomed to utter failure. 

The narrator in the Hobbit consistently situates the events of the story in a mythic past, while the story itself plays out a very different set of values than the a traditional heroic legend. The story begins more in the style of the anecdote, with its digressions and definitions, and only very slowly works into the mode of the fairy tale. The narrator defines hobbits, gossips a bit about Gandalf, Bilbo’s parents and house, and then a few pages in does the “once upon a time” thing: “By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was more green and less noise…” The dwarves – my spell check is insisting on dwarfs, but it can go screw itself – intrude on Bilbo’s peace, tell tales of gold and dragon slaying and other glorious pursuits, and it’s the tale that sent him puffing out the door. Bilbo, the most hobbitest of hobbits, which is by definition the most domestic, social and quiet of beings, gets swept off into the world of legends, and I think it’s totally fascinating that Bilbo here functions as a kind of reader-proxy. I sit in the most domestic of settings, as my father did, read out this tale of adventure to my children in the safety of their own bedrooms, and Bilbo’s constant whining and dratting undercuts the honor of war and the mythos of danger. The boy loves the wizards and dangers, but part of the fascination is born of fear, and Bilbo keeps reminding us that the fear is real, hungry and uncomfortable. 

This is where the narrator comes in. He – and I’m going to call the narrator a he, because it’s the only thing that makes sense – is the voice of the present, who simultaneously places this story in the mythic past and then confounds the story’s mythic status. There are lots of fairy tales and the like about plucky younger sons who make their ways through the world using luck and wit, and I think one could mistake Bilbo for one of these, he’s really much more of a Shaggy-from-Scooby-Doo-style bungler and coward. I mean this in the best possible way. We all hate Fred, with his fearless masculinity, (or should, because c’mon, man) and Shaggy/Bilbo isn’t so much feminine as differently masculine, the kind of masculine that doesn’t sit upon hordes of gold with nothing to eat, but instead pines for a good meal and a hanky. The hanky ends up being the standard of femininity, carried with Bilbo on his journey, pined for in the dangerous world of men, their heroic wars, travels and squabbles. Bilbo carries idea of the handkerchief with him, trying to apply the less aggressive, less “heroic” modes of conflict resolution to the problems ahead of him. He sneaks, he burgles, he riddles: all the quiet activities of the clown, the the weakling, the sensitive boy, the Shag and Scoobs of the world. 

I realize now I have a hobby horse about Tolkien and his experience with WWI, but I’m going to get up and ride it anyway. The heroic tale of the national hero, whose ethnic identity is wound up with his goodness, managed to get his ass completely mowed down by the mechanism and mass-production of the world wars. There are no heroes in WWI, only silly and tragic figures like the Red Baron, who flew the symbol of the future of warfare using the outdated social models of the Romantic Past. Bilbo puts a face on the cannon fodder, and doesn’t so much speak to power as pick its pockets, get knocked in the head, and survive due to to love of comfort over the love of glory. Here is Bilbo’s response after being found, unconscious, at the end of the battle:

“Victory after all, I suppose!” he said, feeling his aching head. “Well, it seems a very gloomy business.” 

And again, after being led to the Thorin’s bedside, as Thorin lays dying he says to Bilbo:

“There is more good in you than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell!”

Then Bilbo turned away, and went by himself, and sat alone wrapped in a blanket, and whether you believe it or not, he wept until his eyes were red and his voice was hoarse.”

I’ll try not to go off about Tolkien’s directional metaphors; how the West is often synonymous with tradition, the conservative, the homey, even while it carries the implications of death and stagnation. The East is where you go to find your death and salvation, in Tolkien’s most Christian of terms, but it is not a path of ease and comfort. 

I was also struck, in this reading, by Tolkien’s fierce and loving descriptions of landscape. One of the reasons Middle Earth seems so real is that Tolkien conjures dirt and rock, tree and water in this incredibly solid way. I was lucky enough to be the one who read the section in which Smaug batters and destroys the rock ledge where Bilbo and the dwarves had been camped in their attempts to infiltrate the mountain, and the majesty and violence of that description really moved me. It made me think of the devastation of Europe, the earth itself laid low by the engines of war. The earth of Middle Earth is a love song and a eulogy to the lost landscape of Tolkien’s youth. He and many other young men were swept out the door on the path to glory and victory, and the dragons they slew ended up being the myth of progress and heroism. Tolkien was savvy enough to see that the heroic quest is almost coded within the language, and that rewriting such a thing requires not just a simple reversal, but a reordering of heroism. Thorin, by all rights, is the hero of the story; his is the will that sets the plot in motion, and his temper and anger are the hallmarks of heroes stretching back to Achilles. Bilbo is not an anti-hero, who simply turns his anger and his will against the things for which the hero stands, but something subtler and more cunning: the fool. Sure, nothing would ever get done with a Bilbo in charge, but let us hope and pray that our Thorins can have clown such as Bilbo there to remind them that a myth is more useful in the nursery than on the battlefield. 

Tolkien was famously irritated that fairy tales had been “relegated to the nursery”, but I humbly think he’s wrong, that the telling of such stories to boys who will become men is the first order of business for we mothers who pray and hope for world in which the test of manhood is not glory but some courage and some wisdom, blended in equal measure. 

A Short Rampage on Whitewashing Earthsea

It’s maybe a secondary sport of readers to both long for and bitch about the film adaption, like betting on the sidelines during a prize fight. Back when I worked retail, one of my co-workers and I would amuse ourselves for hours trying to cast a perfect Sandman film, although we always got hung up on who would direct, and who would play Death. 

Anyway, one of the most quietly awesome things about A Wizard of Earthsea is that LeGuin made her fantasy characters have dark skin. I don’t like physical descriptions of characters, because it’s so often beside the point and superfluous. (See also: sex scenes.) I’m willing to hand out exceptions: I think it’s important we know that Jane Eyre is plain, and that Rochester has a big forehead. (Big forehead …ifyouknowwhatImean.) But one of the most rousing criticisms of fantasy as a genre, for me, is about how horribly lily-white the standards of beauty are, how white=good, and black=bad, and how racial purity is a sign of moral purity. Yucky, yucky, yucky. So, Le Guin slyly steps in and makes her characters not-white: Ged with his red-brown skin, Vetch with his black; no violet cat-eyes for the women, no blondes. There is no moral correlation between skin color and moral worth, no component of sexual purity tied to blonde hair. (As a natural blonde, I have a whole bitch about this, but I’ll silence myself for the moment.)

So, along comes the SyFy Channel adaption – and yes, it still hurts me to write SyFy and it always will – and they fuck all of this up. Danny Glover as Ogion was the only, only, only thing that was okay, but Danny Glover is so classy he rises above. They turned Ged into a petulant white boy; they took every lovely thing about Ged’s un-heroics and turned them into a sick parody of themselves. I said this earlier in a private message to a friend, but I’ll say it out loud: maybe it doesn’t matter what the skin color of fantasy characters are – it’s not like the fictional worlds view race in anything like the way new millennium Americans do – but if it really doesn’t matter, then why are they always white? Le Guin herself had some pointed things to say about the matter, and you should totally read them.

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A Wizard of Earthsea: Islands in my Mind

[You can find a sound recording of me reading this review here.]

I’ve read this at least twice since I signed onto GoodReads, and I haven’t worked up the nerve to review it. I don’t review some of what I read, for a variety of reasons. There’s the things I abandon too fast to say I’ve even read them, like What Would Jane Austen Do?. (I’ll tell you what she’d do: she’d put her own eyes out with a damn spoon, that’s what.) There’s things I get out from the library thinking they are something else, like The Lover. (Just fyi, this was NOT the semi-autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras. No. Not that.) There’s stuff related to my work that’s just too boring, even to someone in the trades, to work up much energy about. (I’m not even going to link to anything, but you don’t care, trust me.)

I haven’t reviewed A Wizard of Earthsea because I love it too much. I can see its failings. There are long, boring sections about sailing. The plot skips around haphazardly with too many coincidences and overtly symbolic actions. But…but…but…even now I struggle to define why this story keeps me coming back, year after year, almost always keeping me up late into the the night, the house silent but for the noise of my sleeping family breathing, the tectonic hum of the furnace, the muffled chime of the clock marking out the hours and half hours as I read and read and read. Reading is a private art. Sometimes I cultivate its craft as a shield against strangers as I move from here to there: the bus, the coffeeshop, the plane. Sometimes I read as a ward against the crush of people I love, when I visit family and need a half hour of not-family-togetherness. Sometimes I read because inside books is a blossoming world that transmits from the author’s mind to mine, and Earthsea is this kind of book for me, almost always undertaken in those odd times where I tuck in the edges of my life: too late, too early, at the hem of things.

I first read this when I spent a semester abroad, in London. I lived on the fifth floor, which the British would call the fourth floor, of a dismal walk-up run by a Fellini-esque French family presided over by a hard-nosed woman who appeared to wear clothing constructed solely out of garbage bags. I wasn’t old – only 24 – but old for the program, and the reversion to eating Ramen noodles, drinking only fluids that were comprised of lager, and not working laid me low in some serious way. I don’t remember how this book found its way into my hands, but I do remember sitting at my “desk”, my legs up on the corner, reading and subconsciously trying to find the perfect teeter on the back two legs of the chair.

Earthsea is a world with magic, and this can mean several things if you read a lot of fantasy. It can mean that the author is lazy, and needs a supernatural force to work out disastrous plotting. Magic can be a technology in disguise, a proxy for physics. At its very best, magic is language itself, one of those meta mind-jobs that spins you around and makes you rethink everything you say, because every word is stone that is thrown, falls, or sits, inert and stone-like, in its stony way. Earthsea’s magic is word-magic, based on names. Each person has a use-name, something they are called familiarly, and then a true name, something guarded and secret, because a name is power. Each thing has its thingness exposed by a sound, a word, but this reification isn’t simple. There is no Platonic word of making or unmaking, just the endless babble of the way the word-drops coalesce into puddle, puddle into river, river into a sea. So Sparrowhawk stands in the water and he is given his real name, Ged, at the cusp of his adolescence, and I read these actions, and my chair fell down, clump, onto all four legs. Oh God, oh Ged, the power of that, a true name.

There’s nothing in the plot of Earthsea that hasn’t been done before: a boy, a talented boy raised in obscurity, grows into his inevitable power. This is the basis of bazillions of young adult fictions (and regular fictions too, I guess): the Harry Potters & Bella Swans of fiction standing in for our youthful sense of exceptionalism – we are marked from youth by the smell of our blood, the stigmata of parental love. There’s all kinds of things we can blame our inevitable crushing realization that we are as common as rain – bad educations, bad luck, bad environments – but really…truly?…we are as common as rain, falling inexorably on trajectories based on the gravity of our own characters. So often, the protagonists of these fictions battle an external, caricatured evil, which always bums me out, because evil is so much less fun than this, so much more prosaic and common as the rain we are. If the bad in myself could be battled hand-to-hand; if I could vanquish my failings with kung fu, my adolescence (and my adulthood, I guess) might have looked entirely different, with fewer hurt feelings for everyone involved. So Ged, in the logic of a world with magic, creates a shadow being because of his youthful need to show-off and be right. The shadow of talent is arrogance, which is maybe not a stunning revelation, but a revelation often absent from the education of fictive heroes. (And maybe not the real life kind either, right? A hero is someone who gets other people killed, just to quote Joss Whedon.)

Lots of folk I love think fantasy is dumb, and it’s because fantasy puts its underpants on the outside of its clothes and jumps around using the roll from the paper towels as a sword yelling “high YAH”! It makes the metaphors manifest, and sure, I’ll totally grant that sometimes this just tiring in how juvenile and simplistic it is. But…but….but…sometimes the cardboard blade cuts me open and my guts fall steaming onto the ground, and then I realize that I’m not the guts, but the steam. (My metaphors have gone a little insane again, and I’m sorry.) This time through I noticed that the sequence with the dragons, which by all rights should be the culmination of the action, where the hero enacts heroics worthy of song, is just a thing that Ged does to avoid doing the harder thing, which is coming to terms with his own assholery. So here, at half-point through the book, our protagonist does the thing for which he will be famous, and then the real story begins. The plot becomes picaresque, haphazard, undirected, with blind alleys and odd moments – the old couple Ged meets on the desolate spit of land , abandoned, without language, was especially haunting for me, for example – but I admit it’s unnecessary, as is much of this wandering. But…but…but…I love that Le Guin tells the story of un-heroics, of a metaphorical growing up that doesn’t involve crushing the skull of an orc or whatever to prove you’re a Man.

I kind of want to talk about the final meeting between Ged and his shadow, because this is the first reading for me that that confrontation made complete sense, but I don’t want to hit the spoiler box and I think I’ve already blathered enough. I’ll just say that I feel like maybe…maybe…when Ged and Vetch sail off the edges of the map, and find the shifting, almost immaterial sands where Ged and the not-Ged say their final words to one another, maybe that sand is the beach of my reality, and they sailed right out of Earthsea into my mind, wherever that is. Le Guin used word-magic to create a place I keep coming back to, watching the way the islands rear up out of a place of mostly water, balancing in an equilibrium of earth and sea, movement and stillness. And her word-shadows bump up against the beaches of my mind laid squishingly over the water, and this makes me inside out, with my skin on the inside, transformed by words that find the true name of me.

Seraphina, or The Uses of the Paranormal in Fiction

Rarr. Totally lost my review for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman due to computer problems, and now I’m really ticked off. I’m going to go review something I don’t care about as much, and then I’ll be back when the pissedoffedness has dwindled.

Okay, I’m back. I think I started off by writing about what kinds of young adult novels work for me, adult reader. Like most genres, it is legion, running from your baldest of wish fulfillment exercises, to post-apocalit and sff more generally, to romance, to topic-driven Public Service Announcement like fare. I know I wrote something about how I don’t really like young adult in more contemporary settings, especially if there seems to be some sort of message or topic – though you can blow a giant Melina Marchetta shaped hole in that statement. Now that I’ve had some time to process, my disinterest in young adult fictions in realistic, contemporary settings isn’t specific to young adult. I don’t really want to read about a character’s round robin of affairs and mid-life crises that you can sometime find in grown-up books, just as I don’t want to read about sexting and the effect of parental divorce in something for teens. 

I may sound a little dismissive, but I don’t really intend that. My interests bend to the fantastic in fiction for a number of reasons, the most easy to explain being the fantastic – and I mean this in the little-f sense; like, not just elves and stuff – can twist the reader’s perceptions, throwing in a gravitational mass that affects the usual order of one’s personal constellations. To start out with a bad example: Twilight without vampires is a boring tale of a stalker and the woman who loves him. I mean, arguably, it still is that story, but the stakes are higher and the metaphors more disturbingly theological. Or to switch to grown-up books, what does something like The Road read like if transported into a contemporary setting? The wasted America that is the setting for that novel is an emotional reality for the boy and his son, not strictly plausible, but a place to work out the father-son dynamic in a way that isn’t possible in a more domestic setting with sippy cups and play dates. To mix my metaphors, the fantastic red-shifts the everyday into something that must be re-calibrated or recolored to see its meaning. 

Of course, this red-shift isn’t always successful, and I must have a perverse need to undermine my own argument by using one of the more derided examples of YA out there, one whose pleasures are described as guilty even by its defenders. But I’m simply trying to note where my interests, as a reader, lie, and why. The fantastic can be a place for writers to camouflage authorial insert or blatant wish fulfillment – the parameters of the universe of the book bending inexorably to the needs of the protagonist/authorial-proxy/reader-proxy. This conflation of the protagonist and reader may work more often in young adult, as the creation, management and fulfillment of wishes is an important part of learning who you are. I can see why such universes would resonate – I would like the universe to bend to my will as much as the next girl – but I get a little squirmy when it’s too blatant. When the fantastic shift works, it captures the heightened emotional reality of life though the impossible and the unlikely. My often roiling internal state owes nothing to strict reality. 

Oh Gawd! I remember how my review started before! (I swear, this review is turning out be remember that one time I wrote a review that was no doubt AWESOME but it got eaten by my computer; alas.) I mentioned this scene in the b-grade horror film Ginger Snaps – which is about a pair of near-pubescent sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf at the start of the movie. Her changes are looked upon with distress by her younger sister – staying out too late, hanging out with a different, more jerkish crowd, expressing an interest in sex that didn’t exist before. The younger sister goes to the school nurse early in the film and lays out the changes – she’s growing hair on weird parts of her body! – and is met with a politely condescending speech about how she, too, will go through the changes of puberty, and is given an embarrassing pamphlet. I love this scene because it gestures to the obvious way the metaphor of lycanthropy is being used – this movie is about puberty, both the physical and mental changes – but the dismissal of the profundity of those changes by an authority figure is both enraging, and not just a little bit funny. Puberty, while you’re going through it, is the end of the freaking world, and the metaphor of the werewolf is a better capture of the feelings of that time than the bloodless facts. 

So, finally – sheesh – I can start talking about this book. I’ve mentioned a couple of monsters that show up in fictions of the adolescent – werewolves, vampires – but the monster, the metaphor here is dragons. I’m too lazy to do an exhaustive search of the dragon in literature, and will instead rely on my limited experience, but the dragon doesn’t lend itself to tidy summation. Like werewolves, they are often understood to have divided motivations – fiercely intelligent, but with a bestial nature that humans like to evade. (See the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea, Grendel, or The Hobbit) They tend toward inhuman scheming and their murderousness is almost droll – we kill to live, they say, why do you pretend you don’t, ape? 

Seraphina lives in world where humans and dragons were at war forty years before, and the peace, such as it is, is fragile. Seraphina has come to her near adulthood in a place where her divided allegiances are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous, and the way she guards her body and her self, even with people she aches to connect with, is so vividly true. She’s a talented girl, her talents as much the result of practice as they are of some innate competence – which is my favorite kind of talent – the earned one. There’s a lot about music in this novel, which works beautifully in the ways emotions can be expressed in the non-verbal, especially when the verbal is impossible. 

The plot of the book is court intrigue murder mystery – a prince of the realm is found sans head in a way that points to the involvement of dragons. If this had been the focus of the book, emotionally, I would have been politely bored, the way I am with court intrigue. But the bald facts of the plot are mechanical, and you watch that architecture unfold through the strange parallax of Seraphina’s bisected vision. But this isn’t the world bending to her; this the world seen through her, and it’s wonderful. 

I don’t want to get too far into it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I loved so so many of the secondary characters. There’s a girl, a friend, whose laughing ease is in sharp contrast with Seraphina’s discomfort, but she is not cut down or diminished simply because she is not like the protagonist. She has a moment, late in the book, overcome with grief and weeping, and she pulls her head up, and says, I’m doing this now so I don’t have to do this later, and you want to reach out and hold her, and you understand her matter-of-fact-ness in grief. That’s a character moment a less generous author would not have given to a girl other than the heroine. 

There’s a boy, a friend, who shares affinities with, and is angered by Seraphina in equal measures – who understands as far as he can, but is hamstrung by Phina’s dissembling. He is not there to make her look good, or make her look bad, but has his own credible motivations, and life outside of Seraphina’s existence. The worst of young adult fictions – of any fictions – cast the opposite gender friend as a prop, as an extension, and it’s so beautiful to see one who is a character in his own right. 

And family – there is an uncle here who is such a fascinating creature, though again, I don’t want to get into it too far for fear of spoilers. I do have some reservations about the way Seraphina’s father was portrayed – his reservations and near-absence felt…tidy, or possibly convenient – though the trajectory of her relationship with the uncle in many ways stands in for the paternal relationship in a way that made emotional sense, even if it didn’t exactly make concrete sense. And the absence/presence of the mother…the way that relationship was expressed through the fantastic – Seraphina’s mother died in childbirth, but her memories were encoded in an emotional mechanism – that completely worked for me. 

I’m running out of steam, which is too bad, because there are plenty of other things to note about this world – the sweetness of Seraphina and one of her friends talking imaginary philosophers, like you do when you’re sort of showing off your first year of college, but showing off in a way that’s incredibly important at the time; the system of saints in this culture, and the way those saints are used and understood; the strange near-dragons who literally stuff themselves on the edges of this world, a mystery that no one is watching; the sly humor that is throughout this book, such a happy thing to find in capital-f Fantasy stories, because so often they are so dead serious that they invite ridicule. 

Such a good book. Such a smart book. Such a good metaphor for the experience of growing up, my discomfort and unease, but also my blinding moments of connection and ultimately prosaic, but completely shattering revelations. I wish that I could have read this at 17, and that’s high praise, even though I sometimes make fun of 17 year old me now. On some level, she’s reading this anyway, because it’s not like my younger self is a completely vanished creature, but someone there just behind my eyes. The best young adult books call her forth and respect her. Oh man. 

(I received an ARC from netgalley.com, and I have been friends with Rachel Hartman on Goodreads for while now, for full disclosure. Neither NetGalley nor Rachel offered me cookies or anything for a good review, and all opinions are decidedly my own.)