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grim

Young Adult Anthology: Grim

I received my copy from NetGalley.com and Harlequin Teen. Thanks.

Because I might as well use my minor in folklore for something, I’ll begin my review of Grim, a collection of young adult short stories, with a little bit of pedantry about the fairy tale. Broadly speaking, there’s two kinds of fairy tale: the Märchen, which are orally transmitted folk tales with no specific origin and wide variation, and the literary fairy tales, which are written by a single person. Some of the distinction can be a little mushy, like with the large and glorious oral and literary history of the Arthurian legend, which has a lot of switch-backs and cross-pollination between literary and oral history.

Sometimes it’s less so, like when you’re dealing with the works of Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, or Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote The Snow Queen, Puss in Boots, and Beauty & The Beast, respectively (and among other things.) Though these stories use traditional folkloric motifs, they were written stories, often designed for court or salon readerships, like de Villeneuve, or children, like Andersen and Perrault. Andersen hat-tipped Dickens in The Little Match Girl, and was hat-tipped in turn by C.S. Lewis in the character of the Snow Queen in Narnia. (And this second has become her most famous incarnation. The Turkish Delight, I’m given to understand, was Lewis’s doing.) The tales are more part of a literary tradition than an oral one.

It really shows in something like Perrault’s Puss in Boots, which is a pretty classic clever servant story (like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro which got him in such hot water). Certainly Perrault is using some clever cat folklores – which lends some dissonance when the the immoral Puss is used to prop the moral of industry and sticktoitiveness – but the boots, the gormless third son, the instructive tone are new, literary elements. The essential amorality of the folk motifs makes the whole thing kinda funny though, no matter how many admonishments of industry are included.

Our booted feline friend was part of some of the earliest editions of what eventually became Mother Goose, an editorial invention for publishing instructive tales for children in the growing middle class in England, set alongside other sanitized (and anglicized) Märchen. Amusingly, concern-trolling has been around since the invention of children’s literature. Observe (from the wikis):

The renowned illustrator of Dickens’ novels and stories, George Cruikshank, was shocked that parents would allow their children to read “Puss in Boots” and declared: “As it stood the tale was a succession of successful falsehoods—a clever lesson in lying!—a system of imposture rewarded with the greatest worldly advantages.”

Perrault shines a folk tale into something suitable for children, but certain things will not out.

Folk tales are often violent, sexual and political. The frog is transforms into a prince not because the princess kisses him, but because she throws him against the wall. Cinderella’s sisters cut their feet to fit the slipper, and are caught out because of dripping blood. Sleeping Beauty awakens from her slumber when she gives birth to twins, because the prince was charming enough to rape her while unconscious. So.many.people get their eyes pecked out by birds. Folk tales are often not about imparting morals, but about exploring sometimes gruesome economic, political, familial and sexual imbalances through the metaphorical. Folk tales aren’t didactic or instructive, in the strictest sense, while literary stories often are, especially when they are aimed at children.

And if it looks like I’m bagging oral folklore, I’m not. Folk tales like the ones collected by the Brothers Grimm, Lady Gregory (a firm friend of W.B. Yeats) or Andrew Lang (who was also a Homeric scholar) were, often, very much not for children, and can have unnerving elements of horror and the macabre. A lot of these cats had very specific 18th and 19th Century ideas about “the folk” as “noble savages” or specific nationalist agendas. (I’m looking at you, Yeats.) There’s fairly good evidence that even the Grimms, who prided themselves on their impartial collection and transmission, mucked about with the stories they were collecting for whatever purposes. The whole relationship between the oral and literary traditions is pretty complex stuff, well more complex that my opening paragraph implies.

Jesus, my head has really come to a point here. My purpose, if I can find it, was really to talk about the ways the fairy story has been used in oral and literary traditions, and it’s interesting to see these young adult iterations published by Harlequin Teen in the larger tradition of packaging some seriously wicked shit to impart morals to children. There are still a lot of plucky kids, though they seem to have shifted gender from the the lucky son to the Strong Female Protagonist. Love is the answer more often than I remember from Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books or Grimm’s Tales, where marriages often occurred between people just because girls are a prize for lucky boys. Several of the stories here push back at that notion. There’s also more revenge than I remember. Because so many of the oral folk tales are not terribly psychological – young Hans left one day to make his fortune, etc, with no real bother about his internal state – few historical folk tales have the requisite psyche to really pull a gotcha at the end. You can with a short story though; good.

Anyway, at this point I should probably get into the individual stories.

“The Key” by Rachel Hawkins. I liked the writing on this – the main character is one of those world-weary teens I find charming – but it’s not a story so much as a situation. I find this often with writers who are primarily novelists dabbling in the short story form. They write prologues to larger fictions, and then bite them off.

“Figment” by Jeri Smith-Ready. This was one where my general crank level was too high, because there’s really nothing wrong with the story, but it still grated me a little. The characters are drawn with a steady hand, and overall its cute and playful with just enough drama that it’s not too lightweight. I just didn’t like this specific treatment of Puss in Boots, mechanically speaking, because turning that immoral schemer into a plush toy that just wants to be loved just seems wrong.

“The Twelfth Girl” by Malinda Lo. Dark and class conscious take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses with a wonderfully pyrrhic ending. Very good.

“The Raven Princess” by Jon Skovron. The recounting of the Grimm version of the princess who was transformed into a raven and then won by a plucky young man hews close to the original, but does manage to provide a fresh angle and perspective. It felt a little message-y at points – and that’s how you behave like a good person! – but the story does have a kind heart.

“Thinner than Water” by Saundra Mitchell. Resounding props for taking on Donkeyskin or Catskin in a young adult short story. There are a whole bunch of related folk tales about kings attempting (or succeeding) in marrying their daughters and how the girls trick their way out, but the central horror of incest and sexual assault is serious shit. Mitchell’s story vividly relates the way the girl is isolated and made complicit in her abuse, and doesn’t flinch. Maybe you get out, but you probably won’t get out clean, and you’re not the only one.

“Before the Rose Bloomed: A Retelling of the Snow Queen” by Ellen Hopkins. Reeeally straightforward retelling which isn’t bad, but also doesn’t add anything. Felt plodding.

“Beast/Beast” by Tessa Gratton. Very claustrophobic take on the Beauty & the Beast story, with one of the more interesting beasts I’ve seen in while. He’s like a golem sewn out of all manner of animals and plants and…stuff. The writing is very good, and while I’m troubled by certain things, they’re mostly the sorts of things I’m always troubled by in Beauty & the Beast stories. I’m still turning over that ending; a good sign.

“The Brothers Piggett” by Julie Kagawa. Men are pigs! hahaha. But seriously, this had just a brutal snap to it, which surprised me from a retelling of the Three Little Pigs. No girl is a reward for a boy when he acts like a decent person, and he doesn’t get to act like an indecent person when she is not rewarded to him. Well played.

“Untethered” by Sonia Gensler. The Little Shroud, itself, is somewhat inert and stubby, so a story based on it suffers from that brevity. This slid perspectives in a cool way, but it felt a little stagy to me. Well drawn relationships though.

“Better” by Shaun David Hutchinson. The Pied Piper of Hamelin…in space! I kid, I kid. I’m a sucker for generation ships and clone golems though, and the scifi setting was just aces. A nasty little piece of work, and while I’m rooting for our heroes, I’m also terrified of them.

“Light It Up” by Kimberly Derting. This retelling of Hansel & Gretel felt like it didn’t do enough work updating the premise to the present day – it was too literal – but it was fine, I guess. But cannibalism is hilarious, no matter how you slice it. (Get it?? Hahaha, I kill me.)

“Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tongue” by Christine Johnson. Again, the fairy tale motif needed to be better updated, and I think the attempt at a reversal was botched a little, though it might just be my weariness with the idea that “sometimes a curse can be a blessing!” The central part about how some parents should not be honored because they’re terrible parents is totally legit though.

“Real Boy” by Claudia Gray. Robot love story! There was something very old school Asimov about this – the rules! – but it functioned as a self-contained world, which is a nice bit of parallelism. It almost would have been better if we didn’t see the reveal at the end.

“Skin Trade” by Myra McEntire. Yeah, I don’t know. I can see where this was going, I just think it didn’t get there. Plus it was just lurid. I like lurid, even lurid for its own ends, but this felt forced. And again, not enough thought went into the update.

“Beauty and the Chad” by Sarah Rees Brennan. I really appreciate the light-hearted anachronism and general goofing, I just think I’m too damn old for this story. The beast in this retelling is a frat-bro, and frat-bros are the very worst for me. I completely recognize this is my own hang up, and frat-bros notwithstanding, this story was cute and funny, the sentient furniture especially.

“The Pink” by Amanda Hocking. Another reeaaallly straightforward retelling with very little heat or danger. The names were way dumb too.

“Sell Out” by Jackson Pearce. The premise was updated well, and I think it had more friction than a lot of the more straightforward retellings, but it also just didn’t do it for me. Age, again, may be a factor, as I bristle about the term “sell out” used by children who have zero idea. I’d like to see the sequel when the hammer falls, kiddo, because fall it will. (Somebody top off mommy’s drink; she’s being a crank again.)

In sum, a perfectly cromulent little collection, with nothing that overwowed me – “Beast/Beast” and “Thinner Than Water” came close – but also very few straight up failures. I have a couple of these writers pinned as interesting, and I’ll be sure to scoop something up next it comes to my attention. There are also a couple who have now been solidly cemented as not to my taste. Though I’m loathe to pretend I can predict what a teenager might think of this, I imagine someone less old and cranky will cotton to some of these stories better than I. Good job, demographics.

 

 

Nebula Nominees: The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

From the author’s note for The Killing Moonby N K Jemisin:

Like most fantasy writers, I have found it challenging to write material influenced by real (if bygone) cultures. [...] Since this is a fantasy novel, not a historical text, I found myself in the odd position of having to de-historify these tales as much as possible — in effect stripping away the substance of reality while leaving behind only the thinnest broth for flavoring. My goal was to give homage; my goal was not to ape humanity. Armchair Egyptologist, you have been forewarned.

Well, thank the baby Jesus. 

I have had a long and loud love/hate relationship with high fantasy, with periods of intense love-making followed by throwing all of its shit out into the yard and setting it on fire. Some of my most favoritest books have hailed from high fantasy’s storied borders - The Long Price QuartetThe Lord of the Rings, the Earthsea Cycle. But I have also found books that just make me keen for their dangerously juvenile wish-fulfillment and naive politics. A penniless goatherd turns out to be the son of a king; a scarred warrior reclaims his honor: all of this occurring in a Medieval Europe clone that appears to be structured by nostalgia for vicious, illusory things like honor, blended with the worst of middle class American values. So much high fantasy wrong-foots it, trying to blend meritocracy with the divine right, ending in a Calvinism of fiction: good wins because it wins. Feh.

And that’s not even getting into the second or third generation “corrections” of this historical/political naïveté evidenced by formative high fantasy, novels that posit lovingly detailed rape-and-murder-a-thons as an expression of their grittiness or historical accuracy or what-fucking-ever. I am not much interested in escapisms that use casual injustice as a backdrop for some idiot imbued with narrative privilege to level up. I see enough of that shit in the real world, thank you, and adding dragons into the mix doesn’t make it easier to swallow. And just to be clear, it’s not the rape and violence that I have a problem with – I enjoy a bloody fight scene as much as the next girl – it’s how so often rape and violence are deployed without interrogation and without consequence. Good still wins because it wins, but now someone can get herself raped to prove the situation is serious and nothing else

I seriously did not intend this review to become a jeremiad about the state of high fantasy, but you go to review with the barely controlled rampage you have bubbling in your mind. Or I do anyway, not to bring you into it. What I really wanted to impart with my freak-out is that I have a complicated relationship with high fantasy, and reading Jemisin’s foreword made me sigh with relief. So often I read high fantasy, and the location is just medieval Europe or medieval Asia with the serial numbers filed off, but not particularly well. The problem I see with much of high fantasy is a sloppy, self-serving use of history which conflates character expediency with historical accuracy, creating a fantasy world with all the problems of the historical record and then some

 The Killing Moon takes place in the city-state of Gujaareh, based very loosely on ancient Egypt, but other than a river-flooded desert city and a pharaonic leader, the Egyptian is gestural or inflected. The plot centers on three people: a priest of the killing class, his apprentice, and an ambassador/spy from another city-state. While the milieu seems broadly pantheistic, Gujaarah is focused on the worship of a specific deity, a moon goddess of death and less so of rebirth. In practice, this works out to a priestly caste who harvest “dreamblood” – a magical but still body-based humor not unlike one of the four Hippocratic humors of the body in Classical and medieval medicine. (There is, for example, dreambile, and I assume dreamphlegm, but no one types out the word phlegm if they can help it.) (Also, someone pointed out that phlegm has been changed to the word “seed”, so we can have some sexytimes ritual prostitutes.) 

The opening is one of those confusing messes that ends up being more calculated than it appears, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone tossing this book down before the gears catch, because it takes nearly half the book for the teeth to bite. A priest has one of his ritual killings go wrong; there is a murderer demon on the loose; some people have confusing conversations where the political subtext doesn’t necessarily figure, but is extremely important. And politics is decidedly the name of the game in Gujaareh, in a way that even the main characters (other than the ambassador-spy, of course) don’t get. That was one of the things I found so delightful about The Killing Moon: the way the politically naive – what about honor! and piety! and stuff! – aren’t rewarded for their naivete, but aren’t exactly punished either. True belief isn’t exempt from political expediency, and vice versa. 

Unlike Long Price, which I would hold this book in close comparison – if you like this, then – I wasn’t as enamored of the central characters. The priest and his apprentice have an intense Oedipal relationship with a bunch of sexual overlay which I don’t quite connect with, never having been a celibate killing monk. Which is not to say I found them unlikely or incoherent, just that the inherent staginess of the court intrigue plot – which is the basis of much epic fantasy – undercut the interpersonal concerns of a relationship that’s already pretty far out of the experience of most readers. (Celibate killing monks, they prolly totally grok it tho.) The ambassador-spy isn’t nearly as badass as the term ambassador-spy would imply. Not that everything has to be about badassery, of course, I just felt her character was more reactive to the other two main characters, more expedient than personal. 

So, anyway, I greatly enjoyed this, partially just because of personal insanity about high fantasy, but then partially because The Killing Moonis well written and interesting, daring to take on some very odd protagonists. I have some questions, the usual ones I have about magical systems – so there’s a goddess? and a demonstrable magical system? Does that mean there really is a goddess, or does that mean that the almost physics-like magic is just ascribed to the goddess? (These are questions that keep me up at night when dealing with high fantasy, in general, so that’s not new.) I feel a little shitty this review, because I feel like a lot of it sounds like relative faint-praise – high fantasy sux! but this sux less! – but that’s not where I’m at with this book. That said, I only picked this up because it’s one of the Nebula nominees for 2012 – self-assigned homework reading – so there was a definite kicking-and-screaming vibe in the beginning, but I’m glad it worked out in the end.

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. 

The Demon Lover: Tam Lin in Newford

For the last month, I’ve been working my way through the ridiculous number of NetGalley titles I downloaded in a big frenzy once I remembered I had an account there. Of course I started with the stuff I knew was in my wheelhouse, to very good results. So time to start in on the less likely stuff! I’m generally not looking for taxing on my Sunday on the couch reads (or Sunday on the back porch, in more clement weather), and I figured something called The Demon Lover (by Juliet Dark, of course) with that cover would fit the bill. There’s a whole passel of books that have more or less that cover, and they tend to be young adult paranormal romance type stuff. Observe:

I’m not casting aspersions here, just making observations (partially because I have not read any of these books in question.) But given general impressions from reviews of similarly covered books, I figured I knew what I was in for here: young girl, maybe some tragedy in her young life to make her “deep”, meet cute with a bad boy/otherworldly creature, sudden love bordering on obsession, lots of angsting and misreading of the classics of Romantic literature. (Sorry to say, kids, but Cathy and Heathcliff can never be made to have a happy ending, and if they do, they are not Cathy and Heathcliff. Character is bloody destiny in that instance.)(Just kidding. I’m not sorry to say it.) But whatever Chardonnay-snorting near-snobbery from me aside, often these kinds of books have a vibrating energy to them, a pulse of often deeply misguided, but very real passion. You can do worse on a Sunday after reading a collection of considered, thoughtful, careful prose. Sometimes I don’t want to think but feel. 

So it was hugely surprising to me to find a musing, allusive, and referential novel here, complete with affectionate send-ups of academia and an almost matter-of-fact tone. Callie McFay – and I will take this moment to note that the names are awful, across the board – McFay barf is an adjunct professor type who has had some minor success with a Master’s-thesis-turned-pop-criticism book about vampires in the contemporary Gothic, and is now figuring out whether to publish or perish. She’s got a long-term long-distance bi-coastal relationship, and has obviously read a lot of Bakhtin, Gilbert & Gubar, and Marina Warner. Not that those things are related, making for a terrible sentence from me. Anyway, she decides to go in for a small college in upstate New York because of feelings, and pretty much all of the bitchy things I said would happen come to pass, except for the misreading of the classics part. Ms McFay (barf) has the Gothic classics down. And goddamn right. Oorah. 

If I were writing a blurb for this novel, which I would never be asked to do because my sentences heretofore have been for shit, I would say: Pamela Dean’s Tam Linmeets Charles de Lint‘s Newford. On acid. Actually, just kidding about the on acid part; that’s just a bad joke about blurbcraft. But The Demon Loverhas the everyday boringness (and I mean this mostly kindly) of Dean’s college fairy tale, and the nose-picking earnest wonder of de Lint’s “North American” - this means Canadian - city and its denizens. (I kind of can’t believe what a bitch I’m being here, and I’m sorry.) I had to swear off reading any more de Lint (except for short fiction) because of inherent blackness in my heart – Newford is just too wonderful for me – so the parts of this that reminded me of that fell flat. But Dean’s Blackstone College is pretty much my collegiate soul, so split differences at will. 

There are many aside observations here I enjoyed about the contemporary Gothic and its workings, but ultimately the action of the prose didn’t do it for me, and I can’t figure what the thesis might be, if you’ll allow me academical phrasing on this. Ms McFay falls in with an incubus, that soul-sucking Romantic/Gothic fantasy of the perfectly Byronic, tragic dude, and while I appreciated the clear-eyed, innuendo-less conversations about what that might mean, I had a hard time connecting with the emotional stakes. Some of this is tone, which is more sensible than usually found in Gothic romance. But certainly, this could be a function of my long-married pragmatic heart, which doesn’t have much patience with dramatic passion with assholes and users anymore. That is too much like work, and the rewards of not being sucked dry and killed by your lover are pretty awesome, especially if you don’t have the dress-billowing mania to make up for the whole Romantic death business. Lest I sound too negative, I do appreciate how this all works out for McFay, and the hard choices she makes, I just…I’m going to have to admit I’m getting old here. Gothic romance is freaking exhausting, which is possibly the take-home message here, which makes this book a little bit awesome. 

So, anyway, enjoyably smart fun, though maybe not the kind of fun advertised on the tin. And I downloaded this because I really wanted to get to The Water Witch, whose cover was much more enticing to me. Billowy dresses, you’re fine and all, but half-naked chicks rising out of the water? That’s the show. We’ll see what happens next Sunday on the couch.

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost -almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke - even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 


From Bangable Dudes in History


Born to Darkness: Compromises that Work

Another day, another plane read. 

Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann was on the deck due to one of those library displays that I both drat and keep falling for. This turned out well better than I’d hoped, an extremely active little story that lets the characters just barely get out their conversations before the next twist bang bang shoot shoot. The set up is a cross between X-Men and Wild Cards, where a very limited number of people, the Greater-Thans, have a “metal integration” much higher than your average person’s, allowing then to do things like violate physics and read minds and stuff. Of course, there is a group of good guys, and a group of bad guys, and the bad guys are producing a drug which induces higher integration, yet also has the side effect of making its users batshit insane, or “jokering”. Which is what reminded me of Wild Cards, I’ll have you know. 

As a sort of cross between science fiction and the romance novel, the story occasionally fails the way a compromise can. There are three romantic pairings, an abduction to solve, and a whole Second Great Depression America to sketch here, in addition to fight and love scenes, and that the story hurtles along the way it does is no small feat. While the sex scenes did not gross me out or make me laugh, I was occasionally irritated by the lovers and their simultaneous orgasms – seriously, get out of the damn way, lovers, and explain the mechanism by which the whole “integration” thing works instead of experimenting with bjs. 

But! Because of the sometimes romance novel sensibility, Born to Darkness tackles some issues I can’t imagine a straight science fiction writer – and I kind of mean the double entendre there – taking on with success. One of the Greater-Thans, the unfortunately nicknamed “Mac”, has as one of her powers the ability to thrall sexually any person who swings towards girls. When we meet her, she’s full adult and aware of her powers – down to using them seriously unethically, seriously – but as a teen when her powers were first presenting, there was a fair amount of ugliness and violence as people – including her own father, yuck - respond to her unwitting transmission of sexual power. 

Mostly this backstory is used as an impediment to her romance with hot SEAL dude – the Navy thing, not a selkie. Oh noes! He might love me only for my super-charged vagina! But that the complex relationship between a woman’s sexuality and sexual violence was addressed at all was really notable. I was just this afternoon stewing because of some comment threads I read about the recent Walking Dead episode – the one where a character is threatened with rape and sexually assaulted – where some commenters were like, it’s realistic that she would be near-raped because obviously men are just waiting for civilization to break down so they can rape to their hearts content. (Of course, leaving aside the realism of walking cannibal corpses, etc.) I just, I mean, I hate the fuck out of this view of both women and men, that justifies sexual violence by conceptualizing male sexuality as this disgusting violent nightmare, and then acting like this view of people is the “reasonable” one. Fuck you assholes. Point being, I guess, that I thought the whole interplay here between sexual violence, coercion, attraction and whatever was an interesting one, even if it was treated kinda topically in the text. 

Because this was not wholly science fiction either, I had some irritations with how exactly the Greater-Than thing worked, but then I also get the impression that this is just the first in series, so information will be parceled out as it comes. The mechanism of the magical/scientific powers was certainly better than a lot of PNR I’ve read, which seems to pull magical rules out of its ass to fit the needs of the romance and not the other way around. (Does that metaphor even work?) The whole post-Depression America thing was kind of a kick, especially because the sensibility seemed a lot less regressive than I usually find in romance novels – the creeping lack of availability of birth control, for example, is seen as the dystopian nightmare it is. 

The ending seems to fall off a cliff of dotdotdot next episode next week. But the nice thing about continuing series is that there isn’t the need to tie off all relationships into perfected bliss, and the almost downbeat conclusion to some of the romantic plotlines was cool and unexpected. (Especially because I almost wanted to barf, given how happy two of them are. Especially given that mind-reading was in the mix. Maybe I’m just a whole-hearted bitch, but there is no way I want even my own husband of 14 years in my mind ever. That is not romantic to me.) Anyway, pretty brilliant plane read, and probably deserving of another star from me just for sheer enjoyment. Shiny.

Review: Glass Houses

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I go to bed at the usual hour, no problem, and then awake and squint at the clock which reads something between 2 and 4 and think, “Damn.” After I find my glasses, things are clearer, but I’m still awake. The television is no good at this time of night, although I do play a game where I try to count how many stations are running “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials. The record stands at four. (Not that this has anything to do with the review, but this is the thing I don’t get about Joe Francis’s titty empire: if you want to buy porn, then why not just buy porn?)

So I read Glass Housesby Laura J. Mixon in the strange hours between too late and too early, and I was happy for it’s company: not overly taxing, stylish, and driving toward some smaller human truth. My step-mom uses the term “little movies” when she refers to films that set out to accomplish some narrow thing and then succeed; in this way, this book is a “little book.” (And to be clear, this term is not a dig; success on any scale is success, and sometimes art fails because its reach exceeds its grasp.) It was written in the early 90s, and its cyberpunk sensibilities feel worn and frayed, too indebted to its sources to really make the genre new and vital. Mostly, I didn’t mind, but then I like cyberpunk. My real complaint is that the stylishness of the setting, the window-dressing of global warming as global apocalypse, the sense of technology driving the breach between haves and have-nots had little to do with the actual emotional heart of the book. Why dress it as cyberpunk at all?

Our protagonist, an agoraphobic scavenger using a proxy-device, almost rescues a very important man from his rather gruesome death. She steals his newly-written will off of his body, and then decides, due to the assholery of his family, to deliver the will to the rightful heir. Well and good; this will serve as plot. The real story is about her coming to terms with her roommate and sometimes lover Melissa. Her relationship with Melissa is the soul of the book, and the thing I responded to the most, even if the revelations felt forced at times, and the protagonist’s changes incomplete or untrue. I have fallen in love with users. At some point you realize that thee concept of unconditional love is something of a trick designed by people who have been keeping score. It’s not unfair to count the points yourself. 

I say that this is a little book, but I wonder if these things are little at all. It’s hard to say. I read this as my twilight self, companioned by the audible silence of the house and my frustrations with my continued awakeness. This is the odd thing I felt when I finished this book: I might have liked this better had it been billed as young adult, not that I disliked it. It’s fun to complain about marketing; I do it all the time. And I don’t want to fall into the the trap of thinking fiction written for the younger set is somehow smaller and less important. But there is something fundamentally young in the awakenings found within its pages, a young that isn’t naive exactly, but a young that keeps trusting the prostitute she loves despite the obvious metaphorics of her profession. It’s a good first book, worthy of a look at Mixon’s later work. And a good book for the edgy hours before dawn.