Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fantasy. Show all posts

Monday, February 11, 2019

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi | Review

I find myself, once again, at odds with the broader literary community.

It's exhausting, isn't it? You must be saying to yourself: "Why do I even bother to read this book blog, when all the writer ever does is muse about her inability to agree with most readers about whether or not a book is good? (When she even bothers to write at all!) Isn't it obvious that she's just not a very good reader?" And, dear reader of this blog, I wouldn't blame you for a moment if you packed your bags and left these dusty halls forever. Believe me, I'm just as exasperated as you are.

The case of Tomi Adeyemi's Children of Blood and Bone feels a little bit more complicated than most of my recent literary disagreements. To begin with, I did generally enjoy the book! I thought there were a lot of things it did fairly brilliantly, and I enjoyed many aspects of its mythology a great deal. But as I read it, I was repeatedly struck by a rather curious sensation that I was not reading something particularly... original.

If you're rolling your eyes now and declaring me to be an absolute fool, it's okay. I understand. After all, Adeyemi's young adult novel has been touted for its originality in rooting a fantasy story in West African mythology! And I don't deny that for a moment. The ways in which Adeyemi sidestepped the more common (and yes, at this point boring) Western European fantasy tropes was quite refreshing. It speaks to a boldness of storytelling. Yet it wasn't quite enough for me.

One of my favorite book blogs, The Book Smugglers, write in their Goodreads review that Children of Blood and Bone is "a superb, exciting, astonishing mix of Avatar: the Last Airbender and Black Panther". It's the sort of endorsement that should really set my blood pulsing. I have my issues with "Black Panther" as a film overall, but I loved the worldbuilding and the degree to which it played with different mythologies at its root. And I adore the show "Avatar: The Last Airbender" (ATLA).

Perhaps if I had read this review before reading Children of Blood and Bone, it would have more positively shaped my impression. Ultimately, I agree with half of the Book Smugglers' assessment: Children of Blood and Bone most definitely could feel like the lovechild of ATLA and "Black Panther", and it is precisely this that made me rate the novel that much lower.

It occurred relatively early in the book. As the narrative settled down and three POV were introduced, I was struck by several seemingly superficial similarities between Children of Blood and Bone and ATLA. We have a brother and sister from a persecuted class, in which the sister has a previously untouched form of magic and the brother is magic-less. We have a princess with a powerful artifact joining the siblings (quickly becoming a love interest for the brother). And we have her brother, the prince, hell-bent on chasing these three fugitives across a wide swathe of land in order to capture them, though his motivations may actually be more pure than previously believed... or maybe not. Oh, and the trio have to achieve their highly specific goal to restore balance... er, I mean magic... on the date of a celestial eclipse. Which is in less than a month!

With the exception of the princess, does this sound a bit familiar?

Like the Book Smugglers, my first thought was instantly of ATLA. The similarities to the story felt so pronounced that I could quickly guess how the story was panning out. In fact, it even ruined certain plot points for me because I could so easily figure out what they were supposed to be. For an "original" story, Children of Blood and Bone simply felt like a West African inspired version of ATLA, though perhaps a little bit more grown-up. Unfortunately, comparisons to ATLA will rarely end well for the piece of art in question - ATLA is one of the rare shows that works on a stunning range of levels. Few stories have quite reached its caliber, fewer still that attempted to mimic it too strongly.

Children of Blood and Bone does a lot of good things in its pages. Its exploration of racist power structures is obviously important, and there is no doubt that there's a lot to enjoy in the way Adeyemi crafts her world. I was also particularly impressed by her decision to include a meta-question about whether or not magic is inherently good and should be brought back. In the second half of the book, characters are confronted with both the importance and danger of magic. The lingering question remains, with little in the way of an easy answer or neat solution. In fact, the cliffhanger ending almost seems to emphasize the question. And when magic is so clearly linked to ethnicity and cultural expression, doesn't its suppression inherently mean the oppression of those who have it? These are interesting questions that fantasy too rarely explores, particularly when magic is a weak stand-in for real-world prejudices.

In other aspects, unfortunately, Children of Blood and Bone just falls apart. First and foremost, as I already mentioned, the story didn't feel original to me. The overwhelming similarities to ATLA (just swap the roles of a couple characters and you're good!) had me rolling my eyes, rather than delighting in the story as an homage. It's possible that this is simply my own, unfair jaded reading, but I couldn't shake off the feeling the entire time I was reading and I grew tired of constantly comparing certain creative choices with those that so neatly aligned with those from ATLA. It also left me cold whenever the book did diverge, because it felt like too little too late. At the end of the day, it felt too familiar, and not in a way that gave me warm, nostalgic vibes. (Maybe if I had seen ATLA as a child and not as an adult just a few years ago...?) 

It's not just that, though. The book also does a fairly bad job as distinguishing the voices of its three POV characters. Our magical Avatar stand-in (or rather, Aang-Katara mix), Zélie, doesn't sound all that different from her fierce enemy-later-love-interest (Zutara wish-fulfillment...?) Inan, nor from his sister Amari. I often forgot whose chapter I was reading until a reference to one of the other characters clarified it for me, and that is not the way POVs should work. The characters had such distinct character traits, yet they ended up feeling so similar on the page.

And there's also the writing.

Or rather. The melodrama of the story.

The way every line of moderate importance gets its own punchy paragraph.

But then these are quickly followed by more punchy paragraphs.

The chapters are short and dominated by writing of this style. Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with punchy chapter-ends as a concept. I actually kind of love them as a way to build drama. I rather write that way myself, with all my sentences that begin with "but"! But... the insistence on having so many dramatic pauses and paragraph breaks left me tired. It felt like I was reading a book that simply hadn't been edited properly. Rather than feeling focused and tight, every chapter felt like it lost some sort of thread as it tried to sound more and more dramatic.

If it sounds as though I'm being unduly harsh on Children of Blood and Bone, I... don't really mean to be. It's not a bad book! But it's also not as great a book as I was hoping. Even setting aside ostensibly personal things like the ATLA comparison (which is clearly very subjective, since different fans had different reactions to the degree of similarities), I was deeply bothered by the way the romances were written. I thought the pacing was rushed (largely due to the compressed time-scale the book had to work with). I struggled with the writing in many parts. But I also liked a lot, which left me feeling almost more disappointed. I was looking forward to this book more than almost any other recent YA, yet even something so universally acclaimed let me down somehow. Children of Blood and Bone may simply emerge as another example of hype not bearing out, but considering the praise, it's hard not to wonder at this point what is wrong with me specifically.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

WITMonth Day 18 | 10 Recommended Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

I love science fiction and fantasy. I love science fiction and fantasy infused literature too. I love books that have magic in them, books that explore new and invented worlds, and I love books that play around with setting in order to tell their magical stories. I also love women in translation, as you might have noticed, so this overlap was pretty much to be expected. That being said, whatever list I give today will not be able to hold a candle to Rachel Cordasco's brilliant, which covers a whole lot more excellent speculative fiction in translation (including a lot of WIT) than I'll ever be able to recommend. Check it out!

  1. The Wall - Marlen Haushofer (tr. from German by Shaun Whiteside): Post-apocalyptic literature shrunk down to its most intimate, as a single survivor of a mass catastrophe continues to live.
  2. Amatka - Karin Tidbeck (tr. from Swedish by Karin Tidbeck): Queer, dystopic science fiction, exploring individual freedom within an oppressive society.
  3. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire That Never Was - Angélica Gorodischer (tr. from Spanish by Ursula K. Le Guin): A tremendous fantasy powerhouse detailing the history of "the greatest empire that never was", beautifully translated by another fantasy powerhouse and legend.
  4. The Queue - Basma Abdel Aziz (tr. from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette): An almost too-real totalitarian dystopia turns its eyes on its people following an attempted revolution.
  5. One Hundred Shadows - Hwang Jungeun (tr. from Korean by Jung Yewon): Shadows quietly begin to rise in the slums of Seoul, as two lonely young people grow closer together in their wake.
  6. The Days of the Deer - Liliana Bodoc (tr. from Spanish by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar): Fantasy, but from a purely indigenous American perspective, creating a unique spin on the European invasion of the continents.
  7. The Gray House - Mariam Petrosyan (tr. from Russian by Yuri Machkasov): Disabled young boys and teens in an otherworldly boarding school, in which nothing is quite as it seems and neither are its denizens. 
  8. The Core of the Sun - Johanna Sinisalo (tr. from Finnish by Lola Rogers): A "Finnish weird" dystopia in which women are bred for docility, and life is tightly controlled. 
  9. Hybrid Child - Mariko Ōhara (tr. from Japanese by Jodie Beck): A biological specimen escapes, and begins to live an independent life in a world of rogue AIs and cyborgs.
  10. Memoirs of a Polar Bear - Yoko Tawada (tr. from German by Susan Bernofsky): Three generations of entertainer polar bears recount their lives and relationships.
SFF has a problem with publishing women writers, and the overlap with women in translation is even smaller and more disheartening. But as you see, there's still no lack of excellent, exciting, or intriguing books, old and new! Not to mention many YA titles which will be summarized in the next post. What are some of your favorites?

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Broken Earth... more like The Perfect Books

This isn't really going to be a real review. I'm not sure I'm qualified to write a real review of such a powerful series, nor do I think I really need to. Others have written intelligently about N. K. Jemisin's brilliant fantasy (almost sci-fi-esque) series.

Frankly, I just want to gush.

Do you know how long it's been since I read an entire series and adored all of its parts? I genuinely cannot recall. Most of the time, series decay along the way for me. Or there's an outright dud along the way. With The Broken Earth, I kept waiting for the sequels to disappoint. I kept expecting the sequels to disappoint me, somehow, but they never did. The Fifth Season was brilliant. The Obelisk Gate was brilliant. And The Stone Sky was brilliant. The entire series (as a single entity) was brilliant. It's a series that feels utterly confident in itself and unlike many other titles in its fantasy genre, it's a series that knows exactly where it's going. Having read the three books relatively close together (I truly forced myself to wait at least two months between each book, just to make sure I didn't get disappointed by a "binge"), the clarity of the three titles as a single series is made even more obvious. It's a refreshing sight in a genre that is cluttered with books that believe that more depth means more.

Because The Broken Earth doesn't infodump. Heck, it doesn't even answer all of its own questions. There is potential here for sixteen more books, if Jemisin chooses to write them. How did the world order become as it is? What happens afterwards? How does the world change? How does the world rebuild? How do the cultures and traditions that develop come about? There is so much more, but the lack of high-resolution details never feels like Jemisin is cheating her readers out of information. On the contrary, it feels like a reminder that fantasy can have sharp, in-depth worldbuilding without giving readers every single detail. The books end up feeling more tightly written... and clearer too.

It's a series brimming with real-life inspirations. The way that history is warped and passed down felt so real, in a way that most fantasy novels often fail at (by having too highly detailed "legends" that are clearly meant to foreshadow or serve as outright exposition). In The Broken Earth, the pieces of history feel like they contribute more to my cultural understanding rather than any plot-based need. In The Stone Sky in particular, chapter endings felt like they were there to remind readers of real-world racial injustices rather than foreshadow any particular plot point. (Though, I should point out, they always sort of did. In a very quiet way.) (There are a lot of very important other messages about persecution and oppression. They are not overdone and yet they are also not subtle. It is very well done. This series is great.)

It's also a series that despite its surface bleakness is brimming with hope and life. I can't get into more detail without spoiling a lot of the books, but know that The Broken Earth feels like the series that restored my personal faith in the world. Books are powerful and this series is wonderful.

Gushing complete. For now.

Friday, August 25, 2017

WITMonth Day 25 | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

You know what's always fun? Fantasy that isn't based on European medieval conventions!

This is a personal pet peeve of mine: I loathe the way almost all modern fantasy is not only English-language (including out in other countries, where it's predominantly translated from English) and rooted in British/European mythology and cultural norms. Often, the foreigners will be dark-skinned or have almond-eyes, will be either savage or vaguely wiser than the protagonists (depending on whether the book was written more than twenty years ago, or whether it's recent and progressive). The mythology will vaguely resemble Greek or maybe Norse or maybe even Celtic mythology. It's all very similar.

So whenever I encounter a book - whether Anglo in origin or not - that comes from a culture that is not European, I cheer. I am automatically in love with the book, just a little. And oh boy, does The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc (translated by Nick Caistor, with Lucia Caistor Arendar) fulfill that wish, even if it doesn't always rise to its own ambitions.

Let me start by saying that I liked The Days of the Deer a lot, but I'm not sure that it always lives up to its own promise. Here is a fantasy novel that reimagines a land that is very clearly meant to be the Americas, before the European invasion. From the first moment, Bodoc reimagines the Americas and its diverse peoples as a variety of mostly separate tribes or creatures. In the far south, we have our protagonists, the Husihuilkes of the Ends of the Earth. We have the descendents of the Northmen, who have lighter skin and red hair (...Vikings. They're descendents of Vikings.). We have loud, jangling, bright culture in the center of the continent (Mexico?). And these exist alongside more magical creatures, like the Lukus and the Owl Clan.

A fleet of foreigners are crossing the sea. Are they invaders? Are they the Northmen, returned to reunite with their people? Are they the representation of pure evil that this fantasy world has? The book isn't especially subtle in framing this fleet as the European invasion of the Americas. Except in Bodoc's world, things play out a little differently. Here, a group of magical Astronomers are aware that the fleet is coming and have time to prepare - or at least, to figure out what to do. And this is where The Days of the Deer begins, with Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes summoned to represent his people in figuring out what's going to happen.

Curiously, The Days of the Deer follows a very different story from what I was expecting. Its opening suggests a longer type of quest than what plays out, as well as a predictable climax that didn't end up happening. Instead, The Days of the Deer contains some genuine plot twists and unusual stylistic conventions. Bodoc never seems to go for the easy route, and indeed there are plot threads that open and close at all points of the novel. It's so different from most fantasy books, that while it might seem a bit jarring, it's also remarkably refreshing. It's not always perfect pacing, but it somehow works nicely to create a solid flow. It just doesn't always seem to take advantage of the world that it's built. Bodoc's focus is so strongly on plot developments, that she doesn't stop to enjoy the surprisingly rich treasure chest of culture, history, and myth that is available to her.

I have one main critique of the book: the writing. I always struggle to critique writing in translation, since I hate to pin blame on translators. Yet with The Days of the Deer, there was always a sense of aloofness in the writing that didn't quite vibe with the genre. Different genres have very different writing conventions for what is aloof, casual, or appropriate, and The Days of the Deer felt like it wasn't quite aware of these conventions within English. This, I imagine, is something that can stumble in translation, particularly if the translators are more used to strictly literary (or Literary) texts, as appears to be the case. This means that the story always felt like it was just slightly out of sync, though this is not so severe that it hinders the story altogether.

The second main problem I had is one unrelated to the book itself, but rather to the publishers... While The Days of the Deer has an internally closed ending (no cliffhangers, thank goodness!), it does leave quite a few loose threads that are, I imagine, meant to be picked up in the sequels. However... while The Days of the Deer was translated in 2013, there does not appear to be any intention of translating and publishing its sequels in English. Alas.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

WITMonth Day 13 | Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff

There was something instantly familiar and comfortable about Maresi.

I can't say what it was. I went into Maria Turtschaninoff's young adult fantasy (tr. A. A. Prime) knowing that the book was ostensibly a feminist-minded novel, and I couldn't help but be intrigued right off the bat. I also knew that the story takes place on a woman-only island, a sort of feminist utopia.

I didn't think of it at the time, but it seems that my mind must have subconsciously begun to call back to older feminist fantasy novels I read as a teen. Books like Marion Zimmer Bradley's novels (particularly The Mists of Avalon series) or Tamora Pierce's Tortall books. This, at least, is what happened once I started reading: I was instantly sucked into Maresi's world and found myself completely emotionally invested. Maresi - despite a fairly simple, at times more childish writing style than I was expecting - is exactly the sort of fantasy book I used to drink like water as a preteen. The characters are sharply drawn, the world is rich and easily called to mind, and the magic is present but lurking just beneath the surface.

Suffice to say: I really enjoyed Maresi.

It's not just nostalgia. Sure, there's a healthy heap of that too (who doesn't want more Tamora Pierce-like feminist fantasy novels?!), but it's mostly about the story that Maresi herself tells and the powerful message Turtschaninoff conveys about women and women's place in the world. Not only does The Red Abbey Chronicles create this pleasantly evocative little utopia, it also addresses why it's needed. Unlike many gritty, masculine fantasies that reference the subjugation of women as an afterthought, Turtschaninoff explicitly references the struggles that women - and more specifically young girls - go through. Women are abused, attacked, raped, sold off... and the Red Abbey provides a safe haven for them. Other women provide a safe haven for young girls.

In this sense, this is honest YA. The story is bluntly uncomfortable in parts, but it's never dark for the sake of being dark, and it's never painful. Maresi as a narrator frequently highlights the good moments, even as she struggles with the darkness that has come to invade her home. There is a warmth and strength in her voice that I immediately connected with, though again, I did find the writing to be a tad bit simplified in a way that didn't always match the story. The story is fairly predictable, but it also isn't really trying not to be. It works, somehow, in the same way that Tamora Pierce's early books (specifically the Lioness quartet) don't really need overly complex plotting in order to feel wonderfully rich and interesting.

This probably won't be the book for everyone. While the fantasy elements are relatively limited (mostly through a religious lens, with the three-part Goddess effectively contributing to all of the magic), it's still very much a YA fantasy. That's part of what I loved about it, but I recognize that fantasy YA is not exactly a universally beloved genre. And yet. For those readers who do love fantasy, who want to explore diverse YA, who want their historical fantasies to have just a bit (or a lot!) more feminism to them, Maresi is the way to go. It's a great little book, the sort that left me hungry for more books from this world.

Luckily, the next book in the series has already been released...

Friday, August 12, 2016

WITMonth Day 12 | Comet in Moominland - Tove Jansson | Mini-review

It didn't take me long into Tove Jansson's Comet in Moominland (translated by Elizabeth Portch) to figure out that I had perhaps chosen the wrong book. The characters were never introduced, the plot seemed to bounce just a little too quickly, and the vibe was quickly that of... a sequel. Oh dear.

Of course, this being a children's book, the order of the stories doesn't seem to have mattered all that much. Possibly because the plot doesn't really make much sense anyways. Comet in Moominland is more of a silly romp than a complex narrative. I was, however, surprised by how text-heavy the story is. For some odd reason, I'd always assumed the Moomins stories to be mostly in comic form. This being my first foray into their baffling world, I'm still not really sure.

It's always hard to review children's books as adults, but I try to read them through the eyes of childhood me. And I realized pretty quickly that childhood me would have probably rolled her eyes very early. The book didn't make me laugh enough to justify its silliness (a comparison that popped to mind was the absolute absurdity of Penguin's Progress, one of my childhood favorites), but I couldn't help but enjoy its lighthearted tone and the playful drawings. There's a reason this one's a classic of the genre.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Shades of Milk and Honey | Review

So you know how some books are serious, intellectually stimulating, thoughtful and important? Well, Shades of Milk and Honey is not really any of those things, but instead it's a fun, lovely piece of escapism that achieves what it sets out to do marvelously and managed to keep me entertained all evening long.

Shades of Milk and Honey is billed as a sort of cross between Jane Austen and standard fantasy, and this sort of description is accurate enough in explaining its general format. Mary Robinette Kowal's writing in no way resembles Austen's (to use a word Kowal seems overly fond of, Austen's writing is a bit more "droll"), but the styling and personality match a lot of modern interpretations of Austen's style. Kowal uses little tricks to make the writing feel older ("shew", "surprize", etc.), and while they're clearly modernized and indeed the writing feels very, very contemporary at times, these small touches nonetheless create the sort of Austen-esque aura that Kowal was hoping for.

In truth, Shades of Milk and Honey reads much more like standard historical-fiction-romance than it does like Austen, but here the fantasy aspects come in and turn a fairly middling book into something much nicer. In Kowal's world, magic can be used to create various glamours, largely used by women in adding small touches to paintings, or music, or for small performances. Glamours may also be used to alter one's appearance (for a short time, since working glamour can make you ill), an interesting (if minor) point about appearances that Kowal underplays nicely. However, these glamours are also used for grander artistic effect, and much of the story revolves around one such glamourist and his relationship with our main character (a "plain Jane", no less).

Kowal does a lovely job of making her magic seem utterly real. It's viewed much like other artistic styles - something that needs to be learned, studied, and honed, but also relies on native talent. Throughout the book, Kowal explores different aspects of art through the glamour - performance art, visual art, and music as well - in a surprisingly in-depth way. It's not a brilliant meditation on the subject, but it provides depth to an otherwise largely straight-forward novel.

I liked Shades of Milk and Honey a lot, but I liked it in the same way that I like watching a lot of period dramas - it's meant more for the mood and styling than anything else. The story is extremely predictable and there were a few missed opportunities in the characterizations (particularly regarding Jane's younger sister Melody, who I wanted to see more of). And of course the writing is not really Austen-like, it's Austen-lite. There's a distinct lack of any social commentary, which I felt was another missed opportunity. Only one scene really touched on the matter, but it handled it quite well and I hope to see more care given to it in the sequels. Yes, I'll be reading the sequels - this was a wonderful way to spend an evening. The glamour adds the necessary touch to an otherwise standard romance, transforming it into a sweet and enjoyable historical-fantasy romp.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns | Review

Ah, The Girl of Fire and Thorns. With your cliched title (a mix of Dragon Tattoo and Hunger Games referencing), your bland fantasy cover and your hyped marketing back when you came out, I was prepared to hate you. In fact, I wasn't even sure what drove me to read you in the first place - it may simply have been the front cover blurb by Tamora Pierce (who rarely blurbs), or perhaps I had seen a positive review recently. I'm not sure what it was. Somehow, I checked you out of the library. I read your first few pages and scoffed. And then I read the rest of you, and my mouth shut tight. Because, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, you are one of the most unexpected, subversive and intelligent young adult books I have read in very many years.

The story begins blandly enough, with a generic young adult fantasy description of "dark magic", the "chosen one" and a dull hint of romance. The first chapter echoes this emptiness as well - it begins with Elisa's marriage to the surprisingly young, handsome and friendly King Alejandro. But even in this predictable setup, Rae Carson manages to slip in important details that will shape the remainder of the book. First, we learn that Elisa is dark and fat, and that beyond her weight is an underlying eating disorder - Elisa eats at her unhappiness. These descriptions are perhaps not uncommon in young adult literature, but they are rarely found in stories of the "Chosen one".

As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that Elisa's insecurities are not simply a minor matter, but the crux on which her hero's story is built. Elisa's status as Alejandro's wife is kept secret in her new home, and she is uncomfortably aware of her "other" state. Beyond that, her status as the "chosen" (in this case, bearer of the Godstone) complicates her ability to live a normal life. Her nurse is a bodyguard, her status kept secret, and she is ultimately kept in the dark about much of the Godstone's history.

It's from this position that The Girl of Fire and Thorns takes off into wildly unexpected realms. Elisa undergoes the standard heroes journey, but her growth is genuine and believable. The story takes place over many months, during which Elisa forms believable relationships with the people around her. She's a complex character, lacking in certain forms of confidence, yet excelling in others. In one scene, she essentially muses over "fake until you make it", mimicking her more confident older sister to achieve her means. Elisa is also skilled in matters of military strategy, but we see this as a natural offshoot of her curiosity, less as a result of Mary-Sue perfection.

Much of the book focuses on confidence, largely seen through the lens of Elisa's weight. As I mentioned earlier, Elisa is a bit strange in this regard for a young adult heroine - she is not physically fit, particularly tough, or adept at playing the, ahem, game of thrones (sorry, I couldn't resist). She is, however, a sharp military mind, brave in her own way, and trying desperately to forge her own path in life. We see this reflected in the way her weight is viewed by those around her - those who recognize her even after a significant physical change (due, I should emphasize, to a legitimate plot point and not some fluffed up "progression"), those who view her weight as a nonissue (someone who casually references fitting into her old, bigger dresses in the form of a compliment), and Elisa herself, who responds to her weight loss by marveling at her own body without obsessing over it, and recognizing that she may regain some of that weight and it wouldn't be the end of the world.

Another important theme - and more plot relevant - is that of religion and faith. Like many fantasies, there's a level on which faith in The Girl of Fire and Thorns is irrelevant - there is magic, there is a Godstone, and so there clearly is a god. And yet the novel observes faith as sharply as it might be viewed in the real world. Yes, Elisa has a certain level of "proof" that her god exists, yet she doesn't understand god's motives or plans for her. The physical evidence may cheapen the effect somewhat, but religion is tackled here in an honest way that is rarely seen in young adult literature (or adult literature, for that matter). Elisa is not always certain of the religious ceremonies and traditions that rule her life. There is a journey of faith in the book, but Carson makes sure not to alienate readers by keeping the morals somewhat vague. Though the religion is clearly Judeo-Christian in style (monotheistic, with many phrases that echo Judeo-Christian values), the god of The Girl of Fire and Thrones did not feel defined enough to possibly offend readers of other religions and faiths.

These themes - confidence and faith - are only two ways in which The Girl of Fire and Thorns manages to eschew expectations. From a plotting perspective, Carson keeps things tight and believable, with a balanced timeline and good spacing. Almost all of the characters were given more than one dimension, most were even lucky to get to three. Carson, unlike almost every other author ever, also acknowledges when she isn't giving enough attention to a character: Elisa notes at some point how little she knows of one of her traveling companions because he is so quiet. It's a small moment, but it adds tremendous depth to a world that's already surprisingly broad. By acknowledging that Elisa is not aware of everyone - by tossing the notion of the "red-shirt" - Carson subtly builds a world that goes far beyond its tight, core cast.

The book is not flawless. While most of the book is carefully built and well defined, the last few pages felt disappointingly rushed, mostly in that I could not easily visualize the action occurring onscreen (even after rereading it). Small movements seemed to get lost as the story lurches towards its climax, in a scene that also felt a little clumsily written. In general, the writing is that first-person present-tense that is so common in young adult literature today, but is never really to my liking. It's not bad, but it's definitely not my favorite.

All in all, I was incredibly surprised by The Girl of Fire and Thorns and look forward to its sequels most eagerly. In a market that can easily seem saturated with sloppy fantasies and dystopias, this is a novel that deserves its own space. It's not necessarily the most unique premise for a story, but the way it develops its characters and the way it builds its world certainly is something special. Readers - younger and older - may find themselves with a lot to think over and discuss by the end.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Range of Ghosts | Review

I saw a lot of glowing reviews for Range of Ghosts long before I was ever interested in picking it up. After a while, though, the idea of the book sort of sunk in, and I placed it on hold. A few hours later, it was directly recommended to me on Twitter in the context of fantasy novels that acknowledge diverse cultures and languages. Doubly intrigued, I made a point to read it as soon as it arrived from the library.

Maybe my expectations were too high. Maybe I was looking so hard for an utterly new fantasy novel that I missed the other indicators. Maybe my tastes have changed. The fact is that ultimately Range of Ghosts disappointed somewhat. Not because it's a bad book. It really, really isn't. I enjoyed most of it. Rather, Range of Ghosts simply felt... familiar. And familiarity in a fantasy novel of this kind can signal a death knell.

Let's begin by acknowledging the diversity of the book. Or rather, the idea of diversity. Range of Ghosts is clearly heavily influenced by Mongolian-Chinese-Arab culture. Elizabeth Bear explicitly points to Genghis Khan and the Mongolian steppes as influencing her world. Names like Khagan instead of Khan, or Uthman for Ottoman do very little to mask the real-world influences. It was here that my skepticism brow rose, mostly because it didn't feel like anything new was added. Sure, the entire religious concepts were adjusted to fit the newly magical world, but at times I felt like Bear was taking far too few risks in her worldbuilding, as though she felt that the mere fact of a non-European influenced world would already break too far from fantasy standards. And so maybe that's why she stuck so close to our real-world.

With language too, I felt like perhaps I'd simply misunderstood the innovation of the novel. Range of Ghosts has references to multiple languages and multiple cultures, and does a nice job of showing people in awkward linguistic situations where they technically have no language in common. This in itself is a nice change from books that label a certain local language as "Common" (or something else self-centric along those lines), or altogether lump each racial group into one cultural identity. The only issue is that Bear introduces the struggles without entirely developing them, so there's conveniently always someone who's bi- or tri-lingual and somehow everyone picks up languages super fast, so the problem quickly disappears. It happened a couple of times, and each time I felt like it was a clear and weak cop-out from an otherwise realistically portrayed universal barrier.

Bear's writing is solid, but again not entirely fresh. It was enough to keep me clearly engaged in the story, but not quite enough to make me lose myself in it. The best fantasies (for me) are ones that overwhelm me and blur out the rest of the world. Range of Ghosts entertained me and kept me hooked, but failed that first test. At the end of the day, the writing is like the rest of the book - definitely good, but nothing particularly new.

Ultimately, I found the strength of the book to be in the story. Though I didn't form the tightest attachments to either of the main characters, both Temur and Samarkar seemed perfectly in place within the context of the broader plot. Bear managed to make even the more outlandish coincidences feel natural, and the overall flow was surprisingly good. The use of romance, however, frustrated me multiple times throughout the book - Temur's lover Edene felt very loosely sketched and much more of a cardboard cutout MPDG lover than an actual character, and scenes later in the book showcased a romance that had shown little-to-zero chemistry beforehand.

A lot of these flaws are not individual to Range of Ghosts, of course. Many of these issues stem from certain genre expectations or time-honored requirements (e.g. the romance). What makes Range of Ghosts nonetheless enjoyable - and perhaps even unique - is its ability to move past many of these smaller flaws and attempt to shake off the shackles of those expectations. Though I was moderately disappointed in Bear's worldbuilding in terms of its clear influences, the truth is that the scope Bear employs when discussing religion and the breadth of the world regardless is quite impressive. This was a world I could easily imagine, one that I saw quite vividly.

Here's the important test: Will I read the sequels to Range of Ghosts? And the answer is probably. Despite its flaws, Bear has created a world that I'm now curious about, and the last pages of Range of Ghosts left me especially intrigued and eager to know what happens next. Now I suppose I can only hope that the character development improves in the next books...

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Surprising depth | The Golem and the Jinni

It's been a very long time since I read a book like The Golem and the Jinni. I'd heard quite a bit of praise for the novel going around, but I kept feeling like this wasn't really my sort of book. Which is utter nonsense and quite frankly colored by the fact that many of the reviews I'd seen labeled the book as a romance (which is a terrible way to describe it). The Golem and the Jinni is actually very much the sort of book I like - magic mixed in with the
real. Warmth. Depth. And it even has a bit of a nostalgic historical vibe that reminds me of an earlier time in my reading life.

I happened to read The Golem and the Jinni at a perfect time - the electricity had just come back on (after over eight hours without), snow was falling on a silent, solemn Jerusalem, and I wanted nothing more than a book into which I could dive without reemerging for many hours. I chose Helene Wecker's novel more for its length than its actual content, yet the mood and the vibe and the environment soon made their way into my own living room, and I found myself hooked.

Here's the thing about books like The Golem and the Jinni - they will always get a bit shafted by certain literary groups. For some, this richly written and very traditionally "literary" novel will be too heavy and atmospheric, seemingly lacking in plot for 3/4 of its length. For certain literary snobs, on the other hand, the book will be dismissed as simplistic and pedestrian because of a relatively straight-forward narrative, its length, and the fact that it's been pretty successful. Criticism of the latter sort particularly bothers me, because The Golem and the Jinni is actually a surprisingly alert and thought-provoking book. Wecker nudges a large number of Topics and Issues, without making them feel like a crutch or utterly ignored. There's quite a bit beneath the surface here, whether it's about belief and religion, loyalty and love, friendship or even human nature. I often found myself pausing to mull over a certain sentence, or thought, or idea Wecker had quietly slipped into the narrative.

That's not to say the book is flawless. Not at all. An entire subplot felt tacked on to make it a bit more conventional and "accessible". The characters involved in this story felt driven less by actual emotions as much as a need to insert this type of romance and drama, and it bothered me every time it arose. It's the sort of thing I feel ought to be taken care of in the editing stage, yet it somehow stuck. Not bad, exactly, but unnecessary in a novel that otherwise flowed very well.

The main reason to read The Golem and the Jinni is for those two characters, and their growing interactions with the world around them. There's the outsider-tries-to-understand-humanity thing here, except each character takes it to a different place. Both the Golem and the Jinni live in immigrant societies, surrounded by people who have come to the US in the hopes of starting a better life (or, in one case, ending it). "Chava" and "Ahmad" are foreigners among foreigners, each struggling with their own nature and their own needs. The Golem must fight her inherent servile nature at every moment; the Jinni is stripped of his powers and must constantly keep those powers he has left hidden. Both are guided by humans who themselves are unsure of how to help, humans who find themselves burdened with the knowledge they carry and the potential consequences.

The truth is, The Golem and the Jinni would have been a successful story even had the two characters never met (which they obviously inevitably do, though the course of their relationship and its placement within the larger novel both end up completely different from what I was expecting - in the best possible way). Had Wecker chosen only to look at the Syrian and Jewish communities of New York City at the end of the 19th century without ever having the two threads meet, the book still would have had a lot to say. The plot might have been severely hindered, but this alternate version of The Golem and the Jinni still would have been pretty good.

I really enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni. I enjoyed it for everything it is - intelligent, well-written in a very clear, simple way, thought-provoking, entertaining, heart-warming and engaging - as well as everything it isn't. This is a novel without much of the pretension I find in other books I'm recommended - it's not trying too hard to do anything (except maybe an attempt to be more mainstream - again, the unnecessary subplot...), and it doesn't hide its point in nonsense subtleties. The Golem and the Jinni is definitely a quieter, more subtle novel than many others of its ilk, but there's no trickery here, no omission which is supposed to convey cleverness, no hint of "well, if you don't understand it, it means you missed something". It's a book that can be appreciated and enjoyed on multiple levels. And it's a book I can warmly recommend to readers of many different genres. If you're on the fence - get off it. Read The Golem and the Jinni. It's not a perfect book, but it's a pretty great one nonetheless, and you just might find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Abandoning Akata Witch

I'm just about a quarter of the way through Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor and to be perfectly frank, there is no point in continuing. I read Okorafor's Who Fears Death years ago, and while I found the novel to be an interesting break from the vast majority of modern fantasy, I had a really hard time with the technical side of things. The writing was clunky, the plotting bothered me, the characters never quite clicked... all in all, I appreciated the book much more than I actually liked it.

And with Akata Witch... I just can't.

Okay, I can see glimmers of intrigue in Akata Witch's premise. Not only its Nigerian locale, but also how quickly it hammers out messages about belonging, appearance, culture, and race... way too strongly. I'm dropping the book just as the potential for fantasy is about to hit, but something about the entire concept feels very weak to me. And then there's the writing, which reminds me a bit of how I used to write in middle school - lots of exclamations, clumsy introductions to characters, very not-subtle infodumps and a general lack of flow. This is the same type of writing that frustrated me in Who Fears Death, except here - perhaps because of its younger intended audience - it feels even clunkier.

I could force myself to finish the book - it's not too long and is far from too complex. But I'm not enjoying it. I like books to have a bit more subtlety than Okorafor is providing me with, and I find the writing to be both a distraction and an annoyance. I don't feel like in a quarter of the book Okorafor has convinced me to care about any of the introduced characters, nor feel a particular attachment to the their world. I'm sure Akata Witch has its relevance, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good book. So... abandoned.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The greatest empire, period | Kalpa Imperial

Once or twice a year, I'll read a book that is so amazing, so wonderful, so utterly entrancing that I will devour it eagerly and also hold myself back for fear of losing it too soon. Months ago, I came very close to that feeling with Angélica Gorodischer's unique Trafalgar. I was very impressed by Trafalgar, but I had to admit that I did not fall for it quite in the same way that I had in the past for other favorites. It was good enough, however, to ensure that I would read Gorodischer's earlier Kalpa Imperial, a book that Trafalgar even casually referenced.

And then, lo and behold, Kalpa Imperial is that book: beautifully written, wonderfully translated, magical, unique, imaginative, entrancing, enticing, absorbing, amazing and just... brilliant.

Really. I'm understating here.

Kalpa Imperial (subtitled The Greatest Empire That Never Was) is exactly the sort of book I've often imagined writing myself. It creates a fictional empire and tells stories about it. That's it. There's an order, sure, but I was never really certain that the story was being told entirely chronologically. There are references to previously mentioned stories, but these are calm connections that - despite being located in what is officially the same empire - could be taking place in entirely different worlds.

One of the incredible aspects of Kalpa Imperial is its ability to take full advantage of its short story style, while still making the book feel overall like a coherent, balanced whole. There are no duds in Kalpa Imperial, no stories that seem out place. It's clearly not a novel, but unlike most short story collections, Kalpa Imperial has no moment in which the standard slips even a smidgen - the stories flow seamlessly into each other, painting an ever growing portrait of this entirely fictional empire. And these stories are absolutely amazing.

Kalpa Imperial falls into the category I've decided to call "imaginative fiction". This is the genre that Borges, and Calvino, and Michal Ajvaz and a whole host of other authors belong to. I think by this point it's safe to say that I really, really like these types of books - the crossover between the believable and the imaginary, the gentle overlapping of fantasy with reality. Each of the above authors takes it to a different level and uses different techniques to tell their story, but there's no doubt that Gorodischer's imaginary kingdom (and also the lovely techniques used in Trafalgar) place her directly in this category.

Kalpa Imperial is fantasy unlike any other - there's no hero's quest, references to magic are far and few between (and even then may just be myths that have been twisted along the way), the society hardly seems based on medieval Europe (I kept imagining various Middle Eastern kingdoms, to be honest), there are vague references to modern technology such as cars and buses, the time frame is huge (thousands of years!), there are no warring gods... and yet it's all clearly fantasy. It doesn't merely build a world; it builds an entire history, legacy, culture and, indeed, empire. I wish I could describe the perfection of these stories (among which one ranks as the greatest 30-odd pages of literature I have ever read) but I can't. It has to be read, it has to be experienced.

As for the writing: clear, beautiful - a perfect storytelling technique. But there's another tone here, one that I often felt creeping into Gorodischer's style: that of Ursula K. Le Guin, the grand mistress of fantasy and sci-fi herself, who translated Kalpa Imperial. Small witticisms and offhand remarks rang so clearly as those of Le Guin that - had the translation been any less perfect and the writing even slightly less smooth - they could have jolted me out of the story. This didn't happen. Le Guin, it turns out, is also a master translator, imbibing Kalpa Imperial with just a dash of her own tone while still letting Gorodischer's style reign supreme. It's incredibly done.

I don't know what else I can say to possibly convince a reader who hasn't been convinced yet. Only this, I suppose: Kalpa Imperial is worth it. It's worth taking a day off from work to sit and read. It's worth stepping out of your comfort zone if this isn't the type of book you'd normally read. It's worth it for fantasy fans, sci-fi fans, fans of Le Guin, fans of unique stories, fans of imaginative fiction, readers who like being challenged, readers who like feeling at home, readers who like stories... It's worth reading, it's worth recommending to your library, it's worth buying. It's worth every minute you may spend on it. My list of perfect books is very, very short, but Kalpa Imperial is on it. And it's near the top.

One final note: Small Beer Press, thank you for publishing two wonderful books by Angélica Gorodischer. Now... please publish the rest.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Brave, bizarre, disappointing | Among Others

I'll say this - Jo Walton does deserve some praise and respect. Not only does Among Others break free of many of fantasy and sci-fi's traditional tropes, it does so through crisp and readable writing. It deals with issues in a way that doesn't feel like it's "Dealing with Issues". It has characters who are foreign and local, straight and gay, disabled, complicated, realistic. Unfortunately, much as I read through it with some degree of interest, the book ultimately disappointed. Really disappointed. Not simply because of some weird stylistic choices Walton made, or because of the book's structure, or the general lack of characterization, or even because of the extremely weak and frustrating ending (though this is the primary reason). At the end of the day, Among Others read like a blog, not a novel. And I'm sorry to say that sometimes that's just a bad thing.

There were a lot of reasons I read Among Others late into the night. The style is very brisk, very contemporary, very... believable. Even with the fantasy elements, even as it's infused with a healthy dose of sci-fi fandom, Among Others is written in a natural teen tone, with natural thoughts and feelings and behaviors, all expressed extremely believably. Sometimes even too believably. Mori thinks and writes about her love of sci-fi, the fairies she sees, her family, sexual thoughts, friendships and more. The flat-written parts of Mori's diary were utterly realistic, but they were interspersed with that all-too-familiar nonsense of having quoted speech in what is supposed to be a diary. The real-time versus post-time storytelling felt skewed and awkward, as it usually does in "recorded" stories.

But then there's the matter of the story. And the characters. Because my true frustration and disappointment from Among Others stems from here. The entire first half of Among Others builds a general background story for Mori to live in - we are introduced to her family dynamic, her fantasy world, her status as a "cripple" (which we know is from a relatively recent accident). We're introduced to half sketched characters - Mori's sci-fi loving father, her trio of utterly personality-less aunts, both her grandfathers, her "close" aunt from her mother's side, her schoolmates, her friends... and of course, her absent mother. These characters are loosely drawn at the best of times, having a clearly defined personality trait for the sake of "character", but not much beyond. The characters fit in nicely as background items, but though they certainly felt believable, I never felt like I could understand them fully. Their motivations are unclear. Their behaviors are inconsistent. Believable, yes. But not real.

Place these characters in strategic locations and you'd expect to get a plot. But there's no plot. There's a bit of story, yes - Mori's struggles to fit in at school, to find friends in her sci-fi book club, to move past the accident that left her disabled, the accident that killed her twin sister, to avoid all contact with her mother... These are story elements, but when Walton tries to tie them together to form a plot, the whole thing sort of collapses. The entire premise of the final magical climax felt utterly ridiculous, so baseless, that I was certain my library's digital copy must be damaged. I was certain there must have been parts missing, because nothing in the ending felt remotely developed. Quite frankly, it fell from the sky, and not in a good way. And the final lines were even worse, a clumsy attempt at resolving everything that really resolved nothing. I finished the book and wanted to throw it. Really. Throw it.

Is magic meant here as a metaphor? Probably. Is Mori's love of sci-fi meant to show us of her desire to find new and better worlds to live in? Maybe. Does it come together to form a cohesive novel? Absolutely not. Among Others has some wonderful, brilliant moments scattered throughout, but I cannot by any means refer to it as a good book. It's nostalgic in the best of ways and it's given me a lot of classic sci-fi book recommendations, but I have no idea beyond the nostalgia and perhaps Mori's believable voice as to why it's received such high accolades. Yes, it's a brave book (to a certain degree), with the way it uses magic and sci-fi and the characters it includes and some of the half-themes it houses, but I won't pretend that overall it was anything other than a disappointment. I would love to see what Walton does with a real plot and some better developed characters, but Among Others? Just a shame.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasy of a different flavor | The Killing Moon

It is perhaps the mark of a relatively weak reading year thus far, but there's no doubt that the book I tore through the fastest (and with the most interest) is N. K. Jemisin's The Killing Moon. Jemisin is an author I've grown to respect, even as I can't pinpoint any particular trait to her writing that I especially like (I've had specific issues with each of her books thus far, though different issues every time). What's important is that Jemisin is trying something new in fantasy, and I respect it. I also happen to like it. In the case of the The Killing Moon, I happened to like it very much.

From the back cover blurb, it's easy to understand why people regard Jemisin as a "different" sort of fantasy writer. The Killing Moon, as other reviews will already tell you, takes place in a quasi-ancient-Egyptian culture. Jemisin treats her setting carefully, making her references to the real Egypt both obvious and non-intrusive. The Killing Moon doesn't get bogged down in descriptions and bloated world building, but on the other end of the scale, I never felt like I was living in a half-developed world. This in itself is rare in fantasy, where world-building is often equated with page count. Jemisin mostly opts just to show the world - it isn't until relatively late in the novel that we begin to fully understand the events of the first chapters. This may make the opening a bit shaky for some, but I was confident enough that the story would come together... and it did.

The Killing Moon is a fantasy, but it's definitely a different type. Not only does Jemisin eschew the comfortable cliches of a European Medieval fantasy, she also opts for a very different type of magic. Indeed, rather like The Inheritance Cycle (of which I've only read the first two books), The Killing Moon feels a lot more like mythology than it does fantasy. By latching the use of magic onto the in-story religion (and its in-story mythological origins), Jemisin creates a very realistic magical approach. Magic is ubiquitous, but uncommon. It's limited to a very narrow group of people, but it applies to everyone. More than anything, the magic in The Killing Moon is an acquired ability than an inherent born talent (though there's a bit of that as well). This makes it less like the dramatic high fantasies many of us associate with the genre, and more like a strange piece of historical fiction. With magic.

All of this magic, interestingly, takes left stage to the core of the novel - diplomatic intrigue. This was where I found the true strength of the book to be - the way Jemisin makes readers believe in the politics and diplomacy within this fantasy world. Toss in a good helping of mythology, magic, manipulation and murder, and you've got something special. Jemisin raises questions about life and death, never really answering them but leaving them lingering throughout the story. Ethics and morals are important; Jemisin never fully lets her readers forget that.

But much as I enjoyed the story, I have to admit that there are some important technical flaws in this one. Characterization, for example. I liked the characters and they felt fully-formed (ish), but they didn't feel particularly real. Ehiru is intriguing, but he is not particularly engaging. Nijiri, meanwhile, is engaging, but also flatter and less developed. And Sunandi is a strange blend, where I mostly liked her, but didn't really care about her. I felt little to no emotional connection with the characters. That's fine when you're breezing through a book, but it's not exactly the mark of quality literature.

The writing is also a bit strange, but here it might have been a matter of expectations. Jemisin's style felt a bit more jaded than it did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms or The Broken Kingdoms. It mostly fit the story, but sometimes I was struck by how standard it was. Though I liked The Killing Moon significantly more than Jemisin's previous efforts, I found myself preferring the writing style in those novels over this one. Now I'm wondering if the writing style even really changed, or if it's just my memory playing tricks on me. Either way, The Killing Moon is written in a super standard "easy-to-read" style that suits its pace and its story admirably. It's good enough, but I wouldn't call it good.

Yes, I enjoyed The Killing Moon a lot. It does what fantasy is supposed to do: displace the reader, tell a good story, make the reader think. Jemisin may have stumbled a bit with two-dimensional characterizations and a distinct, somewhat blunt writing style, but overall her novel works. Not necessarily an example of true fantasy literature, but a fine book nonetheless.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World is the fifth book by Patricia McKillip I've read. Truthfully, she's not such a favorite author of mine that it goes without saying that I'd read her new short story collection, but there is nonetheless something about her writing that draws me in again and again, even as some of her books fail to impress me. Wonders of the Invisible World may have been significantly better than some of the other book's I've read by her, but I was not left gushing as many other reviewers have been. The fault lies in a somewhat unexpected realm.

For starters, the eponymous opening story is fairly weak. Openers need to be strong hooks, and all "Wonders of the Invisible World" managed to do was lull me to sleep. The idea behind the story is nice, but overall... meh. The second story, while better, was also decidedly far from the top of the scale, though it did feel a little more like McKillip's standard, smooth-and-eloquent writing style. It really wasn't until the third story, "The Kelpie", that I began to be remotely interested. And "The Kelpie" is really an interesting story, both in the way it portrays art and artists, and the way it steals little bits of a more old-fashioned writing style, to suit the story's own time period.

But once I began to read the collection with more interest, I also began to read more attentively (and as such, more critically). It soon became hard to ignore the imbalances in this collection, not simply in terms of quality or style (more the latter), rather the recurring themes, ideas and even name fragments that McKillip returned to. Water is perhaps the strongest of these themes, featuring rather prominently in no less than four stories. The thing is, I liked the majority of these stories, but clumped together in the same collection... they lost some of their magic. Similarly the fairy-tale like stories. Individually, there are some fine stories in here. But they overshadow each other, leaving each a bit dimmer than what it might have been. Then there's the downside of any short story collection: quite a few of these stories are utterly forgettable. Stories like "Oak Hill", "The Fortune Teller" and "A Gift to Be Simple" simply didn't stick.

Then there's McKillip's writing style itself. In the previous four books I've read, McKillip maintained a very clean, very subtle writing style. She is a master of the contained fantasy, never overwriting what can be said in a few words. Yet I've found that her short fiction seems to lack that perfect balance. I wasn't particularly fond of her novella The Changeling Sea (though I do intend to reread it, to see how much of my opinion was colored by the circumstances under which I read the book...), and now Wonders of the Invisible World has also struck me as containing slightly... messier writing. The writing rarely feels like McKillip's traditional style. When it worked, the result was truly wonderful ("Naming Day", "Jack O'Lantern" and "The Kelpie"), but sometimes it just... didn't.

Ultimately, Wonders of the Invisible World is a pretty good short story collection. If read properly. If read in pieces, not in one sitting. I like the range of stories, I like the range of styles. The repetitive themes weigh down the collection a bit, as do some of the less memorable stories, but on the whole, this is a good choice for a reader looking for fantasy shorts. Though I would recommend some of McKillip's other books well before this one (namely The Alphabet of Thorn, which remains one of the best fantasy novels I've read), Wonders of the Invisible World is a reasonable starting point for readers new to McKillip, and certainly worth reading for long-time fans.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sci-fi vs. fantasy, revisited

In an interesting post over at, Steven Padnick writes in defense of "red matter":
Red matter is... the stuff that explains the science fiction in your story. Or, rather, the stuff that refuses to explain anything and just excuses the science fiction in your story. A single source origin story for everything impossible that you want to include, no matter how disparate and bizarre.
This premise is certainly thought-provoking, but is made even more intriguing by a later paragraph in the post:
But most science fiction isn’t really about the how. Most is about why we want the impossible to happen, and what the consequences are if it does. Wells, and Orwell, and Bradbury, and L’Engle used the impossible to comment on society, and government, and family, and love, and used only the barest explanation of how any of this was done.
Comments essentially raised the same eyebrows that I did: The moment there's an unexplained "scientific" tool to wash away any of the unbelievable occurrences, the story mostly moves from the "because it's the future, dammit" realm to "because it's magic, dammit" - to fantasy, essentially. It doesn't help that one of Padnick's leading examples is actually from a fantasy TV series...

Padnick isn't wrong that science-fiction deals with much bigger pictures than simple spaceships shooting at each other. Like most literature, sci-fi often uses the flexibility of its setting and its imagined future to drive home specific points about society, humankind, existence, etc. It's the approach towards sci-fi as something much more akin to fantasy that has me bemused. It reminds me of N. K. Jemisin's recent argument against magic systems because that essentially turns the story into sci-fi, except... backwards.

On the one hand, I believe in blurring genre definitions. I don't think there's anything wrong with fantasy and science appearing in the same work of fiction, I don't mind fantasy having scientific structures, and I really can't see anything wrong with having very out-there and scientifically unlikely sci-fi. On the other hand, I think that science fiction as a genre is rather clearly defined as its mysteries being explained by science. You can have a made-up particle that explains away your problems, but it still needs to be scientific, if not outright science. If your "red matter" falls apart under the microscope, then the book isn't really sci-fi - it's futuristic fantasy.

The truth is that once we accept genre-blurring, all of this is irrelevant. But as long as we have defined genres such as science-fiction and its (distant) cousin fantasy, there do need to be distinctions. And just because something takes place in outer space doesn't mean it's necessarily sci-fi. As one of my favorite examples, I happen to think Dune, for all its status as a sci-fi classic, is actually pure fantasy*. So I get what Padnick is trying to say, but for now, I must politely disagree and turn my head away from any kind of "red matter".

* But don't tell my brother. He "doesn't like fantasy", yet he loved Dune. I wouldn't want to ruin his innocence.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Finding the balance in female characterization

I saw this very interesting post about women characters in fantasy over at Fantasy Faction and was immediately struck by how much this needs to be what we talk about, and not so much whether or not Katniss is a better role model for girls than Bella.

The argument hinges, I think, on the following statement:
[T]here still seems to be a certain hesitation to give women a fair amount of traditionally feminine traits. It’s as if by admitting that women cry, like nice furniture, or prefer to do the cooking, we’re saying that women are weak, when really, those things can be part of any well-rounded character, male or female, straight or gay, old or young.
The main point in the post is to offer alternatives. Amy Rose Davis rightly points out that there's nothing wrong with the "strong" female warrior trope, but that we need to recognize it as such - a trope. Her list of potential character traits for girls in fantasy (or sci-fi, or even contemporary fiction), which includes such traits as motherhood, disability, non-beautiful body build, seems like such a no-brainer that it's somewhat disconcerting to remember that most female characters (particularly in fantasy novels) have a few very simplistic, very familiar models in which they're allowed to reside. While there are certainly exceptions, I'd like less to delve a little deeper into what's missing, but rather the familiar cast-molds that many writers seem all-too comfortable with.

Let's use the wildly popular The Hunger Games as a case study. In a conversation about I had about the books a few months back, I mentioned that one of the reasons I had enjoyed that book, contrary to many others of its ilk, was because Katniss felt to me like a believable character in a lot of regards. Her emotionally guarded style, while enabling a stiffer personality, also contained a spark of inherent motherly protection: Katniss, as an older sister and surrogate mother, has a maternal instinct to protect the young around her. It's a small character blip, but that little bit of believable feminine behavior (as opposed to the at-times awkward romantic context the books are placed in) makes Katniss that much more believable... and that much more naturally feminine.

What The Hunger Games shows, as one of those exceptions, is that it's possible to merge a familiar character type with believable character traits. Katniss' maternal instinct is distinctly feminine, yet it can hardly be called a negative trait, nor is it exclusively a tool for her emotional turmoil (though to be fair, it is mostly used as a tool to make her life suck). But setting aside that motherly approach, Katniss is another case of the "female warrior" - she is brilliant at archery and has a particularly knack for survival. Luckily, this is also justified within story (thus making sure that it isn't simply a matter of Katniss being perfect at everything, though it can occasionally feel like that), but there is no denying that Katniss fits a familiar mold.

The problem isn't the "female warrior" trope. The problem is that pesky matter of the "strong female character", and what that has become. In an attempt to even the scoreboard between male and female characters in a lot of these genres, writers overcompensate and often make the women exaggeratedly masculine. Like Amy Rose Davis points out: you'll be hard-pressed to find a woman crying, or expressing an interest in anything outwardly feminine (except her male love interest, of course), or engaging in an active role that isn't fighting or learning with the guys or... you get the picture.

Writers aren't wrong, necessarily, to try to do this. It shows good effort. But now the time is past to have stock characters like these. Women in fantasy fiction (or, again, sci-fi, historical fiction, or contemporary fiction!) can be influential and interesting without having a sword in their hands. They can have feelings. They can be physically weak. They can, the gist of it is, be real women.

The problem is that the opposite end of the spectrum is both unappealing and subtly sexist: the passive female character. While there are certainly real-life cases of passive women, their presence in fiction is paved with sexism. Nobody really wants a character who doesn't push the story along, because that's what fiction is all about. In plot-driven tales, having a character around whom the story simply revolves without any effort on the character's part is... dull. What authors often do to counterbalance this is to have someone else be active. If it's the male lead, the female can quickly fall into the time-worn "passive princess" mold, and again: nobody really wants that.

There has got to be a balance. Readers will be able to come up with many of their own examples that go against these stereotypes, I know, but the problem is that the exceptions are just that: they are not the standard, and as exceptions they often only merge familiar molds and realistic traits. It's not wrong for women characters to fall in love and want to let their partner lead them, it's not wrong for women characters to be drawn into a more violent existence and prefer swordfighting to knitting. The problem is that there's no balance. There's no in-between. Many writers are simply too comfortable sticking to what's familiar, and that's what needs to change.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Saturday links

  • I'm not exactly a Lev Grossman fan, but his post about what characters in fantasy novels should do more often is spot-on and quite hilarious (via
  • John Green emphasizes his opinion that books belong to their readers.
  • Reading Rainbow returns, as an iPad app subscription. LeVar Burton on publishing:
    "I'm sure you're aware, there's been a real nervousness in the publishing universe about this necessary conversion from print to digital, and we saw that there was an opportunity for us to be a solution, really, for publishers in terms of conversion - taking their titles and bringing them to a platform that worked - but also discovery."
  • Finally, an interesting article on the cost of eBooks that, while shedding light on publisher expenses, completely fails to understand the real reasons behind consumers' demands regarding eBooks prices (i.e. resale).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Magic systems in fantasy

On her blog, fantasy author N. K. Jemisin has written about magic systems and the way magic is portrayed in fantasy in general:
Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction?
To a certain degree, I think Jemisin has a strong point - fantasy isn't necessarily about clearly organized and logical systems. Magic is often something inexplicable and, well, magical. Not everything has to make perfect scientific sense - indeed, many of the cornerstones of fantasy literature forgo such systematic magic systems. The best fantasy succeeds in creating something so other that it just doesn't need any kind of system or justification.

But I disagree with Jemisin to dismiss magic systems overall. First of all, I think there are enough readers whose tastes overlap enough between science fiction and fantasy to justify having the lines blur a little. Many of these magic systems Jemisin dislikes are, in fact, stand-ins for science in those particular worlds. It's not science, and it's not science fiction, but it's fantasy that does appeal to sci-fi lovers... That's not a bad thing.

Then there's Jemisin's complaint against magic systems as a whole. Here I must politely withdraw - Jemisin sees a much bigger, looming issue in the concept of a "system" than I ever will. I know what underlying problems she's referring to and recognize them, but I really don't think that they have anything to do with the fact that certain fantasy worlds have particularly organized and detailed ways to conduct magic. Correlation does not prove causation.

Lastly, I must admit: I kind of enjoy magic systems. As I mentioned earlier, many writers who use magic systems in their books use it as a form of science. On the other hand, the vast majority of fantasy that does not take place in modern-day Earth (and sometimes even those stories that do) completely eschews the mere concept of science. It just doesn't exist. As a scientifically minded person, this can sometimes come off simply as sloppy writing. A well-structured magic system can, however, make a fantasy world seem a lot more believable - it shows that the author put a lot of the world-building. It's obviously not the only factor involved in my appreciation of the book, but like originality, it can add a whole new dimension.

The source behind Jemisin's frustration? This:
I’ve seen these folks, most of whom are future fantasy novel-writers, positively agonize over their magic systems, taking great care to consider rules, required resources, the laws of conservation of magic, yatta yatta yatta, all for fear that they’ll get published someday and have their magic systems picked apart by the Fantasy Police. In some cases these writers had spent far, far more energy on trying to create a magic system than they had on trying to create plot or characters. Sadly, I’ve seen this same kind of to-the-exclusion-of-all-else focus on mechanics in the works of some published writers — and worse, I’ve seen readers going ga-ga over this sort of thing, as if the magic system really is the only part of the story that matters.
Here I once again completely agree: magic doesn't have to be organized. In fact, oftentimes "organized" magic systems aren't pulled off well and, like Jemisin points out, it ruins an otherwise interesting story. Writers shouldn't have to bend over backwards to explain how their magic works, they need to make sure it fits their world comfortably. For some worlds, this will mean that magic is like science - it's logical and clearly explained. For many other worlds, however, magic will simply be magical. Both are fantasy, and both are fine.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

SAFL #13: Gunnerkrigg Court

Early art style, chapter 1
My labeling of Gunnerkrigg Court as SAFL breaks two "rules" I set myself when beginning this project. The first was to avoid books belonging to ongoing series. It didn't seem fair to readers (or to myself) to include incomplete stories in this account. The second (far more important) decision I reached was to avoid including any books that readers would find inaccessible for some reason or other (the point of the project being, after all, to encourage readers who normally ignore sci-fi and fantasy to give these particular gems a shot). This has often meant excluding kids books (due to the fact that many adults will not read kids books, or young adult books on principle), and would certainly mean excluding most graphic novels.

The child friendly webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court which seems far from ending certainly breaks a lot of rules. But it is absolutely worth your time.

I can spend hours discussing the gradual improvements in the striking artwork. I can talk endlessly about the use of mythology and fairy tales throughout the series. I can ramble about all that I've learned from Tom Siddell's management of the site in regards to eBooks, how to support authors, and my views on internet availability. All these points would probably make you say, "Huh, yeah, I should look into that" but then you'd forget eventually. No. That won't do.

Recent Annie: Chapter 34
The reason you should be reading Gunnerkrigg Court - the reason you should start reading it now - is because Tom Siddell is hands down the best storyteller I've come across in years.

This is a high bar to cross, and Gunnerkrigg Court has leapt over it easily. And when I say "the best storyteller", I mean the best. This is including Bartimaeus, this is including Wolf Hall, this is including the beginning of "Battlestar Galactica" (the end is pretty easy to surpass...). I'm not just saying that Siddell has written (and drawn) a good comic (though he has), I'm saying that he has written an excellent story, and in such a way that I am constantly in awe of his writing abilities.

Robot humor
Gunnerkrigg Court has everything. There's science fiction, there's fantasy, there are strong heroines, there's humor, there are gods and mythological creatures, there are robots and laser cows, and there's a bigger, looming story behind everything. Unlike many ongoing stories, Siddell manages to keep his readers confident in his ability to get the story to its conclusion. I've never wondered if Siddell has gotten lost on his way to solve mysteries introduced in the comic's earliest pages; I've never been concerned that Siddell is unsure of the story's future. Siddell seems to understand his characters through and through, and their development is both realistic and natural.

But it all comes back to storytelling, written or drawn. Siddell employs subtlety in a way that repeatedly astounds me. His characters feel alive. One wordless panel tells the reader more than twenty pages of standard exposition.

Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is my favorite webcomic is easy. Saying Gunnerkrigg Court is one of my favorite stories overall will, hopefully, encourage you to take the "plunge" and click on over to the archives (or read the lovely print books). This is a beautiful, fascinating, wonderfully entertaining story for adults and kids alike. Well worth the "rule" breaking.

Gunnerkrigg Court's Annie and Kat, chapter 6