book reviews: alaya gets weepy

Reviews! I don’t think I can call them weekly anymore, huh? But I’ve finished a lot of books of late, so here you go. Tomes brimming with romantic girl-cooties (sorry, fellas). Two of them made me cry! In this edition:

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne
Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase
Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon

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tant que je vive

And if you know exactly what I’m going to talk about already, I’m either your friend or need to become so immediately!

I spent about six hours last night re-reading choice bits of the end of The Ringed Castle (‘I reserve the right,’ said Lymond, ‘to change the metre.’) and Checkmate (‘Don’t be surprised: your sire loved me also?’) and have come away with an even deeper appreciation of just how seriously. fucking. good. Dorothy Dunnett was.

In a hundred years, if we haven’t destroyed ourselves in some nuclear apocalypse or global warming induced natural disaster, the Lymond chronicles will still be read by generations of precocious readers and writers of certain romantic sensibility. And a fraction of them will go on to a lifetime of admiration and informed, coy, clever emulation. The fact that I can read a book now and predict with what seems (anecdotally, at least) to be an uncanny degree of accuracy if the author has read the Lymond chronicles speaks to just how much of a nerve those books hit with people. And what I mean is, they change lives.

Sometimes I think of Lymond as the literary version of the Velvet Underground…not many people bought the record, but everyone who did started a band.

I have some vague ideas about how to turn this secret cabal of Lymond-lovers into a more public (and surely fascinating) discussion at a con, but I first need to figure out how many of them are going to be traipsing around Calgary come November.

In the meantime, as an all-too-brief illustration of the many, many layers of meaning that Dunnett was capable of infusing into every word, I give you this from Checkmate:

[WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD!!]

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I was born a poor black child

“It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi.”
— Steve Martin, The Jerk

So it turns out that some WASPy middle class white girl figured out the whole New York memoir publishing racket (i.e. whatever you do, don’t actually tell the story of your life) and wrote a memoir while sitting in Starbucks about her life growing up as an “original gangsta” in Compton. Luckily for the publisher, after spending hundreds of thousands on the advance and surely a couple million on production and publicity, they “discovered” that this supposed gem of street-wise realism was, in fact, an act of stereotyped racial tourism so egregious they had to pulp the books before they ever got shipped to stores. There was just no way to know, according to the publisher and the agent. The author was just so good at her hoax. That’s the way it always is in these stories, isn’t it? You’d think that after years and years of these hoaxes being discovered that these industry professionals would make a bit more of an effort when some cheesy movie script falls into their laps claiming to be a memoir. I mean, come on, a woman escapes the Holocaust and is raised by wolves? A man leaves rehab and immediately goes to a bar and sticks his nose in a beer to prove he’s manly enough? And at least those are original movie scripts. This woman literally updated the plotline of The Jerk, didn’t realize it was supposed to be an ironic exploration of race relations, and got a publisher to make her rich for it.

Lovely. Well, it’s not like it’s news that racism can still move a few books.

My favorite take on this mess comes from the AlterNet story:

In the world of Internet fan fiction — in which amateur fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other shows imagine new adventures, they have a derisive term, the “Mary Sue Story,” for wish-fulfillment that crosses the line. That’s when a certain kind of fan breaks the rules and makes herself the hero, fascinating everyone, saving the world.

This story, about a white girl who makes black people happy by escaping from their ghetto, is a Mary Sue story about race. And people ought to be upset that it passed for realism.

You should read the whole article, but…

Word.

on the condescension of adults

I will never understand how it is that perfectly reasonable, intelligent, precocious and curious children can grow up into timid, hidebound, ideologically paranoid adults who feel the need to police every errant word that might pass their precious babies’ dewy eyes. And by this I mean: by what reasonable standard can an eleven year old child not be allowed to understand what the word “scrotum” means (especially in reference to a dog’s genitals, and in the most clinical manner possible)? Why is it that sexually curious (and possibly active) fifteen and sixteen year olds shouldn’t be able to read about teenage homosexual relationships (Boy Meets Boy)? What on earth are we trying to “save” these children from? Reading, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, is an act of discovery, one that in some way uncovers some heretofore unknown aspect of our world. Writing is humanity’s best method of conveying all sorts of knowledge, including the bewildering complexity of our human interactions. And reading is perhaps any person’s best chance of entering another person’s head, and really experiencing the world from their perspective. So, to me, it seems like it should be a crime for some wrong-headed adult to restrict any child capable of understanding the material from reading anything they wish to. Yes, I am opposed to censorship of any kind because I at least remember the joy of reading as a young teenager. I know that if my parents had decided to vet my choices before I was allowed to enjoy them, many of my fondest reading experiences would never have happened. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to read the Alanna series when I was twelve because she gets her period and falls in love with a much older man.

By book four, in fact, the Alanna series is rather singular among YA fantasy novels, which tend to be dramatically more conservative than their “realistic fiction” YA shelf mates. Judy Blume was telling young girls about their periods and (possibly ill-advised) sex with boys while YA fantasy authors were cleaning up after dragons and vain wizards. Now, I adore Patricia C. Wrede and Diana Wynne Jones (ask anyone), but at a certain point in my youth I had to wonder: where on earth was the sex? The periods? The sexual uncertainty? Why was it that these issues never seemed to make it into YA fantasy, but were staples of many realistic YA novels? And I think the reason goes straight back to these self-imposed gatekeepers of Young People’s Pristine Minds: librarians, parents and editors. For some reason, fantasy was always seen as skewing younger than more realistic YA, and thus much less adult content was tolerated. (I wrote an essay for Beatrice about the amorphous distinctions between YA and adult fantasy, but those distinctions of qualitative focus are, I think, a little separate from the sex, etc. I’m discussing here.)

But this is all ridiculous. Tweens and teens are perfectly capable of understanding and appreciating the subject matter of Boy Meets Boy or The Higher Power of Lucky. I treasured every morsel of truly adult content I gleaned form my reading in middle and high school. Every serious (not titillating) explanation of a sexual act or interaction was to me a valuable window into a world I wanted to know more about. And when I see adults struggling to board up these windows for kids far more isolated than I ever was, I get furious. Not every child is willing to rebel. Some willingly go along with their parents’ or librarian’s well-meaning (I suppose) damming of their intellectual outlets.

And even when the parents and librarians don’t censor, I sometimes feel like there is far too much self-censorship on the part of authors and editors, especially in fantasy. I mean, why is it that twenty years after Alanna had some decently explicit sex with Jonathon and George do we still see so little in YA fantasy? Why do we have to turn to realistic YA for some decent homosexual relationships? Why are we so afraid of “polluting” young minds with information that we all know, and could benefit ourselves from exploring further? What amazing condescension to these people we were, not so very long ago.

Yes, teenagers know about sex. Yes, they’d like to read about it. Yes, they know what prostitutes are, what drugs are, what death is, what war is, what disease is…THEY ALL KNOW. It isn’t some big fucking secret. Authors should write what they feel compelled to write, without the pinpricks of self-censorship, about subjects they feel are interesting to the people they want to reach, and that audience should in turn be able to read whatever the fuck they want. Does something make you feel uncomfortable? Then stop reading it. Or, even better, keep going. But for god’s sake, don’t you dare tell me or anyone else, no matter how young or impressionable you think they are, what you think they should read.

(Semi)Weekly Reviews: The Course of True Love

A large review installment to make up for missing the last two weeks. I’ve been on the road and so didn’t have much time to sit down and read. But now I’ve had a chance to catch up, and for some reason all of these books made me loquacious. Perhaps because the theme of this batch (excepting Lord of Light) seems to be the ever-frustrating Disappointing Romance. Well-done romance reads effortlessly, but it’s incredibly hard to write. Brandon and Dianora in Tigana, Mating by Norman Rush, The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee…maybe I should create a big list of my favorites. And I’d adore any suggestions, of course.

Inside this issue:

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel
A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcombe
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
The Winter Mantle by Elizabeth Chadwick

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Lord o’ the Ladies

I’m reading Zelazny’s Lord of Light, which I’m actually enjoying quite a lot so far. However, I plowed to a stop when I came across this:

(For context, Sam has just ascertained that the person reincarnated into an aggressively male body of the god Brahma was originally female. You’d think these distinctions would cease to matter after getting dumped into dozens of bodies over the course of centuries but, hey, what else were the sixties for?)

“Yes, Madeleine,” said Sam, “and did anyone ever tell you how lovely you are when you’re angry?”

Brahma sprang forward off th throne. “How could you? How could you tell?” screamed the god.

“I couldn’t, really,” said Sam. It was just a guess, based upon some of your mannerisms of speech and gesture which I remembered. So you’ve finally achieved your lifelong ambition, eh? I’ll bet you’ve got a harem, too. What’s it feel like, madam, to be a real stud after having been a gal to start out with? Bet every Lizzie in the world would envy you if she knew. Congratulations.”

[Skipping the bit where he’s angry and about to curse Sam for mocking him.]

“Nay, my Lord. I did but jest with you as any one man might with another when discussing these matters. I am sorry if you took it amiss. I’ll warrant you’ve a harem I’d envy and which I’ll doubtless try to sneak into some night. If you’d curse me for being surprised, then curse away.” He drew upon his pipe and wreathed his grin in smoke.

Finally, Brahma chuckled. “I’m a bit quick-tempered, ’tis true,” he explained, “and perhaps too touchy about my past. Of course, I’ve often jested so with other men. You are forgiven. I withdraw my beginning curse.”

This passage features such breathlessly backwards gender politics, that the only thing I can give Zelazny credit for is the courtesy of at least using a masculine pronoun in his reference to Brahma.

So, apparently, you’re only a real man when you can bandy about sexist jokes and compare harems along with penis size. Oh, and such desires are of course the innermost wish of every man-hating “Lizzie.”

I guess that’s golden age fiction for you. I can only hope that Zelazny got out a bit more after he wrote this.

Monday review roundup

First, my reading on Saturday at KGB bar went really well. There were tons of people, and my fellow readers, Matt Kressel and Eugene Myers, were great. Here are some pictures from the event, for the curious.

I figure I might as well make this reviewing thing regular. Thus, every Monday I’ll put up capsule reviews of stuff that I’ve read recently, and maybe a few of my older favorites. This week features…

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey – Well, this book came so highly recommended to me that I could barely wait to get my hands on it. The recommender described it to me as a dark, “anti-Harry Potter” wizard school book, and it delivered the goods. I mean, I like Harry Potter and everything, but there were a lot of unsavory implications about the supposedly “good” side of that world that Rowling never explored. Well, Duey gets down and dirty with it here. The plot follows two apparently independent threads, separated by several hundred years. In one, Hahp, a young merchant’s son, is essentially disposed of by his abusive father into a wizard school. His father knows full well he will probably die. After all, only one boy from each “class” survives to become a full-fledged wizard. This is dark, dark, dark but the imagery is lovely and the relationships very deftly drawn. I adored the slow, creeping friendship between Hahp and Gerrard, his ambitious peasant boy roommate. Also, the magic was oddly enough some of the most realistic-feeling I’ve encountered in fantasy. I’m increasingly fed up with the “wiggle your nose, chant a few Latin words” variety of magic I so frequently see, but I really felt like Duey had thought through her magic system to an unusual degree. The other story line follows Sadima, a young woman with magic in an era where magic was forbidden. She falls in love with the servant of Somiss, a rich lord who wants to resurrect magic in the world. But his desire for power drives Somiss completely insane and their story starts to get darker and more desperate as well. The alternating story lines do eventually find some connection, but not very much, and I was frequently desperate to get back to Hahp and Gerrard. Sadima is an interesting character, and I probably would have enjoyed her story more if it had just been its own book– but not much can compete with the intensity of the evil wizard’s school. I mean, Hahp is in the middle of essentially a medieval, magical Battle Royale, and he’s watching every one of his classmates die. What can compete with that? Still, very recommended. Be warned that this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends on a cliffhanger. I can’t wait for book 2.

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine – I’ve probably read Ella Enchanted four or five times (it doesn’t take that long) and it’s probably my favorite Cinderella retelling ever. The only other of her books I’ve read was Fairest, a snow white retelling that I liked, but not nearly as much as Ella Enchanted. Two Princesses isn’t quite as good as Ella Enchanted, but it’s vintage Levine and very enjoyable. It’s about two princesses who grow up in a kingdom beset by a strange plague that kills whomever it infects. One is brave and the other timid and domestic, and they both dream of the time when the brave one will save the kingdom and the timid one will marry and have children. But when the brave one falls ill with the deadly plague, it’s up to the shy princess of Bamarre to find herself and defeat all the dragons she never intended to face. A simple set-up, but deftly done and very sweet. Not genius, but a fun read.

The Naming and The Riddle by Alison Croggon – These are the first two books of the Pellinor series, which I’d read good things about and so decided to check out. I was almost ecstatic when I saw how big and fat they were, settling in for a nice and long YA fantasy read. Unfortunately, after a few pages I realized what I’d actually gotten myself into: a big fat epic fantasy novel, for some reason dressed up as YA. I mean, on some level all epic fantasy is YA (there’s a reason why the age almost everyone I know first read Tolkien was between nine and twelve), but I object to people labeling this as different in any fundamental way from, say, David Eddings or Terry Goodkind.

These books are literally by-the-numbers epic fantasy, faux-author’s notes about the discovery of the “lost epic of Pellinor” and an invented bibliography and supplementary materials notwithstanding. Usually I like those sort of metafictional touches, but in a world as basic-generic-fantasy as this one, they struck me as a bit of handwaving, attempting to distract the reader from realizing that Croggon had written an utterly pedestrian fantasy novel. The writing is serviceable, but not much more inspiring than that. Maerad, as the lead character, seems to have some potential at the beginning (typically humble slave girl beginnings, with hints of grandeur in her lost childhood), being very fierce and determined, if utterly humorless, but she quickly devolves into a typical whining teenager. And yes, I know that teenagers whine a lot, but spending over eight hundred pages with one doing it with very little introspection or leavening humor started to make these two books a slog. The one bright spot in this utterly rote tale of the forces of the generic “light” being corrupted by the generic “dark” (replete with plot coupons, lost wisdom in ancient civilizations, wizard schools, evil wizards in deep dark hoods, fierce northerners, lush dark-skinned southerners, pre-literate faux gypsies and every other stock fantasy cliche you can toss in) was Cadvan, Maerad’s mentor. He has a dark past, and his relationship with her does not work quite the way you’d expect. He’s less Obi-Wan Kenobi than an actual three-dimensional human with a checkered past and his own, somewhat contradictory reasons, for wanting to help her. Of course, she’s also The Chosen One ™ and beautiful and and multi-talented and, like, everyone totally falls in love with her. Did I mention that in addition to being whiny, Maerad becomes a bona-fide Mary Sue about halfway into The Naming? I skimmed the end of The Riddle and just gave up. I can’t handle another one of these slogs. I don’t what the hell everyone is praising. Even if you wanted to read generic YA fantasy, in many ways you’d be better off reading Eddings. But really, I think someone should have sent Croggon a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, so she could have spared me all this trouble.

Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt – I got this on the strength of reviews and the beautiful cover. And, yippee, no disappointment here. I enjoyed pretty much every minute of this ethereal romantic fantasy. In some ways it reminded me of Patricia McKillip’s work, in the way it focuses on a relatively small, almost domestic, story filled with realistic characters in situations that still feel very true to their fairy tale roots. Keturah isn’t “hip” or “kick-ass”– she’s a girl who has grown up as a serf in a realistically detailed medieval village, with those sorts of attitudes and personal expectations. The basic story: Keturah follows a stag too deep into the forest and gets lost. She wanders for three days, and then lays down to die. She sees Lord Death approach her, and she attempts to forestall him by telling him, Scheherezade-like, a tale. This tale sounds suspiciously like her own, and Death is curious enough that he agrees to let her go for one day, if she promises to finish the tale. She returns home, and discovers that if she can find the man she truly loves, she can evade Death’s claim on her. So, Keturah goes through all the men in the village, but her thoughts keep returning to her strange bond with Lord Death…this was lovely. The sort of book you’d like to re-read by a fire over the holidays.

As always, please recommend books for me to read! I actually have a few (gasp!) adult novels coming to me from the library, so next week you will probably have a wider variety of reviews.