Due to a seemingly never-ending illness, I haven’t had the wherewithal to write the in-depth essays I’d like to (I have several sitting, half-formed, in drafts)–but I have still been reading. So here are some capsule impressions of what I’ve finished lately. This is not an exhaustive list; I read a lot of forgettable crap that doesn’t even bear mentioning for good or for ill. These are just a few of the more recent things I’ve read.
NAOMI NOVIK – UPROOTED
I wasn’t sure how to feel about this book, not right away. I appreciated Novik’s lush, descriptive style, particularly of the eerie and menacing Wood; this antagonist is both a place and an amorphous concept, reaching out wherever it can to consume and corrupt anything in its path. This, along with the magic system, were the most enjoyable parts of my reading. Unfortunately, the stuff that really sticks to my bones, narrative-wise, are characters.
Initially, the premise seems like a Beauty and the Beast thing: a forbidding man (referred to as ‘the Dragon’, though he’s actually just an asshole wizard) comes to town every so often, snatches up a girl, and takes her away to his tower for ten years. The protagonist, Agnieska, is messy and clumsy and not particularly skilled in anything aside from just generally fucking things up, so she feels pretty safe that she won’t be picked–not with Kasia around. Kasia, her bestie, is one of those girls who was born blessed, with looks, skills, grace, etc. Everyone’s pretty sure that she’s the one the Dragon will choose; in fact, she’s been raised to expect it.
I’ll let you take a second and guess who the Dragon whisks off to his scary tower.
First two guesses don’t count.
Unsurprisingly, the Dragon lives up to his stereotype–he’s rude, cold, condescending, and just a huge dickweed all around, and never for any good reason, either. Of course he & Agnieska get it on before we get out of this story, but that’s way later. Before that, it’s all glares and tantrums and overturned dinner trays for the both of them.
There’s also a weird rape-y atmosphere in the beginning that culminates in an actual attempted rape. Despite all word to the contrary, Agnieska is terrified that the Dragon will try to lay hands on her, and while part of his Jackass Routine does include such physical menacing as grabbing her by the chin and shoving her down on her bed, nothing untoward (or nonconsensual) occurs between them. The Prince, however, tries to take advantage of Agnieska within about five minutes of dropping by for a visit. This is a narrative problem for about ten pages; then it’s uneasily shoved aside for the rest of the story (there’s even a late moment when it seems like Agnieska might have to marry this dumb fuck).
All of this to say: I didn’t find anybody here very likable. Agnieska is all right, and she grows (ha ha) on me towards the very end, but if I was someone who judged books by their first 50 pages I would have set this thing aside post haste. The Dragon is a straight-up dick, with few vulnerabilities to recommend or understand him; Agnieska further doesn’t care to try (not that I expect she would–even as their ~romance~ slowly emerges, he still doesn’t treat her very kindly).
The rare thing about this book is that I enjoyed it most when it was NOT focused on its characters, but rather on its world and how the characters used their magic to shape it. Magic here is based revelation, honesty, and redemption; the most powerful spells are borne from the scribbled notebook of a legendary Baba Yaga-type character. They’re intuitive, organic, and based on elemental, intimate connection–both between the people casting and the person / thing upon whom the spell is cast. It’s truly interesting, and compellingly described. But would I want to hang out with any of these people after the story’s done?
KATHERINE ADDISON – THE GOBLIN EMPEROR
God damn it, I really enjoyed this fucking book. I say that angrily because it operates on so many completely irritating high fantasy tropes. First, all the characters speak like expats from Shakespeare (thee and thou and so on) and that, combined with the overly laborious nomenclature, made the prose a little bit of a slog sometimes. Second, and far worse, was the usual fixation on ‘dark’ as ‘ugly’ and ‘fair’ as ‘beautiful’. Maia, the protagonist, is frequently denounced for his gross dark goblin skin, particularly as compared to the otherworldly beauty of the pure-blooded, white-skinned, pale-eyed and fair-haired elves. It was just a little too basic.
Furthermore, the references to homosexuality are both steeped in tragedy and horror–first, there’s a man who loved another man but had to convict him for the murder of his abusive wife, and who is referred to even by the protagonist as suffering from an ‘unnatural’ love. Then there’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary, a male elf who had an obvious fear of / grudge against one particular member of the imperial court. When this fear was first suggested, I thought, ‘I bet this guy tried to rape him’ and LO AND BEHOLD, Csevet eventually launches into a detailed, FIVE PAGE STORY about that very incident (which includes being set upon as a ‘fox’ by ‘hounds’, i.e., the lord and his men). SO. GROSS TO THAT.
HOWEVER, Maia is extremely likable, and despite those incidents above, the story is far from the gritty grimdark everyone is horrible all the time ethos present in some other fantasy series I could name (coughs). The premise centers around the sudden death of Maia’s entire immediate family–his father, the Emperor, plus Maia’s older half-brothers–via mysterious and absolutely not accidental zeppelin explosion. As a half-goblin undesirable with a mother that Maia’s father hated, Maia was exiled to some nothing swampy town for all of his life and raised by his drunk bastard of a cousin. Nobody, Maia least of all, ever expected that he would ascend to the throne. But then, as mentioned, everybody dies! So he’s shuffled off to the imperial court, far from everything he’s known, and among people who look at him and mostly think 100 percent shitty things.
Maia perseveres, though, despite the fact that he has no idea how to behave and very few lights to guide him. He survives conspiracy, social missteps, and betrayal, all while struggling to maintain the sense of self instilled in him by his beloved mother. The best part of this book is how it seems, on its face, to be another journey into gritty grim misery–but in fact, it’s a journey towards compassion and forgiveness. Maia stands fast to his own perspective, even as it clashes with all of his advisers’ opinions. He entertains new ideas, he feels empathy for the people who hurt him, etc. It’s refreshing, to be honest, since so much of SFF seems fixed on battering readers with the idea that the world–even the worlds we dream of–is the worst possible place, populated only by the worst possible people doing the worst possible thing at any given moment. Maia, and the narrative itself, reject that idea. No, things aren’t perfect. They’re not even good. But it’s important to keep trying, anyway.
AMY HEMPEL – THE COLLECTED STORIES
Oooh, this was good. My favorite contemporary writer is Lorrie Moore, and a lot of what I like in her is present in Hempel, too. Biting humor, poignant phrasing, characters who are difficult but sympathetic. Many of the stories are extraordinarily short–one is just a few sentences–but they’re all worth your time.
Animals feature prominently in these stories; one of the most affecting pieces for me was ‘At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom’, about a woman who ladles adoration onto her cat and dog. Interspersed between scenes of care for these animals–a birthday party for the cat, medication for the dog–are bits of jarring information about animal life–more precisely, animal suffering–throughout the world. These are visceral, intrusive thoughts, evoking images of animals in labs, in meat farms, in the wild. I won’t quote them or be more specific than that. They’re a dark, livid thread that weaves through the woman’s head, affecting her deeply, hobbling her ability to exist in the world at all. It’s a tough read, but it MOSTLY succeeds–the very last scene, the one that both physically and mentally brings the woman down, splashes over onto the cheap side of things (and involves a dog), feels more emotionally manipulative than the brief images that came before it. It’s affecting, though. The prose is precise, careful, cerebral.
‘Tumble Home’ is the longest story in the collection, and it’s framed as a woman’s long letter to a man she loves. She’s writing from a psychiatric ward, which would normally put me on edge, but her experiences are drawn with care and sympathy. There are no fetishes here; no exploitation. The story is gently heartbreaking, an account of a woman trying to find a meaningful avenue back to some definition of ‘real life’. Some passages I particularly liked:
“Are you wondering why a person who is already small would want to make herself smaller? That should become clear. Not everything I know is something I want to see.”
“I am so suggestible. When Chatty asks if I am hungry, I say, “I could be.” I would try to become the woman you wanted without even knowing I was trying. As it is, I am barely the woman I am.”
The narrator confesses things in her letter, most importantly her emotions–or lack thereof–surrounding her mother’s death. She relates episodes in Paris, conversations with friends, etc. She peppers the letter with questions, rhetorical and actual, about what’s happening to her or what’s happened or what will happen. It’s the kind of psychological toothpick chewing that you get stuck in when you’re, well, stuck. Hempel’s prose makes it compelling instead of inaccessible navel-gazing, though, and that’s true throughout this collection.
I’ll be real–I didn’t even finish this one.
A girl wakes up, beaten and bloodied and barely alive. She has no memory of what happened, or of anything else, including her own name. She starts going by ‘Water’ as she slowly recovers in the hospital. Meanwhile, there’s a guy named Jesse who’s constantly in her orbit because he’s the son of one of the doctors treating her. Jesse knows all about Water, all about what exactly happened to her, but ‘to keep her safe’, he doesn’t want to tell her the truth. Never mind that this strategy has worked for precisely no one, ever, in the history of narrative. Especially not crime novels which feature relentless eastern European gangsters as the antagonists.
Premise-wise, it’s not the worst; amnesia is cool. Young women battered within an inch of their lives by (as we discover) violent Russian stereotype mob bosses are less cool. Everything in this story is trying real hard to be a sharp-edged noir potboiler, but it just doesn’t work. The narration switches between Jesse and Water; Jesse’s chapters are largely in the past, whereas Water’s are mainly in the present. Jesse is an insufferable caricature of a man’s man. Likes cars, gruff, stoic, has few other identifiable traits. He works for a garage that gets caught up in doing business with aforementioned shady Russian guys, one of whom has a beautiful young wife that he slaps in public & dresses up in diamonds. Gross, and also yawn. And also gross. Water is this girl, of course, and Jesse falls in love with her, of course.
Water’s chapters are less irritating and more just boring. Just interminable stretches of her lying in bed, then doing chores for the lady who takes her in–there’s no sense of danger for her throughout much of the book, even though all players involved in her suffering are clearly still alive and still within very close proximity. She sees Jesse ALL THE TIME. I’m sure this eventually amounted to something, but I. I just didn’t care. The writing is not good. The characters are not good. It’s a no for me.
SARAH J MAAS – THRONE OF GLASS
I don’t know about this book. For almost 20 of the 55 chapters, it just barely skirts godawful. Then, there are a few turns, a few improvements, and by the end it’s still a middling experience but it’s rescued itself from being a complete wash. The story centers on a woman named Celaena, known as Adarlan’s Assassin, one of the greats, boss of all bosses, etc. She’s introduced in dire circumstances: captured, enslaved, forced to work a mine in deplorable conditions. She and the other slaves are regularly whipped, malnourished, and in general exposed to all the usual sort of depravities you’d expect. So, understandably, our girl is not that thrilled when she’s plucked out of the slave mines and given an opportunity for freedom that essentially means yet more slavery. The prince of this evil empire, a guy named Dorian, has chosen her to be his champion for a tournament his father is putting on. If she wins, she’ll have to serve Evil Empire for six years before she earns her freedom. Sounds like sort of a raw deal, but it’s the only deal on the table, so she ultimately takes it.
From there, we’re whisked off to the Evil Empire’s glass palace (as suggested by the title), and Celaena becomes embroiled in the relationships between Dorian and his father, Dorian and Chaol (captain of the guard–the honorable, lawful good handsome guy as foil to Dorian’s rakish, neutral good handsome guy), her floor and a bunch of evil symbols, etc. She also encounters a bunch of courtly ladies who want to get in Dorian’s pants, and of course begins instant rivalries with them, because other girls are untrustworthy bitches, don’t you know? Celaena ruminates on this after she meets Nehemia, a visitor from one of the Evil Empire’s mostly conquered nations:
“After [some unexplained experience involving an assassin group in the desert that I assume was comprised of woman, but we are told nothing, so who knows], she’d sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agenda and power of her own.”
Now, to be fair, Celaena does eventually get over herself with regard to this prejudice. She and Nehemia become true friends, and the evolution of that relationship is one of the most interesting bits of this book. Even so, this toxic attitude is never really examined or questioned; why is her distrust reserved for girls when it was a bunch of imperialist men that fucked up her country and captured her and enslaved her and tortured her for years? Eh? EH? A fair case could be made that she (being an assassin, after all) shouldn’t really trust ANYONE, but that’s not what the story chooses to focus on. It’s just silly.
‘Silly’ is a big problem for this book. I did enjoy a few scenes–the very last fight has good energy to it, and the mythology of the weird secret evil lurking in the castle is kinda compelling (I’m always compelled by weird secret evil), but overall the writing quality here is … not great. For example:
(a description of Celaena’s eyes)
“Up close, though, these warring hues were offset by the brilliant ring of gold around her pupils.”
” […] she’d dashed into the bathroom to deposit the contents of her stomach.”
“The notes burst from her fingers, staggering at first, but then more confidently as the emotion in the music took over. It was a mournful piece, but it made her into something clean and new.”
(while playing pool)
“She first screamed at the ball, then took the cue in her hands and bit down upon the shaft, still screaming through her clamped teeth.”
In order: overwrought; overwrought (just say ‘vomit’ JUUST SAY VOOOMIT); vague; what the fuck, man. The writing is often both too much and too little. Information is repeated constantly; we hear about Celaena’s past again and again, but always in the exact same set of thinly detailed terms. These references don’t advance her backstory, they only serve to reinforce what we’ve already been told–padding, basically. When scenes try for poignancy and emotional resonance, as in the piano quote above, the emotions at stake are too blurry to get your hands on. The piece is mournful, but it makes her feel new–how does that bridge happen? How is the piece mournful? What is it about? How does it sound? What does it evoke in Celaena, exactly, and how does this also move Dorian (who walks in on her)?
Dorian and Chaol are every romance novel pair you’ve ever read about. Playboy prince who wants to make good vs. dutiful guard captain who wants to STAY good (inherently troublesome since he works directly for Evil Empire). Nehemia is halfway interesting, and to be honest, Celaena isn’t 100% bland, either. She takes a lot of people down, she’s legitimately good at what she does, and she has a pretty strong moral center for a supposedly amoral assassin. I didn’t like this book enough to buy the next in the series–the writing is just too messy, and Celaena isn’t quite interesting enough to make up for it, unfortunately.
LIBBA BRAY – THE DIVINERS
OK, this book was pretty charming. I’ve read the Gemma Doyle trilogy, and while I felt that series suffered from quite a few problems, Bray does have some skill with language and characterization (with sensitivity to complex historical forces as represented in fiction, not so much). I was a little wary because this is another historical fantasy, but fortunately there are no uncomfortably exploitative characters here (I mean, not yet, anyway). It’s set in the roaring 20s, and the protagonist, Evie, is a straight up Thoroughly Modern Millie–or, she wants to be. She has the power of psychometry (the ability to tell truths about people after touching their personal possessions) and she gets sent away to the Big City when this little party goes awry one night. So much the better–Evie is excited to get out of her ho-hum town and make a name for herself. Unfortunately, her plans are complicated by the emergence of a dreadful serial killer, a force of darkness who loves ritual murder and Bible-flavored portents. Only Evie and people like her–that is, Diviners–can stand against him.
A boy named Memphis is the deuteragonist; he once had the power to heal, but no longer, though he still gets fucked-up dreams. He looks after his brother Isaiah (who has some Stuff Going On as well), spends time running shady errands for a shady club owner, and generally tries to keep out of trouble. As with Evie, he’s a likable character, sympathetic and interesting. Everybody here is pretty likable, aside from the horrific murderous spirit unleashed by some anonymous, ill-advised Ouija time, of course. Memphis befriends a chorus girl named Theta with troubles (and powers) of her own, while Evie goes to live with her stuffy Uncle Will and his–assistant? protege? Science experiment?–Jericho. Jericho’s a scholarly type, withdrawn and serious, and of course totes attracted to Evie. There’s the beginning of the usual love geometry trouble here, because Evie’s BFF likes Jericho, but he’s clearly into Evie, as is the roguish thief, Sam. Because there’s always the Upright Guy and the Bad Boy in these things, you know, it’s a law somewhere, I think.
Happily, the story focuses primarily on the mystery at hand, both with regard to the murders and to the revelations of everybody’s Weird Secret Power. Ultimately, it’s mostly Evie who does all the work (Jericho helps) in taking out the villain, which felt a little unsatisfying. Though Memphis and Evie do cross paths, they don’t really come together in any significant way. This disappoints because it feels like that’s what the story was going for–i.e., a slow unveiling of all the players involved, their abilities, their relationships, and then how those powers / circumstances would intertwine against this menacing evil. However, only Evie has a major role to play, in the end, and I was left a little cold by that. The last few chapters foreshadow a sequel, so I hope that means we’ll get a little more of everybody and how they might all work together in the second round.