Review: Monster, by A. Lee Martinez

Ah, A. Lee Martinez. I have an interesting relationship with his books. Independent of the content, I mean. That’s a whole other story, and lucky thing, or what would I be talking about for the rest of my review? I picked up Gil’s All Fright Diner in high school. I read and enjoyed it. Not the best thing ever, but a competent riff on Lovecraftian horrors and dotted with zombies and a couple of cool protagonists. It’s a book that reads like it’s in the middle of a series (deliberately, I think) and it feels like everything has a past and a future. So I went to see what else the author had written. Nothing. And there wasn’t a bit of information on hir online, except for people wondering where information could be found. And this was 2005. We hadn’t yet reached the days of “all authors should blog and tweet and put up slideshows of their quirkily named cats,” but it was odd. And I guess I forgot about him until last summer, when my dad asked me to find him a few things at the used book store. My hometown has a much better used bookstore than it deserves, and there I discovered that Martinez had been putting out plenty in the intervening years. This was exciting to me and I set about gobbling up all the neat stuff. He’d been very profligate in what only amounts to five years. Could wipe the floor with George R. R. Martin (zing! followed by immediate penitent retraction).

Anyway. Monster. It’s not the first one of his I read, obviously. It’s not actually my favorite, which would be Too Many Curses. It’s not even the newest of his books, though considering it was published in 2009, I must again take admirable note of his speediness. Every writer works at the pace they’ve gotta work at, of course, and I’d choose a good book over a lot of fast books in all possible worlds, but I’m human. I appreciate it when a favorite works fast. What Monster is is the A. Lee Martinez book I have the most to say about.

Monster is, as so many genre novels are, the story of how the world didn’t end one day. Its grumpy protagonists are an incompetent supernatural pest control professional (the Ginger Waif shall lead it to her readers to decide which and how many nouns are modified by “supernatural”) and a perennially unlucky retail slave. They meet when Judy finds a Yeti in the freezer at work. Fate throws them together repeatedly, and in actual rather than rom-com odd couple fashion, they drive each other nuts. Eventually, they do work out that there’s a villain and a macguffin and there’s kidnapping and strange visions and everyone lives weirdly ever after, which is certainly better than the alternative.

And it’s amazing.

The most prominent gems in the book are Monster and Judy. They’re perfect examples of wonderful people to read about that you’d never want to know. Monster is a whining pain in the ass who’s clearly smart and talented enough to rule the world and just can’t be bothered (reminds me of my brother). Judy, through no fault of her own, has had a deeply fucked up life and is deeply damaged in turn, and her eagerness to prove herself is puppyish and pitiful rather than inspiring. And they’re meant to be icky people.

WARNING. A SPOILER IS COMING. YOU WILL BE ALERTED WHEN THE SPOILER IS concluded. This sentence is just a buffer. Really, stop reading now. Alright, so now I’m going to talk about the spoiler because I can’t resist it. It’s not an important to the plot spoiler. It’s a romantic subplot spoiler. Or, rather, it is the lack thereof that I spoil. That’s right. The clearly incompatible, grumpy protagonists do not form a romantic attachment. There’s a male and a female, both unattached at the right time, and the powers that be do not force them together. I loved this. I spent the last third of the book thinking, “please don’t make them a couple for no good reason.” When I finished up and they hadn’t decided to be in love, or even particularly friendly, I was so excited I skipped right out of the graveyard and went to tell everybody. Everybody here indicating my roommate. …What, you don’t go to the graveyard to read? Must be a Ginger Waif thing. Okay, here’s that last buffer sentence. I have a habit of reading things by accident. THE SPOILER IS NOW COMPLETE. YOU MAY RESUME YOUR ENJOYMENT OF THE REVIEW. Please enjoy this photograph of a cacomistle by way of apology.

I also love this world’s magic. The fantasy trope that holds that magic was more powerful and better and cooler back in the distant past drives me up the wall. Why? Why should that be true? Is magic the opposite of every human discipline ever? Why would people get worse at something? Sometimes there’s a conceit of a dark age where old knowledge is lost, but frequently authors don’t even bother with that. All the cool artifacts and spells and wizards are old and presumably lost. If there’s a justification, it’s usually a sort of Luddite excuse to the effect that people don’t believe in magic anymore because science, you see. Education makes fairies cry for some reason. And generally this is a world where magic has always been real, so why did people suddenly decide that evil science worked better than magic which apparently their ancestors had had plenty of access to? Anyway, in Monster, magic is going away because someone’s taking it away. It’s damaging and not quite right that there isn’t any magic. And when the problem is fixed, magic comes back! It’s great. And the whole system of why some people know perfectly well that there are Yetis and they like ice cream and some people live perfectly normal lives in the suburbs is well thought out and interesting.

Also, the main character changes color every time he wakes up and has different, often very silly, magic powers depending on what color he is. That’s awesome. I’m gonna stat it in GURPS now. And then I will be grumpy and capture Inuit walrus dogs. His sidekick is an interdimensional day laborer. His girlfriend’s a demon. (Actually, she’s the least interesting part of the book, but I do like the concept of making a Faustian bargain to get a girlfriend. Actually, is that wacky? I wouldn’t know.)

Also, there are monsters. Monsters everywhere. I love monsters. It’s a good measure of imagination, I think, creating and presenting your creatures. Go monsters. And Monster.And Monster.

So now comes the Ginger Waif grading period. How’s the book? The writing is funny. The wordsmithing itself is nothing special, but you’ll be laughing, so a lack of lyricism doesn’t matter. The humor is dark and mean, but it’s mean to everybody and everything, and rather delightful in an evil way. The book isn’t a comedy solely or even primarily, though. There’s more to it than a three-hundred page series of punchlines. The plot, granted, is a bit silly, but it’s executed well. Considering the elements, the arc is actually very smooth. This kind of book is given to deus ex machina episodes, simply because it’s hard to escalate meaningfully toward saving the world with phenomenal cosmic powers, and Monster does better than most. The main characters are awesome, and some of the side personalities are pretty good, though a few of them feel a little like they came out of the box and we polished off, like the corporate succubus girlfriend. (I exist in a weird subculture where businessdemon is a bit hackneyed, huh?) The villain is actually explored pretty well. She’s not the coolest baddie ever, but she makes a lot of sense and is pretty scary, even when she’s being a bit petty and irrational. And the world is very creative and immersive. In modern fantasy the world is often just a given, but Monster doesn’t spend a lot of time dealing with the everyday stuff. The better part of the action is suffused with monsters and weirdness.

Read Monster. It’ll be good for you. And read the rest of A. Lee Martinez’s work. I’d say start with Too Many Curses. It has a kobold!

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Review: Smoke Series, by Tanya Huff

As the third book in this series has the honor of appearing on the header for this estimable blog, the Ginger Waif has decided to review Tanya Huff’s fantastic urban fantasy trilogy, Smoke. The series is a follow up to what’s probably the author’s best known work, the Blood books. There was even a TV show for a while, on Lifetime of all things. I have yet to form an opinion of it, but apparently there’s a possibility of Smoke being a show, which is both disorientingly meta and rather refreshing, as the main character was completely dropped from the Blood Ties show, presumably for being icky and gay. Anyway, I enjoy the Blood series, but Smoke is just my favorite thing.

Smoke and Shadows, Smoke and Mirrors, and Smoke and Ashes follow the adventures of Tony Foster, put-upon PA and thwarter of untoward paranormal doings. He toils away by day, and by night, and in the witching hour, really, for Darkest Night, the hokiest of hokey vampire detective shows. When he has a spare minute, and often when he does not, he attempts to save the world, or at least his immediate surroundings, from the forces of darkness. He has a vampire ex, which complicates matters, and a desperate, usually embarrassing crush on one of the lead actors. He’s a hopeless nerd. I love him very much. And it is nice to have a gay main character diversity in general and in this particular area being something Huff is strong on), which somehow makes me care more about his silly romance subplots than I normally would. Don’t know what that says about me.

I’ll start by saying I love this setup in general. One of the things about modern fantasy is that it’s a little recursive. If a story takes place in our world, it takes place in a world that’s full of nerds writing and reading fantasy stories. It’s up to a writer what to do with that. Having the main cast’s lives revolve around a terrible mess of fantastic clichés and goofy drama is a wonderful choice. It allows some great lampshade hanging, provides a masquerade for the real magic stuff going on, and is full of affectionate parody. The stories poke fun at the conventions of the genre and the foibles of its fans, but always with love.

Anyway, the plots are a little bit standard, but they’re always done well. There’re only so many scenarios, after all. There’s an evil wizard. Boom. There’s a haunted house. Deal with it. There are demons. Kabaam. The charm and excitement and humor of these books rests mostly in the characters. Some of them are definitely archetypes, but all of them are alive and breathing and even if you hate them they’re just too cool not to love.

And most of that rests on Tony. You need a good main, and too often there’s a wonderful cast of secondary characters dancing around a dull Everyman/woman. Not so here. Perhaps a lot of of my love for Tony rests in the fact that he’s a huge nerd. I like my end of the world scenarios peppered with Firefly references. He’s also oblivious, awkward, a little unbalanced, but always the hero he needs to be. He’s a sweetheart with a dark past that could make for vomit-inducing Mary Sue-osity in the wrong hands. Fortunately he’s in the right hands, and his personal tragedies are poignant, like they should be.

That’s another strength of the books. They’re hilarious and playful, and the snappy banter always has a place, but often that place is to keep the speaker from screaming. There are horribly sad and disturbing scenes. The loss of every character is felt, even when they’re dropping fast. When bad things happen, it’s wrenching and vicious, and it’s never cheapened by the goofiness, even when they’re closely juxtaposed.

(A weakness, on the other hand, is that though the characters are never callous about suffering, the sexual politics can be a little squicky. The third book features a character who can insta-seduce. Automatically. Works on every guy who’s ever been attracted to a woman. She’s not exactly considered a paragon of virtue, but the only time there’s ever a major objection is when she turns it on a guy in a wedding ring. No, that specifically isn’t okay, and yes, males of the species are often horndogs, but imagine a male character with magical date-rape powers. Yeah. There’s also a female character who gets demonized a bit much for coming between the series’ OTP, but that one’s arguable, as she’s definitely not a nice person aside from that and Tony is the POV character. He’s allowed his weaknesses. She just has a little bit of the girl-in-a-yaoi-manga syndrome. Anyway, back to the good stuff!)

So you’ve got standard urban fantasy plots with a good spin and a masterful presentation. You’ve got wonderful characters. The setting is kind of ready-made, but I actually really enjoy the sense of place. Huff is always good for local color. The Ginger Waif must admit that when she was poking at the University of B.C. for grad school purposes, the thought that Vancouver might just be full of Demonic Convergence and vampire shenanigans did come to mind. Cough. Writing, characters, world, and plot all pass muster, the strength of the people carrying any small flaws. The first book wanders a little, with every idea possible all tossed in, but the second fixes that with a very tightly-paced locked room scenario of sorts, and the third book has the whole thing really come together. I love these books. I sort of hope there are more one day, though I suppose Tony’s character arc was really wrapped up nicely at the end, with a lot of goals in the bag and lessons learned. Another adventure would be great, but maybe Tony Foster is good where he is. Whether there are future books or not, Smoke and Stuff has a place in my heart.

By the way, what happened to the covers at the end, there? I’ve included a lineup, as you’ll see. First book, spooky figure with fuzzy outlines… Looks like some evil dude doing evil magic, right? And the second book has some ghostly looking kids in slightly archaic outfits—he’s wearing noticeably more pants than in the story, but hell, I’ll let the cover artist get away with that. And… And then there’s the cover of Smoke and Ashes. Why the sudden attack of trashiness? Evil wizard. Ghosts. Cleavage. Not that the cleavage doesn’t figure in the book, but wow, gravity-defying boobs from where?

Thanks to Teddy Vulture, Geroge, and Baron von Fledermaus for their assistance

One of these things is not like the others

Ahem. Well, you should read all these awesome books. That is all.

Review: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, by Susanna Clarke

I have an interesting relationship with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. Now, it’s not a recent book and it’s received about all the accolades it should, so it’s not exactly important for me to review, but I want to. So there.

It’s not actually my favorite anything. It’s a very fine example of a magical Regency-era England and Europe, but I sort of like Patricia C. Wrede’s better, maybe just because it came into my life a bit earlier. Its characters are wonderful, especially the villain, but I can think of plenty who’ve gotten under my skin more (even if I’m a member of Childermass’s fanclub forever). The writing is unique and well-paced and lovely, but again, I think it’s been matched and outmatched. And the story, such as ’tis, wanders a bit, though it’s still a joy. And yet, though no one element sticks with me as the best example of its kind, I’ve read this book about a dozen times since early high school. I have the audiobook and I listen to it whenever I’m not doing anything else. Despite not being the best at anything, somehow, the book is more than the sum of its parts and, to me, is the perfect novel.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is the tale of magic’s return to England, seen principally through the eyes of the two magicians most responsible (for good or for ill) and those around them.  And damned if it’s not a problem you really want to see addressed!

My feelings on the subject are hard to put to words. The central conceits and the history of the world are something you know only through the story. …Duh. That, Ginger Waif, is what we call fiction. Yet somehow, when you find out within the first few passages that magic has been missing, you believe it, you’re distressed by it, and you can immediately jump right into the mindset of the inhabitants of this magic-bereft England of 1806. Maybe it’s the footnotes.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is about a third footnotes. I exaggerate, but the most prominent stylistic element of the book is the footnotes. Some of them are brief, citing as a source for some claim in the narration or dialogue in the form of a book or article written by or about the principle characters. Some of them are folk tales that ring entirely true, despite being mostly Clarke’s invention. Bits of history, notes on the characters’ lives and motivations, academic treatises, old spells, ballads… There’s a bit of everything. You’d think it would interrupt the story, but somehow it’s all seamless. When I started listening to the audiobook I thought it would be very strange to constantly interrupt things, including long streams of dialogue, with a thousand words or so of referenced fictional folktale, but I didn’t mind even then. Either way, being annotated through and through like the most exhaustive book of serious history you’ve ever read is definitely a flourish that Clarke indulges over and over and over again, and every time I expected to mind, I’d find myself happily buried in a song about the Raven King or the history of some fairy servant of some Golden Age magician. It’s weird. Weird but good.

Leaving aside footnotes, the novel follows years and years of the title characters’ lives. It has many, many subplots, the most prominent regarding the enchantment of several poor souls by a vindictive fairy known only as The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, but it would be hard to put your finger on the main plot. Strange doesn’t even appear for a good while. There’s the saga of the Napoleonic Wars plus magic, but that comes and goes. There’s the story of Strange and Norell’s relationship, beginning as student and teacher, straying in and out of friend and enemy territory, and that’s probably the closest thing to a single, central plot thread, but even that comes and goes. It’s better, I think, to look at Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell as an academic history of a world that never was, but an academic history with dialogue and a window to the inner life of its subjects. It is what it is, I suppose, and it’s expressly designed to please Ginger Waifs, it would seem.

My favorite part of the book is definitely its fairies. I’m a serious fan of scary fairies, and I think Clarke gets them exactly right. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is terrifying. He operates by an entirely different set of rules than the humans around him. He really does seem to think he’s doing good, or at least doing nothing bad. He’s a completely alien creature who’s unimaginably powerful. And the other fairies who appear, in this novel or in related short stories, encapsulate just exactly what fairies should be themselves.

And what is it about regency fantasy, anyway? Is it just the Jane Austen lovers in all of us? It’s just the perfect world to add magic to. I don’t know why. I’ve fallen hard for some Victorian fantasy (Parasol Protectorate, anyone? Not to mention, uh, your generalized steampunk) and while I can’t think of any Georgian fantasy, I’m sure it would be good. But for some reason we just love to mix dragons and Darcy. Maybe it’s the Napoleon backdrop? The fact that the characters are just barely modern in their language and ideas, and thus generally relatable, but still with their odd manners and without the icky sensibilities that come with Victoriana? I’m open to ideas.

That aside, um, aside, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is the best book in the world in the strangest of ways. This perplexes me, but I’ve decided to go with it. It saddens me that it’s about all there is from Clarke, aside from the short stories about the same world (collected in The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories), but it seems to be plenty to keep me coming back over and over again. In fact, the Ginger Waif is going to go listen to it again.

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

I was an avid Oz reader once upon a time. I didn’t just read the first book, or the first few. I read every single Oz book L. Frank Baum put out, and they got strange toward the end. Yes, strange in the context of a world that gave us the Gump, the Cuttenclips, and Dunkiton. I read a lot of his other stuff, adventures in Mo and Yew and so forth. I hated the musical as a child because it was so dreadful to the real content of the book (less of an idealist in my old age, I now hate the movie because it’s godawful, instead). I felt about the non-Baum books the way the Council of Nicea did about the Arian heresy.

What I mean to say is that I’m well-versed in turn-of-the-century American fairy tales, and I must admit I’m impressed  that Catherynne M. Valente managed to write one about a hundred years off the usual target. (I guess it was the turn of a century. Does that count?)

I speak of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I am of the belief that it needs no introduction, if only because it’s the kind of book you can get along with just fine without being on a first-name basis, and it won’t mind when you have to ask at the end of the evening. The internet loves it some Fairyland. If you need to know the history, Cory Doctorow will gladly tell you.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is about a little girl named September, who has read a great number of books and is a little on the heartless side. September is a brave and troublesome child with an eye to adventure who’s quite willing to hop out her window and follow the Green Wind to Fairyland, atop the Leopard of Little Breezes. There, she accepts a mission of import from some witches, befriends a Wyverary (his mother was a wyvern and his father was a library, and he sort of steals the book), develops a more complicated relationship with her shadow than is at all usual, and, well, so forth. She matches wits and swords (eh, sort of) with the wicked Marquess, who has a very fine hat and is a leading cause of harrowing quests. If that makes sense to you, you’re entirely my sort of person.

But it’s being vastly unfair to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (I just never get tired of the full title) to present it as merely a wonderful and surprisingly late contribution to the Victorian fairy tale lexicon. It has a host of bizarre creatures and a world that’s deeply wonderful and deeply frightening and charming, verbose turns of phrase and altogether everything it would need to hang out with the works of Baum and Carol. But it’s by no means confined to those circles.

This is a great book for Valente Monsters, some of my favorite things in the world of books. Like the monsters who turned up in The Orphan’s Tales and Dirge for Prester John, most of the creatures of fairyland come right out of myths, as opposed to the critters of Oz and Wonderland, who principally came out of the author’s imaginations. I love the way Valente plays with stories, not to mention draws on a whole lot of non-European traditions. One of the book’s heroes is a very aquatic sort of marid (blue djinni being variable creatures even in their own stories) and another major figure is a golem, and there’s a pooka and any number of tsukumogami. The dreams of the whole world are solid things in Fairyland.

And everything about fairyland is pretty solid, all told. Magic works wonders, but so does plucky cleverness and clockwork. It’s a very real world, wyveraries notwithstanding, and things tend to happen exactly as they ought. Little girls who are wont to be adventuresome and difficult get to have difficult adventures.

The text of fairyland has been around a long time, as the book first came to be online, but it looks very lovely in its shiny red book. There are beautiful illustrations that really capture the tone of things by Ana Juan that mix the old Oz-ish influences with the new worlds to be found in Valente’s writing. There’s also a shiny audiobook, read by the author, which I have yet to acquire. (I know when I read it to my youngest sister, something of a September herself, the Green Wind sounds like an antebellum southern aristocrat and Saturday the marid glugs a bit, and I’ll be interested to see how well my ideas match up.) there’s an awesome little scavenger hunt of a story, “Nine Lessons from a Wyverary Governess,” with bits and pieces hidden around the internet. S.J. Tucker, who has collaborated with Valente on projects before, has already put out one Fairyland song, and there are more to come, I believe. There seems to be no end of Fairyland goodness (sequels are planned!), and thank whatever powers that be for that.

Altogether, it is my firm opinion that all things Fairyland cannot be appreciated enough, and you should go and acquire some immediately, if you haven’t already done so. The writing is top-notch, melding Valente’s always poetic language to a perfect encapsulation of the ebb and flow of a Victorian fairy tale. The characters are all excellent, from the everygirl heroine with a missing shoe to the scheming overlady. The story is everything a fairy story ought to be, all full of quests and monsters. And the world? Oh, Fairyland! I gave up on getting to Oz when I was about September’s age, I’m sorry to say. All my attempts failed and it got very discouraging. But now I’m looking out for any notably breezy leopards.

Review: Nightrunner series and Glimpses, by Lynn Flewelling

Welcome, travelers, and let us take up our silly teacups for another installment of The Ginger Waif’s Genre Book Reviews for the Chronically Imaginative. Today I decided to review Lynn Flewelling’s Glimpses, because it brings me joy, and is kind of new, in that it only came out last fall. Then I realized there’d be no reviewing Glimpses without reviewing the whole of the Nightrunner series. And, dear readers, I am perfectly okay with that. And I’m sure Ms. Flewelling won’t mind. There’s another one coming out and it will be called Casket of Souls (because Ginger Waifs stalk author blogs, y’see) and all will be awesome.

So, Nightrunner. As a series it follows the adventures of two of the grandest rogues to ever grace a page. Seregil is a bit of a cosmopolitan rake and Alec is a naïve ranger (at least to begin with), but the story takes those archetypes and runs with them in awesome directions. They live in a fantastically detailed world that feels very real and grounded despite the magic flying about every which way, full of small touches like table manners and dramatic flairs on the scale of Greek fire. The leads occasionally lean just a bit to the too awesome side of skilled, but they have their flaws. And more than that, they’re human and likeable.

Human is used here in… a loose sense.

The action of the stories generally contains plenty of sorcery and daring escapes and sword fights, but the victories that matter to the plot generally hinge on Seregil (and, as he matures a bit, increasingly Alec as well) being just too bloody clever. And I appreciate that. There’s nothing as irritating to me as that part of a really good book where the plot suddenly forces competent characters to  catch the idiot ball. Never happens in Nightrunner. There are bad decisions, of course, but they’re always in character, emotional responses.

When I’d finished the extant books all at a stretch, I picked up a different fantasy novel about sneaky people and was already annoyed with their elementary mistakes in the first chapter.

“Can you really not see what’s going on! This is a trap! You amateur! You’ve already given her enough information to peg you! Seregil would never do that!”

And if I’m hoping for a character from a different universe to tag into another story, I think the impression speaks for itself. Nightrunner is a series that I remember reading. This may only be an issue for me, but sometimes my memories of my time in the regular old world spent on a book make a big impression. I had this, ahem, experience the first time I read Flewelling’s work, when I picked up The Bone Doll’s Twin. Without giving anything away, that book ends on a cliffhanger the likes of which you only find is Aslan’s country. And I didn’t have a way to get hold of the second book for weeks. So when I was most of the way through Luck in the Shadows, I stopped reading until I had Stalking Darkness in hand. I plowed through that series. My younger sister was reading behind me, and those being lazy, summery days, we’d just both sit in the living room. We’re similarly demonstrative readers, and I’d always know exactly what she was laughing or gasping at. And then my brother picked up behind her. (My copies of the books look much older than they are—Ginger Waiflings are hard on books!) Frankly, I suspect the dogs might have been reading them, the way we flocked to them that summer. It was a good time. We even taught the littlest Ginger to imitate a character who appears late in the series on command. She makes a good Sebrahn.

When it comes to the stars of reviewland, Nightrunner gets all four. The world is incredible. The geography makes sense, the cultures are well realized (how often does anyone pull off the Land of Evil Deity Worship in a way that makes sense?), hell, the character’s diets make sense. The writing isn’t going to change the world with the sheer might of its wordsmithing, but it’s clever and arresting. The characters all do their jobs wonderfully. You want to hug the heroes and throw the villains off cliffs. But they do it without ever being puppets of the plot and they’re all very fully realized people. And finally, the stories are great. The first two books form pretty much one solid arc, and then the next few sequels start new threads and go back to old ones, and you never get a sense that things are being stretched out. There’s just always something to do.

I’ll also take a moment to note that LGBT and gender themes are interestingly explored, and, dating from the first book, before it was cool. And Flewelling gets better as she goes. There’s an early incident best described as a magic roofies at work that everyone pretty much finds funny, because rape is funny when it’s female on male. It seems to me that in the later books that wouldn’t have flown. Writers generally grow in skill. While I try not to judge an author on her or his politics unless there’s some really egregious soapboxing going on (insert your favorite example here), I find it interesting to see the writer get better at the whole being a cool person thing, too.

So that’s Nightrunner. Go and read it. And if you have read it, immediately acquire Glimpses.

What is Glimpses? An awesome idea. I wish more series that I got into had a similar project. Glimpses is a book of short stories that fill in gaps between books or in characters’ history. There are always things that aren’t in books for a reason, that the reader doesn’t have any business knowing, and then there’s stuff that you desperately want to know because you love the world and its people and suddenly it’s in your hands! Glimpses holds two stories from Seregil’s past, one from Alec’s, and one that’s pretty much just a missing scene from Stalking Darkness.

(It also contains a glimpse of the next Nightrunner book. I have not read it. Early peeks drive me nuts. But if you like those, by all means, enjoy. I’ll just go back and compare once my copy of Casket of Souls is in hand.)

Glimpses also is richly illustrated, entirely by fans. Flewelling has always been awesome about her many admirers, and there’s a lovely gallery of art on her website, but seeing the work in print is even better. It’s a fascinating way to see into all your fellow readers’ imaginations and I loved it. Sometimes I just flip through and look at them.

And, last but not least, Glimpses contains erotica, oh, three times out of four. Two instances are of homosexual male sexy times, and one is heterosexual. If you’re into erotica, I have it on good authority that this is fine stuff. I’m an odd case in that I just consider sex scenes to be character development, and the characters are awesome enough that I care about their romances. (Even Alec’s dad, who succumbed to tragic offscreenitis before the events of Luck in the Shadows and has only ever appeared in memory and in his story here.)

Nightrunner. It’s an ongoing series of fortunate events, and its author gave us all the gift of some fantastic little moments that would otherwise have interrupted the flow of all the swashbuckling. When you love a place, you want every chance to come back. The books are funny and they’re grim. They’re exciting and they’re tense. There are horrors and wonders and everyone should really just come with me to Rhiminee to meet everyone there. Bring snacks.

(As a disclaimer, my younger sister objects to her characterization as a Ginger Waifling. This, I suppose, is because she is, in fact, a tall and brown-haired sort of person, and is not built and colored along roughly the same lines as a leprechaun, as is her elder.)

Review: Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente

Hail fellows and well met. This here is hopefully the first of many installments of the The Ginger Waif’s Genre Book Reviews for the Chronically Imaginative. I’m going to kick off with Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, and I’ll start by admitting right up front that I love this book. It’s wonderful, it’s horrible, it’s lyrical, and it will get under your skin and eat you. And you’ll be okay with that.

So what’s it about? Broadly, it’s about Marya Morevna, who is sometimes a girl in Russia and sometimes a queen in the Country of Life, and the rest of the time sort of makes it up as she goes. Deathless is a retelling of a fairy tale, or rather of all the fairy tales, and it’s as much about stories as it’s about the doings of its cast of characters. And the fairy tales themselves have their own internal mythology. It’s stories all the way down. It’s about life and death and the significance of either or both or neither. It’s too rich a book to sum up, actually, so let’s bring it back to Marya.

Leaving the frame story for now, we meet Marya as a peculiar girl possessed of peculiar notions. And I’ll just let Valente introduce her.

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street. By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

And a bird, you will be unsurprised to know, does appear in due course to perform the office, but that’s for later.  We hear all about Marya’s childhood, which is one of my favorite parts of the story (not least because I was lucky enough to hear Valente read the first few chapters at Conbust, and that was best described as splendid). The fairy logic and language struggle with her reality in the most fascinating way. Marya grows up in a time of change and the world shifts around her faster than she can grow up. She’s a girl who loves books and isn’t so fond of the society of children, and, y’know, there’s a reason we who love stories love us some story-loving mistfits. It’s been done, sure, but it’s done well and it’s done for a good cause.

So Marya grows up with the full knowledge that she’s peeked and seen more of the world than perhaps she ought to have, and she walks in and out of magic every few steps. There are Domovoi in the walls and bullies at school, birds who marry her sisters and uplifting Party propaganda on all sides. Marya is a girl who’s much too clever, and while she can’t always make use of or even accept what she finds, she knows herself to be a special, powerful someone, privy to secrets. And then Koschei the Deathless turns up at her door.

And before I set the stage any further, I have a confession to make. This story made me sharply aware that I know far too little about Russian folklore. I spent a lot of time with my Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures just to keep up. You might need one of these if you’ve been as remiss as I have about your Slavic folklore. Likewise, you might need a refresher on twentieth-century Russian history. Deathless is grounded deeply in both its principle worlds, and those double back on each other all the damn time.  Either way, there’s a distinct peril in walking unprepared into unfamiliar stories. Fail your Knowledge: Narrative roll and it’s straight into the pit trap of foreign conventions with you.

Back to business. Marya meets her destined and finds herself a bit less of the heroine than she fancied herself. Marya spends a lot of the story trying to break the rules of the fairy tale she’s in and not doing very well at it. More on that later. Koschei flaunts an ego that one supposes he’s earned, being the Tsar of Life and all, and proceeds to go unabashedly Taming of the Shrew on our heroine’s psyche. He rushes her about in a fantastic landscape faster than her poor head can spin, dazzling her with rich food and pretty houses and making a splendid show of fussing when the stress and strangeness make her sick. He forbids her to speak for no reason but that he can and she lets him. (The whole rest of the book could easily be said to principally concern the acquisition, meaning, and management of power.) Eventually Marya reaches his kingdom, makes some friends, meets Baba Yaga—Hell Yeah, Baba freakin’ Yaga, who manages to be about a thousand times more impressive than Koschei—is assigned some tasks to prove her worthiness, and, well, so begins the story. Sort of. The story such as ‘tis begins over and over again, and I really just have to choose a place to stop or I’ll have gushed about the whole thing. The arrival of the leads in the Land of Life launches most of the most memorable and wonderful scenes and tones and themes, though, so we’ll call the triumphant arrival the beginning.

The Land of Life is where one of the big strengths of Deathless comes into its own: The perfect juxtaposition of the fantastical and mundane. Sure, in the beginning the ostensibly human and ordinary world seems to be full of immortals and goblins and shapeshifting husbands every time you turn around, but the glut of magic and Marya’s dreamy misfit status chase all the normality away. It’s only in the purely magic world that the invasion of the everyday is really striking. The devils of Koschei’s country embrace Russia’s revolution with more enthusiasm than the humans. Bureaucratic dragons are the least of it. And when the action bolts back into reality after Marya wins her first big victory or ten, most of the magic is sullied and dying back in the Russia that is. Whether that’s a symptom of growing up or a worsening war or just a world enacting a story as it has to happen, one of the most wrenching and wonderful things about Deathless is the interplay of reality and unreality.

And the Land of Life also introduces us to Baba Yaga, who, as previously indicated, I’m in love with. She steals the book away whenever she appears by sheer force of will, and the readers and her fellow characters both are too impressed by her audacity to mind. She’s the only one who really understands the story she’s in, and the only one who actually does seem to be able to break the rules. Marya tries all the time, but she always winds up telling the same old tale. One can even get a bit frustrated with her. She’s been handed the cliffnotes to her universe and she still seems to not be able to get around them. And sometimes she doesn’t even put in any effort.

Remember that old story about the man who goes out walking and sees Death, who peers at him with as odd an expression as a fleshless skull can manage? The man consults with a wizard or his father or whoever happens to be about and seem wise, and quickly packs up his things and bolts for the most distant, unappealing locale he can manage. So let’s say he sees Death at, oh, the Lincoln Park Zoo. Now forewarned, he flees to Kankakee. As he stumbles into town, ashen faced but finally safe, he scans the horizon, and who does he see but Death? Gasp!

Stymied man: But, but Death? Just yesterday I saw you at the Lincoln Park Zoo!

Death: Yes, well, I just adopted a flamingo. I tried to say hi, but I guess you were in a hurry. And I was very surprised to run into you. You see, I knew we had an appointment today, in Kankakee!

Dun dun duuuuun! And y’know, I can accept that that’s the way the world works in worlds where fate is inescapable. If that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it has to be. But here’s the way Marya Morevna approaches that situation. Spotting Death in the first place, she flags him down, like a sensible person.

Marya: Death? Hey, how’re you?

Death: Pretty good, pretty good. Did you know you can adopt flamingos? Funny running into you, though. I thought we had a thing in Kankakee tomorrow.

Marya: Really? Wow, didn’t know. I better go to Kankakee to see how that goes for me. It’d be really cool of you to not reap my soul, but I guess I’ll understand if you do.

So you get a bit annoyed with her at times. Baba Yaga, on the other hand, kicks death in the knees and takes his ADOPT certificate (suitable for framing!) and plush flamingo just to make him cry before she goes to Peoria instead, to draw out my increasingly tortured metaphor. Thus my fangirl adoration. She even tells the language of the story to bugger off. Every character has a voice, but it’s always beautiful and flowing and half poetry. Baba Yaga’s dialogue can be a bit of a record screech, but you can’t object. Because she’s Baba Yaga. And she’ll eat you.

When she’s not around, I’m still a hell of a sucker for the prose style. Generally I have four major categories for a book to fulfill, and writing is one of them. Deathless gets one very shiny star for that. The words are thick and rolling and complex and awesome. Next comes characters, and with the weird, devilish cast, that’s a star, too. The story laughs in the face of your outdated,  bourgeoisie plot diagrams, but it’s tight and well paced and excellent. And the worlds, of which there are many, are built with a loving hand. All four stars for Deathless!

Lots and lots of sex and violence, as a warning to the sensitive souls. None of it’s gratuitous, but it does go on a while. I will say Valente does a better job than most people making me care about the characters’ hearts and loins, but if you’re stubborn about getting invested in a bunch of romance (like me), you’ll find plenty to keep you interested. Like the violence! Some of it is magical, abstract, distant violence, and some of it is real and human and wrapped up tight in history and will make you wince and cry. Any corrosion to your soul as you experience Deathless is, well, completely intentional, I’m pretty sure.

And I’m not sure where this fits in, so I’ll just go ahead and say, Deathless goes remarkably well with “It’s a Beautiful Day,” the album, but It’s a Beautiful Day, the band. Try it out.

If you’re accustomed to Valente it’s a bit of a departure, I suppose, in that it’s more linear and concrete than her usual meandering dreamscapes, but you’ll definitely recognize her voice and what makes her awesome whether you last picked up Palimpsest or  The Grass-Cutting Sword. It’s got a little less of the monster action that’s usually my favorite part, but there are still a lot of fantastical creatures, just not quite so many as usual. And I’ll probably be coming right back to this subject, as something… interesting came in the mail today. With a shiny red cover and a Wyvern and an absurd title.

Anyway.

Deathless. It’s a story about a story about a story. It’s a history lesson and it’s the human condition all over again. And, most importantly, it’s Marya Morevna’s story, and you oughtn’t trifle with Marya Morevna.