Review: Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

I considered getting this book for my Kindle (yes, I have one, because I am a traitor), but I’m very glad I didn’t. I love it when books are designed to impact the story on more than one level. Unfortunately it’s mostly a tactic used in gimicky children’s books that aren’t good enough to be bought on their own merits, and that’s when the scratch-and-sniff and the tinny little prerecorded noise-buttons and the probably-toxic tiny jewelry comes into play. But in books for grown-ups (or, hell, older kids), you’ve generally got black text and whatever combination of paper and glue was cheapest. Illustrations and/or decent cover art if you’re lucky.

This is a ridiculously long-winded way to say that this book is printed in blue, and it increased my delight tenfold. Okay, maybe point-twofold. It’s plenty enjoyable enough on its own, but the blue print just made it that much shinier. It also has a modesty dust jacket to hide the mild partial nudity on the cover (which doesn’t even approach the moderate partial nudity on the cover of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, but whatever) and is full of color prints of topical artwork. Which would explain why my print copy was pricey. But I regret nothing. My kindle’s the lame kind with no color.

Seriously. This should happen more. I’ll pay for it. I think the only other non-graphic novel I can think of that does this is my fancy copy of House of Leaves.

Anydangway. Sacre Bleu exists. I’m pretty sure that Christopher Moore doesn’t need my help selling it, but I’ve loved him very much for ten years or so. He can have it anyway, my own little tiny drop of review in a sea of New York Times Bestselling Authordom.

(Ginger Waif may need to cut the caffeine. I’ve had more emphatic paragraph breaks here than I think is strictly legal.)

Sacre Bleu is a bit of a departure for Christopher Moore, though it’s hard to put my finger on why. It’s a grim yet very comedic work of dark fantasy inspired by raw strangeness and starring Inept Yet Well-Meaning Douchebag and his love interest, Hypercompetent and Snarky Yet Vulnerable Babe. Seems like it should be par for the course. I think it’s that the book is less archly comedic than most of his and that the plot is a thorough mindfuck rather than a straightforward if peculiar series of events. Most of his departures from form are just the same thing done poorly. This is something new.

The story follows some fictional but mostly historical figures in the Parisian and general art community in the late 1800’s. Lucien Lessard (not real, if you’re like me and not a turn-of-the-century France fanatic) and a bunch of his more extant friends are a bunch of reprobate starving artists. Then there’s a suspicious, grotesque figure and a hot chick, both of them more than what they seem. That’s really about all I can explicitly unpack in a summary without spoiling surprises buried deep in the book. The first bit does drag a bit as you try and figure out what’s going on. I actually thought it might be a work of non-fantastical historical fiction for a moment there. The story is twisty-turny, heinous fuckery most foul, leaping back and forth through time like Quentin Tarantino and the Energizer Bunny had a baby, and that baby mostly concerned itself with French people boning.

Le bon, I feel like they should call it given my total lack of capacity for French.

So there are these people and things happen to them that I mostly can’t explain because it’s a secret. This is a great review. Let’s talk about the people? Moore has this thing where he has two characters. Two avatars, I suppose, two Platonic ideals. As referenced above, one is male, a quietly clever but generally not accomplished dude who enjoys adventures and ladies. One is female, smarter and better at actually accomplishing things than her almost inevitable love interest and deeply sarcastic, but very fond of reassurance and eventual commitment. These aren’t bad characters, but they exist in a thousand guises in almost all of his books. They’ve been Biff and Mary Magdalene, Pocket and Cordelia, Tucker and Kimi… I dunno, I get a little bit bored with them.

And I’ll take a moment to point out that Moore is kind of addicted to saying sweeping things about men and women. Not always consistent things, seldom complimentary things, occasionally useful things, but always sweeping generalizations. He leans a little toward “ladies are awesome and nice and smart and dudes are just a bunch of neanderthals,” which is a silly sentiment even if well-meaning, but some of these ideas are quite counter to your standard cultural gender narrative. He makes room for variant sexuality and gender expression. He sincerely believes that just about everyone, whatever their gender, likes screwing and ought to have fun doing it. He lives in his own world, but he still really enjoys putting pronouncements about gender in his characters’ mouths. Odd habit. He also seems to think sudden-onset lesbianism happens? Not in this book. I just thought of it now.

On a more problematic note, this book includes recurring magical possession that results in… kinda rapey implications, with the least bit of thought. This is upsetting.

Back to characters. The side cast is, as usual for him, pretty good. When he’s writing characters other than the recurring two (and their frequent sidekicks, who are usually the same people slightly repackaged) they’re entertaining, loveable, and almost always kinda icky. You wouldn’t want to be friends with these people, but they’re fun to read about. This is especially entertaining when he’s working with personages one thinks of as dignified, what with their paintings prized by serious and important galleries nowadays. Artistic license with artists. It works.

The Paris inhabited by the artists of all stripes worked for me. I’m not particularly acquainted with the history of this particular time and place, so I don’t know how accurate it was. Lots of fun, engrossing detail, so I can’t say I care all that much whether it was true to the manners or clothes of the time. It might bug a more dedicated scholar. Or maybe not. Dunno. The glitzy, grimy, strange little city interested me and made a great backdrop for its inhabitants.

The tone of the book was in line with the Christopher Moore standard, wickedly funny, kind of mean, and strangely sweet. Despite subject matter that generally deals with ghosts and monsters, he loves his creations and it’s palpable. Everything’s always so cute in these books, even with all the death and horror and cruel humor. No, I don’t know how that works. I’ll quote Christopher Moore quoting Henri Toulouse-Lautrec quoting Renoir. “Love them all.” He does.

It’s a much less funny book than he’s written before. the subject matter is harsher and sadder than he’s tackled, or at least treated as such. He did rewrite King Lear, after all. It’s still pretty funny, but there’s less of the laughing. Still lots of nifty wordplay.

I just realized I’ve pretty much gotten through the review without touching on the motif of blue. And I decided I’m not going to. Read and find out what’s up with that. It’ll be awesome.

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Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

It says a lot about my beloved genres of choice that I find the cover of this book so fascinating. It’s a picture of the characters in the book, drawn in a dramatic array but doing things that make perfect sense for them to be doing, looking like the text describes them, and rendered in a slightly stylized, dynamic, fun way that evokes good comic books. The female lead is poised, but in a fluid, combative way rather than a somehow-point-both-tits-and-ass-at-the-viewer way. Their features have not been quietly rendered generically Caucasian. No stiffly drawn generic characters pulled from a box o’ illustrations. No bland, obtuse mess of geometric bits graphic-designed to death. Not even a vague mass of colors and shapes or an epic landscape that may or may not be accurate to the story, but evokes a fancy matte painting far more than the meat of the tale. There’s neither cost-cutting nor “no, seriously, this is a real book about important things and I am a sensible author” pretension. This is a book that is unashamed of being a fun, clever adventure story. (Of course, frequently the author has very little control over that, so I guess this is just a nod to the publishers? Anyways, I like it.)

Saladin Ahmed’s first novel draws from Arabian folklore ancient beyond telling and modern tropes both embraced and skewered. It’s the story of a city imperiled by forces supernatural and mundane. While wicked sorcerers and their pet ghuls poke at the fabric of reality, the entrenched ruling class harasses the poor. The central story is an adventure with swords and all sorts of magic, but the political situation (and here I use political as a shorthand for a very well-developed socioeconomic sense of the highly stratified city, international intrigue only hinted at, a complex but apparently universal religious system with many splinter groups of varying fanaticism, and so on) is at times more interesting. There are three major factions containing main characters and infinitely more around and within them, and no one has anyone else’s best interests entirely at heart.

That said, as twisty and complex as the world is, the plot is surprisingly simple. I kept waiting for the major epiphanies that I was sure were coming. the characters and the world were so unique, so surely the story would go spinning off somewhere interesting! …Well, I won’t say it was dull. Far from that. Everyone was fighting everyone else all the time in really spiffy ways and the stakes were high. The titular throne was in peril from several directions and the main party of characters had to concern themselves with the awakening of unspeakable and ancient evils, while alongside them the idealistic underworld lord with a heart of gold threatened civil war and the aristocrats… aristocrated. I can’t say anything in the plotline is all that special, really, as much fun as it was. Even the characters’ conflict all came from either within themselves or from outside the main group. There was some lawful good on chaotic good bickering and a lot of moral conundrums, but everyone is pretty much who they appear to be.*

The characters make up a wonderful, prickly cast. I won’t go so far as to call them affectionate grotesques, that oh-so-useful term I kind of invented myself, but while they’re all fundamentally good, they go about it in some very odd ways. There’s Doctor Adoullah, cranky, crude, and the last defense of the world against supernatural evil. There’s his assistant Raseed, a teenage sword prodigy with a stick up his ass. Their dear friends Litaz and Dawoud, a husband and wife team from far off lands and an alchemist and mage respectively, get shafted on both the cover and the book jacket blurb. I suspect mainly due to space constraints. Anyway, the persnickety old married couple with world-shaking magic add a pleasant vibe to the book. I particularly enjoy books with middle aged and old characters, especially ones that aren’t pure stock character. It’s nice to get some perspective from people who might not be hot enough to want to empathize with. Zamia is a very good try at writing a tough teenage girl. She usually works, she has a motivation for her growly personality, and she softens under some circumstances to a more palatable sort. She also turns into a lion, which helps. Sure, her weakness is a hot guy, but she actually appreciates him for being hot in a way that acknowledges the female gaze and respects him for his skills rather than just butting heads with him and then inexplicably falling for him, which is a nice change of pace. I’m not gonna complain too much.

The roleplayer in me likes to see such a balanced party. Healer, couple specialized spellcasters, dps, and… and a fucking lion. Every party needs a lion. The team aspect of the book plays a lot, and everybody has a role to play under pretty much all circumstances. The world does seem a bit like a really good game setting with good NPCs and an excellently executed plot. The book frequently pauses for local color, and while it doesn’t enhance the story much, it makes you feel part of the world. The sights and smells of the various quarters of Dhamsawaat, the coolest city ever if you don’t mind the crime, monsters, and lack of justice. The various magic traditions mostly follow from the strangely universal religion, but like a lot of fantasy, the deity actually does stuff, so belief is pretty clearly justified. My favorite bit of worldbuilding was the fractured state of this belief system, the way various factions of devotees and even heretics went about interpreting this not-quite-omnipotent God. Two of the main characters are holy men and Zamia’s lion-shifting is apparently a god-given thing and the baddies work for the fallen angel, so he had fun with it and all the viewpoints keep the religious thing from getting tedious.

You get all viewpoints all the time. It’s one of those books that jumps from character to character in a sort of roving third-person-limited, at one point reiterating dialogue twice on one page so as to get two people’s reactions thoroughly. Each character has a very distinct voice and a different way of viewing things, so while there’s no swoon-inducing prose poetry or deeply clever wordplay, it all stays interesting enough to engage, even when there are two pages on the subject of tea. Raseed is my favorite viewpoint character, since I like internally-conflicted hardasses, apparently, almost as much as I like making fun of teenagers. I perhaps over-empathize with the cranky-ass doctor.

So the book is well written with good characters. The world is rich and interesting. The plot is fun, if not too special, and I’m looking forward to the next book. Yes, we got another series! That I jumped into right after the first book came out! I hate waiting.

And I have something to add, because I love tangents more than any other trigonometrical subject. This book is billed in conjunction with the Arabian Knights in its typically breathless and over-written blurb. I even thought about making the comparison myself, and then I noticed there was no reason to do so. I’ve found the reference in several other reviews and mentions, too. And I guess I can see how it’s a useful shorthand, meaning “this story uses Middle Eastern rather than Western European folkloric roots.” But no one feels the need to introduce Tolkien with “well, this is sure Icelandic!” The fact seems to be that drawing from a not-entirely-Western tradition is so staggering that we have to fall back on the most basic, stereotypical reference we can find, dripping with Disneyfication and what’s left of colonial exoticism. For the record, Throne of the Crescent Moon has nothing in common with the Arabian Nights cycle that Earthsea doesn’t have in common with The Brothers Grimm. I’m equally excited to have a story that builds its mythos on a different foundation and annoyed that this is, in itself, a big fucking deal.

And I don’t really know which impulse is better. But I definitely think you should read this book, and the other ones when they come out.

*Disclaimer: Who they appear to be according to my genre savvy. Perhaps another reader will be shocked!

Review and Retrospective: The Raven Ring, by Patricia C. Wrede

Many of my readers will probably agree with the premise that Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are among the best YA books in the history of ever. The wild, gleeful skewering of tropes, the preponderance of dragons (automatically and immediately improving any book), the best use of rebellious princess syndrome in recent memory, Killer the levitating blue winged donkey who used to be a rabbit… I don’t know if I could critique these books even now, but when I was an even littler Ginger Waif, a wide-eyed and peculiar nerdling with an impossibly fast and demanding metabolism when it came to devouring books, Dealing With, Searching for, Calling on, and Talking to Dragons were pretty much the alpha and omega of what was awesome.

So after I’d read them ten or twelve times, I went looking for more by Wrede and, at the time, found it all in the intimidating grown-up section of the library and enjoyed what little I found there. This was before Google and I had to make due with what I had. Later in life, when used book stores, Sci-Fi club libraries, and the internet were available I did all I could to track down the early works of Wrede, as well as following her more recent stuff. Somehow, the only one that eluded me was The Raven Ring. Until now. Bwahahaha!

The Raven Ring is a novel of Lyra, the world Wrede created and mostly wrote in in her early career. The edition I got (on my schmancy ereader that seems to have laid claim to me entirely) rather interestingly includes the first chapter of the first book by the author as edited for a rerelease. I do enjoy these little glimpses into the writer’s thought processes, and it’s pleasantly humanizing to see one of the voices that defined my childhood, well, editing. Books seem to not actually burst fully-formed from the firmament, and it’s always nice to be reminded that a combination of work and talent rather than magic is responsible for great fiction.

While Lyra contains all kinds of strange creatures, The Raven Ring focuses on humans, and while there are ancient temples full of magical traps and sweeping landscapes and exotic locales of all sorts, almost all of the action of the book happens in a city, resulting in a sort of medieval urban fantasy of a kind I quite like (see, um, half the titles previously reviewed). The story follows Eleret, a warrior maiden who strikes out to the distant city to claim her soldier mother’s possessions following her suspicious death. She’s pulled into a bizarre intrigue surrounding a mysterious artifact and acquires some sidekicks. The Big Bads are alluded to. Apparently nothing bad ever happens in Lyra without the ultimate evil having a hand in it somewhere. It’s a little like Sunnydale that way.

SoThe Raven Ring is a good example of my lifelong idol’s work for adults and as a mature writer. I’m willing to say right here that it doesn’t work for me on the visceral level that theEnchanted Forest Chronicles did. Some of that is no doubt pure nostalgia at work, of course. I’m not aiming to make this a comparative review but rather to see how the dewy eyes of third-grade love work when the veneer of obsession is gone.

The writing in The Raven Ring is solid but unremarkable. There’s no stunning narrative voice to point to, though the dialogue is well constructed. The pacing of this rather short book feels occasionally pinched. There’s a lot of setup and a hurried payoff in the larger story arc, but individual plot threads are better. As I compared Swordspoint to a highly political LARP with erratically intertwining stories that never quite paid off, The Raven Ring strikes me as an investigative tabletop run by a small, intimate group that knows each other well, plays pretty neatly, and prefers the journey to the destination. The final showdown with the nefarious villain piles into an infodump of details the players didn’t catch on the way there and is finished in one climactic session of game.

To continue my nerdy, nerdy analogy (and I’m allowed because you’re already reading a spec-fic blog), the characters play together well. Eleret could be a generic grumpy action girl in an inferior author’s hands, but she has motivations and moods rooted in herself and the bizarre situation she finds herself in. She feels like a real person. Her sidekicks verge a little bit on the caricature in both cases, the dashing aristocratic rake and the snarky rogue. Wrede pulls them off and I admire a writer who takes old archetypes and breathes new life into them, but Daner is a little too Prince Charming wannabe and Karvonen a little too gleefully clever. they’re goofy. But it’s Eleret’s story. The main villain never has much of a character, but for good reasons; I’d say not having a real identity is a big part of the spookiness. He has some good minions, though. The supporting cast is just kind of there, I must admit. There are some soldiers and magicians and noble ladies and they amuse, but most of them just deliver plot points or conflict on cue.

The noble ladies actually point to a slight tonal issue in a lot of Wrede’s books, especially the older ones. As a rule, the positive characters are the ones who have swords or magic and go around doing useful things as far as the plot is concerned, and as long as they’re active and busy, the villains are generally at least interesting, if not sympathetic. People who prefer to ignore the tides of plot tend to get derided, which is fair enough, I suppose. Usually there’s a world or at least a large landmass and attendant population to save. Wrede likes high stakes. But while people who are mildly detrimental or wholly neutral as a whole just get made to look ridiculous, when these characters are female, they’re not just putting stupid stuff ahead of what’s important. They’re putting stupid girl stuff ahead of what’s important. Feminine heroines are alright, but if you’re a pesky sister or a courtesan with not much to do with furthering the story, you’re a stupid, dumb, girly girl who likes girl things.

As it happens, the Ginger Waif understands this issue. When one happens to be a girl, one is expressly and implicitly told over and over that these things over here are girl things for girls to like. If one happens not to be disposed to like the majority of those things (like, say, the color pink, ruffles, shopping, and so on), one becomes resentful, and that resentment can spill over onto the perfectly neutral totems of cultural femininity. And that in turn can spill over to the people who like those things. It’s clear to you that shoes and sequins are stupid and no one likes them (ah, self-centeredness), so people who seem to take honest joy in fashion and romance novels must be either disingenuous or stupid. I still have to remind myself every so often that there’s nothing wrong with happening to enjoy being what you’re expected to be.

I’ve heard Wrede speak at length on the subject of her female characters, but she dwelt on the heroines. Apparently, her stock answer to “How do you write such strong women?” is “Do you know any women?” Or something close to that. The talk was years ago. I don’t object to writing so that characters who are ambivalent to the plot are jerks, but I do object to using femininity as shorthand for shallowness.

Wow, that was… a tangent.

The story can’t be called generic, but it is a tad bit predictable as it unrolls. I can’t claim it’s the old “brave but naive warrior woman comes to the big city where various forces seem to coalesce around her and she makes friends with some entertaining weirdos and magic happens” yarn, but the mystery is far more for the characters than the genre-savvy reader. Karvonen injects a little chaos that the story badly needs, but even he can’t offset the predictability. That said, it’s a good story. It has all the important bits. Ennobling and base emotions at war, sword fights, intrigue. All the necessary elements, and it’s fun to read.

It’s hard to fairly assess the worldbuilding of The Raven Ring. I know a lot about Lyra and I suppose most readers of the book will as well, what with all that came before. That said, the Lyra books are all stand-alone stories, united only by universe, so the sense of place should be strong by itself. The city at the heart of the plot is fairly well explored, but it seems to consist entirely of inns, alleyways, maybe a market, and various buildings with NPCs waiting to dispense plot. It doesn’t have a lot of unique personality. Eleret’s homeland holds some interest, but so little of the action takes place there that all I know is that it’s mountainous and everyone there is warlike. The scary evil from beyond time is a little underwritten here (it makes a very oblique appearance, after all), so there wasn’t anything really scary going on. Though you might have a hard time finding a fantasy regular who’s easily scared by a bunch of ancient evil things that are evil and also evil rar. The magic at work is the most unique part. There’s a peculiar spin on tarot cards, some creepy and effective magical skullduggery, and some genre-standard magic-school sorcery, and it all works together well. The idea of superstition in a world with active magic is an interesting one, the same as mixing magic and gods, another idea that always draws me in.

So, altogether, The Raven Ring is a perfectly okay book with some real strong points. It’s nothing like as awesome as The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, though. What’s the moral of the story? Well, could be that the books that define us are stuck on a pedestal and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s the observation that some authors are more suited to one voice than another. Or maybe it’s just that there weren’t any dragons and it’s just a fatal flaw.

Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N. K. Jemisin

This review gig is getting to me a little, I’m finding. When I don’t care for a book I elucidate exactly why to myself, and if I can’t I get frustrated. I’ll interrupt myself from time to time even with a good book, wondering what I’ll say about that, wondering whether there’s enough of an experience for me to write about, wondering, wondering, wondering. It’s not a bad thing to be a critical reader, certainly, but it can be distracting. And so I was delighted to find that I didn’t have the least attention to spare from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

There’s a sort of feel to the old science fiction, back when it was all called science fiction regardless of whether it was pure swords and sorcery or all about aliens. (I think the categorical differentiation began to come about when icky girl writers got on the scene, but that’s another essay.)  It’s best in The Dying Earth and The Book of the New Sun, in the Ginger Waif’s humble opinion. The sprawling, sparkling, dirty cities, the civilizations great and terrible, the hovering threat from beyond the stars or beyond the heavens, all the horror and beauty a reader could ask for without the studied gritty reality you find in a lot of modern books that are trying too hard. The early excellencies of the old school. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age.

Yeah, as civilized as any world where old white dudes wrote all the stories.

But I can’t resist those incredible old universes, which is one reason I’m so very thrilled by The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Jemisin’s world has all the glories of the worlds that were and all the character depth and humanity of more modern spec-fic movements. There are frightening gods and shining temples and sinister priests and creeping perversions. There’s a protagonist with a history and a soul. Er, actually, that’s complicated, but… Let’s get on with the review, shall we?

Yeine is the rather young chief of her people, a small, matriarchal society considered not particularly civilized by the center of the world. This world has a very pronounced center, enforced by literal divinities. The Arameri are something between a nation and a family, the chosen wielders of gods as weapons, patrons specially chosen by the head god. (You will, as a fantasy reader of any stripe at all, recognize that the deities in question may be Other Than What They Seem.) The Arameri rule over everything by dint of having magical reusable nukes with personalities at their disposal, and Yeine is technically one of them. Her mother was the heir to the throne until she defected to marry a backwoods ruler. And as the story opens, Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky to face her grandfather.

Lot of background there just to get to page one. One of my favorite things about Yeine is that she’s a protagonist with a past. She’s got a touch of chosen one syndrome, but she was chosen for a very distinct, convoluted reason outside her control and she does well with the hand she’s dealt. She’s a defined person long before she walks into the story.

Anyway, Sky is full of backstabbing and horror and Yeine is thrown right into the center of it. Here’s where the book could have turned into a court intrigue, which I can enjoy if it’s done right, but I’m really very glad it didn’t. Wouldn’t have been half so much fun. Because Yeine’s friends and allies are the confined gods who give the Arameri their power over the world, and they’re just full of conniving and secrets and violence.

Very alien, these gods. It’s hard to write a deity and many writers aren’t up to it, but these are creatures believably drawn, quite distinct from humans but real characters all the same. It’s always hard to write the nonhuman in a way that works, so well done here. Yeine and her god friends are really the best parts, but her mad and terrible relatives (on both sides of the family) are also wonderful in their awfulness. There’s even this one nice guy. No idea how he got into this story, but then, he’s got some sharp edges of his own. Even the walk on characters have life and brightness. The characters and the world are inseparable in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Partly because some of them are deified personifications of abstract concepts and therefore part of the world because they want to be, but partly because it’s such a deeply imagined, intricate universe that everyone belongs right where they’re put and has a history and a glory.

Most of the actual history of the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is spoilerific. Its current situation is fraught with difficulties of its own, but it’s all amazingly epic. Jemisin only describes out two cultures in detail, Yeine’s and the Arameri, but there are hints about their surroundings. I love me some fictional anthropology and everything from dining conventions to intricate genealogies are present. Not laid out; it’s more of a snapshot thing. There’s not a complete story of anything anywhere in the novel, which is more fun for purposes of a world like this. You know the details are there. In fact, given the rapidity with which the sequel came out, they’re probably all written down in detail somewhere.

The writing is stylistically interesting on several levels. It’s a first-person narrative that’s forever cutting in and out of the story as it happened and some unknowable present vantage point that’s only explained at the end. In addition to increasing the reread value (“Oh, that’s what she was talking about!”), it keeps things mysterious and frantic to have this strange foreknowledge that isn’t foreknowledge. The prose is laid on a little thick sometimes, but I didn’t mind. That was another nicely old-school aspect to a very modern book and just added to the fun. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is heavy on the gory and squishy details, whether physical or emotional, and reading it is a pretty weighty experience, but I rushed through anyway. Definite page turner.

I won’t call the book flawless because nothing really is. Mythology is squicky and Jemisin held to that aspect of the story. The gods of the book are weird on the scale of the Japanese origin myth. While not a problem for me, their interactions can be unsettling the wrong way. There’s a bit of frantic catch-up from time to time, perhaps unavoidable with such a heavily convoluted plot. Keeping up is troublesome to say the least. But all my troubles with the book are little ones. I love this book hard and it made a tidy meal of my brain on my first frantic readthrough.

And if you’ll excuse me, the Ginger Waif’s copy of The Broken Kingdoms is waiting at the library.

Review: Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

When I reviewed the Riverside series, I came to the conclusion that the books were indefensibly, fundamentally… well, bad, but that I love them anyway. Now I am confronted with the opposite problem. Altogether, I would have to say that Zoo City is an interesting, well-written, unique book. And I don’t care for it.

Zoo City is a slice of life sort of book. Normally that wouldn’t be a good way to characterize a tale of murder and magic, but we’ll get to that.  Zinzi December is an ex-junkie who facilitates 419 scams and finds lost keys and, I dunno, tax returns using her fairly interesting magic abilities. She is accompanied everywhere by my favorite character in the book, Sloth. Sloth is a sloth, funnily enough, and he mostly hangs out and is grumpy. He and Zinzi are symbiotic familiar-and-witch, the life of one dependent on the other, and he’s pretty sweet all around. Zinzi is hired by some members of the Hello We Are Evil Club on behalf of an important music executive. One of his star teenyboppers has gone missing, and Zinzi reluctantly takes the job. Her power is finding lost things, though it apparently doesn’t apply to people. Which is why she doesn’t generally take missing persons cases, being no more qualified than I am to do so. So she embarks on a quest to find the starlet and then everything is gritty and conspiratorial.

What I find most interesting in this book is the writing. The bulk of the story is first-person and present tense, tossing you straight into Zinzi’s brain, and you never duck over to another character’s direct perspective. The flow is constantly built upon, though, by other bits of media. Beukes has a wonderful, versatile voice, and everything from trashy tabloid journalism to the blathering of internet commenters is wonderfully captured. The South African setting leads to a lot of linguistic jumps that were hard for a white-bread American-English reader to follow, but once I got into the swing of things, it was easy to get the gist. Hell, I read A Clockwork Orange. This was a piece of cake.

(Except I don’t like cake, and cake is actually kind of tricky. Brownies are easy. ‘Twas a brownie.)

Everyone has a voice and the imagery is always strong and sensual. I mean that in the purely nonsexual sense, I should note. I hope nothing in this book was supposed to be sexy, because it definitely wasn’t. But you could smell the smoke and feel the flesh tear and wade in sewage to your knees right along with Zinzi, and that’s some good storytelling.

The other solid element of Zoo City was its world. Urban South Africa of the magical near-future is a fascinating place. The main fantastic element are the animals themselves. People who have done significant wrong (and this is very vague; more on that later) suddenly develop a bad case of the animal companion edge. They also pick up a single psychic talent, as in Zinzi’s Saint Anthony routine. Zoos are hated and feared and so on and they have their own sort of sub-society. There’s also magic of a more shamanic sort that seems to be accessible to anyone who puts in the time and effort, though I got the idea that a lot of that was fraudulent or just wholly unreliable. That angle isn’t explored too much. Actually, a lot of things aren’t explored. In some places, as in world building elements, that’s alright. I don’t need the story interrupted for an in-depth and pedantic history of the practice of magic.

In other places, it thoroughly disrupts your enjoyment of and investment in the story. Take the animals. I have no idea what the actual criteria are for getting one. The implication is that murder is the big cause, but how direct it has to be escapes me. Zinzi herself is really unclear about what precisely went down to summon Sloth to her. One character seems to have picked his up in self-defense. Another seems awfully unlikely to have killed anyone. Most Zoos seem to be out on the streets, so either grimdark future South Africa has a really, really lenient court system when it comes to murder or you can also get one for petty crimes. But if you don’t have to do anything quite that bad, then why are so many gleefully evil people hanging out un-animaled? I have no idea. And, aside from distracting confusion, the whole situation leads to what I’m going to call the True Blood problem. We’re told that animaled folks deserve our understanding and are unfairly targeted. I’m okay with that. I’m a nerd, and as with most nerds I was picked on in school and am educated enough to be a bleeding-heart liberal. I side with the downtrodden. But since you apparently do have to be a fairly scary person to get an animal and whatever does the deciding is apparently infallible, I think it’s fair to be wary of people who are wearing their “accessory to murder at minimum” badges. I’m not for ostracizing and punishing those who commit criminal acts forever, but it’s a fair indication that you’re dealing with a person who ought to be treated with caution.

Anyway. That’s the trouble with the world. Then come the characters. Some of the side characters are pretty amusing, in a mild way. The bad guys are pretty good bad guys, even if most of them have inscrutable motives for everything they do, whether they’re the Club Evil mercenaries from hell or some guy who doesn’t like Zinzi for some reason and harasses her the whole book because he seems to feel like it. I have a theory that that guy has a thing for her boyfriend. Speaking of whom, Benoit really should be kinda interesting, but he isn’t. He has a colorful and tragic past and a strange present and seems to be one of the few people in the book who’s actually kind of nice or admirable, but he ends up just sort of occupying space.

And as for Zinzi herself… You spend the bulk of the book inside her head, and you clearly find that she’s quite convinced that she’s an unpleasant person who never does anything right. Usually, when a character harps on that point, it gets one of two reactions. If it’s done right, you say to yourself, “Oh, poor character, you just need to believe in yourself! You’re a good person!” If it’s done poorly, the reader is left thinking, “Oh, shut up, you Mary-Sue pain in the ass.” Neither of these things happened when I read about Zinzi’s self-esteem problem. All I could think was, “Yeah, you are a fundamentally unpleasant person who never seems to accomplish a damn thing.”

I don’t mind a villain protagonist. They’re great sometimes. Richard III, Severian, Artemis Fowl (early books); they’re all good. But that’s not what Zinzi is. I don’t mind antiheroes. They’re more fun, really. But Zinzi’s not really an antihero. Her great sin isn’t something she tries to redeem herself for. I have no idea what her great sin was. There’s never any hint at what really happened or why. There’s no suggestion that she didn’t just do something terrible because it was easiest. She’s ultimately not a hero. She doesn’t learn or grow. She doesn’t accomplish anything.

Which brings us to the slice of life plot. That’s all I can call it, because the story goes nowhere. It’s not what I’d call a tragedy in the traditional sense. There’s no fall. There’s no decline. It’s not even really a downer ending where they get a disease and lose the farm. It’s just fundamentally nothing. The world is the same place at the end of the story as in the beginning. A few people die or are terribly damaged. A few people don’t or aren’t. World keeps on spinning. This is not A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is just kind of a blank space.

It’s what I’m going to dub the China Meiville problem. There’s a wonderful world full of wonderful creatures and institutions and magic. The words are beautiful, even when what they bring to life is ugly. And yet there’s no substance. None of the characters resonate. None of the story holds up. Know the phrase “and nothing of value was lost?” In Zoo City, nothing of value is gained.

And yet I have to recommend it. It’s groundbreaking and well executed and interesting. And yet.

Review: Knight and Rogue Series, Hilari Bell

Isn’t it nice when you discover a new subgenre? A kind of story, a shape that recurs and gives you neat new way to relate? Sure, the completely unique is still to be treasured and cultivated, but it’s such a comfort to know there will be more if you look for it. There are the ones that are so common you forget they’re a specific form at all and not just the way stories are, like, say, “young individual (usually male) discovers themselves to be super special all along and goes off with their wise mentor to save the kingdom/planet/dimension/whathaveyou.” There are more particular forms, of course, like “girl goes off to court and is subjected to intrigue and almost always swordplay” or “some kid learns how to be a sneaky rogue from a slightly older and extremely handsome sneaky rogue.” It’s good to meet old friends in new clothes, or maybe it’s familiar old clothes on new friends. Either way, I love finding new ones. And I have recently discovered that “a naive and distinctly virtuous young man and his disreputable friend wander around having adventures” is a subgenre in itself. I first encountered this tale under the auspices of Mickey Zucker Reichert’s Nightfall duology, which like most of her work is amusing and kind of cute but not particularly rereadable. I much prefer the Knight and Rogue series. It’s my new best friend.

I’m not the only one who makes friends with books, right?

Anyway, there are three books so far in the Knight and Rogue series; The Last Knight, Rogue’s Home, and Player’s Ruse. They follow the adventures of Michael and his squire, Fisk, who live in and kingdom whose technology and social mores are roughly those of Early Modern Europe, though it’s a little squidgy. (I apparently didn’t make up that word. I love English.) You might infer that that makes being a knight errant kinda weird. So does everyone else. Yes, there’s an affectionate Don Quixote thing going on, if the Don were self aware and Sancho Panza better educated and grumpier. There’s also an interesting system of magic, which is identified as “magica” for… some reason. I often have mixed feelings about this sort of linguistic twist. On the one hand, it does sound more momentous and mysterious and more like a proper name, which jives with the way the metaphysical works in this universe, but on the other, you’re just saying “magic.” Go ahead. There’s a perfectly good word already. You run into this one a lot. Random spellings and added syllables on magic are outstripped in fantasy only by random spellings and added syllables on titles of nobility.

But I digress. Magic is an inborn property in this world, found in essentially random individuals in the animal and plant kingsdoms. Being a biologist I wanted to know if there were magic fungi and protists, and I make no apologies. Suffice it to say, the flora and fauna are commonly imbued with power that enhances their natural attributes. Medicinal plants are more effective, poisonous plants are more deadly, and presumably, magica Brussels sprouts are more retch-inducing. Magica rabbits can turn invisible, magica dogs are better at smelling things and learning tricks, magica horses run and jump more effectively. You get the idea. If you’re me you wonder a bit about the specificity of the properties enhanced by being magic, whether there’s a sort of Platonic ideal and why, exactly, the aspects that humans immediately think of are what gets better. There are more important things about being a rabbit than not being seen, if you ask a rabbit, I’m sure.

I digress again. And there’s a reason. Knight and Rogue makes for a wonderful little world and I’m inclined to explore it, and if I’m poking at the boundaries, it’s because I love it and want to understand all the more.

Plants and animals each have a god protecting them, and if you annoy a magic– sorry, a magica critter or herb, you get in trouble. Certain humans who are all secretive and shaman-y can help you fix that by means of sacrifice. Humans, however, don’t get a deity. They’re on their own. This leads to a rather interesting perspective on social contracts and a society in general. It’s a rare success at spinning a religious worldview in fantasy that I think really makes sense and makes the right sort of impact on story and character. Religion in spec fic can get so bloody contrived and it’s awfully problematic in terms of story, and I really like this handling of the subject.

I’ve talked too much about the magic, so with one quick explanation I’ll move on, though I love it so. Some humans have little twitches of Gifts, most notably the ability to sense magica, but also including a knack for handling animals or predicting the weather or knowing when they’re in danger. The story insists that these aren’t magic proper, just, um, exactly like magic in all respects. I’m not so sure about this aspect. Also, Gifts can only be passed down the female line and it comes and goes, so I guess it’s an X-chromosome recessive thing?

Alright, I’m really done about the world and its mechanics now. I’d like to run a game in the universe and see what I can make of it, so I’ll vent my nitpicking there instead. On to the characters. Michael and Fisk are some of the very bestest heroes of all time. Michael is a twist on a twist on the white knight. He’s not particularly effective, generally stumbling and lucking and leaning on Fisk all along the way to the ultimate mostly victory that sometimes comes. He’s completely aware that everyone he meets thinks he kind of sucks or at least is a nutcase, and while he keeps on keepin’ on, he does get discouraged, as anyone would. He is a super woobie, to speak TV Tropes at you.

(I’ll just take a moment to say that if Hilari Bell were of another generation, I suspect these two would be a couple. It’s awfully hard not to slash them with extreme prejudice. And with all the times Michael is injured and/or emotionally wounded and Fisk has to pick up the pieces… Well, there’s an app for that, is all I’m saying.)

Fisk is a cynic in theory, but an idealist in practice even before he and Michael are besties for life. As I learned back in a high school lit class sometime or other, you learn about a character first from what they do, then what everyone else says about them, and only lastly from what he says.  Fisk pushes himself as a hardened and irredeemable bastard, to which I say, Ha. And then pat him on the head. In my imagination. Fisk acts as a slightly more selfish Robin Hood even when he’s being all criminal, and thereafter he annoys bad guys with Michael and they bicker a lot.   He dwells a lot on injustices done him, and that’s a whole lot of injustices, granted, but aside from making him a tad bit bitter, he seems to have come out of being betrayed and neglected with a slightly bad attitude. He’s about as evil as an iguana in a funny hat.*

So yeah, they’re both fundamentally good hearted and deeply tragic and attractive and they always win at great cost and they’re super special awesome. It’s a YA book and it’s lovely. I can live with that. Being YA books, they have slightly disconcertingly large print and white space, which I know is wholly irrelevant to the content, but which always weirds me out a bit. The stories are at a good level for early teens, rating-wise, most of the gore described more in terms of emotional impact and sex mostly absent from the main characters’ consciousness. The story switches between Fisk and Michael’s first-person narratives, usually going along chronologically but occasionally skipping forward or back when the story calls for it. No stylistic leaps, but it’s very effective and these are two heads I like spending time in while they solve mysteries.

That’s most of what they do, solving mysteries. There are certainly episodes of swashbuckling and making acrobatic escapes, but the target is generally to determine who’s the the root of whatever evil’s afoot. The stories don’t really work as whodunits, in that the clues are either deeply obscure or super obvious, so you can generally guess who’s at the root of the wickedness but not why or how, just because they’re presented and dwelt upon. Though Bell does love red herrings. Fisk and Michael spend half the books eliminating suspects with actual detective work and the reader goes along eliminating based on whether there seems to be a reason for a character’s continued presence. If you were to chart the story, the books would seem a bit formulaic. Michael and Fisk go to a place. Someone they like describes something that is not as it ought to be. They investigate using their various strengths and eventually stumble to a conclusion, and there’s a battle of wits, wills, and weight, and then they wander into the sunset, presumably to return next books for brand new tales of daring-do.

But it’s the journey, not the destination, and there’s always enough new and strange material to keep you busy. Bell isn’t addicted to tying up every loose end in the world and the endings are never unreservedly happy. In fact, they’re usually more bitter than sweet. And sometimes some element of the climax does come barreling out of an alleyway yelling for your attention, having arrived a bit late. It’s a small flaw, though, and even the Attack of the Sudden Plot Element is fun and wacky and adventurous.

Knight and Rogue is the kind of series that could go on forever, assuming the heroes never actually find a way to solve their problems and settle down happily. The books are episodes of wild activity as the heroes wander from place to place with their ever-expanding and very silly menagerie (currently a drunk horse, a loud, gimpy horse, and a mute dog, playing lovable misfit counterparts to their lovable misfit owners). For reasons I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but which result in this pattern of Adventure>Go to New Place>Adventure, settling down isn’t bloody likely, and I hope to dip into the incompetent bumbling and thrilling escapades of Michael and Fisk** for many years to come.

This Ginger Waif review was brought to you by the letter F, the number 16.7, and the Society for the Promotion of “They” as a Third-Person-Singular Gender Neutral Pronoun in the English Language.

*Funny hats in reptiles are known to decrease evil by at least two degrees of magnitude.

**It has come to the reviewer’s attention that Fisk’s first name is Nonopherian.

Review: Riverside Series, Ellen Kusher

First off, guys, mannerpunk is a thing. Sweet Krishna on a pogostick, I will now restructure my entire life and every perspective around this revelation. Allow me a moment for the vapors.

Anyway, the Ginger Waif is back. Maybe for realsies this time. I’m now settled in to home and job a bit, and the library is easily reached. I’ve got lots of books to talk about, so prepare for rapid-fire review time. Today’s exploration is of a conundrum of a couple of books. Swordspoint, The Fall of the Kings, and The Privilege of the Sword are Ellen Kushner’s (and, in the second case, Delia Sherman’s) rather cultish tales of intrigue and maneuvering.

Mannerpunk. Hee.

Anyway, Swordspoint follows the exploits of this kind of irritating, scholarly drug addict named Alec and his almost equally dysfunctional lover, Richard St. Vier. They get in a lot of fights and are the victims of political intrigue. The Privilege of the Sword follows the career of impoverished noblewoman Katherine as she learns to use a sword and deal with the upper crust under the auspices of her uncle, the Mad Duke. To explain how these people are connected would require some spoilers and a chart, so suffice it to say they live in the same city and move in similar circles sometimes, some years apart. In The Fall of the Kings, well, uh, alright, confession time. I didn’t finish Fall of the Kings. I got a third of the way through it. I don’t know where this book went off the rails or if it’s the second author’s fault, but boy, did I not care the least bit. The characters had lost all their life and bite, the plot was less extant than in either of the other books, and the whole thing was mostly weird, pseudo-pagan blather that seemed to center mainly around having lots of gay sex.

That’s one thing about Swordspoint and its companions. There’s lots and lots of gay sex. Mostly male, sometimes female, everywhere and all the time. It sometimes reads like a slash fanfic. I’m pretty sure everyone in this universe is at least bi. I don’t object. I just wonder if there’s something in the water. Maybe, given that these are viciously political, high stakes stories where everything is on the bargaining table, and given that the society seems to disapprove of homosexuality only insofar as old ladies sniff about it, sex is traded like any other commodity? It’s an interesting take. But you do begin to wonder how they keep their population steady after a bit.

So yes, I am a bad, bad reviewer. I couldn’t get through The Fall of the Kings. The world seemed much more richly imagined than in either of the other books, and that was interesting, but the characters were flat and I have only so much tolerance for sex and scenery spirituality in place of action. I read Marion Zimmer Bradley in middle school and I don’t need more of it. A pretty, aimlessly sexy world full of boring people who did things for inscrutable reasons is no fun for me. It was rather the reverse of the other books, actually.

The real call to Swordspoint is the characters. Alec is wonderfully, horribly damaged, written with compassion and affection but without any illusions that he’s a hero for being a traumatized emotional wreck with every [insert thing here] abuse history there is. He’s a black-clad broken bird for grown-ups. Katherine grates a little at the beginning of her story when she just whines a bunch about wanting dresses, but she grows up rapidly and reasonably and becomes the hero of her own tale more than her predecessor in Riverside ever did. The side cast is just as rich and sparking and deep, carved from bright and exotic stuff all of them, whether ennui-plauged, arrogant noble or wretchedly and erratically stern swordmaster, down to the irksome street urchins. I want to meet these people, though most of them I wouldn’t want to chat with regularly, because they’re tightly-wound bundles of issues and mental illness. They’re affectionate grotesques and fairy tale heroes brought back to earth.

And their sex scenes are generally both tasteful and fairly visceral. She does a better job than a lot of fantasy writers, and I think it’s worth noting. In the two books being regarded herein, sex is queasy and awkward, but it’s supposed to be. Everything feels uncomfortable and ill-advised and a bit stupid, and that’s a more fair treatment of the subject than you’ll usually find. And if you’re a Ginger waif and you think nice romance is boring, these awkward character studies are infinitely more intriguing.

Anyway, the characters are incredible and get under your skin like a splinter, only mildly more pleasant. So it’s sort of strange to me that the world they inhabit is so very under-imagined. I’m not being fair, perhaps, because The Fall of the Kings is mostly history and scenery. It’s just incomprehensible and silly and wrapped in layers of inscrutable mysticism. In the other two books, which my brain insists are the actual canon, the city is unnamed, the country is unnamed, the mythology is vague, the history is barely hinted at… There’s a vacuum. And it’s a fair choice. You’re living in the city with the characters. The action never stops to tell you why there’s a statue of a guy with donkey legs and a large peacock in the fountain (disclaimer: this specifically does not happen). That’s just there. I can deal.

What I’m less comfortable with is the way the city is put together. The manners of the nobility are a vague hodgepodge of Regency rules and Renaissance aesthetics. The technology level is all over the place. We see essentially nothing of the city’s day to day economy, so I’ll leave that aside, but if you didn’t assume the place was really big, you’d assume no one there does anything but hang with prostitutes and go to the theater. Perhaps I’m spoiled. I follow authors like Lynn Flewelling who develop their local anthropology down to the dinner plates and gleeful fantasists like Cat Valente who create worlds that clearly work according to entirely different rules. The folk of Riverside and the surrounding area (Riverside is a neighborhood, and the only place that gets a damn name) are so grounded and earthy it’s very strange for them to have no particular place in the world.

But a weirdly realized universe is the author’s prerogative. What I can’t reconcile myself to is the complete lack of a central plot, at least in Swordspoint. The Privilege of the Sword is a coming of age story and Katherine’s journey growing up and following her goals, while not precisely a plot, is something to follow the whole way through. And I think Fall of the Kings was eventually going to be about the boring main character and his boring boyfriend restoring the monarchy? That’s kind of a story. Swordspoint, though… It has many, many subplots. There’s a whole thing about this young rake who gets in a spat with an old guy who wants to sleep with him and he wants to sleep with this duchess he does some stuff and interacts a little with everyone else and leaves. No reason. Alec was a scholar but he got in trouble when he and his friends discovered stuff that challenged existing notions and got kicked from university. Has potential! But no, that doesn’t really go anywhere, either. There’s a sort of central thread (in that it follows Alec and St Vier closely) about a shady contract to kill a guy. It shows up no more than a third of the way into the story and stays until the end. But it doesn’t stand out any.

Know what Swordspoint reads like? Like someone took really, really careful notes of everything that ever happened to their friends in a really long-running, complicated, political LARP. Stories start and stop as people come up with ideas or join and leave the game. Everyone meets once or twice just for the sake of it, but ultimately they’re all pursuing their own stories. I guess that’s one way to write a novel. Hell, George R. R. Martin has become a universal nerd darling for doing pretty much the same thing on a larger scale. But I can’t help but say… My kingdom for a plot.

The wordsmithing of the books is nothing to really note. It’s competent. Sentences don’t hurl themselves angrily at your sensibilities and they don’t bring you to raptures. The pacing is usually pretty good and everything’s consistent. Sometimes, mostly in Alec’s scenes, there’s a very visceral, heavy darkness to the tone, but mostly she just tells you what’s happening in whatever style’s appropriate. Not overly concerned with the particulars of style.

So how to grade these books? I love them and would read them again, except the one I couldn’t read at all. I love the story, but I can’t pick out what it is. I want to hug the characters, and I hate hugging, but after that I want to put them back in the dysfunctional asshole box where they can’t bother nice people. I might like to visit, just to get an idea of what the city actually looks or feels like besides someone crashed Jane Austen into an Errol Flynn movie. They’re kind of awful, but they’re fantastic. I haven’t been this conflicted since I lived someplace with easy access to deep-fried pickles. Go ahead. Read them. Just don’t come crying to me when you do.

(Mannerpunk. Squee.)