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.

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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.)

With all due respect… Neil Gaiman was wrong (eek!)

This comes of discussing Coraline with my sister again. She who prefers not to be known as the Ginger Waifling was enamored with that particular book and, in fact, led us both to the awesomeness of its author that way. Coraline, for those who neither read creepy books nor watch passable silver screen adaptations, is the story of a little girl who discovers a way to another family. They seem to answer all her dreams of what a family ought to be, but then it goes from sour to dreadful and our heroine barely escapes. It’s a theme he touches on again in The Sandman: A Game of You, wherein Barbie’s Dream world (pun unintended but unavoidable) is destroyed by a villain known as the Cuckoo. Spoiler here: The Cuckoo is an odd manifestation of Barbie’s childhood dreams of being a foundling from another family, presumably royal. Without going into detail about that plot, the Cuckoo does expound at length on Gaiman’s theory. Unfortunately I don’t own the book and it’s long past time that bad rabbits and ginger waifs should go to bed, but I’ll try and summarize without access to the quote.

Little girls dream of being someone else. Of being the long lost princess, usually, but always of having another family, another place to belong. Boys, on the other hand, just dream about being knights and driving trucks and stuff.

Bullshit, says the Waif.

It’s not that little girl story. It’s not even that story. It’s the, story, to be a stickler for articles. It’s the story that drives all the others, the story that makes a teller of tales, the story of the misfit who’s really someone cool. Once upon a time there was a boring, everyday person who didn’t fit in. But then it was Uncle Bilbo’s birthday. His uncle bought some used droids. A letter was delivered to #4 Privet Drive. And those are just modern uses. Was once this time in Bethlehem when three wise men made a visit to a house and bestowed gifts on the baby there. Ever since we got past the idea that the only people worth talking about were born fighting dragons and died with all the gold and enemy skulls and who were kings and demigods, we produced the secret hero. He’s all those things, only no one knows it, and generally everyone’s mean to him and won’t they all be sorry?

Ahem. Now, notice how all my abovementioned examples are united in chromosomes? The misfits who only need to be discovered to be the chosen ones to take on the world aren’t the dreams of boys. They’re the dreams of misfits. But while not every boy needs that escape and that dream, just about every girl in societies like humanity’s produced so far generally do. Girls are socialized to compromise and nourish and subsume their own desires to everyone else’s until they’re not the least bit at home in their own skin. But they’re also socialized to know they don’t get to have a sword and save the kingdom. So the secret person they really are becomes tied to family with the rest of their identity. Leia needs to be a princess. Does anyone in real Star Wars ever point out that Luke would then, presumably, be a prince? (Never mind that they’d be royalty of a planet that somehow elected its monarchs, because that’s dumb and beside the point.) It’s cool to be a prince, sure, but you don’t need to be one.

In some parts of the world, at least, that socialization for little girls is changing. Or at least it’s being challenged. When the Ginger Waif was even smaller, the bedtime stories followed the adventures of a princess, but the point was mostly having dragons and her parents simply became a king and queen as well. And the littlest member of my family gets stories about a girl who lives with some mad scientists. No royalty necessary, a few decades later.

Though you know, when I think back to the heroines who really defined my youth, no one got a freaking Gandalf. Cimorene wandered out one day and signed up to be a dragon’s assistant. Alanna tricked her own way into knight school. Sabriel let herself over the wall. Deeba took over when the anointed one was knocked out of the game.

No wonder the boys get so ansty around wicked girls rescuing themselves. No need to be a princess nowadays, and no one needs to be the chosen one, either. Everyone’s in charge of finding their own adventures.

Review: “See Me,” by Tanya Huff

The Ginger Waif apologizes for a long absence. There was stuff that happened. It either involved a brief sojourn on a space-whaling vessel or a layoff and an awkward move. Anyway. Today I’m delving into another short story (yay!) and a story that features my beloved Tony Foster of Smoke and Shadows fame. It’s a good day to review.

“See Me” is one of many stories to be found in Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives, edited by Justin Gustanis. It’s an anthology–and someday I will figure out how to review one of those–of occult detective stories. I have less time to spend with it than I’d like, as I’m speeding along while spending the night at a friend’s. Maybe I’ll get my hands on my own copy or a library’s and return to the whole. It seems to me an excellent project. I’m a sucker for Urban Fantasy. What can I say? And as the stories all feature characters who hail from established worlds, it’s a great way to find shiny new series. I wasn’t really familiar with any of the other authors, so I have expeditions to make…

Anyway. The story picks up well after the end of the aforementioned Smoke series. This makes avoiding spoilers a little difficult, if you haven’t already met that excellent cast, but I’ll try. The story features Tony and Lee most prominently, second assistant director (he apparently hasn’t had a promotion in a few years) and second lead, respectively. Most of the other greats from the series return, most notably Amy the spastic goth and Jack, Mountie and monster fighter. Interestingly, Henry is missing. No snotty-ass vampires here. Tony is the sort of character I really care about, and he always had such organic growth throughout the novels that I follow his career with interest, and I thought it was good for him not to be leaning on Henry. He’s accomplished a goal there and kept it accomplished. Good on him. And Henry, while pretty damn cool in the Blood series, got a little annoying as Smoke went on.

Rather as usual, “See Me” opens with the production crew at work. There’s a scream. Tony encounters a body (so, you know, Tuesday). A dead old guy and a panicked prostitute, Valerie, are discovered at the end of the alleyway. Lee decides to befriend her and Tony decides to be suspicious of her. Honestly, there’s not much to be surprised at until the end. I’d figured out the monster and modus operendi pretty early, though to be fair, the story’s not a whodunit. Tony got it right after I did. The conclusion, however, is a surprise, and a beautiful one.

I have previously mentioned a certain discomfort with the sexual politics in this series, and I was afraid this story would be equally awkward and uncomfortable. I was pleasantly surprised. From an inauspicious beginning, it found its way to treating everyone with gentleness and respect. The story doesn’t even wholly demonize sex work! Valerie’s unhappiness and Tony’s past are treated with tenderness that borders on condescension, especially paired with the Tony-centric narration in portions, but the appearance of one cheerfully confident hooker and Lee’s POV scenes belie that. It’s odd to harp on and praise the gentle consideration in a horror story, but I promise it doesn’t distract from the scary part and it’s refreshing, compared to earlier manifestations in this universe.

The writing took some interesting turns. The story isn’t nearly as funny as Smoke tends to be, dealing as it did in its limited space with some very heavy themes, but there are new aspects that make up for it. There’s a lot of Lee in the narration, and he’s always been a subtly interesting character. It’s cool to hear from him without the Tony filter. The pacing is tight–it’s only about twenty pages, and Huff has a bit of a sprawl habit, so well done. The visual language is especially rich in this little story, always a nice touch, and especially in this genre. You can get away with some pretty simple worldbuilding in urban fantasy, because it’s just the regular one, only with vampires, and visuals often get abandoned, but there was a sense of place in this story, particularly strong though Huff always makes you feel very grounded, whether in Vancouver or in a vaguely Middle Easter-inspired city improbably clustered around a very active volcano.

So all that stuff I said about how short stories don’t really work with my usual four-part grading system? I lied. Short stories are slippery, feral beasts, and sometimes they’ll sit down and let you define them and sometimes they run away and join the circus. And I mean a weird circus. Cirque du Soleil weird. “See Me” cheats a little by having its long-established mythos to draw from, but every other story in the book has a home elsewhere and there’s enough exposition to be getting by. The characters are, as always, strong, though they’re showing their emotional sides rather more than usual. I don’t object (relationship drama is digestible in a short story, and when it involves characters who are real and beloved and strong), but odd that we should see so much more vulnerability arguing over a kinda weird girl than battling for the fate of the world. The story is well-executed, if not the most unique idea ever crafted, and it’s wrapped up with a particularly pleasant twist. The writing is more lyrical than perhaps is Huff’s usual, and it works well for this oddly compelling slice of life. A lot fewer jokes, though. I do miss my pithy remarks. And the world is the same supernatural-infested Vancouver it’s been since Smoke and Mirrors, but the detail of the city and its people and scenery is particularly well done this time around.

If you haven’t read the Smoke series, do. Then read this. If you haven’t time to read the whole series (and really, it goes fast, faster than you want it to), just read “See Me.” And if you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do, and if you haven’t got a ha’penny, then the library’s free, so you’ll be fine.

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!