Review – Moon Called

Cover of Moon Called by Patricia BriggsMoon Called, Patricia Briggs

This was a lot of fun. I guess it’s fairly standard for the sort of paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre, in terms of plot, but then there’s also a part Native American protagonist, a non-stereotypical gay man who is a werewolf and whose problems in his relationship are caused by that in an interesting way, and plenty of critique of the whole Alpha werewolf thing that the various men in the story do. If I were Mercy, I’d like to say I’d have clocked them a lot more often… on the other hand, Mercy uses their natures as a way to deal with them, as a plan of attack, so that works too.

Also, you’ve got to appreciate that Mercy is self-sufficient, a mechanic, a woman in a man’s world who demands respect from everyone — even people who have some measure of excuse for expecting her to sit down and shut her mouth, like the werewolves. It’s not unproblematic that they have to have that dynamic, but it’s better than pretending the issue wouldn’t be there at all in a bunch of humans half-influenced by wolfish natures.

The mystery itself is not that amazing; I didn’t feel like we had enough of the clues to work it out in advance, not properly; the explanation turned out to be a bit too convoluted. Still, it wasn’t bad either, using the clashes between werewolf culture and modern culture, between werewolf nature and human society. The way Mercy, a coyote shifter, interacts with the Pack and with vampires and Fey is also interesting.

Overall, I’m not that invested in who Mercy dates in the end, but the series has plenty of time to convince me of that aspect, with the groundwork laid here.

Rating: 3/5


Liking Problematic Things (And People)

It happens all the time in fandom. You’ve been watching something awesome, reading something, whatever, and it turns out that the creator said something racist or there’s an episode which really sucks in the way it treats women, or… And suddenly, everyone’s talking about it, being critical about it, and telling you that you should stop liking it. Sometimes it even feels like they’re attacking you when they attack this thing that you love, because it questions your taste, your discernment, your personal views.

Stop a moment.

There will be people who are saying ‘Supernatural fans are all scum because [xyz]’, or ‘how can you support a man who says gay people should be shot?’ or ‘how dare you like this thing which appropriates my culture?’ You can’t win an argument with them: they’ve weighed in on the liking-problematic-things issue and decided that once a thing crosses a certain line, they can’t/won’t like it, they can’t/won’t support it, etc. That’s their decision and if they won’t leave you alone about it, I suggest blocking/muting, because arguing with them isn’t going to go anywhere.

But is it okay to like problematic things?

Yes. Yes, it is. Look: no one is perfect, everybody has some prejudice or pet peeve or even a trauma in their past which makes them act in a certain way. Everyone. As long as you acknowledge that, as long as you’re okay with criticism of the things you love, and you don’t just want to close your eyes and pretend it’s not there, then go right ahead. I like the MCU, but I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t bother me that we’re low on female Avengers and somehow it’s more important to introduce Spider-man for the gazillionth time than it is to give us Carol Danvers just once. I like Jeremy Renner’s acting work, but I don’t appreciate his comments on Black Widow. I like Jacqueline Carey’s work, but I’m also aware that the exoticisation of various cultures is a problem.

And then there’s the fact that people change. There are still feuds going on in science fiction fandom from Racefail ’09. People who won’t speak to each other, who’ve blacklisted each other, and yet stand on the same side of current debates about the Hugos. It’s difficult to know how to navigate that as a reader: is it okay to like Elizabeth Bear? Sarah Monette? They’re saying the right things now, but there are clearly still grudges in fandom, feelings that some people should have apologised or apologised better or perhaps even that no apology will be enough. Is it okay to like Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s work after the discovery of her identity as Requires Hate/Winterfox?

I was worrying about this for a while, once I realised that Katherine Addison was Sarah Monette, and I knew the name because of Racefail ’09. When I realised that the first time I’d heard of some Tor editors was during that whole debacle and that maybe I wasn’t entirely happy that things had changed there. When I realised that X was friends with Y and Y had said some seriously problematic stuff at some point.

Here’s my decision: we’re all people, and we’re none of us perfect. We miss things, we prioritise different issues, we like things despite issues. And that’s okay. As far as I’m concerned, each individual has to make those decisions for themselves. Let’s have no illusions: we’re all going to like things which are in some way offensive, awkward, biased, unapologetic. We’re going to disagree on what those things are and where lines are drawn. We’re not going to be able to come to some consensus about what it is okay to like. Even people you love will say some seriously stupid shit.

If someone likes Orson Scott Card’s work, it’s not a sign that they’re automatically my enemy — their priorities are just different, and that’s fine. If they deny that what he says is offensive, then maybe we can’t be friends because we disagree at a fairly fundamental level, but if they say ‘yeah, he’s a jerk, but I love Ender’s Game anyway’… okay. I think there’s room for that.

So yeah. You’ll see me reading and reviewing stuff by people who have said really stupid things, sometimes. Really offensive things, probably. Maybe even books which have racist elements or which are rife with colonialism. Reading and even liking those things is not an endorsement of the stupid/offensive things. The only thing which is an endorsement of bad behaviour, prejudice, etc, is… endorsement!

If there’s something problematic I haven’t acknowledged about a book, by all means, let’s talk about it. I’m as full of prejudice as anyone, as fallible, and as often out of the loop. But I’m not going to hate something on demand. Deal?

Review – Martin the Warrior

Cover of Martin the Warrior by Brian JacquesMartin the Warrior, Brian Jacques

I hadn’t thought of rereading these seriously until I realised that reading a childhood book was on the list for a reading challenge, and then my sister returned all my copies to make room on her shelves for her own books. Then I thought, well, why not? I remember that I found the books getting a bit repetitive as the series went on (and on, and on) but Martin the Warrior was the first I read, and it’s obvious why it hooked me as a kid. It’s a little bit deterministic — rats are evil, mice are good, shrews are quarrelsome, etc — but I know that’s tackled a little in later books with characters like Veil. I’m not sure it’s ever really dealt with, though.

One of the awesome things is the way it talks about food; all kinds of food that animals would actually eat, yet cooked in human ways. It’s a weird combination, or sounds it, until you read the book and then it just sounds tasty. I’m sure I’d like Grumm or Polleekin’s cooking…

Martin the Warrior ends on a sour, sad note. I think ultimately the sympathies lie with the peace of Noonvale, even while there’s understanding of the need for revenge that drives Felldoh and, to a lesser extent, Martin. It doesn’t bring any good to the characters, even though they’ve removed a threat from the world.

Definitely a good nostalgia read, despite the sadness, and perhaps a bit more nuanced than I remembered.

Rating: 4/5

Review – The Bards of Bone Plain

Cover of The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A. McKillipThe Bards of Bone Plain, Patricia A. McKillip

I love McKillip’s work, now that I’ve got into it; I actually found it a bit difficult to pick which of her books to read last night, and ultimately just went with Lynn‘s recommendation. It took me a little while to get the hang of how this world works: there’s cars and trams, but also ancient magic, a bit closer to the surface than it is for us. It’s nice to have a fantasy setting where there’s industry, where there are essentially grad students (trainee bards) and archaeologists (the princess and her team) and that sense of a past, present and future — some fantasy worlds neglect one of the three.

The twin narratives mostly work for me; you slowly realise what the linkages are. I liked that we also get to read Phelan’s thesis, as well; but then, I’m always a fan of texts-within-texts like that (see also: my love of the various texts mentioned in The Lord of the Rings).

As for McKillip’s writing, I found it a bit less dense and dreamlike than usual, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m used to it now or because it’s genuinely more comprehensible. It’s still magical, either way.

Rating: 4/5

Review – City of Saints and Madmen

Cover of City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VandermeerCity of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer
Originally reviewed 1st March, 2009

Confession: I didn’t actually read all of the appendix of this. I intend to finish it some day, but it’s not the kind of book I feel like I can sit down and just blitz on through. The… bittiness annoys me: I do like short stories/novellas, but this isn’t the easiest collection to read.

The comparisons between Perdido Street Station and this book are obvious. I felt the cities were characters in both books — more clearly so in this book, where there’s no single recurring, central character. It’s an interesting collection of stories with all kinds of different tones and styles and genres, even, all centred around the fictional city of Ambergris. The writing and descriptions are quite rich, and you build up a very clear mental image of this city.

Ignoring the appendix, there are four stories:

‘Dradin, In Love’ — This one was richest in very visual descriptions of the city. I kind of felt overwhelmed, a bit thrown in at the deep end, but I did like the descriptions. It was also the most straightforward short story — not masquerading as anything else. The ending was weird, and clever, but also kind of predictable.

‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris’ — This was slightly drier, masquerading as a sort of history pamphlet. The footnotes made me laugh, but it was kind of irritating to go back and forth between text and footnotes. The style was clever, but the story wasn’t as enjoyable as the first one.

‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’ — This combined story-telling with a sort of… art criticism thing. Again, clever, and more interesting because there was also normal short story narrative. It kind of discusses misinterpretations of art and rolls its metaphorical eyes at people who pretend they understand author intent through psychoanalysing them.

‘The Strange Case of X’ — At this point it felt like it was “too clever by half”. Which is how I generally feel about authors appearing in their texts, so perhaps that isn’t an unexpected reaction from me. It was kind of obvious to me, and yeah, it’s a clever story device but it also wasn’t that surprising. Not so much world-building or anything, just pure “lookit my clever plot device, look!”.

Appendix — Stuff related to the previous story. Some of it is interesting, some of it not, for me.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Buried Giant

Cover of The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroThe Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

I was so eager to read this one, because I love Ishiguro’s writing and I love Sir Gawain, who I knew appears in this book. He’s not actually the main character (but then, he rarely is), but he is an essential part of the story, which unfolds steadily as you read. There’s a fog drifting across the memories of both Saxons and Britons, keeping them from remembering events both recent and further away; this same fog clouds the memories of an elderly man and his wife, who set out to find their son.

It’s quite a mysterious story, because of that fogginess; things get revealed slowly, things come together piece by piece. I think people who gave up on it, while justified if they weren’t enjoying it, can’t really grasp how this all comes together. There is a point to all of the little conflicts, all the repeated conversations, all the interactions. It ends as a meditation on death, memory, relationships… and to me, it was touching.

I enjoy Ishiguro’s style, and continued to do so here. I don’t really have a quibble with the pacing, because though it lost other people, it seems to work for me. But I can’t get behind this version of Sir Gawain… He’s not too bad in the end, and yet one or two things he does… nope. Not my Gawain.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Luka and the Fire of Life

Cover of Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman RushdieLuka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie

I’ve been meaning to try something by Rushdie for a while, and the idea of trying something I hadn’t heard of by him sounded appealing. Especially since it’s a fable-like story set mostly in a fantasy world; that’s the sort of setting that most appeals to me. I actually don’t know much about the plots of Rushdie’s other books — just that there were a lot of objections to The Satanic Verses.

Luka and the Fire of Life is a fairly traditional fable in one way: a boy, seeing his father dying, must quest for the magical item that will restore him to life and allow him to live. But then there’s also gaming — Luka finishes levels, gathers extra lives, saves his game — and modern puns like the whole section with the Respectorate of I and the Otters (and the land of OTT, where everything is, well, over the top). It’s an odd juxtaposition at times, but I quite liked it — and Rushdie can certainly turn a phrase. I’m going to read more by him, but I think I’m glad I tried this first — it’s relatively short and unthreatening, so it might well make a good gateway drug.

Rating: 4/5

Review – A Slip of the Keyboard

Cover of A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry PratchettA Slip of the Keyboard, Terry Pratchett

This is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fictional writing, including talks, articles, introductions and opinion pieces. It does include ‘Shaking Hands With Death’ as well, if you wanted to read that without actually buying the separate book with it in; this is technically better value for money, if you’re interested in all of the pieces. Most of them are interesting; one or two are odd without context — I haven’t read Nation recently enough, for example, to really appreciate his commentary on the writing of it, and the stage adaptation that was made.

If you’ve made the mistake of thinking of Sir Pratchett as like some ‘jolly old elf’, then Neil Gaiman’s introduction will begin to separate you from that notion, and then Pratchett’s own words will add to it. He had a burning anger which drove him in his writing and his activism, an anger at things that were wrong, an anger at the disease that was taking away parts of himself. He writes about that movingly several times; other essays talk about reading, learning, writing, the oddnesses of being an author…

I enjoyed reading it, though it’s not something I can see myself reading again. Worth it for the clear-eyed view on assisted dying and the kind of legislation we need on that.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s theme is all about what you’d put on a syllabus if you were teaching a 101 class. Being me, I’m going to pick fantasy work, because if I could get away with teaching a 101 class on this somewhere, I would.

  1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The quest adventure is a big staple of fantasy literature, and Sir Gawain is a good early example that demonstrates some of the later tropes. I’d possibly add Chrétien de Troyes, The Mabinogion, Malory, some other Arthurian stuff, because that was a huge influence on later fantasy fiction.
  2. A Norse saga. I’d have to do some thought on which one, but the Norse stories were such a big influence, it needs to be considered.
  3. William Morris. I haven’t read any of his books yet, which I know is a grave lapse, but I know that his work was important in the development of fantastical novels.
  4. Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword. This one is probably my favourite, and it would amply demonstrate the way fantasy pulls from Celtic and Nordic mythologies.
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the RingsOf course. Hugely influential. The Hobbit was first, but it’s the scale of The Lord of the Rings that later fantasy has tended to emulate.
  6. C.S. Lewis. For a Christian-inspired fantasy, also common.
  7. Ursula Le Guin, all the Earthsea books. My students would cuss at me, but it’s for their own good. Here fantasy starts engaging with those older, sexist tropes. Less explicitly, also with racial tropes — and we’d have to discuss the cover issues, where many covers have portrayed Ged as white.
  8. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. We’ve got the background. Now let’s start looking at stuff that’s by more diverse authors: we’ve had enough dudes on this syllabus, for sure, and Jemisin is also a person of colour.
  9. Patricia Briggs, Moon Called. It’s also worth getting a look at the urban fantasy that’s emerged in the last couple of decades. It’s often dismissed into the genre of paranormal romance; would we be doing that if the author was male? (Glance at Jim Butcher: no. No, we wouldn’t.)
  10. Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death. As I recall, this is post-apocalyptic and shows where fantasy and science can converge. It also discusses gender, sexuality and race issues, and it’s by a person of colour.

Oh, man, I would so like to teach this as a real curriculum. What’s everyone else been coming up with?