Saturday 23 February 2019

Dorian, Peralta and Masculinity

Since my first comparison of Scrubs and Brooklyn 99, I've fallen head over heels for the cop show. Between incredibly entertaining characters and a fuller appreciation of them as personalities for more watching, its got me hooked and I'd now put it up alongside Scrubs without hesitation.

One of the reasons I compare it so automatically to Scrubs is the high level of similarity between the main characters. Dorian and Peralta are both very immature people who have to grow up to realise their high level of potential as human beings and professionals. What's more, they share similar backgrounds in that both had inattentive dads, a failing that they seek to make up for by latching onto work mentors as father figures. I forget whether its explicitly called out as a cause of either man's immaturity but it's commonly enough linked that it doesn't have to be.

It goes further and I'm not just talking the physical similarities. The same long romantic desire for the beautiful awkward geek in the work place. A tight friendship with another guy who is very different from them.

But there is are differences. One of the easiest to identify is that Peralta is more macho. He's a cop who loves action movies and who barely reads for pleasure. His reaction to being locked into a store with robbers is that its like Die Hard but real. Dorian by contrast calls himself King of the Nerds. He drinks appletinis, loves bath products, and his lack of manliness is constantly lampooned by those around him - to his great discomfort.

What is not so obvious but more important to the two characters' personalities is that Peralta is a hell of a lot more confident. Peralta knows he's an amazing detective. Dorian needs to be told he's an amazing doctor - and he really does need it in every sense of the word. Dorian naturally looks for a lieutenant's role. When Peralta isn't lead on a case, he takes over anyway. Both Dorian and Turk, and Peralta and Boyle, at times identify as Batman and Alfred (Alfred being even more subordinate than Robin). But while Dorian identifies as Alfred even in his own daydreams, in Brooklyn 99 its Boyle who cheerfully cops to being Alfred. 

That these two aspects are linked are obvious. This is not necessarily a link between masculinity and confidence - although not necessarily unlinked either - but an obvious ramification of Peralta being more comfortable with who he is. Dorian struggles with the idea that he's not as manly as he should be and thus needs more validation.

But there is a third difference that might be and that might be interesting - and that is Peralta grows up quicker, particular in terms of his love life. He's marrying his love while Dorian is only just facing up to the fact that he can't keep thinking of his mentor as a superhero and still messing up his romances. Peralta is more sure footed about knowing what he wants and going and getting it. He faces setbacks with determination - when forced to choose between his career and relationship, he unhesitatingly picks his relationship. Meanwhile, Dorian has a massively entertaining hissy fit over Cox's decision not to name him Chief of Residents and is called out by his best friend for sabotaging his relationships.

Are we meant to link these aspects? That masculinity leads to confidence leads to maturity, particularly in love? I think you've got to look at the other male characters in both shows to judge what the creators are thinking. 

In the case of Scrubs, the two most masculine characters are Turk and Cox. In many ways, Turk is more like Peralta than Dorian; cocky, cool, and quick to grow up in a romantic and family sense. Cox's hyper-masculinity is at times toxic but at the same time, he spends the majority of the series' arc happy with the woman he loves. The most insecure and infantile is Ted, the hospital sadsack, who only finds love a long way into the series (and after becoming slightly less of a sadsack). The most promiscuous man is Bob "I like whores" Kelso, whose most romantic words to another woman are ended with "Thanks Ted, tell my wife I won't be home tonight". Kelso is definitely confident and, as a tattooed war veteran, macho. If he comes across as less masculine as Turk and Cox, its only a product of his advanced age.

Looking at Brooklyn 99, the most interesting case is Terry Crews. Built by the same people who did Stonehenge, Terry is a man's man in terms of physical appearance and a highly dutiful sergeant and father. However, he is also clearly a man who has numerous confidence issues in the past that, at times, resurface (including one case of stress eating that destroys his hyper-masculine image). He is the past had an active love life, but is monogamous through the run of the show.

Other characters include Holt; a confident man who dismisses a wound from taking on three armed muggers as "lightly stabbed" and who is happily married. There's also Boyle; neurotic and lacking in backbone, with a number of romantic relationships before finally (after getting pushed into it by Peralta) finding his one. Finally there's Hitchcock and Scully, the ageing and lazy detectives who have a string of mainly off-screen relationships.

There is, intentional or not, a correlation between a character being depicted in either show as conventionally masculine - physically active, like booze and sports, resilient and slightly emotionally withdrawn - and being confident, lucky in love and successful in life. It is not that characters that lack those traits are incapable of finding a long-lasting happy monogamous relationship, but it is much harder for them.

Why? Is it because these characters make more interesting romantic foils? Sheer coincidence? Or unintentional bias from the writers as to what a successful man looks like? It might even be mildly intentional bias. There's no way that the decidedly unmasculine Dorian getting to meet a range of alpha males through the ages in terms of Kelso, Cox and Turk is coincidence; there is no way that the decision to cast the two male leaders of Brooklyn 99's bull pen as a married gay man and a devoted insecure family guy is coincidence either. It might be them, in part, trying to show what they think the new model for a man should be.

Is that new model too narrow? Possibly. But it is a better model than that presented by Kelso, or the old bigoted reporter Jimmy Brogan in Brooklyn 99. And probably a more honest reflection of the world we live in than anything further reaching. It a rare man who doesn't have confidence issues when growing up in a man's world lacking conventional masculinity. They do exist though; it'd be nice to see it explored. 

More than this I can't really say in an off the cuff article that may be somewhat off the mark anyway. But there's definitely something there.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Sword in the Storm by David Gemmell


What makes a story a story? Is it having a beginning, a middle and an end? Is it about a person changing? A struggle?

I ask because in many ways, you could describe Sword in the Storm as a fictional biography. Its clearly not but there's something about the grand arc and lack of clear antagonist or driving goal that gives it this feel. The story's prologue starts near the end of Connavar's life; the first chapter before he's even born. Barring the prologue, it covers a twenty-something year sweep, and the main foe is never even faced. We only find out what happens later in the sequel Midnight Falcon.

Now I'm not complaining. I like it when authors do something different and in any case, it's taken me three or so readings of the book to even ponder this.

And as I ponder, the shape of the story becomes so much clearer and more powerful. This isn't the tale of Conn vs his rivals and the enemies of his people. This is the tale of Conn vs himself. Conn vs the flaws that threaten to make a monster of a fundamentally noble and heroic human.

Sword in the Storm is very explicit about this imagery, to the point where I feel something of an idiot for taking so long to twig. There's even one scene where Conn is in a spirit realm, admiring this great bear that's bound up in chains and feeling sad that something so magnificent is bound. The bear, of course, is the worst of him. Like so many of us, Conn is very reluctant to put aside all the magnetic lures of humanity's excesses. Its not quite Augustine impeaching the Lord to make him pure at some undefined point in the future, but close.

But when you view the whole story in this light there are so many more examples that leap off the page in searingly unforgettable ways. The subplot in which the witch Vorna begins to understand why the Morrigu gives so many double-edged gifts to humanity is a masterpiece of subtle development. Watching two enemies become friends as they try to do their best for a disabled boy gave me joy. Maybe Sword in the Storm isn't a fictional biography so much as an extended parable in the shape of an action story.

And it is an action story. Of course it is, its David Gemmell, and if there's one thing Gemmell loved it was writing about violence. It's not his finest outing in terms of adrenaline soaked adventure to be honest, which is to say its as good as anyone's in the genre. Particular stand-outs include Conn's encounter with a bear and him watching the Rome-inspired legions of Stone at work.

But the best parts are about the characters and the struggles they face. Conn is one of Gemmell's most memorable heroes; charismatic, altruistic and yet capable of the darkest deeds due to tiny seeds of doubt and pride. His arc resembles Rand's from Wheel of Time but is far more condensed. Those around him are, by and large, likable yet interestingly flawed. I rooted for them to make good choices; I understood when they made bad ones.

In keeping with Connavar's theme, the more selfish the motivations, the worse their decisions were. This may make the book sound preachy but the message lies deep under the story. You have to obsess over it for it to become so pervasive. But it is there if you wish. And that's why the opening and last chapter end the same way - with a man ready to give his life for those he loves. Everything good about Conn comes from that. Everything bad comes from doubting that gift.

Sword in the Storm is a ripping yarn with a huge amount of heart and soul. I just wish there were more books like it.

Sunday 17 February 2019

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette De Bodard

Imagine a Paris ruled by fallen angels. The city of lights controlled by creatures of blazing passion and power. Imagine it in the wake of a Great War, a place of faded elegance and damaged beauty and lurking danger.

This is the world of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings and it just goes to show that she really does have the best ideas of the genre.

Into this picture comes Phillippe, an Annamite (that is to say, Vietnamese) Immortal whose reduced circumstances has forced him to exist in exile as part of a street gang. When the gang finds the newly fallen Isabelle, events lead to both Phillippe and Isabelle coming under the aegis of House Silverspires, once the greatest of Paris' houses under the rule of Morningstar - but Morningstar is gone. In his place rules his last apprentice, Selene, aided by a large cast including Madeleine, a mortal alchemist.

The words large cast are key here. Phillippe is notionally our MC here, but he very much shares this role with the ladies. The need to establish this is possibly what lies behind my first bugbear and that is the story takes a long time to establish itself. I enjoyed the writing and the scenes enough to keep going, but this book took a very long time to truly get me hooked. That's also possibly because De Bodard take a rather light touch with her world building, leaving me more confused than I like at times.

Once the plot gained momentum it was utterly compelling. The House of Shattered Wings hits a lot of my sweet spots in terms of style and execution. Its a melodramatic mystery at heart and I love both big heavy emotions and twisty mysteries. De Bodard writes incredibly well. She has the brooding otherness of Gaiman and the elegant passion of Guy Gavriel Kay. When it comes to characterisation, I felt there was a little too much going on to really give the characters space to shine. But she does has an excellent facility for portraying the inconsistencies in humanity; that gift made them vibrant and interesting even if I didn't really fall in love with them. It also helped drive the themes of loyalty and betrayal that pop up again and again through the book.

Alas, when the ending came, it came all too quickly for me and rather unsatisfyingly. Is that on my impatience, or me just not liking De Bodard's pacing? I suspect its part of both. And its not all about the pacing either. There's some decisions - particularly one of Phillippe's - that feel very formulaic.

So there it is. For me, The House of Shattered Wings are an enjoyable read thanks to incredible felicity of style and an amazing concept, but fell a little short of my hopes due to plotting and pacing issues. By now this seems to be my standard Aliette De Bodard review, but each time the issues feel a little less. Hopefully when I read the next one, my issues are gone entirely.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Top 10 Books Read in 2018

Why yes, it is totally acceptable to release you 'best of' lists for last year in February. My excuse this year is I am very influenced by Angry Metal Guy and they're always fashionably late. Anyway, time to take it from the top:

1) Age of Assassins by RJ Barker - *This* is what I want modern trad fantasy to be. I've already reviewed it once here but I'll happily chat about it again.  It is by turns tense, heartbreaking, heartwarming, amusing, compelling, and just generally incredible fun. It is perhaps a bit too much on the generic side but it has enough quirks to establish itself as premise of its own; the author's voice is wonderful; the big resolution set pieces are awesome. 

A word of love too for the characters. They are portrayed with clarity, nuance and joy. Clarity because the essence of what each character is about comes through very quickly. Nuance because they all possess multiple dimensions of personality and morality. And joy because they're all big fun characters. I keep using that word with Age of Assassins. Fun.

I increasingly find myself rating books by how much bits stick in my mind months later. The big profound books stick easily. The super fun books have to work harder. Age of Assassins definitely lies more with the latter but still sticks. That's some achievement. That's why its top.

2) Full Fathom Five by Max Gladstone - And this is how the reinvention of fantasy should be. It is built from the same mix of myth and history and is still recognizably of the genre but it has been mutated into something weird and wonderful. Worlds that reflect our own, places where information does more damage than the sword. And incredibly readable. Gladstone has a fantastic taut style, interesting characters and wonderful mysteries. I say so many good things about him I don't know what else to say.

3) The Empyreus Proof by Bryan Wigmore - The last sentence applies here above applies here too; indeed, my list last year had Gladstone and Wigmore in very similar positions. It kind of sits in the middle between trad and reinvention. It's a strange mix of baroque and street, of primitive shamanism and the gleaming edifices of the Edwardian era, of intellectual mystery and adolescent passion - but oh how it works.

4) The Poppy War by RF Kuang - This is the book that taught me that I increasingly value books by what sticks with me rather than the reading itself. And I'm *still* processing how I feel about this book and its ever shifting tone. Parts of it felt formulaic and lacking in point. They have faded in the memory though. The shamanic initiations and journeying, and the dawning sense of horror at fighting a truly inhumane foe, stick, and those parts were as good as anything I've read.

5) Man O'War by Dan Jones - The most frequent comparison I've reached for with this book is Le Carre and that's not one I make lightly. Its not quite true either. Yes, it stretches tension a long way, and it features a technocrat's eye, but it lacks Le Carre's intellectual savagery. There's no sense of the polemic here, or of the edge that one would expect from a book that's quite cyberpunk. It arguably makes it an easier read but maybe results in a book that loses a dimension. Nevertheless, an intelligent thriller; it would make a good Michael Mann movie.

6) The Last Light of the Sun by GG Kay - One is at something of a loss as to what new there is to say about Kay. This bears all the hallmarks of his work; melodramatic, poetic, epic and with a certain magnificent wild harshness. Its not one of his more compelling books - its no Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan - which I think comes from characters who lacked the same gravitas. But it scratched an itch very nicely.

7) The Traitor God by Cam Johnston - I keep forgetting I read this until something reminds me and then I'm all "Oh yeah! That did some really cool stuff." The cool stuff is a high magic noir world with a big dirty mystery running through it. Its got a bit of that edge I was referring to earlier (if I wanted to be nasty to Cam, I'd call this Magepunk). But ultimately I found the pacing a bit jump-start for my liking.

8) The Eagle's Flight by DE Olesen - There is nothing jump-start about the pacing here. This book moves at a very stately pace indeed to begin with. It also has a certain dry quality thanks to its assiduous historical research and slightly archaic tone. But somehow it sucked me in anyway - possibly out of astonishment that someone was going so much again against market trends - and discovered a juggernaut of a Katherine Kurtz-esque story once it got moving.

9) Snakewood by Adrian Selby - Another case of daunting ambition. Multiple PoVs, multiple writing styles, and a revenge story covering I honestly don't know how many years. Brick of a book too. Its certainly made the "stuck in the mind" category. Reading it at times was a little unrewarding, partially because I wanted more worldbuilding depth and partially because of all of the above, but there were several incredibly enjoyable resolutions and a lot of really cool ideas. 

10) Supremacy's Shadow by TE Bakutis - Finally, a fun romp. The author describes it as Deadpool meets Han Solo and that's pretty much most of what you need to know. Why isn't it higher? Ultimately, it lacked either the depth, or the crackle and pop, of the above books. But it fulfills the pitch more than well enough to make the list.

HM: The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard - I have this glitch in my head where novellas aren't real books. This means I forgot about this until putting the finishing touches on the list and remembered this little gem. De Bodard is the closest thing I've seen to GGK in this current generation of authors, both in style and talent, and this re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes in a Chinese inspired Sci-Fi setting is borderline mesmeric. I don't know which book I'd take out to fit it in so it remains an HM, but it deserves so much love.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell

I'm not normally a YA reader. But when I'm stood in a library with a fantasy section that I know more or less by heart, it's just common sense to go give the YA section a gander and see what's up there.

This is one of the books I ended up with.

For a while I wasn't sure I'd actually end it. I found Spellslinger a slow start for reasons I am still not completely sure about. Part of it is that while the opening conceit of our hero, Kellan, trying to cheat his way through his manhood trials because he doesn't have enough magic is an interesting one, it also reminded me heavily of Codex Alera and suffered for the comparison. Part of it is that I think De Castell didn't particularly follow up that conceit, leaving me with confused expectations.

Part of it is that I didn't really warm to a cast that seemed rather two-tone in portrayal. The bullies are more or less unredeemable; the mentor figure is morally unimpeachable and has an answer to everything. Infallible know it alls are rather irritating. The TV adaption of Sherlock is a great example of how to work with that. Spellslinger isn't.

I should note now that I haven't really read any other De Castell. I don't know what's him writing for YA and what's just him. I feel that this could be particularly relevant to this point.

Despite these little things, I found myself turning pages quicker and quicker as I got near the half way point. The core of Spellslinger is a series of mysteries and I am a sucker for a good mystery. These are very good mysteries. They tie together all the worldbuilding conceits that De Castell introduces early on, they touch interesting parts of the human condition and they are well paced. There's also the right mix of surprise and inevitability. And we even get to see a few characters show different dimensions as a result (although not as much as I'd like).

Alas, I must grumble slightly about the end. I do so knowing many will disagree with what I'm about to say. And that is - when you've just given me a really fun mystery book, I'm not really in the mood for several long and protracted fight scenes. Different tastes for different folk I guess.

All in all, Spellslinger was an enjoyable fantasy mystery. What I like are things that most will like; what I didn't are things of personal preference. The only thing I can mention again in criticism is the two tone nature, which is all the odder given how many of the book's themes attack this sort of thinking. Maybe its a foundation for the series and something that gets exploded throughout - I liked this book enough to find out.

Or maybe its a YA thing. Or maybe its a De Castell thing. Or maybe I'm wrong and stupid. Who knows? The most important thing is that Spellslinger is a good read for anyone looking for something mysterious and magical.