Thursday 21 November 2019

The Killing Moon by NK Jemisin

Under Blue Moon I saw you... okay, presumably this book has nothing to do with Echo & The Bunnymen. What is it about?

Ehiru is a priest in the city of Gujaareh with powers over dreams; he can draw magic from them, use them to heal - use them to kill. Sunandi is a spy and diplomat from neighbouring Kisua, suspicious and fearful of Gujaareh's intentions - and Ehiru's magic. The uneasy relationship between the two as war looms over Kisua and Gujaareh is the driving force of this tale of mystery, magic and murder set in a quasi-ancient Egyptian setting.

Sounds nifty.

It is very nifty in a lot of ways. This was my first read of Jemisin's work and it is very easy to see what the fuss is about. Her prose is sumptuous. Her world building is bare bones, but what bones there allows the active imagination to build all sorts of detail around. Take for example the ancient ancestral relationship between Gujaareh and Kisua; not only did it make the world feel real to me, but I built a picture of Kisua without really seeing based on that single fact and Gujaareh. The relationship between Gujaareh's various power blocs was also painted vividly in really not that many words.

However... while I admire the hell out of The Killing Moon, I didn't love it. And I'll be honest, trying to figure out why and how to write the review about it was a big reason behind the recent drought, as I just didn't know how.

But you do know right? What is it?

I'm not sure I actually do; just sometimes you have to bite the bullet and put out what you have, even if it isn't good enough.

What I do understand is tied to what CC Finlay calls "narrative momentum" - the combination of pacing and engagement to the characters and stakes. I didn't get that. The pacing is fine, the characters thoughtfully drawn, but neither had me turning pages. Why? I can't really go deeper than that. The Killing Moon worked really well for me as a piece of writing, but as a piece of story it was the sort of date where you have a pleasant chat and go home thinking of other things.

It is possible, thinking of The Killing Moon in comparison with my last review, that I'd have taken more to the characters if I'd seen more of them with other characters they shared deep roots with. I think that draws me in more. This book had some of that, but not enough.

There was little sense of self-discovery either to my mind. And plot wise, the transition from city-based intrigue to trials in the desert and an open threat didn't quite work for me.

So who will love it?

The Killing Moon will appeal strongly to those who place a high emphasis on prose, mystery, and worldbuilding. Bonus marks for those actively seeking settings different from Europe. Gore and humour, not so much. The big question is whether people will like the story and characters better than I did, and I daresay many will. They're well drawn. They're good. Just not quite for me.

And that's really quite annoying. There's been a lot of popular books by popular authors that I'm just not that into. And that's okay. But there's not many such books where I've found them good but just not quite as great as everyone else seems to think. But that's just me. Everyone else should see for themselves.

Sunday 17 November 2019

Why Fantasy Shouldn't Stand in Tolkien's Shadow

So t'other day I was having a discussion on those interwebs and heard someone expressing my bete noire of the moment, that being the idea other fantasy writers are ripping off Tolkien - or as he later put it, that the genre lies heavily in Tolkien's shadow. And I argued with that, as I reflexively do nowdays, but I never said why I thought the argument that it wasn't was important.

So here it is.

It is my belief that the Fantasy genre has an image problem. This comes in many forms, from the irritating barbs you get from casual passers by, to the amusing disavowals of writing fantasy from people writing fantasy for various reasons, to the financially detrimental lack of attention from the mainstream media, to the talent and readers missed by the perception of being for stale pale males.

I am generally unfussed as to where my preferred past times are popular, maybe erring to the side of preferring them not to be, but I would like Fantasy to get the acceptance it deserves and reach everyone who'd enjoy it; I'd like everyone to feel welcome. Also, as someone with aspirations of being an author and friends who are in those trenches right now, the financial viability of the genre is of some interest.

When thinking of the various times I've seen that image problem in action, Tolkien often seems to loom large. I have seen people dismiss fantasy as a genre for the very reason that writers are ripping off Tolkien; more often, its people claiming its just elves and dwarves and nothing real and nothing new, a viewpoint that only really holds up if one believes that fantasy is all just Tolkien. Some of the recent comments from Benioff and Weiss about thinking Game of Thrones was great because it was all about people and wanting people things echo some of the comments I've read from Pullman about Tolkien. And, of course, many people have taken Tolkien to task for his conservatism, or writing things that racists approve of. In short, a lot of fantasy's image problems stem from negative portrayals of Tolkien and seeing the genre as being in his image.

Of course, arguably this an argument for the genre being in Tolkien's shadow, but it's not an argument for wanting it to be there. Its an argument for, if we are given a choice to proclaim how the genre should be seen, for de-emphasising Tolkien. For saying that while his place as a titan of the genre is unassailable, even Everest is but one mountain in the range and that are a great many other takes on Fantasy on the other mountains and that perhaps people would like to examine them if they're not finding what they want near Tolkien. And we do have a choice. And given how influence is a not entirely objective thing, to a certain extent Tolkien's influence is simply a matter of whether we say its a thing or not.

What's more, we do have an incredible range as a genre and to do that down is to do all of us a discredit - which pumping up Tolkien's status does. Both in terms of style and ideas, there's a lot of extremely good authors and books out there, many of which owe little to Tolkien other than his demonstrating fantasy could be a huge commercial success. The fever-dream intersections between reality and myth, the horror tinged urban fantasies, the picaresque heroes and bloody-handed adventurers, the barely fantastical alt-histories, the endless riffing off of myths and fairytales and Shakespeare... the list is long. The list contains the likes of Gaiman, Attwood, Pratchett, Pullman, to name but a few. The list deserves celebration.

And that's difficult to do if we're constantly pointing to Papa Tolkien.

There is no denying that the man has been tremendously influential. He has been huge in putting the genre on the map commercially. Many great authors have been marked by their use of his templates; many by how they've deliberately ignored or challenged it. He has, as this very blog post proves, created the popular image of Fantasy in the public mind. His influence on the genre's history is huge - maybe even overshadowing. But Fantasy has kept expanding and Mount Tolkien remains still. It is only fair to reconsider where his shadow lies today in those circumstances. Questioning his influence - seeking to promote the parts of Fantasy that offer something very different to Tolkien - isn't about trying to downplay what he's done. It's about trying to promote the genre and all it contains to the fullest.

And I do not think that can be done if we continue to agree to stand in his shadow.

Friday 15 November 2019

The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

Blimey, its a long time since you put anything up here, you lazy git...

I've been having a bit of a reading slump recently. Two very active holidays in quick succession, a new job, frustration with my own writing. And maybe not fully enjoying what I've been reading. But on Thursday night though, up late after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins rob the Islanders in overtime, I decided I'd stay up a little later to finish The House of Binding Thorns.

Because I had to.

Had to?

I needed to know how it finished. I needed to know how the big showdown went, I needed to know who lived, and I needed to know what final secrets Aliette de Bodard had to reveal. And I did not regret my three hours of sleep that night one iota.

Okay, this sounds good. How about you start from the beginning and tell all the nice people what this book's about?

The House of Binding Thorns is book 2 in De Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen series, a series of brooding and beautiful fantasies set in a post-Great War Paris full of fallen angels and broken people. The first book in the series isn't all that necessary, its a loosely interlinked series, but read it anyway.

That's what the book is about - the notes that the book hits are drama and mystery. For the former, De Bodard reminds me strongly of Guy Gavriel Kay with the almost poetic sense of emotion and the focus on both larger than life characters and characters with ordinary jobs and lives swept into their orbit. For the latter, the gradual sense of something wrong and conspiracy are probably most like Max Gladstone's The Craft than anything else I've read in the genre.

I should point out that The House of Binding Thorns also contains plenty of Vietnamese Rong, moving romantic relationships and magic with echoes of real life occultism. I give all of that two thumbs up.

Well you are a sucker for fantasy mysteries, so no wonder you like it. What else got you?

The characters are the greatest part of this book. Madeline became one of my favourite heroines in the genre this book; suspicious, struggling with herself, too honest for her own good, driven by her fears, and yet ultimately triumphant because of all that (and her rather large brain). As I'm writing this, I took a casual look at the blurb for the trilogy finale and was shocked to see her name go unmentioned - shocked enough that I googled just to make sure Madeleine is in there because it'd be a travesty if she wasn't.

That ability to make characters great and interesting by their flaws is displayed time and time again. It gives them ... well, everything. They feel real. They feel entertaining. They feel both larger than life and very human. No character ever gets all of the page space I wish they could have, which is more a good thing than a bad, because they get plenty and I'm just being greedy. The one real criticism I have to make is I wish we'd heard more about what made them what they are - we got that for Asmodeus and it turned what might have been a two-dimensional stylish villain into a terrifying, tragic force of nature that straddles the line between antihero and villain while bogarting all the best lines.

I would also add that I'm really quite jealous of De Bodard's prose. It is simultaneously elegant and effortless; a perfect marriage of form and function. That also gets me big time.

So you loved it unconditionally, huh?

It started slow. Got to be up front about that. There's a lot of different strands at the start that aren't obviously connected and maybe lack a little something in terms of grip. I'd enjoy each scene for what it was without feeling any sort of building momentum that I needed to know about.

But once that momentum came, then it met every conceivable condition of being loved. Slow start aside, I thought the book was very well paced; I figured out what was going on just as I was beginning to get irritated about the lack of answers, and I figured it out just a little before the characters. To me, that's the author equivalent of a footballer landing a fifty yard pass on a fifty pence piece.

Jeez, calm down, its just a book.

There's no such thing as just a book.

Okay, true. But it won't be for everyone, right?

Nothing ever is. Anyone looking for gore-drenched action is in the wrong place; ditto sneaky heist action, deeply intricate and logical magic systems, and ye olde fashioned fantasy setting. 

Incidentally, I'd love to see Aliette De Bodard write some heist stories now. I recall reading that heist stories are traditionally emotionally superficial; I'd love to see what she could do with that challenge.

Mostly though, I just'd like to see more people love this book, because I think most fantasy readers would.