Friday 7 February 2020

Friday Five - Comfort and Challenge

Review time!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri - Starting with the challenge here as Tasha Suri's book is quietly a rather unique take on the traditional fantasy set up of "Outcast teenager finds out they have magical powers and gets into all sorts of trouble against a mighty villain". Mehr, said teenager, is stripped of the power to effect change for most of the book due to powerful societal and magical coercions in a way I wasn't expecting. I was expecting something a lot more traditional and it threw me for a lot of the book. It also provided a platform for Mehr to show she's as indomitable and protective as a protagonist gets; she's the star of the book in every possible way.

Ultimately Empire of Sand didn't quite work for me and I don't know if that's due to thrown expectations, or it just didn't quite execute the premise for me. It's probably a little bit of both. The most similar book I can think of The Tombs of Atuan and I think I understood what I was reading quicker there; but I also found more of a sense of wonder and growth there. I like Mehr, but she starts strong and stays strong. However, anybody out there who sees that ToA comparison and is curious or likes what I've said should definitely give it a try.

Sorcerer's Legacy by Janny Wurts - I've decided this is going from most challenging to least challenging (with a non-fic at the end) and Wurts' debut novel, the one that led to her Empire Trilogy collaboration with Feist, isn't the easiest read. It is dense with detail of every kind - magic, prose, mystery - and fast moving. There's also a casual time paradox thrown in but the main difficulty is knowing exactly what's going on. Our heroine, Elienne, is thrown from one world to another early on and never really fully gets her bearing and neither do we. 

I did rather enjoy exploring the murk with her - she's rather like Mehr in terms of being indomitable and protective - but what didn't work was the slightly thin, rather stereotypical characterisation. This is exacerbated by the romance subplot that doesn't involve the two lovebirds spending a lot of time together. But for someone looking for a good old trad fantasy that's more about the adventure than anything else and doesn't mind some stereotypes, this is a good book to pick up.

Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi - So. I was excited to pick this up as it was sold as John Le Carre with added ghosts (or spooks - hah!). And the first chapter read interestingly enough. But this never really swept me up in its momentum. This is possibly due to reading it after The Traitor and being devastated by everything non-perfect. It is possibly due to subconsciously comparing it to Le Carre, which is full of rich detail in a way Summerland isn't. 

I think that at least partially though Rajaniemi simply never sold me on why to care about the characters. This led to a vicious circle where lack of engagement led me to nitpick the dramatic moments where characters changed their minds, which then led me to not seeing the sort of adversity that makes characters interesting. It's a shame, but Summerland was an interesting idea with good writing that just never came to life for me.

The Ruby Knight by David Eddings - My reaction to The Traitor and Summerland was to go for a nice comfy re-read to purge any book hangover. This was the first paperback I could find that fitted the bill that I hadn't read recently. It took me a day to read (mostly en route to a rugby game) and I spent a lot of it laughing at the corniness. Poking fun at Eddings' flaws could be a blog post in its own right and I always seem to find something new to wtf at. This time it was a minor character out of nowhere complaining about not being allowed to rape the local peasants. WTF?

The thing is though that I really enjoyed it. It's just a big dumb fun adventure, simultaneously poking fun at the stereotypes and embracing them, and full of heartwarming human relationships. It is unabashedly modern, weird barbarian moment detailed above aside, and in a world full of solemnly near historical books there's something refreshing about that. I can never really quite bring myself to say Eddings is good, but he's so much fun if that sort of thing is your bag, and this is not the last time I'll read this.

What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes This book is ronseal - it does exactly what it says on the tin.

And a huge amount more.

Marlantes comes across as a very honest, thoughtful man, one with more integrity than most and wise and humble enough to admit when it comes to an end. What he tells is done with eloquence, with clever use of anecdote and supporting evidence to the universality of his experience, and unflinching openness.

More than describing the process and experience though, he makes arguments for -

Why sometimes it is right and moral to kill for your tribe and how better education will make the process less painful for those who do and those who love them

Why bad wars aren't right and moral and how better education would make it more difficult for them to happen

For acceptance and forgiveness of the shadow of humanity without dropping standards on stopping its excesses

Most crucially, it argues about the power of transcendence and self-sacrifice, and how to channel that impulse, and to return from it. It is a borderline sacred text. Make no bones, as somehow who badly wanted to be a soldier and was barred through an awful medical record (lied my way into the OTC, but no further) I am the ideal target audience, but I there's a huge truth for everyone willing to listen. This book has changed my mindset on a lot of things in life in a few short days and hopefully, with some work on my part, for the better.

Monday 3 February 2020

Tagging, Diversity and other Hot Topics

I usually take the stance there's enough chefs in the kitchen when it comes to the big subjects of the day but for once, I feel like I've got something to say when it comes to the two constantly taking up my twitter right now - Tagging and Diversity. And while I'm gonna hit up some detail, it boils down to "It's crap when you're doing something because you think it helps and people make you feel like you're a bad person, but it's wise to put ego and hurt aside and listen".

For example, tagging authors in reviews. When Elizabeth Bear said "Don't do it, its rude" and Neil Gaiman backed her up, it caused quite a lot of dismay. A lot of it seemed to come from a place of "I'm putting a lot of time and effort into my reviews, so more people can love your books, and now you're telling me that me doing this and me trying to make sure as many people see it as possible makes me the asshole?"

Certainly, that was a little of how I felt and I half-ass this a lot, I've got nowhere near the investment in this some people do. Quite a few book bloggers felt the need to talk about how this isn't all fun and games, and why are they feeling so under pressure for something they do for free, after that. I think that's a trend that existed before but it was exacerbated by the statements. Others lashed out. I saw talk of Gaiman being entitled, of people removing them from their TBRs. 

It is straight up legit to be hurt by that. I just don't think its helpful to stay there, or to stay pissed off at great authors. Book bloggers are not the assholes here, but neither are Bear or Gaiman. And while Bear shouldn't have spoken for all authors, because Twitter is littered with other authors pointing out she doesn't, that doesn't mean her opinion is without value here. Ditto Gaiman saying authors know where to find reviews, because a lot of new authors like having them delivered to their doorstep. They don't want to be tagged because for them, it makes life harder not easier. It is not hard to imagine why a famous author who gets lots and lots of tweets directed at them a day, more than they can handle, doesn't want to feel like an asshole either. I appreciate dedicated book bloggers don't really want an extra task, but do we want to make the authors we love feel like assholes? Even if they made us feel like assholes themselves?

Me, I think that for now I'd check the author's profile and see if they regularly interact with reviews. I think Womble suggested asking publishers. I particularly like Hiu Gregg's idea in this thread of a DNT stuck in an author's profile. Maybe there needs to be Twitter profiles dedicated solely to boosting reviews of certain authors so we don't need to tag them to get the boost.

In any case, I think once we stick the totally legitimate hurt aside, I think there's an easy solution here. And authors do have the right to limit their interaction with fandom, just like we have the right to be appreciated for what we do. Nobody needs to be the asshole here. Which is arguably the big moral of a lot of internet arguments.

What is less easy is the arguments about Diversity. I'm not going to touch Diversity in terms of publishing, possible quotas, etc.etc. as I do not know a huge deal about what's going on there. But in terms of what's going through a writer's mind?

I think there's a few possible motivators that go through a writer's mind when they decide on what to write, none of them exclusive from each other. I really want to write about this. It might make me rich and famous. I want to challenge myself. I feel like I should write about this. Writing about this would be a good deed done for the world.

The latter two crop up a fair amount when people talk about writing Diversity. There's a sense that authors feel obligated to do their bit to move literature's portrayals away from a heavy focus on the traditional middle/upper classes of the Anglosphere i.e. white, straight, man of the house. And that this means we're back to some writers feeling like them putting those characters in is a good deed, and feeling hurt when PoC start putting conditionals on it - and stop listening to them as a result.

Now, again, there are huge amounts of this argument that I'm not going to touch because I don't know all of it - the impact of bad portrayals, of stereotyped portrayals, writing careers dashed due to not being given exposure etc.etc. - but there is one part I do feel I can talk with some confidence on and that is what makes a good book. Good books overwhelmingly come "I really want to write about this". Which means that whatever other reasons a writer might have for an idea, they need to be transmuted into "I want to write this!" 

And if you really want to write about being smuggled from Mexico to the US, or growing up in the housing estates of Totty, or coming out to your strict homophobic family... why don't you want to get it right? 

Getting it right means listening to the people who've gone through it or for whom it is part of their immediate cultural history and who've read some bad fiction about it, which frequently means the writers. They won't always say what people want to hear, they won't always help as much as people want them to help, they will have their own lives and desires and so on - but there's still so much out of there that they have shared that will help. And the more people respect their boundaries, and don't ask crap out of nowhere, the more help they'll probably give. 

The more people talk to them, and read what they've written, the fuller a picture you can get. Sometimes it feels like nobody wants other people in their cultural yard. That we get tweet threads like this that prove completely otherwise. We need a depth of knowledge. 

And sometimes to get that depth of knowledge, we just need to put aside our hurt, and listen to what's being said.