Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kage Baker: Make a Satisfying Ending
by Stella Atrium 2/27/13

Genre writers are encouraged to build a brand by writing a series of books instead of stand-alone books. The nature of cliff-hangers means some characters have unresolved story lines at the end of Book I, like Darth Vadar who survives when the death star is destroyed. Why waste a well-drawn bad guy in a single catastrophe?

HangedToday’s trend is to leave unresolved story lines over several books like GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones that gives the reader episodic morsels following four related main characters (after he killed off the hero types). I like to think writers today are experimenting with stereotypes and resisting the expected ending with surprises and anti-heroes.

Some series writers provide an ending twist where characters struggle against the armies of the undead over 300-pages toward a deserted island, but come up empty-handed for the needed talisman to save the empire, as in Abercrombie’s Before They are Hanged. Somehow I felt betrayed. I had invested a whole afternoon but had no denouement for my time spent.

So when the story in The Anvil of the World neatly tied up all concerns into a hopeful package at the end, I had this odd sense of satisfaction, a feature that was once a prerequisite to securing a publishing deal. Hurrah for self-publishing!

DickensKage Baker’s story is targeted for younger readers and rides along on jeopardy and humor while an unseen bad influence pursues the extended family of Smiths. The caravan colleagues flee danger to open a hotel in a seedy part of town while characters discover they are really blood relatives. Even the demons are siblings. It seems that survivors of armed conflicts from decades ago hid babies in brothels, only to find the current kitchen waif is that very child grown into a malleable girl. Vapors of Charles Dickens.

Kage_BakerSo the third episode means the (now related) humans serve a squabble that has erupted among the demons, and our hero Smith provides the key that erases the troublesome human race, but refuses to use it, cutting off his own arm. The friends (human and demon) repair back to the hotel where, lo and behold, the kitchen waif gives birth to a child destined to redeem the race.

If this storyline seems forced, it was. The characters are well-drawn, though, with humor and surprise to provide enough entertainment along the way that I can recommend Kage Baker’s story to the YA audience who aren’t as jaded on archetypal fantasy as this reader.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Louise Erdrich: About the Unreliable Narrator
by Stella Atrium 2/16/13

ErdrichLouise Erdrich has written a series of novels about a Native American extended family trapped in poverty and fear on the reservation and in Minneapolis (called Apple Town due to the vowel sounds). In The Antelope Wife, revolving narrators bead together  events apparently to bind patterns over generations – fates of twins, lost babies, lustful wives. Since the level of diction of each narrator is identical with lazy grammar, interjected native words, and self-centered vision, the use of he-she-they gets confusing for relations among the cousins.

My reading of The Antelope Wife was different from other reviewers who took the first narrator in chapter one as the center. I found the central character to be Cally who struggles to find meaning in the advice, myths, strange gestures, broken dreams of her parents-stepfather-cousin-grandmas-ancestors. The details Erdrich presents of their disassociated lives are unsparing and often funny. For example, Cally wonders about the choices of a cousin who pre-salts her food since salting before tasting is an indication of general dissatisfaction with life.

Cally moves to Minneapolis and works in the family bakery, asking each client if she has seen the twin grandmothers who are Namers and have a reputation among the tribes. The grandmothers visit much later for Christmas while listing all their digestive complaints. Cally’s main frustration is with a distant mother who seems tortured by a lustful past and troubled by judging ancestors. After her botched second wedding, this Calico Wife cooks for hungry ghosts so the ancestors and a lost daughter will feel full and leave.

There’s no stream of current events from TV or even military service to anchor the reader, and no structured reasoning for any character gained from books or technical training. The stepfather tries to duplicate a cake made by an outsider without recipe or reference to books. Each character tries to divine meaning from the ignorant acts of others – willfully ignorant as though the Native Americans refuse to learn from the larger culture for fear of losing spiritual contact with the prairie.

Water_ChocolateThroughout the reading, I was often reminded of the Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel that has a central love story, a fear of vengeful ancestors, and an ironic take on the fates of family members. Recipes were said to hold the spirits of ancestors, and service to family was an organizing theme.

But Erdrich offers short vignettes, often from the POV of non-family members, even a dog, as part of her beading, constructing a unique and gritty backstory tied to the land. The effect is like a child’s watercolor as viewed through a window streaked with rain. Although the colors were once strong, the current outlines are blurred and runny, made void of the sought-after deeper meaning.

wogf_200Since this story was in the cache for the Worlds Without End 2013 Women of Genre Reading Challenge, I wondered again at the loose categories for genre writing. The unreliable narrators and the Native American stories about troubling spirits don’t constitute a genre subcategory. I would rather shelf this novel and all of Louise Erdrich in literature, although Like Water for Chocolate is often shelved with Ethnic Studies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Luck in the Shadows by Lynn Flewelling
by Stella Atrium 2/12/13

I love castle stories. What could be better than a 350-page fantasy novel that starts with three companions on horseback carrying swords and Radly bows crossing a frigid field to escape the bad guy or to rescue the princess?

I celebrate that there’s no end to these horse-and-castle stories, and I investigate whatever’s new. Some novels like A Quest for Heroes by Morgan Rice are calibrated for a juvenile audience and the heroine is too young for insights I would seek. Some stories follow the new trend of heaps of gore and lists of knightly heraldry like The Wilding by CS Freidman.  For some stories I don’t buy the second book in the series because not enough surprises held my attention during the first outing, like Blood of the Falcon by Court Ellyn.

Golden_FoolI picked up Luck in the Shadows because I had enjoyed all three Bone Doll’s Twin stories, and especially the gender-bending twist.  The witch who lived in the forest and the young magician who she trained were diverting enough for use of magic.  Though the three stories lagged in places, a whimsical holy man arrived like a breath of fresh air to resolve some plot difficulties.  A 15-year-old girl in full armor and long sword at the head of an army to save the empire was a bit of a stretch, but at least she was a girl, and she had female relatives who had roles in the plot (more than decorative).

But…  I would call Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows a lighter version of The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb.  Over the past two decades, Hobb wrote four series (series-es) around the enduring friendship between a fool with a mysterious background and an apprentice to a wizard.  There are same-sex undertones, but each becomes the beloved to the other through their many adventures.

Luck_ShadowsFlewelling’s Book I of her Nightrunner series presents a watcher with a longer life than many, a wizard who commands spells for shape-shifting and message bubbles, and an orphan (why is it always an orphan?) who is a quick learner (why is he always more gifted at picking up dark skills?). Without a girl/boy love story to carry the reader through the MANY discussions of the heroics of former queens, and more discussions of the dead wizards who helped the dead queens, getting to the end was a struggle.

I don’t care about those old queens.  I have no context for those old queens. More living female characters who have roles in the plot -- other than decorative -- please.

Flewelling presents a bad guy (why do they always have no redeeming value?) who pursues our watcher and apprentice, but she drops this story line in the middle of the book in favor of describing the needed lessons in swordplay for the apprentice (why are long descriptions of training with swords required for fantasy writers?).

IcefyreThe struggle in the final act means the watcher and apprentice fight on the side of the current royal family for whom only three scenes were spared, and vanquish a long-simmering blood feud for which only two scenes were constructed.

Again, the reader doesn’t feel invested in solving the problem at hand, especially since the resolution was a matter of home invasion and a fire contained in a single room. A comparison to Hobb’s white queen in Fool’s Fate comes to mind, wherein the queen lost her captain, her familiar, her ice castle, and her hands before her suffering ended.

wogf_200The bad guys in Flewelling’s story had not shown their faces again by the end of Book I, but the homoerotic undertones were coming to light. If there were more surprises, fewer long-winded stories about dead queens, less description, more jeopardy, more hetero romance – then I could overlook the disjointed plot.  I doubt that I pick up Book II.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Among Others by Jo Walton: A Review
by Stella Atrium 2/9/13

Among_OthersAs my next review for the WWE 2013 Women in Sci-fi Genre Reading Challenge, I chose Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I assumed was written in the 1980s since the main character discussed at length classic sci-fi stories available in Britain during that decade. I’m glad I finished the story before I read the press about Jo Walton and how she edged out GRR Martin for the Hugo Award last year for this work.

Her Hugo win is only logical considering that the story is more about engagement with classic sci-fi books than any other theme. The reviewers for the Nebula and Hugo awards must have thought Among Others was a smorgasbord!

I’m equally glad I didn’t know the story was called a ‘reverse Harry Potter’ because I would not have started it for that very label.  Derivative works are not my cup of tea. The story is written in the voice of a Welsh girl named Mori who doesn’t know her father and hates her witch mother and is sent to an English boarding school that harbors NO magic – no possibility of magic since objects are held in common. I can see how that plotline gained the label.

**spoiler alert here**

Mori and her twin Mor spend a rich childhood communing with Welsh fairies and avoiding the cruel acts of a demented mother. The fairies enlist them to diminish the powers of the mother, but along the way Mor is killed and Mori is crippled.

Two facets of the story make it a classic. First is the unfolding explanation of the magic of English fairies and how ‘it’s so deniable’, expounded through the filter of a sheltered 15-year-old who reads too much and is overly concerned with ethics. The second is the genuine responses to sci-fi stories Mori reads that are placed ahead of friendships among school chums, or reconciliation with a distant father, or a budding romance with a town boy.
I had read many of the sci-fi stories Mori claims to love (and at that same age), so I was in on the in-jokes. Defining the events of her life through examples from the stories – looking to Asimov and Zelazny for direction in a crisis – was unique, funny and delicious.

I liked that Walton choose the decade of the 1980s for her setting, ignoring world events but celebrating the gift of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, newly published. The world of Wales and Britain seemed quaint (County as Walton called it) and confined without the internet or a true connection with America that was the center of sci-fi publishing. The discovery of local fan conventions seems like finding Nirvani to Mori.

Sci-fi fans and would-be writers today discuss systems of magic all the time on Reddit – who got it right and who was copying from the other – high and low fantasy; soft and hard magic. Walton takes a respect-for-magic approach, and Mori worries that changing one event means so many events in the past and future must also change. Mostly, Mori uses magic, of which she seems strongly imbued, only when asked by the fairies and then only if the act does no harm. The one time Mori uses magic on her own as protection against her mother, and also requesting a karass, she worries later that all friendly gestures toward her are magic-bound.

ZelaznyThis is a coming-of-age story, though, with no save-the-world tropes and few insights beyond what a perspicacious 15-year-old can glean from family and books.  The book is brill, wholly charming and worth the investment of a rainy afternoon. And I ordered out-of-print Zelazny books for my next read.