Friday, September 26, 2014

Texts in conversation - Dragonlance & The Coldfire Trilogy

Piggybacking on my earlier notions about science, religion, and nuance.  I'm currently re-reading The Dragonlance Trilogy (because after The Mirror Empire I needed something a tad simpler), and noticed C. S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising on the "dear to my heart" section of my bookshelf, and was struck by how differently religion functions in these two stories.  Between the two series, there are three approaches to religion, highlighting some of the ways religion is presented in Fantasy stories.  In Dragonlance, religion is in some ways simply the functional power it represents in D&D, but also more broadly an assumed characteristic of all people.  Black Sun Rising in contrast, presents religions that have grown up in response to their environment, and shows individual responses to those religions.  My favorite treatment of religion in Black Sun Rising (and the entire The Coldfire Trilogy) is that while acknowledging the world it exists in, elements of the religious faith stretch beyond the world.

(There's a giant disclaimer here - I am familiar primarily with western Christian beliefs and practices.  I grew up in the Presbyterian church and studied medieval Christianity in college.  My goal here is to talk about the ways religion is portrayed in fiction, but to the extent that I'm referencing real-world religious experience, that's the limited context I'm drawing on)

Religion in Dragonlance is mechanistic (it is, after all, based on an RPG).  Gods provide healing power.  Wizards do magic, but can't heal.  Clerics can heal.  It's a bit interesting because all of the gods left a long time ago & have only recently returned, so there are a bare handful of priests around, but basically by identifying as a religious figure (Cleric in D&D terms), the character can use magic to heal & is affiliated with a specific god.  Period, end of sentence.

Except that it's not quite that simple.  The entire impetus for the companions' original excursion was to seek evidence of the old gods, and there's no indication that this was just because they thought the world would be better if more people could cure light wounds.  The major new power in their lands are the Seekers, a group based in a nearby town that claims to be seeking out new gods.  Dwarves and Elves at least claim to remain devoted to their gods, even though there are no clerics in their communities.  Central to Weis & Hickman's view of society, then, is a notion that religion & spirituality must exist.  There's no theology in the series & no ritual, but there is a notion that people will seek out gods.  It's just not quite clear what "religion" is.

Compare Black Sun Rising and the rest of The Coldfire Trilogy.  People have crash-landed on a world where a mysterious power (the fae) makes technology not work but allows them to do magic.  Of course, there are also magical demons who feed on humanity in one way or another.  In this world, Friedman shows a society that has grown and developed for centuries after the landing, but also a few glimpses of the early days.  In those early days, many of the demons formed by people's unconscious came from religious traditions and half-remembered childhood tales.  Centuries later, however, people have come to terms with demons in various ways.  The demons are classified & understood to a large degree.  Some have developed symbiotic relationships & are even worshiped by many residents.  A church has grown up, based on the rejection of the fae.  Friedman returns frequently to the notion that an important aspect of this faith is that the church does not expect miracles.  Surrounded by tangible, common, magic, the church has defined itself as stretching itself towards a world not ruled by these spirits.

Black Sun Rising highlights one of the key challenges many fantasy series struggle with.  When wonders, magic, monsters, and gods exist within the universe, often in ways that have been defined and contextualized, how will religious faith be different from what we experience here where miracles are less prevalent?  Many series portray gods and worshipers, but Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy is one of the few I can think of where a religion has sprung up seeking a consolation that is manifestly not available within the world.  Not founded on divine revelation or miraculous events, the church of the Coldfire Trilogy presents what I think is really an interesting and nuanced view - a striving towards another world, where the grass is greener.

Another thing I appreciate about Black Sun Rising (and particularly the later books of the series) is that different believers have different experiences of the faith.  In my own life, I've known people (believers and not) who have attended church for the community it provides, people who engage deeply with the theology and rituals of their church, and people who identify as religious without attending an organized congregation.  Rarely are the faithful a homogenous group.  Within The Coldfire Trilogy, there are people of greater and less faith, people with different methods of reaching the goal, and those who attend a church seeking a consolation other than the promises of their faith.  The diversity of the members of the church is another strikingly positive aspect of The Coldfire Trilogy.  (Undercut a bit by the presentation of the church on the eastern continent in book 2)

Even fantasy series that present "religion" in some way have wildly different ways of portraying it.  For many series, as in Dragonlance, religion may be assumed without great attention to either ritual or theology, or alternately "religion" may just be another supernatural element of the world like wizards.  Fantasy series like The Coldfire Trilogy that present a nuanced, heterogenous group of the faithful, and a religious experience that truly looks outside the natural confines of the world are rare, and I like to celebrate them.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Meta Monday - I hate blog posts

It's a bit odd to say this, but blogging makes me realize just how much I dislike it as a format.  Big disclaimer below about how I consume blogs. It's also probably worth noting that I'd like to write about (and mostly read about) not time-sensitive things.  News makes sense in a blog format. Posts full of reviews, thinky-thoughts, and "evergreen" topics, less so.

(Before continuing - I consume almost entirely on my phone, through a combination of an RSS reader and sending Twitter links to Instapaper to read later.  This means I don't really get the full effect of beautiful sites like A Dribble of Ink, and I hate being subscribed to a feed like that only sends a teaser, but has plenty of social media share buttons in its feed).

I'd usually like to do a sustained and focused exploration of a book or topic that's noodling in my head, but those aren't really blog-length appropriate (and in particular *I* wouldn't want to read them.). A really long blog post (as some have suggested) is a pain to consume when I'm scrolling through my RSS feed, plus probably needs revision and structural work.  But a series of short posts need a lot of scaffolding to connect them all.

More importantly, in many cases I'd rather discover the best of what someone's been writing, rather than what they're currently writing about.  

After blogging for a while, I'd like to put a pin in a certain topic, assume it as a given going forward (how many times have I linked to Kameron Hurley's We Have Always Fought? Because it's a pretty damn important text I'm thinking about a lot right now, but also maybe not one I need to link every time unless I do?).  Footnotes are maybe good for this, except when they're not.

I'm not sure what to do with this dissatisfaction. I've set up a consumption habit around blogs, and if someone's site foregrounds "my five best things" I'm likely to either miss them or not go to them because that seems like it would take time. It might be interesting to think about why blogs became such a de facto format (and I'm guessing there's a think piece on it out there), but that doesn't really interest me.

Anyway, I'd like to better utilize archives (when I have them), have a space to think out loud, but then eventually a more definitive pink.  Someday.  For now I'll just spit out content at times and you can subscribe, or visit, or read when I link on Twitter as you choose.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Mirror Empire throws down the "fantastic" gauntlet

Bear cavalry with forked tongues.  Cultures with three genders or five.  Hostile, mobile plants. Parallel universes.  Magic drawn from satellites that orbit at irregular periods.  As far as I remember, Kameron Hurley's new novel The Mirror Empire doesn't include a kitchen sink, but pretty much everything else is there.  Those unfamiliar with Kameron Hurley should go read the Hugo-award winning We Have Always Fought.  (Those interested in how to do an online book-marketing campaign should check out this blog tour, btw).  I'm still digesting The Mirror Empire, but there's an element that jumped out immediately: Kameron is clearly throwing down the gauntlet to authors and readers, challenging us to broaden our horizons and expectations for epic fantasy.

Let's start with the non-peopled setting of The Mirror Empire.  Carnivorous plants that can walk around make it dangerous to live outside of guarded settlements.  People ride dogs and giant bears with forked tongues.  A plant-monorail system.  There are at least three moons that orbit irregularly, which give different powers.  Also, there are other very very similar universes, and it's possible to travel between them.  Basically, the world of The Mirror Empire is fantastic in the truest sense of the word.  I've certainly never read a fantasy series (with the possible exception of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, which gets a lot more of it's fantasy from the cosmology & not the world) that really embraces the limitless potential of getting to tell your story in a truly invented world.  Authors - the gauntlet has been thrown down.  Your imagination is the limit.  (Readers too: if these elements alone don't challenge your expectations for "fantasy", something's wrong).  There are a lot of ways that Hurley's novel just begs to be made a movie because of the fantastic setting.

The people and cultures of The Mirror Empire are equally mind-bending.  One is a highly militarized matriarchal society.  Another is based around consent - even before sympathetically reaching out to comfort someone, you ask.  That culture also has five genders and performs ritual cannibalism.  There's another culture with three genders and yet another government structure.  Each of the societies is well-thought out and nuanced, internally and in their interactions with each other.  And with each culture, there are scenes that allow Hurley to deliberately challenge her readers; there's a refrain among many bloggers and critics that there's a sameness developing in pseudo-medieval fantasy, and Hurley absolutely breaks that mold in ways that I certainly found challenging and exhilarating.

There's a scene early on where a general in the matriarchal society comes home to her husband, a kept man she remains married to primarily for his sex appeal.  What I didn't realize until I saw a few people reacting to the scene on twitter was that even though the general has already been introduced as a strong and dynamic character, I read the scene with the husband at the center.  Which is tough as she casually and ruthlessly dominates him.  The Mirror Empire is full of scenes that deliberately challenge established reader expectations, sometimes by directly gender-flipping them and other times in more subtle ways.

And here's where my difficulty with The Mirror Empire comes in.  The world is so complex and fantastic, and Hurley drops you straight into the deep end, that for the first third of the book I felt like I was just along for the ride, enjoying the parade of wonders and hoping that enough would stick for the plot and characters to begin to take shape, which they did.  But even after I stopped feeling like I was treading water, Hurley kept throwing up scenes and storylines that were like looking at traditional fantasy through a funhouse mirror, then shattering the mirror.  Which is tough because so much of my expectation for fantasy is that I'll just be immersed in the world and the story, but The Mirror Empire kept pushing me around and knocking me out of the story.  Sometimes this is clearly an intentional attempt to challenge me to stretch my imagination to fit in an even more fantastic world.  Sometimes it was clunky writing, a character thrust to the fore of a diplomatic mission because he's a protagonist, or the climax of a character arc that just felt rushed and emotionally flat.  There are weaknesses in The Mirror Empire, but it's such an intentional, ambitious, and challenging novel that I'm not sure how many of those weaknesses are just related to my inability to let go of my own preconceptions. "I don't understand" is an empowering phrase.  I repeated that a lot while reading The Mirror Empire.

There's a lot going on in The Mirror Empire.  It generated a lot of buzz in at least my small corner of the twitterverse, and it's a stunning and ambitious book.  I didn't love it, and I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly.  Fans of fantasy who've been drifting away because it's feeling stale or cliched might well find The Mirror Empire to be a gateway back to the genre (and would be rewarded for doing so!).  Enthusiastic readers and other writers should also definitely read and consider what Hurley's doing because The Mirror Empire is very actively in dialog with the surrounding genre.  In some sense she's throwing down the gauntlet for both authors and readers to reconsider the fantastic in fantasy.  I expect that readers will find their expectations constantly challenged, and authors may find themselves inspired to stretch further in the worlds they create.  I certainly hope that the ripples of The Mirror Empire will still be visible years from now.  And I'll be reading it again and again.  I'm just not sure how much I'll be immersed in the story or how much I'll be poking at the scenery, and being bitten.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Casual Sexism: Eifelheim

I recently finished reading Michael Flynn's Eifelheim for book club, and generally really enjoyed it.  By which I mostly mean: I will forgive a great deal of a book that manages to present religion in a respectful way, and I have a particular soft spot for medieval philosophical debates because ridiculously amusing.  (Aside, did you know that there were very real & worrisome questions about how the resurrection of the body would work if you ended up in a river eaten by a fish that someone else later caught and ate because then the same particles would end up in two people and that would be confusing when God raised everyone?)  (Second aside - did you know that on Twitter Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired a bit of a discussion about body/spirit theology because football? Start here.)

Point being: while Eifelheim may or may not be "good" to the extent that that's relevant, it pushes a lot of nice buttons for me.  And until recently, no real downsides.  But this time, I noticed that in the "present" timeline, our protagonist Tom had been a bit of a man-about-town until he finally finally fell in with his girlfriend Sharon.  Sharon is a physicist who's settling Tom down, but not particularly exciting, so he gets to meet librarian Judy: "a fine-featured woman, decked with a long print dress and adorned by large, plain glasses. Her hair met behind her in a tight bun."
"Lieber Gott, Tom thought. An archetype!"

Well yes, but as we'll soon see, not only in the way Flynn meant.  Judy is introduced as a fine-featured woman, and she flushes when Tom speaks to her.

A paragraph later: "That was the nexus. A lonely librarian wanted a human conversation, and a lonely cliologist needed a break from his fruitless hunt".  Coupled with the fact that Tom's just been thrown out of his apartment by his girlfriend, the archetype Flynn's setting up has all sorts of sexual connotations, and every time we return to the present, there's some reference to Judy the librarian increasingly intruding on Tom's time which his girlfriend resents.

It's all perfectly innocent of course.  Tom and Sharon are An Item, and there's no hint that either Tom or Judy wants to start an affair.  It's just that the present timeline needs a bit of spice, and a lonely, fine-featured librarian to introduce a bit of jealousy is the perfect ingredient.

Tom's girlfriend has a research aide.  He's male.  We never really learn much about his physical appearance, and there are no hints of sparks, jealousy, or anything else, of course.

The sexism in Eifelheim is casual and unconsidered.  It's the sort of thing that I either didn't notice on previous readings, or maybe grinned at a bit.  It's not overt to the point it intrudes on the story, just quietly there.  And now, it detracts from the novel.  Because safe spaces and scaly llamas.  Because for some readers, it's going to reinforce negative views and for others it's going to be actively unpleasant (like being punched in the face at a restaurant) and there's no reason they should have to have that experience while reading Eifelheim.

I can't consume media the same way I used to anymore.  I'm a lot more sensitive to casual racism & sexism than I used to be. I suspect a lot still flies by me (and there is plenty of other writing that's insensitive & insulting to other communities like the disabled, LGBT, and others that I mostly miss).  Sometimes when I notice this, I get a bit sad, because I'd love to read Eifelheim without having the sexism detract from it.  Except, the author could do that to.  The author could write a more inclusive book that's not casually insulting, and then I wouldn't have this problem.  And loads of other people who aren't represented in fiction could also enjoy it.  That would be great.  I guess I'm saying #weneeddiversebooks ?  Also, authors: do better.  I'll reward you by buying your books, because there are fewer and fewer that don't bug me as I'm reading them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Taking Religion Seriously

I've started a re-read of Eifelheim, Michael Flynn's 2006 Hugo-Nominated novel, which I pitched to my book group & discussed on Sunday.  The book flits between 14th century germany and modern grad students (a theoretical physicist and a mathematician essentially trying to do reverse-psychohistory explaining 14th century settlements), and includes alien intruders.  I had forgotten that the main character in 14th century germany is a priest and natural philosopher.  When mysterious lightning crackles through the town, a minorite monk and most of the villagers fear demons and the devil, but it's the priest (Father Dietrich) who remembers the generation of static electricity with fur and amber, and seeks natural explanations.

I commented during my read of Ancillary Justice that I was very happy to see the religious rituals in Radch culture, rituals which did at times play out in how people viewed the world.  Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon features an older ghul-hunter whose magic works as an expression of his faith and knowledge.  Books (speculative fiction and otherwise) that take religion seriously as an important feature of the world not necessarily in opposition to science exist, but they can be hard to find.

So recently, enthused by the natural philosophical ruminations of father Deitrich, I tweeted out:

I know that there's a long history in western thought that aligns science and religion as polar opposites.  I'd be interested in having someone who knows more than I do outline where this came from, what sustains it now, and whether this dichotomy exists in cultures outside of the western european tradition.  There are a few books (Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow comes to mind, and maybe A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, though it's been a while since I read it) that take on the roles of religion and ritual pretty directly.  The (few) arab-inspired books I've read (Throne of the Crescent Moon mentioned above, When Gravity Fails and Desert of Souls) all show practices, garb, and beliefs as elements of the worldbuilding.

This post is, I guess, an invitation to discussion if anyone's interested.  Where does the notion that religion and science must be at each other's throats come from? Are there speculative fiction books that bridge this divide? Harden it? Why are so many books simply silent on either regular weekly rituals or religious beliefs and practices? Is there a place in speculative fiction to bridge the divide between science and religion? And do non-western books and stories do this better?

I'll dive back to the question from time to time, but if anyone else wants to chime in, I'd love to see a conversation about this.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Ancillary Justice

After winning the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, along with the British Science Fiction Association award for best new novel, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award, (an unprecented feat) Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie hardly needs more praise.  It's a fascinating space opera with an artificial intelligence (Breq) as the protagonist, that explicitly raises issues of feminism, colonialism and privilege among the more familiar trappings of science fiction.  It also, to my mind, is a book that leverages the length and structure of a novel perfectly (as opposed to the confines of a short story or the broad sweep of a multi-volume epic).

Any discussion of Ancillary Justice seems to begin where the author herself starts it, with the decision to use the pronoun "she" for every character in the story.
She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn't entirely certain. It wouldn't have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don't care much about gender, and the language they speak - my own first language - doesn't mark gender in any way.
Ancillary Justice, p. 3
Better minds than mine have commented on how successful Leckie's decision is, and the value of a specifically feminist book in this genre.  I will point to Leckie's own post and a recent podcast from in which Kate Elliott and N. K. Jemisin talk about bias in the SFF genre.

What I enjoyed so much about the use of "she" everywhere, and the almost complete lack of other gender identifiers, is that by the end of the novel Leckie was able to bring in a host of other important signifiers.  A bit over halfway through Ancillary Justice (yes, my reading habits are so ingrained that it took almost 200 pages) I tweeted
Having laid hundreds of pages of groundwork to get us used to not looking at gender, Leckie gets to start using all sorts of other indicators of social status.  Once Breq and her companion Seivarden arrive in Radch space, the indicators pile up: human or artificial, civilian or military, clan affiliation.  Breq herself, as an outsider is Honored, but not Seivarden's Citizen.  This effect can only work after sustained effort getting us to stop looking at gender.  Hundreds of pages of effort, but a magnificent payoff that makes the Radch empire more immersive than it could otherwise have been.  Here, especially, I think Leckie is leveraging the form of the novel uniquely.  Only with something this long can she have the space to untrain the reader's common expectations of gender & other signifiers in order to really show the Radch empire, but when Ancillary Sword comes out in a month I'm going to need similar "retraining" to really get the effect.

In addition to the work building a feminist novel, Leckie's protagonist is an Artificial Intelligence.  The work alternates between "present day" chapters when Breq has been reduced to a single body and flashbacks when Breq was one aspect of the ship Justice of Toren and specifically a member of the unit One Esk.  In these flashbacks, we often get three or four views in quick succession from the various bodies of Justice of Toren One Esk all in first person but in wildly different parts of a colonized town.  It's a disorienting but extremely effective technique for conveying Breq's essentially alien nature.  After some recent twitter discussions (sample here) pointing out that reviewers who draw comparisons to other books often betray their own biases and more importantly reinforce the notion that men constitute the "canonical" authors and influences, I'm hesitant to point to too many comparisons, but Leckie's construction of Justice of Toren One Esk/Breq, as a relatable but essentially alien protagonist reminded me in many ways of C. J. Cherryh's construction of the alien Atevi in Foreigner (which again took a great deal of groundwork laid throughout the novel).  In both cases, through a series of key scenes and interactions the author forced me to step out of anthropomorphising an alien intelligence, and grapple with them as familiar-but-alien.  Again, Leckie's construction is extremely effective, and allows a series of revelations and immersive experiences (including Breq's interaction with a number of other AI's late in the novel) that could not otherwise occur.  My own favorite moment came early on when Justice of Toren One Esk and a human soldier were stationed together:
"Ships have feelings."
"Yes, of course." Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It's just easier to handle those with emotions. 
Ancillary Justice, p. 88 
There are other observations to make about the foregrounding of discussions of colonialism and entrenched privilege (again, there's a lot of payoff at the end of the novel), but they make the same point again: Leckie does an incredibly effective job using all of the space in her novel to highlight reader assumptions and challenge them in order to essentially retrain the reader in preparation for the climactic scenes in Radch space.  It's a challenge that requires the space of an entire novel, but is well handled.

Again playing with forms and assumptions, Leckie features two main characters.  The active protagonist Breq is an artificial intelligence, created for the use and convenience of the Radch.  Seivarden her unwilling companion is a human stranded far out of space and time.  Where Breq, the AI is active, capable of empathizing with others, and drives the story to its conclusion, Seivarden is passive, lost and alone in a time that no longer recognizes her or the privileged life she had prepared for.  In many ways, Seivarden is a useful tool for Breq to explain alien cultures to, a reminder of key moments in Radch expansion that various characters refer to, and another window into the entrenched power structures of the galactic empire.  She is, in other words, not really a fully fledged character on her own, so much as created for the use and convenience of the author.  In other situations, this is lazy writing, but with an author who has so carefully constructed her novel and the alien AI who drives it, contrasting a human who primarily serves a function in the story is yet another example of playing with the traditional elements of the form.

My only complaint about Ancillary Justice comes with its conclusion (and here inevitably will be spoilers.  Skip ahead if this bothers you.)  Leckie does a great deal of work to get Breq & Seivarden to Radch space, and to bring the reader along with proper expectations in order to see the internal conflicts and power struggles that threaten the empire.  When Breq finally reaches her nearly-impossible goal, things very quickly go to hell.  There are explosions, fights, power struggles, a desperate flight in a spacecraft with the fate of the system and thousands of innocent lives at stake.  Heroics ensue, and the heroes are rewarded.  Book two is set up.  Breq, who has aimed for the last twenty years at a single goal, finds herself unsure of what comes next, but her loyal assistant serves to help move the plot forward one final time.  In a book that up to this point had challenged and subverted so many tropes, raising very real questions about contemporary issues such as entrenched power structures, the legacy of colonialism, and gender relations, the ending felt cliched.  It may be unfair of me to be disappointed that Ancillary Justice does not suggest a response to these issues beyond a single brave actor leading a violent movement (and here perhaps I'm overly influenced by Ian Sales' recent post "Science fiction has lost the plot") but I did feel let down.

****Spoilers done****

Ancillary Justice is a masterpiece that deserved all of the awards it won.  It's a fascinating and hugely important book, that I enjoyed immensely.  What I kept noticing as I thought about Ancillary Justice is how well it used the structure and length of the novel form to achieve many of its goals.  The use of "she" as the pronoun, and freedom to explore other signifiers within Radch space can only come to fruition in a work of this length. Juxtaposing an active, alien, but relatable AI with a passive human supposedly of the culture but who primarily serves to advance the narrative agenda is an interesting structural decision.  Especially in a genre that seems to enjoy piling bookstops on top of bookstops, Ancillary Justice is a delight because of all of the things it does by virtue of being a novel.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Marigolds in Long Hidden has perhaps the most gripping introduction of any of the stories in the anthology.  It's a visceral and horrifying opening scene set in a brothel in Paris during the french revolution, and I can still remember the creeping horror of realizing what is happening as the scene unfolds.  As I read the rest of the story, I found myself vacillating between intense disgust and fascination, and a somewhat dull disinterest until the climax of the story.  At the end, I felt a dissatisfaction which, the more I reflected on it, seemed more a comment on my own reading blind spots than any weakness in the story.  Review below, with spoilers.

"I watch Maurepas enter the room, framed by my knees. He is plump and old, like the others that come to us ... Smelling of cognac and roasted birdflesh, their doughy skin scored by silks and velvets cut for younger bodies. He strips now, this minister, and when the last piece of cloth is discarded he is just another old man." (from Marigolds, p. 91)

The opening of Marigolds is captivating.  The physical details that lead from a woman looking at the ceiling, to her placement in a brothel servicing her client, who is in turn stripped of his finery and revealed as a wrinkly old man, anxious to reclaim some semblance of vitality through the act of sex while the woman is having her period are very effective.  The scene unfolds slowly, revealed through the implication of these details.  Later in the story, characters dig through chamber pots, and the entire magical element of the story is built on the powers of a woman's body when she is having her period.  Magical sigils are being used to encourage the terrible excesses of the revolution  L. S. Johnson excels at presenting these physical details, and while the scenes are disgusting, they also held my attention & were some of the strongest writing in the story.

It's also soon revealed that Claire, our protagonist, is in love with Isabella, one of the other women in the brothel.  In the month between the first and second moments of magical sex, there are a handful of scenes where Claire is teased, survives a riot, and uncovers the secret to the magic that is being worked.  Here is where I found myself disengaging from the story.  The errands seemed mere placeholders, the danger of the riot is clearly not a threat to either Claire or Isabella, so it is mostly just a chance for Claire to be out with her beloved before the climax the following month.

Eventually, though, the women are ready to perform their magic again, and the great ministers come to the brothel again.  Only this time Claire has learned the secrets of the magic, and is putting up a different spell for Isabella.  (I will confess that on first reading I feared Claire was going to essentially give her beloved a love potion.  I was happy to be proved wrong).  The next day, the course of events has not been changed as desired.  Claire and Isabella have both done magic to try to help the other escape! They fight their employer and leave to live happily ever after.

"We do not plot; we suggest.  No hunger, no suffering, no murderous rage. Just the slightest touch on the tiller, turning the world towards something a little kinder, a little sweeter, a little more like love." (Marigolds, p. 104)

I am dissatisfied with this ending.  It feels too pat, and simple.  My reactions after a second reading are less strong than on first reading, however.  When I first read Marigolds, I essentially stopped reading about the relationships after the opening scene.  Claire was secretly in love with one of the other women in the brothel.  From this, I made a whole series of assumptions that laid down blinders as I read the story: Claire would need to keep this attraction secret because it was shameful.  Her love could not be reciprocated because when you're attracted to someone of the same gender, what are the odds that they'll feel the same way?  When the story ended with the two living happily ever after, all my assumptions rose up angrily.  Too pat.  Too much author manipulation.  Implausible.

On a second reading it's clear that in fact Claire's feelings are an open secret in the brothel.  While Claire and Isabella never discuss them, Claire is often teased about her devotion in front of Isabella.  Isabella, for her part, initially rescued Claire and seems to have feelings for her.  Everything I objected to was foreshadowed throughout the story, I simply ignored it because of my own assumptions (and to some extent because I didn't find the prose compelling).  I'm still not particularly satisfied with the conclusion to Marigolds, but after two readings, it's pretty clear that most of my issues on first reading had much more to do with me than the story.

Have I mentioned that I've learned a lot from Long Hidden, including a lot about my own blind spots as I read?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Meta Monday - Discovery

I want to talk for a moment about book discovery, again mostly through the lens of the Kindle & e-books more broadly.  It used to be, I'd walk into a bookstore, browse the shelves, and pick a book. (And yes, I realize now, though I didn't then, how much that's governed by commercial concerns & displays).  If I was lucky, I could look at a library that had a good selection of what I was interested in, or (best of all) an indie bookstore or used bookstore by someone who really knew and loved my genre.

Now, I don't even bother.  My local indie bookstore is a disappointment, though I make an effort to buy books for the girls there, and to order books for me from them.  My local used bookstore folded.  I've been pleased by the selection in the library, but SFF is grouped with general fiction, so the discovery aspect is hardly strong.

I do, however, discover a lot from Twitter.  (I'm not on Facebook or Tumblr in any significant way, so it's tough to know if these can also serve as discovery platforms).  I don't really learn much from book review blogs for a few reasons: first, these seem often to be driven by marketing concerns (i.e. the book that's getting a big marketing push shows up on a lot of review blogs), but also I have difficulty reading a "typical" review (marketing copy, plot summary which repeats the marketing copy to a significant degree, then some response).  There are a handful of reviewers I will read because I learn about reading from them, but it's infrequent that a review prompts me to buy a book (or even read beyond the first few lines).

But here's the thing - I'd like to actively read new to me science fiction and fantasy (a departure from my agenda of the past few years).  I don't particularly care whether it's actually new, beyond the fact that a lot of older SFF is either difficult to find or likely to feel dated, but I'd love to get advice and recommendations.

And there are a lot of voices, particularly on Twitter, that I trust to recommend books.  I regularly email myself tweets in order to add books/authors to my To Be Read pile.

My podcast client is Overcast, which includes a feature that will show the podcasts and recommended episodes of people you follow on Twitter.  I'd love something like that for books.  Some form of bookshelf, curated, easy to follow, with buy links, closely linked to people I follow.  (It's too hard for me on the phone to get from a twitter user to a goodreads list to even check if this is a viable option).

Much as I'm dissatisfied with how Amazon handles the experience of owning and organizing books, I'm also dissatisfied with the experience of discovering new books online.  But good god there's room for someone to come in and develop an easy method to set up links to books tied closely to trusted voices.  The revenue stream is obvious.  Please? Someone? (Pinterest?)

*Unfinished - what would mine look like?