...Go Out In the Midday Sun!

Read the previous post HERE.

These issues I had with the plotting and characters in Longbourne were really very small, and most of the time reading I was in awe of not just the spare perfection of Baker’s prose, but the brilliance of her observations. Many times I found myself doing the thing I really do know better than to do, and speculating on how much Baker was writing from personal experience, because her insights seemed so fresh and so true. And perhaps it was this bad habit that made parts of the war chapters seem less assured, because I’m almost positive that Baker was never an artilleryman in the British army in 1808. ;) I have no evidence that other very true-seeming things she describes in the novel come from her personal experience either, and they likely don’t. She’s just that good.

To illustrate Baker’s enormous skill that made Longbourn such a worthwhile read, and to segue to my next review *g*, here’s part of a passage I loved for its delicious ironic perfection. James, in Spain, has just described a house ruined by invading soldiers. He thinks: “They were villainous, the French: he had heard it many times, but he saw it now, he felt it. They were corrupting. They had no respect for their superiors, for property, for anything at all. [//] Later, when they came upon another house, he saw the curtains heaped as bedding on the floor, the campfires made of splintered furniture; he smelt the latrine stench, and his opinions of the enemy were confirmed. Until he noticed that the obscenities scrawled there were in a language that he understood. This was the work of English soldiery, a troop that had gone through there before them.” [225]

I found myself thinking back on James in Spain a lot as I read Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names [ROC (Penguin) mass market paperback 2014 (original hardcover was published in 2013)]. I had no idea, before, that “flintlock military fantasy” was a genre; now I do. But more importantly, how does it relate to the FIFA Men’s World Cup (see end of post)?

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See, we get a number of descriptions of women’s sexiness in this book, and none of men’s—no point-of-view character in the book, male or female, finds any man attractive. Is it common for men to write books in which a (often the I expect) female character is attracted to women? And is it because they are uncomfortable even pretending to think of men the way they have their male characters think of women? My theory is this: In our culture we are often given the idea that there are people and then there are women. Much media is dominated by the assumption of a heterosexual male consumer, with sexual desire rarely presented from a typically female perspective, and with women usually portrayed as sexual objects rather than subjects. Sexually objectified women litter advertising of all kinds, and most visual media such as film, television, and video games. Men are encouraged to take it as a given that women are objects, and women are encouraged to objectify themselves, trying to make themselves conform to cultural beauty norms, and therefore appeal to men. This idea permeates all aspects of our lives, and manifests in all kinds of bigotry, and leads to a lot of self-harm.

So I am not surprised by the idea that men would feel the need to describe sexual attraction with the language of objectification—even men who are attracted to women who don’t fit these social norms, or who require more than physical adherence to toxic beauty standards in order to fall in love, seem to feel compelled to make their heroes’ love interests culturally exceptionally beautiful without much need to make them unique people. You know, he’s the hero, she looks great, boom, they belong together, end of character development. Whereas women know that they themselves are people, and extrapolate that to apply to all women, and they are reinforced daily in the certainty that men are people, so, in my experience, they tend to think of men (or women) they love as people and not just as interchangeable tokens that must conform to toxic beauty standards in order to be acceptable as love interests. In my reading, even though all heroes in fiction are also beautiful, female authors tend to describe their female characters’ love interests in terms of their personality, interests, and compatibility with the heroine even more than they describe their physical appearance (and if they do describe physical appearance, it is usually in the context of how that appearance is specifically attractive to this individual woman, rather than assuming that there is a one-type-fits-all of men’s sexiness). It’s not that women are not visually aroused—do I even have to say that?—but that we are better able to recognize someone’s sexiness as only one of many aspects of them, and therefore something, but not the only thing, to consider when looking for a potential mate. While men have more trouble figuring this out because they are daily encouraged by our larger culture to see women as not people. Dear Readers, what do you think?

And, daggummit, it seems the chicken must once again be divided into three parts. More anon (including the bit about the World Cup—sorry for teasing you!).

*In fact, I think this particular one is vitally important. It is simplistic and insulting to simply give your good characters spontaneous enlightenment that fits perfectly with culturally accepted views in our world, but has no apparent origin or precedent in the world of the story, so that all the villains have views we consider backwards, because in real life good people have biases that uphold our unjust system and prejudice is not just the province of a few pure evil radicals, and because in real life there have always been social justice advocates** fighting for equality, even in periods where we’re taught in school that “everybody thought this back then,” so we can pat ourselves on the back for being perfect now. Because we are not actually perfect now, fictional characters (particularly those with societal privilege, that privileged readers will identify with) are wonderfully useful for modeling to readers the ongoing challenge we have as individuals to first recognize the problems in our society and second to solve them.

**For an obvious, but frequently overlooked, example from U.S. history, here’s Victoria Woodhull, who, in 1872, ran for president, with Frederick Douglass as vice-president, as the Equal Rights Party; no ticket has been half as exciting since.

***Regarding that last clause: yes, it is possible for an author to do that excellently. It requires one to be an expert, who knows exactly what she is doing (because she has made a balanced study of the subject and has an acute knowledge of how it is likely to affect victims/survivors), and has firm control over her audience (that is, there is nothing ambiguous in the text that could be used by evil-doers as evidence of like-mindedness in others or permissiveness in society). That author is probably not you. Heck, she’s probably not even me.

^Understanding what’s wrong with Exceptional Women/Model Minorities is Advanced Feminism. Basically, by privileging only those individuals who behave in the way you like, or only those with rare ability or in exceptional circumstance, you are saying that anyone who is just average, or, worse, below average, must just not be trying hard enough and therefore is not worthy of respect. In addition, you are reinforcing the negative stereotype by saying “You are special because you are not like all the rest of your kind who are horrible,” so you are “praising” them for their luck by insulting them with their inherent characteristics. In this case, [Spoiler!] there is the implication that these magical women get to be our heroes because they are super special snowflakes, while the regular non-magical women—the camp followers, the sacrificed urchin, Jane—are just disposable victims. Because that’s the way the two groups are split in the story: magical and major and alive, non-magical and minor and dead and/or victimized.

Mad Dogs And Englishmen...

Dear Readers! I have written fewer than 20 blog posts in 365 days! That’s… kind of terrible?

Anyway! After my controlled rant about Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor*, I felt bad, for it seemed like I was being too negative, and all my reviews lately made the books sound awful, which they aren’t necessarily. OK, Tigana really is that bad, but the Prologue is actually the least-worst part of the book, and I wasn’t even annoyed about the (lack of?) bridge thing until I started writing about it. I felt that--despite praising Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue and Heather Rose Jones’s Daughter of Mystery over the same few weeks--every time I read a book I must somehow be looking for things to criticize, and I was concerned that I was unfairly carrying a strictly personal and very lingering bad mood into my interpretation of other authors’ hard work.

So I sat down to read the next book coaching myself to just not dwell on the bad stuff, to just accept the book on its own terms. Well, the next book was Rudyard Kipling’s Kim [first published in 1901]. Heh.

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I could have focused on everything that’s wrong in Kim, but every time I sat down to read I said to myself, “Just read it.” Not only could I focus on what I liked about the book rather than what I disliked, but it was the first time in a long time that I’d actually just enjoyed reading something. It’s not that I didn’t notice all the problems—I did—but my attitude was different, seemingly simply a matter of mind over… well, mind. I suppose there’s a lesson THERE as well. ;)

And I kept up the attitude with the next book I read, Longbourn by Jo Baker [2013; I read the Vintage (Random House) paperback edition, 2014] (and also the next book I read, which I just purely enjoyed—Holly Black’s Doll Bones, which I’ll write about another time).

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And I must leave off here, but I will continue these thoughts, and review another book (and probably go off on lots of tangents about Napoleon…) in the next post!

Love, Susie

P.S. Contrary to what you may read on the internet, today’s title quote comes from a song written by Noël Coward in 1931 (in what’s now Vietnam), although a similar sentiment (though they were just regular dogs, not rabid ones) appeared in print in a Spanish newspaper in 1787 (or so I read on the internet), and presumably Coward was inspired by some existing phrase or idea. It is not, apparently, a common phrase in former British colonies; I got it from The Muppet Show. I get a lot of things from The Muppet Show, and by the way, “you’re all weirdos.” :)

*Which is now propping up the pedals of my antique piano, because it happened to be just the right size when wrapped with upholstery fabric. I feel kind of bad about that, because honestly, the book is NOT THAT BAD, although I am still amused/annoyed by the sheer bad plotting of the Intercepted-But-Not-Stopped Eight-Page Letter That Only Exists Because The Author Thought “The Cloud Horses” Was An Awesome Name For A Bar—Which It Totally Is, But Awesome Names Do Not Make A Thing Worth Putting In Your Book, Or At Least Not The Way You Did.

**The first one. I only learned there was a second one quite recently (well, since starting this blog anyway).

***I totally wrote that thinking of a particular instance in Kim and without thinking at all about the subject line quote, which, see P.S. above. :)

^I didn’t say it was free of negative stereotypes… ;P

^^ For the most part the book is not aware it’s fanfiction, though there is a motif where every time Mr. Darcy goes by Sarah describes herself literally becoming invisible, which I think is meant as a metaphor, but comes across as jarring (versus the rest of the book’s tone) surrealism.

^^^Smith, in what I read as a reference to Harriet Smith.

Genius Advice Column! Honor and Duty Edition

Dear Readers! Do you require assistance with a question of propriety, honor, duty, sacrifice, or sangria? Our resident Genius can help! Ask him your questions and he will give you his (or his friends’ and relations’) answers! Do you have a burning need to know about a topic in biology, mythology, folklore, or battling ghosts of the evil dead? Our Genius will happily tell you all the little he knows! Do you have a philosophical argument of civic, filial, social, or eschatological significance? Our Genius will tell you if it’s sound! Are you inundated with a legal, criminal, medical, or sociological morass? Do not ask the Genius. Please, you will only frighten him.

Warning: The Resident Genius’s answers are purely subjective, anecdotal, and entirely fictitious. Do not be surprised if the advice he gives is not useful, not applicable, not helpful, or not legal.

Dear Genius,
Purely hypothetically speaking, should an evil villain in a work of fiction, having intercepted and quite obviously tampered with (i.e. read) a private letter between the book’s hero and the hero’s sidekick thus learning that his evil plan is about to be exposed and he is about to be duly punished, then allow the letter to continue on its way to reach the hero?
I Think Susie Is Not Yet Over The Goblin Emperor

Dear Evil Villain,
Genii do not actually send letters, nor indeed know how to read. Your blog authoress explained the general idea to us when she asked us if we (that is my family and I) wanted to provide this advice service. She reads your questions to us and then transcribes [And slightly edits for length, ahem. –Ed.] our answers in letter form. So we asked her about this, and she informs us that letters are sacrosanct, since you modern humans have a slightly stricter sense of privacy than we Genii do. Therefore, Mr. Villain, we all in this room (Me, my sweetie, Ducto, Corso, and Disjejuno… no wait, Dis just left to get lunch, but now Bibo has brought Struo and Venato in. They’re here for the party tonight… Glutto! Wake up and warn Ferio that Venato’s here. Rido, is that really necessary? She’s your sister, Ludo, but sometimes I think… Bibo, have you started the sangria yet? I [Oops, transcribed too literally there. –Ed.]) agree that you have acted against your honor and your duty. Admitting your mistake is a good first step, but the hero would be right to be upset with you. We suggest you appeal to your Paterfamilias right away and hope that he will help smooth things over and come to an agreement with the Paterfamilias of the hero. But if he can’t help you escape punishment, then it’s your own fault and you must accept the judgment of the head of your household.
With best wishes,
Your Genii

Dear Genius,
I just read a book, which will remain unnamed. I wrote an honest review of it on my blog, but all the other reviews I’ve read haven’t mentioned the flaws that I see in it. I feel like the kid in the Andersen story, pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Am I just a bad reader who totally missed the point, or are they? And there’s another thing. Do I have an obligation to be generous and not write negative reviews in order to preserve strangers’ feelings? What if I know the author has lots of self-doubt? Am I totally wrong about everything??
Gobbled Empathier

Dear Gobbled,
Wait, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes? In public?? That does not bode well for the future of the empire. I speak from experience here. Well, not personal experience; I’m not that old. As for the rest of your questions, speaking candidly and honestly is certainly to your credit and the credit of your family’s good name, and you should never lie to anyone for any reason. Likewise, it is very much your duty to your family honor to be as generous as you have the means to be, or even more. That being said, you must ask yourself whether sometimes it is not better to refrain from speaking when you have nothing nice to say. Don’t lie, just say, “I’m afraid I don’t have anything to say.” After all, you are the messenger of your family name to the world’s opinion. Do you want that message to be one of goodness and generosity, or unkindness and judgment? Before speaking ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say going to serve the people I speak it to, the people I’m referring to, my Paterfamilias, the rest of my household, and the City I live in as well?” If the answer is no, then perhaps you should find something else to say. [Also, you are statistically unlikely to be wrong about everything. –Ed.]
Your Genius

Dear Genius,
Is it absurd that in order to renew my driver’s license in my state I have to produce two forms of government-issued photo identification, one further proof of government-issued identification, and two proofs of residency in the state (in a state where a very significant portion of residents do not have home delivery of mail and therefore most of their records have their P.O. Box and not their home address, and, as the lady at the post office pointed out to me not long ago, “You don’t live in your P.O. Box”), all dated within the last six months? I mean, seriously, why do they think anyone would claim to live in this hellhole when they don’t actually live here? And their solution to my not having any proofs of residency? A letter from my Paterfamilias claiming me as part of his household. What happened to freedom and equality?!
I Would Honestly Prefer the Simplicity of a Police State At This Point, Actually

Dear Longing For A Police State,
We fear this is the inevitable consequence of the tragic decline in Genii in the world today. People no longer care about doing their duty and upholding their family honor and making proper sacrifices to their Lares and Penates. They disrespect their Paterifamilii and almost never think of the greater good of their nation. They fall under the influence of Lemures and only know how to do wrong. In this culture of fear and distrust, of course they cannot recognize someone with a strong Paterfamilias and well-fed Genii, and so cannot take them at their word, but must demand ever more proofs of honesty, which they distrust as they think of ways to fake them themselves. You must put sacrifices in your Lararium and your hearth on a regular basis, and keep a bowl of water and a bowl of black beans on your threshold to keep the bad influences away. Be an example to your community, and hopefully your fellow citizens will soon follow your lead. It’s the best hope for all of us.
Your Genius

[Dear Readers, please try not to send in letters that make the Genii cry. Thank you. –Ed.]

Dear Geniuses,
What do you do all day?
Curiouser and Curiouser

Dear Curiousers,
You must be descended from a great Curiouser to have led your parents to name both of you after him or her! I hope Curiouser features prominently at your household altar! To answer your question, we’ll just go around the room:
-Destroy Ghosts of the Evil Dead (That’s Venato; he’s so full of himself)
-Drink Sangria! (Good old Bibo)
-Maintaining the house takes a lot of work. (Struo)
-What did I miss? (Oh, never mind, that’s Disjejuno back again. Wow, that’s a good-looking sandwich…)
-Some days it seems like I spend half my time chasing Salto to keep him from flying into trouble. My, he’s an active child! (Rido)
-Cook feasts for all the parties we have! (Ducto)
-Eat feasts! (Glutto)
-Make the sangria that Bibo drinks! (Corso)
-And I dictate the Genius Advice Column.
Your Genii

Dear Genius,
How do you kill ghosts? Aren’t they already dead? Is it like Ghostbusters??
Morbidly Fascinated

Dear Fascinated,
I’ll let my brother-in-law answer that. “Shoot them in the squishy part,” he says. Well, there you go.
Your Genius

Dear Genius,
Why are Lemures afraid of cats?
Trying To Convince My Mom To Let Us Get A Kitty

Dear Wants A Kitty,
No one really knows. It might be their fierce glowing eyes, or their sharp claws, or their pounciness, or their eerie yowls. Personally, I think it’s the magical healing power of the purr.
Your Genius

Dear Genius,
Can you still call it sangria if you make it with white wine?
Looking For Beverage

[Never! Your drink is an abomination! Dump it down the sink and repent of your sins! –Ed.]

Well! That ends another Genius Advice Column! Do you have a question for the Genius? Please leave it in the comments! Your anonymity (if you want it) is assured!

Post-Internet World, Part Two

In which I continue to review Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor [Tor, 2014] and Heather Rose Jones’s Daughter of Mystery [Bella Books, 2014].

Go to Part One

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Weirdly, some part of my disappointment with the book I think was that I kept seeing parallels to L&W. Some of that was the nature of the book—it’s a bit smoke-and-mirrors where readers fill in what they want to see instead of what’s actually there, a kind of novel-as-avant-garde-theater-piece—but some part of my brain begins to imagine (and this happens more and more as again and again I read books with similar themes, characters, or plot-points, or even, worst of all, turns of phrase) that I’ve been thinking so hard for so long about this darn book that I’ve sent my ideas through the ether like radio waves where they’ve been picked up by other writers. It’s not that I think L&W isn’t good or interesting, but part of me worries that it’s kind of already been done? And all by books that have come out since I’ve written those parts that they remind me of. Probably there are just trends in fantasy circles and these authors have been reading the same blog posts and new new things that I have and similarities are due only to similarities in backgrounds, interests, education, and culture. Sigh. Who knows?

Just before reading The Goblin Emperor, I read Daughter of Mystery. That one was more of an impulse purchase, based on one rave review, and coincidentally covers a lot of the same territory as The Goblin Emperor. Maybe TGE felt less original to me because I’d just read DOM, but if these are themes you like—court intrigue, questions of succession, genuinely nice and well-meaning heroes, and just a little bit of magic—then Daughter of Mystery achieves them all way better and much more satisfactorily.

Briefly, Margerit Sovitre is a genteel-poor orphan in the fictional European country of Alpennia in the (otherwise mostly realistic) 1830s or ‘40s. Her wealthy godfather, the Baron Saveze, must leave his title to his nephew, but he leaves all his wealth to Margerit (much to her shock and dismay), including his slave Barbara, a deadly swordswoman who is also just Margerit’s age. With her newfound fortune, Margerit finds herself thrust into the rarefied world of the high and mighty as her guardians (her aunts and uncle) try to push her into a brilliant marriage with one of the powerful people in her country (preferably a nobleman). But Margerit doesn’t want to marry anyone. Alpennia practices a (fictional) mystic Christianity where the saints can bring God’s miracles to anyone who asks the right way—a form of prayer that looks a lot like magic. Margerit is devout, but also a burgeoning scientist, and all she wants to do is study these divine Mysteries and learn how and why they work. Meanwhile, Barbara is enraged that the Baron did not keep his word to free her before he died, and now she must try to solve the mystery of who she really is and find her own place in the world, all while defending Margerit from the vengeful machinations of the new Baron, avoiding the treasonous traps laid in a royal court roiling with an unanswered question of succession, and falling in love where she has no right to.

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The Post-Internet World makes me feel perhaps a little entitled as a reader. Jones has a blog on which she writes about lots of things, but I couldn’t find anything on it or her website to answer the burning desire I had, which was to know why Jones chose to create the kind of magic she did for this world, and what the significance of it was for her, since it’s very unusual in Fantasy (in my limited experience) to have magic coexist so intimately with Christianity, and also to write protagonists who are quietly and earnestly devout without ulterior motives. I found it completely fascinating and wanted to know a lot more. But I don’t need to know, and the book is certainly beautifully complete as it is (although Jones apparently has plans to publish several more novels with the same characters).

Well, readers, what do you think?

Love, Susie

*[Spoilers for The Goblin Emperor]I mean, is there any great cruel salacious fatal tragedy in TGE (except Maia and Chenelo’s story) that doesn’t involve sexual activities between two men (or elves, whatever)? This is what made me so angry about Thara Celehar’s Big Confession, because I Expect More (nowadays), but also what made me put the book down in disgust because I thought “Is she really going to come at this again (from a different angle of course) with Csevet?” because from the moment Csevet said he had reason to hate and fear Tethimar I knew it would have something to do with rape or attempted rape because these things effing always do (in fiction). And then we get those two guys at the end, and it all seems to be there so that Maia can say, “I don’t have a problem with their weird unnatural love, because I am the World’s Best Male Elf Feminist Social Justice Advocate!” Almost, almost the story of Maia’s goblin aunt Shaleän ameliorated things a bit, but really not enough, except to hint that maybe there are different ways of doing things in the larger world outside the Elflands.

Post-Internet World, Part One

Dear Readers! I know posting has been somewhat erratic, but I’m trying to emulate the words of Julia Child: No Explanations, No Excuses. Anyway, Today I am reviewing two books about Court Intrigue With A Smattering Of Magic: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor [Tor, 2014] and Heather Rose Jones’s Daughter of Mystery [Bella Books, 2014] while also musing a bit on publishing in the Post-Internet World, and maybe the Collective Unconscious. Should be fun. :)

I only find new books through word-of-internet. I follow blogs of authors I find interesting and seek out information on upcoming sequels by authors whose previous books I’ve loved. I read a couple of blogs about writing and always like to read reviews. I make a note of books that sound intriguing on a piece of paper next to the computer here* until I’m ready to buy books. The time delay between hearing about a book and actually reading it means I usually forget where I learned about a book. It also means I have often read about an author, or read an author’s blog before I’ve read her book, or that I can access the author’s words about her book before I write a review, as well as the opinions of other reviewers. How strange and new this is in the history of novel-reading.

Case in point: I’ve been following Sarah Monette’s blog for years, but the first novel of hers I’ve ever read is the just-out The Goblin Emperor, written under the pen-name Katherine Addison. This means I not only already had an opinion (probably skewed and inaccurate) about Monette’s opinions, values, and writing skill, I also knew some things about the writing and publishing of this book, and read all the early reviews that Monette linked to. Plus I was aware of the story of the pseudonym, which many reviewers are not—all of the packaging of the book suggests (but doesn’t state, because that would be a lie) that this is a debut; even the copyright is under the Addison name. All of this adds up to this being the most anticipated book of the year for me, as well as rather disappointing.

The Goblin Emperor got a lot of hype (probably doesn’t hurt that some of the most compelling reviews I read were through the Tor website…), with reviews and author comments promising a lot of political machination, fun steampunk** trappings, and a genuinely nice protagonist. “The Anti-Grimdark Fantasy!” they said. Well… I went back and forth between really liking and kind of despising it. I will, because I am a writer, dear readers, try to explain.

Briefly, the plot is that eighteen-year-old half-goblin exile and youngest son of the elvish emperor, Maia Drazhar, learns that an airship crash has killed in one fell swoop the emperor and his three elder sons, leaving Maia Emperor of the elflands. Having grown up in isolation with only his abusive guardian (who is also his cousin) for company, Maia is quickly overwhelmed by the elaborate rules, intrigues, and nefarious plots that plague the elvish court. He must learn how to survive and lead when half the court believes a goblin unworthy of the throne, and the rest think they can manipulate him into ceding his power to them. When he learns that the airship crash that killed the emperor his father was not an accident, Maia has to find people he can trust before the murderer comes after him next. Some spoilers follow.

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Go to Part Two

*I am low-tech. Sitting at a computer and staring at screens too long hurts my head, besides which, my Out-Of-Sight-Out-Of-Mind-ness means if it’s not visible without electricity, then it may as well not exist.

**I hate that word, like really hate that word, but I don’t know what else to call it and have you, dear readers, understand what I’m talking about.***

***OK, so over Spring Break, I was explaining to PrairieDawn my terms “Secondary-World Fantasy” and “Primary-World Fantasy,” and she said she got confused, because she thought “Primary-World” should refer to books à la Tolkien, while “Secondary-World” should refer to what is vulgarly known as “reality.” Ha ha! … OK, I guess you had to be there… which, come to think of it, Dear Readers, most or all of you were. Ahem. MOVING ON!

^I always feel the same way about Mahler.

^^This is where it helps that I’m the kind of reader who flips through the whole book when I first get it, but the publisher could have saved the other kind of readers—the ones who never look ahead—a lot of grief by simply listing the Pronunciation Guide and List of Names in the detailed Table of Contents which was included in the front. For while the Names were neither gratuitous nor overly complicated, they were sufficiently difficult to make the book one that would be nigh-impossible to just plunge into. And I do feel I was mostly able to keep track of the major characters due to how quickly I read the book, rather than the way Addison handled them.
AND BY THE WAY, in this review, I am checking the spelling of words against The List to make sure they’re correct, but for the most part (and I finished the book last night), I’m remembering them all, and correctly… at least correctly enough to look them up! ;)
HOWEVER, what I really could have used and never got was a glossary of Elvish terms with definitions—I had enough of a sense of what nohecharei, mazei, and even (sigh) marnei meant, as terms, to follow the story, but I did not know who those people are to their society or to themselves, and names of certain places and things also were left unexplained in a way I found… well, only mildly frustrating, but that’s only because I was never that emotionally invested in the book.

^^^And it occurs to me that I have actually read some of Monette’s short fiction—the episodes she wrote for Shadow Unit. I tended to like her episodes a lot more than those of most of the other writers of that “show,” and I suspect that Monette is just better at short fiction than at long fiction, and that’s what all the problems I had with The Goblin Emperor boil down to. Maybe?

****By the way, helpful hint for people, inspired by Cala and what’s-his-face’s reaction to Maia’s scars: when someone reveals to you that they have, long ago, suffered abuse, which they have since made peace with, getting really angry at the person who abused them, telling them that had you been there you would have protected them, and/or expressing surprise that they could come to terms with the abuse or otherwise expressing an opinion that the abuse they suffered was really very extraordinarily abusive, are all probably NOT HELPFUL (although, you know, everybody’s unique, some might appreciate one or more of the above at a particular time from a particular person, etc.), and may, in fact, be traumatic in and of itself. Just FYI.

Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown

Dear Readers,
I think it would be fun to post Wednesday book reviews that relate in some way to the preceding Monday’s Tigana post. Today I’m reviewing Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore [I have the trade paperback, Firebird (Penguin), 2013 (hardcover first edition published in 2012)].

Recently, PrairieDawn asked me when the last time was I read a book that I thought was really good and that I enjoyed from cover to cover, and I couldn’t remember one. Alas, Bitterblue is a remarkable book which was completely engrossing and consistently satisfying, but I cannot recommend it to PrairieDawn because of the subject matter.

Bitterblue concerns the title character, Queen of Monsea, and her establishment of what is essentially a Truth And Reconciliation Commission in response to the atrocities committed by the previous regime—task compounded by the fact that the previous ruler was Bitterblue’s father, who also abused her, as well as many of her ministers, whom she retained when she inherited the crown. King Leck’s abuses (which include the torture and murder of innocents, including children), while never graphic, are made explicit in the book, and there are a few brief passages that get inside his head, which are all very disturbing. Indeed, I was very leery of reading the book for this reason (why I delayed so long in getting it, despite loving Cashore’s previous novel, Fire), but after reading so many rave reviews I decided to give it a try, and I was very glad I did. Cashore handles the subject matter beautifully, but I don’t want to minimize the horror aspect of the novel—for me, the wonderful main characters and Cashore’s skill made the rest more than readable (although the aftermath of Leck’s rule is the spine of the book, most of the story is about Bitterblue’s coming of age; getting away from his influence is a big part of it, but most of it is moving toward better people, who are mostly delightful characters in their own right, and there are several adventures/themes/plotlines that have very little to do with Leck) but readers especially sensitive to these issues may want to avoid it.

I hate to say that, because I actually really loved the book, but it was an intense reading experience. I couldn’t put it down, but it is not a book to read late at night. I was so invested in Bitterblue as a character, I laughed at her triumphs and literally cried at her mistakes, and when the book ended, after nearly 600 pages, I was bereft. I will try to avoid spoilers as much as possible here, because it’s a book that’s really better if you don’t know what’s going to happen. I also want to warn readers (and this is a bit spoilery) that although Cashore’s previous novels in this world (Graceling and Fire) are essentially romance, Bitterblue does not end with a Happily Ever After, or even a Happily For Now. It has a Hopeful ending, with strong hints that all the characters we love will soon be very happy, but it’s really up to readers to decide what that happiness will look like. The book was a complete whole, but there were a number of plot threads that trailed off at the end—resolved as far as this novel’s plot, but leaving another book’s worth of possible stories to tie them up completely. Also, you don’t need, strictly speaking, to have read either of Cashore’s previous novels in order to follow this one, but the plotlines of several minor characters (a couple of them introduced in Cashore’s previous work) will be more emotionally satisfying if you have.

Bitterblue has a lot in common, thematically, with Tigana, in that both deal with the restoration of a land after a brutal conquest, and both intimately explore the role of memory in this restoration. But Bitterblue is much more thoughtful and sophisticated* than Kay’s novel, and much better written. Here’s a quote I found especially pertinent:

“‘But that’s how memory works,’ Bitterblue said quietly, ‘Things disappear without your permission, then come back again without your permission.’ And sometimes they came back incomplete and warped.” (316)

Cashore herself has had a limited number of themes to her novels—like Fire, Bitterblue is a young woman who must reconcile the sometimes terrible power she has that came from her monstrous father, with the need to do good in the world, just as Fire in her book, like Katsa, heroine of Graceling, had to learn to use a great magical power for good, while not letting her king use it for evil. And all three novels are about strong young women making a place for themselves in worlds that are not all that friendly to strong young women. Yet each of Cashore’s heroines is unique, and I wouldn’t mind reading her write on these themes forever, since she does it so very, very well.

Bitterblue also made me really admire Cashore as an author, for two reasons. First, every book she has written so far has been significantly better than the last. I’m not sure how she can improve so exponentially after this one, which was so incredibly good, but I will definitely be alert for the next book she writes (which will likely be some years, since Cashore is a relatively slow writer). I hope she publishes many more books and that I get to read them. :) Second, there was this that she said in the acknowledgments (which are exactly how authors should write acknowledgments, by the way) (spoilers for Graceling):

“I was not thinking about disability politics back then [when I wrote Graceling]. It didn’t occur to me, until it was too late, that I had disabled Po, then given him a magical cure for his disability—thus implying that he couldn’t be a whole person and also be disabled. I now understand that the magical cure trope is all too common in F/SF writing and is disrespectful to people with disabilities. My failings here are all my own.”

Thank you, Kristin Cashore. Thank you for writing this amazing book, and thank you for being awesome. And most especially, thank you for teaching us alternative uses for cats.

Moving away from the work a tiny bit, there were a couple things I was thinking about when reading (I will be a little vague here to try to avoid spoilers, but I’m putting it behind a cut for content), about republics and about torture.

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Final opinion: Bitterblue is a very powerful and wonderful book, deftly and gracefully written, devastating and beautiful. I loved Bitterblue and was deeply invested in her struggle to show the people around her, who have always known her as a vulnerable child, that she is now a grown-up, capable and responsible, and worthy of the power she wields, and to prove to herself that she can do great good in a world that has come to expect only evil. It’s a long book, at some 155,000 words (I estimate), yet while the story was complete and every loose end that needed to be tied was, I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to get Bitterblue onto more solid personal footing because I liked her so much, yet I also believed completely that she would do just fine—an excellent example of the form of the book fitting its function, since readers left Bitterblue where she was with herself, full of new hope but no certainty. It made me want to read Cashore’s previous books again, but more importantly it left me thinking deeply about the story, and thinking fondly of its heroes. I have reservations in recommending it because it was such an intense reading experience, but it is decidedly a keeper for me; Cashore’s writing is so good that I loved every minute of reading it, even when what those perfect sentences were about was horrific. And I guess that’s a rave review. :)

Love, Susie

*Based on what I’ve read of Tigana so far.
**And may I mention that one of the things I’m quite proud of with L&W is that I’ve created six different governments and none is a monarchy.

Tigana: Head Smashing

Dear Readers! This is my first post dissecting Guy Gavriel Kay’s 1990 novel Tigana! All posts about the novel will be categorized under the new tag “dissecting tigana,” so as to a) be easy to find and b) not clutter up my “books” tag. This post will cover the Prologue.

What these posts will be:
1. A little snarky and a little flippant and just a tiny bit serious, to keep moving through this book fairly quickly.
2. As I get further in and have a better picture of the whole story, I will start to intersperse the commentary posts with essays of meta-analysis of what I’ve read so far.
3. When I finish the novel, I’ll do some wrap-up essays in greater detail, which will take into account the story as a whole.
4. There will be unmarked spoilers for each chapter discussed in the post, as well as all previous chapters.
5. Spoilers marked in brackets [like so] refer to my skimming ahead in the book and may or may not be accurate.
6. I’ll include very brief summaries of the action for those who want to read these posts but not the book, but I’ll only quote things I’m directly commenting on.
7. Since Tigana is about war and contains just about every kind of bigotry, there will be a note before the cut on each post telling you what disturbing material the post includes examples and detailed discussion of.

But Susie, why are you doing this? Don’t you hate Tigana?

I can’t tell you whether I hate Tigana or not. I expect that I will hate Tigana by the time I’m done, because when I started reading the book straight through, I found that the more I read the angrier I got. And I thought I really wasn’t being fair to the author, because I really do feel that Kay has some really good topics and ideas here, and it’s just the execution that’s ham-handed, and I think I really shouldn’t accuse him of having an evil agenda until I’ve read the whole thing. Besides which, he starts at the very beginning (of chapter one) with unreliable narration, so it’s reasonable to assume that he knows more than his characters do, intentionally.

So I thought I would do better taking it a little bit at a time, and letting my reactions stay purely in-the-moment, because I fully expect my perspective to change as I read along. Also, this way I won’t get bogged down in rage that makes me want to tear the book into tiny pieces and stuff it down the garbage disposer. And yes, Dear Readers, this is why I don’t do e-books. ;)

On the upside, reading Tigana is making me feel really great about L&W. I know it’s not the best-written thing ever, and I know when I get it published (when!) a lot of people will hate it, but I look at it and think, “Oh God, that’s good!” One imagines Mr. Kay felt the same way about his book. *smiles ruefully*

All page numbers [in brackets] are from the 1999 Roc (Penguin) trade paperback (Tenth Anniversary edition with an afterword by the author).

[Content Note: Warfare]

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Love, Susie

*I learned that from the map opposite page 1.
**I’m amazed that that’s a word.

***Doubling the star wouldn’t solve this problem. It might give the moons not just dark sides and bright sides but also dim sides. And it might also mess up day and night, which just wouldn’t do for a story where the alternate planet setting is just mood atmosphere anyway and the author really wants to tell a story about humans on Earth with magic.

^Another of my peeves with smeerps like these, is you don’t know the singular or plural of the word.
^^There are two moons apparently for purposes of the novel’s made-up religion, which I will be discussing in great horrible detail, probably in the posts on Chapter 2.
^^^Ah, separately. Much more on that to come, alas.

^^^^Who also quite famously defeated a much larger and more heavily-armored military force at Agincourt in 1415. Henry didn’t need a river, he made do with just a bit of mud…

The Real Jane Austen, Part Three (Final Part)

Dear Readers! This is the end of my critical review of Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen (Harper 2013). Part One is HERE. Part Two is HERE.

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I know this review has been mostly negative (mostly because I tend to take notes on what bugs me and not on what I like), but there was a lot about the book that I really liked. I thought Byrne had an interesting premise, her scholarship is mostly very good I think, some of her original theories (mostly about the theater) are very well-done, and she is excellent when directly in dialogue with other biographers and critics. But the best thing Byrne achieved with this work was making Austen’s brilliance clear. Take this description of Austen’s unfinished Sanditon: “Charlotte, the novel’s clear-eyed heroine, decides that ‘Some natural delicacy of Constitution … with an unfortunate turn for Medecine [sic], especially quack Medecine,’ has indeed harmed the sisters’ physical health. […] Tea is served in different pots, since they have a large selection of ‘herb-tea.’ They eat only dry toast and sip dishes of strong green tea. The seaside always attracts people drawn to an alternative lifestyle, as well as the elderly, the sick and the transient” (323). And she also has a knack for picking out those direct quotes from Austen that show why her work is so sparkling and sharp and beloved, like this, again, from Sanditon: “As far as I can understand what nervous complaints are, I have a great idea of the efficacy of air and exercise for them, daily, regular Exercise.” I quite agree. :)

If you are interested in Jane Austen’s life it is well worth reading, with a grain of salt.

Dear Readers! This concludes my half-review/half-criticism of Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen! Next time, the first chapter of Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, which I expect will be a lot more fun (for you, not for me).

Love, Susie

*Of the Red, for those keeping score, meaning he basically achieved the highest rank possible in the British Navy of the day.


***If only to emphasize how horrible this misconduct in the Navy is—Austen talks about the great benefits of the Navy many times in the canon, and Persuasion is practically a paean to the institution, making her especially critical of anything she thinks undermines or sullies it.
As for carpet—that is a classic example of the best of these kinds of riddles, in that those in the know get one level of enjoyment out of it, but even if you are ignorant of the hidden connotation (that King James and Robert Carr were lovers), it’s still funny and clever. Austen would not need to know both meanings to think it worth repeating, and it’s really a matter of personal preference at this point (since no commentary on the subject by Austen survives, if it ever existed at all) which meaning(s) you would like to think she knew.
And to keep flogging this mountain into a molehill, also on page 63, Byrne’s emphasis on “keener penetration” means that she misses the joke, which is that James I was not terribly discerning, but also that the authorial voice in Austen’s parody history of England is so enamored with James that she will impute better motives for all his actions than any less biased reading of history could support. I think Austen was probably well-aware of both readings and that the ambiguity was funny to her. (And not just because I totally do the same thing.)
Also, I think Byrne gets the riddle backwards (unless Austen did)? Surely it should be “My second is what my first was to James I, and you tread on my whole”?

****Although that final clause could open the door to all kinds of arguments like, for instance, that the Victorians were not prudish, using Victorian pornography as examples… Scholarship is a slippery slope, Dear Readers, and best avoided.

^See what I mean about the commas?! He built an infamous bisexual???

The Real Jane Austen, Part Two

In which I continue to review Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Part One is HERE.

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Dear Readers! I’m not done yet! The final installment tomorrow! :) Click HERE to go to Part Three!

Love, Susie

*Speak for yourself, John Paula!

**Her real sister.

***Fiction is the opposite of course. :)

^Which does make me wonder why people who engage in the “sale of human intellect” are not guilty, if they are bringing others misery. What is Austen’s criterion for guilt?

^^I see what you did there, Ms. Edgeworth!

^^^I really want an answer to what is so great about Edmund Bertram. I cannot fathom. Then again, I’m in the company of most modern readers, so…

^^^^As a sort of random aside, Byrne finishes that page and chapter with another quote from Mansfield Park: “The scene painter was gone, having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied.” This is a topic which Byrne never mentions, but which I noticed in rereading Emma especially, which is Austen’s classism and treatment of servants in her works. See also in Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzie returns home after Lydia’s absconding and Jane tells her about their reactions to the news. I don’t have anything to add, except maybe watching Downton Abbey has been good for me after all, but I would like to read a little literary criticism of Austen’s canon about that. But the quote kind of undermines Austen’s thematic use of the theatricals as a Saturnalia for the naughty youths.

****Though it is worth noting that Chernow’s tendency to go into detail about differing interpretations of his subjects’ actions and bring up every way of looking at them is part of what makes his books so long, and I can see why someone wouldn’t want to write a 900-page biography.

Vorpal Sword In Hand

Human beings tell stories, to entertain, to explore, and to define themselves. We class ourselves and others by comparing the narratives of the cultures we are part of, and deciding which assumptions of another’s culture are like or unlike our own. Every other person is an alien to us, their culture a foreign planet whose ways we can never fully understand. It is the great irony, perhaps the great tragedy, of human existence that the one thing we most value of our humanity—our empathy—is something that is actually impossible for us.

No wonder telepathic connection is such a favorite theme in speculative fiction, and in our popular mythology—belief in everything from reading auras to communicating with spirit guides to the idea that twins have some near-magical psychic link speaks to this powerful yearning for connection, for truly, wholly, fully knowing some other person, inside and out. The recurring theme of True Love is part of this, but so is the urge, common to fiction and social justice alike, to comprehend what it is like to live in this world as The Other, someone who experiences the world fundamentally differently from the way you do, because of differences in sex, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, or whatever. Stories offer us glimpses into others’ minds, offer the tiniest taste of this great ecstasy we always seek, but are always separated from.

Remarkably, stories also reassure us of the universal, that there are common components that all humans possess. We share things even with people who are most unlike us in all the world—though maybe not the same thing with everybody; if we all knew some one element of universal humanity, it would no longer be a mystery. How can it be that modern Americans can read the works of Jane Austen or William Shakespeare, or even Homer, and see the same emotions, the same psychological needs and reactions, in their characters that we see in ourselves, when the worlds of these stories are almost as psychologically far-removed from us, almost as incomprehensible to us as life in the age of dinosaurs? We can never quite picture it, even when we have pictures of it.

Things become powerful symbols of these differences between our time and theirs. The people in the Iliad are doing all that stuff without pants. People in Shakespeare’s plays and world had fleas. Living on them. Biting them and sucking their blood. All the time. OK, fleas are animals and not things, but still. Fleas. Even our dogs and cats don’t have fleas!* But how about chamber pots because there were no toilets, or the gutters in the streets filled with human excreta because there were no sewers? We can’t imagine what that world smelled like. And yet humans still felt the need to try to make themselves smell as nice as possible, and keep their clothes as clean as possible.

Jane Austen’s time seems much more familiar (though still no indoor plumbing), but even there, when we stop to think about it, we find an alien landscape: they wore so many layers of clothes because their houses had no heat; everything smelled of wood smoke, or worse, coal smoke; white clothing was luxurious because there were so many ways to get it dirty (stepping outside your house, standing near the sooty fireplace, dripping candle wax on it). But these are big differences—traveling by horse instead of car, communicating by letter instead of Twitter, reaping grain by scythe instead of a mechanical harvester—and big differences are the easiest to understand. It’s the smallest things that speak most strongly of how different a time it was.

Take the act of reading a novel. Novels were new, for one thing, and people debated a lot about whether authors should even try to depict realistic human behavior—something we take for granted today. Books were expensive and rare, so you chose carefully the few (or one) you bought each year; lending libraries (available only in larger towns) charged a fee and their selections were small. Every novel was a trilogy, even ones as short as Pride and Prejudice, with each volume published months apart, and not much choice in what to read while you were waiting for the next installment. When you first got a new book, you read it with a knife at hand to cut the pages apart because the printers and binders didn’t do it. And most likely you did not curl up by yourself in bed and read alone all day, no, you read it aloud with your family by firelight(!), and being able to read aloud well was a highly valued social skill. The object—a book—was nearly the same, but the little differences in this object and its modern equivalent speak volumes about what daily life was really like for those people versus what it’s like for us.

This is the essential idea behind The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne, a biography of Dear Aunt Jane that does not follow a list of Events in her life (though it is mostly chronological), but rather explores her life through the context of the world she lived in, using twenty objects as jumping-off points (counting the ones in the Prologue and Epilogue). All page numbers refer to the First U.S. Edition (HarperCollins, 2013).

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Dear Readers! Since everything I write lately is hugely long and takes me forever, I’m dividing this review into three parts, with the rest (which is mostly what I didn’t like about the book) to follow over the next two days. Click HERE to go to Part Two!

Love, Susie

*Better living through chemistry!

**Remember the wizard Baruffio… Actually, while we’re on the subject (not Wizard Baruffio… 18th C. and earlier printing style), the ad for the auction at Steventon Parsonage in 1801 is very fun for people interested in old lettering and printing as it includes many long esses alone or in combination, as well as ligatures^ of “ct”, and the abbreviation “&c.” And of course, it’s a great object for Byrne’s purposes, listing as it does all manner of other objects that lend themselves well to the imagination—microscope, “terrestial” globe, bookcase with six doors, mattresses, tables on pillars and claws, eight-day clock [only needs winding every eight days??], and 200 books.
As for long esses, while they went out of use in printed English shortly before Jane Austen published her novels, they are still used today: in calculus where they appear as the integral symbol (standing in for the Latin summa meaning sum), and in the German letter “Scharfes S” which is a ligature of a long s and a short one (or a long s and a z, occasionally, which is called an “Eszett”). One final piece of trivia for you: long esses are only ever miniscule letters, there is no majuscule long ess. Oh yes, and they are only at the beginning or middle of words, short esses end words (so alternate names for them are medial and terminal s respectively).

^That’s a perfectly good word, but it seems like one that’s only used on crime shows nowadays, so it feels weird to write it here, as if the letters were running around the printing press garroting each other…

***The anecdote about Lord Portsmouth also introduces Byrne’s obsession with Byron, which appears so often that by the time I finished the book I was asking why she didn’t just write a biography of him, instead of inserting it into this book. It’s also part of a larger habit of namedropping, where Byrne discovers that some well-known figure of the time (often not known to me at all) was distantly related to Austen, but whom Jane probably didn’t know well if at all. This is sometimes ludicrous and often (especially regarding Byron) annoying.

^^OK, Frank Churchill is not beneficial to anyone. But had he had siblings, he might have been to them. And certainly Mr. Weston is happy that he could give Frank a more comfortable life.