Archive for July, 2012
Jo Walton’s Among Others is a book I would not have picked up except for its being nominated for Best Novel, and for my determination to vote responsibly this year, and read the categories I intend to vote for. I’m pushing. And, I’m ignoring a bunch of worthy not-nominated or new books to get this done.
Without this push of a deadline, without this desire to read all nominated books and stories, I fall back back on other methods of deciding what to read next, and what to eliminate, and that is to judge a book by its blurb. Judging by the blurb, sad to say, sees me falling back on preconceptions, prejudices, and misunderstanding of intent. In the case of Among Others, these prejudices, etc., would include the following:
- I don’t like fairies
- I think I’ve read enough coming-of-age stuff
- I think I’ve read enough YA for a while
The first one is a genre thing. I would have said (did say) something similar about Seanan McGuire’s zombies, and did about Lois McMaster Bujold’s “military” science fiction. I avoided Bujold because for years because of the “military” label. I would not have read Mira Grant except that my daughter made me. So many times I have been burned by genre labels. The genre tag turns out, once again, to be a horrible guide to book selection. Always seek more information, that’s my motto from now on, because I am very glad to have read this book.
The second prejudice is more a matter of mood, because I like coming-of-age tales. It is the tale that every single one of us can tell. We all have our own coming-of-age story, and I believe every single one of us has a good one in us, whether we have the skill to write it or not. So I can always relate, no matter what. The trouble, for the coming-of-age tale, is that its universality makes it difficult for it to stand out, even if it’s not autobiographical, and even if it’s fantasy. Among Others does stand out, mainly for the author’s confidence and her understated approach to the supernatural.
As for YA objection, I’m old, and I really do need to read mostly grown-up books. I just do.
My prejudices and mood issues, in this case, were easily overcome by the engaging voice of the first-person narrator, Mor (or Mori), age 15, who is being shipped off to an English boarding school by her father (whom she has only just met), and (more ominously) by her father’s two sisters, for whom, at best, Mor is an unexpected intrusion in their tidy world. Mor has come into their lives because of an incident that left her twin sister (also nicknamed Mor, or Mori) dead, and herself crippled. That incident had to do with their mother, who is mentally ill or evil or both, and it had to do with fairies, whom Morganna and Morwenna played with and spoke with regularly as children, in their native southern Wales. The fairy element is kept on a low simmer; the fairies don’t do all that much. They barely speak, but when they do, it counts.
Mor is a voracious reader, and she constantly refers to book titles and authors. She tells us about every book she reads, every book she has ever read, and she reads about twenty-five books a week. I would have thought this all-over-the-place constant name-dropping of book titles and authors would be annoying and distracting, but it works. It is integral to the character and her relationships. It is how she connects with her estranged dad, her grandfather Sam, two sympathetic librarians (librarian-heroes, love it!), and the “karass” she eventually hooks up with. This book name-dropping also works as an example of the rule I would call Way Too Much Is Better Than A Little Too Much. For instance, if Vidal Sassoon had made his asymmetrical haircuts only a little uneven, we would have assumed he had made a sad mistake. Because he made them very uneven, we know he did it on purpose. This book name-dropping is completely intentional, and it works confidently and beautifully.
I did find the ending abrupt. I don’t need every little last question answered, but I would have liked to be left with a little more insight into Mor’s mother. Mor has a touch of the unreliable narrator to her–not a bad thing–but she can leave the reader a bit wobbly on what is actually going on here.
This is a very, very good book, in a strong novel category. I know which one still tops my list, but I’ll wait until reading the last one to decide for certain.
Having finished A Dance With Dragons, and having praised it in my last post, I can now move on from the series for a while. Before I go, however, I feel the need to share two quibbles I have with A Song of Ice and Fire. These quibbles have come up throughout the series, and are not confined to the most recent volume.
Quibble the first: BRAN IS BORING!
Once again, I applaud the scary decision Martin made to tell the tale from 147 (not an actual count) first person points of view. Doing so allows him to paint all the characters in shades of gray. However horrible the Lannister twins, they do love their children. Well, Cersei loves herself and then her children, and Jaime loves Cersei. They are horrible, but their first person POVs allow us to see them as human. They do not mean to be evil. They see themselves as protecting only what is rightfully theirs.
We can’t help rooting for little stick-em-with-the-pointy-end Arya Stark. She sees her father beheaded, flees, and against great odds, survives. But oh does she have blood on her hands. Every night, she prays, listing the names of those she wants to see dead. Now, some of them do need killing, to be sure, but I find her nightly prayer quite disturbing. In a good way, as intended by the author, I think.
I can go down the list of first-person narrators and be interested, to a greater or lesser degree in how they ‘splain themselves.
Until I come to Bran. Sure, I was horrified when Jaime pushed him out of the tower. Sure, I felt for him when everyone left Winterfell, leaving him in charge. Yes, I cheered his escape and his quest to find the 3-eyed raven. But the only reason to have a first person point of view is that the reader needs to experience that character’s thoughts, and I do not need to know what Bran is thinking. His thoughts do not surprise me (as do Arya’s, or Sansa’s, for instance). His are the thoughts any child would have under the circumstances. He is innocent. Too innocent to be interesting as a POV character. There is no inner conflict.
Even worse is when Bran is view-pointing the world through the eyes and senses of his dire wolf, Summer. I am not interested in any wolf/boy points of view here. Too simple, too pure. Boring.
Quibble the second: EXCESSIVE FONDLING OF MISSING BODY PARTS.
It is tough to get through life in Westeros and Essos with your parts intact. Too many swords and knives are flailing about, and fingers, hands, noses, ears, genitalia, mammary glands, toes, and tongues are all to be feared for. Once I got over my initial gag reflex, I could only reflect that this penchant for chopping off body parts is an integral part of this society, whether it happens in battle, or in the administration of justice, or, in the case of Ramsey Bolton, as the power-wielding of a sociopath. I admire as well the Davos-Stannis relationship, in which Davos’s fingertips have been cut of because he is an smuggler, and that he is grateful to Lord Stannis for dealing with him justly. I suppose I can understand, too, why Davos would keep his finger bones in a pouch around his neck like a good luck charm. Strange, but okay. I understand, this is more about his relationship in the society, and his need to better himself for the sake of his sons, than it is about his fingertips. Once he loses that pouch and the bones within, however, I think he maybe should lighten up on the fingertip obsession. Every thought in his head should not be accompanied by a reference to the missing fingertips or bones. Bring it in every fifth or tenth thought, but not every thought, which is what it seems like. It is time for him to let go of his fingertips, so to speak. It’s distracting me from the story.
Then there’s Tyrion’s missing nose. He, too, runs his hand over his nose-stump frequently–too frequently. In the book, Tyrion is depicted as having an ugly, grotesque face already anyway. This is in direct contrast to the TV show, by the way, in which Tyrion is played by Peter Dinklage, handsome, and still in possession of his nose at the end of season two. And you know what? I don’t think the character is weakened by having him be a good-looking dwarf with an intact nose. The character’s identity is completely tied up with his being a dwarf, and his sister’s and father’s hatred of him. Cutting off his nose is piling on. Having Tyrion constantly touching the nose-stub comes off as an annoying tick.
By contrast, when Jaime mentions his missing hand, I am not so bothered. First, he does not have quite the need to fondle the stumps as do Davos and Tyrion. Secondly, that missing hand is totally tied up with his self-identification status as Kingslayer. Similarly, Theon Greyjoy obsession with flaying doesn’t bother me because of how recently his torture by Ramsey Bolton has occurred. He is clearly suffering from PTSD and a touch of Stockholm Syndrome. He’s entitled.
So there you have it, everything bad I have to say about A Song of Ice and Fire. These are, indeed, minor quibbles, almost joke-worthy. Nonetheless, they annoy me enough to momentary take me out of the story. According to Seth Anderson’s blog, here, http://www.b12partners.net/wp/2012/05/10/wordcount-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fire/. the first five volumes have brought us to somewhere around 1,770,000 words. I would say that if these are the worst complaints I can come up with, they aren’t really much.
Several friends have begun the TV series, have some desire to experience the books, but are intimidated by their sheer massiveness. I have said to them that to read the books will bring rewards and happiness. They do sprawl, but they are clearly and entertainingly written, and easy to get through. Consider buying the last volume in hardcover, for some good maps and extensive family trees to refer to.
Back in April, I announced I was going to read every one of this year’s Hugo-nominated novels, so that I could vote responsibly. No big deal, normally. No big deal, had I already read books 1-4 of A Song of Ice and Fire. Alas, I had not.
So that’s what I began doing back in April. I am just now finishing up A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book in the series, and nominated for this year’s award. As I finish the book, I become anxious. What will it be like to leave Westeros (and Essos), after dwelling so long there? It seems to have permeated my very existence.
Wow, what a world. A huge cast of interesting characters, plot firmly rooted in that characterization, and a masterpiece of world-building. One thing that strikes me: the big things George R. R. Martin is doing so right in this saga are built on the foundation of little itty-bitty details, details that shine like a Valyrian sword.
Big Thing: Major theme of humanity’s struggle for a just and lawful society amidst a harsh and brutal society not unlike in our own northern European middle ages.
Little Thing: One of the first events in the first book is honest, honorable Lord Eddard Stark chopping off the head of a deserter. He makes a point that he refuses to employ a headsman, because if a lord is passing judgment that a man’s head needs chopping off, that lord should have the guts to do the deed himself. The reader is immediately wrenched from her modern notions of justice, due process, honor, right, and wrong. In case we’ve missed the point, Lord Ned dispatches an innocent dire wolf puppy on the orders of his sovereign. And yet, he’s the good guy…
Big Thing: …which brings up the issue of the grayness of the characters. With a few exceptions, each main character–honorable or not–has blood on his hands. Every character’s actions are understandable at some level, even when deplorable. Martin made a brave decision to tell this from multiple, first-person, points of view. That means we have about 147 POVs going on here. (No, not an actual count.) Madness. Yet, it works.
Little Thing: I love how evil Queen Cersei gets stuff wrong. She’s smart, but not as smart as she thinks she is. She’s a complete cynic, and she mistakes that cynicism for common sense. She therefore believes that she and the Seven Kingdoms have nothing to fear from beyond the wall. She, as well as the other Lannisters, believe dragons cannot return. She is arrogant as well, and mistakes that arrogance for authority. She believes she controls that which she does not. She arms the septons, and is shocked by the results of that action.
Big Thing: Turning the conventions of heroic fantasy on their heads.
Little Thing(s): How sparingly magic is used. What we would see as supernatural exists, but it does not dominate. We are not even certain it is supernatural in the literal sense, so a part of nature does it seems. It feels a bit like magical realism at times, so blended into the fabric of life we barely notice it.
Big Thing: Religion. There is more than one religion here. We have the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, R’hllor, Mother Rhoyne, and more religions in the lands to the east. The religious practices resonate with real-life religions, but are not analagous with them. Oh, and there are atheists and agnostics, too.
My Utterly Favorite Little Detail Concerning a religion: To be baptized into the faith of the Drowned God, you are immersed in water until you actually drown. Then you are pulled out and given CPR. This is a successful baptism. I find that detail absolutely hilarious.
Big Thing: A Song of Ice and Fire is a big, complicated, fantastic story in a believable, accessible world.
Little Thing: Anything in the world that doesn’t have to be big, complicated, and fantastic remains recognizable and unapologetically mundane. Horses are horses, not some horse analog. The animals not currently in our world either once were (mammoths, dire wolves), or are firmly planted in our mythology (giants, dragons). The food doesn’t have to be explained either. It’s roasted wild boar, or peaches, or even pine nuts. Well, sometimes it’s horse, too. We are asked to strain our brains only on the necessary items, which are many. Thank you, George. You made my brain work, but you did not kill it.
Will my daughter ever call me, “My Lady Mother?” If I call my husband “My Sun-and-Stars,” will he think I’m being sarcastic? When my three cockatiels ride on my shoulders, could they be my dragons? Will they breathe fire? (They already hiss and bite.)
No, yes, no, and no. Yet reading A Song of Ice and Fire, Books 1-5, made me believe that all might happen.
For this post, I need to check every category box and tag every subject that could possibly be, because this applies to everything.
But I won’t. It would be too overwhelming.
I am overwhelmed by my e-mail, particularly since I started following a number of blogs. I am overwhelmed by chores, and projects around the house that seriously need doing. I am overwhelmed by the amount of music I want to hear, TV shows I want to see, movies to see, and books to read. I am overwhelmed by The Song of Ice and Fire. I am overwhelmed by requests from my family, friends who want to do things, and strangers who want me to sign their petition. I am overwhelmed with working on my novel.
This is all good, because I enjoy nearly all of what I am overwhelmed by, even the chores. Chores have, after all, easily recognized results. Laundry=clean clothes. Cooking=dinner. Cleaning=Not having your hand stick to the handle when you open the refrigerator. Results aside, finding a way to enjoy the mundane everyday of life is a healthy choice.
Feeling overwhelmed, when done as a way of life, is less healthy. By the term, “way of life,” I’m seeking to differentiate “overwhelmed,” the feeling, from the outside circumstances that may trigger the feeling. Okay, that’s a little confusing. Let me explain.
I feel a little ashamed to call myself “overwhelmed.” I am not besieged by troubles at this point in my life, I’m not coping with illness, family trouble, work trouble, children trouble…what problems I have are small potatoes when compared to troubles others have, and even pale in comparison to past times in my own life.
Overwhelmed is the feeling triggered by what I encounter each day. Overwhelmed is the reaction I choose to have to all that. I am overwhelmed because I am open, willing, and able to throw myself into what’s happening. At times, I’ve responded to the world by wanting to retreat and withhold. My experience tells me that sort of isolation leads to feelings of uselessness and futility. I’ll take feeling overwhelmed, thank you.
Writing makes me seek the overwhelming. Any creative activity, but writing most of all. I have to be actively working on something, and it has to be going passably well, but there is something about the rush of bringing the world-in-my-head to life on paper that makes me feel fifty feet tall. Yeah, I think. I can do that! And that, and that, and that…. There is a connection between creativity and grandiose ambition. It’s problem-solving, turned into a game. Feeling like a good writer makes me fly about my world like a superhero, righting wrongs, changing light bulbs, giving out good humor to all I meet.
I might even be on top of things for a short while, and if not caught up, at least within shouting distance of not feeling overwhelmed. And then, something happens, like the flu, or a vacation, or Christmas. Extra tasks are added, days are taken away, and every aspect of life devolves into a messy pile of stuff to do. Stuff I want to do. And feeling overwhelmed.
And I tell myself, Enjoy. It’s better than the alternative.
Photos: Speculativemartha. All rights reserved.