Rather than accomplishing anything useful, I finished two books today: Blood Angel by Justine Musk, and Crystal Sage by Kara Dalkey. I started the latter because I was reaching the end of the former, and I knew that ending wasn’t going to be anything I wanted to read at work. With the level of intensity I expected, I decided I was better off finding something else to read over lunch.
I was right, and wrong, and wronger. I was right that the ending of Blood Angel was fairly intense, and most certainly not something I would have enjoyed reading at work or over lunch. Or any other event involving food. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was a good book. It’s billed as “dark urban fantasy”; I do tend to steer clear of fantasy labeled “dark” for the simple reason that I don’t enjoy the gorefests those tend toward. I can live without images of violence dancing in my head, and particularly the often gratuitous violence featured in dark fantasy. I’m not weak-stomached about blood and gore in general (I grew up with M*A*S*H on during dinner – hemorrhages and spurting blood over the mac and cheese? No problem), but in these books there are so often demons or other creatures who romp about wreaking horrible and gratuitous mayhem and littering the landscape in often a most creative fashion with body parts, purely for the enjoyment of it …. Not my idea of a good time. I had a feeling even when I bought the book that I was risking it, but I also had a good feeling about it. Good cover, interesting back blurb – I took it. And when I needed a next book in my current kick of contemporary fantasy (still not over, though I don’t know what’s next), I went for it.
I’ve found that I’m not a harsh judge of plot. I don’t always notice flaws others pick up on automatically (which, yes, concerns me a bit for my own writing). My two main concerns are writing and characterization. For me, a book can have the dumbest plot in the world, or none at all, but if the writing is masterful and the characters are interesting and/or likeable and/or hateful, as applicable, it can rank fairly high with me. In this case, I wasn’t in love with the progress of the story; it seemed rather disjointed and episodic – but each episode was very well done, well imagined. I’m a little puzzled about the mythology, by how the angels of the book, some fallen (or all fallen?) are intended to relate to better-known manifestations of angels, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. (Though, naturally enough, I can’t help thinking that somewhere in there would have been the ideal place for the confrontation I talked about here… …) I liked the protagonists (though it’s never fun not knowing whether main characters can be trusted or not); they had solidity and depth, and I enjoyed spending time with them, investing time in them. The demon Del was a little masterpiece. The writing carried the day, coolly handling every eventuality… maybe a little too coolly, in a way, leading to an ending which proved me partially wrong: as I said, intense, but not as intense as expected – it was almost detached. I was involved, but not rapt; mildly horrified but not actively repulsed; glad but not to a personal level. There was a lot of background that felt skimmed over, but … It was a unique story, well told. Overall, very good job. Justine Musk is, tentatively, on the List.
(On a side note, the author is a little younger than I am, has five (!) sons, and is apparently divorcing her husband, who is the founder of Paypal. That’s an unusual sort of bio…)
The other one, Crystal Sage (which I have to mention I have been mispronouncing in my head, thanks to my brother… he tells a story about going to a McDonald’s and being waited on by (of all things!) a sullen teenaged girl; he noted her nametag, and if it was pronounced sah-GAY? And she snarled back that it was “Sage”. My brother doesn’t accept attitude any better than I do, so when he left he said “Have a good one, Saggy”…) (This is the same brother (not, praise be, that I have more than one) who overheard someone at a hockey game talking about an autistic child of their acquaintance, and said, “My sister’s autistic!” Meaning me. I was in art school at the time.) (Back to Crystal Saggy) …. The first Kara Dalkey I read, I believe, was The Nightingale, in the Terri Windling Fairy Tale series. I loved it, and, as I always do when I love a book, put the author on my List and have sought out her books. The problem is … Well, I’ve discovered that my taste as a teenager often … not to put too fine a point on it, it sometimes sucked. I loved Sword of Shannara as a kid; I tried to read it a couple of years ago, and it offended me so deeply I threw it across the room. I’m not saying that the situation with Kara Dalkey is the same, but … I need to read The Nightingale again soon, to see it it’s held up. I’m starting to think that if it has it’s an anomaly among her books, because I’m realizing that I’ve hated every other book of hers I’ve read. I loathed The Curse of Sagamore; I did not enjoy Euryale; I couldn’t get into Goa; and Crystal Sagg – er, Sage… Hm. I sense a trend. Oh dear. I don’t remember her Liavek stories. Again, I’ll have to try them again sometime, just to see if she’s better in the short haul.
The story centers around a woman named Joan Dark, whose parents were apparently idiots to name her thus, and whose ancestry may or may not include that other Joan. She’s brought up now and then, but the mentions bring absolutely nothing to the story, and have nothing to do with anything, so really the only point to even including any discussion of Joan of Arc (Jeanne D’Arc – which … never mind) seemed to be making the parents morons (which the father’s cameo appearance bears up) and muddying the waters. Her family ranch has been sold, willingly, by her parents, and she trudges through the entire book being bitter about it; she is now self-employed cleaning houses, and has an apprentice … waitaminnit. An apprentice house cleaner? But … never mind. The apprentice is Miriam, is as flaky and New Age as they come, not that that’s a cliché or anything. Given that Joan is hard-headed and realistic, they butt heads – sometimes, it seemed, for pages at a time. If you edited out all the sniping between these two, you’d have a novella. It would be a start, like the joke about a thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean. The first job the book takes them to is to the apartment of a friend of Joan’s, who is not home – or so it seems. Long story short, she’s there, she’s just been turned into a guitar by an evil elf. Yup, I know. The reasoning for this, such as it is, is that there is a song called the Lay of Amadan which was gifted to a long-ago ancestor of the guitar (Gillian) by the Sidhe, and another later ancestor turned it into a summoning device, and now Gillian has rediscovered it and used it and ticked off the big guy it’s named after, and, in a semi-related story the elves are planning to take over the world through landscaping. The Indians are helping (sorry, Amerinds – isn’t that as insulting as just plain “Indian”? It’s short for American Indian, which – they aren’t, Indian I mean, and isn’t that the whole point of using “Native American”?), only not all of them, and in fact we only ever see one, and others are fighting the Sidhe (sort of), and in fact not all of the elves are going for global domination, but the ones who aren’t don’t much like Joan (does anyone?), but they don’t have much choice … Oh dear.
I said earlier that I’m not usually a strong critic of plot, but even I have my limits. This was a bloody awful silly mess. We are never told … much of anything, really. And much of what we are told goes nowhere. The Chekhov quote about not bringing a loaded gun in if you’re not going to use it? Not heeded. There were all sorts of guns lying about unused by the end of this. Why was Joan such a good singer? No reason, really. Why was such a point made about their little town being not as peaceful as they thought? No reason, really. What was the connection between the Lay of Amadan and the plot to take over the world? Besides Amadan, who has nothing whatever to do with music in the book, nothing. Why did so much of the important stuff happen off-stage? Why was so much other important stuff, or stuff that might have been interesting, glossed over? ‘Cause. I didn’t much care for this book as I read it, I’m not sure why I finished it, and the more I think about it as I’m writing this the more my dislike grows.
I also said earlier that my main concerns with a book are writing and characterization. Oh, as usual, dear. (<- Gratuitous Buffy quote.) The latter: Joan … It's just not enjoyable when a character is consistently abrasive, and also prone to snap judgments: she dismisses people around her as "Euro trash" and "Rockies jocks", etc. She's derided by her sidekick as being anthropocentric – i.e., regarding humans as the central and most important feature of the universe – and she is, but that's not her biggest detriment, although her attitude toward anything otherworldly is so stolid it's a little hilarious. She's also pedestrian, unimaginative, and narrow-minded, and did I mention surly and abrasive? She doesn't think much of her partner, for the most part; she doesn't think much of the old friend she's doing all of this for, and in fact drags her feet most unattractively when she has to take some time off her work to do so; she feels betrayed by her parents because they sold THEIR land and after decades of back-breaking work are now off enjoying themselves with the money. She calls an old friend in the police department for help, and is abrupt with him. She ticks off every one of the "Others" who try to help … in short, gosh, who can figure why she's single? Miriam… is annoying. Dim-wittedly flightily New Age, and conscientiously anti- anthropocentric… 'Nuff said. The Bad Guy, Amadan, is one of the least Bad Bad Guys I've seen recently; none of the characters were much more than two-dimensional, but he barely made it past one. Even Miriam points out midway through that maybe Gillian did something to deserve being turned into a guitar. (Unwittingly, she did.) And Gillian … we never meet Gillian pre-guitar; we're never even given that much of an indication that Joan was much of a friend, no reminiscences, no frantic worry, certainly no tears. Given the disruption to their lives chasing after Amadan involves, and, as it turns out, the danger, I would think it would have been wise to build a closer bond between them. Instead, it's as if she's being asked to help someone she barely knows, and can barely get past her resentment of having been asked. In the end, Gillian turns out to have been not entirely worth the effort – so (again) what was the point?
As for the writing … if one more character, or the narrator, had used the phrase "woo-woo", this book might well have gone the way of Sword of Shannara. The writing wasn’t actively bad … except where it was. “‘Does he mean it or was he just pulling our legs to get us out of his hair?'” Really? Said with a straight face? The paragraph in which Miriam (lord, is it Miriam or Marian? I think I’ve called her both in this post – and the measure of how little I cared for the book is that I’m not bothering to check) tells Joan that they’re up against the Sidhe is one of the most annoying attempts at Laurel and Hardy-esque humor I’ve seen in quite some time. So – it wasn’t actively bad; just periodically bad.
I don’t know. There’s just an unpleasant feel to the whole thing. Which is funny to say given that the last book, Blood Angel, involved torture and mutilation and gratuitous murder; that was unpleasant, yes, but it was all the work of the Bad Guys (now THOSE are Bad Guys!), and the plot of the book involved battling them, and stopping them … Here, the white hats were as unpleasant in various ways as the black. The wolf-boy or whatever he was supposed to be – coyote? Were-canine? Pooka? Who knows? Joan never really questions what he is, which is pretty funny, until perhaps the point that he pees on her carpet, and maybe not even then. Cain, that was his name – and he was pure irritation. His dialogue doesn’t bear repeating. The man running the magic shop Marian frequents fired a boy who helped her and Joan, and was an out-and-out bitch even while he was himself helping them. Nice. (In fact, everyone except that poor schlub of a cop seems to be helping the two girls simply because they don’t have a choice, because they don’t want Amadan to win, not because they want the two girls to survive.) Again, Gillian is an idiot, and Joan and Marian don’t trust each other half the time and snipe at each other for other reasons during the half they do sort of trust each other. Their priorities alternate between being skewed and being blurred, and in the end it’s not really clear what they were fighting for, whether they’ve won or not, and whether they should have won.
It’s a disappointment. Hence the “wronger” above… I might have been better off reading about ripped-out livers over lunch at work. I remember really looking forward to The Curse of Sagamore and being shocked at how little I enjoyed it; I don’t think I had the same high expectations here, but I did expect better.
On, as the Ghost Hunters say, to the next. Hope I fare better.