Fantasy good, great, and indifferent

It seems like I’ve left a trail behind me of unfinished and reluctantly finished books lately.  It’s not that long a trail – it just feels like it.  Furies of Calderon I finished only because it was Jim Butcher, and I love Jim Butcher, and I have hopes for him and for the next book.  The Italian Secretary was all right; similarly, I plowed through because it was Caleb Carr, but I was underwhelmed.  Command of language was much better, as would be expected, but it was, well, dull – much duller (more dull?) than I anticipated given the subject matter.

A little while ago I picked up Across the Face of the World by Russell Kirkpatrick – such a good cover –  and gave up a couple of days ago.  It wasn’t dreadful, but it wasn’t good… it has many of the classic elements of a classic VLFN, and fits the bill in length as well of course; the idea behindd it wasn’t bad, the characters weren’t bad, but the execution left me cold.  I cordially dislike prologues which introduce the villain, who then fades into the background for a while – prologues such as AtFofW has, POV Evil One in which he gets to muse and gloat about his evil plans and whatnot.  Whatever.  Honey, I’ve read about Sauron.  I know Sauron.  Sauron has been part of my consciousness (fictional division) for almost thirty years.  Deathless One, you’re no Sauron.  The only purpose served by the prologue, as far as I was concerned, was to be pinned together with the blurb on the back about the only person to ever escape Stalag 13 – I mean the Bad Guy’s prison, Leith’s father, so that I knew that he was the prisoner mentioned who had recently died, and knew that the father they all spent much time discussing was on his way.  “But one man has escaped from the Destroyer’s prison, and even though the Lords of Fear ride in pursuit, he will bring word to his people.  It will be up to his sons, Hal and Leith , together with a small group of villagers, to warn their world of the coming war.” – This was surprisingly revealing, although I assumed that the father would be with the small group; apparently not.

Too, somehow the Deathless One wasn’t all that scary, and the Lords of Fear not all that fearsome.  The father relates how the latter destroyed a village where he took shelter, and all I took away from it was “why?”  I mean, it’s not like they did what Maugrim of TLTW&TW did (in the movie, at least), and left a flyer saying that Tumnus was arrested because he helped a human.  What purpose did leveling a village and everyone in it serve if no one knew why everyone in Whatsit Village was killed?  Just for jollies?  I suppose that was the point: to underscore the fact that these were bad dudes, who would kill random men, women, and children for no real reason

I’m not fond of unpleasant adolescent characters; I have no patience with them, and didn’t with Leith , the fifteen (sixteen?)-year-old at the center of this.  He lives in a perpetual state of peevishness about the girl he likes who stood him up and the weather and how down-trodden and overworked and unloved he is.  He stands out in a strangely deadly wind and makes himself sick just to show her (without the author ever making it clear the girl even knew anything about his illness, or even that he was dumb enough to stand out there so long) – and then refuses to get out of bed until his mother loses patience and rousts him.  He’s a boy about to get a taste of reality, what real hardship is – and I’m slightly regretful I didn’t stick around to see his comeuppance.  But then again I don’t have much faith he wouldn’t spend half the rest of the Very Long Novel griping about how unfair it was that just as he might start getting some attention around there they had to leave home.

A positive review on Amazon talks about the author’s skill using place and setting effectively (“Kirkpatrick is well versed in the nuances and effect geography has on a people and this comes out in detail in novel”), which is only proper since the man has also written/edited atlases.  But I didn’t find that necessarily to be the case.  I didn’t find the settings to be particularly well described; nothing stood out to me except that the father knew his way around the land – and made his way around the land.  Before leading the Lords of Fear straight to his house.  I don’t quite get that.  There had to be a way to send messages with what he knew; I would have been telling everyone I met and painting it on the walls of anyplace I stopped and doing anything I could to dilute the fact that I was the only free man who knew about the Bad Guy’s plans.  Granted, the LoF might have just killed everyone I told and burned down every building I stayed in, but it might have slowed them down a little.

The main reason I gave up on it was, simply, the writing.  First, exposition was just not very well done.  He went aside from the path to tell all about Hal, Leith’s adopted brother (leaving me with a pretty strong suspicion about who the Right Hand of prophecy is going to turn out to be), but never paused to explain why the wind was so frightening, or what, if any beyond the obvious, was the real significance behind the little jerk asking a girl to walk with him (and why he thought she’d still show up when the weather went rotten).  And I guess I’m getting fussier and fussier about it, or maybe Barbara Hambly has spoiled me for anyone else, but awkward, uncertain writing isn’t something I feel like wasting my time on any longer.  My new directive to anyone I’m planning on reading, second only to EITHER LEARN THE RULES OF GRAMMAR OR GET A BETTER EDITOR, is: don’t try to be poetic if you can’t pull it off.  There were quite a number of places where Russell Kirkpatrick took a leap at a poetic metaphor, and wound up looking like Wile E. Coyote when the Road Runner leads him off a cliff.

There I know Barbara Hambly has spoiled me.  After I put down FotW I needed something good, something reliably good, something I could have confidence in.  There was just one more BH book I hadn’t reread recently, besides one of the ST novels and the BatB’s: Bride of the Rat God.  I probably haven’t read it since I first bought it, not long after it came out, and I didn’t remember a thing.  Oh, it was a joy.  That was more than a bright spot in my reading calendar – that was possibly one of her best books.  I loved every page.

It should be an idiotic story, and I’d love to know if the title was Ms. Hambly’s idea or her publisher’s: it certainly does sound like a movie title, and one the starlet who is also the title character would star in, but it also makes the book sound like a B Movie, and the cover art …  And it’s anything but B.

Christine, aka Chrysanda Flamande, is the sister-in-law of Norah, whose point of view dominates.   Christine married her brother a while ago, and then after his death – and those of the rest of Norah’s family – rescued her from misery with an aunt in Britain to whisk her off to Hollywood.  I suppose that outrageous as Hollywood is now, it had to be even more stunning in 1927, when this takes place.  Christine is a very practical, very lovely gold-digger; she has a history of marrying wealthy older men, and is currently the paramour of her producer.  She’s not a very good actress, but she’s a completely pragmatic about her lifestyle, and she’s a good person, a good friend to Norah despite driving her mad, and beloved of her three Pekingese.

Those three Pekingese are characters I will remember long after I’ve forgotten all about Face of the World: Black Jasmine, Buttercreme, and Changums – Chang Ming.  Often a book that features animals anthropomorphosizes them annoyingly, or leaves the reader covered with goo, or otherwise is less than it should be.  This made me want a Peke.  They were characters in their own right, without being little humans in fur jackets – not like some of the cat-fancier murder mysteries I’ve read.  They were gorgeously made real, from their rolling gait to their individual personalities.  It was a joy.

And the people were pretty wonderful too.  Barbara Hambly excels at (among many other things) making minor characters very nearly as well-limned as the major ones, without cluttering up the story.  It reminds me of – iirc – Joss Whedon’s advice to Adam Baldwin on playing Jayne:  he thinks he’s the hero of the whole gorram story.  Many of the bit players on Ms. Hambly’s stage give that impression: they’re living their own stories, which just so happen to intersect with the one you’re reading.  And I loved the major characters.  Norah is a damaged, hurting girl who finds in Hollywood and her sister-in-law’s home the curious blend of cynicism and wonder that is so uniquely Hollywood… And she finds Alec, one of the studio’s cameramen, who quietly makes himself indispensible.

And the writing.  There is, sadly, not nearly enough writing at this level in the world.  This could have been a throwaway novel, a light and fluffy nothing.  It could have been simply dreadful.  Instead it hit all kinds of chords, presented real characters and real menace to them, and for the love of heaven she referenced the Laocoön in a metaphor (page 100).  Who does that?  She’s magnificent, I love her, and while I admire her historicals, I crave the new Benjamin January deeply, and am wistful for more fantasy.

I’ve been trying not to not finish Forgotten Truth by Dawn Cook, and managed it this morning – the not not finishing, I mean.  It was okay.  Pretty good, even.  When it’s good it actually has moments of being really good – but they’re very brief moments, and scattered, and unfortunately stitched together with some periodically … odd writing.  Here it isn’t as though the writer is making attempts at writing beyond her; I don’t know what’s going on.  It’s just … odd.

One example: page 126 – “Redal-Stan’s face was slack in alarm.”  Then on page 133 – “she went slack in understanding”.  Slack in understanding?  I would have used a different word, having used “slack” already so recently, and especially since the latter is such an odd phrase, but stuff happens.  I didn’t like the name formats; for Alissa to concernedly say “Connen-Neut?” makes me snert softly.  Then there’s “pickaback” – “ ‘Will someone please tell me what pickaback refers to?’ ”  The writer should have chosen something a lot more uncommon.  It seemed pretty bloody obvious what pickaback referred to, although what Cook had in mind was something a little more … more.  But it made the character(s) look a little silly to be asking the question, especially since the quote above came just a few pages after the character ran into a child riding – you guessed it.  Not named “piggyback” or however you choose to spell it, but that’s what it was.  “His sudden, overwhelming presence in her mind had been like finding a spider on her neck and struggling not to strike at it while it skittered closer.”  Closer?  Than on her neck?  And “Connen-Neute’s presence was as malleable as sand” … I could very well be wrong, but I don’t think sand is by definition malleable.  That is, you can shape it – but it won’t stay shaped, one way or another.

That nit-picking aside (though when there are as many nits as this, it’s hard not to pick them), there were some really nice moments.  I’m afraid the only one I made note of was “Strell’s pipe, filled with his breath” – see, nice.  I finished the book, and enjoyed the ending, even though it was wide open for the next book in the series.  Which was part of my problem with this book: it was obviously part of a series, and dammit if you didn’t read the other books then tough darts, farmer.  Don’t get me wrong – one thing I loathe above all else is the unskippable recapping of previous volumes; in a prologue which can be skimmed over or left alone entirely I don’t mind, and I suppose that can be useful if you don’t remember the previous book(s) or don’t feel like rereading.  Huge chunks of “in last year’s episode” infodumped into the midst of the story drive me crazy, like the constant reiteration of what people are doing on reality shows – I KNOW.  I was HERE.  Get ON with it.  But there must be a happy medium between infochunking and leaving a reader new to the series in the dark as to, for example, why Alissa won’t let anyone eat meat (which isn’t fair) and what exactly is a raku?

What threw me a bit more than anything else toward the end was a sudden diversion into tenth grade biology, with an in-depth discussion of recessive and dominant genes … now that was odd.  The language did some of that throughout – dropping scientific terms in the midst of what was on the surface a fairly standard fantasy setting.  Containment fields don’t show up much in books with horse-borne cultures.

Overall, I liked the characters well enough; the oddness of the writing wasn’t egregious enough for me to drop it (though it skirted the perimeter now and then); I liked the time-travel conceit… I’ll probably pick up the other books in the series if I can get them second hand.

Feeling the need to return to the realms of solid, often great fantasy, I just picked up a book I’d actually packed for my first training journeys, though I ultimately read Caleb Carr, so it’s been with me to Florida: Charles DeLint’s Jack the Giant-Killer omnibus.  I just started it, and I’m happy.  It’s probably been two or three years since I’ve read any DeLint – I smell a mass reread.

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One Response to Fantasy good, great, and indifferent

  1. Pingback: Bride of the Rat God – Barbara Hambly « Stewartry

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