Steelhands, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest
Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare
All in all, a good couple weeks for reading!
Steelhands is the fourth (and possibly last? not sure where I got that impression) book in the series that began with Havemercy and the premise of “Top Gun, but on mechanical dragons.” I’d been dragging my feet on reading it, because the third book, Dragon Soul, had suffered a distinct drop in quality compared to the first two, which didn’t herald good things for the fourth book. But Steelhands was a delight, and I am very pleased to have been proven wrong.
It follows the same structure as the rest of the series, four viewpoint characters with interwoven stories who split the narrative between them. (1) Chief Airman Adamo, the ornery former-leader of the Dragon Corps, is now an ornery university professor who teaches (2) Laure, a bright, practical country girl come to the city for an education, and (3) Toverre, her very gay and OCD best-friend/fiance. (4) Balfour, one of the very few airmen remaining in the city, is trying to settle in to a diplomatic post — until he starts hearing voices in his head, and then the plot is rolling. The plot is intriguing, the characters are lovable and well-crafted; the prose gets a bit wordy and could have benefited from some paring down, but not so much that it detracts from the overall experience.
A highlight of this book in particular is its depiction of friendship. Adamo and Royston, Laure and Toverre, all of the remaining airmen — these are the most important relationships in the story, not the hints at potential future romances. Jones and Bennett write friendships beautifully — the loyalty, the history, and the affection between their characters is palpable, and seen all too rarely in fiction.
Boneshaker – kinda dull. And I’m predisposed to like wild-west-flavored fantasy. The premise is that an inventor named Leviticus Blue had built a burrowing machine (the titular boneshaker) to rob some bank vaults, except in the process he released (or created) a toxic gas they call the Blight, that kills or zombifies, and now Seattle is abandoned and there are 100-foot high walls to keep the gas in. The book kicks off with the domestic tension between Blue’s widow, Briar, and her son, Ezekiel; they’re mostly pariahs for their connection to the late and unlamented Blue, and while Ezekiel — with a teenager’s chip on his shoulder — wants to redeem his father’s legacy, Briar would rather he let the past lie. When Ezekiel ventures into the walled city looking for the truth about his father, he gets trapped and it’s on Briar to rescue him.
All of which has the potential to be very interesting, but neither Briar nor Ezekiel were the slightest bit engaging as characters. Briar doesn’t do anything, and she barely even thinks about anything. Her life consists of getting up and going to her shitty hard-labor job, then going home and not talking to her son, rinse and repeat. Which is probably the point, that she’s tired and worn-down from life, but objectively it’s very boring, and we don’t get enough of her subjectivity to make it interesting. It could be interesting — writers of the fucked-up-southern-families genre have made an art form of turning “story about a dead-end life” into something compelling, see: Jim Grimsley and Bastard out of Carolina — but Briar’s not even sad, really, she’s just aimlessly there. Ezekiel has a goal, at least, though not one depicted well enough to make me care about his daddy issues.
By the time the plot started taking shape, it was “Rescue Ezekiel!” and I was so utterly uninvested in him that I couldn’t be compelled to keep reading. I quit at 16%.
Twelfth Night — so, so gay. (Or as gay as it can be when everyone gets neatly and heterosexually paired off at the end, whatevs.) Sebastian and Antonio. Viola and everybody, because her job in this play is to cross-dress and make everyone onstage uncomfortable in their sexuality. Mission accomplished!
So there’s a shipwreck, and Viola and her twin brother Sebastian survive but get separated. Viola decides it’s too dangerous for a woman running around alone, so she puts on dude-clothes and presents herself at the court of Count Orsino.
Orsino’s been trying to convince this lady Olivia to marry him, but she ain’t interested and has been rebuffing all his messengers, so he’s like, “You, new kid, you’re pretty, go see if she’ll listen to you.” Olivia meets Viola and immediately is all, Hellooooo sailor~! and about as forward as a lady can be in attempting to get inside Viola’s stylish trousers, meanwhile Viola wants to shag Orsino, who is still infatuated with Olivia but maybe also kind of getting confused-boner about Viola. In other words, your average Shakespearean shenanigans.
Meanwhile, her brother Sebastian gets rescued by a pirate named Antonio, who declares his undying love for Sebastian approximately three times a page. Seb also plans to present himself at Orsino’s court, and Antonio’s like, Oooh, that’s gonna be tricky cuz he hates my face…
But come what may, I do adore thee so
That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.
Meanwhile, there are at least two more people hanging around Olivia’s household who’d like to put a ring on that, including her pompous jackass of a steward, and the prank war that her staff wages throughout the play is legitimately some of the funniest shit Shakespeare has ever written. His lowbrow comedy tends to be the part of his plays that weathers the centuries worst, because the humor is often dependent on malapropisms that aren’t recognizable as such when all the language is unfamiliar, but this is timeless. Incidentally, the architect of that prank war is Olivia’s handmaiden — to which her uncle goes, “OMG I want to MARRY that woman, and all I want for a dowry is ANOTHER PRANK SO EXCELLENT!!” In the language of the day:
I could marry this wench for this device… and ask for no other dowry with her but such another jest.
I’ve said before that Shakespeare is way, way better at sex and gender issues than most male writers, even men who are writing today and seriously, ought to know better by now. Putting Viola in drag, and having the other characters of the play interact with her as a man, allows Shakespeare to turn a spotlight on the disconnect between what men think they know about women, and what women actually do.
Orsino: SON, LEMME TELL YOU ABOUT WIMMIN…
Viola: Uhm. Yeah. Respectfully disagree.
Guys, Shakespeare was lampooning mansplaining four hundred years before we even had a word for it.
In conclusion, I want a production that gays this shit up. I want Olivia getting handsy with Viola. I want Orsino fidgeting on his confused-boner. I want soulful eye contact and lingering touches between Sebastian and Antonio. Hell, you could probably insert some making out between some of those lines, and I, for one, would be all about it.
So yeah, a good week for reading. Now I’m on to Stephen King’s Under the Dome.