Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay (20/107)

Not my favorite of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books (that laurel goes to either Tigana or his Sarantine Mosaic duology), but far from his worst either. I think Kay handles the Chinese elements of the story very well, without making the characters feel like westerners in funny hats, or exoticized into something completely alien. Here, as in all his books, Kay shows that wherever, whenever you go, people are still going to be people. It starts off kind of slow, but once more characters get introduced it picks up, and by the end I was very moved by the story. Kay has a true gift for showing the grand sweep of a lifetime, how every life is destined to have grief and happiness both, and all you can really hope for is that, ultimately, the joys will outweigh the sorrows. That you may not get what you thought you wanted, but sometimes that’s alright.

However, it was my initial impression of Under Heaven that provides the springboard for this discussion:

“Wow, this book is very….. heterosexual.”

At first I was bored, bored, bored, because the action-plot hadn’t really gotten started and the protagonist was spending most of his time thinking about the ladies he’d like to shag, which is pretty much every woman he meets. (To be fair, he had been living in the mountains like a hermit for two years, but it’s still incredibly tiresome.) He is also preoccupied with a courtesan he used to know, but since we haven’t met her yet, I don’t give a fuck.

Kay also pulls something that’s a particular pet peeve — which is that all the women in the book are beautiful and desirable, and all the men are… okay? I guess? Come on, what does it matter, they have other attributes to make them interesting!


My least favorite of the lot was the emperor’s concubine, who was like Alixana from the Sarantine Mosaic, only annoying as fuck, absolutely bludgeoning the protagonist with her sex appeal, which left me disgusted with both of them, her for doing it and him for falling for it.

I am not heterosexual. In fact, I am staggeringly immune to feminine wiles, and so the use of them as character motivation is something that I find extremely alienating. It throws me right the hell out of a story when some vamp is flashing her cleavage and crossing-and-uncrossing her legs at the protagonist, and instead of being like, “Get your foot the fuck off my lap,” he turns into a steaming pile of idiot. It’s so fucking stupid, and not even the kind of stupid that I can empathize with.

And yeah, I’ll totally own my bias — I like guys. I like hot guys, so I’m more willing to read depth and nuance into underdeveloped characters who happen to be male and hot, more willing to like them for being assholes instead of hating them for it. But sexy and smug about it, or sexy and shallow, are such goddamn turn-offs, in either gender, in fiction and in IRL both. I am completely ballsy enough to be the one to go up and talk to hot strangers in bars, because they’re hot and I’m drawn to their flame like a very shallow moth. I am willing to give them the initial benefit of the doubt, that I might not give someone else, because they’re good-looking and we can’t control the hormone rush that says “tapthattapthattapthat!!!!” However, I guarantee you that I won’t stay interested if they’ve got nothing else going on, or they’re obviously expecting everyone to fawn over them because they’re hot, I will excuse myself and go back to hanging out with my friends. (The hilarious part is when I can’t lose them after that.)

So not only is going durrrrr, stupid for manipulative hot women a trope that I have absolutely no common feeling with, it also plays into that patriarchal idea that women’s only route to power is through their sexuality (because everyone’s lives revolve around straight dudes, amirite), which is not only wrong but also frustrating to find in this book of all books, because Kay has proven he can do so much better than that. (Although, hm, now that I stop to think about it, I think all of the women in the Sarantine Mosaic and Tigana also use their sexuality as leverage at some point. It was just less overt and most of them also had other tools at their disposal and more depth to their character.)

I don’t know. There are a lot of other half-connected thoughts floating around in my head — such as how the characters we tend to like are those we want to be and those we want to do, which has always made it more difficult for me to connect to female characters, particularly ones whose salient feature is being hot. The female characters I like tend to be older — Julie Taymor’s Shakespearean movies are excellent for that, with Jessica Lange as Tamora in Titus and Helen Mirren as Prospero — because they have a very strong sense of self, of who they are, what they want, and how to go about getting it. And not every writer is Shakespeare, but even in something like Supernatural, it’s telling that the only female character who isn’t an obnoxious walking WB cliche is Ellen, because she’s old enough that the writers can’t use “sexy” as a substitute for character development. (Although Bella redeemed herself in my eyes, right before she died, for declining to justify herself to Dean about why she’d killed her step-parents.)

I’m also thinking about the perceived need for rivalry between women, the expectation that of course every woman will hate and resent someone she thinks is more beautiful than her. And thinking that maybe men are missing the point, and that what gets other women’s backs up about a beautiful woman isn’t that she’s beautiful, but because she’s being manipulative with it. People immune to feminine wiles can see that, and it annoys the hell out of them, but straight men are oblivious to that distinction and assume that the resentment is born of simple jealousy.

Lots of stuff to unpack; I don’t understand it all and I don’t pretend to. (Although that doesn’t stop me from inflicting my opinions on the internet. :P) In any event, I was reminded several times of something that Joanna Russ had written: “The beautiful woman who knows beyond a doubt that she is beautiful exists aplenty in male novelists’ imaginations; I have yet to find her in women’s books or women’s memoirs or in life.”

Life in a Medieval City, by Frances & Joseph Gies (14/107)

So finally I was like, Being busy is no excuse — if you have time to surf the internet for a few hours, you have time to read.

And so I did.

The Gies’ Life in a Medieval City was a fun and fast read, absolutely crammed with useful details and indispensable for world-building. I recommend it as a jumping-off point to anyone doing research for medieval or fantasy fiction — it has enough information in itself for people who just want a period feel and don’t require strict historical accuracy, and it also has a comprehensive bibliography for people who do.

This book focused especially on the rise of commerce and the merchant class, which is particularly relevant to my interests, since the protagonist in one of my books (the book that is Most Likely To Be Publishable, should I finish it) is the son of an urban merchant/trader, and money & politics (& magic!!) is the backbone of that plot.

Gabriel Watches Movies: Looper

Saw the trailer for this back when I saw Dark Knight Rises and it looked interesting but — full disclosure — I probably wouldn’t have remembered to watch it except that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in it, and I like his hips clothes.

On the whole, it was pretty good, though it proved once again that Hollywood plots can only be powered by dead women and manpain. No exceptions. The time travel part was more hole than plot, but they humanized the technology and showed what it meant for the people living with it, which is really what I’m all about.

In particular, I liked:

– The leading-up-to-sex scene. (They ostentatiously fade to black before anything R-rated happens.) Emily Blunt was excellent in a role that could have flopped with a less talented actress, and in her hands that scene is poignant and remarkably realistic. You really get a sense of how quietly starved her character had been for physical intimacy, living out in the countryside as she was, and how much courage it takes to make the first move like that — not knowing how your overtures are likely to be received, but wanting it so badly that you can’t not take the chance. (Also, tumbling onto the bed fully clothed? Hot. I know this from experience.)

– Bruce Willis crying after he [spoiler alert] murders that kid, because men crying is not something you often see in western cinema, except over dead wives/mothers/etc. Men doing terrible things because they are ~necessary~ is a pretty standard trope, but then they usually grit their teeth and soldier on. I really liked that they took the time (a surprisingly long time, given how busy this movie was) to show Bruce Willis’s character being rightly overcome with the horror of what he’s done, and having his small breakdown. (And putting him in a public park for it was an interesting choice, because the public setting, everyone else going about their business, heightens the contrast with his intense, private emotional upheaval.)


The books of my youth: Anne Rice

A few years ago I was at a bar with a friend of mine named Kate, ignoring the other patrons and talking books, as is our wont. We got on the subject of books we'd enjoyed as teenagers, and she ended up telling me about what she called her Canon of Kate — these were more than just the books that she'd liked, or even loved; they were the ones that had shaped her whole literary aesthetic, that had introduced the tropes and themes that resonated with her, the ideas that she would pursue and revisit in later reading and writing. Beyond that, even, these were the books that had shaped her as a person.

Which got me to thinking: what was the canon of ME?

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold (8/107)

Excellent! A+

Set in a vaguely medieval-spain flavored fantasy world, Curse of Chalion features a protagonist very different from your run-of-the-mill fantasy romps (older and less stupid), legitimately clever and complicated court intrigues, and some excellent theological world-building. The first half of the book is largely taken up with laying bricks, establishing the world and the characters, but then when Shit Gets Real, it does so with a vengeance.

It even has a SURPRISE HOMOSEXUAL, the guy who’d been shaping up to be my favorite character, which pleased me greatly. My only complaints were that he kind of got shafted, and that the romance in this book wasn’t as well-developed as in Bujold’s Sharing Knife series. I’m perfectly happy for authors to leave out romance altogether, but if they’re going to include it, they need to make me care, not just assume that of course I think boy and girl should hook up.

Granted, both of those are very minor aspects of this book, far outweighed by everything it does right. Bujold’s prose is sharp and professional (something I always open a book expecting to take for granted, and yet), her protagonist is awesomely not made of suck, and her plot and pacing are excellent — easily one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read recently.

Moment of lolz

So I’m moving to California, and I just finished my last day of work at Half Price Books, a used bookstore chain in the states. The fact that most of our inventory is used means that now and again you’ll find the oddest imprints of the previous owner stamped on them, or tucked in them. Inside a book called How To Light His Fire I found a note that said “I found your book — thanks for thinking of me ;) -Bill”

In a sci-fi paperback I once found a sad and awkward “Can we at least be friends? :(” letter — I don’t know whether he never sent it and was like, “fuck it, I need a bookmark” or whether she got it and didn’t give a flip, and was like “fuck it, I need a bookmark.”

Or the time we got a whole stack of romance paperbacks that had been marked with sticky notes and key phrases highlighted. Apart from a fondness for the phrase “his mouth claimed hers” there was no rhyme or reason to the highlighting, except that it was all bad. As best we could figure, the previous owner had been studying how NOT to write. (Then again, what do I know, these were Kenyon and Feehan books, so maybe they were taking notes on how to write bestsellers.)

Now with more illustrations!

Bite-sized book review: Second Line

Man, I love Poppy Z. Brite when she isn’t writing about hard drugs and necrophilia.

Second Line is the latest (last?) in her Liquor series, starring Rickey and G-man, a couple (as in, they are) of working class cooks-turned-restaurateurs in New Orleans. It’s comprised of two novellas: The Value of X, which is a prequel of sorts to when Rickey and G-man were teenagers having Strange Feelings For Each Other, and D*U*C*K, the continuing adventures of running a restaurant in New Orleans. Second Line is a pain in the ass to get ahold of, but it is so, so worth it.

“He did WHAT?” said Rickey.

“I wasn’t sure I ought to tell you,” Fiorello said nervously. “But I thought you had a right to know [that Rickey’s roommate had read his mail from G-man].”

“I’m gonna kill him.”


“That snot-nosed pencil-dick motherfucker. Seriously, I’m gonna kill him. He might think he’s met some faggots before, but I bet he never met one from the Ninth Ward.”

♥ ♥ ♥

The Eagle: most homoerotic movie of 2011?

So I saw the trailer for it back in December or something.

“In 140 AD, two men – master and slave – venture beyond the edge of the known world on a dangerous and obsessive quest that will push them beyond the boundaries of loyalty and betrayal, friendship and hatred, deceit and heroism.”

Me: That looks AWESOME.
Friend: Sempai, it looks terrible.
Me: Yeah, but in the AWESOME way.

This just in! It is indeed everything I’d hoped it would be — terrible, in the awesomest of ways. Here is the kinkmeme, you are welcome. It’s even spawned porn in Latin. Oh, INTERNET, what will you think up next?