Dead of Winter, by Lee Collins

S’okay.

Summary: Cora and her husband Ben are bounty hunters who make their living by killing various supernatural shit in the old west. I fuckin’ love supernatural shit in the old west.

It’s rare to see established relationships in fiction, so I was curious to see how he would handle it — answer is, unfortunately, not particularly engagingly. It’s a hard thing to pull off, since the quickest shortcut to audience-engagement in a romance is unresolved sexual tension. Barring that, it seems like the best way to sell an audience on an established relationship is to give them an excellent team dynamic (ala Zoe and Wash in Firefly, or Rickey and G-man in Liquor), so that the reader gets a clear sense of why these two people like each other, how they work together as a unit, and how staunchly they’ve got each other’s backs. I didn’t get much sense of that here.

Partly it’s because Cora is an asshole. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally okay with that — she’s arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, and a full-on alcoholic, which would make her a tired stereotype if she were a man, but it’s a combination that takes on a very different (and rather interesting) feel in a female character. I just wish we’d been given more to like about her, in addition to all her less savory qualities.

Anyway, I read Dead of Winter because it turned out that She Returns From War was the sequel to this. I’ll give SRFW a spin later too.

Plot – 4/5 (brisk, with action and stuff)
Prose – 3/5 (utilitarian)
Characters – 3.5/5 (Cora is not lovable, but she is somewhat different)
Novelty – 3/5 (can “Supernatural in the old west, but with less drama” be called novel?)
Emotional engagement – 2/5 (nope, not feeling it)

Counter-recs, if you’re lookin’ for more weird west: The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek or A Book of Tongues by Gemma Files. (But only if you like a side of hot gay sex with your supernatural shit in the old west. And if you’re not — friend, you are reading the wrong books blog). Territory by Emma Bull, not queer but with interesting atmospherics; think magical realism in the Weird West.

Outlaws of Sherwood, by Robin McKinley

BORING.

McKinley is rapidly joining the ranks of authors that I have really really liked in the past, and would really really like to keep liking, but whose recent works have been on a one-way track to uninspired-town. (Tanya Huff and Neal Stephenson are also on that list.) The first of McKinley’s books I read was Beauty, which I reread not long ago and still highly recommend, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast that is immediately absorbing and has a wholly lovable protagonist. My other favorite of hers is Sunshine, which I enjoy far more than I have any right to, given that it’s a product of the “age-old vampire x teenage girl” genre popularized by Twilight. And yet.

My recent forays into narratology have left me better equipped to analyze what, exactly, it is about a text that makes it succeed or fail, and on the subject of Robin McKinley, my conclusion is this:

1) She’s far better at creating character via first-person narration than third. (Although it’s no guarantee — her first-person Dragonhaven was a solid dud as well.)

2) Outlaws of Sherwood suffers from too much summary and too little scene. Seriously, I was 13% of the way through and there had been all of one actual scene — as in, dialogue and in-the-moment action — and the rest had been the narrator summarizing what they’d been up to. Boring as balls. Give me character subjectivity, or give me SOMETHING ELSE TO READ. I persisted up to 33%, then quit to go replay Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Counter-rec: Beauty if you want ye olde medieval fantasy, Sunshine if you want decent urban fantasy.

ETA: Apparently this came out in 2002?? Then why did I drunk-kindle-buy it last October and it was like, Congratulations on pre-ordering Outlaws of Sherwood! Whatever.

Fledgling, by Octavia Butler (41/107)

I think my reading experience here suffered from a case of inflated expectations. I’d heard nothing but praise for Octavia Butler and so my expectation was that even if the subject matter wasn’t what turned my crank personally, this book would introduce ideas from outside my comfort zone and the writing itself would be excellent.

Instead it was… okay?

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (28/107)

Margaret Atwood is one of those writers whose ideas and turns of phrase will periodically make stop me in my tracks while I’m reading and go, Damn, but I wish I could write like that.

(Keep reading good things, I suppose, and keep growing up, and I might get there eventually.)

That said, I did not really enjoy Oryx and Crake. Her ideas are unparalleled, both in the post-apocalyptic world that her viewpoint character lives in now, and the pre-apocalyptic but circling-the-drain world that we see in his flashbacks. She has a gift for bringing her worlds alive, with a wealth of detail that makes them feel vibrant, plausible, and lived-in. The problem in this is her characters, because her viewpoint character — called Snowman after the apocalypse, Jimmy before — is an unbelievable loser, alternating between pathetic and distasteful, and the titular Oryx and Crake, when they’re introduced later, are more interesting but equally difficult to connect to. I found that I was reading for the world and not the people in it — I was interested in the big picture and curious to find out how everything had gone to hell, but the less of Jimmy/Snowman’s point of view I had to put up with, the better.

Verdict: read A Handmaid’s Tale instead.

ETA: I wrote all that when I was about 30% of the way through the book, and after finishing it anyway there’s nothing I would add except that the last chapter is totally unnecessary and Oryx turns out to be even more of a letdown than I thought she would be. Jesus H. Christ, Atwood is one of the really good feminist writers out there, and this feels like it could have been written by a straight white guy with a “feminist madlibs” card.

Verdict: watch Dredd instead! Because it’s also post-apocalyptic but it has far better female characters, and I’m writing fanfic for it, and I will be so sad if no one reads it.

The Swimming-Pool Library, by Alan Hollinghurst (23/107)

So I tried to read a book today, since I’m moving again in August and I could do without hauling six thirteen boxes of books with me this time. I didn’t get very far.

Because GAWD, literary fiction is dull.

I think what it boils down to is that I have absolutely no patience for protagonists whose fictional lives are less interesting than my real life. Bored, spoiled young aristocrat whose only interests are meaningless sex and being judgy? Gag me with a goddamn spoon. Or better yet, gag him.

And it kills me that this genre — these dreary, monumentally tedious accounts of ennui and promiscuity — is almost all that gay men ever write. This is the literature of my people, and yet it’s all I can do to slog through my self-imposed 50-page minimum before I’m like, FUCK THIS NOISE, I’D RATHER READ X-MEN FANFIC. >:(((((

(Incidentally, the reason why this book wound up on my shelf: a number of boys that OkCupid has tried to hook me up with listed Swimming-Pool Library as one of their favorites, and I thought it’d be nice to have some common ground. Yeah not so much, because “WHY WOULD YOU LIKE THAT BOOK? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!” may be a conversational gambit that works on me, but I’ve gathered that other people find it off-putting.)

It’s frustrating, and I can’t quite put my frustrations into words, because I want to be able to appreciate literary fiction. This is the stuff that’s supposed to be objectively high quality, but all I get when I read it are sporadically keen observations about people, protagonists whose reactions and thought processes are nothing like what I’d do or what I can relate to, and not giving any fucks about what they’re doing, usually because they don’t give any fucks. Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are utterly boring because the protagonist has an emotional range that runs the gamut from horny to disdainful. Yes, fine, it’s realistic, but it’s the kind of realism you can get by going outside and not enjoying your day.

How does anyone like this? I’m honestly at a loss.

***

In other news, I’ve wandered back over to the X-Men: First Class fandom now that ficcers have had time to write epics, and it is delightful! Erik and Charles, christ, the more I read of them the more they break my heart, because they are one of the most perfect tragedies in all of literature.

So rather than recommending Swimming-Pool Library, I’ll rec you some fics instead:

Most anything by AO3 writer Yahtzee; my standout favorites are Winter of Banked Fires, which gets my Best in Fandom award for post-X3 fix it fics, Enigma, and Anarchy in the UK. I like this author for a lot of reasons, but mostly because her work is intensely emotional and even in AUs does total justice to the depth and difficulty of their relationship. (Just don’t expect uncomplicated happy endings — that’s not what you go into XMFC fandom for.)

If You Liked the Book, You’ll Hate the Movie, which is a high school AU, of all things, but really good. Absorbing, atmospheric, frequently hilarious — vaguely like magical realism, in that there’s nothing outright impossible going on, but a lot of things that, when taken together, are sort of improbable. Seriously, I enjoy this more than I can explain why.

Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo (22/107)

In brief: weird little book, very fast read, interesting ideas but I don’t think I particularly liked it.

Set in Finland, the main character is a gay photographer called Angel (real name Mikael) who comes across an injured troll cub being picked on by some teenage hooligans. He is immediately taken with the troll, and after the hooligans have been chased off, takes it back to his apartment even though this is self-evidently a Very Bad Idea. Trolls, in this world, are a species of wild animal in Scandinavia, reclusive and rare but well-documented as fact, so the greater question is what the hell was it doing in the city. Angel names the troll Pessi and becomes increasingly obsessed with it, layered heavily with sexual overtones even though it’s very young and an animal, and it all ends badly.

Troll lost me with the characters, really, because I could have been onboard for much weirder if I’d liked the people in it. Unfortunately all of Sinisalo’s characters fall into one of two categories: actively unlikable, or just pathetic. I see that in general fiction a lot, as if authors think that dreary characters will make their work more ~realistic~ when really they just make it tedious. Angel is a manipulative narcissist; the guy he has a crush on is the same, only worse; the guys who have a crush on Angel are pathetic; Angel’s Filipina neighbor is irrelevant to the story and also pathetic. And maybe that’s realistic, but it set up a narrative distance that kept me from becoming the slightest bit invested in anyone, and from giving any sort of fuck about what happens to them.

Which is a shame, because I wanted to like this book — I like Finland (my father’s side of the family is Finnish) and I really like the “monsters as love interests” trope. But Pessi is not a love interest or even a character, he’s more like a really weird feral cat that the main character gets an inexplicable hard-on for. If Pessi had been slightly more human in his intelligence, then it could have been about the two of them, the human trying to relate to the alien and vice versa; as it stands, it’s all about Angel, and Pessi is interchangeable with anything else that Angel could project his obsession onto.

Ascendant Sun, by Catherine Asaro (21/107)

Space opera, starts out well enough — likable character with believable reactions, cool level of thought and detail put into the world-building. Then it didn’t exactly stall, but I put the book down around page 50 and found that I was resisting picking it up again. If I’d started this when I was fifteen, I expect that I would have plowed through it in a day without a second thought, but right now I have too much other shit to do. Books that are “not bad” are not going to make the cut, and this is going to remain unfinished.

The Bone Palace, by Amanda Downum

Arguably the sequel to The Drowning City, although they’re in different settings with almost entirely different sets of characters, so knowledge of the first isn’t necessary to read the second. I’d been pretty meh about The Drowning City, though with no more specific criticism than “It didn’t grab me.” I probably wouldn’t have bothered with The Bone Palace except then I heard it had a transgender protagonist, and there are precious few of those in fantasy, so I was motivated to give it a try.

Verdict: better than the first one, but sharing most of the same flaws. Namely in characterization — nobody really made me care. I’m still not quite sure what the secret to writing compelling characters is, but I suspect it has to do with CARING about things — about a cause, about a person, whatever, it doesn’t matter. As long as the character is passionate about SOMETHING, some of it will spill over onto the reader as well, but in Downum’s books, all the passion is told rather than shown. And while it’s very unusual (and therefore interesting) to have a book populated entirely by female protagonists, I would have liked more about Kiril and Nikos; seeing as how love-for-those-dudes was a primary motivation for some of the female protagonists, it wouldn’t hurt to show us why those dudes were worth fighting for.

On the plus side, her world-building is rather good; very atmospheric, she has some cool ideas for magic, and she’s clearly put a lot of thought into some of the commonly-overlooked aspects of creating a fantasy world. (Mind, certain aspects of her city of Erisin are also uncannily reminiscent of Monette’s Melusine, and I would be very surprised if it turned out that Downum hadn’t read Monette before.)

TL;DR version: I dunno, find something else, prolly. I’d recommend Santa Olivia, not because it’s anything similar, but because it’s the best thing I’ve read recently.

Living with Ghosts: meh.

Gave up on Kari Sperring’s Living with Ghosts today. She had some interesting ideas, queer overtones, and her world-building felt very realistic, but it was a chore to read and I quit on page 75. Too much description of the wrong kind, and I could not for the life of me give a damn about the characters.