Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Is Our Writers Learning? A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard

Howard says in the introduction that she wrote A CATHEDRAL OF MYTH AND BONE as a way to reinvent the stories she grew up with — myth, fairytale and saints’ lives — for a new era. Howard says hagiographies fascinated her with their “glorious impossibility” and their ties into something bigger and more cosmic; at the same time she didn’t want to replicate the moral preaching that came with them. So we get stories in which ..

  • A woman gets written into her lover’s fiction to the point she stops existing outside it (A Life in Fictions)
  • A woman becomes a saint only to discover it’s damn hard work (The Saint of the Sidewalks).
  • The legend of Camelot is re-enacted on a college campus, with Vivian and Morgan both trying to change the outcome in different ways (Once, Future).
  • Getting answers from oracles requires a painful sacrifice (The Speaking Bone).
  • The Green Knight’s wife gets tired of her husband using her as a pain in his game (The Green Knight’s Wife)
  • In a world where science is part of religious faith, a duelist fights to defend them (The Calendar of Saints).

Speaking Bone was particularly instructive because there really isn’t a plot or a central character; it’s just telling us how this strange, grotesque oracle works. I’ve written stories that were similarly unfocused, but they didn’t sell, so it’s encouraging to see someone do it and sell it (that Howard has a lot more style to her writing than I do didn’t hurt I’m sure).

More generally I find it inspiring to read a story where the magic is believable without making logical sense. As I’ve said before, I hate magical systems so it’s good to see stories where the magic is wild and irrational, without much explanation. It makes me want to write more of them.

The flip side is that sometimes I wanted explanations. Saints Tide is an absorbing story about a dying girl and the way the sea creates saints, but the magical logic of the other stories was lacking; the ending left me feeling there was no connection between the magical events. Which is instructive too.

Overall, though, an excellent collection.

#SFWApro. Cover by Amy Haslehurst, all rights to image remain with current holders.

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Taking it to the limit: Unleash by Lauren Harris

I’m always nervous about reading books by people I know in case they suck. Fortunately I really enjoyed UNLEASH: Spellhounds Book One by Lauren Harris, which I picked up back at Illogicon in January. Harris works with a lot of familiar urban fantasy tropes but she pushes them beyond most of the stories I see.

The book opens with protagonist Helena slitting throats in a sacrifice. Not her choice: the magical tat on her shoulder lets the book’s villain, Gwydian, control her and he gets off on making her kill (plus, he draws power from the blood). The symbol also enables Helena and Gwydian’s other slaves to turn into dog form (which gives them some immunity to magic), or astrally project as dog-spirits. Hence the “spellhound” moniker.

Fortunately Helena and her mother have contacted the mages’ guild for help. The mages bust in and try to take Gwydian down, but when he uses Mom as a human shield, one of the mages shoots right through her. Helena, horrified, goes on the run. She ends up staying over a canine rescue operation outside Chicago with Jaesun and Krista, who run it. Helena’s PTSDed and she’s never had anything that qualifies as a normal life; Jaesun and Krista’s openness and friendliness makes her suspicious. Nevertheless, she likes it, and finds her petrified heart slowly thawing out. But of course neither the mages nor Gwydian are quite done with her.

What I think I liked about Unleash is that it pushes a lot of urban fantasy tropes into grimmer territory (note that as I don’t read a lot in the genre, I may be missing lots of counter-examples. Sorry). Lots of protagonists are burned out and traumatized; Helena’s in an even worse state when we meet her. Compared to her, Anita Blake’s positively sunny. And while she’s improving, it’s slow enough not to be improbable (in contrast to the “OK I’ve dealt with my rape let’s have sex!” character in The Warded Man).

It’s pretty much a staple in the urban fantasies I’ve seen that whatever council the good mages (or were creatures or whatever) belongs to is not so much good as not-evil. Flawed. Morally compromised. At a minimum, it has lousy judgment. But often the group still poses as the wise Gandalf types they’re supposed to be. In Unleash, they’re just plain nasty. They have no qualms about playing hardball and they’re way more interested in the spellhound slave spells than decent people ought to be.

I also liked the magic here. Wizards cast spells by drawing elaborate mandala-patterns; the designs are simple, but drawing them out in the proper order makes the difference between casting a spell and frying yourself. It’s visually appealing, and easy to understand (though the spellhound glyph’s power seems far more complicated than the effects of most of the spells), and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely enjoy elaborate magic systems and this one wasn’t overly elaborate.

My only real complaint is that the proofreading or typesetting was a mess. Most of the errors were minor, but there’s a key scene between Helena and a guild sorcerer where chunks of conversation got dropped.

I still enjoyed the book. I look forward to picking up the sequel eventually (though knowing me, it’ll be a while).

#SFWApro. Cover by Starla Hughton, all rights to image remain with current holder.

 

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The Bird King and the power of setting

I like G. Willow Wilson’s comic books, and I really liked her first non-graphic novel, Alif the Unseen. I was confident I’d like her second novel, THE BIRD KING, but while it had its moments, I was overall disappointed. And I think the setting is a big part of that.

I don’t think articles about writing, particularly specfic, discuss setting quite as much as we discuss world-building, the ways we create and establish the setting. One’s a matter of craft and skill, the other’s a matter of judgment and taste. Perhaps that’s why it’s not discussed as much: it’s one thing to thumb down “as you know, Steve, our occult research project is devoted to mastering the laws of magic” as objectively bad writing (telling people what they already know) but the merits of setting are more subjective.

As noted at the Alif link, I liked that book partly because it had a setting I rarely see, inside a modern Middle Eastern nation (and focused on the country and its people rather than how they relate to the US). The mash-up of computer hacking with Islamic mysticism and folklore made the setting even weirder. And as someone who’s read several IT/fantasy mash-ups, I think it’s much harder to mix the two than it looks.

Wilson’s opening setting is great: 1491 Granada, a Muslim stronghold about to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella, creating a united Spain. Not that the ancient Muslim world is that unusual a setting but Wilson’s a Muslim and makes it feel fresher than most portrayals. The core characters are good, too: Fatima, a slave concubine serving the sultan and Hassan, a gay mapmaker whose maps can alter the world they portray. Like Lucy in The Twelfth Enchantment, Fatima is a formidable, capable protagonist without being at all anachronistic. She resents being a slave (Wilson discusses this in an interview) but at first it’s the best she can do. After she and Hassan go on the run, she’s determined not to be anyone’s property again.

They have to run because the sultan’s negotiating surrender terms. Luz, a point woman for the Inquisition, makes it clear that Fatima and other Muslims will have to convert or die; Hassan, as both a “sodomite” and a sorcerer of some sort, won’t be that lucky. They have to run.

And that’s where the book turned me off. Hassan and Fatima’s desperate flight isn’t as fresh as the scenes in Granada. They could just as easily have been Protestants fleeing Catholics, Catholics fleeing Muslims, or refugees fleeing a conqueror; the landscape wouldn’t change much. And despite the presence of a jinn, it’s a very low-level magical setting, close to a straight historical story. And I’m not fond of those (see what I mean about taste). The long slow journey across Spain to the Island of Birds drained the interest out of me. (It didn’t help that religious fanatics creep me out to the point reading about them makes me genuinely uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the result of living in the Bible belt much of my life. Maybe not). I also wish Wilson had played around more with the power of maps (I have an interest in maps), like the opening scene in which a general gloats that Granada is already part of Spain on the maps.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that setting is important because it shapes our expectations about the story. An attack by a knife-wielding Martian, a knife wielding Gold Rush claim jumper or a knife-wielding killer in a Los Angeles alley can all offer the same level of danger, but they engage us (or don’t) in different ways.  We can use setting to put a fish out of water, or to contrast with the story we tell; Peyton Place became a best-seller in the 1950s partly because it’s sex-and-scandal plot contrasted with the New England small town setting (I’ve discussed other angles of setting here and here). Even an old, familiar setting can be fresh with the right take. But Bird King‘s setting just wasn’t right for me.

#SFWApro. Cover by studiohelen.co.uk, all rights remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Coming of the Terrans

Leigh Brackett’s THE COMING OF THE TERRANS collects five of her Martian stories written from 1948 (Beast Jewel of Mars) to the early 1960s (The Road to Sinharat and the luridly titled Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon). They suit my love of pulp perfectly, and I think there’s enough of interest to make them worth a blog post of its own (obviously)

The stories are set on Brackett’s decadent, dying Mars, starting in 1998 with Beast Jewel (the story doesn’t include a date so I’m guessing either Brackett or the editor assigned dates for the book). Said jewel is part of the ritual of Shanga, which a Martian cult uses to regress humans, allowing them the chance to slip the bonds of civilized behavior and act out their fantasies of sex or violence without inhibition. Burk’s lover became addicted to Shanga and vanished into the cult; Burk now follows her. This has its risks because he’s experienced the addiction himself. And after a certain point, Shanga followers begin to devolve into their ancestral forms. The Martians, an ancient race who despise their human occupiers, take great joy in this.

The final story, set 40 years later, is Road to Sinharat. While the title lost city is certainly a great pulp invention, the story itself seems more in tune with the mood of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when colonies were declaring independence right and left. Earth is determined to take over Mars’ slim water resources for the Martians’ own good, bringing the best of Earth’s technology to bear. As the protagonist struggles to prove, this has happened before, and it didn’t work well.

Brackett’s Mars is a good example of how to borrow from another writer without ripping them off. Her Mars is clearly shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ planetary adventures, which Brackett freely acknowledged. Like Burroughs’ Barsoom, Brackett’s Mars is a once great world, now dried up and dying. But ERB’s Martians were stoic, proud, passionate warriors. While Brackett’s Martian barbarians fit that mold, city dwellers are corrupt, decadent, frequently malicious but in small petty ways (rather than duel, they’d knife you in the back). Coupled with Brackett’s lusher style of writing (she’s definitely the better wordsmith)it feels very different.

The stories also show that amazing worldbuilding isn’t necessarily necessary for a good story (I include the modifier because I know a lot of readers value detailed worldbuilding more than I do). Brackett’s Mars isn’t all that alien; the stories of sinister cults, lost cities and ancient super-science aren’t that different from the stories other pulp writers told about the Third World. Mars could almost be Egypt under British imperial control: we have the sinister ancient cults, the angry resentment of the natives, the decadence, the secret ancient wisdom — standard pulp portrayals of far-off lands. But that doesn’t bother me much (YMMV of course); the stories are still good, and Brackett doesn’t make it feel as if it’s “just” the colonized Middle East (the dead seas, the dwindling canals, they all give it an alien feel).

But I think that also shows why so many people do find specfic from the olden days so distasteful. Mars isn’t the British Empire but the tropes are there; I know some people who don’t like them used for the Third World don’t feel they’re improved by giving other planets the same treatment. The hero of Sinharat is a “white savior” doing for the natives what they can’t do for themselves. I still like the stories, but I can understand if someone else took issue with them. But for me, the charms outweigh the flaws.

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Women breaking the mold: Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer

So if Lovecraftian cults ever launched a crusade, what would it look like? In CREATURES OF WANT AND RUIN by Molly Tanzer, the answer — logical given Lovecraft’s own loathing of immigrants — is that they’d preach against immigrants ruining society with their filthy unAmerican immigrant ways (yes, this could also be seen as relevant to current politics). The result is an offbeat variation on Lovecraftian horror (the horror comes off primarily as variation on Color Out of Space though I don’t know that was actually Tanzer’s inspiration); it’s also a good example of how to write women in a historical fantasy who don’t conform to their era’s rules.

The story is set on Long Island in the 1920s or possibly early 1930s (seriously, would it have killed Tanzer to set a definite date? I hate having to guess!). Ellie is a local, selling moonshine brewed a local  woman to pay for her brother to go to college and medical school. Fin is a socialite vacationing with her husband and friends on Long Island for the summer. Hunter, a local preacher, has made a pact with a demon (this is the second of three novels set in Tanzer’s world of demons and summoners) which he believes will purge Long Island of immigrants and restore the good old days; suffice to say, this is not the demon’s agenda.

As I’ve mentioned before, historical fantasies showing women resisting sexism often fall flat for me. Fin and Ellie work. They’re opposed to the status quo, but their opposition is active, not just simply wishing they could challenge gender norms. That works much better.

Ellie’s become the breadwinner in her family since her father came back from the war with an injury and PTSD. She’s polyamorous and currently involved with a guy who gets off on her sleeping with other men. It’s all presented as a choice, not the result of anyone being messed up. To Hunter, and to Ellie’s father once he joins the crusade, she’s the embodiment of the problems caused by drink and by rebellious women refusing to fulfill their subordinate role.

Fin’s even more radical. A one-time birth control activist (which would have been a radical thing back then) she’s now married and comfortable, and she’s coming to hate it. When the problems on Long Island become obvious, her friends want to sail off to Europe; Fin wants to stay and fight and does so.

It’s a well-done job. I look forward to reading more by Tanzer down the road.

#SFWApro. Cover by Eduardo Recife, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Diversity is fun! Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

One of the standard argument against diversity from the “anti-SJW” contingent is that adding diversity is the opposite of fun. Thinking about minorities and discrimination and worrying about whether your book is too white is just too damn serious and too-PC and it kills all the excitement and adventure.

HEROINE COMPLEX by Sarah Kuhn shows, to the contrary, that diversity can add fun to a book. The stuff I enjoyed most involves protagonist Evie reminiscing about her life as a Japanese American, alongside her strongminded bestie, Annie.

Getting mocked for bringing “weird” food to school in their lunchboxes (and noticing the same kids who sneered at them grew up into foodies who love Asian cuisine). Endlessly rewatching the movie Heroic Trio because it showed Asian women who were superheroes.  Annie’s tossed-off remark when Evie has to impersonate her that sure, Annie’s Chinese and Evie’s Japanese, but white people won’t notice the difference. Stuff like this, the little minutiae of Evie’s life, gives the book a different flavor from most urban fantasies.

The book is set in San Francisco a couple of years after a demonic portal opened, serving as the trigger event that endowed certain people with superpowers. Annie re-invented herself as Aveda Kevadra, demon-slaying superhero — essentially a standard butt-kicking urban fantasy protagonist, but doing it publicly rather than in the shadows, and milking it for celebrity and fame. When she’s injured during a fight, she recruits Evie to step in for her, aided by a little illusion magic. Trouble is, Evie’s spent her whole life clinging to the shadows, happy to be Aveda’s personal assistant rather than in the spotlight. Not only does she have to endure the public eye, but new demonic attacks force Evie to demonstrate she has powers of her own (fire throwing). Now what?

It’s a good set up, and “shy character forced to bloom” is a story that appeals to me, but Evie was just too miserable for me to connect with. She hates her job, has no sex life, struggles to remember why she and Annie are friends, feels miserable in her own skin and hates being a metahuman freak (that’s way too overdone in comics for me to like it here). It’s nice when she and Annie/Aveda finally get their mojo back, but up to that point, Aveda’s such a jerk I kept wishing Evie would slap her soundly instead of putting up with it.

Evie’s boyfriend is so hyper-rational he felt like he’d wandered over from Big Bang Theory. Evie’s sister Bea goes from a teenager with a drinking problem to cleaning up her act overnight. And while I realize the villain’s meant to be an idiot, I still couldn’t buy “I’m going to explain my evil plans while the hero wriggles free of my trap” as a climax (I promptly went back and re-edited the climax of No One Can Slay Her to avoid the same).

The Asian-American elements, though, remained fun and entertaining.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Jason Chan, all rights remain with current holder.

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Too much of a good thing? Constance Verity Saves the World

What if Kim Possible’s crazy life didn’t get any less crazy by time she hit thirty? is how I’d sum up CONSTANCE VERITY SAVES THE WORLD by A. Lee Martinez. Martinez usually loves playing with genre tropes for humor, usually successfully, and overall I liked this one (second in a series)

The premise — well, my opening line pretty much covers it. Constance routinely battles mad scientists, crime cabals, monsters, alien invaders, occult threats, to the point where her reaction verges on the blasé. No matter how scary it is, her reaction tends to “meh.” It’s not like she hasn’t seen it before, no matter what “it” is.

Getting a life, though? That’s a little frightening. Constance has an accountant boyfriend, Byron, and it’s hard for her to figure out how much of her experiences to share with him. It’s also difficult for Constance to reset her reflexes so that the presence of an ET or a possibly dangerous robot doesn’t trigger a fight in their new condo. I did like that Byron really is thoroughly ordinary; he’s the Lois or Pepper to Constance’ superhero, and that’s a nice change from the usual.

I’m reviewing this one as an Is Our Writer’s Learning? book because I did learn a couple of things from it. Most notably, that original takes are few and far between. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished has a similar concept in Jennifer being afflicted with a life of constant peril and strife, though my handling it is quite different. The Astro City series frequently goes into the same territory, and it was the whole premise of the Gerard Jones/Will Jacobs The Trouble With Girls (reviewed here and here): Lester Girls wants a normal life but destiny keeps throwing him into a world of danger, sex and excitement. It’s the execution that makes it work, or not.

The second point I learned is that there’s a limit to how far some premises will stretch. Trouble With Girls kept the laugh balls in the air for two TPBs; Martinez manages it for the length of a novel, but it’s a near thing. We know pretty much how any of Constance’s scenes will go, the same way the last one did. It’s a one-joke premise, which is not a bad thing if the joke works, but it almost doesn’t. I don’t feel any urge to read the first volume or V3 when it comes out. But I did enjoy this one, more than several other superhero riffs along the same line. Martinez has a good feel for the tropes he’s parodying, and not everyone does.

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Stretching Characters Until They Break: Exit Stage Left

When I heard that EXIT STAGE LEFT: The Snagglepuss Chronicles (by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan) would reinvent Snagglepuss as a gay playwright in the 1950s, I thought that sounded doable. Hanna-Barbera’s Snagglepuss was a flamboyant, eccentric, theatrical character; being gay wasn’t that big a stretch. Russell already stretched the premise of The Flintstones for their comic book, and I liked that one, so why wouldn’t this one work.

It didn’t, at least not for me. Russell’s Flintstones, while not as sitcommy as the original, still played for satirical laughs. Exit Stage Left is serious, and rather glum.

Snagglepuss was a Hanna-Barbera character from their 1960s TV wave, noted most for his phraseology, such as “Exit, stage left!” (or right, or center) when it came time to amscray. Here he’s a celebrated Southern playwright facing pressure from the government for writing dramas that cast a critical eye on American society — why is he playing into Communist hands by saying America isn’t perfect? In his first encounter with the Unamerican Activities Committee, he stares them down and makes them look like idiots, but the heat is still on. Which is not a good thing, as despite marriage, he’s a closeted gay anthropomorphic big cat. So is his former lover Huckleberry Hound, a rising author who visits New York and discovers what it’s like to be openly out in a place like Stonewall. In between Snagglepuss coping with crises in his latest production, and a Cuban boyfriend who wants to go home and participate in Castro’s revolution, Huck falls in love with Quick Draw McGraw, a closeted cop. Yes, no way sleeping with a cop back when gay was still illegal could turn out bad? Spoiler: it turns out bad.

As a story, it’s well-executed (Russell shares his thoughts on the book at Vox). But it’s so damn serious (what else could it be given the premise) that seeing a bunch of comical cartoon characters cast in downbeat drama felt very off. Nor were any of them particularly like their characters in the ‘toons. Snagglepuss is thoughtful, brooding, literate. Huck is just kind of there. Dimwitted, loudmouthed Quickdraw is insecure and shy. Peter Pottamus, a globetrotting, time-traveling explorer, is the stage manager on Snagglepuss’s latest project. It’s that last one that particularly bugged me; there’s a point to reinventing Snagglepuss and Huck, but putting Peter backstage is just name dropping (that might have worked if I liked the story better though). Ditto Augie Doggie in a supporting role.

As someone who uses a fair number of old characters in various stories, from Conan (by another name) to John Galt (ditto) to Sherlock Holmes, it’s a useful reminded that there are limits to what can be done before the names become basically meaningless; they’re not the characters they’re supposed to be (as I observed with A Study in Honor) which makes using them counter-productive. Of course that point is going to be subjective. Millennials who’ve never seen the old Hanna-Barbera stuff might have a higher tolerance for Exit Stage Left than me, who remembers them well. But it’s still worth keeping in mind.

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Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”

I’m not sure how many quotes off this mug I can mine for posts; the one at the bottom about footprints doesn’t seem to lend itself to writing. But “there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” applies to writing, science, politics, life.

It’s hard not to accept an “obvious” fact that everyone knows is true. It’s easy to resist facts that contradict that obvious truth or to embrace someone who insists that in spite of all evidence, the “obvious” fact you want to believe (white people are naturally superior! A woman’s place is in the home!) is true. Even science can get mangled. The Victorian scientists Cynthia Russett describes in Sexual Science thought their analysis of why women were the weaker, dumber sex was totally objective. Spoiler: it wasn’t; they were blinded by taking women’s inferiority as a given.

In writing, the “obvious fact” can trip us up in multiple ways. For example, our perception of how people behave. Suppose a writer assumes that any female character really wants marriage and a family more than anything, so her career is just an unimportant stop-gap until The One comes along. That’s going to lead to some implausible female characterization. Or if a writer believes a woman who has sex before marriage is a slut, and his writing reflects that judgment. Or that every senior citizen just sits and watches TV all day. Or believes the countless stereotypes about disabled people.

Another way the obvious can trip us up is if we assume that the obvious, formula resolution to a story is the only one possible. Or the only one your audience will accept; I’ve read multiple accounts over the years of writers being told some variation of “Well, I’m not a sexist/homophobe myself, but lots of the audience will put down the book if you show your female lead is happy without a man/one of your lead characters is gay.” Or that you can’t do X because nobody’s done X before. An article in Romance Writers of America’s newsletter some years back pointed out that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander broke a shit-ton of rules. Time-travel romance before that was a subgenre. Protagonist is already married when she falls for the male lead. Said lead is a younger man, much less experienced sexually. Yet it was a smash hit.

For another example, consider TEMPER by Nicky Drayden. A fantasy set in an alt.Africa untouched by Europe (apparently India has staked out a foothold), the premise is that twin births are the norm, with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Cardinal Virtues divided up between each set of twins (though not exactly matching Western Christianity’s version. Doubt is one of the sins, for instance, and vainglory and temper substitute for pride and wrath). Society looks down on “lesser” twins with the larger number of vices; Auben, a rarity with six out of seven and one virtue, has to deal with that on top of being a poor inner city kid.

Unfortunately that’s the least of Auben’s problems. It turns out the imbalance between him and his sibling Kasim is caused by/causes them to become avatars of Icy Blue and Grace, the Lucifer/God analogs. Kasim doesn’t find being pushed to be really, really good much fun; Auben finds himself driven to shapeshift into a beast and kill.

This is familiar stuff in some ways (although the setting makes it feel different) but none of it plays out the way I expected. And given how long I’ve been reading, I’m hard to surprise. This ranges from how Drayden handles the good/evil dynamic to the disgruntled scientists with their own agenda; secularists in a religious culture, they’re PO’d to have hard evidence Grace and Icy Blue are real.

Of course it’s possible to be original and completely awful — I’ve seen that a few times — but that wasn’t an issue here. Outside of one confusing scene (I kept waiting for the explanation, but it didn’t come) this was first-rate.

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Delivering on the hook: A Study in Honor

Claire O’Dell’s A STUDY IN HONOR shows the pros and cons of a story having a strong hook. If this hadn’t been billed as “gay female black Watson and Holmes in near future setting” I probably wouldn’t have paid it any attention. But the price of hooking me is that I not only judge the novel on its merits but as a Holmes and Watson variant.

The same problem crops up in Silver Age DC, where it was routine to design a grabber cover, then write the story to fit. Sometimes (as in the Gil Kane cover here) it worked; sometimes the strain to work the hook into the story was obvious. I’ve also seen it in nonfiction articles, like one that starts off somewhere in the Iowa cornfields … and then jumps to a nearby office where the interview is taking place. The cornfields added nothing except some color and some wordage.

In short, a good hook is a wonderful thing, but only if it pays off. I don’t think O’Dell delivered on hers.

In the opening, Dr. Jane Watson returns to DC from service in America’s next Civil War, triggered by the alt.right (as common with dystopian fiction, the future reflects the present). She’s burned out, stuck with a poorly fitted prosthetic and unable to squeeze a new one out of the VA bureaucracy. Her lover has dumped her. Jane does land a cool apartment with eccentric Sara Holmes, but Sara’s eccentricities drive Watson up the wall. After we watch Jane suffer for half the book, one of her friends in the VA medical system is murdered. To her surprise, Sara takes an interest in the crime …

And that synopsis captures the reasons this didn’t work for me. When I read a Holmes and Watson story, I expect Holmes and Watson, the team supreme. I expect a mystery, with them working to solve it. I don’t expect half the book to focus on Watson’s personal issues, with no mystery and almost no Holmes. O’Dell says she wanted to make Watson more than just Holmes’ sidekick, and if she’d been writing Doyle’s Holmes and Watson that might have worked. But she’s writing two people who are merely claiming the mantle, so I’m less forgiving.

Then there’s the first meeting between Holmes and Watson. As usual, Sara knows everything about Watson, instantly … because she Googled Jane. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not Holmes. Sure, Holmes would use computers (he does on Elementary) but for an initial demonstration of deductive genius, that’s not enough. I want Holmes to do something us Googlers can only dream of.

If O’Dell hadn’t made her heroes Holmes and Watson, I don’t know I’d have liked the book anyway. It’s not quite my thing, and O’Dell’s writing style is really stiff. But without the hook that failed, it would have stood a better chance.

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