Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Should magic have a price? Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

It’s been a while since I did an Is Our Writers Learning? post, which is partly because I think the format’s become a little stiff (check through some of my past posts for examples). So this time out, I’m going to take a question—does magic need to have a price attached?—and what I learned about it from reading Revisionary: Magic Ex Libris Book Four by Jim C. Hines.

This was the fourth and final book in the series (I’ve also read one, two and three). The premise is that Gutenberg developed printing because the psychic effect of hundreds or thousands of people reading an identical text gives it a kind of reality; libriomancers such as protagonist Isaac Vainio can reach into a book and pull out, say, Lucy’s healing elixir from Narnia, Excalibur or the love magnet from The Road to Oz (some books are locked so that nobody can access ultrapowerful items such as the One Ring or the Cosmic Cube).

Over the course of the previous three books, the existence of magic became public knowledge and the immortal Gutenberg bought the farm. In this one Isaac’s getting it from all sides: the government’s cracking down, there’s a conspiracy within the Porters (the libriomancer’s guild) to sell out, and he’s using so much magic he’s burning out.

Which brings me to the point of my post. My friend Gail Z. Martin has commented on several Illogicon panels that magic must have a price to make the story interesting. I don’t necessarily agree. Magic does need to have limits, but I don’t think it’ll suffer if the hero pays not penalty. And the price can be something as simple as “you’ll spend years of your life studying to master it” or “dealing with demons is risky.” Then again, I’m not a fan of the Charmed approach where magic is easy, basically just a super-power. Then again, I enjoyed Charmed just the same, and several other TV series/films that take the same approach.

Revisionary is an argument for Gail’s position, I think. For all that Isaac talks about the danger of what he’s doing, and the damage using so much magic does to him, he ultimately uses a shit-ton of it without a price. He’s waaaay more powerful than in the previous books. He wields magic from Jim Butcher and Alice in Wonderland, tech from Philip K. Dick and Roger Stern’s The Death and Life of Superman; he flies, ray-blasts, has force fields and telepathy. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance, although Hines does make the final battle challenging. It’s quite obvious Isaac could be even more powerful if he tried: draw out Captain America’s shield from one of the Marvel print novels or Superman’s invulnerable costume from, say, the Bronze Age novel Last Son of Krypton (the Stern novel came out when the costume wasn’t super).

Ultimately, it really is too easy for him. But it’s also entertaining, seeing Isaac become a superhero of sorts, pulling rabbits out of hat after hat, finding the perfect defense against every threat. It’s spectacle, and as a spectacle it works. I enjoyed it. It works better than the previous book in the series, which also had a high level of magic but Isaac was largely passive.

And Hines does a good job, mostly, with the politics. It comes off very bureaucratic and pragmatic — magical healing requires NHS testing for instance — rather than the mindless witch hunting cliches. That falls apart at the end (the bad guys might as well be Operation Zero Tolerance, Project Wide Awake or any other Marvel mutant-hunters). And I find it hard to believe testing is the only issue with magic healing: I’d expect the American Medical Association and Big Pharma to throw roadblocks in Isaac’s path out of self-interest.

Overall it was a fun book. And it does make me appreciate Gail’s viewpoint a little more.

#SFWApro. Cover image by Gene Mollica and Denise Leigh, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Two books that didn’t work, and why

A slightly different version of Is Our Writers Learning? this month as I look at two books that disappointed me and the reasons for it.

MEDUSA’S WEB by Tim Powers was a big disappointment because I usually love Powers’ work. Like Lisa Goldstein, when Powers doesn’t work for me, I’m surprised.

After their Aunt Amity commits suicide, Scott and Maddy, who grew up with her after their parents died, reunite with cousins Claimayne and Ariel. The quartet’s dysfunctional relationship is complicated by the supernatural element: a spider motif that when stared at detaches your mind through time. You can wind up in your own body in the past or future, or in someone else’s. As Scott and Maddy start using the spiders again, they find themselves visiting famous figures in Hollywood’s past who’ve dabbled in the magic. Claimayne, however is using the spiders for evil; Aunt Amity hopes to time jump into Maddy’s body for good; and rival groups obsessed with the power see Scott and Maddy as potential threats.

All of that is vintage Powers. What isn’t typical is that the dysfunctional quartet and their relationship plays a large role in the story and the characters just don’t work. Scott’s a bitter burn-out, Maddy’s a New Age burn-out, Ariel’s bitter and vicious and Claimayne’s just an evil cripple stereotype. While Powers does beaten-down, burned-out characters well (“Scarecrow” Crane in Last Call for instance), his books don’t usually focus on the characters relatiionships as much as this one. That may have been smart.

Plus the magic really doesn’t hold together the way Powers’ powers (ROFL) usually do. I never quite saw how the power enables Claimayne and others to steal youth from people or how Amity would use it to take someone’s body permanently. And the happy ending involves Maddy jumping back in time to live with Rudolph Valentino even though the time-jumping power of the spiders is supposedly broken by then.  I like eucatastrophe endings, but this one doesn’t make sense — and Maddy’s just not interesting enough to care she’s happy.

A minor problem is that while we get references to Hollywood history and appearances by a few people, Medusa’s Web doesn’t immerse itself in history the way Declare did. That makes the mythos much less vivid and interesting.

MJ-12: INCEPTION by J. Michael Martinez, however, is a whole ‘nother level down from there.

The premise: in post-war occupied Germany, Allied forces discover a mysterious energy thing which when disturbed sends out waves of dark matter across Central City — no, wait, that was TV’s Flash, wasn’t it? But the effect is the same, as people spontaneously develop meta-powers. The government recruits a number of “variants” (and man, am I tired of everyone trying to come up with a new name for superhumans — variants, post-human, evos, etc.) for MJ-12, a new black ops agency. However the Soviets have their own Variants and when the U.S. team goes into the field, it’s time for a Clash of Titans!!

By that point I’d already lost interest. Martinez spends half the book doing nothing but set up. He sets up the premise, then introduces us to all the characters before we finally get going on the plot. That would be maybe workable if the premise or the characters were riveting but no. Sure, I’m a comics fan so “superhumans working for the government” is old news. But even if all I ever watched was TV, the premise is old news: Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans, Heroes’ evos, the metas of Flash. It doesn’t take much set up any more. And the characters are stock: tormented healer, tormented living Cerebro, racist transmuter, tormented empath. Even more stock, we learn at the end of the book that future volumes will give us mutie-haters—er Variant haters—and a Variant supremacy movement. That’s old hat too; the first X-Men movie was almost two decades ago.

Spending half the book to set up a formula situation born of a formulaic concept does not a winning novel make.

#SFWApro. Cover design James Iacobelli, all rights remain with current holder.

 

 

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Is Our Writers Learning? Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

What if Scooby Doo and his friends found themselves faced with Lovecraftian horror? That’s the premise of MEDDLING KIDS which meshes the Scooby team with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

THE STORY: Thirteen years ago, a group of teen ghostbusters and their dog exposed the latest supernatural threat to Blyton Hills as once again a guy in a monster suit (who sneers he’d have succeeded if not for — well, you know). Only deep down they sense something darker, a knowledge that’s tortured them ever since. Now Nick’s in a mental hospital, Peter’s dead, kid genius Kerri is tending bar and tomboy Andy is ex-military with some open warrants out on her. Andy brings them back together with their dog Sean’s grandson to unearth the final secret of the spooky mansion.

WHAT I LEARNED

Sometimes it’s better if pastiches aren’t too close. Unlike some Scooby-Doo takeoffs I’ve seen, this doesn’t map them exactly onto the characters. Which isn’t surprising as Cantero originally based them on a British creation by Enid Blyton (hence Blyton Hills), the Famous Five (Andy is very much a grown-up version of tomboy George). When American publishers gave him a blank stare, Cantero put it as “Scooby Doo meets Lovecraft” and closed the deal (Kerri is recognizably a mix of Velma’s brains with Daphne’s looks).

It’s probably stronger for not being too Scooby-Doo.

Sustaining a premise is hard. The early chapters capture the feel of grown-up kid detectives taking on the supernatural. After that … well, the kid detective part faded too much for me. They could as easily have been the kids of King’s It, or any dispirited group of former friends (The Big Supernatural Chill, if you like). That kind of disappointed me.

Omniscient POV is sometimes a mistake. It’s obvious advantage is that it lets Cantero write with more poetry than if he’d gotten into multiple close-up points of view. But I found it really distancing. The characters are going through an emotional wringer — reuniting, working out their past issues, facing unspeakable horrors — but the writing’s so detached I can’t really connect as much as I’d like.

This is a particular problem with the scenes where Nick explains the Lovecraft mythos (or this book’s version). It’s nothing new to me, or I suspect to lots of other readers, so a big chunk of exposition is a minus. It works in HPL’s stories because no matter how many I read, he always infuses his horrors with, well, horror. Here it’s closer to a Wikipedia entry.

By about halfway through I was disengaging. By the end I’d lost almost all interest, I just finished it to see if it improved (no). I’ve actually had more fun with some of the TV show’s The Monsters Are Real seasons such as 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo and Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated.

#SFWApro. Jacket Design: Michael J. Windsor, all rights remain with current holder (as an aside, I wonder if the growing number of professionally published books with covers designed out of public-domain elements means cover artists are another field losing ground to digital technology?).

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Is Our Writers Learning? Year One by Nora Roberts

I love Nora Roberts’ work as JD Robb, a dark cops-and-serial killers series set in the future of 2050 (a lot further away when she started). So at the library I picked up her first book in the Chronicles of the One post-apocalyptic fantasy series.

THE STORY: A couple of families spend Christmas hunting at a lodge in the Highlands. One of them spilled blood in a local stone circle years ago; now he does it again. Result: he becomes the carrier for a pandemic, the Doom, which wipes out much of the world in the days, months and years following. As the survivors struggle to keep surviving, they discover the Doom also triggers supernatural powers or amplifies them in practitioners. Some of whom are good, some evil. And soon a child will be born who will be the Chosen One, who can save the world from the dark powers. If she lives long enough.

WHAT I LEARNED:

Realistic exploration of the fantastic is a good thing: In contrast to the Left Behind series, Roberts has put some thought into the way people cope with the apocalypse. The breakdown of society. The loss of technology. Things that are suddenly no longer possible when too many people are dead to keep things running. There’s an interesting discussion pointing out that even if someone successfully mastered a vaccine, time and logistics guarantee the death toll will be in the billions. I think Roberts handles the details better than The Stand, which shot more for Mythic than realistic (for the record I hated The Stand, though not for that reason).

Roberts also does a good job exploring how the end of the world we know affects the characters: Arlys, a reporter, keeps on reporting, even as society collapses. She believes it’s a good thing  — that people need to know what’s happening even if they can’t do anything about it. She’s one of the better reporter characters I’ve seen in a while. Then there’s the mourning of the dead, and the realization that there’s no longer any way to reach people alive but living too far away.

Doing something new with something very old is tricky.Much as I enjoyed the realistic touches, I’ve been reading stories about surviving/rebuilding from the apocalypse since my teens, and they go back way further than that. It’s a YMMV reaction, but I just felt that part of the book has been done and redone.

Multiple points of view can be a problem. As I found out in early drafts of Southern Discomfort, having too many characters reduces the impact of any one character. That’s not necessarily bad (I still have quite a few), but it works against Year One. The good guys are believable characters, but none of them are particularly distinctive. None of them stands out enough to grab me or interest me. Focusing on one or two characters might have worked better.

Recycling cliches is worse. And lord, the fantasy stuff is cliched. The powers are conventional, mostly resembling psi/metahuman abilities (i.e., to work magic just point and will it to happen) — thirty years ago, she could have done them as radiation-induced mutant powers and not change much. The characters who turn evil are all unsubtle; they seem one instant away from laughing maniacally (“He thinks his soft, white, weak power can measure to mine?”). The Chosen One is a very well worn trope, though I don’t hate it the way some people do. Mutie-haters out to kill all the mages are even more cliched and I hate that shtick).

Magic or metahuman powers suddenly manifesting in the real world is an old trope too. Shadowrun. Barbara Hambly’s Magic Time (which also deals with magic manifesting post-apocalypse). Larry Correia’s excellent Grimnoir books. Heck, even Flash‘s metahumans and Agents of SHIELD‘s Inhumans. I don’t think it’s a used-up idea, but it doesn’t work in this setting. With a death toll of seven billion and the breakdown of society, neither the evil mages nor the mage-hunters seem to matter.It gives me some respect for The Stand in that Stephen King makes Randall Flagg a convincing threat even in a similar pandemic.

#SFWApro. Cover design by Ervin Serrano, all rights remain with current holder.

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Is Our Writers Learning?: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

Mostly what I learned from Paul Krueger’s LAST CALL AT THE NIGHTSHADE LOUNGE is that some books simply don’t work for me. That’s not a reflection on the book’s merits, just that some books are pitched at a frequency I don’t pick up. Usually that’s a matter of the genre being one I dislike, but this book shows it can be other things too.

THE STORY: Bailey, a Chinese American newly graduated from college is stuck living with her parents and working as a barback in the Nightshade. Then she discovers bartenders are part of an ancient society of “Alechemists.” Drunk humans attract evil spirits, the tremens; bartenders brew magical cocktails that give them superpowers to fight the demons. Bailey becomes a rookie in the Alechemists, but is that what she wants for a career path? And is the organization really on the up-and-up?

WHAT I LEARNED: Like I said, some books are just not a good fit for me. I suspected it might not be when Krueger described the premise at Illogicon, but it seemed a shame not to try a fantasy by someone I’d actually met.

The reason I doubted Nightshade Lounge would work for me is that I’m not a drinker. I find most booze tastes awful, it stimulates my acid reflux and I don’t get buzzed, just depressed and numb. There’s no fun in it for me. And as I suspected that took the fun out of the premise. There are several sections from an Alechemist’s grimoire discussing the lore of the various drinks and while a lot of readers loved them, I just skipped over them.

That said, the book might have held me with the characters, who seem an appealing lot. And I like that there’s a fair mix of diversity in the cast (one trans person, one deaf, Bailey herself) just treated matter-of-factly. But unfortunately the book is “New Adult” (unlike the premise I didn’t know that before picking it up); the character arc is primarily Bailey, the new graduate, struggling to get a life.  And that just didn’t interest me — not because Krueger did it wrong, coming of age stories leave me cold, whether they’re tweens, teens or twentysomethings.

Possibly this reflects my being, well, old. My twenties are far behind me. Though I don’t recall I’ve ever liked coming of age stories in print (on TV or in movies, they can work for me) at any age. Certainly my own stories with twentysomething protagonists don’t deal with the real-world challenges of having to start adulting. It just doesn’t grab me.

I did like the emphasis on the hard work the bartenders put in on the job, and Bailey’s distaste for a couple of friends whom she sees treating bar staff with contempt. I’m glad that despite the “new person enters supernatural world” Krueger didn’t bury me in exposition (I’ve seen that happen often enough). I didn’t particularly like the tremens, who are uninteresting horrors. But overall I don’t really have a critical analysis to offer, only personal taste.

I don’t think Krueger made a mistake building a fantasy novel around drinking, something which I’d guess the vast majority of readers indulge in. Several of the positive reviews I’ve seen were “What would be really fun is reading this book over cocktails!” so they obviously felt the charm. But for me it was a no-go.

Cover design by Timothy O’Donnell, all rights to image remain with current holder. #SFWApro

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Thing in the Woods by Matthew W. Quinn

I decided to read THE THING IN THE WOODS by Matthew W. Quinn after reading his discussion of how the cast would have voted in 2016. It’s a contemporary-set horror which has some definite similarities to Southern Discomfort (small town with a secret, lots of newcomers moving in), though happily not too many.

Fair warning: it came out from Digital Fiction, which also publishes Where Angels Fear to Lunch. Their royalty model says we all divide up the pot equally, so if Thing in the Woods sells, that’s good for me. Nevertheless, I really did like it.

THE STORY

James Daly is a teenager whose father recently uprooted the family from Buckhead in Atlanta to Edington, Ga., a small town partly transformed into a bedroom community. What James doesn’t know, but will soon learn, is that there’s a local cult that feeds people who piss them off to their tentacled god. Once James learns about the cult, he’s #1 on their shit list.

WHAT I LEARNED

Setting can be an asset. I think the strength of the story is that it’s set very much in the modern south. Characters coping with recession, businesses dying, old-school Southerners who bitterly resent the newcomers in town, the changing demographics, the fact life just ain’t the way it used to be. References to Chapel Hill and Destin, both of which I’m familiar with. It’s a South I recognize. And while the bad guys get my back up (I’ve known too many people like them), Quinn does a good job making them decent. Except, you know, their bigotry and the whole human sacrifice thing.

Setting the cult and its god against that backdrop is the book’s strength, making the story much more interesting (to me, anyway), than if it had been, say, Innsmouth or something equally old-school.

Obviously there’s a parallel to Pharisee, Georgia, in Southern Discomfort: the clash between locals and outsiders, the magic secret. Pharisee’s secrets, though are a lot nicer.

Keeping the story moving is good. Well, obviously. What I mean is, Quinn does keep things moving a lot faster than I do, dealing with the town’s situation in dribbles as the plot advances. But of course the cult is a lot more incidental to Edington than the McAlisters are to Pharisee, so the effects of Aubric’s death are a lot more far-reaching. Which is likewise why I have more POV characters many of whom aren’t involved in the action: I’m shooting for a bigger overall view of Pharisee than Quinn is. Obviously his approach worked; hopefully mine will too.

Endings are tricky. The final battle with the monster is lively, but I was a little disappointed they used brute force and modern weapons rather than anything occult. It isn’t huge issue though — lots of monsters get blown up, shot, poisoned, gassed, buried, etc. — but I did expect the creature to be more supernatural than it appears to be.

Overall, it was a satisfying book. Hopefully it’s not going to launch a wave of fantasies set in Southern bedroom communities before my own comes out.

Cover image is uncredited; all rights remain with the current holder.
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Is Our Writers Learning? The Seventh Plague by James Rollins (#SFWApro)

THE SEVENTH PLAGUE (cover by Tony Maoro, all rights remain with current holder) is James Rollins’ twelfth Sigma Force novel (concerning a DARPA team that defuses superscientific threats). It’s old-school pulp adventure repackaged for a more mainstream audience, close to the ways Michael Crichton and Dan Brown rework specfic and pulp tropes for the mass audience.

THE STORY: A dying professor, missing for two years, staggers out of the African desert, strangely mummified. When he dies, the medical investigation triggers a lurking disease in his body, which bodes to become a pandemic. Only not just any pandemic, it’s the plague that killed the first-born of Egypt and indirectly caused all the other nine plagues. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, armed killers are shutting down every attempt to research the disease or find out what happened to the dead man.

Is the bacteria a WMD? Not according to the big bad, billionaire Simon Hartwell. He believes he can use the bacteria to transmit electricity wirelessly (it eats and channels electrical energy), and also prevent global warming. And there’s not really any risk, no he has everything completely under control …

WHAT I LEARNED:

Pulp still sells! And this book is wall-to-wall pulp, which I mean as a compliment. We have a mad scientist so obsessed with saving the world he might destroy it instead; a lost city carved into the shape of a giant man; the potential death of millions from the bacteria; the elephant’s graveyard; intelligent elephants who help save the day; the Ten Plagues of Egypt turn out to be real; and the disease also transmits memories from previous victims, so characters keep having flashbacks to ancient Egypt and the like. That’s quite a wild mix.

I think what makes it sell is that it’s worked into a plausible enough framework for mainstream readers to set aside disbelief. Lots of pseudoscientific explanations (I’ll give Rollins credit for not being too info-dumpy), modern technology and contemporary settings make it seem realistic however insane the concepts really are. Rollins seems to hit the sweet spot between going too mundane or becoming “SF.”

Too many concepts spoils the broth. For the most part Rollins does a good job tying everything to one simple concept, an ancient bacteria that absorbs electricity. However adding in the intelligent elephants, even with a reasonable pseudoscientific explanation tied to the doomsday bug, was a stretch. The inherited memories were a bigger one. I think it would have worked better if Rollins dropped the inherited-memory aspect entirely, or played it up more — it falls right into an un-sweet spot, so to speak.

Don’t info-dump. Rollins does have a big info-dump at the end, which I can forgive — it’s the classic “So, Mr. Holmes, how did you know the laundryman was the killer?” scene. The opening, though, bogs down with lots of character detail on some of the cast. That got tedious fast, though Rollins wisely stuck it after a couple of much more  memorable scenes. Still, that section dragged, which leads me to my next point—

Character counts, even in slam-bang adventure. The weird thing about the book is that while it was a compulsive page-turner, in the individual scenes, I frequently got bored. The problem, I think, is that the characters are almost entirely stick figures: smart scientists, tough fighters, with almost no distinction other than names, skill sets and who they’re involved with. That shouldn’t have been a major flaw — this is hardly a character-centric story — but Rollins’ characters are colorless, with no particular quirks or distinctive traits. I’d never hold up the Doc Savage pulps as complex characterization, but Dent never had trouble coming up with colorful, memorable, larger-than-life characters. Some of that in Seventh Plague might have helped.

Is this a trope now? The villain here resembles Samuel L. Jackson in Kingsman, a visionary entrepreneur billionaire who’s decided global warming is such a terrifying threat it must be stopped by any means necessary (though Hartwell is merely reckless with human life; Jackson’s character actually intended global mass murder). And Michael Crichton’s 2004 State of Fear used the same concept (Crichton definitely was a climate-change denier). It’s odd since nobody in climate-change activism is advocating mass murder that I’m aware of; are the books just plugging climate change into older tropes about environmental extremists (they love the Earth but they hate human beings!)? Or is it the clamor from skeptics who insist dealing with climate change will plunge us back into the technological dark ages? Or were both Kingsman and Rollins merely following Crichton’s lead? Time will tell, I guess.

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (#SFWApro)

THE BEAUTIFUL ONES by Silvia Moreno-Garcia didn’t hold me, though I think it’s more a reader/book mismatch than a flaw in the story.

THE STORY: In a nineteenth-centuryish elegant big city, Nina is a free-spirited country girl reluctantly dragged into her first season. Ducking one of the boors her aunt/guide Valerie forced on her, Nina meets Hector a music-hall performer famous and wealthy for his TK tricks. Although TK is very unfashionable in well-bred women, Nina has it and wants Hector to train her. She also finds him much more attractive than most of the men tossed her way as potential husbands. Hector agrees, but what Nina doesn’t know is that he and Valerie were once lovers, and Nina is simply his way back into Valerie’s social circle, and hopefully her heart.

MY REACTION: This is well executed, but it’s not my sort of thing. It’s very slow and mannered, reminding me a lot of a Victorian literary novel. While the concept of Hector teaching Nina to master her powers could have gone in lots of directions, this focuses more on the romance and the characters internal states (the latter was probably what lost my interest).

That said, Nina was a strong enough character and rounded enough that her enthusiasm for non-gender conforming activities didn’t bother me at all.

WHAT I LEARNED:

Mostly this got me thinking about the problem of writing a fantasy where the magic isn’t integral to the story.

Don’t get me wrong, The Beautiful Ones is unquestionably a fantasy. The TK element doesn’t feel tacked on the way the fantasy bits in the tedious Tam Lin did. At the same time, the magic could easily have been some perfectly mundane skill such as singing and I don’t think it would change much. I think the reason I don’t see it as a “just enough” specfic story is that the scenes of TK we do get are well-handled — what the power feels like, how you train it — that I bought them as more than window dressing. Still, if there’d been more magic, I might have been more engaged.

All of which is tied into the expectations I have when I pick up a fantasy novel. I pick up fantasy to get something I can’t see in the real world. If it’s too mundane, I feel cheated, which biases me against the book (I had the same problem with Jo Walton’s Among Others). But lots of people don’t have that problem (just look at the reviews for both); like I said, it’s not that The Beautiful Ones is bad, I just didn’t care for it.

Cover design by Kerri Resnick, photo of woman by Miguel Sobreira, all rights remain with current holder one

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Is Our Writers Learning? The Hunt by Chloe Neill (#SFWApro)

THE HUNT: A Devil’s Isle Novel by Chloe Neill (which is technically my December pick for this post category) is yet another book where the cover (art by Blake Morrow, all rights with current holder) is just the protagonist staring at us; all we know is that it’s got a redheaded woman in it. Which is not the fault of Neill, but it’s still uninspired.

THE STORY: When the Otherworld invades ours, New Orleans is hit Katrina-class hard. In the aftermath the government is rounding up paranormals, both Otherworldly beings and people like protagonist Claire, who’s acquired TK from the magic incursion. When her boyfriend Liam is framed for murder, Claire and her friends set out to clear his name without being captured by the paranormal hunters.

MY REACTION: I really liked that magic has had a major impact on the world, rather than having masses of magic in a world identical to our own. And I think that made the government rounding up magic feel less X-Men that such things usually do to me. Unfortunately one significant character introduced mid-book could have been lifted straight out of Marvel — they might as well have been Bolivar Trask (and Sociopathic Emotionless Scientist is too hoary a cliche to work for me). All that said, I didn’t like the book.

WHAT I LEARNED.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate seeing worldbuilding. While the setting is good, Neill is constantly showing it off. We get discussions of relationships and what the government is doing and what life is like in New Orleans now, and it gives the book an aimless, uninteresting feel. And there’s that first chapter which is nothing but scene-setting and filling in backstory for newbies like me. All I really need to know is that the invasion happened, New Orleans is ruined and paranormals are hunted, the rest could have waited.

I need something to grab me. It can be a plot hook that has to be fixed, or an emotional issue to be addressed, but we get neither. Claire’s feelings about Liam aren’t shown as intense enough for me to care and the mystery of who framed him doesn’t grab me either. I can accept “whodunnit?” as a hook in a mystery novel, but even there I’d need a more compelling mystery.

Shocking news: Giving readers information is hard! One of the advantages of first person is that the narrator can simply include a lot of information — “So I went down to McGinty’s, where I saw my buddy, the reformed Wendigo turned avant-garde sculptor.” Pretty much every urban fantasy I’ve read does this (as do series mysteries); even though it’s Telling Not Showing it doesn’t bother me if I like the book. If I don’t like it, it grates on me. Still it’s a workable approach but only if the information is worth knowing, and if it’s not delivered too much at one time (as it was in Chapter One).

Another is to have the POV character be a newcomer, as in Mur Lafferty’s Shambling Guide to New York. Protagonist Zoe stumbles into the supernatural world, so she needs lots of explanation. Of course, this can go wrong too: Charles Stross’s first Merchant Princes book has the protagonist spend (or so it seemed to me) 60 percent of her time asking for explanations which is why I’ve never read the second book.

A third approach is simply to have the author tell you what you need to know as quick as possible. Henry Kuttner’s “Eye in the Sky” starts with a murder, then we get several paragraphs explaining how the police can scan time to find out who committed any crime. This felt much quicker and faster than any alternative approach (as it’s a third-person book, the first-person tactic wouldn’t help). And it helps that the concept of the Eye is actually interesting, so it’s not just backstory.

All of which basically amounts to “any method can turn readers off if you do it wrong, so do it right.” I’m not sure that counts as an insight.

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Is Our Writer’s Learning? Merlin’s Ring (#SFWApro)

Once again, none of the books I’ve read recently with an eye to Is Our Writer’s Learning worked for one reason or another. So once again I’m bending the rules to include an older book, H. Warner’s Munn’s 1970s fantasy Merlin’s Ring, with that striking cover by Gervasio Gallardo (all rights remain with current holder). If you think it jumbles a lot of elements together, well there’s a reason for that. Incidentally this is the last of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy books I’ve been reading over the last few years.

The story: This sequel to Merlin’s Godson has the eponymous Gwalchmai thawed out of the suspended animation by his Atlantean lover, Corenice (he’s immortal from an elixir, she’s immortal by being a disembodied spirit). They face the dual challenges of a)being together even though she can only take physical form by possessing other bodies and b)fulfilling Gwalchmai’s mission to tell Rome, or some suitable Christian monarch, of the existence of North America so they can colonize it. On top of which, Merlin’s spirit keeps adding other missions, such as delivering Excalibur to Arthur’s crypt for the day the king reawakens. The quests take Gwalchmai and Corenice from Iceland to Stonehenge to Faerie, east to China and Japan, then back to France to ally with Joan of Arc.

WHAT I LEARNED:

What’s unquestioned in one era looks real bad in another. Just as Merlin’s Godson suffered from the white savior trope, here we have an unquestioned embrace of colonialism. Even after learning that Rome has fallen to barbarians, the possibility of not encouraging Europe to colonize America never occurs to Gwalchmai (or, presumably Munn). In one part of the novel, Gwalchmai is involved in China’s plans to invade Japan. He comes to realize that the invasion is wrong and switches sides. There’s never a similar consideration regarding North America. Even when this came out, there was enough criticism of Columbus, it wouldn’t have been that radical to consider it.

On the other hand, I do like the couple’s repeated decisions to send various oppressed people (pacifist monks, Welsh refugees) west to find refuge beyond the reach of their enemies. Yes, it’s still colonialism, but the escape-from-oppression aspect makes it palatable at least to me.

Details are cool, even if not everyone gets them. One of the things I’ve noticed writing historical fantasy is that some details, even if I enjoy including them, probably won’t mean anything to someone who hasn’t read as much history. But if they’re good details, I think they’re worth including anyway. Apparently Munn does too as he throws in a lot of them. Most notably (for me) he has a reference to Prince Madoc, the Welsh nobleman who supposedly founded a colony on the Gulf of Mexico (this was a key point in Excalibur). I’m guessing most readers won’t guess this element has any basis in quasi-history, but it doesn’t hurt the book and it adds something for anyone who spots it.

Orson Scott Card was right. I’ve mentioned several times before that I’m a fan of Orson Scott Card’s story-types approach: Whether you start your story as a mystery, a character study, a thriller, etc., that’s how it should end. Merlin’s Ring is a good example.

This novel sprawls all over the map. It spans 600 years, multiple location and follows lots of side alleys: Joan’s fight against England, the fate of Roland’s sword, a quest for Prester John. At times it spirals out of control — I could probably have done with less of Joan, for instance. But what keeps it coherent is that the heart of the book is Gwalchmai/Corenice. The book opens with her reviving him and ends with them united in spirit forever. In between, their love is what keeps the story going, no matter where the plot leads us. It’s probably the strongest core Munn could have chosen.

We’ll see if next month I can find something more recent.

 

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Filed under Is Our Writers Learning?, Reading