Jun 142019
 

Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis: The human race must prove it is sapient to a galactic counsel or be destroyed. The proof is done via a Eurovision-style music competition. Unfortunately, the galactic community has terrible taste in music.

Book Review: This is a book that would have received a drastically different review from me if I’d stopped before the last two chapters.

What I would have written is that Catherynne Valente is one of the most gifted writers of our generation, without reservation. And, as is well-known, gifted people often become bored with doing the same thing, regardless of how well they do it. So they are constantly exploring new territory, new styles, different methods, etc, to keep themselves interested in the work. Therefore, as much as those of us who have fallen in love with an artist’s earlier works want to see more in that vein, the artist inevitably will be trying new and different things. It is part of the nature of being outstanding.

Space Opera is written in the style of 80s British SF humor; and specifically in the style of Douglas Adams. It is impossible to read this and not immediately understand you are reading a spiritual child of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (HHGG). It is dry witty humor absolutely drenched in absurdism. Even the cover is reminiscent of Restaurant at the End of the Universe.  As far as I can tell, it does a good job of pulling this off. It reads just like HHGG did for me… which is to say I didn’t really like it.

I know I’m a heretic for saying this, but I never liked HHGG. I’m just not a fan of British humor in most cases. And in particular, I don’t like reading it. Every single thing that is described must be described for paragraphs, sometimes for PAGES, because it’s important to keep heaping absurdity upon absurdity in a spiraling comedic typhoon. I just find that tedious. And the fact that nothing is ever really taken seriously irks me. It makes it feel like nothing in the story matters. Anything can be waved away with “C’mon, it’s part of the absurdist joke!” and if everything can be overlooked, why bother paying attention?

Of course it seems churlish to complain about a genius author writing in a style I don’t personally care for, because that comes with the territory of being a genius author. To ask for this sort of thing not to happen is to ask for the author to not be so gifted in the first place, which is just shooting yourself in the face. You have to take both.

I would have also said that what kept me reading all the way through anyway is that sometimes Valente’s signature style shines through. Not despite the brit-humor, but alongside it, beautiful gems of emotional writing that snare your heart and pull it up into your throat. Passages like this:

In order to create a pop band, the whole apparatus of civilization must be up and running and tapping its toe to the beat. Electricity, poetry, mathematics, sound amplification, textiles, arena architecture, efficient mimetic exchange, dramaturgy, industry, marketing, the bureaucratic classes, cultural critics, audiovisual transmission, special effects, music theory, symbology, metaphor, transportation, banking, enough leisure and excess calories to do anything beyond hunt, all of it, everything

[…]

Well, even that is not quite enough.

Are you kind enough, on your little planet, not to shut that rhythm down? Not to crush underfoot the singers of songs and tellers of tales and wearers of silk? Because it’s monsters who do that. Who extinguish art. Who burn books. Who ban music. Who yell at anyone with ears to turn off that racket. Who cannot see outside themselves clearly enough to sing their truth to the heavens. Do you have enough goodness in your world to let the music play?

Do you have soul?

Which, first of all, that first part is a great distillation of the idea that a pop band is an artifact that proves the existence of a species with a culture. And the second part is just an achingly beautiful distillation of what it is to be human. There are amazing things like this throughout the book, which remind me why I love Valente, and kept me going. But, ultimately, I would have conceded that there’s a lot of silliness that doesn’t do anything except be silly, and you have to read through a looooot of it to get to those scattered gems, and one is probably better off reading one of her other works and passing by this one if one doesn’t have an abundance of time. I would have said “Good if you like Douglas Adams, but for people similar to me, Not Recommended.”

Except… I DID get to the last two chapters. And oh my god. At the end there, Valente steps out of the glamorous rhinestone-studded leathers of brit-humor and screams a full-throated Glitterpunk anthem of pure Catherine Valente into the glare of a hundred spotlights. I will give no spoilers. But it is raw. It is bleeding regret and pathos and perseverance. The undiluted struggle of being a flawed human in a broken world smashes into your soul and rips you bodily through this wrenching emotion. It is glorious.

And afterwards, it’s impossible — for me at least — not to have everything that came before it suddenly tinted with rosey light and silvered edges. Because that was the journey that brought me to this place. I may not have cared for it at the time, but man, that payoff! That made all the build-up worth it. It’s all much better in my memory, in retrospect.

So yes, yes — absolutely Recommended!

Book Club Review: Reception varied widely at my book club, which surprised me! Since I’m in the minority of not liking HHGG, I expected everyone else to be much more bullish on the bulk of the novel. But one of the HHGG fans made the observation that absurdist humor of the Adams style must be somewhat simplistic. It has to be easy and fast to read, a literary equivalent of a cartoon. Valente is simply too eloquent. She uses sentences that are a step too complex, words that are a step too big, and doesn’t keep it light and fast. It isn’t all just bold lines and solid colors. I found that to be a very interesting observation. Unfortunately it had been so long since I read HHGG that I couldn’t compare, but I certainly concede that Valente demands a higher level of reader engagement than average. A couple readers found it tiring/tedious and it didn’t hold their attention enough to finish.

Nonetheless, there were a great deal of interesting things to talk about, which is always my primary measure of whether a book is good for a book club. There were several memorable scenes that were replayed at the table, akin to when people alternate recreating lines of the “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” scene. There was discussion of the choices the characters made, and of course of the ending. And, in a delightful turn, several of us reflected on how the book would have been different if written for our generations. To explain, the book is written for the 80s glamrock generation, and a lot of the truly good artists of the era (like Bowie) are name-dropped as people who weren’t chosen to compete, since the aliens have terrible taste in music. In my personal case, it would’ve been written for the grunge generation. Everyone would be shocked that the aliens wouldn’t take Alice in Chains or Nirvana, and instead ended up taking Nickleback. XD

Anyway, also Recommended for book clubs!

May 182019
 

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Synopsis: A G.R.R. Martin-esque exploration of power — its sources and its uses, its gifts and its pitfalls — told in the style of a fairytale. For real.

Book Review: I’ve grown a bit tired of fairytale-retelling novels, mostly because there are so many of them, and they’re never very inspired. I should have remembered that Novik wrote the Nebula-winning “Uprooted” and had some more faith. My lowered expectations were completely blown out of the water, and I devoured this novel.

The story centers on a Jewish girl in medieval Russia. The rest of the village despises them and takes advantage of her father. When she asserts the power of the law (and her rich Uncle living in the capital) to protect her family, she begins to understand the limits of laws-on-paper without immediate physical power to back them up.

She also displays rock-hard bad-assery in terms of realizing that reputational effects are extremely important, and a single slip can ruin them forever. She might as well have “A Lannister pays her debts” as her personal motto. There are several amazing moments were we see her forced into stone-hearted acts because failing to carry through with them would leave her open to predation in the future. It’s done very well in its own right, but the contrast of pure Grimdark themes in a fairytale world is awesome.

Speaking of faeries, we got those too! They present the super-human threat that really complicates things. They are alien and fascinating, and I loved everything about them. I kept thinking “If Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell had been awesome instead of shitty, this is the book it would have been!” Their presence escalates the story from one of personal struggle in a village to an existential threat against all humans in the country, and possibly the continent.

My major complaint about this book is that the sequel was inexpertly sewed onto it. “Spinning Silver,” as I recognize it, ended about 2/3rds of the way through the book. The sequel is then smashed in, and the sequel is reeeaaaaally not to my taste. It’s a standard Romance book of the Beauty and the Beast style. Female lead is captured and imprisoned by a misunderstood male lead, they fight a lot, but eventually she comes to understand him, and he comes to respect her, and they fall in love. uwu.

I assume that it’s a very good Romance. Novik is a great writer, and I’ve really loved the two other books of hers I’ve read (Uproot, and Spinning Silver). But Spinning Silver 2 just isn’t the sort of story I like, so it wasn’t for me. I regret reading it, I only did so because it was in the same book as Spinning Silver 1, and I didn’t realize it was a different novel. :(

So: Spinning Silver 1, Recommended! Spinning Silver 2, Not Recommended. If you have taste similar to mine, stop after the first climax. (You’ll recognize it when you see it).

Book Club Review: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to our book club meeting for this book, so I got nothing here.

May 122019
 

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Synopsis: An immortal loner operates a secret way-station on Earth for aliens using it as a stop in their galactic teleportation hops.

Book Review: I would say this award-winning book has aged poorly, but it’s hard to imagine it was ever good. The majority of the action is an old loner wandering the old woods with his old dog and being really stoic about everything. He takes almost no action, says very little, and emotes even less. In almost every scene he could be replaced by a block of styrofoam that’s learned how to whittle wood and nothing would’ve changed.

Fear not, though, as the author is equal-opportunity with his lack of characterization. The primary female character is literally deaf and dumb, and exists solely to let the protagonist feel good about saving her, and then saving the universe through her in-born magic power. She is completely infantile and pure.

The aliens and government agents are likewise either idiotic or just there to chat about folksy stuff with the protagonist.

(spoiler in this paragraph, but I hardly think it matters) — In the end, the entire universe is stripped of all agency because we’re all just warlike or peaceful based on who has control of a magic peace-radiating artifact. Fortunately the evil alien that absconded with the evil artifact comes to earth for no reason at all, and our Magical Female who is the purest and most innocent and, coincidentally, most powerful magic user in the galaxy, can take the artifact from him and make everything cool again. —

If all this wasn’t enough, the book is also just about the worst sort of message-fic there is. I like message-fic when it’s well done, and this was not. It’s message is never given any sort of emotional narrative to make us feel it. Nor does it present a world in which the message is important to the plot and characters. It basically simply states “If you all believed in this philosophy, we’d have universe peace.” And that philosophy is… “Hey man, it’s all good. We should all just chill out and like, get along. Make love, not war.”

It reminded me of The Man From Earth, a horrible movie that seems to have been made by a hippie just to say the same thing. A super-old and super-wise professor reveals that he was a caveman and just never aged or died, and discovered over the millenia that if we would all just, like, get along, everything would be groovy, man. And also, he was Jesus, but he didn’t die of the crucifixion. So like, even Jesus agrees that we should all get along. Take that, viewers!

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Nobody else in my book club found this nearly as offensive as I did. I think that’s primarily because I like message fiction, and so I take it as a personal slight when it’s done so badly. To them it was just a short, outdated old book. A few of them even appreciated the easy-going pace, and considered it an interesting window onto early-1960s culture.

There was a bit of conversation around the book, but it was mainly driven by its various flaws. That sounds worse than I mean it… the flaws aren’t that glaring (for most people). But they’re the only really interesting things to talk about, because where the book isn’t flawed it’s just pleasant. (Again, in the view of those who enjoyed it). And there’s not much to say about something that’s pleasant. You sit out on a porch and watch the clouds go by with an iced tea, and that’s nice, but you don’t talk about doing that, you just do it and enjoy it.

So, while the book itself is an interesting waystone in the evolution of SF literature, and it’s short and reads quickly, I don’t really think it has enough to it to recommend it for a book club. Thus, not recommended.

Apr 192019
 

I gotta say, I love the character of Cersei. I adore characters that are completely destroyed by the world, and refuse to take it anymore.

All her life Cersei has been a thing used by other people. She never mattered. She was marriage-material to be traded for alliances. She was a mare to be bred. Her opinions and feelings about her life didn’t matter.

The most poignant example of this is during the battle for King’s Landing, when Cersei, Sansa, and the other royal ladies are sheltered in an inner room while the fighting goes on outside. Cersei lets Sansa know that the executioner isn’t there to protect them. He’s there to kill them all should the city fall, because it is more merciful for them to suffer a quick death than to be slowly raped to death in the sack of the city.

The one thing the world has said over and over to her is that unless she has absolutely power, she has none at all. Even as the wife of the King, she is a thing foremost.

And then the High Sparrow really brings this home with the torture, degradation, and ultimately the public humiliation of the Shame! scene. All the while no one came to save her, because she was being weighed for her usefulness. Her safety and dignity were being traded around like so many pounds of wheat.

She’s decided this will never happen again. She’ll take any steps to prevent it. I love that.

I’ve seen this type of anti-hero before. Most recently, Syenite of The Fifth Season. I love that character as well, for the same reason. There comes a point where you’d rather see the entire world destroyed than condemn yourself to such an existence. Where you’d rather kill your own child than let them live such a life. Where you no longer care who dies, because everyone, EVERYONE was fucking complicit.

So I understand why, for Cersei, remaining in power is more important than saving Westeros. If either the undead or the humans are destroyed at Winterfell, but the opposing side is weakened enough that Cersei’s army can destroy what’s left and secure the continent under her rule, that is ideal. Humanity gets to continue to exist, all her enemies are dead, and she will never be used like a thing again. There is the possibility that the undead will win and destroy all life on Westeros, yes. But that is preferable to returning to life as chattel. If humanity has such a problem with extinction, maybe it shouldn’t have made life a living hell for so many.

Not that I agree with this, of course. I’m very pro-humanity. It’s just that this type of character speaks to me on such a deep emotional level that I can’t help but feel every single ounce of rage and despair with them. <3

Apr 162019
 

For the use of my book club, plus whoever else would like a linked list. These are the short stories and novelettes that are up for a Hugo, and also available free online. This year, that’s all but one.

This is the first awards season since I predicted No Print Magazine Will Publish a Hugo-Winning Story Again. Since no print magazine even got a nomination this year, I’m not wrong yet. :) We’ll see what future years bring, though. Of note is that one of the nominees isn’t available free online! While I didn’t specify that as a criteria in my post, it surprises me nonetheless. The whole reason I predicted print magazines are out is because they cannot be shared like online stories can, and thus can’t capture enough attention-share. While Bolander’s story is online at Tor.com — the current clearing house for online commercial SF — I would’ve thought that the paywall would prevent achieving the number of readers needed to make the nominations. It’s a shame I won’t get to read it. :(

 

BEST NOVELETTE

BEST SHORT STORY

Mar 262019
 

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: Having infiltrated their ruling elite, Baru begins working to destroy the nation that conquered her homeland.

Book Review: I’ve been a fan of Seth Dickinson for many years, so I was expecting something pretty good from him. I read the prologue and I was not disappointed! Good stuff! Then I read the first chapter, and I put the book down. And I went and got a drink, and then another one, and ended up just drinking way too much that night, and not coming back to the book for a couple days. Because I realized while reading it that I will never, in my life, write anything this beautiful and this moving… and it’s kinda crushing.

I don’t want to over-hype the book, because nothing kills a story like insane expectations that no work in the real world could actually meet. But this is astoundingly good writing, and gorgeous prose, and I love it. It’s the first time I’ve read a middle-book in a series that I liked more than the first book.

As always, Dickinson does a great job of bringing you into the mind of the protagonist. You don’t just feel her emotions, you follow her thought patterns. Everything is translated into the logic of economics and capitalism. He explains what a hash-function is, in a fantasy setting, in a way that is both easy to understand AND completely in-character for the setting, AND is a moving and relevant part of the story, which I wouldn’t have believed was possible if I hadn’t seen it done myself. Without ever saying anything about the modern era, Dickinson says a lot about neoliberalism and the Molochian forces grinding away our humanity.

And in the occasional chapters where he goes into a different character’s POV, Dickenson shows us the world from their startlingly-different but instantly relatable view. I was surprised how quickly and intimately I felt my perspective on what was happening change by having it presented in such a viscerally relatable manner. Dickenson is a master of putting himself (and the reader) in the mind of someone different and also correct in their way. Call it steel-manning or call it true empathy, it’s awesome either way.

The biggest issue with this story is the large cast. There are a LOT of people who matter, with many existing relationships, and some of them with multiple names. It was sometimes hard to remember who was who. I recommend taking quick notes. It is absolutely worth it.

One of my favorite books now. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as thrilled with this book as I was. Dickenson doesn’t coddle his reader, and expects you to put in effort. One fellow club member said he’s almost like Peter Watts in his attitude of ‘Keep up or drown, I don’t have time to talk-down to you,’ except “not as bad as Watts.” :) I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but…

Another member felt that Dickinson was a bit over the top in some respects, and absolutely relentless in others. Be ye warned – the title of this book is accurate. Baru is not called “The Monster” without reason. If you do not wish to feel the things that would drive a monster, this probably isn’t a good read for you. There is nothing gratuitous, but there is a lot of Grim here. I, of course, love this. And there is absolutely a point to it, it is worth taking this journey. But I can see how it could be overwhelming.

Given the beauty of the prose, and the interesting twists that will spark conversation, and the things the author is saying/implying about what we value today and what we sacrifice in the pursuit of it… this makes for a lot of good talking. It’s work, and it’s not easy to read, which probably makes it a harder sell for book clubs. Check in with your group first to make sure they’re up for a harder read. Nonetheless: Recommended.

Feb 072019
 

UBO, by Steve Resnic Tem

Synopsis: A number of ordinary men are abducted and forced to relive the crimes of infamous psychopaths in recent history as part of a bizarre research project.

Book Review: After I finished it, it took me several days of thinking about this book to decide how I felt about it.

It is exceptionally well-written, as one would expect from a long-time, award-winning author. When I read this book, I really felt like I was in the UBO facility. I could see it and feel it around me. But it’s very dark. Like, ugly dark. Many parts of the novel made me feel ugly reading them, and I wanted to purge myself afterwards. Which is also good writing, just not a trip some people want to take.

The thing is, when you get to the end, you’re left wondering, what was all this for? In the penultimate chapter the protagonist gives an answer to that question, but it’s not a satisfying one, and it seems to be contradicted by the final chapter of the novel. And that final chapter… wow. It’s like emerging from underground after being trapped in a collapsed mine for twenty-one days and finally seeing the sky again.

In the end, I think every reader will have to come give their own meaning to this story. For myself, I view it as treatise on depression. The entire book up to the last chapter is what living with depression is. Everything is crumbling and dirty and rotting. All of humanity is wicked, and you are literally unable to gather the will to fight it due to subconscious sabotage. Merely existing is an ugly act. And one keeps asking oneself – why? What is all this for? Why are we enduring all this, what’s the point?

Why am I reading this?

And then the final chapter gives you your answer. It gives you the bloom of color that keeps you going, in spite of it all. Because there is some beauty out there that’s worth it.

I kinda like books that makes me think for days before I know if I like them or not. And I have a long history with depression. So in the end, I’ve decided I love this novel.

In fact, looking back on the past couple years, it seems that I’ve really liked all three horror novels we’ve read. I never read horror, because I associated it with torture-porn and sadistic grossness. But maybe I’m a horror guy at heart? And I should be reading a lot more of it? Something to ponder.

In the meantime: Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review: There’s definitely quite a bit to talk about here. The book is very open to interpretation and imposition of meaning. But as someone pointed out, people often force meaning onto unpleasant and awful things, perhaps in an attempt to make the experience have some value aside from just suffering. “If you were unavoidably hit by a baseball bat every day, you’d find meaning in it…” and so forth. And much of my book club did not think the payoff of having this book to ponder over was worth the price of having to read through depictions of being a killer. I think this is certainly not a good choice for people with certain sensitivities, so I can’t give it blanket recommendation.

But on the other hand, I would have never picked this up myself, because I thought I hate horror. I only read it because it was part of the book club reading, and I’m so glad I did. If you do pick it for a book club, it’s probably best to warn people beforehand. I’d give it a recommendation for provoking discussion, but only with caveats and some knowledge of your members’ personalities.

That being said, if you are me or sufficiently like me, read this!

Dec 212018
 

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

Synopsis: An Alternate Universe fic where the Jewish state is created in Uganda in 1903 (actual thing that came close to happening).

Book Review: I didn’t like it, mainly for personal reasons.

First, the writing style was unbearable. I know I lean purple in my taste. I like flowery, lyrical writing. I love everything Catherine Valente touchers. I even enjoyed the overwrought gothic style of Twilight. Unholy Land is the opposite of that. The prose is utterly flat. It just lies there, dead on the page. Like so:

“He said nothing. His breath was labored and it was loud in the room. The room was underground. The walls were strong.”

or

“The sunlight was white on the hills.”

It made reading difficult, because I was so bored my mind would wander. I had to force my attention back to the page. I guess he was trying to do the spare Hemingway thing, but it didn’t work out well IMO.

Second, he had lots of cool things that were briefly introduced, but never did anything. Like introducing the kabbalistic Tree of Life as a map for travelling between the various realities, and using kabbalah to twist them. But it’s just a hint and then it’s dropped and it’s frustrating as hell to be teased in this way. It gives the distinct impression that Tidhar thought “This would be cool if it was ever developed, so I’ll just drop it in,” but doing so without developing it or thinking about it just makes it feel shallow and tacked-on. Pointing out a part of you world to say “This could be really cool if this thing was done!” only highlights how lame it is in comparison since that thing wasn’t done. It would have been better off not introduced at all. At least IMO. Again, my complaints about this book are personal-taste in nature.

Thirdly, Tidhar goes to pains to point out–from within the text–that this novel is just pulp trash and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s a “Haha, only serious,” kinda thing, because obviously he does want it taken seriously, he has some serious things to say. Which is fine. Pulp can say serious things. But when on more than one occasion the author lampshades how trashy and pulpy the novel is, so you can just ignore anything that doesn’t make perfect sense because none of this is Serious Literature anyway, it infuriates me. Genre Fic has long had Serious People looking down their noses at it, saying it can’t say anything of substance because it’s not Real Literature. For Tidhar to buy into this and perpetuate it, especially as an excuse to preemptively deflect criticism, soured me on the novel. If you’re gonna say serious shit, say your serious shit, and don’t go making excuses and abasing yourself before the EarthFic Snobs who’ll never accept you anyway.

That being said, there are a few parts in here that really do shine. When Tidhar does decide to get philosophical he does so really well. The blurring of identities when you switch between realities was fascinating. His portrayal of someone trying to escape from themselves is great. I enjoyed his use of 1st/2nd/3rd person and the way it allowed him to seamlessly transition between viewpoint changes, although I think it was a bit of a wasted opportunity… he could have done more with it.

And the theme is one I love. The theme comes down to “You can change details, change circumstances, but ultimately that doesn’t solve anything. Because the problems are bigger than some details. The problem is within the person. No matter how much you change things, people stay the same, and so will their problems.”

But… well… I’ve seen this theme done before. And done far better. Tidhar shows us one alternate reality, and how things repeat even when the circumstances are different. He hints at others. There’s a book that shows us this process occurring again and again, with the same cast of characters, repeating the same tragedies over at least a half-dozen universes, in a half-dozen different bodies. But always the core people are the same, and nothing is different because the fault is in them, to the point that they can be reified into god-like archetypes and myths that span millennia and societies. It’s not a fair criticism of Tidhar’s book to say “I read a different book that did this better,” so I apologize for doing so. But I’m just not that impressed with Unholy Land since I have Vellum to compare it to.

In short, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As a book club book, this went pretty well. Despite its flaws, it does have several things to say, which will prompt discussion. Since the things I disliked about the book were primarily personal taste things, most other people didn’t dislike those things. But I hold to the idea that most of what this novel does have to say is pretty surface-level, and the novel doesn’t seem to aspire to the levels it should or could (…and very consciously so). It’s better than your average book in terms of book clubs and discussions, but it falls short of a strong recommendation. I suppose… Mild Approval, If You’re Curious.

Nov 262018
 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: Two landed British gentlemen of the Napoleonic era flounce about being prissy, ineffectual twits. Also there are fairies.

Lately I’ve finally been picking up books that I’ve heard great things about for a long time, to great success! To continue this trend, I moved on to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” next. I’ve heard from many sources that it’s an astounding novel.

Holy crap were those sources wrong. This is the most tedious, plodding, overhyped exercise in fiction I’ve come across in a while. I began to dread returning to it.

The basic conceit is that the landed gentry of Britain don’t have much to do, and so spend all of their time in frivolous pursuits like reading about old magics, and talking about old magics, and holding sessions about magics and writing great essays about the history of magic, but never actually doing any magic themselves. Until Mr Norrell comes in and changes all that by, I dunno, actually doing some of things they all read and discuss at length. But Norrell is just as ineffectual as everyone else, and the focus of all the action is not about the magic, or the Napoleonic wars, or the machinations of the fairies, or anything of the slightest bit of actual INTEREST. Rather, it focuses on how prissy and shallow and pompous everyone is.

I get that this is supposed to be a comedy. It’s just a type of comedy I find boring to the highest degree. A bunch of befuddled idiots faffing about because they’ve got way too much time and money? I realize this is a popular British thing, a sort of Comedy of Manners or something, and I’ve always found it stupid. This was just like all those. The only thing it did was convince me that all landed gentry need to be rounded up and executed for extracting the wealth of the working class to chase their own worthless follies. We (in the US) didn’t revolt hard enough, dammit. There’s still nobles left!

I read for several hundred pages. Nothing happened. In a book with fairies and the Napoleonic wars! And I didn’t even get halfway through this brick.

The worst part was the teasing. The novel is always right on the edge of interesting. I was always sure that on the next page, or maybe just in the next chapter, something really cool was going to happen. All these neat things are shown just enough to get our attention, and then quickly buried under more tomfoolery with manners and courtesies and being stymied by someone’s utter lack of proper decorum! Until eventually I lost all hope, I realized nothing would ever be fulfilled and I was just being strung along, and I gave up in disgust.

I realize some people find this sort of thing delightful. Some insane reviewer said ‘How can a book of over 800 pages still be too short?’ (paraphrased), because I guess if you love nothing happen it can very well keep not happening forever. But I’m not one of those people. Yeesh.

Nov 162018
 

This is the spoiler post for Circe, which talks about everything, but specifically the ending.

If you don’t want spoilers, don’t continue.

 

.

.

.

.

.

 

As I said in my review, I viewed the gods within Circe as a metaphor for The Patriarchy. Circe explores just about every method a woman can use to deal with a Patriarchal society.

She starts out fawning and eager to please. Seeking approval from her father, as if this would provide some sort of protection and security. She sees first hand that this does nothing. A powerless person has nothing to offer and nothing to bargain with. Scylla, the beloved, is mocked with delight by her family when she’s turned into a monster. Circe’s mother is cast aside without a thought when her coupling with Helios proves politically troublesome. Being someone’s pet is terribly insecure, and pretty shitty anyhow.

She tries to be the good wife for her fisherman. She makes him happy, supports him, and eventually elevates him to godhood. And the instant he doesn’t need her anymore, she’s tossed aside as well. Without even the recognition that she’s done anything.

She tries to check out of the system entirely. Exile to an isolated island, just leave her alone. Nope, no can do. The system comes for you, and it will use you how it sees fit.

Then we have a wonderful dialog with her cruel half-sister. The sister points out that she makes poisons and monsters because if she didn’t she would be kept in a cage and bred to death. The system wants to use her up and discard her, and the only way she can live a decent life is to take power. To bend the world to her will through force and cruelty. It’s a wonderful revelation, and it shows just how shitty the Patriarchy is for everyone, even those on top.

We have a similar revelation about Odysseus much later. Where we see first his charming, warm side. And later the cold, violent side, which he was shaped into via this shit-ass system. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a while she rages against men, and it’s very emotionally satisfying for the reader, but it leaves her bitter and unhappy with life. Then she finds Odysseus, one of the few good ones, and for a year she’s happy. But eventually the gods catch up with her and ruin that, too. (Also, he wasn’t that great after all… just better than most). She goes into full defensive mode, putting up a wall between herself and the rest of society. And that actually works, for quite a while! But it’s constant effort, and it drains her strength year after year, and if she ever slips for even a second it’ll all come crashing down. This is not sustainable.

So she decides this has to end. She has the most powerful magic in the world on her side. She’s smart as fuck, and she’s had more than enough of this shit. She calls her father down and has the most epic verbal show down with him. She dares him to test her power. She states she would rather ignite a war between the gods and see the world burn than be at their mercy any longer. She renounces her heritage, thinks of gods as “them” rather than “us”, declares that “I’m finished here, one way or another.”

The novel’s inciting incident was the chaining & torture of Prometheus. His rebellion against the gods and compassion for the downtrodden have been a recurring element during the narration. Now, in the final chapters, Circe is armed with a weapon even the gods fear, and she goes on a quest to retrieve the most powerful magical components in existence. I am so fucking happy at this time, because we are about to see some amazing shit. The world will be sundered, and the gods cast down. The Patriarchy will be smashed, and it sounds like Circe may very well die in the process, but fuck them all, it’ll be worth it! The heavens themselves will shake!

To step back just a bit, I didn’t actually expect all that to happen. It was pretty clear that the system is just too big for one person to destroy, even with the world’s most powerful magic. Much like the Patriarchy can’t actually be smashed. But there were hints throughout, hints that the world could be split somehow, and Circe could leave this world behind and enter a better one.

It turns out, Circe does leave this world behind. By committing suicide.

After all that, all her rage and learning and growth and fighting, she ultimately decides to just give up and kill herself.

WHAT. THE. EVER. LIVING. FUCK.

After all the compassion she’s shown for humans (or “everyone else trapped in the Patriarchy” if we’re extending the metaphor), after all her admiration of Prometheus for sacrificing himself so completely to make their lives less awful, she decides everyone else can fend for their fucking selves and she’s just going to nope the fuck out. After all her words about how she won’t put up with the gods’ abuse anymore, she surrenders so utterly that she kills herself for them so they don’t even have to inconvenience themselves with the effort. When she said “I’m finished here, one way or another,” I thought she meant that either this system would end, or she would die fighting it, not that she was abandoning everything. How are we supposed to sympathize with this? How is any of this OK?

To those saying that gods are inhumane because they are inhuman, and becoming humane means one must become human – bullshit. We have proof in the forms of both Prometheus and Circe that one can be a god and be compassionate and humane. To those saying “becoming mortal isn’t suicide” – bullshit. For a god it’s as much suicide as a human deciding to drink themselves to death over the course of years. And in both cases it’s cowardly. And the flash-forward dream-sequence final chapter lingers quite a bit on her eventual death anyway, like that’s the best part of being human. It is a suicide, and it is cowardice. I would have preferred no final chapter at all, an abrupt ending would at least have let me continue believing Circe was a good, courageous person.

Bleh.