Monday, April 25, 2022

Dan Reviews Books, Part 8

Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ,7

The Sharing Knife, Parts 1 & 2, Lois McMaster Bujold

DNF pg 278/348, of Part 2

What a disappointment. I had enjoyed the first Sharing Knife, originally read before I started writing these posts, and as it had been a couple years I did a re-read to move on to books 2 and 3. A great many more cracks in the artifice showed themselves this time around, compounding to the point where it was no longer possible to write off the enormous glaring issue at the center of it all.

First, the good. It is competently written in terms of pace and prose, Bujold doesn't disappoint there. It takes place in fantasy western PA / eastern Ohio, so I am obviously biased in favor of the setting. The magic starts as nifty but the story leans too heavily on the mechanics of what is very loosely sketched later at on (it is confusing and tiresome and honestly I don't care to explain it further. It's the minor issue.)

Most notable is that it has one of the best monsters I have seen in a good long while: malices are the corrupted forms or descendants of ancient sorcerer kings who pop up out of the ground at random and start soul-draining everything nearby, down to bacteria. They grow in power and intelligence as they do this, so they graduate from being mindless maggotty things to making servants (mud men - ordinary animals twisted into shapes approximating humans), enslaving human minds, and eventually building structures and learning their hunters' strategies. Potentially more. They have no apparent cap on strength or range - any single given malice can be a civilization-ender. If two of them emerge together, they will fight until one has consumed the other and gained its power. There is an entire culture group, the Lakewalkers, built around patrolling the countryside and putting down malices before they get too big. This is all rad.

The pacing is interesting, especially in book 1, where the climactic battle that would cap off another book is in the first 50 pages and everything else is follow-up material, and that keeps going until the next big conflict midway through book 2. I actually like this quite a bit.

Now to the bad.

There is no beating around the bush that Sharing Knife centers on a relationship with an enormous age difference - 18(F) / 55(M) - that also gets kicked off when she (Fawn) is rescued by him (Dag) from a sexual assault. When she was already pregnant from a tumble in the hay with local farm lad jackass, and is going to have a miscarriage via malice in the next couple chapters. This is all still the first quarter of the book. And that...really doesn't look good considering how fast they get into the romance. Like we pivot from compounding traumas to honeymoon fucking in a matter of weeks, and it doesn't take brain-genius levels of geniusity to read that as troubling. That's a man taking advantage of the emotional vulnerability of someone literally a third his age, and I don't care what hoops the internal monologues jump through to justify it or how Lakewalkers age slower. Fucking foot on the fucking brakes, please.

And other characters, from both sides of the equation, are adamant about it being a bad idea. They are won over, because it's a romance novel, but correct me if I am wrong that in romance genre conventions, the nay-sayers are supposed to be wrong.

I get that Fawn is meant to be a naive outsider, but this is easily accomplished by the cultural clash at hand (she is one of the farmer folk, he a Lakewalker). Anyone would be lost after leaving their home and being thrust into a society they have no familiarity with, filled with people who explicitly do not want them there. The age gap is redundant (as is the assault, we already have the unplanned pregnancy and the miscarriage), and so I really have to ask why the hell is it there?

All that would be needed to fix this is make a reasonable age gap (or none at all) and cut the assault. Fawn can still be the stranger in a strange land but can also be more of her own person with more of her own life experience. Nothing of value is lost and we can proceed with the romance of folks who are more equally balanced in the relationship.

Tales of a Dark Continent, Morthoron

DNF 22%

Bad choice of title. It's LotR fanfic about all the eastern lands, set about two centuries after Return of the King, presented as an aged scholar recounting his journeys to a scribe in training. It's fine enough for what it is, but it fell afoul of  what is likely an inevitable problem for folks who want to expand on Middle Earth via transformative art: names. How can you handle such a central aspect of the setting? Make up your own languages? Just go with what sounds good? This fic takes what I think is the weakest route, which is using terms that have a good deal of real-world connotation behind them. Seeing elves of Middle Earth being called the daoine sídhe and hearing about the Great Khanate is too much Hyperboria for me to fit here.

Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir

DNF 9%

I spent the first couple pages quite confused on whether or not the scene was set inside an O'Neill cylinder (it was not), and it was downhill from there. The whedonist dialogue could be tolerable on its own (though not once in the 50 pages I read did it ever make me smile or think "oh that's witty". Not a single punchline to be found), but it was accompanied by premonitions of an enemies-to-lovers subplot (and I don't truck with that shit. At best it undermines the characters' non-romantic motivations and makes characters act according to trope rather than what is actually happening to them in the narrative. At worst it's abuse apologia), and a virulent, omnipresent unpleasantness of the entire cast. I am fond of the phrase "I wish these characters would die so they would be put out of my misery", and it applied here.

The last straw was the realization, right at the 50 page mark (convenient!) that Gideon would not commit to acting on her supposed hatred of Harrow, and she wouldn't shut up about it either. She'd just continue being an obnoxious asshole (to be fair, she is 18, and 18-year olds are obnoxious assholes) and never actually do anything meaningful about it. She'll just putter along getting away with it because she is snarky and sarcastic and violent and quote unquote badass and I cannot stand this character archetype.

A History of What Comes Next, Sylvain Neuvel

I did not like this book one bit. The only positive is that it is a swift read.

The plot entails an entity that regenerates itself through a string of mother-daughter connections, that has been working for three thousand years guiding humans towards spaceflight. Not really for humanity's sake, though, they might just be doing it for themselves because they are stranded aliens (?) and there's a male reincarnation-chain hunting them down saying that there's a device (???) and they need to be stopped and ?????

There are no answers. There was a break in the chain 80 generations ago, so whatever the origins are has been lost. This would be fine and good if literally anything else was answered (nothing was answered).

All we ended up with were a pair of aliens, who are really one alien, accelerating the Cold War because "oh there's a terrible unspecified Evil". One of them is worried about global warming but isn't really doing anything about it. They have a tendency to mass murder people to cover their tracks.

And when I say "accelerating the Cold War", I mean "explicitly part of Project Paperclip and then immediately switching sides to goad the Americans into the space race by giving them a threat to struggle against".

I could not tell if the author was writing with intention (this alien is a fucking idiot who is treating an entire species as expendable for reasons they do not even know), or was blindly stumbling around. This happens to me with greater and greater frequency nowadays, I literally cannot tell if authors are intending their characters to be awful on purpose. Because as it stands the best thing to happen at this point would be a third party that stops both aliens.

This is apparently book one of three, and following the all too common pattern of modern SFF where book one cannot stand on its own.

Don't try to sell me on "powerful people being horrible and having horrible things happen to them" as a tragedy for the powerful people, book.

Circe, Madeline Miller

I've seen plenty of people rave about this book, and I will gladly add my voice to the chorus. It is, from the beginning, a work born of clear love for both craft and topic - deliberate and careful and filled with all the little things that build up to "ah, this is special". It's difficult to know where to start.

Reviewers with word counts to meet will likely say that it is a feminist retelling of Greek myth. This is correct, and also entirely inadequate to describe the thing at hand. Circe's arc is centered on her ability to carve out a niche for herself in the middle of a toxic cesspool of an environment, and in the isolation of her exile take the reins of her own life enough to resist. Her brothers, her sister Pasiphae, her niece Medea, all the other witches fall prey to the poison in their surroundings, becoming petty tyrants in the case of her brothers or co-monsters in the case of sister and niece. She alone is the only one who has any substantial joy in her life by the end, and is certainly the only one who would be called a good person.

It's a great book, and not in the hyperbolic sense that has drained the word of much of its power. It has weight. It was made with care. It is an ancient marble statue, but Miller went and painted it, truer to itself, in vibrant color. My father would have adored this book.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, Nghi Vo

Excellent little novella. Less than a hundred pages of a scholar telling a story to a trio of tigers in an attempt to not get eaten. There are mammoths in it. A woman marries a tiger spirit, which means I am obligated to like it via the law of transitive convergent narrative evolution.

In one part of the story, there's a very, very minor character introduced. Stays around for page, page and a half. But he's described to us, in the voice of the storyteller, as the boy who would later become a famous investigator (I presume a parallel to Judge Dee) and I cannot overstate how much I love that single sentence. Of course it's there, the story is from an in-universe tradition, so of course people are going to go and weave in characters from other stories into it! That's what people do!

Saying much more is overkill for such a short story. Very glad I ended up with it as my blind pick.

Hammers on Bone, Cassandra Khaw

DNF, 28%

This one is only 63 pages, so I feel somewhat bad for not finishing it, but also it's just...

I have said, multiple times, that recontextualized Lovecraft is a genre I am fond of. It is also one of my least favorite. This is because it is, often but not always, SFF junk food. And not the good kind of junk food, not like the ice cream place you go to for special occasions. Like a bag of stale popcorn, or a bag of funyuns someone stepped on. Hammers on Bone lacks the parts that make it a special treat, so the end result is that its just...filler pacing through the motions. I feel like I can see everything it is attempting to do, and it's not enough to satisfy or interest me.

You can find better short weird horror fiction out there easily. Plenty of SCP stuff at or above the quality level, and at least that has a better chance of being novel in its weirdness.



  1. A lot of duds this time around (and also Earthsea, which is antidud, but that deserves its own post and it is taking me a long while to get it shipshape)

    1. Any fantastical or SF romance novels you *do* approve of? Was going to read Gideon the Ninth - appreciate your take.

    2. That's...hrm. That's a hard question to answer. Honestly the most recent one that got me thinking "Oh, I really like the romance between these characters" was Faramir and Eowyn and that sure says a lot about me as a reader. (The Vorkosigan and Foreigner books I read last year were also decent in this regard)

      The SFF romance I want is assuredly out there, it's just that it's either well hidden or I am completely blind.

  2. Having finished Gideon the Ninth, not only are you right, the way this is revealed is when Gideon sacrifices herself for Harrow having realized she has always loved her. Y'know, we've spent the entire novel inside her head without a hint of this, but sure.

    And then somehow ends up as a telepathic ghost inside Harrow's mind.

    Calling the dialogue Whedonesque is unfair. A lot of Whedon's dialogue is actually funny, or at least clever. This did still work, in that the characters did feel like teenagers, but the idea that it was genuinely supposed to be funny never occurred to me.