Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

So this is the third book in a series: its a strict sequel, chronologically and plotwise, to Graceling, and it ties in at certain points to the mostly unrelated work Fire. It is pretty much impossible to write about this book without spoiling a significant plot point occurring about two-thirds or the way into Graceling, so I’ll cut for spoilers.

Darth Vader was his sled

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Corbenic, by Catherine Fisher

Corbenic moves in some well-trod circles, but it manages to execute them interestingly. It’s an urban-fantasy (as I understand the term) coming-of-age story, but it’s pretty far afield from the Chosen One battling fantasy monsters fare which characterizes so much young adult fantasy (and urban fantasy, if I understand it, just means the monsters are in present-day New York or London or somesuch). This review contains moderate spoilers.

Notably, Corbenic leaves it extremely openended as to whether (a) there is anything paranormal or fantastic at all happening, (b) whether the protagonist actually has any sort of special destiny, and (c) whether he accomplishes anything at all. The story wears its fantastical trappings lightly, and being filtered through the perceptions of a young man who reasonably fears he may be suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations makes our narrator just untrustworthy enough that, really, one could argue nothing fantastical happens at all.

Now, more about that narrator. Cal (who it is intimated has a full name of deep mythical resonance, but the obvious choice, “Percival”, is not something which would generally be shortened to “Cal”) is actually an awfully unpleasant young man. Raised in poverty, his only apparent desire in life is for the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; hounded by his clingy, schizophrenic, and addicted mother, he’s tied in awful knots of love and hate and guilt. Cal is not unsympathetic: it’s clear why he would think the way he does, and he does indeed seem to have had a god-awful life, but it’s hard for an average fantasy reader to ride around in the head of someone who, on a trip into town, buys and lusts immoderately over a silk necktie, and attempts to hock the clearly magical sword given to him by the Fisher King. Unlike in so many stories, the resistance to the call of adventure isn’t mere Campbell-flavored window-dressing: it’s kind of at the core of the protagonist’s identity, and he keeps resisting abnormality until he’s managed to fuck things up hopelessly (harming several people profoundly in the process).

Don’t go into Corbenic expecting par-for-the-course fantasy fare, is my basic point here. It’s not actually urban fantasy so much as fantasy-themed psychodrama. It’s done well, and it’s an easy read. The prose doesn’t entirely sparkle, but it more than serves its purpose.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

So, to recap, I read and enjoyed Graceling. so it stands to reason I would get around to its sequels when possible.

Fire is not quite a sequel; in fact, chronologically speaking, it’s a prequel, and thematically, it’s just a shared-world story. But it’s the second book in the Seven Kingdoms series, which makes it presumably a followup book to Graceling. Certainly the one notable connection between the two books only makes dramatic sense if they’re read in the publication order.

To start with the good, Fire is excellently written, with the right level of detail and interesting themes. As in Graceling, women struggling with the burdens of power in a world unwilling to accept female empowerment is a major theme. The particulars are different enough to make the exploration from another angle rather refreshing: Katsa and Fire are very different personalities, having internalized quite different notions of responsible use of their power, guilt, and sexuality. Both are tempestuous, strong-willed characters, but they seem to be driven by nearly opposite forces. Having extensively explored emotional inhibition in her previous work, Cashore now deals with the perils and struggles of a far-too-open personality. So, thematically, Fire definitely works as a companion to Graceling, providing both counterpoint and common ground.

However, even so, the weakest aspect of Fire turns out to be its comparison to Graceling. It is somewhat less engrossing of a page-turner, and I might qualify it as significantly weaker in plot. Some of its weakness might derive from its shared-world aspect, as there is a peculiar cul-de-sac of a subplot which seems to have no real place in the story except in order to kludge in a character from Graceling (no details, as such would be a spoiler for Graceling, but it’s obvious from the prologue who I’m talking about).

The shared-world aspect in fact creates more problems than it solves, even above and beyond the dubious choice to try for character continuity. After all, the eponymous Seven Kingdoms of the series were entirely described in the first book; the addition of an extra kingdom and a region of roving sea pirates, both of which are cut off from the rest of the world by a conveniently impassible mountain range (which apparently gets passed twice, one of them in this story), feels a bit contrived. The presence of fantastical mind-controlling animals on this side of the mountains is also a bit problematic: in Graceling, mind control was a weird, exotic, and terrifying power, all while just on the other side of the mountains, shielding one’s mind from the commonplace seductive telepathic beasts is a basic survival skill. It’s weird from a worldbuilding point of view, and it’s weird from a population-genetic point of view.

But these are mostly places where Fire falls short of, or fails to properly mesh with, its predecessor work. Taken on its own merits, it’s really very good, except for the aforementioned shoehorned-in character. I remain favorably impressed by Kristen Cashore’s talent for a good story with intriguing characters, and I’ll read Bitterblue when the chance arises.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had read that Graceling and its sequels were unusually good as young adult fantasy goes, and had particularly good handling of gender. That was enough to get me on board, and for the most part it delivers on its promises.

So taking on specifically the gender issues: Cashore manages to work a fair bit of exploration of gender roles and expectations into the narrative without making it an overdominant theme. Katsa coming to grips with her place as an atypical woman in a society with definite ideas of feminity is thoughtfully done, and well-focused by the choice of minor focus characters like Giddon and Hilda, both of whom embody ideas about feminine roles which Katsa subverts. Her relationship with Po, by way of contrast, presents an example of admiration unfettered by gender expectations. All in all, there’s a lot to like in the presentation of female characters — there aren’t a lot of them, I’ll admit, but the ones there are turn out to be very well realized.

It’s also a debut novel, which I would normally grant significant latitude in terms of style and craft, but honestly Cashore doesn’t seem to need it. She’s got a good grasp of style, with a well-balanced expository depth: scenes and action are well-described but not overdetailed. I recall encountering a few bits which fell very slightly flat stylistically, but the fact that I don’t remember specifically what they were means they can’t have been that bad.

There are a few flubs, to my mind, in worldbuilding and characterization. I’m a bit annoyed by the cultural/racial essentialism in having one of the Seven Kingdoms be the designated Good Guys: the nice folks with a thriving economy and significant gender equity and no prejudice against the Graced. There are of course decent (and not-decent) people from the other societies we see, but there’s a pervasive feel that the Lienids are just inherently good. A few of the characters feel a bit wrong to me too: most of them are fleshed out well, with a believable blend of good and bad points, but I have some trouble with our protagonist and the big villain (whose identity is a mystery for much of the book, so I’ll leave him unnamed). Katsa’s problem, to me, is that her flaws don’t really sync too well with her history. We see in detail how she is impulsive and impatient, and needs to be reined in by er more even-tempered associates. This doesn’t quite square, to my mind, with the established history of her forming a covert injustice-fighting network spanning the five central kingdoms. It seems it’d make a lot more sense to attribute the administration to Raffin or Oll, both of whom seem like awfully organization-minded guys. And then there’s the villain. He’s authentically terrifying, but he could be terrifying simply by being power-mad and domineering. The petty sadism (he chops up puppies!) tips him over a little bit into farce. I’m not sure what the sadism is doing here, to be frank, unless it’s just for shock value.

However, despite my dwelling on the few places where this book got it wrong, it got it right a lot more, and was an enjoyable page-turner. It packed a lot of good stuff into a fairly short read (which is also welcome; in the wake of Harry Potter, it seems that enormous tomes for the young-adult set are popular, and enormous tomes in fantasy have always had their fans, so it’s nice to see a short book deserve its hype).

ゲド戦記/Tales from Earthsea

[Screenshot]I’ve been mourning the decreasing involvement of the elder Miyazaki in recent Ghibli productions since, well, at least when I reviewed Ponyo. This work is not actually a Hayao Miyazaki film; it’s made by his son Goro. I tried not to let that color my judgment too much, but the fact of the matter is that this movie doesn’t have a lot to set it above the crowd. On a technical level it’s quite good, particularly in backgrounds. The character-designs seem in some ways cruder than the Ghibli standard: maybe greater stylization and simplicity? They’re still quite good, mind. I listened to the Japanese dub enough to determine that it was passable, and then switched over to English, since Disney’s voicework for Ghibli localizations is usually excellent. They got good people doing good work this time too, but I think maybe someone told Timothy Dalton (who I honestly did not realize had done anything else after his stint as James Bond) “sound as much like Ian McKellan doing Gandalf as you can”.

So technically Earthsea is quite good, but realistically I expect nothing less. What brings me back to Miyazaki’s work is creativity and thematic strength, and on those fronts this story feels a little flat. I’ll admit the only book of the source material I’ve read is A Wizard of Earthsea, and except for a few side references to the larger world this story didn’t particularly resemble anything I read there, although I’m given to understand it bears a closer plot similarity to some of the later books in the series. In one particular, of course, it’s conspicuously different: I’m pretty sure Earthsea’s not supposed to have that many white people (where “that many” in this context happens to be “everybody”).

A lot of what I got from AWOE was about personal responsibility and the limits of personal power. Sparrowhawk fucks up horribly and then cleans up his mess, becoming a stronger person and gaining a greater appreciation for his own limitations in the course of his redemption. Power unchecked is somewhat a theme in this film, but without too much of a connection to personal limitations: there’s a great deal of nattering about The Balance of Nature and suchlike which all ends up mostly irrelevant to the actual confrontation and the villain’s plans. I’m not such a purist as to insist that an adaptation needs to be compatible in themes or plot or even characterization with its parent work, but where it cuts the original work out, it needs to put something else in its place, and even considered as a standalone work Tales is problematic. A lot of plot threads end up dropped abruptly: there’s no reason to suspect, for instance, that the blight on the land is connected to Cob’s machinations.

It’s a very pretty film, but left me with little to hang on to. Ponyo at least had charm, but this felt at least as unfocused and without cute fish. Of course, a girl does fly in it. Evidently producing films about flying girls is a genetically heritable trait.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, Nausicaa.net.

The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I had a lot of help getting through the first book in Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Unfortunately there wasn’t a second season of Fantasy Bedtime Hour, so I was all on my own tackling this one. Like in the first one, there is a lot of singing and difficult-to-pronounce italicized words and other material which broadly comes under the category of “worldbuilding wank”. But ultimately the series wants to be about a visitor from the real world to a fantasy land in peril where they are the Chosen One to rescue it. This series actually predates The Fionavar Tapestry, which I kind of think of as the primary example of that particular trope (other than Narnia, which as children’s lit and Christian lit has certain other expectations), and the Thomas Covenant novels confront the fundamental escapism of the conceit far more than Fionavar ever did.

The central schtick of the first novel was that in spite of story-structuring as high fantasy, the big Hero From Another World is actually a pretty horrible human being but that as their last best hope they find themselves obligated to at least try to work with him, in spite of his adamant resistance to behaving even remotely heroically. Parts of this idea end up rather muddled in the second book. The land comes across less as a place where they work with Covenant because they need him, but more because they feel automatically compelled to be decent to him in spite of his own shocking indecency, and would presumably do the same to anyone else. In light of his actual actions in the first book (which we are reminded of incessantly; see below), everyone’s admiration of him comes across as a naïve inability to be rude. Let’s not even get into the Elena’s passion for Thomas: temporal craziness makes it not squicky on the basis of age, but it is on pretty much every single other aspect, and it’s hard to figure out what it is that she sees in him (of course, her behavior is generally so bizarre from mid-book on that I’d buy into a third-book indication that she suffered brain damage or some-such).

I’m not sure what to think about the introduction of another real-world character. On the one hand, Hile Troy helps to set ol’ TC in relief, since he confirms that, no, it’s not just the confusion of being in the Land that paralyzes him, but that Covenant is actually authentically a more repulsive character than others who do embrace their destinies (also, unlike all the other characters, he twigs to the fact that Thomas is not actually a very nice person). But on the other hand, he kinds of undermines the fantasy-subversion, since he actually is the Hero from Another World who saves their ass.

Now, on to the elephant in the room, which is rape. In the original book, I was kind of caught short by the fact that for about two thirds of the book, everybody avoided even talking about the unpleasant fact that the first thing Covenant did in the Land was rape somebody. For the first half of book 2, everybody talks about it a lot. This was discomfort-inducing, but not for the reasons it should have been discomfort-inducing. Atrocity writing is a bit sensitive, and for reasons I find difficult to elucidate it felt like Illearth ended up on the wrong side of the line. It’s difficult to say much of anything about narrative overuse of an atrocity: call someone on it, and you feel like an asshole for trivializing an important thing; don’t call them on it, and you feel like a tool for granting criticism-invulnerability on the grounds of subject sensitivity. So I’d like to qualify my uncertainty about the way the rape themes were handled here with the caveats that (a) I realize narrative rape and real-world rape are different subjects, and hope I can be critical of the handling of the former without reflecting on the importance of the latter, and (b) Donaldson had valid bona fide narrative reasons why extensive reference to the rape became necessary, and wasn’t doing it just for the Dark Themes.

See also: Wikipedia.

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

I’m trying to bone up on my modern geeklit, and Murakami’s one of those names that comes up as authentically literary fiction. I picked this one up more-or-less at random, and have a fairly nebulous idea of how it fits into his ouevre (it’s apparently a follow-up, in a shared-world sense, to a previous trilogy, although it stands on its own). It collects a variety of themes and styles into one place: the overall tone felt neo-noir, but the plot wanders through a very mildly fantastic urban adventure, dwelling chiefly on the futility of most modern vocations (almost all the adults in the story seem to be heartily dissatisfied with their jobs) and the illusions people maintain out of cultured civility. It’s ultimately a character study, about how our narrator and his entire social circle lead unspoken lives, and that their own lives only begin to make sense when they delve deeply into others’ lives. It’s a strange story, shot through with elements of the fantastic and a sense of a Big Picture which is never entirely revealed, which is mildly disappointing: it’s possible that the overall purpose is better revealed in light of its prequels. But even taken in ignorance of what the big lead-up is to, it’s a book with comfortable and pleasing themes, seeing the narrator grow closer to others and gain a greater comfort in his own skin and a greater contentment thereby.

I very much liked the style of the work as well as its overall structure. There’s a combination of the frenzied and the relaxed that makes it work, that in the midst of crisis and adventure the protagonist has time and energy for minutiae, in a way that reminds me, perhaps irrationally, of the emphasis on the minute in The Mezzanine. There’s a strong sensory sense in the narrator’s memories of the women he’s known, and of the places he’s been, which may explain the comparison to some extent.

Mostly, I just found this book to be an effortless page-turner, though. The narrator is sympathetically thoughtful, and his world is peopled with largely flawed but enjoyably deep personalities. There are bits that are odd bonuses for me: seeing the narrator mention the Beach Boys wasn’t wholly surprising, as the book’s named after one of their songs, but seeing a mention of the obscure 1971 Surf’s Up album— well, in truth it made me certain, if nothing else, that Murakami takes pride in his acquaintance with obscurities, which is a fine, geeky thing to do. Wandering from the obscure into the overly twee, I’m not sure I can really approve of the inclusion of a succesful but self-loathing novelist named Makimura; that’s maybe a little too self-indulgent.

See also: Wikipedia.