Raising the Stakes

August 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Note: from here on in, there will be minor spoilers for A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, medium-sized spoilers for Breaking Dawn, and MAJOR spoilers for A Game of Thrones.

This summer I read two books that featured a similar plot line. A a seemingly young man who for various reasons is really older than his appearance/years meets a pretty sweet young woman* who is socially several rungs below him. Circumstances bring them together and they fall in love. The young woman is a virgin. The young man has strong notions about marriage and honor, believing that when you sleep with a woman and take her virginity, you should marry her. Preferably, the marriage comes before the sex. However, this story of young love unfolds against a chaotic backdrop featuring old conflicts and uneasy truces between rival factions. The union of the young lovers threatens the stability of the world around them. Those around them who who better understand current circumstances realize this and brace themselves for potential disaster.

* Whether we as readers actually believe the girl is pretty and sweet is besides the point. The point is that this is what the author wants us to think and how she comes across in universe.

One of these books was Breaking Dawn. The other: A Storm of Swords.

Without giving away too many spoilers, lets just say that in one of the stories, everything ends happily, but in the other the happy ending is not forthcoming.** Unsurprisingly, the latter was a far better story.

** Understatement of the century I know, but work with me.

I had seen the first Twilight movie a while back, which was bearable thanks to pretty scenery and Rifftrax. However, morbid curiosity prompted me to borrow Breaking Dawn from the library to see if there was something, anything in the alleged climactic final chapter that would explain why people fell in love with these books.*** The book disappointed me, but reading it alongside the literary crack that was A Song of Ice and Fire helped to not only understand my disappointment, but why others find the books so appealing. It’s actually the same reason–there are no stakes.

***And the love was for the books as Twilight-mania predated the movies and lust for Robert Pattinson/Taylor Lautner by a good couple of years.

Don’t get me wrong, Breaking Dawn is full of “conflict” and “angst.” Edward’s fear for Bella’s life during pregnancy, Bella having to completely sever ties with her human life to become a vampire, the Cullens being angsty about what they are, the uneasy peace with the werewolves that threatens to break out into open war. There’s even a potentially creepy intrigue involving a dark chapter of vampire history with toddlers (trapped in the terrible twos no less) being turned into vampires and wreaking havoc. However, every one of these things resolved in such a way that Bella does not lose anything she values or have to make any painful choices. There is an appearance of suspense, but how can a reader invest in any of the conflicts or ever truly worry about the characters if you know the universe will find a way to warp itself to Bella’s wishes no matter what. If Bella is meant to be an audience surrogate, then those who inhabit her get the pleasing thrill that comes from the illusion of stakes without the messy reality of having to deal with the consequences of her actions that would be inevitable in a universe that does not warp itself to one’s will. I can see that being addictive to a teenage girl (or maybe even those older Twi-Moms), but it makes for an unsatisfying story.****

**** And, if you happen to be one of the many who thinks Bella is a whiny, sociopathic, narcissistic twit, it makes the stories downright infuriating.  

Now, anyone who reads the A Song of Ice and Fire books, (or has watched the HBO adaptation of the first book, A Game of Thrones) knows that George R.R. Martin has absolutely no qualms about following his plotlines to their natural, albeit traumatic ends. Ned Stark’s execution was painful and shocking, but in retrospect was inevitable. Ned not only did not know how to navigate the intrigues of Kings Landing, but also he refused to learn. Until the bitter end, he always chose the “honorable” option over the best option, which won him few allies and countless enemies.

When one spends as much time as Martin describing what a viper pit Kings Landing is, it is inevitable and dramatically necessary that someone get bit by the snakes. And it can’t be just random guardsman number 3 or even better, a Lannister. This is a treacherous world and in treacherous worlds, characters the audience cares about are going to suffer–it isn’t just the bad guys who get hurt.

Is there a risk of going too far the other way, i.e. inducing audience apathy by making things unbearably bleak and having NOTHING work out for the people we care about? Martin sometimes dances at that precipice, and the resolution to his “young lovers” plotline is probably the most traumatic and brutal denouements to a story I’ve ever read,***** but I understand why it had to be. Martin stated repeatedly that, considering the context, the young man’s romantic side would lead to dire consequences. Even if you could argue that the consequences were too harsh, it was clear that a price had to be paid. To walk away from the mess with deus ex machina characters and events making things alright for the happily ever after would have been insulting to the readers who have invested so much in this story.

***** When my friend recommended the books to me, I was warned in particular about that scene and how it almost made him walk away from the series. At Comic-con, Martin himself stated that should Game of Thrones last long enough to reach that scene, he’ll be sure to be out of the country when it airs. Those of you who were shattered by Ned Stark’s death–you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I know it has been several months…

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

…but I’m going to try to take up this blogging thing again now that school isn’t in the way as much.  I’ve read a few international science fiction books and reviews will be forthcoming. Also, like many who have discovered the books thanks to HBO, I’m several books into the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Let’s see how long this goes.

Soon I Will Be Invincible: A Review

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Austin Grossman
Pantheon Books, 2007
Hardcover, 288 pages

Since movies like Megamind and Despicable Me, which focuses on the supervillain as protagonist have become popular this year, it’s no surprise that I found Soon I Will Be Invincible.    This is also the first book that will fulfill my Speculative Fiction Challenge.

I really wanted to like this book.  I really did.  The first chapters seemed promising: villain protagonist that the author had a sense of humor about, a half woman/half cyborg superhero that I cared about, and an obvious love of the genre.

Neurotic Supervillains are so hot right now.

The problem: I felt like I was reading first chapters for most of the book.  My main problems:

A) We didn’t need to be told every other chapter how Dr. Impossible was a picked on nobody who later became a supervillain. His origin story was stretched way too thin over too many chapters. And dear lord the lists. There are only so many times you can rehash your litany of cartoon supervillainy before it just gets repetitive.  For instance, page 152, when Dr. Impossible was reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend Lily:*

Who is she trying to kid?  I’ve seen her tear the door off a Wells Fargo truck bare-handed, laughing, dragging a guardsman out by his shirt.  I was there when she took the depleted-uranium rounds that chipped and scored the right side of her collarbone.  We rode the roof of a D train together out of Manhattan that time, while the Metaman was still scouring Broadway for us, and we leaped off the Manhattan bridge together when they finally found us.  We crawled ashore at Williamsburg, to the cheers of drunk party-goers…

If that was the only such list, I could see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible reminiscing about his partner in crime and discomfort seeing her sit with this universe’s equivalent of the Justice League.  However, this is not the first time we hear about Lily–we learn what we think is her origin story way back in Chapter 1.  I could also see it as an effective way to show Dr. Impossible’s character: a supergenius bent on world domination with cartoon supervillainy, but in reality was an ignored socially awkward guy who seems to get off more on the attention than the success.  But again, that was already established, back in Chapter 1.

Grossman I think handicapped himself by alternating the chapters between the heroes and Dr. Impossible.  There are 21 chapters and Dr. Impossible bragging about/pitying himself while he builds so vaguely scientific superweapon is not enough to fulfill eleven chapters.  Each chapter does have a nugget of something interesting: meeting the legendary Baron Ether, finishing his fetch quest for the key ingredients for his weapon, battling the heroes.  But this is was maybe four or five chapters worth of material, tops. There just was not enough depth to him to justify spending over half the book in his head.  Also, devoting so much time to Dr. Impossible led to the book’s other major problem.

B) With eleven chapters devoted to Dr. Impossible, we only had ten chapters to learn about the Champions (the Justice League team), their predecessors the Super Squadron, their collective back story as a team, and original origin stories.  The result was ten chapters of exposition dump about characters that a)I didn’t care about and b) were not relevant to the story as it were.**  I like that the author included all the heroes to show how expansive this world with superheroes is. But you shouldn’t be introducing new names to drop three-quarters of the way through the book.   Here’s the back story that was necessary: why Fatale was asked to join the team,*** why we should be wary of Lily, and why the team broke up in the first place.  That’s enough back story to stretch through the first five or six hero chapters.  The last five or six hero chapters could then focus on watching this team act knowing these dynamics.  Instead, Lily’s back story is seemingly disposed of in the first villain chapter, Fatale’s in the second chapter, and the back story of Champions is told in 12 pages as Lily and Fatale watch an unauthorized DVD documentary that the Champions own, even though they refused to be interviewed for it.

Why the Champions broke up and how they were able to reconstitute themselves should have been the heart of the hero chapters.  They should have informed character dynamics and at the end you should feel like the team worked through their garbage and found a way to reunite, stronger in the broken places.  Instead, we get a 12 page exposition dump disguised as Lily and Fatale watching a conveniently placed DVD and chapter upon chapter of unnecessary subplots for the heroes and repetitions for the villains.

C) The climax, or rather anticlimax. All the heroes, who have presumably known each other for over a decade (save for the new cyborg woman Fatale, the one character I really cared about) should know each other’s origin stories.****  We didn’t need the origin story dump at the end.   And Fatale***** hanging a lampshade on the fact that she’s about to hear yet another origin story does not make the device any less cumbersome.  Further, there was a twist that could have been awesome if it was handled less clumsily.  As it was, this twist only served to drain all the coherence from one of the main characters.

Maybe this book was meant to be a parody of superhero movies and comics and conventions. The parts describing Dr. Impossible’s previous doomsday/take over the world devices (Fungus army?) were funny the first time around. The soap opera dynamics of the old Champions team  as seen through the eyes of the new recruit was fun and could have been even more fun if we spent more time seeing how their present was informed by the past and less time recounting origins and back story that was only tangentially related to the plot. It’s obvious that the author loves the genre. But I think the book is too much a fanboy compendium and not enough of a story.

* Lily was easily the most intriguing character.  I wanted to know why she chose to make a Heel Face Turn and there was a nice bit of tension about whether Lily would just change her mind and become a villain.  However, Grossman decided that a better resolution to this character would be to offer an M. Knight Shyamalan twist regarding who she is.

** Examples of such unnecessary plot threads is Damsel’s stepmommy issues with Regina (complete with her origin story), Elphin’s vague mission for Titania (complete with her origin story), and Super Squadron’s tension with the Champions connected with the Face Heel turn of Paragon (thankfully no origin story).  I would argue that save for the mention about Super Squadron’s Stormcloud being Damsel’s father, we didn’t really need to know anything about the previous team.  It felt like Grossman was trying to wedge in a Sally/Laurie Jupiter plot thread less to comment on the nature of inherited superherodom and more to pay homage to Watchmen.

*** Introducing us to the dynamics of an established group by doing it through the eyes of a new person is a well-worn trope, used by works as high brow as Mad Men.  It is fairly effective here and had Grossman used Fatale’s nativity to slowly reveal the dynamics of this team over the ten “hero” chapters, it would have been even more effective.

**** Especially Damsel and Blackwolf (this universe’s Wonder Woman and Batman), who were MARRIED for a while.

***** Grossman set up what seemed like was going to be a big mystery about the people who turned Fatale into a cyborg to save her life.  It seemed like it could have been a sequel hook for the next book in the series–find out who these people were and make them the next book’s villain.  But it seemed like Grossman decided at the last second that he didn’t want to tell this universe’s version of X-Men 2 and tied that the plot thread up in an unsatisfactory way.

Huck Finn: The Hipster Version

January 10, 2011 Leave a comment

I guess the bright side of the release of the newly censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the inevitable response by literary smartasses.

The Hipster Huckleberry Finn

To wit:

“A classroom-friendly version of Mark Twain’s classic novel, with every occurrence of the N-word replaced by the word ‘hipster.’ Thanks to editor Richard Grayson, the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”

It’s times like this that I really love the internet.

Categories: Uncategorized

Modelland?

December 31, 2010 Leave a comment

I know I’m a little late to this, but…

Modelland

Tyra Banks is “writing” a fantasy novel about a place “[w]here dreams come true and life can change in the blink of a smoky eye.”  It’s supposed to follow a group of girls who are “really not supposed to be there.”*

The first of the trilogy** will be released on September 13, 2011.  And I might have to read it with a glass of wine*** handy.

*Any of the girls named Ambreal?

** Yes a trilogy.  Don’t laugh too hard.

*** Boxed wine of course.  Seems the most appropriate.

Categories: Urban Fantasy

Reading Challenges II

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Ironically, constraining myself with categories and challenges will encourage me to read more.  I’ve long been a fan of Russian literature and a couple forthcoming books for my International Science Fiction quest are from this part of the world.

 

The Devotion of Suspect X: A Review

December 27, 2010 2 comments

The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Minotaur Books, 2010
Paperback (ARC), 298 pages

This one wasn’t originally on my reading list, but because I won it from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, it shot to the top of the list.

So, The Devotion of Suspect X then…

Instead of a classic whodunit, this story had more of a Crime and Punishment style cat and mouse game.  Ishigami, called “the Buddha” by his admirers and chroniclers (he really doesn’t have friends) is a brilliant mathematician who’s madly in love with his neighbor Yasuko Hanaoka.  At first his devotion is understated; each day she goes to work at the lunch box shop, he faithfully buys his lunch from her.  Then when Yasuko and her daughter kill her deadbeat ex-husband, Ishigami’s devotion becomes much more overt; he offers to cover up the murder and build them the perfect alibi.  We as readers know whodunit and who was covering it up.  The mystery comes from figuring out just how Ishigami managed to factor in so many variables (forensics, the Hanaoka women’s mental states) and almost retroactively plan the perfect crime.

However, as Ishigami realizes, there was one variable he did not consider.  The detective assigned to the case is friends with Yukawa, an old classmate of Ishigami’s.  While the detective has a sense that Hanaoka’s alibi isn’t quite right, it takes Yukawa’s own brilliant physicist mind (and his old knowledge of Ishigami’s personality) to finally figure out just how elaborate and deep the cover-up (and Ishigami’s devotion to Hanaoka) runs.

While the story is good, I feel like it needed at least one more good revision to tighten up some of the writing and plot elements.  Several early parts in the book are bogged down with Captain Obvious statements.  For instance:

“I think it’s great that they go out to karaoke together.  It’s not often you have a mother and daughter who get along so well.”  It was clear from his tone that [junior detective] Kishitani did not consider Yasuko Hanaoka a suspect.

That second sentence about Kishitani’s tone is unnecessary.  The preceding scene, heck the preceding sentence conveys Kishitani’s favorable view of Yasuko sufficiently.  A sentence or two like that in the beginning is not a big deal, but they occur so frequently in the early part of the book that it almost feels like the author* doesn’t trust his readers to pick up on his characters thoughts and feelings on the murder.

Captain Obvious states the obvious.

The second issue I have is with the timing of Yasuko’s great love, Kudo’s introduction.  We learn early on about Yasuko’s old job as a nightclub hostess, but we do not even get a mention of any man she met that she might have considered a life with or that she even considered her hostess job as anything but work.  Around page 100, when the mystery is really getting into gear, Kudo visits the shop and we are given his intro and expository background in one fell swoop.  Now, I don’t mind Kudo first appearing at this point as there is a good in-story justification for it (he heard about the murder of his old hostess friend’s husband on the news and wanted to see how she was).  But there was no noticeable foreshadowing that a character like Kudo (a man for whom Yasuko’s nightclub hostess personality wasn’t just an act) existed.  It feels like the author realized a hundred pages in that he forgot to introduce the complicating factor of Yasuko falling for a man who was NOT her protector and scrambled to get that subplot going.

Even with these complaints, I do think the book is worth reading.  I like the battle of wits between the physicist and the mathematician who, if not fully realized, are at least three-dimensional enough that I can mostly understand why the characters were behaving as they did.**  I appreciate the effort to keep Yasuko a player in this story.  The relationship with Kudo reminded us that Yasuko wasn’t merely a woman stuffed into the fridge*** giving Ishigami et al. the impetus for their adventures.  She was a person (at least as much any other character in the story) who had her own thoughts.  She truly was the person that Ishigami was devoted to, rather than the object of Ishigami’s affections.  As she was a person and not merely a prize, she was allowed to fall for Kudo and not be vilified for not “rewarding” her protector with reciprocated devotion.

Most importantly, when watching Ishigami and Yukawa at work, I believed the text’s repeated assertions about their genius.  Without that, the story would have collapsed regardless of how well realized the characters were otherwise.  The book as written is pretty good.  If the author and editor had taken the time to fix some of the pacing problems and edit out the Captain Obvious lines, it could have been really good.

* Or the translator.  I couldn’t tell you whose decision it was to add the Captain Obvious sentences.

** Though there is a particular revelation about Ishigami that shouldn’t have been saved until the last ten pages.  It was not necessary to wait that long to maintain the suspense about whether Ishigami would continue to protect the girl when it became clear that he would not get the girl.  By the time he played his trump card, the reader knows he’s not going to turn on Yasuko and we didn’t need to wait another fifty or so pages to find out why.    Again, where it was placed, it felt like the author realized at the last minute “whoops, I need to solidify the lead’s character motivation.”

*** For more information, see this page at TVTropes.  While Yasuko was not murdered, she could have easily been shunted aside once she committed her crime with no thought to her worries or feelings of guilt or her concerns about whether she can actually move on with her life.

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