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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.

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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.

A Wind Named Amnesia: A Review

December 15, 2010 Leave a comment

A Wind Named Amnesia
Author: Hideyuki Kikuchi
Illustrator: Yoshitaka Amano
Translator: Joe & Yuko Swift
Dark Horse Books, 2005
Paperback, 230 pages

Nota Bene: A Wind Named Amnesia was originally written in 1983, but was published in 2005 as a double novel with Invader Summer. Originally, these books were published in Japan under the title Invader Street.  As I do not speak or read Japanese, I do not feel qualified to critique specific language use or turns of phrase; everything I am reading from Kikuchi’s original story is filtered through Joe and Yuko Swift’s interpretation.  This is the first in my series about speculative fiction and fantasy books from places other than the United States or UK.

A Wind Named Amnesia was an odd choice for me to pick up.  Normally, I’m not a huge fan of stories set in a post-apocalyptic world, though I make an exception for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Yet even this science-fiction classic written by one of the major names of the genre left me at best, lukewarm.  However, the particular apocalypse as described in Amnesia felt different–it wasn’t an all out war or an obvious alien invasion.  Something stole the memories of humankind, specifically their memories of civilization.  Therefore, our intrepid duo of Sophia* and Wataru not only had to survive their cross-country odyssey, but they also had to learn just why America (and the rest of the world) has reverted to a primitive state.

In a postscript to the book, Kikuchi wrote about how this story was inspired by his own trip to Grand Canyon and the surrounding areas, and how he was blown away by the vast American landscape.  That awe does come through.  As odd as it is to say considering this book is set after America is destroyed by loss of memories, but it really is a love letter to the United States.  The story goes from Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco to the ruins of Hollywood and Las Vegas to a mysterious national park in New Mexico built around a meteor impact and home to giant mutant animals, to a New Orleans that somehow has remembered its jazz roots, if not the dangers of the levees breaking.**  In between escaping giant robots and cannibalistic serial killers are moments where Wataru takes in the splendor of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or the characters marvel at the scenery while speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway.

May 15: Las Vegas, Nevada is founded with auct...

Now with 1000% more primitive human tribes.

Yes, giant mutant animals in New Mexico.  In fact, the New Mexico interlude illustrates quite nicely the two aspects of this book I find most troublesome.  First is that the characters are less fully realized people and more vehicles for which Kikuchi uses to take us to the various bits of post-apocalyptic scenery.  Sophia knows more than Wataru for reasons that are explained later in the book, but Wataru due to some sort of experiments in Montana at least has the knowledge of human speech, using a gun, and driving a car (all thing that were forgotten with the amnesic wind).  Often he just stands there, hand on his gun waiting to be attacked while waiting for Sophia to explain the customs of the latest tribe of primitive humans that they come across in the desert.  Wataru loves to travel.  Sophia is curious and strangely powerful. But neither one really seems to have any sort of reaction to the chaos around them.  Perhaps you could argue that they have become numb in the ensuing three years, but that doesn’t feel quite right either, especially since the other humans they meet clearly have not lost the ability to have an inner life and emotions amidst the chaos.  When Wataru and Sophia meet Tonto and Rita, the latest group of people banding together trying to survive while trying to stay away from some sort of predator (the aforementioned giant mutant animals, among other things), there is no sense that this group’s plight affects them, even in a grizzled “only the strong survive” sense.   The characters are hollow not because life has hollowed them out, but because the author put nothing in them to begin with.  It makes it hard to really care about anyone’s fate.

The giant mutant animals are indicative of another problem: way too much of the good stuff is prologue.  Not only is this world three years into its amnesia, but apparently there are also space colonies, giant metal walkers that behave like malfunctioning Robocops, experiments reminiscent of Weapon X on Wataru and his dead friend Johnny, and genetically engineered giant animals. Now, I’m a huge fan of little details that give the setting texture and make the story feel like it’s set in a real place, even if the “real place” is in some imagined future of America.  However, there comes a point when all these details overwhelm the back story and instead of feeling situated, you become unmoored. For me, that happens when we learn that the park in New Mexico was created by a meteor that crashed into the Earth some years back, dropping the temperature 4 degrees centigrade and killing off the tropics.

What?

At that point, I started wondering why we started this story when we did.  A meteor drops the world’s temperature four degrees centigrade and kills off the tropics, but ever resourceful humans use their technology to turn the site of the impact into a national park.  A national park with genetically engineered giant bears and owls.  This same technological savvy allowed humans to create space colonies, turn other humans into X-men in the wilds of Montana, create Imperial walker type street patrollers that can vaporize “criminals,” and regular sized sedans that can drive 700 miles on one tank of gas.***  It feels like there were several far more interesting stories about far more interesting people that occurred before the book started.  Every stop along the way seemed like it could have been a story on its own.

Their expies survive in the future.

As it’s written, A Wind Named Amnesia feels like a video game.  The hero and some Black Magician Girl stop in several cities, meet some townsfolk who may be friendly or hostile.  Wataru fights some of the lower mooks off before they face the Boss (which could be anything from a giant tentacled monster to rogue construction equipment) before moving on to the next city/level.  The quest is to get the meaningfully named Sophia from San Francisco to New Orleans (which in part is a sewer level)**** to….well, if you read the book, you’ll know.  Not giving away that spoiler.

Because for all my complaining, the book is worth reading.  Kikuchi may use flat characters, but there is suspense in finding out why the world lost its memories and whether they can ever come back.  The individual scenes he sets are wonderfully detailed and really situate you in these imagined parts of America.  The ending, while not a truly satisfying resolution for the characters, somehow fits the video game aesthetic this book seems to portray.  This book builds a world with multitudes of history only hinted at.  Now we just need some enterprising fanfic writers to not only develop this history, but actually populate the world with characters in their own right.

* That the female lead is named after the Greek word for “knowledge” is no coincidence.

** To be fair, this story was first written in 1983, long before Hurricane Katrina.  However, it was bizarre to read about how the Superdome held 80,000 people and hosted Super Bowls, but have no mention of what that place became in the wake of the storm.

*** The need for gas varies as the plot demands.  Though it is odd that in this world, they still used cars with internal combustion engines before the Wind Named Amnesia struck.

**** Should the Sewer Level really be the one just before the fight with the final boss?

Looks like Wicked Lovely is going to be a Movie

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment

The director of Boys Don’t Cry will adapt Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely.

I’m curious to see how this goes.  I’ve since finished Ink Exchange, which managed to flesh out a bunch of supporting characters from the first book (including surprisingly a member of Aislinn’s girl posse).  I think the third one goes back to Aislinn, Keenan and Seth, but I probably won’t find out for a little while as my TBR stack has grown geometrically.

The books are not classics of literature, but they are not meant to be. They are YA paranormal romances, written for an audience at least a decade younger than me.  However, for what they were, they were well done.  If these books were out when I was a teenager I could easily see myself running to the library to devour the entire series in a week, writing silly fanfiction for a LiveJournal community (or in my case, AOL’s I Was a Teenage Writer message board), and doing all the fantasy movie casting that inevitably comes with being a fan of a book (series).

The big appeal of these books for me is that the romances are not the be all end all.  Yes, the driving force of the first two books involves two male love interests (human and fey) pursuing a troubled teenage girl, but it was clear that there was more going on than just the will they or won’t they tension and the Triang Relations.  The intrigue of the fairy courts provided reasons for why the fey were so doggedly pursuing the girls in question.  There were reasons why the girls either kept their distance from the suitors or ran into their arms.  And each book had a supporting cast that was either fleshed out in its own right (I really hope that Donia comes back in the third book–being mentioned but constantly off page in Ink Exchange was not enough) or given enough sketchy details that future books could develop them.

Actual world-building was involved in creating the setting of Wicked Lovely and Marr took as much care in creating that world as she did in talking about the complicated relationships that formed between all her leads.* If anything, the vague details about some parts of the world made the story even richer–the reader got the sense that so much more was happening in the background waiting to be explored.  For instance, there are four Fairy Courts in this world: Summer, Winter, Dark, and High.  The Summer Court was the focus of the first book, particularly the conflict between the Summer Court and the evil queen of the Winter Court.  The second book focused on the Dark Court, but we kept hearing rumblings about how things were going in the other two. And then there’s the oft alluded to High Court which, while not yet seen, has a personality of its own so when (if?) it’s finally introduced, it will feel like an organic part of the world rather than just something tacked on to create artificial conflict.

In short, if there had to be a paranormal teen romance that captured America’s imagination over the past few years, I would have rather it been this than Twilight.

* Marr built the world and web of relationships that crisscross it over the course of about 650 1.5 spaced pages, with size 12 font and generous margins.  Marr keeps the story moving.  If anything, I almost wish she took some time to slow down to show more of life in the Summer, Winter, or Dark Courts.  But I suppose that’s what the sequels are for (and for finally showing us what the High Court is like).