This Week, I Read… (2017 #23)

73 - Melusine

#73 – Mélusine, by Sarah Monette

What this book does well, it does exceptionally well. It has worldbuilding of the “throw them in the deep end” variety–lots of evocative place names, colorful idiom, definitive customs and rival schools of magical thought. It can be overwhelming, and from time to time I was more than a little confused–I still don’t understand how the Lower City calendar reckons dates, which makes it hard to place historical anecdotes in order–but overall, the effect worked. I feel like this world is real.

Where that worldbuilding fails is in a sense of purpose. The book starts by following two separate protagonists through a world of magical intrigue, but that story-thread fails completely when the two meet and set out together to go to a distant land where one’s magic-induced “madness” can, in theory, be lifted.

That isn’t to say that arc of the story isn’t wonderful–it is–but it ends abruptly there, having resolved the relationship between the two protagonists (long-lost half-brothers who have progressed, through trials and tribulations, from strangers to family) but ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE. If I had read this when it first came out, with the rest of the series merely a possible mote on the horizon, I would have been pissed.

Strangely, it is that satisfying-relationship ending that has me troubled. The overall shape of this story reads much more like a romance than it does a more standard fantasy novel–the two leads are introduced separately, the story throws them together, and they develop feelings for each other through internal and external conflicts, then the story ends when the relationship solidifies. Which is what happened there, only…

…they’re brothers. I would be applauding that, having a romance-style narrative applying to a brotherhood relationship, if not for two things:

  1. The story had whiffs of M/M fetishization to me. At first I was thrilled to see gay relationships totally normalized in this fantasy world, until I realized partway through there’d been no mention of F/F pairings. And there wasn’t by the end, either. Prioritizing M/M so clearly in a dark, often sexually-charged fantasy setting is ringing some alarm bells for me.
  2. There is one scene where Felix, in one of his more lucid moments, experiences sexual attraction to/tension with his brother. He’s instantly sickened and ashamed by it, which is natural and understandable…but if it weren’t going to be relevant to their relationship somehow in the future, why include it at all?

I have the three remaining books in the series, thanks to finding this one and the fourth at library sales, then recently (finally!) acquiring the middle two from Thriftbooks. I’m committed–I’m going to read them all. But I strongly, strongly hope that I’m not setting off down Incest Road, here.

74 - Sandman Vol 4 Season of Mists

#74 – The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

After more than a year away from reading the Sandman comics, this was a marvelous place to come back to. What happens to Hell when Lucifer walks away from it and hands Morpheus the key?

We get a story that is a clear precursor to American Gods, that’s what. Watching the various gods and faeries interact with each other as guests of the Dreamlord was a treat, one that had me laughing out loud at Thor ineptly making a pass at Bast while Loki schemed quietly in the background.

While the bulk of the compilation is devoted directly to that storyline, I loved the one-issue arc following the sad story of little Rowland, who finds his school turned upside-down by the return of the dead to earth after their expulsion from Hell. Clearly, none of them learned their lessons, because they were all just as evil, and in the same ways. I was alternately terrified and saddened by the boy’s story, until he refused to go with Death in the end. (Who was rocking some excellent legwarmers–I love her wacky, myriad styles!) Finding an odd kind of freedom in living death seemed like a happy ending, if a temporary one.

It was an excellent side-trip, dealing with the consequences of emptying Hell, and while the story would have felt mostly complete without it, taking the time to address the issue is well worth it. That’s exactly the sort of plot hole I wish other authors were better at avoiding–how come you never deal with the extremely obvious fallout of Plot Point X?

I do have to wonder what Morpheus and Loki are up to at the end, though…

75 - Little Birds

#75 – Little Birds, by Anaïs Nin

My little bird has never looked so disapproving.

Off and on since college, I’d heard about the great, classic author of erotica, Anaïs Nin–so when I spotted this tiny paperback at a secondhand shop I scooped it up.

But who knew sex could be so boring?

The style was flat and practical, giving technical and mechanical detail but entirely lacking in emotion or nuance. It was like reading a transcript of a robot describing sex.

On top of that, most of the short stories had no ending to speak of, they just stopped. They hardly had any meat to them anyway, plot-wise, so I’m not sure what I expected, but the endings they had struck me as abrupt and devoid of any sense of completion.

I’ll stick to my modern erotic romances, thank you.

76 - Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

#76 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

My strongest criticism of this book is one I don’t often have: it’s too short.

Everything about the story seemed to me to be Neal Stephenson Lite, and I know Sloan is at least passingly familiar with his work, because Stephenson gets name-dropped. And applying that label to this book isn’t meant as an insult–not everyone wants to read nearly-thousand-page tomes with that level of historical or scientific detail.

This was a techno-puzzler, and it could have been a great one, if only it hadn’t been so rushed.

Nearly every conflict the protagonist, Clay, has is solved by him knowing the right person to ask for help, and the problem magically vanishes. He needs to get to New York to find someone? Ask his rich friend to come along and “sponsor” the trip. He needs a piece of tech for a clandestine operation against a secret society? He fires off an email and gets what he needs the very next day through a dead drop at a pizza joint. He nearly gets caught at the end of said clandestine operation? He hides himself long enough to not-quite formulate a plan before one of his co-conspirators finds him and manages to smuggle him out.

The only puzzles or conflicts Clay actually handles himself are the very first, the one that sets him on this mysterious road, and the very last, the resolution of his “quest.” The entire middle section of the book feels like a string of luck and deus ex machina. Which means very little time needs to be spent stumbling on these hurdles, which in turn means the book races through the plot as quickly as possible, leaving no time to develop any characters with personality.

Clay is nearly an everyman except for some programming know-how, which makes him a suitable every-nerd instead. Kat, his love interest (though fortunately the romance subplot is incidental) is such a stereotypical Tech Industry Geek that she’s never explored beyond that. Mr. Penumbra is probably the most interesting, being the eccentric one who leads Clay into this strange story in the first place, but even he is fairly flat. And the rest of the cast is so thin that they seem only to be there to be called on to solve Clay’s problems when he needs them. (His two roommates do also get a thin, background-level romance, which is the only exception that comes to mind, and I’ll admit that was nice, to see side characters have independent lives. I wish there had been more of that.)

So, it’s not terrible, but it is on the fluffy side, all cleverness and no depth.

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