This Week, I Read… (2019 #53)

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#166 – Ice Massacre, by Tiana Warner

  • Read: 12/18/19 – 12/20/19
  • Challenge: The Reading Frenzy’s Holly Jolly Readathon
  • Task: Read a book with a wintery word in the title
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Another hugely hyped book that was a vast disappointment to me. The concept is cool, I’ll give it that, or I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. But the world-building is thin, the plot full of gaping holes, the characters mostly without personality, and the action is jaw-grindingly constant to the point where it leaves no room for character development or better world-building.

And calling this a sapphic love story is just laughable. Literally the last thing in the book is the main character realizing she’s in love with her childhood best friend who’s also a girl who’s also a mermaid–but they spend most of the books at odds with each other because of misunderstandings, because of the fact that they’re both supposed to want to kill each other, and because they can’t truly trust each other for most of the story. Eventually there’s a small measure of devotion, but there’s no romance to speak of. Everyone’s too busy fighting, and I do mean everyone.

But okay, if it’s setup for the future installments, I could give that a pass. What I can’t forgive is the insanely stupid logic of this thin, nonsensical world-building.

First, the simple idea of the merpeople’s “allure”–their hypnotizing magic–being effective against the opposite gender only is heteronormative in the extreme. My bisexual self is plenty attracted to women, so for most of the book I felt like it should work on me just fine. (And I can’t even address the issues of trans or nonbinary characters, because there aren’t any.) When it eventually became obvious that allure working on everyone would break the plot (the two friends can’t fall in love with each other if magic is involved because then it’s fake, also then the entire idea of sending girls out instead of boys to fight is a moot point and there’s no story) I threw my hands up in the air and said to myself, “I’ll accept it but I don’t think it’s good.”

Second, that leads to another problem; if the merpeople sent their women to fight because the human warriors had always been male before, when they discover the new ship of warriors are female, shouldn’t they send their men instead? Oh, wait, they’re all lampshaded to be fighting somewhere else entirely, in a different ocean. Except…are they all really gone? Because if they are, then who’s making babies? We know there are babies because the crazy girl kills an infant. Which, by the way, is a war crime if you consider the mermaid “people,” because clearly an infant is a noncombatant. So that’s fun. (Also she ends up murdering a crew mate, but that’s not tied to any of my complaints, actually, which almost surprises me. It was terrible but it actually sort of made sense at the time that it would happen the way it did.) But really, why keep sending the mermaids to kill the girls when mermen would have the advantage?

Third, the structure of the Massacre itself. Would you have me believe that a group of twenty girls who have been training together for five years can’t put aside petty high-school-style drama long enough to not get each other killed? Do you mean to tell me that the position of captain is assigned by their trainer, with a list of captains to follow in case of death or incapacitation, and it never once occurred to anyone organizing this thing that that’s a recipe for constant mutiny? Do you seriously expect me to believe no adults went with them for supervision? That no adult women could have been trained alongside them to sail the ship, if not to actually fight? That no adult woman on the entire island was capable or available to be their captain and keep all those little shits in line? Weren’t those people fishermen before the mermaids invaded, and that’s why they’re being starved out now? Sure, in modern military we train people about their age for combat, but we don’t send them out on their own without superior officers, older and more experienced and hopefully with a little more wisdom! And if the problem is that they can’t send the men who have survived their Massacres because now we send women because of the allure, then why were they ever sending men in the first place? Why did it take so long to decide to train girls instead? (The story’s answer: unquestioned patriarchy. Girls aren’t warriors. Because.)

Fourth: no one has much of a personality, they’re too busy getting killed. Of the twenty girls who set sail, I believe only seven or eight survive. They are mostly names on a page who die. Even some of the survivors, I couldn’t tell you anything about, be it their physical appearance or their demeanor. They are mermaid fodder, some are there to be Captain Crazypants’ cronies, they are faceless and interchangeable in death.

Back to the “romance” for a second: I don’t read Meela’s constant distaste for her compatriots talking about boys or their boyfriends as her actually being in love with her female mermaid childhood best friend. That early, it doesn’t even seem to allow for the possibility. It was far easier for me to read Meela as ace and/or aro–she seems completely uninterested in romance with the guy back home who’s in love with her, and she says outright at one point that she can’t imagine kissing him or having kids with him. Yes, it’s all coded, but to me that’s all code for aro-ace, possibly even to the point of sex-repulsed ace. The depth of her aceness would be open to interpretation, but nothing about her characterization for most of the book, such as it is, says to me, “no, she doesn’t like Tanuu or boys in general but she’s got confused feelings for girls she doesn’t understand.” She just doesn’t seem to think romantic love or sex is important. So throwing it out there at the very end that she thinks she’s in love with Lysi doesn’t ring true to me at all, even though I could see it coming from the structure.

Final problem: the plot takes a completely unexpected and illogical turn at the last second. The whole book has been about the Massacre, and then when it’s almost over, our main character sacrifices herself (kind of) and gets captured by the mer-king (sort of) who agrees to let her and the few remaining crew go home so she can find a MacGuffin that’s apparently a legend of their home island…that none of them have ever heard of. So if they don’t know their own legends, how does the mer-king? There’s no foreshadowing for this (or if there is it’s so subtle as to be invisible), it makes no sense with the rest of the book, narratively speaking it’s a deus ex machina to get them home when they’re basically doomed otherwise. And obviously it’s setting up the next book. But I don’t care. I don’t care because this one is so bad I don’t want to read any more.

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#167 – Fool’s Errand, by Robin Hobb

  • Read: 12/20/19 – 12/26/19
  • Challenge: Mount TBR (109/100)
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is the best that the Realms of the Elderlings has been since the very first book, our introduction to Fitz and his strange magics.

I was apprehensive about returning to his story line. His first trilogy started great and ended mediocre. Then came the Liveship Traders trilogy, which could hardly be more different in scope, in setting, in structure. I loved those books well, though they had issues too, of course. And then I put off returning to Fitz for some time.

But now, not only am I in love with his story again, I wish I remembered it better. The first 200 pages of this does so well at setting up the missing 15 years of Fitz’s adulthood that we pass over, and reminding us of the key points of the plot we left behind, but his friendship with the Fool in this is so vibrant, so meaningful, that I wish I remembered more of it from before. (Also: I’m not much of a shipper, but there were so many moments in this where I wondered if the Fool is actually in love with Fitz. On Fitz’s side I’m sure it’s a deep and abiding bromance, but I’m not convinced that the Fool feels the same limited way. I’m also not sure that’s going anywhere in the long term, even though this is the “Tawny Man” trilogy and I can tell the Fool is going to be a major player in the story. But those moments came often enough that I can’t tell if I’m seeing a pattern or somehow infected with wishful gay shipping vibes.)

So my biggest quibble with the book, even though I’m still giving it five stars, is the pacing, as long fantasy works do have a tendency to drag no matter how “good” they are. As I said, the first third of the book is set up; Fitz spends that whole time refusing his Hero’s Call while we the reader get filled in on the missing time in his life. Then the middle 200 pages wander for a bit in a quagmire of trying to figure out what the hell is going on: did the Prince run away or was he kidnapped? Who’s plotting against him? What can be done about it? It’s a lot of intrigue packed into a small space, but it gets bogged down in so much minutiae.

Of course, then after I make that complaint I go and read the final third of the book in a single day, because suddenly things are going down. The plot moves forward toward the climax at a breakneck pace and I was happy and sad and scared and angry and everything felt a little too real and heartbreaking. And I loved it.

Long gone is the stupidity of the boy/teenage Fitz that frustrated me to no end, his blindness, his willfulness, his lack of self-awareness despite the near constant introspection he subjected himself to. This new, haggard adult Fitz is constantly faced with situations that have no good solutions, but instead of whining about all his choices being bad, he gets on with things as best he can. He makes the hard choices, or uses his wits to change the game. I can accept that we had to have boy Fitz make those mistakes and whine those complaints to get him to be the tortured soul he is now, but that wasn’t always pleasant reading, and now, I love him and my heart bleeds for him.

Though that actually makes me nervous for him going forward, because this is just the end of book one of this trilogy, and in a three-book structure, usually the hero is at his lowest at the end of book two. So, like, things get worse than this? Because Fitz is in a pretty bad place right now, despite saving the day and all that. Good thing I’m planning to read Golden Fool as part of a readathon next month, so I don’t have to wait long!

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