This Week, I Read… (2020 #26)

#100 – Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie

  • Read: 7/1/20 – 7/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 90/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a 5-star prediction [holy crap was I wrong about that]
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Given the nature of the first book’s ending, I expected many things from this book. I expected Breq to take her shiny new ship and shiny new officers and go to the system where Lieutenant’s Awn’s sister was and get involved deeply in politics there and muck things up in an effort to eventually make them better, while figuring out how to stymie the Lord of the Radch’s next plan for civil war with herself.

I expected all of that, and I got it. What I did not expect was that it would bore me half out of my mind.

What this book did not give me was any sort of emotional connection to any character, least of all Breq herself, whom I was so heavily invested in before. As her identity as an AI is no longer a novelty to be explored by the text, in this story her near-emotionless state of being is a dull slog as she batters her heavy-handed way through one transparent social justice issue after another. It’s not that I don’t think someone should do their best to fix things like domestic abuse, extreme poverty and its attendant social isolation, and wage slavery–Breq has power and consistently attempts to use it for good–but there’s no personal stake in it to show me why she’s invested, because the personal stake I thought she was meant to have, the sister, had almost nothing to do with anything and definitely wasn’t involved in ninety-five percent of the politicking. It’s a variation on the white savior trope, shifted to accommodate that no one in this universe is actually white; but no matter everyone’s skin colors, the point stands, because Breq is an outsider with sweeping power who marches in, decides to fix everything, doesn’t do enough to consult with the actual people she’s “saving,” and messes up along the way. (She does get called on it and allows one of her lieutenants to set up a consultation office, but doesn’t do anything directly except to back off slightly herself. No matter how many people say to her face that she’s mishandling things, she’s still convinced she was right to get involved because Justice is Good.)

At points it was actually painful for me to read how thinly and obviously all of these terrible injustices could be fixed so that Breq could move along to her next objective. Let’s just stack every intractable social issue in her way so she can knock them over like dominoes! Breq can fix anything!

And then at the very end, we get back to the “real” plot where the Lord of the Radch is presumably amassing an army of stolen ancillaries in secret behind an unused gate in an empty system where no one ever goes, except maybe it’s not her? Maybe they should probably deal with that but the book ends without a tangible cliffhanger or any clear forward momentum for the final book? Maybe this was just a killing-time side trip that took up way too much space because the actual “mystery” of what’s going on behind that gate couldn’t possibly fill more than fifty pages and something had to take up the other 300?

After how much I adored the first book, this was such a terrible disappointment. I have the final book and I’m probably still going to read it for completion’s sake, but it will be a while before I can muster the energy because now I’m no longer excited about this series in the slightest.

#101 – The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

  • Read: 7/5/20 – 7/8/20
  • Mount TBR: 91/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book with an “-ing” word in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a translated book
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I tried to like it. I even tried to like it for its own sake, and not because I have fond memories of the first movie. (I’ve seen the second several times, not because it’s good–it isn’t–but I was just the right age in the years following its release to have an adolescent crush on Jonathan Brandis. Ah, I’ve made myself sad now.)

But this is just clunky, pedestrian storytelling at best and slogging stupidity at worst. This happened. Then this happened. Then Atreyu did this. Then Bastian did that. It was almost tolerable until the midpoint, while the story had some clear momentum and a goal in mind, but the second half is a directionless mire of Bastian becoming a terrible person. I might have appreciated the balance of symbolism there (Bastian saves Fantastica, then Fantastica in the form of his friends Atreyu and Falkor “save” him in return) if Fantastica in the form of AURYN wasn’t the very thing that was ruining him in the first place. What am positive message am I meant to get from that? Absolute power corrupts absolutely? Thanks, got it, not sure what it’s doing chained around the neck of a childhood fantasy hero. Bastian’s redemption isn’t even well-written, it just kind of happens; he only gives up AURYN after it holds no more power because he has no more memories for it to take. That’s not showing him to really be making a choice to set aside power, is it?

Even more than its garbled message though, I take issue with the style. It’s a fairy tale to the nth degree, where nothing has to have any kind of explanation or make even the slightest lick of sense. The “world-building” consists of a small set of rules that are constantly overturned for plot convenience. (Does Fantastica have borders? You’ll get four different answers depending on which part of the book you’re reading.) Events don’t lead to each other with any kind of pattern or logic, it’s all just “check out this cool place where Bastian climbs a big tree” and then “now he’s in a desert but it’s all different colors and there’s a death lion” followed by “now there’s a bunch of knights and a tourney for some reason” and then “watch him wander aimlessly while alienating his friends.” Everything that could have been wondrous to me was spoiled by the boring, repetitive language used to describe it, all telling, no showing. (Which, to be fair to the author, is generally the style of fairy tales and not a criticism I’ve reserved for this work alone.)

Sometimes I can look at a work for a younger target audience and say “yeah, I may not like it much as an adult but I would have LOVED this then.” But not in this case. I would have been as bored with this book at ten as I am at forty.

#102 – General Winston’s Daughter, by Sharon Shinn

  • Read: 7/8/20 – 7/9/20
  • Mount TBR: 92/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Original 2015 rating: 3 stars, no review. (I didn’t start reviewing every book I read until 2016.)

I’ve lowered this to two upon rereading. Whatever charm I saw it in the first time around has mostly vanished under the weight of the Imperialism for Dummies layout of the story. Sheltered and wealthy girl travels to a foreign country occupied by her nation’s army, learns that colonizing places is bad and of course the natives don’t want them there, falls out of love with her pro-empire army officer fiance and then in love with another officer who’s only in the military because he’s a foreigner from another subjugated nation and it’s basically the only decent career path open to him. Think England and India, because I sure did, though this is all fantasy; you could make a compelling argument that Aeberelle is a hybrid of Victorian England and 1940’s wartime USA, which I got a strong vibe of from the constant parties thrown for young women to flirt with all those handsome officers. Xan’tai isn’t culturally like India (in fact very little is said about its culture to draw any sort of real-world parallel with) but fits the pattern of older colony whose people become somewhat accepted into the home society, though never regarded as anything but second-class citizens.

The nation where the story actually takes place, Chiarrin, doesn’t closely resemble any culture I know about at all, but that doesn’t detract from the story.

So, as a work of fantasy, this feels thin, probably because it spends most of its runtime inside Averie’s head dealing with her teenage flights of emotional fancy and the growing pains of realizing her country is a racist bully. As a romance, it’s even thinner, because she has to spend half the book falling out of love with her fiance before she can “realize” she’s in love with other man, and he’s just not well-developed enough for me to believe that. Do I like Ket personally and would I want to get to know him better? Sure, the few personality traits he has are ones that appeal to my tastes. But most of his actual screen time is being politely stoic about all the racism around him, including the unintentional stuff from the heroine, and then saving her occasionally from scrapes she gets into.

If you feel like I’ve been writing a one-star review for this book so far, I can’t blame you. Centering a YA fantasy-romance on a white girl starting to unlearn her racist ideas and fall for the “exotic” hero who rescues her from danger…it’s pretty bad. (And yes, the text does call him “exotic and appealing” once.)

But there are a few good points as well, mostly in isolated plot moments that stand out as unusual compared to my other reading. The breakup scene between the heroine and her fiance was actually kind of brilliant for being a mutual decision portrayed as sad and full of regret for what could have been; even if the fiance is a pro-colonizing moral trashfire, it’s clear that he’s emotionally invested and really heart-broken–he would have been a good husband who cared about the heroine. There’s a serious plot twist late in the book that I won’t spoil, but knowing about it for this reread, I was looking for the foreshadowing I missed originally and I’m impressed with how it’s present, but it can all be adequately explained in context, so the surprise really is surprising. And the heroine’s characterization carries her right through to her happy ending; she’s compassionate and impulsive through and through, and that informs how she decides to move forward with her life at the end, when events have freed her from what would have been her life if she had married as originally planned, and she pursues her foreign lover. It’s clear she’s changed over the course of the story, but the axis of that change is intellectual, not emotional–she hasn’t had her personality beaten out of her by the events of the book. She’s just trying to be a better person now.

(I could write probably another five hundred words on whether or not her choices in the ending qualify her as a white savior or not, but at this point, does it matter? It’s clear I’m not recommending this book to anyone, despite my general love for Sharon Shinn. This one’s not even close to her best work, and though I haven’t read everything of hers–yet–I’d say it’s probably in the running for worst.)

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