This Week, I Read… (2021 #20)

#53 – The Falconer, by Elizabeth May

  • Mount TBR: 50/100
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Finally got around to reading this, years after the hype. I actually own the whole trilogy, thanks to the ebooks going on sale for 99 cents a piece, but I’m not inclined to go on with the series.

Why not?

Let’s start with the most obvious: why bestow upon your main character the title of “Falconer” when there are no birds of any kind in the entire book? This just goes unremarked upon for half the book until Mr. Dark and Broody Fae finally explains what the title means and why Aileana is one. Even if she doesn’t have a falcon.

It’s meaningless. And no, at the moment, I don’t care if she gets a bird in the second or third book. It’s the damn title of this one.

So it’s a well-established fact that I hate love triangles as a trope, it’s one in a million if I can even tolerate one in a story. But here, I finally have a new experience–I actually prefer the losing man. I like Gavin 1000% better than Kiaran. I’m not an angsty teenager anymore, I don’t want the many-hundreds-of-years-old supernatural love interest who’s damaged and mysterious but loves the naive young heroine because she’s just so damn plucky. I want the good, solid dude who’s right there in front of me, being a friend, being considerate as much as possible, doing the right thing, the one who’s loyal and steadfast rather than capricious or downright evil.

As much as anyone gets to have a personality in the midst of this action-action-action fest that barely slows down to think, Gavin comes out on top, and I’d marry him pretty willingly in our heroine’s shoes. When it’s first announced to her, I thought, “Cool, she’s going to marry someone who knows her secret, they could work something out about her quest for vengeance and fae-killing, etc, while still maintaining a veneer of respectability in the human world.”

…but no, that would actually be interesting, so she’s got to end the book kissing Kiaran and being all sad that she has to lock him in the mystical prison in order to save the world. You know, just like Buffy had to kill Angel to close the portal to Hell…wait, was I not supposed to notice that?

I’m not the first reviewer to notice similarities to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in tone and overall plot concepts more than actual details, but Kiaran is early-seasons Angel down to his bones, and Aileana wishes she had as much personality or depth as Buffy. She doesn’t. As for whether this is near-plagiarism-similar to another particular fae YA series, well, I’ve never heard of that one before and thus haven’t read it, so I can’t say. I can say that aside from moving the standard Fae Dark Romance concept to a steampunk historical Scotland, it’s wildly unoriginal. I’ve seen all this before many, many times, and by not giving me my damn falcon companion to bond with, and ignoring a wealth of potential in making Gavin the winner of the love triangle, it’s repeatedly choosing the safe, well-tread path.

Also, even though I knew there was a cliffhanger so I wasn’t shocked by it, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed with how clumsy and abrupt it was. That ending is just bad.

#54 – The Prince and Other Writings, by Niccolo Machiavelli, translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn

  • Mount TBR: 51/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: An anthology
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

In this case, I want to make it clear that my rating is not a reflection of how “good” the book was, but how much I got out of it. I’m not trying to trash a classic of philosophy and political thought. But I also don’t read much about philosophy or political thought, and this work reminded me why.

It’s dry as hell.

I admit to skimming, past a certain point, because especially in “The Prince,” which leads the collection, Machiavelli follows an incredibly clear formula: open a chapter with his thesis statement, explain it a little in generalities, mention a few applicable real-world examples, and then go in-depth on one or more of those examples, before summing his point up at the end. I was able to skip most of the in-depth assessments, because they were basically meaningless to me, as I am not a student of Italian history and had no idea who most of the figures he mentioned were. Some of them continue to loom large in historical perspective today, but many don’t.

What did I actually take away from this? Well, mostly, a rebuttal of the reason I read it in the first place. This is well outside my comfort zone, but I’ve been hearing the descriptor “Machiavellian” thrown around idly for years, and like many, I’d come to understand that it meant cruel or even flat-out evil. I thought, if this is such a foundational work that the author gets his own adjective, I should probably read it at some point, yes?

But I didn’t get a sense of cruelty or evil from his philosophizing at all. Sure, he’s definitely espousing “the ends justify the means” as an overall theme, and he advises duplicity in leaders, to project an image of what he considers “good” while sometimes doing bad behind the scenes in order to promote stability. So from a broadly modern perspective, he’s less than perfectly moral. But he does spend a chapter pointing out that acquiring power through criminal activities isn’t a strong foundation for power. And I discovered that the famous “better to be feared than loved” tidbit is a misquote.

He’s not evil, or promoting evil. He’s just a realist and a pragmatist, from a time in history and political structure incredibly different from ours. No, I personally don’t agree with the idea that the only way for a prince to be a strong leader is to have a kick-ass military. But in context, I do understand why Machiavelli thought that, and advised his own patron thus. I don’t think most of this is applicable to modern day life, but it’s still useful to understand how Machiavelli changed political thought with his writing.

So I’m glad I read it, even if I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m glad I have a more accurate understanding (even if it’s still a basic one, because politics is Not My Thing) of what this famous person really said, versus what common knowledge claims he said. And while I don’t think I was ever using it that much, I’m going to stop throwing around the term “Machiavellian,” because it doesn’t mean what I thought it meant, but I alone can’t stop the tide of people using it incorrectly. (Or, if you want to be really pedantic, using it correctly because that’s what the term has come to mean, even if that meaning is now divorced from its source. Because I can’t in good descriptive faith argue that “Machiavellian” doesn’t carry connotations of evil and cruelty–it does. What I am arguing is that it shouldn’t, but that’s not a fight linguistics will ever win.)

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