This Week, I Read… (2021 #29)

#82 – Puck Aholic, by Lili Valente

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

“And they were roommates” isn’t my favorite trope, but I don’t hate it, either. I think this isn’t the best example, because they were already attracted to each other before they moved in together and they start sleeping together really quickly, so there’s no time to savor any unresolved sexual tension.

Diana is annoying, but in a way that feels too real and hits a little too close to home. Her pessimism regarding men in general and her love life in specific isn’t something I relate to, but her feelings of being a crazy messy burden on anyone who might care for her, I get. Deeply. So I do understand her resolve to swear off men and dating, though I think “until I feel better about myself” would be a more interesting conflict for the story than her deadline of “forever.”

Tanner is… well, as a boyfriend, he’s pretty much perfect, and that’s a bit of the problem. Sure, he and Diana fight like wildcats in the very beginning, but my brain read all those altercations as Diana deliberately provoking him until she got him to take the bait, so I’m not going to hold that against him. The rest of the problem is that his personal conflict arc–ADHD and his career–has very little to do with Diana at any point. Occasionally the narrative takes a stab at linking them, like “oh, I can’t handle a girlfriend on top of this, she’ll be a distraction,” but that’s undermined by two things: Diana’s clearly a distraction just as a roommate, even if she never did become Tanner’s girlfriend, and also once they do get together, Tanner starts skating better, to the point where his teammates notice and approve.

While I’m not disappointed with Tanner as book boyfriend material, I am unhappy with the way his neurodivergence is treated, because his ADHD gets ignored for large parts of the book. In the beginning, he sort of hedges around it in his POV chapters, sure, fine, we’re building up to the reveal. But once it’s revealed, he only displays any of his supposedly regular coping behaviors when the plot needs him to, not the rest of the time, and certainly none of them were foreshadowed with any significance. If he lives by the to-do list he keeps on his phone, why don’t we know about it until at least halfway through the book? Why does his summer hiatus seem completely unscheduled? Because whenever Diana pisses him off he just goes back to the gym at the drop of a hat. Were all those gym sessions on the list, or did he really not have anything else planned for that day? Why is he never obviously nervous about being late to something or deviating from his routine? Why is there not even much evidence that he even has a routine?

Don’t get me wrong, I want more romance heroes to be dealing with mental illness or neurodivergence as characters, because men’s mental health in the real world is something society tries really hard to sweep under the rug. But this just feels shallow. (Except for the scene where Diana helps Tanner with his phobia, because that is well established from the team’s prank wars, and also echoes a scene with Wanda the pig earlier in the book. So that was actually really good. But the ADHD rep, not so much. Also, Wanda was pretty cute, and I’ll grant that having the pet be a pig instead of something more ordinary has a certain charm to it, as does Chloe’s hedgehog at the end of the book. Hedgehogs are lovely.)

Okay, I’ve aired my grievances, but this was still funny to me, as the earlier novels were, I’m still going on with the series, though I’m hoping I get plots that are better-realized again soon, like the first book.

#83 – Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams

  • Mount TBR: 69/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: Cover features your favorite color prominently
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Well, that was a slog.

So I have a history with this piece of intellectual property. I was introduced to Williams as an author in college (1998) because several of the friends I made my first year were big fantasy nerds–no surprise there–and I was perfectly ready to move on from my high-school-era love of less sophisticated fantasy authors. I borrowed The Dragonbone Chair from one of those friends and off I went.

So in 2001 when news about Williams writing an online serial went around, and I saw the $15 price tag…well, I was a perpetually almost-broke college student still, and sure I spent money on books, but that was a high gateway, because a) I didn’t own my own computer yet, I was borrowing friends’ or using the computer lab to write papers and such; and b) sure, a chunky fantasy novel might be $7 or $8 in paperback, but it was portable, easy to reread whenever, and nobody had tablets or smartphones or e-readers yet, so an online serial publication was definitely not portable. Even fifteen dollars seemed like too much for the inconvenience of a book I could only read sitting at a computer, and couldn’t read all of at once.

I was genuinely angry about this shift away from the paradigm, and much like Williams vowing this serial was online only and would never be published traditionally (which I distinctly remember but don’t actually have a source for) I too vowed that I would never read it.

I held out much longer than he did, if my memory of that claim is even true. But I’m wishing now that I hadn’t bothered.

This is bad. Not even close to the level of quality I expect from Williams, based on the earlier Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, as well as War of the Flowers–which was weird but I enjoyed it–and the Otherland series, which was even weirder and not always good, but yeah, I still enjoyed that too, for the most part.

Who am I supposed to care about in this book? I’m no stranger to multiple protagonists, but there are simply too many here, meaning none of them get the development time they would need to be interesting. I’m trying to wean myself from the complaint that protagonists need to be “likable,” because a character can be a jerk and still be interesting, but few of these protagonists are particularly likable either!

1. Barrick is a whiny jerk who folds under pressure and abdicates responsibility to his sister, and then makes a spectacularly bad decision for no reason other than to set up some tension at the end, and his future arc. If it’s because he’s “mad,” bad plot reason, and if it’s because he’s affected by the more general shadow-madness, well, I guess he could be vulnerable to it like anyone else, but that’s pretty flimsy too.
2. Briony is a fairly standard “if only I weren’t a woman, people would take me seriously” princess who doesn’t fold as much under pressure but is dealt a really raw deal. I’ll give her credit, she does legitimately try her best to rule her lands, but she’s also kind of a whiny jerk like her brother, too.
3. Quinnitan is…pointless. Sure, I see how the end of her arc in this book echoes those of the Eddon twins, but there is no direct connection between her plot and anyone else’s. And I mean that literally, if there’s anything that ties her story to any other single part of the book, I simply do not see it, it’s buried in lore or foreshadowing that was lost on me amid the sheer weight of nearly 800 pages of plodding narrative. I read all of her scenes constantly wondering why I should care, and the fact that her arc is a very basic harem plot, “I don’t want to be a token wife but really what choice do I have?” sort of thing, doesn’t help, because on its own it’s incredibly unoriginal.
4. Chert is marginally likable, because he’s arguably got the most defined personality and most personal growth in the book, as a person of a “little” race who is distinctly not human–I get a mix of gnome and dwarf, with a faint whiff of Podling from The Dark Crystal–and who deals with an unexpected foundling by taking him into his family and trying to make it work, even when that foundling is really a big blank space in the story who still manages to get into trouble.
5. Captain Vansen gets points from me for being the guardsman deep in unrequited love, which is a trope I would absolutely eat up with a spoon. The problem is, the object of that love is a protagonist I don’t care for (Briony,) leading me to question what the eff he’s thinking that he can even admire her from a distance, let alone be in infatuation/love. And his plot arc is mostly “something goes wrong that’s not really has fault but everyone blames him anyway.” Which got dull.

Chert and Vansen are most of the reason this book gets a second star*, honestly. Chert’s scenes with the Rooftoppers are generally pretty excellent, even if they’re mostly tied to a plot arc that I don’t care for.

The other thing that’s getting me about this is that it feels like a deliberately grim-dark retread of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. You’ve got a castle that’s the seat of current government but used to belong to the enemy–the enemy that no one is sure even exists anymore, that lives in a land far enough away to feel distant but also somehow close enough to be threatening, once people believe in them again. That castle is perched upon magically important ruins/caverns, and that enemy has forms of magic/communication that affect humans and can cause or appear symptomatic of madness. There’s a race of small likable people who aren’t quite dwarves or any other “standard” fantasy race, but are still somehow cute/appealing. There’s a crippled prince who’s not really well-liked. One of the primary female protagonists is a young woman who laments the limitations of her womanhood under the patriarchal feudal system of the world.

And to someone who’s never read either of these series, that list of similarities could mostly read like fairly common fantasy tropes, and I forgive anyone who reads this review and thinks that. But I’ve read MSaT probably ten times all the way through in the twenty-plus years since I was introduced to it, and I feel like I’ve just been handed the same story again, with a thick coat of gray paint slathered on it and a few details changed–and those changes are basically always for the worse. No one in this story can be said to be a direct equivalent to Simon, who gets a very clear hero’s journey, but if I’m supposed to slot Barrick in as a Simon/Josua mashup (that crippled prince problem) then it takes the entire book to get Barrick out of his comfort zone and on his journey, where Simon got booted from the castle at the end of the first act of the first book.

And that gets at the underlying problem that is at least partially fueling all other problems–this book is clearly just the first act of the larger story, and yes i know! that is what first books do! but this also doesn’t have a lot of forward motion on its own, and it doesn’t resolve anything aside from the mystery of a single murder at that happens near the beginning. Seriously, all other plot threads get kicked down the road with the “and now they’re exiles” theme that the ending has assigned to most of the protagonists. Chert doesn’t suffer that fate, but the ending of his story line–also the end of the book itself–is the foundling reasserting that he doesn’t know who he is, which is not new information. We’ve literally not known who he is the whole time, except that we do find out who his mother is, but don’t find out how he was taken or why he apparently hasn’t aged as much as he should have or what the Qar intended by sending him back “home.” The identity of his mother is basically the least important question surrounding him.

I truly feel like I just read a 750-page prologue, and that is not a good feeling.

*Yeah, I told myself this was a two-star book, but by the time I wrote the whole review, it’s not and I can’t pretend I still believe that. This is a one-star book. This is so bad I don’t want to go on with the series, even though it almost has to get better, now that most of our protagonists are out on their journeys. And because it could hardly get worse, right? But this already took up so much of my time (I had to take a week-long break in the middle to binge some romances, as a relief from all this grimdark toil) and even though I’ve managed to collect secondhand copies of the rest of the series, and they’ve been sitting on my shelves for a few years waiting for me to invest my energy into them…I’m giving up. Not worth it.

#84 – The Glittering Court, by Richelle Mead

  • Mount TBR: 70/100
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

What did I like about this? It was digestible. Having just come off a heavy, plodding, disappointing fantasy read, the easy YA tell-don’t-show narrative style went down smooth like a slushie on a hot day.

And that’s the best thing I can say about the whole book–it read fast and easy.

What didn’t I like?

1. The fact that this touts itself as fantasy when it’s not in the least bit fantastical. I don’t require my fantasy to have magic or creatures or zombies or anything, but if you’re going to call something “fantasy” it should at least be about fictional cultures that the author has invented. This is just England colonizing the Americas with the names changed. The only thing that could be said to be “fantasy” is that the population they’re displacing in the process isn’t an indigenous one, it was established by previous outcasts from their own country–though that wasn’t clear to me until the first time we met them and they were white, blond, and used woad as decoration. So they’re not supposed to be Native American analogues, they’re supposed to be displaced Picts?

2. Either way, it’s still racist and pro-colonization, because even if the Icori aren’t meant to represent an indigenous people, they’re still clearly Other, and constantly labeled as “savages” in order to justify taking their land, which all of our protagonists are participating in, in some form. Does it matter what color this fictional group of people is, if the narrative is parroting real history and real racism?

3. The second half of the plot feels, at best, tenuously related to the first half. The change in fortune for our protagonists that happens at the midpoint struck me as so flimsy and unbelievable that it was hard to take the rest of the book seriously, and that made it more obvious to me who the real villain was, despite whatever weak red herrings were planted along the way. Seriously–the first half of the story is The Bridgertons but the second turns into Little House on the Prairie. It’s too big a genre shift to make the transition seem natural.

4. There were times when I was approaching a reasonable level of sympathy for our heroine, despite her many flaws, but every time the story had a chance to explore those flaws and perhaps let the character do some work on them…well, she just kept being headstrong and selfish and whiny, right up until the LHotP section where after a single pep talk from the hero, she’s completely changed, resolved to her new station in life with a determination that seemed half-delusional and certainly out of character. She didn’t work for it, so it didn’t seem real.

5. I did not know, having picked up this book in isolation, that the rest of the “series” is actually the same time period from the perspective of one of the other girls, specifically the two best friends of the heroine. Now that I do know that, the giant blank spaces in this story where Mira and Tamsin constantly fall out of it without explanation–or with the pointedly obvious lampshade “it’s not my business so I’m not going to ask”–make sense structurally. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a terrible flaw, because these holes are constant and irritating. For a while in the middle of the book, it felt like every time I turned two pages, the heroine was asking out loud, “Where’s Mira?” And pretty quickly I knew that question wouldn’t be answered in this book, so why keep asking?

6. I never found Cedric compelling enough a hero to justify the constant sacrifices that Adelaide made for him. I don’t think he’s a terrible character, and I enjoyed some of their banter and their occasional fights, but I’m also not about to add him to my book-boyfriend list, so it was hard to imagine myself, or anyone for that matter, doing as much for him as Adelaide did.

7. Religion. Woooo boy. I guess this part is the “fantasy” I was lamenting the lack of earlier, because if the accepted and heretic forms of this fictional religion are supposed to correspond to real-world counterparts, I didn’t pick up on it with enough certainty to tell. But my problem is that it’s suddenly a Very Big Deal that one character is a heretic, when religion had played such a small part in the story leading up to that revelation that I was mostly operating on the assumption that the main religion was socially performative, and that no one in the story was especially devout. Adelaide certainly doesn’t seem to be. But since this heresy becomes central to the conflict later on, I wish it had been better established in the beginning, because (again) the second half of the book seems wildly different than the first, and this was another aspect that made it hard to take seriously.

8. Heteronormative AF. There’s one token queer person who has a minor role, showing up just long enough for Adelaide to realize other women/cultures don’t abide by her society’s rigid norms and to feel briefly uncomfortable about it. But there’s no follow-up, no depth, no opportunity for Adelaide to grow beyond what she’s been taught. To some extent, I’m okay with that–not every story has room for fighting LGBT+ battles, and even more simply put, stories are allowed to be about other things. But parading just that one wlw character out for a moment, and making her a foreigner to reinforce her otherness, strikes me as a really poor choice if the story didn’t actually want to fight that battle. Why bring it up at all? Especially as this is supposed to be fantasy, why couldn’t the Glittering Court be an institution that provides marriage candidates to both men and women? If the candidate pool was both male and female, and so was the clientele, then many forms of queerness would be covered by it without having to dig into specifics about each character. (It doesn’t directly address ace/aro people, but presumably they’d be less interested in a marriage mart anyway, on either side, and self-select out of it.) I mean, I know why, because that would mean that in the New World there would have to be women in positions of power who needed husbands (or wives, yes, but this wrinkle is about men.) And there’s no shortage of men in the colonies, so that doesn’t track logically the same way the actual setup does. But again, if this is supposed to be fantasy….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s