They by Janet Mason – Read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit Darkness Visible by William Styron The Annotated Alice – annotated by Martin Gardner Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion How literature saved my life by David Shields Stealing: Life in America by Michelle Cacho-Negrete ~ read Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell spook country by William Gibson Boom! Voices of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole ~ read The Wrong End of Time by John Brunner – DNF Invaders from Earth by Robert Silverberg Music of the Common Tongue by Christopher Small Self-Consciousness by John Updike
For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year. 2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief. Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.
One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished. I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.
Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy. Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned. Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.
When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine. This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?” His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”
And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018 happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved. Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good. Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.
It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.
2018 Books by the Numbers:
26 unique publication years
40 unique author names
19 female authors
23 male authors
26 new to me authors
98 books new to the stacks
48 new to the stacks read
7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled
The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills. My review will focus on the use of Scripture as justification.
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all. Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected. Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic. Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Bintiby Okorafor, Nnedi Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi Binti: The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet. My review will focus on the bigotry Binti encounters on her quest.
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio. His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works. My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.
Title: The Queen of Crows
Author: Myke Cole
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb: In this epic fantasy sequel, Heloise stands tall against overwhelming odds—crippling injuries, religious tyrants—and continues her journey from obscurity to greatness with the help of alchemically-empowered armor and an unbreakable spirit. No longer just a shell-shocked girl, she is now a figure of revolution whose cause grows ever stronger. But the time for hiding underground is over. Heloise must face the tyrannical Order and win freedom for her people.
I’m just a woman who has been hard done, who has lost those who she loved. I am angry, and I am tired, and I am through making deals. (p. 245)
Let’s first acknowledge author Myke Cole’s feminism. Heloise is a hero for all times, but it also important to note that Heloise is a young woman leading the battle against the totalitarian religious government. In The Armored Saint, she literally had greatness thrust upon her. In The Queen of Crows she begins to accept the leadership role she finds herself in and works to be the leader her people need her to be.
Cole does not make a big deal out of making his protagonist a young woman, and I’d like to say neither should his readers. But it is a big deal because so much genre writing is overwhelming men fighting to save the day. Cole shows us a woman who is up to the task of leadership and fighting against the dangers of the oppressive regime called the Order.
Brother Tone, on the other hand, not only wants to put the village in its place as devoted to the Order, he wants to put Heloise in her place as woman. At every turn, he sneers and belittles her, and those who she has sworn to protect.
Heloise is imperfect. Stubborn, insecure, paranoid, with a narrow world view. At one point, she has gone through so much she refuses to leave her alchemy powered suit of armor for any reason. The armor has become talisman, protecting her emotionally from all the horrors she’s survived in service to both her village and the bands of Kipti they encounter.
The Kipti are led by the wisdom of women who have a few magical tricks in their toolbox to be used against the Order. And while the Kipti are nomadic, and suspicious of people who want to settle into a village, they recognize the mutual enemy and combine resources.
Reluctantly recognizing Heloise as leader, the two bands of Kipti come to realize that she in her armor, who killed a devil in The Armored Saint, is the best hope for a victory against the Order.
Victory doesn’t come in The Queen of Crows. It is an agonizing, brutal story which deals both with the realities of war and of going against a regime whose demand of loyalty to the Emperor grates against everything Heloise has come to question.
It is also a story of hope against tyranny as word spreads across the land that a Palantine, an Armored Saint has gone to war against the Order. That a young woman is delivering all from the hell that is totalitarianism.
“You are Heloise the Armored Saint, who turns back the tide, who delivers the wretched from misfortune, who will save us all.” (p. 250)
Heloise is no Joan d’Arc who believed in her God given leadership to support Charles VII, reclaiming France from England. Heloise doubts herself, and her role in her war. She is a reluctant leader, herself questioning her wisdom, her ability, even her gender to lead. But as people gather to follow her, she knows she must and follows her instincts.
Heloise has her detractors. They don’t much question a female leader as much as they question how this young, inexperienced villager could possibly lead them against the Order. Further, these few wonder why they should be following her at all since it was at her hands the Order is now intent on putting down the unrest.
Both The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows can be read through a feminist lens celebrating the young woman who questions the status quo and leads her followers against tyranny. They can also be enjoyed as ripping good tales, which happen to have a leader who is a woman.
I am of the opinion that Myke Cole, and Heloise, should be recognized for deliberately making choices which demand more of genre, both readers and writers.
Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance Author: Michael Moorcock Published: 2004 Publisher: Monkeybrain Books Publisher’s Blurb: … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.
“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.” (p14)
Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read. Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.
And yes, Moorcock is frustrating. He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments. His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right. And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?
“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” (p 18)
In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about. Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.” Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.
This too, resonated with me. “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.” I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.
“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story. Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes. The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.
Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves. Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.
Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.
Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance. Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.” While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.
Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external. The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.
An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft. “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated …” (p. 55) (emphasis mine)
And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.” (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.
Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters. Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man. (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)
Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy. Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).
Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot. Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind. So too should epic fantasy characters.
It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116) Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.
Chapter 5 “Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books. The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.
Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120)tickles me no end. And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.
Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive. Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)
This made me ponder how I read. I read books, in search of good stories, not genre. Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.
I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.
Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies. That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.
The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is. But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.
Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of. It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing. Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure. Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.