Tag Archives: fiction

Review: Uprooted

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don’t know that I’ve ever boomeranged so intensely about a book. When I started reading, I would have easily given it a 5-star rating. At the end, I wanted to give it a 2. So I’m compromising and giving it a 3.
“Uprooted” is an incredible idea for anyone who likes dark fairy tales—or, you know, the originals. At the beginning, at least, it’s a Eastern European-flavored “Brothers Grimm” (yes, that wonderful/terrible movie!). And it’s rhapsodic! It’s so great! We follow the main character, (who I called “Agnes” in my head because I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it), a peasant girl without much in her favor, as she is swept up by a stern and mysterious wizard to live for a term of 10 years in his brooding and chilly tower. He is known as “the Dragon,” and the story opens with a clever play on the “dragon abducting virgins” trope. In fact, that’s what I loved about the beginning: it is SO clever, and has such beautiful writing, and is so unexpected in so many ways. Things in the evil Wood were literally downright terrifying in ways you never see in modern fairytales anymore; Novik really knew how to make them scary!

And I was so completely on board—yes, this! Give me more of this! It’s so wonderful!

And then I started to get annoyed. And then really really pissed off.

The following airing of the grievances will be spoilery. Stop now if you’re thinking of reading it and want to be surprised.

It’s not too surprising that Agnes discovers she has magical abilities: she’s the heroine, it happens! But when the story went from “she has magic and it’s really really hard” to “she has magic and also she’s the best in the whole wide world,” I had a problem.

The story takes place over 1 year, and she’s like 16 or 18. She definitively begins the story as a confused young teen girl, all gawky knees and teen confusion and angst. But by the end, she seems… 25? 30? Very knowing and self-confident and instinctively talented at magic. But is there a logical progression between these two points? Hell no. Just 2/3 of the way through the book, Agnes just completely changes personalities. And because she’s the best most magicalist and youngest and suddenly confidentest and whatever, she comes across as a ridiculous Mary Sue character. There’s an early struggle, then other totally unrelated stuff happens, and suddenly she’s the best. Gag me.

Then there’s the forced and utterly unnecessary romance. It feels like someone late in the process said “you know what this book needs? Someone needs to have some sex!” But that is exactly what I found charming about the early part of the book—she had this really interesting (and frankly, rare) teacher-student relationship with the Dragon. It was perfect just as it was, as a deep if perhaps confusing connection. But then they have sex for no good reason…and it is totally inconsequential to the plot. I don’t know why I had to read it! Why did it matter? I don’t care! Plus it is totally creepy that he’s several hundred years old and she is, don’t forget, 16. This weirdness is even mentioned, and Agnes just laughs it off! No, address it! It’s weird! How is it not weird? Give me a reason, make it mean something, don’t just shoehorn a romantic subplot in there because it’s a woman-led story!

Then there’s the whole thing with the royal family. Just everything in that section…I don’t care. You know why? A bunch of characters are introduced and then murdered in very quick succession, and I am never given a chance to understand why they are important. And the Wood was already mysterious and dangerous as it was. Decamping the storyline to another city (and separating the Dragon and Agnes) just felt entirely unnecessary. And I really truly just don’t care what is happening to the royals. That could have been a sequel, but it felt crammed into this novel and for no good reason. It would have been better without it.

And the last thing that annoyed me was purely in the writing: characters seeming to think things to themselves but other characters answering as if they’d been speaking, and characters having multiple names, not always with the new name explained or even introduced in a logical way. The first issue made it seem like characters were reading minds, and that was just weird and unnecessary, and the second issue made it seem like there were a lot more characters than there really were, and then I had to go back and reread to figure stuff out.

I don’t know what to make of this book. I LOVED the first half. It was amazing. I loved the characters, I loved the ideas, I was afraid of the scary things, the writing was beautiful. The end was pretty okay, I guess, even if I disagree with a few nits. But from midway to nearly the end? Throw that right out. Rubbish.

Read at your own risk.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Review: The President’s Shadow

The President's Shadow (Culper Ring, #3)The President’s Shadow by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Before the rest of this review, let me say that I deeply enjoy Meltzer’s premise with this series. It’s basically, “wow, presidential history is really neat, let me make it into a mystery novel about a nerdy archivist!”

I totally love that.

This book? I only kinda liked. It just didn’t grab me like some of the others have, and I found one character flat-out annoying, another hard to relate to, and a third predictably mustache-twirling. I’d still really like to have dinner with the protagonist, but the rest of the book was just…meh. Maybe it’s always been that way and I just now noticed it, but the chapters in this book were remarkably short and jumpy, and it kept me from feeling like I could really get into the story when I knew I’d just be jumping heads in about 2 pages. I feel like Meltzer was reaching for something more ominous for this one, but it just fell flat for me. Maybe I can jump back on the bandwagon with the next book.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

3 Comments

Filed under Conventional, Publishing, writing

Review: The Hobbit

The Hobbit (Middle-Earth Universe)The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read The Hobbit when I was in third grade (it took me the entire school year to get through The Lord of the Rings), but I haven’t reread it since. It was good to look at it fresh, with almost-new perspective (I admit, my view was slightly tainted by the Peter Jackson movies).
What I found was delightful storytelling, a really long hike, memorable characters…and sloppy or abbreviated action and a lot of out-of-nowhere problems and solutions. The deus ex machina really went wild for this book!

In case you’ve been living in a hole (hobbit or otherwise), The Hobbit is the prequel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It features hobbit Bilbo Baggins, a comfortable chap who gets roped into a burglary quest for dwarven treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug. He and his 13 dwarven companions (and occasional wizard friend Gandalf) undergo many trials just to get to the Lonely Mountain, and many more trying to get the gold and secure their victory. It’s particularly important in that it describes how the One Ring comes to Bilbo Baggins’ ownership, setting his nephew Frodo Baggins on his path in the subsequent books.

I know that pointing out some weaknesses in the story seems like blasphemy for a lot of people in the fantasy realm, or even loosely on the fantasy realm, but I’m just not sure The Hobbit held up compared to my idea of what The Hobbit was. I hadn’t remembered most of the end of the book, and I think there’s a good reason: the Battle of the Five Armies is just a handful of pages with little description, there are super-magical creatures coming out of nowhere to save the heroes, and then an overly detailed recap of a walk back that doesn’t really amount to anything. I thought I remembered a story with a lot more Smaug dragon awesomeness, but was disappointed to see that much of the action with Smaug is fairly minimal: it’s a lot of the dwarves or Bilbo guessing at what the dragon is doing while they cower in a dark tunnel.

In short, I can see why Peter Jackson felt the need to diverge from the source: it would have made a terrible movie (here are the dwarves, hiding in a cave. Meanwhile at Laketown, some guy you’ve never seen before is trying to be brave. Also, did you know there are talking crows?!)

It often seems like Tolkien didn’t know what he wanted to do with the story, or had written himself into a corner, so he just tossed in some other element and hoped it worked out. And it does, sort of, but when it happens again and again and again… it seems less convincing. Comparing the troll scene in the beginning of the book with the Battle of the Five Armies at the end–which ought to be much more epic and thus detailed–they are about the same descriptively. While the foundation is there, much of the major things are left entirely to the reader. (It’s odd, actually, what is described in detail and what is brushed over. War buffs need to look elsewhere for their reenactments, but if you want to know the full contents of a hobbit’s larder, you’re in the right place.) And, of course, if you’re in a tight spot, the Eagles will probably be along shortly.

Another flaw the movies tried to amend is the complete and utter lack of female characters. I think the only time women were even mentioned were in crowd scenes, mostly involving the desolation of Laketown. Oh good, they’re cowering in boats…. do women have nothing at all to contribute? I remember this bothered me even as a kid. Obviously The Hobbit was written in a different era, but it does make it a smidgeon harder to swallow as a modern reader.

I still very much enjoy this story. I miss this kind of narration style, where the author frequently interjects, speaking directly to the reader about things that have happened or will. It’s charming. Let’s bring that back. It makes it seem most like a story that needs to be read aloud over many dark nights next to a fire. Perhaps in the flickering flames, the listeners can better imagine the gold reflecting off a dragon’s hoard, or relate to the anxiety caused by a long trip far from home. Maybe those listeners will be able to feel more fond of this fantasy classic, unclouded with concerns about the structural issues.

Still, I don’t regret heading there and back again.

View all my reviews

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Inclusion as Rebellion: Adding Diversity in Fiction

Tales from Earthsea poster

It shouldn’t be surprising that Hollywood made the cast white when they made a movie version. But apparently it’s also just a really bad film.

I didn’t happen to think much of Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, but I did absolutely love the author’s afterward. In it, she talks about writing A Wizard of Earthsea in 1967, and how she ever-so-quietly tried to subvert convention. Her rebellion? The main character, Sparrowhawk, and the vast majority of the “good guy” supporting cast, are all non-white people. The people who are pale are seen as the dangerous outsiders.

She writes: “I was bucking the racist tradition, ‘making a statement’—but I made it quietly, and it went almost unnoticed.”

But LeGuin writes about how she was, is, somewhat disappointed. It seems her rebellion was a little too subtle, and didn’t attract the notice it deserved, most notably because cover artists tended to put a white person in the artwork, and apparently many readers didn’t pick up on the many small hints of the characters’ skin color. (My copy was released in 2012, and features a hawk, no people.)

She goes on to discuss the philosophical roots of her book, how the main action turns aside from battle and war, favoring instead to be a rather quiet hero’s journey of the self (which…ok. But I found it a little too detached). But I’m fixated on that concept of trying to push cultural boundaries with fiction.

The most notable and painfully glaring example is Rue from The Hunger Games. Despite many clear mentions of Rue and her companions as black characters, some movie-goers were rabidly furious when they showed up to the film and saw the (incredible, wonderful!) acting done by Amandla Stenberg. Not only were these people poor contextual readers, apparently (seeing as they missed this fact), they felt they actually had a right to be angry about a black actor being cast for a black character. It was stomach-churning.

It’s not the only example, either. Neil Gaiman makes a point of writing in non-white characters (my favorites show up in Anansi Boys) but even so, a challenge was famously issued to stop reading books by white men which prominently featured his (multicultural) book American Gods. When some readers/fans cried foul (either because they liked Mr. Gaiman or realized that the book’s character was himself nonwhite), Gaiman stepped in to say, “no, absolutely, go read those other books. Have at it.”

And if that’s not enough for you, this year’s Hugo Awards were hijacked by a group calling themselves “Sick Puppies” who felt, for whatever reason, that books featuring straight, white, men were being somehow maligned by authors who wrote other things or who themselves came from different backgrounds. They effectively rigged the awards and caused a lot of controversy. All because science fiction authors did what they are supposed to do: push cultural boundaries.

One good thing may have come from these incidents, at least: people are talking about the power of fiction in culture, the power to change culture, and the importance of inclusion. We need more stories, from more people; different stories, interesting stories. I know for my book I worked hard to create a diverse cast of background characters from different nationalities, while also working to ensure that the main character (the reader) remained gender-neutral and accessible to just about anyone who decided to pick up the book.

Do you attempt any cultural rebellions in your books or in the books you read? Do you see value in including a variety of characters of different skin colors? Or of breaking other boundaries? Let’s talk about it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reading, Undead Rising, writing

Ender vs. Katniss: Let the Games Begin

Ender Wiggen vs. Katniss Everdeen

When I recently read Ender’s Game, I really wanted to root for him. He is the protagonist, after all! And so many people seem to really idolize him and the book. But perhaps he’s a creation of his time: we have a lot more YA heroes to look up to now!

In that spirit, here’s a head-to-head comparison of Ender Wiggen in Ender’s Game with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.*
*Note: Just to make it fair, and because I’ve only read one of Orson Scott Card’s books, we’ll hold this to JUST the first book in each series. Also, this is books only.
Name Ender Wiggen Katniss Everdeen
Problem: Problem—Picked as a child to defeat the alien bugger race, because adults say so Has to fight to the death in an arena, because adults say so
Special Talent Being smart Skill with a Bow&Arrow
Character Flaws Accidentally harming others Being generally unlikeable
Age 6-13 16
Setting Future Earth/The Battle School/space Future United States (in the form of Panem)/The Arena
Parents Essentially check out of his life forever. Father deceased; mother mentally absent.
Sister Valentine Prim
Younger Friend Bean Rue
Semi-Friendly Adult Tutor Colonel Graff Haymitch
Adult Who Kinda Cares Mazer Rackem Effie Trinket
“Friends” Alai, Petra, Dink, Shen, Bean Peeta, Rue, Gale, Cinna
People to Fight All the other kids Almost all the other kids, except Rue and Peeta
The Twist Despite thinking he’s been in training, Ender has actually been fighting the buggers…and defeated them. Katniss exploits the system of the Hunger Games to keep, for the first time, two players alive, by defying The Capitol and risking her own life.

Who Wins?

Honestly, when I was reading Ender’s Game, I figured I’d do a post like this, and the “twist ending” would be that Katniss and Ender would instead decide they are so similar that they should just be BFFs, and together they would take down the adults.

But then… the end of Ender’s Game. Ender just keeps letting himself be manipulated, even when he’s an old man! He never really seems to act on his own, in that whole book, so I can only assume that if Ender Wiggen were placed in the Hunger Games with Peeta in that final pivotal moment, he would have killed Peeta because the Gamemakers said so and then felt sad about it.

If placed in Ender’s circumstances, I feel like Katniss would constantly try to rebel against the teachers at Battle School, and would ultimately lead a student rebellion, leading to peace with the distant bugger race.

For that reason, in a direct one-to-one contest, I’ve gotta give it squarely to Katniss Everdeen.

What do you think? Who’s the stronger protagonist?

9 Comments

Filed under Reading

Put the ‘Mal’ in Maleficent

Disney offered up a brightly wrapped package of Angelina Jolie in a family-friendly live-action updated version of Maleficent. And while it was fun, kids would probably like it, and it was visually awesome…it wasn’t exactly a “classic” tale that will endure forever.

Heck, while the original Sleeping Beauty movie isn’t one of the best, it holds strong as a fairy tale and has some of the all-time best villainess scenes: classic.

But trying to make an obviously Big Bad into a Good Gal is … tough. I’m not sure it works in every case, or even if it ought to be done. I mean, the musical “Wicked” does a great job of it (but I personally found the book to be an unnecessarily dark/sexualized story that didn’t need to be told). Maleficent… would have been a great movie if it didn’t try to interlock with the original.

So I’d like to see someone else (ok, probably still Disney…) tackle a proper Maleficent redo, one that appropriately tied in with the original without changing it.

SPOILERS BELOW

So what is the problem with this incarnation?

The curse is totally changed. In the original, Maleficent curses the baby to prick her finger by sunset on her 16th birthday, causing her to die. It is only through the intervention of the Good Fairies that the curse is transmuted to “sleep-like death.”


(forgive the bad voice acting. The words are the same, though it isn’t the real actors. Disney being so tough on copyright makes it hard to find the original.)

But this one, in an effort to make our pal Maleficent not as evil, the curse is always “sleep-like death,” and we never even find out what the third fairy blesses Aurora with! (What kind of weak-sauce curse is sleep? I mean, yeah, inconvenient, but not nearly as bad as it couldda been!)

Other things that are changed:

  • The Good Fairies are not just adorably ill-equipped to be human, they are downright incompetent and therefore deadly. In this iteration, it makes exactly zero sense that the king would entrust his cursed baby to them. Aurora’s near-death experiences would probably make a good drinking game.
  • King Stefan is a bad dude. Like, not “could be interpreted as bad from a certain perspective”–just… bad. He’s probably in need of the creepy asylum guy from Beauty and the Beast. Maybe that guy can come pick him up?
  • Maleficent is not the dragon. Instead, she has a companion who changes into the dragon. Color me disappointed. More dragons, please?
  • The true-love kisser situation. I get it; it’s modernized, and we now (for good reason!) have a lot of discomfort with kissing sleeping maidens you just met. I don’t even mind the change here, but it’s a big one.
  • The whole kingdom isn’t put to sleep. I’m probably the only one disappointed by this, but I thought it was pretty cool that the whole kingdom was affected by Maleficent’s curse, and the short-circuiting of it in this film was a letdown. The kid’s been gone for 16 years; people aren’t the least bit harmed by this magic.

Alright, so they changed a lot of things: Maleficent doesn’t just embroider the original, it tore it up and started something similar but totally different.

So what would I like to see?

First, full-on no-holds barred EVIL Maleficent. I’m ok with evil folks having reasons for evil; that’s nice nuance. But make my toes curl! Scare me a little.

Second, she’s a dragon. The wings thing was neat and all, but no, I want her to be a big old scary dragon who likes to hang out in human form for some reason, except those darned horns won’t change.

Third…let’s get gritty. In my world, the kingdom’s main export is its fine fabrics and woven goods. The spinning wheel is Big Business, so this curse (to death, let’s not sugarcoat it) cleverly both imperils Aurora AND the economy of the entire kingdom. If he wants to save his daughter, the king has to destroy his people’s livelihood. If he doesn’t banish the spinners, he has doomed his daughter.

Makes the curse a whole lot more sinister, right?

So King Stefan banishes the spinning wheels, choosing to try to save his beloved daughter. But almost immediately the effects of his choice are felt, and his kingdom plummets into poverty. People start to curse the name of his daughter, and he fears for her life even more, so he sends her away to live in the woods, entrusted in the care of three fairies– a different class from Maleficent, and therefore safe from her magic.

Adopting a bit of the trope from the new Maleficent movie, maybe then we could have Maleficent come in and observe her handiwork. But I would have REALLY liked it if the curse itself is what changed Malificent’s heart: in the recent wording, Maleficent says “all who encounter her will love her…” I’d like that to extend to Maleficent, as well. So she’s hanging out, lurking around the kid, and the curse forces her to love the baby. In increasing exposure, she is helpless not to fall into her thrall.

I’d like to see where that story could go.

Like I said, a fun movie with INCREDIBLE costume design, but there were a lot of problems and plot holes (your big defense is a hallway full of spikes that you can easily dodge? Ok, Stefan, I’m thinking you weren’t really ready to be king there, buddy).

So if someone could get this version together for me–maybe Jolie can even reprise her role?–that would be swell.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized