I learned about this Diverse Universe project way too late to participate, but of course it’s exactly what I started doing with book reviews on this blog two years ago. Some of the books are ones I’ve read and reviewed, but many of them are not, so I’ve got a bunch more books to add to my reading list. Check it out!
This also reminds me that I meant to post a bit about The Kingdom of Gods after I read it ages ago.
So it turns out that when you stop working in your PJ on the couch and actually go to an office every morning, it’s a lot harder to use the time when you can’t sleep and can’t stand to stay in bed anymore to write blog posts. But I read the first two books of N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy this summer, and now the third book is due out in a month so I thought I’d tell a little story about reading them.
I’d had The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms on my library “for later” list long enough that when I finally put a hold on one, I mixed up which book was the first and got The Broken Kingdoms. Which I then read over the course of about 3 days. And then a few days after that, I found myself on the bus with no unread books on my kindle, and I bought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on the spot. I think that was a Thursday or Friday, because I definitely spent the next Saturday ignoring all the chores I’d planned so I could finish it. So, you know, I liked the books.
I haven’t pre-ordered The Kingdom of Gods, but only because we just moved and spent a bunch of money in the process and I’m limiting unnecessary spending for a little while. I’m like #5 on the holds list at the library. I’m thinking N. K. Jemisin is a woman to watch.
Malinda Lo was born in China and grew up in Colorado. Ash is her first novel, but her second, Huntress, came out earlier this month. I am pretty excited to have more great young adult fantasy to read. Ash is, in the author’s own words, “a lesbian retelling of Cinderella.” Now, if you’re me, that plus a quick peek at the star rating on Amazon (average is 4) is enough to send you straight to the library to place a hold, but maybe you are not me, and are not so inherently excited about fairy tale retellings, or ladies falling in love with each other. Maybe you need some convincing! Allow me to convince you.
First, the thing about Cinderella retellings is that they have the potential to be really annoying. Because Cinderella is basically a story about how, if you’re nice enough and dutiful enough and obey abusive jerks without ever complaining, someday a prince will notice how beautiful you are and rescue you through the best thing that can happen to a beautiful girl: marriage! And you know, that’s kind of an annoying story to those of us who don’t think obedience and beauty are the most important virtues a woman can have, or that marriage to a prince is the only satisfactory life plan.
Fortunately for us modern ladies, Malinda Lo doesn’t seem to care much for the traditional Cinderella virtues either. Important elements of the story are there: Ash’s mother is dead, her stepmother is horrible to her and her stepsisters (mostly) follow suit, she dances in disguise with a prince at a ball, there’s midnight and disappearing ball gowns and fairy intervention, but Ash’s story is definitely not about being rescued by a prince.
The book begins with the death of 12-year-old Aisling’s mother. Her mother was one of a decreasing number of women who believe in the old stories of fairies and magic, and the local greenwitch argues with Ash’s father about teaching Ash the old ways. Belief in fairies and other magical creatures is slowly being replaced by the teachings of foreign philosophers. Their philosophy is never really explained, but there are hints throughout the story that the culture of Ash’s nameless country is in a period of transition. But Ash is just a little girl who misses her mother terribly, who spends lonely nights by her mother’s grave in the Forest, until one night she’s found by a group of fairies. They leave her alone that night, but years later, after Ash’s father remarried a selfish social climber and then died himself, leaving his new family with debts they demand Ash work to repay, Ash escapes again in the Forest. She finds a fairy path that leads to her mother’s grave, and with it she finds Sidhean, a fairy man who has taken in interest in Ash.
Ash’s life is hard, and she finds little pleasure in it, so the prospect of giving herself up to a fairy is enticing. Her relationship with Sidhean is odd and distant. The first few times they meet, she asks him if he is going to kill her, and though Ash is never directly suicidal, her attraction to Sidhean seems to arise in part from a lack of attachment to her own life – the stories of strange things happening to humans taken by fairies hold more interest for Ash than the world she lives in.
But then she meets the king’s huntress – women traditionally lead hunts in Ash’s country, and the best huntress leads the Royal Hunt. At first it is merely a series of coincidental encounters, but as Ash gets to know the woman, Kaisa, she finds herself less interested in a permanent escape from the world she knows. But her stepfamily and Sidhean stand in the way of any paths she might choose for herself.
Ash is a beautifully-written, slow-moving book. There’s a dreamy, remote character to the style, much the way Ash walks through her life without really inhabiting it. It’s hard for a Cinderella figure to be much of a fighter, given the nature of the story (except, of course, for Ella of Frell), and Ash is a dreamy and somewhat timid girl, resentful of her stepmother but seldom fighting back. But the story is about Ash’s rediscovery of her own value, and the possibility of creating a better life for herself. Which is definitely my kind of Cinderella story.
One of the things I really liked about the book was the way same-sex relationships are so casually integral to the culture Ash lives in. Or at least, lesbians. I’ve returned the book to the library so I can’t check to see if gay male couples were mentioned, but there are fairy tales about women who fall in love with each other, and women casually take other women as lovers. Marriage is still clearly between a man and a woman, and also clearly the most important priority for many women – I get the impression that noblewomen are more socially restricted this way. They’re not supposed to learn trades to support themselves, they’re supposed to depend on men, which sort of rules out taking another woman as your life partner. But, although there are several elements of Ash’s relationship that are transgressive in her circumstances, the fact that they are both women is not. I think it’s important to have stories that portray what it’s like to be gay (or bisexual or any flavor of queer! these are labels that are clearly not a part of Ash’s culture) when you’re surrounded by people who think that means there’s something wrong with you, but I also think it’s great to have stories, particularly for younger audiences, where falling in love with a person is just a thing that happens, and sometimes that person you fall in love with is a man, and sometimes it’s a woman, and it’s all love. But, you know, that’s just the Insidious Gay Agenda talking.
I keep reading books by this lady, and I just keep wanting to read more! I even bought The Salt Roads this weekend from the Friends of the Library book sale. I guess I like her writing.
This latest, The New Moon’s Arms I actually listened to as an audiobook, so I’m going to include a little section at the end reviewing specifically the audiobook listening experience, not just the story itself. Which is rather different from the previous two Hopkinson novels I read. Instead of being an action-filled plot set sometime in the future, The New Moon’s Arms is a character novel set in the present day, on a group of fictional Caribbean islands.
The book opens at the funeral for Calamity Lambkin’s father. We quickly learn that Calamity had a difficult relationship with him, and that her relationship with her own grown daughter has its troubles, too. Some odd things happen during the funeral and the reception, and Calamity becomes reacquainted with a man her father had mentored when she was young. A chain of events is set into motion that brings Calamity face-to-face, sometimes rather literally, with her past, and forces her to deal with a number of difficult truths about her life. It definitely counts as speculative fiction, but in a more…intimate way than Hopkinson’s others. The main conceit is that Calamity’s menopausal hot flashes are bringing with them lost objects from her past, which becomes apparent fairly quickly. The other part would be a spoiler, and you will have to learn its secrets along with Calamity herself.
I’m finding it a bit difficult to give my usual plot summary for this book, because it’s really not about the plot. The only big events happen early on, when Calamity finds an injured young boy washed up on the beach the morning after the funeral, and then at the climax of the story, which obviously I am not going to explain. Everything in between is a sort of leisurely build-up, getting to know Calamity, the people around her, and what has led her to the life she has. Sprinkled in between are bits of other narratives, including scenes from Calamity’s childhood, local legends and history, and other tidbits that help flesh out the world. Being a character novel, the main attraction is of course, Calamity herself, and I found her an eminently enjoyable narrator. The story is again written in a Caribbean dialect – obviously, being a first-person narration by a Caribbean woman, and the language is beautiful, evocative and funny in Calamity’s voice. She’s a quick-tempered, proud woman with a wicked sense of humor. She has her share of flaws, in particular a rather nasty anti-queer attitude, but for the most part her heart is in the right place. The story is mainly about her gradual confrontation and acceptance of those old hurts, and the beginning of healing, many years later.
Normally I find it awfully hard to like a homophobic character, whatever their other charms, but in Calamity it’s so clearly not malice, but misplaced pain and defensiveness, and she is otherwise so honest and self-aware, that all I want to do is shake her shoulders and tell her what a fool she’s being. Fortunately, she has her own daughter to see her clearly and tell it like it is.
So the story is about mending old pain, allowing the repair of old relationships and the growth of new ones. But it’s also about life in a small Caribbean nation, the economy, politics and culture of island life. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, but Hopkinson has lived in Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, and Cayaba surely felt convincing to me. It’s also a little bit about freedom and transformation, and about seals, and who can resist an adorable endangered mammal?
The audiobook is narrated by an actress named Gin Hammond, who is just wonderful at capturing Calamity’s personality. A lot of audiobook narrators are good at reading but not so great at acting, exactly. Which is basically to be expected, since an audiobook is not a dramatic production, but with a character like Calamity it’s nice to hear someone who can convincingly deliver emotions and inflections the way people really speak. The distinction between other characters’ voices were sometimes a bit more subtle than I’d like, and the production overall makes it really hard to distinguish any jumps in the narrative other than chapter breaks. There’s barely a pause before switching to a different viewpoint, or a break in time of a couple of days, which was confusing sometimes. In general though, The New Moon’s Arms is exactly the sort of audiobook I like best – where the sound of the language itself is a distinctive part of the book, and the pace is relaxed but not uneventful (I listen mainly while I’m lying awake at night waiting to fall asleep, and books that really great at suspense and tension and stuff can be counterproductive). I found parsing the unfamiliar speech patterns easier while listening than reading, and Hammond’s voice is lovely. In fact, I’m afraid I might not have liked the book as much if I’d only read it on the page, though the excellent reviews on Amazon (and the fact that I felt completely the opposite from the one 3-star review) suggest that I still would have liked it a lot.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I believe I have a non-verbal learning disability. Self-diagnosed, but I don’t need to be a trained child psychologist to know that I’m unusually clumsy, get easily disoriented and confused in unfamiliar surroundings (I have some great stories about getting lost! and by great I mean they range from kind of terrifying to super-embarrassing-but-we-laugh-about-it-now), have a very poor visual memory but a great auditory memory, and trouble with non-verbal social cues. I can’t tell you about what my motor skills development was like when I was young, but I was definitely verbally precocious, and my social skills used to be lot worse than they are now. I also can remember having a lot of trouble understanding what the point of some stories were, even when I could easily read all the words.
So here I am trying to make my way as an interaction designer, which requires a certain proficiency with visual communication. I wouldn’t say that I have trouble coming up with design ideas, but sometimes you really need to be able to sketch them out in order to communicate them to someone else, and that can be a problem. And a whole lot of people like to write books about how everyone can draw, you just have to develop the right ways of seeing and stop being critical of yourself, practice until you get better, etc, etc. But I have yet to see a single piece of advice on drawing or sketching that addressed what I think of as my major obstacles: remembering what I see, and visualizing what I’ve never seen. I’ve taken art classes and made plenty of competent if not beautiful sketches of a thing that I could look at; looking at what’s in front of me and getting that on paper is not my problem. My problem is standing at a whiteboard trying to draw the visual form of something that is in my head as words and feelings and abstractions. My problem is trying to remember which way the lines of perspective go for a building and not realizing I’m wrong until I’ve produced something not just ugly but unrecognizable.
So I’m trying to develop my own kind of “learn to draw” system that focuses on improving my visual memory and getting to the point where I can reliably visualize and then produce simple, common shapes and items to build up a sketch of the kinds of things I’ll need to be able to draw. In the past two years I’ve filled a lot of sketchbook pages with funny-looking cartoon hands, let me tell you.
For the visual memory exercises, what I do is look for a photograph on flickr or something with high-contrast shapes and areas that I could recognizably reproduce in sketch form. I spend time studying the photograph, trying to take note of basic shapes, proportions, angles, that sort of thing. Then I look away from it and sketch what I can see of the photograph in my memory. Or at least, I’m hoping to work up to that. Right now what I do is I look away from the computer screen, draw a few lines, try to remember another area of the photograph and give up and look back. But I always leave a little time in between looking away and starting to draw, so that I’m never simultaneously drawing and referencing the image. One recent attempt began with emo pony, and produced this:
I’m also reading various “how to draw” books, but the usefulness of the advice to my situation varies. I know how to draw circles and squares and triangles, yes. I know it is possible to put them all together to make more complicated shapes. I know how to carefully study a thing in front of me and separate the shortcuts and tricks of my visual processing system from what the thing literally looks like, in order to accurately draw what’s there instead of what I think I see. None of this really helps if I need to draw a cat real quick and I can’t remember what a cat looks like well enough to decompose it into smaller shapes that another person would then also recognize as a cat. What I want is to develop a simplified, cartoon visual of a cat that I can remember and reproduce reliably. That’s where a book like Ed Emberley’s Make a World comes in. All of Ed Emberley’s drawing books consist of step-by-step instructions for building little cartoon objects out of simple shapes. And it’s not like all those how to draw books where they show you how to sketch in a bunch of circles and curvy lines and whatever and then ink in a ton of details and erase all the pencil lines. You know, like this:
With Ed, you just keep adding simple shapes until they all make up the final shape. And so far, it’s been fun! I can definitely follow the directions to sketch cute little cartoon cars and horses and chairs and stuff. And mostly, if I concentrate, I don’t screw it up too badly. Here’s what a couple days of going through the book and choosing objects to draw has produced:
The next step I think will be making this approach to drawing something that I can replicate without having the book open in front of me. Which could be interesting, what with the poor visual memory and all. I might add it to my daily photo drawing exercise. Perhaps after I return the book to the library I’ll go back to the drawings I’ve made, choose one object, study the shapes that it’s made of and then try to recreate it without looking.
The next step after that of course is to be able to come up with my own simple cartoon versions of objects, just based on knowing a thing I want to draw. I’m not sure whether that is an achievable long-term goal or not. Feel free to reassure me on this point, but if you don’t know firsthand what it’s like to get lost on your way to a classroom that you successfully found the previous three weeks, you’ll have to forgive me for being skeptical.
If you do have an NVLD and want to tell me stories about how you managed to improve your visual memory and spatial reasoning skills, please do! Please.
When I began concentrating on seeking out new SF authors of color, I saw Nnedi Okorafor’s name come up repeatedly – though sometimes it was Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, the name she used when a few of her early novels were published. Until recently, the Seattle Public Library’s online catalog search was quite terrible, and not knowing the exact author name to search for was but one of many obstacles to finding the right book. But I got my hands on one eventually.
Okorafor is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, with frequent trips to Nigeria to maintain ties there. Her books tend to be set in West Africa, when they’re not set in fantastic fictional lands. The Shadow Speaker
is her second novel. It’s set in the same universe as her debut, Zahrah the Windseeker, and while it’s difficult to tell from short plot summaries, I believe most of her other novels are set there as well.
This universe is post-apocalyptic not-too-distant future. Yes, another post-apocalyptic YA novel. But Okorafor’s apocalypse is not like most others. It started when a powerful ecoterrorist created what he called Peace Bombs, designed to counteract nuclear missiles. The exact nature of the Peace Bombs is never clearly explained, but it seems they are at least partly the product of magic belonging to a world called Ginen, a kind of other dimension with ties to Earth, and their inventor declared they would create such a diversity of humankind that war would be impossible – there would be too many groups for anyone to choose sides. At any rate, a massive launch of nuclear weapons and subsequent release of Peace Bombs created an event known as The Great Change. In the world after the Great Change, landscapes were transformed, places that were once far away have become connected, and forests or lakes might spring up overnight, or disappear just as quickly. Ginen and Earth are much more connected than they once were, and there are rumors of other worlds one can also get to. And humans have been transformed, too. Some humans, at least, are born with special powers.
14-year-old Ejii is such a person, growing up in Niger after the Great Change. She’s a shadow speaker, which means she has unusual perception – she has very good eyesight, and can understand things spoken by shadows, ghosts of the dead. Or least, she’s supposed to be able to understand them. When a fiery and powerful woman named Saurinaya Jaa wants Ejii to travel with her to a meeting in the mysterious Ginen, Ejii faces a choice. Shadow speakers are driven to travel as their powers develop, but traveling alone after the Change is always dangerous, and even more so for shadow speakers. Ejii’s mother forbids her to go, and Ejii herself is afraid of what might happen to her outside her village, but the shadows insist her presence is vital to preventing a great war between Ginen and Earth.
The story, of course, would be less interesting if Ejii chose to stay home. Ejii faces a lot of danger, from hostile people and forces, to her own growing powers. Along the way we get tantalizing glimpses of the sprawling world that Okorafor has built. And I believe it is only the second SF book I’ve read with a Muslim main character – and I confess I never did finish Midnight’s Children. Okorafor’s writing style is direct and evocative. Ejii’s not the most charismatic character, but as her relationships with Jaa and her other traveling companions developed, I warmed to her.
So, I was enjoying the book pretty well, and then the main villain showed up, and he’s extremely fat, and described uncritically as disgusting and offensive. I am really, really ready to never again see fatness used as a shorthand for greed, wastefulness, moral corruption or being emotionally damaged – or all at the same time, in this case. I know y’all read Dune at an impressionable age and insulting fat people for fun is practically a national pastime at this point, but it’s time to move on. Work a little harder, pick a less obvious/overused/hurtful-to-actual-people metaphor. Mr. Glueskin in Half-World comes to mind as an effective alternative that manages to capture all those character elements (and bonus terrifying gruesomeness!). Consumption is still an important part of what makes him so awful, but he’s made of glue, not fat, and he’s paired with a protagonist who’s been picked on for her weight. See how that works?
Now, I finished Shadow Speaker, and there’s still a lot I like about, and I definitely plan on reading Who Fears Death
soon, but I really hope this device is not a trend on Okorafor’s part, because I don’t want to start a book already dreading part of what I’ll be reading. I mean, why else am I avoiding all but the most carefully-vetted books by white dudes these days?
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine shared a link to this article about video games and art. It’s long, but worth a read, if it’s something you care about. Or even if it’s not; I’m more comfortable talking about art from a sociological than a philosophical perspective, and I’m not much invested in the question of whether or not video games qualify. But I am interested in media theory and the aforementioned sociological implications of things like art and video games – and this is one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read in some time.
I thought a lot about the kinds of aesthetic experiences I look for from different kinds of media, and whether or not they’re “art.” Moriarty spends a fair amount of time kind of talking around his definition of art, until he finally pulls out the Schopenhauer. I honestly have no idea whether or not I agree with that definition, it’s so far from the way I approach my life and my cultural consumption that I just kind of squint and shrug. It does remind me of Buddhism though, which makes me wonder whether Moriarty would agree that Buddhist meditation is art. Is anything that gets you closer to giving up desire and imposing your will on the world a kind of art, or is there maybe some other unspoken component to the definition here?
But I’m actually a lot more interested in the definition of art implied by his definition of kitsch – since Moriarty is clear that kitsch is not sublime art, anything that kitsch is, art must not be. And as I agree completely with just about everything Moriarty says about kitsch (I would just add some comments about kitsch’s role in things like shared meaning-making and social signifiers – the lines between high and low art, and the very idea of high art as something that’s “good for you” are fraught with class implications), I find it a lot more productive than contemplating philosophy about the essential nature of human existence in the universe.
so, point by point:
1) “Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.”
Fine art then, must be either not highly emotionally charged – and it seems unlikely that either Ebert or Moriarty would agree that dull art is good art – or its emotions must not be “stock” emotions. The feelings are complicated, and particular, rather than necessarily universal. Small digression re: “universal:” plenty of people declare that great literature touches on universal human concerns, but I’ve found just as many people use declarations like that to exclude literature written by people not like them as not “universal enough” for true greatness. It’s easy to call a work “universal” if it reflects back at you the world you see every day rather than presenting a view of the world you’ve never experienced. That doesn’t mean it will actually speak to the experiences of everyone who might read it. I want better words for what the “universal” sentiment is trying to express about great art.
At any rate, this first characteristic of kitsch suggests that art necessarily involves some level of emotional judgment on the part of the consumer. It should not be immediately obvious to the intended audience how they ought to feel about various objects and themes in the work.
2) “The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.”
There are no tricks, metaphors, or symbolism. “There’s never any doubt about what it is you’re looking at. It’s a leprechaun, and only a leprechaun. It’s Santa Claus, and only Santa Claus.” So, objects depicted in art may not always be what they seem – they might be used as stand-ins for some other object or idea that the artist wants to comment on. It takes careful study, and a certain level of familiarity with the range of ideas the artist is drawing on, to find other possible meanings for a piece of art.
3) “(and most important) Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.”
This is the most important aspect for me, too. With most of the books I read (I spend a lot more time consuming novels than I do most visual art or movies, so this is my basic frame of reference for questions of artistic virtue), I know going into it what I’m going to get out of it. The pieces I expect line up in the ways I expect, with the outcomes I expect. Not in all details, that would be too boring to be enjoyable, but the outlines are familiar. It’s entertainment, to pass the time or to help me relax. But then sometimes I want something different from a book than to be comforted or made happy. So then I read something else – Nabokov, or Garcia Marquez, or Helen De Witt’s The Last Samurai (no connection to the movie. also, read it!). Or one of Ursula Le Guin’s “great” novels, like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed.
When I read one of these books, I want several things. Primarily, I want to be changed. I want to come out of the reading experience seeing something differently, thinking about it differently, feeling about it differently. While I read, I want to be able to stop and feel the contours of my mind shifting. The other thing I want is a kind of richness, and layering of meaning, that means if I come back to the book later, that I will see it differently. The shifting happens all over again, because of the other changes that have happened to me since the last time I read it.
And I can’t really think of any video games that have given me those kinds of experiences. I am what you might call a “casual gamer,” but I live with the other kind and have certainly seen quite a few video games being played. I guess playing lots of first-person shooters might change me, but not in a way I’d particularly like. The closest I’ve ever come to this artistic experience from a game is don’t shoot the puppy. Playing it was a surprisingly intense emotional experience for me, that became almost meditative. The fact that don’t shoot the puppy is fundamentally about inaction does suggest a certain support for Moriarity’s argument, but it’s just one data point.
I did play Braid, one of the games frequently put forward as a candidate for art, and while playing it definitely stretched my brain, it stretched it the same way solving a difficult programming problem does, not the way, say, Borges does. Somehow I don’t think Moriarty’s definition is what Donald Knuth means by art.
Ever since Interactions 11 happened and I followed the hashtag religiously on twitter, I’ve been kicking around a post in the back of my head about how experiences belong to people, and people vary, and designers can’t actually control end users, and so whenever I have a choice, I’d rather call what I do interaction design than “experience design.”
But the smart people over at Smashing Magazine pulled out the big words and the theory and explained it all way better than I would have. Go forth and read. And remember: people’s experiences are their own. You cannot dictate them. Not in design, not in anything else.
Oh, and I have another half-formed rant about how people are not “materials” that you use to create your design, either. Because they’re people, and you cannot control them. Maybe I’ll concentrate on that one.
Justine Larbalestier is an Australian young adult and fantasy author. I’d previously read her Magic or Madness trilogy, which I found to be entertaining but not especially impressive. But Liar is a very different sort of book. When I’d first started it, I thought it was, in terms of genre, a typical “realistic” fiction thriller, and was surprised to see it show up on The Carl Brandon Society’s site. I’d originally been listening to the audiobook, and got most of the way through the first section before the suspicious ipod disappearance, and while I’d more or less enjoyed it, it was sort of losing my attention, part of why I never did try to listen to it again. I’ve read some more reviews now that I’ve finished, and I’m not the only one who thought the end of Part 1 dragged a bit. But oh, it was so, so worth it to finish.
Now that I have finished it, I know why it qualified for the Carl Brandon Society and also why I hadn’t seen any hint of that before I started reading. The first big twist (but so definitely not the last) comes at the beginning of Part 2, but saying what it is would be a completely unfair spoiler. An unreliable narrator with a biased interpretation or worldview is one thing, but the immediate narrator-as-radically-untrustworthy premise makes the book a bit difficult to talk about, because so much of the experience is wondering how much of what Micah tells you is true, and what is another lie. The story is also told in a highly non-linear fashion, jumping between “before” and “after” the pivotal death of Micah’s classmate, with occasional forays into “family history” and Micah’s own childhood.
The only other time I’ve been so unable to trust the basic account of events in a story is Pale Fire. But Charles Kinbote’s motives and the pattern of his delusions are there to be teased out, among all of Nabokov’s other narrative tricks (some people think they’re a whole lot more buried than I do, but I find them unconvincing). Micah is just such a damn good liar. Her voice is so compelling, and her motives and her own inner feelings so layered with deception, I’m still not sure what to think. There’s a definite lady-or-tiger element, in that one’s choice of interpretations say as much about the reader as the story itself, and of course Larbalestier’s position is “what do you think really happened?” The things she states unequivocally are: Micah is 17, biracial, she lives in the East Village of New York City, and she had a reciprocal relationship with Zach. Which is nice if you crave authoritative certainty, but of course, authorial intent is dead and I generally feel free to distrust what artists say about their own work.
My own interpretation is that those things are true, and I do believe that Micah is at least being honest in her desire to be truthful, but mainly because the story would be about so much less, otherwise. Like I said about Pale Fire, I think if you are going to look for argue for a radically different interpretation of a story’s “truth,” it ought at least to be in service of a good narrative payoff.
The most important thing about the story is that it’s a great psychological thriller and mystery. Once I restarted the book, I finished it in an afternoon, full of all the tension and doubt a good thriller should instill, plus the extra mind-bending factor of Liar’s own peculiarities. It’s been nominated for several awards, and I certainly see why. It’s one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in some time.
My introduction to Alaya Dawn Johnson was in the anthology Zombies vs. Unicorns. I know I just said I don’t like short stories, but, I mean, Zombies vs. Unicorns. That is a battle for the ages. Plus a bunch of the contributers were young adult authors I already liked, so I had high hopes for its entertainment value, and was not disappointed. Alaya Dawn Johnson’s story of gay zombie teen romance was one of my favorites, so I looked up her other work, and the (2/3rds completed) Spirit Binders trilogy looked right up my alley.
Racing the Dark is Johnson’s debut novel. Lana is 13 and has just become eligible to join the adult women of her tropical island home in diving for the precious jewels that form inside sacred mandagah fish. Lana’s world consists of many islands, threatened by water and volcanoes, but kept safe through the Great Bindings of the spirits of Water, Fire, and Death. Maintaining those bindings is at the heart of most of island society.
On Lana’s first dive, a dying mandagah fish gives to her a special red jewel that marks her as powerful, destined to become one of the island’s elders. Lana is afraid of the prospect of having no choice but the life of an elder, so she hides the jewel. Which is, of course, always the first mistake. For a little while, everything is ok, her life is simple and peaceful, and she dreams of going to visit the cities of the “civilized’ inner islands with her childhood friend. But strange changes come to the island: heavy rains cause massive floods, and saltwater intrusions into the surrounding fresh water start to kill off the mandagah fish – and the divers’ livelihood. Lana still does not tell anyone about her marked status as the islanders struggle to save what they can of their way of life, and she moves with her family to the nearest city. Things do not go well for them in the city, and out of desperation, Lana becomes apprenticed to the strange and powerful witch Akua who has noticed Lana’s own latent power. Strange and powerful witches being what they are, things are not all as they seem, and Lana becomes caught up in great and dangerous events.
Roger Ebert has coined the term “idiot plot” to describe movie plots that only make sense if all of the main characters are complete idiots who can’t think of the obvious solutions to their problems. I’m not going to claim that Racing the Dark has an idiot plot, but man, it’s hard to sit back and watch Lana make the choices she makes, when my genre-savvy perspective makes it so obvious they’re mistakes. Ok, hiding the jewel when you’re thirteen because you’re scared and just want to be normal is a pretty typical move, and entirely understandable. But when you go to live with a mysterious witch who won’t answer your questions and does kind of awful things to the people who come to her for magical help, and practically your only friend is a water sprite who keeps trying to warn you about trusting the witch, well, you really ought to start getting suspicious sometime. You know, try a little harder to get some information, figure out some alternative to doing everything Akua says…something! Lana has flashes of doubt now and then, but she just kind of shrugs them off and keeps going, and I didn’t even understand why. There are a lot of things I loved about this book: the setting and culture are wonderfully detailed and interesting, the plot is many-layered, and you can feel the wheels within wheels all slowly building up to something dramatic, but for the first 2/3rds of the book, I hardly got any sense of Lana’s motivations, or even her relationship with Akua – I’m told about it, but never really see its foundations. There are some scenes where Lana is unhappy with the way Akua does business, and suffers the consequences of association with her, but when it comes to making the difficult choices that set her path in motion, it’s like that never happened. I’m not asking for a completely different plot here, I just want to know why Lana acts the way she does.
I will say, the day after I finished Racing the Dark I went right back to the library and checked out the sequel – Racing the Dark has a serious cliffhanger ending, and pretty much nothing at all is explained or resolved – and Lana’s willful blindness in her time with Akua is a significant theme in The Burning City. So that was some consolation – she really has to face her failures, and the ways she was complicit in Akua’s schemes. And I liked The Burning City even more than Racing the Dark – a full review would be impossible without spoilers, since it’s basically a continuation of all of the same story, but Lana grows up a lot, becomes a more fully developed character, all kinds of crazy plot stuff happens, and there are complex and interesting characters galore. Some of those characters get into really difficult ethical arguments with each other, and while I know which side my heart belongs to, Johnson does a great job of showing the reasons why each side makes the choices they do, and how sometimes there are no truly right answers.
So on the whole, I liked both books very much, and since The Burning City also more or less ends with a cliffhanger, I am waiting eagerly for the third book. Sadly, as there were three years between books 1 and 2, and The Burning City just came out last June, I think I’m going to have awhile to wait. If you are like me and deal poorly with unresolved cliffhangers, I definitely suggest putting this series on your list, but maybe not reading it until book 3 is available.