Anthologies: the real place to read good short stories? Goodreads review of Sword and Planet from Baen Books

Sword  and Planet

Sword and Planet by Christopher Ruocchio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading through Baen’s new short story anthology Sword and Planet edited by Christopher Ruocchio, his final project as an assistant editor at Baen Books.  The anthology contains a good collection of short stories and stories by a range of authors.  My personal favorites are “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nakh-Maru” by Jessica Cluess and Ruocchio’s Sun Eater/Sollan Empire novella “Queen Amid Ashes.”  This is a story that starts out as a standard new adventure in an established world and takes a bizarre turn that really confronts the characters with an astounding moral dilemma.  I was really surprised, despite knowing that Ruocchio can absolutely pull this off (as he has in every other novel and short story I’ve read).  Other bright points include Tim Akers‘ “A Murder of Knights” and Simon R. Green’s “Saving the Emperor.”

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movies, Writing

Another turning of the Wheel? No, a fan fiction reboot

I promise this will be my last post about the Wheel of Time show on Amazon, at least for a while.  Maybe I shouldn’t promise, because I will inevitably hear something worse than the latest excuse for why the show has completely abandoned its source material.  But recently I’ve been hearing a lot of this idea that readers and viewers should be just fine with this version of the story because of the cosmology of the world in the Wheel of Time as laid out by Robert Jordan.  This is a trick, an excuse, and a particularly bad revelation of the worst things about TV writing in the last twenty years, and it’s just as disrespectful to the source material as the show itself.

For those of you who haven’t delved deeply into Wheel of Time lore, Robert Jordan designed a universe based on Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, in which time runs in a circular fashion.  In Buddhist cosmology, for instance, the universe has gone through a seemingly innumerable number of origins, expansions, contractions, and collapses, and then everything repeats again.  In every such age, or kalpa, the world as we know it is born and declines, forgetting the dharma that was discovered by a Buddha in the prior age.  Then one who will become a Buddha arises, becomes enlightened, and discovers this all over again.  Now, it’s crucial to understand here that the Buddha of any age (ours is called Gautama) is not the rebirth of a Buddha in the past.  That’s impossible because what a Buddha and his followers who also become enlightened accomplish is escape from the cycle of rebirth. Also of note is that the cycle of rebirth, samsara, is repeated millions of times for any living being within a kalpa, including for those who will eventually escape samsara, such as the Buddha.

Jordan took ideas like this and designed a cosmology in which the ages repeat and people are reborn.  It’s important to note that The Wheel of Time in Jordan’s formulation can “spin out” these rebirths at any time, not just when a new age comes as depicted on the show; only The Dragon is limited to this, i.e. The Dragon hasn’t been reborn until the end of the age because his coming signals the end of the age.  There is lengthy discussion of how the cycle of rebirth works and it isn’t just the same person being reborn once in each age. The age the books take place in is called the Third Age and the Age prior is called (by Third Age people) The Age of Legends.  The books also contain snippets of prophecies and chronicles from the Fourth Age in epigrams at the beginnings and ends of each book.  Pretty cool.  This is a trick that was invented along with novels, by Cervantes, to add an air of believability to the work.

Now, an interesting, though non-essential, implication of this cosmology is that maybe the events of the Wheel of Time books took place in the past or the future of our world.  They do, after all, have legends of people from our time, like John Glenn and Sally Ride, and legends that are familiar to us, like Cu Culain, King Arthur, and so on.  There are even characters that have names eerily similar to characters from our own myths and legends.  But then, we are reading a book about Mat and Nynaeve and Egwene and Perrin and Aviendha and Elayne, and Rand al’Thor is becoming a legend himself…

At this point the universe implodes.  Okay, pretty cool, but like I said, not really essential to the plot.  This is just a window on how expansive the Wheel of Time world is.  It’s not, as I might prefer, simply limited to this cool late Medieval/Renaissance world where most people still live on farms.  The first glimpse of this is in The Shadow Rising, but it doesn’t stop there.  I think that’s where it stops being important for plot or motivation, but a lot of other readers keep pointing it out as if it’s crucial to the plot.  I would argue it’s not, but that’s an argument for a different time.

What bothers me is the number of people who are making apologies for the ridiculous, non-sensical behavior of the characters and the bizarre changes to the core of the story made by the show’s creators by abusing Robert Jordan’s cosmology, saying “Well, this is just a different turning of the Wheel of Time [than the one depicted in the books].”

Oh, really?  Then why am I watching it? If it’s not Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, then it’s not interesting to me, plain and simple.

At least when Brandon Sanderson utters this excuse, he does so with an air of resignation.  I didn’t think people were really going to run with this, but this morning I saw an Instagram post where someone said “Let’s see what will happen in this turning of the Wheel!”  Ummm…no.  I don’t care about a different turning of the Wheel.  I care about Robert Jordan’s story.  Luckily it’s right there on my bookshelf and I can just read it.

The other thing that bothers me about this is that this is a trend in TV and film, not just in adaptations, but in reboots.  It’s commonly discussed among authors, especially those who’d like to dabble in screenwriting, that there are two ways (likely more) to develop a screen adaptation out of a literary work.  One is Alfred Hitchcock’s method of taking the original characters and premise, perhaps the basic struggle of the characters, and writing a whole new story.  The other is to basically film the same version of the story, with a similar plot, mimicking the events of the story.  There are reasons to do either one: some stories are more visual, and have a plot that lends itself better to visual media.  Other stories don’t, mainly feature internal struggles, or otherwise are difficult to shoot without adding characters and events that don’t happen in the book.  Hyperion, a book-lover’s book, is definitely going to be changed radically from how it appears on the page.  No problem.  Both of these are valid methods of interpreting a story.

What’s not a valid, or interesting, way of adapting a story, is to change it fundamentally and tell people “well, this is just a different version of the story.”  And if you don’t like it then you’re just uptight, man.  That’s bait-and-switch.  It also just feels weird to watch.  For example, Disney+ has a “new” show called Turner and Hooch, based on the movie with Tom Hanks.  To explain that they weren’t just updating the story, they made the protagonist the son of Tom Hanks’ character, and the dog the great-great-grandson or so of the original Hooch.  The distance is enough that they can get away with setting a show in 2020 and being able to mention current stuff.  Same thing with Ghostbusters (2016).  In this case, we’ll just pretend that Ghostbusters never happened so we can have poop jokes and a plot based on bullying.

Another bad idea is that stories need “updating.”  For at least twenty years we’ve been treated to “updates” of great musical artists collaborating with whatever vapid current artists are currently clogging the charts.  This is so dumb I don’t know how they talk people into it.  Why would I listen to Elton John with Dua Lipa when I can just go get Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and put it on the friggin’ turntable?  I don’t get it.  The Wheel of Time doesn’t need to be “improved” or updated any more than Crime and Punishment.  Any such attempt will simply date the adaptation, making it stink of anachronism.

I think using the excuse of “this is just a different turning of the Wheel” is worse than an update, a reboot, or a “reimagining.”  A lot worse.  First of all, there’s no basis in Jordan’s cosmology to say that the characters will have exactly the same names but that the entire premise of the story will radically change.  Maybe the showrunners saved themselves from this by screwing up Jordan’s cosmology and thinking these same people will be reborn in another age. But that’s not the point: The Wheel of Time is about Rand al’Thor struggling with his dual identity as the rebirth of Lews Therin Telamon.  It’s not about Rand al’Thor being…what, a different Rand al’Thor?  It’s not about what would happen if The Dragon Reborn could be female.  We all know what would happen if The Dragon Reborn could be female: there’d be no story. Using Robert Jordan’s cosmology to justify radically changing his story is not just a cop-out, it’s disingenuous.  It’s an excuse.  And it might just be the worst excuse possible for bad TV writing, because in the end the result is the same as all bad writing: a boring story that isn’t what I’m tuning in for.

In which Brandon Sanderson says “this is just a different turning of the Wheel” with resignation, and Dan Wells argues that people are “whining” because the show didn’t “pass a purity test.”

One final note on what Dan Wells calls fans “whining” because the show doesn’t “pass a purity test.”  He says this dismissively, as if it’s just totally off-base to suggest that the show work in its own world. The only “purity test” that a written work needs to pass is the basic demand that it “work.”  As I said in my previous post, any writing group would have pointed out the problems with the show.  These problem are so glaring that they wouldn’t get past a high school writing group.  I’m only saying that the show’s writers be subjected to the same standards every writer is. Published, unpublished, million-selling, or never heard of, every writer, to be considered worth reading (or watching) needs to write a story that “works.” Having nonsensical behavior and contradictory setting won’t cut it for anyone anywhere.  Just ask any writer who is trying to write well.  

Books, movies, Writing

Wheel of Time Episode 2-3 Review: The Grand Unified Theory of Bad TV Writing

Over the weekend I started developing an explanation for the abysmal first episode of the long-awaited Wheel of Time series on Amazon Prime. My main concern was that the show was, in effect, fan fiction.  In other words, that since the writers hadn’t had to come up with the world or characters on their own, they hadn’t applied the kind of oversight that comes naturally to an author who does. A fantasy author must consider what have come to be known as Sanderson’s Three Laws, considering carefully the implications of the underlying principles that build a fantasy world.  These are, as Sanderson says, just good storytelling rules, but I had thought the failure to apply this kind of thinking must somehow be inherent in fan fiction, and a similar attitude on the part of the show’s writers must have prevailed.

Now I’m thinking a little differently after watching the next two episodes of the show, and reading a particularly thoughtful blog post by Abby Goldsmith. Although the writers have made mistakes that still demonstrate a lack of feedback and oversight (when they have Brandon Sanderson and Harriet McDougal to consult!), I think the bigger problem is it’s a show written in 2018 and in particular, it’s a show explicitly designed as “the next Game of Thrones.” That’s particularly ironic because The Wheel of Time was mostly written before and was a huge influence on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (as was Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams). Martin’s series was, as I see it, a furthering of the critique of heroic storytelling started by Jordan in The Eye of the World, but Martin did it in a way that made adapting it for TV particularly easy. This isn’t surprising because Martin was a TV writer and producer. Robert Jordan was, on the other hand, a great epic fantasy writer, probably the greatest, and trying to cram his brilliant writing into a TV show in the post-CSI era of television is particularly sad.

The subsequent two episodes of the show demonstrate the particular problems of this era of TV writing, or perhaps it’s a particular style. These problems are emphasized by the particularly down nature of the two episodes.  Quite frankly I was bored.  I was yawning.  The three biggest problems are:

  1. Tone: the show is really really dark, almost horror-based (a wolf ripping the guts out of a dead woman, Rand yanking a bat out of his mouth, with apologies to Ozzy Osbourne, etc), whereas the books are relatively even, with lighthearted moments balancing the intense parts.  Those intense parts are not like horror, but more like any heroic story from Herakles to The Hobbit. The characters are dull, depressed, and not particularly fun or interesting to watch. 
  2. Unnecessary dialogue: characters say things to “help” the audience; things they wouldn’t say or that it’s better they not say
  3. Comic book exposition: exposition is done in long, pretentious speeches while the characters do nothing interesting. The actor’s tone is pregnant with importance, even though there is really no basis for it, and often it has little to do with what’s going on in the scene. Or perhaps it’s not even a scene; it’s just someone giving a speech.

The first of these can be put squarely on the show trying to be “the next Game of Thrones,” i.e. trying to appeal to the same audience. And yet the degree to which The Wheel of Time isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire should have been a clue that there was a new audience to tackle, or that the same audience might have preferred something a little different, a little more Hobbit-ish.  I mean really, for anyone who hasn’t read the book, The Eye of the World is a fun adventure with plenty of dark moments but the spirit of adventure is really the most important thing in it.  The internecine machinations of the Aes Sedai and the court intrigue of Andor, Cairhien, and Tear don’t come into it until much later in the series.  The first four books are quests in the fashion of Jason and the Argonauts, the Hobbit, and so on.

The characters on the show, in keeping with this depressing tone, look bored, irritable, and flat. They are depressed. They are not interesting. Written as they are, it’s no wonder the writers had to resort to piling on all kinds of bad exposition and out-of-nowhere action because the characters aren’t interesting at all.  The characters in the book, by contrast, are plucky little teenagers who, while not being stupid, are stupid enough to get into trouble. You get to know them in the first few chapters of the book and they are real, interesting, funny, and distinctive. This problem is especially evident on the show when they go into Shadar Logoth, and Mat goes off by himself (because he hears a voice?) and gets the ruby-hilted dagger for no damned reason other than he’s a maudlin jewel thief. The way they’ve set up the character, there’s really no way else for him to do it, but it looked particularly stupid. And then they killed Bela, which for me, just kills the show.

But the title of “worst example of a fun character who is portrayed as depressing and boring” now goes to the show’s portrayal of Thom Merrilin, who in the book is fun and interesting because it is his job. Somehow Thom, in the show, gets up on stage and sings a thoroughly depressing song badly and then goes around asking people for money, and he robs Mat?  What the hell?  It’s not even that he’s not the same Thom in the book.  He’s an asshole.  Why?  What purpose does having this character serve now?  He’s a knowledgeable, world-wise asshole but he’s still an asshole.  And why is he playing a guitar?  That goes into the fan fiction category: I feel like any considerate writer would understand why it’s important to have Thom play the harp and not the guitar, but these writers just didn’t bother with that. If he’s going to play a guitar, why is he playing such a piece of crap guitar?  

Unnecessary dialogue and comic book exposition are two problems that I find particularly galling, because they show a basic lack of respect for the audience, and if not that, then a basic lack of confidence on the part of the writers.  For those of you saying “well, there’s a lot of exposition to get through,” go watch old episodes of LA LawThe Dukes of HazardLaw and Order (before 2000), and even kids shows like Clone Wars.  You will not find this crap on anything before CSI premiered. Some shows managed to hold out, but lots of them got into the same habit as CSI of explaining everything to the audience in particularly blunt, on-the-nose dialogue. It sucks. They set up the moment where the viewer comes to a realization, or some background piece of evidence is revealed and then the characters say it out loud as if the audience were blind. The most egregious example of this comes in Episode 3 of The Wheel of Time, when Nynaeve is trying to treat Moiraine’s wound (a wound that should have killed her or impeded her ability to channel, but we’ll let that go for now). Nynaeve looks at Lan and says “I know that Warders and their Aes Sedai are linked, that you will feel what she feels, so get ready because this is going to hurt.”

Now, why the hell did she need to say all that? The bond between warders and Aes Sedai is interesting, but it’s not relevant to the plot or even the scene.  Beyond that, if they wanted to show that, because it’s cool, why is Nynaeve talking about it?  She could have just cleaned out the wound without saying “this is going to hurt,” and shown Moiraine and Lan reacting to the pain. WTF, seriously, folks. It shows that they don’t know the difference between stuff that’s relevant to the plot, and stuff that isn’t. Another gem is when Moiraine wakes up and asks Lan where they are. “Shadar Logoth,” he says, to which she replies “You have killed us all.” What? She wouldn’t say that. Totally useless. Doesn’t add no kind of nothing.

Comic book exposition is particularly bad in this show because almost none of it is relevant or interesting. It doesn’t spice up the story, it doesn’t provide motivation, it doesn’t even really qualify as exposition because it’s all background that doesn’t affect anything anyway. There are passages in the books where Moiraine explicitly explains things to the Kids and tells them stories, but it’s done in a way that adds to the book. It isn’t boring. 

So my new theory is that the writers are writing in a way that they think they have to, and that is a bad way to write a TV show.  I also think plenty of viewers are just used to it, and it just doesn’t bother them. It bothers me, but perhaps the people who are saying they like the show just aren’t noticing that they’re doing things the CSI way.

There were also plenty of things that, in the vein of my first set of criticisms, just didn’t make sense. The boys and Egwene are repeatedly characterized as idiot country bumpkins, but then they know all this stuff about Aes Sedai, the Children of the Light, and so on.  How exactly? It seems the writers change the characters whenever it’s convenient for a particular scene, which just adds to the see-through nature of the characters.

Then there’s the Children of the Light themselves. This was just weird. They’re burning an Aes Sedai at the stake?  Aes Sedai aren’t stupid.  Some of them are hundreds of years old.  They don’t go out advertising what they are anywhere that might be hostile.  They have networks of spies, pigeons, aliases, and hidden sisters to tell them where they can be safe revealing themselves.  Most of the time they don’t even wear their rings.  And somehow Carridin has managed to cut the hands off a Yellow Sister and burn her at the stake?  And no one else in the camp is watching?  He’s just sitting there having lunch?

And what is with those guys just fondling Moiraine on the side of the road?  Eamon Valda, the guy who has spent his life camped out next to Tar Valon, trying to destroy The White Tower, is not going to tell a traveler on the road to have an Aes Sedai check out her wound. It doesn’t make sense.

And another thing: have you ever ridden a horse?  Cuz I have and I won’t wear my everyday jeans when I do it, because they’ll get too dirty. No way are the Children riding around in those white uniforms.  They’re called Whitecloaks, not Whitehabits. Again, they just didn’t pay attention to these things.

Lan still bothers me because he looks like something from our world.  You have all these fantasy characters in cloaks and tunics, and then a guy from Japan. It’s distracting.  

Then we have The Tinkers, who are wearing ponchos and have dreadlocks and the children don’t look like they’re related to their parents. It seems like the writers instituted some rule where every group, every town, encountered along the adventure has to be of thoroughly mixed race even when they are supposed to be isolated from the rest of the world, shunned, segregated, and only marrying within their group for three thousand years. Just not well thought-through. “Well, but it’s a fantasy world,” you’re saying.  Yes, and fantasy worlds have rules.  Robert Jordan did that better than anybody else, and it’s a shame that they’ve thrown that out the window.

Now I know what you’re saying (because people have been saying it to me all weekend): this is just because you’re a big fan of the books and you wouldn’t notice any of this stuff if you weren’t. Oh yeah?  I’m also a big “fan” of medieval European history, especially the Anglo-Saxon period in England and yet I love the show Vikings. That show has very very little basis in historical reality, despite using a few character names that come from history, like Alfred the Great and Harald Finehair, and yet it’s still a good show.  Why?  Good characters, good conflict.  The conflicts the characters face are believable for them even if they weren’t real people.  There were plenty of moments throughout that show when I said “Now come on, they wouldn’t just kill all those people” or laughed seeing how they used weapons on the show. In particular, you don’t swing a shield like it’s a bludgeon, it ceases to be a shield when it’s not in front of you. I thought they got really carried away with the whole shieldmaiden thing (an idea that has absolutely no basis in reality). And yet the story was still good.  Good enough that I let all that stuff go. It didn’t matter. With the Wheel of Time show, on the other hand, one thing after another just distracts from a story that hasn’t come together.

Books, Writing

The Breaking of the World(building): Wheel of Time Episode 1 Review

And the writers made choices, and the motivation was lost, and the characters commited one questionable act after another. And in this darkness, the story refused to work. And the show made no sense. And it was called The Breaking of the Worldbuilding.

Last night I watched the first episode of Amazon’s much-awaited adaptation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series. I was barely able to sleep afterward, and I don’t think I can work on my novel chapter without getting this off my chest.

I was skeptical as soon as I heard the announcement in 2016 of a new adaptation in the works, mainly because my attitude toward adaptations in general has changed since I started seriously pursuing fiction writing. My pursuit of fiction writing is not entirely due to reading the Wheel of Time (starting in 2008, a year after Robert Jordan died), but it has been a very influential force in my life. I love these books. When I read them for the first time, there was indeed a “movie playing in my head,” and a common daydream was how I would adapt the books, or how I would like to see them adapted. Since becoming a serious writer, not just someone who scribbles down ideas, starts novels and doesn’t finish them, trying to and even selling my own work, I have come to see that the literary and visual media are so different that adaptations, even very good ones, are often pointless, misdirected, poorly done, or in the end simply unnecessary.

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Books, movies

Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon by Charles Casillo (Goodreads review)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bottom line: how is it possible to make Marilyn Monroe more interesting? I don’t know, but Charles Casillo has done it.

Like the author, I’ve been a quiet fan of Marilyn Monroe since I was about eleven years old. There is no more classic beauty, no greater classic movie star (though there is some strong competition in my heart), and no more enigmatic and fascinating personality. This book, however, is not just thrilling and hard to put down because of its subject matter. By covering the chronology of Marilyn Monroe’s life, her struggles, and probing the depths of her relationships, Charles Casillo has produced a biography that only heightens the mystery and charisma of Marilyn Monroe, while at the same time enlightening the reader as to what still charms us today. Most of all, this biography makes Marilyn Monroe, the ultimate other-worldly love goddess of our time, into a human being. More fascinating, still thrilling and beautiful, but human in every regard. None of the biographies I read or documentaries I watched as a kid mentioned Marilyn Monroe gardening, cooking, driving, babysitting. Casillo does, and it seals the deal, making Marilyn Monroe (of all people) into not a regular person, but an extraordinary human being.

The themes of Marilyn’s life are always kept in the forefront. From the very first page the author maintains a throughline of her psyche: her quest for attention, acceptance, and excellence in her craft. He doesn’t shy away from the gritty details of her life, nor from her many affairs and personal problems. But those things are never the point. After the collapse of her third marriage, she had affairs with Frank Sinatra and two Kennedys (one of whom was president of the United States), but Casillo presents these juicy details not as titillation but as part of Marilyn’s lifelong quest for her father. He builds a case not of Hollywood depravity, but of a woman navigating a life where she was worshipped for her beauty, tossed aside, and reviled by jealous women, costars, and movie executives. It’s all part of a consistent package, all built on Casillo’s extensive sourcing and his personal interviews with the important people in her life over the course of his decades of research.

I have two pet peeves about nonfiction and biography that Casillo manages to dodge, and it kept the book moving at a living pace: there are no sidebars, no digressions into themes that were relevant to Marilyn Monroe’s life. Casillo could have chosen to write long chapters about how business works in Hollywood, how orphans and foster children were dealt with at the time, psychoanalysis, drugs, or the Rat Pack. Instead he keeps the focus on Marilyn and everything flows from the perspective of her own quest for acceptance and achievement. Another way of putting it is that he could have just said “well she was bipolar/borderline and bipolar people do X and Y.” He doesn’t bother. He writes about her as a living, breathing person with confused desires handicapped by the very things that made her successful.

The second pet peeve is when authors refuse to judge or come to conclusions. Certainly, we know more about Marilyn Monroe than we know about Emma of Normandy, but one could attempt to write a biography of such a modern figure by filling it with weasel words and saying “we just don’t know” over and over again. Casillo handles many of the controversial events and themes in Marilyn’s life as a balanced and moral observer, i.e. he’s not afraid to say when something was done wrong. When events have differing accounts, he delves into all of the available perspectives and looks for a convergence of evidence. He isn’t shy about saying when the evidence points to wrongdoing, especially around Marilyn’s death and her handling by various psychiatrists. It’s quite refreshing to read a book and just see the author write “What this person did was wrong” instead of endless hemming and hawing. On the other hand, he doesn’t do this without stating his reasons, and he doesn’t rely on the reader’s values for interpretation. He builds his case, and states his conclusions boldly. Remarkably though, he does this without blame or short-changing those in question, even regarding the events around her death.

Marilyn Monroe is one of those enigmatic figures who straddles time periods we hear about as kids: she was born in Hollywood’s silent era, grew up watching Jean Harlow movies at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, lived through World War II, embodied 1950s cinema, and ended her life at the vanguard of a new kind of filmmaking. Casillo’s real victory is to make these Hollywood eras come alive and to make Marilyn Monroe come alive as a whole person. He paints a picture of a woman who is known mostly (still) for her physical appearance and shows the struggles that created, how she used that to her advantage and to her own detriment. But he also shows how she was so much more than her looks, no matter how much people wanted to take advantage of them. I think what I got from this book that I haven’t gotten from others is a real sense of what this struggle was like for her: it’s as close as I’ve seen to really viewing Marilyn’s struggle from the inside.

After reading this book, she’s so much more than a movie star. It’s hard to stop thinking about her anyway, but after Casillo’s brilliant treatment, it’s even harder (I honestly can’t stop playing “Candle in the Wind” in my head since finishing this book last night). He’s just a damned good writer and knows how to hold a reader’s attention. I want to go get Elizabeth and Monty: The Untold Story of Their Intimate Friendship, his book about Elizabeth Taylor, and I don’t even like Elizabeth Taylor!

Link to Goodreads: Marilyn Monroe: The Private Life of a Public Icon by Charles Casillo

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You can be a genius too!*

* with enough practice and study

The idea of genius is a troubling one, especially mixed as it is with discussions of normal creativity.  I don’t think many people who aren’t involved in something creative as a primary occupation or even as a major hobby give this much thought.  People who write, play music, or craft visual art generally do think about creativity and “genius” quite often, but I’m disturbed by how many of them fall into the regular traps that so many “normal people” do.  The question of how creative people come up with stuff is constantly discussed in documentaries, behind-the-scenes footage, in writing craft books, and music instruction.  And the thing I repeatedly hear people saying is that creative people, especially those who have a large impact on art, music, and culture, are touched by God.

Let’s put that idea to rest.

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A Quick Note About The F Word

Driving home this morning, the Motley Crue song “S.O.S.” brought to mind something that has really been bothering me lately about popular music. As much as I’ve always considered Motley Crue and KISS to be novelty acts that weren’t really worth my refined artistic attention, there are certain rules they never broke (to my knowledge). In particular, no matter what they’re talking about, no matter which depraved topic, they always made sure that the lyrics worked in the sense of rhythm and in a particular context. What they didn’t do, and what so many pop songs are doing now, was misuse profanity. Ironically, if anything was holy to people with such poor artistic taste as Motley Crue, it was that a song should not distract its listeners with stupidly poor word choices.

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Lions of Al-Rassan: disappointed!

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Guy Gavriel Kay is an author who gets a lot of respect from writers. Brandon Sanderson has said that we’re all just trying to be as good as Guy Gavriel Kay. If that’s true, then after reading The Lions of Al-Rassan I’m starting to think he’s the Bob Dylan of fantasy writers.

That is to say he’s a good writer, who knows how to build characters and put words together. The way he does it in this book has some serious flaws that left me dreading to pick it up, and with no real interest in the characters or what happened to them. This book gets three stars because it is a well-written piece of literature, with a plot that works, but it’s nothing more than that. In terms of pacing and story structure, I also found it to be quite a bit off.

Three major problems kept me from enjoying this book, and I’ll start with the world. What Kay did with this book was to take Medieval Spain, with its well-known conflict between Christians, Muslim, and Jews, and change the names. Let me be clear: this is not Medieval Spain, it is not alternte history. This is a fantasy world with two moons and different constellations that just happens to have the exact same geography as Spain. So does the rest of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Gee, that’s funny. The three sects are Asharites (Muslims), Jaddites (Christians), and the Kindath (Jews). If these were three groups that Kay had invented and come up with a good reason for them to be at odds, then it would be interesting. Unfortunately, he chose to have many of the same practices, beliefs, and prejudices that the real-world groups have. The biggest one is the blood libel, used against the Kindath.

My question is that if the correspondence was going to be so strong, why didn’t he just write about actual Christians, Jews, and Muslims in medieval Spain? I kept reading this thinking it was a very very very very thinly veiled, very nineties attack on Christians and their history (with enough attacks on Jews and Muslims to make it fair). This sort of thing was very popular in the eighties and nineties (as in The Mists of Avalon), and Kay’s choices don’t make it hard to see it this way. As it was, it was either a not-very-creative fantasy world, or a bad historical fiction.

Kay’s characters also kept me from really getting into this book. There’s a doctor, a few kings, and some concubines and courtesans, and a few young men learning their way in the world. And of course the poet. They’d be interesting if they didn’t insist on acting in such implausible ways. The main point of implausibility is their sexual choices: the characters in this book just can’t stop doinking. It’s insane. There is a stretch of at least 60 pages in the mass-market paperback that is all people doing it. There’s a lot of comparing breasts to pears and melons… . Much of the sex is completely inconsequential, which is really hard to believe in a population without established methods of birth control (yes, medieval birth control existed but it’s never mentioned in this book). Not only is much of it meaningless to the plot, it’s meaningless to the characters. I just don’t believe in meaningless sex, I guess, but if it’s meaningless pleasure that has no effect on the plot, why is it in the book?

I just don’t buy that a physician, a woman in her late twenties, who is portrayed as overly sensible would “take a young man into her bed” for some meaningless pleasure without thinking there would be any consequences in terms of their relationship. I’m having a hard time imagining this character doing that. And then he’s just got a crush on her, from a distance…still? After having sex with her? He still just watches her from afar, thinking he can’t have her…after he “had” her? What the…? I just don’t get it. So sex is just meaningless to this woman to the point where she’d have sex with a nineteen year-old boy just because she felt like it one night and then the rest of the book she’s…what the hell, nevermind. I think I’ve made my point. Even if you do believe people can have sex without emotional or other consequences, you still have to question what’s going on with this character.

I’m just not buying it.

The last thing I found annoying was the structure: constant back and forth, summary and rehash, and huge events just glossed over. That made it hard to follow.

The overall effect of all this was that I didn’t look forward to reading this book. The test of a four or five star book is that I think about the characters when I’m not reading the book. These characters were so implausible that I just didn’t think about them. When I picked up the book, I was just thinking “what implausible thing are they going to do in the next chapter?” There were a few tense situations, and a few that I really enjoyed, but the whole book was not engaging.

P.S.: Tigana was a much better book; more imaginative, better characters, actually compelling, but I still didn’t think it was that great. I mean, what were those people doing it in the closet for? See, same problem.

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Demon in White (Goodreads review)

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The typical problem with reviewing the books of a series is that at least three or four stars can be attributed to the world the author has set up, and most of that is due to book 1 (in this case Empire of Silence). That’s somewhat true here, but if that were the case, Demon in White would only get four stars. By book 3 some series have reached the “TV show” stage, where their characters are going on adventures that don’t seem entirely related to the overall arc of the story or are just cool, fun things for them to do with new powers or technology. In that case a book could still get three stars if it’s in a four-star universe.

This certainly isn’t the case with Demon in White. With each of Howling Dark and Demon in White, Christopher Ruocchio has taken the galaxy set up in Empire of Silence to the next level, and he’s done the same with the characters. I used to wonder why a story like Ben Hur or Star Wars had to be so tied to a character, why it couldn’t be about how awesomely huge THE EMPIRE is. I think the reason I thought that (at the age of twelve, for crying out loud) was that the characters offered in such stories are often just an excuse to tell the story of how huge the empire is. Ruocchio solves this problem by offering us a character who is believably human, and interesting. He likes to draw, he’s awkward with girls, he knows how to fight, but he tries to avoid it, and so on. He then takes that character on a crazy adventure through the galaxy, thereby showing the hugeness of it.

Howling Dark takes that character to another level, and Demon in White makes him larger than life, so he matches the universe. I don’t know how I could give this book less than four stars because it’s finished and it doesn’t suck. By that I mean it’s an artistic accomplishment, and it is worth every one of its 746 pages (there’s an appendix). There are no BOGSAT scenes, no filler of any kind. Just pure space opera awesome, so much that I was almost worn out by the end. This character is larger-than-life, and we get some idea of why in this book, but he is still overwhelmingly human, and that’s why I’m eagerly awaiting the next book.

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The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn (Goodreads Review)

The Dragon Token (Dragon Star, #2)The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow…ummm…hmmm. Melanie Rawn is second only to Robert Jordan for me, at least among fantasy authors. She’s undoubtedly one of the most influential, and possibly most underrated, authors of the hardcover fantasy boom of the 1990s. Dragon Prince mixes romance, politics, magic, religion, and war for unbelievable turns of plot and unforgettable characters who are at once awesome, beautiful, charismatic and totally believable. Furthermore Rawn’s style is straight-to-the-point in a way that doesn’t have the excess internal dialogue of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and while it isn’t weighed down with descriptive prose, it manages to be as descriptive as it needs to be. And, of course, it needs to be said that this is not standard (at the time) Tolkien-clone fantasy: she mixes the best of the Mists of Avalon Celtic-inspired fantasy with Arab desert-inspired culture, and her own religious magic and the heroes and dragons of generalized heroic awesomeness. All of this means I had serious trouble putting down her first trilogy of the Dragon Prince world. I can’t remember why I put down The Ruins of Ambrai, but it must have been a catastrophic life-event of some kind. I intend to pick it back up ASAP.

Unfortunately, this unputdownability doesn’t continue with the Dragon Star trilogy. We still have the same wonderful characters, although they are a little older and facing new challenges, and there’s a greater focus on the younger generations. We also have the same wonderful setting: the dragons, the desert, the Sunrunners, and the diarmadhim sorcerers. Roelstra’s leftover offspring are still kicking around, occasionally causing trouble for everyone. On top of that, however, are two problems that made getting through the first two books of this trilogy really hard.

First, the main problem faced by High Prince Rohan and his family are a group of invaders from…where? These bearded fellows show up on dragon ships, indiscriminately setting fire to everywhere, taking nothing but horses, ruthlessly killing Sunrunners. It’s bad, yes, but neither we nor the characters know anything about these invaders. We gradually learn a name, Vellant’im, for these formidable foes and a few fun facts. Despite The Dragon Token even granting us the POV of a few Vellanti characters, at the end of this book still no one knows anything about them. I found that this really sapped the motivation. Our favorite characters are just getting beaten mercilessly, despite their ingenuity in slowing down the Vellant’im, and they don’t even know why. I find it confusing.

What’s even more confusing is that this book (and Stronghold, the first book of the trilogy) skip around from one point of view to another throughout the whole conflict every few pages. I was genuinely surprised when I came to a sequence that lasted more than two pages. Quite often these shifts happen right when things are getting interesting. Huge battles are skipped over with fleurons, and we come back in the middle of a few of those battles, and by then I couldn’t remember what happened before because there had been an intervening seven two-page sequences featuring characters I didn’t care about. Characters are also named after each other. I couldn’t keep track of who was who quite often, even forgetting who Sionell was, and what a critical role she played in Sunrunner’s Fire, the final book of the first trilogy.

That was pretty disappointing, because, as I said, I love Melanie Rawn’s writing usually, and she has things that no other author has. All of the above led to me not looking forward to this book, falling asleep reading, and trying desperately to finish it so I could move on to something else. I was going to give this book 2.5 stars, but then in the last ten pages things get very very interesting, and contain some of Rawn’s best writing. It’s that kind of conflict that is really inspiring to me as a writer, and I hope Skybowl has more of it, although honestly, I’m only looking forward to reading it if it is more like the last seventy or so pages of The Dragon Token.

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