John Scalzi: Lock In

Scalzi, John (2014), Lock In, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-8132-3

[A note: this review has somehow turned out very digressive, so here’s a quick tl,dr summary of my opinion: Lock In is an intelligent, fun, exciting science fiction novel built around a brilliant idea, somewhere between Merleau-Ponty and Michael Crichton and executed by one of the most prolific and best SF authors we currently have. If you like techno-thrillers and/or you like science fiction, read Lock In. It’s very good.]

DSC_1559So if you are not following what’s happening in English-language science fiction, it’s quite likely you missed quite a solid amount of drama. The magnificent Adam Roberts has summarized the affair succinctly here. If you don’t feel like clicking on links (another good take is here), the even shorter version is this: dismayed by a distorted perception of who is being fêted by the prize-giving crowd in science fiction, a group of mediocre-to-terrible writers have set up a list of “preferred” writers. Their moniker is “sad puppies” or “rabid puppies” (technically two different groups, practically indistinguishable) and they feel they have to protest what they feel is boring, politically correct fiction. Recent Hugo winners and nominees include books that question gender, race and class, and writers like Larry Correia, who runs a gun shop and likes to shoot guns in his spare time (like, really likes to shoot guns) feel there’s not enough old fashioned ass-kicking and shooting going around, and very much not enough veiled (or not so veiled) xenophobia and misogyny. They are just, we hear, not enough fun. The Hugos should be awarding the fun books, the popular books rather than the books well loved by critics. I remember a similar debate around the Booker Prize and its dreary results [insert here a complaint about many recent Booker shortlists]. But the Booker is not a award that the public can vote on, so what the “Sad Puppies” did wouldn’t have been possible there: they organized a crowd of rowdy, angry, mostly white and male supporters and rigged the voting process, getting a disproportionate amount of “Sad Puppies” on the list. Now, the awards ended in a curious result, which you can find summarized here and here. But of all the essays and thinkpieces on the award, what struck me most strongly somehow was this Hugo analysis (and it’s follow-up here) which I was interested in for two reasons. One, apparently, without the Puppies voters, the award for best novel would have gone to The Goblin Emperor, a nice but not spectacular book (my review here). Two, and more relevantly for this review, without the “Puppy” books, John Scalzi’s Lock In would have been nominated. This is interesting. Neither The Goblin Emperor, which treats class and power with dubious sloppiness nor Lock In are boring-but-critically well received books. In fact, the closest non-SF point of comparison for Scalzi’s excellent book is Michael Crichton’s oeuvre. It’s a fast paced thriller, brilliantly conceived, with smart ideas and a sleek, efficient execution. If you like fast paced SF-y thrillers, read it. It’s a blast.

DSC_1557The reason I suppose Scalzi was not among the recommended authors is not this work in particular. It’s not even his work in general. Lock In is not some nifty exception to an otherwise more complicated and/or difficult oeuvre. It’s not to his oeuvre what Kraken was to Miéville’s, for example. In fact, his Hugo-winning novel Redshirts (2012) is similarly an absolute joy to read. It’s a story about Star Trek, it toys with genre, with conventions and characters. It’s absurdly funny. Sure, there’s a level on which it’s a clever take about truth and narrative, but we are at no point obliged to stop and consider this take in order to enjoy the book. In fact, the reason I never reviewed it here is because I thought it was lovely but a bit breezy and slight. Would I recommend it? Of course. It’s endlessly amusing. And I think the deeper its reader has fallen down the SF culture wormhole, the more enjoyable it is. So is this the kind of dour politicking the Sad Puppies warned us? It’s clearly not about popularity because Scalzi’s books sell like cold drinks in a hot summer. He’s so successful in fact, that Scalzi recently inked a 3.4 Million $ contract with Tor (read the man’s own explanation here). Scalzi is popular, he writes breezy, not entirely weighty books that are not super left wing (Old Man’s War is a good example) in an accessible style – the kind of style, indeed that would allow him to publish 19 books in 10 years. So the issue isn’t with his work per se – it’s with Scalzi the person who runs a blog that frequently discusses political issues in science fiction, and a Twitter account that does the same. For these reasons, Scalzi has become the bête noire of the “Puppies” crowd. And the most fascinating part about it is that Scalzi at no point in his recent work fills the role he’s expected to fill. There are practically no flat polemics, no open and excessive politics, nothing. Lock In is politically interesting, but not overtly so, and his asides that may be read as commenting on the debate are minor, such as when a character says to the other “I get that you’re used to saying what you think to anyone, anytime. That comes from being an entitled rich kid.” Compare this to, say, Rushdie’s grumpy asides on the New Atheism debate in Enchantress of Florence, for example, where he inserted anachronistic debates just to (I guess) make a point.

DSC_1556For all the baggage that comes with the name Scalzi and with the science fiction community and the Hugo dustup, Lock In is an intricate (but not overly so) techno thriller that happens to be SF, but reads in many ways like a novel by Michael Crichton. A new technology is introduced, it proves to be dangerous and influential people behind the curtain try to abuse it to their own benefit and it’s up to some detective-like character to figure it out. It’s not the first time on this blog that I’ve compared a SF writer to Crichton, and last time, it was Charles Stross’ lamentable Halting State. (click here for my review) – but there is a key difference. Stross copied the school of Crichton to a fault, from the narrative skill to the odd politics and even xenophobia. Stross presented a SF novel entirely denuded of all that makes science fiction such a vital and important genre. Because that’s another way that the “Puppies” got it wrong. Science fiction has always been full of exciting books that pushed the intellectual envelope, that managed to say things in the grammar of science fiction that couldn’t have been said equally well within the genre of “literary fiction” – Coreia, Beale and their ilk didn’t just misread and mistreat contemporary science fiction – they also seem entirely unaware of the genre’s proud and interesting tradition. Scalzi on the other hand – and unlike Stross- wrote a book that makes heavy use of the advantages of SF. That summary just now doesn’t really do justice to Lock In and that’s because the book, despite having a thriller corset, wouldn’t work as it does in a pure thriller structure. It’s SF skeleton are as important to the book as its thriller muscles. Unlike Halting State, whose speculative technologies are at best hair’s breadth more futuristic than the technology that Crichton’s more speculative books revolve around, Scalzi’s basic idea is the backbone, the most essential element of the whole book. In fact, in some of its slighter moments the book feels like the author competently-but-quickly fleshed out his ideas. There’s no complex structure to the book, it develops rather straightforwardly from its initial premise. Much like the idea of Redshirts, i.e. what if the characters on a TV show were somehow real, and script rewrites would inexplicably change the world around them. And what if they then managed to escape to “our” world and contact the actors and scriptwriters and producers of “their” show? The rest of the book just fleshes out that idea, expands on it, adds joke and easter eggs. In a more serious way, the same thing is true for Lock In. There’s a premise and the writing just fills in the gaps and wrangles a plot. That premise, however, is so good that it allows Scalzi to really go to town.

DSC_1568The basic idea is that in the near future, an illness strikes a vast portion of the population, the so-called Haden’s syndrome. For a small percentage of those inflicted, falling ill means being locked out of your body. These people are basically paralyzed for the rest of their lives, with active brains and nerves, but without control over their bodies. And there is no cure for Haden’s syndrome. However, after a few years, technology has developed to help the millions inflicted. Many of those technologies involve the transfer of consciousness. Into a virtual community called the Agora, into robots, and into the brains of people who serve as carriers. These solutions are not permanent. The Haden’s victims still have their bodies around which need to be tended to and there is a transfer of physical sensation from the body to the consciousness, and if the body dies, the consciousness dies with it. The transfer is achieved via neural transmitters. Some people, born with the illness, never really encounter the physical world actively and spend all their life in the Agora. Some enter some means of transportation every day. There are CEOs, politicians and people from all walks of life who suffer from Haden and use robots to get around town. This technology is accessible to everyone because, until very recently in the book’s timeline, it was heavily subsidized by the government. The book’s protagonist is a famous Haden’s patient, Chris Shane, who we meet on day one of his new line of work: rookie FBI agent. Shane comes from a famous/rich family, but want to make it on his own. I think you can recognize the trope. On day one, he and his new partner, the troubled but brilliant agent Leslie Vann, are called to the scene of a murder involving Hadens. The book covers roughly one week during which their initial murder case leads them to uncover a conspiracy that involves more murder, corporate greed, terrorism and a popular uprising of those affected by Haden. The book moves quickly, as there’s just not enough time to meander, given all that happens, and it does it with efficiency and narrative excellence. However, just because the book doesn’t offer us digressive essays and pamphlets, it doesn’t mean the book is bereft of intelligent points on a wide range of things.

DSC_1555I have recently been reading (in PhD work breaks) quite a few genre novels and I am vaguely aware of the attempt to establish the term “slipstream”, which I mostly encounter in the writings of genre writers who want to sidle up to the “literary fiction” genre by claiming a kind of shared space. But good literary fiction does more than tell a good yarn, it offers us structures and ideas and an elevated level of prose. Some books, like the incomprehensibly dull The Doors You Mark are Your Own by “Alexander Tuvim” mistake the recent resurgence of narrative (I commented a bit on that resurgence in my review of Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise) for some new literary license to sprawl without having the intellectual nous to actually say something rather than merely indulge. If there was a slipstream genre, surely it would involve books with genre trappings that also fill the shoes usually worn by what is generally perceived as literary fiction. The problem with that is that this is already amply covered, say, by science fiction. M. John Harrison, Iain Banks, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and China Miéville are as skillful writers of prose as many “literary” novelists (and certainly better than “Tuvim”), and intelligent and even brilliant ideas abound in science fiction, which has never confortably settled within any arbitrary set of genre conventions. The mere history of science fiction explodes that idea. I know the idea comes from Bruce Sterling who is always worth considering, but to me what he describes is more like a gothic alienating technique (which you’ll also find in the recent works of William Gibson), but I’m always open to being proven wrong about the validity of “slipstream” as a genre. If it hadn’t come from Sterling, I would have assumed it came from someone who doesn’t really understand the reach and power of science fiction. And Lock In is an excellent example of the reach and unconventional positioning of science fiction. Scalzi employs the tropes of thriller writing, with small but significant twists. At the same time, his reliance on his science-fictional premise allows him to implicitly debate issues such as the question of how society and the structures of knowledge intersect with disability. How do we construct a disabled body? Where does deficiency end, and identity begin?

DSC_1566There is a moment where the protagonist is offered a broken robot as his only option to get around town. The robot works, but its legs don’t, so the rookie agent is offered a wheelchair to get around in. It comes near the end and allows the reader to come to terms with the many other ways disability has been portrayed in the book. There are mental disabilities that are shown to be both limiting as well as empowering. We are confronted with the question of how connected our sense of humanity is to our corporeality. In many places, Scalzi appears to offer a riff on Merleau-Ponty’s famous discussions of the corps propre. Even as early as in his 1942 work The Structure of Behavior, Merleau-Ponty points out that “[l]’esprit n’utilise pas le corps, mais se fait à travers lui” – the consciousness doesn’t merely use the body as a host. It could not just be made independent from the body – despite the fact that Hadens can easily and quickly transfer their consciousness from and into different hosts as you would get into and out of different cars (the protagonists keeps traveling throughout the country by downloading into available robots). Very subtly, Scalzi also discusses the topic of race and how visibility and disability play into the cultural construction of race. Least subtly, and likely connected to contemporary American domestic debates, he offers a withering indictment of the opposition to government-supplied healthcare. And I’m not transposing some kind of reading on a more innocuous book – all this is really in there, and he uses plot and setting to offer a debate without having to stop for narrative breath. This is enormously hard to do in “literary fiction” because it’s not as easy to mold the environment to convey a philosophical argument as it is with the grammar of science fiction, and downright impossible to do while maintaining fluid readability. Lock In is a barrel of excitement – did I mention that it’s also humorous and witty? It’s just enormously good at what it does – and it does a lot. It#s the best book by Scalzi that I’ve read so far – although I am far from a Scalzi completist. This is very good and I recommend it to you with all the conviction I can muster. It’s a fantastic book, and the “Puppies” can go suck my big toe.

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Katherine Addison: The Goblin Emperor

[given that my computer is still out of order, the other texts from my HD are still on hold. I’ve written small pieces here and there. This is one of them.]

Addison, Katherine (2015), The Goblin Emperor, Tor
ISBN 978-0-7653-6568-2

goblin 1So when I read books in my non-PhD work, I tend to read them with a goal to maybe review them, and sometimes I just have these palate cleanser books that won’t turn up as a review or in a bibliography; at best they will make an appearance on Twitter. Especially comic books or fantasy novels – I’ve written numerous reviews of both genres and at some point one worries about repeating oneself. I don’t have something interesting to say about every book I read. Sometimes it’s just a shrug and a thumbs up or down. Brian Posehn’s Deadpool run? Very nice. Jan Peter Bremer’s Döblin Preis winning novel? A bit dull. Bryan Frances’s book on relativism? Very nice (but nonfiction that doesn’t fall into either category isn’t reviewed anyway). So when I started to read Katherine Addision’s “debut” novel The Goblin Emperor (I’ll explain the inverted commas in a moment) I didn’t expect it to end up here with its own review. However, as I thumbed through its last pages yesterday, I found myself intrigued enough by the book that I wanted to talk about it. So first things first: The Goblin Emperor is, as far as high fantasy goes, a fairly unique, very interesting book, that upholds many flaws of the genre, but, like The Copper Promise (see my review here), provides a very welcome light addition to fantasy that does not run the grimdark gamut. It’s a bit tedious in stretches but overall it’s a light and very enjoyable read if you like court intrigues in a very lightly steampunk setting. It has some of the nicest and most well rounded characters I’ve encountered in fiction in a while, but it relegates most of its truly intriguing characters and character developments to its fringes, whether that’s spare appearances or mere mentions. Look, if you like court intrigues and high fantasy and don’t need it to be “dark” or “realistic”, go for it. The world building in this book is fantastically accomplished, without the usual crutches. Everything that went into this book feels necessary to the structure and plot and doesn’t just add picturesque details or pretty mountains on one of those notorious epic fantasy maps. Despite the book never really leaving the confines of the capital city, we are made aware of the larger world around it. And the best aspect of the book is the way its narrative is restricted to the point of view of its barely-adult protagonist, it never falls into the trap that so much high fantasy falls into, of endless, helpless ruminations. The narrative is tight and the prose is perfectly adequate for its goals.

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

Fancy map, terrible book. The not-so-mysterious case of Robert Jordan

In fact, the book is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe it’s anyone’s debut novel. And despite the coy author’s bio inside, Katherine Addison is really Sarah Monette, a more seasoned author, with 6 previous novels to her name, two of them co-authored with genre heavyweight Elizabeth Bear. So The Goblin Emperor doesn’t come from nothing, but that would have been hard to believe anyway, given the extraordinarily controlled style and environment we are offered by this twice-named author. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned the “epic fantasy maps” that are so ubiquitous in the genre and which work as crutches for us as readers to not get lost in the multitude of names and places and things. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing and in fact, for many years I (raised as I was on the conscientious cartography of JRR Tolkien and D&D campaigns) thought that the miserable incompetence of Terry Goodkind’s terrible fantasy novels was prefigured in the poor and simple maps of Wizard’s First Rule. Many years of reading fantasy later I find that terrible books can sometimes come with very nice maps. While completely mapless, Addison/Monette’s book does come with a glossary and a brief morphology of names and titles, and while we can do without the maps, it’s hard to do without those things in a book like this. The Goblin Emperor feels like I’m told reading classic Russian novels feels to many readers: we are overwhelmed by an unbelievably large amount of names that all seem somewhat similar. More than once I had to browse earlier chapters to remind myself of who a person was exactly. That’s because, just like Russian novels can be disorienting due to their sheer amount of patronymics, Addison/Monette leaves us right in the thicket of a wealth of honorifics, family names, gender suffixes and much more. There’s no big infodump in the book that tutors the reader – instead, the author serves up a wholly realized world, and just expects us to find our way around all the strange words and names as we tag along with the story. In fact, for all that the world building is meticulous, the lack of maps and the elaborate nature of the names and terminology point to a world building that is based more on philology than topology, a point subtly driven home by the author when, during the course of a formal dinner party, we are allowed to eavesdrop on an actual philological debate between two minor characters. Yet even more than a clever way to deal with world-building, the dearth of explanation that happens in much of this has another effect.

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

Different beginning, different airship, same steam punk plot device

The book’s protagonist is the youngest son of the recently deceased Emperor. Addison/Monette borrows from the stock of high fantasy races and has the main race of inhabitants of the capital city be elves. Maia, the protagonist, however, is half elvish and half goblin, being the offspring of the late Emperor’s ill-fated political marriage to a goblin princess. Despite being of doubly royal blood, Maia had been exiled to a faraway province where he lived a tranquil but unhappy life. The sudden death of his father, whose steam powered airship was the target of a political assassination [as an aside: what’s with crashing steam powered airships as a plot starting device?], as well as of everybody else that could have a better claim on the throne than the 18 year old half goblin, forces Maia to return to court where he hasn’t been in ten years and where he has never lived to begin with. As Maia arrives, he is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and riches around him, not to mention the court intrigue and responsibility. A boy who has lived all his life on what basically amounts to a farm is now thrust into the hot cauldron of a vast empire’s capital city. And yet. we never despair for him, we are not scared or worried. This is because the author has set up her character with just the right amount of knowledge and, more than that, what they call “a good head on his shoulders”. We have all read these books narrated by less than bright characters, as readers most of us remember the anguish that comes with following a narrative of bad choices and impending tragedy or tragedies narrowly averted. Maia, in contrast to these books, has had very solid training and has developed fine instincts for how to relate to people, how to act when under pressure and how to deal with one’s fellow man. He manages to survive the first turbulent days and get himself crowned emperor (no spoiler here, it’s the title of the book). Now, whenever he is explained a fact about court, we are explained the same fact at the same time, so as he grows and learns, we do too. As readers, we cannot, however, duplicate his bewilderment when faced with the plurality of people, objects and the vastness of space that Maia has to traverse, inhabit and command. We are told he is bewildered, but we cannot share that feeling – which is where the author’s insouciant use of names and terms comes in. As a native speaker of the language, these are not things bothering Maia. but for the reader they are a kind of crutch that helps us approximate his confusion.

abdel fattahThis is important because, at least through the first third of the book, I thought that the novel does an extraordinary job of being not a book about elves, goblins and court intrigue, but about foreignness, and isolation in a new culture that is not your own. Being myself “half Goblin” (well, half Russian), I found this part truly well executed. But not in the way adult books about foreignness are usually executed (say, Roth’s Call It Sleep) and more the way kid’s books work (say, Abdel-Fattah’s Does my head look big in this?). In many ways, the book feels as if its audience is young adults, more than with other fantasy novels, even though it is, as far as I can see, not categorized that way by author or publisher. But the kindness of the book, the way it takes its reader hy the hand and helps him understand the protagonist’s state of mind, as mentioned in rhe previous paragraph, it adds up to an impression of the author being as patient and careful with her readers as Maia’s tutors and new friends are with him. There are no pitfalls, as readers of the recently popular [I’m using the word recently as old people like me are wont to do. Not necessarily the dictionary definition] “grimdark” variety of fantasy writing would expect. Characters that seem trustworthy are trustworthy. The characters that seem like they have something bad up their sleeve, are generally bad news. This is not just us seeing the world through the eyes of someone with good instincts – this is a fundamentally balanced world. I mentioned The Copper Promise earlier. In a much different way, both books offer a genuine kind of escapism, a way of reading without your guard up. Everything is as it seems. It doesn’t make Maia’s life easy, and, in fact, the book doesn’t skirt dark moments, including executions and the weight that comes with having power over life and death. But at the same time, parts of this are worrisome. The world of The Copper Promise felt mostly democratic, despite one of its characters being a lord. Its main protagonist is a poor mercenary and her triumphs and losses are those of everyday people. Not so with The Goblin Emperor. Politically, it’s a very odd book. All that balance I mentioned? It’s balanced around a center and that’s Maia, the benevolent king.

inheritanceAll the concessions, all the niceness. all the emotions, they are all granted by this king. Maia is told to pick a wife, and that woman has to agree to marry him. And while he’s very nice and shy about it, it still happens that way and a woman who is clearly reluctant does end up marrying him. Many of the emotional bonds Maia shares are bonds with his servants and some of the emotional high points highlight how gladly and absolutely his close servants serve him. There are mere glimmers of their private lives and of lives in general that are not like Maia’s. One of Maia’s aunts lives with a wife as a Sea Captain somewhere and we know barely more than that, it’s just something that comes up in conversation. There’s also a gay couple at a dance one night, and that’s almost all we learn about that. In fact, while I enjoyed the first third as a very effective disquisition about alienness and migration, the longer I followed Maia’s narrative the more irritating I found the fact that racial difference is encoded in terms of elf and goblin. Political change, it’s implied, can only come from the top rungs of a hierarchy. Indeed, the novel is very careful to include a picture of revolutionaries that makes sure to have us understand that they are ruthless and maybe a bit insane. All of this is much more unpleasant by the overall didactic, balanced tone. I will say that part of my unhappiness with the way politics, race, gender and difference is handled in the second half of the novel is influenced by me having read as excellent a work of fantasy as N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books (review), both of which show the potential of this genre. I will say: this is my main complaint about the The Goblin Emperor (and it’s something many other books in the genre do, as well), which in most other ways, is very accomplished and a truly enjoyable read, if this be your genre.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. 🙂 If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

“Hey Marcel, I think your review is awful”: My 2014 in Book Reviews

10922461_10205789576805726_6206837516593422556_nSo in one of the few comments I get, it was pointed out that 5 years ago, I published a less than stellar review. So…that’s true. As I said in my autumn announcement, I was trying to rev up my reviewing last year. If you know this blog and all the time it’s been around, you may not have noticed the near coma it was in for a few years. Since my announcement I published a few reviews. None of them are close reading analyses, and similarly awful as the incriminated 2009 review. They just offer an opinion. It’s 10 reviews overall. which sounds like little, but in 2013 I merely put up 5 reviews and 2012 only 3. That means I wrote more last year than in the two previous years put together (it was 9 reviews in 2011, so more than that, too). Might not be a lot, but I’m mostly happy with this. Below is an overview of the books I reviewed.

I reviewed Damon Galgut’s debut called The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. I am a fan of the writer. I think that shows in my review.

I reviewed Denise Mina’s crime novel Field of Blood, which is a more than solid entry in the genre, heightened by its perceptiveness of social and gender issues.

I reviewed Lawrence Norfolk’s most recent book John Saturnall’s Feast. Norfolk is one of my favorite writer and parts of the review ended up being a comment on his career so far, to contextualize my disappointment with what, really, is an excellent novel.

I reviewed Ilija Trojanow’s Global Warming novel EisTau. It hasn’t been translated yet but it should. It’s very good and should lend itself well to translations.

I reviewed Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a YA novel on suicide and mental illness. My review has a few rants on YA books as well as generally books on suicide.

I reviewed Jen Williams’s debut fantasy novel The Copper Promise, which is a more than solid entry in its genre. Great fun. The review doubles as a review of Wiebe and Upchurch’s first Rat Queens trade which is fantastic.

I reviewed John Irving’s most recent book In One Person. Irving is one of my favorite novelists. It shows in my review. Ron Charles calls Irving “America’s most uneven great writer”. He’s not wrong. In One Person, however, is one of his very best books.

I reviewed Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year, which is not a great read, but might be a good gift? This is the only pan I wrote this year.

I reviewed the first four trades of Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Aaron is very good. Scalped is very good. There are problems with it. I get a bit righteous about them towards the end.

As my final review of 2014 I reviewed Patrick Modiano’s debut novel La place de l’étoile, which doubles as an assessment of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner. I was very unhappy about that win, and I *might* have yelled about it on Twitter. In my review/comment I chose to emphasize what I like about his work.

Have a happy 2015.

Jen Williams: The Copper Promise

Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
ISBN 978-1-4722-1112-5

Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781607-069454

DSC_0171So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.

DSC_0194Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.

DSC01517The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.

DSC_0172The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.

DSC_0174Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.

Drakensang

Screenshot is not actually of one of the games I mention, but it’s a CRPG and it’s me playing a female protagonist, so there.

Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.

DSC_0170As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.

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