Book reviews

Review of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Picture links to author’s site

My braining title for this post was, “Writing about writing a review of Ancillary Justice.” I’ve been feeling meta, of late. There is a review, but I started by asking myself a question: how is it that I haven’t written a review for this book yet?

I love this book. I treated poor Spouseman to a long, meandering dinner lecture about it (later followed by a similar one about the second novel in the series, Ancillary Sword.) I’ve recommended it to everyone who likes literary fiction, science fiction, feminist fiction, good fiction…heck, if I’m honest, I have to say I’ve recommended it to everyone I know.

It’s been out for two years. It’s won a ton of awards. It’s a mind-blowing, gender-blurring, sweeping epic of a story wrapped up in a psychologically rich, deeply personal plot. It’s exactly the kind of book I like to rave and gush about in print. So, why had I never written a good solid Books-Are-Food review of it?

Certainly not “because it isn’t new.” Every book is new to someone. And not “because it doesn’t need it.” I’ve written about the importance of reviews here in the past. My perspective is as valuable as any other reader’s, and my audience reach is unique, no matter how much it might overlap with others. No piece of art can be reviewed too often, or by too many folk.

The answer to my question, I suspect, is that the idea intimidates the hell out of me. This isn’t a simple book to explain or summarize. Even its cover blurb is a work of genius. (I re-read it for inspiration before writing my own book descriptions because it’s just that brilliant.)  How does it go? Well, I’m leery of block-quoting copyrighted work.  Check the author’s website. Here’s the essence: “The story of a person who used to be a spaceship, one who is determined to track down the villain responsible for the destruction of her old self and all her crew.” It’s a perfect example of creation by exclusion. It’s enough to paint an intriguing picture for a prospective reader, yes, but it’s also the minimizing equivalent of describing Henry the Fifth as “a coming of age story.”

This book is written in what I can only call first-person omniscient. (That one ambitious idea right there made it worth the read for me.)  How does it work? Brilliantly. Many of the events unfold  in the mind of the main character as she recalls a time when she was a singular intelligence housed within hundreds of human bodies plus a spaceship and all its included equipment. She is in multiple locations at the same time, but Ann Leckie makes each place feel real, each action immediate, and never loses the reader in space or time. The protagonist is shown to have the ability to process data in ways that no single person could, but she still retains a human perspective.

That’s the mind-blowing aspect. Yeah. Now multiply that by the complication that the “language” of the main culture in the story has no gender, and that the author chose the female gender as her default in English to represent it. It was an eye-opening experience to find how much I rely on language cues and assumptions rather than physical description when building character images in my mind. The subversion of making feminine the default was far more disruptive than I ever would’ve expected, being that I identify as female.

Then there’s the way it sucked me in. I have a deep, abiding love for in media res beginnings,  and this one swallowed me whole. There are no long introductions, no extensive explanatory narrative, just a chatty first-person POV who seems to be describing a straightforward science-fiction situation. Almost immediately it develops speed and at one point quite literally goes over a cliff. Nothing is presented. The society is never judged or shown as A New Strange Thing. It’s a reality experienced along with the characters. Everything is what it is. Interpretation is left to the reader.

The main storyline of Ancillary Justice is simple, and that was fine. Managing the uniqueness of the storytelling technique and getting comfortable in the vast, intricate universe Ann Leckie  builds slowly, delicately, and oh-so-perfectly, through mise-en-scene exposure kept my headspace full.  I would’ve been hard-pressed to follow anything complicated, but it’s pretty simple: rescue an old comrade who has important connections, travel to a planet, maneuver events to get face-to-face with the person who caused the tragedy, confrontation and aftermath.

Let me be clear: there is an immense complexity to the plot of this book. The above synopsis is the best I can do without spending pages on it, and it does not come close to properly conveying the tight weave of past and present events that come together as the story progresses. Every step forward, every personal revelation, and every new connection settles into place and sets off a final whirl of action that resolves with hammering emotional impact. Still, at its root it was a simple enough tale. The language, the world-building, and the understated originality of it all–those things were all so stunning in combination that plot was the least of what held my attention.

Ancillary Justice is not an easy read. This isn’t popcorn reading. (Oh, I do love my popcorn and cotton-candy reading.) It isn’t meat & potatoes. It isn’t an exotic treat or a rich dessert. It’s a whole new array of flavors, ones I’d never before tasted. It’s the first time I tried a red wine as a child. The experience was weird and not wholly comfortable, and my enjoyment of it was impossible to put into words. Decades later, though, I can still call up the flavor memory of that wine without effort. Ancillary Justice is the index by which I will measure all other things like it, should anyone attempt a similar dish.

Have I hooked you? Scared you off? Bored you silly? Doesn’t matter in the long run. If you haven’t read this yet, you’re missing out on an experience like no other, but that’s your choice. I did this review so I could say I did it. I made this. I put my blithering driveling fangirl adoration for this series into words at last.

Mission accomplished. Achievement unlocked.



Where the Strong Lose

Subtitled, “An imaginary conversation between Strength and the World,” or “Why I wince when people thank me for writing strong female characters.”

I attempt to write realistic characters, but I would never set out to write strong ones, because being strong sucks. Being strong means never getting the cake, and who wants that in life? What cake, you ask? (Reasonable question.) It comes from a scene in one of the earliest episodes of CSI, when a character made a sad observation that stuck with me. “I’m not the guy who gets a cake in the break room on his last day,” he said, “I’ll pack up and leave, and no one will even notice I’m gone.”

Some folks get cake and backslaps and farewell hugs but some aren’t missed at all, even if they’re perfectly well-liked and accepted, admired, respected, part of the team, and so on. Bear with the analogy here. The strong don’t get cake. Not on their last day, not on their birthday, not on their lowest days.

Cake is for nice people. Soft people. Positive, cuddly people who enjoy big celebrations and hugs and bright happy things.People who can prove they need cake because they look right, talk right, act deserving of it.

The strong say to the world, “Why shouldn’t we get a little love and cake too? Assertiveness and brashness only mean we are practiced at hiding weakness. Disdain for convention is a surrender to the painful knowledge that we can never achieve it. Effective defenses are an ingrained response to assault. We are soft beneath the armor.

Too bad, the world says. You appear self-contained and self-assured, and so you will be judged. You need nothing from others, and so you will get nothing. (Proud, some say. Stuck-up. Know-it-all. Argumentative, even. Uppity. Strident. Pushy. Negative. Critical. Bitter. Oh, yes. There’s a whole thesaurus of flaws that trail along behind strength like a sticky fringe.)

The strong say, “Those adjectives are the bricks of the walls we stand against. They expose how seldom we have the luxury of trusting anyone at our backs. We were denied until we were exhausted with the asking, until we learned to do without. That does not make us strong. It makes us lonely. We are as vulnerable and damaged behind our defenses as any human who ever lived.”

No, the world says. You don’t get to be vulnerable. The role of the strong is to brace up others. To hold, not to be held. The soft need care and nurturing and support. You do not qualify.

The strong say, “But everyone needs support. Why must some scrape for what others are given freely? Are we not all human? Do we not all bleed the same?”

No, the world says. The soft, the cuddly, the sweet–their cries for help are answered because they are who they are. For the strong to declare itself weak is a betrayal. Strong people who cry for help are selfish, lazy, attention-seekers, not soft. You’re strong and selfish. Strong and lazy. No one likes a whiner. Stop crying. Buck up. Put on the happy face. When you ask for help you taking away time and energy from those who really deserve it.

It’s a horrific paradox. Strong people can never be anything else because they never can be anything else. The sickest part is that “strong” in this sense is an external label. It sits right between the shoulder blades like a fucking target.

I was labeled strong before I hit puberty, but in truth I am about as strong as a bowl of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately I’ll never get rid of the damned label, because externals are all that matter. For me to get any help when I need it, I must lay out specifics explicitly and frequently, and insist on assistance. No one will ever just notice, and reach out. I know this from painful experience.

Being strong means no one helps without being asked–and asked, and asked, until the asking sucks all energy from me. Even then, only a few even are willing to offer support. Because why would I need it? I’m strong. I can take it. So many people say, “Be yourself!” but as long as I’m true to myself — strong, hard, negative and all the rest — I will be un-nurtured because I don’t deserve nurture.

Are you seeing the circular argument there? This is why I sometimes abandon the world for the cold solace my own company. Limping along by myself, injured and hurting, is less painful when I’m not surrounded by people who are helping each other…and not me.

Why does it happen? Maybe most people are conditional about acceptance even when they swear they aren’t. Maybe it’s easier to turn away than offer a hand when there’s no ready reward of soft, sweet gratitude. Yeah. Maybe.  I like cake, dammit. I’m starving for it, some days, and it pisses me off that cake is reserved for people who “behave like they need it.” And I’m not afraid to say so.

Delicious cakes. I want more.
Book reviews

Review: Mystic & Rider by Sharon Shinn

Disclaimer: Like most of my reviews of a sole title in a multi-book ecology, this review really covers elements common to the whole series, not merely the first book. The book is Mystic & Rider, and the series is called The Twelve Houses.

Every so often, I revisit the backlist of authors I love. It usually starts after I’ve finished the latest novel. When I’m done and I’m still hungry for reading and reluctant to leave that world behind, I go back to the beginning and read through all the way to the end again, series by series, chronologically by publication date.

It’s like going back home for a holiday and walking through the old neighborhood, only instead of the houses changing and the people moving on, I’ve moved on and changed. As time passes, my perspective shifts, and sometimes once-beloved stories look dramatically different then they did the first or even most recent time I read them.

I love Sharon Shinn’s work. All of it. Her Samaria series is a beautiful blend of a fantastical setting and some fabulous science. This series, though, remains my favorite from a craft standpoint.  The world-building is rich in detail, the characters are all flawed, complex, and tied to one another by many motives, not merely the thin threads of a single plot, the dialogue is snappy, and the writing is uncluttered–not a word wasted. Reading it all again, now that I’m taking my own writing seriously, is even more of a joy than it was the first time around.

The world of the Twelve Houses is, on first sight, a typical medieval fantasy setting. Then little flourishes and details of a complicated social structure are dropped like gems into the plot. The plot of this introductory novel looks like your basic companion quest. Then the politics and the personalities start to clash. Complications set in. Relationships build and break, and people act in their own self-interest, sometimes at a high cost.

Fantasy stories are like chocolate chip cookies. The recipes all use same basic ingredients, but they achieve astonishingly different results. My oatmeal-chocolate-chip-banana bars taste nothing like my mother’s crunchy name-brand recipe drop cookies. Add an ingredient or two, change the proportions of a few others, and the end product will be unique. That’s what’s done here. It’s a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s a rich one, full of chunky tidbits and subtle flavors.

Religious persecution, racial discrimination and economic  inequality are heavy topics to hang off the hero’s journey, but Shinn does so with finesse. This isn’t a morality play. It’s a rollicking adventure set in a complicated world. She doesn’t shrink from adding the grays and deeper shades to her societies and her characters, and the story is the better for it. Her characters are moral but mortal. They face hard choices with good intentions and get mixed results.

Best of all, from my perhaps-skewed viewpoint, there are no easy solutions. The story ends with a satisfying finale, but there’s no tidy resolution to the underlying issues. There is progress, there is always another conflict on the horizon, and the world goes on, even when the story ends.

If you like your fantasy with a little ambiguity and a lot of humanity, Shinn’s work is well worth the investment.

Writing Advice

I don’t need another hero

I started thinking about the main characters of my assorted works recently, after reading a couple of posts elsewhere concerning Mary Sue wish fulfillment characters and the social impact of protagonists in stories. I want to make the this post a useful one, full of thoughtful points about creating interesting, engaging characters, but this is a personal space for me. I’ll splat out my thoughts out willy-nilly. How useful they are as Professional Advice — that part I will leave up to you, the reader.

The principal character in a fictional narrative is its protagonist. The nature, the soul, the character, so to speak, of that main character are irrelevant.  Most lines? Most page time? Most relevance to the plot? Protagonist. They can be heroines,* antiheroes or even villains. Many of the best protagonists who tread along the knife’s edge between classifications. Maleficent? Vindictive kidnapper and destructive hater, loving foster mother. Thomas Covenant? Rapist, coward, savior of the world. When all is said and done, however, traditional heroines are by far the most popular genre protagonists.

What make a heroine heroic? The list of positive traits is tl;dr, but here’s a short sampling: strong, swift, beautiful, brave, confident, caring, loyal, devout, and determined. Pick any three of those traits, and a protagonist might as well also carry a sign that says “I can haz heroism.” (Yes, I spend too much time surfing Lolcats. Deal with it.) When it comes to wish-fulfillment–for the reader, if not the author–who wouldn’t want to be a heroine?

Perfection gets boring, so writers often hang disadvantages on their heroic protagonists, to “make them more human.” Here’s where things gets uncomfortable for me. Like an applicant at a job interview, a lot of writing takes other heroic traits and spins them as weaknesses. Determination is stubbornness. Beauty is coupled with vanity, confidence with arrogance, etc. It feels like cheating, to me.

I like my protagonists truly broken. Look at this list: a bossy administrative assistant with zero ambition. A bullied, timid child of the underclass who cannot organize a sock drawer. An arrogant intellectual who’s losing his mind. A feckless genius who’s too intellectually lazy to find a job until one falls into his lap. A couple of marginally stable violence-addicts. The closest to traditional heroes I’ve ever created are a pair of dedicated law enforcement agents–and they’re dedicated to upholding the rule of  an intrusive, suppressive government.

I’m even less comfortable with the way heroic protagonists in a lot of current genre fiction act in ways that would be criminal if they lived in the real world.  Backstabbing, bullying, abuse, torture, and murder are all condoned as long as the victim is a bad guy. All’s fair in love and war is a common heroic trope. It’s also a dangerous one. It perturbs me deeply.

Protagonists should never be given a pass on morality simply because they wear the mantle of heroism. The popularity of this trend is terrifying when you consider how narrative stories shape our perspectives on the real world. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Evil is not a simple thing. Breaking the system to save it doesn’t work.  I think that if a writer decides to create a heroic protagonist, then the heroine should act like one. When faced with moral choices, she may stumble and err during the course of her journey, but in the end, she should do the right thing.

If that idea does not appeal, remember that heroism isn’t necessary to creating a great story. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were international bestsellers. Thomas is an antihero to the core. (I loathed those books, if anyone cares, and several friends regularly wax poetic on their disgust for the character. To which I point out, there’s fiction for everyone.)

I don’t write heroes. All my protagonists are riddled with real imperfections. Some of their actions are decidedly unheroic. A lot of them do bad things. On review,  I’m relieved to note that I also deliver personal, permanent consequences. None of my protagonists commit violence without emotional scarring, and if they escape prosecution or social condemnation, it’s through realistic means. People with financial clout, political influence and powerful allies seldom see the inside of a courtroom, no matter how heinous their acts.  (I didn’t plan it that way. Thank you, subconscious, for having my back, hypocrisy-wise. Lesson learned.)

Every so often when writing, it’s worth asking,  are my protagonists heroic? Are they behaving like heroes? Those two questions probably should be asked before embarking on any story. They absolutely will be answered before every story is finished, whether it’s done consciously or not. The images and associations that travel along with heroism are not neutral. If a heroine does things that are illegal, unethical, and immoral, there should be consequences. Think it through. Your stories will be more powerful for the analysis.

*Yeah, I did that gendering thing. There’s a reason. If the conceit irritates you, I suggest you examine the reason that considering heroes feminine rubs you wrong.


5 Words I Wish I Could Use–and Why I Can’t.

I love language. I was a lucky, blessed toddler whose parents read to her on a regular basis. I love the way words feel and move, how they leave the body on a breath, how they spill out on a page, each with a unique height and depth and cadence. That legacy of warm, loving embraces and laughter informs even the hard words I learned later, even the nasty awful ones. I love words, so today I’m indulging in a eulogy to socially-freighted vocabulary.

Look at these wonderful words: articulate, elite. entitled, intellectual, privileged.1, 2

Each one has rolled in enough sociological mud to be exiled to the verbal woodshed forever. They were once complimentary. They should be positives as well as adjectives. They aren’t. I wish they were, but if wishes were horses, I would have a huge hay bill to pay off. Huge.

A short digression into personal history. My first experience with the perils of vocabulary came at age ten. I was at sleep-away summer camp, babbling away with my tent-mates (they liked me! we read the same books!)  at dinner. Our unit counselor did not approve of us. At some point, I described someone’s behavior as animated. She proceeded–loudly and at length–to mock me in front of the entire camp for thinking I was so smart when I didn’t even know that animated meant cartoons.

I was smart. I didn’t argue with someone who had ultimate authority over me for five more days. It hurt like being flayed alive, and I still carry the conversational scars.  I can’t speak my mind with passion and eloquence unless I am too enraged to remember that pain. When I am angry, however, I become viciously articulate, and the people I admire most are those who who speak and write with skill and artful expertise in any circumstances.

The subtext of dismantling or constructing, the lengthy assault of syllables…oh, I miss that word.  Why can’t I use articulate to describe someone who has the ability to swing words as weapons or lift an audience to delight with the power of their vocabulary? It is magic, and a wonder to behold. Racist bigots stole one of my favorite compliments to use as a backhanded swipe at people of color. Awful racist bigots.

Of course, admitting to a love of articulate people leaves me open to accusations of elitism. To which I say, YUP. What of it?  I aspire to excellence. I admire those who achieve it. When did being a member of an elite become a bad thing?  When did it become a pejorative? Ditto for intellectual. These words should be good things, but they’re not these days, and I miss them.  I’mma just gonna leave this Isaac Asimov quote here and move on.

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge'”

Next, let’s take a look at entitlement. What the hell happened to this innocent little word?  Look at the root form. En-title. It’s a transitive verb. It isn’t a state or a condition, it’s an action. It’s something someone does to someone. No one gets to be entitled without someone entitling them.  Except now.  Now its an insult to fling at people who used to get accused of being uppity and not paying their dues. Uh-huh.  The moment it became an adjective, it was sullied and lost to use by anyone but resentful grouches who feel threatened by any demographic that doesn’t appreciate their precious status quo.

Speaking of status quo, I’ll wrap up with privilege. The word is a tool of intellectual (!) discourse. There, its nuanced meaning of (more or less)  a constellation of advantages afforded to one group but not others has an important place. Race, sex, orientation, age, income, and ability do skew perspective. All the same, I miss being able to say “It’s been a privilege to meet/work with/know …” It’s too heavy a word for the lightweight use as a compliment now. Also, buzzwords make me twitch.

I was first trained out of the naive, ignorant use of articulate, and rightfully so. Years later now, I can appreciate how gently the correction was offered. At the time it came as a painful shock, and I resented it for a long time. Grief hits like that sometimes: anger first, before acceptance. The other words have fallen away over the last decade, casualties, one by one, of the culture wars that I think are going to get much worse before they get better.

That’s it. Those are the five words I miss most. All done. IF you were expecting deep social relevance or insight … wrong blog, sorry. This is my self-space. The World Revolves Around Boring Ol’ Me.  If you wanted serious personal revelations or rants about writing, go back a few posts. Or come back another time. I’m sure I’ll rant again soon.

Note 1: I’m using alphabetical order, for lack of any other objective ranking.
Note 2: there are many more than five words that qualify, but these are the ones that came to mind without hesitation. These are my favorites among the filthy, sticky, dirty collection of oldie-moldy well-loved Problematic Words