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BEA 2012 (Day 0): The Book Blogger Conference

NOTE: Since I’m spending this week at BEA, my plan is to post a daily recap of my perceptions of this year’s event. Today – Tuesday – is the first day of the expo itself, so here is my review of yesterday’s Book Blogger Conference.

Several weeks ago, I wrote (here and here) about Reed Exhibitions’ stumbles and strategic missteps in the run-up to the 2012 Book Blogger Conference. Now that the event is over, a brief follow-up might be helpful.

The Weaknesses of BEA Book Blogger Con

On the whole, I was quite disappointed. I can look past communications screw ups (provided they get fixed). I can shrug off logistical blunders the day of an event. I can even tune out the occaisional poor speaker. But, as feared, Reed’s earlier missteps have proven where the organization’s priorities lie…and book bloggers do not make the cut.

The day started with an author/blogger networking breakfast. Tables were set up, and authors went on a “speed dating” trip…rotating between each table every fifteen or so minutes. The same setup was repeated for lunch. Speculative fiction – and generally fiction beyond YA – was woefully underrepresented. The morning literally had none, while the afternoon offered only two speculative fiction authors. While I was personally disappointed by SF’s absence, this part of the program did not bother me. It worked reasonably well, and likely provided value for the conference’s other attendees. I don’t mind being pitched when I expect it, and when the rest of my conference is goign to be full of insight into blogging practice.

But then we got to the keynote, which was presented by Jennifer Weiner, author of The Next Best Thing: A Novel. Weiner was an interesting (and for many book bloggers surprising) choice of keynote speaker: she is a popular author first, and a blogger second. What could she have to say that is both relevant to book bloggers and significant? In fairness, Weiner gave a good speech, and she made a herculean effort to focus on blogging. Yet it was clear to everyone in the room that she was there for one reason: to promote her upcoming book. The closing speaker, Jenny Lawson (a.k.a. the Bloggess), at least had a closer connection to the community…but she, too, was there to promote her recent book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir).

This was a common theme in much of the Book Bloggers Conference’s programming: it was skewed to align with the interests of authors/publishers in promoting their books to the book blogging community. I understand the motivation, and I understand the temptation: after all, publishers spend a lot of money on booths at BEA. The breakfast, the keynote, (to a lesser extent) the panel which followed, lunch, and the closing presentations all were oriented around pitching to the book blogging community. I for one regret having – apparently – spent $135 to be not-so-subtly pitched.

The Good amidst the Bad

Yet that being said, the day was not without value. Out of seven elements of the program, there were two which actually focused on the audience’s interest. The afternoon featured two breakout sessions, where we could each choose panels to sit in on that addressed either monetizing blogs, engaging community, critical review craft, or the publisher/blogger relationship. I sat in on the panels on monetizing and engaging community, and both were actually on-topic, interesting, and insightful. I walked away with at least one significant insight from each of these two panels. Had this ratio been maintained for the other program features, I would have been quite satisfied.

The Verdict: Reed Exhibitions Either Doesn’t Care About or Understand Book Bloggers

Unfortunately, $135 is a lot to spend for two insightful hours out of nine total. What I hoped for from the event was an in-depth discussion of blogging practice, offering relevant expertise from people who know whereof they speak. There was plenty of such expertise in the room. But – with the exception of the two panels I mentioned – there was terribly little on the program itself.

If this were an isolated incident – a programming snafu – it would be unfortunate, but reasonably acceptale. But this was not an isolated mistake: it is yet another indication of the conference organizer’s condescending attitude towards book bloggers. It leaves me to wonder: would critics for national news organizations get such treatment? Somehow, I think it unlikely. Other book bloggers, notably Read React Review and The Reading Ape, saw this coming. And I am sad to say that their fears were proven prescient.

If you are a book blogger, and if you were at the 2012 BEA Blogger Conference, you might have a different opinion. I know some people thought the conference was a valuable and enjoyable experience. But for me, it failed to provide the concrete insights I was looking for, and unless I see a dramatic improvement in Reed’s communications and programming, then I will skip it next year. Better to save my time and treasure for BEA itself.

REVIEW: Orb Sceptre Throne by Ian C. Esslemont

Title: Orb Sceptre Throne
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Pub Date: May 22nd, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An inaccessible middle installment that picks up midway through.

As I’ve written about before (here, and here) I’m a big fan of the Malazan universe created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont. Yes, the books are complex, the plots byzantine, and the cast of characters massive. But the universe is compelling, not to mention just plain fun. And after swimming through over eight thousand pages of text in this universe, I’m always eager to dive back into it. Which is why I was excited to read Ian C. Esslemont’s latest addition to the universe: Orb Sceptre Throne.

As I discussed when reviewing Stonewielder last year, Esslemont has faced an uphill battle writing in his and Erikson’s shared universe. His first attempts were a little tentative and with some weaknesses, but I thought that he really hit his stride in Stonewielder. What particularly struck me – as compared to Erikson’s far denser works – was the (relative) accessibility of Esslemont’s stories. Though on the whole Orb Sceptre Throne continues Esslemont’s trajectory of improvement, it unfortunately stumbles on both accessibility and initial characterization.

“Accessible” is not an adjective often applied to the Malazan novels. With hundreds of characters, multiple perspectives, numerous side-plots (some spanning several novels), swirling allegiances, and piles of complex magic, they take a significant and sustained mental investment to enjoy. Despite sharing many of these features with Erikson’s dense tomes, Esslemont’s works tend to have a narrower scope and benefit from this greater focus. One need not be intimately familiar with the background established in Erikson’s ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen to understand Esslemont’s Night of Knives or Stonewielder. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Orb Sceptre Throne.

The book focuses on Darujhistan, roughly parallel in time to the events of Stonewielder and Erikson’s The Crippled God (book ten in Erikson’s series). The book features three core plot lines told from six primary perspectives. The central plot deals with a powerful and ancient tyrant trying to take control of the quasi-democratic city state of Darujhistan. The other plot lines, which ultimately tie back into the central story, deal with events on the wreckage of Moon’s Spawn, and in the warren of Chaos last seen in Return of the Crimson Guard.

Even in that brief, thirty-thousand foot overview, the weakness of Orb Sceptre Throne is clear: to understand two out of the three central plot lines, the reader needs to be familiar with both the events of Esslemont’s Return of the Crimson Guard, and Erikson’s Memories of Ice (book three, though in reality, the entirety of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen is useful for adequate background). Because of the amount and complexity of backstory necessary to even begin navigating Esslemont’s story, the book’s audience is by default limited to those readers already significantly invested in the Malazan universe. In essence, Orb Sceptre Throne suffers from a very complicated case of middle-novel-syndrome.

Even if we accept that its audience is limited to those of us already familiar with the Malazan universe, the book still suffers from a structural weakness: the first one hundred fifty pages are a slow, somewhat meandering collection of unconnected narratives. Fans of the Malazan universe are prepared for gradual builds, in that the books’ characteristic interlocking plot lines need a fair degree of set up. But successful execution of such slow builds requires consistently engaging characterization. And this is where the opening of Orb Sceptre Throne falls short.

In these early pages, Esslemont keeps many of his characters at arms’ length, and as a result we fail to develop a rapport with them. The scholar Ebbin, who Esslemont opens his story with, is particularly problematic: though his motivation is intellectually understandable, I found that I was uninterested in his fate. With no redeeming features, and nothing to supplement his singular focus, the character was unable to engage me on an emotional level. This is a significant departure from the quality of characterization in Stonewielder, which was tighter, more focused, and significantly more engaging. Thankfully, after the first hundred and fifty pages or so, Esslemont returns to fine form.

Once the dominoes are all set up, the narrative focuses on several core perspectives (notably not Ebbin’s) and we gain a greater engagement with our perspective characters. Esslemont’s solid characterization and vivid depictions of action really shine once he gets going. The sections that particularly appealed to me were those set on Moon’s Spawn, in the warren of Chaos, and those told from the perspective of the Seguleh. It is these narratives and their characters that pull us along in the story, and once their foundations are established the story’s flow smooths into an enjoyable ride. The ending is – for the most part – satisfying, and those elements that remain unresolved are obviously teasers for subsequent stories that we can expect Esslemont to address in the future.

On the whole, Esslemont’s Orb Sceptre Throne is one of the weaker Malazan novels, but for those of us invested in the universe, a reasonably enjoyable one. If you haven’t yet gotten into the Malazan universe, then don’t start with this one: you’ll be lost within the first couple of pages. If, on the other hand, you are current with the Malazan universe, then by all means pick up the book. Its events are significant, and will no doubt be built upon in future volumes. Its weak opening may take some effort to get through, but once the story gets going, Malazan fans will enjoy it for the elements it shares with all books in the universe: its ambition, action, characters, and its moral and thematic complexity.

Super Hero Narratives and Our Re-discovered Love for Them

NOTE: Sorry for posting this a bit late. The only excuse I’ve got is that I was busy at the movie theater doing more research for this blog post (honest!).

Despite the fact that the comic book industry bemoans its sad state on average once every nanosecond (more frequently than the book industry, believe it or not!), they must be doing something right if mass market narratives like Marvel’s The Avengers can just elide backstory, origins, or explanations and expect audiences to accept their characters as given. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Superman, Batman, Spider-man (note the sustained and sad preponderance of the male adjective in there) have become so integrated into Western culture that their mythos are omnipresent. But why? Why do we love super heroes and why – after two decades in the weeds – are super heroes flying off movie screens and DVD racks?

Super Heroes as Archetypes Embodied or Applied

There are a great many different kinds of comic books, from the spandex-clad super heroes we think of by default, to fictional slice-of-life stories, to crazy experiments in form and narrative. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus on the super hero genre – the others operate within entirely different conventions.

Let me start with a disclaimer: My name is Chris, and I am a lapsed comic book reader. As a kid, I must’ve spent a small fortune in birthday and couch cushion money at my local comic book shop. Every X-book, all the Spider-man books, the Batman line, Superman, Image’s early stuff, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, etc. etc. The list of books I inhaled uncritically is kind of embarrassing (and my bagged and boarded long boxes are still taking up space in my parents’ basement more than a decade after I moved out). It wasn’t until I got a lot older (and abandoned the super hero genre due to the fact that it generally did not and does not care about quality writing) that I started to really think about why certain comics appealed to me more than others.

Like any fictional conceit, super heroes are concretized metaphors. This applies just as much to Superman as it does to the X-Men. Only some metaphors are more transparent than others. It doesn’t take a doctorate in semiotics to label the archetypes that some characters represent: Superman, Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil are idealized symbols for our collective imagination. These characters embody a particular ethos, and we enjoy their stories because they allow us to vicariously partake of a Nietzschian ideal.

Other heroes – Moore’s Watchmen, Spider-man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four – do not so much embody an archetype as provide a lens to examine its aspirational application. Through Peter Parker’s struggle to balance his heroic aspirations against his family life, we can examine what happens when one strives towards the archetype in a more realistic world.

At their core, this is what gives certain super heroes staying power within our culture. And story arcs that tap into this core are those that will resonate and stay with us. But that is the deeper, unspoken truth about comics and about super heroes. It speaks to our psychology as an audience, and to the creators’ philosophy as artists. But identification and concretized metaphor does not explain why audiences shelled out over $300 million to see spandex-clad divas smack each other around.

The answer lies in a dirty word: escapism.

Escapism Can Be Our Friend

That’s right. I said the e-word. I think of it as dirty because it is how “serious fiction” sidelined speculative fiction for decades. But escapism is a powerful narrative tool. It is a release valve for societies, and it is one that Marvel’s The Avengers employs flawlessly.

Regardless of whether it is in sequential art or film, ensemble narratives like The Avengers, or the Justice League, or the X-Men cannot possibly focus on their characters’ underlying archetypes: there are too many characters playing upon too many archetypes for that kind of narrative to hold together (despite the industry’s love of over-played crossover arcs). Instead, they tap into the audience’s yearning for entertainment and the abrogation of responsibility.

As human beings we like to have someone else do the work. We work hard all day long, we are stressed, we take tough phone calls, and we have difficult conversations. Most of us don’t need to fight giant robots or aliens or monsters, but we all struggle anyway. And there is something cathartic about watching someone else do the struggling for a little while.

This is the same desire that makes us appreciate eucatastrophe in fiction when executed well. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t much like (or really believe in) eucatastrophe as a narrative device, but when done well it is satisfying for the same reason: it places the hard choices on someone else, someone “extraordinary” with whom we can never wholly identify.

Come Away with Me, oh Human Child

Ensemble super hero narratives rely on Othered saviors rescuing us from Othered villains. Though in a more focused narrative the villains might well play archetypal roles, they are simply external threats which we (collectively) are not responsible for.

Sure, Magneto is responding to anti-mutant bigotry. But we, the enlightened audience, are never responsible for that: we like the mutants…or why would we buy their books? And Lex Luthor might be a product of capitalist laissez-faire society, but hey…he’s one egomaniacial super-genius. And Loki…well, he’s a demi-god, an alien, and crazy to boot. And lest we forget, if something goes wrong in comic book land you can bet the Government (or its sunglass-wearing agents) had a hand in it somewhere.

Ensemble super hero narratives are summer blockbusters, meant to briefly entertain, not change the world. And they do so by presenting us with problems that are not ours, and then parachuting someone else in to fix them.

Why are they resurgent now?

Yes, yes, I know that comic books as a medium are struggling for a host of economic reasons. And while I personally think that’s because it is hard to grow an audience solely by focusing on art with scant attention to writing, it is fair to say that the super hero genre is doing better today than it ever has.

Could a movie like The Avengers have been as successful twenty years ago? No. Because we as society were not in the mood for it then. Today, that kind of escapism is in the air. It is something we need.

Thirty years ago, Moore’s Watchmen showed us that heroes and villains need not be archetypal or aspirational. That they can be flawed, and human, and with all of the ugliness and beauty that entails. What followed was three decades of increasing grit, and darkness, and hard-edges…perhaps a counter-reaction to the Cold War’s end and the ensuing economic, technological, and social boomtimes of the ’90s.

But today is a very different world, beset by very different problems – environmental, political, social, economical, and diplomatic. And over the course of the last decade, it seems to me that the super hero pendulum has been swinging back in the direction of greater escapism: to offer a soothing balm to the challenges of our real world. In real life, there are no heroes able to step up and deal with these very real problems on our behalf.

And when – as these days – we see our leaders failing to do so, when we see our neighbors failing to do so, and when we see ourselves failing to do so, it is only natural that we should fantasize about a group of different people, with different backgrounds, different beliefs, and different skills doing the impossible.

In the United States, at least, we mythologize our cultural heroes. Whether it is the revolutionary militias camped at Valley Forge, the Founding Fathers in a hot Philadelphia State House, the pioneer settlers pushing west, or the Greatest Generation, we expect someone in our society to step up and fight the hard fight. Only for our generation, nobody is really doing so. Which is why we need it in our fiction.

In The Avengers, Maria Hill at one point asks Nick Fury why the heroes would come back to save the day. And Nick Fury’s answer is poignant, relevant, and sad: “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the dream and the yearning that drives super hero narrative, and which underlies our fascination with the archetypes it exposes.

Because we always need heroes. And today, in our world, it has become awfully difficult to spot them (at least among our supposed leaders). And we need heroes today, in places of great power, on local street corners, and in our schools. Because Cap and the Avengers, Supes and the JLA, are just stories. And they won’t save the day, no matter how much we may need them to.

REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

REVIEW: The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey

Title: The Steel Seraglio
Author: Mike Carey, Linda Carey, Louise Carey
Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A mythic novel-in-stories that maintains a fast, unified pace

Several years ago, I discovered N.M. Penzer’s The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans, which opened my eyes to the fascinating history of the Ottoman sultan’s harem. What could be more fertile soil for an awesome story than a group of educated women from diverse backgrounds, locked away by a patriarchal society yet with intimate access to the heart of political, military, and religious power, and simultaneously grooming the next generation of the same? The real intrigue and blood-soaked history of the Ottoman Empire’s seraglio might well be called “implausible” if it were to show up in a fantasy novel, but with my pre-existing fascination, the moment I saw a book entitled The Steel Seraglio, I had to read it.

The Steel Seraglio is an impressively structured and well-executed fantasy that follows the experiences of three hundred sixty five concubines who – when their sultan is overthrown by an ascetic zealot – find themselves exiled into the desert, fighting for their lives, and their futures.

The Steel Seraglio is loosely structured as a novel-in-stories recounted by Rem, a librarian from the harem’s home city. With its mythic feel and folktale overtones, I was strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale and Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge. However, The Steel Seraglio is more accessible and features more consistent momentum than either of these titles. Like most novels-in-stories, it features both nested and discrete, self-contained tales, but in this case each addresses and expands upon the conflict at the heart of this book: the concubines’ battle for self-determination.

The book opens with not one but two prologues, which is an interesting and rather unusual choice. The prologues firmly establish the book’s mythic tone, give a good sense of its flowing, evocative descriptions, and introduce us to the Careys’ daring technical choices. The first of the two prologues transports us to a dry, desert environment and establishes a decidedly non-Western, patriarchal culture heavily influenced by Middle Eastern traditions. At this point, it is entirely unclear whether we are dealing with a secondary world fantasy or find ourselves in some strange quasi-historical environment.

The first prologue does a good job of communicating the flavor of the novel, introducing us to both a setting and style that heavily reminded me of The Arabian Nights and The Shahnameh. Considering how much I like both, and how rare it is to find fantasy which eschews quasi-medieval northern European settings, The Steel Seraglio was quite refreshing.

The second of the two prologues further introduces us to our narrator, the librarian Rem, and lays out some of the background essential to the novel which follows. At the same time, this second prologues shifts to a slightly different, more self-aware narrative voice that strategically abandons some of the mythic tone – and it is this shift in voice that most caught my eye, as a bold and risky stylistic gamble that I felt ultimately paid off.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed both prologues on their own terms, I found the first to be one of the weaker parts of an otherwise strong novel. As mentioned above, the Careys successfully avoid the trap of most novels-in-stories by ensuring that each embedded tale shares and focuses on the novel’s driving conflict. Of all of the disparate sections of the book, the first prologue alone ignores this central conflict. While it does a good job of grounding the reader in tone, style, and setting through some wonderfully evocative writing, when considered as the first movement in the larger score, I felt it to be somewhat out of place. The second prologue, however, does a good job of easing us into the book’s central conflict.

The rest of the book maintains the prologues’ lush descriptions and combines them with a momentum-charged focus on character and conflict. The over-arching story is of how the sultan’s concubines are exiled after a coup d’état, and how they carve out self-determination for themselves. The story skillfully focuses on the experiences of the harem’s leaders (and those of the narrator Rem herself).

The principal characters are a delight: the pragmatic wisdom of the elderly Gursoon, the icy passion of the assassin-cum-concubine Zuleika, the terrifying zealotry of the usurper Hakkim Mehdad, the hilarious cunning of the camel thief Anwar Das, or the self-absorbed immaturity of the surviving prince Jamal are a delight on the page. I found the narrator’s own story a little self-absorbed for my taste, but this is not actually a weakness: the character remained well-drawn and interesting. I just found the others more compelling. Despite the myriad characters, and their many embedded stories, the Careys do an excellent job of capturing the conflicting, complicated, messy, and beautiful relationships of a disparate group thrust into one another’s orbits by powers beyond their control. The fact that the characters are so rich and varied is a testament to the Careys’ skill, and is the primary pillar on which the book’s success rests.

The narrative voice is interesting, and takes a notable (and ultimately successful) risk: the narrator, Rem, is gifted by the djinni with the ability to see possible futures. She is a seer, and a librarian, and a storyteller, embedded in of her own mythic time while cognizant of our somewhat more egalitarian future. The seer character is a trope much over-used in fantasy, but the Careys freshen it with a realistic conceit: with her ability to see into the future, Rem’s voice becomes peppered with anachronisms. Idioms and words that have no business in a mythic tale salt her prose: in the second paragraph of the second prologue, we are told that for a seer who can see the future “Tenses get a bit confused…and unravelling them again can be a bitch.” This departure from the somewhat florid style so commonly associated with myth is shocking, and I found it refreshing.

This is a daring choice of technique, because it risks our immersion in the story: at first blush, we read The Steel Seraglio as a mythic, folktale style narrative. The prose is evocative, lush, flowing: it reads like legend. But by inserting contemporary, anachronistic constructions into otherwise mythic prose, we are forced to reconsider and reevaluate the words and themes introduced by the story. The effect may be jarring. Although some readers might find that it lessens the sense of mythic immersion the prose otherwise produces, I found that the technique was used sparingly enough, and with just enough strategic precision, to heighten my own sense of immersion. After all, wouldn’t someone perceptually unmoored from their own time end up with some rather odd verbal tics? Because the Careys play this narrative device straight, making Rem’s anachronistic tics and stories strange or incomprehensible to her own contemporaries, the effect heightens the world’s remove from our contemporary mores, enhancing the gap between the novel’s patriarchal world and our own.

Just as the novel’s non-traditional setting is refreshing, so too is its thematic focus on women and their self-determination in a patriarchal society. This is the kind of theme that fantasy, a genre stereotypically known for its lantern-jawed (male) heroes, too rarely addresses. While the book wears its feminist themes on its sleeve, the Careys avoid the polemical trap by focusing on the complicated and at times messy emotional journeys that their (predominantly female) characters must take. As a result, the (perhaps obvious) themes are treated with a skill, compassion, and empathy which diffuses and dramatizes any moralizing agenda.

The core thrust of the novel is divided into two “books” within the larger novel, a “Book the First” and a “Book the Second”. While both are well-told, well-structured, and maintain a well-paced momentum, I found that the second of these two books felt somewhat rushed. It focuses on the consequences of the events of the first, but it does so in a much more sweeping, view-from-thirty-thousand-feet fashion than the first eighty percent of the novel. In some respects, as a work of history within the fictional narrative, it works well. And my discomfort with this approach may simply stem from the fact that I wanted to spend more time in the Careys’ world, and in the city of Bessa, and with the characters they introduced me to. But nevertheless, I found it felt to some degree like an attempt at a duology crammed into one volume.

Overall, The Steel Seraglio is a delight. Fans of mythic fantasy like Valente’s The Orphan’s Tale or Frost’s Shadowbridge will likely enjoy both its characterization and evocative description, while readers looking for a fun, action-packed story can find the same in its fast-moving pace. The weaknesses I saw, whether in its initial prologue or in the rushed second book, are on the whole quibbles: the book is great fun, and a rich, lovely work of art. The excellent interior illustrations by Nimit Malavia further add to its artistry, though from a design standpoint the artistry might have been heightened by illustrations more evocative of or otherwise tied to the Arabian, Persian, or Ottoman traditions which feature so strongly in the text itself, and in the excellent cover by Erik Mohr.

The Steel Seraglio is a wonderful, resonant book and I would love to see more such novels from its authors, illustrator, and publisher.

Stumbling through the Arena: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Movie

Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while probably realize that I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I frequently use it as an example, and have written up some more in-depth discussions of the books, as well. And having recently seen two very different yet still compelling film adaptations (see my write-up here), I was looking forward to Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games. Here’s what I thought:

NOTE: What follows doesn’t really have any spoilers as to what happens, but it does discuss particular scenes that worked or didn’t work in the movie itself. So be warned.

Pacing is the Heart of the Hunger Games

In the book, Collins nails a slew of narrative techniques: her characters are compelling, the world she describes is vivid, and the story itself is fast-paced. There are plenty of iconic moments in the book, scenes and passages that leave the reader crying, terrified, or cheering. One can’t help but invest in the characters. But if the characters are the lifeblood of The Hunger Games, then it is Collins’ deft management of the story’s pace that keeps that blood pumping.

Regardless of the medium, uniform pacing kills narrative momentum. Yes, the audience wants the story to move forward. But for that movement to be emotionally satisfying, it needs to be modulated. We need moments where we’re on the edge of our seats, our hearts hammering. And we need moments when the action slows, where we can take a moment to breathe, and to savor deeper emotional content. Despite the action at the heart of Collins’ story, she still manages to include enough introspective moments to imbue her characters with an emotional progression, which in turn gives their actions and choices emotional meaning for the audience. Stories whose pace is unmodulated, where the rate at which we are asked to invest in the characters is unchanged, are exhausting.

Unfortunately, Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games evidences a clear lack of analysis into why the original book worked so well. While it gets the window-dressing right, it stumbles on the most important points.

The Hunger Games According to Gary Ross

A story is more than a collection of scenes. Each moment serves a particular purpose, be it expository, emotional, inertial, etc. Often, a moment works to fulfill multiple purposes simultaneously. When I talk about the unity of a story, I mean having each moment and each level of the story working in concert towards a shared purpose. Collins’ books evidence great and powerful unity throughout. Key inflection points are able to escalate our emotional investment through their drama, which in turn builds upon the foundations laid through preceding moments.

On the face of it, Gary Ross’ adaptation can be called faithful: most of the key moments from the book are there (FWIW, io9’s got a good analysis of what’s missing), from the reaping, Katniss’ heartfelt goodbyes, the arrival in the Capitol, the tribute parade, the interviews, the training sequences, etc. So yes, on the superficial level of “what happens” the movie remains reasonably faithful to the book.

However, though every scene contributes to a story’s overall emotional impact, different scenes demand, need, and produce varying degrees of emotional investment. One of the differences between good storytelling and bad lies in knowing which scenes should evoke stronger and weaker emotions. In her prose, Collins gets this right. In his movie, Gary Ross does not.

Shortly before the movie’s premiere, I came across an answer Gary Ross gave to a question about his favorite scene in the movie. It was the kind of standard question for which every director has some sort of diplomatic throw-away response, perfectly geared to not offend any fan. Ross’ answer was that for him, every scene was just as important as every other, and thus he didn’t have a favorite. At first blush, I thought this was just a diplomatic non-answer. But after seeing the movie, I realized that this value judgment carries through Ross’ directorial vision.

In his adaptation, Ross imbues each and every scene with the exact same level of emotional intensity. The actors deliver solid performances (though in some scenes I found Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss a touch wooden), but I had no sense of which moments in the story were supposed to be more or less dramatic/important than any other. In most movies, a scene’s cinematography, editing, music, and the transitions between its preceding and following scenes give some indication of its relative importance. Not so in Ross’ The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ appearance in the Tribute Parade is apparently just as important as her stroll through the woods at the movie’s opening.

Many reviewers have called the movie exhausting – and they’re right. With no variability in its pace, or with the audience’s emotional investment, its uniformity turns it into a slog. Whether the audience’s emotions run high or low doesn’t matter: what matters is that because they are relatively unchanging, the entire experience is lessened.

Tent-pole Moments that Fall Flat

In reading the book, there were several key moments that (for me) rang with resonant power. These are the scenes that – several years after first reading the book – have stayed with me. They are, in order of their occurrence:

  1. The Reaping, where Katniss volunteers on her sister’s behalf,
  2. The Tribute Parade, where Katniss’ dress lights on fire,
  3. The Interviews (Katniss and Peeta’s) where they begin their conscious manipulation of the games’ audience,
  4. The Training Evaluation, where Katniss’ demonstrates her skills, and;
  5. The Games themselves (which to avoid spoilers I won’t get into).

Each of these scenes represents an inflection point in the story, both for the characters and for all events that follow. They are the tent-poles on which the story hangs. One would think, therefore, that these scenes would demand more of the director’s attention. But in the film itself, almost all of these points fall flat. Let me consider each in turn:

The Reaping The book’s first-person, present-tense narration rapidly invests us in Katniss’ perspective of the events. We perceive the Reaping, and her sister, and her sister’s selection, through her eyes. This gives the moment poignancy, relevance, and immediacy. The movie, however, is not a first-person experience. And by the time the Reaping takes place, we lack the world-building background or emotional investment in the characters to really care about Prim’s selection, or to understand the implications of Katniss’ volunteering.
The Tribute Parade Katniss is “the girl on fire” and it is at this moment in the story that she receives that sobriquet, and when she realizes that she can affect the games’ audience. It is a turning point for the character, both in terms of how she perceives herself and how we as the audience are meant to perceive her. When her and Peeta’s costumes light on fire, it is a visual dramatization of their characters, which in the book unifies in that one moment the book’s themes, the characters’ journeys, and the imagery in the prose. But on film, this (very brief) moment rings hollow because of terrible costume design and even worse CG (seriously, I’ve seen animated GIFs with better rendered flame animations).
The Interviews The interviews with Caesar Flickerman further drive home the shift in both Katniss and Peeta’s awareness of themselves. They are the denouement to the Tribute Parade, deepening our understanding of the characters’ changes. As such, they are central to the progression of each character, to their relationships with Haymitch, and to their relationships with each other. They also fundamentally drive our awareness of each character, respectively. Here, too, Collins’ relies on the symmetrical visual imagery of Katniss as the “girl on fire”, where in one scene her dress lights on fire…and then becomes a completely different dress. As a symbol, this works on every level: it ties into the series’ over-arching themes of revolution and dramatizes the character’s growth…and again, the CG and direction fall flat on film: the fact that the dress doesn’t actually change ruins the effect. The scene itself is only saved by the excellent acting of Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mallark).
The Training Evaluation The training evaluation gives us further insight into Katniss’ character, and into the lengths to which she is willing to go. It is a visual, dramatic moment in the storytelling that focuses entirely on Katniss’, her relationship with Haymitch and the unspoken relationship with the gamesmaster Seneca Crane. In the movie, it gets about as much focus as Peeta giving Katniss burnt bread.Both are necessary, but I would argue that the training evaluation raises the stakes for the character and thus deserves more focus (screen time, directorial consideration).

I won’t comment on the Games themselves, since doing so would include far too many spoilers to be helpful. But the uniformity of tension and emotional engagement is almost perfectly maintained throughout. There are, in fact, only two moments which deviate from this uniformity – and both make for some of the best acting in the entire movie.

Overall Assessment of The Hunger Games (movie)?

Overall, the movie was “okay”. As far as adaptations go, it wasn’t anywhere near as well directed as Scorsese’s Hugo (see my earlier post), yet it was infinitely better than Chris Wietz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass.

The Hunger Games’ weaknesses are not inherent to the story, nor as far as I can tell do they stem from the screenplay, and certainly not from the actors’ performances. They are – in each case – a consequence of the director’s understanding of narrative. As such, they were all avoidable.

Despite these weaknesses, fans of the book will enjoy the movie…but they (like me) will be relying on their experiences of the book to support their experience of the film. People who come to the story fresh, without having read the book, will likely respond with a “meh”. The book will surely be a fan favorite for years to come, but I suspect this movie adaptation will be forgotten relatively quickly.

With three more movies to come (because apparently every third book in a trilogy needs to be two movies, e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, etc.), I hope that Lionsgate either gets a new director who understands pacing, or that Gary Ross learns something about storytelling. Considering the amount of money the first movie made opening weekend, I think that they could afford to do either.

REVIEW: Ride the Moon ed. M.L.D. Curelas

Title: Ride the Moon
Editor: M.L.D. Curelas
Pub Date: February 29th, 2012
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An enjoyable, entertaining anthology with a wide variety of new authors.

When I think about the anthologies I have read, I tend to break them out into three different types: exploring a particular style (e.g. Supernatural Noir ed. Ellen Datlow, reviewed here), showcasing a particular sub-genre (e.g. Steampunk ed. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), or plumbing the depths of a specific theme (e.g. Paper Cities ed. Ekaterina Sedia). Through painstaking editorial curation, anthologists consolidate different voices and stories into a meaningful, unified whole. They can become more than the sum of their parts, and at the same time are packed full of fun, entertaining stories. And while I found that Tyche Books moon-themed debut anthology Ride the Moon didn’t culminate in a deeper insight into human nature, the collection of fantasy and science fiction stories was well-selected, well-organized, and definitely a fun read.

Thematic anthologies like Ride the Moon are, in my opinion, the hardest type of anthology to pull off. A stylistic exploration requires attention to style and tone, a sub-genre survey requires breadth and depth within that sub-genre, but a good thematic anthology necessitates building a TOC of excellent stories that are linked on a superficial level (the ostensible theme) and whose underlying truths are simultaneously unified in some fashion. The best example of this kind of anthology in recent times that I can think of is Ekaterina Sedia’s Paper Cities, which (despite the weaknesses of some individual stories) still managed to offer insight into how cities are employed in modern fantasy.

Ride the Moon is the debut book published by a new Canadian small press, Tyche Books. As their launch title, it is impressive. If I hold it to a high standard, it’s because on most measures I believe it comes pretty damn close to meeting it. Most of the stories are original to the anthology, though the occasional reprint (Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens” I recognized) is well worth inclusion. Most of the authors are Canadian, and I strongly recommend readers who might not be familiar with SF/F north of the border to check them out. While I recognized some of the authors (notably Claude Lalumière, Edward Willet, and Marie Bilodeau), most were brand new to me.

As the title suggests, every story in this anthology somehow touches on or deals with the moon as metaphor, god(dess), monster, or setting. With its lunar theme, the anthology skews somewhat fantastical: of the eighteen stories, only six are clearly science fiction. However, the remaining twelve fantasy stories tend to blend nicely between the explicit dark fantasy of Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” to the more science fictional fantasy of Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams”.

About half of the stories – most notably C.A. Lang’s “Tidal Tantrums”, Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon”, Keven Cockle’s “The Dowser” and Amy Laurens’ “Cherry Blossoms” – wrestle with the relationships of myth and magic in a modern, technological society. And while it might be tempting to say that therein lies the anthology’s unifying truth, I’m afraid that theory doesn’t hold up when faced with the anthology’s other stories.

The stories that I enjoyed most invariably did something fresh with both the lunar theme and their storytelling. Isabella Drzemczewska Hodson’s “Husks” is a beautifully written dark fantasy. The prose is lyrical and flowing, and Hodson’s imagery just draws you in. Her use of omniscience in the storytelling works to great effect: despite the omniscient narrator, I found myself embedded in the characters and their experiences. A. Merc Rustad’s “With the Sun and Moon in His Eyes” employs excellent characterization with tight prose. Both the subject matter and story structure reminded me of N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, and appealed to me in many of the same ways. Shereen Vedam’s “Aloha Moon” and Ada Hoffman’s “Moon Laws, Moon Dreams” both do a great job of drawing the reader into their characters, though I found the plot resolution of “Aloha Moon” a little too convenient. The biggest stand-out for me, however, had to be Edward Willet’s “Je Me Souviens”: a quiet, emotional, and intensely powerful story about mourning, loyalty, remembrance, and faith.

Some of the other stories, notably Krista D. Ball’s “On the Labrador Shore, She Waits”, Tony Noland’s “Sunset at the Sea of Fertility”, and Lori Strongin’s “A Moonrise in Seven Hours” didn’t work for me. In most cases this was because I found their characters and plot structures fairly predictable. They were well executed for what they were…I just found that they didn’t appeal to me, and were otherwise unmemorable and unremarkable.

In sum, I would say that Ride the Moon is an entertaining, well-written, and well-structured anthology. Despite their significant differences, the stories flow into each other nicely. I enjoyed reading it and – perhaps most importantly – it has turned me onto a number of authors who I might not otherwise have encountered. This is an anthology well worth picking up if only for those two traits. And as a debut from Tyche Books, it makes Tyche a small press that I’m going to be paying attention to going forward.

REVIEW: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

Title: Southern Gods
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Pub Date: July 26th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A reasonably-well structured debut novel with near-perfect Southern Gothic world-building.

Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are – at some level – the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience’s emotional response: to get the reader “in the mood”. In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there’s no way we won’t respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven’t been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story’s real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs’ prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs’ his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs’ world.

After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram’s values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he’s also not a bad guy: he’s just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.

I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book’s first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book’s second half. I understand that Sarah’s storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.

Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book’s plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur’s name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Haita the Shephard“, from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression – from benign god of shepherds in Bierce’s story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth’s work – is plainly an example of the “folk process” at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.

Jacobs’ depiction of Ramblin’ John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it’s in books like Southern Gods or in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs’ lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950’s rural south, and especially his characters’ dialog.

Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters’ speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters’ sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn’t even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book’s writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.

Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice’s ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah’s storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull’s arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs’ otherwise excellent world-building.

The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest’s proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin’ John’s Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn’t find any.

By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs’ world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.

Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book’s first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs’ next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).

And to close out this review, here’s a clip of Robert Johnson playing some awesome Delta blues:

Moving Across Mediums: Assessing the Adaptations of Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In the past month, I got to see two very different film adaptations of books that I loved: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which adapts Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel of the same title). Although both feature science fictional elements (if you don’t believe me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then check out my earlier blog post on the subject), they could not be more different. Hugo is a children’s story, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far from middle-grade as one can get. And yet, their screen adaptations got me thinking about the nature of prose and film, and on the differences in storytelling between the two mediums.

Why The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are Compelling

Both Selznick’s middle-grade novel and le Carré’s spy novel are excellent works of fiction, captivating and moving on multiple levels. What makes these books so good is the way in which they unfold with unity of plot, theme, and character. At its most basic level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how a young orphan named Hugo finds a family, and how an old man named George finds himself with Hugo’s help. Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of how an old retired spy is dragged back into the murky world of betrayal he had (ostensibly) left behind.

Selznick and le Carré are very different storytellers. More than half of Selznick’s book is told visually through gorgeous drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, and as a world-building device Selznick’s drawings perform beautifully: his opening sequence introduces us to 1930s Paris, to the Gare Montparnasse, to our hero Hugo, and to the old man at the train station. In a handful of drawings, Selznick quickly draws us into Hugo’s world and engages us with his two primary characters. When Selznick switches into prose, we already suspect what comes next, even if we can’t articulate it. Selznick uses his drawings to lend emotional immediacy to his story, thus accelerating the rate at which we invest in his characters.

Le Carré doesn’t use illustrations. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all told in prose, and deals with the very difficult themes of betrayal, loyalty, and motivation. Although the book follows George Smiley, it actually features a broad cast of characters. Le Carré’s omniscient narrator takes us in and out of their heads smoothly, giving us insight into everyone’s motivations, concerns, and emotional states. And while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy novel, a great deal of its prose focuses on the (seemingly) banal personal relationships of Smiley, his wife, and his friends. By showing us both the intellectual game of espionage and its more private underside, le Carré earns our investment in the character: we understand the degree to which Smiley is conflicted with his charge, we understand the degree to which the chase both excites him and disappoints him, and we understand why his companions and quarries act the way they do. His personal concerns, and those of his friends and enemies, serve to establish moral equivalence, to humanize them for the reader.

Both books feature multiple, related plotlines, and all of these plotlines oscillate around the same themes. The different converging plots involving Hugo, his father’s automaton, the old toyshop owner, and the Station Inspector who hunts the orphan child all swirl to greater or lesser extent around the question of family and acceptance. The same holds true for George Smiley: the A plot of Smiley’s hunt for the traitor puts into concrete action the themes of le Carré’s B and C plots (Smiley’s relationship with his deceased mentor, and Smiley’s relationship with his wife). This unity of action, theme, and emotion closes the emotional distance that would otherwise have been built between the characters and the reader. And ultimately, it is this unity that makes the stories compelling.

The Differences Between Film and Prose

Obviously, there are many differences between text and film. However, I like to believe that good storytelling transcends the medium and that the underlying goals of storytelling are universal: we want the audience to be engaged, we want them to be interested, we want them to turn the page. However, different techniques are employed in different media to achieve our intended narrative effects. In a real sense, authors and film-makers are master manipulators: it is our job to evoke some kind of response on the part of our audience. If we evoke the response we intended, then we’re doing a good job. If we evoke a different (or the opposite) response, then we’ve made a mistake.

Narrative Tools in Prose: Events Shown, Information Shared, Language Used

The Narrative Tools in Prose

In prose, our primary tools are the events that we depict, the information we impart to the reader, and the language we use to do both. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification: I could probably talk about choosing a single metaphor for a day or two if given the chance. Yet nonetheless, it is our job as creators to choose what we want to present and how to present it. In prose, all of these tools are in the author’s control (although to be fair, good editors have their say, too). When we write, we make conscious choices as to what information our reader needs, when they need to get that information, and how that information is delivered to them.

Narrative Tools in Film

Narrative Tools in Film

In film, it’s a little more complicated. At the most basic level, movie-makers have the same two basic tools as authors: they select the events they wish to show, and decide the information they wish to impart to their viewer. However, language is only one of the many devices they have available to accomplish both goals. Actors convey a wealth of information on multiple levels: their facial expressions, movement, and tone of voice all are part of the storytelling and are only partially (at best) under the screenwriter or director’s control. Then, directors choose what visuals are presented in the film, how shots are set up, how a scene gets lit, and how it gets staged. This is conveyed visually, but can be used to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. And the soundtrack adds an emotional undertone to the visual events, guiding the audience into a certain desired state. And finally, we get the language that is used in the dialog itself.

This is not to say that there are more moving parts in film-making. There aren’t, despite what movie makers might say. It’s just that the moving parts are very different from those faced in prose, and I think that when writing and directing an adaption it is incumbent upon us to bear in mind the differences in technique that both mediums work with.

Why Hugo Works as an Adaptation

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is probably one of the best film adaptations I have ever seen for the simple reason that it tells the same story that the book told, hitting the same narrative notes and evoking the same emotions in me as an audience member. While Scorsese may have chosen different events to show, different information to share with the audience, and of course made his own choices on cinematography, soundtrack, etc., his adaptation stayed true to the overarching flow of Selznick’s story. Hugo achieved the same type of unity in plot, theme, and character as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as the original book’s story was excellent, so too was its film adaptation.

To be fair, Scorsese’s task was made easier by Selznick’s beautiful illustrations. The book was itself already heavily cinematic, with illustrations that conformed to most of the classic structures of visual storytelling: establishing shots, action shots, close-ups to communicate facts and emotions, etc. Since half of Selznick’s book consisted of detailed illustrations, much of the visual storytelling had already been done. I expect this made Scorsese’s task at least somewhat easier, since Selznick had already made a slew of decisions regarding the story’s visual narrative.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Scorsese, the actors, and the screenwriter John Logan didn’t have a lot to do with the finished product. But it is very clear that they were heavily influenced (as is only right for an adaptation) by Selznick’s original book. By letting Selznick’s illustrations and storytelling influence their choices, they were able to capture his thematic and tonal focus, leading to a finished work as beautiful, compelling, and moving as the original.

Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Does Not Work as an Adaptation

Unfortunately, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not work nearly as well as Scorsese’s Hugo. It remains a good movie: the cinematography is solid, the music is excellent, the acting great, and the writing good. It clearly tried to stay true to the original source material, but by de-emphasizing the characters’ personal lives it weakened the overall product.

The film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy engages us on an intellectual level: George Smiley (played well by Gary Oldman) and company keep the audience at an emotional distance, presumably just as they keep themselves emotionally removed from the sordid work that they do. That leaves us with the intellectual mystery of the whodunit: we are engaged with the story because we want to identify the traitor…not because we care about what happens to any of the characters.

Superficially, this is consistent with the book: le Carré portrays most of his characters, and Smiley in particular, as emotionally distant. Yet le Carré shows us that their reticence to engage emotionally is a sham: by showing us their emotional reactions to their personal lives, we know the characters to be living, breathing, feeling human beings. Alfredson chose to de-emphasize this emotional dimension of the story, and his movie suffers for it.

It is telling that the two characters who I found most engaging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were the two shown to be emotionally invested in their own stories: the naive Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who tragically falls in love with a Russian agent, and Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kicks his lover out of his flat to keep him safe. It is precisely because these two characters are shown to be more than cold-blooded apparatchiks that they evoke an emotional response. We can identify with their concerns, and can feel empathy for their troubles.

The emotional concerns of the other – more principal – characters are merely alluded to, and not really explored. It could be argued that those concerns are purposefully left between the lines, there for the discerning viewer to pick up and project onto the screen. That may well have been the reasoning, but I for one found the effect flawed: if that was the intent, it didn’t work for me. The movie was engaging on an intellectual level, but fell short of the unified intellectual/emotional impact evoked by the original book.

Advice for Book-to-Movie Adapters

It seems to me that putting together a good film adaptation of a great book relies on a careful examination of why a book worked, and then translating the techniques that worked in prose form to film. If the method by which a book worked were correctly identified, then a good filmmaker should be able to achieve similar effects using the tools available to them. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a Hollywood driven by consensus decision-making.

What are some other examples of good adaptations? Why did they work? Or how about some terrible adaptations, and why did they fall apart? Love to have some more perspectives!

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov

Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

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