bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 I've been a big Laini Taylor fan since Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer first came out, so I was pretty stoked when BSpec picked her latest novel, Strange the Dreamer, as the next book for our book club.
 
It's an extremely Laini Taylor sort of book, lush and sprawling and whimsical and sweet and violent all at the same time, a bit overwritten in the very best way. The title character is Lazlo Strange, an orphan who is raised in misery and deprivation by monks until he is drafted by a library, where he lives a less miserable but still pretty ascetic (except for the books) life as an apprentice and then a junior librarian.
 
Lazlo is obsessed with legends of the lost city of Weep, which is not actually named Weep, but its name vanished from memory when Lazlo was young and he wants to find out what happened to it. Being a junior librarian is a great way for him to become basically the world's foremost unofficial expert on Weep, but it doesn't give him any sort of plan for figuring out what happened to it. But one day an envoy from Weep just shows up out of nowhere like WE NEED FOREIGN EXPERTS TO HELP US SOLVE A PROBLEM, and Lazlo talks his way into joining the party because he speaks their language. A douchebag alchemist who is about Lazlo's age also joins the party; his name is Thyon Nero and he is very rich and talented and pretty and thoroughly awful, although that is not entirely his fault.
 
I'm extremely hesitant to talk about the plot here, especially since I need to do some more deep thinking about trauma and responsibility and the children who live up in the Citadel, but suffice it to say that I'm looking forward to the discussion. The book deals with some very heavy stuff, genocide and generational trauma and tribalism, and power, and loyalty, and vengeance, and dehumanization. Minya is a heartbreakingly awful character.
 
I love Taylor's obsessions with inordinately powerful beings full of extremely human feelings -- there are definitely things in this book that make you say "Yes, this is definitely the same author as Daughter of Smoke and Bone," but it's not too derivative -- much more like if you liked DoSaB, you'll probably also like this. The power of books and myths and storytelling generally are also much in evidence -- indeed, the whole thing is a paean to the importance of love and imagination as necessary correctives to all the horror in the world.
 
It's also a pure wish-fulfillment power fantasy for introverted nerds who love books. Like, a lot. The power fantasiest power fantasy in the history of power fantasies. I want to save the world and be a hero with my giant collection of useless trivia gleaned from years of reading fairy tales! It is ALL I HAVE EVER WANTED. The real world is not fair.
bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
 WE'RE BACK IN ALT COULOUMB WE'RE BACK WITH TARA ABERNATHY I ALMOST SCREAMED
 
Ahem. Sorry about that.
 
Max Gladstone's Four Roads Cross is all the way at the other end of the Craft Sequence from Three Parts Dead, but because of how the numbers go it actually takes place just a year or so later, and in the same place, and with many of the same great characters--recent grad Craftswoman Tara Abernathy, jumpy little technician-priest Abelard, junkie policewoman Cat, and even dashing vampire pirate Raz, who is not a viewpoint character but who I'm putting in this sentence because he's a vampire pirate.
 
In this book, the Church of Kos Everburning are looking to fend of getting their asses sued off them by some of their clients, who think that Kos' attachment to his girlfriend, the long-thought-dead moon goddess Seril represents undisclosed liabilities and is therefore a form of financial fraud. They sort of have a point, since Kos giving massive infusions of soulstuff (i.e., cash) to Seril in the past is part of what made him go broke and killed him back in Three Parts Dead, but also because the entire series is a metaphor for the inhumanity of late capitalism, it's also like "BEING IN LOVE IS A FINANCIAL LIABILITY AND ALSO FRAUD" so clearly we as readers who are presumably not in the Mercer family are on Team Having A Girlfriend Is Not Financial Fraud, You Greedy Assbags, Leave Kos Alone.
 
Despite the main plotline being roughly about how love is more important than business transactions, this book has none of the cloying sappiness of... you know *gestures toward popular fiction generally* There is a romantic subplot between Cat and Raz, but both Tara and Abelard are blissfully allowed to remain preoccupied with other things, like Tara's crushing student loan debt and the complications of Abelard's ill-defined position of moral leadership without official leadership within the Church. They're also trying to basically run PR interference for the burgeoning cult of Seril, in which her gargoyles have been secretly cultivating a worshipper base among the working people of the city by answering prayers and dishing out vigilante justice like big stone Batmans (Batmen?). Part of this PR interference-running gig involves Tara trying to play nice with a journalist named Gavriel Jones, which is kind of hilarious because playing nice with people is not one of Tara's strong points, and Gabby is very much a cranky investigative journalist in the mold of every good journalist in stories about investigative journalism. In the farmer's market, a community finally, quietly intervenes to help keep a trio of girls safe from their abusive father, but it is the girls who are more powerful than any of them realized.
 
In short, there's a lot going on, and it tends to go on in a very fast-paced way. My least favorite part of the book was the bit where it's the last in the series. I pretty much devoured each installment, and I think I'd like to go back and read them again to see what I missed tearing through them the first time.
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure,  Spider goes around re-gathering evidence for his project to take down President Callahan in between bouts of forgetting words while his brain falls out his nose. (Don’t do drugs, kids.) This outlaw journalism-ing involves such fun tasks as beating Fred Christ’s head in with the Chair Leg of Truth, but it is ultimately Spider’s crotchety former editor who does some massive day-saving with backup copies of Spider’s evidence. Spider then goes out and interviews more people, most of whom are not Fred Christ and who he therefore does not bash in the head with the Chair Leg of Truth. 
 
Spider gets some journalistic help from a scarfaced TV anchor named Robert McX, who does some epic signal boosting of Spider’s work by throwing it in Callahan’s face. But that’s about where the book ends, so the real fallout with obviously be the Big Showdown with Callahan in Volume 10 that we’ve all known is coming eventually.
 
This volume contains the immortal line “I hate Nazi sex midgets,” but other than that is one of the less weird installments in this series.
 
bloodygranuaile: (good morning)
I finally got around to picking up the third book in Max Gladstone’s excellent Craft Sequence, Full Fathom Five. I decided to prioritize this over the other giant pile of stuff I have to read because I am mentally exhausted reading about capitalism and politics and so wanted some nice escapist fantasy. And also because I am apparently stupid and self-sabotaging, since the Craft Sequence is basically all about technocorporate capitalism, just with souls as currency and gods taking the place of… fossil fuels? Basically energy utilities.
 
My favorite thing about Full Fathom Five right off the bat was that one of its viewpoint characters is very poor, which the previous ones have generally not been, so we get some scenes in which poverty is literally soul-sucking. Izza is a street thief, and it is through her that we see the effects of running low on soul—blurred vision, faintness, dizziness, basically what it sounds like it would be—when she has to buy incense when her goddess dies.
 
Full Fathom Five takes place on the small touristy island of Kavekana, the main industry of which, besides tourism, is the creation of idols—rudimentary godlike constructs that can be built upon request and worshiped by Kavekana’s priests, as a stable, safe investment with less sacrifice required than traditional actual deities. There are parallels here to any number of complicated financial hedging products that exist all up on Wall Street and elsewhere, and some other distinct parallels to the economies of assorted lovely small islands in places with nice weather that are referred to by residents of larger jurisdictions as “offshore.” The core of the plot is the core of so many stories of modern finance: a bunch of smart finance bros build products that they think have permanently beaten or ended some element of risk in the market, but the thing they thought they’d eliminated the risk of happens anyway. No one can get one over on capitalism indefinitely. 
 
Our other main viewpoint character is Kai, an idolmaker/priestess who ill-advisedly attempts to save a dying idol, nearly dies herself, is hospitalized and demoted, and winds up uncovering a giant conspiracy involving idols, an insufferable poet, and Cat the drug addict policewoman from Three Parts Dead. By the end it also involves Dickensian street urchin Izza and features a cameo by Teo from Two Serpents Rise, forming a wacky girl gang of priestessy types with terrifying powers. It’s FANTASTIC.
 
After the initial exciting bit with the idol dying and Izza’s goddess dying and Kai almost dying, the plot takes a somewhat leisurely but not too slow pace to really put together a full idea of what’s going on and how urgent it is to fix it, but that’s fine because the backstory and worldbuilding and meandering around Kavekana getting drunk and looking for poets is quite a lot of fun. It’s clear from pretty much the beginning that Izza’s Blue Lady is the idol Kai tried to save even though that’s supposed to be impossible, but this is OK because the real mystery is how the hell that happened, and it’s fun to see when and how the two main characters will finally cross paths (it’s a small island so they run into each other a bunch of times before interacting properly, which is probably a little gimmicky but I liked it?). I figured out who the bad guy was probably a chapter or two ahead of the protagonists; I think it’s pretty heavily telegraphed but only for a little bit, so the period of time you spend basically going “Don’t go into the basement with just a thimble!” is limited. 
 
Kavekana also features a terrifying rock-based police force, although one quite different from the gargoyle-derivative black ops-y Justice agents in Three Parts Dead. These are called Penitents and they are basically big magic geodes/iron maiden type things that criminals are trapped in until their wills are brought in line with the programming of the Penitents. The Penitents basically wander the streets scaring petty thieves, while the rich powerful folks are able to use the Penitents on their enemies to help them cover up crimes. This has no analogies to our current society’s issues of police militarization and their being used by large corporations (like, say the DAPL builders) against regular citizens whatsoever, I am sure.
 
I’m planning on getting to the last two books in this series later in June when I get up to Maine. I’m really, really glad I finally got around to reading this series; it’s just so great to have well-done fantasy that also indulges my love of reading about financial crime. 
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I loved Three Parts Dead so much that I immediately ran, did not walk, to borrow the sequel Two Serpents Rise from my roommate, and then I ate it (by which I mean I read it really fast; eating other people's books is rude).

The book started off inauspiciously with me catching two minor terminology errors in the first chapter, which depicts what is clearly a game of no-limit Hold'em, one in which our main character makes a very bad fold. But at least the book knows it's a bad fold, so it's got that going for it. Fortunately, things get better after that, as we learn more about the city of Dresediel Lex and the complex system of creepy magic that keeps it supplied with water.

Dresediel Lex, part Las Vegas and part Tenochtitlan, is a desert city that is trying to be very modern and run on Craft and ignore its prior history of human sacrifice, a history that only ended a few decades earlier. Our main character, Caleb, is the Dresediel Lex equivalent of an annoying finance bro, doing risk management and analysis for Red King Consolidated--the magical Concern that runs the city's water supply--and playing a lot of poker. He has daddy issues -- quite understandably, since his dad is one of the last priests of the old religion (the one that feeds its gods hearts) from before the God Wars, and he keeps running around trying to overthrow the Craftsmen and return to the old ways, and basically being a creepy terrorist zealot.

In classic annoying white bro protagonist fashion, Caleb picks up an Obligatory Love Interest by seeing a woman out and about and immediately becoming completely obsessed forever. In this case, the woman is a cliff runner named Mal, who turns out to be a Craftswoman for the firm that Red King is currently in the middle of a rather complicated merger with.

Meanwhile, back at Caleb's job, one of the reservoirs is suddenly full of creepy demons, and while that initial attack is sorted out easily enough, it really wasn't supposed to happen and it turns out to just be the first in a long line of complicated god- and demon-related acts of sabotage that somebody somewhere is committing against Red King Consolidated and Dresediel Lex's water supplies. The resulting complex web of law, religion, magic, explosions, and creepy lobstery water demons is fantasically difficult to sum up but it all makes sense in the book, I promise.

Despite my general underwhelmedness with both Caleb and Mal as people -- seriously, they're perfect for each other, because they're both irritating and I would not like to hang out with either one of them in real life -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book. They were still entertaining enough characters, and they certainly went through enough interesting shit. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were great, especially the Red King, a coffee-drinking skeleton who usually appears in a red bathrobe, because he lives in the creepy pyramid that is the Concern's headquarters. Caleb's dad is also actually quite hilarious, despite being a giant scary religious zealot.

Anyway, it's a book about unsustainable resource extraction, but it's also about giant fiery serpents and water gods and human sacrifice and all that good stuff, so it's quite a head trip in a good way.
bloodygranuaile: (wall wander)
For BSpec's book club I finally got around to reading the first book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence, which I have been meaning to do for at least two years now. I have the last two books in the sequence signed, but the first one only in paperback, and am missing the second and third. To make it even more complicated, the books take place in a different order than they are published -- they are ordered by the number referenced in the title.

The first book, therefore, is Three Parts Dead, which follows the adventures of young Craftswoman Tara Abernathy as she is hired on probation at the necromantic law firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao under the mentorship of terrifyingly efficient senior Craftwoman Elayne Kevarian. Tara graduated from Craft school under dubious circumstances that involved her trying to kill one of her professors and getting thrown out of the school, literally, which is pretty dangerous because the school floats up in the sky, as all the best magic schools do.

Tara's first assignment is in the city of Alt Coulomb, which runs off the power of its god, Kos Everburning. Unfortunately, Kos has died under mysterious circumstances. Tara, with the help of a hilarious sheltered young priest (or Novice Technician, as he is called) named Abelard and his junkie policewoman friend Cat, has to help Elayne figure out who killed Kos and why and how and who benefits and all that stuff and generally unravel the massive conspiracy hidden in the heart of the Church.

While the story is plenty funny, it's not as much of a comedy as one might think from some of its elements -- demon lawyers! a vampire pirate captain! divine contract law! -- and the world of magical techno-corporatocracy that Gladstone builds is convincing, at once both weird and distressingly familiar.

Tara is a great protagonist, driven and talented and badass and definitely in a bit over her head, and Abelard is a great dual lead, being an earnest bumbling weirdo in an arcane religious order who chain-smokes to show religious devotion and doesn't know what a newspaper is. They're a fantastic, fantastic team, especially since the book very sensibly eschews the unnecessary romantic subplot that I think a lot of authors would have found obligatory.  Instead of romance we get, like, shape-shifting gargoyles and blood magic libraries and a nine-story demonic BDSM nightclub and stuff like that.

The philosophical underpinnings of the main conflict ends up having a lot to do with free will and consent and the dangers of clever, talented technolibertarian douchebags being allowed to exploit other people without adult supervision, so suffice it to say that the book is not all fluff and explosions, although like any good urban fantasy it certainly has quite a lot in the way of fluff and explosions, and even an instance of leather pants.

I think we're going to get a really good discussion out of it. I've already started reading the next book in the Sequence, so we'll see how many we get through by the time book club rolls around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
WELL THAT ONLY TOOK ME THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY.

But I did pull it off just in time for book club, by which I mean I was reading the last twenty pages or so at book club.

This is the BSpec book club, and we read Ken Liu's Grace of Kings, which had been on The List for a while. It's a political/military epic fantasy, drawing on pseudo-medieval Chinese myth and history rather than pseudo-medieval European myth and history. I do kind of wish I'd read it closer to when it first came out, though, if only because it's really hard right now to get invested in the collapse of fictional empires when the real-world empire I live in is actually for reals collapsing right around me. Also the real world one has more spies. Like, there are some spies in Grace of Kings, but the news is like ALL SPIES lately.

Anyway. The short version of the plot is that a bunch of squabbling kingdoms have been forcibly united under an oppressive Emperor for about a generation. When the Emperor dies, his young son becomes Emperor, but the kid is deliberately spoiled and kept away from governing so his aides can jockey for power. Against this backdrop, a popular uprising against the Empire starts, which eventually becomes a whole bunch of different factions reclaiming their own lands (sound familiar?). The two biggest players in this struggle who emerge are Kuni Garu, a jovial trickster type, and Mata Zyndu, a preternaturally tall and strong scion of a deposed royal family who is fearsomely unbeatable in battle and super uptight. He's basically a Terminator. Despite being polar opposites, they team up to become the rebellion's power couple for a while, but eventually fall out over something stupid that Mata is too rigid-minded to ever patch up properly. In the background of all this, a pantheon of gods all designate certain characters their pawns and try to influence the situation so "their" favorite mortals can "win."

We discussed our nitpicks at book club--such as that the female characters were memorable but there were a limited number of them; meanwhile, the overwhelming number of male characters with often-similar names meant I got a lot of them except the two leads mixed up--but overall this was a pretty solid example of the type of book it is, with a lot of factionalism and strategy and death and fighting. Some elements of the worldbuilding were a little inconsistent or episodic--like, at one point there were mechanical giant whale submarines, but then they were done being used so there just... weren't any more whale submarines. You can't just do this to a girl--if your book is gonna have giant whale submarines at all, it's gotta give us a LOT of giant whale submarines. They are too awesome to be a minor throwaway plot point.

That said, the intrigue is really good, and it's got some interesting meditations on power, morality, the limitations of militarism, and all that sort of stuff that's necessary to make the gods' chess game have more meaning than just a chess game. I'm not as enthused about the sequel as I'd hoped I'd be, though, but that might be partly because I've decided to dedicate the next two years to reading about Nazis. It's really not Ken Liu's fault--anyone writing political fantasy has just had their job made infinitely harder by the vagaries of reality.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Aaaaaaaahhhhh it's the last Harry Potter book!

I'd only read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows once, since it came out, and since then I've seen bits of the movies, but I basically remembered next to nothing of the plot other than a) Horcruxes and b) the epilogue was boring, because those are the two things that have the most filtered into our cultural consciousness in the decade (!!!) since it was published. So most of this book was very much like reading something brand new.

This book deviates from the previously established structure of uncovering a plot over the course of a year at school, and instead borrows that timeless (or, in some hands, timeworn) fantasy classic structure: a Quest, or more specifically, a Long Ride. After aging out of the blood protection he got from the Dursleys and escaping with the Order of the Phoenix, Harry and Ron and Hermione wander around England for several months, searching for Horcruxes. Over the course of this quest, Harry is systematically stripped of most of his support system and prized possessions — starting, heartbreakingly, with Hedwig, who could easily be included in both categories — in a process that is clearly a metaphor for something. We've had this sort of thing in miniature before, right from the very first book, when Harry goes into the obstacle course defending the Stone with Ron and Hermione but ultimately must face Voldemort alone.

In Deathly Hallows, though, you know stuff has gotten real destablizing, because people are losing their wands. Ron memorably had his wand broken in Chamber of Secrets, but it was a secondhand wand (which means it probably didn't work all that well anyway), and its being broken caused problems for an entire year. But here, people are losing wands and having them broken and confiscated and stealing them from one another all over the place. It kind of makes you wonder why this sort of thing didn't happen more often earlier in the series, but maybe it's also just one of those things that happens more when society has largely collapsed. And make no mistake — wizarding society here has indeed collapsed.

In among the examination of authoritarian takeover and its attendant ills — mass surveillance, militarized public life, blackmail, betrayals, schools being turned into police states, propaganda about "undesirables," registering people based on their "blood status," does any of this sound familiar yet — is a Redwall-esque riddle quest (ha, do u see what I did there) through the history of the wizarding world and its great families to find and destroy the Horcruxes. The heart of the mystery is at Godric's Hollow, ancestral home of Godric Gryffindor, of the Peverell family, and of Harry's father. The crux of the action, however, occurs on the hallowed ground at Hogwarts, as it assuredly must. Harry has to figure out when to rely on his friends and when to stand alone; when to hide and when to draw attention to himself; when to fight and when to face death unarmed and accepting.

The body count is high, and whether the victims are characters introduced in the first book or in this one, they're all pretty devastating. Having grown up with these characters and this series, having so many of them die right when this book came out, as I was at the end of my teens, felt like my childhood was being killed off in a way that's more viscerally upsetting than I wanted to admit. It was no less traumatic the second time around, ten years later, even though in the intervening time I've read dozens or probably hundreds of books with vastly more death and violence.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows marks the end of an era, the end of the formative years for a generation that became better people because of this series, according to science. And now, it's time for us to take what we've learned and to go out and fight fascism in the Muggle world — without wands, but with love and courage and inquisitiveness and a sense of justice and a commitment to equality and all of our wonderful friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was published in 2005, the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, when I was 17. By this point, I had largely stopped rereading books on any sort of regular basis, which is why I've only read this one three times: Once when it came out, once when I reread the series before Deathly Hallows came out, and this winter. My strongest memory of the summer it came out was that viral video of some guy yelling spoilers out of a car and making people cry. That never struck me as a thing very much in keeping with the spirit of the series, frankly.

Anyway. Considering I was not inspired to reread it very often, it turns out that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is just as devastatingly good as all the other books. Clearly it's me that has changed, not the quality of the story.

It is worth it to say that the lighthearted, whimsical children's book world of Sorcerer's Stone is by now nearly gone, in the same way that the safe, economically stable, end-of-history world of Bill Clinton's '90s as viewed through the lens of a small nerd girl is now gone, and we are now maybe a vassal state of Russia and China is going to declare war on us by Sunday. Half-Blood Prince is DARK. The war is on, everyone knows Voldemort is back, people's family members are starting to go missing, and somebody is half-assedly trying to commit unnecessarily elaborate murders at Hogwarts. We do meet our first halfway decent Slytherin, a schmoozy type named Horace Slughorn who, while frequently annoying, is more of a regular kind of status-conscious rather than being murderously evil.

In this year at Hogwarts, Harry mysteriously becomes good at Potions due to help from a heavily annotated used textbook; Snape finally becomes the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher; Ron is still having self-esteem issues about being Keeper; and Harry starts taking private lessons with Dumbledore.

The private lessons in question are basically all trips into the Pensieve, a sort of magical receptacle for memories. It turns out that Dumbledore has been painstakingly piecing together the backstory of Tom Riddle and his eventual transformation into Voldemort. It's a fascinating, Dickensian story of pride, resentment, alienation, greed, revenge, fear, and ambition. It also illustrates well the self-defeating cycle of poverty and bigotry that occurs when people hold onto the idea that they are "better" than others when they don't have anything else to hold onto, but the resulting entitlement makes them such lazy assholes that they refuse to do anything to better their circumstances or develop any kind of community that could help them. (There's even an excellent dig at Merope Gaunt's father and his refusal to do housework.)

There's still some funny bits, though, and the best ones relate to the magical luck potion called Felix Felices. This includes one of the funniest drunk scenes I have ever seen — at Aragog's funeral — and an interesting study on the placebo effect on Quidditch performance. But overall, the experience of reading this book in one day was emotionally exhausting in ways I haven't been emotionally exhausted in years. I cried a bunch of times (ESPECIALLY AT THE END), because I am officially a sappy old lady now. I felt like all my feelings had been beaten up. It was great. This book is a freaking masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Sometime around the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my constant rereading habits started to drop off. I’ve probably only read this one five times or so? Maybe ten at the outside. At any rate, it’s not one of the ones where I’ve got all the words engraved deep in my memories. But I did remember the most important bits.

This is another one that’s often derided as being a little bit not as masterful as the others, mainly because Harry is annoying as crap throughout it. Everyone in this book is fifteen and has a bad attitude, and the publishers apparently made Rowling squish a bunch of romance into it that you can tell she doesn’t care that much about.

On the other hand, though, Order of the Phoenix does a bang-up job exploring issues of how fascism establishes itself in public institutions. We see the use of denial, of a compromised press, of scapegoating, of the use of crisis as a pretext for tightening government control, of the wrecking of checks and balances of power, and of the difficulties of dealing with people who are mendaciously, stone-cold indifferent to truth.

Although Voldemort returned at the end of Goblet of Fire, he’s really not the main antagonist throughout most of this book. Instead, our main villain is petty, power-mad bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge. This is because the wizarding world has split into three factions: pro-Voldemort, anti-Voldemort, and then the Minstry’s official position, which is that it definitely would be anti-Voldemort if Voldemort were around, but it simply cannot accept that it is so, and its ire is focused predominantly on those who insist upon being all disruptive by saying he is. It is traditional in children’s literature to throw in a character or two to add a minor note of Moral Complexity to the good and evil binary by having someone who is more cowardly or maladaptive than malicious, such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings. In this book, it is that cowardly, head-in-the-sand faction that bears the full brunt of the author’s ire. The cowardly faction actually has two factions within it: the people who will turn out to be anti-Voldemort once they can’t avoid accepting that he’s back, and the people who will happily collaborate knowingly with the Death Eater’s regime once it moves into the open. But for the purpose of this book, they are one faction, and it is as yet unknown who will go which way when the truth comes out.

Dolores Umbridge, as everyone knows, is THE WOOORST. Voldemort may be magic Hitler but Umbridge is the sort of grasping petty abusive condescending bigot that we all personally recognize from somewhere because our society is set up to reward sociopathic assholes. Every time someone does the tiniest thing she dislikes she comes up with sweeping decrees banning it—up to and including banning teachers from speaking to their students about anything not “strictly related” to their subject—and generally makes the North Carolina legislature look like stalwart defenders of decentralized democracy. Fortunately for our heroes, she manages a couple of spectacular own goals that allow both students and faculty to resist her—mostly in quiet and troll-y ways, like Professor Flitwick deliberately refusing to take care of pranks his students pulled because “he didn’t know if he was authorized” and letting Fred and George’s swamp sit around for ages.

But of course, there’s also Dumbledore’s Army.

Though it’s only in play for a chunk of the book in the middle, Dumbledore’s Army is the beating heart of the story. It’s where Harry becomes not just a lone hero, but a leader—and, in keeping with the themes of the book, a teacher. It’s a group of young people coming together in an act of organized resistance, something that is very pertinent to young Americans at this particular point in time AHEM. It shows that loyalty isn’t about waiting for dear leader to save you—sometimes it means you have to fight to save the leaders you’re loyal to. Above all, it shows that fascists can be beaten—not just with magic, which is not at most of the readers’ disposal, but with tenacity, solidarity, noncooperation, telling your stories, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. These are all lessons that may be more pertinent in times of crisis than in times of peace, but they are never unimportant.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I remember when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire first came out. I remember the hype, the breathless reports that in this one, someone was going to die. I remember everyone trying to guess who it was. (We were all wrong, obviously, since it was a newly introduced character.) I remember how it was a huge deal that it was 734 pages long, because that was utterly unheard-of for a children's book at the time. (Sixteen-and-a-half years and one English degree later, I laugh at the idea that any book under 800 pages could be considered "long.") (I also look at the book and go "How is this less than 1,000 pages; how freaking thick are these pages" but that's another ramble.)

I remember trying to keep track of how many times I read this book and losing track at thirteen. I'm going to guess the current number is somewhere between twenty and thirty. It had been ten years since my last reread.

In those ten years, a lot of things have happened. One is that I grew up enough to look back critically at my memories of the series and note that Voldemort and his followers were basically just magic Nazis, and that, while effectively villainous for a children's series, I guess that ultimately it was a bit simplistic and not that original. It followed a grand tradition of British and American writing about fighting Nazis or Nazi-esque villains, because that's about as satisfyingly simple and uncontroversial a bad guy as you can get, and it is, after all, quite important to teach small children not to tolerate Nazis, but not that sophisticated.

Another thing that happened, but mostly only over the past year rather than over the course of the whole ten, is that -- suddenly, or seemingly suddenly -- Nazis have been making a bit of a comeback. As a result, "Nazis are bad; fight them" suddenly has a lot more emotional resonance and immediacy than it did not too long ago, and also I've been reading a lot of very informative articles about Nazis.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is when the series starts to be ABOUT NAZIS.

As mentioned in previous reviews, the earlier books did make it clear that Voldemort was basically a magic Nazi, although to me the earlier books' portrayals of his followers and his movement always made me think more of the Klan. And there's some of that here too, especially with the Muggles being hung high in the air with magic for fun (and at a family-friendly sporting event, too). But this is the book where we learn that they’re called Death Eaters and they have a special symbol that’s utterly taboo and something has gone very wrong if you see it, something the sight of which viscerally shocks normal wizards the same way that seeing the big red swastika banners as tall as houses hang down viscerally shocked me the first time I went to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. It is the book where we learn how many of them went back to regular society and got jobs and had families and basically pretended to be normal people (apparently none of them moved to Argentina though). As the Death Eaters all gather around their newly re-embodied leader at the finale, we get to see not just Voldemort as a lone villain, but the leader of a movement—and we start to see how that movement functioned.

But, not is all Nazis and death in this book. There is the usual whimsical nonsense in the beginning, where the Weasleys engage in an entertaining comedy of errors at the expense of the Dursleys’ living room to come and get Harry so they can attend the Quidditch World Cup match between Ireland and Bulgaria. Fred and George turn out to be clever at sports betting, and Mrs. Weasley is shocked, shocked that there is gambling going on here, although she shouldn’t be when jolly meathead Ludo Bagman is involved. Everyone makes fun of Percy for being pompous about his consumer protection work on cauldron bottoms, although I personally was totally on Percy’s side for this. There are leprechauns and veelas and a Bulgarian Minister of Magic who pretends not to speak English so Cornelius Fudge makes a fool of himself miming things all day.

Then we are back at Hogwarts, where there is, as usual, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. This one is a grizzled old ex-Auror with a giant magical eyeball and a penchant for shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE!” at the students. In short, Mad-Eye Moody is great. Or at least we think he’s great.

The big story at Hogwarts is the Triwizard Tournament, where a champion from each of Europe’s three prestigious magic schools competes against the other school’s champions in tasks of magical daring and cleverness and stuff. After all three school’s champions are chosen, Harry is also somehow chosen as champion number four, which isn’t supposed to happen, but apparently does because he’s Harry Potter. Harry is tormented by a nosy journalist and goes through a lot of school drama as he prepares for his tasks. Several beloved bit characters show up to help him prepare in various levels of cheating, including Dobby and Moaning Myrtle (PS I want a bathtub like the one in the prefects’ bathroom), and then Hermione as usual is the one who trains him on regular-ass spells he needs, like Summoning Charms. There are many French characters, whose dialogue is written in thick French accents, and after all these years it is still inordinately fun to read those bits out loud.

In the hands of a lesser writer there could be severe mood whiplash in this mix of delightful and dangerous, or the goofy names for things could undercut the severity and suspense of the more dramatic bits. But J.K. Rowling did not become the richest woman in Britain for no reason, and the reason is that she can make a story told by a drunk elf that refers to herself in the third person into an emotionally exhausting, poignant, critical piece of the puzzle.

I think this was the first time reading this book where I’ve cried, because apparently I am going sappy in my old age.
 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is not really when the series starts to get dark, but it feels like it is.

It's not hugely long, being only a little bit over 400 pages. And there's no real character deaths, although obviously it deals with the fallouts from several past murders, as do all the books.

But it is the book where we meet the dementors, and so begins to really look at fear and despair and power in a more complex way than it had previously. And it is the book where we meet Sirius Black, which means it is also the book that starts complicating the long, deep web of trusts and betrayals that so inform the rest of the series. This isn't just unknown quantity Quirrell hiding his allegiances for a year; this is the decades of secret drama Voldemort sowed among families and close friends. We've spent the first two books learning history, both common knowledge and hidden, and now we start to learn about the ways that our understanding of history can be wrong. But to do that, we have to first learn about fear.

In this book, we learn that Harry's biggest fear is fear itself, which Franklin D. Roosevelt would be very impressed with if he were around, but since he isn't, kindly secret werewolf professor Remus Lupin does it instead. (Side note: While it is eventually revealed that Lupin was bitten as a child, it is never explained how his parents knew to name him something so wolf-y as Remus Lupin.)

In and around all the scary stuff about Harry being supposedly hunted by an escaped mass murderer and the deep stuff about fear and cowardice, there are plentiful infusions of the series' signature hopefulness and good humor. Harry starts the book off by making the dreadful Aunt Marge swell up like a balloon, and spends a whimsical three weeks ogling broomsticks and eating ice cream in Diagon Alley after a short adventure pretending to be Neville Longbottom. At school, he discovers the Marauder's Map and sneaks into Hogsmeade. Harry and Ron start taking two new classes; Hermione takes ALL the new classes. Gryffindor finally win the Quidditch House Cup. And the cure for exposure to dementors -- the embodiments of depression -- turns out to be, of course, chocolate.

Somewhere along the line of five bajillion new characters are introduced, both inside and outside the school, every single one of whom will show up at least once more in the series, with the possible exception of the clerk in the pet store who sells Ron rat tonic. It's impossible to thoroughly list all the delights in this book and the little bits and pieces of the puzzle that are so carefully set up. Rowling knows how to set up a Chekhov's gun (or wand, as the case may be).

This book is still in the "I have read it upwards of fifty times" part of the series to me, and now that none of it is surprising, I feel I can fully appreciate just how masterful and delightful every bit of it is. Every word is precisely where it should be. I refuse to even try to nitpick the time travel stuff. My brother has our old broken-in copy so I have a distressingly shiny new one. Its crisp, creamy pages and straight binding seem to rebuke me for not showing them any love over the years since I have acquired this copy. I can't let this happen again. This book is one of my best friends.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
It was a bit of common wisdom among my Harry Potter community many years ago that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was one of the less good ones — better than non-Harry Potter books, of course, but inferior to the other books in the series.

For the life of me, I cannot remember why.

I spent a chunk of last Wednesday devouring the thing from cover to cover and I was at every moment riveted, although every word and em-dash (J.K. Rowling loves em-dashes) was as familiar to me as the sight of my own hands. Though this installment of the series is not yet really dark, it's still got high stakes and a lot of tension, since most of the plot is just trying to figure out who the antagonist even is and then both the memory of Tom Riddle and the basilisk need to actually be defeated. Rowling's touch for mystery writing is really on display, as is her flair for writing secondary characters who are cartoonishly unhelpful but in, I have sadly learned in my wise old age, a realistically frustrating way. Dobby, Gilderoy Lockhart, the painfully earnest Colin Creevey, self-indulgent toilet ghost Moaning Myrtle all of them are irritating as hell in the most amusing possible ways. Other hilarious things include Ron's broken wand, the flying Ford Anglia (which later goes feral), Fred and George (of course), the Headless Hunt's general douchiness, the drugging of Crabbe and Goyle, and the cranky singing Valentines.

As usual in the Harry Potter books (as in life), friendship and kindness are of paramount important; many rules are meant to be broken but it's still useful to do your homework (or at least to have someone in the group have done their homework); and racism is bad. And, of course, we are taught that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." (We are also taught not to trust anything that can think for itself if we can't see where it keeps its brain, which is increasingly difficult out here in technologically advanced Muggle-land.)

Though this is a short book, it does a lot to build up the backstory to the larger Voldemort story that will be the main conflict in the rest of the series. We learn about Parseltongue, and why Hagrid was expelled, and that Dumbledore used to be younger and has not been an old man and head of Hogwarts since time immemorial, even though it seems like he should be. (In this part of the series, Dumbledore is still the greatest. If he were any greater, we wouldn't need Harry.) We also get to meet MORE WEASLEYS which is great because the Weasleys are the best. We also get more Malfoys, who are basically foils for the Weasleys, in that they are the worst.

Anyway, it was a beautiful three hours or so, rereading this book, rivaled only by the rest of the day when I reread Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (review forthcoming).
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
2016 having been an epically exhausting year on a number of fronts—including the reading one, where I skimped on fiction and instead subjected myself to many math-heavy poker books—I decided to end it with a nice reread of the Harry Potter series during my week off. I got started pretty much the second the Christmas festivities were over, spending most of the 26th curled up either on the couch or in the tub with my first American edition of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

While I remember the basic storyline and many of the most pop-cultural moments very, very well indeed, what with having read this book at least a hundred times before (I was an early adopter), I still found myself surprised at just how familiar some of it was: I could remember the exact flow of entire sentences and paragraphs as I'd read them previously, years and years ago; I could remember pronunciations I'd gotten wrong in my head back when I read it last. I don't think I've read these books since the seventh volume came out about five years ago.

Somehow, probably because the books eventually get so serious and because they had such a profound effect on myself and on our culture, the one thing I had managed to sort of forget was just how freaking funny they are. Things aren't super heavy in this book yet, although we are introduced to the basics of Voldemort's story, and the finale is pretty damn creepy. Mostly things here are still a little bit cartoonish, with a similar vibe to other snarky British children's fantasy like Roald Dahl, featuring amusingly gross wizarding world hazards like troll boogers. The images in my head of this one are still heavily shaped by Mary Grand-Pre's drawings and a lifetime of watching Muppets more than they are the actual Harry Potter movies (Hagrid is the Ghost of Christmas Present, pass it on), since the movies didn't start getting made until nearly half the series was published.

The book itself is still a delight to hold and to read, with nice creamy parchment-y paper and that jauntified Copperplate lettering at the top of every page. I admit I did a lot of uncontrollable nostalgic giggling and a good deal of reading sentences aloud to myself just to delight in them. Rereading this one was a beautiful and pure experience that put me back in touch with my inner child and was overall GOOD FOR MY SOUL, a well-deserved and much needed joy, from "Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much" to the typographic note at the end.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 2: Lust for Life is longer than the first installment of the series, and contains a number of loosely connected story arcs that mostly serve to do further worldbuilding and to further develop Spider Jerusalem’s highly dysfunctional character. In this volume, he takes on an assistant, buys a pair of Jesus-themed sneakers and gets all messianic, traumatizes a police dog, and has a pack of cultists set on him by the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife, who is also willfully dysfunctional.

Personally, my favorite part of this volume is the introduction of Channon Yarrow, a grad student paying her way through J-school with a series of increasingly less respectable gigs, of which becoming Spider’s assistant may be the least respectable. Channon has a useless boyfriend who eventually leaves her to become a foglet, essentially a cloud of living nanoparticles. Channon is very upset about this even though she’s better off without him.

If there is a weakness to this volume it is that it doesn’t have a storyline to tie it together, although the individual episodes are very interesting. The results are a bit disjointed. Fortunately, this won’t be the case for long. 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
God, I hadn't realized how much I missed Spider Jerusalem.

I first read Transmetropolitan in college, almost ten years ago now, during a blessed period of time where Donald Trump was just some buffoon on reality TV and was totally off the radar screen of people who don't watch reality TV, which just so happened to include me and literally everybody else I knew. That might have been the only plus of that time period, honestly—any hopey-changey goodfeels brought on by the impending end of the historically awful Bush administration were offset by it being precisely the time when the economy imploded. (More specifically, I think I read Transmet during the fall semester at the end of 2007, after the subprime loans had started crashing but before TARP was passed.)

Following the surprise election of the nuke-happy, gropey old toddler to the highest office in the land—helped along by Kremlin trollbots, a corrupt FBI (itself helped by the execrable Jason Chaffetz), thirty years of hysterical anti-Hillary Big Lie propaganda from the GOP because she dared support universal health insurance before it was cool, a comfortably useless Democratic establishment without a competent marketer in sight, and a useless clickbait-driven media ecosystem that on the whole displays editorial judgement so poor it would get kicked off the middle school yearbook staff—it seemed like time to revisit everyone's favorite foul-mouthed, drug-addled gonzo journalist and see how prescient the series really was.

The result, so far, is that it's depressingly prescient. There are a handful of things in it that come off as now being weirdly old-fashioned—cash tollbooths with humans working in them, which are rapidly on their way out in the real world, or the fact that Jerusalem can live off of only writing one column a week, even if he is a celebrity—but overall, we do really seem to be just further along the trajectories Ellis identified in 1998 when it was first published: Increased corruption, sham democracy, advertisements and screens everywhere, cities overcrowded to the point where they can't ever stop being filthy no matter how fancy and overdeveloped they get; high-tech luxuries existing alongside widespread poverty; an exhausted, frenzied populace overstimulated into gullibility and complacency; and, of course, power-hungry scam artists taking advantage of all the generalized confusion and disorder at every turn. It's actually quite shocking to realize it was written almost twenty years ago—if it had been published last week, I'm pretty sure the only thing that would need to change would be the tollbooth worker.

In the middle of it all is social justice rogue Spider Jerusalem, returned to the city after hiding in the mountains for five years because his creditors finally found him, a heavily tattooed agent of chaos in colorfully mismatched camera-spectacles (the machine that made them is also on drugs).  Spider bullies his way back into a writing gig with his old editor, a weekly column called I Hate It Here, where he dedicates himself afflicting the comfortable but doesn't really have the time or sensitivity to comfort the afflicted. He does, however, tell their stories, raging on behalf of the dispossessed in time-honored angry lefty fashion, calling out the dirty secrets of the powerful and generally using his boundless capacity for assholery to troll for good.

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street covers Spider's return from the mountain and his break back into the spotlight as he covers a riot and uncovers the deliberate setup behind the violence. It bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the accounts of outbreaks of police violence at protests we've been hearing about over the past few years—peaceful protests where some small event (or unproven reports of one) are used as a pretext for attack by an overmilitarized police force, although these haven't ended in actual mass slaughter in the U.S. (so far, at least). The group targeted in this riot is a bunch of people spliced with alien DNA, known as transients, who are basically kind of a cult led by a Charles Manson-esque figure called Fred Christ. Christ leads the group to "secede," declaring the destitute handful of city blocks they've been sidelined into to be its own country, building half-assed barricades around the transient's ghetto and cutting off the utilities that their altered bodies don't need in order to drive out any remaining full humans. They're portrayed as a bunch of gullible but harmless weirdos (except for Fred Christ, who is a creeper), so of course the state brings down the hammer on them for this hopelessly ineffectual act of treason.

With a busy, expressive drawing style and lots of creative swearing, this high-octane nightmare-fueled story nonetheless displays a greatly hopeful reminder of what journalism could and should be. Today's Beltway media would do well to take note: With the incoming administration, all journalists are going to have to become muckraking investigative pains in the ass, or they can go find another profession. Put on your stompy boots and remember: You don't have to put up with this shabby crap! You're a journalist!

 
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So not a lot of great stuff has been happening since the election, but a brief moment of relief arrived yesterday in the form of a brand-new shiny Shadowshaper novella from Daniel José Older, which only cost $0.99 on Kindle. I promptly cancelled my evening plans to bug out about stuff on Twitter and bought Ghost Girl in the Corner. I then had a lovely evening with Tee and Iz and three glasses of boxed wine and it was the best I’ve felt in three weeks.

Anyway, as for the novella itself: Most of the most-beloved characters from Shadowshaper are here, but the main action surrounds Tee and Izzy, with a big helping of Uncle Neville. The mischief all starts when Tee sees the ghost of a teenage girl in the basement where she’s taken over Manny’s local newspaper after he died in the last book. Tee has acquired some sort of community journalism grant and has a small crew of intrepid teenage reporters, including a white girl from Staten Island whose grandma is the creepy old lady with the creepy dolls from one of the short stories in Salsa Nocturna. There is also a dude who writes about sports, but when he’s first introduced he says “I write about esports” and I thought he meant eSports like competitive video gaming and then got all confused when he was covering local baseball games and not, like, CS:GO tournaments, but no, it’s just that Older writes out people’s accents and I am a huge fucking nerd.

Anyway, the local baseball games are important because, while Tee is trying to figure out who the ghost in the corner is and simultaneously screwing up her relationship with Izzy, one of the local teams’ star players mysteriously disappears. The cops are, predictably, zero help. The ghost girl in the corner, on the other hand, is, as are the giant printing press and Uncle Neville. How do all these things fit together? You can find out for $0.99.

While the plot is very heavy, the characters are delightful. The dialogue is witty and vivid, which will be surprising to no one who has read anything else by Older or heard him speak at a convention or reading. The social commentary is sharp and incisive—mean, yes, but insightful and hilarious with an eye for detail, like Jane Austen except about modern urban Latinx communities instead of 18th century English countryside gentry nonsense. (If you’re thinking “So not like Jane Austen at all, then,” let me know and I will gladly subject you to three hours of rambling about social satire and economics.) It's also full of fun little references to things, from Older's other work (I mentioned the creepy dolls lady above) to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  There is also a brief but very timely and satisfying instance of straight-up Nazi fighting.

Overall, it is a wonderful and much-needed morsel of awesomeness to tide people over until Shadowhouse Fall comes out.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I started reading Elizabeth Bear's One-Eyed Jack: A Novel of the Promethean Age a little over a year ago, in the bathtub at Mohegan Sun.

It has taken me so long to finish the book not because it wasn't good, but because I have only read it in the bath — sometimes at casinos but also sometimes not, otherwise it would have taken me even longer, especially considering the last casino I stayed at only had a shower. My copy is now very water damaged.

Anyway. I had picked One-Eyed Jack for my casino bath reading because it's about the spirit of Las Vegas fighting to keep his city from being annexed by the spirit of Los Angeles, so it seemed topical.

There are actually two spirits (or genii) of Las Vegas: the One-Eyed Jack, who has one normal eye and one magical eye he keeps hidden under an eyepatch; and the Suicide King, otherwise known as Stewart, who seems to have a magical ability to kill himself and then resurrect again. Jackie and Stewart are boyfriends in addition to sharing the job of genius of Las Vegas. This seems like it would break a lot of workplace regulations but it looks like being a magical symbol isn’t a very well-regulated field considering all the other stuff that goes down in this book.

Jackie and Stewart eventually form a coalition with several interesting characters, including two ghosts of different John Henrys, some "media ghosts" of unnamed TV spies, and vampire Elvis (though this vampire Elvis is very different from the vampire Elvis of the Sookie Stackhouse books). The antagonists include Angel (the genius of Los Angeles, in the form of a young ingénue), a character known only as “the assassin,” a Promethean Mage, and the ghost of Bugsy Siegel.

I was a bit confused about who precisely all these people were, since I am not much up on my ‘60s TV spies — nor on my Las Vegas history, really, although I do at least know who Bugsy Siegel is. But once I got used to identifying the spies by their descriptors instead of names, it was all easy enough to follow.

The book takes place mostly in 2002, and as is usually the case, I still find it a bit jarring to realize how long ago the mid-2000s were and how much it really was a different era — it makes me feel old — but it’s impossible to miss because stuff in Vegas changes so fast that, even without ever having been there, I know a bunch of the properties mentioned in the book have since shut down and new ones opened; also, Jackie wears black leather cargo pants because he is terribly cool, and it’s become hard to remember that there was a time when cargo pants really were cool and not just a shorthand for sartorial laziness. Other bits of the book take place in 1964, because that’s when all the media ghosts come from. The time travel isn’t flashy; it just sort of happens—there’s enough ghosts in the story already that visiting the ghost of 1964 isn’t that big a deal.

Since this is a spy story I don’t want to talk too much about the plot but suffice to say that, in keeping with the general theme, it, like a game of poker, features long stretches of quietly waiting and thinking about things (I don’t believe poker is ever boring) interspersed with moments of high drama that vastly change the dynamics at the table. (Poor Angel spends the first three-quarters of the book chipping up relentlessly only to spew off her entire stack in one dumb play. Been there done that; it’s awful.) All the disparate threads and meticulously solved riddles finally come together near the end to put a fast-paced and deceptively simple end to the conspiracy.

One of the unifying principles of how magic works in this book is that it relies very heavily on symbolism and stories and beliefs, reminding me a lot of Discworld if the Discworld books were about twelve thousand percent more serious. Genre savviness is important for our heroes to figure out what is going on. Gaming-related symbolism abounds, which is fitting, because gaming-related symbolism abounds in English writing anyway, only this time it’s all looked at a lot more closely than usual.

Like the other Elizabeth Bear books I’ve read, this was pretty weird and I think I’d have to read it again to figure out some of the weird stuff I didn’t get the first time around, but I’m probably not going to because I have at least three unread Elizabeth Bear books on my shelf at the moment. I always like her stuff but it tends to end up taking me a lot longer to get through than I think it’s going to.

I recommend it to anyone who likes metafictional genre-savvy stuff. Pairs well with a Lush bath bomb, a nice hotel room, and an adult beverage.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So Andrea decided to reread The Haunting of Hill House for Halloween and suggested on Twitter that this was a cool thing that all the cool kids were doing, rereading The Haunting of Hill House, because clearly it's a fun book that you want to read more than once, so I figured I should be cool too and read it for the first time, especially since I read We Have Always Lived In the Castle for the first time a few years ago and I liked that one.

The Haunting of Hill House is by Shirley Jackson (Ms. Jackson if you're nasty), author of the very famous short story The Lottery and the person the Shirley Jackson Award is given in honor of at Readercon every year. Both The Lottery and We Have Always Lived In the Castle were deeply creepy, but they still did not prepare me for the creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House, which, as you can probably guess from the title, is a haunted house story, and I am highly susceptible to haunted house stories anyway for basically the same reasons that I love wacky old houses, which is that I am an overly sensitive dork.

Even by haunted house story standards, this one is creepy because, while there is definitely something otherworldly living in Hill House, this seems to be the result of the core problem that the house itself is simply fundamentally, unreservedly evil, and has been from the moment it was built, even before it was finished being built. Its very architecture is apparently designed to psychologically torment anyone who looks at it, let alone anyone who spends time in there. It is weirdly imbued with all the psychological unhealthiness of the morbid weirdo who commissioned the thing, and it is dark and all the angles are wrong and it is buried deep in the feet of the hills and none of the doors ever stay open.

Our main characters are four people who go to stay in the house for a three-month study of paranormal phenomena; two of them are women who have experienced paranormal phenomena in the past. Our narrator is a timid, dreamy, somewhat internally spiteful oddity named Eleanor, who is thirty-two years old and reads like she’s eighteen, and I say this as someone who is both younger than thirty-two and continually feels like she’s still a teenager. Eleanor’s sense of stunted, prolonged adultulescence isn’t formed by widespread economic collapse like mine and my peers’ is; it’s instead due largely to having spent most of her adult life shut away caring for her sick and not-just-internally spiteful mother, plus an overbearing sister who treats her like a child. Eleanor basically has to steal the car and run away to get to Hill House, which is totally how functional adult families work.

When Eleanor finally arrives at Hill House, and meets Theodora and Luke and Dr. Montague, and the creepy-ass housekeeper and his creepy-ass wife, things go one of three ways in a series of exquisitely paced and plotted scenes: Sometimes, Hill House is just disorienting and unpleasant, with little supernatural activity and a lot of tilting minor annoyances, like things maybe moving just outside your peripheral vision, or just being oppressively dank and Victorian. Other times, the company and good food and occasional bout of nice weather mean that they actually are having quite a nice time, exploring the brook in the backyard or drinking brandy and playing parlor games, all shut up together in the parlor where they can safely keep an eye on each other. And sometimes, there are the manifestations, which are when shit gets really creepy: writing on the walls that calls out Eleanor by name, blood all over Theo’s room, banging noises and creepy laughter in the hallway. It’s all done in a way that is fantastically, exquisitely chilling, and even now thinking about it I have had to pull my legs to the side where I can see them because they felt unsafe all the way under the desk in the dark, and the heat vent is gently blowing on a wall hanging and the noise is making me jump out of my skin with every taptaptap of the wooden dowel on the wall, a noise that usually becomes quite invisible to me by the end of the first day of having the heat on.

But Hill House has plans for Eleanor, and they are not to scare her into leaving; they are much more sinister than that. And seeing Eleanor’s thought process change and morph as she goes totally Yellow Wallpaper on us is even more terrifying than any of the manifestations Hill House throws at her, except perhaps the one where she’s holding Theo’s hand in the dark while there’s a voice manifesting in the next room and then when the lights go on Theo’s too far away for it to have been her hand. Why that one scared the shit out of me the most I’m not sure; probably because it’s more deceptive than the more cinematic hauntings like the white, white trees against the black, black sky. In unrelated news, I’m going to bug the fuck out next time I try to wear my black shirt with the white tree on it, aren’t I.

Apologies to our beautiful shy cat Amaranth who tried to come in and meow at me in a rare display of friendliness while I was writing this review; I didn’t mean to jump out of my skin and shriek at you, it was just very bad timing. She’s probably going to hide from me for like a month now.

Anyway, I feel like this book certainly has earned its reputation as the scariest ghost story ever told, and I will not be reading it again anytime soon, although Andrea has threatened me with the movie. I don’t know if I’m strong enough.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The last book that I kept on the Kindle app on my phone took me over three years to finish. Because of this, I decided the next book I kept on my phone would be shorter, so I settled on Catherynne M. Valente's novella Six-Gun Snow White.

Six-Gun Snow White did not take me nearly as long to get through, although this was less because it was shorter and more because I kept going back to read it more often. I read it in all the usual places I read on my phone--doctors' offices and on the T and at the pharmacist--but I also read it in bars and in casinos, and occasionally even at home surrounded by my fifteen hundred other books. It was that good.

Obviously from the title, it's a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale. This one takes place in the Wild West, and Snow White is the half-Crow daughter of a robber baron who runs a mining corporation and a Crow woman that he basically bought and threatened into marrying him. Snow White's mother doesn't last long in captivity, and so the girl is raised by a series of well-intentioned house staff for several years and basically allowed to run wild as long as she doesn't demand her father's attention and nobody really important sees her. She learns to shoot and her father gives her a gun with ruby pearls on it, which she names Rose Red. Everything seems fine enough as far as the girl is concerned until Mr. H remarries. It is the new wife, a scion of a respectable Boston family who had some sort of scandal back East, who nicknames the girl Snow White as a racist taunt to go with the terrifying beauty regimen she imposes.

The new Mrs. H., of course, has a mirror, and this, also of course, is where stuff gets weird. This mirror doesn't talk, but it does seem to have a whole backwards alternate reality version of Mrs. H.'s life in it.

This deviation from the basic plot of Snow White isn't the most important or original thing about the novella. Valente's strengths here lie in her lyrical prose and her dreamlike world building and characterization. After establishing Snow White's character, first in isolation and then as the victim of Mrs. H., what feels like the plot of the novel really kicks off after Snow White runs away and she has to deal with all sorts of other people—we see her navigate the world of the workers in the mines, we see her best the huntsman (or in this case, "the dude," which meant something different back then than it does now), and we see her establish herself among a homestead of outlaw women, neatly obliterating the usual dynamic of being taken in by some cute wacky others because they're so nice and replacing it with a story of grim solidarity.

There is no Prince Charming in this story. Or rather, there is, but that's just the name of Snow White's horse. There is a creature called Deer Boy, who might have had a rougher time of it than Snow White even at the hands of Mrs. H.

Though the piece is relatively short, it is, like most of Valente's work, incredibly dense, and I don't mean that in a difficult-to-read law text way, I mean it as a lot of layers of meaning and connections between things that you'll miss if you don't read carefully and explores a lot of issues of class and race and gender and America and belonging and abuse and all that stuff all at once, and also it's fun to just roll around in the lovely gritty sentences and general gunslinginess. Sometimes. This book is a lot less lighthearted than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland or even most of Speak Easy; it is extremely violent, with fairly explicit depictions of domestic, industrial, and sexual abuse. The language, even with all its metaphors and its occasional joke, doesn't obscure or romanticize any of this; it heightens it. I've seen a couple people asking if this is a children's/YA book or if it's appropriate for second graders and ahaha nope. High tolerance for the sheer unrelenting awfulness of human history is definitely a prerequisite here. For me, this is one of things I like about this as a fairy tale retelling; fairy tales had a long tradition of being gory and violent and full of torture and stuff before they got bowdlerized and Disneyfied in the twentieth century. Other people's mileage, obviously, may vary.

As for me, I enjoy violent terrible history things, and I really, really enjoy Valente's multilayered writing, even if it's way smarter than me and makes me feel like I don't have anything sufficiently intelligent to say about it.

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