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Non-Writing post: Literature recommendation updates [Dec. 31st, 2009|06:06 pm]
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[Current Location |Powell House, New York]
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You may recall I posted an entry several months ago recommending two contemporary speculative fiction series: Brandon Sanderson's unfortunately titled Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians (a YA book), and Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire/True Blood series (definitely not YA books).

Having recently finished the most recent book in both series, I thought it an opportune moment to give my hypothetical readers an update on both.

The sequel to Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener's Bones has the advantage of a somewhat less cringe-inducing title, though it's still far from the best strategy to hook in an audience older than 8.

Along with the title, Sanderson has toned down the juvenile, trying-too-hard humor which was an unfortunate stain on the last book. Just as thankfully, he kept the genuinely funny humor, along with the quirky characterization, fast-paced action, imaginative world-building, and intelligent plotting. As with the first book, the solutions to the various problems the characters face make perfect sense given the story's established logic yet still manage to be completely surprising.

That said, there are a few niggling concerns I have for this book. The center staging of Alcatraz's Talent not only as a major Talent, but as Teh Greatest Talent Evar seems like a painfully artificial way to inflate Alcatraz's importance even further. (Making it possibly the Most Dangerousest Talent Evar doesn't make it any less Mary-Suish—it just makes things more melodramatic.) Come on Sanderson, you can write better than this—make Alcatraz special for what he does, not for what he is.

The more I learn about Smedry Talents and the Free Kingdoms in general, the more they bother me. Smedry Talents are inherited by birth (or by marriage) making them a sort of super-race within the human race. Similarly for Oculators. Sounds kinda eugenicist, don't it?

Worse, in this book Sanderson reveals that local action girl Bastille is the daughter of a king in one of the Free Kingdoms. This didn't do much within the book (I'm sure it'll be a plot point further along in the series), but it did serve to assure that the only non-Smedry, non-Oculator in the books is also special by birth. Saving the world is, apparently, too important a task for normals to take part in even as sidekicks—best leave it to the Elect.

It doesn't help that Sanderson puts “It's not fair that some people are rich and others are poor” at the head of his list of examples of how life isn't fair—as if it were inevitable or something.

You may recall that in my previous review, my chief complaint about the first book was the dearth of female protagonists. At first, Scrivener's Bones looked much more promising. For this adventure, Alcatraz's companions consisted of his uncle Kazin, his (female) cousin Australia, Bastille, and Bastille's mother Draulin. That seemed a good balance.

Unfortunately, after the party is split up, Alcatraz is only reunited with Bastille and uncle Kaz, with whom he spends the bulk of the story. Though Draulin is the heavyweight of the group, none of her accomplishments in the first part of the book are treated as particularly exciting, while in the second part she gets used as a hostage by the villain. Australia's piloting is similarly treated as nothing special, she displays incredible ditziness when Alcatraz and Bastille are trapped in a pit (they have to rescue themselves), and all she really comes to in the end is doing something mildly helpful.

Again, there's always Bastille, still as awesome as ever, but when weighed against Alcatraz; Kaz; Alcatraz's father; the villain, Kilimanjaro; and even Alcatraz the First; it's hard not to feel there's just a hint of disparity to all this.

As long as we're in Minority Warrior territory, I might as well put in a few more words about Kaz. Kaz is short, not racially a dwarf (if such exist in this universe), but similarly proportioned. Sanderson deftly exploits this aspect to illustrate stereotyping, and one could easily make the “color blind” comparison, for instance. Kaz could've been even more successful if Sanderson didn't frequently have him spouting from his “list of reasons why it's better to be short.” Whether or not he's serious about the list really makes no difference—his height is still presented as a major facet of his character, unlike all the other members of the cast. It's never more than mildly funny, either.

From a narrative viewpoint, I was rather pleasantly surprised to see Sanderson wrap up the “missing father” plotline in only Book 2, instead of putting it off till the end of the series. I would have been even more impressed if he hadn't left the resolution to the end of the book, though.

As with the previous book, Sanderson stretches narrative conventions to their limit, making for a ... unique reading experience. His many little asides take a lot of imagination, and they're certainly entertaining, most of the time.

Something I realized this time around though, is that in one respect at least, Sanderson lags significantly behind Sir Terry Pratchett, another convention-breaking humorist. The difference between them is that Pratchett always has something to say. Even his most inferior works are rich with material which points to deep philosophical thinking and insight. And before anyone says anything about writing to a different audience, I will point out that this also holds true for Pratchett's Young Adult fiction, as well. (Nation, in particular, cranks the philosophizing up to eleven, or maybe just does an inferior job of disguising it.)

Whereas Sanderson's Alcatraz Smedry books, despite some very good character development, and some excellent jabs at literary convention, do not give the same sense of depth and philosophical weightiness that Pratchett's books have. It's possible, of course, that this is Sanderson's intention. There are many books which do fine without trying to make any deep philosophical points, and there are some which make the attempt, but would be much better if they didn't (see Rowling, J.K.). I feel that the Alcatraz books though, with all their richness of plot and characterization, would be so much the better for a good dose of real philosophical backdropping, and I think it's rather a shame that the first two, at least, do not seem to have any worth speaking of.

Dead and Gone is the ninth book in Charlaine Harris' “Southern Vampire” series, a.k.a. the “Sookie Stackhouse” series, a.k.a. the “True Blood” series. This book opens with a hilarious parody of What Not to Wear for vampires, which begins with the victim—excuse me, “client”—ripping the throat out of the first assail—er, host. (Don't worry, he's a vampire, it'll grow back.)

Soon of course, the plot picks up, and in what feels like hardly any time at all, Sookie learns that her fairy great-grandfather, Niall, is engaged in an all-out war with the other fairy nobility, led by his nephew, Breandan (pronounced “bren-DAWN” in the audiobook). Naturally, Sookie becomes a target of Niall's enemies, and the whole thing leads to a capture-and-rescue sure to have the reader's heart racing.

I'd thought that would be the end of it: an emotionally harrowing rescue culminating in the death of two of Breandan's lieutenants, and the victims on the road to recovery. True, the Fairy War still rages, but I figured that was being built up as an ongoing plot arc.

Once again, Harris' atypical plotting style caught me completely wrong-footed. The final chapter, which I assumed would be pure denouement, instead saw the resolution to the Fairy War fought out in the middle of Sookie's hospital room, and even though there are only about a half dozen combatants, Harris still manages to evoke the epic feeling such a showdown deserves.

Apart from Breandan and his two assassins, in Dead and Gone Harris also bids farewell to some recurring characters. These include Eric's underling Clancy, an utterly forgettable character who gets decapitated by Breandan. Then there's Crystal Norris, Sookie's one-time sister-in-law, whose murder by Breandan's lieutenants kicks off the plot of the book. Third is the werewolf Tray Dawson, a tough guy and loner romantically involved with Sookie's housemate, Amelia Broadway. I was sad to see Tray buy it, and it didn't help that Harris really puts him through the wringer before finishing him off.

But then there was Claudine, Sookie's fairy godmother. That one hurt. Claudine had an awesome attitude: personable, playful, professional. Harris presented her as warm and fun-loving without turning her into a sexpot. And while she was generally good-natured and upbeat, she was hardly fragile. I fondly remember the scene in the previous book, From Dead to Worse, in which her duties as fairy godmother to Sookie dropped her into the middle of a pack of hostile werewolves. Her response: “Bring it on, fur-ass!” and promptly take out a were with a roundhouse kick.

And, just to twist the knife in further, in her last scene of the series (her death is off-screen), Claudine reveals she's pregnant. She doesn't rhapsodize about motherhood and how this is the best thing that's ever happened to her; her attitude is more along the lines of “I'm going to have a baby, isn't that nice?” She would've made a kick-ass mom. Charlaine Harris, you cruel, cruel woman.

From a plot perspective, I'm also curious what Claudine would have done if she'd survived: stay in fairyland to raise her child when the portal closed and never see Sookie again; or stay on as Sookie's fairy godmother, following her dream of becoming an angel and never see her family and her people again?

Speaking of which, with Claudine dead and the portal closed, it now seems unlikely that we'll ever know what an angel even is, or what the criteria for becoming one are. Now one of the things I've always liked about this series is the sense that the Harris' world doesn't revolve around Sookie, that there are things which go on outside of Sookie's area of influence, that there are many things which Sookie—and by extension, I, the reader—will never know. But while I applaud this kind of realism, I wouldn't want it taken too far. When an author puts this much attention into an aspect of the world they've built, my interest is piqued and I want to know more. And now it looks like I never will.

I'd been thinking that Harris was doing very well in preventing Claudine from becoming an all-purpose Deus Ex Machina to bail Sookie out of trouble, but I suppose this is Harris' way of saying that she thinks otherwise. Not that that helps, any. And it doesn't do anything about the healing power of vampire blood, which is straying even further into Deus Ex Machina territory.

Sookie hooks up with Eric in this book, which is great because their relationship is so sweet, yet at the same time not perfect, and Sookie absolutely does get on Eric's case when she finds his treatment of her overbearing and/or overprotective. On the other hand, earlier in the series Harris set up this situation where Sookie loved Eric, but the Eric she loved had lost his memories, and the part of him she loved most went away when his memories returned. And she actually managed to make this truly emotional, rather than melodramatic—but now it seems that Eric has become the person Sookie loves while still retaining his memories, which rather feels like a cop-out.

Then again, there's hints that Sookie may finally be ready to forgive her first lover, Bill, which in this series means that most likely she'll at least consider getting back together with him, because God forbid she go through even one book where her current relationship doesn't a) dissolve entirely or b) threaten to dissolve entirely, let alone that she actually settle down.

I suspect the series will end with Sookie and Bill going steady, if only because the first guy always wins. It's a shame, because while Bill is a decent enough character in his own right, he's got nothing on Eric, and his relationship with Sookie is far less interesting. I hope that at least Harris will refrain from killing Eric off or putting him on a bus or something, because he really is the best character in the series, with the possible exception of Sookie herself.

As long as I'm going over flaws of the book, I may as well point out that towards the beginning, Sookie casually relates the circumstances of her parents' death to Niall, who is inordinately interested in the details. I was bracing myself at this point, and by the end of the book, my worst fears were borne out: while holding Sookie captive, Breandan's assassins very conveniently mention their involvement in the death of her parents.

Oh come, on, Harris. If you absolutely must have your protagonist's parents killed off before the beginning of your story, at least let their deaths be truly accidental, rather than the work of some villain or other. This scenario is hopelessly cliché and well below your usual standards. Furthermore, this “revelation” contributes absolutely nothing to the plot of this or any future novels. The assassins are quickly dispatched, and although Sookie's great uncle Dermit or whatever is also implicated and remains at large, well, what of it? The conflict between Dermit and Sookie has already been amply set up, and the additional knowledge of his involvement in her parents' death adds nothing whatsoever to the mix.

We learn in this book that Niall is the last of the fairy nobility, apart from Breandan, and once the latter gets his one-way ticket to “The Summerland,” Niall becomes the sole ruler of all things fairy. That's right, Sookie's great-grandfather is a reigning monarch. Okay, so it's convenient for the plot, but with all Harris' talent, you'd think she could come up with something which makes her important due to who she is, rather than just being “special” by heredity.

While Sookie is in their power, the two fairy assassins take the opportunity to torture her. This also put me on the alert. One of the features on ferretbrain is their Fantasy Rape Watch, which was inaugurated due to the distressing overuse and misuse of rape in fantasy fiction. Off and on, the regulars have also discussed the parallels with the use of torture in fiction, which authors also have a tendency to stylize and misrepresent.

However, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, Harris appeared to handle the subject rather well. Sookie's mistreatment greatly damages her, and while the physical scars will no doubt heal, she reflects that there was also considerable damage to her psyche, and there's a good chance she might “never be the same person again.” Torture is indeed a terrible, crushing, life-changing experience. Only time will tell if Harris can continue to depict Sookie's condition honestly in subsequent installments.

For itself, though, Dead and Gone is a thoroughly worthy addition to the existing canon.

Edit: Oh yeah, I kept forgetting.

A subplot to Dead and Gone involves a couple of CIA agents catching up with Sookie, after the telepathic display she and Barry the Bellboy put on in book seven, All Together Dead. They're very impressed with the work Barry and Sookie did in Rhodes, helping to locate the survivors in a hotel bombing.

This serves to add another layer of inner conflict for Sookie. She believes she could help people working for the CIA, rescuing disaster victims and the like—but she knows that it would mean giving up more of her freedom than she's willing to surrender, and it would drain her dry.

Something which Sookie never questions—and from what she hears of their thoughts, neither of the agents questions either—is that Sookie solely be rescuing disaster victims.

Okay, even for Americans, this displays a stunning level of naïveté about the US Establishment. Surely even the people who think our two-party system really is a people's government, that corporations are benign (bar one or two bad apples), and the US military really is about defense know the CIA has a record of coups d'état, assassination, torture, kidnapping, and domestic spying, harassment, even murder.

This is the CIA, not FEMA. It's their job to protect the US Establishment through espionage, and you just know if they ever discovered a prize like Sookie—or any of the dozen other supernatural characters who turn up in stories like these—they wouldn't be able to resist misusing her. And they wouldn't take “no” for answer, neither.

You'd think one of these supernatural fiction authors would've figured that out by now.