Discussion · Fantasy

On Rules and Magic Systems

May is Wyrd and Wonder month! What best time there could ever be for talking about what I like about magic in books?

(It will have footnotes. I’m preemptively sorry.)

Before I started reviewing, I wanted to write¹. I cared very much about writing a Good and Original Fantasy Novel, so I spent a lot of time reading fantasy writing advice on the internet. A lot of it was bad and I recognized it as such (don’t describe your character’s appearance because it doesn’t matter anyway? Yeah, no), and a lot of it was bad but I’m only recognizing that as I read more fantasy.


Rules? In My Magic System?

In those circles, there seemed to be very specific ideas about how one should write magic. Five and more years later, I’m realizing that I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of things I thought were necessary then.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to understand everything about how the magic works. Which seems to be the main point on which me and internet writing advice disagree more every year, as I read more and more SFF with magic systems that go first in a completely wacky direction and then on my favorites list.

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Let’s first get one thing out of the way: having a kind of magic that is weird, incomprehensible, or mostly unexplained for various reasons, doesn’t mean that the author will use said uncharted and unexplained territory to get a character out of a bad situation. That’s lazy writing and I’m not interested in it, and I think that’s the main reason at first I thought I didn’t like undefined magic systems: because I was reading a lot of fantasy that exploited the loopholes. I specifically remember having a problem with the magic in Caraval because the limits were never established, but would I have had a problem with that had the author not used magic so much to push the story along? Probably not. It isn’t about breaking the rules, it’s about using “magic” as a plot point instead of having the characters make meaningful decisions. As long as the characters do that, you can spare the reader the tedious explanations that manage to take the magic out of magic.

The thing is, realistically, one can fully explain a magic system in a satisfactory way only if that magic system is relatively simple, sometimes simple enough in a way that just doesn’t ring true to me. It might be that I have the perspective of someone studying natural sciences: in ecology, a major issue is exactly trying to describe things with rules or mathematical models, as more often than not, when it comes to more than large-scale patterns, ecosystems just won’t have it. (*points at pond* this bad boy can fit so many variables in it.) Enough that we dedicated a part of the course specifically to idiosyncrasy².

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So why are the mechanisms behind magic easier to understand than the mechanisms behind everyday non-magical things? If anything, it should be the opposite. I love the kind of SFF in which there’s very clearly an entire field dedicated to studying magic, and had a great time while reading Gideon the Ninth, in which the main character, a non-necromancer surrounded by necromancers, mostly understands nothing³ (and as a result, the reader’s idea of how the magic works is extremely vague) but the story still works. All we need is a very vague idea of the limits of what magic can attempt, and then we can go from there. No more explaining, I’m trying to have fun here.

Very predictably for me, I’ve always been drawn to magic that didn’t have clear rules4; in the past, I just thought that had to mean I wasn’t very critical about fantasy. Now that I always find enough reasons to complain about pretty much everything, I doubt that was the issue; if anything, there was a flaw in the idea that things can only be good if done in a very specific way. I’d much rather have a complete mess than same old elemental magic with very clear-cut rules any day, and that has always been true. (As usual, my principle for worldbuilding is “I’d rather be confused than bored”).

I’ve seen the Sanderson-coined idea of hard vs. soft magic systems, and I have a lot of doubts about that, because my reaction to the clear division between hard and soft science is already *stares in natural sciences student*, but I especially disagree with the idea that hard magic systems are for realism5 and a softer magic system’s main point would be to cause a sense of wonder in the reader. No, to me is important that the magic feels real and believable, not akin to a set of rules I could find in the explanation sheet of a board game.

But the thing is, this is a preference. I prefer the weird, unpredictable kind of magic, but I’ve never found myself thinking that a book was badly written for having neatly defined rules. Then why do we feel fine with talking about different, more unusual kinds of magic as if they were flaws or “bad writing”?

I also think a lot of authors and writing advice approach fantasy worldbuilding as if the readers needed to use the magic themselves – and it might be useful for the author to know the limits (and maybe, though not necessarily, the workings behind) more in detail. But the reader doesn’t need to, stories don’t have that constraint, and I think that’s great: you get a chance to have fun, be realistic and go with full chaos.


It Has Footnotes!

¹ it’s not that now I don’t, but then bilingualism happened, or it happened too late for it to actually work, and things got messy. Currently, I’m at the very desirable stage of being bad at not one but two languages!

² the TL;DR of idiosyncrasy in ecology: hoping to predict how an ecological community  will respond to something basing yourself on what you’ve seen in another place? Oh, good luck with that.

³ when the other characters talk about thanergy and Gideon says “that’s death juice” = accurate equivalent of the kind of sciencespeak-to-Italian translation I constantly do in my head around physicists. (Due to life circumstances, I’m often around physicists.) This is the kind of hard-hitting realism SFF needs!

Uprwoordpres4 irrelevant hill I’m willing to die on: the magic system in Uprooted was perfect as it is, how could it be any different – what, do we want plant magic to work according to easily understandable rules? When it’s about plants? *Flashback to botany course* oh I would love to get some of those easily understandable, always true rules for real plants

5 The wikipedia page on this topic says that magic systems with clear costs and limitations, of which the reader understands the inner workings, make the story feel more realistic. I think that’s quite simply wrong. There are so many things in our everyday life we don’t fully understand the workings or sometimes even limits of, and yet we use anyway. (*looks at computer.*) I don’t know what it says about my life exactly, but I find a general feeling of ignorance and lack of convenient explanation behind something more real than something that can be easily explained in two paragraphs.


What do your favorite magic systems have in common?

Book review · Discussion · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #4: Growing Out of YA? (And More)

Welcome to the fourth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.

This time, I will:

  • review all the short fiction I read in April, 14 stories (…yes I ended up reading a lot of short stories) which include 5 Hugo Award finalists.
  • review a YA anthology
  • talk about my current relationship with YA books and what said YA anthology made me understand about it

Recent Reads

Short Fiction

I read a lot of short fiction this month (short stories are so underrated and yet are doing so much and I love this format a lot) so I decided to implement emoji tags for clarity:

  • the 2020 Hugo finalists I review in this post are marked with a 🚀
  • while I recommend most of these, my new favorites are marked with 🌠

51175276._sy475_St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk (Tor.com): a bittersweet sapphic story involving magical beekepers that has an atmosphere of inevitability to it, the cost of it all looming in the distance until the end. It only makes sense that tarot reading is featured in it – so much of this story in some way involves fate – and that its title names three saints closely associated with bees. Bees as a legacy that keeps drawing you in. There’s something mysterious about it, too, because the story doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to understand it; it doesn’t have one word out of place. I really liked it.

Escaping Dr. Markoff by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark): sometimes if you explore the motivations of the unimportant side character you get something far more interesting that the original story! This is about the horror movie Female Assistant who is in love with the Mad Scientist, and it plays with these stock characters by following someone whose only characteristic is usually the obsession for and the total devotion to the male Mad Scientist. And maybe, if you give a character the space to be something more, the story might break in very interesting ways (involving erotic and queer twists, because why not). Fun and meta and really smart – I’d probably get even more out of this if I knew anything about horror movies, but we know that’s not possible – and wow, was that An Ending.
I found it because of Hadeer’s wrap-up, so thank you!

29387827._sy475_The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho (not for free online): not my favorite from Zen Cho, also because I was told it was an f/f romance, and while it has sapphic characters, I wouldn’t describe it as such – not like I would with If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Still, it was a lovely read. It’s set in hell, where the main character – a Malayan girl named Siew Tsin – has been forced to marry a man; now the man has taken yet another wife, a terracotta wife. It’s a light, smart story about personhood and waking up from a paralyzed state of mind, with really interesting details in the worldbuilding and a lot of heart; I wish I could have had more of a sense of who the characters were.

A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny) 🚀: about a world in which the line between emotion and the weather is very thin, and maybe natural disasters are something more than a natural disaster, and sometimes the people are part of the weather and the weather is people. The lines in here are air-thin and it’s a story about family, about leaving or staying – and sometimes those things are their own kind of storm too. Don’t expect it to make too much sense, it’s one of those ambiguous/symbolic stories I talked about in my last short fiction time. I really liked the writing and the weirdness of it all, but it didn’t stay with me emotionally.

48594209._sy475_As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang (Tor.com) 🚀: in this world, to use a weapon of mass destruction, the president has to kill a child himself.
This story follows the child, Nyma, and it’s about costs, the necessity of making something unimaginably difficult vs the overwhelming pressure that wars can put on a country, and as a story it doesn’t give you a clear answer about which path is worse. It has some beautiful poetry in it as well. The worldbuilding is very vague (and let’s just say that calling something “the Order” won’t help me take it seriously), but for the most part that wasn’t a problem. Powerful, hearbreaking, and thought-provoking.

The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny) 🚀: so far I haven’t found any of Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction to be particularly memorable, even though all of them are solid stories, and this one was no exception – a horror novelette about a mystery author who decides to write her new novel in an isolated cabin. The horror comes from a very unexpected place given the set-up (the premise sounds cliché? It’s not), which was clever, but I didn’t find this creepy at all – it was kind of boring, but horror is very hit-or-miss for me. Mostly a story about the importance of a good assistant.

51dwoeoslsl._sx284_bo1204203200_The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) 🌠🚀: new favorite. I love reading about space archaeology – the whole “the past of the future” set-up really appeals to me – and this was also a very emotional story on a human level. About grief and the subjectivity of memory, what is lost in the act of remembering, the love and understanding that are gained, the pain that slowly loses its edge but never quite stops hurting; about how destruction is so often tied with discovery. Everything related to the Chronicle technology was so interesting, and so was the answer to the mystery (mysterious mass death!). Also, women in science and side relevant gay couple.

Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny) 🚀: I thought I would never read anything by Sarah Gailey again after how angry one of their short stories made me last year (STET, which tried to tackle a heavy, ecology-related topic with so much ignorance it was appalling) but since they got nominated for the Hugo again, here I am. And… I finally liked something written by this author! It was my fifth try. Anyway, this is a story from the Uncanny special issue about disabled people in fantasy, and it’s pretty much about accessibility for a werewolf who has chronic pain in her human form, which is a great concept. It had one (…and then two) really heartwarming female friendships, a happy ending, and the atmosphere was really good as well. Really straightforward, and sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs to be.

52667367._sx318_sy475_Water: A History by KJ Kabza (Tor.com): we don’t get many stories about elderly queer characters, much less in space! This is about an old sapphic woman on an arid planet in which water is the most important thing and going outside the colony is dangerous. About the importance of intergenerational friendships and the risks that make life worth living. It hits in a very specific way when read while on lockdown after a particularly arid spring (that’s why you should research stories before reading them, Acqua), but I didn’t find anything about it particularly remarkable aside from that and I don’t think it will stay with me.

Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (in the Upgraded anthology, reprinted on Lightspeed) 🌠: Hello! I’m in love. Who knew biopunk horror could be heartwarming? Anyway, this is a weird, sweet romance between two outcasts, and it’s set in a creepy space city that rearranges itself cyclically, has a strong preference for well-intentioned body horror, and is the perfect setting for a story that involves replacing body parts. Gorgeous writing featuring artistic murder, the usual asides of weird for the sake of alliteration that I love so much about Lee’s descriptions (“a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements”) and the occasional very specific and cursed™ detail (of course tentacles are “ever-popular” as a replacement). Another new favorite; I will never not love stories about cities.

53284124._sy475_Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr (Tor.com): queer, fucked up twist on Alice in Wonderland with lots of murder and various other questionable things, because what’s morality in such a place? It really doesn’t hold back and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending, but I have to say that, as with all books that try to make Alice in Wonderland darker, a lot of whimsy is lost in the process, and I miss it. Still here for the unapologetically toxic stories about loyalty, especially since I don’t often get a sapphic version!
(Very predictably of me, I always love when we do. Please give me novels like that!)

Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny): an older story and a Hugo nominee back in 2017, because who said that newest stories should get all the spotlight. Anyway, this is as much about a supernatural (phoenix-like) creature’s revenge as it is about the way stories are always centered and making excuses for rich white men. My overall opinion is that it’s really well-written (as usual for Brooke Bolander) but that there’s such a thing as too straightforward and unsubtle in a short story, and Our Talon Can Crush Galaxies really sits on that limit.

51097037._sy475_If You Take My Meaning by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) – you probably already know about my new favorite book The City in the Middle of the Night (if not: here’s the review!), and this is set in the same universe. This novelette isn’t going to make any sense without having read the novel, but since I recently did, this was the epilogue I wanted the book to have even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, and it was perfect. The integration with the Gelet is in progress! People mess up and try to reach for the way to right certain wrongs, which also includes more mistakes! More direct digs at Xiosphanti culture and more subtly at America’s worst points! (That line about Xiosphanti believing in repression way more than was healthy or realistic… yes.) So many things are said about culture, understanding, and the importance of community vs the corruption and relative irrelevance of the people in power. And finally we also get some insight into Alyssa’s thoughts, as one of my main disappointments had been that by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t understand her at all.
Meanwhile I’m wondering whether what this novelette said about love a certain trio is meant to be interpreted as polyamory, a really strong friendship, or neither – because who needs to categorize things in structures that are so singularly unhelpful once one has gone through integration? Anyway, I love that for them and love that they have their priorities in order. (What’s this kind of arrangement for, if not to sleep in a pile like cats? I approve.)

36426163Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May (Toil & Trouble) – women accused of witchery find power in each other while in their prison; I listened to it on scribd. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be something different from what it was once it turned out to involve religious abuse, because that aspect was used as a prop for the message (an effective-if-unnuanced exploration of how the not-like-other-girls line of thinking is misogynistic and contributes to victim blaming) instead of being explored like something in its own right. I don’t want to read a portrayal of forced penance if you’re not going to do anything with it – I’ve already had enough of that.

 Anthologies

This month’s anthology was Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond. I read it for free thanks to the scribd free trial: I chose it out of all the anthologies on my TBR because it was the most expensive (12€ for an ebook? No thank you) and as it turns out, that was a good choice – for all the wrong reasons, the main one known as “at least I didn’t pay for this”.
But let me explain why.

35858798Let’s say you’re an editor with some very interesting anthology ideas, and you’re fascinated by these concepts:

🍜 an anthology of interconnected stories that all take place in the same neighborhood at the same time, in which each story is full of tiny references to the others and forms a seamless web that enhances each story’s meaning;
🍜 an anthology that spans across genres, from contemporary romance and horror to gang rivalries and ghost stories and superhero tales, in which stories have little to do with each other in tone and themes and only have a tiny thread (here, food) to tie them together

Then, please, don’t be like Hungry Hearts. Only choose one of the two. If this had stopped at the first of the two points, if it had been an anthology of interconnected contemporary stories all involving food in some way, it could have been so good. I can only describe the result of trying to do cross-genre connected stories as a complete mess.

It doesn’t help that the individual quality of the stories themselves was questionable. While it’s true that I’m realizing that this kind of YA doesn’t work for me as much as it used to, most of these stories were incredibly bland and couldn’t even be saved by the food descriptions.

The only story I loved was The Grand Ishq Adventure by Sandhya Menon, a contemporary story about a girl who decides to go to restaurants alone to face her anxiety, which was wonderful in every aspect, from a beginning that draws you in (the voice in this story was amazing) to a delicious continuation and an ending with a sweet twist. There were other stories that worked, like the bittersweet Rain by Sangu Mandanna, the fiery revenge story Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco, and Panadería ~ Pastelería by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was like the dessert at the end of a meal. All of these were contemporaries or contemporaries with a slight magical twist, so that I could believe they coexisted in the same universe, and were well-written. All the other stories were either a boring blur or completely outside of the tone of the rest of the anthology.

I think the editors were going for something that felt not only like a story made by many interconnected parts but also a meal with many courses, and so were trying to get as much variety inside of it as it was possible, but the result was dissonant and messy.
There’s still a lot to love about this, from the diversity to the food descriptions (you really can’t go wrong with those) and especially the celebration of foods that mainstream white, western American society would consider “too weird”, but apart from these things, most of this was forgettable.

My rating: ★★


About Me and the YA Age Range

While reading Hungry Hearts, I started wondering if my lack of interest in it was also tied to me being tired of stories about high schoolers, which I started noticing while trying out series on Netflix. I don’t think I would have liked Hungry Hearts at any point of my life, but even in the stories I liked – with the exclusion of Sandhya Menon’s – I struggled to feel interested in anything they talked about. This is usually not a problem I have with short fiction.

But I do still like YA books, so this doesn’t make sense! I thought.
Then I looked at my reading so far this year, and:

of all the 45 books I’ve read so far this year, only 5 were YA.

I didn’t expect this at all. And yes, that’s counting Hungry Hearts. It’s not like I’m not liking them, not necessarily (there was a 5 star book!), but interestingly most of them were audiobooks, because YA books are easier to follow and less intimidating for me when I started to really try out the format this year. Would I have read any YA had I not wanted to try audiobooks?

I was surprised to find this out, because this was in no way a conscious choice; my TBR is still 50% YA and 50% adult, I’m just avoiding the YA books without even realizing I was doing so.

In a way,  I thought this wouldn’t happen to me. I spent half of my teen years being a mostly-YA reader and following reviewers way older than me – way older than 20 – who read mostly YA; in a way, I grew up knowing that while it prioritizes (or at least, it should prioritize) teens, YA is in fact for everyone, and that sometimes a book’s age range depends more on the publisher’s ideas about effective marketing than on anything about its content. A lot of YA SFF is following characters who are so clearly aged down for marketing reasons that it gets kind of ridiculous.

Still, here I am, 20, tired of YA and yet not even noticing that until I tried some TV shows. But I did DNF several YA books this year, too – I just didn’t think much of it. I’m realizing that the main reason I keep coming back to YA even though it appeals to me less and less is that I don’t quite know where to find what I want in adult fiction, especially the non-SFF part of it, which I should try to explore more.

Also, it’s relevant to mention that in my experience YA-focused content gets a lot of attention on blog posts compared to adult SFF.

So, what does this mean?

  • my main response, since I am who I am, is that my TBR could definitely handle a cut! It makes no sense for it to be half YA when YA books aren’t even a quarter of what I read.
  • I will definitely still be reading YA, at the rate that feels natural to me – I’m not the kind of person who thinks excluding an entire age range from their reading on principle is a good idea. It’s just that the rate at which I reach for YA is currently really low.
  • I probably should face the truth and start considering myself an adult SFF reviewer instead of someone who reviews that and YA in equal amounts, as if I were stuck in 2018. (Thinking back, a lot of my YA reading in 2019 was due to ARCs. Not requesting/barely requesting ARCs anymore is doing a lot for making me understand what I actually want to read and I strongly recommend it.)

Have you read any of these? Has your relationship with an age range category changed over time?

Discussion · Fantasy

On That One Trope In F/F Fantasy

Hello! Today I’m writing a discussion post, something I almost never do, because I’ve read yet another F/F fantasy that featured a very specific but very common trope I hate, so I wanted to talk about it more in depth.

I’ve already mentioned this a few days ago in my short review of Crier’s War, but this is bigger than a single book and it would be unfair to make it about individual authors’ choices; I think it already starts when you look at which F/F fantasy books get acquired.


A Cliché in the Making

So far this year, I’ve read six F/F fantasy novels; in all of them but one, at least one of the two main characters is being pressured or forced to marry a man. As a queer reader of fantasy, I’ve already met this trope many times before, but now it really seems to be everywhere.

As with many clichés, it has roots in reality, in the history and sometimes in the present of sapphic women. Still, just like there’s no need for all our stories to be about facing homophobia, especially in fantasy, I don’t understand why the majority of our fantasy stories need to feature this trope, over and over and over.

We know about publishing’s tendencies not to see marginalized people outside of books whose plot directly concerns their marginalization, and we were seeing a very unsubtle reflection of that a few years ago, when most books about queer characters were still about coming out, conversion camps, and queer pain in general. Things are much better now (it was difficult to see F/F fantasy at all, back then!), but I’m starting to suspect that the prevalence of this trope is nothing more than a subtler version of publishing’s homophobia, of the idea that sapphic women can’t exist in stories that aren’t dealing with the fight against heteronormative pressure.

The idea that sapphic women’s stories, sapphic women’s romantic lives, still have to always revolve around a man.

Because that’s what this is, in the end! I’ve now read several F/F fantasy books in which the main character spends more scenes interacting with the man who really wants to marry her than with her actual love interest (happened in The Winter Duke, happened in Stormsong, happened in Girl Serpent Thorn), and no wonder the actual romances felt underdeveloped. I hope that one day F/F fantasy won’t be full of stories about “smashing the patriarchy” or “fighting against heteronormativity”, that one day our books won’t be important more than anything else; I hope that we just get to be. Still, I’ve even seen this trope in books that don’t have homophobia at all in them, like The Winter Duke and Crier’s War, which was honestly baffling. (Why do so much and yet change so little?)

Now, since I know the internet’s tendency is to polarize, I want to point out that I don’t believe this trope or the books featuring it are “problematic” (I hate this word) or “homophobic”. I obviously find it really annoying, and the prevalence of it is very likely rooted in publishing’s homophobia, but the problem doesn’t lie in the books themselves and I don’t want this post to become yet another reason for those who don’t read F/F books to hate on F/F books or for us queer people to self-police our expression even more. Fiction can be a way to talk about our reality, and the many forms heteronormativity takes are part of it.

I’ve seen this happen so many times: someone talks about an element they have a problem with just because they find it too prevalent in queer books (examples: bi characters in love triangles with a boy and a girl, queer characters in contemporary who avoid labels) but then others turn the argument and use the presence of that element as a starting point to hate on queer books they disliked. No, we shouldn’t be using the language we use to speak out against homophobia to hate on queer books just to validate our preferences. I want to point this out because I know I’ve probably done something similar to some extent in the past, as I learned this way of covering up the insecurities I had about my taste from Tumblr back in 2016. (Fandom discourse thrives on this kind of thinking.)

29774026So: I liked some of the books I read that had this trope (I loved Girl, Serpent, Thorn!); I hated others, sometimes because of this trope, which I would probably find annoying even if it wasn’t so common (preference); I wouldn’t dream to say that any of these books are homophobic, “objectively bad” or doing something bad for the genre. I might not have liked The Priory of the Orange Tree for many reasons (one of them is that Sabran is forced to marry a man and get pregnant, but it’s far from the main one) but the fact that it got translated in my country? That’s a huge step forward, actually.

I think a big part of pushing for diversity is pushing for variety inside diverse stories, for marginalized people not to be relegated to one kind of story all the time until that kind of story has become uncool “problematic” (and then we switch to another subtly bigoted cliché). I want F/F fantasy to be a genre where sapphic women can find all kinds of fantasy stories depending on what they’re looking for that day; where people like me who mostly don’t like to read about queer women in forced marriages can find many books to read anyway. (A great way to start would be not having so many fantasy stories revolve around royalty, but that’s true for the whole genre.)

Also, a shout-out to The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar! It’s a very underrated and gorgeously written F/F fantasy novel that happens to be the only one without this trope I’ve read this year, though it does still revolve around royalty.


What do you think of this trope? Which tropes would you like to see more often or less often in F/F fantasy?

Book review · Discussion · Fantasy · Short fiction

Short Fiction Time #2: Reading From People You Disagree With (and More)

Welcome to the second post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I haven’t been reading as many short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.

This time, I will be reviewing four short stories, of which two are Nebula finalists, one short story collection from an acclaimed SFF author, and talk about the importance of reading from people you disagree with.


Recent Reads

Short Stories
  • The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror by Carmen Maria Machado (Granta, 2020): I will never forget this. It’s decadent, visceral, and very gory, with a thick, uncomfortable atmosphere. It’s about a messed up relationship between an actress and the young woman who basically becomes her servant, including BDSM and a dynamic that is both toxic and intoxicating. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from the grotesque! (The fantasies about vore, of course, are there just for literary purpose! If you don’t know what that means, please, don’t google it.) The points it makes about sex and violence, about what we see as depraved and oddly don’t, about body horror being something so tied into the feminine… it really is true, when our bodies are the landscapes of everyday horror themselves. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, but this new story is still my favorite short from Carmen Maria Machado.
  • 26199196Variations on an Apple by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2015): What if you were in love with a city?
    The Iliad, retold in Yoon Ha Lee’s signature math-fantasy style. Dizzying, wonderfully queer, and suffused with a quieter sadness than one would expect from a story about war, it talks about fate, and the unstoppable potential of human discord. It’s an even more remarkable experience if one is familiar with either Ninefox Gambit or Lee’s game Winterstrike, as some parts of it felt like glancing at those through a distorting glass. Also, of course cities have no concerns for something as human as gender. It’s not my favorite by Yoon Ha Lee (my favorites remain Ghostweight and The Knights of Chains, the Deuce of Stars) but really good nonetheless; some parts almost read like poetry, and the writing is sharp enough to cut.
  • Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, 2019): cannibalism, lesbianism, and the othering, oppressive nature of western anthropology all rolled into a short horror story, one told through excerpts of fictional books and articles. Original, and manages to pack a punch in very little space.
  • His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light by Mimi Mondal (Tor.com, 2019): a story about freedom, loyalty and gay love between a human and a jinni set in India. Like the previous one, I tried it because it was announced as a Nebula finalist. I feel like the characters had a lot of backstory I couldn’t see nor feel in this space, and I didn’t feel attached to them as a result, but I did really like the escaping devadasi subplot. Overall, nice, but not that memorable for me.
Collections

40855636In February I read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, a collection of short stories from N.K. Jemisin, an author I’ve had mixed experiences with before. That didn’t change, since this collection was even more of a mixed bag than I’d usually expect. Still, it made me want to at least try both the Dreamblood duology and The City We Became; I don’t have any doubt about her skill, especially when it comes to the writing in itself – there’s hardly a word out of place.

In fantasy, I love her worldbuilding. I now want to read The Killing Moon purely because of how much I liked the world in The Narcomancer; it was so vibrant and atmospheric and intriguing. I also love the way she talks about cities – especially New York and New Orleans. The concept of a city itself having a deep, positive power despite all its flaws is one that appeals to me, and so does reading about the complicated relationships marginalized people have with the place they live in and the other people who live there with them. Of course, The Effluent Engine and The City Born Great were two of my favorites. Jemisin always has a fantastic grasp on atmosphere, which shines in this kind of stories.
Sadly, I don’t seem to get along with her sci-fi stories the same way? This is probably more on me than on her, because while sci-fi is my favorite genre, there are some subgenres of it I really can’t get into (cyberpunk and the like) and several of the sci-fi stories fell into that. The Evaluators was the main exception, and it would have been interesting if the ecology in the story had made any sense.

One particularly low point was L’Alchimista, in which the author attempted to write about Italian characters in real-world Italy without even trying to get the Italian language right.

“Mi scuza”
– N.K. Jemisin, 2006.

…that’s like having an American character apologize by saying “Hi’m sorpy”. You can’t expect your readers to take you seriously while talking about Italian food and politics after you do that! As usual, I’m left wondering what American authors have against putting effort into other languages.
Still, since it was written more than ten years ago, I hope she’d make different choices today and it doesn’t influence my interest in her other works. And I do like how she writes about food when she’s not writing about Italy; I really liked the food witchery  in Red Dirt Witch and what she did in Cuisine des Mémoires, because stories that explore the link between food and memory have always been my kind of thing.

Overall, this was very interesting, because I didn’t feel the same way about two stories. Some I loved, some I couldn’t even finish, some I finished and hated, some I liked but didn’t feel strongly about, some I liked while partially disagreeing with – it’s far from my favorite collection, but as far as reading experience, it was one of the most dynamic and I never quite knew what to expect next.


On Reading From People Who Disagree With You

The idea for this discussion was born when I read the first story in How Long ’til Black Future Month: The Ones Who Stay and Fight, which has since been reprinted on Lightspeed Magazine, where you can read it online. It’s a response to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (a story I’m only tangentially familiar with because of discussions on twitter) based on Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance.

This story made me think about how we in the book community frame the idea of reading from people who we disagree with. Because I disagree with some points in the story, especially its concern with passive corruption¹ (it’s probably because it reminds me of the twisted, nonsensical book twitter ethics towards fiction²).

The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a story that celebrates diversity while underlining the importance of strong boundaries against intolerance, which can’t be just seen as a “difference of thought” – something I strongly agree with. What I don’t agree with is the process through which this story thinks people become intolerant. Reading this story gave me a reason to truly dissect why I don’t think this feels right to me, which I don’t think I would otherwise done; it means that I did get something out of it, just not necessarily what the author put on the page.

And… being able to read something I disagreed with without feeling attacked by it is something I see as a progress. I learned reviewing from looking at what other people did, and tried to use that framework to talk about my own feelings. But the thing is, we are all hobbyists, and it’s difficult to tell – especially if personal and painful topics come into play – when something stops being an interpretation and starts becoming projection. Couple that with general insecurity about one’s own opinions, and you get defensive callout mentality. There’s a lot of it in the book community, and it’s often rewarded – in places like book twitter, anger and lack of nuance get more traction than anything else – and I’m still trying to disentangle from it; I’m not completely sure I’m successful (also, the worst part about misguided righteous anger is that it feels good). But if I tried to avoid stories like these, that make me a little uncomfortable by having parts I strongly agree with and parts I don’t, and examined what my knee-jerk reactions were, I wouldn’t have reasons to realize this even was a problem.


¹ coming in contact with bigotry will make you partially a bigot? And having come in contact with it means you will spread it and need to get murdered to save the utopia? People never come up with horrible ideas on their own if you shelter them enough…? Simplistic and I don’t think people even work like that.

² Book twitter increasingly seems to operate with the assumption that fiction influences real life (concern towards possible passive harm) but what we accuse others of on the internet somehow doesn’t influence real life (lack of concern towards probable active harm). As you can imagine, it’s hell. I recommend reading this interview by Tamsyn Muir and what happened to Isabel Fall if you want to know about recent examples.

³ In case it wasn’t clear, I agree about them being dangerous, but not the “they will contaminate you” part. It’s far more complicated than that.


Have you read any of these? How did you learn to review? Have you ever gone through realizing that you were doing some parts of it badly?

Discussion

Changing Your Mind About Books You Reviewed

Before I started blogging, I already knew it was difficult to find two people who felt the exact same way about a book. What I didn’t expect was how often I would disagree with myself.

The thing about having a blog that is several years old, especially if you started blogging when you weren’t even an adult, is that you grow and change as a person, and you’re not necessarily going to see the books you read as you did in the past. It’s an obvious thing, and yet one I don’t really know how to deal with, because – blame the anxiety or the perfectionism, I don’t know – I’d like my blog to reflect the things I think now.

The way I tend to change opinions has also changed through time:


When I Started Reviewing…

…I liked most things I read, or at least, I gave higher ratings than I do now on average. And I think it’s pretty much an universal experience to look back on the books you read when you started blogging and think “yeah, that most definitely wasn’t that great”, (especially if you started at 15). I usually changed my mind in these ways:

  • Peer Pressured: I read a hyped book and ended up not feeling much, or couldn’t articulate my feelings. So I rate it four stars, because everyone seems to like it and I don’t have any strong opinion I recognize. Then I think about it months later and realize they’d have to pay me to make me reread it. (Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes is an example of this for me; it went from 4 to 1 stars in the span of a few months)
  • Unfortunate realization: I read a book and like it. Then I learn that several plot points had strong unfortunate implications and that doesn’t make me think of the book in a positive light anymore, even though I did like it while reading (example: the twist in Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon)
  • Plain old suck fairy: [“You read a book you used to love, and—something’s happened to it! The prose is terrible, the characters are thin, the plot is ridiculous.” – Jo Walton]

These mostly happened because back then I didn’t really have standards. Which is fine, because you have to build them for yourself! Change is a good thing and so is growth.

And to deal with them is easy. My Italian blog isn’t public anymore, so I don’t have to think about old reviews; if I want my goodreads shelves to reflect my current taste accurately, I just go on goodreads and either change or remove the rating.

But that’s usually not the kind of self-disagreement that happens to me anymore.


Now?

Now what happens more often is that I change my mind about a book I disliked. Sometimes I dislike something because I read it at the wrong time, or because in the context I had the book was bad and then the context changed – as I’ve talked about a little in my review of Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire.
But this was an easy case: I wanted to reread it anyway, and it was a novella.

What if I change my mind about a book I don’t want to reread?
Let’s make two examples:

#1: The Cruel Prince

26032825I read The Cruel Prince when it came out, and I gave it 3.5 stars. I still think that’s what it deserves, so the rating stays, and I don’t feel the need to reread it – I’m not that interested in the sequels if not in the “wanting to understand the discussions around them” way, but it’s not a strong enough motivation for me.

What has changed? I disagree with my own review (or: a certain part of it) and don’t think that at the time I could really explain what didn’t work for me.
Ok, I’ll explain, because I feel the need to do that somewhere at least.

The part of The Cruel Prince I disliked the most was the relationship between Jude and Cardan. When I tried to explain what went wrong for me in early 2018, I tried to put together an explanation that pretty much relied on this assumption:

I don’t like it, therefore there must be something objectively wrong with it

Which, especially when it comes to relationships, is pretty much the foundation of most shipping discourse and book twitter’s favorite hobby. I also think that, in most cases, it’s bullshit. And I get why I did it! I was still listening to book twitter/Tumblr (RIP) at that point, and thought that if I came across a toxic relationship I didn’t like in a book, especially one you’re not meant to strongly dislike, it must mean that the book is romanticizing it. (I didn’t use that word because on some level I did feel it was bullshit – I said it was a “fake redemption arc” like the one in the Shatter Me series, except it’s not really that.)

Which is all very hypocritical of a villain romance fan.

The now-obvious thing is that The Cruel Prince never meant to be a portrayal of a healthy relationship or a “how to” novel or a story about how the reader’s bully must certainly secretly love them, and to read it that way is to misread it. So much of fandom discourse is based on misreading, sometimes maliciously – “authorial intent doesn’t matter”, they say, but I say the reviewer’s intent is really, really important – but you don’t realize that when you’re sorrounded by it and new to it at the same time.
I also have never believed in the “reading about unchallenged (or according to some even challenged) toxic relationships will make you seek out toxic relationship or will make you an abuser” pseudoscience.

What didn’t work was that Jude and Cardan’s relationship dynamic is that of a power fantasy that doesn’t appeal to me on any level. To me, there’s nothing as unattractive as a bully, and Cardan is the fae version of a repressed high school bully. Maybe I feel this way because I was bullied, maybe I would have felt this in any case; it doesn’t really matter. I don’t believe that people who like Cardan must not understand what it’s like to be bullied, and this isn’t a line of thinking that I feel is productive anyway [this often leads to the whole “we must know your past trauma to understand if your take is valid™” thing, which I find troubling.]

The step between “this is abhorrent and completely opposed to my experience” and “people have different experiences with the same things and what is flatly disgusting to you might be interesting to dissect for someone else for reasons you might never truly get” is important. But recognizing any of this would have meant recognizing the diversity of human experience and that there aren’t hard rules on “hurtful”/”not hurtful” literature; any of this would have meant letting go of the rush of anger people will tell you is so so righteous when you dislike something problematic. I definitely wasn’t there yet.

I still deeply don’t want to read about bully romances, and that’s fine too.

My review is still up on goodreads, and I don’t remember the book enough to re-review it. And I can’t replace it with all this because it’s not a review, this is dragging January-2018!Acqua (she was not in therapy yet and it shows) and book twitter, and I don’t think it belongs on goodreads.

I still haven’t decided what to do about it, apart from writing this post.

#2: Empire of Sand

39714124Empire of Sand is a favorite of many of my mutuals on various sites, one I still think about trying again sometimes, but then never do.

I first tried reading it in November 2018, and I remember that without looking it up – how could I not? The very end of November 2018, the month in which I went off from medication.

If you’ve ever had to deal with psychiatric meds, you’ve also probably heard of or dealt with the side effects, and that some people need to stop that kind of treatment because of them; also, one might experience side effects during withdrawal.

An ARC of this book was lucky enough to not only end up in my hands only a few days after I read Girls of Paper and Fire (both are heavy fantasy reads involving constant threat of sexual assault for the main character) but to also do so during what was, in hindsight, a medication-induced depressive episode.

While it was happening, I didn’t think much of it. I couldn’t think much of it. I didn’t have the energy to do much at all and felt horrible and everything I tried reading felt horrible as well. I don’t think I can explain just how much I dreaded picking up this book again – I’ll just say that I didn’t want to DNF this (I could at least tell that the worldbuilding was good) but had realized that doing chemistry homework in the state I was in (which made me feel miserable, of course, as I kept making obvious mistakes) was less exhausting than this and would have rather done that instead.

But at the time I didn’t have as much insight on what was happening (you can see, from my November 2018 wrap-up, that I said “I kept finding mediocre stuff”) and DNFed Empire of Sand thinking that it was mostly on the novel and just a little on me. I did realize there was a connection between how much GoPaF exhausted me and how I felt about this, but not much more. I rated it two stars on goodreads and that was it, for a while.
The thing is, until this sort of episode is over, you can’t look back and say, no, that was definitely not normal.

It was not on the book. After a few months, I removed the rating, but it took me a while to understand what had happened, and today I still don’t know how I feel about this. I’m in this weird situation in which I read more than half a book and remember it vividly, but don’t really have an opinion on it, though the idea of picking it up again to find out fills me with dread. It certainly has made me think about just how unreliable my negative reviews can be in certain circumstances, and I might not realize that until later.


And That’s Only a A Part

There are other cases, but I won’t stay here to talk about all of them. From Anger is a Gift, a novel I didn’t like but that I read while sick enough to end up in a hospital a few days later (I didn’t think it was good, but was I unfair because I was sick? I ended up deleting my review) to The Poppy War, which I didn’t like, but I liked my attempt at explaining why even less (I’m still not able to explain it, I’ve found things that contributed but I always feel like I’m missing the mark), there really are many.

Generally, I’ve realized that in the last year, I’ve trusted negative reviews – especially one star reviews – less than I did once, and this includes my own (I’ve tried writing a post about that multiple times but it never quite comes together.) There’s probably a lot on this blog I don’t agree with anymore. At the same time, I try to keep in mind that the urge to delete, delete, delete everything is an anxiety symptom, so I shouldn’t listen to it too much.

The problem with the internet and a great thing about the internet is that everything stays while we don’t, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe, every time I realize I significantly changed my mind about a book I didn’t reread I’ll write a post like this one about why, or maybe I’ll keep having crises about the inherent instability of life.


What do you do when you change your mind about a book? Change the review? Nothing? Write too-long discussion posts?

Discussion · Fantasy

Am I Falling Out of Love With Fantasy?

Fantasy was once my favorite genre. A trend I’m noticing – in my ratings, in my favorites, and even in what I add to my TBR now – is that I seem to like it less and less.

This is going to be long! I can’t promise it will be worth it, but here we are.


First, A Disclaimer

Defining what is and isn’t fantasy is complicated, as the line between sci-fi and fantasy can get really blurred, and as some genres are considered fantasy by some and not by others (for example, magical realism, paranormal romance, contemporary with a small speculative twist…)

In this post, I will use the word “fantasy” to mean a book set in a fictional/historical-fictional world in which magic has a significant role, and in which the technology is on average less advanced than our own.

I know this excludes a lot of subgenres, but drawing the line between what can be considered fantasy and what can’t is even more complicated in a contemporary or futuristic setting; as this post does not apply to urban fantasy, contemporary fantasy, magical realism and all the subgenres and arguably separate genres one doesn’t immediately think of when the word “fantasy” is said, consider them excluded from the word “fantasy” for the purpose of this post.
I consider urban fantasy a fantasy subgenre, of course – it’s just not what I’m talking about, it’s not a genre I considered a favorite when I was younger. I also didn’t want to say “high and historical fantasy” every time when that’s what most people immediately think of when they hear the word “fantasy” anyway.


The Current Situation

43263188I have rated only one fantasy novel five stars this year. Said novel is The Impossible Contract by K.A. Doore (review), and it’s a 4.5 rounded up because the buddy read with Silvia was a great experience. I don’t know if I would have rounded up had I read it on my own; it was fun, but far from flawless, and it doesn’t fully feel like a five star. It’s really the kind of book I’d actually love to have half stars for.

I have loved some fantasy short stories (The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections), novellas (The Ascent to Godhood) and graphic novels (Monstress), but novels… not so much. And I have been reading fantasy novels.

Let’s make a quick, simple list. Of the 91 books I read this year:

  • 33 are not novels (short stories, graphic novels, novellas, collections and anthologies of various genres)
  • 7 are novels I reread (of various genres)
  • which leaves 51 novels.

Of those 51 novels:

  • 17 are fantasy (of which one is a 5 star)
  • 9 are sci-fi/futuristic (of which five are 5 stars)
  • 14 are realistic contemporary or historical fiction (of which four are 5 stars)
  • 11 belong to the “contemporary with a magical/sci-fi/paranormal/horror twist” group (and three of them are 5 stars)

You see, it’s not like I’m not reading fantasy novels. But I’m not liking them, or at least, I’m constantly disappointed by them. Some of the most disappointing books I read this year were hyped fantasy books like The Fifth Season, The Ten Thousand Doors of January and House of Salt and Sorrows. And that’s just counting the ones I finished! I just DNFed Steel Crow Saga, for example, another anticipated release.

If you compare these stats with what I read in 2016 (around 100 books, of which 30+ were fantasy novels for the purpose of this post), yes, I’m also reading a lot less fantasy.


Why Is This Happening?

Here are some possible explanations, and what I think of them.

is the fantasy genre getting worse? I honestly don’t think that’s the case; if anything, I think that in the YA fantasy age range, it’s getting better; at least we’re not still stuck retelling the same 3 fairytales with straight, white main characters as we were in early 2016. I don’t know enough about the recent past of the adult part to say if it’s the same there, but I think we’re seeing a lot more women, more diversity and that’s of course positive. YA fantasy is also taking itself more seriously and that’s a double-edged sword, as some kinds of narratives and clichés just don’t work when you try to write that kind of story, but overall, I think the quality has improved.

I have read too much of it. Well, this is definitely a significant part of my recent dislike, especially when it comes to YA fantasy. YA fantasy is formulaic enough to feel stagnant, and when novels that actually feel like a breath of fresh air – like Six of Crows did back then – the genre’s response is to try and make lesser copycats of them instead of looking for more stories that branch out from the typical YA fantasy structure.
I was starting to feel “YA fantasy fatigue” in 2017, and I was 17 at the time, so I don’t even think it’s a “you’re not the target audience” problem. Teens get tired of reading the same exact story 20 times, too; I don’t think “this might be the first time a reader encounters that story, though!” is that much of a justification – it almost surely isn’t the first time, if said reader reads more than three YA books in a year, and if they don’t, they’re unlikely to reach for the midlist first! It’s almost as if this category almost only ever tries to play safe, and I don’t like that. (The “really formulaic” thing is also true for most YA sci-fi, but that genre has never been my favorite.) I understand that to some YA is kind of a comfort read, but that was not true for me as a teen; I mostly wanted original stories that didn’t go into adult territory, and I truly believe there’s space for both the cliché and the not.
Also, while I think that formulaic diverse stories have a value, I’d love to see publishers understand that marginalized readers might also want diverse stories that are not  formulaic, not “exactly the same plot as popular m/f YA fantasy book, but gayer” or something like that. You can have both. I promise.

⇝ Since I have read a lot of it, I have higher standards. Also true. I know what has been done really often before in fantasy more than I do in other genres. A lot of fantasy books I love, even books I loved this year on reread like Shadow and Bone, aren’t books I’d give five stars to today if I read them for the first time. It’s less about nostalgia (for Shadow and Bone: I read it in 2015 and that isn’t a time I’m nostalgic about, really) and more about that being the first time I experienced this kind of story, with a main character who was almost exactly the same as 15-year-old me; it carries a weight that similar stories could not today. I would still like it, of that I’m certain, but I wouldn’t love it (and would be annoyed by some things that I forgive in fantasy published in 2012 but not now). It would probably be around four stars.

⇝ finding adult fantasy without a serious pacing problem is difficult. It doesn’t make sense to me that adult fantasy is totally fine with taking 200+ pages to get to the point almost every single time, because the more I approach actual adulthood, the more I think I’m not 13 and I don’t have unlimited free time anymore, can you shut up and get there already? For example, Jade City and especially Jade War by Fonda Lee would have been such great books, if not for the fact that half of the text that isn’t dialogue could have been omitted to make a perfectly viable story anyway. Who allowed them to get that long?
And the thing is: adult sci-fi, which has just as complex (and sometimes more complex) worldbuilding, doesn’t have this problem nearly as often, or maybe I’ve been really lucky. It might have to do with the fact that adult fantasy has had a history of being long-winded since basically the beginning? I know nothing about older sci-fi, so I’m not sure how the two compare.

⇝ a lot of fantasy acts as if having a sense of humor could kill it. We‘re very serious people here! This is meant to be Meaningful! Fun is forbidden because here we are Edgy and it’s all about pain! Of course, this isn’t the case for all books, but I wish dark fantasy’s sense of humor weren’t just really occasional sarcasm. I think most of us really are here to have fun – maybe not literally, I think it’s more about being interested and captivated and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book has to be funny, but I don’t think I’m the only one who finds overwhelming misery overrated, as it’s really easy to come by without needing a fictional world. Balance is everything to me, when it comes to these things, and adding humor to difficult circumstances doesn’t make a story cheaper.
(Though I have to say that when the book has a sense of humor I don’t actually find funny, it gets awkward. See what happened with Steel Crow Saga.)

⇝ something that I also need to remember is that it’s more difficult to tell apart fantasy that isn’t going to work for me. I’m pretty good at guessing which sci-fi I need to abandon within the first chapters; this also works – though not as much – with contemporaries. With fantasy, I struggle. I’m not sure why; I can tell that a sci-fi book does not interest me from the premise but with fantasy I’m not able to do the same as often and end up with more low ratings. However, this does not explain why there are so few high ratings.


What About the Future

I’m still going to be reading fantasy books. Of course. However, I don’t consider it my favorite genre anymore, and I think me and YA fantasy are inevitably going to grow apart, not because I’m not interested in reading about teenagers anymore – I’m not thirty either, but that doesn’t make fantasy stories with adults in their 30s as main characters automatically uninteresting – but because it isn’t doing much for me anymore. Things could change, but if they don’t, my YA fantasy reads will slowly become more the exception than the rule.

I don’t see myself growing apart from fantasy altogether. For example, if it hadn’t been for the problems I had with the romance and portrayals of female characters, Mo Dao Zu Shi (review) would have probably been a five star, and even though it wasn’t, I still couldn’t think about anything else for a week, so yes, I can still love fantasy.

A Few Fantasy Reads I Have High Hopes For

Who knows, maybe I will be able to find a full five star read in the fantasy genre before the end of this year!

⇝ The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
If I ever get to this, which might not happen because I am a coward, I’m actually pretty sure that I’m going to like it. I’ve heard that as far as books this long go, the pacing is great, and what I’ve heard about the characters and worldbuilding was encouraging as well.

Descendants of the Crane by Joan He
I’ve heard this one is slow, but slow YA fantasy is easier to deal with than slow adult fantasy, being on average shorter and lighter. I’ve also heard this has political intrigue and interesting court dynamics and I live for that. I haven’t been reading enough “backstabbing at court” books this year, and I usually like those.

The Ninth Rain by Jen Williams
I’m not completely sure what this is about but it comes highly recommended from people I trust. I’ve heard there are complex villains and queer characters in here, so that’s bound to be interesting. I haven’t heard a lot about the series in general but I’m hopeful.


Have you ever felt like you and a genre were growing apart? What are your current thoughts on fantasy?

Discussion

Out of My Comfort Zone #7

My seventh post in the Out of My Comfort Zone series! If you hadn’t heard about this before, it’s a series of posts in which I talk about my experiences with books/stories/formats I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.

This time, I did something a little different, and tried experiencing the same story in three different formats at the same time.


A Little History

For several month now, my twitter timeline has been full of people talking about a something called Mo Dao Zu Shi (or, as it usually is in tweets, mdzs). I didn’t pay that much attention to it, because most of what I saw was completely out of context and I had no idea of what it even was. I just assumed it was something movie/show/animation-related, and didn’t investigate further. (If you want to know about my history and relationships with things on screens: here. The TL;DR is that watching things on a screen and my anxiety don’t go along well.)

So, I went through months of being spoiled for basically everything, but in a way that was so out-of-context that it didn’t even matter or affect my following experience with mdzs. All I really knew was that it was a) gay in some way, at least in subtext and b) historical, maybe?

Then, I don’t remember how we got there, but I ended up talking about it with Silvia on twitter, and she recently got into it – so I finally understood that the thing that was everywhere on my timeline was a Chinese m/m adult fantasy novel involving necromancy that was adapted both as a donghua and as a live action show.

This combination of hype + recommendation from people I trust + vague but interesting premise meant that, at that point, I really wanted to try it. Since I had been wanting to try again and watch something on a screen for a while as well (in small doses, I can do that, if I can skim certain kinds of scenes), I did.

If you want more detailed information about what this story is and where to start, Silvia wrote a post about that!


Overall Thoughts

43188345._sx318_Someone should have told me that this had the very specific trope “the most hated person of the realm comes back from the dead, chaos ensues” sooner!

I realize that I’ve never talked about this because it’s an overly specific combination of things and because I had only seen it in another book before, but… it might be my favorite trope. (Even though these stories have nothing in common, Mo Dao Zu Shi opens with exactly the same trope as Raven Stratagem.) I love reading about hated undead. It might be the many years spent in Catholic school and the whole framing of resurrection as holy when actually it’s a terrifying concept, I don’t know.

Also: complicated family dynamics! Music as magic! Necromancy and blood magic! There were a lot of tropes I loved in here.

Anyway, the story overall was great, and this was such a good time. Far from flawless, and it’s definitely the kind of thing I would only recommend with disclaimers, but was it addicting.

Now I’m going to talk about what I liked about each format. Keep in mind that I have very little experience with two of them.


Mo Dao Zu Shi [Donghua]

I started from here. Season one has been completed, season two is ongoing, and there should be a season three but I’m not sure when.

Pros:

  • There is a lot to take in at first. Not only because it’s fantasy and we know how worldbuilding can be, but because it starts at a point in which the main characters already have a long, fraught history with each other, so you don’t really understand their reactions at first (after, there will be many flashbacks). However, I have to say that, as I was told, the donghua beginning is the easiest to follow – it doesn’t infodump you but it gives you most of the information you need.
  • Even before you get to appreciate the characters for who they are, this is funny just for how dramatic it is, and I loved that about it. The first scene involving the protagonist is one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen and I was there for it. (Might be typical of the format? I wouldn’t know.)

Cons:

  • So many scenes happen in the dark. Scenes set in tombs, in caves, dark buildings, woods at night – there’s a lot. Every time I got to one of those scenes, I couldn’t understand anything about what was happening, because of the terrible lighting/lack of contrast.
  • I kind of find it aesthetically unpleasant for a variety of choices.
  • It’s not finished yet.
  • The fight scenes are boring and proportionally longer than they are in the live action (at least they’re really dramatic, which makes them funny).
  • Of course, as usual, I need to skim some scenes, which means that I do lose some things.
  • The m/m relationship can only be heavily hinted at because censorship.

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation [Novel]

This one was a really interesting experience. You might already know that I have little to no patience for long books, especially ones longer than 600 pages. If I had known that this one was longer than 1000, maybe I wouldn’t even have started it. And it didn’t feel like something longer than 1000 pages, which made me think about what exactly I don’t like about long books – it’s not the length, not really. It’s the repetitive structure in a novel that just takes longer to get there.

A published American novel, unless it’s somehow experimenting with format, has a beginning in which the characters and world are introduced (or: new elements are introduced if it’s a sequel), a middle in which there might be a journey and there’s usually rising tension, and then a climax and an ending. It might be 100 or 500 pages, but it’s always that. If the story is really long, it gets broken up in two to three books, so you have to do this exact same thing three times. And from knowing this structure, you can more or less predict what’s going to happen next.

And it’s not that in this novel these elements are absent. There is a beginning, there is a main climax, there is an ending; however, it’s also a mess of incredibly long flashbacks sometimes following characters different from the main couple, and while it’s long it’s one story and not one broken and watered down to make three books, and all of this paradoxically makes it less boring.

Pros:

  • Being a novel, you get more details and many thing that can’t be translated as well on a screen;
  • Comparing structure and tropes with the novels I usually read was really interesting, and there are some parallels as well as things that I’ve never seen a fantasy novel try, when they clearly should have. (Fake redemption arcs in a Shatter Me/A Court of Mist and Fury style are boring and always feel somewhat forced. What this book did is so much better when it comes to reversal of expectations, why don’t YA novels do [this spoilery thing] more often?)
  • Unlike the other two formats, this is explicitly gay and doesn’t only hint at things. This way, you get that it took the main character years to understand that he is gay while being clearly in love with another man.
  • If you’re interested in another of the two formats, this tells you the significance of certain symbols, so that the gay subtext of the adaptations becomes way closer to text in your head.

Cons:

  • This is messy at heart.
  • While the author is really good at writing pining and romantically oblivious characters, the same definitely isn’t true for actual romantic scenes. The amount of dubcon in the form of non-consensual kisses and drunk kisses and drunk sex was really uncomfortable. The love interest’s jealousy also made my skin crawl. Let’s say that while I liked the romance in theory, the execution was bad.
  • A person who values their own eyes should skip the sex scenes. I’ve never seen a fandom agree so strongly about the fact that these are terrible.
  • It’s true for all of the formats, but something that is even more glaring in the novel is that every single female character is either evil, dead or irrelevant, with usually a big emphasis on irrelevant. While the other formats at least attempt to develop the female characters who end up dying, especially the live action, the novel does not.

The Untamed [Live Action]

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Pros:

  • Listen. The aesthetic. I love everything about the way they chose to portray the setting and the costumes and everything looks so pretty on the screen
  • I thought the casting choices were really good! I mean, there is to say that even if the acting was mediocre, I wouldn’t know, but I thought the characters were portrayed really well on the screen
  • The romantic tension. This is such a good example of dancing around censorship. The longing, the loving gazes, the romantic songs… perfect. (This led to the weird phenomenon in which I like the romance in the live action, in which it can’t be explicit, far more than I do in the novel, because all the weird dubcon isn’t there. What a recipe for pain.)
  • Female characters have a more active and important role! It’s still very flawed but at least they do something.

Cons:

  • It’s completely impossible to take the fight scenes seriously. (Maybe that was the purpose, I’m not sure, but they’re kind of ridiculous).
  • It got rid of some of the moral ambiguity, which I have mixed feelings about.
  • Censorship, of course
  • Since this looks more realistic than the other two formats, I needed to skim a lot.
  • Even though this ended up being my favorite format (I know, I didn’t see that coming either), I don’t recommend starting from it because I think I would have found the beginning really confusing if I had.

So, How Was Following A Story in Three Formats?

It helped.

A problem I have with anything on a screen is that I have to skim. By skimming, I usually lose interest, because I lose details. Being able to switch from one format to another when it came to a point in which I started to lose interest in one was helpful, so that I ended up finishing all of them [well, the first one isn’t finished, but I saw all that was out]

It was really confusing, yes. These stories are similar enough to all feel the same story and different enough to cause confusion. I don’t separate them clearly in my head, but there’s also some good that comes from that – watching something that only heavily hints at the m/m relationship while reading the novel in which they’re explicitly gay (and what I said about the novel explaining the symbolism) ends up making you feel as if you are in fact watching something explicitly gay, because you mix them up in your head, everything feels like the same story. It never feels like baiting.

There are not many stories with which I could do this kind of thing – the stories that I’m interested in reading rarely get adapted, which is sad – but I would do it again if I had the chance.


Have you ever tried following a story in multiple formats at the same time?