Flesh and Spirit

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Secret cabals, end times, magical class systems, a nice rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold for a protagonist: what’s not to love.

Berg in “Flesh and Spirit” grabs a few of the great tools of writing (a character whose traits are hopelessly mismatched to their situation, looming catastrophe, etc.), and puts together a solid and engaging novel. But I’ll be honest: what I really liked was the cabal, and when it fell apart near the end of the book I lost interest.

That’s the danger in a book full of disparate and interesting plotlines. They intersect well, but what happens when the plots you like wrap up?

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The Stress of Her Regard

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Ancient creatures who haunt the great Romantic writers, Byron and Shelley. A statue wearing a wedding ring, put on it for safekeeping–but its hand clenching around the ring to keep it from being taken back. A death at sea to sever an ancient curse.

“The Stress of Her Regard” is scary, powerful, and thrilling. The characters sink to dangerous lows, preform risky and fascinating deeds. And strange mythic creatures tread the paths of history.

It’s pretty awesome. I just wish Powers hadn’t totally sidelined the women characters.

The men are all preoccupied with their relatinoships with (for lack of a better term) succubi. Their relationships with actual women are just shadows of these earlier, jealous lovers. Thus, women are utterly robbed of agency at every turn. The men act to protect them, and the women never act for themselves. The jealous succubi are, it is established early in the novel, bent on killing any woman or child in their lovers’ lives. Yet those women are never made aware of the risk they are in, never understand why their children are in danger. They are objects to be protected, not partners in their own lives. The men are the writers–the women are just supporting characters.

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By the end of the novel, one character is literally dragging a woman away from the life she chose. It’s not a good life, but no one tried to drag him away when he had chosen it.

Can a novel be truly great if it has a bad depiction of half the human race?

Ysabel and Wasted Opportunities

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In Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Ysabel,” an ancient story is re-enacted every few decades by reincarnated characters. Time is slippery and can bend a bit to allow this story to continue taking place.

The ancient story feels real and strong because Kay put in his research hours (information which is carefully explained by several history buff characters, a neat way to sidestep the infodump problem…maybe). It feels like this kind of magic and myth could be unfolding in the streets of ancient, still-inhabited cities. Europe, with its unchanging buildings and carefully preserved heritage, feels like the sort of place this could happen in.

What disappointed me was that this one story was the only thing in his invented world which Kay seemed willing to touch upon. There are plenty of nods to gods and other mythological creatures being real–but they are only nods. Mysteries are never solved, promises for explanation are not fulfilled.

Not only that, but the stakes never feel earned. There are ominous hints of great and terrible things to come littered through the first half or so of the book, but in the end nothing that dire happens. There’s risks, but the main characters all come out just fine. The heavy foreshadowing proves melodramatic, the wider world remains entirely shrouded, and the core story itself depends on the personality of a woman with no personality.

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Ysabel and Women

 

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I’m debating setting a rule: when the female characters start to complain that all the men are stupid and that they’re the only sensible ones, there’s a chance the book has fudged up its gender dynamics.

An argument could be made that, given the 15-year-old male protagonist, this isn’t totally unexpected. But when adult women act out the fantasies of 15-year-old males, there’s a problem.

There’s a lot of good elements in Ysabel, but the women characters are not one of them. They fall uncomfortably close to virgin/whore personalities, they are a little too preoccupied with their relationships to men, and frankly I just didn’t find them very believable.

Which, given that this book is named after a woman, and that a woman’s actions and personality are supposed to be the driving force in a book, is a pretty fatal flaw. In fact, the titular character has no real personality. It’s all just borrowed from her host soul. I couldn’t describe Ysabel if I tried–only the effect she produced in the men who loved her.

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Thomas the Rhymer

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I wonder if this book wasn’t actually particularly great–it was just first.

The fairy queen is sexually voracious, willing to abduct a mortal man for seven years. An ancient ballad tells a new story. A man returns home to fairyland and must come to understand the world again.

I’ve read books with all these elements in them before. But they were all published later than “Thomas the Rhymer.” Maybe that’s why I didn’t really enjoy this book. Or maybe I just didn’t get it (whatever it was).

Sometimes, I’ve found, you come to a book at the wrong time in your life. When you pick it up later, the book may prove to have in fact been a great work. It may make you happier than you could imagine. But if you happen to hit it at the wrong time…what can you do?

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Was I supposed to hate Emma Woodhouse?

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The novel “Emma” is a farcical account of one young woman’s attempts to get another married off well. At it’s heart is the titular Emma, a extremely intelligent and proactive young woman who delights in flitting about her social circle.

I really didn’t like Emma. Not the book, the character. She was vain, too vain of her own cleverness and supposed perceptiveness. She destroyed her friend’s life. She caused far more pain and heartache than happiness.

I got why she did all this: she was possessed of the desire to make. Her entire world was “society”–the social interactions of her neighborhood peers. She wanted to make, and her realm was that of relationships. Thus, she tried to make relationships. Except that she discounted the fact that these were people, not objects, and she could not make anyone do or feel what she wanted them to do or feel. The result was havoc.

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