Goldenhand: What the hell happened to Garth Nix’s editor?

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Spoilers abound!

For approximately 70% of Goldenhand, practically nothing happens. An unending chase eats up pages, it’s inevitable conclusion making the whole thing pointless and boring. Where other Old Kingdom books have very few unnecessary characters, this book has an entire cast of them, a village full of people who assist a secondary character in running away. All of them are pointless.

The chapters alternate between this chase scene an an equally endless holding pattern between Lirael and Nicholas. Where the Ferin sections (the chase scenes) have too many characters, the Lirael sections have too freakin’ few. It take roughly half the book for these idiots to stop being awkward, and while there are moments of occasional charm, it is frankly quite soon.

Essentially, the first part of the book is badly imbalanced. Ferin’s sections are packed with urgency, but that urgency can’t be felt when you know she’s going to escape, because if her message delivers everyone is going to die–which won’t happen. And it’s impossible to believe it will happen, when the momentum of her plot is ritually slaughtered every time we switch from her to Lirael, who is in a cliched romantic comedy without a shred of urgency to be seen. This tonal jarring is discarded in favor of Old-Kingdom-Flavored urgency and dread and dire peril, but the goofy comedy keeps bubbling up under the surface, diminishing the whole damn book.

Roughly 70% of the way through Goldenhand, Garth Nix’s editor woke up and the book got pretty good . I know exactly how long this took because I was keeping score. I counted 21 times when the narrative literally broke.

Nix, it turns out, has a habit of stepping out of his characters’ perspective. He turns to the reader and tells you what the characters don’t actually know, telling you that the characters don’t know it. “Neither Ferin nor Young Laska knew this,” “not acknowledging to herself,” “not noticing that behind her…” etc. About 70% in, these breaks (which completely murder reader immersion) stop happening.

Another sign of editorial napping is the way big apparent foreshadowings turn up, wave, and then evaporate. The first time this happens is when Ferin tells another character the super special secret message that she has been sacredly entrusted with from before she was even born–basically her whole destiny and plot purpose is this message, and she should really probably have died trying to deliver it. But she tells another character. A woman who disappears without a goodbye and is never heard from again.

Then there’s the moment when the Disreputable Dog reanimates her statue, goes to the window of a room, looks out at a boat coming into the Clayr’s Glacier, and turns back into a statue. When Lirael finds the statue, there is a boat pulling into the Glacier.

My brain practically exploded at that point. See, the last time a boat was in the narrative, it was full of free magic creatures chasing Ferin. Ferin, who just arrived at the Clayr’s Glacier. Oh my God, the glacier is being invaded!

But nope. Turns out the Dog was just glancing in on Nick.

Worse than this, Lirael’s brain is apparently on vacation during this whole sequence. See, she once saw the Dog statue turn into the actual Dog. And when the Dog dies, she turns back into the statue. Then the statue disappears from Lirael’s hand as she sleeps, and turns up on a windowsill in a position no Sending would have left it in. Does Lirael realize that the Dog is periodically coming back and taking the statue back with her? Nope.

On top of all these issues, there are cliche-sized holes in the narrative the Nix wove (which, again, contrasts like mad with the original Old Kingdom books). A guy and a girl of roughly the same age meet, instantly fall in love, and are having sex when the book closes (which is a crazy tonal jar, but whatever). As previously mentioned, Lirael spends half the book trapped in a corny rom-com. Both Mogget and the Dog return (the Dog after a wonderfully dramatic send off, but then she is disreputable), and though both returns are in keeping with their characters and neither is actual performs the dreaded deus ex machina, both are basically fulfilling the first half of the deus ex machina cliche. Forgivable only because their absence turned out to make the books terrible. Oh, and worst of all, Nix leaps through huge hoops to keep more powerful adult characters safely out of the narrative’s way while he lets the wheels spin in the first part of the book. There’s a big terrible flu and all the Clayr are sick, oh and Sabriel and Touchstone are on vacation for exactly as long as is necessary.

Now, in spite of all my complaining, I still loved the last third of this book. And somewhere under the unedited mess, there is in fact a very good story. Lirael goes back to the place that was once her home, and it is the same but she is far more different than she realizes. While there, she is able to make peace with the sorrow that was her childhood, and to step into a future where a boy will make everything better (did I mention the rom-com problem yet?). Then she goes on a long journey to meet a woman whose life, unlike Lirael’s was defined not by destiny but by choice–but who slowly became more and more adrift from the world and from humanity, until she was lost to herself.

There were better ways to do this. Clariel could have returned earlier in the narrative, through complicated Free Magic. Chlorr and Clariel being literally two different people was cliched. The rom com did not belong in an Old Kingdom book. But I’m happy, ’cause I got to see the Disreputable Dog.

Oh, and I hate the tagline. Practically no one dies in this book!

“Uprooted,” The Fairy Tale, and Making the Old Into Something New

“Genre fiction, as Terry Pratchett pointed out, is a stew. You take stuff out of the pot, you put stuff back. The stew bubbles on.”

The premise of “Uprooted” isn’t original. A girl is locked in a tower on the edge of a magical forest, imprisoned by a strange and powerful figure. In the kingdom outside, a queen has gone missing and the prince is searching for her.

Novik does not battle her reader’s expectations, like many writers trying to be original do now (*cough*GeorgeRRMartin*cough*). The girl escapes her tower, but not before falling in love with her captor. The queen is saved by the heroics of her prince. The forces of evil are defeated, and the forces of good triumph. She knows what she has promised the reader, and she does not scruple to give satisfaction.

But, to continue Sir Pratchett’s metaphor, there are strange spices in this particular bowl of stew. Victories are not what they appear at first (or second, or third). Every story is resolved, but no one is moving towards a destination they could have foreseen. There is more than one Beauty, more than one Beast, and with so many of them about other paths become necessary than the familiar.

The story is laced throughout with elements taken from fairy tales–not just Western ones, but often from Eastern European stories. Baba Yaga is a hugely important figure. The forest is a place of danger, and children get lost in it. There are heroic sacrifices and old-fashioned sieges.

But Novik has done something special in “Uprooted.” She has not drawn something new from the old stories–she has taken them and used them to create something different. A lot of the old stories she draws from are about the clash between civilization and nature, the order of the human word and the chaos of the natural one. Novik even uses her two main characters to represent those forces, her Dragon a person who values beauty, elegance, and order, her heroine Anieshka in constant disarray and literally unable fit nd into the carefully categorized world.

These two forces are in apparently straightforward conflict for the early parts of the story, just as short little fairy tales present the world in terms of black and white. But they soon bleed into one another, taking deep root. What exactly is human and what is not are unclear. Good people do terrible and foolish things. And at the heart of the story is a secret which obliterates the idea of pure, implacable evil altogether.

 

 

On Diana Wynne Jones and Good Villains

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Every Diana Wynne Jones novel has a villain. Jones herself was of the opinion that there are truly toxic people in the world, and kids need to learn how to deal with them. So the villains of her stories are utterly, squirmingly real. You know them, or you’ve heard about them from someone, and you recognize the truth of their existence on some deep level.

I think that the central feature of a Jones villain is that they believe the world should be a certain way, and they will not countenance a world any different. If everyone should be well-behaved, they will make everyone well-behaved. If this or that should belong to them, they will take this or that and be baffled and hostile to any suggestion that it isn’t their due.

Somehow, Jones is practically always able to balance a fascinating cognitive dissonance in her villains.  None of them consciously acknowledge that the world is, in fact, not exactly as they imagine it. Thus, it makes no sense for them to struggle to form the world in their image. Yet, they constantly have to adapt and adjust to force the world into that image–the same one they will not admit is not what they imagine it to be.

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It’s an incredible piece of characterization every time Jones tries it. Her villains want everything from a place to stay to a town to rule. Sometimes magic helps them, and sometimes magic defeats them–but no matter how much magic goes into the story, the painful reallness of the villain gives the whole thing a grounding in truth.

Balancing the Real Audience and the Imaginary Audience in the Memoirs of Lady Trent

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“The Memoirs of Lady Trent” are not, of course, real memoirs. They’re novels, and they take place in a world similar to our own but with a different geography and alternate history. Jews and Muslims are present, practicing their religions in familiar ways–but Christianity just didn’t happen. Anyone who would have been Christian is Jewish. A lot of the countries and geographies are similar, but there are no familiar names. I didn’t actually realize that the main character is Jewish until embarrassingly late.

However, the fictional writer–Isabella Trent–believes that her world is real. And she is writing her memoirs for an audience in her world. Not only that, she is writing to them about familiar stories, having lived a very public and often scandalous life. She is writing a history, and she touches on news articles, scientific journals, academic societies, and many other books.

This gives Marie Brennan a unique challenge: how to maintain the fiction that Isabella is writing to an audience already familiar with many of the high points of her career, while still keeping the reader in suspense.

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Take Isabella’s second marriage (spoilers for the latest book!). It is a well-known scandal in her world, and when the man she married–Suhail–appeared in the third book, everyone in her imaginary audience would have recognized him. Yet, while a real memoir would probably have identified him early on as ‘the man who would become my husband,’ Brennan obviously cannot do this. The tension between Suhail and Isabella is a key part of the third and fourth books, and to have said they would end up married from the outset would have drained all the victory out of the moment when Isabella finally cracks and proposes to him.

It’s a difficult balance for Brennan to maintain, and I admit that re-reading isn’t quite as much fun as I thought it would be. I know, re-reading the third book, that Isabella is an old woman re-living her meeting and romance with her current husband. But you wouldn’t really know it from the book, because Brennan needed to hold onto the will-they-or-won’t-they. But this aside, it’s a hard task Brennan has set herself, and she does it so well she makes it look easy.

Creating and Breaking a Familiar Story

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I was a bit confused by the latest “Memoir of Lady Trent.” I was expecting a big political upheaval to kick in. I thought there would be a battle, a thrilling chase, a geopolitical firestorm.

I thought this because that was how the last two “Memoirs” went. Go somewhere, study dragons, stumble into a war, play a public and pivotal role in that war, be banned from coming back, go home. A similar plot played in the first novel.

So, as I neared the end of “In the Labyrinth of Drakes,” I was expecting something big to happen. Plots to pay off, a villain to be unmasked. I even thought I knew which character would turn up with an army of bad guys. But nothing happened.

I’m still a little torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, I felt like the previous two books promised me something, and that promise was broken in this book. I feel a bit of a letdown. On the other hand, Brennan was very clever in designing the plot. The political upheaval is replaced by scholarly upheaval, the shuttered personal becomes public, and all around the book feels fresh.

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Perhaps any experiment with form must accept the risk of breaking promises  made. Some people will probably always feel upset about this. But everything familiar began as unfamiliar, and the greatest joy comes in a promise fulfilled in the most unexpected of ways.

The Temeraire Series, Indigenous People, and Leveling the Playing Field

Like the book says, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” were the three major factors that allowed in European colonization. In the Americas, European diseases decimated the local populations, and anyone who survived had only wood and stone weapons with which to fight the initial waves of conquest. In Africa, superior technology allowed Europeans to conquer the continent. And in East Asia, European weapons technology pulled ahead of Chinese tech enough for China to be defeated and humiliated in the Opium Wars.

Then Naomi Novik asked “what if everyone had dragons?” Dragons are not a purely technological innovation, they are a natural one. They grow, they aren’t built. They are bred, yes, but they can never be bred into the sort of dead end that technology can reach.

In Novik’s China, this means that the technological head start the Chinese had in the middle ages never went away. They learned how to breed dragons better than Europeans, and they kept it up.

In Africa and the Americas, this means that the native populations couldn’t be easily dominated and subdued. Sure, plague still swept through native Americans, but it was not solely responsible for the conquest of the Americas. However, when the colonizers come on boats without dragons, and the local populations have fully integrated dragons into their cultures, the European guns and steel are useless.

It’s hard for me to describe, as a history buff  and a person invested in social justice, just how awesome this is. There’s an African empire that has no interest in getting the English to abolish the slave trade, because they’re going to end it themselves by burning all the goddamn ports to the ground with effin’ dragons. There’s a sequence in which the characters journey up the coast of Africa and find that every single slave port has been destroyed in a coordinated attack.

There’s a recounting of a famous incident in which the emperor of the Inca was murdered, after being ransomed, by Europeans. In real history, the Incans attacked the Europeans, and it was a bloodbath as the Europeans shot thousands of Incans and emerged without a scratch. But add dragons on the Inca side, and suddenly the Incan bloodbath becomes dismembered Europeans.

In North America, it’s pretty ruddy hard for the early Americans to ignore and trample over the native tribes when those tribes are breeding dragons–so the colonists and the native peoples unite in their desire for independence, and produce a new fusion of a distinctly American culture.

In fact, over the course of the series, Europe is slowly revealed to be quite backward in its idea of dragons, and Europeans’ failure to integrate dragons into their society has put them at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. The Regency era was, in real history, a time when England felt itself to be the master of the world. Not so here, because they’ve kept dragons walled off from their society. They’ve lost access to a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They’ve downgraded thinking beings into animals, and they’ve suffered for it.

It’s a pretty awesome way of turning history on its head.

Five Children and It: Stepping outside the Self

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Children, according to JM Barrie, are fundamentally selfish and heartless. He’s not exactly wrong: children in general are selfish, careless of the future, impulsive, and lacking in self-awareness.

So what would happen if you gave four selfish, careless, impulsive, and un-self-aware children one wish each day? That’s the premise of “Five Children and It,” and the results are brilliant. Of course, first the children wish for beauty. But to be beautiful is to no longer be themselves, and they can’t even go home because they’re not recognized. Luckily, the wishes go away at sunset. Then they wish for wealth, but no one believes they didn’t steal it. They figure they should have wished for specific denominations of cash, but never get around to doing it.

Then they make the mistake of wishing that they can make a wish anywhere, instead of talking directly to their grumpy genie creature. This is when the impulsiveness gets really bad, and they make assorted inadvertent wishes and have all sorts of trouble dealing with the consequences.

Only when one of the children can finally step out of herself enough to wonder what It’s feelings are that the shenanigans stop. She asks It how It feels, and what It wants. By doing this, she is able to at last befriend It, and to undo the bad consequences of their wishes once and for all.

It’s a masterful story, a perfect example of how some of the true masters of Story can say things without actually having to say them.