October 30th, 2012

Books

What Doesn't Work

Because of the ridiculous amount of spam comments I've been receiving lately, I've changed my settings to log IP addresses of anonymous commenters. I'm hoping maybe that will deter the bots, and that's the only way I'll be using that feature. I likely won't ever go back and track anyone down, unless they're being abusive. I've never had anyone get ugly in comments, so I don't think that will be a problem. I just want to try to make it harder for people to sell Ugg boots (seriously? I thought those were over) by leaving comments at my blog.

I made actual progress yesterday. Yay! Though I'm about to cut a huge chunk of book and replace it with entirely new material, so it will feel like I've lost ground. However, I realized that incorporating one of my literary bucket list items will do a lot for enhancing tension and bringing out conflict, so the new material should be tons of fun to write. Come to think of it, it involves two literary bucket list items, but one was already there.

I've worked my way through the library stash from the latest round of recommendations, and I'm afraid some of the fantasy recommendations weren't quite my cup of tea. Not that they were bad books -- in fact, if I were writing a review for a magazine or newspaper, it would be positive -- but they weren't really what I was looking for. With that in mind, I think it might be informative to discuss why they didn't work for me even though I liked a lot about them.

First, there was Hounded by Kevin Hearne. The book is about a 2,000 (or more) year-old Druid whose magic keeps him looking like a 21-year-old. He's living in modern Arizona and running a bookstore, hiding out from the enemy he took a magical sword from ages ago. What he didn't anticipate was his enemy learning to use the Internet to track him down. I loved the characters and the set-up, thought the writing was great and laughed out loud a lot, but I wasn't crazy about the story itself. It took me a while to read the book because of this, which is weird because when I like the characters this much, the plot usually doesn't matter all that much to me. I think my issue is that I'm not all that fond of "the gods are real!" plots. This was one of the topics that came up in that panel on faith in fantasy at Worldcon, where somehow the faith loses something if the god is a character who can show up and have tea with you or when the god is who you're fighting -- literally, not metaphorically. I don't know enough about Druidism to know if this is an element of that belief system, but outside of actual mythology, I prefer for gods to be something people believe in and ascribe things to, maybe even talk to, without the gods actually showing up and talking back. It's even more jarring in a modern setting. Weirdly, I like the clash of images when magic shows up in a modern setting, so I guess this is just one of my quirks. Based on the preview for the next book, he'll be going up against Thor, so that one likely won't be my cup of tea, either. And yet I think I'd happily read an entire book in which Atticus, his dog with the overactive imagination, his werewolf and vampire lawyers and his feisty Irish widow neighbor just hung out or irritated his nosy neighbor who's too eager to call the cops.

The other one that I didn't quite get into was The Time of the Dark by Barbara Hambly. It's a really interesting take on the portal fantasy, in which the two worlds coming closer than usual means that a woman's dreams actually take her to the other world, which brings her to the attention of a wizard in the other world. Since his world is under attack, he goes to her in her world to get help hiding the infant prince, but when the enemies manage to follow him and he narrowly escapes with the baby back to his world, he ends up bringing the woman and the biker type who happened to be at the hideout with him. Then they realize they'll have to defeat the enemy before they can get home, or else they'll bring the enemy to their world. There were a lot of interesting things in this book, including some different approaches to portal fantasy -- like the "real" world characters don't seem to be Destined, Chosen Ones With Magical Specialness, just people who turn out to be useful at a bad time and who happen to meet the guy who does seem to be pivotal. I just didn't connect very well to the characters or to the story.

I think this one comes down to being a good explanation of what I see as the difference between intimate and epic fantasy. One thing that kept me from getting too involved with the book was that the scale was so grand. The enemy they're fighting is essentially a plague of locusts, only they're not insects and are more dangerous and scary. It's a faceless mass with what appears to be purely primal motivations (feeding), so it comes across as a Man vs. Nature conflict, which is pretty epic in scope, but it's so epic that I have a hard time relating to it. Then again, it's essentially Aliens (but written before that movie came out), and that's one of my favorite movies. The scope seems to be the difference for me. Aliens had a very defined and limited reach -- there were just a few characters, and they were all the people affected, as opposed to a few people with names who represent a larger mass of thousands affected. There was also a limited space to work in rather than the whole world, and there was a tightly defined timeline -- at first it was a countdown of how long they had to hold out before help could arrive, and then it became a ticking clock of having to escape before things blew up. Plus, in addition to the faceless mass with primal motivations, there was a human villain they could talk to who had more complex motivations. I guess that's what I mean by intimate vs. epic -- we're focused on a few people, the story and its effects are limited in scope to mostly affecting those people, there's a villain you can see and talk to, and there's a defined end in sight as opposed to endless years of misery, if they can even survive that long.

Not that every book must be that way. It's just why this book didn't quite grab me even though it was well-written and quite original. I might look for the sequel eventually because it did seem to be moving into more interesting territory for me toward the end, and what's being set up seemed more like my kind of story. I think I mostly came away from this book feeling oppressed and hopeless rather than like I'd had a great adventure, and it's possible that the end of the trilogy gives more of that sense of completion.