Strong Female Character Syndrome

With everyone jumping on the bandwagon of SFC-hate, I would like to add my own two cents. Not so much with the concept, but with the execution. Or, in short…. What is it with these really freaking tiny women adopting the “strong female character” trope?

I have no problem with women fighters, I have enough of them in my novels. I’ve defended against that stupidity from feminazis often enough. I’ve defended women in military science fiction, and I’ve written an entire article on SFCs. This doesn’t even count when I’ve beaten up on the idiocy of Tor blogger Liz Bourke. But there, the point usually seems to be that they object to women who are sexy, or chasing such pursuits as “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Because, you know, how could anyone consider those worthy of feminism. [Insert appropriate eyeball roll here]

However, I would like to highlight a major problem when it comes to the use of many of the the Strong Female Characters going the rounds lately. Because, sorry, when I create a woman character who is ALSO a a living weapon, I also make certain that these women are either a) not a size zero, or b) fighting in creative, indirect ways.

Why? A few reasons. Consider, to start with, even among well-skilled (and equally skilled) male fighters, the bigger fighter is probably going to win — the odds are nearly certain. There’s a good reason that Loki rarely, if ever, directly engages with Thor — Thor has got at least fifty pounds of muscle on him. Depending on the comic book issue, the Joker does not square off against Batman and exchange punches, because Batman is twice Joker’s weight.

If you have two pro-wrestlers, how many of them fight exactly the same? When you get out of different weight classes, the changes are extreme. But you’re not going to have a 5’6″ wrestler like Rey Mysterio take on the 6’11” Undertaker in a direct fight — the smaller wrestler bounces around the ring like a ping pong ball, and trying to catch him is a pain.

Small people fight different than bigger people. Simple as that.

But why are women treated so much differently than men in this area? There are weight differences between men, but somehow, all women are written to fight exactly the same way as men in media, even though women are naturally 50-100 pounds lighter.

Regardless of whether or not Hollyweird is trying to spin some sort of agenda, I’m just talking about the execution right now.

Because this is just stupid.

Granted, in some cases, this works — when well-trained women go against untrained hoodlums, there is no contest. That’s superior skill versus brute strength. I’d take a dozen marines with handguns versus three dozen MS-13 members armed with SMGs any day of the week. But the women in media are getting smaller, and their opponents (many of whom are supposed to be of equal talent and ability) are getting bigger.

Take Jaimie Alexander, who is basically playing Jason Bourne on Blindspot — and she is victorious over almost everyone she comes across. She is possibly better known as the Lady Sif in the Thor films.

Jaimie Alexander

Okay, yes, she’s sort of pretty. But I didn’t pick this photo for the underwear value. Look at her arms. Now look at her legs. Yes, I know, I’m putting you through torture.

But here’s my question: Where’s the muscle? She’s a 5’9″ toothpick. Her shooting someone feels more believable than her bringing down a 6’3″ thug with her bare hands. And the last few episodes I bothered with (I gave up in early season 2) had her going up against an FBI agent with four inches and well over 100 pounds on her. Probably has over 150 pounds on her.

This is no longer fiction, this is fantasy — full-on, credulity breaking fantasy.

Enter the other 5’9″ female woman who has spent her days swinging a sword.

Yes,Xena is a stereotype, but we’re talking about execution. Please compare the two actresses: which one looks more believable in terms of being able to hold her own in general? Xena wasn’t a toothpick, or “a guy with breasts,” and she had this bright light in her eyes right before she wiped the floor with everyone in a berserker rage, and she looked like she was having fun. (Yes, I’m ignoring later seasons when it went strange. I ditched the show somewhere around she was crucified by Julius Cesar, after having only met King David … I came back briefly around the time she met Lucifer … that show hurt my brain).

Once you compare and contrast the build, why are the “strong women fighters” straight-up brawlers? When you consider that not even all men fight like this, why are all women fighting like this? Are the stunt coordinators that stupid? (Unlikely). Or are the directors and writers? (That’s where my money is).

The closest we have to a Lucy Lawless type these days is Adrianne Palicki. Palicki was wasted on a Wonder Woman pilot from David E. Kelly, and is currently being wasted on Agents of SHIELD.  Some may recognize her as Perkins from John Wick.

Adrianne Palicki

Note, from this photo, three things.

1) Her body type is not “Toothpick.”

2) She is 5’11” in body armor.

3) She is holding an improvised weapon, because people who fight have weaponry.

Thank you. Was that so hard?

Frankly, I think I would have preferred her to being Wonder Woman in the films than Gal Gadot. Why? Because Wonder Woman was many things, but never a toothpick. Heck, I would have even taken Hayley Atwell (formerly Agent Carter), who is 5’7″, and not a size zero.

Does anyone remember actress Antje Traue from Man of Steel? I mean, look at this woman.

Oh wow, look! Muscles!

Height? Only 5’6″, but I’d rather not get punched by her.

Can we have her in some of these films? I know everyone in Star Wars is British, but still, can we make an effort here, people?

Seriously, Hollywood, what are you doing to get these toothpicks as actresses? It’s very off-putting. There’s “thin” and then there’s “good God, please eat a hamburger, I’m expecting you to break.” Is it that hard to find a healthy female actress? Are they that rare? If so, I worry.

This is why, at the end of the day, the most believable woman fighter I’ve seen in current  media is, well, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow. Why? Because despite her being 5’3″ (yes, she’s that tiny), she’s 1) not a toothpick and 2) she fights in so many varied and sundry methods and styles, she never takes someone on directly and / or bare handed. She’s jumping on people and breaking necks, or dropping them with a gadget, or just shooting them.

Remember Black Widow in Avengers, where she just stood square against Hawkeye and exchanged blows with him? Of course you don’t, because it never happened. She jumped all over the place like a freaking rubber ball, and catch her if you can.

Don’t get me wrong, there are places and points where smaller women can, and have, been used WELL. Frankly, the best points where getting these tiny, tiny women to perform great feats of strength is, really, science fiction or fantasy. Whether it’s the Bionic Woman or Summer Glau as a Terminator, it’s impressive because they’re so small. Supergirl works in the comics because she’s a freaking alien. But this isn’t how normal people operate. Heck, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was supposed to be physically stronger than the undead, and she still jumped around all over the place.

Why is Buffy the Vampire Slayer better executed than some of these more “serious” thrillers, like Blindspot? (Heck, I’m actually surprised that Jaime Alexander isn’t better built, considering she has to carry what looks like at least twenty pounds of plastic armor in the Thor films. I didn’t expect her to be that tiny.)

For a moment, let’s look at my books … with normal characters, because I’m not counting the vampire as “normal.” That’s covered under my “science fiction and fantasy” exception. (Though I should note, Amanda Colt is not the toothpick Jaimie Alexander. I think I would rather have Scarlet Johansson, if she were a little taller. Anyway…)

In my straight-up, non-fantasy work, I have three women who have gotten into fights.

Exhibit A) Wilhelmina Goldberg: Five-feet tall (really 4’11”) Goldberg is a computer nerd. She used to work for the NSA, but went over to the Secret Service to audit security, since she’s not tall enough to jump in front of Presidents. Her fights included: punching someone in the balls, and dropping low and cutting their Achilles tendons. If the books she appears in get made into a movie, I’m not sure what would be worse — if they have her cast with Lucy Lawless, or if they kept her at 4’11” and had her get into fist fights with men five times her weight class.

Exhibit B) Maureen McGrail: somewhere around 5’9 (because I don’t recall), imagine Jaimie Alexander with about thirty pounds of muscle on her, and a broader frame. She’s ridiculously over skilled. Even though she has more black belt levels than Chuck Norris, her fighting style boiled down to: attack joints, attack eyes, and deflecting, rather than blocking attacks. It’s one part Krav Maga (which is designed to be used by little old ladies or beefy 20 year old) and one part “go with the flow” Kung Fu. Why? Because she’s not that big.

Exhibit C) Mandy: She’s relatively small. And while she’s in a science fiction universe, she is mostly not relying on technology to get things done. What does she do? She shoots people. That’s it. Up close and personal isn’t something she does. Okay, there WAS an altercation on top of a cargo container being airlifted by a helicopter, but most of the time, she just shot her enemies. Because bullets are your friend.

Seriously, at the end of the day, can we have a collection of characters and actresses who look, well, healthy? I’m tired of the cliche. It’s getting problematic, and the execution is getting more and more lazy as things go on. At least in the Thor films, Alexander’s Lady Sif is covered in body armor to bulk her up. But in general, the actresses seem to be getting smaller and shorter, and becoming more like empty-handed, bare-knuckle brawlers.

And it really needs to stop.

Review: Specter

In Bleeder, by John Desjarlais, we were introduced to philosophy professor Reed Stubblefield, who thought in Aristotle quotes. During a bit of R and R in the countryside, in a quiet, sleepy little village right out of a Miss Marple novel, he meets a priest, the local stigmatic. When the priest is murdered, Reed becomes the primary suspect.

What follows is an intricate, brilliant work that Agatha Christie would have been happy with.  Desjarlais’ prose is tight, erudite and powerful. His vocabulary is well-used. He knows how to engage the reader, and is very good with turning a phrase.

I enjoyed this book, and I was surprised by the villain-reveal at the end. Five stars all the way.

In Viper, new names appear in the local church’s book of the dead.  Except, none of these people are dead yet. When the names on the list begin to correlate to the fresh homicides in the neighborhood, it’s clear that this is a hitlist.  At the bottom of that list is the former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz. Selena’s passions are guns, shoes, fast cars, and kickboxing, so if someone wants to kill her, it’s going to be a fight they’re going to regret. It was more of a thriller than Bleeder, though it’s set in the same universe — Selena is even dating Reed. This was a fun, solid ride from start to finish.

My only problem with the book was the unrealistic character of a DEA agent who was not only racist, but whose solution to everything was a SWAT team breaking down the front door (Seriously, how did the guy not get fired? Did he have a relative in the hierarchy? Was he a nephew to the AG?).  Even that only knocks it down to a 4.5 star rating.

Finally, we come to Desjarlais’ third book, Specter. And no, not a crappy James Bond movie of a similar name.

In our opening prologue, a Cardinal is murdered in an orchestrated hit that looks like the end of a brilliantly executed caper movie … only with an assassination.  The incident is loosely based off of the death of Cardinal Ocampo in 1993, which was presumed to be the worst case of timing and luck on the planet Earth.

But what if it wasn’t?

16 years later, former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz (of Viper) is about to get married to Reed Stubblefield (of Bleeder), and then the Vatican comes by and says “Hi, we think your family was in on the hit, and you were in town at the time.”

Desjarlais

And we’re off to the races.

A fun part of this is the dynamic between Reed and Selena.  Bleeder was very much Reed’s book, where Selena first appeared. Viper was all Selena, with a few cameos by Reed. Specter is their book. Even the alternating points of views (third person personal) are very distinct. Their chemistry is very much a part of the narrative as it is part of their relationship.  She’s very a very tough, outgoing modern woman who has little problem with a shootout, and he’s a quiet, bookish, old-fashioned gentleman who thinks in Aristotle quotes. And I really like these two together, even though we hadn’t seen much of their developing relationship.  Looking at the two of them deal with the trials of dealing with the wedding is more than enough evidence for why these two belong together.

There’s even one entire conversion that sums it up quite nicely.

Him “We’re incompatible. I’m North Side, you’re South Side. I’m Cubs, you’re white Sox …. I’m publicly-employed pro-union Democrat for gun control and you’re small-business owner-Republican with a gun….I drive a Volvo, you drive a Charger.”
Her: “My godmother is very traditional and is having a hard time thinking of me as Selena Perez de La Cruz Stubblefield.”
“You don’t have to adopt my last name…”

See what I mean? They work so well together, I’m surprised more of this wasn’t a romance novel.  I would have read it twice for banter like that.

Okay, the fact that John Desjarlais has a female badass teamed up with the nerd just like I did in The Pius Trilogy really doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of the book. Honest. It just works really well.  It’s like Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series — they just have this great dynamic together. And if you don’t like Baldacci, don’t worry, that’s the only overlap I can think of.

As for the rest … if you’re thinking that this is going to be exactly like Bleeder or Viper, it is and it isn’t. The overall plot feels like an excuse to watch Reed and Selena on screen, which, frankly, I’m happy with. If you read Desjarlais’ books for the intricate puzzle solving (like Bleeder), you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re in this only for a knock-down shootout (like Viper), you’re going to enjoy the second half of the book a lot.

There is also the best look at supernatural phenomenon I’ve seen in years.  Even little conversations like “ever have a seance or use a ouja board? Those things attract all sorts of nasty things.”

Awesome.

However, if you want to read this book to follow Reed and Selena, dive right in.  As far as I’m concerned, these two are right up there with Nick and Nora Charles. And, from what I’ve heard, Chesterton Press wants more books in this universe from John Desjarlais, despite that it’s “just” a trilogy.

Frankly, I own all six Nick and Nora Charles movies, so I’m perfectly happy with the idea that we’ll see more of these two.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award Nominated Author for Honor At Stake, book 1 of his Love at First Bite Series.  Finn’s own work and collections of essays can be found at his personal web page.

Corroding Empire: Amazon’s Civil War

The controversy over The Corroding Empire just gets stranger and stranger.

The Corroding Empire

Amazon KDP has given Castalia House’s new science fiction parody more green and red lights than a drag racing track.

First it was thought that the book had been pulled at the behest of Tor Books, publisher of The Collapsing Empire.

Suspicion also fell on Collapsing Empire author John Scalzi, who tweeted this message the same day:

However, details emerged last night that neither Tor, Scalzi, nor Amazon per se were to blame for The Corroding Empire’s publication delays. Castalia House Lead Editor Vox Day explained:

UPDATE: Since some people seem to want to go on the warpath, let me be perfectly clear here: Amazon is not to blame. I even suspect that it is entirely possible that Tor Books is not to blame either, based on a) when the book was pulled and b) the fact that the book has shown as Live for nearly 24 hours but still does not have a page on any Amazon site. The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is a rogue low-level SJW employee, possibly two, in a specific department.

I have already spoken to the manager of one department and they have begun to investigate why Corrosion is Live but not available. They’ve done everything we asked and we have no problem with the way we have been treated.

Today, Vox announced that Corrosion (The Corroding Empire Book 1) was finally live on KDP.

As we suspected, there appear to have been internal shenanigans taking place at Amazon, as one or more SJWs appear to have abused their positions to interfere with our ability to sell THE CORRODING EMPIRE.

We’re still working with Amazon to sort out exactly who was responsible for precisely what, and to establish what, if anything, legitimately needed to be changed according to their guidelines. This should all be nailed down by the end of the day, but in the meantime, you can now order the book and post reviews again.

The Corroding Empire isn’t out of the woods yet, because following that conversation, it was blocked again, reinstated again and blocked a third time in short order.

Corrosion (The Corroding Empire Book 1)

Here is where the matter stands as of this writing:

UPDATE: Finally got to speak to a supervisor. She’s not only escalated the matter to legal, but has assured me that the book will be unblocked, stay unblocked, and that the matter will be fully investigated. It’s not just the three blocks, the culprit(s) also put the book on the Excluded list for Amazon Associates, which prevents others from being paid when someone buys the book.

The publisher insists that the issue is with rogue elements within KDP quality control and not with Amazon itself. If so, we could be witnessing a civil war within the world’s largest book distributor. However the situation gets sorted out, the resolution should be informative for publishers, authors, and readers alike.

@BrianNiemeier

A review of Escaping Infinity, by Richard Paolinelli

In regards to fairness, I should mention that I was given a free e-copy of Escaping Infinity by author Richard Paolinelli.

When I was handed the book, I wasn’t quite certain what to expect, even when I saw the description on Amazon.

As the description reads …

Thousands have checked into the Infinity Hotel over the years. None of them have ever checked out.
Peter Childress and Charlie Womack are successful engineers on their way to Phoenix for an important presentation. But one of Charlie’s infamous “shortcuts” has gotten them good and lost once again. As night falls, the pair stumble across the Infinity Hotel and the promise of a meal, fuel and a good night’s sleep before starting off fresh in the morning is too good to pass up.
But while Charlie immediately takes to the hotel’s amazing amenities, Peter begins to uncover some of the hotel’s dark secrets – a seemingly unlimited number of floors, guests that appear out of time and place and a next morning that never seems to come. Worse still, the entrance to the Infinity has disappeared and no other apparent exit back to the outside world is in sight.
Now, under the watchful eyes of the hotel’s manager and front desk clerk, Peter searches for a way back out and uncovers the horrible truth behind the mystery of the Infinity Hotel.

It almost reads like a sci-fi The Hotel California as done in the Twilight Zone. If you’re worried that the description will spoil the plot, the flap copy only covers up to chapter 2. Our hero has already started to peace together that the hotel is bigger on the inside by this point…Yes. It’s bigger on the inside. Just wait until you get to the Star Trek references.

The style is very novel-like. It’s not Victor Hugo, but a modern novel, but Richard is very much an artist who has no pretensions. The novel is smart and well-thought-out, a mystery that plays perfectly fair, and gives the reader all of the pieces and parts to figure out what the bloody blue heck is going on. But you won’t figure it out.

Also, every named character has a back story. There’s at least one chapter of history for almost every named character.

I will say that going from the prologue to chapter 1 is a tad disorienting, as it goes from space opera, David Weber style, to a road trip in the South West. The last 10% of the book could have been an additional novel by itself, with what it pulled off. But the ending we got gave a complete, satisfying conclusion to the story, the characters, and the world that’s been established. And to some degree, it’s done something one a single novel that David Weber hasn’t even accomplished over the course of half a dozen books.

The ending we’re given is possibly one of the most Superversive, uplifting, hopeful endings you will ever see in a science fiction novel.

At the end of the day, this book starts out like David Weber, continued as written by Rod Serling, and ends with the epic scope of  John C. Wright. I won’t say that Paolinelli is in Wright’s league just yet. Give him another book or two, and expect Wright to have serious competition in the “awe-inspiring scale” category.

For JCW, I would give a 6/5 if I could. Richard will just have to settle with a 5/5.

Escaping Infinity is an awesome book, and I look forward to Paolinelli’s next work.

Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Image

L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright once described her Rachel Griffin books as Fringe meets Narnia in Hogwarts. I don’t see the Fringe, but the Harry Potter is easier to see. I’ve finally gotten to The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin.

The plot is ….

Rachel Griffin wants to know everything. As a freshman at Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, she has been granted to opportunity to study both mundane and magical subjects. But even her perfect recollection of every book she has ever read does not help her when she finds a strange statue in the forest-a statue of a woman with wings. Nowhere-neither in the arcane tomes of the Wise, nor in the dictionary and encyclopedia of the non-magic-using Unwary-can she find mention of such a creature. What could it be? And why are the statue’s wings missing when she returns?

 

When someone tries to kill a fellow student, Rachel soon realizes that, in the same way her World of the Wise hides from mundane folk, there is another, more secret world hiding from everyone-which her perfect recall allows her to remember. Her need to know everything drives her to investigate. Rushing forward where others fear to tread, Rachel finds herself beset by wraiths, magical pranks, homework, a Raven said to bring the doom of worlds, love’s first blush, and at least one fire-breathing teacher. Curiosity might kill a cat, but nothing stops Rachel Griffin!

Imagine the end of Harry Potter. You remember: the school is under full assault by the forces of darkness, things are blowing up, students are fighting, and great beasts are tramping around the campus?

Now imagine if that was book ONE, and that it was even MORE epic.

Yes, I mean that. We’ve got a dragon and hordes of the possessed out to slaughter the school. There’s even an evil math tutor (NOT named Moriarty). I had expected a few lines from Maleficent, but not this must. Heh.

There is no Hogwarts, but Roanoke Academy, in New York. Roanoke wasn’t lost, just misplaced for a while. Muggles are replaced by “the unwary.” If you wondered how the non-magical world looks, this gives you a great look at that, AS WELL AS establishes an overarching storyline. And trust me, this makes Voldemort look like Billy Crystal from Monsters University. And this time, our lead is 13 year old Rachel Griffin. She’s English royalty in America, and her classmates are from all over the world.

And yes, that paragraph alone puts it had and shoulders above the next nearest competitor, which treated America as a nonexistent land.

One of Rachel’s many new acquaintances is Sigfried Smith; who is a Dickens character, with the psychology that should come with it. (Oliver Twist is less fiction and more fantasy, orphans in the system aren’t that cute.) WARNING: Siggy is an acquired taste, but he grows on you, honest. Of course, we also have the magical princess of magical Australia.

Then we’re off to the races.

It’s all too easy to compare it to Harry Potter. It’s not fair…to Harry Potter. While I enjoyed it, the world of Harry Potter was so narrow and confined, you never really got the sense of the larger world. What did it look like? What would it look like?

Also with the books of Rachel Griffin, we get the perspective of someone who lives in the world of magic, excluding the Stranger in a Strange Land that we have in almost any other fantasy world. While Rowling relied on the tried and true “Alice in Wonderland” variety of dropping an outsider into a new world, make them the primary narrator — making information dumps to explain things both the narrator and to the audience, Lamplighter has made a complete world, while penning a narration that encompasses every question one might have about how things work. We haven’t gotten to the economic system yet, but I suspect that that’s coming.

Another achievement of Jagi here is having a full cast of characters. Unlike Harry Potter, who adopts the first two people he meets as friends, to the near exclusion of all others (let’s face it, Neville Longbottom was a punching bag until he became a sword swinging badass out of nowhere), Rachel gathers friends and acquaintances all over the place. There are mean girls, certainly, but nothing fits into the nice, neat little boxes that Rowling jammed her characters into.

There is no one house of “obviously villainy” here, despite obvious hints about it. Sure, there are ominous characters. There’s a Victor von Dread, who I expect to talk in all caps about Latveria. There’s a Salome Iscariot, who I am still very wary about, and will be until the series if over.

The characters are vividly drawn, and deeper than you’d expect. And the world is going to get very, very creepy.

It has been said more than once about Narnia that they were “too good to be wasted on Children.” The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. might be one of them.

The short version is that this book is awesome, and you need to buy it and read it today. Just click here. You won’t regret it.

Declan Finn is a self-professed crazy person and author — but then, he repeats himself. He is also a Dragon Award nominated author for his “Catholic Vampire romance novels.“.  Most of his various and sundry ramblings can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does. He is also in the habit of talking about himself in the third person when writing biographies on other people’s websites.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners, a review

Image

John Ringo’s second book in the Monster Hunter Memoirs: Sinners, is both better and worse than Grunge.Our hero from the last book, Chad, is continuing his mission to be a Monster Hunting killing machine. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he has to leave Seattle, his home base in Grunge. After complaining — a lot — about never wanting to be in the heat ever again, MHI headquarters has the perfect gig for him: New Orleans. The Big Easy has got a lot of problems, and it needs all the help it can get.

Sinners does a great job of capturing the flavor of New Orleans, especially when you consider that standard policy can boil down to “Don’t scare the tourists.” Every local either believes in the dark arts, or practices the dark arts. Of course, we have at least one team member who really wants to turn every other beastie into jambalaya, shootouts in cities of the dead, and one massive shootout at marti gras.

Oh, yes, and for the record, Mr. Ringo, I saw what you did there with those chapter titles.

Another thing Ringo did better here than in Grungeis build an emotional connection to his teammates. At the end of Grunge, one of Chad’s teammates dies.  Listening to John Ringo at DragonCon, we were supposed to feel the emotional impact of the character death. I didn’t then. Here? Oh yes. Characters were much better established, and for the most part, when characters died, I felt it.

Chad also has had a interesting, as well as a deep and abiding faith. This comes very apparent at the end, with a conclusion that’s uplifting enough that it deserves the label of Superversive.

Critics of Grungewill be happy to know that Chad spends less time getting lucky and more time being pummeled. There is even less sex in this book than in Grunge, and seriously, people, he spent more time on politics than sex. And for some reason, people claimed he was a Mary Sue …. to which I will soon reply with a blog post explaining what a Mary Sue looks like, because obviously, people have little to no experience with the phenomenon. Yes, he’s a super genius who’s good at shooting people, but he’s also hospitalized every few chapters.

The only thing that’s really off-putting about this novel is the marked shift from “looking backwards.”  In Grunge, there is a lot of time spend on his family, and Ringo outright states that the larger evil behind everything Chad is fighting is Chad’s brother. This book? Nope. Barely a whisper of Chad’s family, and not a whisper about what’s the ultimate evil of the trilogy. I’m wondering how much of that is editorial, or how much was in the process of the novel. These books are thinner than Ringo’s usual fair, so if you told me he wrote them as one continuous novel, broken up into a trilogy, that would explain certain things.

Also, in Grunge, time was spent on the moral of the story: “Chad” wrote each chapter to illustrate a point. Here, there’s no such clear lesson plan; “Chad” does have “pro-tips” scattered throughout, but the concept seems strangely abandoned. Perhaps this is due to the chaotic nature of New Orleans, where every night is insane, and the full moon is like Arkham asylum let everyone out on a day pass, so Chad is merely fitting in tips where he can.

Heh, it’s a coin toss.

Final verdict is still the same: Sinnersis even better than Grunge

Anyway, if you like this review, you might want to consider one of the following books for your reading pleasure.

 

CASTALIA Review: “Stardust”, by Neil Gaiman

Stardust by [Gaiman, Neil]Neil Gaiman is a guy who I’ve noticed gets a lot of flak around these parts. It is true he has SJW tendencies, but then, most authors do. And he IS immensely popular.

Mostly – and I am going by anecdote here – it seems that people believe that he (along with Ursula Le Guin) is somewhat emblematic of post 1970’s fantasy and science fiction: He is a good pure storyteller but with little depth (like “A Study in Emerald”, a fun and clever Lovecraft/Holmes pastiche that has little to distinguish itself besides its cool premise) even though people act as if he’s wiser  than he deserves credit for.

He is also known for lapsing into stupid SJW propaganda, such as the notoriously terrible story “The Problem of Susan”.  So that gets him a lot of flak from these parts as well.

Still, something about him seems to capture people. I decided I simply needed to find the right book, and picked “Stardust” (the novel version, though I’ll purchase the comic/picture book version soon if I can.

“Stardust” is an excellent book that showcases all of Neil Gaiman’s strengths but also highlights some of his flaws. It is a fairly straightforward story about a half-fairy young man who goes to fetch a shooting star for his beloved in Faerie and ends up falling in love with the star, who turns out to be a beautiful woman named Yvaine. Along the way they are harassed by evil witches who wish to steal Yvaine’s heart and use it to regain their youth. Occurring concurrently is a subplot about the sons of the current, dying king of the kingdom of Stormhold struggling with each other for control of the throne.

The story is very straightforward, which is to its credit. Gaiman set out to write a fairy tale for adults, and that’s exactly what he did. Some sections are simply wonderful, like this bit of dialogue early in the story:

“For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.” He shivered. His coat was thin, and it was obvious he would not get his kiss, which he found puzzling. The manly heroes of the penny dreadfuls and shilling novels never had these problems getting kissed.

“Go on, then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.” “What?” said Tristran. “If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do?

Tristran Thorn went down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers. “Very well,” he said. The wind blew from the east, then. “I shall leave you here, my lady,” said Tristran Thorn. “For I have urgent business, to the East.” He stood up, unmindful of the mud and mire clinging to his knees and coat, and he bowed to her, and then he doffed his bowler hat.

Or this:

“He stared up at the stars: and it seemed to him then that they were dancers, stately and graceful, performing a dance almost infinite in its complexity. He imagined he could see the very faces of the stars; pale, they were, and smiling gently, as if they had spent so much time above the world, watching the scrambling and the joy and the pain of the people below them, that they could not help being amused every time another little human believed itself the center of its world, as each of us does.”

That is grade A, classic fairy tale stuff right there. That is exactly what you want and should see in a fairy tale.

The witches, his villains, are also excellent. They are something of a hybrid between the new trend of the seductress witch and the classic crone variety, stealing back they’re youth by capturing hearts – and, we learn, the heart of a star is especially potent. Gaiman ends their story with neat little lesson about how pathetic evil is before we lose sight of them for the last time.

The way my book was written it had a preview of Gaiman’s next book BEFORE the epilogue, so I had stopped reading. I only learned there was an epilogue after I looked up the book online, so I went back and read it later. It provides closure to the story and ends on a mostly positive but bittersweet note just a little bit reminiscent of “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s a nice little coda.

Gaiman explicitly says that the book was meant as a throwback novel reminiscent of Lord Dunsany, C.S. Lewis, and James Cabell, which is all to the good, and he is mostly successful in his attempts to conjure that sort of mood.

The problem – and this gets at, I think, why the old-fashioned Castalia crowd tends to dislike him – is the “adult” part of the adult fairy tale. The truth is that the things that supposedly made it more adult added absolutely nothing to the story. There is a graphic sex scene at the beginning of the novel where we see the conception of our hero, Tristran:

She wriggled and writhed beneath him, gasping and kicking, and guiding him with her hand.

She placed a hundred burning kisses on his face and chest and then she was above him, straddling him, gasping and laughing, and he was arching and pushing and exulting…

There is more, but I trust you get the idea.

And no, it did not have to be there. Contrast that scene with this scene from Josh Young’s story “The Secret History of the World gone By”from “Forbidden Thoughts”:

He was gratified, then, to see a pair of dainty breasts topped by dark nipples and that the dark thatch of hair between her legs lacked the equipment with which he was most familiar.

Anders was in the spring of his manhood, and so it went as such things go.

So why was Gaiman’s scene there? Well, it’s Adult, and you know how the Adults like all of the Sexing! Isn’t he so Adult?

Later, a unicorn is killed and then decapitated in a manner described as gorily and graphically as possible. After Yvaine falls to the earth, she drops the only serious curse word of the book, an F bomb so out of place for both the novel and the character (who never comes even close to cursing again) as anything one can possibly imagine. Again, there is no reason for this; all it does is jack up the rating from PG to R.

So why did Gaiman do it? Why was it important to him to add these sections specifically to create an “adult” fairy tale, and why did his concept of “adult” depend on the additions of sex, gore, and curse words, three things that even the great J.R.R. Tolkien had no use for? I think the answer is interesting, and gets to the heart of the bad taste Gaiman leaves in a lot of the Castalia folks’ mouths: Gaiman is ashamed of fairy tales.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by [Gaiman, Neil]These sounds odd, and even somewhat counter to some of Gaiman’s quotes, so I’ll try and make my case.  In the book’s afterword, written by Gaiman, he describes a time where he had to make a speech at a symposium of academics discussing myth and fantasy. The day before the speech, listening to the conversations, he got angrier and angrier, believing they did not understand the power of fairy tales. The next day, he tells a story to convince them of their power – a story with a twist:

It was a retelling of the story of Snow White, from the point of view of the wicked queen. It asked questions like, “What kind of a prince comes across the dead body of a girl in a glass coffin and announces that he is in love and will be taking the body back to his castle?” and for that matter, “What kind of a girl has skin as white as snow, hair as black as coal, lips as red as blood, and can lie, as if dead, for a long time?” We realize, listening to the story, that the wicked queen was not wicked: she simply did not go far enough; and we also realize, as the queen is imprisoned inside a kiln, about to be roasted for the midwinter feast, that stories are told by survivors.

Do you see the issue? The power Neil Gaiman sees is not in Snow White. He claims it is Snow White, but it isn’t, because Snow White is about something utterly different, teaches a different lesson, has a different hero and villain.

This isn’t the only time he’s done this. See here as well:

Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty in this fairytale mash-up where things are not what they seem. When three dwarfs learn of a sleeping plague spreading throughout the land, they alert their queen. The queen, already feeling that marriage means the end of her ability to make choices in her life, gladly postpones her wedding, grabs her sword, and sets off with the dwarfs to get to the bottom of the magical curse.

This is not somebody with a respect for fairy tales as is, but with an idea for ways to turn them into something they’re not – something that is the opposite of what they should be.

I reject that, and I believe we all should as well.