Inside the Clown

I’m not rolling on the floor with laughter. Neither is the dog.

Saga, Vol. 1 [Review]

Saga, Vol. 1

by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Artist)
Image Comics, 2012

The Saga saga seems to be a graphic novel favorite among readers who don’t ordinarily read graphic novels. The buzz on it has been very good since the series began, and the Goodreads and Amazon ratings high. It was even recommended to me, and friends don’t usually do that.

So I read Volume 1 and…ehhh…

I admit the story moves, the artwork is good, the characters are diverse and rounded; they are not clichés. The themes are adult, dealing with moral ambiguity, parenthood, sex, and love. There’s no juvenilia; the sex scenes are frank. There’s a sly, snarky sense of humor.

So why didn’t I like it?

Because none of it made any friggin’ sense.

Saga is set in a sort of space opera universe as depicted on the covers of 1930s and 1940s pulp magazines. Robots, magic, mythological creatures, and spaceships all co-exist. As in Star Wars, this galaxy is long ago and far away. There’s an intergalactic war going on which is never explained, as in who is fighting for what and why. One side utilizes winged humans as mercenaries, and they wield firearms and ray guns. The other uses horned humanoids, and they use swords and magic. Graphically, this is intriguing, as in the “Wings” have insect, bat, bird, etc. wings, and the “horns” sheep, gazelle, bull, and unicorn horns. All are different, and individuals. (Which, if they are actual species, doesn’t make sense, but none of this really makes sense.) The trouble begins when a Wing woman and a Horn man have an affair, then desert their platoons and run away together with their newly born daughter, causing consternation on both sides.

Why this miscegenation is so alarming is never explained. I can guess it’s because *gasp!* having both wings and horns, the child is destined to become this universe’s equivalent of Satan, or whatever.

So, the Horns hire a bounty hunter known as The Will to bring the couple back, while the Wings ask a character called Prince Robot to do the same. Prince Robot is from a planet of robots who all have video moniter heads, but human bodies… they even have sex, doggy-style being a preferred position. Again, this is not explained. Nor is this monarch’s name. Are all the royal family called Robot? What about the plebian robots? It’s like having a human king named Mr. Human or Mr. Man. Do robots nurse their young? If not, why does the female robot have breasts?

Anyway, Prince Robot goes on the hunt for the deserters, and he’s really not a bad sort. But he runs into a bounty huntress called The Stalk who’s also after the runaway couple. She has the form of an enormous spider at least 8 feet in radius, topped by the armless torso of a multi-eyed goth chick.

“I know a thing or two about this game.”

The character is supremely creepy when encountered at the turn of the page, and of course the reader’s reaction is negative. But then, it turns out The Stalk is the sometime girlfriend of The Will, both belonging to the Bounty Hunter brotherhood, or something, and when Prince Robot shoots her, The Will is pissed. He vows revenge on the Prince, who is appealingly clueless… sort of like French comedian Jacques Tati as Monsieur Hurlot. But despite his being one of the “bad guys” The Will has more of a moral compass than you’d think. When he visits an interstellar brothel, he’s offered a ten-year-old girl to torture and rape. Disgusted, he shoots the brothel’s owner and takes the girl away so she can have her freedom.

This kind of moral complexity… along with the WTF’edness of the universe, and the clever writing… is what kept me reading, just to see how it would all turn out. But, it was all a bit too silly for me. The dialogue at times was too self-consciously hip and sitcom-like, as in one exchange where the couple, being alone and frightened, play a truth-or-dare game with each other, and the woman says “I enjoy the taste of my own breast milk” in response to some question. It was so out there it was almost a parody of itself, like something you’d see in Heavy Metal magazine mocking the psychedelic, boob-heavy stories that appeared earlier in that magazine’s publishing history.

At the end of Volume 1, when the couple find a forest of rocket trees (yes, rocket ships, fully furnished, that grow like trees) and blast off to safety, I said “Hmm, that’s what all the buzz is about” and closed the book.

But, if anyone else wants to check it out, go ahead. Maybe what bothered me about it wouldn’t bother you.

Tales from Watership Down [Reading Challenge 2019]

Tales from Watership Down

by Richard Adams
Avon Books, March 1998

[Challenge # 39: A book with a non-human (animal or fantastic creature) main character]

I don’t think any talking-animal story has ever come close to what Richard Adams accomplished with Watership Down, an epic tale of rabbits who flee their doomed warren. It had the perfect mix of myth, adventure, naturalism, and irony… irony in that world-changing or mysterious events in the rabbits’ world are actually mundane ones for human beings. An escaped dog decides the outcome of a war. A punt on a stream is alien technology, and a freight train a rampaging Godzilla. Adams’ rabbits handle these elements with a very British matter-of-factness, as if they were fighting in the trenches of Verdun.

But they are not without humor and charm, especially in their tales of El-Ahrairah, a rabbit trickster deity who supports his people with smarts and sass. This rabbit, or lapine as Adams puts it, mythology is a good part of why the book has become and remains a classic. Not only that, the world they inhabit is itself a mythology, a rural English countryside without motorways, radios, air traffic, or tourists, where cows are milked by hand and children never watch TV. Cars, trains, and electrical pylons make appearances, but that’s it. It’s a mythic twist within a twist.

I first read Watership Down at the age of 13 and enjoyed it immensely. It’s one of those books that are a perfect bridge for young teens into more adult reading. I even remember how I got it: from a bookstore in Philadelphia, on a day trip there with my widowed mother, who had pulled me out of school to enjoy the autumn weather. And like many other budding writers, I created my own language from the lapine glossary that Adams provided at the end of the book, a language that ranks as a conlang classic. (Adams utilized “soft sounds” like th, f, and hr and short verbs to create something that rabbits might speak, if they could.)

For the “talking animal” selection of this year’s Author Water Cooler challenge I chose Tales from Watership Down, billed as a sequel even though it’s more of a coda/appendix. Half was more rabbit mythology tales, and half short stories of what happened in the new Watership Down warren after the defeat of General Woundwart. I don’t think any of this could have been read on its own; one would have to have read and enjoyed the previous book. The stories are a lot like the multiple appendixes J. R. R. Tolkien provided after the “official” ending of Return of the King (“Well, I’m back,” he said.)  Material that enhances what you just read, but is not really necessary.

That said, I did enjoy my re-visit with Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and their companions. The further history of the warren unfolded logically in a series of small events that added more to the world, teasing us almost of what might have been if the author decided to create a series. If there was a theme to it, it was the importance of even-handed, inclusive, yet decisive, leadership. Adams even managed to right some wrongs in the original story, in that the female rabbits received more of a voice, and he hints that the does are in fact responsible for cultural transmission in rabbit society. It’s an intriguing idea of a free-floating stream of ESP that acts as a collective unconscious, in the Jungian sense, for the rabbits. It nicely explains how distant warrens can have the same language and societies, though I am not sure the author intended it as such.

Thumbs-up for readers who have the original book.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/13/19: Wicked Women of the Bible

La danse de Salomé, by Gaston Bussière, 1914
(See my post on Savage Queens here)

I still can’t get enough of Salome and her yen for peacock feathers.

There were other powerful women in the Good Book, some judged as “wicked” by past moralizers: Jezebel, Delilah, Herodias. Others acted just as strongly, but because they weren’t pagans, were forgiven, like Deborah and Judith. Judith in particular has inspired as many depictions as Salome has.

Want to start writing some apocrypha, such as the Gospel of Mary? Here’s a list of names to populate those stories with.

Biblical Ladies

Zirah

Tiphiel

Shudirbah

Ganomi

Delmariah

Asheba

Thulsheba

Shaanitha

Zonupha

Gophosa

Huthassah

Desiriam

Omimah

Thessadiah

Ajith

Gethsheeba

Tosabra

Labritha

Gimethjabel

Rimiah

Hednia

Shorjiel

Noliphica

Tethareeva

Zeneshah

Tajuna

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms [Reading Challenge 2019]

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

by N. K. Jemison
Current, Penguin Group, 2013

[Challenge # 14: A book about a person of color (PoC), any variety, written by an author of the same variety]

Up to now, I haven’t read much current fantasy, that is, books published after 2001. In recent years I read fantasy YA – which disappointed me more often than not – but stuck to new releases from my favorite go-to authors for adult fantasy reading. I was a little nervous when beginning N. K. Jemison’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms because I’d been out of touch with new writers in the field. I wasn’t sure what I would find.

But, wow! I did enjoy it a lot, enough for five stars. I can say without reserve that fantasy has come a long way since Dragonlance and The Wheel of Time, the series I most associate with the 1980s and 1990s with. The ones featuring florid, thorny typefaces for the book’s title and busy Darryl Sweet cover art of all the characters in one posed, dramatic moment. The kind sold in B. Daltons in malls across the heartland, when the genre began its homogenization in response to an increased readership with money to spend.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a parlor fantasy, by which I mean 90% of the action occurs in the same locale, with the same people. A young woman from a dark-skinned warrior tribe, Yeine, is chosen by her estranged grandfather to become one of the heirs to his vast, theocracy-governed kingdom, but she must best his two other heirs in magical combat. Arriving at the capital city and its tethered floating palace, Sky, she discovers the gods have installed in her the soul of a defeated goddess in a plot by them to become free. The gods are currently the slaves of the theocracy’s rulers and must do their bidding while locked in human form. The plot is part Beauty and the Beast, part coming of age, part mystery, and part Dying Earth in that its magic felt like advanced science. The tone is Vancian as well, very wry, but also humanistic – Cugel the Clever with an understanding of the moral consequences. There’s an echo of Frank Herbert’s Dune series in its examination of Godhood, and of Octavia Butler in its examination of the emotional bonds between the human and the alien. Yeine narrates, and thankfully avoids present tense. Her voice contributed a great deal to my enjoyment of a novel which is composed of more than a few disparate elements, and I wish every writer who has their heart set on using first person present would read it, just to see how much more powerful a more traditional POV is.

Though most of this world seems to exist in a pre-gunpowder age, the characters have a basic understanding of astrophysics and come across as quite modern. The minor characters could be harried bureaucrats in any local government or school system, and the fantastic gods-created floating palace often comes across as a luxury hotel in Dubai. On the other hand, not every hotel has gods in human form running around, playing tricks. Though there are four in the story, only two emerge as real characters, Sieh, who, though “adult,” embodies the essence of childhood, and Nahadoth the Nightlord, who has two different personalities, one for day and one for night, when not even his masters can fully control him.

It’s Yeine’s interactions with these two deities that carry the story forward. Her feelings about them are constantly changing, ranging from sympathy for their plight to anger at their machinations, and the author did an excellent job at portraying them as alien beings with components of humans, but who aren’t really human. I was more fond of Sieh than the Nightlord, who, in seeking his true identity, seduces Yeine several times, the last resulting in a titanic orgasm that leaves the bed broken and room trashed. The story veered close to being a bodice-ripper at that point; yet, it fit, and lent weight to what was otherwise happening in the plot. Though indulgent in that it happened three times, it didn’t detract significantly from the book.

Apart from these moments, the POV felt very cerebral, again like Vance’s fiction where a reader can enjoy the sounds of the words and the concepts, yet not quite taste the sweat or feel the heat. There was a lack of visceralness. But again, this fit the type of story it was.

The pace was brisk, with no wasted moments or words (well, except for those orgasm scenes) and the narrator’s personal mystery deepens as she begins to converse with an unseen entity who may or may not exist in her head, or may only be a narrative affectation to get her point across. I thought the latter, until the story’s twisty-turny, thunderous conclusion. All I can say is duuhhh for me.

At the end, I’d had a wrenching yet entertaining experience. Psychologically the story felt far longer and more epic than its word count had predicted, always my sign of an excellent writer. It might have been expanded more, but then, it wouldn’t have carried the punch it did.

I don’t think The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is for everyone. There’s a level of abstraction there that’s a 180 degree turn from more traditional, Tolkienesque fantasies. But for those who want to see what the genre is capable of, I recommend it.

NOTE: Since finishing The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I read a post by the author, who is African American, that states Yeine’s race is intended to be brown-skinned like the Inca of Peru and Bolivia, not her world’s equivalent of “black.” So I may have to choose another entry. Or not… what do you think?

Marie Antoinette

“What, me worry?”

The Thorn Boy [Review]

The Thorn Boy

by Storm Constantine
Stark House, 2001

Better known as a fantasy novelist, Storm Constantine has also written a surprising number of short stories. This collection, published in 2001, features nine stories set in or around the fictional kingdom of Magravandias, which figures in her Sea Dragon Heir trilogy. The Magravandias world resembles that of Victorian Europe, but without motorized transportation or the Christian faith. It has its own history of, and fascination with, the exotic ancient kingdoms that came before it… fictionalized Orientalism, basically. As such it’s similar to the world the author created for my favorite novel of hers, Sign for the Sacred, which played around with the human concept of belief. That novel delved into what faith meant to the characters within, whether it’s based in organized religion or an obsession with a lover… the latter particularly heartbreaking, as the more invested character warns himself not to love too much or too deeply, for his lover is sure to break his heart. It’s a  secular universe, no evidence presented for the supernatural or divine, which to my mind only added to its power. But in Magravandias myths and magical creatures are fact, not fiction, and as such there’s a distinct, stuffy, Edward Gorey feel to it.

Three of the stories, “Spinning for Gold,” “The Nothing Child,” and “Living with the Angel,” are rewrites of fairy tales with gay characters, following a male couple as they meet, marry, and have a child together… not mpreg, but an infant created through magical means. Though containing hallmarks of her later work – devastatingly attractive young men, angels, ritual magic – they are clearly beginner works and read like something you’d find on Wattpad. The endings just kind of stop and don’t build up to anything profound. The author began creating this universe even before her breakout Wraeththu books were published, and the stories show the mark of an earlier hand. Still, they were interesting. What begins as a variation on Rumpelstiltskin turns into a tale of lover’s deceit, then gender transcendence. Two more tales, “The True Destiny of the Heir to Emiraldra” (Tattercoats) and “The Island of Desire” (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) also reference the Grimm Brothers, the latter perhaps the most sophisticatedly, as it was written after all the others.

Cats figure in two of the tales and a reptilian shapeshifter in another. “The Face of Sekt” is about a Cat goddess of the land of Mewt (get it) and how she is tempted by the power of a demon. Another cat story, “My Lady of the Hearth” is surprisingly erotic, high comedy and horror, all at once. It deals with a subject I’m sure many cat owners have contemplated – What if my cat turned into a human? Would they be as I imagined them? Constantine answers that question in a story that takes the trope and makes it uniquely her own, in pseudo-Edwardian prose.

Another story, co-written with Eloise Coquio, is about a different kind of shapeshifter, a reptilian one, who enters a rivalry with get this a plant shapeshifter, for the love of a human man. The story surprised me again by being more complicated and adult than I’d expected, and I recommend it.

In my reading I saved what I thought would be the best story for last, “The Thorn Boy.” I swore I had read it before and was looking forward to refreshing my memory, but a couple of hundred words in I realized it was entirely new to me. Turns out I was thinking of another M/M story involving thorns, perhaps one written way back when by the very talented Dusk Peterson. Anyway, I was surprised, and pleasantly it turned out.

The Thorn Boy is more of a novelette than a short story. It’s set in the ancient Magravandian kingdom of Cos, which combines elements of Assyria, Persia, and Babylon. After warring with Mewt, the Egyptian-analogue kingdom, King Alofel takes the defeated Khan’s slave lover, Akaten, as his captive, intending to bed him and add him to his harem of both genders. This news is very disconcerting to Darien, who is currently the King’s favorite. In Cos sex is seen as sacred but not the emotional connection between lovers, so the amount of grief Akaten manifests for his master’s death is both perplexing and fascinating to the court. Ordered to make Akaten feel at home, Darien spitefully grooms his rival for the King’s bed, but then finds himself falling for him. All this plays out as you’d expect, and the ending was devastating. The story was more frankly erotic than Constantine’s usual work, and it actually took me a few days before I got over the story’s impact. Like Sign for the Sacred, it featured gay lovers in a slave/captive situation, a sense of the fatedness of the relationship, and its awkward and dangerous progression. Supremely recommended if you’re already a fan of the author or like M/M.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/6/19: Old Dudes from the Bible

The Choristers, by James Tissot

No matter how you feel about God, you have to admit the Bible contains a lot of interesting proper names. Some are used today, like David and Joshua; others belong to previous centuries, like Uriah and Nimrod. Some, like Chushanrishathaim, may never be popular at all. But they fairly easy to imitate, which is what I’ve done here.

As a plus, these will also work well for Wraeththu characters.

Biblical Dudes

Jonaan

Uabbas

Emerieh

Zoseth

Bechudbath

Sathath

Shidazar

Ebedai

Lephias

Shegrab

Bidram

Shoduel

Jelieh

Aijiah

Thosphias

Oabaz

Retaph

Lahaddon

Ghizoadicus

Shizath

Inhoab

Jurashaph

Roshaddon

Zadethnath

Haphaud

Shocharieh

Hethoab

Ninuphias

Shiphael

Gelothus

Haachabas

Zalaeus

Jojarieh

Mohaccus

Githnezeer

Rusabbas

Uthmail

Jaram

Ojon

Beshodius

Year of the Pig – 2019

(Artwork by sarasai-d)

In Chinese culture, pigs represent wealth, rather than filth and laziness as is common in the Western world. People born in the year of the pig are generous, charity-minded, social, friendly, and have a zest for life. Not too bad for the last sign of the Chinese zodiac!

Abandonment

Who abandoned this androgynous statue in the lake? And why?