Snow Flower and the Secret Fan [Reading Challenge 2017]

 

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

by Lisa See
Random House, 2006

[Challenge #2: A book taking place in Asia]

Of all the books I’ve read in the first half of the year, this is the one that’s stuck with me the most, because it delivered far more than the blurb and cursory glances I gave the inside before I bought it.

It was also one of the rare book club selections that I picked. I had actually bought it some years ago because the premise looked intriguing, but had not picked it up again until I took on this reading challenge.

The back cover copy made me think it was about the story of two women, perhaps lovers, told in a secret Chinese woman’s language, and therefore be short and the style experimental. But in actuality it was an often brutal first person account of a peasant woman’s life in a country village in late 18th century China, before its infiltration by the west. Confucianism and superstition run strong, as well as the barbaric custom of female foot binding.

The narrator, Lily, tells her story in a confessional tone to an unnamed listener.  When I read the author’s notes at the end (I was very good in that I did leave them for the end, instead of jumping ahead like I often do) I could see the story was shaped by the author’s experiences in interviewing elderly women like the narrator as research for the book. The author was also intrigued at the concept of a private woman’s language called nu shu, special Chinese characters with less defined meanings than the standard ones, that was used by women and girls to communicate with each other without the fear of men reading them (because men were not schooled in the characters, and, as was said in the book by the narrator, men didn’t stoop to such things.)

The story spans the narrator’s life from a young girl of 6 or 7 up to extreme old age, and the core of it  centers around another girl known as Snow Flower, who is chosen by the local marriage broker to be her best friend, her laoshong, or “old same,”  a bond close as marriage (“like two mandarin ducks”) for two female best friends. Looking at it objectively, it serves as a woman’s support outside her family, in which she is otherwise closely confined, and provides a necessary social and emotional service. The book follows Lily and Snow Flower as they visit together and learn to communicate in nu shu through characters written on silk and even on the fan of the title. We are also brokered through Chinese customs that to Western sensibilities are hard to swallow, like the painful footbinding of small girls and limited reach of her life, and her ingrained sense of worthlessness as a female through Confucian teachings. Though the hardships are alien, the pain is very real, and gradually, the girls’ lives diverge through betrothal, marriage, and childbirth. Lily’s circumstances become more favorable than her friends’, which leads her, out of religious righteousness, to make some tragic, mistaken choices.

I did enjoy the personal nature of the story, but found the nu shu, while intriguing, was only a small part of it. What I took away mostly was a sense of Jeez, women’s lives in pre-modern China were crap. Over and over in the text the narrator tells us female lives matter only because they provide sons to their husbands and their families; the only hope they have of any agency at all is as their eldest son’s surviving parent. In this hierarchy, the younger female children are the lowest of all — they aren’t even fed as well as males, and are constantly reminded of their uselessness.

Then there’s the issue of footbinding, which is described in graphic yet domestic detail.

chinese footbinding was extremely painful

I found myself horrified at that part in the book, that active, happy children were made to suffer like that, their freedom to even move taken away from them. Think about it. Even normal household chores, like cooking and tending the kitchen garden, must have been agony for women, and much less efficient, as they stumped around on truncated feet. In a later part of the book the heroine’s family has to flee some invaders and they climb into the mountains to hide; women fall off the cliffs right and left because they can’t keep their balance on the trail.

It’s not really up to me to judge a foreign culture, and one that is long past to boot, but I can’t help feel that the footbinding, traditionally written about as a fashion fad, was really about social control. A populace that cripples half its adult members is so much easier to control than one where able-bodied women also participate in the economy. Even with women doing the grunt labor, the men are free to go to war, or rebel against the rulers. To the book’s credit the footbinding was presented as being how the people of that time really would have seen it, not as a necessary evil, but a custom ingrained so long and so deeply no one can even think to question it, or stop it. (The author in her afterword, compares it to plastic surgery like breast implants, but come on, breast implants don’t hamper a woman’s ability to walk or hold down a job.)

Another thing that struck me about this peasant society, some of whom were wealthier than others, was their extreme self-interest. There was no sense of charity; the less well off, or those who lacked sons to take care of them, simply died. There was no outreach or charity from the other families; that Christian sense of obligation wasn’t there. Social and material exchanges were all tit-for-tat, so many gifts of slippers and clothing requiring a returning gist of the same value, a pig or such. The social system was thus kept in balance, but there was a price.

I found the book beautiful in its language and simplicity, and strange in its depiction of a different way of life. But mostly grim, in that the beauty of all the embroidery done, appreciation of nature, and seasonal celebrations did not make up for the fact these were extremely oppressed women who, by custom, had a hand in oppressing themselves.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 6/14/17: Magic

 

Let’s talk about spells.

One of the things I loved about Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, and some of his other works, was the naming of his spells, magical items, and magic practioners. Iucounu the Laughing Magician; that has a certain ring, doesn’t it? Or the Walking Boat, which has legs, and, naturally, clambers over land as well as floating, and the Spell of Forlorn Encystment, which imprisons a victim in a cave deep within the earth. The creator of the original version of Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax, was greatly influenced by Vance for his game’s spells and magic items, thus begetting Tenser’s Floating Disk, The Sphere of Doom, and Queen Ehlissa’s Marvelous Nightingale, among other delights. J. J. Rowling, too, was influenced by Vance’s sense of whimsy and pseudo-scientific nomenclature.

By using Gammadyne’s Random Word Generator with lists of similar words, I was able to combine them in novel ways, each one, perhaps, the genesis of a plot or conflict for fantasy characters. The words are random; the interpretation is mine, but feel free to use them in your own creations.

Magic

Falgem’s Colorful Stag:  Turns the animal a bright color so it may be more easily tracked in a thick forest.

Pelloine’s Olfactory Debridement:  Removes all odors from putrefying flesh within 10 feet of the caster. Useful for zombie attacks.

Kybor’s Gustatory Guardian:  Summons a being to prevent a person from eating more than he or she has to. Commonly posted at pantry doors.

Thayuma’s Canine Puzzle:   Presents a canine creature with an enticing three-dimensional puzzle that must be solved to gain a piece of bacon. Depending on the intelligence of the animal, it may delay them for up to to an hour. Works on supernatural canids as well, such as Cerberus and werevolves.

Ninorpa’s Wondrous Amputation: Amputates a part of the body with no pain. Does not provide follow up care, however. Can only be used for medical reasons.

Uvaember’s Numismatic Improvement:  Increases the value of coins or paper money, but only for a short time. If used as currency, casters are advised to have a means of quick escape.

Tassna’s Littoral Silence:  Quiets the noise of crashing waves, wind, and seagulls so the caster and those within a 10-foor radius can speak or sleep.

Erwen’s Villainous Canker:  Creates a painful, disfiguring ulcer on the victim’s body.

Gandgamel’s Verdant Avoidment:  Makes the victim stay away from green plants.

Questherd’s Illusory Merriment:  Makes a downcast being or party appear lively and full of fun.

Wand Of Squamous Quickening:   When pointed at the ground, it makes snakes come out of hibernation.

Flute Of Foraging:  When used in the wilderness, the flute points the wielder in the direction of nuts, mushrooms, greens, and other easily gathered edibles.

Coffin Of Walking:  A coffin that walks, carrying its occupant in a pristine state. Useful if a fellowship member should die.

The Aviary Gate [Reading Challenge 2017]

The Aviary Gate

by Katie Hickman
Bloomsbury, USA, 2010

Challenge #7: A book in a new-to-you genre

(Note: I am reading and blogging these Challenge books out of order)

For this challenge, I chose The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman, from my pile of TBRs. From the cover copy I assumed it was historical romance, which is a genre new to me, and so I expected to read a steamy bodice-ripper of some sort. I’m perfectly aware, mind you, that romance has progressed beyond the bodice-ripper, but all the same, I was expecting a 6-packed, studly hero, a feisty but pure heroine, and the hijinks that keep the couple apart, and the sexual tension that comes from that.

Well, yes and no. I found it was more of a historical intrigue, the tale of an English girl sold into the Sultan’s harem in 16th century Istanbul contrasted with the story of a modern-day Oxford Ph.D. getting over a bad romance with a teacher.  The modern gal is researching the slave girl’s story, which acts as a framing device. The author is English and the writing was a lot different from the American style I’m used to. To begin with, it’s in third person omniscient, which is not used much, at least for romances, on this side of the Atlantic, though I’m used to it in the fantasy genre from writers like Neil Gaimon and Tanith Lee.  I found it more scholarly yet less disciplined, and emotionally colder… which was oddly more visceral because it was less in your face than the American style. A few frothy elements of romance were there, mainly to do with longing, and I enjoyed them even though I’m not a fan of the genre. There was perhaps too much forced exposition through the characters’ dialogue, but that may be par for the course for this kind of book. I couldn’t help feel it needed a better edit, though.

The author did have a way with words, and her quirky use of language kept me well entertained. Certain parts of the story were pleasingly squicky, like the slave girl being prepared for the sultan’s bed, which entails a painful depilitation, perfume inserted in private places, and even sitting naked on a block of ice. These were finely balanced between erotica and horror. The descriptions of the black eunuchs were horrifying too. It was hard to discern what the author meant by all this. Perhaps it was historically true, yet overall the sex seemed too squicky and clinical for a romance, even the modern girl’s experience. The author has a background in travel writing and historical writing, so perhaps the clinical feel came from that.

The plot itself was slight in both eras. The slave girl realizes her betrothed is in Istanbul to deliver a gift to the Sultan and tries to contact him, but palace intrigue overwhelms her, and she loses her chance to escape; the modern girl leaves Oxford to England to research the slave’s story, and gets over her former lover, and finds a new one. It read less like an adventure and more of a panoramic travelogue through both eras. Like a story about a story, than a story itself. The characters felt twee at times, especially through their dialogue, and some were stereotyped, like the awesome, supportive Best Friend of the modern heroine, and the ne’er do well, cheeky sidekick of the 16th century hero and love interest. But overall, it was a pleasant read that worked in its way.

(For Turkish harem novels, however, Barbara Chase-Riboud‘s Valide was a lot better.)

Death’s Erotic Thrill

death in a barcelona, spain, cemetary

There’s nothing more to be said here.

(Kiss of Death Statue at The El Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona)

Worldbuilding Wednesday, 6/7/17

Dragon Falls, an exercise in worldbuilding

Starting a new series on this site, Worldbuilding Wednesday, a selection of randomly generated people, places, things, and concepts suitable for incorporating into fantasy — or any speculative — fiction, courtesy of my continued experimentation with Gammadyne’s excellent Random Word Generator. All are free for any writer to use; I have no claim on them. I’ll be posting on the ins and outs of using this generator in a later post.

Why post lists of names? Many writers do, in fact, have a problem coming up with good names.  If there’s one thing I hate in fantasy writing, it’s names that rely on bland syllables (Galarna, Tokul, Katana) names that are too evocative of this world (George R. R. Martin, I’m looking at you, with Ned and Jon) and unpronounceable or badly hyphenated names (Pam-Ella, Dr’zit.)  I’ve admired Jack Vance and Ursula K. LeGuin for creating unforgettable names, as well as British writers of fantasy like Tanith Lee and Storm Constantine. A good name can even create a character. Think about Lady Lazulvine of the Worm: do you see a villanous sorceress? Or perhaps an older practitioner of dark magic? And an inn called The Reckless Raven must surely host all kinds of unsavory characters.

This weeks’ selections are a mashup of Vanceian (again, that aforementioned Jack Vance), French, British English, Swedish, and German, in a pseudo-European polyglot.

Female names

Duchess Vyrgilla Lyrestone

Joiwynn Leerdawn

Jolette Deepspoon

Jularva Wineshore

Lady Lazulvine of the Worm

Queen Lyrilene

Ravenia Snipcup, AKA The Luscious Minstrel

Lady Shylla The Mournful

Ydivene

Imeili

Ulaytra

Sanshudra Sodcold

Male Names

Rolarch Witswallow

Sir Ghilius, Knight of the Somber Glaive

Sir Hyverys of The Boar

Sir Jingill of The Lusty Eye

Trinopher Podgrace

Ferschin Vanerock

Finnwen Damchick

Jarad Liegerend

Kalián Lovberry

Fayport the Unctuous

Mzarbar the Barbarian

Sir Jafflo of the Pure Wyvern

Local Color (People, Places, Things)

Ozder, the Angel Of Glory

Orsinfield Keep

Dallesong Palace

Fort Forancy

The Falkenmoss Kings

Folio of Displacement

Grand Duchy Of Svorotufte

Hessenborn Canyon

Brandraith Keep

Lightcourt

Inns: The Corpulent Stag, The Reckless Raven, The Blue Weasel, The Four Fingers Inn

Black Queen I

Photo by Daniel Jung

It’s when she lifts the veil that you have to worry.

(Photo by Daniel Jung)

Gunslinger

Art by Roman Chaliy, https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Vb658

He was brave to the last, but this didn’t save him… from unlife, that is.

 

(Art by Roman Chaliy)

Chamber of Chills

chamber of chills, 1950s horror comic

Most horror comics of the 1950s are nostalgic rather than horrifying, yet every once in a while I come across an image that is truly startling in its rawness. They were the decade’s way of dealing, sociologically, with the repressed horrors of WWII.

 

Cecaelia

A Caecilian (or octo-mermaid) from X-Ray Art by Benedetta Bonichi
The Cecaelia is an octopoid mermaid who, instead of having a fish’s tail, has the arms of an octopus. The villain of Disney’s The Little Mermaid was one. 

 

(X-Ray Art by Benedetta Bonichi)

The Lifeform

The cultured alien lifeform had an innocuous beginning, but a bloody end.