Cinder [Reading Challenge 2017]

cinder by marisa meyer
Cinder

by Marisa Meyer
Macmillan, 2012

[Challenge # 4:A book you started last year and
haven’t yet finished.]

I started Cinder last year. It was one of the first ebooks I ever bought because I could not seem to finish the hardback I had borrowed from the library. Then, after working on it intermittently, I could not finished the ebook. Finally I slotted it into the Authors’ Water Cooler challenge, and after some starts and stops, I did finish it. Now know why I had such a problem finishing it. It was that dull.

Now, I know this book has its defenders, and many of them have valid points; I’ve also got three decades on the intended audience, which was 12 to 17. But even considering that, I still don’t get the love. The whole plot was obvious, for one thing. It’s a science fiction take on Cinderella, with a female cyborg as the title character, and that should tell you how it’s going to go. Fairytale/SF mashups have been done before, and well; I was a big fan Joan D. Vinge’s Snow Queen series, for example. But Vinge did what Meyer did not, create a solid SF underpinning for her world. Cinder was more like an old-fashioned Sword and Planet action story from the glory days of the pulps. The SF elements were given only the most cursory of explanations, if at all.

On to the story. Cinder is a put-upon cyborg stepdaughter in a future Asian nation that has somehow gone backward and reinstated its emperor. Cyborgs are considered inhuman, and shunned by everyone. Fine, but the book also depicts being a cyborg as pretty cool and transhuman: the heroine has internal interfaces that let her call up information at will, like a mental internet, and she can adjust her own senses and regulate her emotions. She CAN ALSO TELL WHEN PEOPLE ARE LYING. That’s a pretty useful skill! She’s got a metal hand and leg! So why doesn’t wicked stepmother send her out to play poker, or shake people down for cash? Plus, all those useful implants must be pretty expensive. Why are cyborgs considered worthless slaves? Why doesn’t everyone want to be one? Faulty plot logic there.

The setting also made no sense. It wasn’t until the last third of book that I found out this is the time after the “Fourth World War” and nations and cultures have gotten mashed up and amalgamated, with some, for no reason, reverting to monarchies. I couldn’t figure out why a Singapore-like city was being called an Empire and the son of the emperor was just casually walking around, or why the heroine has a Vietnamese surname, but her family no Vietnamese culture. Actually, the whole setting just served as pretty window-dressing like dangling red lanterns in a noodle shop.

And then there’s those royal families and their damn gowns and balls. Why does every other YA book aimed at girls have some variation of this, even the unpublished ones on Wattpad written by actual teens? Was it from the writers growing up on the Disney princess movies and toy lines that have been shoved down young female throats for the past two decades? Granted, the author subverts it by having Cinder show up at that ball in a dirty borrowed gown and not looking her best, but it’s still there serving its purpose for intrigue and romance.

The other major pulpy element was the mysterious Lunar race. These humans have mind-control powers which are given a lame explanation as being based in bioelectricity. Nice try, but brainwaves just don’t work that way, and if they did, that society would be extremely egalitarian, or extremely chaotic, not ruled by a Royal house with queens and princesses and royal dressmakers. There’s no explanation anywhere for why the “Lunarians” developed these powers, or how they can live on an airless, sterile world with no resources and yet be able to raise an army there large enough to threaten the “Earthens.” (I hate this author’s terminology. What’s wrong with the time-worn but worthy Terran?)

Unlike Red Queen, which was infuriating in the same way with its faulty science, but entertaining and readable in a potboiler way, Cinder depicts its elements too carefully and seriously. It lacked the trashy exuberance it could have had.

My Kindle addition also had some glaring errors — a “coy pond” instead of a koi pond, “under-arms” not underarms, and “preoccupied fingers” instead of occupied fingers. At one point Earth is referred to as part of a greater galaxy of human planets, but it’s never mentioned again. As far as I know, in this series the only inhabited planets are Earth and the Moon.

And no, that sexy red high-heeled shoe does not make an appearance in the book.

Worldbuilding Wednesday, 6/28/17: Pirates!

“Yes, I do heartily repent. I repent I had not done more mischief; and that we did not cut the throats of them that took us, and I am extremely sorry that you aren’t hanged as well as we.”

 —  Anonymous Pirate, asked on the gallows if he repented

 


“I am sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man, you needn’t be hanged like a dog.”

— Anne Bonny to “Calico Jack” Rackham in prison after he had decided
to surrender to pirate hunters instead of fight

 


 “There is none of you but will hang me, I know, whenever you can clinch me within your power.”

— Bartholomew Roberts, explaining to his victims that he was under no obligation to treat them kindly or fairly

Pirates are like onions in cooking, and monsters in AD&D campaigns. There is never such a thing as too many. Here’s a list of generated pirate-type names if you need to add a quick pirate or two to your writing.

Male Pirates

Captain Claw, Bladeslinger of the Thousand Reefs
Greenbeard the Plunderer
Captain Bran Riley
Captain Matt Kettle
Neal the Red
Shoeless Xavier
Dan the Knife, Rotter of the Maelstrom
Rummy Ivan
Edmund the Ruby Bastard
Jean the Lazy
Widowmaker Matt
The Whistling Buccaneer
First Mate Tuck, the Starboard Smuggler
The Proud Plunderer

Female Pirates

Alma Ann Dagger
Ann Peck
Fanny Pug
Captain Sheila Skull
Helen, the Black Brigand of Battlesea
Nellie Nora Kidder
Frances Bess Tanglemore
Juanita the Red
Jenny Beard, Bounty Hunter of the Briny Depths
Mary the Russian
Jorimae the Blind Buccaneer
Captain Jenny Whistle, Avenger of the Seven Seas
Cannonmistress Wilma Rump
Pearl the Prowler

Pirate Ships

Brave Avenger
Dancing Devil
Devil’s Harrier
Flying Slaver
Inglorious Sinner
Iron Brigand
Northern Terror
Brave Bastard
Copper Phoenix
Gambler’s Venture
Gilded Fist
Leakin’ Fortune
Foolish Bastard
Merry Loser
Silver Lady
Sleeping Gorgon

Pirate Inns and Other Hangouts

The Admiral’s Atoll
The Captain’s Hammock
The Bastard’s Shipwreck
The Painted Crab Inn
The Sinner’s Dock
Redraven Island
Pennywinter Isle
Atoll of the Shrouded Lamprey
Sea of Agenakhell
Silvertongue Sea
Rubyshark Rock
Isle of The Winter Summoner
Crimson Sands
Empatreena The Sea-Witch
Three Isles of Ysaithis
The Lone Isle of Perrufrell

The Little Merfish

The Little Mermaid received quite a surprise when she tried to return to the sea.
(Strange how horrific a mythological creature becomes when its parts are reversed.)

Worldbuilding Wednesday, 6/21/17: Magic Users

Worldbuilding fantasy world

Continuing on my theme of randomly-generated magic spells items, let’s look at wizards and magic users in fantasy fiction. There are many memorable characters that come to mind, and if there’s one thing they have in common, it’s an unforgettable name. For example, Gandalf the Gray. Short and to the point; and more importantly, much easier to say and remember than Saruman and White of Radagast the Brown. (When he became Gandalf the White later on, I confess I didn’t like his as much.) Then there’s Jack Vance’s wierdly alliterative Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who was not so mirthful as petty and vengeful. On the other hand J.K. Rowling’s creations Snape and Dumbledore had names suggestive of their personalities, the latter friendly and playful, the former  sinister and bitter.

Here’s some magic-user names, reandomly generated, that have a certain ring to them. Need one? Take it!

Magic Users

Honneil Snowhollow, the Vampire Enchanter

Viszplen of the Black Finger

Kyranje the Summoner

Pajrab the Shape-Changer

Wizard of the Wyvern

Falgya the Witch

Mage-Queen Eriantha Nightbird

Sylleura of the Desert Dawn

Cyrilina the Winter Sorceress

Alvandurine, the Witch Of Cloudcall

Mirlaine, the Illusionist Of Dustyhawk

Vistiax the Blue

Mornaith of the Crimson Thumb

Vyrrhea, the Elementalist of the Silver Flame

Marsbet, Magus of the Laughing Raven

The Sapphire Spellmistress

The Magus of Mornaur

Lady Mirandothy the Theurgist

The Thaumaturge of Tisviper Lake

Vanuista the Shadowless

The Wizard Glub

Heart Anatomy


The human heart contains surprising intricacies, and they are not just those of muscle tissue.

Worldbuilding Wednesday, 6/14/17… wait, there’s more! (Spells, that is.)

Because it was just too much damn fun to come up with these. Another selection of free spells to add to your campaign, story, novel, game, comic, whatever.


Chantsuma’s Wondrous Cacophony:  Creates a mosaic of noise around the target, a mix of music, voices, animal cries, thunder, chants, roaring waves, bird calls, crashing objects, etc. so the target cannot speak, cast spells, or think clearly.

Staff of Parsimonious Speaking:  Lets the owner use just enough, and no more, words to get his or her point across.

Ledger of the Silver Tongue:  Enables the reader to gain proficiency in persuasion and debate.

Tome of the Crimson Raven:  A notorious book of dark magic.

Libram of Merry Carnality:   A much sought-after  book of sexual positions.

Marwen’s Visual Lassitude:  Makes the target’s eyes get tired and miss seeing important things.

Candjerine’s Singing Golem:  Adjunct spell that enables ordinary golems to sing.

Wig of Endless Flying:  A wig that is able to rise off the wearer’s head and fly around, distracting opponents, or providing something to laugh at during parties.

Yavlbest’s Odious Accretion:  Makes the target of the spell accumulate body odor no matter how much they bathe.

The Organ Of False Fingers:  A magical organ that makes even the most skilled musician sound bad.

The Astrolabe Of Cervine Rage:  Makes local deer, elk, and moose grow enraged and attack anything they see.

Urzrolan’s Thieving Weasel:  Enchants an ordinary weasel into fetching some small item.

Trousers Of Marvelous Collecting:  Magical pants with pockets that can hold up to one cubic yard of material per pocket, as long as it’s the same kind of material (marbles, seashells, etc.)

Falaz’s Fighting Thumb:  Useful for thumb wrestling contests.

Shoes Of The Droning Dragon:  A very rare and unique item made from dragon hide. They emit a continuous drone that numbs the senses of everyone who hears it (the wearer is immune.)

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)