kaigou: Jung-In (Kim Jae-Wook) looking very please-no (1 oh dear heavens no)
[personal profile] kaigou
I've been on a recent tear through a slew of non-European-inflected high/epic fantasy, and I'm starting to wonder if it's just me. Am I finding the cultural mixes in some stories to be awkward or badly-done because I know too much (or even only a little more than nothing!), or is it because I'm not fluent enough in the cultures to be comfortable with mixing them up?

In a three-way tie for most egregious, there's Shea Godfrey's Nightshade, which has this visual within the first few paragraphs. The numbers are me, counting the ways.
Jessa walked straight among them, a dark green sari[1] wrapped about her lower body in turns of silk and draped forward over her left shoulder with a long-sleeved golden choli[2] blouse beneath it. She wore a burka[3] that covered her head and face, though it was not quite long enough to hide the ends of her hair[4].

The men lounged upon the dais. The raised platform curved about the head of the vast oval room like a horseshoe and closed in on the wide aisle that led to the throne at its deepest point, the Jade Throne[5], which was the seat of all power within the land of Lyoness[6]. ... Jade was the province of the throne and these were the chairs for the sons of King Abdul-Majid[7] de Bharjah of Lyoness.

This was my brain's reaction as I read:
1, 2. Ah, okay, an Indian-inflected setting.
3. Why a burka? Wouldn't you just pull the end of the sari to drape over your head? Or maybe this is Pakistani-inflected, with a Muslim touch?
4. There is something really wrong with this burka. It's missing like, the rest of it. Or her hair is past her ankles. Wait, does the author actually mean she's wearing a chadri? That would make more sense.
5. Uhm, like the Jade Emperor? China's in here, now? Or Guatemala. (Mayans being the other major culture that had jade mining and prized the rocks highly.) Unless the author's thinking serpentine, which isn't jade, but gets mistaken for it often -- and serpentine was prized in the middle east.
6. ...Except for the French-styled name, whut.
7. Looking pretty middle-eastern, there.

I'm not saying I have an issue with middle-eastern-inflected stories, even if it sounds like name-dropping on Indian and Chinese. (I'll let it go with only a mention of the author portraying a quasi-middle-eastern family -- with their chained dogs two inches away from outright dog-fighting -- as barbaric and cruel. I think the only adjective missing here was 'swarthy'. Hello, typecasting 101.) Regardless, maybe if I didn't know there's a difference between a burka and a chadri, or didn't realize that not everyone east of the Tiber dresses like Gandhi extras, maybe I wouldn't be bothered. Or maybe if I knew costume and dress far better than the smatterings I do know, I wouldn't be under the impression that these things don't mix.

But then there's a different type of egregious, like Joel Rosenberg's Hour of the Octopus. (It's the second in a series, but after reading this one, I doubt I'll bother tracking down the first.) The author gets credit for trying to have a Japanese inflection (c. 1995 publication), but wow. Japan's got a lot of history (as does pretty much anywhere), and I'm not enjoying not-knowing the generalized place in history for this story, anymore than I'd enjoy, say, reading a story set in Northern Europe for which it could be anywhere from 150 CE to 1600 CE. A lot happened in the interim: fashions changed, attitudes changed, beliefs changed. I could no more mistake the Heian for the Edo, than I could the Norse for the Lutheran Reformation.

Like, here. Quick, can you spot what tripped me up?
Bek De Bran was arrayed in full warrior's garb, from the twin peaks of the lacquered steel helmet that topped his head, to the reticulated bone armor that covered his shoulders and chest, down to the skirt of leather straps that hung about his thick waist, partly covering the kneezers and greaves, and the brass-pointed boots on his feet. His armor's finger joints clicked like dice to keep time against the shaft of his spear as he hummed a simple soldier's jig.

... I stepped into my trousers—both feet at once, the way an acrobat dresses—then pulled a nappy cotton tunic over my head. I belted it tightly across my waist with a broad black sash.

He shifted his right hand to his spear, and idly poked at me with its rounded butt end. "Be quicker, whether it pleases you or not. The hunt awaits Lord Arefai, and Lord Arefai awaits you." Typical of a member of our beloved ruling class to be impatient to start a morning of killing things.

"Shoes," I said. "I need shoes."

Don't get me wrong; the narrative voice is delightfully snarky... and every now and then, the author managed a reasonably quasi-sounding Japanese name, like Lord Toshtai and his son Arefai. Which may raise eyebrows among you, but trust me, those are good names compared to so many of the rest of the cast: like Bek De Bran, Lord Crosta Natthan, Narantir, Madame Lastret, Deren der Drumud, Madame Rupon, Garvi Denten, Dun Lidjun, and my personal anti-favorites, Lord Minch and Lord Edelfaule. The last of which keeps making me think of Edelweiss.

I mean, languages have patterns and rules. Much as I hate the Dreaded Random Apostrophe (TM) so beloved of some SFF authors, I can at least swallow that much as a glottal stop if there's some kind of consistency. It doesn't have to be in-your-face with the pattern (hello, Ms McCaffery and your consonant+apostrophe+rest-of-name pattern), but still. Certain vowel combinations, certain consonants, you don't have to know a language to get a 'sense' of what works. And the names in Hour of the Octopus are all over the map. All over the globe, even. There's no rhyme or reason at all.

Plus, shoes. I'm not sure whether they'd be sitting outside on the veranda, protected by the eaves and carried to the step to be put on, or whether you'd store them in your room but carry them out (unless a servant carried them for you), but putting them on while still on the bedroom's woven floor? No. Hell, not even in Korea. (China? The historical dramas I've seen, I think shoes stay on.) A'course, that's once I got past the notion of trousers being pulled on, given that I've always been told the reason hakama stay up is because they're tied/connected in some way to the obi closing one's kimono. So if you skipped the kimono+obi, and pulled on a tunic, wouldn't your trousers/hakama fall down?

And then I got to the part where the women's dress is described as being loose enough around the bust to show bustline and a little cleavage. Whut. And the capper, the dress being slit up the leg to show thigh when the woman kneels. Wait, is this a cheongsam with an obi? My brain breaks just a little, at this point. Where am I?

Or this.
My guide exchanged a few whispers with the servitor on duty on the second floor of the donjon, and they both led me down the long hall, past pastel paintings of spotted fawns frolicking in a cool green bower. A whole herd of the long-legged young deer, their soft pelts a warm and friendly brown, capered all the way down the wall ... the whole effect occasionally broken by the knob of an invisible door.

...The servitor stopped in front of a doorknob that was the only sign of a door's presence, then knocked four times against the white tail of a prancing baby deer. I heard no answer, but she pulled on the knob, and the ragged edge of invisible door swung open.

I figured, okay, "doorknob" but he really means "doorpull", for those large solid internal doors. Except for the "swing open" part. Do what? Does the author get half-points for at making the door swing outwards, instead of the US-style of swinging inwards? Because those puppies should be sliding. And take off those shoes, damnit.

(They're not even shoes; they're boots. Hmm, trousers plus tunic plus boots. Maybe the author watched one too many wuxia and didn't realize just because Chinese and Japanese garments have an over-under V-front doesn't mean they're the same thing?)

Then I tried Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts. A few selections:
Keyoke bowed as his mistress approached. Behind him stood the tall and taciturn Papewaio, his face as always an unreadable mask. The strongest warrior in the Acoma retinue, he served as both companion and body servant to Keyoke. He bowed and held aside the curtain for Mara as she swept past.

...All that remained between the Lord of the Minwanabi and his goal was herself, a young girl who had been but ten chimes from becoming a sister of Lashima. That realization left a taste in her mouth like ash. Now, if she were to survive long enough to regain family honour, she must consider her resources and plot and plan, and enter the Game of the Council; and somehow she must find a way to thwart the will of the Lord of one of the Five Great Families of the Empire of Tsuranuanni.

This one's got aliens -- I think -- so it's veering into SF, but still. The names feel all over the place, to me. They don't feel like there's a pattern, a greater culture of which they're all a part. Not like I'd have a problem with it, if they weren't (all of the same culture), but I'd like some indication, then. Somewhere.

Plus (and I freely admit this is probably just me), I don't have a sense of the environment. Frex, the story mentions paper screens, but doesn't say whether they're set in any kind of ornate frame (ie Korean screens, vs plainer Japanese screens). There's little to no mention of garments worn, or utensils used, or sleeping arrangements. It's not that I want these things to pin down the "just a generic Asian environment" so much as these are clues that tell me what that environment is like. Is it cold and rainy in the winter, with short dry summers; are the winters somewhat temperate and the summers blazing hot? How is a great house laid out? How is the city laid out? What's the terrain? I not only lack a sense of cultural base, I lack a sense of time, but worst, I lack of sense of place.

But more than that, I think it's that I just can't reconcile myself to a fantasy/fiction world that cribs from Japanese and Chinese (and, it seems, maybe a fraction of Korean), and treats the mixture as something legitimately unify-able. Sure, there are elements in one borrowed by the other, and way back in history two of them adapted the third's written language to their own ends, but far more de-jives than jives. To me, it's sort of like mixing the Sicilian culture with Swedish culture: sure, they both use the roman alphabet, and they're both into sailing, but I don't even have fingers or toes enough for the crucial ways they differ. Or any two European cultures, for that matter; you can't just take two cultures that are majorly different from your own and figure that by default they must be pretty similar to each other.

Two stories get it better (not sure about 'right', but I can say 'better'). One is Dragon in Chains, by Daniel Fox, which incorporates pirates, jade mining, a deposed emperor and his regent-mother, native sailing folk, temple priests with shaolin-like styles, and a dragon chained at the bottom of a treacherous waterway between the mainland and an island. The names may not all be Chinese necessarily, but they have a consistency to their patterns (consonants and vowels); the attitudes and perspectives have solidity; the dress and behaviors don't throw me out with a sudden Japanese or Korean element. Sadly, it's also a strongly lyrical, even literary, writing style, and that makes the work feel more distanced -- it's certainly not your non-stop action-fantasy kind of story. But it's at least culturally consistent, which after the other stories is a nice balm.

A different way of treating it, but one that works well within context, is Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows. I can't seem to cut/paste an excerpt from .pdb, so I'll summarize. Almost all of the story is set in Cenaria City, which is described as a kind of marketplace-crossroads, culturally, not unlike merchant crossroads like Shanghai was in the 20's, or southern Spain in the 1500s, or modern-day San Francisco or Sydney: a place where a variety of cultures smack up against each other, almost from block to block. There are the Ceurians, whose sa'ceurai are a miliary class, and whose architecture (rice paper walls, deep eaves, woven floor mats, floor-sitting and -sleeping) is distinctly Japanese. The Alitaerans have names, titles, and architecture similar to Rome; the Ymmur are from the steppes, renowned as archers and horsemen, hello, Mongolia. (Despite that, I confused 'Cenaria' with 'Ceura' repeatedly, while reading, but the names were different enough -- Cenarian names tending to be vaguely Teutonic -- that as long as a person was in the scene, I could keep it all clear.)

The story may have other issues (something for another post, another day), but in this respect, I thought the author handled the adopted-from-real-world quite well. Maybe that's because no one specific culture really got the brunt of the focus; Cenaria seems to be so multicultural that the majority of the citizens are pretty capable at shifting from one cultural context to the next. Miso for breakfast, croissants with lunch, pasta for dinner, and fermented mare's milk before bed. That kind of cosmopolitan crossroads-of-the-world approach turned discrepancies -- doorknobs and swinging doors, indoor-shoes and floor-sitting, and knife-fork eating in one chapter and eating-sticks in the next chapter -- into a positive, rather than a glaring inconsistency.

Of course, there's also Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, which... oh, I don't know. I just couldn't stop rolling my eyes at the Hidden subplot, or their so-called pacifist ways. (Via names and other details, the story all but comes out and admits the Hidden are Kakure Kirishitan, aka xtian.) Maybe it's just me, but the notion that the hero is a gentle soul not meant for killing people due to his upbringing as a Hidden/Kirishitan just strikes me as... making a quiet, subtle commentary. And given the crap xtians have perpetrated in history, it's a commentary I find hypocritical and offensive. Add on top the whole ninja-ninja-ninja thing, and I'm already not so interested. I mean, the story's well-written, and it does get a lot of little details right, but I couldn't stomach yet another story about ninja. Honestly.

Do not get me started on the Detective Chen stories. Tried those. Made it to the second book, threw it against the wall, and decided I'd rather re-read the Judge Dee novels twenty more times than another Detective Chen cultural mashup.

Holding out faint hope for Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, but not holding my breath. I'd like to be able to finish Dragon in Chains, first, but it's slow going, that lyrical style. Will have to report back on Quartet whenever I get around to it.

In the meantime, is it just me? Would I be served better by not knowing the cultures quite so well -- and frankly, I know bits and pieces but I hardly know the cultures -- or is it a matter of unfamiliarity that makes me resistant to mashups? If I could handle a story where it's a mashup of, say, the southern US and Sweden, is that because I'm so invested in each that I can see past the details to the objective and enjoy the discrepancies rather than gnash my teeth at them? A'course, this is setting aside what lies beneath, which is whether anyone has the right to mix, match, and mess up someone else's distinct culture for the purposes of fiction. Especially that whole "Asian-influenced" title, which means nothing. There's no one "Asia" anymore than there's one monolithic "Africa" or "Europe" or any other major land mass.

Know more? Know less? What do you think?

But still, I could forgive a lot more, I think, if the names weren't so atrocious.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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