kaigou: (2 using mainly spoons)
[personal profile] kaigou
Went through a storm of book-reading: The Goblin Emporer, The Coffee Trader, The Thief/The Queen of Attolia/The King of Attolia/A Conspiracy of Kings, Whitefire Crossing, The Spirit Thief, Arcanum, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Lascar's Dagger.

To get a few out of the way: yes, I adored The Goblin Emperor. Maia is non-angsty (but damaged all the same), lonely, compassionate, and above all else, genuinely good. There were more than a few scenes that in a quiet, understated way, simply broke my heart. It's not a YA-style everything-amped-to-eleven. It's a quiet story; when complete, you realize there wasn't truly a bad guy in the classic fantasy sense, and the one main conflict hinged on building a bridge over a river, but somehow it all works despite that, or maybe because of that.

The one major complaint? I would've much preferred if the naming scheme had been introduced before the story, rather than after it; it was damn hard to keep track of who-was-who, and I say that as someone pretty well-versed in reading extensive historical treatises where names change and/or are fluid and most definitely are not in English. I just couldn't parse the pattern from the text, and a short intro note would've been helpful.

Many things I liked (Maia chiefly, of course), but especially how his world -- no matter how suffocating, as it consists entirely of the court -- is still immensely populated. The author is really skillful at giving you enough people in a scene to make it feel crowded, without the sense that you'll be quizzed later on these teeny details; what's important to remember gets emphasized in just enough way that it stands out even more. In terms of craft, that's a rare and valuable skill.

It's a strong contrast to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which I'm struggling to get through. I think it's suffered by comparison (due to recent reading) to TGE. With the same basic setting (an imperial court, of a sort), it feels peculiarly uninhabited. Almost desolate, but not in a suffocating sense, so much as the sense one gets when visiting a massive office building during off-hours. There must be lots of people that usually fill this space; they're just not here right now. Imperial courts require a boatload of people to run, and TGE does manage to give you a sense of that. THTK feels... almost spartan, in comparison. I try to be charitable and tell myself those details/background were just cut for space, but while reading, I keep feeling like it's Yeine's own blindness/uncaring/something that prevents her from noting, registering, or even caring about the endless cogs around her that keep things running.

There's another interesting contrast, and one that might work better for someone with different expectations/preferences about the trope of 'nobody raised to imperial status'. Maia is surrounded by people for every hour of day and night, as befits an emperor, yet he's intensely lonely because he has no friends -- at least, none that fit his pre-imperial expectation of what 'friend' can mean. Yeine, on the other hand, must be coming from a well-populated life, with friends, comrades, mentors, assistants, whatever-else is around a lesser nobility with minor ruling responsibilities. Yet other than her mother (and the mystery of her mother's death), not once does she really show any homesickness, let alone mention anyone from back home that she misses, thinks about, or is even free to be rid of. (I could've even handled if she'd dismissed homesickness/culture-shock with the expectation that this adventure would soon be over & she'd go home, but there's not even that.)

Maybe it's because it feels like Maia's background -- an only child, stuck off in the middle of nowhere with few servants and a teacher who hated him -- versus Yeine's background -- a much-loved child, raised by both parents, educated and somewhat privileged... It just feels like Maia's background very much informs him. Having been someone who grew up wishing for compassion, he bestows it freely. Yeine, though, doesn't seem to be informed by her background at all. It's like she shows up out of the blue, and other than some well-leavened information, there's little actual emotional context. Yeine is either too much an automaton at times, or the most compartmentalized character I've read in ages.

I think the other world-building aspect that doesn't hit my sweet spot is hegemony. (Not sure if that's entirely the right word.) It's the sense that the book's culture is for all intents and purposes the culture, and despite ruling over any of a number of sub-cultures, as it were, the main imperial culture is unquestionably domination. Unless the protagonists' objective is overthrowing that hegemony, the result for me is a very flat world. Well, Britain's intent is to make the world Britain -- true, just as China before it and the US after it, in terms of cultural hegemony -- but even then, those cultures (among many others) have always had to recognize that they are still not unique nor alone. Even China or Russia at their highest points, with almost incomprehensibly-large land masses to rule, still recognized and had dealings with and had to allow for the fact that there were other, competing, interests from outside their borders.

Maia's world does get that right; internally, there are regional differences, while externally there are others with enough issue, motivation, history, or some other grudge, to be a large fly in the imperial ointment. Yeine's world, though, sounds like it's all under the same imperial throne, from here to there and nothing left out in between. Whether that's true, or whether it's actually a hermit kingdom of a particularly large size, it still feels claustrophobic, and not in a good way. It actually feels like of dismissive in a way too reminiscent of the worst of Western mindsets, where those others can be disregarded because if they were worth noticing, they'd be Westernized/colonized/operating under our hegemony.

Or maybe it's that the lack of political maneuvering -- given that one hegemon rules over it all, and his word is final (effectively) -- makes for a dull background. Well, that and the fact that all it takes is Yeine dropping a word and trade routes are re-opened (and in counter-move, for her cousin to drop a word in reaction). What do those particular regions think about Yeine's request? It doesn't matter; they pay burdensome taxes to her as their tutelary 'ruler', and a suggestion from her is pretty much the same as a command, anyway. It's not little conflict; it's none at all -- those distant regions, neighboring her parents' region, are nothing more than plot devices for her to move around, and for her cousin to move around in retaliation.

That kind of minor conflict may seem detrimental to a story's focus, but I'd argue that in world-building, such side-conflicts are a huge part of the world's color. It means the world is full of people doing just as real people have always done: go about their own business, with their own agendas. Even a hint of pushback illustrates that the rest of the world doesn't consist of cardboard cutouts.

I mean, if all the character does is say, "do this," and the other does, then what was the point of it? To illustrate that the character's word is law? Frankly, for that kind of thing, don't waste the page-space; just tell me -- and save your breath for where you can show me when this pattern doesn't apply.

Anyway, I'll probably keep hammering at THTK just like I do with Whitefire Crossing. It's just a bit of a slog, currently.

The Spirit Thief is another one I'm not sure I'll finish. From all the clues in the story, I'm guessing that I'm supposed to see the thief in question -- one Eli Monpress -- as charming, funny, and very much the character to watch. In corollary, I'm pretty sure from the narrative tone that I'm supposed to find Miranda -- the more academic, intellectual, ideologically conservative ("magic has rules and one abides by those") -- as a stuck-up prig who clutches out-dated rules to her chest and is kind of bitchy, too, and probably still bears a grudge against guys 'cause no one ever asked her out on dates in magical high school. The text just has that kind of tone about her, compared to the way it valorizes Eli.

The problem is that I think Miranda's pretty funny and kinda awesome, while Eli is a complete bore. Not to mention being short-sighted, a little too self-centered, and bordering on TSTL. Sure, he can be the one exception who ignores the world's rules about magic, which Miranda's been taught to disregard at her peril. To me, though, their interactions don't make me roll my eyes at her; they make Eli sound like a totally privileged asshat. He's like the kid who got lauded as a prodigy and landed start-up funding at age sixteen, who then dismisses the woman who had to climb sexist mountains to get her CS degree. Because, y'know, the fact that she worked for it, pretty hard, even, somehow makes it less-valuable. (As though she'd even be recognized at all if her talent were entirely so-called 'natural'.)

Although it could be I've got a chip on my shoulder 'cause I've seen that privileged shit too much in real life, I just don't see a reason why I have to waste my time on a book that does the same. Especially when the narrative itself seems determined to show her up as a joke, and put his privileged ass forward as the hero.

To see the prodigy-hero done right, I finally got around to reading The Thief (and then tore through all three sequels in about a day and a half). Eugenides is the Thief of Eddis, and the first book shows up all the usual thief-tropes: somewhat obnoxious, a little over-confident, yet really does have the chops to back up his boasts. What makes him different from Eli? I think it's maybe that the characters around him are given their own agendas and perspectives, so while the (first) story is Eli's POV-only, it's not like he exists in a bubble. But I think it's also that from early on, there are little things that indicate Eugenides is smart. Damn smart, and I do love reading smart characters.

(Maia is smart, but in an emotional way; he intuits others very well, and more importantly, he has a pretty good idea of himself. Yeine doesn't feel quite that smart, not yet. I'm not sure why not. Eli feels about as smart as a bag of rocks.)

Anyway, the first book about Eugenides -- Gen to his friends -- feels like your standard Newbery Award material: solid characterization, quick plot, enough risk to turn the pages but not so much it'd give a fourth-grader nightmares. Can't exactly say the same for the sequel, The Queen of Attolia, which takes a significantly darker turn and puts Gen through some serious shit.

He does rise from the ashes, of course, but there's no magical cure. In fact, the second book in his series reminds me a bit of Archibald MacLeish's J.B. (a retelling of the Book of Job). But repeatedly (sometimes visible only in hindsight), Gen comes up with a devilish plan only to have it wasted. In some cases, he manages to pull things off anyway; in other cases, he's nailed to the wall. Nearly literally, a few times. Yes, a hero shouldn't be perfect, and should mess up, but the particular way (and the reasons thereof) that the author constructs to mess Gen up are... well, I won't spoil things, because it's a major part of the overall series.

But while it works in-story, it's also fodder for some really deep discussion about how a culture constructs its understandings of -- and under that, how the author's understandings may've played into things -- and I can't really say more without ruining a major twist, so I'll stop. I'll just sum up with the fact that after seeing Gen turn the tables so skillfully, when his plans start torpedoing, I ended up rooting for him three times as much. It just felt like, having seen him go through so much, that failure was simply almost unbearably unfair.

My takeaway is not all peaches and light -- there are more than a few points in the second book specifically (and a few in the third) where otherwise plainly-stated loyal characters suddenly do things that made no sense to me at all. Well, they moved the plot forward in unexpected ways (aka ways that would turn around and screw the main characters later), but in terms of immediate character-motivation, those actions didn't make a lot of sense.

I'm not saying YA needs to be easy-read (oh ho not at all, dude, have you ever read The Yearling?) but from a crafts perspective, I do think the story started to get a little bit away from the author, at those junctures. The story needed a) to be wrapped up and b) to leave someone alive & free to cause trouble for the next book, so here, let's grab this guy and have him do something that completely counters all his previously-stated principles. At which point the story has to get kind of opaque and mutter out of the corner of its mouth for a few scenes, lest it be glaringly obvious that was plot at the wheel, not character.

It's also that opaqueness which rendered a chunk of the second book rather baffling for me, because I never realized what was driving one character's behavior for long stretches. Yes, there were hints, but we're talking so subtle that I had at least six theories and none of them what it turned out to be. To really believe anyone's fallen in love, maybe be just a tad less subtle, because a character's revelation of being in love felt somewhere between slapped-on (at first) and majorly retconned.

(It doesn't help that the two later books don't seem to stick to a consistent story of when, exactly, this love developed. Just furthered the sense for me that this major plotline didn't exist when the first book was written, and only came into life in media writing, as it were. That kind of pantsing might explain why at least one-half of the love affair didn't seem to be able to stick to a regular story about when/why/how. Or shorter version: as the reader, I was partially in the dark about that element, too, and given it's what the 3rd book really pivots on, a more solid groundwork would've helped.)

I think what's curious about Gen, in contrast to Eli specifically (and in parallel with Maia), is that he's pretty much the opposite of your standard fantasy-novel hero in certain ways. He's short, darker-skinned, and younger than the powerful women around him. He can be duplicitous and obnoxious, and tends towards snarky at times, but like Maia, he has flashes of unguarded moments. I think the offset -- to someone who'd otherwise be seen as utterly unstoppable, totally confident, and conning everyone -- lies in those unguarded moments. Most of them revolve around his own private doubt in himself, that he doesn't have all the cards. When he admits he was jealous of a love-rival; when someone catches a glimpse of him crying in homesickness; when he realizes someone's intention to strike the cruelest blow possible against him.

Gen and his (eventual) wife are pretty much everything you never, ever see in genre fiction, let alone anything romantic/romance. She is clearly the more powerful of the two; she's got a humor so dry you could use it as a mop; she has her principles and she sticks to them. Fair justice matters more to her than mercy, while Gen is the kind of person who always looks for the loopholes. They'd drive each other insane -- and frequently do. Yet she's also strong enough to accept Gen's dares and let him loose to see if he can manage it; they have a strange kind of love, with some significant transactional elements running through it. Gen bargains, challenges, and she will grant him X power if he achieves Y consequence against all odds. Including where X power in turn may limit her own power.

A side-note: despite Gen's rarely-mentioned shorter stature, I found it curious that his described body language at his wife's side is most often of lounging, like he's trying to make himself appear even shorter (not to mention somewhat nonchalant). But just as often, when he's trying to cozen her, he'll kneel before her, sit lower than her in some way. It's never really called out in the text; it's just something he does. It's an interesting affectation, given he's in a relationship where they're both constantly bartering with each other for the power they have, want the other to have, or even refuse to surrender.

Any way you look at it, minor quibbles are minor. I'd still recommend The Goblin Emperor and the four Thief books, unequivocally. The others, YMMV, and who knows, I may change my take if the stories pick up.

More in next part.

Date: 17 May 2014 08:09 pm (UTC)
shiegra: symmetra's metal hand, mid-dance move and glowing gold (Default)
From: [personal profile] shiegra
'If the story is even Yeine's' oh wow I think you put it perfectly. And I think that just summed up my issue with the 'should have loved' flawlessly; I enjoy the all powerful beings as foils to a POV human. I'm rarely interested in it with the primacy the other way around, and this book couldn't quite tell me it was what it meant to be. (And I do think it meant to be? And I think the second book manages it better, though I disliked the ending....probably because of more of the above?)
Edited Date: 17 May 2014 08:09 pm (UTC)

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