Sunday, February 07, 2016

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree begins with a gloomy, wet boat journey to a gloomy, wet island in the English Channel.  Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly, our protagonist, is moving with her family to the Isle of Vane, so that her father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, can consult on an archaeological dig.  It's the 1860s, and amateur natural scientists like Erasmus are grappling with the new, controversial theory of evolution, while trying to reconcile it with their ironclad belief in the Biblical stories of creation.  Erasmus's claim to fame is having discovered a fossil of an apparently winged man, but as the inquisitive Faith realizes soon after settling in the family's new house on the island, the reason for their hasty relocation is that the authenticity of this find--and of many of Erasmus's other discoveries--has been called into question.  When Erasmus is found dead, Faith's mother and uncle quickly scramble to protect him from the accusation of suicide, but Faith believes that her father has been murdered, and determines to find his killer.

All this--the 19th century setting, the bleak and isolated landscape, the small island community where currents of connection and enmity run beneath the surface, the murder mystery, the tone of barely-suppressed horror as our heroine peels back the supposed gentility of her family and neighbors--is very familiar, the stuff of novels going back at least a hundred years (I was particularly struck, while reading The Lie Tree, with how it recalls The Hound of the Baskervilles, though it no doubt has many other antecedents).  It's a little surprising--and, in the first half of the novel, a little disappointing too--for a story like this to come to us from Frances Hardinge, an author I fell in love with, in no small part, for her ability to construct elaborate, minutely-observed fantasy worlds.  Even Verdigris Deep, an early Hardinge novel set in the real world and present day, had more fantasy worldbuilding than The Lie Tree, which apart from one fantastic element is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (I have not yet read Cuckoo Song, Hardinge's previous novel, so I'm not sure where it falls on the fantasticness scale).

The problem--or perhaps I should qualify, my problem--with The Lie Tree's naturalism is that Hardinge is a writer who likes to explain her novel's worlds.  More specifically, she likes to explain the mores and conventions that govern them, the currents of prejudice, propriety, and artifice that make their societies run.  This is great when those societies have been invented from whole cloth--when she needs to explain how social class determines how many different emotions one gets to express in A Face Like Glass, or how the tensions between colonizers and colonists have forced an ethnic group despised by both to adopt curious social customs in Gullstruck Island--but to a reader of my age and experience (which, to be clear, are not the novel's target audience), it's a lot less tolerable when Hardinge needs to explain the rules by which Victorian society is governed.  I don't need Faith to explain to me what a curate is, or why On the Origin of the Species threw such a bombshell into Victorian society.  The first half of The Lie Tree, which sets up Erasmus's death and Faith's investigation into it, is littered with scenes in which Hardinge spells out the rules of the novel's world.  A lot of these passages have power, such as this scene, in which Faith is surprised when a strange man intrudes on her games with her younger brother:
Fourteen years of trained fears broke into full stampede.  A strange man.  She was a girl, nearly a woman, and of all things she must never be near a strange man without protectors and witnesses.  That way lay a chasm in which a thousand terrible things could happen.
Or this one, in which Faith's mother Myrtle explains to her the proper way to order a servant:
You phrased it as a question to be polite.  Will you fetch the tea?  Could you please speak with cook?  But instead of your voice pitch going up at the end, you let it droop downward, to show that it was not really a question, and they were not expected to say no. 
But taken together, they have the effect of making the first half of The Lie Tree feel obvious and over-articulated.  We do not, for example, need Faith to spell out to us, after the observation about speaking to servants, that "that was the way her mother talked to her."  It should be obvious from Myrtle's general air of distraction, and from the attention that she pays to her husband and son, and deprives from Faith.  The strongest portions of this half of the book come when we get a sense that there are things about Faith's world that she does not yet understand, such as the casual way in which she drops it into the narrative that there were five dead Sunderly babies between her and her younger brother Howard.  For Faith, who is young, devoted to her father, and casually dismissive of her mother for using her looks and coquetry to get what she wants, this is merely a statement of fact.  We see it as a sign of what's to come, Faith's growing understanding of what it means to be a woman in the novel's world.  But moments like these are the exception, not the rule.

After Erasmus's death, Faith discovers his most secret specimen, a tree whose fruit produces true visions.  But the tree only flowers if it is "fed" lies, which must then be spread among other people.  Faith, determined to prove that her father was murdered, decides to use the tree, spreading rumors that his ghost continues to haunt the island, angry at the villagers who have insisted that a coroner's inquest be held to determine whether Erasmus killed himself, or that the archaeological dig Erasmus was invited to is actually searching for hidden smuggler treasure.  These lies, helped along by the observant, manipulative Faith's careful nurturing of them, spread like wildfire, causing unrest and violence within the community, to Faith's mingled horror and exhilaration.

Like many other Hardinge heroines, Faith is someone who has been warped and stunted by her upbringing (in fact the warping and stunting of children appears to be a general theme in the book--Faith's brother is being "trained out" of his left-handedness by being made to wear a jacket with the left sleeve pinned up).  In Faith's case, what has stunted her are the restrictive gender norms of her society, which teach her that her only value is in being "good"--which is to say, obedient and meek--and that her intelligence and curiosity are aberrations, to be ignored and suppressed.  As in her other novels, Hardinge is too clever and too honest to promise that the effects of fourteen years of this learned self-hate can ever be fully cured.  The core of The Lie Tree is Faith coming to realize how much she's been shaped by a childhood that has taught her to see herself as worthless, and by a society that refuses to recognize her intelligence and capability, and calls her monstrous when she expresses any emotion other than demure, meek acceptance.  That the result has been anger and frustration isn't very surprising to us, but to Faith it is only further confirmation that she is a bad person.

Using the Lie Tree allows Faith to give free rein to her worst impulses, to the feelings of resentment and frustration that have been allowed to fester in her, and to the joy of having power over other people's lives instead of feeling powerless in her own life.  She ends up doing terrible things: tormenting the servant girl who first spread the rumor that Erasmus killed himself, and blackmailing a local boy into helping with her investigation.  One of her rumors even convinces the villagers to attack and seriously injure the local postmistress, Miss Hunter.  But at the same time, exercising her power allows Faith to see more of the world than she previous had--she goes below stairs, interacts with strange men, sees the seedy underbelly of her polite society, and learns to understand the adults in her family.  It's an experience that forces Faith to see herself for what she is, and to decide what kind of person she wants to be.  Again, as in many of Hardinge's novels, salvation is found not in overcoming your past, which is impossible, but in learning to live with it, and be the best person you can be within the limitations it has imposed upon you.

As you might have guessed already, The Lie Tree is fundamentally about gender, and its use of lies as Faith's weapon--in a society that leaves women no other tools but their words and their ability to manipulate and insinuate, and then castigates them for using those tools to get what they want and need--is an inspired choice that has many complicated nuances.  It is, for example, intriguing that the tree has such obvious Biblical associations, given how often the men in the novel use religion--and the Sin of Eve--to justify distrust and oppression of women.  It is equally intriguing that Faith seems to be so much better than Erasmus at spreading lies without them ever touching her, or having the kind of splashback that Erasmus's lies had on his family.  Once again, there's a lot here that older readers will have seen before--it will surely come as no surprise to such readers that Faith eventually realizes that Myrtle's use of flirtation to get her way is in service of protecting her family with the only means available to her (and Hardinge again hammers the point in just in case anyone misses it).  But there's also a more ambitious project, as Faith's investigations of her world reveal more and more women who are living in the chinks of the world-machine, invisibly breaking the rules, and only occasionally reaching out to each other to say that such a life is actually possible.

Hardinge is hardly the first one to point this out, but when a society defines "proper" feminine behavior as rigidly and as narrowly as Faith's does, it ends up producing a lot of women who are, by definition, monstrous.  And it's therefore up to those women to decide what kind of monsters they will be, to come up with mores of behavior where society has abdicated its responsibility to do so.  Faith starts the novel horrified by her own intelligence and curiosity, convinced that she is a bad person because she loves to spy and eavesdrop and figure things out.  And, to be fair, these are all propensities that can easily lead a person astray, and when she indulges them in her investigation of her father's death, Faith does terrible damage.  The hope that Hardinge offers, at the end of the novel, is that Faith can find out how to be herself, and use her power, in a way that is as honest and honorable as possible.  It's a mingled hope, however.  If Faith wants to be a scientist, she realizes, she is signing up for a lifetime of being discounted, distrusted, and derided, and an afterlife in which she will be forgotten and erased.  And it's a life in which she will always be in danger--from others, and from her own worst impulses.  When Faith tries to apologize to Miss Hunter, she gets the following complex response:
"We both played the gossip game."  Miss Hunter wielded the reins with the confidence of practice.  "After your mother upset Jane Vellet, I was angry and told everyone about that Intelligencer article.  You spread a rumor in turn, but you were not the one that set fire to my house.  A woman like me makes enemies."

Faith wondered what "a woman like me" meant.  Perhaps a willfully happy spinster with a sharp tongue and good salary.  In Faith's eyes, Miss Hunter had always seemed icily smug and unassailable.  Now Faith saw glitters of defiance, and a tightrope beneath her feet.
It's that tightrope that Faith--and, to a lesser extent, all the women in her society--will be walking for the rest of her life.  And it's an admission that makes the happy ending of The Lie Tree--which otherwise might have left me feeling, once again, that this is not a book for me--a lot more tolerable.  Yes, it's a little unbelievable that Faith can come to understand herself as quickly and as fully as she does, and it's a bit of a pipe dream that, at such a young age, she could come to such a full accommodation with her flaws and weaknesses (once again, this is the sort of thing that's easier to swallow in fantasy world than in one that, historical setting nothwithstanding, so closely resembles our own).  But this moment, in which Faith realizes that she will always be in danger of making a mistake, of becoming the monster that society sees her as, and of justifying the violence that is always on the verge of being turned against her, is a powerful statement that not a lot of books--for adults or children--are willing to make.  I still prefer Hardinge as a writer of secondary world fantasies, and I still feel that I was not quite The Lie Tree's ideal audience, but it's moments like this that remind me of Hardinge's brilliance, and her importance to the genre.

Friday, February 05, 2016

E-Books Galore

When I promised to start making ebooks of some of the posts in this blog's (gulp) ten-year-old archives, I thought I'd get on that in a few weeks.  Six months later, I've finally done it!  the E-Books tab has been updated with three new collections: the series Back Through the Wormhole and Let's See What's Out There, in which I reflected on the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and The Next Generation, and Austen and Friends, a collection of my reviews of Jane Austen's novels and other related books.  All three ebooks are available in epub and mobi formats.

Please let me know if there are formatting issues or problems downloading any of the ebooks, and if you have comments on the contents.  It was an interesting experience, going back to my old writing to edit and format it for these collections.  In some cases, posts that I wrote ten years ago, when I was still working out what I wanted this blog to be, still resonated with me.  In other instances, things that I wrote just a few years ago struck me as misguided.  I've made some alterations to the original texts where I felt that they were making points that I genuinely couldn't stand by anymore, but mostly I've left them as they were, as a testament to how I used to think, and how I hope I've grown as a writer.

If you have any ideas about what subject should be collected next, I'd love to hear them, though maybe this time I shouldn't promise to be too swift about it.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Review: The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett

Over at Strange Horizons, I review the second and third books in Ayize Jama-Everett's Liminal People series.  This was one of those cases where a book comes to you just when you need it the most.  As they've slowly taken over popular culture, I've found myself growing increasingly impatient with superhero stories, and with how the ones that show up on our screens choose to handle politics (see, for example, this series of tweets from last night in which I try to sum up my frustrations with the seemingly endless barrage of superhero shows and their messed-up politics).  It's been particularly frustrating watching what is, by now, the dominant genre in pop culture carefully and studiously avoid anything like a real engagement with issues of social justice.  For all that they claim otherwise, superheroes are about preserving the status quo, and that usually means siding with those in power, not those whom they oppress.

So Jama-Everett's books, in which opposing--and trying to dismantle--the status quo lies at the core of most of his superhero characters' stories, were just what the doctor ordered.  And as if that were not enough, most of the superhero characters in these books are people of color, and people whose ethnic and cultural heritage is central to their identity and to how they see the world, which is also something that mainstream superhero stories don't do enough of.  I might not have like these books as much if I'd read them five years ago, but I'm extremely glad that they exist now, and if you're like me and are finding the glut of reactionary superhero stories oppressive, I heartily recommend these books as an antidote.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The 2016 Hugo Awards: A Few Thoughts as Nominations Open

On Wednesday, the good folks at MidAmericon II announced the beginning of the nominating period for the 2016 Hugo awards, which will run until March 31st.  If you're like me, you've maybe been treasuring the period of relative peace and quiet since last year's Hugos were announced at the end of August, and are a little hesitant to launch yourself back into the conversation that surrounds these awards--which may, or may not, end up as fraught and starkly political as it was last year.  Let us, however, try to remember that nominating and voting for the Hugos can--and should--be fun, a way of discovering and discussing what was excellent and worth recognizing in last year's genre conversation.  To that end, here are a few points of order, and pointers, for those of you thinking of, or planning to, nominate in the Hugos.

First, a note on eligibility.  You are eligible to nominate for the 2016 Hugo awards if you are
  • An attending or supporting member of Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon in Spokane, Washington.

  • An attending or supporting member of MidAmericon II, the 2016 Worldcon in Kansas City, Missouri, and became so by January 31st, 2016.

  • An attending or supporting member of Worldcon 75, the 2017 Worldcon in Helsinki, Finland, and became so by January 31st, 2016.  Note: if you voted in the site selection ballot for the 2017 Worldcon, which was held last summer at Sasquan, your voting fee was automatically converted into a supporting membership of the 2017 Worldcon, regardless of who you voted for.  You should already have received an email from the Worldcon 75 administrators informing you of your membership and asking your permission to pass on your contact details to the MidAmericon award administrators.
MidAmericon has started sending out emails to all eligible nominators containing their membership number and PIN, which will allow you to nominate online.  If you think you're eligible to nominate this year and haven't received a PIN by February 5th, you can query at

Note that only members of MidAmericon itself will be eligible to vote on the final winners of the 2016 Hugos.  That, however, is down the line.  If you like (or hate) how the nominations shake out and feel that you want to vote on the winners, you can buy a supporting membership in the convention after they're announced, which will give you voting rights.

The announcement that Hugo nominations are open (as well as the nominating periods for several other awards, such as the BSFA and the Nebula) is usually accompanied by authors putting up "award eligibility posts," followed by a discussion of whether this is a good thing or whether it makes the entire process into a PR effort.  I've already said my piece on this subject, so at the present I'll just repeat what feels to me like the most important point from that essay, which is that my problem with award eligibility posts is less that they're crass and commercialized, and more that for their stated purpose, they are utterly useless.  I don't want to trawl through an author's blog history to find the list of works they published last year.  What I want is a bibliography--easily found, up-to-date, and ideally sorted by publication date and containing links to works that are available online or for purchase as ebooks.  If you haven't got one of those on your website, I have to question how seriously you want my vote.

As I've done in previous years, I'll be posting my own Hugo ballot closer to the end of the nominations period, probably near the beginning or middle of March.  In the meantime, if you've found yourselves overwhelmed by the wealth of material available, or are struggling to figure out who to nominate in out-of-the-way categories like Best Related Work or Best Fan Artist, there are several excellent resources that can help you narrow (or widen) your search.  Note that most of these are likely to be updated continuously throughout the nominating period.
  • The 2016 Hugo Nominees Wikia is still in its infancy, but is a good place to start looking for ideas.

  • For the second year in a row, the good folks at Ladybusiness are maintaining a Hugo recommendations spreadsheet, which you can read and edit.

  • The contributors at the blog Nerds of a Feather have aggregated their ballots into a Hugo "longlist," with lots of links to the stuff available online.  You can find their suggestions in four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4).

  • The Hugo Eligible Art tumblr has been a little quiet recently, and especially for someone like myself, who struggles to find nominees in the Best Fan Artist category, I hope they emerge from slumber soon.  At any rate, I'd be interested in having a longer conversation about what constitutes a fan artist, and what kind of work we'd like to see nominated for a Hugo, out of all the wide world of fan art available online.

  • Writertopia's Campbell Eligiblity Page is still the best resource for finding nominees for this award, which recognizes new writers in the field.

  • Finally, with both the BSFA and Nebula awards seeking nominations at the same time as the Hugos are, there are resources related to those two awards that are also useful for Hugo nominators.  The BSFA have, for the first time, introduced a longlist stage into their nominations process.  You can find the longlist in this google doc, including links to works available online.   The members of the SFWA, meanwhile, are maintaining a "suggested reading list" for the Nebula award, which may also be of interest.

I said this already after last year's Hugo results were announced, but we are in a unique position this year.  In 2015, thousands of people showed up to decisively make the point that the Hugos belong not to an embittered cluster who call the award illegitimate if it recognizes work they don't care for, but to anyone who shows up.  All of those people now have nominating rights, and they could have a tremendous effect on how this year's award looks--if they choose to show up again.  Next year, the Hugos will probably change again, as the anti-slate measures approved in last year's business meeting take effect (assuming they're ratified in this year's meeting, which they probably will be).  So this year we're on the cusp, which is where interesting things often happen.  If you have nominating rights for this year's Hugos, please consider using them, even if only on a few categories, and even if you don't feel that knowledgeable.  The whole point of the Hugos is to reflect fandom in all its many forms.  Let's see if we can make that happen.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 2

It took ten days (all year!) but I'm finally done with the backlog of TV that I let build up over December while I was busy with other things.  And once again, all of these shows, good and bad, are infinitely more interesting than what the networks were cranking out in the fall.  Though it must be said that along with these miniseries and SyFy series, I also watched several network pilots--such as The Colony, Second Chance, and Angel From Hell--that were just as conventional as the now-cancelled dreck they're replacing, and once again not worth talking about.  Is it simply time to give up on the networks producing worthwhile, interesting TV?  Happily, even if that's the case, we still have plenty of other venues supplying us with new shows to discuss.
  • Tripped - This cute but inessential Channel 4 series feels like a cross between Sliders and The Wrong Mans.  It follows the by-now extremely familiar template of two lifelong friends, one an unrepentant slacker happy to wallow in eternal manchildhood, the other struggling towards something that resembles adulthood through the simple expedient of latching onto a loving but long-suffering woman, who are whisked off on an adventure.  In this case, deadbeat Milo (George Webster) is stunned when a bearded, sword-wielding version of his newly-engaged best friend Danny (Blake Harrison) appears in his bedroom telling him that all versions of themselves in all alternate universes are being hunted by a mysterious villain, who promptly appears and attacks both of them.  Actually, Milo isn't that stunned, because he was epically high at the time.  But when the buzz wears off and there's still a dead body in his bedroom, he quickly finds Danny and the two end up bouncing from one universe to another, trying to survive and figure out why they're being hunted.

    There are some original touches in Tripped--the reason for Milo and Danny's predicament turns out to be cleverer than expected; there's a nice touch when it's revealed that Milo, whom Danny sees as an albatross around his neck keeping him from growing up, is actually a positive influence on him, and that in all universes in which the two weren't friends Danny became a selfish, villainous person; and also it's nice that the show at least tries to give Danny's fiancée Kate (Georgina Campbell) a bigger role than such stories usually do, and more of a personality than the humorless nag who just wants her man to grow up and settle down.  But in the end, this is a very familiar type of story that doesn't deviate from its predictable template, in which Milo and Danny constantly teeter on the verge of annihilation, only to win through with a combination of dumb luck, unexpectedly useful skills, and the strength of their friendship.  If this is the sort of thing you like, then Tripped is a pretty good example of the genre (and the fact that the season only spans four half-hour episodes keeps it from overstaying its welcome).  But one can't help but wish that this genre was a little less popular and evergreen, or that somebody might make some twists to it like--gasp!--telling this same story about a pair of female friends.

  • London Spy - In the opening moments of this miniseries, Danny (Ben Whishaw), an aimless young man with a complicated personal and sexual history, meets and falls head-over-heels in love with Alex (Edward Holcroft), a mysterious, naive, and emotionally repressed genius.  The two embark on what seems like a storybook romance, only slightly hampered by Alex's obvious secretiveness, and the fact that so little of what he tells Danny about his life makes sense.  When Alex disappears and is later found dead in what looks like an S&M adventure gone wrong, Danny is the only one who believes that there's more to the story.  Aided by his friend Scottie (Jim Broadbent), he embarks on an investigation into Alex's life and history that quickly draws to him the attention of extremely powerful, dangerous organizations.

    There's a lot to like about London Spy, and a lot to dislike.  At the most basic level, the fact that this very familiar, very common type of spy thriller (the whole thing reminded me very strongly of The Constant Gardener) is being told with a central love story between two men--and in which the love story is both swooningly romantic and unabashedly sexual--is something to celebrate.  The best version of this miniseries is the one in which Danny tries to work through his grief and lingering feelings of anger and betrayal, finally coming to the realization that he can still love Alex even though he didn't really know him, and that he can forgive Alex's secrets and lies--that these, in fact, do not change how important a role Danny played in Alex's life.  It's also really interesting and rewarding that the show does so much with the fact of Danny, Alex, and Scottie being gay, and with how their sexual histories and proclivities affect how they're seen by the supposedly liberal society around them.  It's a sweet and beautiful touch, for example, that Danny's initial realization that the version of Alex being presented to him by the people who orchestrated his death is a fake comes from his certain knowledge that Alex was a virgin when they met, and that this knowledge allows him to see through so many of the lies he's told about Alex over the course of the miniseries (though this also has the, I hope unintentional, effect of treating kink and S&M as inherently seedy and unromantic, as opposed to Danny and Alex's "pure" sex life).  In another scene, Scottie, a high-ranking civil servant, is outraged when Danny treats him as part of the establishment, pointing out that he has been distrusted and shunted aside for decades because of his orientation, the suppression of which has left him without a personal life and family.

    But while the romantic melodrama aspects of London Spy work really well, the spy story is equal parts turgid and ridiculous.  The mini builds up the awesomeness of the forces arrayed against Danny, which systematically break down and destroy his life when he refuses to give up his investigation into Alex's murder, until we can be in no doubt that whatever Alex discovered must have been enormously important and dangerous.  But technothrillers of London Spy's ilk rarely deliver on that kind of promise, because they're not really interested in the implications of the McGuffin they posit.  So that when the mini starts to talk about algorithms and super-smart internet data mining, it's hard not to let your eyes glaze over, because it clearly isn't taking this any more seriously than we are.  (Over at Strange Horizons's year in review piece, Dan Hartland briefly suggests that London Spy can be read as SF because of the fantasticness of Alex's discovery, but to me this seems unconvincing.)  Even worse, nothing changes after Danny realizes what Alex left for him to discover, and he continues in the same passive-aggressive game of one-upmanship with forces that, realistically, should already have disposed of him once he refused to back down.  London Spy doesn't really know how to end its story, and instead ends up repeating the same beats again and again--another assault that strips away one of the few things Danny still cares about while leaving him still standing, another attempt to prove to him that Alex wasn't who he thought he was.  By the time it cobbles together an ending, in which Danny decides that he must continue to try to expose Alex's murder no matter the hopelessness of that cause and the surely disastrous consequences to himself, the winding path we've taken to get there makes it feel less like a climax and more like another step on a samey path.  London Spy wants to be a tragic love story, about a man who is willing burn himself up just to prove how much he loved someone who, in life, never really knew this.  The performances, particularly by Whishaw, are strong enough to carry this kind of story, but the bitty, repetitive, and ultimately unconvincing plot lets it down.

  • The Magicians - As regular readers of this blog know, I genuinely disliked Lev Grossman's bestselling novel, on which this new SyFy series is based.  I found it to be an unnecessary, indulgent celebration of a self-pitying child of privilege, who seemed genuinely injured by the world's failure to simply hand him a sense of purpose and a life-long adventure.  So if you'd told me, going into the first episode of The Magicians, that it takes profound liberties with its source material, I probably would have been pleased.  The problem is that the things I disliked about Grossman's novel are clearly not the things that the showrunners of The Magicians saw as flaws, while the things that worked about the novel are the ones they seem to have been most eager to get rid of.  I never had any problems with Grossman's core project with The Magicians--to dismantle the central trope of portal fantasy, in which a single (usually white and male) Chosen One must defeat an ancient evil, and in which crossing over to a world that has magic immediately makes one's life brighter and more meaningful.  My problem was rather that Grossman wrote as if no one before him had had this idea, when in fact there have been dozens of fantasy writers who have explored it, most of them with a great deal more intelligence and nuance than Grossman showed.  (M. John Harrison's The Course of the Heart, for example, makes The Magicians look like the children's novels it claims to be deconstructing, not least because it lacks its fawning British-philia and overpowering, embarrassing undertone of class envy.)  The Magicians, the show, serves these tropes straight up.  Its Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a callow, upper-middle-class young man who is offered a place at Brakebills, a university of magic, actually is the Chosen One, and there actually is an ancient evil that he needs to defeat.  Honestly, what was the point?

    It's possible that later episodes will move the show back into alignment with the novel, but there's a lot about the pilot that makes me reluctant to stick around and find out.  The novel, which was locked into Quentin's self-pitying, depressed point of view, at least implied that his perspective was an unreliable one.  The show seems to expect us to take his sense of himself as an underdog seriously.  You see this most especially in the character of Penny, a future villain (Arjun Gupta), who in the novel is the uber-geek to Quentin's cool, lovable geek, turning their shared love of the Narnia-esque children's series Fillory into something joyless and possessive.  In the show, Penny is a tattooed, musclebound jock who always has a hot girl draped over him, and who looms over Quentin, mocking his nerdy literary tastes, the better to validate Quentin's persecution complex.  (The fact that the show also changes Penny's race from white to Indian has implications that I don't think anyone involved with it has realized.)  Add to this a scene in which Quentin's friend Julia (Stella Maeve), who was rejected from Brakebills, is recruited into an underground magical circle by a sinister figure who threatens to rape her in order to expose her latent magical powers (he later says that he never "really" meant to rape her, as if this makes an actual difference), and I really don't feel compelled to give The Magicians a second chance.

  • The Expanse - All due respect to Childhood's End and The Magicians, but The Expanse was the show that SyFy was banking on to jumpstart its moribund genre credentials and reestablish it as a channel for people who like science fiction.  And having watched the first half of the season, it's easy to see why.  This is meat-and-potatoes space opera with a slick, obviously costly appearance and a setting that offers huge scope for interesting storytelling.  In an unspecified future, Earth and a partially-terraformed Mars are vying for control of the asteroid belt and its resources, while the space-born miners who supply both planets with the means for their advancement feel oppressed by planets they could never survive on.  The series kicks off with a crooked cop on Ceres stations (Thomas Jane) being hired to find a missing heiress who has involved herself with separatists from the asteroid belt, and an ice-mining freighter investigating a distress signal that turns out to be a trap, which leaves only a handful of survivors to discover why their ship was destroyed and their friends killed.  Back on Earth, a ruthless politician (Shohreh Aghdashloo) fears that the cold war between Earth and Mars is about to heat up, and is willing to do anything to prevent this, or at least make sure Earth has the upper hand.

    My one real problem with The Expanse is actually less with the show and more with the PR and hype that have surrounded it.  SyFy clearly wants this to be their new Battlestar Galactica, and have thus stressed the political aspect of the story.  But though the show's worldbuilding is really interesting--some of the best scenes involve minor characters expressing how the people of Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt see each other, the resentments and prejudices that have built up between them--what it does with this world is thoroughly conventional (and, as much as I ended up resenting its desperate bid for political relevance, doesn't even come close to the sophistication and depth of Galactica's storytelling).  Except for how much more expensive it is (which is to say, better looking and peopled with better actors) it's hard to see what makes The Expanse so much better than Dark Matter and Killjoys, the low-rent, decidedly cheesy but slightly more fun space operas that SyFy aired last summer.

    Certainly when it comes to playing games with gender and sexuality, The Expanse falls way behind those two shows, Killjoys in particular.  The two male leads who drive its more propulsive storylines are so boringly familiar that they might as well be placeholders, and both of them are driven by motivations that treat women as means to an end--the leader of the ice-freighter survivors wants revenge for his murdered girlfriend, and the detective has become obsessed with the femme fatale he's searching for, who exists only as an idealized image in his mind.  Meanwhile, the more interesting women around both characters--a crewmember on the spacer's ship who is curiously overqualified for the job and might have a checkered past, and the detective's captain and fellow officer--get shunted off to the side, even as secondary plotlines include such stories as a principled cop who becomes infatuated with a kindhearted prostitute.  (Aghdashloo is obviously the glaring exception to the predictable, constrained roles that The Expanse gives women, but of the three main characters she's the one who is forced to be the most passive, to observe and plot where the spacer and detective get to fight and work their way towards plot developments.)  There's still a lot to enjoy and keep watching for in The Expanse, but its vision of the future is ultimately hidebound--we haven't even mentioned the show's assumption that the disaffected workers on the asteroid belt exist in a binary state, either downtrodden victims or terrorists; the word "union" is never mentioned, possibly because nobody involved with the show realizes that it's an option, and of course the possibility that societies in space might organize themselves along principles that differ from 21st century capitalism is never considered.  Which means that, fun as it is, The Expanse's claims to be the next big thing in televized SF should be taken with a grain of salt.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Gathered Round a Roaring Television, Part 1

I didn't write anything about the fall TV season this (last) year, because frankly, it was too dismal and boring to write anything about, and anything I could have said would have just joined the chorus of thinkpieces lamenting the networks' inability to produce anything resembling worthwhile new shows.  But here we are in winter, with the network shows on break or just coming out of it, and suddenly we've been inundated with a whole gaggle of interesting, ambitious projects that remind us of what the medium is capable of.  I didn't love all of the works I'm about to review--in fact I genuinely disliked some of them--but at least they gave me something to write about, which is more than can be said for the raft of samey procedurals and unfunny comedies we were slogging through in the fall.
  • And Then There Were None - My first reaction when I heard that the BBC was planning a new adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel was to wonder why anyone would bother.  I read the novel as a teenager, and I remember it being clever but mechanical, and rather awkward in delivering a final twist that, I felt certain, everyone must know by now (as this highly scientific poll reveals, it's actually more like a 50/50 split).  Once you knew the twist, I thought, going through the motions of watching the ten strangers gathered together on Soldier Island get picked off one by one by an unknown assailant seemed rather pointless, and not a little bit mean-spirited.  As it turns out, the problem must have been in Christie's writing, and in her Fair Play obsession with laying out the precise details of every murder so that the reader could work out the killer on their own.  The BBC version is a lot less interested in the whodunnit of the story, and more focused on the psychological effects of its gruesome events.  It very effectively captures the breakdown of the rigid social conventions that govern the type of 30s house party the characters think they've been invited to, and which they initially try to cling to before the reality of being trapped with a killer sinks in.  As the cast is whittled down, the claustrophobia and paranoia rise, and the characters begin to let go of their pretense of civility--including, eventually, their insistence that they are innocent of the crimes of which they've been accused by their tormentor, and for which they've been sentenced to death.

    The entire cast is strong, but Maeve Dermody and Aidan Turner are particularly good as a clever, capable young woman concealing a terrible capacity for evil, and the only member of the party willing to admit to his own moral depravity.  The miniseries also makes some changes to some of the characters' backstories and the crimes they've been accused of, which taken together suggest that despite the killer's proclamations, what's on trial in this story is actually the pre-War British way of life, and its thoughtless assumptions about class and racial superiority.  My only problem with this adaptation is that if you watch it knowing who the killer is, and observing their interactions with the other characters, it becomes easier to see that they are a cruel psychopath, and that for all their pretenses to be seeking justice, the fact that they've constructed such an elaborate, sadistic game suggests that they're much more interested in bringing more suffering and pain into the world.  The mini tries to address this in several scenes that obliquely hint at the killer's depravity before they are revealed, but the structure of the story--in which they only get a short scene to explain themselves--means that this thread is inevitably shortchanged.  Even with all the welcome alterations that it makes to Christie's original, it's hard to finish And Then There Were None and not feel at least a little unsatisfied.  It's not that we want any of these, for the most part unrepentant, murderers to survive, but by the end of their torment we don't really want their killer to win either.  For all the changes that this version of the story makes, and despite its overall success at making something more resonant than the novel it's based on, it doesn't find a way to deprive the killer of the last word.

  • Sherlock: The Abominable Bride - A few weeks ago, while reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Overture, it occurred to me that, slowly but surely, Gaiman's Sandman and Steven Moffat's Doctor had become the same type of character, a protean trickster figure who exists in many forms, but who is always fundamentally the same, and essential to the proper running of the universe.  Inevitably, both of these authors return to a story about their characters' multifarious existence, about the many types of stories told about them and the many guises they take, all of which have the same heart (Gaiman has also told this type of story about Batman, with the rather forgettable Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?).  About halfway into "The Abominable Bride"--the one-off/special/standalone episode that stands in for this year's season of Sherlock--we realize that Moffat is now telling this kind of story about Sherlock Holmes.  What initially seems like a rather pointless, tail-swallowing trip back to the 19th century (which only throws into sharper relief how much Sherlock, and Benedict Cumberbatch's performance in particular, owe to Granada's magnificent adaptation of Doyle's stories, with the incomparable Jeremy Brett as Holmes) turns out to be a reflection on Holmes's many facets, leading us to ask: is this a story about Sherlock, in the 21st century, imagining how his life might be like as a Victorian detective, or is it about Holmes, in the 19th century, imagining his life in a future that has flying machines and mobile phones?

    On the face of it, this makes a certain amount of sense.  Holmes has been reimagined and reinvented dozens of times since his creation more than a century ago, and the best of these variations retain a certain essential Holmes-ishness no matter how much they change the character.  So why not tell a story in which these different versions meet and comment on each other? Especially one that also reminds us how much Holmes, even within his own story, is mediated by his chronicler?  The problem, unfortunately, is that by calling attention to Holmes's many facets, Moffat and co-creator Mark Gatiss (who is also credited as writer on this episode) remind us how little they understand the character.  Or rather, how much they want him to be something he was never meant to be.  No matter how badly Moffat wants it, Sherlock Holmes is not a superhero.  He is not an elemental force binding the universe together, and he is definitely not The Doctor.  What makes Holmes such an evergreen and resilient character is, on the contrary, his humanity--his kindness, his decency, his appreciation of human folly and weirdness--and this is something that Sherlock has never been able to accept.  "The Abominable Bride," like so many Sherlock stories before it, tries to tell us that we need Sherlock to save the world, when this has never been Holmes's function, and has always been the least interesting and least convincing use to which the show has put its title character.

    Along the way, there are several ideas that must have looked good on paper but really don't work on screen.  Andrew Scott's Moriarty returns not as Sherlock's nemesis (which he was never any good at) but as a representative of his fears, his self-loathing, and most of all his addiction to drugs.  In principle, this is a good way of walking back Moriarty's return at the end of the last season (in the face of fandom's uniformly negative reaction to that development), but it runs aground on Sherlock's consistent failure to engage with its title character's addiction on any but the most simplistic terms, and even then, only when it suits it.  Even more dangerously, there's an attempt to address the show's history of misogyny that goes so spectacularly wrong that it's almost amazing to watch.  For one thing, this element corralled into the 19th century story strand--thus implying that misogyny was a problem of the Victorians, despite the fact that Conan Doyle's original stories are much better than Sherlock has ever been at featuring interesting female characters who are treated with respect and are allowed to move the plot in their own right.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, the show delivers a twist on "The Five Orange Pips" in which the secret society hounding Holmes's client is a group of feminist avengers who hunt down and kill cheaters and abusers--an already problematic plot development that is made even more so when you remember that in the original story, the secret society in question was the KKK.  That's right, in Steven Moffat's universe, feminism takes its cues from the Klan, and criticizing Sherlock on the internet is akin to stabbing philandering husbands in the heart while dressed as an avenging, ghostly bride.

    Somewhat strangely, the only character who still works and still feels human is Gatiss's Mycroft--all the more impressive when you consider that his screen time in the 19th century strand is devoted to an unpleasant, offensive fat joke.  In the 21st century strand, however, Gatiss is very good at conveying the anguish of loving someone who is incapable of recognizing or returning that love, and of having to stand by and watch as they destroy themselves.  If the rest of Sherlock were as human and real as the few moments in which we see Mycroft laments his inability to save his brother from himself, it would be something to watch.  Instead, all we get is Moffat's increasingly desperate attempts to make the show, and the character, into something they could never be.

  • Childhood's End - In principle, you have to respect what SyFy was trying to do with this miniseries.  After nearly a decade of relying almost exclusively on schlock, pulp, and shows that have nothing to do with science fiction for their bread and butter, the channel seems genuinely to be trying to get back to its roots.  And how better to do that than with a handsome, serious, expensive-looking adaptation of one of the core works of Golden Age science fiction?  Going into the miniseries, one's knowledge of SyFy's proclivities (and of what tends to happen to SF when it gets adapted by just about anyone) leads you to expect the familiar corner-cutting and standardization.  You expect the whole story to be turned into the heroic saga of one ruggedly handsome white man who saves the world through the sheer force of his virility while an adoring, stick-thin and perfectly-coiffed woman looks on.  And, to be fair, there is some of that here--the character who in the novel was the Secretary-General of the UN is transformed into a Midwestern farmer who dresses in nothing but jeans and leather jackets, and three of the five main female characters are defined purely as love interests and mothers.  But on the whole Childhood's End is a meditative and rather bleak story that avoids the temptation to veer into pulp.  No one here is going to save the day.  When the aliens who dub themselves The Overlords arrive on Earth and announce that they are going to save us from ourselves, it very quickly becomes clear that there's nothing we can do about that except hope that they are truly as benevolent as they claim to be.  And the answer to that question turns out to be both "yes" and "no"--the aliens' benevolence is a means to an end, and that end is, when viewed in a certain light, extremely sinister.  But the aliens themselves are not sinister at all, and the miniseries works hard (perhaps a little too hard) to present them as kind, compassionate beings who are doing what they think is right, and who have a compelling (if, to me, not really convincing) argument that this is, in fact, the right thing to do.

    The problem is that none of this is very interesting to watch, and certainly not over six nearly interminable hours.  I haven't read the Arthur C. Clarke novel on which the miniseries is based, so I have no idea where Childhood's End's faults are rooted, but the script (by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes creator Matthew Graham, which honestly surprised me quite a bit when I learned it) has hardly a single interesting or surprising moment, hardly a single line of dialogue that doesn't feel canned and predictable.  Childhood's End is clearly trying to be somber, but what it ends up landing on, most of the time, is underpowered, and even boring.  And that, in turn, makes it easier to notice the flaws in its basic concept, and in how Graham develops it.  The methods that the Overlords use to solve the problems of war, poverty, and inequality are, well, childish--in one scene, we're told that hunger is going to be solved because the US will use the ships of its recently decommissioned Navy to send America's leftovers to Africa, which is literally the sort of idea that a bright sixth-grader might come up with, but not something we can be expected to take seriously in a production aimed at adults.  Neither was I particularly convinced by the miniseries's contention that, without the pressures of necessity and scarcity, humanity will cease to care about work, art, or scientific pursuit.  (What's missing from the entire discussion--and here I suspect that the fault lies with the novel--is capitalism, and the idea that it too is a problem that the Overlords need to solve, perhaps the root of all other problems.  Without addressing that, all the solutions the miniseries suggests to our woes feel incomplete and meaningless.)  By the time the end comes around, and with it the expectation that we will buy into the idea that humanity needs to die so that God can come into existence, I was completely checked out.  Without reading the novel, it's hard to know whether Childhood's End could have worked with a better script, or whether its concept is irrevocably flawed, but either way it remains a well-intentioned bid for respectability, not a worthwhile work in its own right.

  • Dickensian - Five episodes in, I still find myself puzzled by the core concept of this series, which imagines that the background and supporting characters of some half dozen Dickens novels (and a few of the leads) all live on the same street and interact with each other.  I don't consider myself a Dickens fan (though I know enough about his novels, from general knowledge and watching adaptations, to have recognized all the main characters in Dickensian, and to know what's in store for most of them) and maybe that means that this show simply isn't for me.  But it's hard not to see the show as a sort of theme park selling the Dickens Experience--lots of quirky characters with odd names, even odder habits of speech, and hard-knock lives, all bouncing against each other at Christmastime.  The obvious point of comparison, Penny Dreadful, works because it quickly finds its own tone and builds its own world from its borrowed materials, but Dickensian still feels like little more than pastiche.  Of the three main storylines, one is an elaboration--the investigation of the murder of Jacob Marley (of A Christmas Carol fame)--while the other two are prequels describing the downfall of two young women, Honoria Barbary (Sophie Rundle), whose engagement to a young officer is endangered by her embittered sister (thus setting up the main plotline of Bleak House), and Amelia Havisham (Tuppence Middleton), who becomes romantically entangled with a scoundrel after her brother hires him to get at her inheritance (which will presumably lead her to wander around in a wedding dress plotting vengeance on all men, as she does in Great Expectations).  Unless creator Tony Jordan is planning to do something a little more bold than the show, so far, seems to promise, that means that we're watching a slow-motion trainwreck, the exact opposite of what Dickens's novels tend to deliver.  (But then, maybe I'm giving Jordan too little credit--the first episode, after all, ends with Little Nell miraculously recovering from her seemingly fatal illness.)

    For all that, I've found Dickensian unexpectedly enjoyable and compelling.  Largely, this is the execution--the writing is sharp, the actors are all solid, and the pacing is impeccable (on that last point, it really helps that the show's episodes are only half an hour long; it's still too rare for the writers of dramas to recognize that their running time isn't a function of their genre, but should reflect the needs of their story).  You end up wanting to know what happens next even if the project as a whole still feels a little dodgy.  But it also helps that the show has constructed some clever and moving family drama in the chinks of Dickens's stories.  Honoria's sister Frances (Alexandra Moen), who is judgmental, priggish, and actively working to destroy her sister's happiness, also has extremely sympathetic moments.  We see how she has trapped herself (and been trapped, by social expectations and her domineering father) in the responsible, caretaking role, while her younger, prettier sister gets to dream of romance, and is protected from the family's financial problems.  Her bitterness over this understandable, even as it corrodes her soul.  Similarly, the triangle that develops between Miss Havisham, her whiny brother, and the soulless adventurer he hires to destroy her, is fascinating, constantly shifting to expose parallel currents of love and hate between all three of them.  Middleton is particularly good at conveying both Amelia's determination and her vulnerability.  We can imagine how this woman could be destroyed by the act of betrayal being perpetrated upon her, but we also really want her to find a way to overcome it (or maybe just to take her revenge on the right people, and thoroughly trounce her brother and his partner).

    I suspect that I won't know what I actually think about Dickensian until it concludes and I have a clearer sense of what Jordan's project is (for one thing, I'm a lot less interested in the murder mystery than, I suspect, the show wants me to be).  The show has been so well-made so far, though, that it's hard not to root for it to find a justification for its existence--something that makes it its own story, or even a meaningful commentary on Dickens and his work, not just an imitation filling in his margins.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 44 books in 2015, about the same as last year and still not where I'd like to be (I'm still working on what might yet be number 45, but I doubt I'll make it in the three hours and change I have left).  About a third of the books I read were science fiction, a much higher proportion than usual due to Hugo reading and some other writing projects I'm working on.  Though I've found some great new discoveries, it's not a ratio I'd like to maintain.  In 2016, I'd like to get back to reading more mainstream fiction, not to mention fantasy.  I also read quite a few short story collections (and an even larger number of uncollected short stories during my search for Hugo nominees early in the year), which I find more pleasing--I used to be a great lover of the short story collection, and I seem to have fallen out of the habit in recent years.  It's good to get back to it.

Highlights of the reading year include going back to The Lord of the Rings for the first time in nearly a decade (I storified my thoughts about the book and its legacy here), and further progress through Dorothy L. Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels and stories.  I also reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell in honor of the BBC's miniseries adaptation, and found it to be just as delightful and clever as I had remembered.  I made some forays into the bibliographies of authors that I've heard about for years but had never tried for myself, such as C.J. Cherryh (Foreigner, which read a little too much like Shōgun in space for my liking) and Lois McMaster Bujold (The Vor Game and Mirror Dance, both of which I liked--the latter especially).

Going into 2016, there are a few reading projects I'd like to get to.  I've been thinking of rereading Dune, which got a lot of attention this year for its 50th anniversary, and which I haven't read since my teens (I probably still won't bother with any of the sequels, though).  I'd also like to finally finish reading Gormenghast--I read the first book in my early twenties and found it stunning but also exhausting; I couldn't quite face going on to the concluding volumes in the trilogy.  Most of all, and as usual, I'd like to read more, read more widely, and read more of the right stuff.  I have quite a few enticing books in my TBR pile--several of them 2015 releases that I'd like to get to before the Hugo voting deadline--and if I get to a sizable portion of them, I think I'll probably have a pretty good time.

Best Books of 2015:
  • Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (review)

    I haven't yet read Cho's extremely well-received debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (though it's right at the top of that TBR pile I mentioned), but if it's anything like her short story collection, I don't doubt that it will be a blast.  Cho's writing is smart, funny, and heartfelt, combining fantasy with elements of the romance genre and a fascinating portrait of Malaysian life, whether back home or as ex-pats in the UK.  The sense of place that her stories evoke--where that place might be Malaysia, Britain, the spirit world, or a colony on the moon--is powerful and immediately convincing, and the thread tying her stories together is the way in which their origins and culture guide and define her characters, teaching them how to see the world and how to live in it.

  • The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams III

    If you'd told me a few weeks ago that one of my favorite reads of 2015 would be Neil Gaiman's latest addition to the Sandman mythos, I would have called you crazy.  I picked up Overture almost out of the sense of obligation, and mostly out of curiosity.  I wasn't expecting Gaiman--whose writing I've found a little samey in recent years--to find new notes in a story that found its perfect and very decisive conclusion decades ago (especially in light of his previous addition, Endless Nights, which was the very definition of inessential).  But Overture turned out to be stunning--first, visually, with Williams delivering art that finally lives up to the title character's role as the lord of dreams and imagination.  Every page here is a wealth of imagery and color, nearly an assault on the senses if it weren't all done with such care and attention to detail.  But the story, too, is a delight, a sort of prequel to the Sandman story, which explains what Dream was doing that left him vulnerable to the decades-long imprisonment that kicks off the saga's events.  At points it veers into fanservice--there are details here that connect to loose ends in A Doll's House and A Game of You that didn't really need to be tied up--but the core of the story expands our understanding of Dream and his world in a way that reminded me why I found the original Sandman saga so compelling.  It's got me wanting to revisit this whole world all over again.

  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

    I can't remember the last book that left me feeling as exhilarated and energized as The Blazing World, and as desperate to press it into the hands of everyone I know.  On its surface, the story feels like a very familiar kind of complicated--an aging artist, convinced that her career has been stymied by her gender and the art world's misogyny, partners with three men to present her work under their name.  When she comes forward to claim her work as her own, the response--from the art world and her collaborators--is complex and causes unexpected ripples.  The story is told through document fragments, interviews, and competing narratives.  But the heart of The Blazing World isn't in its story, but in the fervent, overpowering personality of its main character, a difficult, mercurial, fiercely intelligent woman who is equal parts bully and victim, and whose passion for art and creation shines through every page of this book.  Nearly every character, in fact, is an artist of one sort or another, and The Blazing World is largely about how they see their work, how they create it, and how they feel about putting it into the world.  To read it is to become caught up in a storm of creativity and furious, churning thought, and it's hard not to turn the last page and want to join in the adventure of making something out of nothing, and hoping that someone will see it for what it is.

  • The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley

    I'm indebted to Nina Allan for introducing me to Whiteley, whose future work I anticipate with bated breath.  The Beauty is an eerie, claustrophobic novella that combines post-apocalypse, body horror, and an examination of gender roles in a way that is both horrifying and seductive.  A colony of lonely men in a world in which women have all died are overjoyed to be joined by a troupe of beautiful, accommodating women.  So overjoyed, in fact, that they fervently ignore everything that is strange and offputting about these women, who may not even be women at all.  As the men begin to experience physical changes in response to their "wives," they have to decide what's more important to them--their identity as men (and as human beings), or the love that their new partners offer them.  Utterly disturbing but also impossible to stop thinking about once you put it down, The Beauty was one of the finest works of genre I read last year.
Honorable mentions:
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link - This would probably be in the best books list proper if I hadn't read some of the best stories here--such as "I Can See Right Through You," "Valley of the Girls," and "Light"--before picking it up.  But it's great to revisit those stories, and to discover some of the other pieces here that were new to me, and which are typically excellent.

  • Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee - Once again, I've been reading Lee's short fiction piecemeal for years, but it was only when I saw all these stories together in one volume that I realized what an amazing writer he is, imaginative and skilled with a phrase.  I'm really looking forward to his debut novel next year.
I'm glad to say that hardly any book I read in 2015 was bad enough to qualify for a worst books list, and the one exception was so painful and disappointing that I'd really rather not write about it.  So instead, let's have a discussion of how that disappointment came to be ever-so-slightly mollified.
  • The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett

    Earlier this year, I read Pratchett's Raising Steam, the penultimate Discworld novel and the last aimed at adult readers.  When I finished it, I was so angry that I didn't even know what to write, and so ended up writing nothing.  I didn't even know on whose behalf I should be angrier--Pratchett himself, whose many accomplishments deserved so much better than to be capped off with a barely-publishable and often offensive mess, or his fans, who were apparently expected to keep handing over money no matter how degraded the material appearing under Pratchett's name had become.

    So I'm very grateful for The Shepherd's Crown, and for the fact that I've been able to put my decades-long love affair with Pratchett's writing to rest on a more positive note, rather than end it with the sour disappointment of Raising Steam.  To be clear, The Shepherd's Crown is far from Pratchett at his best, and though the book's afterword tries to blame this on the fact that it was left as only a first draft at the time of his death, it's clear that the problems afflicting it run deeper and are similar to the ones that marred much of his writing in the last five years (including, unfortunately, the sad curdling of his liberalism, which began in Snuff, and here results in some oddly regressive attitudes towards gender roles).  But like most of the Tiffany Aching novels, it benefits from a strong, wistful sense of place, and from the dominant personalities of its witch characters.  It's a strange coincidence that the final Discworld novel ended up being the one in which Pratchett laid to rest one of his most iconic characters, but to its credit the book doesn't coast on that borrowed significance.  The chapters depicting Granny Weatherwax's death and its quiet, orderly aftermath are some of the most moving in the book, especially as they bring Tiffany, who started the series mourning for her grandmother, who had loomed as large in her life as Granny did for so many Discworld readers, full circle.  The actual story is, unfortunately, rather thin (it's here that the book's being a draft probably comes most into play), but the emotional highlights still hit home.  If The Shepherd's Crown is not quite the reminder we needed of why Pratchett was such an important writer to so many of us, it is at least a good way to say goodbye.