Ten years ago, I stopped reading books. Those four simple words cannot convey how startling, desperate and wretched this statement is. To convey their weight and portent, I'd have to switch them for four other words like 'San Andreas Fault ruptures' or 'Apocalypse of Fish Now' but then you wouldn't understand what I'm on about. Probably. All joking aside, this was no light matter. Since before I could read, books and stories were my life, particularly the boundless, free realm of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF&F). But then I had too many bad ones, or, to be exact, my tastes had sharpened and honed themselves until most books I read revealed themselves to be the monstrously over-simplistic - oft mysogenistic - wish-fulfilling, cliche-ridden pile of donkey turds they really were. I had the misfortune of reading three particularly loathsome or disappointing ones one after the other, and that was it. A lifelong love affair, over.
I can list on my fingers the SF&F books I read and enjoyed since then (hell, replace 'enjoyed' with 'was actually able to finish instead of hurling it across the room in disgust'). The Harry Potter series. 'Babel 17'. 'Slaugtherhouse 5'. 'To Say Nothing Of The Dog'. 'The Lies of Locke Lamora'. Diskworld novels. Hmm, there's another one or two in there that I cannot recall. That's it.
[Edit: I remembered the others I read. Temeraire series, one Miles Vorkosigan, and Card's Pastwatch]
[Note that I did read history books, philosophical treatise, a book about food, travelogues, the Aubreyad, comics/manga and other literary fictions and non-fictions in the meantime, but hell, even those got thin on the ground, particularly after I started writing fanfiction, and disappeared almost entirely once the Spawn devoured my time on toast with ketchup.]
It's heartbreaking, you know. I still go into my SF&F bookstore out of decades-long habit and nostalgia, I stray within those gleaming, colorful aisles. I remember the depth and beauty of my old addiction, how much pleasure it used to bring me...and I just know - because I've been there and tried - that 99% of the books on these shelves will make me want to cry. Worse, they'll destroy a piece of my childhood memory of enjoying them. Blah.
I tried reading books only if I had good recs for them. This worked for one book, failed me completely for another (click on this rant for Why Mal Didn't Like The Dresden Files, but only if you don't know or didn't particularly like the books, or if you don't react defensively when your favorite book is skewered...) Literature, like music and art, is so intensely personal, that even a positive rec is no guarantee that someone will like the book. You cannot base yourself on popularity of the book alone to decide which might be ahead of the pack, either, because if that were the case, I'd have to read the Twilight series, and that would give me an aneurysm and then I would die. You cannot even judge if you'll like something because it's stood the test of time and has become a classic: though I will be ready to grant you that uber-classics like Stranger In A Strange Land, The Book of the New Sun and others are sacred beasts for a reason, that does not mean that I liked them or was able to finish them (I wasn't).
SF&F books seem to fall into one or - joy! - several of the following pitfalls.
. Derivative. Quest, anyone? (A good antidote to anyone who's hungover after too many of these is a strong coffee with a dollop of the Evil Overlord list, such as this one, to quote one of many)
. The Neverending Story That Never Ends, Even When You Beg It To Sieur Jordan, I am LOOKING AT YOU. Thank you for pretty much singlehandedly inventing the genre that now inundates our SF&F aisles in their watered down and derivative multitude.
. It's just SF&F! Wherein you can make a trilogy or an entire endless series of books based on a couple of undeniably good SF&F concepts, and be lazy when it comes to characterization, plot, logic, realism (yes, realism, because if, for eg, magic in your world can do Everything, then you need to explain why there's still problems and/or limitations that it should be able to address, or else I am going to laugh at you snidely and walk away) or other bookish necessities that are pretty basic IMO. Eg, my rant on the Dresden files, as well as Mercedes Lackey and other pot boilers.
. Wish Fulfillment A bitter, bitter game I play with myself is to see how many books in a row I can pick up in my SF&F store before I find one that does NOT include a bingo concept in the summary. My best streak was hitting THREE BOOKS IN A ROW where the hero's future love interest or female lead was both beautiful and mysterious, exacly those words. I shit you not. That being said, I've discovered since then that summaries are written by morons in the publishing bizz who are trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Still, most of the books in this category hold the promise they made on their cover...
. Experimental: The polar opposite of all of the above. These books are written by highly intelligent authors (and boy, do they like you to know it) who see SF&F as a way of freeing themselves from conventions, including literary, and who write brilliant books with the legibility of Ulysses (Joyce, not Homer). I will grant you that these are undoubtedly very clever and profound. They are also illegible. When I want a dense book about philosophy or life, I'll read a treatise or poetry or non-fiction essays. When I read SF&F, I kind of want to read, you know, an actual story. That makes sense. And is engaging and makes me want to turn the pages rather than take an aspirin. I'm just crazy that way.
. Take me seriously or I'll disembowl the puppy!. This shit is everywhere, not just SF&F. But SF&F has the freedom to take this to new highs (lows). Authors need to remember that if the only way they can engage their readers, or shock them, or make them feel something, is to throw in a gang-rape-by-aliens, sexual abuse as a child, extreme traumas/phobias, whatever...then they are probably not very good authors. Worse, though, are those who use the freedom of SF&F as a 'just because I CAN!' card, wherein you get pages of kink-ridden sex, bizarre sexual mores, torture-porn, you name it. Y'all know I'm not scared off by NC17 level material, right? I can tolerate gore and a lot of other stuff too. But only if it actually brings something to the story. Trust me, most of the times, it's only there for fanservice, or because the author seems to think we won't take him seriously if he doesn't put it in there, or because that's the only way he can think of to motivate his protagonist or generate wangst. It's juvenile and pathetic. Even if you DO think it's necessary to advance your plot, dear author, please keep in mind that it's ten times easier to get it wrong than right, which is why I don't touch NCS type scenes in my own writings with a ten foot pole.
To make matters more complicated, there are books that you could fit into some of the above categories, but which I managed to enjoy, and other books which did not go into those categories which I still could not finish (though in that case I merely judge that the book and I lack compatibility, but hey, author, thanks for at least writing something original, and I'm sure you'll find fans for it out there, you deserve it).
Since Spawn came along, I'd formally and completely given up on SF&F books. Just not worth it. And then...
Then I had to go to the US with the Spawn for three days, housebound in a place full of very early sleepers without internet or watchable TV, and I forgot the book I was reading at the time (The Philosophical Baby, a great non-fiction read if you have young kids, though the irony of me forgetting it before a half-day plane trip with my own adorable nuissance is not lost on me)
I went into the airport newstand hoping to score a thriller, one that would not be so bad I would hand it to the Spawn to torture for collage bits (thrillers and crime novels are subject to their own pitfalls...) And in some fit of insanity, I picked up a fantasy novel instead, because the cover and title caught my eye, and the summary sounded halfway intriguing. Also it was a new york times bestseller, which was why it was in an airport newstand in the first place.
It was great. Not flawless, but then no book is in my - hur hur - books, because as you may have discerned by now, I am something of a critic. But it was readable, engaging, realistic, with interesting believable characters, good ideas, and a fantastic ending.
The surge of hope this caused made me buy a book that I'd heard heartily recommended, even if it had all the hallmarks of a Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu ridden pile o' crap.
It was even better.
I read the sequel, and it was pretty kick-arse too.
I had now finished more SF&F books in one month than I'd read in the entire previous three years. I have a couple of others sitting on my desk, and hell, I'll even forgive them if they're crappy, because now at least I know there's something out there worth looking for. I might even be a bit more lenient, I think, since you're more ready to forgive faults in a loved one than in someone you've fallen out of love with. And SF&F may have just snuggled back into my heart again.
As long as I don't eat too many bad oysters.
Enough crap, Mal, get on with the recs.
The book I got at the airport ten minutes before that boarding call was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. The author takes no particular pains to hide what he wanted to do in this book, which was to nut JK Rowling. Well, I exagerate, there's no hate here. No, all he wanted to do was write something akin to Harry Potter, but for grownups, and the guideline 'Okay, but what would it REALLY be like?'. He mugged Narnia too, and that may be the flaw in the book: slaugthering two sacred cows like that left a lot of beef lying around, enough for three books rather than one. But other than a couple of slow chapters two-thirds of the way through, it does not hurt the story any.
Now, other than the epilogue and some much-needed editing of books 5 and 6, there's nothing wrong with HP. I like the books, particulary the first four. They're written about a schoolkid and reach across to pretty much all generations, that's fine. Grossman's characters go to magical University rather than school, and the magic, like the relationships, has depth, logic, twists and turns, and all of it, even the sex, actually does serve to either illustrate the protagonists or advance the plot. And there's moments that are...simply brilliant and absolutely chilling.
What may turn some people off, but was for me the selling point of the book, was the structure of the story. For most of it, nothing much happens other than the lives and adventures of students attending a magical university and then entering into the magical workforce and facing a life as magical salarymen/women. There's enough imagination there where pace is not lacking, but for people who are used to rapid buildups with obvious directions that will lead to Quests and Drama and Adventure and a Crisis Point with - most crucially - the protagonist being
This book has flaws - the protagonist does spend a bit too much time navel-gazing, even for a highly intelligent and sensitive young man - but it reignited my love for fantasy. Can't say more than that.
The next book I took, the real risk, was The Witcher series (The Last Wish, followed by The Blood of Elves, by A. Sapkowski). I loved the PC game that was based on the books, and was intrigued by the background. Other fans of the game said that the books were really good, and they are apparently a bestseller in their original Polish. The thing is, a lot of people think Eddings and Jordan and Hamilton are fantastic writers, too, and...well, a brief of the game and the book is that the protagonist is a spell-wielding kick-ass mutant fighter universally despised by all, until he protects them from monsters. In all his white-haired, weird-eyed glory, Geralt sounded like Elric of Melniboné's lil' brother. With bells on. But it gets better! In the second book, the Witcher collects himself a protegee, a young girl who is a Child of Destiny and both a witcher in training and a magician and a powerful medium and a princess. I'm completely serious here. There is no way in hell this can be good, right?
Yeah, as a matter of fact, it is. Very good. For starters, Sapkowski writes in the style I've always aimed for but can only dream of achieving. Well built sentences that carry gritty realism, biting humour, occasional elegance and yet a pleasing simplicity. The lead is a bit of a Gary Stu, but only on the edges; he makes plenty of mistakes, gets his ass handed to him and is rescued by ordinary people on some occasions, and his dilemnas and resolutions are ones that resonate with me. Yeah, he's pretty cool and tough, but not anywhere enough to be annoying. The Mary Sue has, in the first book of the trilogy, completely failed to do anything particularly remarkable with all her extraordinary abilities, and regularly behaves like a confused and narrow-minded tween. Maybe she'll become insufferable in the next two books, but for now I can read her without any problems. As for the obligatory Beautiful Woman, well, she's quite a character piece too...The real politiks is as good as I would expect from someone hailing from Poland, the chew toy thrown down between the East and the West for decades, and even the villains have personalities, some virtues and foibles. It's not a revolution in the genre or in literature, but the story is good and the style is a complete and utter pleasure. I really enjoyed these books!
I'll make an aside at this point to wholeheartedly recommend the game, if you can still get it (it's old, now, the enhanced unedited director's cut - the one you want - was out in 2007 if I remember right). It's a breath of fresh air in the RPG market dominated by straightlaced PG13 games (before the advent of Dragon Age ♥) I like to think The Witcher was the necessary first step towards RPG games finally getting ready to talk to adults. Before The Witcher, you saved princesses who gave you a courteous kiss. The Witcher gives you the opportunity (but not the obligation) to shag anything in a skirt. Fairly graphically. Other RPG games are straight as they come. The Witcher doesn't have GLBT relations, but when the hero tries to find a male colleague of his, a NPC snarls "What's wrong, worried about your boyfriend?" Other RPGs don't go higher in the rating than 'Damn'. The Witcher swears both graphically and ornately, and is as consistently rude as the people and the epoque demands it. Plus, it's frequently funny, and the quests are not black and white, good and evil: it's more along the lines of, 'Am I going to help freedom fighters here, or aid and abait terrorists?' And no, there is no good or bad answer to that question, it depends entirely on your point of view and either decision leads to something fairly grim.
So, I've got a couple of other books lined up; a David Brin I've not read yet, but he's always reliable in creating something intriguing, realistic and different, even if I might not like it, and some other one I grabbed purely on instinct. I'll rec them if I like them and anyone is interested.
But I'm also looking for new recs, to direct my reading. If I haven't scared y'all off with my rather abrasive analysis of all the things I DON'T like previously. Mainly I'm looking for books with a heroine who is NOT beautiful and not necessarily kick-ass, at least not in a Mary Sue way, and who does NOT have all the men fall in love with her. She'll be the star of a story where only a thin percentage of the time and plot is spent on her romantic escapades (if any! Come on, surprise me). Someone who FEELS like a real person, with personality traits, foibles, irrational beliefs, sober reasons and other charactertics, rather than the author's self insert going on an adventure. The book equivalent of Balsa from Moribito, is what I'm looking for. Anyone...? Seriously, if you can give me back the faith that SF&F can create a female character who's not an SI, a Sue, a wish fulfilled or a walking cliché, well, I'll be very grateful. That's, like, my holy grail, but other than the older Barbara Hambly books, I've yet to find anything that really scores.
Thanks! Mal over and out.
[A little addendum, for those who were wondering. I do not write fiction because of my problems with SF&F and fiction in general. Sure, occasionally I write a story in an effort to deliberately break a cliché that annoyed me in a book or fanfic, and I do TRY to avoid some of the pitfalls that irritate me. I'm not always successful, and even if I am, that doesn't mean the result is necessarily good. I'm just an amateur, I don't claim I can do any better than anyone who get published (okay, anyone not called Meyer, maybe). I write to satisfy a different set of urges than the ones satisfied by reading.]