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the various and sundry creations of sylvus tarn
Somewhere or other I came across a recce for Claire O'Dell's A Study in Honor, an AU Sherlock Holmes novel set in a dystopian near-future in which the south has seceded and is actively at war. Janet Watson is invalided out after losing her arm: though she is fitted with a prothesis, it works poorly, and she cannot continue as a surgeon until it's replaced.
Black in a world in which racism is creeping back to Civil War era levels, poor, out of work, & suffering from PTSD, she's willing to give living with the eccentric Sara Holmes in her luxurious apartment a shot—even though with a job it's not clear how she can provide half the rent.
As a story about a woman coping with loss—of her arm, her career, her parents, and her lover—and trying to rebuild a shattered life, the book works well. (And indeed, John Watson in the original was similarly, if not quite so direly, situated.)
This Watson is far more bitter than the original, living in a much darker time. That part was fine. It was the depiction of Holmes that didn't do it for me: instead of astonishing knowledge and powers of deduction, Holmes relies upon very expensive tech; instead of both of them being relatively poor (or, say, middle class...) Holmes is clearly paying for most of a pretty luxurious apartment, and indeed she also wears expensive clothes: in fact, one of the ways she tries to bribe Watson is with very beautiful and expensive garments. —The original Holmes didn't care much about clothes, or indeed money, though he liked a good meal and appreciated concerts.
Or take an even more minor detail, Holmes’ elaborate locs: sure, they're beautiful and make for a striking image, but if Holmes were a black woman, I'd presume she'd wear her hair very short, nearly shaven: less time consuming, much easier to throw a wig over or even pass as a man as is (recall Holmes is a master of disguise). Saddling herself with such a time-consuming, distinctive style is completely against character.
Stepping back to larger concerns, the original appreciated his sidekick for companionship, backup and to bounce ideas off—an active role. This one, whose initially mysterious career remains that way pretty much throughout, says several times she appreciates her new companion for being ‘restful’. While Holmes certainly sat, motionless, while thinking his ‘4 pipe problems’ he was anything but restful, and in fact, having nothing to do—being restful—aggravated him to the point of taking cocaine.
Though focused on his own interests to the point of selfishness, he did genuinely care for Watson; this Holmes merely infuriates her lesbian roomie by continually addressing her as ‘my love’ —something the asexual original would never do. Now, I realize some of the other modern interpretations have added a homosexual, or at least homoerotic (or in the case of split-sex pairs, heteroromantic) component, but aside from Holmes’ gifts of sensually appealing clothing, there's no subtext, let alone courting, just this obnoxious appellation. It is precisely the opposite of the way the original would have behaved, and the feeble conclusion to which Watson arrives by the end of the book not only completely contradicts canon, we as readers can't even conclude whether Watson has a good case (heh)—because the character as depicted is such a cipher.
To be sure, Holmes could be and was obnoxious, but it came out of his impatience, not a deliberate need or desire to needle people: in fact he was observed by Watson to have a preternatural technique of soothing his clients or others from whom he wished to extract information.
One final nit: for all their problems, not least of which were the racism in general and colonialism in particular, the original stories had a wonderfully evocative sense of atmospheric mood, which almost all modern versions, including this one, fail to capture. (The first Jude Law/Robert Downey Jr film comes closest, perhaps, helped by Hans Zimmer's wonderful score.)
I can kind of see why the author built her story on this framework—O'Dell wrote the book after taking a workshop on ‘Writing the Other’, so here was a time-honoured milieu into which a military doctor drawn into a medical mystery, set against a backdrop (a reviving Confederacy) that reinforces her personal problems that she suffers as a disabled woman of colour, could be usefully inserted. Great!
But Sherlock Holmes stories have very nearly acquired the level of myth, or fairy tale, and whether you repeat the original beats, ring changes, or subvert, you still have to acknowledge its source, and bedrock to this mythos, as it were is not only Holmes’ incredible abilities, but also his relationship with Watson; and neither of those elements were, in my opinion, sufficiently in evidence.
Thus, my disappointment.
(I was disappointed that efforts to photo edit this image failed too, so you'll just have to take it as it more or less is.
I know women are supposed to be all griefy ’n’ stuff after abortions, ’specially the spontaneous kind (aka miscarriages) but I never felt anything more than ‘oh, damn, now I gotta start over again’ —helped of course by the fact that
- it was early in the process & not at all medically problematic
- I was pretty confident about our fertility
- I was perfectly ok with being childless
For people who do have issues with fertility, or had time to get excited about, let alone bond to, their embryo/fetus, or desperately wanted a child, I get that it would be devastating. But it's mostly socially unacceptable, nowadays, to be so
That part, I celebrate. And speaking of celebrating womanhood, here's a floral giftwrap.
So I went to see the new Harry Potter with my bestie the other day, and given the generally lacklustre reviews was pleasantly surprised that it was, at least, watchable. I haven't really sorted out all my feelings about some of the underlying politics, though I was unequivocally unhappy with Nagini's origin story, or rather, her eventual fate. I get the fascination with coming up with backstories for the various minor characters in the original series, but making Voldemart's ophidian pet a woman of colour, introduced in a blatantly exoticized (I would say, Orientalized...) way is, um, insensitive. At best.
So that was gross.
But I have clearer thoughts on Mune: Guardian of the Moon, a 2014 French film I initially thought was Japanese. Whoops. It appears to be aimed at the 5–8 year old set, mebbe, which justifies Netflix's decision to dub it into English, but I felt kinda dumb.
Despite being 3-D animated, I did have some justification for my mistake. The story is about a anthropomorphic deer character, the shy and gentle Mune who, to his surprise and everyone else's (not least the apprentice trained for the job) is given the task of “guarding the moon.” This entails guiding the mystical, somewhat giraffesque creature that tows it through the sky, and bears more than a passing resemblence to the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke.
In fact, pretty much the entire film riffed off other fantasy films. Mune's character design (& colour), not to mention his people's magical-coloured-light interaction with their forest, reminded me of the 2009 Avatar; the baddie was (in my not so humble opinion) a visual swipe of Chernabog from Fantasia and his origin story very much like the boar's in Princess Mononoke. The evil snakes of jealousy bear more than a passing reference (especially in their initial, paired appearance) to Ursula's minions in The Little Mermaid, and the baddie's comic minions came off as a cross between the two male gargoyles of Hunchback and the hyenas in Lion King. The cowardly old moon guardian had basically the same character design, both visually and in personality, as the firefly in that mess of an adaptation of Princess in the Frog by Disney.
The guardian of the sun, Sohone, in both design and personality, brought Simba to mind. And the wordless kodoma of the lute-strings of the moon looked like a bunch of furbies!
Now as it happens, I'm quite fond of kitty cats, myths, and all of the films in question (however problematic they may be), as well as Edward Scissorhands, on whom Mune's character was evidently explicitly based (though I was actually more reminded of Sweet Tooth, from the eponymous comic by Jeff Lemire.) So I liked the story. Perhaps the most interesting character, either because she was truly original (or I simply haven't encountered her source...Lumiere, perhaps...?) was Glim, a wax girl who lives in the interstices of day and night: too cold at night, and she temporarily freezes; worse, exposure to the sun's rays during the day would melt her into a puddle, killing her permanently.
Her character design, in comparison to those of the male protags, was (in my not-at-all-humble opinion) the ugliest—though also the most original—and she was the only memorable female character—in fact, the only one I recall having a speaking role. Everyone else—the prior two guardians, the current guardians, Mune's brother and father, Glim's father, the baddie, the baddie's minions, the advisor to the Sun Guardian—was male. Whoops.
Like Hermione, Glim's role was to be educated and sensible and to tell the irresponsible male characters to stop, and do this correctly, according to the book. Honestly, if they'd just cast the protag with female voice talent, or better yet, both guardians with female voice talent, it would have gone a looooooong way to subverting the otherwise entirely predictable story. (It's one of the reasons I find Spirited Away so splendid—girls can be just as sullen, stupid, reckless and determined as boys, but we hardly ever get to see that.)
I chose to watch this because I was tired and wanted something not too challenging (or gory—I closed my eyes during the squicky parts of Fantastic Beasts) and on that count this charming anime delivered. But I can't help being saddened that the writers couldn't’ve been just a bit more daring with their gender stereotypes.
Of course, green and red with gold and silver trim is about stereotyped as you can get for xmas giftwrap...
I really wanted to like Zen Cho's Sorceror to the Crown: I mean,
Jane Austen Georgette Heyer crossed with Susannah Clark. With, perhaps a dash of Patrick O'Brian or Naomi Novik thrown in. What could be more perfectly suited to my own tastes?
Confession time: I really wanted to love Susannah Clark's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell too, but didn't even manage to finish that one, because the main characters were so unpleasant and unappealing. Honest, beautifully drawn, and complex, yes; appealing, no. But oh, the language! Anyway. Back to Crown. Clark's book did explore race relations, a bit, in the character of the butler, Black. Cho, who is an author of colour, takes on not only race relations, but sexism and classism as well: all three are embodied by the female protagonist, Prunella Gentleman. Like the Black character, her name is hardly an accident: women are not allowed to be thaumatages, let alone sorcerors (thaumatages who have managed to acquire a familiar.)
Familiars, in this universe, are members of Faery, (or related lands, from which such creatures as dragons or unicorns come). They are in a sense a conduit for the magic flowing from Faery to Earth; and Britain's magic is drying up. Thus it falls to Zacharias Wythe, the adopted son (& former slave) of Stephen Wythe, who has inherited his father's position—sorceror to the crown—to find new sources of magic. As most of the magical community suspect him of murdering his precessor (& his predecessor's familiar into the bargain) he's rather hampered by constant political wrangling (not to mention assassination attempts.)
But their suspicions at least make sense in the context of the narrative. Less explicable is Zacharias’ sudden need to defend—nay, encourage women thaumatages. He's deeply impressed by the students the school in general and Prunella in particular, despite the fact that they're being schooled out of using magic. Moreover, the societal expectation that women of the lower orders will use hedge-witch charms to make their lives and work easier, but that gently bred females won't touch magic, seems very believable. What didn't is that a shy man, barely exposed to any women (save his adoptive mother) would, upon learning that women can do magic and do it well, would suddenly drop lifelong prejudices and suddenly start actively combating prohibitions against it. (Presumably his sudden infatuation with Prunella is the catalyst, but if so, the author makes a poor job of showing it—Zacharias, for example, assiduously furthers Prunella's goals of getting a rich husband. Even if he's not terribly jealous or demonstrative, one would expect a few cues that he at the least engaging in heroic self-sacrifice to make Prunella happy. Which to be sure is completely in character—though that's hardly obvious till the end of the book—but he seems interested only in furthering her magical career. And rather oddly unaware that his efforts are likely to go to waste, unless Prunella chooses—or chuses—a liberally minded spouse open to her continuing studies.)
Hard as his life is, Prunella's is worse. Living on suffrance as not quite a daughter, expected to pitch in with anything from teaching to scrubbing the attics at the witches’ school where her father parked her shortly before his death, as a young woman of colour with neither name nor dowry, she has very few expectations, though her exposure to rich students (and education) has led her to dream of a good marriage to a wealthy peer; instead, perceived suddenly as a liability by her “aunt”, she's summarily demoted to servant status, & instead leaves with Zacharias.
It's obvious (from the Heyer references in the books glowing blurbs if nothing else) that these two will get together, but if we are told a little too often that Zacharias is handsome, melancholy and attractive to women as a result, there seems even less reason to suppose he would find Prunella appealing (save for the fact they both routinely suffer prejudice) given that she has little interest in his beloved thaumatagy, wants only a London season, and lies to him constantly.
The racism both these characters suffer is shown, effectively and affectingly to the reader, as for example Zacharias’ offhand musing that his adoptive father, for whom he feels a real filial affection, couldn't be bothered to have purchased his (biological) parents as well, since they showed no magical talent, despite the cost not being burdensome. It was in my opinion the most devastating condemnation of racism in the book, the senior Wythe's thoughtless cruelty: and this was the man whom Zacharias cherished most in the world! Prunella suggests it's not, 24 years later, too late to go looking for them, but Zacharias has come too far: what would he say, to two uneducated slaves, even if they hadn't been worked to death in the Caribbean sugar plantations?
Prunella was more vividly drawn, and again, given the betrayal by her adopted “mother”, her exclusion from the highest echelons of society because of her foreign (non-white) birth mother, it's completely understandable she'd be very leery of trusting anyone else—hence the deceit, self-centeredness and amorality up to and including murder. After thinking about the story for a couple of days, I concluded that part of the problem was that this was a first novel, and Cho hadn't quite managed to convey the characters’ inner qualms—at least, not to their full extent. So far as the romantic subplot is concerned, their gradually deepening attraction and affection—at which Heyer was a master at depicting—is delicately implied, but the reader has to work pretty darned hard to find it.
But the real problem is that this universe, like Clark's, and, even more, Greg van Eekhout's California Bones features worldbuilding in which magic is very much a finite resource, controlled by entities who demand a very dear price for it. That's altogether realistic, but awfully bleak. Prunella isn't an unlikeable character because she lies to protect herself or resorts to murder—after all, Lois McMaster Bujold's beloved Miles is not only guilty of both (and how) by the time he's 17, he orders torture (& cover ups thereof) into the bargain.
The difference, I realized, is that Miles knows—and feels—what he's doing is wrong. He may overcome his repugnance because he feels his behavior is the lesser of two evils, but he's never unaware of the crime he's committing. The apogee of his character development is Memory, when he almost loses sight of this critical understanding. Prunella, by contrast, rather likes being amoral. It's her revenge, for the way society in general and her adoptive mother in particular, have treated her. In this, I think the author was attempting to capture the rule-breaking insouciance of perhaps Heyers’ most beloved heroine, the eponymous Grand Sophy, but instead comes across as callous. In Bujold's wide green world, even the most appalling of monsters suffer endless torment, which they express via the most human of eyes. Cho's universe, by contrast, is peopled by creatures who munch on souls and are happy to inflict psychic pain for no particular reason than it pleases them to do so.
That's not really a place I want to be.
Unlike giftwrap mode;)
Hey, it's December, that means I can post old pix of red-n-green holiday wrapping—also dig out old reviews, as frex this lo-o-o-o-ng one (with spoilers) from mid-2016 about Corinne Duyvis’ YA, Otherbound. Originally recced to me (iirc) as a novel that does pale-people-on-the-bottom-of-society right—i.e. without a lot of emphasis—I thought it interesting, not only in the deadly sense of not-really-caring-for-it, but also having an intriguing premise, not quite successfully carried out.
(The go-to exploration of racism in fantasy would of course be N.K. Jemison's Broken Earth trilogy, which at that point [when I originally wrote this review] was heading towards the first of three back-to-back hugos; like Hamilton it has and will continue for a long time to come have a huge influence on its genre. And in fact, once I read The Fifth Season I immediately realized nothing I could ever write would come close to addressing this issue with the verve Jemison demonstrated. Good, I thought, someone who actually knows what they're doing has done a spectacular job, I can go do somethin’ else, that I might be marginally competent at...)
This YA is about a young man named Nolan who has—since perhaps the age of 5—spent most of his life in the mind of another, a
slave servant in a magic-using world whose preternatural ability to heal has been put in service to protect a dethroned princess in whom the slightest scratch will activate a murderous curse.
Nolan has already lost a foot, and any kind of hope to a normal life to this person, as he helplessly watches her life go by, without the slightest ability to change any of it, nor even to communicate with her (well, except for experiencing her pain, and since she can heal from just about anything, it can be searingly awful). Desperately attempting to function in his own world, while constantly being jerked into hers has put enormous strain not only on his own life, but his family's as well.
Amara's oppression, and Nolan's efforts to cope with the condition he agrees to pretend is epilepsy—the alternative being insanity—are realistically (and unsentimentally) displayed. (For example, the first thing happening to children of the servant class is that their tongues are cut out, so their chatter won't disturb their ‘betters’. One of the most heartbreaking asides is Amara's almost-ability, not quite lost, to taste food, which her fellow servant Maart has completely lost; both have a difficult time swallowing without fluids to wash their food down.) As the story progresses, Nolan finally manages to break through the wall that separates him, and together, he and Amara struggle first to understand, and finally combat the deadly magic that ties their fates.
I personally found the blandly described sexual relationship between Amara and her co-servant Maart rather tedious, and could've wished for the love Amara has for her mistress, Cilla, to be as sensitively depicted with the same flair as painful difficulties their power differentials placed on the relationship. However, the characters are vividly portrayed, and the action and pacing are well done.
An aside: the book design didn't do a lot for me—the star-spattered black clouds around the chapter headings were pretty, subtle and well-done, but the ‘drop’ capitals were just plain ugly. I get that they were supposed to tie into the cover design font, but, jeez, they were majorly unattractive. This is what I get, I guess, for being a would-be calligrapher, wanna-be font designer, & sometime-appreciator of typesetting/book design.
I mention this not only because I detested the design, but also because it made an otherwise professionally produced hardcover look amateurish (ok, whoever chose that bold gothic font to distinguish Amara's POV from Nolan's kinda went overboard: look, any experienced reader of fantasy could've figured this out with a simple change to italics, and that bold low-slung gothic font does not go with a Bernhard-esque font—a delicate roman style with long ascenders. Besides which, you would expect the Bernhard to go with the fantasy world, and the even-width gothic to match modern-technology world—reversing them in effect gives the kind of disconnect you get when printing the word ‘red’ in green ink).
But what was most interesting to me, reading the author's notes/thanks at the end was her comment that her betas unanimously said her ‘first half needs more work’. From my point of view the second half of the book had what I'd consider the more traditional sorts of conflicts in fantasy stories (mild spoilers to follow):
- Try to figure out what draws Nolan (the USian character) to Amara & the Dunelands
- Attempting to defeat our world's travellers
In contrast the first half of the book (which from a characterization point of view actually struck me as stronger) the focus is more on mundane problems:
- Amara's need to cope with Jorn's abusive behavior
- Amara's need to cope with the power imbalance between herself and Cilla
- Amara's efforts to reconcile her feelings between Maart and Cilla, when the former hates the latter (because of the princess-slave dynamic), and the latter dismisses the former's personhood (presumably)
- Nolan's difficulties navigating his life as a disabled person.
In effect, my impression is that the author and her betas did such a good job fixing the first half the book that the latter, more nominally ‘good’ or ‘exciting’ part of the story suffers by comparison.
Just as an example, it beggars belief that the abuse sensitized Amara (& Nolan, for that matter, who has more reason than she to pick up on ‘our-world’ mannerisms) as depicted so realistically in the early chapters would have failed to notice Jorn's behavior patterns changing as he's possessed by different (our-world) people. It also seems unlikely that Nolan's ‘disability’—living in Amara's head most of the time such that this kid's attention is so distracted by blinking in and out of her existance that he's effectively unable to judge the quality of a mainstream superhero film—would allow him to have developed the google-fu to find Nadda on the internet.
I doubted I could've done it (as described in the novel) and I'm willing to be I've done a lot more online research than even the fairly typical computer literate teenager (& f2 generation was brought up with computers from toddlerhood, given the wizard).
Nolan comes to realize that the tremendous sacrifices—the loss of one limb, the complete lack of a normal life, his lacking and often brittle relationships with his parents and sister, exacerbated by the need to disguise the connection as ‘epilepsy’—have meant Amara's survival; and his participation in their struggles to survive ultimately free their country from a terrible cabal that caused untold misery. But for all that—and the hope he has for a normal life by the end of the book—I can't help thinking that he shows a remarkable lack of bitterness and anger: he may very well love Amara; but I can't help thinking, even once he's free of her, that he probably deeply resents her vampiric hold on nearly a decade of his life, with knock-on effects that will persist forever.
We don't even get to find exactly what Cilla and Amara's story will be, precisely. While the uncertainty—for both these characters, certainly smacks very much of the real world, ultimately, given the action-adventure plotting (& its styling) I found lack of resolution disappointing.
This all goes back to Dorothy Sayers’ complaint (through Harriet Vane) about introducing so much psychological depth to your genre story that it throws everything else out of balance. That sort of thing can be fixed (which is why I love both her books & Bujold's so much—they're both brilliant at it) but that balancing action is really hard to do.
To be sure, I think this novel makes a very worthwhile attempt; it just didn't happen to be a good fit for me.
Oh yeah, a link to today's page.
Actually today's piece is just fine, it's the links that are, to put it mildly, fugly. (I'm writing this on the 5th...) While I don't think our 41st president was as incompetent as his son proved, (let alone the current office holder) nor as mundanely bad as ole Raygun, I still think he should have been up on war crimes charges. (I'm beginning to believe that just about every president during my lifetime, possibly with the exception of Carter, should've been up on war crimes charges. Seems to come with the job. This sort of awareness is, I think, why people “seem less enchanted with democracy.” It's not the ideal —it's dealing with the reality as it plays out in this country. (And yes, I know, PoC have been disillusioned far longer.)
And the way I've mostly been dealing with the slow dismantling of all the good bits our government does, which will take years if not decades to repair, is to ignore it, instead spending my time make tiny, inconsequential bits of beauty. Um, enjoy?
Unless otherwise noted, text, image and objects depicted therein copyright 1996--present sylvus tarn.Sylvus Tarn