Dreams and Shadows is actually Cargill’s first novel, I guess. I’ve read Sea of Rust, which is darker than even this novel, one that features murderous dwarf fairies and an all-out battle in downtown Austin, Texas.
- Urban fantasy gets a bad rap, but I enjoyed this. Cargill weaves in several different traditions (we see djinns and Coyote, both of whom have major roles), and the idea that the entire supernatural world shares that realm felt natural.
- The novel intersperses an academic text (not really) explaining some of the features of fairy land with chapters that go back and forth between the two main characters, both of whom are human children who have interacted with the fairy world at a young age.
- The ascent of the human Colby doesn’t follow the usual patterns – he doesn’t have to follow some sort of elaborate ritual, and he doesn’t suddenly discover that he’s a wizard – instead, the djinn who gives him the power warns him that he will not be happy with the results.
- The setting in Austin is also cool – it’s not an ancient city, and the near-proximity of hill country makes the closeness of a wild area real.
Cargill’s novel, although far different than Sea of Rust, was an enjoyable read, tinged with far more sadness at the way that this sort of power divides people than joy at the power.
I read this in reverse order, as I should have read Tales from the Loop first, but oh well…
- I assumed upon reading about it that this text fit as a dystopia, but it’s more a nostalgic alternative history. It takes place in the 90s, after the Loop from the earlier book has been shutdown, and a mysterious flood has made the island on which all this takes place even swampier.
- The machines are intersecting with the environment in ways that are not so much sentient as they are organic. The chemicals the Swedish and Russian military-industrial complex has used to make and maintain them has interacted with living elements in odd ways, and the results are sort of ickky and sort of amazing.
- The narrator is a young boy who is growing up on the island and who participates with his fellow islanders in what feels like a a grand observation of what is happening to them.
- It’s also set in the past, so we as readers see this through the lens of nostalgia. Unlike Stranger Things, this is nostalgia experienced directly by the narrator, as he reminiscences about his first kiss, some of the friends who come and go, and his own new-found popularity due to growing up and becoming one of the ones who instead of being frightened is interested by the flood.
This novel read way faster than I thought it would, mostly because after I finished the first two chapters I was struggling to find a reason to keep going, especially as it’s way outside of my usual genre preferences. That being said, I had trouble putting it down after I got into the story. More thoughts below:
- Texts like this one that follow young girls from pre-teen to teen feel rare to me, but that’s probably just because I don’t read in the genre. I am fairly convinced that novels that approach these subjects in the way that The Burning Girl does – not trying to score pop culture point by using character archetypes to quickly establish who’s who, and that don’t have morality arcs of some sort – are rare.
- I’m a pop culture hound, so I’m not going to argue that the usual genre material can’t be well-done – it can, as I think about someone like Tracy Lynn, whose short stories and other geektastic world stuff I enjoy.
- The difference is that this novel feels far more adult, akin to The Outsiders and Laurie Halse Anderson’s work. At the same time, it shows intimate female relationships in a way that feels real, thoughtful, and complicated, and thus sort of feels far more like Joyce Carole Oates than the genre stuff.
- This difference though makes me wonder about audience. I see a definite need for the morality-based genre text, novels and films that join in the conversation about the types of big decisions that young girls have to make in a serious way but that also make these decisions seem possible to make. On first read I think that The Burning Girl would be tough for this audience, perhaps because its perspective as a reminiscence is one that is hard for them to share, or perhaps because it doesn’t offer those standard character archetypes that enable a reader to quickly figure out where they’re at.
- And I need to be clear – by morality-based I don’t mean according to some specific (read evangelical Christian) standard. As hard as it may be for some people to believe, those of us who are not evangelical Christians also adhere to a moral code, one that perhaps has more to do with how we treat each other and less with obeisance to a flying spaghetti monster in the sky.
- Despite its title, all the burning that anyone in here does comes from the press and crush of family dynamics rather than from some dramatic life events. Cassie, the character who I think is the burning girl, is mostly driven by a need to find a father who she has been told has died, but even the dramatic force of her trying to find her dad doesn’t cause her to burn down the world. Messud uses the novel to look at the micro-events, and the way that we deal with them, of family, and as this type of portrayal I think that perhaps it has more to say about fiction and novels than it does the family in general.
- Thank goodness for that – I’m pretty certain that we don’t need more texts talking about how messed up families can be.
A quick thought or two on What Remains of Edith Finch:
- Perhaps the most interesting and subversive part of the game is the fact that moving to the USA does *not* remove the curse. The setup is there for a yay-for-the-USA game, but instead it returns to a time of economic anxiety and global disruption, with pressure to leave Europe before the shit goes down, and then has them get to the shores of the USA and wreck.
- I’m also very curious about the ways in which the Finches try to deal with the curse. Barbara thinks celebrity will save her, the twins decide to live their lives as if it didn’t exist, Walter tries to ignore it, and yet none of that works. Only Edith decides to leave her remains (see what I did there) for the next generation, mostly, as she says, to understand for her unborn son.
- A curse, especially one invoked in a magically realist world that deals directly iwth the uncanny, should have no implications in the USA…and yet…
- Finally, the language that reinforces the spoken narrative and that flashes briefly on the screen reminds me of the fetishization among certain communities of signals and code…how they’re received, how they’re written, what subtexts they hint at, and what they mean for the move from analog to digital culture…
Emma Cline’s The Girls veers from hippie-punching to anxiety about Others to the desire of bystanders to consider themselves capable (and culpable) in an interesting, quick read. Some thoughts:
- As much as hippie punching can be, I get tired of the constant need to write out anything good that happened in the sixties and focus on the evils…of course, that’s not exactly what this novel does, but it is the context that I often read rewrites of the sixties in…
- That said, Cline does several things that are particularly interesting in here…
- From a sheer craft perspective, Cline has a knack for odd verbs (or descriptors) that disrupted my attempts to read this novel in a generic fashion. Just when I would begin thinking, oh, here we go, we get the standard alienated teen hates the world but learns something in the end novel, Cline would use a verb that gave a glimpse of a whole different world lurking beyond the edge of the Helter-Skelterish approach to this Manson look-alike family.
- The perspective provided by the older woman looking back on her teenage self took an interesting twist because it comes from the bystander who is caught up in a teenage obsession with someone beside the charismatic Manson wannabe. While the narrator feels his charisma and ability to be a savior for the others on the Farm (or the Ranch?), she is in love with one of his women.
- Some of the passages that felt most effective to me were the ones in which she looks back on her younger self and realizes some of the ways in which girls are forced to define themselves through their attractiveness (and attempts to attract) boys. The Goodreads entry for the novel has a bunch of great cited passages, but this effect builds in ways that the novel reads as much as a warning to young girls as it does a look at the identity-build of Evie (and the girls on the Farm).
- The bystander approach enables Cline to do some interesting things from a narrative point of view. Rather than be clued in to how broken the object of the narrator’s affection is, we get this gradually revealed to us as the narrator (Evie) tells the story.
- I think that what I found really useful is the way that this sort of approach made me think about the process of being a reader. I kept finding myself leaving behind chunks of my assumptions as I proceeded – at first I was sort of off-put because this felt like another of the deranged lesbian genre, but I gradually saw that Evie’s obsession with Susan was just that, a teenage girl’s obsession with someone who at first looks cooler than Jesus.
So, I finished The Malazan Book of the Fallen. Holy shit, even though it sort of ended as I suspected it might. Some thoughts:
- The series encourages you to read as if boundaries of life and death do not matter to readers. They matter to characters: even though several return from the dead, they are never what they were, never having the same feelings they had when alive. The seeming permeability of the boundary between life and death, though, means that readers are never sure if a beloved character will disappear forever or not. Characters are kept alive in communal memories, and they are returned from the dead for specific purposes, and they suddenly wake up in a sense only to find themselves in something a Christian might call hell. The mechanism of how this works is not explained to us.
- The specifically purposed returnees are routinely bizarre: suddenly communal and weirdly humorous Jaghut, the Bonehunters with their captain now charged with guarding Death’s gate (clearly unsuccessfully), and so on…and of course one entire race chose to kill themselves (I guess) and become undead in order to ‘survive’ an attack on the Jaghut.
- I felt the most compassion for Toc and Onos T’oolan, because they were both given such huge tasks as undead.
- The sense that armies and professional soldiers engage in a profession that has a short life expectancy willingly permeates the series, and all sides spend a lot of energy trying to justify why they’re engaging in war. Part of that reasoning comes from folks who like killing (Smiles is the best example) for some not very healthy reasons, some of it comes from the Malazan desire to impose law and order rather than despotic rule (something they also fail at), and some of it comes from the lust for imperial glory (which is torn apart in the torture that poor Rhulad Sengar goes through as he dies a thousand deaths).
- In this way MBOTF feel particularly 20th century – wars fought for vague or ill-explained political reasons, with soldiers who mostly are conscripted in the worst sort of ways (I think as well of the cannibal hordes of the Pannion Dominion). The piles of war dead don’t help.
- In this book, the Malazans are talked of with a sense of fear and loathing in ways that I wasn’t sure I liked.
- I still like the sense of humor evident in humans, something no other race seems to possess.
- In odd ways this felt like the only novel that is sort of preachy. I’m not sure what to do with that either.
In my recent spate of fantasy novel reading I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Some thoughts:
- Although the characters fit into some sort of configuration of what Western fantasy usually consists of, they were also pretty dramatically different. I got that Freudian sense of the uncanny as the novel helped the familiar be just strange enough.
- I would not quite call the space liminal, if by liminal we mean a space no longer familiar but for which we have no ready answers. In a good sense the novel sort of put me there, especially with the renegade Prince who seems to be far more in contact with the Khalif then seems possible…
- The reason, though, that the space isn’t completely without answers is because Ahmed neatly provides some answers, all of which feel appropriately set in this culture…
- There are no piles of corpses in this novel. The world saviors are the only ones we see at risk, and they have all taken the risk either willingly or through a sense of duty. That is definitely a change from recent fantasy like ASOIAF and MBOTF in which soldiers are asked to die in that most 20th century way, for objectives that even their commanders cannot articulate.
- The trio of heroes (helped by an alchemist couple) consists of the profane (in multiple ways, including his body and choice of mate), the pure (a dervish fighter, one sworn to purity), and the abject.
- Each is given enough point of view to enable me to take them seriously.
- The source of evil is also interesting – as much as the novel willingly invokes religion, the evil ones are humans who have sought to extend their natural life limits, and to transcend natural borders by entrapping natural, primal forces (wind, water, etc.) in service of their own needs.
- I enjoyed the Doctor (who is a combination of a wizard, a holy man, and a flawed individual) as a protagonist, but the most interesting characters are the dervish and the shapeshifter. Their sacrifices and sense of honor are interesting cross-currents in the genre, especially as someone like George RR Martin calls into question just who sacrifices really benefit, and how convoluted honor can be.