Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen
mrissa

Books read, late February

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Vor Game, Komarr, and Borders of Infinity. All rereads. Some of the most typical comfort reading we have around here is Bujold. None of these were particular favorites -- I started out with some I hadn't reread in awhile, in the main Vorkosigan sequence. I ended up thinking about the characters, Ekaterin in particular, in the context of another favorite series, so I started rereading those, too, and I expect to be bouncing back and forth between them until I run out.

John Griegs Forlag, Norwegian Folklore Simplified. Sent to me by a friend, as a joke, this is the racist thing I was talking about before. It's not only very racist but also very thoroughly and casually sexist (assuming without data that some boats must have belonged to women because they were designed for use in fjords rather than the middle of the North Atlantic) and very thoroughly and casually...is racialist the word I'm looking for here? Maybe. It's an old book, and I think no modern English-speaker would claim that the Scottish and Norwegian peoples were of different races. But even to the extent that "product of its times" is ever an excuse, it wasn't one here: it wasn't that old a book, that other people weren't being a great deal more sensible on the same subjects at the same time. It was mostly just plain wrong.

David Marusek, Counting Heads. I was excited to read this after I read Marusek's short story collection, which I liked a lot. Unfortunately, it started with a novella that was in that short story collection, which made it feel less fresh to me to begin with. Then when we got to the bit that wasn't novella any more, and -- as with Beggars in Spain when I reread it as an adult -- the seam showed rather more than I'd like. I suspect that making a novel out of a novella -- or making a novella out of a section of novel -- is an extremely difficult thing, with many pitfalls in pacing, character development, etc. Despite all that, I did settle in with this book eventually and enjoy it. I'd just recommend the opposite reading order to other folks: novel first, short story collection second. Probably that's how most people would have the opportunity to encounter them anyway, since the novel is more broadly available.

Oh, and just a trivial little point of praise -- which is not meant to be damning with faint praise, as this was in no way my favorite thing about this book -- it was really nice to read a book where white people did not all have British surnames. A great many white people in the English-speaking world are not called Andrews or Porter -- or, branching out into other parts of Britain, Jones or MacPherson. There are plenty of quite pronounceable names all over the rest of Europe. Learn them. Use them. (Also in the future I firmly believe we will find many people whose visual ethnic cues do not match their surname, in part because we find them in the present. markgritter has cousins on his Lyzenga side -- Lyzenga is an extremely Dutch surname -- who were born to Korean, Mexican, and Sudanese parents, respectively. Go ahead and make Mr. Tanaka-Novacek look like his ancestors all came from Mali, if you want to. It's a more plausible future than one in which we all match our surnames exactly.)

K.J. Parker, Evil for Evil. Second book in the aptly named engineer trilogy. I really love how evil is done in these books, not because one person is inherently wicked but because people want different things and don't always care about what others want, and sometimes because it's convenient. I find this a less comfortable and more accurate view of evil than in a lot of high fantasy. Also I like characters who try to improve things, dammit, even when they do so for bad reasons. However, it is clearly not a nice series in any way, and I will be waiting to read the third book until the PT stuff has calmed down a little. Or more likely a lot.

Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Whose Body?, Lord Peter (an omnibus of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories), and Clouds of Witness. And this, obviously, is the other series in which I'm bouncing around. Harriet's first relationship reminded me a bit of Ekaterin's, the man who was just awful enough to make things impossible for her, without meaning to be nasty in particular. The difficulties of Our Hero in wooing Our Heroine after she has been so hurt and disillusioned before. I will be interested in seeing where else the similarities are and are not as I read the rest of the series -- combat veterans with lots of scars inside and out, yes; mothers a great deal of fun in their own right, yes; tendency to babble, yes. I think it would all have been a great deal less interesting if Lois had set out to rewrite Lord Peter Wimsey in space and had tried to make all the parallels line up. But there are some interesting points to ponder along those lines.

Recently susan_palwick wrote a journal entry advocating what gets called the first rule of fiction writing, which is, roughly paraphrased, to figure out the worst thing that can happen to your character and then do it. Lois McMaster Bujold is often cited as a practitioner of this fine art, and extremely talented people like Susan Palwick advocate it. And frankly I think it's nonsense. There are dozens of worse things that could happen to characters at any turn. I can come up with more thoroughly horrific scenarios for Miles Vorkosigan to live through without breaking a sweat. But the thing is: they're not more interesting.

I think the first rule is to figure out the most interesting thing that can happen to your character and then do it even if it's really awful. Which is not at all the same thing. Miles is more interesting having married Ekaterin than he'd have been if she'd died when her life was threatened in Komarr; more interesting than if she'd panicked at the last minute and run away to Beta Colony to change her name and never see him again; more interesting than if he'd done something well-intentioned she could misunderstand and have a restraining order slapped on him (if, in fact, there is such a thing on Barrayar, rather than just Cousin Vorguido breaking your kneecaps). And if I believed that Miles had gotten Ekaterin -- and Nikki -- and the babies -- just to make it all that much more terrible when they were all taken away from him forever -- I would flee that series and never come back. But I don't. Because it's not about the angst quota. It's about interesting human reactions and interactions. I think even the people who advocate doing your worst every time know that deep down, or they've have written very different books indeed.

Edited to add: Susan Palwick, who has no lj with which to comment but who gives permission to reproduce the comment here, writes, "Actually, your paraphrase was a little too broad. I don't advocate doing the WORST thing; I only say that characters need to be in some sort of pain (an inevitable byproduct of conflict, which drives plot). In other words, over-protecting characters is as detrimental to fiction as over-torturing them." Here's the original entry, which I should have linked in the first place. And here's another entry that clarifies her thoughts on the subject.

I think that characters who are over-protected are far less likely to see print than characters who are over-tortured, but maybe that means I'm reading the wrong books.
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