AEL: Dreaming Spies, The Tombs of Atuan, The Ill-Made Knight, The Lego Batman Movie, Batwoman, The Farthest Shore, The Marriage of Mary Russell

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King — This was quite a good installment of Russ, but before I make any comments on its contents I have to get this out of the way: Jenny Sterlin’s attempts at pronouncing Japanese OH MY FUCKING POE. Her “Canadian accent” in Justice Hall was hilarious, but this… this might have been a deal-breaker if I didn’t love this series (and Ms. Sterlin’s narration in general) as much as I do. I’m not really blaming her for it, since (based on various recurring audiobook foibles) I’m pretty sure these narrators get rushed through these projects, and she didn’t do too terribly for how little time she probably had to figure out Japanese pronunciation… but seriously there were some words I had to think hard about for several moments in order to recognize.

Anyway. I enjoyed this story very much; I found the mystery aspect of it solid and intriguing, and rather enjoyed never learning exactly what that hidden document contained. The description of the stolen book was beautiful and captivating, too.

The many haiku throughout gave me a brief and unprecedented interest in that format. In the past, for reasons I’ve already mentioned, the only use I’ve ever found for haiku was giving them ridiculously long titles (usually far longer than the actual poem) and then gaining a humorous sense of contrast from the subsequently stark and brief lines. But during the course of this book I found myself growing somewhat fond of them for their own proper sake, and with a passing interest in doing something with some. So I wrote Silly and Pointlessly Difficult and was satisfied.

I liked the new characters introduced in this book too, and thought the inclusion of ninja was right up the Holmes fanfiction alley. I especially liked the way Haruki, while clearly their true friend, had her own discrete agenda all along and stuck to her goals without much reference to Holmes’s and Mary’s desires. It made her feel like not only a right proper spy, but an independent character whose story just happened to coincide with that of our heroes. And I appreciated the acknowledgement of racism without making the story all about racism, while at the same time easing off on the feeling of Gay “Thank You” I got from Locked Rooms.

All of this said, however, certain portions of this book felt like A Brief Showcase Of Japan In The 1920’s. And of course I’m all for learning about Japan, but some of it seemed a little… checklisty. It wasn’t nearly so bad as some things I’ve experienced (looking hard at you, The Wolverine), but it felt a little… I dunno… twee or something. The very model of a book about Japan, fulfilling all western expectations. I can’t say I liked that aspect of it much, but I’m not sure how an author could avoid such a sensation in a book wherein the western characters are, in fact, learning about Japan.

In any case, I enjoyed it a lot more than silly Garment of Shadows.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuinThis book has never been boring in any way any time through. The level of detail in the prose is perfect, the characterization sufficient for just the right level of emotional investment on my part, and the eponymous tombs are soOoOo creepily fascinating.

I’m interested in the picture of religion presented by this story. The inhabitants of the archipelago have their Segoy, but it’s unclear exactly how godly a figure he is, and certainly you never see him actively worshipped. (I should probably disclose at this point that I’ve only ever read the first three Earthsea books.) There are no churches or temples or services or rituals mentioned in connection with Segoy or, indeed, with any other divine being; the archipelago seems a remarkably un-religious place.

In fact the only organized religion present in these books is in this one: the simultaneous (if not necessarily equal) worship of the Kargad Godking, the Twin Gods, and the Nameless Ones. The associated customs and rituals are very much in the tradition of most creepy cults in fiction, and it’s clear that even its followers (most of those we meet, anyway) aren’t sincere in their worship. Then Arha is rescued from its clutches, and the book almost has an atheist message as a result.

And yet there is still Segoy, with all his attendant lack of ceremony, not to mention Ged’s acknowledgement that the Nameless Ones are indeed mighty powers (just not ones worthy of worship and service). So I come out of the book feeling like I’ve just been treated to a subtle protest against organized religion. And that’s an attitude I can’t help feeling somewhat benevolent toward :D

The Ill-Made Knight by T.H. White — All I knew about this book beforehand was that it was about Lancelot and presumably his affair with Guinevere, and I went into it expecting to really hate Lance, or at the very least to make fun of him. I was also bracing myself, despite how pleasing I’d found White’s portrayal of Maid Marian in the first book, for seeing a disproportionate amount of blame heaped on Guinevere’s head for the entire affair. Because, you know, these women.

And I was pleasantly surprised on both counts; I very much liked how these characters were written. And if anything, I thought the narrative was a lot more unfair to Lance than it was to Jenny.

Lancelot is described as being virtuous only in response to an internal tendency toward vice — kind, for instance, only because something inside him wants to be cruel. And I got the feeling (perhaps erroneously, perhaps not) from the way these descriptions were worded that I the reader was supposed to consider this both undesirable and reprehensible — an aspect of his ill-madeness, as it were. Which is puzzling, since it seems more admirable to me to conquer temptation than never to feel it, to overcome the desire to be cruel than to be naturally (and effortlessly!) kind.

If, however, he is this way, and this state of being over which he has no control is reprehensible, it fits right in with the victim-blaming that gets thrown at Lancelot throughout much of the book. It’s distressing to sense in the narration some condemnation of his character because he’s not inherently virtuous, but it’s far more distressing to hear the other characters wondering why he can’t just marry Elaine or at least try to love her back until even he forgets that she fucking raped him and actually feels sorry he can’t be what she wants.

Moving on from characterization, though, let me talk about fanfiction (which this is) for a moment. I’m sure I’ve covered this in part or in whole before, but everyone must know by now that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet in this topic: the aspects of fanfiction that set it apart as a fairly unique literary form and therefore assist us in considering it as such.

This particular aspect is related to the concise referenceability I’m sure I’ve mentioned before: a certain dramatic irony born of inevitability that’s pretty exclusively available in fan- or historic fiction. The atmosphere of a story changes so drastically when the audience knows without any doubt of certain events to come, which then don’t need to be mentioned or foreshadowed — or even to take place during the course of the story — to cast a shadow backwards over the events leading up to them and to create an intense feeling of irony and anticipation, whether positive or negative.

Even someone as little acquainted with Arthurian legend as I was going into this book knows that Lancelot and Guinevere have an affair, and that that affair contributes eventually to Arthur’s downfall. And this awareness gives new meaning, new poignancy, to every moment of interaction between Lance and Jenny, between Lance and Arthur, and, indeed, of Lance’s early moralizing and spiritual ambitions before the affair ever starts to develop. And this new meaning and poignancy is, as I’ve said, essentially limited to fanfiction and historic fiction.

Oh, sure, while experiencing an original work, the audience may pretty accurately predict future events — but even the most accurate prediction is not the same as knowing, and won’t produce the same impressions looking forward. Beyond that, for the prediction to be borne out, the event actually has to take place (or at least be mentioned as taking place) during the course of the story — which, as I’ve mentioned, is not a necessity (and in fact its absence may even increase the irony) in the case of fan- or historic fiction.

And, yes, there are certain narrative techniques that may try to mimic this effect, but I’m not convinced they’re capable of achieving it except in instances where the work itself can be considered fanfiction by a different name (e.g. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Because even if a writer, for example, begins with a certain event and then jumps back to tell the story leading up to that event, that dramatic irony and sense of inevitability isn’t going to be the same. A newly acquired knowledge is not as entrenched in the brain of the audience — is far more likely to be forgotten, misremembered, or not assigned due significance — as the more deeply seated knowledge of the fan or the student of history.

The point of all of this is to say that White acted as a consummate fanfiction author in taking the best advantage he could of the inevitability of the affair between Lance and Gwen and its repercussions to create and unique and glorious tension I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Lego Batman Movie — Why, yes, I have been into Batman to an unprecedented extent lately. I won’t get into a third round of BtAS here, just mention that since it got good, it got really good, and I’m officially a Batman (and related franchises) fan. And I retract anything I ever said about not being able to take the character seriously.

And this movie was delightful from beginning to end. It’s a type of storytelling I’ve always loved: ongoing humor (often over the top and silly, occasionally subtle and satirical) with a more serious and emotional plot underneath. It feels like having my cake and eating it (though I’ve always wondered about the benefit of owning a cake as an independent action) when I get to laugh until I cry at ridiculous humor like their method of holding Gotham together at the end and simultaneously cry until I cry at the very legitimate feels I get from seeing a dreadfully lonely man start to allow others into his life and recognize their influence as good for him.

Batman’s relationship with the Joker was an interesting deconstruction too. I’m sure it’s been done before, but I personally haven’t seen it elsewhere. I’ve seen the explorations of who created whom and who needs whom to survive in this crazy world of superheroes and villains… but the idea of their gaining personal fulfillment from a mutual emotionally charged relationship based on their ongoing animosity was both entertain and surprisingly poignant.

Batwoman: Hydrology and To Drown the World — I’m a big proponent of inclusivity and diversity in storytelling. In my scatterbrained and inattentive way, I like to support franchises that embody these ideals, and I enjoy news stories and opinion pieces even about franchises I don’t follow (13th Doctor!!) that have taken steps in what I consider the right direction.

And yet I am a middle-class cisgender white American. I even have a Midwestern accent, which is pretty much the standard on English-speaking television. Several categories into which I fall are consistently amply represented in the media I consume. This doesn’t lessen my desire for inclusivity and diversity (though I can’t claim my interest and investment is the same as it might be were I, say, a queer trans woman of color), but it does tend to keep me accustomed, on a certain level, to seeing some of myself in plenty of characters and stories.

So when I encounter representation of a group I’m a member of that I’m less accustomed to seeing in the art I experience, it more or less knocks me on my ass. Despite my great interest in the question of artistic representation, I just don’t realize how striking, how meaningful it is to experience it until I do.

So Kate Kane means a lot to me. It’s not merely that she is a lesbian — though, yes, that sole fact goes some distance already in winning my allegiance. It’s that her homosexuality is acknowledged as an integral part of who she is (her character-intro paragraph at the beginning of each issue even includes the phrase, she vowed to serve her country and attended West Point until she was expelled under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ), and yet isn’t dwelt on like something out of the ordinary; her romantic/sexual behaviors and relationships are written — at least in these issues — just as they would be if they were heterosexual, and not played for titillation; and those behaviors and relationships, while an important part of the story, are not and do not overwhelm its focus, which is her being freaking Batwoman.

Other than what I consider good handling of the day-to-day events in a gay character’s life, it’s hard for me to comment on the story here, because I haven’t read the entire thing yet. That’s always going to be a problem with serially released stories, even ones released years ago that are currently available in their entirety. I’ll just say that no aspect of the story thus far has failed to make sense and interest or has felt like a misstep, and of course I’m always happy whenever Batman shows up. Because Batman.

So on to the visuals. Of course we are contributing to — or at least not stepping away from, which in this case is essentially the same thing — the problem of How Women Are Depicted in Comic Books with Batwoman’s body shape and the tightness of her outfit (especially ridiculous when she gets a new bulletproof version), but the way in which the female character is posed isn’t nearly so consistently distressing as in some other titles I’ve read. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty absurd a lot of the time, but relatively speaking it isn’t as bad. It’s still a damn shame we have to settle for “relatively.”

Apart from this problem (which I am, at least, accustomed to), I have no complaints about the visuals in these collections. In fact Batwoman in action is consistently breathtaking, when you can get over her stupid sexualized poses, and the use of color in these adventurous sequences is often nothing short of breathtaking. The interesting x-ray effect that showcases the severity of certain wounds delivered is pretty cool too (and the color contrast it provides absolutely contributes to the overall effect), but I am reminded of a comment Yahtzee once made that such a thing “is groovy pants the first time, but since it seems to happen with every kill, I’m sure repetition will swiftly boil it down to just plain pants.”

The long and short of this is that I’m hella on board with this writing, this character, and these colors. I don’t know that I’ve developed as much of an attachment to Batwoman as I have two Batman at this point, given that I’ve had far more exposure to one than the other, but I will certainly be reading more about Kate Kane in the future.

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. LeGuin — Interestingly, this installment was far less boring this time around than it ever has been before, which stands in unexpected juxtaposition to the first book, which this time was far more boring than I usually find it. Go figure.

I have to say, though, there’s some filler in this book that I’m not sure why she chose to include. The part where Arren is taken captive by slavers, for example, seems completely pointless. And I would complain that the segment with the raft-people is unnecessarily long to make the point, “Even out here so far from the rest of civilization, men are losing their magic,” if I didn’t adore that part so much.

As I mentioned above, I haven’t read the subsequent three books in this series. This is due to my audiobook addiction and unwillingness to read any other way except in special cases, but anyway. There was such a long gap in real time between this book and the next that this was the last book in the series for a very long time, and may always have that final-installment feeling to me even if I manage to forge ahead ever. In any case, it seems likely that at some point Ms. LeGuin must have considered this the last book in the series… and the resolution of the plot seems like an odd place to leave readers hanging. Powers gone, new king, the end? What’s that about?

The Marriage of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King — This story is cute and charming, and I loved it. What I think I loved best was that the childishly obvious twist at the end remains hilariously surprising due to the nature of the series and its characters. Seriously, I was sitting there in high curiosity wondering, What crime are these servants up to?? And how can it possibly be resolved in the amount of time left in this story??? And despite every third stupid kids’ book in the history of birthdays ending in a surprise party everyone but the main character saw coming, “surprise party” is far from the first explanation that comes to mind in a Sherlock Holmes story!!

I also enjoyed the foreshadowing about Mrs. Hudson. I hadn’t read The Murder yet at this point, but I knew it was largely about Mrs. Hudson, and I was left in a delightful state of anticipation by lines like, “There may be more to her than you realise.”

Once again I’ve gotten dreadfully behind on this logging; I have 14 other items that need to be discussed, but I’ve ported them off to the next log. At least this one will finally get posted!

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