Didn’t see this coming

Urban Fantasy is a genre filled with wizards and witches, vampires and werewolves, monsters and heroes. There’s so many books in this genre that it can be hard to find one, or even a series, that can keep entertaining for more than a few pages. Everyone seems to need a gimmick and that can make the world setting either unbearable or inconsistent. About eight months ago I stumbled upon the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka. Almost literally too–I was in the library and just happened to pick it off the shelf to see what it was like.

In many ways, Verus is just like a lot of others in the genre. He’s a loner wizard with a couple of friends, a little bit of magic, and even more powerful enemies. However, he stands out in a lot of ways. Instead of becoming a massive superpower inside of a few books, Verus has actually been losing power in some ways. The books have been more about stripping Verus down until he’s relying solely on himself. His wits in the climatic moment have been the solution far more times than any grand plan (like Dresden) or sheer magical ability (like the Iron Druid or Anita Blake). Verus is a reactionary character, which is sort of ironic considering his magical power is divination.

That’s the beauty of the world setting here, too. Divination can be a tricky, tricky magic to have and that’s Verus’s one trick. In his world, if you’re good at one magic, you tend to only have the one magic. It seems to break down into mental abilities versus elemental abilities and about the only thing that can be used by most mages are gate spells, but that’s not something Verus can actually do on his own. Divination, or at least Verus’s understanding of it, doesn’t seem to lend itself to the gate magic very well. He also has a hard time looking far into the future because of a very basic world setting rule: Everyone’s got free will. This rule means that until someone makes a decision, it’s impossible to know what they’re going to do exactly. Verus’s magic runs more along the lines of predictions and probable outcomes–his magic basically makes it easier to compute what people are going to do given certain variables. In a conversation that can be tough, since people’s word choices change how the dialogue would go. Combat situations or long searches are easier for him to predict because the cause and effects are more formulaic.

One of the other big details I’ve noticed about Alex Verus is that it’s not very hard to interpret the character as asexual. Sure, a couple of times Verus has found a woman attractive, but he’s never really flirted with them. His bed’s unoccupied except for himself and that doesn’t seem to bother him in the least bit. (In fact, he’s so used to sleeping alone and being alone in his flat that in like book 2 or 3 it throws him off when someone’s sleeping out in the living room). Verus doesn’t go on for great lengths on how attractive the people in his world are. He doesn’t have a long list of ex-partners that crop up and make his life hell. Hell, in the seven books that are out so far, Alex hasn’t mentioned ex-partners, or trying to date. At this point in most series, the protag has had notable on page sex, but not Alex. He seems to like Anne and possibly wouldn’t mind coming to some sort of romantic situation with her, but he’s not obsessed with any one part of her anatomy. When she’s reintroduced each time, there’s no overture of how sexy she is and how much he can’t stop thinking of her. She’s simply Anne. The only key to how much Alex likes her is relayed through others, who point out that everyone else believes Anne is downright creepy. Alex never sees that in her, just treats her like a person like everyone else. There’s only one character in the series that has gotten the ‘attractive’ character tag multiple times in a row and Alex turns that around saying that the woman is the kind of attractive that makes her super-intimidating. The only other woman to which Alex showed a bit of obvious attraction turned out to be a charm mage–meaning that she was manipulating Alex’s hormones and brain waves into liking her (which when he figures that out makes her suddenly unattractive to him). In a genre where characters are often bumping uglies when they’re not dealing with monsters, Alex stands apart. I’m not sure the author intended for this to be true about Alex, but I’m going to keep my fingers crossed and hope Alex stays this way.

The series does have some downsides (somehow, for being full of Brits, my brain isn’t translating them that way. It could be American bias, but I’m thinking there’s something about the syntax that’s just slightly off), so it’s far from a perfect read, but if you’re looking for something a little different in a genre filled with fairies, fireballs, and overwhelming odds, Alex Verus might just be the breath of fresh air you’re looking for.


Musings on Romance books

Okay, so over the last several months, I’ve made an effort to read more Romance novels because, well, when one wants to write in a genre, one should consider reading in said genre. Most of the books I’ve checked out have been in the gay romance category, though I’ve got a couple now that are firmly in the hetero category. I’ve started developing a list of pet peeves and things that I like as I read.

One thing I’ve noticed–there are way too many green-eyed protags in this line of fiction. I must have read at least twenty stories this year alone and I’d say that at least fifteen of them had one partner with green eyes. I’ll admit, if I hadn’t gotten into reading this genre so frequently, one of my own characters was destined to have that perfect, amazing shade of green. But since it really seemed to be all over the place, I switched it out for another color.

Another issue I’ve got: don’t ever reference women when the scene is male on male. I’ve seen it in a couple of works and I find the tactic damaging in a few ways. If I’ve chosen a story for it’s male/male potential, an analogy that includes a woman is jarring. Like, I understand that if the person identifies as male and so the description includes anatomy typically associated with women, but that’s not what I’ve discovered. Instead, it’s telling me about this guy with a cock feeling all flushed and exposed ‘like a maiden,’ or ‘soft like a woman.’ These references often happen when one character is submitting to another, or is the ‘catcher’ in the relationship–therefore reinforcing many of the stereotypes in the gay community and adding a flair of misogyny to the process. How is it misogynistic? By keeping firm to the idea that women belong in the non-dominant role in the bedroom.

There was one selection of heterosexual short stories that I read which almost turned me off from the genre. A majority of the women seemed to be waiting for the guy to complete her world and a couple of them glorified a relationship that did not see them as equals. (Sorry, if the guy has everything prepared and essentially ‘claims you,’ that doesn’t speak of much equality to me.) They didn’t even seem to really care so long as they got the guy and seemingly got to do what they wanted for the time being.

A positive that I’ve discovered is that I really do like this kind of fiction, when it’s done right. I’d read stories that had romantic elements to them before, but never really embraced the genre–outside of reading some Laurell K. Hamilton. I’ve become enamored of Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series and I’ll keep reading in hopes of finding several others that I like as much. Seeing two characters flirt and fall for each other? It’s a thrill.

However, if the language usage or characters are too awful, even the flirting can’t save a book. I ranted earlier this year about Ally Blue’s Oleander House, and I’ve got another book to add onto the list: Olivia Cunning’s Double Time. This book’s apparently #5 in the series, but it’s the first I’ve read. I’ll give it points for not making me wonder too hard about the other books. Without looking online, I never would have realized that it was that far into the series.

Her style is very matter-of-a-fact, with far more sentences that are telling of the action than outright description. “Partner A did this and Partner B did that.” While the style isn’t the most engaging in the universe, most of her word choice is actually fine. I wish there were a few more emotions from characters beyond ‘wanting Trey’ or ‘wanting Reagen’ or ‘wanting Ethan’ or ‘so horny,’ but okay, it’s an erotic romance. There’s going to be plenty of wanting to sex it up.

The part that bothers me the most about Double Time is the portrayal of bisexuality. First, there’s Reagan thinking that Ethan was gay when she caught him with a man. Never mind that they had been dating for a long time, she sees him with a guy and just assumes gay. (Although a plot point I still can’t understand is why Reagan continued to have such a close relationship with Ethan after feeling so betrayed by him. I get that they’d be roommates stuck in a lease, that happens all over the place, but the cheating had wrecked the romantic relationship so completely that I can’t understand why he was still her best friend.) Yet Reagan’s assumptions aren’t the worst part of this.

See, Trey and Ethan are both bisexual males. That’s all fine, but it’s their need for having both a man and a woman. Neither is satisfied without getting their hands on both sexes within a given time frame. Despite Trey wanting to put Reagan first, he’s spent much of this novel complaining about how he didn’t have a man–first Brian, and then random other men, and then he got latched onto Ethan a little but only because it had been several weeks since he’d had a cock in him. Having one character be compulsive in needing to have both sexes is a trait/flaw, but the discussion of bisexuality throughout the book heads straight into the ‘bisexuals are greedy sluts’ trope. Since Ethan takes this up too (citing his need for men as the whole reason he cheated on Reagan in the first place), it sets up a unilateral belief that bisexuals must want sex from multiple genders all the time.

All in all, I was just sharing some thoughts about reading in the romance section of the library. Even though there were complaints throughout this post, I’m learning a lot about the genre and I wouldn’t stay in these books if I didn’t have a curiosity to see how the story turns out in the end. Anyone have some Romance novels to recommend?

So I’m done reading Stephen King’s The Stand

Funny enough, this last week while I finished reading The Stand, I caught a common spring cold. Thanks to the powers that be I didn’t wind up getting swollen throat glands–I may have become a slight bit paranoid in regards to physical health. Of course, the amount of time spent on ensuring good health in The Stand is bound to make anyone a bit nutty (something I commented on last time, too).

Okay, so, I’m done reading. My verdict? Unless you’re a hardcore King fan, or a hardcore conspiracy or apocalypse fan, skip this title. You can see my review on the first two thirds of the book in my last post, so in this one I’ll focus on why the ending drew more of a negative response from me.

My first problem with the ending is that, despite having 1200 pages, the book has no central active conflict. Run through the ‘basic’ conflict structures (person vs person, person vs environment, etc) and each will have some representation. The main characters have some minor conflicts among each other, they have reservations about the supernatural dreams they’ve been having, they’re trying to survive various places, they’re trying to get the power back on, and in the case of Larry–trying to see himself as a better human being. However, none of these have a driving active element once they meet Mother Abigail. The only unifying theme is this ‘epic’ struggle of the Free Zone versus the Las Vegas group–a good versus evil set up. That plot becomes passive because the characters take no action to alter any events. Mother Abigail tells them to go, and not to take anything with them, and the four men (of course it had to be all men, despite Fran being part of the ‘important’ people of the Free Zone) accept this as God’s word. They undertake the journey because they were told to take it. That late in the novel, the characters should have had desires that pointed them in that direction. Instead, they’re cruising along, trying to get the Free Zone in order, a bomb explodes and then Mother Abigail gives an order. I didn’t feel that any of the characters had weight in their own choices, especially Stu and Ralph who were characters that pretty much did as the others suggested anyway.

Another problem is that the characters don’t take the opportunity to grow. A few of them get tiny new buds to their personality, but there’s no major alteration to any of them. Stu only becomes a slightly more talkative person, but he’s basically the same East Texan. Glen never shuts up about sociological ideas and still hesitates around ‘white magic.’ Larry struggles with how he sees himself the whole way through. The only two characters that have a seeable change is Leo, who returns to being a little boy and less of a feral potential killer, and Fran, who becomes more irrational as time goes on. (Oh, and Fran’s reasons are often seen by others and then herself as irrational rantings of a pregnant woman. Too much is blamed on her pregnancy.)

In fact, the book goes out of its way to make the point that even society doesn’t change–that the Free Zone is developing exactly along the lines that Glen Bateman predicted and may easily create the exact same problems of the old world within a few generations. Not exactly encouraging stuff.

I will remember the last scenes for years to come simply because I’m disappointed. Larry, Ralph, and Glen just all go ‘okay, ready to die for God ’cause I have faith in the old woman’ and Trashcan Man kills everyone with an atom bomb? All so that Randall Flagg winds up waking up somewhere else, becoming someone else, and starting all over again? If anything, the point of this novel becomes “the song remains the same.” While a totally valid point to make, it’s not one I find myself enjoying.

Add the unsatisfying ending to the problems I pointed out in the last post, and the book definitely joins my ‘don’t actively recommend’ list. Besides the paranoia of health, I did pick up a few ideas about how to write characters who have so much built in hate. As a writer, I think that’s the one really good lesson to learn from The Stand. Some characters simply hate that much.

The next books I’m reading are The Mists of Avalon and The Twentieth Wife. One of the two will be next week’s entry. Happy reading and writing!

So I’m reading Stephen King’s The Stand…

Stephen King’s The Stand is an extremely long book, even before they went back in and added even more pages. I’d read through a series of shorter novels and decided to tackle this mammoth because it comes up in horror reading lists (as most King books do). I’ve read Misery, Salem’s Lot, Dead Zone, and the short story “The Colorado Kid” before, and usually like King’s work. (The final scene of Misery will always terrify me). I’m two-thirds through The Stand and I have to admit, I’m on the fence about this one. Like any work, this one has its strengths and weaknesses.

In my review of Oleander House, I pointed out that one of the most important aspects of a horror novel is atmosphere. As readers, we need to be drowned in the book’s reality in order to keep us turning the pages. The Stand does exactly that. While the novel labors for hundreds of pages about the plague that is taking out mankind, the effect is profound. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’s gotten a little buggy about flu or cold symptoms while reading it.

Even this late point of the novel, there’s not much rhyme or reason as to why certain people were spared from the flu. It wiped out so many people and not everyone who survived the infection continues to live. Survivors have died from other causes–there’s a whole chapter about how a series of people we meet only once in order to watch them die. Though it drags the pace of the novel down, this is once again done for effect. A reminder that survivor does not mean immortal nor brilliant (since some of these die from very preventable reasons).

So far, I’ve got two major problems with novel: lack of diversity and the misogyny. As far as I can tell, a majority of the people spared from the super-flu are white. The good guy camp has three notable characters of color–Mother Abigail, Ralph, and Joe/Leo. (When it comes to Joe/Leo, we are constantly reminded about his Chinese eyes… over and over and over. As if the reader can’t be trusted to remember that particular detail about Joe/Leo). Otherwise, the characters are white, white, and white. Women versus men proportions seem to be nearer to equal than some texts. So far though, I haven’t seen any signs of an LGBT+ character. We do hear about Mother Abigail’s age and how that inhibits getting around, and we have seen how Nick Andros struggles with his deafness and muteness in this apocalyptic world.

Right now, the good guys are pretty much in easy agreement with each other. They don’t argue much about what needs to be done–perhaps because they’re all too similar. The disagreements tend to be camp versus camp, and they haven’t even met.

The misogyny is laced in so many ways–from the obvious Harold Lauder’s possessive ideas about Fran Goldsmith to the minor details, like a male character ‘screaming like a woman.’ Some of this can be attributed to the timeframe written—at least, I’m willing to blame the ’70’s culture King was writing for (Despite the couple of updates done over the years to the time frame of the story, the overall prose reflects the original writing era more than later ones). However, that doesn’t mean I have to swallow it down without saying something. The micro-aggressions are still present in modern day American cultures, so seeing them isn’t a shock, just annoying. At some point, it’d be great that the micro-aggressions would be harder to find than equal representation.

While The Stand has several women in the main cast, each one relies heavily upon men. The women of the story are subject to internalized misogyny–some of them at least. Nadine Cross, for example, places a heavy importance on her virginity. It seems one part story element and one part cultural obsession. The ‘dark man’, as Nadine thinks of Randall Flagg (many others do too), has apparently been this presence in the back of Nadine’s mind her whole life. She has been saving herself for this stranger because her virginity is of importance to him. The Stand has a strong evil versus good plot that King frames in Christian terms–and it’s no secret that Christianity has long put the emphasis on virginity (and I know they’re not the only ones. It’s simply the most relevant to this work).

On a reflective note, the societies developing at this point in the novel remind me of Asimov’s Foundation series. The First Foundation focuses on technological advances (the “hard” sciences) while the Second Foundation pursues societal achievements, which includes psychic abilities. The Stand‘s two societies don’t follow perfect suit. Both groups are rebuilding their technologies, but the approach is different. For the Flagg camp, they have their solitary, charismatic leader who is driving his people into technological assets. in Boulder, they look to push for a ‘democratic’–how democratic is it when certain leaders decide they’re the ones who should keep leading?–council and they keep their focus on surviving. Mostly, the reminder of Asimov is something about how the groups talk about each other, and probably a just me thing. It feels like an echo across a canyon instead of an inspired connection.

One more thought: The character of Glen Bateman has a habit of long talks about the nature of how society works. Or, as he put, it worked. Honestly, I wind up glazing over most of these speeches. They still have some reflective value for today’s society workings, but I wonder why Glen has to go on for so long, or for so long in the middle. The speeches drag the pace of the chapters to a halt in an already slow paced work.

Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts. I’m hoping to like the book more than I do at the moment, but I’m not seeing too much hope for it. However, I’ve got to admit, I know it’s had a change on me. One of the characters, Harold Lauder, spends so much time on his hate. He’s become one of those little reminders that I wanted to let more of those negative thoughts go from my mind. So now I’m making an effort of letting go of some of that hate and anger that gets backlogged. You never know what you’ll learn from reading a book, huh?