A blog about writing, reading, and watching stories

Category: Stories: Books, Movies, TV, Theater

Ilona Andrews

Confession time: this pandemic fall and winter, I’ve read 24 Ilona Andrews books. I think it might be how I survived with my sanity intact. Why is this a confession? Well, some of these books were shelved as fantasy or science fiction and some as romance (often different libraries fulfilling my requests shelved books from the same series differently), and some people out there think romance books are somehow less, guilty pleasures rather than “real” books. Those people are missing out on some good spec fic.

Innkeepers and Aliens

I began with the science fantasy Innkeeper series, stumbling across it as one of the only things “in” on Libby when I ran out of books. These delightful stories involve magic innkeepers, telepathically bonded to their inns, who host aliens when they are visiting Earth, and keep the rest of the galaxy a secret from the rest of us. With grim news greeting me in the newspaper every day, I really needed an oversensitive, quill-covered chef who tries and tries to replicate a Big Mac but just can’t be bad enough, and some chicken-like creatures who live for debate but have to be protected from themselves when the debate becomes overheated. These stories made me laugh aloud, and wow, I needed that. Plus Dina absolutely kicks ass. Gotta love a woman who is the most powerful being around.

Alphaholes

I’ll be honest, the romance in the first few Kate Daniels books made me a bit uncomfortable, even though I loved Kate, her world, and the urban fantasy/mystery plots from the beginning. If the Innkeeper books reminded me of Buffy at times, the Magic Bites series is like a female-led Dresden Files. My problem with the romance is that it uses the trope of the alphahole – in fact, if you look this trope up on the internet, you’ll probably find a quote from Ilona defining it. The idea is that an alpha male, used to being in charge because of his intelligence, competence, and talent for leadership and violence, is so intent on protecting the woman he likes he’s a complete asshole, until he learns not to be, of course. The idea that a capacity for violence is sexy is not new.  Over a hundred years ago, L.M. Montgomery poked fun at a teenage Anne of Green Gables for wanting a man who could be wicked, but wouldn’t, for her sake. This quality held by pretty much all the Ilona Andrews romantic partners clearly does something for some people, though I suspect those people are not ones who’ve ever been subjected to actual violence. For me, it’s triggering, so I have to push past it for the payoff explained below.

The wonderful thing about the alphaholes in Ilona Andrews’ many series is that they actually do learn their lesson so thoroughly that the romances end up as feminist statements in the end – statements that resonate particularly with me. Late-series Curran not only learns to respect Kate’s right to make her own decisions, he accepts her decisions about what she must do to be true to herself even when they mean she will take risks and get hurt. And she does the same for him. They don’t have a perfect relationship (that would be boring), but the one they do have is kind of beyond imagining, for me. My humble opinion is that Ilona Andrews writes established relationships better than the boy-gets-girl phase overall (maybe because they are a husband and wife team!), but even if you don’t like the side of romance, their books are such imaginative, entertaining speculative fiction I recommend them anyway.

Ableism and the Protective Partner

So, now we get to me. I’m disabled with a chronic pain disorder, and so it hurts me to do everything. Add to that the key dimension of ableism where the abled person assumes they know what’s best for the disabled person, usually immediately, and despite the disabled person obviously being an expert on what they can or can’t do. Mix in dating, and here’s the result: on a third date, a man once insisted on picking up his car to drive me home after dinner because it would hurt me to walk, even though I told him multiple times that I wanted to walk. In fact, we had originally left the car behind because I particularly wanted to walk on a nice evening in early summer, despite the pain it would cause me. But no, that was not my decision to make. Needless to say that third date was his last. Now try mixing in a long-term relationship, the accumulated caregiver fatigue, etc., and you end up with statements like this: “If you get a job I’ll leave you, because you’ll be in more pain and I’ll have to deal with it.” Ug.

So when Curran lets Kate do things that physically hurt, it lets me picture a possible future where I both make decisions about which dreams I want to pursue and what I need to stay sane, and have a partner.

Mostly, though, I just read these books for the pure, unadulterated fun.

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children Series

I recently managed to borrow Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children book from the library, just as the sixth volume was released, and library patrons piled on to the waiting list like the pigeons that once mobbed me in the Piazza San Marco. I don’t want to wait! Does first come first served really make sense in this situation? Or shouldn’t the line be ordered with those of us who fit in the least going first? No? Oh, well. Maybe this is a Logic world after all.

The Wayward Children books posit the following: that if a child truly, pathologically, does not belong in this world, then a doorway will open to a world where that child might belong. And if that world spits the child back out as a teen, possibly as a test, that teen will want nothing, nothing, nothing so much as to find the door that will lead them back home. The books are short and scary and sour and bitter and sweet, like a good cup of coffee. Don’t expect a Disney world or even an original-Alice one found through the looking glass. These worlds are much too bizarre for most of us to fantasize about visiting, let alone moving in. And these books are filled with nuggets of wisdom, not just about belonging, but about loving, living, and everything else.

The first book, Every Heart a Doorway, is a revelation. I didn’t know a story of a hundred or so pages could be so deliberate and word-perfect, like a poem. The characterization is exquisitely precise. In fact, it’s the characters, more than the worlds, that I’m a little bit disturbed by even as I love them (and I’m not talking about the ones who’ve been brought back from the dead, either). Let’s just say it’s the trans boy Kade (nothing disturbing about that — and if you disagree you can just leave now and we won’t miss you) who fits in our world the best. Think about that for a moment, given the prejudice trans people are facing in some communities today.

In the fifth book, Come Tumbling Down, I especially like the portrayal of Jack (Jacqueline)’s lover Alexis, whose body, thanks to various magical circumstances I’m not going to spoil for you, isn’t working very well at the moment. As soon as she tells Kade, “the fact that I’ve been damaged doesn’t make me broken, and you don’t need to behave as if it does,” I start to read her as a disabled person like me. I’m not sure if this is deliberate, or only a function of us humans seeing the world each through our own distorting prism, but let’s accept the analogy. Since I see her as disabled, it makes me very happy when she breaks the rules of the only acceptable public narrative for disabled people (“I can do everything you can do”) by admitting what she can’t do a chapter or so later. Many disabled people can do anything an abled person can do. But many of us can’t. So our narrative is, “I am worth as much as you, even though I can’t do everything you can do.” But no one puts that on the kind of motivational posters hung outside a college’s accommodations office. In this society, we judge people by what they do. We define people by what they do. It’s so much easier than defining them by who they are. I’ve heard the encouraging, “You can do anything,” and I’ve heard the discouraging, “You don’t contribute anything,” many, many, many times each. It’s a much rarer and more precious gift to hear someone say, “You can’t do everything, but that doesn’t mean you’re broken.” Thanks for that, Seanan.

The OA: Part 2

While The OA did, as I suspected, leave the liminal space of the fantastic and dive headfirst into actual supernatural narrative in Part 2, the show improved so much that the particular tension from an unreliable narrator wasn’t needed. We could still argue about whether the show is original enough to be worth watching for most SF/F buffs–and about exactly where that line falls, now that the plot is complicated enough that I’ve never seen all those particular tropes combined in just this way–but I’d rather point out some of the writing techniques the show used well this time.

An actually mysterious beginning

Part 2 opens with characters we don’t know, in a dimension we don’t know: specifically, with a private eye, a desperate client, and a missing girl who is a female version of Buck, one of the OA’s listeners in Part 1. This beginning wouldn’t work half so well without Kingsley Ben-Adir as the private eye protagonist, inhabiting the character so completely and (it seems) effortlessly. He has some help from the writing, though. In this new season, we start again with a mystery, but a mystery seen through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know the answers. Remember, the mystery in Part 1 is the story of Prairie’s captivity, but Prairie knows her own history already, and it’s hard to over-emphasize how that drains a narrative of urgency. Even when Prairie arrives in Part 2, she doesn’t have the memories of her alternate self, so she doesn’t have the answers, either. Without answers, our main characters can ricochet from stressed to desperate and back again. Thank God.

So why start with Karim, our private eye, and not the characters we know? This allows the writers to employ a technique that science-fiction and fantasy novels use all the time: the gradual widening of the world. Personally, this is one of my favorite things about speculative fiction, because it’s often tied to a sense of wonder that comes with each step farther into the unknown. The idea is to start very simply, with a situation that is small and somewhat ordinary (in this case, a bare three characters in a well-known fictional plot: private eye, client, missing) and to gradually let the story open up into something bigger and weirder. It’s as if the audience is climbing a mountain through layers of cloud and each new break in the fog allows them to glimpse a wider world that is not only stunning, but also redefines each previous view. They could only do this with a new character, because our returning friends are already deeply steeped in weirdness.

An end to static situations

Exactly how many static (read: unchanging) situations were featured in Part 1? Let’s see: there’s Prairie’s captivity in the past; the boys listening to her story in the present, and the gradual revelation of how horrible their home lives really are without any real change to them; and Prairie’s adoptive parents’ doubts about her sanity (and who can blame them, when she literally goes blank in every scene with them in it?). In fact, looking back, Part 1 seems to completely confuse “bit by bit revelation” with “plot.” Sorry, but no. Learning new information is exposition; goals, conflicts, decisions, and disasters that change the situations the characters are in (leading to new goals, etc.) is plot. In a book it would be much harder to disguise exposition as forward motion, but since actors were acting it out–wow! It kind of looked like plot. But when you compare it to the ever-changing situations in Part 2, the steady progress towards ultimate goals and confrontations, it’s easy to see the difference.

Of course, the devil’s advocate in my head is telling me that Part 2 could move so quickly only because of all the set-up and character development in Part 1. To which I say, yes, but it’s better to do them at the same time. Go watch Battlestar Galactica, Killjoys, Dark Matter, Stranger Things, etc. to see how.

The OA: Part 1

Though I didn’t find the first season of this Netflix show as compelling as, say, a great Syfy primetime creation such as Killjoys or Dark Matter, I was interested in a couple of the techniques the writers used to keep me watching (other than the pandemic).

First, the two stories–the lives of the present day listeners and the story of Prairie’s kidnapping and captivity–balance each other. Though many of Prairie’s fellow captives lacked character development, and are somewhat cookie-cutter in their shape and predictability, the present day group includes nuanced characters with many sides to them. In fact, what passes for plot in the present day story is basically the slow revelation of details about these characters’ lives. As you can imagine, this present day story is a bit lacking in urgency, so that is provided by the sensationalist plot of the past story. This kind of balancing is trickier than it looks, because it involves allowing both stories to be lacking on their own, yet complete together. It would’ve worked as intended for me if “OA”–,I won’t spoil it for you–had turned out to be an original concept and not some thing we’ve all heard of before. Now to the fun stuff.

The much more enjoyable tight rope act this show demonstrates actually has a name, used to describe the classical French literature that first made it famous: la fantastique. This genre is not synonymous with fantasy; instead, it is fiction that deliberately makes it impossible for the reader to tell what is real. There is always a supernatural explanation of events which is in someways easier to believe, and a realistic interpretation which involves more convoluted explanations. Often, as in The OA, the doubt springs from an unreliable narrator (so fun!). The realistic explanation is that Prairie is, and always has been, crazy; the supernatural explanation is…well, no spoilers.

Since there is a second season/part to this show, I have a feeling the writers are going to jump off the high wire, and the truth of the supernatural explanation will be confirmed. But it was fun while it lasted.

Of course, if you really want to play with an unreliable narrator, you should read Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth. But you’ll have to start with the excellent Gideon the Ninth, or you won’t even know when to be suspicious of Harrow’s narration.

© 2021 Stories Welcome

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑