Weird Western tales

The Weird West as a fantasy subgenre is one that I’ve really been enjoying lately, and has cultivated a vibrant readership over the past few years. I’d say my first introduction to it was R.S. Belcher’s Golgotha books, but I have read a lot of other books in the same vein since then. This post collects some of those titles with a brief overview of the salient positives and negatives for each, spoiler-free.

I grew up for a good chunk of my childhood out west, in Arizona to be precise. I also grew up reading the Sackett books by Louis L’Amour. So reading these weird western titles is super nostalgic for me, but also constantly amazing. Somehow, it seems like this genre is the one providing some of the most innovative takes on sexuality, gender roles, and race – which honestly shouldn’t surprise me, given how rich the history of the territories was in the US both pre- and post-Civil War. So without further ado, in no particular order, I give you some of my favorites.

Silver on the Road, by Laura Anne Gilman

silver-art
NPR described this book as “pure American myth” and I can think of no better description, honestly. This is my favorite of all these novels, starring the Left Hand of the Devil, Isobel, in a dreamy coming of age that sucks you down into a world that’s larger than life. Though Isobel is young and at times naive, this is not a young adult book – the themes are too large and too dark. Magic lives in the Devil’s West, and it sinks its claws in whether you like it or not. This is the true American frontier, the archetype of a time in our history that formed so much of our cultural identity. If you read no other book on this list, read this one.

The Six-Gun Tarot, by R.S. Belcher

Perhaps the best way for you to get hooked on this book is to read this handy excerpt from Tor.com. The first book in the Golgotha Series, this book draws on Mormon, Chinese, Native American, and esoteric Christian mythologies in a world tinged with steampunk. Maude Stapleton is my favorite character, and she has her own spinoff book later in the series that just came out this year which I haven’t had a chance to read yet. I’m very excited about it.

Dreadnought, by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is a lovely little tale written by Cherie Priest, one of the big names in steampunk. This is in fact a steampunk book, one hundred percent. While I prefer her book Maplecroft, this book still is high on my list of her works. Maplecroft is set in New England, so it unfortunately doesn’t fit the theme here. Dreadnought, on the other hand, tells the story of a Civil War nurse traveling across the country, so it’s not solidly set in the West as it were. The frontier feeling of adventure remains, however, and it’s aided by trains and chemically induced zombification, so if you’re into those things I recommend this book highly.

Wake of Vultures, by Lila Bowen

This book is a lovely, introspective affair that spoke deeply to the little girl in me who wanted to be a boy. Basically, if you ever read the Song of the Lioness books and felt immeasurable kinship with Alanna, this book is for you. Unlike those books, however, Wake of Vultures also tackles race and sexuality, and takes the next step on the gender identity conversation that the Song of the Lioness either couldn’t or wouldn’t take. All of that is wrapped up in a wonderful odyssey to battle a terrifying monster or two.

Vermilion, by Molly Tanzer

vermilion_cover_web
Speaking of gender identity and race, don’t miss this lovely installation. Featuring Chinese heritage, talking bears, and a badass genderqueer female character, not to mention vampires, this book is a galloping romp. It sets itself up for a sequel as well, which I hope it follows up on.

Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief, by T. Kingfisher

This is an example of saving the best for last. Also I’ve cheated a bit by including both of these titles – there are technically two novelettes here, one of which won the Hugo this year! It’s worth it to read both in order, since they are so short. You can get these two stories along with several other lovely tales in the collection Jackalope Wives and Other Stories. Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is one of my all-time favorite authors at this point and a  source of inspiration. And the main character of these two tales is a lovely old woman. I love reading about old women doing badass things.

Advertisements

A few recent reads

I’ve been reading a lot lately, because I’ve been super stressed, which means that I read every spare minute. Don’t ask me why this is. I can’t tell you. You would think that, being stressed, I would engage directly with my stressors and then take my time to enjoy books, but not. I’ve just been spamming everything and screaming internally.

The upside of this is that I have read a lot of good stuff recently. Most of my recent reads have been novellas, but I’ve also devoured some novel-length pieces (always more satisfying for me). So what have I been reading? So glad you asked.

Final Girls – I actually went on a binge of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) around the first of the month and read a bunch of stuff, including some of her free and Patreon-supported short stories in the Toby universe. That was after I read this novella, which was good in the way all ghost stories and haunted houses are good. I highly recommend.

Binti – I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novella, but it wasn’t exactly what I got. That’s not a bad thing. I can definitely see why it won so many awards, and I’m excited for the next one, though it’s not on my immediate to-read list. That said, I think that I will need to read the actual book next time, instead of listening to the audiobook. I love Robin Miles, but audiobook of a novella is a little too brief for me, I think. It was perfect for my drive back from a conference, though!

She Wolf and Cub – I’ve read a lot of Lilith Saintcrow, and I enjoy her stuff. Her worldbuilding is solid, as always, and her system of magic (or in this case, science) is inventive. Sandworms, dystopias, nanobots, and one really made lady – sign me up! I enjoyed this book, though it’s one of the more pulpy ones on this list.

One Fell Sweep – Speaking of pulpy, this is a new book by Ilona Andrews, who always fits that bill. Space vampires and lots of explosions lie within. Check it out if you need something light, but beware – it’s the third in a series.

A Closed and Common Orbit – Reading A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not a prerequisite for this book in my opinion. That said, it does spoil a small part of the ending of the Hugo-nominee, so if you were planning to read that to see what the fuss was about you might want to get on it before you read this book. I liked this one loads better than Small, Angry Planet, which I honestly wasn’t a huge fan of, mostly because the pacing didn’t quite work for me. A solid book, with two powerfully complex and interesting characters narrating.

All Systems Red – This is a novella, and it is by Martha Wells, and if you know anything about my reading habits, you know I love Martha Wells. Admittedly, you may not realize because she puts out new stuff a little less frequently than, say, McGuire. Anyway, read her stuff, all of it is phenomenal and this novella is no exception. Hands down, Wells remains one of my favorite writers.

On my to read list for my honeymoon and the strenuous two weeks leading up to it, I have:

Horror and hope 

I’ve been reading a lot of horror recently. My reading taste tends to get darker in the winter months, I think, when the wind is blowing and the cold is getting into everything. Some recent horror titles have included Invasive by Chuck Wendig and The Family Plot by Cherie Priest. I loved both of these, though they were very different books. Unfortunately I read them after I had put out my best of 2016 post but before we officially kicked over to 2017, so I thought I’d write a special post about these two books and some of the things I, as a reader, like to see in a horror story. I’ll try to go light on the spoilers, but there may be some so stop now if you want a pure reading experience for either of these.

One of the things that makes a horror story unlikable to me, whether it be novel or movie or short story, is a blanket sense of inevitability. This is going to seem a little counter-intuitive. After all, horror is not necessarily a thing of happy endings. But whether the ending is happy or sad, horror only works with tension. And tension can only provided if either I, the reader, or the characters themselves believe that they can escape from their situation. They or I must have the hope that it is possible. That there is some way to succeed. Whether we are right or wrong has almost no bearing on whether the story is a good one – after all, being disappointed in that hope can be quite satisfying.

These are two very different books, as mentioned. One is the story of a woman who is profoundly isolated from her family, though she has friends who help her throughout the book. She sees too clearly all the ways things can go wrong, and it has left her with an anxiety disorder that verges on debilitating. She is afraid, all the time, but she is angry, too, and determined. Her name is Hannah Stander.

The other story is led by a woman who is bound entirely to her family and seeks to better their fortunes, potentially at the expense of her own. She is strong and capable and, while not overly optimistic, not fatalistic either. She believes she can conquer what life throws at her – though it is, perhaps, a desperate belief. There is stubbornness and denial in her. Her name is Dahlia.

Both of these women are intensely strong characters. Their strength lies in their competence in their chosen professions, in their compassion, and in their determination to survive. All too often, these things are lacking from horror heroines. It is what makes me so disgruntled with the genre in movies. Women are monsters or objects, as I’ve discussed previously. They are not given nuance. It was refreshing to see that oversimplification of women turned on its head in both of these novels. Honestly, I think that the hope that pushes these women along is the source of their strength. Hannah hopes very broadly. She hopes for proof of a better world. When that fails, she hopes to make the world a better place by defeating the things that threaten it. Dahlia hopes more narrowly. Her hopes are for financial security and escaping the haunted house that has trapped her and hers. The scale of their hopes are relative to the scale of their motivations. This is as it should be. We all have multiple things that move us. Many things that we fear to lose.

To be honest, perhaps the reason that I appreciate horror with hope in it is because of nothing more or less complex than good writing. Good writing means rounded characters. It means elevating the stakes. It means a certain level of unpredictability, too, that feeling of not knowing for sure what will come next.

Who doesn’t want to read a book like that? Who wants to spend the whole time in a story that is nothing but gore and screaming? That’s not the horror for me.

Anyway, read these books. Read Invasive for a near-future/current technological thriller with lots of gruesome imagery and ants. Read The Family Plot for an evocative, creeping ghost story with Appalachian charm that clings like kudzu. Just read, friends. There is plenty to escape from, and so many twisting realms to escape to.

 

 

New York, Lorca, and Movies

There are whole essays written on Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work has appeared on this blog before and who continues to be an important part of my literary education, mostly because all of my literary education of note has occurred in Spanish and El Ogro, soul of my soul, professor of the highest order, may he rest in peace, taught me most of it. I doubt this will be the last time I talk about Lorca. He influenced  Neruda, and was influenced in turn by Whitman, two of my favorite poets. He was a powerhouse, and he died far too young, victim of a fascist regime that targeted him for his words and his sexuality.

One of his most studied collections is Poeta en Nueva York, or Poet in New York, which chronicles the poetry that he wrote in and about New York City in 1929 and 1930. New York is an old city, and profoundly important historically. Yet I rarely feel the depth and vivacity of it in film. This was no less true on Thanksgiving when I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I have critiqued thoroughly here, and critique of which brought me to reread some of Lorca to find his depictions of New York.

Lorca visited New York in 1929, as the United States was falling into the Great Depression. It was the end of the Jazz Age, which is relevant to the aforementioned Fantastic Beasts in that this movie was based in the Jazz Age. Other writers will better speak of the history and context of the body of work that he produced there, including the loss of the original manuscript in which it was compiled. I’m not your girl for that, and that’s probably not what you’re here for. I’m a science fiction and fantasy buff who also really happens to like Spanish, seeing as I got a degree in it, and reads a deal of poetry from time to time. And I’m also a person that, as mentioned, was really unsettled to see the total lack of believable, historically accurate setting in a movie meant to appeal to a wide audience of predominately young people and young adults who might not know better than to take at face value that New York was a bastion of whiteness.

There is a poem in Poeta en Nueva York called “El rey de Harlem,” “The King of Harlem.” It is not about whiteness. It is about los negros, the black people to whom Lorca writes one of the longest and most vivid odes within this work. There is, indeed, a whole section of this collection entitled “Los negros,” dedicated to the black people who lived in New York City. It is telling that a Spanish poet who visited during this time found that black life and existence within New York was so impressing, so large a portion of the fabric of American life, that he dedicated three poems specifically to them. The refrain of “The King of Harlem,”or my rough translation of it, is particularly poignant in this context, as black Americans were ubiquitous as service members in many parts of the city.

“Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem!

There is no anguish which compares to your oppressed eyes

To your blood strewn within this dark eclipse

To your pomegranate violence, deaf and dumb in the shadows,

To your great king, prisoner, within the jacket of a doorman.”

Lorca’s depictions of black residents of New York were certainly not without their problems. But he did depict them, he did not shy away from the diversity of the city – perhaps because he himself often ventured into Harlem for the more selfish reason of trysting with lovers and other such activities. This was the time of Prohibition, after all, when much happened behind closed doors. It was a messy, chaotic time that birthed “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot, The Great Gatsby, and other such classics. It was also the time of the Harlem Renaissance, a fact conveniently glossed over in many depictions of 1920s New York, including that of Fantastic Beasts.

I am not a scholar of this time. There is no way in this brief blogpost that I can effectively encompass and illustrate all of the complexity of New York in the 1920s, and I know that I have missed things a more thorough student of such things would know. But I can leave you with the words of Langston Hughes, whose New York should have shaped the setting and plot of this movie, and hope that Hollywood might remember them the next time it seeks to whitewash the seat of black urban culture. And if you’re fed up with this lazy storytelling, I recommend “The Ballad of Black Tom” or watching some Luke Cage to get the taste out of your mouth. Let’s all hope for more depictions of our history that seek to include instead of erase.

slide_10

 

 

Hurricane Heels, by Isabel Yap

So Book Smugglers hooked me up with an ARC of Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap, and I have to say I really enjoyed it.

The book will be released on December 5th, which is tomorrow, so this is a special Sunday book post. You may see some more of these as I get more ARCs in the future. The review will be spoiler-free as much as I can manage, so no major plot points given away, and therefore pretty short. So no need to run screaming in fear of spoiling a good book.

The concept behind this book is pretty straightforward at first blush. It is a “magical girl” novel, following tropes of the anime genre that gave rise to such classics as Sailor Moon and Madoka Magica. That said, this is not a fluffy book. There are some serious moral questions raised about the prospect of being a child, as these girls generally are, gifted with powers and expected to fight unnameable evils, risking their lives for the good of humankind and some nebulous promise of victory. There’s also some good delving into PTSD and the psychological pressure associated with a life of endless battles.

hurricane-heels
Picture from the first chapter of Hurricane Heels.

The book follows five girls who have all been selected to fight evils called Greystones. Like an RPG, each Greystone releases a glass heart, which contains energy that allows their divine benefactor, the goddess (otherwise unnamed) to gain power. The story takes place primarily in the weeks leading up to the wedding of one of the five, Selena. Simultaneous flashbacks show the group’s history together, building their characters and making you care about them. Yap manages the timelines adeptly in each chapter, building a whole out of fragmented moments. The structure of this book actually reminded me of Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes Seanan McGuire’s work.

In addition, the book references its anime inspiration with some great drawings of the viewpoint characters at the beginning of each chapter. My only wish was for a drawing of all of the girls together at the beginning, since it would have helped me to keep them apart in my head better. I found the earliest chapter hard to follow as I assigned names to personalities and histories, but I don’t know if that was due to me reading it on my phone (quite possible). Maybe the cover will show all of them together – I’m very excited to see it!

sailor-moon
Please have a cover that looks like this.

If you’re into a dark re-imagining of Sailor Moon with great representation of POC and LGBTQ folks, this is the book for you. Prepare yourself for a lot of wedding talk, bachelorette parties, and monster guts.

EDIT: So this is the actual cover for Hurricane Heels! I like it, though I still want to see some fanart of them all arrayed Sailor-Senshi style.

hurricane-heels-jpg-cover

Anime: love it and hate it

Warning, folks. This is a long one.

There are some things that really exhaust me when it comes to anime.

I’ve been watching anime off and on for pretty much as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was totally hooked on Sailor Moon, and the Japanese live-action import of Power Rangers. I would sing the Sailor Moon theme song (the English version, of course – I was only slightly bilingual at the time, having not moved on to any other language besides Spanish) and do flips on the monkey bars at school. My favorites were Sailor Venus, because she was the strongest, and Sailor Mars, because she was the prettiest.

Anime dropped off the radar for a couple of years after that. A notable exception was when my dad brought home Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke sometime around middle school. That film blew my mind, needless to say, and remains one of my favorite movies. Not long after, my brother and I discovered Toonami, then airing typical shounen animes like Dragonball Z and Inuyasha. We also encountered some heavier stuff. Wolf’s Rain comes to mind as a particularly phenomenal and scarring work in later years. My dad really hated for us to stay up and watch anime, because he didn’t want us up after he had gone to bed. The anime only came on after midnight, so it was a constant battle.

There were no shoujo anime that I remember on Toonami. The stories were all about huge battles and epic quests. This in and of itself is not a bad thing – I’m a fan of huge battles and epic quests. But it’s notable that the only female characters that I really remember from the anime in my teen years are the cast of Outlaw Star, which has remained one of my favorites to this day, and Kagome from Inuyasha. I don’t think I ever remember seeing a woman on the episodes of Dragonball that I watched. The women on screen, with the exception of Aisha and Suzuka, were not expected to do anything particularly. They were pawns to the power they held, dragged into situations far beyond them. At least Kagome and Melfina managed to find themselves eventually, which may be why I remember them so fondly.

As an adult, I have continued to watch anime. I even collect it now. I have logged hours and hours. Every once in a while, an anime will come along that blows my mind. Akatsuki no Yona, Serei no MoribitoPrincess Jellyfish, Durarara!!!, to name a few. And of course you have to love the old classics. But I find that there are some tropes that repeat over and over that can be really exhausting for me.

This week, I am watching Kuromukuro, a Netflix original. A friend recommended this one to me, actually. I was skeptical – I’m not a huge fan of mecha anime outside of classics like Gundam Wing. It’s been done, and done again, and then done some more. But the first episode was interesting, the premise kind of caught my attention, so I’ve been watching it. And I’m so frustrated.

Kuromukuro falls into a tired trope that reoccurs often in anime as an art form, especially in shounen anime. There is a girl. She sort of has an identity? She has people who surround her, tenuous relationships, unformed dreams, so I guess that counts. But those dreams never go anywhere. Unforeseen circumstances catch her up, and she ends up bobbing in the wake of some powerful male figure. Usually she cries about it somewhere in there. He needs her around to accomplish his goals, and he may pay lip service to her autonomy, but the plot itself never backs up his altruism. She just doesn’t do anything. She’s a magical object. You only need her to make the machine run. A glorified key that can talk.

I’d almost rather that girl didn’t exist. I’d almost rather the story just was about the man. At least it would not feel so degrading. There are insipid people about in the world, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you might even need them for something. But unless it moves your plot, your message, to write that character, I personally don’t want to read about them. That would be true if they were male or female.

The issue is simply that these weak, deadweight characters are so often female that it almost becomes synonymous. When every woman’s story is hijacked by a man, when her only powers are domestic or romantic in a plot driven by glorious battles, it’s incongruous. And it sends a message that women’s stories are only worth telling if there is an interesting hypermasculine character to carry them forward. I’m not here for that. I’m not here for lazy writing that falls back on tired tropes about the uselessness of women.

Anime can be a wonderful medium. I have had my brain stretched so many times by this stuff, and I love it. I love Japanese, too. It has this speckled rhythm that pleases me, and the writing system is fascinating. But I do get tired sometimes. As with all mediums, there are genres and tropes which exhaust me. I’m sure this is not the last time that I will be disgusted by a writer’s treatment of a female character, either. I won’t stop watching anime anytime soon, but I’m definitely going to have to take a break from shounen for a bit after this experience.