Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Here There Be...: a Dual Review of Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett and Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Lately, my nocturnal schedule has been leaning towards the evening side. Or to put less delicately, I've been going to bed post-4 am. Last night, I decided to alter my schedule so that it more closely resembled a non-crazy person's, and went to bed at 10:30 pm. Consequence: I'm up at 4 am, and wide awake. I can already tell it's going to be a cranky day. But at least I'll be so dead tired by the end that the whole "normal schedule" thing will be a little more in reach. At any rate, my loss is your gain, as I'm taking advantage of the current insomnia to deliver another dual review. Post's going to follow the same format as the last one: the usual starting quotations, a run through of each book's premise, a quick sketch of what I thought of each, and the concluding thoughts. Key words: dragons, fantasy, and male homosexual leads.

"The thing was, I didn't know she was married.
"She wasn't so fine and so sweet-curved as I couldn't've found somebody else--and better--to tickle that night. But she was married to a diplomat, which was what made it so bad, so when I tried to pay her like a common whore, she got wild as a wet cat on me, screaming and throwing things and breaking vases. I thought she was a whore, the way she'd tarted herself up, but apparently that was just an Arlemagne's way: powder on everything and too many undergarments, the kind of teasing frippery you only see in Our Lady and which I normally don't have time for. Her breasts were incredible, though--big and round and soft and warm--and I spent a lot of time letting her know how incredible they were. Even if I didn't think it was a commercial exchange, she might've been grateful instead of screaming rape all over, like that's what you can do if you're a woman when things go sour and you feel a slight."
--Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.

"The young dragon her father was watching could not stand upright. It wallowed and crawled on its belly. Its hindquarters were unfinished stubs. Its head wobbled on a thin neck. It gave a sudden shudder and surged upright, where it teetered. Even its color seemed wrong; it was the same pale gray as the clay, but its hide was so thin that she could glimpse the coil of white intestines pushing against the skin of its belly. Plainly it was unfinished, hatched too soon to survive. Yet still it crawled toward the beckoning meat. As she watched, it gave too strong a push with one of its malformed hind legs and crashed over on its side. Foolishly, or perhaps in a effort to catch itself, it opened its flimsy wings. It landed on one, which bent the wrong way and then snapped audibly. The cry the creature gave was not as loud as the burst of pain that splashed against Thymara's mind. She flinched wildly and nearly lost her grip. Clinging to her tree branch, eyes tightly shut, she fought a pain-induced wave of nausea.
"Understanding slowly came to her; this was what Tintaglia had feared. The dragon had sought to keep the cocoons shielded from light, hoping to give the forming dragons ta normal dormancy period. But although they had waited until summer, they had still merged too soon, or perhaps had been too worn and thin when they went in. Whatever the reason for their deformities, they were wrong, all wrong."
--Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb.
* * * * *

Havemercy is a debut fantasy novel by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. The plot of the book really exists on two levels: the larger story, and the interpersonal story. The larger story is that the kingdom of Volstov has long been at war with the Kehan Empire. The Volstov mages have largely canceled out the Kehan sorcerers, so until recently, the battle has been a stalemate. That changed with the introduction of the Dragon Corps, an elite battle team consisting of the dragons--talking creatures made from gears, metal, and magic--and their riders. Now, it seems like the Volstovians have their enemy on the run--or do they? As the larger story slowly--very, very, slowly--unfolds, it's gradually revealed that the Volstovitchs are more desperate than even their own people know.

The interpersonal plot revolves around four characters. First, there is Margrave Royston, an aristocratic man of magic. Royston is exiled from the court after he is caught in bed with the Arlemagne prince. Specifically, he is sent to live with his country squire brother, and there he meets Hal, the young, naturally intelligent, but inexperienced tutor that the brother hired to teach his sons. Royston is initially depressed by his exile, but he finds respite in teaching Hal in the ways of the world--and in the ways of love. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) The other pair of characters follow a similar progression, though without the romantic element. Rook, the narrator in the quotation above, is a member of the twelve member Dragon Corps, and brings the Corps into political disrepute after his dalliance with the Arlemagne ambassador's wife. (Not the prince ambassador; a different member of the Arlemagne group. Took me fifty pages or so to work that out.) Thom is a university student writing his thesis on the social effect of the Dragon Corps; he is press-ganged into the task of reforming the Corps for proper society. Out of all the Corps members, Rook is the least inclined to think he needs reforming, so he applies some merciless hazing to the issue, with comedic effect.

While Jones and Bennett are new to the fantasy field, Robin Hobb is an old hand. She's written 10 books under her other pen name, Megan Lindholm, books that focus on contemporary fantasy, and, to date, 14 more "traditional" fantasy novels under the Hobb name. The big names in fantasy literature tend towards sprawling epics: George R. R. Martin and the Song of Ice and Fire, the late Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time, and Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books. Hobb roughly does the same, but in a more subtle manner; she tends to write trilogies and duologues set in the same fictive world, but largely unconnected. Dragon Keeper is actually the tenth book set in the loosely connected "Realm of the Elderlings" series, but it is kept far enough apart from the others that no prior reading is necessary. (An impressive feat, really; try jumping into Book 10 of the Wheel of Time.) Pratchett does it as well, but Hobb's books are far more connected.

Dragon Keeper's larger story is a little simpler than HaveMercy's, especially if you're not aware of the connection to Hobb's other novels. As described in the quotation, the dragon hatching has gone horribly wrong, with even the strongest hatchlings rising up deformed and twisted. Years later, the dragons have become a burden on the townspeople, and aren't taking kindly to being sequestered by humans. So, they depart for Kelsingra, their ancestral home. Fearing for the dragons' safety--since they agreed with their normal and very powerful mother to look after them--the townspeople send a delegation of humans with the dragons. In an interesting parallel delegation is composed largely of cast-offs, like the dragons. In Rain Wild River society, the magic-based nature of the swamp has warped the people, to the point where children too far outside the genetic norm are shunned, or abandoned at birth. Since their home prospects are poor, they are fairly eager to accompany the dragons somewhere else.

Dragon Keeper has a much larger main cast than Havemercy, even sticking strictly to those who narrate the proceedings. There is, in order of appearance, Leftrin, the grizzled captain of the Tarman, the ship sent to follow the dragons and help them procure enough food for the journey; Thymara (narrator in the quotation), a Wild Rains girl who follows the dragons as part of their teenaged band of human cast-offs/dragon servants; Sintara, the proud female dragon she bonds with; Alise Kincarron Finbok, "a wealthy Trader's wife trapped in a loveless marriage," (in fact, she's his unwitting beard) as the book slip tells us, accompanying the dragons as a self-studied dragon expert; and Sedric, her friend and the actual lover of her husband, sent along on the expedition to look after her. In addition, there are number of other subcharacters, including dragon keepers Tats and Greft, the husband Hest Finbok, and other keepers, dragons, and crewmen. Special mention goes to the pigeon keepers Detozi and Erek, whose missives between chapters really flesh out the book, and add some scope to a story that would feel much narrower without them. The main plot of the book has the group slowly coalescing, and beginning their exodus to the "promised land."

* * * * *

So what did I think? Well, let's with Havemercy, and the bad stuff. Basically, I've got a few problems. First: even in a genre often dominated by masculine fantasies (and not the talk-to-dragon kind, the sleep-with-Mother-Freudian kind), it's kind of noticeable when you don't have any main female characters, sympathetic or otherwise. I suppose you could stretch things and consider Havemercy (Rook's dragon) a female, as she herself does, but she's not really a focused character. Actually, that line of reasoning brings to light another problem with the novel: there are just too few characters in general. Yes, Jones and Bennett get full points for supplying at least an outline for all twelve of the dragon corps members, but, honestly, most of them are rather incidental to the proceedings, and could be removed without much fuss. In practice, this is a book with four fleshed-out characters, and while Rook and Royston are fairly distinct, Hal and Thom are, personality-wise and tonally, almost identical, a fact that becomes painfully obvious in the scenes they have together.

My main complaint with Havemercy is that it's a story whose whole never quite amounts to even the sum of its parts. The Hal/Royston plot is essentially a romance with 19th century undertones intermingling with homosexuality, the Rook/Thom plot is stock comedy--bumbling administrator sent to reform rag-tag team of layabouts. And the overall story has a sort of WWII fighter pilot kind of feel to it, thanks to the dragons. The problem is that they don't really fit together as smoothly as they could. The romance is fine--it just drags on long past when the outcome is obvious. The comedy is fine--there's a roleplaying scene that's particularly hilarious. But its problem is that, instead of playing it for satire, it's played for straight, and never quite fits into a fantasy setting. And the actual war-based plot is fine--the problem is, it never really picks up until about the last fifty pages or so, while the other elements are drawn out long past their peak moment of interest. Jones and Bennett handle character very well, but they never quite convince me that they are handling fantasy.

Hobb, on the other hand... well, I've got a lot of time for Hobb. (which is important, since even her shortest stuff clocks in at about 400 pages) Remember my other dual book review, where I ranted at great length on how fantasy is based on happy endings and knowing that things will work out in the end? Well, I should have added: except in Hobb's books. Hobb can do what she wants. In general, Hobb's strengths are establishing the sublime, and establishing her characters. I wrote an entire paper on Hobb's use of the eco-sublime in the Soldier Son series, but I'll spare you guys the Burkean melodrama and loosely define the sublime in writing as a moment when the character and reader at hand experience a moment of extreme awe fringing on horror at the scene before them. In Soldier Son, there are sublime moments both when the civilized men walk into the forest, and when the forest men walk into civilization; in Dragon Keeper, it comes up in various places, but the most obvious and striking for me was the hatching scene quoted in part above. Hobb really sells the trauma of the scene, how something has gone horribly wrong. It's a great start to a sometimes slow moving novel.

The characters are also well-sketched. Alise's early scenes are great; there is a 19th century Jane Austen feel to her character. Her family is unable to come up with a profitable marriage for her, so she is preparing for a life of spinsterhood and eccentric dragon study when Hest approaches her with his offer of a marriage of convenience. Her later plot fell a little flat for me, in part due to her incredible inability to see the writing on the wall and realize that her husband's playing for another team. (Okay, I'll admit that the society she's from willfully ignores gay activity, but still... it's never a good thing when a reader figures out a mystery long, long before the characters.) But at that point, she's neatly supplemented with the dragon keepers, and the various power struggles in that group reminded me distinctly of the social maneuvering of Lord of the Flies. Only with teenagers. Of both sexes. And their dragons. Okay, maybe it's not very close. Still good, though.

My complaint with the book--in addition to Alise's plot--is the ending. In one of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide, (I'm going to say it was So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)intergalatic Charlie Brown Arthur Dent spends some time in a world where they've got a different way of writing novels--books end once they reach 50 000 words, in midsentence if necessary, plot and story arc be damned. Dragon Keepers feels a bit like that. There's no climax to speak of, and the book just sort of stops in tracks and announces "the end!". Now, the advertisements for the book declare that it's one part of a two-volume novel, which excuses the abrupt stop to some extent, except for two things: first, there's no mention of this duality in the book itself, and just going by the book, I was expecting some closure. Second, the book is 474 pages long; at that length, I'm expecting some sort of rising action, and that's not here. I trust Hobb's skill in crafting a novel enough that I'm positive reading both books will provide a very satisfying read, but as it stands, that's a 900 page commitment, and I don't know how many can commit to something like that. (Although granted, if you're a regular fantasy reader, you're pretty much used to it.)

* * * * *

At this point, you're probably aware that the novels have two major elements in common: dragons, and gay male protagonists. Let's discuss each in turn. First: dragons. In sci-fi, the relationship between humans and aliens almost always comes down to a sort of short hand for metaphorically examining the way people relate to each other. Fantasy works the same way, only more so. Some of the races become such common go-to points that they become regarded as cliches: elves are noble, wise and eco-centric; dwarves like gold and drinking; goblins are stupid and mildly wicked, etc. And dragons... well, what are dragons?

To return to our list of fantasy authors from above, in Jordan's Wheel of Time, dragons are symbols of pure magical power, and the insanity associated with that power. In Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, dragons represent military and political capital, providing their keepers with dynastic legitimacy. In Pratchett's Discworld, dragons symbolize magic in general wonderment, and encourage a worldview where humans are both subservient and prey. In Havemercy--and this is one of the elements I liked most about the novel--the dragons symbolize military strength, but societal turmoil. The magic of the established wizards comes from carefully sanctioned bloodlines and supplies, keeping the power in control of the noble families. But the mechanical, magical dragons are more fickle; they chose their riders, and they chose from all levels of society. The result is that a bunch of commoners have been elevated to the most elite military force in the country, throwing everything into question. It's essentially the equivalent of putting the US military in the hands of the cast from Jersey Shore (only much less terrifying), and it's an interesting translation of celebrity culture into fantasy terms.

Hobb, on the other hand, uses dragons as symbolic means of putting humanity in general into perspective. The dragons view themselves as superior to humans, and make it clear that, in better times, they would have little scruples about turning them into prey. They also function like planarian worms, in that they gain the memories of the creatures they eat. Thus, since it will preserve your memory, it's considered an honor and a privilege to be eaten by dragon--by the dragon's point of view, anyway. Hobb's dragons are both more and less human than Jones and Bennett's; more, because they're fully voiced characters, but less because the dragons and the humans are constantly reminded of the difference between them, of the uneasy alliance that keeps them connected. The differing use of dragons in these two books reminds me of what draws me back to fantasy: endless variation on a theme.

Now, the other common element is less a staple of fantasy literature. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. What's the opposite of a staple? A tear, I guess. So it's pretty much a tear of the fantasy literature: gay male protagonists. Besides these two books, I can only think of one other fantasy book I've read with gay male leads: Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series. The first book in the series was excellent; I stopped after the second, which dragged out a bit long for my tastes. Interestingly, in the series' wikipedia page, the only mention of the homosexuality in the 7000 word document is a six line mention stating multiple times that their sexual orientation raises no real issues, and "is not what the story is about." On the one hand, I admit that it can get rather tiring, especially in a fantasy novel, for a writer to overtly champion a pet cause. At the same time, I can't help but paraphrase Shakespeare: "Methinks the wikipedia author doth protest too much." Why does he or she feel that the book's homosexuality needs to be defended?

For the record, I think Alec and Seregil in the Nightrunner series are the best portrayal of the bunch. The Hal/Royston plot is a little too cliched; granted, the older man/younger naive boy is played out in Nightrunner as well, but both characters are fleshed out a little more thoroughly. And Hobb's plot is less romantically idealistic, but goes a bit too far in the other direction--Hest is almost a caricature of a character. The point, however, is that the only portrayals of gay men in fantasy literature that I can think of come from women. What are we to make of that? There are a few conjectures that come to mind. It can't be denied that fantasy is a fairly conservative genre--not conservative in the Republican party/Conservative Party sense, which is a different argument entirely, but conservative in the sense that it is very suspicious of change. Arguably, all genres are like this to a certain extent--it's how they become genres, after all--but fantasy in particular seems trapped in amber. Part of being traditionally associated with the pseudo-medieval means that you will always be somewhat stuck in the past.

Mainly, I think the argument against "rampant homosexuality" in fan lit comes from the escapism claim. Essentially, the claim is that fantasy literature is about making a sharp divorce from the real world, about pursuing another world entirely that is not bound by real world distinctions. Thus, fantasy is about happy endings, morally unambiguous oppositions, and should be kept clear from real world concerns.

I can't state strongly enough how much I disagree with this point of view. First, any escapist view of fantasy keeps it firmly rooted in "kid's stuff" mentality. If you claim that fantasy shouldn't deal with real issues, you're keeping it sanitized and neutered--ie, appropriate for children. (Never mind that even sanitized, it's often not appropriate at all; again, that's a different argument.) Viewing fantasy as escapism brands its fans as people who can't handle the real world, a label I, as a fantasy fan, find particularly insulting. Addressing homosexuality specifically, if it's kept out on the grounds that it's a modern, real world issue, you're not only denying history (homosexuality was around in medieval times too), you're also denying what makes fantasy fantasy. To me, fantasy literature (and maybe all literature) isn't about dragons or elves or sword fighting or role-playing; it's about exploring the spectacular and wonderful. To create a definite escapist real world/fantasy split is to deny that this wonder can be found in the real world. And while I haven't experienced it personally, I'd wager that a first kiss from a male lover can be every bit as wondrous as all the dragons and dynasties and magic that a fantasy world can provide.

* * * * *

Was that an uplifting conclusion, or over-the-top pontificating? I can never tell. Anyway, to draw the two themes together, if dragons represent an exploration of the unknown, then kudos to Jones and Bennett and Hobb for exploring a bit of what's almost unknown in fantasy lit. To sum up, Hobb's book was good, but probably better read in immediate conjunction with the next in the series; Jones and Bennett's book was flawed, but good enough that I'll keep an eye out for the next book in the series.

Later Days.

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