Monday, June 8, 2009

#12--At the Bottom of the Garden, by Diane Purkiss

I love writing. I love the moments when all of the flotsam and jetsam in the back of my mind suddenly coalesces around the characters inhabiting the murky layers between my conscious and subconscious and a new story comes pouring out. Those ideas often send me tearing off on long research jags, because even if I write fantasy, there are still rules to follow. Everything might come out warped, but I've always found that the strongest fantasy is still grounded in reality.

The past couple of years, though, I haven't written much. I've barely even made stabs at editing older works, and my inspiration has been sadly lacking. And I think I've finally hit on why.

My brain works best when fed a steady diet of fairy tales, folklore, mythology, old wives' tales, and urban legends. And I've been neglecting to feed it. As a remedy, I'm going to alternate books covering just those subjects with my other reading. I've got a long list to go through, and I can't tell you how happy I was when I dove in at last.

I started with At the Bottom of the Garden, which professes itself to be "A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, and Other Troublesome Things." Diane Purkiss pushes the boundaries of what can be defined as a "fairy" nearly beyond the breaking point, starting with Lamia, nymphs, and djinn.

If you're already knowledgeable about fairies and other mythology, this could be an interesting read, but I would never recommend it to anyone new to the field. Diane Purkiss tried to reference modern books and movies, but couldn't always get the details right, including saying that the only Sith in the original Star Wars trilogy was Darth Vader, and made easily refutable errors, like claiming Disney based their Tinkerbell on Marilyn Monroe (although the truth couldn't easily be found on Snopes at the time, I'd still expect better).

As her history approaches modern incarnations of fairies, her tone grows increasingly derisive, and her superior tone (including occasional asides to make sure you know how smart, rational, and very cool she is) grows more and more difficult to ignore. On numerous occasions, she makes reference to modern fairies reflecting the older fairy tropes by accident, since it's obvious most people using fairies have never spared a moment for a scrap of research. But this is what pushed me over the edge:

The Irish fairies had a posterity too--a dignified one of folktale and careful, sceptical [sic] folkloric research, and a more dubious one of runaway post-Romantic pseudo-Celtic New Age posturing and calendar pictures. In fantasy writer Marion Bradley's fearsomely long Mists of Avalon, King Arthur's old enemy Morgan Le Fay, Morgaine the fairy, is reimagined as a radical feminist of the Seventies, battered, bruised, but always Very Strong, always in touch with her menstruating self. She meets from time to time with the Even Stronger Queen of the Fairies, who is even less embarrassed about her sexuality and fecundity. But somehow the whole thing never rises far above the ruck of sword and sorcery, a genre so utterly debased that little can be said for or even about it...

I don't have any problem with her disliking Mists of Avalon, though I do find trashing an author in your book to be immature and unprofessional, and I cannot respect anyone who will dismiss an entire genre. And I have to go back to Tasha Robinson's answer from the AV Club's Q&A about Pop Culture Sacred Cows:

But what I absolutely can't stand, and what puts me into a fighting mood faster than anything else, is people blanket-dismissing an entire genre or subculture or area of effort, especially with the always, always, always-uninformed "I'm not interested in that stuff because it's all the same." So here's my pop-culture sacred-cow statement: Every genre is deep, nuanced, complicated, and diverse to its knowledgeable fans. That doesn't mean every genre is for all tastes. You don't have to like industrial or classical or conscious rap or Chicago blues or Beat poetry or fantasy novels or reality TV or whatever else. You aren't even obligated to try them, much less to make the effort to immerse yourself in them enough to tell the classics and the keepers from the trash. Life is short, the world is big and full, and there's nothing wrong with walking away from things that don't speak to you. But people who get snotty or self-righteous about it, as though their personal tastes reflect some sort of immutable reality, steam the hell out of me. Ignorance isn't attractive, but saying "I've never really gotten into [Westerns, opera, FPS games, whatever], and I'm not really interested" isn't nearly as ignorant as lumping together every example of a genre as unnuanced and unworthy. People who do sound exactly like caricatures of '50s parents, squawking about how Elvis and The Beatles are all just stupid noise.

I've tried to say it better, but she took the words right out of my mouth. My annoyance would be equal if she had been bashing romance, rap, or even some subgenre I'd never encountered.

My poor impression of Ms. Purkiss deepened as I drew towards the end of the book, which I continually had to force myself to keep reading instead of hurling across the room. Her distaste for the modern version of fairies was obvious, and my willingness to accept her version of events faded quickly.

For example:

...many of us can only feel nausea when our daughters and goddaughters invest int he fairy image. At my son's Hallowe'en party, one five year old came dressed as a pretty fairy; her foamy pink skirts stood out like a wound among the ranks of matt-black ogres, vampires and Dark Lords of the Sith. The mothers hissed, 'Who's the little girl in pink?' No one actually said 'Urgh!', but everyone, like Tim, looked sick, and her own mother was apologetic. Any self-respecting North Oxford mummy would rather her daughter was a vampire than a fairy.

I can't help but wonder if the mother in question was only badgered into apologies when confronted with Ms. Purkiss's attitude. She also devoted an entire passage to the owner of a fairy shop in Australia who wouldn't allow her to take pictures inside her shop, and refused to bow down after the author whipped out her academic credentials. So, obviously, the professional thing for her to do was trash the woman in question in her book.

She finally wrapped it up by drawing parallels between aliens and fairies, and a lot of talk of the X-Files, even reproducing a little fanfic. She took one last shot at the speculative fiction genre with, "I do not think I can argue that these stories come from fairy sources; I would be greatly surprised if science-fiction writer...had made much of a study of European folklore."

By the end, I didn't feel her work deserved anymore respect than she was willing to give so many others, and I'm glad to be done with her book. I definitely won't be picking up anymore of her work.

Up next: Thirteenth Child

Friday, June 5, 2009

#11--Magic Strikes, by Ilona Andrews

Urban fantasy, particularly any variety can that can be summed up by, "So-and-so is a kick-ass woman who's totally different from all those other kick-ass women because she's got this one cool power no one else has called yet has to solve a mystery/murder/other crime and probably fall in love along the way, or at least get laid," has become a sub-genre that I love to hate. Partially it's because the market is saturated right now. Partially it's because so many of them seem like retreads following the paths of Diana Tregarde and Anita Blake. Most of them take place in a world where the normal person doesn't know anything about magic for an assortment of reasons, and half the time when I see the cover or read the blurb on the back, I kind of quietly gag and slide the book back into place on the shelf.

So why do I keep reading books that fall under that description? Because about half the time, even if it isn't a great book, it's still a fun read, and the other half the time, I feel like whoever is in charge of writing those blurbs on the backs of the books needs their ass kicked. And occasionally I pick up a book that rises above the genre conventions to give me something I really, truly enjoy.

I came across the Kate Daniels books because I've made a habit out of scanning the shelves at the bookstores for new authors. I stumbled across Magic Bites not long after it first came out and picked it up. I'll give any new author at least two books to really hook me unless the first book is really terrible. Magic Bites left me keeping an eye out for Magic Burns, and that second book left me more than eager for this third one.

I'm actually hesitant to describe much of the plot simply because boiling it down into a few quick sentences cannot do it justice. Anything I can write will probably leave anyone--fan of the genre or hater of the genre--rolling their eyes. The problem is, on reading, this book rises above the stereotypes with excellent characters, a tight, engaging plot, and an enjoyably unique world. Ilona Andrews knows her folklore and mythology. She does her research, and she does an admirable job of weaving it into the fabric of her world and her characters without disrupting them to show off how smart she is.

If you're looking for an engaging read, I definitely recommend these books. Each stands alone very well, but it's worth starting from the beginning. If the first book doesn't impress you overmuch, give it through the second, because I've found them to grow in depth, breadth, and craft.

I'm going to look forward to the 4th book in this series, and Ilona Andrews has a new series starting soon. I know I'm going to be snapping that up as soon as it's out, too.

Coming up next: At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs, and Other Troublesome Things

One More About the Animals

Remy is my girl. Considering how the last month has gone, I feel like I should mention now that she is very much alive and well.

I adopted her a little more than three years ago when she was about 12 weeks old. She's always been a little aloof, preferring to go about her business and come to me when she wants pets or attention. She's more vocal than Keegan ever was, though, always willing to let me know when she wants food, wants love, or wants me to open the bathroom do so she can do something disgusting like drink out of the toilet.

She'll hop into my lap occasionally, but rarely settles down, and she'll come sit on the bed with me, but her all-time record for time was about fifteen minutes.

She and Keegan kept their distance from each other, though Keegan would sometimes pin her to the ground so he could lick her head, and she'd purr and lick him back until someone took it too far and they ended up wrestling. Mostly, they kept to themselves.

So it took me a little while to realize that she wasn't taking Keegan's disappearance well. She started searching for him and mourning him while he was still at the vet's and I was still convincing myself that he'd be coming home safe soon. I didn't connect the way she cried in the hall or sat on my bed and yowled with worry for Keegan. I didn't quite realize that she was coming to me for more attention than ever because she was lonely.

Honestly, I relished the attention and was happy to give her all the love she wanted. She patiently sat with me while I cried, and I failed for almost two weeks to realize how much she was suffering.

It dawned on me bit by bit, and I started wondering what I should do about it.

Then, on Saturday, I had one hell of a dream. Someone's cat died, and they carried it out of the vet's and just dumped it by the side of the road. I was walking by, saw the sad little body, and gathered it up to...I don't know. It made sense at the time, like anything in a dream does.

This cat was an orange tabby calico, and when I picked it up, it came back to life. I immediately rushed it into the vet, which looked like no vet's office I've ever seen, and the people inside expressed surprise about the now living cat that they'd just sent out with its owner to bury. My response? "I have no idea what you're talking about. This is my cat...Symphony. did this other cat die? And can we make sure that doesn't happen to this cat?"

I woke up on Sunday with a vaguely urgent feeling, like there was this cat that needed me. Remy still wasn't doing terribly well. She was eating and drinking, but not much. She wasn't losing weight yet, but I was getting worried about my girl.

I had to go to PetsMart to get Remy more food, so I stopped to look at the adoptable kitties just out of curiosity. No orange calico tabbies. Just as well. The idea of a new kitten made my eyes tear up.

But there was one who drew my eye. She reached through the bars to grab my fingers, but didn't use claws. She just pulled me close, and she walked back and forth to be petted. She purred and meowed at me. I made myself look at the other kittens, and while they were lovely and adorable, that one kept drawing my attention.

I left the adoption area to pick up the cat food, and almost paid for it and walked out. But I stopped and asked if there was someone who could unlock one of the cages and let me meet a couple of the kittens.

The one I was looking at had a sister who was admittedly prettier than her. Prettier and more psychotic. When the sister was lifted to see the other kittens, she growled and struck at them, then remained agitated, even clawing the poor girl in the face. The one I was looking at, however, growled a little when presented with the kittens, but then nestled into my arms and played with a little black kitten from the next cage over without a protest.

She came home with me, and I named her Symphony, for the cat in my dream. She immediately knew that was her name.

She's part Siamese, part ragdoll. When I brought her into the house, Remy came up to sniff at the box, and didn't even bat an eye when the box meowed. They sniffed noses though the holes in the box, and when I left Symphony out to see her new home, Remy only kept a close eye on her.

When Symphony got too close, Remy growled or hissed, but never made a move at the new baby. Symphony backed down immediately during every non-confrontation, and now they're pausing to sniff at each other, and Symphony is trying hard to convince Remy to play with her.

Remy no longer paces the house crying. She's eating well again, and she's gone back to being her old self. I sort of miss the Remy who wanted lots of affection from me, but if this means she's happier, then I'm definitely happy.

Symphony loves to be petted and get attention. She adores being held, and she follows me to bed every night to curl up beside me. When she plays, she doesn't use her claws, though she loves to chew on my fingers, which I'm having to discourage. She loves Itzl, the other dog, and plays with the puppy we're fostering.

She's fit into the family smoothly and perfectly. And her markings aren't orange tabby calico, but she is sort of pale brown/grey calico.

My heart is still bleeding over Shika, and I don't know if I'll ever really stop hurting over losing my Keegan. Remy still searches for him, even though she's much happier now. There are holes where Keegan and Shika belong, but Symphony has found her own special place here.