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Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams

Diary_of_a_Dragon_by_Tad_Williams_270_420

Value is one of these rather annoying words where meaning can change quite significantly depending on the context in which it’s used. If we start off in personal terms, we may have moral or ethical values as the basis for deciding whether to do or refrain from doing anything, i.e. they represent a set of preferences against which we judge whether we should act. However, these values may take on a more imperative nature if they are shared by the majority of people in our community. Indeed Kant argues that if the given moral value is recognised as valid and applied by the majority, it becomes an obligation. If social enforcement is insufficient to ensure compliance, law-makers can enshrine the value in laws and use punishment as the means of enforcement or award compensation to those who are damaged by noncompliance. But if we move into economics, we begin to talk about measuring value by reference to a currency or equivalent medium of exchange, i.e. there is assumed to be a link between value and the price people are prepared to pay for the goods or services.

Tad Williams

Tad Williams

Applying this, I might well see aesthetic value in a work of art that few others might see. If there was little or no demand, I might acquire the object of subjective value for a small monetary payment. But if the majority see intangible value in the goods or services, they will pay more to acquire it. Going back through my collecting years, I think the smallest book I bought new was Ringtime by Thomas M Disch. It was published by Toothpaste Press and cost $35 in 1983 for 40 pages, signed and limited to 100 copies. In my defence, I was collecting Disch and it was a rather beautiful production. All of which brings me to Diary of a Dragon by Tad Williams (Subterranean Press, 2013). It sells as an ebook for $3.99. As a paperback chapbook limited to 750 copies, it sells for $15. It has 64 pages with the cover and extensive interior illustrations by William Eakin. But don’t let the advertised number of pages deceive you. This is a short story, spread out over the pages with a “nice” piece of design.

So here comes your decision. As short stories featuring a dragon and a princess go, this is elegant and quite witty. The artwork genuinely contributes to the aesthetic value of the production. Indeed, the final sepia panel completes the story in a way words would struggle to match. In other words, this is worth reading and seeing as artistic content. But when we come to economic value, I find myself in trouble. When I bought the limited Toothpaste edition, I realized it was a calculated gamble as to whether it would hold its value. Looking it up on Abebooks, I see a fine copy offered at $350. I’m not convinced it will sell for anything like that (less than $100 is more likely), but you get the idea that it has more than kept its economic value. I don’t believe a paperback chapbook selling for $15 will hold its value. Since I don’t own a Kindle or Nook, I can’t say whether many will buy this at $3.99. But what I can say is that electronic versions cannot be resold, so there’s no residual value. I therefore arrive at the conclusion that only the diehard collectors will buy this slight piece and not worry about the economic cost. For them, just owning it will be value enough.

For a review of another book by Tad Williams, see The Dirty Streets of Heaven.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack the Giant Slayer

When the lights go down and the digestive juices are eagerly expecting creative sustenance, Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) immediately tells you this is an impressive and exciting film by a piece of over-the-top-bombastic music that can’t possibly be sustained. If it was going to be this deafening, sorry exciting, for the next 114 minutes, our ears be worn down to the quick and that would never do. We would lack the strength to rise from our seats and go eat some monster nibbles at the nearest fast-food outlet? So the volume, pace and tempo must drop, and then duck in and out of gentle storytelling mode. So here comes the set-up. Young Jack and Princess Isabel sit in their respective low-born and high mucky-muck beds while their parents tell the story of how monks first attempted to grow the bridge between Heaven and Earth, but instead opened the door for the giants to come down the beanstalk and start eating us. Now there you have it. Hubris! It always gets people into trouble, particularly when they start deluding themselves into believing there’s a shortcut to Heaven. The moral so far is don’t go down to the woods today because giants are holding a finger-food event.

Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Tomlinson and Nicholas Hoult

Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Tomlinson and Nicholas Hoult

We then get one of these nice fairy story ideas that would require explanation in any other context. Needing a way to control the giants, the humans kill a giant (no mean feat), extract its heart (not so difficult once deceased) and then melt it down to make a crown for the king to wear (hmmm — giants have metallic hearts and, as an aside having no significance whatsoever, the tract for food to pass down into their stomachs is full of water and not an acid or enzymes or anything else that might consume input as food). Consequently (sic) when the king wears the crown, he can control the giants and tell them to climb back up the beanstalk. Once the last one has climbed back up, they (probably the humans working from the bottom up) cut down the beanstalk and promptly relegate all the factual aspects of the invasion to myth (in rhyme so it can be told to children). So that’s all right then. All done and dusted, as these British types say.

Ten years later (wow, time sure does pass fast in these tales), Jack (Nicholas Hoult), the daydreamer, is sent off to market to sell the horse and cart, but is distracted by a pantomime version of the fairy story and the now beautiful Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson). Of course we have the usual palace conspiracies for Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to marry Isabel and rule the world (which plans have already led to raiding the old King’s tomb and extracting both the fatal seeds and the magic crown). Why is it, I wonder, that villains are usually called Roderick in these fantasy films? When a monk steals the seeds who else can be trusted to do everything wrong but Jack. Take the seeds to the Abbey (yes) and on the way, don’t get them wet (now that shouldn’t be so hard, should it).

Bill Nighy and John Kassir gesture two horns at the world

Bill Nighy and John Kassir gesture two horns at the world

At this point the Princess knows she’s in serious danger of becoming the token woman and so makes a dramatic speech claiming not to be some fragile creature. No, she wants to take responsibility, get to know the people, and set herself on the path to being a Queen. When King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), still overcome with remorse from the loss of his wife, hears this, he tells her to shut up and marry Roderick. So much for empowerment and the mediaeval feminist movement. That’s why she runs away, like any self-respecting Princess would in a fairy story. Inevitably, because that’s what the plot requires, she ends up in the tenant farm occupied by Jack — it’s dark, raining and she can’t see where she’s going. This is a bad thing because, with the roof leaking, one of the seeds is going to get wet. Obviously these are GM seeds because this specimen sure does grow fast and carry the farmhouse and the Princess up to the land where giants have been imprisoned (they’re led by General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir — it’s a big body to move around and it needs all the brains it can get). As a further aside, there must be a time distortion effect in operation because it’s the same exclusively male army of giants that were beaten the last time around. They have survived the hundreds (?) of years without any female companionship to make life worth living or perpetuate their species.

Stanley Tucci looking villainous despite the comic hair

Stanley Tucci looking villainous despite the comic hair

As the excitement rises to fever pitch, i.e. the music wakes us up, we meet Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the wannabe Jedi knight in charge of the rescue expedition up the beanstalk. He has his moments but lacks credibility, a fact made abundantly clear when they meet the first giant. This leaves Jack and the villain, who conveniently has the crown with him, running free in the land of the giants. Naturally, the villain uses the crown to control these poor creatures and plans to take over the world. With the first signs of true love blossoming, Jack gives the inspirational speech to the Princess. She’s not useless. She’ll make the world a better place. So then it’s divide and rule. Jack takes the Princess down the beanstalk and the Jedi knight type stays up top to kill the villain with the controlling crown. This creates a problem because when you’ve spent the first part of the film establishing the villain, it’s not good to kill him off and leave the giants as the villains when we don’t care about them. In the best fantasy films, the best villains are always the ones who are the most human. They betray and scheme, laugh when they succeed and cry when they suffer a reversal, i.e. they are credible as characters. It would have been so much better if Roderick had led the giants down to attack the kingdom. Jack could then have sneaked into the giant’s camp and killed the “old man” in a “fair fight” and taken the crown. That’s the right level of heroism for this Jack. When it comes to the ending, Jack’s got a great cart horse and he’s the saviour of the kingdom (more by luck than good judgement), relegating the Princess to the pretty one who gives birth to children and so loses her good looks.

I think the problem is that Bryan Singer and the people behind this film couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted it to be scary or camp. The result is that it’s neither frightening in the slightest nor genuinely amusing. As a plot, it would have made a great thirty-minute episode in an animated series of fairy stories. It ticks the right boxes but it drags everything out to interminable length with poor CGI. The script is a dead weight round the necks of the high-powered cast of actors so they can’t get laughs to paper over the cracks. The giants are suitably massive and throw trees around like matchsticks (not sure how they set then on fire first), but they’re not used to frighten. Although he does kill one by accident and causes two more to die, Jack never feels like a heroic giant slayer. And just telling them all to quit making a nuisance of themselves and go home is a ho-hum ending. Sadly, Jack the Giant Slayer is just dead on arrival.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb

The Willful Princess

For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.

I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.

Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb aka Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden

The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.

The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.

Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.

For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

July 3, 2011 5 comments

Courtship rituals are fascinating to watch but, for us humans, emotionally draining to be involved in. All around us we see song birds. These fly about in the most flashily feathered costumes, showing off their vocal abilities to weave stories about their lives, charming the girls out of the trees and into the nests. But lurking out of sight are the predator birds. In daylight hours, they soar high into the sky, ready to fall on their prey before they have a chance to flee. But it’s the night hunters who are the most deadly. They are the silent killers who fly on muffled wings when all the most vulnerable are blinded by the night. Their breaks and claws will tear a body limb from limb. Whom do they choose for their mates and how do they treat them?

In many ways, Deathless is a slight throwback to a time when female authors embraced more radical feminism and wrapped their campaigns for equal rights in fairy tales. One of the most impressive was Angela Carter whose political leanings informed her passion for puncturing the superiority of men through the use of allegory and magic realism. One of her consistent devices was the use of a city or landscape to define an aspect of the male personality. For example, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman captures the notion that men lie about and hide their pasts. She describes the desire of a city to reinvent itself by pulling down the slums and red light areas. This redevelopment is intended lift it up from its more emotionally primitive past to become a new centre of culture and refinement.

So it’s rather interesting to see a modern author, Catherynne M. Valente, explicitly taking on the feminist role. For better or worse, modern man has been subverting the more radical voices that were encouraging the majority of women to seek practical equality. What was a major social movement thirty years ago, pushing quite aggressively to give women better protection, has been declared a success. With new laws in place, and both governmental and non-governmental organisations tasked with promoting change, the narrative implies the main battles have been won. In our postmodernist world, we are looking for new paper tigers or sacred cows to slay. Yet anyone with unprejudiced eyes through which to see our culture will understand that patriarchy survives. Convincing the modern generation of women that there’s no need for further change is a crude device for removing the impetus for any change in the reality of male domination. Although we all see some progress since the Victorian times when women were not allowed to own their own property, this counts for little when contemporary women have so little access to real power.

In Deathless, Marya Morevna sits in the window of her house and watches birds become men who take her three sisters away in marriage. One night, when she is not watching, an owl turns into Koschei the Deathless and demands she come with him. He treats her as a thing to be fed as and when he chooses, wherever he happens to be. He is, of course, solicitous. If she falls ill, he produces a cure, albeit one that’s painful. But, most importantly, the price she must pay for this relationship is to surrender her voice. He will interpret every instance of silence to understand what she needs. All her needs will then be satisfied as he thinks best. In a way, this arrangement will be successful when the couple are removed from society. They can live in a bubble and, without the ability to make comparisons, the woman can be persuaded this is a normal relationship. The “danger” comes when the woman can meet others.

Of course, when men rule all the roosts the couple visit, the women will all tell the same story of imprisonment by hopefully benign jailor husbands. It’s the consistency that perfects the patriarchy because no woman expects anything better. Indeed, the myth can then be sold that A only punishes B because A loves B, wishing only to correct A and show her the proper way to behave. A only punishes when he will forgive out of love. But let’s keep this real. If marriage is a war and only one party can survive, then it all comes down to the question of control when entering the marriage. Whoever has the power will eat the other up no matter what happens in the world outside. For those women who are subservient and faithless, the only expectation is a life of drudgery and death.

Catherynne M. Valente, a writer who produces muscular prose

The allegory in this tale draws on stereotypes of failing communism in post-revolutionary Russia. Life is surrounded by corruption and incompetence. Cronyism rules and the interests of the people are subordinated to the needs of the oligarchy. The reality is that no modern state can survive economically without food to put in the bellies of the comrades, and oil to fuel the factories and war machines. Without a balance in the cycle of life and death bringing more people into the world to drive it forward, there can be nothing to share. If too many die, the houses will be empty, the fields left waiting for seeds. So the post-revolutionary state must officially forget the past and look only to the bright new future where everything will be better. There can be no dissent, no criticism when things go wrong. Indeed, nothing ever goes wrong when an official plan is set in motion.

And what does that leave for us? If I’m married, there’s always the risk an Ivan will appear to seduce my wife away. If children are born. . . Ah, here comes the truth. When we are born, our feet are set on the path to death. Indeed, in many cases, children are the path to our deaths. But, perhaps, if the woman’s love is strong enough, she can knock down the defences of her man and then rescue him from defeat at her hands. This may seem paradoxical but, in a world where women must fight to survive, saving their men from themselves is the least they can do. Except, over time, this is a forlorn hope. Everyone dies, sooner or later. That is the nature of death. Even someone apparently deathless cannot hold off the end forever. So when death finally comes to the world and all save one are taken, can she be the redeemer? If the bond between the woman and her man was strong enough, can she call him back from death?

For the most part, the writing is of a high standard and, in its own right, worth reading. But there are several serious problems with the book. First, it’s all rather dispassionate. Although the opening is a fascinating retelling of some traditional Russian folk stories, it soon gets bogged down in the feminist message and the characters become talking heads rather than people we can identify with. Indeed, as the book develops and the fairy story falls away in favour of more about the Russian state in the 1930s and the subsequent siege of Leningrad by the German army, it all becomes rather dour. Unlike Angela Carter who was able to hide her didacticism in the subtext, Catherynne M. Valente abandons the use of myth for the telling of her parable, and allows it to become more realistic. This switch of tone represents a strong element of dissonance between the two parts of the novel, undermining the very qualities that initially made Deathless so attractive. It’s a great shame as, yet again, the quality of writing has not been put in service to a well-developed plot.

For a review of another novel by Catherynne M. Valente, see The Habitation of the Blessed.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For the record, Deathless is a finalist for the Mythopoeic Awards – 2012 and was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

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