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Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal

June 27, 2013 2 comments

Without a Summer

Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor, 2013) The Glamourist Histories 3 has produced a real internal debate and, even as I sit down to write this review, I’m still undecided on what my final decision should be. It all revolves around the merits of pastiche as a literary form. It has long been acceptable for one author to write in the style of another, usually to celebrate the skills and style of that other. I suppose in some senses, it’s a form of homage, albeit without the servile overtones that tend to be associated with the word. And we should distinguish parody because there’s no intention to make fun of the source material or its author. No matter how we end up defining pastiche, humour is not the intention (unless, of course, the author being celebrated is a humourist). So here we go with Mary Robinette Kowal writing in the style of Jane Austen, i.e. we’re to take it that this is how Jane Austen herself or other Regency writers might have written science fiction or fantasy. Ostensibly set in 1816, it deals with the literal fallout of the volcanic eruption of Tambora in the East Indies. It’s one of the few times we’ve come close to a nuclear winter as ash in the upper atmosphere produced a prolonged period of cold. So Ms Kowal’s intention is to take an actual historical event and to weave a story around it in a style of the period.

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

Mary Robinette Kowal with typewriter

My problem with all this artifice is to decide how we should assess its merit and then whether the result works on those terms. As a reviewer, I could decide to accept the author’s intention as being to write a “Regency” novel. This would involve my applying criteria that Regency critics might have adopted. Or I could ignore its declared purpose of recreating a period work and judge it purely as a contemporary novel. So let’s be blunt about the first option. No Regency author would have written a book exactly like this. The core conceit is a system of magic that no author of that time could have imagined. Our two lead characters are capable of manipulating the aether for a number of different purposes and effects. Spread over now three books, the author has invested considerable effort in constructing an internally consistent set of rules for the exercise of this supernatural skill. Indeed, for the purposes of this book, we have an extension of the skill set to encompass coldmongering which is an elegant idea. So it’s pointless to try judging it as if it had been written two hundred years ago. Equally, we’re not in the business of trying to judge it in the same way as the efforts to complete Sanditon, i.e. the author takes the original incomplete work and attempts to continue the story in the same style. This is very much an original work albeit that it plays the game of social manners appropriate to the Regency era. Hence, if I’m not judging it to determine whether it succeeds as if written two hundred years ago, the primary question to answer is what value is added to the story by pretending it was written by Jane Austen.

So here I get into trying to second guess the marketing strategy. I’m assuming there’s a massive market for the real Jane Austen’s work. You only have to look at the outflowing of adaptations on the small and large screen to see our age is still fixated with this author’s view of the world. This would suggest that an author could trade on this love of the original author to sell her own fiction. What we have is a heady romance as Jane’s sister Melody comes to London and finds what may be love in an unfortunate quarter. We have all the problems of chaperoning and the etiquette of courtship set out for us at some length — a feature which rather pushes the glamour element to a backseat.

I’m therefore driven to a view which is no doubt strongly influenced by my male gender. I found Without a Summer to be as dull as ditchwater. I’ve tried to find added value in the pastiche but, frankly, I now conclude this has been a red herring. At best, this is a third-rate fantasy novel. There’s little development to the central conceit. The primary focus is romance threatened by political manoeuvring. From this point of view, the second novel was far stronger with genuine innovativeness on display. Sadly, this has dropped back to a very poor standard.

For reviews of the other books in this series, see:
Glamour in Glass
Shades of Milk and Honey
Valour and Vanity.

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

The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor

December 29, 2011 Leave a comment

When I was at school, the atmosphere was mostly serious. Various talking heads would appear in front of us, doing their best to interest us in basic information. Educationally, they believed we first needed order and structure. Later, we could build on this for a more sophisticated level of performance. We ground through the grammar of both English and foreign languages so that, when we acquired vocabulary, we could speak and write with formal exactness. All continued serenely until, after we’d polished off O-Levels, our English teacher decided we should explore the range of literary forms. Suddenly, we were expected to parody and lampoon anything and everything supposedly serious. Looking back, this was building on our devout worship of the surrealism of the Goon Show and other potentially satirical radio programmes of the period. If you want an academic justification, I suppose he must have encountered Heidegger’s ideas as incorporated into French existentialism because he gave us an early introduction to the process, courtesy of Derrida, we might now consider deconstruction or, if you prefer, reconstruction. We had to focus on the text, capture its meaning and then make fun of it.

 

This caught me at an impressionable age and I’ve never really lost a somewhat subversive view of the world. In terms of my reading, I also enjoyed the parodies of the classics of my chosen genres, devouring Bored of the Rings by Henry N Beard and Douglas C Kenney as soon as it came out. Similarly, I grabbed National Lampoon’s Doon by Ellis Weiner. Such books are of their time and I seriously doubt anyone would find them even remotely amusing today. I’m also conscious that neither book would make much sense unless you were really familiar with the originals.

 

All of which brings me to the modern fashion for mash-ups which has produced such classics as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith), Little Women and Werewolves (Porter Grand), etc. Personally, I’m not impressed because although there’s some originality at a conceptual level, the execution is neither a good version of the original styles and manners, nor a competent supernatural novel. Such humour as exists comes from the forced nature of the situations, e.g. that Queen Victoria might hitch up her skirts and secretly hunt demons or Abraham Lincoln despatch vampires — easier because of the lack of skirts. But, after a few pages, even the best of jokes palls and leaves us with pages of desperate writing.

 

For many moons, Garrison Keillor has been broadcasting and writing about Lake Wobegon, a fictional town in Minnesota based, in part, on his hometown of Anoka. Similarly, Stephenie Meyer has been writing about the romantic possibilities if you put a vampire and a predatory young lady in the same room, and wait to see who’s chased and whether two become one (the Spice Girls have a lot of explaining to do). So here comes The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor (Night Shade Books, 2011) (which looks like a pseudonym for someone famous but one can never be sure about these things). Should you be afraid, very afraid?

 

Well, surprisingly, this is a very good stand-alone novel. Suppose you’d spent the last thirty years never engaging in cultural activities like reading fiction, listening to the radio, watching television or going to the cinema (which probably means you’re Amish). You could still read this book with perfect enjoyment for, although it borrows heavily from the ideas bank underlying the originals, it doesn’t depend on them for their effect.

 

So here comes Bonnie Grayduck. Forced to leave California to escape investigation into some of her extracurricular activities, she finds herself in a small town in Minnesota. This is both a curse because life appears so unsophisticated, and an opportunity because she believes she can easily dominate the scene and do more of what she enjoys. As is always the case in such stories, she must enroll in the local High School where, in the midst of all the dross, there’s this stand-out hunk who catches her eye. Now begins a strange courtship, the young man resisting her feminine wiles. Rising to the challenge, she plots his downfall only to discover she’s in pursuit of a vampire — and, ignoring the television show, she keeps a diary detailing her experiences. It should be said, however, this is rather better than the CW Network’s teen drama (not difficult) and, in my opinion, even better than the Twilight young adult books of Stephenie Meyer (even less difficult). This novel is written with very adult sensibilities engaged (no porn, of course) and a gentle sense of humour aimed at mocking the standard tropes in vampire, were-thing and Criminal Minds-type dramas. And it’s all set in Lake Wo(e)bego(tte)n so we get news of life and death out on the prairies.

 

I’m a natural curmudgeon so never do laughter unless I’m confident I can be unobserved — reputation is everything in my household. Fortunately, The Twilight of Lake Woebegotten is not something that threatened unrestrained mirth, but it did make me smile every now and again. By my standards, this is high praise. So allow me to recommend this rather clever book by Harrison Geillor. If you have had Amish tendencies for the last thirty years, you can still enjoy this on its merits, but a little background on Lake Wobegon and both Twilight and New Moon will enhance your understanding. It’s not something Heidegger would have enjoyed (unless in translation), but my English teacher would have approved.

 

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

 

The Bone Key by Sarah Monette

Instead of starting with an autobiographical note, I thought I’d kick this review off with a number of definitions. Let’s start with “original”. This is a word we routinely see applied to the latest offerings in all media. Whether you’re talking about the latest blockbuster down at the multiplex, the next bestseller in bookshops or the newest release from the top group, the prime virtue is that the work is something fresh. Rather than recycle or derive ideas from another source, the creator has produced something sufficiently unique that it will be copied by others. Yet when you look at the millions of words and images that are hyped for our attention, and then multiply that across several centuries of effort, you realise how difficult it is to produce something that is not to some degree derivative of, or copied from, the works of others.

So this brings us to “derivative” which, in principle, is the adaptation of someone else’s work. It applies most frequently in the shared universes where, with the permission or consent of the original copyright holders, new creators are allowed to continue the development of the storyline. These major franchises cover a multitude of sins from the Lovecraftian to the Star WarsStar Trek industries that churn out new works for the delight of their fans (most recently seeing the latest and most brilliant contribution to the Batman canon to hit the big screen as The Dark Knight). But there are more authors who quietly borrow concepts and ideas from their peers, modifying them sufficiently to avoid plagiarism. After all, the dynamics of plot are basically rooted in human relationships and, unless you come up with new ways for people to interact, you can only cover the same ground as everyone else — simply changing the factual context to avoid copyright infringement actions.

And then there are the “parodies” — the works that satirise or mock the work of others. In such works, the author clearly identifies the sources and then makes fun of them. At least that is the usual intention. Yet as cultures diversify, so it becomes more difficult for humour to cross boundaries. Thus, works that are intended to amuse often anger or annoy different groups. Such works avoid liability as copyright infringements because the creators invest enough of their own imagination and labour to justify separate copyright protection.

Which all neatly brings us to The Bone Key by Sarah Monette. This collection of linked short stories pays homage to the work of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft (although the latter’s contribution is more tangential than direct). Well, that proves me an unreliable narrator qua critic because I have immediately stepped outside the three definitions. But that is the word used by Monette in her introduction. In essence, a homage is a work that shows respect for the individual(s) named. It reflects the spirit of the original in very recognisable ways, but adds a contemporary commentary or gloss. To that extent, it is close to being a derivative work, but it does not need the express consent of the copyright holders because the author avoids any direct quotations or other borrowings. The work is original but deliberately reflects the spirit of the originals.

So does this collection (close to being a fix-up novel but avoiding it) genuinely show respect for her two nominated sources of inspiration? The style is very definitely Jamesean. It has the same dry, slightly deadpan tone. But it avoids the rather more hyperbolic excesses of Lovecraft. You will not find any of the Elder Gods wandering around the museum where her protagonist works, although we do have a parade of revenants and other supernatural beings which borrow something from the Lovecraftian canon. To that extent, she succeeds in creating a genuine sense of period writing. Is this a good thing? Well, being of an age to have read these works more than fifty years ago, I immediately recognise the understated quality of James whom I continue to think is a master of the genre. However, I am not sure how well this style travels in time. Modern readers are used to a more explicit approach to the horror and supernatural content. Retaining some of the sensibilities of writers working so long ago is a dangerous ploy.

To leaven the mix, Monette takes the slightly radical decision to make her male hero gay. As an aside, I note that the magic employed in the Doctrine of Labyrinths has a homoerotic side with Felix overtly gay. Thematically, Monette seems to find it easier to write about gay rather than straight male characters. In this instance, the homosexuality is a reasonably good fit because the hero, Kyle Murchison Booth, comes from a wealthy background, goes through private schooling and therefore fits the stereotype of the slightly effete, intellectually obsessed individuals who closeted themselves away in museums in the early part of the last century.

In this context, it certainly does bring the characterisation into the modern era. Too often, the writers of the last century focused on the plot and said little about the interior lives of their characters. It also poses all kinds of interesting questions as: does an incubus also sleep with men or is it the succubus that swings both ways? Nomenclature is always important to us critics.

The stories are of a reasonably even standard with The Wall of Clouds the most interesting and the new Listening to Bone the weakest. The stories are divided into two camps. The first, to a greater or lesser extent, illuminates our understanding of Booth by reviewing his early life and schooling. This helps to explain how and why he has become the man he is in the second group of stories representing the mid-period of his life.

Overall, I think Monette has avoided the dangers of pastiche (in the more pejorative sense of the word) and has created an interesting blend of older and modern sensibilities. Thus, accepting the derivative nature of the work, there is a sufficient overlay of original contemporary feelings and emotions to make the fusion work.

For my other reviews of work by Sarah Monette, see: CorambisA Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men (jointly with Elizabeth Bear), a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

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