Thursday, March 17, 2005

So, all of February and most of March lie fallow behind me.

My commitment to the writerly life is about as stable as an ice sculpture in May, right now.

Reading:

Legends from Darkwood, by Christopher Reid. This made me laugh. Squeaky hard. It has a delicately balanced sense of humor that is just this side of wrong. Mmmm. Tasty magical beasts!

Amulet of Samarkand, by Johnathan Stroud. More recently Arrowsmith, a graphic novel by Kurt Busiek.

I should have liked both of the above unreservedly. They were good reads, dealt with alternate histories influenced by magic, and had fairly rigorous internal consistency. I always enjoy Kurt Busiek's Astro City. I really should have liked Amulet: I love stories about Djinni/Demon stories.

But I found myself holding back from both stories. In Amulet, the main characters are like night and day: One is flip and colloquial, one is a little prig. Neither are likeable, although it's obvious who Stroud thinks should be sympathetic: the human and wizard-hating Djinni Bartimaeus. He's witty and personable, if you can get around the fact that he doesn't care if you live or die. His master, a child prodigy wizard who defies his master to try and frame a rival wizard, is a pretty good example of why children shouldn't take themselves too seriously. Don't feel bad for the master who is betrayed: he too is a coward and a jerk. In fact, every male in the novel is some kind of prick, and every female a dupe, so despite the fact that the plot itself is an interesting synthesis of faux-history and magical technologizing, you have no reason to follow the plot to the end. There's nobody to root for: let them kill each other.

Arrowsmith was a whole nother thing: The main characters are very likeable. In Astro City, Busiek always created characters who's humanity emotional reality accented the fantastical situations they found themselves in. He does the same thing in Arrowsmith (which I keep wanting to spell Aerosmith).

I keep getting distracted by his plot however: it is a mythologization of World War I, with the Prussians creating magical gasses that raise the dead, and Gallia and the United States of Columbia dropping salamander bombs on Churches where dark pacts are cut for military advantage. All great fun. But when the storyline dwells on the title character's problems: friends who are disfigured or killed their first day of combat, watching the aftermath of a terrible bombing... I keep thinking that real people faced these same situations in the real world. His treatment of the problems struck me as trivializing.

I found myself thinking that he would have been better off telling the same story in a more fictional world: China Mieville's New Croubazon stories often parallel difficult real world problems: the labor movement, institutionalized poverty, racism, indentured servitude, the provincialism of a free society. He sets them in a world very removed from our own, though, which I think reduces the sense of owning the problems. I would like to see Arrowsmith can eventually overcome this sort of weird reverse glamory.

Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. This is not genre fiction, which I guess makes it better than 95% of what I read. And it really is well written. But I can't help thinking, much like I do when reading Daniel Clowes comics, that whiny men with weak decision making skills are as much a staple of literary fiction as the opposite in genre fiction.

You Have More Than You Think: This is a good book to read if you don't think about money at all.

Everything's Eventual, by Stephen King: I've always liked Stephen King's short stories. The title story in this collection, I think, is an interesting synthesis of his psychic mythos, conspiracy theory, and the sort of cosmic horror note's he's been trying to hit more often recently, in things like From a Buick 8, that is weirdly thorough despite its short format. I think it's a very new kind of genre, and would make a great D20 Modern game. Many of the rest of these stories were very good. The only one which the literary mainstream saw fit to reward was fairly dull.

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