Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Learned to Wake Up and Smell My Laurels

You've probably heard the expression, "resting on your laurels." It means to milk a singular success instead of going out and succeeding some more.

But is there the opposite of that expression? "Downplaying your laurels"? "Hiding your laurels in a tasteful floral arrangement"? "Those aren't really laurels, that's just a Christmas wreath you stole from the sales rack at Target"?

Last August, I actually won some laurels I'd been searching for my whole life. My debut fantasy-romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, was published by Entangled Romance. And for one hot month I was wearing 100% laurel-woven tunics and eating laurel salad and drinking laurel smoothies.

I'd done it, I was an author. I had reached the Mount Olympus of artistic achievement, and it was time to drink ambrosia, abduct Greek maidens and commit incest in a variety of impractical animal forms with the other mighty wordsmiths who had come before.

And yet, the more time passed, the less I believed in what I had done. It wasn't that I stopped bragging (although I did, because the world kept turning after I achieved Literary Immortality and I'm not a dick). It was that my brain started reverse-bragging.

It's one thing to not brag about an achievement because it's not relevant to the current conversation.

It's another thing to retroactively dismiss a legitimate achievement. Some months after Duke came out, when people asked about my book, I'd talk about it - and then I'd find myself apologizing. Adding some sort of explanation to it. Just to make sure they didn't get the wrong idea.

"Oh, I had a book published - but it's only in ebook form."

Or, "My book came out - but it didn't sell very many copies. My mom bought a lot."

Or, "My book was published by Entangled - you've probably never heard of them."

Or, and this makes me really kick myself, "I do have a book out - *apologetic smile* - it's a romance."

Let me back up for a moment. I grew up as one of those quirky kids who, despite not being an habitual liar, was always afraid of being thought a liar. I've always been paranoid of people not believing me. It's resulted in a pathological reluctance to take sick days ("what if my boss thinks I'm faking?"), return retail items ("what if they think I actually wore it?"), or demand refunds ("what if the malfunctioning coin-laundry company thinks I'm trying to scam money from them?").

For some reason, when I told people I was an author, it felt like I wasn't telling the truth. Or at least, the whole truth. I wasn't really an author. Entangled was a small publisher, and they probably published everybody. My book was only a step above self-published. It was a nobody book at a nobody publisher - what the hell was I doing, telling people I was an author? Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author. Robin Hobb is an author. I'm just a schmuck.

What the hell? Why was I thinking those things? Why was I downgrading my achievements in front of people who asked about my book?

First of all - Entangled is a fantastic publisher with a rapidly growing reader base and a diverse stable of authors. They do not accept "just about everybody." I would know - I interned there for over a year. I read their slush pile. And their best authors sell tens of thousands of copies.

....and, okay, I didn't make it that far. But I checked my sales stats and I know as an empirical fact that I've sold more copies than my mother could possibly justify buying. Which means that strangers I'd never met - of sound mind (hopefully) and of their own free will - liked the idea of my book enough to buy it and read it. And a lot of them liked it and wrote great reviews! That means something!

Moreover, when I attended the Words in 3D Conference in my hometown this weekend, I was strongly reminded just how tough it can be to break into publishing. People who have been writing their whole lives and have slogged through hundreds of writer's cons and writing groups and author seminars are still fighting for that dream.

At my workplace, I had someone from a different department reveal to me they've been trying to write and publish a novel for ten years. AND I STILL FELT EMBARRASSED, like I had cheated on a test and won the scholarship that the struggling genius working two jobs should have received.

Worse - I found myself belittling my work because it was romance. HAVE YOU PERCHANCE HAPPENED TO NOTICE THE TYPES OF NOVELS I'VE REVIEWED ON THIS WEBSITE FOR A DECADE?

Wow, I am a schmuck.

Hubris can be fatal and arrogance is unattractive (unless you're a sexy, swarthy Duke with a dark past, of course!), but everyone needs to have pride in something. And maybe pride needs to be nurtured.

I don't know why I've felt this way about my book. Maybe it's because I'd dreamed for so long about Becoming An Author, and embellished the Ultimate Glory of that Achievement in my mind for so many years. When it finally happened and Hugh Jackman and Channing Tatum failed to materialize at my door on a tandem bicycle holding my You Did It! Trophy, I suppose that caused my brain to tell me that I hadn't really "made it" yet.

This is sort of true. Publishing your first book isn't the end of the road - it's just a super awesome rest stop where you can replenish your self-confidence and creativity. You're never going to reach that "Made It" plateau where you can stop and the world's accolades will just come to you. When I was a teen I just assumed once a publisher took on your first book they were contractually obligated to publish you forever, like a Random Penguin imprinting on its mother. You were now an Author, and your publisher had only to bask in your radiance and provide offerings of royalties and deckled page editions. This is not true. Like, at all.

No one likes a braggart, and I'm not supposed to rest on my laurels. But I need to remind myself every now and then to smell the laurels. To remind me they're real. That I did win them. That I worked really hard and had a lot of fun and was rewarded. That I am special and talented.

I am an author. I was published. I even made royalties! But now it's time to get back to writing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Guy in Real Life," by Steve Brezenoff

Okay, so I'm going to start this review with two warnings:

Warning the First: I had no interest in reading this book, no desire to pick it up at all, and the only reason I did was because it's FYA Book Club's April pick. So I may have gone into it with a bit of resentment at being "forced" to read it.

Warning the Second: I ended up skimming this novel sometime after the halfway mark.

But guys, this book sucked.

It starts out with an interesting idea - after black-clad metalhead Lesh gets grounded by his parents for coming home drunk from a concert, he gets suckered into signing up for a World of Warcraft-style MMO by his nerd friend, Greg.

Lesh initially signs up as a meathead orc warrior at Greg's behest, but is soon bored - until he decides to create a female elf healer because the avatar reminds him of a new girl at school that he can't get off his mind. Of course, it's not long before Lesh realizes that other players treat him differently when they think he's a girl. But for some reason, he really enjoys embodying a female character on a vast fantasy adventure.

Meanwhile, the girl he's crushing on, Svetlana, is an anti-social artist who's heavily invested in tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons gaming. She starts hanging out with him when she realizes he can help her shake an infuriatingly persistent (and unwanted) suitor, but starts realizing there's more to him than meets the eye.

Doesn't this sound good? Nope. I decided to make a list of the things that annoyed me - and it's a long one.

1. This book isn't finished. It throws out a bunch of ideas like so much spaghetti at a refrigerator, but it doesn't stick around to clean any of it up or explore it in any depth. Lesh's adventures as a female character, Svetlana's attempts to keep her D and D club at school from being disbanded, Lesh's fracturing relationship with his truly hateful "friend" Greg, and Svetlana's increasing disgust and frustration with unwanted male attention - none of it gets resolved in a meaningful way. Maybe the real ending will come out in a future DLC?

2. Svetlana is primarily treated as Obsession!Bait. Almost every major male character in the novel is obsessed with her. There's family friend Fry, who becomes increasingly violent and bullying towards her (and her friends!) when she refuses his advances. There's Abraham, who quits the D and D club because ... she dates someone else, thereby refusing his advances. There's a Creepy Online Stalker who targets her and sends her weird gifts because he confuses her for the character Lesh plays online (for reals). Her storyline is focused almost entirely on how all these dudes are obsessed with her and make decisions of varying levels of inappropriateness because she turns them down.

And...am I forgetting someone? Oh right - LESH, who's SO obsessed with her from the very first minute that he creates a lookalike avatar of her so he can pretend to be close to her. HOW IS THAT OKAY? The novel never explains this theme - if all these men are irrationally fixated on this one girl, what makes Lesh the "good" one? His plot line is like the G-rated online version of that Buffalo Bill dude from Silence of the Lambs.

Long story short - the most important female character is reduced to a damsel who's constantly beating off hordes of angry thwarted males with her 12-sided die.

3. The actual gamer characters in this book are almost uniformly awful, cliched, shallow, bigoted turds - and the book never explores or deals with it. Yes, some of them need to be turds. This novel's main (if poorly-handled) theme is on sexism in gaming. It's about a tough-looking rocker dude who enjoys playing as a delicate lady elf, but discovers that playing a female character inspires other gamers to behave like total asshats.

Except - Lesh never explores deeper than, "Man, that sucks." Take his "friendship" with Greg - a venomous douchenerd who spits homophobic slurs like a malfunctioning sprinkler. I would have liked to see Lesh actually internalize what Greg says and realize that it's not okay. I would have liked to see him tell Greg off, stand up for himself and reveal Greg for the bully he is. Except - it never happens. Greg throws a mild hissy fit when he finds out Lesh is a G.I.R.L. (Guy In Real Life - get it?) and then vanishes from the novel completely. No resolution. No exploration of theme.

And the depictions of almost all the gamers (with a few exceptions with Svetlana's D and D crew) are laughably stereotyped. They're nerds who are good at math who hunch over their screens with bad posture and bad skin, their hands poised like claws above their keyboards. The only thing missing is a pair of taped-up, thick-rimmed Coke bottle glasses to settle the depiction of gamers firmly back in the 1980s.

4. The description of the MMO itself makes no sense. First of all, the author inserts truly laughable attempts at epic fantasy to describe the world of the game. Brezenoff is no Tolkien. He's not even a Tracy Hickman. Moreover, there are a number of "questionable" events that happen in the game - for instance, poor Lesh gets molested and drenched in beer by a pack of dwarves and needs to be rescued. Um, I'm sorry - are there fantasy games out there where avatars are allowed to rape or sexually assault other player characters? Who would design a game like that?

I get the sense Brezenoff is attempting to highlight the sexism that female players often endure in gaming - but instead of focusing on the very real, very common ways girls are ostracized in games, he decides to make up some exaggerated, cartoonish bullshit that would NEVER HAPPEN in a popular MMO because no game dev in his right mind would put a rape feature in his game unless he wanted to endure a billion lawsuits.

5. Our two main protagonists barely spend any time together.
Seriously, even if the rest of the book had been fine, Guy in Real Life would still have fallen flat because its two romantic protagonists barely talk to each other. Sure, Lesh obsesses over Svetlana all the time, but Svetlana has her own life, and their scenes apart are far more numerous, important, and interesting than their scenes together. I still don't understand what they have in common or how their romance works - and ultimately the whole stalker storyline muddies the waters even further.

My opinion? Avoid this sloppily-plotted, creepy, and ultimately pointless novel in favour of novels that aim for a higher level (ha!) of story telling and theme structure.

C-

Sunday, March 29, 2015

"True Pretenses," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Lady Lydia Reeve. A genteel lady whose family has traditionally held a high political interest in the town of Lively St. Lemeston.
The Rub: Now that her father's dead, her skittish younger brother  is content to let that interest lapse in order to pursue his own desires. And Lydia has no money of her own to maintain her family's influence.
Dream Casting: Isla Fischer.

The Dude: Asher Cohen, a.k.a. "Ashton Cahill." A Jewish con artist on the run with his brother and partner in crime, Rafe.
The Rub: Rafe is tired of their life and wants to go straight, so Ash needs to concoct a truly lucrative swindle to give Rafe safer life options than the army.
Dream Casting: Mark Ruffalo.

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 1 Inconveniently Dead Parent
  • 1 Stolen Baby
  • 1 Plot-Propelling Urchin
  • Several Fake Names
The Word: You know what time it is? TIME FOR ANOTHER ROSE LERNER NOVEL! To set next to In For a Penny, Lily Among Thorns, and Sweet Disorder, we have True Pretenses.

Our novel opens on two brothers, Ash and Rafe, in the midst of escaping after a successful swindle. Orphaned, impoverished, and Jewish, they've eked out their outcast existence through theft, trickery and clever con artistry. However, Rafe (the younger brother) has tired of the game and wants to go straight. His protective older brother, Ash, reluctantly agrees, with one caveat: they must perform one more swindle, to set Rafe up properly for his new life of law abidance. 

Ash travels on ahead to the town of Lively St. Lemeston (the same setting from Sweet Disorder) and discovers low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking: Lady Lydia Reeve. Her highly political father, Lord Wheatcroft, held a heavy interest in Lively St. Lemeston before his sudden death, but his son Jamie now balks at the idea of continuing the tradition. Lydia's determined to hold onto their family's interest until her brother comes to his senses, but the only funds at her disposal come from a trust that will only be released upon her marriage. 

I'll be honest - the set-up to this novel doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's kind of confusing - at first, the brothers plan to offer Lydia access to her trust through a sham marriage to Rafe (in exchange for 3000 pounds) but then Ash wants Rafe and Lydia to marry for realsies because they're so cute together and it'll keep Rafe out of the army. What?

Um, WHAT?

Thankfully, before that ridiculousness can happen, Rafe and Ash get into an argument that ends with their estrangement, leaving Ash to offer himself to Lydia instead. The plot is probably the weakest part of the novel, and the weakest of all Lerner's novels to date. After the initial set-up, the rest of the book is virtually conflict-free until the too-sudden Black Moment at the end. Ash and Lydia get along famously about 99% of the time, with the other 1% devoted to depressing self-examination. 

So why did I keep reading? Despite the fact that there is relatively little drama between Ash and Lydia, their individual characters and habits are fascinating - Lydia's, especially. She is very much a conservative, devoted to maintaining the traditions of the past, suspicious of change, and almost pathologically afraid of showing weakness or negative emotion of any kind. At the beginning of the book, her methods of expression are all but muzzled by her refusal to utter anything that might possibly reflect badly on her father or brother. She has been raised to cater to the needs of others while repressing her own. It becomes a relief to talk to Ash, someone who cannot judge her since his social status is virtually nonexistent.

Ash is a more nebulous character, but perhaps that's intentional. His Jewish identity is important to him (sex with random ladies is a worry because how does one explain the lack of a foreskin?), but otherwise, he's afraid to define himself as anything other than "Rafe's brother." Finding and committing to an identity is a new experience for him. He's a con man without an emotional off-switch. His success at conning developed from his ability to empathize with and draw closer to the rubes he fleeced, leaving him incapable of trusting other people's emotions - and his own, least of all. Does he really enjoy Lydia's company? Or is he just desperate to be liked, because likeable people get what they want? The only emotional stability he's ever preserved is his love for Rafe, and without him, he's adrift.

The enormous status gulf between Lydia and Ash is also entertaining as it allows for a thorough examination of privilege. Ash was no Dickensian urchin - his past involves theft, graverobbing, fencing, and sex work. The contrast between the protagonists is especially potent because their childhoods were superficially similar - both Lydia and Ash were motherless children unfairly thrust into parental roles over their younger siblings. However, the vast difference in their upbringings and environments invites interesting comparisons, most especially in how they've learned to lie to other people.

At the same time, even as Lydia's pampered upbringing is contrasted and compared, her own feelings of dissatisfaction, grief and loneliness are not invalidated just because she's wealthy.

While True Pretenses is not the strongest of Rose Lerner's novels when it comes to plot, it's still a refreshing, pleasantly entertaining read.
B

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"White Cat," by Holly Black

The Protagonist: Cassel Sharpe. The only non-magical dud in a family of curse workers, he ought to be able to live a normal life.
The Rub: His family's magic might not run in his blood, but their propensity for mischief does.

Secondary Characters:

Phillip: Cassel's oldest brother. A body worker for the Zacharov crime family.

Barron: Cassel's second oldest brother, a luck worker who dated the only girl Cassel ever loved. How's that for luck?

Sam: Cassel's boarding school roommate and eventual, reluctant partner-in-crime.

Lila: The daughter of the powerful Zacharov crime family, and Cassel's best friend - and murder victim. Cassel's family was forced to hide the evidence to protect them from mob vengeance, but Cassel can't quite get her out of his mind.

YA Trope Checklist:
  • Unattainable Female Love Interest
  • Screwed Up Parents
  • The "Normal" Best Friend
  • Private School Angst
The Word: Why have I never read Holly Black before? This is obviously an unconscionable oversight, and shall be corrected immediately.

With a few deft strokes, Black creates a rich, vibrant world that is like our own, but not quite. Everyone wears gloves. People carry enchanted pieces of stone around their necks to protect them. And almost everyone at Cassel Sharpe's boarding school holds him under suspicion due to his unsavoury family connections and mysterious sleepwalking.

In this world, magic (or "working") was outlawed along with alcohol during Prohibition, and like Prohibition, outlawing magic didn't make the workers disappear - it just made them all outlaws. The world is now riddled with massive magical crime families who can make people forget things, lose at craps, or fall in love - for the right price. And God help you if you can't pay it. All it takes to work a curse is skin-to-skin contact - that's why everyone wears gloves in public.

Cassel Sharpe, our hero, goes through life haunted by three facts: 1) he comes from a family of magical criminals and con artists, 2) of that family, he is the only one with no magical talent, and 3) he is a murderer. Three years ago, he killed Lila Zacharov - his best friend, first love, and the daughter of the Zacharov crime boss. Even worse, he has no idea how or why he did it, but his worker brothers rallied around him to cover it up and protect the family from Daddy Zacharov's vengeance.

However, when he starts experiencing powerful, dangerous dreams involving a white cat demanding he remove a curse, Cassel begins to wonder if his understanding of those three basic facts - hell, of his entire reality - is all that it seems. But to do that, he will have to dive into the worker underworld despite having no powers of his own.

The world building in this novel is so fresh and interesting. The idea of magic users forming this immensely powerful criminal underground is fascinating and opens up so many narrative possibilities that the author takes full advantage of. Not only that, but the magic itself is cool - there are dozens of different types of workers, and each one experiences a particular type of "blowback" when they overuse their magic. Memory workers forget things, death workers develop necrosis, emotion workers lose emotional stability, that sort of thing.

The underground aspect adds a sly subtlety to our teenage hero, Cassel. Despite being magic-less, he's still inherited his family's con artistry and he has trouble trusting people without analyzing how they fit into a particular con or plot. He's intriguing but also tragic - because he trusts himself as little as he trusts other people. He murdered his best friend three years ago and he still has no idea why, only that there must be something in him, something hidden, that made him do it. What if it wakes up again?

I don't want to give anything more away, because half the fun of this original, addictive novel is the sense of discovery as Holly Black continually stirs more delight into this potent stew of con men, magic, lies, politics, and family drama. I've never read a full-length Holly Black novel before, but White Cat will not be the last. Not by a long shot.
A+

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Three Princes," by Ramona Wheeler

The Protagonists: Lord Scott Oken and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke. Two princes from different nations under the mighty Egyptian Empire, they are also secret agents for the Pharaoh.
The Rub: When reports reach Egypt that the Nation of the Four Corners (the Incans) are working on rocket technology, Mikel and Scott are sent to see how viable this project is.

Fantasy Trope Checklist:
  • Alternate Timelines
  • Double-Crosses
  • Magical Bond Animals
  • Obviously Evil Monarchs
  • Royal Intrigues
The Word: Three Princes is the most beautifully-written utter waste of time you'll ever read. 

The concept is original and intriguing - the novel's set in an alternate history (circa 1877 or thereabouts) where the Egyptian Empire never ended, but instead grew and thrived to become the dominant world power thanks to the successful marriage of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Egypt is now a wide-spanning and mostly benevolent commonwealth, with only a few rebellious areas left (like the Osterreich empire, ruled by Victoria and Albert!) to threaten the world's safety. 

The characters sound diverse and interesting - Lord Scott Oken, a minor prince from the Egyptian province of Scotland, is a spy for the Pharaoh. His mentor, Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke (from Nubia), has retired from information-mongering - but both are called back into action by the Pharoah's wife. The Incas, it appears, are working on a scientific project to travel to the moon, and Egypt wants someone trustworthy to travel to South America and see a) if it could work or b) if it could be a threat. 

What follows is a dreadfully slow, narratively hollow, but gorgeously-described imaginary travelogue as Mikel and Scott slowly and cheerfully make their meandering way from Memphis to Tawantinsuyu, by way of several decadently-appointed airships. A luxurious attention to detail is lavished upon their expensive accommodations, their entertainments, the profusion of bare-breasted South American women, and the bizarre technology of airships (cyclists and trained albatrosses are involved) - and almost none on the actual plot, conflict or character development. 

Wheeler stretches out a short story's worth of plot to a 350-page novel, and doesn't waste any of the precious, precious filler (like pages of description devoted to guest room furniture lovingly carved to look like naked ladies) on developing any of the characters beyond the most basic, repetitive strokes. Lord Oken likes sex with ladies. Mikel likes making witty comments to mask his inner pain. Secondary characters pop out of nowhere and make jarringly huge and sudden decisions for no reason, and with no context or development to explain the outlandish choices they make. The novel's main antagonist, for example, is present for maybe ten pages (out of 350) and behaves like a Disney villain who's survived a meth lab explosion. There is no rhyme or reason to his behaviour - or to why anyone follows him or takes him seriously. 

Neither does Wheeler sacrifice completely relevant scenes of frolicking dogs, babies and guinea pigs (for reals) to develop her own plot threads. A mention of a Queen Victoria-led conspiracy involving orchids and bizarre religious cults goes nowhere, and the vicious attack on Mikel at the beginning of the novel that can't possibly be coincidence - turns out to be mere coincidence and is never mentioned again. Um, okay.

I kept reading and waiting for the plot to pick up because Wheeler is a genuinely fantastic wordsmith - her worldbuilding and her grasp of setting and culture are astonishing and beautiful. Her evident talent and skill makes the appalling lack of a plot in this novel an even greater frustration. If you're interested in reading about two friends going on an expensive and largely uneventful exotic vacation, this is the book for you. If you actually require story, substance, conflict, or coherent drama of any sort in your fiction - you'd best look elsewhere.

Three Princes is an empty, self-indulgent non-story wrapped up in beautiful writing.
D

Saturday, February 21, 2015

December in New York, Day Four: Marc Chagall, Miracles, and Mo'Pain

At 5:00 am on the morning of our final day in NYC, I was woken up by the ringing of my hotel room's phone. I picked it up, blearily thinking the hotel must be on fire, only to have a stranger with an accent start screaming at me, "Who is this? Who's calling? Who's in the room with you?" Um, hello, you called me, terrifying creeper! The fact that he kept asking, "Who's in there with you?" made me terrified I was going to be robbed (since I'd sleepily responded, "No I'm alone.").

I called the front desk, who discovered the call was internal (the call was coming from inside the house!), and I realized it was likely another guest who thought he was calling the room of his travelling companion. That didn't really explain why he didn't just hang up right away when he realized he'd called the wrong room - did he think I was hiding his friend in my closet? Did he think I was some one-night stand who'd picked up his friend's phone?

Tired and shaken, I later joined my mum for breakfast and explored the Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the hotel - it converted into a dimly-lit bar after 4pm but in the mornings it was light, airy and comfortable. We both regretted not exploring it earlier.
Afterward, we went for Sunday mass at St. Patrick's cathedral. That was kind of a wash - the whole cathedral, inside and out, was swathed in scaffolding and tarps for their massive renovation project. It felt like having mass in a parking garage - however, we did have the lovely consolation prize of having the mass performed by a cardinal (Cardinal Dolan, who waved to us after!). I felt strangely tense and weepy through the whole thing - again, I was going through some tough stuff that year and was not on the best terms with God. But at least Mum enjoyed it.

We returned to Madison and Vine - the Library Hotel's companion restaurant - for brunch. I had eggs benedict, and while I devoured the eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce, I hadn't recovered the confidence to try the English muffins. I've grown more wary of bread products over the years, which makes absolutely no sense since I've eaten bread my entire life without an allergic reaction. But anxiety doesn't really listen to logic.

After that, we took a taxi to the Jewish Museum - set in the astoundingly pretty Felix M. Warburg House - to see the Chagall exhibit. Mum is a huge fan of Marc Chagall and her enthusiasm swept me up in the artwork as well. We also explored the Art Spiegelman exhibit there - his work is exceptional, but often disturbing.

We finished off the day with a long, long, very long walk from Central Park to the hotel, 50 blocks of walking during which we were accosted by a would-be rapper named Mo' Pain who sold us his demo CD. I was intimidated (and as it turns out, being approached by aspiring rappers in New York is actually a popular tourist scam), but Mum was charmed and gave him $10. He whipped out a sharpie to sign the CD. "Who should I make it out to?"

Mum: "Meg."

Mo'Pain: "How do I spell that?"

Me: "..."

Mo'Pain: "That's a sexy-ass name!" When we admitted we were from Canada, he said he was a huge fan of Drake. Scam or not, it was at least a very memorable experience and Mum now has a CD of questionable music as a very special souvenir. We also passed by (intentionally) bloodied PETA protesters who were screaming at the customers of Bergdorf's before we finally made it back to the hotel.

We had time for a brief, relaxing cup of tea before the town car arrived to take us back to the airport. We'd reached the end of our trip, and the only exciting thing to happen afterward was when I really thought I saw Paul Rudd enter the first class lounge. He had rumpled hair and thick-rimmed glasses - plus he'd just hosted Saturday Night Live so he would have been in NYC at the time. It was one of those blink-and-you'll-miss it miracles that I'm still doubting myself over. Did I see Paul Rudd? Or was it just an extremely lucky man who looked like Paul Rudd and could afford first class?

We'll never know. Even as I write about this trip more than a year after it happened, it still seems fresh in my mind. Maybe I remember it all so well because it was a truly magical Christmas trip, at a truly magical hotel. Or maybe I remember it because I'm only recently back from my second trip to NYC with my mum where we stayed at the Library Hotel - another adventure I'll try and recount to you before the year is up. I promise.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The Winner's Curse," by Marie Rutkoski

The Protagonist: Kestral Trajan. The daughter of Valorian's most celebrated general, she's under extreme pressure to either marry or enlist in the military. Her life is hard.
The Rub: But not quite as hard as those of the slaves she owns. Awkward.

YA Tropes Checklist:
  • Parents Who Just Don't Understand
  • 1 Poor Little Rich Girl
  • 1 Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks Chains
  • 1 Airhead Best Friend
  • 2 Underappreciated Musical Talents
  • 1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
  • 2 Villains Who Want to Bang the Heroine
  • Love Made Me Do It
The Word: I underestimated this novel. Blame it on the woozy, swoony prom-dress cover. Poor little blond girl in a ball gown, whatever shall you do? What love triangles shall you muck up? What doorways will you adorably trip through to be caught by the hero? This cover is terrible, no doubt about it. However, The Winner's Curse pulls fewer punches and hides sharper edges of commentary than I would have guessed. 

Kestral is the pampered-but-unsatisifed daughter of a successful Valorian general living in the occupied Herrani capital city. Ten years ago, the warlike Valorians conquered the artistic, sophisticated Herrani and the survivors of that war now work as slaves in the houses they once owned. 

While out walking, Kestral accidentally winds up at the slave auction, where a slave named Smith is being sold. Intrigued by his spirit and misery that seem to mirror her own, she defies her better judgement and purchases him at an exaggeratedly high price. Despite being remarkably snarky, defiant, and disobedient for a slave, Smith (whose real name is Arin) becomes almost like a friend to Kestral, as they each learn more about each others' people. 

However, unbeknownst to Kestral, Arin is an agent for the underground Herrani revolution working to overthrow the brutal Valorian yoke and restore Herrani freedom once and for all. Can these two crazy kids overcome their teeny tiny ideological differences?

I was quite impressed by the way this novel handled slavery. Kestral is depicted as someone who, while uncomfortable when confronted by the realities of slavery, continues to benefit from it. Ideologically she recognizes that slavery probably sucks, but she can't imagine a life without it and often catches herself ignoring or downplaying it in order to make herself feel better. When we live in a world where fruit is picked by underpaid migrant workers and sneakers are made by child labour and iPods are assembled by starving factory workers - are we any different?

When Kestral's freed nanny-slave Enai dies, Arin mocks her grief by demanding if she even knew who Enai's real family, real children were. Kestral doesn't - she was too afraid to even ask. I appreciated that the author never made the heroine a naive saint who was always good to her slaves. People who contribute to an abusive system still possess the capacity for individual good, and the capacity to eventually wake up and overthrow the abusive system. But that capacity doesn't whitewash their flaws. 

I also loved that Kestral wasn't a super-heroic Katniss character who is miraculously adept at scaling walls and killing bad guys. Instead of being a warrior, she's a strategist - an underused role for women in YA. I really appreciated this - she uses her power in more subtle and original ways.

Rutkoski uses a deft hand that highlights points of insight without getting mired in rhetoric, and the story moves swiftly and smoothly, but I could perhaps have preferred a little more depth to the worldbuilding and the history. Instead, the author uses coding (the Valorians are Romans, the Herrani Greeks) to do her worldbuilding for her, and that felt like a cheat.

All in all, a surprisingly solid read.
B