Monday, July 07, 2014

"The Raven Boys," by Maggie Stiefvater

The Protagonist: Blue Sargent. A non-psychic in a family of gifted seers, her own gift is the ability to amplify already-existing magic.
Angst: When some rich white dudes want to find a sleeping Welsh king, she sees an opportunity to be an active participant in an adventure instead of a passive supporter.

The Secondary Cast:

Gansey: It's tough out there for a rich white dude. Hopefully, finding this dead rich white dude with magical powers will finally make people take me seriously. If you need me, I'll be sulking about how unfair life is in the renovated factory I bought and turned into my own personal Batcave.

Ronan: Grrr! Ronan angry! Ronan mean! Ronan miss his dead dad! Feelings scare Ronan! LOVE RONAN!

Noah: I am shy and quiet and I pet people's hair and this makes me endearing for some reason.

Adam: I'm the Poor One. But I work hard! And I don't take any charity! I ... you gonna eat that? No?

Angst Checklist:

  • Magic
  • Poverty
  • Child Abuse
  • Being Dead
  • Daddy Issues
  • Whiny Rich People
  • Ravens
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Good Way
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Bad Way

The Word: I didn't like this novel.

Let's just get this out of the way. I realize this novel and its characters (*cough* its male characters) are beloved in the YA blogging community in general, but me? I just didn't get it.

Our protagonist (sort of...) is Blue, a non-psychic from a family of psychics whose main source of income comes from dropping Cryptic Hints That Prove Relevant to the Plot Later On - which becomes pretty convenient as the book continues. Is it bad character development if they're written as people who spout random dialogue and have no background or motivation?

Anyway, Blue's helping her visiting aunt Neeve in a ritual to identify people who are going to die in the next year in an old graveyard (as one does), when she spots the future ghost of a boy wearing the uniform of the nearby Aglionby prep school. Blue's never been able to see ghosts (past or future) before, and Neeve tells her this means she might be the one who kills him. Or he might be her true love. So easy to get those two confused. The future ghost identifies himself only as Gansey.

Meanwhile, the actual Gansey turns up in the next scene, and he and his Raven Boys (nicknamed so by the resentful town for the raven emblem of their school) are searching for an ancient Welsh king who's buried somewhere in Virginia because hey we're all white dudes and crazy rich (except for the Not Rich One), so why not?

They're set up a bit like a boy band, where every Raven Boy gets his own accessories (relevant female protagonist sold separately). You have Batman With Parents (Gansey), Tim Riggins (Ronan), Pigpen (Noah), and The Not Rich One Who's Slightly More Interesting (Adam). Fate (or convenient plotting) has them meet up with Blue and her Phenomenal Not-Psychic Powers and they all jump into the Mystery Machine Gansey's broken-down Camaro because ancient Welsh kings aren't going to wake themselves.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book - too many, which is my main problem with The Raven Boys. Hear me out. There's so much Deeply Important Magical Nonsense crammed into this one book that it was impossible to stay interested or invested in any of it. Alfred Hitchcock once explained the concept of the MacGuffin: the MacGuffin is something that matters very deeply to the characters of a fictional narrative and very little to those reading or watching that narrative. We, the reader, care about the MacGuffin when we start to care about the characters who are pursuing it.

The Welsh King is The Raven Boys' boring-ass, meaningless MacGuffin because, in a novel stuffed with dream thieves, psychic hotlines, aunts who might be evil (on a good day?), magic mirrors, corpse roads, secret ghosts, mysterious father murders, grape juice scrying and baby animals, there is precious little time spent developing the actual characters, much less their gossamer-thin reasons for caring about a mythical wish-granting European monarch.

The characters are defined by one or two attributes apiece, cherry-picked for their YA-lit popularity - Ronan is Angry (and hot) because of his father's mysterious death. Adam is Independent (and hot) because he refuses to take his friends' charity to leave his abusive father. He Will Live Life on His Own Terms and Without Handouts - unless you're a magical wish-granting king. Then it's totally cool. Handout away!

The author tries - there are some marvellously insightful passages here and there, in between the untidy heaps of supernatural window dressing. But there's simply not enough.

And then there's Gansey. This privileged little asshole is the "hero" of our story and the one "destined" for Blue. He really is Batman with Parents - all the wealthy ego-stroking manipulativeness, none of the understanding of real-world misery. He lives in his own refurbished factory/Batcave. He decides to call Blue "Jane" because her real name is weird, but throws a stink eye at anyone who calls him by his real name (Dick, appropriately enough).

He's dedicated his life (and the lives of his friends) to finding this Welsh King because his amazing wealth and privilege is such a horrific burden to his dreams of being The Specialest Snowflake. It's so much harder to be recognized as a brilliant individual when you're busy tripping over all your daddy's money. He drives an old, beloved, broken-down Camaro to show you that he's deep - unless the road is rocky, in which case he'll just fly his sister's helicopter (for reals). If only his life could be more like Adam's, then people would value his accomplishments and his life would have meaning. Yes - Adam, who works three jobs while getting daily beatings from his trailer-trash father.

Why the hell should I give a shit if Gansey finds that damn Welsh King or not? You see what I mean about MacGuffins?

And don't even get me started on Blue. Seriously, don't - because I shut the book with only the haziest of impressions of her character. She was - nice. I guess. Didn't get in the way too much. She and Adam were cute but she's "obviously destined" for Gansey.

Honestly, if the contents of this book had been stretched out over a trilogy, with enough character development and build-up and layers and interaction in between, The Raven Boys could have been as good as the Fionavar Tapestry. The book's well-written and cobbles together an interesting mythology. As it was, I was overwhelmed by the fantasy aspects and underwhelmed by the human ones.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Wonderful Musician"

So there's this Musician, see? And he's farting around in a forest, lonely and bored, so he decides to play his fiddle to attract a companion.

He plays his fiddle, and an appreciative Wolf appears, asking if the Musician can teach him how to play the instrument.

Musician: "Um, you're not really my type." So the Musician tricks the musically-inclined wolf into trapping his paws beneath a rock, and the Musician continues on his way.

He plays a bitchin' song on his fiddle again, hoping for company, and a Fox appears, asking for musical training.

Musician: "Oh come on now. Seriously?" So the Musician ties the Fox to a bush and flees.

Because the Musician has no clear grasp of actions and consequences, he plays his fiddle in the woods again and is frustrated when a Hare appears. He subjects a third animal to non-consensual bondage and continues through the forest.

By this time, the Wolf has freed himself, and rescues both the Fox and the Hare while following the asshole Musician's trail.

Unfortunately, by the time the vengeful animals track down the Musician, his music has finally attracted a human companion - a woodcutter with an axe. The entranced Woodcutter chases the animals away, while the deluded, racist, jerk face Musician sidles off into the sunset.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Animal Cruelty
  • Douchebag Musicians
Points Added For:
  • All those animals just wanted to learn how to play the fiddle! 
  • Now I'm thinking about those animals starting a band - and now I'm angry that this didn't happen!
Points Deducted For:
  • WTF is up with that jerkface Musician? Couldn't he have just said no when the animals asked for music lessons?
  • Also, if he wanted a human companion in the first place, what the fuck is he doing playing his fiddle in the middle of the forest? Instead of, oh I don't know, a town or a village or a karaoke bar or something?

Rating: Two fiddle-playing mammals out of ten.

"The Lady's Secret," by Joanna Chambers

The Chick: Georgy Knight. She works her fingers to the bone as an assistant to a theatrical troupe - even though the blood of an earl runs through her veins.
The Rub: A chance to prove her true parentage comes up - but it involves dressing as a boy and waiting hand and foot on a super-hot aristocrat.
Dream Casting: Gwyneth Paltrow, circa Shakespeare in Love.

The Dude: Lord Nathan Harland. A cultured dandy who discovers, to his cautious delight, that his mysterious valet is secretly a woman in disguise.
The Dude: Even as he means to toy with her, he discovers he's starting to love her - in earnest.
Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy

The Plot:

Georgy: I need to find evidence of my parents' marriage! I'll disguise myself as a valet!

Nathan: What an awesome valet you are! Your neck rubs are oddly erotic and for some strange reason I'm cool with that!

Georgy: *caught taking a bath*

Nathan: OH THANK GOD YOU HAVE BOOBS. I am TOTALLY cool with that. But secretly.

Georgy: *caught breaking into Nathan's friend's study*

Nathan: I am less cool with that.

Nathan and Georgy: *knock boots*

Nathan: Cool cool cool.

Georgy's BFF: OMG, you totally ruined a lady.

Nathan: Not cool! Let's not just throw silly words around!

Georgy: *leaves in heartbreak, almost gets killed by Crazy Murderer*

Nathan: OMG, Georgy, don't ever leave me, lets get married and have gender-norm-defying babies!

Georgy: Cool!

Nathan: HOORAY!

Romantic Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Heroine In Pants
  • 1 Bout of Gay Panic
  • 2 Actual Gay Dudes Who Are Occasionally Panicked
  • 1 Evil Mum
  • 1 Awkward Erection
  • 1 Carriage Accident
The Word: Full disclosure, Joanna Chambers and I are Twitter buddies. I bought a copy of her novel thanks to a great review and because I followed her on Twitter, but - then I kind of forgot about it. It's harder to remember the books I have on my Kobo since they aren't staring at me every day the way my aggressive paper books do.

Anyhoo - Georgiana "Georgy" Knight and her brother Harry have spent the better part of their lives trying to prove their parents were married. Their mother was a humble actress, but their father (now deceased) was the younger son of the Earl of Dunsmore. When the eldest brother died, the title should have fallen to Harry, but all evidence of their parents' scandalous marriage had been hushed up years ago by their disapproving grandfather, so the earldom went to a cousin instead. Then their mother was murdered by an anonymous cutpurse mere hours after applying to the Dunsmore family for help.

Harry's continued their search for legitimacy since then, but now he knows they have to be discreet about it. The impostor Earl of Dunsmore clearly can't be trusted.

While Harry's searching the countryside for parish registers, Georgy seizes an opportunity to infiltrate Dunsmore's household when she learns his close friend, Lord Nathan Harland, is looking for a new valet to accompany him to Dunsmore's for a house party. Posing as a man, she gets the position, but serving the sophisticated Lord Nathan proves to be more of a challenge than expected. The duties of her position bring her into shockingly close proximity with him, and Nathan is an extremely intriguing, attractive man with hidden depths.

I love clotheshorse heroes. Nathan is someone who puts a lot of care (or else hires an expect willing to put a lot of care) into how he looks, as well as someone with an appreciation for beautiful things. Not because they are valuable - but because he likes to look at them. Like his valet George. He finds out about Georgy's true gender quickly enough (albeit not before he gets a confusing boner during a neck massage) and then he becomes fascinated by the mystery of her deception.

Of course, Nathan is a very privileged character, and Chambers makes pleasingly dramatic hay from the distorted power balance of the master/servant (in disguise!) pairing. Nathan is initially interested in Georgy as an object of mystery, an object he feels entitled to puzzle out and manipulate because a) she's a servant and b) she's a lying servant. However, he soon starts to care about her as a person, someone of worth. But Georgy isn't a fake valet - she performs all the same tasks and duties, and now Nathan has to reconcile how much he cares about her with what he's made her do and see in her line of work. Which is quite interesting. It doesn't resolve in any serious way (Nathan doesn't really come to care about any of his other servants), but it's an interesting dynamic.

Chambers' writing style is simple and elegant, describing the sumptuous luxury of Nathan's lifestyle (and Georgy's servitude in it) with clean, beautiful phrases. However, the villain is clearly telegraphed from the beginning, and the "twist" at the end even more so. I also felt Nathan and Georgy missed a few opportunities to go deeper (emotionally) into the power dynamics of their relationship. Otherwise, though, The Lady's Secret is a charming romance with an interesting cross-dressing twist.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "A Good Bargain"

Sigh. So there's this anti-Semitic fairy tale, see? Where the villain is a cowardly Jewish moneylender who gets the shit kicked out of him for being a meddling dickhole. You'll notice I didn't include the illustration at the top of this story - it's because I've only just now realized, with an adult's eyes and understanding, what the picture of the man with the large nose and full beard getting whipped is meant to depict.

Blah, blah, "the period in which the story was set," blah blah STILL RACIST. So fuck this story. I'll tell it my way.

So there's this Countryman, see? And thanks to watching too many Disney movies and being more than a little psychotic and stupid, he accidentally loses a wad of cash after asking a bunch of frogs in a pond to count his money (by throwing the coins into the water) and opening a line of credit to a pack of dogs sniffing after his butchered beef. Long story short, frogs and dogs do not sing, dance, or pay their debts, and in a rage, the idiotic Countryman goes to the King to demand justice.

The King's daughter laughs herself silly at the Countryman's story, and since she's never laughed before, by law this means she has to marry the Countryman. Because Reasons. The Countryman turns her down flat since he's already married and it already sucks. Offended, the King offers the Countryman another reward - a reward of "five hundred," if he returns the following day.

Thinking he's getting 500 bucks the Countryman wastes no time in giving it away - he promises 200 to a city guard, and 300 to a ... um, uh ... random dude of indeterminate ethnic origins. Yeah.

The Countryman shows up the next day for his reward, with the city guard and the Random Dude in tow. As it turns out, the King actually promised to whip the Countryman 500 times for dissing his daughter - and since the the Countryman gave his "reward" away, the city guard and the Random Dude receive his punishment instead.

Now, something quite different happens in the original fairy tale, but since the Brothers Grimm are being anti-semitic douchebags today - fuck their story. The Random Dude of Indeterminate Ethnic Origins takes his whipping stoically and promptly leaves the story (and the hillbilly kingdom of smelly, backwards, racist peasants) for greener pastures and much more lucrative and exciting adventures that may or may not involve punching a giant who bears a striking resemblance to Mel Gibson in the face.

By this point, the King is kind of amused by all this and offers the Countryman a real reward - he can go into the treasury and fill his pockets with all the gold his coat can hold. The Countryman pisses and moans some more because he's a moron, he narrowly avoids corporal punishment for a second time, and by this point I couldn't care less about what these people do because racism makes me tired.

Not Suitable For Children:
  • Overt and hateful Anti-Semitism (for reals)
  • Flagellation
Points Added For:
  • I got nothing
Points Deducted For:
  • Racism
  • The general douchebaggery of everyone involved in this story
And the moral of the story is: don't give your money to animals, that's just stupid.

Rating: Zero Cultural Stereotypes Out of a Billion

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "Faithful John"

So there's this servant named Faithful John, see? And he's served the King for many years. When the Old King is on his death bed, he begs John to look after his young son. He also warns John to keep him away from the room at the end of the corridor, since it contains the portrait of the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace - a girl so desperately hot and unlucky that his impetuous son will doubtless fall in love with her and die trying to win her.

The new King's a sweet kid, but not the sharpest sword in the armoury and it's not long before he finagles his way past Faithful John. The moment he sets his eyes on the portrait, he faints dead away (likely due to a sudden rush of blood to a certain area) and wakes up in love with the daughter of the King of the Golden Palace.

So the King and Faithful John set sail for the land of the Golden Palace. With Faithful John acting as wingman, he and the King trick the Princess of the Golden Palace onto their boat with the use of shiny objects (unsurprisingly, the chick digs gold) and sail away. Thankfully for our bros, the Princess reacts to her kidnapping with a shrug and a, "It could be worse - at least you're hot."

But the King's not in the clear yet. While the King and the Princess are cozying up in the hold, Faithful John overhears three crows gossiping as they pass the ship. Marrying the Princess, it appears, comes with a curse. The first crow mentions that a horse will try to murder the King when he first disembarks. The second crow points out that if the King survives Attempted Murder By Horse, he'll likely be burnt alive by a poisoned bridal shirt that will be left in his chambers. The third crow states that if the King survives both of these, the Princess will collapse during the first dance and die, unless someone squeezes three drops of blood from her right breast.

Oh, and anyone who tries to warn the King or explain the curse will be turned to stone.

Once the ship returns to port, poor Faithful John turns into the World's Worst Wingman. First, he shoots a sweet-ass horse that appears on the dock. Then he sets fire to the King's fly-as-hell bridal shirt. The King is willing to overlook these sins because of Faithful John's years of service - until the new Queen takes a nosedive during "Wind Beneath my Wings" and Faithful John's caught copping a bloodfeel on her right boob. Wait, is that a thing? Who am I kidding, it's the Brothers Grimm, that's totally a thing.

The outraged King condemns Faithful John to prison, but when Faithful John explains himself, he turns to stone. "Oh, bummer," says the King.

Years later, the King and Queen have a pair of adorable twin boys, while Faithful John's statue collects bird poop in the garden. One day, the statue talks to the King and tells him that if he really wishes Faithful John was alive again, he'd decapitate his sons and pour their blood on the statue.

"Hmmm," says the king. "This inanimate object is telling me to murder my children so that it may live again. Seems legit." He lops off the downy, freckled heads of his innocent toddlers without delay, and lo and behold - Faithful John leaps to life like a childblood-soaked Frosty the Snowman. He also re-capitates the king's sons, because childblood makes you Jesus, and they frolic happily off to face absolutely no psychological ramifications later on in life.

To surprise his wife, the King hides Faithful John and his kids in a closet.

King: "Hey, what if I told you that we could resurrect Faithful John if we murdered our kids?"

Queen: "Well, we did get him turned into stone. Fair is fair."

The Two Princes: "Wow this is totally not going to mess us up later in life."

King: "Surprise! Everyone's alive!"

And they all totally lived happily ever.

Not Suitable for Children:

  • Kidnapping
  • Murder by Horse
  • Murder by fly-as-hell Shirt
  • Murder-Enabling Statues
  • Decapitation of Children

Points Added For:

  • Faithful John's selfless heroism

Points Deducted For:

  • Faithful John enabling the King's obvious impulse-control problem (kidnapping some random chick, murdering your kids)

And the moral of the story is: real-life consequences are for suckers.

Rating: Six beheaded babies out of ten.