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.

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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

December in New York, Day Three

(Sorry for the lateness, I've been very lazy - I now have a second trip to New York with my mum to write about so I'd better hurry and catch up!)

For our third day in New York City, Mum and I started out bright and early for the Morgan Library and Museum.
For NYC-bound book lovers, the Morgan Library is not to be missed, because, well, it's a fancy mansion filled with zillions of books! Piermont Morgan was a fanatical book collector and his massive library was on full display, along with exhibitions on Edgar Allen Poe (including some of his original notes), Charles Dickens (we spotted the original manuscript copy of A Christmas Carol), clay Sumerian seals (a surprise exhibit that utterly enchanted my mum), and Queen Elizabeth I's letters.
The main library was absolutely breathtaking - three stories of leather-bound books stretching to the exquisitely-painted ceiling in tightly-packed shelves protected by iron grates, interspersed with stained glass windows and an enormous tapestry, and well-lit displays of rare illuminated manuscripts and jewelled Bibles. This museum was all about the power of books and authors and the devotion of those who love them. Is there anything more powerful than reading a sentence that was hand-inked by a monk half a millennium ago?
A true reader's paradise. And that's not even mentioning the gift shop! Once we were finally able to pry ourselves away from all that literary luxury, we dined at the Morgan Library's top-notch cafe - where the ham and cheese sandwiches came on fresh-baked brioche with hot mustard aioli. New York museums don't mess around with the grub.

After the Morgan, we wandered down to Rockefeller Center to see it in daylight. The streets were so massively crowded the police had to set up barriers around the sidewalks just to prevent people from being accidentally pushed out into the street. The area around the Christmas tree and the skating rink resembled a turned-over anthill.

We made a few aborted attempts to shop in the area but were scared off by the savage crowds at Michael Kors and the dead, glassy eyes of parents entering their second hour waiting in line to get into the American Girl store. Instead, we skipped back down to some quieter side streets, where we found a nice, quite Coach whose flock of bored, nattily-dressed attendants were all too eager to wait upon us. Mum bought me a pair of presents there, under the promise that I not open them until Christmas morning.

We returned to the hotel after that, far too exhausted to even contemplate finding an appropriate restaurant for dinner. We stayed in, instead, and snacked on celery, cheese, and Prosecco at the Reading Room before heading off to our second Broadway show: Kinky Boots.
Billy Porter was astounding in the lead role - charismatic, gorgeous, confident in heels with a killer voice to round out the whole package. The other drag queens were equally talented. Mum was convinced some of them were women dressed as drag queens, until she read the playbill and discovered they were all named Trevor and Kevin. It takes major cahones to perform a jumping split in a string bikini in front of a live audience without damaging yours. Less good was the rather milquetoast while male protagonist who got a few too many solos about how unsatisfying his life is. The biggest surprise of the night came when Mum bought me a soundtrack and it turned out to be signed by Cyndi Lauper herself!

After the show, we shared cocktails in the dim Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the Library Hotel. Three days down, one more to go!