Posting a little early because the rest of my month looks like a postapocalyptic hellscape and I’m not in the mood to read more fiction, anyway (as will become apparent below). I set my 2018 Goodreads Challenge for 24 books because 2 books a month seemed achievable even in a disaster situation. Since they count every type of “finished,” including DNF CLEANSE IT WITH HOLY FIRE, I’m already done for the year, according to them! 🎉 🎇 ✨ 💪 💃 🐙 🎆 🎊 🌟 Going by books I’ve actually read all the way through, though, I’m at 16, so I’ll hold off on my victory parade a little while longer.
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In March, I read… the subtitles of the remastered Final Fantasy XII because it finally went on sale. Before you claim that doesn’t count, on the very first day, I got a vocabulary lesson from my reading. Quiddities: inherent nature or essence. (Pro Tip: If a sexy pirate tells you he doesn’t have time for your whole personality, immediately take a potion to treat that sick burn.)
I’m a fan of things that make me think about good storytelling, so I’m going to gush about this game for a minute. If you’re not interested in my writing geekery, click here to skip to April’s reading of actual books.
Having fairly recently re-experienced Final Fantasy X (crazy sauce) and X-2 (deluxe crazy sauce) and most of the Kingdom Hearts franchise (new and improved super-sized crazy sauce) and newly played Final Fantasy XV (sauce not crazy enough to make choking it down worthwhile), I’m impressed anew by how good Square Enix’s storytelling in XII is by comparison.
Let me set up some of the players before I gush about a specific aspect. The royal family of The Bad Guys consists of the emperor; his son Vayne, who has killed two of his brothers already; and the emperor’s youngest son Larsa, who is president of his big brother’s fan club and seems to really believe Vayne’s a nice guy who just wants to help people rather than a murderous, power-hungry psycho. The emperor also has to deal with the senate, a bunch of old dudes who do not share the emperor’s goals in terms of the methods of world domination. The senate wants Vayne gone and Larsa to be the successor because Larsa is young and malleable and will do what they tell him to do, giving them all the power of rule, whereas Vayne will kill them and go the one-branch-of-government route. In addition, there are five Judge Magisters, who are top-level armored executioners who report directly to the emperor. Three of those five are Team Whoever Has the Most Power; two of those five are Team Larsa and will do whatever they must to protect the kid from Vayne and the senate.
Why is this remarkable? Because The Bad Guys are most frequently portrayed as a uni-evil entity, one solid wall that’s standing in the way of The Good Guys achieving their goal, but The Bad Guys aren’t unified here! The emperor doesn’t want one of his children killing another in a power grab. The senate doesn’t want the same successor as the emperor because they want a power grab. Three of the judge magisters are excited to be part of the power grabbing, but two of them think the world would be a better place if Larsa got to grow up and become a benevolent ruler. By itself, this could stand alone as a smaller story with “good guys” and “bad guys” within the confines of The Bad Guys’ environment!
It’s important that there are TWO dissenting judge magisters. One odd duck with a rebellious streak is rote, but when 40% of a small group dissents from the majority, it has broader implications. It’s likely 40% of the anonymous soldiers feel the same way. It’s likely 40% of the citizens feel the same way. 40% isn’t a minority that can be ignored. 40% is within spitting distance of 51%, and just one incident could tip that scale the other way. If you’re on the underdog side, you’re keenly aware you’re this close to that tipping point and hyperalert for opportunities to make it happen. If you’re on the side of the oppressor, even if you don’t know the exact numbers against you because rebels are sneaky, you know people hate you and want to take you down, so you have to be constantly on guard and looking at ways to crush an uprising. These aren’t passing thoughts at 40%; they’re a way of life for everyone in that society—unrelenting tension and conflict, which are the things stories are made of!
Now, in the context of the broader story, when you, the audience, see the monolith of The Bad Guys is fractured and held together with masking tape, it’s no longer impossible that it could be defeated by a ragtag gang of six consisting of two pirates, two orphaned teenagers, a disgraced soldier, and a princess without a throne. While they’re chipping away at the outside, others are chipping away from the inside, weakening the enemy from within—the enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend, but you don’t turn up your nose on principle when their self-serving actions benefit your cause.
Too many stories don’t do the work of showing the Big Bad as fractured and vulnerable and rely on luck and coincidence to secure victory for the lovable losers fighting against Insurmountable Evil. That laziness impairs believability. Mass antagonists should be just as complicated and flawed as a great solo villain. It ought to be easier to build those complexities when you have multiple individuals with their own personalities and agendas to work with, but the writer has to first see them as individuals rather than merely identical cogs in the Big Bad machine.
/end writing geekery
lol jk writing geekery never ends
Back to reading books! Apparently, books are petty and wanted to punish me for straying by welcoming me back with a whole bunch of stuff designed to piss me off!
Ink Witch by Lindsey Fairleigh: DNF. Great ideas (loosely Egyptian mythos, magical ink, evil pharmaceutical company selling immortality), but I didn’t get along with the execution. I wish I’d quit after the heroine was told “I don’t want anyone to know I’m here, including my own mother, because we don’t know who’s involved in these crimes, and it could go all the way to the Senate” and she promptly went to Bad Guy HQ, saw an old “friend” who’s been mysteriously missing for years, is now working for the Bad Guys but claims to be undercover for the Senate (who may also be Bad Guys—I remembered that, did you?), and said, “HEY, GUESS WHO’S BACK IN TOWN. I’M HELPING HIM WITH AN INVESTIGATION. WHAT A COINCIDENCE I FOUND YOU IN THE BAD GUYS’ LAIR, BUDDY. HERE, HAVE SOME MORE SENSITIVE INFORMATION YOU DIDN’T PREVIOUSLY POSSESS. I AM TOTALLY SURE THE INTEL YOU’RE FEEDING ME ABOUT YOUR BOSS, WHICHEVER BAD GUY THAT MAY BE, IS COMPLETELY TRUSTWORTHY.” The terrible judgment (I’d go so far as to file it under TSTL) only got worse from there, and I got the feeling every single thing I had a problem with was going to be blamed on “those darn 18-year-old hormones” because, wow, those were mentioned a lot. (She was “turned immortal” at 18, but that was a couple of decades ago, so although she looks 18, she’d have the life experience of a ~40-year-old—a ~40-year-old assassin, no less, so one would assume more life experience than usual.) I was once 18 for a whole year. I raised a daughter who was 18 for a whole year. We both had 18-year-old friends at that age. I’ve worked with 18-year-olds. I seem to always live in a college town where 18-year-olds abound. I have NEVER noticed that the hormones of 18-year-old girls/women are any kind of a problem, so every time this book mentioned them (which was often), cognitive dissonance paid me a visit. Maybe every 18-year-old girl/woman I’ve ever been, lived with, or met is an exception and the rest of the world would nod sagely and agree females at that age are relentlessly horny and reckless because HORMONES, but it reeks of bullshit to me, which made repeatedly reading it impossible. You know where to find lots of fetishized horny 18-year-old girls? Yeah, so do I, so it’s extra gross to stumble across them in print.
Love Me to Death by Marissa Clarke: Another DNF. If a man calls me “parasite” and “beast” and most of his dialogue is about killing me soon or killing me right now if I give him a hard time, my thoughts are just not going to be about how hot he is and how horny I am. Especially if he’s calling me names and talking about murdering me and getting a boner about it.
LOGIC is super important to me. The key to making things that don’t exist in real life seem authentic to the reader is to have them MAKE SENSE. Readers, having spent some time existing in real life, know how things work. When they encounter the unknown, they find similarities to the known and extrapolate. Much of writing involves trusting readers to perform that function. We don’t write like the audience is a visitor from another galaxy who doesn’t know how to use a chair or what earthly dangers look like so that we have to explain every… little… thing. If you’re not writing every… little… detail about the physical process of opening a can of cat food and the design and contents thereof and what a cat is and why the entire household serves a feline master, you’re relying on the reader’s LOGIC. When you then slap that logical reader in the face with something like “death threats turn me on,” it doesn’t make any damn sense because the vast majority of human beings would have a different response.
Now, you can write a character doing whatever completely-divergent-from-the-norm thing you want (blabbing top-secret information to the first familiar face she sees, grinding on a guy who has self-identified out loud to her face as her future murderer), but then you have to do the work of explaining how that character came to have that divergent response, as if she’s an alien explaining her ways to humanity—you have to give the CHARACTER internal logic and convey that entire way of thinking to the READER as a new frame of reference clear and strong enough to temporarily override her own. When real-world logic doesn’t apply, story-world logic needs to be clearly defined and, well, logical. If real-world logic doesn’t permit the story you want to tell and you can’t come up with convincing story-world logic but you forge ahead regardless of the absence of ANY logic, you have dropped the ball of willing suspension of disbelief and punted it into the sea to be borne to far-off shores, and I’m gonna bitch about it.
lol jk the ranting never ends
Odin’s Spear by Skyla Dawn Cameron: The second novel about Livi Talbot, magical artifact hunter, disgraced celebutante, single mom, and person of interest to a hot Korean tiger shifter. LOGIC: these books have it, along with the perfect ratio of rip-roaring action adventure and personal strife and the muddy zone where they mingle. Livi’s best friend is having a relapse of MS, and their whole found family is afraid. Her estranged father died, and her feelings are… complicated. Her brother thinks their father was murdered and wants her to do something about it. The covert government organization that almost got Livi and everyone she loves killed in the last book is trying to recruit her for a job that doesn’t even compensate for its risks by paying well. There are multiple layers of conflict, and they’re all related and integrated and smoothly flowing, and it’s a thing of beauty to behold. Also, it’s just fun to read. Start with Solomon’s Seal because while the action adventure part of the tale stands alone, the interpersonal relationships are absolutely necessary and were established/developed earlier and aren’t redundantly described here (hallelujah). Trigger warning for an attempted rape with a realistic depiction of a victim’s mental status during such an event. I had faith it wouldn’t happen and was vindicated that Shitty Man Is Shitty, and it was still difficult for me to read in that too-close-to-home way. ETA: Since it has become clear I’m in Super Bitch Mode, I might as well pick on my favorite of the bunch and mention there’s a note in the end matter that proofreading was done while someone was plying her with wine, and it shows. There’s a subject-verb disagreement in the second paragraph, and things like that continue to crop up throughout the book. It makes me sad because this book deserves better, but unlike what usually occurs when my copyediting sensibilities are affronted, I liked the book too much to cast it aside.
A Dangerous Deceit by Alissa Johnson: The third Thief Takers book. (I’ve read the second but not the first yet, and I have no sense that the reading order matters.) Gabriel is sent to retrieve a dead spy’s belongings from his sister to search for spy documents, but villains also have an interest in those documents, so Gabriel’s job description changes to protector. Jane is hard of hearing (possibly with some neurodivergent aspects, but I’m not familiar enough with auditory deficits to know if the particular behavior that struck me as neuro could be a straightforward manifestation of hearing loss). If people aren’t speaking clearly and she’s not staring intensely at them while they speak to read their lips and glean tone from their expressions, she can misinterpret a conversation, sometimes with disastrous results. Her odd behavior has led to rumors that she’s crazy, which doesn’t make her more inclined to socialize. (And when she was a child, her behavior got her institutionalized, so plenty of longstanding trauma.) Being away from her safe cottage and the only two people in the world who love and accept her as she is would be more of a nightmare than being hunted by bad guys, but Gabriel is chill about her oddities even before he knows the cause of them and makes it slightly less awful for her. He notices, for example, when she uses the wrong word, but as long as he understands what she means, he doesn’t see any point calling attention to it and embarrassing her (good boy). It’s one of those “You met how many days ago and want to get married?” timelines, but sometimes I just have to tell my cynicism to shut up and play along with the genre.
Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean: Surprise DNF. When MacLean is good, she’s very, very good, but a few of her books have made me say, “If this was my first Sarah MacLean book, it would have been the last.” This one is the fourth entry in the Rules of Scoundrels series, and having enjoyed the first three in a row, I expected this to be the same. (It’s been over three years since I read the others, I remember almost nothing about them, and a nearly blank slate had nothing to do with the negativity that follows.) Georgiana is looking for a titled husband to lend the type of respect Georgie’s money can’t buy to her 9-year-old daughter before she reaches the age where lack of respectability irreparably damages her prospects in life. Georgie has never given a damn about her own respectability, but she’ll give it a shot for her kid. She happens to possess blackmail-worthy material on her husband of choice, but she’d prefer not to use it, favoring a civil arrangement. The fly in her ointment is a tabloid owner with the influence to make her quest easy peasy or utterly destroy her.
Again, I had believability problems. At 16, Georgie was in love and going to run off and live happily ever after with the love of her life (or what seems like it at 16) and passionately threw herself into sex with him… after which he promptly ditched her, knocked up and ruined. It’s made very clear she doesn’t regret her sexuality and that it’s unfair men can fuck as much as they want without repercussions while women must suffer the purity police. Cool so far. However. Georgie has a secret life, in which she is the all-powerful, reclusive co-owner of a gaming hell and also roams around the casino in the guise of a prostitute. She meant to embrace the latter role and fuck whomsoever she pleased, since she was already ruined and cast out by society, but “it just never happened.” So we have a boldly sex-positive heroine… who had sex once ten years ago and ever since has been pure as new-fallen snow on a baby’s sweet-smelling head. *side eye* Also, in the six years she’s been playing the part of a prostitute in a casino, an incident in this book is apparently the first time a customer has gotten tipsy and molested her. The most entitled men on the planet have been totally respectful toward the prostitutes in their midst? Nah. Not buying it. The contortions involved in trying to make this poor woman embrace her sexuality while avoiding any possible reader impression of “sluttiness” are just painful. It reeks of appeasement, and I’d rather see conviction. Take a stand, draw your sword, and let the bodies fall where they may.
AND LET’S LOOK AT DUNCAN, SHALL WE? For years, he’s been working with Anna the Prostitute serving as a liaison between him and Mysterious Recluse Chase (who is also Georgiana), but he has never made a move on Anna the Prostitute. The INSTANT he discovers Anna the Prostitute is a “lady,” albeit disgraced, he’s all over her. So it seems very much that a prostitute isn’t good enough for him, but a lady—whom he admits he can’t have because he’s not aristocracy—is just spiffy, since she’s tainted enough to be brought down to his level. Never mind he still thinks she works as a prostitute because the only thing that matters is his perception of her lady-whore ratio. And whoadamn is he OBSESSED with her body count. He thinks/speaks about her presumed lovers more than he does about her, Georgiana, as a person. At the halfway point, they’d negotiated to have sex, and I dreaded the thought of reading it. Based on what I’d read, I assume Her Hymen Grew Back™, he realized she was almost as good as a virgin, and his thoughts were suddenly full of “love” to replace the hordes of rutting men who previously occupied his cogitating. DO NOT WANT.
I think the severity of my disappointment stems from high expectations. For three books, Chase (Georgiana) was set up as this all-powerful badass, and then at the end of book three, it was revealed *gasp* CHASE IS A WOMAN. So I was expecting SUPER-SIZED badassery because it would be infinitely more difficult for a woman to pull off what Chase has done. Then I get her story and… it’s 99% purity politics because, as we all know, what a woman does with her vagina is WAY more important than any of her other accomplishments.
So April was obviously not a good reading month. I’d like to blame it on being hypercritical due to Editing Mode, but I really can’t see how any of these things wouldn’t have bothered me just as much under other circumstances. Maybe I’d have been QUIETER ABOUT IT if I was less crabby? Alas, we’ll never know.