Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Complete Fiction of HP Lovecraft

HP Lovecraft
Completed 10/28/2020, Reviewed 10/28/2020
3 stars 

I think I learned a lesson with this collection.  Never read a complete works by any author.  After a while, you see the flaws.  I found the same words and phrases used over and over again.  Lovecraft’s approach to horror is to not describe it in too much detail, but to use words like horror and terror repeatedly.  I guess he leaves it to the reader’s imagination, but by the last story in this collection, I was tired of it.  I felt like the only differences between the stories were the settings.  Okay, so not all the stories were repetitive, but the Cthulhu mythos stories got old after a while.  I have to say I was disappointed, but perhaps it was my fault in reading sixty-eight stories consecutively. 

I read this for the WWEnd Halloween Challenge for 2020.  I thought it would be fun to read some horror, and I always felt that I should read some Lovecraft as he is an influence on so many horror and fantasy writers.  So when this book came up as a cheap Amazon Deal of the Day for my Kindle, I bought it.  Well, it took me three weeks to read the 1095 pages.  It started out fun, but soon I began to recognize the formula of the stories.  For a large part of the stories, there’s an introduction to the main character, be it first or third person, that tells you that the person is dead or on the verge of sanity.  There’s a prosy description of the setting.  Then there’s a recounting of the horrific events that lead up to the death or mental breakdown.  This was typical of the Cthulhu mythos stories.

There are other forms as well, such as the stories in what’s known as the Dream Cycle, which I had a hard time understanding.  The stories which are not part of either Cthulhu or the Dreams still sometimes fell into the Cthulhu pattern of storytelling.  You could tell when you were reading some of his early works because they ended in an italicized shocker last sentence.  Those were actually kind of fun.

The prose is wonderful, as I would have expected from writing from this period in time.  However, each story is a big prose-fest.  There is almost no dialogue.  When there is, it’s long, prosy, eloquent monologues or heavily accented backwoods ramblings.  This lack of dialogue made the characters all seem basically the same.  There was not much individual personality to them.  Most of them were men, often academics, who were researching old cults and/or the occult, troubled by dreams, and obsessive.  There were almost no women in any of the stories.

Most of Lovecraft’s work was published in periodicals, like the science fiction of the golden age.  I think if you read his stories as they came out, over a period of many years, you could really get into it.  You wouldn’t notice the commonly used words and phrases, the lack of growth in the writing, the repetitive themes.  My conclusion is that reading it all at once is a bad idea. 

And what review of Lovecraft isn’t complete without the acknowledgement of his intense racism.  He uses derogatory language for anyone who isn’t white or of British descent.  He used such language for Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, Asian Indians, Arabs, Italians, and people of mixed race.  I’m sure I’m missing a few.  I knew he was racist going into this and chalked it up to the time period he was from.  But I quickly realized that while many authors were racist, they didn’t usually use derogatory words or stereotypical descriptions in their writings.  And Lovecraft goes too far.  He describes every non-white character with a slur.  They are almost always associated with the horror involved, whether perpetuating it or a slave to it.  It made for some really uncomfortable reading.  I really like this quote by N. K. Jemisin from an interview with David Remnick from the New Yorker magazine.  "…His biases were the basis of his horror. ... He does some incredible imagery, it's powerful work, but it's frightening ... because it's a way to look into the mind of a true bigot, and realize just how alien their thinking is, just how disturbing their ability to dehumanize their fellow human beings is."

I give this book three stars out of five.  It was interesting reading this collection after reading so many books by authors of color over the past few years.  And it was interesting reading it during such a troubling time as we are in now.  It reinforced for me how far we’ve come and simultaneously how much farther we have to go.  I think I would have given this collection four stars if it wasn’t for the racism and the repetitive style and language of the stories.  If you’re into prose, you’d see why I’d give it the fourth star.  But in the future, when I read collections, I’ll make sure it isn’t massive.  I like to be entertained and challenged.  I don’t like finding out that an author has a formula and sticks to it their whole career.  And I think I’ll stay away from the racists.  It’s hard enough to do that in everyday life.  I don’t need it in my literature as well.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Children of Blood and Bone

Tomi Adeyemi
Completed 10/6/2020, Reviewed 10/6/2020
3 stars

 I enjoyed this young adult novel, but it felt very formulaic.  It has a good premise.  A girl tries to bring magic back into a Nigeria-like land after it has been eradicated by the monarch.  It’s loosely based on Yoruba mythology.  The primary purpose of each god is to bestow a certain type of magic.  It’s basically a quest story with a kick-ass female main character named Zelie.  Many cool things happen on this quest, but ultimately everything feels like you’ve read it before, right down to Zelie falling for the morally questionable antagonist.  Still, it was an exciting, engrossing story.  I just kept having feelings of déjà vu.  This book was nominated for a lot of awards, winning several including the Andre Norton Award. 

In Orisha, the monarch has eradicated magic from the land and killed all the wielders of magic above the age of thirteen.  Called maji, they’re recognizable by their white hair.  Those under the age of thirteen, though white-haired, haven’t acquired their powers yet, so are considered not dangerous.  Zelie lost her mother to the Raids and is rightfully bitter.  She has white hair and has the potential to be a maji.  Several years after the Raids, she becomes involved with bringing magic back when the Princess steals an artifact from her father that can return magic to the land.  Zelie, her brother, and the Princess take up the artifact and begin the quest to bring magic back.  Hot on their heals is the Prince, who supports his father’s vision of a magic-free land.

The book is told from first person point of view by Zelie, the Princess, and the Prince in alternating chapters.  This form develops their characters really well.  Zelie is a great character.  She’s well-rounded despite being bitter over the death of her mother and the Raids which killed all the maji of age.  She‘s strong, having been trained to defend herself like many of the young girls of her village.  The Princess is also strong and fierce, having been trained by her father to defend herself in case of an uprising, like the one in which he lost his first family.  She struggles with the injustices perpetuated on the maji which emboldens her to steal a scroll which when touched, restores magic to them.  The Prince, despite being the antagonist, is also a well-developed character, getting his own narrative. 

Though the characters are strong, the story feels hackneyed.  That’s not saying it’s not exciting, because it is.  It just feels like it’s been done before.  But the story is well paced, and I often found myself having a hard time putting the book down at several points.  There’s a lot of action and a lot of sequences that are real page turners. 

The one thing I really liked was the realness of the oppression the maji suffered at the hands of the royal guards.  They called them maggots and were heavily taxed.  What they endured was very realistic and often hard to read.  The account of the death of Zelie’s mother is particularly difficult.  It’s an excellent handling of xenophobia and the demonization of the other.  Contrary to the belief of the king, it doesn’t protect him, it merely incites resentment and ultimately violence.

I give this book three stars out of five.  I really liked it, and would have liked to have given it four stars. But ultimately, it felt derivative of other YA novels.  I do highly recommend the book though.  It is a good read and satisfying despite the cliffhanger at the end.  And one more plug.  The cover art of this book and its sequel is tremendous.


Thursday, October 1, 2020

Gods of Jade and Shadow

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Completed 10/1/2020, Reviewed 10/1/2020
4 stars

I believe this is the first genre novel I’ve read by a Latinx author, perhaps the first of any type of literature.  Moreno-Garcia is Mexican-born and Canadian “by inclination”.  This novel is Mythic Fiction, featuring Mayan gods and a lowly Cinderella-like poor relation.  It is about the battle for the Kingdom of the Underworld between twin brother gods.  It is both light and heavy, with powerful themes of love and self-sacrifice, while sprinkled with a little humor.  I really enjoyed the novel, particularly the exposure to the Mayan mythology, of which I know very little.  And I’m always up for a good fantasy based on mythology.  This book was nominated for several awards including the Nebula.

The story begins in the Yucatan in the roaring twenties, although the town where Casiopea lives is very traditional.  Her father died when she was young and she and her mother moved in with her sickly, cantankerous, and abusive grandfather and equally abusive extended family, including her mean cousin Martin.  She was basically raised as a servant, much like Cinderella.  One day, left home alone while the rest of the family is enjoying a day trip, she finds the small box her grandfather kept in his room.  For the first time, its key is not around his neck, but on the dresser.  She opens the box, finds bones in it, touches it, and a shard of bone enters her hand.  Suddenly, the god of the Underworld, Hun-Kame, appears.  He enlists her to help him retake his throne from his twin brother Vucub-Kame, the younger of the two, who treacherously stole the throne from him.  The story becomes a bit of a travelogue as they journey across Mexico, being chased by Martin who was enlisted by the younger sibling, culminating in an ultimate confrontation between the two divine forces. 

Casiopea is a wonderful character, named after the constellation by her poet father of Mayan ancestry.  Being her father’s daughter, she is dark-skinned, unlike the rest of her family who are lighter-skinned people of European descent.  The resulting bigotry is what keeps her and her mother oppressed by their own family.  Casiopea keeps to her station, as commanded by her mother, but she does so with dissent and bitterness in her eyes, often arguing, garnering the wrath of Martin, her grandfather, and her aunts.  She is smart, educated, and strong-willed, unlike many of the women of the village.  Then on the journey across Mexico, she brings a freshness and a humanness to Hun-Kame.

What brings Hun-Kame to life is the blood of Casiopea, as it is absorbed by his bone shard lodged in her hand.  It also siphons some of her humanity and personality into him as well.  Ultimately, though, this will kill her unless he can retake the throne and remove it from her.  But if he wants to live, it must remain in her hand, endangering her life.  Hun-Kame is a well-developed character, starting off disaffected and becoming softened by Casiopea’s physical and emotional connection to him.  Vucub-Kame, on the other hand, is hardened and harsh, like Martin.  The contrasts are awesome, and the coming together of the characters and the personalities is well played.

I really liked Moreno-Garcia’s prose.  She writes vivid depictions of people, places, and actions without being overbearing, but still maintaining a mythic quality.  The dialogue is crisp.  There is some exposition as Hun-Kame relates the story of his divinity and the conflict with his brother when asked by Casiopea, but it is written well, told over a several sittings, and is very interesting. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was very nearly a five-star rating.  I could empathize with Casiopea and Hun-Kame, but never quite had the emotional response for which I usually reward the higher rating.  Still, I enjoyed it very much.  It is a quick read, with the travelogue and the exposition never being boring.  The final confrontation between the two brothers, the form of which I won’t give away, was dramatic and riveting.  There are a lot of stories out there featuring Norse, Egyptian, Hindu, and African mythologies, but this is first I’ve come across with Mayan.  I highly recommend this book if you’re looking for something with a different flavor than the majority of mythological fiction out there.