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Jul. 5th, 2009

I've read so little recently that it's probably only my struggle with Russian vocabulary & such that keeps my brain from completely evaporating - or at least that's what I hope -, but I actually did finish the last volume of Ricardo Pinto's Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy and Corambis, the fourth volume of Sarah Monette's The Doctrine of Labyrinths.

[ETA: spoiler warning, not so much for Corambis, because if you made it through the first three volumes there isn't really anything in the fourth to actually warrant a warning, but on the off chance that someone on my friendslist doesn't know Pinto's books and wants to give them a try - personally I'd very much recommend not spoiling yourself for the ending.]

Now Pinto's book was surprise in the absolute best sense of the word. When I read the first volume a (longish) while ago I did admire the originality of the world-building (and the way he eases the reader into this completely alien world without too much obvious exposition is still equally remarkable), but I'd be lying to say it was really on the list of my favourite fantasy novels. And judging from my brief review of The Standing Dead I didn't feel all that enthusiastic about it at the time. However, these are definitely books that not only stand the test of rereading extremely well, but actually profit from it, because I'm pretty sure I enjoyed and appreciated both volumes more the second time round.

So I can't exactly claim that I've been on the edge of my seat for the last six years, but since I don't like unfinished stories and this one definitely was powerful enough to linger, I kept checking amazon occasionally, although after all this time I'd almost given up hope of ever getting the conclusion.

But now that The Third God has finally come out, I can only say it was definitely worth the wait.

While it's still hard to really warm, on an emotional level, to a story this full of atrocities and slaughter (and that has always been my main problem, if you can call it that, not the lengthy descriptions or often quite slow pacing that several reviewers on amazon complained about), there's plenty of pay-off, intellectual as well as emotional, in the last book, and an ending I would never have imagined or thought possible even after the second volume, and I'd like to think that just for once that is more of a testimony to Pinto's story-telling skills than to my lack of imagination.

I'd be hard pressed to think of an ending to any book or story that is at once so unexpected, as well as completely and utterly inherently logical, not to say necessary. One can hardly even call it foreshadowing, because through vols. 1 and 2 at least, as both Carnelian and Osidian in their own ways and for their own reasons attempt to change it at least a little, their world appears as timelessly permanent and immovable to the reader as it appears to them, and even in book three, even when the signs increase that its order might be crumbling after all, one still mostly expects an eventual restoration of the old system, only with changed protagonists and perhaps some slight modifications. As a reader you don't - or at least I didn't - see the end coming any more than they do, never recognising the... moral imperative, I think, would be the best word, for a civilisation like this to disappear utterly.

The perhaps even more embarrasssing thing is that I never noticed the gender theme, or more precisely the role it would play, at all, until it was effectively spelled out at the end. In hindsight there were clues enough, in the way Carnelian occasionally subtly blurs the gender lines even of the tribal society he finds himself in in the second book, but faced with yet another very male-dominated fantasy world, apparently the brain out of long-standing habit automatically switches into... I can't even call it 'resignation mode'; 'ignore mode' perhaps, because I never even conciously noticed the problem at all, or that the gender imbalance was at least a good part of what was wrong with the world of the Chosen. Not the author's fault at all. It should have been obvious in vol. 2, when Osidian upsets the equally balanced, even slightly matriarchic social structure of the tribal society in his quest for power. It was obvious, I just didn't notice it then. Or more precisely, thought it wouldn't matter in the long run. And this is the part I almost feel like apologising for - I think I might have read it at least a bit differently, with different expectations, if the author had been a woman.

Even so, it's maybe not a story one immediately falls in love with, that instantly draws you in on the strength of its characters, or at least it wasn't for me. The world he created is a very formal one that doesn't allow many emotions, and the language, a very distinctive style that takes some getting used to, reflects that. And it's too cruel a world, there's too much blood-shed, and hardly anyone is entirely innocent. Even Carnelian gets plenty of blood on his hands, although most of it is through trying to do the right thing and failing utterly (which is forgivable, because he's really only a boy, fifteen in the first book), because this is a world where as a member of the ruling class you can't not be touched by its corruption or involved in the monstrosities inherent in the system.

But it's an extremely powerful, very idea-driven, story, an apocalyptic vision about exploitation - of people, of the environment -, and its necessary consequences, with an unexpectedly hopeful, lovely ending.

It's perhaps not surprising that despite the gay relationships these books don't tend to get heaped with (or recommended as much; there are only 25 people on lj who list the author as an interest) what I tend to call slashy fantasy by female writers; they're not as overtly romance-driven as most of those, and can I get away with calling them rather male books without sounding too sexist? At the same time, although it's never spelled out as such, only implied in one of the 'quotes' prefacing each chapter, it is a story about gay relationships subverting hierarchies and power structures, not just love as 'an assertion of the triumph of fudamental humanity against impossible obstacles', as one reviewer on amazon called it. The relationships, even if they are in the background, directly or indirectly drive the whole plot from start to finish.

The long-ago love between Carnelian's father and the (then) future emperor is only ever briefly mentioned in passing, when it became relevant to the plot, but it was the cause of Lord Suth's exile, and once the truth about Carnelian's parentage was revealed, kept him there on the edge of the world, cut off from civilisation, without which Carnelian would never even had the chance to grow up in a comparatively normal environent, a (again, comparatively) normal, loving family with his stepmother and half-brothers, letting him develop qualities like love and compassion and breaching the class divide just enough, allowing him to recognise the monstrosity of the system his class comes from when eventually has to return to it. Knowledge of the secret of Carnelian's birth was what made it possible for Lord Aurum to blackmail Carnelian's father into coming back to court, which in turn made it possible for Carnelian to meet Osidian, setting in motion the sequence of events that eventually led to the downfall of the whole system. Love made Carnelian fight for Osidian's life throughout much of vol. 2, which certainly seemed like a mistake by the end of the book, but without Osidian and his craving for power and will to regain his place, Carnelian on his own would never have been able to bring about the end of the Chosen. And finally there's the love-story between Carnelian and Fern that keeps Carnelian on the path of humanity.

Ironically with Monette's books it was the exact opposite, and it's a bit depressing to still remember how instantly I was pulled into the first volume, how much I loved it, and how my enthusiasm has gradually faded since and a story I'd loved in the end turned out to be a story that just wasn't for me.

I liked the new characters, that much at least I can say for the book. The addition of Methitabel as a third narrator made vol. 3 eminently more readable than the alternating first person POV angst and self-pity fest that was vol. 2, and again in Corambis it was actually Kay's story that interested me the most.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but for me the fundamental weakness of the book seems to be that if it weren't for the introduction of an entirely new world and new characters Corambis would feel almost like an extended epilogue. The pacing is not so much slow as too even, without any real climax, and somehow one gets the impression that the actual plot was more or less finished after vol. 3, but as she hadn't had time before to satisfactory resolve her character's psychological issues, she needed this book. As a result the Felix/Mildmay arc is more or less reduced to resolving Felix's trauma and what actual plot there is is Kay's story, with a only rather tenuous connection between the two story-lines. While there's certainly a bit of temporary closure for Felix, although personally I can't imagine the lighthouse exile ending working out very well in the long run, what is completely lacking for me is a sense of closure for the book or the series as a whole, because so many characters, many of them only just introduced, are left hanging in midair.

I'd love to read more about Kay's story. Corby's. Or Mehitabel and Lord Stephen's for the matter. The wizards of the Mirador. I'd actually like to see how Kay and Felix might work out, and if anyone wrote fanfiction about Lord Shannon rescuing Felix from his lighthouse exile I'd read that, too.

What I was tired to death at this point was the neverending, 'tell', 'tell' and more 'tell' (and never a 'show' in sight), Felix & Mildmay issues, trauma & self-therapy story. ('You help me be someone who can save himself.' Oh, please.) Or, in Mildmay's own words - 'Kethe love the both of us, here we go again. And I couldn't stand it. Because I knew him, and I knew if he got his way, we'd be going around and around on this same fucking thing until we either died of old age or I upped and strangled him just to get him to shut the fuck up about it.'

And that's in the middle of book four. I can't bring myself to care anymore at this point. I just can't. I'm all for healing and happy endings, but mostly I wish they'd both just shut up. More to the point, I wish Monette had given Felix a slightly less horrible past that it didn't take some 1500+ pages to even start coming to terms with. I wish the whole thing didn't read so much like the result of a fandom discussion about how rapefic tends to treat the subject too lightly and not realistically enough, because between the way she keeps using, even in the last volume, rape and sexual abuse as a major plot device with an explicitness that always makes me wonder if those scenes are written for shock or kinks or both (and I'm totally blaming fandom, where almost anything is a kink for someone somewhere, for making me incredibly jaded in this respect), and the clearly sincere effort to treat the resulting trauma realistically it certainly does.

Mostly I wish there could have been an actual story with an actual plot, because that is what my main issue is here. I don't know what I actually expected from Corambis, but as it is, it turned the whole series into the story of a survivor of childhood abuse trying to find a way to live with himself, a story that in everything that matters would have been essentially the same without the trappings of magic, without the leitmotif of the labyrinths, without all the elaborate world-building. Which is a pity, because technically she's a good writer. The world-building, including the magic, is imaginative and really compelling, the prose is very readable, and the characters are interesting; it's the plot that in the end doesn't live up to the rest.

And as a last point - in a series of books where there are pretty much no happy - or intact, at that - romantic/sexual relationships, no happy ending for anyone, it's perhaps pointless to complain about that, but I find the way she treats her gay characters at least a bit problematic. Felix - traumatised abuse victim, struggling with a lot of issues that make him, generally speaking, not a very nice person. Malkar - capital-E-evil, rapist. The villain of vol. 3, I forget his name. Gideon - nice, but dead. Kay - blinded, dependent, pushed into a political marriage he has no choice over, although it might somewhat improve his situation; no sexual/romantic relationship, tasteless pun not intended, in sight. Lord Shannon we left behind at the end of vol. 3 just when he was turning out to be a bit more interesting and a nicer and more insightful character. There's Vincent in vol. 3, prostitute-turned-secretary, who's both one of the good guys and also alive at the end of the book, and a few very minor characters in vol. 4, but they're not enough to altogether dispel the lingering feeling of unease. I think it might have made at least a bit of a difference if vol. 4 had ended at least with a glimpse of Felix/Kay, like she'd apparently originally planned. Didn't have to be a full blown, unrealistic happy-ending, which I agree wouldn't have fit the story, but as it is the only not-dysfunctional, not abuse-, trauma- or prostitution-related gay relationship seems to be the one between Vanessa's brother and his boyfriend, which I suspect was only brought up to both illustrate that society's homophobia and Vanessa's lack thereof.

In many discussions about slash, how realistic it is or should be, as well as its potential to objectify real life gay people, at one point the argument tends to comes up that it doesn't matter, because slash isn't about gay men after all, but about the women writing the stories, and in that sense this series does very much feel like slash to me. Obviously it's original fiction, not fanfiction, but it seems to comes from the same place, the way it works through issues of sexuality, power and abuse that are - like Felix and MIldmay's respective realisation that sex doesn't have to equal love and vice versa in vol. 4 - maybe more typically female issues, using gay male characters.

(And not that I'm rereading three volumes to find out, but was Felix always blushing at least abut once per Mildmay POV chapter? Because that really stood out this time...)

And now I'll really have to start packing & cleaning, if I actually want to leave to day...


solitary summer

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