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And so we come to the final round of this “meating” of the minds. We’d like to thank our sponsors, the audience watching at home, and all of the voters who have kept Kamo and Pep in through rounds one and two. Phone lines will open after the competition for viewers to submit their requests for the next pageant to be held.
Round Seven – Sexytimes (AKA: The Dance OF LOVE)
Kamo: There are five genders. What have you got?
Pep: While it would be amazing if The Spy and The Secretary had a magical moment, especially as The Spy is a mousy, female historian and The Secretary is a one-eyed savage, no such luck. There is a relationship shown in flashback that is torn apart by patriotism, but it won’t hold a candle to five genders.
Kamo: I dunno. It’s only the one culture with that wide a spread of standard roles (though most others have three), and while the Dhai are well down with the polyamory, as a whole the book is an unexpectedly sexless thing. There are a couple of narrowly avoided rapes, and that dysfunctional married couple get interrupted in flagrante (though that’s arguably marital rape as well), but aside from that the only instance of actual consensual sex is a soft-soap PG-13 tilt shot of entwined hands and rumpled bedsheets, followed by a jump cut to coffee and awkward small talk the next morning. Do we get to count this as a theme? There must be no fucking unless it’s awful?
Pep: May I recommend The Barrow for that sort of thing? You’d love it. Nothing but hateful sexytimes. Aside from a bit of human-affirmation-through-naughty-words at the end, we mostly get kind of a censored recollection in City of Stairs. Saypur does, to its credit, have the sort of progressive marriage ideas usually relegated to SF (gender equality, term contracts, hetero- and homo- options, etc), while Bukilov is typically repressive in the way we expect religious communities to be.
Kamo: I should probably clarify at this point that I am in no way clamouring for hateful sex, fictional or otherwise. Though on the plus side this is starting to crystalise for me how for all the novelty of ME’s world it is in many ways quite traditional. Screwing isn’t something that fantasy has usually done all that well, and we’re following that formula here. Gender (and to a certain extend ethnicity) switches aside most of this is your traditional Epic Fantasy pushed to the limits of complexity and then some. EF with a new bass riff and the volume turned up to eleven. I think we can all agree that that’s generally a good thing.
Round Eight – Disco
Kamo: That said, if I’m being perfectly honest the first half of this book just doesn’t work like it should. I’ll try to diagnose it more accurately, because a work with this many obvious and significant strengths deserves better than such cursory dismissal, but it may well prove beyond me. The Mirror Empire took me almost a month to read and, even allowing for its length and a whole host of untimely distractions in my personal life, it’s incredibly rare that a work of fiction I genuinely like (and I should emphasize again that I really do like this book a lot) will ever take me that long; not six seven eight so many weeks ago I disposed of the similarly sized Matter in the course of a long weekend. I keep vacillating on the exact reasons for this, but ultimately I think it’s a perfect storm of little misfires we might usefully group together under the heading ‘Tension Management’.
For example, the chapters feel fairly short which means you can read at a fair old clip, but also means that you don’t spend much time with any one individual, exacerbating that ‘slow-burn’ characterization. This is where those generic expectations start to matter, because two of the key tropes present are the now standard Massive Epic Fantasy Cast of POV Characters and the sprawling, byzantine political interplay of factions, nations, empires, and entire worlds. This is a lot to keep straight in your head and is, perhaps, one of the more comfortable/convenient excuses for why so much EF defaults to a mediaeval European setting; it’s nice and familiar and lets you devote more mental space to the characters and plot. When you’re trying to create meanings for scores of unfamiliar proper nouns, having to make further mental room for homicidal perambulatory trees and quintipartite gender constructions and cometary magic systems is a touch overwhelming. On the upside, none of the swords had fucking names, which is always a relief.
For all that innominate weaponry though, the first half of this book is also unexpectedly placid. You get a rip-roarer of a prologue and then I think I counted about two more fight scenes in the next 200 pages. This is obviously a pretty crude metric but is indicative of the lack of what, in this Post-Ned Stark era, I like to call* the Flick Factor – when a character’s chapter ends in suspenseful irresolution and you find yourself quickly leafing forward in order to confirm that they reappear, if not hale and hearty, then at least alive and in possession of most of their major body parts. To be fair, this improves as the book progresses and includes an almost joyfully literal cliffhanger, but early on there’s a lot of talk and treaties and positioning and most chapters are wrapped up a little too neatly. Too many natural breaks, which meant that once the book was put down I was under much less compulsion to pick it up again. But pick it up I did, because most of what I’ve just described is par for the Epic Fantasy course. The label implies making a certain commitment for the long-haul, though if I hadn’t been primed for that there‘s a small but real chance this book might still be on the bedside table.
Pep: I had no such difficulty with City of Stairs. The first section roused my semi-dormant love of spy fiction and I stayed right with Bennett as the story switched gears into politico-historic fantasy. Much of this can be credited to Bukilov’s compelling magnetism, but Shara is also the sort of character that many SFF readers will naturally gravitate towards. Reviewer bias should be noted here; if there’s anyone out there who wants to read politically and religiously charged stories about imaginary worlds that are narrated by nerdy history professors, it’s me. I should probably try to pick nits about Bennett’s craft or technique, but it’s kind of beyond me right now. Book Two is apparently in the works; I’ll be waiting in line for a copy.
Kamo: The absence of nits and the picking thereof is to be applauded, I think, but unfortunately not something I’m temperamentally inclined towards. It’s a personal failing, I know. Despite all that however, you (singular and plural) should read The Mirror Empire, as its weaknesses are nothing genre readers haven’t learned to deal with and are amply compensated for by its strengths, which are important in needful ways. Hurley’s last trilogy definitely got tighter as it progressed and I have every confidence that’ll happen here too; frankly she’s set up such a glorious playground for her characters that cool stuff can’t not happen. Now all we have to do is think up another tortured metaphor for our joint post about the sequels…
Pep: I am all for torturing metaphors, especially if we are doing it in tandem. Beauty pageants are no fun when it’s just me. All the more when I lose. Speaking of beauty pageants, this whole thing just reminded me of that one story in the Apex book we both read, about gladiatorial Miss Universe. I digress. Mirror Empire is on my list, though I may wrap up the Nyx-and-bugs books first. I suspect our tastes are close enough that you (and many of the Royal You out there) will dig City of Stairs. Until next time!
[Go on, embed a video of You Can’t Touch This at the end. If not now, then when? 😉 ]
[I … can’t. Some sort of reaction to parachute pants and high top fades.]
*By which I mean, “Here’s a pleasingly alliterative phrase I’ve just made up.”