Poetry Corner – Dragon and George edition
I Not my best side, I'm afraid. The artist didn't give me a chance to Pose properly, and as you can see, Poor chap, he had this obsession with Triangles, so he left off two of my Feet. I didn't comment at the time (What, after all, are two feet To a monster?) but afterwards I was sorry for the bad publicity. Why, I said to myself, should my conqueror Be so ostentatiously beardless, and ride A horse with a deformed neck and square hoofs? Why should my victim be so Unattractive as to be inedible, And why should she have me literally On a string? I don't mind dying Ritually, since I always rise again, But I should have liked a little more blood To show they were taking me seriously. II It's hard for a girl to be sure if She wants to be rescued. I mean, I quite Took to the dragon. It's nice to be Liked, if you know what I mean. He was So nicely physical, with his claws And lovely green skin, and that sexy tail, And the way he looked at me, He made me feel he was all ready to Eat me. And any girl enjoys that. So when this boy turned up, wearing machinery, On a really dangerous horse, to be honest I didn't much fancy him. I mean, What was he like underneath the hardware? He might have acne, blackheads or even Bad breath for all I could tell, but the dragon-- Well, you could see all his equipment At a glance. Still, what could I do? The dragon got himself beaten by the boy, And a girl's got to think of her future. III I have diplomas in Dragon Management and Virgin Reclamation. My horse is the latest model, with Automatic transmission and built-in Obsolescence. My spear is custom-built, And my prototype armour Still on the secret list. You can't Do better than me at the moment. I'm qualified and equipped to the Eyebrow. So why be difficult? Don't you want to be killed and/or rescued In the most contemporary way? Don't You want to carry out the roles That sociology and myth have designed for you? Don't you realize that, by being choosy, You are endangering job prospects In the spear- and horse-building industries? What, in any case, does it matter what You want? You're in my way. - Ursula Askam Fanthorpe, apparently
Review: The Dark Archive – Genevieve Cogman
This book was physically painful to read.
I’ve read all the Invisible Library books so far. I’ve been patiently waiting for them to Get Good. I’ve been waiting for Cogman’s editor to get better at it. I really, really, want to like these books! They’re about people who love books and would walk to the ends of a different Earth to acquire them….right?
They haven’t, she hasn’t, and the dirty secret is that they aren’t.
I’ve already written at length how Cogman a) can’t write action, b) struggles with characterization, c) has far too much dialogue. (GOD, you don’t know how much I am not exaggerating with the dialogue. There are maybe two pages in this book which are not comprised of people talking to each other); Cogman demonstrates a positive genius for taking large-scale action setpieces and then disposing of them in a couple of paragraphs; and nobody has a discernable personality. She’s even shuffled the one character who does have a distinct personality offstage for the duration of the book! What the hell, Gen?
c) is even more of a problem than usual here, because there are two new major characters: Librarian-trainee-hopeful Catherine, and dragon prince Shan Yuan. And the thing is, for BOTH of them, the building blocks were right there. Shan Yuan is a collection of vaguely arrogant and moderately unhelpful actions. He does things and it’s for his own reasons which are annoying and sometimes harmful to the protagonists. That’s actually good, and he’s actually fairly consistent. Problem is, once he’s been set up, a little bit of time was needed to set up why he does the things he does (not, dear God, by talking about it): that is, OTHER than “to be annoying to the protagonists;” and maybe show that he has a reason and the reason is, his personality is that of an arrogant, prejudiced dragon prince who is used to doing this his own way and has no respect for his younger brother’s/the human way of doing things.
But the really fatal problems with this series, which I finally put my finger on in this book is:
It’s not clever. It’s not imaginative. And it’s not literary.
This series is supposedly about people who go to different worlds–from the fantastic to the technological–for books. This series started out as straight-up fanfiction, which allowed the author to slip known worlds, characters, and settings in and do fun, off-the-cuff, funny, clever things with them. This by all rights, should have continued when the books actually got published. The process is simple: file the serial numbers off the world, change the names and a few details of the characters you’re
stealing borrowing reimagining, give setting and people a few twists–you know, the sort you’d have liked to see in the originals–and write a fun charming story in a world that is almost recognizable but different in a clever and fitting way.
It can be done, it can be done legally, and it can get published, believe me. There’s the Rachel Griffin books by L. Jagi Lamplighter, which riff off of everyone from Narnia to Battlestar Galactica. There’s the Mageworlds series by Debra Doyle, which is Star Wars sequels with the serial numbers filed off and very satisfying they were to read indeed. There are countless opportunities for cameos not only of literary but also historical figures to pop up!
Cogman doesn’t do this. She doesn’t use varied worlds, fresh new settings. Everything is set in a smoggy but weirdly feminist-friendly but still tea-guzzling but racially tolerant but fucking steampunk pseudo-Victorian England. With goggles. Oh God, there are actual goggles in this book and they do nothing except irritate me. And here’s the thing. Cogman doesn’t even use the really easy and helpful cheat of adapting genuine literary characters to her own ends–which would solve her problem of not being able to write people with actual personalities. You don’t need to invent what you can steal!
At their core, these books were written by someone entirely lacking in imagination. I’d be nasty and say “in familiarity with the fantasy genre,” but that’s an unwonted personal attack.
But. The real problem.
The REAL problem is.
For a series focused on Librarians. Who go to great lengths to acquire new books. Who fetishize books. Who have plot-relevant reasons for wanting to keep books, read books, and acquire knowledge.
No one ever seems to have read a book in their life.
New character Catherine is a teenager who has grown up isolated and lived primarily through reading stories. She wants to be a librarian: you know, one of those ladies who tells you about new authors and helps you find them and discusses them with you and wears glasses on a string. We know this: because she says as much to Irene. Not because she talks about books incessantly. Not because she’s ever got her nose in a book. Not because she’s entirely bored with the “someone’s trying to assassinate us” plot and keeps trying to wander off and buy books. And definitely not because she changes her mind at the end and decides that being a spy-book-thief type Librarian is much better.
At one point Kai mentions Irene always has a book in her nightstand. Irene never mentions anything she’s read in a book; never refers to book-learned knowledge; never thinks about book plots that are similar to this one; never wonders how a favorite hero or heroine would handle the situation….throughout this entire series…once. The closest she’s ever come to it is complaining that action heroines are generally taller than her own 5’9 (….you moronic bitch) and follows up by whining that it’s hard to kick people (in the shins, presumably) while wearing full skirts.
I’m legitimately angry at this point. I could write better stories about Librarian Spies, the Library of Babel, dragons, Fae, debauched ambassadors, bookworm trainees, the Language of Truth, super-powered, vengeful bodiless spirits. Maybe I freaking will.
And after all that, is there anything to say about the plot? What plot? Well….I could talk about what there is of plot, but I’d just lose my temper at how stupidly drawn-out this series is. It’s book 7. Irene has just finally found out that the villain whom she has faced in every single book and easily defeated each time is her
(dUn DuN duN)
(DuN dUn DuN)
(dUn DuN duN dUn DuN dUn)
As if it wasn’t bloody fucking obvious in book 1 and serially reinforced in each book after that.
And then there’s an epilogue with a fucking mysterious hooded council of mysteriousness that runs the Library except the final line of the book implies that the Library actually runs itself and WHY DID WE SPEND SEVEN BOOKS RUNNING AROUND VICTORIAN STEAMPUNK GOGGLED LONDON, NOT RIFFING OFF OF OTHER BETTER STORIES, IF YOU HAD MAYBE TWO BOOKS’ AND I’M BEING GENEROUS THERE WORTH OF ORIGINAL PLOT YOU COULD HAVE JUST WRITTEN ABOUT INSTEAD?
What the fuck, Genevieve?
Some good news, for a change
You might have heard, but America is space-capable again.
They also flawlessly retrieved the Falcon rocket engine stage. How cool is that?
Also: the Tunguska Event may have been caused by a meteor grazing the atmosphere and bouncing back off after triggering a shockwave.
The Secret Chapter – Genevieve Cogman
Maybe it’s two weeks of night watches, cold, lessened mental processing power, cold, drastically lowered expectations–I’ve been intentionally reading fluffy dreck all month–and it’s cold–but maybe Cogman is just finally getting a handle on how to write these books. With longish-running series where the first book showed raw talent but not much finesse, there’s usually visible and steady improvement. This is the case here, too. Book six does seem to be the turning point–so far (I’m about half-way through as of the bulk of this review) it’s “quite good”, and I would like to confidently predict that book eight will be excellent.
What do these improvements stem from? Cogman isn’t trying to write elaborate, complex plots of intrigue and subterfuge–so this one doesn’t revolve around a poorly-written mystery. She’s eased up on trying to portray clumsy or even non-existent subtext (Irene is a way more tolerable character when we’re not being told that she’s akshully much more intelligent and perceptive than she is). And, last but way far from least: the pacing is miles better than previously. All that stuff about having gunmen crash through the door (in this case, it’s ninjas from the ceiling) when you’re not sure what to do with your plot? In reality, that’s set-dressing–and here, it’s used appropriately. (There’s also a trap door and a shark tank). Even the characterization seems like it’s a little better, too. If you’re consciously and meta-textually using Archetypes in lieu of characterization, then not drawing attention to it every single time helps.
Also–as I’ve mentioned before–Cogman is very good at humor, and there’s often a deft seasoning where it is most helpful. Adding an example here would be nice to prove my point, but I’m too tired to.
Plot: Irene has to save the world by getting a book, go figure. The world in particular is the one she went to school at; the book is a variant of the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, an Ancient-Egyptian manuscript once considered the world’s first fiction work (it’s not fiction and neither is the extra chapter in this particular version). The guy who has it is a powerful Fae who wants as his payment, assistance in a small matter…stealing a painting. The Raft of the Medusa, to be precise–and yes, this is more or less thematically important. So a team is assembled (and they actually are distinguishable from each other and have fairly distinct personalities. Awesome): and with the assortment of muscle, thievery, and other such knavery, there’s also a captive dragon working for the bad guy.
Said captive dragon who happens to be Kai’s disinherited and exiled half-sister. Oh, and the painting? Is guarded by dragons.
The job, naturally, goes sideways so hard it might have well have had wings. And it’s still up to Irene to save the day…
I’m not even going to ask why the job goes bad with such utterly cliched and telegraphed expectation. I mean, it’s every bit as inevitable, in context, as “the assassin who wants to retire is being hunted by his organization” or, “the spy with amnesia is being chased by his organization.” But eh, whatever. Jobs do in fact go bad (grouses the intern who has gotten five hours of sleep per night for the past two weeks).
So: problems. Before, most of my problems lay in the fact that the books were too talky, poorly-characterized, too talky, poorly-paced, too talky, showed a poor grasp of subtext, too talky, had little in the way of subtlety, and not to mention PEOPLE TALKED TOO EFFING MUCH IN THEM.
Well, the action is still scant on the ground, perfuntory and quickly elided-over when it does appear. And while there is a rather nicely done duel sequence to close off the second act, the opportunity to match and surpass it with another at the climax is totally and utterly ignored. And that’s a shame, it was a cool scene and it’s all alone and lonely out there.
But: the characterization has improved. Slightly. That is to say, some of the new guys are fairly amusing and even sometimes even distinguishable from one another. The older characters (Sterrington, Vale) are still wooden as particularly dense planks, but if you skip those scenes, you aren’t missing anything.
Better still, the pacing has improved. Things actually happen, in tolerable order and close to each other.
Rated: In a contest between very good Bleach fanfic or moderately poor originals, I sometimes wish Cogman would go back to writing fanfic…
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