Dark Avenger’s Sidekick – John C Wright – Repost Review

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Dark Avenger’s Sidekick is the second trilogy in the Moth & Cobweb series by John C Wright, comprising Daughter of Danger, City of Corpses, and Tithe to Tartarus. It is YA novel that straddles the line between science fiction, urban fantasy, and high fantasy and does it effortlessly. It’s written by the one SF/F writer alive who can use prose on the level of Jack Vance and write worlds with the scope of Roger Zelazny. I liked it a lot less than the previous trilogy. I wanted to like this book a lot more than I liked it; caveat: I think part of my problem is that I don’t like Urban Fantasy that comes down too heavily on the Fantasy side.

In short? I was disappointed in the resolution of the plot, and did not feel that the heroine’s characterization worked properly for the genre and her narrative role in it.

Also, not enough respect for my boy Batman/Winged Vengeance.

Plot: an amnesiac woman wakes up in a hospital bedroom, convinced that it is a trap. She’s right. A trio of monsters invade and try to kill her; she fights her way clear and escapes. (The whole five-feet tall, 90 pounds soaking wet = ineffective combatant rule doesn’t apply to mooks, I guess). She’s wearing a hospital gown and a mysterious ring that changes its appearance and has various powers.She doesn’t know her own name.

Long story short, she is Yumiko Moth the Fox Maiden, apprentice of a night-stalking vigilante called Winged Vengeance (he’s basically Batman except hardcore, lol); she lost her memory during a raid and was either left behind by Winged Vengeance (boo), or escaped via the sacrifice of her fiancee, Tom. I forget which. In any case, Tom is being held prisoner by the bad guys and is going to be sent to Hell as teind for the court of the evil faery. Does this sound vaguely familiar yet?

Yumiko, despite her deep reservations about the kind of silly, post-modern, unrealistic story where *girls* rescue *boys* (hmph!), well, has to go rescue him. Part of this involves going undercover. In time-honored tradition for beautiful young female detectives, this involves being scantily clad. (Book 2) I did snicker at the wardrobe mistress assuring Yumiko, with sadistic cheerfulness, that their weight-watching regimen was no more arduous than that of a professional wrestling team.

Book 2 and a chunk of book 3 comprise Yumiko failing at her mission in various humiliating-to-hilarious ways, until she teams up with the hero of the previous trilogy, Gil Moth, is baptized as a Catholic, and stops trying to fight for her love and just to hold on to him. Literally. While being injured in various gross and horrifying ways that are described with sadistic relish.

I found this ending unsatisfactory.

I have three problems with this story overall.

Problem 1: Improper handling of female character archetype. See, authors have limited repertoire of characters. Their expertise is in how they change and modify their own stock of characters by giving them different skillsets, placing them in new settings, or using different, new plots to show them off in different ways.

This is why Roger Zelazny writes of tall, laconic, green-eyed men with many names; but they are differentiated into the tall, ballad-writing, many-named Corwin of Amber, the tall, laconic, many-named hero of My Name is Legion, and the tall, sarcastic Carlton Davits. All have different roles to play. His female characters are either sultry but straightforward or sultry and coy; they are memorable either way. Larry Correia writes big, burly men who are smarter than they look and like guns, handsome antagonistic men who are dumber than they look and like guns, and beautiful women who are not particularly sophisticated, who like guns *a lot*. Gordon R Dickson writes square-jawed space-age heroes who Know How Systems Work, who confidently set forward to make them Work For Me. The confident hero can either not be quite as smart as he thinks he is (Soldier Ask Not), not nearly as smart as he thinks he is (Pro), or dead right (Wolfling). His female characters tend to be: annoying. Well, you can’t do everything all at once. Especially if you’re a nerd. Writing for nerds.

Again: an expert author can have a limited repertoire, it’s fine–but he must know how to use what he’s got.

John C. Wright’s female character repertoire is singular: highly feminine, happy to be so, happy with life in general, cheerful, helpful. (Any similarities to Mrs. Wright, who, as per her blog seems like a lovely person, are purely speculative. But, yeah.) This type of heroine works quite well–as he himself noted in character, in the Golden Oecumeneif the genre is first-person romance (heh). Now, as his skills improve, he is able to vary this somewhat: highly feminine, cheerful, and secretly a femme fatale Trying To Lure Hero Into MORTAL SIN (Iron Chamber of Memory); or, highly feminine, not cheerful because her mission is not going well, and doesn’t particularly like her putative love interest (yet) (Somewhither). Both of these heroines do work and I rate both of those books highly.

Yumiko is an attempt to write a Short Female Badass (an archetype in its own right)…who is also highly feminine, giggly, and revels in male attention. She starts out as the Fox Maiden, the Dark Avenger’s sidekick, someone whose deeds of vengeance strike fear and nausea into the hearts of her victims. Or so we’re told. Yumiko herself has amnesia and, over the course of the story, mostly proves herself to be the kind of girl who, as a presumable adult, still has relations with a large stuffed teddy bear. (not kidding). The dichotomy doesn’t work. Now, while I think there is a way it *could* have worked, (see the Tam Lin section below), as it is, it doesn’t.

Problem 2. Subversion of narrative structure.
Bear with me.
The central tenet of fiction is that heroes win after they lose. Especially after losing in a particular way, with additional humiliation, by showing more prowess, intelligence, technique. Those who completely abandon their initial techniques and try to win without fighting are those who are certain of possession of the moral high ground (Return of the Jedi) (or physical high ground, Revenge of the Sith), and the conflict ceases to be about the fight so much as about the moral and psychological dimensions of it.

The hero’s learning curve has to continue logically forward from whatever has already been shown before. Otherwise, why show it? So if hero lost before by: applying brute force instead of strategy–win by applying superior strategy. If loss was by expecting fair play–win with overwhelming force.

Yumiko doesn’t change her initial technique by Being More Clever. The heroes are outwitted at every single step of the way by What’s-his-name Moth anyhow. She doesn’t change her initial technique by Working On A Team and Trusting Her Allies, either. No: what she *does* change is her violent pagan heart for a new, sinless, Christian (Catholic) one, and then also doesn’t fight. (Not Kidding) Protestants (and atheists) read these damn books too, you know.

This is, I believe, a narrative-level mistake. Changing from a physical battle to a physical struggle that isn’t a battle, without allowing hero to negate their previous failures is highly unsatisfying. Not allowing the hero to make up for previous humiliations caused by being dumb is unsatisfying. If Yumiko had won without fighting by outsmarting the Moths and the forces of Hell, that would have been satisfying. If Yumiko had managed to learn a new fighting technique and suddenly was able to overpower the enemy physically, that would have been satisfying. Instead, Yumiko wins by being passive. (Is it because girls should be passively courageous and not try to fight and (hmph!) rescue boys? I have my suspicions.)

Problem 3:
The climax of the story is a nearly point for point retelling of Tam Lin. For your amusement and/or edification, please follow the link, which is a brief and highly editorialized retelling. In short, though: heroine’s lover is on his way to hell; heroine must identify lover accurately; heroine must physically grab hold of lover; heroine must hold on to lover through various shapeshifts, boom, lover has been saved from hell.

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(Image via wylielise.deviantart.com. Have I mentioned recently that WORDPRESS SUCKS AND THEIR EDITORS ARE NOW FAR LESS USEFUL THAN BEFORE? BECAUSE WORDPRESS SUCKS.)

Ahem. So, anyway: despite being someone so absolutely gifted at reimagining old tales, putting new twists into them, making utterly absurd and illogical things happen in charming and funny ways…Wright nonetheless plays this absolutely, completely, straight. And misses by a mile.

Part of the reason Tam Lin works is that there’s an extra archetypal quality to it, something my liftime as a Pratchett reader insists on calling “myffic.” Janet is pregnant; she needs Tam Lin to live not only for her own sake, but for her child’s. Tam Lin wants to escape Hell, and also to escape the Faerie, to be a father to his child in the world of men. The subtextual meaning of this story is that people who take responsibility for themselves at each step of the way, can, will, and should make great efforts to better their lives and the lives of their children.

This paratext is absent from Wright’s story. And I think that actually putting it back in–making Yumiko knowingly or unknowingly pregnant during her story–would have actually worked at some level. At the very least, it gives Yumiko an out for not being All That, physically. Thus it’d be OK that she can’t defeat the enemy in a hand-to-hand battle; thus, it would add a ticking clock element to her days as a corseted undercover dancing girl.

A second myffic point in Tam Lin is that Tam doesn’t injure Janet even though the enemy turns him into different, scary animals to try and make her let go: things may be weird, appearances may be scary, but he is the same person underneath, worthy to be her husband and the father of her child. He may not be able to control his outside circumstances (shape), but he can control himself and not harm the mother of his child. Here, Yumiko is *horribly* injured as Tom is turned into a variety of porcupines, sword fish, ray fish, sawfish, venomous porcupines, and other nasty things with spikes on them. What’s more, this section goes on for a long time.

Misery porn + the climax of your novel? DO NOT MIX.

(Then she gets healed by drinking the blood of her vampire priest cousin. Not kidding. What??)

Could Yumiko have used her Tom-provided technology nonlethally as it was “intended” to be used, to grapple and hold him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have provided the bigwigs of Faerie proof of What’s-his-Name’s treachery and misdeeds, and persuaded them to switch out Tom for him? Sure. Does she? No. Could Yumiko have engaged in one-on-one battle for Tom? Sure (she has a magic ring that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic bow that is kryptonite to the faery, a magic sword that is…yes. If that’s not enough to make it a fair fight, then Tom should have made her some ray guns, too.) Does she? No.

Does this book have any pros? Yes, like all JCW books, it is superbly worded, the worldbuilding is excellent, the descriptions, gadgets, and settings are vivid. There are many good points about this story; I’m just out of time to write about them and it was more fun to complain.

Rated: 2/5 magic swords that are never drawn, magic bows that are never strung, and magic arrows that are never fired.

Green Knight’s Squire – John C Wright – Repost Review

swan-knight-son-640x1024The Green Knight’s Squire is a YA Urban-slash-High-slash-Christian Fantasy trilogy by John C. Wright. The three books are: Swan Knight’s Son, Feast of the Elfs, and Swan Knight’s Sword. The trilogy is the first part of a 12-book series, Moth & Cobweb, of which 6 books have been published. (Review of Dark Avenger’s Sidekick to follow)

Short review: It’s quite good. Extremely Catholic, somewhat long-winded, but quite good. I strongly believe JCW’s writing career would do way better if he met an editor who could a) freaking make him stop monologuing, b) seriously, tone down the Catholic-ness, c) stop it with the sadomasochism and gross torture descriptions. Fortunately, (c) is not a problem in this book.

Nevertheless, and this is important, when Mr. Wright gets in gear and writes, he writes well, and I don’t think there is a single author today who uses language as well as he does. Some of work is downright Vancian: mood, setting, and descriptions are clear, vivid, picturesque, and sometimes, brilliant. Also, there’s a lot of pure homage to G. K. Chesterton, which is worth a star unto itself…but we’ll get into that in a minute.

Plot: Swan Knight’s Son is about a modern-day boy’s journey to becoming a knight. The fact that his mother is Ygraine of the Riddles, a Swan May, his dog talks and is an elf spy, he can understand the speech of animals and birds, and that there is a magic door in their house that follows them across country and opens to a moonlit room with his father’s armor, makes this a little easier for him than it would be for a strictly normal modern-day boy. On the other hand, he does end up in jail…

feast_960Feast of the Elfs
follows Gil as he is recruited into The Last Crusade by the man in the dark room from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, swears allegiance to King Arthur, attends the titular Feast, meets The Green Knight–yes, the same one as in the Arthurian saga, what a coincidence–and finagles actual weapons training out of the elf king’s champion. This being part two of a trilogy, it ends on a down note as Gil loses his father’s sword–one of the Thirteen Treasures of Lyonesse–and has to be rescued by his mermaid girlfriend.

In Swan Knight’s Sword, Gil (spoiler!) gets his father’s sword back, returns to the court of the elves, declares himself openly as the Swan Knight’s son, restores his mother’s honor, gains the respect of knights and kings, everything goes just fine and all wrongs are righted and his mom meets his girlfriend and is okay with it (whew!)…ready to live happily ever after and have more adventures when the time comes.

Pros:
– Wright’s command of language is, of course, worth full marks. I’ve already mentioned the associated downside of this, that he lets his tendency to floridness get away with him, but the upside is lavish descriptions, witty dialogue, and outlandish but utterly logical scenarios that range from the ludicrously sensible to eye-rollingly brilliant.
– Building off that thought, one real strength of these books and Wright’s stuff in particular is his ability to mix and match elements of other works, literature, classic movies, classical mythology, chivalric romances, etc…and make them work. For instance: Batman (well, actually, The Shadow) plus Norse Mythology? But of course: it’s a homage to the disguises of Odin, who walked anonymously abroad in a broad hat and muffling cloak, clouding the minds of men that they did not see what was before their very eyes. Part two of the Moth & Cobweb series does this even better by introducing Tomorrow “Tom Swift” Moth, the gadget and science hero. (Sidenote: Tom Swift was one of the very young Rider’s first SF heroes. I was incredibly chuffed to find someone else had read and remembered those books.)
– Besides being able to make literary themes match together and work, Wright is also able to pull off what would otherwise be the most ridiculous juxtapositions ever. In book 1, Gil wants to train as a knight, but can only find a bear…a talking bear, naturally…who can teach him to fight. The training regimen? Daily practice in bear crawls [WHICH ARE A REAL EXERCISE, LOL], bear hugs, roaring, and playing dead….all of which Gil later uses when fighting. Bravo. I loved it.
– ….and some of the dialogue is brief, snappy, and genuinely witty. SOME of it.
– Ruff–Sgeolan son of Iolan–spy of the elfs, is one of the best dogs and worst spies ever. In fact, all of the talking animals were well-done, including the spider who gets ticked at Gil for letting her dinner out of the web.
– “We thought this was a Kwanzaa tree!” Politically-correct fairies are the best fairies.

Cons: Everybody talks too much, talks like a professor of English Literature who has been mainlining Arthurian literature and is extremely anxious to tell you all about it. And if you aren’t Catholic, well, prepare to let your eyes glaze over at points.

I’m not really exaggerating on the first point. In Feast of the Elfs, it takes all of nine pages before a swansword_960-500x800-1character starts talking at very extended length (he starts on page eight. By page nine I decided it was probably a monologue. By page fourteen there was no doubt and I skipped to the end. On page eighteen.)

And as far as the second…well, what else can you call the scene where Gil, rightfully skeptical about a “law enforcement” job that requires no skills, ID, training, or prior experience, asks what it is. The Man in the Dark Room (AKA, Mr. Sunday from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday…AKA, God) replies: “Martyrdom.” ….Yeah. It’s not the random, minor jabs against Protestantism (poking fun at other denominations in good faith and humor is totally understandable); it’s the smug attitude and on-the-nose preachiness that I find wearisome.

All in all: I liked it, I read all three books in a single afternoon, and I do really recommend it.

Rated: Nine and a half flaming swords out of thirteen

Monster Hunter Files – partial review

“Thistle” by Larry Correia – 3/5. Owen and company rescue a little girl from monsters. The little girl has a rather different opinion…
This gets a low score because a) I dislike Owen as a narrator, and b) it, as unbelievably as this sounds, it stretches disbelief too much. Edward the tracker-orc can smell a little girl’s doll, but not that she’s a thistle-monster herself?

Correia is at his weakest when he’s writing Owen–there’s just too much smugness in his voice. He might deny that Owen is a self-insert, but it’s a weak and unconvincing denial given how OP and insufferable Owen is. Still, even the worst of the Correia’s popcorn stories is readable, even if it does make you absolutely swear off popcorn until the next book comes out.

“Small Problems” by Jim Butcher – 5/5. MHI meets NIMH.

In order for fanfic story to be good, it must match the original author’s tone. To be outstanding, it should also put an new (but fitting) perspective into play, adding shading and original colors to the picture while still staying inside the lines. Most fanfic authors are amateurs. JB is a pro. This is a really good story that is well written, matches the tone of the original, portrays known characters without disfigurement, and adds a cool new element to the world to boot.

NIMH rats will forever fight in Roman shieldwalls in my imagination. It’s excellent.

“Darkness Under The Mountain” by Mike Kupari – DNF. This story started off with more than five Kindle pages of driving in a jeep down an Afghanistan road, talking about zombies, and that’s where I left it. Kupari is just not a particularly good writer. Also, I despise zombies.

“A Knight Of The Enchanted Forest” by Jessica Day George – 5/5. Building a better mousetrap is a worthwhile career skill. This story didn’t have much action at all, as it stars a teenage girl and is set in the Enchanted Forest trailer park, but it is well-done and quite funny.

“The Manticore Sanction” by John C. Wright – 4/5. A James Bond-type spy is ordered to kill his nonhuman lover. Also featuring The Mummy, Grendel, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and the underwater oxygen-burning gadget from Gojira. Wright is perhaps the best writer in this book; however, he has a couple of characteristic tropes that tend to negate this.

1) His characters will stop, mid-action, and moralize to each other. Generally, this is in-character, because he writes self-important, pompous twerps…but…I like action and don’t like to have it interrupted, especially by more freaking dialogue. It’s frustrating and annoying.

2) His action scenes are frustrating and annoying (and that’s after you wade through acres of quasi-Shakespearian dialogue to get to them), because he undercuts his protagonists at every turn. Sure, it’s thematic in this story (To make Ardath Bey look better), but this is a pattern I’ve noticed ever since Orphans of Chaos. (Trying to escape? Your powers get shut off and you get spanked.) Last Guardian of Everness: use the magic weapon you are destined to wield to defeat the villain? It breaks your arms and then he walks over you. Somewhither: Heroes charging a line of cowering spearmen? Heroes get stabbed from a distance with pointy sticks. It makes sense in Somewhither….not so much the others.

3) Would James Bond really be that dumb? He did get married once and he’s had enough experience with women to know that some of them can be really psycho bitches if you get them mad…

On the pro side: this is story written by a master of lyrical prose who knows well how to invoke a sense of wonder, seamlessly blends classic monsters and modern fantasy, and features a damsel who has more on her mind than being distressed.

“The Bride” by Brad R. Torgersen – 2/5. Dippel actually also created a female body, and Ben Franklin also cuts a deal with her. Also von Steuben is in on it. Eh, meh.

“She Bitch, Killer of Kits” (a Skinwalker Crossover Tale) by Faith Hunter – 2/5. This a crossover story starring Jane Yellowrock, a part-Native American panther-type shapeshifter biker babe bounty hunter with waist-length black hair who is tough and strong and has relationship troubles, and uses TWO machetes, how cool is that? Did we mention her hair is waist-length and shiny? The story does, twice.

She gets two stars for managing to rescue the kids before the werewolves eat them. People mock the Dresden Files–but those women at least have personalities and their personalities are different from each other.

“Mr. Natural” by Jody Lynn Nye – 3/5. A STFU team rescues hippies from a nature god who has taken over their commune. This story wasn’t nearly as funny as it could have or wanted to be.

“The Troll Factory” by Alex Shvartsman – 2/5. A computer geek hunter ends up in the Russian IT farm known as the troll factory…guess why. This onetries to do too much with too many concepts and ends up underusing each one of them. Trolls/spiders/demons: if your page time is limited, pick one and stick to it. I mean, internet trolls who are literal trolls is a hilarious concept and you could have even made something out of the new competition from the insidious Russian Bots threat…

“Keep Kaiju Weird” by Kim May – 3/5. A Japanese schoolgirl runs into some strange events…fortunately, she’s not an ordinary girl, and she knows some extraordinary people.
This story was almost really good. However, I have questions, like:
– Why does kitsune girl have Franks on speed-dial?
– I know people don’t like Grant, but even so, why did he lose so many IQ points?
– How come just Franks and Grant are responding with no team to back them up?
– How come Franks was on a mission with no team and yet is able to call in an airstrike within seconds?
– If kitsune girl had a special katana the whole time, why not just go ahead and take care of it herself?
– If the artist who drew the monsters was already so well-known, how come MCB hadn’t already shut him down with extreme prejudice?
– Am I going to finish the rest of this book?

The really annoying thing about the Monster Hunter International series is that, when you’re forced to read it, you’re forced to admit it’s pretty good.

Rated: Ain’t nobody forcing me.

ALERT ALERT ALERT

51xnzpjxohlNowither, the second volume in John C. Wright’s The Unwithering Realm is available at Amazon. Callooh, Callay!

The story of Ilya Muromets, who, PREVIOUSLY, had: discovered that his father was a secret Vatican ninja cleric-assassin, that his mother was High Queen of a distant dimension, possibly imprisoned by enemies, that he was actually adopted and is of a race of unkillable immortals, that Earth is being invaded by homicidal, genocidal conquerors from the dimension where the Tower of Babel never fell and the stars determine the fates of men; and that the girl he likes is actually an agent of the forces of good and maybe sorta kinda likes him back–continues.

If you have read any of Wright’s work, you may have noticed that he has certain…pet topics and themes. In Somewhither, whether by editorial assistance or the fact that he’s getting to be a better writer as time goes on, he keeps them under control. (Largely.) Somewhither is, as a consequence, really good. I consider it one of his best works, I am SUPER HYPED to read the sequel. (Somewhither won a Dragon Award, by the way: it was one of the few books that actually deserved the recognition.)

So, you should, buy it, read it, enjoy it. Support a good guy, pet a puppy, salute a dragon.