Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC: Dragon in Chains & The Drowning City 
11th-Mar-2009 11:35 am
ws: hamlet
Downum, Amanda [stillsostrange]. The Drowning City. New York: Orbit Books, in press.

Fox, Daniel [moshui]. Dragon in Chains. New York: Del Rey-Ballantine, 2009.



These are both books that were sent to me in hopes of getting a blurb, and they're both going to get one. What I wanted to say here--aside from recommending both of them--is a comment about how diverse the possibilities are in the genre of secondary world fantasy. Both of these books take place in imaginary worlds. Both reject default-fantasy-Caucasianism. Both are excellent. But they could not otherwise be more different.

The Drowning City takes place in an entirely imaginary city, Symir, which is a point of conflict between the Assari Empire (I suspect the echo of "Assyrian" is not accidental) and its reluctant rain-forest vassal state of Sivahra. The plot involves spies and necromancers and ghosts and demons and a volcano; it's fast-moving and a lot of fun (apparently, it's easier for me to read mysteries than other kinds of plots), and it's very well-written. In particular, the magic system, with its combination of the esoteric and the absolutely down-to-earth, fills me with utmost delight.

Dragon in Chains takes place mostly on the island of Taishu (which is Taiwan in a deliberately minimal disguise) and has dragons and emperors and all kinds of magic. It is written with intense and exquisite attention to language, so that I spent most of it breathless with admiration. It is very much about the effects of "great events" (in this case a rebellion which has hounded the emperor to Taishu) on ordinary people: the protagonists are a scribe's apprentice, a fisher-girl, and a jade miner, and people in authority are uniformly inscrutable and hostile, except for the emperor himself, who turns out to be a kind of inversion of the powerless ordinariness of Han, Mei Feng, and Yu Shan, for the very extent of his extraordinariness makes him personally very nearly as powerless as they are. And each of them, in the course of the novel, comes to have some kind of power of their own--although those powers are all different, all limited and contingent, and all as much grief as anything else. It is an elegiac book, and at the bottom of it all waits the dragon.

As I said, these are both excellent books, and aside from the fact that they happen in imaginary places, they could not be more different.

This is my genre. No wonder I love it.
Comments 
11th-Mar-2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on finishing unread fiction books.

I had very mixed feelings about _Dragon in Chains_, but _The Drowning City_ sounds like fun and is going on my list.
11th-Mar-2009 05:39 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It does feel like an accomplishment.

I share your reservations, but I'm willing to give Fox more rope. Dragon in Chains presents characters very simply--NOBODY in this book is complicated, including our protagonists. Han and Yu Shan in particular are simple to the point of cipherdom. All soldiers are rapists. All generals are mustache-twirling scumbags, when they aren't outright psychopaths. All courtiers are scheming back-stabbers. All commoners are decent. The only character who has any moral complexity at all is Tien's uncle, and he's so opaque that I can't tell how to assess him. I assume this is because Fox isn't trying for the byzantine psychological realism that I myself favor, but has some other goal in mind.
11th-Mar-2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
byzantine psychological realism

Snrk.

Thinking about the characters, it's funny; you're right, but I'd only noticed with regard to a limited set of the characters. Possibly I was distracted by the shiny prose, possibly I was putting it down to the multi-threaded nature of the story in many cases.

And like I said, this author is new to me, and so I just don't know how much rope I'm willing to give.
11th-Mar-2009 05:53 pm (UTC)
On the cultural appropriation question:
(a.) like you, I don't know enough to judge
(b.) I try to assume good will and good faith until I'm proved wrong.
11th-Mar-2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
(b.) I do too, but--I was going to say, "As you know Truepenny-Bob, I am a reader, and therefore authorial intent does not matter to me"--and then I realized that my feelings about authorial intent are in fact much too complicated to be contained in this comment. But it doesn't matter, because the question "is this work's relationship to Taiwan problematic" eventually comes down to just that, the work, and while the author's intent may be relevant to many other things, I don't think this is one of them.
11th-Mar-2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
Yes. And we're back to (a.)
11th-Mar-2009 06:21 pm (UTC)
I may have lured some people who actually know things about Taiwan into reading it, however, so I have hopes of making other people do my homework for me more information eventually.

(Also, lest people not click through above, I'll reiterate here that nothing blatantly problematic caught my eye WRT cultural appropriation.)
12th-Mar-2009 01:50 am (UTC)
I've been pretty tempted to buy this one bring it into work, and see if anybody wants to read it. (I am in Taiwan and everyone else in my group is a local except one Koran expat.) However, I don't know that any of my colleagues are readers in general or fantasy readers in particular; the one woman who I do know read a lot left for a different job last fall.
12th-Mar-2009 02:11 am (UTC)
At first I was really excited about something based after Taiwan. Cause I don't know of any other fantasy based off Taiwan. But now that I think about it, I'm slightly afraid of reading it. I'm a very liberal, pro-Taiwan democracy, anti-KMT, second generation American-Taiwanese, raised that way by my parents. I mean, I remember when I was living there in first grade, with my dad off in a protest that turned ugly, seeing it on the news and wondering if I'd see him on TV.

I don't want to be disappointed. It's one of those things that I'm a little too passionate about to read objectively. It could be a book that I'd normally enjoy, but because I'm reading it knowing that parts of it was based after Taiwan, I may end up scrutinizing it for political reasons. I don't want to do that and not give it a chance.

I'll probably read it eventually.
12th-Mar-2009 03:23 am (UTC)
I know that feeling. I wish I knew enough about Taiwanese history/politics to give you an informed opinion.
12th-Mar-2009 09:26 am (UTC)
I honestly don't think you need worry. The seeds of the book of course came from my time in Taiwan, and the extraordinary history of the last fifty years; but the process from seed to book is so long and so complicated, the end result bears no deliberate relationship to contemporary Taiwanese politics. It's a fantasy, with pirates and jade and a dragon; it certainly shouldn't be read as any kind of allegory.
12th-Mar-2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
See, I figured it'd probably be something like that. I'm more afraid that I'll try to read it as some sort of allegory when it shouldn't be read as one. Like I said, I'll read it eventually. Just when I'm in the right frame of mind to read it objectively like I would any other book that has elements drawn from different cultures.
15th-Mar-2009 09:19 am (UTC)
15th-Mar-2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks!
11th-Mar-2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Sounds like great fun! Ordered. (I am doing my patriotic duty to stimulate the economy!)
12th-Mar-2009 03:24 am (UTC)
And your economy, sir, appreciates it.
11th-Mar-2009 07:43 pm (UTC)
This is my genre. No wonder I love it.

*Yes.*

I'm finding it harder and harder to even know how to start discussing literature with people who can't value the genre. I don't mean, "They read LotR when they were twelve and decided fantasy was not for them," because there are all sorts of interesting conversations that can stem from that situation - and recommended book lists, as appropriate. But there are people who either have read a fair sampling and never caught the spirit, or who have never been able to read any of it and think it's because it sucks, and I...I used to be frustrated. Now I'm frustrated and baffled. I'm not baffled by them, I'm baffled because I simply don't know how to continue any conversation, and (as you've probably noticed) I'm not usually at a loss for words.

Oddly, I feel very similarly about people who can't see the literary merit and complexity and interest in children's and YA literature.

This is also linked to why I have just stopped engaging, in attempts to define the genre, especially in terms of contrasting one piece of it with another. None of them seem to value the range and texture available from accepting all of it, and seeing everything in contrast to everything else.
12th-Mar-2009 04:07 am (UTC)
Trying to define the genre(s) can be an amusing way to spend an hour (i.e., on a panel at a con), but it's not a conversation that's going to go anywhere. (We won't even start on why I think "genre" is the wrong word to begin with.) Because those sorts of conversations always want to come up with rules, and the first thing that happens to any rule you present to the sffh genre is that it gets broken. In my experience.
11th-Mar-2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
Unrelated idle curiosity: Do you know if all the ARCs to various bookstores have been sent out already for "Corambis?" Chewing my fingernails for every package we get is starting to wear out; I'm running low on nails. *g* I can settle in for the 7th if I know for sure we aren't getting one.
11th-Mar-2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
I have absolutely no idea. I didn't even know they sent ARCs to bookstores.
12th-Mar-2009 03:29 pm (UTC)
Oh, well, worth a shot. But we get all sorts, from every genre. The good catch this month was Jim Butcher's "Turncoat." I guess to prompt us into ordering the books if we liked them? That's the most sensible thing I can think of.
12th-Mar-2009 10:50 pm (UTC)
I'm actually halfway through Dragon in Chains

I like the flow of the books; not just the language but the way it flows from one story point setting to the next with no odd blockages to make you go 'Huh? Who's this? What's this? I didn't see this happening!'

Now, sometimes that gets a story revved up in a good way and makes things interesting, but I find this particular book to be oddly intense and relaxing because of that at the same time. however, I did notice the lack of character definition as well. Yet the way the author paints the scenes you can almost not mind :)
13th-Mar-2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
I suspect the echo of "Assyrian" is not accidental

Hah. My brain will never do on purpose what it can manage by accident. I actually named the country after one of the transliterations of Osiris's Egyptian name. But it does echo nicely.
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