The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Christmas Grump II

Posted on: December 24, 2007

Wretched holidays! I sighed, frowned, grumbled, then tossed my pouty demeanour aside long enough to reach for Mélusine by Sarah Monette. I first read about this book and Monette’s quartet almost a year ago. I recently happened upon her blog and a post of hers on Scalzi’s Whatever. Save me, Monette! I thought my cry would be heeded. Let me quote the first paragraph in Melusine‘s introduction.

This is the worst story I know about hocuses. And it’s true.

Four Great Septads ago, back in the reign of Claudius Cordelius, there was a hocus named Porphyria Levant. The hocuses back then had this thing they could do, called the binding-by-forms, the obligation d’âme. It happened between a hocus and an annemer, an ordinary person, and it was like an oath of loyalty, only a septad times more. The hocus promised to protect the annemer from everything, including kings and other hocuses and basically anybody else who had in interest. The annemeer promised to be the hocus’s servant and do what they said and no backchat, neither. And, they renounced their family and all their connections, so it was like the only thing in the world that mattered to them was the hocus. And then there was a spell to stick it in place and make sure,you know, that nobody tired to back out after it was too late.

It’s so hackneyed and transparent, isn’t it? It’s not horrible but that meagre feint at a dramatic opening line, the tired sentence structure (Blah blah Septads ago) and that narrative cue that set the book’s tone and form are begging to be mocked. That quoted passage alone would make this a book I’d never recommend to a SF/F newbie because it would recall every lazy assumption that person ever made about the genres. That’s topped off by one of the main characters’ name used as a section header. That split narrative done in that way is so ho hum. (Why couldn’t she do something like VanderMeer did in Shriek? Or Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year? Am I being pissy for no reason?)

So the dude’s name is Mildmay and he gets to “speak” very casually with a lot of contractions (“aints” and such) to show he’s your regular low class, smart alecky thief. Gee, where have I read that before? Next! Here’s a quote from Felix’s section (he’s the other star).

“Darling,” I murmured in Shannon’s ear, “your brother is scowling at me again.”

Shannon glanced over his shoulder. “Nonsense. Stephen always looks like that at soirées.”

“I made allowances for that. Trust me. He’s scowling.”

Shannon’s smile lit his entire face. “You are incorrigible.”

“I try,” I said, smiling back.

You would think that people from an entirely different world could get their own overused dialogue to hit me with.

What’s probably supposed to be wowing me is the OMG gay characters; gay characters into BDSM! Admittedly, this plot element made the book especially interesting when I first read of it. (Not a popular fantasy trope.) Emma Holly, AlanHollinghurst and Derek McCormack have each given major space to homosexual characters and their concerns in genres (romance and literary fiction) in which they don’t get much (mainstream) play unless there’s something about AIDS or coming out. I derived real pleasure from reading about that in the same way I relished the African and Native American influences in theSo Long Been Dreaming anthology.

Monette? First off I was too busy giggling at Felix who, in sincere anger, called someone else a “verminous weasel” to notice it much. She makes it a fairly non-descript issue, an approach with its own virtues. Unfortunately, Felix is at the centre of most of the gay sexual intrigue so far, and he’s an angtsy , violent, self-pitying, self-destructive character, practically from the moment he graces the page. He’s a Lord Wizard sleeping with a member of the royal family when a scandalous titbit about his red light district past is spread about in court. This development hits him so hard that in a little over 24 hours he argues with and hits his royal lover, rents a young prostitute before he changes his mind and in a fit of self-loathing returns to his former sadistic sexual master, Malkar, (another powerful wizard) who delights in psychological, verbal and physical abuse — he is cartoonishly attached to calling Felix all kinds of creative insults in reference to his past prostitution but only manages to come up with “sluttish”, “slut”, “whore” and “cheap whore” –, goes to court with Malkar afterwards and publicly insults a well-meaning friend (with a carefully aimed attack at a sensitive, ’till then unacknowledged issue), gets high again on a drug called phoenix — oh yes, did I mention that Felix used to be a drug addict too? Fell right back into it in his first aforementioned reunion with Malkar –, and then gets brutally raped by Malkar in a secret magic room shackled to the floor in the middle of a pentagram drawing during some evil magic spell. Oh, and Melkar turns into a dog (or something). All this before page 50.

What does it mean when one laughs at a rape scene? The whole thing was getting too ridiculous for me. At that point an Elvis impersonator could have joined in a three way and I would have only blinked twice. Heather Lewis is ten times better at the wrecked-characters-involved-in-brutal-sex thing. Sorry.

I do believe things could be looking up. There was an honest to goodness gripping action scene with Mildmay, a female client and a blood witch in a cemetery. Also, a Felix brutally sundered from his powers, now little but an empty shell of shock and hate is a far, far more intriguing, worthwhile character than Goth Felix. Maybe this was intentional?

The one bright spot in my reading life SHOULD be A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett except that someone “borrowed” it from study carrell at the library and has not seen fit to return it. That partly explains my Christmas grump this year. I’ve retrenched into classics and am pleased to note that The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg has started out with laughs, pious runaway wives and jolly, old Scottish lords. The backcover blurb and the dry, dry, dry as the desert academic introduction by Adrian Hunt did not even hint at the novel’s ridiculous side. I do like surprises.

And holidays. I do hope you’re all enjoying the season, whatever you celebrate. I’ll provide future grumpiness at a later date.


10 Responses to "The Christmas Grump II"

Sorry things aren’t going too well for you. 😦 I hope they look up soon!

I also greatly prefer single-author short story collections to anthologies for the same reason!

I recently read a Monette short story for the first time and quite enjoyed it. However, this one seems like a mess. My first reaction to that opening line was about the same as yours. Yeesh.

And happy holidays.

Sorry about the grumps. Hope it all turns around soon. But from your descpritions of the book and the quotes, it sounds grump worthy. That you are still reading it after all that is astonishing. Happy holidays!

Eva oh, well it’s not all bad really, only in my reading, which is more than many can say. I exaggerated my groom for comic effect, really, which probably did not work if you’re moved to use a sad face. 🙂 I’m sure I’ll sharpen my book selection skills soon.

John Mutford, ok, I’m glad someone agrees with me; my evaluation isn’t all due to unfair impatience. Lately, I’ve been having negative reactions to F/SF books that have been lauded to the heavens (or panned) online and it’s led me to wonder what I’m missing.

Stefanie, I know! I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s like that time I willingly took another beating from an Alan Garner book.

Hope all of your holiday readings are getting along much, much better than mine.

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