God’s War by Kameron Hurley

First off, can I just say how badass this cover is?

It’s pretty badass.

Equally as awesome is the opening line:

“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.”

I was really looking forward to this book after reading an interview the author gave and reading a really positive review soon afterward, so my expectations were pretty high. And most of them were met.

The world inside this book is the most impressive thing about it. It’s well thought out, it makes logical sense, and it mixes a lot of disparate elements into a cohesive whole. In a time three thousand years into the future where humans have colonized a barely habitable planet named Umayma, two nations, Nasheen and Chenja, are at constant war with each other. Both practice a religion descended from today’s Islam and each understands submission to God very differently, and they have been engaged in a viciously bloody war for centuries, using both small and humongous bugs in a way that is both tech and magic. Some people have described this book as “bugpunk” and it is actually a really good description. If you dislike bugs even a little bit, you should not read this book, because they are everywhere, and they might kill you. The bakkies, the motor-like vehicles that run on organic bug matter, were really cool.

The social/political/religious situation was where it was really at. In some ways, Nasheen is really similar to the nation of Darre in N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The country has established a matriarchy with a ruling queen. All men are ordered to serve in the military to fight for their nation, and those who refuse or desert are hunted down and their heads are cut off by the bel dames, the country’s female, FBI-like assassins. Their work also consists of protecting the country against biological warfare in the form of gene pirates, who use various strand of DNA to create biological weapons of war. In Nasheen, it is the women who have all the political and social power, for better or for worse, and they never let the men forget it.

In the beginning of the story, Nyx is one such bel dame, but commits a crime so reprehensible to the bel dames that she is kicked out of their ranks. After she establishes her own bounty hunter agency, the queen sends her on a mission to find a person she says may be the key to ending the war. Nyx isn’t a likeable character, per se (probably the only potentially likeable character is Rhys), but what with the way she thinks, what she does, and how she gets through life considering the things she’s seen and done, you can’t help but pay attention to her. Because this takes place in a war and because most men barely make it to old age, it is the women, and not the men, who are strong, tough, and battle-scarred, because they’re the ones who are in charge of the fighting and running the country. They’re the ones with the drinking and drug problems, they’re the ones who are capable of killing and torturing enemies in a number of creative, unpleasant ways. And Nyx embodies all that – she used to be a bel dame. But as the book goes on, even she can’t deny that the war, the killing and violence is too much.

This book is definitely gritty and, strangely enough, it really works for me. Normally I dislike books advertised as gritty because too much of the time, people will use that as a code word for “lots of gratuitous violence, really crazy sex, and a plot and characters who I really couldn’t give a shit about”. And while the characters aren’t warm and fuzzy characters, they still feel like real people, all of whom are trying to stay alive in this hellhole of a world. Similarly, while there’s a ton of violence, a lot of it being very descriptive, none of it is unnecessary or overdone. And characters suffer from the violence. People have their limbs chopped off, they run away after having been shot and slashed multiple times, and they do it because there is no alternative. You either live or you die.

Like I said earlier, Rhys is the closest character there is that one might feel empathetic towards. He is pretty much the antithesis of Nyx – he’s a Chenjan runaway who’s tolerated in Nasheen for his mediocre skills as a magician (one who can manipulate bugs) but is hated because of his dark skin, which proclaims his nationality loud and clear to anyone who sees him. Furthermore, he’s a gentle person who hates violence and he’s deeply religious, as opposed to Nyx, who thinks it’s bullshit and knows and accepts that violence is how you get things done in this world. He’s the perfect foil to Nyx, and their growing relationship throughout the book made for great reading.

If I were to have any negatives, it would be that the author drops you into the story without any warning, and as such, you’re frantically trying to keep up with what’s going on and putting together what the surrounding situation is for the first couple of chapters, so it’s hard to get a good grasp on the story for a while. Also, the writing wasn’t always the easiest for me to read, there were times it didn’t flow that well. In addition, even though this wasn’t a book where you were supposed to fall in love with the characters, I still wanted to be able to do so. However, I recognize that as a personal bias and not a fault of the book itself.

Aside from those small issues, this book is terrific. It’s so cohesive, it packs everything together  – plot, characters, world-building and all that it entails, back-story, cool bugs – in such a way that it all fits like a completed Rubik’s Cube. Furthermore, it’s an extremely intelligent book – the author was very deliberate in how she constructed the multiple societies living in Umayma, the gender relations, and the atmosphere and life of violence, and it really makes you think about how groups of people establish their various institutions and hegemonies. I haven’t seen very many people talking about it on the internet, which makes me sad, and I really hope it wins some kind of award, because it deserves it.

I’m on a really good streak, reading books that simultaneously make me think and give me hours of pleasure and entertainment. I love it when that happens.

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 8:47 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Happy Post About Asexuality

Tonight I had a wonderful conversation with a friend/dormie who is also asexual and we realized that we had an unnaturally large number of people who were asexual (including those who might be, but we weren’t sure) currently living in our dorm. It’s still a small number, but if we apply the 1% rule (the rough approximation of how many asexual people are in the U.S., including those who are ace but don’t know it) to our dorm – we are WAY above 1%.

This makes me so incredibly happy. When I first learned about asexuality, I never imagined myself actually being in a situation where I was living or interacting with people who are ace in real life. And more than one person! My friend and I first realized we were both ace when the two of us went to a Paideia class on the topic. I knew pretty much all that the student presenter covered, but I kind of wanted to scope out the event and see if anyone else was ace as well, which kind of failed because a lot of people attended who I knew weren’t, so I couldn’t really assume anything. But at the end, I went up to thank the student who held it for organizing the class and being so awesome just as my friend went to do the same exact thing. We haven’t really talked much about asexuality with each other since then, but tonight we found ourselves doing exactly that.

So for a couple of hours we talked about a number of things – trashy fantasy novels, my Artaud group theatre presentation (it’s gonna be awesome), slash fic, and lots of ace stuff about relationships, understanding romance vs. sexual attraction, first realizations of the fact that you might just be asexual and, of course, Dr. Who. And cake. All of the cake. And it felt wonderful to talk and interact with someone who’s asexual, who sees and understands the world of relationships similar to you, who knows and makes the inside ace jokes, and who thinks dressing up as having a cake fetish for Fetish Ball next year is a fantastic idea. We both know we’re ace! And we both know that the other exists and is ace!

I know I am very lucky – many people who are ace mostly interact with other aces via the internet and don’t know anyone else in their area who is ace. And despite the fact that my college as a whole is a pretty queer-friendly place, I would say that most students don’t really get asexuality, or even knows that it exists. Last month, as I was waiting for the start of Tim Wise’s guest talk about whether we’re living in a post-racial America (answer: no), I heard the girl next to me complaining to her friend about how bad dating was at our school, and how a guy had asked her out, and that during the date, it turned out that he was “this asexual math person, and I was so frustrated!” I’m paraphrasing, but this is the first instance I’d actually heard, in real life, someone bandying about the word without showing any understanding or comprehension of what that word actually means.

It’s incredibly easy if you’re ace to feel as though you’re the only ace person that exists, even with the knowledge that there’s an active internet community. And because most asexual people are rendered invisible so much of the time, it’s even harder to make yourself heard and be taken seriously, particularly if you can’t point to specific people besides yourself who identify as ace. Because I’m not interested in being in a relationship at this time, it’s easy for me to fall under the radar and not make too much of an effort to be seen and recognized as ace. Although it doesn’t feel like I’m actively hiding my identity, in some ways that is exactly what I am doing by deliberately not telling people or drawing a connection between myself and asexuality in conversations. Sometimes I want to climb on top of a hill and scream out my orientation to the world (or at least my college), but I never know how to go about doing that in such a way that people will take me seriously, listen to me, and believe me.

Talking with my friend made me feel so much better about all that. I could talk about asexuality with someone in a situation where I wasn’t being the teacher attempting to educate another person. I was an ace talking to another ace about ace stuff. I was being myself in a way that I have very rarely ever gotten to be.

Eventually, I’ll figure out how to tell other people that I’m ace and own up to my sexuality as being a significant part of my identity in a public discourse. But knowing other ace people and being able to see and talk to them every day is nothing to scoff at. Like I said, I am an incredibly lucky individual, and I have a lot to be thankful for. I have friends who are ace and who know I’m ace, and I also have friends who are sexual and know I’m ace, and they believe and support me. I could be so much more alone than I am right now, but that is not the case. Right now, at this one moment, I am unbelievably happy and proud to identify as asexual.

Published in: on April 27, 2011 at 12:49 AM  Comments (2)  

Nebula Short Story Nominees – Some Thoughts

I’m not a huge short story reader. Up until last month, I rarely read them, and the majority of the ones I did read were assigned for English class in high school. I generally found them too short to be satisfying because I wanted more of the story, more of the setting and the characters, and I couldn’t get those because of the length restriction. I also have a horrible time reading short story collections and anthologies because I’m the type of person that has to read one book at a time, and I can’t read more than a couple stories at a time without getting really frustrated, so it usually takes me forever to finish an entire collection.

However, sometime in the middle of February, I started reading online sff webzines, such as Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Lightspeed, and Apex. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of what I read, and for some reason the mental block that hinders me when I read short stories in print doesn’t apply as much to what I read online, probably because I don’t have to read them all at once, I can read one story per day and not feel obligated to read all the rest.

Anyway, when the 2010 Nebula nominees were announced and I saw that a lot of the short fiction nominees were online, I decided I should read them in order to better judge for myself which stories should win for their respective categories and to later compare my thoughts with the final outcome. I don’t necessarily believe that literature awards are the be-all, end-all when it comes to determining whether something is the “best”, but I like seeing the process and results of other people trying to figure out exactly that, and the awards are a good way of highlighting what sorts of stories people are writing, whether you like them or not.

For short(er) fiction, the Nebulas give awards for the best novella, novelette, and short story. I’m still working my way through the novellas and novelettes, but as of a week or so ago, I finished reading all of the nominated short stories, so I thought I’d post my thoughts. All except two are available online.

“How Interesting: A Tiny Man” by Harlan Ellison: This was a solid story about a man who one day creates a miniature male human whom he cares for until people start denouncing the existence of the tiny man, screaming that it’s obscene, and so the creator and tiny man go on the run to avoid the tiny man being killed. It’s a simple story, but it’s told really well, and the writing is very clear and concise. However, compared to some of the others, it’s not my favorite.

Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro: When I first finished reading this, I went and wrote, “OMG I WANT THIS TO WIN THE NEBULA SO BADLY.” My feelings have since changed somewhat, but that in no way diminishes the awesomeness of this story. In a world where being born is the equivalent of becoming dead and only fetuses living inside “dead” humans called arvies are considered alive, a famous fetus named Jennifer Axioma-Singh does the unthinkable when she announces her intention to experience pregnancy and give birth to a baby (through her arvie). It is basically a huge analogy to the U.S. pro-life movement, but it is completely accurate and dead-on its depiction of their logic behind whether someone is considered alive or dead, or even deserving of rights to agency and choice. Very relevant and very thought-provoking. It is a little light on the “story” part of the story, but I like it way too much to care.

I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno” by Vylar Kaftan: This is a short, sweet love story that goes awry due to the side effects of traveling at the speed of light. It’s really adorable, and has a ton of science references thrown in, but in a cool way that makes sense.

Ghosts of New York” by Jennifer Pelland: A really good horror story about a woman in the World Trade Center on 9/11 who jumped out the window to her death when the plane crashed into the building and is condemned to live as a ghost and jump out of that window, experiencing every detail of her death over, and over, and over for eternity. It’s so well-written and it is creepy as fuck.

Ponies” by Kij Johnson: Also creepy as fuck. It has a very “Mean Girls” vibe, in that it’s all about girls fitting in and becoming a TopGirl by cutting off parts of their ponies’ anatomy, and the ponies are made of sugar, cotton candy, and everything nice. Kij Johnson is really good at writing these types of stories. Everyone: read “Spar“. It is the best tentacle porn you will ever read (I call the story this in the most complimentary way possible).

The Green Book“: by Amal El-Mohtar: This story was beautiful. The writing was so lush I wanted to wrap myself up in it, the structure was innovative and worked well, and it was just all-around excellent. In this book, a man finds a creepy, old book and starts communicating with the soul of a dead woman that the book absorbed centuries ago. I cannot sing this story’s and the author’s praises loud enough, but oh my god, I loved the story so much and I now want to read everything the author has written and will ever write.

“Conditional Love” by Felicity Shoulders: This was probably my least favorite story. It’s about a doctor living in a future where parents can order create gene-manipulated children with special abilities, but sometimes the process is a failure and then they’re stuffed into a hospital. One of her patients is a little boy who imprints on everyone he meets, but immediately forgets they exist every time they leave. It’s written well, and there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but compared to the rest of the stories, it couldn’t measure up.

So if I were in charge of the awards, I’d give “The Green Book” the Nebula and have “Arvies” and “Ghosts of New York” tie for second place. All in all though, the majority of the stories were really strong and I’m really enjoying reading all this short fiction. Yay for new time-sinks!

Published in: on April 20, 2011 at 10:57 PM  Leave a Comment  

More on Who Fears Death

I originally started talking about this in my review/rambling about Who Fears Death, but  the result was far longer than I intended it to be, so here it is, published separately.

Among the many difficult subjects the book deals with, one of the most difficult is that of clitoridectomy, otherwise known as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Circumcision. In the book, many villages, including Jwahir, the village Onyesonwu grows up in, still perform the procedure when girls turn eleven in a ceremony called the Eleventh Rite. Although the rite is optional, the villagers believe that those who choose not to take part will bring bad luck to their families. When Onyesonwu turns eleven, she decides to undergo the Eleventh Rite as well, even though her mother, who grew up in a different village, never had one and thinks the custom is barbaric.

I had a lot of trouble parsing out my feelings on the matter. A lot of it is because I can’t support that practice for any reason. It is a cruel, painful, and vindictive practice that has its basis in fear of female sexuality and so seeks to remove the danger by cutting off the very part that makes sex so enjoyable for females.  This is emphasized even more in the book when Onyesonwu learns that Aro, the town sorcerer, spelled the scalpel used in the Eleventh Rite to make any female who underwent the rite to experience excruciating pain if she gets too aroused. This is a preventative measure to keep women from sleeping with anyone until they are married, when the juju is then removed.

And yet… I was caught. I abhor the practice and I was raging on Onyesonwu’s behalf as she underwent the rite, but at the same time, I identified with her and understood why she did it in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago in my anthropology class on Sex and Gender, we were reading passages from Politics and Piety by Saba Mahmood, and one of the things she discusses in great detail is the concept of agency and how it isn’t necessarily the Western conception of agency, which is that of possessing rights as an individual and using them to break free of oppression. Agency can also be an individual’s choice to take action by fitting in and conforming to societal standards, recognizing that they understand the responses and repercussions that occur when they go against societal norms, but that because they know how the society works, they can still perform agentive acts, just not the ones that the Western world is used to calling as such. Mahmood was using this concept of agency to discuss women’s decisions to wear the hijab and follow Muslim standards of feminine piety, not FGM, and yet, I cannot help but apply the same argument here when it comes to Onyesonwu.

Onyesonwu wasn’t obligated to undergo the Eleventh Rite; her mother didn’t want her to do so, and she was furious when she discovered what her daughter had done. Still, Onyesonwu had been living in Jwahir for five years and had grown up with their cultural and religious customs. She was already an outcast for being an Ewu and didn’t want to give the villagers any more reason to dislike her and think she’s unnatural.  Although it’s hard to swallow, the reasons she had – the desire to fit in and gain further protection – are what everyone wants as they’re growing up, and if one is already an outcast, one would probably be more likely to take part in something in the hopes of being made at least a little more normal.

Throughout the entire process, it was always Onyesonwu’s decision. She had to navigate Jwahir’s expectations, her mother’s, and her own, and so she made the decision she did. She later regretted it and (thankfully) was able to fix the results later on, but even so, it was her decision, and hers alone.

This is a really hard topic to figure out, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for a while. Over the past couple years, I’ve become really interested in the ideas and concepts behind choice and agency, why we do what we do based on the culture or society we grew up in, our childhood, all of our experiences, and the given situations that make us who we are and help us decide our paths. What acts are we responsible for and what is the result of our upbringing and the world we grew up in, and are we just as responsible for the acts we commit and decisions we make that are influenced by those factors?

Complicated stuff.

So yeah. There are no clear answers, but there is definitely a lot of food for thought. And I could be completely wrong about everything I just said, but it’s still worth thinking about and discussing.

Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 6:43 PM  Leave a Comment  

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is brutal. I knew it was going to be emotionally intense (what else can a book be when it deals with rape as a tactic of war, FGM, child soldiers, and ethnic cleansing, among other topics?), but I definitely did not expect the book to kick me in the stomach the number of times it did.

This is the story of Onyesonwu, a woman of mixed race, born as the result of a light-skinned Nuru man raping her dark, Okeke mother to make her pregnant so she would give birth to an Ewu, a child made from violence who will grow live a violent life. People who are Ewu are the color of sand, and are feared and hated by most Okeke people because of their origins and their destinies.

I really liked Onyesonwu as a protagonist. She’s one of the angriest people I’ve read about in fiction, and it came across even more strongly because of her first-person narrative. In a way, her anger was refreshing because she has to deal with so much shit. She’s a child of rape, the people of Jwahir distrust and fear her, and she develops the power of an Eshu, or shapeshifter, and comes into so much power and is able to do incredible stuff, but at the cost of her own health, sanity, and even her life. She has all that to deal with and overcome, but she doesn’t act like a martyr, hiding her emotions so as not to cause anyone else pain and suffering. When she’s angry, everyone better shut up and not got in her way because God help you if you do or say something bigoted or hateful to her or her friends. It’s unnerving, but it makes you sit up and pay attention to her, and there was no point at which she did not have my respect. Furthermore, she’s not only angry – she’s also afraid. Even after she’s seen and experienced her own death, she faces so much pressure to do the right thing, save the right people, and keep her friends and Mwita together and not do stupid stuff.

The events that occur are extremely grim and the author pulls no punches when describing the violence, the emotions, and the sheer disgustingness of all the atrocities that occur. Still, nothing was added solely for the sake of being shocking. All the violence that occurred and described was done so for a reason, and the book is all the more powerful for it. Interestingly enough, the most difficult scene for me to read about was Onyesonwu’s the Eleventh Rite (what the people of Jwahir call clitoridectomy, or FGM). I will talk about that in a separate post as this is getting pretty long, and I want to try and stop posting ridiculously huge blocks of text (I also have the feeling I will fail miserably).

Surprisingly, I really liked Luyu. When we first meet her during the Eleventh Rite, she’s arrogant and boastful, and seemingly cares about no one except herself. But when she accompanies Onyesonwu on her journey, she matures and reveals a core of steel I wasn’t expecting. By the end, I had fallen in love with Luyu’s gutsiness and her carefree nature, tempered by her undying support for Onyesonwu’s mission.

I liked Mwita as well, even if his character was a bit too much intertwined with Onyesonwu’s for my liking. Although he has is own past and his own powers, it’s still never explained why, even though Aro never trained him, he understands so much about juju and the things Onyesonwu finds out that she can do and the experiences she has when she has no freaking clue. Previously, Daib taught him, so I guess he could have picked up some stuff then, but I’m not entirely convinced. Still, it was really nice seeing Mwita and Onyesonwu building a loving relationship, and I actually really liked that the author made their relationship a very sexual one as well. It wasn’t explicit, but it was there, and showed that their connection to each other was a healthy one. Sadly, those kinds of relationships are few and far between in fiction. Sex always has to be some big deal and good sex can only exist within the confines of “twu wuv”. While the story did deal with the issue of female sexuality and imposed expectations on whom one should have sex with and when, the fact that characters in the book had sex, multiple times and with different people, was a complete non-issue. Yay, sex positivity!

Like the author’s previous book, The Shadow Speaker, the world was only minimally sketched out. It’s post-apocalyptic Africa, but I can’t tell what the event was that made the continent become that way. In addition, the book was advertised as more sci-fi than fantasy when it’s really the other way around; there’s a huge amount of magic and practically no science. As a result, I wanted more of the world’s history of how it got to be the way it was before the advent of the Great Book and the post-apocalyptic disaster. There was a nice shout-out though to her previous two books concerning a particular scary, leafy jungle.

This book is currently nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Book, and I think it’s the one of the strongest, if not the strongest, contender (I’ve only read one other of the books nominated, so I’m not really one to say, but whatever). This book is so excellent. The scope is amazing, the subject matter is powerful and handled really well, and Onyesonwu is a character that anyone would fight for. I am so glad I finally read this book, and, for me, it’s pretty much cemented the fact that Nnedi Okorafor is a fantastic writer whose work I will continue to read probably forever.

Everyone: do yourself a favor and read this book. Even if you don’t like speculative fiction. Pick it up. You will not regret it.

Published in: on April 19, 2011 at 6:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

The White City by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear’s books and I have an interesting relationship. If you combined all of her books into a person, this person would be the type who you see all the time getting lunch or in the coffee shop and you think, “this person is the kewlest person evar!” and you when you finally get to meet them, you want to make the best impression possible and you really, really want to be on good terms with them and maybe build a solid friendship out of it. And the first couple of times are ok. You each learn who the other is. But this person is definitely their own kind of person and while they might say and do wonderful things that put a smile on your face, this person can be off in their own world and completely ignore you for days on end. And yet, you can’t turn away from the person completely, because this person is one of the most compelling individuals you have ever seen/met and you always want to have at least a tiny connection to them.

Now that I’m done anthropomorphizing a group of books, how was the actual book in question? Pretty good. It was 189 pages, so it was more novella than novel, but it covered a lot and had a compelling story. This was the fourth Elizabeth Bear book I’ve read and the third in this particular universe. Chronologically, it comes after the story collection New Amsterdam and before the novella Seven for a Secret, and the story, like all the others, is a murder mystery. In this particular case, it’s two interconnected stories and murders because it involves the past of two characters crashing into the present, and each alternate chapter takes place in either the past or present. The world itself is an alt-history world with both magical and steampunk elements and vampires. No, not the cheesy kind, the awesome kind. Sebastien de Ulloa is a wampyr, or a member of the Blood, has been alive for more than a thousand years, and has lived and seen so much that he’s forgotten his childhood, the language of his birth, even his original name. He’s a lonely soul and while he has a small coven of people who he’s fond of and loves, he knows he will always leave them because they will die and he will live and move on.

In addition, Abby Irene and Phoebe Lewis are back. I’d forgotten how much I liked both of these characters; they’re both brisk, efficient, and are confident in themselves and in the jobs they do. Abby Irene in particular is pretty cool, she’s basically a magician police officer (she even has a Th.D! the T stands for Thaumaturgy).  I’d actually completely forgotten about the character of Jack Priest and (spoiler!) that he died at the end of New Amsterdam. Ah well, I liked him well enough here, as well as the new wampyr, Starkad, who was even older than Sebastien and even more dead inside. I liked how Sebastien interacted with him, because for once in his (really, really long) life, he’s not the oldest person in the room anymore, and that completely changes his position and how he relates to ongoing events and other people.

It’s interesting that I remembered and liked these characters, as the last book by Elizabeth Bear that I read had characters that might as well have been made of cardboard for all I felt anything towards them. I think characters are always going to be the wild card whenever I read an Elizabeth Bear book. In addition, I’ve found her writing difficult to get into in some of her other books, but not this time. Maybe because it was shorter and now I’m more familiar with her writing, especially with this particular series? However, no matter what kind of story she writes, her worlds are always excellent, and this one is no exception. Previous stories in this world have taken place aboard an airship, in the new-and-revised version of the American colonies, France, and Germany. This story takes place in turn-of-the-century Russia and the description and setting are perfect, down to the bitter cold, the hardened people on the streets, and the underground bohemian artist and revolutionary movement.

I was going to give up on Elizabeth Bear, or at least wait a long time to read another book by her, after really not getting into Dust, but maybe I should give her another chance and try out a different series. I really want to adore her books because they are some of the most unique books out there, she never writes the same thing twice, and she includes so many different types of characters in terms of background, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. Still, her books are definitely not reader-friendly, she makes you work for your reading experience. I just need to find the books that are, for me, are worth the effort.

Published in: on April 9, 2011 at 1:10 AM  Leave a Comment  

Fetish Ball, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Not Wearing Pants

Note: this post contains stuff about sexuality as it pertains to me. Nothing even remotely graphic, but just fyi in case anyone who knows me reads this.

I’ve been thinking recently about asexuality and my comfort level with sexuality as it is practiced in general. I first discovered I was asexual on my very last day of high school, and became fully comfortable with that idea sometime during February of last year. And since that time, I’ve noticed how much more comfortable I’ve grown with the knowledge that people I know have sex and seeing other people act or perform sexually in front of other people. Furthermore, knowing that I am asexual has let me be a whole lot more comfortable with acting sexually because I know that, for me, it is a performance, and not an extension of my identity.

On Saturday night, I attended my college’s Fetish Ball, dressed in what I called “the morning after” look – think a rom-com during the part when the woman wakes up the next morning after having hot sex and then puts on her partner’s dress shirt from the night before. It’s such a standard heterosexual trope! And Fetish Ball. That’s an entire ball about sex! And loving sex! It is essentially the biggest sex-positive, queer-as-all-hell dance that we have on campus. And yet, aside from a little initial self-awkwardness stemming from the fact that I wasn’t wearing pants, I enjoyed wearing my costume and I enjoyed dancing in it.  For me, it really was a costume, because I was pretending to not be asexual. And I was ok with that. Because I now have the terms to define who I am, which is completely awesome.

In high school, I was uncomfortable and, to an extent, terrified of sexuality and the thought of me acting sexually, largely because I didn’t have those terms. I wasn’t straight and I wasn’t gay, and I definitely wasn’t bi, and as a result, I had nothing to go off of as to how one felt and acted if one was attracted to another person. I disassociated myself from sexuality for two reasons, one of which I’ll probably save for another post, but the other reason was that saying that I was straight, gay, or bi felt like I was lying, and I was not ok with that.

And now here we are a couple of years later with me having had the experience of dancing my ass off wearing only an over-sized men’s dress shirt and a pair of black boots. Fetish Ball wasn’t just a chance to display your fetish or invent crazy (potentially disturbing) ones, but was also a chance to show the possibilities of what individual sexuality can be, and that it can be, and is, so much more than just traditional, heterosexual sex, or even traditional homosexual sex for both men and women. And even though it’s extremely easy for asexuality to be completely invisible (and it pretty much is all the time, unless you know it exists) I still felt like asexuality could be included in that expression of all the possible sexualities that exist out there (possible costume idea for next year: cake fetish?)

Although there are people who disagree with me, I think asexuality is as queer an orientation as anything else out there because it fucks with as many standard sexual conventions as homosexuality does. And if I know I’m queer, I can pretend for one night that I’m not because I have that bedrock of assurance to support me. And that bedrock is comprised of terms and definitions that allow me to claim an identity.

I’ve never really realized how much meaning terms can have, and how powerful the words we use to describe the world are. Being able to find and use terms after not having them makes me a whole lot more appreciative of them. Of course, they can also be limiting and oppressive, but in this case, terms are what assured me that yes, I did indeed exist, and furthermore, there were more like me out there.

In sum, what I’m trying to say that finding, claiming, and having an identity allows me, and allows everyone, to do experiments, take chances, and explore the world more than we did before, because of that support. It allows us to play dress-up with different identities. In terms of sexuality, didn’t have that for a long time, and I am so thankful for having it now.

Published in: on April 5, 2011 at 3:13 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

So, my first real post! Whoot! And it’s a long one. I swear most of them will not be this long. This is because it’s a book rambling and the book in question is 997 pages long and took me a couple of weeks to read, and I had a lot to say on it. I’ll probably say this more than once over time, but pretty much every rambling of a book that I will write will contain plot spoilers. As I’ve said, this isn’t meant to be a review or recommendation. It’s simply meant to be a piece of text in which I give my thoughts to the book as it related to me and, as a result, it lacks some coherency, it has grammatical errors, and it would really only be useful to people who’ve already read the book. But hey, if you want to read it, far be it from me to stop you! After all, the purpose of this blog is to pretend that what I have to say is important! So, seeing as this intro is getting a bit long and the rambling is long enough as it is, without further ado:

So, The Wise Man’s Fear has been a long time in coming after the first book, The Name of the Wind, and it’s been one of the most eagerly awaited fantasy books in the last four years. It’s actually pretty strange just how much sff releases can sound exactly like movie or fashion releases: “the new Rothfuss, the new Martin, we’re waiting on the next Lynch and Abercrombie…” The way the blogosphere talks about it is in the form of blockbusters, and the next eagerly awaited one (probably the most eagerly awaited one since last decade) is George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, due to be out on July 12th (if it’s not out by then I think the sff world will go on strike and potentially commit acts of violence and/or vandalism).

Anyway, on to the book!

It’s actually difficult in some ways to talk about this book because it’s being told in both a traditional and non-traditional way. The entire trilogy tells the story of an exceptional individual named Kvothe and how he became a legend, and the third book will presumably explain how he got where he is now, which is the innkeeper of an inn in a small village in the midst of a war and general unrest. The entire thing was originally meant to be one book and was split into three so it could actually be published, and as such, the endings and beginnings of the books aren’t the cleanest, natural breaks ever. In addition, each book does have a general, individual idea of a plot, but at the same time, each book isn’t a separate story; it’s a portion of the larger story. So in some ways it seems unfair to hold the individual books of this trilogy to the same standard as other trilogies. But then again, LOTR was split into three books and nobody comments on that (I can’t speak as to whether it works better than there or not, I can’t stand LOTR and never got past the first book).

So anyway, this book starts out with Kvothe wandering around and doing his thing at the university. It doesn’t really introduce anything new; instead it’s a slow build-up to the larger portion of the book, which is him leaving the University for a time, travelling to Vintas, killing bandits, being the first dude ever to survive Felurian, and learning the ways of the Adem, the awesome mercenary fighters whose language and culture seem to be based a lot off that of China and Japan. And he does a couple of other things interspersed between those big things as well.

This book, and this trilogy as a whole, really is just one big saga. And it’s a pretty epic saga; Kvothe travels all around the world, learning new languages, facts, and secrets in order to become the King of Awesome. And also find out about the Amyr and kill the Chandrian. This story could very easily fall flat on its feet, as it doesn’t at first glance appear to have an overarching plot or journey. But there are three reasons why this story is the success it is.

The first, beyond anything else, is that Patrick Rothfuss love of stories, how they’re made, how they’re told, and the power that stories have over people and how they can change a world. I love books that deal with stories in a meta way (which explains my ongoing love affair with Jasper Fforde), and this book, as well as the series, has it in spades, such as Kvothe as Kote telling his story to Chronicler and Bast in the future, the various tales characters tell throughout, and the creation of new stories concerning Kvothe’s adventures and how he manipulates stories about himself to create the legend that people come to know and love. Stories are immensely powerful things, they provide narratives through which to view the world, and give us space to dream and imagine, as well as provide possible explanations. People are what change the world, but it is the hope for a better narrative, a happier ending to the story that is the universe, that provides the impetus to do so.

The second thing is the writing, and man is the writing beautiful. But it’s beautiful in a completely readable way. It’s deliberate, but it’s precise and each word evokes the right emotion. Another thing that’s really nice is that the author’s personality shines through the writing so much, but it doesn’t impede or distract from the story. Instead, it enhances it and shows how much he’s put into the story and the love he has for it. I’m a huge fan of Patrick Rothfuss’ blog, it’s hilarious, and there are some portions of Kvothe’s narrative that I know couldn’t have been written by anyone else except for Patrick Rothfuss, such as Kvothe’s love for the university, for all things chemistry related, all the acerbic comments he makes about the silliness that is the nobility, and just general poking fun at tropes in literature. My personal favorite example of this is when Kvothe packs his things in his the secret compartment in his lute case, and after he puts a dried apple in there, he says, “There was nothing special about the dried apple, but in my opinion if you have a secret compartment in your lute case and you don’t use it to hide things, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with you.” One thing that people had complaints with in The Name of the Wind was that there was far too much text taken up with saying how poor Kvothe was and how he was on the verge of being penniless so many times, and there were plenty of those instances again with this book. But it makes complete sense. If you are poor and your existence/livelihood (in this case, studying at the university) depends on you having money, money is going to be a particularly constant thought in your head. The only reason in which it wouldn’t be is if you are lucky and privileged enough to not have to care.

And the third, final reason why this story is awesome is because of Kvothe. Well, it’s all about him, so he’s got to be a strong character, but he goes beyond that. Part of it is because he’s a legend and he legitimately has done legendary and amazing things, but at the same time he makes stupid mistakes and falls on his ass numerous times, and can be a complete thickhead about certain things, particularly when being taught by Elodin (who’s also awesome, I’d love to have him as a teacher, except I wouldn’t). And then of course, Kvothe knows how awesome he is and all the talents and skills he has at music, composing, and sympathy, and he feels he can do anything, including spend the night with Felurian and not die. Kvothe’s such an arrogant ass, but at the same time you can’t help but go “hot damn, he has guts!” I enjoyed many of the other characters too, most notably Devi, Tempi, and Vashet. I actually kind of wished that Kvothe and Tempi would fall in love on the road and have a one-night stand, because Tempi is adorable! I am pretty sure there will be slash fic of these two eventually. And Devi and Vashet are just plain freaking awesome characters, largely helped by the fact that they’re able to kick Kvothe’s ass and keep him a little humble.

I was less annoyed with Denna this time around, but she still feels too idealized in terms of  her being a love interest. I realize it’s Kvothe telling the story, so of course he’d idealize her, but it’s still frustrating to have so little of her background because then there’s very little to justify her behavior. The mystery’s getting drawn out long enough, and I’d prefer it if she came down to earth and became more of a human being.

My favorite part was definitely the time that Kvothe spent among the Adem learning the Ketan and about the Lethani because the Adem culture was fascinating. I thought it was really cool how the language was like Chinese in that it included tones, but also was based on hand gestures which expressed different gradients of emotion, but that displaying emotion itself is extremely private and therefore anyone who plays music in front of others, which can carry a huge amount of emotion, is considered to be a whore. On the flip side, their society is possibly the most sex-positive society in existence, so much that having sex with a number of people is considered as natural as eating or conversing, and therefore is not given any extra thought.

I also liked the interactions between Kvothe and the Maer in Vintas because I really liked how the Maer was portrayed as a sharp, but fair ruler, but he also believed in the social customs of the nobility and took seriously that he was the ultimate authority. He might acknowledge when someone’s right or that he is in someone’s debt, but he’s still the uncrowned King of Vintas and he is the ultimate authority of where he lives.

That’s not to say I didn’t have problems with this book.  The first 350 pages  are Kvothe at the University and while it does set up the rest of the book, it’s still somewhat slow and all the while you’re wondering where the hell the book is going. The section in which Kvothe and the other people search for the bandits is also not as interesting either, and the sole savior of that section is Tempi because, as I have said, Tempi is adorable. In addition, there were some conversations that I wasn’t sure they quite needed to be had. The book takes its slow, sweet time in terms of telling the entire story, but that means that there are some parts where you want things to pick up already and move on, have something happen, because the story is so large and you’re really not sure where the trilogy is going with this whole thing that you want events to actually happen.

At the same time, this isn’t a book you read for plot or because you want to know how things will resolve. You read this book because you want to read about a man named Kvothe and how he interacts with the world he lives in. And that will appeal to some and repel others.

Like I said, I feel like it’s unfair to pass final judgment on this book because I feel like it will be the third book that will tie everything together and then suddenly it will all make sense, because it was meant to be one book and it still feels like one book, so right now I’ve basically read the beginning and the middle, and now all that’s needed is the end. Only when I have that will I pass judgment as to how well these books work as literature and contributions to sff. Still, I enjoyed reading this book immensely, and I know I’ll be revisiting parts of this book a number of times. I know it’s going to take another few, perhaps several years for Patrick Rothfuss to finish revising the third book, but I am content to wait. I trust him as an author and I know he will call forth fire to make it the best possible book it can be to end the story as it should end. And that’s all anyone can ever really ask of an author

Published in: on April 4, 2011 at 8:13 AM  Leave a Comment