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Tigana: Anniversary Edition

4/5. Years ago, a conquering wizard cursed the land of Tigana out of existence. Only those born on its soil can say its name, or remember it exists, and they will slowly die out as their children forget. A small pack of minstrels set out to bring it back.

I really liked this. And I wish I didn't.

I mean, what a great concept, right? This is what I wish fantasy was more often about, turning magic upon some of the fundamental ways we organize ourselves as people, and wrecking those ways, and seeing what happens. Here it's a nation silently erased, a people scattered and forced never to speak of their home. I mean, the injustice of this worked on me, of all people,* so you know the book is good.

That said, wow how much do I wish our copyright system was more sensible and someone could officially remix this book now. Someone like Leckie, say, or Jemisin, or de Bodard, or Monette, maybe. Someone, uh, not GGK.

Because, well. In the beginning of this book, as one of the protagonists was introduced and we found out he was queer, I instantly thought spoiler ) and yuuuup, called it. Not only that, but more spoilers ) Which is not even starting on the concubines, because of course there is a concubine, there is always a sexual captive in GGK's books, always, he has a sexuality, you guys, and it encompasses all varieties of women as concubine/sex slave/prostitute, and every time I read a book of his I get that bit more skeeved out. Anyway, without spoilers this time, what happens to the concubine – what the narrative ordains as her just path – makes me seethingly angry.

So this is a beautiful book. Truly. It touched me in a way I fully expected it not to. But it's also by GGK, so it's wildly overwrought, and, well, fucking gross in a lot of ways. And I wish someone else had written it, because that book, written by the right person, could be one of the best books I've ever read.

*I'm one of the least nationalistic people you're likely to meet. I take no pride in my country, or all the handwringing despair most of my friends seem to; either of those would require believing that my country actually exists as an identity in any meaningful way, other than a nonsense concept people trot out for rhetorical convenience. None of this particularly matters for daily life. I just blank out any sentences including "America is" or that otherwise attempt to claim some sort of meaningful national identity. Oh, and I find the Olympics a nearly intolerable exercise in mindless jingoism. This book worked on me anyway, largely because it focused on the destruction of culture as the true evil done (which is right, I think –there's a reason that cultural destruction, even without the taking of life, is considered a kind of genocide). The book (I think? I read this in June and my notes are somewhat . . . unclear) treats identity as synonymous with that culture, which I don't think is right, but that's not really the point, and it worked on me anyway.
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Sailing to Sarantium (The Sarantium Mosaic, Book 1) Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay


My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A mosaicist is summoned east to not!Byzantium to serve the Emperor in construction of the mightiest sanctuary dome the world has known. His journey takes him through danger, mystical adventure, and court intrigue, culminating in . . . er . . . absolutely nothing. One assumes the point will arrive in the sequel?

Wow, this is remarkable. I really mean it. This book never once uses the word ‘vagina,’ and yet if you woke me up in the dead of night and asked me what this book was about, I would have groggily muttered, “cunts. Lots.” A woman is introduced to us, and the book leans over and mutters out the side of its mouth, “by the way, she has a vagina.” And a few pages later into a scene with her, the book taps you on the shoulder and whispers, “yep, still got one.” And when she exits, well, “vagina vagina vagina!” And then when the next woman comes along, the book is all, “she has one too! Do you remember what vaginas are for?”

Vaginas are for men to fuck, for anyone who didn’t know. Willingly, unwillingly, for political gain, for manipulation. Kay is partly in control of the subliminally horrible sexual politics: those portions are somewhat uncomfortable and sometimes unintentionally funny. Mostly, though, I don’t think Kay realizes that his entire construction of feminine sexuality is defined by how available any given vagina is to a man, and how attractive the body attached to the vagina is, and how politically valuable the body is. Those parts are creepy.

Should I read the sequel? Genuine question – I had pretty big problems with the book above and beyond the vaginas, mostly because it was, um, boring.

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Ysabel Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My friend Jen once in a while posts a list of words that probably don't exist in German, but should. Here's one: a book that makes you really really happy even though you're making a long list of its flaws as you read it.

A young adult story about two teenagers in the south of France stumbling into an ancient love triangle. Full of old cathedrals, and verbal photographs of the countryside, and family tensions and people coming through for each other.

Let's just preface every point I'm about to make with 'I really enjoyed it, but . . ."

. . . but seriously, these fifteen-year-olds act at least thirty, particularly when it comes to sex. Not in the doing, which they don't, but in the emotional ease with sophistication.

. . . but there is something just slightly off about Kay's fixation with love triangles. I can't put my finger on it. Something just a bit squidgey about gender. That they're entirely focused on male desire and women as objects is not quite right, but in the ballpark.

. . . but the ending was disappointing.

Still. It's a young adult book where the grown-ups are also awesome, and it does a beautiful job with that part of France, and I dug the entire cast. And sometimes I just don't care about everything else.

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The Darkest Road (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 3) The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Ah. Slow exhale. The end of the trilogy, and the final confrontation of light against dark.

Two contradictory reactions here: on the one hand, that was wrenching and beautiful, with intricate, soaring language to carry me through great bravery and tragedy. And I was, at one point, leaking tears as I walked down the street today. Hint: do not read the last quarter of this book in audio while going about the public portions of your day.

On the other hand, there is something in this book that runs counter to the way I ingest stories. Take Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot. I am on the one hand touched by the interlocked, endlessly repeating tragedy of their triangle. On the other hand, I could also be overheard to snarl, oh my God, people, just have a fucking threesome. Jesus!

I'm being flip, but I'm also not. Because it turns out my orientation as a reader of this kind of story – the kind that layers myth and history and tale – is deconstructive. You're all shocked, I know. And these books are not deconstructive. Nearly the opposite, actually, because Kay's project is to exult in the fundamental essences of the old stories, to find their uttermost extremities of glory and grief and write them anew, and beautifully. But to affirm them, even as he allows their endings to change a bit sometimes. And that's just not how I roll these days.

So if you're looking for a traditional epic, and an epic beautifully told, then go forth. But if you're looking for something earthy and source critical, something like George R.R. Martin or maybe Abercrombie, this isn't so much the thing.

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The Wandering Fire (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 2) The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sequel to The Summer Tree. More epic fantasy. It's the middle of a trilogy, so the evil becomes eviler and everyone maneuvers for the coming war.

Okay, I finally put my finger on something here.


What could he do though? What was in him to deny what had been laid down? These were dark times, maybe the very darkest times of all. He had been marked. His legs would walk even if his heart and courage stayed behind. It was better, he knew, to have the heart and soul go too, to make the offering run deeper and go true.


That's a really difficult idea of agency, right there. These books are all about people acting out pieces of stories – arthurian, most prominently – and how patterns repeat and how sometimes they break. And that's something you can only look at straight on in epic fantasy, you know? Where it's literally a question of being the vessel moved through a course by various wild magics. And that's awkward for me, psychologically, and also complicated on a narrative level, because you still have to maintain . . . tension. Uncertainty. Strain on the fabric. Internal character friction that isn't just 'woe is me, I am chosen by the gods.'

Which Kay does. Very much so. But in ways that make me go hmm because they are about the edged difficulty of choosing to be doing – choosing to be sacrificing – when you already have to be. Does that make sense?

Um. I liked the book, I should maybe mention?

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The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 1) The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Epic fantasy. Five Canadians go across to another world, where an ancient evil is rising again.

Okay, I have to admit, this took a while. It's been a bit since I read srs bzness epic fantasy, and this is about as srs bzness (and earnest) as they get. It's all portentous droughts and visions making the seer's hair turn white and "And thus it came to pass that . . ." and so forth. Takes some getting used to again. That, and the way the characters just get shoved back and forth across the epic fantasy chessboard. You know what I mean.

But then. But then zap, it was magic. I can point to the sentence where it happened. I was in the parking lot of Home Depot, okay, and it was really really cold, and my own freaking guide dog was not speaking to me (not only did I make her wear the doggie snow boots, but I made her wear them in public!). So I was not in the epic fantasy place, you know? But I picked up the book and I went to my mark, and the first sentence I read was, "So open, the wind could pass, light shine through him." Some people who have read this book are now going 'ah. That. Yes.' I think what happened was all that rich, affected epic fantasy language at last had an adequate theater to stretch its voice in, and it did, and it was beautiful. The sort of writing that feels like poetry because it's talking about magic so well.

The book still has a completely emotionally unbelievable hook, and it's still heteronormative as all get out in a few quietly yucky ways. But it got me for a few pages there, on the summer tree, and then it had its hooks in me on to the bitter end.

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