150 pages into Undertow, they were still having tea and discussing plot.
There’s nothing inherently WRONG with having tea and discussing plot, but you know, you do it enough times, for enough pages, and it gets really dull.
Also, I had a tough time connecting with any of these characters. The assassin is dull and whiny. Cricket gets interesting 2/3rds of the way through, but by then, it was all just random explosions and quantum physics over tea, and I didn’t care enough about the people it was happening to. I mean, it was Neat Idea SF, but no really dynamic people I cared about fueling the story.
I also don’t know why the setting never resonated with me. I mean, it’s a lush, humid, watery world, and there are bugs and smells and things, but it wasn’t… it just never connected with me. I didn’t feel like I was there.
I’m always interested as to what makes the difference, for me, between actually being immersed in a setting and feeling like I’m looking at it through a window. Do I need to have the emotional connect to the characters before I can feel it? Do I need to have the characters more immersed in the setting, that is, do I need to connect with them and they need to connect with it, so I feel some kind of connection to it? Or is it all just writing trickery, some kind of magical combination of words, some writerly technique that does this? No idea.
This reading experience left me rather desperate to read about characters I cared about running around in a fully realized setting that I connected with. I’ve had a hell of a time finding good fiction these days. I picked up the Kushiel book about Poor, Abused Imriel Who’s Only Third in Line for the Throne, and I just wanted to vomit, the kid was so damned annoying.
So I went to the bookstore and actually started looking for another Bear novel, Dust (my experience with Undertow was with the book, not the author, as I did enjoy Carnival, though it had some of the same general issues for me), but alas, Dust’s official release date isn’t until the 26th, so finding it is a bit like a treasure hunt.
So I went through other books. Books after books.
After much browsing, it came down to KJ Parker’s Devices and Desires or Daniel Abraham’s A Betrayal in Winter.
Now, I read and more or less enjoyed Abraham’s first book in the series, but did not Love it, so I wasn’t totally sold on the second. I like the setting, and some of the characters, but I never really fell in love with anyone, and when I’m reading, I tend to either need to fall in love with a character or feel some kind of emotional reasonance while reading. I did neither of these with Abraham’s book, but you know: it had good women characters, an interesting setting, and a new fantasy world with an interesting magic system and dynamic landscape.
The KJ Parker book was quite lovely, beautifully written, and had some really interesting concepts. It was also half as much as Abraham’s book and twice as long. More for my money, and all that.
So, what decided me?
Well, I opened up KJ Parker’s book several times at random and read big sections. All three places I opened to were full of situations, conversations, and fights between and among men. Every single scene was 100% full of male characters. There was not one woman to be seen (this may be one reason I haven’t finished Jonanthan Strange and Mr. Norrell, either).
I opened up Abraham’s book several times at random, and you know what? There were women characters in there who TALKED and EVERYTHING. Some of the chapters were even ENTIRELY FROM THE POV OF A WOMAN!!! IMAGINE!!!
And, to be honest, I’ve gotten tired of stories All About Men. I’ve gotten tired of stories that ignore me or tell me I’m stupid or are, merely, indifferent. It’s as if the author didn’t even deliberately ignore, they just forgot. I read stories about men all day long. Mostly, stories about men doing terrible things to women (it’s called The News). I’m tired of reading about nothing but men all day long. Your book doesn’t even have to be, you know ALL women. Just acknowledging that women exist in your world may even be enough! That’s how desperate I’ve gotten.
So I sat down with A Betrayal in Winter, and ah yes, here it is, the difference between books that I remember and books that I don’t. Though he does that annoying Martin thing where he introduces a character in the Prologue and makes you care for him and then kills him, well, you know, he proves up front that he can write characters I’m interested in. I may not fall in love with them, you know, but they are interesting, and I’m invested in their adventures.
And, you know, as ever, the women characters Don’t Suck. Honestly, you have no idea how rare it is in SF/F just to find more than one woman character, and have her Not Suck. Abraham’s women characters don’t suck. I may be annoyed that most of them are defined by their relationships to men, but you know, when dealing with some of the societies he’s built, that’s how they’re defined in those societies, and it’s not like the men aren’t defined by their relationships to other men, either. Just sad that all those societies are like that. In, you know, fantasy.
You gotta mix it up sometimes.
In any case, I’m enjoying the Abraham book, even if there still aren’t any women chopping off people’s heads.
I’m sure they’ll get there. Maybe there will be a Rome-like network of women playing politics behind this big brothers-who-kill-each-other-for-the-throne thing? I mean, maybe not all of them shuffle home in defeat when they’re husband is toast, but become active players. Like women do when all the men are off at war all the time. I don’t buy that we all just sat around sewing, or that all that sewing was totally benign.
I’m just saying.
UPDATE: pg 57 of A Betrayal in Winter. Yes, indeed, we do get to the Rome-like female politicking and backstabbing… yay!